Monday, November 30, 2009

moscow nights, i'm not done with you yet

sooo, this will probably be my second to last update before i leave for my trip before flying home. i can't lie these last three and a half months have left me exhausted. i am wanting to try and get everything done i can before our exams and graduation, but it's definitely becoming tiring. but i know i would regret it if i didn't, so i am just sucking it up and getting out there to finish those last few things on my list.

tuesday of last week we had an awesome, ridiculous excursion to an ice sculpture gallery. we walked in, and the lobby was decorated in the most cheesy, outlandish wall murals, painted benches, and ghetto christmas decorations. this is also ignoring the fact that this "ice gallery" was actually not much more than a metal trailer in the middle of a sketch park across the river from the center of the city. nonetheless, i was excited because i expected it to be pretty cool (pun completely intended). we got there and the man in charge (who was apparently at least a little intoxicated and slightly irritated that we were late) just went on a tirade of russian for at least 5 minutes. lena translated but it was obvious he was mad that we took forever to get there. he eventually got around to bringing out a block of ice that was pre-shaped into what looked like a bird. he told us he was going to give us a demonstration on how to use ice sculpting tools to create a shape. i was sitting in his line of sight, and he looked straight at me and asked me to come up and help, haha. i usually don't like volunteering in front of groups but everyone was friends so i didn't feel uncomfortable. he basically told me to throw myself right into it, i was supposed to be making a dove. i tried my best but somehow i got the feeling he was disappointed, haha. oh well. a few other people tried and failed, and then he told us we were going to be going into the back room to see the main display, the ice gallery. i was actually more excited about the coats we were given to wear, they were huuuge, poofy, baby blue coats with hoods. everyone was engulfed inside these massive things, and we all looked ridiculous, so it was pretty funny. when we finally got into the back room, i was completely taken aback at how well done and just how many ice sculptures were there. the theme was something alone the lines of -fantasy-medieval-kings-queens- you get the idea. my favorite part was a small ice cottage with a kitchen inside. they had taken pieces of fruit (pineapples, bananas, apples, etc) and encased them inside blocks of ice, so it looked as though they had been suspended in mid-air. there were ice dragons, princes, princesses, animals, it was basically a whole ice kingdom. i had never, ever seen anything like that before, and i was thoroughly impressed. i think we all had a good time.

on wednesday, me and a couple of friends had planned to skip our lecture and attempt a bus trip to vladimir, one of the golden ring towns. basically, very, very long story short, it was a nightmare finding the bus departure area and then, after it started to downpour, we basically gave up after about an hour and a half of searching. needless to say, i wasn't the happiest camper, because i had really been looking forward to the trip. it's not terrible, because we are getting a chance to visit one of the golden ring towns this week, actually, but i was still disappointed. after that, i ate, we walked around a little bit, and then i basically used the rest of the day to just relax.

on thursday, we planned a thanksgiving celebration, of course. i was glad it all came together, because things like this tend to not turn out well, at least when our large group is concerned, but a lot of people really wanted to do it and we got it done. some of us went to the store and we all decided on different dishes we would contribute. the spread turned out to be huge, and while it wasn't exactly a conventional thanksgiving meal, it was filling and delicious nonetheless. i made garlic bread from scratch, which, if i do say so myself, was pretty darn good haha. on top of that, we had pasta, green beans, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, along with a couple other small things. we decorated the kitchen in the dorm with hand turkeys, which were really fun to make. we definitely brought the thanksgiving spirit to moscow.

on friday, i didn't really have anything planned, but i ended up back at old arbat by myself that night because i wanted to go back to this sandwich restaurant i found a few weeks back that has this amazing chicken teriyaki/pineapple hoagie. after i ate, i ended up meeting back up with sam, erin, and kari, and we went back to the hookah bar for the last time. they wanted to stay out all night, but i just wasn't feeling up for it, so i took a taxi back to svetlana's around 3 or so. it was surprisingly a lot cheaper than i thought. something else struck me during that taxi ride too..and i don't deny that my russian has definitely improved tenfold here, but sometimes, it's hard to notice it in practice. however, i was able to talk with the cab driver and give him coherent directions without really thinking about it, and with no communication problems at all. those little moments are probably bigger realizations that all of the work and immersion in general here really do what no class back home can, which is help you to speak confidently in everyday, real life situations. so that made me smile, just a little bit.

on saturday, we had an excursion to the museum of the great patriotic war at park pobedy. of course i'd been to park pobedy before, and it still remains my favorite place in moscow, besides red square. the park just has this amazing air of tranquility and placidity, and the architecture of the monuments there is incredible, so i never have a problem going back for another visit (in fact i will definitely go back probably one more time before leaving). but this excursion was just to see the museum, which i had not seen on my previous visit. the museum was beautiful inside, and the amount of artifacts from WWII that they've acquired was impressive. they have 6 dioramas of various battles of the war, all partially 3d installation art. some also include sound effects. some of these were the fall of berlin (with the reichstag and brandenburg gate in the background), the leningrad blockade, the battle of stalingrad, etc. our tour guide was hilarious. he was this old man who spoke english with such a bizarre accent, for the first 15 minutes of the tour, it took everything i had to not laugh. but he was really passionate about the museum and knew a ton. we were there for probably a good two hours, and there was a huge variety of things to explore. i wish i had more time/energy to explore more, but we all know i never have either of those things anymore, haha. we lost people gradually until it was just me, rudy, and amanda, starving to death. we ended up walking down the street looking for food, and came across possibly the sketchiest restaurant ever. but it was like a godsend, a papa john's in moscow. the building was tucked away in a corner alley with no lights outside, just the sign. i honestly thought it was either closed or nonexistent, but we went inside and, lo and behold, it was a papa john's, and we proceeded to stuff our faces. i think i ate too much but it was worth it haha. afterwards, i headed home and pretty much went to sleep. 2 pizzas will do that to you.

and then on sunday, kari, erin, sam and i had made plans to visit the izmailovo souvenir market, which we had previously attempted to visit, but got there too late and close to closing time. this time, we got there with enough time to shop. this market is huge, the biggest souvenir market in moscow, and probably in russia. it's a huge collection of stands, selling everything from traditional russian souvenirs, soviet junk, to pirated electronics and everything in between, basically. the trick is that you can bargain for what you buy, and while not really my forte, hey i tried. money disappears quicker here than gas from the ukrainian pipeline, mostly because you're pressured to either buy or not. i did get a lot of good stuff though, but i still need to go back and finish off my souvenir shopping for everyone else somewhat, and a few more things i wanted to get for myself. after shopping, we were hungry, so we found what seemed to be an azerbaijani style cafe close to the market, and ate there. afterwards, we split up, and kari and decided to ride the dark blue line all the way to the other side of the city outskirts, to strogino, the last stop, somewhere i had been wanting to visit for fun for a while. there is supposedly a lake there, since the suburb is surrounded almost entirely by the moskva river and small basins, but of course, by the time we got there, it was dark and difficult to find. if i have time, i want to go back, in the light if at all possible. we walked around though, and the area was far enough out from the city that it didn't really feel like moscow, but almost more like a true suburb, if not for the still existent high rise apartments, which haunt russia everywhere you go. we found a mcdonalds for some quick dinner and then headed home for the night.

today, i decided to take a breather from sightseeing (probably my last breather until i get home). tomorrow, i want to do something, but i'm not sure quite what yet. on wednesday, we are taking a bus trip about an hour outside of moscow to see sergiev posad, a small golden ring town famous for it's monastery. i'm excited for the trip and just a chance to see the countryside outside of moscow a little bit. and it'll be a nice relaxing ride, hopefully, as long as the roads aren't too terrible, though i'm not counting on that. this will also technically be out last excursion, since the only other one, next sunday, is to the souvenir market, and i will probably just go on my own time instead of with the group. but yeah, i have just a little more than a week left before ele and i leave for st. petersburg. it's creeping up so quickly, and we still have to book a hostel in tallinn and helsinki, as well as our ferry trip across the gulf of finland. we're almost done with it though, which is a relief, because then i can just look forward to the trip. it's gonna be an adventure though, that's for sure! we have the TORFL next monday and tuesday, which i'm dreading, but shouldn't really be worried about. only one more weekend left with the group, which is sad, but i think a lot of people are ready to head back. my trip will be a nice last little break though. but yeah, i think that's it for now. i will definitely make sure to do one last update, probably next wednesday sometime, since that will be my least busy day next week, and then i will be out of touch until the 19th of december, when i return to moscow. so until next week, i'm out!


Sunday, November 22, 2009

если день плохой, проснись, улыбнись..всё хорошо будет

jeez these weeks go by so quickly. so, last time i updated was about 8 days ago. this past week was really busy, mostly because i made it busy for myself. i think i am just really realizing that if i want to see the rest of the places i want to see, then i need to do it myself. on sunday, we were supposed to have our excursion to the historical museum, but i slept in because i was out really late the night before and missed it. i felt lazy, so i decided to go myself later on in the afternoon to see the grounds and campus of moscow state university. i hadn't gotten around to seeing it yet and i decided it was a good day for it. MGY is located just outside the ring line of moscow's downtown, on sparrow hills, overlooking the city. it took a while for me to walk there, but when i finally got there, the views were amazing. i walked around the main building first, which is this simply immense structure of stalinist architecture. it's present in the background of moscow from a lot of places, but until you see it up close, you don't really understand the scope of how large it actually is. as a plus, there was literally nobody on campus, since it was dark and late, so i was able to wander around myself and take pictures. also, it had freshly snowed that day, so everything looked even nicer. as you walk down the promenade away from the university, you reach the overlook, where there are the best views of the entire city of moscow. you can see arbat, the moskva river, and the new moscow business center. it's a great view. there's also a ski jump on this hill that gave me vertigo just looking at it, haha. but basically, afterwards, i decided to head back to the metro, but a different way that i *thought* would be quicker. well, needless to say, i got lost for about 90 minutes, wandering around in circles most likely. when i finally found it, i was starving, so i found this really nice random mall closeby to get something to eat. the mall was large, and i had been wanting to buy a few cds of russian singers that i like and can't buy at home, so i checked out an electronics store. i found what i was looking for and went to check out, and the lady asked me a question which sounded like "did you find everything you were looking for?" i answered yes, and she gave me the craziest look ever, so i can only assume i was wrong, haha. no idea what she actually asked me. anyhoo, i ate and headed home with sore feet. got a lot done that night though.

on monday, i went to the park of fallen monuments with erin and sam. this was somewhere else i had had on my short list of places to drop into. it's basically a huge park right across the road from gorkii park and next to the river. this is where the new russia threw a TON of soviet monuments, statues, and art after the soviet union fell. most things are just strewn with not much organization, but it's really cool to see all of the lenin statues in one place. we spent a good deal of time there, though.

on tuesday, we had class as usual and they're starting to ask for all of our flight information now, which is kind of sad. but i do have stuff to look forward to when the program ends, so it's not all sad. more later about that though. after class, we decided on our usual tuesday plans of going out to the restaurant with the unlimited beer and really cheap food. amanda, kelly, rudy, and our russian friend ilya ended up joining us too, so we had a big group. it's weird though, because sometimes this restaurant is extremely crowded on tuesdays, with loud music and a lot of people, and other weeks, it's dead. so this past tuesday there was barely anyone there, not that i'm complaining though, since we get better service (or you'd think so at least)., well, we have our lectures on wednesday, if you can call them that, and i've never missed one, so i decided to take a week off and get some more sightseeing done. i slept in a little and made my way all the way back out to VDNKh, the metro stop north of the city where we went way back in september to visit Ostankino, the tv tower. there's also an old soviet exhibition center at this metro stop that i had really wanted to explore. there's a lot of old, soviet buildings and monuments there too. so i got there and of course it was almost dark already. the park was really interesting though, and surprisingly crowded for the time of day (night :P). obviously the fountains, which are really ornate and i'm sure look even more beautiful turned on, were off, but the park was still worth the visit. not easy to describe, one of those things you kind of just have to see for yourself. afterwards, i ate at mcdonalds, where i'm becoming a pro at ordering haha. granted, i always order the same thing, but that's only because mcdonald's selection here in russia is like, 10 times smaller than in america. they have the basics though so that's all i need to be happy. afterwards, i headed home to do some homework.

on thursday, after class, ele and i needed to go to the post office to get stamps (for my last batch of postcards!!) which ended in somewhat of a language miscommunication disaster, but we got stamps so whatever. after that, we headed downtown to arbat to buy more postcards that we both needed. i found what i was looking for, and then we found this really amazing restaurant right on arbat called baggeteriya. we both got these sandwiches that had chicken teriyaki, chili sauce, green onions, and pineapple on them. it was cheap and amazing tasting. finally, before we went home, we wanted to check out Dom Knigi, so we spent about a good hour or so in there and ended up buying a pair of fairytale books for kids, which is good practice. another long day and another day i didn't get to nap. blah.

annnd then on friday, we had class, and then an evening excursion. this was at a performance hall we'd already been to, and it was another folk dance, but this was from a different region in russia, Bashkortostan. the dances seemed to be a lot more intense than the folk dancing we had seen previously, though. we enjoyed that but left halfway through because we had reservations at an english pub for dinner. this pub turned out to be really authentic, they served a lot of english beers as well as a great selection of food with portion sizes that could actually satisfy more than say, a small infant (i'm looking at you coffee house). we stayed there for a while and then headed home because we had made plans for saturday morning to visit izmailovo souvenir market.

unfortunately, on saturday, we got to izmailovo too late, and since it gets dark so early here, they were already getting ready to pack up shop. but we made plans to come back earlier in the day next sunday, so don't fear, everyone will still receive their souvenirs haha. after that, we relaxed at a shokoladnitsa for a while before going back to the hookah bar we had been to two weeks ago. nothing too exciting, because we had an excursion planned for today. which brings me to...

today. we had a planned excursion to novodevichy convent. i was surprised because i thought that the convent would be a little bit bigger, but the grounds were very nice and pretty much what i expected for a convent. we had a tour guide show us around for a little while, but it was cold, dark, and rainy, so i got a feeling our tour was kind of cut short. they took us into an icon exhibition for most of the time, actually, and then we mostly just left. i am kind of churched out at this point, but i did want to see novodevichy, so i'm glad i went. after we parted ways with lena, we made a quick stopover at the novodevichy cemetery next door, which is a massive, expansive cemetery where a lot of famous russian leaders and cultural icons are buried. just for example, Gogol', Chekhov, Gorbachyov, and most recently, Yeltsin are all buried here. Yelstin's grave was really cool too, basically a 3 dimensional russian flag made out of colored stones for the red, white, and blue. but we didn't stay too long because of the rain, and made our way to get some food before heading back home.

and so here i am, i have about 2 and a half weeks before i leave. i have mostly finalized my end of semester plans, through lena's prompting. ele and i are sticking with our original plan of taking a night train back to st. petersburg on the night of the 10th. we're going to spend 2 more days there because we didn't get to see peterhof, and we also want to make a day trip to lake ladoga, which is a huge lake to the east of the city with a lot of beautiful scenery and wildlife. then, we're going to take another train to tallinn, estonia, and spend a couple days there before hopping on a ferry to helsinki, finland. we'll tour helsinki for a few days, and then head back to tallinn by ferry, where i'll come back to moscow and stay for a couple last days before flying back home. i'm really excited for the trip because i know next to nothing about estonia and finland, per se, and i like the idea of the adventure. i think it'll be fun for both of us.

but yeah, those are my plans. we basically have 2 weeks of classes left, and then two days of TORFL testing before graduation on thursday the tenth. it's sad to think that my semester is almost over, but i know looking back i will be amazed at everything i've done and seen, so i'm excited for the home stretch. look out for postcards soon if you haven't gotten one already. hope everyone has a great thanksgiving! until next time!


Saturday, November 14, 2009

so much moscow so little time

so, i have about a month left here. the time has gone by so quickly. at home, a month seems so long, but here, it makes me sad, because it feels like i'll be gone in a blink of an eye. there's still so many things i want to see and do, so i'm trying to write them all down and get as many of them done as possible before i leave.

i wrote last thursday, and last weekend wasn't extremely exciting. we didn't have any excursions scheduled until sunday because of our petersburg trip the week before, however, i was invited to a dinner at a georgian restaurant with alyssa through the sras program we are both here through. the georgian dinner was free for us and the restaurant was off of the new arbat. this was on friday, and after class that day, i took a nap during the afternoon before going. when i woke up, i didn't really look outside until i stepped out the door of my apartment. when i did, i was completely surprised because it was snowing, heavily, the most it has snowed since i got here. i was excited but obviously underprepared, haha. it didn't help that the restaurant was not easy to find, it was down a small alley and not really marked. however, i did eventually find it. we had a small room in the basement to ourselves, and the georgians seems excited to have us there. the dinner consisted of a beef and been stew, kachapori (cheese bread), vegetables, and georgian red wine (which in case you don't know is essentially banned in russia as russia has ceased all imports of georgian produced wine since their little tiff last summer, and continues to refuse to import any of it). however, the georgian wine is brewed on site so it was still as authentic as i can get here, and pretty darn good. there were a lot of people at the dinner that i didn't know, but it was informative because there were several americans there who have been living in russia and explained the ins and outs as well as what they actually do (one woman is in the foreign service and explained in detail how the testing works for diplomats etc). i had a good time and i think it was a worthwhile experience.

saturday was lazy, i think haha, but sunday we had the performance of swan lake at the state kremlin theater. this theater is actually inside the kremlin, and is where a lot of speeches made during communist times were given. the ballet itself was very well done, and even though i honestly probably preferred ruslan and ludmila, which we had seen previously, because of its modern interpretation, i still really enjoyed the opportunity to see swan lake.

this past week hasn't been too eventful, though. i have been busy with class, and we have the TORFL at the beginning of december. on thursday, kari and i had planned to go to sokol'niki to see a world calligraphy exhibit which i had stumbled upon during a previous visit to the park. it actually turned out to be really interesting because they had calligraphy from all over the world, as opposed to only japanese/chinese calligraphy. we saw calligraphy from russia, belarus, norway, germany, france, and even the united states (although written english should never be called calligraphy, it was the worst of the entire exhibit). but it was definitely interesting and i'm glad we went and saw it.

on friday, we had a planned excursion to a hockey game. it was ЦСКА versus Череповeц. the rink itself was pretty crowded and the crowd was extremely energetic, as usual. it was funny because there were scantily clad girls dispersed throughout the stands to act as cheerleaders and dance to the techno music which was periodically played while the clock was stopped. the game was fairly competitive though, and it was tied after three periods. we left since the tie wasn't being resolved, but it was a good time all around.

today, i slept in a little since i hadn't for a long time, and then i made my way over to the park of fallen monuments, which is basically a park where the new Russia threw all of the statues honoring stalin, lenin, and all of the other soviet premieres after the fall of the USSR. the park was HUGE, a lot bigger than i ever thought it was. the park was actually featured on the amazing race, which is part of the reason why i knew about it, haha. but it had a ton of statues, monuments, you name it, it was there. so i met up with sam and erin and we walked around for an hour or so to see everything, and then we went to a japanese restaurant for dinner and to watch the Russia versus Slovenia World Cup qualifier match. Russia beat Slovenia 2-1, but Slovenia was basically an easy win. doesn't matter though russians get excited about anything having to do with soccer haha. afterwards, we found a hookah bar, which turned out to be amazing, because we ordered a grapefruit and mango hookah, and they actually put a WHOLE legit grapefruit on top of our hookah haha, something i've never seen in the US. they also had good music, live bellydancing, and they played america's best dance crew on tv. so that pretty much added up to a good day.

tomorrow, we have an excursion to the state historical museum on red square, and i've been wanting to go there for a while, so i'm looking forward to that. beyond that, we always seem to have mystery excursions during the week, since they only tell us the scheduled weekend excursions, so who knows what will be scheduled next week. this next upcoming weekend, we have a scheduled excursion to the Novodevichy Convent, which is a beautiful convent and church complex located right near the ring line of the moscow metro. and the week after we have a bus trip to the town of Sergiev Posad where there's an historical monastery. i'm actually really looking forward to that.

other than that, in russian class, we're just continuing to practice for the TORFL, which will be during the first two days of our last week of classes. it's sad that we only have a month left, but that also means i am really starting to think about my end of semester plans. my flight doesn't leave until the 21st, and classes end on the 11th, or sometime around the, which means i have about a week of time to do whatever. my original plans were to travel back to st. petersburg with ele, visit estonia, and then come back to moscow for my flight. however, we still have not had our visas renewed, and i'm not sure how much it will cost to pay for a multi-entry visa into russia (which is what i would need). if it turns out to be too much, my plan B is to choose a russian city (most likely west of the urals of course haha) and spend 4 or 5 days there touring and sightseeing before i head back to moscow. either way, i am really excited and anxious to see something new before i come home. in the same vein, i also really want to plan a trip to a small town outside of moscow via train or bus either by myself or with someone who might want to join me, just for a weekend. the problem is that i don't want to miss an excursion i really want to go on in moscow. i am tentatively thinking possibly the weekend after thanksgiving, but it's still up in the air.

so yeah, i have a lot of things to think about, not even including my next semester at pitt, which i am sure will hit me like a ton of bricks since i have done crap in terms of actual schoolwork this semester haha. this has basically been like a huge vacation (and believe me, i'm not complaining). but yeah, the chips will fall as they may, i suppose.

i will try my best to update again soon. until then, stay well!


Thursday, November 5, 2009

north of nowhere - st. petersburg

so i finally am getting the chance to tell you all about our trip to st. petersburg. again, apologies for the wait, it took me a few days to recover from the trip and such. but needless to say, we ALL had a blast, it was great to get a week off of school and see [as many] of the sights (or as the russians say достопримечательности) as we could during our trip.

on monday i pretty much just finished packing my things up, because we weren't schedule to meet at the train station until midnight. of course it was raining, so i had all my bags and my umbrella to deal with. fun. we got to the station and after waiting a little, boarded the train. now, i had been on a train in europe only one other time, when i traveled from prague to krakow, but i'd never been on an overnight train. we were all separated into compartments with 4 beds each, so i was with 4 of the other guys in our group. we were due to arrive in petersburg around 9:30 in the morning, so most of the group went to bed fairly early. however i was starving because i barely eat in russia in general and who knows when my previous meal had been, so i went to the dining car with victor, rudy, and kyle. i got some french fries and a coke (it was kind of cold!!!!), paid, and then went back to our compartment. fast forward 6 hours...we woke up around 9ish and were greeted with the wonderful ghetto train station suburbs of st. petersburg. haha but no really, i slept surprisingly well, since i don't usually sleep well on moving things. we disembarked (grumpily) and made our way to the hostel.

lena of course booked it through like lanes of traffic and such, making it even more difficult to keep up with her with our baggage. we finally got to the hostel and checked in, though. the hostel was pretty much what i expected, except i was glad that we actually got small rooms to share between a few people (for the guys anyway). it was pretty basic though, beds, wardrobes, a small kitchen, shower, toilets, etc. good enough for 4 days though. after we all kind of unpacked and got settled, we immediately had a bus tour scheduled. i was pretty excited though since i always am a fan of activities that don't involve the use of my feet. unfortunately, it was raining (as if we expected anything else) so it was pretty much impossible to take pictures out the bus window. however, our tour guide, ксения, was amazing. she had a great sense of humor and knew a ton about petersburg in general. i won't go into what we drove by since i visited everything we saw on the tour later anyway, but the tour was a lot of fun even though it was about 3 hours long. (you don't get THAT far in petersburg, or russian for that matter, traffic in that amount of time)

anyway, after the bus tour, a lot of people were exhausted, rightfully, so some people took naps. my foot felt like it was going to fall off but i hate wasting opportunities so i decided to just explore myself for the night. i always get way too excited about seeing a city's metro, so i wanted to be the first person in the group to officially ride the petersburg metro. and if there's one thing you need to know about the metro in st. petersburg, it's that it's not nearly as complete as moscow's. whereas in moscow, as long as you are downtown, you are pretty much guaranteed to stumble upon a metro no matter which way you walk, in petersburg, unless you get really lucky, you better know where you are going, because otherwise, you'll end up miles from a station and a very unhappy patron of the petersburg public transportation system. i decided to walk down nevskii, which is petersburg's main thoroughfare for restaurants, stores, and the like. it has beautiful architecture and a lot to see. i took the metro there to start. nevskii eventually leads down to the Neva, the massive river which essentially divides st. petersburg's downtown into several islands. nevskii also ends where the hermitage begins, so i walked around palace square a little bit. then i had a decision as to whether i wanted to walk back to where i came from or continue walking along the river, cross it, and head to the next closest metro on a neighboring island. i decided to do that, since i'd see new things. it was actually really relaxing, and the Neva at night is beautiful. i finally made it across the bridge and started searching for the metro i needed. i literally searched for at least an hour, and it just wasn't there. i had no idea what the problem was, but long story short, i was forced to traverse basically the entire length of the island to the ONLY other metro on that end. ugh. boo st. petersburg metro (although on the plus side it is a lot cleaner, clearer, and less crowded than the moscow metro. and it has really cool stop names like electric strength! haha) but anyway, i got back fine but tired, and probably got like 4 hours of sleep that night.

the next morning, we had our excursion to the winter palace and hermitage. the hermitage houses one of the largest collections of art in the world, second only to the louvre actually. it used to be the tsar's winter palace in petersburg. we had a 3 hour guided tour with ксения again, and the building itself was just amazing. SO large, you'd get lost guaranteed without a guide and signs. the rooms were so beautifully and ornately decorated with gold leaf, antique russian furniture, and of course the art. y0u could spend weeks and weeks looking at everything it has to offer. some of the highlights and my favorite parts were the room where the russian revolution literally began, where the bolsheviks stormed the palace and effectively took over the provisional government. we literally stood on history there. also, i really enjoyed being able to see the quarters of the last romanov ruling family, before he was forced to abdicate the throne and go into hiding. there was picasso, monet, davinci, pretty much every famous artist you can thing of. i would love to go back someday.

after the hermitage, i decided to go off and do my own thing again, because it's basically a proven fact i never get anything done that i want to do when i go with groups of people. basically, my goal for the day was to visit the bay of finland, which lies to the west of the city. i went with amanda because she really wanted to come with. the closest metro stop on my map to the bay was приморская, literally "arrival to the sea". so we rode the metro all the way out west and got off there. it was about a 10 minute walk from the station to the "shore". haha, so basically, despite the fact that russia does have a considerably large amount of coastline to its name simply because it's a large country, doesn't mean it has a lot of nice beaches. i can't even begin to imagine, besides in the crimea, anywhere else in russia where anyone would want to hang out on a beach. currently, it seemed as though petersburg is taking on a hefty and ambitious renovation project - notice i attempt to say this with the utmost sarcasm in my words. the entire area is basically a mess of massive abyss holes, dirt, mud, construction equipment, and what looked like land reclamation going on right off the coast. but surprisingly, there WAS a beach. and it was sand. so i was satisfied nonetheless. we sat on the edge of the water for a while, and even though it was cold and windy, it was pretty cool to be on the edge of what was essentially the baltic sea. so we hung out for a while, found a pretty nice grocery store and got some snacks, and then headed back.

on thursday, we had our excursion to peter and paul fortress, which is a small island situated right in the middle of the neva river, and is considered to be the birthplace of the city of st. petersburg. it's mostly a collection of historical buildings, a few small churches, and various other things. most notably though, in the church of st. peter and paul, are the tombs of a vast majority of russian tsars, tsarevichs, their families and the like. also in the church is one of the sights i have been wanting to see since i got to russia, which are the tombs of the romanovs. nicholas, his wife, and his children are all buried in their own room in the church. it was really sad to see, and despite the controvery surrounding their deaths, you can tell that at least the people of st. petersburg still hold the family (and especially the children) in high regard.

after the fortress, i wandered around the area a bit with a few other people, and lena took us to a blini restaurant, kind of fast foodish. i actually felt kind of sick and i was not in a good mood because i had to register for classes that night. i ate and then headed back to the hostel since i was dead tired. i ended up spending the rest of the night picking classes and registering. after that, a group of us decided to go to a club/bar type place which was literally right down the road from our hostel. it was actually a lot better than i expected. in my opinion, the DJ was really, really good, he played a mix of new and old american music, and also russian music, which made me happy. the drinks were fairly cheap too. we stayed there pretty late, probably until about 3 or so, just enjoying the music, and the staff were also extremely nice. went back to the hostel and passed out haha.

friday was our free day because our train was due to leave at 10 that night. i wanted to make the most of the day so i set out to basically ride the metro around to different areas of the city i hadn't been to yet. my first stop was старая деревня/old village. i thought it would be nice because of the name, but it turned out to be really ghetto and industrial haha. i found the market there and met a really nice old babushka who i bought a hat from. she asked me where i was from, and when i told her america, she immediately asked "los angeles?" haha so i was endeared right there. i spent a little while in the area because there were lots of cool factories and smokestacks that i for some reason enjoy taking pictures of, and then i left because it was cold.

after that i headed downtown again to find a coffeeshop because i was thirsty and cold. found one, had a coffee, left haha. i had made it a point to visit park pobedy (a lot of russian cities have a park pobedy/victory park) because i wanted to compare it to moscow's park pobedy. so i headed down that way, which is south of downtown. when i got there, i was actually pleasantly surprised by the area. the area was beautiful, and it reminded me of central park in new york. the park was surrounded on all four sides by tall, older buildings with very nice architecture. i walked around the park for an hour or so and then i decided to walk down the main street in the area, which was lined with the same really nice buildings. i eventually found a bookstore and bought a book which i had been wanting to do for a while now just to speed up vocabulary acquisition. as luck would have it i found a metro stop at the other end of the road so i didn't even have to traipse back. afterwards, i headed back to the hostel and just relaxed until it was time to leave. we headed back to the train station and caught our train back to moscow. i felt like crap and was so tired, but i ended up staying up really late playing mafia with about 8 or 9 other people, which was a TON of fun. (mostly because i was mafia and almost won haha). when we arrived back the next morning, i literally slept all day haha. but it was worth it.

so all in all, st. petersburg was amazing. it's such a huge contrast to moscow, it's impossible to even explain all the differences. it's funny because the only thing i really thought was the same were the people, at least to me. the architecture, the sights, transportation, geography, they were all a complete 180 from moscow, but the people still had that same russian spirit. so as much as st. petersburg is definitely more european than moscow, there's still enough russian influence there that i think it will always be more of a russian city.

so ending on that note, i have been back for a little less than a week now, and have just been taking it easy and getting back into my schedule. tomorrow is ele's birthday, so we are going bowling after she has dinner with a few people from our group. i won't be going to the dinner because i have a group dinner with sras at a georgian restaurant, so i will meet up with them afterwards. and then on sunday is our next excursion, and we're seeing swan lake, so i am really excited about that since it's a ballet people actually know, haha. this coming monday, i only have 6 weeks left here. the time has really flown and i feel like i want to do so much more, so i am trying to make the most of the rest of the time i have. hope everyone had a great halloween and i will try and update again as soon as i get the chance!!


Monday, October 26, 2009

cold days and midnight trains

so right now, it's about 6:30 and i have about 6 hours until my train leaves for st. petersburg. i'll be there until the end of the week and then i'll return back to moscow. but anyway, it's been a while since i last updated, so let's see...

it's been a lot colder lately, snow weather, you would think, unfortunately luzhkov seems bent on preventing it if at all possible, so who knows whether it'll actually fall or not. but it's definitely been close to freezing this whole past week, and the gloves and scarf and starting to feel like they're not enough haha. cloudy days are pretty much expected, i've only seen the sun maybe once or twice in the past 7 days.

last week we were pretty busy, we had an excursion to tolstoy's childhood home in the middle of moscow, and it was remarkably well preserved and definitely a lot nicer than what i would have expected. i didn't really know a lot about him and his family, but our tour guide spoke english extremely well and it turns out his whole family was very talented. so we got our tour and saw a lot of the antique furniture that was preserved. it was a nice change of pace to see something historical for a change since we had been seeing a lot of live performances lately.

that night, tuesday, me and a couple of my friends had heard about a restaurant at a metro stop close to us that offered unlimited house beer for a set (cheap) price on tuesday nights. we decided to check it out and the area turned out to be extremely sketchy. classic russia, the restaurant was right in front of 2 nuclear power plant cooling towers. we did find it though, and we had a pretty good time. the food was good as well.

the next day, we had our first test in our lecture class. needless to say, i don't think i aced it, but i certainly knew enough just from prior exposure to russian history that it didn't really matter that aleksandr's lectures are terrible. but yeah, all i need is a C, so i'm not really worried about it at all.

on thursday, i went out to a cafe to do some homework and get a small dinner with 2 of the other girls, and our waitress was really nice, and we found out she spoke english, russian, french, italian, german, and spanish. she was only 18, but she saw us doing our russian homework and basically ended up doing it for us haha. so that was a lot of fun and i would love to go back and see her again.

friday, kathryn and i went on an excursion with the kids from the school we had visited previously that i had spoken about. they were happy to see us, but the visit was bizarre again as i had expected, haha. we were originally going to take an [old, soviet, scary] bus, but since our group wasn't big enough, we packed into a marshrutka type van and off we went. we were going to the kuzminki estate, which is basically an old estate house with large, expansive grounds and an apparently long history. it was pretty close to the school so it only took a little while to get there. when we got there, we had a tour inside before we went to visit the horse stables. kathryn and i mainly ended up talking to nina and leviza, two girls who we hadn't met before at the school the first time. neither of them spoke english very well, so it was a great chance to practice our russian. they were both really nice and eager to talk to us. neither of them were ethnically russian, nina was from georgia, and leviza was from uzbekistan, but they both spoke russian as well. we ended up exchanging emails and phone numbers so hopefully we can keep in touch. the horse stables were pretty cool, the horses were beautiful and obviously well cared for. i'm not much of an animal person myself so i kept a distance but the girls all loved them. after that, we headed off and i went back home for the night.

on saturday, we FINALLY had our excursion to lenin's tomb and the kremlin wall necropolis, which was easily one of the excursion i was most looking forward to. we waited in line for a while on red square before we finally got to go in. basically, you go through the intense metal detector entrance, and then follow the paths through the garden towards lenin's tomb. the paths are lined with the gravestones of famous russians, most of whom i didn't know. halfway through, you reach the tomb, enter, and walk down a couple flights of stairs. it's pretty dark inside, entirely made of marble, and just creepy in general. there are militsiya lining the stairs all the way down, so that just adds to the creepiness. when you reach the bottom, you turn the corner into the room with lenin's body. his body is set up in an extremely ornate casket with a glass viewing box on top. guards are all around and you have about 30 second to walk around 3 sides of the casket before exiting. let's just say that those 30 seconds aren't enough for anyone to ever decide whether it's really all of his body there or not. it doesn't even sink in what you've actually just seen until later, though. after exiting, you continue past the really elaborate headstones of some of the soviet premiers and other important figures: brezhnev, kalinin, andropov, and of course stalin. after that, you follow the path out which is lined with carnations, yuri gagarin's grave is also located there. and that's it, all in about 10 minutes of walking. but the tomb is free so anyone can go back and see it again whenever. but i'm satisfied with one visit, i think haha.

on sunday, i spent the whole day out. i went to another CSKA soccer match, which was basically a massive loss for them against FK moskva, so that wasn't too exciting. afterwards i headed to the mall with a couple other people because we all needed some clothes for st. petersburg. it took me forever but i finally found a pair of [expensive] jeans that i liked so i got those. then we headed out to мир пиццы for some drinks and snacks. i was exhausted by the end of the day, so i just headed home and went to bed.

so that leaves me i didn't really do much, i packed earlier this afternoon, and i went to the store down the street to get some snacks for the train. i'll leave svetlana's around 10:30 or so and make my way to the metro. we're meeting at midnight. we're due to arrive in petersburg tomorrow early, and then we have a bus tour around the city, and then the rest of the day is free time. i'm kind of disappointed we don't have a very long time there, but i'm going to try and make the most of it and see and do what i want to do as opposed to what the group wants. i just like to explore by myself and i feel like i get more satisfaction out of that and get more done when i'm by myself. but either way i'm definitely pumped for the trip and can't wait to see everything! i think that's it for now, but i will make a huge effort to update this when i return (on halloween) so all of the petersburg stuff is fresh in my mind. hope everyone is still doing well and that everyone's halloween festivities are fun!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

парк победы is so big, so russia is probably hiding something in it

hey everyone. it's me again. let's see, where should i start.. last weekend i didn't
do a whole lot. on friday night we went out to the ballet to see what i believe was originally
a french ballet. it was pretty interesting but by the time it was over i was definitely ready to
leave. the story just wasn't that great, but the dancing was amazing, obviously. afterwards
i went with kelly and amanda to mu-mu, the cow themed restaurant chain in moscow. we met
two russian guys there who spoke english, and they invited us to come to a dance club
where they played old, retro american songs. we ended up going and meeting some of their friends, all of whom were extremely nice.

saturday and sunday i was pretty tired and i didn't really do all that much. it has been raining
a lot lately and the weather has definitely gotten a lot cooler. i have been saying i needed to buy
a heavier coat for a while now, but the expensive prices and the effort involved in shopping here
has made me procrastinate for a while. i originally had decided to go on monday and seriously look until i found one, but it rained all day and so i had to forego the trip and wait until tuesday.
on tuesday i left right after class by myself (because i never get anything done when i am with
other people haha) to a supposedly giant mall i had never been to before but had heard about
through several other russians. it was right by the kievskaya railway station, one of the largest
if not the largest railway station in moscow. i exited randomly from the metro and lo and behold
i picked the right exit and found myself right at the entrance of the mall.

now, i originally had thought the underground mall was huge that i had previously visited outside
red square, but this mall was gigantic. it was at least 5 floors, i think a parking garage on the 6th,
and had hundreds of stores. in the middle was an atrium and a fountain with exposed elevators,
and in the fountain was a gigantic clock that lit up and told time by the second with really
creative lights that lit up in a circle all the way around the rim of it. it was probably
the coolest mall i've ever been to. sorry, king of prussia. so anyway, i walked around for a while
but it's so difficult to shop in russia because i always feel like i am being watched. although
i suppose it doesn't help that i have shopping anxiety in america anyway haha, so i always
get nervous and just walk out of the stores. i ended up finding a not crazy expensive store
(aka the coats were only $100 as opposed to $300+) and i found a coat i actually really liked.
i wanted to try it on. now, as is the problem in many places in russia, nothing makes sense,
which includes dressing rooms. there was a large line, all with women, even though the store had men's clothing. i got in line and was told "no" by the lady in charge. i had no idea what she said to me after that, but i thought she meant it was only the lady's dressing room, but there wasn't a men's, so i have no idea what the problem was. i ended up trying it on outside and just bought it because it fit well enough, was a good price, and looked nice.

i also found a long scarf that i liked at another store and then i decided to go up to the food
court and eat something, which i did (pizza and mashed potatoes mmm). i walked around a little more but didn't really feel like staying any longer so i left.

my plan for tuesday night was to visit park pobedy, which is a famous park just outside the center of the city which is dedicated to WW2 veterans, and just WW2 in general. i didn't really
know what to expect because i had only read basic things about it. however, it was a huge surprise because the park was amazing. you exit the metro onto a giant cobblestone promenade, and in the distance is the main park pobedy memorial, an enormous obelisk and a semi circle white stone building surrounding one side of it. it was a HUGE memorial and the area it was in was really lively and seemed clean and more modern. i walked around for a while and found a small church before i made my way to the actual obelisk. it's even taller up close, almost like the washington monument except with a bunch of enscriptions and engravings all the way up the sides of it. what i was disappointed by although were the fountains around the monument, which are supposed to be on, and they are also supposed to glow red at night to commemorate the blood of the killed soldiers. they weren't even turned on, let alone red haha. i think they were doing work on them, but i am afraid they are already off for the winter for good, which would really suck since i wanted to see them. either way, it was still fun. i walked further into the park and it was so nice to have a nice relaxing walk in fresh air by myself for a change, and to get out of the dirty city/metro/freaking vykhino. it was a huge expanse of trees and woods, with paths through all of it, and there were also a bunch of monuments and small chapels and building scattered throughout the park. i eventually found a really neat artificial harbor which had replicas of old WW2 boats and artillery. they even had fake mines floating in the water. and the best part was that there was hardly anyone in the park, so i didn't feel crowded at all. it was starting to get dark, so i headed back out of the park towards the main monument. it was all lit up at that point so it looked even more imposing that it did during the evening. park pobedy metro stop also has great views of moscow in general, you can see the new moscow business center, also, straight down a huge main highway off to one side, you can see a ton of highrises, and it's all lit up at night of course. and of course i was all warm and toasty in my new coat haha. but i had a really great time and i think the park was my favorite place i've been to in moscow yet, maybe besides red square. it was nice to just explore myself and do what i wanted to do. i am definitely going to go back sometime soon.

so yeah, i think i'm almost at the halfway point of my trip, and i feel like we've had a lot of
excursions and we see a lot, but moscow is such a huge city, there's still a lot more to see.
some of us were talking about possibly taking a day trip one weekend to see one of the golden
ring towns, which i really want to see while i'm here, since they're so historically important.
some of the other upcoming excursions i know about are lenin's tomb, the tretyakov gallery, which is this weekend, tolstoi's house, and then also i believe a famous monastery somewhere on
the outskirts of the city. st. petersburg is also in less than 2 weeks and i'm really excited
to see the city and the hermitage, winter palace, and everything else. in general, you learn a lot
more about st. petersburg cultural sites/churches etc in russian culture classes back in america
because there tends to be a larger spread of architectural styles (baroque/rococo/classical etc)
there than in moscow, i believe. so i'm super excited and will probably take a ton of pictures just there haha. my camera has been getting a work out is for sure.

tonight, we're going to the circus, and we haven't really been told anything, so i'm not sure
what to expect, since i haven't been to the circus since jeez, i was probably younger than ten.
it will be fun though i'm sure and i hope the food is good, haha.

other than that, everything is going well, my cold is gone (woohoo!) and my foot is nearly 100%
so that's also good. this next week and a half before stpete i am going to try and do a little
more exploring myself since i always enjoy when i do that, and once we get back, it will
feel like the home stretch and i don't want to feel like i've missed out on seeing anything.

so yeah, i think that's it, and maybe i will try and post sooner again this weekend. i know i always say that but internet says otherwise. also, postcards still in the works (aka stamps are hard to get here and i don't know french). hope all is well at home. out!


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

the metro stop is called electric factory; what did you expect the area to look like?

so this past weekend i ended up doing a lot of museum stuff. on friday we went to the mayakovsky museum, which actually turned out to be pretty interesting. it was a lot of installation type art and the ladies that worked in the museum were really nice and helpful, putting up with our bad russian haha. that night we ended up at a nice irish pub type bar called mollie's. they had really good nachos and we stayed there for a while, and then we went to mcdonalds because some people wanted milkshakes before we headed back home.

on saturday we had planned to visit the gulag museum and when we got there it was actually a lot smaller than i thought it would be. there were a bunch of babyshkas that worked there as well and they were extremely excited to take us around and show us everything. they only spoke a little english but they spoke slowly enough in russian so we could understand the tour for the most part. when we had finished looking around they set up a dvd movie for us and we watched an incredibly depressing documentary about various russians who had survived stays in a gulag. i never really knew extensive details about the camps, so it was definitely informative, but we left halfway through because you could only really watch so much.

i was really excited for sunday because we got to go to a soccer match between a moscow team and another russian team who were visiting from the crimea. the fans were crazy for the moscow team, i had never seen so many organized chants at any other sporting event. i bought a scarf which were really cheap, and also since i kind of collect them because i got one for a team in the czech republic when i was there. CSKA, the team from moscow, ended up winning 4-0, so the game wasn't too exciting, but it was still a lot of fun and i was glad i went. when we were leaving, there were literally hundreds of militsiya lined up outside the metro for crowd control, and they followed everyone down into the metro too. the fans were insane on the metro after the game so we got off as soon as we could.

this week so far i haven't done a ton because i have had a cold for the past week, and my foot has
also been hurting for some reason. yesterday, on tuesday, me and a couple of friends went to a part of the city we hadn't been to before to try and find a cemetery that was supposedly pretty well known because it was really old and had a lot of graves of foreigners in german, french, dutch, etc. we got to the area and took a tram to where we thought it was. unfortunately it started to rain and then we realized we had no idea where we were. we asked someone on the street who turned out to be really helpful and he took us to where the cemetery was. and of course, like everything always is in moscow, it was closed. so we were pretty pissed but it was also kind of funny. we decided to take a bus back to the metro, so we found one and got on. i guess we didn't pay enough attention because it started to take us into what looked like a kind of sketchy area of town. it never bodes well when you start seeing massive rusting soviet factory complexes. so we got off at the end of the line and just kept walking, and we eventually found a metro stop. so it was kind of an adventure in the end, haha.

but yeah, other than that i've been kind of taking it easy lately so my foot can get better. i am
going to the american center tomorrow to see if i can start volunteering soon. i am also having
a minor class registration crisis because i have to register online while i am in st. petersburg
(the trip is in less than 3 weeks! wooo) in a hostel, and i don't even know if i will have internet.
but i will find a way somehow, i guess. and then this friday night we are going to the legit ballet,
so that will be fun. saturday is a museum excursion to the museum of decorative and applied arts, which sounds like it will be either really boring or possibly kind of exciting. and then i think
the weekend before st. petersburg is our excursion to the inside of lenin's tomb which i am really,
really excited for.

but yeah, sorry that this has turned into only a weekly thing, i usually have no time/internet so
it seems to always only be posted once a week. also, the postcard situation is still pending
because i never get a chance to go to the post office. eventually, though. but yeah, that's pretty
much all that's interesting for now, so maybe if i get the chance i will try and make an extra effort to update this again before the weekend is over. we'll see how it goes. hope everyone is well!