Saturday, March 23, 2013

Скоро Весна или уже весна?

After that amazingly awesome time noted in the last post I'd like to state that things got both awesome and lame.

I had to take a night off work for the one concert, and the following Wednesday I took another night off work to see another concert called "Gregorian." It's a German group who does Gregorian chant styled versions of modern pop and rock songs. You can read about them here and watch some of their videos on youtube here. While they chant, they also have quite the theatrical styled musical accompaniment so don't expect it to be calm. Feel free to click on a number of their videos if you want. Our performance/tour was movie inspired so a lot of the songs came from the cinema such as the opening from "Chariots of Fire" where a filmed version of "gregorian monks" were running on the sand instead. Other songs were from Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Graduate, James Bond (Live and Let Die, but where instead of an agent pulling a gun and blood dripping for the "opening credit" it was a monk and an arrow). Overall it was a splendid performance. Sadly Daria had to leave at intermission for an interview that couldn't be rescheduled.

The lameness of the past two weeks is that Daria had to fly to Los Angeles on short notice last Friday to interview an agency on Saturday to leave LA on Monday and return here on Tuesday. This caused me to sell her ticket to the ballet at the Mariinksy Theatre (the grandest and most famous here in SPB) and her tickets to a psychology event she had for the weekend. So Friday night I went to the ballet with a student of mine (who bought the ticket Thursday night), and we saw a good performance of "The Little Humpbacked Horse." Quite well done, though I wasn't expecting as many children in the audience as there were. I'll say that I had to laugh because for 23 years of living in SPB this was the first time my student had been to the Mariinsky.

Sunday was a big celebration of Масленица (Maslenitsa), or Shrovetide, or shall we say, Mardi Gras, since in the Eastern Church began Lent this past Sunday and their Easter is the first Sunday in May. Part of the name comes from масло, which is oil/butter (same word here) and there's lots of gorging on pancakes. It's also a time to say goodbye to winter and to welcome spring. Many of the parks throughout the city had some sort of festival. From what I know of how people celebrate Mardi Gras in the US, this festival is much more family friendly and there are lots of events for children. Spectacles performed on stages, people dressed in traditional costumes, and the main thing here is to burn an effigy of winter called чучело, chuchelo, (which is a straw woman dressed in traditional clothing). People burn small individual ones, and then there are larger ones which are lit at night. We, however, left before night fell. I went with colleagues from work, and a few students from one of the other teachers joined as well. Our group fluctuated throughout the day, but a good time was had by all, even though one of the new teachers apparently didn't know Russia was actually cold b/c he was quite ill-equipped with a coat appropriate for September, canvas shoes and cotton socks, and without gloves, a scarf or a hat. Fortunately for him people were able to loan him items and he's still alive and well.

After leaving the park, we celebrated St. Patrick's Day in a pub downtown with legitimate Guinness, which was both delicious and reasonably priced.

One of my students told me Monday that he read this is the coldest March in at least 10 years. After what seemed like a fairly mild February, I was afraid that spring had come soon and all my cold weather would have disappeared. March has taught me otherwise. Many days have been quite frigid. Additionally the days have been getting longer and the sunshine tricks you into thinking it will be fairly warm. Then the zephyr comes from the north and laughs in your face. Well nips at your face really drying your eyes and leaving your cheeks windburned and lips chapped. Monday morning I took Karma for a walk and my thermometer said -11C. I thought, not bad and took Karma out. The wind told me I was unprepared and when I checked upon our return home it was -11 feels like -20. Oh windchill, how unkind you truly are. This is not to say it doesn't feel warm at times and I will admit it's a strange feeling to see your breath in -4 but feel as though you could sunbathe as you walk in the sunshine. The main lesson is not to trust what it looks like from the window.

My title is on this theme. It translates as "Spring is near, or is it already spring?"Officially spring is here, both from the perspective of Масленица and from the vernal equinox this past Wednesday. And sometimes it certainly feels balmy during the middle of the day. Snow and ice melt even when it's below the freezing point. Chemistry calls what is happening sublimation. And then the wind comes biting or the sun goes down and it feels as though winter has returned. The Fontanka is starting to show breaking ice though, and therefore, уже весна или скоро?

Don't be fooled by the blue sky. It was -7C for most of the daytime. Starting Масленица at ЦПКиО.

The first stage spectacle once you cross over the bridge onto the island that is the park.

From a distance you can see some magic games for the kids. And by games I also mean a really cool looking inflatable slide that must reach 10 meters high and many of us wanted to do it too. However, we surpass the height/age requirement.

A horse-drawn sleigh crosses our path.

We played a little frisbee on a pond until my colleague Joey heard some ice crack. I think it was just a top layer (sometimes you can find layers where air was trapped between), but we got off just in case (and played on a different pond later where more people were doing various activities).

Another event for children.

A member of our group (Katya - left) and some unknown person (right) pose with a large чучело.

Traditionally dressed woman on the right and my colleague Alina and I also dress up. Well, sorta.

Later, I demonstrate my machismo by defeating Alina in a pillow fight knocking her off her stump. I'll admit I felt the Russians were judging me for fighting against a woman, but I guess whatever. It's about fun and games and Alina and I were the only ones in our group who were excited about this event.

Our чучело. Someone in the group named her Masha.

Mash is not nearly as festive as this wintry effigy of another group.

But Masha was ours. I don't know what's going on with my eyes, but the other picture of us was not kind to Alina or Veronika. 

And Masha is burning away.

On the way out of the park we crossed the river instead of the bridge. We saw that someone else had made a snow angel so a lot of us decided to as well.
Alina and Veronika do likewise.

Outside the Tower Pub I prove to be a formidable Queen Regent.

Alina proves there's Guinness to be found in SPB.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Seriously, just an awesome weekend.

Where to even begin? I guess chronological order makes sense. At least from the past few days. This will be long however.

Thursday: Last fall I went to a rock show at a bar of cover bands covering 90s Russian rock. Last Thursday I went to the real deal, concert in an arena. It was off the hook to say the least (that is jargon for AMAZING!!!!!! for those of you who don't know what "off the hook" means).

Rock bands like ДДТ (DDT), (СПЛИН) Spleen, Король и Шут (КиШ - King and Fool), Ляпис Трубецкой (Lyapis Trubetskoi), and Lumen, played. All very different, all awesome. The main person from DDT looks like a middle-aged guy who works in the computer industry (polo, glasses, short beard, slightly portly, and doesn't have the energy one expects from the leader of one of the biggest - if not THE biggest rock groups of Russian history), yet he inspired such energy in the crowd. Phenomenal is all I can say. КиШ had more of a rock presence that was to be expected. I seriously cannot convey how awesome this concert was. But I will say that fans in the US need to learn to use road flares and sparkers at concerts instead of just lighters and cell-phones.

Russian rock is quite different and while some stuff had similar sounds to western rock, other aspects were quite different. I'd also like to say that while western rock has incorporated keyboards into rock (and even metal like Nightwish and Children of Bodom), and we incorporate brass instruments into ska music (which has a swing feel mixed with punk for those who don't know), there was some good brass usage in the metal portions of this show. Great use of the trumpet and trombone.

Friday was March 8th (otherwise known as International Women's Day). We had plans that turned into celebration by lying around the apartment. Actually quite a wonderful and needed day of rest.

Saturday, Daria and I went to Peter and Paul's Fortress (the original part of SPB). I've never been there in the winter. It also held a great exhibit about women through the Soviet era/Women's Day (although it goes until May). This was quite the fascinating exhibit about uplifting women and at the same time demonstrating the double burden of work and home that has been placed on women here. I had to laugh b/c a poster spoke about "earth and will" (volition type of will) and one of the songs from Lyapis had the chorus "bread, salt, earth, will." While I don't think the song was about women's things, it certainly retained the "this is what's necessary for everybody" basics of life. Or something like that. I don't know if I can really explain (or if I really understand). Great exhibit. Oh, and while we were taught that the USSR had the first person in space, we have the first person on the moon, etc, did you know they also had the first woman in space? That was not in my history textbook. What was also cool to see were photographs of women who helped rebuild SPB after the siege in WWII. There were more women doing work in the 40s and 50s than in the 70s/80s/etc, even in the USSR. Made one feel that women were more appreciated then, but who really knows.

Another exhibit found in a different part of the Fortress was of microscopic wonders done by a man known as the "Siberian Lefthander." Wonders like he put metal shoes on a flea, horseshoe style nails and all (Guinness book of world records). We saw "jewelry for insects" books written smaller than a grain of rice, portraits on walnut shells, but placed inside of a cherry pit, nanoscaled things poppy seeds, well ok, just look. Although, none of these were really as fascinating as what we saw in the museum exhibit.,29307,1831665_1748583_last,00.html

After that we went to an exhibit of medieval torture devices. Left one wondering how some of the items lasted until 1970s (like execution by sitting in a chair having a pole slowly drilled through your skull). I'll save you most of the other gruesome details. Although, not so torturous, good punishment for drunkards: wear a barrel around all day - punished through embarrassment. Forget revoking a driver's license for DUI, just make them wear a barrel. I promise, no one will drink and drive again. However, seriously, it's crazy that humanity can think up such horrendous ways to hurt each other. I'll refrain from offering any twisted things that have entered my brain. I really don't want to see those things practiced.

Following all the museums, Daria and I went out onto the Neva River (the main river that goes through SPB). I seriously cannot get enough of walking on frozen rivers, canals, lakes, the Gulf of Finland. Soon my time will have to stop though b/c it'll be too dangerous. Actually, yesterday pushed that. Some boat or another has clearly gone through the river and broken some of the ice to transport something. Its frozen back over, but you can see the chunks and in places flowing water still from the recent breakage. I walked onto a piece completely "separated" and re-frozen. We saw some people walk completely across the breakage. Later, a man came out with a bullhorn to tell people to not venture into that area. I was careful, but it was also dangerous.

Today, Daria and I heard an awesome sermon about how we all might possess small parts of each character from the parable of the Prodigal Son. Rather than some crazy exegesis of each character, you just have parts of each. I could elaborate, but really . . . you have parts of each.

After the service we used Daria's grandparents' old wooden cross-country skis and old leather boots (seriously awesome, and mom and dad, definitely thought of you with this stuff). Why didn't we dig these out earlier?????? We took the train out of the city and skied through the woods, total backcountry style. We then skied onto the Gulf (been my dream for way too long). We probably pushed about a mile out before we turned back (the wind was getting wicked, but more, it was the end of the day). I know Daria enjoyed it too, but I also want to thank her for appeasing my dream of doing that. Great day of skiing through sunlit filigree on the snow through the trees, and then into the vast open expanse of the Gulf of Finland. I hope we get to return. And seriously, those wooden skis were well made. I don't know the last time they were used, but they worked very well.

Just a great picture from within the building stairwell overlooking our snow-covered courtyard.

Poster about the Women's Exhibit at the Museum

Daria posing next to a poster about Women's roles in the defense of the country during WWII.

Me standing on the Neva with my back to the Hermitage and other historic buildings. And a snowflake in my eye.

Better picture of what the broken ice looks like and the flowing water you can see.

Me standing on an ice-flow. That large chunk that spans past the picture, but still in front of me is not connected to the main part we walked on.

My feet at the aforementioned ice-flow in the picture above. This would be at the bottom of the picture above if the camera spanned that far.

Daria's turn, but she stayed on the "connected part" not venturing onto the broken pieces.

Not our dacha, but what the dacha might look like in the winter.

And into the woods we go. Well, ok, we were already into the woods when this was taken, but it was better than the "starting point" picture.

Some obstacles you don't find in the city parks. Daria did well ducking under this fallen tree. She added some theatrics (intentional) that I appreciated unlike my lame, "let's get under this and get on the way" duck and ski.

Some beautiful forest around us. Can anyone say paradise?

And Daria leads the way onto the Gulf. Well, we were on it going parallel to shore here, but only about 20-30 yards out here.

But here I go off onto the horizon of the Gulf. You can see the curvature of the earth here, but also the sea of ice ahead. Daria posted on facebook that we're heading off into the Arctic here. Close enough I guess. Paradise number 2?

Thanks to batteries freezing I didn't get a picture off from the furthest point we were from shore, but I was able to snap this of Daria (that small dot in the middle), as she headed back toward shore while I fiddled with changing batteries. The wind was a brutal dry cold and while Daria could ski fine, there were issues standing still (not due to cold, but boot/ski issues), so she left. The winter child in me just loves that we're on the frozen sea.

At the end of the day, we are at the train station, and this was just a great picture of Daria. I'm posting it because I like it a lot.

And our train back to the city. I think it's neat that the sign tells you the current time (top) and the time of the train (bottom) and yes, the train got there at 18.28 and left exactly at 18.29. Very punctual.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

My brain is like porridge, hehe.

Again I let two weeks slip by without writing a blog. For a short month February certainly was busy.

To begin with I want to share that two weeks ago we were at Daria's cousin's new apartment. I felt excited as I listened to them talk that I could understand quite a bit. Obviously not everything, and I didn't really participate, but I did understand quite a bit. Well, for the first couple hours. Then my brain turned to mush and words that I normally recognize were incomprehensible. In simple Russian, I can say мой мозг не работает, or rather мой мозг не работал. moi mozg nye rabotayet/rabotal. (My brain doesn't work/didn't work). I wonder if I can say мой мозг как каша (my brain is like porridge).

I will say the same also happened after yesterday's lesson which made it quite difficult to plan my lesson afterward. Fortunately it wasn't that hard of a lesson to teach.

I wanted to offer a little more insight into my thinking about "community" from the last post. Perhaps part of the reason that things feel more communal is that it's built into the language. I don't know, and could be wrong with all my speculations, but they are what I perceive. For example in English I say, "I met with Greg." However, in Russian I would say, "Мы встретились с Грегом," which translates to "We met with Greg," even though I really just mean "I met with Greg." There are other instances where I want to say things that I do with another person, but I use the plural "we."

On Mondays and Wednesdays I teach in a company and then take the metro to the school to teach an evening class. As I transfer from one line to another I wait in a station that has a variety of red hues from what appear to be shards of red pottery, although they glisten as though they're glass or marble. Sometimes when I stand waiting for my train, I think the walls are like fire especially because I usually stand next to where the name Маяковская (Mayakovskaya) is embedded with the same stones/shards in 3D. When you stand next to the letters and cannot see the whole word the jagged shape of the letters looks like flames frozen into the wall.

One of my biggest dislikes about the way things work here in Russia is the overabundance of plastic; and the bad kind. There are enormous quantities of thin plastic bags that really cannot be reused, or if they can, are only reusable for a short time before the rip. Sometimes the bags are necessary, but more often than not I don't need a bag for my bananas, or my 3 grapefruit, or maybe my croissant if I dare to buy one, but for example today when we were buying some milk our milk was placed into one of these thin plastic bags. Why? What makes matters worse is the amount of trash that is left on the street. Uncountable amounts of bags, plastic milk bottles, cigarette butts, beer bottles/cans, litter the streets and there are many that can be found frozen in the ice of the canals and the river. My thoughts immediately turn to all the fish in the sea that will find the thin plastic bags. However, while the US may not have nearly as much litter (although it does have quite a bit in certain places), I do not think we have any right to tell others how to be environmentally conscious considering our own shortcomings. I have also been pondering the amount of "out of sight, out of mind" aspect to our own wasteful consumerism. NYC sends its waste to Virginia by barge and to Pennsylvania by truck, but from my time with Citizens Campaign for the Environment, I know that more of that trash pollutes our waterways than we want to admit. I cannot say that Russia pollutes the environment more than the US (although there certainly is more litter here), but it is more in your face and therefore more on my mind. It makes me that much more conscious of wanting to change the entire system. However, can we change it considering how much of our "progress in industry" comes from destruction? Also, we need to remember: Reduce comes first; then Reuse; lastly, Recycle. Which reminds me, we buy way too much water here b/c it's bad to drink from the tap. In the house, we filter, then boil, then consume as tea. Or we buy bottled water to drink. Is the technological solution of better city-wide filtration the answer, or should we socially get over ourselves and be comfortable with boiling and reserving water on the side to cool or consume it while hot like in tea?

I wanted to share that sunlight here is crazy. As in each week there is an extra 40-45 minutes of sunlight. That's right. From one Sunday to the next we have an extra 40-45 minutes of light. This is of course what makes things like really dark Decembers to the White Nights in June/July possible considering that 26 weeks pass and so much light change happens. However, it's quite crazy to observe how much more light we have from one work week to the next and even without Daylight Savings Time (which drives me crazy), the body clock is hard to set.

Favorite new word: the verb "to giggle" is хихикать (hihikat). I like it because it sounds like heehee. Very onomatopoeic.

Additionally, I'm going to add some photos with no particular connection to this post or necessarily any other, although there might me some.

Daria cross-country skiing in ЦПКиО

The Georgian Church on our street corner (we live off to the right). You won't find any Russians attending this church though. Also if you look on the right side of the roof of the middle beige building you'll see some workers clearing the snow off.

Along the Alley of Sister Cities 

You might think this is a snow covered field into the horizon, but this is just the vast frozen Gulf of Finland.
The refreezing of someone's fishing hole that we saw on the Gulf. Don't know how thick it is. It's where I stood taking the above picture facing the western horizon.

Party tent near the gulf. There is a restaurant nearby that would have served as a nicer picture (historic stone and whatnot), but I was too lazy to walk all the way back around. The Restaurant and party tent are "Karl and Friedrich." You figure it out.

Snow Angel in the playground/courtyard of the Georgian Church above. We were walking home late on a snowy night a few weeks ago (camera says Feb. 9th) and I really liked what some neighborhood person had done. When I took Karma on her evening walk I brought the camera with me.

Daria in front of the Museum of Anna Akhmatova.

This shelf no longer looks like this, although the picture was taken fairly recently we did some recycling. From the left: A bottle of Balvenie 12 year (thanks to my brother Erik as a Christmas gift given through Daria picking it up in Duty Free on her way back here) - truly a delicious single-malt and a family favorite; a bottle of Dewar's 12 year blend (thanks to Daria's dad for my birthday last summer) - normally I'm not a blend guy, but I won't complain about this delicious mix (especially considering it costs more than I pay for many single malts although Duty Free may change some of that cost); a Macallan 15 year (curtesy of some students of mine who played me like a fiddle - I thought they were interested in me, but they were doing research on what to buy me for my New Year's gift); Aberlour 12 year also brought by Daria upon her return as a gift to myself (hey Scotch is ridiculously expensive here and some of those bottles aren't as full as the boxes look). The local Paulaner BrewHouse (German beer, but brewed locally for that particular pub) had a special during Oktoberfest and our scratch out card awarded us two bottles of their fine Hefe-weiss (other prizes included t-shirts, free food, or a free liter in the pub). Finally we have come to 3 various bottles of Medovarus mead: Classic style in a beautiful winter bottle; wild honey/style; and classic style in a regular bottle.