Monday, September 24, 2007

The Trip

OK, so I've been meaning to get this up for a little while now, but I don't have anything else to do tonight so here goes:

One of the things we've heard a lot about since we got here is how different Moscow is from the rest of Russia and how we shouldn't learn just Moscow culture and miss the vast cultural gulf between that and the average Russian village. To put it in perspective, that would be like wanting to understand the average person in a small town in North Carolina, but going to Manhattan to study the language. You can certainly learn English in Manhattan, but to identify with someone culturally from Fuquay you've left yourself a lot to do.

With that in mind, we took a trip a couple of weeks ago to Kolomna, a medium-sized city 100 km from Moscow for a couple of days. It was a great trip, and really gave me a much more positive impression of Russian life than I think I had before. We like Moscow, but to be honest, we're not really city people, and so it was great to see some trees and fields, and hear, well, just nothing at all for a while. It's funny how you live somewhere with constant background noise for so long and then you leave and you can just hear the silence. Anyway, on to the pictures:

The trip started pretty early in the morning, and Steven wasn't feeling too well (actually, the lovely B missed out on some of the trip due to taking care of him, as he got worse the whole time we were there, but that's another story). The train ride there, just under 2 hours, was a chance to catch up on some sleep after a 5:45 am departure.

Kolomna is known for being a center of the Orthodox church, with a bunch of monasteries and old churches there. Here Andrey and I are in a beautiful rose garden in a monastery. It was a great chance to find out about cultural Orthodox practices, some of which were really fascinating.

If you're wondering about the level of closeness, which is distinctly un-American, you have to remember that the Russian sense of personal space is quite different from our own. At first I found it disconcerting when Russian men (and women!) would grab my arm while talking to me, but now I'm starting to get used to it. Pretty soon I guess I'll start doing the same myself, and then someday I'll screw up and do it to some American guy when we get back there. All part of acculturation, I guess.

This is the inside of one of the old Orthodox churches in Kolomna. Very interesting cultural finds in there. One of the interesting things to me is the obvious lack of benches or chairs. During a service all the people crowd into that little space and stand up, and it can go on for hours! A dedicated lot, it would seem. Very beautiful church, with lots of paintings of saints, etc. everywhere.

This is a look at the downtown area of Kolomna where all the monasteries and churches are. I really like the architecture of the churches, and I even like the onion domes that were a little strange to me when we got here.

Country houses all have a garden, although they don't actually call this a garden. This is a "yard-garden" (J's loose interpretation), and the actual "garden" is really what we would call a field, albeit a small one. They grow flowers here, and at their garden they grow vegetables and things to eat. Each family has a small field to grow things on for themselves, and during the Soviet days a lot of the food the people ate came from the private "gardens" rather than the collective farms.

One of the reasons we won't be doing this very often - it was expensive! This is what you get for $80 a night in Kolomna - not exactly the Ritz but it was the cheapest place in town.

This beautiful little village was within walking distance of the town center, so we hiked over there. The big set of buildings you see there is a monastery that the Orthodox church rebuilt after the Soviet system fell apart.

Kolomna is right on the river, so we took a tour down to the riverbank. Absolutely beautiful, with fields and forests as far as you could see on the far bank.

The old Kremlin wall - "kremlin" (or the Cyrillic equivalent, Кремль) just means "fortress" in Russian, so there's a big one in Moscow that everyone knows about, but just about every other town had one as well. This one was built in the 1300's, and this chunk of it is still in pretty good shape. All around the old downtown you can see the big towers from the fortress walls.

We even got to eat in a Russian restaurant while there. I had tongue (the near plate) which I hadn't had since Bolivia, and although it was more tender here it wasn't really hot and thus not as good. I also got a really salty fish dish and a kind of dill soup. They really like dill here in Russia and I admit I've really developed a tasted for it. B had some meat dish with potatoes - all of it was good. She told me she plans to blog on Russian food sometime but I can just preview it by saying it's all very good (except kefir, which is so bad it deserves its own post sometime).

Every town in Russia seemingly has their own World War II monument. Having a more Western heritage, I think sometimes it's easy to forget that the Russians also made massive sacrifices, with unbelievable death tolls during the war, to help defeat the Axis. This one is a statue of the soldier's head, with names of war heroes carved on posts (outside the picture) who died during the war. Oh, and sorry about getting my shadow in the shot - I couldn't see another way to get the whole thing in at that time of day.

So, I guess I'll leave you with this picture (except for the contest, of course). Russians love flowers and trees, and do a much better job of filling their cities with them than they do in America. This is a beautiful scene just outside the monastery in Kolomna.

And now, of course, to everyone's favorite: the What Is It For? for the week. As usual, the rules are that the first person to post the right answer in the comments section gets a point, and at some point I plan to tally up the points and award the winner with some sort of prize (maybe a souvenir from the motherland?). Last week's winner - codename "Greenspan," B's Mom recognized the item in the picture as a beet and gets the point. The national dish, of course, is борщ, or "borshch." Theories abound on whether it comes from Ukraine or Russia, but Wikipedia lists it as from "Eastern Europe," so I'm not going to pick sides.

No hints on this one, but your job is to figure out what the van below is used for. General answers are no good on this one - you'll have to be specific! I admit that I was a little surprised to know what this van's primary purpose is, so be creative and maybe you'll get lucky. Or maybe you're some sort of Russian genius and you know the answer. Happy guessing, and see you again next time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Steven Walks!

OK, so I didn't get the camera out until he was halfway across the room, but we finally have proof:

Oh, and I absolutely prohibit any semblance of competitiveness between Noah and Steven as to who gets to which thing first, so let's just nip that in the bud right now. They're both equally cute and brilliant, and I won't hear otherwise!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Overdue: Sleepover Report

The Stroll Home: Not An Excited Group

OK, so I was going to do a blog about Russian foods for a while now but I don't have all the pictures for this. Instead, I've decided I'll just write about something I've been meaning to write for a while, and let J post about our out-of-town trip from last weekend next post.

Anyway, several weeks ago, before one of our coworker families headed East, I hosted a spend the night party at our apartment. Three girls attended altogether: Emma, who is 6 years old; Carina, who is 5 years old; and Sonja, who is 9 years old. All in all, we had a good time (considering the potential obstacles).

We spent the evening making carmel balls, which was a disaster but still tasted good. Then we decorated our own face masks, which didn't work because the glue wouldn't stick. We still gave it a good try, and had fun doing it. We also made our own indoors tent out of chairs and sheets. That actually turned out pretty good. Once we finished with the crafts, the girls laid down in their tent and watched a movie. I thought they would go to sleep afterwards considering it was so late, but as you probably have guessed they were wide awake. So I put another movie in and told them to turn the TV off when it was over and go to sleep and then I went to bed thinking it was over for the night.

Well, if anyone has ever had young girls over for a sleepover you know that it is never over. Three o'clock in the morning, as I was sleeping away, I was awakened by high voices saying "Mrs. B, we can't sleep". So, I thought "Another movie should do it". So I put in the last movie (each girl had brought a movie). Luckily, by the time it was over (it was about 5:30 am), all three girls were asleep but not for long. They woke up a few hours later. We made mickey mouse pancakes and then went to the park.

By this time the girls (and needless to say, me) were exhausted and sleep-deprived. What do you get when you combine 5-6 year-old girls who have been away from their parents all night and who have only slept for a few hours? Not a very cheerful group, I assure you (can you blame them?). It was about 5:00 pm when I got the last girl to her house (we had to take public transportation) and she fell asleep within an hour of getting home. So the lesson here is if you have a girls sleep over, make sure they sleep or don't plan a full day of activity.

To me, it just confirmed what I already knew. I don't think I could raise any girls. I'm emotional enough without having another girl in the house. If we do have another child, and it is a girl, she might end up being a tomboy. I raise my hat to all those mothers who have little girls. And to my mom to raised three girls. How did you do it?

(and this is J now) don't have another cute picture of Steven this week, but he's doing well. He takes two steps now before falling, but still hasn't really "walked" anywhere. [EDIT: Steven just walked! Hip, Hip, Hoo... OK, so it's not the biggest deal in the world, but he just took 5 steps in a row, so I thought I would update.] He's been a little fussy lately with a bunch more teeth coming in, and he's added "Mama" and "Ba-Ba" (which we generously interpret as Bye-Bye) to his list of words. He won't say any of them when the camera is running, though, so it might be a while before we get a nice video of it to post on her as some have requested. As for other news regarding us, it's just language study day after day. Oh, and it's starting to get really cold here. This week we had a high of 8° one day (I think that's in the low 40's F), which means it's starting to creep into the range of "uncomfortably chilly" on occasion.

OK, on to this week's What Is It For™? contest. We were starting to run low on these in Moscow, what with the fact that a lot of stuff just doesn't stand out to us anymore and especially the fact that Moscow is a very modern city and doesn't have a lot in it that would make a Western European or American think twice. However, our trip to the country gave us lots of new pictures to throw out as we got to see a different side of Russian culture. Anyway, this one should intrigue you agricultural types.

Here you can see one of the many fields of this particular crop, and below a closeup of one plant. Hints: a different variety of this is grown in the Midwestern US, and it's the main ingredient in Russia's national dish.

So there you go. Standard rules apply - a point to the first responder with the correct answer, and this week there's a bonus: three bonus points if you know it in Russian (only one bonus point if you had to look it up). Answers, as always, in the comments section.

Coming next week (hopefully): a full report on the trip!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dinner with Friends

Just call me Vegas ...

One of the problems with having a good internet connection is that now we're supposed to post to this thing more often. That can sound good, but since all of our days are basically the same, might lead to lots of posts about "today I learned how to put a word into the instrumental case male singular." Try not to yawn too hard!

Anyway, we have been enjoying our new apartment and getting settled back into our scheduled lives. Our teacher is back from out of town, and both our language helpers are here, so everything is full speed ahead. It can get a little wearisome to do the same thing day in and day out (especially when you start to feel that you're not making any progress), so your thoughts are appreciated for our motivation and attitude.

One of the nice things about starting to be able to chat (at least, if the people are patient and willing to make the effort to understand our "creative" sentences) is that we can have people over to our house for dinner and such. This is a big part of Russian culture - having people over and going over to other people's houses, and we are really starting to enjoy it. Last night we went over to B's language helper's apartment and ate with her and her parents, but our camera battery died and I don't have any evidence. However, a couple of days ago we had my (J's) language helper Andrey [Interruption: does anyone know the proper orthography for this name in English? Is it Andriy, Andrey, or Andrei?] and his wife and son over for supper:

This is Andrey and his wife Iulia. Really a great couple, and we're looking forward to getting to know them a lot better while we're here. A little tricky since their English is, well, worse than our Russian (which is not an attempt to say that our Russian is really good, if you understand :) Anyway, we had a good time, and I think mostly understood what each other was trying to say.

This is their son Pasha. Here he's sampling Steven's formula bottles, and he liked it so much he wanted both bottles at once! I didn't get a picture, but one of my favorite parts of the evening was when he got an ice cube out of the bowl. It was the first time he'd ever seen one, as Russians don't use them. He couldn't figure out what to do with it, but he sure like carrying it around and licking it to see how cold it was. Really cute.

Of course, Steven had to get in on the act and here he's trying to sample a brownie he snuck off the plate. Don't worry, we didn't let him eat it.

OK, so I don't have a contest this week. It was easy to come up with those things at first, but now it's getting harder. I don't know if it's because we've exhausted all the weird things or if we're just starting to get used to things the way they are here and don't think of them as different any more or what.

Oh, and I need to print a retraction of the contest we had a couple of weeks ago. We had been told that the boxes on the metro platforms were bike racks, but when we put that up last week, we were roundly denounced by our friends here! It seems that those boxes are used for storing the cleaning equipment for the metro staff. We'll have to deduct all the points awarded, it seems. Hopefully I'll come up with something for next week. Rich, Carroll, Karen, and Lydia were all very close to the right answer last week, but no one had it exactly right. The trailer is not so much an office for the construction workers, but where they live. (Of course, now I worry that I'm wrong on that, because now that I think about it it was another expat who told me that, but it makes sense.) Because housing is so expensive here, and a lot of the laborers are from out-of-town poorer areas, they are put up in these small trailers, which serve as a kind of dorm where several (rumor has it quite a few) will cram into the tiny trailer and live while construction is going on. It makes sense to me since I can't see where they would afford to live otherwise. A half-point for each of you.

We should have an interesting post next time - tomorrow we're going out of town for a 2-day trip to see what life is like outside Moscow and get some culture info on that. Saturday we might have more guests, and Andrey and I might go to a football game. Hopefully we'll get some good information and have an interesting post for you soon!