Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tallinn and a Mexican-style Birthday

The beautiful city of Tallinn

Ok, so the Wandering Family has officially returned from a bout of wandering, and we are happy to report that all went well. As previously reported, we were required for immigration purposes to take a trip across the border last week. Since Estonia is the cheapest train ticket in and out from Moscow, that's where we decided to go. Specifically, to the capital city, Tallinn.

We actually had a pretty good time, all things considered. It's a 15 hour train ride each way, but fortunately both of those were done at night so we could sleep during the travelling. We shared our coupe on the way there with a couple of Russians (which gave us some interesting language and culture practice), but on the way back we were lucky to have a coupe to ourselves. We actually left here about suppertime and arrived in the morning. Our return was on a similar schedule, so that left us with a day to wander around the old city and basically just kill time until our train left. And Tallinn, a city built way back in the 13th century and not ever really destroyed in a war since then, is a great city for just touristy-type wandering. See for yourself:

There's a mixture of Orthodox and Protestant influences in the town. This, obviously, is one of the Orthodox churches from the more recent Soviet period, but really a beautiful building.

It was admittedly a little chilly (below zero the whole day), so we bundled up as we walked, but it was worth it for nice views from the old fortified hill like this one. One of the church towers in the background was actually the tallest building in the world when it was built 700-odd years ago.

Of course, we had to give Estonian food a try. Actually, this was the cheapest restaurant in walking distance - you could buy pelmeni by the kilo. We both shared a hearty lunch for about $8 or so.

One food we didn't get (as it was way out of our price range) were these delicious-looking candied nuts being sold by street vendors dressed like medieval monks. I have a thing against taking free samples when I know there's no chance I'll buy things, but B doesn't have the same hangup and reports that her sample was quite tasty.

So, after an adventure to find a grocery store to see if you could buy some Western products we headed home, through the lovely wintry Russian countryside. It's a long story about the store, but the short version is that you shouldn't trust an Estonian when they say that something is "just a 10-minute walk" down the road unless you have an hour or two to kill and a real desire to do some aerobic walking for several miles. We did find some tortilla shells, though!

So, now we're back in the friendly confines of home. While most of you were enjoying your turkey, we had a bunch of friends over for nachos and birthday cupcakes. Yes, Steven turned 1 today. Oh, and yes, we are planning a "real Thanksgiving" complete with turkey and all, but that's going to be on Saturday with a bunch of our Russian friends who don't know much about the holiday. We'll have to report next time on their introduction.

Since it was his birthday, Steven got the honor of his very own cupcake. It started out well, as he wasn't sure if it was food or a toy.

Soon he realized that it could be both and proceeded to smear it all over himself as much as possible. I do think that some managed to get down his gullet, and he seemed to be pleased.

OK, so again, I don't have time to do the What Is It thing, but I should report on the results of the last one. The mysterious structure near the riverbank is in fact a launching point for downhill skiers. Skiing is hugely popular in Russia, both downhill and cross-country, and we often see cross-country skiers go by our window in our little park. Since the folks in that particular town don't have any nearby hills, they decided to build a ramp that, added to the slope leading down to the riverbank, makes for a decent mini-hill to ski down. Of course, when it's cold enough, the river is frozen solid and they can just ski right out onto it. Karen (or, to be more specific, Vince) gets the point as a ski jump is actually quite a close guess.

Speaking of skiing (OK, so this is sledding, but it's kinda similar), here's a nice video B took of a recent sledding trip of Steven's. I like how he's so bundled up (thanks to Andrey and Iulia for the snowsuit!) he can barely even wiggle. Makes him look a bit like a yellow-shouldered version of the blueberry girl in Willy Wonka.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Off to Estonia!

Yep, folks, you read that right. The Wandering Family is officially off to do some, well, wandering. Only this time it's required wandering - it says so right in our passports. Oh, and the picture above is just so you can quit pretending you knew right where Estonia is.

Actually, it's like this - our visas last for a whole year, but Russia also requires everyone here to be registered somewhere. We can get year-long visas, but only six-month-long registration, meaning that we have to leave the country and come back in every six months. Since our six months is up on Monday, we're headed out tomorrow to Tallinn, Estonia, home of the "Cheapest Ticket Out Of The Country From Moscow." We will hopefully be back on Sunday, bearing shiny new immigration forms to take to our registration place. Then, if all goes well, we'll be legal again until May (what will happen then is a bit unclear presently, since things are a little different than when we came).

At any rate, the next blog should hopefully have some nice pictures of beautiful Tallinn, although maybe not as nice as this one:since it's unlikely that it will suddenly morph into late spring while we're there. And let's not even get started on the subject of weather. It's been below zero for a while now, and now we have a good 8 inches of snow on the ground.

In fact, last week some buddies from our family group told me about their weekly football (or, if you prefer, soccer) game with some lads from the neighborhood (note: I'll give you the word "football," English readers, but I'm not going so far as to spell this one "neighbourhood"), and invited me to attend. I showed up early on Saturday morning not sure what to expect, since we were playing outdoors and the forecast was for snow. And snow it did, all morning, but this did not affect the hearty appetites for more football, and more football, and even more football. We played for three solid hours (the last of which I played primarily in goal, since I was too tired to run any more). It was a great game, however, and I'd like to think that I didn't embarrass myself.

It is a bit tricky, in case you're wondering, to play on a concrete surface in the snow, especially when some of the opposition seem to have worked up a good beer buzz before the proceedings started. Maybe made a bit more tricky when everyone there knows you were born in the same country as Ronaldinho, and you happen to score an amazing (and possibly slightly lucky) goal about 10 minutes into the game. Sorta ups the pressure, if you will. Not sure I managed to live up to the expectations after that, but oh, well, what can you do. Admittedly, I'm not about to knock Ronaldinho off the national team any time soon (though I'm not sure I could be much worse as a defender than Roberto Carlos - and now 90% of my audience is saying "What? Who are these people?"). Since I'm on the subject of football, thus giving me an excuse to post this, I assume all of you were duly impressed with Liverpool's 8-0 victory in the Champions' League. If you happened to miss it, the highlights can be found here.

I don't have the time or energy to hunt down a What Is It for the week, so you'll have to make do with a simple video. Steven seems to enjoy the spin cycle with a passion that borders on the maniacal. Hope you enjoy, and we'll try to post a more significant offering next week, hopefully with pics of our trip included.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

С легким паром!

So, what is "С легким паром!"? "May you have good steam!" I think that's a fair translation, anyway, if you follow the dynamic-equivalence theory. Anyone who speaks better Russian is welcome to chime in if they have a better theory, but for the rest of you, you'll just have to trust me on that one. Maybe literally something like "With you be good/light steam!" But that doesn't really work so well in English.

That's what it means, anyway, but what it means is that I (and this is J writing, in case the discussion on translation techniques didn't tip you off) got to go to a banya this weekend! And what is a banya, you ask? Boy, you're going to regret that question, since I have a whole culture notebook (soon to be a culture file on my computer, for those who will be checking up on that someday soon!) full of notes on my impressions and thoughts on the banya.

In summary, a banya is a Russian steam bath, and though its cultural relevance is fading, it used to be a critical part of Russian hygiene. Today, it seems to mostly serve as a relaxing getaway to relieve stress and hang out with buddies, but it still has a hold over most people and is seen as an important thing to do when you get the chance. So, when I heard that a group of men from our family group here were going to the banya last Saturday, I hurriedly asked if I could tag along and participate in this cultural phenomenon. It turned out I wasn't the only foreigner along for the ride, so the group was happy to have another person along to share the cost.

We first drove together about 20 km outside of Moscow, since all the banyas in the city are now more like health spas and cost a billion dollars an hour. Outside of town, though, they are still used by some people as a regular way to clean up, and are way cheaper as a result. Our group rented a whole wing of the banya for a couple of hours, which gave us our own indoor dining room/picnic room, a steam room, a small pool, and some showers.

The procedure is as follows: first, everyone strips down, rinses off in the showers, and heads into the steam room. This room is hot. Let me just say that again, in case you weren't paying attention. It is hot. Really hot. So hot that you're actually tempted not to breathe, lest your lungs be burned. The Russian guys all think this is OK, though, because they're "protected" by wearing little felt hats. I know, you're thinking, "Felt hats help to keep you from getting too hot?" but your head hurts too much to think logically. At least that's what my theory was.

Obviously, due to the scarcity of clothing, I didn't take along a camera, but these are some shots I found on the web. This one is of the interior of the steam room.

Anyway, I was determined not to be the first one to cave and insist that we leave the inferno first, so while the other guys swapped stories and jokes, I sat there trying not to breath too deeply. Actually, after a little while, it felt OK, and it definitely accomplishes the desired result: making you sweat. After about 10-15 minutes, one of the Russian guys had enough and suggested that we all go plunge into the pool. Now, I am told that in Siberia guys just run outside and rub snow on themselves, but it can't be any worse than jumping into the pool directly out of the hot room. They actually chill the water, so it's just above freezing. It feels amazing - totally wakes you up! I wanted to scream with pain and pleasure at the same time, which was weird. However, you get right out of the water, and then it's time to go back into the steam room. The whole procedure is repeated: 10 minutes in the steam (this time with someone throwing little cups of water over the rocks with scents in them, which both makes everything smell nice and makes it even hotter at the same time), then a plunge into the pool.

This is a picture of the water bucket with the little scoop for throwing water on top of the stones to make the steam

After a couple rounds of this, we took a break to get some food. It's amazing how exhausted and hungry you can be after shocking your system so dramatically. I was ravenous, and we fell to on the sandwiches, chips, kvas (about which more another day), and fruit that the group had brought along. Had a good chat, then repeated the whole routine a couple of more times. After two hours of this, I felt unbelievably clean and relaxed. Indeed, by the time I got home it was all I could do to stagger to the couch and lay there like a giant blob of uselessness (I think I earned the award for "all-time-worst-husband-of-a-pregnant-wife" as B even brought me supper).

Anyway, it was a great time, and I hope that next time some of my friends are heading out to soak in some steam, I'll get invited again. Other than that, though, we haven't been up to too much. Just our language study as usual, and B has been feeling better, so she's hoping to get back to class starting sometime this week.

Of course, since she didn't get to go to the banya, her main news this week was the arrival of a couple of packages from the US. It seems that some of our friends back home thought that we needed to have a balanced diet of Pringles and Froot Loops, so thanks to them! And not only did we get those packages, we also got another one from Joy with some baby presents, so thanks so much to everyone!! Really made our day!

Can you tell B is excited?

Even Steven got into the act with some of his Gerber's snacks. He really likes them, Marth.
This is just to prove to you that we have finally gotten Steven back outside. It's been a while, since B hasn't felt up to it and I only go outside when I'm going somewhere, but it was nice to go for a walk on Sunday. As you can see, most of the snow has melted, but it's been snowing again off and on this week, so soon we'll probably get enough to stick through the winter. On a positive note, we apparently finally have bundled Steven up enough, since we walked right past a few babushkas, and none of them fussed at us for leaving him exposed (and one even smiled at him!!)

OK, so on to the What Is It™ for the week. Last week we had a couple of winners: Rich was the first to post the correct movie and character, so he gets both points for the video question. The winner of the second question about the aged metal rack is Crystal, who for the second week in a row wins the point with the correct guess of child's climbing gym. One would think that trying to invent an even more dangerous style of jungle gym would not really be the way to go, but I have seen kids as young as 2 climbing on these things here, so they seem to actually be fairly popular.

On to this week's question, which again was taken on our jaunt to Kolomna. This one is a real mystery, so I'll be lenient in what we'll take as a correct answer. In fact, Andrey, who lived here all his life, didn't know what this was for a little bit. Basically, it's a large green structure built on the bluff overlooking the river, with a platform and a sloped side to it that leads to the ground. I've posted two pictures, one fairly close and another from a distance from the far side.

As always, first post with the correct answer in the comments gets the point. Happy guessing!