Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bacon, Brahms, and a Baby Boy

OK, so we finally hit the required 6 comment mark on our last blog, so I feel free to post again. :) Actually, I had set myself a goal to have this done Definitely For Sure by Tuesday at the latest, but I guess I just got busy and didn't get it done.

Anyway, this is more like "blog-lite" this week due to the fact that we haven't had a lot going on here. Plugging away at our Russian studies (I got to dative case yesterday, so finally I can talk about giving people things and use other verbs that require an indirect object!), hanging out with friends, that about sums up the past week or so.

One important (and I stress the word "important" here) thing to happen to us is that I got a little hankering for some American food. We broke down and bought all the necessary ingredients to make bacon cheeseburgers and fries, as seen in the above picture. Yum! The bacon here is not the greatest (the greatest bacon in the world is in England), but overall you couldn't argue with the taste. Ultra yummy.

In other news, we didn't make it to family group on Sunday. Life without a car is overall a wonderful thing (although totally impossible in most of the US), but every once in a while it fools you. Sunday morning, as is our wont, we got all gussied up, rolled Steven up into a blanket burrito, and set off. However, we had gotten another 6 inches of snow Saturday night (and we've since added another four inches or so), and we didn't get very far with the stroller. By the time we had gone 100 meters, we realized we were running so late we would miss most of the meeting. We gave up and returned home. Seriously, pushing a stroller in the snow is like trying to use one on the beach. Short of physically picking it up and carrying it, there is just no way you're going anywhere.

It seems like such a simple thing to look out the window, realize that there's fresh snow on the ground, and pack Steven into a sled instead of the stroller, but we just didn't think of it. At least not until it was too late. Oh, well - I guess we'll know better next time.

Sunday night, though, I (J) got to have a nice experience. Some family friends were going to a concert at the Moscow Conservatory, where one of them had some sort of hookup to get us tickets for just $2! It was a fantastic experience, in one of the most famous classical music settings in Europe. The soloist was a famous violinist named Maksim something (maybe our violinist friend Abbie could identify him?), and they played several pieces from a composer whose name I didn't catch (we didn't have a program and the announcer lady spoke really quickly) and then a selection of Brahms. One of his more schizophrenic concertos (I think it was a concerto?) that changed moods rapidly and frequently, but I think we all agreed it was enjoyable and better than the first bit. Overall it was fun and a semi-rare bit of exposure to some "high culture" for your faithful narrator.

I took a picture of some of the friends that came along for the concert: from left, our Californian friend Julie, our Asian friend Delia, and my language helper's mother Tatiana Aleksandrovna. They're standing in front of the statue of Tchaikovsky, for whom the Conservatory is named.

We're bringing back the What Is It™ feature for this blog only, except that it's more of a What Are They Doing™? Your mission is to interpret the below picture, which I took in the concert hall. Believe it or not, these people all have a common purpose and are working together. Put your guess in the comments, and as usual the correct answer earns a point in our ongoing contest.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Wrapping up Christmas

In Russia, the holiday situation (at least for religious holidays) is a bit complicated, due to the difference between the Orthodox calendar and the Western calendar. Basically, the Orthodox calendar runs 13 days later than the Western one (that's a bit simplified, but you get the idea), at least for the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

What this means to the average Russian is that they get two holidays for the price of one.
You'd like to celebrate Christmas, but Dec. 25th has come and gone? No problem! Just wait until Jan. 6th, when you can celebrate again. Same goes with New Years, with a "new" New Year's day, and an "old" New Year's day as well.

Steven looking cute for the partygoers

So, when our small group called and said that they were struggling to find a place to celebrate Christmas on Jan 9th, it wasn't a surprise that they were scheduling it then. Of course, since we have a big apartment in a reasonably central location for most of them, we volunteered that they come here. At first, we were told it would be 12 people or so. Then, the day before, someone hinted that it could be 15 or more. No problem, I thought. We have 17 chairs, if you count office chairs, folding chairs, and cases that make suitable seats, so I thought we were set. When the party actually arrived, though, we had 29 people! I don't know if our apartment was really designed for so many, but we had a great time.

It was the perfect way to host - B just whipped up a couple of desserts (an
aside, if I may - Russians LOVE cheesecake!), and the guests insisted on bringing all the food and planning the program. And quite a program it was! There was a time for general chatting over tea, then we had a time where we just brought up and thought about different needs. Then, we broke up for the meal, which was, in the Russian custom, sliced breads, meats, and cheeses, with all kinds of little salads (and by "salads," I mean salads in the sense that Southerners do: mayonnaise-infused combinations of starches, not leafy green mixtures). Very tasty, and thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Then, we had some games, including one where everyone drew a paper out of a hat (see below) and then had to describe the item on it for everyone to guess what it was. The party planner ensured me that she would preselect me something easy so I wouldn't struggle with the vocabulary. As I listened to the others describe Christmassy topics like "shepherds" and "Bethlehem," I thought it wouldn't be a problem. Imagine my surprise when she handed me my "easy" topic: Advent. Yikes.

I struggled to get that concept across in Russian to a bunch of people who had never heard of it (the Orthodox liturgy doesn't have the specific concept of Advent as such). Not that it would have really mattered if they had been familiar with it. I'm a long way from knowing words like "liturgical calendar" in Russian, so I still might have struggled to explain. :)

Anyway, after the game, we were regaled with people quoting poetry. This is a really interesting aspect of Russian culture. Almost everyone, from childhood, memorizes poems, and a standard activity in gatherings is reciting them rote for the enjoyment of the other guests. One of our friends recited a poem, word-for-word, that must have taken him close to 10 minutes. Amazing!

Then, we listened to several songs sung by various performers (see below video). Finally, we closed with an extended session remembering the year to come to Him. It was really a great time for us to grow in our friendships with a bunch of people (and meet a few new ones) and our experience of their culture.

Get this many people together at this time of year and you end up with quite a pile of coats!

Other than that, what have we been up to? Well, "school" has started again, since our teacher has returned from her vacation. So, we've been back at our Russian studies. We've also had several chances to get out of the apartment and go visiting or just on some excursions: Last weekend we decided to go with our friend Julie out to the souvenir market on the other side of town. It was cold. Not Siberia cold (some of our friends out there report obscenely cold temperatures!), but really cold for us. I think that the low that day was -26° C, but it might have climbed up almost to -20° in the afternoon.

At any rate, that's pretty cold to be outside for 3 hours or so, walking around looking at things, and by the time we got back in the metro I was glad for the warmth of the crowded metro train. Poor little Steven, bundled up in 3 layers under a thick snowsuit and 2 blankets, got cold about 2 hours in and started to fuss. It was hard to blame him - the flannel-lined jeans I had on weren't cutting it at that temperature either.

The entrance to the souvenir market, which was deserted even by the Russians due to the cold

We did have a good walk around and saw a lot of interesting artifacts and Russian trinkets. Got a lot of ideas for what some of you will be getting whenever we see you next! We've also been able to get over to Andrey's and Iulia's (below pic is of Iulia in her kitchen) place a few times of late, which has been fun. I must admit, though, it's been a bit tough on B to get on board with the Russian habit of going for extended walks outside when it's so cold.

Last time we visited them, we went for an hour plus walk in the woods, again, at -20°. We enjoyed it, since we don't get to see a lot of woods in the city. However, when they announced at 8 pm that they'd like to go for a second walk in the dark, I think B started to question their sanity. Fortunately, we pleaded the "Steven's cold" defense (neglecting to mention his poor pregnant mother!) half an hour in to the second walk and went home a bit early.

I guess it's just something that we need to work on getting accultured to! Anyway, this has gotten really long already, so I hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for stopping by. We leave you with this photo of someone who's even more of a glutton for cold - an ice-fisherman we spotted on one of our walks.

Friday, January 4, 2008

C Новым Годом!

Happy New Year's! I have yet to understand why grammatically, in Russian, the way to wish someone well on a holiday is to say literally "with" the holiday, but it's what's done.

Anyway, in all seriousness, we do wish all of you a very Happy New Year. I can't take credit for the above picture, sadly, since we weren't at Red Square for the festivities, so I shamelessly nicked it off the BBC's website. The best way to prevent anyone like the BBC from suing you, I find, is to not have any assets for them to take away, a concept I stole from Randy Alcorn. Somehow I think we're safe.

New Year's, as I think I've mentioned on here too often already, is a VERY big deal in Russia. And if there's one thing that Russians really do well, it's party. When the holiday and the Russian people collide, the result is intense merry-making. Interestingly, one of the things they've incorporated into their holiday is fireworks (I assumed they had always done this, but I am assured that it is a relatively recent addition to the festivities by several Russians, or at least has grown in popularity recently). They take their fireworks very seriously. None of these sissy "Cherry Bombs" or the wimpy equivalents that they sell only in certain states in the US. Here, you don't need a license to acquire any size firework, even the massive, starburst ones that Americans reserve for professionally engineered displays with firefighters standing by. If you can afford it (and apparently everyone can), then you buy it, and shoot it off late New Year's Eve when you've gotten as drunk as possible.

You'd think that would be a recipe for a health risk nightmare, but the most dangerous display of the night came from the only sober people on the block (more on this below). The rest of our neighbors put on quite a show for us, starting about 10 at night and continuing until 5 in the morning. It was really impressive - just one after the other of spectacular fireworks for hours and hours. We had friends over, so we just turned out the lights and watched as our little park turned into Ground Zero for the night.

Of course, our friends, not being the type to sit idly by and let others have all the fun, had to go out and fire off some of their own. We accompanied them and had a good time watching the kids wave their sparklers (see below photo).

Our friend Ivor, though, had purchased a couple of the better ones so that we could at least have a small taste of the satisfaction of lighting up the sky, and so we watched as a few rockets showed their red glare and some bombs burst in air. Then, on box of rocket fireworks #3 or so, it got interesting:

I decided to film the event so we'd have something to put on here, but when one of the rockets misfired and tipped the box over, we ended up getting more than we had bargained for. It's a little hard to see in the dark, what with me shaking with laughter and, well, the darkness, but when the box of rockets tipped over, it somehow aimed itself directly for the parking lot in front of our building. One of the rockets manages to explode on the edge of a snowbank, and another snuck its way under one of the cars after bouncing off said snowbank. Fortunately, all the damage that was done was setting off the car alarm. Quite funny, so I hope you enjoy it and can tell what's going on.

Other than trying to destroy our neighbors' cars, we haven't been up to much. Had a bit of a cultural excursion today to a souvenir shop park and a bookstore, and I can report that it was fun but cold. Maybe I'll put some pictures of that up next time. Also, I'll be sure to take a photo or two tomorrow when we go back to our friends' Andrey and Iulia's place. We're going to spend the whole day there, so it should be a good time for learning more language and culture stuff.

Oh, and I almost forgot - our fantasy football season ended last weekend. It's odd that I know way more about the NFL this season than I did when I lived in the US, thanks to some friends back in America setting up a team for us. It was fun, and we came in second (and would have won had it not been for our friend Dave's donation of 30 points from one of his players to our finals opponent!). Thanks for letting us play, gang. It was a good time, and congratulations to Katie who pulled out the victory.

Edit: I also forgot to post this the last two blog posts, but fortunately Crystal's comment reminded me - we're having a girl! The MD seemed pretty confident, so we're planning that way. Of course, there's always a chance they're wrong, but for those of you who've been wondering, that's the theory.