Monday, November 28, 2005

Turkey Day, Azerbaijani Day, "Disney" and a book review...

Thanksgiving (or, to be more accurate, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when Turkey Day was celebrated in the AH), was a long but fun day. I arrived around ten to find M and K both already up to their elbows in turkey (as K says). They were indeed stuffing four turkeys (imported from Moscow), as Gosha looked on eagerly. (I gave the poor kitty a turkey-heart in order to placate him, although I think all it did was whet his appetite. He was rather beside himself all day, what with the smell of turkey in the air.) I must admit that I did very little as far as the actual cooking. I made corn, which came out of a can... but hey, each to his own skill level. But I did help with the cleaning and the setting up and the running to the store and the looking up of ounces to grams and baking soda to baking powder conversions on the internet. Despite the rather terrifyingly uncooperative oven (which burnt what should have been our gravy out from around the turkeys, necessitating the need to remove the batteries from the fire alarms), the turkeys and all the trimmings turned out to be delicious, delicious, delicious. It didn't taste quite like home-cooked, American Thanksgiving fare, simply because a lot of the ingredients were Russian, but it was close enough. The dinner was a fantabulous success, which fed close to thirty people until they were stuffed. Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce (made by Y from fresh cranberries), corn, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, [insert a brief pre-dessert musical performance by Male B and J], apple crisp, brownies and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies... We were, as one is supposed to be on Thanksgiving, stuffed to the point of immobility. Then we got to clean up the remains of the dinner-for-thirty. Sigh. Following that, the Americans, as well as Galya and Alexei descended to the AH basement for a few rounds of Russian karaoke, before we all stumbled home for a nice tryptophan-induced sleep.

Sunday, I slept until almost noon. I take great joy from sleep. Anyway, after a quick stop at the AH (ostensibly to plan lessons, but in reality to check my email), B, Y, J, M and I met up with L, who took us to her home out to Dobroye (the "suburbs" of Vladimir, where the ice-skating rink is located) for an Azerbaijani feast, prepared by her mother (L's mother is from Azerbaijan). We had deliciously spicy plov (a rice dish) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves) in a rich and yummy sauce. Spicy food!! L's Mom was the hero of the day.

Following our second feast in as many days, we watched the most beautiful and wonderful movie in the world: the French film, Amelie. If you have not seen this film, you need to do so. It was so incredibly perfect and made me feel all warm and fuzzy. (I would have called it incredibly perfect if it hadn't had a Ghost Train... but the addition of a GT into the tale simply made the film perfect in the surreal way that Ghost World was perfect, although this movie was far happier. Not that being happier didn't mean it didn't cause a twinge or more of sadness, but...)

Changing topics entirely: Posters such as the one below are plastered all over the city. For those of you who don't read any Russian, this poster advertises an upcoming musical-theater show called "Shrek and the Heroes of Disney" (featuring, among other things, "giant puppets" and a "grandiose laser show"). How many things can you find wrong with this? I'm guessing you're smart enough to figure it out on your own.
And lastly, yes, another book review. A few days ago, I finished reading The Russian Debutante's Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart. It took me a while to decide whether or not I would write about it, and obviously I came to the decision that yes, I would. This book was recommended to me by my coworker, M. The first thing that I noticed was that the first eight pages of the book consisted of lengthy and glowing reviews. I admit that this kind of turned me off. Does a genuinely good book really need to have eight pages touting its goodness? Or can the reader simply find out for himself? Anyhow, TRDH is the tale of one Vladimir Girshkin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States as a child, and who returns to Eastern Europe halfway through the book. As M moved to the US as a child (from Ukraine) and is currently embarking on his first trip back to Eastern Europe, I can certainly see how he might understand Vladimir Girshkin on a level which I simply cannot. The book was interesting, and it did hold my attention, although my level of incredulity rose at the turn of every page. A lot of the tale takes place in a fictional Eastern European country; I'm fine with that (someone who loves fantasies and who recently waxed ecstatic over Wicked is obviously not going to scoff at a fictional country). The places were wholly believable. The characters (to me) were not. As the plot followed its arc, the main character somehow changed from a shy, bumbling, socially-awkward, self-conscious fellow into a high-powered gangster. To me it didn't make sense. I cannot at all understand how the Vladimir of the first half of the tale became the Vladimir of the second half of the tale. And to be honest, neither Vlad appealed to me as a person; he was rather an ass, and not someone I could find an affinity with. I also kind of think this book is to blame for the fact that so many people, upon hearing that I was moving to Russia, asked in all seriousness, "But aren't you worried about the mafia?" Has anyone else read this book? Obviously, many people (M included) have read and loved it, as it's a "national bestseller" and a "New York Times Notable Book," in addition to those eight pages of glowing reviews... If you've read it, let me know; I'm looking forward to your opinions.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Some Southern Learnin'

I felt a bit of the joy creep back into my teaching today... For the past several weeks, I've managed to keep a good attitude in class, but I haven't been feeling all that great about my lectures, kind of like I've simply been going through the motions. Not just of teaching, of everything, but teaching's what I do the most of... anyhow, I think a bit of the joy that I found in this job prior to the end of October when my world turned itself on its head seems to be filtering back. Maybe it's just that I taught some really cool classes today. Or at least I think so.

In both my ZII (second level) class and my AI (third level) classes, the lectures revolved around my newly adopted hometown of ****. Here are the two passages I had them read. Keep in mind, they are geared toward the levels and the specific grammar (and I have edited out the specific locations to help maintain the anonymity of this blog).


**** is in south-eastern Georgia. It is a very small town. It is best to visit **** in the spring. In the spring, flowers bloom and the weather is not too hot. When tourists come to ****, they should visit the ***A, the ***B (a museum), and the historic district. Tourists should visit barbecue restaurants and eat American barbecue. If tourists want to go shopping, there is a very large shopping center in the new region of the city. One very popular and cheap store is called Wal-Mart. People can buy many cheap souvenirs in Wal-Mart. Visitors to **** can also take a boat down the ***C River or go fishing.


The city of **** was founded in 1870. **** is located at the place where all of the railways in the south-eastern United States cross. From 1870 to 1950, most Americans traveled on trains. They often visited ****, and the city was very popular with tourists. **** had many theaters, stores and hotels, and many wealthy people lived there. In the 1950s, people began to travel in cars. Big roads called interstates were built in the southeastern United States. No interstates went to ****, and few tourists went to ****. Most of the hotels, theaters and stores closed. Many people moved to other cities. Now, very few wealthy people live in ****. Few tourists come to **** now, although the nearby ***A is visited by many tourists every year.

I showed them pictures and road/rail maps, and they all seemed genuinely interested, which was rewarding. 

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, Amerikantsi! Although we (the Americans at the American Home) are actually celebrating Turkey Day this Saturday with four turkeys imported (no doubt at great expense) from Moscow, and all the trimmings to go along therewith. We're making a T-Day feast for a whopping thirty people. It should be interesting. Or disastrous. We shall see.

This morning, when I emerged from my room, Nina M. said to me (in Russian, of course), "Happy Thanksgiving!" I had told her that we were celebrating Thanksgiving on Saturday, so I asked how she knew that the holiday was, in actuality, today. Apparently they had a report on the American National Holiday of Thanksgiving this morning on Radio Rossiya, complete with historical info on Pilgrims and Indians. That's one of the things I love about Russia. I mean, when was the last time you heard a long segment on any American radio station (other than NPR) about a national holiday of some other country?

Monday, November 21, 2005


So, for the past couple of days, instead of having internet access at the AH, we've had it's cleverly-named cousin, interNYET... as in no access to the web at all. For a self-proclaimed computer geek and internet addict such as myself, such interNYET days are always tough. But, hey, it gives me the opportunity to seek out fodder for a nice, long post...

Friday I received my *second* package in less than a week containing disposable hand-warmers (when you expose them to air, they heat up and stay warm for 8hrs or so, kind of like a ThermaCare Heat Wrap). You'd think it was cold here or something. Thank you, thank you L! And thanks for the little kitty-card because it made me happy, too.

Anyhow, as I said, this is the second time in less than a week that I have received hand-warmers. While the hand-warmers sent by M (in that package containing SPAM) made their journey from the US to Vladimir unmolested, L's hand-warmers were not quite as lucky. Packages sent to Russia run the risk of being searched by Russian customs (or Postal officials or someone...); although before today I'd never received a packaged that had been searched. How do I know? When they search your mail, they tape it back up with this special "hah-hah we peeked in your mail" tape (kind of like how the TSA leaves those lovely "we rummaged through your undies" notes in your suitcase). Not only had the package been opened, but they were obviously flummoxed by what constitutes a hand-warmer, and felt the need first to open one of the sealed, air-tight packages to test one out. Then they decided to descend slightly further in their madness and actually cut open said heat-warmer in order to see what it was actually made of. (And both the packet and the hand-warmer had been neatly sliced open; this obviously wasn't some sort of accidental tear.) This of course means that the package arrived in my hands bearing fancy-schmancy red and white Russian customs tape, and then it opened itself to dump a spent hand-warmer and "iron, cellulose, vermiculite, activated carbon and salt" all over me. But the rest arrived unharmed.

I haven't used any of the hand-warmers yet; I expect it is going to get substantially colder than it is now in the near future, in which case I should save them up for a chilly day... We can compare and contrast "Grabbers Mycoal Hand Warmers" with "Coleman's Disposable Hand Warmers." Man, I am such a geek. But a warm-fingered geek at the least.

Saturday afternoon, Y gave her presentation. (Each AH teacher is required to give an hour-long presentation on something pertaining to America. I gave mine back in September on that cross-country road trip that now I can't really bring myself to think about without getting all teary-eyed and mopey. But I digress...) Y gave her talk on growing up Korean in America, and I found it absolutely fascinating. I would so love to travel around Korea with Y. I can picture it now: bumping into shit with our rental Daewoo while questing for K-socks and scouring Texas Street in Pusan for random dudes with whom to practice our Russian. Y is awesome.

After Y's presentation, two of the Russian students (one is named Nikita, and I have unfortunately forgotten the other chap's name... I'm unforgivably bad with names, really.) invited us to go ice-skating. There's a skating rink out in Dobroye (this region on the very outskirts of Vladimir, where I'd never been before), where skate-rental is available. While I would very much have liked to go ice-skating (I've only done it twice in my life, and neither time for very long, although I seem to remember enjoying myself), my knees are still suffering from whatever inebriated trauma I inflicted on them back in St. Petersburg, and I figured I should probably stay off the ice until I can again walk properly. But, as L doesn't ice skate, and as they don't rent skates in Misha's gargantuan shoe-size, I wasn't the only non-skating member of our group.

So L, M, and I leaned ourselves up against the side of the rink and watched our friends skating, while chatting and slowly turning to ice. Yes, I could have done with some of those hand-warmers... but not having expected to spend a lot of time outside, I hadn't come prepared. Hell, I hadn't even worn my winter jacket (I wear my frivolous lime green purchase whenever I possibly can, even if it is technically a little too cold out there for it). The three of us non-skaters grew so cold we couldn't feel our feet, and eventually took refuge in a nearby produkti (convenience store), before finally giving in and going home. I also saw two of my students at the skating rink. From the looks on their faces when they saw me, you'd swear they thought I wasn't allowed outside of the AH. ("Oh my god! She's doing something Russian!") Come on people, it's not a zoo. The Americans are actually allowed to roam free. We were also, apparently, unbelievably fascinating to a group of brazen schoolkids who very much wanted to practice their English with us. Of course, their English was essentially limited to "What is your name?" and "What time is it?" so having an avid fan base soon got kind of repetitive. Nonetheless, it was amusing, and kind of reminded me of Korea. (Some of you will know what I mean.)

Anyhow, I was unbelievably chilled by the time I got home. And that evening it started snowing. Surprise! Our last few inches of snowfall stuck around for about a week, before melting away into slush. Last night's snowfall stuck throughout the evening, but began melting away during the day, making for more slush. Yum. I met up with B and L outside of Theater Square at noon for an afternoon of shopping. It snowed on us a bit, leading to a spontaneous snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes spewing forth from B and myself, although none of the afternoon snow stuck to anything other than my nose and eyelashes. Ostensibly, my goal had been to find a long winter coat (the winter coat from Nina M is warm, but it barely covers my ass, and my legs are getting kind of chilly down there), but instead I managed to acquire more frivolous things: some really cool dangly earrings with kitties in the middle, an insane winter skirt (yes, they do make such things) and an equally insane blouse (sadly, not designed for winter) which matches the insane winter skirt. Only Annie in Russia could find this outfit.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cancel the Fourth of July!!!

I have been meaning to write about this for some time now (the past 11 days, actually), but I haven't really felt the muse hit me until today.

If you are an American, imagine that the US Government canceled the Fourth of July. (Those of you from other countries, imagine that the most patriotic holiday of your country was canceled. Those of you from Russia, I welcome your input on this topic.) Imagine that instead of celebrating Independence Day on the 4th of July, instead you were told that you would celebrate National Unity on July 1st. Celebration of National Unity would not resemble past celebrations of the 4th of July in any way. No fanfares, no fireworks, no parades, no mention of the founding fathers. Just a day off work, that's all. Imagine how you would feel. Imagine how the bulk of the American populace would react.

Now let's think about Russia for a minute. For decades, November 7th was commemorated with great pomp and circumstance, in honor of the October Revolution which led to the establishment of the USSR. On one hand, the Soviet Union is no longer in existence, which makes celebrating its birth in glory and reverence every year somewhat awkward for the current, non-communist government... however: There are many Russians (most Russians, probably) who grew up in the USSR, and for whom November 7th was a special day of the year, like the Fourth is for we Americans. Russians continued to commemorate November 7th every year following the collapse of the Soviet Union, even if the celebration was not as grand as it had been in years previous.

But not this year. This year, following a presidential decree, the November 7th holiday was abolished, and replaced by a holiday on November 4th, to be called National Unity Day (or People's Unity Day). November 4th is supposedly (the date is debated by historians) the day in 1612 when the Polish usurpers to the throne of the Russian Tsar were overthrown and sent packing back to Poland. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, "At that time, people of various creeds, ethnicities, and social strata united to save their homeland and to defend Russia's statehood." [text]

On November 3rd, I was in St. Petersburg. M, Y, G and I were in the Peter and Paul Fortress, visiting the various museums therein. The museums normally stayed open until 6:00 (I think), but around 4:00 we were turned away from the Commandant's House on account of it closing early. Misha asked the babushka at the door why it was closing early. Her answer? "Because of the holiday tomorrow." Holiday? That was the first we'd heard of any holiday. So M asked her just that: what holiday? The old woman all but rolled her eyes at him, and mumbled something about unity. At first I thought she had rolled her eyes at the ignorance of foreigners; however, when pressed to explain, she seemed at a loss to say much about the day. It wasn't until the next day when we snagged a copy of the St. Petersburg Times that we learned about National Unity Day. So there we were, in St. Petersburg, the second largest city in all of Russia on National Unity Day, and what evidence did we see of this new holiday? Ummm, well, there was that article in the St. Petersburg Times, and I suppose the Hermitage was busier than usual on account of so many people having the day off work... But other than that? I didn't notice anything special going on.

On November 7th, I was back in Vladimir. In my factory class, my students made a point of telling me that it was the anniversary of the October Revolution. For some reason, I asked them if they wanted to sing me a song. They exchanged quick glances, and then all of them burst out in a rousing, if rather outdated, patriotic Soviet tune. When they had finished, they all laughed. Good times, great oldies. Later, I came home from work to find Nina M's niece (a woman in her forties) visiting. She and Nina M. had wine, candies, cookies and food, and had me dine with them. They told me that even though the government had changed the holiday, and even though there was no longer an official commemoration of November 7th, they were honoring the holiday. After all, this had been one of the most important days of the year for the bulk of their lives, and it seemed disrespectful to act as though it were simply another day. I wonder how many other private commemorations were held that evening.

Some other commentary on National Unity Day:
Russia celebrated a new national holiday Friday, though many people did not even know its name or what it stood for, the Associated Press reports. President Vladimir Putin signed an order last year establishing Day of People’s Unity, designed to commemorate Moscow’s liberation from Polish invaders in 1612 and to replace the longtime Soviet holiday marking the Bolshevik Revolution. State-run television led newscasts with explanations of the holiday and showed footage of people performing traditional music and dances, followed by broadcasts of classic Soviet-era films. In a recent poll conducted by the respected Levada Center, however, 51 percent of respondents did not know what holiday would be celebrated and only 8 percent referred to it by the correct name.[text]

As I see it, there are two reasons why official attempts to find a national idea in the country's history are doomed to failure. First is the highly contradictory and complex nature of our history - all the great movements forward rested primarily on the absence of personal rights and freedoms. Secondly, today's Russia is a state that arose not out of an idea, but out of a conflict between two political rivals: Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Instead of being vanquished by the ideals of democracy, communism committed suicide. Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, laid the foundations of the market economy while the Soviet Union still existed. More than a decade after the failed coup of 1991, most of the population sees it as more of a farce than as a great battle between good and evil. [text]

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Out of the Hole - or - Why Money Sucks - or - Why M is Awesome

Okay, I admit that perhaps I have been a little self-involved lately, and other than documenting my awesome trip to St. Petersburg, I haven't been too on-task with the blogging about Russian life and the AH and all that. I apologize. It's been a rather crummy few weeks, but I'm going to try and pull myself at least halfway out of the pit of self-absorption.

My more advanced A1 (third level) class is made up of students who are all in their 20s and 30s, and all of them are very motivated to learn English for various personal reasons. I really enjoy that class because not only are they motivated to learn, but they are also willing to participate and practice their English. (My "slow" A1 class is made up mostly of teens who only in class because their parents have sent them, and most seem to have little to no interest in learning English. My Z2 (second level) class is about 50/50 when it comes to who is motivated and who isn't, and they're all painfully shy. Getting them to speak in English is definitely a challenge.) But back to my advanced A1 class. One of my students is in her 20s, going to college and working, in addition to studying at the AH. She has been one of my best students this semester, always working hard and excelling. At the beginning of our last A1 class she announced that it would be her last class at the AH. I asked her why. Her answer: Money. She stayed through the remainder of class, taking notes, asking questions, doing assignments, participating in discussions. This young woman is obviously very interested in learning how to speak/write/read English. But she won't get to finish out the semester. I know that the AH does its best to keep the cost of tuition down so that as many people who can afford to attend can, but the AH is a business, and as such it must bring in enough money to pay the bills and the salaries of its employees. Nonetheless, it sucks that a hard-working, dedicated and motivated student must leave, while my class full of disinterested yet well-off teens continues to attend. I love the AH and the services it provides, I only wish that it were more accessible to the average Russian.

Lastly, I have received the coolest Thanksgiving present ever (actually, this may be the first Thanksgiving present I've ever received, but it is still pretty damn cool). Take a look at what M sent me. In addition to a big ass box full of chocolate, Thanksgiving stickers, and hand-warmers, I got Turkey SPAM, dried cranberries and a pumpkin scented candle (which for some reason M labeled "not edible" - as if I would think to eat it...). Of course, I'm kind of wondering if the SPAM should have been labeled "not edible" as well, and I haven't really decided if I'm brave enough to munch on it... We shall see! Thank you M!! :-)

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Study in Contrasts

Does anyone else remember AB? It's odd that after so many years I still remember his name. AB was the first (of many) detractors who spoke out against me regarding my tale of my first Korean experience. Perhaps I remember him because he was the first. Perhaps I remember him because he was so prolific, repeatedly posting over and over in my guestbook. Perhaps I remember him because he was just so incredibly wrong in what he wrote. He was the first of many, yet his is the only name I remember. Back in the day, when his inflammatory posts appeared in my guestbook, I deleted them. At the time, I found the posts ludicrous and offensive, and I felt that as it was my guestbook, I had the right to delete things that offended me. I now wish that I had left his posts in place, simply so I could quote him now. Instead I'm going to have to paraphrase him.

As From Russia With Blog is a weblog about my experiences as an ESL teacher in Russia, let me give a little bit of background for those who are unaware of my first Korean experience, or what people have said about it over the years. In 2001, my friend M and I graduated from college. We hadn't yet decided what we wanted to do with our futures, and were interested in doing something adventurous. We were offered jobs teaching English as a Second Language at a school called Seodaegu Wonderland, located in Daegu, South Korea. I must admit that we accepted the position without doing much research, and as a result, the experience was quite horrific. Our employer repeatedly violated the terms of our contract, treated us as sub-human, didn't pay us for all of the hours we worked, and often expressed blatantly anti-American views. Additionally, the owners of Wonderland blatantly ripped off both teachers and students in order to make a profit. The place was so bereft of education that calling it a school is simply a disgrace to all legitimate institutions of learning. The experience was terrible... and it was made worse by the fact that many native English speakers move to South Korea every year to teach English and have wonderful and fulfilling experiences. I met many other ESL teachers when I was in Korea, and learned that while my experience was not unique, having a good teaching experience in Korea wasn't rare either.

After returning to the United States, I decided to write a detailed account of my experience at Wonderland, which I entitled Prisoner of Wonderland. I posted my tale online in the hopes that other individuals thinking about going to Korea to teach English would not only avoid Seodaegu Wonderland, but would be able to ask legitimate and informed questions of other schools in order to assist them in landing a good job. However, AB didn’t see it that way. For some reason, he seemed personally offended that I had had a bad experience in South Korea, and he seemed even more offended that I had shared my tale with the world. What sorts of accusations did he level against me? (Again, I'm paraphrasing here):

1. That I was greedy and lazy. I had accepted the position in Korea because I thought I could get a lot of money without having to work for it, and that when my boss tried to get me to work, I got upset.
2. That I was anti-Korea and anti-Korean, and that the purpose of my site was to keep Westerners from going to South Korea
3. That I was unworldly, and had obviously never been outside of the US before. I obviously expected Korea, Koreans and Korean culture to be just like the US, Americans and American culture. The reason why I had so many problems with my job in Korea was not because of the job, but because I could not handle the cultural differences.
4. That Prisoner of Wonderland was a lie, and that none of the things that I wrote about actually happened.
5. That I was a bad teacher. Disagreements with my boss were merely a result of the fact that I could not teach.

I'm sure there were other accusations in there (I seem to remember being told that I was a bad person because I didn't like to eat kimchi... but I guess that's beside the point), but those were the main accusations. Accusations such as those have resurfaced again and again over the past four years, although in contrast, I have also received numerous emails from people whose experiences at other Wonderland franchises were nearly identical to my own.

In the Spring of 2004, my employer at the time sent me on a two-month long business trip to South Korea, and I had an incredible time. Absolutely fantastic. During my return to Korea, I remember thinking about AB, and all those other people who for some reason were convinced that I was some sort of deranged Korea-hater. I would have loved for them to have seen me clambering around the waterfalls at Neayunsan, climbing the mountains at Gatbawi, exploring the temples at Donghwasa, exploring the various Korean marketplaces (and no, I don't mean the ones designed to rip off tourists), navigating my way around the country, working with Koreans, making friends, and even eating a little kimchi here and there. And oh yeah: I was working a minimum of 50 hours a week to top it all off. I must admit, I wanted to track down AB and his compadres and say Hah! So there!

It is now November of 2005, and it has been a little over four years since M and I fled South Korea, leaving Wonderland behind forever. In the past four years, I have done a lot of things, including designing websites for hotels in Costa Rica, working with a wildlife biologist in North Florida, and working for the US government in San Diego, CA. I had some great experiences during those four years, and some unpleasant ones as well, but such is life. During those four years I never ceased to wonder what would have happened in my life if my first trip to Korea had not been such a disaster. 

After paying off all of my debts (student loans, credit cards, a new car...), I decided to leave my cushy government job and return to the world of ESL. This time, I selected Russia as my destination of choice. (Ideally, I would like to work for a non profit organization that facilitates international relations and development in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union. I studied Russian in college, but since my graduation, I had little time to practice it, especially considering the time I spent in Korea and Costa Rica! Choosing Russia as my destination seemed like a good idea, as I could rebuild my Russian language skills while living and working abroad.) 

This time, I did a lot of research before selecting my school of choice: the American Home in Vladimir, Russia (, where I have been working now for the past three months. Aside from the fact that no one could ever accuse me of taking this position out of greed (I receive roughly $200/mo), or laziness (I am working at least 40 hours a week), I am having a fantastic time living in Russia, working side by side with Russians and teaching EFL. No, it is not easy; I never expected that it would be. Not all days are fun and games; some days are incredibly frustrating, as in any job. But I am happy, having a good time, working with wonderful people (Russian and American), and I am helping my students to learn something. Seeing my students actually use the English that I have taught them is incredibly rewarding. I hope that my writings thus far in my blog express these sentiments.

I would like to track down AB. I would like to ask him to read not only Prisoner of Wonderland, but the other content on this website. I would like him to read about my experiences in Russia, my travels in Costa Rica, my return trip to South Korea in 2004... Why should I care what AB or any other individual thinks? I know that I should not, but it is simply human nature. No one wants to be perceived as a greedy, lazy, xenophobic liar, and a bad teacher to boot. Additionally, traveling is an integral part of who I am. When people ask me what my hobbies are, traveling is always at the top of my list. Seeing the world from the view of others who live so differently from the life that I am used to is very important to me. From my first trip overseas when I was 13, my travels have changed me for the better and have helped to shape my views on life. I think that bringing different cultures together is one of the most rewarding things anyone can do. It bothers me that there are people out there who assume that I am the opposite of who I am.

Monday, November 07, 2005

A Few Days in St. Petersburg: Tales and Photos

I returned to Vladimir at 5:00 Sunday morning, and I am still in the process of trying to recover from lack of sleep, so if there are some bizarre anomalies in this post, please forgive a tired Annie. St. Petersburg was wonderful, even if I am exhausted and suffering from a damaged knee and blistery feet. I took nearly 200 photos, over 40 of which are (in my estimation) internet-worthy. However, as I have limited space for posting photos while I am overseas (not to mention an unforgivably slow internet connection), I am limiting the number of images I'll be posting to around 9 or 10. No worries, the rest will all be online eventually, just not right now. That being said, let's hear about the trip:

On Tuesday night, after classes finished, J, Y, G, M and I made our way to the Vladimir train station, and caught the night train to St. Petersburg. It was a long (nearly 12 hours) and rather uninteresting train ride, although watching the early morning sunrise was nice, and not really something I often find myself doing, being so big on sleep and all.

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Y, me, J

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Morning view from the train

Returning to St. Petersburg for the first time since my seven-month stint there back in 2000, was both strange and wonderful. It really was like running into an old, close friend, whom I had not seen in many years. True, there have been some changes: Dom Knigi is in a new location, there are more giant advertisements covering the beautiful facades along Nevsky, some pedestrian-archways (including those into the courtyard of my old apartment) are now blocked by locked, wrought-iron gates, and while the buildings that were hidden away by scaffolding back in 2000 were now uncovered for all to see, different buildings are now shrouded in scaffolds. But these changes were merely superficial. The soul of St. Petersburg has remained the same, rich and vibrant, ready to pull me in and welcome me home.

Anyway, we arrived in St. Pete a little before 10:00am, and made our way to the hostel. We had arranged to stay at
Hostel Zimmer Freie, and I am glad we did. The hostel is a reasonably short walk from the center of town, and (in the winter season at least) costs $12/night/person, which was wonderful for those of us on very tight budgets. Our rooms were large and clean, and we had access to a communal kitchen and bathroom. We could come and go as we pleased, and there were no restrictions on in-hostel imbibing as there are in some hostels in which I've stayed. The main office of the hostel also has a large and inexpensive internet cafe (I only used it once... talk about restraint!), and the staff was great. I highly recommend this place to anyone looking for a cheap spot to crash while in St. Petersburg.

After checking in to our hostel, M called Ina. (M's sister has some Russian friends who live in St. Pete. Even though M had never met any of these people, they were quite willing to meet up with us and show us around the city. Ina was one of these people.) We met Ina and her friends Vika and Natasha in front of the Gostiniy Dvor Metro Station, and began our walk around the city. Ina was phenomenal: she gave us a tour of the historical center that was as good as, if not better than, some of the paid city-tours I've been on in the past. As only J and I had been in Petersburg before, this was definitely the best way to start out the trip. And the day was beautiful: cold but sunny, and perfect for taking all sorts of photos.
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Palace Square: Military General Staff Building

After Ina and her friends left us, we spent some quality time in Dom Knigi (a huge bookstore called House of Books, for you non-Russian-speakers), and then explored some CD shops as well. (I desperately must reconfigure my miniscule CD collection. I carefully selected my twenty-four favorite CDs to bring to Russia; however, due to recent events, I have found that I can only listen to 12 of those 24 without totally losing my cool, and even those 12 to which I can still listen have been tainted somewhat. This is why opposites really should attract: after the relationship is over, you can sit back and wonder, "How the hell could I have been with someone who liked to do/watch/listen to *that*?" Instead, everything I am/have/do reminds me of things about which I don't want to think right now. So maybe I'll stop typing about them.) I purchased a total of six CDs: two Zdob si Zdub albums (one with two disks) - they're a group out of Moldova whom I saw last time I was here, and they rock. I brought their first CD with me (it being one of the "safe" twelve), and I hope these three are as good as Tabara Noastra. I'll let you know. I also snagged a double-disk Chemical Brothers set, and the new Gorillaz album, which is, at the least, a start.

After leaving the last of several CD and book stores, we made our way to a Chinese restaurant. One of the things we had all been looking forward to was the opportunity to have good ethnic food while in St. Pete. Traditional Russian food is somewhat bland, and after a while, one's taste buds begin aching for something stimulating. I do not remember the name of the Chinese restaurant, but it's on Nevsky, in between Liteiny and Mayakovskogo Prospekts. The food, while priced by Western standards, was delicious, and we all ate an incredible amount, savoring every mouthful, and enjoying the sensation of spices, in all their intoxicating goodness.

After leaving the restaurant, we walked back to our hostel, purchased some vodka and pomegranate juice, and began preparing for the night out. After becoming rather silly, we headed off towards Griboedev, a dance club located underground in a bomb shelter, where I spent many an evening back in 1999 and 2000. (It was along the rather lengthy walk to Griboedev that I discovered that some of the cross-courtyard shortcuts had now been gated off: slightly disappointing. It was also along the rather lengthy walk to Griboedev, or so I suspect, that I managed to somehow damage my knees. Didn't notice it at the time though...) Anyhow, Griboedev is essentially the same, although the entrance fee seems to have gone up exponentially, and they seem to be building some sort of annex topside. It was strange being there without any of the people I had always gone to Griboedev with. Same place, same types of people, no one I knew other than the Americans I came with. Weird. Russian dance parties tend to start late, and as we had arrived around 10:00pm or so, we were there fairly early. The girls and I got some dancing in just as people were beginning to make their way to the dance floor, but then we had to head out. The boys, having imbibed a bit too much, needed to return home.

The next morning, my feet and knees really hurt. A few days before leaving Vladimir, I had purchased a pair of Russian winter boots. They’re leather, lined on the inside with fur, and have the ubiquitous Russian high-heel, albeit a reasonably short one. These were the only pair of shoes I brought with me, which probably wasn't the wisest decision as I had not yet had time to break them in fully. But, I bandaged up my blisters, popped some Excedrin, and ignored the odd twinges in my knees as we headed out for day two of our city-exploration. It was another nice day, weather wise, although a little cloudier than the day before. We walked down Nevsky to the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood (Lovely name, isn't it? The church was built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, hence the appellation.), and took a bunch of pictures both outside and inside. I had never been inside of the CSSB before, and it was definitely impressive. Yet again I feel the need to state that if I were a religious person, so many of these places would mean so much more to me, although agnostic that I am, this cathedral was impressive. The interior is completely decorated in the most intricate and beautiful mosaic I have ever seen. We all pretty much stood there with our mouths open for a while, stunned. Any other church or cathedral interior tends to pale in comparison. Wow.

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Cathedral of the Savior on the Spilled Blood

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Mosaics inside the cathedral

After leaving the CSSB, we lunched at Teremok (a Russian fast-food establishment serving the most delicious bliny (like a pancake or a crepe) that I've ever tasted. I got one with caramel and apples. Yum, yum. I do not understand how McDonald's can stay in business over here when it has to compete with Teremok. I kind of want to open a Teremok franchise in the States. It would pummel the competition.

From there we decided to go to the Hermitage (for those who don't know, this is one of the best art museums in the world, and it is located in the old Winter Palace of the Tsars), although that didn't quite go as planned. Apparently, the Hermitage offers free entry on the first Thursday of each month. This seemed great - free entry, woohoo! - but that meant the place was packed. You aren't allowed to enter the museum without checking your coat as the coat-check, and the coat check was full. We would have to wait in line with hundreds of other people until enough free spaces opened in the coat checks for all five of us to enter the museum. We decided to give up and come back the next day. We left the Hermitage and walked across the Neva to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original settlement at Petersburg. Historically, this is quite an important place, although it is not the most exciting. We toured the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (impressive, but not as much so after having spent the morning in the CSSB), and I dragged the group to the space museum, being that I am somewhat obsessed with the history of space flight. The first time I came to the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1999, I was able to get my picture taken inside a genuine Soyuz space capsule for the cost of a mere five rubles. The space capsule is still there, although the entry-hatch is sealed off with Plexiglas, and you can only get your photo taken next to it. So I did, of course.

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J, G, Y, me - along the bank of the Neva

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Me next to the space capsule.

By the time we left the Peter and Paul Fortress, I was hobbling like an old woman. Whatever I had done to my knees the night before had gotten far worse, especially in my left knee, and the blisters on my feet weren't helping matters. As much as I had been looking forward to four straight days of raucous partying, I instead found myself looking forward to a long hot shower and my bed. We walked/hobbled back down to Gostiniy Dvor, where we met up with Ina, and offered to take her to dinner, as repayment for the day before. We took her to the Kavkaz Bar, a wonderful Georgian (as in Eastern European Georgia, not the American South) restaurant I first discovered back in 1999 (it's a block off Nevsky on Karavannaya ulitsa). I am so happy this place is still around as I love, love, love it. The food is absolutely incredible. After a few glasses of dry Georgian wine, some orgasmically delicious eggplant stuffed with Georgian cheese, and some hachapuri (Georgian cheese-bread), I was perfectly willing to hobble my aged self back to the hostel and crash for the evening, which I did.

Friday morning, feet and knees still aching, the gang and I met up with Ina and made a second attempt to hit the Hermitage, and this time we were successful. Now, I must admit that I am a bit of a philistine. I can appreciate good art, but I tend to appreciate it quickly. I know there are many people out there who can spend hours in front of one painting, but I am not that kind of person. And I tend to mainly appreciate art with which I can form some sort of personal connection... and as I am rather a weird person, I tend to like weird and random things. And whenever I have visited the Hermitage, I have always been far more in awe of the architecture of the Winter Palace than the masterpieces contained therein. As this was the first time I'd ever been inside the Hermitage with a digital camera (for which read unlimited photo-taking capacity), I was very excited. The rooms are so incredible and the sheer opulence is simply overwhelming. I was excited that this time I was able to tour not just the art-rooms, but some of the rooms decorated as they were during the time of the Tsars.
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Me on the staircase in the Winter Palace

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Inside the Winter Palace

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Inside the Winter Palace

The luxurious sumptuousness is simply astounding. Room upon room of vast halls, all covered in gold leaf - I cannot even comprehend how people lived like this. Such wealth is mystifying.
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The title of this painting is something along the lines of Christian Martyr Drowned in the Tiber. You would thing that with me not being a Christian, this painting wouldn't have done much for me... although I know there are several of you out there who will completely understand why I had to take this picture.

After leaving the Hermitage, we went to Tandoor, and Indian restaurant on Voznisensky, near St. Isaacs Cathedral. The food was excellent. I had another eggplant dish, and while its taste was wholly different from that of the Georgian eggplant dish from the previous evening, it was equally pleasing to the palate. The staff at the restaurant was incredibly helpful and friendly, and come to find out... Vladimir Putin has eaten there! (We saw pictures - we sat at the same table as he did!)

Again, following dinner, I hobbled back to the apartment, while the rest of the gang went off to enjoy the Petersburg nightlife. Luckily, I'd had the foresight to bring along an escapist Robert Ludlum book, which kept me pretty occupied. Besides, I've had plenty of St. P. nightlife fun in my day.

My last day in St. Pete was incredibly uneventful. As the knees were still a wreck, I figured that I should probably take it easy. Besides, it was raining, and I did not really want to be out hobbling in the rain. So, while the rest of the group went out to spend their last day in St. Pete sampling sushi and shopping for souvenirs, I spent some quality time on the internet and then camped out in a cafe near the train station with Robert Ludlum. Uneventful, but relaxing.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Off to St. Petersburg!!

Crazy internet people, ex-boyfriends, and evil, non-refunding travel agencies notwithstanding, I'm off to St. Petersburg for the next six days. I'm quite glad that our fall break has arrived, because what do I usually do when I'm upset and have no money? Leave the country! Well, I've already left the country, so I suppose the next best thing is to go to St. Petersburg, my favorite city in the world. Anyway, I won't be blogging for a while, although hopefully once I return I'll be back up to snuff, and can regale you all with cool photos and fantastic tales. See you Monday!