December 17, 2008

CEERES Fall Newsletter

Be sure to check out our fall newsletter! It features stories about the Russia Fulbright GPA trip, research by U of C professor Tara Zhara about displaced people in Europe, accounts of students' summer projects and internships and some news on recent and upcoming CEERES events.

To read the full newsletter, stop by the office and pick one up, or check it out online (in PDF format).

CEERES News Roundup

Apologies for the sporadic posting of news roundups.

Turkmenistan recently rewrote sections of its national anthem to remove the multiple references to the former president who died in 2006. "An official said the changes were necessary to bring the anthem into line with international standards."

Speaking of reforms, Kazakhstan is working on reforming its parliament system, in order to avoid having a one-party parliament. The reforms are in advance of Kazakhstan's 2010 chairmanship of OSCE. However, parties in the country say the reforms are not going to actually help.

Due to a border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, Slovenia is saying it will block Croatia's EU bid. Slovenian Prime Minister Pahor complained that the documents submitted by Croatia "could prejudge the common border" and Croatia worries that Slovenia will not allow the accesion talks to cont

Seems Russia is having just as many economic problems as the rest of the world, as they've devalued the ruble twice in a week. Economists blame the recent falls on the dropping oil prices.

And in the Caucasus: Russia is blocking the return of OSCE monitors to South Ossetia, Armenia is having issues with mandatory military service and the Council of Europe, and the conflict between Russia and Georgia is causing NATO to push back Georgia's entry.

December 1, 2008

Christmas Around the World at the MSI

The Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago does a Christmas Around the World and Holiday of Lights special exhibit every year, which includes Christmas trees from around the world, and performances by various different ethnic groups and choirs. 

Countries represented from the CEERES region include trees from: Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Ukraine. 

There are many different groups performing that represent the CEERES region. For example, on Sunday December the 7th, there's going to be the Latvian School of Chicago & the Latvian Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, the Knights of Lithuania Dancers and the Greek Consulate. On Sunday the 14th, there's the Iskra School of Ukranian Dance & Ukranian Children’s Choir, Cherubic Voices, Cardinal A. Stepinac Croatian School and the Orpheus Hellenic Folklore Society (Greece Folk dancing and song).  There's other groups, including Polish and Romanian groups other days. For the full schedule, click here

Also, right now, you can download a coupon for by one get one free adult admission. Click here for the details. The Museum also has a podcast called Trees & Traditions, if you're not up to leaving your apartment in the cold weather. The exhibit is open until January 4, 2009. 

November 26, 2008

Weekly News Roundup

This weekly news roundup is heavy on conflicts in the Caucasus. Back to more varied news next week!

Monday, Armenia's foreign minister spoke, asking Turkey to re-open the Armenia/Turkey border, which has been closed since 1993 as a result of Armenia and Azerbaijan's war over the Karabagh region. Armenia and Turkey have not had diplomatic relations since Armenia became an independent country after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Georgia's and Poland's Presidents were taking a nice drive up by South Ossetia where their motorcade was shot at on Monday. Of course, Russia denied having any part in it. This comes a few days after the BBC reported Russia-Georgia peace talks were making "substantial progress."

Meanwhile, in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, the mayor of Vladikavkaz was killed on Wednesday. This is after a suicide bomber killed at least 8 people earlier this month, also in Vladikavkaz.

In another separatist region (they seem to abound in the South Caucasus!), Nagorno-Karabagh, apparently some shots were fired which led to the death of one Azeri soldier. This is in light of recent peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan (some commentary can be found here). Apparently, after the skirmish, Armenia's president also met with party leaders in Armenia to discuss the conflict, as well.

Weekly BBC Roundup: The BBC Magazine wrote a piece about children who are scared to leave their homes because of blood feuds in Albania. Check out this article about the Amnesty International report about domestic violence in Armenia. Also, Sochi's feelings about the Olympics.

Have a good Thanksgiving!

November 19, 2008

Polish Film Festival

More films from the CEERES region in Chicago!

The Polish Film Festival is taking place here in Chicago until November 23. Since it started the 8th, you've missed a few films, but there are still plenty to catch this weekend, including one on Saturday and Sunday which will feature the director in attendance. The festival not only includes Polish films, but films from other places as well, including Hungary and Russia.

(An article on the Festival from the Chicago Sun Times can be found here.)

November 12, 2008

Weekly CEERES news roundup

The European Union just released it's annual report on applicant countries, in which Croatia was given a timeline to put them on track to become a member state in 2011. The report also discussed Turkey and Macedonia, encouraging them to boost reform efforts. You can read the actual reports on the European Commission website.

And, it's been all over the news, so you've probably heard, but could it be possible that Putin will soon be president again? After current President's Medvedev's state of the union speech, in which he introduced reforms to change the presidential term from 4 to 6 years, rumors have run rampant.

Following up from last week, here's an article on the reaction of Armenian and Azerbaijanis on the recently signed agreement on Nagorno-Karabagh. Armenia is also in the news, due to the recent concession of President Sarkisyan to form a committee to conduct an impartial investigation on the events which took place during the Feburary election.

November 7, 2008

Summer in Armenia

Since Meredith shared all of her experiences from her trip to Russia, I thought I'd write about my summer in Armenia.

This summer I was an intern in the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia. I lived in a nice apartment right down the street from the Parliment building (and even saw the president driving to work a few times!). I worked your standard 9-5 day, but there was nothing ordinary about what I did at work.

I worked in the Consular Section of the Embassy. The Consular Section is in charge of Visas and American Citizen Services. Some things I did daily were: take fingerprints of non-immigrant visa applicants, answer emails about applying for visas, and just generally help out around the office. For example, I wrote the "Ask the Consul" sections for the website for the months of July-October. I also was able to get out of Yerevan every so often. Once, I got to go to Dilijan, to give a presentation at an "American Corner" about being a college student in the US.
Me answering questions after my talk at the American Corner

One of the unexpected things that happened this summer was the war in Georgia. It definitely livened things up at the Embassy, to say the least. The Consular section was a bustle of activity as we were in charge of helping the evacuation of Americans from Georgia. We helped on our end by meeting the buses at the Armenia/Georgia border and working with passport control officials in Armenia to make sure everything went smoothly. We also ended up helping a lot of anxious Americans in the US locate their relatives who came to Armenia on the convoy. It was a thrilling time and I was lucky to get to be part of it.
Me and my coworkers at the Armenia/Georgia border

Another fun event was the Armenia vs Turkey football (or soccer as we call it here) match. This was really exciting because Armenia and Turkey aren't on the best of terms, and this was the first time they had ever played soccer against each other. Nobody really knew what to expect. Everything ended up being fine, and there were no problems, although Turkey won 2-0, which the Armenians were not happy about. It was also a historic occasion because Turkey's president came to see it, and it was the first time a Turkish head of state had ever come to Armenia.
The two teams and the crowd before the game.

All in all, my experience at the Embassy and interning for the State Department was a good one. My coworkers were wonderful, as was everybody in the Embassy, and I really gained a lot from my time in Armenia. Anybody who is even a little bit interesting in possibly going into the Foreign Service would benefit from a State Department internship and I highly recommend it.

Click on any image to see the full size, or to see all my pictures from this summer, go to:

November 6, 2008

Food culture, here and there

I listened to the 11/1/08 podcast of NPR's The Splendid Table, and was happy to hear some direct reporting on food culture from the CEERES region. The link to this particular episode is here.

Two segments of the show caught my ear, and made my stomach growl just a little. The show opens with a report from a couple, Jane and Michael Stern (their site is, that travels around the U.S., reviewing the local food stops along the way. In this episode of the Splendid Table, they visit West, Texas (an actual town, not the region) where there happens to be a significant Czech-emigre population. Czech bakeries touting their traditional kolache abound. The couple gives a great discussion of the how the food tastes and why it's there. It's not solid reporting on the lives of immigrants by any means, but hearing about the food will make your mouth water.

Even more fascinating, and much more rigorous in its scholarship is a segment later in the episode. Unfortunately, you have to download the podcast and fast forward to get to this segment. At 25.45 minutes into the show is an audio documentary recorded in the field by Carla Seidl in Azerbaijan on Azeri food culture, including discussion of the food, social roles in preparing and serving, and interviews. I was pleasantly surprised to find this, and I think some of you might fing it interesting for your teaching, research, or just plain entertainment.

November 5, 2008

Weekly CEERES news roundup

Big in the news this week was the meeting in Moscow between Armenia's President Sarkisyan and Azerbaijan's President Aliyev during which they signed a joint declaration regarding the sepratist region of Nagorno-Karabagh (BBC, Wikipedia). Reactions are mixed, as reported on EurasiaNet and the Euraisa Daily Moniter (which also includes a run-down of the declaration). From a completely different angle, on October 16th, apparently over 700 couples got married in Karabagh, in an attempt to help boost the region's small birth rate (IWPR).

Apparently Saakashvili is having a grand old time firing people. (BBC)

While not directly related to the region, the US presidential election was big news everywhere. Some pre-election feelings from the region can be found on EurasiaNet and TOL, and articles on reactions from Macedonia and Kosovo are highlighted on the homepage of BalkenInsight. 

In brief, we also have the EU's effort to increase it's presence in Tajikistan, teaching diversity in Romania via some new textbooks, and Ukraine's recent dropping of Russian channels from cable.

And because I love the BBC, I'd like to point out this interesting article discussing the Ossetians' love of the movie "Braveheart." 

October 29, 2008

Weekly CEERES news roundup!

The New York Times did an excellent piece on Moscow's mayor Luzhkov and his propensity for creating foreign policy. They followed it up by translating many of the comments the post received on their Russian language blog and picked out some specifically to write a follow-up article talking about how Russians feel about Luzhkov.

Georgia's President Saakashvili announced he would be replacing the Prime Minister. (BBC)

Monday, the IMF said it would offer loans to both Ukraine and Hungary as the two Eastern European countries have both been hit hard by the global credit crisis. (BBC)

While not completely current, two weeks ago Azerbaijan's president Aliyev was re-elected with 89% of the vote. Many of the opposition parties boycotted this election, which caused many international observers to remark on the lack of real competition. (BBC, EurasiaNet)

This piece that the BBC did on Albania's "sworn virgins" is very interesting and offers an interesting look at a phenomenon that's dying out.

October 22, 2008

Steve LeVine at Chicago again. Russia, Georgia, and the Rest

About a year ago, The University of Chicago hosted journalist Steve LeVine, now senior foreign affairs correspondent for Business Week, when his book "The Oil and the Glory" came out. That book dealt with the history of the former Soviet region through the lens of the jockeying for control of oil and natural gas. (You can view last year's presentation on the UChicago CHIASMOS website).

Steve Levine joins us again tonight to discuss the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia, the reasons for it, the consequences affecting the U.S., and some projections on the future of the region and international relations. When we first conceived of this talk with Steve, not long after the early August military conflict between Russia and Georgia, our effort was to do something timely on the conflict, and what it meant circa September 2008. We entitled the talk "Putin's Labyrinth: What Russia won in Georgia; Why the U.S. Will Continue to Lose." The gist being that the U.S.'s inattention to the region was an enabling factor for Russia to launch this sort of reprisal. In the period since then, the global climate of investment has taken a nose-dive, and the price of oil has precipitously declined, perhaps providing new economic and diplomatic avenues for the U.S. to influence and secure the region. Perhaps a better subtitle for tonight's talk would be "Why the U.S. May Continue to Lose." This of course will not be found out until a new U.S. presidential administration takes over.

If you're curious about where this discussion leads, come see Steve LeVine tonight at 6pm in the Home Room of International House at The University of Chicago.

This talk is also coming out of Steve's new book "Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia." This books looks at the new displined Russian power structure under Putin through the prism of shadowy murders.

October 6, 2008

44th Chicago International Film Festival

It's that time of year again, time for the International Film Festival! This year there are some great films from the CEERES region that we'd like you to be aware of.

Like last year, we've put together a list (for the full schedule visit

ABSURDISTAN (France/Azerbaijan)

Veit Helmer

It's 1968, and flower children Catherine, Yves, and Herve are dreaming of a world free from factories, the draft, and the bitter May revolts. Desperately in love and painfully idealistic, they convince several of their friends to join them in starting a commune in the countryside. Twenty years later, with communism collapsing and AIDS exploding, Catherine and Yves' children must deal with the fallout from the free love generation. WORlD CINEMA 88 min Russian with English subtitles

10/23/08 06:15:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/25/08 06:45:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan


Jerzy Skolimowski

Internationally acclaimed director Jerzy Skolimowski's (Moonlighting) first film in 17 years is an alternately zany and pitch-black portrait of Leon's madcap courtship of his neighbor, Anna. Leon's oddball behavior—like crushing sleeping pills into Anna's sugar so he can snoop through her apartment smelling things—is somehow endearing until we learn the dark secret behind his attraction. 87 Min. Polish with English subtitles.

10/26/08 07:30:00 PM AMC River East 21

10/27/08 08:00:00 PM AMC River East 21


Vassilis Douvlis

Ilias and his wife Eleni have returned to Greece after many years in Germany. Ilias feels like a foreigner in his home village, and life in the country is killing Eleni's spirit. The arrival of Albanian migrant Petros is the first in a chain of events that will change their lives. With an engrossing love triangle as his foundation, Douvlis touches on the perils of identity and the shifting definition of home experienced by immigrants around the world. 98 min. Greek with English subtitles.

10/24/08 04:00:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan
10/26/08 03:30:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/27/08 05:50:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

KATYN (Poland)

Andrzej Wajda

In 1939, more than 12,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were executed by the Soviet army. Once the mass graves were discovered by the Nazis in 1943, the Soviets began an extensive campaign to cover up their involvement in the massacre. Katyn´ is a courageous film that tells the story of both the victims and those left behind: the survivors who became complicit in the cover-up, and those who refused to deny the truth. 118 min.

Polish, Russian, German with English subtitles.

10/19/08 12:45:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/25/08 01:15:00 PM AMC River East 21


Anna Melikyan

An Amélie-like fairy tale rich in a mesmerizing magic (literally) all its own, The Mermaid's heart is Alisa, a lonely little girl from a seaside town who takes a rebellious vow of silence at the age of five. Approaching her 18th birthday, Alisa is forced to relocate to Moscow, where a chance encounter with a free-spirited salesman of lunar real estate inspires her to speak again—and compete for his affection. 114 min. Russian with English subtitles.

10/22/08 08:20:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/28/08 08:15:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

NATIVE DANCER / BAKSY (Russia/Kazakhstan/France/Germany)

Gulshat Omarova

The award-winning director of Schizo returns with the absorbing story of a Kazakh baksy (shaman), Aidai, who has the power to heal people. She derives her power from the land she lives on, owned by wealthy businessman Batyr. But when the mafia and local authorities force Aidai from her home and build a motel on Batyr's land, a surprising chain of events springs from the powerful and mysterious woman. 87 min. Russian, Kazakh with English subtitles.

10/18/08 02:15:00 PM AMC River East 21

10/21/08 08:40:00 PM AMC River East 21


Vladimír Michálek

Based on the award-winning novel by Emil Hakl, this candid and revealing relationship study unfolds during an often bittersweet and untamed conversation between a seventysomething father and his middle-aged son. The two men—who love, respect, and hate one another all at once—take to the streets of Prague for their monthly visit, moving with a gentle sweep through their humorous collective memories and careening toward newfound revelations. 112 min. Czech with English subtitles.

10/25/08 12:30:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/27/08 06:10:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

SNOW / SNIJEG (Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany/France/Iran)

Aida Begic

The year is 1997, and the post-war village of Slavno is occupied by a mere handful of residents, mostly women. Some are widows. Others have had their children executed by the nearby Bosnian Serbs. Winner of the critics' week grand prize at Cannes, Snow picks up where most other war films leave off, capturing mournful, everyday lives with such attentiveness and regard that it becomes less a film of politics and more a film of touching fellowship. 99 min. Bosnian with English subtitles.

10/25/08 03:00:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/26/08 06:00:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan


Seyfi Teoman

Ten-year-old Ali is getting bullied at school. Older brother Veysel is looking to ditch military school for business school. Austere pop Mustafa disapproves, but uncle Hasan is all for it. Meanwhile, mom Guler is sure that her husband is having an affair. These minor family tensions come to a head one summer when Mustafa suddenly falls ill while away on a business trip. Named best Turkish film at the Istanbul Film Festival. 92 min. Turkish with English subtitles.

10/23/08 08:40:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/24/08 06:30:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan


Róbert Alföldi

Estranged from her daughter and cut off from the outside world, ex-actress Rebeka Weér lives with her deeply troubled son, Andor. Verbally abused by Rebeka since his childhood, Andor becomes a man who must learn to either live with their strained, yet sometimes tender, relationship or leave that suffocating environment behind to pursue love elsewhere. Somber, haunting, and erotic, Tranquility tells a story of self-destruction within the realm of a bizarre mother-son relationship. 108 min. Hungarian with English subtitles.

10/20/08 08:40:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan

10/21/08 08:30:00 PM AMC 600 N. Michigan


Karen Shakhnazaro

The 1970s marked the rise of communism and the peak of power in the Soviet Union. To teenager Sergey Narbekov, it meant friends, booze, girls, and The Rolling Stones. The Vanished Empire is an honest portrayal of four young friends transitioning from their late teens into adulthood. They live hard and love hard, giving no regard to the collapse of their country. 105 min. Russian with English subtitles.

10/19/08 12:30:00 PM ACM River East 21

10/20/08 06:10:00 PM ACM River East 21

August 11, 2008

The Late Start to Murom

July 2, 2008

Today was the first day that didn't go according to schedule.

The major wrinkle in our day is not fodder for blog postings. Suffice it to say that we might possibly have a deportment situation on our hands and one of our participants might have an official invitation to return to Chicago a few days earlier than planned. For those of you who are thinking that we had a kamikaze teacher who decided to hijack a tram or who was detained for public exposure, get those images out of your heads. In fact, we learned today that if one travels on a humanitarian visa, one is not allowed to talk about politics. The American Home is working to sort out the situation, but the bottom line is that one of our young men was NOT on the bus with us to Murom and the collective morale on the bus is in the proverbial toilet. In a show of solidarity, we voted to stay in Vladimir until he was back at the American Home and we knew that he was - at least physically - OK.

We arrived in Murom as the evening was approaching and the military equipment we could see behind walls and the armored train Ilya Muromets took on a strange significance after the events of earlier in the day.

But, our gracious hosts - including Ilya Muromets himself - met us at the Murom Institute and welcomed us with bread, salt, and open arms. They held a small ceremony to introduce us to a few salient points of Muroms ancient history and sent us off to our new homes with our hosts. My host, Lena, is a teacher of English at the Murom Institute. She lives on the ninth floor of a Kruschev-era apartment building with her husband, Yura; her daughter, Lilya; and the real ruler of the roost - Persik, the cat. The view from Lena's kitchen and great room looks onto the Oka River and the enormous new suspension bridge that is being built across the river. The view from the bedroom that I occupied is over a patchwork quilt of kitchen gardens. The land used to be a communal farm and is now divided into personal plots filled with produce to sustain one's family through the long winters or to sell for a few extra rubles.

The sight from the balcomy is quite breathtaking - it's really beautiful aesthetically. The impression is bittersweet though, tinged with a sadness born from the realization that these few rows of carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers aren't about enjoying the hobby of gardening. The painstaking care of these gardens comes from the survival mechanism that is somehow ingrained in the Russian psyche in a society that has almost no middle class. One of the very obvious differences between the Russia of 1992 and 1994 and that of 2008 is that almost everything exists in Russia today, but much isn't even remotely affordable for the majority of Russians. Case in point: FOOD. At least in the supermarkets, food costs about as much as it does in the United States. I often balk at the price of groceries in Chicago on a decent salary for someone in my administrative position - I don't quite know how a teacher, who might make as little as the equivalent of $125 per month, can survive!

This has been a day in which lots of comparisons between Russia and the United States have been raised, but the final vision for me is of the same serene moon that will rise several hours from now in Chicago and I am happy to end the day with something universal and beautiful.

Scavenger Hunt and the Last Supper

July 7, 2008

This was our last full day in Vladimir. The American Home staff sent us out on a scavenger hunt. It was hilarious - we ran all over town (literally), taking pictures of signs, sights, and and buying crazy souvenirs, including ingrediants for American style sandwiches for ourselves and our friends for lunch.

It was MUCH more fun than I ever would have guessed. We divided into three teams, which each left the Amercan Home in 10-minute intervals. Our team was Barbara Stout (from Arizona), Jeff Schagrin (from a suburb of Chicago), Jackie Lesh (from Baltimore) and myself. We each had a Russian chaperone, in case we got ourselves lost or in a pickle language-wise. Ours was Anya, one of the newly-graduated students of English at the pedagogical institute. One task throughout the morning was to take pictures of signs around town that were in English or were cognates of English words written in Cyrillic. Jackie was our designated photographer and snapped all sorts of images that we pointed at as we ran along. Barb was our cheerleader - who knew that this sweet woman could have such a competitive spirit - when I say that we RAN around Vladimir, I am not exaggerating. She kept us marching at a very fast clip until we accomplished all of our tasks. In addition to finding English words and Russian cognates, we also had to take snapshots of a variety of plaques, buildings, cathedrals, or other structures throughout the city. One such photograph was of a plaque dedicated to some admiral who had circumnavigated Antarctica/the South Pole. The clue on the sheet instructed us to take a picture and try to figure out what the admiral was being honored for. How I looked at the plaque and pulled the word 'circumnavigate' out of my cobwebby brain, I'll never know.

We all learned a great deal on this scavenger hunt, and I daresay we all saw places that we hadn't seen before. Jeff picked out a goofy rat souvenir at the folk art museum, and each picture after the purchase contained our buddy, the Rat. (As a side note: it is currently the Chinese Year of the Rat and there were rat-shaped images all over the place, on posters, embodied as souvenirs, etc. Jackie had asked in one of our Russian culture sessions if there were an inordinate number of rat images around because of the Year of the Rat and people laughed at her. Who knew that she was much more perceptive than the rest of us?!? But, we have the souvenir to prove her point).

One of the tasks was to purchase a souvenir that Russians would consider quite normal, but American students would find odd. We bought two things to fulfill this obligation: we bought mayonnaise made from quail eggs - which sits right in the dairy case with the other 14-19 types of mayonnaise - and a key. Some Russian keys are monstrous, old-fashioned keys that look like something out of gothic horror movies. We noticed that there was a kiosk that sold and cut keys in the mall, so I managed to explain to the guy working there that I needed a long, double-sided key to bring home as a souvenir. He smirked, but found me three good examples of such a key from which I could choose. Expensive little booger, but cool.

The proffered lunches from each team were all similar, but our team had the foresight to buy two items that the other teams did not provide: mustard and dessert.

After hunts and classes finished up for the day, I was in for another treat. Ira and Andrei made a fantastic dinner as my "last supper" in Vladimir. (My mother always used to ask what we wanted for our "last supper" before going back to college, hence the term). We exchanged presents, ate all sorts of fantastic food - including a traditional meat and potato casserole baked in individual earthenware crocks - and toasted to our new extended families. The day ended with Yaroslav and me watching "Family Guy" in Russian (called, in Russia, "The Griffins"). It was absolutely as obnoxious and hilarious as in the States and made me feel a little less sad and apprehensive about leaving what had really come to feel like home...

August 5, 2008

More Dacha Revelations

July 6, 2008

After more rain overnight and most of the morning, it turned into a humid and soggy but mostly sunny day in the country. There is standing water everywhere and I'm very grateful for my non-Russian crocs, which are comfy, lightweight, and able to dry very quickly after getting wet. The rain has been very detrimental to the vegetable gardens. The tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in particular need a lot more sun than they have been getting.

Breakfast at the dacha was a real boost to my confidence. I had been very worried about whether my rudimentary Russian would hold up with older individuals who didn't speak any English, especially given my limited vocabulary. However, the morning perhaps gave me my biggest boost of confidence. I am an early riser, especially given the Russian propensity for staying up late and sleeping in. So, I had breakfast with Lena's parents while everyone else was still asleep. Lena's father wanted to speak about American politics - not my strong suit, and I usually avoid the topic like the plague even in the United States, but I was a guest in their home... Lena's mother wanted to hear about things that were closer to my heart - and easier to describe - such as my family, our apartment, life in Chicago, gardening, cooking, etc. The breakfast conversation was really the best part of the day. The fact that I could understand their questions and responses and even formulate appropriate answers and questions of my own was very empowering. And I've learned that even when I don't know a word, I can use my minimal vocabulary (and a whole lot of arm gestures) to talk around the words I don't know and get my point across.

The food was as incredible as the day before and I tasted several foods that were new to me: homemade tvorog (Russians call it cottage cheese, but it's much more like a ricotta or mascarpone); goat milk from goats living down the street; chicory instead of coffee; compote made from kalinka (need to look this up - little berries that I'm not certain have an American equivalent); preserves made from apples, orange zest, and peach juice.

We walked around the neighborhood when everyone had finally emerged from their respective cocoons and there was a lull between rain showers. The neighborhood has a lovely pond where people swim and wash clothes and a monument in honor of the people from the area who died in World War II. We passed any number of free-range chickens and ducks along the way, and heard goats and cows bleating behind fences. I gather that the neighborhood used to be a huge communal farm with lots more animals and year-round inhabitants. Now, the nearest school is 3 kilometers away and that would be as far as the moon during the winters. Very few roads are paved and none seem to have any local maintenance. Busing would be a huge issue and it's just easier to move back to Moscow or Vladimir during the winter months. Lena's parents stay in the country from May-October and claim that most of their neighbors are on similar schedules.

It was hard to say good-bye at the end of the day. Lena and the girls stayed on for a week's rest and Misha and I headed back to Vladimir. I returned to the city with a bag of radishes, dill, and parsley, which made for a great dinner with a few slices of bread and butter. Because Andrei and Ira were out when I got "home", I had to brave the Russian washing machine by myself. I was sure that I had done something terribly wrong as it ran FOREVER. Seriously, after 1.5 hours I started to wonder if the downstairs neighbors would be coming up to inform me that I had flooded their flat or something. But, it seemed to do the trick - eventually - so that all of my clothes were clean for the trip to Murom on Tuesday. I just hope that the breeze does its job and the rain stays to a minimum so that they will be DRY as well. But that's another story.

August 4, 2008

The Dacha

July 5, 2008

The weekend was free from presentations and excursions and was to be spent with host families.

My Saturday started out with a call from my husband - we're officially at the halfway point of the trip, and though the trip has been an excellent adventure, I do miss Dean, the girls, the cats, cooking, etc.

Andrei cooked breakfast and lunch today - what a nice break for Ira, who prefers to sleep in, but has been up getting me ready to leave the house every day. I had a different type of kasha - more like oatmeal than the semolina variety or the buckwheat type. Lunch was soup with pel'meni and really good sausages that were quite like bratwurst.

A note about Russian condiments: the dispensing mechanisms for both mayonnaise and mustard are terrific. Mayo comes in foil pouches which have spouts and a lot of mustard comes in toothpaste-type tubes - I guess we have some squeeze bottles, but at the very least, they are bigger and waste more space in the fridge. Anyhow, these streamlined containers and precision spouts allow condiments to be used as the ultimate garnishing tools. In the same way that pastry chefs decorate cakes with icing designs, Russians decorate salads with mayonnaise designs, or squeeze mayo onto fish or meat before baking. I was also surprised to see that there are no less than fifteen types of mayo to choose from in the supermarket, from "plain" varieties to those made from quail eggs or with additions of lemon juice or hot pepper or olive oil. Astonishing. In short, Russians take their condiments very seriously, especially their mayonnaise.

After lunch, Ira, Ksyusha and I ran around town souvenir shopping and scoping out bookstores for good books on Russian culture. I found a good one on Russian traditional dress and about a hundred others I would have loved to own, but already my luggage was pushing the weight limits.

After the shopping spree, we returned home so that Ksenia and I could pack for a short jaunt to the country.

I may have already mentioned that I had the luxury of having an "extended" host family. In addition to the nuclear family (Andrei, Irina, Yaroslav and Ksenia), I was "adopted" by the family of Ira's best friend (Lena, Misha, and Dasha). The ladies sort of shared me, which maximized my adventure and made the babysitting of the crazy American not so arduous for any one family. We also did lots of things together - Ira, Lena, me and the young ladies - while the men were working.

At any rate, Lena and Misha picked us up at about 4:00 p.m. to head to the country home where Lena's parents spend the months from May through October. We first stopped at a large "Spar" supermarket on the outskirts of Vladimir to stock up on food and booze for the weekend and then we headed west out of the city. Misha would fit in perfectly on the roads of Chicago - he's a very aggressive driver. Either that, or he was REALLY excited about getting to the dacha and drove as quickly as possible to get there - upon arrival, this seemed very likely.

I immediately fell in love with the country - the air was fresh, the dacha was a masterpiece of samizdat construction, having obviously been expanded several times as the family grew and building materials became available, and the gardens were absolutely amazing. The dacha's facade is green with decorative blue trim, with the traditional fancy carved designs around the windows and along the eaves and the inside was a maze of rooms for preparing food, resting, sleeping, and - of course - sitting and enjoying food and good company. The look and feel of the place reminded me of our own family campground in Springwater, New York where everyone congregates during the summers and contributes to the upkeep of the property, pond, trails, and then gets to reap the rewards of the FUN and EATING that take place when all the aunts, uncles, and cousins get together.

I actually stayed in a second structure - the "domik" or little house - behind the main house and vegetable gardens. It was perhaps the first structure on the property - a main room with a table and benches, one bedroom downstairs, and an upstairs "loft" with several couches and beds that also serves as a sitting room. The view from the balcony off this loft showed the back of the main house and all of the raised beds, fruit trees and shrubs.

Lena's parents are - not surprisingly - wonderfully kind and generous people. Baba Lusya was more than happy to show me around the yard and we talked about growing vegetables and flowers and she could describe having a veritable orchard at her disposal. The raised beds were filled with carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, garlic, dill, parsley, lettuces, radishes, beets, and an entire field of potatoes. They also have apple and pear trees, at least one cherry tree, and berry bushes galore. I had the experience of eating several types of currants right off the bush and tasted some berries whose names I promptly forgot but have never seen in the U.S.

And, as you might expect, there was a plethora of delicious prepared food as well. When we arrived, we sat down to borscht, fresh vegetables, and several shots of vodka. After exploring the yard, the men started the fire in the fire pit and we snacked on beer and dried fish as the shashlik was marinating and the coals were getting prepared to grill our supper. The big supermarkets have actual kegs of beer and people can dispense a liter or two and have "fresh" beer rather than bottled. After we had enjoyed the fire for a while and the coals were ready, Misha grilled chicken shashlik and we had a feast before bed.

Oh, I would be remiss if I didn't mention my new friend Dusya, the guinea pig. She's very sweet and I knew that I must be growing on Dasha when she brought Dusya to me to hold.

After shashlik and a few more toasts to US-Russian relations, I sloshed out the to the domik in a full-fledged food coma.

August 1, 2008

Independence Day

July 4, 2008

July 4th is also the anniversary of the dedication of the American Home. Happy 16th anniversary, American Home!

Nadya and Lena (one of the young ladies who help with our Russian language and culture lessons) led an excursion to Gus' Khrustal'niy. This is a town where they make glass and crystal. We first visited a glass/crystal museum which was in a building that had been a church before the October Revolution. Walking into the museum was like being inside a kaleidoscope - flashes of brilliant colors everywhere. After being struck by the rainbow of colors, you start to notice the shapes of the objects. Common glass items such as vases and bottles stand next to the most intricate glass figurines you have ever seen. There are also large glass sculptures outside of the display cases and displays of table settings and sitting rooms from various periods of history, all filled with glass and crystal from the town or from other historic glass-making countries. All of this ornate and colorful glass cannot detract from the frescoes on the walls and ceilings which had been covered in whitewash during Soviet times and which have recently been restored. As stunning as the artistry was, I couldn't help but cringe at the gruesome depiction of 'The Last Judgement,' with its anguished souls, piles of bones, and parades of people condemned to hell. Part of me might have preferred a whitewashed wall...

Next we visited the factory where the glass and crystal are produced. It was a definite contrast to the new construction and hygienic standards of the Kraft factory. It was dark, dank, HOT with fiery ovens throughout - kind of like being swallowed by a dragon. Still, the artists in the belly of the dragon were amazing. We watched a man create a bird from a glowing mass of molten glass in about 12 minutes. Phenomenal.

The crystal workers were etching designs into some large vases. It was striking to me that most workers were not wearing even the most basic safety gear - no goggles, masks, respirators - and crystal is between 18-24% lead! I'm no scientist, but even I know that lead is NOT good for you to ingest. Kind of took an interesting moment and gave it a very somber spin.

After gleaning insight into the process of glass-making, we went to buy some local fruits of their dangerous labors. Even at the time, it seemed ridiculous to buy fragile souvenirs, but we were RIGHT THERE where they were made and a number of ladies in the family like those sorts of knick-knacks.

A second store, called "The Experimental Glass Store" had really elaborate, tiny glass figurines, masks, paperweights and other pretty but completely useless items.

After lunch, we headed back to Vladimir and attended the oddest orchestral concert ever. It was mostly a concert celebrating families of the region in honor of a saint's day dedicated to happy families, so it was a free-flowing propagandized parade of Russian families and their testimonial stories interspersed with songs performed by a talented wind ensemble. The culmination for me was when the ensemble performed the song "Tequila." It was a hoot and an excellent suggestion which prompted me to head back to the American Home.

The Independence Day party was terrific - the backyard of the American Home was transformed into a patriotic party land. Lots of good food, drink, and live music. The young jazz singer that Ron had repeatedly raved about was as incredible as her description. There was another young woman with a lovely voice who sang a couple songs with her mother, a singing DJ, and a traditional Russian folk ensemble who led some clumsy but spirited dancing.

We laughed and danced until the skies opened up. Again, it POURED. Alexei had been tracking the forecast and knew that rain was predicted, so he had rigged up plastic tarps over all the tables. We had just enough time for a quick toast to the wise Alexei Altonen before we switched gears to damage control and dumping the standing water off the plastic tarps where it was pooling into heavy puddles. Russians are amazingly resilient and just keep on partying - why let a little water and mud slow you down, right? Besides, puddle-stomping is therapeutic...

The Dentist and Thanksgiving Dinner

July 3, 2008

The morning felt so "normal." The group left on their excursion to an appliance factory, a blimp factory, and a kids camp, while I sat in front of a computer catching up on email and *finally* posting a few blog entries. The quiet did have an edge of anticipation - much like the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach as you approach the crest of the first hill on a roller coaster: hoping everything will be fun once the real ride begins, but always having a bit of fear that the car might careen off the tracks and you will free-fall to your death. OK, I'm being melodramatic, but I hate going to the dentist in Chicago - I was NOT looking forward to my adventure with a Russian dentist.

Ron decided to go with me as he feared that he had lost a filling some days earlier (and he was gleefully looking forward to the opportunity for a photo shoot of the petrified American in the dentist's chair). We also had Zhenya, one of the American Home teachers, with us. I could tell the dentist what happened, but my dental terminology is sorely lacking. Zhenya would - thankfully - be able to translate 'root canal' and 'big drill' and 'knock my ass out if you need to do any serious work on my mouth.'

I'm not sure if it was a good omen or not when the skies opened up just as the taxi pulled into the driveway of the American Home. It POURED cat and dog sized raindrops. I guess it was a good distraction - not only did I have NO IDEA where we were headed, but it seemed possible that we wouldn't make it to the dentist's office, what with the potential to hydroplane and crash before we arrived at our destination.

Alas, we made it. The dentists were on break, but the receptionist took my information. She was relieved that I could write my name and birthdate in Russian and I was relieved (and surprised) that this was all the information she needed from me.

Then we waited. We waited long enough for the cleaning woman to mop the floor of the reception area and for my anxiety to be transformed into full-fledged DREAD.

When I was finally called back into the room, I climbed into a normal dental chair in a very clean, airy room. Problem was, aside from the chair, all of the tools laid out on the tables and trays looked ENORMOUS and about 50 years old! Everything was clean and sterile, but it was obvious that this was not brand-new, state-of-the-art equipment. I will say that everything was arranged beautifully like a museum exhibit. Those are my only impressions before Ron asked if it was OK to take some pictures of me in the chair. The dentist was a kind, young woman who listened to my story, looked in my mouth and sent me down the hall for an x-ray.

To clarify: there are no x-ray machines in the examination room as there are in the United States. I was asked to sit on a chair in a very small, dark room. The technician positioned the heavy shield over my torso and instructed me to take my arm out of its safe position under the shield to hold the x-ray film in the necessary spot. Then, she pressed a button and RAN out of the room, slamming the door behind her. CLICK. X-ray taken. Technician returns to rescue me, and I'm soon back in the dentist's chair.

The verdict: the tooth is indeed broken (it was where I had a root canal and it wasn't my "real" tooth anyway) and would need to be completely rebuilt. Did I want her to do it right then? Uh, no. But, we asked several more questions to ascertain that everything would be OK until we got back to the States - no chance of it becoming infected or the entire tooth crumbling or falling out. Then, I was able to say very definitively, "NYET, spasibo." Phew. I will add that as relieved as I was, I was chided by Alexei, who said that I should have had the procedure done in Russia where the problem would have been immediately resolved without several office visits, daunting co-payments, etc. But, at least I can tell my dentist to knock me out before she attacks the tooth and know that she understood my request.

When we had accomplished Operation Dental Visit, I went back "home" and Ira and Ksenia took me shopping for ingredients to cook dinner for the family. Andrei likes turkey, so I made a Russified version of a simple, American Thanksgiving meal. Baked turkey cutlets in white wine and lemon sauce, boiled new potatoes, served with butter and greens [dill, parsley, spring onions], and salad. It felt great to actually do something for my family and everyone laughed at my dental office drama. And I even had all of my teeth in order to chew...

July 8, 2008

Dasha's Birthday

2 July 2008

The first indication that this would be an interesting day happened when I broke a tooth at lunch. We were eating Central Asian plov when I bit into a rock masquerading as a grain of rice. So, the adventure will continue with a visit to a Russian dentist tomorrow.

This afternoon we visited a monastery which had previously served as KGB headquarters. Apparently when they were remodeling the monastery, they found at least one mass grave. Father Innokenti, the eparch secretary, gave us a lecture on the status of Orthodoxy in Russia today. We then visited a convent, arguably the oldest convent in Russia, dating from 1200. There we saw the stunning icon The Holy Mother of Bogolyubovo. The story of how she came to be in Vladimir is a wonderful story which I will elaborate on at a later date, but she is said to have accomplished many miracles.

My home in Vladimir is very close to the convent and so Ira and Ksenia met me at the gates and we headed to Mak King for a birthday party. Lena's daughter Dasha turned 8 today. Mak King is like a McDonald's. Burger King, Wendy's, and Pizza Hut all in one, with the menu addition of warm beer served in plastic cups. There is a pretty extensive play area for kids and after some free-range romping, a woman dressed as a clown(?), jester(?), or maybe Pippi Longstocking entertained the girls for more than an hour. They played games, had their faces painted, sang, danced, batted ballons around and then ate pizza, fruit, and cake. It was really fun and makes me wonder what I'll be doing in August on the birthday of someone else I know who is turning 8...

July 6, 2008

Chocolate, Cows, and Ode to Blini

As we walked into the Kraft factory in Kirzhach, Jeff Schagrin started singing "I've got a golden ticket" a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was definitely like a visit to Willy Wonka's factory without the benefit of Oompa Loompas. The Kraft factory produces lots of products, but a majority of them involve CHOCOLATE! The guards took our passports at the door, but we hardly cared if they ever gave them back after they led us into a small room with a table heaped with candy bars, all produced right there in the factory. Fifteen minutes later, with sugar highs and endorphins enveloping us, we consented to leave nirvana for a tour of the plant.

We all had to wear shower-type caps, plastic covers on our shoes, and surgical-type gowns. We must have looked like something out of a Monty Python movie (or Oompa Loompa wannabes). It was hilarious.

We were literally shown the entire process of making candy bars and fancy filled candies (which Russians call 'pralines') starting from the warehouse which stores the basic ingredients (sugar, powdered milk, cocoa powder, etc.). Next we saw the tanks where these ingredients are dumped and mixed and then the room where they melt the cocoa butter and distill the chocolate liquor (RULE #1: DON'T EVER BOIL CHOCOLATE). The melting zones are called the Africa zones because they are the hottest rooms in the plant.

We saw enormous vats of fillings for candy bars and pralines (amaretto, strawberry, cognac, Irish Cream, fruits and nuts - YUM!). There are special machines to mix chocolate with fruits and nuts or to incorporate extra air into the chocolate for a special "whipped" chocolate bar that is very light and tasty.

Then onto the line where the bars and pralines are molded; filled (optional); jostled to release extra air and evenly distribute ingredients; chilled; unmolded; packed; and prepared for shipping.

Having worked in factories, it was interesting to see which tasks were automated (machine) and which were done by hand.

And have I mentioned the ever-present smell of chocolate in the air.

After lunch in the factory's canteen, we drove through the Russian countryside to a dairy farm, owned by an Englishman and run by two Americans (with a lot of Russian and Central Asian help). We saw cows being milked - quite a production - and learned the American farmers' perspectives on farming in Russia, bureaucracy, veterinary care (and medical care for humans), Russian winters, etc. It was all udderly fascinating...

Before we left the farm, we were treated to blini with homemade sour cream and jam. Not only were the blinis the best I had ever eaten, but the homemade sour cream tasted like whipped butter and of the three jams (apricot, cherry, raspberry), which were all excellent, the cherry was to die for. If I had any poetic genes in my body, I would have written an ode to blini on the spot.

As we boarded the bus, Galya - who had meant to say "Let's count the chickens" to make sure we were all accounted for, instead said "Let's count the little pigs." We all died laughing. The sweet lady turned ten shades of red, but it was a pretty appropriate word to have popped out of her mouth since that's what we all felt like having been stuffed to the gills with good food!

We raced back to Vladimir for a soccer game at their stadium. The Vladimir Torpedoes played the Moscow Torpedoes. Everyone expected the Moscow team to win - they were in a higher league than Vladimir, but we beat them 4-0! It was a lot of fun - Russians are VERY serious about their soccer and the spirit was contagious. Vladimir, Vladimir - davai, davai!

The Voice of History

June 30, 2008

A number of our group are under the weather with digestive difficulties. It would be hard to identify one culprit that may not have agreed with people since we continue to eat our body weights in food each day!

The highlight of today was the lecture on Russian history and politics by a gentleman named Percy Gurvitch. He is Vladimir's version of The University of Chicago's Eric Hamp (whom I respect immensely and adore as a person as well). Professor Gurvitch is almost 90 years old - born in 1919 - and has lived through eleven governments. Coming from a long line of Social Democrats, he has weathered various administrations with many personal stories of how people really lived and spilled the beans on a lot of "secrets of the rich and famous", as it were. Today he covered the period from the Revolution of 1917 to Kruschev. We'll be graced with his presence twice more before we leave Vladimir.

I want to note that Gurvitch is a polyglot, but he speaks English only once a year, and his command of English is superb. I'm serious - he dusts off his English specifically to address the Fulbright groups at the American Home. It was truly amazing.

Currently, Percy Gurvitch is still running one of the departments at Vladimir's Pedagogical Institute and is clearly revered among the faculty and students, both for his intellect and his integrity as a leader.

We are scheming to do an oral history project that involves videotaping Professor Gurvitch and posting the lectures to our own University website, CHIASMOS. Details to come at a later date...

July 3, 2008

A Day of Rest

29 June 2008

Our first free day is upon us.

The morning started with a culinary treat - blinchiki (little crepes/thin pancakes) topped with sweetened condensed milk. There's actually a special flour you can buy and mix with milk and voila (for the non-spatula-challenged), blinchiki!

We visited a park behind the American Home where schoolchildren regularly work - it's truly a majestic sight. Vladimir is built on rolling hills, so the gardens are terraced. There were apple and cherry trees, all sorts of berry bushes, a huge vegetable and herb garden, and flowers galore: irises, roses, fragrant jasmine, begonias, pansies, petunias, cactus, and a pervasive groundcover of pink-tinged sedum with tiny white flowers (and many others that I can't name or can't remember).

Ira and I visited the Old Vladimir Museum in what used to be a water tower behind the American Home. There were a great many compact exhibits devoted to life in Vladimir before the Revolution in 1917, but the real miracle of this museum was the view from the observation deck on the top floor. Beautiful, even with a fair amount of fog.

We ate at a cafe for lunch which specializes in traditional Russian fare, where I was stuffed like the proverbial American Thanksgiving turkey.

In the afternoon, Andrei and I took Ksenia to a kiddie park with carnival games, rides - bumper cars, motorized boats, carousel, inflatable slides/bouncy rooms, and trampolines with harnesses so that no one falls off. The safety feature was slightly marred by the fact that the bungee cord system was pretty frayed.

But, it was fun and the nightcap was a look through every photo album in the house.

Not a bad way to spend a lazy, hazy Sunday...

Lunch on a Farm

Lunch on a farm just outside Suzdal' was so phenomenal it deserves its own entry. The family lives on what appears to be a more or less self-sustaining farm with fields of potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers (which Suzdal' is famous for), herbs, beets, onions and a few animals: pigs, cows, chickens, and a pen with about 20 of the cutest ducklings in Russia.

The family had set up a long table in the yard and everything they gave us (with the exception of some of the beverages) was homemade, with many of the ingredients coming from their own gardens. We feasted on tomatoes, radishes, cukes, pickles; homemade cheese - it was DELICIOUS; all sorts of buns stuffed with different fillings; little quiches that had Russian cottage cheese (more like our cream cheese); tiny boiled new potatoes with dill; blini with homemade sour cream; carrot and cabbage slaw; and free-flowing beverages, including homemade honey moonshine, factory-produced mead, whisky, some sort of special baked milk that I was scared to try, and tea. Everything was scrumptious.

We made up a new song as we boarded the bus to the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus" - the people on the bus go EAT and DRINK... Eat, eat, eat definitely seems to be our motto!

Still, we survived walking around an open air museum with some stunning traditional wooden architecture. Did you know that aspen wood, as it ages, resembles silver? This is why so many Russian structures - the "gingerbread" trim on houses, windows, and even churches is made from aspen wood. Visitors who wonder where Russians found so much silver need only look to the aspen stands in the forests. The staff were all in traditional dress and it was much like the village at Old Salem in North Carolina or New Salem near Springfield, IL.

One funny tidbit for my girls: there was a big yellow balloon/blimp floating around that looked like the Beatles Yellow Submarine! I tried to get a picture and we all sang "Yellow Submarine" in honor of Emma...

Suzdal' and Bogolyubovo

I finally had a full 8 hours of sleep and the elves washed a few of the cobwebs out of my brain...

After some rousing renditions of three Russian folk songs (not bad for 9:00 on a Saturday morning), we boarded a bus to Suzdal' with Natalia, our trusty guide for all historical museum adventures.

Our first stop was a monastery that is now a living museum. The gardens are GORGEOUS - beds for flowers, medicinal herbs, and likely vegetables somewhere not along the walking paths. We heard a bell concerto when the clock stuck 11:00 a.m. I don't know how the one man played 11 bells - must have looked like a marionette with strings tied to every limb and digit - but it was terrific. A male a capella quartet sang in one of the small cathedrals. I'm rapidly running out of Kleenex - the tenor's voice was pure and clean and goosebumps and tears were rampant. The beautiful voices and acoustics made for a sound that was reverent, palpable, and ethereal.

The we went to the town's Kremlin (most of you likely know that the word 'kremlin' means fortress), where we saw another old limestone church with beautiful blue cupolas. The clock was interesting - it had letters instead of numerals. I didn't know that if you put two dots over a letter, it signifies that it represents a number.

There was an accordion player on the path to the Kremlin and he burst out in a rendition of "Milenkii ty moi" as we passed. I wonder if it was a coincidence or if Andrei had a hand in it, as this was a song that we had learned earlier in the day. Andrei has a very good voice and sang along with the musician, passing his hat for the effort.

Bogolyubovo had a convent, where we saw some very old artifacts, including a piece of sidewalk preserved from the 12th century. The real treat was walking to an old limestone church, which stands in the middle of a huge meadow. It reminded me of the fen near Elgin, IL with its narrow paths and explosion of wildflowers. Apparently, this church is a popular place to pray on the big holidays, but is not heavily populated - except for tourism - the rest of the year.

After the "work day" had concluded, Ira, Andrei and I went to an Armenian cafe - Shesh Besh - for dinner. Our shashlik was peppered with some pretty serious conversations about buying houses and cars in our respective countries, horoscopes, and how we met our spouses. My Russian must be getting better as I can now converse with Ksenia without much facilitation from Ira. It's easy to understand the adults if they speak slowly and enunciate, but the speech patterns of 7 year old girls is both rapid fire and skips from one topic to another, leaving me in the dust. Still, the sweet girl tries to talk to me and holds my hand when we're crossing the street, so all is right in the world.

Law Enforcement

27 June 2008

Today we visited the Juridical Institute, which is like a Police Academy and Law School combined. The cadets come from all over Russia and gave presentations on the various regions of Russia. This was really important for us to hear, as most Americans don't realize how BIG Russia is and how many languages, ethnicities, and cultures are represented in the Russian Federation. After the presentations, we had a brief discussion. There were many questions directed at the Cadets from Chechnya and Dagestan about the political situation in the Caucasus and ethnic/religious tensions throughout Russia. It was apparent that the cadets had more they WANTED to say, but did not dare. Answers were carefully constructed, but telling nonetheless. Still, it was good for our teachers to hear about the diversity of Russian peoples - excellent food for thought and a revelation for many of us.

The Institute houses a high security prison and there were many questions about how the prisoners live, what they eat, etc. Interesting.

We had a guided tour of the Dimitrius Cathedral and the Assumption Cathedral. The Dimitrius Cathedral is made of white stone, with gorgeous, intricate carvings on the outside walls. It was a wonderful, slightly ironic mix of mythological creatures and saints and simply a visual feast for the eyes. The Assumption Cathedral is one of the oldest 12th-century cathedrals and is graced with frescoes by Andrei Rublov. His scene of the Last Judgement is stunning - it is obvious that Rublov was a gentle spirit himself, who did not believe in an angry or vengeful God. His depiction shows none of the fear, fire or brimstone of other such scenes and is peaceful and serene. There is one angel that is so beautiful as to bring tears to your eyes.

We also had a panel discussion which hit on a few practical problems in education. The guests of honor were three recent graduates (as in they graduated YESTERDAY) of the Pedagogical Institute, all students of English. The most interesting part of the discussion was on cheating - strategies and methods described by the young ladies and countered by the experiences of our American teachers.

Finally, we had a pot-luck dinner at the American Home. Good food, a vodka tasting, and many toasts to our new families and to budding international friendships. Scott and Bruce did some special toast with arms linked and now they're special drinking brothers, so you can see that we are becoming a real family!

Seriously, though, I feel very honored to be with this group of teachers. We are an excellent mix of youthful enthusiasm and years of experience. These teachers are smart, savvy, and really dedicated to learning as this is the path toward better teaching. Kudos to these bright men and women from the University of Chicago interloper.

Young Children

26 June 2008
Day 4

Today we talked about food (before and after eating way too much, as usual) and then hopped on a bus to visit a Detskii Sad. The word is often translated as "kindergarten," but it's really a pre-school for kids from 2-7. It's comprehensive care that extends way beyond daycare and education - the kids eat 4 times a day and even get immunizations at the Detskii Sad. As is traditional, some of the younger kids performed a few songs for us. We reciprocated with "The Itsy, Bitsy Spider."

Then onto an orphanage. It was both very good to see the conditions in the orphanage and extremely difficult to experience this. The children performed for us and our group did an encore of "The Itsy, Bitsy Spider" and followed it up with "Where is Thumbkin?" All was well until we got to the "Where is Tall Man?" verse and realized that we were giving the finger (on both hands!) to a bunch of parentless Russian children and their teachers. And I'm sure we have it on tape. Sigh.

The children are very well cared for at this particular orphanage and seem happy and well-adjusted. It was a shock to learn that only one of the 23 kids was truly an orphan. Most of the kids have at least one parent who is unable to take care of them: they are alcoholics, or don't have enough money, or are in prison, or have given the child up because of health reasons (either the parent or the child might be sick), etc. We were touched to learn that the kids call each of the teachers/caretakers "Mama". The teachers - as is the case everywhere we've visited - are attentive and wonderful with the children. You can tell that they really care about the children and love their jobs in spite of the abysmally low salaries.

We brought lots of things for the kids, a few that we distributed right away - bags with juice boxes and apples, as well as the matchbox cars I brought. One of the little boys glommed onto a few of us and it was a real treat for us to have a tour of the facility given by our knowledgeable guide Sashenka. He showed us the big room with rows of little beds; the wardrobes filled with clothes of various sizes (shared by the kids); the playroom that also serves as a dining room. It was so hard to leave - I cried and cried, but it has burned a lasting impression in my mind. Poka, Sashenka - vsego khoroshego!

Girls Night Out

25 June 2008
Day 3

There will be no time for homesickness here. It is simply impossible (OK, not impossible, but we certainly don't have time to pine for our loved ones as we're frantically scribbling notes during lectures and panel discussions). Information is coming at us fast and furious and we are all wearing our catchers' mitts. This is a wonderful program, but VERY intense - kind of like a downpour when you really need a gentle rain.

This morning we went to the Vladimir Museum Complex and toured the Children's Museum. It was not as much an interactive "play" museum like in Pittsburgh or Chicago, but rather a brilliantly devised museum devoted to the history of the region, presented in a way that will lure children into wanting to know more. My favorite thing was the wall painting in the prehistoric room, textured with some sort of furry material, with a real mammoth tusk incorporated into it. Quite amazing and very creative.

We heard lectures on Russian names and greetings and on the process of adopting Russian children (strategically placed the day before our visit to a Russian orphanage) and visited the Palace for Children's Creative Learning, which does indeed resemble a huge concrete castle. It's essentially the central operations for every type of extra-curricular activity that kids in Vladimir can participate in: sports (including a rock-climbing wall built by the American Home); fine arts; crafts; music; they even have an enormous indoor winter garden. The garden was particularly fun - like a miniature version of the Garfield Park Conservatory - and there were several birds in residence, including a large, green parrot. Apparently, one of the students received the parrot as a Christmas gift and found out she was allergic to him, so he now lives in the Palace garden and she can visit him regularly. He didn't react to any of our group when we said hello with our highly accented Russian greetings, but Olga Piekarski - one of the few in our group who is fluent in Russian - held a veritable conversation with him!

Some of the kids performed for us - the Director of Music is very successful in training the students of voice. There was a version of Ave Maria - a choir with a young female soloist - which gave me goosebumps and had me quickly pulling out my Kleenex. Not only did the kids sing like angels, but they were very confident and poised (Stephen Dunn's choice of words, which captured the essence perfectly). After the performance, we had tea with the kids. It was very fun, but made me very homesick. Any of you that know my children know that Sophia has the voice of an angel. Emma still needs a small bucket in which to carry her tune, but I do miss her belting out "Yellow Submarine" on the 171 bus...

The evening was a real treat. Once a month, Ira and three of her friends from school have a girls' night out dinner at one of their houses. This one was at Lena's. Lena's family had recently vacationed in Crete, so the theme was Greek cuisine. It was delicious, washed down with red wine and grapefruit infused vodka. But the best part was listening to the ladies sing. After dinner, they head into the living room, light candles on the piano and sing Russian folk songs and ballads until the tea pot lures them back into the kitchen. They have a set repertoire of tunes they've perfected with intimate harmonies - it's wonderful. Lena even did a solo arrangement of "Yesterday" for my benefit.

I am extremely grateful to have been invited and propose a toast to friendship... Cheers!

July 2, 2008

The Russian Education System, part 1

Day 2
24 June 2008

My day started with a real family moment: Yaroslav, the 14 year old son in my family, came to the breakfast table grumbling about having to eat his kasha. He took forever to tie his shoes and complained about getting ready to leave. Ah, a normal day - hooray!

It was a long day - we had a lecture on the Russian education system and excursions to three places: School #3 - an award-winning gymnasium; the local Teacher Training Institute; and I went to a private day-care center (most of the group went to a Youth Health Center).

The visit to school #3 was orchestrated, but enjoyable nonetheless. We were greeted by a young girl in a traditional Russian dress with the most elaborately decorated loaf of bread I've ever seen and a tiny bowl of salt. I've never actually experienced this Russian tradition of welcoming people with bread and salt and was delighted to break off a piece of the bread and dip it in salt and then taste the warm welcome of our hosts. We saw the library and the cafeteria before settling into the music classroom, where two of the students performed for us. A young lady sang the Pushkin poem "Ya Vas lyubil" to accompaniment that she herself played, and a little boy played a tune on the clarinet with his mother accompanying him on piano. We saw some of the older students perform a skit and presented the teachers with a few things we had brought for the school. We also saw the Director's office and watched a DVD prepared by some of the students of English on Vladimir. For me, one of the most amazing things was to walk through the halls where the students' art was displayed. We saw paintings and a lot of needle-work (quilts, handbags, pillows), many incorporating folk themes, that were absolutely stunning.

The school building was, from the outside, quite shabby, but it was immaculate inside and the dedication of the teachers to their student, the pride and affection for the pupils was palpable.

The Teacher Training Institute is devoted to professional development for the teachers in the region. Several teachers did a show-and-tell of their students' (and their own) work, but there was also a panel discussion and an interactive playing of games that the teachers taught us. One of the young teachers had just finished a dissertation on educational games and the importance for children to learn through playing.

The teachers made a presentation of a book and a gorgeous crystal owl (the symbol of wisdom and knowledge) to the group.

My last stop was a private daycare center - the owner was a woman of never-ending enthusiasm and energy and this was a VERY fun experience. The goal of the center is for children and parents to learn together and they teach and care for kids from 18 months to 14 years. There are programs for English language instruction, reading, dance, other physical activities, and even exam preparation. Our small group was fixated on the methods for teaching the small children how to read - we were shown some really remarkable charts and visual aids - loved the phonics blocks - and heard some catchy tunes to help children learn the alphabet and phonics. We watched part of a dance class (2-3 year olds) and then caught a bus back to the American Home.

Ira, Lena and Ksenia - the 7 year old daughter in my family - took me on a private walking tour of the city. The churches were all closed, but we saw the outside of the Dimitri Cathedral and the Assumption Cathedral and walked through the park to an overlook where you could see the Klyazma River and the miles of forests on the other side. The view was really stunning and it gave me a better perspective of how the city is laid out. After a brief jaunt to the playground for Ksenia, we returned home for supper and two email messages from my family.

Ksenia and I have really bonded and so we watched the video from her preschool/kindergarten graduation. I fell asleep with images of twirling, dancing, singing children in my head...

July 1, 2008

The American Home

23 June 2008
Day 1

After breakfast, Andrei - my host "Dad" - drove me to the American Home for Day 1 of stuffing our brains with valuable information about Russia, past and present. The American Home, conceived and built in 1992 by our Co-Director Ron Pope (ISU) - with help from some other designers and contractors, of course - is like many of the cookie cutter houses that grace the suburbs of America, but it is truly a novelty in Russia. It's really wonderful to have a home base that FEELS like a home away from home.

I should take a minute to mention the central figures in the implementation of the in-country seminar. None of this would be possible without Ron and his right and left hands - Alexei Altonen and his wife, Galya - they are the forces behind the in-country itinerary and they are truly amazing. I know, from my experience at my previous job and here at U of C, how much work goes into shepherding 15 people around for even a couple of days, much less the four weeks of the Fulbright program. There are not enough kudos in the world to thank them for their attention to detail, their efforts to create a diverse, educational program, and their warmth and kindness.

One thing that we will all need to get used to is the media attention that our group has inspired. A young reporter interviewed me for his (hopefully radio, not television) show on why this Fulbright program is important and necessary. At least these are questions that I can answer...

After lunch, we had a walking tour of Bol'shaya Moskovskaya Street - the main drag in Vladimir - with a guided tour of the history museum and Golden Gates. I will post a picture of the Golden Gates, considered the symbol of Vladimir, when I can get the pictures downloaded (uploaded?) from my camera. The museums were quite amazing. The history museum had archaeological artifacts (I'd never seen a real mammoth tusk or tooth before) and exhibits through to present Vladimir. The Golden Gates contains a stunning diorama of the city in 1258, when the Mongols were attacking (and subsequently burning) the entire city. It was like being in the movie "Night at the Museum." The rest of the exhibits were devoted to the military history of the region - an entire corridor of portraits of war heroes and odes to technological and scientific achievements.

After the "official" day concluded, Ira and Lena - my host "Mom" and her best friend - took me to see "Sex and the City" at a beautiful, new movie theatre in town. It was a great movie to see for a couple of reasons. (1) I could handle most of the dialogue even with my pathetic Russian skills (and there were visual aids to intuit the plot when I couldn't understand a few words); and (2) it was worth it even if I couldn't have understood a thing to hear the voice-overs. Most of the voices were COMPLETELY wrong for the characters and it had me laughing for the entire 2 hours. (I'm sure the beer Ira bought me at the concession stand and the jet lag helped).

But, it was a very enjoyable day.
The Long Road to Vladimir
Arrival in Russia, 22 June 2008

After months of planning, days of orientation, and hours on shuttles, airplanes, and buses, our Fulbright group is finally here in Vladmir, Russia. The direct, non-stop flight from Chicago to Moscow was LONG, but uneventful. Ok, I guess there was one special event, namely the barf-bag puppet theatre created by our own Scott Read to entertain the masses - inspired by sleep deprivation and adrenaline. So, we've identified our comic relief in case anyone needs a laugh in the next month.

Immediately upon walking through the green corridor through Customs, I noticed a radical difference from my airport experiences in 1992 and 1994. About 70 per cent of the automobiles are European or American, as opposed to the glut of Ladas from the 90s. The bus followed a highway that went around the southern part of Moscow - our first glimpses of Russia included a mosaic of old and new: thick stands of gorgeous white birch trees along the highway, peppered with dachas (and some of the dachas were bigger and fancier than any home I've ever lived in!); gas stations; car dealerships (Volvo, Ford, Audi, Renault); garden and home centers; lumber/building material yards; a tree farm (to replenish the garden centers, no doubt); and shopping centers, including an enormous IKEA.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant just inside the Vladimir region, "Skazka". It was like a diorama of the best of Russian fairy tales. The wood carvings of fairy tale characters were amazingly intricate and impressive. If I was more familiar with Russian fairy tales I could name the characters whose wooden likenesses graced the building and grounds, but in my state of exhaustion, it seemed like a magical land. Lunch was amazing and enormous (round one of the continuing saga of "death by food," which one experiences thanks to gracious, hospitable Russians).

Our host families were waiting for us at the American Home in Vladimir and they quickly took us "home". After more food and a multi-cultural game of 20 questions, I finally rolled into bed to rest up for more adventures.

June 19, 2008

Fulbright Trip to Russia

Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many entries about an exciting CEERES project that is finally coming to fruition. CEERES was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad (GPA) grant to take a group of K-12 educators to Russia this summer. The purpose of this long journey is to help the educators learn about this vast country and to bring back discoveries about Russian culture and history to share with their students. CEERES will be collecting the pedagogical materials that come out of this trip and will disseminate them as far and wide as possible - they will all be free and open to the public.

The group gathered for the first time at The University of Chicago for a two-day orientation before we hop on a plane at O'Hare on Saturday and fly to Moscow. In the coming days, I hope to share our adventures with the world as I talk about our month-long journey. I hope that a few people will be inspired to follow along with this blog and - if you are educators yourselves - maybe you can use some of our discoveries in your own classrooms.

You are very welcome to be part of our journey.

With best wishes,
Meredith Clason
Associate Director

April 3, 2008

FALLING OUT OF TIME: New Documentaries from the Former Soviet Europe

This Thursday, April 3, the documentary program at the Art Institute of Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center features Ukrainian director Igor Strembitsky's film Wayfarers (Podorozhni), a 10 minute black and white documentary filmed in a state clinic for the mentally ill. Wayfarers was awarded the Palme d'Or for best short documentary at Cannes in 2005.


FALLING OUT OF TIME: New Documentaries from the Former Soviet Europe
Curators Oona Mosna and Jeremy Rigsby in person

Thursday, April 3, 6 pm
Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State / 312-846-2600)

Curated by Oona Mosna and Jeremy Rigsby, directors of Windsor's annual film and video art festival, Media City, the program includes Ukrainian Igor Strembitsky's 2005 Cannes-winning Wayfarers; acclaimed Russian director Sergei Loznitsa's haunting Halt (2000); Victor Asliuk's The Mine (2004, Belarus); and Oksana Buraja's Mother (2001, Lithuania), among others.

Phillip Svehla
International Program Coordinator
Chicago Sister Cities International Program
78 E. Washington St. 4th Floor
Chicago, IL 60602

March 17, 2008

Nauryz, Spring in Central Asia, Roksonaki in Chicago

CEERES is co-sponsoring an upcoming concert by the Kazakh band Roksonaki. Details on their performances are below. Their tour coincides with the Persian celebration of spring, Nowruz, or Nauryz. This celebration has various expressions among the various peoples of the region. I heard a fascinating article about Nauryz on NPR Weekend Edition Sunday (March 16), and you can find it here:

Roksonaki will be playing their unique blend of traditional and contemporary Central Asian music on The University of Chicago campus (Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E 59th St) on Monday, March 31 at 7pm. Check here for more info!

Getting news in/from the Balkans

Back on March 6, we treated to vary insightful and provocative discussion about the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, its closing, and the realities and processes for continued justice-seeking in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. One of those panelists, Gordana Igric, founder the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), sat down with Jerome McDonnell for an interview on WBEZ Chicago's Worldview -

BIRN has a great on-line journal of reporting from the region -

Pretty soon the March 6 on the ICTY will be podcast on CHIASMOS.

March 11, 2008

Abkhazia asks for recognition of its independece

Citing the recent break of Kosovo from Serbia as precedent, the breakaway region of Abkhazia in Georgia recently passed a resolution asking the international community to recognize its independence. This move came right after Russia lifted sanctions on the region. Russia says this is not related to Kosovo, whose independence Russia does not recognize.

Some news:
BBC: Abkhazia in independence appeal
International Herald Tribune: US, Georgia caution Russia against backing militants in breakaway Abkhazia
Reuters: U.S. says it regrets Russia's moves on Abkhazia