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.