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...