St. Petersburg etc.
Wow, it’s been a while since my last update… I keep putting it off because a lot has happened and the obligatory blog recap has been looming menacingly in the back of my brain for some time.
So last weekend our whole EAP group visited St. Petersburg, which was fun but rather whirlwindy. Our train left on Thursday night (actually Friday morning) at 12:30am. The train ride is around 7-8 hours, so these late-night trains are the best ones to take, so that (ideally) you can sleep on the train and arrive in the morning, fresh as a daisy and ready to see the sights! I’m kidding, of course. I don’t think there were any fresh daisies to speak of at 8am Friday when we rolled up in Petersburg. I’m pretty sure everyone sharing our train car is still cursing the irreverent Americans who, refusing to sleep the night, kept everyone awake with their clanking champagne bottles and giddy laughter.
This having been my first experience with sleeper trains, I thought the accommodations were quite nice. Luxurious, even. Actually our return train ride to Moscow was really something because we were provided with food boxes, fresh (?) sheets, and even a shoe-shine kit. (Incidentally the shoe-shine kit turned out to be little more than a shoe horn and a moist towelette. But it still screams luxury.)
When we got to St. Petersburg, we walked to our hostel (which seemed like a really long walk on the way there, but on the walk to the train station for our return trip, it was literally around the corner) and settled in there. Well, I say “settled in,” but that’s a bit of a stretch. Only one of the rooms was ready, so all 24 of us put our stuff in the one room and then everyone took a communal nap. Well, except for me. I took a shower, of course. Which was no small feat. The showers were downstairs (our rooms were on the 3rd and 4th floor), and the accommodations reminded me of being back in the dorms… wearing flip flops and trying to put on jeans in the privacy of a shower stall without getting any pant legs wet on the grimy shower floor, trying to get the shower head to spew water at regular angles, etc. But it was the best possible thing I could have for myself, because we spent the whole day taking a boat excursion and then went to the Hermitage later. I don’t have a lot to say about that, except that it was all very stunning and I was very tired. Then the next day we took a tour of Petergof, which is this amazingly beautiful and expansive estate of Peter the Great that is full of picturesque gardens and fountains galore. I wish I could say more about it, but since our tours are almost always in Russian I can never keep up with details.
The next day in Petersburg we took a walking tour of the city, which was one of the best tours we’ve taken so far. Our tour guide Sasha conducted the tour in English, which was a big plus. We walked all over and I think we all got a pretty good feel for the city. We saw a lot of historical sites like Smolny Cathedral and the apartment where Lenin wrote his speeches, and the famous Kresty Prison where Akhmatova’s son was imprisoned (there’s a really beautiful monument of her across the street erected at her request). We also walked around random alleys and periodically stopped at cafes for tour breaks. It was an exhausting tour, but I think everyone got a lot out of it. At the end of that day (Sunday), we had to catch the train back to Moscow at 9:30pm. But before that a group of us went to a big bookstore and picked up some reading material for the train ride back (although I’m not sure anyone actually read more than 2 pages of their books on the train before passing out and waking up dazed at 5am the next morning when we arrived in Moscow). I bought “Tainstvenniy Sad” (The Secret Garden), a book of Maiakovsky poetry, and “Aristokratka” by Mikhail Zoshchenko. Zoshchenko, incidentally, was an early 20th century writer specializing in short satirical stories. A lot of us are fans of him because of the simple prose he uses, which we can actually digest at our rudimentary level.
As a side note, something that became a bit of a ritual with a group of us (or as much of a ritual as it could be after 3 days) in St. Petersburg was going out to eat at this pel’meni place around the corner from our hostel. Pel’meni are, for lack of an American equivalent, Russian dumplings, usually served with sour cream. I can’t be sure what kind of meat they put in them at restaurants, but if you browse the frozen food section of any Russian grocery, you’ll find a wide variety of pel’meni stuffed with every type meat you could imagine (and even some you didn’t know existed). Beef, lamb, pork, veal, young beef, young pork, “Siberian,” “Classicheskaya,” “home-cooked.” Actually, even when the packages have labels the meat manages to retain a bit of its mysterious charm. Anyway, my point is that we went to this pel’meni dive religiously, at first because it was convenient and we didn’t want to embark on a long food search, and then came back for more because I think we somehow enjoyed the abuse we suffered from the tight-lipped young woman who worked there. Before every transaction, she would give us a hostile spiel about how we must use exact change. Which is no easy task, especially when something is R125 and all you’ve got in your wallet is a 500 or (heaven forbid) 1000 note. Those 1000-ruble bills are sometimes downright useless, and before one can even dream of approaching a kiosk or going out to dinner, one must scramble to break this burdensome note in McDonald’s or some other well-established chain with steady cash flow. Anyway, every day we would go to this pel’meni place, scrounge for 10-ruble notes and 1-ruble coins, and feast on our dumplings with sour cream. The last day we went there, we even got our lady cashier friend to smile when we went there thinking it was closed and then upon discovering that it was in fact open, unanimously shouted, “URA!” (hooray). I’ve since boiled up some frozen pel’meni at home, but it’s just not the same. Probably because the pel’meni that I bought don’t have unchewable gristle bits tucked inside their greasy meat folds. But those gristle bits were part of our nitty-gritty Petersburg experience, so I hold them dear in my memory.
Last Monday (the day we returned to Moscow) there was some sort of holiday, “day of knowledge” or something to that effect. As such, we were invited to a celebratory event at our university, where all students (including the Russians who had previously been on vacation) were invited to come and listen to a speech given by the mayor of Moscow (Yuriy Luzhkov). I’m not sure why I rushed to take a shower and put on a nice dress for this event, because we waited for hours for him to arrive and then the speech he gave was blatantly anti-American. I didn’t see what it had to do with knowledge or education, it was mostly about oil and how America is self-serving. I’m exaggerating slightly, but only slightly. The whole time I was thinking how unlikely it would be for the mayor of New York or San Francisco to give a speech like that. I don’t know if people here consider a speech like that to be openly hostile or just candidly biased? Regardless, I felt sheepish during his speech and was thoroughly embarrassed afterward when one of our Russian teachers grabbed Lushkov as he was exiting and said, “We have students from California to see you!” and then insisted we take a photo with him. I think someone from our group got a video of him giving what was probably a sarcastic thumbs-up in response to this announcement.
Since last Tuesday, we’ve started our “real” classes. The workload is a little more hefty than I was led to believe by previous EAP students. For one thing, the physical time spent in class is considerable. Most of us start at around 10 (one of my days starts at 9) and then it’s possible to be in class until 5 or 6. However, I don’t want to dramatize things—usually there are breaks between classes that can range from 1-3 hours. But since we can’t exactly go home and come back to class easily, it’s still a pretty full day. I’ve decided to take all three elective classes being offered, in addition to the mandatory grammar and speech classes. So all total I have literature, film, political science (history), grammar, and speech practice. Each of these meets about 4-5 hours a week, so it’s a pretty full load.
My favorite so far is the film class, because our professor knows exactly where to pause the film and recap to make sure we’ve understood everything, and the vocabulary we learn there is really useful. We just finished watching an old short film called “Dvoe” (pair), which is about a young man who studies at a music conservatory who tries to get to know a deaf girl. The actress from it reminded me a lot of Audrey Hepburn. (Camille, I thought of you when we watched this—I know you would like it.)
In our literature class we’re reading Pushkin’s “The Shot,” which is fairly challenging because there is a lot of vocabulary I don’t recognize and I find myself having to look up every other word in the dictionary just to piece together the story. The literature teacher is sort of a funny guy. He’s got extremely rotten teeth from smoking and has a very soft, lilting speech pattern. Every once in a while when he says something he’ll wink at you slowly several times to make sure you’ve completely understood the innuendo of what he’s said, even if it doesn’t seem like there is any innuendo whatsoever. But by the third wink he’s given, you become absolutely convinced that he’s just imparted some hilarious or intimate secret. The other day in trying to explain the historical ruble value of something in the Pushkin story, he asked us how much a horse cost in America in 1830. Obviously we had no idea, but he kept trying to eke it out of us, as if we were coyly choosing to withhold the information. Eventually he gave up and said, “vy ploxie amerikantsy!!” (you’re bad Americans!).
The history class is a little underwhelming. I’m frustrated by how little information I’m able to absorb there, even though it’s the only one conducted in English. Maybe things will improve… I think the professor is planning on taking us on excursions to various museums throughout the term.
Last Friday we went on an excursion to New Maiden Convent, which is the most beautiful and prestigious convent in Russia. This is where all the tsars put their wives or female relatives when they got tired of them or thought they were getting too uppity. Since the women had to give up their wealth and jewels and earthly possessions upon entering the convent, it became really wealthy and powerful. Our tour guide told us an interesting story about how during the war with Napoleon, the French planned to invade and plunder the convent, but since the nuns took them in and fed them and were very pleasant, they decided to leave the nuns in peace and even left some sick French soldiers with them. But then after the French left, one of the nuns went to the basement and discovered all kinds of lit fuses attached to powder kegs. They managed to put the fuses out before any damage was done, but what a sneaky thing of the French to do. Right now there are about 30 nuns still living in the convent. I didn’t see any, but our guide said if we wanted we could take pictures of them but not talk to them because they don’t like it.
After the monastery, we visited the cemetery next to it, where a lot of famous people are buried. Some highlights were the graves of Boris Yeltsin, Gogol, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Khrushchev, and Stalin’s wife. Some stories:
1) Apparently Gogol had a condition in which he had no pulse but was still alive. Because of this, he specifically requested that no one bury him until after he had already started to decompose. Of course they didn’t observe his wishes and then when they went to relocate his body to New Maiden (from some other location, I can’t remember where), his body was turned on its side and there were scratch marks on the coffin. Also later someone stole his head, and then they mysteriously found the head of a younger man buried some feet below Gogol’s grave. Bizarre.
2) Chekhov’s grave has a monument that is exactly as tall as he was, which was really tall! I can’t remember how tall, especially because she gave the figure in meters, but… it was tall.
3) Bulgakov loved Gogol so much that he asked to be buried like him (don’t worry, not alive). They ended up just taking Gogol’s old tombstone rock and putting “Bulgakov” on it. I wondered why it was such a lame grave, and that’s why. It’s just a lump of a rock.
4) Since Khrushchev died after he was in power, he didn’t get buried in the Kremlin like all the other generals/leaders. Instead, he got buried in New Maiden and the funeral wasn’t even public. Outside the cemetery they just hung a sign that said, “Maintenance day” or something to that effect. Ouch!
5) The death of Stalin’s wife is something of a mystery. Apparently one night there was this party where Stalin was flirting heavily with young actresses and throwing breadcrumbs down their dress fronts. When his wife asked him why he was doing that, he said, “Here you can have some bread, too,” and then threw a loaf of bread at her. The next day they found her dead in her bed with a shot through her head. It’s possible that she killed herself because she had really bad headaches, but it’s also possible that Stalin had some people kill her. Nevertheless, Stalin came to her gravesite a lot and sat pensively on a bench nearby.
Unfortunately the battery life on my laptop is such that I will have to hastily recount the events of this last weekend, which was the “Den Goroda,” or “city day.” Basically it was Moscow’s birthday and there were a lot of festivities on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday I met up with some people at Park Pobedy and mulled around until we got bored of the live music and went to a bar for a little bit. Then we went to Krasniy Ploshchad’, but since there was a boxing match it was closed to the public. Then we went to Chistye Prudy because we heard there was another concert there but there was nothing that great so I just went home. To be honest, the night was a bit of a flop for me because my feet hurt from all the aimless walking done in not-so-sensible shoes on cobblestone streets. Everyone from the group kept getting split up and there was a near run-in with some skinheads when we were outside Krasniy Ploshchad’, which was a little nervewracking because I was alone with our friend’s friend who is from Kazakhstan. And everyone knows how much the skinheads love Asians. But anyway, we successfully avoided them and all’s well that ended well. Then yesterday (Sunday) I enjoyed some time spent alone in my apartment because my xoziaika spent the weekend at her friend’s dacha and I had the place to myself. It’s not that I mind her company, it’s just that I find her presence a little stifling at times. Especially in the kitchen, where she’s made it clear that she does not want me to do any cooking because she’s got her own system of doing things. So yesterday I woke up early, handwashed most of my laundry (major accomplishment), and then found a yarn store nearby where I got some needles and yarn and started a little scarf. (I know it sounds lame, but knitting has actually been a great outlet for me lately.) Later in the evening I met up with some friends at Shokoladnitsa, a café that’s comparable to Kofe Xaus. Then we went to Teatral’naya and wandered the closed-off streets full of people and activity. We managed to see the fireworks just outside of Red Square, which were amazing! Some of the best fireworks I’ve ever seen, probably.
Ahh I really have to go now and I wanted to get around to answering some of the questions in your comments but alas, cannot at this time.