Thursday, December 28, 2006

More Russian News

I thought that the story of the poisoned ex-KGB officer had pretty much disappeared. Then I opened up the NYT online and they tell me that the Russian authorities are trying to connect Litvinenko's death with the case of Yukos, the now defunct Russian oil giant that was dismantled by Russian authorities on the basis of some sketchy tax violations. This included the exile of most of its leadership and the imprisonment of its chairman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

More Russian News Fun

Monday, December 25, 2006


I made it! Stumbled in the door with the family just a few minutes ago. I'm exhausted, but happy to have made it. I smell something wonderful coming from the kitchen, so I had better go see what Mom has whipped up for a little Christmas Eve/Welcome Home dinner.

Peace, Joy, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to everyone...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

36 Hours...

A few pictures for you all; today was the last day for classes that meet on Monday and Thursday. I also snapped a quick picture of the AH under a couple of inches of snow this morning. The first picture is of my AI (3rd level class).

This is a picture of my BI (fifth level) class. Today was a pretty easy day planning-wise, but I still had a load of grading, individual student teaching, Russian movie-watching, worrying about how I am going to be packed in 34 hours, etc....yeah, anyway. This is a picture of my usual state these day...really tired.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wednesday...3 Days and Counting

Wednesday morning came and Molly, Sara, Nicole, and I made a trip to the orphanage to play with the kids. This time it was a little more restrained as it was the four of us with one group of about seven kids. The teacher explained that their group was very small because they had had two children adopted the day before. I don't know for sure, but I get the feeling that they have a pretty high turnover and the kids get adopted fairly quickly.

This week has been going great! Exams are done, now we just have to grade them and all. Last night, to celebrate, I fixed dinner: It was supposed to be Mexican food, which it sort of resembled. The key is that it was different from Russian food. We sat down and had a nice dinner to celebrate.

It's hard to believe that we are splitting up in about three days. Some of us are going home and some are traveling, but it's going to be the first time we've been apart for any length of time since the beginning of August. This has really gotten to be a comfortable routine, even though tings are rarely routine.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Exam Day!

Exams just started! (I have prep so my first one to give is not for another hour.) I am a little bit nervouse. I want all of my students to do very well. I have made every effort I can (I hope) to make sure they do, but it's up to them in the end. We will see.

In other news, yet another interesting NYT article about Russia. There is an interesting sub-plot here. Every day folks get a raw deal from the city administration in order to benefit the super-rich who can pay $33K per-square-foot cost of new housing near one of the more monsterous of Moscow's churches.

Tale of Money, Power and Real Estate in Moscow

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Просто отлично!

In the end, after quite a bit of work, the Christmas Party was a big hit. There was a gingerbread decorating contest: It was supposed to be houses, but we didn't have any good way to mold walls, so instead each group got a slab of gingerbread (good work Nicole!), candy, and icing. The results were pretty cool. We also played party games like Twister, Musical Chairs, Limbo, and (since it was the first day of Chanukuh) Spin the Dradle.

This is the Big Boss (actually, second in command after Gosha the American Home cat), Galya, with our Christmas/New Year's Tree.

We also taught the students who came to the party to sing Christmas Carols. Here are a couple of pictures of Sara and Joanna leading a the group in stirring renditions of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Jingle Bells," and "The Twelve Days of Christmas," among others.

All of these activities didn't stop us from having time for a little bit of dancing, including Joanna showing of her "Toxic" dance moves.

I hope that everyone is getting as excited for the holidays as I am. It's hard to believe that I will be home to see my family in just a week!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Dinosaur Comics, Christmas, and a Whole Lot More!

Molly has made a committed reader of a little something that, in the parlance of out times, is known as "Dinosaur Comics." Funny, irreverent, and updated daily!

T-Rex and Friends

Today, we have our American Home Christmas-New Year's-Chanukah Party. We're going to have cookies, gingerbread houses, dancing games, and a whole lot more! I will try to take a few moments to take some pictures to post.

In other news, we are finished with giving our oral exams. For the most part they went pretty well, but I was disappointed with a few of them. We'll see how the written exams turn out on Monday and Tuesday next week. Having just spent the last four years on the taking end of final exams, I can say with some certainty that it is better to give than to receive.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

С Рождеством!

Merry Christmas to everybody! I figured that now would be a good time for a pic of the AH Christmas/New Year's tree. I also thought I would toss in a picture of the gift that some of us got from Nastya and Lena, two of Joanna's students that we have hung out with several times. The stocking also had some chocolate, a little animal that looks a little like the warthog from the Lion King, and a calendar with pictures from different cities. My first Christmas gift and a pretty cool one at that!

Put Em' Up!

Volodya on the Cover of "The Economist"

Putin is on the cover of the Economist this week looking rather gangsterish. Someone at the Economist had some fun photoshopping this one. You have to have a password to read, but I gather the article is about how the Kremlin seems to consistently try to muscle its rivals by means of energy policy, especially its near neighbors and the EU.

The other interesting thing I can not resist posting it this little gem:

"Scots isna juist English written wi orra wirds an spellins. It haes its ain grammar an aw. If aw ye dae is tak an English text an chynge the spellins an swap a puckle wirds it'll juist be Scotched English an no Scots."

That's right, Wikipedia has a Scots Edition. I love it! Here's the article about Scotland...

In other news, we are giving oral exams and reviewing for the written exams today. The written exams are Monday and Tuesday of next week and then we have a final day to wrap-up, hand back exams, play English games, finish films, etc. It is really hard to believe that I'm going to be heading home for Christmas in little more than a week. There's no snow on the ground here (although we got a few flurries late last night, our first snow in what seems like a month.) There are only a few trees up and decorated because the Russian holiday season begins with New Year's a week after Christmas, has Christmas according to the Orthodox calendar on January 7 and then "Old" New Year on the 13th.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

I bet people who actually read this thing are getting sick of me posting links to stories about Litvenenko, but I can't help it. It's so bizarre and interesting, like something out of the Cold War. There's a quick summary of the people involved from the BBC.

Can't Tell the Players Without a Program

This is also an interesting article from the New York Times about the loads of former security servicemen (and maybe some women) and their effect on the politics and economic lives of their countries after the fall of Communism.

Article on Former Spies

And now, for a little humor. If you remember back a while I put a picture up of "Flovers." This notebook belongs to one of my students. I have a little laugh every time I see it.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pics and Some Spy News

As promised some pictures from the weekend. This is outside the museum that we went to. Nastya, my student is on the right in both. One is with me, one is with Molly.

In a case that continues to get "curiouser and curiouser," there is more today about Litvenenko. Appartently the German police are finding traces of polonium in the apartment of the ex-wife of the man that Litvenenko met with in a London hotel bar not long before he became ill.

You Try To Make Head or Tail of It

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Утка, Утка, Гусь

Molly and I made it back from out trip this afternoon. On Saturday afternoon, after helping to put of the Christmas tree and decorations around the American Home, we took a bus ride about an hour-and-a-half south to the little town of Gus-Khrustalniyi. (Гусь-Хрустальный) (I shouldn't say that it is all that little because it has a lot more people than Loogootee.) The first part means goose and the second part comes from the city's glass works. My student, Nastya (short for Anastasia), me us and took us home to her mother and grandmother for dinner. Russian hospitality was in full display. We were encouraged to eat as much as we could. After dinner, we met her friend Anya at what seems to have been the only place to hang out in town; a movie theater/disco/billiard hall/bowling alley. We had a good time hanging out but were very tired and headed home. This morning, we were a little slow leaving (a situation that was not helped by the big stack of blinni at breakfast.) First we went to an open air market where they sell crystal and glass from the town's factory and other places. Then we stopped to visit Nastya's mother at work and got an impromptu concert by some very cute four year-olds accompanied by piano. Then we stopped off at the town's glass museum, which sounds boring, but was actually pretty cool. After thatm, we went back and visited her family one last time for another Russian hospitality laced meal and then the bus trip back home. All in all it was a fun time. We spoke a lot of Russian, met some new people, and it was nice to get away from the American Home for a little while (which doesn't stop us from having tons of work to do, but I will deal with that tomorrow.)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bizzaro World News

A Little More About Russia's Youth

I found this article, also on the BBC, as sort of a follow-up to the Q & A from yesterday. It talks about the state of youth in Russia. It is a bit hard to imagine, but all of our students have been deeply affected by the fall of the Soviet Union. Even though the youngest ones, like the kids in the article, were born after 1991, their lives have been indisputably changed by the economic and social chaos of the 90's. In some way, this helps us to understand why the current state of affairs, a prosperous but strange and sometimes lawless Russia, doesn't seem so bad to them.

A couple of other news tidbits for your enjoyment...

Litvenenko Laid to Rest

Remember what I said about a strange and lawless Russia,this qualifies. It's not so much that these sorts of events happen, but the fact that it's safe to consider that there is some sort of ulterior motive. Anytime anything happens, one must ask, "Who benefits?"

Same goes for this gem in the safety inspection realm.

Did I mention oil is involved?

Last but not least, this is the fifteen-year anniversary of the agreement between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus that led to the breakup of the USSR at the end of 1991. Say what you will about Yeltsin (his name is practically a swear word in Russia), he did help oversee the break-up of an empire encompassing hundreds of ethnic groups and fifteen new nations with a minimum of violence. Just imagine if the former USSR had gone the way of the former-Yugoslavia...

So according to the NYT, a Muslim cleric performed last rights over Litvenenko's grave in London. A spokesman for his family left open the possibility that he made a deathbed conversion to Islam. This whole thing just keeps getting harder and harder to understand...
NYT Article

The part about Islam is at the bottom of this article about the investigation, which doesn't seem to be going all that well.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Wow...What a Workout!

So, I'm sitting here this evening, trying to get motivation to write my final exams, but I am having a hard time because I my shoulders are extremely sore. I didn't even have to go to the gym to get this effect, all I had to do was volunteer to go to the orphanage and play with the kids.

All eight teachers intended to go and six of us made it to the bus stop for the trip to Dobroe, technically a separate village, but really just an extension of Vladimir. We are supposed to make this a weekly event, but I think it will end up being groups of four of us on alternating weeks.

We got there around 10:30 and they introduced us to the director and the teachers. Regularly I think we will spend time with them indoors after lunch and possibly try to teach the kids a few words of English. The kids range in age from 2 on up to about 7-8 I think.

This time, we ended up being there at "go outside and play" time, so we joined in. Bob, Amanda, and Nicole ended up with about 8-10 relatively calm well-behaved younger kids. Sara, Joanna, and I ended up with about 20 or more hyper kids that wanted to run, jump, and go crazy. Let's just say that I am updating my resume to read "experience as airplane, helicopter, and climbing-wall." I went into the thing with clean jeans and shoes, but that didn't last very long. Then one of the kids decided that it would be a good idea to come and ask me how my mother let me out of the house with dirty pants....There you have it.

After an hour and a half of pure chaos, it was time to go home...And by home I mean here, to work. I know that I was exhausted. Judging by some of the looks around the teachers' office, I'm not the only one.

Politics Warning!

The other thing of note is politics. The current class between Russia and Georgia has many reasons (most of them not all that valid) and lots of bad results (gas price fights, deportations, wine import bans, etc). This is an interesting Article I found on the BBC's website: It's a Q and A between some Georgian High School Students and some Russian ones.

Q & A

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Teaching Update, With a Guest Appearance By the Passive Voice

After an especially exhausting day, I almost made it out the door of the AH before 9:00. Then I decided to go back and check one last thing on the computer. Once I got this far, I started to blog. Dang.

So, I just realized that if you didn't know any better you would think that we didn't actually teach around here. Believe it or not, we do. In fact, final exams are coming up in two weeks and I am excited to see how they go. I have a couple of classes who will do just fine and a couple of students I can honestly say have a better chance of flying to the moon than they have of passing the final on the first try.

The last several weeks have been spent, it seems, on the same topic: conditionals. You know, those sentences that begin with "if" and don't give you any trouble because you are a native speaker. By some strange coincidence, I am teaching these to both my third and fifth level classes at the same time (at slightly different levels.) If I hear one more sentence that begins with "If it rains tomorrow," I think I will scream!

So in the end, we've had some fun with this conversation:
Me: Complete this sentence, "If I had a million dollars,..."
Them: "But Aaron, it's not real!"
Me, under my breath: I know its not real, that's why its called an "UNREAL CONDITIONAL."

This week, third level AI, starring the passive voice.

"The tennis ball was thrown by Aaron."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Never a Dull Moment

NYT on Former Russian Agent's Death

The Latest From the Moscow Times

I don't know how much press this is getting in the states, but it seems like I am finding articles on it every day in the newspapers on-line. The whole affair seems very bizarre and I am quite sure that no one is telling the whole truth (except for the London police when they say they have no clue what is going on.) The whole thing seems like something from a John la Carre novel. When people ask why Russia is so interesting, this is one good example: there is never a dull moment.

The Moscow Times (usually a Kremlin critic) talks about the tracing of the polonium through BA flights back to Moscow. Sounds a little suspicious, right?

Another recent development involves Yegor Gaidar, who was one of Yeltsin's revolving door of Prime Ministers. He presided over some of the most catastrophic of the economic privatization shocks of the early '90s, but is now not seen as much of a big player. He suddenly became very ill last week in Ireland and turned of the next day in a Moscow hospital with what appears to be the after effects of a poisoning attempt. The plot thickens...

On a lighter note, a Russian version of one of my favorite TV shows, "Law and Order," is due out soon. Here is a link to an article about it.
Law and Order Po-Russkii
My favorite part is the quote, "For most Russians, a police force without corruption might sound as implausible as borshch without sour cream, or a legal document without a stamp. But if you tune in next February to watch the Russian adaptation of "Law & Order," don't expect to see Moscow's finest planting evidence, beating confessions out of witnesses or extorting cash out of illegal Tajik workers."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

St. Petersburg of the Future

St. Petersburg Reaches for the Sky

There is a debate underway in St. Petersburg about a proposal by Gazprom, the state oil company, to build a high-rise office building as the centerpiece for its headquarters in St. Petersburg. Even though this is outside of the historic center of the city (right across the river from where I went to school), it would likely be visible from the center. This comes as a bit of a shock in a city that is so architecturally orchestrated and laws ban buildings of over 157 feet in the center. That said, this is also about more than just buildings and architecture, it is also about the power of the state and state-run companies to get what they want and do what they want. It should also be noted that Petersburg is Putin's hometown and I am still intrigued by the possibility that he could become the head of Gazprom after his second term as President is over in 2008. This project might be a signal toward that end.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Day to Be Thankful

Since we had to teach on Thursday, our Thanksgiving was deferred a little bit. Saturday morning most of the teachers gathered early to bring together a big dinner for ourselves, the Russian staff, and some of the host families who decided to come. I was in charge of the Turkey and tried to pitch in and help with anything else I could. In the end we had a plenty of food for the twenty-seven guests (including ourselves.) The only really big scare we had was when we put two of the three turkeys in the oven at the same time. Suddenly the oven couldn't keep up. We waited patiently for a few minutes and then it started to work again. I guess it just needed a little rest! In the end most everything turned out great. The turkey wasn't the best I ever had, but it was the best (and first) I ever cooked. We had a great meal and I think everyone had a great time. The Russian staff even stayed behind and cleaned up, which we greatly appreciated since we were about dead from preparing the meal.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I guess I have a lot to be thankful for: a family who supports me when I go off on some crazy trip half-way around the world, some great new friends to spend the holiday with, the wonderful Russians who make our lives and jobs easier, and so much more...

Friday, November 24, 2006

I hope that you all had a great Turkey Day yesterday. As for us, Thanksgiving comes tomorrow. Since we are "the American Delegation" it is our responsibility to cook dinner. We have got a head start this afternoon. Before class we have started cooking and preparing things that will keep overnight. My main task is cooking the turkeys. Its the first time I've done it, but I've watched Mom do it lots of times! How hard could it be?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Cultural Learnings..."

Today is a glorious day in the day of my teaching career: I am using Borat to teach English! Our current topic is cultural differences and talking about what is polite, acceptable, customary, etc. Clearly, Borat does things that are not acceptable. Plus, in on the deal, the next grammar point is real conditionals. An example of real conditionals:

James Broadwater: I’m running for United States Congress in District 2.
Borat: He is a strong man, he will crush his opponents, and he will be powerful like Stalin, and not tolerate
people who are bad.
James Broadwater: Well, actually I wouldn’t compare myself to Stalin, but...
Borat: Will you vote for my friend?
Woman: Well, I probably will but I don’t ever tell people who I’m going to vote for before I vote.
Borat: If you do not vote for him he will take power!
Woman: Well, depends on whether he gets enough votes or not.
Borat: If you vote for him, he will make sure that you and family have many good years. But if you do not vote for him, you will be sorry. I will not leave until you swear on the eyes of your child that you will vote for him.
Woman: See, we don’t do that. That’s not the way we do things in America.

This, along with the big pot of chili I fixed for everyone, totally made my day.
Happy Turkey Day to everyone! I'm going to miss my family, but we are making an AH dinner for ourselves and the Russians. It should be fun!

P.S. I have to give credit to Joanna for coming up with the original idea of using Borat to talk about what is "acceptable," "polite," etc. I got to give credit where credit is due.

Monday, November 20, 2006

"Looks Like Somebody's Got a Case of the Mondays"

So, I was wandering around in the shared photos folder and found this picture of me opening my package that Nicole took. We had fun at the blues show last night. It was held in what is usually a nightclub/disco (in the European sense), but the music was pretty good and the food and drinks were not too expensive. Afterward we retired to Sara's house and experienced all the hospitality that she and Ira could muster. This mainly consisted of spaghetti, sausage, and watching cartoons...but it was glorious!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Weekend Update

Yesterday was a lazy day, and it was everything I hoped it could be. In the morning we went to the banya, which is the Russian equivalent of a sauna (although I think the heat is drier.) After that we were all wiped out. It is very relaxing and tiring. We stopped and had shashlik (grilled meat), and then retired to drink tea and watch TV. I had to go to the American Home for a while to show the Saturday movie, Air Force One. I had forgotten how delightfully cheesy that movie is, i.e. "Get off my plane!" Then in the evening we tried out the other movie theater in town. It is called the Khudozhesvenny Theater, which means Art Theater. Unfortunately it doesn't live up to that English Translation. It still shows the same Russian films and dubbed American films that the other one does. The only real difference is it is about a third the price and the seats are less comfortable and too small for me. So, for Saturday night entertainment we shelled out 100 r. and saw Snakes on a Russian. I am really disappointed that it was in Russian because I really feel that we missed the deeper meaning and character development that was expressed through such lines as, "Enough is enough! I have had it with these **** snakes on this **** plane!"
< /sarcasm>

Today I'm working a little, working on some grad school apps, and then we are going to a blues concert at 6:00. We'll see how it goes, but the tickets were like $5, so I think we'll get our money's worth.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A New Arrival from America...

Not a new teacher, just a package for me from Mom and Dad. I got some warm socks that are big enough, chewing gum that will last more than three minutes, some ground Starbucks coffee, and the best part perhaps, lots of spices. If you've read my blog before, you will remember that I have complained a lot about the food being bland. Since I have a chance to cook my own lunch here at the American Home, I can now use the spices that Mom sent me to jazz up my lunch fare. I think first on the list is going to be a big pot of chili!

In other news, we the semester is going very fast. We are having our Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, a week from tomorrow. We have three more weeks of class, a week of review and then testing. It has gone very quickly.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Inflation Strikes Again...

I talked a little bit about how St. Petersburg had experienced some inflation and things seemed more expensive. Inflation in Russia is pretty high, at least in some part because of the tons of money flowing in from oil and gas revenues. You expect in Moscow, but it hit home this morning when I hopped on my No. 7 trollybus and discovered...Horrors!...its gone from five to six rubles. Admittedly, this is a jump from twenty cents to twenty-four cents, but it also breaks the perfect synergy of paying for the morning ride with a ten ruble note and have the five rubles left for the ride home. This event is currently causing much consternation in the AH teachers' office.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Snowy Weekend in the Big V

The last couple of days has gone by quickly as we've been working quite a lot. We have a group of English teachers from the region coming on Monday and Tuesday for a seminar. I think as much as anything they are as much coming to practice their language skills as they are coming to learn teaching techniques from a bunch of amateurs. I've also been spending a lot of time reading up on the post-election fall-out: It's nice to be the winning side of one of these deals for the first time in a while!

We had a bunch of snow on Friday and it turned off cold the last two days. This picture is from Petersburg, but it gives me to combine a picture of the snow with a picture of a Teremok. If you remember my blog from my student days, you'll remember I used to rave about these. Teremok means "hut in the woods." This is not so much a hut in the woods as it's a hut in the city that makes delicious blinni, which are the Russian food that is somewhere between a crepe and a pancake. We definitely partook in its offerings while in Petersburg.

In other news, I decided it was about time for another picture of the boss supervising us in the teachers' office.

I also encourage you guys to read the other teachers' blogs. Since we have had a few days of vacation there has been quite a bit of new blogging action.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Vladimir - Moscow - Petersburg

First, a word of warning, this post will have a lot of pictures. I have put them in a small format, so you can click on them and get a bigger image if you want. It is also quite long...

Our vacation began on Saturday morning with an early train on the 2 1/2 hour trip to Moscow. We arrived and headed for Leningrad Station (yeah, it's St. Petersburg, but tons of stuff is still named after Leningrad.) We rode the metro and emerged in the Komsomolskaya stop to discover ourselves dodging the beginnings of a Russian ultra-nationalist rally in honor of the weekend's "Day of National Unity", which no longer officially commemorates the October Revolution. So we got to the station and found no tickets on day trains so we bought tickets for the night train to Petersburg. With that bit of success we set off with our backpacks to kill a day in Moscow (not so hard in a city of 15 million.) Our first stop was the Novodevichy (New Maidens') Convent.

The most interesting thing about this 16th century convent is the people who are buried there. Aside from seemingly thousands of Soviet generals and other dignitaries, there are famous writers, composers, and others. The picture at the top is me in front of Khrushchev's tomb. It is divided into two parts to symbolize the nature of his period in power, which broke with the Stalinist past but could not escape from it. The other three are of Gogol (rocking a mean bowl-cut), Bulgakov, and Chekhov. It was also the site of one of those bits of randomness that life sometimes throws at you. We were standing in the cemetery looking for Khrushchev's grave. I said to Eric, "Khrushchev's gotta be around here somewhere." Someone turned around and said, "Do you know where he is?" It was Wyatt, a guy from IU who is studying in Petersburg this semester. We had been in contact and I knew he was in Moscow with his study abroad group, but we had no prayer of arranging a meeting. Then, we met a couple of the other people in his group, one of whom was from the same liberal arts college in Massachusetts that Sara is from.

After that we headed for the New Tretyakov Gallery, which is housed in a hideously wonderful Soviet style building, but houses some cool collections of modern and contemporary Russian art, some of which was really cool and some of which I didn't really "get." After that we walked through a part full of old Soviet statues that had been taken down from other places and gathered there, grabbed some dinner, and headed for the train station.

The train was a pretty good experience, we met a couple of cool people, but it was late and we were tired. I went to bed and got a decent night's sleep. We got in to Peter at about 6 and, as you might imagine, it was freezing cold. We dropped our stuff off at the hostel and went out to wander the city until noon, when we could actually check in. We stopped in a cafe for a cup of tea and realized that everyone else who was on the street at 7 am had not been to bed yet. Because the days and nights are so imbalanced, Petersburg seems to run on a schedule of its own. That said, one of the most beautiful times of day is early in the morning in the snowy grey twilight of pre-dawn. It was at this time that we walked up through Palace Square and down to the Bronze Horseman, the statue of Peter the Great that is a symbol in the city.

When we made it back to the hostel we checked in and crashed out for a couple of hours. The hostel was really nice, inexpensive, and located on Liteyniy Prospect about five minutes walk from Nevskiy Prospect. There was also a good cheap place to get shaverma (think gyros-type Mediterranean food) and a Carl's Jr. (same as Hardee's for you in the Midwest and South) across the street. This place had all the makings of paradise. We went out later to a play based on Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, but we left at the intermission because it was incredibly long, and although it was easy to follow the plot due to our knowledge of the book, it was just strange. This disappointment was compounded when we discovered that the cheap Georgian restaurant across the street was still a Georgian restaurant, but no longer one to which you could apply the word "cheap." So, we ended up at KFC instead. I know its bad to go to American restaurants abroad, but it is cheap, dependable, and plus there are no fast food places in Vladimir at all, so it was a treat. You can see for yourself the result.

When we returned to the hostel on Sunday night, we found that we had some new friends: eight British students, mostly from Oxford, who are studying in Yaroslavl and were in Petersburg for the weekend, plus a cool Australian guy who was just traveling on his own. We ended up hanging out with them quite a bit in the evenings. We also met up with a few old friends of Sara and Eric along the way.

Monday we spent walking around the city. For the most part we walked until we got cold, then went into a cafe to drink tea, warm up, and read a little. With that complete, we moved on. We visited several churches and Sara and I spent some time exploring the Yusupovsky Palace, one of the most famous and lavish of the palaces in the city. In general it was pretty uneventful, but very relaxing. Pretty much the same went for Tuesday. We tried to get into the Hermitage but it was too full and the line was not moving, so instead we visited the crusier "Avrora," which holds a big place in the haigiography of the Octobor Revolution, the anniversary of which was Tuesday.
We also visited the museum for the 900 day Siege of Leningrad, which was very small but rather interesting and full of artifacts. Lastly, while Sara went and visited the director of her study-abroad program, Eric and I hopped on the metro and headed south for a stop at a different, outdoor memorial to the Siege and Defenders of Leningrad, which was very Soviet and grandiose as you might imagine. With that, we met up with Sara at the train station and caught our night train back to Vladimir via Moscow. We slept pretty well and shared the open car with a group of students from Tatarstan, who after a few moments of shyness began to ask us tons of questions about ourselves and America. One girl even tried to teach us some phrases in the Tatar language via Russian. Sara was her star pupil: all I remember is "salaam," which means "How are you?" (I think.)
We finally arrived back in the "Big V" this morning. I for one had a great time, but there was no small amount of culture shock in going back to Petersburg, a place I know pretty well and a place where there are actually things too do that don't involve teaching English or hanging out at the American Home. That said, I am a glad to be back home, a feeling which hit me when I arrived back to my apartment and Nina Petrovna whipped up a huge bowl of pelmeni for me.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

St. Petersburg...Cliff's Notes Version

I can't make a long post, but I will post a bunch of pictures and things when we get back to Vladimir. Eric, Sara, and I have been in Petersburg for a couple of days after killing Saturday in Moscow. We have a night train directly back to Vladimir tonight. We have done a lot of wondering the city, sitting in cafes to warm up, and experiencing no small amount of nostalgia. We have also met a pretty cool group of Brits who are Oxford students studying in Yaroslavl. Well, gotta run...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Vegas? Well not quite...

The NYT on Gambling in Russia

There is a good article in the New York Times today about Russia's gambling problem. Vladimir doesn't have as big a problem as many major cities, but there are still at least three or four casinos on the main street and lots of smaller ones spread throughout the city. Many are just a room with a few slot machines, but they are still a huge problem.

An interesting line from the story (emphasis mine):

Pressed by President Vladimir V. Putin, the only political authority that matters anymore, lawmakers are drafting a law that would banish casinos, slot-machine parlors and other gambling halls from Moscow, though they could be allowed to operate in a few other places.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Wild Wild Wednesday!

Wednesday rolls around, thankfully. Wednesday is like a mini-weekend in the middle of the week. True we spend the whole day at the AH, but we do that on the regularly weekends too. Galya arrived this morning and informed us that Joanna, who has been a little under the weather, is not coming to work this morning because she has ангина. For those of you who don't read Cyrillic, that's angeena (with a hard "g" as in "go.") It took a moment for us to realize that Joanna does not have a potentially fatal obstruction of the coronary artery, but rather a angina tonsilaris i.e. a throat infection. The Russian word for "sore throat" sounds as serious as a heart attack....bada-bing! I didn't mean to get into intimate details about Joanna's health, but the word confusion is rather interesting.

Actually, we are all hoping that she will be recovered enough to go with us on our trip to Petersburg, which is a whole 'nother story. We tried to get tickets from Vladimir directly to Peter for Firday night, but since it is a holiday, the train sold out. As is the one on Saturday night. So instead, we are going to take the Saturday morning train to Moscow and then catch one of the 3,264 trains from there to Peter. Failing that, we will give up and go to the Baltics instead. We are going to travel, we're not sure weather it will be to Peter (where we have a hostel reservation) or to Riga (where we can easily get one.) So in the mean time, we are going to cover Joanna's classes (I get to teach some extra BI's) and cross our fingers she is healthy and ready to go and that we can get some tickets to somewhere...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Halloween...(insert scary laugh here)

Well, yesterday was a very busy day around the AH: it was time for the annual AH Halloween party. We've been preparing, but we still had lots to do. After the last midterm takers were gone Friday night, we stayed for several more hours to move tables, put up decorations, pick out music, and all the rest. We also set up our graveeyard in the front yar, featuring prominent members Pushkin, Rasputin, Ivan the Terrible, and Vlad Draculea.

Then, on Saturday we had two parties. The first, at 2:00, was for what we (sometimes not so) affectionately call "the hooligans." This one went pretty well. We had a haunted hause in a couple of the classrooms, games such as limbo and bobbing for apples, and dancing.We also had a Halloween costume contest for this group, which was won by this kid is in level 6, but appears to be about ten years old (despite the AH rule that all students must be 13). He didn't have a costume when he showed up, dressed this way. A little black make-upto the forehead and, vois la, Garry Potter. (There is no "H" sound in Russian, so he's definitely "Garry.")

After this party was over, it gave us a little time to clean up, grab some lunch, and steel ourselves for round two, which consisted of the college age and adult students. Things went pretty well at this party, it was much more lively and also more people. There were groups of girls running around taking pictures of anything and anyone in sight, as if we were at Disney World. Some of my older AI students showed up:

There was much dancing, playing games, taking pictures, and all the rest.

We took pictures with lots of people. That's Nicole in the center with Zhenya, our new teacher's assistant on the right, and our friend Kostya in Ghost Busters get-up between them.

We also had a team pupmpkin carving contest, which turned out to be very hard for the impromptu committee of six teachers to judge.All-in-all, it was a great success, but we were exhausted by the time we finished up the party and cleaned up.

Here's a fun picture that Amanda took. Eric is looking rather smug in his Pushkin get-up, but little does he know that I am lurking. I was supposed to be a Navy SEAL, but most of the Russians thought I was a terrorist.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Putin's Russia

Yesterday we got a little piece of some interesting Russian politics. Putin appeared on TV for about three hours yesterday during the day to answer questions posed by everyday people through telephone, email, and from various remote camera locations outside of Moscow. This is apparently the fifth time he has done this. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall and know just how spontaneous the questions are. Most of the questions focused on domestic issues like the economy, social benefits, ethnic tensions, and immigration. One of the most interesting questions was about what he will do after the May 2008 election, which he is barred from running in by the Constitution that Yeltsin instituted in 1993. It will be interesting to see, but my money is on him becoming chairman of GazProm, the state oil and gas company. It has huge economic powers and wide influnce throughout the country. Plus, there is no doubt he will retain political influence over whoever his hand-picked successor will be.

NYT on Putin

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Halos and Midterms

Well, the middle of Midterm week is here. We are all glad that the oral exams are over with now, and I don't have to hear any more AI students say, "Yesterday, I walked with my friends." Plus, we don't need lesson plans for Thursday and Friday. This is great, because lesson plans take up a fair portion of out working time.

The other upcoming event that is worth looking forward to is Halloween. As you can see, we are preparing by wearing various things to class to get our students interested in coming to the party on Saturday. I did my part by showing up in my own true guise, an angel! Pretty cheesy, huh? Thought so...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

When ESL Goes Horribly Wrong...

...this is what happens. Nicole stumbled upon a blog, through the wonders of Google, that is, in a word, disturbing. It's kind of hard to figure out the details, but it appears to be by a Brit who taught English in several places, without the temprament it takes to teach English. While we here at the American Home do not endorse his teaching methods, the writing is pretty good. Maybe the jokes are funnier for us, but I still think they are worth a read...

Your Daughter is Very Beautiful...

If you like these three, you can scroll down a little ways and there are several more under the heading "Teaching English."

A Little Sunday Morning News....

I have a couple of quick stories from the NYT about Russia that bring up a couple of important points

Condi In Moscow

Condi is in Moscow this weekend on her way back from Asia and she is talking about the lack of independant media. I don't know if it hit the news in the States much, but Anna Politkovskaya, one of the biggest critics of the war in Chechnya, was murdered a couple of weeks ago in what was clearly a contract killing. She worked for one of the few independant newspapers left. In addition, a new law went into effect this wekk that forced foreign NGOs to register with the government. A pretty large number of them have been told to stop operations while their paperwork is processed. Only in Russia can organizations like Amnesty International be such a threat to the governemnt that they invent ways to shut them down.

The other thing is immigration, which is the beloved issue of extremists in both the US and Russia (and a good part of Europe too). The thing is that in Russia, there seems to be an accepted amount of racism and distrust for foreigners who appear to be from the Caucasus or Central Asia. The unspoken assumption is that they all are under the control of organized crime which supposedly controls the wholesale food and goods market and artificuillly raises the price of goods. While organized crime exists, its a stretch to say that every person who looks dark haired and dark complected (chorny, Russian for "black") is a criminal out to steal from Russian people. When we go to the market, we are constatly warned to watch out for the people who will supposedly rob us blind.

NYT Article About an Anti-Immigration Leader in Russia

Saturday, October 21, 2006


So, here it is...six o'clock on a Staurday night. Most of us are here, at the American Home, ostensibly working, but mostly just goofing off. It is sad though, we hang out at work on our "off day." Enough said....

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Midterms, Snow, et. al.

This week has been very busy so far and I just wanted to write a little bit about it. Last Saturday, Eric and I headed up to one of the local schools for basketball with some of the local kids. They are younger than us and, suffice it to say, in quite a bit better shape than we are. But, we had fun and showed them that the Americans can play a little too. We are hoping to take advantage of an opportunity or two and try to play about twice or three times a month.

On Tuesday night, we were in serious need of some entertainment, so we headed over to a place near Joanna's that has billiards. We had the entire place to ourselves and so we tried our hand at Russian billiards. If you want a little more info, check it out here. The thing is, Russian billiards is quite a bit different from pool. First, the table is a lot bigger, as are the balls. The regulation balls are either 68 or 71 mm, which are numbered and not colored. The pockets are about 2-4 mm. wider than the balls, so as you can imagine, there is not much room for error. The most common game is played with 16 balls just like regular pool, but once the pyramid is broken with a red cue ball, any ball can be used as a cue as long as you strike another ball with it. Joanna and Eric played as a team against Sara and I and, in the end, Sara and I triumphed! It is a pretty fun game and is a lot cheaper than bowling, which is seen as a novelty and can cost more than $20 an hour at night.

Other than that, we are busily writing mid-terms for our students, which have to be completed today so that the students can review for the exam next week. We are also busily trying to plan for our trip to Petersburg that is coming up in a little over two weeks. We are hoping to spend a couple of days in Petersburg on the cheap and then maybe take a train to Tallinn or Riga. We shall see how it works out, but I am excited to head back to Petersburg!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Три Дурака

I've spent the last several hours staring at the computer screen working on grad school applications, so I decided I needed a change of pace: naturally, I decided to blog.

I've been saving these pictures for a rainy day. In Cathedral Square along the main street, in front of the Usspensky Cathedral, stands a woderous Soviet-era monument to the history of the city of Vladimir. Affectionately known to the locals as Три Дурака (the Three Fools,) It is a three sided obelisk with a statue representing a key group from the city's past. The first two, a Medieval builder and soldier, make sense: they harken back to the city's glory days in the 13th century, when it was the political center of pre-Muscovite Rus.

The third is also important to the city's history, but nonetheless appears rather rediculous. During Soviet times, Vladimir was famous for its tractor factory, whichfell on hard times and closed during the lean years and privatizations of the early 90's: now, the building is occupied by a three storied mall. The statue is of a tractor factory worker holding a scaled down model of the factory's product. Which is tiny in his hands.

I have a feeling that the humor of it all doesn't really come through in the pictures. They don't do justice to the incongruity of standing in the center of the square with a bustling modern street on one side and a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the other side: in the center, a man with a toy tractor.