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 Plane...in 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...