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February 10, 2015

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the most weeds

July 28, 2014

This year’s garden is the biggest area I’ve ever attempted. And the most difficult land. And the most weeds. Not surprisingly, they quickly became more than I could manage. Even with hours of work, progress was slow–mostly because weeds grow back. They grew tall in places I’d yet to hoe and plant, creeping through vegetable seedlings, so invasive I feared disrupting the seedlings’ rooting process by pulling them out.

Crabgrass and field grass are resilient, and the rate at which they emerged told me that the garden had been plowed and tilled minimally, not enough to break up what had taken over those two years. These roots go deep and seem to spring back up in the spot they’re discarded.

At the beginning of June, I decided wood chips were the only solution. The woodchip pile was about 150 yards away, so I began lugging woodchips to the garden and spreading them–one five gallon bucket at a time. I realize that sounds a little pathetic (and impossible), but without a truck or a place to store a wheelbarrel, it was my only option.

After witnessing how arduous that method would be, I asked Jack for help. He brought a truck and we watched an afternoon pass loading and unloading woodchips from the truck bed and then laying them around the garden borders and between the rows. He even made a path at my insistence; I obviously like the outdoors, but I know better than to stomp through tall weeds (snakes!).  I worked more on my own later (we left a pile of woodchips at the garden’s edge) and covered the remaining area. The end result was ordered. It was beautiful.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 presetphoto 1 Within two weeks, though, the weeds crept through our work. I redid it—all of it—scraping the chips off with a hoe, laying down newspaper, pouring water over the top to help the newspaper stay down, and covering that with woodchips. Again, I realize that this may seem like overkill, but after the time I’d already invested, I didn’t want them to take over, stealing the nutrients my vegetables needed.  This took me almost twice as long, especially since I somehow chose to work on the windiest days and often found myself chasing newspaper across the garden or standing in stretched stances, trying to hold the newspaper down while I reached for water jugs.

photo 1 photo 2photo 5When Alyssa visited, she helped me cover the area around one of the corn rows; I never went back and finished the other row. When I told my dad about my plan at the beginning of July, to re-cover everything, he said that the time of the summer, the weeds would outmatch my hoeing stamina.

I knew he was right; it was more work than I could do, so I tried ignoring the grass creeping through the woodchips and the weeds in the untended area growing taller and taller, slowly moving in, threatening to swallow my plot. photo 4 photo 5Now the surrounding weeds stand to my waist; in different places and varieties, taller. Weeds poke through any inch I missed with newspaper and woodchips, trained to find a spot through which to sprout.

I am embarrassingly behind on blogging, so much so that it might be time to consider the purpose/usefulness of this exercise. Part of the truth is, I think, this: I spend so much time in the garden that there isn’t time to write about the garden. I bit off more than I ever have this summer–but I’m glad. In the interest of getting caught up (more) quickly and getting to some super cool stuff that’s happened lately, I present you an abridged version of May’s garden happenings.

photo 4While having the garden plowed and tilled was certainly helpful (and absolutely necessary),  I missed the fine, almost black soil I worked with in the Lawrence community garden, that I could work up in a few afternoons.  The soil in the new garden was either packed flat from heavy rain, broken up in chunks, covered with dead/dying weeds or some combination of the three. I have to work each potential row or bed multiple times to even have a chance at producing anything.

I spent an afternoon hoeing and planting my usual spring stuff, though it was a little late. I planted kale, spinach, lettuce, chard and some flower seeds. I watched them try to break through. And though some of it did, none of it did very well. You can see seedlings in the photo below, trying to creep through the cracks.

At this point, I’d used about 1/4 of the space I’d marked off for my plot, and felt discouraged about how/if I’d have the energy to make use of the rest.

I also missed the people from the community garden, and this was after only a few afternoons there alone. It felt like such a shame to have so much space and not to share it. photo 4The pastor mentioned that members of the church might be interested in gardening too, especially once someone else had shown interest. Initially, I was modest in my land acquisition, but when no one came, I expanded.

I started inviting friends. It serves both my purposes: I can get help with the large space AND I have friends there with me. As a third, ulterior motive, I can (hopefully) get someone else excited about growing stuff.

Aside from Jack, I first invited friend Madison to garden on a Sunday afternoon. Her grandparents suggested that she plant tomatoes with a gallon jug in the hole. You drill a hole in the bottom and fill the jug with water. This should create a slow, steady release of water. Sister Alyssa helped us.

Not only was Madison’s water jug idea smart, but she came prepared: with topsoil and a shovel. I have to admit, this hadn’t crossed my mind and initially, I thought topsoil was cheating. But then I saw how perfect the soil was, how it would give the plants’ roots a fighting chance. I planted my own tomato plant the same day, feeling guilty for sticking it straight into the dry dry ground.  I didn’t even own a shovel, which is pretty pathetic for a gardener, though I have since received one for my birthday from Jack. It was an excellent birthday gift.  I’ve also since caved and bought topsoil; it helps the seedlings get better established.

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Next, came corn. It’s super hearty/tough (accounting for the garden’s less than ideal soil conditions) and it takes up a lot of space (making good use of the big space). For this, I recruited Jack and his younger sister Amelia. When inviting people to garden, I worry that they’ll hate it, that they won’t enjoy digging and hoeing and sweating, and so I try to do the strenuous tasks, leaving them with the fun stuff, the planting, the watering. But so far, everyone has wanted to do the hard work. Amelia even said she might plant some stuff of her own, which I am obviously in favor of.  After a few hours, we had two long rows of corn planted. Judging by the photos, Jack and Amelia are happiest when working in unison.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4I’ve done a ton of planting since these photos, and I’ve decided it’s time to move from the expansion phase into the maintenance phase. Sadly crabgrass (and lots of it!) is moving in. But, I’m working hard, happily, and I’ve got a plan. We’re also to the garden “tour” portion of the summer (if you can call it a tour).  Already, I’ve had friends come see it and I have more coming next week. I make Jack observe its progress weekly.  I love it. I get to say Hey, this is my summer. This is what I do.

After not gardening in Moscow–with the exception of a some spinach seedlings I grew and then promptly abandoned on my trip home for Christmas–I knew I had to find a KC garden. To most new friends here, I said things like “I hope I find a new garden” and then I’d smile and shrug. To boyfriend Jack and older friends I’d say “I need to find a garden.” And they’d nod and say “I know.”

I experience this thing called fear. Sometimes it manifests as anxiety. Sometimes it’s a painful combination of the two. Though I welcomed spring’s arrival–embracing the close of what was honestly the longest winter of my life (it’s quite amazing how surviving a Russian winter and not experiencing a sweltering Midwestern summer can make it seem like you didn’t have summer at all. It feels like the last 20 months have been winter)–I feared that spring would come without me having found a place to make things grow.

I became fearful and anxious that I would not find a garden. It was a troubling paradox–hurry spring! but hold off until I’m ready! Jack suggested we pray, that I ask for one. And so, even though it felt selfish, I did. I was never taught to ask for things I wanted, but instead to pray for improved health, to pray for a resolved conflict.

Multiple friends in the KC area offered to let me garden in their backyard; however, I go to the garden almost daily, and therefore, needed something close to me, in the Northland, something I could be at in five minutes.

Though there weren’t many options near me, I obtained contact information for a few. I got on the list for the most promising one at the end of February, and the woman I spoke with said she was pretty confident that they’d have space for me. She’d let me know in April. My fear subsided. Hurry spring!

When I hadn’t heard anything by the double digits of April, I called. She was direct: “We’re out of plots, and you’re way down the list. We definitely won’t have space for you.” I protested a little, but mostly, I was shocked. And hurt that she hadn’t told me in enough time to find a plot at another community garden. I will not make her the villain of this story, though I’m tempted.

I moped around a bit and then started frantically calling other places on the list. No one at the YMCA ever called back. But, when I called one of the church community gardens, I had the following conversation:

Lady: “Oh, well we’re not actually doing the garden this year…”
*Heart sinks further*
Lady: “…so you can actually have the whole space.”
Me: “Wait, really? The whole space?”
Lady: “Yeah, we’re not using it.”
Me: “Do I have to maintain the whole thing or just the area I need?”
Lady: “You can just use whatever space you want.”
*We discuss logistics like tilling and water, etc. It hits me that this makes absolutely no sense*
Me: “Wait, are you serious? You don’t know me at all. This is like really, really nice of you.”
Lady: “Well, we’re not using it so if you want to put it to good use, it’s yours. Just call the pastor and tell him that you’ve already spoken with me, and that I said it’s okay.”photo 1

I met the pastor the next week, and he showed me the space. The garden is up on a hill in the middle of a field, surrounded by a fence because deer are a problem (more on this…). The church has 40 acres, so despite being easily accessible and close to a major road, it feels secluded, set apart.

He said he was embarrassed, that no one had used it last year and so everything had grown over.  And it was; the grass had grown up and died and the fence was mostly down. He asked how much space I’d want, and I felt conflicted–excited about the possibility of having it all but recognizing my limits and also not wanting to seem greedy. With the exception of a donation for water, he said, it would be free. He said that maybe others from the congregation would want to use it, too. They could find someone who would plow it, but I’d have to figure out the tilling. I imagined what prep work I’d have to do to get it ready.

I told him I’d take it. That night I researched renting a tiller or hiring someone to till it for me. This was totally doable, totally worth it. I wouldn’t get to plant as early as I’d hoped, but I’d be going within two or three weeks.

The next morning, the pastor called at 11 am and left a message; it had been plowed and tilled. It was ready. I could start planting whenever I wanted. photo 2

 

looking back: paris

March 14, 2014

SONY DSCAfter my longest hiatus yet from the blog, a post.

Don’t be fooled: reverse culture shock has quite possibly been a greater transition/difficulty for me than moving to Moscow. Though I’m finally coming out of it, understanding holistically why moving back was so difficult (and not just pinpointing elements of a larger difficulty) is still foggy, not yet something I’m ready to write about.

Words to describe the last six months: transition. growth. stagnancy. mourning. joy. thankfulness.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

Reflection comes naturally for me, and I’m often painfully aware of time and its passing. Every day for the last six months, I’ve asked myself “Where was I last year at this time?” The answers are: The opera. An expat Thanksgiving feast. The outdoor swimming pool. My parents’ basement Christmas night, terrified of my January return. My school, surrounded by Russian English teachers. A cafe with Sveta. The metro with Sveta. Everywhere with Sveta. Moscow. Russia. SONY DSC

Not here.

I think about what the weather is like, what it smells like outside of my apartment building, how to get to my metro station. I think about what we ate for lunch, what kind of tea Sveta and I finally decided on, paths through the forest, my favorite type of cheese, what the people wore on the metro. I try to remember faces places sounds. Sometimes, I can’t. I search my email inbox, hoping I wrote someone the details.

SONY DSCI’ve dreaded the end of February and first half of March all winter, because when I ask “Where was I last year at this time?” the answer is, in short, “low.” Or better yet, “the lowest.”

One year ago, I suspected that something was wrong because everything was hard. I blamed Moscow. I drank coffee and took Vitamin D. I surrounded myself with people, both in real life and over Skype. I both feared and coveted time alone. Then I went to Paris–my first trip to Europe–and confirmed what I feared.

I didn’t enjoy Paris. This not only made me feel ungrateful, but it freaked me out.For the first time in my life, I couldn’t pull myself out of it; changing location and busying myself didn’t change anything. SONY DSC

Of course, I liked it: I stood in awe, took photos and savored the food. I saw everything. In fact, I saw more things than I saw in any of the other places I visited, likely an attempt to distract myself, to keep moving. I was, however, incredibly aware of being unhappy and of being there alone. I appear in few photos, but now, I avoid looking at the ones I do because it’s clear that I’m trying to like it.

I became enamored with Notre Dame, visiting every day of my weekend trip, usually at night, ignoring the crowds because it felt like mine. I didn’t feel happy there, but comfortable, calm. I took photos from every angle. On my last night, I chose a cafe across the street from it, requested a window booth, and ate creme brulee facing it.

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There were other good things. A friend from my school in Moscow set me up in an apartment with her friends. I slept on a couch in the playroom and each morning, I was awakened by three kids playing dress up in French. After I showered, the oldest would bring me a croissant and orange juice on a tray, smile because we couldn’t talk, and then exit shyly.

My friend also put me in contact with her friend’s mother, a woman in her sixties named Christine. Christine wore her blonde hair in a high bun, a white coat with fur around the collar, boots with heels, and make up. Christine was beautiful, mostly because she smiled constantly, so content that she bounced when she walked. She smiled sometimes because she couldn’t understand me, sometimes so the parking garage attendants would let her park her small black car in a spot it barely fit, but normally, it seemed like it was because she was happy and thankful. SONY DSC

I don’t remember what Christine did for work. I don’t remember what we talked about. But I do remember that I felt able to talk to her in a way I couldn’t others. I remember that she took me to the spot with the most beautiful view I saw in all of Paris. And that there, we had a hot chocolate unlike anything I’ve had before.

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 And so I’ve dreaded February/March,  worrying that those feelings would return. That whatever it was in Moscow, whatever it was about the middle of winter, would become a yearly thing, would become a statement I’d make when talking to strangers at parties with no explanation: “I just can’t do February/March.”

But it didn’t. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s nothing like last year. Instead, the opposite: an inexplicable, overwhelming sense of thankfulness and joy. Not thankfulness that I’m not in Moscow anymore, as that experience is the best decision I’ve ever made (at this point in my life anyway). Not that winter is over. But that I made it through that part of Moscow. And that Moscow got so much better. And that eventually, this transition back to the US will also be “a year ago.” And coupled with that, an overwhelming sense of awe that my perspective has changed so drastically in one year. I can only imagine the place I was a year ago because I’ve been there, not because I’m there anymore.

There is one Paris photo where I’m not faking it. Christine took it from her car when she drove me to the Arc de Triomphe and instructed me to run out into the center of the crosswalk to take the best photo. She showed it to me before dropping me off at the Louvre.”I love photos in motion,” she said. “And look at you in Paris. You look perfect.”

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Back to Reading in KS

November 14, 2013

I’ve been back in the US for a little over three months. This astonishes me. Time seems to be moving so much faster this fall than last, though that’s probably just a perspective thing or a busy-ness thing or a “I live in a place that’s more familiar and therefore, relatively less difficult” thing. I’m finally getting into a rhythm/schedule. I’m finally finding time to see friends on a more regular basis and not just a “I’m back from Russia! Let’s get coffee!” visit. Finally getting a handle on workload and learning how to grade student essays more efficiently and how to abandon work at 8 pm…or sometimes earlier. I’m finally starting to write again more regularly. Finally starting to make sense of the last year and a half of my life, what I’ve learned, what Russia means to me. I have not, however, found time yet to make an eye doctor’s appointment, wash my new car before winter sets in, or fully unpack my apartment–winter break?

SONY DSCWhat I want to write about, though, is finally making it back to Lawrence for a reading. The things above will likely take a few more weeks (months? years?) of reflection to come together.

While I was in Moscow, my chapbook Attachment Theory  was released, so I never got to have an “official” release reading/celebration. Finally, after three months back, I got around to doing that. The Raven (which became my favorite bookstore almost as soon as I moved to Lawrence, not just for its selection and atmosphere but also for the way it support local writers), agreed to host. I invited fellow writers (more importantly friends) Ben Pfeiffer and Mary Stone Dockery to read with me. I saw no better way to introduce my chapbook and celebrate my “return to America” than with them.

SONY DSC I don’t have a lot to say about this reading except that it felt great. I was so happy to be in Lawrence. I was so happy to read with Mary and Ben and to look out and see an audience full of friends. When I stepped up to the mic, I realized that I was less nervous than I’ve ever been for a reading. It’s likely I gained some confidence living abroad for a year; Russia requires a bit more directness, a harder shell than the Midwest. But it seems more likely that when I looked into the audience, I realized that with the exception of a few folks, everyone was a friend…friends sitting there, glad I went but glad I’m back, smiling, waiting to hear poems and stories about Moscow.

Parents in Moscow.

September 10, 2013

I apologize for my absence. I moved back to the US about a month ago, found an apartment, bought a car, started a new job, and tried to see friends. This move has been almost as jarring (and quick!) as my move to Moscow, so I’ve slacked with blogging. I’ve got a few more Moscow stories for you, though, starting with my parents’ takes on their time here. I was lucky enough to have them visit me (only a few weeks before I left), and like my other visitors, I was excited to read what they thought. Since this experience was so influential on me, it was really important to me that my parents get to experience it.
IMG_0149The trip started off a little rocky–the airline lost their luggage. And for a few days, it seemed legitimately lost. Each time we called the airline, we were told it was in a different spot (in NYC, in Moscow, one bag in each place). Eventually, they just started hanging out on my dad, which as you might imagine, frustrated him. Finally, with Svetlana’s Russian language skills, we found the luggage. I was so proud of them, though. 
Despite this major mishap, they were so calm. “Are these my parents?” I asked myself and my friends. This is the same dad who has thrown crazy traffic jam tantrums on interstates all over the US, the mom who has never ever pack lightly, who just can’t go without all of her makeup. But they were calm. So calm. I bought them a change of clothes, a toothbrush, some shampoo. They did laundry. We called the airline a few times a day to check in. And then we went out. They were fine. More than fine, they were happy. After I explained that what people did in Moscow for fun was the theater, etc, my dad even agreed to a ballet. First, I’ll put my dad’s blog (Jeff) and then, since her blog references his, my mom’s blog (Dawn). Enjoy! 
Jeff says:
Moscow Russia–as a child of the Cold War era you would think that this would not be on my list of places to visit. But since my daughter moved there a year ago, it became more apparent that this should be on my bucket list sooner than later. So, on July 9th 2013, we packed our bags and off we went to a strange place I never thought I would see. With Kara being there for almost a year, we had a list of things she and others had told us about so we were really excited to get started. So, where do I start?
  I could talk about the 3 days of lost baggage and how we had to make a trip back to the airport to claim it. Or how I almost got Kara in trouble the minute I arrived by trying to drag her into customs, a secure part of the airport and how she got yelled at by a Russian customs officer.
I could also talk about the labyrinth of tunnels and steps of the Moscow Metro she led us through and that seemed so confusing at times getting to our apartment. And how I learned very fast that lines mean nothing to a true Russian. How I was amazed at the underground shops and boutiques where you can buy almost anything from cigarettes to underwear. And how parking on sidewalks is normal and almost encouraged.
But some of these things are just cultural things that are normal in big cities of the world.
People now ask me what I think of Moscow and Russia, and I have to say it was really a great experience. Standing in Red Square or inside the Kremlin was almost like being in a dream. This is a place any child of the Cold War would never have believed they would ever be. Walking in Gorky Park and along the Moscow River was some really great people watching.IMG_0070
I could go on and on about the things I saw , but really the best part was the people I met. From the coffee shop barista who knew that I could only say Kofe Americano who helped me every morning to the door lady at our apartment who tried to learn a new English word every day and all the people we met at NES ( Kara’s employer).  At first, my impression of the Russian people were that they were cold and unfriendly, but after a few days and meeting the people she worked with, I think they were just focused, because everyone we met was great, and I really appreciate that she had she wonderful people to help here while she was there. Svetlana, this is especially for you. Thank you for all your help with our luggage trouble while we were there.
When we left for Germany I wished I had had time to experience more of Russia; I learned a lot. Thank you, Kara, for sharing your Moscow experience with us, leading us around and being a reverse parent to us.

Dawn says:
I just have to say this: Jeff took all of my stuff. He said WHAT I was going to say. He is always doing that to me.  It’s just not fair. But, maybe if I try really hard I can find some little delicious detail that he might have dropped along the way.
Oh, good—I found something.

IMG_0162Upon our arrival to Moscow, Kara graciously guided her travel-worn parents to the flat. After many long hours of travel, we had arrived!! We were there; our luggage was not.  Kara gave us several clear, concise instructions: take a nap, take a shower, and most importantly, DO NOT leave this apartment without me.

But, just in case we did not heed her sage advice, she gave us an index  card filled with strange, scary looking scribbling, which according to her was our Russian address. She sincerely hoped that we would not venture out without her.

Just for the record, I never went anywhere without Kara. I was good; I listened. Jeff did not. He had to show off every morning by going out into the world to get coffee. The little note card reminded me of the little laminated yellow school bus that I attached to Kara’s shirt on the first day of Kindergarten.  I remember her being so excited about getting on that big old yellow bus and going away from me. I worried whether I had prepared her for going out into the world. Would she really be able to find her bus to get back home? All of the little things that we parents agonize over again and again.  She was fine; I was fine.

After having been all the way to Moscow to see my daughter, I am amazed at just how far away our children may go. I was very proud and impressed with her ability to navigate the metro in Moscow, and how very protective she was with us.  Learning a new culture, a new language, a new money system are not easy tasks.

After hearing Kara talk about her Moscow—the Kremlin, Gorky Park, Georgian food, St.  Basil’s Cathedral, well like anyone, I began to whine and say: “I want to go too. Why can’t I come?” I am so very thankful that we were able to see Kara’s Moscow. So, Kara, thanks watching out  for us. Your friends were all so kind and helpful. Without Sveta ‘s help, I seriously doubt we would have gotten our luggage before we were to leave on the next leg of our journey. And thanks for being such a wonderful friend to Kara.

My only question is where are we going next?  And can we bring your little sister?

A guest blog from my third visitor, my boyfriend, Jack Kynion III, who visited Moscow at the end of May/beginning of June. 

What to say of Moscow? Was it a good trip? Uh… what’s a good trip? For those of you with a weak stomach for rom-coms, read no further. After all, my only incentive for visiting Moscow, Russia, was to see a particular bright-eyed, beautiful young woman. The creator of this blog in fact. As such, I imagine this rambling, self-involved blog post will be full of corny moments, with over-indulgent descriptions of scenery sprinkled in. Well, unless the editor (take a guess who that is) cuts out all of the aforementioned gooey moments.

It seems cliché, but how do you not mention the flight over? A ten hour flight over the extreme northern hemisphere is a trek so few of us take that it makes us all curious about it. My review? It’s not so bad. Kind of boring because clouds, though magnificent, are pretty much just clouds. The inflight entertainment isn’t terrible. New releases, not-yet-released releases, and a fascinating graphic where the plane is gigantic compared to the incredibly inarticulate map. In truth, I didn’t really notice much of the time because on the flight and during my last two weeks of law school finals, in my mind, I was already in Moscow.

SONY DSC I don’t know if the relatively lax nature of Russian airport security is a good reflection on the TSA or not. On the one hand, we can rest assured that there is nowhere in the world (save maybe Israel) where more people are frisked, eyed, and made generally uncomfortable in order to fly than the U.S. of A. This should provide a relative sense of safety. On the other hand, I’m not sure what it says about one of the most liberal (read philosophically, not politically) democracies in the world, that the capital of the FORMER SOVIET UNION has easier entrance policies than we do. Interestingly, I wrote this line a couple of weeks before Snowden Gate.  No matter, I didn’t notice much of it anyways.

The whole walk from the airplane was just entranceway after entranceway. Not being a frequent international flyer I wasn’t sure which entrance way was the one that finally let me out. The one that finally let me get to Kara. So, I rounded every corner with an air of expectancy only to be disappointed. But I remained focused. Passport control, Customs, none of these were going to deter me. When I finally got through, there she was, smiling and not completely sure how to greet me.

When you don’t see someone for nearly five months you aren’t sure where to put your hands. You sort of have to remember through trial and error how to hug. And then you do and you remember why it was so hard to focus through finals week. Most everything else was a blur that day. 5,000 miles in the air can do that to a person. I didn’t care much because I was where I wanted to be for the first time in a while.

SONY DSCAs for Moscow, I didn’t like it very much, but my position softened as the days went by. The feeling of pressure that permeates the air became more understandable with time. What seems to be a fairly authoritarian government may still be an improvement from darker times. The effects of both of those systems can still be felt. But as I grew accustomed to that feeling, I was able to notice the little things a little bit more. Little things like the necessity of exact change, the lady on the street that sells the yogurt Kara likes, the incredible efficiency of the Moscow Metro system. And eventually I made up my mind about Moscow: it’s a tough place to live that has scores and scores of pretty decent people, trying to make it through the day. The strangest thing about it was that it didn’t seem to possess that rabid energy indicative of big cities like London or New York, except in a few places. Actually, the weirdest feeling came in the evening for me. Dusk seems to last from 7:30 to 11:30, which leaves you in a state of perpetual shutting down. Like computers trying to install an update of Windows 98. You look outside, it’s 10:30-11:00, and the sun is still peaking back at you. It makes everything slightly nostalgic.

For me, going to Moscow had some unintended results. I hadn’t considered how much sitting time I would have because Kara had to work part of the time I was here. I didn’t anticipate that I would spend time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know that having nothing to do would be such a liberating feeling. I think they call it vacation. Mostly, though, I didn’t know that being with Kara was going to make everything feel more in its own place.

SONY DSCI’ve been trying for weeks to explain in conversation what my trip to Moscow was like. Sometimes I express it in a series of vignettes. Sometimes I try to work deductively from broad principles to explain what Moscow is. Most of the time, I sheepishly explain that I didn’t see many tourist-y things because I didn’t care much about seeing much besides Kara. And now I have to describe in writing something I can’t explain in talking. I’m much better at talking.

So, in lieu of trying to write as well as Ben Pfeiffer or be as funny as Molly McCleery, I will conclude with a short list. Anyone that knows Kara M. Bollinger will understand that this ending is an homage of sorts to her, the ultimate list maker.

  1. I love being an American. I am thankful to God for the cosmic event that allowed me to be born here. And there is nothing like Kansas heat and humidity during summer, a strange thing that I missed.
  2. Kara’s friends in Moscow are caring, hospitable, people who I hope will be well loved and taken care of in their lives. They have done a wonderful job of caring for her and I am thankful for that.
  3. The only thing I feel I missed out on was sitting in one of the huge beanbag chairs in Gorky Park.
  4. It’s inexpressible how blessed I am to have been able to travel to Russia to see my girlfriend AND visit Jerusalem, Israel  AND visit Venice, Italy a week after getting out of law school. They haven’t yet made words in English that can express the immensity of my blessings.
  5. Little things on big trips are worth more to me than big things. Like the family in the airport in Rostov. Three daughters, mother and father. Abuzz in the waiting room chatting, arguing, smiling, just being a family. I couldn’t understand a single word but I’m real happy I got to watch them awhile.
  6. Kara is a friggin’ champion for braving Moscow for an entire year.
  7. I’m proud of her.
  8. I love her more now than before I went to Russia.

So, yeah, I had a good trip.

Dacha

July 15, 2013

Two weeks before I moved to Moscow last August, I read a National Geographic article about dachas, Russian summer homes. Gardener that I am, I knew that living in an enormous city for a year would be difficult, especially a city in a country with such a long, dark winter. So, I vowed to get to a dacha. Later, some of my American friends who study Russian said “If you get the chance to visit a dacha, go.” They described never-ending food and vodka; long, sunny days; gardens; and a break from Moscow stuffiness.

The culture surrounding dachas fascinates me. They’ve apparently been around since Peter the Great, but they became more common in during the Soviet Period, when the government gave land to citizens. This land had strict regulations attached to it–since it was to be used for gardening, the new landowners couldn’t built anything bigger than a shed for tools and maybe a small area to sleep overnight. Now those restrictions have been dropped, and people can buy their own land and build whatever they like (within village regulations, I assume). Depending on the village and the owner, some dachas are mansions and some still look like gardening shacks.  As the NG article points out, the purpose of the dacha is now contested–for many members of older generations it’s a place to work; for some, it’s a place for the family to be together; for the younger generation, it’s a place to relax; and for the elite, it’s another way to exhibit wealth; for others, it’s a mixture.

8844_985345388142_268066505_nI have no research to back this up, but I’d guess that well over half of Moscow’s families own dachas; obviously, from the middle and upper classes. On Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, the traffic leaving the city is ridiculous and makes the normal 45 min to 2.5 hour drive to the dacha last anywhere from 3 to 6 hours; the same thing happens on Sunday evenings when people return. For many Muscovites, going to the dacha isn’t something to do a few times a summer, but every weekend; my Moscow best friend, Sveta, gets legitimately upset if she doesn’t make it to the dacha each weekend, and after visiting one, I understand why.  Some people go there for the entire summer, like my friend Anya who took her 3-month old daughter to the dacha in May and is still there.

I’ve never seen anything like dacha culture. Sure, Americans make a mass exodus for certain summer holidays and many people own lake houses, but it is nothing like this. It makes sense, though, right? If you get 3 months of enjoyable/warm weather, you won’t waste them. This is why Musocvites line park benches every night after work, why old men sunbathe in Speedos at 7 am, why people stand in the most awkward positions just to be in the sun and not the shade made by trees in the forest, as if they can get all the Vitamin D their bodies need in a 3 months. Maybe they can. SONY DSC

At the end of June, I finally made it to a dacha, that of my friends Anya and Nastya’s family. Unfortunately, Nastya and I couldn’t devote the entire weekend, so we left at 8 am on Saturday morning. The 1.5 hour drive only took 3 hours, so Nastya said that the traffic wasn’t too bad. My first surprise was that dachas are all different, not a series of wooden houses with flowers as I’d expected. Some were wooden, but some had siding and a few were even brick.

As I mentioned earlier, Anya is there this summer with her daughter Masha, her parents, and their aunt; Anya’s husband Dima commutes from Moscow every weekend by train. I’d hardly been introduced to the family before Anya asked if we wanted to pick strawberries, which we had with творог for a late breakfast.

SONY DSCThough they didn’t speak much English, Anya and Nastya’s parents were incredibly kind and hospitable to me and we talked through Anya and Nastya’s translations. They sold their old dacha and built this one about seven years ago.

Shortly after breakfast, we went in search of berries. I’d been told to pack long sleeves and pants to avoid mosquitoes. The family scoured the house for a hat, boots, and socks for me, and Nastya and Anya’s father emerged with six hats for me to choose from, but as often happens in Russia, someone else made my decision–I was given the hat with the most coverage, camouflage and with a cape. I felt like I was going into the desert. While we waited for the rest of the family, Nastya laughed “The most fun part of going to the forest is getting dressed for the forest.” SONY DSC

I learned two things in the Russian forest: First, Russia has a lot of mosquitoes. Though the hat made me look funny, I was thankful to have it. I must have reapplied bug spray 5 times and still had bites the next day. Second, berry picking is serious business. Nastya and Anya’s mom Olga was quick and thorough. We were looking for these berries that are essentially mini blueberries (we later used the dacha’s WiFi…yep, Dacha WiFi (and though I brought it along, I refused to used my tablet)…to learn that they’re actually called “bilberries”) and though we passed bushes of them, she trudged on through tall grass and fallen trees until finally, we found an area that she deemed mostly untouched. When we finished, Olga had picked three times as many berries as anyone else. We also stopped for mushrooms, mini-strawberries, and wildflowers.

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After lunch, we went to visit one of their neighbors. Her land is actually a few plots put together and she’s filled it with an enormous garden: onions, beets, corn, cabbage, sunflowers, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, flowers, and two greenhouses with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. We talked about her methods and the full work days she puts into the garden. She sent me off with strawberries, peppers, and cucumbers.

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The rest of the day was spent talking and resting and playing with Masha. After a walk and some cake with tea, it was time to leave. I felt tired, the same wonderful, fulfilling tired I felt as an 8-year-old at the end of an evening spent in the backyard collecting lightening bugs. They sent me away with wildflowers, bilberries, and strawberries. 5154e72ae0e211e2abce22000a1f96d4_7

As we left, Anya’s father said “Well, your dachas in America must be better,” and I replied “No, we don’t have them.” I considered adding that we should have them, but honestly, I don’t think this would work as perfectly anywhere else.

 

 

 

 

 

About a month ago, boyfriend Jack graduated from law school. Five days after that, he came to Moscow, and though he’s been back in KS for a few weeks now, I’m incredibly happy and thankful about his 2.5 week visit here. Obviously, I’ve been incredibly happy and thankful for all my visitors, but because of some visa complications, I thought boyfriend Jack wasn’t going to make it here…or at least not on time. In a nutshell, the travel service we used for his visa lost all of his application materials (including his passport).

When Jack called to inquire (multiple times a day for weeks), they said “We’ll call back” and then never did. I thought I might be able to help from Moscow, thinking that maybe the moral support and more “forceful” communication style of the three Russian women digitally and physically with me (Russia bestie Sveta, boss/friend Olga, and travel coordinator Oxana) would help. Below is the conversation I had with the travel company (tc):

tc: “Uh…Ma’am, we’re currently looking for that application.”

kb: “What do you mean you’re ‘looking for it’?”

tc: “Well, just that.”

*Silence*

SONY DSCAnyone who has traveled to Russia (or any other country requiring a visa) will tell you that visa stuff is frustrating and difficult and that no matter what you do, you will probably make a mistake. I made a mistake in my visa that caused me to come to Russia a week late in August; bestie Molly had to resubmit her application; and the Pfeiffers had to wait a long, long time for theirs to arrive. This was the worst problem I’d encountered though…and there wasn’t much we could do about it.

They eventually found it (four days before his flight)–it had apparently gone from the Russian consultant in Washington DC to the Russian consulate in Seattle without anyone really making note of that.

*Silence*

The consulate requested a new document from Russia, and Oxana got that within two hours (even though it was already 8 pm in Moscow). Sveta was even willing to forge documents, though she may not admit it now. Jack and I prayed a lot. And the visa arrived two days before his flight.

I say all that to say:

1. When you think your boyfriend you haven’t seen for almost five months isn’t going to get to come to Moscow, you are sad. When you find out that said boyfriend does in fact get to come and then you actually see him in the airport–in real life 3D and not through a Google+ Hangout–you are thankful and relieved and though you have to work during the days, you take him to all the Moscow places and make him pose for photos in the evenings. SONY DSC

2. You bring him to work with you the first few days because even though he can’t really do anything there and you are busy, you just. can’t. bear. to. be. apart. Plus, you’ve told all these great stories about people at work and you’ve complained so much about the stairwell with the tiles that are coming unglued and you’ve said zapekanka is so so good that you want him to meet these people and see these things and try this food. So, he sits outside of your office and contentedly reads and plays Solitaire, and your Russian friends are more hospitable to him than you are, because you know he is totally happy, but it is in their nature to continually ask if he is comfortable or hungry or thirsty.

3. You cook for him a lot because you are happy and because you realize you’ve gotten lazy with meals in the last few months. You assume he won’t want to have scrambled eggs both for breakfast and dinner, so you decide on spaghetti. The two of you can’t find garlic, but you improvise cheese bread and the whole meal is actually quite good. He insists on moving the tiny table from the kitchen to the living room so you can sit across from one another, and though it blocks the doorway to the kitchen and makes getting anything from the kitchen difficult (because your apartment is real small) it ends up being a great idea so you do it for every meal. You both decide that successful meals, even simple ones, taste better in Russia because they’re harder to make.  And then the sunsets around 10:30 pm. SONY DSC

4. He cooks for you, too, normally breakfast. On your birthday, he goes to the grocery store alone and comes back with keifer instead of milk, which is not what you use for French toast, so you go back to the store with him. 995676_974705989582_2074914979_n

5. You also realize that it’s pretty awesome to be treated on your birthday. After church, he takes you out for coffee and cake and then Georgian food with your friends and buys you a ukulele and flowers.  SONY DSC

6. You try new things. You want to take him golfing. To get there you have to confront one of your greatest fears–the bus–and it only ends up being a little scary. Even though you stare at the Moscow map on your tablet and then check street names out the window the whole time because you are just that nervous about getting lost (or perhaps because you check the street names with the Moscow map on your tablet the whole time), you don’t get lost. SONY DSC

You were never afraid of the ice cream stand, but you go there for the first time and discover the Maxibon (a Nestle crunch ice cream bar plus an ice cream sandwich). He convinces you that the Maxibon can serve as lunch. Some days you have two. SONY DSC

7. You also might travel. But that’s another blog.