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.