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.

 

 

 

As promised, a guest blog by the always lovely and supportive Ben and Sarah Pfeiffer, my second guests in Russia. Learn more about Ben and his writing here.

We promised to visit our friend, and we keep our promises. So we arrived after sixteen hours breathing recycled air and eating prepackaged airplane food and watching movies in the back of the headrests and reading Crime and Punishment. One stop in New York City and then hours suspended over the Atlantic. Kara met us at the airport, Sheremetyevo International (SVO). She met us outside of customs where a single, bored looking Russian waved us through without inspecting us. We took the train into the city and walked to the subway station. Kara pointed out the feral dogs, and, even though we wanted to, we didn’t pet them.

We rode the subway to Red Square and walked past the Bolshoi Theatre (Большóй Теáтр) to our hotel, a Marriott across the street from the Historical Museum of Gulag (Музей Истории Гулага). We couldn’t check in for a few hours and so we people watched in the lobby and paid the equivalent of $30 for two glasses of iced tea because we weren’t used to the currency. We went up to the room, a plain, clean, red-and-white space, plugged our iPhones into the strange two-pronged outlets, and fell asleep.

Kara met us that evening after work and took us to dinner and afterward we walked to Red Square. We took pictures of the cathedrals and the State Historical Museum. In the morning, we went back alone and stumbled around until we found the entrance to the Kremlin. Inside we passed the office buildings and the gold-white cathedrals and went on along the river. We took a tour of the Armory in the afternoon, peered through thick glass at the tsarist treasures, pressed the audio tour headphones into our ears to keep from dropping them. Then we went out again and went looking for something to eat. We found a London pub and ordered Pepsi (Пепси). That night Kara took us through a part of town called Clear Ponds (Чистый Пруди) to a hip and excellent restaurant where they wouldn’t let you take pictures. We drank beer and took a picture anyway when the staff wasn’t looking.

The next day, Wednesday, we rode the subway by ourselves. I took Russian in college and some of it returned to me in Moscow and I could sort of sound out the places and we didn’t get lost like we thought we might. Kara met us at the subway stop and we walked past an enormous abandoned fortress complex to the university where she teaches. The New Economic School is in a tall office building with a sculpture hanging on the front, a gray concrete platelet of epic proportions, or some kind of flattened doughnut ring, a piece of modern or soviet art. We ate in the cafeteria. She showed us the damaged sheetrock outside her office where a man who works in her school’s building shoots an airsoft gun into a paper target. He just stands on a balcony and smokes cigars and fires his toy guns down the hall or into the open air above the city. We met Olga, Kara’s boss, and we met her friends, who we would see again that night at dinner.

Another short subway ride brought us to a sculpture park filled with broken monuments to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Lenin’s head. Stalin’s head with the nose chiseled off. Hammers and sickles, a cage of poured concrete heads. Angels, rabbits in a boat, a soviet worker woman, a cartoon statue of Albert Einstein (Альберт Эйнштейн) and Neils Bohr (Нильс Бор). We walked through the park to the river and gazed at the enormous statue of Peter the Great. Russians hate the statue. Urban legend claims at the statue—the eighth tallest in the world at 98 meters—was ordered for America as a statue of Christopher Columbus. That’s why Peter is on a bunch of ships and has a golden map. When America rejected the design, apparently they just knocked off Columbus’s head and put Peter’s on, which involved changing the features to have fashionable mustaches and crazy eyes. The statue supposedly commemorates 300 years of the Russian navy, which Peter started, and was designed by a Georgian named Zurab Tsereteli. Peter the Great hated Moscow so it’s strange that his 15-story-tall statue should appear in this city that he abandoned to start St. Petersburg. Apparently this same Tsereteli did design a statue of Christopher Columbus called “Birth of the New World,” and the U.S. did in fact reject the design, so there might be something to those legends about the origins. People think Tsereteli’s designs are pompous and self-important. We didn’t care. Then to kill time we went to Gorky Park and bought more Pepsis. In line, a kid asked us, “Are you Americans?” Strangely enough, he turned out to attend the same small college in Missouri that Kara had gone to, a coincidence strange enough to appear in a Charles Dickens novel. We were over 5,000 miles from Missouri, after all, so maybe he was lying.

There’s so much more to tell. We ate a wonderful Georgian meal with Kara’s friends, we rode a night train to St. Petersburg, and we spent an evening at the ballet, Swan Lake. We drank liquor made from small red berries of a kind not seen in the U.S. and we stayed up late talking. We went to Peter the Great’s palace, now a museum, the Hermitage. We bought playing cards with tsars on them; we bought a furry Russian hat with earflaps from a man whose nose was dripping snot down his chin and onto his chest. We spent hours walking among the St. Petersburg canals and we rode the deepest subway system in Europe if not the world. We took a day train back to Moscow. At the train station we ate cheese pastries and watched Russian music videos, including one with a sexy bellhop who falls in love with a socialite and one with a rock star who dresses up like Spider-man and drives a tank and one with a fat American who turns into a vicious beast that eats the sun and plunges the world into darkness. Kara took us to the airport the next morning. We passed through customs without speaking to the Russian guards who examined us. On the flight home, before we landed in America again, before we came back to our lives and our jobs, we spent sixteen hours breathing recycled air and eating prepackaged airplane food and watching movies in the back of the headrests and finishing Crime and Punishment. We had promised to visit our friend, and we always keep our promises.

Lawrence buds Ben + Sarah visited me in Moscow and we went to St. Petersburg. I have almost as much to say about the night train to St. Petersburg as I have to say about St. Petersburg itself. Basically, it fascinated me.

The rooms are super tiny and they have two sets of bunk beds. We are Americans, so our luggage was kind of big.  After some struggle, Ben was able to get our suitcases put out of the way. Sarah and I attempted to be helpful, but the room was really too small for us to do much.

Since there were only three of us (and the rooms hold four), we had a Russian roommate, Pavel. After we got our luggage crammed into the storage spaces under the seats and wedged under the table, Ben, Sarah, Pavel, and I all sat on the bottom bunks and looked at each other. He worked for a “military company” and traveled to Moscow often. He was nice enough and quiet. He answered our train questions.

When we tired of looking at each other, we decided to go to bed. This didn’t take long because the train left at 11:59 pm and we were tired. The night train gives you a toothbrush and toothpaste so to keep from having to dig through my luggage, I used it; its plastic bristles came out in my teeth and that was weird. I had dibs on the top bunk, and Pavel had the other top bunk. Before we turned off the light, he undressed modestly under the covers. That was also kind of weird. Ben said he couldn’t relax and sleep with a stranger in the room, but it didn’t bother me, even though that stranger was in his underwear. The train bed was more comfortable than my couch bed and the rocking motion helped me fall asleep.

In the morning, Pavel tried to keep us from looking like complete train idiots. As we neared the station in St. Petersburg around 7:30 am, he woke us up: “Good morning. It is now time to get dressed, use toilet, have a breakfast.”

I heeded Pavel’s warning and went to brush my teeth with the train toothbrush and change clothes. The morning after was quite possibly the most interesting part of the trip, and waiting in the long line for the bathroom gave me time to observe the other passengers. Some of them were already back in their suits/business clothes and some of them were still in their pajamas or shirtless and almost everyone had bedhead. People wore cheap plastic flip flops or house shoes as they stomped through the hallway. Seeing adult strangers in their pajamas immediately after waking feels incredibly intimate. The train stewardess was still working and she could carry four mugs of hot tea in one hand.

And then we were there. St. Petersburg feels much more European than Moscow. Initially I thought “Hey–maybe I should have moved here instead” but then I remembered that St. Petersburg is also  714.9 km (444 miles) north of Moscow and quite a bit colder and wetter.  Highlights included:

1. Beautiful architecture. Canals. Big, open squares.

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2. Cake/pastries and beer, though never together.

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We found our own hole in the wall bakery where we had delicious cheese pastries multiple times.

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We also went to this famous Soviet-style bakery named север. The cakes were delicious but the ladies who sold the cakes there were grouchy. I’ve gotten a thicker skin about stuff like that and didn’t shed one single tear, just ate my cake. SONY DSC

I had my first beer brewed in a Russian microbrewery. In fact, we found two bars that brewed their own beer. This was great, because I was starting to think that “Siberian Crown” and “Zatecky Gus” were the only Russian beers I was going to have. Ben + Sarah also bought playing cards with the Russian oligarchs’ portraits.

3. The Hermitage.

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The Hermitage used to be a palace and now it is a museum and it houses tons of Russian art, European art, and “Russian lifestyle” exhibits, and also there are mummies in the basement. Though the art and mummies are cool, the coolest part is that they’ve kept many of the rooms as “Palace” rooms. So, you get to stroll into a ballroom or stand in the throne room. I don’t typically choose ornate decor and/or gold, but the Hermitage wore it well.

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Sarah + Me in Hermitage

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Ben + Sarah in Hermitage

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As we left the Hermitage, a bike race was ending.

4. I finally went to a Russian ballet. We saw Swan Lake. I was going to try to sneak a photo, but when the lady caught us eating really tiny chocolate bars and said “We don’t eat in here,” I lost my courage.

5. Souvenir shopping. Like Moscow, St. Petersburg had areas filled with street vendors.

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While looking for a hat, Ben became friends with this Russian man wearing a USA Baseball leather jacket.  SONY DSC

When we went back the next day, the USA Baseball guy wasn’t there, but Ben did find a hat. Luckily, Sarah and I were able to talk him out of the one that looked like it was made of gray rabbit’s fur. It was real big.

Because Ben + Sarah had to catch their flight the next day, we took the bullet train back. It was faster, but there were no bunk beds.

 

As promised, a guest blog by the one and only Molly McCleery, the first of many of my guests to Russia. I hope you enjoy reading her impressions about her trip to the Motherland.

On a Wednesday last February, I drove from Omaha to Lawrence to see a Ryan Adams show with Kara. After the concert, I skipped my Thursday classes, and we had the first annual Kara-Molly Midweek Weekend, a time where we do weekend things (get brunch, go to record stores, etc.) in the middle of the week. Moscow was like a giant midweek weekend. It is impossible for me to articulate all of my thoughts on this experience in a short blog post. Consequently, I will shy away from making any big statements about what I think of Moscow. What follows will likely seem silly to those with an expansive knowledge of Russian history, which I admittedly lack.

I’m not sure when it was decided I was going to visit Moscow. I think when Kara told me she had gotten the job at NES and was moving to Moscow, we both just assumed that I would visit at some point. After months of anticipation, all of the sudden it was time for me to go to Moscow. In Lincoln, I packed up a suitcase full of warm clothes and American snacks for Kara and headed on my way. After stops in Knoxville, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and New York City, I arrived at Sheremetyevo. Kara bought me the first of many cups of coffee consumed throughout the trip, and we were on our way. Here is a quick run down of my observations from Moscow:
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1. A few of the things I loved most about Russia: eating many delicious cheese-based dishes (syrniki, zapekana, bliny) at canteens, sculptures (the Fallen Monument Park and the Yuri Gagarin statue), and coffee at Ludi Kak Ludi. I also loved drinking beers in the afternoon at super hip bars.

2. Russian winter attire is AMAZING, especially women’s fur coats and children’s snowsuits. Every time we would get on the Metro, it would be filled with women wearing huge fur coats. Some of them were extremely glamorous, like pieces of a movie costume. Others were just gross, made of some inexplicable animal’s dirty and matted hair. Another passenger would inevitably shove you into these coats, forcing you to touch the remains of whatever animal had been made into a jacket. DSCF0509

However, my feelings toward children’s snowsuits are 100% positive. Kara can attest to the fact that I was obsessed with them. Toddlers who, by nature, stumble around are further constricted when their parents dress them in layers and layers of waterproof gear. Not only do the snowsuits prevent the snow from getting in, they also prevent children from being able to raise their arms, bend their legs when sitting on the Metro, or walk at a normal pace. As a result, children walk like tiny robots as their parents essentially drag them around the city. My favorite snowsuit child sat, completely covered except for her fat little cheeks, eating a gigantic cone of cotton candy. Whatta life.
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3. No matter where you are in the world, there is really something to be said for slow brunches at home while watching Beyonce music videos. The same can be said for wine and animal crackers.

4. I would like to contact Nicholas Cage’s people about him making the Russian version of National Treasure that I dreamed up when we visited the Kremlin. It involves a briefcase full of rubles and the secret passageways from the Kremlin cathedrals to the tzarina’s bedrooms in the palace.
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5. Can someone please explain to me the weird sandwich meal you get on international flights? This is the sandwich you get two to three hours after your full meal. On my flight from Moscow to New York, we got the most interesting sandwich meal I’ve ever gotten on an airplane: a dinner roll stuffed with melted cheese, green peppers, and chunks of ham served with Russian Baskin Robbins ice cream. I know international travel means getting hungry at weird times, but I do not understand this.

molly mccleery in moscow

March 31, 2013

In August 2005, Molly McCleery and I attended Truman State’s “Truman Week,” which was basically a week of “get-to-know-you” type games, club intro meetings, and lectures/presentations; it was sorta like church camp minus God.

Molly and I were both enrolled in Dr. Tornatore’s intermediate Spanish class for Truman Week, and we both giggled when he politely asked the class, “Ladies, may I remove my jacket?” Molly was cool and alternative and so over Truman Week. So was I. Allegedly, I wore a brown-gypsy-like skirt that Molly found cool. Molly had a Fall Out Boy t-shirt, so I knew she was cool.  We would both like to forget these wardrobe choices.

Since August 2005, we have taken classes together (some semesters the number of classes we chose to take together was just embarrassing), lived together, completed grad school 4 hours apart (together), and had many adventures, most of them involving road trips across America’s beautiful Midwest, tallboys, animal crackers, bands that play harmonica, and/or snow.

We had never been to Moscow, though. After 7.5 years, we can finally check that one off the list.

Molly has promised to write a guest blog entry about her visit, so I won’t say much, but I have to at least say a few things:

1. Having someone here to tour guide around made me realize that I know a lot more about Moscow than I thought. Like, I know where things are. And I know how to navigate metro stops. And I know hip restaurants/cafes/coffee shops. Even when we got “lost,” we were never really lost because I knew where we were and where we needed to go.

I also know way more Russian than I thought. I realized this when we were trying to have syrniki, coffee, and reading time near Red Square and Maxim (a forty-ish year old Russian dude who was five vodkas in) wouldn’t stop hitting on us. When he said (in Russian), that I was beautiful and then that Molly was beautiful, I knew reading time was over. And we left.

2. While we visited some of my favorite spots, having Molly here encouraged me to see some new sight-seeing things.

We went inside the Kremlin…

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I tried to sneak into the Kremlin Palace.

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There were many cathedrals and even more icons.

We also went to the Fallen Monument Park, which houses Soviet sculptures. This place is incredibly cool.

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Molly founds this cage of Stalin heads. Only heads. SONY DSC

Out of the numerous Stalin statues, I was drawn to this one. No one seems to notice that his face is partly gone. Also, someone had recently left flowers there. Which was…well…surprising to us.

Also, because Molly was here, I had the courage to talk to the Vladimir Putin look-alike at Red Square. When he wanted to charge 1000 rubles (and then quickly 700 and then 500) for a photo with him and his fake Russian flags, I was like “Dude, you cray cray.”

3. It was so nice to just do normal, best friend things. Like making brunch and dinner together. And watching really intense, thought provoking historical dramas like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. And having a breakdown when Russia dumped more snow on us (on March 24th) and not having to have that breakdown alone. And laughing, so much laughing. Molly was quite taken with the Russian children who can’t put their arms down because of their snowsuits.

Molly said she would only buy a matryoshka if it was the size of a thimble. Naturally, when I found a thimble-sized matryoshka, I insisted she buy it. We then began taking photos for an art installment called “Baby Matryoshka.”

I call this one, “Baby Matryoshka or Really Big Chair?”

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