Thursday, October 7, 2010

trial 2


trial mp3

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Photos galore!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Jason's Dream: The Musical

So, dear readers,

I had such a funny dream last night, that I thought I'd tell you about it. It's already been a few hours, so a lot of details and developments have faded, but I still remember a few.

So at one point, I was meeting with some of my future graduate school professors, only I was going to Chicago and not Stanford. They decided to start showing me their old report cards from the university (which looked a lot like the Russian grade books). They had grades like, "m", "n", o", "j", "a", and "b". "A" and "b" were the best,"j" was the worst, and the rest didn't really correspond in any way to quality, but signified something completely different. Anyway, for a bunch of PhD's there were a heck a lot of "j's", especially one guy (who was actually Mr. Klein from Kenyon's English Department).

Eventually, I walked out of the mahogany-paneled room, where this nonsense was taking place, and found myself in this big, open, outdoor amphitheater place. Apparently I came late to rehearsal for some band I was involved with. The band was really a huge, Broadway-scale cast of dancers, back-up singers, a brass section (which was actually comprised of members of the Motown Band from Kenyon), some directors with megaphones, and me, in some capacity. Apparently, I was a singer, but while the directors were sorting out some technical problem, I, for a lark, started to sing this song from the soundtrack of the Bollywood movie "Bombay Talkie" which is featured on the soundtrack of Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited. For those of you who know what I'm talking about, it's called "Typewriter, tip, tip, tip, tip". It's this really silly Indian song I've been listening to constantly as I experiment with Indian cuisine.

So, I start singing this song, and to my surprise, the Motown Band knows the song, and they immediately start playing it. The dancers also seem to know it and start performing some funny dances to the music. I'm amazed and work myself into a frenzy singing "TYPEWRITER TEEP TEEP TEEP... blah dee dah" (I think the rest of the lyrics are in Hindi, and I just imitate teh sounds). If you want to know what I'm talking about check here or here . I'm not sure if those links work, because I can't use youtube here, but you should try them. So, this was all really fun, more fun than I can express in words, and lasted about 2 or 3 minutes until I tried to video tape the whole thing and we fell apart. Quite a laugh.

After rehearsal, Steve Klise, my girlfriend, and I decided to go for a bike ride. At this point I realized we WERE in fact in Palo Alto, California, and we decided to bike to San Francisco. We went for a nice ride along some mysterious body of water, and about 2 minutes later ended up downtown at some bustling market place. I was amazed at how convenient it was to commute and decided I'd get an apartment in the city, rather than on campus. We were about to look for some water to quench our thirst after our monumental, two-minute, 45-mile trip, when we saw a guy ride by on a funny-looking bike, decked out in all kinds of speakers and electronic equipment. The guy was smiling wryly and somehow playing some really beautiful music as he rode. The song was familiar, but at first I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I realized, it was the guy from Beirut!

We, of course, all instantly remembered that the guy from Beirut was famous for riding around San Francisco on his bicycle playing guerilla concerts in abandoned parking garages. We followed and he winked the sort of wink you wink when you're a celebrity and someone recognizes you but you're not Hollywood enough to resent it (nor do you let it get to your head). Do you know that kind of wink? So, we followed him, and before we knew it, he and his group had set up and began to play. A personal concert for us! In a minute or two, all of my friends from Kenyon materialized and went googoo for Beirut. There was dancing and sing-alongs, and in general, a lot of merry-making. One thing I remember in particular was Liesel spray-painting a lot of amputated, styrofoam animal limbs. I wondered were she got them but then realized she and some other friends had ripped them off my styrofoam pig that I had apparently tied to the back of my bicycle. I was angry for a second, but I couldn't stay mad with all the great music and wonderful friends at my side. I swear they played about five songs before I woke up, all of which seemed to me to be Beirut, although I don't even know their music that well. There's one in particular that's been stuck in my head all day. I'll be listening to it when I get home today!

Well, that's about all I remember right now, but there was much more to the dream. Thanks to all my friends for appearing in my dream. Really, even if I didn't mention you, you were there. Everyone was there. By the way, I think this gorilla concert business stems from the article I read about Joanna Newsom playing a surprise concert in Big Sur a month and a half ago. Liesel was the one who told me about it, so that's probably why she had one of the lead roles in the concert sequence. If you're reading this Liesel, I'm not mad about the pig! Steve, thanks for showing us the way to the city!

I wanted to tell you about a real, waking-life bike ride I took a couple weeks ago, but I'm pretty tired of writing. Maybe next time.....

Okay, I'll give you a brief synopsis, you insistent readers, you.

So, we took a commuter train out to the village bright and early one morning (after the Victory Day holidays). It was pretty impressive. I definitely got the impression that, at least on the exterior, that village hasn't changed in the slightest since the 1920's. There are cows wandering around in the streets (you have to get there early in the day if you want milk), little wooden houses, two grocery stores, and a bunch of 20-something young men cruising around the village all day on motor-bikes with side-buggies. So we spent the day in the village, reading and picnicking (although the village kolbasa turned out to be green), until we got too scared of ticks with encephalitis and decided to go home.

We, in true form, missed the elektrichka and were told that the next one would come in 5 hours at 9:20 PM. We decided we had to get out and asked this old man how far it was to Tomsk. He said it was at least 50 km and forbid us to go. We asked how far away the next train station was, and he said it was the airport, and that we would have to take this gravel road 12 km to get there. He also forbid us to go there, and told us we could hide in one of the stores if it started to rain. We thanked him and set off. The gravel road really was awful, but we gradually pieced together the street-marker system, and realized the signs were counting down to something, something big, we hypothesized. It took forever, but we finally got to "O", which turned out to be not the airport, but another, slightly larger village called "Mizhininovka" or something. It's famous for it's huge chicken slaughter house, and I believe there was also a Soviet labor camp there back in the day. We tried to find the factory to see about getting some fresh chicken, failed, got a Snickers and the only bottle of water in the village, and decided to look for what we suspected would be a bigger road.

It was there! A huge, beautiful highway that was so gentle and encouraging after the gravel path. By the way, there were next to no cars out here. As we went on, there were more and more. But even then, we would sometimes go 5 minutes without seeing on, this on a major highway. It was the most beautiful bike-ride ever. The road cut right through middle-of-nowhere, dense, Russian, birch-forest. The whole time we were riding the sun was setting. We noticed the signs were counting down again, this time from 25, and we figured the next one must be the airport. The road was nice, the weather perfect, and we still had plenty of time to catch our train, so we decided to find out what was at the next "O-point". We saw a lot of these funny villages, my favorite of which was called "Mirnyi" or "Peaceful". The funniest name was "Protopopova".

At one point, after something like 12 km, I noticed a sign for a village called "Voskhod" or "Sunset". I knew the place, because my roommate and I had almost been suckered into taking a bus out there to buy him a bike. What was strange was that this village was supposed to be 13 km away from Tomsk, but we were supposed to be much further away and heading for the airport. It turned out that when we were 2 km away from this mysterious "O", my girlfriend recognized "Akademgorodok" in the skyline. Yep, we had accidentally arrived in Tomsk. It was such a wonderful surprise. We were thinking we were still two or three hours and one train-ride away, but really, we just ended up in our lovely "lyubimyi" city.

The long and short of this story is that Siberia is a beautiful place to ride your bike in the spring, especially if you get away from the city. Try it!


PS Maybe I'll add some pictures later!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Hello All!

We're back from our four-day visit to blossoming Novosibirsk, or Nikolaevsk as they once called it. This is my second trip to Novo, or N-sk, or Novosib, however you prefer to call it, but last time I only spent a day there on the way to Ekaterinburg (Yoburg, if you will). So this time I got to see a lot more, plus the weather was about 30-40 degrees C warmer, so we were a bit more mobile.

Let's see, we had a holiday (Day of Labor), plus I don't work on even Mondays (yes, there are even and odd (or uneven, as some say in English) weeks in Russia, so we got to have an extended and free stay chez Matt "returning ETA" Nelson at the Sea-Bags Fortress. It was free thanks to my supposed extended lecture series at the university (thanks to Matt and Julia for hooking up that tall tale (actually I did do one lesson on geography, but all of Matt's students had already seen it)). Anyway, Matt got us lined up with a free dorm room, complete with a tower, two sheets, a blanket, a wash cloth, a TV, a tea kettle, a lamp, a brush for your clothes, a brush for your shoes, and a number of other items necessary for life in Siberia (for the rest of the items, consult the checklist on the door).

So, we got into town and rushed to the grocery store for all the necessary fixins for burritos with guacamole, including some delicious swine (we ain't afraid of no swine flu... Russia's banned all entrance for Mexicans and takes the temperatures of all Americans crossing the border). We met up with some friends, including Katya the local and Nick the Manchester (who had his first burrito!). We got pretty sleepy, having caught the 8:30 bus in, and dozed off for a good 12 hours.

The next day we visited the most sacred spot in Novo, MEGA, home to the only Ikea in a few oblasts. I had never been, so it was pretty new and astonishing for me, but Matt had already decked out his room in Ikea gear and was less impressed. All the same, he was a good sport, and agreed to take us on the pilgrimage. We took the metro (oh yeah, there's a metro, now covered with stickers from the city's new literacy campaign, explaining rare and little known facts about Russian spelling, stress, and grammar) to the Marx Square stop, and after missing 2 buses, hopped on the free super shuttle, which takes visitors out of the city to shopping central. It was every bit as sweaty and miserable as Matt warned it would be.

Anyway, Ikea was pretty fun. We had an endless series of photoshoots in which we pretended like we lived in each of the little fake rooms, and then I bought some bowls, glasses, candles, and things, followed by some hot dogs and sodas (Swedish meatballs for the traitors who skipped out on my lecture to stay in MEGA, when Matt and I had to bolt back to the university).

Let's see, what else, I learned about to play some banjo, including the boom-ditty strumming rythm. We went to a great (and rare!) microbrewery, and happened to catch the US-Russia championship hockey match. Matt applauded loudly after America scored the first goal and almost got our teeth knocked in by our neighbors in the next booth. Luckily, Russia scored the next 5 goals and our neighbors cheered up, although Matt did lose 100 rubles in a bet. The beer was delicious, and we went home to go to sleep.

The next day, we woke up early to buy some lotion and Snickers bars, and the weather was amazing. 20 degrees C and windy as the Dickens. I was afraid this sheet metal on this walkway was going to fly up and decapitate us, but heads intact, we marched on to Pyatorochka for Snickers and Ice-Tea. While we were enjoying our snacks on these freaky benches made in the USSR for the giants of the Soviet future, the weather went haywire. Storm clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped. A freak wind and lightening storm stranded us in the entrance of a hospital (the door was marked as being for patients who had been bitten by ticks and hoping to get immunized). When the storm passed, we headed home, and after some of Matt's delicious coffee, we headed off for the train station (we were headed to Obskoe Lake and Akademgorodok). We missed the train and went for some sushi (there were some rolls covered in black caviar called "OBAMA"... hmmm). We tried to change our order to all-you-can eat, but we spoke to late, and had to settle for more reasonable portions. Then we ran back to the train station and missed the train again.

While we were waiting, we went to the stall of a vendor of childrens toys and bought a. a fake ID featuring Luntik the cartoon moon-animal, b. some bubbles, and c. one of those New Years noise-making blowy toys. We didn't see the connection at first, but we soon realized that we had the means for an amazing game: battle bubble. While one person blew bubbles, the other popped them as quickly as possible with his festive, extendible noise-maker. Some of the station employees were not amused, but the todlers liked to stand and watch. We eventually caught our elektrichka out and enjoyed the accordion stylings of a blind man while laughing at the pictures of ourselves playing bubble battle.

The lake was beautiful, but the weather was freezing (the temperature was dropping all day, my friends can assure you) and there were mountains of trash everywhere. We took some pictures, reenacted the final scene from "Les quatre-cent coups" a few times, thought about crashing a bonfire, but ultimately tracked off through the woods to find the mysterious institution of higher learning known as AKADEMGORODOK. I didn't think we'd make it, but we did. We had a rendezvous with Irochka, who refused to show us to the critically acclaimed Mexican place, but agreed to take us for "NEW YORK PIZZA", which it certainly was not. It was fun though, and we played some bubble battle and then turned down a tour of NGU. The place was really nice though. It was the closest thing to an American-style university I've seen in Russia: a cloistered, well-forested, quiet, comfortable community centered around the university. I was intrigued, but not intrigued enough to hang around in the cold in the middle of nowhere, and so we hopped on a "gazelle" bus and headed back to the city. On the bus, we entertained ourselves )and some alcoholics and old Russian ladies) with bubble battle until Irochka said "I am tired... of bubbles", and we cut it out. Then, let's see, we got some Ramen noodles and Zhigulyovskoe and called it an evening.

So, the next day was spend showing my passport and explaining my address to about a million people at the university who were on to the scheme (luckily Matt was smooth enough to get me off campus without my being detained). We went for a stroll, picked up some cough drops, thought about trying Yugoslavian food, and then headed off to buy our tickets home. While we were waiting for our bus, we decided to go get some Rostiks (which Russian for KFC), and Matt treated us all to cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, and cokes. What is more, the lady didn't even blink an eye when Matt dropped a 5,000 r note (this would be like going into McDonalds and paying with a $200 bill). She was totally down though, and we feasted. In the end, we stayed too long and ended up sprinting to the bus station. We really almost missed it. Matt waived us off, and I think I saw a tear in his eye.

It was a quiet ride home, and the bus driver drove smoothly and quickly. We made record time. We stopped in Bolotnoe (a city that is literally a building of pay toilets, a motel, a snack bar, and something called a nigh cafe... oh, and the city's name means swampy). When we got home we jocked our Ikea bags upstairs to show them off to Michael the roommate, who was not impressed and didn't think too highly of our shopping at Ikea. You can't please 'em all!

Today I am in bad shape. I am tired, my nose is running like a faucet, I have nothing to blow it into, and I have to lead a seminar on how to motivate students to learn a foreign language. I could use a seminar on how to motivate myself to lead seminars!

Love y'all,

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sorry for the communication breakdown

Dear everyone,

Sorry I've been so long in writing. I guess I have less new impressions and have gotten used to life here so much that I haven't really thought to write anything down. That's not to say that nothing interesting's been going on. Let's see....

I was accepted into some grad schools and actually got to go to America to visit them. This was quite a shock, having been in Russia for so long, especially as my first real stop was California (practically a foreign country in itself and quite a contrast from Tomsk). I had a great visit and ended up deciding to go to Stanford for Slavic Studies, although I liked UChicago and Northwestern as well. All in all, the trip was wonderful. I got to see my family and plenty of friends (in San Francisco, Columbus/Gambier, and Chicago), and I also got the chance to try some classic pieces of American cuisine (including Mexican, Italian, Indian, etc, etc, but you catch my drift). I also brought a whole suitcase full of American contraband back for myself and friends, including 3 bottles of Habanero Tobasco.

So yeah, I'm liking the prospect of spending the next 5-6 years of my life in the Bay Area working on Russian literature, although it looks like a lot of work. I was a little disappointed that these programs seem to put so little emphasis on spending time in Russia and providing opportunities to maintain your Russaian. I think they are flexible though, so if this is a priority for me, I think they can help make all that happen. I'd like to spend some summers and at least another year living in Russia before I get my PhD and start pretending I'm qualified to teach people Russian. I'd really like to spend a year in St. Petersburg!

I was happy to get back to my lovely Tomsk, though. Spring had sprung just before I left. It's amazing how great 0 degrees Celcius feels after a winter with temperatures in the -30's and -40's. Basically the sun, along with an army of probably homeless people melted and chipped away the feet of ice and snow that had accumulated over the course of the winter, and people came out in masses. Some places were and are still pretty muddy, but the center, where I live, was cleaned up pretty nicely, so Russians, dressed to the nines, came out to stroll and strut in the the above 0 temperatures (women, of course, in high heels and mini-skirts). The main drag, Prospekt Lenina, felt like Nevskii Prospekt in the summertime.

What have I been doing in my free time? In late February/early March I fell in love with EL Doctorow and read three of his novels, Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, and Billy Bathgate, which are wonderful beyond description. I'm so proud of our Kenyon alumnus. I can't believe we don't make a bigger deal of him. I think we need a statue. My concience has since directed me back to Russian literature, and I've been working away at some Bulgakov novellas and plays, which are pretty enjoyable. At Stanford I got the reading list for the comps exam to be taken after the first two years of study: 14 pages of works typed in size 10 font. Thing's pretty comprehensive. It sounds like a lot of work, especially in Russian, but I like the idea of having read all of those books. Also, I've been working on a top secret project that some of you may end up seeing in the next month or two. Hope you like it!

What else, oh yes, I got a bike through the used stuff paper "Iz ruk v ruki" (from hands to hands). A lot of the bikes seemed way too small, but one was advertized as "for a tall height". Some short lady but an enormous men's bike that she never even managed to sit on. She sold it to me for a song (5,500 rubles), at least as far as bikes in Russian go. They are unimaginably expensive at bike stores. Anyway, much to the shock of the local population, I've been cruising around the city, exploring new neighborhoods, getting some exercise, and, in general, just looking really cool. What shocks Russians most is the idea of using a bike to commute to work or school. From what I gather, they don't really use bike locks. The few that have bikes (bmx bikes have become a huge fad for Russian teenagers in the past few years) just take them out and bring them back home. They think I'm crazy for locking my bike to things. They're sure that cops or the unstoppable Russian criminal mind will surely jack my bike in the next few weeks. We'll see. The only down side is that I have to carry it up to my third storey apartment every day and park it in the living room. You know what, I don't even care. This bike has brought me unimaginable happiness in the past few days. I'll bring you all a picture soon if I get a chance. What a beaut.

So that's about it I suppose. I'm getting by at the university, chatting up my students about my trip to America (convenient for me). Everyone wants to know how the poor Americans are surviving the crisis. I think TV here has them thinking that most Americans now live in the streets and beg for BigMacs. Okay, I don't want to go into the crisis and Russians, so I'm going to stop myself. Hopefully I'll get back to you sooner than later.

Nice seeing you all in America,

P.S. Check out Alex Murphy's blog about Japan. It's way cooler than mine.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pictures/too lazy to blog about the rest of the trip/an exciting encounter with the local artists' community

So here are all of my pictures from Europe:


St. Petersburg:


Berlin I & II:

Prague I & II:


So, after you're done admiring all of these pictures, you can read on. So I left off somewhere in Berlin, and I think I'm going to leave it there. You get get a lot of the story from the pictures and descriptions if you're interested, and if you're really interested, I recommend reading Abbichka or Matt's blogs or asking me yourself.

So I've been back in Tomsk for about three weeks now. I've been loving it. It's so nice to stay put for a bit. I missed all of my friends here and the city itself. I even missed the weather. St. Petersburg and Moscow were so damp and gross. Tomsk, despite the -40 degree weather, is dry and predictable, no rain, not so much wind, etc. It's nice to be back in my cute little apartment living my cute little Siberian life. Only, after Amsterdam, I really, really want a bicycle. We'll see.

So what I really want to tell you about is the most exciting thing that's happened to me since I've been back. This Sunday I was asked to lead a special Valentine's Day film discussion at the American Center, the film selection, You've Got Mail. Woohoo! But, on the way out, after paying a 1.5 ruble fine at the garderobe for my coat hook thingy being ripped, I stepped outside and set my books and notebooks on the ground to put my hat on. Up comes this Russian woman with huge bag of books. She says, "That's no way to treat books!" I answer, "No, you see, I set the books on my notebook." She accepts my explanation and starts chatting me up. She says, "Today's my Birthday!" and I answer "Congratulations!" (I was not being a jerk, this is what you're supposed to say in Russian). So she says, "Do you like the theater?" "Yes." "Do you like Chekhov?" "Yes." "Well then let's go!" ("poekhali!"-an emphasis on the fact that we'll be taking a bus). I, in a silly mood from watching a romantic comedy and discussing it with a bunch of Russian twenty-year-olds, agree, "Poekhali!" She gives me a little plastic bag for my books and thrusts all of hers into my arms. So she drags me into the Pushkin library. We hop on a bus and we're off!

We're late. The coat check's full. We dump our stuff in some other room. She seems to know everybody, and everybody seems to know her. The place is packed, mostly with the over-seventy crowd. She keeps pushing passed people and dragging me along, explaining to everyone that she met "this young man" on the street. Eventually she finds us a spot sitting on these big foam children's toys. After 10 minutes of enjoying traditional Moscow gypsy songs, an elderly man starting complaining that his wife couldn't see over my big head, so I sat down. I couldn't see anything, but the music was great. There were all kinds of theatrical poetry readings and dances and witty speeches. This lady, Natasha is her name, kept taking pictures of me and giggling to some friends. Some old women kept murmuring things like "complete shamelessness!" and "no conscience whatsoever", in reference to my friend. She could care less. She was having a ball on her birthday with a young American chaperon.

When the thing ended, I was planning to thank her and make an exit, but she had different plans. She kept insisting on photographing me with different people, introducing me to friends. Only gradually did I realize that the people she was introducing me to were no ordinary Russians. It turned out that they were all silver-haired and celebrated artists, writers, sculptors, poets, musicians, and actors! They were reciting their poetry to me, showing me their artwork, inviting me exhibitions and readings, discussion 19th century literature, musing about meetings with my favorites 20th-century poets. It was incredible! After a whole lot of schmoozing, they invited me to have tea for Natasha's (and another man's... Lev Nikolaevich (not Tolstoy)) birthdays. In Russia, tea can actually mean sandwiches, wine, candy, and vodka. In this case, it did. There was no tea. So I sat for a couple hours with what turned out to be some writers'/artists' society called "Chekhov's Fridays". They were so charming and interesting. Reading each others' poetry, chatting about old friends, giving each other various gifts (always books except for one present, for Natasha: Sex Shampoo).

It was quite a bit of fun. I met the sculptor of this really famous "baby in a cabbage" sculpture that's in front of the maternity ward. He kept trying to give toasts but was really offended when no one would listen. One lady swore that she never drinks vodka (as she did shot after shot), and by the end she was trying her hand at French, telling me "Tu belle". I suggested that she try "tu es beaux", but she gave up and spilled a 2-liter of Pepsi on me instead. Lev Nikolaevich, a writer with what looked like a Soviet writers guild pin, recited a New Years text-message poem he had received this year, and then begged me to sing "Oh Susannah" with him. We did. He decided to start attending my English club and, since then, has! On the way out, one artist lady was drunkenly complaining about this other "outsider guy" who was tagging a long but who doesn't have any talent or "do anything". I was worried she'd find me out as another nothing-doer. I could never figure out who Natasha was. Apparently she owns or runs the Tomsk Gostinnyi Dvor, which is a pretty big deal. As far as I could tell, she somehow assembled this whole group. She gave a big speech about having met each and every one of the people seated at the table at different points, just on the street. She loves meeting new people, talking to them, learning about them. She just plain loves life, she says, and I believe her. She's a pretty fun lady.

Anyway, so yesterday I get a call from my pal Lev Nikolaevich, saying he's coming to my English club and that he wants me to swing by a studio of his friend. I say, "sure!" but am a bit nervous. He came to my club and got in a fight with this lady who is learning English (as of the past 8 months), because her son is living in Canada. She claimed that all American music teachers and professors are actually Russian. Lev Nikolaevich countered that "Mr. Armstrong and the other American jazz musicians are wonderful!" A good point.

So we hopped on a tram and headed of to his friends apartment/studio. Lev Nikolaevich, a pensioner, didn't have to pay, but, generous as he is, he paid my five-ruble fare. We arrived, and much to my surprise, his friend is the world-famous Leontii Andreevich Usov! The first thing I sought out when I arrived to Tomsk is this incredible, hilarious sculpture of Chekhov (see my first or second blog post for the picture). It is his work! He's had exhibitions all over Russia, Europe, and the world. Putin and Gorbochev have his works at the homes. He even has a picture of Gorby visiting his studio! My good friend Lev Nikolaevich has a diploma stating that he served as the hand model for the statue, and another poet there served as the foot-model. We had bread and tea, and then Usov took me over to show me his work. His studio is filled with beautiful wooden (birch and cedar) sculptures of famous literary figures and characters. It was all so life-like, light-hearted and beautiful! Search on the internet for his work. It's just incredible. He has a book published of his sketches of famous Tomsk personalities: "Tomskians through the eyes of Usov". He did a sketch of me in this style and gave it to me as a gift. I was star-struck. We talked literature and art, politics and travel. It was such a rewarding experience. He's headed to Moscow for a bit, but I'm invited back (they thought I should have brought a camera to take pictures and I agree). Man, what a day!

Time to rush to class!


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More travels...

So Piter...

As I was saying, Petersburg is the city of my dreams. When I walked out of the metro onto Gostinyi Dvor and saw Nevsky Prospekt and everything that had been so familiar it was like heaven. It's so strange that it had already been one and a half years since I was last there, that I was 21 then and am 23 now, that I have changed so much, especially in terms of my Russian and familiarity with Russia since then. It's interesting to try to measure the change in yourself against fixed things like cities. I found, however, that it's not always so simple. There are a lot of variables, things that were familiar that I only know understand, parts of the city that have radically changed while I was away. Revisiting streets, squares, monuments, museums, churches, and people really put a lot of things in perspective. It was a strange and overall, positive experience.

To start, the city really is pretty gross in the winter. Every Siberian will tell you that you're much better off facing -30 degree tempatures in Siberia than the disgusting dampness of Petersburg, and it might just be true. I take for granted how dry Tomsk is. It's too cold for slush, wet snow, and rain. Matt and I have a theory that it might even be too cold for a lot of germs in Siberia. Both of us had enjoyed pretty incredible streaks of good health in Siberia, but the further west we headed, the sicker everyone got. The dampness of Petersburg just compounded all of it and made a few of us pretty miserable.

Anyway, we had a pretty great time in our friend Lauren's incredible apartment right in the very center of the city. When I lived there in 2007 I was on the northern coast of Vasilevsky Island, which was closed off by the drawbridges at night. Living so close to everything and in such a beautiful, old neighborhood was really a treat, and you can't beat free lodging with friends. We cooked incredible meals, stopped into the Hermitage and the Russian museum, and somehow ended up sitting on stage for a production of the "Magic Flute" in Russian at the small hall of the Marinsky. We had some ticket problems and just barely made it to the right theater in time, but instead of being locked out, we were directed to seats literally feet away from the performers. I can't say that I'm a big opera fan, but being that close really helped me to get into the whole thing. It was a really wonderful experience. I only wish I had jumped out to sing a bit with the chorus. We really could have.

Best of all, I paid a visit to my old host mom and her daughter. I brought some wine and chocolate (not church wine like I did the first time I met them, thank God) and they already had a huge spread of tangerines, salads, meats, and all sorts of wild stuff ready and on the table. It was really wonderful to see them again! My host mom was exactly the same as she always was. She called my beard unattractive and swore that no girls would want to kiss me. When I told her I had been living in Russia she was shocked to find that I don't have a family yet. Whoops! We reminisced about all of my wacky misadventures from the summer before, and I tried to convince her that Tomsk was also an okay place to live. She told me all kinds of stories about long-lost relatives and bread-ration tickets. Great. Also, I met up with a friend Ksyusha who I had met the summer before. She told me about all sorts of interesting and outlandish things she's been involved with and working on. She's really brilliant. She has all kinds of funny ideas about revolution and anarchy. We went to an Indian place for tea and found a copy of Tarkovsky's poetry on their shelf. She had given me her father's copy the summer before, when I couldn't find one, and since then she has fallen in love with his poetry and his son's films (like me). It was funny that they had it there of all places, and, as I later found, they even had an excerpt from a poem written in the menu. The waitress came by, saw that I was leafing through the collection, and said that she is also a huge fan.

I was really sad to leave Petersburg so soon. There's so much more I'd like to see. I really hope I get to spend some time there as a grad student some day. There's something about the place that you don't find in Tomsk. Diversity, namely, in every aspect of life. There's so much culture and so much history that just emmanates from every building and every street. When I was cross the street I passed two Russian girls enthusiastically discussing Dostoevsky. So refreshing to hear!

Oh yeah, I went in the Kazansky Sobor (on Ksyusha's recommendation, which I didn't know you could do), and it was so beautiful! Anyone who'll be there should stop in. My favorite part was the flags from Napoleon's army and keys to various Parisian palaces that the Russians snagged after chasing Napoleon back to France. They're still triumphantly on display there, almost as if they're holding onto the keys in case they ever need them. Hope nobody ever thought to change the locks!

Let's see, we had an uneventful, empty couple of flights through Riga (where Abbie's peanut butter and Matt's multi-tool were promptlyconfiscated, despite having made their way safely through Russian security) to Amsterdam.

What a city! A shining, beautiful little slice of some far-fetched utopia! Even in the winter it was warm (with a few exceptions), and the locals just pedal around all day on their bikes, smiling serenely as if it was the most beautiful of summer days. There are so many bikes! I had never imagined such a bike-friendly city! I've never done urban biking, but the five of us rented bikes on the first day and hardly left the seats! Luckily, Lauren and Matt are pretty experienced bikers and good with directions. My memories of Amsterdam consist almost exclusively of us jetting around, from bridge to bridge, embankment to embankment, here and there and back again, in circles day and night, for four days, on our cruiser bikes. I'm so sad that I have to go back to my bikeless, icy, Russian existence. Maybe I can still find a used one?

We hit the museums hard, including the Rijksmuseum, the Sex Museum, the Van Gogh, and the Cat Museum (on the recommendation of a local friend of Abbie's who we just happened to see on the street). It was some really incredible art and we really took the time to take it all in, discuss it, appreciate it. We even noticed two flies hidden in paintings, as if they were flying by the artist while he was painting. Here's one. Zoom in and look to the left of the boat in the middle: .

We did a lot of speculating about Dutch culture, about which, admittedly, we knew and still know very little. We decided they have something figured out that we don't. It's hard to describe, but everything there seems to run so smoothly. People really seem happy wherever you go. It's hard to describe, but anyway, it was nice to see, and I'd like to take a little piece of the Dutch mentality with me, whatever it is.

Okay, so now we're in Berlin, at another hostel. It's been really nice staying in these hostels, meeting all sorts of young people from all over the world. I wasn't counting on that being an added bonus. We saw a Jeff Koons exhibit that I didn't like and a Paul Klee one that I absolutely loved. We followed the old Berlin wall all the way around town and checked out the East Side Gallery, where there's a lot of famous graffiti. Let's see, there's a lot more, but I'll get to it later. It's late and this post is already pretty long. I'm having a blast, but missing everyone and everything in both America and Russia. In other news, I might give myself a moustache!

Love you,

Monday, January 19, 2009



I've been on the road for about 18 days now. I took the train through Russia, stopping to stay with my buds in Novosibirsk and Ekaterinburg, the third and fourth largest Russian cities respectively. Seeing my friends has been wonderful, and getting to see so many different Russian cities has been quite an experience. I feel like I have a much better perspective on Russia as a whole, better, in fact (and in part(, than some Russians, who've never been outside of Petersburg or Moscow, and who scorn the smaller "regional" cities as primitive and backwater.

We saw quite a bit in those few days. Novosibirsk, so close to Tomsk geographically, is a whole different beast of a city. Enormous, uniformly grey, very young, very Soviet, but as Matt (Fulbrighter living there( would tell you, not without its charms. Ekaterinburg is famous for a number of reasons. We visited a church recently constructed on the spot where the Tsar's family was murdered. It was pretty moving. It's also the rock capital of the Urals and Siberia, if not all of Russia. From what Abbie tells me and from what I saw, the music scene there is pretty great, especially by Russian standards. We even went to a Beatles-themed bar. The river there translates from some local language to "stinky dog river". It did smell. In fact, all of the water there smelled pretty foul, worse, in fact, than a stinky dog. Anyway, Tomsk is dwarfed by these two little-known metropolises. They both have metro lines (Ekaterinburg even has two hypothetical lines sketched on the metro maps in the wagons... luckily Abbie was there to keep us from trying to transfer onto them.

So the three of us continued the train trip all the way in to Petersburg. I could tell you a lot of things about Russian trains, good and bad, but I'll just mention a few. People bring all kinds of food and booze on, pack mini-feasts even. Really. One of our bunkmates named Sergei brought an entire, enormous chicken for the ride, but about half-way through he started trying to sell it to us and to the attendant ladies. No sales. He also tried to steal my pocket knife and trade phone batteries with Matt. All in all we rode the trains for about 2.5 days, stopping only to buy chips and beer from ladies who wait by the stations. You can't use the toilets when the trains stopped, or half an hour before or after a stop, which makes for some difficult situations when there's nothing to do but eat and drink for days at a time. One form of currency that goes a long way on a Russian train is being able to play the one Russian card game that anyone knows, "Durak", which means something between "idiot" and "asshole". Anyway, as Matt explained when he taught us in Kiev, you basically have to know the game to successfully ride trains in Russia. We played until we could play no more. Once we played with this surly Russian man, who was so good that by the end of the game he knew exactly who had what cards and collected cards specially to ruin other people's hands. Amazing. By the time we got to Petersburg we were ready to be done with the whole train thing. I got fined for sneaking my luggage onto the metro, but I didn't care. I was in the most beautiful city in the world!

I'll continue this post later, because my friends are waiting for me to start a game of Durak, but stay tuned for stories from Piter, Amsterdam, and Berlin!

Love you all,

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas party!

Dear readers,

So my work for the semester is over, apart from a pesky oral exam in Russian literature that I'll have to take on Monday. I've almost recovered my hostage visa (still waiting on a copy of one last train ticket), so I might actually be allowed out of the country. We foreigners are in full holiday-celebration mode. We did Christmas Eve at a friend's apartment and Christmas at mine. We exchanged gifts, baked cakes, cookies, and what not, and I made an extra-large batch of eggnog, which was very delicious. I've substituted out rum/whiskey (way overpriced in Russia) for Russian "Balzam", a sort of spiced, berried liquor that goes well with the spiced nog. We have a lovely tree decked in all sorts of decorations that somehow accumulated over the past few days, along with some really finicky chinese Christmas lights. We put out some socks, cookies, and milk for Santa Clause, and on the first day he just ate the goods without leaving anything. He made up for it last night and slipped us some fancy "Cote d'Or" chocolate.

Up next: a few days of extreme, Russian New Years celebrations.

Anyway, enjoy the pictures.

Merry Christmas to all my loved one back home!