Saturday, June 18, 2016

Travel Log: Days Twenty-Seven, Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Nine, Thirty, and Thirty-One

Saint Petersburg, Russia 6/11-15/2016

        So, it's pretty obvious I got really behind on these daily blogs. I'm currently at home in Iowa, a few days after getting back to the states, and, especially since Saint Petersburg was so beautiful, I'm thinking it'd be better and easier to do a 'picture blog' for our time in the Venice of the North:
Saturday: Train compartment!
First Stop: Peter's Gardens
Saint Petersburg Eternal Flame
Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
One of the Many Canals
Sunday: The Winter Palace

Monument by the Winter Palace

Little Concert in the Russian Museum

Monday: Catherine's Palace!

Inside of Catherine's Palace

Semi-Illegal Photo of the Amber Room

Selfie in Catherine's Gardens
Tuesday: Last Day! Lenin's Old Offices
Memorial at the Site of the Mass Graves from WWII
Sunset View (12:00 AM) From the Top of St. Isaac's Cathedral
Statue of Peter the Great

Waiting for the Raising of the Bridges (1 AM)

A Beautiful Last Day
Wednesday: The flight home ended up being pretty great

Iowan Sunset; finally home, on the way to camp
A Post-Russia Culver's Malt!

Travel Log: Days Twenty-Four, Twenty Five, and Twenty-Six

Murom, Russia 6/8-10/2016
Museum of Folk Arts in Murom

                 Wednesday through Friday of this week we spent most of our time in Murom, a city about two and a half hours from Vladimir whose university was connected with Vladimir State and the American Home; I'm going to be doing it all in one blog post because a) I'm starting to get behind/lazy with blog posts and b) it all kind of ran together in my mind. Murom is smaller and somewhat less historic, but we had a good time with the students all the same. We had to stay with brand new host families, which was a slightly-uncomfortable sudden change, but my host sister (a 20-year-old public relations student named Tanya) was wonderful and we had a lot in common. We did various things around town, but most of our time was spent either attempting to socialize with the first-year English students (all of whom were very shy, it was somewhat difficult to communicate) or hanging out all together with our hosts. They were all college students, so we spent Wednesday night out exploring the town with them and on Thursday night, Courtney, Leah, and I accompanied our host siblings to an 'anti-cafe,' a cool little hangout spot that had a bunch of couches and board games and various rooms for different activities. We got to hang out with Courtney's host brother's group of friends, all of whom were very friendly, for most of the night, and we had a great time playing games and getting to know them. Friday morning was spent writing example papers for the university's English class, and after killing some time walking around the city center, we boarded the bus for the ride back to Vladimir.
Boat ride in Murom!
                 Friday night was wonderful and far more sad than I could've anticipated. We went out to a beautiful dinner at a restaurant overlooking the forests surrounding the city, and had a great time at our last meal with Alexei, Gallina, Olia, and Sasha, and later met the university students we'd befriended over the course of our stay. Finally our host families met us at the train station, and we had a chance to say a tearful goodbye to everyone. Vera, Lera, and Pollina all showed up (with my horribly heavy luggage) to see me off, and the four of us spent the majority of the time at the station talking away from the group. Words cannot express how thankful I am for this family and everything they've done for me; they welcomed me into their home, cared for me, taught me that you don't need to speak the same language to communicate and bond, rolled with our group's schedule changes and miscommunications, and made me feel loved the whole time while in Russia. I surprised myself a little with how much we all cried at my leaving them. Vera made me promise (through Lera's translation) that I'd bring my family to visit their's one day. I hope I'll be able to do just that.
               After finally tearing ourselves away from all our Russian friends we were hurried onto the night train and, a hectic hour later, fell sound asleep, exhausted after a long and emotional day.

My wonderful host family and I

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Travel Log: Days Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three

Vladimir, Russia 6/6/2016

Miah and her favorite snack, Suchki
              Today marked the beginning of the last two days in Vladimir. Our penultimate day was a pretty normal one, about as normal as it gets here: we spent some time in master classes, tours, and excursions, made some cool crafts, met some cool people. We visited a spoon museum (yes, that's a thing that exists) and got to paint our own enormous wooden spoons in the Vladimir style (also a thing that exists), stopped by a blacksmith's workshop and got to make our own nails (mine probably won't actually work for nailing anything but that's neither here nor there), and hung out with the congregation of one of the Orthodox churches in town. They were lovely people, many of whom we'd worked with at the cemetery, and they gave us a quick tour and sang some religious folk music for us (as could've been predicted, Alexei had me get up and sing a quick hymn for them as well). One highlight was getting to climb the precariously-steep stairs of the bell tower and try our hands at bell-ringing in the freezing cold; another was playing a bunch of random games with the congregation that Alexei talked us through (and by talked us through I mean he announced a game and then just kind of started playing, and we all had to do our best to catch on). It was a good time! Orthodox Christianity tends not appeal as strongly to youth, but this particular church had a relatively large youth outreach program (and wasn't quite as conservative) so many of the people with us were younger. That was most of the day, I went home and had a nice evening with Vera and Polly. I can already tell I'm gonna miss the crap out of them when I leave.
Chocolate and cherry blini

Vladimir, Russia 6/7/2016

                   Our last day in Vladimir. It's strange: while I feel like I've been out of the US for a very long time, it also seems like very little time has passed since we got here on the first week.
                  We didn't have much of a Russian lesson this morning, it was more of a quick review and then a cute little singing party in one of the lecture rooms. Alexei brought out his guitar and all the students and teachers sang along to some popular Russian songs we'd all learned (I'm definitely singing them to my kids at camp), and we all had a good time laughing at each others' pronunciations. From there we just had a few lectures, and finally got around to going to Blinchiki for lunch, a blini restaurant I was told about the first week and have been dying to go to since (blini are Russian pancakes that look sort of like crepes, and are often filled with delicious/sweet things). It was all-in-all a pretty low-key last day, that is until the final goodbye party.
The sweet babushkas that performed for us
                  The American Home has been wonderful to us for the entirety of our trip, and was wonderful a final time in the goodbye party. They arranged for a bunch of women from the veteran's home to come sing for us, and then played a slide show of David's many (often embarrassing) photos from our trip. They gave us all key chains and personalized posters, and if we weren't near tears by the end of all that, we certainly were when we had to say goodbye to Sasha and Olia. Sasha and Olia, I'm sure I've mentioned, are the two students in the American Home that spent the most time with us throughout our stay in Vladimir, and we all got very close with them. They were sobbing and then we were crying and it all got very emotional very fast (despite the fact that we're seeing them briefly tomorrow and Friday); it amazes me how close of a bond we made with them in such little time. We made them promise to keep in contact, and to let us know if they ever wanted to/were planning on studying in or coming to America.
                     After a while I couldn't take all the feelings anymore (plus the party began to simmer down) so I ducked out to go home. I spent the last night packing and hanging out with Polly and it was blessedly free of any "this is our last night" kind of things; I know it'll be hardest leaving this family so I am fine saving all of that for Friday.

Group picture at the American Home

Monday, June 6, 2016

Travel Log: Days Nineteen, Twenty, and Twenty-One

Courtney in front of the Dacha
Shukhudrinovo, Russia 6/3-5/2016

                 This weekend was one of our less structured ones; it was more about relaxing and experiencing rural life in Russia than about going to a lot of places and doing a lot of things, so I'm going to make one blog post detailing the highlights of the weekend.
Ehtna doing some manual labor
     In order to even begin to think about the great time we had in Shukhudrinovo, I have to first fight through memories of the mosquitoes. I thought I knew about mosquitoes. I thought I'd seen the worst mosquitoes had to offer. I thought I'd already walked through Mosquito Hell in the summer of 2014 and come out the other side, itchy, scarred, with significantly less blood, but stronger, and unafraid. I never anticipated how wrong I was. Russian mosquitoes are the worst things in the entire world, enormous monsters that will stop at nothing to make your legs look like a topographical map of the US. These suckers are at least twice as big as their American cousins, and exponentially more clever: they're harder to catch, harder to kill, and know exactly where that one door in your dacha isn't completely sealed and how to get in and wreak havoc. Also, while the pests with which I am familiar are usually active primarily in the mornings and in the evenings, these suckers are on the hunt 24/7; bug spray was a necessity at all times, and I would manage to kill at least 8 mosquitoes before falling asleep at night, with the sound of their wings buzzing in my ears.
Dog friends!
                 Other than that, this weekend was great! It was more relaxing while still requiring a lot of team effort (we had to make our own meals and do all the cleaning; we also hauled a lot of logs and helped Andrei out around the house), and we got to learn a lot about rural life in Russia. Andrei, an acclaimed history teacher, was a veritable fountain of knowledge, and told us about everything from the history of the region to ancient Russian family life to how thread is made from sheep's wool. He was also a really funny guy, always ready with a joke or a story, and went to great lengths to make sure we were comfortable and happy. His love for teaching and hosting and serving the people in his neighborhood was evident, in how wonderfully he treated us, in his friendships with all the neighborhood kids, in his great concern for the work he did and for the little village's survival. He showed us around all weekend, taking us on bike rides and on a tour of a nearby farm, and had us make a Powerpoint of his many pictures from our stay, making us promise to keep up our international friendship after we leave Russia.
The neighborhood kids! Prokhor
on the left

                     He is also a very talented man; one of the two masterclasses we got to participate in this weekend was in woodcarving, which is his favorite hobby. The little dacha was decorated all over with carvings of various animals and people, and we, along with a bunch of the children from the neighborhood, all got to sand and paint some kind of pre-made sculpture (mine was a rooster). It was the second time we got to be creative that weekend; on Friday one of our first activities was a master class in toy making, in which we made a little clay chicken that whistles. We were all very skeptical as to whether we could actually get our creations to make sound, but with time (and a lot of help from the teacher) we ended up with a little chorus of toy roosters. These classes played into a big theme of rural life in Russia, which is making things by hand: we also got to talk with a woman who makes much of her own clothing and sells her knitting at fairs, and a woman, Masha, who taught us how to make thread from wool.
Clay chicken before 
Clay chicken after
                    The neighborhood kids were a blast as well; like I mentioned, they hung around the house all the time, joining us for tea and playing with us. Prokhor, a small 13-year-old boy, befriended us and came around to hang out with us a couple times; he was a funny kid, he and I formed a little friendly rivalry through a couple games of Monopoly. He had a little bit of a troubled past, Andrei told us: his parents got into a violent fight right after he was born, his mother stabbed his father, and, though the two are still together, they are alcoholics, and it is not a happy home. It is good that Andrei is around for Prokhor to be able to be in a happier environment for some of the day. A lot of the other kids only spoke Russian and therefore were pretty shy at first, but eventually we found common ground in the little litter of puppies that one of Andrei's dogs had about a month ago.
The babushka we got to speak with
                      One of the coolest and most humbling moments happened on Saturday, when a local babushka came to visit and talk with us, along with her daughter and her friend. This woman, 87, had been taken hostage by the Nazis when they invaded Russia during World War II, and would've been taken all the way to Germany to be a slave if the Russian forces wouldn't have rescued her and others with her in Belarus. She was an incredible woman, but the starvation and abuse she faced was horrifying; she teared up while telling how hard it was during this time, how they weren't allowed the clothing to stay warm in the winter, how her and the other children would have to dig through the trash to find the food leftover from the dogs, how many men she saw die during battle and how near she and others in her situation came to just being shot and killed. Almost everyone she knew died, and after she was rescued she grew up alone in an orphanage. Despite all these horrors, she started out the talk telling us how important being good people was, how family is the greatest joy in life and how hard work, hope, and faith are the keys to living a long, happy life (she was also an extremely loud, fiery woman; while she was telling us all this she was mostly shouting and repeatedly slamming her fist on the table, it was awesome). She spoke of how grateful she was that God sent the Russian army to save her and get her through this ordeal, and then how much joy she got in the family and life God gifted her with after the war. When I asked whether it was difficult to keep her faith throughout all she went through and during the communist regime, she responded with a simple 'Nyet.' It was incredibly inspiring to see someone go through unimaginable circumstances and retain their hope and passion for life.
                   A final great thing about this weekend was all the time we got to spend together as a group. Like I said, we had to cook all of our meals and wash all the dishes by hand, and as such ended up working as a team quite a bit. We also got to end both nights just sitting and laughing and talking in the girls room, which was a blast. I'm really happy to have gotten such a great, easy-to-get-along-with group of people to go on this trip with.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Travel Log: Day Eighteen

Vladimir, Russia, 6/2/2016

View from inside a Russian
prison cell
                   Our last day in Vladimir for the week! Our first task of the day (post-Russian lesson) was to get food for this weekend. We're going to be 'roughing it' somewhat in Shukhudrinovo, living in a village without running water, no heating, and questionable electricity, and making our own food; the American Home gave us a budget of 9000 rubles and sent us to a grocery store to get ingredients. We ran around a grocery store, trying to read things and buy enough food for nine people (Vika is going with us); it ended up only costing around 6500 rubles ($100), gotta love that exchange rate! Then we went to an Italian lunch and had a few hours to just explore; the seven of us and Sasha went to a coffeehouse and sat and talked for a while, it was very relaxing.
                   We had an excursion to a museum about Vladimir Central, a huge, famous prison in the city that house political prisoners during World War II, and that was used as a halfway point on prisoners' way to Siberia during the reign of the Tzars. We talked about its history, about how, when it was founded by Catherine the Second it was very progressive for the time, and how its improving on prisoner treatment after the awful legacy the GULAG system left. After this we went back for a lecture on the modern prison system, which was very hopeful: Russia has significantly reduced the number of people imprisoned in recent years, and prisoner treatment is also much better than it used to be. The lecturer mentioned how one of the ways you can get a grasp on the health or struggle of a society is by seeing how many people are in its punitive system, with the fewer the better. Interesting to think about seeing as the US leads the world in number of people currently imprisoned.
Music Party!
                   After that we had a fun evening of music, hosted mainly by Alexei, a Russian amateur pop singer he found, and myself. We sang some American pop music together, I sang some classical, we taught everyone some Russian and American music, and it was all a ton of fun. Courtney's host dad got up and played 'We Shall Overcome' impromptu on the piano, which most of the Russian adults knew, and we ended the night with 'Party in the USA.' We got together with the Russian university students and went out to a restaurant after until around ten, another fun day with them. I'm so thankful with how friendly they are, and how enthusiastic they are about getting to know us; its made this trip even more enjoyable, and I'm really thankful for the friendships we're making.

Evening out with the students!

Travel Log: Day Seventeen

Vladimir, Russia 6/1/2016
Our volunteer group, L to R: Me,
Sasha, Olia, Miah, and Scott

                Today was another day of work. In the morning, after Russian, we got to clean the apartment of an older woman who was living independently but who was having a harder time moving and cleaning her home. Four of us Americans were teamed up with Alexei and two of the students at the American home (Sasha and Olia) to deep clean; Scott and Sasha removed and cleaned her many huge rugs while Miah, Olia, Courtney, and I dusted and scrubbed floors. We wiped off just about every surface in that apartment (with very different dusting supplies than I'd use at home, I might add: each time we've dusted, we've just used an old rag and some water, no sort of 'dusting spray' or any specialized tool; this seems to be a theme of cleaning products in Russia, it makes me wonder if fewer branded/specialized goods are a result of being in a less commercialized country than America) and the lady was so grateful that she gave us a little cake as a token of gratitude on our way out. Once again I practiced my preferred method of communication with people who speak no English, laughing and feigning understanding: the babushka was having a great time telling me a story I understood about two words of (кошка, cat, and дача, a country home), but she was laughing and smiling and I just played along and said a lot of Да's.
The Orphanage
                    Alexei, who was 'chaperoning' us, took us to lunch after, where we ate pizza and khachapuri (Georgian cheese-filled bread) and our new cake. We went and cleaned up a playground for an orphanage later, where some of the Vladimir State University students joined us. We painted some equipment and swept away all the dirt that was covering the pavement, it took up a few hours and I of course got paint absolutely all over me. Sidenote: Russian young women are so fashionable, they even dress like models when going to work outside at an orphanage, it's nuts. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of the kids, but what we saw of the inside of the building looked like a bright, happy place, which was nice to see.
The park near Alexei's house
                   After that we met up with the rest of the Americans at Alexei's apartment, and had tea and ice cream. He and his wife, Galina, who runs the American Home (I think), are wonderful people with a beautiful home, and they are always so generous with us, we're practically spoiled.
                   We all went to a nearby park with an ice rink, where a Circus-On-Ice was coming through town. I was really psyched for it (what can I say, I love seeing performances, even two circuses in three days) but it ended up being laughably awful. All of us wanted desperately to leave at intermission, but were afraid of hurting David's feelings; luckily, David was only staying out of fear that we were enjoying it. We cleared that confusion up right away and left, and it was all for the better, because several of us went out with the university students and had a complete blast. They're a really fun group, and I had a great conversation with a girl named Masha about Game of Thrones, proving that common ground (and dragons) are all you need for cross-cultural friendship.

Travel Log: Day Sixteen

'Before' picture of my Matryoshka
Vladimir, Russia, 5/31/2016

         Wow, I can't believe we're already over the halfway point of our trip. Back in Vladimir, we woke up this morning for a Russian lesson and a couple of lectures throughout the day that provided interesting perspectives. The first was from the same Russian professor of political science from last week (his English wasn't great, it was a bit difficult to understand) and the second was by an immigrant from Uzbekistan who'd lived in Vladimir for the past several years and worked with social programs that assisted other immigrants. Both lecturers were old enough to remember the USSR, and both had different takes on modern Russia.
         The former discussed national identities of Russians, and about how there's been an identity crisis in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR throughout all of society: intellectuals, the wealthy, and politicians as well as the working class, immigrants, and people living below the poverty line. He talked about the strange Europe-and-Asian position that Russia is in, and how many are divided on whether Russian national identity should be based on the idea of a united nation or constructed out of the many ethnic groups that make up the country. Although the population is about 80% ethnically Russian, there are a variety of other groups, primarily made up of people from places that used to be part of the USSR, that make up and play an influential role in modern Russian society. One of the main points that he made was that it was important to be aware that his country is not all one nationality, and that the culture was not entirely homogeneous.
Torpedos Game!
          The latter, a smiley, happy man with wonderful English (who brought his son with him, he sat and colored most of the time), facilitated a discussion on immigration. He was born in Uzbekistan, lived for a while in the Ukraine, and settled in Russia, and told us that, ever since the USSR dissolved in 1991, there's been an influx of immigrants from the surrounding countries into Russia, as well as a general increase in migration between nations. It turns out that immigrants to and from countries in central Asia and eastern Europe experience similar challenges, both to each other and to immigrants across the Atlantic. He spoke about how he experienced difficulty finding jobs when first in Russia, and how he has experiences a bit of fear of the unknown and discrimination each place he's lived; he also pointed out that he saw Russians experience the same when he lived in Uzbekistan. He made a point about how vital cross-cultural communication is in any situation, and we had a discussion about how lack of understanding and education is at the root of many social issues surrounding immigrants, both in Eurasia and in the US. We talked a little bit about immigration policy in the US, and about attitudes surrounding Muslims; he had great insights to share, having been to the US and being raised Muslim himself.
            The rest of the day was great! We had a little masterclass in painting Matryoshka dolls (those Russian dolls that fit inside each other), in which I re-discovered why the art I pursue is musical and not visual, and went to a Vladimir Torpedos soccer game. We had a blast, and I had a couple good conversations with the English teachers at the American Home, all of whom are students from the US.