Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Travel Log: Day Twelve

Moscow, Russia 5/27/2016
On the Train!

       First day in Moscow!!!
I've been unbelievably excited for this ever since getting to Russia; I absolutely love cities, and Moscow is a huge and exciting one. We arrived in the center after a two-hour train, and the city is just so enormous it's hard to conceptualize. It was at least a twenty-five minute walk to the hostel after lunch near the train station, and we were still close to the middle (it should be mentioned that the hostel was far nicer than I had any right to expect, very clean and with a little kitchen). After dropping off our stuff, we changed for the concert later and were off.
Cathedral of Christ the S

        The first thing we did was take the metro (I'll talk more about the metro in the next entry) to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It is an enormous church on the edge of the Moscow River that was torn down when the Soviets came to power. Stalin originally planned for it to become something of a palace for the leaders of the USSR (which, in my opinion, somewhat contradicts communist ideals, but hey dictators will be dictators), but construction was halted by the German invasion in 1941, and was never completed. Instead, they built a swimming pool that was closed in 1991, and the church was rebuilt from 1995-2000. It was incredible, absolutely huge; it's interior was colorfully decorated, as is the custom with Orthodox churches, and, as it was constructed recently, everything was vibrant and in perfect condition. We walked from there to the walls of the Kremlin and the famous Red Square, where we saw Moscow's Eternal Flame and we saw the changing of the guard. It was a quick visit, but it was still surreal and incredible; I'd seen all these things in pictures all the time, but to stand in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral in person was a whole different experience.
Good Ol' Tchaikovsky
Moscow Conservatory

Saint Basil's Cathedral at night
   From there we walked to the Moscow Conservatory!!! I've been pumped for this concert since I first found out about it, and I was not disappointed. The Conservatory is magnificent; the little of it we saw was grand and ornate, and the concert hall was magnificent. A statue of Tchaikovsky, who was a professor there, towers over the entrance to the hall, and there were portraits of him and Rimsky-Korsokov everywhere. The school is 150 years old, it is the best music school in the country, and is in the top 20 best music schools in the world, so it is no surprise that the orchestra was incredible. Even better, they played Stravinsky and Shostakovich, both of which were composers I'd hoped beyond hope they'd play. The concert was fabulous, and I am definitely going to look more into the conservatory and ask Dr. Shay about it when I get back to school (I already found an international summer program on their website).

              After that we ate at what was the Moscow equivalent of a hipster restaurant: it was a fancy hole in the wall with live music that was overpriced but also delicious. It was then a long walk home, back through the enormous Red Square. Moscow is a ton of walking. After such a good first day, I'm so excited for the rest of this weekend.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Travel Log: Day Eleven

Vladimir and Bogolyubovo, Russia 5/26/2016

              There were two themes of today: Eastern Orthodox Churches, and Russian mosquitoes. After the morning lessons, we started off the day having a picnic in Bogolyubovo, near a couple of historic cathedrals. All of our lunches were a little strange, seeing as we had to attempt to scrape them together out of a Russian grocery store, in which I of course couldn't read anything - I bought an entire pack of some kind of cheese, a fruit-filled pastry (cherry, probably?), and some fairly sketchy sushi. We bussed to the edge of the city and walked by a large convent on the way to the site of our picnic, which was a lovely field within sight of the Church of the Intercession of the Nerl (I don't know what that means). It was picturesque, rolling fields, a winding river, and the Church, high on a hill in the distance; as soon as we started eating we were swarmed by mosquitoes. I don't know why I thought Russia would be a mosquito-free place, but I was quite wrong. It must've been hilarious to watch, all of us dancing around, trying to eat while shaking the mosquitoes off of us.
             After lunch we explored, walking through the fields and into the church (we it's a functioning Orthodox church, so all of the girls had to cover our heads and put on long skirts), and then we went and visited the convent. The church was huge, with shining blue cupolas and an enormously ornate interior. Once again we had to put on head coverings and skirts; David got turned away near the entrance because he was wearing shorts, but I managed to get through despite my visible knees on account of my not understanding the nun trying to make me leave. The cathedral was beautiful, I got to sit and pray for a while, it was very peaceful.
              From there we went back to work in a cemetery in the city; it was at least a few acres, and was very different from American cemeteries. While a graveyard in the US is organized and has been cleared to accommodate the graves, a Russian one is set into the environment: the graves sit among the trees, with families buried together covered in flowers and greenery. It was more of a peaceful place than a sad or creepy one, and there was a beautiful monument to the soldiers of WWII on one end. On the other was the church we worked with. We were put into groups of a couple of American students and several Russian students and we all went out and weeded graves (which was something of a challenge, seeing as how many flowers and other foliage decorated the graves. I got into a very interesting conversation with the priest, who was working with us at our site. We compared religious life in America and in Russia, and it is incredible how different it is. I get the feeling that fewer people are religious in Russia, especially with the youth, but it seems like, for the religious people in Russia, it is more of a vital part of life. We had a little mini-service at the end; Orthodoxy is more like Catholocism than Protestantism in that it is mostly ritual and rite, except that there is no music (other than chant, which was what most of the service was conducted in), everyone stands the whole time, and there is very little movement and no sermon. It was very different from anything I was used to, and I can understand why it doesn't appeal to youth as much, but it was fascinating and everyone's devotion was impressing. I also learned that Russian mosquitoes are huge and more vicious than American ones. The last time my legs were bit up this bad was halfway through my first summer at camp.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Travel Log: Days Nine and Ten

Vladimir, Russia:  5/24/2016
Our group riding a bus

            Tuesday my immune system finally got the memo that I'd been sleep-deprived in a foreign country and decided to attack me in the form of a vicious cold; I spent a lot of the day coughing and sniffling, trying to combat symptoms with multiple different sprays graciously bought for me by David, and trying not to fall asleep (I got very little sleep from Monday into Tuesday). This entry will be pretty short, because otherwise it was a pretty relaxing day: we had a couple things cancelled and got to walk around and explore downtown Vladimir a bit. I got to walk around by myself a bit, one of my favorite things to do, and I even managed to buy something without help despite my terrible Russian, which I'm pretty proud of. Later, after a lecture on national identity (it was very funny/revealing; at the end we compared our ideas about Russian national identity with American 'national identity,' or stereotypes more like, via drawing and all of our pictures were unsurprisingly poorly-drawn fat men with guns, baseball caps, and numerous American flags), the American Home threw a little trivia game for all the students, American and Russian, which was also a blast, mostly because the trivia was so random that most of the answers were joke answers (varied from 'Obama' to 'Russian bears'). After almost winning (second place, we were robbed), I was so exhausted I went right home and fell straight asleep.

Vladimir, Russia: 5/25 /2016

                We spent most of today volunteering with LIGHT, Vladimir's Association for Handicapped Children. It is an amazing organization that provides free schooling for handicapped children in the city, seeing as there are few other options for students with any kind of disability, physical, mental, etc. According to David, 10-15 years ago school systems used to simply recommend that parents keep these children at home because they didn't know what to do with them. There are no special education programs in the public school system and the teachers are not trained in how to teach them so the kids would fall hopelessly behind. The school we painted walls in today used to be part of a tractor factory during the USSR and it was remodeled and refashioned for its new function almost entirely by parents of the children the school serves, as there is almost no money from the government.
Selfie in the park with Vandy
and Vladimir students!
                  Despite the hardships, they are amazing people. They serve over one hundred kids and administer personal care and attention to them, with different rooms for things like physical therapy, sensory stimulation, the teaching of life skills, etc. The woman who showed us around specialized in speech therapy. They also partner with a horse therapy program that operates in a nearby park. We spent several hours painting their main hallway; I got paint all over myself for the second time in Russia.
                  After painting, we had a few hours to kill (read: to go home and wash off paint and change out of dirty clothes) before meeting all the university students for pizza. We all had delicious pizza and got to know each other more. We kind of took over the back room of the pizza place; it is not just a stereotype that Americans are super loud, we were definitely the most boisterous party. We all ate, got ice cream, and then walked to the park, talking about things like differences between our countries and where we wanted to travel.
                   I had a bit of an adventure at the end of the day: they kicked me off my bus (I found out later  that it was because they had to get gas; they told me in Russian I had no idea) but I could see my building from where I was so I started to walk; I ended up getting lost and making the walk a lot longer, but I got to see some of the parks around my house and still made my way home before dark. I also found out that the Vladimir sunset is beautiful.

Travel Log: Day Eight

Vladimir, Russia 5/23/2016

I didn't take many
pictures today, so here
is the painting Lera did
by the elevator on our
floor; below are some
misc pictures of
                     Day two of volunteering! Today, after a lecture on Russian youth, we worked at a veteran's home. It was a wonderful time; first, we cleaned a couple women's apartments, a couple of babushkas  that spoke no English and had a hard time moving around. We dusted everywhere and mopped, and the first woman, an adorable old lady who was half my size and started giving out hugs as soon as we finished, teary-eyed because of how thankful she was.  She didn't seem to understand that we couldn't speak English, as she just kept babbling to us in Russian; we let her talk, and she seemed touched by the care and attention. It was a fulfilling task in itself, and then I had my concert.
                      As soon as Alexei, the program coordinator from the Russian side, discovered what I study, he started setting up various little concerts for me to sing at. This is the first that I've been 'hired' for: a little half-hour performance for the residents of the home. I downloaded some music onto my tablet and, sitting at a recently-tuned-for-the-occasion upright piano, I sang some of my rep from the last year and plunked out an incredibly simplified accompaniment. About ten to fifteen residents, a few of the students from the university, and my group all sat and listened while I went through some Heggie, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. It was a great exercise in singing as communication, as not only did these people not understand many of the languages I sing, they didn't understand much English either. Still, they seemed to enjoy it immensely, asking for an encore (an offer I had to refuse as I only downloaded so much), and a particular highlight was one woman singing along to 'Memory,' from Cats (one of the two musical theatre songs I have memorized on the piano). I befriended her after that, and we sat by each other during the Russian Doll-making master class we went to right after. It was a wonderful opportunity, and Alexei promptly asked me to sing more for the folks at the American Home next Thursday. Also, the students told me my pronunciation on the Rachmaninoff stuff as 'not bad.'  
                         After volunteering we had the master class (we made these cute little traditional dolls, I rediscovered how bad I am at sewing) and a couple of us went shopping with some of the university students (black faux-leather jackets are all the rage here apparently, and I had an intense need; I got a really cute one at a store called Zara, it was my first splurge here) and then home. Another wonderful day.

Fun Moment of the Day: After I got home, Polly wanted to curl my hair, which was cute. I sat at her desk and she curled my hair while we both watched Jane the Virgin on Netflix (in Russian, with English subtitles). Great non-verbal bonding time. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Travel Log: Day Seven

Nizhny-Novgorod, 5/22/2016

Bank in Nizhy-
                  Today was the day set aside for our host families. I'm not gonna lie, this has been the day I've been the most nervous about ever since we got the preliminary schedule (a whole day of unstructured socializing with people who were recently strangers that also don't really speak the same language as me sounds a lot like my nightmares) but it turned out to be one of my favorite days yet. 
The View of the
                   Polly, Vera, and I all got up around 9:00 and had delicious homemade blini, thin Russian pancakes that are very similar to crepes, before hopping in the car and leaving around 10:00. Nizhny is a three-hour drive from Vladimir, so we packed the car with pillows and blankets and were off. Lera, Polly's older sister (who speaks very good English, thank God) met up with us, with her boyfriend Andrei (likely very soon fiance, if I understand correctly) driving and his mom in the back seat. All six of us packed into two cars and, after a while of Polly and I jamming out to some American music (they love that I actually know most of the words), we fell asleep for most of the road trip. I woke up once or twice over the course of the trip, once to eat a sandwich and once when Vera pointed out a course on which the military teaches people how to drive tanks on the side of the road, but otherwise it was nice to catch up on some much-needed sleep. 
The Aerial Tramway
One thing I didn't expect
to see: it's hard to make
out, but this is actually a
Russian mosque

                     We finally got to Nizhny around 1:00 PM, and I don't know what I expected, but a large, picturesque, somewhat tourist-y city for some reason was not it. The city is on the Volga River, Europe's largest river and the 'national river' of Russia, and it sits high; on many sides of the city you can look out and see for miles around. We parked and walked down one of the main stretches, which had restaurants and stores on every building and street performers and souvenir salesmen on every side. The buildings were old style and beautiful, and we walked past a bank that looked more like a castle than anything else. There were little stone statues everywhere, and my family insisted on taking a photo with every one of them. After stopping to eat lunch (a place called the Three Bears; I had what was essentially a Russian version of a burrito), we stopped by the city Kremlin, which had a wartime museum exhibition, behind which was a park that looked out over the Volga; the view was spectacular, it's one of the biggest rivers I've ever seen, and we were up so high that you could see countless rooftops and cupolas. We took lots of pictures and kept walking around the park. Being able to spend this time with them and Lera was wonderful because she was able to translate for me, and we were able to communicate more easily. Lera and Andrei bought me an ornate Matryoshka doll as a souvenir, which was absolutely wonderful of them; everyone is so incredibly lovely, I am continuously pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to get along with and how much they care for me. It was a great several hours of bonding, topped off by a ride on the Aerial Tramway (connects Nizhny Novgorod to Bor via tram across the Volga, its the way many people commute to work in the mornings apparently), some Russian ice cream (very much like American ice cream, sorry to disappoint), and a trip to Ikea  (Vera accidentally broke Ivan's computer chair the other day, and Lera needed things for her and Andrei's apartment, so it turned into a several-hour endeavor). We left the city around 8:00 PM and finally got back, exhausted, around 11:00 PM. 

Funny Moment of the Day: I realized, while singing with Polly in the car, that neither she nor her mother understand the words when I saw that the playlist included, among other similar examples, Salt 'N' Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex" and the uncensored version of Maroon 5's "This Summer's Gonna Hurt"; Polly knew all the words to both and sang along with gusto, blissfully ignorant, and it took everything I had to keep from bursting out laughing.

Selfie from the Tramway

Monday, May 23, 2016

Travel Log: Days Five and Six

Suzdal and Sukhovka, 5/20/2016

         I haven't had a reliable connection to wi-fi for the last few days, so I'm doing a mega-blog with all three days-worth of information; I am not a concise person but I will do it best to keep it short. 
Selfie Off the Bell Tower
One of the Suzdal
         Our first out-of-town excursion was to Suzdal, a historic city about thirty minutes from Vladimir. Now, Russia has a lot of churches, but Suzdal had a church every other block. There were numerous monasteries, nunneries, and cathedrals, all with long histories and some half-destroyed. I hadn't realized how much damage the Soviets had done to elements of Russian culture; all the churches we visited throughout the day had been closed when the Soviets came to power and either damaged, converted into something more 'useful', or left to fall into disrepair. There were bells smashed after being thrown off of clock towers, nunneries changed into hotels, and large parts of the city Kremlin were destroyed. Regardless, the museums were fascinating and the architecture of the city was very impressive. Also, Andrei, a native of Suzdal (who had studied abroad at the Vandy Divinity School and was traveling with us today), took us up the tallest clock tower in town, which was tall, dilapidated, and closed to the public: a blast, in a word. 
Pictured: The Dacha
L to R: Vlad, Scott

            After a delicious lunch (in which I finally had my first borsch!) and a tour of the wooden architecture museum, we started the drive to Sukhovka; after fighting through afternoon traffic in Vladimir, we drove out into the most beautiful countryside, to the dacha in Sukhovka. A dacha is a Russian country home, and this one was owned by a lovely couple that also owned a banya. A banya is a Russian sauna, steeped in tradition and way more complicated than you think. Vlad, the father of the family who owned the dacha, said "you aren't Russian until you've been in a banya." The whole group stripped down and sat in the sauna several times to 'warm up' (the heat was unbearable for more than five minutes, it was definitely hotter than a normal suana), while steam and oils 'healthy for the skin' filled the room. After spending ample time relaxing, including massages (mostly involving dried branches from birch trees, covered with oils), we had to jump into a pool outside, which was filled with freezing cold water (this was at least 8:30-9:00 at night by now) to cool off. Apparently some Russians do this weekly. It was the easily the most bizarre thing I've done in a long time; it was also the most relaxing thing I've done in a long time. We all were vaguely terrified when the whole process was explained to us, and, by the end, we all wanted to go again. I definitely plan on keeping an open mind in the future.  
               After the banya, we had a late dinner (10:00 or so; we've eaten late most days here) and, exhausted, went to bed.

Funny Moment of the Day: There were definitely too many to pick one. Turns out when we are all barely dressed in a very foreign 'sauna' type thing there are many opportunities for hilarious situations. 

Sukhovka and Vladimir, 5/21/2016

The Spring At Which We Were Blessed
Garden Near the Dacha
                 Saturday was fabulous. First of all, we could finally see the countryside around the dacha and it was breathtaking. Trees stretching for miles, forests farther than I realized, and a perfect, twisting river that we spent the morning exploring. After a delicious breakfast and a while of
running through the wilderness outside, we went to a nearby village that had a pure, natural spring near the church that had been sanctified by the priests there. Stepping into the freezing cold water and dunking your head under three times, as we would do that day, was meant to be an echo of baptism, and each submersion represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, respectively. It was a shockingly cold but strangely calming experience; it was touching to see the belief of the family we were with; more and more Russians are coming back from the religious downturn of the Soviet time, and, as Vlad explained to us, they value their ability to practice their religion all the more because of it. It was a ritual that I was honored to be able to participate in.
Delicious Homemade
Bread, Made by the Family's
Above: The Dmitrievski Cathedral
Lit Up for International Museum
Below: Some of the Students and I
                After spending the whole day at the dacha, eating huge meals (including handsdown the best bread I've ever eaten), flying kites, playing with the dog, stacking wood, all kinds of cute, relaxing country things, we drove back to the city to eat dinner with the Vladimir State University students. We had a blast, just us and a bunch of Alexei's students, eating borsch and chatting about nothing. After the meal, we all went to a jazz concert at one of the history museums. Saturday night was International Museum Day, and all of the museums had special programs and were open until midnight, and so the history museum had a concert of famous Russian movie soundtracks (many of which were American movies or artists, which meant lots of the music was Elvis, Ray Charles, etc.). It was a blast, and the Americans all got really excited about the music they knew. The students were wonderful, and we all loved getting to know each other. We'll be seeing plenty of them in the future.

Funny Moment of the Day: During the meal, we were looking for games to play, and it turns out that our Russian counterparts call Truth or Dare 'Truth or Consequences' (which is infinitely better); it was a huge laugh, including when we made Ethan eat a concoction including an orange slice, caviar, sour cream, and more. The Russian students are a great time.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Travel Log, Day Four

Vladimir, Russia, 5/19/2016

Post-Lecture Selfie
Pictured L to R: Leah, Maia,
Sasha (actually Russian), and Me
                 Today started with a Russian lesson as usual (there have been so many words in the last four days I don't know how I'll keep them all straight); I was able to remember all the numbers up to twenty and it was the proudest moment of my life. I can also now say 'right' and 'left' and ask where I am. So yeah. I'm basically fluent now.
                 The first scheduled thing post-Russian lesson was a lecture from a leading political scientist in the area about the US and Russia's position in global affairs, and what exactly 'global leadership' meant to each country. We discussed each nation's few of the other, and the trend of anti-Americanism spreading throughout non-Western nations as a result of our foreign policy's focus on spreading democracy, Russia's take on its current position in foreign affairs, and how we could (and must) understand each other and cooperate in the future. In the midst of a ridiculous election cycle like we are right now, where everyone gets caught up in media circuses and party lines, it is refreshing and important (if not daunting) to hear the political perspective of our country from an informed outsider and to be reminded how much our actions affect the world. We talked a lot about how the US is the world power of right now but how many peoples outside of the our borders don't consider that a positive thing; he showed us a recent article from a Russian foreign minister that quoted George Orwell ("All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." -Animal Farm) and went on to explain how the US, though world policeman, is not upholding laws and justice in its interference everywhere, which is a fascinating and jarring opposite view from the many American citizens that believe that it is our Manifest Destiny to bring equality and justice to some conflicted world. 
The Vladimir Water Tower
Converted to a museum to save it
from destruction under Soviet rule
                    The lecturer (and myself, I should add) believed that this was an extreme but not necessarily incorrect take, and that this was the point of view of many Russians and other non-Americans throughout the world (according to a poll by the Kremlin, 44% of Russians believe that the global presence of the US was 'mostly negative,' with only 10% being 'mostly positive'). It was interesting to hear how, in the US (and much of the rest of the West), it is assumed that globalization of political systems benefits everyone equally, but elsewhere that is not necessarily the ideology, particularly since conflict in today's world is still abundant despite the prevalence of democracy; the lecturer spoke about how, post-USSR, Russians had the misguided belief that now everything would be peaceful and that they would have a solid place in the new democracy-infused world order, and how they were disillusioned when they found out neither were the case. I hadn't thought about either concepts that way, and an alternate view on globalization certainly hadn't occurred to me. We talked quite a bit about Russia's struggle to politically reconcile with the West, and how some of the conflicts between the US and Russia may come from Putin's believing that the former makes the latter's ascent to 'world power' status more difficult, as well as how much of the rest of Europe views Russia as the aggressor, which he says is nowadays mostly propaganda. What we need is genuine attempt at understanding, and flexibility in cooperation; the tensions between our nations recently don't really benefit anyone, and the US's relations with the world, in my opinion, need to be navigated more carefully than ever. 
                     It did occur to me part of the way through this lecture to question whether the professor was biased; however, immediately after that thought I pictured any American politician/political scientist speaking to any other nationality of students ever, and how ridiculously biased that person would probably be, and decided to keep an open mind. All in all it was a fascinating and incredibly eye-opening lecture.
Some of the adorable kids at
tonight's concert
Statue of Sergei Taneyev
outside of the Vladimir
Symphony Hall; a Russian
composer I don't know and
need to look up; considered
the 'Russian Bach' and was
bff's with Tchaikovsky
                     Another of the perspective changes I've been experiencing the past couple days through a number of avenues is the concept that Russia is fundamentally different in several ways from the rest of the 'big' countries is Western Europe. I suppose that, for some reason I'd always just lumped Russia in with the rest of the well-known European countries in my mind and I'm learning what a mistake that is, through their politics (in today's lecture he made sure to make a large distinction between the West and Russia, which surprised me for some reason), their history (we went on an excursion through an old water tower-turned-museum today and learned more about town history), and through their folk music. I went to another folk concert today, this one primarily performed by children (it was also 2 and a half hours long; I have no idea how those kids were so disciplined for so long), and was reminded again how Russian folk music seems to be a blend between European and Asian traditions. My penchant towards categorizing other cultures into a dichotomy of only 'Western' and 'Not Western' or, more accurately, 'Very Similar to Mine' and 'Nothing Like Mine' is quickly evaporating. It is also important for me to let you know that I am now convinced that Russian boys/men could out-dance just about anyone anywhere. Russian folk dancing for males is absolutely insane, like the most impressive thing I've seen in a while. I'll put a video on Facebook to prove my point eventually.
                      We're going to Suzdal tomorrow, a town near here, our first weekend trip. I'm not sure if I'll have wifi but I will of course keep you posted!

Funny Moment of the Day: 

Me and Polina!
                   After Vera got home and she, Ivan, and I ate dinner (at 9:30; Russians eat hella late dinners), we sat on the couch and they showed me what had to be all of their family photos projected onto the TV. It was a great time, and, after a slew of beautiful vacation pictures from Israel in October, there were at least 10 very unflattering, grouchy-looking selfies of Ivan all in a row. Vera and I laughed our butts off. PS it turns out their daughter Lera is also some kind of champion ballroom dancer (we watched some videos when Polina got home), which adds yet another to her list of things she's exceptionally talented at (painting, drawing speaking English, being super nice, etc.). She's probably my hero, I've spoken to her like once, its fine.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Travel Log, Day Three

Vladimir, Russia 5/18/2016

                Today was our first day volunteering. We went over to a large Vladimir preschool and worked outside for a few hours, the girls re-painting playground equipment and the boys digging holes (I never actually found out the reason?). Before we started, though, we were treated to a performance by one class, a group dance that they were performing for some kind of preschool graduation, I believe. They did a short little dance to some Russian pop music that definitely makes my 'Top 10 Cutest Things I've Ever Seen.' The painting itself was fun stuff, I got to sit and talk with the girls while painting, with the children playing outside and the neighbors nearby all looking amused by our accents. Of course, after an hour and a half I looked up to discover that my legs were absolutely covered in splotches of red, yellow, and blue, despite the fact that I had no recollection of getting paint on me at any point and was only using the red. Classic. Nonetheless, it was gratifying work, the women who helped us didn't speak English but we were told that they were very thankful and that we were welcome back anytime.
The Golden Gates of Vladimir
                   After some delicious 4-cheese Russian pizza, we took a tour of the Golden Gates in the center of town, which were built in the twelfth century and which served as the entrance to the medieval city of Vladimir. They were built to be an impenetrable stronghold and to represent the Golden Gates in Jerusalem, the first of three other Golden Gates important to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. After sketching for a while we took a tour, which, after discussing the architecture of the monument, turned into something of a comprehensive history of Russian warfare through the context of Vladimir. The top of the tower contained a museum with numerous artifacts from the many wars Russia has been involved in, from the Mongol-Tartars through modern times, and throughout I was met with the reality of the incredible hardships the people of Russia have consistently faced throughout history. From the feuding princes, to the Mongols, to Napoleon, to WWII (the Soviet Union had the highest number of military deaths, and almost 200,000,000 deaths total), to the political turmoil of the USSR, the history of Russia seems like conflict after conflict after conflict. Coming from a nation with a relatively short history and one that has seen little violence within its own borders (relative to many others, of course), it is difficult for me to comprehend what having such a war-torn, complicated history is like on a personal level, especially since a more modern Russia has possessed (and continues to possess, as a world leader) the power to bring about significant hardship for other nations, and is hardly an innocent victim on a global scale. The history is complex, but it was certainly a very eye-opening tour, and has helped me to understand the context of this city and this nation today.
The Russian version of Harry Potter
Most important difference: pronounced
'Gary Potter'
                     After stopping at a book store (see picture), we ended the night with a concert of folk music and dance, and it was endlessly entertaining, despite the fact that I understood next to nothing and only had a partial idea of what was going on. I expect it was what watching opera without subtitles is like: there was a lot of acting on the parts of the performers, and many of the songs and dances were stories that I somewhat caught on to, but I didn't actually understand a word. The performance was still wonderful; Russian folk music is unsurprisingly a mix of European ideas and more Eastern sounds, with a very tribal element to it all. There were a lot of pentatonic scales and percussion instruments, and much of it was very fast-paced. The dancing got increasingly more intense as the show went on, and was certainly very gendered: the men often walked with flexed arms and strong movements while the women did a lot of twirling and handkerchief-waving. The singing was fascinating, too; held notes had lots of stylistic turns and embellishments (that occasionally reminded me of Tuvan throat singing, although there were never actually overtones; also this makes sense because of the history of Russian and Mongolian interaction) and there was never any vibrato, which is a strong argument to why modern northeastern European choral music is almost always written to be performed senza vibrato. It was great fun. Scott and Sasha got pulled up onto the stage to dance with them, which was hilarious, and I ended up being escorted home by Maia's babushka. The night ended with a delicious meal of Russian dumplings (my first legit Russian homemade food!) and Poli introducing me to Russian rap.

Funny Moment of the Day: After dinner, while I was doing my homework, my host mom called me in to say hi to her aunt and uncle on Skype from Moscow. The aunt didn't speak English but the uncle certainly did, and he sat me down and told me about how his brother had attended University of Iowa in 1991 until the government switch, at which point he'd had to return for some reason, and how leaders in the communist party had traveled to Iowa in the 50's to see our farms and ended up bringing lots of popcorn back. At the end of the conversation, much to my host mom's chagrin, he toasted my trip and good weather with a double shot of vodka from the handle he'd been drinking from throughout the call, which has got to be the most Russian thing I've seen yet.
Speaking of communists, here's a windy selfie with a statue of Lenin

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Travel Log, Day Two

Vladimir, Russia, 5/17/2016

Assumption Cathedral
             We went out to the famous Assumption Cathedral today, Russia's oldest functioning Orthodox church. There is a lovely park right next to it that we sat in and sketched for a while before the tour, and the sights from that park were like you wouldn't believe. The cathedral sits on a steep hill and one can see the whole countryside from the edge of the park. The building itself is one of the most beautiful in the whole city, with white stone walls, gold-capped domes, and ornate carvings on all sides. The tour itself was fascinating; our guide knew an impressive amount about architecture, and had a lot of insight on the history of art and architecture in Russia and its relationship to the rest of Europe. For example, at the time the cathedral was built, asymmetry was considered beautiful in Russia, and as the architects of the cathedral were Russian and had not yet been touched by the European love for symmetry, each of the five domes built atop the main part of the cathedral is a slightly different length. The inside was even more breathtaking, in that the multitude of colors that made up all the frescoes and paintings inside were a stark contrast from the mostly white, black, and gold exterior. Every painting had a biblical context, and our guide knew all of them, which was fascinating, and a lot of the art was from different time periods and styles. Additionally, we learned how Russia's history is divided into pre-Mongol-horde and post-Mongol-horde, and about some of the political issues that involved the cathedral from time to time. It was certainly one of the most beautiful churches I've visited in Europe. 

The view of the Vladimir countryside
One of today's themes was the Russian school system, and it cleared up some confusion I had speaking with Russian students yesterday. Almost all of the university students we've been introduced to in our time here are in the English department, the curriculum of which is focused on creating competent foreign language teachers; however, when asked the question, "So, are you excited to be a teacher?" nearly all of the students explained that that was not the end goal. Obviously, this thoroughly confused us (and frankly was pretty awkward). However, today we were given a lecture on the state of the Russian school system that provided some context to the situation. The short version is that the schools in Russia aren't generally funded very well, and as a result, primary and secondary school teachers are paid pitifully, and university professors aren't much better. According to today's lecture, the average professor at a Russian university is paid 30,000 rubles a month, which sounds like a lot until you convert it: 30,000 rubles is about $917, which makes around $11,000 per year. It was rather sad today when we saw presentations by Russian student teachers all talking about how much they loved their students, and then all saying that they did not plan on actually entering a profession that is all work and no pay. 

We ended the day with a small 'get to know you' party with a bunch of the Russian students, in which all seven of us presented short slideshows about our lives at Vanderbilt and we all danced to traditional Russian music and played some games. It was a blast, and all the people around our age continue to be wonderfully friendly. I'm excited to see more of them.

Funny Moment of the Day: I got back late, around 9:00, and when Vera and Polina got home, Vera cooked us some chicken legs and noodles. Polina then went to the fridge and got the ketchup, proceeded to drown her pasta in it, and hand it to me with an expectant look. Needless to say, I can mark 'eat lukewarm noodles covered in ketchup' on my list of things I will do to remain polite.

Travel Log, Day One

Vladimir, Russia 5/16/2016

            I have taken very few Russian classes at Vanderbilt University. Actually, I have taken no Russian classes at Vanderbilt University. Actually, I have taken no Russian classes at all.
           My decision to fly over 5,000 miles to a country that relatively few Americans visit and who's language I do not speak for a full month could not have been born out of extensive knowledge of Russian and Russian culture, because that is knowledge I do not possess. That motivation came more from intense curiosity, love of travel, and desire to learn than from experience of any form; I had little formal interaction with the language or culture, so I had few expectations. That being said, there were a few things that still managed to be completely unexpected.                                                                                                                                                                                
  1. My host family speaks very little English.
    • As this trip did not require knowledge of Russian, I was subconsciously operating under the assumption that all of the host families involved would speak fluent English; on a more general level, I rediscovered that, as an American traveling, my arrogant expectation was that most Europeans I'd meet would understand me. It did not take me long to discover my mistake. As I got off the van from Moscow at 10:30 PM Sunday night, I was greeted by my host mother (Vera) and daughter (Polina), both beaming, and both with heavily-accented "Nice to meet you!"'s. That was some of the last English I heard that night, and, while the revelation that they spoke very little of my language terrified me for a few long seconds, the whole family was so welcoming that soon it almost didn't matter. We figured out that we did not understand each other fairly quickly, and then reverted to gestures and cognates, and the little English Polina had learned in school; it was amazing how smothered with enthusiasm and hospitality I was, despite the language barrier. After Vera and her husband Ivan had gone to bed, Poli and I sat awake on the computer, having a conversation via Google Translate and teaching me some Russian words. They were so immediately kind and welcoming that I went to sleep that first night much less worried about living with strangers than I had been even when I thought we'd share a language.
  2. Nights at this time of year are very short
    • This one I sort of saw coming, but I didn't think it through, and I didn't realize that short nights would mean that, if I slept with the window open, I would both wake up and fall asleep to bird song; also, I made the mistake of sleeping with the curtains open, which meant I would wake up at 4:00 AM in a panic, thinking it was 9:00 and that I was late for my first day at the American Home.
  3. My cereal for breakfast
    • I still don't know whether this is a cultural thing or a 'my host family' thing: my first Russian breakfast consisted of some toast, cheese, vegetables, and, most notably, cereal. Not that cereal is notable, of course; no, the thing that shocked me was that my milk, graciously poured for me by Vera, was absolutely scalding hot. Cereal with warm milk is very weird, like oatmeal gone very, very wrong. I ate it anyway, of course, partly out of a wish to be polite and partly because I don't know the Russian word for 'hot.' 
  4. Russians really like American culture
    • I know that, when it comes to things like television, movies, and music, American culture can tend to be hegemonic, but I'd assumed that effect lessened the farther east you get in Europe. However, when we visited the Vladimir State University today, they seemed more into American culture than we were. Youth in Russia prefer American and British music especially, and they were almost scornful of contemporary Russian music; when Ben brought up a modern Russian artist he liked, most students actually laughed. Polina even told me today that her favorite artists are Eminem and Snoop Dogg (Snoop Dog E. Dog? Snoop Lion? I don't remember). 
  5. There is tea everywhere
    • I'm beginning to figure out that a lot of the things that I quirks of a few specific countries I've encountered in the past are actually universal things, and that the US is the weird outlier country that doesn't comply. Tea is one of those things. I used to think tea was a mostly British thing, and then a mostly Western European thing, and at this point, I have been in Russia for more than twenty-four hours and had burning hot tea on three separate occasions, and I'm ready to accept that tea is a thing that everywhere but the US does and accept it.
  6. My host family really likes Japanese food
    • My first dinner in Russia was at a sushi joint, and it was surprisingly delicious (I've since been told by people at the American Home that that might have been an anomaly, but whatever the shrimp was great). My host family picked me up from the American home with their eldest daughter, Lera, who speaks very good English, which was very useful as we could clear up some finer communication issues over dinner (I'd slept in the wrong bed the first night, and it made my host mom feel bad; it's my fault, I should've figured this out myself, as I slept pillow-less on the bed that was not made, but hey I'd just made an eight hour time change sue me). Lera was great too and we all colored at the restaurant (there were coloring pages on all the tables; their family is very artistic and mine was definitely the worst) and it was a blast all around. We all sang along to American music in the car on the way home.
  7. Everyone is ridiculously friendly and excited to see us
    • From my host family to the people at the American Home to the students we met today at Vladimir State University, everyone has been incredibly friendly and, more notably and thankfully, outgoing. It is very helpful, when you're like me and unstructured social interaction is already your nightmare with Americans that you already know, much less people from a different country that you just met, when they approach you; everyone involved with this trip on the Russian side, particularly the students, have been very interested in us and made sure that we felt included and welcomed, coming up to us and initiating interaction more than I expected.  We all exchanged Instagram and Facebook information and I'm excited to make more friends throughout my month here. 
Well, this is way longer than I anticipated making it; the rest will probably not be this long (or maybe they will, who knows.) At any rate, I'm excited for tomorrow (we're visiting the huge and gorgeous Assumption Cathedral and having a welcome party kind of thing) and so tired I might fall asleep before I publish this. All in all, a great first day.