becoming a tourist

It’s been a long time since I’ve written in this journal.  As April ends I can really feel the time ticking down on my stay in Russia.  Sometimes I want to go home right away, want to speed through the rest and then be home with my family–this feeling usually comes at my most exhausted moments, when I relate being home in Connecticut to spending long summer hours in my comfortable bed reading unchallenging books in English, watching classic movies, and eating bagels and lox two times a day–and sometimes I imagine that I have another year here–albeit with a different and less aggravating job.

And because I’ve spent so much effort both working on improving my Russian skills and on building a life here, I admit I haven’t explored the city as much as I’d like.  This adds extra urgency to my last month and a half–less than that!–in Moscow.  I want to see more neighborhoods, to go to more museums, to just go on more walks and take more pictures.  Luckily, my friend J came all the way from New York to see Russia and to stay with me, so I have been able to become both a tourist and a guide during his nine days here.  The suddenly unbelievably good weather doesn’t hurt!   It’s sixty degrees here, beautiful, sunny, with the sun setting only at around eight thirty every evening.  It is wonderful just to sit on a curb at Red Square at sunset time and take in all the color, grandeur and enormous, people-dwarfing scale of Moscow, and be surprised that I am here, and more than that, that I live here.

So since J has been here, we’ve been to Kolomenskoye.  The first time I went there was late afternoon on a cloudy day, and I was practically alone.  This time, it was full of people and activity.

This white church is very very tall, and closed to the public, which gives it a mysterious feeling.  And here is one of Peter the Great’s wooden cabins:

While we were there, we ate our Easter kulich:

And we visited a church with a deep blue roof spangled in gold stars.  It was full of church goers lighting red candles on stands in front of their chosen icons, and the doors were opened to the special back room of the church.  On either side of the doors were the letters X and B for Khristos Voskres–Christ has risen–in deep red and white roses.

There was an outdoor concert where two musicians played eerie music on sheets of metal.

We went to a circus at the insane complex that is VDNKh, a former Soviet agricultural exhibition center that is a Soviet kitsch palace with dilapidated halls devoted to each former Soviet Republic.  We unfortunately were not in time for the cat exhibit–I always seem to be seeing signs cat expos around here–but we toured the grungy amusement park, saw a group of youths bounding around on some high tech bouncing stilts.  The circus, held in a little tent/cafe, had no sad and distressed circus animals as reported by others who have seen circuses in Russia, just extremely talented and charming performers doing utterly complicated tricks with no support ropes.  And a very fat and very flexible tutu-wearing lady who was hoisted aloft on a hoop to do splits in mid-air, and clowns doing highland dances in kilts.  Then when we went out we saw this space monument:

and this absolutely giant and very famous Worker and Kolkhoz Farmer Girl monument, which was glowing in the sunset.

And then I introduced J to pelmeni, the delicious meat dumplings that I’m sure I will miss when I am home.  I am very tired, but I like presenting my Moscow, exploring more in it, and trying to answer J’s questions.  This last thing–I wish it made me feel more like an expert on Russia, but it more often makes me feel at a loss for words, trying to explain something that is so big and complicated and that I still have so much to learn about.



I joined twenty-one couchsurfers yesterday for a trip to Kolomna, an ancient town two hours to the southeast of Moscow by electrichka, the “local” train.  I almost didn’t go because I was scared of waking up early–I had woken up before six on Saturday to make it to work–and mostly worried about the cold.  I wore two pairs of wool socks, thick leggings instead of tights, gloves inside my giant intense sport mittens, my fur hat, my new fleece… you get the idea.  And I was still freezing in the ten-degree, windy weather.  But I had to go–given my Saturday work, I almost never have the opportunity to do something like this, and I was dying to see some place outside Moscow.

Couchsurfing events tend to be about half-Russian, half foreigners.  On this trip we were blessed with perhaps fourteen Russians–one of whom the veteran couchsurfer Maxim teased as a Gruzinka, or a Georgian–an unusually large proportion of Italians, a tall blond Finnish girl named Suvi, a German, another American working for a Russian-American math education company, and a Turk, newly arrived to work for the Moscow branch of his native beer company, who had trained himself for Russia prior to his arrival by standing in front of open refrigerators.  We talked about Finnish-Russian relations–Suvi explained that Finns expect to be the rich ones, but all these newly rich New Russians are flooding into East Finland–what’s going on?  and travel, and Muscovites’ lack of travel beyond the capital, and Alberto, a Milanese Italian language teacher with a reddish mustache, told us about where he had been in the three years since BKC language school sent him to Moscow on random assignment–he’s even been to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, site of the first Gulag prison camp.

After getting off the train, we struggled in the cold, snow and wind past the war memorial and down the main street of the town until we reached a specialty store devoted to the local honey wine industry.  Russians love honey and know way more about it than Americans do, treating it like wine with all their arcane knowledge of what honey from certain plants and certain regions is supposed to be like.  So we came in from the cold and bought several bottles of medovukha, this delicious, mild, and golden honey wine that goes down with a sweet, spreading warmth.  While we there, we also picked up some balzam, a high-alcoholic herbal liqueur that is “for health purposes” and which should be added to one’s tea or coffee.  It was good in the thermoses we had on the train back to Moscow.

After warming up, we went back into the cold to see the Kremlin–at every Russian city, the only tourist attraction is the Kremlin! one Russian kid griped.  The Kolomna Kremlin used to have seventeen towers, but now only has seven.  What happened, someone wanted to know, did those missing towers get destroyed in the war?  Well… they were actually dismantled in the nineteenth century by the townspeople!  They needed some bricks for their houses, so they just grabbed whatever was lying around… anyway, the Kremlin was almost as big as Moscow’s, and it was a sight–the mysterious, imposing red walls in the falling snow.

There were churches and monasteries to visit, which is typical enough, but I really appreciated the chance to go to into some churches, as I get shy about it in Moscow.  It’s easier in a group, but going in by myself, I feel like I’m not doing it right, maybe I don’t have my kerchief around my head in the right way, and I’m not sure how to cross yourself in the Orthodox way, so I’ll have to just waltz on in, and people will know that I’m not there to pray, just to look.  So I was glad to have the cover of the group, and I love Russian churches, which are very quiet and intimate, full of icons at eye or chest level where you can light an amber-colored candle and pray quietly, and there are no pews at all, you just walk around doing your own thing, tending to the icons you want.  The churches in Kolomna had wonderful painted ceilings and murals, including one vision of hell with the peculiar square, rocky cliffs unique to icon-painting, and a serpent ringed with the names of the deadly sins–there are eight of them in Russian Orthodoxy.

We then visited several establishments to see if any could serve lunch for a party of twenty-two, and finally found a place that served the most amazing pirozhkis and borscht.  If only I had known that borscht can actually be so delicious.  I am inspired.  I am going to have to learn how to make it like that.  You can imagine that it was ideal to have after coming in from the snow.

And the last part of our day was spent at a museum devoted to the town’s once-illustrious pastila industry.  Pastila is a candy made from whipped egg whites and apples and is fluffy, delicious, and tangy, and Dostoevsky loved it, which our tour guide, dressed in a flouncy period costume, did not fail to make known.  Our tour included some very delicious samples of the sweets along with tea served in a drawing room with period furniture and a loud but charming canary, and I wish I had brought some home with me, but at that point I was so full and sleepy from borscht, cutlet, and honey wine that it was absolutely unthinkable.  At this point, we walked back to the train, where we had a cozy trip back with lots of tea and balzam and the sound of Italian, and the two Russian girls I was sitting with recited Pushkin and Brodsky in between sips of tea.  That is why I am so tired today!

By the way, a lot more photos are here:

this is good

I just finished The Idiot.  This is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Now I have to tape this school library copy back together.  I was reading out of it for the first half, and switched over to a cheap paperback copy for the rest of the way.  When I was nearing the end and only clutching a few last pages of that copy in my right hand, I noticed that there was still a bunch left to go in the translation that I had been referring to.  Critical materials or something?  No, more of the novel!  For a second, I had a freak out, thinking, could there be alternate editions of this novel, and Russians read one while Americans read another?  I really let my mind run away imagining it.  Then I took a look at the last page, and realized, hey, it’s cut off in the middle of a word!  The last thirty pages of the book were missing!  So I finished the book a couple days later than I thought.  It was remarkable.  I think you should really read it…

I quit baby lessons.  I’m very happy.  I will miss Marusya and will regret not ever having a real goodbye with her, as she was a good tot, and she was really learning with me.  But I couldn’t stand working for her grandmother, the baby’s caretaker–her mom was too busy working and engaging in luxury exotic travel and weekend shopping sprees in Madrid–and as I described to some of you before, if you want the person who is working with your two year old to put in her all, then you must treat that person with kindness and respect.  I was brilliant at that job, and I enjoyed the small preview of motherhood–wiping her nose!  putting on snowpants! taking her to the potty! feeding the ducks at the pond!  but I couldn’t stand the treatment I got there, on top of being scolded for not working extra hours without pay as a “person who counts every kopeck,” on top of being strung along after break–they put of the day they would have me back over there because the tot was getting some sort of massage???  Anyway, now I quit, proving that I have and always had the hand in that relationship.

Anyway, while I’m linking to youtube I might as well give you this Chopin mazurka.  I love it a lot and I listen to it constantly, and when I was in the bus early yesterday morning going back to school after more than a week of quarantine, my being extremely tired somehow made me feel very sensitive or emotional or something, and I imagined that the mazurka was a portrait of a person, a beautiful young girl at her first dance or something, I could even see her!  I hate being that tired on a Wednesday morning before I have to teach all those classes in a row at the elementary school, but it can have these wonderful and dreamy effects as well…

reading diary

This hasn’t been a very interesting week for blogging, I must say.  I hardly did anything, and left the house only to buy ramen and to head to my elevator plant job.  Why?  Well, I’m afraid we had a flu epidemic this week, a whole week of school at the gymnasia was cancelled, and I was laid low myself!  I can’t be sure if it was the flu–our home thermometer is broken, and besides, I neither know how to read celsius or how to put a thermometer in the warmest, coziest region of my armpit, so taking my temperature didn’t really work out.  Still, I haven’t felt that sick in a long time, so this blog entry is going to be all about reading, which is all I did this week.  Except watch a bunch of movies on Netflix streaming.

(By the way you may be wondering about how Kot is doing.  I only wish I had gotten a good picture of him with his cone on his head, it was adorable.  He was very wobbly after his surgery, but he’s been doing great and he is quite a bit sweeter, and no more biting and anguished meowing at midnight).

Anyway, back to reading.  When I got back I read something else by Bulgakov: Rokovie Yaitza, or The Fatal Eggs.  This was inspired by something my dad was reading, a memoir by a long-time ambassador to the Soviet Union who was friends with Bulgakov and had included such a delightful summary of the novella that I just had to read it.  In it, a misanthropic reptile scientist discovers the “ray of light,” a powerful red beam in his microscope that has the power to make organisms grow big and mighty.  Word gets out, and loserish Soviet official gets the idea that he can give his career a meteoric jolt if he can use the “ray of light” to resurrect the chicken industry after a recent chicken plague.  The reptile scientist hands over his secret–well, what else was he supposed to do?  and the the experiment goes terribly awry, so that soon after the eggs start hatching, Moscow is victim to an apocalyptic invasion of dinosauresque monsters and giant ostriches!  You can feel Bulgakov’s glee as he wreaks literary havoc on Moscow.  It was very funny and enjoyable.

Now I’m in the middle of two story collections.  One of them is Tyomnie Allei, or Dark Avenues, a story collection by Ivan Bunin, who won the 1933 Nobel Prize in Literature.  It’s a collection of simple love stories, most of them very nice and poetic, and they all have quite an old-fashioned feel for being published in the thirties and forties.  They seem to be all about young love, or young love remembered, and so they seem to come from an earlier, pre-Soviet Russia, as if all that had never happened.  This may be because he emigrated to Odessa and then right to the south of France immediately after the Revolution.  It’s very beautiful, each of the stories leaves a delicate impression, rather than a deep one, and it’s the kind of prose that wouldn’t be difficult to read if he didn’t like to include so many names of trees and outdated fabrics like “worsted”.

Another thing I’m reading is Isaac Babel’s Konarmia, or Red Cavalry, a story collection of two or three paged stories based on Babel’s experience as a reporter in the Soviet-Polish War which shortly followed the Revolution.  I loved Babel in translation, so it’s incredible to read him in Russian, but he’s so difficult and has such a startlingly avant-garde style that I can only manage zero to two of these tiny stories a day.  This collection is famous for the sentence which occurs on the opening page: “the orange sun rolled across the horizon like a severed head,” so, with sentences like that, I’m often thinking, “???  Did I just read that???”  One can second guess one’s Russian.  But I’m learning lots of vocabulary from it, much of which I probably won’t encounter again for ages.

And finally, yes, I’m still working on Idiot, though now after this week of doing nothing but reading, I’ve just got a hundred pages left.  What a great title for a book, and by the way, the word’s the same in English and in Russian.  It’s an extraordinary book, and I think my favorite Dostoevsky so far, not just because reading in Russian makes it better, but because I love the characters so much.  And the story never stops for the sake of a landscape or some dreary backstory, it’s all story all the time, except when there’s a pause for some very interesting authorial comment, like on how authors deal introduce “ordinary people” into their stories.

Anyway, that’s all for now because I’m finally going to do something today.  I’m feeling better, and the color of my snot has changed from green to yellow, so I’m going to check out some exhibitions and go ice skating! hooray!

guess who’s getting neutered today…

Yes!  That’s right, Kot!  You are!

continuing education

I’ve been filling notebooks and boxes of index cards with Russian vocabulary for about three years now, ever since I started trying to read in Russian outside of class and began writing down all the words I didn’t yet know. It’s a good thing to have on the subway, whether you’re in New York or in Moscow.  Sometimes I think to myself, I have so many pages of words like this, why don’t I know all of Russian yet!  Of course, that is a ridiculous thought to have… but this habit of mine serves to remind me just how many words a language contains, how many variations, how many complexities, how much there will always be to learn… it was different, I think, with French, because so many words just come for free with knowing English, but since Russian is, a few exceptions aside, a whole world away, it feels like such a massive undertaking to acquire a foreign vocabulary.  And when I help my friends who are advanced in English, I feel like it must be the same for them, like climbing a mountain.  There are so many words in English…

Anyway, since I’m learning Russian outside of school now and it’s my own independent undertaking, I feel almost in a frenzy about learning it sometimes.  It somehow seems to matter more than anything I studied in college, more than writing a good paper or having a revelation about Paradise Lost, maybe because I’m doing it for myself and by myself.  But now I have a little help, and I’m very excited about it.  I met a Russian teacher named Frieda and we’ve arranged an exchange of language lessons of sorts– we meet in a cafe on Pushkinskaya, and work in one language, then another.  It’s kind of informal, but as we talk about whatever we’re talking about–this time we talked about Frieda’s romantic experience (since she’s in her early forties, she has quite a bit more of it than I do!) and the differences between how Russian and American women resolve or don’t resolve problems with their men–as we’re talking, we correct eachother, explain grammar, and the like.  And I’ve got some written homework to do now… it’s nice to take a break from being a teacher and be a bit of a student for a while!

Isn’t that right, Kot?

a winter walk

The snow lasts for a long time and on the edges of some sidewalks it’s piled as tall as me.  Snowplows have moving rotating claws to get it all.  I’ll watch snowflakes, snowflakes shaped like snowflakes, settle on my gloves and jacket while I wait for the bus.  There are layers of both ice and snow on everything, and the thin birches are doubled over with the weight of it all, putting an arch over roads like this one.