Thursday, March 29, 2007

Marshrutka



I want to tell you more about public transportation. In a way, it's great. It's more common and more accessible (unless you're handicapped) than in many American cities.

The most common ways to travel are on a bus, or a marshrutka. What is that? Well, a big van, full of very small seats, none of which have a seatbelt. The idea seems to be to fit as many people as possible inside, so seats are turned every which direction. There is often a pole running from floor to ceiling. If you are unfortunate enough to climb in when all the seats are taken, you and your drunken friends can just stand/scrunch under the ceiling and hold onto the pole until you reach your stop.

I have mixed feelings about the marshrutka. I appreciate its originality and functionality. It is uniquely Russian in the same way that no one, of any age, ever wears a seatbelt in a car. Ever. My decision to do so is viewed with the same shock as my insistence on drinking tea without sugar in it.

But, they're not very safe. I haven't had any problems, but there are stories of vans flipping over from carrying the weight of too many people. News stories actually comment on the safest place to sit on a marshrutka (behind the driver's seat).

Some pictures from others until I post my own.

Becoming a Russian

From a friend in St. Petersburg, I offer the following list (in the hope she won't mind my sharing):

You might have been living here too long if:

* When the airline agent tells you that no flights are available within the week that you require, your first mental reaction is: "I wonder how much money it would take for her to change that."

* You jaywalk fearlessly, but approach walk signals cautiously.

* You refer to a heaping platter of cold cuts as a "salad."

* As soon as you enter any building, your first reaction is to look for a mirror.

* You are paying 11,000 more roubles in monthly rent than your official contract states --but that's okay, because you're earning 20,000 more roubles than your work contract states.

* You've cleaned your boots in a public restroom.

* You have some reservations about spending the rest of your life anywhere where you can't stroll down the street with an open beer in springtime.

* When you see a "Bridge Closed" sign, you assume that it doesn't apply to you.

* You visit formerly-public land that has recently been stolen for an oligarch, and join women in fur coats in trying to climb under or over the fence -- not as a political statement, but just because it's ochen' krasivo. OCHEN' krasivo! (very beautiful)

And especially for Petersburg:

* You think you've started to remember the blockade.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Return to Suzdal



A pretty town about 30-40 mins by bus, I visited Suzdal last summer and wanted to go back before leaving Russia. Early Saturday morning, I snuck out with a friend and we spent a few hours walking around the city and visiting the churches. The bridge we needed washed out when the snow melted, and we had to walk a bit to find a new one. Along the way, we also found a (goat? I think...not good with farm animals...) whose owner wandered out in slippers to discuss the merits of his goat, and how he'd never had a wife but always wanted one, as we politely hurried away down the muddy trail. We said hello to several horses waiting patiently for any tourists that might like a buggy ride.

We walked for a long time, and then sat down and ate two pickled apples before walking back to the bus station. The bus station in Suzdal is just outside of town. They built it with room for several buses to park because tourism is such a significant part of the city's income. There must be at least 20 spaces for buses. They are all empty. No one appears to park there, except our bus from Vladimir, and sometimes one from Ivanova, or a local bus. All of the buses go directly into the city and park next to the major tourist attractions. It's a pity that the one time a Russian city really made an effort to cater planning to tourists, it didn't work out as expected.

PC Load Letter


We found this on the street in Riga. (Note: It was the ONLY trash anywhere on the street). Office Space?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stars on Ice



One night, we went skating/dancing when no one else was around.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bobsledding





In Riga, for about $90 USD (a disproportionate share of this fee went to our hostel)you can go bobsledding in the nearby town of Sigulda. You're accompanied by a member of the Latvian National Team, who actually knows how to drive. I think the track was built as a practice site for the USSR team.

Sara and I piled in together. No directions. No instructions. No legal release forms to sign. No questionnaire about a history of neck or back problems. Just helmets for each of us, and a word from the driver, "Don't hit me with your helmet when we go down".

It was very fast. I tried to guess when curves were coming so I could shift weight with our driver. Mostly, I did not succeed. Somehow, I didn't realize when I watched bobsledding on TV, how strong the G forces actually were. If you weren't careful, your head jerked around all over the place. It was amazing.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Three Crosses





RIGA GUIDEBOOK: Sunrise from the top of Three Crosses Hill is beautiful. So of course, we had to go.

Waking up early was agony. We went to sleep at 2 am, after an encounter with a group of drunken Brits. But we tumbled out of bed into our shoes and off we went. Clawing desperately at the side of a visually manageable yet physically exhausting hill, I wondered if it was the early hour or the months of potato diet that so effectively sapped my strength. Panic that I'd miss the sun kept me scrambling toward the top of the informal trail winding among the tree roots and semi-melted ice bits until we finally fell, exhilarated, into a clearing.

Later, we were quite proud of ourselves. "Didn't see anyone else on that hill."

We walked the streets until stores opened, which was not soon on a Saturday morning. Almost by accident, we discovered a small cafe with fresh baked goods literally coming out of the oven. We sat down to munch, among heaped pastry piles purchased to sample the full range of options - pastry with chocolate, with cream, with orange, with cherry - and "real" coffee.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Riga


View from the top of a church tower.

Shifting Perspective


I just went on *another* short break, and I'm still trying to catch up with myself. Apologies to all my regular readers. We just went to Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania.

As we crossed the Russian border, I felt some release of tension that has accumulated just by living here the past few months. When we got to our hostel in Riga, the staff greeted us with a free beer for each person. You know your frame of reference has changed if life at a hostel seems like a dramatic step up from your current quality of life.

Tap water was drinkable, even without boiling for 10 minutes. Toilets were free, had lids, seats, a steady supply of toilet paper, flushed without overflowing, didn't smell like sewage and bathrooms weren't full of old shoes, newspapers, jars, bottles, cans, drying laundry or pets. Internet access was free, readily available, and lacked bandwith restrictions. Rooms were clean (well those sheets might be questionable) and well-lit. Staff was friendly and customer-service oriented. Coffee and tea were free for all guests.

During the trip, I suffered a bit from reverse culture shock. Everything felt so European. The streets were clean - no snow or dirt. No one spit on the streets. Streets weren't full of drunk, raging alcoholics at all hours of the day. I didn't see any potholes on roads or sidewalks. There was not a general state of disrepair, on streets or in buildings. I didn't see any 14 year olds running around with bottles of beer at 9 am. I was not accosted by a single drunk man. Taxi and bus drivers appeared to be sober.

Restaurants were friendly and seemed to want customers. You didn't have to wait for a long time and they didn't swear at you if they thought your group was too big. Tables weren't reserved for people who never showed up. The kitchen didn't close 90 mins before the restaurant did. Food used spices and salad didn't have mayonnaise on it. Half of the menu did not consist of cigarettes and the various types of vodka, cognac, beer, wine and other alcohol you could buy.

There were no traffic police hovering at 20 foot intervals to fine pedestrians for crossing without a signal, or cars whose drivers hadn't done anything illegal, but looked wealthy enough to pay bribes to avoid any 'trouble'. People on the street smiled, said hello, and even hugged you.

All in all, I was a little cranky on the train back...

I'm Melting

The snow is disappearing rapidly - it's not all gone yet, but will be soon. A very short, very warm winter in Russia. And I still haven't been cross-country skiing. The weather has changed just enough that it's all drizzle, all the time. No sky, lots of clouds. I wonder how winter has fared across the rest of the world.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Those Hooligans

They did it again. I swear, every time I reach a point in this job where I want to pull my hair out, my students set me right again. I've been sitting here trying to grade everyone's midterms, which I should have finished over the weekend. At the height of my exasperation, I learned one of my old students was downstairs looking for me. I stomped down the stairs, resenting the interruption to the moment I was having with my cup of coffee.

Thursday is "International Women's Day". Kind of like mother's day, but for all women. Like Valentine's Day, there's a run on sales of flowers and chocolate. On Wednesday, her college is having some sort of celebration/performance, in which she is taking part. She stopped by because she wanted to invite me to attend as her guest. I hope I can go. Sometime on Wednesday, we head to Moscow to catch the night train to Riga. It would be nice to fit both events in.

Shortly after saying good-bye to her, I was mugged by some of last semester's students, who all said they missed me and planted about 95 kisses on my cheek while hugging all the air out of my lungs.

Hooligans.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

San Francisco Style


Even the Bay Area food/fitness lifestyle craze is spreading

A Great Run




Last weekend, we had a small break and I went to St. Petersburg to visit my sister. On the last day of my trip, a large group of us met up at a park for a hash run. During this run, which lasts about 40 minutes, you run as a group, looking for trail markings that tell you which way to go, and yelling "on, on!" to anyone behind you so they know you're headed in the right direction.

You can imagine the facial expressions of the Russians we passed, who were leisurely strolling about on a fairly cold day, as we went tearing by screaming "ON, ON!!". Here are a few pictures of our journey. The forest was beautiful.

After the finish, we trekked back to "CitiBar", across the street from the American Consulate. A great place, they let us stow our gear there during the run, and had real eggs benedict waiting when we got back (I called ahead to see if we could place an order since I had to leave for the train station right after we got back). Food has never tasted so good.

The Mighty Dollar


Perhaps less mighty now, yet the dollar store is everywhere...

The Ants Go Marching One By One....


In case anyone missed this important news flash (taken from FoxNews):

Swiss Troops Accidentally Invade Lichtenstein
ZURICH, Switzerland — What began as a routine training exercise almost ended in an embarrassing diplomatic incident after a company of Swiss soldiers got lost at night and marched into neighboring Liechtenstein.

According to Swiss daily Blick, the 170 infantry soldiers from the neutral country wandered more than a mile across an unmarked border into the tiny principality early Thursday before realizing their mistake and turning back.

A spokesman for the Swiss army confirmed the story, but said that there were unlikely to be any serious repercussions for the mistaken invasion. "We've spoken to the authorities in Liechtenstein and it's not a problem," Daniel Reist told The Associated Press on Friday. Officials in Liechtenstein also played down the incident.

Interior Ministry spokesman Markus Amman said nobody in Liechtenstein had even noticed the soldiers, who were carrying assault rifles but no ammunition. "It's not like they stormed over here with attack helicopters or something," he said.

Liechtenstein, which has about 34,000 inhabitants and is slightly smaller than Washington, D.C., does not have an army.

A string of luck

So I've been on holiday. Literally and figuratively. I took a small break from all commitments, written, electronic, and otherwise. In the spirit of honoring an "old Russian tradition", I kicked back and did nothing for a bit. It was nice. Now, I'm back. :)

After sending my final paper in, a series of fortunate events happened within the span of 24 hours. First, a package arrived in the mail with a very nice, embroidered jacket from Norwich University enclosed (a gift for finishing the last class). My teacher graded my paper incredibly quickly - sending back an "A" and a note that if I work on it, it might be publishable in the Journal of African Affairs. That night, some of my old students and the other teachers dragged me out to a local cafe, where we bought a bottle of wine and toasted my finishing school. AND I got a lucky ticket on the bus for my first time ever since moving here.

Let me explain. When you buy a bus ticket, it has 6 numbers on it. A "lucky" ticket is one where the sum of the first 3 digits equals the sum of the last 3 digits. (would this ever be a hobby in America?) If you get a lucky ticket, you're supposed to eat it. I didn't eat mine, but I did save it, and I was very excited.