Friday, April 27, 2007

My Favorite Cosmetics

1) toothpaste: why can't I buy herbal toothpaste with myrrh and eucalyptus at home?

2) "Wash and Go"/Pert Plus knockoff, which is economical and amuses me because the label is in English

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More Signs You've Been in Russia Too Long

A longer list is posted at

Here are the ones I found personally relevant:

1. You have to think twice about throwing away an empty instant coffee jar.
2. You carry a plastic shopping bag with you "just in case".
3. You say he/she is "on the meeting" (instead of "at the" or "in a" meeting).
5. You answer the phone by saying "allo, allo, allo" before giving the caller a chance to respond.
6. You save table scraps for the cats living in the courtyard.
7. When crossing the street, you sprint.
8. In winter, you choose your route by determining which icicles are least likely to impale you in the head (this is a real problem that actually results in deaths each year when the ice melts and icicles fall)
9. You are impressed with the new model Lada or Volga car.
10. You hear the radio say it is zero degrees outside and you think it is a nice day for a change.

11. You argue with a taxi driver about a fare of 30 rubles ($2) to go 2 kilometers in a blizzard.
12. You are pleasantly surprised when there is toilet paper in the WC at work.
13. You are thrown off guard when the doorman at the nightclub is happy to see you.
14. Your not sure what to do you when the traffic cop only asks you to pay the official fine.
15. You wonder what the tax inspector really wants when she says everything is in order.
16. You plan your vacation around those times of the year when the hot water is turned off.
17. You are envious because your expat friend has smaller door keys than you have. Keys can double as self-defense weapon.
18. You go mushroom and berry picking out of necessity instead of recreation.
19. You know seven people whose favorite novel is "The Master and Margarita".
20. You change into tapochki (slippers) and wash your hands as soon as you walk into your apartment.

21. You can read bar-codes, and you start shopping for products by their country of production.
22. You know more than 60 Olgas.
23. You wear a wool hat in the sauna.
24. You put the empty bottle of wine on the floor in a restaurant.
25. You are rude to people at the airport for no reason.
26. You have to check your passport for an arrival-in-Russia date.
27. You think metal doors are a necessity.
28. You no longer feel like going to your "home" country.
29. You don't feel guilty about not paying on the trolley.
30. The elevator aroma seems reassuring somehow.

31. You no longer think washing clothes in the bathtub is an inconvenience.
32. You have to take E S L lessons before you go home.
33. When you know the Moscow Metro better than you know the subway system back home.
34. A weekend anywhere in the Baltics qualifies as a trip to the West.
35. You start buying Russian toilet paper.
36. You never smile in public when you're alone.
37. You know the official at the metro station/airport/border post/post office/railway station etc. etc. is going to say "nyet", but you argue anyway.
38. When you save tea-bags of Yorkshire Tea brought over specially from home to use for a second cup later....
39. When that strange pungent mix of odours of stale sawdust, sweat and grime in the metro makes you feel safe and at home....
40. When the word "salad" ceases for you to have anything to do with lettuce.
41. When mayonnaise becomes your dressing of choice


The Russian answer to spring cleaning is the tradition of subotnik, which began as an actual holiday during Soviet times, and now seems to generally refer to the idea of taking a day after the snow melts to clean everything up. A few weeks ago, all of the teachers and staff got together to clean up the trash, beer bottles and potato chip wrappings that had been thrown down the hill and crept into our yard. You can see Molly and I were hard at work as we meditated to help inspire everyone else's efforts.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Clockwork Orange

I've never seen the movie, but I recently read the book for the first time (in English). During the same week, my host brother discovered the book and read it (in Russian). Late one night at the dinner table, we realized we'd both just completed it and fell into an intense discussion.

He was amazed that Anthony Burgess had so clearly foreseen and aptly described what is now a serious problem in Russia - skinheads. The story could fit a description of senseless group violence in any country. However, the slang Burgess invents in the book is based on the transliteration of Russian. It was a little odd for me, reading late one night in my apartment, to open the book and see Russian words staring back at me in Latin script.

Russia can be generally hostile towards anyone who isn't white. A few semesters back, one of the teachers here (a woman) was part Italian. During her first semester, if I have my history straight, she was stopped twice by the police and actually detained at the police station at one point because they thought she was a Chechen terrorist photographing the marketplace. She left Russia earlier than planned.

Skinheads feed on this type of mentality and target "outsiders" to be killed.

The student attack described in the news clip below happened in Sept 06 to someone studying in my friend's class at St. Petersburg State University:

"On a Sunday night at 9:00 pm, an Asian-American student began walking home from an internet café on Nevsky Prospect. While walking, the student noticed a group of four young men behind him. Out of concern, and because he was still on a street full of people and cafés, the student stepped to the side and let the group pass by. All of the men where in their early twenties and were dressed in normal street clothes and none had shaven heads. Once the group passed, the student began to walk again. The group looked back from time to time. Once the student entered the first street without cafés or Kiosks, three or four more youths arrived and the two groups eventually sandwiched the student. Luckily, the student happened to be at his front door when this occurred and as he had a keypad lock, was able to enter swiftly. As he rushed inside the door, one youth jabbed an 8-inch kitchen knife at the student's throat, missing and hitting his hooded sweatshirt. The student was able to push closed the door and enter his apartment safely."

I have another friend who is a bit leery of the metro station at Nevsky prospect since a few years ago, his friend (Middle Eastern) was killed when a group of skinheads pushed him onto the tracks of an oncoming train.

Here are a few notes from the St. Petersburg Times: "In 2004 a Syrian student was pushed to his death under a metro train and a Vietnamese student bled to death, after being stabbed 37 times. The same year, the ethnologist Nikolai Girenko was also murdered in St Petersburg. In April, Lamzar Samba, a communications student from Senegal, was leaving a nightclub with a group of friends when he was shot dead in an alley. There was a swastika on the gun."

In an interview, one Congolese student explained "My friend, Roland Eposeka, who came from Congo like me, was murdered six months ago. He was studying forestry. He was on his own, just going to the local shop, when four youths fell on him and knifed him. The police are indifferent, at best. There is more law and order in Brazzaville than here."

And that's just a small sampling.

This month, like in many other years, several Moscow universities have ordered foreign students to stay in their dorms for the next 3 days because of concerns about ethnic violence before Hitler's birthday weekend. These restrictions are explained as a "fire drill".

Now, skinheads have started to turn on anyone who is "different", including fellow Russians. Students belonging to other subcultures - punks, goths, etc. are also being attacked.

You Can Go Your Own Way

A piece of political commentary from St. Petersburg?

Around Town

While walking around making a welcome video for the new teachers, we stopped in front of Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral to take a few pictures.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hanging out by the Hermitage

In the square in front of the museum, a large group of soldiers was practicing for a parade (it will be next month). Watching them walk in squares and rehearse the music again and again, I laughed, suddenly knowing what I looked like to other people a few years ago.

When practice finally finished, everyone split into smaller social groups, clustering around their musical instrument of choice.

But what gave me the biggest smile was the group of children on a field trip, doing their best to imitate the movements of the soldiers.


I don't even know how to spell it in English. But it's beautiful, and it's just outside town. Molly, Aaron and I went Wednesday morning to visit the women's monastery and the Church of the Intercession, which is on the UNESCO list.

I went once before, in the middle of winter. The way to the Church of the Intercession is not really marked with signs. You have to turn right after passing a hospital, and then cross over some train tracks in order to find the path. Since I'd been before, I was our guide. Boy, was that a mistake. Naturally, I couldn't remember where to turn and we got lost. We wandered the whole river trying to figure out where to cross and how to get over the train tracks. We crawled up and down stairs. I jumped across a stream and climbed up a hill. I could SEE the church, but I couldn't figure out how to get there.

Finally, we met an old man, who rode his bike to the forest and was chopping some wood. He probably thought we were crazy, but he did point us back toward town, which was closer to the trail.

We finally found the crossing point, though we were still off the main path a bit. After grumbling on the way there, we discovered a way home that was, actually, well-marked and included signs.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Peter Paul Fortress

We made an early morning excursion to see Peter Paul Fortress. I’ve tried to visit the fortress on two prior trips. Russia’s English translation claims the fortress was a magnificent achievement that would surely have thwarted any attack, while English guidebooks tell me it was poorly designed and would have been little help in a crisis. The most noteworthy facts I gathered were that it housed “political prisoners” and was also a rocket development site in the 1920s. Not coincidentally, today the fortress hosted a model rocket competition and a small street fair.

We met Peter the Great (sorry Peter, I had a Pushkin moment, the other town obsession) and I took a picture in front of his statue. Many visitors sit on his lap, but I was somewhat skeptical and also afraid of paying a “tourist fine”.

My sister discovered a secret passage. It was hard to find. I bravely scouted for any suspicious characters as we looked around the hideout.

There was also a concert at the church, which played different bells throughout the day.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Absolutely Insane

I traveled to St. Petersburg to spend the weekend with my sister. Earlier this afternoon, I was reading the comics (courtesty of a package from home) while she was taking a shower. The doorbell rang a few times and there was a lot of knocking on the door. I looked through the peephole. A very distraught, elderly woman stood outside.

Now, I should have known better. There is a rule in Russia that you NEVER open the door for someone you don't know. Generally, I follow this rule. In America and Russia. But she seemed so innocent and distressed. And I'm an experienced world traveler. In pretty good physical shape. A war veteran, even. Opening the door to talk to an old woman seemed like an OK plan. Surely, someone was dying or giving birth. Better to see what was the matter.

Before I could blink, she went barreling past me and INTO the bathroom, where she began yelling at my sister, who was still in the shower. Lots of words went back and forth, with my sister finally telling her to leave. The woman was indignant at being asked to go. My sister yelled that it was OUR apartment. I shoved her out the door and locked it while she was muttering something about our landlord's number and I was swearing in English.

A bit shaken, we both sat down on the couch. My sister wondered what on earth possessed me to open the door. I tried, feebly, to explain.

Apparently, the source of the woman's complaint was that repairs were being done in her apartment (including the pipes) and she thought we were responsible for water leaking into her room. Clearly, this justified her barging into the bathroom of a naked stranger and hollering at them.

We called the landlord, who showed up not long after we hung up the phone. He was sorry to hear of our trouble, and examined the pipes while making jokes to distract us. He said there's nothing wrong with the plumbing. He told us to use as much water as we want. He said to call him if she shows up again.

After he left, I took an unnecessarily long shower. I think everything's ok now, but it's the craziest thing I've ever seen, and I can't even imagine how my sister must have felt.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

My Girls

Molly invited me to join her class (mostly my old students from last semester) on a field trip to the food court in the new mall. I couldn't resist. It was great to see them all again. They teased me about my progress in Russian. I passed out copies of my address in America. They sent me on a guilt trip about not teaching next year. I promised to visit Russia. I love these girls.

Why You Love McDonalds When You're Abroad

Of all the things I've lost, I might miss American restrooms the most.

The notion of free, public restrooms does not exist in Russia. If you want to use the bathroom, you have to pay for it (usually a little under $.50) After you give your money to the toll booth lady outside the bathroom, she gives you a piece of toilet paper. 2 squares, maybe 3 if you're lucky. One of the reasons I hoard napkins, tissue and toilet paper like a kleptomaniac.

Many toilets do not have seats OR they HAD seats which have been removed, for reasons I cannot fathom. I also cannot understand why I have to pay the toilet lady if the toilets are still covered in pee. What duties is the toilet lady responsible for, exactly? They do not include cleaning the restrooms or supplying soap for the sink.

Even in theaters and "nicer" public places, many toilets actually have no vertical components at all. Rather, there's a hole in the floor with space to carefully place your feet on either side. I'm sure this is all doing wonders for my legs.

Here you can see a picture of the toilet on the train, and a standard hole-in-the-floor toilet.

You are an obsession, You're my obsession...

The entire country is obsessed with plastic bags. Also known as "pakets". Not bookbags or briefcases. Plastic bags. That's what you use to carry things.

As someone put it, there's nothing funnier than a teenager trying to look tough who's dressed all in black and carrying a plastic bag covered with pictures of roses.

At first, the plastic bags really bothered me. What happened to bookbags? Messenger bags? Something durable? Something more visually appealing, perhaps?

Now, I carry my socks to and fro in a grocery bag when I need to do laundry at school. It seems totally normal. When I have too many things, I just stuff some of them in the nearest bag, and take it with me wherever I'm going.

In Russian grocery stores, bags aren't free. You have to ask for them and pay, usually, 1 ruble per bag (not expensive, which almost makes me wonder why they bother). On the train to Moscow, when we stopped in suburban areas near the city, entrepreneurs crowded our compartment, hawking the virtues of the various pakets they had for sale. As this woman did, you can even find a booth at the market specializing in plastic bag sales.

It has led me to a new hobby. Bag-watching. Instead of people watching. You can sit on a train or a bus or in any public space and watch all the different bags passing by. You can compare and contrast their color, quality, age and contents. Like pets, you may search for a physical resemblance between pakets and their owners.

Monday, April 02, 2007


I made it to the first hour of English Conversation Club on Sunday evening, where we discussed one of my favorite subjects. Food. The question was, what food(s) would you miss from home if you went to another country?

I made a small list, which I shared with our group:

1) Water. Free drinking water, automatically provided to you at any restaurant. That you want to drink water versus some other beverage and that the water will not be carbonated - both facts are considered normal. I also miss being able to drink water safely out of the tap. Expansion: American hygiene makes a lot less sense when you have to pay for water. Also when the bathtub is more often than not heaped with drying laundry. I tend to alternate between hair-washing days and self-washing days. There's a separation, and it's flexible, depending on the status of drip-drying clothes.

2) Spices. Man, I miss spices. I like flavors. When I sprinkle black pepper on my noodles, like I did last week, it seems incredibly exotic. I forgot what it tasted like. For lunch today, I bought lettuce (just lettuce, because accompanying veggies are still a little pricey) and crumpled it into a bowl. I squished lemon juice on top, and added some salt. It was crazy.

3) Food Without Additional Dairy Products. I miss salad without mayonnaise, as I told you in an earlier post. Here, that's seen as a little strange. I do not feel any compulsion to add sour cream to my soup, but that's also obligatory. I'm sure there are other examples, but they fail me.

4) California produce. I was incredibly spoiled by a year-round supply of fresh, affordable, locally grown fruits and vegetables within walking distance of my apartment. Those days are gone.

5) Where's the Beef? I'm not a vegetarian, though during my time in CA, I started eating less meat and more veggies. But I'm still a fan of the occasional steak dinner, and that's something you can't replicate here. Although shashlik is good.

6) Novelty Items. On this list would be such things as Waffle House hash browns, chicken dumplings, hot wings, pumpkin pie, fried chicken, biscuits (which I actually made here once)and other delicacies that I miss being able to eat periodically. Though considering the fat/dairy ratio, I think a chain of Southern food restaurants would do well in Russia.

To be fair, I was then asked to catalog what foods I would miss from Russia. At the top of the list is shashlik (think BBQ/shish-ke-bab as the closest analogy). Followed by blini (Russian pancakes - thinner than ours) I like mine without butter (madness), but with jam and, alas, I now also enjoy sour cream and condensed milk, as well as honey. And kasha (the buckwheat kind, which many Americans dislike, but I love, possibly because I grew up with it). I could say I'll miss borscht but that would be a lie because Mom makes the best in town. Other people noted that they'd miss Russian black bread, Russian dairy products and Russian tea.

At the market in St. Petersburg we found lots of spices, even though no one ever cooks with them.