Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Universal Nod and the Similarity of All Humans

Hey everyone,

So I just home from hanging out with some friends at a bar and I decided to write a post about something I have been thinking about for a while. There exists the stereotype that Russians are either mean to each other on the street, that they don't care about anything outside of their own apartment, or that they just are not friendly to strangers. This stereotype has been mentioned to me by Russians and Americans alike and, as far as I can tell, pretty widespread. At first, I agreed with its existence and would have supported someone who said that, in public, Russians seem colder and not to care about people other than themselves. That being said, upon coming here, I was not ready to completely abandon my habits. Throughout my time here, every time I have seen a little old lady struggling with groceries, every time I have seen an old man drop a couple coins, or anything like that, I have immediately and instinctually jumped and asked the person if they needed help. According to the stereotype, the average Russian would not do the same on the street, however, my experience here has supports a somewhat different theory.

In public spaces there exist two types of people: those who are aware of what is happening around them, and those who are not. Amongst those who are aware, exist those people who actively help those in need. That last group of people exchange between themselves a certain nod, a speechless and silent nod that symbolizes either gratitude or acknowledgment. If a person recognizes that you have done some deliberately to benefit them, they may nod at you as if to say, "Thank you for doing that. You did not have to go out of your way to make my life easier, but you did, and I thank you for that" or, if you have done something deliberately to make someone else's life easier and they notice it, you may nod at them to say, "Here you go." This phenomenon, as I have learned from my time here in Saint Petersburg, is universal between our two cultures.

I was sitting near the back of the bus on the way home tonight when a couple got on. The man was carrying their sleeping child, and the woman was wheeling a suitcase and carrying her purse as well as some grocery bags. There was not enough space near the front, so they also approached the back of the bus. When they reached the last row of seats, the man juggled the child around to get his wallet out, which he handed to the woman. The woman put the grocery bags and her purse down in temporary positions as she got the bus fair out from her husbands wallet. She then walked to the front of the bus, paid the fair, and turned to return to our last row of seats. While walking back, she realized that there was nowhere to sit, although there was an empty seat next to me on the opposite side of them. I also noticed the discrepancy and, naturally, moved over to allow the woman to sit next to her bags and her husband, instead of having to stand or sit on the opposite side of me. I would say this instance is "nothing really" and was something so minuscule but when I changed seats and looked at the man, he gave me the nod and I knew, in that instant, what it meant. I nodded back.

Several days ago I was standing on the bus and the doors opened, revealing a young mom wish an enormous baby carriage. It was immediately obvious that there was no way she was going to get the baby carriage on the bus by herself and I, automatically, stepped forward and grabbed the front axel of the carriage and lifted it onto the bus. I am not sure whether she said anything or not, because I was wearing headphones, but I nodded at her and she nodded in acceptance.

As my final example: I was sitting at a bus stop once, zoning out thinking about the book I am reading, when an old man standing next to me dropped his cane. I was completely unaware that anything had happened and really just did not notice what had happened. Coincidentally, a young man was walking past the bus stop, noticed that the elderly man had dropped his can and picked it up and handed it to him. After helping the man, the young passerby came up to me, got my attention, and practically shouted, "What's your problem!? You don't feel like helping an old man who drops his cane!?" He scolded me for not picking up the mans cane... something I would have gladly done, had I only noticed! Not only did he care enough to help this random man on the street out, but he also felt it necessary to basically ask me what my problem was for not doing the same.

All-in-all, I have come to the conclusion that, regardless of what was or what may have been, today, in Saint Petersburg culture lives the concept of helping people on the street just as much as in any city I have ever lived in. Furthermore, this nod of the anonymous philanthropist is also alive and well and practiced regularly, as I see it on a day to day basis.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

He's BACK!

Hey everyone,

So yeah... sorry I have been mia for so long. I kind of... got caught up in everything and started to neglect poor "Peter and I."

Anyway... man, where should I even start now?? Hrm...

I guess I will start with my internship. So, during the second semester here (although I started back during the first semester, along with a handful of other students) we have an internship everyweek. I was assigned to the Saint Petersburg National Research University of Information Technologies, Machanics, and Optics at the Center of Design and Multimedia - quite a mouthfull, I know. People call the school ITMO for short. The Center (that's what we call our office) is on the third floor of one of the ITMO buildings and consists, basically, of a decent sized office with about 6 different workstations. Each workstation has a computer (always with two monitors, which makes me miss home) and various other pieces of audio-video equipment. I work, usually, at the only mac in the office, which means I am spoiled because I sit infront of two beautiful 30" mac displays. For the most part, I have doing animations for different videos we have produced. We did a short video about a fortress near Saint Petersburg: Kopore, in which I did all the animations except the intro graphic and the gate closing. We are currently working on an infographic for a fundraising company called Fund-IT, which I cannot show you guys just yet, and I am pretty much doing all the animations for that. I have to say, I really love my internship. The people here, i.e. my coworkers, who are all students, and my boss, who is in his early 30s I think, are all super nice and our relationship is really good. It is definitely interesting and useful to see how Russians carry themselves in a professional setting but, more importantly to me, it is just nice to meet more people from different backgrounds and talk to them. One of the guys I work with, Sasha, is currently working on a video project that he and a friend are going to then submit to a television station, hoping they will like it and offer them some sort of contract for a t.v. show. He asked me if I would be willing to help them out, mainly with animation, and I said, "Of course!" so I will also probably start working on that pretty soon too.

What else is new....

I have been seeing a lot of theater here, which is pretty awesome too, cuz I love the theater. I have enjoyed most things I have see, although there was this one play about love in the Soviet Union, which was kind of hard for me to relate to lol. Last week I saw a showing of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" and it was.... SUPERB! I am a pretty big fan of the D-Man anyway, but this performance really took me by surprise. It was about 4 hours long but really did not feel like it at all. It was one of those performances, where just the sheer level of energy of every single actor in the entire cast gave such life into every word and action of every sceene and made it quite difficult to look away for even a second. On top of that, the play talks about the idea of an ideal person and temptations... how more perfect could that be for me! I loved it, in case you couldnt already tell.

Another notable thing that is happening is my "thermal-regulation training", which some of you already know about. Basically, about two months ago, I decided that I wanted to test the capibilities of the human body... my body. I wanted to see how much I could train my body, or how much my body could adapt, to withstand and, eventually, become "immune" to feeling cold. It started with not wearing  a winter coat, but wearing a lighter coat, which became wearing just a sweater. That turned into wearing just a longsleeve shirt, which evolved into just a t-shirt. Currently. I go to school in shorts and a t-shirt, although I do still wear a beanie and a skarf (which are really just so I still look stylish). I should mention it is about 15 degrees fahrenheit right now, and snowing quite a bit. It is pretty cool how much my body has started to take, meaning when it is around freezing and even down to about 20 degrees, I really do not feel cold. Once it gets beneath that, after an extended period of time on the street, I start to get chilly. I can tell that it is cold but... I just don't feel it anymore. Naturally, everyone stares at me on the street, pretty much literally every single person. Some people smile at me or even tell me that it's cool what I am doing, and then some people yell at me or look at me like I am crazy. Multiple times now an elderly woman on the bus has gotten up out of her seat and told me to sit down. About a month ago a different woman offered me 5 rubles (about 18 cents) to go buy a jacket.

I have been interested, since I got here, to find any concrete and distinct differences between "Russian" culture and "American" culture, which I mentioned in a couple previous posts. I'm not really sure if I have found anything TOO satisfying, but I have noticed some consistant things that really are "Russian" and, as far I am concerned, not "American". For instance, this is kind of hard to explain, but I think all of you who have been to Russia will understand and all of those who will go to Russia or spend sometime with a real Russian family will find out: the way Russians talk to each other at home often seems way more aggressive and combative than what would be normal for Americans. Let me think of an example... ok so my host mom is in the kitchen and my host father is in the other room on the computer, mom looks for a particular pan but cant find it, "Do you know where my favorite pan is?" she yells. "Papol (that's what she calls her husband, its cute), do you know where my pan is!?" he responds, totally calm. "It's on the stove"... "Papol, no its not" "Yea, it's on the stove" and then she like screams "WHAT STOVE, there is nothing on the stove, dear god, hes telling me its on the stove, there is nothing on the stove - shouting to the other room - THERES NOTHING ON THE STOVE" and then he comes into the kitchen and points to the pan on the stove... "Oh yeah, my pan... it was on the stove"... and the tone that that was all said in, the first couple times something like that happened, seemed really aggressive to me, argumentative and combative. Meaning, if I were at home and someone asked me a question once and I answered and then asked me again and I answered again and then just like started yelling at me... I would be kind of upset, or at least taken-aback as to why they were yelling at me, and I would most likely respond with,  "I told you, it is ON THE STOVE. LOOK! It's right there... ON THE STOVE" but a Russian would just calmly walk in the kitchen and say, "there it is, like I said :)" After 2 or 3 instances, however, I understood that it is completely normal and afterward, and even during, the conversation, neither of them are even the slightest bit angry. I also know that it is not something specific just to my family because I have seen it in different apartments with different families.

Another small thing I have noticed is how Russians use the world "нормальный" ("normalniy"), which pretty much means... "ok". For instance, when I am at work and I finish working on something and show it to my boss, if she says "Это нормально" ("That looks 'ok'"), I know it means that he likes and it looks GOOD, not just 'ok'. At first, of course, I could not tell if he was never really impressed with anything I did, or what until one day, when he accidently said "Woa, that is perfect!" caught himself, and then said, "I mean, that looks 'ok'".  Hehe, so yeah, now I really have a feeling for what the word means and it makes me happy when he tells me that my work is 'ok'. I am anticipating feeling like a total allstar when I come back to the US and someone tells me something I have done is anything better than 'ok' :P

Ok, I am logging off for now but I wanted to let everyone know that I had not forgotten about the blog! just... got derailed for a little bit.

I don't have any particular pictures to put here, but there are a pretty decent amount on facebook you can check out. We went on this excursion into a real Russian forest and it was SOOOO pretty!


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Commutin' like a Pro (and pics!!)

We had an interesting lecture in our cultural class the other day that spoke to me. We talked about how some russians, sometime back in the 19th or 18th century I believe, purposefully misspelled words to seem modern or cool.... thats what I do!!! It was funny because the teacher asked the class if american youth does that and several people were like, "of course not, thats stupid!" and i was like "uh... I do, and so do my friends lol". One of the examples I remember, for all those russian speakers out there, is how they would write привет -> привед, the second one not being a word at all, but according to phonetic rules, being pronounced the same as the first one aloud. That is pretty much the exact same thing I do when I write "gewd" instead of "good" or "hai" instead of "hi". It was random but kind of cool to think people did it that long ago.

In terms of other things that are going on... there is not too much. School is going and going. Although it is starting to get a little bit colder. This week the average temperature is supposed to fluctuate between 3 and 7 degrees Celsius - so like mid thirties to maybe mid fourties (thats off the top of my head though) and it looks like there is going to be a good amount of rain.

My commute can be pretty tough sometimes, just the amount of time it takes, but I think it is kind of fun sometimes, experiencing a different side of the typical saint petersburg resident - the commute. To break it down - first I walk from my apartment building to the bus stop, wait for the bus, then take the bus to the metro station - the bus ride can range from 15 minutes (the fastest, no traffic) to about an hour (mega traffic, during rush hour) and I can be the only person on the bus (late at night) or I can be 1 of 200 people on the bus, which sucks because it gets super crowded and uncomfortable. On a day to day basis though, it is pretty chill, meaning like there arent TOO many people on it and it moves through traffic pretty quickly, on the way to class at least. On the way back from school, as long as I dont come back between 5 and 7, its manageable too. I actually made a friend on the bus the other day, this migrant worker who asked the lady on the bus - oh yeah I guess I should explain how in Russian there are people who work on the bus, a "conductor," who collects fares from all the passengers. They are not always there but most of the time they are. Basically they walk up and down the bus either taking money and issuing little tickets or scanning your metro card for fare payment. They also can provide directions and sometimes announce what stop is coming up. Anyway, so this darker-skinned fellow didnt know where he was going so he asked the conductor and she told him to get off in two stops; two stops later, the bus stopped and the guy didnt move. I leaned over and told him "this is your stop pal" and he smiled at me and got off. The next few days I saw him again and again and the third time, he gave the "whats up" nod, which was cool. Yeah so thats what i meant by "made a friend" :P

Next, I get off the bus and enter the metro station, now... the metro is saint petersburg is something special: for starters, it has the deepest average depth of any metro in the word. the deepest station is about 344 feet underground (to give a reference, the deepest station in new york is about 180 feet). rides cost under a dollar (regardless of distance, unlike in san francisco or in washington dc) and it is generally pretty convenient. What is not convenient is the volume of people that ride the metro during the morning and afternoon commute. It is PACKED and I mean packed. The most obvious examples are when buying a metro token (which I dont do particularly often because I use this monthly card) and when trying to get on the escalator. Oh yeah, so because the stations are so deep, the escalators are CRAZZZZY long and can take upwards of 5 minutes to go up/down, which is super long. Thank being said, you can usually entertain yourself by watching any of the 250 teenage couples making out at any given time. Also, I vowed to my friends that I would become the fastest escalator scaler in all of saint petersburg, and i have to say... I have gotten quite fast - keep in mind, that is only going down, not going up! The other day I actually got yelled at by the escalator attendant (not the most appealing looking job - literally sit in a person-sized booth at the foot of the escalators for 8 hour shifts) "NO RUNNING ON THE ESCALATORS!" which is also when, conveniently, my friend made the new rule that time only counts as a record if i do not get yelled at :(

ok so anyway, yeah if you go to buy a token when the stations are busy, it is pretty hectic. not only because there are so many people trying to by metro tokens all at once but also because russia has very specific and cryptic rules regarding how you stand in line for things. You have to know exactly where to stand in line (usually not right behind the person in front of you - which seems pretty logical to me - but to their side) and if you dont stand in the right place, you will actually get cut. I was actually in a cellphone store the other day, waiting in line for an attendant, and i guess i wasnt standing in the exact right place, so someone came in the store after me and cut me - at which point i said, "excuse me, i was in line" and they said "no you werent, you were just standing there" and the person in front of me, who had just finished being helped chimed in "you werent in line (to me) you were just standing there..." ... yeah that kinda sucked. I think I am getting better at it though, standing in the right place i mean. either that or i just for someone else to come and then go behind them as if i were them behind the person in front of them, if that makes sense. buying the token is pretty routine, go down the escalator, and get on a car, as long as its not rush hour...

if it is rush hour on the metro, depending on what line you take, it can be pretty difficult to (dont even think about getting a seat): a) get on the car b) get your entire body inside the car before the doors close c) push and shove people to barely make enough room for your body inside the car. Often times, it is so packed that shorter peoples' heads are literally pressed up against taller peoples' chests or backs, like pressed flat, full contact into the other person. For me it is usually ok because I am young and able bodied and a man but for some younger girls or older folks, they can just get swept away by the wave of human bodies, whether they want to or not and whether the wave is going where they want to go or not. the meanest, i have found, are middle aged, larger (meaning kinda fat) women.... they can be ruthless! they are the nastiest shovers down there, pushing, elbowing, throwing punches; these women will do whatever it takes to get on or off the car they want, and lemme tell you, if you are off balance or standing, already tired, with your feet close together on a vehicle moving 25 mph and a 250 pound woman barrels into you - you are going to get out of her way whether you like it or not! once on a car the metro moves pretty efficiently and pretty smoothly from stop to stop.

thats my basic commute each day though, and i am getting pretty used to it, even growing to like it.

alright thats about it for the day, sorry for the long pause in between posts, i will try and make something cool happen that then i just have to come home and blog about in the next few days :)

**oh yeah, i gotta talk about my internship, that is whats to come! stay tuned :D

Here are some pics while I have been walking around and what not :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Am I From a Sarcastic Wonderland? (and pics!!)

Hey everyone,

So, first of all, I want to share a couple of the pictures I took from our trip to Pscof - which was really fun and beautiful and awesome - they are below.

Before I forget though, I want to pose a question to anyone reading to this. Err.... any American. So there is a Russian word: молодец (molodyets), which literally means "a person who does a good job" but is used in many situations when, in english, people would just say "good job." It is a a little strange, however, because molodyets is a noun, so the grammatical structure is a little different. For instance, if someone does something good or impressive, in English we would say "good job" and in Russian they would say "molodyets." The other day I was talking to a friend, who will remain unnamed (although you know who you are out there) and the issue of translating "molodyets" came up.

After talking and thinking about it for a little bit, I came to the conclusion that we, as in Americans.... err, the Americans I know and interact with, don't really say "good job" to anything. If we do, it is to some feat ot huge accomplishment. On a day to day basis, as much as I can remember, we don't really tell each other "good job." Furthermore, when trying to think of an instance where I would readily say "good job"... I come up with, IM sports in college, when someone made a good play in football, I would high-five them and say, "nice, good job." Other than that... in almost every situation I would rather say "nice" or even "cool" rather than telling someone "good job." Ok so this might seem really small and semantic but, after I thought about it for a while, I realized that if someone told me "good job," not even expressing that they thought I did something well, but using the actual words 'good' and 'job,' I would take it sarcastic if it were said in response to something mundane or small or insignificant. That being said, the following situation arose: we were in the kitchen and I was helping her make salad, all the vegetables were cut up and the only thing left to do was add some olive oil. She handed me the olive oil and told me to pour some in the bowl, I asked how much because I didnt want to do too much, and she said just a little bit. I opened the bottle and poured a little bit and she said "molodyets." Since we had been talking about it earlier, I told her that that was an example of when, in english, it would be weird to say it. Had I just poured some olive oil into a bowl to make salad and she said, "good job"... I would take it to be sarcastic: "WOW, you did it!? incredible!!! I never thought you would be able to manage to pour olive oil into a bowl - youre a genius!" Which then made me realize that, perhaps, the phrase "good job," to me, implies a certain level of unexpectedness, meaning, the person saying it did not think the other person would be able to accomplish what they did: "You just finished running a half-marathon, good job!" "Damn Derek, you actually did eat those 3 and a half pounds of pasta, good job!" -- both real examples from my life.

My question to you is the following, because I need your help - under what circumstances can you say "good job," will it ever, innately, be taken sarcastically, in what situations, if any, can you not say "good job?" Is it just me who has some weird relationship to that phrase? Am I living in some sarcastic parallel universe??

Maybe even "nice job"... yeah that sounds pretty normal to me. It's really just... man I don't even know how to describe it, it just feels weird to me "good job" BLECH! Someone please help me out here, clearly I am a little bit lost!

On a completely unrelated note, there is an international film festival happening in St P. over the next 5 days. We picked up a program today and I narrowed down the list to about 7 movies I wouldn't mind seeing. I am going to try and get out as much as I can this next week (even though we have a presentation due on monday and then a test later in the week) to see as many of them as I can.

I have some more things on my list to talk about but I am going to head to bed now so they will have to wait till later this weekend. I just really wanted to get that whole "good job" thing off my chest, oh yeah, and add the pics :)

Talk to yall later

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Country with Technology Smiles (or does it??)

Hey everyone,

ok so I have a little list here of things I want to talk about so this post may go on for a while. I am also smack dab in that weird period of time where no one in the US is really up yet but I am already in my apartment and tired enough that I don't really wanna move or think or do anything but sit here and ramble on my computer.

Ok, the first thing:

1) The Dacha, good what a wonderful thing. Any of you that read my last blog are probably relatively familiar with the idea or at least the existence of dachas in Russia but for those of you who aren't - its basically a summer house. My new revelations about dachas really stems around the fact that they teach people skills that are otherwise lost in modern society. For instance, I have heard in multiple places the argument against GPS devices in cars and on phones because it makes people, if you grow up always having access to a GPS, less adroit at following directions, navigating themselves, and knowing what to do when they get lost. I think the claim in pretty valid in pretty much exclusively a post-apocalyptic situation. Ok, that's not true, those skills are useful at other times and are valuable, at times. Along the same lines as society's increasing dependence on technology, however, comes up the topic of a dacha. Dacha's, to this day, are only built by the residents. There are not construction companies and contractors who go out into the suburbs or to Karelia (in the case of my family) and build rows and rows of dachas. The "summer homes" that essentially every Russian family moves two for a few months out of the year and then frequently visits to tend to their crops for another several months, are built completely and entirely by the men in the family. Thinking about the united states and the culture I grew up in and hypothesizing what the result would be of taking an average young man and being like, "ok johnny, I need you to build this 3 story house (yeah... my family's dacha is THREE STORIES) with plumbing and electricity. Also, when you are done with that, how about you throw in a pool and a sauna in the backyard... GO" does not bring particularly fruitful thoughts to mind.

In Russia, thats what happens, with every family. The boys and young men of the family, as part of spending time on their Dacha, is learning how to actually build a structure that will safely house their family, will keep them safe from the elements, and be overall suitable to live in for weeks at a time. Now, to give credit where credit is due, I think a lot of the friends I had in school who were in the boy scouts would be pretty well equipped for this task, but outside of them, I wouldnt have too much faith in most people, or even myself for that matter. Its an opportunity to acquire so much knowledge, passively, that we in the US, for a large part, miss out on and that here is, "Did I build this?... of course I built it, who else would have done it if I didnt?"Yeah maybe being able to find out which direction is north without your iPhone or starting a fire with just two sticks and no flamethrower or building your own sauna are skills that the average Westerner would only need during an apocalyptic zombie attack (thats for you sammy), but maybe not. Maybe our society, as a whole, would benefit in some larger way if we were forced to get back in touch with how much work it takes an actual man to hammer some 4x4's together and erect a house.

Ok, second thing:

2) I know I have talked about the technology awareness here in the past but it is just so omnipresent that I cannot get over it. The other day in class, we were asked to say our first impersonations of St Petersburg and one guy said, "It's unbelievable how everyone here is always reading." While standing on a bus or on a metro car, it really is pretty fantastic how many people are reading. Yeah, some of them are reading newspapers or magazines, but the majority of them are reading kindles, iPads, android tablets, or smartphones. I know the same thing happens in the US and I also recognize that I dont ride public transport particularly much but it feels like its way more prevalent here. That and the just average knowledge of technology and computers is way higher per capita here. For staters, everyone texts, and I mean everyone. In the US, you cant even be guaranteed that someone you meet in a bar has texting (thats for you tina and alyona!) let alone that they know how to use it - granted, if its someone young in the US, you can be rest assured they know how to text. Youngans, however, always make jokes about how bad their parents are at texting or the common and "stupid" mistakes their parents always make when texting and it's really like this big long running joke between the youth of the entire country about the generation before us. Here, you dont have to preface anything with "oh can I text you?" its implied that a) they have texting and b) that they use it, partially because its cheaper than calling, even though they only get 70 characters per message because of the formatting of the message! Also, and I know this may have been different a few or several months ago, but Apple's official presence here can definitely be felt, iPads and iPhones are rampant, even though they cost about $1000 USD off the shelf here. They are officially carried by cellphone providers and are sold in authorized Apple reseller stores. You can still see a little bit of fear in some peoples eyes as they use an Apple product in public or on the metro, turning away from people as if to hide some precious treasure, but more and more people are accepting how common they are and simply holding out their iPad on the metro and reading it or even flaunting their iPhone 4S and they dance down the street with the white apple headphones in their ears.

3) The next point I wanted to bring up was about the whole smiling thing. Yeah, its true, no one really smiles on the street or on public transportation in Russia but that is changing. I have definitely noticed more and more people smiling, although it is usually when they are in groups or at least pairs and it does have some nuances. For instance, a young guy and young girl will often be smiling when they are together on the metro or getting on or off the metro because they are incessantly kissing, and I mean incessantly. However, in that kind of situation, the moment the two stop kissing, or stop flirting, and look away from each other... both of their faces become the most horrifying blank stares the world has ever seen. It's almost comical, watching two teenagers just making out and making out or pushing each other, calling each other names, smiling and laughing with one another, and then a pause in the conversation comes and then happen to look away and, instantaneously, the smiles vanish into thin air... and whats left - the face of an robot, turned off centuries ago because it scared children with its stoic gaze. Also, I know its because they are not having fun because... well.... yeah, its not!

ok well I had two other things to talk about but I dont want to make this post too long and I kind of need to go take a shower and get ready for dinner/bed and stuff. My host mother brought home a watermelon... it was like 2 feet in diameter and the three of us literally just sat around the table watching tv and carving it up until it was all gone. SO GOOD!

ok, more to come, prolly tomorrow or the next day.

also, sorry there havent been more pictures, I havent been doing too much picture-worthy lately but ill start to try to :)

later everyone

Friday, August 31, 2012

Peter, Isaac and Prejudice

So we went to Peterhof, which I had been to before, and which was absolutely breathtaking. There's not that much more about it than that to say. Nature, fountains, gold, palaces, BEAUTY.

Today we went to St. Isaac's Cathedral in the center of St. P, which was actually closed the last time I was here but was open this time and was really cool. We did not go inside on the little guided tour but we went to the top, which was really beautiful. It was a stunning view of the entire city, 360 degrees because you can walk around it, and the weather was really nice today so that was fantastic just to relax and take in some sweeping, huge-scale views of just the prettiest damn city on the planet! :)

Today, Derek and I had the pleasure of accompanying chancellor Block (who was visiting along with several other UCLA faculty members) to the airport. Right on the edge of the river, Chancellor Block climbs into a taxi cab being driven by a man who does not speak a word of English and, without saying a word, in the back two seats enter two men with short hair, black jackets, jeans, and heavy-duty work shoes on - his body guards... or so it seemed to Professor David MacFadyen (UCLA) and any other Russian spectators who were outside the SPSU campus service entrance at around 2pm today. On the ride to the airport, our conversation was pretty much restricted to the Chancellor, discussing his time in Russia and our impressions, our living situations, and the program we are currently studying with. Maybe about 15 or 20 minutes into the drive, the driver decides to turn the volume of the radio, currently playing some sports recap and store report, up to an almost deafening volume. High enough that communication between Block (in the front passenger seat) and us (in the back seats) becomes extremely difficult. Derek and I do our absolute best to keep up with what the Chancellor is saying and we tactfully guess how to answer his questions, which we only knew were questions because we could hear the intonation shift in his voice, but it becomes nearly imposible. (Sorry if you're reading this right now by the way Chancellor :( ) I think we manage pretty well when, just as spontaneously as the first shift, the driver turns the volume back down and we continue our conversation as before. The drive really was not that bad, it didn't last particularly long, we got to the airport, escorted him inside, made sure he passed through the first metal detector alright and, essentially, sent him on his way. You may still be out there on a plane somewhere.... *back to the audience* he seemed like a veteran traveler and was pretty confident in his ability to get where he needed to go so I am not too worried.

The ride back, with only the cool kids, was kind of different. Immediately upon getting back into the taxi, it becomes clear that the driver is pretty cool. He starts right in with gregarious and witty banter, which is nice and gets us smiling. Then he starts to go a little crazy, he says some nice stuff about some stuff (mostly girls - russian) and some not so nice stuff about some stuff (mostly girls - american) and at one point hits a mental block (that's a shout out to you dad) and just stays silent trying to physically force this word out for like 20-30 seconds. Not to mention, this entire time he is either texting on his phone as he is driving or pulling up pictures of his daughter and her son to show us. Also, he has a gps unit that is connected to the taxi dispatch center which let out a decently loud (because it was plugged into the car stereo) beep when it updated the list of possible assignments and then would sound like someone SLAMMING on a typewriter when it would download the details of a job. So basically, here we were, the driver was texting with 1 hand and turning the steering wheel/shifting gears (a manual of course) with the other hand, screaming about girls, his gps on full blast "ching ching ching, ching ching ching, ching ching ching", and all the while, he would roll my window up every time I tried to roll it down without saying anything. It was a little chaotic :( But he took us where we wanted to go, took a little tip (thank you UCLA) and then went on his way. He was a pretty happy and nice guy

Ok so my dinner is waiting for me - chunks of chicken wrapped in bacon, meatballs, and potatoes (yeah... im in heaven) and I am pretty tired so I am going to go but I want to say at least one.... philosophical thing before I go:

At our orientation we were told an anecdote about how someone was in Russia once and they were sitting with their legs crossed on the metro late at night and an old woman actually came up to him and said "Uh... we don't sit like that here!" Now anyone that has been to Russia can totally imagine a little Russian grandma saying that, the interesting part to me is that Russia has all these little customs and ways of doing things that everyone knows and that if you do not do, everyone immediately knows you are a foreigner (for better or for worse). In the US, we don't really have an equivalent of that. I think we are so used to seeing and being around people from so many different backgrounds, from different countries and cultures that there isn't really anything I could think of that would make someone immediately and indefinitely stand out as a foreigner (except maybe a dude in capris....). They dont quite have that level of cultural diversity here and, if they do, they choose to ignore it. It's nothing big, volatile, or major but something interesting, that you can do a single action here and everyone will know you are a foreigner while holding your chopsticks wrong, not giving your place to an old woman on a bus, nothing can or would really do the same in the US.

Lastly, I played around with a few photos I took at Peterhof and St Isaac's (here) and uploaded a good amount of photos to my facebook, which I assume you all have.

Later guys :)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Sky - A Great Dark Beauty

Lets see.

For starters, I would like to talk about the sky, mostly about how unbelievably pretty it is. Yeah yeah so maybe I am just a child of San Francisco but this grey, overcast-ness is just making my heart SOAR (thats a shout out to you mom ;) ). Yeah so people like my host family and various people at orientation incessantly warn me about how difficult life is going to become when the sun goes away for an extended period of time (btw this is not supposed to be a shout out to you, seabolt :( ) and how depressing the overcast weather and ran can be and I always assure them that is isn't going to be an issue. "Yeah yeah," they say, "you just don't understand it yet." In reality, I am sitting here writing on my blog and bragging about I am here:

and not in California anymore. Oh man, it is so pretty here! ok anyway, so the reason I am talking about the sky in the first place is because I overheard someone today talking about the sky and they compared the "expansive, dark, cold and grey" Russian sky to "the cold black heart" of the average Russian. Yeah it was a joke, and it was pretty funny but, at the same time, I dunno, it's not really that true. I know that is the stereotype but, ok lemme try to stay focused here:

Derek and I, yesterday, were in this big mall in the center of the city (it's called The Gallery) and we were just walking around, wasting sometime before heading out to meet with a friend. While we were going up an escalator and I was looking around I realized that if you took any average American and put them smack dab in the middle of the mall... they, most likely, would not even be able to tell that they weren't in America anymore. To my right was a Timberland store, to my left was an electronics/sony store, an authorized Apple reseller on the floor above us. All the signs in english. Of course all the people were speaking russian and not english but, the cleanliness and the decor and quality of the building, it was on par with any mall in the us I've ever been to. Furthermore, there are definitely people on the street who are willing to help you, people on the street who will pick up a metro token that an old lady drops and even, and this is pretty common, people that hold the really heavy metro doors open for the people behind them and even look back (you know, that courtesy glance that everyone does) to make sure that the next person catches the door before it knocks them over on the back swing.

Also, to pretend that there are not people in the US that would not respond to someone with an accent approaching them with, "stupid foreigner, get out of here!" is simply wrong, in my opinion. I remember being in the play The Foreigner in high school and playing the bigoted antagonist Owen Musser (I'm not sure on the spelling of the last name), who a character very much based in reality. It is probably accurate that there are simply more people in the US that would be more receptive to talking to strangers on the street and what not, but it definitely does exist in Russia.

When I was still relatively young in my Russian education, and only new only a couple real Russians, I thought that I was lucky and just happened to have met the 3 Russians that are interested in the world, that are not bigoted and close-minded, and that recognize the existence of other people and cultures. Obviously, that was a pretty stupid assumption and now it's really being driven home that such people are all over Russia, as they are all over the US.

My host mother was telling me today, as we were watching the news during dinner (which was incredibly amazing tasting, as always!!!!!!) about how she read a Russian translation of the Koran to find out "what these muslims are all about." Her opinions were extremely open minded, especially for being an entirely soviet woman who thinks that women who stop working to become housewives are "weak" and who yells at the teapot "what are you yelling about, I'm coming! *10 seconds go bye and she doesn't move* Shut up I said I'm coming!"

I have started listening to music on my commute to school, which makes it about 1000 times easier and faster feeling. I had another moment that was reminiscent of America last night when I was coming back from a bar. It was around midnight and I was waiting for a bus next to the metro station I get off at. I remember, for some reason, all of a sudden feeling: "damn, I feel so much safer here than I feel in my car at the Jack in the Box on telegraph in Oakland at midnight". I don't know why exactly. Maybe it was the fact that there were still old women out, maybe it was the woman with her young boy walking about of the super market across the street but whatever it was, I just felt completely safe and secure and unthreatened by my surroundings. 

My host mother was telling me about their dacha (summer house), its pretty far up north, in Karelia, so she said they dont go during cuz its too cold.... like -50 she said.... omg. she told me they were going to try and organize something to take me up there and show me how vegetables actually grow and how much work it is to pull them out of the ground or off a tree or from where ever those ghastly green things come from. The pictures she has shown me, both of the scenery and the 3lb. mushrooms they grow (yeah... THREE POUNDS! omg) look absolutely beautiful and I really hope we are able to make it out there.

Tomorrow we have a day off and several of us Americans are going to peterhof:
which has got to be one of the prettiest places in the world. I have been there before but I will still probably want to talk about it again and will definitely share the pictures.