Jan 27, 2008

С праздником! (On holidays)

You know what's funny about Russians? They barely speak English.

But that has nothing to do with today's topic. Did you know that, statistically speaking, Russians are the most festive people on the planet? Don't believe me? There are millions of blogs on the internet, you don't have to read mine. Besides, I'm not making this up - before the revolution, there were 251 official government holidays a year. Alright, I did make up the number, but I know there were more holidays than normal-days. See, in pre-revolutionary Holy Russia, the tsars reaffirmed their Holiness by tacking on a million Holy-days to the calendar.

Then everything changed, right? Not quite - Just because the Bolsheviks stabbed and shot the tsar, his wife and children, all his relatives, and all their close associates, and then threw their bodies in a mine, which they then tried to blow up, but failed and instead poured acid all over them (all true), doesn't mean they didn't have a festive side, too. They were, after all, Russians. They just changed Christmas trees into New Years trees, Saint God-knows-who's Day into Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution, Easter into Casimir Pulaski Day, etc etc. That last part may also not be true. To discover new blogs that may be more up your alley, use the Google Blog Search at http://blogsearch.google.com/.

For the hangers-on, and those of you who skipped the text for the pictures, today's theme is the Russian holiday.


New Year's is the Tsar of all Russian holidays - They decorate the entire country with ice-sculptures and lights, and the entire week afterwards is a state holiday - nobody works, not even my señora's friend Galina Ivanovna, who is the director of the city's only children's hospital. Sound a little bit irresponsible? I thought so too, but she assured me she was home, every day, without a care in the world. Maybe the patients got the holiday off, too, who knows. It is the biggest of the year, after all.

If New Year's is the Tsar of all holidays, Epiphany is the guy who tortured all of the Tsar's dissidents. I don't know anything about religion, or other countries, or holidays for that matter, but I can say with a degree of certainty that only Russians celebrate by swimming in holes in frozen rivers in the middle of January. As we know, Russians are all terrible sinners, and so this ritual is necessary, to freeze off sin like the doctor freezes off warts with liquid nitrogen. Just for you, I photographed the entire process:

In Irkutsk, the whole city gathered at the frozen river, around this really impressive ice-church they'd built. This was early, while they were preparing.

I'm not here to critique any one religion, but it's worth noting that all the guys in the pretty white outfits never got in the water, they just watched and said lots of stuff in Old Church Slavonic so people assumed they were too busy. I know you can't tell from the picture, but it was negative 30 celsius (translation: fahrenheit) that day, and windy on the river like always.

Everybody gathered holy water in bottles to keep for the year, and washed their faces and hands. I did that part, seemed easy enough.

This was on Baikal. It's just to make the blog look nice.

And finally, the swimming. See the hand poking out over the water? It's the only part of the guy that didn't sin all year. I'd have gone, but I've been really good. Plus I'm not sure that I am, in fact, Russian Orthodox, so i figured maybe it wouldn't even work.


Most of the major Soviet holidays carried over, though like I said, some have new names. May Day, Victory Day (1945), and Cosmonautics Day (not made up) are still standards, though with the exception of Victory Day, not as big a deal. Some of the names changed only slightly - for instance, Day of the Soviet Police in November is now Day of the Russian Police, and Russians still celebrate the same exact way - they sit at home, watch a police parade and a police chorus on TV, and quietly laugh to themselves.

Day of the Glorious Great October Socialist Worker's People's etc etc became Constitution Day. Then for good measure they tacked on Independence Day, which marks the independence attained in 1991 from a larger version of themselves.

On top of all of these, they still celebrate "occupational" holidays, also leftovers from the worker's state. All the favorite Soviet professions are recognized - Just this month we've celebrated Typist Day, Secretary Day, Genius Chess Player Day, Hulking, Hairy Olympic Gold-Medalist Day; Evil and Slightly Less Capable Spy Day, Apathetic Bureaucrat Day, and so on and so forth. We recently had Student's Day, too, on which most of the students I knew "congratulated" me on it being Student's Day.  International Forest Workers' Day is right around the corner, my friend Susanna saw a sign for it in town.

As in that example, the Soviet Union had a habit of creating "international" holidays that only they celebrated. The most important is International Women's Day - this one is serious. Men shower every woman they know with flowers and chocolate, or get scolded mercilessly, in my own personal experience. It makes up for the other 364 days of the year, which are more or less official Men's Days. Also, so things remained fair, there's also an official Men's Day, celebrated in less than a week.

Why, you might ask, did I choose holidays this week? Well as we know, a favorite American holiday just passed - St. Valentine's Day. This one has made it to Russia too, albeit in a slightly different form. Here, they celebrate Valentine's day 9 days later, on the 23rd, and it's not called Valentine's day. Instead, it's Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, and it's about a very different kind of love - that of military hardware.


This might shock you as much as it has shocked me... but life here does seem more or less normal at this point. It's getting harder to write blog entries, because what seemed bizarre back
in September really isn't so shocking anymore. For instance, I just exchanged text messages with a Russian acquaintance, with whom I'm going to a museum on friday. Her directions were as follows:
"The museum is a bit hard to find, but we can meet in front of the tank, and walk together from there."

I wrote back, "Which tank? The one on First Soviet, or the one on Karl Marx near the movie theater?" It took a full forty minutes for that to strike me as funny. You see a few huge tanks lying around the city so many times, and at some point, they become part of the scenery.

Our program pamphlet said there would be a period of culture shock, then a long euphoric period afterwards, during which we feel comfortable and capable. I feel both of those things, but the euphoria seems to have come and gone without notifying me. I'm not having a bad time, really... but my mind does wander home pretty often, or to any number of other warm places. At this point, I think I'll make it without the period of desperation at the end (also in the pamphlet), but we'll see. All told, I still love it here and am glad to have so much time ahead, but sometimes it may be hard to tell just by looking at me.

I'm also extremely busy, without much time to take in the experience. That will pass, but at the moment it's no fun.

"Does this mean the end of the blog," you ask? Alright, nobody asked, but the answer is no. Like I've promised, the next terrible twist is right around the corner. I need to get some vaccinations soon, so I'll finally get to see the inside of a Russian hospital, which was high on my list of non-goals for the semester, along with the inside of a police station, and the inside of a prison. I've already been to the police station a few times, so after this week, that only leaves one! Also, I'm going to add tons and tons of pretty pictures soon, as insurance against thieves. So please don't leave me - your comments are the only way I know America still exists.

Jan 22, 2008

Ребёнок 2007-ого года (On East and West)

Hey everyone, more great news - I figured out my role in Russian history. I know, I know... you're all saying, "You haven't done anything important," and "you're not even Russian," and "I don't care about you, pal, just make with the funny pictures." As always, I'll try to make it quick. Today's story is also a history lesson:

1812: Returning victorious from the Napoleonic wars, Russian officers cross through what was once forbidden territory - Western Europe. They bring home dangerous ideas, like individual rights, separation of church and state, and republicanism. Thirteen years later, they lead the failed Decembrist revolt against Nikolai I. The Tsar kills some, imprisons more, and sends the bulk to a distant, icy corner of the empire called Irkutsk.

1945: Returning victorious from Berlin, the Red Army notices that the communist paradise at home, in certain ways, isn't quite as nice as the capitalist hell in Western Europe. They don't complain, but Stalin had read his history books - many are still arrested and shipped to Siberia as a precaution. (At this point, descendants of the Decembrists had already touched the place up, so Irkutsk is bypassed in favor of much more distant, much icier corners of the union.)

2007: Silly American student Djozef escapes to Scandinavia for winter break. There, Jøseph learns why the "Spend a Semester in Scandinavia!" pamphlets moved a lot faster than the "True Russian Experience" pamphlets in the study-abroad office at home. Visiting with his family, he spends a week in a state of Progress-induced shock. Vladimir Putin doesn't take much notice, but Djozef, responsible citizen that he is, sends himself to Siberia, where as of this writing its -27 degrees outside.


I know how much you all liked the last quiz, so here's another. There are six rounds. Each round will have a few pictures - at least one from Russia, and at least one from Scandinavia. You are to guess which pictures were taken where. The winner can have my breakfast for the rest of the semester.

Round 1: "Getting Around"

Jøseph and his mother, reading the menu on the silent but speedy bullet-train.

The tri-lingual attendant told us where the free water, juice, and fruit were, as well as the many emergency exits. Don't guess yet...

Djozef lived in this box for four days. Note the two drunk Ukrainians. (not pictured - four more drunk Ukrainians)

Okay, that was an easy one. Round 2: "Bon Appetit!"

When the drunken Ukrainians found these forgotten persimmons under the bed, the logical response would have been, "that is gross." They ate them, and were kind enough to share with Djozef. This picture comes nowhere near grasping the real disgustingness of the fruit; i picked it more for my look of despair.

Are you guessing where? There's scoring at the end, so write down your answers...

Round 3: "To protect and serve"

Suffer in style, in this state-of-the-art converted Volvo-ambulance. Also, a story: in either Russia or Scandinavia, a fire alarm went off in Jøseph's hotel. Every single guest hastily but politely filed out onto the street, where three firetrucks were already waiting. It's a hint: that happened in the same country as this picture.

In either Russia or Scandinavia, such modern and efficient services aren't within the budget. As an alternative, this device was invented - the Funny Story phone!

Round 4: "Follow the Rules!"

"No popsicles or bananas on the bus, please!"

"Your car will plunge into a river."

Round 5: "Boys will be boys"

This political statement was painted, in either Russian or Danish, on the wall where Djozef lived. It says "Death to Capitalism."

This one is directly on Djozef's building, it reads "Die American Scum." **

Uh oh... the kids are rebelling, in one of these two places...

Round 6: "Point A to Point B"

In either Russia or Scandinavia, an orderly line of 10 Mercedes taxis waited for incoming passengers at the airport. There was no bargaining or choosing to be done, passengers simply sat in the first taxi in line. The rates are set. Don't worry if you don't have any (Rubles/Danish Kroner), the credit card swipe is next to the GPS.

This may be the best picture on the whole blog. In Russia or Scandinavia, there is an innovative transportation system called the Marshrutnoe Taxi. In any English-Russian-Danish dictionary it translates to "Route Taxi," though I would translate it more as "Crash Taxi." They weave all over the city on set routes, stopping at hand signals, or when passengers yell at the driver. They're fast, because the driver personally benefits from the number of passengers. They're actually very efficient, but do tend to crash all the time. My only regret is that the lighting doesn't allow you to see the passengers getting out.


Well, thanks for playing, everyone. The answers are:

If it's funny for you, but probably uncomfortable/bizarre/dangerous for me: Russia
If it's funny for you, and everyone feels good in the end: Scandinavia

And the scoring:

If you got them all right: Nobody's impressed pal, most of them were really easy.
If you got any wrong: Welcome to my blog! Feel free to browse through old entries, and get yourself acquainted with life in Irkutsk!


And welcome back, for semester number 2 in Irkutsk - the most peaceful, friendliest, sunniest place I've seen in all of my Russia-travels (seriously). I successfully dodged the Mongolian-exile bullet, with help from our coordinator here in Irkutsk (send your thanks to her, mom), and I'm officially, legally registered here in the Russian Federation. And after a good long period of doubt, I'd still rather be here than in Stockholm for a semester. Don't let the pictures fool you, Russia is still the second-finest country in the world. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When my family left, my life did feel a little bit miserable, and a little bit like Groundhog Day. Except instead of one wacky holiday, it's five long months. And instead of small-town America, Siberia. And instead of a heart-warming love-story, I just get yelled at a lot and have my crap stolen from me. So I was pretty unhappy on the train ride back to Irkutsk; even the fresh fruit didn't lift my spirits.

But as always, Russia took me back, and surprised me with its (100% figurative) warmth. I got off the train and felt comfortable, and of course knew where everything was, how to get home, etc. My señora was really happy to see me, and has been kind and positive as always, even under an amount of stress that would crush your average American. I've had nothing to do, as classes haven't started, so I've seen just about every play, concert, and museum in the city, and even made it out to see the (amazing) frozen Baikal. Expect pictures soon. So, as of 10:50 A.M., Frozen-Wasteland Standard Time, on January 31st, I think I'll make it through the semester.

Of course I'm not completely fooled - I'm finally, more or less comfortable in the culture, my language is functional, and my life seems calm... so expect some sort of enormous disaster before the next entry. And wanna see a picture of the newest, most unpleasant challenge?

See where it says "Feels like: N/A"? That's because nobody has ever felt anything like it before, Weather.com is at a loss for words. The day before I arrived it was -40, but luckily I got to spend that day in the train with the Ukrainians.

But anyway, there it is, all of winter break, summarized in one entry. I'm doing well at the moment, but still... if it is Groundhog Day, it is insanely cold outside right now, and i am starting to miss home. So I hope I get it right this time!


** there is some debate about this translation. Some linguists would say it translates closer to "Quick Shoe Repair."

Jan 16, 2008

Найдите нас на Google! (Photo collection, Moscow and Petersburg)

Hey everyone, great news! Due to your loyalty, and willingness to tell weird people i've never met to read the blog, I've made it to Google! Type in "Time Flying" into the search box, and then click "next 10 results" 54,000 times, and its the second to last one at the bottom!

OR if you're pressed for time, you can type "Time Flying Blog Siberia Irkutsk Uzbek Babushka Sour Cream," and its the first hit!

Seriously, thanks everyone... I couldn't have done it without you. Here are some pretty pictures as a reward; more to come later. These are all in Moscow or St. Petersburg; the Scandinavian adventure comes next.

St. Disney's Cathedral on Red Square, Moscow.

Also on Red Square, the coolest place in the world, the Kremlin Wall Necropolis and Lenin's Mausoleum, complete with his creepy mummified body. And if you press your face real hard against your monitor, you can see Stalin's grave, too.

I've never seen more gigantic cannons in a single week in my life. This one is on a boat on the frozen Neva River, St. Petersburg.

My family, or a similar family, in front of the Bronze Horseman statue in St. Petersburg.

Church on the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg. This is where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, but i won't bore you with details. If you're interested, check out my Alexander II blog at allthingsalexanderII.blogspot.com.

Wormhole, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. It's not always the most relaxing mode of transport, but you can do what would be a 6-hour train ride in a fraction of a second.

Haha, just kidding. That one was a chandelier in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. My sister gets wormhole-sick, even if she takes dramamine, so we opted for the 6-hour train. This is my blurry brother and me.

Also on the frozen Neva, this time from the Peter and Paul Fortress. See my Baltic Fortresses blog for more like this one, balticfortressguy87.blogspot.com.

And finally, Irkutsk, in the park with all the amazing ice sculptures. I photographed all of them, but this is just the entrance. For the rest, ohgodsendice.blogspot.com

Jan 15, 2008

Вторая Глава: МЕСТЬ (Chapter 2: THE VENGEANCE)

You know how Gmail scans your emails and thoughts for 'keywords' in order to direct certain advertisements at you? Well yesterday they found a particularly fitting one. It was the big one on the top of the pages, and said "Ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad - Don't miss the adventure of a lifetime!"

It was funny, 'cause just that morning, I'd gotten off of that very train here in Irkutsk, and I hadn't even realized it was the adventure of my lifetime. Unless by "adventure," they meant "four days in a tiny train compartment with six drunk Ukrainian soldiers, screaming filthy anecdotes at you round the clock, even after you make it very clear that you only understand a quarter of the words." But I guess you have to be concise in advertising.

Anyway, I've made it back from my adventure to my home-ridiculously-far-away-from-home here in Irkutsk, and wow. This country is huge. Of course there's no way to know for sure, but I'd say it's at least as big as America. And I made it all the way to Moscow on the train, then escaped to Scandinavia, and then saw more of Western Russia before another train ride back here. And all of that with only one enormous problem, plus tons of pretty pictures, on my brand new Canon 7.1 megapixel Thief-magnet. Those come later though, complete with stories and reflections as you've all come to expect. First you have to read about my problems. It is a blog, after all. I'll try to keep it short.

I lost my migration card, which is this little piece of paper Russia invented to make me feel unwelcome. Basically, you write your name on it at the airport, and then you can't stay in any one place for more than three days without "registering," which means having a guy in an impressive uniform glower at you, then put a circular stamp on your card. Nobody tells you this at the airport, but if you lose the card, you can't live in Russia, nor can you leave Russia, and if you do, you will have trouble getting a new visa to return. New cards only exist at border crossings, which as you might imagine, can be very far away. There's another delightful passage in our Middlebury Orientation pamphlet you've heard so much about, it reads something like this:

"As for the question of what to do if the Migration Card is lost, the Russian government has not provided an answer."

Today is day 2 in Irkutsk, and after day 3 I need to leave for the Mongolian border if its not sorted out. There, I'll probably be able to cross, but will only get back in if I can smooth-talk my way into a new migration card. And I've only been here four months - I only smooth-talk at the second-grade level, at best. Even off the train, the 'adventure of a lifetime' continues!


So I hope you enjoyed Chapter 2: THE VENGEANCE - Come on back for Chapter 3: MONGOLIAN WINTER! Read along with me as I claw my way out of a bureaucratic black-hole in the land of Genghis Khan! Feel the sting of the negative-50-degree nights and the howling wind of the Steppe, ride with me on the world's toughest horses from yurt to yurt in search of food, and learn with me, as I take correspondance courses in Russian language from the University of Ulan-Bator. Chapter 3 will leave you cold, hungry, and uninterested, as our hero fills out form after form at Russian customs, all from his new home in the empty Mongolian border town of Kiakhta. DON'T MISS IT!