Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Home Again, Home Again

I'm still trying to process the idea that I'm home again. The last few days of my trip were rushrushrush and then I was in New Jersey and I had family members and friends to see and that was rushrushrush and now I"m back in Charlottesville, I had wonderful friends in town and classes have started again and that was most definitely rushrushrush. I guess I'm still wait for the sense of being back to hit me.

On my last full day in Europe, I took a ferry down to Tallinn, Estonia. My roundtrip ticket on the ferry was 24 euros, so I wasn't expecting much. Imagine my surprise when this was what pulled up to the ferry terminal.

It made for a pretty swank ride, and reminded me of a certain other ship that I sailed on last summer. I spent the three hour ride to Tallinn reading, drinking tea and wondering if the bad weather was going to make me get seasick.

I spent my time in Tallinn wandering around Old Town-checking out the architecture, snooping in antique stores, accidentally eating tuna quiche (yuck) stroking my own ego by taking pictures of myself in every available surface.

Tallinn was the perfect town for strolling and winding down at the end of my trip.

My trip home involved a bus from Helsinki to the Helsinki airport, a plane to JFK airport in New York, a bus from JFK to Port Authority and finally a bus to New Jersey. By the end I was tired, cranky and not just a little bit smelly. Luckily long phone calls to some of best friends made up for the utter exhaustion (although nothing fixed the smelliness), as did hugs from my mom and a huge heaping bowl of pho.

The next few days were a madcap race to spend time with some of my favorite faces such as this little guy:

and then dinner with my grandparents (and Uncle Doc!) at my new favorite restaurant in Philadelphia:

and then my own little (or not so little) guy who promptly reminded me how ill behaved he is by stealing a lollipop from the baby & eating it before I could do anything about it.

The final whirlwind of my trip was my ride back to Charlottesville to go meet up with some Semester at Sea friends who were heading off for the Fall 2010 voyage. Lucky ducks. I got to spend the day with one of the sweetest families I know, running around Monticello and being entertained by their 4 year old son.

It was the perfect way to cap off this amazing summer. A reminder of my absolute favorite thing about traveling-all the great friends I've made.

So I'm back. I have no idea when or where my next big adventure will be, but the past few years have taught me that amazing opportunities are always just around the corner. Until then, I've got some friends to catch up with.

Hello, Charlottesville, I'm home.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


My confession for the day is that I wasn't actually looking forward to going to Helsinki. A few days ago I may have even tried to get an earlier flight back to the U.S. because I was pretty positive that there would be nothing to do here, but was thwarted by FinnAir's $220 ticket change fee.

When I was looking for tickets to Russia, I knew I wanted to have a layover for a few days in another country. My thought process is that if I'm paying all this money to go to Russia, I might as well fork over the extra $100 for a layover in another country. I didn't know where I wanted to go, I only knew where I didn't want to go-England or France. I'd already been to both countries a few years ago, and it seems silly to repeat places right now when there are so many other countries I haven't been to. So that eliminated both British Airways and Air France as airlines I would be flying. When I tossed in my flight plans to Russia into Kayak, FinnAir popped up as a reasonably price alternative. So my lack of forethought and impulse control grabbed a hold of the situation and suddenly I had a ticket to Russia with a five day layover in Helsinki.

The second key factor is that I am the worst (or best if there was a Biggest Procrastinator contest) procrastinator on the planet. When I booked the ticket I thought, "Eh. I'll look up information about Helsinki another day." Which would be fine if it was during the school year when I booked my ticket because I can be shockingly good at actually being productive during the school year, but it was the summer. When school is not in session I exist in a form that is roughly somewhere between a solid and a liquid. I'm like this semi-solid puddle of a person that drools a lot and watches reality television shows. Did I do any research about what there is to do in Helsinki? No, of course not. So of course I came here expecting there to be nothing to do because I didn't look a damn thing up. When did I learn that Finland claimed independence from Russia in 1918? This morning on the boat to Suomenlinna. And when did I learn that I should go to Suomenlinna because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rated the #1 thing to do in Helsinki on Trip Advisor? That would be two hours before I got on the boat to Suomenlina when I decided to Google "Things to Do in Helsinki."

Now I'm really glad that the airlines are ruthless bastards about changing ticket dates because I love Helsinki. It's a beautiful city, with lots of interesting things to do. I'm now going to present my list of reasons why Helsinki is awesome.

1. The People Are Very Blond:

They aren't joking when they say that Nordic people are blond. Being here is like being in a live action version of Children of the Corn. It's blond hair and blue eye galore.

On Suomenlina, I was fairly convinced that every time I walked into one of these underground barracks, I was going to be met by a bunch of towheaded children with vacant eyes who wanted to kill me.*

2. How the People Here Sit at Cafes

This is how the tables and chairs along the Esplanade, the beautiful green strolling area right along the port, are arranged. Everyone sits facing the Esplanade so you can talk to your friends and people watch at the same time. At 6 o'clock it seems as thought the entire city is sitting there drinking either beer, wine or cider with friends and people watching.

3. Street Performers are in Abundance Here

The buskers here in Helsinki take it to a whole other level. Where else have you seen someone playing a massive xylophone on the street for spare change? The Disney Marathon was here yesterday, and there was a New Orleans style band playing along the route to help cheer the runners along.

4. The ATMs are called Otto. I think this is hilarious. Hello, Otto!

5. The Coffee

I don't really drink coffee in the U.S. It normally hurts my stomach, and giving caffeine to someone who is pretty sure she has Adult ADD is a terrible idea because it'll make me not blink for hours. On top of that, ever since I started having my brain problems a year ago, I haven't really been sleeping well. I rarely sleep through the night anymore so with the exception of chocolate (because I will definitely pick chocolate over sleep), I try to avoid caffeine. But look how pretty that drink looks. And the Finnish are the #1 consumers of coffee in the world so I figured the coffee must be good. So I had to give coffee a try. I did. And guess who didn't sleep at all last night?** That would be me.

6. I know exactly two words of Finnish

As you can imagine, if you do zero preparation for a trip then you probably don't know a single word of the language as well. Ha! I know exactly two Finnish words:

-hei: This means hello and sounds like "hey!"
-Kiitos: This means thank you.

I was really digging my stellar Finnish vocab yesterday so I greeted everyone I saw with "Hei!" and said "Kiitos" to every person who so much as allowed me to go first on the tram.

So around 3pm yesterday when I decided I wanted a coffee, I came across a sign that advertised a pretty picture of coffee for 2.90 euros with the words "aamu kahvi."
I decided I was going to stun the barista with my grasp of the Finnish language.

"Hei! Aamu Khavi. Kiitos," I said in what I was certain was the most eloquent Finnish she'd ever heard. I pointed to the sign next to me with the advertisement.

"Aamu means morning. That's our morning special. It's 3pm," the barista responded in perfect English. I guess I wasn't passing for a local after all.

Hmmm. So I guess I could amend the title of this section to I know exactly three words in Finnish.

7. No one here knows me so I can try out new hair dos

Another thing I like about Helsinki is that no one here knows me, so I can try out new hair styles and no one will tell me that I look like an idiot.

I'm a huge fan of Jane Aldridge's blog Sea of Shoes, and she recently wore her hair in cute little buns on the top of her head. Since she's a redhead and I'm a redhead, I decided that I would also look awesome in cute little hair buns***. Since I sincerely doubt that this is true, I decided to indulge myself here where no one will burst my bubble.

They'll stay behind in Helsinki, have no fear, but gosh they were fun to try out for a day.

8. There are Hidden Bits of Beauty All of This City

Like this-impromptu street ballet. I'm also a huge fan of The Ballerina Project so catching a little bit of this while waiting for the tram made my heart skip a beat.

Needless to say, I'm really really enjoying this beautiful city.

*Yeah, I'm completely aware that I was a creeper taking pictures of random strangers from behind. I thought it was better than being obvious about it, but in hindsight it's still creepy.
** To be fair this could also be due to my roommate at the hostel. She is a 50something year old Russian woman who snores and farts in her sleep like a wildebeest.
*** This is how my deluded logic works

Saturday, August 14, 2010

It's Time, My Friend, It's Time

Well, I've said my good-byes to Russia. My first time here in 2003, I was devastated to leave because it was my first trip not only to Russia but outside the U.S. I wasn't sure I was ever going to be able to come back. Back then that trip seemed so big and so impossible that it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. In 2007, I came back as a graduate student, and yet I still got teary eyed when I was dropped off at the airport to return to the U.S. I knew I'd be back. Being a graduate student in Russian literature pretty much promised that at least one more trip back would happen, but it was my first time living with a host mom & being a part of someone's family while there. This time I'm still sad to leave, but I'll be back soon I know this.

On my second to last day of class my teacher asked what I wanted to do on the last day. "Let's watch your favorite Russian movie," I replied. It seemed to me that after 20 days of 3 hour one-on-one instruction that included reading 23 short stories and poems, we could have a little bit of a break on the last day. "Oh, that is a good idea," she said, sounding relieved. When I asked what her other student, the one that has lessons right before me asked to do, my teacher replied, "She wants to give me her opinion on Russia."

Immediately I understand the look of panic on my teacher's face. When someone says they want to give you their opinion on something, it's rarely positive. It has happened every time I've been to Russia--someone in the group will absolutely hate Russia. They will dislike the people, the food, the buildings--everything about the country. They will count down the days until they go home.

I love Russia, but I'm not blind to it's problems. I think if I was, my professors would wonder if I've ever read any Russian work ever. You can't step foot inside Russia, and not see the problems. They're big and they're glaring. The huge gap between the poor and the wealthy, the corruption of the police, the staggering alcoholism, and hell, the surface of every building in the country could use a good power washing. In writing this blog, I've tried to share the best parts of Russia, or at least the things that I love about it so that my family and friends will understand why I like being here so much & why I choose to study it. I could write about all of the bad things. There's enough here to make anyone not want to come back. I could write about the fact that on my first day in Moscow this trip I walked past a dead body on the street, and maybe I should so that I give a fairer glimpse into life in Russia can really be like for someone not there just for the summer & on a cushy university stipend.

I think when it comes to studying Russia, it's easy to see the bad. It's probably one of the most apparent things about the country. There's 200 years of literature that brilliantly documents the bad, and how it crushes people. I think to love Russia, to want to come back and see how she does, you have to be willing to see the good and the beauty too.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Russian Trinkets

I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about today, but then I remembered a photo my lovely friend Jaime sent to me. It was a photo of a Russian souvenir store in New York City. So it got me thinking about what types of souvenirs come from Russia.

Since I planned to go to Izmailovsky Park, Moscow's famous souvenir market, it seemed like a plan. Izmailovsky Park pretty much has any kind of Russian souvenir or sketchy "could be black market" item your heart desires.

I'm going to focus on the ones that are legal to bring back to the United States, which means that none of you are getting an AK-47 as a souvenir-sorry.

My favorite souvenir are the lacquer boxes. They range in size from massive jewelry boxes to itty bitty pill boxes. Likewise the prices of the boxes can vary from $2.00 to the sky's the limit for the very detailed one. The themes painted on the boxes are typically from Russian fairy tales, but you can find ones painted to look like famous paintings or famous Russian landmarks as well.

If there's one souvenir that'll get the roubles out of my pocket, it's a lacquer box.

Another popular souvenir is amber, the petrified sap of trees.

You can find this attached to various forms of jewelry from rings to necklaces,

or full of creepy little critters.

Likewise, jewelry made from semi-precious stones are also a big souvenir hit.

And then there are the matryoshka dolls-the famous nesting dolls. These are the epitome of ancient Russian folk art, right? Wrong! They didn't actually come to Russian until 1890 when Sergei Maliutin saw Japanese nesting dolls & decided to create a Russian version. The dolls earned a bronze metal at the World's Fair. However, just because they aren't officially native to Russia, doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the little buggers.

Other souvenirs can range from traditional-like folk art on plates & jewelry,

to old Soviet gear & kitschy Soviet style goods (Soviet Union flask & shot glasses, anyone? They'll match your gas mask nicely).

to old Soviet cameras that the seller assured me work "perfectly."

So that's a run down of what souvenirs you can find in Russia. I have more nesting dolls than one person should ever own, so I kept my hands away from the rubles and on my camera instead.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Moscow (To The End of the Line)

When it comes to cities in Russia, Saint Petersburg is my first love. Seven years ago it was my first glimpse into Russia, and the rumor is that you will always love the city you visit first in Russia the most. I can't even think of Russia without my mind first slipping on to Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare of St. Petersburg.

So here's today's confession: I love Moscow too. I'm suppose to dislike it. Its bigness, its indulgences, its contrast between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor, but my goodness, I do love Moscow.

This is my third time in Moscow. I was here in 2003 for a few days, then for 7 weeks in 2008, and now another few days this trip. I'm at the point that I can wander around without the aid of a map, and I have done all of the BIG TOURIST THINGS that one is suppose to do in Moscow. There's no need to conquer Moscow at a breakneck speed to see everything because for the most part I've done that already. There's no need to head to the Tretekov Gallery because I've done that. I've already seen Lenin, and trust me, one glimpse at waxy ghoulie Lenin is more than one needs in a lifetime. Instead I can wander around, and check out things that first timers to the city might not notice-photography exhibits, little cafes, short term exhibitions. It means I get to see my favorite things again too.

I've been meandering around the city, and seeing where my feet will take me. Yesterday, apparently, they did feel like getting into tourist mode for a while as I found myself heading towards Tverskaya Street, a main street that feeds into Red Square. Tverskaya was where the bus dropped us off in 2003, so walking down there feels familiar. It's a street of wealth--home of the Ritz Carlton & expensive restaurants.

It's also where I stopped for my first treat of the day. Another confession-my first treat was not Russian food. It was gelato from my favorite gelato stand in the Oxotni Ryad shopping center. I love this little gelato stand, and make a point to go there several times each time I'm in Moscow. I armed myself with some summer berry gelato, and headed towards Red Square, because even though I've seen it so many times, it's something I never get tired of seeing.

This view is what feels magical to me:

That's it. That first glimpse of Saint Basil's Cathedral. Walking up the cobblestones of Red Square, and just seeing that hint of the onion shape domes in the distance-not even the whole thing, makes me break out into a smile every time. Whenever it comes into view, I get that feeling of, "Holy shit, I'm actually here. I'm in Russia!" Honestly, it's surreal.

So I continued to wander. I headed down to the Arbat, a street once famous for housing many of Russia's finest writers from Pushkin (buddy was everywhere), Lermontov, Gogol and Tvestaeva, but has now become the haven of Starbucks and souvenir seekers.

Here you can get temporary tattoos and caricatures on the street, sushi galore (Russia's love affair with sushi and mojitos is still going strong), or your staggering $10 cup of Starbucks coffee.

I managed to find myself an inexpensive cafe and spent a few hours relaxing and reading over beer. It was divine.

One of the sights I passed on the way to Patriarch's Pond. Statue of Mayakovsky.

Today, because I am a creature of habit, I went to two of my favorite places in Moscow--Bulgakov's apartment and Patriarch's Pond. If you know me, this isn't a surprise. In fact, it's probably making a few people roll their eyes and say, "Of course."

Mikhail Bulgakov wrote my favorite book, The Master & Margarita*. I pretty much adore this book, so I almost always stop by the apartment museum dedicated to Bulgakov. The book is a Russia classic, and well loved so the museum is filled with sketches from various scenes in the book, as well as a mailbox where you can leave letters for the Master & Margarita.

The first scene of The Master & Margarita takes place at Patriarch's Pond, which is just a few blocks away from Bulgakov's apartment. I wandered over there, and spent some time reading & avoiding the heat of the day. Alas, there were no gigantic vodka loving cats or men offering invisible body creme in sight.

The area is also home to one of my favorite apartment buildings in Moscow. From far away it looks like it has Tatlin's tower & a gigantic clam shell chilling on the roof. Up close it has amazing balconies. Every time I walk by, I'm convinced I'm going to live there someday.**

After that I decided it was time for a little lunch. There's a great little (air conditioned!) Japanese place not far from my hostel, so I decided to get out of the heat, and have some lunch. It was awesome.

On my way to the lunch place I discovered that the Contemporary Russian History Museum was having a special exhibit on Chekhov. Since I've been on a big Chekhov kick lately, I decided to go check it out. If you don't know who Chekhov is--well he's one of Russia's most famous writer. He's typically considered one of the world's best playwrights with famous works such as The Seagull, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya. Plus heaps of short stories.

I'd been to the Contemporary Russian History Museum two years ago, and while I remembered liking it, it didn't really stand out as a place I had to go back to. Well, that was before they renovated it. Now, it is incredible. There are tons of interactive exhibits including a hall that seems to be dedicated to just Putin and Medvedev--including a video library of Putin speeches on a touch screen.***

The museum is laid out in a way that combines the history and beauty of the original building with some really amazing exhibits--a giant soviet star made out of black pipes and red scarves, the entire office of a top soviet official set up so that you are viewing it from behind his desk. I was really impressed with what they've done with the place.

The Chekhov exhibit itself was so unique. Chekhov lived in a variety of cities throughout Russia, and now each city has its own Chekhov museum. This exhibit combined all of their resources, and made one massive exhibit using black & white cardboard to recreate each house--turning it into one continuous structure.

Chekhov's desk. This entire structure is made of photographs printed on cardboard.

Plus there was a photo timeline lining the entry of the exhibit. Young Chekhov was kind of a hottie, wasn't he? In a Heath Ledger/Joseph Gordon Levitt kind of way.

This is the list of various Chekhov museums & exhibits in Russia that contributed to the exhibit:

Hard to read, but it's kind of impressive that:
a. There are so many museums & exhibits in Russia dedicated to this one man
b. They all came together & pulled off such an amazing display.

I'm at a loss at how to end this post, so since I miss my host mom already, here's a picture of Zinaida fanning the cat. Good night!

*Notice there is no The in front of Margarita. It's not about a guy and his frosty tex-mex beverage. Margarita is a woman.
**More likely, I will be hit by a car as I stand there gawking up at the building like a fool.
***I snuck this picture just for you, Arin.