Friday, July 30, 2010


I have absolutely nothing interesting to write right now. It's 100 degrees out, and there are forest & field fires from the heat & lack of rain so the sky has been a lovely shade of Apocalypse Brown from days now. The air quality is so bad that being outdoors for any extended period of time is like smoking two packs of cigarettes in an hour. So my eyes hurt. My lungs ache. It's pretty miserable right now.

I don't want to not (look at that double negative in action) write anything for 5 or 6 days, so I'm going to fall back on something I wrote a while ago for another website. I meant to submit it before the deadline but never did. I probably got distracted by something shiny or an episode of Toddlers in Tiaras. So here it is.

I’ve been decidedly single for nearly three years now. That’s apparently an eternity according to most people, so the question I get asked a lot is, “Why don’t you date?”
I’ve come up with a few replies, but the one that most accurately describes my feelings towards dating is this: my dating life is like sushi. No, really stick with me on this one.

The best analogy for my longest relationship was that dating my ex was very much like getting sushi at your standard take-out sushi bar. You know that place. It’s the one that has the sushi right there in the window, and every time you walk by you always wonder about the quality of the sushi they show in the window. There are dozens of them in any city. That sushi is standard, no thrills, cheap and you know exactly what you’re getting. It doesn’t exactly impress you, but it’s there, you don’t actively dislike that sushi and every once in a while the chef tosses in a surprise like extra ginger or a free bowl of miso soup. When you tell people you get your sushi from that place, the response is always a surprised, “Really? Hmm. I always thought you’d go for something better.” It’s certainly not the sushi they serve at Morimoto’s or the kind that Anthony Bourdain gets all weepy over, but you’ve only got $6.00 and you’re too lazy to search out something new that could potentially be worse.

And then one day this standard sushi makes you violently ill. You’ve chanced it one too many times, and have learned for certain that the window sushi is definitely not up to health inspector standards. It’s horrific to you, and you feel so awful that you’re pretty sure that no one has ever felt this awful on the face of the earth ever. It can’t just be a standard case of food poisoning, you’ve had food poisoning before, and it’s never felt this bad ever. It’s got to be a combination of ebola and monkey pox.

Eventually the really awful feeling ends, but then you go through that phase where you’re not sure you want to chance sushi again which is pretty much standard practice after a case of bad food poisoning. You still like the idea of sushi, and you haven’t moved on to another food group (no worries there, mom, I promise) Everyone seems to be talking about how awesome sushi is, and even though you miss it in the most general of ways, the memories of that dreaded food poisoning are still there. Every once in a while you spot a new sushi place, and you think “Maybe. Maybe I could go for a California roll or a spicy tuna roll,” and there have definitely been a few sushi bars that have caught your eye, but then you think about all the effort that would require. Getting sushi involves putting on some pants, leaving the house and having to try new things when actually you really sort of enjoy sitting around pants-free on the couch watching House. (I was going to make a comment here about it’s easier to just cook for myself but that was definitely not the image I’m going for).

So that’s where I am right now. Happily sushi-free. And pant-less.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Next Stop Hollywood

If you know me, it shouldn't come to a surprise to you that I live 85% of my life in my own little world. The first time I saw Scrubs, and the main character kept going off into his own little dream world, it was like someone had a bird's eye view into the workings of my brain. As I learned this Spring, there are just a lot of things going on around me that I'm not clued into.

This, of course, can be dangerous on many different levels. From not looking both ways when crossing the street to finding yourself agreeing to do something that you don't want to do, which is exactly what happened to me last week.

I was in the computer room at the American House, when one of the Russian directors started talking to me. Now, to be fair, when I'm goofing around on the internet I'm pretty much dead to the world. My eyes are glazed over, I'm barely breathing, I look like I'm on another planet. If you can picture a zombie that has gotten over its obsession with cannibalism and has developed a full blown addiction to the internet, it would probably look like me when I'm online. How anyone can look at me when I'm on the computer, and think I'm interested in what their saying is beyond me. Why would I be listening to you when I could be reading Hyberbole & a Half? You can't be funnier or more interesting that her. So I'm trying to be entertained online and listen to the director, and I catch the gist of the conversation. Okay, you need me to record something in English for the American House, sure no problem. Always happy to help out. This is the script? I'm on it. See? I can totally do two things at once, take that Adult ADD.

It wasn't until I got home and started looking at the script that I realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew. The script started off innocently enough:

Welcome to Vladimir a beautiful city in the heart of Russia. We are famous for our monasteries, our gold onion dome churches...

...and let me tell you about our militia that is watching you at all times!

Seriously. It was the bait and switch of a lifetime. At first I thought maybe I was being sensitive. Surely, I hadn't agreed to advertise for the militia. I might have only been listening with half an ear, but I would have heard something that crucial, right?

So I showed the script to my host mom, and watched her nod through the cheerful, normal part and then BAM, I can see the exact moment she gets to the creepy part because her entire face changes to the precise "Oh shit" look I'm sure I had when I read it.

"Well, this is different," she said evenly. "What's it for?"
"I don't know exactly. Something for the American House."
"About the militia? For the American House? Didn't you see the name on the bottom of the script? That's the head guy for the television studio. I don't think this is for the American House."

So I went to the American House the next day and found the director. I tried to use my cool-as-a-cucumber-I-was-totally-paying-attention-yesterday-I'm-just-making-sure-you-were-paying-attention-yesterday voice to ask what this was for again.

"It's for the television studio. They are making a film about the militia, and they need an American to read the English part, so you're doing it. We go in tomorrow morning at 10am."

Lovely. Did you just see that? It was my chance of ever getting a government job going right out the window.

I spent a few hours reading over the script/praying to be rendered mute, but luckily, this is Russia and a few hours later the director came in to tell me that the script hadn't been approved so we'd have to wait a few days.

The television station in all its glory

I ended up going in yesterday to record, and it was a lot of fun. There were a bunch of last minute script changes, of course, but it definitely was a fun way to spend the morning, and how many people can say they've done voice over work in Russia, and for the militia, no less. Plus, I got paid for it which I feel makes me a legitimate celebrity. I'm a paid voice over actress now, and I absolutely plan on letting it go to my head.

Here I am with some of the television studio people who were responsible for me that day. Look at me, I have handlers!

Right outside of the studio. The AH director took this photo for me, but I'm going to pretend that it's my first very enthusiastic fan encounter. Don't ruin it for me.

I figure I'm only inches away from my true life's goal of sitting around in an outdoor cafe wearing big sunglasses and glaring at the paparazzi with Taylor Swift.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Cucumber Festival

I’m a girl who loves anything quirky. Movies like Amelie, books that have more footnotes than story, people like Zooey Deschannel. If it’s offbeat, I’m going to like it. This includes any kind of festival dedicated to an object. I once dragged my mom to a tomato festival in Camden, New Jersey because I was enamored with the idea that there could be so many booths dedicated to the glory that is the tomato.*

So you can understand why I’ve been talking about the Suzdal Cucumber Festival for months now. An entire festival dedicated to the mighty cucumber. I had to go. I needed to go. My life would be incomplete without a trip to the Cucumber Festival.

Well, my friends, I can tell you that it was cucumber-tastic. And before you start (or finish) judging, let me just say that I am not the only weirdo that loves a good gherkin. There were thousands upon thousand also there to take part in cucumber related festivities. There was so much traffic getting to Suzdal that cops were standing by guiding traffic throughout the town. I’ve been to music festivals where there were less people.

Do you see how many people there are? We're still a half mile away from the fair grounds at this point. All these cucumberophiles! I think I just made that word up.

I was lucky enough to catch a ride there with a fellow American House student, his host brother (Anton) and their random neighbor named Masha, who turned out to be a girl they just met that morning who didn't speak a lick of English.**

We braved the hot weather (97 degrees in the glaring sun, and oh baby was it glaring), the tiny foot bridge (where I saw my life flash before my eyes as I stood on it with 75 other people), the busloads of people from Moscow and made our way over to the Cucumber Festival. Masha, being the true Russian girl that she is, looked enviously at my cap and sighed, "I should have brought something to cover my head." Russians are fastidious about covering their heads in the heat.

It was glorious. There were cucumbers everywhere. People wore cucumber hats, there were cucumber dolls and people lined the roadways selling cucumbers in every fashion you could imagine. I was in quirky heaven.

We came, we saw, we cucumbered. And I got the magnet to prove it.

As you can probably imagine, staring at cucumbers in 97 degree weather does get a little old after a while. We made the group decision to head over to Anton’s family’s dacha which was just about 20 minutes outside of Suzdal.

A dacha, I should explain, is a sort of country home. They are where Russians go in the summer on weekends to escape city life and relax. They’re usually fairly small, with a garden out back. Families go to unwind, chit chat and grill some shashlik (shish kebobs). In all my trips to Russia, I’d never been to a dacha so I pretty excited to go for the rest of the day.

The dacha was fantastic. Anton & his family have built theirs by hand over the years & are still working on it. The garden was beautiful, and I watched as the family made a list of things they needed to make dinner that night & then went around the garden to collect said items. To cool down from the heat of the festival we drank chilled white wine, fresh watermelon and wild cherries. For a minute I felt like a character in a Russian novel.

After a while we started to feel the heat again, and Anton’s entire family decided to take a trip down to the nearby Nerl River for a dip. There was only one problem-I did not bring a swimsuit. At first I insisted I would only wade in up to my knees & that it wouldn’t be a problem, but Anton’s mother insisted that I borrow a pair of swim trunks and an extra t-shirt so that I could properly swim and enjoy the river. I caved to peer pressure and changed clothes.

So a’swimming we went. Despite the fact that the Nerl River was well known a few years ago for a place where farmers rampantly dumped their cow shit, the river seemed surprisingly clean. The river was packed with people, and across the shore we could see beaver working on their damn.

The other student from the American House remarked how amazing it was that we were swimming in a river in Russia, the only Americans around for miles and miles. It made me realize how amazing the past few years have been for me. Swimming in a river in Russia, check. Jumping off of cliffs in Croatia, check. Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, check. Riding a camel in Morocco, check. I sometimes forget that I didn’t start traveling abroad until 2003, and somehow since then I’ve been to 25 different countries not counting repeat trips. It’s been amazing. I was in Russia! In a river! After being a cucumber festival! I floated on the river and let the whole experience sink in.

About 15 minutes later storm clouds started to roll in, and the family decided to head back to the dacha to finish grilling the shashlik. As I got out of the water feeling all zen from all that deep thinking I was doing, Anton called out my name.***

“Hey Jill,” he said in his heavily accented English, “You look like one of those, what do you say the phrase is, Wet T-Shirt Contest!”

I looked down and saw that the grey t-shirt I was wearing was not nearly as dark as I had originally hoped. I scowled at Anton and made a dash (and yet I hope noble) for my towel. “Thanks for telling me,” I grumbled at him.

“Yes, I thought I should probably be a gentleman and hand you a towel, but then I say no, I’d rather stare.”

My zen moment of appreciating the differences in the world was completely destroyed then as I realized no matter where I go, boys will always be boys.

*For the record it was about as tomato-y as you’d expect a tomato festival in Camden to be. We lasted 15 minutes after we saw more police officers than tomatoes.
**I'd like to sum up Masha's experience for the day by saying Poor Masha. The girl had a deer in the headlights look to her all day when she realized she'd gotten into a car with three people who spoke English. She spent a lot of the day wide eyed and whispering to me in Russian.
**Also for the record, I’m about as deep as a plate of Jell-o. On average, I spend more time wondering about what I’m going to wear tomorrow than I do about anything zen or self-help related.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Meet Zinaida

That’s my host mom-Zinaida. I thought today’s blog post would be reasons why my host mom is great.

-Her name is Zinaida, which is pretty much my most favorite Russian name ever. I first heard the name when I read Turgenev’s First Love as an undergrad. I thought it was such a pretty name. So when I found out that it was my host mom’s name, my brain went, “This will work.”

It’s also probably why I shouldn’t have kids because I would probably name one of them Zinaida, and then the tabloids would be all like “Why did George Clooney and his girlfriend give their baby such a strange name?” *

-Because it’s so hot Zinaida walks around in her underwear. The first time I stumbled upon this finding was late at night just as I was getting ready to fall asleep. At first I thought it was a ghost. A big naked ghost. I think it’s really funny, but I’m still alarmed when she brings me a glass of lemonade & she’s just down to her bra & panties.

-In true Russian babushka she comes up with all sorts of nicknames for my roommate and me. These include: my little doll and (my personal favorite) my little cucumber (I eat a lot of cucumbers).

- When I told her that I was taking picture of Russian food for the blog, she got very excited and started really decorating all of my meals so they’d look pretty for the photos.** I mean she goes all out. Last night she kept tossing more and more parsley on my plate until my cutlet looked like it was growing a forest. And then she started carving a rose out of a tomato until I told her that that was probably overkill.

-She gives me hell. Aside from attempting to sign me up for Russian reality dating shows, Zinaida likes to pick on me on a daily basis. My first morning here I woke up fairly early thanks to jet lag and Zinaida was already awake doing whatever it is that she feels she had to do at that hour. She started speaking rapid fire Russian at me, which is cruel because I don’t even speak English at that hour let alone Russian. I just sort of made this face o.O at her until she started laughing. She slowed herself down and repeated, “If you can understand what I’m saying I”ll make you breakfast.” Yep, she was speaking that fast on purpose.

Or she’ll see me at the dinner table turning bright red with my eyes watering.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I just ate a whole peppercorn,” I’ll gasp.

“Heh. Heh. Heh heh,” She’ll laugh.

-Prior to being paralyzed she was involved in the arts and literary scene in Vladimir. She started a literary salon here in Vladimir, and brought in musicians, poets and artists from all over Russia to perform. She has photographs of dozens upon dozens of well-known performers because of this. Her work has merited her an entry in a book called “The Best People of Russia.”

-This is also why she takes in host students now. She cannot really work outside of the house now because of her condition (She cannot walk long distances), but she feels that it’s important to do something good for other people. She decided that one of the ways that she could do this was by taking in host students. She hopes that by taking in students from around the world, she can help them understand Russia better and make sure they have a positive experience here. I’d say she’s doing a pretty excellent job.

So that's my host mom in all of her glory. She cooks like a fiend, cuts & salts my cucumbers "Russian style"*** for me & walks around in her panties. She's just awesome.

*do you see what I did there?
**Actually I told her that I was sending them to my mom. Zinaida is a bit of a technophobe so I didn’t even want to try to get into discussing what a blog was.
***She tells me that she prepares them Russian style. I have no clue if there really is a Russian style of cutting cucumbers. Like I said, she gives me hell. It could all be some sort of weird long term joke she's playing on me.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Over the Hill

I have a secret confession I have to share. By Russian standards I am over the hill. Maybe not in Moscow, maybe not in Saint Petersburg, but by small town Russian standards I am well past my prime. The women here get married young, they have babies young. I stand out like--well a big redheaded sore thumb. From America.

The questions are always the same.

"How old are you?"


"Are you married?"


"But you have a boyfriend?"


And then they will eye me up as if trying to figure out what exactly my fatal flaw is. "Oh." They will say, "Well there are have been three people at the American House who have married Russians. We can make you the fourth."

The Russian around me feel they can fix this (or at least badger me into finding a Russian husband). So far I've enjoyed the attention. It's the right combination of flattering and exasperating.

When I went to Suzdal and was telling my teacher about the trip she asked if we had a guide. When I replied yes, she got all excited and asked if we hit it off. I replied that he was probably sixty & no hitting of any kind would be going on there.

Later, when I didn't know the Russian word for "to lean on" my teacher countered that If I had a man in your life to lean my head on during a movie I would know this word."

I admired her ability to work that into the conversation do deftly, I have to admit.

My host mom is in on the action as well. Whenever my roommate and I go out for the night, the next morning she will look at me expectantly. "Any guys?" "Nope!"

A few nights ago as we were watching the news, there was a story on about women coming to Vladimir as part of a dating website. The women dressed up as brides & would be featured on the website for potential grooms. I felt the pit of dread in my stomach as my host mom called out my name, and motioned to the television.

"I'm not doing that."

"You're difficult," she responded.

"And that's why I don't have a husband."

You'll have to excuse the picture. I like posting with pictures, but I couldn't think of a good one for this entry. So it's just me in the office of the American House, and my sassy hat.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Trip to the Mega Market

On Sunday, my roommate and I decided to avoid the heat by taking a trip to Globus, the megamarket a bus ride away from our apartment.* In the past few years Russians have embraced the concept of the mega market & mega mall with a zeal formerly only reserved for vodka consumption and creating monuments to Pushkin.

They are hugely popular here and also just plain huge. Look at that thing. It looks like an IKEA ate a Costco. As Vladimir pointed out (yes, Vladimir of Vladimir and Vladimir from Vladimir fame), it's not just for shopping. He said that when he has some spare cash, he'll take the family there to just wandering around for a bit & to have dinner at the attached restaurant. He said that they showed the World Cup there, and it became a popular place to relax and watch it.

The store was just as awesome as I hoped it would be. I’ll start with the food because that’s really all I ever think about anyway. There was a small stand set up outside where you could order freshly made shashlik (shish kebobs), but the inside restaurant was a marvel. A huge buffet of not only various Russian food, but popular items from around the world as well. I saw hamburgers, pizza, caprese salad and even a sushi bar. There was even an entire area of desserts including milkshakes.

The sitting area was super modern-blonde wood tables and white chairs with a staff that constantly cleaned the tables and took away the trash. Before we shopped we each purchased a juice (Cherry and Peach) and cooled off at a table.

The shopping. Oh man, the shopping. There was an entire row of independent stores that lined the inside front of the store. These ranged from an Adidas store to a pet store that sold bunnies. The rest of the building was one giant store that sold everything from clothes, to DVDs to fresh fish. Megamarket indeed. Not only is the store huge, but the prices are really reasonable too. I bought a kilogram of carrots for my host mom for 32 rubles-or just over a U.S. dollar.

I wish I had more pictures of the store, but there was a sign on the front of the door that said no pictures, and I didn’t want to get yelled at on my very first trip there. I did manage to be super stealthy on our way out and snap one picture with my iphone by pretending to talk on it. I doubt I fooled anyone. Even though I managed to capture mostly the floor and innocent bystanders with my stellar photography skills, can you see the sign that says 66? They have 66 checkout lines. That’s how monstrous the store is.

So now on to my purchases. I probably could have set them up to look nice, but I was still feeling a little like I wanted to yak from the bus ride so you get magical floating purchases & my hand instead.

First-a mug! It’s supposed to look like postcards & mail going to someone named Oleg. I don’t know who Oleg is, but since there’s no chance of me finding a Jill mug here, just call me Oleg.

Second-a book! I wouldn’t be me without purchasing a book. This is a book by Boris Akunin, a popular contemporary writer. It looks good and was $3 so I bought it.

Third-movies! * They were also like $3-4 bucks. I didn’t really understand the movie price system. These were both really inexpensive as were some just released movies like Up in the Air, and then others that were older and not very good were like $25. Avatar was $6 and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 was $19. I'm going to conclude from this that Russians love a good sequel about pants that suffer from wanderlust more than the love people in blue body paint.

Fourth-cookies! I don’t think I ever have to justify purchasing cookies, do I?

Fifth-a banana! I must have had heat exhaustion because I was inexplicably excited to see bananas in the store. Also, who doesn’t enjoy a picture of a floating banana?

I also purchased shampoo and a big bag of coffee bean for my host mom since she loves good coffee but often doesn’t have extra money to buy it for herself. I feel that everyone needs to give into their indulgences every once in a while, so I bought her a bag of coffee since she’s taking such good care of me this past week. I would have taken pictures of those purchases but at this point I definitely felt like I was going to yak so I decided to quit while I was ahead and take a nap with the cat instead.

* We actually failed miserably at avoiding the heat because the buses here have no AC, and on the way back from Globus we got stuck in a bit of traffic in direct sunlight. Both of us were a little green when we finally got off the bus.
** I’m well aware that I’m overusing exclamation points, but I’m really excited by my purchases!!!!!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Burnt by the Sun

I didn't want to post two things in one day, but I think I should probably try to convey how hot Russia is right now. There's a heat wave in the U.S. right now too, but the U.S. is a country equip to deal with heat. If you don't want to face temperatures in the 90s you can just stay indoors all day, or sit under an umbrella by the pool. Your total exposure time to the heat can be limited to 15 or twenty minutes. Maybe less running from your air conditioned house to your air conditioned car.

It's been interesting living in a country that has no real ways of dealing with the heat. Houses here for the average person do not have AC. That means that you're exposed to the heat at all times. Sometimes the temperature inside is higher than the temperature outside. There's no escaping it.

So to try to explain how hot it is here, here are some examples:

-1200 people have drowned in the past month trying to cool off in lakes & rivers
-There are nightly reports of accidents on major roads because the asphalt has melted and cars either get stuck or slide off the road
-Speaking of which, they were putting down new asphalt near a fellow student's apartment last week, and it was so hot out that the asphalt couldn't set so instead rivers of asphalt slid down the sewers.
-There's a host of ambulances hanging out around Red Square because the bricks/cobblestones are reaching temperatures of 117 degrees and people are passing out left & right there.

In conclusion: it is hot as balls.

A Saturday in Suzdal

I’m a week late with writing about this adventure, but I suppose better late than never, right?

I spent last Saturday in Suzdal. Suzdal is a small town about a 40 minute drive from Vladimir. Like Vladimir (which I will write about eventually) Suzdal is one of the towns that makes up the Golden Ring which is a series of towns east of Moscow that make up a circle of towns known for their age and beautiful monasteries.

I made my way from the apartment down to the American House to make the 10:15am departure time. Upon my arrival at the American House I met our tour guide named Vladimir who them promptly introduced us to our driver also named Vladimir. Yes, that’s correct Vladimir and Vladimir from the city of Vladimir. Right.

So I hopped into the car feeling very much like this was potentially a plot starring Will Ferrell with a bad Russian accent, and off we went-Vladimir, Vladimir, unnamed classmate and me. Only kind of sort of. We got about a block away from the American House, and Tour Guide Vladimir said, “Hey, girls, would you mind so much if we picked someone up and gave him a ride to Suzdal?”

“Who?” I asked because my brain immediately goes to the worst possible people to pick up (in my mind these range from cannibals to overeager Twilight fans) when Vladimir informs me that the person is his 14 year old son, Boris, a violinist who takes lessons in Suzdal. Apparently on Sundays the town allows kids from the local music school to busk in the center of town and keep what they earn.

So we pull over and pick up the waiting Boris with his violin case. Off to Suzdal we go- Vladimir, Vladimir, Boris, unnamed classmate and me. Tour Guide Vladimir knows the history of the town down cold, and fills the ride to the town with interesting facts about the city and its history.

While the main drag of Suzdal is just three kilometers long, the town is full of museums, cloisters and monasteries which led to Suzdal being named one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites in 1992. The town now has regulations about the types of new buildings that can be added to Suzdal—nothing over the height of two stories as to not obscure the famous onion domes of the city.

And look at them-why would you want to obscure these?

As Vladimir pointed out, thanks to the town’s efforts to keep Suzdal’s landscape and architecture as it was centuries ago, you can stand in a field and with no one else around feel as though you stepped back in time. It’s a little bit of magic being there.

Tour Guide Vladimir* had an action packed day for us, which included four different museums & monasteries including the Museum of Wooden Architecture, which covered a grassy field with examples of Russian peasant homes and workshops from centuries ago. There we got to hear people play traditional folk music and make pottery.

Afterwards, Vladimir gave us a tour of one of the monasteries and the gardens in the monastery where monks would grow their herbs and veggies. I have to confess that I break one of the travel rules when it comes to traveling in Russia. A lot of tour books will say “DO NOT EAT THE STREET FOOD!!” They will cite all sorts of reasons such as improper storage consumption to lack of hygiene of the handlers. I somehow missed the warning the first time here, and upon learning it the second trip to Russia I promptly ignored it since I figured street food didn’t kill me the first time here. As we wandered around Suzdal in the blazing heat I ate pickles contained in massive plastic buckets sold by old ladies on the street corner, and drank cherry juice sold by an old man with an umbrella. My only moment of hesitation came when Vladimir pulled some dill and some berries he insisted were currants from the garden and insisted we try them. As I ate the berries I sincerely hoped that Vladimir knew his botany as well as he knew his history, and that I wasn’t accidentally ingesting Death Berries**. Since I’m here writing this, it appears Vladimir did know his currants from his Death Berries.

Besides being famous for its cucumbers, cherries and onion domes, Suzdal is also famous for its mead—an alcoholic honey beverage. As I learned yesterday (so maybe it was good that I was a slacker about writing this because then I wouldn’t be able to share this fact), when peasant couples of the 19th century that got married would drink mead for an entire month after the wedding. This time period was called “the honey month” –what we now call the honeymoon.

Never one to turn down an opportunity to try all parts of a culture (or booze), I wanted to try Suzdal (Suzdalian?) mead, and boy did we find the right lady for the job. You see, Russians haven’t really mastered the art of free samples yet. There’s no wine tastings (or heaven forbid, vodka tastings) here. No free samples at the mega mall, but the lady we got our mead from is well ahead of her time. Her little table was set up at the edge of a large, dusty, sundrenched parking lot. There she sat under the shade of a tent with several bottles of mead and itty bitty plastic cups. First she got us to try her perfectly chilled homemade mead. It was delicious-the perfect combination of sweet and crispy. “200 rubles for a liter.” She told us, “Try some others.” Immediately, I thought, “What the heck am I going to do with a full liter of mead? The bottle would take up my host mom’s entire fridge. Plus she doesn’t drink, and I’ve only lived with her for two days and I don’t want her to think I’m a booze hound.” The little sales lady eagerly opened smaller, cheaper, factory made bottles of mead. Each one had a stronger up front alcohol flavor that wasn’t entirely pleasant. Then she offered her perfectly chilled homemade mead again. A sale was made, my friends.

*Driver Vladimir pretty much just stuck to his job title and drove. He also drank a lot of kvas and fell asleep with his shirt off in the back seat of the car while we visited museums.
**There are probably no such things as Death Berries. I probably made them up.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Well, I deserved that

If I have ever slighted anyone, you don't have to worry about setting me up because I do a pretty good job of that to myself.

Today in class, I was chatting with my teacher about Chekhov's short story The Joke (oh wow, I just realized how utterly appropriate that is) when my stomach started hurting me.

As I'm discussing the story with her (in Russian), I'm trying to discreetly reach into my purse to pull out some medicine. Apparently I wasn't so discreet because she started asking me what was wrong. I explained that my stomach hurt & I was looking for my medicine. She started asking if it was my host mom's cooking, and I was like, "No, my stomach just always hurts." This led to a longer conversation

Now, as Russian is not my native language, I constantly have to think about what exactly I'm trying to say which involves nasty thing like verb conjugation and the declension of nouns and verbs. At the same time I'm fiddling with the medicine bottle & still thinking about the story when I start to explain my stomach problems as an allergy.

"I have an allergy to preservat--..." (I'm allergic to MSG & a bunch of preservatives) and right then and there I realize exactly what I'm telling my teacher. That the reason my stomach hurts is because I'm allergic to condoms. Yep, that joke I just suggested a few days ago. I played it on myself because I wasn't paying attention to what I was saying.

Even though I stopped myself short of uttering the full word in Russian I see her eyes go wide, and quickly yelp at her, "Wrong word! Wrong word!" and correct myself so that I can tell her that I have an allergy to preservatives. Of course, she wanted to know how I could possible confuse these two words in Russian, so I spent a good while explain preservatives vs. preserves (I figure I just might as well throw that in for good measure) and preservatif. Luckily, she thought it was hysterical.

I think jokes are a lot better when you're not playing them unintentionally on yourself.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Birthday Parties Russian Style

I've been to two birthday parties in the past two days. So you're probably thinking "A Russian birthday party? That's got to involve heaps of vodka and a bear!"* Well you'd be wrong.

The first birthday celebration was for my teacher, and it was a nice mid afternoon gathering at the American House. A group of us sat in the kitchen and had a bit of champagne and the head of the program here (Galina Petrovna) gave a very sweet toast about how lovely Nelli is. There were a bunch of snacks too- grapes, wafer cookies, some kind of marshmallow brick thing that was creme brulee flavored and probably has given me diabetes from how sweet it was, cherries (Suzdal, the neighboring town is famous for its cherries) and various chocolates. We sat around chatting for quite a while. It was lovely. I wish I'd brought my camera with me so I could have taken pictures of the various treats.

Yesterday my roommate got an invitation to go to a birthday party for a guy named Yura, and she invited me along with her. I should start by saying that neither my roommate nor I knew the birthday boy. That kind of debunks the whole "Russians don't talk to strangers." myth, doesn't it? Maybe it's the smallness of Vladimir, but I'm so impressed by how friendly & outgoing everyone has been so far. Yura didn't seem fazed that two random American girls were at his party. He put the bowling alley menu in front of us, and said, "Have a drink. My treat."

Anyway, the birthday party was at a bowling alley! We got there and donned Russian bowling shoes (they come with disposable socks) and had a crack at bowling. There were six of us at the party, so we had two teams of three and bowled for a couple of hours. This was also pretty tame drinking wise-three of the people drank alcohol free mojitos, one person had a glass of white wine, my roommate had a beer and I had an orange soda.

After we got tired of bowling we decided to go for a walk. Actually, I got pressured into going for a walk because I thought perhaps I should go home and do my homework for the evening. I was talked out of this plan by some of the Russian girls who insisted they would help me translate the story I had to read. This lead to me learning the Russian word for "To seduce." or as the Russian girls told me "How to get a man to have the sex with you." See? I'm learning things here.

Our walk led us to Mister Hamburger where we got ice cream and then to Pushkin Park where we found another group of Americans who are here studying with the Critical Language Scholarship program. They were there with a few of their Russian hosts slacklining. I somehow got talked into it, so the picture above is of me attempting it for the first time.

The night ended fairly early around 9:45 or so, and in true Russian host mom fashion there was a big bowl of borscht waiting for us.

*Okay, you're probably only thinking it involves a bear if you saw the Russian film version of War & Peace from a while ago. Otherwise, you probably weren't thinking it involved a bear, but from now on you will.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Kopeck Saved is a Kopeck Earned

Even though it's a bit of a vulgar subject to talk about in polite company, I'm going to talk about money. I was lucky enough to receive a travel fellowship from the University of Virginia to pay for this trip. After paying for the program costs, the plane ticket, the visa processing fee and all of the other little fees that come along with trying to get to Russia, it doesn't leave me very much to live on while here.

So I decided to turn this into a challenge. My goal is to live on $10 a day, which is just about 300 rubles.*

The Thrifty Challenge, I'm sad to report, has not actually been that much of a challenge. I already have a surplus of $23! As an American living in Vladimir, I'm able to live fairly cheaply. This is a sharp contrast against when I studied in Moscow and St. Petersburg where I practically bled green because everything was so expensive. To give you an idea of the lifestyle difference between here & Moscow, my roommate went to Moscow a few weeks ago to visit friends. They wanted to go out to a new club & called to reserve a table. It was $2,000 (yes, American dollars) per person to get a table there. On Sunday when we wanted to reserve a table at the local place to watch the World Cup it was 500 rubles per person ($16.67), but we still went somewhere else that was free.

I guess I should first start out by saying that I'm able to cheat a little bit because my program fees cover two meals a day prepared by my host mom. My host mom feels I'm too skinny (or as she put it "You look like a French girl, you need fat on your hips.") so she feeds me such a large breakfast that there's no way I can even think about eating a big lunch. Then comes an even bigger dinner, but I'll write more about Russian food later. It would certainly be a little bit harder to stick to $10 a day if I had to buy lunch or dinner for myself every day.

So how do I spend my money? Here have been a few of my purchases over the past six days:

Bottle of carbonated water: 19 rubles ( 63 cents)
Daily bus ticket to class & home: 10 rubles each way ( 33 cents)
Notebook for class: 18 rubles (60 cents)
Half Liter of Efis Beer during World Cup: 100 rubles ($3.33) x 2
Full liter of mead purchased in Suzdal b/c they're famous for mead: 200 rubles ($6)
Pickle purchased on the street in Suzdal: 7 rubles (23 cents)
Movie ticket: 190 rubles ($6.33)
Taxi anywhere in Vladimir to the apartment: 100 rubles, but split between me & roommate when we go out since the buses stop running at 10pm

So my daily expenses are pretty close to nil. Some days when I have a lot of reading to do for class & cannot go out at night, my only expense is my roundtrip on the bus. I haven't gone to any museums or exhibitions yet so that'll take away some of my funds, but museums here are just a few rubles for students as well.

I realize that once I get to Moscow for my week there everything I've saved up will quickly be depleted, but I'm enjoying the thriftiness for now.

*the $10 doesn't include all the books I'm going to buy in Moscow & presents for other people. As a dedicated book nerd, I've put aside money especially for that.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why I'm Sleeping on a Chair

This is a picture of my bedroom here in Vladimir, Russia. I know what you're thinking. That's not a bedroom, it's a living room, isn't it? Wait, is one of those chairs folded out to make a bed? Doesn't that feel oddly like sleeping in a very tight coffin so that in the middle of the night you wake up screaming because for a split second you think you've been put in a coffin?

The answer to all of those question is: yes. Yes, I am sleeping in someone's living room. Yes, that is a fold out arm chair. And yes it does feel like I'm sleeping in a coffin which I've now named Coffin-A-Go-Go (I started calling it Baby Coffin, but that's too morbid even for me).

So this is the story of how I learned that they even make fold out arm chairs:

A week or so ago my contact at the American House in Vladimir, Russia emailed me a questionnaire about what type of host mom I would like to have. The questions were pretty standard.

1. Did I have a smoking preference? Yes, I'd prefer a non smoker since smoking is vile.
2. Did I have any allergies? Mangoes (although they're hardly part of the standard Russian cuisine) and preservatives as in MSG (preservatif in Russian means condoms. Had to clarify because it would otherwise lead to an uncomfortable conversation about why Americans cook with condoms*).
3. Did I have any preferences as to what type of host mom I'd like? No, I'm pretty easy going on host moms. My last host mom in St. Petersburg was a prostitute. So long as she doesn't pimp me out, I'm pretty easy going about who I live with (My St. Petes host mom thankfully did not pimp me out, and even told one of her gentleman callers to leave me alone when he asked what the girl in the next room did. Infinitely grateful for that.)

A few days later my contact in Vladimir sent me an email saying she had the perfect host mom for me, but would I mind it if there was another American girl staying there too? I responded that no I didn't mind so long as we each had our own room. My contact wrote back that we'd each have our own room. No problem.

Do you see the mistake I made in my question?

Yeah, I asked if I'd have my own room. I didn't say bedroom. Oops.

So you can imagine my surprise as my host mom deposited me in the living room and showed me how to work Coffin-A-Go-Go. I was sleep deprived and I think I may have squawked a little bit. It seemed squawk worthy at the time. Once I had a shower, I realized there was pretty much nothing I could do about the situation at that time, so I'd have to give sleeping like the Crypt Keeper a shot for the time being.

To my surprise, Coffin-A-Go-Go is pretty comfortable considering that like a coffin it is made of a pine box, and a cushion (definitely no mattresses here). I can sleep pretty well on it if you discount the once a night crippling panic attack when I wake up staring at the side of the chair & think I've been buried alive. Plus, I've learned from my American roommate that our host mom was paralyzed last year, and still paying off massive medical bills from that time. So at least the money from hosting me is going to someone who really needs it. And as you can see from the picture, I pretty much have my own little forest going on by the window. That's kind of cool too.

Plus, this is one of my roommates.

He love sleeping on my computer, which is pretty much where I find him every day when I come home. He's one of her two cats, and they're both very sweet. This one has crazy eyes because he has glaucoma. When I sit across from him to do homework, I like to swing my pen in his face and let him try to catch it with his paws. I call it Kitty Physical Therapy since in my mind I'm helping him improve his eyesight, but really I just like poking the cat with my pen.

*This is also grounds for a really awesome joke to play on someone in Russia who is uptight and just learning Russian. Ask them to go to the store for you to buy jam. Tell them the word for jam is preservatif, like in preserves. Watch the hilarity.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Away We Go

It's probably a sign that I've been traveling too much in the past three years that the flight to Finland (a total of 8hrs 45 mins) felt like nothing at all. This could also be because I was awake the entire flight and grossly overstimulated. FinnAir was a dream to fly, but provided way too many forms of entertainment for me. You cannot take someone who has self professed Adult ADD and give them a personal television that has 25 movies to choose from and about 15 different television shows with 5 episodes of each show. On top of this I had my iphone for music and my Kindle and the woman sitting next to me had her PhD in Baltic Linguistics, so I was overstimulated beyond belief. I spent a good hour flicking between reading, talking to the poor woman, and rapidly changing the channels from Glee to How I Met Your Mother, and trying not to scream "ARGH!" every thirty seconds like my nephew did the time I gave him too much sugar.

Once I calmed down thanks to dinner and Finnish beer, I settled on watching Alice in Wonderland (not as good as I hoped it would be), every episode of Glee they had and then every episode of How I Met Your Mother. By that time we were just approaching the Helsinki airport.

Ahh, the Helsinki airport. I love the Scandinavians-they gave us such things as Pippi Longstocking, IKEA and delicious little meatballs, but I have some issues with the Helsinki airport & their methods of security. First, our plane got in late (not their fault, but it plays into my story) which meant that I had 25 minutes to get from my gate to the gate to Moscow, but to get from the gate that we landed at to the gate my flight was leaving out of (both in the same terminal) I had to go through a security checkpoint again. There were only 4 people in front of me so it should have been a breeze, and yet somehow it took 45 minutes. They scanned every person's belongings at least 3 times, sometimes 4 times. This meant that your things all went through together, but then my shoe would look dangerous so they'd have to rescan my shoe. And then my bag would look dangerous so that would get scanned for a third time, and then they'd notice that I was wearing a money belt, so I had to be rescanned. At one point there were 5 of us standing on the exit side of the metal detector-each with one shoe and about a third of our belongings. It was so funny looking, I would have taken a picture, but my camera was being scanned for the fourth time.

Overall I was twenty minutes late for my connecting flight, which I was certain I had missed, but so many people were held up with security that they held the flight for an additional twenty minutes even after I boarded. I did conk out on this flight because they were smart enough not to give me a personal television. I also forced myself to sleep after I discovered the plane was an Aeroflot plane, and the wing of the plane had a crack on it that looked as though it was held together by what appeared to be duct tape. I figured it was better to sleep and ignore said feeling rather than have an anxiety attack.

The plane landed with the duct tape still intact, and I was thrilled to find myself at the new terminal at the Moscow Airport. I can barely describe how awesome this new airport terminal is. There's free wifi, for starters. And the time it took me to get off the plane until I got my luggage was 11 minutes. 11 minutes. That's including passport control. The first time I flew into Saint Petersburg it took nearly two hours. At this terminal there are roped off places to queue up, and a smartly dressed woman directing you to the proper line. It was incredible.

After passing through passport control, I was greeted by Yuriy, my assigned driver. It was his job to take me from Moscow to Vladimir-a ride that should have been just about two hours, but ended up taking 4 and a half due to traffic. Yuriy was friendly enough to chat with me for a bit, and to not mind when I fell asleep about an hour into the journey. He didn't complain once about my snoring or drooling.

I was awake for the last hour of the journey which turned out to be a very scenic drive. There were birch trees everywhere, some so skinny they looked as though I could snap them in half with one hand. I also discovered that I probably should have forced myself to stay awake the entire ride, because the route we took was pretty much the exact route that the narrator of Moskva-Petushki took on his train ride. Moskva-Petushki is a book I mapped out on Google Earth for a Travel Literature course I took in the spring. Had I stayed awake, I would have lived out my project. At least I'll get to do that on the way to Moscow in a few weeks.

That's the long and short of my journey here. No pictures from the way here because adding another form of distraction on the plane would have probably made the lady change her seat.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Wedding to Remember

I wish I had the right words to properly describe how much my sister and I adored my cousins Rebecca and Rachel when we were younger. Our Chicago cousins, as we called them, only came to New Jersey for Thanksgiving so visits with them were few and far between. While some kids counted down the days until Christmas, we counted down the days until Rebecca and Rachel came to visit.

From the day after Halloween through the rest of November, we pestered my mom with, “How many more days until we see Becky and Rachel?” and “What time are we leaving our house on Thanksgiving morning?” followed by my mom insisting that while Aunt Ann and Uncle Doc wanted to see us, they certainly would mind us getting there at 8am.

Thanksgivings with them were filled with arts and crafts and elaborate (and probably plot-less) plays and musicals that we tortured older family members with. I’m pretty sure we’re all grateful that videos of these performances do not exist. As we got older Becky and Rachel were allowed to sleep over our house, which meant going to the movies or ice skating the next day. As the years went by Michelle and Anthony, their younger sister and brother, came along and we adored them just as much too. The rare summers that the Chicago cousins came out for a longer visit meant week long sleepovers at Aunt Ann’s and Uncle Doc’s that were filled with trips to the boardwalk, pretending to be gymnasts, mint chocolate chip ice cream and cheeseburgers.

As we all got older our visits became fewer and fewer as family obligations pulled us in different directions. Years that I went to Thanksgivings were sometimes Thanksgivings that they had to miss and vice versa. Their summer visits clashed with my summer study in Russia. In other words-we grew up.

Somehow the fates magically aligned. I found myself in Charlottesville as Rebecca found herself in Washington, DC. With her move came a fiancĂ©, Will, who immediately impressed me with his kindness when I watched him help the woman who was struggling down the staircases on UVA’s campus. He ran forward and grabbed her overstuffed suitcase and carried it down all three flights of stairs. Right then and there I decided he was a guy worthy of the cousin we adore so much.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to watch Rebecca and Will get married and the ceremony (and bride, of course) were just as beautiful and lovely as I expected. I made this video of the ceremony for family members and friends that couldn’t be there so they could experience a little of the magic that was June 19, 2010.

Rebecca & Will from jillybean on Vimeo.

Years ago, when I was just a young bean and my imagination was even more vivid than it is now, I would try to imagine what we would all be like growing up. In my mind I was convinced that we would all grow up to be cool people who did amazing things, and still enjoyed being with each other. I think we’re all well on are way, aren’t we?