Wrapping up the end of a semester, year, and decade in Russia came with a few idiosyncrasies, challenges, and definite high points. Hardest of all was being away from family and friends in the comfort of my grandparents’ living rooms, wishing that my Christmas and New Year’s could be white. But, the trade-off turned out to be pretty darn good, too.

The night(s) before Christmas. I spent the few totally obligation-free days before Christmas doing some final shopping for the host family (travel picture book and a bottle of wine for the ladies, and a book of mostly politically incorrect Russian jokes for Yevgenii), wrapping them, and adding some final decorations to my room.

I had bought a package of festive napkins that I ended up using for wrapping paper for said presents and the ones I’d bought for Ryan earlier, adding (baller) hand-made ribbons out of newspaper or brown packing paper. The modest pile of presents (with the ones sent from home) on the window-sill, along with the stockings and snow-flake cut outs (I know, I’m a kindergardener at heart at Christmastime) hung on my shelves made me happy.

I also used the box my grandparents had used to send me a Christmas care-package to construct a little nativity scene: white packing foam for a snowy background; crumpled/rolled-up newspaper and candy wrappers with Q-tips as support for Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds; a cut-out-of-red-wrapping-paper/napkin-and-candy-wrapper star hung from tooth floss; votive candle for the manger. You can call me Martha (Stewart). It’s a good thing.

Midnight mess-up. Ryan and I got dressed up for a dinner at 9 at The London Pub in the Hotel Angara and midnight mass supposedly at the old Catholic church downtown. The hotel overlooks the park on Kirov Square, where they had put up the city Christmas tree, an ice-sculpture and light display, and a big ice slide, so Ryan and I snapped some pictures and hurried inside to warm back up.

We splurged on a few nice appetizers and a meal with a pretty good bottle of wine, and spent a few hours there. The (strangely) well-translated English menu, British lounge/pub decor, and (strangely) really good restaurant singer with minimal Russian accent when singing in English (ending the night with Mariah’s “I Will Always Love You”) were a nice link to the West from Russia on the 25th of December, no different than any other winter night for most of Russia’s Orthodox (in principle) population.

We left dinner around 11:40 to walk, literally, next door to the Catholic church. It looked dark. I tried the big, main wooden door. Locked. The gates, also locked. Shoot.

It was really, really cold (-35 deg. C.), so we hurried back to the hotel to keep moving. I knew where the other church was, so we decided that trying there via taxi wouldn’t hurt, seeing as it was on the way home regardless. Luckily, the streets were empty, and we pulled up to the Irkutsk diocese cathedral at 11:58.

The mass was beautiful. The choir was wonderful. The huge conifers brought in from the surrounding forest, draped with blinking lights and tinsel, added the characteristically Russian, Siberian feel of the taiga to the midnight celebration. The bishop’s homily was a good one: it changes the power of a Christmas address when you bring in the usually unrecognized tones of religious discrimination in a country.

There was an extra surprise at the end of the two-hour service: a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Irkutsk (I didn’t understand the introduction and don’t know enough about Orthodoxy to say he was a bishop or whatnot. . .) presented the diocese with a relic and icon of a mutually-recognized saint, offering a few words of hope for a continued and positive dialogue between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I had wondered if any part of the Catholic diocese makes a similar visit of greeting to the Orthodox on their Christmas.

Getting a good start on heeding the bishop’s advice to experience the joy of Christmas all year, Ryan and I left mass into a light snowfall (my first white Christmas!) ready for presents. Both of our families usually wait until Christmas morning, but since we got home around 2:30, and sleeping for 4 hours until it was suitably early enough in the morning to open presents didn’t seem that attractive, we decided to do it then and then sleep in, which we did, until about 3:00 in the afternoon. Oops.

So there was no Christmas ham or turkey, just cabbage, potatoes, and mystery meat, as usual, but the mass, the good company, and of course, the presents all were.

Crossing the continent (and Asia, at that). The evening of the 26th, Ryan and I left 14 ulitsa Kostycheva for the Irkutsk station to take the train on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, to arrive at the Kazanskaya station in Moscow 4 nights and 3 days later, at 4:30 a.m. on December 30. Stay tuned for a jointly written post on that experience. Coming soon. Ish.

Happy Almost New Years. Once we got to Moscow, Ryan and I bummed in an internet cafe (with WiFi. . . I almost cried I was so happy. . .) next to the train station until I felt it wasn’t overly early (7:30 a.m.) to call the Middlebury Moscow program coodinator, Adrien, who’s apartment we were staying in.

Without too many snafus, we finally figured the cell phone situation out and made it to the metro stop Sokol (SOH-kuhl, or “falcon” . . .awesome right?), where we met her. The 30th, we met Sophie for a dinner of soup at a chill little restaurant (appropriately named Soup-Kafe) after our leg-aching day of roaming around Red Square (we actually got in this time!), taking a quick tour around St. Basil’s Cathedral (actually the Cathedral of the Ascension with a church under each onion dome, the main one of which is St. Basil’s), and doing some catching up on fast food intake (Sbarros and McDonald’s, which was selling kotleti burgers for the week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mickey-D’s in Mother Russia).

Gotta love St. Basil’s. . . (p.s. about 1/2 the pictures are stolen from Ryan’s Facebook)

Ryan and I, still adjusting to the lack of sleep during our 4-day, 5-time-zone time change (yeah, that’ll mess anyone up), slept past our ambitious 9 a.m. alarm clocks. Finally getting out of bed sometime after midday, we did our final errands of 2009: buying a Moscow cell phone connection for me, getting groceries for our modest New Years’ soiree, and having an afternoon snack at, again, Ryan’s favorite Golden Arches (in the supermarket, as it were).

Oh. Duh. And we ice skated on Red Square. Obviously, such an attraction was a tad bit pricey, but it was worth it. All the Christmas lights and the tree and the lit-up Kremlin and St. Basil’s made it literally like a Nutcracker dream, and skating/dodging the drunk that ran into Ryan in the middle of it was a great time.

Early on, Sophie warned us, newly arrived to the off-rails world, that congratulating anyone “with the new year” before 11:59 on the 31st could result in a typically drawn-out explanation that we should have said “s nastupayushim” (happy ‘coming-up’ [new years’]) instead. I noticed that at a vaguely defined, yet very precise moment on the 31st, somewhere around an hour or two until “closing time” on the old year, people saw it fit to use the more assured, less questioning “will-the-new-year-come-or-won’t-it,” “Happy New Year.” Such. . . distinctions. . . .

Soph came over around 7, celebratory bottle of wine in hand. She and Ryan ended up doing most of the cooking, Sophie being the culinary master of the Midd dining halls and Clarke kitchen that she is, Ryan the can-do-all handyman of his mom’s best friend’s Italian restaurant. While I sat deciding how to cut the bread/butter/garlic and the apples/oranges/grapefruit for my two assignments, those two whipped up broiled taters, a cucumber-tomato-onion viniagrette, and a filling meat sauce to top the random assortment of noodles I had apparently bought.

With my garlic bread and dessert fruit salad, not to mention our red table wine and celebratory Russian champagne ($2.99/bottle), we had more than our fills, and leftovers to last me my stay in Moscow. We capped off the night at the apartment with reminiscing what we were worrying about 10 years ago amidst the Y2K non-crisis, and spelling out what we’d cross our fingers for in the new year and decade coming out of the real crisis.

Oh, and fireworks (50-cent sparklers), too. But Russian style. I won’t write what that means, but here are the important facts, for your imagination: the matches were old, it was cold on the balcony while lighting them, and this just happened in Russia.

Pyat’ minut, pyat’ minut. Also keeping in style with the traditions of Russian New Years’ celebrations (this, of course, in reference to that timeless classic song “Pyat’ minut” [Five Minutes] with the elevating, pouring-forth lyrics), we managed to leave the apartment just in time, in a flurry of scarves swirling and jackets being confused in the smoky aftermath of our candlelit dinner.

It was cold out. The streets were mostly empty. Storefront light-up signs were off. Apart from a four-person impromptu party next to us, starring a few passed-around bottles of Russian champagne ($2.99/bottle), the metro cars were as abandoned as a wrung-dry Western boom town. This until a droopy eyed Caucasian muttering senseless Russian stumbled into the seat next to Sophie, almost slid out of it, swung his head around to look at her, now standing up in the aisle as cold as any native Moskvichka, and understood his company might be better received at the shindig next door.

We got out at Teatral’naya station in the center. On our way up the slightly more populated, but still emptier-than-usual escalator, we heard the next train skate in. The doors open. Without any more warning than that, a mass of people, noticeably bigger than your average rush-hour trainload, heave out of the doors and begin to straightforward sprint to the base of the escalators.

We three do a double take, look back at each other, and begin to run ourselves. Bursting onto the City Square next to the Kremlin walls, we get through two separate security checkpoints easily enough. Dodge the kids carrying sparklers. Hurdle the abandoned empty bottles of Russian champagne ($2.99/bottle). Crane our necks over the crowd that’s beginning to engulf us.

The gates to the Square were right there, just beyond the next throng of bodies and final security checkpoint. But the police line formed before we could get through all that. We were about four body widths away from the line, meaning, theoretically, we could have made a dash to the checkpoints, made record-setting hurdles over the metal detectors, and made it in, but, heeding the police commander’s advice (“Two steps back! For your safety!”) and convincing shoves, we started pushing the oscillating mosh-pit backwards in order to get out.

Someone in that last group started counting down from 10, in which everyone joined in. But nothing happened at 0, so the shoving continued. Within a few seconds, fireworks and the faint roar of the not too far-off crowd sounded outside the square, and the real cheering began. We took a few steps back and over to where we could see the fireworks through the gates, hugged, snapped some photos, cheered. . . I mean, what else are you supposed to do?

Minutes later, the fireworks had ended, and a river of people began up Tverskaya ul. Walking for a good 15-20 minutes with thousands of others, we passed a concert set up on Pushkinskaya Sq., began to get used to the crowd-control/celebratory blanks being shot off to get the people movin’ home (these continued for days. . .), and had a coffee and toilet break at a café until around 1, when we went home, newly inaugurated citizens of 2010 before anyone else back home.

  1. rahallsten says:

    why didn’t we watch that movie?

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