Last weekend, a festive craze swept Irkutsk into a mid-winter’s frenzy that would have been hard to produce any other way. Skies beautiful and clear, the winds calm, and the temperatures nothing too extraordinary at this point, there was plenty to be happy about, the first of which might very well have been the fact that winter, slowly, is leaving.

February 8-14 was the last week before the Great Fast (or “Velikii post”), which, in a religious sense, is the equivalent of Carnival or the New Orleans version of Mardi Gras. The weeklong festival is called Maslenitsa, with the root of “maslo” (butter), which is consumed in quantities of “mountains,” as the holiday rhymes go, in order to prepare for the forty-day abstinence from meat, milk and butter, and honey leading up to Easter.

Ryan, Romany, Romany’s ski friend Zhakko, and I decided to go to the cultural center/open-air ethnographic architecture museum, Tal’tsy, outside the city on the way to Listviyanka. Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

I regress: Saxony (the most southern province of former East Germany) and Bohemia (the western half of the Czech republic) were my next destinations on my January European tour after Berlin. Apart from being great destinations in central Europe, somewhat distant relatives who’d visited Arizona a few years ago and friends from Middlebury awaited me in both (and, not to mention, were offering housing).

Nepperwitz town signNepperwitz. The evening of January 9, I was received at the Leipzig Hauptbanhof (main train station) with wide open arms by my relatives Dieter and Eveline (avid readers of the Bablefish translator version of this blog!).

After the first of many very nice meals out, we drove back to Nepperwitz about an hour away, where we celebrated my coming with a bottle of wine and picture taking next to the Christmas tree they’d left up especially for my coming. So sweet! We established that my great grandma (my mom’s mom’s mom) is Dieter’s grandmother’s sister, whatever that exactly makes me to him (apart from an even too well-received guest!), and looked at each others photos, and made great use of English and Russian as semi-common languages. Read the rest of this entry »

At the gate to my flight from Berlin to Moscow, again surrounded by the fur-donning crowd of Russland, I’ll admit, there was slight dread of going back. That was the closest to home I’d be for another five months. Landing in Moscow and re-arriving in Irkutsk four days after that, though, were happy enough meetings of Russia, that old friend, that one….

Russian birch on a pathI remembered the Irkutsk bus numbers and all the useful parts of life, but apparently had forgotten declension endings. That’s the revenge of the language pledge after two weeks of breaking it, I suppose. It was vacation.

Romany and I spent a good deal of time together the first half-week/weekend after my Wednesday arrival. One day, we traipsed around Irkutsk in the falling snow (meaning slightly warmer-feeling temperatures). I totally spaced on bringing my camera, and I want to revisit a lot of these places, too, so pictures of these places will come eventually.

First we hit the Officers’ House (Dom ofitserov), rumored to be a cool building with schizophrenically interesting and/or open exhibits through its halls of random offices and businesses. Read the rest of this entry »

The somatic triggers of late-winter rain’s smell and the gymnastics of skipping over the slush-puddles of Prague got spring on my mind a few weeks ago.

The disappointing irony of the fact is that I’ve returned to the hard freeze of winter in Irkutsk. Night temps are comfortably below -30 deg. C. and not going anywhere.

By chance, my host mom, perhaps also suffering the same mid-winter lassitude as I, has been bringing home the taste of the tropics lately: hard-to-peel oranges and green bananas fill our evening table most nights now.

Ah, yes. Green bananas.

The back story: during the Soviet union, the central committee was hardly concerned with managing the import of bananas from good-willed buddy nation Cuba. As a rule, the Committee had bigger problems on their plate.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bottom line: I love Berlin. Or maybe it’s just Europe. Or maybe it’s just not-Russia. Even though spending in the Euro zone is excruciating painful when a simple bottled water at 1,50 EUR really means 2+ American buckeroo’s, I’ve come back to the (more) capitalist system with a new (and happy) acceptance of inflated prices that (more than) cover the little Western concept called “service with a smile.”

AirBerlin gets thumbs up. Offered a complimentary mint with German- and Russian-language print media (LOOK! It’s a free press!) upon boarding (I took the only in-Russian newspaper, marking me, I think, as someone [a Russian] who would be surprised to read about new, non-censored ideas), I took my emergency-row seat. Ahh, leg room. And an empty seat between me and my row-partner.

Unfortuantely, it’s too easy, especially with a significant portion of German blood in your veins (I think I’m more than half German with Austrian), to cheerfully greet someone “Hallo!” and get a paragraph-long answer back, also in German, before it makes sense to give the guileful smile and shrug of the shoulders, “English?” To this (with one exception at the grocery store), I’ve been well taken care of 1) in my language and 2) with a genuine smile. Yeah, definitely not Russia. Read the rest of this entry »

Jan 5. State power day. Woo! Filled with a late breakfast (usually the broiled potatoes Ryan had made, long-overdue Honey Nut Cheerios with milk and OJ–simple delights I hadn’t had in months), I arrived at Kremlin walls just after 12 noon, where the line to see Lenin’s Mausoleum (free) was being told that they probably wouldn’t make it that day (the attraction closing at 1 p.m.). Since no one else seemed to believe the police officers saying so, I stayed in line and did make it within the last 20 minutes.

After the baggage check (40 rub.) and metal detectors, you walk along a bush- and grave-lined walkway along the Kremlin wall next to Red Square, occasionally seeing a name that pops out: Khruschev (USSR premier), Gagarin (first man in space), Stalin (had about 30% of the country killed). The path leads around the front of the monument, where you walk into the mostly dark, black granite structure labeled “LENIN.” The guard shushes anyone talking and with an aggressive flare of the eye, tells you to get your hands out of your pockets and to take off your hat. You walk down the stares, passing more guards saying “SHH!” with their fingers in front of their lips

And then boom. There he is. Read the rest of this entry »

Moskva. Bottom line: my feet hurt. Yes, great metro and bus system, but stepping out of every metro station and glancing around would hardly give a traveller the right idea of the city. Thus, walking can’t be done without, and so, walk I did.

Jan 1. And the decade begins. Streets quiet (except for the left-over fireworks and blank gunshots that continued until the day I left) and littered with empty bottles of Russian champagne ($2.99/bottle), Ryan and I got up early to get him to Sheremetyevo airport for his noon flight. Buying our train tickets to the airport just in time from the electric walk-up vendor (“3 minutes until next train”), only afterwards did the conductor decide to tell us that the first train wasn’t for another hour.

When I asked, “Because of the new year?” I noticed that it was a bit ominous to already be combining “new year” with “iz-za,” the participle used for negative reasons. No other bad omens have popped up since. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

From Russia on Christmas Eve, wishing everyone and their families the very best for a blessed and happy Christmas.

“Behold, the star they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.”
-Matthew 2.9


To properly describe my experience in the realm of the Russian “holiday season,” if such a concept actually exists as a period defined apart from the general conception of everyday life in this country, then I should go back to my Thanksgiving holiday here.

Walking out of a delightful evening of intercultural dialogue (conversation over wine with Russians) on the last Thursday of November, passing the central market, my cohorts and I noticed that within the past few hours, a gargantuan “Happy New Year’s” light-up sign with accompanying fir garlands had been hung on the face of the main shopping mall. That may have made my Thanksgiving more complete than the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie had.

I don’t consider myself a total minion of the U.S. of Consumerism Culture that I left behind in order to spend the holidays abroad. But, I won’t lie, the probably coincidental Black Friday start of the Russian end-of-the-year shopping season with the Irkutsk central market’s sign-hanging and Christmas-tree construction really did touch my little heart, somewhere between my conviction that Christmas is the “Season for Giving” and my capacity to get an adrenaline rush when I see big red signs including the symbols “-” and “%.”

Thanks to the Soviet reconstruction of, well, everything, Read the rest of this entry »