No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems

The above title is really relevant in Russia.

Where, you ask, might such an awesome rule apply?

1) The bus.

2) The subway.

3) The tram.

4) The trolleybus.

5) The street.

6) Most street cafes and other eating establishments.

7) The shower.

8 ) Boats.

9) THE BEACH!!!

So, I went to a really nice beach today. Had to pay 100 rubles (about $3.33 for those of you counting at home) to get in, but it was totally worth it. Clean beach. Beach volleyball court. Beach soccer court. Space. Beach chairs. If you want to hear about the topless Russian woman with only pasties on, email me, because I don’t really want to get a talking-to about writing about said woman.

Today was a perfect beach day – not a cloud to be seen, hot as blazes but not hot enough to be uncomfortable outside (at least for me – thanks Houston!), gentle breezes off the Kazanka River. The biggest problem with the beach, of course, was that swimming wasn’t allowed. Why, you ask? The Kazanka River, the tributary of the Volga that splits Kazan, isn’t known for it’s cleanliness. Or its un-flammability. Apparently fire was the hazard preventing us from dipping in the river.

Luckily there were ice-cold showers that served as our swimming pool/river/ocean, and also a great opportunity for group bonding. Nothing says trust, communication, and friendship like group showers (with clothes on, of course). I played some beach soccer (frankly, very difficult), volleyball (used those 7th/8th grade v-ball skeeeeeells), and, of course, Frisbee. An awesome afternoon, in sum.

Tomorrow is one busy day. Bolghar/Volga River Journey II from 6 (when I have to wake up to catch the bus to Rechnoi Port) until probably 5 in the afternoon. At 9 PM I’ll be whipping out my red and green scarf and whirling it around in the air while shouting indiscriminate Russian sayings, intermittently screaming “Davai Rubin!” at Centralni Stadione as FCRK takes on Dinamo Moskva. Should be a really fun day!

Do zavtra (or perhaps not…),

Andrusha

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A Month Later

Yesterday marked the one-month anniversary of my departure from New York.

First thought: only a month? It’s felt like an eternity. I feel like I’ve been sleeping in this room, eating with my host bro and mom, taking the same bus, going every day to KSU for a few months, even a year. Very weird that its only been a month and even weirder that I have less than a month left. For those of you counting at home, I have 3 weeks and 2 days until I return to the NYC.

I think I’ve accomplished a lot in a month (for what its worth, one month in Russia comes Friday). I’ve made new friends – American and Russian. I’ve explored a new city – this wonderful place they call Kazan. I’ve eaten lots of new foods and tried lots of other things – jumping into the Golaboi Ozira (that freezing cold lake I mentioned earlier), dancing on a boat on the Volga with Russian devuchki, playing pick-up soccer with Tatar and Russian youths. Those of you who know me well know that I probably wouldn’t have done those things a few months ago. I’ve also (duh) learned a lot of Russian language. Not only the myriad vocab words I pick up in class but also useful expressions, phrases, and syntax just from talking with my host mom or sitting down to dinner. I’ve gone from being so worried about my language skills that I was reluctant to buy a Coca-Cola from a street kiosk to being able to communicate my feelings to twenty Russians sitting in a circle in the dark with a candle in my hands.

Am I fluent? Hell no. Proficient? No. But can I hold my own? Yes. And I honestly think that’s something to be proud of. I’ve experienced, seen, heard, been part of, things in this one month that I know I will never forget. And that, to me, is really cool.

Anyways, enough reflection, etc. On to news.

Yesterday was pretty bland as far as my days here go – some walking on Ulitsa Baumana and a homework-filled night. Today we went to the Museum of the History of Tatarstan, which was pretty cool, but mostly because it has arguably the world’s finest collection of Tatar/Golden Horde Medieval armor and wardress. Really really cool. They also had some authentic (obviously) posters and the like from WW1 and WW2 which were really interesting, especially because they were pretty much propaganda (especially the WW2 ones) and oddly similar to American posters of the same era and cause (Who’s Going to Help the Front? You!…The Front and the Farm – United!, etc.).

After that, me and two girls from the group went to the American Center (basically the American Embassy here in Kazan) to meet/talk with some locals who have an English language conversation group. They knew English really well and we just introduced ourselves and then talked about Russian classics (a few Tolstoy haters in the crowd), pizza (explained the difference between Chicago and New York-style pizza successfully), soccer, and McDonalds. It was fun but I would’ve preferred the conversation to be more in Russian, but its not a big deal.

Saturday will be a very exciting day. From 8:30 to 4:30 I will be on a boat that essentially “hovers” above the water (I’ve been told that the literal Russian translation of the boat is a “water pillow”) on the Volga, which supposedly goes very very fast. Our destination will be Bolghar, which is the original capital of the Tatar people. It’s an ancient city and should (hopefully) be very interesting. I’m worried that the heat – its supposed to breach 100 Fahrenheit on Saturday – might mar the voyage a little bit, but I’m optimistic for now that it’ll be a cool trip.

On Saturday night, I’m going to a FC Rubin Kazan soccer match! FCRK is in 2nd place currently in the Russian League’s table (second only to Zenit St. Pete). They will be playing Dynamo Moscow, Russia’s oldest soccer club. It should be a really good time and I’m happy that I’m going. It’s at 9 pm (moved back due to heat) so it should be nice out and I assume the crowd will be nuts (as they are reported to be), especially because Rubin is playing Moscow. I’m going to purchase a scarf and possibly a “Я ❤ Рубин” (I ❤ Rubin) shirt tomorrow in preparation. Should be a good time.

Well folks, that’s all for tonight. Hope all is well with y’all, feel free to chime in as always.

Andrew

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Don’t Worry, I’m Alive

Just what the doctor ordered: a new blog post.

I apologize, blog addicts. But wait no longer.

So I was at camp for a week – how do I sum up a week in this post?

Well, first, a little background. I was at a camp in the Mari El Republic (one of Russia’s 23 – I think – autonomous republics), about 70 kilometers north of Kazan. It was smack dab in the middle of the woods, but also surrounded by the kind of typical Russian landscapes (that is, flat) that might grace a Levitan painting. The camp is for kids aged 7-17 (but there were few kids above 14), and their days are filled with typical “camp” activities as well as English lessons. For the most part the kids’ English was not good enough to converse in, but there were a few exceptions. As a matter of fact, pretty much all the kids there 15+ spoke fantastic (ok, if not fantastic, conversational at the least) English. Each day had a theme (e.g. Olympics, Art-Design, Intellectual Day, etc.), which dictated the afternoon schedule. Each day there was some sort of outdoor activity associated with the theme (using the same examples, “Olympic” competitions, “master-classes,” and a game called “University”). There was also a “concert” of some sort, which meant that each group/team had to put on some sort of performance for the rest of camp.

We Americans were all integrated into teams (no team had more than 3 Americans, mine had 2 including myself). The teams had kids from all age groups and two “team leaders,” who were college-aged people. One of my team leaders spoke awesome English (as well as German) and the other one understood a bit of English but couldn’t speak much.

Another aspect of camp was eating! 5 “meals” a day – breakfast, lunch, second lunch, dinner, second dinner. I only went to breakfast twice (the Americans were allowed to sleep in because the Russians had English lessons directly following breakfast), and it wasn’t so good. Kasha gets old, fast. Lunch was the biggest meal of the day – usually a pretty good soup, cucumbers or tomatoes, and some sort of main dish. The meat and fish were pretty suspect, but the veggies and soup weren’t bad at all. Second lunch was some sort of “snack” type food – fruit, milk curd cakes (gross), and these really good “blini” type things which were devoured by all. Dinner was another “main dish,” usually involving potato or cabbage, and usually not very good. The biggest plus of dinner was the fantastic tea. Second dinner was essentially dessert. It was hit or miss – the wafers and muffins were good, but the cookies and juice, for the most part, were less than stellar. Not a terrible eating experience, but I definitely had longings for my host mom’s (or real mom’s, for that matter) culinary prowess.

Following second dinner would be one of two things – discoteka or “candle.” Discoteka is pretty self-explanatory, but let me elaborate anyways.

The whole camp would go to the back of the building/hotel/sanatorium where the camp was. This space was quite literally a parking lot. This awesome (not in skill, but in personality) DJ would set up his gear close to the building and pump random American music but mostly Russian techno and slow stuff. Russians dance, for lack of a better word, different. Maybe this only applies to this camp, but the Russians would form one large circle and dance…in a circle. Not like, in the circle. But in a circle. Being Americans, we quickly spoiled the perfect circle the first discoteka. After a large group of us broke into the middle, the circle quickly dispersed into smaller circles, which was more acceptable to our American eyes. Probably my favorite part of the dancing was that pretty much anything we did that Russians hadn’t seen or hadn’t done before was regarded as awesome. If any of us hopped into the middle of a circle and “showed off” some moves (usually not particularly good ones), we got hardy rounds of applause. I won’t name names, but let’s just say that the fist pump and the sprinkler got their fair share of use.

Probably the strangest part of the discotekas came the first time we had it. The DJ switched to a song that none of us really recognized at first. The Russians got into lines. All of a sudden, the mysterious Bollywood tunes were recognized as “Jai Ho,” a song from Slumdog Millionaire. And equally instantaneously, literally every single Russian, camper and counselor alike, broke into the exact dance from the movie. It was, frankly, terrifying. It was also hilarious.

Another interesting part of the discotekas was the fact that each of the American guys, myself included, had small posses of pretween/tweenaged/10-14 year-old admirers. I’d guess that each of us had to slow dance with a girl 5 or so years younger than us at some point.

Candle was an entirely different story. The main team leader of my group, Sasha, got really intense about candle. Well I guess I should explain what candle is first. Basically Sasha would throw out some sort of theme or discussion topic, and each person (sitting in a circle) would have to respond and then pass the candle to the next person when they were done. (Side note: Collegiate guys, think Group D sesh but from the outside looks like Shelter Island sesh). The first night we had to talk about “discoveries.” Although I was given the option to do mine in English, I chose to say it in Russian and I actually expressed what I wanted to say without having to ask for any help. It felt really good and very satisfying that I could actually express myself in Russian, and that Russians understood exactly what I wanted to say. I did the next candle in Russian as well, but I did the last one in English (we had to talk about the person sitting on our left) because I just didn’t have the vocab to say what I wanted to say.

The candles were harped on a lot by the Americans (myself included) for being very frustrating. I definitely understood a little bit of what the kids were saying, but maybe only, max, 5%. It is very difficult to stay focused and attentive when you just don’t understand what people are saying, but I tried my best and I’m happy I didn’t skip any of the candle sessions.

I’m not sure what else I can say about camp right now – I have other stories but I don’t want to go on too long. All I can say is that it was an enjoyable experience and I’m happy we went.

Phew. Well, now I’m back in Kazan. Pretty normal here. I think I caught a little cold the last day or so of camp, and its caused quite the uproar with my host mom and host brother. Russians have some rather interesting superstitions, remedies, and opinions when it comes to illness.

1) Colds are caused by the cold, duh. So last night when I got back I had a little case of the sniffles. My host mom noticed and immediately closed all the windows. I sneezed; she asked if I was cold. I said that I wasn’t cold, but she insisted that I drink more tea (that might’ve just been her wanting me to drink tea, but she did emphasize the word “hot”). I got a cold Sprite with host brother and he reprimanded me for drinking something cold. In the bus (even though its about 85 degrees outside and hotter than that inside the bus), he closed the window by us so that the “cold” wind wouldn’t come in. My host mom, in fact, just made me drink hot mineral water. I’m tempted to judge the common Russian assumption that colds are caused by the cold, but there’s a reason they have this belief. Their remedies (mostly associated with heat) must work…sometimes. Probably not for the reasons they think, but they have to work if they stand by them still. Right?

Actually now that I think about it that’s pretty much the main superstition/remedy/opinion that I can talk about. Let me assure you (read: Let me assure you, Mom), that I’m really fine, just a minor head cold, I’ll be fine in a few days.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to do my homework and go to sleep!

Andrew

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Sunday Picture Time

My host brother and I standing in Kazan's city center, with "Koltzo" (the ring) behind us

Raifa, the monastery I visited a week ago

Millennium Bridge over the Kazanka River, built for Kazan's 1000th year in 2005

Not the boat we went on on our journey on the Volga, but pretty much one of the same build, etc.

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Song of the Volga Boatman

Volga, Volga our pride,
Mighty stream so deep and wide.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Volga, Volga you’re our pride.

— Song of the Volga Boatmen

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WD0WVL-HjE

The US has the Missisippi; Russia has the Volga.

The river, wide, with green algae clouding its surface, runs in the veins of all Russians from birth. Today, I got to experience the Volga River.

After waking up early this morning and getting to the Rechnoy Port, I, along with the rest of the group, boarded a boat to go down the Volga to an island called Sviyazhsk (Свияжск).

The boat ride was really nice. Today was hot, hot, hot, but the steady breeze on the boat made it pretty tolerable. The company, of course, was fantastic and it was a nice “bonding” time. A few of us (make that me and another friend) even participated in a small, but crazy, techno dance party on the deck. The only bad part about it was that I have no doubt that our new friends will be spreading the word that Americans really have no dance moves. Of course, the highlight of the boat trip (well…maybe that was the dance party) was the really cool scenery. Thick forests hugged the riverbanks, with occasional breaks for rocky beaches and lines of dachas.

I'm on a Boat

Bank of the Volga

Sviyazhsk

When we got to the island (almost 2 hours after “taking off” from Kazan!), the sun was right overhead and was burning! The island itself is cool – possibly a little bit boring, but that might just have been because the heat was oppressive to the point of distracting from anything else. A few things about the island, though. Possibly Sviyazhsk’s most interesting historical significance is that its where Ivan the Terrible assembled his troops before sacking the Kazan Khanate centuries ago. The island is also home to a few churches and a mosque (?), which were very cool – not only in design (typical Russian domes/bulbs/ikons), but also in temperature. A few of us got glared at by a Russian Orthodox priest for sitting on a bench in one church for probably too long.

After a solid 2 hours on Sviyazhsk, we got back on our friendly vessel and headed back to Kazan. A freak rainstorm towards the beginning of the boat ride was miraculous and much-welcomed, as it provided a needed break from the intense sun. The rest of the boat ride was spent mostly hanging out (our previous dance party friends even asked us to take pictures with them!), and I think a few lucky girls got invited by the captain to “steer” the ship briefly – if only for photographs.

A good but HOT day here in Kazan. One more day of freedom here before departing for camp on Monday. I’m planning on going to the bazaar and watching the Dutch BEAT Spain tomorrow night. Can’t wait.

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!

Andrew

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Hot Town, Summer in the City

Shouldn’t I be used to heat by now? 10 years in Texas should’ve overprepared me for what I’m enduring right now.

But no. No. It’s sitting in the 90s here sunrise through sunset (and even now at close to midnight its probably on the brink of 90). And I am hot as hell. I sweated through a layer of deodorant today (TMI?) and adopted the sexy Russian look of literally entirely unbuttoning my shirt to reveal my brick wall and Abercrombie-model pecs (just kidding…or not?). It’s just too hot to not do that. The heat, of course, is exacerbated by a few things:

1) Rare air conditioning and/or fans.

2) Lack of personal space, especially on the bus, where it literally is just an oven

3) Sporadic breezes

4) Wild dogs

5) Hot food – literally my host mom said “Oh it is very hot today” and then put a piping hot meat/potato pie thing and a scalding cup of tea in front of me. Do svidanya, logic.

6) Dust

7) Sitting in a classroom for 4 hours.

8 ) The long walk from KSU (its actually not that long) to McDonalds and the ever-inviting bolshaya Fanta (large Fanta).

9) LeBron James

10) The lack of regular old drinking water. Carbonated water just doesn’t have the same refreshing quality.

Hopefully it’ll get better soon but its not really supposed to. So I’ll just deal. It’s all good.

Today was pretty uneventful. Went for another medical check-up/interrogation thing today, and luckily no tape was used.

Basically some old doctor just asked us a few questions which we basically had to say the “right” answer to. E.g., do you have any diseases? Are you normal? Does your doctor normally check your lungs and heart? Easy stuff. No biggie.

Tomorrow we go to the island where Ivan the Terrible rallied his troops before sacking the Kazan Khanate some 490 or so years ago. Pretty cool stuff, I’ll definitely elaborate more after I actually go.

Andrew

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Fuzz, etc.

Fuzz.

5-O.

Po-Po.

Cop.

The police are known by a lot of different names, but here in Russia there’s only one word: militzia. There are a few rules that go with encountering the police:

1) Don’t look at them.

2) Don’t take pictures of them.

3) Don’t speak English (or anything, really) within earshot.

4) Don’t look too suspicious.

5) If they stop you, do as they say.

Well, I’ve been able to try out 1-4 the last few weeks, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I could do #5. Let me spell it out for you.

I was walking with some friends. The green man telling us we could walk had just disappeared; my friends sprinted across the street (even with stationary red man telling them to stay put). Somewhat zoned out, I decided to wait it out. I waited for the cycle to go back to Mr. Walking Green Man and crossed the street with the light and rejoined my friends. We began walking.

Walking, I saw a man in blue start walking in our general direction from about 20 yards away. Although I didn’t really have any reason to believe so, I said to my friend “Sh!t, I think he’s coming for us.” Sure enough, he came over to us and sorta gave off the signal for “stop walking and listen to me, right now.” He pulled his nightstick out (pretty unnecessarily, but whatever) and strapped it onto his shoulder.

He launched into a pretty long speech in Russian, in which I understood a bit – mostly, to paraphrase, “don’t walk against the light.” He looked at us expectantly and we all did the same thing (completely unplanned and uncommunicated, I should add): started laughing and saying “We don’t understand, our Russian is bad” – in English. A risky move, to be sure, but one that had actually been advised to us if we’re stopped by the police. You might wonder why, but there’s actually a good reason.

The police in Russia are known to be pretty corrupt. Bribery is rampant and you’re more likely to get help on the street from a babushka than from a police officer. Sometimes the police just approach people to be bribed into not pressing some bogus charges; speaking English (which most police don’t speak/understand) has been known to scare off such corrupt officers, who frankly don’t want to have to work that hard to get petty cash. Another reason to speak English after being approached rather than Russian is that you don’t want to agree to something because you’re cocky about your own Russian skills and find yourself in dire straits.

At first it seemed like speaking English had been a bad idea. He immediately asked to see our documents and we all scurried into wallets, bags, etc. to find copies of our passport and visa information.

However, he didn’t really even look at them – we think he was probably just trying to scare us a little.

Our police officer friend understood a little English. So he illuminated the situation for us.

“You, you, you, and you,” he said in English, pointing to everybody in the group but me, “crossed the street in red,” he continued in Russian.

“You crossed in green,” he said in Russian, pointing to me. “Excellent,” he continued.

Next he pulled out, from his pants pocket, a pocket lawbook. Seriously. He opened it and flipped some pages, finally arriving on the page that basically said you can’t jaywalk. There is a fine for jaywalking, and, as our resident director has told us, there is a really complicated process to pay such fines. Luckily our friendly fuzz didn’t fine my friends.

He told us that because we were his guests (he actually said that) he wouldn’t fine us (or rather, them – he still liked me for crossing correctly)…this time. But he did warn us not to do it again. We thanked him (why?) and went on our way.

It was a pretty scary situation but it ended up all right. I think that we’re probably the better for it, actually. It’s probably better that the first time (if any time…) I got stopped by the police here in Russia was with friends, so I now sorta know what to expect the (possible) next time it happens. We also got extraordinarily lucky that our policeman considered us “guests” rather than “invaders” or “foreigners,” prime bribe targets.

The truth is that a run-in with police is almost inevitable here. Unlike the US police, Russian police can ask for your documentation with no more reason than a whim, and a single foreign-looking person (or, lucky for me, someone who looks like he’s from the Caucus region (Chechyna, Georgia, Azerbaijan, etc.) is really a prime target.

But, I am alive and well, happy and tired. I played soccer today for a solid two hours (with fellow Americans – no Russians, unfortunately, I guess they took the day off) and am quite worn out as a result. I have to get up early for ANOTHER medical exam tomorrow morning – if I see tape, I’m going to sprint away as fast as I can.

Andrew

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