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One of my colleagues at the Museum of Russian Icons recently posted a link to a gallery by photographer Andy Freeman, entitled “Guardians.” The series will be very familiar to anyone who has spent time in Russian museums–for many reasons, one of them being inadequate pensions, retired Russian women often find secondary work as a gallery guards.  As a result, the ubiquitous “gallery babushka” is as much a fixture in Russian museums as Repin, Levitan, or Kramskoi.

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One of our professors told us he would go easy on us for final exams, in the understanding the we are currently stuck in чемоданное настроение (lit., “suitcase mood”)—the state of feeling flustered and “in limbo” as a result of impending travel. In preparation for returning home, I will share some travel/packing advice I almost always follow. Being a careful packer is one of the better things you can do for yourself as a study abroad student, as you’ll avoid overweight baggage fees and won’t have to haul so much around—while still being prepared for a variety of scenarios.

1.) Pick out the clothes you want to bring, and put half back. Maybe even 2/3 back. It was tempting to bring all my best outfits this semester, but I was ultimately better off sticking to just a few. You should pack with the intention of layering, but never pack anything that can only be worn in combination with something else specific. Then if you lose/damage one part of the outfit, you effectively lose use of two articles of clothing.

2.) Pack as many “useful” things as you can in your carry-on. That way, if the sent baggage gets lost or delayed (about 40 million bags are lost each year by airlines), you can go about your business without having to go shopping all over again. I try to put enough clothes, toiletries, reading material, and snacks for two days.

3.) Pack things you aren’t too attached to. Once again, I was really tempted to bring my favorite everything so I would look great in all the photos that inevitably get taken on study abroad. Even so, I intentionally packed winter clothes, a towel, sneakers, and books that I would be ok with leaving in Russia, so I could make room for any souvenirs or new clothes bought over the course of the semester. Our program directors let you drop off clean clothes in the AIFS office, so they can be donated to orphanages.

4.) Bring a lot of bags. The Ziploc bags for liquids, or just reused shopping bags to keep all your clothes in. It’s much easier for me to find stuff when it’s not just floating loose in a big duffel or suitcase. They’re also good for keeping wet/dirty clothes in, and it’s not like plastic bags weigh anything anyway.

5.) Don’t put wrapped gifts or carefully-packed boxes in your checked bag. If security decides to go through your bag, your careful work will most likely be ripped up and casually thrown back together.

6.) If you’re traveling with a friend (on spring break) and you’re both sending checked bags, split your stuff between each other’s bags. If one of you loses yours, it’s not as big a deal because both bags have half your stuff in them and you can still get by.

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For the past two years, Russia’s Central Bank has been considering the elimination of its smallest yet historically beloved coin, the kopeck. This might be the most obvious economic choice ever, as even a fresh-off-the-plane study abroad student could figure out. In 1704, Russia was the first country in the world to introduce a decimal monetary system, where one ruble was equal to one hundred kopeks. This worked great—until rampant inflation set in.

Today, the cost of producing a kopeck is approximately forty-five times higher than the value of the coin itself, which is equal to one hundredth of a rouble, which is itself about one-third of a dollar. So we’re talking about .03 cents here. Ah Russia, where a five-kopeck coin costs seventy kopecks to make.

Over the last few years, the average price of all the kopeck’s ingredients (copper, nickel, and compressed steel) have risen by 30-47%. Other problems with the kopeck include ongoing inflation and new technology. I’ve noticed that almost nothing in Russia is priced in kopecks, and Russians increasingly use credit cards.

So what are you to do when the surly cashier at Ideya or the post office gives you change in kopecks? They’re no good for vending machines, cashiers hate to see you break them out, and because they don’t have ridges, they’re not even good for scratching lottery tickets. I mean…I’ve seen beggars on the metro turn them down. Even native Russians seem baffled by them (there does not appear to be a CoinStar equivalent here)—it’s no wonder Russians occasionally refer to their currency as деревянный (wooden).

So I present to you some alternative uses for kopecks, practiced by IMOP students and Russians alike:

1.) The most obvious, use them to make wishes in fountains. Russians seem so desperate to be rid of their kopecks, that you can usually find a lot of them around statues as well. At Peterhof, for example, visitors pelt a certain statue of Peter the Great with kopecks, hoping to land one in the flared top of his riding boots.

Tsar Peter, if only you knew that tourists would eventually be pelting your ass with your nation’s most sorely-devalued currency…

Around St. Petersburg, you will notice a lot of memorial plaques displayed at the birthplaces or former homes of famous Russians (writers, painters, ballerinas, etc). Many of these have a kind of shelf or windowsill beneath them, on which you can place flowers in remembrance. It is also common to leave kopecks there.

2.) Use your kopecks as a projectile. While ineffective in terms of damage (a kopeck is lighter than a dime), they can sometimes make an intimidating noise.

3.) Put them under a wobbly vase or table leg to keep it steady.

4.) Save your kopecks until you have enough to make sculptures, or a mini kopeck city of towers. Street art?

5.) A kopeck coin is just the right size to use in place of a flathead screwdriver. In a similar fashion, you can also use them to open remote control battery compartments.

6.) While useless in Russia, kopecks are much more valuable and interesting once you get back to the US. If you happen to get a really shiny one, it could make a good souvenir.

7.) Most Russian families (and many IMOP students) have a bottle or box for kopecks at home, to save the trouble of carrying around a pocketful of essentially useless coins. Once full, they make great doorstops, weapons, and counterweights to keep your laundry line taut.

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As the semester nears its end, I thought it would be a good idea to write about study abroad pros and cons specific to Russia, and particularly St. Petersburg. When preparing for this semester, I was disappointed by the lack of recent Russian study abroad student feedback and advice. Considering there are actually a fair amount of students here, I think this is inexcusable. So after four months here, I present to the reading public, particularly potential students, the major pros, cons, and facts of life as an American student in St. Petersburg, Russia. Naturally, I will begin with the cons, so as to end the post on a high note–which my experience indeed merits:

  • Con: Food. Unless you’re a huge fan of beet soup and potatoes, Russian cuisine is not particularly exciting in and of itself, and unlike major “international cities,” St. Petersburg does not have the same variety of ethnic restaurants. I am a big fan of pelmeni, but they’re not that much different from a regular meat dumpling or ravioli you could get back home. A kind of foodie support group formed in the dorms, in which students who knew different recipes would take turns cooking.
  • Con: Travel. As I mentioned in a previous post, St. Petersburg is not in a good location for international travel, in case you were planning a spring break extravaganza. Nearby countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, and the Scandinavian ones start at $150-200 in terms of airfare (most of my classmates ended up paying $400 or more), whereas study abroad students in the EU can book a $50 Ryanair flight for a long weekend in the Mediterranean. Even other places in Russia itself are expensive to get to from St. Petersburg. And if you want to get somewhere warm, it can really cost you. The good news is that most East European countries are affordable once you get there—the same is not true for Scandinavian countries, though, which have a reputation for obscene prices.
  • Con: Weather. I’m not going to lie, I’ve lived in New England my whole life and it was still rough getting here in January. It was undeniably dreary for months (pack Vitamin D supplements), and I would say the weather only really got nice the last three weeks of spring semester. Unless you have the dedication, it can be very easy to use the inevitably foul weather as an excuse to stay indoors.
  • Con: Commuting. Regardless of the program, you can’t study close to downtown areas in Russian cities. Universities were designed this way on purpose, as they historically represented hotbeds of liberal thought and political dissent, something the Tsar (and later the Bolsheviks) didn’t want anywhere near the plazas, government buildings, and public venues in the center of the city. As a result, going to and from your favorite museums, shops, restaurants, etc. usually takes about an hour. This can be really tedious, so make sure to always keep a book/kindle/some kind of activity on you.
  • Con: Medical care. Russia is not a good place to get sick or injured. Even with all your student insurance and the American Clinic, you’re looking at confusing medical bureaucracy (in Russian), medical jargon (in Russian), and medical facilities that do not approach the standards with which you are familiar. One student this semester came down with tonsillitis, which ended up drawn-out, costly, and at times frightening for her.
  • Neutral: in Russian, please. Although English is spreading around the world as the language for tourism, academia, and business, it is not as ubiquitous in St. Petersburg. This is good in that you must rely more on your Russian and will get in more practice. American students trying to learn Spanish in Madrid or Italian in Rome are inevitably confronted by wait staff, sales clerks, acquaintances, and host families who talk over their feeble second-language attempts with much better English. The downside is that sometimes if you’re really stuck and can’t remember enough Russian to know what’s going on (deciphering menus, asking directions), you might have trouble finding help.
  • Neutral: the nature of the city. St. Petersburg is not a major international city. Although it was historically Russia’s “window to the West,” many Russians and expats have commented on the fact that SPb is becoming increasingly provincial—what little population growth there is has been going to Moscow, which has a growing reputation as a truly international center for business and education. I guess you could think of it as a Boston (SPb) vs. NYC (Moscow) comparison. St. Petersburg is much prettier, more affordable, and is not as overwhelming as Moscow. The downtown area is classy and cultured, without the excess for which Moscow is becoming notorious. On the other hand, the nightlife, restaurants, and other big-city options are more limited (but certainly not absent) here.
  • Neutral: Time. Russia does not have Daylight Savings Time, but St. Petersburg has something else altogether—the white nights (Белые ночи). From late April to late September, you will be able to stay out until almost midnight without it really getting dark. Instead there will just be a pale dusk from about 6-11pm, before the sun really sets. In midsummer, it stays more or less light out all through the night. The opposite is true, however, for the rest of the year. The days shorten rapidly towards the end of fall, and by midwinter there is only light between 10am and 4-5pm. While students don’t get to experience a true “white night,” the amount of daylight you have makes it that much easier to fill your day with fun activities when the weather gets nicer. The downside is that the second half of fall semester/first half of spring semester are annoyingly dark.
  • Pro: Affordability. By mid-semester, you start feeling pretty pleased with yourself as you listen to your friends in the euro-zone complain about how a regular night out sets them back the equivalent of $50. Thanks to Russian inflation (about 30 rubles to the dollar) and St. Petersburg’s comparatively low prices, almost everything you do here will be either the same or cheaper than at home. Cell phones and cards are cheap, football tickets are cheap, food is cheap, drinks are cheaper, and even good souvenirs are affordable. Clothes and imported groceries are the only consistently overpriced things in St. Petersburg.
  • Pro: Tourism. Unless you’re here for the famous “White Nights” of St. Petersburg from May to August, there aren’t very many tourists. Vendors, hostels, and certain services or attractions around the city jack up their prices accordingly, but study abroad students usually avoid this as we’re here during St. Petersburg’s very long off-season (September to late April). Aside from the Hermitage, which is a magnet for visitors all year round, you rarely need to worry about waiting in lines for museums or fighting through crowds of backpackers on the metro.
  • Pro: Public transportation. Like everywhere else outside the U.S., Russia has reliable (if not beautiful) public transportation. The St. Petersburg metro may squeak with rust and the grimy trams may resemble repurposed barracks from WWII, but I’ve never had to wait more than four minutes for any form of transportation, even at off-peak hours. And unlike in Moscow, the metro system here is easy to use. So while it can be irritating to live on a campus an hour from downtown, public transportation is abundant and reliable (also smelly, but what can you do).
  • Pro: A different perspective. You may be thinking, don’t you get that from all study abroad programs? Well, by this I mean I different historical and political perspective from the one in which were raised. Ugh, still too broad. What I mean is, Russia and Russian values were considered the antithesis of America and American values throughout our parents’ and grandparents’ generations—today’s Americans continue to be suspicious of Russia, as evidenced by the persistent stereotypes many of us were reminded of by earnestly concerned family members before we left home. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, I pass a withered old babushka (preferably with a gold tooth) hawking knit hats from a stoop and I think, “My grandma used to hide under her desk at school from you.” It’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around at times. In any event, you will come out of this country with a much more profound respect for what it accomplished in the 20th century regardless of how much we mock Soviet policy in the U.S.

She’s needed that crutch ever since she fended off six Panzer IIIs using only a soup ladle during the Siege of Leningrad.

  • Pro: Classmates. Based on a few years of work in a study abroad office, offbeat locations tend to attract a higher caliber of student. I’m not hipster enough to rag on students who go to the UK, Spain, Italy, or France. Everyone has their own reasons for choosing a given location—language study, heritage reasons, specific courses, affordability, etc., and it isn’t my place to criticize their choice and needlessly insist that they go somewhere more “exotic.” Which is insulting anyway. What I am saying is that on the surface, a semester in Russia doesn’t sound conventionally fun: it will be cold, dark, and probably dirty; people won’t smile all the time, and the food has nothing on Italy. So the students who are willing to brave all that often come here with a more specific reason than those who pour into much more conventionally appealing EU locations, their heads full of vague fantasies about outdoor cafes, wine tastings, and alluring accents. Students here are generally slightly quirkier, up for adventure, can cope with inconveniences, and aren’t particularly high-maintenance. What more can you ask for in traveling companions?

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Call me ignorant (you wouldn’t be the first) but am I the only one who finds the repetition of first names in many other countries baffling? In the U.S., you are unlikely to have more than three kids in a classroom, at the most, with the same name. Of course America has its standbys and fad names—in my town and generation they were like Kate, Nicole, Jessica, Sean, Mike, and Josh. In this study abroad group alone, we have so many Kates that we have resorted to referring to them by either last name or personal attributes, i.e. “tall Kate,” “engaged Kate,” etc. And from the sounds of it, about 50% of American children born between 2008 and 2011 will be named either Bella or Jacob—thank you, Stephanie Meyer.

Even so, there are hundreds of names in the average American public school, and any of them, weird as they might be, are unlikely to turn heads.  The diversity of names in the U.S. naturally stems from it being a nation of immigrants, and also probably from the attitude towards identity that is more individual-centered than family-centered. Remember those aggressively diverse math word problems from nineties textbooks, where Carlos, Jim, and Ming-Li had a lemonade stand? Yeah, as was also my experience in Georgia and Ecuador, that doesn’t happen in Russia.

There is a compliment about names in Russian: “какое у Вас красивое имя, а главное – редкое,” which means “what a beautiful name you have, and most importantly–a rare one.” I find this odd because based on all of the Russians I have personally met over the last four months, one could reasonably conclude that there are literally only about twenty names to choose from. I imagine Russian parents in the maternity ward being presented with a Nazi-Germany-style list of “culturally appropriate names.” All joking aside, I’m reasonably sure every female born under the Khrushchev administration was required to be either Tatiana or Natasha.

Russian guys are invariably Alex/Lyosha, Dima, Vladimir, Dmitry, Sergei, Nikita, Maxim, Vasily, Andrei, Artem, Pavel, Yegor, Ivan, or Oleg. Girls seem to have a little more variety, but you still hear the same ten or so over and over: Tatiana/Tanya, Anastasia/Anya/Nastya, Yelena/Lena, Dasha, Olga, Natasha/Natalia, Irina, Katya, Masha, Yulia, and Svetlana.

This is sometimes easy (if you forget someone’s name you can just call out one of the top 3 in their gender and probably get it right) but also sometimes difficult to keep them all straight. It’s hard to match a face/personality with a name when dozens of others are also matched to that name, which is why I can’t for the life of me understand the purpose of giving your kid a common first name. If you called out a variant of “Alexander” at a Russian playground, most of the male children would look up, not just yours.

Eventually the moment comes, whether in a club, classroom, or banya, when you realize you’re in a room full of Russians you can’t match names to. When you’re dealing with a language barrier and all sorts of other issues, it can be impossible to remember names, and even more so when you meet so many people. I now find myself in the difficult position of having met a truly large number of people whose names I don’t remember.

This was even worse in Georgia (where Georgian name options are fewer and where American teenagers are a statistical rarity). Few Georgians would forget my name, because I was the American, and everyone in Tbilisi seemed to know my name whether I’d been formally acquainted with them or not. This game is not fair, and I am not looking forward to the first time next year on my Fulbright, when a person who thinks of me as her American sister realizes that I don’t know her name or why the hell I know her.

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If I had to pick a national icon for Russia, it would not be vodka. Vodka was introduced to Russia by (who else) Italians in the 15th century. The matryoshka wasn’t even introduced until the height of the Slavophile movement in 1890, with a design straight lifted from Japan’s much older daruma dolls. No, if I had to pick one, it would be the babushka (grandmother): hard-working, stern, traditional (and ubiquitous, given the much longer life expectancy of women over men in Russia); they are the mainstays of old-timey Russian values, combining upper body strength with moral superiority. Seriously, if you want to find out if something is taboo in Russia, try doing it in front of a babushka and see how long you’ll get away with it before that death glare/cane/soup ladle/ purse/disgusted sigh bears down on you.

Russian grandmothers: to feed and defend

The sacred art of aging in Russia is characterized (for women) by gaining 50 pounds, perfecting the twelve most useful applications of butter, and of course forming a Beatles cover band with your girlfriends. (For men it’s characterized by alcoholism and death, but that’s an issue for a different post).

Over the past two years, babushkas rose to international prominence through the group “Buranovo Babushkas,” a serious contender in the Eurovision singing competition since 2010. Hailing from Russia’s Udmurt Republic (near Finland), the babushkas, all in their 70s and 80s, started out with traditional folk songs. They really rose to prominence when a local fan suggested they try rock music. The group took songs like “Let it Be” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “Hotel California” by the Eagles and translated them into Udmurt. YouTube videos of the group went viral, and they caught the attention of the organizers of Russia’s Eurovision finals. I mean seriously, what could be more “in” right now than embracing your body, growing your own vegetables, and tasteful pattern-clashing?

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While looking for snacks and drinks at a nearby grocery store this weekend, I ran into a bit of Georgian history—“Laghidze’s Waters,” the first commercialized brand of soda made in Eastern Europe. Last year I had read a scholarly article (by my Caucasus studies rock star, Dr. Paul Manning of Trent University) about the role of “ethnographic brands” in Georgian markets and society. One of his case studies featured the competition between local Georgian beverage companies (which had been protected under the USSR’s regulated economy) with Western capitalist brands like Coca-Cola.

I recognized the name, although the label was in Cyrillic. Apparently the Laghidze company was purchased by a Russian group at some point and production moved out of Georgia. In order to understand all the associations tied up in Laghidze’s Waters, you could read this intensely researched working paper by Dr. Manning. Or you can just listen to me sum it up.

Either way, you have to start with Georgia’s historical relationship to Russia, particularly the imperial period, which is when Laghidze’s was established. If you’ve read Pushkin, Lermontov, or any other 19th century Russian author of note, you will know that for Russians of the period, the Caucasus meant two things: adventure, and health spas. Authors, poets, and musicians of Russia praised Georgian nature and doctors often prescribed a season in Georgia’s health resorts to take in the fresh air and water. To this day, Georgian water is considered to be good for everything from hangovers to cancer, especially by Georgians.

Laghidze’s is also the product of the era of patent medicines. Soda, originally “soda-water,” was intended as a health drink. Consuming natural or artificial mineral water was considered a healthy practice. In America and Western Europe, pharmacists selling mineral waters began to add herbs and chemicals to the unflavored mineral water (which otherwise smells a bit like fart; those who have experienced Nabeghlavi can empathize). Common additives were birch bark, sarsaparilla, and fruit extracts. Also cocaine. Flavorings were added to improve the taste, and soon soda was the edgy “in” beverage–pharmacies with soda fountains became a popular part of Western culture by the late 19th century.

Mitropane Laghidze was the first to combine Georgia’s traditional reputation for medicinal waters with the trendy soda craze of the West—and make bank. Laghidze patented a process for blending natural fruit syrups (compotes) with mineral water, which not only landed him a spot at the Russian World Exposition in 1913, but a poem written by the well-known Georgian poet and nationalist Akaki Tsereteli:

sasmelebis met’oke var—                                                I am the rival of drinks–
ghvinis, ludis, ts’qlis da rdzisa,                                     of wine, of beer, of water and milk,
xileulta esencia                                                                   the fruit essence
mit’ropane laghidzisa.                                                      of Mitrophane Laghidze.

This poem is actually like four stanzas long, I shit you not. But Georgian nationalism was just hitting its stride, so we’ll cut them some slack on the Beverage Odes. Mr. Laghidze opened his first “Laghidze Cafe” in his hometown of Kutaisi, a backwater compared to the Georgian capital Tiflis (Tbilisi), in 1900. It was heralded as a sign of progress and modernity, of creating a uniquely Georgian way to participate in Western trends, and cities all over the Caucasus (and later, Russia) wanted a Laghidze’s fountain.

"Kutaisi entertainment," a cartoon showing the juxtaposition of genteel, Europeanized Laghidze consumers with a local peasant and his sewage cart

As Dr. Manning puts it, “the cartoon draws attention to the gulf between the aspirations for ‘European’ modernity (represented locally by Laghidze’s café) and the fact that throughout this period Kutaisi lacked any kind of sewer system or other provisions for urban sanitation (Mch’edlidze 1993: 87-88; 209-210). The problem of ‘Kutaisi entertainment’ is emblematic of the more general problems of modernity on European peripheries: public urban spaces have different functions, entertainment and sanitation, which are kept separate in a European metropole like Paris (for Georgians at that time Paris was the paradigmatic model of modernity), but which are juxtaposed in jarring contrast in derivative, colonial outpost like Kutaisi.”

Laghidze’s drinks remained popular even throughout the Soviet period, in that weird way that brands existed but didn’t under a controlled economy. Today, they have been almost entirely overtaken by the major global beverages, products of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, Inc. and persist mainly as novelties. The flavors I came across were lemon and cream soda. I went for the cream soda and it was actually disconcertingly natural. As in, it looked like beer but tasted like a dairy product.

I can see how something like this probably won’t survive much longer in the modern marketplace, but I’m glad that I ran into this obscure little point of departure for so many thoughts on branding, imperialism, socialism, health trends, Westernization, and postsocialist markets.

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