Monday, October 25, 2010

Something somber to match the weather

Living in a city where most of the women wear nicer clothes than I will ever own and where most of the men drive nicer cars than I will ever drive, it’s easy to forget how they suffered ten/twenty/thirty years ago.  I’m not saying that Russia is rolling in the dough – I’m very much aware of the ridiculous lack of a middle class.  Every day I see how my host mom economizes (and she’s fairly well off) and yet it’s still easy to forget. 

For Americans, the phrase “food stamps” brings to mind the unemployed who are currently on welfare.  It’s certainly nothing the average American even has to consider and sometimes carries with it a certain shameful connotation.  For Nina and her family (as well as the rest of Russia), it was their day-to-day reality. 

As with most of our topics of conversation, I have no idea how it started, but I definitely remember her saying:  “Every month we would get a stamp for a kilogram of meat per person.”
As an American, I have no idea what a kilogram is in terms of pounds.  She takes out here cooking scale and fills up a glass that previously held jam with water.  It’s 1.3 kilograms.  She empties a little out – 1.1.  Again she pours a little out.  Finally, it read 1.07 kg.  “It’s still a little more than a kilogram, but you get the idea.”

This wasn’t just for meat; it was for everything: food, clothing, etc. – basically everything that wasn’t grown or made locally.  To exacerbate the situation, the stores were only open during working hours and the lines were the stuff of legend.  A person could wait up to three hours in line waiting for a loaf of bread or a carton of milk.  “My husband and I didn’t have time to go to the store.  What was I supposed to do?  Get myself fired?”

And so her little son, Alyosha, would go straight to the store after school and wait patiently in line for a good hour or two.  The phrase “little” refers to how he was then, not to how he is now.  He’s now a loveable, yet somewhat imposing (over-six-foot-tall) Russian bear.  Even now he remembers:  “I didn’t have a childhood mama.  I spent it all waiting in line.”

Once she’s started speaking about her son, she usually cannot stop herself from singing his praises for a bit (and not without due cause – he’s a great guy).  I get comfortable.  She tells me how they used to hand out food to the children at school.  Nothing much, mind you, just an apple or an orange or a candy or something.  Apparently, every day, while the other children were eating their snack, Alyosha would quietly pocket his own.  The teacher would come up to him and ask, “Alyosha, what’s wrong?  Don’t you like it?”

“I like it.”

“Then why aren’t you eating?”

“I’m taking it home to share with Mama.”

He’d do this every day.  It didn’t matter what it was.  He’d cut the tiniest piece of candy into two pieces – one for him and one for his mama.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Quick update

Went to Anna Akhmatova's apparetment.  Got to see the rooms that inspired a lot of her poetry.

Went on an outing to all of the places in Crime and Punishment.

Went to a museum where they have art done on the tip of a piece of human hair, poppy-seed, etc.  I kid you not.  You go in through this super-sketch stairway and then the museum is in a random apartment and you look at the art through microscopes.

Hockey: We were sitting right next to the team from Moscow.  And a BUTTLOAD of riot police.  SOOOO much fun.  Probably going again soon.

KuntzKamera:  Seriously disturbed shit.  Never again.

Although, when we left KuntzKamera we saw a bear outside the Hermitage, so it wasn't a complete loss.  Living the Russian dream.....

Going to see the Marriage of Figaro tomorrow and the Nutcracker on Wednesday.

Makes up for the freezing cold and total lack of sun.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Catching up and FIRST SNOW

So a lot of things have happened since I last wrote (if you can call that last entry an entry, I mean, really).

First off IT'S SNOWING!  Like honest-to-God snowing, not that mamby-pamby BS that we call snow in Virginia.

We went on our long cruise, which was quite interesting (although some of the tour-guides, not so much).  We visited Нижный Новгород, Казань, Ульяновск (where Lenin was born and grew up), Самара (where one of Stalin's bunkers is), Саратов and Волгоград (Сталинград, where basically the whole city was bombed to the ground by the Nazi's).

My impressions of the cities:
Nizhny Novgorod - an ok city, but a terrible tour guide and we spent WAY too much time there

Kazan - GORGEOUS city with a really interesting blend of Tatar and Russian culture.  The mosque there looks like something out of the emerald city from the wizard of OZ.

Ulyanovsk - besides Lenin, doesn't have much going for it, which explains why they are still completely obsessed with the man despite the fact that he was NOT all that and a bag of chips.  They also have a monument to the letter ё.

Samara - bunker was cool, could have skipped the rest

Saratov - cute little musical city, reminded me of singing with the choir at Middlebury

Volgograd - really sad, although the monuments are a little bit overwhelming.  It occasionally steps of the line of reverent remembrance into cult-like devotion.

Moscow - totally could have skipped my 4th visit there.  Over-rated city.  Got some Nutella though, so not a complete waste of a day.

I think the best part of it all was the fact that we shared the boat with a bunch of retired Germans and British people.  A rather bizarre combination of age-groups and nationalities.  It was super fun watching them dance in the bars on the boat at night.  Makes me sad that I can't really dance like that.  Our generation is not going to age well.....

But now I'm back :-)  Apparently having lost a lot of weight (although I don't really think so....)  My host mom is on the war-path and attempting to fatten me back up.