Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Day in Moscow is the same as any other day

Happy Thanksgiving! My Thanksgiving day is in full swing, and I'm at work! No break for the Americans on our holiday ... thus is life. We do have plans to have Thanksgiving dinner at our apartment (Rachel's and my apartment) on Sunday. It sounds like it will end up just being a big party, but hopefully it's fun and somewhat Thanksgiving-esque. The plan is that everyone will bring what food idems they need for it to be Thanksgiving for them (other than Turkey :). We will be eating chicken instead of turkey because it's easier (as in we don't have to cook it all day). There's a kiosk that sells delicious rotisserie chickens near our apartment, and we have a 24 hour grocery store, so in case we are running low on food or drink we can run and get more!

Snow and clearing snow

While the public sidewalks appear to have been cleared by motorized vehicles, or at least a machine with wheels and a plow, the drive that goes through our apartment complex is cleared by manual laborers. Who these people are or why the complex does not feel it would be better to invest in a vehicle is perplexing. As Rachel and I walked home from the metro last night, and as it continued to snow, we came across one of these workers. He had a large snow shovel and even waited for us to pass before continuing his work. While on the one hand I am blown away by this, it also makes some sense. The apartment complex has cars parked randomly all over, so there’s no real way that a vehicle could possibly be as thorough as a man with a shovel. At the same time, this is like saying that when you are painting walls, you should just use a paint brush because you would have to touch up the corners with a brush anyway.

The snow is simply beautiful as it has covered everything out at Kon’kovo and our forest, Bitsevsky Park is now, as Rachel said, a winter wonderland. I wrote this the morning of the 26th and the snow has continued to fall since then. In the city, the snow is slush, but out near our apartment, it’s still gorgeous.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy First Snow!

It snowed today, but I was indoors and didn't realize it until after work when it was dark. It is currently snowing!

This is the view from my balcony Wednesday evening.

The view Thursday morning.

It is getting dark here earlier and earlier. Monday, when I was paying attention, I noticed that it started getting dark at about 4:30 which feels a little weird.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Starbucks: a taste of home

Today was tough, I'm am trying not to fall into the deep rut of homesickness. With the holidays coming up and no snow on the ground (yet! It should snow Thursday, and we got a hint today!!), I am definitely feeling my heartstrings pulled toward missing family, friends, Thanksgiving dinner, and Christmas decorations, songs, etc.

On the one hand, of course I am excited to be in another country, and of course there are other Americans around to celebrate Thanksgiving with, but on the other hand, holiday traditions vary around the country in America, so things won't be exactly what any of us are expecting.

Additionally, I keep running up against the wall of phrases and cultural references that other Americans don't understand or haven't heard before. I am realizing more and more the regional identities of Americans and why we cling so close to our states. When you ask an American where they are from, they do not typically say "America" like Russian's say Russia, Canadians say Canada, and Scots say Scotland. More often Americans will tell you the state (I do this too). "I'm from Idaho, in the United States. It's in the western part" is my response.

Taking all of this culture shock into consideration, after work today, I went to Starbucks for the first time since I arrived in Moscow. I did not expect it to be the same. I expected it to be a spin off of the American themed Starbucks, like McDonald's isn't typically what American's think of as McDonald's (even if they do serve exactly the same food). But when I walked up to this Starbucks (that is a two minute walk from work!) and looked in the window, it seemed so familiar (despite the Cyrillic which phonetically spelled Starbucks: СТАРБАКС), and when I walked it I felt like I was in the United States. The decorations were Christmas themed red and green. The drinks were all exactly the same ... caramel macchiato, mocha, and the Christmas themed drinks, peppermint mocha and gingerbread latte. The merchandise was the same, the wall colors and furniture types were the same! I was so relieved and happy, I am almost ashamed! I think that anytime I start feeling the pangs of homesickness, I will go to Starbucks and be greeted with a smile, a joyful "добрый день! (Dobry Den!)" - "Good Day!" and the friendliness that Starbucks has a trademark.

The Myth about blue jeans in Russia

Before I came to Moscow, many people suggested that I should stock pile name brand jeans and sell them here. When I arrived, I got the impression that this actually might not work as well as many people thought. Everywhere I looked, people were wearing jeans. As I observed this, I felt slightly out of place because I only brought one pair of "blue jeans" with me, and Moscow is surprisingly prolific in jeans. I believe that the myth about the demand versus supply stems from how things were in Russia the decade or so following the opening of the iron curtain. After clothes shopping yesterday, I know that while you might be able to sell SOME jeans on the street, prices would have to be low, low, low because jeans are in an overabundance here. I was looking for work clothes yesterday -- nice trousers and tops -- and some shops I went in had nothing but jeans, jeans, jeans wall to wall (and this was true in several shops, not just the Levi's store).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I know it's early for Christmas stuff

Ok, ok, so maybe it's a little early to be decorating my blog like it's Christmas. I know it's not even Thanksgiving yet! But in the United States, once Halloween is over, the store decorations and street decorations change to a Christmas theme. This is not true in Moscow. In some stores I have seen small "Christmas" sections, but it is nothing like the overboard decorations, Christmas music, and overall sentimental feeling of stores, streets, and people in the States. So, I guess I'm working toward creating that feeling for myself. The weather helps because it is cold, and I associate Christmas and Thanksgiving with snow. (Side note: There is still no snow on the ground.) I also associate Thanksgiving and Christmas with family and close friends, so being in another country for the holidays will be a little difficult. The upside is that I am not the only native English speaker sticking around for the holidays, so we will have a pseudo-Thanksgiving (probably not on Thanksgiving because we will all have to work), and we will at least have a nice lunch together on Christmas.

So, you may be wondering ... why are things different? Why wouldn't Russia celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas? Well, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, and Christmas is a Christian religious holiday (so yes, some people do celebrate Christmas, but it's not as we know it in the states). Here they do the presents and the tree for New Years - a holdover from the secularization of Soviet times.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The requested recipe (banana bread)

Banana Bread
Bake 350ºF (170ºC) for about 35 minutes or until golden brown (time really depends on the oven)

½ Cup margarine (or butter)
1 Cup sugar
2 Eggs
4 Overripe bananas, crushed
½ Cup chopped walnuts (or pecans) - OPTIONAL!
2 Cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
dash of cinnamon

Cream butter, add sugar, eggs, bananas, nuts. Add flour, salt, cinnamon and soda together. Put in loaf pans (or one 8x8 pan) that are sprayed with cooking spray and coated with sugar.

Sharing banana bread is better than eating it alone

I decided to share my banana bread today and not be selfish. Often in the teacher's room there is some sort of common food, and this was my first real contribution. (I don't think cheese crackers count for much!) I'm glad I shared because as I had guessed, many people had never heard of or tried banana bread. It was great to hear the pleasant exclamations as I worked in another room preparing for my lessons. I had three requests for the recipe, and this made me think of how information is exchanged between cultures. While information and cultural exchanges can be seen as good and bad, I feel that in this situation it was a good exchange - something pleasant for the taste buds and a way to use overripe bananas. :)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Nothing like successful banana bread

I should have taken a picture of the banana bread that fell flat as a comparison. It was tough, had a thick crust, and was gooey inside. Gross! I couldn't even talk myself into eating more than two pieces of it.

This time, success. Without measuring cups, baking takes a little training. I have a tendency to add too much flour at once, but there's no reversing that (adding liquid just creates too much gluten). So I'm learning restraint. It's much better to add a little flour at a time until you achieve the right consistency! Anyway, the banana bread is delicious and now I have a dilemma ... to share and brag at work (not sure if they even have banana bread here) or to keep it all to myself!

The МЕГА (Mega)

Friday was payday, so I went shopping for something other than groceries Saturday after work. Luckily, I was able to control my pent up consumerism and didn't buy everything in the Mega (a huge mall not too far from Kon'kovo). I now have a couple blankets for my bed, some decent kitchen knives, a kid-cheater (spatula or rubber scraper), a whisk, some mixing bowls ... and other practical household items that I have been wanting. Next weekend I plan to go clothes and Christmas shopping, and hopefully that trip is as successful.

The Mega is a short bus ride from the metro and it has everything from clothes to furniture to groceries to an ice skating rink. It's like an American mall, but larger. Maybe it could be compared to the Mall of America. The concept of the Mega seems to be to consolidate and centralize shopping options for this area of Moscow (keep in mind that there are multiple Megas around Moscow). Millions of people, thousands of cars, and hundreds public and private buses and vans make for what initially looks like a big mess. Parking looks like a nightmare (but at least there's a parking lot, in downtown Moscow people resort to parking on the sidewalks). Why would a city or area planner agree to create such a huge mall with no metro access, no parking garages, and inadequate road access? It's absolutely crazy! The benefit of having this mall out in the middle of nowhere (if there can be such a place in Moscow) is that the number of people are limited. If the metro stopped at the mall, I'm afraid the place would be packed at all times. Regardless, it was an adventure to be endured only once or twice a month max!

Monday, November 3, 2008


Thanks to Bingham County, Idaho's early voting set up, I voted before I got on the plane to fly to Russia. Now I am anxiously awaiting the results of the election.

Trip out of Moscow - Kolomna

A few of us from EF took a day trip out of the city today. The change in pace from Moscow to Kolomna was absolutely wonderful. We left Moscow via bus at about 10 this morning, arrived in Kolomna at noon and left at 6:30 via train. In the sunshine, we wandered around the ploshad (square), visited the monastery, saw a camel?! then grabbed a relaxed bite to eat at a great little art cafe. The prices were amazingly reasonable, as compared to the hyper-inflated prices of food in Moscow, and the food was delicious. Because we had no real need to be anywhere, the trip was slow-paced, meandering, and refreshing!

Kolomna Ploshad (square)

The Leaning Tower of Kolomna

Kolomna Ploshad from afar

The Wall

Smiling in Moscow

Smiling ... it's something we all do and something Russians have a reputation for not doing. While at first I argued that the lack of smiling was symptomatic of being in a large city, after a little over a month of being here, it seems there is something deeper going on. Of course, I cannot speak for all Muscovites, let alone all of Russia, so I will mainly stick to self-analysis.

Over the weeks I have been here, trying to emulate the composure and straight face of those around me, I gradually began to notice the effect not smiling had on me, emotionally. Just as I get grumpy and a little out of sorts when I do not get enough hugs, me-time, quality time with friends, etc. I got out of sorts and mopey when I attempted to not smile. I finally internalized this this morning and have been working on reversing the no-smiling curse. Smiling releases endorphins, hormones, and generally makes me feel good, so why, why, why should I deprive myself of this?

I am not sure of the reason for most Muscovites, but I think it has something to do with the general feeling of instability, what will life be like tomorrow? For almost a century, Russians invested in the Soviet system. They understood it, it was familiar to them, and in general, it worked. With the fall of the iron curtain and the economic ups and downs which followed, has come a general feeling of instability for Russians. How can you plan for the future? How can you think about what you are going to do with your friends next week, let alone your children in five years, and your grandchildren in forty? So, in essence, what is there to smile about?

I'm alive. I'm healthy. I have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. Those I care for are in the same boat. Life is not too bad, and right now, it seems too short not to do my best to embrace the positive aspects of it. So, I am vowing to smile on the metro, in public, and in general.