How I became the problem

So today I was going to get up early and head out to Tula to visit Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana… but I managed to come down with a cold and woke up this morning feeling like death. So I have postponed my visit until tomorrow, and will somehow brave the predicted thunderstorms in the name of literary pilgrimage.

Anyway, last weekend I went and spent a whirlwind 48 hours in Tbilisi, which was wonderful. The only thing I don’t miss about it is the heat. But I caught up with friends, ate my fill of cherries and khachapuri, and had a great time wandering around the familiar city. When I was talking with April, my friend and travel companion from last summer, she reminded me of our motto on our various excursions: Food-Based Goals. As long as you are working your way towards the eventuality of something delicious, you can do anything, and will probably have an amazing time! This is a sort of round-about introduction to the story of one of my own food-based goals in Russia: finding curry powder. The following is a Snapchat novella that I created a few weeks ago. (Some context: Russians, I have found, love to add sour cream (smetana) to things, which I may have made fun of in the past.)

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Tromping through the woods with a dozen middle-aged Russians

This weekend, I decided enough was enough– I am just not a city girl at heart, and I needed some more nature in my life. I saw a posting on an expat group on Facebook about a hiking club that goes out for day hikes every Sunday, which seemed right up my alley. So at 8:30 on Sunday morning I showed up at the train station in my hiking boots. Five hours later, I was skinny-dipping in a lake with two Russian women.


I suppose I should back up a little bit. Although the group was advertised as Russian/expat, the hike ended up being me and about a dozen middle-aged Russians. They were all super nice to me though, asking me questions about my life, what I was doing in Russia, and were very patient with me when my Russian wasn’t quite good enough to say everything I wanted to. We spent hours and hours walking through the forest– I assumed someone up near the front of the group had a plan and knew where we were going. There had been a lot of rain the day before, so we kept having to go bushwhacking to avoid sections of the trail that had turned into giant puddles, although one member of the group just took off his shoes and waded in. I should also probably note that the leader of our group wore socks and tevas for the entire 20km (~12 mile) hike, although he did pull out a backup pair of sandals after a particularly muddy section.


While wandering through the woods and the potato fields, I got asked a number of interesting questions about the US. My favorite by far was whether or not people in the US have dachas (little summer cabins outside the cities where people grow vegetables in the summer.) My response that no, people in the US don’t usually have dachas, was met with confusion. “But Obama’s wife is always on TV, telling people to grow vegetables. Where are they supposed to grow them if they don’t have a dacha?” I wasn’t sure how to respond.


Something that I have long heard of, but never before experienced, is the Russian love for mushroom gathering. And, sure enough, members of our group would periodically dart into the woods, emerging triumphantly with a mushroom in hand, and everyone would stop to admire it. Two of the women I made friends with were also gathering raspberry and strawberry leaves, to make tea out of. When they discovered that I had never tried raspberry leaf tea, I got sent home with a bag of leaves of my own, and instructions on how to prepare it. They told me that, like medicine, you shouldn’t take it too often, but from time to time it is very beneficial. I’ll be sure to report back once I actually get around to making the tea.

We spent the better part of the hike walking around a lake, and stopped for lunch on the bank. I was impressed by the amount an vairety of food that everyone had managed to hike in with them, and before I knew it I was being offered pancakes, stuffed pastries, and even caviar spread. Everyone also had large thermoses of tea, and we spread out in the grass for a wonderful picnic.


After lunch, my two new friends invited me to go swimming with them. When I admitted that I hadn’t brought our swimsuit, they exclaimed, “Oh, we don’t have ours either! Come on, we’ll go out away from the rest of the group!” So I followed and soon found myself naked, in the middle of a lake with two women who were essentially strangers. It was the happiest I’ve been since arriving in Moscow.

Although the water was warm, it was cloudy all day, and after getting out of the water we were all quite chilly. Fortunately the leader of our group had just the solution for us: a flask of… something, which he poured into little thimble-shaped shot glasses and passed to each of us in turn. That with the surprisingly still-hot tea from someone’s thermos warmed us right up. Although this is the part where I should probably be responsible and caution my young readers (do I have any young readers? I don’t know) not to accept alcohol from strangers… I think in some circumstances you should just embrace the experience.

Before leaving our lunch site, our group did a 10-minute clean up of the surrounding area. The one negative part of the hiking was seeing how much garbage people just left in the forest. I didn’t take any pictures, obviously, but it was all over the place. Our group made a commendable effort and filled several large bags, but it was a small drop in the bucket compared to all the piles of trash we passed on our hike. I was glad, at least, to be part of the group picking up trash, instead of leaving it behind.


In which I learn an important lesson about lining up for things

I was originally going to post today about my first week in the city, getting settled in my apartment and internship, and getting to know Moscow. But something happened to me today that is just begging to be written about, so I will hold off momentarily on the horrors of my evening commute.

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Anyway, today I decided to get out of the city and took the train to Сергиев Посад (Sergiev Posad,) to visit the Holy Trinity Lavra, a monastery that is one of the holiest places in Russia: it is considered “the center of Russian Orthodoxy” and is a major pilgrimage site. Last year it celebrated it’s 700th (!) anniversary and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But I did not travel there because I was particualrly interested in it as a spiritual or historical site (although it had quite a rich history, if you’re interested.) No, I went there mainly because it is featured in War and Peace, as the site where (spoilers!) Natasha Rostova is reunited with her former fiancé Prince Andrei after he is gravely wounded at the battle of Borodino.


I arrived at the monastery looking particularly Russian, as you can see, which may explain some of what followed.

I walked around for a while, and peeked into some of the cathedrals. Found the tomb of tsar Boris Gudonov, and considered getting in line for some holy water from the spring, but was dubious of its origin and decided against it. Then I saw the giant line of people waiting to get in to the Trinity Cathedral (the “heart” of the monastery, where, my guidebook said, the tomb of St. Sergei is located.) The line was pretty long, and it was was rather warm out, but I had just ridden an hour and a half from Moscow to get here, so I figured I might as well see everything. So I got in the back of the line.


So I waited in line. And waited. And waited. At one point, a woman handed me a small prayer book, which I noticed everyone around me appeared to be reading. So I tried to read it too, and found it extremely difficult. I then flipped to the back and found a small dictionary– apparently I had been trying to read Church Slavonic (or something like it.) I continued waiting in line, people-watching and questioning whether going into this cathedral was even worth it, for probably and hour. I finally made it up to the entrance of the cathedral, and that was when I noticed something was off. Plenty of tourists, it seemed, were just walking in and out of the cathedral willy-nilly– not waiting in line at all! And no one in line seemed annoyed by them. Something was up. Why was I in this line? But at this point I figured I’d waited this long, I might as well follow the line into the cathedral.

Finally, finally, I rounded the corner into the cathedral, and noticed everyone in front of my was picking up small candles from a desk. Not wanting to stand out, I did as well, although I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I was getting increasingly worried that I was about to make a huge fool of myself. We made our way into the cathedral proper, and I could see that the line I was in did, in fact, have a destination: a small raised platform in the back-right corner of the chapel, over which a priest was intoning something, with a group of women at times harmonizing in response. At this point, everyone in line started crossing themselves. Again, not wanting to blow my cover as an increasingly-confused tourist, I just crossed myself every time the woman in front of me did. I resolved to just follow her actions exactly, because at this point I was in too deep– I couldn’t leave the line without making a huge scene, and possibly deeply offending the hordes of babushkas around me. My guiding principle to a happy life in Russia is to not do things that anger the babushkas, and this has worked out for me so far.

So I surrendered to my fate, following the line and mimicking everything the woman in front of me did to the best of my ability. When she bowed, I bowed, when she lit a candle and placed it on this huge candle stand, I did as well, even though it resulted in me getting hot wax all over my hands. Finally we reached the little raised platform, and, continuing to mimic the woman in front of me, I crossed myself, knelt, touched my forehead to this sheet of glass on a raised gold structure, and, looking through the glass as I kissed it,  realized that I had just waited in line an hour to kiss the tomb of St. Sergei.

I crossed myself a few more times for good measure and hightailed it out of there. And will be much more wary of the lines I get into in the future.


Back in the land of the blini

Just a quick update to say I made it to Moscow safe and sound yesterday, including an adventure navigating the notoriously-crowded Moscow metro system at час пик (rush hour) with a giant suitcase in tow. I am staying at a hostel for two nights until I move into my apartment on Saturday. Today’s adventures include finding a new SIM card for my phone and continuing to break in my shoes while exploring Moscow.

Georgian Lessons

So I finally got my act together and have signed up for six weeks of “Survival Georgian” classes, and my first class is on Monday. In the meantime I’ve been compiling a list of things I wished I was able to say in Georgian during the two weeks I’ve been here, but that I am doubtful the class is going to cover. These include:

  1. The corner of the ceiling in the bathroom seems to have fallen. Help?
  2. Please, for the love of all that is holy, please stop yelling outside my window. It is 3 am.
  3. Cumin.
  4. Hello small children. Please stop knocking on my door and running away. It wasn’t funny the first time, or the subsequent ten times.
  5. Dear sir, you seem to be confused. Let me assure you that I was in line before you.
  7. No really, I don’t need 2 kilos of eggplants. Really. No, seriously. Please stop handing me eggplants.

One week later

Walking to work this morning, listening to the now-familiar clatter of the loose cobblestones, it was difficult to believe that just one week ago I was making the same walk, terrified about starting my internship. At the time I was also not entirely sure where the office was located. Fortunately, thanks to the help of some whatever the Georgian equivalent are of babushki, I found the right street and the office. Although I was told to arrive at 10 am, which to me seemed somewhat late, when I arrived there were only two people in the office, both of whom seemed to be at a loss for what to do with me. So I read through some information about the organization, various past publications and project/grant proposals until the rest of the people who work here began trickling in at around 11. This is actually pretty normal here. Also, I learned that Wellesley’s pre-internship orientation gave me seriously unrealistic expectations about the office dress code… jeans and a t-shirt is perfectly acceptable, and I actually feel over-dressed most days.

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Since I don’t speak any Georgian, I am not necessarily the most helpful intern, but people here have been pretty nice to me anyway. I forgot my lunch on Thursday, and despite the fact that I didn’t tell anyone about it, two people came and dropped off food at my desk, unsolicited, over the course of the day. (Apparently someone thought I needed to try lobiani,  which is a kind of bean-stuffed bread/pastry. The version I got resembled a pig in a blanket, but with beans instead of a hot-dog. It made for a great lunch, actually.

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In terms of actual work, I am currently researching the implementation of anti-discrimination laws in various Eastern European countries. (Georgia recently passed its own such law, and I think the organization I’m working at will be somehow involved in its implementation.) It’s interesting work, but also frustrating, because a lot of the information I need is only available in, say, Moldovan, or Lithuanian.

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Outside of work, I’ve been doing my best to explore the city and am still adjusting to living here. I navigated the food bazaar by myself yesterday, and was rewarded with a huge pile of fresh produce. Most of my interactions with people here take on the same form: I ask “Do you speak English” and if they don’t, then ask “говорите по-русски?” If they don’t speak English or Russian, then I am out of luck and do my best to communicate with hand gestures, which works well about half the time. I made a bit of a fool of myself at the market yesterday– I was looking for cumin, and the woman selling spices only spoke Georgian, so she found a friend who spoke Russian, but then I realized I had no idea how to say “cumin” in Russian either. Five people speaking a mix of Georgian, Russian, and English later, I had to admit defeat, and apologized profusely before moving on.

On Saturday I took a hike from my apartments up to Mtatsminda Park, and then across the hills over to the Narikala Fortress and the Tbilisi Botanic Gardens. It was a beautiful day and I got some spectacular views of the city.

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I also passed by the Kartlis Deda (“Mother of Georgia”) giant aluminum statue that helps me find my way home when I’m wandering the city (it’s almost directly above my street.) The statue is holding wine in one hand to greet guests, and a sword in the other to greet enemies, which is perhaps telling about the Georgian national character? Regardless, I can confirm that the statue is large and made of aluminum.

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The Botanic Gardens were absolutely stunning– in places it felt as though I’d left the city entirely. I didn’t get a chance to explore the pinetum or the “Plants of Eastern Georgia” section, but I have no doubt I’ll be back. It definitely puts Petersburg’s Botanic Gardens to shame (although I am biased towards gardens that don’t feel cultivated.)

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Looking forward to possibly doing some hiking outside of the cities in the following weeks… stay tuned!

Last day in Russia, Arrival in Tbilisi

On my last morning in St. Petersburg, I came into the kitchen for breakfast, expecting kasha as usual, and was instead confronted with this:

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My host mom has been in the hospital for the past few days because she fell and hurt her knee, but she asked her neighbor to come over and make me blini for my last breakfast in Russia. I actually started tearing up, it was so sweet of her.

I spent my last day in Petersburg basically running around like a crazy person: packing, returning things to my program office, cancelling my internet, etc. etc. So I was a little frazzled when I called the taxi service to get a taxi to the airport. I also am not the best at speaking on the phone in Russian– it’s much harder to understand what people are saying when you aren’t face-to-face. So, long story short, I accidentally requested a taxi from the airport to my host family’s house, rather than the other way around. Fortunately, my host dad was able to call the taxi service and fix the problem, and I got to the airport with time to spare.

I flew to Tbilisi via Riga (the capital of Latvia) and traveled from St. Petersburg with a bunch of Russians who were also headed to Tbilisi. I struck up a conversation with one of the women, who was happy to point out the direction of the connecting flight, and then asked me where I was from. Without thinking, I said “the US” and she and her friend laughed. “Well, we won’t hold what Obama’s been doing against you,” she said. Whoops. I forgot, momentarily, that US-Russia relations are not the friendliest at the moment.

Despite the fact that the flight from Riga to Tbilisi left at midnight and arrived at 3:30 am, it was the most talkative flight I have ever been on. I thought I had stepped into the middle of a family reunion, but no, it was just a lot of people excited to be going (back) to Georgia. After arriving in Tbilisi I got a taxi from the airport to the center of town, with a super friendly cab driver (fortunately, we both spoke Russian, because I know exactly one word in Georgian.) Along the way, he pointed out to me various Tbilisi landmarks, including the famous “George W. Bush Street,” complete with a large mural of the former president. When I asked “Why him?” my cab driver just shrugged.

I’ve been spending the last few days settling into my apartment here, stocking up on living necessities at the HUGE indoor/outdoor markets in the city. The amount of fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers for sale is still amazing to me. For some reason my computer is not letting me upload photos, so just picture lots of flowers, smoothies, and vegetable platters. The apartment I’m in is small, but comfortable– the only drawback is that all of the neighbors have a really nice view of the entirety of our kitchen from the courtyard, and also, some of the walls are slanted. I’d be more concerned if every other house didn’t also look like it wasn’t adhering to any sort of building codes. My internship starts on Monday– I’m not sure yet exactly what I will be doing for this human rights group, but I will let you know as soon as I find out!

ნახვამდის! (This is apparently “goodbye” in Georgian– just don’t ask me how to say it.)