Category Archives: Holidays

The Gulf of Finland is actually just one big toilet

For the 234th birthday of America, a group of us headed out to Kurort, which, if I understand correctly, is actually a sanatorium located on the Gulf of Finland. The northern sun was sweltering and the Gulf of Finland was just begging to be swum in. And of course, we zealously-misguided-yet-patriotic Americans had to celebrate Independence Day with a bang. If there was any one day where it was permissible to be an obnoxiously loud American, today was the day. Equipped with various fun drinks and a frisbee (a perversely American outdoor toy), we hopped on an electrichka for a “patriotic” day at the beach. I’m not going to get into detail, but it was an absolutely fabulous day — the perfect way to celebrate America Day and the perfect excuse to drink ourselves silly on the beach.

Look Ma, I'm in the Gulf of Finland!

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“Welcome to Russia. People do whatever they like.”

I was rapidly deteriorating like a pickled tomato left out in the sun, and my friends were bleary-eyed from the lack of sleep, but we still decided to tempt fate and try and watch the Victory Day parade in the morning. Victory Day(Den’ Pobedy/День Победы) is a nuke-filled holiday that commemorates the end of the Great Patriotic War (the Eastern Front of WWII). This year was the largest parade since the fall of the Soviet union — and by large, I mean absolutely absurd in regards to the tanks and nukes and what not — 11,135 troops, 127 aircraft and helicopters, and the new Topol-M mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. I don’t even know what that means. Also, for the first time, they included military personnel from France, Poland, the UK, and the US. Here’s part of the parade, for those of you who are interested.

As we waited for Molly (Wisco reunion!) in the Chekohvskaya metro station, my heart sank as I watched the seas of people decked out in kitschy-communist garb flow towards the exit. When Molly arrived, we joined the human ocean and slowly shuffled our way out…only to find that instead of being near the parade, we had been placed behind a barrier 200 meters away from where the parade was. Moscow is a sprawling, enormous city, and I guess it makes sense to put up a barrier, because the parade would become chaotic with all the people clamoring  to watch the old Soviet tanks roll by. But still! They weren’t allowing people to exit a good number of metro stops, and they were closing entrances to streets left and right. No forewarning. This is Russia. I should have listened to my host mom and all my Russian buddies and stayed home to watch the parade on TV. Also, in regards to barriers in Russia, it’s not just a fence of some sort, it’s rows of fierce-looking omon — riot police. They’re basically beasts who beat up people for fun.

Human ocean.

However, aside from not seeing the parade (and some hostel glitches), everything was absolutely great in Moscow. We arrived the day before Victory Day at 6:30 am and essentially didn’t stop moving until we passed out from exhaustion on the train ride home. Moscow was particulary spruced up and groomed for Victory Day, and the 80 degree weather was a pleasant surprise. Among some of the sights we saw, we stopped by Novodiviche cemetary and said hello to some interned poets, writers, and former leaders.

Gogol

One of the more touching moments in Moscow was when we went to Park Pobedy to see more Victory Day celebrations. While they were still setting up the stage for the concert, there were rows of veterans in their uniform and medals sitting along the fountain. Russia has a beautiful tradition of thanking her veterans — people bought large bouquets of flowers to hand out to veterans and thanked them for their service and for helping secure Russia’s future. Call me maudlin, call me a sap, but I was almost moved to tears. Molly and I bought a couple of flowers and gave them to one woman who was sitting all by herself by the fountain. When we handed her flowers, her face softened and she wished us, “Счастья, чтобы не было войны, чтобы вы не видели то, что я видела.” — happiness, that there has not been war, and that you have not seen what I saw.

a little boy singing for a veteran

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Religious Pantomime Society?

“We’re taking you to a mime show!”

I figured, why not? I didn’t even know that mimes still existed, let alone existed in St. Petersburg. Plus, it’s not every day you see Russian mimes.  So on a gorgeous, sunny, so-warm-I-didn’t-need-my-coat day, my host sisters and I set off for the mime show. Which, incidentally, took place in a Catholic church.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Catholics or religion in general. But I couldn’t lie about the Catholic mime show even if I tried. Picture the quality of a third grade, badly rehearsed play and throw in the zeal of an evangelist, and that’s what I sat through for two hours. And I wish I was exaggerating. For example, they did a bit on AIDS (СПИД) which involved a spider, a spiderweb, the devil, a popped balloon, and an obscene amount of pantomimed sobbing, all set to the backdrop of terrifying halloween music. Kudos to them for their creativity.

In other news, spring is finally here, and it’s supposed to be in the 50’s for the rest of the week! And, it’s Easter, which for me, means gorging on tons of cheap chocolate and dyeing eggs red with onion skins. For the Orthodox part of Russia, it meant going to midnight Mass (which lasts for a few hours).

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I can see Finland from my Dacha

Since we had a long weekend, in honor of International Women’s Day, a group of us rented a dacha and headed up north to Vasilyova, near Finland. Tucked far away in the country side, it was a beautiful change of scenery from the grey, smoggy slush that is currently St. Petersburg.

sinking up to your thighs in snow is only half the fun! The other half is not being able to get out.

And there is no better way to escape the Petersburg doldrums than to sweat it out in a traditional Russian banya – a hot, steamy, wet sauna.

Upon entering the wooden sauna, the first thing that hits you is the wet heat. After five minutes, you’re profusely sweating. After seven minutes, you’re reduced to a sweaty human puddle. The steam in the air gets so strong and thick, you can’t even see. Breathing through your nose burns, and your heart is pounding in your ears. Being a neophyte banya go-er, I thought that the sauna was already plenty hot to begin with. The veterans, however, loudly complained that at a measly 60 degrees celsius (about 140 degrees farenheit), the sauna was the coldest one they had ever experienced — and proceeded to dump more and more water onto the coals, instantly releasing enormous amounts of steam into the small chamber.

The best part, however, is cooling off, which consisted of running and screaming into piles of snow…and then running and screaming back into the sauna, because after about 5 seconds, rolling around (almost completely) naked in the snow gets a tid bit nippy.

Overall, a fabulous weekend, replete with good food and good company. Oh, and a church on a lake, too.

we walked on a lake to get to the church

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Hi, my name is Single and Bitter

Today, as I was frantically running through the metro, looking quite disheveled and flustered, I happened to notice that all of the Russian men were looking particularly suave and dapper, more so than usual. It was as if all the beautiful man-gods decided to come out of hiding at 9:45 am (I was terribly late for class) and hop on the metro. Unfortunately for me, they all had their dainty, equally attractive Russian girlfriends dangling from their arms. Alas, the trials and tribulation of being single while being surrounded by extraordinarily good looking people – the good ones are always taken and the ones who are single are single for a reason. That reason being that they’re paunchy, creepy, balding, and come up to my shoulder. I jest, I’m just bitter.

The only consolation I have is that, from what I’ve seen, Russian men are terrible dancers. Terrible. I am by no means a good dancer, but they seriously danced like heavily sedated peg-legged penguins. Maybe it was just that one bar I was at last weekend, but I couldn’t keep a straight face, especially when I saw a couple of guys bust out moves straight from the 80’s – moves that should have been left in the 80’s, or better yet, never invented.

Now, time to celebrate Defender of the Fatherland Day, also known as Men’s Day (День защитника Отечества or simply День Мужчин). From what I understood, Defender of the Fatherland Day is kind of like Veteran’s Day, only pumped up with more testosterone. Originally known as Red Army Day, Men’s Day celebrates the anniversary of the first massive draft into the Red Army in 1918. Now, on February 23, men get showered with a ton of presents and then proceed to drink their way into oblivion.

For the rest of us, it’s a 4 day weekend. Pskov plans fell through, mainly because we’re terrible at planning and it’s obscenely cold (- 11 F, but feels like – 30!) . However, a 4 day weekend is a 4 day weekend, and it will not go to waste. ‘Til next week…

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Everything still seems to be one big, not-so-funny joke

I have a new survival tactic: follow (read: ambush and latch onto like a parasite) Russian grandmothers. If I’m crossing the street, I try and sandwich myself between a group of babushki. Or, if I’m on the metro, I try to find a babushka to stand next to. They are my shield, because they are such revered human beings and no one will touch them – and also because they’re invincible. Except for that one sour old woman on the bus, all babushkis I have encountered have been extremely nice and very helpful. When I didn’t know where to transfer from the blue line to the red line on the metro, a grandmother smiled at me like I was a 3 year old, grabbed my hand, and led me to where I needed to be. They must all think I’m one overgrown doofus. That’s ok, I’m grateful all the same.

Maybe I’m just really stupid, but I find the most mundane things here, that I normally wouldn’t find funny in the US, to be absolutely hilarious. For example, the other day, I was riding a marshrutka, a private bus, to the metro. Marshrutkas look like yellow astrovans that are rigged with a number of seats and handrails That day, the marshrutka happened to be especially packed – there was a line of people standing almost to the door. Hilarious? Not yet. But when the marshrutka took off, the driver blasted Keisha’s Tic Tock and began driving around erratically (or I guess, how a typical Russian would normally drive) to the metro, and people were swaying to and fro. Instant sweaty Russian party bus? Absolutely hysterical.

In other, more interesting news, we celebrated Maslenitsa (Масленица) as a group on Wednesday. Traditionally, Maslenitsa is a week long holiday celebrated right before Lent, but we went to a tourist park to celebrate it in a day. Maslenitsa is the last chance to partake in eating a ton of bliny (sort of like pancakes), eggs, dairy, and participate in all sorts of fun and debauchery before one has to sober up for Lent. What that meant for us uncultured Americans was a lot of dancing around straw figures, swinging, romping around in the snow, extreme sledding, and childish glee. And of course, eating bliny (although not NEARLY enough.)

Dancing around the Kostroma aka Lady Maslenitsa. Soon after, they burn her and scatter her ashes to fertilize the soil.

*Thank you to Masha for the picture

Game over.

The tourist park was kind of like historical Williamsburg, except funnier and not as creepy.

Each day of Maslenitsa has a traditional activity: one day for meeting parents-in-law and eating bliny, one day for sledding and eating bliny, one day for burning the kostroma and eating bliny (see a common trend here?) During the Soviet era, when religious holidays were a big no-no, families continued to celebrate by preparing a ton of delicious bliny for friends and family. So now, it seems to me that people no longer really celebrate the religious aspect of it – it’s all about eating a ton of pancakes and dairy. Sounds like my kind of holiday, one that involves an obscene amount of eating sweets – kind of like Valentine’s Day, except with less self-esteem issues and more fun.

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