Saturday, September 8, 2007

Chicken Kiev (i.e. Kiev, part II)

The next day I started out a lot later. The breakfast buffet wasn't included and was a fairly steep $7, and I could see that it was not worth that at all, so I instead went to a cafe. I took a random bus randomly somewhere, and it was so bumpy it could have been a theme park ride: it was a semi-trailer bus, and I was all the way in the back, so the effect was like a catapult vaulting me into the air with every bump. I found my way to the metro and took it to somewhere near the Botanical Gardens, to which I made my way. As I had exited the metro, I saw a police officer, who was guarding the exit, glance down at my bag (my Stony Brook shoulder bag), and was unsurprised when a moment later he asked to check my documents. I didn't know whether they did that, so I was glad I'd been keeping my passport on me.

The bus conductor had been friendly, yelling at length at 2 young girls when they didn't have enough for the fare (but letting them stay on) and also friendly was the attendant at a food stand, literally yelling at me to stand in line when I inquired about a refrigerated Snickers. I decided she could take the Snickers and shove it. The garden was a gigantic park, with a small monastery in it, and I walked around the complex for a long time. While there I saw a strange hummingbird-like insect hanging around the flowers. I tried to take some pictures, and got about one decent one before what looked like a giant yellowjacket (a cicada killer, I think) swooped in on it, and they fell into the brush; I heard some struggling (i.e. lots of buzzing) and needless to say the overgrown bee was the one that emerged. I saw another hummingbird bug and hung around to see if it would be taken down, but no such luck. After the park I made my way to the city center where I hung around for a while before returning to the hotel. As I was going to sleep there were fireworks going off outside (shrug) so I watched that for a while.

While walking through the city the next day, I had seen young military cadets walking through the streets (as had been the case in Russia of course), reminding e of my Russian professor from Kiev, who recounted his schoolchildren days from time to time. He had also had military training growing up, as it was compulsory, and by 8th grade he could disassemble a Kalishnikov in 8 seconds, with reassembly bringing the total up to 25. At one point I stopped in a park, where people were playing chess, backgammon, dominoes, etc at the tables. A backgammon game ended not far from me, and as he collected the kopeeks I was unsurprised when the man sitting there invited me to play. I said I didn't know how, and was further unsurprised when he said that was fine, and named the sum of 15 hrvina. He grew impatient as I hesitated, and as his phone rang, discretion got the best of me as I decided that, although it'd be another cool story about how I learned backgammon from a stranger, in Russian, in a park in Kiev, I decided it wasn't going to be worth the frustration, and when he answered the phone I skedaddled. Later on in another park (well, not quite a park) there was a man practicing with a whip while another looked on. Shrug. I continued on down a hill and, due to reconstruction, a long dirt road which also reminded me of the Wild West (similar to Arkhangelsk). Back on Khreschatik, there were some impressive break dancers (as opposed to in the atrium of Benedict at Stony Brook), and I watched that for a while before taking the metro home, just missing the marshrutka back to the hotel. One might naively expect that the remainder of the day's events involved taking the next one and calling it a night.

Nope. Another old man who also didn't make it on the bus started talking to me. He was, I think, another shoe salesman, but not as well off as the Land Rover-driving Oleg in St. Petersburg, complaining that he'd read in magazines that some sort of shoes were "in" but was having difficulty selling. He showed me a woman's show which he had hanging around his neck, a sort of strange, ogromnoe (huge) necklace, as well as two others in his shoulder bag. He asked me what I thought of them. I said I didn't really have too many opinions on women's shoes, and so he asked the girl standing next to me what she thought; she said she didn't like them all that much. He said that at home, he had thousands of shoes, and that he was trying to open a shoe museum. The girl marveled (nichego cebe!) and asked how long he'd been collecting and he said since the war. He had earlier complained about how much money the USSR had spent in Cuba, Indonesia (or maybe it was Thailand), I think complaining that there was enough need for it in the Soyuz itself. He said he'd written Yuschenko (and others) about his museum but there seemed to be little interest in the idea. He then asked if I had a videocamera, and invited me to film his collection and try to get some news coverage in the US. I explained that I had one more day and said I would try. I wanted to help this 70-year old pensioner at least partially fulfill his dream, but he wasn't home when I called the next morning, so that was that.

So after calling, I went out and ambled around, not knowing what else to see, and at night took a river cruise on the Dnepr. While I waited for launch, another boat passed by, Verka Serdjuchka's "tuk tuk tuk" playing loudly, which made me laugh. Ah, Verka Serdjuchka - a Ukranian singer, who sings in Russian as he cross-dresses as a comical woman. He was going to run for parliament in Ukraine, I heard, pledging not to come to work in costume. I was hooked when I heard "vsyo budyet khorosho (everything will be fine)" and saw its video, and hooked my suitemates at Stony Brook as well. Enjoy:

The boat ride was all right; I'd hoped for more of a "tour" as opposed to a party boat, for for 25 hrvina ($5) it was good enough. I got acquainted with a young couple; the girl asked why I was by myself, and I said I was just a tourist and explained a bit of the story. I wasn't sure whether she, or one of her friends, was getting married imminently, because she was talking about said friend, and then a wedding, and then some imminent travels that she was going on, so I wondered if that meant she was getting married and that was the honeymoon, or what. Oh well. She asked what I thought of Kiev, Ukraine, Ukranians; I said I hadn't had enough time or contact to make much of an opinion, but that owing to the Soviets, probably, I didn't see that much of a difference. I remarked that it was interesting if unfortunate that Russian had become the de facto language, but at the same time, if it hadn't, we'd not be able to talk to each other. She assented, but said she didn't really care, and that language was just communication, a sentiment I'd heard in previous conversations from time to time (often to protest the Russian-only rule during our program). She said even amongst her friends she spoke Russian, as it was just easier. After the Soviet Union's breakup, Ukranian became the official language again. An example I found amusing was at the "Площа Льва Толстого" metro station, where the дь (in Russian it's "Площадь") had simply been removed, its dirty silhouette remaining as evidence.

A different Verka song came on (the infamous "Russia Goodbye" - another "controversy"), and I remarked on that and told the story of how I'd heard on the radio and got hooked, and then hooked my non-Russian-speaking suitemates. I said my Russian professor didn't really like Verka, as he considers that it makes a mockery of Ukraine - much to his chagrin, when he had a project translating songs and showing their videos in class, I had half the class doing various Verka Serdjuchka songs - but she said she didn't mind, and that it was all in fun. The trip ended; we said goodbye and good luck, and I returned to the hotel. The next day was my flight to Rome!

To Kiev!

The Ukranian woman on the train woke me up about an hour before our arrival in Kiev so I could get ready, but then she apologized as she realized I didn't really have any such need, so we just looked out the window while we waited. One of the Russian women sneezed, and I said "bud'te zdorov'e" (the Russian equivalent to "bless you" - literally "be healthy") and the Ukranian woman asked if that implied that we also said something in English when someone sneezed, and what it meant (since, in Russian, the meaning is clear), so I clumsily tried to explain that, as far as I knew, way back when they thought your soul was trying to escape or something, so it meant something to the effect that "may God grant you that everything is fine" (this was the best I could muster in Russian). She also asked about what kind of trees we had as we watched the forests through the window. I said we had all kinds, but near me it was mainly oak and pine, but that it depends on the region, e.g. in California there are the giant sequoias. As we approached the city, she asked if we had such ogromnie (giant) cities; I said I didn't really know, but that they were probably smaller, but taller, and she was saying something to the effect that it's unhealthy to be living up that high, that there are these vibrations and so forth. Shrug.

We arrived at the station and said our farewells, with the Russians joking that they were looking forward to my book (we'll see). The train had arrived at about 8 or 9 AM, and I took a taxi to the hotel for 60 hrvina ($12). Upon checking in, I was presented with a glass of champagne and a "congratulations." Well alright, cool. (I later learned they were celebrating their 35th anniversary that week). The hotel was nice enough, but still it was so far away. I showered and walked to the city, crossing a long bridge across the Dnepr (yes, the same Dnepr as in Smolensk), with a giant statue of a woman with a sword and shield ("the lady motherland") in the distance, as well as monasteries dotting the hills.

I was hungry as I walked uphill towards the statue (a World War II monument) and its surrounding memorials to WWII and, to my surprise, Afghanistan. Oh, right, I'd forgotten about that (as had, evidentally, the Russians). I ate at a little cafe, which was dirt cheap. Yet another benefit of learning Russian was that I could function here (thanks to the Soviet Union basically making Russian the de facto language during that time). I went into a museum about the war in Afghanistan as well as, evidentally, some other communist interferences and such. It is interesting to note the sympathy felt toward the tragic destruction wrought on the Soviet Union from WWII, which was, let's say, a righteous defense against the Nazis, and then see the other side, i.e. the war of aggression into Afghanistan which also resulted in pointless calamity. I realized that, although we consider recent history more peaceful than earlier, when Europe was seemingly always fighting, it really isn't much better, with it still being a constant series of hellish wars. The war(s) of 1812, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Iraq again (off the top of my head), to say nothing of all the genocides that have happened and are still happening. We really live in a hellish world, it's just that the US itself has been largely insulated from it. I was reminded of a news report I'd seen while watching TV in Murmansk, with these child miners working at soldiers' gunpoint for nothing, as the soldiers would steal everything. These people could barely fit in the caves and were covered with scrapes and worked like hell for nothing. What kind of life is that?

Things remained cheerful as I made my way further to the WWII monuments/museum (though strangely, there were a lot of wedding parties, just like at a statue of a grenadier in Murmansk. Shrug. There were also a lot of schoolchildren in suits). I went here too, seeing more relics of destruction, including a wrecked plane, whose engine was mostly intact and exposed. I marveled at all the complex machinery built and destroyed for war, and at how much money, research, materials, etc, that goes into making things all these instruments of death and destruction, designed solely to kill other people.

I continued walking around the hills, seeing over the wall into a nearby monastery, which I entered later in the day - the "Kiev/caves monastery", and there were indeed a series of underground caves which one navigated with candles, with tombs of, well I don't know whom, but some weren't fully covered and I'd see some shrunken, rotting fingers here and there. There were some altars and other things too here and there in the caves. The whole place was huge. There was a depressing line of beggars along the street outside the monastery as I continued my walk towards the center of the city.

There was another park with a giant arch with two soldiers in the middle, evidently representing Russia and Ukraine. There were some theme park-like attractions as well, and it offered a terrific view across the Dnepr (as did most of these things on these hills). I continued to another monastery, which was somehow related to Stalin's famines and repressions of the 1930s, which were meant to punish Ukranian peasants for their insubordination. I continued on to Khreschatik, the main boulevard of Kiev, which was like Times Square as a colossal block party. I was even angrier that my hotel could have been right here were it not for my stupid credit card company. I walked along, then took the subway (50 kopeeks! i.e. 10 cents) and then a bus (75 kopeeks) - that's right, kopeeks are actually somewhat useful! (A kopeek is 1/100th of a ruble in Russia, or 1/100th of a hrivna in Ukraine. But in Russia, because of inflation, nothing is less than a few rubles and everything costs an even multiple of a ruble, so kopeeks are completely useless. The exception is supermarkets, which will have things cost something like 21 rubles, 20 kopeeks, and so are extremely irritating). The total - 1.25 hrvina - 25 cents. I'd had quite a day, arriving that morning on the train and exploring a huge swath of the city of the course of almost 12 hours walking up and down hills.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Exploring Babel, Part I (On Languages)

So Julia and I were chatting in the bliny place. "Is Russian harder than Spanish?" she had asked. I answered, as I had to earlier presentations of this question, that each language had its difficulties. I said to Julia that Russian and English were certainly more related to each other than say, to Japanese or Arabic, so it was all relative. Russian may be complex with its cases (nouns change form depending on function - the last vestige of this in English is I/me, he/him, etc), but verbs to me in Russian are easier than Spanish, with two sets of endings in Russian, rather than the dozen or so sets of endings for all the tenses in Spanish. In Russian there are just a pair of verbs, with one set of endings for present and a ridiculously simple set of past-tense endings. I said I imagined it was tough to move in the other direction, to the dozen other tenses in English - in Russian there are, "ya prochitayu, y budu chitat', ya chitayu, ya chital, ya prochital" - which in English are approximately, "I will read, I will be reading, I am reading, I was reading, I have read." You choose between the two verbs based on whether it is a single, completed action or not; in a sense you are focusing on either the result or the process.

Of course, in English are additionally, "I read (present), I read (past), I do read, I did read, I am reading, I was reading, I will be reading, I have been reading, I will have read, I will have been reading, I had been reading, I had read." I think that's all of them. She admitted that it was tricky, but said the upshot was that for almost any given situation there was a tense for it. She said French was even worse, with some tenses only for speaking and others only for writing. Describing texts, she said, was especially fun.

I said I guess you could say the same thing for verbs of motion in Russian, that they are complex but precise (there is no simple "to go," but rather two pairs of verbs: one pair for going under your own power (on foot) and one pair for going in a vehicle. One of each pair is for unidirectional motion and the other for multidirectional. Yeah.) I said that this system was also complex but precise, but sometimes I really wish there was just "I go/I went". It gets especially fun in complicated, multi-step journeys.

Another difficulty of English for Russians is of course that of articles: when to use "the" or "a". My Russian professor said he considered it among the hardest things, with almost every rule you could come up with being broken in some situation.

I said Russian was nice with its heavy use of word roots, as there is a lot of building from stems, especially prefixing verbs. I said spelling was also relatively easy, except reduction of unstressed vowels and consonant assimilation. An example of vowel reduction is "thank you" - spasibo. Although written with an o, the word is stressed on the "ee" sound, and so it is pronounced "spasibah" - this was especially painful when the guy who led off at the Rolling Stones concert said he only knew one word but knew it perfectly, and then proceeded to repeatedly butcher it as "spasiboh." Mick Jagger did pretty well though.

Consonant assimilation is similar in principle to the English rule, "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." I'll admit I don't remember what that means, exactly, but in Russian the rule is, "when consonants go walking, the second one does the talking" or something to that effect. The point is that when you have voiced consonants near unvoiced consonants or vice-versa, they become like whatever the second kind is. Voiced/unvoiced consonants are v/f, z/s, g/k, etc. The only difference between each of those pairs is that in the first, the vocal cords move, in the second they don't. Anyway so if you have something like "v Kieve" (in Kiev), it turns into "f Kieve" since the K mutes the v. Fine. The point is that these two features make it difficult to know how a word is really spelled. Of course, English is far more nightmarish - rough, but through. Knife and phone, have but crave. Etc. I mean, we have spelling competitions (i.e. spelling bees). That is evidence enough of how difficult it is.

We agreed pronunciation-wise, English->Russian was largely easier than the reverse. The difficulty going into Russian is largely consonants, but going into English it's largely vowels, and vowels are a lot harder to fix than consonants. For English-speakers the only real vowel challenge is "ы" (somewhere between i in "bit" and a in "about," I think). Of course in English, we have a huge amount of vowels, but of course one of the difficulties is "sheep/ship" - especially vis-a-vis "sheet" and "beach." Ужас.

We moved on to dialects; she asked me if I'd been able to notice any dialect differences yet in Russian; she said in the north they spoke particularly fast, theorizing that because of the cold they had to conseve their breath. I said I knew of Volga (no vowel reduction) and Moscow (exaggerated reduction of o->a) and of course "hovorit'" like Mikhail Gorbachev, which is almost like Ukranian, but that overall I couldn't tell much yet. I did notice in Moscow that they seemed to say "the doors are closing" much more clearly ("dveri zakriva-yoo-tsya"). I had talked of American regional differences a bit, also with Sveta and Natasha, and said I was surprised that in our group the differences were relatively light. When I exemplified the southern drawl with Sveta and Natasha, Sveta responded with a joking acknowledgement, "the phone was greening so I pinked it up and said, "yellow!"

It was another interesting, unintended consequence of taking Russian (although my list of intended consequences numbers about zero, I think) that I was able to communicate in Kiev. The old man with the shoes said "hovorit" and "zvonit," but still. It was also interesting to somewhat be able to understand Ukranian most of the time, though some sentences I would find almost incomprehensible. Reading was more trying, as there would often be spelling differences that, until I thought it aloud, I didn't realize what it sounded like in Russian. Belorussian seemed farther away speechwise, judging from the train ride to Smolensk, but my other Russian professor had shown me some Belorussian when I visited one time, as she was doing research in it, and it seemed fairly close to written Russian, except that reductions were often written out. For example, in Russian milk is written "moloko" but pronounced "malako", with the stress on the last o, but in Belorussian it is indeed written "malako." This makes it easier to pronounce, but you lose the stems; for example, milk as an adjective is "malochniy" (stress on the o), and so the relationship is clear in Russian (молоко/молочный) but less so with the "o"s turned into "a"s in Belorussian.

So, between my exposure to Russian, some Ukranian, some Czech (trip to Prague), and a bit of Belorussian, it's been interesting to see all these overlaps and differences in these Slavic languages.

Reflections on Russia

So, after ten weeks in Russia, it was finally time to leave. What a journey it was! Not long ago, I couldn't see myself going to the other side of the world (on a whim, pretty much), especially not to Russia, this strange and unfamiliar place, but of course now I don't regret it for a second (I did for a day). Indeed, last year's trip was my first time abroad. Who could have guessed where it would take me and how many people I'd meet? I met many friends last year in St. Petersburg both from Russia and Europe, as well as the other Stony Brook students whom I met there. After last year's trip, I ended up going to Prague (and Dresden) for New Year's with Alex, Anna and Michelle, who I'd met in St. Petersburg - although Alex didn't quite make it to Germany, but rather Ustí nad Labem, courtesy of forgetting his passport. Then in the spring, I went to New Orleans with Michelle, Anna, and Jenna, as Jenna was one of the main organizers of the trip.

And then, I was able to go back this year, and I was reunited, although briefly, with many of the Russian friends I'd met, though this time conversing mainly in Russian, which had earlier been impossible. I also made several dozen new friends, from the US and from Russia (and beyond). I saw familiar sights in St. Petersburg, many of which had changed in the interim - completing repairs or starting them, perhaps (like the Hermitage) - or even while I was there (like the Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge, which had finished its reconstruction and reopened during my months there). Bus and metro fare had increased by 2 rubles, to 14, and the cheap McDonald's ice cream cones had as well, to 8 rubles. Other things hadn't changed - and other repairs looked like they hadn't made any progress at all. Of course, I also saw many new sights in St. Petersburg (and beyond), and took a few thousand more pictures.

Even more, after the program in St. Petersburg, I traveled around on the Russian railroad (and a single Aeroflot flight, whose plane did not spontaneously lose its wings and drop out of the sky) on my own, spending a cumulative 72 hours / 3 days on the trains, with a new adventure and some new acquaintances almost every time. I traveled to five cities - St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Moscow, and Smolensk - out of the seven I had originally planned (I didn't make it to Vladimir or Nizhniy Novgorod), not including the cruise, which took me additionally to Petrozavodsk, Kizhi, Valaam, and a little village (Svyrstroy). I had grand plans for traveling through Europe on the railroad, hoping to see Kiev, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Munich, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville (and whatever else on the way). Although that didn't quite come to fruition, I will still see about half of that (albeit mainly by plane): Kiev, Rome, Vienna, Barcelona, and Bilbao.

I'll miss the simplicity of life in Russia - the gypsy cabs (ie. any passing car) always at your disposal, the low-cost ice cream (and low-cost everything, basically). I won't miss the crooked cops nor the lack of street signs at corners. Nor the strangely ubiquitous mullet. It was very exciting and rewarding this year to actually be able to communicate in Russian (however rudimentary it might have been). And even though I still can't explain my reasons for studying to those who ask (as Natasha pointed out in Moscow, "nobody asks why you're studying English"), I certainly can't complain about the results. I'll be back, one way or another, but for now - счастливо, Россия!

Back to Moscow (and, as Verka Serduchka might say, Russia Goodbye!)

On the train back to Moscow, in my compartment were a mother and son, who was late 20s / early 30s, and an older man (with characteristic smell of said). It was a relatively short ride (six hours) and so I didn't feel the need to bring food with me. I had breakfast in Smolensk and figured I'd eat lunch upon arriving in Moscow, as I'd have a few hours until the train to Kiev. Towards the end, the woman wordlessly gave me two apples (and insisted), and when I came back from using the bathroom - the only time in the entirety of my train travel, and on the shortest ride - go figure, she had a napkin laid out with some cookies and various other snacks for me. Shortly after this we all started talking. The guy had asked me from what Baltic state I was; confused, I said I was from America, and inevitably I told them my saga. The man was flying to Israel, and the mother/son were also going to Ukraine, but I forget if they were going to Kiev or elsewhere - I know we had compared trains and that we weren't on the same one. The train arrived, and that was that.

I took the subway to Kievskiy Vokzal, and checked my things in the baggage room for a fairly steep 150 rubles, then walked around as it was a really nice area. I had just caught some of the Bourne Supremacy on TV (in Russian) while flipping through the TV in Moscow a few days earlier, and had seen most of the last part of it which takes place in Moscow, with Bourne arriving by train from Berlin at this station; in contrast, I didn't have any spectacular foot and car chases. Anyway, the station is nice, and there is a large fountain/square (Europe Square), plus an elegant glass-enclosed bridge (Rostovsky) overlooking the river, which I crossed, and then took the subway (from Smolenskaya, incidentally), to eat and use the internet cafe. I returned to the station and decided to use the bathroom before the trip to Kiev, and it was the most disgusting thing I'd seen, literally a step above a hole in the ground. You (apparently) sat practically on the floor. I'll leave it at that. Luckily I didn't have to do that, as I just wanted to avoid having to use the bathroom on the train, but the train is actually far better.

I had about 25 minutes and began worrying when I returned to the luggage room and saw the window locked that I'd used earlier, but the door was open a bit farther down, so there was no problem. I walked to my train. I was car 1, so it was either going to be a very short walk or a very long one. My heart sank when I saw the first car: 26. It was going to be a very long walk. A few cars later I looked at my progress and saw "3." Confused, I backtracked, and it turned out 26 was just tacked onto the end. (On the train, the woman next to me said she made it to 8). On the way back a woman was asking for money, apparently to go home on the train. I gave her 20 rubles, and she said she needed 1000 for the ticket (!), so I said, well, that's too bad because I don't even have anywhere near that (since I wasn't going to be needing any rubles soon enough). As the train left there was a great twilight view out the window, with the glowing superstructure of bank towers under construction in the distance looking like something out of a science fiction movie.

In my compartment were 3 women, two Russians (sisters) and a Ukranian woman that lived in Moscow. The one Russian woman said, "давайте познакомиться (let's get aquainted)," just like in the textbooks, and we gave our names, and thus we were acquainted, apparently. We had to fill out migration cards (ugh) and although Russia's paperwork was annoying, at least they'd refined it enough that the migration card fits perfectly within one's passport - the Ukranian one is a bit larger and doesn't fit unless you fold it. Curiously, it has Ukranian and English prompts, but not Russian, so they had a tough time until the Ukranian woman helped out. They asked how I was doing it with no trouble, proposing that I'd done it before and remember, and I said, well, it's in English (the conductor had asked our nationalities when giving out the cards). I told them all about my travels as well, and they said, wow, I should write a book, which I said I'd thought about doing. I joked that I could offer it in English and Russian, maybe. The Ukranian woman was going to Kiev to see her son for a day, and the Russians were vacationing in Odessa, the train's ultimate destination. I went to sleep, and at 3 AM we crossed the Russian border - or something, because Russian border control did their thing, but the Ukranians didn't until we'd traveled another 3 hours, during which time I wondered what was up, whether they'd missed our car, or what, I don't know. After 10 weeks, I had finally left Russia. When we reached Ukranian border control they stamped my passport on the back (past the visas, on the "amendments" page), after flipping through it for a while. Who knows.

Smolensk, Part II

So I wasted a ton of time at the internet cafe (I would have taken care of the travel stuff later). I returned to the hotel and called the travel agency, giving them the new credit card details. They called right back; AMEX isn't accepted by the hotel in Kiev. Faaan-tastic. I had them cancel the reservation, and then went back to the internet cafe to reserve a new hotel in Kiev. This met with much failure, what with it being a day away, plus, many other hotels also apparently didn't accept AMEX. After a long while I ended up with my last-ditch effort at Expedia: a crappier hotel quite far from the center, which really pissed me off as the original one was right in the center. The new one was cheaper, but that was a small consolation. I was quite angry that I'd wasted most of my one day in Smolensk dealing with this crap. Once I did finally have everything settled it was about 6:30 and evening. It rained lightly, on and off, and I walked to the edge of the city center towards the Dnepr river, where the wall marked the boundary, and crossed the bridge just outside over the river. The sun behind me, there was a fantastically bright rainbow in the dark clouds ahead. In fact it was a double rainbow, as I'd seen last year at Площадь Александра Невского (Alexander Nevsky Square), when the others had gone to see Swan Lake.

As I stood at the bridge taking pictures, a young man asked me whether I was taking them as a художник (artist) or лично (individual). I said just for myself, not wanting to go into nuance, and then he asked if I was a tourist. I said yes (sorry, Joe, not "unfortunately." - One time, my suitemates and I were in Costco buying food for a feast (мало ли почему / don't ask why), and I took a picture of our massive purchase (lots of it candy and such), and the attendant asked whether we were tourists. Joe, being, well, Joe, answered "unfortunately." Having made sense grammatically, it took us a second to realize that it actually made no sense whatsoever. Anyway, the attendant then informed me that they'd have to confiscate my camera if I took anymore pictures. Well ok then.) He asked whether I was going to see (a few things which I don't remember) and I said I was only there until tomorrow. We talked, and he asked whether I'd been to Petersburg and Moscow, and I said yes; he said it was good to have come here as well, as Petersburg was "Europe" and Moscow was "America" and that everyone tended to forget Russia was a big place with many more places besides the capital. That's the gist of it anyway. I agreed and said that was why I was here, in part to see other parts of Russia that weren't so heavily visited by tourists. We talked - well, mostly he - for a long while, maybe an hour or so, with his train of thought stopping at many places, so I can't remember it all in detail - that and I was concentrating on understanding him. He spoke slowly and clearly - not out of deference to my limited skills, as the issue of my origin and study of Russian came up only in the middle of the converstation - but it seemed they just talked slower in general there. Even so, I had a difficult time for vocabulary reasons, but most of the time I got enough of the gist. We exchanged emails - yet another new Russian contact - and he apologized for taking up my time, which I assured him was not a problem at all. I walked around some more and then returned to the hotel for the night after getting some dinner.

The next morning I checked out and got some breakfast; as I was checking out, the receptionist asked if I spoke Russian. I said yes, and she asked if I could explain to them what the guy next to me wanted. He explained to me (in English) that he had a bus to Moscow, and had taken a taxi to the bus station, but that it had taken him to the railway station instead and so he missed the bus, and had to take another the next day, and so he needed to stay another night. I clumsily conveyed this to them; put on the spot, I didn't remember the more precise ways to say these things, which came to mind after the fact, but c'est la vie. I had breakfast and left to the railway station to take the train back to Moscow, and worried a bit as I had a few minutes of unsuccessful attempts to hail a cab, but eventually succeeded. This one was 70 rubles. Wow! The Russians sure seem to have gotten supply and demand down pat. That was even better than what I'd thought the previous night should have been (I figured about 100 rubles). I gave the guy 100 rubles and told him to keep the change. Back to Moscow!

Sunday, September 2, 2007


The new train's ultimate destination was Brest, Belarus. As I stood on the platform, a man asked me if I was from Belarus. Having misheard him, hearing the ending for destination as opposed to origin, and thinking that he was asking whether the train was going there, I answered yes, and when he said "I don't believe it (ни фига!)," I realized and confirmed what he'd asked, and said sorry, no, I was from the US. On the train, a family (evidently from Belarus, based on their talking amongst themselves in what I assume was Belarussian) was asking me something, and when I responded, the daughter asked if I was from Poland. I decided not to delve into the details of my family tree (my grandfather on my father's side is of Polish descent - no way I was going to successfully convey that in Russian succinctly), and simply answered that no, I was from the US. I was surprised that the inevitable follow up, "зачем" (namely, what are you doing on the train to random places?) didn't result in either case, but all the same it was nice to have a rest; the trip was quiet like to Murmansk, though the Belarussian family talked to one another.

This train was not Russian railroad, but Belarussian. Linen wasn't included, which may have explained the price, but I didn't need it anyway (it was a six hour ride to Smolensk). This train had newer cars (though I think they were still Russian, based on the factory name), having readouts of temperature, time, and whether the lavatory was occupied. The beds also had fold out railings to prevent one from falling off, which had crossed my mind the first time to Murmansk. Of course, I merely ended up smashing my elbow on it at one point. We arrived, and I nearly beaned the guy on the adjacent bed as I took my unbalanced suitcase from the top rack. I took a taxi for 200 rubles ($8), which I thought was kind of steep, but figured what the heck, he and his beat up car could use the money more than I.

I settled in; the elevators here were also Russian, but there were three so it didn't matter much. My room was quite nice; it felt like a cozy bedroom. The key was like that of Murmansk, strange and annoying as it was impossible to know how to insert it (the cross-section is a semi-circle, and there was no way to predict which way was going to be up when inserting the key). A lone mosquito kept me up for most of the night as I'd hear it buzz toward me as I dozed off, but would then wake up and swat it away, driving it off for a while to repeat the cycle again.

The next morning, another mediocre breakfast, and I've obviously concluded that the one in Murmansk was just really good (relatively) and not that all the others since are that bad. It still pales compared to that of Prague, which was really fantastic, and I'd say one of the best I've seen anywhere. It spoiled me. I went for a walk, and saw a statue of who I correctly guessed was Karl Marx, and then, whoa, there was the wall of the krepost' (fortress) around the city center which I walked around for a while. There were various war monuments and another wall of hero-cities, and then a museum to World War II (aka the Great Patriotic War) which I explored. I felt bad about using my student Id once I realized it was a 5 ruble difference (20/15) as the 5 rubles were certainly not going to put me in the poorhouse. It was again a grim reminder of the horrors of WWII, which the US never really felt, as most of Europe and Russia had been laid to waste like Pearl Harbor. And for what? What had the Axis accomplished in the end beside pointless destruction and death?

As I continued to walk around the city, I put a bit of money on my phone to get rid of the small amount of debt that would be blocking it. No sooner did I do that, than did the travel agency in Moscow call (through which I'd booked the hotel in Kiev). Seems my credit card company was rearing its ugly, stupid head again. The woman said a lot of things but I boiled it down (what an odd phrase) to "карта не работала? (the card didn't work?)" and she confirmed I'd need another one by tomorrow to hold the reservation. I started panicking a bit, and was irate and started swearing as heavily as I had when my phone was stolen. I was going to Kiev in a day, and now I had no confirmed reservation. I continued walking around but was distracted by anger and worry; I couldn't enjoy the stuff I was seeing as I walked around the city. I needed to go to an internet cafe at some point to get my father's credit card info to give to them, which he'd sent me when I started having problems with mine. Basically internet purchases were not going to go through due to fraud worries, in spite of my instructions that I'd be traveling through Russia until September 1st, and Europe thereafter. I could only use it at physical places unless I gave advance notice (24 hrs) which was effectively impossible. This was terrific. Of course, this was stupid as even though I'd used the credit card at a physical travel agency, it was the hotel in Kiev that was trying to put it through, and thus, я не получился (i.e. no dice). Sure, I said I'd be in Russia until September 1st, and now a hotel in adjacent Ukraine is charging my card a few days before this. Surely the two are unrelated.

I managed to put it out of my mind when I reached the edge of a hill with a terrific view of the valley and more of the city in the distance, with more krepost' wall behind me further up the hill. I climbed my way up there and started walking along the wall, and then there was a tower with an opening to go through, to the other side of the wall, so in I went. But not only that, there was a staircase to go up to the wall (like Peter and Paul's fortress in St. Petersburg). So I did, walking along the wall, practically no one in sight, though there was lots of trash in the stairways and corridors, mostly plastic beer bottles and broken glass ones. The city lay to one side, hills and valleys to the other. This was amazing! I was worried when on the cruise, Natasha (a guide on our staff) had said she'd been to Smolensk but didn't enjoy it. There were two children who came up another stairway and passed me in the other direction. I reached another tower at a corner of the wall, and went inside, which was also incredible. It was a cavernous, open cylinder, though another giant pile of trash lay at the bottom. There was a staircase to get to the very top, and I did. This was real, not some sanitized tourist attraction, just pure history. No guardrails protecting someone from walking out into the center, or off the walls. I reached the end of the wall and went down more stairs; there was a cobblestone road with houses, as I'd seen from above. I eventually ended up back towards the center of the city; there were flowers spelling out "Смоленску - 1143 (Smolensk is 1143 years old)," similar to Moscow, which was "merely" 860.

I made my way back to the hotel, where I inquired as to an internet cafe. I got the number I needed, and made further reservations to Bilbao, and decided to call it quits from there and tried to find a flight home. I ran into trouble, as the flights I found were either problematic or absurdly expensive. There was a (relatively) inexpensive 2-stop flight from Swiss - that was the problematic one, as the first segment (Bilbao to Madrid) was a code-share on "Spanair" and didn't offer e-tickets, so that was out. The remaining ones were about twice the cost. Round trip was significantly less expensive, even including the same flights that I'd found for the one-way. Somehow adding the tickets from the US to Spain made the ensemble cost several hundred dollars less. Shrug. I figured I'd try that but at the end discovered that you had to display the card at the first segment (i.e. leaving NY), and I further discovered that not using earlier segments cancelled subsequent ones. So that wasn't going to work. So after playing around I settled on an Iberia flight to Madrid, and then booked the remainder separately through Swiss. (I looked into staying in Madrid for a few days, but it was more than I was willing to pay). This means it's two distinct flights, so this leaves open a window for problems with the connection that would be my responsibility (though I scheduled the first flight as early as possible), plus my luggage can't be checked all the way through. Oh well. So I'll be back September 25th!