Friday, July 20, 2007

4th of July

Today was of course, Independence Day. In the evening we had a classy little celebration as we took a small cruise on the canals/rivers where we celebrated with champagne and such. This contrasts with last year, when we celebrated by eating at Subway. This is now the second 4th of July in a row that I've celebrated here, and it is sort of funny to think that I'm celebrating it here in this country, with which we were such bitter enemies not that long ago.

Ballet (7/3) and Opera (7/16)

Up until this trip, I hadn't ever been to any kind of ballet or opera, but I've had the opportunity to do so as part of this trip.

On 7/3 I saw a ballet at the Alexandrinsky Theater, a "modern" ballet based on Chekhov's The Seagull, which I haven't read, and so my understanding was fairly limited, though I got the gist. There was one part where everyone was break dancing to a hip-hop beat--that was fairly entertaining to watch, as it seemed fairly incongruous. For the most part I enjoyed it, but certainly I can live without it.

On 7/16 I saw La Traviata at the Mariinsky. The theater was certainly amazing, and I enjoyed the show, but to the same extent that I did the ballet. It was nice, but I can live without it. It was an amusing situation, that the performers are of course singing in one language I don't understand (Italian) while it is translated into another language I marginally understand (Russian). But I got the gist: Love and Death. Of course, that's simply the basis of pretty much any such drama.

It's hard to say which I liked more; both the ballet and the opera have a different appeal. The ballet is much simpler and concentrated on gracefulness, whereas the opera is a fairly rich, majestic production. I guess it's somewhat similar to the difference between a silent film and one with sound, in that you need to squeeze every bit of symbolism and artistry out of the former, since you don't have the "crutch" of dialog.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Нити (threads)

The other day we visited St. Isaac's Cathedral, which has a majestic collonade overlooking the entire city, offering a fantastic view of the entire skyline (we also visited the interior of the cathedral, which is equally incredible). Anyway, while walking around up on the collonade, the attendant (a guide/guard, who I suppose was there to make sure people who were taking pictures had an appropriate ticket, and to offer help / information to visitors), began chatting with me, asking me where I was from, what I studied, and so forth. He seemed somewhere between 50 or 60, and of Eastern descent (in that I mean: remember that Russia spans all of Asia as well). As we concluded he offered to sell me some playing cards as a souvenir, but I said "no thanks" and continued to amble around.

The previous day at the university, I was chatting with another member of the program. She was asking me about what I was studying back home, and so I had mentioned that I had just finished my degree in computer science / applied math. Naturally, she asked me what I was going to do upon returning home, and I told her the whole story about Microsoft, Applied Visions, and so forth. We didn't get to finish, because we needed to go to a lecture or something of the sort.

I continued to walk around the collonade, and happened to meet up with her again while there. I continued our conversation from yesterday, and asked her of her plans and such. She hadn't been able to make it to the orientation in Manhattan because she was taking her doctoral exams, so I asked her how that went, and was surprised when she said she hadn't passed them. She said she didn't think she would continue and try again with it, but wasn't sure what she wanted to do (she was studying economics). She said although she could find a good job in statistics or something of the like, she didn't know if she really wanted to, but said at this point it was really too hard to change her mind. I disagreed, saying that although it may be harder, it only gets harder still with the passing of time.

At this point, the attendant, who had been walking around, ended up coming by and began chatting with us some more. We learned that he had studied English for 5 years, and German for 12, but had never traveled anywhere to use either. He was working at St. Isaac's for the summer, but come September he would look for a new job, as he had been a coal miner up until this point. I regretted not buying his playing cards.

As I sat in the hotel in New York, debating what to do about Microsoft's offer, the main issue that drove my decision was the flexibility afforded by continuing to work close to home, such that if I decided to change my mind and profession, it was a simple matter of giving notice and saying my goodbyes, without the minor inconvenience of moving back across the country. The day of the flight I called Applied Visions from the hotel, and said I was in: I'm going to stay.

While at the airport, I called Microsoft, with my whole batch of scribbled notes outlining why I had decided as I did. A very effective recruiter, she had my head spinning as she effectively discussed and tried to assuage each of my objections. Of my newfound interest in the State Department: she said that as an international company, Microsoft could offer similar opportunities to travel. Of moving: I said that moving across the country was a somewhat different animal than a closer state. She parried by saying she'd try to set up something in Massachusetts and that we'd talk when I was settled here. Mentioning that I'd agreed to work for Applied Visions had slipped my mind; I was so mixed up at that point she could have had me believing my own mother was a turnip. So we agreed to be in touch.

What ties all this together are the contrasts of choices. I had a difficult time deciding what to do about Microsoft. A few years ago I would certainly have labeled it my dream job. But now I'm not sure what to do: keep programming? Pursue psychology? Foreign service? Math teacher (hence the applied math degree)? Police officer? All of these are opportunities that are reasonably available for me to pursue.

So choosing was difficult, but is it that difficult about choosing among a half dozen paths just out of college, compared to pursuing a Ph.D in a field, but not succeeding, and then deciding maybe you don't want to continue? And what is difficult about either of those situations when one is a coal miner, having studied languages for many years with little opportunity to really use them, when all of us here have a golden ticket to use our (widely varying) Russian skills for which I've paid in the neighborhood of, oh, nothing at all.

I feel spoiled. Either alternative is a relative luxury, and yet how can it be any less difficult than anything else? Even this coal miner's life is a relative luxury compared to those whose lives have been destroyed in New Orleans where we tried to help by a miniscule amount (or the Kansas tornado, the 2004 tsunami, the Iraq war, or any of the other innumerable catastrophes). It's all relative. Everyone just wants a satisfying life: for the less well-off, they might aspire to that which I have already achieved / been given, and would find satisfaction in accomplishing this. But what does that mean for me? That I should just be satisfied? Regret is just as strong as any other emotion, isn't it? I think it comes back to Maslow's hierarchy, wherein you can't satisfy higher needs (emotion, esteem, etc) until the lower ones are met (food, shelter, etc). But all the same, everyone wants to fulfill the entire pyramid. It's just that you are only looking up one level at a time.

So in the end, I finally responded to Microsoft's email. I said that I'd decided to stay on with Applied Visions for the time being, splitting my time between there and working with my psychology professor in her lab, getting experience lest I decide to pursue that direction. And if I decided I really do what to be a programmer, Microsoft will still be around (well, unless everyone keeps buying Macs). I am already having second thoughts about the decision, but I know that either alternative would have resulted in a little regret. So who knows. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

О политике и президентах (Of Politics and Presidents)

It has been interesing to discuss the differences and similarities in opinions of politics with Russians here. One part of our class specifically deals with "country studies" and the professor has been talking to us about the situation here before, during and after the Soviet Union. She considers Putin to be a hero, and Gorbachev and Yeltsin to be little more than stupid criminals.

Her negative opinion of Gorbachev was mostly due to the fact that he was still a loyal communist, doing the party's wishes, and that his misguided attempts at perestroika and glasnost' are what caused the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent chaos. Although I obviously can only rely on what little I do know of these times, from what I gathered he was trying to walk a fine line between the hard-line communists, and the reality of the Soviet Union's intractibility. Although in the West he is well regarded, why should the general public care about idealistic things like "winning/losing the cold war" given the extremely tumultous period that followed? I asked her whether she was saying she preferred the Soviet era, but she responded that those and these times are both equally bad.

The effects of privatization during Yeltsin's time, and the extremely poor economy therein, are fairly obvious strikes against Yeltsin. For me, reading of his experiences visiting the West, and his subsequent horror at realizing how bad conditions were for the people in the Soviet Union / Russia, and his thoughts about being President (to paraphrase: "I feel exhausted, as though I've run a race of 10,000 miles, and although I may have made mistakes, it is very easy to criticize and offer advice when you are not the one who has to bear the responsibility."), I feel as though he was doing his best in wildly uncharted territory, and that of course at this point hindsight is 20/20, but then I have the luxury of not having to actually live through it. The professor felt he was an incompetent drunken criminal for the fiasco of privatization that took place.

It is easy to see from her point of view and sympathise with these positions somewhat, when one considers simply the economic situations of the times, and the consequences of Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's actions. She has spoken of her circumstances, of her inability to retire, as her pension would cover maybe half her rent, and certainly although Putin is not loved in the West, why should anyone in Russia care about that? Things are undeniably getting better for Russia under his presidency, so why should anyone care about his opinion outside when they have their own country and circumstances to worry about for now. Moreover, she said that it's very easy for other countries to give advice, but Russia is a unique country with its enormous size and very unbalanced population density, and that it is through Russia's own past experiences that it has learned (the hard way) how to effectively run the country, and that other countries' experiences and advice are appreciated, but not always applicable.

It is interesting to note that it is due in part to the chilly relationship between the US and Russia that we are even here on this program. It's also been interesting to note a lot of similarities between the countries' respective situations, especially with immigration, where there is a similar debate about illegal immigrants who take low-paying jobs and allegedly don't pay their due.

The opinions on Bush have been interesting as well. At a bar one time there were these two wackos who, to summarize, were saying "F Bush, Russia will be ruling the world" and other such silliness. But another time, when I was crossing the street (jaywalking), a police officer was chastising me and asked where I was from, and when I said I was from the US, he said "Ah, George Bush" and basically just told me to get going.

But whatever the political situation, what relevance does it have for us, as the general public? This was a nice discussion I had with two other people at the bar another day. We were commenting on the chilly relations between the US and Russia, but said that it makes no difference to us. We all just want to live in peace, do our work, live our lives, and that regular people just want to be friends with each other regardless of whatever nonsense is going on between governments, which has no bearing on us. What relevance does this scuffle over the missile defense program have to a few regular people chatting in a bar?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Monday, 7/2 - NYI Begins Again

Today was the first day of the New York Institute program. This was the main program I attended last year, which consists of four seminars, and many lectures, discussions, and film series (this program is in English). This year we are only attending one seminar; I am taking a seminar with John Bailyn on puzzles in Russian syntax. The opening party was in the evening, and I saw many familiar faces, including Blake, a roommate from last year who's been here since February, Katya, the Stony Brook/NYI study-abroad guide, Nina Kazanina, who taught a seminar I took last year, Konstantine Klioutchkine, who taught another seminar last year, and much of the staff as well as a few familiar students, including one we had dubbed "Debra Messing" last year. They said there wasn't enough champagne for everyone but that turned out to be quite far from the truth...

Sunday, 7/1 - Peterhof Redux

Today we went to Peterhof. Having finally bought an umbrella yesterday (Saturday), the weather has since been perfect. It is a marvelous place, a giant park filled with fountains and a large palace. It was a great trip, but a little sad because it was one of our main excursions at the end of our trip last year and there were a lot of memories. I walked around a bit where we walked on the beach and in the water, and remembered Alex's shoes floating in the water like boats, as they were completely waterproof, and Alex and I skipping rocks (and he got me in the knee with one). Fumiko and Tanya wading in the water, and Fumiko finally falling and getting soaked, and Tanya continuing to facilitate this. Anna taking a dip in the fountain and then hurriedly leaving because she was worried about the would-be fine. Fortunately my new camera has a vastly improved battery life; throughout most of the day trips last year it would die about halfway through. One might guess that, having been to Peterhor last year I wouldn't take too many pictures this year, but no. I took another 100-150 or so I think.

After Peterhof we finally had the excursion from Monday that was canceled. I decided to go even though it was most of the same stuff I'd seen last year, but it ended up being worth it as we went up to Smolny Cathedral which had a nice view (though not as nice as St. Isaac's). I didn't know that the cathedral was never actually used as such; one of the builders committed suicide near the end of its construction. It's now used only as a concert hall.

First week - Saturday 6/30

For today, there was a choice between a Rock Festival (Окна Открой) and some sort of Medieval Festival in another town a few hours away. The Medieval Festival sounded interesting if only to see the town, but I really didn't want to get up early, and decided to go to the rock festival. This turned out to be more interesting that I expected, as it was interesting to see this part of Russian life and culture. After we left the rock festival (there were 5 of us) we hung out in the park and drank some champagne and such. I reawakened my ice cream gluttony, eating 7 throughout the day. Total cost: oh, about $5. We hung out near the Mosckovskiy metro station (a large monument to Lenin stands there, and there are fountains and such; it was from here that we took a van to Tsarskoe Celo last year). I also checked out the 'monument to the defenders of Leningrad' or whatever it's called, which is a large monument to the 3-year siege of Leningrad during World War II. I was happy to finally see this, as I'd merely gone past it in travels last year.

NB: the mullets are unisex, by the way