Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Strings of street lights, even stop lights, blink a bright red and green

Forget the fact that the Dutch don't celebrate either Halloween or Thanksgiving. Or the fact that Sinterklaas comes in the middle of November, thus giving good reason to start decorating much earlier than my American attitude deems acceptable. No, there is a different reason Christmas lights go up towards the end of October.

I'm sure they were put up early to counter act the effects that come with the doom and gloom of daylight savings which occurred on Sunday. When pure darkness changes from 6:30pm to 5:30pm overnight, there is nothing better than a few twinkling lights to bring some cheer- instead of the automatic response which would have come otherwise: tears.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is this heaven?

I could think of no better way to end my thoughts on Russia than what I found to be the best part of it all. When we came across a small strip of land in Voronezh I felt as if I stepped onto a tiny piece of heaven... on earth. It's as if the Russians knew the deepest desires of my heart, without me even knowing it, and brought those desires to life.

On this tiny piece of heaven were kiosk after kiosk of homemade cookie vendors. Cookies were showcased in glass windows with a small opening for the transactions to take place. The sheer brilliance of it all made my heart leap with joy.

If I'm able to design my own heaven it will have a million cookie filled kiosks and, even though the ones in Russia were only $1.00 per pound, the cookies in my heaven will be free. And yes, you'll be more than welcome to come visit.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Toystory's house

Before my journey to the Mother Land I started reading Anna Karenina. I've had that book on my "to read" list for years. It's one I'd stand in front of at bookstores or libraries debating whether I should even pick it up, as it secretly intimidated me. But with the prospects of Russian travel, and a free copy of the book, I opened the cover and dove in.

The story is compelling, Tolstoy's usage of the written word is brilliant, and the picture he painted of Russian life in the late 1800's had me thinking back on the book a number of times during my trip. Although 120 years have passed since it was written, Tolstoy captured the Russian mentality and gave a greater understanding of why Russia is the way it is right now. But reading the book and visiting the country he called home wasn't quite enough. Not when I knew he was born and raised in Tula, which was one of the stops on our list.

Although Jana, who had already gone before, and Cam, who dubbed him 'Toystory' and had no real attachment, didn't mind going we spent a few hours on Tolstoy's homestead. Again, we had to deal with the logistics of Russian guards who initially didn't want to let us on the grounds, but we prevailed. The acres of land were covered in trees and green meadows. His house was... old and historic. Nothing too noteworthy about it actually, since we were only allowed to see it from the outside, although pictures I've seen of the inside are beautiful.
The two things of note on the estate were the following: Tolstoy's raised grave (somewhat creepy if you ask me) and the tree of Love. During the final days of his life, Tolstoy packed up his things, renounced his wealth, and left for the countryside to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. He didn't make it too far, as he got ill and died at a train station in a nearby village. He was then buried on his estate in a location he had previously requested. Why they made the grave raised, however, is beyond me.

A few hundred feet away from his grave stands two intertwined trees. Somewhere down the line it was thought to be a Love tree that holds magic powers to grant one's wish of love if they walk around it three times and then place their hand on it while making their wish. Naturally we all took part... some of us more reluctantly than others on account that she thought the tree would jinx her. But now only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Lady, lady, I make you good deal!"

While in Moscow, Cam and I would pick up an item and ask Jana "will this be less expensive at Izmaylovsky park? Yes? Well, how about this one? Wait, are you sure they'll even have this there?" Obviously we were looking forward to our day of Russian souvenir shopping.

We got to the park a little after lunchtime, on empty stomaches. The first thing I wanted to do was eat since I was famished. But as soon as we paid our 5 Rubles and entered the gates of the park, the sites and sounds enveloped me and my one track mind immediately shifted. Before me was a veritable smorgasbord of souvenirs! Stand after stand of nesting dolls, ornaments, pens, hand carved chess sets, music boxes, mirrors, hats, magnets, and so on.

At that precise moment it was as though the haggler I never knew I had inside me was released and came out in full force. 1200 Ruble items were knocked down to 800. 'Lowest priced' items became even lower. So-called good deals were made even better. At one point, one of the guys I was buying a souvenir from even said I was (and I quote) "a really good sales lady". My head got bigger as my pride swelled. I was on a roll. I shoveled out money here and there; I bought this and that - all because it became a game to me. At the end of the day my wallet was nearly empty, but my hands were full of bags I could barely manage to carry.
It wasn't until we stepped out of the gates, 3 hours after we entered, that it occurred to me: I was still hungry! Then and only then, even with the bags of overflowing goods in my hands, I recognized how much fun I truly had. After all, nothing else could have overruled my grumbling stomach other than that.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Russian Parliament

In order to get into the Kremlin you have to go through a security check. So, we thought we were being a bit criminal when we snuck in my tiny camera after putting our others in a locker along with my purse. We were the ones played for fools though, when we saw every man, woman, and child snapping away with their cameras.

In order to feel our rebellious act was justified, I did take one 'no-no' shot inside a cathedral which was too beautiful to pass up. Thankfully I wasn't caught, otherwise who knows if I'd have been torn from the grasps of my friends, while kicking and screaming, and banished to Siberia.

The Kremlin, or parliament, is a square with governmental buildings, cathedrals and a few museums. Visiting it was an all day event, with most of it spent in the Armoury. The Armoury is the largest of the museums in the square. It's filled with gold and silverware, weapons and arms, carriages, faberge eggs, dresses, thrones, and so on. It was hard to imagine that Russians once experienced such refinery. But instead of moving forward, they were halted if not thrown back a step or two. It is nice to know that they now have started to repair the damage that was done and can get back on the path that leads to progression.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Church with the onions on top

St. Basil's Cathedral. For centuries it has been one of the most iconic churches known to man, and is very likely the first thing one thinks of upon hearing the word "Russia". No one purposefully goes to Moscow without taking a moment to stop by the Red Square to view the incredible structure, right? After all, not stopping to see St. Basil's Cathedral would be as absurd as going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, to Beijing without stopping to see the nearby Great Wall, to Egypt without seeing a pyramid, or to Amsterdam without seeing Claire.

Every person I've met who has gone to Moscow has their picture in front of the church. It's an unwritten rule. You can't return from your trip without it, and there really is no better way to prove to the world that you've been to Russia than that one single picture.

So it's easy to understand how I felt when the entire Red Square was closed to the public the week we were there. Guards were posted at every entrance and sneaking through was not an option. All we wanted was the traditional I've-been-to-Moscow,- see-here-I-am-in-front-of-St.-Basil's picture. So we asked if we could, but the guards wouldn't budge. We begged, they responded "no, closed". We pleaded, they responded "no, closed". We nearly tried bribery, but then came to our senses.

Try as we might, they wouldn't let us on the square to see the front of St. Basil's... until a moment of divine inspiration. My friend Jana who had served a mission in Russia, been to the cathedral a number of times, and of course spoke the language, tried a different approach. She asked, "is the museum open and can we go in?" "Yes," the guard responded, "just wait here for the tour guide to escort you up". We couldn't go on the Red Square, we couldn't go to the church, but we were granted access to the museum --- which is INSIDE the cathedral! As I sit here typing this, I still can't understand the logic. We stared at Jana with quizzical looks of shock, to which she simply replied, "well, that's Russia for you."

We couldn't take pictures from the square, but we could take as many as we wanted from the cathedral grounds, inside and out. The church is as remarkable in person as it looks in photo, if not more-so. Time passed as we took advantage of our opportunity to be 'on the Square, but not really.' When we were ready to leave there were 3 guides at the gates of the cathedral. One looked at us and started yelling at the 2 others so quickly that I was surprised that Jana even knew what she was saying. One of the two others nodded during her reprimand and escorted us off the square. We weren't supposed to be left alone on the grounds, gratefully we were.

And my gratitude only increased when I had a few hours to spend in the city the following week before my flight home when the Red Square was open to the public. I was able to go home happy and prove to the world that I have been to Russia!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Father of Russian Communism

Although his intentions may have been good, in trying to revitalize a country that was falling into dismay, I don't know if I'll ever understand why Russia continues to honor the man who founded years of bleakness. Lenin's memory will not be soon forgotten with the many statues that pay tribute to him in every village and city. It appears, to the common traveler, that the first leader of the USSR is idolized. It is a hard concept to digest, especially when coming from a country where religious and political freedoms are slightly taken for granted.

But no matter your thoughts towards the man, you can't pass up the opportunity to see Lenin's tomb when visiting Moscow. The red and black pyramid shaped tomb sets the mood of what is experienced inside. No cameras are allowed, there is to be no talking, no stopping, and everyone needs to walk in a single file. If any of those rules are broken a guard is quick to reprimand.

The inside of the tomb is also red and black, and quite dimly lit. As you enter the door, a stern faced guard moves his left arm and directs you to turn down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs another stern faced guard moves his right arm and directs you to turn down the corridor. (May I add that there is no other way to go than the way they're directing, so the fact that they're doing so must be for dramatic effect... otherwise they think we're clueless). At the end of the corridor you're again directed to turn down more stairs, and so it continues as you reach Lenin himself.

Whether it truly is Lenin or a wax statue of him is disputable and will probably never be disclosed. Either way, the word creepy doesn't even begin to describe what you see as you look inside his coffin. But, in a line that can't stop moving, his viewing only lasts a few seconds and you come to the end of the tour you had just barely begun. However short the tour was, though, the site of him is ever ingrained in your mind. And during the few times you think back on Lenin's immortalized body or statues of him scattered around the country, only one word comes to mind: "why?"