Monday, December 17, 2012

12/17 - Last Classes, Dinner with Professors, End

I can't believe my abroad experience in Russia is about to come to an end! Tomorrow at around 7:30AM MSK (Moscow time) our Lufthansa flight leaves Russia heading for Frankfurt Airport in Germany. I've already packed up all my belongings, and exchanged gifts with my host mother and host brother. Other than my American friends who I spent time with here - all the culture shock, language setbacks, and other tough abroad issues - I'll definitely miss my host family the most. These people were fantastic - making me meals, helping me with my language homework, and even just carrying out conversations with me. How slow I must have sounded when I spoke! I'll be saying my goodbyes today to them as well. At 6:00PM MSK, I'll be moving into the university dormitory for just one night. 

Yesterday, we had our final classes, even though we had already completed all of our exams and other assignments. It was more of a fun day if anything, the teachers more or less wanted to assure us of our progress. For example, my grammar teacher, Tamara, showed us our initial placement tests from the first week we arrived in Moscow. When my group started to look over the mistakes we made then, we laughed at our own errors! We had made so much progress since August! I also took at Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) with a program staff member this week, and I felt like I did extremely well. Compared to my OPI in August, it was outstanding, I could barely understand the questions back then. 

My host mom Elena and I

Last night we finally got to eat some authentic spicy food in Moscow! But that's not the important part, this was our final dinner with all the students and our professors from the International University.  The teachers wanted to thank us for our hard work and dedication with many Russian toasts, such as "За дружбу!" (Za druzhbu) or "To Friendship!" My favorite toast was from our Geography teacher Alexander Ivanovich. After saying that the United States and Russia are technically oceanic neighbors, he said "За наши соседы!" (Za nashi sosyedi) or "To our neighbors!" It was a fun night filled with goodbyes, gift-giving, great wine, and awesome Georgian food.

The group (teachers and students) around the table at the Georgian restaurant

Following the final dinner, we had a final get-together at our favorite bar in Moscow, Вокзал (Vokzal). We realized how close we had actually grown as a group. This trip had been especially frustrating for us due to cliques forming and passive aggression which probably resulted from our homesickness and culture shock symptoms. It was great to have one more night to drink all together and celebrate our friendship. Its amazing how fast I got attached and depended upon my American friends to get through the hard times during our journey in Russia. I'm happy that I got along with the majority of my group, and I hope to get together with them again when we are back in the United States!

Left to Right: Dan, Gizem, Seth, and Brooke at Vokzal

Sadly, this will be my last blog post. The journey has come to an end, as all good things do at one time or another. I am beyond thankful for my time here, and the opportunity to study Russian in Moscow for one semester. Thank you for reading just this post or any posts that I've put up in previous weeks and months, I really appreciate sharing my journey with you. I'll be leaving Moscow in less than 24 hours!

Countdown to returning home: 1 day

Saturday, December 8, 2012

12/9 - Dynamo Hockey, Chocolate Factory

I realize in the past few blog posts, I've been saying how I can't think to much about returning home, or I won't enjoy my last few weeks in Russia. However, its almost impossible at this point. We've spent over three months in Moscow, and we are starting to get homesick especially with the holiday season. I'm always the one complaining about the shopping rushes or the overplaying of Christmas music on the radio, but this year - I actually miss it. Finals are coming up this week in our classes, final program evaluations, written/oral proficiency exams, our final goodbyes, and then we are heading home. I can easily say that the general consensus is that we are ready to head back. 

Amanda, Brooke, and I in front of Christmas Tree or ёлка (yolka)

On Wednesday evening, seven of us attended a KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) or КХЛ Хоккей (pronounced the same in English) game near the old 1980 Olympic Stadium in Moscow. After the NHL, the KHL is considered the second-most talented hockey league in the world. This season, its seeing a growth in popularity primarily because NHL players are choosing this league as a Plan B until the NHL ends its lockout period (all the games are canceled due to salary issues). We saw Moscow's team HC Dynamo Moscow (Динамо Москва) play against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (ХК Локомотив). Also we got to see Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, both players for the NHL's Washington Capitals, play for Dynamo in Moscow due to the lockout! 

In my opinion, it is necessary to see a hockey game in Russia more than any other sport. This country has a strong hockey tradition, and its also interesting to compare the sport in the US and in Russia. For example, there are hardly any player-player fights or hard checks that happen in the KHL. If the referees see a fight start to boil up, they will rush in to stop it before it gets any worse. Whereas American spectators will expect and often promote fights in hockey games, the exact opposite happens here. Also, if you've experienced or heard about the famous 1980 American-Soviet Olympic hockey game, you should ask how a Russian experienced this event at the time. I asked my host mother about the Russian reaction to their loss in 1980. She said the Soviet people were devastated, and it was shocking to everyone who followed sports at the time. 

The Yaroslavl and Moscow teams shaking hands                             Alexander Ovechkin (Александр Овечкин) 
at the end of the game (seems to be an international                                 in action

Yesterday, we had our last program-sponsored excursion to a famous Chocolate factory in downtown Moscow. There's not a whole lot to say about this excursion except... well, this place produces a lot of chocolate and candy products. However, the content of the excursion exceeded my expectations, our tour guide started by showing us the origins of chocolate in Central and South America back thousands of years ago. Then we learned of the process of how a Cocoa seed is ground up, mixed with butter and sugar, compounded into shapes, and then wrapped for our convenience. Then we got a behind-the-scenes tour of the factory and its production processes. Moreover, we got to taste test their products as our tour guide walked us through. It was delicious chocolate!

Carsten, Nick, Seth, and I in our factory uniforms before entering the production area

Museum portion of the factory

Thanks for reading again! Unfortunately, my next post will be my last in Russia. This journey has been amazing and eye-opening, but all good things must come to an end. 

Countdown to returning home: 9 days

Sunday, December 2, 2012

12/2 - Base, Snowstorm, AIDS Benefit Concert, VDNKh

Big news came my way this week! Yesterday, I found out that I'll be stationed at Pope Army Airfield in North Carolina as my first assignment as a Logistics Readiness Officer in the U.S. Air Force. I received my sixth choice out of six for my base, but I have already realized that you can't have high expectations for job and base placements in the military. However, I definitely consider myself lucky to be stationed here, its a beautiful town with a strong military community and culture. The base itself is famous for the 440th Airlift wing, which is one of the finest and largest in the Air Force, and has over 16 C-130 cargo airplanes. As part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure program, Pope Field was combined with Fort Bragg (controlled by the U.S. Army) - the home of the Army Airbourne and Special Forces training. It's great news, and I'm excited to go on active duty. The last piece of information I'll need is my EAD, or the date I need to report in for duty. 

This weekend started with one of the longest snowstorms (or метель/metel) that I've ever witnessed, even as a kid who grew up with Nor'easters in New Hampshire. It was snowing nonstop for almost 2 straight days, and it was so much that my host family was even surprised. Some news agencies reported that they hadn't seen a snowstorm of that longevity and caliber in over 50 years. However, it made the Moscow landscape look beautiful, except for the streets, which were covered in a dark brown slush and often got extremely icy. It inspired me and my friend Dan to go explore Red Square, and we got some awesome pictures in front of St. Basil's Cathedral and the adjacent mall. 

In front of St. Basil's Cathedral (Red Square) in the snowstorm

With Dan and Lena (Лена) with a Coca-Cola polar bear (белый медведь)

On Friday night, our friend Jesse was gracious enough to invite five of us to help volunteer at the Russian Entertainment Awards at the Драматический театр (Dramatichesky Teatr) or Drama Theater in downtown Moscow. This was essentially the Russian version of the MTV music awards, and featured some famous Russian singers and TV personalities. Unfortunately, the Americans hardly knew any of these celebrities, but how would we have known? We aren't avid viewers of Russian entertainment television. The concert was run by the United Nations and the organization Красная ленточка (Krasnaya Lentochka) or "Red Ribbon" to help fight the AIDS (ВИЧ) epidemic. It was an honor to help volunteer with such an important organization with an extremely bold cause. Before the concert I had the responsibility of escorting some of the music stars to the main part of the theater where the awards ceremony and concert were to be held. It was nerve-racking because some of the stars only spoke Russian, but others only knew English. Obviously, I was more inclined to help the latter!

From left to right (Me, Jesse, Becky, Gizem, Amanda) on the Red Carpet!

Some interesting looking Russian "stars" getting interviewed on the Red Carpet

On Saturday, we made a short visit to the All-Russian Exhibition Center or VDNKh (ВДНХ) to do some browsing, shopping, and enjoy some holiday fun. The biggest shocker to me was this center was formerly a Soviet Union Republics memorial that has been converted into a market and amusement park. For example, the Soviets had built a huge memorial to the Russian Soviet Republic called the "House of the People of Russia" or Дом народного России (Dom narodnovo Rossii), which is covered with hammer/sickle logos and has a huge statue of Vladimir Lenin in front. Now its simply a souvenir shopping center for tourists. As we continued to explore, we saw some old Soviet relics, and other buildings dedicated to the former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan, and others. We even got to see the old Soviet Vostok rocket, and a small Christmas concert. It was definitely an interesting place...

House of the People of Russia (Дом народного России)

In front of the USSR Vostok rocket (СССР Восток)

Thanks for reading my blog post! My journey is coming to a close soon, so I'll probably only have time for a few more adventures. I can't believe how much I've seen and learned about this language and culture. Finals are on the horizon, so I'll be focused on studying for those. 

Countdown to returning home: 16 days

Sunday, November 25, 2012

11/25 - Thanksgiving, Dance Studio, Novodevichy

So I am reaching the conclusion of a 4-day weekend here in Moscow, and it was certainly eventful. We were fortunate enough to get Thanksgiving off from classes here because our professors knew that none of us would actually go to class anyway. Plus it's a chance for them to get a break from instructing on a holiday from which Russians are gaining an increasing awareness. Happy Thanksgiving is said in Russian as С днём благодарения (or S deyom blagodareneya). Like in the United States, this holiday signifies the start of the holiday shopping season, as Russians see the shopping craze unfolding every year on Black Friday or Чёрная пятница (Chornaya Pyatnitsa). Decorations start to go up, local stores offer sales, and Russians get excited about their New Year (Новый год) celebrations. 

For the first time in 21 years, I was not home in New Hampshire for Thanksgiving. Instead, our resident director, Jon Smith, invited us to spend the holiday in his apartment. The majority of us had a wonderful time, we stuffed our faces with food, and watched a bunch of movies - Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mulan, and The Lion King. I have to thank my friends who cooked for us because they did a wonderful job. Surprisingly, it was not difficult to find the ingredients for our Thanksgiving favorites such as cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and macaroni 'n' cheese. However, the turkey is normally a cheap part of the meal, but not this year. Our turkey cost over $50, and it was only 10 pounds! 

The abroad group for Thanksgiving (день благодарения) at Jon's apartment

The Feast

On Friday, we got an exclusive free viewing from the Moiseyev Dance Academy downtown. The performance was only about an hour long, but we were able to witness some traditional Russian dances, Tango, and more. This was only made possible by our director Jon because he toured with Academy's students when they came to the United States. Also, I think we could appreciate this performance so much more because our group is taking weekly dance classes as part of our course curriculum this semester. Our dance teacher referred to dance or танца (tantsa) as гордость России or "the pride of Russia." The founder of the school Igor Moiseyev (1906 - 2007) would have agreed, and his name is one of the most famous in the Russian dance, choreography, and music industries to this day. Moiseyev was awarded countless Soviet state honors, as well as the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Mozart Medal for his contribution to world music culture. 

With the dancers of the Moiseyev Dance Academy (wish my eyes weren't closed here)

On the metro imitating a monument

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to complete my Christmas shopping at the Ismailovo Market in Northeast Moscow. Following our shopping spree, my friends Jesse, Amanda, and I went on a self-guided tour of another part of the Moscow metro. On Sunday, Jesse and I went to the famous Novodevichy Cemetery or Новодевичье кладбище to see the graves of some of the most famous Russians and Soviets who ever lived. We saw the graves of Boris Yeltsin (first President of the Russian Federation), Nikita Khrushchev (former Soviet premier), Raisa Gorbachova (wife of Mikhail Gorbachev), Anton Chekhov (writer), Nikolai Gogol (writer), and many others. It is a must-see for all tourists and students studying abroad in Moscow. Its strange to think that I've already seen the graves of every Soviet premier, which are all located in Moscow. 

Grave of Boris Yeltsin (могила Бориса Ельцина)

Grave of Nikita Khrushchev (могила Никиты Хрущева)

This journey has treated me well thus far, and I've seen my language ability progress and develop faster than I ever would have expected. In the final few weeks I hope to make trips to the provincial towns of Yaroslavl and Vladimir. There's not too much time left, so I have to make haste!

Countdown to returning home: 23 days

Saturday, November 17, 2012

11/17 - Beer Factory (Ochakovo)

With all of the scandals happening this week including the accusations against Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Allen, I'm happy none of the higher-up Air Force generals are accused of anything. It's unbelievable that I only have about a month left in Moscow with my departure date scheduled for December 18. Our resident director John was telling us that students begin to daydream of home in these last few weeks, and I want to try to avoid this symptom at all costs. I'll most likely only visit Russia a few times in my lifetime, so I want to make the most out of these final weeks. 

This week felt like a huge linguistic accomplishment for me. First of all, I had always had trouble with the Russian "verbs of motion," and to give you a sense of how difficult these are, instead of just having the words for "to go," it changes based on the vehicle you're riding in, or if you're going on foot. On top of all that, there are prefixes to identify the direction of the motion. I finally conquered my fears and got an A on the test this week on verbs of motion. Moreover, I met with my tutor, Maria, this week and we went to a Mexican restaurant. Maria always is willing to help me with my Russian, and our entire conversation at the bar was in Russian. She pointed out that she observed tremendous progress, and it definitely calmed me down and gave me more faith in the American Councils Study Abroad program. It is truly one of the best ways to learn Russian.

Yesterday, we had our fifteenth excursion to the Очаково пивзавод (Ochakovo Beer Factory). All of us were excited because, well, we are college students and we love all kinds of alcohol. Its also important to note how the beer scene is exploding in Moscow, and its almost at the point of overtaking vodka in terms of consumption. We had a fantastic tour guide, but unfortunately, the factory was sort of boring. We got to see the areas where beer is produced, but we never actually saw the process happen before us. The highlight of the day was definitely the beer-tasting at the end. We got to try their award-winning German-style beer, plus many other light and dark flavors. 

Пивные бочонки (Beer Kegs) outside the Factory

Goofing around near the bar with a stuffed wolf

Today is the earliest I've ever started my Christmas shopping, and I went with my friends Amanda and Gizem to the market (рынок) near Измайловский парк (Izmailovsky Park) to start buying gifts for my family and friends. I know my loved ones will appreciate an authentic Russian gifts this year, plus its always a bonus to avoid the craziness of the shopping season in the United States. Only about a month left, and there's so much left to see! Not only in Moscow, but around the region. I hope to inform you of more adventures soon enough.

Thanks for reading!

Countdown to returning home: 31 days

Saturday, November 10, 2012

11/10 - Obama Wins, Bond Museum, Presnya Museum

First off, starting with news from the USA, as I'm sure you all know, President Obama won a second term in office! For me, this was amazing news, and I was shocked how he took almost every battleground state except for North Carolina. In addition, only two states switched parties from the 2008 election, Indiana and North Carolina. It was a blowout by electoral college standards. In addition, it was a groundbreaking election - the first openly gay senator (Tammy Baldwin) was elected in Wisconsin. In my state, New Hampshire, all of our federal representatives will be women after their respective inaugurations in January 2013. Here is the lineup - Governor Maggie Hassan, Senator Kelly Ayotte (only Republican), Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster. 

This weekend in Moscow has gotten off to a fantastic start, and its only just started. On Thursday, my friend Dan and I went to the James Bond Museum/Exhibit in Китай-Город (Ketai-Gorod or Chinatown). It was a relatively small museum, but it has some great exhibits and collectables from all the movies back to the Sean Connery era. My favorite part of the museum was a screen that played all the opening credits from all the Bond movies simultaneously. James Bond is more of a recent fad for Russians, as the movies were typically banned during the time of the Soviet Union. The government would never permit one of the prominent symbols of the capitalist world to be shown in theaters. The funniest part of this museum was a "sex-scene room," that had a continuous roll of the Bond sex scenes from all the movies. 

Bond by GQ - Museum Entrance

Shooter pose with silhouettes of the Bond Actors 

I know this is kinda lame to get excited over, but I finally found a Dunkin' Donuts or in Russian - Данкин Донатс in Moscow. It was a beautiful restaurant, unlike some of the ones around Massachusetts. Also, I find it amazing how much their corporation has grown, from a tiny doughnut shop in Quincy, Massachusetts to Moscow, China, Western Europe, and beyond. I would even argue that this store is cleaner and better-kept than some in the US!

Dunkin' Donuts - Данкин Донатс

Yesterday, we had our fourteenth excursion to the Presnya Museum or Пресня музей, which was a decent 20th century Soviet/Russian history museum. It primarily focused on the events surrounding the events in the early 1990s, when the country was making its transition from a communist to a capitalist economy. In 1991, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin were in a power struggle before the Russian government completely took over. More violence boiled in September 1993, when Yeltsin and the first (and only) Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoy led opposing sides in a extremely heated constitutional crisis that resulted in the deaths of over 200 Russian citizens, police, and soldiers. Our tour guide gave us a well-rounded summary of these events, and it came to life when we saw the memorials around the Белый дом (Beliy Dom) or "White House." Yeltsin ordered tanks and soldiers to fire upon the White House, which is the meeting of the Russian Legislature or State Duma. Shows how difficult it actually is to transition to a completely different style of governance. 

"Героическая Пресня 1905 год" - Диорама - Heroic Presnya 1905 - Diorama

Outside the House of the Government of the Russian Federation - Дом правительства российской федерации

 Lastly, today - Seth, Carsten, and I all went to a market in the Northeast part of Moscow to pick up some winter weather gear, specifically Russian hats. We were bargaining with the sellers (in Russian, I might add). Originally some of these hats cost 2500 rubles (=$79). After browsing through many of the kiosks, we both found hats that we wanted. I bought mine for 1700 rubles (=$54), and its made from actual rabbit fur or мех кролика. It's extremely warm, and will do wonders in the Russian (and American) winter. Check out the picture below!

Carsten and I with our Russian шапкы/shapki/hats

Thanks for reading again, only about 5 weeks left in Moscow. Soon I'll be traveling to the eastern city of Vladimir!

Countdown to returning home: 38 days

Sunday, November 4, 2012

11/4 - Moscow State University, Exploring the Metro

I can't believe its already November! It's unbelievable that I've been in Russia for two months, and the Presidential Elections are on this Tuesday. With daylight savings time happening in the US, that leaves me 9 hours ahead of EST (Eastern Standard Time) as of this week. That being said, I'll probably be missing at least half of my school day to see the final results come in. Either way, I'll probably be drinking with my American friends here to either celebrate or complain about the result of the election. We have a drastically liberal abroad group (including myself), so we are hoping President Obama wins a second term in office!

Anyway, we had a long weekend in Russia (well, longer than normal). Our normal three-day weekend became a four-day weekend because our professors wanted to celebrate the holiday on November 4, known as День народного единства ("Unity Day"), which celebrates the day in 1612, when Muscovite heroes Minin and Pozharsky drove the Polish out of Moscow and started a new era of Russian Imperial dominance. More importantly, it signifies the strength in unification that defines Russian culture today, and November 4, 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of that day. 

Last Sunday, we were lucky enough to be able to see James Bond 007 Skyfall before it came out in the USA. Moreover, we saw it in Russian, which was definitely awesome, but also ironic at the same time. It was my first movie in Russian that I saw in theater, and it was really interesting to see the Russian crowd's reactions to different scenes in the movie. For instance, they laughed whenever someone was shot or killed, which came to a great surprise to my group. Regardless, I was happy that I understood a lot, and enjoyed another fantastic Bond film. 

Poster for the Художественный кинотеатр (literally "Art Movie Theater")

On Friday, we had an excursion to Москва государственный университет ("Moscow State University"), which is Moscow's most famous and oldest university, founded in 1755 by Mikhail Lomonosov. He's known to many Americans as the Russian Benjamin Franklin, due to his groundbreaking achievements in a variety of fields from physics to chemistry to geology to art to history, and even math. Just to give you a gist of how big this school is - it employs over 4,000 academic staff, 15,000 other staff members, and the student body consists of around 40,000 undergraduates and 7,000 postgraduates. Its enormous, and this tour gave us a great idea of how large it actually is. 

The key thing to see at MSU (МГУ) is its main building, which is one of the Stalin "Seven Sisters," built in his famous Wedding Cake Architecture during the 1950s. I've seen the other Sisters around Moscow, but this is the first we were able to enter and explore. It's built around hundreds of massive marble columns, still decorated with Soviet symbols that were forced into the infrastructure. Its a stark reminder of how Soviet propaganda was not only influential in society, but also in the Soviet educational system. My favorite moment was our journey to the 31st floor of the building where we got a panoramic view of the city, seeing the Moscow River, the 1980 Olympic Stadium, among many other sights. 

Amanda and I outside the Main МГУ Building

View of the МГУ campus from the 31st Floor

Today was probably the least eventful day of the weekend, mostly because of disappointment over a trip me and some friends wanted to take. We were trying to get early morning train tickets to the city of Yaroslavl or Ярославль, but trains were unfortunately booked until the afternoon, which made a day-trip impossible. However, I made alternative plans with my friend Amanda, and we did a self-guided tour along to the well-known metro stops along Moscow's Red Line, and we saw some awesome sights!

In front of a Lenin Bust at Комсомольская (Komsomolskaya) Station

More adventures from Moscow to come soon, we might be taking a weekend trip to the city of Vladimir next weekend!

Countdown to returning home: 44 days