Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Back in Austin. Will edit this post later, after I've recovered enough to recover the details of the fiasco.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Always look on the bright side of life"

Yay for Monty Python!
Anyway, I'm looking at the positive side of spending Christmas Eve in Moscow...
1) I just woke up to gently falling snow - the beginnings of my first real white Christmas. If I had left on Friday, I would have missed what I really wanted - fresh snow. I mean, what's Russia in December without snow?!
(to be continued later - right now I'm off to play on Old Arbat).

Friday, December 22, 2006

What am I doing here...

I’m not really sure where I should start. The last 48 hours have been hellish to say the least. Nothing has gone as planned. The really bad news first – I’m still in Moscow. While I love this city, I was expecting to be home by now, enjoying an enormous helping of Mexican food along with a cerveza or two. Alas, things beyond my control have held me. I guess I should take a step back or two and explain things from the beginning.

I finished packing everything up on Thursday morning and Natasha picked me up at the dorm to take me to the airport. The Irkutsk International Airport is quite possibly the smallest international airport I’ve ever flown through. As was the plane – while there are a lot of seats on the Tupolev jets (Aeroflot’s plane of choice), they do so at the expense of both leg room and overhead storage. For the first time ever, my carry-on roller bag (smaller than most “carry-on” size rollers), was deemed to large to take aboard – I think because they weigh even the carry-ons and if they are more than 10 kg, you have to check this. This was particularly bad because I was already extremely overweight on my checked baggage. I misread the guidelines (saw the international ones rather than the domestic) and it turns out that I was only allowed to take 20 kg – over that, and it’s 150 rubles (about $5.50) per kg. I ended up having to pay about $200 dollars to take my baggage (which, incidentally was not overweight when I went to check in for my attempted flight to America on Lufthansa this morning).

As if having to pay the $200 wasn’t bad enough, I had to pay it in cash because they didn’t have a credit card machine. WHAT?! An international airport without a credit card reader?! Yeah, that’s what I thought too. And the balance on my debit card was not enough to cover it. My only option – do a cash advance on my Visa through the currency exchange office. Not only is Citibank going to charge me, but there was a 2% commission as well. Grrrrr. But I did manage to get them the money and get everything settled to get on the flight.

The flight from hell that is. Now, I’ve flown halfway around the world on dozens of planes, but nothing compares to this … experience. I was sitting on the second to last row, right next to a huge oxygen tank. I figured, “Great. If we go down, I’ll be the first to die a fiery death.” It also blocked the view from the window, so my last view of Siberia was from the stairs up into the cabin – and the runway isn’t all that great to look at. I lucked out and didn’t have anyone sitting next to me. Because of the oxygen tank, my my side of the isle only had two seats rather than three, and the other one was occupied by a guitar (there was a group of musicians from Armenia on the flight). Across the isle was this burly manly man, who spent most of the six hour flight drooling over porn, while is trophy wife tried to not pay attention. There weren’t any babies or dogs on the flight, but there was a gentleman who insisted upon smoking in the lavatory – which is a federal offense in Russia as it is in America. And quite unpleasant for the other folks on the plane.

Even though it was not the greatest six hours of my life, I did land safely in Moscow, even a full five minutes ahead of schedule. The next trick was to make my way over to the other airport to drop off my big bags at the luggage storage for the expected flight the next morning. For this I managed to get some help from the Armenian musicians, who insisted that I was too small to carry such big bags myself. While I normally don’t like the whole chauvinistic view of women as incapable of strength, I was glad to find some help – I was tired and I no mood to lug all that around my self. It was, after all, about 55 kilos altogether.

Our plane landed at 3 pm – by the time I swung by the other terminal and made my way through Moscow rush hour to the hostel, it was already 7 oclock. And I was supposed to meet up with a friend at 7.30! Rush, rush, rush, but I got there on time. We ended up having a great time – he knew this cool expat place near Mayakovskaya metro station – about a 15 minute walk from Red Square. After burgers (REAL burgers!) and a couple of beers, we headed that way. I really wanted to see Red Square in the winter time at night. While there wasn’t a big blanket of snow like I wanted (it’s been unseasonably warm in Moscow as well), it was very pretty. The GUM department store was decorated with lights for New Years, and there was a huge (though not real) Christmas tree in the center, in front of which was a skating rink. It was amazingly pretty, and quite calm so late at night.

Maybe staying out so late wasn’t such a good idea when I had to leave for the airport at 4.00, but you only live once, right? I got a couple hours of sleep, and then headed back to Sheremetyevo for what I thought was the last time. About an hour and a half before my flight, I got a disturbing phone call. It was Natasha in the international office in IGLU saying that they had my visa there. WHAT THE HELL?! I don’t know how many times I asked and had them repeat to me that I had everything in order and was ready to leave the country. I don’t understand how people can be so incompetent. Needless to say, I was unable to get on the plane – the passport control man was not very nice about it either. Fortunately, the poor Lufthansa lady who took the brunt of my emotional outpouring was very calm and nice about the situation and helped me change my booking. Unfortunately, there were only two options open to me. You see, there is only one flight daily from Frankfurt (where I connect from Moscow) to Dallas, and it leaves at 10.30 in the morning. So in order to make that, I have to be on the 7 am flight from Moscow. But I needed the visa, which was somewhere in Irkutsk. If it was impossible to get it to me by 7 am tomorrow morning, I’m in the same pickle was today. The alternative – fly home on Christmas day, because the Christmas Eve flight to Dallas was cancelled. There goes all my plans.

I did manage to get everything straight, though things aren’t anywhere near where I’d like them to be. Instead of using DHL or FedEx, they’re sending me my visa with Adam, who is flying through Moscow tomorrow afternoon on his way home. Unfortunately, that means no flight for me tomorrow but a wait until Monday. While their also sending me money for the hostel, it’s still another expense. And at that point, I had about $30 left in my bank account, so I was feeling a bit screwed (luckily my January stipend check got into my account this afternoon, so I don’t have to do another credit card advance now).

Anyway, long story short, I’m having a really bad day. But the only thing I can do is suck it up and try to enjoy spending a few unexpected days in Moscow. At least I have a friend or two here, so I’m not feeling completely isolated. Still, I would rather be sleeping in my own bed tonight. And this better not screw up the New Year’s plans too – I’ve been looking forward to the New Years Dino Hunt for several months.

I have free internet here and I recharged my phone so call or email me if you feel like offering your emotional support (or have an idea of how to get back at the idiots who put me in this mess).

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I saw something that I haven't see for a long time yesterday - a thermometer go ABOVE freezing! That's right - according to my thermometer, it was +2C when I got home from the university. What the heck?! This is Siberia for cryin out loud. It's supposed to be -30 by now. But it's been a beautiful few days so I'm not gonna complain. I just wish we could have had a fresh bit of snow before I have to leave. I'm gonna miss that.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sign here, please...

The only real reason I got out of bed this morning was to get one final signature on my grade sheet. Little did I know that the grade sheet was only the first in a long line of paperwork needed to leave this country. First I had to write a declaration, essential saying, "I wanna go home." Then I had to make a list of all my courses and grades and hours that need to go on my transcript. Then I scheduled my airport transfer. Then I was given yet another slip of paper, this one apparently the most important of all. I have to get a signature from just about every person I've dealt with thus far at the university - and I mean everyone, from the dean of the faculty to the little old lady at the dormitory who gave me my sheets. Geesh. It's a good thing I started packing last night. I'm completely booked right up until the hour I leave (I guess I should have scheduled some time to sleep as well...). I'm going bowling this evening with the Belgians, then I have a party tomorrow night (I even convinced the old lady at the dorm to extend my curfew since it'll be my last night). But for now, I'm off to collect more signatures. Satisfying bureaucrats can be quite an adventure.

And it's all downhill from here...

I mean that in the good sense - as in, I have time for sledding and taking it easy now that I've finished my exams. I may not have gotten a 5 (the highest grade), but I did manage to pass my Morphology exam. Let me say that that was the most terrifying testing experience I've ever had in my life. Russian exams work something like a POW torture session. You are grilled by the instructor and must recite the answers by rote. AAAAAHHHH. I can handle the practical exercises, but reciting the definitions of all the different gramatical terms is just beyond me (I'm not even sure that I could do it in English). Anyway, it's all over and done with now and I am free to enjoy my last few days here. I still have a bunch of stuff that I need to get down but it's all technical paperwork and stuff - nothing that really requires a fully functional brain. I guess that means it's time for happy hour (hey, it's five oclock in Vladivostok - that's close enough).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Wonderful Weekend

I had two goals for this weekend:

1. Study for my morphology exam that I’m supposed to take tomorrow (not yet achieved)

2. Do as much as possible to make this last weekend in Irkutsk a memorable one.

In retrospect, these two goals don’t really seem to work that well together. Stay home and study AND go out and play? No worries though – my plan is to spend the rest of this afternoon studying (because we all know that I ALWAYS study for tests – wink wink).

On Friday I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to Listvyanka. I needed to make one last trip to Lake Baikal before leaving here – there’s no telling when I’ll be able to make my way back. I really wish that I could have gone to Olkhon Island at least once (it’s the biggest island on the biggest lake in the world), but things conspired to make that quite impossible (namely – that stupid Saturday class that I had for a few weeks robbed me of the good weekends and made me miss all the trips that my friends made together).

Before heading out on this adventure, I went to the movies with a some friends – Karolien, Yoosi, and Bea. We saw the new Mel Gibson move about the Maya. Bloody, but I liked it. Of course, I think that’s because I took that Mayan Art class last semester at the DMA – so seeing it “live” was pretty awesome, even if that did include death, dismemberment, and decapitation. At least I didn’t get sick like I almost did in Passion of the Christ. The cool think about it was the language – because the he used to the Mayan language with subtitles, the Russian theatre actually did SUBTITLES instead of dubbing. Maybe they realized that dubbing the ancient Maya into Russian would have looked really stupid. But I’m proud of myself – I understood the plot and what was going on the whole movie – without word of English in sight :-D.

From there it was to bed – had to get some rest for Saturday’s adventure.

I tried to get a bunch of people to go with me to Listvyanka, but Adam was the only other one who actually did – he’s also leaving this week, so he wanted to say goodbye to the lake too I guess. We got there at about noon, after a few nice conversations with the old ladies on the marshrutka. Listvyanka isn’t a very big place – it’s strung out along the banks of the lake, around the point where the Angara River (which runs through Irkutsk) leaves Baikal behind. There’s a legend that says that Angara was actually the daughter of Baikal, and she decided to run away to her lover, the Yenisye River. In anger, Father Baikal threw the largest stone he could find to try to stop her – but she kept on flowing. You can still see the stone – all good little tourists must.

I was surprised at the lack of ice on the water itself. The lake freezes over completely each year – the ice is even thick enough in some parts to drive trucks across it. Before they had the technology to go through the mountains, the transsiberian railroad used to go ACROSS the lake in the winter time, with the tracks across the ice. So I’m told at least – that could be crap.

The banks in Listvyanka are frozen but the lake is not. Right next to the bus station they’ve just completed an ice fortress – complete with an ice church and a huge slide (which I couldn’t help but notice looks a lot like the one that is almost done on the main square back in Irkutsk). Did I mention that I love the ice castles? Well let me say it one more time – they’re AWESOME! And the slide was so much fun. I spent a whopping 50 rubles ($1.75) on a Sanka Legyanka – a little plastic sheet made for little kids to go sliding down hills on (kind of like going down a frozen driveway on a cardboard box, except it doesn’t get wet and fall apart – and it’s got a handle). I couldn’t resist the urge to buy a bottle of coke and do a polar bear commercial style pose on the slide – I went down on me stomach than took a big refreshing gulp. I thought it was funny – the locals thought I was crazy. But sometimes we all need to do silly little tourist things like this.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather. Listvyanka is usually quite winding (for the same reason that Chicago is), but Saturday’s winds were minimal. The sun was out and the temperature was great – only about -10˚C (at this point, I rejoice when it’s that warm). We spent most of the day walking around, going to the souvenir market and playing in the ice and snow.

Irkutsk hasn’t had fresh snow in about two weeks (at least not a noticeable amount). The snow that’s on the ground now is really getting dirty. Hopefully it will snow again before I leave – I need to get all my snow-playing energy used up before I go back to the land of winterlessness.

We also ate lunch in a little café a ways down the bank. It was seriously the nicest café I’ve been to in Russia – it almost reminded me of being in a ski lodge somewhere up in Colorado. It was nicely decorated and had decent food. Even so, it was not much more than the average Russian café as far as prices go – I had blini with jam, “beefshteaks” (not a steak, but a meat blob) with rice, soup, and a cup of tea for about $4.50. An equivalent meal in a restaurant like this in America would probably have cost about 3 or 4 times that. Food is definitely not my major expensive here.

After a late lunch (by that point it was already about 4.30, we walked back down the bank to the ice castle to watch the sunset. It’s definitely getting close to the shortest day of the year (it’s this Thursday in fact if I remember correctly – I will spend it on a plane then hang out on Red Square that night). The sun was down by about 5. What a beautiful sunset. The lake is surrounded by mountains, and you can see the ones clear on the other side. The air is almost as clean as the water. Once the sun hid behind the mountains, the clouds overhead turned orange and then bright pink – and all this was reflected on the surface of the lake. My God – it was another one of those moments when I really wish I could take a picture that would do it justice. Even if I had had my tripod, I’m not sure that I could ever recreate that – it just one of those things where you have to be there.

Once the sun went down, we had about an hour to kill before the bus back to Irkutsk. So what did I do? Slide so more of course! The ice slides are so much fun – I’m definitely going to miss them when I get back home. I could only convince Adam to go down once (I think he’s afraid of heights or something). But I went down over and over again.

It was hard to stay awake on the drive home – it’s about an hour on the road to get back. But I called one of my Belgian friends, and found out that a bunch of them were planning to go ice skating that even. Adam had never been before – ever. So we took him with us and had a great time. We stayed until the place closed. I almost got locked out of the dorm (we had to wait 20 minutes for the bus to take us back to the dorms). By the time I finally made it to my bed, muscles aching and smiling ear to ear, I was sure that I had fulfilled that second goal.

Now I just have to do something about that first one…

(I'll try to get the pictures up before I leave but no promises - I'm really busy this week and it might have to wait until I'm stuck in Moscow. My hostel has free internet anyway :-D).

Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's finally here...

The last 7 days in Russia. It feels really weird that I'm going home in a week. I have so much to do before I go - so many things to see and foods to eat and exams (!) to take. Aaaaaahhhh! But you know what they say - time flies when you're freezing your ass off ... I mean having fun :-D.
Anyway, I've got a lot on my plate this weekend. I have a bit of reading to finish up for Olga Lopsonovna, then I'm heading to Listvyanka (on the lake) tomorrow for a last look at Baikal. Hopefully there will be at least some ice. Natasha said that they make ice castles there too, so I'll be sure to get some pictures. The big one here by the stadium is done - now they're working on a bunch of little ones all over town. I love it.
My Polish friends left yesterday. It really made me said, mostly because I too have to say goodbye to everyone next week. Hopefully I'll get over to Poland sometime soon. I like having friends all over the place. Warsaw, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London ... the list goes on and on. Who needs a hostel now? Couch surfing is better anyway.
Here are some stats on my trip home:
1. Total miles to be flown - 9201
2. Total hours in the air - 21 hours 37 minutes (if things go as planned)
3. Total hours spent sitting in random cities and twiddling my thumbs - ~20 hours
By the way, I have a five hour layover in Dallas next Friday if anyone is in town and really bored. I'd hate to just sit on my butt in the DFW airport twiddling my thumbs.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Siberian Survival Tip #1

1. Hockey games are fun. Especially so when they are at a huge outdoor stadium in the wintertime. Even though we've had ridiculously warm weather lately (this November was the warmest in Irkutsk in 100 years), it was still a tad frigid (it was nighttime after all). And everyone got frisked for vodka and concealed weapons upon entrying, so the only thing we had to keep warm with was the flask we had hidden in Karolien's dreadlocks (I mean, who's going to look for a bottle of vodka THERE?) Even though we won and all (Russia beat Sweden 2-1 to win the tournament), I'm not quite sure that sitting outside for 5 hours was such a great idea. I am now sick as a dog - during the one week that I can't miss any classes. Figures.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The pizza-less pizza place

When I finally got out of bed this morning, I had a craving for some pizza. Deciding to take care of this before anything else this morning, I headed out to find some. Now, I think I've been going to Domino (local 24 student hangout/pizza place) far too often these last few weeks, so I decided to go somewhere else - a little place called Pinoccio's down the street from the university. Everything was going well until I got to the counter to place my order. THEY HAD NO PIZZA! How can a pizza place advertizing all over town stay open when they are unable to make pizza because of a broken oven?! I don't get it. Not only that, but they didn't have any soda because of a broken fountain machine, and they didn't have my favorite kind of blini. I just don't get it.
So I went back to Domino instead. Sigh.
Now that I've checked my email and paid my credit card bill, time to leave this place and go watch some HOCKEY!

The stream-of-consciousness blog entry

I have a lot of things that I've been wanting to write about this week, but haven't been able to make it down to the internet cafe to get them posted. So I'm just gonna start typing all the random thoughts into one big entry, and see where that takes me...
Let's start with the weather. It's been one strange week. No wind + lots of sunshine = warm temperature. I'm talking very close to zero. I think right now it's about -2C out there. Not too bad for Siberia. It's been very nice walking around and enjoying my last two weeks in the city. I even managed to find a good pair of pants in the Chinese market (which is open air, even in winter) thanks to the heat wave we're having. Of course, next week is probably gonna suck as far as the weather is concerned - apparently it's supposed to get down to -30 sometime in the next few days. Crap.
Speaking of things getting worse, I'm really starting to get stressed about the academic part of the end of my stay here. I can't seem to get in touch with anyone in the Office of International Education, to find out some stuff I need for my transcript. I have no idea what's going one or what I have to do. And I somehow have to pass these exams. I think I might be more screwed than I thought. But hey - at least I'm not cold anymore.
I saw something kind of random today that made me think of a few people back home. Well, sort of back home - what it really made me think of was my trip to St. Louis last December. I was in a cafe today waiting in line when I saw a sign that said, "New menu item - fried ravioli." Mmmm - tasty. The only other place I've ever seen this was in St. Louis. When Chris and I arrived at his parents house, we were treated to some pizza and fried ravioli. Oh man. I miss my friends.
Holiday shopping on a Saturday in Irkutsk is just as maddening as in the US. I almost just want to start screaming at all the pushy people running around looking for presents for others. This is one of this things I hate about Christmas (or as is the case here, New Years). Will things always be so commercial this time of year?
But that's not all I'm up to today. Yesterday I went back to the high school to talk to the English students again, and was invited by a bunch of the girls to go ice skating tonight. At an outdoor skating rink. This is either going to be really fun (if the weather doesn't change on me) or completely miserable. Either way, it's something that I haven't done yet. Cross one more item off the list of things I need to do before I leave Siberia.
Another item on that same list - go to a hockey game. I'm taking care of that one too this weekend. There's a big tournament in town this weekend, and a bunch of us got tickets to the Russia-Sweden game for Sunday. The only downside - it too is outdoors. I think I'm going to have to resort to the Russian method to keep warm this time - large quantities of vodka.
I still want to try to go to Baikal one more time before I leave. I want to see it at least partially covered with ice. I just don't know when I'm going to be able to - I've so much to do now to wrap things up. It's almost like being back at home - something to do every hour of every day.
Sigh. I guess that just means that I'm gonna have to come back sometime soon...
Oh, and a little comment about the news. I should have become an astronaut instead of a bookworm. I REALLY want to go hang out on the moon colony - if it ever really does get built. Exciting times.
Anyway, I think that's enough jibberjabber for now. Lots of things to do and see today...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

It's all relative...

I actually found myself saying that it was warm today. And the day’s high? -10˚C. That’s right. I think I’m actually getting used to the cold.

It really is beautiful though. Whenever we have “warm” days like this something kind of cool happens. Instead of dew on the trees in the morning, there is a snow like substance coating them – so that everything in sight is white. It’s just plain awesome to look out the window in the morning and see everything absolutely quiet and white. As much as I’m looking forward to going home, I’m definitely going to miss this picture. The city is getting ready for New Year’s already. All the “yolkas” (Christmas trees) are going up, along with copious quantities of tinsel and strings of lights. And of course – ICE CASTLES!!! Another plus side of living in a city that doesn’t see temperatures above freezing for several months in a row. The main one is going up in front of the stadium – it’s only about half done, but I think it’s going to be about the size of a Waterview apartment building when it’s complete. There are a couple of little ones already up in various parts of the city. I guess the workmen need something to do to keep their skills up to par in the winter months (of course, construction sites and the outdoor markets are still open even when it’s -20 or more).

Even with all this, I’m getting excited about being back in Texas. I’ve been having a recurring dream lately. It’s very simple – just me sitting in the Starlight Theatre Bar and Grill in Terlingua, Texas, eating enchiladas and drinking a margarita. That’s it. Aaaaah. What a life. T-minus 24 days until that becomes a reality…

Friday, December 01, 2006

As I was riding the marshrutka home on Thursday evening, I thought about the literature lesson that I had just had with Olga Lopsonovna. Our topic for the week was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (basic plot – one day, the devil visits 1930s Moscow disguised as a foreign professor of black magic, leaving the asylums full and all kinds of things turned upside down). I think what made the lesson so interesting was the fact that had it occured 50 years ago (or even later), she probably would have been fired and probably would have been expelled. Bulgakov first wrote a draft of the novel in the 1930s, but ended up burning the manuscript in fear of the reactions that would surely come from those in power (an act that is mirrored in the novel by the actions of the Master). He didn’t finish his final draft until the 1960s, and even then, it wasn’t accepted by the heavy-handed censors of the Soviet Union. If I understand correctly, the first uncensored version was released in serial form in the journal “Moskva” in 1981 – as Olga Lopsonovna was just getting ready to finish her degree at the university. Ironically, after reading this novel that year, one of the topics she had to pass in order to get her degree was Научный Атеизм – Scientific Atheism. It was at this point in the lesson that I learned that her grandfather had been a Buddist monk, whose own brother turned him over to the soviet authorities who were trying to silence the religious leaders of the country. Apparently, the university she was studying at could only get one copy of the journal in which The Master and Margarita was being published, and so many students were interested in reading it that the pages were pretty much in tatters by the time it got to her. I can’t even imagine going through college with such restraints of what can and cannot be read. Two of her classmates were expelled that year for writing their final papers on a forbidden topic (I don’t remember at the moment what that topic was, but it was something that you and I wouldn’t even consider harmful to write).
Think about this – it was extremely difficult in the soviet days to find a copy of the Bible. Whether you’re a religious person or not, having a copy of the Bible handy can be very useful when you’re studying literature. So many major (and minor) pieces in the western literary tradition refer to stories and people in the Bible. Faust, The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’s poetry – the list goes on and on. If you’ve never had access to the original stories, how can you recognize the allusions? What strikes me as incredibly ironic is the fact that many of the Russian writers of the “Golden Age” of Russian Literature (aka – 19th century) make allusions to religious texts all the time. Yet reading any of the biblical stories to which they refer would not have been possible for a large portion of the 20th century.
One of the main themes in the novel is the story of the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate – the topic of the book which the Master destroys. If that wasn’t enough to flag the book as subversive, there’s also all the references to the Faust legend and the obvious jabs at the crippling bureaucracy of communist Moscow. It’s not hard to see why the soviet critics weren’t such big fans of Bulgakov’s novel. The history behind the novel is one of the things that draws me to it. Whenever I take a class with Dr. Towner, she makes us write down on the first day what kind of books we like to read. I remember putting down “books that piss off authority figures.” I do believe that this book falls nicely into that category, and I’m glad I took the time to read it again for Olga Lopsonovna. There’s nothing like talking about a book with somehow who absolutely loves it.

Long time no see...

Wow, it's been awhile since my last post. Not only has it been an incredibly stressful week, but I also made a slight miscalculation regarding the balance of my bank account, and when this was coupled with a late stipend check, I suddenly found myself in a pickle. Whereas running out of cash in America can be solved with the temporary use of a credit card, I have to have cash. Bus fare, groceries, blini - while all cheap, require real money (and usually exact change). Anyway, long story short, I haven't had the extra cash to do more on the internet than quickly check my email. So prepare yourselves - this post's gonna be a long one...
Thanks to the organizational (and language) skills of my Polish friends, we were able to reserve a few lanes for bowling on Saturday. I think there were about 20 of us all together - Poles, Belgians, Americans, and Ruslan the Russian. Let me start by saying that bowling is a much classier affair here than at home. While smoking is allowed (as it is everywhere in this country), there was no fog of second-hand smoke to wade through. And no plastic cups of bud light - real glass mugs of imported beer. The place was also a lot smaller, owing to the fact that it's not a popular a past time as it is in America. There were about 8 lanes in one section of a casino-like night club. A really fancy place. We played for about 2 hours. I would have kicked some butt but my skills quickly diminished after the first game. I'm going to blame the Belgians - they drink like fish (you would too if you came from a country was such good beer), and this quality tends to wear off on others in social situations such as this. Anyway, even with the slight handicap, I still walked away with some high scores - I tied with Yoris for first on our lane. Unfortunately I also managed to somehow crack my thumb nail. Not quick sure how that happened, but bowling being the contact sport that it is, I'm not surprised.
Anyway, that was about all the excitement for the weekend. The rest of it I spent reading, seeing as how I had two books to finish by Wednesday, a Morphology test on Tuesday, and the impending arrival of the "zachyotnaya" week - the week for all final grade determinations. Monday I received a call from an English teacher at one of the local schools, who wanted me to come talked to her students about life in America. I made an appointment for Wednesday afternoon. What I failed to remember until I had hung up was that my Tuesday afternoon class had been moved to Wednesday this week - and I had just put myself in the situation of having to be in two places at once! I didn't have a phone number to call the lady back (stupid me), so I had to go find Tatyana Yurievna the next morning to see if we could change our class time again. I hate doing that - it makes me feel like a bad student. Anyway, she found a slot in her schedule for Friday afternoon so that I could go talk to these kids on Wednesday. The meeting was - interesting. I was asked some really strange questions - everything from, "Do you like the band Kiss?" to "Are there really cowboys in Texas?" They want me to come back a couple of times before I leave. I told them I would - they're pretty cool kids. I also think I may have found a place to leave all the books and extra DVDs that I can't fit into my bags. Might as well give them to someone who will appreciate them.
I'm starting to get a bit apprehensive about the last few weeks of classes. For the most part, I think I'll do okay - the only exam I have is in Morphology, and I think I can pull off a good grade if I study hard enough. What I'm really worried about is my grade in the Practical Course of Russian Language. The grading for it is "zachyot" - which means they keep track of everything you've been doing all semester. While I've improved significantly since the beginning, the grammar is really killing me. I never really had a strong grammar background in Russian, and therefore make tons of grammatical errors in my essays. I don't know how I'm going to pull it off. Maybe Evgenia Alexandrovna will take pity on me, knowing that I'm not at the same level as the rest of my classmates (all of whom have been studying Russian in depth for at least three consecutive years). But it's stressing me out. Three more weeks...
Oh, I guess it would be good to announce that I'm officially legal again. My passport finally came back. One thing really pisses me off though - they didn't make it a multi-entry visa like I asked them too. While I don't have time to go to Mongolia any more, they just made it impossible, even if I wanted to get away for the weekend. Grrrr. How long have I been talking about taking a trip there, and wanting a multi-entry visa? I hate it when people don't listen to me. But I guess it wouldn't do me any good anyway. I'll just have to go some other time...
Anyway, I gotta head to class. In my fervor to make up for all the lost internet time that my lack of funds caused, I've just wasted a full hour and a half. Geez. Hannah, out.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Turkey Day

My first Thanksgiving in a foreign land turned out better than I thought it would. Though my search for a turkey yielded a 2.5 kilogram filet-o-turkey rather than a whole bird, I think that was just the right amount of meat for us, so it was alright. The fact that I found any turkey at all is amazing – it’s not really a popular meat here. What was really worrying me was how I was going to cook it. Without a body cavity, how does one stuff a turkey? After consulting Grandma and others, we settled on covering it in butter and the spice mix that Misha the spice man said was good for poultry, and stuck it in the oven for a couple of hours. Luckily Adam’s computer has a Fahrenheit to Celsius converter, so we even figured out what 350˚ is on my oven (~177˚). I was afraid it would be a bit dry but it was really tasty. I found a jar of cranberry jam at the market as well, another rather serendipitous find that I wasn’t expecting. Though a little sweeter than the usual cranberry sauce, it tasted really good with the turkey.

The other sides were a little less traditional. Mashed potatoes are a must with turkey, but Adam decided to do things the Russian way and made them from a box. :-/. I hate box potatoes. They taste like cardboard. But that’s what happens when you leave guys in charge of something as easy and important as mashed potatoes. Aaron, his Belgian girlfriend Caroline, and their Chinese neighbor Yusi decided that since we are such an international bunch we might as well have an international Thanksgiving spread. So they made a whole bunch of dim sum. My, it was tasty. They made potato-filled ones for the veggie-heads who were coming and a bunch with ground beef. It was perfect. We also had a bottle of Chilean wine and (being Russia) vodka. All in all, it was a nice meal. We sat around eating and laughing, with Adam playing random American folk songs every now and then on Yusi’s broken guitar (the g-string was always out of tune, no matter what we did to it). Afterwards we toasted some pumpkin seeds that I had found in the Market, a less-than-perfect substitute for the pumpkin pie that I was unable to make (pumpkin can only be found here in September and early October, and only fresh ones). A little latter, Isa (one of the Poles) showed up with a tiramisu-ish dish she had made for our little celebration. Oh, I ate so much. By the time I walked home (through newly-fallen snow :-D), I was absolutely stuffed.

I was expecting to get a phone call from some of my family members, so I stayed up a little later than usual, watching Harry Potter. Around 2 I figured they had forgotten to call me, so I started getting ready for bed. Unfortunately, right about then the power went out in the building. Whilst fumbling around for the fusebox, I met some new Russian students. IGLU is hosting a tournament this weekend, so there are some students from other cities staying in our dorm. They insisted that I come have tea with them (I think they wanted to practice their English), so I ended up sitting over in their kitchen until about 3. Then I went back to my room and watched part of another movie. I finally succumbed to my bed at around 4, a bit bummed that I hadn’t gotten to talk to anyone at the farm on Thanksgiving.

Even with the anticlimactic ending, I think things went well this Thanksgiving – though I will be glad to be back at home next year. There’s something about being with all the extended family that makes Thanksgiving special, and it’s the one holiday that I’ve missed so far that I regret missing.

But then, I’ll be home in 25 days.pan style=""> Woohoo!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving-in-a-foriegn-land Tip #1

Don't leave any of the cooking up to the guys - otherwise, your mashed potatoes will be from a box.

Yay for subtitles!

I bought a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban today – the movie, not the book (you may recall that I already purchased a Russian version of the book). I was thrilled to discover that not only does the disc have English and Russian language tracks and subtitles (and the Russian dubbing is actually rather good), but for some as-yet unknown reason, it also includes Swedish and Icelandic. Now I’m rather curious as to why the makers of this DVD found it necessary to include these last two languages. While I’m excited by the prospect of watching the movie in Swedish with Icelandic subtitles, I’m not quite sure how many people in this part of the world would find this feature useful. You’d think they might include Mongolian or Ukrainian or another neighboring language. But who knows – maybe the makers of this version were trying to convince Ikea that the grounds in Mother Russia are fertile enough for more of their stores.

Of course, the language options on this disc are nothing in comparison to the copy of Almost Famous that I bought in St. Petersburg. While the only spoken languages are English and Russian, the number of subtitles is astonishing…

  1. English
  2. Russian
  3. Hindi
  4. Polish/Polski
  5. Czech/Cesky
  6. Hungarian/Magyar
  7. Icelandic/Islenska
  8. Hebrew/Ivrit
  9. Croatian/HRVATSKI
  10. Bulgarian
  11. Turkish
  12. Danish/Dansk
  13. Swedish/Svenska
  14. Greek
  15. Arabic
  16. Spanish/Español
  17. Portuguese/Portugues
  18. Norwegian/Norsk
  19. Finnish/Suomi

I was half expecting number 20 to be Elfish, but I guess that would really be pushing it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

On a slightly happier note...

I wanted this to be separate from today's other post because I really wrote that one last night and it wrapped up so nicely I didn't want to mess with it.
Look at your calendar. What is today? November 21! What does that mean? IN EXACTLY 30 DAYS I WILL BE ON A PLANE HOME!!!
Now don't get me wrong. Irkutsk is a nice place. I've enjoyed my time here, even if there have been a few downward plunges. But I'm ready to be back in Texas, eating some TexMex and listening to some good local bands play. If anyone is trying to find me on Christmas Eve, you'll probably succeed if you go see the Texana Dames at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar in Austin. :-D. That is the only concrete plan I've made thus far. Everything else is by ear.
One thing that's kind of bumming me out about being this close to my departure date is the fact that I haven't made it to Mongolia yet. Well, I hate to say it, but I just don't think it's going to happen at this point. For one thing, my visa STILL isn't ready. In fact, my current one expires today, so until I get my passport back from the visa office next Monday, I'm going to be avoiding the cops like the plague (they don't usually mess with European-looking females, but you never know). Even if everything is in order and I get my new visa by next Monday, that's only three weeks before I leave. At this point, it's too close to the end of the semester (and the exams that that entails) for me to go gallivanting off across Central Asia. As much as it pains me to have gotten this far and not be able to get any further, that's life in Russia. It's so close to everything, yet so far away. Grrrrr. It would be one thing if it was my own fault, but it's not. I have the lovely ladies in the international students' office to thank for my troubles. Sigh. C'est la vie and move on, as always.
Anyway, I'm not letting that ruin my happy month-to-go milestone. Can't wait to see you all. Eat lots of turkey for me....

You say poTAYto, I say poTAHto

Since Chris finds it necessary to make us all jealous by describing all the wonders of the world of Swiss cuisine, from chocolate to cheese, I think it’s high time I put forth a food post of my own. Though I warn thee – read with caution. My diet isn’t not quite as gourmet.

It’s a good thing that I’ve not joined the fad and given up the consumption of carbs. Otherwise, I think I would have wasted away by now, because for the most part, my current diet depends heavily upon the consumption of carb-heavy foodstuffs. Let’s look at the last week’s worth of dinners – potatoes, rice, buttered pasta, potatoes, potatoes, pasta, and more potatoes. I usually throw in some tomatoes or the “salsa” stuff that the old ladies make that’s so good, but other than that, it’s basically just a lot of starch. Now, I’m not doing this because I can’t find anything else, and I’ve only just recently become conscious of how bad this diet is. But it’s just so dang easy. Every kiosk and corner store has loads of taters and rice and pasta for sale. But in order to get meat (I mean REAL meat, not sausage or “pashtet” – Russian pate) I pretty much have to walk on down to the market. Which is less and less enjoyable considering how cold it’s getting outside (current temperature at noon = -20C). On the weekends I can take a bus directly down there, but on school days, unless I want to go home and back, I have to walk because there’s not an easy-to-take bus route from the university. I know. I’m lazy. I should just suck it up, walk the walk or pay an extra 5 rubles for a bus fare. But I don’t, and I don’t know why.

And carbs taste good. The fresh baked bread is awesome – and only 9 rubles per loaf still warm from the oven. And I’m getting good at adding to my potatoes – different veggies and such. And I can’t forget all the blini and kasha – my usual lunch fare. At the “Blinnaya” café down the street from the university, I can get a double portion of blini with “cguschenyi moloko” (sweetened condensed milk), a bowl of rice kasha with butter, and a cup of tea (with sugar and lemon) for a grand total of 40 rubles. That may not sound like a lot, but as Erica once told me, I “eat like a bird”. I don’t have a big appetite, and this fills me up quite nicely until dinnertime. And the staff doesn’t even have to ask what I want anymore :-D (I can’t decide if this is a good or a bad thing).

Maybe I’m subconsciously trying to make up for the excesses of this summer. I went way over my personal budget when I was in Europe, and this is me punishing myself. At this rate, if I keep eating potatoes instead of “beefshteaks”, I will have gotten myself out of this financial rut by New Years. And then I can put my anti-credit-card resolution into play. Also, I kind of feel bad about the difference between my situation in the care of the McDermott Program and the finances of the local students here. Someone told me that a good student stipend in Irkutsk is 300-500 rubles per month (approx. 12-20 dollars). I spend about 100 rubles a day (if I don’t buy any DVDs or CDs) – and that’s ON the carb diet. This is one of the reason’s I’m not looking forward to returning to Dallas. Central Market and Waterview Park will quickly liquidate my bank account if I’m not careful. Of course, there’s always fresh tortillas and queso at Taco Cabana…

Worry not though – I’m not wasting away. I’m still here and going strong. And I’ve got good meal plans for this week, though probably not as good as most of you. The two American boys and I are going to try our best to give each other a taste of home on Thursday. As yall get ready to stuff yourselves full of all the things I can’t get for Thanksgiving (oh, what I wouldn’t give for a slice of pecan pie and one of grandma’s caramel brownies), just picture me scouring the city of Irkutsk for a decent turkey. I asked my roommate yesterday if she knew where I could find one and her answer was, “I think I can get you a live one.” Oh boy. I think this is going to have to be a post of it’s own…

Saturday, November 18, 2006

I wish I was Swedish

I think Chris and Pernilla would agree with me - Sweden is the coolest.
I know that this seems like a strange comment for me to be making considering my current location. But it's true.
Once a week I have a silly little economics lesson with Tatyana Yurievna (she calls it "Ecological Problems in a Transitional Economy" or something along those lines). Anyway, this week we talked about the "Swedish model" - meaning the social democracy that has been working so well for the past 70-something years. Swedish citizens have it great. From there, we somehow got on the topic of Ikea. I love Ikea. It's just so dang efficient and (possibly more importantly) reasonably priced. Little did I know there is actually an IKEA in IRKUTSK!!! Add that to the list of things that make Irkutsk the "thriving metropolis" that it is. I haven't made it out there yet (since I don't really need anything, it would just be another temptation) but a few of my friends have. While it's not quite as humongous as the Frisco or Houston stores, it's still got all the flat-packed goodness of a real Ikea. And if they don't have what you want, you can order anything that Ikea makes from their catalogue (for a small addition cost, of course). Oh, Ikea - how I love thee.
I love it when I discover how small the world is. I've been feeling dreadfully homesick for the past two weeks, and the only relief (besides actually going home) is when I find something that reminds me that no matter how far away I get (and I'm about as far away as is possible right now), I'm not really all that far away at all.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Texas Care Package

I got a little taste of home yesterday. After a week in limbo, my FedEx package from Uncle Todd and Papa Jon (aka Daddy) finally made it into my hands. I had to go pick it up myself from the office, because apparently “doing everything in our power to get your items to you” (the motto cheerfully repeated to me by the recording when I called the Moscow office) does not include delivery in Russia. Were it not for this week-long delay (due to the fact that the package didn’t have my phone number on it so they couldn’t call me to tell me to come get it), it would have been in my hands in about a week - or 1/5 the time of the last package. Tells you something about the United States Postal Service, doesn’t it? If there wasn’t such a huge price difference, I’d stop using USPS altogether.

Anyway, back to the package. The customs people vetoed the chalupa fixings and burned CDs, but everything else got here. There were some super-warm socks and long underwear to keep me from freezing my butt off, and a couple of head-warming thingies. Also, a pair of pants to help in the layering. Not only is the warmness of the items appreciated, but it’s nice to have something else to wear for a change – even if it is base-layer stuff. I’ve been wearing the same dang clothes for more than six months (and I didn’t take that much with me). And more socks means that I can go longer without doing laundry before my roommate comments on my smelly feet. Hehehe. Just kidding – as much of a pain in the ass as it is to do laundry here, I do wash my clothes rather regularly.

Of course, the best things in the package are the things I have no hope of obtaining in Siberia – that is, the music. It’s hard enough for me to get my hands on a Be Good Tanyas CD in Dallas, much less in Russia. So when I opened the package and saw that Uncle Todd had not failed to include their newest CD, I just about flipped out. I’ve been listening to it over and over again for the past 24 hours. AWESOME! It’s one of those CDs that just keeps on playing over and over again in my head all day long. Aaaah. Love it. And I loved Daddy’s inclusion of “Take the Weather With You” by Jimmy Buffett. I can’t think of a more fitting CD title for this part of my trip. The snow that has been so beautifully covering the city for the past week is melting and now all that’s left is nasty sludge. Wait a tick. This is Siberia – in November. Aren’t I supposed to be trudging through six feet of snow to get to class? Guess not. Whatever the case, today and for the next month, I could really use some Texas weather.

And of course, I can’t fail to mention how much I appreciate the inclusion of copious amounts of bubble wrap. While this may not have been an intentional part of the care package, I was wondering how the heck I am going to get home with these bottles of Buryati Balzam, seeing as how I’ve not seen a single sheet of packaging wrap anywhere in the last few months. We all have our priorities.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Щи и каша жизнь наша!

For those of you who can't read Cyrillic, that's "shchi i kasha zhizn nasha" - or "soup and porridge is our life". My obsession with blini has been replaced as of late by equally obsessive cravings for rice kasha. I can't explain it. All it really is is rice cooked for a long time in lots of milk and butter, but it's just so damn good. I tried making it myself, but like with the experimentation in blini-making, I just can't recreate the taste that the little old ladies create in the various Russian kitchens throughout town. Maybe I need a few decades worth of accumulated grease to make it taste right. But as the saying goes (well, sort of), my life is now being controlled by bowls of kasha. Mmmmmm.
On another note, I love snow. As if you all hadn't noticed already. I keep thinking that I will eventually get sick of all the cold white stuff floating around, but just the opposite is happening. With each snow fall, I become more and more in love with it. There's just something about waking up in the morning to a fresh blanket of snow, and being the first one outside to make tracks in it. It's like starting from scratch each day. The effects of non-existent emissions-controls aren't nearly as noticeable. The city has taken on a completely different personality. I feel like a little kid (and have been told a number of times that I act like one) when I go out of my way to go traipse through a fresh patch on my way somewhere. It's so much fun. I have to get as much in as I can before I go back to the land of snowlessness.
Okay, enough of my musings. I have to go find the Fed-ex office because the incompetent fools can't find my address on the map to deliver my package to me. Grrrr.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


I feel like a cow sometimes. I'm not talking about my size or eating habits (though the whole blini situation IS getting a little out of control). What I am refering to is the transportation system in the great city of Irkutsk. The marshrutkas are alright - since they only let as many people on as there are seats. The only problem is, I can't always get one - in the mornings as I stand freezing in the dark at the busstop, pretty much every marshrutka that drives by is full. If they do happen to stop with a free seat, there is an instant mob of people at the door, pushing and shoving to get on board. I think I finally understand the whole mob mentality thing. In this country, being first in line is a very big deal - cause there might not be anything left if you're not at the head of the line. This of course leads to so pretty animalistic scenes. For example, I nearly lost a finger the other day when the bus driver decided he was ready to leave before I was completely on the bus. Gotta watch out for those automatic doors.
Buses, tramways, and trolly-buses usually operate on the principle that there is always room for one more person. I mean, the more people they have riding at once, the more money they get (even if it's only 5 rubles per person). There is rarely a trip I take on the trolleybus during which I can actually sit down. More likely I find myself sandwiched in with all the other commuters. Yesterday was the worst it's ever been. I think it had to do with the temperature - it was -6 FAHRENHEIT outside (that's -20 Celsius - here's a little converter for future reference), the coldest I've seen the temperature to date. There were so many people on the trolleybus that I had both arms straight down at my side and could not move in any direction. It's a good thing my wallet and passport were beneath three layers of clothing. Otherwise, I might have felt vulnerable (the same situation led to Aaron loosing his passport - for the second time).
Anyway, I just make do with the situation as best as I can. I miss Frodo, the brave little Neon. But I would much rather ride everyday on a crowded trolleybus than try to drive myself through Irkutsk. I'm not sure how driving schools work here, but I think they need to work on quality control.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


So the weekend trip to Ulan-Ude was quite a success. Though absolutely freezing, I had a good time. We took the night train on Friday, arriving at sunrise on Saturday morning. It was almost like Santa Fe in a strange way (except for the whole communist-style blocks of housing) - a little capital city nestled in between the mountains. The sunrise was absolutely beautiful.
Renee had set us up with a guide for the weekend - a local lady named Svetlana. Interestingly enough, Sveta has travelled all over Texas. It made for very interesting conversations. We were styaing with her neighbor - a buryati babushka named Lara, her daughter and grandson. Oh my god, the FOOD! Sooooo tasty! Especially the biscuits she made. It was like being back in the south (minus the gravy).
We started the day with a tour of the city, starting with Soviet Square, which is dominated by the world's largest "head of Lenin". No joke. Check out my pictures.
Later that day, we headed out to Ivolginsky datsan, the main center for buddhism in Russia. It was absolutely beautiful. And there are some interesting historical stories (read about it here).
On Sunday, we were supposed to go out to the Old Believers Village, but when we got there, the guy who was supposed to me us and open the museum didn't show. Shot down once again. But no matter - we had a good time just wandering around the little town, eating lots of good food.
Monday was spent at the Ethnographic museum. It was a lot like Pioneer Farms (for all you Austin folks) - a big park with lots of examples of native life in past centuries. And they had a little zoo. It was a really nice day (though still cold).
That night we went to a show at the State Buryati Academic Theatre of Drama. What a great building. Lots of beautiful carvings and murals. It was so soviet - very impressive. The main mural reminded me a lot of Diego Rivera's stuff in Mexico City (though with a slightly different set of references).
I was absolutely exhausted by the time we boarded our train to go back to Irkutsk. I slept soundly until about 1.30 in the morning, when a women boarded the train with her small son, who insisted on screaming (not crying) for hours on end. What a nightmare. But I can put up with a lot these days.
We got back to town at about 7 in the morning. While I technically could have made it to my 8 oclock class, I went home and took a shower and a nap instead. Then I showed up for my literature lesson with Olga Lopsonovna. I had managed to actually read all of Crime and Punishment in about 5 days, and I didn't want to have gone to that much trouble for nothing. It was worth it - one of those rare classes that just seems to fly by.
I’ve come to a conclusion in the past few days – a realization that is difficult for a photographer like me to accept. There are some things in this country (and this world) which simply cannot be translated to a photograph. What is hardest about this fact is that so many of my favorite moments on this trip cannot be preserved other than in my memory and in an occasional blog entry. For example, on the train home from Ulan Ude I was suddenly and for no particular reason awoken. I looked out the window (possible at this point only because all the lights in the cabin were off) and saw something quite miraculous – a full moon gave me a wonderful view of the snow-topped mountains surrounding Lake Baikal, while in the sky, framed perfectly in my window, was the constellation Orion. It was one of those “right-place-at-the-right-time” kind of moments, and one that I will probably never experience again. But I think I will always remember lying there, as the train slowly chugged along the lakeshore, staring in wonder at all the natural beauty that was passing by my window. While my studies are interesting and I’m learning a lot about Russian language and culture, I count these moments as the ones that make my trip halfway around the globe the most worthwhile – the moments for which it is worth it to put up with the -10˚C (and lower, as I suspect the temperature will yet drop before I return to the sunny Lone Star State).

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Oh deary me

I've been putting off posting for a few days. No particular reason - I've just been too lazy to go to the internet place. But I find that the longer I put off writing, the more things tend to pile up and I therefore have a lot to write about.
I could only find an electronic copy of Crime and Punishment. I'm frantically reading it, but won't be done until sometime next week. I've put off my normal Thursday afternoon literature lesson until I finish it - she insisted that that was the best plan. Which I'm fine with - I'm always happy to have one less class to go to in any given week.
I nearly lost a finger the other day. Damn bus driver closed the door on me and my middle finger got caught. Good thing no one seemed to speak English around me - I have to admit I let one or two obscenities fly. But all is well - got the finger back in one piece and it didn't even bruise that badly.
The powers that be at UTD have finally released the course listings for the spring semester - a week before registration starts. Which means I only have two days to decide on my schedule, since I'll be gone from Friday until Tuesday (more in a minute) and have to email someone back home to register for me because the stupid login times for registration don't jive with the time difference + working hours of the internet cafes. Luckily, Gina is da bomb and is helping me out. THANKS!!!
I'm in for a rough semester next spring. 18 hours again. And 5 days a week too, three of which start at 9.30. But at least it's a better schedule than the one I have now - where I have to be at the university at 8 am four days a week. Ugh. And I'm taking some pretty interesting classes - "Oz, Narnia, and Hogwarts" (yay for Dr. Towner), "Native American History (19th c.)" (yay for Dr. Edmunds), "Native American Cultures", "Gallery Management", and "Modernism" (woohoo - another DMA course). The only downside - "Literary Analysis". I need to stop skipping prerequisites - they come back to haunt you. It's like when I was a senior in high school, sitting with a bunch of freshmen in a health class. Oh man.
But after this semester, there's only one more required class left for me. Everything is just a bunch of electives. Woohoo!
This Friday I'm heading to Ulan Ude (capital of the Buryati Republic, the region on the east side of Lake Baikal). It should be pretty interesting. The crew at SRAS set it all up for us. I don't really know yet what all we're going to do, just that I don't have to plan anything (always a plus). This means I'll be out of touch until about Tuesday, if anyone is looking for me. Hehehe. Yay for disappearing! :-D
Oh, and one more piece of news. Lies has been replaced. My new roommate is a grad student named Maiya. She's Korean-Chinese (meaning she's Korean by descent but grew up in China). While she doesn't speak English, her Russian's REALLY good (she's been here for five years already). So far everything's good. Our room is pretty now :-D. She put up curtains and stuff. Hopefully the room will stay pretty.
The best part - she claims to have internet on her laptop - we'll see about that.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


I've been far too lazy this weekend, but I did get one thing done - I uploaded new pictures!
There are two new sets:
The trip to Listvyanka and
The birthday party and snow day

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Free at last...

I was kind of upset with everybody yesterday (as is evidenced by the last blog entry). But that all went away real quick. Yesterday turned out to be a pretty fantastic day.
First of all, I had a ticket to see The Sound of Music at the musical theatre - IN RUSSIAN! It was at the same time both the worst production I've ever seen (of anything) and one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen. Especially the children. Oh man. Liesl was quit the little whore and Freidrich kept on making moves on Maria. Let's just say it was VERY Russian. It was only about $8 - a price I was willing to pay for a good laugh.
(I still want to go back there to see the Harlem Gospel Choir when they come next month - I think it could be equally entertaining).
The other great thing happened to me when I got back to the dorm from the theatre. The babushka at the door handed me a note - from my roommate, Lies.
"I know this is kind of sudden, but I'm leaving you today..."
I didn't know the words "I'm leaving you" could be happy words! Apparently she found a way to get into the other building, so she decided to move. I am now roommate-less! It's wonderful. I don't know how long it will last, but at least I don't have to room with her anymore. She said I can move too if I want. While I'd like to be in that building, if it means being her roommate again, forget it.
Plus, I've gotten to be friends with all my Chinese neighbors. So for now at least, I am free. Free at last.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Oh great...

I need to stop shooting myself in the foot. I just agreed to have "Crime and Punishment" read by next Thursday. What the hell was I thinking?! Granted, I'm allowed to read it in English (just this once), but that means I have to find it in English. Looks like I'm going book shopping...
Also, I completely screwed myself over on the visa thing once again. Apparently, they have to re-do all my paperwork for visa renewal since I dropped that stupid regional studies class. Great. At the rate I'm going, I might not ever get out of this country.
But the trip to Ulan Ude (on the other side of the late) is going as scheduled. It'll be next weekend. This weekend, I have lots of reading to do...

Monday, October 23, 2006

I very nearly killed myself this morning while walking to the bus stop. Some nice comrade shovelled all the sidewalks earlier in the morning, leaving lots of nice icy concrete to walk on instead of snow. I'd rather walk through knee-deep powder than down an icy path, but I guess it's the thought that counts.
It's still really pretty outside - a big fluffy blanket covering just about everything in sight. Of course, I think most of the snow will be gone by this evening. Considering it snowed for about 6 hours straight yesterday, I find it amazing that there is not a cloud in the sky today - the sun is shining bright. It's still kind of cold, but the sun can work miracles.
The best part about today is that I have absolutely nothing to do. The university is hosting some conference, so they cancelled classes for the day. Woohoo! I think I'm going to try a new trick - refried beans from scratch. Should be ... interesting.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The "Blizzard"

"...truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast." -Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I couldn't help but relate to this quote this morning. When I left for class, I figured I'd be alright in just jeans and a t-shirt underneath my coat. I didn't count on such a drastic change in the weather in just an hour. As I walked from the trolley stop to the university, the wind suddenly began to gust. I thought, "Here we go again - another wind storm." What I didn't expect was a SNOW storm. It's been far too warm for October these last two weeks - meaning that the temperature has been hovering somewhere around 5-10 degrees (centigrade). Everyone was saying that October is the worst month here - all cold and rainy; once it starts to REALLY snow it's beautiful.
As I sat in my early morning Morphology class, I kept noticing how hard the wind was blowing outside. And how hazy it looked. "Wait a tick - that's not haze! That's snow blowin' around!" Yes, indeed, the heaviest snowfall I've ever seen in my life had begun. Now some of you more accustomed to life north of the great state of Texas may be laughing at me right now. Of course there will be more - it's SIBERIA! But after two months in Irkutsk, I still find snow particularly fascinating, and find myself grinning every time I see a fresh patch of powder to go traipsing about in.
I think it's about time I head home. I need to but on some warmer clothes - and drink some of the yummy hot chocolate my granny sent me :-D. (USPS stinks by the way - but more on that latter).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

I can't decide whether what I did last night was good or bad. I lied to my roommate - told her I had a migraine to get out of going to the movie theater. I really didn't want to go - just to see some dumb movie, that I wouldn't even want to see in English, much less dubbed into Russian. And I REALLY didn't want to go to the club afterwards either. I think I've already talked about that. So I stayed home, read a little bit of Moby Dick (yes, I'm reading it again just fun), and watched North by Northwest, which I finally managed to find somewhere. All around a great evening.
I didn't feel too bad about lying this morning. Lies woke me up not once but twice on one of my few mornings to sleep in. First, she woke me up when she stumbled into the room at about 7 am. Any normal person coming home at such an hour might try to be a little courteous and be quick. But not Lies. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Then she got up again at 9 am, and instead of going to the kitchen, as I would have, to do what ever it is she felt necessary to work on that early on a Sunday morning, she woke me up yet again. Arrgh.
I need to stop ranting about this. I can't change her habits - can't even really do anything without being rude. All I can do is hold out for the next two months - and hope she finds a host family real quick.

Friday, October 20, 2006


I think I had as good a day yesterday as is possible in Irkutsk. Most of it was spent as a lazy bum. I slept late - well, as late as possible when you've got a roommate like mine. Then I made a huge pot of Texas-style chili - fodder for the foreigners coming to visit me in the evening. I sat around reading until about 2, when I had to head over to Olga Lopsonovna's for our literature lesson. I must say, it was one of her best. And knowing that it was my birthday, she had tea and cake ready when I got there! My teachers rock.
I have to admit, last night's was not nearly as rowdy as the party's I'm used too. For one thing, we only had one little room - we couldn't really spread much farther than the kitchen for fear that the wrath of my evil neighbor might present itself. And the dorm nazi can only ignore so many things (even with a blini bribe). It was nice though - all my friends showed. I was trying to count how many languages were being spoken and here's the tally - Dutch, German, Flemish, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Polish, English, Chinese, and Korean. Whew. I'm suprised my head didn't explode.
The only real problem with having a party in the dorm is that the dorms are locked at 11 pm - which means anyone who doesn't live in the building has to go home before then. And most of my friends live in the next building over. Sigh. I'm probably the only American alive to manage to turn 21 without getting drunk (because two drinks isn't enough to intoxicate ME). And I went to sleep at 11.30 pm. I feel kind of lame. But that's the way things work here - everything just kind of shuts down around 11. I could have gone to a club if I really had wanted to, but there were two things holding me back - 1. I don't really like clubs - I'm more of a bar/pub kind of girl, and 2. I didn't really feel like staying out ALL night. Especially after Lies went to bed without helping clean up, leaving me to scrub all the pots and pans. Did I mention what a great roommate she is :-/.
Anyway, I did have a nice day. Oh, and I finally got my care package from Grandma - complete with bluegrass CDs and fajita seasoning. It's going to be a good weekend.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Blini Bribe

I found that in a select number of instances, food can be just as good a bribe as money. Such was the case with Nina Feoderovna, the resident "dorm-nazi" here in Irkutsk. I found out she was going to be working tonight (night of the big birthday party). What to do? Well, I had just made a huge plate of blini (Russian crepes/pancakes), and couldn't eat them all anyway, so I figured I'd run some down to her and butter her up. It worked quite well. Not only did she say no problem to having people over, but she said she'd arrange things with the nighttime watchlady at their dorm so that they won't have any trouble getting home. Woohoo! Who knew having your 21st birthday in Russia could be so fun?
I just made a huge batch of chili and Karin is bringing something yummy for the vegetarians. It should be a killer party.
Of course, we'll have to see how I feel about it tomorrow morning...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Victory at last

I finally managed to reclaim my Saturdays. This afternoon I had a long, semi-heartfelt conversation with Natalya Alexandrovna concerning my situation in the Regional Studies class. I wasn't learning anything at all - it was a complete waste of time. It would be one thing of I was an economics major or interested in international business - but that is not what I'm here for. And it's not like the class would have counted for anything anyway. I'm now (unofficially, of course) working on my own to study the region - reading more and more in Russian, and seeing as much as possible of the area before I have to start hiding away from the cold.
Mongolia, here I come (in a month or so, anyway).
Some bad news - I just found out that the evil babushka is on duty at the dorm on Friday night. This does not bode well for my party plans. Maybe she can be bribed with chocolate...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Shot down once again

Stupid people piss me off. How long have I been talking about wanting to go to China for Thanksgiving? Far too long. I've been in and out of the international student office at IGLU ever since I came up with this hairbrained scheme to get me to Beijing, attempting to get them to work on my paperwork so that I'd have my new Russian visa in time. And each time I went in, the assured me, "There's plenty of time. We're working on it." Well, no they weren't. And even with my persistent badgering, they managed to screw up my plans. Thanks to their stupidity, my new Russian visa (which I need to reenter the country should I choose to leave) won't be ready until the day after I need to leave in order to get to Beijing by Thanksgiving. DAMNIT! I can probably still swing a trip to the PRC, but it won't be for Turkey Day. Grrrrr. It's one thing when I screw up my own plans - it's quite another when somebody else does it for me.
Well, there's only one thing to do in this situation. Let out a heavy sigh and say, "C'est la vie." This is the way things work in Russia. You have to shout at the top of your lungs over and over again to get things done right, and you'll still probably have problems. But at least I'm still legal and everything. The stupid people in the international office screwed Aaron over even more - by completely forgetting to fill out his visa extension paperwork. Oops. Luckily they admitted their error and paid the fine for him - before he got exported. Hehehe. Oh, silly Russians.
Just for laughs...
When I opened Internet Explorer at the internet cafe today, Google popped up - in SWAHILI! How exciting. I love it when I see random stuff like that. There are cool people from all over the world roaming around just as I am. Kind of makes me want to go to Africa (it sure as hell would be warmer than Siberia).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hannah and the furry hat

That's right, the biggest news in my life this week is my latest purchase - a nice warm furry hat (well, fur lined anyway), complete with earflaps, to keep my ears from falling off this winter. The weather's not getting any warmer; I have no illusions in that department. But it's not entirely uncomfortable. As long as I'm bundled up just right I'm fine. The only that has been bothering my was my ears - and that's not a problem anymore. And hot chocolate does wonders for a cold body.
I also managed to follow up my success in the kitchen (taco meat from scratch) with an even better creation - a big pot of Texas-style chili. I even managed to find some chili powder (though it wasn't easy - not even Misha the spice man had any in the market). I think I'm going to have to repeat that creation this Friday for the big birthday bash. If I have to celebrate my 21st birthday in a foreign land, might as well have a little bit of home around for the occasion (though I don't think I'm going go so far as to purchase the bottle of Sauza I saw at the market the other day - they wanted 1000 rubles/40 dollars for it!).
I can't remember if I mentioned it or not, but I found the phantom class. And it sucks - one of the worst classes I've ever had to sit through. And that's in addition to it being on Saturday, which ruins all of my weekend plans for the next two months. I think what makes it so aweful is the fact that I don't understand a damn thing that's going on. It's not what I was led to believe it would be. I'm hear to study Russia - its culture and people, how people live and have fun. I'm not interested in learning economic theories - especially not in Russian. And what's even worse is it's not taught for foreign students but for the local Russian students - which means the instructor talks at about a million words a minute and it's impossible for me to take notes. We had a quiz yesterday, and I had to turn it in blank, with an explaination that I had no idea what I was supposed to write or even where to begin looking. I think the odds of me surviving this course are pretty slim. I hope Natalya Alexandrovna will help me get out of this mess. The class were her idea to begin with.
Okay, enough ranting. I'm going to go get some blini. Mmmm. I can taste them already. Then I'm going to snuggle up with my Harry Potter book (in Russian) and enjoy my day of rest - before all hell breaks loose once again tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Adventures in Russian Healthcare

I knew from the beginning of my trip that at some point I would have to go to a Russian clinic. It's not that I'm that pessimistic - I just knew that I would have to submit an HIV test to the university during registration and they won't accept it if it's more than 3 months old (which my American one is). SOOO, I finally racked up my courage last week to head down to the State Poliklinika to get the test done. I figured I would need a couple of hours, but I didn't expect it too take as long as it did. I took Adam with me, for language support and because he needed one too. But try as we did, we could not find anyone who was interested in helping us. It can't be that hard - stick a need in, pull some blood out, send it to the lab. But NOOOOOO. We had to go back today to try again. But this time we used our heads - we had Adam's host lady meet us there and help us talk to the angry nurses. She doesn't speak English but she is a lot more friendly about our inability to understand complicated instructions like, "Go from this room, where you'll pay, to this room where you'll get your paper work, to this room where you'll have blood drawn, to this room to drop off said blood." It all worked out in the end - now all I have to do is go back next Wednesday to pick up my "I'm healthy" form.
As I sat in the hallway, cottenball pressed to the inside of my elbow, I couldn't help but be amazed at how old fashioned the poliklinika is. First off all, it appears as if the building has not been renovated in about 60 years. I'm not just talking about paint. The chairs, the slop-jars (old-school bio-hazard containers), the signs - everything looked like it was out of a movie. The best part was the level of technology. Not only were there no computers at all, in the entire building, but they didn't even have calculators. What did they use instead? Drumroll .............. An ABACUS!!! Kind of scary really, when you think about it. If anything happens to me while I'm here, I'm at the mercy of this place, and the really mean nurses.
But as long as they give me the paper I need to make myself legal, it's all good.
Then I can go about tackling the even larger problem of getting a Chinese visa...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Whoever it was calling me at 3:45 this morning, please don't do it again. I love talking to people from home, but I like to sleep too.
On a happier note, I found the coolest sentence on the planet on wikipedia today - "Unlike English, Latin, and various other languages, Russian allows multiple negatives, as in никто никогда никому ничего не прощает "No-one ever forgives anything to anyone" (literally, "no-one never to no-one nothing not forgives")."

Saturday, October 07, 2006


I saw a sign in front of the theatre today as I was walking to the internet cafe - the Harlem Gospel Choir will be in Irkutsk on November 12. Tempting. Very tempting. I hope they pack some warm clothes - I hear siberia is cold in November.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Snow, part 2

For the last two weeks, the city of Irkutsk has been preparing for winter. The fountains have all been drained, the cars fixed (well, semi-fixed) and most of the people have begun purchasing their winter garments (myself included). Well, we're finally below the zero mark (that's 0C, not 0F), and we got our first really dusting of snow. I've decided that that little snowfall in early September was just a fluke. While this was no blizzard we had yesterday, the snow did stick around until around noon (when the sun came out for a few hours). I think I like the snow here. When it does get cold enough to "snow" in Texas, it's usually lots of ice and sleet, not the dry fluffy stuff. I didn't see any ice yesterday, except the one little patch outside the door of the dorm, which I slipped on while leaving. It's not supposed to snow again until Thursday (30% of scattered snow showers in the AM, according to the internet), but the temperature is supposed to stay low. :-(
I think what is making it so cold right now is the wind - we've had high wind advisories all week. I'm find when I'm inside - they've finally turned the radiators on and it's nice and toasty (even a little too toasty on sunny days). But that walk to the bus stop is aweful. I need a hat, before my ears fall off.
I did brave the cold last night to go to the movies with some friends of mine. That's right - the movie theatre. I haven't been to one of those since early April. We saw "The Devil Wears Prada" - dubbed into Russian of course. Why is it that movies are just more fun in Russian? At least this one had more than one person doing the voices for the entire movie.
The theatre was actually really nice - plush seats and a good bar. And it was only 70 rubles (about $2.50) - just a hair cheaper than buying a DVD here. :-D That's right, I'm still addicted to the damn DVD shops. And now, I'm been finding a lot of good mp3 CDs too. I need to stay away from there. It's sad that I spend more on entertainment than on food each week. Heck, I spend more on the internet each week than on food. Sigh. The downsides of our modern society.
I also managed to do something completely awesome last night. I went to the market, bought half a kilo of ground beef and a bunch of spices and veggies, and made taco meat from scratch, for a shell-less taco salad. OH MY GOD!!! It was soooooo good. And spicy. I think I may have gone overboard with the red peppers, but it was so good. The chinese neighbors liked it too. I'm so happy - got a little bit of a Mexican food fix. Now if I could just find some refried beans...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The roommate from hell, part 2

You know, I didn't think things could get worse than they were with Katya in St. Petersburg. But they did. Lies is just as bad, if not worse, though in a different way. Everything I do is criticized, no matter how good or bad. I don't say anything to her about her apparent lack of personal hygiene or her borrowing my books and DVDs without telling me. Yet the first thing she said to me when she came home yesterday and heard me listening to Nickel Creek (not even at a loud volumn, but just so I could here it) was, "Why do you listen to such shitty music?" I know not everybody likes the same music as me, but still - isn't that a bit harsh? And there have been a million other similar incidences, all of which are equally absurd.
What am I supposed to do about this? I can't beat her at her own game, because I just don't have it in me to be as rude as she is. I can't tell her, "Why don't you make your bed for once?" or "When was the last time you took a shower?" I'm far too passive-aggressive. There's no way out. I'm stuck with her. Crap. I miss Lindsay.
Maybe I'll just start sleeping on Aaron's floor. It's not like my bed's that comfortable anyway.
With the exception of the horrible roommate and the chronically disorganized university, I'm having the best time. Every day is different, whether for good or bad. I love this part of Russia, so much more than St. Petersburg. The people are nicer, the air less polluted, and the Lake is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Even as the days get shorter (and colder), I'm glad I'm here. We all need a change every now and then. While my has maybe been a bit extreme, it's working they way I intend - changing the way I see things here and home. And though the bureaucracy at IGLU has been nothing but troublesome, I do feel like I'm learning a lot in my classes. Which are all entirely in Russian now, by the way.
Oh, and one more bit of news. I bought a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban yesterday - in Russian. I figured I'd read something I know to help build my vocabulary. Now I can say lots of fun words - quill, parchment, wand, muggle, etc.
I also stumbled upon the Russian word for "wench" the other day. It made me smile and think of Erica.