Grocery Shopping (in Russia)

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This post is by guest blogger and MATS Summer Intensive 2014 alumnus, Brendan Thompson. Originally from Alberta, Canada, Brendan has been living and working in Moscow for the past year. He is an actor, director, and playwright who loves literature, hockey, and pizza. You can read more about his adventures in Moscow here.

Photo from an Ashan store opening.

Photo from an Ashan store opening.

My first experience in a supermarket in Russia was a terrifying one. When I arrived last year I was taken to Ashan (actually French owned), a store that is like Superstore, but if it were the Autobahn. I have since become much better at navigating grocery stores, and have also made some observations.

I’ve noticed that Russian food, in supermarkets at least, seems to have fewer preservatives and chemicals when it comes to the essentials, like milk, eggs, dairy products, and fresh produce. This is both good and bad.

On the one hand the produce is fresh; tomatoes aren’t abnormally large, there isn’t a waxy substance around your apples, the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Nobody sprayed them with chemicals, no one gave them any growth hormones, or whatever other wonderful things are done to our produce in North America.

Picking Cucumbers by Tatyana Yablonskaya

Picking Cucumbers by Tatyana Yablonskaya

On the other hand the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Were they cleaned? Clearly they were not because they are often still covered in dirt. That’s probably fine, but it is interesting to note. It also means that the produce, the milk and often the meat goes bad quicker than in North America. Our refrigerator is often the victim of something we left for a day or two too long. Grocery stores, the bigger or cheaper ones anyway, are not always as quick to replace old produce so old, not quite rotting, food is sitting out, sometimes with swarms of fruit flies that need to be shoed away.

There does seem to be a greater appreciation for fresh food from the people here, from what I can tell in talking to people. I would argue that this leads to healthier diets, but what do I know? There are always many farmers’ markets selling fresh fruit, berries and vegetables on certain days of the week.

At first glance the majority of supermarkets are not too different from the average Canadian grocery store. You can buy snacks, chips, vegetables, dairy, meat, bread, etc. There is one popular item I’m very grateful is popular here. One of my most glorious moments upon arriving in Russia was coming around a grocery store aisle and going “Hey Nutella! Nutellaaaaa!!!!!” (That’s from a play right?)

The details are a bit different though. Salsa is often absent because the Russians are not big on spicy food. When I order spicy food I am often warned that it is spicy and what I am given is usually “mild” to “not spicy” (I pity the few Mexicans living in Moscow).

Lay's Crab Chips

Lay’s Crab Chips

The chip flavours are slightly different, crab being a big hit. The pop is different, root beer is absent (my girlfriend didn’t even know what that was), and something called kvas is present. It’s not really pop, I would describe it as what would’ve happened had the inventors of Coca-Cola made it not as fizzy, slightly alcoholic, and bread flavoured instead of caramel (yeah, that’s right, Coca-Cola is caramel flavoured). Peanut butter is very difficult to find, but I did it once. Maple syrup, and syrup in general, is not really a thing, but select stores have it regularly.

The dairy section is a bit more diverse. They have their own versions of things. Buttermilk is hard to find, but there’s something called “kefir” (key-FEAR) which tastes mostly like if buttermilk was thinner and you were supposed to just drink it straight. “Tvorok” is cottage cheese though less… runny? Liquidy? There is also a wide range of butter, spreads, cheeses, etc. Skim milk is not a thing, except at a few grocery stores. Even 1% is difficult to find, the norm being 2-3.5%.

Seafood is also popular, herring being one of my new favourite fish. It comes in a plastic dish and is drenched in fish oil and you just eat is straight. I like to have it with seaweed salad (morskaya kapusta, which literally translates to “cabbage of the sea”). You can get all kinds of fish, crab and lobster. My friend mentioned that in one restaurant he went to, one of their finest dishes was “Canadian lobster”. Nice job, Maritimes!

Finally, getting out. You will pay less for your groceries in Moscow if you stick to the essentials. Bread can be as cheap as 70 cents a loaf. I think I pay about half as much for fresh produce as I do in Canada. Brand name things are probably comparable.

I have not seen a self-checkout from what I can remember. This makes things less frustrating, but more personal. If you don’t speak Russian, the cashier may not be happy with you. The cashier is, however, sitting down. What!? I feel like this would make many employees in Canada much happier and is a much more reasonable system than having them stand all day just to scan things. Maybe I’m wrong.

Anyway, grocery stores in Russia. The same. But different. Thanks for reading.

Top 10 Reasons to Study Abroad in Moscow

by Mei Mei Pollitt, guest blogger and summer 2014 Intern

10. The мороженое (Ice Cream)

Ice Cream stands are everywhere in Moscow, and Muscovites eat ice cream year round – even in the freezing winters! The ice cream is pretty inexpensive (usually less than a US dollar for any treat) and is super creamy and delicious. Choose from a large range of options such as ice cream cones with chocolate at the bottom, buttery vanilla ice cream served in a chocolate tube, or gold standard blackberry.

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“hooray! ice cream!”

 

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Russians love to eat ice cream in winter as well.

 

9. The парки (Parks)

Moscow, despite being a mega-city, is very green. In between the multitude of skyscrapers, shoved together old buildings, and screaming metro trains are vast parks; stretches of breathtaking and towering forests large enough to get lost in. You can visit Gorky Park, which includes a long bike bath with a woodland hill on one side and Moskva river on the other, or Tsaritsyno Park, a lush wonderland where Catherine the Great’s former summer estate can be found, to name just a couple.

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Gorky Park- Forest on one side

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Gorky Park- River on the other side

outside window

Large parks are found everywhere. The view from my dorm room window.

8. The метро (Metro)

moscowescalator

The long, cavernous escalators would fill with people, and as you rode up, you got to watch a never-ending cast of fascinating characters descend beside you.

 

While the roar of the train and the rush hour human sardine pack-in can be exhausting, almost every station is decadently decorated and the people watching is superb. Most of what I learned about Muscovites today, I learned by watching them on the metro train.

 

 

 

 

 

Metro Art:metrowall metroceiling

7. The русский язык (Russian Language)

Even if you don’t learn more than a couple of words while in Moscow, being immersed in another language is always an adventure. The new sounds are intellectually stimulating and you get to observe and communicate with people beyond understanding their spoken words. Russian is a beautiful language, rich in consonants and with a vocabulary and structure that lends itself well to poetry and puns.

Some Helpful and Fun Russian words and phrases:

Будь здоров! (Byt zdarov)- “Be healthy” -that’s what you say after someone sneezes, or sometimes during a toast.

можно (Mozhna) – “May I?” – you can say this when you order food or ask for anything.

Tы рад? (Tuiy rad) – “You glad” – this is what you say to check in on your friends when they look down. If you are good, you can answer, “да, я рад” (da, ya rad) if you’re a boy or “да, я радa (da, ya rada) if you’re a girl.

 

6. The блины (Blinni)

 

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Superfruit, the most deluxe sweet blin: every kind of fruit with ice cream on the side.

Blinni are Russian Pancakes- they are like crepes. They can be filled with sweet things (fruit, chocolate, cream), savory (salmon, meat, cheese, vegetables), or just sprinkled with powdered sugar or spread with butter. They are cheap, too! Mon Blin, a Moscow chain, offers all types of blin for no more than 5 US dollars a blin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. The церкви (Churches)

blueoniondomes

Churches, their onion domes, history, and ornately decorated indoor paintings of saints are to be found all over Moscow! While it can be strange to be a tourist among religious pilgrims, it is also an opportunity to witness the piety, tradition, and ritual of Russian Orthodoxes at worship and prayer. The two most iconic and popular among tourists are Saint Basil’s Cathedral and The Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

StBasilsSaint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square: Legend holds that Ivan the Terrible loved this church so much, he blinded the architect after it’s construction so that the architect would be unable to recreate it for anyone else.

 

 

 

 

cathedralofchristthesaviorCathedral of Christ the Savior: Rebuilt after the original was destroyed by Joseph Stalin for anti-religious Communist Russia, it stands as the tallest orthodox Christian church in the world. It is also where the punk Russian activist group, The Pussy Riot, staged the infamous concert that got them arrested and sent to Siberia in 2012.

 

 

 

3. The история (History)

The historic kremlin wall. In the center is Lenin's grave and the graves of other communist leaders line the wall beside him.

The historic kremlin wall. In the center is Lenin’s grave and the graves of other communist leaders line the wall beside him.

 

 

 

 

 

Russia’s deep history vibrates everywhere in Moscow. In the historic architecture, the museums, the literary and artistic traditions, and in the characters of Muscovites living today. Talk to a Muscovite and they will refer to WWII as the “great patriotic war”, maybe recommend you some astounding monuments and memorials dedicated to the devastating war. Visit Dostoevsky’s or Stanislavsky’s old apartments. Walk around the Kremlin, protective walls first built for the heart of Moscow in the middle ages. Or talk to any older Muscovite about the recent changes: Moscow has changed dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and any Russian over the age of 35 will have memories of a different, communist Moscow (and opinions on what has changed for better and for worse.)

A skyscraping WWII memorial infront of Moscow's impressive WWII museum.

A skyscraping WWII memorial infront of Moscow’s impressive WWII museum.

 

 

4. The Art музеи (Museums)

Of the art museums, Pushkin Art Gallery and Tretyakov State Gallery are the most renowned in Moscow, and for good reason. Pushkin Art Gallery boasts a collection plentiful with works by some of the most renowned painters from the past 2 centuries, including Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, and more. Tretyakov has an entire hall of beautiful Russian icons and is plentiful with famous wall-sized baroque murals that are endless in story and character.

Some of my favorite paintings I saw in Moscow.

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всюду жизнь (Life is Everywhere)

Renoir portrait

Renoir portrait

However, Moscow is full of art beyond these two museums.  Another favorite of mine, Garage, is a contemporary Art museum working to engage public idea and interest in new projects and ideas.

Me, infront of Garage's sign

Me in front of Garage’s sign

2. The исполнительские виды искусства (Performing Arts)

The performing arts are very important to Russians, and this is reflected in Moscow’s abundant and excellent theatre, dance, and opera scene. Experience the historical Bolshoi by watching ballet and opera at it’s finest, catch some edgier contemporary dance at the Shkola Dramaticheskova Iskustra (The School of Dramatic Art), or stop in at a Ticket Box to purchase tickets for a play at one of the dozens of famous theatres in Moscow (the Satirikon, the Chekhov Art Theatre, the Gogol Center, etc.) You don’t have to have money to experience the performing arts in Moscow though. Free theatre listings can be found online (http://www.nahalyavu.com/msk/theatre/) and street musicians can be found by top metro stations during the day and in Theatre Square in the evenings.

The historic Bolshoi theatre.

The historic Bolshoi theatre.

Some Moscow street musicians.

Some Moscow street musicians.

 

1. The рост душа (Soul Growth)

I spent a month in Moscow this past summer. I saw 14 shows, took language classes, spent days gazing at paintings in Russian museums, hours listening to Russians speaking on the metro, ate blin and ice cream almost everyday, relished in the daunting greenery of Russian parks, lit prayer candles before beautiful gold icons, drank vodka and danced to jazz in an old underground cafe, found solace in the literature of Tolstoy and Pushkin, and saw the sun set and rise again over Moscow’s infinite skyline of skyscrapers, conversing with Russian college students in a broken-Russian-English-hybrid over our differences and similarities as people, as nations, smoking black cigarettes on the 14th floor fire escape of our rickety soviet-era dorm building. However, what I gained most from Moscow goes beyond the stories I can tell and the pictures I can show.

Exposure to a nation so rich with character, story, and soul as Russia causes you to reflect more deeply on your own life, your own soul. And exposure to a place still rebuilding itself from the collapse of a government builds perspective on your own situation in your own country. What is important to fight for, in politics, in art, as a human? What freedoms must be protected? How is Russia like the United States and how is it different? How can we, as a world, work to preserve the right for every voice to be heard and every minority to be protected? How can I, as an artist, give, collaborate, and take risks to make incredible, risky theatre more available and engaging to our public? These are some of the questions that infest me still, 2 months after my return from Russia. They will continue to guide me as I create a life for myself, as a student, and then as a working adult.

And so, to Moscow, to Moscow with love, I say спасибо, спасибо большое.*

streetatnight

*Thank you, thank you very much <3

 

 

 

Young Theatres in Moscow

IFTER’s Summer 2014 Intern, Mei Mei Pollit is the guest blogger for this post which gives you a peek at some fresh, new, and very modern theatre in Moscow.

 

I spent the month of June and part of May in Moscow, seeing lots of theatre, taking Russian classes, and working on a research project which you can read about here: evameilingpollitt.wordpress.com.

This blog post is dedicated to a few great young theaters in Moscow. You may have already heard of the historic Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre, but have you heard of the Gogol Center? Or the Shkola Dramaticheskova Iskustra (The School of Dramatic Art)? Some of my favorite work in Moscow was performed at these newer and younger theatres. Below, read about them and what I saw while I was there.

Гоголь-центр – Gogol Center

«Гоголь-центр» — это территория свободы.  (The Gogol Center is a place of freedom.)

A quote from the wall in the Gogol Center from Soviet and Russian Stage Actor and Director Yuri Lyubimov

A quote from the wall in the Gogol Center from Soviet and Russian Stage Actor and Director Yuri Lyubimov

That is the theatre’s mission statement. Renovated from the former “Gogol theatre” under new director Serebrennikov in 2013, the Gogol Center today works to provide a place that engages the community and a place where art can tread new frontiers. There is a café, a bookshop, and quotes mounted on the walls from famous contemporary theatre artists, discussing the role of theatre or the role of the Gogol Center.

“If a vacuum is formed in generations, in the theatre there comes a catastrophe. All time should pass updated composition, feeding new blood. It is necessary. Without the young generation making theatre, we cannot evolve” 

I saw Gogol Center’s «Мертвые души» or “Dead Souls”. A staging of Gogol’s masterpiece novel, “Dead Souls”, it tackled mortality, materialism, and identity in a 3-hour, no-intermission voyage with song, satire, and a united hyper-physicality in the ensemble and characters. It was also a purposeful and obscene revolt against Russia’s “Anti-Gay Propaganda law”, with constant and outright homosexual or gender-reverse images and characters, and a decry against Russia’s tumultuous government. The protagonist buys souls from corrupt government officials, finds out the majority of these souls have died from alcoholism, and is, in the end, kidnapped and shoved in a  claustrophobic human-sized box by a crazed lead antagonist who resembles Putin. The closing song in the performance asks, “Russia, what do you want from me?”

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The opening montage of Dead Souls used rubber car tires.

 

You can read more about the Gogol Center, and all of their performances, on the English version of their website.

Школа драматического искусства- School of Dramatic Art

Говорят: “Нужны новые сюжеты…” Да не нужны новые сюжеты! Возьмите один. И ставьте всю жизнь. О театре. (We say: “We need new stories…” We do not need new stories! Take one. Place a lifetime. About the theatre.” )

^From Anatoli Vassilev, founder of the Школа.

Vassilev opened the “Школа драматического искусства” in 1987 with a performance of “Six Characters in search of an author” which presented new theatrical methods and techniques that established the school as a place of experimentation; a Лаборатория (lab) as well as a Школа and Театр (school and theatre). In 2001, the school moved to a newly constructed building that is full of skylights, stairs, and interesting angles. I saw two productions at the school while in Moscow, one in a small studio lit by candles, and the other in a large gymnasium with semi-circle wooden risers.

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A picture of the inside of one of the lobbies.

The first show I saw at the school was ГЕРОИДЫ. ТАНЦЕВАЛЬНЫЕ ПИСЬМА (Heroides. Dancing Letters.) It took “Heroides” by Ovid- a collection of 15 “love letters” from Greek and Roman mythological heroines- and transformed the letters into a solo dances. Each dancer took on the role of a heroine and came out to dance for a 15-20 piece to music that was performed live and had been composed after the choreography (so that the music was made for the dance instead of the dance made for the music). The choreography was bursting with a raw, ugly, and fascinating feminine sexuality that experimented with costume and hair in new ways.

heroides

An entire dance from Heroides was performed with the performer’s hair swallowing up all her face.

The second show I saw at the school was КАК ВАЖНО БЫТЬ СЕРЬЁЗНЫМ (The Importance of being Ernest). A Russian interpretation of the Oscar Wilde masterpiece, the play was performed in a gymnasium and was staged in a way that broke all rules of “realistic” movement. The characters moved in a way that was true to the action, but their world was a place where chasing and running in huge circles or vibrating in movement groups against the floor could be paired with dialogue from 19th century British Society. There were also several physical montages and a live piano that responded to the characters in a way that made the pianist a character as well.

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Gwendolyn refuses Jack, after finding out he lied to her about his name being Ernest. Their words may not have taken them to kneeling on the floor, but their objectives and emotions have.

More information (Russian language only) and more production photos here.

Gogol Center and the School of Dramatic Arts are Muscovite leaders in breaking preconceived notions of what theatre “should be”, however most of my experience with Moscow theatre provided some sort of theatrical experimentation or novelty that I hadn’t seen before. Streetcar named Desire at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre had real people embodying Blanche’s ghosts, so we saw the experience of her insanity embodied; London Show at the Satirikon preceded its first dialogue with 10 minutes of the actors communicating in strong physical gestures and gibberish, etc. It is important for American theatre artists to go to Moscow and see theatre like this because it broadens their perceptions on what theatre can be. Seeing one’s own idea of theatre “rules” get broken inspires one to return home and tread new frontiers of their own.

 

 

IFTER does not own any of these photos. They are for reference only.

Memories of MATS

Today’s blog post is by guest-blogger and MATS Summer Intensive Alumna, Melissa Fenton. Melissa is a 2010 graduate of Butler University and now lives and works in Los Angeles. 

 

 

Ads for shows at the Moscow Art Theatre

 

I remember an immediate respect for the quality of art I saw – not just in theatres – everywhere. Advertisements were glossy and beautiful, the people themselves seriously aesthetic, and everywhere I turned, some street performance was wow-ing a crowd. First impression? Russians were serious about, well, just about everything.

Acting Class

This proved to bode well for our group as we made our way, awkward and American, into the world of Russian Theatre. We bumbled about in ballet class, ached and moaned and human pretzel-ified ourselves in movement, reveled in the absolute joy that was acting class, and any spare time we had left was dedicated to seeing shows. I think we saw over twenty shows while we were there. They were all amazing and alive, like nothing I’d ever seen or felt before. Everything was perfect. Refined over and over and over again, sometimes for years, we were told, until the Russians decided it was perfect. Their standards account for the often-lengthy rehearsal schedule.

But it showed. It was truly an experience I wish for every student of theatre. When I saw what was happening in those theaters, I felt something “click”. I understood why I loved this art form so much and how endless the possibilities were.

Melissa between busts of Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko.

One final memory, and I think that will do. I remember this beautiful group of young actors, standing in line to audition for the school. They were 16, 17, some probably younger. All beautifully decked out in their meticulous clothes, personalities shining, the girls in red lipstick and collected brows. There was an air of dignity about them, lined up from the stone steps and on through the narrow corridors. I could tell they were honored to be there. They were there to learn.

Believe me, you will come back inspired, informed, and if your experience is anything like mine, a better person all around.
More information about the MATS Summer Intensive here.

MATS Summer Intensive

In this post, guest blogger and Moscow Art Theatre School Summer Intensive Alum (2009) Raphael Schwartzman tells you what this program meant for him.

Interested in joining us for MATS Summer Intensive 2014? Click here.

 

One of my clearest memories [of the MATS Summer Intensive] is of being so wonderfully sore after my first movement class.  The performance training we received, which included Droznin movement technique, yoga, acrobatics and ballet, was demanding physically and mentally in a way that I hadn’t usually experienced back home.  I had to learn to move with parts of my body, in rhythms and isolation, that I had never done before, and this woke me up to how important it is for actors to train their body like an instrument, in the same way that dancers, musicians, and athletes do.  I also got the chance to run across a wall and try to flip off of it, which was challenging and frightening and unbelievably fun.

I saw as much theatre in a month in Moscow as I do in a year in the United States.  Every single show was evocative and visually stunning.  Even though I don’t speak enough Russian to follow the dialogue, the actors’ performances and the stage design are so compelling and attention-grabbing that it is impossible to look away.  It’s even possible to figure out the general plot of the play because the actors are so specific and clear with their bodies and voices.

One experience that I had in Moscow that has stayed with me is the incredible quality of the diploma show done by the third year students at the Moscow Art Theatre School.  It was a series of short scenes that the students had created themselves which included performing as animals, puppets, celebrities, and in extreme situations like sky-diving and fire-fighting.  Even though there were minimal technical elements, and the actors almost never spoke, the scenario and the progression of the characters were so clear and moving.  The scenes were simple, subtle, and extraordinarily powerful because they were so detailed.  The students had been working on these scenes for the entire three years that they had been in school.  This is common for actors in Russia to do, where they will perform multiple shows in rep for years.  This level of commitment and passion was formative for me as an artist, even though we only got to experience it for a short time.

I try to bring that perspective with me into the theatre work that I do here in the United States.  These students could work for so long on these little performances and continue to refine them, to find more details, more questions to explore.  In the US we only ever have a few weeks to put up a show, so it was extremely valuable for me to see what could be made when the right amount of time is invested.

I would recommend this program to current students (or anyone who has the opportunity) over and over again.  The training is superb.  The opportunity to experience the culture is priceless, and the perspective that it offers is eye-opening.  In Russia, there is a deep-seated respect and need for theatre that is ingrained in the culture.  We struggle with this outside the artistic communities in the US.

About the Author

Raphael Schwartzman

Raphael Schwartzman

Raphael Schwartzman graduated from Butler University with a BA in Theatre in 2011.  He currently lives in Chicago where he works as a director, actor, designer, and educator.

Student Life: A Russian Summer

American Course at GITIS Spring 2013 Alumna Eliana Sigel-Epstein gives us an inside look at her time abroad after classes ended this spring. Read more about Eliana’s summer on her personal blog here.

 

Eliana in front of Peter and Paul Fortress

Eliana in front of Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg

 

Classes at GITIS ended on June 4. The last week was spent learning from the Dean of the Directing Faculty who specializes in Michael Chekhov’s theories and taught alongside the assistant teacher to Michael Chekhov, himself. Ever since high school, I have been particularly interested in M. Chekhov, so it was sort of a long-time dream come true to work with a teacher who is so close to directly studying with M. Chekhov. I think one of my favorite exercises we worked on the last week explored four different ways of conceptualizing characters: as Earth, Water, Air, or Fire. It involved exploring the physicality and the emotional effect of that physicality when, essentially, “stuck” in that element. So, for Earth, we imagined that we were each stuck in a pile of rocks and were trying to break free. For Water, we imagined that we were at the bottom of the ocean trying to run as fast as we could. I then loved imagining which element was strongest in myself, my classmates, characters in plays I had read, etc.

This fall, I will be enrolling directly in GITIS in a post-graduate program called “Stajerovka.” I will be studying with Russian GITIS students in the Acting/Directing program, learning from many of the same teachers I had this semester. This is all, of course, without a translator of any sort, meaning my knowledge of the Russian language needs to be awesome if I want to understand anything that the teachers are saying.

Because of this, and a general desire to improve my language skills, I enrolled in a Russian language school, called the Pushkin Institute, for the summer. I had Russian language class for four days a week for about 4 ½ hours each day.  It was definitely exhausting to spend the majority of my days studying such a complicated language. But it provided the kick-start I needed to prepare for the fall. Also, I can now order in restaurants much better and even answer people when they ask me questions on the street!

However, before my time at the Pushkin Institute started, I also took a two week long trip with my parents. We had a whirlwind of a time, starting in St. Petersburg, then moving on to Moscow, and finishing in Kyiv, spending about 5 days in each city.

St. Petersburg

Daniel, Jackie and Eliana with guide Igor

Daniel, Jackie and Eliana with guide Igor

The adventure started from the moment my parents landed at the St. Petersburg airport and we finagled a reasonable price for their taxi to the hotel. As soon as they dropped their suitcases off, we hit Nevsky Prospect, stopping almost every twenty steps for my mom to read to us from her guide book and for my dad to take pictures. Though jet lagged, my parents powered through a full day – we didn’t return to the hotel until midnight. Which continued to be the trend for all of our St. Petersburg days. Thanks to the Summer Solsitce, St. Petersburg was experiencing what they call “White Nights,” meaning that it did not get dark until about 11:30. And even after then you could still see a bit of twilight in the sky.

We took a free walking tour with a great St. Petersburgian named Igor, did the cornerstone tourist activity of taking a boat ride on the Nevsky River at night to watch the bridges open, and of course visited the Hermitage Museum. We also went to Catherine’s Palace just outside the city. All of St. Petersburg was crawling with tourists, both international and Russian. White Nights is a very popular time for tourists. However, Catherine’s Palace was probably the most crowded, tourist-ridden place of them all. The palace and the grounds around the palace were gorgeous and well worth the trip, but the crowds getting inside the palace were worse than the Moscow Metro at rush hour.

Another highlight was seeing Cinderella at the new Mari’insky Theatre. I was really excited to see the new theatre with all the press that it’s been getting. The dancers were truly terrific, and the orchestra, conducted by Russia’s most famed conductor Valery Gergiev, sounded beautiful. The acoustics really were fantastic.

But for me personally, the highlight was going to the Museum of Political History, which featured two awesome exhibits. The first was an overview of the last two centuries in Russia. The second exhibit focused mostly on how the leaders of the Soviet Union from Lenin to Yeltsin used and maintained their power. There was a large focus on Stalin and the tactics he used to maintain power, through propaganda and total control of Soviet life. It really clarified a lot of things about 20th century Russian history for me. It was also really incredible to see artifacts like documents signed prohibiting certain artists’ works or pictures of landowners rioting.

Moscow

Eliana at St. Basil's Cathedral

Eliana at St. Basil’s Cathedral

After five days of exploring St. Pete, we took an overnight train to Moscow. We had scheduled a driving tour of the city for our first day, and somehow managed to survive and enjoy it through our total exhaustion.  The next day we got a tour of the Kremlin and enjoyed some more historical education. We of course also saw Lenin, St. Basil’s, some art museums, Gorky Park, Kolomenskoye Park, the All Russian Exhibition Center, the Space Museum. And I insisted on taking them to my favorite Moscow Metro stations, which they really enjoyed seeing. I even learned some trivia about the metro stations from my mom’s guidebook.

Unfortunately, however, there was no way for my parents to see my favorite part of living in Moscow – incredible Russian theatre. Most theaters’ seasons were closed for the summer, and if I were going to take them to a show, I would want it to be something that they could enjoy despite the language barrier. One of Krymov’s shows would have been perfect to take them to, because of the limited amount of dialogue he uses, but none were playing. We did, however, wind up going to the Bolshoi Theatre – now that the Mari’insky had whetted our appetites for ballet. The Bolshoi Ballet experience was as different as night and day. Unlike the Mari’insky, everything from the building, a recently finished reconstruction, to the ballet itself was traditional and grand and beautiful for the sake of beauty. We really enjoyed both ballets each for different reasons, and I’m really glad that we got to compare the two.

Kyiv

Kyiv

Kyiv

Another overnight train later, and we began the third leg of our trip in Kyiv (one of the many things I learned about Kyiv/Ukraine/Ukrainian is that “Kiev” is the transliteration of the Russian word for the city and “Kyiv” is the transliteration of the Ukrainian word for the city).  It was the perfect place to end our adventures because Kyiv is a much more laid back city than the previous two we visited, and by that point we were exhausted.  I knew very little about Kyiv and the Ukraine, so I really loved learning about its history. We took another free walking tour lead by a young Kyivan who talked freely about his opinions of Kyiv and his home country. It was very interesting to get a glimpse into the life of someone my age in Kyiv. We also went to the Chernobyl museum, which turned out to be one of our favorite museums of the entire trip. The English audio tour was very informative, and the memorial to honor the victims within the museum was beautiful and interesting.

Kyiv has a long history of Jewish influence; for instance, Sholem Aleichem (author of “Tevye and His Daughters,” on which Fiddler on the Roof was based) lived in Kyiv, and the town that inspired Anatevka is located nearby. As for the more unfortunate moments of Jewish history, Babi Yar is located in current Kyiv (it was just outside of city limits in 1930). There were several memorials scattered around the field, including one for the Ukrainian Nationalists who were killed at Babi Yar, gypsies who were killed at Babi Yar, a memorial for a woman who had served in the resistance, and the memorial erected in the 1970s that had absolutely no mention of the disproportionate number of Jews killed. The memorial for the children who died was particularly moving. It was of three dolls that look like children from afar but as you get closer you see subtle details symbolically linking them to the tragedy at Babi Yar. Small holes in the statue symbolize bullet holes, their heads have been partially torn off, and the boy wears a Yamaka on his head. It was very beautifully done.

My parents left early in the morning the next day but my train to Moscow was later in the day, so I had one extra day there. I walked through a beautiful park to the main square of Kyiv called Independence Square, the sight of both their October Revolution in 1917 and the Orange Revolution in 1991. The day before was actually their Constitution Day and around the Square were remnants of a parade that I guess took place that morning. I picked up a “Kyiv Cake” to take back to Jackie and Daniel – vanilla cake with nuts and wafers and chocolate frosting. It’s really sweet but also quite light. I had been told that it is a Russian tradition to bring a Kyiv Cake back to Moscow after a trip to Kyiv. Sure enough, nearly everyone on the train had a Kyiv Cake with them too.

Dacha

Another highlight of the summer was a trip to the dacha of the family we stayed with when we visited Yaroslavl. The word dacha usually gets translated to “summer cottage,” but it is really so much more. It is an experience. It is very common for Russian city dwellers to have one of these “dachas” in a small village that they frequent as soon as the snow melts enough to drive on the narrow gravel streets that leads to the dacha. And dacha season lasts until the first snow of the winter. Until coming to Russia, I had never heard of a dacha, but apparently they are a Russian tradition dating back to the 1700s, that became even more popular during Soviet times throughout the entire Soviet Union. According to Wikipedia, up to 50% of Russian families have dachas.

Our experience at the dacha was really lovely. We woke up late, played cards, walked to the small pond, ate outside, just really relaxing. I kept thinking how nice it must be that they could frequent this second country home whenever they had a free weekend, especially because their dacha was only about 40 minutes away from their home in Yaroslavl. Their dacha, and from what I can tell most dachas, consisted of one floor split into two rooms, and an attic which they converted into a third room. They had an outhouse (the nicest outhouse I had ever seen), berry bushes, herb bushes, and (the piece de resistance) a banya. Now, I had thought that a banya – usually translated to “bathhouse” – referred primarily to the large bathhouses that you can visit in Moscow and other Russian cities. However, their banya was a separate wooden house in which you use chopped wood  to crank up the heat in one of the banya’s small rooms to 90+ degrees Celsius. You hang out in the hot room for about fifteen minutes, then you can retire to the other small room to snack and chat and cool off, or go outside to cool off a bit more. Then back into the hot room and do it all over again. So, it’s not just about going into the hot room – which was like a sauna except it was entirely dry heat – it’s more about the whole experience of relaxing together. Apparently the extreme dry heat is good for you, especially your skin, but I more enjoyed the whole ritual of the thing, and the opportunity for bonding with your fellow bannya-mates.

One night, we made pelmeni, which are small dumplings that seem to be a staple of any Russian’s diet. Again, the experience was not just about the physical making of the pelmeni – which was fairly easy and I feel that I could repeat it – but about the time that you spend together. We also bought milk from a lady’s truck that looked straight out of Fiddler on the Roof – minus the horse. I think it was my first time drinking milk that had come straight from a cow.

We returned to Yaroslavl late on Sunday, showered (finally), and went bowling, Which was not something I expected to do while in Russia, but there you have it. But seriously, I could sit and watch the grass grow with these people. They are just so ridiculously warm and generous. The true embodiment of Russian hospitality.