Friday, December 28, 2012

Казань

Getting there
The adventure began with a 04.50 train out of Kharkiv headed for Moscow! Within a few hours we were at the Russian boarder. It became a big issue that the train conductor hadn't given us immigration cards because he thought foreigners didn't need them. So, sleepy eyed and a bit frazzled, we rushed to fill them out as fast as possible while the boarder guards screeched at us. We arrived in Moscow a little after 7 PM and traded in our electronic Russian tickets for normal ones.  For the most part, everyone at the station was really helpful and nice. When we were getting close to our stop in Moscow I asked the women next to us how to get to the Kazanskij station from the Kurskij station. It turns out they were headed that way too and they took us with them. We took a walk out in the cold to change some money into rubles and then returned to the station and sat in a little cafe that serves blinchiki. This drunk man started talking to Megan while I was ordering. I got back and he kept talking and bothering us with a million questions. He went and bought coffee for us even though we clearly told him that we didn't want coffee and wanted to take a picture with us. We wanted nothing more than for him to go away, so eventually we just got up and left even though we still had a little bit of time before our train. Once we got on the train a boy next to us helped us put our bags up and get our bed rolls down. We had another drunk man run-in and he also wanted photos to show his brother that he met real Americans. "We're not from mars!!" I insisted in Russian and then refused to speak to him in Russian until he just got sick of us and went to sleep. Another guy came by the chat, but this time it was actually the type of educated, interesting conversation worth having. There was a funny moment when he glanced at Megan and then turned to me and asked, "What's with your friend? Can she speak?". I translated to Megan and then we all had a good laugh! Almost everyone in the train car went to sleep right away (party poopers!), but Megan and I didn't want to sleep. While we were sitting and chatting a boy from the end of our wagon brought us chocolate and a few minutes later we were by there seats hanging out and having a good time! They were quick to fill our cups with the "refreshments" they had brought with them on the train.  They kept insisting that Megan should find a Russian husband and stay in Russia forever.  I'm pretty sure one of the boys was ready to marry her on the spot! The train had a fairly long stop so we got off the train and walked on the platform a little bit, but not for long because it was freezing and the babushka's trying to sell us stuff were pretty relentless even though it was the middle of the night. After a little more time with our new friends we finally decided to sleep a little bit. I slept pretty hard until the conductor started waking everyone up and then drank tea and got ready for our arrival. At the first view of the Kremlin from the train my heart started to race and I was jittery with excitement. Not the nervousness I felt three years ago, but more like the excitement of coming home. I met my family with big hugs and Megan met her friends at the station and before I knew it we were in the car and headed home. 


Sunday
Everything at the apartment was as it was when I left. Only Sasha's crib has been replaced by a kid bed. Andrej went out and bought a new year's tree right after we got home and after my shower and nap we decorated the tree-such fun!! I didn't get to decorate the tree at home this year, so I was happy to be decorating a tree with my Russian family. Sunday night Andrej took Ksusha and I out to see the city all lit up and decorated for the new year's celebration. It was mighty cold (-26C, -15F), so we hurried out of the car, took pictures, and scurried back to the car. Kazan is changing so much! I didn't even recognize the train station and the city is built up and in the process of being more built up for the sports Universiade in the summer.
My/Ksusha's room
Ksush still loves the blanket I gave her
I love how modern and beautiful there apartment is! Especially compared to my apartment in Kharkov))
Legos!!!


Our tree!
With the tree
My little snowman Sasha!
The newly build Children's Theatre
Snowflakes!
Each year, Russia picks a city to be the "capital of New Year's" and this year it is Kazan.  I'm not so sure that I've crazy about the tree.
With my Russian sis, Ksusha, by the tree
We were sooo cold!
Дворец земледельцев (Palace of Agriculturists) newly built in Kazan,  You can't see it very well in this picture, but there is a giant tree in the central arch. 
Another picture of the Palace. You can see the tree a little better in this one.


Monday
Monday morning I slept in a little and then met up with Megan to go walk around the Kremlin. It's as beautiful as I remember and we basically had the place to ourselves. I think we were the only ones crazy enough to be out and about in the cold. The only disappointment was that the mosque was closed, so Megan couldn't see the inside. After some lunch I bought a Russian sim card and confused the salesman with the Russian and Ukrainian visa's in my American passport. I think he ended up writing on the paper that I was Ukrainian. I realized that my phone battery was dying, so we went back to the apartment so I could charge it. Plus, I really wanted to show Megan the apartment and it was a warm place to hang out for a while. When Ksusha got home they got to meet a little more until we went to get Sasha from preschool. We left with everyone when Sasha had to go to music school and took the metro to Koltso shopping center. We hung out there for a bit and then made our way to where Megan was staying. They invited me in for tea since I was a little icicle, so I didn't end up getting home until about 11. "Наконец то! (Finally)", Sasha greeted me at the door,  "Я уже тебя долго ждал! Я уже машину построил!  (I've been waiting for you for a long time already! I already built a car! (he loves his legos!))" Sasha has become quite the little character! Such a fun little chatterbox and so much for grown up than the 2 year old I hugged goodbye three years ago, but still such a sweetie and oh so cute!

Kul Sharif Mosque in the Kazan Kremlin
Wearing ALL the layers!
Love this mosque so much!
Love the Kazan Kremlin and was so happy to see it in winter
Again, love that Kazan Kremlin
A frozen Kazan, covered in white
Looking at the palace from the Kremlin
Beautiful Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin
House of the President of Tatarstan
The Soyembika tower of the Kazan Kremlin. The legend is that Ivan the Terrible took a Tatar princess to be his bride. She refused to marry him unless he could build a seven story tower in one week.  He completed the task, but then she threw herself from the top of it and died.  
Father Frost and friends near home

Tuesday
On Tuesday it was Christmas and I woke up to the surprise of presents under the tree with my name on them!!! Seeing that Santa had made his appearance, I laid out the gifts I had brought for the family so that they would see them when they got home. I think that Sasha now expects a visit from American Santa every year)) I met up with Айрат, one of my friends from the Russian summer camp I went to, and we hung out for a few hours, catching up on each other's lives and sharing all the gossip about the others who were at camp with us.  I was afraid that it would be awkward since Айрат and I never really hung out just the two of us when I was in Russia the first time. But I suppose after three years there is a lot of small talk to be had, even though we wrote each other from time to time.  Really though, I was just so happy to hug him, hear his voice, see his smile, reminisce about old times, and talk about our lives. After our hangout I headed back to the apartment for a little bit. It was nice to relax a little bit with a cup of tea and Animal Planet in Russian. When I got bored of being in the apartment I left again and walked most of Bauman street down to the Kremlin (can't get enough of those city night views !) before meeting up with Megan and her friend in Koltso until Ksusha texted me that she was home. At home Larissa made a delicious Christmas dinner which we ate once Andrej got home from work. Potatoes and baked chicken -just like at home on Christmas-joined by Russian caviar,  obligatory at any holiday celebration. Ksusha and I wore Santa hats most of the evening and I told some more about my family's Christmas traditions. After dinner and tea my family back home gave me a call and we had a nice Christmas chat. It was definitely unlike any Christmas I have ever had in my life and the first Christmas abroad and away from my family. But it was special and amazing in its own ways and I couldn't have asked for a better Russian-American Christmas.  My Russian family has treated me like family since the first day I lived with them and have always done so much to both make me feel welcome and to make my time in Russia enjoyable. I hope they know how much I love them and appreciate everything they do for me. I would do the same for them in America!!

Chatting with Mama and sis!
My little Darth Vader Logan
Santa!
Family Picture!
Kazan Souvies
Caviar!


Фотография: Christmas came to Kazan this morning! How strange it is to be spending my first Christmas away from home, in a country where Christmas isn't celebrated on Dec. 25. But still is has been a lovely day so far and there is still a lot to look forward to today and within the next few days. Merry Christmas everyone! Lots of love from Russia!!
Christmas in Kazan!

Wednesday
Wednesday I woke up and couldn't believe that it was the fourth and last day of my visit to Kazan. I agreed with Ksusha on a meeting time for early evening and set out for a little adventure. I wanted to take the bus to the square where the Lenin statue is and just remember that area a bit. It was snowing and blowing like crazy when I went out and somehow in the blizzard confusion I ended up on what was most definitely the wrong bus. Before I knew it the driver was announcing the stop for Park House Mall and I couldn't exactly remember where that was in relation to the rest of the city. I made a spontaneous decision to get off the bus and walk around Park House for a while. There is an H&M in that mall, which we don't have in Ukraine, so I went in, of course! Ukraine has been really hard on my clothes and only one pair of the jeans I brought with me haven't yet been completely destroyed by life in Ukraine. Considering winter's in full swing and the only other pants I have are my light summer khaki capris, I was happy to find a pair of jeans and a pair of black pants for a reasonable price. Shopping is so much easier in Kazan than in Ukraine and the clothes are better quality. After my Park House adventure I found a bus headed back in the direction of home. I then made a little "metro-excursion" adventure for myself. Basically this just amounted to riding to every station on Kazan's one-line metro, but it was interesting and not out in the snow. :) I especially  liked the station that is all glass! When I met up with Ksush we walked around the mall. She showed me a dress like the one she wants for prom at the end of the year, a bought a couple of books in Russian, and then we got groceries for my journey back to Kharkiv.  Back at home we had a final dinner together and then just relaxed, chatted, and watched TV until it was time to leave for the train station.We were there with only a few minutes until departure, so we put Megan's and my stuff in the train and then hugged goodbye.  At one point during my visit Larissa was talking about how happy she was that I came to visit and said, "Three years ago on that hot August evening I never could have thought-up this winter visit here in Kazan! You better come back before another three years go by!" I couldn't agree with you more, my Russian mama! :)


The Long Journey Home
The train journey from Kazan started out just like any other one.  A few curious passengers wanted to chat with the foreigners and we met a sweet 17 year old girl on her way to Moscow to visit her brother and a funny young guy from Tajikistan. The babushkas were full of advice, especially on the topic of it being high time for Megan to get married and start a family (at 23 years old - HA!!). We had our tea and cookies and then settled in for some rest. That is, of course, until the train was awoken to the shrill yelling of babushka.  I sleepily rubbed by eyes and looked down the car to see babushka yelling at the conductor and waving her hands frantically.  Within a few seconds I realized that she was chewing him out for being drunk on the job after drinking with one of the passengers. And drunk he certainly was!! To our horror he started walking up and down the car, shining a light in passengers' faces and trying to sit on the end of people's beds.  He was drunk out of his mind and could hardly form a complete sentence, let alone lock and unlock the toilets at the stations, turn on the lights for passengers getting on, or check tickets.  He was being especially creepy towards Megan and every time he walked by he would look at her, and then look at me to see if I was awake.  "Когда ты уходишь? (When are you getting off?)" he drunkenly slurred.  "Никогда (never)", I bitterly replied. At least a dozen times I yelled at him, "Уйди отсюда! Не мешай ей! (Get away from here! Don't bother her!)" Such a creep! At one point he sat himself down at the end of my bed.  I gave him a good hard meaningful shove and a good yelling at in Russian.  Seriously! Completely unacceptable behavior! It's one thing to be drunk on the job, but it's another to be disturbing the passengers and being a total creep!  Afraid and unable to go to sleep with him drunkenly wandering the train, we had a mostly sleepless night.  At some point I must have dozed off for about an hour or two and when I woke up a new conductor was in our car.  No one seemed to know what became of the first idiot.
In Moscow we went to the other station, locked up our stuff, and set out to kill several hours in the center even though we were tired.  'Oh, you know, just a typically day having a little walk around Red Square," we joked.  We took in the New Year's festive atmosphere in Red Square and GUM and had lunch in the center.  We wanted to go to Starbucks, but after taking a wrong turn we were sick of trudging through the sludge and took the nearest metro back to the train station.  We people watched, read, and chatted to kill time in the station and eventually it was finally time to get on the train.  Everyone on the train had SO MUCH STUFF. "Новый Год (New Year)," the man next to us casually shrugged, after telling me that all of the under the seat luggage storage was filled to the brim with his and another woman's stuff.  Good thing Megan and I were traveling light!  Of our four trains, this was the only one where we shared a set of four seats instead of being together on the side with only two. Our neighbors were a strange old grandmother and a funny little old man who chose to communicate to us mostly in hand gestures and the few English phrases he remembered from school back in the day.  We had the top places and they wanted to go to bed incredibly early, so after our tea we hopped up to our bunks and sweated the sleepless night away in the always balmy Ukrainian train.  After our Kazan-Moscow nightmare it was nice to have an uneventful train ride.  We got back to Kharkov in time to get on one of the first metro trains and were home by about 6 AM.  I started laundry, took a nap, had a HOT (yay!!!) shower, had coffee, and turned my room into a war zone unpacking one suitcase and starting to pack the other.  Sunday morning I'll be in Germany already!!!

Moscow
Moscow in the snow and slush
GUM ice-skating rink
GUM ice-skating rink
GUM tree
Meg with the tree
Eskimo Chels
A little Russian play on words
Inside GUM
Traveling makes me look scary!


An English Club Christmas

About a week ago on December 21, a few of my dear English club friends came over for a celebration of American Christmas.  There were a few less shenanigans than at the Thanksgiving gathering, but it was still a lot of fun! We made our own nativity scene out of paper, retold the Christmas story, ate some yummy treats, prayed for the coming year, and sang our little hearts out.  The party was for everyone, of course, but I was especially thankful to my friends for the chance to celebrate American Christmas in a meaningful way.  


With Nadia! 

Most of the gang

Anton thinks he's a model ;)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This semester I blogged for a project called Reach The World, in which students studying abroad write blogs for students in classrooms in the United States.  These blogs not only aim to teach them something about the world, but also encourage these students to pursue traveling and studying abroad in their own lives.

So if you're interested in checking mine out, here's the link: http://reachtheworld.org/journey/39160

Keep in mind, of course, that it is aimed at a school-aged kids.
Last night we said до свидания to our dearest Kayla.  Vera leaves us Friday night and Masha will leave for the States while I am still in Germany.  It's so sad((( It really does seem like yesterday that we were touring the university and having our first lessons.  Part of me still expects to see Kayla in Russian class tomorrow morning and I can't actually imagine that Vera and Masha are leaving soon as well.  I can't imagine the emotions they are all feeling, especially Kayla and Masha, who have been here for a year. I'm sure I will be a big teary mess in May! But better not to think of that now! Ukraine has taught me so much already.  Like how to spend a lot of time on heels.  Heels on ice, heels on uneven and nonexistent sidewalks, and heels on icy uneven nonexistent sidewalks. I've learned how to navigate the complex water situation here in our apartment, compromising with myself about how cold the water has to be before I won't shower and how long I can trick the world into thinking my unwashed hair still looks acceptable. The cashiers and basically all point of service workers here are still scary, but I'm learning how to hold my own.  I've started to learn the delicate balance of when to try to blend in and when it actually works to my advantage to go full-out foreigner.   I really don't enjoy talking on the phone, but it seems to be the number one method of communication here, so I take a deep breath and pick up that call from my professor or call that director I've never before met. I've learned to love gretchka...that one wasn't too hard))
I still have another half a year of making memories on this incredible adventure and so much more to learn!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Kharkov woke up under a blanket of white.  I woke up with a cold little nose, not wanting to emerge from under my blanket of red.  But the first snow of the winter definitely put a smile on my face and I delighted in the crunch crunch crunch of the snow under my boots.  It's been an exceptionally busy week here in Kharkov.  I had a big presentation for one of my politics classes on Wednesday and today was an open-forum sort of lesson with the other fourth year students in our department.  There was a lot of pressure from our teacher to perform at a high level and I felt tense most of the lesson, but I think she was pleased with the result. Having finished the busiest parts of this week I wrote a new to-do list, just as long as the first. If I was ever worried about being bored or not busy enough here in Kharkov, that one went and took care of itself! It's so great! This first semester has flown right on by. In 9 days I will be on a train to Kazan and in 17 days I will be in Munich for over three weeks with the german))

In unrelated news, our water won't turn on and the toilet won't flush.  Just another day in Ukraine...

Hope you're all filled with winter cheer!

Lots of hugs and love to the many dear friends and family all of the world I'm missing these days!


Monday, December 10, 2012

Tonight, my heart is broken for the orphans of the world. Specifically the orphans of Ukraine and specifically those living in School-Orphanage Number 8 here in Kharkov.  This really amazing guy, Oleg, runs an organization that helps the kids in many different orphanages in Ukraine.  Not only does he collect necessities and gifts for the kids, but he also organizes great presentations for the kids and is always someone they can talk to and lean on.  He is making such a difference in so many lives and bringing hope to so many young people.  You can check out the website (in English or Russian) to learn more.  http://orphans.kharkov.ua/eng/
Today I was with the darlings talking about communication with people from all over the world and how we can use the internet to learn all about the world even from our own homes.  When I asked if anyone could speak some English little Roma's hand shot up and he confidently introduced himself in English. He's so smart for just a little 6th former! We played around with Rosetta Stone and those beginner level quizzes were no match for their awesome English prowess! We played a repetition game and laughed with each other. I left them with some treats and, of course, there were many pictures to be taken.
Overall it was a fun afternoon.  I left, however, with a bit of a sadness I just couldn't shake. I see these amazing young people and I know that any parent in the world would be blessed and extremely proud to call any one of these kids their own. From what I saw of their home, it is actually pretty nice and the staff I met was kind and caring, but that doesn't replace a Mama's hugs in the morning and being tucked in and told I love you at night.
I can only hope and pray, however, that the efforts of people like Oleg continue to help these children.  That something as simple as someone to chat with, smiles, hugs, and always reminding them how smart and wonderful each and every one of them is will help them through this crazy beautiful life.  So I will say a special prayer for each one of those smiling faces and give a few extra hugs.
Now I really must get back to all that homework glaring at me from my light pink to-do list.

Sharing a few words with the kiddos

Playing with Rosetta Stone

Such beautiful children!

:)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lvov

A few weeks ago, when one of the teachers "had a question for me", I quickly assumed that it was a schedule change or a request to change something I was teaching.  How very wrong a was - what a pleasant surprise! The question was, instead, would I like to accompany some of the younger students on a trip to Lvov, creating English lessons for the trip and adding to the trip the element of an English practice.  Munchkins and travel? How could I say no?!?  So Wednesday evening I hopped onto an overnight train to Lvov with my bag of English tricks and had a fantastic few days with darlings ranging between 5 and 12 years old.  According to all of my calculations the trip was a success! From the youngest to the oldest they confidently confronted me with "Hello!"s from morning to night and walked away beaming after our short conversations.  I tried to have at least one conversation consisting of more than hi, how are you with every kid and there were a few who really latched on and racked their little brains for all the right words.  English lessons took place in the stuffy train cars and perched on hotel beds.  We sang, played, colored, and laughed.  Their minds were little steel traps, impressing me with how much they learned.  They giggled when I spoke Russian.  Hugs and smiles abounded and I almost always had at least one little one by the hand.  "I like you Chelsea.  I really like you!", Edik couldn't stop reminding me.  What a great trip!
Saturday morning we arrived back in Kharkov and after a nice long (hot!!!) shower I resolved to spend the day relaxing, playing piano, and finishing up some work.  A call to home and Saturday night Skype date rounded off a lovely day.
Today church was especially lovely, but my mid afternoon my throat was hurting something terrible and my head felt like it weighed 50 pounds.  I've been downing the tea and haven't been back outside, so I'm hoping by morning I'll be feeling better.  Come on, body, just a few more healthy weeks!