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Letters from Russia

These letters were written a few years ago by my friend, Ken Taft (Denver, USA) who arrived in Russia with the prospect of staying in St. Petersburg for one year as a teacher of English language. I find them both sincere and precious as they describe so well how it feels in the beginning as well as provide useful information for those who have plans to move to Russia for a certain period of time.

If you find the very first letters discouraging I would like to add one simple fact: after the first year Ken decided to stay here for the second one. His approach is that choosing between USA and Russia for living in the nearest 5 years, Russia seems much more inspiring...

By the way, some things have changed in Russia since these letters were written in 2004 - for example prices are much higher nowadays. Despite this, they still give a very accurate picture of life in Russia as experienced by an outsider.

Sincerely yours,

25.03.2004 Ken Taft

Letter 1: First few days here in Russia

Previet! (pronounced pree-vee-et)

My flight to Russia was quite uneventful. Nothing really interesting happened until we landed in St. Petersburg. Looking out the window as we were landing, I could somehow tell it was ungodly cold out there. We touched down and pulled up to the gate. There were no other planes around and most of the lights seemed to be turned off in the buildings. As soon as the fasten seat belt sign turned off, eveyone stood up and put on their coats, hats and gloves. I found this peculiar since we were going into the airport. I looked out the plane window to see if maybe we were going to take a transport bus to another gate. This I could understand would require putting on coats and hats. I wasn't sure what was going on so I followed the golden rule: When in Russia, do as the Russians. I put on my coat, walked off the plane into the gate tunnel to the terminal. I was expecting a rush of warm air upon entering the building but it seemed they found it completely unnecessary to heat the airport. I could see my breath walking down the terminal walkway. I also knew that it was still about 30* warmer inside than it was outside. The outside temperature was -15F and windy. I nervously made my way through passport control and customs hoping I would not have to go through any unnecessary disrobing, searches and pat-downs. Finally I saw Tatiana and Sergey and knew that everything would be fine. They took me in their little Russian "Lada" to my new apartment. Up to this moment, I had not seen pictures of it and wasn't quite sure what to expect. I've been in Russian flats before so I had a general idea.

Letters From Russia (Letter 1) Letters From Russia (Letter 1)

My apartment is on the 6th floor of an 8 floor building on Vasilievsky Island. It was built in the 60's and I can honestly say has not been updated since. As I walked in, I thought: "Uh oh, maybe I made a mistake." It reminds me of some of the decrepit little apartments I lived in while in college. The difference is that this one is clean and warm and there are no hungover roommates still refusing to wash their dishes from last week. It has nice big windows overlooking a courtyard/playground, herringbone wood floors and the world's loudest toilet. My bed is not so comfortable, kind of like sleeping on a boxspring, but I can sleep anywhere. It is only a five minute walk to the metro station and then two metro stops to the center of the city and the school I will be working at.

I have an appointment today to discuss my first class for next Tuesday. I have been getting good advice from my friend Tatiana and her mother, who has been teaching English for thirty years. They have stressed the importance of becoming good friends with my students if I want them to be comfortable and excited about the class. I also found out that I am not allowed to arrive to class before the students. I am to arrive as an actor enters from stage left. The performance is important in Russian society.

Letters From Russia (Letter 1) Letters From Russia (Letter 1)

My first few days here in Russia I was feeling homesick and really wondered if this was a good life choice. But now I have calmed down a bit and feel quite comfortable. I've been busy learning how to navigate the metro, buy subway tokens (in Russian), shop in the multitude of little open street markets and shops (again, in Russian) and how to stay warm. I do not understand how these people can stand outside all day in the cold trying to sell handmade socks and hats, jarred pickles and jams harvested from their summer homes and anything else they can find to sell.

It is still quite dark here at 8:30am and 5:00pm. The sun rises but stays low in the sky casting long shadows on everything. It's overcast most of the time. So when the sun comes out, it is quite an event. I miss the Colorado sun! What this place lacks in nice weather is made up in the overwhelming hospitality of the people. If you are invited to someone's home, be prepared to eat to the point of bursting. Their pantries are empty, but somehow they seem to cover the table with food.

That is all for now...

Over and out,

Letter 2: Immigrant feelings

Hello again,

It's about 1:00pm where I am and you should all be sleeping about now. I feel like I'm on a completely different planet. I think I know what an immigrant feels like when they come to America. There are no newspapers, signs, magazines or price listings in your language anywhere. Forget about understanding anything on TV and don't expect to see any news about your country. Almost all the American movies they show here are from the 70's and 80's and low budget movies that I have never seen before. They have Coca-Cola (but it tastes different), Pizza Hut, KFC, but no Burger King or Wendy's. Of course no Taco Bell, it's too spicy for them.

I bought a cell phone since everyone here has them. The service is far superior to what I have on the phone in my apartment. Quite often I hear strange ticking noises, music or other people talking on my home phone. Also, I share my phone line with someone else in the apartment building. I guess the government wanted to conserve on phone lines. A couple of times I've tried to make a call and have gotten no dial tone because someone is using the line. I'm craving some talk with some native English speakers. Anyone want to call me?

Everyone has been saying this is one of the coldest winters in recent history. It must be, it's damn cold! Tonight I'm going to be observing the class I will be taking over next week. Then they plan to give me another class in a few weeks. I think I'm going to visit some other schools and try to pick up more classes so that I will be able to maintain a decent living. I also put some ads on travel message boards on the internet for homestay in St. Petersburg. I have extra space in my apartment.

My street is tree lined with older brown brick buildings. These are the typical 70's Soviet apartment blocks that were built for the exodus of peasants and farmers to the cities. It is close to the market where I do my shopping for food and other small items. Up to now I have to figure out first what the store sells. Then go inside and try to figure out what the products are by pictures on the labels and the try to execute a purchase without holding up the line behind me. It can be really nerve-racking! So next time you see an immigrant and they are holding up the line in the grocery store or bank because they don't quite understand the process, think of me and have mercy on them.

So... Who wants to send me some peanut butter, aluminum foil, cheap skin lotion, a sports section from any newspaper, taco seasoning and a Ford F-350 Dually Diesel with big knobby tires to have the largest car in Russia and instill fear into the hearts of all the "Lada" drivers, especially the ones who try to run down all pedestrians in their way, like me?

Da sveedanya!

Letter 3: H2O heaters and pirozhkeys


Another day, another letter. I have a new favorite treat for myself. It's the pirozhkeys sold by the street side vendors. A tasty warm pie made of fried bread pastry filled with a yet-to-be-named meat, onions and spices. Yummm! A chewy grease bomb to kill the hunger and warm the stomach on a cold St. Petersburg afternoon. At $.25, quite a bargain!

Letters From Russia (Letter 3)Contrary to popular belief, Russians no longer wait in lines for food. Their grocery stores are well stocked and filled with savvy shoppers choosing from a variety of excellent food products. Compared to America, your choice is limited in the number of products offered, but I find a comfort in not having my brain freeze up from trying to choose from 37 different brands of spaghetti sauce. The drawback here is that with limited choice, I can't find the food I'm used to. I find myself restricted to eating mostly Russian cuisine. I enjoy it very much, but a little variety would be nice. There is a little Asian counter that sells spicy Asian salads and meats, but that is all I have found. My quest is to find an Asian shopping market in this city and buy some soy sauce, red curry paste and coconut milk. I've given up on peanut butter and anything Mexican.

I'm learning how to cook like a true Russian bachelor. My mantra is becoming "boil and serve". I wish I could get the "pelmini" they have here back in the States. Tortellini-like dumplings filled with meat, cheese and potatoes. For dessert, a Russian chocolate bar. They do as the Europeans, listing the percent of cocoa in each bar. Russian chocolate is really good! Ice cream is quite popular also, but nothing will ever come close to Wisconsin custard. I'd say Italian gelato is a close second.

Enough about food... To the water heater I became so fascinated with. It is really an ingenious invention, just a bit peculiar where they placed it. In the summer time, the central hot water facilities shut down for maintenance for about a month. During this time, there is no hot water in the building. Coincidentally, this is the time many Russians will plan to take their holiday. In my apartment, I have been blessed with my own water heater. It is a gas water heater vented through the ceiling. I have to light the pilot to get it going. I turn on the water and Presto!, hot water. It has a dial on the front to regulate the height of the flames, and you can also control the water temperature by regulating the flow of water. The perfect balance of these two leads to the perfect shower temperature. So even during the month of maintenance, I will have hot water.

Letters From Russia (Letter 3)I'm still working on the fine art of buying subway tokens. I have been buying them in lots of seven. The first time I didn't give the attendant enough money and received a nice tongue lashing in Russian from behind the window. Inevitably, there is a always a line behind me that I am holding up while I search for that elusive One Ruble coin in my pocket. Today I tried to purchase the subway card that allows me 25 rides before purchasing another. I rehearsed my key Russian words before approaching the window to make my purchase. Everything was going fine, she was taking my money, grabbing for a card, and then came the question from her I couldn't understand. Of course she thought if she said it louder, I would understand better. Finally I just answered "Da, Da!" (Yes, Yes!) over and over until she gave me the card in complete frustration. Walking away, I realized what she was asking, but it was already too late. I didn't care... I have my card, and I don't have to go through that again for another couple of weeks.

I think that's enough for tonight. My next letter will have my impressions of my first class. If you write a letter to me, please do not hit your reply button. It sends the pictures back to me and it takes forever to download them with the letter. The connection here is really slow, and I usually only sign on to the internet to download my e-mail, then read it offline.

Signing off...

Letter 4: Beer and Russian style alcoholism cure

Greeting's my friends,

I have a question for you... In your ideal society, what would you wish for? What freedoms would you bestow upon the citizens of this great society? What would you allow to be acceptable behavior as long as it didn't disturb the peace? I know what I would wish for... Liberal open container laws. Is it so wrong to celebrate a successful first night of teaching your first class, in a new country, with a different language, and all the other challenges there are to face, by having yourself a beer on the subway, on the way home to your apartment? I don't think it is wrong, and this is one thing I really like about this country. As I left the school building feeling on top of the world, I thought to myself: "Boy, a beer sure would be nice right about now. But I guess I'll have to wait until I get home. Hold on a second! I can drink on the streets... It's Ok." So I visited my local kiosk and bought myself a "Bochkarev" (pee-va = beer). Popping the top off, I felt the rush you get from doing something forbidden and wrong, but I knew that no cops were going to make me pour it out and write me up a nasty ticket. Yes, maybe you think this would promote public drunkenness, but it seems to work alright here without too many problems. I don't know... Just a thought.

On the dark side of the alcohol spectrum... What if you were terribly alcoholic, a hopeless case with little or no will power to stop? You've tried other programs and methods, and nothing seems to work for you. Drinking keeps you from being a fully functioning member of society, which just makes you want to drink more to forget your problems, and endless downward spiral. What if someone offered you a solution with extremely serious consequences if you did not stop drinking? I'm not talking liver disease, homelessness and destitution. I'm talking meetin' your maker.

I was talking with my new friend Evel (it's a Greek name) in the corridor, where the school I teach at used to be located. He's an American who lives in Russia permanently with his wife and daughter. He writes books for the school and does some teaching. I asked him if this wing of the building was some sort of hospital. I have noticed sickly looking people and doctors walking around. He said that the most hopeless of the hopeless alcoholics come here for help. Upon entering this program, you voluntarily sign documents saying that you are of sound mind and body and are doing this of your own free will. The treatment consists of (don't let the kids read this) the doctor inserting a suppository inside of you-know-where and then sending you home. If you choose to drink any alcohol after this point, you won't wake up in the morning. No joke! It kind of walks along a fuzzy line regarding the Hippocratic Oath. With the litigation madness in America, this would never fly. But Hey! Sometimes serious problems need serious solutions.

Ok... Something more upbeat. My first class was a smashing success. I didn't even have to throw up from nervousness beforehand. The instructor I was taking over the class from and the methodologist were planning to observe my teaching for the full two hours. After a half hour, they both handed me little notes with nice compliments and then left. I have a class of students (seven women, one man) all in their 20's, all Russian. Drawing upon a great idea from one of my TEFL instructors, Sunday afternoon I will meet up with two of my students (Katya and Tanya) for coffee, tea and cakes. We had a little competition in class. In pairs, they had to do a short presentation in English. Afterwards, all the students voted for the best presentation, and these two won. The prize (or punishment) was to spend one or two hours with the native English speaker over coffee, talking about whatever and practicing English. Since being able to practice English with a native English speaker is such a rare occurrence, it turned out to be quite a motivator to get them to work on their presentations. During class, each pair become very secretive in their scheming to outdo the other students.


Letter 5: Metro & the power of chocolate

My fellow Americans,

A little bit about my metro experience and what I know about it: I know that both St. Petersburg and Moscow have the underground subway. I don't know if any other Russian cities have it. While the New York, Chicago, London and Paris subways are drab and uninteresting, the Russian subway system is like an underground architectural museum. There's endless amounts of granite, marble, columns, chandeliers, mosaics and sculptures. St. Petersburg has some interesting stations, but the Moscow stations are more beautiful overall.

Letters From Russia (Letter 5) If you buy your fare in mass quantity (e.g. 25 rides), the price comes out to about 5 rubles (about $.16) per ride. The street level entrance is a popular place for police to stop and check the papers of young men to make sure they have done their compulsory military service. You pass through the turnstiles at street level, then descend on an escalator about 300-400 feet into the bowels of the earth. It's my favorite time to people watch. Going down, it's stand on the right, walk on the left. Coming up, it's standing only. It's a popular time for lovers to steal some kisses for a few minutes, the man usually standing on the lower step, unless she's taller of course.

During rush hour it can be a stampede to make sure you get on board before the doors slam shut. Then you stand there like a can of asparagus barely able to turn around. The trains run every two minutes, so there's never any waiting. Although it rarely happens (not to me yet), I'm careful to keep my valuables out of reach of pick-pockets. Most of the time I'm able to take a seat, but during rush hour it's not likely I'll get one. Plus you are obliged to give up your seat to the old or disabled. My stop is the last on the line. I ascend the escalator up to the cold and icy streets. At the exit there are always people waiting to meet someone. "Top of the escalator" is the understood meeting place.

Letters From Russia (Letter 5) A few letters ago I talked about my new staple food. It is the pirozhkeys sold by street side vendors. No matter the temperature or conditions, these women are out there everyday making people like me a little less hungry. They usually also sell a low grade tea and coffee and offer ketchup and mustard as condiments. Just look for the steam rising into the air and you probably found a pirozhkeys cart.

Recently I wrote to some of my teaching colleagues about a situation I had in the teachers' lounge at my school. Almost all the teachers are Russian women. While in the teachers' lounge preparing for my lesson, they would talk amongst themselves (in Russian) but not try to include me in any of their conversations. It was like I wasn't there. I speculated on why, but in the end it didn't matter. I wrote to some of my teaching colleagues in Denver to help me answer this question. I received some good advice to get them to engage me, but in the end I went with the advice of my Russian language teacher. I went out and bought a nice box of chocolates and walked around the room offering some to all the teachers. Never underestimate the power of chocolate! Especially when it comes to women. Not all the teachers were there, but I think word got out about my actions because all of them have been very engaging lately.

I have a class to teach in the morning, so I must prepare my lesson.

Until next time...

Letter 6: Thieves, dictators and the celebration of Woman

Hey! (Swedish for Hello!)

Sometimes in life things are going so well that it seems like nothing can go wrong. Almost everything is going your way. Good family, good friends, good job, good life. You settle into a nice comfortable groove and forget about all the bad things in the world. This is when even the most cautious of people become vulnerable. Since I've been in Russia, I feel like I've been reborn in many ways. I've made new friends, I'm experiencing a new culture and slowly coming to understand it. I'm learning the in's and out's of a new profession, a different culture and a new way of looking at life. I'm also realizing how much I enjoy teaching.

Unfortunately, I had some bad luck yesterday. I was at a Starbuck's style coffee shop waiting to meet with a teacher of Russian language. I left my backpack unattended for 30 seconds while I went to grab some sugar and somebody walked off with it. I should have been more careful. I lost my digital camera, some Russian books and dictionaries, my gloves and my very valuable Green Bay Packer hat. Obviously, somebody was watching me. Luckily my passport and keys weren't in there. In the big picture, it's just material possessions, but it still doesn't feel good to be robbed.

On the bright side, snow and ice was actually melting today for the first time since I've been here. Spring may be coming soon. I've only had to endure winter since January. Everyone here says winter started in October. I'm looking forward to the first day I don't have to wear a coat when I leave my apartment. The weather forecast in Denver is for a high of about 60F for the next four days and of course sunny. This morning in St. Petersburg it's sunny and about 20F.

Does anyone know what International Holiday is being celebrated today? It's Women's Day. I know, it hasn't caught on in America yet. Actually I think Russia is about the only place it's celebrated with such fervor. Russians love any excuse to eat, drink, meet with friends and family and not have to go to work. Today is the day all Russian women are honored for their hard work and contribution to family and society. Everywhere you go, you see men carrying flowers and cakes to take to the special women in their lives. The closest thing we have I guess would be Mother's Day. The holiday was first celebrated in 1913 as a day of international solidarity of women in their struggle for economic, political and social equality. It became an official public holiday in the Soviet Union in 1966. Since then, it's lost most of it's ideological essence and has now become a triumph of femininity and tenderness. American style feminism is still in it's infancy in Russia. According to a recent survey, 92% of Russian people think that men should make shows of courtesy towards women, i.e.: holding doors, offering an arm when walking and walking on the side nearest the street to protect her from traffic. To all my female readers, I'd like to know how that sounds to you. Old-fashioned and out-dated or something quite appealing? As for gender equality, about half the women think it exists. About 60% of the men think it exists.

Excerpts from the St. Petersburg Times:
Russia's army is 8% women, third behind America and Israel. A bit different from American soldiers, Russian female soldiers compete in the Miss Army contest and are judged on their looks, combat skills, singing, ballroom dancing and cooking skills.
When one Russian male soldier was asked about the high numbers of women in the American Army, he responded: "Perhaps there aren't enough men there."

Wednesday was another significant day in Russian history. It marked the 50th Anniversary of Joseph Stalin's death. Hitler and Stalin are often put in the same category because of their crimes against humanity. They are different though. Whereas Hitler aimed to eliminate all members of a different race, Stalin eliminated millions more of his own people in the name of building a great Socialist state. It may be true that he turned Russia into a great world power, but estimates of 10 to 20 million people died of execution or famine in the work camps of Siberia and all over the country. He signed off on over 700,000 executions. The cult of Stalin still exists today. He was a strong leader and a great builder and many senior citizens wish for the Soviet age to return. Their miniscule pensions from the capitalists cannot sustain them.

Enough history for today.

See you next week, same bat time, same bat channel...

Letter 7: 667 - The Neighbor of the Beast

So who lives next door to the Devil at house number 667?.. "The Neighbor of the Beast". He's a demon called Influenza, and he paid me a visit last week. Last Friday night I came down with a debilitating case of the flu. It came on so suddenly that it felt like a possession. I woke up Saturday morning about 20 spoken words away from losing my voice. I had a class to teach for three hours and it was my first time with this group so I couldn't cancel. I limped through the class with a head full of "Aleve" and a mouthful of throat lozenges. They were a talkative group so it took the pressure off me.

After class I was supposed to meet my new friend Olya and we were to spend a few hours together. I called her to cancel and to tell her I was heading home to the comfort of my bed. She insisted on coming to my flat to take care of me. I told her No because I did not want her to catch what I had, but she refused to listen. She arrived at my apartment with a sack full of Russian medicine and a new plant for my window sill. At least something in my apartment would look healthy and alive. She immediately had me lay down and she withdrew to the kitchen to concoct her mixture of potions and elixirs. It was "swallow this, drink that, and now lay down and sleep". I tossed and turned for awhile and finally fell asleep. I awoke about three hours later expecting to be alone again, but there she was, in the corner chair quietly reading a book. It was quite surprising to see and quite comforting at the same time. At this time my good friend Tatiana called to see how I was fairing. Since I was in a deep medicated haze, I put her on the phone with Olya and they chatted for what seemed like days, in Russian, about how to best cure me of this demon spell. Even though we had enough medicine for the entire Russian army, she needed more. So she took a quick walk to the pharmacist for more medicine. She dosed me one more time and I knew I would soon be out for the evening. So she made her goodbyes and promised to call me tomorrow to see how I was doing.

On Monday Tatiana and her husband Sergey stopped by to check on me. She had a chicken in one hand and enough fruit in the other to make Carmen Miranda happy. So into the kitchen went Tatiana to make chicken soup while Sergey installed Russian dictionary software on my laptop. They spent a few hours with me having my first real meal in three days and administering laughter, the best medicine.

Over the next couple of days I continued to receive calls from friends, colleagues and even some of my students called to see how I was doing. It was quite an outpouring of concern for my well being. I guess it's one of the characteristics of a group-based culture like the one that exists in Russia. In America it might seem quite strange for someone you hardly knew to spend a better part of the day taking care of you. When I inquired about this caring for others who are sick, I only heard: "It is just what we do."

So now it is a week later, I feel much better, and except for a lingering cough, I've resumed where I left off. The big talk right now is about the Russian debut of Lord Of The Rings, The Two Towers. In Russia, all movies are dubbed into Russian. Finding a movie in English with Russian subtitles is a very difficult task. So, I won't be going to the cinema. Before leaving America I saw The Two Towers. Since the movie is about 95% fight scenes, 4% percent New Zealand scenery shots and 1% dialog, it shouldn't be too difficult to dub this movie. Here's something interesting about Russian movie theaters. They treat the seating the same way they do for the ballet or for plays. It's all reserved seating. You can buy tickets to the movie a week in advance, arrive to the theater late and still know that your choice seats will be there. I like it! What a great way to avoid all the commercials and all the Austin Powers movie previews.

Today I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my new mattress. The days of sleeping on the upholstery covered box spring are over. My very spoiled American body needs something quite soft and cushy to sleep on. Last night Tatiana and I drove in her car to a shop I found that sold very inexpensive cotton mattresses. I had to ask her for the use of her car since it would have been quite a sight trying to push a mattress through the turnstile of the metro by myself. Essentially, it looks like a thinner version of a futon, but a bit softer.

Letters From Russia (Letter 7) The sun is out today, and I had to take a quick break from writing to capture some Vitamin D on my face. Looking outside is quite deceiving. With the sun shining it looks quite warm, but it's about -19C. For all you Americans that's about -4F. Don't blink or your eyelashes will freeze together. Directly behind my building is a courtyard with a fenced-in kindergarten. At around 11:00am, if I look out my window, I will see a miniature herd of potato sacks waddling through the snow. Little munchkins bundled up from head to toe with only eyes peering out from behind scarves and hoods. I imagine that the better part of the morning is spent unwrapping these little bundles of chaos when they arrive to school, and then ten minutes later begin the two hour process of bundling them up again to go outside for recess. With their limited sight and loss of dexterity from all the clothing it's fun to watch them collide into each other, fall down, get up and do it all over again. "Human bumper cars". Sometimes it's like dominoes. How these teachers keep track of all the hats, mittens, scarves, boots and jackets I will never know.

It's a bit after noon and time for me to venture out into the cold to feel the sun on my face. Enjoy the warmth if you have it!

Bye for now,

Letter 8: Fascists, oily beau hunks and peanut butter

Hello All,

It seems we are getting closer to war with Iraq. It seems to picking up steam and nothing is going to stop it. Some of you have expressed concern about my safety living outside of America during time of war. Well, I can tell you, I'm much safer here than I would be in America. First of all, it would be very difficult for any terrorist to know I was American without hearing me speak. Second of all, if there are any Al Qaeda in St. Petersburg or Moscow, they probably get the crap beat out of them by the skinheads on a regular basis. There aren't a lot of skinheads, but the troublesome little parasites tend to attack anyone with dark skin (be it African, Indian, Pakistani, Egyptian, South American). It's the same problem we have in America with the Aryan Nation, but here they are more likely to take action.

A couple weeks ago a Pakistani student was beaten and kicked to death. There was a group of students from India and Pakistan who were just standing on the street talking. A group of skinheads started to yell racial slurs, then started to chase them. The student who was killed had a sprained ankle and couldn't run, hence, he became their target. The police said they really could do nothing and classified it as hooliganism that turned into an unfortunate death. The group of students held a meeting with the police about their safety. One student said: "These gangs are fascists and you must do something about them." The police representative responded with: "Don't talk to me about fascists, my parents were killed by German fascists in the blockade of St. Petersburg in WWII." My American friend Evel has an African friend who lives in St. Petersburg and plays in a popular band. He told him that he's been beaten up twice by skinheads. It's too bad that the police won't take these matters seriously. Because of these incidents, it's almost inevitable that the media will successfully portray all Russians as racist, which is not true. Also, Russia will be a place that dark skinned people will avoid.

Changing the subject... Last night I met with a new acquaintance of mine (Larissa) at an English style pub near the center of the city. Upon walking into the bar I immediately heard English being spoken and thought: "Oh good, a place I can go to when I feel the need to speak with native English speakers." It was a small place, cafe style, and very smoky. It was filled with Brits, Scots, Irish, a few Americans and some Russians. Larissa saw me and motioned me over to sit with her and her friends. All six people at the table were speaking English except occasionally the girls would speak in Russian to each other. At our table was this guy from Miami, about 45, with a girl about half his age. He was this greasy stud man who was some real estate magnate in Florida. He told me he lived in St. Petersburg seven months out of the year. I tried questioning him more about his situation but he grew suspicious of my questioning and became evasive. I told him where I was from and he related the story how he was able to get rid of his property in Breckenridge and his ex-wife with one stroke of the pen. Also at our table was this younger Dutch lad who was trying to make a go of it in St. Petersburg working for General Electric. It was quite an interesting scene with me, oily beau hunk, little Dutch boy and three Russian girls who were all friends from childhood. I didn't know quite what to make of it or why I was there, but I felt like I was engaged in the conversations and a detached voyeur at the same time. I only stayed an hour since I had to catch the last metro at midnight. Oily beau hunk left with the girl half his age, one girl walked home by herself, and Larissa left with little Dutch boy to go out all night clubbing. On the metro home I thought: "That was some of the best entertainment I've had since coming to St. Petersburg."

This weekend I'm going to the Peter and Paul Fortress with my friend Olya to look at some ice sculptures and an ice house they put together. I'm guessing it's not heated. I've heard that they serve alcoholic drinks in special ice glasses. Tomorrow I'm getting out of the city for the first time since being here. Tatiana has invited me to go walking in a forest near St. Petersburg or somewhere along the Gulf of Finland. I'll be sure to take my camera. On Monday I start teaching a new class, Business English. After looking at the text book, I'm quite positive that I'm going to have to be especially creative to make this interesting for my students.

Russians, like the Europeans, love their mobile phones. First of all, it's much more reliable and clear than the home phone. Second, for many people it's a status symbol. If you have a very fancy expensive phone, you have it out all the time, showing it off while you talk. There are mobile phone stores and kiosks on almost every corner. It's quite insane. I wonder who's buying all these phones to keep all these businesses in the black. I, being status deficient, opted for your basic basement level black phone with no bells and whistles. I expect people to give me a strange look when I show them my blue light special. I can send text messages which is quite useful here in keeping your phone bill low.

This week one of my students brought me some soy sauce. I was so excited I almost did a little soy sauce dance right in the classroom. I love cooking stir fry, and it's almost impossible to find Asian food products here. Another one of my students is going to Los Angeles for ten days. She is young, single, female and attractive, and because of this I have no idea how she got a visa. I questioned her and she was also surprised that she was granted a visa. I asked her very kindly to bring back some chunky peanut butter for me. She didn't know what it was, I had to explain it to her. So in about three weeks, I will have peanut butter. VERY EXCITING!!! It's amazing how much you miss something when you no longer have access to it.

That's all for now.

I will write again soon,

Letter 9: Surf City & the most popular girl in town

Good Morning!

It's early Sunday morning... Well early for me, it's 9:30am. I remember the good old days back in Denver when I'd get up at 6:00am just because. Now 9:30 seems early. People go to bed very late here and I have fallen into the same habit. When it comes to going out to bars or night clubs, you have two options. You can start early and finish early so that you can catch the last metro at midnight, or you can stay out all night long and catch the first metro of the morning at about 5:00am. So far I've only opted for the former. Most people don't have cars so the public transportation option is the only one. I've come quite close a couple of times to not catching the last metro. If this happens, it's either a very long walk home in the arctic cold, or I can try to flag down a private taxi. Since my negotiating skills in Russian are not fine tuned yet, it would be difficult to do. Plus most drivers prefer a female passenger or at least a female to negotiate the price.

I've made a new friend recently, or should I say, she's made me her new friend. I think everyone knows this girl. She is the Queen Social Butterfly. She knows about all the parties, she's on all the guest lists, rarely pays for a drink, and there's at least three people on hold on her cell phone at all times. Her name is Larissa. We met at an Irish bar called The Shamrock for a couple of hours on Friday night after I was finished teaching. This felt like a true English grotto but on that night I did not hear any English speakers. We sidled up to the bar and pulled up a couple of stools. Immediately the smartly dressed bartender plopped two drinks in front of us that I didn't recall ordering. One was pink and bubbly with a heart shaped straw in it. The other looked like something between wine and beer. Both were in wine glasses. I asked Larissa: "What's this for?" Her response: "It's Valentine's Day!" Oh yeah, I forgot about that needless little holiday. I gave her my unknown alcoholic concoction and ordered a pint of Murphy's Irish Stout. Mmmm! Tasty! The scene was very surreal. Outside there's a fierce arctic wind blowing. Inside it feels like an English pub, there are those gigantic Irish beer taps running the length of the bar, I'm with a Russian girl and everyone else is speaking Russian, and I'm watching Australian rules football on the telly. When it was time to leave, the bartender brought the bill (shot), and I must say I was a bit surprised. In total we had 2 1/2 pints of beer. The charge was 480 rubles, about $15. For Russia this is really expensive! In America this is expensive, but I calmly paid the bill and we left. I doubt I'll be returning there anytime soon. There are other pubs just as nice where a pint of beer cost about $1-$2.

So last night, at about 8:00pm, I'm preparing to sit down after a long week of teaching to write some letters. I receive a text message on my cell phone from Larissa that there's a party at the American Embassy, asking me if I'd like to go. Of course, how could I pass up an opportunity like this. So we go to the party together. I don't know what to expect or how to dress. After some airport style security at the front door, we go up to the party on the second floor. As we walk in I notice that almost all the men (and it's mostly men) have Marine style haircuts. There is only a sprinkling of women, most of them very good looking. There's a pool table, a football table, a psychedelic light show on the wall, American dance music playing and one strange little guy that looks like Andy Warhol, walking around. I sidle up to the bar again and order a couple of drinks from the young Marine working as the bartender. They had the original Budweiser made in the Czech Republic and even had popcorn on the bar. I sit down with Larissa and men take their turns coming up and saying Hi to her. As it gets later, the party transforms from an American style "Sausage Party" (I think you know what I mean) to a room filled with about 20 men and about 50 women, all dressed very nice and most of them very attractive. Reminds me of the Jan & Dean song "Surf City". "Goin' to Surf City cuz it's 2 to 1, Yeah were goin' to Surf City, gonna have some fun..." Anyway, I ask Larissa about the ratio. She says it's like this at all the nightclubs. Women like to go out more than men do. Maybe men like to stay at home and drink with their friends. She told me that the ratio is always either 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 when she goes out. She hates it. She told me she knows about how American nightclubs are filled with men and how they actually have to promote Ladies Night to get the women in. She had this sparkle in her eyes when she was talking about all the men.

About 10:30, guess who walks into the party? Oily Beau Hunk! Remember him from the last letter? Of course he's flanked on both sides by young Russian girls. I wouldn't have expected anything less. I need to get a photo of this guy for all of you to see. I watched him make the rounds talking to various women. It was endless entertainment. I will definitely try to make it to more of these American Embassy parties. They occur every two weeks.

It's a strange feeling now that I've become an ex-pat (the term given to people living outside the U.S. - ex-patriot). It's a twilight zone feeling of being somewhere between here and there. I've never felt more American than I do right now. It's become a bigger part of my identity. I'm in a new culture, but I'll never actually become a part of it. It's a hazy line I walk staying true to my American-ness and trying to be flexible and accepting of different ways of doing things. I've stopped talking about politics with people. It's an exercise in futility. I'm up against the misinformation fed to the people through the Russian media. Even though the media here is supposedly a free press, I think they still feel pressure to be very biased to Russia and anti-American government.

I must get ready to leave the house to meet another friend of mine.

Over and out,

Letter 10: Leningrad cowboys

Long time, no write,

It seems like forever since I last wrote a letter. My computer had a nice viral infection which I had to get rid of. So everything's fine now except for all the things I want to write about. There's too much for one letter.

Where to start... Last weekend, on Saturday, I went to a modern art exhibit with Tatiana. As with most modern art, most of it lacks any artistic ingenuity, but there were a few artists that scored very high marks. I even tried to buy a print, but the brooding, chain smoking artist behind the table was out of what I wanted. There was a group of beatnik musicians playing some cool jazz, and it reminded me of some of the overly-hip little art galleries in Boulder.

On Saturday night I went out for a couple of beers with two of my students, Olga and Veronika. They wanted to go to the JHBC (Jimi Hendrix Blues Club). I wonder if Jimi would mind if they were using his name. Instead we ended up going to "Liverpool". It's a Beatles theme bar. When you walk in, you see Beatles memorabilia everywhere and hear only Beatles music on the sound system. I wonder if the people who work there eventually go crazy? It looks like a classic English underground pub, lots of brick and low ceilings. There was a good little rock band in the other room playing songs by The Kinks, Hollies and Rolling Stones. It seems this bar is the place that famous rock groups visit when they are in town. The table we were seated at was "The Scorpions" table. Whenever they are in St. Petersburg, The Scorps' sit at this table. The night before our table was occupied by a group that was popular in the late 60's called Slade. The manager of "Liverpool" was talking to me for awhile about them. I related the story of how my Father had driven them in a limousine many, many years ago. He then went into the back room and came out with a photo from the night before of him and the band. The girls and I had a couple of beers, talked, danced a little and finally left.
(Syntax note: Some people are offended by the term "girls" when referring to females over 18. In Russia it is used for all single women. I rarely hear "woman". When I do, it's usually for someone in their 30's and up. Political correctness hasn't infected Russia yet.)

Letters From Russia (Letter 10) Letters From Russia (Letter 10)

Sunday evening was a great night. I was invited to go to a club called "Arizona". Those in attendance were Larissa and two of her girlfriends and Tatiana and her husband Sergey. When we walked in, I thought I had been transported to some little Honky Tonk in Abilene Texas. It was all Western themed, Russians dressed like cowboys, and even a gun-toting sheriff in a long black leather trench coat keeping the peace. I moseyed up to the bar, ordered a couple of Bochkarev (Russian beer) and took in this surreal sight. There was a band playing that would give most country bands in Texas a run for their money. They were excellent. They played three sets. The first set was all American country music. Also, they were dressed as cowboys. During the break they went into the back room and changed into traditional Russian costume. Since, of course, Larissa knows everybody, she took me backstage and I did a shot of this salty, garlicky vodka with the band. When we walked into the dressing room, the entire band, men and women, were all in different states of undress. Some people were naked, some people weren't. Of course my American puritanism kicked in at the sight of all this comfortable nudity.

Letters From Russia (Letter 10) Letters From Russia (Letter 10)

The second set was all traditional Russian music. I didn't know how to dance to this music, but the dance floor was packed. For the third set they changed costumes again into a Mexican Mariachi band. They played all Mexican music and of course "Tequila".

I can't wait for the next night like this. They only do this once a month.

Adios Amigos,

Letter 11: Soviet films

Hello Comrades,

I think it's been a couple of weeks since I have written. I feel like I've really settled into my life here and the things that were once strange and unfamiliar are now common and comfortable. I'm quite removed from the perpetual war coverage in the media in America. Here I really need to search for war coverage. Many people have cable or satellite hookups in their flats for watching TV. I do not, so I don't get to see BBC Television or Euro News in English. My main source of info has been and I haven't talked about the war with anyone here because I just don't think it's a good idea. Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan (in the 80's and today) and France are topics I avoid. The French and Russians are good buddies. When talking to me, people want to vent their frustration at the American government through me and I just don't want to hear it. I'm here to make friends and heated discussions about politics is not conducive to that.

I'm sure you're curious about how the Russians feel about the war. It seems that only a small minority support it. Many resent the bully tactics of unilateral aggression. There were some minor demonstrations in front of the American Embassy, but it was mostly typical young, jobless, radical liberals with nothing better to do than throw eggs at the American Embassy. In America I think we call them Hippies.

On to other more cheery topics... I have a roommate now. His name is Mike, he's from the 51st State, Canada. He's 24 and is also here teaching English and living the Russian lifestyle. He speaks decent Russian and I'd like to get to the level he's at. I've started taking private Russian lessons with a Russian English teacher named Sasha. She's teaching me no charge, which is quite generous. She just wants to practice teaching Russian. This language is not so difficult at first but when you reach a certain level, it becomes very difficult. Grammar rules become riddled with exceptions and logic goes out the window... Kind of like English. So if I can get to that level, I'll be satisfied and will be able to communicate and generally get my point across in Russian. People tell me my pronunciation is excellent, but I have trouble remembering grammar and structure.

On consecutive Sundays I've been invited to watch Soviet films from the 70's at friends' apartments. My friend Tatiana translated both movies to me as we watched them so I would understand the dialog. Both movies were excellent. One, which I forget the name of (my Russian recipients can remind me if you'd like), is about a man who is getting married on New Year's Eve. Before the wedding he goes to the sauna with his buddies, they get drunk on vodka, and then he is accidentally put on a plane from Moscow to Leningrad (St. Petersburg). He arrives in Leningrad still drunk and asks the taxi driver to take him to the address of his home. In Soviet times there was a great deal of construction of what are called sleeping districts, large suburbs of row after row of tall concrete apartment buildings that all looked the same and had similar addresses. You could be dropped in the middle of one of these and not know what city you were in. Even all the street names were the same in every city. There's probably about 100 Leninskaya Blvd.'s in Russia. So the hero of our story stumbles up to what he thinks is his apartment (same street, same address, same number) and enters (even the key works). Even the interior of the apartment looks the same, including the furniture. The owner of the flat comes home, she finds him sleeping, wakes him, and the rest of the story is how they start off hating each other and eventually fall in love through the night. Very charming, good music and excellent dialog. No car chases, explosions, special effects or villains. Just good movie making.

The other movie I watched is called "Office Romance". A story of two people who are the least likely to fall in love. Unlike the American hero who is rich, smart, successful, handsome, and the only piece of the puzzle missing is some fair maiden to love him and accompany him (see any recent popular American film), the hero of the Soviet film is common, not rich, not handsome and maybe socially inept. But he has strength of character and swims against the current. Popular Russian films of today are a lot of guns and fighting (American style), but some of the Soviet films of the past are quite good.

I still haven't bought a camera, consequently I haven't been too inspired to write lately. I was going to have a camera shipped here from the States by FedEx, but the Russian Customs Agency want to tax me a 40% tax on the price of the camera. Yeah right! So I'm back to shopping here. I've considered taking a weekend trip to Helsinki to buy a camera there, then bring it back. Funny how if the camera is already in my possession, they don't tax me to bring it into the country. But if I ship it here, then I get taxed... More Russian logic for you.

Bye for now,

Letter 12: Russian Easter

Hello Family and Friends,

It's been a long time since I've typed out a nice long letter on my laptop. I could blame it on other things, but honestly I think it's due to the fact that I have settled in here and things don't seem so unusual anymore.

Letters From Russia (Letter 12) So... In the Russian Orthodox calendar Easter falls a week later than in the Catholic calendar. It is probably the most important religious holiday also, more important than Christmas. They color eggs just like the rest of us, but they take theirs to church to be blessed by the priest. The mass last for about three hours and starts at midnight. At 11:30 people begin assembling outside the church and will walk around it a few times while praying. The first hour of the mass the church is filled to capacity, but after the first hour most of the fair-weathered believers go home and get some sleep. The truly faithful stay the full three hours. The main priest and his multitude of sidekicks chant and sing in a form of Russian that I think most Russians can't even understand. They are answered by a choir that is situated high above and out of sight of everyone.

Last night I went with my friends Tatiana and Sergey on a kind of cultural religious tour. We visited three cathedrals over three hours to get a sample of different kinds of churches and ceremonies. The first was St. Nicholas Cathedral. It was actually two churches in one, one upstairs, one downstairs. In the orthodox church there are no nice comfortable wooden pews to sit in and no soft rails to kneel on. Everyone is standing the whole time, except for a few very old babushky who must sit down. Women must cover their heads with a scarf upon entering the church. With all the tall people in this country, it's hard to get a good sight line to what's going on up front. I tried to be stealth with my camera, but a few times I had to raise it above my head, of course drawing attention. Tatiana said it was Ok to take pictures as long as I didn't use flash. If anyone protested, she would tell them I was an American journalist preparing to write a story about all the wonderful things about the Russian Orthodox church. Everyone loves good advertising. Luckily I got through the night without ever getting scolded.

Letters From Russia (Letter 12) Letters From Russia (Letter 12)

After St. Nicholas we went to the Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky prospect, the famous main street in St. Petersburg. Here a television crew was doing a live broadcast of the mass for all of those who wanted to watch it from the comfort of their sofa. I felt more comfortable with my camera here for obvious reasons. The lights they used to illuminate the interior of the church were spectacular, spooky and annoying all at the same time. I felt like I was witnessing something very special and divine, yet still a bit commercialized. The floor plan of the church is in the typical "cross" shape. The massive solid granite columns in this church were awe inspiring. How did they lift them? I was shocked that it was one of the churches that was slated to be torn by Stalin's orders before the war. It's a real shame the number of churches he did destroy that will never be seen again.

Letters From Russia (Letter 12) Letters From Russia (Letter 12)

After Kazan we went to a very small church (Blagoveshenskaya church) closer to the suburbs. Here it felt like people were actually worshipping and not just viewing the spectacle like in the Kazan Cathedral. For the giving of the Eucharist the priest and his cohorts change clothes again into crimson red. All who want, including young children, are given bread and wine symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. The wine is spoon fed to the patrons while two priests whole a red towel under your chin to catch any spills. When approaching the altar, people cross their arms over their chests and wait for the priest to come out from the back.

Bye for now...

Letter 13: Russian dacha and mushroom safari


Adrenaline alley

So we left on a Friday morning in early July, heading out from the center of the city, five full grown adults in a car that seats four comfortably. Our passenger roster consisted of Tatiana, her brother Misha (driver) and his wife Julia, and Tatiana's husband Sergey. In the trunk we had too many clothes and too much food. It was going to be about a five hour trip in total with occasional stops to stretch legs and eat some roadside fare. I took my place in the backseat, happy to have a window seat to avoid any car sickness. Russian roads are notoriously bad with potholes that could swallow Mini Coopers in one bite. The mudflaps of the car scraped the ground at every bump because of all the weight. There are lines painted on the pavement marking out the lanes, but no one really pays any attention to them. It's a free for all, NASCAR style, with cars dodging in and out of lanes, driving on the shoulder and fearlessly crossing over the center line to pass and play chicken with oncoming semi's. I then realized the deeper meaning of Misha making the sign of the cross while passing St. George Cathedral during our exit from the city. It was a white knuckle ride on the main highway from St. Petersburg to Moscow that needed some divine intervention to protect us. The Russian interstate can go from a modern, freshly paved autobahn style highway to a two lane, pot-holed, country back road almost instantly. Semi's outnumber cars 2:1. I would hold my breath and look out the window as Misha prepared to pull out, cross the center line and try to pass a line of slower moving semi's before the train of other semi's coming from the other direction would crush us like a beer can. Hopefully an oncoming car didn't have the same ideas about passing and would have us playing a complex game of chicken where there would be no winners. Occasionally we would see a gas station along the side of the road, but no official rest stops with toilets and running water, and of course no McDonalds, Wendy's, Cracker Barrel, etc. (Note to self: use the toilet before getting in the car).

Our first stop to rest seemed completely random but "au contraire" it was all part of the plan. Dispersed along the roadside at completely random points, away from any nearby city, were solitary people selling cucumbers, potatoes and blueberries out of buckets and wicker baskets. It puzzled me why they chose these particular spots to sell their goods. It seemed to be such an unlikely spot to sell produce. But Hey! WE stopped! And WE bought!

Letters From Russia (Letter 13) Letters From Russia (Letter 13)

Our second stop was for pirozhkeys and tea at the "open-air" convenience store. The woman sporting the great tan sells tea which is brewed in the metal contraption (samovar). I'm not exactly sure how it works, but burning wood keeps it hot and it's definitely a Russian cultural icon. The pirozhkeys were delicious little gut bombs of deep fried dough with apple, potato or cabbage filling. I'll take one of these over a Big Mac any day. The sign on the small building in the background says "Bistro" 24 hours.

The compound

Letters From Russia (Letter 13) Five hours after leaving we arrived at the dacha, somewhere closer to Moscow than to St. Petersburg near a beautiful chain of lakes. Tatiana's mother came out, then Julia's two boys ran out happy to see their mama and eager to practice their English on me. The main house was made almost entirely of wood, very cozy inside with a brick fireplace and a large brick oven. Yes, it had running water, indoor toilets, a stove, refrigerator and an upstairs still under construction. It all sloped down to the edge of the lake where there was an old row boat and an area to go swimming. Their land was more like a compound than just a country cottage. There was a tall metal fence surrounding the entire property and various other buildings besides the main house. There was a house I call the "bachelor pad". It had a well stocked garage of tools and other implements, a table overlooking the lake for cleaning fish or fixing nets, lots of gear hanging on the walls, a functioning sink and hotplate and a small cot for sleeping. I think it's where Tatiana's father would spend a great deal of time when he just needed to do some "man things". I stayed in an auxiliary house made of pine boards with lots of windows overlooking the lake. Also in the compound was a greenhouse with an abundance of cucumbers, tomatoes and dill, and the unforgettable banya where I was initiated into the world of Russian men. I was given a complete tour of the compound by Tatiana's non-English speaker father, Yuri. Of course, like most people, he believed I would understand him better if he spoke louder in Russian. I knew when to nod my head at the appropriate times to feign comprehension as he explained the intricate workings of the plumbing system. The rest of the day was spent rowing the boat, placing nets in the lake, napping, eating lots of food and playing Russian card games that I just couldn't get the hang of.

Mushroom safari

That evening I was invited to go mushroom picking the next morning with Yuri. It is an activity I heard many stories about from a number of people, but didn't think I'd actually get to do it. I thought: "It's much easier to just buy them in a store, but maybe picking them in the forest will be interesting." Promptly at 6:30am he came to my window to wake me up. "Early bird gets the mushroom." So after a quick breakfast of instant coffee, I donned my pair of waist high rubber boots to keep dry in the tall wet grasses of the forest. Very unfortunately, I forgot to douse myself with mosquito repellent. "How bad can they be anyway, right? It's just a warm, humid, swampy forest next to a lake. No problem." So before setting off in the boat, Yuri equipped me with the necessary tools for a mushroom safari: knife + big wicker basket (How many mushrooms are we going to pick?!). We headed out across the lake with hand signals pointing me in the direction I was supposed to row. The mosquitoes had sent out scouts along the shoreline to watch for possible prey and they moved in for an attack. Now I was really starting to wish for mosquito repellent as they swarmed to the exposed skin of my hands and face. With both hands rowing I was powerless to stop them. We made our landing and quickly headed into the forest. I was instructed to stay within view of each other because it's easy to get lost in this forest and also because there is safety in numbers when it comes to bears. He showed me his very long knife he was going to use on any overly curious bear. One minute from shore we came across a large area of flattened grass and a small excavated pit where a bear was recently digging for something. This find quickly rid me of my doubts about there actually being any bears around.

Letters From Russia (Letter 13) Letters From Russia (Letter 13)

We started walking along the edge of the tree line where Yuri started finding mushrooms... Big ones, about 6 inches tall with caps about 6 inches in diameter. I was expecting to see some little trolls or gnomes with pointy shoes, funny hats and white beards darting trough the underbrush. I started finding mushrooms also, but only the real colorful types that tend to make you wish you never ate them. A light rain started and for the next two hours we made our way through dense foliage, open meadows carpeted with wild strawberries and stands of endless birch. I started to develop a good eye for the elusive Belie (white) mushroom in addition to other varieties. Somehow we filled the basket with about 12 pounds of mushrooms. I was ready to get out of the rain into some dry clothes and put a big breakfast in my stomach... But we weren't done. We still had to pull up the nets from last night to see if we caught any fish. So back into the boat for another hour of rowing in circles. Yes, we caught fish, many little ones and one big one very similar to America's Northern Pike. I thought that it wasn't the most sporting way to catch a fish, but when we had fresh fried fish and mushroom soup that evening, I really didn't care how they were caught.


Letters From Russia (Letter 13)

Letter 14: ...And then it's winter

Hello from St. Petersburg,

I hope you're all enjoying your Indian Summers. I'm sitting here trying to figure out where autumn went. One day I'm lying in the sun on my balcony and the next day I'm trying not to fall on my ass on the one inch thick layer of ice. The temperature dipped below freezing about a week ago and it hasn't come back above it yet. There's a few inches of snow on the ground but the sun's been out so it's been Ok. Unfortunately, the sun seems to be only about 10 feet off the ground all day. Everything casts long shadows. It's a perpetual sunset all day long.

Letters From Russia (Letter 14) Ten months in Russia and I feel like I've seen about ten years worth of changes. Everything here is changing so quickly. It seems like half the stores and shops occupying all the buildings weren't here ten months ago. Variety and selection are increasing in the grocery stores. There's more ethnic restaurants. And the police seem to be nicer to foreigners (i.e. they don't try to take our money with so-called "fines").

I'm teaching at four different schools to groups and individuals of different levels. Every day is a new challenge in some way. Even if I'm not in the mood, the show must go on. I now know English grammar better than I ever wanted to. If you know the difference between "will" and "am going to" in the future tense, you are an English teacher. All the books here are in British English, so I've had to learn to teach phrases like: "to be keen on" (to like something), "do the washing up" (do the dishes), and my least favorite: "let's meet at the weekend".

Two weekends ago I went to Moscow for a couple days to visit some new friends. The city reminds me a lot of Los Angeles; too much money, too much image, and wide roadways with too many cars. The architecture is a hodge-podge of different styles: Classical, Art Nouveau, Stalinist Era dwellings with tall windows, ceilings, and classic European decoration on the exterior, new corporate glass towers, and then in the middle of it all, the Kremlin, St. Basil's Church, and Red Square with Lenin's Mausoleum. Through the back streets of the old city you'll find small onion-domed (cupola) churches dwarfed by the taller buildings surrounding it. One afternoon we tried to go to the Art Museum (Tretyakov Gallery) but it was closed due to a bomb scare, so we went the next day. Unlike St. Petersburg which is completely flat, Moscow has some elevation to get a good glimpse of the layout of the city. The subway system is extensive and confusing but the stations are like underground museums with the Communist-era architecture, mosaics, statues, and ornate lighting. Walking through Red Square reminds me of being a child in the 70's and watching on TV those evil communists parading their military through the square, Brezhnev's bushy eyebrows and his other cronies on the podium planning the downfall of America, and being a bit fearful of their military might. Now Red Square is filled with more tourists than Russians, snapping photos, and visiting the wax-like mummy of Lenin lying in state... I haven't visited him yet, but maybe on my next trip to Moscow. I saw the first McDonald's built in Russia. It no longer has the 2 hour long wait to get a Happy meal. Now it competes with about 20-30 other outlets in the city as well as Pizza Hut and Colonel Sanders.

Letters From Russia (Letter 14) Last weekend I went with some teachers and staff to a Pioneer camp for an overnight outing of eating, drinking, talking and walking. Pioneer camps are old communist youth camps (think boyscouts and girlscouts) that now serve mostly as holiday retreats for anyone willing to book a room. The women in the cafeteria kitchen are the same ones that were there in 1966, wearing the same hair nets. The breakfasts haven't changed either: kasha (oatmeal's bastard brother), sugary hot tea, white cheese, and white bread. I guess French toast or eggs benedict with Hollandaise sauce would be asking too much. So Saturday night we ate and drank, and ate and drank. Then in the morning walked off our hangovers on the snow covered beach of the Gulf of Finland. It was an eerie morning with the sun and the lake effect clouds doing battle over the water (see photo).

So, now I enter six months of winter. I might just decide to sleep through it and write all of you an email when I wake up at the end of April.

Bye for now,

 +Tatiana Collins+