Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Trips to Moscow and what I'm missing at home

The ticket lady at the train station laughed so hard at me she started crying. I laughed with her too, which I guess means I was also laughing at myself. We were both a little overwhelmed by the massive language barrier, even though I had the foresight to write down the dates and type of ticket I wanted for the ride to and from Moscow. And eventually I did get the tickets, making it back in time to the hotel for the start of dinner.

So I’ll be headed back to Moscow (Mockba in Russian) this weekend for 4 days. Yes, I do mean back. I spent last weekend there with Jaime, Liz and Megan. This time though, I’m headed off alone. Tuesday, Election Day back in the States, is a national holiday here. Not entirely sure which holiday, but regardless I asked to take Monday off and am going to get a longer look at Moscow. We’ll see how traveling and living alone goes. I’m sure I’ll have a few stories to report.

To change gears, a couple things I’m missing from back home:

First of all, the Lakers. The Lakers won the season opener over the Portland Trail Blazers by 20, and my only knowledge of this comes from an recap. Not sure, if I would’ve gotten to see the game at William & Mary, but nevertheless it is one of the first openers that I haven’t watched from the comfort of my couch in quite a few years. Should be a fantastic season, and I’m going to do my best to keep up with it.

Next, of course is the election. As some of you may know, I can at times be quite the political junkie, so it’s hard to be watching such a historic election from such a distance. Although I do my best to keep up to date when I go online and read articles on and cnn voraciously. But still, I miss the media frenzy that is building up as we approach Election Day, and the media coverage of the issues that really matter to voters- like Joe the Plumber’s household income. I will be voting soon for the very first time. I’ll take some pictures of the big event, before I fax my ballot stateside.

Finally, Halloween. It’s not celebrated here, but we’ve been trying our best to do Halloween themed-crafts at the Hospital for Kids and we’re also headed to a Halloween party for 12-14 year olds at a local English language school tomorrow night. And Friday, Jaime and I are trying to throw a Halloween party at the Hospital for Kids. Halloween night, Friday, will be spent on a train and getting settled in my hostel in Moscow. Not perfect, but anything beats my last Halloween which I spent finishing up college apps.

And to wrap up this post here's a picture of one of the recent chess matches between Jaime and I on my brand new set that I got in St. Petes!

Friday, October 24, 2008

"If peeing in your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis'"

Monday afternoon my volunteer placement was the shelter. Megan and I brought stuffed chickens made out of cloth with pipe cleaners for feet and googly eyes for the craft. But we were with very little kids, most under 7, so we ended up doing most of the work.

It was my first time at the shelter, and I was particularly fond of a little 3 year-old boy named Sasha. He ran away from me initially, screaming his little head off, but then he warmed up to me. Later on after we finished the craft, I was playing with him on the rug, tickling him while the young girls were playing with Barbie dolls, when I accidentally set my hand on a wet spot of the rug. It has been raining on and off in Yaroslavl for the past couple of weeks, so I really didn’t think anything of it.

A few minutes later though, still playing around with Sasha, he got closer to me and I caught a whiff of the unmistakable, putrid stench of urine. I alerted the translator with us, and she looked for the counselor who had apparently just left the room. One of the older girls asked the translator what was wrong and she admitted that Sasha needed a change of pants.

At this point Sasha, who I had left on the rug when I went to talk to the translator, stood up and started examining his pants, and I’m pretty sure it just dawned on him in that moment. He made a sad, pouty face and Megan started taunting me, saying that I made a poor, helpless toddler wet himself.

Sasha eventually got changed, came back in the room with his pants around his ankles. Not noticing the pants, I gave him a wave and shouted out “privyet Sasha” (hi) and he gave a happy wave back, flashing the room in the process. But Sasha was changed and all was good again.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I'm not sure if this will work out. I spent a ton of time tinkering and trying to figure out a way to get a Picasa web album to upload to Blogger, but I'll have to settle for providing you all with the link.

Hope you don't have to log into anything to view it. Just a small taste and if it works, I'll make more albums later.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Other highlights from the trip to St. Petersburg

Outside of our frantic exit, the rest of our time in St. Petersburg last weekend was a blast. We stayed a block away from Nevsky Prospekt, the main boulevard in St. Petes that is often compared to Champs d’elysee in Paris. Our hostel, recommended to us by the Aussie sister volunteers, was nice and clean, although the entryway reeked like the volunteer placements.

We were also a block away from the world famous (and enormous) Hermitage museum which we visited on our first day. I was enchanted by all the old rooms in the Winter Palace, and loved hearing about all their former uses under the tsars. And it was amazing to see the Hall of 1812 commemorating the Russian victory in the second Napoleonic War. I got to see a massive painting of the Battle of Borodino which was a major focus in War and Peace, and scan the wall with portraits of generals for names I recognized from the novel. Elsewhere in the museum I found a new favorite artist, Hubert Robert, who painted scenes featuring Roman architecture.

After a pasta dinner at the hostel cooked by two recent college grads from Boulder, Jaime, Liz and I headed out to the Prostata museum, famous for supposedly housing Rashputin’s 30 cm member. Alongside the exhibit were doctors offices (gynecology, urology and proctology) which just added to the overall weirdness of the museum. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re ever in St. Petes. We left the museum in under 20 minutes looking for some St. Petersburg’s nightlife of the non-strip club variety.

We ended up at a bar called Belgrad (Russian for Belgrade), so named because it is a combination of the two proprietors’ last names. We hung out on the dance floor where the dj was playing all sorts of American hits including the great MC Hammer. The one casualty from the night was my camera, which I dropped on its lens trying to take a picture of the crowded floor where Jaime’s beanie was lost. But not to fear. The camera is currently in a repair shop in Yaro, and I should have it back sometime this week.

We got back to the hostel after 1 and headed back out shortly after with two German girls who wanted to see the bridges. St. Petersburg is famous for its low bridges which are drawn up and down at night, generally between 2 and 5 am, to allow ships to pass through. We didn’t catch any bridges in the act, but we did take a good number of jumping pictures, one or two them even successfully, with the open bridge in the background.

On Sunday we went to the Russian museum. It was nice, but I had a sore throat so I wasn’t in much of a mood to tour a museum. We also headed out to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg’s famous church built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered by terrorists. It has some absolutely gorgeous onion domes, one, a smooth and solid gold, another with swirls of white, blue and green, and a third, speckled, pointy bits of white, blue, green and gold.

Then in a maze of souvenir stands behind the church I bargained a painted, Soviets vs. Americans chess set down from 4000 rubles to 1500 rubles ($60). I felt proud of myself for capturing a little bit of my dad’s haggling magic before talking it over with Jaime and realizing that it was probably worth only 15 or 20 bucks.

Sunday night we headed to a ballet at the Mariinsky Theater. It was ridiculously difficult to find, but we made it and it was pretty entertaining. I was feeling sick still and a little tired, so I might’ve taken a little nap here or there, but it was still a cool experience. And then afterwards we happened upon a Mexican restaurant only a few minutes after we had talked about how we were craving it. It was far from the best Mexican food I’ve had, Baja Fresh still takes the cake, but it was a great change from the Hotel Kotorosl food.

Monday we journeyed to the Peter and Paul fortress. We were feeling a little cheap so we didn’t go into any of the museums, but decided instead to wander the grounds. And then we got what might have been the personal highlight of the trip.

We were walking outside the fortress, between the stone walls and some body of water, when we noticed old men stripping down to speedos. I won’t deny them that the sun was out, but it couldn’t have been warmer than 40 degrees. One of the translators had warned me that it was an old pastime of Russians to tan standing up, because they believed it gave them a fuller tan. Still in near-freezing weather it’s something that must be seen to be believed. I approached two of the bold tanners and asked for a picture with them. Thankfully they were only joking when they insisted I strip down as well, but they waited an awkward beat before telling me they were kidding.

I really loved my time in St. Petersburg, and wished I could’ve stayed longer. It’d be a fun city to study abroad in, especially if I take Russian at William + Mary.

The St. Petes (Marathon) Sprint

I stood at the counter waiting impatiently while the cashier purposefully (and slowly) tied up the to-go bags containing Jaime’s and my orders of chicken schwarma and rice. After a couple more good knots she handed the bag over and Jaime, Liz and I headed outside of the dive restaurant and back to the metro area to try to find our train station. We were heading back to CCS and Yaro after a fun and action-packed 3 day weekend in St. Petersburg.

We searched to get our bearings, but couldn’t find the train station that was supposed to be a block away from the subway stop. We had a half hour til the train left, plenty of time to sit and have a leisurely meal before boarding. But first we needed to find our train.

The first woman we stopped mentioned something about crossing a canal, so we thanked her and left to ask someone else. The next man said something along the lines of “which train station?” which probably should’ve set a couple alarm bells ringing, but we just decided instead to split up and ask 3 new strangers for directions.

The girl I found kept saying something about the metro even after I showed her my train ticket, so I took out the metro map a station employee had for some reason given me earlier in the day when I was asking her if the station we were at had a bathroom. The girl looked at the map and pointed to another metro stop. Two stops, and one line transfer away. And the girl said in a mixture of Russian and broken English that our train station was there. Damn.

Now’s as good a time as any to pause the story and give some background before I speed it up. So how did we end up at Sennaya Ploshad instead of Markoskaya? Earlier in the day on our to the Peter + Paul Fortress, I had commented that the metro stop we were at was the same one we needed to go to later to catch our 5:24 train. Jaime asked if I was sure, and I was pretty confident considering it had been only 50-something hours since we had arrived from Yaroslavl at the same station, so I told him yes.

Another thing to note: Before we had left the hostel to head to the train station, we had gotten into a little argument. Jaime and Liz wanted to leave early, and I said it was much too early and wanted to take advantage of the free internet at Hostel Zimmer Nice one last time. So they headed to the bakery across the street while I did the customary Gmail, Facebook and CNN check. (GObama!) So yes it was my fault that we were both at the wrong station, and that we hadn’t gotten there ten minutes earlier. But there was no time for fingerpointing or apologies. There was only time to run.

Liz checked her watch. 29 minutes til our train left. We dashed back into the metro station, hurriedly bought 3 tickets and ran down the escalator. We caught our breath on the first metro ride and reassured each other that we would make it, because with nowhere to sleep in St. Petes and CCS expecting us for volunteer placements at 9:30 the next morning, we really had no other choice.

Off the first train, some more running and we dealt seamlessly with the tricky leg of our journey back, the line transfer. We shouted the turns at each other as we finessed our way through the rush hour crowd, arriving to the right platform with only seconds to space before the doors on our subway closed and our last chance zoomed down the line. One prepubescent boy squeezed on after us and had to yank his backpack in after the doors closed on it.

Subway riders are used to people sprinting down the escalator to catch a train. They are not used to people sprinting up the escalator to get out of the station. But they made way when we came barreling up the never-ending escalator as we shouted “EEZ-VEE-NEE-TYEH” (excuse me) and “zhe-de”(train) in response to their startled stares.

We got up to the top of the station and in my haste to get out, I smashed my left knee on the bodybuilder-heavy glass door. Too much adrenaline pumping to feel any pain at the moment, but I’d feel it later. We sprinted now giving every last drop of speed and energy we had left. I stopped to ask a policeman for directions and between the panting and heaving I was just able to get out “gde zhede vakzal?” He pointed dead ahead and I wound up and shot off again down the packed street.

Now I love weaving through a dense crowd. During cross country races, the only thing that gave me a bigger thrill than quietly hunting down a fellow runner and blasting past him was successfully executing a difficult weave cutting in and out of the small, millisecond gaps.

But all my previous running and weaving experience had taken place in short running shorts. Never before had I run with a heavy backpack on my shoulders and a duffel bag weighing at least 10 pounds in my hand. (Jaime and Liz had packed smarter and lighter, limiting themselves to just a backpack).

I was able to move the duffel pretty easily, passing it from hand to hand and lifting it above the head of a waddling toddler girl as I whizzed by. No as much luck with the backpack. Forgetting it was on my back, I turned sideways to try to thread my profile through a miniscule gap. Slam! I hit a helpless woman with the side of the backpack. I continued running and shouted an apology (eez-vee-nee-tyeh or sorry) five strides later when I had fully processed what had happened.

And I continued shouting eezveentyeh as I booked it down the crowded street. One image that was indelibly seared into my memory is the snapshot of two women yelping and turning to clutch each other like something out of a cartoon as I ran past. I also thought for a moment about dropping some rubles into the hands of a paraplegic beggar, more for the good karma, I’m ashamed to admit, than out of any philanthropic urges, but I decided that I didn’t have time to stop.

Finally, I rounded a corner and saw the train station. I had completely lost sight of Jaime and Liz, so I stopped and shouted, “It’s here! It’s here!” into the crowd of Russians as my heart pounded overtime in my chest. I caught sight of Jaime and frantically waved him over, but he said Liz couldn’t run anymore and I noticed Liz trailing him, winded and beat.

They caught up and after some wild scampering around the station, Jaime found our train. We got on and collapsed on our shelf-sized beds that would be home for the next 12 hours. We had made it with about 5 minutes to spare. We started dripping sweat, our overworked and overheated bodies no longer cooled by the 40 degree weather outside. But we’d wash up later.

We fell to laughing and laughing and couldn’t stop. And then we started in on the delicious schwarma feast that Jaime had been running with the whole time. The knots that the cashier had tied in the bags luckily prevented the loss of any chicken, although all the food had been shoved to one side of the to-go containers. Still, it was the best schwarma I’ve had yet.

P.S. Sorry again to the woman I hit with my backpack!

At peace with War and Peace

So that is that. 1386 pages later I am done with both an epoch and an epic. I brought my sister Linda’s copy of War and Peace everywhere with me with the intent of finishing it before setting off for Russia. It saw the beach, a trip to Mexico (much to the amusement of the friends I traveled with), a trip to Cooperstown, countless car rides and lazy intervals between naps on the green bean bag in the playroom at home. But I wasn’t able to finish it before leaving and had no space to pack it, so I had to sadly leave for the gap year without having absorbed the last few morsels of Count Leo Tolstoy’s wisdom.

Once in Yaro, Jaime came to the rescue by pointing out that the CCS collection of books left by prior volunteers included a copy of War and Peace, which for the uninitiated charts the lives of five families of the Russian aristocracy through the two Napoleonic wars of 1805 and 1812. I stole it into our hotel room and 3 weeks later, I’m finally done.

The coolest moments to be reading the book were when real life intersected with the epic novel; the Russian army at war with Georgia in 2008 as I read about the Russian army attempting to repulse the French invaders in 1812, Tolstoy describing the Rostov family fleeing a burning Moscow for Yaroslavl, seeing the hall of 1812 dedicated to the victory over Napoleon in the Hermitage museum, and two statues at a park of Generals Barclay de Tolly and commander-in-chief Kutuzov in St. Petersburg.

If not the most entertaining, it was by the far most important book I’ve ever read. (But it was also definitely very enjoyable). Tolstoy masterfully paints a panoramic portrait of Russian life at the time, switching seamlessly from discussion of the day-to-day life of his fictional characters to his philosophy on the historical presentation of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I.

And it is the latter of the two focuses, Tolstoy’s philosophizing, that makes me say the book is so important to me. The last 40 pages of the book, part II of the epilogue, were as dense as any textbook. Using simple examples to illustrate his points, the author lays out his beliefs in turn on the greatness and indescribable power ascribed to mere men like Napoleon by the historians of his day, the constant tug-of-war between free will (conscience) and the laws of necessity (reason), and the forces (hint: not great men or ideas alone) that move nations.

I want to end with a few quotes/excerpts that struck me as good enough to write down.

From the epilogue part II: All knowledge is simply bringing the essence of life under the laws of reason.

On the supposed greatness of men like Napoleon: And it never enters anyone’s head that to admit a greatness, immeasurable by the rule of right and wrong, is but to accept one’s own nothingness and immeasurable littleness.

Count Pierre Bezuhov asking the bigger questions in life: “What is wrong? What is right? What should one love and what should one hate? What is life? What is death? What is the power that controls it all? he asked himself. And there was no answer to any of these questions, except the one illogical reply that in no way answered them. This reply was: “One dies and it’s all over. One dies and either finds out about everything or ceases asking.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Village of sweetness Part 3

I’ve said since I was in the first grade that I would one day like to be the president of the United States. (And I’m fully aware that such a brazen admission of ambition on the internet could one day be used against me in a campaign). But I’ve also said more recently that I’d like to one day live in a town where everybody knows each other’s name. And I think back again to a piece in a 2005 copy of the New Yorker which is my only theft to date, by Ian Frazier called “Out of Ohio’” Frazier was looking back fondly on his childhood in the small town of Hudson, Ohio and between the names, stories and anecdotes he described small-town living as “unfairly sweet.”

Before leaving on this gap year, I wrote my own 6 page tribute to my Los Angeles and my upbringing that tried to capture the bits and pieces that were truly unfairly sweet, before my memories washed away in a sea of nostalgia. Something about this small village stole me right back to driving on the 101, to my mind wandering and thinking about my childhood and my city, to sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and reading Frazier’s article for the first time.

And I know that my afternoon there wasn’t an accurate portrayal of what life is like there. I know that despite the homegrown lunch feast, the villagers aren’t self-sufficient. (I asked). I know that the villages’ residents have their own problems, issues and secrets, that with all the young people moving out and into the cities, they really aren’t at all removed from the hustle-bustle of urban life. I know that life there isn’t nearly as pure and simple and sweet as it seemed to me this afternoon.

But none of that knowledge stops me from thinking about giving up all future ambitions, presidential and otherwise, sinking into anonymity and moving to a tiny village whose name I can’t pronounce, an hour outside of a small city, five hours northeast of the capital of Russia. And that’s why when Nikolai’s van started pulling away, I was sad to leave.

Village of sweetness Part 2

After we finished with a few cups of tea, we headed outside to tour the village’s cathedral. The whole region of villages consists of somewhere around 300 people, little more than my graduating high school class, but the villagers in one village still built a massive cathedral in the middle of the 18th century. It is shaped like a ship and goes from West to East, just like the Volga River it was built parallel to, and has a summer cathedral with a large tower, a winter cathedral, and a bell tower. It is so impressive that these villagers sank so much time, effort and money into building such a beautiful building, especially when one considers how very modest their own homes are in comparison.

The cathedral is surrounded by a graveyard on all four sides with paths cut in between. There’s a grave for a 7 year-old at one spot, and a little ways away, Jaime noticed that another grave claims that its owner lived to be 121, from1857-1978.

We first entered the summer cathedral, which had some frescoes still faintly visible on its walls. They began renovating this cathedral in 2000. We then entered the former winter cathedral, which made the summer cathedral look fully functioning by comparison. The winter cathedral had dirt in place of a floor, wood and other construction materials in piles strewn everywhere, and little to suggest this was once a house of worship.

The current winter cathedral was next door. It was very small, and we stayed in there for only a moment before heading up the many rickety wooden ladders to the top of the bell tower. From the top of the tower we had a panoramic view of the flat Russian plains. For some reason Willa Cather’s O Pioneers jumped into my head as I was taking panoramic shots of the prairie.

On our way down the wooden ladders, I thought about the faith and devotion that went into the bricks and clay and egg-based mortar of this building. And I thought more and decided that this cathedral in some ways has just as much religious significance as the Sistine Chapel or the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

We spent some time in the backyard of the house where we ate lunch picking different kinds of round blue berries, eating them and spitting out the big seeds. And after a few of us took turns in the outhouse, we headed to the lake named ram’s horn in Russian that divided one village from another. We played a little with the well that many villagers still use for fresh water, and then we crossed the wooden planked bridge to go to the other town.

While walking along the main road in the other town, a man shouted at us. Nadia answered him in Russian and we kept walking, thinking the exchange over. But the old, unshaven and red-faced man followed us out of his garden and kept talking. Nadia translated that he remembered Nadia from one of her previous volunteer groups, and trusted her, so we were invited into his house. We went in, all the volunteers exchanging excited and confused glances, and the man showed us his massive stove that heated the entire house. Nadia explained that it was so big that you could sleep on it when it got really cold in the winter.

The man, who we later found out was named Alexander, posed in front of the stove for pictures. Then to no one’s surprise explained that he was drunk and had been celebrating a friend’s birthday for the last three days. In short order Alexander mentioned that his wife was in the hospital, that Americans and Russians should be friends, that his father died in the war and nobody knows where he is buried. Through the course of our stay in his house he added that people are easier to recognize in beards, and repeatedly challenged Nadia on her translations despite knowing no English.

He then offered to play us a song on his accordion. While he went to look for it, coming in and out of the kitchen repeatedly, we played with one of his cats, who Meg nicknamed Circles, because he kept walking around in circles. Another cat came in as two dogs barked outside, and Alexander finally returned with the accordion. He sat down and played us a few songs, sometimes singing boisterously. Eventually, Nadia told him it was time for his last song and we made our escape.

Village of sweetness Part 1

We just got back from our Wednesday cultural trip to one of the villages about an hour outside Yaroslavl, and I had to sit down right away to capture my thoughts before they escaped me. So now I’ve set my iPod to play RJD2- Ghostwriter on repeat and I’m ready to write…

We all fell asleep on the ride over and I was woken up by the jolting bumps of the road turning from the usual sloppily paved variety to dirt. We got out of Nikolai’s van with him yawning at us and mocking us and went into a wooden home from the 19th century where our lunch feast was set out for us. There was borscht, potatoes with mushrooms, whole pieces of fish (head, fins and all), beet salad, small herring, chili, white bread, dark bread, rolls stuffed with potato and cabbage, apples, sweet cream cheese frosted rolls and candy all set out for us. And all of it came from the village of Peter and Paul.

The fish had been caught that day. The vegetables were grown in the ladies’ gardens. The breads were baked by the lad y who was our tour guide and her friends who helped her out earlier that morning.

We sat and just ate and ate and ate for probably an hour. Nikolai joked that it was rude to leave a table without eating anything on it. And I joked back to our 71 year-old driver that it was the responsibility of the eldest to finish what was left. The beet soup borscht which had tasted so awful back at the hotel yesterday was delicious today. I ate all of my potatoes and half a plate more and wasn’t at all bothered by the mushrooms. I even dared to try the fish, picking at the blackened skin and scales with my hands like I was told to and spitting out the bones. Nadia told us that workers in villages like this were typically judged by how much and how well they ate. Christine commented that she had never seen me eat like this. And we ate some more. It was the perfect last meal before fasting for Yom Kippur tonight and tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Random stories from the first couple of days

From the section Cultural Differences, the award for weirdest phrase in my Russian phrasebook goes to…

“I don’t mind watching, but I’d prefer not to participate.”


I came down a few minutes late for lunch on Saturday and was greeted by the normally silent and stoic waiters following me with a cell phone camera. They let me walk into the wrong dining hall where the wedding was being set up and then followed me on foot into the alternative dining hall. They said something in Russian to me and when they realized I only spoke English, the guy holding the Sony Ericcson camera phone told me in English to say, “I love Russia” into the camera.

After obliging and finally being seated at the table with the remaining 4 volunteers, the longest tenured volunteer explained that during parties it is customary for the waiting staff to drink with the guests, and the guests are even offended if they don’t. Apparently our waiter got started a little early.

He later came back after being reprimanded by his supervisor and apologized in broken English, introduced himself as Andre, and proceeded to offer me some vodka.


One kid, Kiril, at the Hospital for Kids winks almost constantly at all the volunteers. Don’t know why, or what he means by it, but I’ve stopped questioning it and just wink back.


Although we’ve yet to hear it yet, the old volunteers informed us that Akon- Smack That used to be a staple of the breakfast mix in the hotel’s restaurant. The music in the restaurant deserves a post all its own a little later. We’ve been trying to keep track of every song we recognize.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Had some McDonald's today

Most delicious meal of the trip so far, even though it was about an hour after lunch. 9 piece Chicken Mcnuggets, medium fries, large Diet Coke and a vanilla ice cream with some caramel topping. Now we just walked to a free internet cafe called Vanilla Sky on the bank of the Volga River. I had some green tea and Jaime had some salmon sushi. The opposite bank of the river has a ton of trees on it and it serves for a really nice view as the Sun is going down.

Week 1 update Part 2: The CCS Program and the people I work with

Before reading this post, scroll down to read Week 1 update Part 1.

The CCS program

Cross-Cultural Solutions Russia has been operating for 8 years in Yaroslavl. Our director is Nadia, who announced on Friday much to everyone’s surprise that she will be leaving at the end of October to move to Atlanta with her fiancée. We have 3 Russian translators, Olga, Katya and Asya, who come with us to our different volunteer placements and 2 drivers, Vladimir and Nikolai who take us to our placements and cultural activities.

We wake up on weekdays to shower and eat breakfast by 9:30. At 9:30 we leave for our first volunteer placements, and we are typically there for 2 hours. We come back for lunch at the hotel at 1, and go out to our second placements at either 2:45 or 3:45. We come back and unpack our bags for dinner, also in the hotel, at 7. The schedule changes for our Russian lessons twice a week, Monday’s cultural lecture and Wednesday’s cultural excursion. Last Wednesday we went to Rostov, another city in the Golden Ring that is famous for its enamel artwork. On Monday we’ll get to hear a lecture about Russian fairy tales. Weekends and nights are free for us to travel and go out into the city, respectively.

Volunteer stays in Yaroslavl can range from 3 weeks to 11. There were 3 volunteers who were here when Jaime, the two other new volunteers and I got here last Sunday. The 2 Australian sisters in their mid-twenties, Mish and Vera, had been traveling around Europe for 6 months. They left on Friday for home, but Jaime and I plan to see them when we head to Australia in January. The other old volunteer is Meg from Seattle. She is doing a study-abroad program here through her small college and will be with CCS for 11 weeks, leaving the same day as Jaime and me.

Liz from Kentucky and Christine the schoolteacher grandmother from the UK, both started the same day as Jaime and I. Liz will be here for 6 weeks, and Christine will be leaving this weekend at the end of her second week.

The people I volunteer with

CCS tries to make an effort to keep you at the same volunteer placements so that you can form a bond with the people you work with. They partner with somewhere around 13 organizations so it takes some effort to make that happen. This past week I went to the Hospital for Kids four times and Boarding School #1 once. Last week there was no working with the elderly because of a holiday, so with those placements back in play and the sisters gone, we’ll be spreading out a little bit more.

This week I will go to the Hospital for Kids four times, and once each to Boarding School #1, Leninski Elderly, Frunzenski City Camp and the botanical garden. At each placement save the garden, we bring art projects (always “crafts” here) that we pre-prepare and have made examples of for the kids and elderly to make. Russia is unique in that the psychologists and doctors here believe that focused, task-oriented playing is better for the kids, so there is less mindless playing and more jobs to be done. This past week the crafts we made included a braided bracelet out of lanyard wire, a button bracelet, ironed pegboard bead designs and animals out of lanyard string and beads.

The Hospital for Kids is really not a hospital at all. The children who live there range from the abused, like one boy who had to be taken out of his home because his abusive parents poured gasoline on his arm and burned the skin off of it, to the petty thiefs, like another boy who stole 1500 rubles off a woman (around $60) and used it to buy food.

The kids there are all really fun to play with. When we get there and the kids see us, one little boy named Sasha shouts “Americanse!” The kid who stole the money from the old woman spent a half hour crying in a corner earlier this week because somebody stole his balloon, and continued crying after it was returned to him.

One of my favorite kids is an older boy also named Sasha, who I call “No Smoking Sasha,” because “no smoking” was the only thing in English he knew how to say besides “my name is,” “hello” and “what is your name?.” Now No Smoking Sasha and I spend some time when I go to the Hospital teaching each other English and Russian. I’ll point to something and say the word for it in English telling him “pa Angleeski” (In English) first. And then I’ll ask him “pa Russki” and he’ll tell me and we’ll correct each other’s pronunciations.


All in all it’s been a great first week. We got to go to a hockey game one night between the Yaroslavl Locomotive and a team from Moscow. Yaroslavl won 5-2. Last night we were kicked out of the hotel because of a wedding, so we went to a Soviet-themed restaurant. Jaime and I are getting along great. We are able to go from being cordial roommates to best friends pretty seamlessly. It was a little sad to miss Rosh Hashanah, but I plan on fasting for Yom Kippur. Shanah Tovah. I’m still at the stage of learning Russian where it’s still exciting to go out into the city and attempt to sound out and read everything I see. I only understand the words that sound like English and the few Russian words and phrases we’ve been taught, but it’s still fun.

Well now, I’m off to lunch! Goodbye.

Week 1 update Part 1: Yaroslavl and the Hotel Kotorosl

What a whirlwind of a first week. I have so much that I want to write and update you all on; the city of Yaroslavl, the hotel, the program, the kids we work with and everything else I’ve been doing. The internet is inconveniently located only on the first floor, but I’ve been doing my best to journal on my laptop everyday. I thought I’d spare you all the boring play-by-play of my days here. It is hard to decide though what to include and what not to since I find everything here so different and exciting!


Let’s start with the city of Yaroslavl (pronounced Yah-row-slah-vuhl). It’s a small city of around 670,000 people and it is beautiful. The colors of fall are abundant here with the leaves on the trees all colored different shades of red, orange and yellow. The Soviet-era apartment buildings located around our hotel, the Hotel Kotorosl, are all really run-down and graffitied. There is a lot of graffiti on buildings throughout the city, surprising because the city is very safe. The hotel is also located right next to a long road of home improvement stores.

We are a 15 minute walk, or 5 minute, approx 40 cent (10 rubles) tram ride from the city center, downtown. There are over 50 churches in the city, most of them with colorful onion domes and spires. There are a wealth of centuries-old churches, museums, monuments, memorials, homes, a monastery and a massive cathedral that is set to be ready for the city’s millennial anniversary. Construction is also ongoing for what will one day, by the looks of the designs, be a beautiful planetarium.

Two memorials stick out when thinking about the city. In one park there is a massive black and gold pillar for some reason dedicated to the state university in Yaroslavl. And in another park is a beautiful memorial dedicated to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). There are two stones both about 10 feet high facing each other. On the right there is the face of a soldier cut into the stone and the left has a woman who helped the war effort from home, a la the American, Rosie the Rooter. Between the two is an eternal flame, which is where all local marrying couples take their picture on their wedding day.

There is a statue in the city center honoring the city’s founder, Yaroslavl the Wise. Legend has it that the city was founded in 1010 at the behest of the village’s residents after Yaroslavl killed a bear at the riverbank where the Volga and Kotorosl Rivers meet. So of course the city’s seal is the silhouette of a bear carrying an axe over its shoulder.

There are a ton of stray dogs and cats in the city. We saw one cute cat walking alone in the supermarket and another dog narrowly miss being hit by a car. None of the locals of course seem to think this out of the ordinary.

The Hotel Kotorosl and Russian Food

Mayonnaise, sour cream and dill are staple of pretty much every dish. Not sure why exactly, and not all that pleasing considering I like none of the three, but now that I know how to saw no sour cream “nie nada svitana” I feel a little bit better about my chances.

The hotel is nice. The room has gotten noticeably warmer since my last post, so that’s good. There is still a booming woman’s voice every night, all night, that directs the cargo trains to contend with. CCS programs in other countries, like South Africa, have their own properties that serve as Home-Bases, but in Russia a property has been harder to come by. We share a bathroom and shower with one other volunteer who lives next door to Jaime and I. CCS has two offices on the first floor, which is also where the hotel’s restaurant is located.

Meals from the hotel are included with our program fee. Jaime and I decided that we consider breakfast to be a roll with butter or jam and a fruit yogurt. Those two are our staples. On the rare occasions we like what they are serving that day, like cheese blintzes, it’s a big plus. Most of the time, like the days with the cheesy egg-y soufflé and the hot dogs this morning, there is no plus.

Lunch is a salad, soup and a main entrée. Dinner has no soup, but does come with dessert. Dinners have included potato balls with mushroom inside, dim sum dumplings with sour cream, rice with vegetables and other dishes. One lunch lowlight was the beef stroganoff which I wrote off as stale meat and continued eating until I was informed it was liver.

The menu is set, so we just get to sit and eat, and don’t worry about struggling with ordering. We get along fine. It’s an interesting balance between trying to experience more of the culture through its food and trying to enjoy your meal especially for someone as picky as me.