Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Much delayed final impressions from Russia

I wrote this at around 3 in the morning on my last night in Yaroslavl and never got around to posting it. So better late than never, here are my final impressions of Russia.

In no particular order here are some of my final thoughts as I prepare to leave Russia, and some random tidbits that never found their way into other posts…

Russia seems to be a country torn in two different directions. On the one hand there is the illustrious history and culture and the accompanying desire to preserve and respect both, and on the other there is this frantic desire to catch up with the West. It’s been 17 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain and 20-odd years since Gorbachev instituted glasnost and perestroika, but I still sensed this pressing urge in Yaro to show the world that despite its near thousand year run, the city can be just as modern and hip as any of its European neighbors. Whether it was the Mario’s pizzeria or the posters for the weekend’s clubs and parties posted on a wall that separated the street from a cathedral that was a couple hundreds years old, I felt this strange dichotomy all the time here.


Russian drivers are that scary. There are practically no lanes on any roads, and also no recognition by most drivers that they are powering a massive machine of metal, gas and rubber and us pedestrians are not. They weave through crosswalks and people as often as possible. Between us, Jaime and I had somewhere around 10 close calls. With that there comes this healthy dose of panic (“I don’t want to die in the middle of a street whose name I can’t pronounce in a small city in Russia nobody has ever heard of”) anytime you step off the sidewalk.

There are also two fun little variations on the traditional red, yellow, green stoplight. Green flashes before turning to yellow, giving drivers the heads-up they need to really floor it to make it through the intersection. And before red turns to green, there’s the intermediary warning of red and yellow, which most drivers seem to see as green regardless of whether you’re still in the sidewalk.


For the largest country in terms of area, you might be surprised to find out that there’s only about 10 Russian names. Seriously.

For guys there’s Vladimir (Volva for short), Ivan (Vanya), Alexander (Sasha), Dmitry (Dima), Pavel (Pasha) and Nikolai (Kolya).

For ladies there’s even less options. There’s Ykaterina (Katya), Anya, Asya, Maria (Masha).

Honestly, 90% of the Russians I met were named one of those above 10 names.


Russians always seem to be getting married. Whenever we went out to a museum in Moscow or St. Petes, or even out in Yaroslavl on the weekends we seemed to encounter at least one large, traveling marriage party of twenty people following around the happy couple. We’d go somewhere and there would be a man in a tux and his bride in a white wedding dress taking pictures on the steps of the Hermitage in St. Petes, or laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. And this is in November! I can’t imagine what it’s like in the peak wedding months.
Another note on romance. Anytime I stepped on the escalator in a metro station in Moscow or St. Petes, I was able to find at least two lovebirds in what I nicknamed, the couple pose. The couple pose consists of the woman standing as one normally would on the escalator with the man on the step below, risking life and limb to face her and stare into the eyes of his beau and occasionally steal a kiss. I watched bemused as couples young and old stepped onto the escalator and automatically assumed the position. I worried about the ones who rode the escalator normally.


We were told by Nadia that Russians spend something like 80% of their income on clothes and fashion accessories. And you can tell. Woman almost always go out for any errand in the city wearing high heels. And I was turned away from a casino in Moscow because I was wearing “sport shoes.”

Megan pointed out that there’s this big discrepancy between the quality of what people wear and the quality of their buildings and cars. At least once a week we saw a car that did not fit with the image of its owner break down in front of our hotel. And every apartment building in Yaroslavl had boarded up balconies and other signs of outward wear and tear.

In that vain, it seems like half the buildings in Yaroslavl are being renovated, reconstructed or repaired. There’s a long way to go, but should be interesting to see what this city looks like when they make some improvements.


It’s really strange to know that I’ll be saying goodbye to Russia in less than 12 hours. When I thought about the gap year, I got excited for each and every stop, but it was hard to look past that initial two month stay in Yaroslavl, and accordingly most of my preparations seemed to be focused on it too.

And now, it’s over. I’m done with the first stop out of five, and almost a quarter of the gap year in terms of weeks abroad.


So as promised, here’s what’s coming up next. At noon, Jaime and I will leave Moscow for New York. We’ll spend two days in New York. I’m staying with my sister Michelle who lives there and works as New York Teaching Fellow. Jaime’s mom and older sis are coming to town so he’ll stay with them in a hotel. I’ll probably be pretty jetlagged from the 10 hour flight, but I have the rather ambitious plans in my 49 hours in the Big Apple to go to dinner with Michelle and my cousin Brian, see friends at NYU and Columbia, visit Michelle’s 4th grade classroom at Public School #1, and unload all of my winter clothes on her for her to take back to LA during her Thanksgiving break.

Tuesday afternoon, Jaime and I are headed to Cape Town, South Africa for five weeks! We’ll be doing our second and final CCS volunteering program there. The program doesn’t start until Sunday so we’ll be staying with family friends of a South African friend (Daniel Ozen) until then.

Random side note about South Africa. Whenever I told my people I was going to Russia, the response I got almost unfailingly was somewhere in the neighborhood of “Wow. Interesting.”

Cape Town seemed to generally net the different response of “How fun!” I’m curious to see how close that expectation comes to reality. I had a ton of fun in Russia. I enjoyed my time here, met some great people and would love to come back. But I also am not the average Russian tourist.

I have been fascinated by Russia since I did a non-fiction book report on the history of the Soviet Union in 5th grade. And Russia was included in Jaime’s and my gap year largely due to my urging.

So it’ll be interesting to see how much fun South Africa is compared to Russia. I’m also curious to see how I’ll find the culture and history in the upcoming four countries compared to that of Russia, since I’ll have had no prior interest in them. Promise to keep you all updated.

Ok. Now it’s time for me to go to bed. Have to leave the hotel at 5 am for the five hour trip to Moscow.

Da Svidanya Rossiya!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i was expecting some kind of personal shoutout about the time we spent together at NYU

like when we went to breakfast
or when i bought you your first moleskine

at least i have my older men to keep me busy....sigh