Monday, March 11, 2013

More Moscow (and thoughts on travel)

My home and family life was reassuringly stable growing up; we never moved and I got to keep one set of close friends basically all the way through school. I was a little envious of military kids and others who went off on adventures around the world, but I knew my own life had its benefits too, so I didn't mind very much. If I were summing my life-before-marriage up, I'd say it was predictable and happy; unexciting from the outside, though eventful enough from my own view. I do think travel is broadening, but I think one can be similarly broadened by emotional "travel"---new experiences in familiar places---or by a closer examination of what seems unexciting---or by cultivating wonder no matter how close to home. 

That said, at various points I've had travel opportunities sort of fall into my lap; things I wouldn't have predicted but which have been life-changing, in their way. Looking back, I'm surprised at how many of these there were: I got to go to St. Petersburg (Russia) with my friend Rachael when I was 15, and after we graduated from high school we also travelled with her Grandpa (the Berlin Candy Bomber) to Germany for the anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. I visited Belgium, France, England and Quebec with my family. I studied abroad in London for a few months. I felt lucky to have had all of these experiences, and although none of them were terribly long in duration they were certainly influential.

So when Sam was deciding whether or not to accept an invitation to speak at an art workshop in Moscow, I told him, "Even if it's a ton of hassle, you have to do it just for the adventure! Who knows if you will ever get the chance again! I wish I could go!" Aha. Sam asked if they'd consider paying for me to go with him as well. They said yes, my mom said she'd watch the kids, and we decided to go for it!
Flying in to Moscow

It was going to be short: 3 days of flying, 3 days on the ground. We don't speak Russian (or read Cyrillic, though I tried to learn some). It is hardly the nicest time of year for visiting the northern latitudes, and Russian Visas are notoriously annoying to procure. But I just had a feeling we'd end up being so glad we took the opportunity. And we were!

I took AP European History the year after I visited St. Petersburg, and the whole year I kept wishing I'd known these things about Russian history before I went so I could have appreciated what I was seeing more deeply! Ever since then I've tried to learn as much as I can about places before (or while) I'm visiting them. I know I won't become an expert but at least I'll know something! My cousin David gave me two books about Russia that I really enjoyed: A History of Russia (John Lawrence) which was a great overview, and Lenin's Tomb (David Remnick), a truly enlightening look at the collapse of the Soviet Union. Admittedly I had 40+ hours of flying time in which to read these; otherwise I might not have been able to get through them both, but I found them fascinating (especially Lenin's Tomb) and was really glad to have the reading time.

With Sam's workshop taking up one of our days, we basically had two days for exploring. So this wasn't a "Moscow off-the-beaten-path" sort of trip. But it didn't matter. It was all new to us, and all fascinating. Just wandering the streets and seeing such unfamiliar buildings and hearing an unfamiliar language all around us was exciting and fun. I'd love to go back with a Russian-speaking guide (Rachael? Heidi? Who will volunteer?) but we did the best we could.

The cold wasn't too bad. Everyone kept apologizing about it ("How do you like our 'Russian Spring'?") as if we came from some tropical clime. We kept trying to tell them that 16 or 18 degrees F wasn't so far off from our Utah weather this time of year! And we were walking around everywhere, which kept us warm. Also tired. We valiantly refrained from drinking the Russian water (we were advised not to) which meant we had to seek out bottled water (sometimes mistakenly getting that strange fizzy water Europeans are so partial to), so I was thirsty a lot. But we bought bread and cheese and pastries and chocolate from little markets whenever we could, which is pretty much what I would eat all the time if possible. So that was great.
Colorful buildings

Cool tilework and idealized "Soviet worker" statues in the metro station

We did successfully navigate the metro (with a transliterated map for assistance), of which feat I was somewhat proud. Several people spoke to me in Russian throughout the week too, so I must not have looked TOO confused and out-of-place. One lady asked me (after I spoke English to her) if my parents were Russian. My Danish blood isn't too far off, I guess. And I was wearing my shapka some of the time! And I loved seeing all the ladies in their warm fur coats. They all looked like cuddly bears to hug. Sometimes I couldn't resist surreptitiously feeling the backs of their fur collars when we were all crammed together in the metro. Is that so wrong? :)
A . . . building. Sometimes we'd see plaques that probably explained the historical significance of these places. Unfortunately we couldn't read most of them. Occasionally I'd recognize something I'd read about earlier, though.

The Kremlin, I learned, is a fortress (it means fortress, in fact) that holds government buildings and museums as well as a bunch of old cathedrals. I was surprised there were so many. They had matching gold domes, very beautiful and astonishingly ancient inside. How can you even process the idea of being inside a structure that's been around since the 12th century?

Ivan the Great Bell Tower---each of those arches contains a bell
I love the ornate Russian Orthodox crosses
Looking out over the walls from within the Kremlin
Outside the walls

Seeing St. Basil's Cathedral (which I read isn't the technically correct name for it, but it will do) loom up at us as we came around a corner was breathtaking. I was probably really annoying, as I kept saying, "Wow! Wow! Can you believe it?" to Sam. But I just couldn't stop myself. It's a sight I've seen in pictures so often, and I never imagined I'd be there myself.

I don't care if "Muscovites never go here" (as someone told me), it is awe-inspiring. I loved the inside as well. The spaces are quite intimate, almost cramped (it's nothing like a Catholic cathedral in France, for example---no soaring ceilings and vast, echoing spaces beneath the colored light of stained glass). The narrow, curved stairways and small stone chapels made me feel like I was creeping through a maze of secret passages. I loved it. One room we entered had a group of unremarkable looking men in semi-matching coats sitting in the corner, and as we were about to leave, they stood up and suddenly there was music filling up the whole space around us. We could see they were singing, but we kept looking around for the source of the music anyway---it seemed to materialize out of the air. It wasn't Gregorian Chant, but it was something liturgical-sounding, and it was unearthly. The deepness of that Russian bass was like nothing I'd ever heard before. It was so . . . magnificent; one of those experiences I hesitate to even attempt to describe because I know I can't do it justice. And yet I feel compelled to describe it because I don't want to forget. I felt totally transported by the music and it made me cry, tears running down my face as I stood there under the stone walls, listening. Sam said afterwards that the cathedral felt simply interesting to him at first, but once he heard the singing it suddenly felt like a holy place. Close to God. I felt the same. We felt so lucky to have happened into the place at that specific time!

St. Basil's is on Red Square (Red from the word for beautiful, my cousin told me, not Red as in Communist---it was Red Square since before the USSR) and there's another beautiful building, the State Historical Museum, directly across from it. Lenin's mausoleum, or whatever it is, is to the left from this view (not in the picture) but it was closed for . . . construction? Re-embalming? Wax figure replacement? Just as well, as I don't think I would have wanted to pay my respects to the man anyway.

I just love the lineup of colors and architectural styles in this picture. The building in the foreground is the Kazan Cathedral, which I read was torn down during the Soviet era. After the USSR dissolved, one of the architect's students rebuilt it from the original blueprints. I think it's charming. It looks like a stack of cupcakes.

On the side opposite the Kremlin, there's a big department store, as they call it (more like a shopping mall? with different shops)---GUM. It's nice inside, with lots of upscale shops---Cartier and so forth---nothing WE felt like browsing in!---and a delicately arched roof. We did buy some ice cream from a little cart. I was reminded, fondly, of how people eat ice-cream from street carts year-round in St. Petersburg (and maybe Moscow too). Very sensible of them.

One of the best things about the city was the strange mix of architecture. I loved walking down a street like this and seeing gold crosses gleaming out from some nearby cathedral above the buildings. And people just hurrying along past, intent on their various destinations. It felt so foreign, in a good way.

Another surprise---ornate towers peeking over walls. We were even trying to get to this place (a convent) but it's still so surprising to suddenly have it emerge from behind a bunch of concrete apartment blocks.
Same place---Novodevichy Convent

I thought it was so funny to see these big sheets of . . . what? Some sort of tarpaulin?. . . draped over all the building projects. That whole yellow "building" you see in the background is just cloth, covering up some unsightly construction, presumably. I thought it must be just for the tourist/highly photographed areas (this is inside the Kremlin) but we saw it in other parts of the city as well.

There were lots of things we would have done if we'd had more time. There was a Scriabin Museum I really wanted to go to (he's a favorite composer of mine; in fact I was just realizing that most of my favorite composers are Russian) but couldn't because the hours didn't work with our schedule. Likewise the Tretyakov Gallery (all the museums were closed on Mondays!) and Tchaikovsky Conservatory and several other places. We would have liked to go to a concert every night if it had been possible. But one thing I was SO glad we did was go to the ballet. 
It was Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (my favorite!) in the huge 6000-seat theater right inside the Kremlin. I'm no expert on the technical aspects of ballet, but I loved this performance. I've seen other good ballet companies but I was struck (and I remember this about the ballet in St. Petersburg too) by the sheer number of skillful male dancers. When I see ballet at home I always feel like they're having to parcel out their men a little bit---a male solo (these probably have technical names? Pas de un? :)) followed by a dance for three women followed by a dance for five women followed by a big corps de ballet number (mostly women) followed by, maybe, a group of three men? But here it was nothing like that. A large corps and I'm sure it was at least half men. It made a change in the type of choreography we saw, and I liked it. I also just really liked the principal dancers---they all had such distinct characters, going beyond their proficiency (which as I said I can't really judge; they all looked great to me) as dancers. I read somewhere that the Russians place great emphasis on acting their roles in ballet; that they see the dance steps less as ends in themselves and more as tools to tell the story. I don't know if that generalization is true, but it seemed accurate for what we saw. Plus we were sitting right down by the orchestra pit, next to the percussion section, which was perfect. I love how Prokofiev uses percussion.
After the ballet we got to walk out and see Red Square at night, which was lovely. There's an ice-skating rink right in the middle of the square (temporary, I believe) which is kind of startling, but it's cool in its own way, to see ordinary people whizzing around on ice skates under the lights of these old, historic buildings, and the fur-clad babushkas hurrying home from the ballet while shoppers left the mall carrying their bags from American-named stores. What an interesting group of contrasts in this Square (and the whole city!). (MY bag, if you are wondering, is full of European chocolate to take home, which seemed like QUITE a bit at the time but in retrospect seems woefully inadequate. We should have brought a whole suitcase-full.)

The whole trip was SO fun and SUCH an adventure. I loved it. I'm so glad we got to go! It's hard for me to believe, now, that we were actually there; it's like a dream. I guess that's always how it is when you go back to real life.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Due to a fortunate concatenation (do you like that word? I learned it from Bertie Wooster) of circumstances, I got to tag along on Sam's trip to Moscow, Russia. He was presenting at a digital painting workshop, they invited me along, and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up! I admit the flight (especially home) was quite . . . taxing, but otherwise, I loved every minute of it!

I always like it when I get to see Sam in "professional mode." It's especially fun to watch him with his classes because he's such a great teacher. He's so good at explaining things in a way that makes sense and that is engaging. By the time he's finished, he always has me half-convinced I could be an artist by just implementing the things he's talked about. (When I get an actual drawing instrument in my hand, I am soon disabused of this notion.)

It was interesting to watch how Sam's presentation played out, having to go through the Russian interpreter first. It seemed to me like the interpreter was doing a good job (but how would I know?) but it was kind of odd to watch the two waves of comprehension pass through the audience at various times (many of them did speak English). Even weirder was listening to the other presenter speak in French with a Russian interpreter. It reminded me of the time in Frankfurt when I saw Yevgény Onégin performed in Russian with German supertitles. I feel like if I just . . . listen . . . hard . . . enough maybe I'll get something? But no.
There were so many people there! About 400, I think I heard someone say.

I spent several hours talking with the workshop organizer's darling wife, Lilya. She said she didn't speak English (and my Russian is non-existent, obviously) but I thought it was amazing how well we managed to communicate with the words she did have, plus sign language and lots of giggling. Later when her husband was there to translate, he kept bringing up subjects where Lilya and I would say at the same time, "Oh yes, we know, we already talked about this!" I don't know how we covered so much ground, but we just understood each other! Our babies are due at the same time, which made us like each other right away, and we definitely felt we were kindred spirits. One of the most pleasant surprises about the whole trip was just how NICE everyone was to us---no one seemed annoyed with our ignorance of the language and everyone was happy to help us whenever we needed it. And Lilya was the nicest of all of them. I felt kind of sad that she had been living in the same world as me all this time and yet I would have never known her if it weren't for this unexpected intersection of our lives. And yet it's an amazing thing, too, that you can find friendship so suddenly half a world away. I hope our paths will cross again sometime.
I knew Sam had "a following" in Russia but it still made me giggle to see people asking for his autograph and getting their pictures taken with him. Some girl asked me, "How does it feel to be married to Sam Nielson?" Ha, wouldn't you like to know. :)

The event photographer was really nice too---she took some pictures of the two of us and we were really awkward in half of them, which is why we never have pictures taken of just the two of us. "What do you mean, gaze into each others' eyes?" But I am always happy to have pictures of us together, and I always wish later that we had more of them, so I was happy she made the effort with us.

It was a beautiful (if cold) walk out along the Moscow River afterwards to our ride. It was great to have a ride, but I must say the driving in Moscow is the scariest I have EVER encountered. Apparently lanes are just sort of . . . optional? As are one-way streets? I just looked out the window and tried to pretend I was watching a movie. About very bad driving.

Max and his friends took us out to a "traditional Russian restaurant" afterwards, which caused great inter-lingual merriment among the group as we discussed which aspects of the decor, exactly, were "traditionally Russian." (The lion with a fish on its tail? The balloons taped to the wall? The pickled tomatoes in jars with wooden cats on top?) There was much toasting and yes, vodka, but no one seemed to mind our lack of familiarity with the protocol (or our orange juice). The meal was long and elaborate, with course after course. I didn't try everything but I tried mostly everything and it was all good, or at least interesting. The borscht tasted just like my mom's vegetable soup. There was much discussion and hand-gesturing and confusion about the "vereniki" on the menu, which everyone tried to explain, and which Google Translate told us meant . . . vereniki. They turned out to be a sort of dumpling, with both sweet and savory fillings. They were my favorite part of the meal. I liked the little bread-rolls with potatoes and meat in them, too (I forget what those were called). 

It went on for hours, and I got very full and kept trying to demonstrate with hand gestures just how little room the baby leaves in there for my stomach. After some drinking, people started making expansive comments to Lilya and me about how "children are the flower of life" and so forth. Very nice, but we were too busy nibbling on the decorative basil from the salad plate (yum!) and commiserating about how some children never sleep anywhere but their own beds no matter how tired they are, to contribute much to a discussion of such philosophical matters.

Anyway, it was such a fun evening and a great chance for us to meet "regular people" in Moscow! We really loved it.
Max, Lilya, me, Sam