Monday, January 27, 2014

The 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Leningrad

I was going to write a blog about Russian food, but I think taking a moment to acknowledge the significance of today is important. My next post will be a little more fun, I promise!

Today, Jan 27 2014, was the 70th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad. During the Great Patriotic War (WWII) German forces cut off the Soviet city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) from the rest of the country with intense bombing raids and tank roadblocks. The siege lasted for 872 days: from September 8 1941, until 27 January 1944. Estimates vary, but over a million civilians and soldiers died during the blockade- many of starvation.
For more details on the incredible and important history:

I spent the weekend with Roman in Kronstadt, very calm, quiet, and relaxing. I went ice skating outside for the first time and ate delicious homemade pirozhki and sirniki (don't worry, my next post will be food)! 

This morning Roman drove me back to the city center, and right on my street there was a large outdoor display set up as a temporary museum for the Siege/Blockade of Leningrad! (Have I mentioned I live in the best location ever??) We walked around the display for a while, very neat. There were lots of old vehicles from the blockade- trolleybuses, military trucks, even a fire truck! They also had a video screen playing a short film about the blockade, announcements from a loud speaker taken from actual public broadcasts that played during the blockade, posters and flyers set up like 1942 to create the atmosphere of the time, and a wall of one building was converted into a poster board with texts and pictures explaining Leningrad's role in WWII.

Anti-tank Device

I had read that at 7:00 there would be a candlelight procession down Nevsky Prospekt from the outdoor display near my apartment building to Palace Square. So later that night I put on my warmest (read: most American) clothes and ventured outside again. At this point it was snowing lightly, really beautiful as the sun had mostly set and the streetlamps and shop windows were really the only illumination- until I got to Nevsky. Of course, there were plenty of cars, but also hundreds of candles! I smelled them first, the pleasant burning scent, and then slowly noticed all the dots of flame twinkling across the crowd gathered on the sidewalk. I expected that stretch of Nevsky Prospekt to be closed down for the procession- the idea was 1,944 volunteers (the year the siege ended) would march to Palace Square, and there form a human sign spelling out "900 Days" (for the length of the blockade).

Streets were back to 1944

I waited in a crowd of people where I read the procession would start. A blockade-era trolleybus idled on the street, its loudspeaker played Soviet war songs and announcements. Exactly at 7:00PM the speakers blared "NOW, A MINUTE OF SILENCE". Nevsky Prospekt froze. Not just the people clearly involved, holding candles, but mothers pushing babies in strollers, people walking home from the grocery store, young children, as far as I could see there was barely any movement or speech. The trolleybus ticked off the sound of the famous Leningrad metronome (during the Blockade music was broadcast over the Leningrad radio 24/7. At rare times when music was not broadcast, a metronome was placed before the radio microphone to assure the people that the resistance was ongoing) for one minute, as we all let the weight of the anniversary really sink in. Abruptly, the trolleybus began to play music again and people scattered in all directions. Did I miss the parade? I stood in my spot for a moment, craning my neck up and down the street searching for any banners or flags. I wasn't even positive which direction Palace Square was in...but the people with the candles were surging to the right, so I tentatively followed them.

About five minutes later, I realized that I was, in fact, IN the procession. I'm still not sure if there was a more formal procession, but there were news cameras set up all along the route, interviewing people, and people hanging out of windows above us taking pictures. I embraced my new found membership and committed to march the 30 minutes to Palace Square. Even though I didn't have a candle, it was impossible not to feel a heaviness and solemnity being part of such an important remembrance. Every person over the age of 70 is a possible survivor, most of these people's parents or grandparents were in the blockade...and I am a lone American girl, a tourist, trying to adopt a city I have no right to call my own. Perhaps after today I've gotten a little closer to earning that right.

A stop on the route where people placed flowers and lit candles

The events at Palace Sqaure were wonderful. Unfortunately my camera died, but I am a better writer than photographer anyway! All the streetlights and windows were dark in the square, giving the effect of the blockaded city at night, cloaking itself from Nazi bombers. There was a semi-circle of antique military vehicles on the far side and several stages set up in the center. I watched a teen pop quintet sing about the beauty of "our Saint Petersburg, dear Leningrad" and a man sing "we're with you, the people of Leningrad/ we know what war means" (excellent song and lyrics). Then a loud siren sounded and the entire 100-foot side of a neoclassical 18th century building lit up with a projected short documentary about the blockade with video footage and pictures from the war. After the film, another parade entered. All the vehicles from the outdoor display near my apartment rolled into Palace Square! People were cheering and throwing roses into the truck beds; it was all very moving.

It was past 8 when I finally looked down at my watch and speed walked home for dinner. I hadn't noticed the cold much before, but it was -16 Celsius with a sharp wind and by the time I got inside my face was bright red and I could hardly feel my fingers and toes! Dinner was delicious, smoked red fish (my favorite) and tomato and avocado salad with black bread and beans. Since it was a prazdnik (holiday), of course we had to drink vodka as well! Then after dinner there were fireworks I watched from my window, perfect way to end an incredible day.

I learned so much about the Siege of Leningrad today and how even 70 years later it is still a deep part of the consciousness and identity of the people of the hero-city of Leningrad. I hope this little blog post recognized the event as it deserves and piques your interest to learn more about the Eastern front of World War II!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Welcome to Russia! "Because God loves 3..."

So I made it! I am officially in Russia, settling into my new apartment, and beginning to acclimate to my new life. The journey here had some dramatic points so I'll start from the beginning:

So I'll just come out and say it: I suck at packing. I have never gotten it right, even for just weekend trips I struggle! My only excuse here is that I've never had to pack for this long (7.5 months) or this many weather conditions (I'm here for the coldest and warmest parts of the year, lots of ice, snow, and rain). I've also never been compelled to bring school supplies- such as my 2 lb (we weighed it) Russian grammar book.
Yes, yes, I'm basically packed! I affirmed to everyone who asked, which was everyone I talked to for days before I left. And I basically was...I had just hit a natural stopping point as my two suitcases were teetering on the 50 lb mark so I stopped. I left all the rest of the things I wanted to bring in a pile mentally marked for my carry on bag and purse and went to watch movies and do henna with my sister. Then it was midnight the night before I leave, fresh claws (acrylic nails) on, wet henna on my hand, and my left wrist and hand mysteriously bruised, and the struggle begins. I stayed up until 3 am trying to shove everything into my frame pack with one hand, but I was still left with a sizable pile of things I needed but just couldn't fit. Thank goodness for my mom who swooped in and saved the day at 5 am. When I was barely awake, running on the fumes of the adrenaline of fear, she solved my packing woes and got us on the road. 90% of the way to DC we panic, bags are definitely too overweight, so we stopped at Macy's and bought a new suitcase that was lighter and repacked everything in the airport parking lot. Unfortunately, they were still overweight...I ended up (of course) reorganizing and cutting the fat from my luggage on the floor in front of the United check in desk less than an hour before my flight to Chicago left- but we managed it! I had to ditch my gummy vitamins (1 lb), grammar book (2 lb), one of my coats (2.5 lb), and a few other things but I kept all of the essentials. With my 10 lb 'purse' and 35 lb carry on with a broken wheel we said our goodbyes and I hobbled through security.

I made it all the way without the wheel on my carry on popping off completely!

The flight from Stockholm to St Petersburg, let me tell you, scariest of my life...I don't want to freak my dad out so I won't go into too much detail haha but word for the wise: Rossiya is not your friend

Passport Control: The flight before ours was from Kyrgyzstan and of course I get in the shortest line, but I ended up behind about 20 Kyrgyz men, women, and teenagers immigrating to Russia on work visas. Russia has somewhat of an issue with illegal immigration from Central Asia so they checked each person's documents for 5+ minutes and a few even got asked to step aside...uh oh
Anyway, this made me on of the the last people to come through to get my luggage and the whole hall was nearly empty. I had 2 giant bags plus my carry ons so I grabbed a cart and was moving pretty slow and awkwardly. I've been to Russia three times but for the life of me I could not remember if I needed to fill out a customs form even if I wasn't declaring anything! (You have to when you enter the US). I hesitated at the customs gate- terrible mistake. The customs agents (read: evil witches) swooped in! "Passport...Amerikan? Ah, ah, yisss, Amerikan, pleez put bags here"
So I unloaded my cart, sent all my bags through the scanner, and then weighed them...APPARENTLY there is some random customs law saying if you bring more than 50 kg of stuff into the country you have to pay a fee. And APPARENTLY the customs witches decided the fee for the American girl would be 4 Euros per kilo over...that would run me about 70 hell no.
So of course I start arguing with them, but my Russian polite argument vocabulary is sub par so I resorted to stomping around the empty baggage claim hall, shaking my head, and saying Russian phrases like "No, I cannot, I am a student, I have no money, WHY IS THERE A CAT INSIDE THE AIRPORT?? (there seriously was...)"
Thank God Roman turned up then, and the customs witches let him in to translate for me. After about 30 more minutes of angry glares and several incorrectly filled out customs forms Roman was able to talk to the manager who told us that rule doesn't even apply if the belongings are in the country temporarily and for personal use only- well THANK YOU!
So I was let out of airport jail (okay, it was just an old desk in the corner, but it was demeaning) and we finally made it to Roman's house.

After a few blissful days of being fed by Roman's mom, we hauled my bags back into the car and to my host mom's apartment in the city center. When I say city center, I mean it. I haven't taken any pictures myself yet, but this is literally steps from my building:

Russian Museum, Church of the Savior on Blood, Griboedov Canal 

 And I am just around the corner from the beautiful Kazan Cathedral and my university!

Kazan Cathedral
Saint Petersburg State University of Finance and Economics

My host is an older, single woman who is a retired TV editor. I don't quite have the language skills to ask her how she came into this apartment, but this location, the size and amenities (3 bed, 1.5 bath, large kitchen, newly renovated, courtyard with a gate), I think an apartment like this is generally held by very influential or wealthy people. Her name is Tatiana, she has been very kind and welcoming to me. Not exactly the warm mama-bear type, but she has been chatty, interested in me and my life, and very accommodating. My room is huge! Plenty of room for all my stuff (I definitely don't think I overpacked, but I guess we'll have to wait and see what I actually wear/use). I have a double bed; in typical Russian style it is a fold out couch-bed. Not like the pull out beds we have in America, but basically the back of the couch just folds down so the whole thing is flat...and this one is particularly hard. I can't complain, though, it's probably as comfortable as my bed at school!
I will be doing breakfast and lunch on my own, but she makes me dinner. She said right off the bat she's not a cook, and after Roman's mom (she trained as a chef) I guess I have kind of high standards, but dinner wasn't bad! Rice, chicken balls in kind of a cream-breading, black bread, salad, and....forest mushrooms. Yes, that's right. Little brown fungi whose last meal was probably a human head in a glass mason jar suspended in about 3 inches of clear slime. She presented them to me with such excitement, such gusto, picked by a friend of hers in the fall, she said...I couldn't say no. She spooned a dollop of slime and shrooms onto my plate, they oozed across the surface, a string of slime stretching gracefully across the table. I almost couldn't do it...but I did. I buried those little suckers in the chicken balls and swallowed barely chewing. They really didn't taste as putrid as I expected, but I am not eager to repeat that experience anytime soon.
I think it was these little suckers

The other interesting aspect of last night's meal was the vodka! A little more familiar to me than slime fungus, but I wasn't expecting it. At first I tried to refuse, but she looked so crestfallen that we downed three shots " because God loves three"- one to our relationship, one to the city of Saint Petersburg, and one to my future as a diplomat  =)

We don't have wifi installed in the apartment yet (apparently it's coming today but I'm not overly optimistic), so I've walked about 10 minutes to a coffee shop with free Internet. To my right is Kazan Cathedral, dusted with snow, and the famous Nevsky Prospekt is at my back. I ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream and the descriptions are really true, Russian горячий шоколад (goryachii shokolad) is "thick as mud". It tastes sort of like Hershey's chocolate syrup heated up. It comes in a tiny little tea cup, but it's so rich that's really all you need!

Now I am going to attempt to run some errands. This city is so saturated with shops and restaurants I've barely walked anywhere and I'm already overwhelmed! Wish me luck, my 10 readers, and please comment on the post! And if you made it this far, thanks for your time  ;)

Friday, January 17, 2014


Stories from the Land of Fire: 1

Originally published on

This past summer I was selected, along with nine other American students, as a winner of a national essay contest sponsored by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Youth and Sport and received a twelve day, all expenses paid trip to Azerbaijan. I would like to share my wonderful good fortune and help those who have not yet visited the incredible country to understand life there little bit better, but as there are already a few posts on the subject, I will refer you to “Impressions of an American High Schoolstudent in Baku” by Matthew Miller and “An Azerbaijani American in Baku” by Farzin Farzad for an overview on the subject. Instead, I will share with you a few stories from my trip that I think offer some insight into the untamed mystery and boundless intrigue that I experienced over my two weeks in Azerbaijan. 

Azerbaijan- Land of Fire, right? The epithet is frequently used in tourism ad campaigns and YouTube videos, but many people are unfamiliar with its roots. The name Azerbaijan is thought to be derived from ancient Persian meaning guardian/protector of fire. Fire has long held a central place in Azerbaijan’s culture due to the naturally occurring flames in some areas caused by powerful underground gas vents. The ancient people of Greater Iran followed the Zoroastrian faith and worshiped the natural fires of Azerbaijan going back as far as the first millennium BC. Zoroastrianism is a fascinating practice, and Azerbaijan is often quickly associated with it in light conversation, but I really did not know much about the religion and its ties to the country until I visited Ateshgah Fire Temple in Baku. The temple itself has been mostly rebuilt as a replica of the original, a slightly disappointing trend I saw in a large number of exhibits in the country, but was still an imposing structure. It had lots of open spaces, arches, and fortification-like walls. Mannequins of ancient fire worshiping pilgrims (kind of creepy, to be honest) were set up in some of the rooms built into the temple’s walls. Manmade gas-lit fires were also laid out where natural fires once burned in order to give visitors a picture of the temple when it was active.

What really struck me about the temple was that it was abandoned so recently, in 1883, after an earthquake snuffed the natural fires which the Zoroastrians took as a sign that their god’s favor had turned against the spot. While America was fighting its Civil War, fire was being worshiped as a divine revelation on the oh-so-remote Absheron Peninsula. The word “ancient” always seems to be used in discussions of Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan, but in fact the traditions there died out not so long ago. Another interesting fact I learned is that Zoroastrians were vegetarians! Instead of sacrificing animals they sacrificed fruits, with the pomegranate being the most holy as its deep red and spiked crown are reminiscent of flame. 
A few of us took the opportunity to create a little Nowruz celebration. Nowruz is an extremely popular holiday in Azerbaijan that is derived from Zoroastrian traditions. The holiday celebrates the coming of spring and traditionally, as a recognition of Nowruz’ fire-worshipping past, every Tuesday for four weeks prior to the holiday children jump over small bonfires and candles are lit. So we picked the biggest bonfire, blazing in the center of the temple, joined hands, and, channeling through us the centuries of tradition and faith in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Baku, and this very temple, leaped over the flames. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sheki's Spell

Stories from the Land of Fire:2

Originally published on

This past summer I was selected, along with nine other American students, as a winner of a national essay contest sponsored by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Youth and Sport and received a twelve day, all expenses paid trip to Azerbaijan. I would like to share my wonderful good fortune and help those who have not yet visited the incredible country to understand life there little bit better, but as there are already a few posts on the subject, I will refer you to “Impressions of an American High Schoolstudent in Baku” by Matthew Miller and “An Azerbaijani American in Baku” by Farzin Farzad for an overview on the subject. Instead, I will share with you a few stories from my trip that I think offer some insight into the untamed mystery and boundless intrigue that I experienced over my two weeks in Azerbaijan. 

Sheki’s Spell

Sheki is the seventh largest city in Azerbaijan and houses a tiny population of just over 50,000, located at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains it is a leisurely and visually stunning retreat. My first impression of the town was at around 10:30 at night, in the pitch dark and pouring rain, being tossed off a bus in front of an unfamiliar and un-navigable assortment of cabins, children’s amusements (a deflated blow up castle, a child-size statue of Shrek the ogre), strings of Christmas lights, and mud that was our accommodation for the night. Without instruction or warning, I was ushered into a huddle of about ten people under a large golf umbrella shivering in our shorts and t-shirts. Room keys were hastily doled out, vague directions pointed across the grounds, and we were left to fend for ourselves. About an hour later the rain had stopped and we were all gathered, of course, around food. The unfortunately outdoor restaurant had been lavishly prepared for the nearly 100 foreign guests that descended on this idyllic (in the light of day, I'm sure it really was) resort, and I think all of our mouths watered at the heaping piles of bread and fruit already on the table in traditional Azerbaijani fashion and the smell of spices and simmering fat coming from the kitchen. The cold mountain air combined with our still damp clothing to gnaw into our bones with an unexpected viciousness, but nothing could deter us when the waiters gleefully brought out the main course. Steaming masterpieces of beautiful Sheki-style shakh (crown) plov.   

Shakh Plov <3
We ate heaping plates of plov, bread, fresh watermelon and cucumbers, and deliciously greasy chicken for about an hour, and as we began to warm up none of us wanted to sleep! So we ordered bottles of local beer and other libations and laughed and talked until a hotel manager came out and suggested that we visit the hotel club. Now, we were speaking through a translator whose English was not exactly top notch, and to be fair perhaps something was lost in translation, but as surprised as we were to hear that this little mountain bungalow resort had a club, we followed the manager without hesitation. He led us down twisting, unlit pathways (a quick pit stop at an unexpected drink stand) towards the “club”. Nondescript fountains bubbled quietly at the entrance to the dark windows and natural wooden walls. About forty of us stepped into the mysterious building to find plush carpeted floors, banquet tables pushed up against the walls, a small, empty bar, sufficiently large and central photographs of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev, and a ten year old boom box being pulled out from under the bar and propped on a central wicker chair by several young men dressed in the black and white of the hotel staff. Despite this unusual “club”, we ended up having an incredible time! The Brazilians sambaed, the Egyptians clapped and shimmied, and even the hotel staff danced right along with us. Over the course of my stay in Azerbaijan I saw a whole lot of dancing, and something that really struck me was that even the youngest, most apparently hip and modern men and women still dance in the traditional style. It’s not just that they are able, but they are ready and willing to break out the duel-like dance moves as soon as strains of the right music begin. A fifteen year old boy began flicking the light switch on and off like a strobe light and the unconventional party didn’t stop until almost 3:00 in the morning!  
Central America anyone?!

Needless to say, the next day we were all drained, and for most of the morning I barely shuffled around Sheki’s beautiful historical sites- the Caravansarai, Sheki Khan’s Palace, and a Soviet-era museum to name a few. By lunch time we were all feeling a little better, faced with another mouth-watering spread of food and a gorgeous view of the town to boot! The mountains here were closer and more reminiscent of tropical Central America than anywhere else I visited and the history just oozes from the cobblestoned streets, Sheki is a definite recommended destination!