So I got this blog design from some guy who posted a layout online and then I went in and edited the graphics to match what I wanted. The graphics I didn't edit, which were mostly lines and little buttons and other small stuff, were hosted where ever he hosted his crap, so instead of change all of his code, I just left those in. His hosting seems to have expired, so there are lots of stupid photobucket warnings around. Nothing has changed and you should still be able to read everything.
Well, I've been kind of slow in posting these last few weeks, and I'm sorry. I would like to catch up and post some other stories, and I probably will, but the fact of the matter is, a taxi is coming in about 2 hours to wisk us away to one of those terrible transatlantic flights that will take us back home. By way of Atlanta. For many hours.
In any case, I would like to recap our experiences here: We finally got rid of our terribly overpriced, awful apartment in Provo (Thanks STONE PROPERTIES, I hope you go bankrupt!), and spent a week of "homelessness" during which we only slept in our car once. We embarked with all of our belongings and needs packed into carry-ons, spent a day-ish in New York, and had a whirlwind tour of Ukraine where we got to see old friends, and Paige and I got to follow up on those people who we helped most.
Then came our arrival by train to Moscow, a terribly over-large city. Our landlady was amazing, reasonable (particularly by babushka standards), and cooked great. Classes were extremely slow to start and we were freaking out a little bit that they would just kind of forget we were here and we'd have 5 days out of the week of downtime. We supplemented our classes a bit, and carried on. Excursions were interesting if a little too elementary, and classes for a large part were dry and not stimulating at best and condescending and maddening at worst. However, the school provided us with a couple of local girls to show us around and they were the type of people that make you wonder if they really live in Moscow because they are so opposite of all of the other angry Moscvitches. Moscow was adventurous at first, but slowly destroyed our youthful love for discovery until we loathed sitting underground for an hour on a hot, crowded-with-angry-people, nausea-inducing (literally) metro to get anywhere because the city is just too bloody big. Also, in our search to find some decent paintings and other such art, we were appalled to discover that Moscow art sellers only sell tripe, kitsch, and kindergarten-stuff. We saw Star Trek, Up, and Harry Potter in Russian, and I got to give a talk in sacrament meeting.
Eventually we took a whirlwind 2-day trip to Saint Petersburg. Our tour guide was hilarious in that she was several cliches all rolled into one, and we were bummed that they had only planned 2 days for us, but the city... bloody hell, the city. It was gorgeous, artistic, inspiring, imperial, smaller, nicer, and so stepped in history while still feeling a bit more socially metropolitan than Moscow. It was amazing and we swore to return.
Returning to Moscow was an unfortunate necessity. Time and classes went on. Paige and I started our major Russian research papers. Paige and I also teamed up with a few others from our group and planned a trip to Istanbul. Those 4-days were another oasis. Istanbul, Turkey, a destination I had never considered visiting for a moment became one of my favorite places I have ever been. We saw amazing architecture, swam in interesting (and a bit dodgy) places, ate great food for pennies, lounged with international travelers in roof-top lounge bars bedecked with pillows while smelling the wafts of flavored hookah tobacco, and ate olives for breakfast.
Once again, returning to Moscow was an unfortunate necessity. More hot metros, more uninspiring classes, and added to this was that drama was brewing as one of BYU's study abroad people had come out to talk to us about the program, and got to listen to all of our complaints. This freaked our Moscow school out a bit because, despite several of us voicing concerns and being parlayed, they were unaware that, for example, no one liked any of the classes because our teachers were kind of lame.
However, we were able to escape the rapid exchanging of words back and forth as Paige and I hopped a train back to Saint Petersburg for 4 more days. Saint Petersburg is so incredibly different from Moscow it is weird. If anyone is planning a trip to Russia: Unless you REALLY REALLY want to see Red Square, skip Moscow and go to Saint Petersburg. And bring lots of money, because the art there is pretty good. Paige and I loaded up on culture: the Hermitage inside the Winter Palace for 5 hours, Catherine the Great's "Tsarskoe Selo" palace, Dostoevsky's final apartment, and the internationally famous European prospekt Nevskiy where we lounged in sidewalk cafes and sipped mojhitos and milk cocktails. We also bought a crap load of art and found a Carl's Jr where you get free refills and free ketchup.
And finally, it was back to Moscow for a joke of a final and plenty of last-minute maneuverings and plannings which brings us to here: the end.
Russia is, just as I knew it would be, an interesting place. It is a place like no other. It is a place that was so blocked off from interaction with the rest of the world that it evolved socially and culturally in an entirely different way than the rest of the western world. Moscow, in particular, is the largest city I have ever lived in, and to reference a post I made back in Kharkov, it doesn't know me. Cities have personalities, and Moscow doesn't care to know me. New York felt like a place I could've gotten to know: I could've found my oasises, carved out my niches, found some cool places, learned the streets and the areas, and I could've lived there. Eventually, the city would've accepted that. Moscow, however, never will. Moscow isn't that type of city. It's enormous, powerful, industrial, and functional. It has no style or flair. I submit an embodiment of my feelings of Moscow: The Ostankino TV Tower:
It's a television and wireless transmission tower that was built during Soviet times. I've lived within view of it for the entire time here in Moscow. It's 1772 feet tall, which is taller than the Empire State Building. Its primary purpose is function, it is ugly, it is utilitarian, it is falling apart. It has caught on fire several times and was heavily damaged due to poor evacuation and emergency response planning. It has a rotating restaurant and observation deck 3/4ths of the way to the top. It has been closed for repairs for many years, and despite rumors that it was set to open this summer, it hasn't, so I've never been up there. The analogy doesn't become clear until you look at the exact same structures, except as built by the west:
The CN Tower, Toronto.
The Space Needle, Seattle
It just feels better at home.
We'll catch you all back in Utah and Virginia and California, but in the meantime I have to finish packing. Don't go deleting this blog from your favorites or whatever; I still plan on posting some stuff that I missed, but until then, I'll sign off. Expect more photos to appear on flickr as well, particularly from our 2nd Saint Petersburg trip.
So now that I'm firmly ensconced in our hostel in Saint Petersburg where we'll be hanging out until late Monday night, surrounded by a handful of Brits and a Dane who are slamming cheap apple vodka shots while conversing loudly about how terrible the vodka is, I think I'll take a few minutes to talk about Istanbul. Bloody hell, I'm a bit behind with the blogging, eh?
So a couple weeks ago we went to Istanbul, and we did this for best possible reason: because we could. Turkey is an interesting place. Russia is interesting in that everyone in America has tons of thoughts and imagined stereotypes about what it must be like in Russia which usually turn out to be inaccurate at best and incredibly wrong at worst. Turkey, however, is just a country with a funny name that no one really thinks about, so Paige and I didn't really know what to expect. Paige did read the US State Department's page about Turkey to be sure she wouldn't have to wear a burka while we were there, but past that, we could've walked out of the airport in Istanbul to find rolling hills of desert sand dotted with tents and camels and we would've just started taking pictures until our cameras ceased to function.
What we did find, though, was a largish, fairly clean, very colorful city loaded with people who were decent and normal, but coming from Moscow where everyone hates anyone or anything that walks, they were absolutely amazing. People stand about on the streets hassling you to come into their restaurants and stores, but they say "please" and "thank you" and try out their English jokes on you and stuff. Paige and I were walking back to our hostel eating a piece of watermelon one evening which takes us past 7 or 8 restaurants when one of these guys saw us and in a heavy accent said, "Hello, please, we have FREE WATERMELON." He was really pleased with himself, I think.
The hostel was amazing. A nice, young guy owns and runs the place, which is called "Southern Cross Hostel". He spoke good English (as most people in the tourist area did) and loved to joke. Free breakfasts in the morning consisted of bread, butter, honey, eggs, ham slices, tomatoes, goat cheese, and real olives. The roof was a Turkish pillow-lounge bar, and the bottom floor was a general store. It was walking distance to Hagia Sofia and everything else we wanted to see, and that which wasn't, was a short, air-conditioned tram ride away. Food was great and cheap. We got doner kebab sandwiches for a couple lira which is less than a dollar.
On the subject of Hagia Sofia, Paige and I both were fascinated with the building in classes that we've taken, but we never thought we'd see it because, who goes to Turkey? Walking into the main hall of Hagia Sofia is something that literally amazes you. It isn't like a lot of sights that people pull out a lot of weird hyperbole to explain as if they're trying to justify the money they spent to see it. You expect to be amazed, but then you see it and it blows you away and then you remember that it was built thousands of years ago and it blows you away again. It is absolutely, without exaggeration, one of the top 3 most amazing things I've seen. According to my research, you would fit the entire Statue of Liberty, without pedestal, but with torch, inside Hagia Sofia.
Istanbul was loads of fun, I swam in the Sea of Marmara, I've been to Hagia Sofia, and I saw the lighter side of Islam. We hung out in ancient sultans' palaces, grand bazaars, and active mosques. I even bought middle-eastern-style shirts.
Anyway, the Brits are distracting me because they have funny accents, so I'm gonna cut out. I'll catch up while I'm here, and fill everything in, including what we're doing in Saint Petersburg again. In other news, we fly home on the 31st of July, so we'll be home about the first. We'll see ya'll then.
I finally got all the photos from Istanbul up on flickr. They're a little out of order on the photostream, so go to the Istanbul set, and view them in order: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mutatedjellyfish/sets/72157621648342083/. Don't forget the panoramas!
Our adventure started, like many modern day adventures do: with a trip to the airport. While I have never had any desire to drive a car in Moscow as I would certainly be rapidly crushed by angry Russians, I would have made an exception in order to get to the airport. Moscow's airports are scattered about the suburbs, far away from the city center, and as such, the metro (for some reason) does not go there. Fortunately, they have set up some express trains from several train stations that go out to most of the airports, and we were lucky to be flying out of Sheremyeteva, the main airport with an express train.
We agreed on a time to meet in the metro next to the train station several hours before our flight. There were 6 of us going, another married couple and a guy and a girl, all of them in our BYU group here. The other couple, the Jensens, got an email the day we were set to leave that our flight had been delayed for about an hour. Paige and I got a phone call from the guy in our group, Ryan, that we would be meeting 2 hours later than we had originally planned. Paige didn't like this: why were we meeting 2 hours later due to a one-hour delay? We called around, and we all decided that this did not make sense, so we adjusted our meeting time to one hour later. Good thing.
We met and embarked. The train was nice and fast and it took us on a direct-route, straight line to... a train platform about 10 minutes away from the airport. “Oh Russia,” I thought. “You just don't QUITE understand.” After disembarking from the “Express” train, we found a bus that would take us to the right place and made sure we knew how to get to Sheremyeteva Building 2. A few guys from our group went to Finland earlier in the summer, and they made the silly foreigner mistake of going to Sheremyeteva Building 1 because foreigners forget to read minds and just spontaneously know things such as which arbitrary building number to go to and had to pay 1000 rubles for a taxi, which is so much money that you would immediately vomit if I told you how much it was in dollars. In any case, despite not at all being labeled anywhere as such, Sheremyeteva 2 is apparently the international terminal complex, which is about a 10-minute bus ride away from Sheremyeteva 1, which is the domestic terminal complex. All WE knew is what was in the confirmation email: we needed “Terminal C”, and since we were flying through Kiev, Ukraine to Istanbul, we heeded the advice of our friends, and set our course for Sheremyeteva Building 2. Upon arriving there, we began to ask around for “Terminal C”. This seemed to annoy the Russians in the area, despite the fact that there were big signs with “C” on them with arrows pointing in various directions. They explained we had to go back to Sheremyeteva 1. This couldn't possibly be right as we were flying internationally. Unfortunately, the more people we asked, the more they insisted we needed to go back to Sheremyeteva 1.
We found a bus. This bus was apparently running behind, and had a very long line of cars behind him, including another bus on the same route. He needed to get people on and get out of there as quickly as possible to move the traffic flow along, so naturally, he stopped his bus, opened the door, got out of his seat, and began yelling at all of us waiting to get on that it was very important that we listen to him because there were a lot of cars behind him that needed to get by and he was running late and that we needed to be very fast in getting on the bus so he could leave. As he was loudly explaining this, he was standing in the door, preventing all of us from getting on for the minute or so he was talking. “Oh, Russia...” I thought.
We were all grateful we had enough time to screw up like this, but we had a few good hours left regardless. Finally, as we rolled up to Sheremyeteva Building 1, we understood. Sitting a few feet away from Sheremyeteva 1 was a large building as big as the other terminal buildings with a huge sign that read “Terminal C”. Sheremyeteva Airport's building layout turned out to be three buildings in the following order: Terminal C, Building 1, and then 10 minutes away, Building 2. “What the crap, Russia?” I thought.
Finally in the right place which we broke all laws of logic and reasoning to find, we entered our terminal and approached the check-in desk to receive our tickets. We looked up on the departures board to find our flight and discovered, to our amazement, that our flight was scheduled to leave at the original, early time, which was in less than an hour. Naturally, all of us praised Paige as being inspired, and I couldn't help but think, “Ok, seriously, though, Russia...”
And so our adventure began: a trip to the airport, and a flight to Kiev. The flight to Kiev was about as uneventful as could be expected. We were all seated around the airplane, and I had the unfortunate seat assignment next to the token “totally-smashed-drunk-guy”, who insisted that the seat next to him wasn't mine. Russians like to do this on flights, I've found. There have been several flights I've been on where Russian people in my seat have tried to convince me that THIS flight doesn't DO assigned seats, and I must be mistaken. Eventually, his friend showed up who was supposed to be seated next to Ryan, so I graciously switched with him so he could juggle his friend's vomit if we hit rough air. Immediately after take-off, while plane was still climbing, my former drunk friend arose, lighter and cigarette in hand, and made his way to the back of the plane. Wait, what?
He reached the back of the plane, some how convinced the stewardesses that he needed to go to the bathroom during take-off and couldn't possibly wait 60 more seconds, and apparently lit up in the lavatory. “Hahaha, Russia!” I thought. “You are retarded.” I really wish this had happened in America, because he probably would've been immediately rushed by half of the passengers in the plane, wrestled to the ground, and citizen-arrested as the FBI was informed and we were redirected to the nearest air-force landing strip to unload the perpetrator and watch through the cabin windows as members of the armed forces kicked him in the bollocks. This is Russia, though, and instead, he was directed back to his seat, reprimanded, and his friends were warned and asked to make sure he didn't get up again during the course of our flight. Boooring.
And so we reached Kiev. At this point a thought occurred to me that I have frequented Kiev's airport more often than, for example, Long Beach's. That's kind of weird. After a cold night in the transfer terminal lounge, we boarded another plane to Istanbul, which is just a quick jump over the Black Sea. All in all, it was 2 flights, about 1 hour and 45 minutes each and we arrived. Turkey does require a visa, but as an overture to the awesome-ness that is Turkey, the visa application and approval process consisted of a man behind a window in the airport asking “What country? $20!” and sticking a sticker in our passports. Not bad at all.
After passport control and the doorway that was customs, we boarded an air-conditioned metro train and publicly-transported ourselves into paradise.
So what the crap? Here's what the crap: As we whittle away the days here in Moscow, we have classes to attend and some excursions to go on, but other than that, we're essentially free agents as long as we communicate big plans to the higher-ups. Additionally, everyone in our group got double-entry Russian visas which means we can enter Russia twice during our visa period: once when we first get here, and one more time if we chose to leave and return. This meant we had one shot at non-Russian travel.
Luckily, Paige and I decided to do our Ukraine traveling BEFORE we got here, so that didn't count against our entries, so a small group of 6 of us decided to go to Turkey. Why Turkey? Mostly this:
This is the Hagia Sofia, the largest (former) mosque in the entire bloody world. This is one of those buildings about which Art History teachers ooze poetry all over their slide projectors. It's generally considered to have changed architecture forever, in addition to being absolutely gorgeous and it happens to be located in a country that maybe a handful of Americans would ever consider visiting and they are all either Art History teachers or they've grown bored of Europe.
This is, of course, because a quick airfare search tells me that a round-trip ticket for one person from Salt Lake City to Istanbul is roughly $1400, and if an American is going to spend $1400 on airfare somewhere, they're going to go to one of the places on their top-10 list of places they'd like to go, not to number 26 or 27 which is generally where Turkey lies. From MOSCOW, however, a round trip ticket to Istanbul is a couple hundred bucks. This meant that we could travel to Turkey to see its wonders (which, by the way, includes chocolate soft-serve ice cream at McDonald's) for a fraction of the price because we're already way over here anyway. This was our master plan, and it worked out beautifully.
Some of you may ask, “Worth, you fool, why did you not tell us about your plans sooner? I am offended and furthermore extremely miffed!” I will explain. In addition to constructing an opportunity to post dramatically below about They Might Be Giants, I decided not to tell anyone on my side of the family about our trip because I was betting it would kinda freak my mother out. I think I've put her through enough worry throughout my life like that time I thought it would be so cool to get off the bus from elementary school and not go home until 4 hours later when I had finished doing my homework outside. So here we are, back safe and sound in Moscow (lol), and I can just be all like “Surprise, mom! I went to a country with known active terrorist organizations!” Then again, most countries have a couple of those nowadays. At the very least, I can assure my parents that Paige did inform her family, particularly for the purpose of checking with her dad about any safety concerns. As I told our little group, the Pentagon cleared us to go visit, so we went.
As an aside, I'm assuming that all of you know as little about Turkey as I did a couple weeks ago, and I reckon that most of you are thinking, “Well that's good for Worth, I guess, but I just can't see Paige putting up with that burka all weekend,” and you would be right: If Turkey was that kind of Middle-Eastern country, she wouldn't have put up with it and we wouldn't have gone. In the real life, though, Turkey is a democratic, secular country that has an extremely large Muslim population, but many desires to join the EU and be like all of the other swinging European countries. It bridges Europe and Asia like Ukraine bridges Europe and Russia, and just like Ukraine, it would like to chill with the Europeans while still being friends with it's eastern neighbors. Further, Turkey, in my limited experience, is not full of the angry, blowy-upy type of extremist Muslims, but is instead chock full of the incredibly easy-going, friendly, smiley, give-you-free-stuff-for-no-reason kind of Muslim that no one enjoys talking about for some reason. Turks make the Moskaviches look like a legion of vampires. And not even the hip, metropolitan, Washington ones that drive Volvos; the real ones that suck blood. Even when the bazaar salesmen hassle you, they are smiling and say “please” and “thank you”, often within the same phrase. In Russia they grab you by the hair and insult your shoes (actually happened to a girl in our group).
So as a final word of comfort to my possibly horror-struck mother: I felt safer in Istanbul than I do in Moscow. Or than I did in New York. Or than I did in Lake Forest, California when I lived there for 6 years. It's that nice there.
More adventures to come, including our amazingly Russian trip over there, the things I saw, the places I swam, the hostel I stayed at, and the bidets I used.
On an unrelated note: Today was my 60-day rabies shot! That makes 5 or so, and marks the end of my Russian rabies adventures (hopefully). The next one is scheduled for sometime in September, but I'll be home already, so I'll get to go tell my heroic tale of bravely staring angrily at an old lady as she ran away and nobly wandering around Moscow for an entire 8 hours. Life here in Moscow goes on...
Most people, particularly those who grew up in the 80's and 90's for some reason, claim a certain music album as “the album of my childhood/teenage years/high school experience/barmitzvuh/whatever”. It's an album that was usually forced on them by older siblings as they received car rides or whatever, and for whatever reason it is always and forever connected to times in their younger life and the memories thereof. Mine was They Might Be Giants' 1990 album “Flood”.
Another defining moment in my life was about a year and a half ago when They Might Be Giants came out to Salt Lake and gave a free concert. You could only win tickets on the radio, and despite trying, I never got through to get them, but they must've had a bunch left since they announced a couple hours before the concert that the DJ's would be there giving out tickets at the door. I dragged Paige along and we made it to the concert. Standing in a club in Salt Lake singing along amidst the calmest, nerdiest concert audience to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” while the Johns sang with us on stage was one of those moments that, by my definition, I would call life-defining.
And so this weekend, when I laid under the Turkish sun on the pillowed roof of our hostel staring up at the clouds billowing wistfully over Istanbul and listened several times to They Might Be Giants' “Istanbul, Not Constantinople”, I couldn't help but remember my childhood, think of the album my older brother sent down through all of my siblings ending with me, Michigan lake house trips, Tiny Toons cartoons, last-minute Salt Lake concerts, and what in the crap I was doing listening to They Might Be Giants in freaking ISTANBUL.
Pictures will be up on flickr as soon as I can go through them all. Enjoy the dramatic effect, and I'll explain later.