Что Американцы делают в России…

I feel terrible for abandoning my bloggerly duties for such a long time, but I really did not have time to write while my parents and brother were here. Now that they are gone and I have had a day to unwind, I finally feel up for a nice post about their trip.

People keep asking me what my family thought of Russia, and the simple answer is they loved it. It’s also the safest. But the long response is more complicated. It’s extremely interesting to observe other people, especially people so similar to me, going through the culture shock I experienced in such a truncated time frame. I think in a lot of ways my mom, dad, and James barely had time to react and were on the receiving end of sensory overload. I also think it must have been hard for them to give up control, not only because I was the only one who spoke Russian and was thus usually left to plan most of our activities, but also because Russia (as my faithful followers must know by now) is a place where giving up control is simply not a choice. One of the things that I first learned here is that you absolutely cannot control anything fully and most things not at all. Sure it can be frustrating, and there were some things that can be mentally and physically tiring, but it’s also something that has changed my character and temperament for the better.

The visit started with two days in Ufa, which included both a long evening at the banya with some of my closest friends preceded by a dinner at my house, a kind of giant tea party with my students, and another get-together at my house the night before we left. It was really important for my parents to meet the people with whom I’ve been spending all my time, both professionally and informally. To my surprise, all of them tried kumis (fermented horse milk), and unsurprisingly, they all loved the banya and finally understood why I always speak so highly of Bashkirian honey.

James and Maria at the banya

Tea party in my classroom at the hospital

After checking out sights around Ufa (the Salavat Yulaev horse statue and the Tulip Mosque) in the morning, we set off for Saint Petersburg. Although I consider myself to be pretty familiar with Moscow by now after spending almost 3 weeks there collectively, I had never been to Saint Petersburg and so I was able to share in a completely new experience with my parents and James. We all immediately fell in love with the city, and like my yoga instructor was saying today, it has a very Italian feel to it. There aren’t as many canals as in Venice, but everyone says the two cities are similar, although Saint Petersburg is much younger.

Three and a half days isn’t certainly not enough time to experience SPB in full, but we did as much as we could including a midnight boat tour of the opening of the bridges (with Roman, my SPB-born friend from Boston College), seeing the Nutcracker at the Mariinksy Theater, a trip to Petergoff (Peter the Great’s answer to Versailles), a long visit to the Hermitage, and a lot of walking around Old Saint Petersburg. My oldest brother’s friend used to live there and he still owns an apartment, so he lent us the keys, and we had a beautiful place to stay completely free of charge, which was a huge perk.

Kazan Cathedral

I think this might be my favorite picture from Russia

Petergoff Palace

At the Hermitage

Old men talking, smoking, drinking vodka, and toasting -- VERY RUSSIAN

Carlo Rossi Street - the street of perfect proportions

People always compare Moscow and New York, and although I think comparisons like this are always tenuous, I can at least say my relationship to both cities is similar: I didn’t really like them the first few times I was there and then after each visit, I found them more and more pleasant and navigable. As I’ve written before, it also helps to be in Moscow when the weather is nice. People are much friendlier, and the city’s many parks are breathtakingly beautiful. I’ve also been there enough times that I’ve started to feel very comfortable moving around on the Metro or on foot. Like many old cities (Boston is like this), it’s actually surprisingly easy to cover a lot of ground on foot – the subway deceives you into thinking different places are great distances apart.

Our hotel was perfect, and the room James and I shared looked right out over Red Square. It was easily the nicest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, more like an apartment – it had a piano and a doorbell.

The view from our room - AMAZING

Part of the Qatari Cultural Festival going on outside Tretyekovskaya Gallery

Our time in Moscow was even short, just under two days, but the weather was perfect and as in Petersburg, we did a lot of walking around. I completely botched our attempt to see Lenin’s preserved body (sorry JB!!) and the line outside the Pushkin Museum was at least a few hours long, so we did fewer museums and typical sight seeing in Moscow, but I think James and my parents still got a good feel for the city and saw a lot of my favorite places there. I think the trip overall was just long enough to allow them to get a good experience of the country, but short enough not to be extremely tiring. Even so, I think everybody was ready for a break by the time Sunday rolled around. In other words, it was time for another banya, but the schedule did not permit it.

After taking my parents and James to the airport shuttle train in the morning, I took a nap and met up with my friend Estelle to go to the zoo and spend the rest of the day hanging out until my 1:00 am flight (which turned into a 2:00 am flight). I’ll write about that tomorrow, because the Moscow Zoo definitely deserves its own post…

Overall, I’m very proud of James and my parents for making the journey. It’s not easy to survive in Russia, and they had to navigate the Moscow Metro for a whole day before coming to see me in Ufa. I think it was a great experience for them to see everything directly and to meet the people who have made my year here so successful, and it was very important for me to show them the places and friends that have so deeply affected my life. A lot of my students and friends have already been asking about their NEXT trip to Russia, and although it might be awhile (or forever) before my parents return, I know James’s curiosity has been piqued and I wouldn’t be surprised if he came back next summer to continue his research of Russian music and history. Russia has its fair share of difficulties and frustrations, but glazing over all the cracks in the foundation is an irresistible, mystic attraction that draws people in time and time again. With just nine days left to go in the Mother Land, my emotions are a mix of excitement to get my feet back on American soil, a dull aching sadness to leave behind my wonderful friends and their strange and fascinating country, and a firm resolution to come back…preferably in the summer months.

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