Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Russian Banya

Another fantastic week in Moscow has come and gone. This week I explored more churches. I ate some goloptsy that made me almost vomit. I went to a concert on Red Square that was well-attended and extremely weird. I walked about 10,000 miles. I wandered through a forest late one night and made friends with a saxophone player named Oleg. I ate 30 kilos of vafly. I hung out at the beach and got severely sun-burned. I worked. I translated documents. I read contracts. I sat in interesting meetings regarding more visa and property issues. I sang in a choir. And I went to a Russian banya . . .

The banya was something I decided I needed to experience sometime around Wednesday and I was pleased that my friend Kimberly did as well as I wasn't sure I was going to be able to find anyone else to go. As it turned out we actually coerced 4 others to come along as well (all Americans that are here doing study abroad programs or other internships), one who panicked and bailed about 12 seconds after we walked into the building Saturday morning. We researched it. We found the best one. We talked about it. We asked dozens of Russians about it. But nothing could have prepared us.

We got to the banya and paid our fee, thinking "well this will be a nice day at the sauna." We were handed bundles of branches from pine trees and sent into the men's and women's locker rooms. Scott, Bryan, and I were the only Americans in attendance at the banya that day out of about 15 or 20.

The changing room was an odd mix between a smelly high school locker room, a bar, a lounge, and a bathroom. And it really did feel as wonderful as that all sounds. We were instructed to take off all of our clothes and wrap ourselves in horrid brown sheets and proceed into the next room, which was a giant hall with oddly placed faucets and drains every few feet. Not quite sure what we were supposed to do in there, we walked around, royally freaked out, until an old nude man came into the room and screamed "it's ready!!!" Seconds later 15 or so naked Russian men came running into the room like someone had just announced that free borsht was being given out to the first 5 customers and we were hurled in river of nakedness into the next room which was small, dark, and absolutely wreaked of something I have never smelled and do not feel I can adequately describe with any words that exist in the English language. If such words do exist, I imagine they are really long and contain multiple 4-letter profanities. This room had what looked like a deep double-wide Mormon baptismal font just to the left of a wooden door that we were all crowded around now.

The door was then opened and the crowed QUICKLY pushed on in to a small dark room that had four or five steps up to a wooden deck of some kind, which we then climbed (all except for Bryan who couldn't get himself to go up to the top). We reached the top step and it was at that moment that I no longer knew whether I was on Earth or in Hell. All 523,261 of my pores instinctively and immediately seemed to scream as they burst open wide enough for a 1998 Russian Lada to drive through (and probably break down on the way) and emitted enough liquid to sustain a small well-less village for days. I swear I heard what sounded like a bucket of water being dumped at my feet as every drop of fluid I've had to drink since 1984 was violently projected from my sweat-glands. Scott immediately turned to me and mouthed, looking more tortured than anyone I have ever seen, "I CAN'T BREATH!" We both dropped to the floor where it was only about 178 degrees as opposed to 180. Lying on our backs now in the intense heat, it was very clear why everyone was naked and as we went into survival mode for the next 2 hours all standards of modesty we had been taught at mutual throughout the '90s went sprinting out the window (figuratively speaking of course; there was no window in sight or I likely would have jumped through it at this point).

Lying on our backs now with our hands over our faces to keep the heat from melting our eyes, we started wondering how long we were obligated to stay there. The door was shut and it didn't seem like it was ok to leave. Just then a man who must have the WORST job in the ENTIRE world stood up with a giant fan and started waving it VIOLENTLY at each of us, projecting the air of Hell at us, so hot that I'm quite sure it gave me third-degree-burns and killed a quarter of my few properly functioning organs. I yelped a little when this began. Several minutes later the man with the fan called time and everyone cheered, clapped, and ran out of there like the free borsht was now in the baptismal font room.

At this point we felt like we were in another dimension entirely. We, of course, were carried again by the crowed back into this room where we were thrust into the water, which sounded good until the moment we emerged and discovered that this was no ordinary water. I think it must have just been anti-freeze because I have no other way to explain how this water was not just a solid block of ice. I think they could actually hear my under-water scream, even over all the noise from everyone else. At this point, my pores shut so tightly that I'm sure I permanently lost about 45% of them. I'll have to count later.

We were then thrown back into the faucet room to shower and then into the lounge/locker/bar room again to eat, which none of us Americans were remotely interested in doing at this point. We sat in our little booth with looks of horror on our faces, wondering what was going to happen next. To our absolute dismay, we were told to go back to the Hell room with the bundle of pine tree branches we were given earlier on. We did so, mostly because we had lost the ability to think for ourselves at this point. We were then instructed to stand in the heat (which was down to just a little bit hotter than an American sauna now) and beat one another from head to toe violently with the sharp pine-needles. Now, as evidence that we really had lost it, we did so. It seemed totally acceptable at the time but now that I think about it, that whole naked pine-tree branch hitting situation was pretty strange.

We were brought back out to the faucet room where we waited again, very unsure about what was going to happen until the naked old man emerged and yelled "it's ready!!!", again prompting the naked stampede back to the Hell room door. With sheer looks of panic on our faces we realized now that we were going to have to go through another "session." Somehow it was hotter the second time. Experiencing what I now imagine to be the most inhumane method of torture known to man, we lay there again with our faces covered, yelping louder than before. I'm quite certain that if someone had asked me any old question while I was in there I would be completely justified in referring to the banya as an "interrogation method." When the fan came out, my breathing went to panic mode as my body started to shut down. As a replacement for sweat, which I no longer had, I started emitting what I think was probably bone marrow and brain juices from each of my pores. Evidently the die-hard Russian men thought this session was worse too because they were all screaming by the end. Finally I stood and dove over the naked people on the stairs for the door, blacking out along the way. Time was called right about then.

I now felt like these 2 Americans and 15 Russians, all of whom I had just met, were my very closest friends. We'll likely all be pen-pals for life. Nobody goes through something like that together without instinctively feeling a permanent and powerful bond afterwards. Remind me to add Scott, Bryan, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Cergei, Oleg, Oleg, Cergei, Vlad, Vlad, Vlad and Oleg to my Christmas card mailing list this December.

Then it was back to the font. Back to the faucet room. Back to the sticks. Back to the locker-room. And back to a 3rd and final Hell-session that went much like the first and second. We eventually rolled out of there and met the girls who told us that their stick-beating session also involved covering their entire bodies with honey and chocolate and then scrubbing each other from head to toe with coffee grinds. I wasn't sad to miss out on the extra adventure.

I must say that despite all the misery, we all felt fantastic afterwards and still do. I would even consider going again. Additionally, there is a .2% chance that the banya healed my foot disease. Fingers crossed.

~It Just Gets Stranger

Friday, May 29, 2009

30 Ways You Know You've Spent Too Much Time in Eastern Europe

1. You start to say things like, “Well now that mullet doesn’t look too bad.”
2. You start referring to your grandmas as “bobs.”
3. You hug/shake hands with/practically spoon several smelly drunk strangers on the street multiple times a week without thinking anything of it.
4. You stop asking why 5,000 police officers are perfectly lined up a down the street looking mad but doing nothing because you know very well that there is no answer.
5. You know what vodka tastes like even though you’ve never had any.
6. You find yourself climbing to the front of the crowed at stores without thinking twice about whether there is supposed to be a line.
7. You get bored when a non-techno song is being played.
8. You don’t feel like your personal space has been violated when a stranger practically sits on your lap on public transport even though there are many entire rows available.
9. You have to pick a new candy store after you’ve depleted the first one of your favorite stuff over a period of a few weeks.
10. You start to speak constantly in the same voice you would use to tell a bed-time story, dramatic iambic pentameter and all.
11. You think it's perfectly reasonable to write everything down in gigantic squiggly handwriting on one-sided graph-paper.
12. You feel more secure when a sign or paper has a giant ink stamp on the bottom.
13. You stop asking if it’s a holiday every time you hear fireworks.
14. You throw away all of your shorts and start wearing tight black jeans to play sports no matter how hot and uncomfortable it gets.
15. You go shopping at the rinok for Speedos so you can hang out at the beach.
16. You start wishing endless dramatic lists of very specific blessings on everyone you encounter when a simple “goodbye” would suffice.
17. You check a thousand times a day whether you still have your passport.
18. You implicitly start to believe that sitting on the ground will make you go sterile.
19. You start eating questionable food from street vendors without using hand sanitizer first.
20. You don’t think anything tastes good unless it’s been soaked in cold oil for a few hours first.
21. You sort of start to think it’s funny when people dressed like cartoon characters on TV hit each other on the head for hours on end on every TV show on every channel.
22. You stop caring about whether or not you’ve contracted tuberculosis.
23. You think it’s perfectly reasonable to drive on the sidewalk during a traffic jam, fully expecting to cut right back into traffic half a mile down the road.
24. You don’t think twice when you see nicely dressed homeless beggars yacking away on their super fancy cell-phones.
25. You wonder at least once whether all the second hand smoke is going to kill your brain or lungs first.
26. You start to think that a fish net is perfectly acceptable clothing for any age or gender.
27. You stare at people in public who are smiling and try to figure out where they are from.
28. You stare at people in public who aren’t smiling and don’t feel awkward about it.
29. You wake up each morning fully expecting to go grocery shopping three times by the end of the day.
30. You completely forget what it feels like to get something done quickly.

~It Just Gets Stranger

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bore and Peace

My first weekend in Moscow was warm and sunny. Unfortunately it's been pretty cold and rainy ever since. But it hasn't snowed so I'm thankful. There have been some empty promises of warm weather on the horizon to match the almost 24 hours of sunlight each day but I'll believe it when I see it. The silver lining, I suppose, is that absolutely everything is covered in growth. If I spend much more time outside I'm afraid I'll start budding a few leaves.

Last time I emailed I mentioned that my boss's daughter and I tried to hit up some churches that were all closed. The next day my friend Kimberly and I went back out and found out that that was the case because the next day was a religious holiday and the churches were preparing for special holiday services. We found probably the most amazing church in Moscow (I've been to enough of them now that I can say that with some credibility). It looks like a giant Russian ginger-bread house and the inside is absolutely gorgeous. They had a huge service going on that was pretty well attended. In Orthodox churches there aren't any pews so the worshipers all stand. Much of the service happens in the middle of the church where the priest will walk around blessing the people with holy water, sing, and perform other unique rituals. Orthodox services really are beautiful and fascinating and I'm happy that I have some time now (as opposed to when I was a missionary) to visit the various churches with some regularity and see all of this. Kimberly and I also went to the Christ the Savior cathedral in center Moscow which is the Russian Orthodox headquarters (this would be like the Temple Square Equivalent for Mormons). The church is unbelievably huge and absolutely gorgeous. Orthodox churches look somewhat like Catholic cathedrals but they tend to be a lot brighter. I love Catholic cathedrals but some of the more gruesome and bloody art you find there will never show up in Orthodox churches. This was actually the main reason Volodimr from Kyiv brought the Orthodox church to this part of the world in the 10th century--he didn't like the gruesome decorations in the catholic churches but when his subjects went into the Orthodox churches in Constantinople they said they no longer knew whether they were on heaven or earth (*this information is courtesy of my under-grad degree). So you can only imagine what the Orthodox Cathedrals in Moscow and Kyiv look like.

Kimberly, Acia, and I bought train tickets to go out to St. Petersburg in two weeks. We can't wait. It will be during "white nights" where in never gets totally dark because the city is so far north. It's going to be a pretty quick trip but Acia is familiar with the city and can hopefully get us around pretty efficiently.

Yesterday morning I went into center to see Lenin's tomb. His body has been preserved since he died in 1924 and the tomb sits right on Red Square and is open a couple of hours a day, most days of the week. It was pouring rain all day so I was already pretty soaked by the time I got into the tomb despite having an umbrella. I made a new friend named Misha who is about my age and is in Moscow from Siberia right now. He was just in front of me in line so we shared an umbrella and ended up hanging out for the rest of the morning. Sometimes Russians can be really friendly. Lenin's tomb was incredibly strange. His body is perfectly preserved and he looks EXACTLY like in his pictures. The tomb is really dark but there are a bunch of lights on him in the center of the room and it makes the whole thing feel pretty creepy. There are also a ton of soldiers standing guard in there making everyone move along quietly. I cannot even tell you how bizarre it was to look at his body and think that that really is Lenin. THE Lenin. On a side note, I read that his fingernails and hair still grow; I have no idea how this is possible but if it's true, the whole thing is much creepier.

I also saw Stalin's grave which is just behind Lenin's tomb on Red Square and then it was off to a monastery on the other end of town. Kimberly met me out there and we explored for a while and also went into an amazing graveyard that has a bunch of important people that apparently weren't good enough to be buried in Red Square because either they ticked off too many people (Khrushchev) or they only had money but not necessarily power.

We were pretty exhausted by late afternoon so we decided to go buy a couple of movies and watch one. Thrilled at our opportunity to get more cultured while in the Mother Country, we found Audrey Hepburn's "War and Peace." After fiddling with the DVD player in a typical Soviet apartment with a couple of old Soviets (the people Kimberly lives with) we started the film. Exactly eight minutes later Kimberly, looking at the case, said like she was breaking really bad news, "um, this thing is 208 minutes long. 60 goes into 208 a lot of times." As we had absolutely no idea what was going on the movie (mostly because we were busy talking about the Snickers, Wafly and herbal tea we were shoving down our faces like the apocalypse had arrived) we decided that we would only watch the movie 20 minutes at a time every day or two. For the last 12 minutes of the 20 we mostly just watched the clock and waited for our obligatory cultural experience to expire. So much for "War and Peace."

Work has been fun. Some of the area presidency is leaving Moscow soon so on Friday we had a Russian party in the office for them. I spent most of the week in some interesting meetings regarding property and visa issues in Ukraine and I also worked on looking into some charters for the Church's legal entity in Belorussia. Some moments at the office are really slow but I'm honestly enjoying that after a rough few months in school. The experience I'm getting here is generally more exciting and useful than I had anticipated and it makes me sick to think that I have to leave this all next month. But we'll just take it a day at a time.

Some of the pictures below are courtesy of Kimberly and Acia as I have been too lazy to take a lot of pictures myself.

One of the 7 sisters Stalin built; impressive buildings.
Me and Kimberly eating our blini from a street vendor after a lot of walking.
Hanging one night with some members near Red Square.
Gorgeous park in Moscow.
Acia and I holding some of the biggest tomatoes I've ever seen; part of our lunch for the day.
At the monastary; some painters down below.
At the monastary.

Outside walls of the monastery.
Kruschev's grave.
Hanging in Moscow.

~It Just Gets Stranger

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Back in the USSR

Another fun few days in Mother Russia.

Sunday afternoon my friend and I went out to a gigantic park (the biggest one I've ever seen in a city) and walked around through some amazing orchards near the banks of the Moscow River. Eventually we found a pretty good band performing the Beetles' "Back in the USSR" on the street, the stars of the Kremlin in the background. This was interrupted by the two teenage boys who asked us if they could have their pictures taken with us (that's about the 50th time that's happened since I've been here). Already used to being celebrities by nature of being foreigners which Russians can tell just by looking at us (something I still don't understand), we posed like champions for about 20 shots. Watched the half-naked drunk guys dancing in front of the band for a while before heading home.

Monday was my birthday--I didn't tell anyone except for my 2 friends in the area office down the hall who brought me a Russian cake at lunch time. Monday night the three of us went exploring in the city until we found an authentic Ukrainian restaurant which was actually pretty well done. And the food was amazing. Made me excited to get back down to Ukraine because the food in Russia has been mostly below par (and in some places VERY below par). The food was always good in Ukraine.

Tuesday the legal counsel working in Kyiv and his wife came to Moscow and they will be working with us for the rest of the week. He's a judge from D.C. and has some pretty cool stories. We all had dinner together at my supervising attorney's house on Tuesday night.

Work has been pretty interesting this week. We've spent the week looking at Ukrainian visa issues and plans for the Kyiv temple. This has all been very fascinating for me of course. The legal work of the church is far more complicated than I ever imagined and there are so many unique issues the church in this area is dealing with on a regular basis that I never would have thought about before. When President Monson said in a recent conference address that we should be praying that doors would be opened throughout the world for the church to be able to function, I really just thought about the areas the church isn't in at all. It's been really interesting to see how many more doors the church needs to have opened in these areas where we already do have a relatively strong presence.

Last night I went into center with my boss's daughter to check out some churches. She's an attorney who graduated from BYU a couple of years ago and is in town right now visiting. For some reason most of the churches were closed last night so we mostly just walked around a lot but we did find one that may be my new favorite. It's buried away in a little neighborhood not far from the Kremlin. It sort of looks like a smaller version of St. Basil's (very colorful and decorated onion domes). It was closed so I'll be heading back there later this week to check it out. I'll get some pictures of it too while I'm there to show you all.

It took me over two hours to get to work today. First the shuttle I take to the metro didn't show up so I had to wait an extra half hour for a different one. Traffic was terrible and finally, after sitting in it without moving an inch for about 15 minutes, the driver turned off the vehicle and got out and started smoking while walking down the street. This was better, I suppose, than all the other drivers that had gotten out of the driver's seat and pulled out their bottles of vodka like it was suddenly New Years. The traffic in Moscow is the worst I've ever seen anywhere. The drivers aren't quite as crazy as they are in Cairo but the traffic is much worse. Eventually we all got out and walked the last mile and a half to the metro. Then the metro broke down (or something) so we sat underground in the dark for a while until it eventually slowly coasted into my stop. When we finally got out of the metro I was so relieved to finally be out of the hands of Moscow public transport that I didn't even care anymore that I still had to walk the last 2 miles in the rain. And I got a cheese roll on the way (which wasn't very good).

I ate a piece of what seemed to be a smoked fish from the country last night and could not get the horrible smell off my fingers for the rest of the evening. I should have taken a picture of it; you all would have died if you had seen it. I can't wait to find out what new and exciting diseases I picked up from that thing. Maybe it will cure my foot disease.

It's really hard to explain what it's like to live in Russia (or Ukraine). Strange stuff happens constantly, especially when I'm out on the street exploring by myself. I really love it--life is always exciting and unexpected; which can be a fun way to live from time to time.

I hope everyone is doing well!

~It Just Gets Stranger

Monday, May 18, 2009

Vlad's Cheese Roll and Tajikistan

Hi everyone

Hope you are all doing well.

I've had a fun and exciting few days. My boss has been in Prague the last few days so it's been pretty quiet at the office especially since Friday around noon when I finished the stuff he left for me to do. I made a couple of new friends who work down the hall in the area presidency office (one girl from Orem that is doing an internship here and another girl from Russia who works full time for the area presidency). So Friday night we hung out and went to "Angels and Demons" in Russian. And it's a good thing I had read the book because I never would have known what the heck was going on otherwise---I'm finding out that my Russian sucks even more than I thought it did. Sometimes I seem to do ok and I'll come out of a conversation with someone feeling pretty good about myself and then the next minute somebody will ask me something simple and I have no clue what they're saying. But I'm getting by and my Russian is getting a little better.

After the movie (it was past midnight) I was a little stressed about how I was going to get home because the nearest metro stop is 5 miles or so from where I live and the busses that go from that metro to my hood stop at about 10:00. I'm also not yet very familiar with the area so I wasn't sure how to figure it all out. I ended up walking it, pepper spray firmly grasped in my right hand the whole way. It took forever but I remarkably found my way and felt pretty safe the whole time. Since the sun sets so late here it doesn't really ever feel as late as it is. People are still out at 11:00 when it's just gotten dark like it's 5:00 in the afternoon.

Yesterday I went exploring for a while. Found some cool churches. Ate something from every questionable street vendor in Moscow, including one regretful cheese roll I bought from a guy named Vlad. Between noon and 3:30 I ate:

-2 pieces of fried chicken
-An apricot roll-
An unidentified piece of something that had something black in it-
A bag of poppy-seed wafers
-Vlad's cheese roll
-A bowl of borsht
-Some KFC fries

Each of those items came from a different place.

Last night I went to a long institute activity and got another intense dose of Russian for a few hours. Then I went out with a group of institute people for the night. Ate some borsht again. Not as good as mine. Tried to go to a museum because it was free museum night in Moscow. The line stretched all the way to Siberia so we gave up. Found a couple of street performers doing some good covers of U2 songs. Hung out there for a while. Danced with some old drunk shirtless Russian guys. Moscow is amazing at night---Red Square was closed because they had Eurovision here but we were able to see it from a short distance. At night St. Basil's looks like a fairy-tale land castle.

Made it home again late last night but I found a guy from Tajikistan named Olgy to drive me the 5 miles for four bucks---well worth it. And he didn't try to kidnap me or anything. But he did yell some number at me (146) and then gave me a toothless smile and a thumbs up as I exited his vehicle. Still not sure what the number was supposed to be but I gave him a thumbs up back and said "absolutely!"

I think I'm going to go to St. Petersburg 2 weekends from now with a couple of friends. Loving Russia!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jet Lag

It's been a few days and you should all know that I'm never coming home from Moscow. I LOVE it here. I will miss you all but you are welcome to come move out here or visit me. (I'm sure my entire view will completely change when winter arrives).

I'm pretty exhausted now and not really in the mood to do a pain-staking detailed minute-by minute recap of the last few days so I'll just mention some of the highlights:

-Celebrated WWII Victory Day yesterday. This is one of the biggest holidays in Russia and is celebrated like the 4th of July in the states. Veterans walk around in costume and people give them flowers throughout the day to thank them for their service. The day honors the 27 million Russians that died in WWII. We watched a huge military parade in the morning, the coolest part being the dozens of fighter planes that flew in awesome formations really low down the parade route.

-Got as close to Red Square as we could but the square itself was closed for the holiday. I'll try to go back tomorrow.

-Took a 3 hour party cruise down the Moscow River in the evening and watched one of the coolest firework shows I've ever seen.

-Watched some really funny drunk Russians on the party cruise. They used beer to make the party fun. I used Cola Light to keep myself awake.

This is a shot from the party cruise of an Orthodox Church near Red Square
Another shot from the cruise of Moscow University. I may be heading up there later today.
Red Square from the top the Ritz Carlton which we snuck up to to get a good view.
Another view of Moscow from the Ritz.
We marched at the tail end of this very aggressive and angry sounding parade for about an hour before discovering that it was a communist parade. We think. Red Square is straight ahead.
Veteran at the parade.

Tank in the parade.
Dark evening shot of St. Basils from the cruise.
On the cruise. Still awake.
Another shot of Red Square.

~It Just Gets Stranger