Thursday, June 30, 2011

Last Thoughts

Be careful if you wish for absolute clean and quiet. A little humanity comes wtih the mess and noise. We are used to it, but more important it is what connects us to each other as Americans and makes us willing to go outside our comfort zone to be curious and explore, to accept and welcome. From there compassion grows.

For Bob as always...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reflections 2

I had one Cultural Visit I did not write about before. We visited a museum of the first female cosmonaut who was born near Yaroslavl.

I grew up on the other side of the ocean from all the celebrations in the then USSR. According to our TV it was not a good thing USSR was first in space. Seeing a picture of the cosmonauts with Nikita Kruschev, arms raised in triumph – over outer space? over the US? – brought back lots of memories of pounding shoes and bomb shelters. It was a long time ago. But it took awhile to process in the present.

I marveled, too, at how I totally missed a woman going up since I have long supported equal rights. So I checked out distracting events in June of ’63. Governor George Wallace stood in the door of a school to stop integration. Pope John 23 died. A female cosmonaut did not register. Which was really too bad. She has an amazing story of being no one very famous or well trained but ready to work hard.

As much as I was rattled by the post-Soviet era from a distance, the people in Russia right now are living it in two generations. The older remember what they describe as the dictatorship era. Their biggest complaint (to us) is that they could not travel. The younger staff I worked with was in diapers when the USSR broke up. They have not known Communism except as another party in the elections. How will that change the attitude and priorities of Russia in the next 20 years? Fascinating.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reflections Part 1

It has taken a while to process this trip. For one thing the two most important events do not have any photo memories. In the various places I worked with children, confidentiality was a factor and no photos were allowed. Also during Russian Orthodox church services there was no photography. So those parts of the trip stay only in my mind and heart. Where they are vivid.

To say we worked in "orphanages" does not cover who we were really with although I guess it is the best description. We did one day at a Senior Center and one with disabled adults. But the bulk of my time was at a shelter for kids had just been removed from their homes due to dysfunctional families. The other days were at a locked down children’s psych ward and a boarding school for kids who were already parentless but the orphanages felt their behavior was so far out of bounds the orphanage could not handle them. They were all kids in tough situations and it is hard to imagine their future as anything but bleak. They were exceedingly well cared for as far as basic need went: clean, sheltered, fed, safe outdoor and indoor areas (albeit old and institutional), but the staff number for the number of kids was minimal. I’m sure somewhere there was counseling and medication, but in general we saw them in groups of up to 25 with only 1 or 2 monitors. In the careful professional way of staff that cannot get too involved, they were told what to do, but no contact was every made physically or emotionally. They longed for individual attention from someone for a few minutes and when it was given, could hardly stand to have it stop.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Some number of hours later.....I am am home and doing laundry. Good to be back - more reflections as I make the cultural adjustment back to Panera coffee.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

From the airport

Ah the mystery of the missing Sunday! The Eastern church celebrates western Pentecost as Trinity Sunday since the coming of the Spirit completes the Trinity. The west has 2 separate events. Hope you slept OK for wondering...

In the Moscow airport waiting for wheels up for home.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Last Days WOWs

At the shelter they had received a load of sand for a building project, and it rained to form two huge puddles so thee was no interesting anyone in Frisbee, a ball or chalk. That completely consumed them until someone found a cat with kittens. It was like the pull the the moon on the tides - no stopping the surge of children. Fortunately Mom Cat got wind of the onslaught and took the family to safely outside the locked gates. Play in the puddles resumed.

Tonight was the perfect culmination to the trip. I stumbled into the local Russian Orthodox church as the service was beginning. Around every post and pillar and icon they had installed 15 foot limbs off the local trees. It was like walking into a new forest. Everyone had bundles of branches and flowers from home and there was a que at the Candle Purchase Window!

There were 5 guys in hats (also the sign of a Big Event) and one in full Jeweled Chapeau Splendor. There were also 6 others fancy clad clergy, one of whom was whispering directions to everyone including the Very Ancient Most Awesomely Dressed elder. Whenever this Most Big of Biggies stood anywhere he had to have a rug under him so they were constantly laying down and rolling up the rugs. Everyone was in greenest/goldest of greens/golds. Our CCS director told us it is Holy Trinity Sunday, but I can find no calendar that explains why it is not Pentecost.

They made the incense at St Mark's look like a puff of air freshener.

The usual crowd of 10-12 had swelled to 70 or so. And most amazing of all there was congregational singing! I was hoping for "Holy, Holy, Holy" but whatever it was everyone knew the words. Because there are no pews, let alone pew racks for the hymnals. This is the first time I have seen a corporate action in a Russian Orthodox Church. There is lots of active involvement in crossing and bowing at random times and very seldom at the same time, but no response from priest to congregation.

The altar guild is usually scurrying around putting out Teeny Candles before they become hard to clean wax drippings. Today even they were shooed out as everyone processed out to the entrance (my escape route) and back in. I left after an hour as they began to read the Gospel. It was so wonderfully understandably holy even the only word I recognized was "thank you." I guess that's a pretty good one to know.

So Thanks Be to God for whatever day it was - it was a great one. Signing off for home -

Friday, June 10, 2011

фастор а

I know you are wondering who won the Russian "Factor A" - AKA "X-factor" for the Brits and "American Idol" for the US. It was Sergi who was not the adorable 16 year old we had rooted for. Judges were bribed, I'm sure. But the suspense is over, and I can come home.

Which I will do in about 24 hours - leaving at 7am Sunday, trekking back to Moscow, on to JFK and locating my lost luggge at Ohare where I'd like to think they will speak English at 11:25pm on my Second Sunday. I hope I can find something better to watch inflight than Ice Age II AGAIN.

How to feel old...and then older!

At the "jazz" concert - which was 2 electric guitars and a trap set and nothing that had an American jazz beat - the singer sang a song with the lyrics "I'm your Venus, I'm your fire" etc. The youngeters at my table nodded in recognition when it started and poked each other, and I thought, "Thank goodness they know some of the real classic pieces the Boomers are handing on." After it was over they commented, "That was the Gilette Venus Commercial tune. I had no idea it was a real song." Ah youth.


Back from the concert, Pizza and dessert and The Water Poureth Forth! Yippee!

It's 11pm and still only dusk...


One group has left for St Pete, the staff is gone for the weekend, and the water has departed from the building. No idea how long that will be. So far the "solution" has been to walk 1/4 miles to Russo Costco and use the public toilets there. It is not open 24 hours. So we are headed out for the Jazz Guitar" where we will partake liberally of the rest room and hope all is flushable when we get back.

More later.....

Thursday, June 9, 2011


At least that is what bye-bye sounds like. I only have one more placement tomorrow- at my favorite children's shelter. There are no goodbye's to the kids because they see people come and go all the time. I am the least important part of their care team. but I did teach them pop up butterflies and windsocks. Which made for some very toothless grins as they are all 6-8. It is so little in such a big problem, but it will have to be enough.

Tomorrow night is something billed as a Jazz Festival, but the woman arranging it mentioned a lot of guitar so....
Saturday I have 2 more churches to find, some last souvenirs to buy and then pack. I leave here Sunday at 7am, from Moscow at 2:20pm. I fee fairly well acquainted with the airport, its back alleys and dark halls...

I'll have more reflections after I ma home but I will say this has been enlightening in its similarities and differences from the US. Growing up with a bomb shelter under the house, talk of sputnik and Castro, to meet Russians post Soviet and next generation post-Soviet has been fascinating. The role of the church is almost museum like. Social service is what it is and no one expects any better. Persons connections are everything and forgive everything. More like us, less like us.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Counting down

We had a cultural trip today to a very clean town of 3000 that is supposed to eventually be what Russia would have been if the Soviets had never come. It is a work in progress. Several little museums with relics that were pretty interesting. and restored buidlings - or not restored but open. A singer sewing machine dry good store and home. A stream wiht little saunas by it.
A tea shop, probably a B&B kind of place. A church that we could take pictures in - that was good. The kicker is that there are people who live there, commute to jobs, plant gardens and are not part of the "restoration." So they come out to stand and look at the tourists looking at the town. It's a little strange - the back story says the community is not totally behind the development. But it was pretty colorful.

The New People are getting used to spending evening in the Craft Room awash with scissors and glue. Tomorrow we make pop up butterflies.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Different spaces and faces

Today I went to groups I have not seen before, both in the same day center.

In the morning was a senior center with a guitar concert, tea, then games and crafts featuring us. They cheered to know I had 5 grandchildren and thought the children were wonderful. Good group. 98% women but 2 engineers, 6 factor workers, a dentist and an actress. And a poet who with any encouragement (like a simple "da") would recite lovely poems with great feeling. Oh yes and 1/2 were totally deaf. So we had English to Russian to sign language and back again with 2 interpreters. 100% had been born in Yarosalvl and never lived anywhere else.

In the afternoon after borsch we went back to a disabled adult gathering. Games and crafts. Several spoke English and we had some wild games of dominoes and Uno.

The influx of talent has decreased the prep time for placements by quite a bit. Tomorrow we go to a Russian village that sounds like a cross between Williamsburg and Celebration City in Orlando.

Monday, June 6, 2011

New Energy

We had an influx of 6 new people last night - after they get past the jet lag it will be fun. Nice to have more to go to the sites and play with the kids. Nobody touches my Chinese checkers board, however. Plus cutting out 27 little butterflies has got to be easier with 3 rather than 1! 3 college students, 2 working women and a non profit consultant only here for a day or two. Hope they like glitter.

The shelter is by far my favorite place, but it may be the saddest. The kids are living in the group home because of dysfunctional families. They are normal kids who have princess ball caps and cute jeans and are immaculately clean. The place they live is open and sunny, but they have been removed from their family because the adults could not function as parents. They could be in regular school with their friends, and you would never know which ones they were. They are so close to having normal lives, and it is only the grown ups who stand in their way. So part of me thinks "What good is a paper windsock?" But for 2 hours an adult helped them make something pretty that fluttered, said words they do not hear at home like "good job", someone smiled to see them and made them smile. I can't help when they cry at night, but for a couple of hours, the attention and praise of a grown up were gift enough.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lovely Day on the Volga

Finally some warm and sunny weather. I walked along the Volga with many, many others - all silent. In my primitive Russian, I traveled on the bus, got ice creams and souvenirs. Da, da, da.

And typical clergy on Sundays I stuck my head into ever church I passed - here that is no mean feat. There are 16 in Yaroslavl - 4 are museums, I saw 8 actual churches. Some were wrapping up services, some in full incense swinging mode. As one congregation left the altar guild dutifully rolled the tank of holy water to out of the sanctuary. There immediately formed a que of folks with plastic water bottles, and they each got a bottle full of holy water to take ...home? Drink? Wash? Save for later? No idea.

Another week begins - my last one here. Some experiences I have not even been able to put into words, and most will be better with pictures. Don’t even think you’ll get out of hearing them! It has been fascinating and enlightening...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Little weekend stuff

"When you get to the Volga turn around." That was about the only thing we were sure of making our way through Yaroslavl with a colorful tourist map. We were lost then found then lost again. Some of the places we went to see were not where they should be since we were sure we were in the right place, but we had lunch at a place called Mr Desserts where it was all intense chocolate all the time so the day was considered a huge success.

The exchange rate I have in my head is that 300 rubles is about $10. Then I sort of add an subtract from there. Imagine our delight to find a $1 store in Russia called "36 rubles"!

We are hooked on an elimination contest based closely on the "X Factor" - which of course had to be explained to me, too. Here it is фактор а - Factor A. Anyway there is some talent and judging and phoning and someone is voted off the stage. We are down to the final 2 so I have to stay and see who wins. Friday night one of the winners sang an amazing rendition of "Hotel California" - yep - the one from a Previous Decade/Century - in English, wearing what he though was correct costuming - cowboy chaps and boots.

We went into a church gift shop and the lady - suspecting we were neither Russian nor Orthodox - suspiciously looked at us and asked not "Americans?" but "catholic?" When I tried "Anglican" she did not give an inch but with "Lutheran" (pronounce lut-er-eeeeeen) she snorted and said "not so bad."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Teaching English

We had 1.5 hours today to teach English to HS students – 16 or 17, in a Vocational School. Currently they learn English form movies and signs.

There were 2 teachers. The regular teacher was a good friend of our director, very pleasant and I think a good teacher. We also had the head of the department who was Old School, told us multiple times she was a strict disciplinarian, and totally took over the class from the regular teacher. She also took us to her classroom and proudly showed us the typical American phrases she had been teaching. One was “nothing much to sing about.”

She also took us to the library and there in all its radiance was a Card Catalog, each drawer labeled with a letter of the Cyrillic alphabet. She asked, “You know this? Do they have in America?” Yes, and, sadly, no.

Naturally when I say Chicago the first word is “mafia.” Sigh. Then I told them about Michael Jordan and basketball. And I pointed out that President Obama is from Chicago. They were far more interested in knowing if Oprah was really going off the air.

Anyway with her help we got through our presentations and asked what they knew about the US. DH bragged “they know all the movie starts and great writers.” They proudly listed off Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Chan for screen stars and Hawthorne, Dreiser, and Salinger for authors. We have a time warp, Scottie!

In class we introduced ourselves and the kids actually were attentive and interactive enough to tell me they understood. Dept Head prowled the room “disciplining” anyone who… well… acted like a teenager. This group was far more quiet than Glenbard West. Even the halls between classes were almost silent. And clean.

Then the teacher had a question. “What are American jests?” Jokes? Funny stories? AFV? No – like hand signs. Ah – gestures. They knew tapping the head for “crazy” and thumbs up for “good.” Then my colleague described the Middle Finger Bad Sign, and they, in all curiosity, asked, “Right or left hand?” I don’t want to think what the lunch room looked like as they practiced what the Americans taught them.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Looking around

The apartment we live in has 3 levels - level 1 is the entrance, office for the staff, room to plan and make crafts and the showers. Plus the shelves where one always leaves outdoor shoes and puts on inside ones. Level 2 is the dining room/living room/kitchen, two bathrooms, and one bedroom for 10 plus a glassed in porch where laundry dries. Plus the TV - which plays only Russian shows. Level 3 has rooms for sleeping and 2 bathroom. Some sleeping rooms are 2-person (my current companion and I each have one), a couple of 3 person and one for 6. It is pretty much up and down for anything.

I can find my way around in Russian! I take the bus uptown, exchagne money, buy food.

We have had a lot of room to spread out now, but on Sunday 6 more folks arrive who overlap me and an observer for just 2 days. So the dynamics will change again.

Someone asked yesterday if there were any loud things. I am anguished to note American music is played very loud. It is more like disco than rap and there is a sprinkle of stuff even I know. Actually all music/radio is and the TV is kept loud.

On TV we have a new favorite Russian show - it appears to be a detective team and the smartest in the bunch by far is Rex the German Shepherd. At just the right moment as the Dumb Detectives are overlooing the same clue the entier audience spootted whne they walked in, Rex will ARF (sounds the same in English) and the mystery will be solved! Sometimes he gets a bone as a reward.

We made lots of cutout Gingerbread type figures this week for International Children's Day. All successful. And I lost some more dominoes. Tomorrow we go to the Vocational School and talk in English! Then it is the weekend!

Yep - Lady Gaga is played here. Loudly.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Suddenly I noticed….

On the playground, in the classroom, won the street, the Americans are the only ones making noise. This was intensified by a trip to the store today.

We checked out behind two man who were having a obviously furious discussion with the clerk, but the voices were never raised. The next man ahead of us could not get his credit card to work. They had to call over a manager and everyone was very angry about everything but still no raised voices.

Then I remembered on the playground yesterday I was shooting basketball and cheering, but the kid never made a sound. He gave a “thumbs up” He smiled. He can talk, but this did not motivate him to. In general on the streets there is traffic noise but little honking – less than a high school parking lot at dismissal. And people make no loud conversation unless they are drunk.

Plus the town is clean, clean as in NO paper, plastic wrappers, cigarette ends, nothing in the gutters, alleys, streets. Even in the middle of the City Celebration the streets were spotless. Same with the people. Except for a few beggar types (very few here) everyone is freshly washed. The children at all the centers – shelter for kids from dysfunctional families, school for kids the orphanages can’t handle, and the ones at the psych hospital are freshly washed and spotless clothing every day.

Ah, and on time. We were warned that in Russia 2pm means 2pm. Not later. (In sharp contrast to India where 2pm meant 2:45 or 2:55 but certainly no earlier than 2:30) And it is true. There is no deviation from the assigned time for events. Yesterday the driver asked if we could leave for our schools at 9:25 instead of 9:30. The sign in the dining room reads: “Dinner 6-6:30. All dishes to be cleared and table completely clean no later than 6:30.”

Quiet, clean, and on time.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Friday we get a new opportunity

There is a high school in town of kids who probably won't go to university because of economic hardship and we are going to talk to 16-17 year olds in English (!). Basically they just want to know about Americans and get a chance to use their English with a Real Person so the topic is wide open. I brought pictures of the family, seasons, pets, parts of the US, so I am prepared to speak on anything. Even the gospel for June 26 which is my next time to preach. Let's see if I can work that into the conversation.

I located the technology Russians diverted from instruments of war – high powered, super sized mosquitoes.

I am getting pretty adept at the Cyrillic alphabet which only looks like something I might remember from Seminary Greek. I can read Salon and Automaster and Supermarket in Russian! Those should come up in crossword puzzles more often.

Tomorrow is International Children’s Day – although looking on the internet every country seems to think it is a different date and no two countries agree so I guess it is Russia’s celebration of the international event. Anyway we made cut out people shapes to put around one of the least recognizable maps of the world ever created. By me. Its one virtue was tissue paper waves on all the oceans. By the time the figures were added, however, it rivaled a UN poster!

And I lost my 401st consecutive game of Chinese checkers.

Happy International Children's Day whenever you celebrate it!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Little insights

The younger Russians say that the end of communism was good because they can travel wherever they want. The older Russians like it because they all get their pensions and can retire. Overall the mood seems optimistic - but it is summer. People don't regularly smile, and if they encounter someone who does they assume that person is not in charge of all their faculties. Russian receptionists have to be taught to smile when answering the phone.

Open beer bottles on the bus was a new sight for me. Liquor is sold at outdoor kiosks and can be drunk on the street at any time EXCEPT the recent City Celebration. First time they tried not having beer in the open for a big event, and they were happy with the result. I personally only saw 2 fall down drunks and lots of loud teens. I felt safe - but did not realize how lucky we were this was the year they kept it dry. Er.

Younger men carry bags - like a small travel case, 8 1/2 x11, black leather on a shoulder strap - for all their stuff. Makes sense, but will be a while before it replaces the Electronic Tool Belt in the US.

I have not seen people of any races other than white. I asked and the "ethnic" groups are gypsies and Ukrainians. This is a community of 600,000, not Moscow.

How to get a job in Russia: Know someone. That is not contrasted with "Know Something" - it is the only way. People do not move far from home because that is where the only contacts are, and the only way to be employed is by knowing someone. Here, the night guards are the dirctor's son and the translator's brother. Relationships are the only recommendation.

One of our translators trained as a teacher. Of the 90 who graduated with her 5 years ago, none are now teaching. The pay is so low no men would ever teach, and the women get better paying jobs doing anything else.

We produce a different craft project for 8 classes each week - some can be adapted for younger or older. Then indoor games - dominoes and Chinese checkers, but soon devolve into building with the dominos until they fall don from rolling the marbles from the Chinese checkers at them. I have played Extreme Uno and Jenga. The great things about all these are that none requires any counting! And the only strategy is "How to Lose but Not so Badly that it Looks Suspicious."

Hope you are all having a nice First of Real Summer Day Off!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Late Night in Yaroslavl

To cap off the activities of City Celebration we hopped the 10pm bus back to the city center. By now the babies in prams (literally – I have not seen an umbroller anywhere!) to watch the “fire show.” It started with music and dancers and a few gymnasts left over from earlier, but the back lights were so bright we could see none of it. ½ the football field was filled with people, milling, dancing, listening and just having fun. About 1000 on the field, another 2000 in the stands and around the perimeter.

Then the fire show began with FIRE. Flaming torches and batons were twirled and thrown and the belches of fame when one was lit were spectacular. This ended with some low firecrackers with the flaming dancers and ended in loud cheering so we headed home. Secure in the superiority of US pyrotechnology.

Then we heard from another part of the town over by the Volga the familiar sound of sky shooting fireworks. People ran as a group/mass/mob about ¼ mile and there was a truly fantastic fireworks display. 15 minutes of ooo and ahhhh and we were ready to go home – midnight by now. We and 3000 of our closet Russian Friends – we had no idea how close they were about to become!

There are 2 major bus stops and we can only take the 19 or 19K. So 1500 of us waited at one and 1500 at the other. When we left on our bus – having not been able to squeeze even us on the 19K that first arrived – there appeared to still be 1500 at each stop. Maybe they were riding around and coming back. 19K Part 2 bus was no less full, and we were the last stop before leaving the City Center. “Close” does not begin to describe our new relationship with Russia. Cheek to cheek? But unlike Italy where an opportunity like that breeds trouble, there was not a single nudge or bump that was not just necessary to get a few folks on and off.

We almost missed out stop because we could not get to the door, but once again the other passengers shifted and made way – realizing by then we were Americans. As we left one shouted, “Now you Russian bus!” Yes – now we Russian bus! Successfully since we were home by 2am. A big night on the town in Yarolsalvl!

Two hours of volunteering go like this: craft, indoor games, outdoor games (weather permitting). So we try to make the craft take a long time so game time is reduced. Especially indoor games which result in flying monkeys. (See Friday!)

Breakfast is kasha – milky buttery rice or wheat. The big meal is at noon – soup, main course, dessert. Dinner is main course. We have a good cook and an OK cook. Both use butter like the cow is in the backyard and do not stint the grease in the soup, potatoes or meat. Just like my mother used to make! There is probably a grease can in the refrigerator.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

City Celebration

So far the streets and sidewalks in the town have been very quiet, but the warm weather and a City Celebration brought them out today. Lots of families with babies and young persons came to see craft booths and musicians, get balloons and ice cream and something called Kvass which is like ginger ale without so much ginger. It was the Drink of Peasants. It was a warm day for strolling all the way along the Volga, climbing a bell tower in the kremlin and trying to determine if I can get to every single church in 3 weeks.

There was a football field full of dancers and gymnists and violin players. Pretty much every kid in Yaroslavl who had talent was particiating. The Russians do nothing on a small scale. If there is a ballet it is 250 ballerinas. In the stiffest tutus I have ever seen. And the new park that was dedicated in 2010 had the flowers replanted to read 2011....

We stopped by the local church on the way to town and got there when the gates to the Holy of Holies was open and saw - amid much insense and bell ringing - the moment of consecration! (Really on a clergyperson on holiday would care!) Since services are about 3 hours long hitting a Big Moment is rare. As we were leaving a big tour bus pulled up - apparently their timing was off. I hope the Father hadn't counted the wafers looking at the assembled group and been surprised the by the latecomers! Oh, well there was a gift shop.

We ate lunch at the VanGogh restaurant. No clue why it is called that. And found a bookstore with a Cinderella in Russian - as well as the novel with the man lost on an island, and he finds a helper called "Friday" but I can't remember the title.

Thus we end week 1!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Flying monkeys

We were with the hospitalized children today. It was the first day warm enough to open an upper window but too wet from last night to go out. So there were high spirits all around, and no where to vent them. Plus they had to turn off the TV when we arrived. Never a good idea. Our craft got 22 takers and 8-10 who circled the room, too advanced for crafts, but interested and available for poking, grabbing, commenting.

We played indoor games after - I have not lost that many consecutive games of Chinese checkers in a long time! But since I was playing dominoes with another kid at the same time, it was not surprsing. I lost at that, too. Out of the corner of our eyes we kept seeing something happening by the window, but when we got a full look, all was quiet and absolutely angelic in a way that told us something really was going on big time. But we could not catch it.

Finally on the way out we walked beneath the window and found the drive littered with green plastic monkeys, dice, dominoes and checkers. That's why the game bag was so light.

Last night we ate out at a Georgian restaurant. The food is not quiet as sweet as the Russian food and very tasty. The best part was the English menu. There were:

"Sauces for Combustable Meat" (we assume that meant the meat was grilled but
no one ordered it case it torched the table

"Chicken on a Russian/Georgian" (turned out to be a dish prepared with
different spices depending on the country of origin of the spice)

Several dishes wiht "Language" in it (turned out these were meals
containing "tongue" which makes sense in a Translated by Google sort of way)

Dinner, as it has been in every country, is accompanied by the cook's favorite soap opera. Since it is in Russian with no subtitles we are free to write the storyline as we see fit. Now three days into it the plot is so complex we need a chart to remember who is relating to whom. Luckily the bad persons - around the world - have evil pointy eyebrows.

The 5 pm service at the church across the road was still going strong at 5:40 when we arrived after shopping at the local Carousel (think Cosco Russo). In fact I think I recognized the end of the Epistle and the beginning of the Gospel, but it took 20 minutes to get through the sequence hymn, and we had to go for dinner. In a move I am sure is still hotly debated by the local altar guild, the bases of all the gold candelsticks were wrapped in cellophane.
"We have to protect them."
"People should just learn not to kick them. Why should we change?"
"Holy Father says we have to be welcoming..."
"Hrumph. In my day..."

The weekend before us!

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Part from looking out the window and part from speaking with the staff:

Age of marriage is getting older - 26 for women, 29 for men.

50% divorce rate. It is easy unless it is complicated. (!)

Marriage is civil ceremony - just signing paperas at the office - then a luncheon. 10 years later or so if things are going well the union is blesed by the church but it is a 3 hour servcie and greatly restricts your options for divorce.

Women stay home 1.5-3 years wiht full pay. Then all children go into group kindergartens.

Most young singles nad newliweds live with either one's parents.

Fat is a function of age. Young women are very thin. Middle ages and oldr is heavy. Men are muscular as youth, grow a pot in mild to late life. I have not yet seen a truly fat person a la Disney World.

Retirement is 55 for women. 65 for men. After that they get a pension that is not enough to live on. So they go on working.

After a death there is a service at the church connected to the cemetary and a burial. Cremation is not allowed yet in Yaroslavl although it is in Moscow and St Petersberg. At 9 days after there another gathering. Again at 14 days after they come together. Each gathering has a church service and a remembering party.

Today we made a very hungry caterpillar and a long green worm. No predicting how anyone will react or behave. Like home but a little more volitile and no parents to direct or care for them. All clean and fed. Few loved. I have room in my bag....

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candelight.
In summer quite the other way: I have to go to bed by day!
Robert Louis Stevenson

It does not get dark here until around 11:15p.m. and the sun gets up again long before I am - maybe 4:30a.m. or so. They describe the life in Russia as hurry hurry during the short summer and sleep on the stove all winter. It is not quite the White Nights of Petersburg where it never really gets darker than dim, but it is hard to convince myself it is bedtime when it is still daylight!

Traffic here seems very polite in that there is absolutely no recreational honking for just amusement or to warn a pedesterian to get out of the way. There are striped areas by signs that say "crosswalk" but I have yet to see any car stop for a pedestrian in one. And drivers do not like to swerve. Where there are crossing lights, they blink green for 10 seconds and then blink very fast green and beep for 5 more and then cars just go. Walkers run or else...But it is quiet.

We went to a Teddy Bear museum today. The story behind the city is that St Yaroslavl had to wrestle a bear who was the sacred totem of the tribe who was settled here before he came. He won, but the bear is the symbol of the city. Micha Bear which is Russian for Michael. We heard lots of bear history, then had a hot chocolate - think pure chocolate bar melted in a cup - and watched the shoes go by from the cafe. After that a long walk up the Volga we heard a concert with what must be one of the two pieces of music I can recognize: Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy. (The other one is Stars and Stripes Forever.)

I saw preschoolers today which is much better for me, and most of them don't talk yet so language is no problem. Cute as they are and normal as they look, they are there because life at home is so bad they have been taken away for either family rehabilitation or adoption. Today they made dragonflies that made them smile. A tiny gift of time and imagination is all I get to give.

Our driver knows both the Bulls and Balckhawks. Most other people know nothing about Chicago! We obviously need to export more movies.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Working with the kids

Our first day of teaching. The Russian education philosophy is that one must produce something to be doing profitable/helpful work. So what we must do at every level, for every group, is a craft activity. Paper, tissue, glue, yarn, scraps. It is all in a wonderful workroom and each day requires at least 2 and sometimes 4 craft projects prepared. I am not even good at making the samples! But the kids will not have an unattainable goal...tomorrow is dragonfiles!

Imagine the wildest pairs of shoes for women, on 4" heels with platforms, laces, multicolored and open toe. They have all been shipped here and are being worn by women pushing prams! Women stay home for the first year after a baby is born and then go back to work so the streets were full of babies and adorable moms who could topel off their footwear any moment!

We had a town tour, and Yarolsalv is lovely. They celebrated 1000 years in 2010 so everything in the center of town is fresh and new, parks and statues and churches all freshened and painted. We did not get to go in anyplace but know how to take the bus now and have lots of sites to go back and visit.

The food is potato heavy but tasty, and there is plenty of strong coffee. Almost Lutheran!

Ah...the spel chek here only speaks Russian so according to it I just misppeled every word. Good luck.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The lost are found

That phrase has a new meaning when it is one's luggage that is lost and the "pasture" is the airport in Moscow, Russia. The first reply (after filing out forms in triplicate (meaning 3 separate forms, 3 separate times) was that said luggage was in NYC and I had to drive back 5 hours the next day to get it. Then with a little more hmmmm it appeared the bag was coming on the next flight an hour later! Yippee! But it will be in the baggage claim in the next terminal. I can't get back there after exiting the secure zone. An hour of lots of confusion(in one case the elevator opened on the 3rd floor by the kitchen of a restaurant - I missed that when I tried to get back down) and the difference between "held" luggage and "lost" luggage, Everyone wanted to see every document I had collected and the stack was getting impressive. And then each one would call the original lady who could only tell me to "go to the same place in E." Long basement corrdiors, unmarked doors later I opened one and found two ladies behind computers and said, "Can you help me?" They made a few more phone calls - by now my bag had arrived and NOT been claimed on the belt(!)- but I can't there from where I am. Yes??? But they have someone who will meet me. I am greeted by a military man in full stars and regalia who has a very frowny face but he takes me through more bowels of the airport to the bag. I see it has a faint aura around sort of like the stable at Bethlehem. I whimper and he asks, "Is this yours?" "Yes. Do you want to see my papers?" "No. Get bag. Go now." Sure - just point me to the door!

Varoslavl is 5 hours north and we stop for borsch served under boar's heads on the wall. Great meal.

All reunited with my loved ones, I am safe in Yaroslavl.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Always a glitch!

Like a house closing something comes onto the best laid plans. I called the ATM folks yesterday to tell them I'd be out of the country and found our my card had been cancelled for lack of use! Apparently I need to travel even more! They would be glad to open a new account and my card could be in Glen Ellyn in 3-5 business days! By then I'll be far from Glen Ellyn. Finally an upper level manager spotted the fact that I had a year between transactions before it should be coped and I had in fact used it last November. Those hyperactive overachievers in accounting just jumped the gun! So we are in business again.

The more I read and hear about Russia the sharper the contrast between the Asian and European influences. In our conference call the counselor mentioned the "personal space" was far less than the US. That was very true in Ondia and China but I attributed some of it to dense population. Russia has the geographic sprawl of the US but still the Asian concept of space. Fascinating!

Well personal space will be nonexistent on the flights in any event so I'll adjust!

Monday, May 16, 2011

less than a week

Seems like I am ready - well, the last laundry, etc. I take one rolling duffle bag and a back pack. If I take more glue sticks, I take less underwear. And books have priority over everything!

Today we got our assignments. Unlike India where I worked in the same day care with 2-3 year old kids every day, our assignments in Russia change daily. There are 6 community centers in Yaroslav that we serve for seniors, mentally challenged adults, and kids in transition out of home to foster/adopted care. So we are told to bring a lot of craft ideas. There are also some hospital opportunities. Since this is the start of the Russia volunteer season - no one goes in winter which apparently just ended - at least they won't have made all the crafts I have in mind.

The weather looks clear and slightly warmer than Chicago! I have layers of clothing. And women must have a scarf and skirt to go into any church.

About this time I am wondering why I do this....and looking for prayers. This year is no different!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Suddenly it's May!

March lasted forever and April Zoomed by - now it is departure month! Get the rubles. check the air flights. Buy travel sized shampoo.

One of my favorite parts of getting ready is assembling pictures to show of the family and parts of the our country. The hands down winner with every group is my son's dog Munster. Take a look at that face!

Russians write no small books. I am slogging through Edward Rutherfurd's Russka - think Michener without such tight editing! Like China, Russia has been a secret place, surrounded by stereotypes on our side. One of the joys of working in a community is we get to see and understand how people really live.

There will only be 3 of us at the Yarolslavl site when we arrive - this is early for Russia, but I am working around the library summer reading progam! We may not have to share a bathroom.

The program uses a lot of simple crafts - for orphange kids and adults in special assistance homes. Any suggestions using only paper, glue, and markers?

Thursday, April 28, 2011


April is racing by and in May the trip begins. We are now a small group - just 3 volunteers, with I think that many staff. It is early to go to Russia - it will only be in the mid 70's, but the help will be needed any time. A different opportunity.

I hope to explore lots of Orthodox Russian churches and icons. The legend of how Russia became Orthodox is that the ruler wanted to unite the country under one religious that would transcend territory so he sent emissaries to the Roman catholics and the Muslims and the Protestants, but the "requirements" for each were too much. Then they went to Constantinople and fell in love with the architecture and that was that. Moscow called itself the Third Rome and for a long time felt itself to be the spiritual leader of the world. It will be interesting to see post-Communism how the churches are doing. Many church buildings are now museums.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


I will be limited by weight, but they allow us to bring supplies for the kids in Russia! Constuction paper, white paper, and Scotch tape - anyone want to share?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yaroslavl, Russia

I have a brand new passport with plenty of pages and a Russian visa! Trip dates are May 21-June 12.

Yaroslavl, Russia,( is about 150 miles northeast of Moscow so we land there. It is one of the cities on the Golden Ring, full of architecture and icons. And 11 orphanages, homes for the handicapped, and street children. We work in all of them. Lots to see and experience.

I am traveling with Cross Cultural Solutions again. I like their method of housing us all in a volunteer home base together so we can share experiences in the evenings and find travel companions for the weekends. The food and water are safe and if you run of shampoo, someone brought extra.

The weather should be in the low 60's, but the sun is up from 4am to 10pm!

Prereading has been heavy! Russians never write small books. Anna Karenina I split between audio CD and book form and finished it! I am looking for a good movie of War and Peace. I read The Last Station, a novel of Tolstoy and From Nyet to Da about Russian business culture and Natasha's Dance about the influence of history on culture. The Russian Orthodox church is another vast subject all together, and I am looking forward to seeing icons.

So welcome to the journey!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Journey Continues

Visa in hand at last! I'm off to Russia in May for 3 weeks of work in an orphanage.