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?