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.