Friday, September 29, 2006

From the Headlines

Two recent news items remind us that we are in a foreign land. I've been debating whether or not to post them for nearly a week. I certainly don't want to cause anyone alarm, but frankly, there are occasional xenophobic episodes that remind us to be cautious and keep a low-key profile. Fortunately, we feel relatively safe in our daily lives. Click on either one to read more.

Vandals attack synagogues in Russia
Attackers stab Indian medical student to death in St. Petersburg

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More of Matt's Musings

As I'm sure you've noticed, Alyson's posts tend to be very deep and focused. Mine are a little more, well, schizophrenic would be the right word. In that vein, here are more random things to enjoy:

A Trip to the Ballet
We went to the Russian State Conservatory for a performance of "Swan Lake." This is NOT the Mariinsky Theater, although it's right next door; we'll make it over there someday soon, but we haven't saved up enough money for our tickets yet! A two-minute clip of the ballet (we clandestinely taped it) is available by clicking here--it's a little bit boring at the beginning, but gets better later. We should charge you the 400-ruble ticket charge for watching it! (Just kidding...)

Learning Russian is Really Important
There are so many interesting opportunities for us to experience as Americans, but if we want to access real Jewish life here, we need to know Russian. For example, last week were invited to a fascinating meeting of volunteers for Adayin Lo. This is a major Jewish educational organization here in SPB: over its 16-year history, it has grown from a small group of children meeting informally in Genia Lvova's kitchen into a massive enterprise, with 7 locations throughout SPB. It has developed a group that is any Jewish organization's dream: a core of roughly 75 volunteers, generally between the ages of 16 and 20, who are almost all products of Adayin Lo's educational program, having come up through the ranks and are now excited to give back to the organization.

So here we are, sitting in this meeting, surrounded by about 40 of these inspiring young adults. Genia, now the organization's executive director, had generously been translating for us, but now she had to run the meeting. On our own, we were able to understand the questions posed to the group -- "What got you involved with Adayin Lo? How long have you been involved? What do you hope to receive from your volunteering here?" -- but the responses were indecipherable. Although we couldn't understand the exact words, we understood the general emotion: here was a group that was excited to be getting older, to come into their own as Jewish adults, and to spend their time and energy providing for the younger generation. This is what I mean when I talk about how Russian is critical to our experience: it is the key that will open up the door to understand more than just the question, but also its answer.

I Have a Confession to Make
OK, so now that you know how important Russian is, you'll understand when I confess that I'm a bit of a Russian dork. I'm always up for a challenge, and learning the world's third-hardest language (Finnish and Japanese are considered more difficult) is exactly what I'm looking for. In another post, I'll talk about why Russian is so difficult; for now, just know that solving the Middle East Crisis would be easier than learning to speak Russian fluently.

What makes me so nerdy? Well, I sit in front of the TV with a dictionary in my lap. I tend to read every ad on the street, looking for words I don't understand. When I find them, which is constantly, I write them in my PDA to look up in the dictionary when I get home. I also have these great flash-cards that have Russian on one side and English on the other (thanks, Shannon, for letting me borrow them!), and I bring them everywhere. Whenever I have a few minutes free, I'm flipping through these cards one after another, trying to learn useful words. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

So my obsession with Russian is a little bit on the geeky side. But in my defense, if you lived in a society where you struggled to communicate effectively, wouldn't you do everything you could to learn the local language? For example, I had to go to three different grocery stores last night searching for pasta sauce; every time I tried to describe what I was looking for, the store clerks would point me to the ketchup! And besides, SPB has the world's deepest Metro system; when it's a full 2-minute ride down and back up the Metro's escalators, what else is there to do but read through your Russian flashcards?

The Search for Fun
In my quest to learn Russian, I've come across all sorts of interesting linguistic factoids. For example, Russian has a word for new buildings where construction has started but will never be completed because they ran out of money; apparently such buildings are common enough to deserve their own name!

On a different note, I haven't been able to find a word in Russian that directly coincides with "fun." Depending on who you ask, you'll get all sorts of answers...but when you delve a little deeper, you quickly find out that it's not really "fun" that they're describing. My friends and colleagues have suggested all sorts of similar words -- "interesting," "funny," "diversions," even "to take a walk"-- but I still haven't found "fun" here in Russia. The search continues...

Monday, September 25, 2006

Celebrating the New Year in a New Place

Rosh Hashanah 5767 will prove to be one of the most memorable of my life. Celebrating a Jewish holiday in Russia is especially tricky when those who identify as Jewish don't even celebrate. Overall, the Jewish community is not religiously affiliated; rather, they prefer the cultural aspects of Judaism. I suspect that holidays such as Chanukah and Purim are more strongly embraced than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Since there are only two options for davening in St. Petersburg, Matt and I made a point to share the holiday with both communities. We spent erev Rosh Hashanah and the first day with the progressive (Reform) community, Shaarei Shalom. On Friday night, we hosted our first meal here. We tried to invite some young adults from the community but we found that everyone worked on Friday evenings and could not accept our invitation for an early meal. We hosted two study abroad students, one from England and one from Argentina. It was nice to share the chag with others who were no doubt feeling how we were feeling – far away from home. After dinner, we walked over to YESOD, the Jewish community home where we work, and where the progressive community was congregating. Services began at 7:00 and drew a crowd of 125 or so, including a handful of young families, young professionals, middle aged couples, and a few seniors. After services, there was an amazing kiddush, schmoozing, klezmer (performed by Hillel students) and dancing. The atrium was packed wall-to-wall, the atmosphere was festive, and the energy was infectious.

Not only was this a new place for us to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, YESOD is a new place for the entire community to celebrate the new year. Open for less than a year, this was the first time anyone from the community has heralded the new year at YESOD. Seeing the space used so organically by a home-grown Jewish community really warmed my heart.

Saturday morning at the progressive synagogue on Vassilevsky Island (a 10-minute ride from our apartment) was equally warm and “happy clappy” as the rabbi calls it, but the crowd was far more intimate. About 25 people came for davening, which lasted from 11:00am until 1:30pm – the longest in the community's two-year history! In typical Reform style, we read three aliyot (the reading from the second day of Rosh Hashanah about Akedat Yitzhak) and skipped the haftarah. After services, there was another lovely kiddush where we had a chance to chat with the six other English speakers who were there. We then walked to the Neva River and did a breadless tashlich. At first, I was uncomfortable with the idea of not having bread – the rabbi insisted that I not bring any – but after some reflection, I realized that it forced me to focus on the meaning behind the symbolic tossing of bread instead of the bread itself. It was a new twist on a familiar tradition. As we were standing on the riverbank, a Soviet-era oil tanker pulled into dock, just next to where we were standing – the captain shouting orders to his crew disturbed an otherwise peaceful moment of reflection. It was a distinctively Russian moment.

Across town and across the religious spectrum is the central and magnificent Choral Synagogue, built in 1893, run by Chabad. I arrived at 11:00am to find a scant 30 women sitting upstairs in the huge balcony. The acoustics were tough…the congregation was so dwarfed by the massive size of the traditional Moorish shul. All at once at 11:45, waves of women appeared, as if dropped off by a bus picking up Jews from all around town. Women of all shapes and sizes: Old babuskas, with their colorful handkerchiefs tied over their hair. Young women in jeans, chatting (to my surprise) on their cell phones to others across the synagogue gallery. Young mothers, holding their babies in their arms. Wealthy middle-aged women in pantsuits trimmed with fur. No dress code or behavioral protocol here; it was light-years away from the homogenous crowd I'm used to at home. Few women followed the machzor; instead, they chatted quietly, asking their neighbors questions about what was happening. One elderly woman turned, pointing to the Torah, and asked me what it was. It's astonishing to me that someone who has never seen a Torah would be compelled to come to services on Rosh Hashanah. That really blew my mind. The crowd swelled to at least 200 women in the balcony. I was later told that about 500 men were downstairs at the same time, in addition to two other minyanim that were happening concurrently at the Choral Synagogue. I wondered aloud to my friend Keren (the British exchange student) about how they all knew to come at 11:45. Turns out that Chabad had run ads on local television and in local newspapers indicating that the shofar was going to be blown at 11:40. Fifteen minutes later, when it actually happened, the crowd grew silent and listened intently, leaning forward to capture the shofar blowing, which may be their only Jewish experience of the year. Shortly thereafter, the crowd slowly dwindled. By the end of services at 1:30, there were about 60 women left.

Matt and I enjoyed a festival meal at the home of our boss and his wife. They are the most amazing hosts I've ever encountered in my life; I can only liken them to Abraham and Sarah from the Torah. They fill their home with guests – many of whom speak different languages – week after week, feeding their bodies the most exquisite food and their Jewish souls with stories and songs. I savor the ambiance they create; if I could bottle it, I would. Sitting around their table with Russian Jews of all backgrounds, I realized that this will be a fascinating new year.

With near-70 temperatures and sunny skies, God smiled down on the Jews of St. Petersburg this Rosh Hashanah. From miles away, Matt and I wish you a “sladky, novy got” – a sweet new year!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

L'shana tova!

We're Famous

Thought you'd like to read one of the cover stories from this week's Cleveland Jewish News, "Wolf Fellows by the Pair," written by Margi Herwald. Note from Matt: The reporter did a fantastic job capturing our discussion, the way we play off each other, and our excitement before embarking on this journey. Alyson's gonna kill me for telling you this, but the article brought a few tears to her eyes--so be warned, those of you with an emotional streak.

Summer Turns to Autumn

Yesterday, we went to the Summer Garden and walked around (we had planned on sitting in the park and reading, but it was in the 40s and just too cold). For those of you that are liking our videos, you can see our newest one by clicking here. The weather is turning cold quickly, so time is running out for taking long walks around St. Petersburg! We're also losing about 30 minutes of sunlight each week; it won't be long before we get just 5 hours of sunlight each day. It's kinda scary...

Then we walked over to Marsovo Pole. As with most things in SPB, you end up at a really pretty place and have no idea what the significance is because it's all in Russian. There was an eternal flame of some sort, pretty flowers, and tons of soon-to-be-married couples taking pictures. So we look in the tour book to see what this place is and find out: it's a mass grave. That's the strange contrast of life here in SPB--there's so much history around every corner, and some of it isn't very pretty.

We've gone from boredom to extremely busy: we're now working Sundays on a regular basis, giving tours and getting oriented to more of SPB's Jewish organizations. In addition, we're taking 8 hours of Russian each week. More on that in future posts!

Friday, September 15, 2006

One Year Older

I'm officially one year older. Any wiser? I'm not really sure about that. My Russian has improved slightly, I know more intimately the amazing work that is transpiring here in the St. Petersburg Jewish community, but more than I've learned about the (new) world around me, I've learned about myself.

I've learned what it feels to be an outsider. I'm learning how to adapt and change to fit unusual and often uncomfortable surroundings. I'm learning how to create a community and support network for myself from scratch. I'm not accustomed to relying on the generosity of others -- I am so much more comfortable giving rather than receiving. Matt and I are so much at the core of our community back home that we are the ones to provide for others, but at the same time our community in DC is so strong that it nutures us in return. Here, we must struggle to provide for others while seeking out support for ourself as well. It's a high-wire trapeze balancing act that draws on an inner strength that sometimes I forget that I have.

In an effort to create a small circle of friends, Matt and I are actively pursuing any social outlets we can. Yesterday afternoon, I attended a weekly Peter's Tea run by the local International Women's Club to meet other English-speaking expat women. Last night, the couple that we met our first week here over soccer invited us to their home for dinner. Tonight, we are going to the Reform synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat to hopefully meet more new people. And on Sunday night, we are organizing a small gathering at an Italian restaurant to celebrate my birthday.

Every year on my birthday, I am reminded of my life goal of keeping the number of countries I've visited above my age in years. Just two months ago, I had only been to 29 countries -- fortunately, over the last two months, we've been to two new countries, China and Russia. So now my country count is set for at least another two years! Hopefully, though, this year will add even more countries to my list.

Today, Matt and I celebrated a few more small successes. We gave our first two tours of YESOD (the Jewish community home where we work) this morning -- one to a journalist from the Forward and one to an American couple who came to St. Petersburg on vacation. These are small steps towards creating a full-fledged YESOD visitor's center as a way to attact foreigners to better understand the richness of Jewish life here. This is just one wish I have for the next year. May this year -- the last of my 20s -- be a year of trial and wisdom, of fulfillment and growth.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Two Momentous Events

Hi everyone,

Two big events to tell you about --

1. Alyson's Birthday!
We won't dwell on how old she is, but let's just say that she's getting a little long in the tooth :-) For her birthday, she received a very nice bouquet of flowers from her loving husband (it's the only thing I know how to order, and can be sure that I'll get it right!). But, more importantly, she received a huge care package filled with goodies, sent over by her parents (love you guys!). You'll see in the picture all the products we can't find here in Russia (also included were English reading materials, pictures, and books...a total of 40 pounds worth of precious Western treasures!). And if you should get a hankering to send us a care package, please know that we're here and will love you forever for your kindness!

2. We've Been Really Busy!

We've been working our tails off on a wide variety of different projects. Each morning except Fridays, we spend from 10:30 to 12:30 in Russian language classes. Then, we come over to our office and work on whatever needs to be done that day. These past few days, an important mission of European delegates has been learning about and seeing firsthand the life-sustaining work the JDC is doing with Blockadniks. This group of people, who survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad, aren't typically considered Holocaust survivors or victims of Nazi persecution. Even though they were cut off from the outside world for two-and-a-half years, forced to eat meager rations and fight harsh Russian winters, they've been mostly ignored by the outside world. So this JDC mission is trying to change that, and take care of these heroes in their old age.

This is a wonderful picture of Alyson and me with two of our heroes. On the far right is Ralph Goldman, whose work with global Jewish communities has made him nothing short of a hero (not just my words) in every respect. Next to him is Amos Oz, Israel's preeminent author, who was in town speaking about his new book. Thankfully, after five years, the Hebrew I've learned on OTZMA is still pretty strong, and I was able to translate his speech for Alyson. To be honest, I've only read one of his books, and that was only because it was the only thing available at the time, but it was really good. Plus, his discussion that evening of the place of argument in Jewish society was very powerful, so I'm looking forward to reading more of them in the future. This was definitely the highlight of our work here so far!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Abuzz with Activity

This week was the first that we were actually busy. While having a ton of free time was certainly relaxing, it was starting to get annoying. How many nights could we sit at home and play cards?

For one, we started our Russian classes at Nevsky Institute, conveniently located next door to our office. There are three of us in our class -- the two of us plus a Finnish young woman named Yuta. (Coincidentally, of all the places in SPG to live, Yuta lives on our block. Do you think she's a spy?) Our teacher, Marina, is awesome. We are thrilled to be immersed for two hours a day in Russian!

We also got thrown into one of our first assignments -- writing a grant proposal for an innovative St. Petersburg Hillel art program that will hopefully create ripple effects throughout all of the FSU. The grant isn't due until September 26th, but through careful reading, we learned that the foundation will offer feedback if it's submitted before the 12th, which is Tuesday! So Matt and I powered through what we could and we're meeting with the coordinator of the program in a few minutes to review our progress.

The most monumental moment of this week, though, is that we finally met our country director, Jonathan Porath. His frenetic pace was a bit alarming on the few overseas phone calls we shared with him over the past few months, but yesterday, in the 30 minute encounter we had with him, we were mesmorized and empowered by the energy that he seems to exude. While he's in town for the Blockade Mission that we'll tell you more about next week, I think we'll get to know him a little better and he us. I look forward to translating his energy and passion into tangible results on the ground. As Matt said in his post, there's a lot of work to be done here. I hope we can squeeze it all into one year!


This post has no theme (except maybe: Life in Russia). If you can find a more fitting theme, I hope you'll post a comment at the end...

- I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I'm really enjoying Women's Water Polo on VestiSport (see my last post). Russia is in the finals of the European championships - woo hoo! Go Double-headed Eagles! These women can really gun the ball at the goal; it's pretty exciting to watch the goalkeeper desperately trying to make a save. By the way, this morning on VestiSport, add another one to my list of boring-yet-televised sports: competitive jump-rope. No lie.

- I'm debating which is the better job in Russia: personal driver or Metro-watcher. Seriously, there are Metro employees at the bottom of each Metro escalator who stare, all day long, at the escalator. Why? I'm not sure--perhaps to ensure that it's working properly? Perhaps to guard against any horseplay on the stairs? I'll post a picture soon so you get a sense of what I'm talking about. What a fun job: people-watching all day long. But I think the personal driver may win out. For our first few days here in Russia, Andrey took us from place to place in his car, and I was enthralled. First, you get to weave in and out of traffic at an insane pace; it's like a life-sized video game, and you get as many quarters as you want. Then, once you've finished your drop-off, you wait patiently for hours on end for the call to take your passenger home. Just think of all the great things you could do! For me, I would read hundreds of books, listen to MP3s till my ears fell out, take long naps, and drink endless lemonades as a Russian personal driver. If I don't come back to the States, you'll know why.

- Another strange Russian sport is making out. I'm serious: I think that Petersburg's young people get points for making out in strategic locations throughout the city, and there is a giant scoreboard keeping track somewhere in the city (I just haven't found it yet). This unusual behavior is understandable, considering that almost everyone lives at home until they get married. So where else would you go to make out if you're an amorous Russian teenager? To the most public place you can find, obviously!

Here is the point system, as I've been able to decipher it:
  1. On a public bench: 1 point.
  2. On a bridge: 2 points.
  3. In the middle of Nevsky Prospekt: 3 points.
  4. On a crowded Metro platform in the middle of rush hour: 5 points.
  5. Making Matt nauseous through your tongue-hockey antics: 10 points.

- OK, one serious note for today's post. Yesterday, we got a tour of EVA, which is the city's oldest Jewish welfare agency. It services children through education and a very strong performing arts program (Russians love the arts with a passion!), and 1,300 elderly clients through home-care visits and food packages. They want us to help there by teaching Jewish subjects in English to children and young adults, so we were getting an orientation to their office and services.

When I worked at Federation, I was familiar with all the statisitics they mentioned. I had also seen model food packages--we had a steady stream of them coming into the office as a reminder of the good work we were doing. I always found them moving: here was a box filled with food that was going to supplement an old person's pension and thereby help them make it through the month. I even used these prototypical care packages to help train other fundraisers in the community, saying things like, "Here is just one example of why you need to help in Federation fundraising efforts. One of these packages costs just fifteen dollars, but means the difference between life and death for the FSU's 200,000 elderly Jews."

Well, at EVA I encountered these packages again, only it was for real this time. These cardboard boxes, filled to the brim with groceries, had a Rosh Hashanah theme: in addition to the basics like flour and vegetable oil, they came with apples and honey. It was powerful to realize that, in this box, was an elderly person's whole Rosh Hashanah experience. And just as important as the goods inside the box was the home visit that comes with it; since many of these elderly people are home-bound, with family spread all over the world, they rarely get the chance to talk with other people. Alyson noticed how each box was lovingly prepared by the EVA staff member in charge--packed to perfection, with each item individually sealed to prevent leakage. But I was struck by the meaning behind these boxes, and the happiness that they would bring to people in need. It was one of those, "wow, I live in Russia, and there is a LOT of work to do..." moments.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Everything from Scratch

Cooking here is a labor of love, with the emphasis on the word labor. Few convenience items that we have in the States -- like pre-shredded cole slaw, baby carrots, or salad in a bag -- are available here. Ok, make that none. The few microwave dinners that we can find are expensive (about $5 each) and take a long time to heat in the oven (we don't have a microwave). I suspect that I will spend a good chunk of my time here in Russia in the kitchen. To give you a sense, I spent a full hour this morning washing, peeling and chopping carrots and potatoes for dinner. Luckily, I was waiting for a delivery, so I had to be at home anyway. Seems that the staples of our diet will be potato salad and cole slaw. Ingredients for both are in plentiful supply. It'll be like one big year-long picnic!

For simplicity's sake, we have a dairy-only kitchen. We decided this would make it easier and cheaper for us to stock our kitchen here. But we're quickly learning that finding protein sources is tricky, especially with meat out of the picture. We can get peanut butter (thankfully), eggs, beans, and plenty of fish, although the good stuff is quite pricey. The soy products that we subsist on at home have not yet made it to Russia.

Russia seems to be stuck in the sushi craze, with sushi places on nearly every block. Dining out is going to be our little indulgence. We've already started a mental list of places we want to try. For now, though, I am looking for recipes to make from scratch. (The kind I avoid at home!) Please email me recipes -- anything with potatoes, cabbage or beets gets extra credit!

Mullets, Metro, and the Mute button

More random musings on Russian life today...

- The preferred hairstyle for Russian men is the mullet. These American guys have nothing on Russian men. Riding the Metro, you see a string of them--blond, dark, red, you name it. I want to pull out my camera and start taking pictures...I will one of these days. The best I've seen so far was long, curly and jet black on a guy that could have been Jose Canseco's twin brother. Amazing.

- I've never used the mute button on my remote control so much in my life. Russians don't do subtitles--they dub everything from the movies to American television shows. So we can see "Lost" and "Vegas" on our tv, but the English has been totally wiped clean in favor of bad Russian voice-overs. Since we can't understand more than a word here and there, we tend to watch tv on mute.

Luckily, we have three sports channels, so they have kept me occupied. I was able to watch the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup and the FIBA International Basketball Tournament, both of which I can't imagine got much airplay in the States. In basketball, we finished a disappointing third place, which is amazing considering the dominance we once displayed on the world stage. But far more devastating were the two crushing defeats in soccer, where the bad guys, North Korea, won it all, and the US placed a disappointing fourth after losing to both Brazil and China in penalty shoot-outs. We sat with the parents of those players when they were here in SPB, and I could just see them comforting their distraught daughters after those games.

My favorite sports channel thusfar is a local Russian one, VestiSport. They show sports that you would never find on tv in America. So far this week, I've seen: jet-ski racing, women's water polo, competitive darts, rugby, and women's fencing. Now maybe you could find a couple of those late at night on ESPN, but to find all of those one on channel, in prime time, in one week? I'm just waiting for sumo wrestling, and then I'll never get off the couch!

-Jumping back to the Metro for a second, Washington's WMATA could take a few lessons from the efficiency and reliability of the rail system here. The escalators are ridiculously fast and they always work, which is good because the Metro here is much deeper than in Washington. But the best part is the frequency of the trains: they run every two minutes, day or night, rain or shine. There are no delayed trains, no elevator outages, and no sick passengers ruining the commute. While it's not as beautiful as the Moscow Metro, which has stations that are more like museums, the stations are spotless and free of bums.

If Dvostsvaya Ploschad (Palace Square)--with the Hermitage, Admiralty, Alexander Column, and proximity to Nevsky Prospect--is the Dupont Circle of SPB, then we live in the Cleveland Park. We're exactly two Metro stops away, and our neighborhood is more residential but with decent restaurants and excellent shopping. We use the Metro constantly--at only 50 cents per ride, it's the only thing us poor volunteers can afford!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

When it Rains, It Pours...

This week was an interesting one. It's been raining on and off for several days and, according to one of our Russian colleagues, SPB has a climate "just like your American city, Sydney" (we knew she meant Seattle).

On the bright side, a whole lot of things are going right. We had a great series of meetings, and a whole list of ways we can contribute to the community. The JDC staff have proactively approached the local organizations to find useful roles for us. This is really fantastic, as it means that we won't have to scrounge for opportunities and can hit the ground running. We also got our new, spacious office at the YESOD building, which is about a 20-minute walk or 30-minute Metro ride from us. The office has two computers, which should prevent us from our regular wrangling over our one computer. Unfortunately, they are both operated by Windows in Russian, so we have some learning to do. Lastly, we got our kitchen totally re-stocked and kashered thanks to a day-long trip to SPB's Ikea. It's great to live in a civilized, modern city that has wireless Internet and Ikea!

On the list of stuff that has been challenging: our computer is about dead. I think there is a fatal flaw in the physical hard drive, but what do I know? This after sinking an additional $200 into buying more RAM for the stupid thing. We should have just spent the $500 and gotten a new one! Good thing everything is backed up--it's sad when 2.5 years is a long life for a computer. This blog post is coming from my PDA--it's not easy hand-writing every letter, but it gives me something to do while I run yet another diagnostic test. Also challenging? Our apartment is filled with mosquitos and flies--it feels like a small airport with the amount of bugs coming in and going out each day. Alyson has no problem sleeping through it, but I feel every bug bite and there is one fly in particular that likes to land in my ear in the middle of thу night.

A few observations beforу I go:
- In Russia, it is common to see people walking around with open beers on the streets. Sometimes you'll see ten or twenty people, each chugging their own beers. Around noon yesterday, we were walking down the street and some guy was stumbling home drunk. We're not sure if he had gotten drunk that morning, or whether this was left over from a LONG night the previous night.
- Although Russia has great things like Ikea and wireless internet cafes for us to use for free, there is still a lingering sense of uncertainty when walking on the streets late at night (it's probably related to the observation above!). Every time we get home, and our big locked door shuts behind us, I breathe a sigh of relief. I'm not sure that this feeling will ever go away while we're here, but it's not something I'm slowly getting accustomed to.
- So far, the best deal we've found in Russia is ice cream. You can get a cone on the street for five rubles, or roughly 20 cents. At McDonald's, that same cone is 7 rubles...still a good deal! For food, they have Blinis (which are basically just crepes filled with your choice of vegetables, cheese, meat, caviar, etc) available all over the place. There is even a chain of "Blin-Donald's" (I'm not making this up) that sells Blini Value Meals. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

Friday, September 01, 2006

What A Week!

What a difference one week makes! We spent Monday and Tuesday walking the city, trying to find our way around and looking for hidden treasures. I found one -- a flower clock just like the one in Geneva! (Not surprisingly, it was a gift from the city of Geneva on the occassion of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary in 2003.) Tuesday we spent the day at the zoo, which is walking distance from our apartment -- just like in DC!

We met with our boss Menachem and a number of JDC staffers on Wednesday. Amazingly, the community has given us a wish list of things they'd like us to help work on. Some of these tasks started this week -- I just finished helping Hillel blow up 500 balloons in preparation for their opening Shabbat. On Sunday, we are scheduled to help with our first grant proposal from St. Petersburg.

Yesterday we went shopping at IKEA. There's nothing quite as universal as IKEA. We felt right at home with the familiar music, layout and merchandise. We ordered a new bed and bought a ton of household items to help us feel more at home.

We're having problems with our computer, so forgive us if our blogging is slow. Consider it a gift of time to catch up if you're falling behind! More pictures soon. Shabbat shalom from this side of the world.