Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summertime and Symphonies

I was planning to post a top ten list about how you know it's summer in Russia (much like our beloved winter list), but unfortunately, there's no way to know it's actually summer. Today and yesterday, the temperatures have been in the mid 50s, leaving us with little choice except to wear long pants, sweaters and jackets. We saw dozens of people wearing turtlenecks yesterday on the street. Can you believe it, wearing a turtleneck in late June?! I actually have to remind myself that it's summertime, because it sure doesn't feel that way outside!

Last night, we went to the brand-new Mariinsky Concert Hall for the Stars of the White Nights concert series. The building, which had formerly been the site of the theater's set workshop, burned down in a historic fire in September 2003, destroying almost all the costumes and sets stored there and structurally damaging the building. The Mariinsky converted the building -- leaving the exterior intact -- into a fantastic concert hall for world-class musical performances, which reopened just this past spring. The wood-paneled interior and plush red seats make for an intimate, acoustic delight. (Sorry there are no photos -- we forgot our camera at home!)

I admit that most symphonies are typically far beyond my tone-deaf grasp, but thanks to Wikipedia and a little advance research, Matt and I could appreciate and follow the performance of Schoenberg's Violin Concerto and Mahler's Fifth, conducted by Valery Gergiev (who looks a little scruffier than I imagined a conductor of his caliber to look). Not surprisingly, Matt enjoyed Schoenberg's more-traditional piece more than Mahler's maddening piece; I far preferred the Mahler piece, probably because I understood more about its structure. I especially enjoyed the third movement, in which plucked strings sounded strikingly like the pitter-patter of falling raindrops, and the crashing symbols and loud blasting horns of the first two movements. It all felt a little irreverent for a symphony.

At work today, we continue to wrap up loose ends. We are writing our final report, which will allow us to document our successes, failures, goals, and advice for any future volunteers who are posted to St. Petersburg or other FSU communities. We are training local staff to lead tours of YESOD in English. We are trying to pick a date for our farewell party. And most of all, we are trying to avoid the question, "Where are you going next?" For the next 25 days, we can simply enjoy summertime in St. Petersburg, replete with concerts and cold weather!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Insanity in SPB

Wow, what a crazy night last night. The "Scarlet Sails" party was one of the most intense and outlandish nights we've had since getting here. The party is ostensibly celebrating the graduation of Russian students from their universities, although judging by the half-a-million people on the streets last night, I would say that it's just another excuse to have a massive event for the city's 5.5 million residents. The name for the party comes from a Russian fairy tale where the beautiful princess is swept away by her love, who comes to her on a sailing ship with scarlet (or crimson) sails. And what better way to celebrate these students' ascendancy into Russian adulthood than get ridiculously drunk, break glass bottles on the street, trash the city, and generally act irresponsibly?

St. Petersburg at 11 pm, the famous "white nights."

These events are always a struggle: we have to balance our own safety with the unique chance to see Russian culture in action. So, after a nice dinner that Alyson made, we headed downtown about 10:30 pm with as few valuables as possible. We knew it was going to be insane from the very beginning, as the train car was packed to the brim with people. Luckily for us, we only had to go 2 stops to Nevsky Prospekt Metro station. This was the sight that greeted us when we finally escaped the train:

The Nevsky Prospekt Metro, at 11:15 pm, completely jammed from front to back.

In a crowd like this, you can't really walk; rather, you just let the crowd push you along (kind of like the sailing ship that gives the party its name!). We had been trained to be wary of pick-pockets in crowds like this, and I kept my hands in my pockets to protect my wallet, keys, camera, and cellphone. I was very happy that I didn't lose Alyson in the crowd...and that I didn't get crushed against the railing....and that I didn't fall down the escalator...and basically that I survived the ride there. But when we finally emerged onto the street, and I checked to make sure I had everything, I discovered that my cellphone was gone. I checked briefly to ensure it hadn't fallen out and onto the street, but we quickly discovered that the phone had been permanently turned off, a sure indication that it was stolen right out of my front jeans pocket. Darn it.

Rather than fight the crowd into Palace Square, we decided to head straight to a party hosted by our friends Matt and Nicky. Over champagne, olives, and other yummy snacks we patiently waited for the party--called for 11:00 pm--to start. Paid for by Wrigley's chewing gum, the apartment is gigantic, and has an incredibly unique view over the Neva river--it's no wonder their monthly rent is more than 5 times what the JDC pays for our apartment her! I'm a little ashamed to admit, but after an hour or so I was so bored that I convinced Alyson to play Uno with me, which helped the time pass faster, and our Russian friends Marina and Olga came to join us as well.
Marina and Olga have drinks with Alyson at 1:15 am.

In true Russian style, the first fireworks didn't go off until 1:30 pm. For 30 minutes, it was a truly spectacular light show, reminiscent of my childhood trips to Epcot's IllumiNations. Boats in the Neva river shot off fireworks that exploded over the Peter and Paul Fortress; lasers and colored lights emanated from the Peter and Paul Cathedral; a platoon of paratroopers parachuted in, carrying giant sparklers that lit up the sky; great plumes of fire shot from off the fortress's ramparts; enormous military trucks illuminated the sky with industrial-sized spotlights, fireworks lifted off the Troitsky Bridge like anti-aircraft fire; and classical music blared through the streets, mixing the old world with the new. Actually, Alyson put it best when she said, "Now I know what it must have been like when the Nazis were attacking the city."
Fireworks over the Troistsky Bridge at 2 am. Notice on the right side that the bridge is open.

Of course, the dramatic climax was the entrance of the Scarlet Sails , with a crescendo of fireworks and "The 1812 Overture."
The ship enters the main part of St. Petersburg at 2 am, with the fortress and cathedral in the background.

Once the show ended, we thanked our gracious hosts and headed back onto the streets. The streets and sidewalk were still congested with smoke, trash, and tons of drunk people.

Looking down from the apartment onto the street at 2:15 am, with the smoke, drunkenness, and congestion providing an inviting atmosphere for camaraderie and friendship.

With the Metro shut down until 4 am, we decided to head back home on foot. Our first attempt to cross the Troitsky Bridge was rebuffed by police officers with no explanation (as usual), so we had to go the long way. This gave us the opportunity to see the sun start rising again, around 4 am, and we arrived home about 4:30 am. It was a long night, and I'm bummed about my cellphone, but it was a truly insane Russian experience.
Trash, police, and barricades, 3:15 am.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Kronshtadt Krepost (Fortress)

Enjoying the beautiful day in the park, in front of a statue of Peter the Great.

If you're like me, you've never heard of Kronshtadt before -- and you certainly never thought about actually going there! But Kronshtadt has a rich history, played an important role in resisting the Soviet Union, and is a very pretty island not far from St. Petersburg. For that reason, we were excited when our boss from Jerusalem, Rabbi Jonathan Porath, invited us to go there with him as part of a field trip / business meeting. There should be a word in English for "field trip/business meeting"; that would make the US a much more fun place to live and work!

We headed out there around noon, making our way from the northern end to the western tip, then heading out to the Eastern tip, then walking around the city, its church, and fortress itself. If you grew up playing with GI Joes like I did, you had to enjoy the museum: its models of battleships, dioramas portraying Kronshtadt under attack, and opportunity to touch military hardware made the trip a lot of fun! You can see all the pictures here.

Since Jonathan was the person who interviewed us when we were first considering the Jewish Service Corps program, and was responsible in large part for our placement in SPB, we enjoyed the chance to discuss our experience with him. With just 5 weeks left in Russia (we're counting down till July 23rd!), we now have some perspective and insight, and we were eager to share that with him. So it was an incredibly productive trip, set against an interesting and intriguing background -- sort of sums up the whole year, doesn't it?

Sleepless in St. Petersburg

It's 3:00am and both Matt and I are awake. It's no wonder: there are endless groups of young people hanging out on the street, drinking beer and making a lot of noise. As there's no air conditioning in our apartment, we have no choice but to sleep with the widows thrown open. It's not fully dark out, more like dusk. Yes, that's right, it's White Nights season. Tomorrow night is the shortest night of the year here, barely getting dark for four hours (approximately from midnight to 4am).

Some say it's a poetic, mystical, or romantic to stroll along the canals, watching the bridges go up. For tourists, and graduating high school students all dolled up like prom night, this week is party week. Forgive me for my cynicism (maybe it's just the hour), but having lived here, I find the White Nights mostly a disturbance to my sleep. I can envision a perfect marketing opportunity for Ambien: sponsoring a White Nights festival.

Last night, I was awoken at 4am. We had accidentally left a small sliver of our curtains open, and as the sun blasted its early morning rays into our bedroom, the bright light reflected off the mirror and right into my eyes. As nice as it is to enjoy dinner out at a swanky Georgian place with friends and then stroll home in bright daylight at 11pm, I would appreciate a good night's rest.

Friday, June 15, 2007

More Russia Pictures

I was asked to put up more touristy pictures of our experience, and I am happy to oblige.

Album 1 - 22 of my favorite pictures

Rebecca and Adam's album - They took fantastic pictures while they were here. Well worth a look.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Big Decisions Coming Up!

With the summer in full swing, our work has dwindled into small, individual projects. For example, take today: we had a brief interview with a JTA reporter for an upcoming article, then we worked on creating a promotional video for YESOD, then I met with one of the Hillel staff members to talk about fundraising strategies for the summer. We're hosting another Shabbat dinner this Friday night, which is always fun and enjoyable.

What is quite important to us is our future, which we are diligently working on. I've found a series of great opportunities to continue my work in the Jewish world. From a foundation in San Francisco, to the Federation in Cleveland, to returning to DC, it seems like there is no limit to the interesting, meaningful opportunities out there in the Jewish world. It's also exciting because one of my motivations for this whole adventure was to have a Jewish experience that really sets my resume apart from my peers; that goal seems to have come to fruition! In fact, the security guards here must think I am absolutely crazy--I've been coming in late at night during Russian holidays, when I am the only person in the whole building, so I can interview via our Vonage phone! While I know that the decision of which job to take will be one of the momentous decisions of my entire life, I also know that I can't really go wrong. I'm doing the best research I can, talking to as many people as will speak with me, and searching my tail off. In the end, I have to leap ahead, follow my heart, and never look back. I am fortunate to have a wonderful wife like Alyson, who is incredibly supportive and understanding, without being overbearing or apathetic.

In the meantime, I've also put together a few photo albums that I wanted to share with you!
A new Torah is welcomed to St. Petersburg.

Shaarei Shalom Dedication - we've written volumes about how much we love the Reform community here, and its departing Rabbi, Michael Farbman. That's why we were elated to participate in the dedication of their new space, which has a larger sanctuary, a youth wing, a kosher kitchen, and more. The service was both meaningful and moving, as the congregation welcomed a delegation from its sister synagogue in West London, who brought with them a new Torah for the new space. The sanctuary may look a little bit like a space ship right now, with its aluminum-clad interior, but we can only hope that the community will take off like a rocket in the years to come!

The Ubiquitous Russian Mullet - a collage honoring the most popular Russian hairstyle. An homage, if you will.

The Palaces of Petersburg - Check out the ridiculous, over-the-top, gratuitous wealt of some of the palaces we've visited.

Summertime in SPB - A trip to our favorite palace, Peterhof, which is the Russian version of Versailles.

Friday, June 08, 2007

On Top of the World

We have been having so much fun lately that it should be illegal. We had a great time showing our friends Rebecca and Adam around, as Matt wrote about in his last post. It was a great opportunity to step back and remember, "hey, we live in Russia!" It's not so top-of-mind, now that the sun is shining, the weather is warm, and the throngs of tourists make it easy to hear English spoken on the street. I had a wonderful time in Moscow; the highlight was seeing Shrek 3 for free in English! Oh, and the Kremlin treasures weren't too shabby either...

There have been so many highlights packed into the last week that I fear that I may have to resort to a list:

1. Going on a classic canal cruise. In the last month or so, the canals and rivers have thawed, and St. Petersburg started a remarkably tourist-friendly venture: offering the classic canal cruise in English! Rebecca, Adam, Matt and I bundled up for what proved to be a beautiful view of the city from the water. It's officially "White Nights," so we had gorgeous daylight on our cruise that started at 8:30pm.
On the Neva River, with Peter and Paul Fortress in the background
(this picture was taken at 9:15 at night)

2. Seeing Don Quixote at the Mariinsky. We've been to the Mariinsky twice before, to see the opera M. Butterfly and to see the ballet Jewels. But this one topped them all. The ballet of Don Quixote had great music, beautiful costumes, and AMAZING choreography. The dancers were out-of-this-world, well, except for the one soloist who slipped and fell to a loud gasp from the audience. The two main leads basically had a dance-off in the final scene and it was incredible to watch.
A dream sequence from Don Quixote, which featured classical ballet; the rest of the performance was more modern and reminded us a bit of the opera Carmen, which we recently saw at the Mussorgsky Theater

3. Visiting Catherine's Palace (without the snow). Back in April, when we took our parents to see the world-famous Amber Room at Catherine's Palace in Pushkin, it was freezing cold, gray and snowing. This time around, the palace looked the same, but wow, the grounds were absolutely beautiful! We spent the afternoon strolling around the beautiful gardens, taking hundreds of photos and soaking up the sunshine.

The exterior of Catherine's palace, which is so picturesque,
it's on the cover of the Rough Guide to St. Petersburg!

4. Eating super yummy food at our favorite restaurants. Having guests in town is the perfect reason to throw caution (i.e. our budget) to the wind, and eat out every night at our favorite restaurants. We managed to take Rebecca and Adam on a virtual culinary tour of St. Petersburg (as much as 4 kashrut-observing people can) with stops at the kitschy Na Z'darovye, the exquisite pseudo-Indian veggie Kashmir Cafe, the cute and comfy Stolle Cafe, the lively Georgian haunt Sakartvelo, and the delicious-albeit-decorless vegetarian cafe Troitsky Most. Matt insists that the best meal was at Chabad at Marina Rosha in Moscow, but I think he was just excited to get kosher chicken! He was probably too busy gettin' jiggy with a recently graduated Russian girl on the dance floor at the Georgian place to notice how amazing the kachapuri with beans was!

We got a bonus on this front when a cute Australian couple, Tal and Tandi -- whom we met last week at Chabad, called us up to get a tour of YESOD. They are traveling around the world for a year (and you thought WE were crazy and adventurous?!) and had met up with Tandi's parents in St. Pete. I happily gave them a tour and shared some insights with them about living in Russia. When they invited us to join them for dinner at Kashmir again, Matt's face lit up. It was so nice to have the company of a warm, Western Jewish family and yet another (unexpected) delicious meal!

Needless to say, I've been a bit of a slacker in the professional realm lately. Besides giving tours of YESOD, which are sometimes as often as twice a day now, I've done relatively little in the last week or so. It was easy to forget work when we had such great distractions. The good news is that we finally launched the YESOD website! It has been a labor of love for the last 9 months, so much so that you could liken the experience to having a baby: one great idea, lots of pushing, and a good deal of pain. But in the end, I think it's beautiful and easy-to-navigate. The content is currently in Russian and English, but will soon be translated into Hebrew as well. I invite you to take a peek and send me your comments. [Caveat: As with any new website, there are bound to be bugs, typos and the like; I hope you will bear with me as we perfect and grow St. Petersburg's virtual Jewish community home!]

A labor of love: the newly launched YESOD website!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Seeing Russia Through New Eyes

When our friends Adam Arenson and Rebecca Rosenthal told us they wanted to come visit us here in SPB, we were of course excited and elated. Here are two friends who we've known for quite a while, and we couldn't wait to hang out with them, show them around SPB and Moscow, and catch up on our lives. We figured it would be just another fun week of tourism and seeing the sites. What we didn't expect, however, was the way that seeing Russia through their eyes would impact the way we personally see this country and our experience here. After all, it's been almost 10 months now, and it's time for a little reflection.

Sitting in a cafe with Adam and Rebecca.

The trip has been great so far. You know, it's easy to get down here in Russia when the skies are grey and the people aren't always friendly. But when you get out of the day-to-day work, and enjoy SPB's amazing sites, it's easy to forget the problems of daily life here and simply enjoy the fantastic history and culture.

For example, we took Adam and Rebecca to Peterhof -- our second time at this amazing palace, with its stunning fountains, lush gardens, and fun atmosphere. We both decided this is our favorite tourist attraction in the region, now that we've seen everything multiple times! You can check out all the pictures by clicking here. I got the crazy idea to take the same picture that we took there 10 months ago. That's us from back in August on the left; that's us from this past week on the right. Notice any changes?

After running around SPB, we headed down to Moscow to see the capital city. Although I had been there back in November, I was excited to return and show Alyson the ins and outs of this massive megalopolis. But my favorite part of Moscow wasn't seeing the Kremlin or the various interesting parts of the city; rather, it was a special meeting I was able to set up with a group of Moscow Jewish young professionals. As you may remember, we met a group of these people when they were visiting Washington, DC, back in May of last year, so I was able to call them up and set everything up very easily. We met in a kitschy and eclectic club called "Petrovich," but the strange nature of the club didn't detract from our getting to know these inspiring young people and sharing our own ideas and thoughts. Coincidentally, there just happened to be a rock band playing at the club, and everyone got very excited, because this band got its start through Moscow Hillel as a klezmer band! So of course we made a special request for klezmer music, and they were happy to oblige. You can see them rocking out by clicking here.
Eating cakes and drinking coffee with the group. Check out the club's decorations in the back!

Like good TourMentors (see a previous post), we've been running our victims--oops, I mean guests--ragged running from place to place. Although Russia still has a long way to go in terms of welcoming tourists and making places easy to navigate, we've learned a few tricks of the trade and can really pack a day with activities! Here are a few more pictures that I wanted to share with you. Even more pictures from Moscow are available by clicking here.

<- In front of St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. The weather has been beautiful lately!

The four of us at Peterhof.