Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Home Sweet Home

It is so incredibly fabulous to be home - I can't even sufficiently put it into words. (Even if we can't pinpoint where home is, exactly.) In the two weeks since we've been back in the United States, we have spent time in Delaware, Washington, DC, New York City, and Florida, squeezing in quality time with friends and family, doctors' appointments, and job interviews. We have greedily devoured all things good about American culture: shopping at great American stores like Filene's and Walmart, eating authentic NY bagels, drinking Starbucks coffee, getting super-cheap NY mani/pedis, devouring kosher meat and fresh, yummy summer fruits, etc. etc. And like Matt said in his last post, it's great to be among our own, able to communicate freely and without boundaries.
Our first night at home (at David and Jen's house), from left top: Alyson's dad Jay, Matt, Alyson's mom Bryna, Alyson and our niece Hannah

We know we've been bad about posting to the blog, so I hope today's post starts to make up for it. Let me start by saying, NO, we still don't know where we'll be living. Right now the front runners are DC and Cleveland, but that might change at a moment's notice if I get a job offer in Philadelphia or Matt's lead in Miami pans out. Alas, our lives are still very much being lived out of suitcases.
Hanging out with some girlfriends in Washington, DC, from left: Becky, Miriam, me, Jill and Deborah

A few highlights of our last two weeks:

Our first Shabbat back was a perfect transition back home. We had Michael Farbman (the rabbi from Shaarei Shalom), his wife Olga Marcus and their two young boys over for a casual Shabbat dinner at my parents' house in Delaware. Eating outside, while the boys swam, with our new friends from Petersburg was admittedly a bit surreal, but lovely nonetheless. The following morning was a big brouhaha at my parents' synagogue. Mind you, Matt and I are minor celebrities, returning from our big adventure to save the Jews of the world. Matt read the haftarah and I gave an introductory talk, which I'll post online soon (I promise). In addition to our big moment in the spotlight, there was also an auf ruf for the educational director and his soon-to-be wife. And, if that was not enough to celebrate, my brother and sister-in-law were called to the Torah to name their newborn daughter, Abigail Sophie (Avigail Leah, in Hebrew). All in all, it was a spectacular homecoming Shabbat, replete with lots of family time.
With our nieces, Abigail (on Matt's lap) and Hannah (on my lap)

Between interviews, we've had a few moments of vacation-like bliss. Take this week, for example. We came to the Orlando area to spend time with Matt's family. On Thursday, we spent the day shopping at the outlets with Matt's sister Sharon and his Aunt Francine who is visiting from Minneapolis. That night, we drove up to The Villages, where Matt's mom recently moved. It is heaven on earth. A planned community for people over 55, The Villages is like camp for active seniors. There is constant organized activity -- from Mah Jongg to painting to line dancing -- at all hours of the day. Since we got here, we've played ping-pong, gone swimming, taken a tour of the community, driven to and from Gainesville, and even attended Shabbat services at the New Jewish Community at Temple Israel. We even learned a new sport called pickleball, which is a blend between tennis and ping pong. And we've been rolling around town in Barbara's golf cart, pretending like we are cool enough to live here.

BBQing with Matt's siblings, from left: me, Matt, Sharon and Ethan

Tomorrow we are off to South Florida for a few days to see my cousins and for some more interviews. As of late, our lives have been so full and busy that we keep forgetting that we are unemployed! Having this much fun seems like a full time job -- and hopefully, some day soon, we'll have one of those, too!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Soft Toilet Paper and Cargo Shorts

We're back in America, and the culture shock is setting in. We had a quintessentially American experience today when we walked into the restaurant chain Panera. We were awe-struck by what a difference a day makes. Yesterday, we were in Russia struggling with every little thing. Today at Panera, we understood the menu and could eavesdrop on the conversations at adjoining tables! Even more importantly, we looked like everyone around us: with my cargo shorts and flip-flops, I actually fit in rather than stuck out like a sore thumb!

Also, we noticed that even American toilet paper is softer than what we had in Russia!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Final Four (Days)

The train ride back from Yekaterinburg was the calm before the storm. What could be more relaxing than sitting in bed all day in your pajamas, with nothing to do except read a good book, watch a few DVDs, watch the passing countryside, and drink tea? Our four-person compartment was, with the exception of six sleeping hours, completely ours. It was a blissful 36 hours of peace and quiet.

Once we got back to Petersburg early Thursday morning, we transformed ourselves into crazy packing machines. We wrapped up loose ends at work: copying over files, sending colleagues last-minute reminders, organizing and labeling documents, helping submit one last grant proposal, completing and submitting our final report (nearly 40 pages long!), dropping off one last receipt for reimbursement, and unplugging all of our crazy tech gadgets in the office. As we walked out of the building on Friday night after services at Shaarei Shalom, we turned in our keys and said goodbye to YESOD, our home-away-from-home for the last year. It was a bittersweet and surreal moment.

There have been lots of goodbyes. We said goodbye to the staff of Hillel last week (before we left for Yekaterinburg and they headed to Odessa for a Hillel seminar) and, in a touching gesture, they presented us with a beautiful silver framed photo of us with their student leaders. The frame was engraved with a message of appreciation that listed all of the ways we have contributed to St. Petersburg Hillel this year. On the last night of our trip to Yekaterinburg, we said goodbye to our Country Director Jonathan Porath and the Northwest Russia Coordinator Daniella Citron. They presented us with a beautiful silver engraved kiddush cup on behalf of JDC Jerusalem and St. Petersburg. The staff of the Ural-Volga region gave us a huge bouquet of flowers and a book of photos to remind us of our trip to the Urals. On Thursday night, back in Petersburg, we had a low-key farewell party at City Bar, where about two dozen of our friends and colleagues came to toast us one last time. And we spent Shabbat dinner at the home our boss, Menachem Lepkivker, and his wife Lilach; at the end of the meal, we had a hard time leaving. The spirit of Shabbat weighed heavy in our hearts as we said goodbye one last time to the Lepkivkers, who have been a tremendous source of support for us this past year.

Saying goodbye to a few of our local friends at our farewell party Thursday night:
(from left) Lonya, Masha, Matt, Marina (in front), Olga and me

We also managed to say goodbye to many of the household items we've accumulated this year, raising nearly $340 at our moving sale. Sadly, we managed to blow most of it on a shopping spree for gifts and souvenirs to help us remember our time in St. Petersburg. We spent an amazing day with our friends Erin and Jon, who ferried us around town in their car, taking us from souvenir shop to souvenir shop, to our favorite restaurants (Troitsky Most and Tres Amigos) for one last taste of St. Petersburg, and to those we-meant-to-get-there-but-we-never-did spots. On our way home, we stopped on the Strelka (the tip of Vasilievsky Island) to see the rostral columns alight and the choreographed fountain jumping to classical music. We were also delightfully surprised by a wrestling match on the waterfront and a group of live salsa dancers. It was a beautiful way to watch the sun set over the Neva -- a perfect metaphor for our last few days here.

As I type, I am sitting in our freshly-scrubbed apartment completely surrounded by oversized suitcases. It's with mixed feelings that we are leaving. On one hand, this year has been challenging, difficult, and isolating in many ways. But at the same time, it was rewarding, enriching, and thought-provoking. All in all, it was a tremendous growth experience for both of us. The ultimate irony is that just as we finally have created a few strong friendships, as we can finally figure out how to work with the community, as our language skills have finally proven helpful, our time here is up. We have but a scant few hours left. Tonight we will see one last ballet performance, we'll try to hunt down one last blini, and then the driver will come pick us up at 4:15am tomorrow to take us to the airport.

Fortunately, we have lots to look forward to at home in the United States, most especially meeting our new niece! We are looking forward to our travels over the next few weeks to Delaware, Philadelphia, DC, Florida, Cleveland and Minneapolis as we visit with friends and family, interview for new jobs, and try to figure out where the next chapter of our lives will take us. Please don't ask the annoying question of where we're going next: just know that once we know, our beloved blog readers will know, too. This we do know: we will have to work hard to make the next chapter as adventurous as this one has been. Thanks for sharing our journey with us. We will continue to post to our blog for the next few weeks, but probably at a lesser frequency.

This past year has been a long and winding road; it's hard to believe that is quickly drawing to a close. We've learned and grown in ways that we could never have imagined. And hopefully, in small but meaningful ways, we will leave an enduring legacy behind. We are truly privileged to have been given this opportunity to serve the Jewish community of St. Petersburg.

Dosvadanya, Rossiya!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

36 Hours and 1,800 km later...

We're back! The 36-hour train ride from Yekaterinburg was relaxing, rejuvenating, and almost completely stress-free! I found an interesting web page to illustrate our adventure. Go to it, then wait a couple of seconds for the animation. Check it out here.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Heading to Yekaterinburg

We're packing up our office and heading out of town for a conference! We were invited to join the JDC's conference in Yekaterinburg and give a short presentation on our experience and observations after a year in Russia. Where the heck is Yekaterinburg, you ask? It's the "capital of the Ural mountains," Russia's 5th-largest city, and you can find it here.

Then, we are taking a portion of the Trans-Siberian railroad back from Yekaterinburg to SPB. We'll cover about 1/3rd of Russia in 2 nights and one full day on the train. Check out our route here.

If you miss our blog postings and are looking for something to read, here is a funny article.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Lots to Celebrate

After a really sad and stressful week last week, this past week has been an absolute party! There have been so many reasons to celebrate...and celebrate we did! Our colleague and friend Mollie from Kiev came to visit from Friday until today, and her friend from home, Kristin, was here on a 3-week writing program. Along with our new friend, Joe, we've been having a wonderful time, running around the city and soaking up nearly every single cultural event we can! Here's a quick rundown of the past week's highlights:

Tuesday, July 3rd: Our 2nd wedding anniversary, which we celebrated with a quiet romantic evening at home. We then joined some other American expat friends for a "July 4th in Russia" themed midnight boat cruise on the Neva. We ate Pringles and popcorn while we guzzled beer, Sovietskoe Shampanskoe (straight from the bottle of course), and did other reckless Russian-inspired activities! Because the cruise ended at 2am, we got stuck on the wrong side of the bridges when they went up, so we crashed on our friends' couches.

Palace Bridge goes up for the iconic photo of White Nights in St. Petersburg (above),
while Kristin and Joe pick up some Russian drinking habits (below)

Wednesday, July 4th: We had an insane day at the office (after barely sleeping the night before) during which time we conducted two tours of YESOD and had a lunch meeting with Jay Lurie, a native Clevelander who is doing a Illuminated-esque backpacking extravaganza through Eastern Europe, looking for his roots. That evening, together with Kristin and Joe, we decided to try to see the free performance of the Three Muskateers that was "a gift from the city to its people." See, we had tried to buy tickets, but were told that they are not for sale. That should have been the first clue to stay home. Instead, we lined up an hour early, shoving babushkas out of the way when they finally opened the outside doors. Unfortunately, the inside doors were still locked. So then we waited some more. Finally, we found seats in the balcony. The musical (a cross between an opera and a ballet) lasted an hour and a half (including a 30-minute intermission) and was among the worst we've seen here in St. Petersburg. Matt even managed to catch a scene on film in which one of the dancers falls down!

Thursday, July 5th: We woke up the next morning to some incredible news. Our sister-in-law, Jen, had given birth to our newest niece, Abigail Sophie Rappaport, four days ahead of schedule. She was born on July 4th at 1:38pm, weighing in at 5lbs 11oz. Here are some photos of her for you to admire...

Our newborn niece, Abigail, with Mom and big sister, Hannah (above) and with Dad (below)

Friday, July 6th: We saw Elton John in concert! Despite the pouring rain, the concert was amazing! He played his hits for nearly 3 hours straight in the middle of Palace Square, with the Hermitage, the Alexander Column, and St. Isaac's Cathedral serving as the backdrop. And because Shabbat doesn't start until 11 o'clock at night, I didn't even feel bad about breaking my "don't go out on Friday night" policy!
Singing in the rain, at the Elton John concert, with the Hermitage behind us

Saturday, July 7th: We spent the day getting Mollie registered, walking around the city, enjoying blinis, and catching up. We also went to this grungy urban artist colony called Pushkinskaya 10 that turned out to be a big disappointment. In the evening, we tried a new Mexican restaurant for dinner then we caught a late-night concert of JD and the Blenders (my friend Jennifer Davis' band) at the Achtung Baby!

Sunday, July 8th: Matt's birthday! In honor of his big day, we spent the afternoon and evening doing a soviet retro bar crawl (CCCP, Lenin Lives, Road to Communism), drinking bad beer at some of the city's finest watering holes. We capped off the night and the weekend with some deliciously Zen eats at our favorite Kashmir Cafe. Take a look at our photos from Sunday!

Na Z'darovya!

Monday, July 9th: Another insane day at work. People are starting to take note that we are leaving soon, so we are getting bombarded with last-minute requests. And we are desperately trying to set up interviews back home, clean out our office, write our final report, and tie up all of our loose ends.

The highlight of the day was our final English Discussion Club. Matt organized a special session -- a mock session of the Knesset -- as our grand finale and, because we made a big deal about it, we had a record 20 participants! The goal was to negotiate to pass your own party’s bill and block your opponent’s bills. It was pretty incredible to watch Russian young adults role playing as each of Israel's political parties, learning about the inner workings of democracy while practicing their English. It was a huge success, although the bills that managed to pass, and those that failed, were quite surprising to everyone involved!

Mollie, representing the Meretz party at our Mock Knesset session

Tuesday, July 10th: Rounding out our summer concert series, we saw Aerosmith in concert last night! Suffice it to say that this week has been: AMAZING!

Look Ma, We're Famous!

Here are two recent JDC articles that feature our work:
"Angels of Shabbat" in St. Petersburg, Russia | JDC Website | June 2007
Sports Program "Kicks Off" at YESOD Jewish Community Home | JDC Website | May 2007

We are expecting another article to be published soon (from the JTA), but it probably won't come out until after we leave. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Saving the Best for Last

By the tone of our recent posts, you would think that we've already packed our bags and are heading home. But actually, we're still working pretty hard: running the English Discussion Club (you can see our most recent lesson on confronting social problems by clicking here), helping the new director transition into her job, wrapping up our various assignments, and more. I also had a fascinating new opportunity this week: to teach fundraising at a large nonprofit conference here in St. Petersburg. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had so far this year, and I wanted to tell you about it!

I was introduced to the NGO Center by a friend of ours here in St. Petersburg, Jen Gaspar. Although I'm certainly no expert in fundraising, after four years of working in that field, I love talking about it and teaching others how to do it. So, when they gave me an hour-and-a-half session at their major summer conference, I was really excited and a little nervous. There are so many cultural differences between America and Russia (duh!) and they all seem to coalesce in the classroom. But I was up for the challenge and eager to impart my meager wisdom on anyone who would listen.

Of course, while I can speak basic sentences in Russian, I wasn't prepared to lead an entire session in this difficult language. Luckily, I had taught through an interpreter before, and knew just how strange an experience it can be. On the one hand, you have time to really formulate your thoughts while the information is being translated; on the other, everything takes twice as long, and it's awfully hard to tell a joke through a translator.

The session got off to a good start right off the bat. First, it was amazing to see my bio and session in Russian...and that I could actually understand it! Then, the person who was teaching before me was also an English speaker, a Canadian named Yvette Ghattas, who is also an experienced fundraiser. She had already read my bio and was looking forward to meeting me, since she is active in the Montreal Jewish Federation and is originally Israeli. Small world, huh? She was interested in hearing about the Jewish community here, so we had lots to discuss! And she wasn't the only Jewish person I met that day: there was a fundraiser from Russian Friends of Hebrew University and (to my great suprise) the head fundraiser for Chesed Avraham, located right here in YESOD!

Of the 120-or-so attendees at this conference from all over Russia, about 25 came to my session. Over the course of the session, I taught the group how to set up a meeting, how to present a compelling case, and how to ask for money successfully. Then I had them break up into pairs, so they could practice and put these skills into action. Along the way, I enjoyed learning about some of the non-profits in the room. They represented all sorts of causes: fighting HIV/AIDS, saving SPB's historical landmarks, helping children with Down's Syndrome, preserving parks and green spaces in the face of expanded urban development, and even renovating the city's one Buddhist temple. In fact, the Buddhist lady invited me to come and tour the temple, but I told her that Alyson and I had already been there (see, I told you we've done everything in this city)!

While I've learned that fundraising in Russia is far more challenging than it is in the States--first of all, people don't have nearly as much disposable income or free time--the participants really grasped the importance of asking people in a face-to-face manner. At the end of the seminar, I was excited to know that some of the participants were eager to go and use this important skill. In my own small way, I had helped build Russia's emerging nonprofit sector, and I was overjoyed to make a lasting contribution to the country as a whole.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

One Year Later: A Retrospective

It's really hard to believe that in just a matter of weeks, we'll be packing up our apartment and boarding a plane back to the United States. I still remember like it was yesterday the feeling I had sitting in the car on the way from the Pulkovo Airport to our apartment for the very first time: I strained to read the Cyrillic signs before we passed them; I was elated to find a sign I understood and I was relieved when we hit traffic, meaning that I had more time to decipher all of the letters and make sense of them. I remember the butterflies that fluttered around in my stomach and the questions that danced in my head.

Looking back over the last year, many of those anxieties have been brushed aside and relegated to the "naive American" category. Our greatest fears have been trumped. We survived our first Russian winter without too much discomfort and only a few pairs of torn long-johns. As the Russians love to say, "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." We tested our marriage by living and working side-by-side in a place we knew we would feel isolated. We knew our work-styles were polar opposites and while the first few months were sticky, we overcame the obstacles and learned to communicate better, work together more efficiently, and leverage each other's strengths. In the end, our marriage is stronger for it.

Over a candlelit dinner tonight in honor of our 2nd wedding anniversary, we compiled a joint list of 30 lessons we've learned over the last year:
  1. Russians don't know what water fountains are (since they can't drink the tap water anyway). Only the ones who have traveled abroad understand the concept of free water.
  2. Rolling suitcases don't roll in the snow.
  3. Sometimes, all you need is a pink parka and matching pink boots to help you overcome your greatest fears.
  4. Shredded cheese and tofu are integral to our happiness.
  5. Being able to adjust the heat is a luxury.
  6. Yelling at people on the street through a megaphone is a legitimate marketing tactic.
  7. Those fancy shops on Nevsky Prospekt, like Prada, Gucci, and Versace? They're just for show. No one buys anything there.
  8. Watching the sun dim over the Neva from a boat at midnight is truly spectacular.
  9. St. Petersburg -- in general, summer months excluded -- is NOT a beautiful city.
  10. There is no ceiling for weirdness in this part of the world. Every time you think you've reached the limit (say, you attend a Christian hip-hop concert in downtown Helsinki or you celebrate graduation with 500,000 of your closest friends), you will be surprised again very quickly.
  11. An umbrella is always necessary, even when it's sunny out. Likewise, a sweater is always necessary, even during the summer.
  12. There is a machine (a "babushkifier") in which Russian women enter around age 35 that transforms them from sexy, thin model-types into frumpy babushkas. There is simply no other explanation.
  13. The theater, ballet, opera and symphonies in this city beat the pants off of most other cities in the world, and for a heck of a lot less money, too!
  14. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt to the most prestigious theater in the world is totally acceptable, because all the Russians do it.
  15. No matter how short the skirt, Matt is still not allowed to look.
  16. It's ok to drink beer on the street at 9 am.
  17. Time management is a skill that does not exist in Russia.
  18. Fieldman's law dictates that regardless of where you are, someone will come sit/stand next to you and start smoking in such a way that the wind will blow the smoke right into your face.
  19. Russian is a near-impossible language to master.
  20. The metro in Washington is put to shame by the metro of St. Petersburg.
  21. Alyson can whip up any kind of food you want, given 30 minutes and basic kitchen utensils. Standard ingredients are not necessary.
  22. Matt is a whiz at figuring out how to play video games, even when they are not in English!
  23. Searching for a job from far away is very difficult. We've gotten to the point in our careers where only face-to-face interviews will do.
  24. The middle of the street is a suitable place for car maintenance, peeing, passing out in a drunken stupor, or any other activity you can get away with.
  25. You can find podcasts for anything--Jewish learning, breaking news, financial advice, military history, classical musics, even tips on good manners. Podcasts make for great escapist behavior.
  26. There's no concept of "service with a smile." You're lucky if you even get "service."
  27. Alyson's mother makes the best personal assistant you could imagine.
  28. You must provide exact change at all stores. Otherwise, you are likely to get verbally abused by the woman at the counter.
  29. It is imperative to stay alert on the metro escalator to avoid having drunk men fall down backwards into you.
  30. If you have the right partner, you can do anything.

Monday, July 02, 2007

It's Summer - Break Out Your Coats!

The summer is heating up! Well, it's heating up somewhere...just not here, where it hasn't broken 72 degrees yet, it's been cold and rainy, and we consistently have to break out our light coats on cooler days. At the risk of repeating Alyson's post, I'll reiterate: "Hello, it's July, people!" But the job search has been heating up, as I've been talking with organizations in San Francisco, Cleveland, and DC with pretty good results so far. And there has been a slew of events and trips to report. It's been a crazy, interesting, and exciting week.

Let's start with Friday night, when the Reform synagogue here, Shaarei Shalom, said a final goodbye to its beloved rabbi, Michael Farbman. Michael is off to pursue new activities and opportunities in the United States, and it was a bittersweet moment as Rabbi Stas took over. Rabbi Michael has built a community from nothing to between 250 and 300 members, which is an amazing accomplishment. While the community will miss his leadership, and we'll miss his big smile and fluent English, his departure makes room for the community to mature and develop from a child into a teenager. We'll be looking forward to hearing great things from Rabbi Stas in the future.

On Saturday, we recruited our new friend Kristin to come with us on a field trip to two ancient forts, Shisselburg and Staraya Ladoga. Even though I'm a history geek, I didn't find the series of battles and ancient civilizations that lived in this area to be especially compelling. You see, after a year living here, we're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to sight-seeing. What was cool was a medieval fair that was going on a the second fortress, complete with battling swordsmen and cheering onlookers. Unfortunately, there was a small group of neo-Nazis hanging out around the fair (the "White Power" and swastika tattoos gave them away...), so we took a few pictures and left. You can see our pictures here: Shisselburg and Staraya Ladoga Pictures

On Sunday, we were called in to help out as YESOD held a big event, spotlighting Dr. and Professor Robert Aumann. I've been lucky enough to meet two other Nobel Prize winners (Elie Wiesel and Vernon Smith) but I've never actually hung out with one before. Well, all that changed when we spent four-and-a-half hours with Dr. Aumann and his wife Batya. I helped him put on his translation machine, assisted with translating some questions, and even made him a cup of coffee! Our boss Jonathan Porath joked, "Now you can put it on your resume: technical advisor and personal assistant to a Nobel Prize winner!"

If you've been counting, here is the third celebrity we've met this year (Amos Oz and Yo Yo Ma were the first two).

The Ribakoff Auditoriam was packed to the gills for the speech, which was on a pretty obscure subject: game theory. Since Aumann is originally American, the ironic thing was that, for the first time, we didn't need a translator! There was a nice reception afterwards for VIPs (whatever that means), where people got to ask him individual questions. The only problem was that many of the Russians thought that a Nobel Prize in Economics winner must have valuable business knowledge; they took the opportunity to ask about all their personal finance questions and talk about their company's individual issues. I guess they don't meet theoretical scientists very often in these parts.

Lastly, against my better judgment, I'd like to write a few sentences about my beloved Grandma Esther, who passed away this week. It's enormously strange to write my thoughts and feelings on a blog, but I'll give it a shot. I will deeply miss Grandma's wry sense of humor, her funny anecdotes, and her bemused outlook on life. She always described herself as a simple woman who did the best she could with the little she was given, but that never fooled me. I saw from the very beginning that she was an amazing person--she must have been to put up with my dad! Grandma's greatness came as naturally as her humility. She was my biggest fan, always reveling in my successes and brushing past my failures. She cared about others, loved her family deeply, and changed the world for the better. I can only hope that the family that Alyson and I will start (hopefully soon!) would make her proud.