Thursday, October 29, 2009

Post-Tallin Happenings (Excluding Swan Lake)

Since my computer is close to dying, and I cannot presently locate my charger, the following, like one of its predecessors, will be presented in bullet form.
  • My Hermitage internship is going well; I've been busy translating stuff for their English newsletter from the original Russian. It's tedious work, but what internship isn't?
  • I saw the Museum of Political History, with its truly massive collection of old Soviet propaganda posters, as well as the room which was Vladimir Lenin's former study, maintained almost exactly as he left it.
  • I visited the Artillery Museum, where one can see the vehicles, arms, and munitions used by the Russian and Soviet armies from the first millenia to the present day. (pictures later!)
  • I ate at a Kroshka Kartoshka, the potato-based Russian fast food chain, which truly has no American equivalent...the baked potato with cheese was truly amazing, although incredibly filling (like most Russian dishes, unfortunately).
  • I also had my first experience with Russian vodka and Russians....I won't go into the details (especially since I can't remember most of them, anyway), but long story short, I woke up around noon the following day, feeling like I'd been kicked in the face with an iron boot.
Tomorrow, assuming I can upload my photos, I will do my best to narrate my experience the other night when I went to see a performance of Swan Lake (Лебедное Озеро) at the world-famous Mariinsky Theater.

Tallinn, Part Two

I know you are all tired of hearing my apologies for the frequent gaps between posts, so I won't bother wasting your time with them. As a consolation, however, I promise to post TWICE today, one to wrap up my Tallinn experiences and the other to update everyone on what I've done since then.

So, down to business: aside from all the Hesburger and honey beer, I spent a majority of my time wandering the previously-described Old City, looking at the various examples of medieval architecture and trying not to get rained on. This was a considerable problem, because it basically rained the entire time that we were in Estonia. I understand that this is merely a byproduct of being in the Baltic region, where nice weather is an exceedingly rare phenomenon (for example, in St. Petersburg, it is estimated that there are only 60 days a year when they don't receive at least some sort of precipitation), but I have gotten so sick of Russian rain that it was utterly dismaying to realize that, weather-wise, Estonia was no better.

Still, even in the pouring rain, the Old City is utterly charming, and the view of the Tallinn skyline from the top of the castle is absolutely magnificent. See for yourselves:

Both Friday and Saturday night, I spent a fair amount of time at Beer House, although, despite what pictures may indicate, I actually didn't drink THAT much. Beer House is a Germanic-themed bar/restaurant, indicative of the strong historical influence that the Germans have had upon the upper Baltic region. The beer is expensive but good, as are the appetizers, and the entertainment is great...believe me, you have not lived until you have listened to an Estonian band perform "YMCA" in Estonian. I even danced at one point, shocking as that may seem to anyone who knows me in the slightest.

On Sunday morning, after a little souvenir shopping, we all got back on the bus for Narva, an old fortress on the Estonian border which has historically changed ownership more frequently than Shaq changes teams. After a three-hour ride through the Estonian countryside, during which I had to grit my teeth and endure watching the film "Confessions of a Shopaholic", we arrived in Narva and ate lunch in the old fortress. The subsequent tour of the fortress was quite interesting, even if the view from the top was a bit difficult for photography, due to its narrow windows.

Once we left the fortress, we got back on the bus...and stayed there. For about five and a half hours. The Estonian border guards took forever to process our documents, and once they let us across the border, the Russians took even longer (although they did have an adorable little cocker spaniel sniff our luggage for drugs, which was hilarious). All this while, I was stuck on a bus with more than 70 American students, most of whom are pretty okay, but some of whom are incredibly loud, rude and annoying, so much so that I was seriously considering asking the Russian guards to shoot me and put an end to my misery (I would still have to endure another three hours of this once the Russians finally allowed us to reenter their country).

And so ended my Estonian vacation.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tallinn, Part One

Let's face it; at first glance, Estonia hardly seems like an attractive travel destination. It's cold, tiny, rainy and used to belong to Russia....on paper, it's got virtually nothing going for it.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. My weekend in Tallinn has easily been one of the highlights of my semester thus far. In the Middle Ages, Tallinn was a stronghold of the Livonian Knights of the Sword (an offshoot of the more famous Teutonic Knights), and that knightly heritage is reflected in the Old City...I swear, it's like stepping straight into the pages of a fairy tale. Cobblestone streets, grey stone walls and towers, the incessant ringing of churchbells, and in every direction you look, there's a half-dozen cathedral spires reaching towards heaven. You honestly feel like you've completely left the 21st century for an era of crusaders and's a pretty cool feeling.

And then there's the food...oh my god, there is the food. To be fair, a lot of traditional Estonian cuisine is similar to Russian, with lots of pork and potatoes, although it's a bit less heavy on the dairy products. I ate at a pair of traditional Estonian restaurants, both of which were quite tasty, and the fried garlic bread was especially good. But nothing that I had this past weekend can compare to that pinnacle of Baltic eating, the one and only HESBURGER.

How to explain Hesburger? Well, it's kind of like an Estonian Burger King or McDonald's, except not nearly as health-conscious. The classic Hesburger is a double-decker burger, along the lines of the Big Mac, but comes with a little cardboard ring around it to keep the sauce and toppings from exploding out the sides. It's huge and messy and greasy as hell; you can literally feel your life expectancy decreasing as you eat it...and I absolutely love it. I love it so much I ate TWO. (for those of you who haven't been following this regularly, the thing that I've been craving more than almost anything else in Russia is a big, juicy cheeseburger...and boy, did Estonia come through for me!)

Life-threatening junk food aside, Tallinn also had two other foods that really stuck with me (okay, one of them is technically a beverage). The first would be the Medovar Honey Beer from Beer House, one of the most awesome bars in Estonia. Medovar Honey is basically beer, but with a healthy dose of fermented honey, giving it a much more palatable taste than the standard German pilsner (not that I dislike pilsner, mind you)...but, compared to the other stuff that I've drunk this semester, Medovar goes down a whole lot more smoothly, and goes really well with mozzarella sticks, too. But perhaps more importantly, they serve it in 1-liter steins that are larger than your head. Case in point:

The second, even more delectable bit of Estonian food is what in English we would call Sweet Almonds, made specially by the Olde Hansa restaurant...basically, these are almonds that are slow-roasted and mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and over 30 other kinds of spices until they are positively caked in this sugary dullish-red mixture. The taste is practically indescribable, and downright addictive; much like Cheezits or Pringles, you simply cannot stop with just one. They are served fresh throughout Old Tallinn, from medieval-style wooden carts by VERY attractive Estonian girls in medieval attire (who are more than happy to offer you free samples every time you pass by). As wonderful as they taste, it is the smell which really makes them great; it's hard to describe, but it's a little similar to the smell of spiced apple cider, with a little something else that I can't quite pin is utterly intoxicating. I tried to buy some to bring back home, but they smelled so delicious that I couldn't help myself...I ate the whole box before I even made it back to the hotel. Yes, they are THAT good.

Anyway, that's all that I've got time for today; I'll finish off my Tallinn Tales tomorrow evening, hopefully.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Belated Update

Okay, AGAIN, apologies for not posting more dumb as it sounds, I've been reading Joseph Conrad's Nostromo for the last week and a half, and it's just been too engrossing for me to put down. If you haven't read Conrad, I strongly recommend that you check him out.

Anyway, I should probably summarize what I've been up to for the last week or two. Unfortunately, I've done quite a lot, so in the interest of saving time, I will present it to you in bullet form.
  • I had my first Russian theatre-going experience...went to see Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Tsar's Bride" at the Mikhailovsky Theater, which is next to the Russian Museum. The music was good, if a bit flowery for my taste, and the set was absolutely gorgeous. I honestly felt like I was in the throne room of Tsar Ivan, and I was sitting in the back row!
  • I've toured three of the five major cathedrals of St. Petersburg: the elegant Kazansky Sobor, the massive and stately Isaakyevsky Sobor and the entrancingly beautiful Xram Spassa na Krovi (Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood). In Kazansky, I witnessed my first Orthodox liturgy, while in Isaakyevsky, I got to climb to the colonnade on the main dome and take pictures of what might be the finest view in the entire city. In Spilled Blood, I got to see the stunning interior of the most beautiful building in all Russia, as well as the site of Tsar Alexander II's assassination.
  • I went to an Anglo-Russian pub with my friend Marina (not my host mother) to watch the World Cup qualifier between Russia and Germany...great game, with an unfortunate ending (Germany won), but I have never felt more Russian than when I sat with a bunch of drunken soccer hooligans laughing and cheering when the camera cut to Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin in the skybox, wearing their Team Russia scarves.
  • Speaking of Putin and Medvedev, I went to see their presidential meeting hall, which is located at Konstantinskii Palace, in the southeastern suburbs. I even got to see Putin's private billiards room, which is as nice as you would imagine it to be.
  • I'm making friends with some non-American students finally, and not only Russians, but also some Georgian and British students.
  • I went to a Russian restaurant called Hot Wings, and ate - you guessed it - hot wings for the first time since leaving the states. And it was glorious...maybe not quite the same as in America, but my stomach wasn't picky.
  • I have a volunteer internship at the State Hermitage Museum, one of the largest in the world, and might even get to write an article for their English newsletter.
  • In another day or two, I travel to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, for a ought to be a lot of fun, and I'll be sure to take a lot of pictures!
That's all I really have time for; in my next post, I'll be sure to add some pictures as well!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


My god, what I wouldn't do for a cheeseburger right now. And not just any cheeseburger; no, I want a burger so big and unhealthy that I can literally feel a year of my life slipping away into oblivion. I have this glorious image in my mind of a huge, juicy burger, with melty pepperjack cheese and an unholy amount of bacon, fresh off the grill and slathered in A1 sauce, all on a golden brown, lightly-toasted sesame seed bun......[drools]

Of course, they do not have such a thing in Russia. And it is KILLING ME.

Monday, October 5, 2009

And now for something completely different:

I can’t seem to remember whether or not I said anything about my trip to the Hermitage last week…in any case, I wanted to take a moment here to write about a particular exhibit in the Classical Wing that left a pretty strong impression on me. I ask for your patience while I go off on one of my tangents:

To be fair, the Hermitage’s entire collection of Greek & Roman art is magnificent to look at, even if a fair number of them are actually Italian reproductions. The fact that you are looking at something more than two thousand years old, something which represents a completely different stage of human development, is a very moving experience. But in spite of that, a lot of the ancient sculptures have a very familiar quality to them, particularly the busts of the early Roman emperors. Nearly all of them are monuments of self-glorification (if not self-deification), portraying the rulers of Rome as handsome, dignified and heroic figures, filled with limitless strength and untold wisdom. The bust of Tiberius, for example, makes him look like a distinguished patrician, famed for his charity and judgment, when in reality, he was a paranoid and murderous old pervert. The robust and affable-looking Nero was actually a brutal megalomaniac (and serial rapist) who had Rome set on fire for his own amusement, then built a colossal palace over the ruins left behind. Even the bust of Caesar is misleading; while he was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant generals and statesmen in history, the means by which he achieved that reputation are far from noble. He was a ruthless political manipulator, and his conquest of Gaul is estimated to have killed over a million people. He was murdered because the senators of Rome feared he was plotting to overthrow the Republic (his nephew Augustus ended up doing just that).

All this is why I was so shocked when I entered one of the numerous exhibition rooms in the Hermitage and found myself in a room full of emperors from the 3rd Century. During a period dubbed “the Crisis of the 3rd Century”, the Roman Empire tottered on the brink of annihilation, subjected to a near endless parade of plagues, earthquakes, assassinations, slave revolts, hyperinflation, barbarian invasions and civil wars. Amidst this sea of calamities, there surfaced one positive development: Realism.

Looking at the busts of the 3rd Century emperors, I was struck by how much more honestly they were portrayed than their predecessors: some were fat, some were ugly, some were sickly, and some were disgustingly hairy. You can even see real emotions in some of their stony faces; the portly and unshaven Balbin looks like any middle-aged man might when receiving a piece of bad news (as well he might, since half the empire tried to secede during his reign). In the sightless marble eyes of Caracalla, you can see the naked cruelty and ambition that marked his tenure as emperor, as well as his rather awesome sideburns.

Perhaps the most interesting statue, for me at least, was that of Emperor Philippus Arabicus, more commonly known as Philip the Arab. He came to power at a particularly bleak time in Roman history, with the economy in ruins, the Persian army overrunning the eastern borders, and the powerful Dacian legions in open revolt. Philip’s statue shows a military man with a receding hairline, clearly uncomfortable with his new civilian dress and duties, who is just beginning to grow fat. His face is tired and worn, with fresh wrinkles appearing at the news of the latest disaster, and he has precious little time to waste posing for a sculptor, much less bothering to see whether he looks good. The Roman world, the only world he knows, is ending; a thousand years of civilization on the brink of destruction, and his job is to find some way to save it.

Emperor Philip the Arab

Whatever their other faults (of which there were many), the emperors of the 3rd Century didn’t try to conceal who or what they truly were. For that, if nothing else, perhaps we owe them the small courtesy of remembering them at all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Again, apologies for the delay...

Sorry everyone, I know I've gotten really lax in posting stuff...the last week has been incredibly stressful and busy, and I simply haven't had the time or energy to keep up with it.

My biggest problem at the moment is the Russian Language. At the moment, I am in Group 7 (out of 9), and every single class I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of unintelligible words. My conversation class is particularly bad, because my Russian vocabulary is extremely limited, and I just feel completely out of my this point, I'm seriously considering dropping down a level, because in my current class, I'm not absorbing anything that they're teaching me (the entire class is in Russian, and I understand maybe 5 words out of every 10 the teacher says).

Outside of class, the language barrier isn't quite as bad; Marina and I have worked out a reasonable system of communication (approximately 80% Russian and 20% charades), and even grocery stores aren't quite so difficult anymore...still, in the classroom, all that progress falls by the wayside, and I'm entirely convinced the teacher thinks I'm a complete idiot.

My other major concern is where to go for travel week (November 8 - 15)...obviously, cost is a factor, and the two cheapest options are (oddly enough) located at opposite ends of Europe. I could go West, to merry old England, where I've got 3 or 4 friends living at the moment, and just couch-crash for the entire week without paying for a hotel (I'd also be able to speak the language, which is a HUGE plus). My other option is to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway eastward, towards Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan and possibly even Yekaterinburg (located in the Urals, where European Russia meets Siberia)...this would probably be a little cheaper, but so far, only one, possibly two of the other American students is showing interest in coming along, so I need to figure out what's what by the end of this weekend if at all possible.

Anyway, here's some more pictures, this time from my visit to the Hermitage:

The Winter Palace
Arch of the General Staff Building

Ionic Colonnade in the Classical Art Wing