River Cruise

We just got back yesterday morning. Our trip was overall fantastic. We went to Moscow and stopped at the Red Square, walked the perimeter of Moscow’s Red Kremlin walls and visited the interior Cathedral of St. Basil on Saturday. Red Square was still very impressive but certainly more commercial and mercenary than I remember it. Panhandlers were everywhere selling food and “One dollar store” items. For 50 Rubles I could take a picture of Lance with a shivering monkey or 2 gigantic hawks. Stalin is probably turning in his grave (easy for him to do, he’s been reburied several times).
We boarded our boat “Prikamye” on Sunday. It was lucky we came early to look for it because the entire river port had no printed timetables to indicate which boat is moored at what pier. We finally located our boat parked third behind two others at a pier without a number, completely invisible from the street. That is one way to deal with overbooking!
The cabins were very nice and because it was only the beginning of the boating season, only half of them were occupied. As a result, I think we got better service and probably better food because nobody was overworked yet. The crew on the boat works there the entire 6 month season, without any holidays or time off. Then they rest for the other 6 or so months in their cities of origin. They take home pay is 12000 Rubles (about $500) a month.
All the passengers got along extremely well because everybody was determined to be merry and even disagreable personalities managed to fit in. We had lots of fun dancing the night away with live music on the top deck or drinking boose that was snuck on board by the passengers against the boat regulations. In Russia Vodka determines the measure of a man and I was pretty impressed with my own teetoteler-husband who managed to “put away” over eight glasses of vodka. His Russian, though, got progressively better with each glass.
We saw many beautiful sites along the Volga and other Russian rivers. Moscow and St. Peterburg were never naturally connected by waterways until the monumental Soviet endeavor which connected several rivers, lakes and man made canals via a series of 18 locks, some are deeper than 50feet. Volga is the largest European river and it’s amazing to see how little developed it is. Its banks are sparesely dotted with little picturesque villages and abandoned churches but hardly spoiled by any evidence of ugly industrialism.
We stopped at several ancient monasteries populated since 12-13 century. We visited the church built at a site where a young son of Ivan the Terrible was killed, an event that initiated several decades of political and civil chaos in Russia in the 1600s. We visited a village that is dedicated to the revival of nearly forgotten artisan arts of embroidery, weaving, wood painting, etc. We spent an afternoon in the great city of Yaroslavl listening to the stories of glory and gore, so characteristic of the Russian past. We toured Schlessenburg Fort, captured by Peter the Great from the Swedes and held firmly by Russia despite the fact that Germans bombed it daily for about 460 days during the WWII. We finished out cruise with a bus tour of St Peterburg, justly called Northern Venice for its ethereal beauty and abundance of waterways within the city.
We planned to stay several days there and I did not bother to reserve a hotel because I figured how hard is it going to be to get a room once we are there? Nothing is easy in Russia, one learns. Because of the International Economic Forum that happen to take place there right during our stay, there were no available hotels to be found. We finally located a room in one hotel. It did not have a shower or a bathroom, just a sink. The shower and a bathroom were further down the hallway, to be shared with about 20 other rooms. For this “luxury” we paid almost $90.
To be continued


Leaving for St. Petersburg

Tomorrow morning we are taking a train to Moscow from where we will board a boat to St. Petersburg. I am pretty sure the luxury of the internet will be hard to find so I will most likely update the blog when I am back on the 14

What country am I in, anyway?

May 31, 2007
The heat is unbearable. I don’t handle heat anyway but here it’s a pure torture. For the last 5 days the temperatures have been over 90s and there is no wind. The evening and nights stopped bringing any relief and now by 8am we start sweating as soon as we get out of the house. The Russians say it’s very unusual for May, I think the last time they recorded something like that was about 30 years ago when torf fields started to self-ignite from the heat.
In the States, the heat can reach even higher but the ubiquitous air-conditioning systems have artificially removed us from experiencing the whims of nature. No such luck here. In Vladimir hardly any offices, stores, or commercial buildings are air-conditioned. Even when the conditioner is on, the temperatures are not set low at all but in the balmy 80sF. We went to the upscale mall hoping to decrease our core body temperature but the desired relief never materialized. We came out more disappointed and on top of it we still had to walk home in this heat.
In the light of the heat wave, I am full of admiration for the Russian Woman. I was warned prior to coming here that women dress more stylishly here and that they pay particular attention to various accessories. But I have certainly did not expect them to wear tight and attractive outfits even as the asphalt begins to melt. Whereas I can barely bring myself to put on my baggy T shirt and sweat pants, they routinely go out dressed to the T with omnipresent high heals and matching purses. Colorful and decorative, they stand at the bus stops or walk home with heavy groceries just flaunting their perfect
34-24-36. As I watch them, I realize that the fame of the Russian Woman is well-deserved: “What other nation can boast a woman that can single-handedly raise 4 children, do 8-5 at work, manage a vegetable garden, keep up with the local politics, and still care to look sexy for those drunken red-nosed loungers in the alley?”


Giving back the change

May 30, 2007
Russians have interesting aversion to large bills and giving change back. When we go shopping and the bill comes up to be, for example, 31 Rubles, as if conspired they all ask for exact change or at least for 1 ruble. When I sheepishly answer that unfortunately I don't happen to have any, the sellers have such anguished and offended faces that I start feeling my guilt accutely and realize that no amount of gooods purchased can erase my transgression.
I had to buy some nails for Mat so I ran around the town trying to find the place that was still open for business at 4pm on Saturday. Out of sheer desperation, I knocked on the door of the local store that was supposed to be done for the day at 3pm. Surprisingly, the door opened and an elderly owner of the store came out. I told him that I really needed some nails and showed him a prototype. I convinced him to serve me motivating my urgency by showing him me tired son whom I dragged with me on my quest. He relented and led us inside. He counted out the 60 nails I needed; it came up to 81 ruble. I offered him a 1000 Rubles bill (about $40) since that is what I received in the bank after currency exchange and he just absolutely exploded. He started yelling that it’s horribly indecent of me to ask me to do a favor and then pay him with such a big bill! Why could not I bring something smaller, like a 100 ruble bill ($4)? I was so taken aback by this agitated tirade, I didn’t know what to say. Even offering him to keep the change until Monday did not help the matters because he immediately countered that there was no telling whether my bill was genuine or not. I tried to explain to him that I did not know that it was such an offence to offer a 1000 bill, that all I was trying to do was to buy some nails but he was uncompromising. He promised to wait for me, though, if I could rouse up some smaller bills and I made a mad dash for the near by store. Alas, although they all were opened for business and bored salespeople gloomily welcomed rare customers; they all told me the same refrain: “they tallied up their registers and closed them, they could not give me the change back even if I bought something from them”. I prudently held back the question of “what is the point of being open if people cannot buy anything from you”. I know better than exercise my natural curiosity here. I finally found a small eatery by the bus station where I bought a back of gum and the sales lady gave me back the sought-after bills. I concluded my transaction with the nail salesman and thanked him. After all, he did go an extra mile for me by Russian standards!


Country outing

Somebody turned a switch upstairs and all of the sudden from wearing wool hats we went to wearing T-shirts and sun screen lotions. It’s unbelievable how hot it got. The buses are not air conditioned and long walks around town leave everybody worn out and sluggish. Although night life is picking up. People who were not monitoring their newly planted seedlings carefulling saw them perish in the heat. The bathing season is officially open, even though traditionally Russians don’t head to the water until middle of June. It was time for us to venture out as well together with the other nature-starved Russians. We actually found one place that rents the cars out, found it purely by luck. We went to the train station to inquire about the price of the tickets from St. Petersburg back to Vladimir and saw a sign on the second story for Car Rentals. We went upstairs and tried to find it but all in vain: there were no further signs for car rentals and nobody who worked there heard anything about them. I assumed that it must have been an old sign that remained after the business was closed but I decided to call the indicated number just in case. The cheerful voice answered the call and informed me that they do rent the cars out and they are located inside the little booth. I asked him why they did not advertize in the local phone directory since it would bring them more income to which he replied: “Well, it costs money to advertise”. Since then I mentioned his business to several people and they were genuinely surprised to hear about it and interested to get more information. It just all goes to show the unexploited limitless possibilities for business around here! We rented a Lada and first took it out for a spin. Mat is used to driving manual transmission cars but the road signs and the rules are somewhat different here. Thank Goodness, he’s been observing the taxi drivers navigate around the town and picked up a tip or two. The roads in Vladimir are atrocious. The potholes could swallow a small Volkswaggen bug. The drivers could be going 40 miles per hour and then come to almost complete stop to get thru the potholes and frequently cross over into oncoming traffic side of the road just to avoid them. The road lines have rubbed off and it’s a guesswork to find your lane. All in all, I personally find the busses safer. So, on Saturday, we picked up the daughter of my cousin and left the safety of the city for the wide Russian countryside. We were heading to the old quarry that a friend told us about. He said that was the only place for climbing in the whole Vladimir region and even the climbers from Moscow drove there for the weekends. The drive there was magnificent. Russia is so enormous and the recent decline in agriculture (while bad for economy) made it look untouched and wild like in old times. We drove on the two lane road passing small villages on the way, sometimes right by the road, sometimes at a distance. Villages are deteriorating rapidly because of the constant migration of the residents to the cities: life in the village is too boring for young people and there is hardly any work there. Whatever work is left is too hard and primitive for the average person: it’s much easier to sell cell phones than to plow and weed. After a couple of insignificant scenic detours we found the old granite quarry. Needless to say, there were no signs anywhere but in Russian we have a saying that roughly translates “the tongue will lead you all the way to Kiev” and we’ve proven it here again and again. The quarry was deep but must have been out of commision for quite a while: it’s bottom was covered in little beeche tree and pine tree saplings that were at least 5-6 years old. We wondered around for a while looking for a safe place to climb. Staying safe was imperative because we could not really rely on the helicopter airlifting us to a trauma center anytime soon. We found a side of the canyon that was not overly steep and all 5 of us (including the kids) climbed all the way to the top rim. There we found couple of Russian climbers who told us about the nearby camp and invited us over with true Russian hospitality. We walked around for coule of hours and pretty soon we ready to get back in the car in order to look for lake or a river to jump in. Again by pure accident we drove right to the place that we heard so much about from our friends. They described a very picturesque landscape where an small river was slowly changing its route, streightening its twisting way thru the meadows. Of course, there were a lot of people already occupying all the prime spots by the river, blasting car radios with popular pop songs and blatantly neglecting the principle of “packing in what you you pack out”. However, the view was magnificent. A small river leisurely passing thru green fields covered with blooming flowers, cows in the pasture and a reclining shepard, dark green forests surrounding us on all sides: an idylic picture, Russian summers are relatively short and one learns to value every nice day. Olga


Our neighbor

The neighbor who introduced me to the ex-mayor is sick. He was fine a month ago when we spoke and gave me a lead on the job. He showed me his beautiful remodeled apartment (actually only half of it is completed because they ran out of money)and introduced me to his family. And now he has had a stroke. He was on the way home and stopped for a minute at the store where he collapsed. In the hindsight it turned out that he has been complaining about his high blood pressure for 2 days but refused to go and see the doctor He was taken to a hospital and the next day (!) he was scheduled for a CT scan of the head. I have not gone to the hospital here but it does not sound that they have any protocols specifying 90 min door-to-administration of anticoagulants. It seems that the approach here is "he'll make if he'll make it" and a lot of people don't. Needless to say, the head CT next day showed a stroke which was by then pretty obvious because his entire left side was paralized. He stayed at the hospital for 14 days and then sent home.
Their situation is pretty desperate. He was the only bread-winner in the family. His wife has a degree in economics but was not able to get a job. She is 48 and the age descrimination is rampant here. The ads for office jobs clearly state that only women 25-35 with pleasant appearance need to apply. His job was highly analitical and it's highly doubtful that he would be able to return to his previous job or any job at all. There is no physical therapy or occupation therapy here unless one pays for it out of pocket and the recovery of post-stroke victims is highly dependent of their activity level and attention they get from the experienced professionals. In the meantime, they have many debts due to the remodeling they had undertaken and a young son who is not all there.
There is absolutely no social safety net for this kind of situations. And this kind of stories I hear every day. I am seriouly reconsidering my old attitudes towards the old regime. I can understand now more than ever why so many people feel nostalgic and long for the old times. Of course, not the Stalin times where you did not know where you are going to return home in the evening but the times of Hrushev and Brezhnev. Those times were hard but I don't ever remember them being hopeless.


Mat's work

Mat has finished his work at American Home. He converted a useless attic into a useful room with lots of storage. His next project is to help a daycare that Sean and Lance are attending. That is the least we can do. Sean and Lance spend there most of the weekdays so we practically don’t have to feed them. The daycare is heavily subsidized by the government so each day at daycare costs the parents 37 Rubles (about $1.10) per day. Therefore, we pay less than $30 a month which is very little compared to the US. We have already “sponsored” them several times by donating funds to supplement teachers’ salaries and purchase supplies (daycare teachers make about 3000 Rubles a month, about $110. That barely covers the monthly food bill for a family of 3 with very modest eating habits) Now Mat wants to fix their dilapidated playgrounds. They used to be very good, clean and functional but have fallen into disrepair. The 90s were not very kind to daycares either. The equipment has not been maintained and vandalism is still a problem. The director told me that several years ago they have spent a lot of time building a nice swimming pool covered with pretty pink tile. Over the course of several months the neighborhoods kids must have climbed to the daycare property over the fence and have practically destroyed it (I am still considering a ground-breaking theses on the topic of why young Russian men have unquenchable need to deface anything new and pretty.) Without justifying these random acts of vandalisms, though, one must admit that there is very little for young men to do and no particular place to congregate. We investigated some play equipment that can be installed, similar to the things readily available at American playgrounds. The prices are out of the world here: it easily costs 3 times more than what it costs in the US. Finally, we found a local company who welds metal playground items. It’s not their main production line but it’s gathering steam. They can make couple of teeter-totters and a swing and Mat can fix all the benches and a sand box and install a balance beam.