Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Forget the Tricks..Treats Please!


If you're going to try and say Halloween in Russian (please do!), it looks something like this:


Which I find hilarious because transliterated it looks (and sounds) something like this:

Hell-oo-een. Say that with a fierce Russian "L", stick the "H" in the back of your throat, and you'll have it about right.

Whether it's Halloween or Helloween for you, I have to say I'm having a lovely day! While I haven't fully embraced this holiday in my adult years (translation: ALWAYS trying to find a last-minute costume, which typically leaves me cranky and looking like a walking yard sale), I do love having an excuse for a good party. Due to the onslaught of a minor cold, which has made me an opera outcast, I was forced to restrain my inner-party and celebrate in my cabin. Otherwise known as an apartment.

True to form, my festivity centered around food. Tonight? A Halloween tradition: Mom's homemade chili recipe...minus the chili powder. It might have tasted a bit like my makeshift yard sale costumes look, but it was festive nonetheless!
Also on the menu, my newest genius which comes from whence most of my genius juice extractor. Homemade hot apple cider! While the spice combination is still in the experimentation stages, it's hard to go wrong with fresh apple juice and cinnamon goodness. I firmly believe that perfecting this recipe will be my key to surviving my first full-on Moscow winter. Fingers crossed. And legs and just about everything possible. It's just started getting cold and I'm already wimping out...
Last, but definitely not least, the TREATS!

I've always been a candy lover and I remember a particularly devastating Halloween (I believe I was 6) when, after only a day or so with my stash of goodies, they vanished. Even in those days I was a planner, and I had carefully rationed my treats to make it through at least Christmas, if not longer. Farewell days of carefully constructed Halloween bag was nowhere to be found. We moved from our rental home that winter and only when we moved the fridge was my happiness recovered. Only to be shattered upon learning I couldn't eat my candy after 5-ish months behind the fridge.

This year I only have a half-size fridge to worry about consuming my candy, but given the temperatures, I didn't feel like suiting up and going door to door. Nevermind trying to say "trick-or-treat" in Russian. Luckily, treats still managed to find me. This evening's candy stash? Tasty truffles, delivered straight from Vienna by the hands of my first visitor! Truffles, delicious. A familiar face? The real treat. Next on the docket: sugar milk. My doorbell rang this evening and my neighbor was kind enough to introduce me to this Russian specialty. Still trying to figure out the pasty, sweet milk product. Regardless, it goes in the treat pile and adds a tally to the list of sweet gestures by my Russian colleagues. Add a Russian chocolate bar to the mix, top it off with an American delicacy, Reeses' PB Cups, and I'm going to count this Halloween a sugary success.
How are you celebrating my friends? Hoping that all of you in the Eastern USA are staying dry and sheltered, with scores of sugar to help you along your way!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

R.I.P. iPhone and Ambivalence

GLOSSARY for today's post:

iPhone: Portal to my alternate universe, aka America. Internet vehicle. Dictionary. Translator. Accountant. Mirror. Camera. Best friend...getting a bit carried away. But you follow.


1A. uncertainty or fluctuation, especially when caused by inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things.

1B. The coexistence of opposing attitudes or feelings, such as love and hate, toward a person, object, or idea.

The ambivalence that will be discussed herein is most effectively understood when these definitions are combined.


***20.10.12 - 27.10.12***

As the week began I was glowing, distributing Ghirardelli's chocolate goodness, and smiling (seemingly illegally) in the metro. After a sharp drop in temperature on Monday, and the exhaustion which ensued post International week-day getaway, said smile may have been waning.

Then Tuesday hit with a vengeance. I was sandwiched in the morning metro madness, headed to morning Russian class. And when I exited the metro car onto the platform, I heard something fall from my bag. Strange, I thought to myself (hence the italics) when I saw my Bolshoi ID card on the ground. And I picked it up, going quasi-merrily on my way. Only once I had settled into class, tired and getting frustrated that I couldn't remember the Russian word for curtains (a. it's шторы and b. this is totally a relevant word in my life, given the asiatic language that is printed all over mine) did I reach for my dictionary. Otherwise known as the iPhone. Only to realize why I had heard my ID card fall to the floor. Someone had stolen my child. Along with it's Russian stepsister---I purchased her for about $10 when I was in Moscow 2 years ago.

I have known loss before.
But in that moment, any previously mentioned glow was eliminated. And replaced with flames of rage and disdain for my new big-city home. My poor Russian teacher...she kindly suggested I should relax and go to a museum I had once mentioned in passing. Not really my method for coping with frustration. I decided instead to take my anger out on genitive case studies. Not to be confused with gender case studies.

Phone-less. iPhone-less. Internet-less (this was the week that it would not be functioning at home ALL week). Tired. Cold. Hungry. Homeless. Bereft. Forlorn. Alright...definitely being over-dramatic. First-world problems, I know. Here's the thing: you take my technology, you take away the half of my life that exists somewhere on the other side of the world. And while I am well aware that that life goes on without me, I need to witness it. Because it's still mine. However far away I may be.

Benefit of technological isolation? Adequate time for reflection. Moscow, meet AMBIVALENCE. Do I have mixed feelings about living here? Check. Love/Hate relationship with the language, city, etc.? Check. And might some of this fluctuation and uncertainty be owed to my inability to make a decision? BINGO!

I realized that while I'm living in Moscow, I've actually been putting life on hold. I've gotten into the habit of not really settling in...this could stem from last season's "A Move a Month" game. And since I haven't decided what's next, it seemed impossible to decide what's now. No more!

The iPhone may be gone, but I'm sending ambivalence right along with it. I don't expect mixed emotions to vanish immediately, but that won't be due to my indecisiveness any longer. While I don't believe in buying happiness (at least not entirely), I did purchase a few items today to reconstruct the version of life that makes me feel at home. Most who know me will recognize the joy invoked by...
...a juice extractor!!! That's right people. I'll be drinking pure, unadulterated green goodness. Or red, given the abundance of beets...

Also purchased today, this yoga mat. I seriously regret looking it up online, as I now know what I should have to pay for it in normal life. But this is Moscow. So I'll simply swallow and make certain that I get enough downward dog action to make it not seem quite so exorbitant.

And, after avoiding opening them all week, thinking that it was best to save them for a truly rainy day, I indulged in these as a celebration of my new purchases, my new attitude, and life in general. PB: Pure. Bliss.

Monday, October 22, 2012

San Francisco Soundtrack

You may think you know San Francisco. Or have at least experienced it. But until you have seen the following video, I would venture to are wrong.

You're welcome. This treasure quickly became the theme song for my few glorious days stateside (I can't leave the Russian behind!), as the two opera singers I was traveling/performing with would spontaneously break out the chorus at least 4 times a day. Often accompanied with an impromptu dance routine. The talent of my colleagues never ceases to amaze me. "Это Сан-Франциско - город в стиле диско..."

The last-minute nature of this trip/concert, and the fact that it was on the other side of the world, made my life feel slightly glamorous. For about two seconds. What was not glamorous? The fact that I did not have a passport in my possession and had NOT had one for SIX weeks, when I agreed to go. Talk about a leap of faith my friends. My university was extending my visa...and simultaneously taking a year off of my life...and claimed it wasn't ready. They still claimed this on Monday morning when I was in their office begging them to help me leave the country. After informing me that they did not have my passport, the coordinator was good enough to look through her database (aka notebook) and locate my record. She couldn't find it...I have a complicated name over here as it turns out...but I saw it on her list. Crossed off. Claiming that my passport had already been returned. Needless to say, we broke out the binder of all the passports she had gotten back and fished through the American ones. She opened each one to check the picture, and every time she did I had a mini heart attack. Not mine. Not mine. NOT MINE!!! Until the last one rolled around. I have never been so happy to see my face staring back at me.

Also not glamorous? Almost missing me flight on Tuesday morning due to the obscene Moscow traffic. I don't want to talk about it.

What was absolutely glorious:

Making calls from a fully functional cell phone.

Staying in the gorgeous Fairmont hotel.
The view from my room:
San Francisco View

Catching up with friends. In person!

An early morning run, complete with sunrise, stunning weather, bay and bridge.
San Francisco Sunrise

Golden Gate Bridge Sunrise

Golden Gate Bridge Sunrise

Golden Gate Bridge Sunrise

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge

Representing Russia. And America. And myself.
Stephanie Rhodes Pianist
Stephanie Rhodes car

Food!!! Burgers, Deep-fried French toast, eggs benedict, SALAD!, and a Ghirardelli's sundae, of course. The only food I will knock is the Thai which gave me food poisoning and kept me in bed and delirious the entire day of our concert.
Delicious Sweet Potato Fries

Ghirardelli's Sundae San Francisco

Amazing. Colleagues. Almost everything that made this trip unforgettable is owed to them!

Last, but not least, the haul of American goodness back to Russia! Reese's PB cups, beef jerky, canned pumpkin for Thanksgiving feasting, choc chips...I have a handful of things I'm already wishing I'd picked up, but unfortunately my only grocery shopping opportunity fell on the day of disease and delirium. So if you're headed this way, I'm happy to pass on a list!

All in all, this rendition of San Francisco was a success. After performing in the National Archives and now SF City Hall, I can safely say I've had enough of domed acoustics, but I was happy to pass a few days in America, albeit mostly in Russian!

Это Сан-Франциско...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An Expat Vacation

On occasion it happens that you get a call from your company. Asking if you would like to fly to San Francisco (Translate: AMERICA!) for a few days to play a concert. And on occasion it happens that you ECSTATICALLY agree. And head to the airport less that 48 hours later.

Here's to light packing for an international flight, unexpected access to chocolate chips and Thanksgiving feast supplies, and hunting down a piano in San Fran ASAP. This girl's got to learn some music.

I'll send you all a postcard!



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Russian Relations: The Five Levels of Friendship

While in the midst of an endless number of conjugations, confusing prepositions, and CASES(!), it's always refreshing to stumble across a reminder of the beauty of a language. The expressions that somehow express something you didn't think you could quite put into words before. I'll never forget the first time I learned "I miss you" in French.

Tu me manques.

The grammatical structure is such that, while it translates to our version of "I miss you," it more literally means You are missing to me. It's as if rather than simply missing another individual, you're missing a piece of yourself. J'adore!

This morning in my individual Russian lesson, my teacher asked me if I had many friends. I wasn't sure where this conversation was going, but secretly I was wondering if I had been looking that consistently pathetic. I opted for the response, "maybe not many here in Russia, but I do have lots of friends in America." And scattered around the world for that matter...take that! Her answer: "you can't have more than 2 or 3, if any." I was a bit taken aback and even inclined to protest, but then she began laying out what I have dubbed the Hierarchy of Russian Relations.

1. враг (vrag) = enemy
2. недруг (nedroog) = foe
3. знакомый (znakomiy) = acquaintance
4. товарищ (tovarish) = comrade
4. друг (droog) = friend

I've given what I believe the English equivalent to be, though the connotations seem slightly different.

Enemy. No explanation needed.

Недруг. My favorite part of this explanation was the look of disgust and mistrust on my teacher's face as she held up her hands in the "keep away" gesture. Literally translated this word is "not a friend." Foe seems a bit strong of a description, but it works for our purposes.

Acquaintances or your associates are those people who you get along with, could have a nice conversation with, and then part ways and not think twice about the person.

A comrade (it's not just for communists people) I would equate to a pal. Buddy if we're gettin' old school. Maybe even chum in that case. Anyone want to guess at, or educate me as to a current hip translation? Maybe dudes...??? Clearly not my area of expertise.
Regardless, they're the people you hang out with. Call up on a Friday night to make plans. The people you can talk with about life, feelings, and anything else you may fancy. By our definition, these are your friends.

But then there's that elusive category of friendship. It's what we could call a true friend; the type my teacher was referring to when she she said it was impossible to have more than 2 or 3. By her account, these are the people that when you find yourselves in the hardest of times---in her situation she was destitute, alone, without food and sufficient means to live---are ever-constant, ready to buoy you up and stand by you through real life. The real life that can be so brutal at times. My teacher doesn't consider herself to have any friends.

And I realized how blessed I am. I definitely have many a comrade. Some of whom I would even count amongst my best friends. They're the ones I can call to discuss work crises, (which are inevitably tied to life crises in my case). Dating crises (also somehow inevitable). No need to stick with the crises...we can talk about other brighter life happenings as well. We keep in touch. We have a fabulous time whenever we see each other. And I love them.

But then there are those friends who know your soul. And while they are certainly more scarce, in reflection, I have still been blessed with an abundance. Largely due to my large family. I know and have personally witnessed the strength of our family relationships as we've endured hard times together. And along with being my best friends, I know without a doubt they're also my truest. Ready to be there at a moment's notice, through the highs and lows.

And I have another family, albeit a smaller one. They may not be blood relations, but they too know me and love me as if they were. They've invested in me, and I in them. They could give you a list of my weaknesses and smile while doing so. From the broken heart(s) and self-doubt, to the dreams and inner potential; they know who I am, how I see myself, and what I can become. And when I myself forget those things, they are there to remind me. Helping me know myself again. True friends.

I love learning languages. And I love when they teach me about life. About myself.

Here's to a day of renewed appreciation for the special people in my life. And a renewed desire to be a better friend and person for those who might trust me with the gift of being amongst their true друзья.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Home Is Where the Suitcase Is

After giving someone directions, providing restaurant recommendations, and acting as a self-proclaimed tour guide for the Bolshoi Theater (the tourists were happy to get in the doors so mis-information and little historical expertise was irrelevant), it's official: I'm home. And I have to say, settling in for an extended stay has its benefits.

Said benefits?

I live in a forest. Quite literally. This provides some beautiful scenery, fresh air, and a good laugh now and again. Because I live in Moscow. In a forest.

Check out my backyard.

Serebryany Bor Moscow

Serebryany Bor Moscow
In case you couldn't see the forest through the trees, here's my front yard.
And driveway. More appropriately dubbed a walkway for my purposes.
Serebryany Bor Moscow

Serebryany Bor Moscow

As for the apartment itself, I like to refer to it as my cabin. Because when you can't get enough of the woods outdoors, you might as well bring them inside.
Indoor highlights include my spacious shower. Every day in here is a bit of an adventure, given the handheld shower nozzle. I can multi-task, but in the past I haven't been able to effectively employ that skill when washing my hair. Or needed to. But thank goodness for a challenge!
Another highlight? The mocking curtains at the foot of my bed. "You think Russian's hard??? Just try translating THIS when you wake up first thing in the morning!" Nothing like a slap of humility to start off the day.
Last, but definitely not least, I would like to introduce you to my second door, which deceptively looks very much like a window. Those of you who recall my first incidence of imprisonment have been, I'm sure, waiting with baited breath to know if there was a resolution to the 2nd Cold War: Stephanie vs. Russian Locks.

10 days, my friends. 10 days. From first report to repair, this was a lengthier battle than I would have liked. I climbed out AND in of said window in pencil skirt and heels on more than one occasion, no small feat given the height of the window and relative instability of the small ledge on the way out. (The lock ceased to function from the exterior as well). I originally started keeping tally of my window exits, but abandoned doing so when it became an embarrassingly large number. Clearly the lock was winning. The day they decided to fix it? Also the day I had to move apartments. So who really won here? I'll let you decide.
Russian lock
I, personally, refuse to consider myself ousted by a lock.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Шашлик and Chocolate Chip Cookies

As it turns out, his whole living-out-of-country game is more difficult than it looks. I had a brief conversation with Paaaaaa yesterday and he termed it "culture shock." My head hates that idea. I've been to Russia before. I knew what to expect. Right???

But here's the thing: I've never spent so LONG in Russia. In fact, the longest I've spent out of country was 10 weeks and that time was divided between Italy and Israel, making both visits lengthy enough to not feel touristy but short enough to not actually acclimate.

So here I am, arrived at the 4-week mark, and contemplating on how one is to "acclimate," whatever that actually means.

This week we had our first вечеринка (which somehow seems so much fancier than a plain old party) and I think the food pretty much sums up my feelings. As it normally does. The Russian spread was fabulous, of course! The main dish was shashlik, which despite its Armenian/Georgian origination has been adopted by the Russians. It's basically our equivalent of BBQ...meat marinated in an amazing blend of herbs and spices and then grilled over some coals. We had an authentic Armenian make our marinade so it was totally legit.

Homemade Shashlik Moscow

Homemade Shaslik Moscow

I had to bring something to the party. It's not only polite but basically a prerequisite here that you not show up empty-handed. Well, my number two stress relief: baking. (Number 1 is running, just for the record.) Anyone who knows me, can testify as to my love for cookies. Which they don't really have in this country, as it turns out. So I decided it was time to make some. Finding the right ingredients turned out to be no easy task. For anyone in Moscow who's looking, you can find what we call brown sugar at the Глобус гурме (Globus gurmye). I hit about about 5 other stores without any luck and was thrilled to find some!

I struck out when it came to vanilla. In the end I found some vanilla-flavored sugar which had to work as a substitute. I also found recipes to make my own, vodka style, but that takes a few months and I wasn't willing to wait. Also impossible, chocolate chips. Tragic, right?!? I bought a couple of chocolate bars to crush up, but then happened on the brilliant idea of M&M's. Complete. Success.

Chocolate Chip Cookies Moscow

Well...almost. They were tasty and my friends were fans, which was important to me. I'm trying to love their culture, but I'd also love for them to appreciate mine. That being said, they weren't quite the same. The flour is a bit different, but something was also slightly off in the butter/sugar mixture. Luckily, I have some time left here to figure it out. Don't worry. I will.

Shashlik and chocolate chip cookies. An unlikely pair, but it's what I'm trying to make work. It's such an interesting process. The more I invest here, in the language and the people, the more I find myself appreciating and longing for my own country. I heard real American English in the stolovaya (cafeteria) here at the Bolshoi and few things have sounded more beautiful. I was ridiculously completely made my afternoon. And I love Russian! I love that I am working in Russian, I'm studying Russian in Russian, and I'm surrounded by it all day. But when my Russian teacher one day asked me (in a private session, for the record) if I thought English was beautiful, I got a little teary. I've always loved the English language and literature, but I don't know that I've thought of it as a stunningly beautiful language. I do now.

In the past I've always been proud of the fact that I adapt well and even manage to blend in when traveling. The day I take my 6'0" self to China I realize that will end completely. But in this edition of Moscow, I stand divided. Half of my heart wants only shashlik in order to be certain that I don't miss out on a moment of appreciation for this wonderful country and its culture. But the other half is happily embracing, perhaps even clinging to my American sensibilities. And while that oftentimes creates some inner turmoil, it's allowing me to see both Moscow and myself with a new perspective.

Perhaps in the striking juxtaposition of an unlikely pair, we can actually more fully discover and appreciate individual flavors. It's what I'm aiming for.

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