Tuesday, May 20, 2014


So with my Poland/Bolshoi posts out of the way, I thought I'd give you an update on the State of the Blogger. As it stands, I have one month left at my job. Seriously. I just found out today that my last day is June 20th, and today is May 20th, and I'm practically dancing. I have thirty-three days left in Moscow, total, and they are going by quickly. 

At this point, I have achieved everything on my Russia Bucket List, with the exception of St. Petersburg (to be achieved immediately after leaving Moscow) and Yasnaya Polyana (sometime in June, depending on when my friend and I can get a free weekend).  Now, it's just a matter of tying things up. Everything is booked. I mailed a suitcase home to Canada, and discovered to my amazement that it's left the country already - the one time that Russian Post has ever worked with anything resembling efficiency. I'm stunned. (Also, they still do all their international post in Russian and French - a holdover from the Tsarist days? What gives?) Now all I have to do is finish up at work, gather my remaining possessions, read all my remaining Scandinavian crime novels (I have a lot of those), and drag myself onto a train at the end of next month. Should be simple enough, but then again, it's Russia.

At school, most of the students have "checked out" by now, either officially or mentally. I blame the good weather and multitude of dachas on the city outskirts. By now it's all about giving final tests, and preparing them for said tests. Easy enough - even if I drown in marking by the end. Some of my students have been quite sad about the end of the year, and one class even presented me with a very thoughtful gift - a framed picture of the group, plus a letter with sweet messages from each of them. They assumed it was a surprise, but I figured out through the whispering and clandestine note-passing that something was probably up. It was adorable. You made my week, guys.

And the trip, oh god, the trip. I'm almost scared to talk about it for fear I'll jinx it. It's going to be glorious. I'm heading to St. Pete's on the 22nd, then on to Helsinki. On Canada Day I board a ferry for Stockholm, where I'll hang out long enough to explore Lisbeth Salander's haunts. Then I'm going to sell a kidney in order to pay for two days in Oslo. After a stop in Copenhagen, I'll hit Iceland, then take a detour with college friends in Toronto before meeting my family in Winnipeg. Everything is booked, everything is ready. Here's how it feels, since as a  Millennial I can only express my emotions in GIF form:

Of course, this will eat my bank account, but I'm being careful and am prepared to come home broke or near it. I'm twenty-two - it's okay to still be flipping burgers. And the trip is worth it. This is what I've been waiting for all year, the ultimate bucket-list-checking-off adventure, the tour of a lifetime, and I'm hilariously uptight about it. This week the washing machine broke, and I flipped out because I was sure the cost would destroy my trip, until my roommate pointed out that the landlord has to pay for it anyway. Actually, it's been a bad week for electronics all around, with my iPod dying, the washing machine deciding to go kerplunk, my eReader spontaneously erasing all my books, my phone refusing to accept any payments, and my headphones, just now, doing the "left-ear-stops-working" act. So to my budget-conscious mind, I might as well have been a basket case this week. Screw you, technology.

The closer I get to leaving Russia, the antsier I become about these things. Any little setback is cause for much gnashing of teeth, and I expect that it will be frustrating right up to the end. But in thirty-three days, I'll be on a train to St. Pete's and everything will be in motion. It's a total thrill. I've had a hell of a year, with tons of ups and downs, and sometimes I thought it would never end. We're closing in, guys. Time to look forward. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Katedr i sol

Our third day in Poland started out cold and rainy. And wouldn't you know it, that's the day we picked to spend two hours standing in line for the salt mines. Despite our chilly fingers, it was one of the most interesting parts of the trip - and something I would never have thought of doing on my own. The history behind the mines is surprisingly interesting, dating back to medieval era and packed with fascinating innovation. I even got to operate one of the machines, look:

The most fascinating part of the mine, however, is just how much a person can make out of salt. The walls are salt. The floor is salt. The statues are salt. And hell, you can even lick the salt. Just not the statues. Especially not the Pope - they love that guy. The level of detail is utterly extraordinary. There are 240 km of paths underground, and numerous rooms filled with gorgeous salt art, including a full cathedral. Here's a pic-heavy summary. 

At the end, there's a gift shop and cafe, where you can buy all the salt you want. Since my dad is a bit of an amateur geologist, I got him some salt to keep on his desk or something, and am now terrified of sending it through Russian customs on my way home. They even had a post office down there - so a few of you will get postcards from underground. We had a beer in said cafe, then headed back to Krakow for the night. 

Sunday was our last day, so we followed the time-honoured traditions of travellers everywhere and crammed in all our last-minute sightseeing. This included cathedrals...

Krakow's most beautiful synagogue...

...and Schindler's factory, though we didn't visit the museum. It was quite sobering to see. Though the tour-bus-golf-cart-things looked quite out of place. 

Best of all was our morning excursion, to the market on the square. Filled with wonderful souvenirs at excellent prices, we all contributed very well to the local economy. I took home some lovely amber earrings, along with a host of gifts for various friends and relatives. After eight months in Russia, we couldn't get over how friendly everyone was. It really was a different atmosphere. 

That evening, we attended a vodka tasting at the hostel, but a morning flight meant that we had to get to bed early. Our return journey went off without a hitch, and now I'm back in Moscow and counting the days until my next trip. 

Poland is a beautiful country, and Krakow is a gem of a city. For anyone who is planning a trip to Central Europe - or hell, anywhere in Europe, it's easy enough to get around - I'd highly recommend it. It was a peaceful long weekend in spring, and we were all too happy take a break from our busy lives in Russia. Seeing Auschwitz was a profound experience, and I'm glad I went. The salt mines also proved to be a fascinating sight. So I saw the "big" Krakow places. All the same, there's still a lot left to explore. I would return both to Poland and to Krakow in a heartbeat. Now, to get through the next few weeks...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

w Polsce

Warning: this post contains pictures of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. While there is nothing graphic - no pictures of the crematorium or gas chamber, for example - there are some photos of some of the buildings. I'll note it again, in bold, right before the pictures are shown. 

Yes, yes, this post is long overdue, since I've been back for ten whole days, but it's the hellish last few weeks of the school year and I've been buried under a pile of essays. Here it is, better late than never - the Polish Post.

It was a long weekend in Russia (actually, two long weekends in a row), and I managed to do some arm-twisting and get two extra days off. With the time secured, two friends and I booked a trip to Krakow. And my god, did we ever need it! (Ask any teacher in May. They really, really need it.)

Our trip started at 4 AM on the first of May, with a mad dash to the airport. Can I say here that I love Moscow's public transit? Seriously, if all the cities in the world had a talent show, that would be Moscow's talent. We managed to get to the airport in decent time, and from there it was a pleasant two-hour jaunt across Russia and Belarus. We arrived at Pope John Paul II airport late in the morning, and headed to Krakow only to be confronted with a nice dose of culture shock.

You see, I think that many North Americans tend to conflate all of Eastern and Central Europe as an endless gray block of Commies. The truth is, moving from Russia to Poland was like travelling through time. For one thing, they stock Oreos in the supermarket. And no, that's not entirely a joke - we went to pick up some food for breakfast and literally gaped at the selection available to us. People dress more casually, retail workers are friendly, and the atmosphere is simply more relaxed. At one point, we saw a protest surrounded by police in the Main Market Square and stopped, wondering if we'd have to leave. Police and demonstrations are two things you really want to avoid in Russia. Soon enough, we realized that it was a sanctioned protest, and that the police were there in a mere supervisory capacity. I think that blew our tiny little minds. Later, we had a political conversation with a tour guide and didn't have to watch what we said. We didn't need to pretend to be invisible when the police walked by! The clothes are less formal, the people smile more, everything there just seems to move at an easier pace. It wasn't just a different country, but a different planet.

Poland itself is beautiful. We didn't see much of the countryside - just the view from the airplane window and the one hour of countryside between Krakow and Oswiecim - but it was May and the fields were blooming and everything was green. Krakow is full of lovely parks and pays a lot more attention to its foliage than Moscow. Like, I love you Moscow, but you're obsessed with poplars and they make my eyes itch. We were staying in a nice hostel right off Main Market Square (so basically, as central as you can get). The cleanest bathrooms I've seen, nice furnishings, a cozy common room, all for an excellent price! The only downside was that it was a real party hostel, and the culture revolved around drinking. We shared our room with three crazy French guys who kept coming in at five in the morning, making a hell of a lot of noise, and then getting pissy when we woke them up a few hours later. Also, everyone kept mistaking me for American, probably because I was with two Americans, but they don't do that to me in Russia. Point to Russia on that one.

Our first day, once we had recovered from the 4 AM wake-up, consisted of a tour of the Jewish Quarter, once the site of the ghetto and now one of the trendiest neighborhoods in town. There are tons of synagogues and old buildings in the area, along with a lovely square filled with restaurants. However, you can't escape the area's dark past - almost every building there has a sad history, and there are memorials all over the place. The staircase below was even used in a scene from Schindler's List - and the square for executions all too real. To see a neighbourhood bustling with vitality, and to know that some of history's darkest days took place there, was both life-affirming and eerie. The world can go on, but the past should never be forgotten.

Our tour was followed by a walk by the Vistula River and dinner at a Jewish restaurant, during which I tried cholent for the first time. And as a side note, the food. Oh my god, the food. There was a ton of cabbage and potatoes, just like Russia, but Poland has its own cuisine. My favourite was the street food zapiekanka (though I mostly referred to it as "that sandwich thing" because I have the memory of a sieve), popular in the Communist era and now favoured by drunk people. It's basically bread and cheese with some meat and spices thrown in, but god is it good. For lunch and breakfast we generally self-catered or ate the hostel's freebie breakfast, because we're cheapskates, but we made the most of dinners out, and it was definitely worth it.

The next day, Friday, began with an early wake-up and a brisk walk to the bus station, where we set off for Auschwitz. The bus takes you directly to the site, skipping the pretty little town of Oswiecim, which thrives a few kilometres away. A large highway even runs alongside the camps. Imagine driving by every day on your way to work.

It's hard for me to describe what the place was really like, because an event so terrible can't really be captured in words. The camp is divided into two parts, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the latter of which was larger and used more for extermination than forced labor. Nowadays, Auschwitz I is set up more like a museum, with displays on various aspects of the camp, though the buildings are authentic. It also holds the only surviving crematorium and gas chamber, as the fleeing Nazis destroyed most of Birkenau in an effort to conceal the atrocities. Everyone arriving at peak hours in spring and summer must go with a guided tour, divided by language and often split up into several smaller groups. Before your tour, you see a short documentary film taken from real footage by liberating troops, which is a very effective way to orient yourself before seeing the site itself. 

Most people who go to Krakow visit Auschwitz, even if that wasn't their main purpose - and it is for many people, including my friends and me - so the camp is absolutely packed with visitors from all over the world. Many of them are young, which is wonderful to see, because as the survivors pass on, we will need this place to become our witness. Things happened here which humanity can never turn its back on. I think given the opportunity, everyone should try their utmost to go - and even if we can't get there, we should all do our part to make sure that it is never forgotten. 

Warning: pictures to follow. 

I kept bracing myself for the emotional impact everyone warned me about, but it didn't really hit me at the time. Later, looking over the pictures, I certainly felt overwhelmed, but at the time it all seemed slightly detached. Maybe I had deliberately distanced myself, maybe it was being there on a sunny day with huge crowds of people, maybe it's because the full weight of something like the Holocaust is impossible to grasp in the first place, but it wasn't nearly as crushing as I had imagined. Even the gas chamber and crematorium, though they made me catch my breath, were not so difficult to see. Again, it is very difficult to wrap your head around the concept of the terrible things that happened there. Other people have had much more visceral reactions to the place, so I don't want to tell you that it's something a person can automatically handle - but in the moment, it can be more numb than anything. Later, though, you may well feel the physical and emotional drain.

One thing that really stood out to me was the endless rooms of belongings - shoes, glasses, baby clothes, even hair, all belonging to real people who had perished there. I couldn't bring myself to photograph them, and some things were even explicitly forbidden by the museum staff, but I did take some pictures of the suitcases. To me, these had the strongest impact. The prisoners were told as they left the train to leave to label their luggage, for it would be returned to them later. They wrote their names to prepare for a life that was promised to them, an extraordinary act of calculated manipulation on the part of their captors. Most of them were gassed immediately, their belongings looted.

Distressingly, a lot of people had very little respect for what they were seeing. They would pose for dumb pictures in front of various places, make horrible jokes, and talk in places where we were requested to keep a respectful silence. One family took pictures in the "hair room", which is exactly what it sounds like. It's one of the few places in Auschwitz where photography is expressly forbidden. Here, in a room containing the only remains of humans who died in the most terrible of ways, this family of morons kept clicking away. When they were reprimanded by our tour guide, they even had the gall to ask why. This sent our guide on the rant to end all rants, and I was extraordinarily proud of her for doing so. But even after that, once her back was turned, the family kept taking pictures. I have have nothing but contempt for anyone who would show such blatant disrespect for one of the most terrible times in human history. This is both a mass grave site and a memorial for more than a million people. Don't behave like a fool.

Before we left, we were also taken into the cellar of one of the buildings, which was used as a prison. Certain cells were intended for different forms of slow execution - for example, several were used exclusively for death by starvation (Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was one of the more prominent victims), while one was used to suffocate, since little air could enter the room. It was also one of the first testing places for Zyklon-B, but too little was used in the initial test, so the victims were left to die over a period of several days. It's closed-in and dark, and being down there is very frightening, very quickly, even when you know you'll leave it soon. To be imprisoned there is beyond imagination.

Birkenau avoids the museum-style displays of Auschwitz and essentially stands as it was in 1945, giving it a much more immediate feeling than Auschwitz I. Many of the barracks were destroyed, along with the gas chambers and crematoria, as the Nazis anticipated the approach of the Red Army. It feels eerie and empty, as if it had been abandoned only hours earlier. To be there is to walk with ghosts. You enter from the same place that the railway tracks begin, through the infamous gate where so many arrived and never left. The tour guide indicated which side led to the barrack, and which went to the gas chambers - in other words, life and death. Walking along the "death" side, the pebbles crunching under my feet, I wondered how many had walked along the same route, only to their deaths. 

There is a memorial next to the remains of the gas chambers, with plaques in the languages of the victims, over two dozen in all. Towns from all over Europe have sent wreaths here, in honour of those lost from their region. My friends and I had each taken a stone from the square in Krakow, and left them here as a private commemoration. Vast and near-silent, the camp feels almost otherworldly. The sheer size is staggering, and it was overcrowded with prisoners during the war - and these were the small fraction who survived the initial selection. Furthermore, the numbers we have are likely underestimates. 

The camp still holds giant ash pits, now filled with water, but still containing the remains of many of the victims. If you look closely at the grass, you can also see fragments of ash and bone. The people who died here still remain, and their presence is palpable. Even empty, it's a place of fear. To keep it preserved like this was the right move - here, generations born after the war can grasp a little of what went on, though most of it is far beyond what we can grasp. 

I will end the post here, because it is getting too long and I prefer to leave it on this solemn note rather than continuing on to lighter moments. Thanks for reading. 


Ah, the arts! Russia is famed for its contributions to the artistic world, and ballet is one of its strong suits. Nowhere is this more obvious than the Bolshoi, which is so famous that it barely needs an introduction. Personally, I'm about as knowledgeable about ballet as Homer Simpson...

...but when my friends (same friends from the Poland post) invited me to go with them, I happily shelled out the 8000 rubles to see Russia's greatest theatre, because when was I ever going to see it again? Let me tell you - it was worth every kopeck. Though it's ranked as one of Moscow's must-sees, it's often overlooked due to the cost and scarcity of tickets. Ostentatious and filled with top-notch talent, it's definitely something you should consider if you can swing it at all. 

The theatre was smaller than I expected, but that was a bonus, because I had great seats. They divide their balconies into little boxes with hugely uncomfortable chairs. Here's some perspective as to where I was. Pink scarf, looking kind of bored with my arm on the edge, but really I was just tired from teaching all day:

The show itself, La Bayadere or Баядерка, is considered a classic in Russia but doesn't really have much of a niche in the West. Being both ballet-deficient and sleep-deprived, I couldn't really make heads or tails of the plot, but it involved harems and forbidden love and death and all that stuff you find in ballet. The plot isn't really the point, I guess. The dancing, of course, was superb, though you should note that I've been to about three ballet performances and all of them involved my niece. There were some stunning set pieces, the music was great, and the female lead was superb, though on a whole the male dancers were a lot stronger than the female dancers. Some of them were actively slipping throughout the show. 

One thing that bugged me - no one turned off their cell phones, and a lot of people were actively texting or taking videos, and even flash photos! At the friggin' Bolshoi! Do people just have no manners anymore? Is that it? Because I don't care what you say, taking flash pictures when someone trying to dance is not a cultural difference, it is rude everywhere on this planet. Shame on whoever does that. I hope that you get a bad papercut on a copy of an Emily Post book. 

The second act involved a stunning sequence in the royal court, involving a number of extended solos and the Bayadere's somber death dance (truly something I'll never forget). Best of all was the man playing a golden statue. Worst? The blackface. There was a group of dancers portraying courtiers, all dressed up with brown fabric and makeup covering their skin. Though they were excellent dancers, even standouts in the large corps, it was still really strange to watch them. Russia has a very different approach to race than North Americans do (I think the correct word for it is outright racism), and I knew that coming in. Even so, to see these dancers performing in a form of costume I was raised to see as taboo was extremely uncomfortable. The Bolshoi draws primarily on Russian dancers, but can hire from all over the globe. They could have hired black dancers as part of their regular lineup, brought some in for this show specifically, or simply not had the characters be African, but well, they chose to do something different. And very few people here would think anything of it. 

The third act was splendid, with a scene that was either ripped off from Swan Lake or that Swan Lake ripped off from it, the two are so similar. But then, I know so little about ballet that I just about wrote Black Swan twice, so maybe it was a trend or something. Basically, you get a journey through the underworld in which thousands of ghostly dancers wander through eerie lighting. While it got a little repetitive after the fifth or sixth identically-dressed soloist, I still remained transfixed, even after a full day of teaching (though several cups of coffee probably helped). The show was excellent and the venue was to die for. Who can ask for anything more? Except maybe a seat in the VIP box, I guess. 

And best of all, after the show we went to a '50s diner that rivals anything I've seen back in North America. The service was prompt (a rarity here), the music could have come from American Graffiti, and they had pictures of movie stars all over the walls! Though they did commit the cardinal sin of putting Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn together - but I'll forgive them. Their peanut butter (peanut butter!) milkshake was just that good. 

So I saw the Bolshoi and spent the evening at a magnificent ballet. and it was magical. Though ballet is not my first choice for entertainment, seeing an art form at its highest kind of transcends your interests. Like how us illiterate North American slobs will still dive through Harry Potter, but that's another story. I was able to take part in a piece of Russia that is admired worldwide, and saw true artistic mastery at work. Was it worth it? One thousand percent, dear readers.