It’s been a great year on the blog – but, like all good things, it has come to an end.

Here are some final reflections on studying abroad in Moscow: the good, the bad and the simply excellent.

The best part about living in Moscow: is a toss up between the metro and being a 20-minute walk from the Bolshoi. In short, quick and easy access to operas, museums, soccer games, café hangouts with friends… There are always a dozen things going on – new art exhibits, theatre festivals, you name it!

A favorite memory: A week before I left Moscow, my best friend from the soccer team called me up. I was in a noisy café, and I couldn’t really hear or understand exactly what she was saying, but I understood that she was proposing meeting that evening before soccer practice to do something. Do what, I didn’t know until I showed up at MGU for a guided tour of the main building – the highlight? The best view of Moscow from the twenty-eighth floor. Most people, Russians and tourists alike, don’t get the chance to enjoy this, since you need an MGU student ID to get in. Good thing Masha has a short, blonde friend willing to lend me her ID… I was so touched that my friend wanted to show me around and share this experience with me.

In a nutshell…

The best parts of studying abroad this year include:

  • Playing soccer (and not playing soccer) with some wonderful new Russian friends;
  • Celebrating one evening at a soccer friend’s house in Domodedovo;
  • Gaining confidence and noticing my progress in speaking, reading, writing, and understanding Russian over this past year;
  • Travelling to the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, Istanbul and St. Petersburg in my free time;
  • Eating way too much Georgian food, and learning how to properly eat khinkali;
  • Enjoying the real Russian banya experience;
  • Perfecting homemade pizza crust in my missing-home-food periods and trying Kim’s Korean food in her missing-home-food periods;
  • Seeing Swan Lake and The Magic Flute at the Bolshoi;
  • Reading Master and Margarita and Dostoevsky’s Idiot in the original.

The worst parts of studying abroad this year were, thankfully, few…

  • Russian winters really are long – so despite all the resistance I’ve built up in Vermont over the years, I had a hard time staying positive and energetic when I hadn’t seen the sun in several weeks. Be prepared for this, and make sure you plan some trips, theatre outings and other adventures to get yourself out of the apartment.
  • Missing a year with my friends at Midd – but since most of my friends also spent at least a semester abroad, this is certainly not a reason not to go abroad. And thankfully, there’s always skype!

If I could go back in time, I would still choose to come to Moscow, without question. A full year in Moscow has meant that I’ve gotten really close with my soccer friends, but a semester is plenty of time to sample the museums, theatres and other adventures Moscow has to offer. I’ll wait and see how Nate and Sarah felt about their respective years in Irkutsk and Yaroslavl before saying which I would pick, but if I chose again I would go to a different city for the first semester and then come to Moscow. If you can get to know two different cities, why not?

The only (and best) advice I would give to students studying abroad in Moscow applies to students studying abroad anywhere – find a club, a sports team, or a poetry group and make friends with Russians and find a fun way to spend your time. You’ll feel more at home in your new city (especially in a city as big as Moscow), you’ll have new friends in a new place, and your language skills will improve in leaps and bounds. Moscow-specific: See a ballet at the Bolshoi, check out the Mayakovsky Museum, sneak into MGU and check out the view of Moscow from the top floor, walk around Sparrow Hills in the spring, try чача and хачапури, and get a вишневый пирог (cherry pastry) at one of the Братя Караваевых cafes.

Last words – Thanks so much for reading Troika this year! It’s been great to have a motivation to record my adventures, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to share Nate’s and Sarah’s experiences as well. I hope it’s been an interesting ride, and that our musings will be helpful to future students planning to study in Russia or tourists planning to visit!

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After class at noon Kelsey and I walked from RGGU down to Alexandrovskii Garden, next to Red Square. We stopped along the way to stroll down Tverskoi Boulevard and bought my new favorite cookies from a bakery along the way. Caramel-filled shortbread cookies and sun – pretty much all the ingredients for happiness. I knew Светлый ручей, a Shostakovich ballet, was at the Bolshoi in the evening, so we decided to wander around, ending up at the Bolshoi ticket office to check for available student tickets.

We ended up at the Bolshoi ticket office around 4:00 – I knew that student ticket sales officially began at 5:30 but thought it was worth checking out. A woman inside the ticket office pointed us back outside to the small group of students mulling near the stairs. One of them had started “the list” for student tickets, and Kelsey and I got in at 21 and 22 (of 30 available). The guy in charge of the list said we could come back a little before 5:30 to actually buy the tickets. So we wandered around a bit more, soaking up the sun.

The view as we relaxed in the sun.

We weren't the only ones relaxing! The park benches in front of the Bolshoi were packed. And yes, that is green grass you see.

We returned a little before 5:30 to find a much larger mass of students waiting around the stairs to the ticket office. I started to worry. How official was the list? Who enforced it? Would we actually get tickets?

These turned out to be unfounded worries. The list represented a line – a virtual line of the students waiting for tickets. And Russians respect lines and demand that all others around them do so. When the guard first came out, everyone rushed toward the door – then the guard asked for the list, and told the girl in charge of it to “manage the list and control the situation.” And the girl did just that – read off the names of the list, lining everyone up based on their place on the list. No one jostled, no one pushed – we were allowed to move up to our place in line. A girl from Hungary was talking with her Russian boyfriend about the other times she’d tried to get student tickets and how sometimes there is a list, sometimes not, how sometimes the list is written by early morning, if it’s a Saturday show. Weekdays it’s quite feasible to get a student ticket, but weekends are a lot trickier. Lesson learned: Lines are sacred in Russia. I needn’t have worried.

Dinner. Beer is cheaper than water, and with the warm weather, everyone is drinking it on the streets, in parks.

There’s a line of bakeries and cafes a couple streets up from the Bolshoi, so we decided to buy a nice loaf of bread to munch on for dinner – we only had about an hour after buying tickets before the start of the ballet, so our options were a bit limited. A middle-aged woman with her mother and daughter found our dinner in front of the Bolshoi endlessly amusing. She even took a photo of us and joked about e-mailing it to us.  I mean, we thought Stella Artois and a sundried-tomato-basil chiabatta, followed by an epically large chocolate-chip cookie was pretty classy, considering our time constraints and the fact that there are no grocery stores in the center of the city. (Note: The Frisbee-sized chocolate chip cookies at Le Pain Quotidien are amazing, and if you split them, well worth the $5 price tag. They were twice the price of the bread.) So following our delicious, albeit nutritionally quite pitiful, dinner, we headed off to enjoy the ballet.

THE cookie. I definitely miss a good 'ole American chocolate chip cookie, and this does the trick. While not exactly Frisbee size, it is a very large cookie.

On the ticket is printed the phrase “неудобное место” – or, “uncomfortable place/seat.” While the actual seat is just as plushly padded as all the others, the location of the seat is in the highest balcony on the ends next to the stage. Where absolutely nothing is visible. The kind older woman ushering our section assured us that after the third bell and the dimming of the lights, we could move into other empty seats closer to the center, where more than the corner of the curtain was actually visible. So as the entreacte played, we tiptoed into some of the empty seats where at least half the stage was visible.

At the Bolshoi there are three bells before the start of the performance – after the third one, even people with tickets for the main floor or belle etage (бельетаж) are not seated, but are directed to seats in the highest balcony (первый ярус). Once all of these paying ticketholders are seated, the students get to fill in any remaining places. For the second act, several more seats had freed up, as latecomers claimed their seats on the belle etage during intermission. We moved to seats a bit higher, but closer to the center, and enjoyed a much better view of the second act.

Lessons learned: Student tickets are a better idea for an opera at the Bolshoi, since you can still enjoy the music, even with a rather limited view of the stage. But as long as you’re persistent in moving into some of the other open seats after the lights dim, it’s still worth it for a ballet. A Bolshoi ballet for 50 roubles? (That’s less than $2.) Success.

The girls on the soccer team have been a huge part of my life this year in Russia. In the fall, I understood about a third of everything they said – now, 95%, the remaining 5% of which is slang. For example, “плюс сто пятьсот” (plus five hundred) is the equivalent of a very emphatic “me, too!” As far as I understood the explanation, this came from some viral video on You Tube, and is very, very slang. The girls are quick to warn me which new words and phrases should not be used with my professors. One of the older girls, Anya, sometimes drives me home after practice, since it’s on her way home, and our car rides are always lessons in Russian sayings and expressions.

Mini-football/ mini-soccer is played on a parquet wood floor, similar to a basketball court (or occasionally, an actual basketball court). There are four players and a goalie, and the rules are such that goalies do not play a very active role in the general flow of the game – passes back to the goalie are very limited, so it’s really just the four players on the field. Technique is a bit different from playing on grass or artificial turf – 95% of first touches on the ball are with the bottom of the foot, which offers more control on the wood flooring. Chipping the ball into the air for long passes is common, although in general headers and volleys occur with much less frequency than on the “большое поле” – the big (grass) field.

This past week we played in a weeklong tournament. We won our first two games – I scored a hat trick in the first) and then on Friday we played the strongest team in our group to determine who would move on to the semifinals in first place in the group. They scored two goals early in the first half, then partway through the second half their goalie deflected a long shot right to me, and I scored. With literally a minute and a half to go, we had a corner kick. I was standing roughly at the top of the three-point line, if you’re thinking of a basketball court, and our captain Natasha chipped the ball to me. I one-touch volleyed the ball to the left-hand corner of the goal. Volleys out of the air are pretty common fare on the big field, so to me it was exciting that we scored, but the goal wasn’t particularly special. However, all my teammates wanted a breakdown of how exactly I scored of a volley. We lost on Saturday, so we ended up playing for third place on Sunday, against the same team as Friday. Again, they scored early in the first half. We really controlled the second half, and had a lot of chances to score, but then in the last minute I ended up with the ball to the left of the goal. My shot ricocheted off one of their players who was running back to defend, and she deflected the shot right past her goalie to tie the game. So we went to penalty kicks. Despite the fact that at practice I had not once scored a penalty shot (my talent for them apparently does not extend to mini-football), I made mine, but we ended up losing 4-3. We were of course disappointed, but we played well – and although my Soviet-style coach may not agree, having fun is the most important in the end.

The tournament filmed the games on Sunday, and after our game a woman wanted to interview me – in part since I scored the tying goal, and definitely because I’m an American who speaks Russian and that makes for a fun story. I warned her she would need to speak slowly… I didn’t make any glaring grammatical mistakes, as far as I noticed, and spared her completely idiotic responses. She asked about how I ended up in Russia playing for this team, how it compares to the level of soccer in the U.S, and how it felt to score the last-minute winning goals on Friday and on Sunday. I mostly talked about how wonderful my teammates are, because I figured that wouldn’t go amiss. (And they are all a wonderful bunch). This was one of those moments that reminded me that I’ve come a long way since August…

Somehow, I have no pictures of us actually playing…but here are some photos from the Russian Cup for Mini-Football that we went to see, and from some of our other weekend adventures.

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More than 60% of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, and for them Easter (Пахса – Paskha) is the most important holiday of the year. While a surprisingly small number of Russians actually attend Easter church services, the traditional foods and rituals associated with Easter are an integral part of Russian culture even for the most mildly religious. Russians celebrate Orthodox Easter later – this year, by a week – than “Catholic Easter.” (Don’t Protestants celebrate Easter, too? Not according to Russians, they don’t). On the night before Palm Sunday – which in Russia is Pussywillow Sunday – the Moscow metro stays open an hour later, until 2 am for all those late-night churchgoers, and a number of streets are closed around major churches in Moscow. On Palm Sunday, upon meeting other people a familiar ritual will take place. Masha initiated this ritual with me, and when her friend dropped by later in the day I witnessed the same – kiss three times on the cheek, then pronounce “Христос воскрес!“ (Khristos voskres) Christ has risen! To which the answer is “Воистину воскрес!“ (Voistinu voskres) Indeed/ In truth he has risen! There is some kind of seniority rule about who initiates and starts by saying Христос воскрес, but as the resident American I immediately fall to the bottom of any pecking order. Which takes all the pressure off.

I have tried three kinds of кулич (kulich): two medium-sized from Masha’s favorite bakery, a little one from her friend’s favorite bakery, and big slice of the friend’s homemade variation. (Don’t worry, I have already asked for the recipe for the friend’s homemade – it was positively delicious. I will be pestering Masha to ask her for it). Masha called herself a грешница (greshnitsa – sinner) for not making one of her own, but she’s been busy researching and writing her latest article about a Russian avant-garde artist whose name I cannot pronounce, even after 8 months in Russia. The big slice of the homemade version was infinitely superior to the others – dense, moist but satisfyingly crumbly, with a richly delicious yeasty-eggy flavor. It is a bit more crumbly and less dense than German stolen, and not at all as sweet. (Can you tell that my dream job would be a food critic? We’ve been writing sample resumes in my stylistics class, and I wrote a resume and cover letter to be a staff writer at a foodie magazine. Fun fact – Russian resumes traditionally include a person’s age, marital and family status, and whether they smoke or not.) And did I mention the raisins? Well, there are perfect raisins dotted through the dough – Masha knows that I love raisins, yeast bread and all kinds of milk products, so she was pretty sure this would be a hit. Кулич is eaten with пасха (paskha – yes, same name as Easter), an incredibly sweet and rich mixture of tvorog, cream, with – you guessed it – raisins. Words cannot do it justice, so I will have to procure the recipe and make it when I get home for everyone to try. It’s probably (definitely) sacrilegious to make it at a time period other than Easter or the period immediately following Easter, but as I am not Russian Orthodox and in no way kept Великий Пост (Veliki Post) – Lent – making кулич in the middle of summer will be the least of my sins, I think.

Linguistic Note: Funnily enough, bread is never moist in Russian – it is свежий (svezhi – fresh), мягкий (myaki – soft) or сдобный (sdobni – rich), but not moist. (The homemade кулич was all of the above, but I wanted to describe it as moist to Masha, and was told that is simply not said in Russian. Fresh, soft and rich it is, then.) Bread can be сухой (sukhoi – dry), but never moist. Russians have a plethora of words to describe various types of bread and their attributes, so it surprised me that bread cannot be moist.

Check out the pictures of кулич and пасха below (and note the vase of pussywillows in the background). Besides March 8, the Russian celebration of Easter is another holiday I want to bring home with me.

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So, clearly I’ve had a busy March, since I have not posted in a month. (I only just realized it has been that long when I checked out my last post. Time is positively flying by). March marked the end of the inter-university league for our soccer team – we finished fourth, which is the best MGU has done in 7 years. Last week I finished up two of my classes, with a final exam for social reforms and a final presentation of an anticorruption strategy for Russia. The final exam on social reforms turned out to be… not an exam. We waited in the wrong room for 40 minutes with half the class, then figured out where the other half of the class was, found the correct room and waited to individually go in to the professor. I noticed students were coming out pretty quickly, and I was thinking that three minutes was a pretty short oral exam when my turn came. The professor just asked for my form to receive a grade in the course, signed it, and said to feel free to e-mail him if I ever need help with Russian-related research. So for future reference: a зачёт in Russia is not an actual oral exam – it just means you need to show up to receive your grade.

I finished those two classes just in time for our Middlebury spring break, when I headed off for five sunny days in St. Petersburg. I fell totally in love with the city – not hard after seven months in gray Moscow. Beautiful architecture, smiling and friendly people, and did I mention it was sunny? Moscow has its charms, in the sense that even a crotchety old бабушка has her charms, but St. Petersburg is a whole other story. I am rather relieved, after declaring a Russian major and spending a significant amount of the last three years of my life studying the language and culture, to have found a Russian city I would actually like to live in. St. Petersburg has wonderful art and theatre, just like Moscow, an amazing ballet company, plus a low skyline, wide streets and plenty of open spaces and parks to walk and run in. I was so excited to see a significant number of people out jogging, walking dogs, or pushing strollers in the parks in St. Petersburg. I mean, I’ve seen dogs and children and the occasional British man jogging on the boulevard where I walk, but St. Petersburg just struck me as so much more livable. I guess those are some of the advantages of living in a very intentionally planned city instead of one that has just grown and spread out. Most importantly, St. Petersburg is just a more manageable size – around 4.5 million instead of Moscow’s 11+. Moscow has huge problems has its population swells, because the city just doesn’t have the capacity to handle more car traffic, etc. Moscow’s metro is infinitely superior to St. Petersburg’s, though. Peter the Great wanted St. Petersburg to be a European city, and he certainly succeeded. The city is littered with little cafes with much more affordable coffees and cakes than Moscow, and the styles and fashions of its residents have a more European feel, with definite Scandinavian influences. The fashion reminded me a lot of the Baltic countries we visited in the fall – more sneakers and sporty wear, although there were still plenty of heels and fur. It is a Russian city, after all. People have much more open, relaxed faces, and are incredibly willing to help. My Moscow scowl was out of place – when I had trouble with the metro jeton, the worker told me I had to smile before he would let me through the barrier. These jokes and smiles, or the really helpful woman walking through the turnstile next to me, who turned to help me for about 3 minutes, simply do not happen in Moscow.

Yes, the Winter Palace is positively gorgeous, and St. Petersburg is filled with amazing museums – the Russian Museum, bread museum, Anna Akhmatova and the Silver Age, Dostoevsky apartment museum, Peter and Paul Fortress and Church, Museum of Russian Political History, Smolny Convent and, of course, the Hermitage. Clearly, they were a busy five days. I also followed Raskolnikov’s path through the streets from Crime and Punishment, and we attended a concert of Carmina Burana at the philharmonia. (We expected Mussorgsky, but the ticket site made a mistake, so it was choral music instead.) And with such gorgeous sunny weather, it was so pleasant to just wander around the different parts of the city, next to the still-frozen canals. And the gorgeous weather made for excellent photographs, so here’s a slideshow of some of my favorites!

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So, apologies again for such a long lapse in posts – I won’t wait so long before the next one!

Hillary

I am personally taking up the responsibility for making International Women’s day an official holiday in the U.S. But seriously, when you finish reading this post, you will be signing my petitions and marching behind me. My boss asked about why we don’t celebrate it in America, and cracked a joke that it doesn’t really sit comfortably with feminism in the U.S. The men in the office presented all of the women (including me, hurrah) with yellow long-stemmed roses – gorgeous, and then toasted us with champagne and the most delectable chocolate cake I have eaten since I’ve been in Russia. Yes, we need to make this an official holiday in the U.S. The toast to us was to the beauty and light we bring into men’s lives – hence my boss’s comment about why the U.S. hasn’t rushed to adopt the day. Sure, Russian culture – both general and office culture – is more on the chauvinistic side, but I would argue that most women would not object to a toast to their beauty, although I would have included in the toast a bit about amazing capabilities, sense of humor, etc… The men were warmly thanked for their lovely gestures, and when the men returned to work all of the women in the office stayed at the table after lunch to chat. That was part of my feeling the holiday isn’t just about having men thank us and give us flowers. Part of it – the most important part, despite the chocolate cake – is women celebrating themselves and each other. On the metro this morning, I would say every third man was carrying a big bag of flower bouquets – i.e. it was his responsibility to buy them for his female coworkers. On the metro ride home, the women were now toting the bouquets. Russia presents such interesting dilemmas for me about what it means to be a woman and about women’s role in society (see Sarah’s sociology paper from the fall). Women here are gorgeous and graceful, but they’re also highly intelligent and talented. For me, the eight of March can be about both.

As kids, my generation was told that girls can do anything just as well as, or better than boys. We can pursue any career we want and can excel at whatever we put our minds to. We were encouraged to play sports to a much greater extent than previous generations, and Title 9 granted us the chance for equal opportunity in that realm. In Russia, girls, even of my generation, learn more stereotypically traditional modes of female behavior, especially in terms of relationships and home life. I notice the differences in conversations with my soccer friends – they have different views on what it means to be a young woman, about their responsibilities or duties are to their families, to society, to their boyfriend or husband. My upbringing and experience, and my current outlook are very different – but neither of us is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Women in Russia might be in large part absent from government or top positions in business, but honestly, our record in the U.S. isn’t necessarily something to brag about. (Check out the percent of women CEOs of major companies, for a start. And I don’t need to quote to you the continuing gap between women’s and men’s wages). So that leaves me wondering – how do they celebrate international women’s day in Sweden?

Yes, we need to celebrate women every day of the year, but it’s fortunate we only do it officially once – my productivity level plummeted post-champagne.

I also didn’t end up posting a bit I wrote after we celebrated Maslenitsa at the office…

[Two weeks ago] at the MacArthur office we celebrated two holidays – Maslenitsa and Armed Forces Day. Armed Forces Day ends up being the men’s equivalent of the very popular March 8, International Women’s Day. The women in the office bought the men gifts (at MacArthur, it was an assortment of really nice tea) and thanked/congratulated them for past/present/future defending the fatherland. The women joked that they bought tea so that the men would drink tea instead of coffee or alcohol. For Americans, tea as a gift might seem underwhelming, but tea is an institution in Russia, and a package of fine artisan teas is certainly a special gift.

To celebrate Maslenitsa, Zoya (the office manager, who makes us lunch every day) made блины (blini, see Sarah’s pictures and posts for Maslenitsa) for lunch. It was really interesting to eat блины with a group of Russians of different ages, genders and backgrounds, since they all eat блины in different manners. Of course I surreptitiously observed the various styles of блины consumption, since I didn’t want to a) appear rude or uncultured (which I automotically do, anyway, as a foreigner) and b) so that I could actually eat what was on my plate. The two main types of блины folding/combination with ingredients were: 1) folding the circular блины in half, and then in half again to get a pie-shaped wedge, and then stuffing caviar or jam into the folds. This is how the authoritatively older/cultured woman at the office demonstrated I should proceed – if my goal is appearing well-mannered, I will follow her advice in the future. 2) spreading caviar or jam (or cheese or smoked salmon) down the middle of the open блины, then folding in the sides to roll it into a tube – typical way crepes are served. This is how the office director proceeded – if I want optimal distribution of filling, this is the way to go.

One of the older women opted for the tube-roll strategy and ate it with her fingers, while the director still used his fork and knife. I tried both the pie-wedge and the roll technique, but then two of the блины were stuck together and I just cut pieces off to eat with the remaining cheese and salmon. Cultural fail but delicious. I clearly need to eat блины more often to perfect my technique!

Although I’ve eaten white caviar here – which is more salty than fishy, Masha serves it mixed with shallots in an avocado half – I only eat a few bites because it is a richly strange combination of flavors and textures. With блины at MacArthur was the first time I’ve tried red caviar. And it is delicious. It is a fishy/salty/luxurious flavor, although I can be a bit funny about textures – the little eggs pop in your mouth, which is rather disconcerting, but all mixed up inside a блины, all is well.

So there it is for your reading pleasure: the women’s holiday and the men’s holiday in Russia. Now, who wants some champagne?