Gorbachev, Blini, and Mandatory Touristing: On my way to tearing down the (cultural) wall

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It was a balmy 35 degrees Fahrenheit here when I wrote this. That’s right, two digits. Read it and weep Philly, I know you’re jealous. It’s okay, you don’t have to pretend otherwise. It’s actually been unseasonably warm here, which while not shocking, is mildly convenient and I’m not complaining. Not that I’m generally one to complain a lot in the first place, but it’s nice because really, it’s been difficult to find much of anything to complain about here anyway. I know that’s the initial excitement of being abroad talking, and that it may eventually wear off, but hey, that’s okay. For now I’m going to embrace it. I mean really, the fact that it doesn’t bother me that the thermometer hovers around freezing is a miracle, seeing as I absolutely loathe the cold and have frequently thought to myself, “Why aren’t there any tropical islands that speak Russian?” The truth is that I simply don’t have time to think about whether or not my face is going to freeze off, or really anything else for that matter, between classes and homework and whatnot. I spend twenty-two hours in class every week from Monday through Thursday, and Fridays are set aside for educational excursions to historical, important places such as Moscow State University, Tretyakov Gallery, and the Lenin Library, the second biggest library in the world after only the Library of Congress.

While this packed schedule doesn’t leave much time for touristing during the week, the weekends thus far have been full of exploring museums, restaurants, neighborhoods, and parks, and engaging in highly Russian activities such as cross-country skiing and blini-making. In case you don’t know (and why would you), a blin is a thin, pancake-like food that is treated sort of like a crepe in that it can be filled a variety of different things, both sweet and savory, and consumed for pretty much any meal. They’re delicious, and this Sunday our assistant resident director, Vika, invited us to her house in order to learn to make them in celebration of the start of maslenitsa, the festival that takes place the week before Lent. During this week, people make and consume dozens of blini as a way to celebrate the coming of spring. It’s one of those strange and entertaining mixtures of Paganism and Christianity–the welcoming of spring tied to the start of Lent and Easter time, and I can’t wait to join in the festivities.

In other news, I met Mikhail Gorbachev last week. That’s right, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev. You know, glasnost and perestroika? “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”? Yeah. Him. He came to the university to speak, and while I honestly had a little trouble understanding him, so did people much more proficient in Russian than I, so I suppose that’s something. Regardless, it was an interesting and certainly once-in-a-lifetime experience to hear the former president of the СССР (USSR), speak to a group of college students and professors. After the talk, we waited patiently in the hallway for him to come out of the auditorium. He came out and asked, “Where are the Americans?” before requesting to stand “between the two beautiful girls” (my two friends) for pictures. While I didn’t know what to make of any of this and was too nervous to say anything, I can say I met Gorbachev, which I’d say makes an otherwise very frustrating and tiring week completely worth it. There are plenty of pictures and I have to giggle when I think about applying for jobs in the future. I’m not sure yet what I want to do, but if it involves international relations (which it very well might), will both sides think I’m a spy? I can picture it now: “You fraternized with Mikhail Gorbachev! We’re sorry, but you don’t pass our security clearances.” And what about Russia? “You fraternized with Mikhail Gorbachev! Are you passing information along? This is a plot!” Of course, this is all wildly far-fetched and chances are it will never be an issue, although of course at orientation they warned us against talking too much about politics, wanting to work in the government, etc., due to the current situation. Regardless, what an experience! I hope I have many more like it in my time here. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for this next four months. I could go on forever about making blini, snow, my host family, and my classes, but those are topics for a different day and another post. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the week before Lent, gorge myself on blini, and see what other famous world leaders I can meet. До свидания!

 

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