I see dead people

Theme #3: Cemeteries. It sounds weird and morbid, but I kind of like visiting cemeteries. I think this started for me in 2006 with the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague where Dvorak is buried, and since then if I have the opportunity, I like to visit the big cemeteries in different countries. They’re very peaceful, and somehow it makes me feel more in touch with the country itself, looking at the tombs of its famous dead people.

And Russia has a lot of dead people. That was the really earthshattering conclusion that I arrived at after tons of time in museums, cathedrals, monasteries, and of course cemeteries. But really, I just couldn’t get over how many dead Russians were littered throughout history. 26 million dead in World War II (excuse me, the Great Patriotic War) alone. I mean, it boggles the mind.

Visiting two of the big cemeteries in Russia was also quite an ordeal of endurance in some respects. Temperatures hovering right around freezing meant a constant give-and-take between new snow and thaw, coupled with unpaved and/or unshoveled paths, which meant my not-so-waterproof shoes called it quits about ten minutes into both cemetery visits and made enjoyment of the grounds a bit of a challenge

Here are some of the tomb pilgrimages I made:

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Arting it up

Theme #2: Art. I visited a lot of art museums in Russia, not least because it was so cold and wet and my shoes so insufficiently waterproof that I just needed to be inside for a couple of hours sometimes. I took a lot of pictures, too, because I couldn’t quite make up my mind about the photo fee policy in Russia. In most of the museums I visited, the photo permit was as much or more than the actual ticket price itself, but then many of the museums didn’t actually seem to enforce the permit rule: you were supposed to wear a little sticker with a camera on it to indicate that you had paid for the photo permit, but I saw plenty of people wandering around the State Tretyakov in Moscow taking photos with no such sticker, and especially at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which is probably so packed that nobody can actually enforce the sticker policy.

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

So I ended up actually purchasing photo permits at probably about 50% of the museums I visited, then just took photos at the rest of them and waited for someone to yell at me. The New Tretyakov guards seemed to be kind of on to me but never quite caught me in the act. I figured my exorbitant photo fees at 50% of the museums covered my photo fees at the other 50%.

But now I have all these photos of art, and I feel like I should do something with them, so here’s the photo dump. (NB: I’m not sure whether posting photos of art on my blog violates the non-commercial aspect of the amateur photography permit, but it’s not like I’m making money off of this blog. And thumbnails of most of these are available on the gallery websites anyway. I guess I will get a bloody horse head in my bed from the Russian art mafia or something if I’m really in trouble.)

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Metro appeal

Now that I am no longer having an aneurysm every second worrying about what’s going on in Boston, I finally got around to posting my general Russia photos on facebook, and I ended up with 128 of them, even being as selective as I could. So I decided to use the blog to go more in depth on a few different themes. For those of you who know me and can access my FB album, this will be an interesting supplement (there’s some overlap but not much), and for anyone who doesn’t know me, it will shed some light on Russia apart from the more typical touristy photos.

Theme #1: The Moscow metro. Which is incredible. According to Wikipedia, it is the fourth busiest metro after Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing, and it serves nearly 9 million people every day. That’s more than the population of New York City, riding the metro every day. And believe me, you can tell. Even though the trains come at a maximum of 2 minutes apart (there’s a timer on each platform that ticks the seconds since the last departure, and I think the highest I ever saw it get was like 2:16), the stations are always crowded, and Russians will always throw elbows and knees to get past you and into a waiting train. Or onto an escalator to exit the station. Or across the platform to wait on the other side. Really, Russians will just shove you aside for basically no reason at all. This made me very grateful for my familiarity with Bulgarian, which enabled me to read signs quickly and orient myself on the correct platforms and escalators, because the language inside the stations is exclusively Russian (in St Petersburg, signs are pretty uniformly written in Cyrillic and Latin letters). Bulgarian Cyrillic and Russian Cyrillic are a little different from each other, but they’re similar enough that I could always get the information that I needed. This went a long way toward making me feel more comfortable navigating the enormous city.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying that I took these pictures while on the Moscow Metro Tour offered by the Moscow Free Tour company. I visited most of these stations on my own at other points during my Moscow stay, but quite honestly, it probably would never have occurred to me to look at the ceiling in some of these stations–in fact, I had already gone through Belorusskaya Station on my way into Moscow initially because it’s where the Aeroexpress train arrives and not even realized there was anything on the ceiling. So I do owe the tour operators a thank you. Overall, I was happy with the tour, which was quite informative, but it is a little hectic (and sometimes inaudible) trying to follow a tour group in metro stations for all of the reasons listed above. Out of respect to the tour, though, I won’t write much information I learned from them, I’ll just mostly post pictures with a brief description.

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By any other name

For various reasons, there are a lot of international teachers leaving my school this year, and those of us returning to the U.S. frequently muse about what we are returning to. In the aftermath of the past week in my hometown, that has become especially true for me, but not entirely for the reasons one might suspect.

Yes, it was unsettling to have the Marathon bombed; that act has rattled the city to its core, will result in changes that will be felt from now on, and leaves us with a heightened awareness of our own vulnerability. But the even more pervasive feeling of unease for me comes from the deep sense of embarrassment I felt from watching/reading some of the coverage. I feel embarrassed over American ignorance and provincialism, and quite frankly I fear our ongoing stupidity more than I fear any new terrorist attack; our limited worldview is much more of a threat because of the way it fosters hatred and bigotry among us and negative international attitudes toward us. It is part of the cause, whereas the actual attacks are just the effect.

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The meaning of home

Usually I write here about exciting travels or the often exasperating experience of being an ex-pat in one of the least welcoming countries in the world. But this week all I can think about is home.

I’m still behind on sorting through my Russia photos and I haven’t even touched my Amsterdam photos from last weekend because every time I even think about looking at them, it feels wrong. Instead I keep seeing the flags of those countries, along with so many others, scattered on Boylston Street as people frantically dismantle barricades to try to reach the victims.

There has been some really bad news this year. The Newtown shootings made me sick and hit close to home since I’m a teacher myself. But Monday’s bombing hit my actual home. And the aftermath has made me reflect on a new definition of home: how you feel when something like this happens there.

1. You freak out because you can’t even think of all of the people you need to contact to make sure they are ok. It feels like it’s the entire city.

2. You almost start crying at random moments in your office when you think about it. You then look at the street map of the city taped to the wall of your office and you really do start crying.

3. You start to miss it with a tangible ache and want to be there. In a sense it’s better not to be there, because then you’re not surrounded by it 24/7, but it’s like the instinct to hug a crying child, or run toward an explosion to help anyone who’s hurt.

4. You do unprecedented things like keep the Globe’s Twitter feed open in a tab all the time on both your work and your home computer, because even repetitive, sometimes sensationalist/manipulative 140-character updates help make you feel just a little bit more connected. When the feed slows down in your morning because the time difference means it’s the middle of the night there, you feel abandoned and adrift.

5. You’re kind of upset that other people don’t seem as upset as you do, even though that makes total sense when you live 5,000 miles away on a different continent. It’s not their home.

Prior to this week, I never would have said that the Marathon or Patriots’ Day activities meant anything particularly significant to me. I’m not much of a runner myself, and when I was a kid I used to watch the section of the race that went through my hometown, or turn the TV coverage on in the background of whatever I was doing at home, but I was never an ardent fan. These events happened every year; they were the status quo; they were totally normal and taken for granted; and as a teacher they also coincided with spring break, when I was usually hoping to be somewhere else. This year, I’m going crazy because I can’t be there, because I’m not at home. Sometimes it’s being far away that makes you realize where your home really is, and why it is.

It’s the normal, status quo, taken-for-granted activities that give us our identity. Home is home because it is. And all the adventures in the world can’t replace it.



Things that did not survive my trip to Russia: my boots, my Kindle, the functionality of all 3 pens I brought with me. Now I know how Napoleon felt.

When I went to Egypt last year, I found that a good way of remembering some of the smaller moments from the trip (and also delaying until I could finish getting photos sorted out) was to focus on some of the people I met. While I don’t feel like I had the kind of lengthy encounters in Russia that I had in Egypt, here’s what a matryoshka of some of the more interesting characters might look like, blending the nice exchanges with sketchy/weird ones, because what trip would be complete without its crazies?

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Reason #47 why I am not a ski jumper

I’m back in Sofia and in the process of sorting out my hundreds of photos and journal notes from Russia, but in the meantime I will share this photo I took at Vorybyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) in Moscow:


Where does this thing end??

It doesn’t look that impressive because I couldn’t actually capture the entire thing in one frame, but I have since learned that it is actually the world’s tallest ski jump ramp. However, what it basically looked like, from my vantage point, was a ramp of doom that would send you hurtling directly into the river or, if you actually managed to get airborne, directly into Moscow itself.

And people do this for sport??