WELCOME TO VORONEZH
WELCOME TO VORONEZH
MAY 14, 2014
Ladies and gentleman, I have arrived! Voronezh, my home-base for the next three months, is much more beautiful than I anticipated. The look of the city reminds of Roanoke in many ways: lots of greenery, parks, a river, and cozy buildings,very much unlike the cold, utilitarian look of Moscow. From my host’s apartment we can hear the sound of the birds and children playing outside, we can see a multitude of trees and clear blue skies, and we can enjoy cool breezes on warm days through the french windows of the “flat”.
Making the twelve hour trip from Moscow to Voronezh was the easiest traveling I’ve ever done. Despite almost missing the train from Moscow, once we were settled into our beds (yes, beds on a train!!) it was quite a cozy ride. We were brought tea in traditional Russian glasses, a snack or two, and then we slept the rest of the way. I shut my eyes and when I finally opened them, it was the morning, 12 hours later, and I was far away from the big city.
Natalia and I have occupied most of our time strolling around the city so that I can get acquainted with the area. There are a plethora of cafes, all of which serve sushi and hookah. I have been encouraged to try a certain cafe called “Barackomama” (I spelled it right, it’s “mama”); they serve “American food”, i.e. hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, and french fries (in other words, the national diet of Americans which makes us all fat). People are quite surprised to hear Natalia and I speaking English as we stroll down the street or ride on buses. The two of us have gotten more than a couple looks ranging from ecstatic and intrigued to offended and confused…mostly the former.
For the folks at home who are wondering how the Russians are treating me— don’t worry! I have been very well received. Strangers have been very helpful to me in various confusing situations— in banks, navigating metros, buses and streets, deciding what to order in restaurants, and getting the best blinichki with tvorog in town.
MAY 20, 2014
Everything that Americans think they know about Russian is false. Yes, even the stuff on the internet. There are no dancing bears, there is no snow, they do not drink vodka with great regularity (I have yet to see anyone order a vodka for that matter), no one dances like the Kazakhs, caviar is not served with every meal and, perhaps the most surprising to me, people smile. Western culture has taken a great hold in Russia, but not unusually so: many brands are written with the Roman Alphabet, English music is played on the radio, they wear American brands like Levi and charge out the nose for them; but I would postulate that these are global trends. I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that Russians have an affinity for Spanish music, reggaeton and classical alike. As a matter of fact, I have heard more renditions (mixes) of Danza Kuduro on Russian radio than I have anywhere else in the world, including Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua. When I make classroom visits in the private schools I make it a point to ask about the students musical interests…pay close attention here…NOT ONE student has been able to recommend a Russian band to me. Not a single one! I have visited more than 10 classes with at least 8 students in each class (if not more); I am reticent to think that Russian music is just that bad that no one wants to listen to it…but not a single kid? Popular bands among the youngsters include my middle school and early high school favorites– 30 Seconds to Mars, Linkin Park, Skillet, My Chemical Romance; the angsty, teenage stuff, ya know? I will continue my search for Russian music but with little hope. Speaking of music, if you didn’t follow the Eurovision 2014 singing constest, I HIGHLY recommend you Google a picture of the winner. Its name is Conchita (“it” is the best that I can do).
As American media loves to depict, Russians are indeed very conservative and thus highly distressed by the winner of Eurovision (seriously, go look up a picture). Even in Moscow I saw no signs of an LGBT community. It does not appear that these views are accompanied by any kind of deep-rooted religious belief though, despite the myriad churches in the city. I hypothesize that these churches, which are built in the traditional Russian style with grandiose domes and painted ceilings (even the newest churches from this millennium), serve as ostentatious mausoleums of old Russian culture and reminders of their greatness. On that note, I have encountered many ethnocentric, nationalistic Russians. *Disclaimer: I am not making wide generalizations about all Russians; people are people and everyone is different, I get that.* In one of the classrooms I visited a student brought up the conflict in Ukraine to which the teacher quickly jumped in and delivered a five minute tirade including, “Russia could destroy your country, no problem,” and “Ukraine is useless– they have no great authors, artists, composers. They have NOTHING.” So needless to say, I ward off all questions of politics in the classroom now.
As for the outward appearance of Russians…I cannot say they are vain, but rather proud and meticulous. Too proud, in fact, to walk five minutes to the gym in workout clothes. The first time that I went to the gym was two days ago: I got ready, threw on my New Balance shoes, sleeveless t-shirt,and nike shorts, ready to roll, when Natalia stops me and says, “Are you going to get dressed?” Puzzled, I inquire again as to where we are going, “The sports gym”, she says. “What do you work out in?” says I. In short, Russians wear nice clothes to the gym including high heels, dressed, and makeup, change clothes when they arrive, do exercise, shower, put on make up, dry/curl/straighten their hair, and walk out of the gym looking like they just rolled out of the salon. Russians may not be as trendy “fashion-forward” as the French, but they take outward appearance very seriously. Natalie is encouraging me to buy a pair of high heels so that I can “blend in”. I only wish that I had brought my five-fingered Vibrams to see the look on peoples’ faces.
JUNE 1, 2014
On this, the first day of summer, I saw the plains of Voronezh dance with red flame and smolder with velvety smoke as neighbors ran from their dachas across the grasslands towards the origin of the billowing smoke. Today was a cool, windy day reminiscent of a frosty Spring, making it somewhat of a miracle that anyone was in the neighborhood to help fight the fire. While no one was sure of the source of the fire, or at least not bold enough to admit it lest they be cast with the blame, everyone took responsibility in preventing its quick spread. Old men who were covered in black ash held the rags of their once t-shirts that they had removed to beat back the flames. Scantily clad neighbors from across the way had come straight from sun bathing in their swimming suits and flip flops, bringing with them a water hose. Sergey, the father of my host family, and his wife, Tatyana, ran back to their dacha to bring back blankets and water while Yulia and I waited by the scene, hoping to be of some help. I grabbed a shovel and Yulia grabbed a pail, and forward we charged like the Light Brigade into the thick smog.
Ten minutes prior to this, the Suhorukov family and I had been enjoying a barbecue in the front yard and had gone inside to clean up. Not five minutes later upon emerging from the house we found the yard to be clouded with smoke; the neighbor flanking the Suhorukov dacha informed us of the situation and thus the flurry of movement began. During the scene I could not help but think of Laura Ingles Wilder out on the Prairie, alone with her family for the most part save perhaps a dozen neighbors. I recall reading of a wildfire sparked by lightning that threatened not only the home of a farmer, but his lively hood– that year’s crop. In our case there was not quite so much as stake. There was an older, slightly decrepit home 50 yards from the flame, though in Russia I’ve learned to not judge a house by its outer appearance; the wind was so strong though that I’m sure if the neighbors had not reacted so quickly the fire would have spread to that home and burned right on through to the Suhorukov dacha within the hour. The fire burned about two acres of land in about 15 minutes, judging by when the smoke started. We are safe at home now, back in the city, taking a rest after what was supposed to be a rest.
MOSQUITOS AND MANKINIS
JUNE 8, 2014
News Flash: Russian mosquitos don’t like me! Or at the very least, the smell of my blood doesn’t stand out against the rest of the population, presumably because of the shared Indo-European gene pool. While in Central America I would be covered in at least five dozen mosquito bites, here I have spent three days of the week at the river and have only four bug bites to show for it. Compared to the rest of my host family I seem to on the unfavorable side of the mosquito menu and thus can rest easy while relaxing on the banks of the river.
It’s shashlik season here in the lowlands, the time in which people shed their parkas and other winter wear to embrace the sunshine (wearing nothing other than European Mankinis). Much as Americans would enjoy a day at the lake, swimming and barbecuing, Russians take day trips to the river and pack snacks. The conscious swimmer that I am, and because of crocodile run-ins in Honduras, I always prose the preliminary, “Are there man-eating/blood-sucking fish in this river?” question. I have yet to get a straight answer, my life may or may not be floating on the brink, but I’m leaning towards “no»for the man-eating fish. As far as blood suckers go, I again summon knowledge learned from Laura Ingles Wilder– don’t swim in the shallow shadows, lest thou emerge covered in leeches. It seems to be working!
All is well on the home-stay-front. I am enjoying the never-ending power struggle of living with a cat, all the memes make sense now. The current score is Michelle: 3, Hannah: 0. She chooses to assert herself principaly in the night time by making the call of her people outside my closed door. I wake up, look at the bracelet of Saints on my wrist, notice St. Francis staring at me, open the door, and 30 minutes later face the same predicament with Michelle on my side of the door wanting out. Well played cat, well played.
JUNE 19, 2014
Russians don’t seem to be very religious (or if they are, they aren’t pious) but almost everyone wears the Orthodox cross around their neck on a daily basis. It’s all very reminiscent of the mafia minus the dark skin and the hair gel: big guy, hairy chest, shirt unbuttoned one hole too many, and a gold chain flaunting the talisman of Orthodoxy— the cross. You know what I mean? (Bad joke, I know.)
June 8th was a scorcher, one of those days where you envy children who haven’t hit puberty and can run around without clothes on save some thread-bare underwear. Novaya Usman, a popular swimming locale, was swimming with people on that particular afternoon! Perhaps because there was a festival celebrating one of Orthodoxy’s most prominent holidays (so prominent that no one told me about it…), Trinity Sunday. No one could tell me why they celebrate this holiday, or why the stage was covered in grass, or why birch trees seemed to be an essential part of the theme. According to The Googles, it is celebrated on the Sunday following Pentecost and commemorates the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles, dispersing languages on each disciple enabling them to go forth and share the gospel in distant lands. On this day, churches and homes are decorated in birch branches in flowers, this comes from the Old Testament tradition adorning ones’ home with greenery on Pentecost. These too represent how man blossoms under God’s grace.
I posted a video below of some of the performers! I had no idea that Russian music sounded like this…it’s so different! All songs were based on a multiple-part harmony performed by the group with an increasingly strong rhythm as the song progresses. I found the music to be quite enchanting due to the forlorn, almost wailing, sound of the womens’ voices.
DUST TO DUST
JULY 1, 2014
A few weeks ago the Suhorukov family lost a dear member of their family; amidst their sorrow and grieving they remained faithfully compassionate hosts and were still concerned for my well being (this is just one example of their generosity and high character). I was honored to bear witness to the funeral proceedings which I will account in the following. Something similar to a viewing occurred directly before the deceased was taken to the cemetery; family and friends gathered to view the open casket while a woman recited a long prayer (about 30 minutes), blessing the body and praising the greatness of God amidst trying times. As in the Catholic Church, the Orthodox make the sign of the cross, but rather than crossing from left to right, they cross from right to left (also using the right hand). Even though I’m not Catholic, the tendency to cross from left to right was difficult to combat if my mind was not firmly set to the task. From what I gathered, people are to perform this ritualistic motion whenever the word “Hallelujah” is spoken. It was also done quite a few other times… probably about 3 times a minute. All individuals present were given candles to hold and flowers were placed inside the casket.
After the viewing/prayer, the departed was carried to a very unpretentious looking bus, rather decrepit in fact, with a large advertisement for the undertaker rusting off the side (the Hearse does not exist in the country). The drive to the cemetery was an unceremonious one; after about 15 minutes in the car we arrived to a gate at the edge of a forest. Russian forests are certainly different from Appalachian ones, they are more erie and cold. The trees are tall and bare of limbs until the last quarter of the tree. As luck would have it, it was pouring down rain. The cemetery was unorganized, but not unkempt. Graves were tucked not imposingly amidst the trees and natural shrubbery of the forest, but with no real order. They were scattered in a rather unplanned way wherever there was room amidst the natural scenery. In America we clear land to make way for empty shells of people that once were, we display clean white slabs of marble on treeless hill tops for the whole world to see, and remember. Russians return what is of the Earth, to the earth, without creating collateral damage. I could think of nothing more appropriate than allowing the Earth to reclaim what is hers, while God claims what is His.
A gravedigger was hard at work when we arrived with the storm; there was just one man whose job it was to manually dig the grave and then fill it in while the family waited to throw flowers on the grave marker, a wooden Orthodox cross. The family and friends say their final “farewells” to the deceased, allowed to kiss, hug and bless the body. There was no singing, no final words, it was all very unceremonious. But what is the point of ceremony anyways. Dying is after all very unceremonious, unplanned, unexpected.
The reception was a solemn one, all family and friends gathered around a table toasting and recounting memories of the departed soul. Tradition requires that no forks or knives are used during the meal, only spoons, and that everyone eat a sweet rice with raisins before beginning the meal. There was no prayer, or tears, or laughter. But for what it was worth they toasted, “May earth be soft like down.” May it be.
JULY 16, 2014
Greetings to you all from Voronezh! That’s right, I’m still here, but not for long! The official St. Petersburg countdown has begun: 5 days 11 hours and 22 minutes until I arrive in the Venice of the East. Prayers for safe, smooth travels would be appreciated in addition to peace of mind for my dear mother whose tendency to worry becomes more acute when I transition from city to city. The countdown for home is 16 days, it seems so close, but I know that one of the most exciting, busy parts of my trip is still to come. I’m sure the time will fly by!
During the past few weeks I have been enjoying family life with the Suhorukovs: daily walks about the city, dinner with family friends, trips to the river, and evenings spent at the family B&B swimming in the pool, singing karaoke, and dining on the veranda. I typically don’t travel for such long spans of time which of course limits the depth of any acquaintance or relationship I make, but on this trip I have had the pleasure of really getting to know the family (or at least I think so). I know that Tanya drinks her coffee black, and I know that Sergey always forgets. I know that Zoya, Tanya’s mom, loves daisies, Russian poetry, soccer, and Clark Gable. Yulia is creative and strong willed, she is also competitive but lacks the hand-eye coordination to be great at sports (but by golly, she tries). I know that candy is her favorite food group and that she is a loyal friend, she likes nature but dreams of living in a city, and she is not afraid to be different (last year she had blue hair, this year it’s orange). Sergey dreams of owning a boat and relaxing on a beach (and if I put in as much time at the office as he did, I would too!), he is project oriented and always works towards improvement, and he will ALWAYS win at Monopoly, always. Tanya is crafty and skilled with needles (both sewing and knitting), she is patient, kind, and keen on health. We spent many an evening chatting in the kitchen about food, exercise, and how to lead a meaningful life. Michelle, the cat, may not let you hold her for a long time, but she is tolerant and understanding, but equally demanding and greedy for whatever food you may be eating. It’s been an honor to be a part of the family for the past two months, I hope they can one day come to America and become part of my family too.
Hannah Whitt, Fincastle, Virginia, USA