Thanksgiving

Thirty cooks. Five kitchens, two without ovens. Dinner for 80 to be served in a tiny basement rehearsal studio. New Food Channel cooking challenge? Nyet. That’s just Thanksgiving in Russia, baby.

The plan was as follows. We would be given Thursday off from school, which is pretty generous considering Thanksgiving means nothing in Russia, and days off are a rare commodity at MXAT. We would have dinner in the rehearsal studio in the basement of our dormitories. (We here includes all 53 American students, all of our teachers, and a selected group of Russian students who have been extra helpful to us along the way.) So that all the food could get cooked, the stoves and ovens, which are usually turned off at 1:00 am–presumably to prevent smoke alarms from waking the babushkas who run the building at ungodly hours of the night–would stay on all Wednesday night. We made a sign up sheet for food, drinks, plates, cups, and utensils. We made a detailed kitchen schedule to prevent anyone from getting stabbed over rights to the oven. We made decorations. America or no America, we were going to do this Thanksgiving right.

My personal Thanksgiving adventure started on Tuesday night, when I trekked down to the supermarket that has been alternately termed Area 51, Alien-Mart, or the Tower of Babel, since the best landmark for finding it is a giant, completely bizarre tower monument thing that “looks like it could only have been placed there by aliens.” I walked the extra blocks to this particular supermarket because it was supposed to be the cheapest one around. And yet, somehow I still ended up paying twenty-four dollars for two pounds of cheddar cheese. Welcome to Russia, where the simplest things are exorbitantly expensive, and vodka is cheaper than water. After a long time wandering the grocery store using my iPod calculator to convert grams to ounces, I made it to the checkout with almost everything I needed to make macaroni and cheese and a pound cake.

I had this brilliant plan, you see, to go ahead and bake my cake on Tuesday night, so I could use my Thursday kitchen time slot exclusively for macaroni. The problem was this… well, okay there were several problems. I’ll list them in order. One, the kitchen on my floor does not have an oven. Two, it also does not have a mixing bowl. Problems one and two were easy enough to solve. I mixed the batter in a giant pot and toted it down two flights of stairs to a kitchen with an oven. No big deal, and I only almost spilled it once. Downstairs, I met problem number three: the oven is without any clearly legible temperature markings, and those that faintly exist are in Celsius. And I’m bad at math. So I did the only reasonable thing, and I guessed. Finally, problem number five was that the single cake-type pan I could find was only big enough for half the batter. But it should be simple enough to bake it in two parts, right? Wrong. Remember that whole thing about the ovens turning off at 1:00 am? I didn’t realize just how late it was when I started this little project, and somewhere halfway into cake number two, the oven cut off, and the term half-baked took on a new, much more literal meaning.

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С Днем Рождения

Yesterday, I celebrated the first anniversary of my twenty-first birthday in Moscow. Based on my experiences over the past two months, I was expecting it to be pretty memorable. I was not disappointed.

To start the day off right, my lovely roommate, Rita, treated me to breakfast at the bakery cafe I talked about in my last post. To help you understand how wonderful this place is, it was completely worth getting up an hour early on my birthday. For anyone who has ever seen my try to wake up early, this says a lot. I went through my normal day, receiving sporadic “Happy birthday’s” in English and Russian. Then, at the end of acting class, we were informed that our group had sixteen tickets to see Julius Caesar that night, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, who just so happen to be visiting the Moscow Art Theatre this week. Now, as excited as I was to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform at the Moscow Art Theatre (because, let’s face it, that’s pretty much the best of everything in the world), I had been planning to see the show the next night. Which meant that I was without proper theatre clothes, and not at all sufficiently caffeinated for a 3-hour play after a full day of classes. But I’ve gotten pretty used to Moscow throwing a wrench into my plans–I’m actually pretty close to giving up on making plans altogether–so I decided the Russians would just have to forgive my jeans and scuffed boots, and I went to Starbucks for a Mocha.

As soon as I made it into the theater and got a look at the stage, I decided this was exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday, even if I hadn’t realized it five minutes before. Apparently, Caesar had been transported to modern-day Africa, and the set, which consisted of a giant set of partially-deconstructed stone steps and a very Hussein-esque statue of Caesar, was occupied by a band playing African music and actors dancing and waving Caesar propaganda. Even though I knew the Russians around me would judge the hell out of me, I couldn’t really help dancing in my seat a little. The play was every bit as good as the pre-show led me to expect. Not to mention the sheer joy of seeing a play in a language I understood for the first time in months. The show would have made a lasting impression on me no matter what, but sometime during the fifth act, I witnessed the craziest thing I have ever seen in a theater… and I’ve seen some weird stuff. Brutus and Cassius were in the middle of an argument, daggers in hands, when all of a sudden Brutus’ knife flew out of his hand and into the first row of the audience, where it landed in a woman’s lap, or so it looked from my balcony seat. Still in character, the actor jumped down into the audience to retrieve the knife and check on the woman. After a few seconds, he stood up, lifted his hands, and said, “We have to stop. This woman’s been cut… is there a medic?” After a moment, a stage manager ran out and escorted the woman and the man she was with out of the theater. At this point, I wasn’t sure who to feel sorriest for–the woman who had just taken a dagger to the face, or the dagger-throwing actor who was now standing on stage, clearly with no clue what to do next. After a minute, he raised up his hands and said, “извините,” (excuse me), which is one of the first words I learned, and definitely one that I use often. This earned poor Brutus a laugh and some applause from at least half of the audience. After another moment, another stage manager came out and announced what I was told was something about an intermission while the situation was taken care of. Eventually it was announced that the woman was alright, and the show would resume shortly.

During the craziness, my friend Meg turned to me and said something to the effect of, “Welcome to live theatre. This is why we keep coming.” It’s a weird thought, but in a way, she’s totally right. It’s not like we come to the theatre hoping to see the accidental stabbing of an innocent audience member, but somewhere in the back of our minds, we do know that this is a place where absolutely anything can happen. And there’s something about that, I think, that we like. Even if it means we might avoid the front row for a while.

Back at home, I was just about ready to take a shower, crawl into bed, and be totally happy with how my birthday had gone. But first, I remembered I had been promised a birthday back massage by my friend Joseph, whose parents are both massage therapists. In other words, not an offer I was going to pass up. When Joseph was almost done massaging out the six hundred knots in my back–souvenirs from stage movement and ballet–Lily came into my room and said now it was her turn to give me a massage, and I would have to tell her who was better. Because Lily has the unique talent of turning anything into a competition, this seemed reasonable. Although I wasn’t sure why she was leading me out of my room to give me the massage. When she opened the door into Connor’s room, my train of thought went something like this: Why are we coming in here? Why is it so dark in here? Why is my entire ensemble sitting in here in the dark? Then they started singing, and I screamed, and then I almost started crying, and then Joe stuffed a pizza bagel into my mouth, and then Jenson tackled me to the floor with a hug. After they had sung “Happy Birthday” in English and sort-of Russian, Connor handed me a giant shoe box labeled “Blair’s Box”. Inside was a bakery box with a piece of some delicious creation called honey cake, which Jenson insisted on feeding to me while Sarah took pictures. Also in the box were a bunch of folded-up pieces of paper… happy birthday notes from each and ever member of my ensemble. They were written on scrap paper, torn-out journal pages, sticky notes, and toilet paper. Some were hilarious, some were incredibly sweet and touching, and many were both of those things.

There was no big fancy party, no birthday cake, and no store-bought presents in colorful wrapping paper, but I cannot think of anything in the world that would have made me feel more special and loved on my birthday than that room full of people and that box of notes. If I didn’t already feel incredibly lucky to be in this amazing city with these beautiful people, I certainly felt it last night. And if I ever forget, there’s a shoe box in my closet to remind me.

***Extra credit to anyone who translates the title. Extra extra credit to anyone who does so without Google Translate.

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Little Victories, or Meat on a Stick is Delicious

Sometimes, when I’m walking down the street with my headphones in, not paying much attention to the Cyrillic signs all around me, Moscow can feel a lot like New York or any other big metropolis. But today, surrounded by furry hats, matreshkas, and Soviet military artifacts, there was no doubt that I was very much in Russia.

My Sunday started out with brunch at my favorite bakery cafe in Moscow, with amazing breakfast sandwiches and pastries to die for, and giant loaves of fresh-baked bread for 30 roubles–a.k.a. one American dollar. From there, Sarah and Liam and I took a loooong metro ride to the flea market. In the station, they asked me where I had put the paper with the directions. I knew exactly where I had put it: in the pocket of the coat I had decided not to wear. I assured them, with a little more confidence than I actually felt, that I totally remembered the names of the transfer station and our final stop. Thank God, I actually did remember–I was much less afraid of getting lost than I was afraid of the two of them killing me for leaving the directions. When we came out onto the street, we saw a building up ahead of us that looked like something out of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. It wasn’t one of the onion-domed cathedrals that I’ve gotten pretty used to, but it was definitely, distinctly Russian, and it was painted in colors that rarely exist on buildings outside of cartoons and Disney World. Sarah looked around and asked, “Are we still in Moscow?” I knew that we were, but I could understand why she was asking. This didn’t look like most of the Moscow I’d seen so far. It was definitely older, for starters, and the whole vibe was less modern metropolis and more old world marketplace.

We passed by a few vendors stationed outside of the official flea market, which was enclosed in a sort of gated compound. We paid the ten ruble entrance fee and went through the gate. Inside were rows and rows of stalls selling everything from DVDs (mostly American movies) to matreshkas (a.k.a nesting dolls) to gas masks (relics of World War II). There was also a complete overabundance of furry Russian hats in a variety of colors and styles the likes of which I did not know existed. I decided the best plan of attack was to take a lap through the whole thing, then come back and start buying stuff. But the more we walked, the more market there seemed to be, and every time I felt sure we had to be reaching the end, it just kept going. We even discovered a second level which contained some sort of scaled-down model of a pirate ship along with a bunch of antique stalls and an art market.

During this adventure, I learned several things. First, I learned that even if you know how to ask how much something costs in Russian (Skolka stoit?), it’s probably still better to ask in English, because when you ask in Russian, you get an answer in Russian, and Russian numbers are one of the most complicated things I have ever encountered. Mind you, I’m not so good with numbers in any language, including my own, so adding translation to the mix is almost guaranteed to be disaster. I also learned that I am absolutely terrible at haggling. I have no concept of what is actually a fair price for anything, and I usually just end up feeling guilty. Add to this my inability to convert rubles to dollars in my head, and we’ve got another potential disaster on our hands. The third thing I learned was that elderly Russian women are much stronger than they appear. When Sarah and I finally picked one of the six thousand matreshka stalls, we attempted to make a bargain with the older lady minding the stall. In a mix of Russian, English, and sign language, she informed us that she was not the actual owner of this stall and therefore could not bargain prices with us. However, the man who did own the stall was just over that way. So she grabbed each of us by the elbow and took off. Thankfully, I was perfectly willing to go along with her, because even if I had not been, I don’t think I would have had a choice. Despite her age and considerably shorter legs, she was moving a whole lot faster than I was, and she had no concern for the clumps of people I was bumping into as I was towed behind her. After the man in question agreed to our price, we were dragged back to the stand to pay, after which the woman, who would best be described as jolly, took each of our hands, told us goodbye, and wished us good health.

After we had made our shopping rounds, we stopped by a food stall for some good, old-fashioned meat on a stick. I tend to love any and all food that is served to me by a person in a stand on the street, and this was no exception. In fact, it went straight to the top of my “good street food” list. After eating, we got ready to leave, at which point we noticed that the temperature had dropped dramatically since we had arrived, and we were, in fact, freezing our butts off. (Russia is the only place I have ever been that gets colder in the afternoon.) Among other body parts, my hands were ice cold, and I remembered my gloves sitting in the drawer in my dorm with the mysterious hole in one thumb. So, I made one final stop on the way out to purchase some new ones. I found a beautiful pair of light gray leather gloves, and I let Liam, who is as good at haggling as I am awful at it, talk the price down from 700 to 550 rubles. When they had settled on the price, the vendor grabbed my hand, looked at it for about three and a half seconds, and proceeded to select the perfect size for me–a talent that I, for one, found incredibly impressive.

On the metro on the way home, Sarah and I decided to give Liam a crash course in Russian folk dance, since he’d missed a day of class. And for some reason, a moving metro seemed like a reasonable place to for a dance lesson. As I was demonstrating one of the steps–very badly, I’m sure–I happened to catch the eye of a Russian guy sitting at the end of the car. He was clearly amused but, in true Russian fashion, was trying very hard not to laugh out loud. I felt so absurd that I had no choice but to smile at the guy, which he took as permission to go ahead and laugh at me. I laughed, too, and we shared a pretty long laugh at my expense until I finally got embarrassed and pretended to have something very interesting to look at elsewhere.

The moral of this story is that there is no moral to this story. But I guess the summary of the story might be that today was a day full of small victories–conquering the Metro sans directions, haggling prices and probably still overpaying, and making a Russian not only crack a smile but actually LAUGH in public. And that, my friends, is more than enough to count today a success.

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Hot Hot Heat

The first thing that happened when we walked in the door was separate the men from the women. We went to the right while the guys went left, not to be seen again until later that evening. Then, we waited for our turn to pay the admission fee and go inside, where we were led into a room with rows of tables and couches, most of which were occupied by naked women. We took off our clothes, wrapped up in towels, and headed into another room, where more naked women were showering in open stalls, pouring cold water on themselves, or swimming in a freezing cold swimming pool. Finally, we went through one last door, into a room that was somewhere between 100 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. The air by the door was so hot it literally burned my lungs, but the far corner of the room was slightly more bearable. We de-toweled, sat down on the floor, because that was the coolest [read: least scorching] place, and sat and sweated until we couldn’t take it anymore. Then we went back into the other room to douse ourselves with cold water. Then we went back into the heat, this time with a bundle of leaves to hit each other with.

If you’re thinking right now that I’m describing some sort of bizarre dream I had, you would be wrong. Ditto if you’re thinking medieval torture ritual or seventh ring of Dante’s Inferno. What I have just described is the Russian banya, which I visited with ten of my girlfriends on Sunday. And, despite all evidence to the contrary, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had.

The first thing that makes a Russian banya so incredible is the mere fact that everyone is naked and no one cares. It may sound strange, but there’s something incredibly lovely about a room full of women being naked with no judgement, no self-consciousness, and no assumption that there has to be anything inherently sexual about people with their clothes off. There was every age and body type represented, from the woman in her sixties to the young girl there with her mom. Compared to the States, where it seems like the naked body is something to be either sexualized or ashamed of, it was really amazing to be in a place where a naked body was just that–a body, and nothing more. There’s also something to be said for the bonding experience of spending three hours hanging around naked with ten of your friends.

As for the heat of the sauna, I realize it doesn’t sound at all like a pleasant experience, and this is my feeble attempt at explaining just how wonderful it actually was. Within seconds of entering the room, I was sweating like never before in my life, but instead of feeling like it was making me dirty, I felt like I was getting incredibly clean. On one trip into the sauna, the attendant was re-heating the room, which involved pouring bucket after bucket of water into an oven, making the room hotter and hotter each time. It was almost but not quite more than I could take. I put my head down to be closer to the floor and therefore slightly cooler, or at least cool enough that I could continue to breath the air, and as I felt the sweat drip off of me, I had the sensation that every stressful thing in my life was leaving me as well, right along with the sweat and all of the Saturday-night toxins. I finished the day by treating myself to a moisturizing oil treatment, which was possibly the greatest ten minutes I’ve ever had in my life. By the time we left, we could literally see each other glowing. There were mirrors all along the walls on the way out, and one of my friends remarked that they wanted to make sure you could see how good you looked leaving. I agreed with her, and then it occurred to me that nothing in the banya had directly changed our external appearance… it was coming from somewhere inside.

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Snip, Snip

WARNING: the following story is not for the faint of heart. What follows is the tale of the single most terrifying experience I have had in Russia… [cue ominous music]… getting a haircut.

Getting a haircut, much less a whole new hairstyle, can be a frightening adventure under normal circumstances. What if they cut it totally crooked? What if I picked the wrong style for my head shape? What if the hairstylist sneezes mid-snip and leaves me with a bald patch? Now imagine all of this, plus a hairstylist who speaks not a word of English, and you’re starting to get the picture.

The quest for a Russian haircut actually began weeks ago, when my friend Liam declared that he must get his hair cut, and one of the Russian students was going to take him. Sick and tired of the awkward length my hair had reached, I decided to join this mission. Unfortunately, bad communication and poor planning abounded. Many weeks of bad hair days later, Liam and I gave up on our Russian friend and set out on our own, armed only with pictures of our desired haircuts and a very small vocabulary of Russian words.

We headed down the street, through the underpass, down a sketchy alleyway and past a playground that was almost certainly the set of horror movie. The alley opened into a courtyard shared by several business and apartment buildings. After a few wrong doors, we finally found what we were pretty sure was a hair salon. As soon as we opened the door, the smell of nail polish remover and shampoo confirmed that we were, in fact, in the right place. We went down the stairs–a surprising number of businesses in Moscow are in basements–and approached what we thought was the reception desk. We were wrong, but thanks to my Russian language class, I was able to understand the woman who told us, Edite pryama y naprava: go straight and to the right. At the real reception desk, we were sent back out to check out coats–everywhere in Russia has a coat check. It is not optional. At the desk for the second time, I did my best Russian Tarzan impression when I told the ladies,”I don’t speak Russian, but I want [gesture of cutting hair]. And… [point to Liam] also.” They sent Liam on into the room, leaving me to fend for myself. I was pointed over to a tall blonde girl at the other end of the counter. I thought, Thank God, this girl speaks Russian. She didn’t. But she knew someone who did, so she handed me a phone, pointed to the screen and said, “English.” I explained my desired haircut to some English-speaking man on the phone, who explained it to the blonde, who explained it to another woman. And then another woman. Before all was said and done, I had about six Russian women looking at the picture I had brought, pulling at my hair, and discussing God-knows-what. Finally, they sent me into the room and told me to sit. So I sat. I sat for a long time and watched with jealousy as Liam got his haircut by an English-speaking man. I was hoping that maybe I was waiting for Liam to be done so that guy could cut my hair, but it seems that in Russia, only women cut women’s hair, and only men cut men’s. So I waited. And I waited. And finally, after several failed communications with one stylist who seemed quite upset at my lack of Russian, I was assigned a hair stylist.

She washed my hair, no problem. Then she put me in the chair and pulled out the scissors. That’s when things got scary. There was literally nothing I could do except show her the picture and hope she could replicate. I tried really hard not to panic as I watched inches of hair hit the floor. I hadn’t thought my hair was that long to begin with, so I was a little concerned that I might be bald when it was all over. I was at least able to take comfort in the fact that this lady seemed pretty legit. I may have simply assumed she knew what she was going because she used four different kinds of scissors, but it made me feel better, at any rate. In case anyone is getting worried, I’ll go ahead and tell you that the haircut–which cost a grand total of 300 rubles, or ten dollars–turned out fine. I am now the proud owner of a pixie cut, which I was promised does not make me look like Justin Bieber, and a proud survivor of language-barrier hair cuts.

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Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet… Except Blair’s Hands.

Anyone who has known me for more than five minutes has probably seen me trip over a crack in the sidewalk, fall up the stairs, or knock over a full glass. Thus, anyone who has known me for more than five minutes will understand the hilarity of Blair in a Russian ballet class. In order to not sell myself short, I have to say that I have, in fact, studied ballet before… when I was in kindergarten. So, it’s not super surprising that I was initially a little clueless about certain things, like what kind of underwear dancers wear under their leotards… or if they wear any at all. Or what part of my ballet shoes I was supposed to sew. Or how to hold my hands while dancing. I have since been clued in about the undergarments and the shoes. But the hands…

The first things we learned in ballet were the five positions (which I was already familiar with, thanks to some eight-year-old girls I taught this summer) and the proper position of the hands. Our teacher, Renaud, explained it, and it sounded easy. He demonstrated, and it looked easy. I tried to do it myself, and it was NOT easy. One month later, I have yet to master the fine art of holding my hands like a ballerina. Apparently I have a great turn-out, and I’m getting fairly decent [read: less awful] at things like frappes, rond de jambes, passes, and grand battement. Some of the time, I even remember what all of those words mean. And–the most shocking thing of all–I’m finding that I actually kind of enjoy ballet. It’s hard, and it makes me hurt in places I didn’t know I had; but, at the same time, it’s almost impossible to do some of this stuff without tapping into some little-girl prima ballerina fantasy that’s still somewhere inside me. And let’s face it, ballet makes you feel pretty.

And yet, I still can’t make it ten minutes without Renaud adjusting my hands. On the bright side, contrary to what I had been led to believe about Russian dance instructors–I came into this fully prepared to have things thrown at me–Renaud at least has a sense of humor about the thing. It’s become sort of an inside joke that he’s going to have to fix my hands several times per class, and we’ve both reached the point where we can have a little laugh at my incompetence.

I can at least be proud of the fact that the number of times he has to adjust me is steadily… sometimes I wonder it it’s because I’m getting better, or because Renaud is giving up hope that my hands will ever look more like ballerina hands than velociraptor claws. But every time I start to worry I’m been deemed a lost cause, there comes Renaud with a little smirk on his face, showing what I hope to God is an exaggerated version of what’s wrong about my hands this time. It’s nice to know that no matter how much I feel like I might never get this right, Renaud still at least considers me worth his time. I’m choosing to believe that means there’s hope for my ungraceful self after all.

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Accidental Adventures

A while back, I watched a movie called “The Art of Travel,” which contained the line, “The art is travel is deviating from your plans.” The longer I’m in Russia, the more I feel like this is absolutely true. Looking back on the weekend I just spent in Saint Petersburg, I’m realizing that the moments I’m really going to remember are the ones that happened completely randomly, that we never could have planned. Years from now, the stories I’m going to be telling aren’t going to be about the time I took a bus tour around Saint Petersburg… they’re going to be about the time we interrupted said bus tour to have a random dance party in front of the Smolny Cathedral.

My surprise adventures actually started before we even left for Moscow, when Sarah and Connor and I decided to make a last-minute emergency shopping trip to H&M. We had three hours between the end of class at 6 and meeting to head for the train station at 9. We should have been golden, and for a while, we were. Getting to the mall was a little like being on Amazing Race Moscow Edition, and we were totally winning. We navigated the metro like pros, counted stops in Russian, and made it all seven stops without holding onto the bar or falling over. When we were done in the store, we backtracked to the metro and got on the train back home. Easy. All was well until the train stopped halfway there. Enter panic. In retrospect, the train was probably stopped for a grand total of sixty seconds, but it was a harrowing sixty seconds of, “Remember that time we got trapped on the metro and didn’t get to go to Saint Petersburg?” Also, metro trains in Moscow get REALLY hot the instant the stop moving. The rush of cold air when the thing started moving again was just about the greatest feeling in the world. By some miracle, I managed to be packed, showered, and ready to go on time. Then it was back on the metro to the train station, and then onto my very first overnight train.

We spent the first twenty or thirty minutes of the trip assigning Harry Potter characters to everyone in our group, because clearly the only reason anyone ever travels by train these days is to get to Hogwarts. Once our inner twelve-year-old nerds were satisfied, we settled in for the seven-hour ride. There’s not much better than staying up way to late in a train car with your friends and then collapsing into a tiny fold-down bed to let the train rock you to sleep, all to wake up a few hours later in a completely new place. It may not have actually been Hogwarts, but it was still pretty magical.

My first impression of Saint Petersburg was that it looked a whole lot like Moscow, but as soon as we got a little distance between us and the train station, I realized that Saint P is more like Moscow’s classier older sister. Everything is old and grand and beautiful, and the entire city is criss-crossed by rivers and bridges and it’s the kind of place that makes you realize just how new everything in America actually is.

After a quick breakfast, we started our bus tour of this beautiful city. I could tell you about all of the sites we saw, but if you really want a Saint Petersburg history lesson, Wikipedia might be a better bet. Instead, I’ll tell you about the stuff only I know, like the aforementioned dance party. The bus stopped in front of the gorgeous, bright blue Smolny Cathedral, and as soon as the doors opened, we heard Russian pop music. Dancing to the music was what appeared to be a flash mob of pre-teen girls, dancing a choreographed routine. We ran over to join the crowd watching, took pictures, and clapped for them. When they left, the music kept going, and somehow our entire group ended up having a totally spontaneous dance party. It was a moment of pure, un-self-conscious joy for all of us, and I’m pretty sure it was also good entertainment for some other tourists who were hanging around.

Later on, we took a tour of the Hermitage, which was an overdose of glitz and decadence like nothing I’ve ever seen before. What was once the Winter Palace for the tsar and his family is now an enormous art museum with the most confusing layout I’ve ever seen. After our guided tour ended, I set off with a couple of friends to revisit the Impressionists that we had sort of breezed past earlier. It should have been easy enough to retrace our steps and find the room again, but the hour we spent hopelessly lost suggest otherwise. Around the third time we realized we were not even on the floor we thought we were, I became completely convinced the entire place had been designed by M.C. Escher, or else we really were at Hogwarts, and the staircases were moving around just to screw with us. Of course, the nice thing about being lost somewhere like the Hermitage is that “being lost” really just means stumbling across one amazing exhibit after another. Eventually, through what could only have been a miracle, we found our intended destination, and I got to spend a few minutes standing in front of Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s and one lone Degas, just staring and falling into amazing pieces of art.

The entire trip, which also included visits to Catherine’s Palace and Alexander’s Palace, was one of these accidental adventures after another. I’ll spare you all of the details for now, but if you’re ever curious, you can ask me about the time we gave up looking for a club and ended up befriending a Russian boat captain instead. Or the time we made if to the Kunstkamera museum two minutes after the ticket office closed and instead just walked all around the city, accidentally ending up walking around the base of the Peter and Paul Fortress, with the huge wall on one side and the edge of the Neva River on the other. Or the random monkeys we met outside the Hermitage. I can also tell you about all of the amazing things that happened that actually were part of the plan, but my best stories are the ones that happened by surprise.

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Mecca

A few nights ago, I attended a performance of a play called Zokya’s Apartment. It was three and a half hours long, which, by American standards, is basically an eternity. By Russian standards, it’s pretty average. It was also in Russian. Which, you may recall, I do not speak. This sounds like the makings of a terrible evening, but it was incredible. I’ll start at the beginning.

We met outside of the Moscow Art Theatre where we were handed our (FREE!) tickets. Then we made our way inside, where we were able to make out just enough Cyrillic to find the coat check, which was a zoo of painfully stylish Russian theatre-goers. When we finally made it to the front of the line, the lady behind the counter started speaking to us angrily in rapid-fire Russian. Which, you may recall, I do not speak. I tried to hand her my bag and coat. She said more angry Russian words. She pointed to my friend next to me. He tried to hand her his bag. She said more angry Russian words. Finally, some miracle occurred and we figured out that she wanted us to check our things together. Coatless and bagless, we embarked upon the next stage of our adventure, finding out seats. This involved a long period of being lost and confused because no one could read the words balcony section on our tickets.

When we finally made it to our seats, making sure to cross in front of people the proper Russian way—with your crotch in their face instead of your butt—I had a minute to really take in exactly where I was. Looking down at the stage below us, it suddenly hit me that Stanislavsky, the father of modern acting technique and basically a patron saint of the theatre, had performed on this stage. When the lights started to go down, I’m not even embarrassed to admit that I found myself crying. I don’t know from experience, but I would venture to say it was a little something like reaching Mecca.

The performance started with something that could have passed for the opening sequence from a 70s James Bond flick. The lead actress was standing against a white wall, surrounded by black projections that seemed to respond to her touch. A line of arrows would chase her as she ran in front of the wall, and when she would touch them on the wall, they would shatter into tiny triangles. Or a black circle would follow her movements like a search light. She was joined by men wearing giant black space helmets who were literally climbing the walls on built-in ladder rungs. This opening sequence, bizarre as it was, was the perfect way to bring the audience into what turned out to be a pretty bizarre play. Even though I understood not a word of the dialogue, the visuals were strong enough that I always felt like I had at least a loose grasp of the story. And despite the language barrier, I found myself laughing loudly and often and sitting on the edge of my seat more than once.

The show ended with the longest curtain call I have ever witnessed. People clapped until the actors came back onto the stage two separate times. People handed flowers to the actors. It was a sort of appreciation for art that I have never seen in America. That appreciation, that sense of theatre as something much more than just a luxury or an entertainment, as something vitally important to society, is one of so many reasons I feel so lucky to be studying here.

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The Art of Moving Chairs

Collaboration is hard. This is something I have learned before, but MXAT is reminding me of it daily. I addition to whatever else we have to do on a given night–be it reading a play, doing Russian homework, doing laundry, or massaging muscles we didn’t know we had but which are now aching from the lethal combination of stage movement and ballet–we also have to take time to plan out a group etude. An etude essentially consists of a silent scene in which some event occurs that causes some change in everyone involved. It sounds simple enough, but when you consider that the silence has to be natural for the situation, and everyone must have a specific character, and the event has to have a real effect on all nine people involved, it starts to get a little challenging. Oh, yeah, and those same nine people all have to agree about what the scene will be.

This is probably why the first thing we learned in acting class was how to sit in unison as an ensemble. We then learned how to rise from our chairs in unison, and then how to rearrange those chairs in unison. All without talking or having anyone take the lead. It might sound a little silly, or like it has nothing to do with acting, but there’s something incredibly valuable in being able to accomplish a task (however simple) together, without leaders and followers, as a true ensemble. We’ve been building on the sitting thing ever since, and today we were able to arrange our chairs into letters to spell out a word, without discussing what the word was going to be. We’re growing as an ensemble, and it’s showing in the way our evening group meetings have improved every single day.

The whole idea of being an ensemble goes way beyond acting class, too. Being an ensemble means that we’re here for each other one hundred percent. It means there’s always someone offering a hug when you need one. It means there’s someone to talk you down when you’re upset because your individual etude didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. It means that when you can’t get to sleep one night, you’ll probably find friends to sit up in the kitchen with you and talk until 4:30 in the morning, having the greatest conversation about life in the theatre, and disregarding the fact that you have eight hours of class the next day.

I met my ensemble exactly nine days ago, and I feel like we’ve known each other for years. I feel incredibly lucky that not only am I getting to study in this amazing place, but I’m also getting to do it with these amazing people. Moving a chair across the room is nothing spectacular, but doing it in perfect unison with seventeen other people… that’s actually pretty beautiful.

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With Love From Russia

Hello, America! I am writing right now from an absurdly huge McDonald’s, with three floors of seating and one open table. I’m trying to figure out how to describe what it’s like in Moscow, and the best I can come up with is that it feels a lot like New York, except I can’t understand a word anyone around me is saying, and I’m suddenly on a preschool reading level. That, and the fact that every now and then we’ll be walking along, look down a side street, and realize we’re one block away from the Kremlin, or Red Square, or St. Basils, or any of the other gorgeous domed cathedrals all over the city.

I believe I have found the secret to surviving in a foreign country where you do not speak the language: You must be completely okay with looking incredibly stupid all the time. I’ve gotten pretty used to accidentally frustrating people—like the clerk at the producti [read: supermarket], who specifically asked me for small bills when all I had was a 1,000 ruble note. I’ve also gotten quite used to being laughed at, which I prefer, since I’m usually laughing at myself, anyway—like the time I was trying to have a conversation with a Russian student, but we couldn’t get a word out in any language because we were too busy laughing at our own incompetence.

I’ve found another secret to travelling abroad is to carry a camera everywhere, because the real photo-worthy moments sneak up on you. I knew I was going to be using my camera when we found our way to Red Square and St. Basil’s the other day… I didn’t know I was going to be pulling it out again when we stopped for a drink at a sidewalk café near a small park, where we spotted a man dressed as a pirate next to a cardboard cutout of Putin next to a guy with a live boa constrictor around his neck. All just hanging out. In a park.

Things that are awesome about Moscow include:
-The Russian students at MXAT, from the random students we [try to] talk to in the dormitory stairwell, to the “angels”—producing students who have been assigned to help us survive in Moscow, which so far has included taking us to a cell phone store and out to bars. As a side note, I believe we have found the most American bar in all of Russia, Coyote Ugly Moscow. I’m not making this up.
-The fact that despite the stereotype of the un-friendly Russian, most of the people who have had the misfortune of having to serve me as I failed at ordering food/buying groceries/exchanging money in Russian have actually been pretty nice about it. I have yet to have anyone curse at me in Russian, or if they have, they at least waited to do it once I was gone.
-Living in a culture where a career in the arts is considered one of the highest callings. Before we left, we were told about the MXAT ids we would be receiving, which are going to be our “golden ticket” to everything in Moscow. If we are ever stopped by police (see below), we should show them our official documents and our MXAT ids, because “They will not want to mess with you. The Moscow Art Theatre is too powerful.”

Things that are less awesome about Moscow include:
-Crosswalks. They exist, sort of, but are not equipped with walk/don’t’ walk lights. The best way to get across the street is to commit and go for it, despite the fact that it feels as though a car is going to run over you at any second. Also, cars park on the sidewalk, which just adds to the feeling that walking down the street is a real-life game of Frogger.
-Everything smells like smoke. Russia is a culture of heavy smokers, and they smoke just about everywhere. I am gradually coming to terms with the fact that all bars, most stairwells, and every single piece of clothing I own are going to smell like smoke for three months.

And now, the part about MXAT itself. I’m not quite sure how to accurately describe the amazingness. Our first class was with Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky, the Dean of the school and the assistant artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre. We were in the lobby of the theatre, which doubles as a shrine to the artists of MXAT’s past. His lecture, against the backdrop of photos of Stanislavsky, Danchenko, and Chekov, was something really close to a religious experience. Acting class with our master teachers was something along the same lines. And they didn’t ease us in to things. On day one, we were assigned group and individual etudes [read: acting exercises] to be performed the next day. It was terrifying, sure, but it was also incredible to finally be thrown all the way into what we all came here to do.

Finally, as a reward for those of you who have made it to the end of this post, the story of my greatest language gap failure yet. I was on my way up the stairs to my fifth-floor dorm room, when I stopped to say hello to one of the Russian students in the stairs. He introduced himself as Sasha and asked where I was going. I pointed up and told him I was going upstairs.
“Don’t go. Stay. Sit.”
So I stayed and sat. We made it through a few get-to-know-you kind of sentences before he ran out of English. I had already run out of Russian. After a minute of both of us searching for more things we could say in the other’s language, I just started laughing and said, “I really need to learn Russian.”
“What?”
I tried a little more slowly. “I want to learn Russian.”
“You want boy Russian?”
“No. Nyet.” There had to be another way to say this. “I want to speak Russian.”
“You want boy Russian.”
“Nyet!” I thought for a minute. “Ya ni panamayu pa Russki.” [I don’t speak Russian.] “I want to learn.”
“You want boy Russian?”
At this point, I resorted to some sort of sign language to get across the fact that I wanted to SPEAK Russian, not take home a Russian boy. Sasha finally got it, and started laughing hysterically and apologizing profusely. I turned to the one Russian word I hadn’t used up yet. “Korosho.” It’s all good.

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