Do svidanya Russia!

The movers came and we are moving back to the States soon. We leave tomorrow for one last crazy trip to Uzbekistan and will be back in NY on January 9th. The past two years have gone by so quickly.

At good-bye parties and lunches with friends, we reflected on our Moscow experiences and said what will we miss and what will we not miss about living here when we leave. I thought I would share with you a modified version of those discussions and tell you the things I will miss about living in Moscow and what I am most looking forward to when I return to the States.

Things I will miss about Moscow:

  • All the amazing friends I met here. There is something about being in a completely foreign culture with a group of strangers where you are forced to bond and rely on each other. The friends I have made here have taught me everything from the best kind of toilet paper to buy, what types of food to buy where, shortcuts on the Metro, and how to survive this city. More importantly, I could always count on them for when I was having a bad day, and for lots of laughs.
  • The flexibility and ability to travel. We have been fortunate to do so much travelling over the past two years. I will miss the ability to hop on a plane and be somewhere exotic in two hours.
  • The Metro – you never wait more than 3 minutes, even on a Sunday! There are never train closures, track work, or train traffic. Plus tickets are really cheap.
  • Patio season – there are a brief few months where the weather is perfect and the restaurants open patios so people can drink and eat outdoors. Moscow is a city of 20 million or so, which is huge. Russians refer to patio season as dacha season, during which they leave the city for their summer houses and the city empties out on weekends. The people left in the city chill out and enjoy being here.
  • All the crazy things I encounter on the streets on a daily basis from the woman selling bras and spoons on my way to the Metro, the nice stranger helping an elderly woman over a patch of ice, and even the distinctive smells of the city. The smells range from the good to the bad and the ugly – the smell of freshly baked bread, BO on the Metro, and alcohol on people’s breaths and emanating from their skin. Although all the smells aren’t always pleasant, they do remind me of Moscow.
  • Kachupuri – the Georgian cheesy bread! This is the only food item I will miss from Russia.
  • The rule that everyone takes off their shoes when entering your home. When people come over or you go to a friend’s house that is just what you do. It keeps your apartment much cleaner. I think I will bring this custom back with me.

Things I am excited for in the USA:

  • My friends and family and being in the same time zone or close to it, versus 10-12 hours away!
  • Unlimited texting, with everyone, but most of all my sisters!
  • A phone that is 2012, not 2008 – not sure what kind of phone I will get, but it will be a smart phone!
  • KOSHER STEAK and BURGERS
  • Restaurants that will deliver to your door in 20 minutes, the food will still be hot, and they won’t charge a crazy delivery fee.
  • Ethnic food – Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Deli (that’s Jewish ethnic, right?), even Mexican food.
  • Free water in restaurants
  • While we are on the topic of food – everything bagels that were made fresh that day and you can buy them still hot.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables year round
  • The ability to plan a meal in advance, go to the store and know you will be able to find everything.
  • My matching dishes and serving pieces. Now when I have company I will be able to serve everyone with matching utensils, plates, and serving pieces instead of a mish mash of what we have.
  • Target
  • The American concept of lines, although just to be clear, I don’t like lines. However, in Russia someone can go to the bathroom or take a smoke break and still expect to have their place. There are also long lines for everything and people are constantly cutting and pushing. I may have become a little too Russian and cut the lines sometimes too. It helps to be on the shorter side and if someone says anything to me I just look at them with a blank stare and say I don’t speak Russian.
  • Choices – in America we are so lucky to have choices of what brand of items to buy instead of buying the only item that is carried in the whole country.
  • An oven – I love to cook and can not believe I survived two years with only a toaster oven.

This may be my last blog post or my blog may take on a new form when we are back in the States. Thank you for following along on our adventures and experiences over the past two years. I have loved all of your comments on my blog and the comments you made to help me win the blog contest. Despite the challenges of living here, I think Michael and I will look back and think it was one of the most exiting and best times of our lives. We have made life long friendships, built our relationship and a had a very fun start to our marriage, and really took advantage of living in a new culture.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Romania, Romania, Romania

For the amount of traveling we have done, we have been very lucky (knock on wood) that we have had no problems. Our luggage always arrives, we have never had major delays, etc. Well leave it to one of our last trips to break our streak.

As I mentioned in my last post, Michael and I spent a week in Romania, visiting the capital Bucharest and traveling around Transylvania. Our problems started when we were at the airport and tried to take out money from the ATM. After trying every ATM in the airport we call the bank to find out that they no longer allow ATM usage in Romania or Ukraine. We have used our ATM card in Albania, Serbia, Georgia, and Armenia, but we can’t use it in an EU country. After being stuck at the airport for hours, we finally left with an emergency transfer of all the cash we would need for our trip, but had our credit card detained by a Romanian ATM in the process. However, we were on our way.

We were excited to visit Transylvania to see old Medieval towns and pretty castles. However, Romania tourism has a while to go before it is fully developed. The trains were not the cleanest; the hotel rooms, while large in size, had showers that flooded the whole bathroom and non vegetarian friendly breakfasts; the restaurant options were Romanian food (pork) or Italian – we ate a lot of pasta and pizza that week; and the trains don’t always run on time. One of our trains was going to be delayed for a few hours, so we ended up hiring a cab or we would have missed a full day of touring. Speaking of cabs, every one had a pungent odor of air freshener. It wasn’t even refreshing as the smell was often gross like bubble gum, and way too overpowering.

Overall, it was still a lovely trip! One of the highlights was the day we spent touring castles. We went to Pelisor Palace, which was completed in 1903 (very modern compared to most European castles) for the heir to the throne of the Romanian monarchy. It is in the same complex as the main Peles Palace, although the large one was closed for renovation. We also visited Bran Castle, which many people believe is Dracula’s Castle, although there is no evidence Bram Stoker even knew of the Castle’s existence. Vlad the Impaler, who in real life may have inspired the character, may have passed through but didn’t live in the castle. The castle was actually in use by the royal family until 1948 when they were expelled because the Communists took over. We were there in November and because it was made mostly of stone it was very cold. I wonder how they kept it warm, even with stoves and fireplaces. The Castle was very picturesque and did look like it was straight out of a movie.

The other days we spent wandering around cute towns and going to small museums and old churches. We surprisingly found one of the best outdoor architecture museums we have ever visited. Such museums are very popular throughout Europe where they display old homes and buildings from different time periods and regions. This museum was done particularly well (it had windmills and a village bowling alley) and it felt like a perfect fall day to be outside.

Our trip ended on American Thanksgiving and it was the first year that Michael and I actually spent it in the same city. There were no options for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner so we went to the next best thing – Benihana! It was a delicious dinner. See below for a slide show with pictures from our trip.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Synagogues in Transylvania

Michael and I recently traveled throughout Transylvania in Romania. I will do a separate blog post on some of the sites we saw including castles and pretty medieval towns. However, this one will focus on one of the unexpected surprises we found throughout Romania – surviving synagogues in each small town we visited.

Usually when we travel throughout Central and Eastern Europe there are a few synagogues maximum that have survived World War II and Communism in a large city, but once you travel to smaller cities the synagogues are usually no longer there. However, in Romania, we found synagogues in each town. I have tried to do some research to figure out why this is, but have not found a good answer. Unlike in many countries in this part of the world, the majority of Romanian Jews survived the Holocaust.

We spent very little time in the capital of Romania, Bucharest, so we did not have a chance to find the synagogues there. The first small city we visited was Brasov. As you can see from the pictures, the synagogue is a beautiful Neoclassical building originally built in 1899. I was shocked to find out that they operate a kosher restaurant next door to the synagogue. Sadly, it is only open for lunch and we did not get to eat there. The restaurant functions almost solely to provide hot, kosher meals to the elderly Jews in Brasov. The synagogue still functions and serves a very small, mostly elderly community. The inside is in terrific condition and has been beautifully restored. One more interesting thing inside the synagogue was a memorial to Jewish veterans of World War I from Brasov. It was the first time I have ever seen a World War I memorial inside a synagogue.

Our next stop on our Transylvanian adventure took us to the town of Sibiu with a population of 130,000. Today there are only 32 Jews left in town, but the main synagogue is still in great condition and open a few hours a day for visitors. An elderly woman opened the doors for us and allowed us inside to take pictures. The intricate wood carvings throughout the synagogue were spectacular.

Last, we were in the town of Sighisoara where Vlad Tepes, Dracula’s historical prototype, was born. There was no synagogue listed in our guidebooks or maps; however, we were wandering on the outskirts of the city and saw a sign for a synagogue so we followed the sign and found it. We were not able to go inside. There was a sign on the door that said to ring the doorbell of the building to the left to visit. On the left was a convenience store where the woman working knew nothing about the synagogue. There was a kind, albeit drunk man, who showed us what doorbell to ring as we were going in circles. Sadly, no one answered so we could not go inside. I did some research on the synagogue and there are no Jews left in town. The last Jew, the synagogue caretaker, died and one of his non-Jewish friends who lives next door opens the buildings for visitors and cleans it. There is no money so he uses soap and mops from his home to clean it. A very touching story and hopefully it will be continued to look after.

Overall, it was remarkable to get to see synagogues in these smaller cities and a peak at the vibrant Jewish life that must have existed there. Based on the size of the synagogues the communities must have been large and flourishing. However, it was also depressing to see these synagogues that were built to show the life of the Jewish community and be a central gathering place almost completely empty and unused.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Holiday Party at the US Ambassador’s House

It’s the season of holiday parties! Michael and I had the pleasure of attending a party at the US Ambassador to Russia’s home, Spaso House. He and his wife hosted the American Women’s Organization’s holiday party for the members and their spouses. It was a fun occasion to get dressed up!

I know the Ambassador’s wife, Donna Norton, because she hosts a bi-weekly Zumba class at her home. Not a bad place to work out, in the ballroom of their home.

The holiday party is also a chance to thank everyone for their support for the Arts and Crafts Festival, which I chaired this year. We invited some of our biggest sponsors and members of Nastenka, the charity that we raised money for. I gave remarks thanking everyone for their help, most importantly the amazing committee and our donors. We raised a record amount of money this year, about 10% more than last year.

It was a fun night to dress up, hang out with our friends, and nibble on some good food. The snowmen cookies not only looked good, but tasted delicious. Spaso House was decorated very pretty for Christmas with huge, beautiful trees. You can check out some pictures below.

This weekend is Michael’s work holiday party. The outfits worn by some of his female colleagues will provide a great window into Russian fashion.

Also, thank you to those of you who wrote wonderful comments about my blog for the blog contest. I am thrilled to announce that my blog won the Best Expat Blog in Russia. Here are the results: http://www.expatsblog.com/expat-blog-awards-2012/07#Russia.

Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas!

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Backstage Tour of the Bolshoi Theater

I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a backstage tour of the Bolshoi Theater. The Theater hosts one of the most renowned opera and ballet companies in the world. The current building was built in 1850 and the first time it was used was for coronation parties for Tsar Nicholas II. In 2005 it was closed for six years for a major renovation and it reopened last year.

One of the highlights of the tour included watching a rehearsal of the opera Boris Godunov. The opera had a large cast of at least 50 people and we were able to see some of the sets. You can watch a short clip from the rehearsal here: 

The Theater is much larger than it looks from the outside with multiple stages and private rooms. There is a gigantic chandelier hanging from the ceiling. When the Theater was first built the lights in the chandelier were candles and the chandelier was hoisted up when the candles needed to be changed. Now that it operates on electricity, the space upstairs is a stage that is an exact replica of the main stage. It is used for rehearsals and small performances. When I was there a ballerina was hanging out doing splits on the stage.

The tour also allowed us to watch the costumes being made and mended. There were so many tutus, I really wanted to try one on. One of the costumes I saw was a Ded Moroz (Russian Santa Claus) costume from the early 1900’s. They had it out because they were making a new version of the costume. The costume rooms overlook the main square the Theater sits in and it provided a great view of the statue in the Square.

One of the side rooms that is currently used for private events or by oligarchs when they attend the Theater was where the coronation party for Tsar Nicholas II was held. On the wall are beautiful rugs that were recently restored. If you look at the rugs you will notice that the oval that has the Tsar’s initials is much brighter than the rest of the fabric. During the Soviet era the Tsar’s initials were replaced by the hammer and sickle. As part of the restoration many items that had the hammer and sickle were replaced with the double headed eagle, the Russian state symbol.

It was amazing to be behind the scenes and get a sense of how the Bolshoi operates. It is quite a production!

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Europe’s Biggest and Maybe Best Jewish Museum Opens in Moscow!

For those of you that have read my blog for the past two years, you have followed my journey to see how Jewish life has been revitalized in Russia in recent years. This month that revitalization took another huge leap forward with the opening of Europe’s largest Jewish Museum, The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

The Museum is located in a converted bus garage and is 8,500 square meters (that’s over 91,000 square feet). In my mind, one of the significant differences between this Museum and other Jewish museums throughout Europe is that the Holocaust is not the main focus or end of the story, but just a part of the Jewish story in Europe, and more specifically Russia. The Museum is truly an interactive experience. There are some pieces of artifacts and pieces of Judaica to look at, but the focus is on interacting with history and every step of the way the Museum allows you to be a participant not a bystander.

The Museum experience starts in a 4D theater where there is a film that begins at creation and continues through the Jewish diaspora. The seats move as the story is told. In addition, similar to theaters at Disney World, there is mist and jets of air to create special effects. During the recreation of one of the ten plagues, air was blown behind our ankles to simulate flies. I was so surprised I let out a loud shriek. Some of the scenes were a little too graphic, including the image of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac; and the blood for one of the plagues looked like it was out of a horror movie.

After the movie, we entered the main museum exhibition space. The first exhibit allowed you to see where Jews live and interesting facts about the communtites. The whole display was interactive. You clicked on a country on the map and learned details about the community. It was fun to look up places we have visited this year including Georgia, and then learn about even more distant communities in China and India. Next there was an interactive screen where you could drag phrases together to create famous Yiddish proverbs. Michael read them in a funny Yiddish voice, which was quite amusing.

The next few sections of the museum focused on Jewish life in the 1700’s – early 1900’s in the Pale of Settlement (modern day Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania). It started out talking about life in the shtetls and then about migration to bigger cities including Odessa. In the section about shtetls you could walk through a market, listen to traditional music, and — my favorite — “dress up” in the outfits of shtetl-residents. The technology was really cool: a camera took a picture of your face and then you could choose a profession and you would appear in a “mirror” dressed up in clothes for that profession. I was slightly offended that the only outfit for a woman was a seller in the market. I will take it that was the only option for women at the time. As a form of protest, I dressed up as a male matchmaker. Michael chose to be a rabbi. We then sat in an Odessa cafe and learned about pogroms and other challenges facing Jews in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Screens on the cafe table contained information about situations confronting Jews from that time period and then you could decide how you would react. For example, if your store was destroyed by a pogrom, what would you do? Move to America, rebuild your store, join a Jewish Defense League, or “I am still in shock I don’t know what I would do”? After you voted, you could see how other visitors at the Museum also voted.

The next section was about the fall of the Tsar and the rise of Communism, focusing on the role of Jews who were prominent in the early Communist movement. The museum than had a large section on World War II, where it showed tanks and airplanes invented by Jews, including women, that were used in the war effort and of course a lot of information about mass killings on Soviet territory and other atrocities of the Holocaust. The Remembrance section allowed you to light a memorial candle, which was something I have never seen before. In addition, you could look up family members who were killed in the War.

The following sections showed how Judaism was suppressed in the Soviet Union and discussed the worldwide movement to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate. The last sections focused on the current rebirth that Judaism has experienced over the last 20 years and showed pictures of Jewish celebrations throughout the FSU.

We ended our visit with a stop in the cafe for a bagel and coffee. The bagel has a long way to go before it is on par with any bagel in New York.

As a professional fundraiser, I am always curious about a museum’s list of patrons. In the States, the largest patrons are usually wealthy individuals and private foundations. At this museum, the patron who was front and center was Vladimir Putin. Yes, he donated a month’s salary to the museum, but in terms of financial contribution that is not very significant (the museum is estimated to have cost around $50 million). As we were looking at the list a Russian woman came over and made the same comment. The other big sponsors were all companies, mostly oil and gas companies that have close relationships with the government. There were almost no private donors and only one non-Russian donor. The concept of philanthropy that we have in America has not quite reached Russia.

Overall, I can honestly say that the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is probably the best Jewish museum I have ever visited. The interactive experience really allowed you to be a part of history and get involved. And whatever shortcoming may exist in Russian philanthropy, it is so amazing that a museum like this can open in the center of Moscow with such strong support from the government.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Autumnal Activities in Moscow

Our time in Moscow is winding down and we have been trying to take full advantage of everything the city has to offer. Fall lasts a brief few weeks and varies between days of rain, and a few hours of sun. Fortunately, we found brief dry periods to enjoy some outdoor activities, and found a good indoor activity for a rainy day.

The Circle of Light Festival came to Moscow earlier this month. Throughout the city projection and light shows were displayed on buildings. We attended the show on Red Square. In the middle of Red Square there was a large inflatable globe in which a light projection show was displayed. It was set to music and displayed an awesome show. The juxtaposition of this very modern light show with the 15th Century St. Basil’s Cathedral and the walls of the Kremlin in the background provided great picture opportunities.

Last year, we went to one of the permanent circuses in town. This year we attended the other one, The Great Moscow Circus. It was incredible! The circus has only one ring, versus the three ring circuses in the US. However, the main ring contains interchangeable platforms. The circus started with the typical animals and clowns on a normal platform, then it turned into an ice rink, followed by a water show complete with fountains. The animals of the circus include your typical lion and cats, however, there was also a kangaroo in a tutu, sea lion, and polar bears! Yes, polar bears!! They were my favorite because much of what they did was roll around on the ice and go down a slide. They seemed pretty happy to be performing. On the other hand, the kangaroo’s act involved fighting with one of the performers including throwing him down. It was a little over the top for my taste. It ended with a full water show including mermaids, underwater lighting, and aerial performers! I was hoping for good circus food, but the popcorn was a little stale and the ponchiki (similar to a mini doughnut) weren’t worth the calories.

We also found a night to eat in the sukkah, a temporary hut built for the Jewish holiday Sukkot. We went to a different one than last year. This restaurant is on the top floor of a synagogue that during the nice weather has an outdoor terrace. They built the sukkah on the terrace, so there was even a waterfall inside. I was pretty happy to fill up on lots of meat.

Enjoy the pictures below!

From Russia with Love,
Heather

 

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Shanah Tovah 5773

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I am sorry that I have not been good about blogging about my travels recently.  In honor of Rosh Hashanah I thought I would share some highlights from Jewish sites Michael and I visited on recent travels. Georgia There have … Continue reading

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Spread Sunshine

In my last post I mentioned that I was chairing a Festival to raise money for Nastenka, which supports a pediatric oncology unit at a Moscow hospital. Today, I had the opportunity to visit the children.

Before we visited the children, two other volunteers and I had to buy some groceries to bring. The children are given three meals a day. However, because they are under chemotherapy they aren’t always hungry at meal time or not hungry for the food available. In addition, the majority of children have their parents with them throughout the day and they need to eat too. The food that we bought supplements the meals provided and what the parents bring. The parents cook comfort food for their children and meals for themselves. We refer to it as a Ronald McDonald kitchen. The American Women’s Organization supports the supplemental food at 7,500 rubles a month, that’s about $230.

The staff at Nastenka send us a list of the items and quantities of products needed. This month the list included such items as laundry detergent, wet wipes, paper towels, juice boxes, flour, sugar, and sunflower oil. In addition they request items such as tea and coffee. There are about 40 children on the floor and you can imagine that it is tight trying to buy the quantities needed on that budget. As we went through the store we calculated what we were spending and how much remained to buy additional items such as canned vegetables or an additional container of coffee. It made me feel grateful that I can go to the grocery store and afford what I need. Pushing the carts through a crowded Russian grocery store was quite the experience and my arms had a great workout.

Finally it was time to visit the children. As we arrived on the floor it looked like a drab hospital floor. There were no decorations or colors for the children. The purpose of the visit, called Spread Sunshine, is to bring a smile to the kids’ faces. There are toys, arts and crafts projects, school supplies, and fun clothes that are donated. The items are broken down by gender and age group. We go from room to room permitting the kids pick a toy or two and giving them a juice box and snack. Some kids are too sick to leave their bed and their parents choose a gift for them. Others are so excited to choose and play with their new toy. These kids are in the hospital for weeks at a time, and something to keep them entertained is greatly appreciated by the kids and their parents. It seems that everyone eagerly awaits our visit. Children and parents waited at the door for us to roll down with the toys.

It was a very moving afternoon. Most of the families are poor and those that are not Russian citizens need to pay for the treatment out-of-pocket. Some of the kids come from Former Soviet Republics to this hospital because their needs cannot be met at home. So even though our monthly contribution is small, it was great to bring a smile to their faces and make their day a little brighter.

You can see some pictures below.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Give me an “A”, give me a “C”, give me an “F”

What does that stand for? That would be the Arts and Crafts Festival.

One of the organizations I am involved with in Moscow is the American Women’s Organization (AWO), which holds an Annual Arts and Crafts Festival where all the proceeds go to support The Moscow Pediatric Hospital, through the Nastenka Foundation. As many of you know, last year I chaired the silent auction for the Festival and this year I am serving as co-chair of the Festival. The Festival hosts more than 80 vendors, many of whom are talented local Moscow artisans and craftsmen. In addition, a silent auction is held throughout the day. There are other components to the Festival and it raises much needed money for the Hospital.

This year during a Festival committee meeting, we were trying to find creative ways to publicize the Festival and introduce the importance of the festival to AWO members. My friend Ann suggested we create an American style pep rally! So that is what we did! One afternoon we made posters and home-made pom-poms.

The pep rally included chants, theme music, pom poms, and cheerleaders! For everyone who knew me in high school, you would be shocked to know that I dressed up as one of the cheerleaders in a skirt that was borrowed from the American Diner in town. I never had a desire to be a cheerleader or the coordination to actually succeed as one. However, the pep rally went off without a hitch. We had lots of fun and managed to garner a lot of excitement and interest in the Festival. Below you can see some photos and a video from the pep rally as proof! My cartwheel was not caught on camera, but I successfully did one.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

P.S. I apologize for my lack of blogging. Michael and I have been doing lots of traveling and the weather is gorgeous in Moscow so I have been taking advantage of being outside without my eyelashes freezing from the cold. I promise to do some blogging on our recent travels to Vilnius, Armenia, and Istanbul.

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