Saturday, February 15, 2014

From Russia with love

Valentine's Day was not forgotten here in Sochi. Early on in my time here, my boss asked the Russian students if they celebrated Valentine's Day. "Lovers' Day?" they'd respond. From that point on, we knew we would celebrate in some way. I just had no idea I would find this when I walked into the office yesterday:

We were feelin' the love.

Life got a little more complicated when each of the workers in our compound had to recite "I love you" in Russian before getting their meal. Let's just say that my years of Latin and Chinese didn't exactly prepare me for having to teach Canadians and Koreans how to speak Russian. I was much more forgiving than my Russian counterparts when it came to judging if the recitation was adequate enough to eat.

Somehow this image of one of the Russian students surfaced among all of the Valentine's Day chaos. I don't know where it came from, but now we basically have a patron saint of the office.

Apparently this boy's father is the director of many of the students' school. They have decided that if they get in trouble for what I'm about to show you, that I will get thrown under the bus for it and they will pretend they know nothing. Thanks, guys.

There's more where these came from.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Black Sea Adventures


Yesterday was the first day since I've been here that I have had any amount of time off, so Phillip and I walked to the Black Sea. It's about a mile from where we are staying.

The weather has been great and visiting the sea was relaxing. As we approached the sea, I was immediately reminded of why the Black Sea is called the Black Sea: its sand!

The sand is a thicker texture than the sand near the Atlantic. It felt exceptionally gritty between my toes. As we approached the water we left the sand area and moved into rocks. It was definitely different from any beach I'd ever been to before.

I found a small sliver of green sea glass.

As with any body of water, I felt the need to put my feet in. While the surrounding air was pleasantly warm, let me assure you: the water was frigid!

We really enjoyed our time sitting by the sea. It was nice to get away from the park and experience something so very familiar but so very different.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


This morning was early. Very early. We left the apartment suitcases in hand at 5:45 a.m. to take the metro to the airport. Our grogginess was evident because we went the wrong direction at a stop and went through the turnstile the wrong way. Luckily the lady metro attendant let us through without purchasing new passes.

We met Kyle at our favorite metro stop, Rimskaya, or as we call it, the Roman Babies. This stop is themed after Romulus and Remus. It is an easy landmark for us. Once we were all together, we boarded the metro until we reached the aero express.

The sun doesn't rise until 9ish here, so I felt like I was in a crazy dream sitting on the bus. We arrived at the airport and didn't have any major problems. Phew.

Once we got to Sochi it was very different. We were greeted like in the movies with a sign held up. We got our bags and went through the various processes required to work here. Once completed our driver took us to our hotel, which isn't exactly finished. It's a work in progress.

I arrived at my room and my door wouldn't close. I couldn't shut the door. When I tried to pull it close to seem closed it would open fully. I left some of my stuff there and put some of my more important stuff in Morgan's room. We met up with our group and took the bus to the International Broadcast Center where our professor gave us a tour and we ate McDonald's (not a lot of food options here).

This is the culprit.

Once I got back I realized that someone else had left their stuff in my room but wasn't there. I waited and eventually she returned. I thought I'd end up rooming with another Asburian because most people here end up together. Instead, I am rooming with Olga, a lovely Russian student who is finishing her master's in multimedia journalism. She's from Siberia but goes to university in Moscow. We are working the same job in the same place so we should have plenty of quality time.

Olga was instrumental in us getting moved into a new room WITH A CLOSING DOOR! When I asked previously, the front desk said they'd fix it within the day. Olga asked and we got moved. It's much better, really!

Tomorrow's our first day of work. Wish us luck!

Moscow: Day 3

This is our last full day in the city and surprisingly, I am really sad about it. I've enjoyed my time in Moscow and it's weird to actually have to transition my thinking to going to Sochi.

Today we started with an agenda: go to the Tretyakov Gallery. We met early and spent time walking around the historic streets surrounding the gallery before viewing the art.

This was on a side of a building. Interesting, right?

This is one of the gallery's side entrances.

This is the front of the gallery.

This is one of the many beautiful cathedrals.

The gallery was huge and it seemed like every time we thought we had seen it all that there was another room. One particular painting of the return of Christ was particularly amazing to me. It took the painter 31 years to complete. Talk about dedication! Maybe he thought Jesus would come back before he finished?

I love this painting and this family was so funny to watch!

After the gallery we met up with some more of Morgan's Salvation Army connections and toured Arbat street (a tourist district) after eating at Johnny Rockets. They consider Atlanta home but have been in Moscow for 5 years as Territorial Commanders. They later took us on a car tour of the city at night and I learned so much from hearing them talk about their time here and about Russian history in general.

We stayed out late and packed our bags quickly. Tomorrow's an early morning. To Sochi we go!

Moscow: Day 2

Unique observations about Moscow:

1.)  Toilet paper can be and is colored and scented in some places. Both the apartment we are staying in and the Salvation Army’s district headquarters had colored, scented paper. The pastel green paper at the apartment is scented like apples.

2.)  Russians take their fur very seriously. Most women I have seen have knee-length fur coats in all varieties. Some appear more natural, and some are dyed colors like purple, red and teal. They like to wear fur beanies also. Russian men sometimes have full-length fur coats, but I have observed that at the least they have a fur collar to their coats. The fur hat is very popular among men. Even children wear some fur. I’ve seen lots of furry pom-poms on top of knit beanies.(Aside from fur, can we please discuss how precious these children are in their winter outfits? Much better than the ones in "A Christmas Story.")

3.)  Russians are very quiet people in comparison to westerners and generally keep to themselves. The noise of the metro area is mostly just the metro. It was eerie at first for us to ride on the metro because no one spoke or looked at each other. Now we’ve caught the knack of sitting quietly while averting our eyes.

4.)  Do not touch a stranger on the metro, even if it’s an accident. There have been a few close calls here.

5.)  Like my time in England, it is customary to stay to the right hand side of the escalator when riding to allow for people in a rush to climb by on the left.

6.)  If asking for directions in English, ask a younger person. The older generation wasn’t taught English like the younger generation.

7.)  In major intersections, there are no crosswalks for pedestrians. Moscow traffic is crazy. Instead, there are underground tunnels that go underneath the roads to protect pedestrians and keep traffic moving.

8.)  Lots of vendors have enclosed shops along the underground tunnels of the metro, and the variety is interesting.

9.)  Different metro stops have different themes. One of our common stops is themed after Rome’s beginnings, having statues of Romulus and Remus. Another is a tribute to the revolution. At this station it is considered good luck to lay your hand on the statues as you walk by. In the metro, Russia’s past is still visible. Lights with the hammer and the sickle as well as murals still abound.

Today was a slower day because we got off to a late start. The other group’s power went out in their apartment, so they weren’t able to contact us as we planned. Because of this we waited for them until 3:30 p.m. before starting our day. We ended up meeting them at Subway (accepts Visa and has wifi) and eating some interesting sandwiches. The vegetable selection was way different than the states’. My lettuce was more like cabbage and well, you get the picture.  

Meg and Kyle befriended some Russian men while waiting for us. They talked for two hours through Google Translate. 

Meg and her friends.

Afterwards we went to the Red Square and took some night pictures because it is beautiful at night and the sun sets earlier here.We went to a nearby market and I bought some nesting dolls (matryoshka). I love them. I’ve always wanted some and they are so neat. 

Afterwards we came back home and settled in for the night. Julia leaves for a work trip tomorrow to Georgia to visit some cadets, so we said our goodbyes. She and Natasha will be in Sochi for the Olympics with the Salvation Army. We hope to connect again there. Tomorrow’s our last day in Moscow. Hope it’s a good one! 

Moscow: Day 1

Today was our first full day in Moscow. It also was the coldest day of the winter season in the city, coming in at -19 degrees Celsius. Naturally, we wanted to explore after getting our first full rest. We were ready to go, cold and all.

We have been staying with Captain Julia and her friend Natasha through the Salvation Army. She has been very hospitable to us, housing us for our stay here and providing meals for us. Tonight she made borsch, a Russian staple. After hearing people tell me all about it every time they hear I was going to Russia, I was surprised that I liked it. According to one of the other Salvation Army officers, Julia makes the best borsch.

Today Julia didn’t really have much to do at the District Headquarters, so she accompanied us to our visit to the Red Square. It was relieving to have a guide and to not have to navigate the busy metro with our suitcases. After standing outside in the freezing cold to snap pictures, we checked our bags (you have to) and visited Lenin’s tomb. It was a surprising experience because a.) I didn’t realize we were going there at the moment and b.) The tomb was eerie.

 After going through security checkpoints after checking our bags, we walked to the tomb. The tomb is guarded by military men who stand expressionless, but ready to react if you make the wrong move. Once you enter the tomb, you have to take off your hat and gloves. Photography or any kind of electronic device is not permitted inside the tomb, and must be checked with the bags. Once you descend the stairs to the room containing Lenin, you must not make any noise as you walk around the preserved corpse contained inside a glass box. I am assuming he has been cryogenically frozen. There is little lighting in the room with the corpse. The only lighting is shining on the corpse itself, and it is red tinted. Our visit was brief.

Once we got back outside, most of us went to a nearby upscale shopping mall that caters to tourists because we really had to use the bathroom while Morgan and Julia unchecked our bags. The mall was three stories and very beautiful architecturally. It was interesting to see some familiar stores juxtaposed against unfamiliar ones. While Russian winter wear is vastly different than the States’  (hello, PETA!), everyday wear is different but somewhat similar.

When we reunited with Julia and Morgan we went outside again into the cold and took pictures in front of the iconic buildings at the Red Square. It was surreal to stand in a place steeped in so much history that I wish I knew more about.

After our quick photo-taking spree, we walked to what is supposedly the largest McDonald’s in the world. Honestly, I am skeptical about the claim because Orlando claims to have the largest one and so did the 2012 London Games. Anyways, it was nice to get out of the cold, eat some familiar food (I wasn’t brave enough to try anything new with my dairy allergy) and access wifi. At the apartment we are staying at, there is none, so communication has been spotty.

After lunch, we hopped on the metro and went to the Salvation Army’s district offices where Captain Julia works as a teacher in their training school. We toured their facilities and got to spend time with the Officer there. He asked us questions about the states, and we had many questions for him as well. It was interesting to hear what he had to say when I asked him about the changes in Russia over the course of his lifetime. He said that with the end of the communist era, Russians lost one of their largest commonalities: each other. When everyone is under the same mindset, he said, the relationships among people are better. He added that with the change of the political climate, now that people fend for themselves, there is less concern for the greater good. He likes the freedom, however, because as he said, “Now we have Jesus.” While the church is regulated by the government (cannot have members until the age of 18, etc.), it is active in Russia. He said that his corp (church) fluctuates around 30-60 each Sunday and they also have daily homeless outreach.

Tonight at dinner in our apartment, we got to ask Julia more about her life. She is from Southern Russia closer to Sochi. She has only lived in Moscow for 5 years because of her appointment with the Salvation Army. She claims that her English is bad, but we’re impressed. Julia came to know the Lord after tagging along with her older sister to a Salvation Army church when she was 13. Since that time, she always knew she wanted to be a part of the church’s leadership. She went to university and training school simultaneously and also had her own corp. She was a busy lady!
The various corps in Moscow have had problems surviving, so they all have combined into the one we visited today.

Julia has told us that Russians really love tea, and I completely understand. It’s cold here. After our meal we had black tea and jam. This jam had soft walnuts in it that had been picked when they were green and combined with honey. It was surprisingly good and the nuts were surprisingly soft. The jam is not native to this area, it was a gift from one of her friends in Georgia. A few hours later she made us herbal tea with biscuits and honey. We are unexpectedly getting the royal treatment. It’s a blessing.

Arriving in Moscow

Today has been very full. We flew from Frankfurt to Moscow after a long flight to Frankfurt from Atlanta. These pictures are from when we were still fresh.

Shortly before we boarded in Frankfurt, Jessica realized she didn't have her passport anymore. We ended up having to leave her in Germany so she could visit the consulate there to receive an emergency passport. It isn't possible to enter Russia with only a photocopy of a passport. She should arrive in Sochi tomorrow.

Once we landed in Moscow, I was surprised how disorganized and relatively easy the process was to get through customs and to get our bags. We said goodbye to Chase and Phillip who flew directly to Sochi. We then spent a while walking back and forth in the airport, getting stared at while trying to exchange money, find an ATM and buy metro and aero express tickets.

The ride on the aero express was surprisingly beautiful. Like the true Asburians we are, we kept exclaiming "it looks like Narnia!" when we saw the perfectly snow-dusted pine trees.

The metro was very busy, and was very reminiscent of London, only with lots of black coats and fur. Pushing through the crowds with our suitcases was nerve-wracking, and we were worried with our lack of navigational skills. Suddenly, a young Russian woman came at the right time and she guided us through the Metro.

She said that she had a special place in her heart for Americans because she married a Texan. She helped all of us until part of our group had to stay in another part of town from the group I was in. My group went further to stay with Julia, a captain in the Salvation Army that lived at the end of the line. Once we got off the subway, it was very challenging to find her. We were running behind and did have a designated meeting place, but we couldn't find her there. When we walked out it was dark and cold (-15 degrees C) and we saw no one who appeared to be looking for us. We then happened upon a shopping mall called Metro Market. We walked back and forth from the metro to the mall, hoping to find our host. We couldn't find her.

At one point we saw one man push another, older man out of the metro station. It was shocking to see his white-haired head hit the frozen ground. After a while of no contact, with Captain Julia, Ben and Morgan decided to buy a SIM card for their phones. I waited for them with the bags outside the shop. Eventually, after many hassles, the SIM card worked and we were able to get through to her.

Julia's friend, Natasha, a petite Russian woman with dark hair found us at the phone store. We were so relieved to meet one of our hosts. Natasha walked us back to their apartment and we were pleasantly surprised by its comfy charm and Julia's warm hospitality. She made us dinner: beef, buttery noodles, cucumber and tomatoes. She then served us black tea saying, "Russians love tea." She also made crepes that we ate with strawberry jam.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Today's the day!

One of my favorite swim coaches used to proclaim "today's the day!" on the mornings of bigger swim meets. It's the only phrase that comes to mind as I look at all of our mostly-packed suitcases around the house. Today is the day. Today we will fly to Russia. Crazy.

We left school and drove to Atlanta (where Phillip's family lives) to fly out of the international airport. We had a caravan of sorts and it was a puzzle to fit everyone and our stuff in the tiny cars.

Because of our different start dates, we have been leaving in waves. On Saturday we explored Atlanta, eating at the Varsity, walking downtown, visiting Centennial Park (from the '96 games) and Little 5 Points. Most of our group hadn't explored the city, so it was exciting to watch them discover the same places have grown to love over the past few years.

But today we're leaving. We fly from Atlanta to Frankfurt to Moscow. Some fly straight to Sochi, others of us (like me) are spending a few days in Moscow to explore and see the sights.

Today's the day!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Preparing for Russian warmth?

Honestly it's embarrassing how infrequently I utilize my blog (sorry, Aunt Mary Ellen!). Since I last posted so much has changed in my life, and if you're in the Hillary-news loop, you probably know that I'm about to embark on another adventure: Russia!

When I first made my blog, I thought I'd be more dedicated. Instead, this has mainly turned into a way for me to process my days when I travel, and to keep my family and friends updated on my whereabouts. I hope you enjoy it!

When I tell people that I'm going to Russia, their first response is usually something along the lines of "You better be ready to bundle up." While my time in Moscow will be cold, my time in Sochi will not be that bad because of its location on the Black Sea.

To put it in perspective, here is a comparison of Wilmore, my little college town, and Sochi:

This morning it was -4 when I walked to class! I'm pretty sure it was the first time my Floridian body was subjected to the negatives. One of my friends pointed out C.S. Lewis' comparison of the cold to the devil. I think he was on to something. Even though I consolidate my trips around campus in this weather, and I like to say "say no to snow," I decided today was the day that I would play in it for the first time since being in college.

Phillip, my fiancé, and I sledded down the hills of our school's athletic building and I actually had fun and wasn't completely miserable. One of my roommates made soup for dinner and it definitely hit the spot!

Ironically, I'm actually hoping to avoid the winter when I'm in Russia. I will try to post as frequently as possible while overseas. I'm excited and nervous and appreciate your prayers.