Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Institute of Theology and Christian Ministry

Ken’s students at the Institute of Theology and Christian Ministry were really stellar. They studied hard (Ken joked that the only language they had in common was Biblical Greek!), and they have such good, encouraging hearts. It’s uplifting to see (mostly) first-generation Christians, people who have chosen to study more, often against the understanding and wishes of their families and people around them. They love being together, which is a good thing, because their dorm situation here at the University of St. Petersburg is that they have a floor of a large dormitory designated for the Institute students, so they can’t really get away from each other. As the Dean of Students put it, it’s a real “laboratory of love.”

They love Ken, and Ken loves them. He plans to return as often as can be arranged to teach another course or two (this year he taught Mark, Greek, and the Thessalonian letters; last year was Greco-Roman Backgrounds, his specialty). They gave us some lovely parting gifts at a little party on the last day, including our favorites, which were T-shirts with pics of them together with Ken on them and singing us some songs in Russian. 'Til we meet again, St. Petersburg! We’ve had a lovely trip. SpaSEE-buh!
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Friday, May 26, 2006


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I have seen zero grossly obese people in Russia.
Not one.
Not any of the people who were shuffling around like penguins in the Metro in Moscow, and that’s in a city of 10 million (and Ken and I feel like we saw a million of them in one day!). I saw a few, but only a few, people who could stand to lose a few pounds. I saw quite a few more people who could definitely stand to gain a few pounds. And I’ve seen a JILLION people who are just right.

Why do they look so good, and we Americans don’t? They walk a lot. Our Metro station is a brisk 10-minute walk from here, a leisurely 15-minute one. In the States, my car is conveniently located in my garage approximately 10 feet from my fridge, oh, I mean, my back door.
I’m also pretty sure they don’t watch hours and hours of TV, munching on Cheetos and slugging down sugary sodas all the while.

I suppose people exercise, but I’ve seen nobody jogging specifically for exercise or anything like that. Of course, there are gyms, and people play basketball and other sports. I know they drink a LOT more vodka, but I hardly think that’s the key to looking great! I think the answer lies mostly in their food, and what follows are my comments on Russian cuisine. They eat more fresh foods and darker breads. We’ve had a number of excellent salads that have fresh onions and tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers (not so much lettuce, and definitely not the nutritionless iceberg). Russian black bread is great; the other breads we’ve had are average at best, in my opinion. (France and Italy would beat the pants off both Russia and the States in a bread war.) But I’ve had nothing resembling what Krista disdainfully refers to as “Fat-free Wonder Crustless White Bread.”

They have stuff that can get a person fat, certainly. They simply eat more moderate amounts of it. There’s a lot of different kinds of pasta; for example, we’ve had Pell-MEENY, which resembles ravioli, stuffed with meat, or potatoes and mushrooms (Ken’s and my favorite), or cottage cheese (also great, but less common). They serve it with a better-than-ours- but-it’s-the -closest-comparison sour cream, or (disgusting!) plain ketchup or mayonnaise.

They have these awesome little ice cream-ish things (but they won’t sound awesome in my description) that are actually a fine sort of cottage cheese coated in chocolate that you eat like an ice cream bar. By the way, their cottage cheese is more like a combination of ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, and maybe even cream cheese -- and it’s delicious! It’s in a lot of dishes, surprising ones even, and I love it.

There are a couple of outstanding Russian chocolate makers, and Ken has been sacrificing his body to research the best dark chocolate bars to take back to the States as gifts; he is close to making a decision, but perhaps a few more samples would be in order before he nails his choice down to THE one.

And then there’s my favorite, something I’ve referred to in a previous blog: blih-KNEE. Think crepes in France and you’ll come close. These ultra-thin pancakes are filled with everything from meat and mashed potatoes to caviar to sweetened condensed milk and cottage cheese. My favorite, just as it was in France, is the banana and chocolate (not a traditional favorite, but still available at most of the places that serve these pancakes), but I like it much better here, because I like “real” chocolate more than I like Nutella, which is hazelnut. We’ll attempt to make this back in Abilene, so if you’d like to try it, let us know and we’ll serve one up!

And the soups we’ve had so far have been great. I understand that often soup is served cold here, and I admit that that sounds less appealing; however, we’ve had maybe four different soups, and they’ve all been served hot. All were good, with lots of fresh vegetables in them, in larger pieces than Campbell’s usually provides! I’ve also loved a risotto, rice dish, that we had that is a kind of rice pilaf; the cook gave me some of the spices that she used, so I’ll try this recipe back home, too.

Ken and the students break for tea daily here (around 11:00 A.M., and then they eat lunch together at 2 P.M.), and I’ve grown fond of the tradition. Ken has always drunk hot tea with honey in the mornings, but I usually have my Diet Coke for my early dose of caffeine. But here they use these quick-heat water heater pitchers, so making tea is a fast, delicious, and companionable experience. I plan to retain hot tea drinking in the States.

There have been a few yucky things, too, of course. They’ve served some thin-sliced undercooked meat of some sort that was popular with the students; there are lots of different-yet-all-the-same cakes with jam inside them that are kind of dry; there are some salted fish that look at you as you are about to eat them, a not-so-appealing experience. Well, this will provide you a taste (ha,ha!) of what we’re eating while we’re here.
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Getting a Job in Russia

The official unemployment figure for the U.S. right now, as I understand it, is 5.1%.The official unemployment figure for Russia right now, is 8-ish%, more in St. Petersburg and other places, and lower in Moscow.

But I don’t see what’s so difficult about getting a job in Russia; after all, I was here less than a week, and I got one!

OK, here’s the real scoop: On Thursday, when we were here in Russia, I heard from the elders and preacher at our church, Minter Lane Church of Christ, that they would like to employ me as the Minter secretary (yes, back in the States. Gotcha!). And I wrote them back and said yes. So, I have a job when I return to Abilene for 30 hours a week. The biggest downside, of course, is that it begins in the summer.

My duties will be to put out the bulletin, do the office-y things that need doing, visit with people, and coordinate communication between and among people and groups. (As Ken put it, at my last job at the Press, I was “paid to criticize people,” and now, I’ll be paid to be a “know-it-all.”) Now, being a know-it-all will be a stretch for me, but I’m up for the challenge!

Actually, I will need to learn a lot, because (and I can hear Thom laughing all the way from the U.S.), I also have to write the checks and “do the money stuff.” I was very forthright with Danny and told him that I don’t know anything about that and that I hate it, but he assures me that there’s a program that Karen (the previous
secretary was also named Karen, so that should make it easy for people calling the church!) and Bobbie can and will teach me that does most of it for you. Karen, in case you’re wondering, was wonderful to do the secretary thing for as long as she did, because she’s a surgical assistant by trade and can make better money there and further her career as well. And she’s a great lady! So, there’s my news. Stay tuned…

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

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The Fountains of Peterhof

Peter the Great was actually great in many ways. First, he was a HUGE man, close to seven feet tall; but, of course, more than his physical stature, he accomplished many amazing things. One of them is the magnificent palace complex he built a few miles outside of St. Petersburg called Peterhof. He had visited France and was duly impressed with Versailles; Peterhof was created to SURPASS the wonders that the “let them eat cake” Marie Antoinette had established there, if you can imagine.

When guidebooks say “King So-and-so built such-and-such,” they of course mean that the king had a place built, but there were architects and scores of builders, etc. who actually constructed the place. When someone says Peter the Great built something, however, you can bet that he was actually involved in its construction (although there were of course thousands of other people involved, too). For example, Peter was responsible for the establishment and construction of the Russian Navy; he spent hundreds and hundreds of hours actually building boats alongside the other builders. But he was interested in boats and water, so he did it. He wasn’t all that interested in palaces, choosing to live most of the time in a wooden house with ceilings too short for him. But the chance to build a palace (actually a lot of buildings are there) with working fountains that led to his beloved Gulf of Finland—now that was something he could get into.

There are over 150 working fountains at Peterhof, and they run today the same way they did when he and a master water architect designed and built them in 1721, using a gravity system that enables all the fountains to erupt, the tallest of which spouts over 63 feet high. Somehow (and this is all I know) a pulley system carries the water up to the top, gravity makes the water rush down, enough to gush in the fountains and then rush down to the bottom to turn the pulley things, which causes the buckets of water to go back up again. Amazing, eh? A system powered entirely for itself and of itself.

Oh, and here’s a fun thing: there are quite a few “trick fountains” as well. Passersby can get a random drenching from these fountains that come on whenever a person comes too close, or when a lever is pushed, or just whenever. Apparently, Peter in particular enjoyed dousing some of the more fussy court women who visited his palace!I went to Peterhof on Tuesday, and I thought the gardens were spectacular; I took over 150 pictures there alone. I’ve reduced that number to only a few for the blog, but enjoy the ones you do see!
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This is for Krista

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Birth of a Nation

In 1991, Ken’s and my world was rocked because we became parents. We felt depths of emotion that we never knew we had; we became broker and richer than we ever had been; we even found out about a world of products that we never even knew existed; but our lives became fuller by far for the event.
In 1991, the Soviet Union fell. The Russian world was rocked; the people felt deep emotions they never even knew they had regarding their old condition and the new; they became poorer (85%) and richer (15%) than they had ever been; they found out about a world of products that they had never even known existed; their lives are richer by far for the event.

I realize the analogy is far from perfect, but there are some points of comparison to childbirth and the new Russia that I’d like to explore.

The changeover in 1991, like a gestating baby, was a long time in the making, and yet it was all at once. The process has certainly not been without birth pains; we have been told by several people that corruption within the governmental system is so rampant it’s a given that many officials, small and large, are “on the take.”

And the results are mixed. With any newborn, you really don’t know what you’re getting. A blessing, yes of course, but what will this new creature look like? How will she function? What will she be like?

She retains some of the characteristics of the old ways. Russia still has a flavor that is uniquely Russian. People may talk about 1991 and its events and the new government, but Ken and I were in the Kremlin (can you believe it?) and we looked at some of the tombs of the tsars dating back to way before Columbus discovered America. This kind of rich history impacts a place, so that people have a sense of where they’ve come from. The earliest mention of Russia, after all, is in 1147. Old. Very old.

I’ll give you an example that happened to Ken last year when he first visited here. The newspaper conducted a poll to ask St. Petersburgers to list their top fears. Now, you who are reading this blog, please stop for a moment and think, “What would I say are my top fears?” Perhaps death, spiders, ill health, money problems, the death of your spouse or child?

The number one answer from the people, a smattering of people all ages, was famine. Famine? I’m fairly sure famine wouldn’t make my top 100. Not my top ONE HUNDRED. But they—or at least their parents and their grandparents tell them, remind them, imprint on them— remember the shortages, the problems, the hundreds and thousands and yes, millions of deaths that happened during the 900-day siege and the crop failures and the bread lines and…
and… and…

This old yet baby country has characteristics of the new being she is becoming as well: for one thing, products previously unattainable are available now; one of them is yogurt, of all things. Of course, everyone is
delighted that such things are available in every grocery store, small or large, now. The woman we went around with in Moscow, Valeria, remembers when one of her classmates missed, not one, but two days of school in order to buy new shoes with her mother at the state-authorized market.

But there are less pleasant things too that come with the new freedoms: cell phone rudeness, overfondness of western phenomena like McDonalds, young people decorating their faces with studs the way the tsars studded their living quarters with precious metals, AIDS. The dilemma is poignant: how can one make people choose wisely? Free will is a double-edged sword indeed.

The story doesn’t stop, of course, with the birth of a new baby or a new nation. In our case, we changed and shaped Katie—and Katie changed and shaped us in ways unthinkable to the childless us. And then, shortly thereafter, another birth occurred in our household, and this one continued the process even more, because there were now interactions between the new beings, and things were happening, happening, happening, everything changing, growing, altering exponentially.

And our new baby, Krista, has blue eyes, just like her mother and her mother’s mother; and yet, she has this
one small spot in one of her eyes that is hazel, exactly the color of her daddy’s and sister’s eyes, a complex, fascinating combination of all the flavors and genes and experiences that went into her conception and birth, and this new being, like the “new Russia,” will become—her own self.

Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate!

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Russian Flowers

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

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Is this Jasmine's Palace?

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Ugly Americans

No, I’m not talking about physical beauty, because as we all know, Americans are the most gorgeous people on the planet – Not! I’m talking about how much I dislike Americans who go someplace and expect—and want—it to be just like the place they just left. OK, I dislike that—until I realize that there are many ways in which I too am an ugly American.

I can’t tell you how excited I am that, as I type this blog entry, I am sipping away at my Diet Coke (Coca-Cola Light), which didn’t cost me any more than it costs in the States.

I like that I am in fact typing on my personal laptop just like I do at home and will utilize the internet to send my blog entries to my friends.

I like that I don’t have to know Russian in order to function here, because I’ve met a wonderful woman named Lina, who is functioning as my guide and who speaks beautiful English.

And don’t even get me started on how overweight Americans are compared to the rest of the world—oh yes, I’m overweight too, aren’t I? Hmmm….

All this self-reflection is a bit depressing, so I think I’ll just continue to sip on this Diet Coke and type another blog entry about this strange and wonderful place called Russia.

Monday, May 22, 2006