Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Summer Number One

Lickety split: here I am again.

First Summer took place in St. Petersburg. A bizarre and disruptive paradox occurred, namely a heat wave that curdled every single person in the city, turning all of us into bleary, irritable dysfunctionates (which, yes, is not a word, but is most certainly a state of being). A strange phenomenon: that far north, the sun pretty much doesn't set for a month or so, which means that neither the earth nor the buildings have a chance to cool down after hours of unnaturally intense heat. An almost total lack of air-conditioned spaces aggravated the situation; my worry was mainly for the books in the libraries and the priceless works of art being exposed to a range of harmful elements. For instance:

Hermitage 3

On the banks of the Neva, windows wide open, wet sunlight everywhere; trauma for woodwork.

The improbable weather was inescapable and pervasive; to be honest, it coated everything I did during my time at GMT+3. I'll not mention it anymore, so just remember - it was there.

St. Petersburg is not much at all like Moscow. I spent a quick couple of nights in Petersburg in 2006, but this is the first time that I was actually able to get to know the city a little. I won't toss about the debits and credits of coolness in one city or another; they're just different. People have a tendency to take sides on the issue, and when it comes down to it, I don't feel qualified to judge. I have no empirical evidence that one is better and another worse, and my opinion is neither based on scientific method nor relevant. It's like comparing New York City to Portland; they're entirely different animals, philosophically and aesthetically.


Chesme Church

OK, this type of crazy one-off design is common to both cities. Petersburg seemed to have an unusually high ratio of them, however; it began to get a little exhausting after a while, as if I simply couldn't take any more luxurious facades or opulent interiors. In fact, I originally thought that I would visit the Hermitage twice, maybe three times during my two months there, and I suffered from museum burnout and only ended up going once. I don't regret it; the crowds and the direct sunlight on, say, Caravaggio made it somewhat less savory than I'd hoped. A relief from that brand of amazing:

P10 2

Pushkinskaya 10 is an art collective that occupies several flights of a staircase and a small number of flats; they seem to like the Beatles and they put on an incredible exhibition. Petersburg, in general, has a very laid-back type vibe, dismissively friendly and busy without being in an irritable hurry. I imagine my impression would have been very different had I been there in winter; maybe someday.

I was only there for two months, so with both temporal and financial restraints, I remained in the city pretty much the whole time. I took a couple excursions, sure, but nothing too monumental; I opted not, for instance, to take the overnight train to Moscow for the weekend, which, yes, I would have thoroughly enjoyed, but which did not and does not seem entirely necessarily. I did, however, go to Repino, to the homestead called Penaty, which belonged to the artist Ilya Repin. After the heat and grime of a canal-bound city, the proverbial fresh country air was unbelievable, as was Repin's house (which is not totally apparent in the picture; use your most fantastic imagination).

Repino 7

I went, also, to Pushkin, or Tsarskoe Selo, depending on who you ask. It was rather strange, actually. Catherine had a palace there, now aptly named the Catherine Palace, and Nicholas II had a palace there, called, of course, the Aleksandr Palace. The Palaces' interiors I skipped - I couldn't help it - but the Gardens were lovely. A question, though:

TS 5

What's up with that? There was a distinctly faux-Asian motif going on in the Aleksandr Gardens, complete with some porcelain figures at the gate that are doomed to have tourists stand next to or below them, doing lighthearted yet racially suspicious gestures, throughout the foreseeable future.

I have to say: it seems like all of this is a world away, like I am only just skimming the surface. The experience of getting on a plane, crossing many time zones, and ending up somewhere that in all other cases is absolutely inaccessible, often seems to take on a dreamlike quality after any length of time has passed, like a figment of the imagination, a memory possibly completely made up. The combination of that with the fact that I have been up to the neck of a much taller person in work means that I have a disconnect with Summer Number One, which hopefully will pass as my brain processes the backlog of information and can simply relax again. I relish the expectation of that hypothetical day. And when it gets here, I'll let you know.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Working Backwards

From now until before:

The semester has begun; stress abounds. Let's begin on a more positive note, though, shall we?

The past month has been extremely productive; also: overwhelming, exhausting, trial by fire. I am, as they say, holding up. I am careful to focus on the big picture; if I don't, I will surely become confused by the unfinished projects floating in the foreground. Sorry; that was only slightly more positive.

With an almost total lack of free time, I decided to go camping in New Hampshire. The White Mountain National Forest, to be exact. On Russell Pond:

Russell Pond

And then later:

Russell Pond

I wanted a night away from asphalt and light pollution, and the White Mountains did not let me down. Superhot campfire whose scent caught a ride from me for several days; brave little chipmunks; a hike that took me by surprise and that I would love to repeat with more accurate expectations: overall, great success.

Just before the weekend in New Hampshire, I spent ten or so days in Washington: State, not District. It was a surprise trip. Not a "surprise!" trip, but a trip that I had hoped would not be necessary for quite some time. Suffice it to say, I'll not go into it. I will say that it redefined for me the hardest work that we as humans have to do. There was, however, this:

Sunflower 98531

That sunflower (and several other things, such as kale, peppers, carrots) will be let to run wild.

Prior to the trip back west, a month passed in which I got to visit me at 29, at 27, at 22; friends came a-callin', and it was awesome. Sure, it was bookended by a little nervous exhaustion and a telephone call like a punch in the face, but otherwise it was splendid. Folks from all over darkened my doorway; maybe you'll be next.

It was a whole summer packed into a month and a half, and it followed another summer, somewhere else. The first summer I'll describe at another time; it deserves its own narrative. The second can be described like so:

Purgatory Chasm

Don't be fooled: I don't mean that Second Summer was the limbo stage before reaching our ultimate destination (though who are we kidding, really?), I only mean to show that I trolled up and down Rhode Island with visitors, seeing some things that I hadn't seen yet and finally feeling marginally at home at this coordinate. First Summer precluded any deeper exploration of my current environs, since it occurred approximately 4500 miles away. That's for next time, but here's a hint:

Everything you know is a lie
("Everything you know is a lie")

Done for now, but soon will continue. This is not the end of history.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What a Summer

There are many things that I've meant to write about over the last few months, such as finishing the first year of my PhD program, spending two months in St. Petersburg during the worst heat wave they've experienced in perhaps a thousand years, and the landscape of New England, with which I'm becoming a bit more familiar.


The last couple months have been Real Life. That means that I've experienced the worst grief that I've ever had to come up against, thought as a result of that grief about my beliefs on human and earthly experience, and become completely backlogged with deadlines and duties, and my time has been used for everything but writing on this here blog. And so, my dear handful of readers, I'll have to just promise to return when I have the time, which I'm hoping will be sooner than later. I do indeed have much to share, so my stories will be worth the wait. Rest assured.

A few quick notes, however:
1) I have successfully kicked my internet addiction. I realize that by calling it an "addiction," I am blowing it out of proportion; many people spend their whole day on the interweb, and I am not that type, but my fascination with gossip/fashion/news blogs has been happily curbed, and I am much better for it. Spending the summer abroad and then being confronted with What's Really Important takes the credit for my new, improved, minimal-internet-use existence. (And yes, I realize that declaring that particular thing on a blog is somewhat ironic. It's unavoidable).
2) My love for the Pacific Northwest has been renewed with a vengeance. More on that later.
3) I have found my dissertation topic! Joy! Drinks on me! (I'll have seltzer water with lemon, please).
4) The White Mountain National Forest is beautiful. Good camping, good hiking; I plan on many future trips to New Hampshire to visit the forest and the variety of other state and regional parks up there. I will definitely take my camera along. And finally,
5) Boy, I have lots and lots of pictures to share with you. Mostly Russia, with a smattering of other things.

That's all for now. I plan on forcing myself to relax this weekend, so maybe I'll relax by whipping up a post or two. In the meantime, easy does it...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Summer/Heat/Rain/Time Off

Yes, technically it's still spring.

Nevermind that.

I am officially experiencing a summer break. It's pretty wonderful, I have to say. I have finished what needed finished, and now I am left with...


That's a problem. I am not good at free time. I used to be fantastic with free time, sometimes wrangling it and sometimes letting it float by unnoticed, and now I am so conscious of my excess of free time that I am almost unable to relax. I cannot do 'nothing'. It's a strange affliction. Here is how I treat it:

RISD art nouveau
1. Spend time with friends who visit from out of town. Go to a museum that I have been meaning to visit for several months now; this is a good way to do 'nothing' while still doing 'something'.

Sam Adams and friend
2. Take said friends on a day trip. Show them historically significant monuments. This is not exactly 'nothing'. Well, it is neither passive nor idle, but it is not 'productive', and productivity is what I'm trying to shake (for a few days at least), so this is a good balance.

Restaurant supply
3. Take pictures of places I simply happen to be. This is a low-impact remedy.

Swan Point Cemetery
4. Go places specifically to take pictures of things like birds, which I would not otherwise think to photograph. This is quite enjoyable and has the added benefit of sneakily feeling productive.

5. Listen to music. Music really gets shortchanged when I'm in the thick of it. A few minutes here and there, on the bus, walking, but no real quality time. There are a couple of things that I have been listening to frequently. One is a relatively new discovery, the other a re-energized familiar.

6. Write. I'm sorry; I have no proof so far. Unless you count this. Any good ideas for fun writing exercises to start this cold engine gladly accepted.

7. Read. The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi, translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck. It is: quiet; Albanian; delicate. Communities of Dissent, by Stephen J. Stein. Turns out Roger Williams was a pretty awesome guy.

8. Walk in the heat; walk in the rain. Appreciate the chance to set aside the laptop-tether.
8a. Wonder idly if we as a nation/species are being improved or eroded by excessive computer use.

9. Plan to revisit my blog more often. This is a directive for both me (me) and you (my reader); there will be more action here. I give you my word(s).

Now, back to 'nothing', which is full of possibility.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Modern Perceptions

I put this question to a bunch of people:

What do you think of when you think of Russia?

These are some of the answers I got, in no particular order:

Dostoevsky's jail cell, Nabokov's butterflies, the Bol'shoi Ballet, Peter and the Wolf, vodka, James Bond villains, hell, children's picture books and fairy tales, family, nuclear fear in the 80s, "tear down this wall", vodka, borsch, Tolstoy, xenophobia, skinheads, fur hats, confusing house music, Pushkin, the Disney movie Anastasia, cabbage, hard work, expressionless military men, beautiful women, vodka, the Beatles' "Back in the USSR", secrets, space exploration, Gogol, distance, the Metro, provincialism, Soviet war pins, gymnasts, angular architecture, 10 time zones*, Gorbachev and his birthmark, The Master and Margarita, sour cream, the death of reason, Solzhenitsyn, bent old women working fields of wheat, bad teeth, vodka, the Gulag, onion domes, matryoshka dolls, potatoes, tsars, propaganda posters, danger and drunkenness, Red Square, revolution after revolution...

It's a fuzzy picture: still bearing marks of the Soviet age, relying heavily on food and literature. Though neither overwhelmingly negative nor positive, the overall tone is closer to dark than light. Soon I'll pose the question about a different country and see what returns, to offer a point of comparison. I want to know about our current view of Russia, if it's been updated much since 1991 or the Putin presidency, but in order to come to any conclusion about that, I need to know if our perceptions of, say, France or Egypt or China or Cuba are based on today, ten years ago, WWII or the Bay of Pigs, Hollywood movies or commerce. Even then, I won't have any conclusions, per se; I'll only have a better grasp of how and how quickly our perceptions shift.

Better get back to work...

*As of March, 2010, there are officially nine time zones in Russia: eight contiguous, plus Kaliningrad.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Whoa, It's Been a Long Time

Three months since I've posted! Unbelievable. What have I been doing all this time? Oh, right...

Stressing out.

Academically, 2010 has been fairly brutal. I won't go into the gritty details, but I will say that up until now, I have not understood fully the hellish graduate school experience of myth. I can say with certainty that I now understand it. I could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and still have unfinished business. Part of the crunch was due to the fact that I presented a paper at a conference for the very first time - it was a paper titled "Enlisting the Memory of Memory: Anna Akhmatova's Requiem," at the Mid-Atlantic Slavic Conference, and it went fine (despite the horrible worst-case scenarios that were rolling around in my head beforehand). On top of that, I have been busily getting summer plans in order, saying goodbye to my expired (*sniffle*) California Driver's License, exchanging it for a (*gulp*) Rhode Island one, and also, finally, managing to find some time to relax (to the best of my abilities, that is). Resultingly, the last few months have been a revolving blur of deadlines and deep breaths.

My studies in a nutshell: Symbolism, negative aesthetics and the location of music, early 20th century Russian woodworking and the folk art revival, čeština, русский язык, creating communicative language tasks, etc. That is, of course, just a sampling. And thankfully, I'm generally enjoying it all*.

My time off has been gratifying as well. See?

The Cape


East Sandwich Under Water

(And thanks to Ken, for taking that lovely first picture up there).

Those photos came from a trip along Cape Cod; it was off-season, so we were practically the only people wandering around out there. The rain and wind actually suited the Cape, but it didn't treat Rhode Island very well - as you may have read, we had some pretty intense flooding around here, but our neighborhood went fairly unscathed; some soggy basements here and there, but that was about all.

The rest of the semester will be busy busy busy, so I can't promise that I'll write much in the next month, but my blog will be rolling again soon. In the meantime, keep yourself busy over here. 'Night, all.

*A sort of cross-section of things that I've enjoyed that I can share: Stilyagi, a Russian musical which may not be subtitled in English yet but is fairly fantastic, so keep an eye out; Degeneration, a hysterical but entertaining reaction to Decadence during the fin de siecle, by Max Nordau; Jan Svankmajer's Sílení (but beware! That one's a bit perverse); Vrubel'.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, 2010

Well, here we are. Two thousand ten. Twenty ten? How to say it? And how to refer to the preceding years? The aughts? Is that too early-twentieth-century for the kids nowadays? I guess it remains to be seen.

We started the year off in Washington D.C., visiting friends and generally seeing our nation's capital. Despite the months that I spent driving around the United States when I was 19 (which now seems quite a long time ago because, ahem, it was), I have never been to D.C., which I attribute to a normal teenage rejection of patriotism and what not. As I recall, during that trip in 1998, we went from Baltimore, which is a mere hour or so north of the capital, straight west into West Virginia. It all works out in the end, though - visiting the actual Capitol building on the days surrounding New Year is ideal. Smaller crowds, less traffic, and generally less mayhem. At points, it felt that we were the only ones wandering through the cold to see the sights. A case in point: the Vietnam War Memorial.

Vietnam Memorial

I suspect that, had we visited in, say, July, there would have been throngs of people, and a picture as gray and serene as that would not have been possible. Likewise the Korean War Memorial:

Korean War Memorial

This one, unlike the Vietnam Memorial, had etchings of soldiers on it, rather than names, and the shadowy figures seen in the background are reflections of a smattering of soldier's statues. It's quite lovely, actually.

White House

We did basically all the proper tourist things to do - the White House, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Library of Congress, Georgetown - but we missed the museums. We can visit them next time, I guess, because though the drive from here to D.C. is quite irritating, it's not incredibly far. The interstate system around here is bizarre - so many turnpikes and parkways with their variously regulated toll systems that seem designed to frustrate both locals and out-of-towners alike.

And now - 2010. Any fantastic New Year's resolutions? I know, usually resolutions fall by the wayside in the first months of the year, but I'm resolving to get my life cleaned up; rid my cupboards and my diet of curious chemicals, etc. It'll take a little research, and a bit of adjustment to my routine, but I'm willing to take it on as a project, because it's the type of project that I can handle while in the grip of grad school. My general goal, I guess, is to make my life more *gulp* sustainable. My years in the Bay Area have made me leery of fuzzy hippie terminology, so I guess part of the goal is also to loosen up and embrace the concept, while not necessarily embracing the flakiness that I tend to associate with it. Wish me luck on that front - it might be the hardest part.

So, onward and upward. Happy New Year, folks. Make the most of it.