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Russia Breaks My Brain
I don't understand this place, I just live here.
#11: January: Packed with holidays and fortified with snow.
Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Hi folks, and welcome back to the wonderful world of St. Petersburg. When we last left off, it was still 2003, and I'd just arrived back in town after a brief stint back home. But I had to be here for New Year's Eve, as it was supposed to be a big deal. Even bigger than the 2nd New Year's Eve a couple of weeks later. And definitely bigger than the third one at the end of the month.

New Year's is the BIG holiday of the season. Christmas comes later in January, and isn't really all that fun, as I'll explain later. So December 31 in Russia takes all the fun parts of our Christmas, adds it to most of our New Years, then sprinkles on some Independence day for good measure. This means you have a very Christmassy-looking tree in your house for New Years, exchange presents, get together with the family, have people in Santa (Grandfather Frost) costumes, etc. But you also drink a bunch, have parties, stay up all night, go out in the streets,shoot off fireworks, and see public concerts in sub-zero weather at 3 am. It's a busy night.

We celebrated by hosting a party at Kristin's apartment and inviting a few folks, some of which also invited a few folks as a um...surprise. There was lots of food (various salads, fruit, more salads) (oh, but salads here usually resemble potato salad, so this wasn't necessarily a healthy event) and some beer, wine, and champagne. The TV also played a role in the evening, as there were variety programs on all night which seemed to hold a lot the Russians' attention, regardless of what else was happening in the room at the moment. I think it was about the build-up to midnight though, when President Putin came on and made a brief statement about how cool Russia was and they rang a bell. Part of the interest in this broadcast was because it rang in the New Year, and part of it was that there was a history of important things being announced at this time, i.e., Boris Yeltsin's resignation. This year it was just about the beginning of 2004 though. Everyone was excited, and naturally started lighting sparklers in the living room.

The sparklers were just the appetizer for the bottle rockets though. After midnight, Kristin, her friend Natasha and Natasha's boyfriend Dima and I went out in the streets to blow stuff up- er, light a few fireworks in a safe and festive manner. We walked towards the center of town, and stopped at a park near the University where they had a big stage set up (complete with giant Christmas-like Trees, laser lights and Jumbotron TVs). Various pop groups were taking turns on stage, sometimes singing New Years Songs (one about the non-christmas trees starts out sounding suspiciously like the tune to "Jingle Bells"). We stayed there and danced as much as we could in the 10 degree weather, and eventually found Dima's friend Maxim in the crowd.

Maxim was happy to meet us. He immediately pulled a jar out of his pocket and offered it to us, as it turned out to be full of cheap Cognac. Then he started practicing his English with me ("Hello, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Maxim," was the extent of the english conversation.) We went back to the apartment again, Maxim in tow, and things continued on until the Cognac was gone and the last uninvited guest had left- at about 9:00 am. Not too shabby, yet quite different from the second New Year's, which I mostly celebrated in my classes.

The second New Year's is now called Old New Year. It's from an older Russian calendar, and people don't seem to get as excited about it anymore, but they're still sort of excited about it. In class they gathered all the foreign students together for a party (cookies + tea) and some people explained some of the history of the holiday, and then sang a lot of songs. The best part was that they had some guy dress up as Grandfather Frost (but there was real fur on this outfit, unlike your Santas at the mall. This poor guy kept mentioning how hot he was, and that he needed to sit down every few minutes.) He was accompanied by a girl dressed as Sneggorichka (Little Snow Girl?), who I think is supposed to be his niece. She's generally portrayed as youngish and cute, and was a popular character in advertisements, TV dance numbers and even in strip clubs (but more on how I found that out in another email.) (No, I wasn't there personally, Mom and Dad. Don't worry.)

Finally, the last New Year's event was the quietest- Chinese New Year. While there weren't any city-wide celebrations, it's influence was evident in a number of places. Aside from the number of Chinese students absent from class then, you see merchandise related to Chinese astrology quite often here. So while last year was all goats and sheep, this year has brought tons of Monkey-themed items, which is pretty fun.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Orthodox Christmas happened. We definitely didn't celebrate this one, as basically what you're supposed to do is go to church and stand and pray all night long. And I mean that literally. You could tune in on TV to watch the live ceremonies at various churches in Russia, and everyone there was standing for well over 6 hours, with no eggnog in sight. No Sneggorichka costumes either.

Another recent holiday was Tatiyana Day. (I think they pile them on in January as a way to keep people from getting too depressed about the crappy weather.) Tatiyana Day is also known as Students Day, and is when the university students have finished their finals and go home for a few weeks on break. But rather than any wild parties (as I'd been told to be ready for) most of the Russian students in my dorm quietly left, leaving the place pretty quiet.

Finally, there was the 60th anniversary of the end of the Blockade of Leningrad. This was pretty big- it included both standing for a while and fireworks, although it lacked the mayonnaise-based salads. But all over the city memorials were revisited, there was another laser-light show (which I missed!!) and lots of discussion about WWII. I'm going to skip the history lesson right now, but the Nazi blockade of the city was really terrible, and there was much talk about how much people should honor and respect what some of the older generation went through. (This rule seems to no longer apply to them if they're crossing a busy street though- I've seen some old babushka's have to run/waddle as fast as they could to avoid traffic a number of times. They're surprisingly fast when motivated.). Anyway, this event ended with a professional firework display out in the snow again. While not the most spectacular to watch, these fireworks were incredibly loud for some reason. The shockwave made me think they were trying to do some sort of reenactment of the war, and nearly scared me as much as all the screaming toddlers who started crying the fireworks started.

But now I think there's a lull in the holiday schedule. Valentine's day is pretty low key apparently, and the next real holiday (aka "day off") isn't until March. Thankfully, things have been getting a little strange with my classes, and by strange I mean the new guy from St. Petersburg, Florida who just showed up. Some of the other students have had some adventures as well (some involving 2x4's), which have more than made up for any lack of festivities. But since this email's already huge, they'll just have to be in the next email.

- Angry Giant