Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Peredelkino Writers' Colony

Take Kutuzovsky Prospect - a ten-lane, traffic-choked boulevard - about 10 miles out of Moscow, hang a left, and you'll find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle of a forest, surrounded by dachas (Russian summer cottages).

You're in the Peredelkino writers' colony.

I'm not sure how many writers actually live and work there these days, but back in the last century it was home to several famous writers, and that's why we made the short trek out there last weekend.

Our first stop was the Pasternak dacha, home to Boris Pasternak (known to most Americans as the writer of Doctor Zhivago). If you're a fan of Russian literature, you absolutely must make a stop here.


It was a neat little house. Pasternak lived there in the 1950s -  he died there in 1960 and was buried in a cemetery just down the road. The house was left pretty much just as it looked when he died, right down to the ancient (still working) refrigerator and an old Soviet tube television set. 

He has kind of a sad little history.  He was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 - there is a photograph in the dining room showing him as he received the news and was giving a toast - but he was forced by the Soviet government to turn down the prize. He fell in love and began a relationship with Olga Ivinskaya while he was married to Zinaida Pasternak (his second wife).  The guide talked of their great love for one another but that, quite frankly, depressed me a little bit.  I mean, nobody mentioned the wife, who was stuck with him until he died even though he was in love with somebody else.  His lover spent quite a few years in a prison camp because of her relationship with him - the government saw her as a way to get to him.

All quite depressing really.

But the house was beautiful.  Quiet, simple, unadorned.  When we visit the house-museums of Russian writers, I always like to see the desks where the writers worked, just to get a sense of their personalities.  His office was austere, but I liked it.

The view of the dacha from the main road.

... and up close.

The office where Pasternak worked.

Soviet tube television.  Our guide said she'd had one of these as a girl.  Apparently you fill up the glass front with water to make the image on the screen appear bigger.

Pasternak's death mask.

Smiling.  They survived the tour, with all of the talk of Soviet repression, and prison camps, and awards turned down, and cancer, and death.

Next stop:  the dacha of children's writer Kornei Chukovsky, just down the road. Now this place was seriously cool.


All Russians know Kornei Chukovsky from childhood.  I guess he's sort of their version of Dr. Seuss.  There were bunches of kids at his dacha, taking tours and running around on the grounds.  The vibe was totally different from Pasternak's place.  It wasn't pristine and quiet.  It was a bit chaotic, eclectic, books everywhere, children's toys, fun decorations. 

That's the shoe tree behind the kids, in front of the dacha. The idea of the shoe tree comes from one of Chukovsky's famous stories. As I recall, it's a tree upon which grow shoes, not fruit.

Shoe tree up close.

Running in the yard behind the house.

A lamp in his office, painted with images from his stories.

Chukovsky's work space.

"What's that?" A wanted to know.  "A telephone? But? How does it work?"

From there we went to the nearby church complex housing the Patriarch's dacha for some tea and a quick look around.






And finally, we stopped at the cemetery next to the church, where both Pasternak and Chukovsky are buried. It was quiet - we were the only visitors, perhaps because everyone else knew the paths were covered in slick sheets of ice. Really treacherous in places.

Pasternak's simple tombstone, which is said to change in appearance as the light changes during the day.  His wife is buried to the right. No idea where his mistress ended up.
...up close.

Tombstones for Chukovsky and his wife.  One of their daughters, Lydia, herself a famous writer, is buried right next to them.

Monday, February 22, 2016

St. Petersburg weekend



The kids had a week off of school. (Again! They are forever getting holidays over here...) All of their friends were planning to spend the week touring exotic places like Thailand, Prague and Morocco.  We are in save-for-the-states mode, so we're not going anywhere that fancy any time soon.  We decided that a quick trip to St. Petersburg would be more in the financial realm of possibility, and so, two days ahead of the holiday, we swung into action and bought train tickets.

The Sapsan train is great.  It's a high-speed train, hitting speeds over 200 km/hr, so it only takes 4 hours to get to St. Pete from here. It's clean, it's comfy, it's easy - so much better than the overnight trains we used to take all those years ago - and it costs a bit over $100 per person.

B has some friends in St. Pete, and when we told them where we were planning to stay, one of them said, "No, no. let me make the reservations for you. I know a place." And that is how we ended up forking over about $450 dollars for one night in a two-bedroom suite at the Astoria, a 5-star hotel directly across the street from St. Isaac's Cathedral.

Okay, so $450 isn't cheap.  But we would have needed 2 separate rooms at the other hotel, which was perfectly serviceable, if a bit less conveniently located. So we were already planning on spending around $250 over there, plus cab fare to get around town.  We decided to splurge, because when will get a chance to do this again? And it was just one night after all.

Well, perhaps because it's slow season for tourists over here and the hotel wasn't full, or perhaps because B's friend is more well-connected that we know, we showed up at the hotel to discover that we'd been upgraded.  Same price, but they put us in the presidential suite.

You guys.  I've been in exactly one hotel room ever that was fancier than this (the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, if you must know, for a business trip, when I was also upgraded to some crazy fancy suite because of how much money my company was spending to be there one week long ago).  The room was beautiful. Correction: the rooms were beautiful. An entry hall, a dining area, a sitting room, and two bedrooms, each with an amazing view of the city below.

K feeling posh as she admires the fruit platter and chocolates in one (yes, one) of the living areas between the bedrooms.

The view from my bedroom in our suite. St. Isaac's, the fourth largest cathedral in the world and the largest orthodox cathedral anywhere.

More to the point, the hotel staff were awesome.  Seriously awesome.  When they did the turndown service in the evening, they left milk and cookies for each of the kids, plus little stuffed dogs on all of their pillows.  They were so kind to the girls, bringing them chocolates and chatting with them as we waited for our ride back to the train station the second day.

Totally worth the splurge.  Except I wish we'd stayed long enough to try out their spa.  It was definitely different from the living accommodations in my old dorm, just a few minute's walk down the road.

So anyway.  Stay in the Astoria if you get a chance. You will love it.  On to our trip, though.

We left our bags and ventured out. ("Why can't we just stay in the hotel, mom? Pleeeease??")

We walked and walked and walked some more, down the canals, past my old dormitory and on into Starbucks, because it was seriously cold and I needed tea! Then on to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, and then still further, to a vegetarian restaurant that we discovered the last time we went to St. Pete.  There was a serious lot of walking involved.

Kids at the beginning of our walk, in front of St. Isaac's.  Still smiling.

A, in front of Kazanskii Sobor, trying to recover from the massive meltdown she had when I wouldn't buy her a gold coin in Starbucks. Seriously, kid. Isn't cocoa enough?

Made it to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. K isn't in the picture because by now she was angry about some random thing. Isn't traveling with kids fun?

Us. Happy.

After an early dinner, we walked back along the canals to the Faberge Museum. We didn't get tickets in advance because somebody didn't get her act together to buy them before they sold out.  I'm not going to say whose fault that was, but let me say in her defense that she had an appointment to get her hair cut for the first time in months and she figured she could buy the tickets when she got back from the appointment but apparently the museum is super popular so it sold out by mid-morning but her hair looks great so it all worked out in the end.

(Unless you count the fact that we had to stand in line for an hour to buy tickets to get in. Bygones.)

The museum is not big - it takes longer to buy tickets than it does to walk through it.  But it is so worth a visit.  They have a collection of jeweled Faberge eggs, which were made for Tsars Alexander and Nicholas before the Russian Revolution. The museum also houses dishes, silver and other interesting items. And the building itself, the Shuvalov Palace, is amazing - a pre-revolutionary mansion that was beautifully preserved. 








The next day, we walked to the (mercifully much closer) Central Naval Museum.  We'd never been before, but it was recommended to us by some colleagues at the Consulate.  And it was great. We spent the whole morning there and could have stayed longer.  All of the kids were riveted.  The museum houses Peter the Great's own boat - the first boat of the Russian Navy.  It continues on through the centuries, exhibiting weaponry and uniforms from Peter the Great's time up through modern times. It was a huge space, with multiple galleries.  If you ever get a chance to go, do it. But note that there is no signage is English.  If you don't speak Russian, you'll be guessing at what you're looking at.  It's tricky even if you do speak Russian - some of technical language in the displays was a bit beyond my reach.


Peter the Great's boat.

There were huge figureheads from ancient boats displayed along the walls of the main hall. Creepy and cool.



That's it. We ran out of time and trotted back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and catch a cab to the train station. While we waited for the cab, the hotel staff served us mint tea and fancy little cookies on china from the Imperial Porcelain Factory.

Four-plus hours later, we were back to reality here in Moscow. No more fancy china.  No more homemade chocolates.  Just grilled cheese, veggies and a pile of laundry before bedtime.






Thursday, February 18, 2016

If you don't have anything nice to say...

Yes, I know, I've been unusually quiet over here.

But like your mother told you: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

And I have nothing nice to say about the dark cold days of winter here in Moscow.

I saw the sun maybe twice in January? Even then it was so low in the sky as to be nearly invisible, nothing more than a watery greyish orb trying to poke through the cloud cover just above the grey and beige rooftops.

Now, there are people who say all of this cold and dark doesn't bother them.

I am not one of those people.

There aren't enough vitamin D pills in the world to stop me from sinking into - well, not depression exactly. More like malaise. I wander the world, tired and grumpy and sad, eating every bit of sugar and fat that comes my way. Which of course only makes me tired-er and grumpier.

The only thing that cheers me up is working out hard. But there are only so many hours a day you can spend in the gym. Eventually you have to get out of the weight room and go to the grocery store, where the Doritos call to you from across the twilight expanse of shelves.

The kids get on the school bus in the dark.

The kids get off the school bus - at 4pm! - in the dark.

It is always either dark or getting dark. Dusk. Darkish. Twilight. Bleak.

But then, within a matter of days in February, the world starts shifting on its axis and the days grow longer with a speed that doesn't seem possible.  One day it is dark when you leave the house in the morning to go to the gym. The next day - you can see the sky.

And then, today, there was this:

The view from my living room: the Russian White House.

Blue skies! Sunshine! Granted, it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, so it's no Hawaii, but still - it's a literal light at the end of my Moscow tunnel.

And suddenly I am feeling healthy and hopeful.

It's a wakeup call for me, though.

All winter, my husband has been trying to get me to leave the house and go on adventures with him.  I've been coming up with every excuse I can muster to not leave the house, much to his chagrin. (What can I say? He's a New Yorker. I'm from Los Angeles. We're practically not even the same species.)

It's time to give up the excuses and get outside. We only have 19 more weekends left in Moscow.  19 weekends to see the last places on our list, or to re-visit our favorites. That's not a lot of time at all, especially when you consider that a large chunk of that time has to be spent preparing to leave: enrolling in new schools, organizing home leave, figuring out how to ship the pets, culling our belongings so we're within weight...

It hasn't been all Dorito dust and sadness around here! We took a great - if too-quick - trip to Petersburg last weekend, so I'll try to get those pictures up shortly. We've taken a few trips around town (my husband lures me outdoors with the promise of coffee or lunch I don't have to make myself...). We've had some fun movie nights and game nights with the kids. The girls and I are slowly making our way through the Little House series of books.

(And may I say it's a whole different experience reading those books as an adult? As a child, I loved reading about her adventures. As a parent, I'm horrified by how close they came to dying, so many times. As a wife, I'm amazed at the bottomless levels of patience Laura's mom had. And as a person living in Moscow during the winter, I realize I have absolutely no reason to ever complain about being cold or tired when I read about the things they had to do to survive that long winter.)

So that's it: our 2016 so far. I'm heading outside to turn my face up at the sun for awhile.  Enjoy your day, wherever you are. I hope you have some sunshine too.


Please. Write your own stuff.