No Easy Life

One day, traversing Lake Onega on our way from St. Petersburg to Moscow, we stopped at the island of Kizhi, a remote windswept spot first settled in the 1400s, where there now exists the Unesco World Heritage site known as Kizhi Pogost. Here, we saw this fairytale of a church constructed centuries ago entirely of wood without the use of so much as single nail.

church of the transfiguration

It still reminds me of nothing so much as the popsicle-stick houses we kids used to make at summer camp and yet with the help both of the Soviet government 50 years and today’s careful restorers it has survived winter snows and icy winds since it was erected in 1714.

Here on Kizhi, we saw historical impersonators practicing ancient arts. This short video I took shows a woman who that day was submitting brittle stalks of vegetation through the exceedingly long  (three, or four, or 27-for-all-I-know)  part process that would eventually render it into thread. (And to think I complain about the three days it takes to get a dress I have ordered online!)

I watched fascinated as such ancient crafts were practiced by these modern Russian citizens – and I wished neither for the first or last time that I could speak their language, as they surely did not speak mine.

Our tour guide, however, did speak English and she spoke it very well. Here she is describing how the people stayed alive on this island where arable land was so valuable and so scarce due to the very short growing season, that exactly none of it could be set aside for pasturage. A book I just referenced tells me that “because only small parts of Russia are south of 50° north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60° north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters (italics mine.) The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below. Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them.”

What she is saying, in case her accent it too thick for you, is that before they skinnied out entirely, any horses and cows that villagers owned would be transported to the mainland on wee fragile crafts like this one so as to have at least some chance of staying alive.

a villager's old boat

Staying alive remains very much a concern in many parts of our world of course.

Assured survival has never been part of life and certainly we in the west are kidding ourselves if we think it is.

As Shakespeare says “we owe God a death,” each and every one of us. But in the meantime, we can build beauty like this, that can outlast our own short moments in the light.

Russia from on Board Ship

At 6 o’clock every night as we sailed along on our route from St. Petersburg to Moscow,  we passengers would be gathered like baby ducklings for an update about what we’d soon be seeing.

One night the talk went like this – and I should say I purposely pointed my camera outside at the ship’s deck rather than at the speaker’s face so that I could better focus later on the cool throaty sound of his Russian-accented English:

Our man was talking here about the Moscow By Night tour, which I turned out to skip, on account of how wiped out I felt after our Moscow By Day outings. By that point I had been marched through so many civic buildings, monasteries and churches I’d begun to feel that if never again saw another icon in my life I would still be able to draw half a dozen of them from memory, because there are just so very many images of New Testament apostles, Old Testament patriarchs and members of the Holy Family lining the walls of all these holy places: a whole race of sorrowful-looking, skinny-faced folks with improbably dark tans.

Here, for example, is a typical Mary-and-Jesus pair: russian icons

And here below you will see  one of our party, my own mate in fact, walking in the tourist’s typical ‘let’s-get-this-done’ fashion through one such sacred space. (I speak of the man facing away, the man with the white hair – and you may also note that all the women wear requisite scarves while even some dopey guy with a mullet gets to go bareheaded.

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So there was this aspect to our trip, where it was all your typical foreign-visitor stuff, with hordes of tourists jostling one another to snap more pictures than even Mother Teresa would lack the patience to look through later. One night we Viking Cruisers got hand-carried in our fancy coach into the heart of St. Petersburg for a cooked-down performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and were the only people in the little jewel-box of a theatre. Another night we were transported to the hills above Moscow for an evening of music where again the passengers on our ship constituted the entire audience.

Here are some of our shipmates waiting for the curtain to rise and those long-legged tuu-tuu’d swans to skitter out onto the stage.

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So as I say, it was all typical tourist stuff. But then something happened. At some point, very slowly, there surfaced, for me, another aspect of this two-week trip.

And that is the part I’ll be writing about in the days ahead.

What Big Eyes

img_3751In one of the little towns on our Waterways of the Czars tour of Russia, we visit an actual school, where one is struck by the disparities: 800 children, ages six to seventeen, gather five days a week in a building that looks to have been built by a team of inebriates wearing blindfolds. There aren’t a lot of right angles, in other words, and many of the lintels seem to slant and dip. And yet, the curriculum appears to run circles around our typical courses of study.

Here on the left and below, a typical classroom, not at all fancy, as you can see.

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And yet our Russian tour guide has this to say about the curriculum, “The pupil’s courses are compulsory, yes?

“They study the Physics, the Chemistry, the Mathematics, the Literatures.

“All children are also studying the English beginning in Fifth grade and in high school are adding a second foreign language to that, either French to German, yes.’

My guess, based on information we have so far exchanged in the last week?  That of the 25 well-fed Yanks stuffed into these slender desks not a one speaks or understands Russian. We are spotless in our ignorance.

Next, we file into a small auditorium which I suspect also serves as lunchroom and gym as the auditorium did in my own 1960s elementary school. (We called it the Cafetorium, in my mind a wonderfully jaunty, sort of Jetson-ish Space Age name. ) Here, three young girls in peasant garb sing us a lengthy folk song, during which, at regular intervals the music calls for periodic vocal yips which the girls dutifully provide even as their faces remain bland. They also swing little wooden gadgets back and forth that look like miniature venetian blinds and make the kind of clattering sound you might get on tossing a handful of Scrabble tiles down a set of stairs. The girls sing, yip and clatter for a good five minutes before bowing, shyly and adorably, and hurrying off the stage, offer us the chance to buy fanciful cloth dolls which both the boy and girl students have themselves sewn.

The dolls are female dolls, all with voluminous skirts and THIS one, we are told, is Little Red Riding Hood. But one has only to upend her, toss back her skirts and – whoops! – here under the ruffles of her petticoats is the child’s own grand-mama,  of ‘What Big Eyes You Have’ fame! She has spectacles and grey hair covered by a babushka. Another flip of the wrist, yet more tumbling and here appears the head of the Big Bad Wolf in all his ferocity!

Many of our group buy one. I do not, I think because as a child in the long ago Ozzie and Harriet years I had the American version of this doll which always unsettled me.

On our way out of the schoolhouse, we pass a handmade poster honoring a young graduate of this school who, serving the Russian army, was killed in Chechnya. In this portrait, dressed in his new uniform, he gazes manfully at the camera and we study his gaze. His story, carefully inked in block writing around his image, remains a mystery to us however, as people who can neither speak nor read the language of this country.

As we depart the school building, small and antiquated looking as it is with the cords for its electronics stretching from here to there in a way that no stateside Fire Marshall would allow, I get the feeling that these 800 children have minds far more fully furnished than our own minds here in the ‘Like Me, Buy Me, Like Me’ west.

And it comes to me at the door that perhaps the reversible doll unsettles me still not for any Freudian beast-under-the-skirts reason but because it reminds me uncomfortably of the ostrich, who also hides his head so as not to acknowledge what he does not wish to acknowledge.

russan wolf doll

 

That’s MISTER Jackass to You

fullsizeoutput_446cHeard onboard ship as four individuals find themselves lingering for a moment in a stateroom corridor:

Passenger One, pleasantly, after introductions: So what is your husband’s name?

Passenger Two: Jackass.

Passenger One, not having heard quite right:  I’m sorry? You say your husband isn’t traveling with you?

Passenger Two:  Nah Jackass left me years ago for his secretary.

Merry laughter all around.

Chilly Naked Guys

have a shower! peterhofThese are some pictures from our day in Peterhof, where the Czar called Peter spent large chunks of his downtime.

NO DOWNTIME FOR US though in our forced march through his palace, where an hour into the tour I began to feel like a bite of salami getting ushered through an alimentary canal by the ceaseless process known as peristalsis.

June or no June, the day was cold: So cold that even our native-born tour guide shivered. “We pass our year in two ways here in Russia,” he’d told us on the coach that brought us here. “Nine months of anticipation followed by three months of disappointment!” Then the coach stopped and out we all got, while a three-man combo of Russian men in Brezhnev-style hats played highly whimsical renditions of God Save the Queen, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and When the Saints Go Marching in.

Thus we did that: We went marching in, filing like school children past kiosks full of winter clothes, which I was delighted to come upon, since 50 yarsd into out trek, the stems of my earrings were carrying the cold straight into my bloodstream via the tender mussel-like lobes of my ears.

I bought this red stretchy ‘ring of bunny-fur for a mere 341 rubles – or six bucks.

by the bay of Finland

After the palace tour, our own small party of four decided to walk all the way to the property’s edge where a stiff wind straight off the Gulf of Finland parted and re-parted our hair for us.

Still there was great beauty both inside and out: a world of gold if you like gold, and fountains shooting off at regular intervals. Here’s another chilly gold guy at a different part of the fountain:

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We’d been turned loose on the grounds, see, literally driven out of the palace in point of fact for a chilly 90 minutes. Then, just near the end of that hour-and-a-half, the sky turned the color you see here and a fine stinging rain gave us all facials.

St. Petersburg weather

It was great though, of course it was great. It was the Day Three of our Russian tour, and our final day in the environs of St. Petersburg, the haunted city known called Leningrad during the Soviet years.

On Foreign Soil

I’ve always thought I’d like to go to Russia, to visit the famous Hermitage, and walk where czars walked, and contemplate the mysteries of an entirely unfamiliar alphabet….

And now here I am in St. Petersburg which seems a lot like Venice in that it consists of so many islands. I should say that WE, meaning my mate and I and two good friends are in St. Petersburg where, just at present, the thermometer stands at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Where snow sifted down from the sky when the ballet got out last night.

That fact alone felt unfamiliar: that and the fact the sun could still be shining this brightly at half-past nine at night. See?

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It almost feels mythical, this St. Petersburg, where first snow and then a stinging sideways hail could be seen collecting on the shoulders of my ill-chosen wardrobe.

A man I assumed to be a veteran stood, one leg of his trousers pinned up to reveal his missing limb, outside the amazing Catherine Palace. He was hoping to sell us a picture of the lady of the house herself, Catherine the First, who, in the official 1810 portraiture, bears a strong resemblance to Danny DeVito in the Taxi years.

I saw a lot on our first day here, not just the on-legged vet but also apartment buildings of a decided bleakness, like this fully tenanted one, half fixed up and half not.

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Later that morning I saw stunning old statuary, like these two guys with their impressive six-packs outside the world-famous Hermitage Museum.

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Art celebrates nature and that much is for sure – both Youthful Nature, like this woman supporting this guy lounging around with his hand on his hip…

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…and also Nature in Decay, like the mummy I stood by for a long time, free at last of all his Ace bandages and naked as an unwrapped present. He looked like a slice of overcooked bacon grinning with his 3,000-year-old teeth.

I have much to learn on this trip and already I know one thing is truer than true: Art outlasts nature, as this stunning bit of clockwork shows.

 

 

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Mine is a long sad tale…

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Mine is a long sad tale, as the dormouse said to Alice down there in Wonderland – because this is really is my ‘tail’ here, along with a number of the little Tootsie Roll segments above my tail.

Sad, I know. 

But maybe it’s not SO sad.

I went to the doctor today for my annual checkup and on the way into the building saw a man with a grey beard and long shaggy hair lurking by the parking garage; just kind of meandering along among the idling taxis and the little open-air ‘jailhouse’ they have these days to accommodate the smokers.

This man looked to be about 60 and wore khakis, an open-neck shirt, a suit coat, and, perched atop his head, a toy fireman’s helmet. He was smoking as he ambled along and every 20 feet or so he stopped, pulled out a pint and took a long swig.

“Drinking,”I thought. “Maybe that’s what I’ll be doing an hour from now when I come out from this appointment. Maybe I’ll be taking up smoking and trotting over to the packy for a tidy pint myself.” 

Because you never knew do know what they’re going to find out at an annual checkup where the ask so many questions, like when your last period was and whether or not you take Ecstasy.

I was told that this time I didn’t have to pee in a cup and that was a nice break. However they did weigh me, dammit, and the news was way worse than it had been last year at this time. Here’s last year’s rundown:

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Today I was told that  my blood pressure is113/70 and that my heart is pumping along at the rate of 65 good hard squeezes per minute, and that seemed great to me,

Some of the rest of the news was less than great: My weight is up eight pounds.

I felt happy to be able to say I run on the treadmill for 40 minutes most days and shy about admitting  I drink a glass or two of wine at night and, on weekends, sometimes take a slug or two of whiskey,

I did complain to the doc about my weight gain though, and in response she said something I misheard. Because we’re good friends by now, she looked me dead in the eye and said. “So you’re deaf now?”

“Deaf as a haddock,”  I said  with a kind of confessional relief, ,and went on to tell her how this leads to of marital dust-ups sometimes, since I always think my mate is saying these critical things to me when really he’s just asking if we have more  paper towels.

“But would you wear a hearing aid?” my doctor asked.

I sure would, I told her. “It would hardly show in my wild tangle of curls and I need the help.  I spend a lot of time young male teens and you know how they are: they’ll say a witty thing once but they won’t repeat it, especially if what they’ve said ranks high on the hilarity scale.

“All right then!”  she said and we made arrangements to have my ears tested by an ear guy.Then we made arrangement for me to have an ultrasound on account of the crazy distention of my belly. We made arrangement appointment for me to have a bone density test since for a while now  I’ve been hurtling fast down the old osteopenia highway.

The last thing I did was to pull up a picture on my phone of my poor crooked back which I didn’t even know was crooked until I went to a yoga class at the age of 50 and the teacher sorrowfully said, “Ah! I see that you have soloists.” By now even the neighborhood DOGS can tell I have scoliosis. Anyway, when she saw this image her dropped. “My god, this is the worst  curve  I’ve ever seen in a patient! You would have been 5 foot nine if you didn’t have this!”  – which made me feel pretty good since I have  a sister and a daughter, each of whom is 5’9″ and I did always feel a little “less than” around them.

We said farewell and I went off  to get the blood work  that will show this and that, my lipids,  my thyroid level, and so on and hey, couldn’t it be a worsening of my hypothyroidism that’s making my tummy stick out so? (We cling to these hopes at my stage of life.

When I walked back to the parking lot, I looked for that ambling guy with whom I now felt a distinct kinship. I didn’t see him but he’s  with me still in spirit. Sure,I have a lot of things wrong with me but as my nice doctor just said it’s mostly just wear and tear on the old jalopy. Plus, wait, I just remembered!  She also said it’s better for a woman to go into the older decades heavier rather than less heavy since the latest research now shows that women with a little meat on their bones have less of a tendency toward Alzheimer’s. And  – more good news! – she said drinking coffee appears to be also good for you, along with  having  a drink or two a night.

So there it is, on the whole a satisfactory visit. I feel pretty good. In fact I feel SO good right now I may just find my  own toy plastic fireman’s hat and plop it on those curls that I just KNOW are going to hide any hearing aids. 😉

me at MGH