Russia- Day 11 (and 12)

April 14, 2010

Well everyone got up and around on time and left for the Moscow airport at 8 a.m.  The traffic was, once again, unbelievable.  I’ve developed nerves of steel and look forward to driving the lazy streets of Tulsa again!

The flight to New York was started with a delay on the tarmac in Moscow as air traffic was backed up.  After a very long 10-hour flight we arrived in New York at 3:30pm and sat on the taxiway for another 30 minutes because there was another plane at our gate.  After disembarking the plane, we waited approximately 45 minutes for our bags.  Once we got our bags, we had to go through customs.  With all of the combined delays, we were informed that we missed our connecting flight to Detroit and had been re-routed to Atlanta where we would need to spend the night.  At first, Delta decided it wasn’t their fault and were NOT going to cover the expense of meals and hotel.  Well…after 10 hours on an airplane, my fuse was pretty short and I would up “convincing” Delta that the expense was theirs and we got to stay at a very nice Renaissance by the airport.

As I write this final blog about our Russia trip, I am on the flight from Atlanta to Tulsa and we are scheduled to land at 10:30 a.m.   We plan on stopping by the office briefly and then going to home to unpack and decompress.

We took ten different planes on our trip and traveled 15,678  miles.  We saw what was left of a society that Lisa and I were brought up to fear.  It was fun to see the differences between our cultures.  Honestly, I was surprised at how hard I had to look for the similarities.  It bears repeating how blessed we are in the United States.  One of the favorite things I’ll take away from the trip in watching the boys SEE and EXPERIENCE the cultural differences.  I think they had a blast.

Well…we’ve started our descent into Tulsa; the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign, our seats and tray tables must be stored in the locked and upright positions, all electronics turned off and put away and seatbelts securely fastened.  Gotta go!

P.S.   I’m having a huge Diet Coke right now with ICE, wonderful ICE!!

PEKA!

Russia- Day 10

April 13, 2010

We traveled back to Moscow today with Alex, landing around 9:30am.  After arriving back at the hotel, we took a nap until 1:00pm and headed out to check out the local market places.  These places are absolutely fascinating to me.  If you really want a glimpse into how Russians live, check out these places.  This particular market place that we visited was laid out in rows of small, prefabricated metal buildings.  In one, there were fresh nuts and spices; in another there was fresh baked bread.  One had dried fish of every shape and size while one had fresh meats and cheeses.  When I say the meat was fresh….there was an entire freshly skinned pig on the top of the counter.

Before leaving, we hit the candy and chocolate building.  Wow…the Russians like their chocolate.  There was always someone coming in or leaving this small store.   We bought a LOT of chocolate for family and friends and made the shopkeeper very happy indeed.

From there we went to a local mall and finally found some cool soccer (football) jerseys for the Russian National team.  Mr. Parsons is gonna be pumped!  The malls are laid out similar to ours but with a minimum of three to four levels.  We wandered around checking out the local sites until early evening and went back to the apartment to relax and get ready for our massive travel day back to the States on Tuesday.  My cold has gotten a lot worse and I plan to hit the rack early.

We have a 7:00 a.m. wake-up call.  We need to leave the apartment by 8:00 a.m.  in order to arrive at the airport by 10:00 a.m. Our flight leaves at noon and I must say that I am looking forward to my arriving back in the United States.  It has been a wonderful trip, full of experiences that we will not soon forget, but it really makes you appreciate your homeland.

For our family, Russia has earned a playful nickname.  “The Land of Nyet” (no).  Everywhere you go you are being told, “no, you can’t do that”, “no, you can’t take that photo”, “no, you can’t stand there”.  I mean no disrespect; it’s just very different and hard to comprehend the limitations that are placed on daily life.  The one thing I have missed most is being able to look someone in the eyes, smile and say hello.

Russia- Day 9

April 12, 2010

We are back in Moscow as of this morning and I’m just now getting the opportunity to update the site for yesterday’s events.  The colds that Lisa and I have are getting much worse and it’s turning an already exhausting trip into a nightmare keeping up with sleep.

When we arrived back at the banquet facilities on Sunday for the second day of festivities, there was a table set up with alcohol, silver spoons, a tip jar and two “doctors” in white lab coats.  Upon entering, you are supposed to pay for a spoon in order to take your “medicine” and make you feel better from the previous night’s festivities.  All proceeds are then handed over to the bride and groom.

Lunch was served over several courses and the immediate family and close friends were the only ones in attendance.  This day is very similar to a family reunion in the States.  Traditional Russian folk singers and dancers were brought in for entertainment.  I particularly enjoyed the singers.  There were six or seven of them singing traditional good wishes and farewell songs with the accompaniment of an accordion.  (see the gallery below for a picture of them).

The rest of the day was very relaxed.  People came and went from the commons at our hotel rooms and we sat on the sofas and chatted until midnight.  We had to get up at 5:00 am in order to catch our flight but everyone was miraculously on time.  There were two flights leaving for Moscow this morning and we had approximately 13 people flying out.

I have included pictures of our hotel room (don’t mind the mess) so you can see the digs that Sergey hooked us up with.  I have also included some various candid photos taken at the luncheon.  Hope you all enjoy them.

PEKA!

Russia- Day 8

April 11, 2010

As I write today’s update, I am sitting in the banquet room of our hotel suffering from a slight cold and severe sleep deprivation.  It is actually Sunday afternoon and I am just now getting around to blogging about yesterday’s events.

Sergey sent for us around noon yesterday and the entire family met at Sergey and Irena’s apartment which is located about 5 miles from the hotel.  We overloaded the elevator at the apartment complex and got stuck for about 25 minutes.  Ten people in an elevator almost makes a sauna. A great way to start the day!

At approximately 1:30pm we left for the courthouse in a wedding train consisting of one white, stretch limousine and seven black Toyota Land Cruisers.  The tradition is for all the cars to honk their horns sporadically all the way to the courthouse.  When we arrived, we all filed into the building and waited our turn for the official ceremony.  As a couple must go the courthouse for the marriage to be recognized, Saturdays are quite busy with couples getting married.  We showed up at he courthouse at the same time as another wedding party and when we finished, there were two more waiting in line!

The immediate family, close friends and wedding party filled the ceremony room and the actual exchanging of vows was very similar to what you’d expect.  This lasted only about 15 minutes before we were ushered into an adjoining room and toasts were made celebrating the union.  From there we loaded into the vehicles again and started a tour of the city in which various stops were made at area landmarks for pictures and fulfilling local traditions.  The one that made the biggest impression was the stop we made at the big river (Ob river) that runs through the town.  The newlyweds walk to a fence by the riverwalk trail and put a lock on one of the vertical supports.  There are thousands of various locks hanging from the fence!  Once the lock is in place, the couple continues their walk to the river’s edge and together, they throw the key to the lock into the river. Although, even in April the river is still frozen solid even with a boat frozen into in place. After a few more stops, we arrived back at the host hotel at 5pm for the reception.

Walking into the banquet area was like walking into the king’s palace!  The tables were loaded with meats, bread, vegetable and fruits of every kind.  At both ends of every table was a bottle of wine, vodka, mineral water, cranberry juice and cognac.  Instead of trying to explain all of the foods, you will find several pictures in the gallery below.

There was an emcee of sorts that kept everything moving along.  I counted eight tables of fourteen guests along with the head table of four that consisted of the bride, groom, maid of honor and best man.  For entertainment there were violinists, traditional dancers, a live band and a DJ that played mostly American rock and roll songs.

There were a few of the local wedding traditions that made an impression on Lisa and me.

  • The first is carrying the bride around in her chair raised high in the air.
  • At one point, the bride is placed in a chair and wrapped in a shawl given to her by her mother-in-law.
  • Then a crystal candleholder with a candle is lit and the bride and groom dance by themselves.
  • Another time in the celebration, all of the guest light a candle and stand in a circle while the bride and groom go from guest to guest blowing them out.
  • At another point, roses were handed out to every guest and we all line up and created a tunnel of roses by holding them out at an angle. The bride and groom walked through the tunnel and then all the roses were thrown on the floor.  The bride and groom then return the way they came by avoiding stepping on the roses.  I don’t understand the significance or meaning of this ritual and my translator was M.I.A. (Zina).
  • Another interesting thing was the cutting of the cake.  Instead of cutting the cake with a knife, a spoon is used to scoop out a bite of cake big enough to eat.
  • The neatest tradition is the shouting of “Gorka”!!!  The translation is “bitter” and every time the wedding guests start chanting it, the bride and groom must kiss to “sweeten” the bitterness.  You never know when the guests will start the chant and it happens sporadically throughout the night.

I am proud to say that the wedding finally broke up at 2:00am and I was still sober!  You learn very fast to pace yourself when drinking with Russians.  During the wedding there were approximately 150 individual toasts.  I’m not exaggerating one bit.  With this in mind you learn to partially fill your glass.  If you don’t you’ll be plastered within a couple of hours!

Once the majority of the guests left, the immediate family members and very close friends were the only ones sitting at a table.  That’s when the “real” toasts begin.  (The toasts that most people are not privy to).  The toasts are quite lengthy and are often very personal.  I was touched to be invited into this circle and participate.

The first day of the wedding lasted 12 hours.  I’ve never had a more interesting wedding experience!  To top things off…it’s snowing in Siberia!

Russia- Day 7

April 9, 2010

Sergey giving a toast

We arrived in Nizhnevartovsk at 6 a.m. on Friday morning.  Sergey and two of his friends were there to greet us and to take us to our hotel.  The town is still buried in snow and we spot a few cars in various parking lots that are literally snowed over.  Temperature is -21 degrees Celsius, which converts to -6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cold in anyone’s book!

Sergey took us to our hotel and helped check us in.  The entire 5th floor in comprised of suites and most of them are for us.  I was blown away at our room.  It is probably bigger than our first house and is appointed with the finest of furnishings.  The biggest bonus for the boys is there is an open commons shared by all of the rooms with a very nice ping- pong table.

After a long nap, Sergey was back with a large bus, which took us all out to the outskirts of the city to a “country club” of sorts.  The family had rented a cottage that consisted of a large dining area and a bathhouse.

Grilling meat outdoors

Food was spread out like a Thanksgiving feast, men that work for Sergey were cooking meat outside on the barbeque grill and the Alex took everyone on a snowmobile ride around the frozen lake.  The kids particularly enjoyed this!  The girls gathered and went to the bath house (bana) together.  When they were finished, several of the men including the boys and me were treated to the bana experience.  It is basically a dry sauna with traditions thrown in like whipping the body with oak branches and having ice-cold water and snow thrown on you.  It was quite an experience for us!  The boys are real troopers as they participated in everything with great enthusiasm.  We ate and drank until 8:00pm before heading back to the hotel.  Several of Alex’s friends are staying on the fourth floor and they ventured up to the 5th floor commons for more drinking and socializing.  I gave up by midnight and went to bed.

Hayden on the snowmobile

Tomorrow is the big day for Alex.  I’m not sure yet what to expect but it’ll be fun I’m sure!  I think the after-wedding celebration will be held at the hotel but other than that, we are all being kept in the dark.  I do know that Irena (Alex’s mom) has arranged for all of the girls to be picked up in the morning and taken to get their hair done at a salon.  The hospitality that Sergey and Irena have shown us is wonderful and they have certainly gone above and beyond to show us the best of their culture.

Caleb and Alex on the snowmobile

Russia- Day 6

April 8, 2010

Russian Orthodox CathedralWe are sitting in the airport waiting on our flight to Nizhnevartovsk.  From now on I will refer to this city as Nizh because it’s much easier to type!  The time is 11:40pm and there is not much to report for today’s events.  We have spent the majority of our time in transit.  We did have the opportunity to do some laundry, re-pack our suitcases in order to bring the bare necessities to Nizh and to take a nap.  The flight from St. Petersburg was uneventful (just the way you like them) and Alex was waiting at the airport to pick us up.  Alex has been a terrific host and has anticipated our every need.

After a nap and shower, we went to dinner at a Tajik restaurant less than a mile from our apartment.  The food was fantastic as usual.  Every dish was new to us so I cannot begin to define them.  The salad was a shredded turnip, lamb meat and a very light mayonnaise dressing.  The soup was a pelmeni of sorts and the broth tasted very buttery.  One of the dishes was similar to a cabbage roll but was wrapped in grape leaves and stuffed with lamb.  The entrée was a rice pilaf served with lamb and a huge dumpling stuffed with lamb.  Are you picking up a theme?

Alex and I in Red Square

There are at least five major airports in Moscow and we have now seen three of them.  The one we are currently in is VERY nice and has the latest of all appointments.  QUICK SIDEBAR:  When we were waiting for the plane to take us to St. Petersburg, we were at a smaller and older airport.  I decided to visit the restroom before the flight.  Man…I wish I hadn’t!  There were approximately a dozen men sitting on the floor of the bathroom that measured maybe 20 ft x 20 ft and they were all chain-smoking.  I literally gagged as I was taking care of my business.  The smoke was extremely dense and hung 5 feet from the ceiling.

As  I type, Alex’s friends from his University have arrived for their flight with us.  It appears that we will have at least 12-15 people on the same flight headed to the wedding.  While I was very excited to see the sights in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the best part of the trip is beginning for me.

As I haven’t taken much pictures today, I will post some of my favorites from the days past.  More posts to come (wi-fi permitting).

The Whole Gang

The Whole Gang

PEKA!

Russia- Day 5

April 7, 2010

Sitting at the breakfast table in St. Petersburg trying to keep my eyes open.  The same can be said for everyone at the table.  We stayed up late in our hotel room in order to Skype Hayden’s school and talk to his classmates.  What a neat experience for Hayden.  What started out as a quick hello turned into a slideshow of our pictures taken so far via the “screen share” function on Skype.  Technology is simply amazing.

Hayden's new hat

Yesterday started off with a wonderful breakfast of cheeses, meats, tomatoes and cucumber.  Our guide that Serge had arranged for us was prompt and we started a rolling tour of the city at 10:00am.  The weather was misty and foggy with limited visibility.  Temps were in the mid forties.  The city is quite beautiful with wonderful examples of classical and baroque architecture everywhere you look.  Palaces seem to be located on every corner of the city center.  I will have to give names of the buildings and cathedrals later because I’m in a hurry and would rather just post pics than try to figure out the names.

The highlight of the tour was a 40 minute trip outside the city to visit the summer palace of Peter the Great.  Peterhof is the name of the palace and I encourage you to google it and look at images.  I just don’t have time this morning.  Our tour guide was quite polite and amazed us with her knowledge of the early Russian emperors.  If it were not for the private tour bus we would not have been able to see as much of the city in such little time.

St. Petersburg

We are heading back to the airport this morning in order to fly back to Moscow for one more day of sight-seeing.  Late tonight we fly to Nizhnevartovsk.

Russia- Day 4

April 6, 2010

Statue outside KremlinHello from St. Petersburg! Words cannot express how tired we are but it is worth it! It is now early Wednesday morning and I have finally got some wifi in the hotel that we are staying at. We started the day yesterday in Moscow, getting up early as promised. We got couldn’t resist the temptation to have a bite of McDonalds! I have to admit that I will try to adapt to just about every custom but this “no ice” thing is for the birds!! I ordered a Diet Coke (Coke Light as they call it) with LOTS of ice. It was the absolute best feeling to finally drink something cold besides the occasional beer.

Alex took us back to the Kremlin and Red Square complex so that we could take pictures of St. Basil during the day and go see Lenin’s Tomb. This dude has been laying in a glass coffin since 1926 (I think I got that date right) and he looks surprisingly good! There were many people and activities going on in the square so we just walked and took in the sights. I stood in the “Middle of Moscow” and made a wish. This is a brass inlay at the entrance to Red Square from which all distance measurements are taken.

St. Basil's Cathedral

St. Basil's Cathedral

From Red Square, Alex took us over to see a walled, working Monastery. While it was beautiful, it was closed! So we decided to walk around it instead. The walk was nice and we were able to observe many locals feeding the ducks around a frozen pond. Nice to see average daily life.

We headed to the airport around 6pm to meet up with Camille who made the trip to St. Petersburg with us. We arrived around 10:00pm and were met by a friend of Alex’s father. He and his wife drove us all to the hotel in the central square called M Hotel. Very nice accommodations that were arranged in advance by Serge (Alex’s dad). We decided to stay up a bit and walk around the central boulevard and take in some sights. The traffic is just as bad here but at least the roads appear to be straight and not curvy like Moscow.

We are headed out today with our own guide and bus to check out the “must see’s”. Gonna be a VERY busy day! I’ll give another update in the morning!

OBSERVATIONS:
– You cannot put your hands in your pockets while walking thru Lenin’s tomb. You also cannot stop to take a closer look.
– No eye contact is made in public unless absolutely necessary and everyone looks either sad or angry.
– The public restrooms store the toilet paper on the outside of the stalls. Be sure and bring enough for the job!
– Most of the restaurants that we visit do not expect tips when you bring the bill.
– The traffic is an absolute nightmare. The lanes are merely suggestions as are the speed limits. I’m a pretty brave guy but I will confess that there is NO WAY I would drive in Moscow.
– The beer is amazing. Most of you know that I consider myself a beer connoisseur and I have tasted some pretty good beers, but they have a beer here that I’m hoping I will have access to in the States. It translates into “Siberian Crown”. Very tasty indeed.
– Passengers clap on the plane when you land safely.
– You are taken to the plane on the tarmac via a bus and expected to walk up a large flight of stairs into the airplane.
– I was at least a decade older than both pilots.
– Street car racers are popular here. We saw many cars racing down the middle of the city center that were traveling at LEAST 120 mph. Amazing to see.

Russia- Day 2

April 4, 2010

After going to bed at 2:00am, we had every intention of getting up around 8am and hit the city hard.  We got up at noon!  It’s been a long time since we have felt this exhausted.  After having a wonderful breakfast of breaded pork chops, cheese, eggs and smoked meats, we headed out to the market to buy some food for an early dinner.  We are told that at most family events, small meals are served every two-three hours.  I could get used to this!

We visited a small market where fresh meats, cheeses and vegetable are sold, a small store that sold nothing but freshly brewed piva (beer) and a small grocery store.  Two observations….the vodka isle is an entire length of the store and there is a large section of the store devoted entirely to tea.  We also stopped and bought a vobla (a salt cured and dried fish).  Zina promptly skinned it upon our return and we had another snack meal before heading into the downtown area for site-seeing.

Alex is a GREAT tour guide!  He brought us to Arbat street to check out the sites. (picture Bourbon street without the drunks and Beale Street without the blues).  Very cool but only about 5% of the people are Russian.  The rest are tourists.    
We went into a Russian Orthodox church during an Easter mass/ceremony of some kind.  The church was the most adorned I’ve ever seen and the chorus was wonderful.  The resonance of the voices was fantastic.  In the late afternoon, we rode the Moscow Metro (terroists be damned!).  We ate at a Japanese restaurant for dinner (insert joke about traveling half way around the world to eat Japanese here).

seven sisters building in Moscow, Russia by pixelhut

Seven Sisters Building in Moscow, Russia. Photo by pixelhut

After dinner, we drove around the city watching the nightlife from the comfort and safety of the car.  One of the buildings that sticks out in my mind is one of the “seven sisters of Moscow”.  These buildings were built in various locations around Moscow and incorporate very similar if not identical architecture.  Beautiful!

We are now hanging out at the apartment with Brett and Zina having late night conversation and snacks.  These people eat a LOT!  It is almost 11:00pm local time and we are heading to bed soon.  More to posts (and maybe some pictures)  tomorrow.

Russia- Day 1

April 3, 2010

I am sitting in an apartment that belongs to a friend of Alex’s.  After an amazing dinner at a local restaurant, we ar sitting in the kitchen drinking a beer at 11:30 pm local time.  Here is a brief recap of the day’s events.  For those of you keeping track of time…we left  for the airport at 5:00am Tulsa Time on Friday morning and arrived in Moscow on Saturday morning at 10:00 am Russia time.  The kicker is that we have yet to go to bed.  So if you do the math, it is  3:00 pm on Saturday afternoon Tulsa time.  That’s a long time without sleep.

A brief recap of our day…..we met Brett, Zina and their two girls in New York around 1:00pm.  After a quick lunch at the airport and a visit to the duty free shop, we boarded a very large plane (one step below a 747) and departed for Moscow at 4:05 pm.  The flight was absolutely brutal!  One cool thing about it was that when it got really late, a handful of  Russian citizens on the plane congregated in the rear galley and drank beer and wine all night.  Needless to say, Brett and I had a blast.  I will say that regardless of the amount of alcohol flowing, there is no way to shorten the flight in your head.

Customs was non-existent.  We weren’t even asked one question!  We were immediately met by Alex and a couple of his friends and wisked away to an apartment on the south side of Moscow.

Apartment Building in Moscow

Apartment Building in Moscow

After unpacking, having a wonderful lunch (prepared by Alex’s fiance, Kate) and a quick power nap, we went on a tour of Moscow University, Christ the Savior Cathedral, Vorobievi gori (an overlook of the Moscow skyline).

We returned to the apartment around 6:00pm and met up with Alex’s sisters and extended family for the most amazing Azeri meal you could imagine at a restaurant across the street from the Moscow Zoo.  The meal consisted of at least 5 courses along with an entire bottle of vodka.  Very nice indeed.

After dinner, we went to Red Square to take in the sights at night.  Wow…what a truly amazing experience.  St. Basil’s Cathedral is everything I imagined and more.  I am having trouble posting pictures as we have limited Internet coverage.  I will post pics just as soon as possible.