In the flat across the hall from my host parent's live two woman who are professional guides of Suzdal. Tonight after dinner they took me out for a walk around the town and gave me a private tour! Suzdal is gorgeous as you can see. The town has five monasteries. Three of them are still active today. At 9:30 pm when I took the photograph above, the Monasteries were closed, but Katya and Lena (my guides) snuck me in through a side door. I felt very uncomfortable doing this because I would like to think that God's houses don't look on trespasser lightly, but Lena and Katya both as Russian Orthodox Christians assured me that no lighting bolt would strike me from the sky.
This is the largest active Monastery in Suzdal. Fifty nuns live here The brown cottages are their dormitories and the main cathedral is the one with the large golden domes. This is the summer Cathedral and the smaller cathedral with the silver domes is the Winter Cathedral. Back 800 years ago, they needed a winter and summer cathedral because wood was very hard to come by in midieval Suzdal. The winter cathedral is smaller, thus easier to heat with a wood stove, and the summer cathedral is larger and has a higher ceiling so that it is cool in the hot summers.
The next monastery that I visited is dated back to the thirteenth century and is still active today. It is the smallest monastery in Suzdal with only four monks. Below are photographs of the main cathedral, the bell, and the monks' cabin and brand new Ferrari!
The Project Begins and Picks up Steam!
Yesterday the project began. I went to the school and met with the school principal and the teachers who will be overseeing the new sports equipment and programs. Though the school consists of barren hallways and cramped classrooms, smiles of joy resonate from all of the faculty that I met. There is an atmosphere of optimism surrounding the project and I am very inspired to see the school community so excited for it. As they take me on a tour of the school students stare at me as if I were an alien from outer space. To be fair I am speaking bastardized Russian and my clothing, NIKE sneakers, khaki shorts, and a Polo shirt, are all very foreign and make me stand out. When they took me out to the school yard my jaw hit the overgrown weeds and grass. The condition is worse than the photos showed. Everything is overgrown and where it looks as though there was once some sort of hard top surface there are craters of asphault cracked with thick collections of weeds bursting out of the ground. Maybe there was some sort of a court many years ago, but clearly harsh Russian winters and decades were not kind and now the principal and I have to walk around it as he explains that some kids have sprained ankles cutting across it to leave school. A new asphault basketball court is now the first priority! We discuss the placement of a play ground structure of some sort. Space is much more limited than I had imagined. There is also a large square of overgrown brush. The Principal and I have discussed mowing this area and painting some lines to create a soccer field. There are definetly many possibilities and we are we both excited about designing and constructing this new space.
After the tour, the Principal and I sat for three hours getting acquainted and discussing the mission of the project. He is a young, energetic, and dynamic personality. He unfortunately speaks no English so at first it was a bit rocky communicating fully, but after about thirty minutes we figured out a sort of Russian/gesture code and discussion flowed freely. For the first hour we had a tremendous cultural exchange. He explained to me the ins and outs of the education system in Russia as well as the nuances of education at his very school. I then shared my experiences and discussed the American model at the elementary, middle, high school, and university levels. We were both captivated by the many great similarities and stark differences between the two experiences. We then transitioned to talking about social problems surrounding the school and Suzdal. The problems at the school are very similar to the problems that our underdeveloped schools in the US face. Things like a great lack in funding, motivated personal, and problems with students experimenting with drugs and alcohol...etc.
I presented him with the Alcohol educational posters that I brought with me. He was very excited by them. His favorites were the images surrounding drinking and driving. In Russia children begin driving at the age of seventeen and he told me that these posters are very important for the 9th through 12th grade students. Underneath are the images that I have had blown up into poster size and laminated to hang in the school. I chose pictorial representations of alcohol education because a telling image transcends language and cultural barriers. He immediately called in the art teacher to look at the images and they decided that she would show these images to her students and have them paint their very own anti drug and alcohol posters to also hang about the classrooms! This is going to be a tremendous addition to the positive impacts of the project. The students are extremely talented in painting. The principal's office is covered with gorgeous museum quality landscapes by students from ages 9 to 18.
Right now the high school students are taking their end of the year examinations, so construction will not begin until this coming Monday. I completely agree with his concerns. For the 11th and 12th grade students, these examinations will determine whether or not they will be eligible to receive a diploma and matriculate into higher education. Having the smiling American bouncing around the halls and loud construction going on in the school yard are definitely distractions, so for the next few days I am getting acquainted with the many warm families of Suzdal and helping my mother harvest the vegetables for our dinner after her nine hour day of work.
Right now I am also carefully writing my speech for Monday. On Monday the graduating kindergartners from the kindergarten next door to the school will start a summer camp to get acquainted to their new school and new type of education come the fall. At the opening assembly of the camp I will be making a presentation to them and presenting them with the fifty soccer balls, basketballs, jump ropes, and sports equipment that I have brought as a gift from their fellow children and friends from America. I am very excited for this moment for this type of interpersonal on the ground cultural exchange is what builds strong diplomacy and respect among the foreign peoples of the world.
Full Steam Ahead!!!!!
From Boston to Moscow
Four days ago now, I pulled off one of the greatest travel feats in the history of the world. Let's just say I lugged over 100 pounds on a 3 hour journey from a plane landing at 5 am to an apartment located 48 miles from the airport. I took two buses, a tram, four line changes on the subway and a kilometer walk in the pouring rain. Are you ready for the kicker... all during rush hour. The buses and subway cars were so packed I had Russian people screaming at me because I had such big bags. One women was really mean and whacked me with her pocketbook and said some words that I never came across in my textbooks, so I am sure that she did not say "happy travels." The guy she was with tried to hold her back and a bus wide raucous proceeded. The bus driver ultimately pulled over and booted her. The best part is that when he booted her people on the bus started yelling to boot me. What I am most proud of is that I navigated the chaotic public transportation system of Moscow filled with grumpy passengers and employees all on my primitive Russian skills. There was no English! Once I arrived at my friends apartment, I enjoyed a much deserved nap and I must say that though I will never allow myself into a travel situation where I will have to do anything remotely like what I did today, I feel very empowered that this project will take a strong form quickly and further SCHAB's mission of promoting health, wellness, and infrastructural development at schools, and thus help children and communities.
From Moscow to Suzdal
After a day in Moscow where I took care of a handful of important errands for the project, I arrived in Suzdal on Tuesday May 29th! The train station was a mad house. No traffic jam in the United States could have prepared me for the trampling herds of Moscow traffic. I have never encountered mere people traffic as I have in Moscow. Because I was carrying a stuffed backpack and two large suitcases, I was constantly getting bulled through while trying to navigate the various platforms. Finally I found a woman train attendant who greeted me with a smile, the first smile I had encountered in over 24 hours in Moscow! She took my ticket and with big hand gestures communicated to me where my train was. I thanked her in Russian, English, and a gibberish hybrid of the two. I stood waiting at Platform 9 for twenty minutes when my knight in a shining orange vest reading "Service" came running towards me. I greeted the familiar face of my helper with a smile, though she started screaming at me and pointing. She grabbed hold of me and we, in a human game of frogger, navigated the maze of people to where my train was boarding at Platform 3! She pushed me into a train attendant collecting boarding passes and I made my way onto my cart with about three minutes to spare. I regret that I did not have the chance to thank her, but I was so disheveled by almost getting on a train heading Yaroslavl, which is four hours north of my destination, that I parked my self in my seat and just focused on my breathing. The moral of the story is that sometimes in life we all take the role of Blanche DuBois in A Street Car Named Desire and "rely on the kindness of strangers."
A Whole New World
As the train pulled into Vladimir, the city with a train line closest to Suzdal, I was glued to the window. My experiences in Russia had always been limited to the bustling metropolis of Moscow. Moscow's German cars, Mcdonalds, and a New York-esque atmosphere made me completely out of touch with the real Rodina (Motherland). When I got off of the train I felt as though I had gone back in time. Cars were no longer the tinted windowed Mercedes of Moscow. Instead they were brands that I had never seen before and clearly from at least twenty years ago. The buildings were Soviet block style and the change in atmosphere and lack of optimism was tangible. What I can note, however, is that there was a very fortunate change in the demeanor of the people. There were no angry travelers like the pocketbook carrying professional wrestler that I encountered in Moscow. Instead, people were friendly and helpful! In Moscow when I would ask a train attendant for help in my very American accent they would either pretend I was a cloud of vapor and with a wave of their hand I would vanish, or they would grab my ticket scan it over and then point in the most vague possible direction as possible. Here everyone was like my hero in orange that saved me at the Moscow train station. I was greeted outside of the train station by my host mother (Rimma) and a man from her work (Tule), who has a car. The hour drive from Vladimir to Suzdal was what I imagine it would be like to be in the passenger seat of a Russian formula one race car where the pit captain (Rimma sitting in the back) and the driver(Tula) are constantly making impassioned exchanges as Tula makes sure that no matter what truck or pedestrian may come in our way we maintain a speed of at least 100 k/h on the winding back roads. Once in Suzdal I was immediately captivated by my new surroundings. There is so much beuty here but it is mixed in with so much bleakness. The towns population is spread out into clusters between large open beautifully green pastures with grazing cattle surrounded by distant mountains. Scattered about are gorgeous churches and monasteries, some one thousand years old! Some of the houses are a quirky lime green or apple red. Most of the residents live in box Soviet style apartment homes like that of the flat in which I am staying. The cars are mostly at least twenty years old and there are no supermarkets, movie theaters, or restaurants. For example all the vegetables we eat at my host parent's house are grown and harvested from plots in the back yeard. It is clear right off the bat that Suzdal is a community lacking in urban development yet populated by wonderfully kind and warm people. I am very excited to get to work and aquaint myself with as many residents and students as I can here.
As I explained, the houses are very quirky. They are wacky colors and have very interesting moldings. They are all made of wood. Wooden homes are a staple of Suzdal's architecture.