Thursday, December 20, 2012

Season's Greetings

They put up the ugliest tree I've ever seen in Ploshad Pobedy. It's about 150 feet tall, rigidly conical enough to be an example in a geometry problem, covered in fake greenery that looks like someone ran a monkey puzzle tree through a bark chipper and then plasticized it and glued it back together, and decorated with thousands of heinous bows and ornaments and rows of seizure-inducing flashing lights. Everyone agrees it's ghastly and incredibly expensive, but it's not like that will stop it from going up again it every year. Welcome to Russia!

I'm not sure how it's already nearing the end of December, but it feels like Christmas. Temperatures have been hovering around the -5 mark, which feels much colder in Celsius than it actually is (about 23 degrees F). There are a couple of inches of snow, which locals assure me is actually unusual for December and more typical for January. Salt and sand are the ice-removal methods of choice, which are hell on shoes and turn the sidewalks into dirty mushy slush-chutes, where they aren't solid sheets of ice. To put it more graphically, the slush on the roads is more like what you might get if you mixed cow diarrhea with beach sand, minus some of the smell. This is rumored to be the coldest winter in twenty years, but (knock on wood) it hasn't been too bad yet.

The Orthodox Christmas is a quiet religious holiday and falls on January 7, in accordance with the old Julian calendar, which differs from the Gregorian one by several days. Lenin brought the Soviet Union in agreement with most of the rest of the Western world by switching to the Gregorian calendar in 1918, but the church still uses the old dates. (Incidentally, the "October Revolution" is called that because it happened under the old calendar at the end of October 1917, which by the Gregorian reckoning was already early November.)

New Year's is the big holiday here, and the (more or less) functional equivalent of American Christmas. Russians decorate a New Year's tree and exchange gifts with friends and family on New Year's Eve. Salads are the traditional holiday fare (to a Russian, if you chop several anythings up and cover them with mayonnaise, it's a salad), with Оливье ("Olivier") being the most typical New Year's variety and consisting of potatoes, peas, meat, eggs, pickles, onions, and mayonnaise. Instead of making a resolution, it is traditional is to write a wish for the coming year on a slip of paper, burn it, mix the ashes in your champagne, and drink it -- all while the bells in Red Square are tolling midnight. Kaliningrad, however, is one hour behind Moscow time, so it's the only region in Russia where you can watch Putin give his annual midnight New Year's speech at 11 pm, and then an hour later see the fireworks here when the new year turns over in this time zone.

(Also incidentally, Russia's current time zone situation is a fiasco in grand national style. At the end of his last term, President Medvedev abolished the annual daylight savings switch, but he did so in the summer, while all of Russia was on daylight savings, and so now the entire country is stuck an hour ahead of when it should be. This means it doesn't get light here until about ten in the morning, and also that Kaliningrad is currently two hours ahead of Poland, which is directly south of us -- inconvenient bordering on ludicrous, to say the least. Putin was at one point promising to take the country permanently back off of daylight savings time, but nothing has happened yet, and for now people here are going to work while it's still dark and coming home after it's dark again.)

Everywhere on cards, calendars, and in kiosks I keep seeing stylized New Year's snakes, which are frequently wearing (what we know as) Santa hats (although Russians have Дед Мороз [Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost] and his granddaughter Снегурочка [Snegurochka, the snowmaiden]). At first, I just assumed that the snake was some symbolic new year's metaphor for cyclical time and rebirth, similar to how we have a fat baby in a top hat. But when I told this theory to my students, they laughed at me and said no, this is just the Chinese Year of the Snake.

The whole world probably knows from movies the main tenets of how Americans celebrate Christmas, but I've explained some of the less-known traditions so many times now that I can predictably tell which of them will draw the incredulous stares. For instance, the fact that some people really will use a small city's worth of electricity to cover their house in hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights and inflatable snow globes and wire moving reindeer and synchronized music, complete with inflatable Santa on the roof. Or the tradition of sending Christmas cards to friends and family with an inevitably bad family portrait in front of the word's biggest ball of twine, in which the young kid is totally distracted, the teenager bored and exasperated, the parents harried, and the dog relieving itself in the background. My favorite tradition, however, is the one where everyone bakes sixteen kinds of cookies and leaves plates on neighbors' front porches, until by the beginning of January no one wants to see another sweet again until March.

This is my last week of classes before the break, but the poor students have finals next week, then ten days off for New Year's and Orthodox Christmas, then two more weeks of more serious exams (they've explained this system to me so many times and I still don't quite understand it), and then a couple weeks of actual vacation before classes start again in February. For our final lesson before break, I've been showing "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (most of them have seen the Jim Carrey version, but the original 1966 animated one is new) and stuffing them full of cookies and fudge, which, considering Russians' love for condensed milk, is surprising they've never tried before.

I'm not religious, and my own holiday traditions are secular and not necessarily centered on December 25th. Nevertheless, as an American sharing my culture abroad, I find myself being an emissary of the majority in response to expectations of me, if not by my original intent. Whether that's a good thing or not is an entirely different can of moral and pedagogical worms, but it has slightly changed my relationship with Christmas this year. Living in a place where I am not constantly surrounded by the pressing consumerism and cultural ubiquity of Christmas, combined with the constant need to explain how it's celebrated in America, has brought me closer to the holiday in a way I wasn't expecting. While Christmas and I might disagree back in the States, here we are both foreigners, and now it's a tie back to home and family. Regardless, the winter holiday has always been more to me about surviving the longest nights of the year by making lots of light and celebrating with friends and family -- and I'm thankful that I have so many friends here with whom to get through the dark Russian winter together.

Mostly though, my plans for the next week are frantically finalizing details for my epic January travel adventure, which will begin with a week in Germany over New Year's, then a flight to Moscow where I'll meet friends and take the Trans-Siberian railroad to Irkutsk, stop to see Lake Baikal, then get back on and ride all the way to Vladivostok in the Far East (7 total days by train from Moscow). After that, the tentative plan is to see Kazan (interesting as the capital, on the Volga, of the predominantly Muslim Tatar culture) and possibly Nizhny Novgorod before heading back to Moscow for our mid-year conference. All told, I'll be gone for over a month, only returning to Kaliningrad on the very last day of January, although after all that I'm sure this city will feel like sweet familiar home! Blogging will likely be scarce over that time, but never fear -- I'll be sure to write about it when I get back!

I hope to make one more post before I leave for Siberia, but just in case, happy holidays to everyone back home and abroad! I'm sending frozen love from Russia.

If the man in the lift is hanging ugly ornaments at a rate of 3/min,
while the radius of the tree's base is x and the height is 60 meters,
how long will it take him to decorate the entire tree?

View from the dormitory kitchen towards everyone's favorite asbestos-filled building

View from my university classroom

"In this place will be built a monument to world peace"

Yes, they are fishing in the river

Hotel Kaliningrad

1 comment:

  1. Since you asked, the man will take xπd[(3600+x^2)^(1/2)]/3 minutes to decorate the tree, where d is the ornament density. Assuming x is 5 meters and d is 10 ornaments per square meter, it will take just over 53 hours. Which means at least a week, since he'll have to go up and down several times and this is Russia. (I had forgotten the formula for surface area of a right cone, so thanks for asking!)



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