The fireworks are still going off throughout Moscow, for today marks the end of the New Years holiday in Russia: Старый Новый Год. Due to the Orthodox Church's continued use of the Gregorian calendar, the Old New Year celebration is held on January 13, although the state still recognizeы January 1st as the New Year.
So, what does this mean? Russians have been celebrating for 13 days straight.
And what does this mean? Russians have been drinking for 13 days straight.
Well, at least for 10 days. The Russian government declared the official holiday from January 1-10. And the Russian people milked those 10 days for all that they're worth. I tried my best to keep up. I decided to stay in Moscow to experience part of this grand New Year celebration and to try on my fledgling 'Russian-ness' for size. I succeeded for only a day and a half.
My plan had always been to go to Red Square and 'do it right'. Everyone I told of this plan, however, warned me against it, saying it would be too crowded, too cold, and too dangerous. After drinking with some professors in celebration of yet another birthday, I finally got to the bottom of their concern: Caucasians. They were warning me that only people from Chechnya, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Georgia, etc. go to Red Square for New Years. Russians, to put it politely, are wary of these types after decades of wars and recent terrorist attacks (Nord Ost in 2002, Beslan in 2004, and most recently the Nevski Express explosion in late November 2009).
But I was doing it for the memory, and I was going to do it. So I planned my night out:
First, drinks and dinner with my friends Kristyna and Alex in my room. We didn't have much food, but we did have a lot of vodka.
Second, concerts and fireworks on Red Square with Kristyna, Alex, Nadia and Polina. More drinking; this time champagne and cognac.
Third, return to the university and meet up with Lyoha and go to his apartment for a big party with his friends (after a snowball fight on the main square of the campus). There were several bottles of champagne, seven bottles of vodka (read: more drinking) and a large новый-годный стол packed with mayonnaise-filled meat-salads, bread, salami, cheese, and Russia's famous холодец--boiled pigs feet chilled in its own juices until gelatinous--to be eaten strictly with horseradish (and I would recommend some vodka to help forget what you're eating).
I'll sum up my New Years 2010 night with the following statements:
- I enjoyed myself immensely.
- Red Square was cold and crowded, and perhaps dangerous too, but I didn't notice. I had had enough to drink to make sure of that.
- I met some great people at Lyoha's party and got some good Russian practice in. I also ate холодец. (no comment)
- I drank a lot, but retained perfect consciousness. The Russians are artists at drinking and not getting a hangover, and they have generously taken me on as their protege. 17 shots of vodka, 2 glasses of champagne, and 1 shot of cognac. Still alive.
- Before I knew it, I was dancing on Lyoha's couch, and it was 7 A.M.
7 A.M.! "I need to go home."
I put on my boots and jacket and trudged home through the snow as the sun was rising, and passed out until noon, when my phone rang.
Lyoha: "Bryan! Where are you?"
Me: "Uh...home? In bed?"
Lyoha: "No no no no! This is New Years...in Russia! It is a 10-day party! Come back, everyone is waiting for you!"
Me: "Okay." (I'm very stubborn.)
I put my boots and jacket back on as the room spun slightly around me, and made my way back through the fresh snow to Lyoha's apartment. I was conscious enough to notice that no one was outside. I had been warned of this. January 1st in Russia is the most quiet place on earth. The entire population is at home, either passed out in all their glory from the night before, or still throwing back shots of vodka with friends. The latter was my fate. I arrived back at Lyoha's to the clinking sound of shot glasses and vodka bottles being slammed onto the table. 2 more down the hatch within 5 minutes of arriving.
Thankfully, I had an excuse for leaving before midnight on this second day of partying. Two fellow Fulbright ETAs were coming through Moscow on their way back to Russia from their respective vacations, and I promised to spend a few days with them. So I slipped out of Lyoha's at around 11:30 P.M., just as a dubbed "Tropic Thunder" was coming on TV (it's a good thing I left then, or I would have been sucked in.)
The next two and a half days were spent with Fulbrighters Kristen, Nicky, and Andrew, as well as with Thomas--one of my classmates from Middlebury who was in Russia for a few weeks doing senior thesis research--and Thomas' sister, Lee. We hit up several great museums, a killer bakery for breakfast, ate at the same vegetarian restaurant for dinner two nights in a row, and I fortunately managed to limit my alcohol intake to a couple of beers over those days.
The evening of January 4 saw me off on a 4-day adventure to Istanbul to meet Jed, my good friend from W&M, as we had been planning on doing for several months. I can't possibly go into great detail about everything I saw and did in Istanbul, but I will give some bullet highlights:
-most important for my morale, I saw grass (well, greenery in general) for the first time in 3 months; and the temperature got as high as 14 degrees (compared to -15 average in Moscow)
- got a native tour of Taksim, the young, hip, modern part of Istanbul (unbelievably fun, and also a 24/7/365 kind of place; "Istanbul never sleeps," we were told---and we believe it)
- saw the entirety of Istanbul from the Galata Tower
- went to a nightclub and saw two great Turkish bands play live
- bought a 50-year old carpet handmade in central Turkey from a 4th generation carpet merchant in the 5 century-old Grand Bazaar (I love saying that)
- visited the Basilica Cistern--an underground wonder--with its two mysterious Medusa-head column bases
- visited several mosques, including the world-famous Blue Mosque (unreal)
- visited the Hagia Sophia (the most incredible part of the whole trip in my mind)
- took in one of the most breath-taking and history-filled views of my life: looking out of the second-floor balcony of the Hagia Sophia across to the Blue Mosque
- visited the Topkapi and Dolmabahce Palaces (and their respective harems), which were home to the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire for centuries
- saw a Marc Chagall exhibit at a modern art museum
- ate a ton of baklava, drank a ton of apple tea, and smoked a water pipe in an open air joint completely covered in carpets and pillows...classic
- spent a night eating stellar seafood and drinking raki while overlooking the Bosphorus
- took a ferry across the Bosphorus to the Asian side for some more exploring
- heard a great deal of Russian (and spoke some) with the HUNDREDS of Russian tourists visiting Turkey---sometimes I felt like I never left...
- learned some Turkish! [merhaba = hello; gule-gule = goodbye; teshekur = thank you; tashakur = my balls (be careful between those last two); sau = thanks (a much safer bet); lutfen = please; bir = one; iki = two; bira = beer ("bir bira, lutfen"); yagshemash = goodnight! (you may recognize that from Borat)]
It was an unbelievable time, and I was so glad to be able to share it with such a good friend. Some may call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I have a feeling I'll be going back. Here are just a few of the 800+ photos I managed to take:
Jed admiring his rug purchase with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk watching over his shoulder, as he does everywhere in Turkey (and I thought Russians were big on personality cults).
A look back at ancient Istanbul from the ferry across the Bosphorus to the Asian side.
The incredible Hagia Sophia as seen from from the main entrance of the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque--an incredibly intricate structure.
For now, though, it's back to the frigidness of Moscow and the teaching regimen. What a downer after such an exhilarating vacation.