Sunday, June 07, 2009

"The Pool Incident"

The “pool incident” must be recounted in its own post, to give it its rightful place as the most memorable moment of the “fitness” weekend in my mind. On Saturday evening our group had an assigned time for use of the pool, Jacuzzi and sauna. Sam and I headed down together and Courtney was planning to join us there. I wasn’t really intending to swim, but with pictures of typical American, European, and even African hotels and various pools in my mind, I assumed I could take a good book and sit by the pool watching Sam and the other swim, then after a while enjoy the jaqcuzzi and sauna. I convinced Courtney to do the same and we both packed a small bag with a towel and book, water bottle, etc. for indoor poolside enjoyment. We were escorted by Michael, a very kind man, who knew about 5 words in English and practiced using all of them, regardless of whether or not they made any sense in the situation. Michael showed us to the separate men’s and women’s “changing rooms” through which one had to enter the pool. I, who was already dressed for the pool, figured I would just walk through and out to a waiting chaise lounge, armed with my little bag of all the things I’d need for enjoying the pool. I quickly realized where I was when I was ushered into a bare room and two women speaking very commanding Russian explained I needed to wear a swimming cap.
Eta Rosseya. This. Is. Russia.
Did I have a swimming cap?
She showed me a clear plastic shower cap she had with her at her little table - the only thing in this empty room.
Would I wear this then?
OK. Fine. I’ll wear the goofy-looking shower cap.
She ushered me into the changing room and explained that I needed to wear the pool shoes they provided me.
OK. Fine. Whatever.
Then she pointed and showed me the showers and I understood that I had to shower off and only after this then I would be granted entrance to the pool.
Now, up till this point I was understanding most of what was being said. There were enough words I recognized and enough hand motions that, together with logic and common sense, I could understand the instructions. But. Here’s where it gets tricky. I had a question. I didn’t want to leave my bag in one of their UNLOCKED lockers in the dressing room while I went into the pool area. Remember, my whole intention was to go sit by the pool and relax, reading, anyway and with my bag unsafely tucked away in a locker how was I going to do that? I tried to ask if I could take my bag inside the pool with me, via hand motions and the pertinent words I knew like, “Can I”, Bag” “Take”. Either my Russian is worse than I thought or she just decided that I had not understood all her prior instructions and she again told me I had to put my bag in the locker, shower, then go in the pool. We went back and forth like this a while, in the midst of which, Courtney arrived to find me semi-arguing with the lady, as I tried to explain that I understood everything else, but I didn’t want to leave my bag, so I needed to leave to take it back to my room. I slipped my own shoes back on and explained quickly to Courtney what I was going to do and I told her I’d take her bag upstairs too and be right back. The lady kept arguing and finally I just walked out the door with our bags, leaving Courtney there to fend for herself. But, I reasoned, I’d be right back, no worries. I was on the stairs when I realized I didn’t have the key for our room, because Sam, who was surely already in the pool, had it. I turned around and headed back down, at which time I ran into Michael, who was confused about why I wasn’t in the pool. (I later found out that Eric had asked him to look after us.) He used one or two of his 5 words and I tried to explain to him about my bag and needing the key. He nodded emphatically and was so kind I was sure he understood and could help me out, no problem. He led me downstairs and rather than turning right, towards the pool, he turned left and unlocked a small office-like room. Thinking he had understood my concern about the safety of our bags, I put down our bags and turned to head back out of the office. He motioned for me to stop, smiled kindly, and walked out, closing the door behind him. So now I am standing in a small office in the basement of some compound, upset from my unsuccessful arguing with the changing room lady, frustrated that after nearly two years in Russia I still can’t get my point across, completely bewildered and confused and I’m starting to worry.
All I want is the key to my room!
A few minutes passed and I started getting more upset, my eyes began to sting with tears. I took a deep breath and listened. Silence. Then I heard a noise in the hallway. It sounded like maybe Michael was standing out there. I went to the door and slowly opened it and there he was, looking at me, slightly confused. By this point, it’s been at least 10 minutes since I left Courtney, and I want nothing to do with the pool, but I still need the key. But I seem further and further from success in that area, and I am feeling pretty lousy because I can’t get anyone to understand me. The confused Michael is just looking at me, and I am trying to keep it together.
I need to find my husband! Moi muzh. (my husband) komnata. kluchey. (room. key.)
He still looks confused but at least he understands the words. He asks me if he’s here.
Yes. In the pool. Chorney. (black)
A moment of recognition from Michael.
Oh! Black! Yes.
Michael remembers Sam and starts quickly leading me back towards the pool. He seems happy that he has figured out the puzzle. And, to tell the truth, so am I.
I remember walking up the steps feeling so relieved. I was finally going to find Sam, get the key and be done with it. Michael led me back to the changing room door and I entered, as I saw him entering via the men’s changing room (they both led into the same empty room, then into the actual changing rooms section). Once in this little room, I foolishly thought I could simply walk up to the open door of the pool, look in, get Sam’s attention and that would be it. But! I forgot to factor in the “Eta Rosseya” factor. I no sooner took steps in the direction of the door, when the changing room Nazis (there were two now) pounced on me, YELLING at full voice. You would have thought that I had a fully load machine gun in my hand and I was about to let loose on all those unsuspecting swimmers. They both really let me have it. I jumped back and before I could even rationally stop it, I started crying right there in the stupid single-table, white tile room. Hearing the yelling, Michael quickly appeared in the doorway (apparently he had been searching the men’s side of the changing room for Sam). He looked over, saw me crying and looked at the changing room Nazis, said something to them, and they forcefully supported their very rational reaction to a woman striding so boldly right up to the door of their closely guarded pool. He said something else, then came over to me and asked, “What his name?”, and he went to look for Sam himself. Michael found him, sent him to the door and I was allowed to talk to him there. One of the Nazis, now looked very confused and apologetic, started trying to justify, very softly saying, “Aw…Ti ne ponimaesh…? Ya ne ponimayu.” (Aw…You don’t understand…? I don’t understand.) Eric, whom I caught a glimpse of over Sam’s shoulder, looked very worried and asked, “What’s wrong??”. Sam would explain later. Sam went to get me the key which I gratefully pocketed and quickly ran away with, away from the pool, up the stairs, and into our room, where I contemplated how much language barriers suck.

A Weekend in the Country 1

The month of May was full activity and adventure, to be sure, but nothing stands out in my mind quite like our “weekend in the country”. Let me explain. The second weekend in May celebrates one of the many holidays in Russia between May and June. The a fore-mentioned holiday is May 9th (V.E. Day as celebrated in Russia, whereas in the U.S. it was May 8th - the victory in WWII was announced past midnight, making it the next day here). The 9th fell on a Saturday this year, and Monday of the following week was given as a public holiday making a long weekend. Of and course, I’m sure it’s quite an international tradition that on long weekends, people take trips. Eric brought up the weekend in question and gave us an invitation to join a group of people from his gym for a weekend of, “sport in the fresh air” outside the city. From his vague explanation, Sam, Courtney, and I conjured up images of campfires and forests and some organized sports perhaps, like football or maybe some group games. We accepted, being good little adventurers, since we still had no real idea of where we were going or exactly what we were signing up for. It was agreed that we would leave the city Friday evening around 8:00pm to hopefully miss the rush of traffic leaving St. Petersburg. I sent him an sms a day or so before our trip to ask what we should take with us. His response was, “Take clothes for sport, for swimming and party.” At 7:00 on Friday evening, I received the fist of a series of text messages from Eric: “We’ll be there at 9:00 instead” along with several others that of course blamed their tardiness on Lusha’s over-abundant packing. Around 9:30 Eric arrived and we threw our bags in the back of the already very full hatch of the SUV. Lusha and her friend Olga we driving in one vehicle and Eric, Sam, Courtney, myself, and Arthur (Lusha’s son) were in the other. It turns out that we weren’t the only ones who were not exactly sure where we were going for the weekend. Eric, himself, had only spotty directions and after a number of false starts, a few U turns, and pit stops for direction-asking, we were more or less on our way. The first hour or so, we sailed along the highway, but of course on a weekend (and particularly a LONG weekend) the traffic leaving the city is horrendous. But we amused ourselves with a radio mix of classic rock and early 90’s music, language-themed conversation, and general banter. And low and behold: about 3 hours, several more U turns, and a few phone calls later, we found the place. In Russian this kind of place is called a “baza” (“base”). It’s kind of like a compound, in this case for recreation. It’s like a cross between a motel and a dormitory. It was late, so we dragged our stuff inside, got a quick run-down of when breakfast was served in the cafeteria (between 9-10am), acquired our keys and got settled in to our rooms. Eric mentioned something like, “there might be some morning exercises before breakfast…around 8am” to which we all, including Eric, sort of laughed at with a “yeah, right” sort of attitude. Well. Being the obedient, young over-achievers that we are…ok, well…that Sam is, we planned to get up at 7:45am to be ready for the 8am exercises. Yippee. I woke up a little early and decided to get up and maybe even grab a quick shower to wake up before these calisthenics. And just as I was about to jump in the shower, there was a knock at our door (this was around 5mins till 8) and Sam answered to find one of the fitness instructors who told him it was time for morning exercises. I passed on the shower and went to get dressed. Sam and I got ready quickly and were locking our door 10 mins later. We went to the lobby, but didn’t find anyone from our group there. We walked outside, but no group. We wandered around a little bit looking for them and finally gave up. Sam decided he’d go for a short jog and so I decided to walk in the same direction. He was farther down the road then I when we called to me and said he had found them. I jogged down the hill and arrived just in time to join a circle of people introducing themselves, congratulating one another and calling it quits. We were dismissed and told that anyone who was late the next morning would be doing 20 push-ups. We were instructed to eat breakfast and re-convene afterwards. I was not exactly a happy-camper, having gotten up early only to have no clue where anyone was, then finally finding them, only to have missed the whole thing anyway. (Courtney, I must mention, didn’t even bother with it. We saw her at breakfast about 30 minutes later. I think she had the right idea.) The food was pretty terrible. Buffet-style, but with a choice either very bland or very greasy. Not exactly what you’re looking for when you’re unknowingly about to be beaten to a pulp for two days by two very energetic fitness instructors. After breakfast there was 1km to run, through the woods. And of the lead runner apparently had no idea that the entire group wouldn’t be able to keep pace with the front runners, and therefore a number of us lucky people got lost in the woods for a while. But we eventually found our way and ended up in the field with everybody else. (I must mention that when I arrived in the field Sam wasn’t there, and I correctly deduced that he had gone back to look for us. So yeah, minus one point for leaving me in the woods, but score one point for extra running to look for me afterward. ) For the next 2 hours, we did intervals or a large variety of exercises and numerous “stations” – squats, exercise bands, medicine ball lifts, yoga positions, chin ups, push ups, pull ups, etc, etc, etc, while the way too happy instructors counted out the time and either encouraged or taunted us…and probably both. Let me say this, having someone verbally explain an exercise to you in a language you only partly understand doesn’t do a lot of good. Visualization, much better. Another crappy meal and then a hour for rest, then we were back out in the field, but this time it was some kind of scavenger hunt. The rules were never really explained to us (those of us, non-Russians) and we never split into groups or anything, so we just wandered at the back trying to figure out what was going on. This activity was thankfully short-lived due to cheap compasses, no teamwork, and the fact that the sky got really dark and let loose with a heavy downpour. Saved by the rain. The rest of the weekend was similar – bad food, and more grueling exercises, but this time in the form of aerobic kick-boxing. Which totally kicked my butt, but I still really enjoyed it. Maybe because I could actually keep on rhythm and quickly figure out the movements, whereas a lot of people couldn’t quite catch on. It was led by the female fitness instructor, so the male instructor was out in the crowd and happened to be next to me and he was looking pretty much like a 13 year old white boy trying to dance. Not pretty. Also we played some indoor volleyball, which was really fun until two random guys joined and made it not fun anymore – the kind of guys that assumed our team was losing because our team had two women and the other had none. Whatever. I didn’t take any photos of the brutal workouts, because I was too busy being reminded how out of shape I was. But I do have some nice pics of the forest, the lake, and the lovely tea breaks that we had thanks to Lusha’s preparedness. Her “over-abundant packing” included a coal samovar and actual tea cups. Courtney said it well when she said, “Only Lusha would bring fine china on what is practically a camping trip.” Always the good hostess, she even had chocolates to go with the tea. The last thing of note from this weekend is what shall henceforth be dubbed, “the pool incident”…may it live in infamy.

photos from the weekend. place your cursor over a photo for its caption.

Monday, June 01, 2009

May has come and gone

Wow. last month was a blur. a good blur. a blur with friends and coffee. a blur with busy-ness and sightseeing. a blur with sunshine and new places. laughter and sharing life. filled with photos and stories. and bereft of time to post about them. and now its June.

Courtney arrived the day before International Labor Day, which was completely intentional on our part, as it mean that Eric, Sam and I would immediately have 3 whole days off work to show her around and help her adjust. Day 1 consisted of coffee, a leisurely day spent wandering the city center and a boat trip through the canals. Day 2 consisted of coffee, a guided tour through the city with an English-speaking guide, a complete overload of information, Mexican food, and lots of photos. Many of which i will leave you to enjoy here:

more to come...