Monday, February 22, 2010

Winterly Kaliningrad

Winter clothes for women in Russian winter are aplenty and stylish, but here she is more on the elegant side with traditional Russian woollen scarf.

A frozen pond in the heart of city, people often walk on it for fun, and authority has to put up signboard to warn them not to do so.

It was plus 3 degree-celcius, hence I should not walk on the pond as warned by the sign post.

In a week's time, Spring time beckons, winter will all be over. These are some favourite moments of my time in Kaliningrad. Very often, the Baltic sun shone brightly on the glistening white snow, which adds warmth to the cold air. Winter activities are aplenty, however being new here, I indulged in none. People in winter days here go ice-fishing, skating, watch ice-sculpture and making ice-sculpture (in other cities), and sailing.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Saint Peterburg Part 1 (Early Winter in December)

Besides Chinese characters, I find myself hopelessly and inexplicably drawn to Cyrillic alphabet. I love to see them, write them, read them (with my heavy Singaporean accent) and want to learn more and more in years to come.

Strolling in the city that encapsulated the grandiose vision of Peter The Great.

I found an angel in the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, one of the iconic attractions in Saint Petersburg, and one of my favourites.

Modelled after the famous St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated, on 1 March 1881, by socialist radicals.

Restored impeccably as a museum, the richly ornamented exterior of colourful enamelled domes, gilded mosaic panels, ceramic tiles, and stained-glass windows with intricately carved arches is matched by the gleaming marble and glittering mosaics of the interior.

Lilies are my favourite flowers, as they only wilt away in a dignified manner, and they are on the walls of the Church.

Many years ago, I unknowingly completed a zig-zag puzzle of a Russian church, only after I came here, I realised it was the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It has really been a long way to get here. Better late than never, the Russian saying goes.

Proudly presents The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood!! I could not take my eyes off it.

One of the largest museums in the world - Hermitage. My short stay did not allow me to visit in December, that left me a reason to visit again, and again!

Decorated railings along the River Neva, how will I ever get enough of it? Neo-classical, Art-Noveau or you name it, they have all found their place in Saint Petersburg.

Watched Opera:Turandot, singing in Italian and helped (or not much helped ) with Russian subtitles.

Like an excited a 300-plus-years-old city, I am compelled to think that I need to live that long to see all the exhibitions and works in galleries and museums, stroll in all the parks and appreciate every single piece of cultural achievement that mankind has indelibly made. I feel breathless!

A satisfied audience after seeing Puccini's opera, patiently waiting for the mile-long queue to disappear so that she could claim her winter coat, cap and gloves from the counter.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Saint Petersburg Part 2 ( Winter at -20 degree celcius)

If you do visit Russia one day, basic knowledge of Cyrillic alphabet is helpful; at least it helps you to figure out where you have landed yourself. Not all directional signs come with English. This is one of the metro station of Saint Petersburg.

Seeking refuge in a Lithuanian restaurant for warmth, for tea and mousse and some brightness in a darkening day at 4.00 pm.

Wires of neon-lights outside the restaurant are not spared from the cold weather, see how huge the icicles weighed and clung stubbornly on it.

A map of Lithuania on the table, and I saw my temporary resident-city Kaliningrad tuck between the European states of Poland and Lithuania. How happy I was to even see its name!

A Lithuanian tea-cup with open surface as big as the size of my face! I could practically use it as a mirror!

Disproportionately bigger than the typically bossy teapot , the tea-cup seems to be complacently stealing all attention.

Almost being dragged out from the warm bed to "experience real Russian winter", I found the tranquil but wide Neva River completely frozen and the whole city was seized by incessant snowfall, freezing but sublimely beautiful.

A walk along the river is part of Peterburgians' everyday life. The purplish-red sky to me is a magically rare sight, and I relished it.

Beauty of winterly weather aside, reality presents itself by causing inconvenience and even possible risks, workers are hired periodically to clean up overwhelming amount of snow from the roof-stop, walkway is then cordoned to facilitate work.

More pictures along the Neva river, everything came to a standstill, except for chimneys choking steam into the sky, and my smile in the pictures, which is almost a fixture.

A hauntingly forlorn sight, I will never forget this. Jetty waiting for no one, no boats in need of it.

Part of everyday life, along the walkways, outside anyone's home.

If you are a car-owner, good luck. The drivers here often lament the first ten minutes stuck inside with frozen hands trying in vain to start its engine.

Typical side streets in Saint Petersburg.

A courtyard in a residential complex, perhaps the car-owners have all imigrated like flocks to the south?

Crystal Palace, albeit a reluctant one - icicles on buildings often pose danger to pedestrians, walk at your own risk!

This is yet another backlog . Last month I landed in St Petersburg again before I came back to Kaliningrad. It was minus 20 degree celcius there. Difference of 50 degree celcius from home.

Arriving at the airport of Moscow for transit to Saint Petersburg, I couldn't wait to put on all necessary winter clothes to ease my overweight luggage. However I left my fur-clad winter boots resting in my checked-in suitcase until I desperately need it when I step out on the streets at my next destination. When I landed at Saint Petersburg, already in the plane before we stepped out to board the connecting bus to the terminal, people were busily putting on their bear-like but beautiful, gigantic fur coats, hats and leather gloves. They did it with such prewar-like grimness on their faces, and I certainly did the same before we were plunged into the cold again.

Within the airport complex, a motherly airport staff while scanning my suitcases almost screeched in amazement, but mostly out of concern that I was only wearing a pair of flats without socks on my feet! I was fairly amused by her reaction but it seemed like I was the one being too abnormal not to be noticed. I had to explain to her where I came from and pointed to the suitcase as my source of salvation. How relieved her face turned!

What does it feel like to be in such weather? Walking on the streets, I wore four layers of what - not but I was still freezing. Even when stopping at the traffic light for a while, I realised my teeth were clattering uncontrollably. I wished I have one of those fur coats that Russian women were wearing!

On the streets, the snow carpeted not only the streets, frozen up the river but also covered many parked cars along the roads. Roofs of buildings were lined with crystallic icicles, which are good to see but risky to expose yourself under. At carparks, you can always see side mirrors of cars sticking out from the thick snow defiantly, as if like two protruding and anxious ears of a man's face.

However when you are in the flat, you could just wear a pair of slacks and T-shirt. How amazing the central heating system is!

My brief encounter with -20 degrees celcius was followed by equally cold weather in Kaliningrad, but only for a few days. On those days, even my flat was no longer a sanctuary from outside. That's because being a much much bigger flat, I realised central heating system could no longer keep me sufficiently warm, partly thanks to the untimely broke down of a portable heater that my local friend Boris lent me. I also no longer hung my clothes in the balcony as I did not allow any openings at all in my flat, not even for while.

Finally I took my landlday's advice and slept in the study room. Too weak to move the bulky sofa-bed, even though I did try, from my bedroom, I ended up stacking all individual sofa cushions I could find to form my temporary but comfortable bed on the floor. I survived the few dreary days, and even had a girl friend to come sleep-over. Goodbye, harsh winter!

I often think about such living conditions - to some it is even to the point of suffering - that is so different from where I came from, about how it shaped people's behaviour, mould their values in life, and even alter their collective destinies along the timeline of human existence.While I lack the proficiency to articulate in philosophical terms, I do feel strongly differences do exist.

First of all, season changes sharpen one's sensitivity towards the environment, the beauty of nature, down to the minute transformation of the flora which may explain the catalyst that inspired voluminous amount of literary works. Blessed with all-year-round sunny season, I must admit that I am numb to the flowers that grin brightly to me everyday. By and large, we take the nature for granted and simply not notice it, except for a handful of nature activists.

When the temperature fell to -20 degree celcius, I wondered what am I dependent on for survival. What will happen if there is a strike, no buses work on the road, or even taxis? What if the central heating system breaks down? What if there's a fire, we need to vacate the flat or university, where could we seek help? There are some basic conditions to be met in such harsh weather, interdependence among people became more critical, a matter of survival.

I was often asked if I miss Singapore's weather, not at all if you ask me. But it is home afterall, no matter sweat and toil, sweetness or bitterness, it is home afterall.

Chinese New Year in Kaliningrad

Auspicious army of tigers toys from China guarded my French friend's Axele's apartment in Kaliningrad on Prospekt Mira. The paper-cutting art on the window pane promises a year of happiness and health.

If you do not know, Russians are also keenly aware of Chinese astrology, hence explain the presence of such merchandise. A common sight at the beginning of the year, by now it seems they have almost all been snapped up. Leave one for me!!!

My apartment is all set to celebrate Chinese New Year.

They flew all the way from Singapore, now accompanied by the Russian doll.

The true meaning of sisterly love. My sister baked pineapple tarts for me the night before I left.

New Year in Russian style, simple and warm.

Today is the first day of Chinese New Year, it is also the Lunar calender that is followed by Mongolians, Koreans, Buryats in Russia and the likes. Not auspicious to spend the day alone, I invited my Mongolian classmate and my teacher to visit me today. And I am so grateful they came and spent the day with me, when buses are rare during the weekends.
Axele has left Russia to celebrate Chinese New Year in a proper way - exactly in China. She is in the capital with her mother who is on a working trip.

I brought with me Kueh Bangkit, pineapples tarts, shrimp rolls, peanuts and durian cake from Singapore. A week before New Year, half of each has already been consumed, and I already need to ration my share of pineapples tarts till the end of Chinese New Year which is fifteen days later. My sister Michele baked it the day before I left for Russia last night. It was in the evening when she passed it to me, before we left for Chinatown in Singapore, when my sole intention to go there was to buy a tin of pineapple tarts. She must have heard my inner voices somehow. It is the tastiest pineapple tarts I have ever tasted in my life. Thank you.

As for hot dish, I cooked Herbal chicken with mushrooms and scallop and black pepper chicken
As it is a tradition for Mongolians, we also had meat dumplings after the meal. They brought with them dumplings, wine and cakes.

While partying and sharing everything in Russian, where I still struggle to speak correctly, my brother Stanley called. And in the background, his two little ones spoke with such festive mood, and it was great hearning them. I in turn wished him Happy New Year and Yen Ping, my sister in law, and of course the two little ones.

I called home and the folks were having a nap in Malaysia, and I received numerous smses from Singapore. Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

My Russian Apartment

My precious moment, short-lived but memorable.

My sanctuary of happiness and fulfilment - never short of food stuff full in the cabinet and drawers, never stop cooking, boiling, steaming, frying, stir-frying, deep-frying, and thinking what to eat/cook next...

My friends from Mongolia, China and France, our common language is not English but Russian. The Russian Dame- my teacher had not arrived yet, and even if she was present that, she would not allow herself to be photographed.

When souvenirs are needed to make your family and friends happy....a corner in my bedroom. Do you see the giant 'batteri' (heater) which give away the age of the flat?

A day with guests in the living room.

View from the bedroom.

Bedroom with a sofa-bed which is permanently turned into a bed.

Before you enter into the living room, you need to hang your coat, scarf and what-not, this is where the friendly puppy within the frame would greet you.

Living room with Chinese bamboo, unfortunately even my Chinese fingers have failed to resusitate it. The painting on the top left corner is late owners's granddaughter, Dasha, already 17 years old by now.

A corner in my living room where reading is well-illuminated. Most of the time this corner is transformed into my work-station.

My Reading room in the flat. Most of books on the shelves are that of the late owners.

Russian paintings and woodwork in the hall.

An old phone in the study room.

Late owners of the flat, a military lawyer and teacher who passed away five and three years ago respectively. Their daughter maintains the flat, as and when she deems fit, she would rent out the flat. Do you find it spooky to live with picture of former owners? I think not.

The only bedroom in the flat, with a folded three-frame mirror, which I like best.

Very often when Russian friends came to visit my flat in Kaliningrad, they could not help but marvelled at how comfortable the flat is, especially when I am the only resident in it. Although it is rather dated, everything in it works perfectly, washing machine, stove, TV, phone, Soviet-era heater, wooden floor cast upon cement ground (that makes it even warmer but unfortunately noisier), iron, a near-fully-facilitated kitchen.

It belongs to my vocal teacher's wife, a pianist, whose parents passed away a few years ago. She then rented it to a professor from Moscow for a while, and since then, she rather left it vacant than to rent it to strangers. When I told my teacher in early November that I am in need of a flat, his wife who was with him on that day to play the piano while we sang, said that perhaps they could show me the flat which is not far from my former flat. We went right after the lesson and I was pleasantly attracted by the nostalgic charm of the flat, which was then rather dusty and in desperate need of a good scrub.

After consulting my local friends for advice, it was concluded that the location and rental were both favourable, and hence I decided to rent it. My pianist-landlady hired a cleaning company to clean up and fix up the flat over one week, and ensured that when I move it, it was in the best condition. Indeed it was, when I moved in on the 8th of November, everywhere was squeaky clean, she even prepared a clean bedsheet and duvet cover for me.

My unit is on the 7th floor, a lucky number in the Russian psyche, and the number is 25. I often amuse myself that when I go home, I send myself to the Seventh Sky - a state of supreme happiness, but here transquility also apply. The flat has one squarish living room, one bedroom, one study room, one bathroom, one toilet, one balcony, a hallway with mirror, and last but not least, a kitchen.

My area is located in a residential area, and I often observed how people in my vicinity live. It has a mixture of old flats and new ones, and even more luxrious landed ones linning across the street. However, Russians are not known to be the most smiley people on earth, there is hardly any eye contact or whatsover. Strangely I have never seen any neighbours on the same floor coming in or out of their flats in the months I have lived here. When I do meet any at the lift, young kids would however greet me, and when I meet older folks, I would greet them first.
However un-smiley is not equivalent to unfriendly. The first time I came to visit my flat, so as to familiarize the bus-route, I lost my orientation and asked for help from an old lady who lives not far away. She dropped everything and screamed at her two reluctant young granddaughters at the playground, and altogether we marched towards my Seventh Sky.

At last I found it! I promised I will invite her when I settle down. The fact that I still have not done that must have something to do with my lack of confidence in conversational Russian. The conclusion is, I must study even harder, hence I shall stop blogging for now, and hope that my aim of inviting my kind nagivator-neighbour will arrive sooner than I hoped.