Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I Saw in Russia: Postscript

I left Russia nearly three weeks ago. The whole experience almost feels like a dream to me. It’s hard to put into words what one feels during a trip to a strange land—all the unexpected sights and sounds, the novelty of travel—and I tried my best to describe what I saw in this series of posts.

The Russia trip has affected me on multiple levels.

First, as a singer, I realized that I had to step up my game; I was one of only two basses in our small choral group, so our mistakes stood out. I have a long way to go, but the trip has taught me what it means to be a confident singer able to lead in one’s vocal part.

Second, as a pilgrim, all the holy sites and especially the many crowds amazed me. Orthodoxy is thriving in Russia, despite the many decades of persecution. I can’t say that the situation in the Russian Church is perfect, but as long as there are devoted laymen and at least a few good shepherds, whatever problems may come up can be overcome.

Third, as a traveler, I mostly learned what not to do (turn in all of one’s papers before going abroad, for example). Also, I traveled with a very good group. We were all friends, but I got to know everyone a bit better, quirks and all. I’m sure that they learned a lot more about “Seminarian John” than they ever wanted to!

I hope you enjoyed reading these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them. The summer here in Jordanville is long, but it will be well-spent. A new post will not be long in coming!

Update: I guess I lied.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 8

At the convent, we said our last good-byes to Nicky, Alix, and Nastia. It would be the last time I would see any of them until perhaps after summer. And the last time I would see Nicky as a bachelor. Nastia said, “John! You are a REAL bass!” After everything that happened that week, I took it as high praise.

We left our bags at the convent and changed into street clothes. The girls were relieved because they were finally able to get out of their long concert dresses. “It’s so hot! How can you walk around in black dresses all day?!?” Natalia had said to me more than once on Saturday.

Everyone’s flight (except mine) was relatively early in the morning, so the idea was to say out all night and enjoy Moscow before taking off. As for me, I wanted to fly standby to be with everyone else. Besides, I wanted to enjoy some free time after all the hustle and bustle.

Photo: Irene. All others by Alika (except when noted).

Our initial goal was Gorky Park. We were led by Irene, an American acquaintance of mine from San Francisco. We walked from the convent, going in the direction of Christ the Savior Cathedral, and went over a bridge to a park. On the metal trees on the bridge there were quite a few locks, some of them heart-shaped. Apparently there arose a superstition that if you put your names on a lock and put it on a tree, your marriage would last.

Alika is a pretty good photographer.

In the park we saw some people playing with fire. To be exact, they were fire-dancing, something more likely to be seen in Polynesia than in Moscow. Some of them were pretty good, others looked like they were just starting out.

David: “Have you touched the water? It feels like a base!”

We walked through the streets of Moscow. It wasn’t exactly New York, but it did have a gritty, big-city feel to it. There were several large nightclubs which seemed to be competing on how many decibels they could produce (I imagine people had to sign waivers at the door). We also passed by probably the ugliest statue we had ever seen, one of Peter the Great atop a bunch of stacked ships reminding me of the game Jenga. Rumor has it that the statue used to be one of Christopher Columbus, until the original client refused the sculptor’s offer. The sculptor then switched heads and said it was Peter.

From Wikipedia. Yep. Kinda looks like Columbus.

Just hanging out, with a giant church in the background. Photo: Irene

When we made it to Gorky Park through a rather ambling path, we found most everything closed and the area not very hospitable to a group of eight young American tourists. We took leave of our guide. And then we tried to think of what to do next. Thankfully we found the nearest Shokoladnitsa, an all-night café-bar. I ordered a mojito, and we had time to think out what to do next. Poor Matthew kept looking for wi-fi, which everyone seemed to be able to connect to except for him.

The Kremlin at night.

We then did a bit more wandering about, and it seemed that ever fifty paces or so we would walk by a church. We went to another café and went back to the Kremlin. There we found a 24-hour Planet Sushi. Planet Sushi happened to be one of those restaurants at which we could eat for free, so we (the ones who were still awake) jumped at the chance to eat there.

By this time most of our party was pretty tired and collapsing in their seats, so for the most part the sushi was split between Cooley and me. We got several platters of sushi and sashimi. I also had a bowl of chicken ramen, which was so-so.

“Hey Meri, there’s a lox and cream cheese roll,” I said.

“Really!?” Meri perked up at the mention of her favorite food. She took a bite, and her eyes sparkled.

4 am sushi!

Overall, the food was actually really good, especially considering that Moscow is nowhere near the ocean. It certainly beat any sushi joint near Jordanville! To be honest I was getting a little grumpy but the sushi made up for everything.

By the time we finished it was approaching sunrise. We paid our bill with the gift card we had and set out for Red Square, which was almost completely empty. As we walked past Lenin’s Mausoleum, I sang “God Save the Tsar.” We stopped by St. Basil’s Cathedral to take pictures, of course.

David: “There, I made the river cleaner.”

We finally arrived back at the convent, a little more than six hours later and pretty exhausted. I was surprised, given my lack of sleep over the past week, that I was still standing. We got our bags, piled them into the van, and went to Sheremetyevo. It took us a mere twenty minutes to get there, much shorter than the hellishly long time it took to go *from* the airport in the beginning.

Getting one last nap in at the convent.

We checked in our flights, but unfortunately I couldn’t get on everyone else’s flight and had to wait until the afternoon to take my original plane. Even still I went with everyone to the gate to see them off. We had one last (free!) meal at TGIFriday’s, where a man wearing cat ears and lots of “flair” took our order. It was adequately American.

Ten o’clock came, and I said good-bye to my traveling companions. I then waited, on the cold floor of Sheremetyevo, writing my first blog entry.

Five hours later, the plane came, and I met with Fr. Andrei at the gate; he was taking the same flight. “I’ll make sure you get back to Jordanville,” he said. On the plane, I watched a Russian romantic comedy (pretty lame) and The Artist (pretty good) and dozed off a bit. When I got off the plane, I went through customs easily, got my checked luggage, and took a taxi with Fr. Andrei to the Synod building in Manhattan, where I stayed the night on a cot in the conference room. I ran into Bishop Peter, who was also staying at Synod, in his own room. That night, when I washed up to go to sleep, I drank some fresh New York City tap water.

It was delicious.

But wait…there’s more!

Monday, June 3, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 7

Sunday was finally here, the last full day of our trip. It was hard to believe that the trip (and this blog series) was coming to an end. But as they say, everything has an end except for sausages, which have two.

We got up extra early to go to St. Tikhon’s University in order to practice with their choir for liturgy. I was half-asleep again. Their choir was made up of many current and former students, both professionals and amateurs. There were about forty girls and five or six guys (there must have been quite a few female tenors). Practice went well enough, and the music was evenly divided between us.

We then went to the university church, was was still large but dwarfed by the other giant cathedrals we’ve visited. One man randomly went up to me and said in Russian, “Excuse me, but are you Filipino?”

It was the first real antiphonal liturgy in my life: we even alternated the verses for “Bless the Lord” in the beginning. Bishop Theodosy was serving again; it was our fourth hierarchal liturgy that week. I was pretty exhausted through the whole thing and was going flat all the time, but Communion lifted my spirits. At the end of liturgy, I said, “You know how they had nap-time in preschool, and we all hated it? I wish we had nap-time. Nap-time is wasted on children.”

Our fellow choir was very kind and hospitable to us, and gave each of us little icons of the Mother of God. We then took a picture together:

After another bountiful lunch (in which I didn’t touch a drop of wine) we had our first concert of the day in the Conference Hall. I was happy to see my friend Ksenia, whom I hadn’t seen in three years. She had recently moved to Russia after a year teaching English in Japan. I had met her in San Francisco, so Nicky and Alix were also happy/surprised to see her. As for the concert, you can see the last part for yourself:

Following the concert we had an informal meet and greet session with the audience, and I made some new friends. As is normal for Russia, there was more singing. And then some people set up two pianos and were playing some pieces.

We soon had to leave the University to go to the Protection of the Mother of God Church in Yasenevo, a suburb of Moscow. (In between we also squeezed in a trip to the shrine of St. Matrona.) It was the parish church for Lia, one of the readers in our concert and highly involved in youth activities in the Church. When we got to the church we were amazed: it was one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen, and it’s not even complete! The interior and exterior both have scaffolding, and only the lower church was finished.

We entered the lower church. There were replicas of many of the major sites of the Holy Land, from Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre. Everything was copied in minute detail. In a sense, I got a two-for-one deal with this trip.

The concert was very well-attended with Lia’s youth group, and a large number of disabled people. At this point I was completely exhausted and ready to faint, and the only thing I paid attention to was the many mistakes I made. But despite everything, due to God’s mercy we got a wonderful reaction from the audience. The highest praise came from Fr. Melchizedek, who said that he didn’t even need to say his Communion Rule that night, because the concert was prayer for him. You can listen to the concert and see pictures here.

After the concert we went to the Optina Hermitage dependency nearby, where we had one final dinner. Fr. Melchizedek was a very friendly, good-humored man, and judging from the health of the parish, an amazing priest.

We went outside and took some group pictures. The girls got some babushka-sized headscarves, so they posed for some photos, which I helped take (“Now imagine you’re seeing something in church you disapprove of! A sixteen-year-old girl just walked in wearing pants!”). We then piled into our van and went back to the convent. It was getting pretty late, but the night was just beginning!

* We stay out all night!
* Trouble at Sheremetyevo
* One last meal
* Back again

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 6

After last night’s long dinner, we got to sleep in. Around eleven, we went to Christ the Savior Cathedral for the Seventh Annual Vera i Delo (Faith and Deeds) forum, in which young people from Russia and all over Europe would come to discuss contemporary issues facing the church today. There, I also met some people I knew from San Francisco.

The Cathedral Hall is literally an Orthodox convention center. Around the central stage are rows of plush seats for over a thousand people. Behind the stage is a giant marble mosaic of Pentecost. We were seated in the front rows. While we waited for the event to begin, I was jotting down some notes for the blog, Alex Cooley and Alika/David made crossword puzzles for each other (“Babies in Pouches” = “Marsupial”), and Meri and Natalia played Hangman.

The forum began with a drum line. Seriously. I Am Not Making This Up. It was pretty awesome. I turned to Cooley and said, “We should do this for St. Herman’s!”

The first part of the forum was a long Q&A session with the panelists on the stage, which included Fr. Andrei. After about an hour or so, we ducked out to take a short tour of the Cathedral. I had seen it in the live broadcast of the Paschal service on Youtube, but of course it’s even more amazing in person. There was tight security at the entrance, which made sense considering certain recent events.

After our short visit we followed our tight schedule and went to the Martha-Mary Convent, which was founded by the Grand Duchess St. Elizabeth, the sister of the martyred Empress Alexandra. There we did our first concert, which turned out all right. The concert was a mixture of spiritual music and readings concerning the life of St. Elizabeth. The juxtaposition of the readings and the music was very powerful. For example, after the reading about the St. Elizabeth’s martyrdom at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we sang the Cherubic Hymn, which was reportedly what she and her companions began to sing when they were thrown down the mine shaft. The particular arrangement chosen was a favorite of the tsar and his family, so it’s possible that it was the one sung on that fateful day.

Nicky had us stand separated from people of the same vocal part. This prevented us from depending too much on our neighbor and made us focus on the conductor. Many in the audience were residents of the convent’s House of Mercy, including a few orphans. Following the concert the Superior congratulated us and presented us with small wooden eggs with St. Elizabeth’s monogram.

We then immediately went to the convent’s church to sing vigil. The convent church has some interesting architecture reminiscent of Vladimir/Suzdal architecture of the 13th century or so, especially the carved designs on the outside. The interior has spiritual frescoes painted by Nesterov. Vigil went well, and the church interior had a calming effect.

After dinner at the convent, it was already getting late and we had to get up early the next day to have rehearsal, so we went back to the dorms. Us guys finally got the router, and we had dependable internet for pretty much the first time in the trip. And I finally had a (sort of) good night’s rest.

* Liturgy at PSTGU
* Several Concerts
* Jerusalem-in-Moscow
* The Optina Podvorye

A Boring Day

It’s been relatively quiet here at Jordanville since I got back from Russia. Due to the time difference I’ve been going to sleep and getting up very early, so making it to liturgy has been no problem for me this past week. I’m working in the monastery bookstore for the summer, and nearly everyone is gone. It’s quiet, almost like a ghost town.

My work duties are light. I’ve been doing this since my first year, so I have a good idea of what to do, especially when something unusual happens or someone wants an obscure book in Russian. I encounter the same customers, plus quite a few pilgrims. This weekend, we had a group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who bought many books for their parish, as well as half the Easter Egg pendants.

Today, as I was finishing up, another regular came in: Mrs. Papkov. She lives not too far from the monastery, and is the mother of Fr. Andrei, the ROCOR priest in Chicago. Every time she comes into the store she has a story to tell. Or rather, a whole set of them. Being over ninety, she has quite a bit of life experience.

“Khristos Voskrese!” she said as she came into the store.

“Voistinu Voskrese!” I said, and congratulated her on the recent marriage of her granddaughter.

I’m not sure how it happened, but she launched into one of her stories set during the Second World War. She lived in a village, on the Azov Sea, which was occupied by the Germans. “The Communists left, and for one week before the Germans came there was anarchy,” she said. “Everyone did what they wanted, there was robbery.” When the Germans came they treated the villagers well at first, and played old Russian songs on the radio again. They told them about how life in Germany was great, and how everyone should go there. “They didn’t open the school, though, not beyond seventh grade, because they wanted us to go to Germany.” When the carrot didn’t work, the stick did, and the Germans forced people to go to Germany to work. Mrs. Papkov went to a brick factory to work. There, she saw a line of people being marched to a concentration camp. She said all this with a smile, something I guess you could do after living for so long.

She then told me about her mother, about how she was caught in an Allied bombing during the war. “The hospital was bombed and she was the only one to survive. Interesting, no?” She then took her leave of me. “You know my son? His daughter was married. She’s a smart girl!”

Moments after Mrs. Papkov left, a young girl with full cheeks and a yellow skirt wrapped around her legs came into the store asking to be shown the church with her family. The girl just graduated from college in Canada and was going back to the States with her family. We came out to meet the parents, who were from Belarus (“Ah, my friend is getting married in Belarus!” I said) and the very tall American boyfriend. I gave the short spiel about the church (I did write the Wikipedia article after all) and showed them the interior. The American had never been inside an Orthodox church before, and he found it pretty interesting. “No pews,” he said. He also found interesting how the dome inside was supported by the four pendentives instead of a circle of columns. “You know your architecture,” I said to him. The family thanked me and went on their way.

It was then that I realized that even on a “boring” day like today, interesting things still happen that are worth writing about.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 5

Friday was an eventful day. We got up early in the morning, got into our van, and drove to the heart of Moscow, the Kremlin. Outside the Kremlin we got out our stuff and put it through metal detectors. It was Patriarch Kyrill’s namesday (and a public holiday), so security was pretty tight. We also got special tickets for his namesday liturgy at the Dormition Cathedral. It’s an understatement to say I was excited. I was pretty ecstatic, at least, the part of me that wasn’t asleep. Not only did we get to see the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (at least, from a distance) we also got to see the Kremlin, and Dormition Cathedral! I had written about the cathedral in a paper for my Russian Church History class which turned into an article for Orthodox Life. My article was based on books; now I got to see the real thing.

My first impression of the Kremlin is that it’s a lot bigger than I thought. You could even say that it’s bigger on the inside. After all, that whole area used to be the entirety of Moscow! All the churches and government buildings and history bowled me over. I couldn’t believe it! And actually, I still can’t believe that, just over a week ago, I was there.

We went to the entrance of the cathedral, which was a little smaller than I had imagined it to be, though still much larger than any Orthodox church in America. There, a TV crew was filming, and a reporter took Nicky and then Alika aside to be interviewed. A familiar-looking metropolitan was walking into the church, and all of us went to get his blessing. “Christ is Risen!” he said in English.

“Who was that?” I said to Alex.

“That was Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev,” he said.

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!! That was ALFEYEV!!!” I did a double fist pump.

Then, I was taken aside by the reporter lady, who asked me a few questions about the importance of the day, how I became Orthodox, etc.

Photo: Alika
I came back somewhat dazed: “Did I just…was that…haa…”

“This is John, star-struck,” Meri said.

Liturgy in the cathedral was amazing, as you can see from this video:

The Sretensky Monastery Choir sang the liturgy, and we had…not quite front-row seats. The church inside was very crowded, and it was one of the few times that I wished that I was seven feet tall. There were not one but TWO patriarchs: Kyrill of Moscow and Theophilos of Jerusalem.

Plus about forty bishops. Photo: Alika
The church interior was beautiful, with ancient frescos and a huge iconostasis dating from medieval Muscovy. Of course, with all the people there it was hard to focus on any one thing. Before the liturgy ended we decided to avoid the rush and left the church. We waited outside for the big procession to begin.

Outside, we saw the Patriarch’s armored Mercedes surrounded by his bodyguards. A large group of Filipino tourists from LA of all places also approached me and asked me questions, beginning with “Are you Filipino?” “Why yes, on my mother’s side.” This elicited quite a positive response, and we explained a few things to them about what was actually going on today.

Before the procession began, we saw on the front steps of the cathedral a man and his wife, who almost looked like they were there by accident. Earlier we were shooed off by security, so we were confused. “Why are they standing there? Is he the Patriarch’s brother or something?” Someone said. It got even stranger when the man started to wave his arm up and down in a rhythmic fashion. Then the bells began to ring. It turned out that the man was the conductor for the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, and thus for all the bells of Moscow. It goes to show that you can’t judge someone’s ultimate importance from outward appearances.

Sea after sea of red vestments led the procession, followed by the people.

Just a few of them. Photo: Alika
The procession was from the Kremlin, through Red Square, down the streets of Moscow, ending at the monument to Sts. Cyril and Methodius. The Patriarch gave a stirring speech, which I didn’t get at all, except that it involved Russia somehow. I was baking in the heat and humidity, carrying a ridiculously-large backpack, and beginning to nod off. Standing.

We finally got out of the crowd and headed to lunch, again at Il Patio. After that, we went to the Martha-Mary Convent for a long (2-hour) rehearsal for the concert. And then finally, finally, we got some free time.

I went out in a small group of about seven, wandering around the neighborhood. We found an interesting Indian-themed restaurant-bar called the Bhagabar, which had Indian food and cocktails at exorbitant prices. I had a ten-dollar whiskey sour. We mainly paid for the ambiance and the freedom to sit down and act like ourselves (instead of our tourist or performing versions). We played several games, including a sentence game in which we made up stories using two words per person. We ended up chronicling the misadventures of “Seminarian John.”

Free time was drawing to a close, and we all had to go back to the van. A short ride later, we were deposited in front of a restaurant. Apparently we were to be treated by a potential donor. The man was friendly and spoke pretty good English. Dinner went on well into the night. Unfortunately, I was still pretty exhausted, and started falling asleep despite my best efforts while our host was telling us his life story. Natalia tapped me on the arm. “Wake up, John!”

“HUAAAAAAHHHH!!!!” I woke up with something in between a scream and a gasp, startling poor Natalia and everyone else on the table. It was a pretty funny moment.

Before too long, we had to take leave of our generous host because it was getting extremely late. Thankfully, we got to sleep in that night!

* An Orthodox convention center
* We perform our first real concert
* Vigil at the convent