Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Мыло

It is Russian slang for "e-mail."

Literally, it means "soap."


As per the suggestion in an email I received, commenting on the blog is now open to everyone, including anonymous users! So comment away, but please say who you are!


I have lots and lots and lots and lots to say, but we're going on an excursion to the Dostoevsky Museum now! ahh

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Пирог!

Ruins of a fortress, built in the...14th century, maybe? The whole region is incredibly ancient. This is Old Izborsk, a beautiful little town and museum not far from Pskov and only 30km from Estonia and Latvia. People from the area sell crafts, baked goods, and souvenirs at stalls scattered around the place. I bought a bottle of homemade kvas from a local woman, and it's really quite good and very fresh! There's a spring nearby that gives delicious, good water, renowned for its healthy properties.
More on Izborsk - in English, with history
More on Izborsk - Wikipedia (in Russian, but nice pictures)
More on Izborsk (official site, in Russian, but even more nicer pictures)

(The title means "Pie!" -- it's a line from Chekhov's "Three Sisters," the play we're doing for the theatre project here. It was also featured in the cuisine of this weekend. More about the play (and Russian music) later.)


This is going to be a really quick post because I have a ton of homework tonight and I'm exhausted already, but I wanted to give a quick update.

Friday evening was really fun, and the trip to Pskov (and region) this weekend was overall really good. The food was great! Saturday night was a really fantastic time at a bar (you could say more of a live music club than a bar) in Pskov, and I'll talk about that more next post. The weather was afwul on Saturday though, and the bus trip was tedious. It was also very aggravating to hear the guides--they are generally difficult to understand when we go on excursions because we just don't know Russian well enough yet, making it difficult to have a really meaningful experience.

I just want to say, lastly, that it has been up and down here for me, but last night I got a great bit of advice from one of my fellow students in the program that helped to put everything in perspective--why I'm here, why I've gone so far away, what I'm working toward, and what the end result of all this traveling will be. It's a lot to think about, but it was certainly a calming thought. For once, the future doesn't seem so frightening in its uncertainty.

Unfortunately, that's all I have time for now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

БИЗНЕС–ЛАНЧ

I have to start this post by saying it almost didn't happen right now because a mysterious tone and voice just appeared, saying, "WARNING!" and going on to say something in Russian about something happening with the building. We were all about to leave (the message repeated again, and again), but then we found out it was just a test of the system. Oy.

I always say I'm going to do a short post but that never seems to happen. Ah well. I probably won't post anything until Monday, so maybe all the more reason to post now. Photo time:

This is laundry detergent (стиральный порошок) for hand-washing. It's called Meef. In English, Myth. This stuff will get your clothes mythically clean! For legendary comfort!


Last night:
http://www.gogolfest.org.ua/
Аmazing! It included lasers, Ukrainian chanting, accordions, performance art, huge balloons, a dude chain-smoking and playing 6-string bass at the same time, masked figures, and finally running around dancing around the room holding hands in a long line of people. Somehow that last bit was very Slavic. I dunno what the Ukrainian band had to do with Gogol, but they were awesome. Here's their website. And here's their Last.fm page. Are you on Last.fm (<- my page)? I use it to track what I've been listening to and to get more information from artists and bands, as well as to find new music. I highly recommend it, except for the fact that their online-radio service seems to have a fee now.

Also, I wrote a bit earlier about some of the discomfort I've felt around alcohol. I think it's a very individual thing. Part of it was that in more formative years, I never really felt like I had the chance to develop my own ideas on my own terms about it. Last night at the concert, I enjoyed a beer while watching the opening band, and it was great! It's nice to not be so worried about it. Also, I still have an Israeli beer in my suitcase that shouldn't be there when I leave Russia.Scenes from last night. Crazy laser show technical performance art awesomeness. The first picture, where you can see ГОГОЛЬFEST, is the band before the Ukrainians (check out this page!). It's this guy Yevgeny Fyodorov from the now-popular Russian band Tequilajazz (I ripped one of their live albums yesterday, and it's pretty good stuff). And apparently one of the dudes from Akvarium!

And this guy. Chain-smoking and playing 6-string bass at the same time. Круто.

I also had a moment with the man himself. I ought to read some Gogol now, hm?

Also, a brief word about the Russian slang word круто (sounds like KRUta). It's basically synonymous to the English "cool" but more like "far out" or "awesome." The best part? Literally, it means "steep." In conclusion, I've decided to incorporate "steep" into my English conversation as well:
"Dude, that show was so steep."
"Yeah man, it was like 89.9º!"


Test #2 tomorrow. I'm getting As but I feel I should study more. Seeing Transformers with people after class. Then early Saturday, we all get on the bus to Pskov. I still find it somewhat hard to believe where I am, even when I'm walking up the street at 11:30pm and it's light out and the signs aren't lucid to me. Many of the people on the streets look like anyone you might find in America, except they probably don't speak English and they live in an entirely different culture.


On an unrelated note, I really want to learn Spanish. In a couple of years. I'm sitting in the computer lab / classroom at Smolny and there are some other students in here either online or doing homework. There are two new big white cruise ships parked on the river outside. This morning there were military fighters flying formations over the city, and I don't know why but it was cool to see. Didn't get any pictures of it. All the computers in here are Sun Microsystems "Sun Ray 2" mini-computers, and they seem to work pretty well, though most people brought laptops. On that note, I'm glad my computer is still holding up! When I get back to LA in August, I'll reformat it, do some cleaning, and hope that solves the problem. Which brings me to the topic of going back home.

I'm leaving Russia on August 9, and flying directly to Tel Aviv. However, I've already paid the fee to stay in Israel for an extra 9 days, flying back to New York very very early on the 18th. The plan was that I was invited to stay with one of my new Israeli friends in Eilat for an extended weekend, but the 10th of August is a Monday. So, I thought, I'll fly round-trip to Sofia (Bulgaria) for 5 days and hang out with my mate George! But that trip would be $600. So what am I going to do in Israel for 8 whole days? I won't have any summer money left by then. I'll know a few people from Birthright but I just don't feel confident that I'll feel up to bumming around Israel (WITH my two large suitcases) for so long without much to do. In retrospect, I might feel better if I had elected to come back even two days earlier (on Sunday the 16th, perhaps). I don't know. I can probably find stuff to do and places to stay with people I met, but that might be more awkward than I had thought. Most likely, to change it BACK the way it was, or to any other date, would require yet another $100. Curse indecision. To make matters more difficult, I had originally thought that I might use this time to spend in Washington DC (on my way back to California) with family I don't see often, or at least with friends in California, most of whom will be returning to school sometime around the 25th. It's not that I don't want to go back to Israel. On the contrary--I was so enamored with Israel that I planned this while there and laid down $100 on the spot to extend the trip with no specific plan in mind. Yes, in retrospect, I should have waited on that decision. What's more, I don't actually have a ticket back to California from New York yet, because I wasn't sure when I'd be coming back or whether I might be in Washington. I had also thought that I could theoretically work for a couple of weeks in Boston sometime between August and September, making back some money I'm spending this summer and seeing Tufts friends, but I concluded that it probably wouldn't be the best of ideas. I don't know.

As it is, I'll be heading to Japan at the end of September, sometime around the 28th I suppose. My only plan to return to the US before the following August is to spend my accumulated air-miles to take a nonstop roundtrip from Tokyo to New York to spend five or so days seeing my brother graduate and then returning for classes. I'll get two months off for spring break there, but I wasn't planning on coming home during that time. But then again, I don't know how I'll feel. Ideally, I thought, I'd travel around Japan and maybe visit Taiwan or Korea or something. I really don't know what's going to happen. I'll need to find a house to live in for my senior year at Tufts following that, and I really have no idea what that's going to be like either.

I've been thinking a lot, wondering a lot, and dreaming a lot. Then again, I always do, but the White Nights give me more dreams than I'm used to. Yesterday morning I was awakened a few minutes early by what might have been a nightmare, a literally paralyzing physical force that held me down because the force didn't understand me and I didn't know how to communicate with it, but when I finally was able to move I felt the renewed vital importance of that real effort at communication with it. The force had been around since I was a boy, but I didn't understand it until much later. As I get older and experience more, I realize what's important to me. Often, things that remain can be even more profound than singular moments. Some things will always be there, some things you hope will always be there, and everything seems to change somehow.

Even now, when I witness great talent or dedication, a part of me feels so terribly small and sad, and all my life I've wanted to turn that feeling into motivation. I still haven't quite figured out how.

I have a lot of exciting plans, and I owe it to myself to make the most of them. I'm adjusting to life here, and sooner or later I'll figure out what to do about my travel plans. Everyone tells me how great it is that I'm taking time for myself to explore and do the things I've always wanted, but I suppose I should have known that I wouldn't be able to take my whole heart across the sea with me.

Somehow, things always work out in the end, even though it can be very hard at times along the way.

На концерт

This graffiti is in the courtyard of the building where I live. On a semi-related note, I am really, really, really looking forward to seeing the new ТРАНСФОРМЕРЫ (Transformers) in a day or two!


Going to a concert tonight! Don't really know anything about it yet, but it's not too much money, and it'll apparently be a really excellent folksy sort of thing, not far from the school.

If you're my friend on Facebook, I've started putting up a lot more pictures from Israel. There are many, many pictures, so it'll be a while before they're all up.

I've realized that food tends to be my comfort of choice. Fortunately for me, I have a pretty good metabolism and I'm always pretty active--it's a ton of walking all the time here. One nice thing about this city is that chocolate, ice cream, candy and the like, are all good and all cheap.

I also rely on music, but I don't feel comfortable walking around the streets here with my earbuds in. It's a little too conspicuous. At night, though, mostly when I'm working, I listen to a lot of stuff. I picked up LOADS of great music in Israel (did you know that there's a whole lot of excellent Israeli music out there?), but I also listen to earlier favorites as well. I'm starting to learn a bit about Russian music now too.

One interesting bit from Phonetics class today is that it's fairly common for Russian children to have some sort of speech impediment--the English-language equivalent of a lisp. Curiously, such an inflection in Russian children sounds a bit like an English accent. I realized when I heard this news that I had heard such an accent yesterday on the street: I was walking up Sredny Prospekt heading home, and there was a boy of about eleven years old (maybe even nine or ten), something like a town crier, selling newspapers to the passing pedestrians. I didn't think much of it at the time, but he sounded a lot like the kids that do the exact same thing in, say, London, only he was speaking Russian. I thought to myself how like a young English boy he sounded, but didn't think much of it until today.

Thanks to everyone who has been sending me messages and emails and such! It all means a lot to me and I appreciate it very much, and I will reply to everything when I am able. Keep them coming!

To be discussed soon: thoughts on the eventual return to Israel and associated arrangements, more general thoughts on life and what I want and where I'm going, looking to the future and to Japan. And of course, impressions of the concert, this weekend's coming trip to Pskov, and my thoughts on adjusting to life in Russia.

Oh yeah, I bought a sweater two days ago. But don't worry, Mom, it was only 100 rubles. That's about $3.31. And the dollar has gone up!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pollenation!








It's a good thing I don't suffer from much to speak of regarding atmospheric allergies, because there are ridiculous amounts of fuzz in the air here. When it first started appearing a few days ago, I thought it was feathers, so I felt a whole lot of sympathy for the untimely fate of so many birds high in the atmosphere. In fact, it's simply just a massive amount of pollen, in fact so much of it that it blows and drifts against the curbs. It may not look like much in the photo, but I've never seen so much pollen in my life. That's why I'm blogging about it, durr.


Also, the toilet at my host-home has a ridiculous habit of becoming clogged very, very often, and on multiple occasions my host-mother has spent ridiculous amounts of time fixing it. I assure you, dear reader, I'm not doing anything wrong! It's become a bit of a joke at this point, because there's simply nothing I can do.

Another habit I'm actually quite happy about is the one I've developed of arriving at the school quite early every morning. It's nice to get here and have time to use the internet and not be rushed and such. Still trying to figure out how to get more sleep, because I've realized how vital it is.

Why am I abroad? In short, it goes back to perhaps the oldest of stories, the quest of the individual. Everyone does it in some way. For me, as I discussed with one good new friend yesterday evening at McDonalds, I have had a hard time in my life defining myself on my own terms, and now I'm doing just that, even as hard as it is to step aside from the people and places I know and love.

Pskov is going to be fun! Still don't know anything about it, except I'll be rooming at the hotel with a couple of good people, and apparently we'll have a fun night out somewhere on Saturday.

Here's what yesterday looked like:

The cathedral was beautiful, but my favorite part was the roof:

Looking south-east, toward Novgorod I suppose?

What a country!

So this "free" WiFi seems to simply reset itself after the limit runs out. What a country!

I wanted to say a bit more about how this "midnight sun" Белые ночи White Nights business affects me. Without a doubt, the most intriguing effect is that I dream more often, and perhaps more...interestingly. For example, yesterday morning I had a dream that was a desert saga something similar to Lawrence of Arabia, obviously inspired by Birthright, though with a fleeting suggestion of Totoro (となりのトトロ) mixed in, as well as strong hints of a Russian film I saw several months ago called White Sun of the Desert. Also, we had been studying imperative verbs in class (не забудьте!). I remember the final scene well:

With our journey completed, I turned toward the windy dune at our guide, throwing aside the cloth from my face. Astride her camel, she wore her redefined name with assured confidence and a healthy bit of daring. She was beautiful, but it was an almost philosophically intangible beauty in a moment of wonder that can be experienced only once. She would only ever be her own, but I was glad to have worked with her.
"Remember the desert!" she yelled over the gathering storm, "Don't ever forget what happened here! Don't you ever forget!"
We turned, the storm intensified, and she faded away.


Yeah. It was something like that.

МакДоналдс

McDonald's in Russia offers free wireless for 15MB or 30 minutes, whichever comes first, so it's not exactly "free," but I thought I'd post an update. The cathedral was gorgeous, and I hung out with some people afterwards as we checked out the Дом Книги (Dom Knigi; House of Books--or perhaps more accurately, House of the Book). I bought (for something like $3.50) a small collection of Mark Twain aphorisms written in both the original English and in very good Russian translations.

Hope all is well. Time now to go get dinner at host-home, then work and sleep. Tomorrow we have phonetics class, as well as the regular. Choir (really just a group of us getting together and singing Russian songs) on Thursday, Theatre class on Friday (we're doing Chekhov's Three Sisters), and this weekend we're going to Pskov! Should be fun. Don't have time to write more now.

Some pictures!


One of the first views I had of Russia.


The only picture I took in Switzerland! I was there for only an hour, and this photo was my only souvenir besides the memories. I thought it was great to see Switzerland, too.

I made a friend somewhere between the Hermitage and Nevsky Prospekt.


I really enjoyed the view from the pier at Peterhof.


The beach there was really beautiful. We actually took a hydrofoil to get there (something like 30km away?)--there was a fleet of them, and they were all named Rocket. The boat was AWESOME and SO FAST.


Pepsi - Я могу! The whole sign translates to something like: "Pepsi - I can! Everything is only just beginning..."

On Nevsky Prospekt.

The crowd for the Scarlet Sails event. Photo taken at roughly midnight. That's a big Russian flag on the right.

Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre! Tchaikovsky's music, Pushkin's book, I think. It was really good, and the English subtitles were very well done. The story was annoyingly universal and timeless though, albeit well done. The kind of tragedy anyone can relate to.


Going on another excursion right now (yes, now)--this time to St. Isaac's Cathedral.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lots of stuff

Fountain "Samson" at Peterhof (click for more info). You're right if you think it looks a bit like Versailles or one of the châteaux in France--it was modeled in the French style. It was a vastly gorgeous place, and I'd say the trip there was the most enjoyable part of Russia so far.

Video from the Birthright Israel Mega-Event

(It looks like it'll only work on Windows, unfortunately)

Perhaps "the song" of the Israel trip. It's about peace. It's sung in Hebrew, but the title is the Arabic word for Peace.

Recommended Viewing
(They own everything in Russia. Everything.)


The culture shock hit me on Thursday, and it seems like every time I try to sit down and write about it, I'm either running out of battery, running out of time, or running out of Internet.
By my current plan, I'll still be out of America for another eight weeks (it's been more than three already), and that's a hell of a lot longer than I've ever been in a different culture before. Every day I get better at Russian and learn more about this city and its culture, but I really am an outsider here. It seems this is part of the culture shock that was to be expected. It's more complicated than any one simple thing. I've realized how terribly, vastly important it is to get sleep, but more than that, at this point I've passed the point of time that was the longest I was away from America previously, but even then then it was in an English-speaking country, and I spent the entire time in close proximity with friends and other people I knew well. Here, I'm much more on my own. Fortunately, the host-mother is considerate and understanding, but I also am coming to understand what I gave up for this. It seems to me that I couldn't understand my personal culture and values without leaving them behind, so here I am.

I've always known I'm a dreamer. I've spent my life trying to find something in particular that really captivates me, but I never seem to let myself get too comfortable. What I'm starting to realize is the value of a home, the incredible value of a place to call home, and of people close to me.

It's one thing to be able to insert oneself into a new situation--I've been doing that all my life, going to many different schools, associating with many different crowds, negotiating some sort of impression of the world. But it's another thing to stick with something, and I think that's what I've really been looking for. I suppose it's my malfunction that as much as I try to capture wonder and live in moments, I still often feel like a part of me is elsewhere. I think that has something to do with why alcohol tends to make me nervous--I forget what this particular philosophical ideal is called, but it's something like the theory that experience comes entirely from the self, and the Self should be cultivated wholly, or something like that. Really, what it comes down to is the idea that I simply can't shake that there might be something better--there's probably a more wholesome way to spend an evening. Still, I've experienced the positive side as well, and it's something I still can't exactly rationalize. On Saturday, when the streets were full of masses of drunk people by the river here in St Petersburg, I walked around with my camera, documenting the whole thing instead of participating in the expected way.

I can't ever seem to decide, also, whether I'm more an artist or a scientist. It pleases me very much to write, to comment on the world, to photograph what I see and share my impressions. It pleases my and calms my spirit to play the piano or the guitar. But I'm also searching for meaning all the time, and I always want to know why, what for, and what it means.

In the end, the something that I always have is myself, who I am, and where I come from. I've realized that what made Israel special isn't the sites themselves. It wasn't the place. A place is a place. What makes a place special is how a person connects to it. The people I met in Israel were interpreters. I wouldn't appreciate LA so much if not for the people I grew up with there. The halls and grounds of Tufts have meaning for me in this way. People need people, and that's a hard thing realize when you're ten thousand miles from home.

Interpretation: (This is what I did two summers ago, when I worked as an interpretive naturalist for MRCA)

Dead battery!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An update

If I had been able to access the Internet for any significant length of time this weekend, I would have been somewhat the emo blogger. Culture shock hit me on Thursday evening, but things improved on Saturday afternoon and then visiting Peterhof yesterday was pretty awesome. Class is starting right now so I have to go, but I'll update more (with pictures from Peterhof!) in a few hours.

From Saturday evening (Internet died just as I was about to post it):
<< Title: "Borsch"
Don't have time for much of a post right now because I'm supposed to meet some people, but I wanted to mention that culture shock hit me on Thursday afternoon. I'm doing better now after a fun afternoon out. I walked around Nevsky Prospekt with one of the tutors (Russians who study at Smolny and help us Americans with our Russian studies). It was a lot of fun! We walked around, went to a café, and saw a movie. It was the American film "Push" staring Dakota Fanning et al, dubbed into Russian. The tutor helped me at parts, and I really enjoyed it actually. I'm looking forward to more trips to the Kino. On Nevsky, I also found a place to buy reproductions of Soviet-era propaganda posters for cheap, and they're awesome. Going around with one of the tutors definitely makes for a better Russia experience. If the guides and Israelis hadn't been with us in Israel, it would have been quite boring and would have seemed quite far away indeed.

Anyway, culture shock sucks, but I'm doing better. I'll say more later as I really ought to go, but let me just say that being so far away in a foreign culture really makes me appreciate the connections I have back home. It also makes me think about what I left behind, but the important thing now is that I'm in Russia, and I owe it to myself to make the most of it. In any case, to anyone reading this blog--you mean a lot to me, and I'm so glad that you took the time to read this. You all know who you are--I miss you.

There's a lot to say about the young man going abroad, yearning to see the world. Agh, the more I write, the more I want to write, but I have to go. I'll explain more later--probably on Monday morning.

Anyway, I just finished a delicious bowl of borsch, and now it's time to go. I'm at a café (near Vasileostrovskaya Metro) where everything is orange. Time to go.

>>

Class now, more in a few hours. Thanks for all the emails, everyone! And Happy Father's Day--here (Monday now) it's Memorial Day.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Северное Лето


View Alexander Abroad in a larger map

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=108301682546296558563.000464fa39be876186e52&z=2

A map of my travels past, present, and future, covering the time period from May 2009 until August 2010. A work in progress. Zoom out for the full effect at this point; there aren't a whole lot of details on it yet, but all the dots are places I've been or places I'm going.

First, a few more pictures from Israel:

This picture, in which on the right can be seen the edge of a bunker used in the last war with Syria (the Yom Kippur War), was taken on top of a mountain right on the border with Syria. In fact, the green area is the UN base in the de-militarized zone, and beyond that is Syria. We were told that on a clear day you can see Damascus from this particular point. Israel and Syria do not have peace, even today.

These are soldiers (roughly my age) in a supermarket somewhere in the middle of the Golan Heights region.

As promised, The Camel Picture. Bedouins such as the one leading my camel led us on a short "trek" around the edge of their "camp." These are Arab people (yes, they speak Arabic) that have no Palestinian or Israeli connection; as such, their main concerns are for themselves. We were given to understand that this particular group has taken to providing tourists with an "experience" of their culture in order to support themselves in a rapidly changing world. Even so, their numbers are dwindling as their children continue to go out into the world and leave the traditions behind.

Sign in the parking lot from the beach-swimming-relaxing-kibbutz complex where we swam in the Dead Sea. Israel is a fascinating place in that there are places where people mix, places where some people go, and places where other people go. Depending on who you are, some places are more dangerous than others, though there are indeed efforts to increase understanding among peoples. This particular beach was a place of peace.

Swimming in the Dead Sea--that's me on the right! It was an incredible experience, and I feel certain that I'll do it again someday. The water is so salty that NOTHING lives in it except for some extremely hardy bacteria. It's prized as being a very healthy experience for bathing, however--the mud is said to be wonderful for the skin. So, we rubbed it all over ourselves, and in truth I can tell you that I felt quite exfoliated. It was great! However, avoid the water if you have cuts--it can be like bathing in Bactine. Still, it's good for you--and everyone floats! The land visible on the other side of the Sea is Jordanian territory, and fortunately, Israel has peace with Jordan. So maybe in August when I go to Eilat, I'll be able to visit Jordan for a day.



As always, I have little time to blog, but it's time for an update!

First, I want to thank everyone who has done so for the emails and comments, here and on Facebook. It's great to keep in touch and to hear from the people I care about. Also, I forgot to mention--if you call my cell phone here in Russia, I don't have voice mail, just so you know. If I don't answer, it's either because I don't hear the phone or because I'm in class.


View of the Neva River looking north from near the central region of the mainland.
Classes are continuing smoothly, and it seems that people are starting to settle into a routine. There are two extracurricular projects, a choir and a theatre project, and I'm participating in both of them--today is the first meeting of the choir group. Russian food, I must say, is vastly better than I was told it would be. For those of you who are interested or had other ideas (ahem, DAD), it's not "meat and potatoes" at all. There are lots of vegetables--cucumber seems to be involved with almost every lunch and dinner. Also there are often various sorts of root vegetables. Fortunately for me, my host-mother is a really good cook, and she proudly makes her own recipes every breakfast and dinner. So far, every day I have had a different kind of kasha (hot cereal) for breakfast (except the first morning, when we had blyny [Russian pancakes]) and a different kind of soup with dinner! There is always tea, as well. Lunches are also excellent at the school's cafe, and during that time the Smolny program completely overruns the place. I can't really describe the food very well yet because I still don't know what a lot of things are called, but everything has been good. Even the hot dogs on the street are "gourmet" by American standards, and they're a lot cheaper than Dodger Dogs too. The thing to remember is that everything is generally more fresh than in America, and pretty much never processed, so things that sound boring or gross (like cucumbers, beets, soup, salads, cheese, etc) are always fresh and flavorful. Nothing is ever spicy.

The title of this post, Severnoye Leto, means "Northern Summer." Truly, the summer in Saint-Petersburg is a curious event. On Sunday, the temperature pushed 90º Fahrenheit, but yesterday it was in the 40s Fahrenheit. It rained literally the entire day (and the days here are over 20 hours long). I definitely need to buy a new, better, stronger umbrella.

The picture on the right is of some Russians looking to make some money by getting pictures of tourists with their animals. I have no idea whether they need any kind of permit to do that, or do have the monkeys and the falcon in the middle of the closed street next to the Spas na Krovi. There is bureaucracy everywhere, but there's generally a system to things also where people mind themselves and are never particularly surprised by anything. The hot water in Sveta (host mother)'s apartment is supposed to be off for two weeks, but I'm told that the actual time could be anywhere from a few days to six weeks.

There was no birthday party because with my still-limited Russian skills, I misunderstood what Vova was saying. Anyhow, we're all going to the Opera tomorrow, so that should be some kind of interesting. On Saturday evening is some kind of RIDICULOUSLY HUGE CELEBRATION for recent graduates here in the city, but all of the Russians I've met say it's a horrible mess, with seas of ridiculously drunk people causing all sorts of problems. However, there is apparently a huge pyrotechnic show that I'm sure will be worth seeing from the other side of the river. It's true that alcohol is very readily available in Russia, but I don't get the sense that they have the kind of binge drinking culture that prevails at American colleges. Sounds good to me. I'll talk about my opinions on alcohol later, as I have two minutes left on my battery. As it happens, I haven't had any alcohol so far in Russia, but I can tell you that Israeli beer is quite good.

On Sunday, we're all going to Pskov. Dunno anything about it yet, but I'm sure it will be interesting. More later!



video
Video of the lunch table on the first day of class

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Всё нормально



So this morning I learned how to take a bath using a bucket of water. It happens every year in Russia--most homes receive hot water from a central location, and every summer for two weeks the central location shuts down, presumably for cleaning. It actually wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. When Sveta (host mother) told me two days ago that it was going to happen, I half-jokingly suggested that it was a Russian tradition (and Russians, like anyone else, love Tradition). But she, quite serious, explained that it is simply a part of life. That's all it is. Like all of the bureaucracy here, one learns to simply accept it as a part of life.

Anyway, in about half an hour I'm going with my class to Петропавловская Крепость (Petropavlovskaya Krepost' -- Peter and Paul's Fortress), and it should be very interesting.

I remember that when I posted that entry yesterday, it really wasn't finished. The problem with blogging is that I always have vastly more pictures to post and thoughts to share than I have time for. There's still a lot I want to say about Israel and the Birthright program in general, my responses to criticism of the program, and my new opinions on related issues. In addition, there's a lot to say about Russia, but I'll still be here for almost eight weeks.

A quick word about prices of things in Russia. Most things are cheaper than in the US. For example, roughly converted to dollars:
Metro fare: 66¢
2L water bottle: $1
Kit Kat bar (better than in the US, because it's made with real sugar): 85¢
The Sims 3 (Russian/English combined version): $5.50 (I know, I don't understand it)
Small writing notebook: 66¢
Large flask with a Soviet insignia: $1.50
Book of 16 different postcards: $1.70
Brand new music CD: ~$5.50

The ruble is currently exchanging at about 30 to a dollar. This morning while walking to class, I found a couple of 1 kopek coins--each one is equivalent to about 1/3000 of one dollar. Классно. American stuff (clothes, electronics) is roughly the same or even a bit more expensive as in America. More on money later.

Also, soon I hope to have an interactive map on Google to show where I've been and where I'm going. Maybe within a week.

There are some really interesting concerts coming here, actually: DDT [ДДТ], Manu Chao, Madonna, and more. Apparently Duran Duran and the Pet Shop Boys were just here. I'd love to see DDT or Manu Chao, but I'm not sure I want to spend the minimum ~$40 (I looked it up).


There is definitely a lot of homework, but the people here are really nice. I've already started getting to know some классные Russians, and I've been invited to a birthday party tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it! The other students are also great, and my professor for the language class is especially good.

Even with the difficulties and inconveniences of living here, thinking about what I left behind, and wondering about the future, there's no question that I'm doing something amazing, that being here is a great experience. Even after only three days, I can already tell that my Russian has improved significantly.

I've started thinking about what living in Japan next year is going to be like, now that I'm building a basis of experience for comparison. Even yesterday I would have said I wasn't worried, but I've started to wonder. Maybe it's part of my nature to shy away from connections in some ways, but really, I need connections just as everyone else does. A man needs something to keep him human--you see it all the time, with prisoners, soldiers, dorm rooms, and bumper stickers, something that displays your individual experience. For me, Saint-Petersburg is so new still that I haven't really begun to appreciate its individuality. I suppose love is the same way. One has to learn to appreciate individuality in himself, and likewise also in another.

It's a great adventure. It's hard, but I wouldn't give it up for anything. Just like I'd recommend Birthright and any other kind of travel for yourself--it's good experience. (I'll address specific issues about Birthright later on.) Traveling is hard, but I think it's worth it. What do you have to lose? That, of course, depends on what you give up to do it. Perhaps the farther out you step, the more you risk--the more you stand to gain and to learn? I couldn't say. More and more in recent weeks and months, I have been coming to realize that life is all about individual experience: all people have their own. I'm learning a ton about myself, about life, and about the world. No one can say their own experience is better than someone else's--it's entirely individual, and people are different. For one thing, that takes getting used to, and maybe that's one thing I've gone abroad to learn.

Monday, June 15, 2009

First day of class


Ну, ладно. Хорошо!

There's no question that my Russian is going to improve very quickly. It's really a fascinating experience for me to be here, in a lot of ways. I find myself with new doubts as I begin to settle in to the program, but overall it still looks good. Eight weeks is a bit of a heady amount of time to contemplate, so I'll take it as it comes. Maybe it has to do with my host mother--the house is just her, another student boarder, and me. The host mother, I was told before I met her, is a little bit strict. I suppose more than that though, the situation is just inconvenient in a lot of ways I'm not used to. For one thing, it takes a significant walk to get anywhere, though I'm told that I have it very easy compared to most students on the program. At least it's a nice walk. The apartment is on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator, no internet, no TV, and possibly no hot water at any moment (this happens for two weeks every summer in Russia). She feeds me a ton, which I suppose is nice...fortunately for me the food is mostly very good--she's a good cook!

Aside from that, the White Nights are really cool, but it does make sleeping difficult. The picture above was taken at around 11:00pm last night, and the sun didn't start setting until after midnight. It's going to be like this for at least the next three weeks! Interestingly, with so much light in the room, I've been dreaming a lot. Mostly, I dream about people from home, from earlier times, and then I awaken to my host-mother calling out "Meester Aleksandr! Uzhen! [Dinner!]" and it's still light out. I wanted to say more about this, but I should get back for dinner, and my battery is dying. More later. Don't forget, I receive calls and texts for free. One last picture:

The ceiling of the Spas na Krovi [Savior on Spilled Blood] cathedral.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Smolny!

In front of the Hermitage, yesterday! Haven't actually been inside yet. There's SO MUCH to this city; it's incredible.


Right now, I'm at Smolny Institute on Vasilevsky Ostrov (island) in St. Petersburg, and my first official intensive Russian class is about to start! I don't have time right now for an extensive update, but let me just say this is quite an experience. One important thing to mention:

All incoming calls and text messages (SMS) to my Russian cell phone are FREE for me. So, if you have a Skype paid account, it'll cost you only about 2 or 3 ¢ (cents) per minute to talk to me, and SMS will be probably even less. Or if you have a really good calling plan or phone card, that's good too. So give me a call! But remember that I'm 11 hours ahead of Pacific time, or 8 hours ahead of Eastern time. Although the sun doesn't set here until about 12:30am (seriously), I do need sleep! More updates later!

Again, the number is:
+7 931 208 71 37

So to dial from the US, it's either exactly as above, or:
011 7 931 208 71 37

Friday, June 12, 2009

Привет!

I can hardly believe it, but I'm in Russia!

St. Petersburg is a fascinating city from what I've seen so far. There's so much to say, but this will have to be a short post because I have to go to sleep. It's 12:49am and there's still light in the sky! Today was Russia Day in Russia, commemorating Russia's "independence" from the Soviet Union...so it's not really exactly a very big deal, but it's a day off for the people here.

Outside the window of my hotel room is a yard full of tanks. Yes, tanks. Amphibious armored vehicles. Apparently the hotel is connected to a military base of some kind?

Anyway, I'm getting a cell phone tomorrow. The number is:
+7 931 208 71 37
but I would prefer if you contact me via Skype or iChat or email or facebook, because it'll be expensive.

Also, I'll be moving in with my host mother! More on that later.


And finally...

Russia smells.

That was the first thing that hit my senses when I got off the plane. After only a few hours, I feel I can say--Russia is full of odors. Usually it's stale cigarettes (Pulkovo Airport was one of the crappiest, dirtiest, worst smelling airports I have ever seen), but there were other ones when I was walking around this evening too--lilacs, mostly.

Another very cool and interesting bit is the stray dogs. There are lots of them, but they are brilliant animals. First of all, the two I have seen so far have been obviously intelligent, and obviously healthy as well. They cross roads intelligently, and I heard a rumor that the stray собаки have even been known to ride the Metro. We'll see about that.

What a country!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Last post of the day


After climbing Masada and watching the sun rise over Jordan and the Dead Sea, I felt inspired.











Thank you, Takeshi Kaga of Iron Chef.
















In 12 hours, I'll be in Russia!



video
Exploring the streets of Jerusalem

Exhausted... but, pictures! And video!

Part of the group at the end of Shabbat before Havdallah, at Kibbutz Afik overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) at sunset.

With my trusty camel and my nice new shirt. Shirts like that, made in India, are popular among desert dwellers in Israel.


On the beach in Tel Aviv


I've been in the Ben Gurion airport for most of the day, and I'm pretty tired of just sitting around. Well, at least my computer works, but I'm too tired to study Hebrew much. I did get through three lessons in one of the books, though, and I've almost got the letters and vowels down.

Only one hour now until I can check my bags, I think!

I remembered something--when I was in New York two weeks ago, Brian told me that I might have some second cousins living in Israel. Is this true? I'd love to find out.

PICTURES! VIDEOS! WOO! More to come later on.


video
Sunset camel ride in the Negev!



video
Birthright Mega Event - Tel Aviv 2009

עברית

Ani lo medaber ivrit.

But the more I travel, the more I think to myself that it definitely pays to know another language. I did end up taking the train to Tel Aviv, but the expedition was a technical failure, due to my baggage. There was no place to store it in the airport, so I took it with me. Well, that was a mistake, because lugging two large suitcases onto trains, off of trains, across platforms, and around the airport... well, it's difficult. I should have committed that to memory from my experience last month with even MORE luggage going from Boston to Chicago and then on to Los Angeles, but I just assumed that as a strapping young lad, I should be able to manage with suitcases, and even build some character (and perhaps some muscle) doing it. Well, I was right about the character, and probably about the muscle too, but now I realize not to underestimate it. Travel is difficult in this way--what do you carry with you? What will you need? One always forgets something, one always loses something on the trip, one always seems to return with more stuff than he had at the start of the trip. It's all part of the game, but it's not to be taken so lightly, perhaps.

It did help knowing a bit of Russian, though. At the Tel Aviv train station (one of four, I should say), I engaged in a conversation that went something like this:

Me: S'likha, at medaber onglit? (Excuse me, do you speak English?) [I realize now that I mixed up the gender.]
Coffee Man: Ma? Onglit? (What? English?) Ehhh... Not really.. Говорите по–русски? (Do you speak Russian?)
Me: Да, немного по–русски. (Yes, a little.)
Coffee Man: What you want?
Me: Thank you. Toda. (Thank you.) Yeah, I shouldn't have come here with my suitcases.
(Coffee man looks at me, obviously uninterested in my story. Pause.)
Me: Ummm... Мне надо поезд в аэропорт. (I need the train to the airport.)
Coffee Man: Platform number four.
Me: Thank you very much.
(Pause. I step back, walk three steps, then decide that I might actually want something from him. I return to the coffee stand.)
Me: Um, how much is the Iced Cafe? (Points) This one?
Coffee Man: (Pauses, unsure.) Четырнадцать. (Fourteen.)
Me: (Not hearing) What?
Coffee Man: (Skeptical of my Russian) Четырнадцать. (Fourteen.)
Me: Oh, ok.
(I step back, several IDF soldiers get coffee and pastries and things. I stand there and sweat in the Mediterranean humidity, considering the coffee. I step forward again.)
Me: Дайте мне iced кафе, пожалуйста. (Give me some iced coffee, please)
(Coffee Man fills a big cup of it, and I hand him fifteen shekels.)
Me: Спасибо для помощи. (Thanks for the help!)

It's the art of communication, folks, and I've got to say I felt silly doing it. In front of me at this moment is a book called HEBREW with PLEASURE that a kind fellow Birthrighter bought for me, encouraged by my enthusiasm to learn Hebrew. I plan to spend some of the next ten hours studying the book, as long as I can stay awake. I don't want to spend any more money than I have to in Israel, but there's an even better Hebrew book in the shop to my left that costs 79 shekels and I really kinda want it. We'll see how this one works out.

Unfortunately, there isn't much in the way of comfy couches here at Ben Gurion, but it's a nice sunny hall. The sun is setting, and looking around me I can see lots of assorted people. There's a chasidim by the window with his head bent, possibly reading. Some businessmen to my left, but they're too far away for me to tell what language they're speaking, but it's not English. The woman in front of me is speaking Russian into her cell phone and isn't having such a great day. A man by the window to the right is yelling into his phone in Hebrew, and a group of young airport employees are chatting in Hebrew. A couple of men in shirts slightly too casual for business walk past, speaking English.

One interesting aspect of Israel is that quite a lot of people look very familiar, very cosmopolitan, even very "cosmopolitan American" in a sense, but... they speak Hebrew. How about that?


All that aside, the most striking and memorable event of the past few hours was the train stations themselves. IDF Soldiers everywhere. It was like all those scenes from war movies, where the soldiers crowd onto trains to head off for duty, or they are transferred, or the military sends them off to wherever they go. It was really quite amazing to see. It made me wonder, as I have wondered a lot in the past several days: what if I lived here? It's not hard to imagine. I'd be a soldier right now. It's an essential part of the society here. I'd be wearing one of those uniforms, probably green. I'd have a cap tucked into the shoulder. I'd have the uncomfortable boots. But you know what? I'd be damn proud to do it. There is a significant part of me that feels, as I have felt my understanding and connection with Israel grow in the past eleven days, that I want to be a part of something. I want a uniform. I want to mean something, to command respect, to stand up for the belief that Israel deserves the right to exist and to defend Jewish people. I'm not saying I'm going to go make aliyah, but it's something I've been thinking about. What an amazing concept, to be a soldier. I've met them, and I participated as well as I could in the boot camp simulation at the kibbutz in the desert. It's very powerful, and it takes coming to Israel and experiencing the culture to understand it.

TLV

Sitting in Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, taking a break to sit down and blog because I've been running around in the airport for about two hours. Fortunately, I got my computer to cooperate (I've narrowed the problem down to some kind of firmware corruption due to the bootloader--in other words, things got screwed up with the startup procedure, and I think it's because I have multiple operating systems on here. Unfortunately, since I didn't take any of my external drives with me (or a copy of Leopard, for that matter), I can't do much about it now.

Anyhow, Birthright is now officially over. I'm in the airport now, surrounded by strangers, with all of my stuff on me. It's now 3:39pm, and my flight leaves at 5am. Unfortunately, I can't check in until 1:30am, so I'm stuck with the baggage because there's no storage I can use here. So I'll pay 13 shekels each way to spend the evening in Tel Aviv, and hopefully I'll find a nice hotel concierge who will let me store my bags for a bit.


I think that especially with blogs like this, what makes it most interesting to read is the thoughts and feelings of the author. I must admit, this moment is a bittersweet time, and certainly a great period of transition. I spent more money than I thought I would or planned on spending in Israel, so I am unfortunately fairly sure that I won't have enough money for eight weeks in Russia. Besides that, I spent $100 today to extend my trip another seven days so that I will have some more time in Israel in August. Let me first say--that was a strange decision to make. Being with the group and having an amazing tour guide and group staff leaders makes Israel into a fascinating and wonderful place--everyone comes from their own experience and everyone has their individual selves going their own ways. But now here I am, looking at another nine weeks around roughly this longitude, and I don't have enough money. I now have a lot of friends in Israel, but I have no phone, no job, no income, no car, and although most everyone speaks useful English, I know precious little Hebrew.

So here I am, and I am beginning to realize that my romantic dreams of traveling the world are without a doubt not without their problems, issues, difficulties, and so on. Solitude can be nice on occasion, but I do thrive on others, for better or worse. For that matter, independence is a wonderful thing, but loneliness is hard. I realized when I handed over my check card to extend my flight further, I was making a trade-off. The invitation to spend a few days in Eilat celebrating Shabbat with Dean's family and hopefully with some of the other Israelis I've met was tantalizing. However, I felt my monetary reserves dwindling. Most of all, though, I felt that time I could be spending with friends or family in California, Washington, or Oregon during that time slipping away from me. I'll only be in America for one month before I go to Japan.

So what am I doing, then? In short, what I need to do. I need to learn these lessons on my own. I need to teach myself that sometimes a souvenir really isn't so necessary. Sof ometimes it's better to pack a little lighter.

I've learned the hard way in the past couple of months that I do indeed feel a domestic instinct, a natural wont to have comfort, a home, a steady job, someone to come back to. But now I'm on my own, and with each passing week I learn more about how to take care of myself. It's a terribly hard lesson to learn. I know that I yearn for adventure, and I love travel. I'm addicted to wonder, and a good interpreter seems better than religion to me. On that matter, actually, I will say that during the past eleven days in Israel, I've learned that Judaism is really at its core a shared cultural heritage. If you can identify with it, if you can see yourself as Jewish, then you belong.

I miss being unencumbered by luggage, I miss being with good friends (something that never seems to happen enough even when it does happen), and I miss having a house full of food and confortable beds. I miss people that make my life feel worthwhile. I suppose that one thing that travel teaches is that you can find people like that anywhere, but I can't forget my roots and the things that have been most important to me. I couldn't possibly anyhow, even if I were to try. That's the definition of Shorashim--roots. But life moves ahead, and I still have a lot ahead of me. Looking ahead, this is barely the beginning.

Last night at the Mega Event, there were lots of recruiters for various ways to connect with Israel beyond Birthright, including study abroad programs, graduate programs, an environmental institute, lots of information on making aliyah (emigrating to Israel), and so on. I have to say, the idea of doing a graduate program in Israel in...SOME kind of degree... well, it sounds very interesting. But then I check myself: what sort of degree would you actually do? Is it worth giving up all of your connections in America? How could someone who is never in one place ever actually hold down a good relationship with someone? What about a job, an income? The 8 weeks in Russia is already putting me almost three thousand dollars in debt, and I have a rough plan to pay it back but no plans to save any money.

So here I am.

There's so much more to say, about the respect I feel for Israelis, about the exact nature of the connection I've been feeling to this land, my thoughts or expectations on going to Russia tomorrow, what I've learned about the Arab/Israeli Conflict, and my general thoughts on being on my own or on Israel itself--or on other matters, like Tufts or academics or where I'm going in life.

One thing I've always had is a great belief in my abilities, even if I have disappointed myself in the past. I don't actually doubt myself, and that's something that others need to understand about me. I know how capable I am, so what I need is encouragement. I know that I'll be able to find my way. I know that I'll be able to communicate if I actually try. (S'likha, ani lo mebaber ivrit. At medaber onglit? Eifo hashirutim? Toda, toda. etc. etc. Hebrew is cool.) And I know that I'll find my way. I have faith in real people.

So right now, I'll get train tickets, find a place to relax for the evening in Tel Aviv, and head back to the airport later tonight. I'll be met at the airport in St. Petersburg, and whatever happens, I'll go from there.

שלוֹם ישראל, поеду в Россию!

The Taglit Birthright Mega Event last night on the beach in Tel Aviv. Incredible.



Very quick post, just about to leave the hotel in Jerusalem. Very early tomorrow morning, I leave for Russia!



Quick picture before I go:


Dean on the left, Amos on the right. They're my age, and a couple of really awesome guys!



Israel has been unbelievably amazing. Anyone, anyone, if you're at all Jewish, take advantage of the opportunity of Birthright. You won't regret it!!!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A quick note while in Jerusalem


Hello! (That's me in a cheese-pose in the Baha'i Gardens above Haifa.)

Today might have been the most packed-full day we have experienced yet here. Last night, after riding camels, hearing the Bedouin lecture, and eating tasty Bedouin food and drinking delicious Bedouin sweet tea and fresh-roasted coffee, I hung around the camp and met a group of Indian Jews. Jews from India! Apparently there are about 8000 of them, but most have already made aaliyah (emigrated) to Israel. Anyhow, I got some nice pictures of the camels at night (not to mention other great pictures) and got about two hours of sleep, because we all got up at about 4:15am to go climb Masada and see the sun rise over Jordan and the Dead Sea. All that in only a twelve hour period!

I do wish that I had the ability to update more easily and frequently, but I will catch up with what I can. I am glad to report that presently my computer is working, so maybe I'll be ok in Russia after all.

Anyhow, after learning the story of Masada and exploring the site, we traveled toward the Dead Sea, but not before having breakfast and stopping at a gift shop of sorts (where they make the Ahava cosmetics). The Dead Sea was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip, but pretty much everything has been so amazing, really. So for one thing, it's impossible to sink! And it's incredibly good for the skin, especially with the soft clay mineral mud. And of course, lots of Russian tourists there. If you look across the Sea (it's called the Salty Sea in Hebrew), you are looking at Jordan! It was a lot of fun, and I've been learning a TON about political situations too.

The Israelis are awesome. I've made good friends with one of them, an officer named Dean who is my age. At this point, I will most definitely use my finally-working internet connection to look at the possibility of extending my trip further to reopen the possibility of visiting Bulgaria and also planning to visit Dean in his hometown of Eilat, squeezed between Egypt and Jordan on the Red Sea.

There's so much more to say, I've barely scratched the surface of only a few hours, but I have to head out with the group now--we're going to explore the catacombs underneath the Kotel (the Western Wall), and I can't be late!


The picture on the right is me about four days ago at Kibbutz Afik in the Golan Heights region, watching the sun set over the Sea of Galilee. The minefield is a topic for the next post. Off to the Old City!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shabbat Shalom from Kibbutz Afik

!שלום

Shabbat Shalom!

I'm on a computer in the reception office of Kibbutz Afik in the Golan Heights. It's beautiful here, and I hardly know where to begin to describe the experiences I've been having so far.

Unfortunately, my laptop is having serious and inexplicable issues, so most of the time it is unusable--and I have no diagnostic tools here to check it out. On the plus side, I've been able to upload some of the fantastic pictures I've taken to it, so I have space to take lots more pictures.

Briefly, so far, I have...
Walked around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
Hiked in the Golan and the hills of Jerusalem
Gone swimming in the Mediterranean
Tried lots and lots of falafel
Learned more about the Palestinian conflict and gained a lot of insight and perspective about it
Touched the Kotel, the Western Wall
Explored Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial
Explored an Israeli bunker used in the Yom Kippur War
Gotten to know several Israelis, making friends with soldiers (they're awesome)
Learned about (and bought) some really excellent Israeli music
Looked across minefields at Syria
Gone out in Tel Aviv and tried Israeli beer
Experienced Shabbat
Touched ruins from thirty, four hundred, a thousand, and two thousand years ago

Also, it seems like Obama is following my moves. I was in LA when he was in LA, I was in New York when he was in New York, and now I'm in Israel while he's on his current Middle East Tour. On a related note, I've been learning a lot about the "situation in the Middle East" and I'm sure I will come back much better able to discuss it all intelligently.

Also, I've started learning Hebrew. It's a lot of fun to speak!

I'm having an incredible time here. I hope that my laptop becomes more usable soon so that I can update this more easily and put up some pictures of this amazing place. I want to extend my trip here after the Russia program is over so that I can visit more places--I'll look into that as soon as I can.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Shalom! Welcome to Israel

I'm here!

Israel is absolutely amazing. At the moment it is 9:15pm, and I'm at the Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam Guest House, somewhere between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I can hardly believe it's only been one day so far!

El Al Israel Airlines, I will first say, is everything they say they are. Security is very tight; it's true. The flight was great, and as soon as we landed at Ben Gurion International, I immediately felt that the weather was similar to that of the San Fernando Valley. But the similarities end there.

It is very true that Hebrew is the national language, and I have to say that I wish I could read and speak it. Everyone here speaks Hebrew, and it remains to be seen whether English is as widely spoken as I was led to believe it was. In any case, today was really fantastic. We had a great lunch with some of the best hummus I've ever tasted, right here at the hotel complex--and I was told that most hummus here is even better than that! After that, we were given a brief tour and explanation of the Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam village and its purpose: it is perhaps the only place in Israel where Jews and Israeli Palestinians choose to live together peacefully in the interest of equality. The issue is of course complex, but so far the experience has been enlightening. Afterward, we went to some terraced paths on the way to Jerusalem that had been built sometime around the 1300s and are still used to grow food like dates, grapes, and figs. Then, we went on to Jerusalem, where we discussed the history of the city while taking copious photos. After that, it was falafel near the city. That is, of course, the extremely short version.

Now, I must say this: Israel is beautiful. Also, the country feels overwhelmingly peaceful from what I can see. There is so much mistrust and skepticism in what I had heard, but it is true that Israel has so far appeared to me to be a rich and beautiful place. For that matter, there is nothing AT ALL about Birthright that is a scam or gimmick. Can you believe it is actually what it claims to be? It is.

It's only the beginning, but I am starting to see why people are drawn to this place. In my "American Experience," I have yearned for something more than a vague idea of "identity," and that has a lot to do with it. No matter what you think, my advice already to anyone who could possibly partake of Birthright--DO IT. You have nothing to lose, and much more than you could ever imagine to gain. Birthright has an impeccable safety record.

I can't wait to learn more about this country and explore some more. If only the people reading this blog post could see the absolute fascination and true discourse that being here inspires.