Returning to Kazan’ and Moscow

27/10/14-02/11/14 Russian Travel Week with the program

It appears that all of my previous work that I have been meaning to post has vanished, so I will have to start from the beginning of last week.

Last week we had Russian travel week with our program, but we didn’t fly out until Monday night. On Monday we had the same class schedules that we would every Monday, which was very unfortunate for me, especially since that Monday and the week before was the week of midterm exams. So, on Monday I have four classes from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and an hour of transportation in each direction. I also had a midterm in my Russian Conversation class, so by the end of the day I was stressing myself out wondering if I would make it home in time to finish packing last minute accessories before heading to the airport. To top that off, the program refused to return our passports until the last possible minute. As in, they have had them since the program started and continued to hold onto them to get our visa extensions until that Monday, and then informed us that we couldn’t pick them up until the our classes for the day had ended. Many of us have traveled before and are used to holding on to our passports, as well as feeling uncomfortable without them, so the fact that they keep treating us like incompetent children concerning our passports is rather frustrating. I must say this part of the program was not very good planning on CIEE’s part.

I ended up getting to the airport early so I probably didn’t need to worry about having enough time, but I always think that it is better to be safe than sorry.  Many of us students waited around at the airport for at least an hour before any of the program directors made it there themselves.

The flight left at a time close to midnight and landed in Kazan’ very early in the morning, which caused many of us to be tired for the rest of the trip. We probably didn’t get to bed until about 4:00 a.m.

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(A wall in the old Tatar part of the city)

I was very excited to return to Kazan’ since I spent my summer there, but I was very disappointed with the trip. The first day we went on a useless bus tour around the city the first time I was in Kazan’ and went on a bus tour, it was actually interesting, but this time the only parts of the city they really showed us were many different sports complexes. No one is really interested in visiting a foreign city and seeing all of their sports facilities, it is not interesting for us, but that is what the program chose to show to us. For lunch, they brought us to a mall way outside the center of the city, which made me very angry because it stripped every one of the opportunity to try local Tatar cuisine, and me of the opportunity to return to cafes that I had frequented over the summer. The mall had typical chain mall restaurants, and nothing that was what I wanted.

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(Sightseeing at the end of the bus tour)

I remember the one fun part of this bus tour was at one of the sports complexes. We went to the roof of one of the buildings (I have no idea why) and my friend Sophia and I spent our time sliding around on a giant frozen puddle, pretending to ice skate. The tour was so disappointing that we did this to entertain ourselves. Later when my friend asked about the point of the sports facilities part of the tour, she was told that it was part of their culture (since Kazan’ is also the sports capitol of Russia), but I guess we just have different definitions of culturally significant sights to see. By the end of the bus tour I was at the point of walking back to the hotel since I knew the city well enough to do that, but for some reason I ended up sticking it out.

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(Chandelier in the Kul Sharif Mosque)

That night, I took some of my friends to a Tatar café I knew so we could eat dinner. I was glad to hear that they really enjoyed it since Tatarstan and Kazan’ mean a lot to me because of the experience and people I knew there. After dinner we stopped by a small store or a “продукты,” which literally translates to “products,” and I picked up some chak-chak, which is a Tatar dessert. That night I spent time with some of my friends in my hotel room, sharing the chak-chak with them and just enjoying each other’s company.

The next day had a tour of the Kazan’ Kremlin in it. I think the Kremlin is a wonderful place to visit in Kazan’ because it is so beautiful, but the tour was four hours long, and I had already been there. But at least the tour was much better than the tour had been the day before. At lunch time after the tour, I took some of my friends to one of my favorite cafes in Kazan’ that I had frequented with my friends over the summer. I made them try my favorite dishes of Lagman (a sort of noodle soup that isn’t really a soup and isn’t only noodles) and Plov (a rice dish). I had them order Lipioshka with these dishes, which is a common way to eat them. Lipioshka is a naan like bread that is from a different part of the world. The food is very hard to describe if you haven’t seen or had it before.

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(Kul Sharif Mosque inside of the Kazan’ Kremlin)

After lunch we wondered around the city and returned to the Peter and Paul Cathedral so that my friends could see it. While we were there we ventured into the bottom part of the church, which I had not seen before, so it was interesting for me. When we left the church, we wandered into some souvenir shops to look around, but shortly after we had to go our separate ways because other people had prior commitments. I had plans to meet with my friends Laison and Alfia, whom I had met over the summer, for dinner. We had a very nice dinner, making fun of a group of guys who were getting drunk on the other side of the restaurant, and just enjoying one another’s company.  They had a class to get to and I had had a long day that was not yet complete so I decided to take a quick nap before I left to go visit my host mom.

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(One of my favorite buildings in Kazan’, I believe it is the center of agriculture. In the archway – you can’t see it here – is a tree that holds up the arch that was designed after the Lord of the Rings came out)

At my host mom’s house, she fed me second dinner – homemade manti – I don’t normally like manti but my host mom knows I like it when it is homemade. It was nice to be able to catch up with her, and just talk about everything relevant and irrelevant like we used to, and paint our nails together.

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(A wedding palace)

The last day we went to the Raifa Monestary (which I had already been to when I was in Kazan’ before, and didn’t care to see again). I did enjoy it more this time than the last time, although I think that was in part because we didn’t spend as long there as I had the last time. In addition, it is always enjoyable to see the same place at a different time of year.

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(On the way to my host mom’s house I always see the entrance to the Kremlin)

After Raifa, we had some free time before we had to go to the train. We walked around the rinok and bought scarves and other items like food that would be useful on a 12 hour train ride. In the end we wore ourselves out from walking so much, which was good because we had no choice but to sit or lay day for most of the 12 hours on the train.

I have done this 12 hour train ride from Kazan’ to Moscow before, but this time CIEE decided to give us private compartments. I was in a compartment with my friends Sophia, Helen and Lacy and we ended up watching a cartoon movie about a half-white zebra named Cumba. I have never heard of this movie before, but it kept us entertained for a while and made us practice our Russian in an offhand way since the movie was in Russian.

Eventually we all went to bed, although it was so hot that I couldn’t sleep well at all which didn’t bode well for the schedule the next day. Helen and I tried for about half an hour to open the window in hour compartment, but it wouldn’t open, so we finally gave up and tried to sleep. In the morning (after I had finally fallen asleep) we were all unpleasantly awakened by a Russian lady going from compartment to compartment, violently opening the doors and saying “доброе утро” unnecessarily loudly.

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(Some buildings we stopped to take pictures of during the bus-tour in Moscow)

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(During the same stop but in another direction. I was probably too tired to listen to what these buildings actually were)

Our schedule for the day (Halloween by the way) was of course a bus tour of the city. Our tour guides tour went something along the lines of “on the right you will see *insert a building or a monument,* on the left you will see…” and so on. So, since I was already tired, I promptly fell asleep until we had to get out of the bus to see something. One place we did get to see that I enjoyed was Swan Lake, the lake where the ballet was composed. But other than that, it was not very interesting.

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(Looking across Swan Lake)

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(A row of ducks in Swan Lake)

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(They were pretty, so I took quite a few pictures of them)

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(The lake had a thin layer of ice over most of it, but here the ducks seemed to have found a place to swim)

Later in the day I took a nap because I was just too tired to do anything else (such as wander around the city), but at night I wanted to do something for Halloween. Some friends invited me to go out in the city with them for the night, but after my experience with taxis in Berlin I didn’t want to risk staying out so late that I would have to pay for a taxi to get back after the public transportation stopped running, so I declined. Instead I watched a horror movie with some other friends and tried to go to bed at a reasonable time.

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(The entrance to Red Square. Our tour guide made sure we knew that it was translated incorrectly into English because the word for “red” in Russian can sometimes mean “beautiful,” and this is suppoed to be Beautiful Square)

On November first we went to the Moscow Kremlin. I had already been to the Kremlin last time I was in Moscow, but this time we had a tour of the Armory, which I hadn’t been to before. The Armory, although it didn’t have much armor in it, was very beautiful. It has a collection of gifts from royalty of other countries to the tsars of Russia, as well as a lot of old coronation attire, crowns, and ornate carriages from the tsars. The rest of the time in the Kremlin we spent walking around the grounds, and then visited one church in Cathedral Square.

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(A view of Moscow State University from the grounds of the Kremlin – the white building in the back)

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(One cathedral in Cathedral Square)

After the Kremlin, we went to eat at an Italian restaurant because we had eaten breakfast at about nine, and did not eat lunch until around four. They don’t seem to understand the concept of “lunchtime” and that people get hungry. The lunch was very reasonably priced for Moscow, and it was very good, probably because we were all so hungry. I had a seafood pasta dish. I love seafood, and I really wanted it at the time even though we weren’t close to the sea so it definitely wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but I still enjoyed it. To accompany my meal, my friend and I shared an appetizer (it came after the meal, so I don’t think Russians quite understand the idea of appetizers) it was a sort of cheesy bread but much better since I don’t really like cheesy bread. It was more spiced than cheesy, which is probably why I enjoyed it but I probably shouldn’t have been eating bread and pasta in the first place due to my minor gluten intolerance.

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(The Bolshoi Theatre, I took a picture because it was on the way somewhere)

After returning to the hotel, my friend Christina came to Helen’s and my room and hung out with us. We had a very fun time talking about whatever subject seemed to come up before we decided to wander around Moscow at night and find a club. We ended up walking a lot because Moscow is big so the nightlife is very spread out, needless to say I didn’t enjoy going out in Moscow as much as I did in Kazan’ or St. Petersburg, where you don’t have to walk a mile to find the next bar or club. In the end we ended up taking a gypsy cab back to the hotel (an unregistered cab. They are very common in Russia, but I would never take one alone).

The next morning we had to pack everything up because it was our last day in Moscow and we had to check out of the hotel by 11:00 a.m. Unfortunately, as I was getting ready, my back went out and I still had to finish packing and I had an excursion to go on even though it hurt to walk, much less breathe. We went to a history museum, but I don’t remember anything in particular because I didn’t have a very enjoyable time walking around with a hurt back.

After the excursion, Christina and I immediately returned to the vicinity of the hotel and got something to eat. I promptly fell asleep on the couch for about an hour before we decided it was time to catch our train for the next week’s journey.

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My Host-Mom in Kazan’

Aygul’

The name does not translate now, but in Russian her name looks like this: Айгуль. Aygul’ was my host-mom in Kazan’, although she is not very old so maybe she was more like a host sister, or a host cousin, I don’t know. Aygul’ is Tatar. (Kazan’ is the capitol of the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia). She said that when she was young, she only knew the Tatar language until she was three, and then she started learning Russian. Now she knows Russian better than she knows Tatar. She told me a bit about the Tatar language and that it is similar to English because adjectives and nouns don’t really have genders. However, I think that is the extent of their similarities. In the Tatar language, my host mom says they change the meaning of a sentence not by changing the ends of adjectives and verbs for cases, but by adding prepositions on the end. So if you had a sentence that you wanted to say something about undoing something, you would have a preposition for doing, and then another one for undoing that would change the meaning of the sentence.

Aygul’ also studies English and Arabic. She is doing very well with her English I must say, I used to help her with her English homework while I was there. She said that in Russia if you want a good job, you need to know English as well as a language from the Middle East, and that is why she is studying these languages. She told me a bit about the Arabic language. Apparently for every letter of the alphabet there are four ways to write it, and how you write it depends on where it is located in the word. For example, a letter written at the beginning of the word will be written differently from the same letter located close to the end of the word. Aygul’ said that she wants to move somewhere warmer someday, and that is another reason she is learning Arabic.

I remember when I first arrived in Kazan’ at Aygul’s house, and I was tired, the first thing she taught me was Russian slang. I am sure my professor would have been thrilled had she known. One conversation I had with Aygul’ either over tea or at the dinner table was about stereotypes. One stereotype that Russians know about themselves is that bears walk around on the streets in Russia. Of course this is not something that actually happens. The Russian’s response to this is that they don’t have streets for the bears to walk around on. The bears just walk. It is really hard to keep streets in good condition in Russia. When I was there for two months in the summer, I saw the fastest road construction I have ever seen in my life. I mean I know our road workers dawdle around in the United States, but this was ridiculous. The workers try to get everything done in the summer because the winter is too cold and the ground is too frozen to accomplish anything. The joke that Russia doesn’t have roads for the bears to walk on has an element of truth in it. The roads used to be just areas of dirt that cars would drive on. When I was studying in Kazan’ I went with my host mom to her parents’ house on other side of Tatarstan, and on the way we passed by some road construction. The cars drove around all over these dirt hills to avoid the road construction because at the time there was no road to drive on.

Another interesting thing that can be seen when driving on the roads in Russia outside of the city, that my host mom pointed out to me are the trees. On the sides of roads in Russia, (probably in other countries too) they plant a row of trees on each side of the road because the tall trees help prevent the wind from blowing the snow onto the road, since their winters get really snowy. I will study abroad in St. Petersburg this coming year, and my host mom said that I should come visit her because St. Petersburg doesn’t have real Russian winters. The city of St. Petersburg is built on a swamp, and it is right by some water, so the winter is more wet than snowy. Apparently in Kazan it gets colder and snowier than St. Petersburg even though it is further south, probably because Kazan’ is not located by water (although it does have a few rivers).

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I did a few activities with my host mom that I believe were unique from activities that other people in the program had access to. One weekend my host mom took me to her parents’ house as I already mentioned. I know some of my friends got to go to their family’s Dachas. Aygul’ doesn’t have a Dacha, but I think going to her parents’ house was more interesting for me. Her mother has a garden, and in this garden I had the opportunity to try three berries I had never had before, at least in their original berry form. The first berries I tried were gooseberries. They are sort of an almost transparent light-green berry with bright green veins in them. Most people don’t like them because they are a bit sour, but the once I had were very good. The second berries I tried were currents. Currents come in red, black and white, and I had the opportunity to try the red and the black ones. In the garden they grew the black ones and used them to make jam. I tried the red ones because their neighbor grew them close enough to the fence that Aygul’ was able to pick some for me to try. Apparently the red ones are more popular than the black, but I liked the black better. Both tasted strange to me since I had not had them before. Currents are very popular in Russia because they are easy to grow, and I believe cheap to buy. In addition, people like to use the berries to make compote. Compote is a juice that is made by boiling berries in water to extract their juices, and adding sugar (or not) to taste. I believe most people just grow them at their Dachas. The third berry I tried I did not like at all. I don’t know what it was called because the name did not sound familiar, even when translated to English. I just know that it was small and red and grew on a tree. My host mom’s mother makes jam from these berries, and it is actually very difficult because each one has a small pit. The jam is also very health for you (or maybe the berries are, and the jam is too as a result) and has many vitamins in it. I had the chance to try the jam too, and although I did not mind the flavor, I could not stand the small when the container was sitting open on the table while I was trying to enjoy my tea.

(If you don’t know, a Dacha is a sort of Russian summer home. Usually families will spend some weekends there in the summer when the weather is nice. I heard from my friends who visited their family’s dachas that most of the time spent there is in the garden, so it is not the most interesting place to be. The name Dacha comes from the Russian verb dat’, which means to give. These houses were given this name because the pieces of land that are used for Dachas were gifted to families from the government during the Soviet period).

At Aygul’s parent’s house I had the occasion to try Russian Banya for the first time. Her parents have a private Banya, so it was a very nice first experience. It is their version of a sauna. Usually people do it naked, but I chose to wear a swimsuit for my first try. Let me say first, when I have been in saunas before, I absolutely hate them. You can barely breathe, and all you do is sweat while you sit on a bench that someone definitely sweated on before you. Banya is different. Part of the Banya experience is to hit each other with wet branches that have been placed over very hot stones. You do it quickly so as not to burn the other person of course and there is also a technique to it. I remember sometimes the branch would be used to sprinkle water over me, and other times water would just be dumped over me. I don’t know how to use the branches in Russian Banya properly, my host mom did it for me, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Another thing I did when I stayed with Aygul’s Parents, was to visit a Russian forest with them. We went with the intention of picking wild strawberries to make jam with, but in the place we ended up the berries were picked clean. Instead we sat under a tree on a blanket as it began to rain, and ate slices of a melon that they brought with them. The forest was so beautiful. I didn’t bring my camera with me there, but I don’t think a camera could have captured its beauty.

The weekend before I went with my host mom to her parents’ house, some of her friends came over to her flat and we sewed dolls. It has been a while since I have sewn that much by hand because usually I only sew when I am at home, so I was definitely a bit rusty and slow. My host mom said that we would make this doll together and it could be one of my souvenirs from Kazan’. My host mom had me choose the hair color from a few different balls of yarn. My options were orange, bright pink and coral. My host mom hand a ball of blonde colored yarn sitting right next to her, but she did not offer it to me as an option for hair. I was very confused why my doll could not have natural colored hair. In the end I chose the coral colored yarn, and it actually looks okay. My doll travels with me, but I have not named her yet. When I do, I will give her a Tatar name since I made her in Tatarstan.

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Ice Cream and Rinoks

If you go in the summer to Russia or another country that is usually very cold, like Lithuania where I am now, they have ice cream stands everywhere. In my personal opinion it is always the season for ice cream, but I have heard from a reliable source that these stands are only around in the summer. I guess when it gets as cold as it does in Russia they don’t want a cold desert in winter. I always like hot food and hot coffee in summer and the opposite in winter. Regardless, today I decided I would see if they had any interesting ice cream flavors because I remember when I went to Ireland I found honeycomb ice cream. Well, luckily for me, they did have interesting flavors. Flavors like kiwi, watermelon, mango, blueberry, and so on. Some of these flavors you can find in the United States but, if you see watermelon or kiwi it would probably be a sorbet and not actual ice cream

Right now I am sitting at a park writing this blog post on my phone. I don’t know if anyone remembers when they used to have merry-go-rounds, tire swings and other play-structures at parks that used to be more fun than what they have now because now they are considered too dangerous so the structures have all been removed from the parks in the United States. It is always the things that children have the most fun with that they consider too dangerous. Children need to learn safety on their own somehow; we can’t keep them in sterile boxes. In Lithuania they still have these merry-go-rounds, and I am very jealous. I wish I was still a child so I could go play on them. I am also glad to see that this park is full; there are children and their parents everywhere spending time and enjoying the outdoors. In my opinion, this is how childhood should be. Too often in the United States today I see a parent hand a crying child their phone or their iPad to play with. When I see this, I think what a pity it is that these children are missing out on the rest of the world from such a young age.

As I sit in the park, I am sitting near an elderly woman who is speaking on the phone. She is speaking in Russian but it sounds strange to me and it is a little hard for me to understand because she has a Lithuanian accent. It is interesting being in this country right now, because the older generations usually speak only Russian and Lithuanian as a result of the Soviet Union. The younger generations speak Lithuanian and English. Some of them occasionally speak Russian, and many of them understand it even if they don’t speak it. Either way, I can speak in English to the younger people, and practice my Russian with the older.

I have been in Lithuania for almost a week now, and have had some time to observe this culture versus American culture or Russian culture. I know in Russia, people like to get married young. They get married right out of college and start a family. Friday is wedding day in Russia. I remember the first Friday I was there; I was walking around with my peer tutor for about an hour and a half. In that hour and a half I counted seven weddings. The following Fridays I decided not to count. After getting married, the women stay at home and cook and clean, and the men go off to work. People only seek a higher education (past our equivalent of undergraduate education I believe) if they are interested in becoming a teacher. Since many young people rush into marriage, there is also a very high divorce rate. People will then remarry to someone else who has a family from before as well, thus creating a sort of mess. In the United States, people are waiting until they are older and older to get married and start a family because people are caught up in their jobs and education. Another factor that I will mention that contributes to having late families, but I won’t discuss due to its controversial tendencies, is women in the work place and how having a child impacts their job positions. In Lithuania, I understand that in the city people tend to wait a bit to get married. They finish their education, maybe start some work and then decide to get married. However, I was told that in the country, people tend to have marriage patterns more like Russia. They get married right out of school, and the woman immediately goes home to work and start a family. I wonder how true this is though since today is Friday, and as I was walking around the streets I definitely spotted a few sets of brides and grooms. Perhaps they kept the regular day for weddings, and just get married at a slightly older age. If this is the case, it’s interesting to see how the Lithuanian culture has broken away from the Soviet Union over the past 25 year. It has been 25 years this year I believe since Lithuania regained its independence. They will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the human chain that ran from Lithuania through Latvia and to Estonia that was created at the end of the Soviet Union, with a bike race and some other festivities. I am glad I will be here for that.

Earlier today, I was walking up a street in Vilnius that I have walked through a few times now. The street splits in two and in the middle there is a sort if triangle of land. Usually this is empty with maybe only some chairs and canopies for people who want to sit outside restaurants and eat. Today the triangle had a sort of festival. It was like a Lithuanian version of a Renaissance Fair, but on a much smaller scale. The people at the shops were dressed up in costume, and everything looked hand made. One booth had food that I considered eating for lunch, but there was a group of rambunctious travelers that would not move out of the way of the sign so I could read it.

I returned to this area with the Lithuanian Renaissance Fair, and in the few hours I had been exploring other parts of the city, the festival had grown to cover some streets. If it is there again next weekend, or even tomorrow, perhaps I will return and examine their goods more closely. I am reluctant to buy anything from a place like this, because the products sold are often overpriced, or not really useful. I definitely want to buy some souvenirs in Lithuania, but I barely have more space in my luggage to carry much else. I am luck that my flight to St. Petersburg allows suitcases to be 23 kilos, instead of just 20 because this will allow me to have a little extra room for the souvenirs I intend to buy.

Again, I spent time individually drifting around the streets of Vilnius, and I stumbled upon a Russian Rinok. Rinok is a word in Russian that sort of means farmer’s market, but it is actually an open air market that we don’t have anything like in the United States. That is why I call it a rinok, and not a farmer’s market. When I was studying in Kazan’, the two guys who were in my class and I would often go to a rinok during our breaks because there was one right next to the institute where we studied. The rinok there and the one I found here are only partially open air. The majority of the paraphernalia that is being sold is sold inside. In a rinok you can find anything from clothes to butchered meat and raw fish to sweets and honey and other more practical items you might need to live. The first room in the rinok in Kazan’ was the meat room, and in the summer this is awful. I hated this room, not because of the sight; it doesn’t bother me to look at raw cuts of meat. The smell of raw meat sitting in a hot room in the summer, though, was one of the worst smells I have ever encountered. As I walked through this room with Hank and Peter, I would always hold my breath. Whenever Peter walked in front (it was not wide enough to walk side by side) he liked to dawdle a bit as I was trying to hold my breath to not smell the meat. We would go through the meat room, to the rinok almost every day so the guys could buy water, and just for an excuse to walk around in the middle of a four hour lesson. Sometimes we would go there for lunch because they had a very good Central Asian Cafe, and thankfully by the end of the program we would usually walk in through one of the side entrances, and avoid the meat room altogether. In Kazan’, most of the stands at the rinok were run by people from Central Asia. Here, in Vilnius, I say the rinok is Russian because as I was walking through it, all I heard were people speaking in Russian. No Lithuanian. Probably because it is a Russian thing, so that’s where all of the Russians in Vilnius do their shopping. It would have been exactly like being back in Kazan’ if Hank and Peter had been there with me. The only thing I bought in there was a chocolate bar from a vending machine (there were no vending machines in the rinok in Kazan’).