Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

A "Happy New Year" card from Russia
Photo by Violette79

My dear friends,

I want to thank my readers for visiting and commenting this blog. I'm very thankful to my students - you were phenomenal and helped me to stay in a great intellectual shape!

In case you've missed it, here are the top 3 posts of all time:
  1. Why Russians Are Not Smiling
  2. Russian Diminutive Names
  3. Russian Accent

Happy and prosperous New Year 2013!

Sincerely yours,

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Snow Sculptures

Moomen in Snew, Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
Photo by Rincewind42

Snow, more snow, even more snow! This is what you need if you want to build a snow village. In my hometown in Siberia, big trucks start bringing snow from suburbs to the city's main square starting from early December. As the permanent snow cover falls on in November, getting enough snow to build a little snow village is not a problem.

Snow can be as tough as stone, but first you have to tamp it down. Municipal workers put large wooden boxes in the place where the snow village is supposed to be and fill them up with snow. After some time, the snow in the boxes becomes more dense, and the workers continue to add more. Eventually, you get perfect snow cubes (parallelepipeds, being geometrically correct) of about three meter high. Now it's time for creative work. Snow artists take shovels, knifes and I don't know what else and make sculptures.

Every winter snow artists have a competition. The best snow sculpture is normally awarded a substantial prize, so artists try their best to make something beautiful, unusual and sophisticated. I saw a large number of witches (actually, a specific Russian witch named Baba Yaga), Moomins, huge snow cats, squirrels, mice, bears, wolves, steam trains and so on. However, there are the two New Year sculptures that are traditional: Ded Moroz (The Grandpa Frost) and his grand daughter Snegurochka (Snowgirl). Unlike Santa, Ded Moroz wears a long coat and long beard. Snegurochka also wears a long coat and a braid.

Beside sculptures, there are a few ice slides and little cottages in the snow village. An ice slide was my favourite winter entertainment when I was a kid. The last time I risked a slide was when I was 20. It was a New Year's party, and my friends came up with the idea to go to the ice slide. Well, I tore my nylon tights, but the delight of sliding down with a whoosh was worthy.

Normally, snow villages are decorated with lights. Winter is a dark season, so Christmas lights help the festive mood. Sometimes there is music, which makes it even better. Throughout winter, snow villages are favourite places to go.

Little by little, the temperature goes up, and snow starts melting. In order to avoid flooding, municipal services destroy snow villages and take the snow back to the suburbs. Usually it happens in mid March or even later, and by then snow sculptures become dirty and miserable.

Perhaps, snow villages are impractical and irrational. They eat up city budgets and take a lot of time and effort to build and maintain. But they bring magic to our lives, and municipal authorities know and respect that. Without these snow festivities, a New Year holiday would be just an ordinary day, dull and boring. This is why every year, no matter how hard living is, every Russian city erects its snow villages with a large Christmas tree and Ded Moroz and Snegurochka.

Friday, December 14, 2012

How Does It Feel When It Is That Cold

Early in the morning today I called my parents in Siberia (we have 12 hours time difference, so it's not that hard to figure out what time it is there). I've been living in Ontario's southernmost city since September 2011, but I still remember what Siberian winters are like. And the talk with my mom just refreshed my memories.

It was negative 36C/33F in Barnaul today. Many cars refuse to start, public transportation is also unreliable. There is a good risk of getting stuck in a bus station while waiting for a bus, and the weather won't make the waiting comfortable. Smaller towns experience disruptions in food supplies, suburban buses has been cancelled. Electric trains, which are the most popular public transportation for many people who commute from suburbs to the city, also stopped running. But life goes on, and people stay warm in their homes. With the central heating system, Siberian houses are always well-heated, at about +25C.

Some people who have never lived in a cold place, think that cold is when it is snowing. Siberian people know that it is never cold when it is snowing. The real cold is when it is sunny, no wind, and the mercury plummets to the very bottom of the thermometer. Snow is good, snow means nice winter weather. Sunny frost is what is really dangerous.

When it is below minus 30C, it becomes harder to breathe – your nostrils stick together, because your breath is humid. Your eyelashes become icy, as well as your hat, and scarf. If you cover your face with a hand (which is in a mitten), your mitten will become icy too.

For pedestrians, a normal strategy is to walk quickly from one door to another, from one shop to another. Frost urges everyone to move faster, but running is a bad idea, because you will need to breathe in faster, so your nose won't have enough time to warm up the air, and you may hurt your throat. Talking while outside is also not a good idea – you may draw in more cold air with your mouth.

Paradoxically enough, when the temperature is that low, people rarely catch cold – the frost kills everything, including viruses and bacteria. The flu season starts later, when it becomes warmer.

Cold air makes synthetic clothes cling together, and plastic becomes stiff too. This is why Siberians value wool, fur and other natural materials so highly.

Cold weather is beautiful. The view of a frosty sunset is breathtaking. But taking a picture of it may be problematic, because your camera may refuse to work, and if you have a DSLR, its lenses may freeze and stop moving. Mobile devices are also no good in a weather like that. First, it is just impossible to use a touchscreen when your hands are in mittens. Second, mobile batteries lose their charge very quickly when it is about minus 30. I used to wear my mobile phone somewhere in an inner pocket, so it wouldn't freeze and would remain charged for a longer period of time.

I hope the wave of cold weather will be over soon in Siberia, and people there will enjoy their New Year parties. My parents like to take a walk to an ice sculpture town at night, on December 31. In Siberia, almost every city and town, no matter how big, boast of ice sculptures during the winter. I'll talk about them next time.

It was -35C when Paul Philippov took this photo of me