Ice Water Swimming

My first experience in icy water occurred in Minnesota in March 2007, when I participated in a Polar Bear Plunge for Special Olympics Minnesota, jumping into a frozen lake. Five years, five more dips and 5,800 miles later, I’ve swam in a hometown lake and the Sea of Japan, been a polar bear and a walrus, received a first place gold medal and helped raise $600,000 for Special Olympics Minnesota. My amazing family and friends have always supported me and often joined me in this chilly endeavor, and I’ve recently learned that an appreciation for “ice water swimming” can build fast friendships and earn you the respect of strangers across cultures.

Walrus Club gold medal winners

Gold medal winners: me, Alyona and Natya, after the 2012 ice water swimming races in Vladivostok.

On my second day in Vladivostok, I was taken on a tour around the city, and from my view atop a cliff, I happened to see a big hole cut out of the ice in a bay. As I stood there, pondering it, a man in a speedo walked over and swam a lap. A week later, the same day of the 5th annual Polar Plunge in my home town, I walked across the ice of the bay to get a better look. I thought I’d try to see if I could stick my feet and take a picture, so I could feel like I was participating in the fun at home.

Frozen Amursky Bay on the Sea of Japan

This was the first glimpse I had of the Vladivostok Walrus Club.

Once down on the ice, it became obvious that this ice water swimming operation was much more sophisticated than I had realized. People kept coming and going from this shack-like area on the beach that had “Клуб Морж” on the door, and they kept telling each other “с легким паром” which is something you say to people at the banya (sauna) and roughly means “enjoy your steam.” Upon discovering that this was an organized club, I started talking to a woman standing on the shore, who’d just watched her daughter take a dip. “How much does this cost?” I asked, showing my complete ignorance of the situation. However, in the mix of Russian and English that followed, I explained how we do this in Minnesota, and she told me that her daughter and the other club members were in training, and that her daughter could help me take a swim if I wanted, and that it was fine I didn’t have a swim suit with me, my underwear would work great, and her daughter Natya would loan me a towel and sandals, and I should probably pay 50 rubles (less than $2), and Natya would be happy to take pictures for me, and, and… before I knew it I was swimming a lap, being toweled off by a new friend, being told to “enjoy my steam” by total strangers enjoying their own daily dose of exhilaration, and agreeing to join the club for their annual races in two weeks.

Ice water swimming

My first walrus swim.

A gruff older man who seemed to be in charge, was not too pleased to have a non-club member American signing up, but my new friend Natya smoothed things over for me. I still felt a little bad for imposing on his race though, until two weeks later, when I was on the home stretch of the course and his was the loudest voice I heard urging me to swim faster. And he was certainly not the only skeptic. On the day of the race, a few older women were very concerned by the fact that I’d only swam the course once, and that a friend I’d brought along, a French expat, had never swam in ice water before. But this skepticism and concern only exaggerated how impressed all our fellow walruses and spectators were when we both did well enough to win gold medals in our age brackets.

ice water racing

During the race some spectators watched from the ice.

We were congratulated repeatedly and handed cookies and cup after cup of tea (sometimes with a little vodka added in) as we dressed and warmed up again in the club house. I’d thought to bring along a picture from last year’s plunge in Minnesota, and enjoyed showing it to my new friends, who were rather bemused by our costumes and cause. The picture is now hanging on the wall in the Club Walrus office, and I couldn’t be happier.

Polar Plunge 2011

Polar Bear Plunge in a Minnesota lake in February 2011.

Posted in leisure, sports, vladivostok | 2 Comments

True Life: I live next to a chocolate factory

Sadly, I have not yet seen Comrade Wonka walking out of the building, but I have had the pleasure of smelling its delicious confections as I pass by. And believe me, when you have “feels like” -15 degree F, 20 mph wind whipping at your face, the fact that it carries such lovely scents makes a big difference.

One of my colleagues at the university introduced me to the factory’s local specialty, птичье молоко (pTIchi malaKO) or, in English: bird milk. She quickly explained that the candy does not in fact contain any bird or milk, but is made out of processed algae, or agar-agar. Thankfully, agar-agar sounds the same in Russian and English, and my appreciation for classy jello shots has acquainted me with this lovely product. The “classic bird milk” set comes with lemon, cream and chocolate flavored delights in thin chocolate shells. It’s pretty tasty!

Chocolate is becoming a large part of my everyday life here. Other people in my department are responsible for helping international students and faculty keep their documents in order, and it is customary here for people to show gratitude for things like this by giving gifts of candy. There seems to be an unspoken rule that you share snacks in our office (I also am offered clementine segments very frequently), so when a gift of chocolate is delivered, we all enjoy it.

On Friday, I was given a “candy” called “gematoGENka,” which the girls in my office seemed to think was cute. They explained to me that it’s like a vitamin in disguise for kids (Russian Flintstones!) to raise their hemoglobin… aka also perfect for a vegetarian struggling to get her nutrients!  This revelation led to a very not chocolately discussion of other things they want me to eat to keep healthy. This includes some kind of fern plant dish, maybe made from the roots, or a different kind of “fern” than I’m used to. We shall see. I bet I can find it dipped in chocolate if I look hard enough.

Posted in food, vegetarian, vladivostok | 2 Comments

If I could have live tweeted the first 48 hours of my trip…

Because I was feeling way off-kilter without any access to the interwebs, I wrote this. It should be noted that I was quite sleep deprived/jet lagged at the time. There are no time stamps because that would be way too much work for this silly entry, but let’s say it starts at 9 a.m. CDT on Jan. 25 and ends at 10 p.m. CDT+17 hours (I don’t know the name of my current timezone…) on Jan 27. Here we go:

Leaving MSP without knowing when I’m coming back is sad 😦

Hurray! I’m finally being paid to travel the world!

JFK has 9 terminals. srsly wtf?

And there are maybe 10 gates at each one… so dumb.

Bah! Must turn off iPhone!! Losing connection with world for at least 20 hours!!! #panicattact

Aeroflot has individual entertainment systems? And I can watch Crazy, Stupid, Love? #neversawthetwistcoming

Juice box style white wine on the plane ftw!

Moscow’s redone Sheremetovo Airport is beautiful, glamorous and ultra convenient.

Both my bags made it to Moscow #winning

OMG, grabbed someone else’s wheeled black suit bag for 10 minutes… #fail

Bags cleared up, proper owner just teased the mortified me #whew

Got two business cards from fellow JFK-SVO passengers #boom:transatlanticnetworking

Second on the plane to Vladivostok #firstpickofcarryonspace

More Russian men need to wear deodorant.

Aeroflot gave me vegetarian meals all 4 meals in a row! #dinnerbreakfastdinnerbreakfast

I just ate 4 airplane food meals in a row…

Well, I did have some Star Wars fruit snacks too!

Flight tracker maps are so cool. I’m so close to China and North Korea and Japan! This is pretty sweet.

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning… where is the sun?

Darkest aircraft landing I’ve ever done: sparsely populated area (outside of Vladivostok) and the sun still isn’t even barely up…

I’m here! My luggage is here! So now it’s time to go into the office?

My dorm has a tv and refrigerator! But drinking is not allowed… which, unlike freshman year, I’ll probably abide by #russiawillmakemedrinkless?

I can see Russia (and the ocean!) from my house #suckitpalin

Why is everyone speaking Russian so quickly at me?! Why do I have a meeting with an important work deputy this afternoon?!

Mmmm just bought amazingly delicious bread…

Good city for walking (with the added excitement of reality Frogger) and these hills are going to kick my butt for a while #icaneatmorebread

Yep, it’s cold.

It’s 6:15 p.m…. why does it still look like early afternoon?

I stayed up until sunset (7:30 p.m.) can I go to bed now?

I get 4 Russian television stations really clearly (and two Korean ones…)

I wonder if US sitcoms seem really ridiculous to non-Americans… Russian sitcoms are odd.

I’m really not even tired! And I only slept a few hours on the planes. I’m going to read some more of “A Dance with Drag…. zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Posted in live tweet, travel, vladivostok | Tagged | 4 Comments

Harvard’s reaction to “The Social Network”

You could read the Harvard Crimson’s 5 star review of The Social Network to see what the journalistic mouthpiece of Harvard has to say about director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s new movie about facebook (and so much more), but I’ll give you a first hand look at how an opening night, sold-out audience at the AMC theater in Harvard Square responded to the critically-acclaimed movie. Admittedly, it’s impossible to know what percentage of the 7:30 p.m. viewing audience was made up of students, or undergraduates, or people in anyway associated to the university, but the theater’s entrance is only about 150 feet from a main Harvard gate (including a T entrance) to Harvard Yard and is definitely the closest theater to Harvard’s main campus.


Only the first 60 minutes or so really have anything to do with Harvard, but here’s what I have for you…

Applause: There were two moments during the movie when the audience strongly applauded. The first what when the ever pretentious Zuckerberg character says “You don’t need to study: you go to BU.” The second was during the long, establishing shot of Harvard, immediately after the first (break-up) scene.

Confusion: there were murmurs throughout the theater as the Zuckerberg character ran through the “Harvard campus” to his dorm. Apparently many people in the audience didn’t know that no commercial filming is allowed on campus and most had been done elsewhere. My favorite comments were from the people behind me, who thought that “it must be at the Divinity school?” No, friends. No.

Harvard parties: There was a great deal of laughter regarding the absurdity of the initial “final club” party at the beginning of the film. I’ve never been to a final club party here, but as I understand it, there aren’t many lingerie-clad women dancing on tables or playing strip poker, even on weekends at Harvard. There was even more laughter regarding another party scene, at a Caribbean-themed, Jewish fraternity party. Speaking from some firsthand experience, this is much more what Harvard club parties look like.

On location: as far as I can tell, there were about 4 shots/scenes in the entire movie actually shot in Cambridge: 1.) the establishing shot of Harvard, which shows Lehman Hall and Out of Town News in Harvard Square. 2.) a shot of University Hall 3.) a shot of Weeks Bridge with Weld boathouse in the background 4.) on the Charles, rowing ridiculously early in the morning. (after watching DVD extras I’ve discovered they also actually filmed in Mr. Bartley’s burger place and the Thirsty Scholar bar).

The Harvard code of conduct: the idea of invoking (or reading, or owning) the Harvard code of conduct, or whatever they call it in the film, may have gotten the biggest laugh of all from the audience.

… but this is one audience’s set of expressive reactions. Go see it yourself and have your own.

Posted in cambridge, harvard, harvard yard | 4 Comments

On location

I’ve mentioned before that Harvard has not allowed any movie to film on campus since “Legally Blonde.” However, that doesn’t stop movies from being filmed elsewhere in Cambridge. I love movies, and I love movies that are shot in places I know well. So, “The Town” and “The Social Network” are basically rocking my world right now. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve also got great critical reviews going: “The Town” has a 94% positive rating and “The Social Network” is at 97% according to Rotten Tomatoes.

Aside from these films, I’ve also been know to re-watch (or watch) movies of varying caliber to catch the Harvard/Cambridge shots.  “Love Story,” “Angels and Demons,” “Good Will Hunting,” “21,” and the aforementioned “Legally Blonde” have all been watched specifically for this purpose.

Instead of getting all verbose on these exciting cinematic moments, I played with Google maps and made this. Enjoy the map and the beautiful sights of Cambridge!

Posted in cambridge, films, harvard, harvard yard | 1 Comment

Harvard Sailing Team

It’s not really about Harvard, but they crack me up. See more here.

Not their best, but at least it’s somewhat Boston-themed.  This one is probably their best and at least most popular:

Posted in harvard, sailing | Leave a comment

10 big ways to enjoy your adventures abroad

It’s important to plan your travel, though of course the best travel experiences are what happen when plans go horridly off course.  Having conquered some travel of my own this summer, I feel I should document my experiences.  So, here we go, the Big Ten Girl’s 10 big ways to enjoy your adventures abroad.

1. Get the most out of your lodging.

  • Free breakfasts, proximately to hot spots and friendly service are big pluses when finding the best place to stay. I’ve recently found air conditioning  can also be crucial (though if it is hot, men will likely go around shirtless, and that can provide some hunky eye candy).  Reading reviews really helps with finding a good place, whether you’re looking for a four star hotel on a site like Expedia or Travelocity, a hostel on Hostel World (which helped me find the excellent Sydney Hostel in Istanbul). That said, sometimes you just need to show up at a place your guide book recommends and ask for a room (as I did at the Fatima Hotel in Kazan, Russia this summer).

2. Get creative with airfare.

  • If you can afford to be flexible with dates and times, and want to cut costs as far as airfare is concerned, get creative. I love using to compare flights. Weird flight times, random or possibly long layovers aren’t really that much of an inconvenience when you’re flying around the world, so just suck it up. Being creative with your flights can even lead to more adventures along the way; if you wind up with a 22 hour layover in London (as I once did), you can take the money you saved for the cheaper flight and jump into the city for the $16 cost of tube fare. This summer I also wound up with a 7 hour layover in Riga, Latvia on my way to Odessa, Ukraine. I got to experience two countries for the price of one (almost)!

3. Eat cheaply.

  • The best food I had this summer since leaving the US was at a falafel stand in Odessa, Ukraine. For 11 grivna (less that $1.50) I was able to get a delicious falafel wrap that didn’t even make me sick! Granted, street food can be super sketchy (there are so many stories of people disposing bodies by giving the meat to shashlik/shishkabob stands…) but if you do it right, and approach the situation with healthy skepticism it can be great.

4. Ask the locals for advice.

  • During a business trip to Kazan I met with many people and in our social exchanges I asked them what they were most proud of in their home region. Through them I got great recommendations for sights like the Raifskiy Monestary, which wasn’t in my Lonely Planet guidebook. Sometimes asking locals can even have a monetary advantage: in Russia foreigners are charged a higher entrance rate at many sights, so if a Russian recommends a sight, they may also offer to buy you the cheaper ticket! (Спасибо, Рома!)

5. Prepare for any weather.

  • The average summer time temperature in Moscow is supposed to be 75 degrees F. This summer we had a straight month where the high of the day was over 90 degrees. I also went to Arizona one year for Christmas and was thwarted from seeing the Grand Canyon by a snow storm.  Extreme or atypical weather happens. Pack accordingly.

6. Do not fly Aeroflot. (Upon reviewing this 2 years later, I can say Aeroflot is not so bad).

7. Know what to expect with your travel companions.

  • Travel priorities differ greatly, so it’s good to at least have an idea of whether you’ll be eating big, long meals or quick, small ones; frequenting beaches or museums; putzing along for hours or hitting the town at full speed. It can get frustrating if you’re just too different, but being flexible and patient with someone else goes a long way. (I’ve generally had pretty good luck with this, but have heard some horror stories).

8. Don’t be afraid to travel alone.

  • Okay, it can be unsafe to walk dark alleys late at night by your lonesome, but I had a great time this summer roaming Kazan and Riga by myself. I always thought I could only enjoy places when I could instantly share the experience with someone else, but you observe a lot more by yourself and can share great stories with other people later. Plus, you get to be completely selfish in your travel plans.

9. Take pictures that tell stories.

  • Pictures can be “worth a thousand words” but only when they actually have something to say.  Since approximately 1 billion people have pictures of famous monuments, I think it’s better to make the picture your own, by purposely not cropping out the couple with the ridiculous PDA in the corner of your Eiffel Tower picture, or including the crazily dressed tourists in your Kremlin shot.

10. Do NOT fly Aeroflot. (Really, it’s okay to fly them now…)

Posted in food, leisure, travel | Leave a comment