Thursday, December 31, 2009

Impossible Germany (Pt. 1)

Top: melting a cone of sugar into the Christmas gluwein.
Bottom: Christmas Eve dinner with Amy, Simon, and Jurgen

I left December 23rd for Germany. I didn't have enough money to go home this year, and it would just have been too depressing to be in a country that didn't recognize anything significant on the 25th. So, I had a friend in Germany and I bought my ticket; fortunately, his girlfriend, Amy, is one of my good friends from back home and she flew out too. I had a great time spending Christmas with people that knew me already. I love my friends in St. Petersburg, but there's just something to be said for friendship that has history.

I flew in with my buddy, Jared, who works at the same school I do. His girlfriend lived in the same region and on the 24th he left us and surprised her with a ring. In Germany, Christmas Eve is the where most of the celebrating takes place. I went to church with Julian's family and it was great: it could have been my church back home (except for the whole speaking German thing). We then came back and had a 5 course dinner prepared by Julian's uncle who is an incredible chef. Afterward, we opened up presents and did a few family traditions. The party went well into the night and I had no problems falling asleep that night.

As a concession to my friends who prefer Twitter-size postings, I decided to break up this trip in to several different posts. You people make me sick.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


An interesting conversation on the bus today:

Man: Do you know the name of this bus stop?
Me: No, I'm a foreigner.
Man: Oh, really? Where are you from?
Me: From America.
Man: America?! Wow, you must be very rich then!
Me: Haha, no.
Man: You must have tons of "baksov" (the Russian declension for "bucks").
Me: Haha, no.
Man: Well, come on then, give me some so I can go drink a beer.
Me: I'm sorry. I didn't understand.
Man: Give some "baksov" so I can go drink a beer.
Me: I'm sorry. I didn't understand.
Man: 'Baksov', like rubles. Give me some rubles so I can drink a beer.
Me: Oh, I did understand you. Sorry, haven't got any.

Fortunately, at this awkward point in the conversation the bus pulled up to my stop and I got off.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Crossing [Tuchkov Bridge] (shamelessly stolen from the Good Gray Poet)

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!

On the [Tuchkov Bridge], the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Man's Home Is His Castle

Maybe it's the that mysterious leak from the wall when you do dishes for longer than 5 minutes, or the way the hall electrical outlet has melted the Russian-made extension cord, or the the electrical outlet that you can't use because if you pull the plug out the outlet comes with it. Maybe it's the window in the kitchen that you can't open because it was installed wrong or the washing machine that you have to hit in a certain spot to get it to start, or the pile of wet laundry on the floor waiting to be hung up on the drying rack that takes up most of my room. Maybe it's the toilet seat that refuses to stay up (and the ridiculous cost of buying of a new toilet seat. can one purchase a second-hand toilet seat somewhere?) or the hot water heater that requires you to manually adjust the temperature because the last repair man that came and fixed it advised us to do it that way rather than using the cold water at the same time to adjust the temperature. Or is it the cleaning lady that your landlord forced you to hire who comes once a month, wipes the counters in the kitchen, clogs the shower drain (?), and takes $20 from you? Maybe it's the dog that lives next door that barks at any movement on the stairwell. Maybe it's the other neighbors that smoke in the stairwell because it's too cold to go outside (which causes the dog to bark even more). Some might say it's the window over the park where large groups of young men gather late at night to drink, shout, light off fireworks, and urinate; all right underneath your window.

What is it that actually makes an apartment "crappy"?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


We had a winter retreat for the high school and jr. high. I was one of the teachers that went along. I spent 70+ straight hours with my students... It was rough, but I made it. We had it just outside the city at the Finnish Theological Seminary. Once again, I stand impressed at the quality of all things Finnish. I think this is a common feeling of expats living in Russia: Finland = Good.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Bus Comes, Bus Goes"

The bus stop in front of my school is the worst one in the entire city of St. Petersburg. Not only is it completely exposed to the elements with no covering, but it's situated almost directly on the Gulf of Finland which is famous for it's cold, cold Arctic winds.

But this is the coup de grace: it is smack dab in front of Porsche dealership. So, every day as I wait for the Number 1 bus that is legendary for its infrequency in howling wind and rain/snow/sleet, I curse Porsche for its lack of sensitivity.

Sunrise, Sunset, Swiftly Go the Days

Nov. 23rd
Sunrise- 9:15 AM Sunset-4:14 PM
It doesn't get fully light until about 10 AM and it starts getting dark around 3:30 PM. And it's only going to get worse...

Another reason why it's so dark: the weather. The sun has only been visible once in the last four weeks. You might think I am exaggerating. I am not.

All this darkness has different effects on people. A friend of mine theorizes that Russian are only normal for about 4 weeks out of the year: two weeks in spring with 12 hour days and two weeks in fall with 12 hour days. The rest of the time... well, it gets ugly. So far, I've noticed the darkness makes me hungry and sleepy. I think humans that live this far north (roughly the same latitude as Juneau; a little farther north actually) should be allowed to hibernate. I take two naps a day: once on the bus going to work and once on the bus coming back from work (it's dark outside during both). Napping on public transport is fairly common activity here. My first year I wasn't confident enough to do it here. I was afraid someone would try to pickpocket me, that I would be impolite, or that I would miss my stop. Basically, I don't carry anything around worth stealing, so being pickpocketed isn't a problem. I usually find a spot in a corner so I don't block anybody in, so I'm not being impolite. I used to worried about missing my stop, but now that I've travelled this route so often, I can, quite literally, make the trip in my sleep.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I learned a new word the other day: "gopnik." Basically, it's a type of belligerent Russian white trash. You can look it up here for more details. I've seen these guys everywhere, but I didn't know there was an actual word for them; I've just been calling them "muzhiki" ("peasants").

So, last week I was going to dinner with my buddy Max when we walked past a group of gopniki (plural; of course, guys like this always travel in packs) on a corner. I wasn't even conscious of noticing them, but now I realize that somewhere in the back of my mind I had taken note of them. Max and I walked past them on the corner and had to orient ourselves, so we looked around and realized we had to go back the other way, past this group of guys. As we started moving in their direction, they started moving in our direction. Again, I had no conscious thought that anything was out of the ordinary, but my sub-conscious Russian threat monitor did.

One of these hooligans decided he didn't much care for my face and resolved to put his cigarette out in it. I dodged out of the way and he only succeeded in melting a piece of my jacket on the shoulder, and, once again, I didn't process any of this. It all occurred at the sub-conscious Russian threat monitor/ evasive action station part of my brain. So, I walked a couple of steps before the rest of my brain caught up and I realized that someone just (drunkenly) tried to cause me some serious harm. I turned around to give him my best hard-man stare and maybe shout a little bit at him... and I saw a group of drunk Russian neanderthals much, much bigger and tougher than me (and much, much, much bigger and tougher than Max). Discretion being the better part of valor, I continued walking and Max hurried to catch up. It ruined Max's night, but, oddly enough, not mine. I happened to be in a particularly good mood about Russia and St. Petersburg that night, and these knuckle-draggers weren't going to spoil it. "Greater things are still to be done in this city."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Veliky Novgorod

I went on one of the field trips for our 9th and 10th graders last Friday. We went to Novgorod, the cradle of Russian civilization. The trip was made down the main St. Petersburg-Moscow highway, the M10. The road conditions in Russia are a source of constant misery/humor. This highway is probably one of the most well-kept, but we were traveling in heavy snow fall with 2-3 inches of slush already on the ground. The interesting thing about this highway is that it is 3 lanes: 1 lane for those going to Moscow, 1 lane for those going to St. Petersburg, 1 lane for those going to eternity. The middle lane is for passing, but, as far as I can gather, there's no real rule on who yields. Basically, if you think you got it, you go for it. Our driver went for it; he seemed intent on setting a new land record. The other teacher on the trip (who was becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of time spent in the middle lane) leaned up front and reminded the driver that we had plenty of time. The driver nodded and put the minibus into gears I didn't even know it had and plowed through the snow, zooming past the more timid drivers.

We arrived in Novgorod with plenty of time and toured the ancient marketplace and saw a statue to the most famous resident of Novgorod, Sadko. We then headed over to the other side of the river to the Novgorod kremlin. Novgorod is famous for 2 things in Russian history: it crowned the first king of the Rus in the 9th century and for the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom, the oldest surviving church in Russia (and oldest building in Russia still in use).

We then went out to a wooden village open air museum. Open air means cold. During the Communist period, several peasant log cabins and wooden churches were moved to this site. The wooden church pictured above is from the 17th century with the top half being almost completely original. It's pretty impressive.

Due to the snow plows out on the road, the ride back to St. Petersburg wasn't as exciting.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


You can find my response to the previous post here.

Akhmatova Again

Give me bitter years in malady,
Breathlessness, sleeplessness, fever.
Both a friend and a child and the mysterious
Gift take away forever-
Thus I pray after Your liturgy
After many exhausting days,
That the cloud over dark Russia
Become the cloud in the glory of rays.
-"Prayer," Anna Akhmatova

As I wrote in an earlier post, I've been struggling with a question lately: is there any hope for Russia or not? Some days I think that these people are cracked; they have destroyed what little goodness there was in their society a long time ago. Other days, I wonder... I was talking about this with a colleague of mine and he said that without Christ there really is no hope for this country. At the time I thought, of course he'd say that; he has to say that. That's the usual "Sunday school" type answer, but then I started thinking about it. The more I thought about it, the more profound it became. If anything is going to change here (and believe me, there are many things that need to be changed), it will not take root unless it is rooted in the Light. Do I have faith that Russia will take up its mat and walk? I certainly hope I do, but do I long for that day when the dark clouds over Russia turn to brilliant rays of sunshine?

Today, I read this poem by Akhmatova. It's a devastating poem. This was a woman who ached for Russia to be in the Light, who prayed fervently for it. She writes that she would be willing to suffer for years for this. She would suffocate for Russia to walk in the Light. She would never sleep again for Russia to walk in the Light. She would give herself, her child, and her friendships for Russia to walk in the Light. She saw the darkness in Russia: two of her husbands were killed by the Communists, another died of TB (which is still a concern here), she watched as her son was sent to Siberia. She saw the darkness in Russia but still prayed for "the glory of rays."

Can I say this prayer?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sennaya Ploshchad

Sennaya Ploschad (Hay Square aka the Hay Market). You can read about it here. It's still a pretty bustling place, with all sorts of little kiosks, tables, and shops. Anyway, the other day I was walking through it and I happened to be walking past a record shop that was blasting "Rock Around the Clock." Here I am walking through Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg with Bill Haley and the Comets providing the soundtrack.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oh, Fyodor Mikhailovich, you've done it again!

I've been watching this Russian miniseries on Youtube of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. It's very powerful. The premise of the book is what would happen if a truly Christ-like individual appeared in 19th century Russian society. Because he is so nice, kind, gentle, forgiving and trusting, everyone assumes he is a a half-wit; an idiot.

Check it out here if you are interested. It has English subtitles. It's difficult to say if it would be as powerful if you haven't read the book, but I trust it would be.

Crooked Doctors, Cloak and Dagger

I returned to the medical center to pick up my booklet and was met by the same Deep Purple-loving doctor. He took me around and asked me how my life in Russia was. It's like a fairy tale, I said (I've found this to be a good response; people are able to interpret it as they want). He interpreted this as very clever sarcasm on my part. He told me how he didn't like living here and that all of his classmates from med school now live and work in the US. He helped me get my medical booklet and then walked me out. As I was about to he leave he told me he was a good doctor and if I ever had any health problems or needed any more tests done I should come to him first and he would take care of me. He then gave me his cell phone number. So, I now have "a guy" I can go to take care of pesky things like official medical checkups.

The time changed here last weekend and it's feeling like winter more and more. I've started reading this book The Charm School by de Mille. It's a fun read about American spies in the Soviet Union in the 1980's. Funnily enough, it's actually helped my attitude about being here in the former USSR. When I try and process everything I see and hear through my Western filter, it causes me so much confusion and stress. Honestly, it's just easier to think of these strange people as "the enemy." Russians are simply different.

Thinking this way also makes every small interaction more interesting. Every successful interaction in society is me getting away with something; meeting "the enemy" and living to tell about it. In the book, of course, there's a conflict between the girl who thinks there is hope for the Russian people and the man who thinks they are just cracked and too far gone. I still haven't made up my mind about where I fall on this.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Warmer Climes and Relieving Times

It snowed on Monday; not enough to stick very long, but it was enough to signal the beginning of another cold, dark winter. Recently, I've been thinking about where I'm going to be next year. After spending some time in prayer and talking with a few people, I've decided, almost for sure, that I won't be coming back to St. Petersburg next fall. But now the big question: if I'm not in St. Petersburg, where will I be? The short answer is that I plan to be in warmer climes this time next year. The long answer is that I am planning on staying in the US for a bit, but... I may be taking a trip this spring to go check out a school in Central Asia that needs teachers. I'm going with the attitude that I am going back to the US and I will need to be absolutely convinced that Central Asia is where the Lord wants me.

One of the things I will not miss about Russia is the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy that goes in to getting my visa. One of the hoops I have to jump through is I need to get a medical exam to prove I won't be infecting any Russians with my nasty diseases. I wrote about that a while ago. As it turns out, I had to go back to the medical center for round two so I could get my medical booklet.

So, on Tuesday, I returned to the medical clinic armed with a little foreknowledge of what to expect. I had been briefed by my colleagues who had gone already. I knew I was supposed to ask the man who ran the turnstile that I needed a booklet and he would tell me to go downstairs to a certain office. From there, they would fill out some papers, bring me back upstairs where a doctor would administer another blood test and the not-very-nice-man-test. I'm not talking about the "old-man-not-very-nice-test", but the "young-man-other-end-not-very-nice-test" that involves a Q-tip. They don't have Q-tips in Russia; for the test they use a small pipe cleaner. I am not making this up. I had been practicing a few phrases for a while so I could try and talk my way out of this fate worse than death.

I arrived, went into the room, and headed toward the turnstile. But the man wasn't there... already my carefully rehearsed plan was falling apart. I waited. Nobody came up. Finally, I hopped the turnstile into the waiting room (weird, huh?) and waited in line for the receptionist. Again, the plan fell apart as the receptionist was not the usual one (who spoke very good English), but a girl who didn't speak any English. Finally, my turn came and I told her I needed a booklet. She looked at me like I had two heads. She flagged down a passing doctor and he asked me what kind of booklet I needed. I said I didn't know, the medical one. They looked at me like I had 3 heads. They then asked me for several things that I didn't understand.

"Do you have your -somethingblahblah-?"
"I don't think so. I only have this paper (which had my results from my last exam) and my passport."
"But do you have your -somethingelseblahblah-?"
"Probably not. I only have this paper and my passport"
"Well, do have a -blahblahsomethingsomething-?"

After a few more minutes of this, the doctor took me back to his office to examine my paper and passport. Finally, I called the school and asked for our Russian director to talk to the doctor. While we were waiting, the doctor examined my passport. You know how in the new US passports they have picture of buffalo and the Statue of Liberty on the visa pages? Well, the doctor turned to the one that has Mt. Rushmore and told me how he knew this from a Deep Purple album cover he used to have. Is it a natural mountain, he asked? Yes, I said, an artist made it from the mountain. He thought that was pretty cool. Finally, my Russian director came to the phone and communicated that I needed my booklet. Which booklet, he asked? His medical booklet, she said. Ok, he said.

He then took me downstairs to a nurse that started filling out the paperwork for my medical booklet. After a few Russian difficulties (they use very official, technical Russian in these situations of which I know absolutely nothing), we managed to get it all done, and she then told her partner that she's taking me upstairs for the tests. Those heartless crones laughed. They knew what was coming... and so did I. We go back upstairs and tells me to sit down and wait. She went into the doctor's office and I could hear them arguing a little bit. A minute or two later she came out looking very frustrated. The doctor shortly followed and seemed just as unhappy. Great, I think; I don't want this guy in a bad frame of mind when he administers these tests. He motioned me over and took me aside, somewhat conspiratorially.

"I don't need to check anything else on you, do I?"
The phrase I had been practicing all week came out effortlessly:
"No. You don't need to do any more tests. Everything's just fine down there."
"Ok. Come back in a week and I'll give you your medical booklet."

I floated home, my feet barely touching the pavement. I think this doctor was a little lazy and was feeling slightly embarrassed about the language problems. I had already been something of a hassle to him and I think he was running a little behind because of it. The dumb foreigner card plays again!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Post-Modern School of Historiographical Thought

I was just talking to one of my former students who is now attending school in Finland and he told me about his first day in his history class. The teacher asked what history was. People raised their hands and said the usual comments, and then my former student raised his hand and proceeded to give a post-modern historiographical definition of history. Excuse me for asking, but from what teacher did you get this kind of influence and teaching, he asked. From Mr. S at International Academy of St. Petersburg, my student responded.

This student will be visiting next week and he's supposed to bring me some Dr. Pepper from Finland. I've heard rumors of a shop that sells Dr. Pepper (at an absurd markup) here in St. Petersburg, but it would be quite a trek. Well, it couldn't be worse than having to go all the way to Finland for it...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Short video

I made a short video this morning with some camera movies from Russia. Spans from the Summer of '07-Spring of '09.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Good morning. Beer or Coffee?

The question I get the most about Russia is, "Do they really drink vodka all the time?" No, they don't drink vodka as much as we think, but they do remain pickled the whole day. There's a popular saying here that says a beer in the morning means it's your day off. I go to my bus stop at 7:15 AM and I always see at least one guy going to work drinking his first beer of the day. 7:15 AM.

I've asked my Russian friends if this was normal. Oh no, they all assure me, these are very bad people; alcoholics; it is not socially acceptable. Judging by the fact that I see it every day, it's not THAT socially unacceptable. My thought was replace morning alcohol culture with coffee culture. If you were look at a bus/metro stop in the US at 7:15 AM, what would be the most popular beverage present? Coffee, the drug of choice for the proletariat. Want to know why my solution won't work? Opening times. In my part of the city, I've only found one place where you can get coffee to go. It opens at 11. I could get a beer at, literally, any hour of the day and on any street. For example, there is a store called "The Beer House" that opens at 10, a full hour before the only cafe in the Chkalov district that serves coffee to go opens.

I was discussing this with a Russian colleague of mine and I said I was going to start opening up coffee kiosks near the metros. It would never work, she said (half-seriously), the workers would steal money from the till to buy alcohol.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Back from Budpest. Actually, I got back a week ago, but this is the first chance I've had to sit down and write about it. On Tuesday, I flew with 3 of my students to an international Christian school conference in Budapest, Hungary. We got in the night before it started, so on Wednesday morning we headed into the city. The conference was at a camp on a hill on the outskirts of the city so we had to hike a bit to the bus stop (Picture 3). We ending up catching a bus to a metro station and found a Burger King. I was looking for Cinnie-Minnies, but they didn't have them so I had to settle for a breakfast burrito. We walked around the city a bit and then headed back to the conference.

The conference was great. The kids had a really good time meeting kids from all over Europe (Picture 1: a kid from Norway, Czech Rep., and Korea) and I think they learned a lot. They paired the schools up for the week and our partner school was Thames Christian College of London (Picture 2). Their chaperone was a really interesting guy who did his masters thesis on Russian filmmakers.

Even though the weather was perfect (80 degrees, sunny) all week, it was nice to get back to cold, rainy St. Petersburg. My students were met at the airport by their parents and I got a ride home with one of them; it was interesting because they were Korean and couldn't speak English, so Russian was the lingua franca.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

Signing Out

I'll be in Budapest till Saturday.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Another Reason Why I Love My School

Me talking to my boss today: Hey, Tammy, was I supposed to go to Budapest next week?
My boss, Tammy: Oh yeah, I need to talk to you about that. Here's your schedule. I'll get you your tickets tomorrow.

Turns out I'm chaperoning our participants in an ACSI student leadership conference in Hungary. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Joel, you would be my LAST choice to chaperone students on an international trip on planes, trains, and automobiles. And you are right. I was last choice. But I'm also the only choice (way to go multiple-entry Russian work visa!). My job of chaperoning is going to be cake, as I'm chaperoning the three best kids in the school. These kids speak multiple languages and play multiple instruments; one was last year's basketball team's leading scorer and another scored the highest possible score one can get on the ACT (I know this because I am the school's ACT supervisor). Oh yeah, and I get to take a week off of school to go relax and hang out in an EU country.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

This is St. Petersburg

I went to another Zenit game. It was a good time. As I walked up to the stadium with my friend we saw one fan up on the roof of an apartment building he then proceeded to "hang" in effigy a member of the opposing teams and unfurled a huge banner saying "Dreams can come true." We were searched a few times as we entered (I was patted down a total of 3 times). Zenit ended up scoring right before the half and the stadium went crazy, with the guy in front of me grabbing me by my jacket and jumping up and down. Zenit scored one more time in the second half. The day got even better as I learned a new bad word in Russian. As we were exiting the stadium one fan, parodying the popular chant "Vperyod za Piter" (Forward for St. Pete!), began to shout "Vperyod za pivom!" (Forward for beer!), and, since alcohol is banned in the stadium, many joined in with him. One of the reason alcohol is banned in the stadium is to prevent crowd trouble. I did notice several Zenit fans at the other end of the stadium tearing up chairs out of their section and throwing them at the riot police guarding their section; I guess the alcohol ban just makes them angry.

Friday, September 4, 2009

New Digs

This year I'm in a new apartment. It's really a pretty nice place and I even moved a little closer to the school (it's about a 30 minute bus ride from my apartment). I like my new place, but there's just some strange things along with it:

1. Weird Junk
Most of the apartments that foreigners rent here come somewhat furnished already which is great, but what this also means is that you will have, literally, piles of weird junk that has accumulated from the last 10 occupants. In my apartment, we are packed to the gills with weird Russian junk. Below is a picture of doll collection and odd/unusable/commemorative crockery that occupies our foyer/hallway. There's also a large collection of Russian books that belong to the landlord. So, you never know what is junk left by the previous occupant and what is actually being stored there for when they come back.

2. Laundry (Pt. 1)
Below is a picture of my dryer. We were not fortunate enough to get a dryer in this apartment. But considering how our last dryer was deafeningly loud and actually made everything MORE wrinkly, I'm not complaining all the much.

3. Laundry (Pt. 2)
This is our bathroom. That hose you see coming from our washing machine empties into the tub. This can be weird if you are showering while doing a load of laundry. I'm sure there are people that do this in US, but I've never seen it. It's fairly common here, as most apartments were built without washers in mind; that's only for lazy Westerners.

3. WC
This is our toilet (which is in a separate room from the bathroom). The seat does not go up. It's not a huge problem, but it's just one more thing that I've noticed on several occasions here. The nice thing is that the previous occupants decorated our water closet up a bit.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Inner, Inner City, Inner City Pressure

The second day I got back, I went with my roommate and some of his friends and old students downtown to go hang out. One of the students, Alex, I had met before. I remember him because he was this tall, skinny goth kid with long hair that was wearing leather pants. He's kind of an odd duck. Anyway, we were walking and we heard some music and saw a crowd of people. Oh, it sounds like hip-hop, he said to me. I asked him if he was going to show me some dance moves. He said he might, as he had been studying hip-hop dancing for a while now. I thought it was a joke...

We walked down to the crowd and it was a promotion for Puma and they were inviting people to sign up to participate in dance battles. The group convinced Alex to sign up. He signed up. This is when I realized that he really had been studying hip-hop dancing. He got his chance to dance and proceeded to fling his freakishly long arms and legs at a high rate of speed (presumably to impress the audience). We stayed and watched for a bit and saw some pretty talented amateurs. But then the dance crew rolled up (see picture above). They were fantastic but it's hard to take Slavs break dancing seriously (especially when they're doing their poses and flashing their signs). Bizarre.

Speaking of urban promotions, at the supermarket I go to (Ideya) they always have these weird things going on. You know how in the US beer advertisements usually aren't aiming for "classy"? The same is true here. I walked in to my Ideya and there is this girl standing just inside the door in a skimpy soccer uniform. Her job was to recite a spiel about this beer every time a male customer walked in. You just can't get away with stuff like that in America (and probably quite rightly).


Well, I'm back in St. Petersburg. It's nice to be back and settled in somewhere. I got back on Friday and started work on Monday. I'm really looking forward to this school year for a few reasons. First, there's the new school building that we signed a five year lease on. It's a great building; it used to be an Estonian Orthodox Church built for the merchant families of the Baltic countries who lived in that part of the city (which is near the port), and St. John of Kronstadt was there to dedicate it at it's opening. So, it's now returned to it's original purpose of ministering to foreigners living in St. Petersburg. Also, the school has a great faculty this year. There's always a lot of changes, but this year it happened to work out pretty well in that we've had more comings than goings.

But we've also had a bit of sad week. One of our Korean students drowned in the Neva River last Monday. He was supposed to be one of our 11th graders; the kids have been great, though. Many of them went with the family to the airport as they went back to Korea, and two of the students organized a memorial that the whole International Academy community ended up attending. I'm continually impressed with the students I have here and I recognize how blessed I am by them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Anna Akhmatova

All has been looted, betrayed, sold;
black death's wing flashed ahead.
-Anna Akhmatova, "Looted" (1921)

Since I've been back in the US for the summer, a lot of people have asked me, "So, why Russia?" It's a fair question. Why, indeed? I've given a variety of answers: the intrigue the "Evil Empire" has to a Reagan baby who saw the end of the Cold War, a fascination with Russian literature, a good experience teaching English there in '07, a desire to do something different, a ministry that had a need I was able to meet, the merits of Russian women, the lack of enforcement of open container laws... the list is endless. Today, I'm going to add another one: Anna Akhmatova. Pretty dark stuff, huh?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Ladas

My grand project of this last week was to create a Wes Anderson soundtrack. I thought I'd share it with y'all. In place of Mark Mothersbaugh instrumentals, I followed Anderson's lead and replaced them with some local flavor (for Anderson it was India in Darjeeling Limited; for me it was Soviet folk-pop, hence, the title Planes, Trains, and Ladas).

1. "Straight to Hell" - The Clash
2. "Bumazhny Soldat" - Bulat Okudzhava
3. "Ballrooms of Mars" - T.Rex
4. "Six O'Clock" - Ringo Starr
5. "Nu vot, Ischezla drozh' v Rukakh" - Vladimir Vysotsky
6. "Cry Baby Cry" - The Beatles
7. "I Am the Cosmos" - Chris Bell
8. "Who Loves the Sun" - Velvet Underground
9. "Akh, Nadya, Nadenka" - Bulat Okudzhava
10. "Solitude" - Billie Holiday
11. "So Long, Marianne" - Leonard Cohen
12. "Moonlight Mile" - The Rolling Stones
13. "Sidonie" - Brigitte Bardot
14. "Open House" - Lou Reed & John Cale
15. "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" - The Ramones
16. "Polnochny Trolleybus" - Bulat Okudzhava
17. "A Long Way from Home" - The Kinks
18. "Moskva-Odessa" - Vladimir Vysotsky
19. "4th Time Around" - Bob Dylan
20. "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long" - George Harrison
21. "If I'm on the Late Side" - The Faces

There you go, you have the music, so now you (or Wes Anderson) provide the storyline.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My feet are now fast and pointed away from the past.

I just booked my tickets to head back to St. Petersburg. I'm pretty excited about it. I'm flying Swiss Air (a subsidiary of Lufthansa) and I even got a pretty decent deal on it. If you're curious,  flights to St. Petersburg from California (roundtrip) usually run about $1,500. So, August 20th will see me leave for Russia and July 1st, 2010 will see me return to the US.

I've been enjoying my time off. I got really in to Wimbledon this year. I got a chance to play a little the other day; my overhand serve isn't all that dangerous, but I did manage to keep it in a few times, which was a small victory. I've also been able to play on an indoor soccer team on Friday nights and play some pickup over at the soccer park on Wednesday nights. Continuing on in my athletic endeavors, my poolball (basketball played in the pool) game has probably received the most attention this summer, considering the fact that Redding is hotter than the gates of Hell. Poolball is a little more akin to Greco-Roman wrestling than basketball, now that I think about it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What a difference a week makes...

Life is funny: one day I was strolling down the Champs-Elysees, and then, suddenly, I was back in northern California at 4500 ft., setting chokers in the Sierra Nevadas. 

 I had a great time at Sara and Noah's wedding and I felt honored to be a part of it. I read this Homer quote a while ago that a good marriage was a source of consternation for the couple's enemies and source of joy for their friends. Sara and Noah gettin' hitched definitely brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. 

Being back has been great. I'm not really working a whole lot; every now and then I'll head up to the woods to help out if my dad needs an extra set of hand. But for the most part, I'm just relaxing and catching up with friends. I've been reading a lot as well. I've been reading quite a bit  of Cormac McCarthy; it's very American and I love it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Oh, Champs-Elysees"

I left St. Pete on June 1st and began to make my way back to the USA. After a quick layover at Warsaw's Chopin Airport (they played nocturnes in the plane while it was on the ground), I arrived in Paris in the early evening. I made it to my hotel with a minimum of hassle and expense (way to go Roissy-Opera bus). Unfortunately, this was the only good deal I found in Paris. The first word that comes to mind when I describe my time there is "expensive." 3 euros for .33 liter (small can) of Orangina? 8 euros for two slices of salami and a fistful of sprouts? To put in perspective how expensive it was, I was relieved to get into CDG Airport where everything was so much cheaper.

But I feel good with how I used my time there. After checking in, I went and walked around saw the gardens in front of the Louvre (just the outside, it was closed when I got there), walked along the Seine to Notre Dame, and found a bistro (which comes from the Russian word "bystro") to have my two slices of salami and fistfull of sprouts. They didn't have an English menu, but the waitress was Czech and could understand my Russian. I got up early the next morning and walked to Montmarte. I wanted to go early before all the other tourists (and people preying on tourists) were awake. So, I got to the Sacre Couer, a location in the film "Amelie," a little after 7 AM and had the place almost to myself (except for 3 Australian tourists). Afterward, I went back to the city center to wait for a friend who was supposed to meet me. While waiting, I was approached by a beggar. Speak English, she asked. Net, I said. She then explained in French mixed with English that she needed money for food and that I should give her that money. I had just taken a big bite out of croissant I had just bought. I offered her that croissant. She pushed it aside and asked for money again. I told her (in Russian) that I had no money, but if she wanted to eat, she could have my croissant. She ended up taking my croissant. 

My friend never did make it; he ended up catching a later train to Paris, so he didn't make it into the city until evening. So, I went to the Musee D'orsay for the afternoon. There was a bit of a line to get in, but it moved pretty quick. I was privileged enough to be in line behind a stereotypical group of ugly Americans; complete mooks. But, I was very pleased once I got in the museum. I give it a thumbs up. I then walked back to the coutyard of the Louvre to meet my friend, as this was our secondary meeting place. I walked the whole time I was there because I was too afraid to ride a bike in traffic and the Parisian Metro looked very complicated and was very expensive. Anyway, my friend didn't make it to that meeting either, so I strolled down the Champs-Elysees toward the Arc de Triumph. I then hung a left and headed towards the Eiffel Tower. Once I arrived there, I had accomplished all of the sightseeing I had planned and began the long, long walk back to my hotel. Along the way I passed a statue of Lafayette; I got a kick out of that.

Monday, May 25, 2009

This would be ironic

... in the West.

As I walk home from school, I walk past a medical college. I always pass it at the same time, which happens to be in between classes for the med students; they have just enough time to have a cigarette. This is where I get the majority of my allotted daily amount of second-hand smoke.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Night at the Museum

A word of advice: don't go out on Museum Night. Let's just say organization isn't exactly St. Petersburg's strong suite. And the people that are out and about are not the creme de la creme of Russian society. You could read about Museum Night all over the place, but when it came to exact details (which museums, which buses, what the cost was, etc...), all articles referred to the website where all this information was; that website crashed because of the amount of traffic. 

I started out from my place around 9:30 PM. The first museum I went to was the Kirov Apartment Museum. Sergey Kirov was the leader of the Communist Party in Leningrad until he became too popular and Stalin had him killed. This museum is literally a stone's throw from my apartment. It was, of course, not open; it wasn't participating in Museum Night. 

So, I walked down to city center (about 30-40 minute walk from my place). The streets were full of people with varying degrees of sobriety off to enjoy a little culture (supposedly). Anyway, I arrived at the Central Naval Museum which I read was included in the program. I had a little difficulty finding the entrance, but I went in, bought my ticket that would get me into the participating museums for the whole night, and discovered I had actually entered some sort of soil museum. As far as soil museums go, it was the best one I've ever been in. Anyway, I finally found my way into to Central Naval Museum and discovered that I had to buy another ticket to get in. I opted to save my money and go check out some other museums. I walked down Nevsky to the Shereemetev Palace. The line to get in was too long and the people in the line weren't exactly the cream of Petersburg society. So, I decided to walk back to my part of the city and visit the artillery museum. 

There were more lines here and tons of kids. I opted to continue on to the last museum on my list: the Museum of Russian Political History. There were no lines here. This was the one redeeming point of the night. It was great. They had clothes of Khrushchev, the ID card of Yuri Gagarin, anti-American propaganda posters, and expressionist portraits of Brezhnev. I returned home around 3:30ish, less than impressed by the people of the city (I may have called them "peasants"). I got home just in time for the EuroVision song contest finals. This is a HUGE deal here in Russia.  Every country in Europe enters one song and everybody votes for the winner. This year Norway won (if you care).

Friday, May 15, 2009

Victory Day

May 9th was Victory Day (V-E Day) here. This is the second biggest holiday in Russia; it's like July 4th, Veterans Day, Mothers Day, and Fathers Day all rolled in to one. The first thing they do is wake up early (9ish) and head toward Palace Square to watch the first parade of the day. This parade displays the pride of Russia's current military. I got there early to get a good place but there were already quite a few people ahead of me. I managed to squeeze my way near the front and I had about 45 minutes to wait. While we were waiting, a nice officer walked up and told the police to let a few of the small kids through so they could get a better view. It was a beautiful morning and the parade was quite a spectacle but, honestly, not that impressive. Afterward, as I was walking home, I passed one of the vehicles in the parade broken down on the side of the road.

Later, I walked down to Nevsky Prospekt to watch the evening parade. Instead of celebrating the current prowess of the nation's military, this parade celebrated the veterans of WWII. Every veteran in the city marched or rode in the parade. This was a much better parade and the spectators were in a much better frame of mind. It finished seconds before the heavens opened up and drenched the city. Fortunately, I was seconds away from the nearest metro and managed to make it home fairly dry and, since I left so quickly, uncrushed. 

Tomorrow night is "Night of Museums." Many of the city's museums are going to be open all Saturday night to Sunday morning and special, free (FREE) buses will be running all night. The nice thing for me is that I live so close to the city center that I don't even have to take the buses to get to the majority of the museums. 

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Notes from Dostoevsky Land

"Raskolnikov, we love you!"   -Message written in the hallway of stairwell of Raskolnikov's apartment building.

On Thursday the Russian Lit class at the school had a field trip. They went to Sennaya district of the city to see different sites from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I was fortunate enough to tag along. We started out in Sennaya Ploshchad (in the book it is called the Haymarket). In Dostoevsky's day this was the poor part of the city and we walked a short distance to see the building where he lived in when he wrote C+P. It was interesting that one of my students lives in the building next to it. About a stone's throw away, was the apartment of Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky was very detailed about places and streets in the book, and from it, we can find just about every place that is mentioned. For example, at one point in the book, Svidrigailov stays the night in a hostel. Today it's a McDonald's. Fortunately, the doors of Raskolnikov's building were open and we were able to go up. Today, it is still an apartment building, and sometimes the doors will be locked because the residents aren't terribly thrilled with tourists hanging out in their hallway all the time. Also, people leave graffiti (as pictured above), saying things like, "Babki (old hags) must die!"

Speaking of old ladies dying, we then walked over to the apartment building of the old pawnbroker that Raskolnikov murders in the book. It is interesting to note, our guide pointed out, that the building of the old pawnbroker is the same walking distance away from Raskolnikov's apartment as St. Isaac's Cathedral (thus pointing out Dostoevsky's message that Raskolnikov has the free will to decide whether to good or evil; he chooses evil). We got lucky there as well because the door to that apartment building was also opened. Afterward, we went and saw Sonya's apartment, the crossroad where her father, Marmeladov, was killed, and the bridge where two characters meet in the short story "White Nights." 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

This is the end...

May is here. This is the last month of the school year. This is also my last month before I return to California for the summer. I think I need some time to sit and think about my time here (trans-Atlantic flights are perfect for this): living in a different country, learning another language and culture, finishing another year of teaching, managing to survive for 10 months never once lighting the stove or oven... 

May 1st, International Worker's Day used to be a major holiday here. In recent times it's just become like our Labor Day (except that all the members of the Communist Party go hold demonstrations downtown). The school celebrated the day by working. No holiday for us. But, over the weekend I got on a bus and travelled to Lodeynoe Pole, where I taught English during the summer of '07. I stayed with a family of a former student for the weekend in their apartment. The father of the family, Stepan, is an avid fisherman. Earlier on Saturday, he set a net up in the river; in the evening he left to go check it and he returned with good sized muskies. When I told me my parents about this, my mom asked if that was legal in Russia. It turns out it isn't (which explained a lot, because I kept wondering why his wife kept asking about the police when he got back). While walking around LP, I happened to see a sign I had noticed a few years ago with the picture of a rather mean looking German shepherd, but this time I was able to read it. It said, "Caution: Evil Dog." Another highlight was playing dominoes. It was my first time, and, accordingly, I had more than my fair share of beginner's luck, leading Stepan to comment that I was "cunning like an Indian." 

My time came to an end on Sunday as I headed back to the Big City for another week. I wasn't alone; there were a lot of other who came out to the country for the holiday weekend, so the bus was packed. We had just left the bus station and driven a few blocks when a lady called out, "Stop the bus!" She had forgotten her suitcase. Inside it were all of her documents (ID, registration) and she needed it. The driver let her off and we all waited as the lady ran back to her apartment to get it. Can you imagine that happening in America? This brought me back to something I heard a few months ago from a friend of mine. She had spent some time in the US studying and told about how on her first night she went to a bar to get a drink and was refused because it was after hours. It was literally 3 minutes past time. Can't you make an exception, she asked. Nope. My friend was struck by the lack of compassion in America. Similarly, when Americans are in Russia, they are usually struck by the corruption and willingness to bend/break rules. Americans aren't heartless; they simply have a strong moral compass. Russians aren't crooked; they simply have a big heart. 

I was talking to one of my Korean 6th graders today, explaining the English idiom about children being like sponges soaking up information. So, he said (very earnestly), does that mean Sponge Bob Squarepants is a genius?

On a completely different note, I just recieved a text message from a friend in Siberia. I'm pretty pleased with this; who else recieves text messages from Siberia?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Vperyod Zenit! or: Too Legit to Quit!

I'm going to another Zenit match in a few minutes. One thing I forgot to mention about the experience last time is that when Zenit comes on to the field they blast "Simply the Best" by Tina Turner. In another bizarre nod to American culture of yesteryear, "hammer pants" are quite trendy amongst young ladies in St. Petersburg.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Shalom, Y'all!"

This is the sign that greets you when you walk into the school's office. Can you tell I work with a lot of Texans?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


-pictures from my church's sunrise service. I felt sorry for the guys playing guitar; their hands must have been freezing!

Sunday was Easter (Paskha) here, but I started celebrating early by going to a Norwegian Easter dinner on Saturday night. It didn't start well: the directions to get to the house where the party was were 95% good. The 5% bad combined with my incredibly poor sense of direction (it's legendary, truly), resulted in me taking an extra two hours to get there. But it was all worth it. It was a nice dinner with some good friends. Very international: 2 Americans, 1 Franco-American, 1 Russo-Ukranian, 1 Russo-Tajik, 1 Brit, 1 German, and 1 Norwegian. 

I got home a little late from dinner and I was debating whether to go to my church's sunrise service. I was debating even more in the morning when my alarm clock went off and I wanted to go back to sleep for a few hours. So, I decided to look out my window and that if it wasn't raining/snowing, I'd go. It was beautiful; not a cloud in the sky. I decided to walk across my district since the sun was out to the meeting place for worship. I love St. Petersburg in the early morning; it's like you have the whole city to yourself and there is actually stillness in a city of 5 million people (if you get up early enough). The place for our service was on an island in the middle of the Neva River; on one side you have the old Winter Palace of the tsars and on the other side there is Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral (two of the most beautiful and iconic places of St. Petersburg). It may be mid April, but it still can be pretty chilly here (which I found out as I held the communion cup and wafer in my hand).

I walked back home with the intention of having a nice long breakfast and then a nap, but I arrived back home as my roommates were getting ready to go to the regular service and I thought, hey, it's Easter, and I was already awake... I'm really glad I went. It was a great time. I then went and had Easter dinner with an American family from the school along with a few other teachers.  I didn't realize how much Easter also meant "family" for me until this year being away, so I am thankful that I was let into this family for the day.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Petrovskii Posturing

Well, I returned from my adventure watching Zenit v. Amkar Perm unscathed (unfortunately).I guess the 50-75 Amkar supporters figured out they wouldn't get out of the stadium alive if they tried to start anything. The stadium, the Petrovskii, is about a 15 minute walk from my apartment. They are currently building a new stadium in a different part of the city. After being in the Petrovskii, I can see why; the place is quite literally crumbling. I grabbed a few pieces of the stadium before Zenit moves: cheap souvenirs. The game was pretty dull Amkar came for a 0-0 draw and they got it. Coulda used Arshavin, but, oh well. The stadium is about a 20,000 capacity ground and it's a very partisan crowd. During the game the different ends of the stadium shout to each other: "Vperyod Zenit!"("Onward Zenit!") is met with "Vperyod za Piter!" ("Onward for St. Pete!") Flares are still alive and well in the fan culture here, but, fortunately, there was an icy polar wind to disperse the smoke before it settled on the field and make the Americans watching shiver throughout the second half.

Because the Orthodox celebrate Easter next Sunday, yesterday was Palm Sunday, or as they call it here, "Pussywillow Sunday." Because of the notable lack of palm trees here, they've had to improvise.

It's about 9:30 PM here right now and I'm still able to read by the window with the daylight still remaining. In a few weeks I'm gonna be going to bed with it still light outside

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"I've got a golden ticket!"

Yesterday I went with a friend down to the stadium at the end of my street to purchase a ticket to Zenit St. Petersburg's home opener on Sunday. They already had one home game, but it was played behind closed doors due to some unsavory behavior from the fans last season. As we were standing in line to get our tickets, a scalper came up and was trying to peddle his wares. He told us how they only had tickets left in sector 6 (which is part away supporters and part home supporters separated by a line of riot police) and that we should buy his tickets in a "peaceful" sector. We'll make our own preparations, thank you, we said. So, we went and purchased our seats in sector 6 and I'm preparing to beat the living daylights out of any Amkar fan that thinks he wants to have a go. No, not really. Only if I'm lucky.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"Face without Citizenship"

Today was the day I received my official work visa and Russian ID card! It says "Permission to work for a foreign citizen/face without citizenship." I think I'm missing something in the translation.

Turns out I got a promotion: I'm now the International Academy ACT Lead Administrator, in addition to being the history department chair and, as of next week, boys soccer coach. I think I should get business cards printed up. I could probably think of a few more over-inflated titles to put on it.

I passed the weekend giving another round ACT testing (hence the "promotion") on Saturday and having a bunch of people over to the apartment after church and making tacos. It was really nice time with friends; mostly American, a few Germans, and even a Russian or two. It was also a great way to not think too hard about starting school again on Monday.

I watched the movie Doubt. I thought it was really good. I feel for Sister Aloysius. I also watched Into the Wild, which I also really liked. Here's a link to my favorite scene (it involves 2 actors in character with a gentleman clearly not playing a role but just being himself).

At one minute and 39 seconds you will see something incredible.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


"Paris in the Rain" - Albert Marquet

Today was the first Thursday of the month which means only thing here in St. Petersburg: free admission into the Hermitage! This also conveniently coincided with my spring break. So, I arrived at the Hermitage just after 10:30, when it opened. It was fantastic. No lines to get in the door, no lines to get tickets, no lines in the coat check. Russians simply don't get up early. Not even for free day at the Hermitage. 

In almost every room in the Hermitage there is an old lady that sits there and shouts at people if they get too close to a painting, are taking pictures without having purchased the photo taking ticket, talking on cell phones, etc... Anyway, in the morning, they usually mosey on over to their neighbor and they chat for the first hour until more people start showing up and then they go to their actual post. Of course, others just doze. I woke a few up when I walked into the room. It was pretty cool to have whole rooms of Picasso's, Van Gogh's, Renior's, Cezanne's, Matisse's, and Monet's all to myself. I left to go get some food and I noticed that there were two young ladies holding a bear cub in Palace Square. I guess you'd give them a few hundred rubles and they let you take a photo with it. One was keeping an eye out; I think having a bear cub in Palace Square isn't exactly kosher, although, I always see a guy there with a monkey. On cold days (most days) he puts a little sweater and coat on it.

I ran into a family from the school at the coat check at beginning. Also, as I was walking back to the metro to go home, I met a friend of mine, Nate, on Nevsky Prospekt. He was on his way to the Hermitage, but I convinced him to accompany me to lunch first. It was such a nice day (the first sunny day above freezing of 2009!), that we walked down to the Carl's Jr. toward the other end of Nevsky. Kinda makes me feel at home when I run into people I know when I'm out and about. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

Moloko = Milk(?)

(a picture of a milk truck from my last trip to Russia)

Milk here in Russia is bad. Really bad. So, today I walked to the opposite side of my district to try and find some Finnish milk. Success! Finnish milk is more expensive, but it tastes and, more importantly, smells like real (i.e., American) milk. The biggest bone I have to pick with Russian milk is that I can never tell if it has gone sour or not: it ALWAYS smells sour. So, to enjoy my 1 liter of good milk, I decided to splurge and get some Western cereal too. A small price to pay for happiness.

The time changed here in Russia yesterday. So, because of how far north we are, it is now 8:00 PM and the sun is just now setting. Springtime here in Russia means two things: the mosquitos are back and the city smells. There is still ice on the ground and the temperature STILL has not gotten above 40 degrees F and the mosquitos are out. The last few mornings I've been awakened by that familiar buzzing noise in my ear. The city smells because the ice on the ground has begun to melt (it's by no means finished), showing the artifacts that accumulated over the long winter: cigarette butts by the millions, empty beer bottles, and dog droppings of various shades and sizes. Imagine you saved the "waste" from your dog over the course of 4-5 months; now imagine you keep it in a freezer; now imagine that freezer stops working; now imagine this happening to hundreds of thousands of people in the city. THIS is why springtime stinks in St. Pete.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I just read a Chekhov story in the original Russian. I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself. Feel free to send your plaudits...

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Last night I watched a film. I won't say what film because I don't want my blog coming up on a search when you type it in. I will say that is a very popular internet film and its title is a German word. I watched it because I have several Russian friends here who have seen it/wanted to see it. It's very popular here.

This film's thesis is that the powers that be have been feeding us lies to keep the masses under control. It then explains how Christianity is not true, the attacks on New York that happened 6 and half years ago (I won't say which because of search engines) were orchestrated by the government, and that there is group of mega-rich people who are causing all the problems in the world.

I'm not going to sit here and type a refutation of certain things in this film. I will only say that if I would have turned in this video to a professor while I was at school this is what it would have said at the top of my gradesheet: 

"Wow, you obviously spent a lot of time working on this, and it does look very good. But I have to ask: did you spend any time researching this at all? Were you just not paying attention in class when we talked about how to do research? Also, I would advise you to spend a little time in the writing lab. When you make a huge sweeping claim, you need to explain how it could be true. Just because you say it doesn't make it true. Also, if certain facts don't fit with your thesis, change your thesis. Don't change the facts: this is called dishonesty. While you obviously put a lot of time in to this, you should have spent most of that time RESEARCHING and not making cool graphics to accompany audio clips from pseudo-scholars that were discredited years ago. Maybe academia isn't for you. I suggest film school.  F+"

This film would be an embarrassment to anyone who has ever questioned religion, criticized the Bush administration, or postulated that there are things going on at the top we don't know about; I can't believe that ANYONE would pass this along to someone else, except as a joke. The sad fact of the matter is that people HAVE passed this along in earnest AND that some people have formed their worldviews from it. This internet thing is great, but I'm getting more and more worried as my generation (the AOL IM Generation) comes in to its own.  It said it on the internet. It must be true, right? 

"But Brawndo's got what plants crave; it's got electrolytes." 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Beware the Ides of March

Weird things just keep happening. March has been an interesting month; it has come in like a lion and has shown no signs of lamb-like behavior.

I played a little basketball the other night and was on my home from the gym when I decided I was thirsty; but I didn't have any cash. So, naturally, I stopped by an ATM. I put in my card, punched in my numbers, indicated how much I wanted to withdraw, and then watched in horror as the screen instantly reverted back to the starting point asking me to insert my card. This is the thing I fear every time I use an ATM here. I desperately tried to fish out my card using a variety of methods to no avail. My first thought: this is bad, bad, bad.

While trying to figure out what to do, I noticed a young lady was waiting to use the ATM. It's not working, I told her. She asked what was wrong and I said my card was in there and I couldn't get it out. She slipped her card in, punched in her numbers, indicated how much she wanted to withdraw, retrieved her card, and placed her money in her wallet. It worked fine for her. So, I told her that I didn't speak Russian very well and that I had a problem with the card and asked if it was possible for her to call this number and explain for me. She obliged and explained to me that my card had been "blockaded." 

Apparently, my bank back home had several cards that were compromised, so they sent everyone new cards. Every one except me, of course. So, when I tried to use my "old" card, it was put in lockdown as a suspicious card. And unless I could convince my bank to call Bank VEFK and open up this ATM, I needed a new card. I got on facebook, found a friend online, and asked her to please call my house and ask my mom to get on Skype. After a few phone calls on my end and her end the situation got sorted and I will be FedEx-ed a new card sometime next week. In the meantime, if I need money to eat, I'll take my roommate's guitar down to the metro and busk for a little while.

No, it's not really as desperate as that. Still a hassle, though.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mormon Fishing and Passive-Agressive Reprisals

This weekend I went to the Carl's Jr with an American friend. It's a little more expensive than the other fast food places in the city, but it compensates by being a little more Western friendly (free refills, ice dispenser, they bring your food out to you when it's ready,  TVs that blast MTV from the UK). As I started in to my Dvoynoy Vestern Burger ( Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger, sans bacon), I looked around at who was sitting around us. I pointed out to my friend that the guy behind him was definitely an American. No way, he said. But I knew he was; he had masculine-looking shoes on. A dead giveaway.

As we debated whether he was or not, two nice, young clean-cut looking gentlemen showed up. Mormons on their Mission. What I don't understand about these guys is how they can be so nicely dressed all the time, but still look kind of shabby, like boys that have to wear ties on chapel days in junior high. They may have enthusiasm and get-up-and-go, but they certainly lack panache. They walk up to the obvious American and they give him the hand shake/bro hug. Then two more clean-cut guys showed up. Then two more. My friend was intrigued by this development. Should we say hi, he asked. What for, I responded; at this point the Russian winter has removed all the bonhomie from my character. So, my friend decided to go "Mormon fishing" and opened his Bible and left it conspicuously on the corner of our table. He didn't get any nibbles. These guys were too distracted by free refills to worry about my friend's immortal soul.

I then walked down to the English language book store and bought a book. The cashier wasn't very helpful and seemed pretty surly, so, when I was purchasing the book, I took out the largest bill I had to pay for it (which, for some reason is the most annoying thing you can do while purchasing something here in Russia). Don't you have anything smaller, she asked with a heavy sigh. Nope, I lied. Well, do you have any small change (the other most annoying thing you can do while paying is to not have exact change). Nope, I lied again. Fine, she said and asked if I wanted a bag. I figured this would probably be a hassle for her to grab a bag and put this book in it, and might, in fact, ruin her whole afternoon. Yes, I said, I definitely want a bag. I admit I took an inordinate amount of perverse pleasure over this interaction.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Mac is Back! (different Mac)

During the "greet your neighbor" time at church on Sunday I met an interesting guy. 

(in Russian)
"Hello. I'm Joel."
"Hello. Nice to meet you, I'm Robert. Where are you from."
"I'm from California."
"Oh, that's close to Ukraine, right? Khakha" [the Russians don't have an "h" sound]
"Yep. And you, Robert? Where are you from?"

(in English)
"From St. Petersburg. I was born here."
"Really? You are the only Russian I know with the name 'Robert.'
"Yes, well, it's an interesting story. I was born in '63. My parents named me after Robert McNamara."      []
"Haha [we were speaking English at this point, so I use the "h"], really? As a protest?"
"Yes, I think something like that."

Pt. II
I've got this cold and I can't talk without sneezing. It gets awkward.

Many have asked if I called the girl that belongs to the number given to me last week. Let me just answer with a quote from Jack White/Dwight Yoakam: "Well, I get lonely, but I ain't that lonely yet."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

This Week's Coup de Grace

Phrases in a news article I don't want to see:
"going green/carbon footprint" "economic crisis"   - these instantly make me skip to a more interesting article

Phrase in an art museum I don't want to see:
"Still Life"    -instantly makes me skip to a more interesting painting

Phrase you don't want to hear in a darkened basement room in Russia:
"Undress yourself."  -this instantly makes me question my desire to remain in this country

Allow me to explain this last one. On Friday I had to go to a medical center to receive an examination. I had to do this as part of the conditions for receiving a Russian work visa. This, essentially, is their final attempt to get you to not want to be in their country. So, after school I headed over the the friendly medical center with a colleague to tackle to process. The process first involved finding the right place (which was 7th door on the left), where you are met by a man (think Cerberus) who operates a turnstile. "Show me you passport. Show me your visa. Show me your registration. Show me your translated copy of your passport. Well, ok, I guess I can let you in."

So in we skipped to the waiting room. After going through a large amount of paperwork, we were ready to go. Now, the way it usually works in any place you have to wait in Russia is you inquire as to who is the last person and you simply watch and go after them. I tried to take advantage of being a dumb foreigner and asked if this was case at the front desk and was told that someone would come and get us. Success.

Someone came and got us and led us to a subterranean floor where I was handed a small cup and motioned to a bathroom door. I figured out what they were after, provided it for them, and then was asked about my "little card." I pulled out the little card I was given at the front desk. The nurse shook her head and proceeded to carefully explain the process and why this little card that I didn't have was so important. And I didn't understand a single word of it. So, we went back up to the front desk where I had to redo all the paper work, because they forgot to give me the special little card.  During all this, I was separated from my colleague as he continued the process. I finally figured out where to go next; the problem was I no longer had a guide and I had to ask who was last and wait and watch. 

In the next room, I was told to sit down, was punched in the finger with a tack, and then had the blood squeezed from my finger into a small vial. This blood must have been meant for the nurse's own personal use because she then pulled out a needle and stuck me in the arm to get even more blood. I was then told to sit and wait. Then I was motioned into another room and was told by the nurse to lift my shirt. I began to wish I had done some crunches or something before hand. I was then told to drop my drawers and the nurse proceeded to check to make sure the bottom half of me matched the top half.

Then I was whisked off to a room that appeared to be the office of two doctors. I should mention that in every room I was in (except the full-body skin examination room), there were doctors loafing around, joking, flirting with nurses, and being good-for-nothing. This room was no exception. I distinctly felt that I ruined these doctors' fun by showing up, and one of them reluctantly went to his desk to do his job. Do you have any allergies, he asked. Nope, I said, I'm a healthy guy; no problems. This was all he needed and he then motioned for me to sit down while he filled in the paperwork. While he was doing the paperwork, I looked at his computer monitor and saw that he had the Wikipedia page of Mike Meyers open. Clearly, I had disturbed him while he was doing some very important work. 

I was then taken into another room with another doctor and he proceeded to explain something to me. I have no idea what, but it took him a while. Do you understand, he asked finally. Yep, I said. Then we had to get the x-ray. So, we were led upstairs went into a decidedly un-state-of-the-art room and were blasted with dangerous amounts of radiation, I'm sure. As I put my shirt back on (x-rays can't see through shirts apparently), the nurse commanded me to hurry up (it was the end of the day, and she must have been anxious to begin her three day weekend). I then methodically buttoned my shirt (including the cuffs and those little ones on the underside of the wrist that are so hard to do and take so much time), and we were told we could go.

Perfect finish to a bizarre week. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bizarro Weekend pt. 3 and beyond

So, remember that pain I mentioned a few posts ago? Well, in the middle of the night I woke up with some severe pain coming from the top right molars. I took some Advil and, eventually, was able to get back to sleep. I woke up on Sunday morning with a message from my third molar, "Ok, you've lived it up and never took care of me when you had the chance, well, now it's time to pay the piper." I went to church and was barely able to take communion as I was unable to open my mouth wider than a finger. I came home and sat around my house for the rest of the day, too clouded with pain coming from just underneath my brain to do anything.

All last year in America, I kept thinking, "You know, over Christmas break/Easter break/ summer break, I should really take care of those wisdom teeth." But, of course, I didn't want to ruin my precious time away from work being laid up. So, on Monday morning I went to school and explained to my director my position. She was very helpful and the school secretary made an appointment for me that afternoon and the director's husband came and picked me up. 

Was I concerned about possibly having major oral surgery done in foreign land with a well-known disregard for human life? Not really, and if you knew the dentist I had in my childhood, you'd know why. This guy, Doc Farrell, was a butcher. For example, as a boy, I went to him to have a few teeth pulled. He forgot to numb one of the teeth and ripped it out despite my best attempts to communicate that I was quite sensate in that particular area. But he was cheap, so we continued to frequent his abattoir. It is no wonder that dental tourism is fast becoming a tradition amongst my brother and sisters (for further reading see "Slagles, Philippine Adventures of the")

So, I arrive at the dentist, and before I've even finished filling out the paperwork, they called me in. The dentist spoke decent English (he told me had studied for a year in Atlanta) and he opened up my mouth, had a quick look and said, "Yes. Vi'll neet to egstrakt it." So, I got a few shots and he started digging around. I didn't know if this was going to require me being put under or what (the method of "egstrakshun" was never really communicated to me), but I was encouraged in that I heard the word "good" mentioned a few times between the dentist and his assistant. At one point he asked me if everything was ok. I said, "Lla, nar'lnhha." It's tough to speak Russian with the right side of your face novocained and an instrument or two in your mouth. And before I knew it, he told me that we were finished and shoved a thing of gauze into my mouth. He wrote down the name of some antibiotics for me (I don't even know if there is a Russian word for "prescription." You just show up to the drugstore and convince whoever is working that you need such and such) and that was it. In and out in less than hour and for less than $100 and (unfortunately) back at work the next day.

I wanted to ask the dentist if he could drill a hole through the tooth before I left, to make it easy for me to make a necklace out of it (see ), but my vocabulary is rather limited and my desire to communicate anything for the next several hours was severely diminished. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bizarro Weekend Pt. 2

So, as I was saying in the last post, on Saturday morning, I headed off to our basketball tournament. We had some difficulty getting a gym for the these games. We had already had two other venues fall through. Both of these gyms, by the way, would not even be up to Igo Ono Elementary School standards. So, after frantically searching the city, the school managed to rent the nicest gym in St. Petersburg for less than than the other gyms and for more hours. Weird.

Anyway, after watching the first few games, I walked (actually, I ran to avoid being ran over by motorists) across the street to a gas station/cafe for lunch. I went and ordered my food and asked a question or two, and then the lady behind the counter asked me something I didn't quite catch.

"I'm sorry, I'm a foreigner and I don't understand Russian well. Can you repeat that?"
"Oh, you're doing just fine! What country are you from then?"
"I'm an American."
"Truthfully? That's very interesting. You know, my daughter speaks English."
"Oh yes, and she's a very good girl. So polite, so intelligent."
"Oh yes, and she studies at the Communications College. She's an economics student. Such a pretty girl."
"Blah blah blah blah telephone number blah blah blah blah you should blah."
"I'm sorry, I didn't understand that."

I was guessing she wanted me to leave my phone number so she could give it to her daughter. That wasn't going to happen. I decided I was going to tell her that I didn't have a phone when I felt my phone starting to vibrate. Anyway, she let me pay and I took my food and sat down and started eating. After a minute or two she came out from behind the counter with a pen and some paper.

"Here, let me give you my daughter's phone number."
"Oh, that's not necessary."
"No, no, it is. Here I'll write it... ok, this is her cell number. This is our home number. I wrote down which metro stop we live at too."
"Oh, that's not necessary."
"No, no, it is. Call her tomorrow. Don't call today, she's in classes. Call tomorrow. Don't call Monday, she's working then. Call tomorrow."

So, with that she strode back behind the counter and I continued to bemusedly eat my food. She couldn't stay away long and came up again to tell me:

"One more thing: when you call, don't tell her I gave you the number. She'll be embarrassed and say 'Oh, Mom!' Better if you just say a friend from university gave it to you. Oh, and by the way, how old are you?"
"I'm 23."
"Wonderful. Perfect. She's 21. Perfect. Well, my name is Elena and I work here, so if you have any questions just come and ask."
"Ok, it's nice to meet you, Elena."
"Call her tomorrow."

I then finished my food as quickly as I could and left, calling out, "See you later, Elena!" 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bizarro Weekend Pt. 1

On Friday I went over to a friend's place for a Maslenitsa party ( ). At the end of the evening my friend Grisha and I headed back to the metro before it closed at midnight. It was getting late, so we decided to we needed to run to the metro before it closed. We arrived at 11:59 only to find the doors locked. This was a problem. We were both about as far away as you can get from our apartments, in a completely different part of the city, with no way to get home (except hitchin' a ride). We went into the metro station through the exit doors and found 3-5 drunks had done the same thing. They were shouting at the ladies working there to let them through the gates so they could catch the last train. The ladies gave as good as they got and hurled abuse back at them. My friend Grisha tried the tactful route: "Excuse me, maam. Is it possible for me and my friend to go through? After all, we can see the train is still standing there." But the ladies, evidently hardened by the abuse from the drunks, shot him down. 

So, up the stairs came a man trying to exit the station. "Excuse me, sir," Grisha said, "Could you stand over there so the gates will open and me and my friend can go through?"
"Oh no," He smiled, "That's against the rules. I'll be disciplined if I do!"

While we stood there pondering what to do next, another man came up and exited the metro. With the gates still open, Grisha, quick as a flash, ran through. He then looked at me with a sort of strained smile and urgently motioned me to come through as well. One of the drunks noticed this also and lurched through. After a moment of indecision, I ran through the gates just before they closed. One of the ladies working came steaming at us and reached out to try and grab me and the drunk guy. I deftly dodged the lady (the drunk guy didn't dodge quite as deftly, but just as effectively), ran down the stairs with her still shouting at us, lost her in the crowd and hopped on to the last train with Grisha. As the train stood there at the platform I wondered if she was going to find a policeman and scour the train for us. While I was wondering about this, I noticed two or three more people jumped on to the train with a naughty/elated smile similar to the one I had. The train left with Grisha and me on it. 

The problem was, however, that we both missed our trains that connected this metro line with ours. Grisha couldn't even get close to his part of the city, so we decided that he would come and spend the night at my place. We spent most of the ride figuring out how to do this and keeping an eye on the two drunk guys across the aisle from us, one of whom was desperately trying to keep himself from vomiting. Thankfully, were able to get off of the metro without being vomited on. We were as close as we could get to my apartment, and we started walking. And walking. And walking. Fortunately, it was a nice night (maybe 34 degrees F, and, miracle of miracles, not raining) and it wasn't too bad. We arrived in the middle of the night back at my place and promptly went to sleep.

I had to wake up early, though, because the school was hosting a basketball tournament. So, after bidding Grisha adieu, I headed off to a day of basketball, which brings me to another story about this weekend, but in the interest of keeping this post at a reasonable length (and getting to bed at  decent time; and due to the pain radiating from a possibly impacted wisdom tooth), I'll save that for later.