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.