Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A to the z to the erbaijan Pt. 1: Prep and Arrival

Part of the responsibilities/perks of my job is that I have to go visit programs during the year, which is great. Another part of my job is knowing the requirements and policies for some of the most frustrating visa regimes in the world, which is not so great. Unfortunately, in the time that I transitioned into my role as the new regional director, the visa regulations went from very easy (you stepped off the plane, payed $140, and got your visa) to nobody-least-of-all-the-consular-officals-knows-what-is-going-on.

So, after getting my Azerbaijani visa beforehand and finally getting my Kazakhstani visa after numerous problems and delays, I was off! Sort of. I left Seattle with Elizabeth to spend a few days with my folks in Redding and celebrate an early Thanksgiving with them. It was a very short visit, but it was great time and I was glad Elizabeth was able to come and spend some more time getting to know my family.

I flew out of Sacramento and connected in Chicago and Frankfurt before finally arriving in Baku, Azerbaijan. Upon arrival I was immediately reminded I wasn't in the US anymore. Passport control wasn't exactly an orderly line, with one lump of people going through the booth for foreign citizens and another lump for Azeri nationals. It was time to leave behind American ideals of fair play and order and embrace the chaos of the CIS: after seeing the Azeri lump of people dwindle down to two or three, I rushed over to that end and figured, with a learned Russian impudence, that the rules wouldn't apply to me. And guess what? They didn't. I passed right through the line supposedly reserved for Azeri nationals and stepped into Azerbaijan. Fortune (and life in the CIS) favors the bold.

Oh, hello, Seattle

Whenever I mentioned to people I was moving to Seattle, everyone makes a comment about the weather. People wondered how a poor California boy from the second sunniest city in the United States would cope. Pretty well, actually. After living for two years in St. Petersburg (which is roughly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska), where it was dark 20 hours of the day in winter, with snow on the ground for 5 months solid, with rain and cold winds coming off the Gulf of Finland in the short fall and spring, and record breaking (extremely humid) heat in the summer, a little bit of rain isn't so bad.

So far, I've only been to one of the Man Vs. Food Seattle locations, Red Mill Burgers. Which was, indeed, one of the best burgers I've ever had. Another location, Beth's Cafe, home of the 12 egg omelette, is about a 5 minute drive from my house. Elizabeth and I have been talking about going there for breakfast some lazy Saturday morning. It's funny how those don't really happen for us anymore... I guess we'll have to make it a special point to make it over there. Once my parents make it up here, I want to take them out to the Crab Pot and complete the Man Vs. Food trifecta.

I live at the intersection of three different neighborhoods in northwestern Seattle: Crown Hill, Ballard, and Greenwood. I usually just say Ballard because it's the nicest of the three and one of my roommates is the treasurer of the Ballard Merchants Association; so, I like to give a shout out to Ballard when I can.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Let's see where did we leave off? Ah, yes. I'd just moved up to Seattle... Well, I'd started talking to an NGO I'd been involved with before that basically sends English teachers to places normal people don't want to go. I'd be more specific about it, but there's some internet sensitivity issues (if you want to know specifics, I'd love to tell them to you. Just get in touch). The job itself was a perfect fit for me (and I was a perfect fit for it), but there was one problem: it was in LA. Also, add in the factor that was recently affianced and had just moved up there to be close to her and her family. My decision making process had changed. LA was never a place either of us had had any desire to live in, but after a summer of having doors shut we decided to check it out. I started talking to them and basically said if I can distance work from Seattle until we got married, I'm interested. The majority of my work during the fall, winter, and early spring is calling and emailing, and they said that worked for me to distance work until after our wedding in April.

So, I'm now the regional director for our programs in the former Soviet Union (CIS). I spend the fall and winter recruiting new teachers, taking care of teachers already overseas, and visiting administrators of the schools we work with. In the spring and summer I'll be doing team formation and training. Lots of training. Like I said earlier, it's a perfect fit and means I can keep working on projects in the CIS while being able to spend a majority of my time in America. The best of both worlds!

My Poor Neglected Blog

I've been horrible about updating. That's going to change. Upcoming posts:
1)new job
2)life in Seattle

Friday, September 3, 2010

End of Summer Hiatus

I've noticed I tend not to write a whole lot during the summer time, so with school starting I guess it's time I started posting again.

Summer recap: came back to Redding for a week and bought a ring; went up to Seattle for a week and gave away that ring to a lovely Miss Elizabeth; came back to Redding for a week and prepared for Elizabeth coming down; Elizabeth came down for a week; went to Germany for my buddy Jared's wedding for two weeks and had the opportunity to hang out with Julian and Amy in Mannheim (Little Istanbul) as well; flew straight into Seattle for a week; came back to Redding and waited anxiously to hear back about several jobs in Seattle for 3 weeks; heard nothing good so went back up to Seattle for a week; while in Seattle heard about a job in LA and started having discussions about that; came back to Redding for a week and got my stuff together to move to Seattle; moved up to Seattle in a house with 3 other guys in Ballard; been here for a week.

Actually, I see now why I haven't posted a whole lot over the summer. That was exhausting just thinking about all that.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Take 'Em All! Take 'Em All!

One of the reasons I'm really excited to move to Seattle is that I get to be in a city with an MLS team. One of my goals in life has been to live in a city where I can get season tickets for the professional team. I was able to go to some Zenit matches in St. Petersburg, but, I didn't really have the money to go to all the home games and I didn't join any supporters organizations because most of them are nationalistic, hate foreigners, and regularly clash with police. After doing some cursory research on the Emerald City Supporters and the North End Supporters, they look pretty great, aren't nationalists, and no have no recorded history of tearing up chairs and throwing them at police. In fact, there's a group (Gorilla FC) that prides themselves in being decent human beings and have raised money for aid to Haiti and other causes. Another thing I'm excited about is that most of these groups have several indoor and outdoor teams which would be great way to get plugged in up there. If the missus lets me get some tickets, look for me in the Brougham End in the future. Take 'em all, Sounders!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Turning and Facing the Strange

Now that I'm home from Russia, I've been wondering what to write about on here. I started writing here because life was changing. Drastically. Life is about to change again. Drastically. And I wanted to keep those interested up on what was going on. So, I'll start with the biggest one: I'm engaged to marry a wonderful young woman, Elizabeth. We met in September, started dating in February, I decided I was going to marry her in April, I landed in America June 2nd, bought a ring June 3rd, and proposed June 7th. Happily, she said yes and we're looking to get married in April.

We're going to be getting married up in Seattle and I'll be moving there, Lord willing, in late July or early August. This is going to be exciting, folks. I really fell in the love the Emerald City on my trip earlier in the month and I can't wait to be a denizen there. I'm not worried about the rain, but I am worried about traffic. Maybe I'll just use public transport. Somehow, I think my experience on Seattle's public transport will be a marked improvement from St. Petersburg's; hopefully, I'll be shouted at a lot less.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's Time for Me to Get on a Plane...

Best Russian moments of the last few weeks:

1. The Urinator
Elizabeth and I were walking along the Griboedova Canal on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon and decided to go poke our heads in a souvenir shop in a courtyard just off the street. As we entered the courtyard, we noticed the man five feet to our right was urinating (a not altogether unknown sight in most courtyards/hallways/elevators/any-place-you-can-stand). We kept walking, unsure of how to respond. We poked our heads into the shop, didn't like it, and walked back towards the canal. Our friend, I. P. Freely, was still, somewhat incredibly, heeding the call of nature, nonplussed.

2. Papa Gets Thirsty
We walked past The Urinator back on to the street, and before we could even process Mr. Freely, we were confronted with another sight. A huge, shirtless, deeply sunburned man (with a man purse slung over his shoulder, by the way) stopped in the middle of the sidewalk with his baby and baby stroller, chugging cognac straight from the flask bottle. After some deep swallowing, he let out a sated "Ahhhhhhh..." and then placed his liquor in the diaper bag of the stroller.

3. Breaks and Shortages
The other day I went to go get some food over at a little lunch place across the street from the school. I walked in and was informed they were on their lunch break and I should come back in 5 minutes. Lunch break? They are only open 4 hours out of the day!! I came back in 10 minutes, and saw they were still coming off their break, so I went to the little shop next store to get a coke because the lunch place doesn't sell beverages. Come back in 15 minutes, I was told, they were on their break... Ok, I thought, no big deal, I'll just get myself a little pizza and drink water. I went into the lunch place and asked for a pizza (like I have done once a week for the last 10 months). Sorry, the lady said, no pizza today. This failure of restaurants to have what they advertise on menus is very, very common in Russia. Very common; so common, in fact, that later on that night, when Elizabeth and I went out to Georgian food on Nevsky, both of our first attempts to order were stopped cold by the waiter promptly informing us they didn't have that today.

4. Can't You Help a Brother Out?
There's this attitude that men have here, that may be a left over from Communism, that if you need to buy a beer or cigarettes and don't have any money, then a total stranger should buy them for you. So, while waiting in the metro today for a friend, I thought, since I had a few moments, now would be a good time to put some money on my cell phone account, as I was running pretty low on minutes. As I was in the process of doing this, a boozy gentleman approached me, tapped me on the shoulder, held out his public transport card, and asked if I could help him out and give him some cash so he could put some metro rides on his card. The card he was holding aloft as proof of his noble intent was the one that costs about $50 to put money on. If he really was stranded, he could pull out 22 rubles (about 60 cents) and buy one trip. He wanted money for booze or cigarettes; I have drunks ask me for money about 3-4 times a week, and this attitude that I should give him money for his beer and cigarettes made me go to the trouble of being smart aleck. Here's the exchange that followed:

Supplicant: Can you give me some money so I can charge my card?
Me: (in exaggerated American accent) I... don't...understand... Russian.
Supplicant: (unperturbed) 10 rubles (which is about 30 cents), just give me 10 rubles.
Me: Listen, I'm poor. I NEED those 10 rubles.
Supplicant: Come on, it's 10 rubles, just give me 10 rubles.
Me: You need to to understand, I NEED these 10 rubles. You know what? You should give ME 10 rubles, I'm so poor.
Supplicant: (less confident) Just 10 rubles...
Me: Yes! Just 10 rubles. I NEED 10 rubles. Please, give me 10 rubles. Help me, please.
Supplicant: I... uh...

And with that he turned to walk away.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"I love [Russia] in the springtime, I love [Russia] in the fall."

Elizabeth and I went to the world famous Mariinsky Theatre on Wednesday to watch 3 famous Russian ballets: Petrouchka, The Firebird, and Scheherazade. It was fantastic and we had a great time and enjoyed the ballets and the experience. It's interesting that the presumably extinct dramatic art of black face is still alive and well in Russia.

It's warmed up and we've had some great weather the last few weeks. Lately the dandelions have been springing up and the city has finally shaken off the shackles of winter. It's been warm; one day it even got up to 80 degrees F. It's funny when it gets this warm here because the wardrobes of most Russians, particularly guys, are a little limited for warm weather and you see some strange fashion choices (and a lot of sandals with socks).

The majority of Russians also seem to have some sort of aversion to deodorant. This, coupled with an understandable lack of AC, makes for slightly more uncomfortable rides on public transport. You know it's warmed up here when you can smell the metro 20 meters before you enter it.

Summer here also means White Nights. Because we are so far north, the sun doesn't go down until around midnight and then there are 2-3 hours of dusk before the sun rises again. After a 5 month long winter, people here go a little crazy in the summer and will stay up all night walking around the city, soaking up every last drop of UV rays they can absorb. Interestingly, the Russian verb for "to tan" is the same as "to sunburn." I guess Slavs don't differentiate between the two. It's a little disconcerting to be out around 11 PM and the whole city is as busy as it was during the 11 AM (busier, in fact).

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Drivin' That Hot Rod Lincoln

The other day Elizabeth and I went to dinner with Jared and his family. Jared's dad, Kevin, has been here since '96 and is something of a legend. I don't know where to begin to describe him. I'll start by saying he has a car. Having a car means having to deal with the traffic police. Usually when one gets pulled over, the policeman comes up to the car and asks you to step into his car where things can be worked out "unofficially." This is usually the best option, if not exactly the most honest one, because a bribe will be cheaper and would cut down on the bureaucratic nightmare that comes with a ticket. Now, there are a lot of stories about Kevin dealing with the traffic police, but my favorite is this one: After being pulled over for an illegal u-turn, the traffic cop approached his car and told him he was going to confiscate his license. This was a ploy to make Kevin afraid and encourage him to pay him a bribe. Kevin responded for him to go ahead and take it. He then jerked his thumb at his wife in the passenger seat and said he wished his license WOULD get taken away because SHE was always making him drive when he didn't want to. PLEASE take my license, he said. The traffic cop must have decided that making Kevin drive was punishment enough, so he let Kevin continue on his merry way.

All of that was just a setup to what happened the other day. Elizabeth and I went with Jared and his family to dinner before going to the school's drama performance. On the way there we got stuck in traffic, and Kevin did what any Russian would do. He made in illegal turn on to a one-way street to zip around the congestion. Unfortunately, there was traffic cop waiting for someone making just such a maneuver. He pulled Kevin over, approached the car, and asked for Kevin's documents. He asked Kevin if he wanted to step into his car to take care of this matter, but Kevin said for him to just write up the ticket and that he would wait right here for it. The traffic cop seemed a little disappointed with this response and went back to his car to write up the ticket for the next 45 minutes. He finally returned and started explaining to Kevin what he needed to do. It was something of a comic scene with Kevin, who didn't want to make us late for the play trying to hurry him, repeatedly trying to grab the ticket out of the policeman's hand and the policemen snatching it back and keeping it just out of reach while he finished explaining. Towards the end of his spiel, Kevin asked him if he just wanted to show him mercy and let him go. The policeman started laughing and said that he tried but Kevin told him to just give him the ticket. Kevin said, well, ok, let's take care of it right now. The policeman laughed and counted all 5 of us in the car and said there were too many witnesses. Kevin assured him that we didn't speak Russian and we all laughed, bang on cue, thus ruining Kevin's gambit.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Catching a Car

There's a lot of ways to get around St. Petersburg, but the strangest to me is catching a car. Russians call them "unmarked taxi cabs." Basically, any private car is an "unmarked taxi cab." So, to catch a car, you stand on the side of the road and hold out your arm in a 45 degree angle and see who stops. A car will stop and you ask if he's going your way, negotiate a price, get in, and away you go.

My colleague John had been giving me a hard time about having never caught a car. You have to do it at least once before you go, he said. My hesitancy to do so in the past can be put down to two factors: my clumsiness in using large numbers (and thus my inability to negotiate a price in Russian) and the potential awkwardness of riding in complete stranger's car, not knowing the proper etiquette for the situation.

So, the other day, John, Jared, and I decided to go hang out after school at Petrogradskaya (a different district of the city from the school) and the fastest way was to catch a car. Jared grew up here in St. Pete and is a veteran of catching cars; John has been doing it since the mid-90's. In order for me to get the proper experience, John only held out his arm to try and catch one of the old beat up Ladas. Within about 2 minutes an old beat up Lada Zhiguli stopped and the driver opened up the door and asked where we were heading. John told him and agreed to 300 rubles (about $9). The front passenger seat wasn't bolted down and gave John a bit of a start when he got in; the windshield was on it's last legs after sustaining some pretty extensive cracks; no seat belts in the back seat. In short, a proper Zhiguli, a proper experience for the first time catching a car. The driver occasionally spoke on his cell phone, but never spoke a single word to us. At first I didn't know if it was rude to speak in English with John and Jared, but it became apparent that we were nothing more than cargo, so we went for it. Apparently, it's completely normal to not exchange a single word and completely normal to have your ear talked off.

Catching a car really wasn't that big of a deal. In fact, it's main significance was that it was one more thing to cross of my things to do before I leave Russian at the end of May. The only thing left on my list is to see a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, but I'm going to take Elizabeth on the 19th to see some Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov pieces.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Metro

Were the Moscow metro bombings a big deal for you? They were here. Last Monday, I woke up and checked the news like I always do and saw that there had been an attack on the metro in Moscow during rush hour. Having been on the Moscow metro during rush hour, I could only imagine the chaos; it's the 2nd busiest metro system in the world with something like 9 million people riding it ever day. I turned on my TV to see what the Russian channels were saying about it; nothing. If you wanted to know what was going on in the Moscow metro you had to have BBC or CNN International. No interruption of programming for the whole day.

I was on the St. Petersburg metro that afternoon and there wasn't any sort of extra police presence or anything like that, but I noticed everyone was a little jumpy. At one stop, I noticed nobody was coming into my metro car. I looked at the doorway and saw why: a bag of trash was lying in the doorway. From my view I could see it was just a few empty beer bottles, but from the outside it's a suspicious bag and better just move on to the next door.

The next day, I noticed there was an increased police presence. Apparently, word had finally filtered down from the top that there needed to be some sort of response to show the people. I read this from a Russian pundit, "It's not enough that the authorities treat us like cattle, but now we must die like cattle too." So, a show of more police officers and detainment of anyone entering the metro who looked like they might be from the Caucasus region happened. Now, I'm normally not the biggest fan of Russian police, but, full credit to them, they looked like they were taking their jobs seriously and wanted keep the public safe. This week, however, the police officers assigned to metro duty are a little less vigilant (they sit on benches and text).

So, while the metro might be a place of fear, being crushed like cattle, and racial profiling, it does have it's moments. The other night I was coming home late so it wasn't too crowded. While walking to my platform I passed an old lady selling flowers. Normally this place smells of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and body odor, but that night it smelled like a florist's shop. To complete the scene, there was an old man serenading passersby with Russian folk songs on his accordion. In her better moments, that is Russia: the scent of flowers and the sound of music.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Russia: land of the never-ending Lada car alarm. Why won't it stop!?

Friday, March 26, 2010


Today I decided to go get a shaverma/shuarma for dinner (think a Muslim burrito). There's a little cluster of kiosks a few minutes walk from my apartment. I didn't have any cash, so I needed to stop by an ATM, Russia being a cash only culture. Fortunately, there happens to be one on the way to the kiosks.

So, off I went to go get cash and get dinner. I told my roommate I'd be back in five minutes. The ATM on the way? Not operational for whatever reason. Most ATM's here are non-operational every other day it seems like. Ok, so I just had to walk a little farther to find one that worked. No big deal. Went and got cash and walked over to the market area where the kiosks are and discovered the whole market was closed and everything was boarded up. As a way of explanation there was a sign: "CLOSED." 0 for 2. It probably got shut down by the police for a.) too many illegal immigrants working there; b.) too many nefarious characters about doing nefarious deeds; c.) health code violations; d.) all of the above.

I ended up just going grocery shopping and coming home to cook after about an hour.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Moscow Pt. 2

top: riding third class
middle top: Starlite Diner, take two
middle bottom: Red Square (the stuff on the left is the ice skating rink they set up in the winter)
bottom: the Cossacks playing some tough D

I went to Moscow for the second time in one week to go as a chaperone for my school's basketball team for two tournaments there. We went on the night train and it was the best I've ever slept on a Russian night train. So, I arrived well rested and ready to tackle the Starlite Dine one more time. It was a success. I ate everything. Even the garnish. And 4 cups of coffee; I don't even like coffee, that's how successful it was.

It was a sunny (!) day, so we walked down to Red Square so the boys could take some pictures and we could kill some time. We arrived and placed our bags on some steps near the ice skating rink they set up there in the winter, and the guys went off to go try and see Lenin's body. I'd already seen it, so I stayed with the bags with another teacher, John, and a sick student that just sat down and closed his eyes. I was talking with John and he kept saying how it was only a matter of time until a policeman came up and told us to move our stuff. Why? Because it's Russia. Soon a policeman strolled over and told us we could sit there with our stuff, but nobody could sleep. So, our sick kid opened his eyes and that seemed to satisfy him, so he continued on his way. The rest of our group came back and everyone was just hanging out and John came up to me and said, "Look how many Koreans are in our group [Russian police are extremely racist], look at what a good time the kids are having. Russians can't stand us. We're gonna see another policeman."

Sure enough, two policemen immediately made their way over to us and told us, very politely, that we needed to go to wherever it was we were going and clear out. So, we got kicked out of Red Square. How many other people can say that? Later on that same day, we had to wait in the metro for our host families to come pick us up and a policeman came and told us our group was too big and we had to disperse. Again, this is largely due to the fact of the large number of Korean boys we have on our team and racist police.

Jared and I ended up staying with a host family from the Moscow Christian school as well. We really lucked out because it was a business family. Their apartment is the nicest one I've seen in Russia, their Filipina helper cooked us incredible meals, and their driver took us to all of our games. No public transport for us. It was nice to live la dolce vita, if only for a few days.

The boys played six games and ended up winning two of them, thus making it the most successful season in IA Cossacks basketball history. So, we headed back to St. Pete on another night train. This trip back was not as restful for me for a number of reasons:
1) the really talkative, slightly drunk Ukranian guy that wanted to chat
2)the two Russian guys that wouldn't chat with him and forced him to talk to me
3) the two girlfriends of the Russian guys that were very loud all night and sat on my bunk while I was trying to sleep
4) the heat didn't work in our car, which meant it was about 32 degrees F the whole night.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Moscow Pt. 1

I went to Moscow at the end of February to take the Foreign Service Officer exam. Elizabeth went with me and we tried to purchase tickets next to each other on the overnight train, and we did... sort of. We were next to each other but she was on the other side of a wall. In my section of the train, there was a girl that did not shut up the whole night, and I didn't sleep very well.

We got into Moscow pretty early on Saturday morning and we took the metro to the city center to Starlite Diner, a place done up like an American diner and offering the same fare. Out of all the food from back home that I miss, Mexican and diner food top the list. And since someone here will make Mexican food periodically, my desire for diner food went unfulfilled until this trip to Moscow. The tragedy was that I was so keyed up for my test later that day that I didn't have much of an appetite. After breakfast, we went down to Red Square and took some pictures. This was an important day for me, because it was the first time I gave lip to Russian police. The circumstances are difficult to explain, but, basically, I wanted to walk past a barricade and they wouldn't let me. We went into Lenin's tomb and the whole thing was just bizarre. It's set up in a way that your supposed to feel reverential and worshipful, but the whole thing is just a ridiculous spectacle. Lenin himself is in pretty poor shape, due to the incompetency of the embalmers, and so he's probably nothing more than a glorified wax candle at this point. Also, along this side of the Kremlin, many foreign Communists (John Reed, for example) and notable citizens (Stalin, Dzerzhinksy, Gagarin) are buried in and under the wall.

We then made our way to the US Embassy where I took the test. Elizabeth went to Arbat Street (where there is a Starbucks) to wait for me to finish. I think I did really well on the test. I think. We'll find out in about a month, but for right now, I think I passed it. After the test, I had this huge weight lifted off of me; up until that point, I had no idea I was that nervous about it. I then made my way over to Arbat Street and met with Elizabeth and a friend of hers from college who is living in Moscow. We spent the evening hanging out with other Americans who were there teaching English and then got back on another night train and got back to St. Petersburg early Sunday morning.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This country's going to the dogs...

I went to Moscow last weekend to take the FSO exam. I'll write more about that and post a few pictures, but I'm actually headed out the door (to Moscow again, as it happens, as a chaperone for the basketball team's tournament there). Before I do, however, I needed to share two things:

First, I have a 15 year old Korean student that, up until two weeks ago, had never pet a dog in his life. My friend Jared had to teach him how to do it, as he was poking it with 4 fingers and thought that he was petting it.

Second, about a month ago, my friend John went to go the post office to pick up a Christmas package from his in-laws for his family. The longer you live here in Russia, the more terrible post office stories you have. There is a special hatred for the post office that most expats carry around with them here, and for good reason. While there, they were incredibly rude to him; at one point while he was trying to ask a question, a lady shouted at him to "stop his jaw," which is the Russian version of "shut up." The reason he was asking a question was because he received a slip saying he need to pick up a package, but when he arrived they curtly told him his paperwork wasn't right and it wasn't ready. He went back yesterday because he received another slip. So, he went and picked it up, somewhat surprised at how light this 9 kilogram package was. He got home to discover the post office workers had picked through everything, mainly the Christmas cookies (who steals month old Christmas cookies? bizarre) and the packages of chap stick (which is impossible to get here). The reason why his package wasn't ready the first time was because they hadn't picked through it yet. So, basically, they shouted and were rude to him because he disturbed them while they were in the process of robbing him. That made me laugh so hard this morning I'm not sure it was good for me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Last Bus

My parents wanted pictures of what it looks like on public transport here in St. Petersburg. It's been too cold to take my hands out of my gloves to operate a camera, so I'll share this video from Youtube.

The song playing is "Midnight Trolley Bus" by Bulat Okudzhava, a famous Soviet singer-songwriter. It's a beautiful song and captures that feeling of being on the bus late at night here in St. Petersburg. I'd post the English translation but it would just sound goofy. He's basically singing that when he's feeling down, he likes to catch the midnight bus (midnight is when public transport stops, so it's the last bus) and he likes how the bus picks up all those who are wrecked and need a rescue. In the silence and stillness on the bus he imagines so much kindness. I told you it would sound goofy. It's not exactly my feelings about public transportation here, but, hey, it's something.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Second Maslenitsa

Last week was Maslenitsa, think Fat Tuesday, Russian style. It's my second Maslenitsa here in Russia, you can read about my first here. It's the beginning of the Lenten season in Russia, but it looks a little different here. As I came home from work on Friday (the 12th) I found that there was a stage set up in the park in front of my apartment building with a man dressed up as a court jester leading a large group of children in traditional Russian dances. He would shout, "Now spin around! Faster! Faster!" This mass of children, all hopped up on sugar and loud noises, would follow his every command: "Now jump on one foot! Faster! Faster!"

It looked like a lot fun and they had kiosks selling pancakes, crepes, and other sugary sweets and there were all sorts of games set up all over the small park. I was thinking about heading into the park and joining in the festivities when I noticed who was putting it on: the ruling party of Russia. This whole carnival was being put on by the ruling party (whose name I won't type so I can keep my visa a few more months); the whole thing was a ruling party youth rally. It struck me a little like the Roman emperors putting on the games to get people to like them. I didn't join in the fun, for political reasons, and I was glad I didn't, because as I got into my apartment, from which I can hear every sound coming from the park, they began doing the Chickie Dance song. A narrow escape.

I guess I just wasn't in the holiday spirit. I'm not really fond of Maslenitsa. I like the whole eating pancakes tradition, that's great, but then they also do this thing where they have a bonfire and burn a "Lady Maslenitsa" effigy. It's kind of a pre-Christian Russian tradition about the end of winter and the coming of spring. The thing is, though, is that it is still about 5 degrees F outside. Winter hasn't ended. It was -15 F with wind chill the other day. So, what is this hopping about in the snow and eating pancakes? It's forced merriment, really. Forced by the ruling party. I'll celebrate the end of winter when it gets up to 40 F.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's February, It's Still Cold

It looks like it's been a while since I last updated. I guess the main reason I haven't has been that not that much has changed. It's still cold. Really cold. Like -15 F cold.

Last week was pretty interesting. On Monday we discovered that about 20-30% of the students were at home sick, another 20-30% probably should have been home as well, and two kids threw up in the first period alone. This, coupled with half the high school being gone the second half of the week (basketball team had a tournament in Budapest) led to the decision to call school for the rest of the week. I've spent this week mostly in my home trying desperately not to get sick, getting sick, and then staying sick.

Next Friday I'll be heading off to Moscow on the night train. I'll be taking the Foreign Service Officer Test at the embassy there. If I pass the test, the essay questions, the interview in DC, and a posting opens up, I could be working in a US consulate or embassy this time next year. However, all those ifs are pretty big ifs. But even if I don't pass the test (like 80% of first time takers), I'll at least have a little time in Moscow.

Friday, January 22, 2010

It's Russia, It's Cold

The other day, our science teacher figured out that it was -34.6 degrees F with the wind chill factored in. That's cold.

My buddy gave me ride in his car to the bank. I hopped out at the ATM, got my money, came back, and couldn't shut the door because the latch had frozen. We drove back with me holding the door closed.

A falling icicle killed someone the other day.

While walking home the other night, it was so cold I wanted to sit down and cry, but then I figured my eyes would freeze shut and then my organs would slowly start shutting down and I would die; I kept on walking.

Russians love ice cream in the winter. I think because you can walk around with it for half an hour and it won't melt. It will actually get harder, like my heart when it gets this cold.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

IASP Christmas Concert

If you want to watch the IA Christmas concert, click here. It takes place on the third floor (where the secondary classrooms are) of our new building. Behind the advanced band (pt. 1) is my classroom; also, you will get a chance to see the IASP headmistress. If you think she's speaks a little slowly, remember two things: she's from Texas and over half of the audience is Korean.

In pt. 2 you will see the lower elementary perform Mele Kalikimaka. It was my idea that they do this. I thought it would provide a nice counterpoint to frigid St. Petersburg winter. I was pleased to see that the parent who filmed this and put it up on YouTube edited out the boring parts of the performance. Well played.

Skip pt. 3; it's kids signing "Jingle Bells." In pt. 4 the older elementary kids get into the act. Pt. 5 has highlights of Beginning Band (which consists of basically the entire jr. high).
Pt. 6 is the Secondary Choir (which is over half of the entire high school and jr. high). So, if you are wondering what the student body of IASP consists of, this is the place to see it. In pt. 7, 4 seconds in, you get a glimpse of Kevin, one of the guys I go play pool with every now and then. In addition to Kevin, you get to see the Advanced Band. And they are good. Very good. One of the girls plays for the St. Petersburg Youth Orchestra. They handle that Tchaikovksy medley pretty well. The crowd gets into the act in pt. 8. That one guy you hear singing above everyone else is John, the other history teacher.

I hope this gives you a little idea of what the school looks like.

"April Come She Will"

The view outside my bedroom window.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

So, this is, indeed, the New Year

(top: back in the Frozen North)
(middle: Medvedev with his New Year's address)
(bottom: fireworks in the park, note the haze of gunpowder)

I got back from Germany on the 30th, because I wanted to be sure to be here in St. Pete for New Year's. Russia (St. Petersburg and Moscow in particular) goes wild on New Year's. It's like Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving, and a few other Western holidays all rolled in to one. I returned to a city that winter had laid siege to. The city hasn't had this much snow since 1881, and, since it won't melt off until March/April, there's simply no place for it to go; add on that it all the snowplow drivers and street cleaners are on holiday already...

I had plans to go to Palace Square and ring in the New Year there, but I didn't really have anyone to go with, and if there's one thing I learned in Germany, it's that experiences are best when they're shared. So, I went to a New Year's party that some American friends put on (with the help of a few nationals, of course, to make it a real Russian New Year's party). I was really glad I did, because we had a great time.

In Russia, you don't "watch the ball drop"; you watch the president give his New Year's address. When he finishes, the camera than shows Moscow's equivalent of Big Ben ringing midnight. Now, as soon as you hear the bells, you write down your New Year's wish, light it on fire, throw the ashes (and half-burnt paper) into your glass of champagne, and then down it. If you are able to do it before the clock stops chiming then you will get your wish. After you eat your New Year's dinner, you go outside for a walk (a walk? at night? in the snow? with the deadly icicles about to fall from every building?). The 7 of us went out to light a few fireworks in the park. Now when Russians do fireworks in the park, we're not talking sparklers or bottle rockets, we're talking huge boxes of gunpowder shooting into the sky, shaking windows and setting off car alarms. Once we got that out of our systems we headed back to continue our dinner.

We ran out of drinks about halfway through, so I went down to a little shop I noticed was still open when we set off our fireworks. I went in and wished the man and woman inside a happy new year. One asked me where I was from. I said America. Wow, the man said, and simply held out his hand to shake mine. He shook my hand heartily and told me that he was from Azerbaijan, from Baku. Great, I said. What state are you from, he asked me. California, I said, as he still shook my hand heartily. Wow, he said, great, as he continued to shaking my hand. After getting a few drinks and wishing everyone happy a new year again, I left for the short walk back to the party. Only on New Year's would anyone want to shake hands with an American. Only on New Year's would anyone even care to ask.

As I was walking back, the street was full with people out walking and celebrating. I noticed one particular gentleman who appeared to be a little sauced and appeared to be stumbling my way. I tried to get out of his way, but with so much snow piled high on the curb there was simply no way to avoid him. He reached me and embraced me. Happy New Year, he shouted into my ear as he kissed my cheek (which is then traditionally followed by a second kiss on the cheek). Happy New Year, I returned, as he kissed my other cheek (which is then traditionally followed by a third kiss on the lips if you are really happy to see that person). He went for the third kiss on the lips, but I was culturally insensitive and his third kiss was met with my cheek again. Finally, after a few more "Happy New Year's," he let me go. It was quite a night and my roommate and I didn't get back to our place until around 5 in the morning. Russians just really, really like New Year's.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Impossible Germany (Pt. 3)

One of the nice things about this trip to Germany was that we always had access to a car. Julian's dad works for Mercedes and signs cars out to test. Most of the time we were zipping along the autobahn in a little black sports car, but when we needed another car, Julian's dad signed out a 2011 M class SUV that he had helped design for the weekend. He works at the headquarters in Stuttgart. The headquarters and plant there is about the size of a small city. One of the buildings in the city is the Mercedes Museum, which we went to Sunday afternoon. I'm not much of a car guy, but the museum was very cool. They did a great job incorporating world and German history with automotive and Mercedes history.

On Monday we drove out to Ludwigsburg to go see the Swabian version of Versailles, Ludwigsburg Palace, and walked around a bit.

Tuesday was the day that we left for Frankfurt for Julian's grandfather's 80th birthday. This was by far the most awkward part of the trip, with all of his children and friends in one place and Amy and I just smiling and trying not to be awkward, but it was still a good time. And the food was incredible, absolutely incredible. Right after we arrived at his grandparents' home, the city choir came by to sing for him. Then, after eating, we immediately headed to this restaurant for the actual dinner. I think about half of the 20+ people there had no idea who I was or what I was doing there, but Julian's grandmother was very sweet and is hilarious so it wasn't too bad. Then, after eating, we headed back to their house for more food. Since I was flying out of Frankfurt early the next morning we spent the night there, and I was relieved to have an opportunity to lie down and not have to eat anything.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Impossible Germany (Pt. 2)

top: walking around the old town in Esslingen
middle: the cathedral in Strasbourg
bottom: Julian, Jared, and I in the old town in Strasbourg

On Christmas Day Julian, Amy, and I we went and walked around Esslingen. It's a nice little city on the Neckar River and has an old town and a castle overlooking the city. The day after that we drove to Strasbourg, France, to go hang out and meet up with my friend Jared and his fiancee. This EU thing is weird; I didn't even need to bring my passport with me. The old town in Strasbourg is actually an island in the middle of the Ill River. The best site there is the Notre Dame Cathedral of Strasbourg. It's pretty impressive and was even the tallest building in the world for over 200 years. We had a lot of fun just hanging out and walking around.

On Sunday we went to the cathedral in Esslingen to hear a performance of Bach by the city orchestra. After the service and performance, we walked around Esslingen a bit more. Julian's parents own an apartment in the old town and rent it out. Julian jokingly asked his mom if they would kick out the current tenants if he and Amy got engaged and wanted to live in it. Without hesitation she said, "Ja, ja..."