Thursday, December 15, 2011

Proverbs 14:34

"Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people."

I noticed this verse while I was in Germany. I was walking around a small town with friends when we saw a monument to victims of the Nazi regime, with Prov. 14:34 featured prominently. I was living in Russia at the time, and I was struck by the different attitudes toward history that Germans and Russians have. The Nazi regime is estimated to have killed 11 million people as a result of their policies; Germany lost a war and were forced to deal with their history. Let's switch to Russia, where the policies of Joseph Stalin resulted in the death of upwards of 40 million. But the Soviet Union didn't lose a war. The government changed. And who made up the government? Former Communist party bosses and KGB officers. Consequently, Russians have never had to confront their own history the way Germans have, and, in my opinion, that is to their detriment. 

I came across an article about this book, and I wanted to shout, "Yes! That's it!" the whole time. You can check out the article about It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Angriest Man in Claremont

A long time ago I read the novel How to Be Good by Nick Hornby. In it, one of the main characters, David, is a journalist whose column was entitled "The Angriest Man in Holloway." I'd say that's a dream of mine, to get paid to rant.

Since I don't have a newspaper column, and since my wife/co-workers/friends wouldn't hang out with me if I ranted all the time, I guess this blog has become the repository of many of those rants. Maybe I'll change the name to "The Angriest Man in Claremont."

I Heard the Bells Pt. II

On the drive up to Redding for Thanksgiving Jameson, Elizabeth, and I played a little game to keep ourselves awake while driving through Merced County at 3 AM: Christmas Carol Bingo. It all started from a question about top three Christmas songs. We then found a Christmas station and it became a game of rooting for one of your selections to play.

Lessons learned from listening to Christmas stations from 3-8 AM:
1. I don't really like Christmas stations because they only play interminable Christmas crap. (see Lesson Learned #2)
2. "Sleigh Bells," "Winter Wonderland," and/or "All I Want for Christmas is You" (and their various renditions) can be heard every other song. This is no exaggeration.
3. "Last Christmas" by George Michael goes on 3 minutes longer than it needs to (some might argue it goes 4:30 longer than it needs to, but I'm feeling charitable).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I Heard the Bells

Those of you that know my wife, Elizabeth, know that she is a big fan of Christmas and anything related to Christmas. Pope John Paul II said that as Christians we are Easter People; if Elizabeth would have had an audience with him, I'm sure she would have set him straight and told him that we are, in fact, Christmas People.

So, naturally, Christmas music has been playing in our little apartment since September. Unlike my wife, I'm not a fan of the entire Christmas song catalog, but there are some that always affect me. Here are my top three:

1. I Head the Bells on Christmas Day
2. O Holy Night
3. Silent Night

Let's Push Things Forward

Probably the most often used sentence in the blogosphere: "I've haven't been doing so well in keeping this blog updated."

Anyway, I haven't been doing so well in keeping this blog updated. I think part of the problem is that I've felt I have needed to finish writing about my trip in the fall of 2010 before I could start writing about all this new stuff that's happened. Well, that's been over a year ago and there have been some pretty big things since then, so I'm just going to push things forward. So here's a year in one post:

1. I was in Kazakhstan. It was cold.

2. Christmas in Seattle
3. ...and a Happy New Year with some visitors
4. We got a new niece
5. Married!
6. Moved to LA
7. I went to Russia for work. (no picture)

That just about catches us up.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Brief Russian Interlude

Unfortunately, I had to connect in Moscow in order to get to Kazakhstan from Azerbaijan. I've had to connect in Moscow at Sheremetevo before and it was pretty miserable. A word to the wise, only connect in Moscow for flights if you must and be aware that if you are switching from the domestic terminal to the international terminal or vise versa you will need to schedule plenty of time because they are essentially two separate airports. Sheremetevo, as one of my Russian friends described it, is a "hell-place." It seems like everyone I met in Russia has a horror story involving it. Fortunately for me, however, I connected in Domodedovo, the more modern, privately operated airport.

Leaving Azerbaijan, Getting to Kazakhstan

The time finally came for me to head to Kazakhstan, but there was a slight problem: the OCSE decided to have their conference in Astana, my port of entry into the country, and had not only closed the airport to all non-diplomatic travel but also sealed off the whole city. So, my airline had rescheduled my flight leaving me with 3 days in Moscow; the problem was I didn't have a visa to enter Russia, and I would have to spend all of that time in the airport. So, I had to sort out the involuntary reroute with a Russian airline. Russian business culture isn't exactly customer friendly and after several tense conversations in Russian and English, I canceled my ticket and purchased a ticket with a different airline flying into a different city, Karaganda (thanks a bunch EU presidents and Madame Secretary of State).

When it came time to go to the airport, I hopped in a cab and was off. The cabbie was chatty and very friendly and gave me some advice about life, love, family, and just about everything else; I was able to understand him pretty easily because Russian wasn't his first language either and his speech was simple. I finally made it into the airport and settled in until my plane's gate was announced. I passed the time reading and noticed that there were quite a few birds inside the international terminal, something you just don't see in American airports and probably quite rightly.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 6: Back in Baku

I spent a few more days in Baku working before it was time to move on to Kazakhstan. There were a few noteworthy things:

1. I met an Azeri who was more informed on Russian politics and more passionate about it than just about every Russian I knew. He showed me a clip of Leonid Parfyonov, a famous Russian journalist and a speech he delivered at an awards show about freedom of the press in Russia.

2. I had to get to a meeting and had directions to get there by bus, but, after several experiences getting fantastically lost in Russia on buses, I was nervous to go that way. Instead, I decided to go by metro. On a fixed track, you know where you're going, right? Wrong. It turns out that while the Baku Metro looks a lot like the St. Petersburg Metro, it doesn't run the same way. The biggest example? At a crossing station in St. Petersburg one side goes one way on a line and the other side goes the other way and you must go upstairs/downstairs to get to the other line. In Baku, they alternate trains; train 1 will go to the north and then train 2 will go to the south and so on. I didn't know that and wasn't helped by the complete lack of updated metro maps in the stations and on the trains; I ended up spending about an hour riding back and forth trying to figure it out before I asked somebody who set me straight.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 5: Thanksgiving and the Sheki Bazaar

Part of the reason I go on my fall trip is to celebrate Thanksgiving with teachers. For many of them it's their first time not being home with family so I try to bring a little bit of the American holiday with me (cans of pumpkin are easy to pack). Since we were traveling on Thanksgiving, we didn't get a chance to make any of the traditional favorites; we wanted turkey but settled for a bit of Turkish food for Thanksgiving dinner. We then spent the rest of the day at the Sheki bazaar, killing time while we waited for our bus back to Baku in the evening. The bazaar was a lot of fun and was a great taste of the Caucasus. We weren't in cosmopolitan Baku anymore and I think many of the folks there didn't quite know what to do with us (and hadn't quite started charging tourist prices yet!).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 4: Kish

Enjoying our spread after a long day of hiking
The ancient Alban church
the Caucasus!
The timber industry in Kish

Do you remember the Sheki khan that cheekily told the Persian shah, "Come and see"? The ruins of his fortress where he defeated the Persians is on a hill near the neighboring village Kish; it's called "Gelesen Goresen," literally, "Come and See."

We went down to the bazaar and caught a bus (which was loaded to capacity with people on laps) to Kish. We got off at the edge of the city and began hiking in the direction of the fortress, passing a few locals engaged in the micro-logging trade. We hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked and couldn't find it; we came but we did not see. It was a nice day of hiking in the beautiful Caucasus mountains though. The only unpleasant part was dealing with a few soldiers apparently guarding the border to the Russian province of Dagestan! That's how lost we got!

Hungry and tired from our day of hiking, we headed back into town looking for an ancient Alban church. The Albans were a Christian civilization that disappeared followed the invasions of Arabs, Persians, and Turks and this church was supposedly founded in the first century. We found the church and found that our tour guide also ran a sort of informal cafe for visitors. We followed her next door to her house where she stuffed us with all sorts of Azeri foods. Her husband happened to be a taxi driver and took us back to Sheki and then kindly helped us with our arrangements to get back to Baku.

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 3: Khansarai

With some new friends in front of the Khansarai
Scenes depicting the Sheki khan defeating the Persians
The sunset and the exquisite stained glass (for which the region has been famous for for hundreds of years) create some great photos

After arriving and getting situated in Sheki, we went and checked out the walled old city (from around the 17th-18th century). As we hadn't eaten breakfast, we found what seems to be the only cafe in the the old town and had some dolma (ground lamb and rice wrapped in grape leaves with a yogurt sauce; delicious and a favorite of mine) and piti (a Sheki specialty; a sort of lamb and vegetable soup with a large chunk of sheep's fat floating on top; not so delicious).

We then and checked out the Khansarai (Palce of the Khan). This part of the country has always swung back and forth from foreign domination and independence. Part of what I love about the Caucasus is the independent nature of the people. This tiny part of Azerbaijan stood up to the Persian Shah in the 17th century and refused to be subjugated. One enraged Shah sent a message to a Sheki Khan asking who dared defy the might of the Persians, to which the upstart khan replied: "Come and see." After defeating the Persian invaders he built this stunningly beautiful palace.

We went to tour it and I was having a really tough time communicating with our guide as our Russian left a lot to be desired. After quite a few difficult conversations, it became apparent that he spoke better English than Russian! He showed us around the rooms of the small palace and they were absolutely beautiful, especially the room that was decorated with scenes from the khan's victory over the Persians. If you ever make it to Sheki, Azerbaijan, I highly recommend you check out the Khansarai!

Monday, January 10, 2011

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 2: Arrival in Sheki

Maiden Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan
Congratulating our taxi driver in Sheki

After arriving in Baku, I spent the next day walking down "the Boulevard," a promenade along the Caspian Sea and walking around the old city with our team of teachers. The contrast between the 12th century Maiden Tower and the ambitious, oil-funded modern building projects was absolutely incredible. Later that evening we boarded a night train to the city of Sheki, off in the Caucasus Mountains, where I was going to help facilitate our fall conference/retreat for our teachers. Every time I've been on a train in the former Soviet Union, I've had to deal with drunken louts; this trip was no exception. Because of the jet lag, I wasn't able to sleep at all and stood out in the corridor, looking out the window as we passed through mountains and valleys bathed in moonlight. It was a nice way to spend a sleepless night.

Finally, we arrived in Sheki early in the morning. The train station is about 17 km south of the city, so we had to hire a taxi. There was one taxi driver that met us as soon as we got off the train and was very persistent in trying to get our business. He spoke some Russian, so we arranged a price (about $5). We somehow managed to fit all 5 us and our luggage into his tiny Lada, and away we went. Sort of. We had been driving about 5 minutes when the little Lada shut off and he coasted to the side of the road. One moment, he said. He got outside and checked the engine. Do you need some help, I asked. Thankfully he said no (I'm not exactly the handiest with cars in the best of times, let alone with a Lada after a sleepless night). He then went around to the gas tank and began fiddling with it with a small stick. Are you sure you don't need any help I asked. No, he said, no problem. He assured us it would just be a moment. He got back in and after some more fiddling, and we were off again. Finally, we reached our hotel, which was a very cool old converted carvansaray. We congratulated our driver on being such a good mechanic, posed for a few pictures promoting friendly Azeri-American relations, and promptly went to our rooms for a little nap after the journey.

A billboard for our hotel
The doors/main gate to our hotel