Archive for February, 2009

Random Illustrations: Mushrooms galore

February 28th, 2009

Here is an illustration to my post about European markets. We found ourselves walking through the Borough Market a few days ago, and I could not refrain from snapping a picture of the mushroom stall.

Mushroom stall at the Borough Market


London Album

YouTube’d memories: Champs-Elysées

February 27th, 2009

All pretense of being seasoned travelers aside, Natasha and I only started to make regular trips abroad in 20021. Our first voyage was to France, with almost a week in Paris followed by a jaunt around Loire Valley castles and French Riviera destinations.

We fell in love with Paris on that first trip. Large part of that, no doubt, is its exalted place as the very first European city that we came to visit. We’ve been back a handful of times in these less than 7 years, falling in love with it again and again. No other place in the world comes close in terms of its wanderlust pull on us.

Hearing Joe Dassin Les Champs-Elysées (it happens frequently enough – Dassin collection is often in one of the car CD-changer slots) always stirs my Parisian memories. Which never fails to put a smile on my face.

It’s a favorite of Kimmy’s, as well.

I was mightily surprised to hear this song at the conclusion of The Darjeeling Limited. Beats the hell out of me what the reason for that might have been, but it was a bit of a redemption for a movie that I did not rate high on balance.

1 I first came to London on business in 2000 and managed to get quite a lot of sightseeing into my week-long stay. Besides that, our only international border crossings prior to 2002 consisted of a visit to Toronto, a couple of trips to Russia and a couple of holidays in Puerto Rico, if that even counts.


Coming to a store near you

February 26th, 2009

A really cool meme has been going around in my absence. I saw it on a number of blogs of friends, so I am going to tip the hat to the originator, Buzzfeed.

New meme: here’s a totally random way to make your new random band’s new random album cover. Post one!

Go to “Wikipedia.” Hit “random” and the first article you get is the name of your band.

Then go to “Random Quotations” and the last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.

Then, go to Flickr and click on “Explore the Last Seven Days” and the third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

I got the awesomest picture, a properly profound – and even fitting – end of a quote, and an entry for the band name that I can actually pretend to like.

Now, all I need is a few catchy tunes, and it’s Goodbye office space, Hello world tours!

Image by 1D110.

Idle Amusements

I didn’t need 60 questions for that

February 26th, 2009

The last question on the test was all that was required: “What do you consider yourself to be?”

Your result for The Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test…

Pure Nerd

74 % Nerd, 22% Geek, 26% Dork

For The Record:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.
A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.
A Dork is someone who has difficulty with common social expectations/interactions.

You scored better than half in Nerd, earning you the title of: Pure Nerd.

The times, they are a-changing. It used to be that being exceptionally smart led to being unpopular, which would ultimately lead to picking up all of the traits and tendencies associated with the “dork.” No-longer. Being smart isn’t as socially crippling as it once was, and even more so as you get older: eventually being a Pure Nerd will likely be replaced with the following label: Purely Successful.


Take The Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test at HelloQuizzy

Now, how I can have more dorkiness than geekiness in me escapes me!

I first saw this test a couple of weeks ago when I was looking for fillers for the blog, but decided against doing it. In the last few days, though, my brother started a chain of these in my blogosphere corner, and I felt like following suit.

Idle Amusements

Back from Scotland

February 25th, 2009

Can I pass up a chance to travel someplace new, even when the focus of a short trip is on a subject of limited interest to me and the logistics involve spending a lot of time on the bus with a bunch of strangers that I have little in common with?

The answer is, resoundingly, I cannot!

A few weeks ago, during a get-together, my old friend Alex unexpectedly invited me to join him for a three-day trip to Scotland. I enthusiastically accepted. I had a number of reservations about doing it, but the little trip seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore a locale that I had never visited before, and it shaped up like a needed distraction from everyday gloom and doom.

I am happy to report that even though every one of my reservations played out true, the trip was nonetheless quite delightful.
Read more…

Where we've been

London Imagery: Nighttime Canary Wharf

February 20th, 2009

I’m currently on a downswing of my blogging activity sinusoid, for no apparent reason. While I’m recharging my blogging batteries, I figured I can at least provide a couple of nighttime views of Canary Wharf.

Here is the view along South Colonnade.

Canary Wharf South Colonnade at night


And here is the interior view of the Canary Wharf DLR station, the sight of which was first introduced here.

Canary Wharf DLR Station


London Album

Everything’s amazing…

February 18th, 2009

I saw this the other day on Speculist and could not resist re-posting it here. It does occur to me all too often that as recently as 20 years ago, a number of things that we now consider “bare essentials” did not yet exist.

Mind you, I still reserve the right to complain about air travel…


Idle Amusements

Model houses

February 17th, 2009

I mentioned in my Valentine Day’s post my collection of model houses and then promised in comments there to illustrate. Here is a slideshow of about half of my collection (I’m currently moderating its growth on account of not having space for display), with brief notes on where the houses were acquired. As with most of my interests, the collection started as a device to commemorate the places that we travel to, but there are now non-travel-related acquisitions as well. Too bad that in many locales, this type of collectible can often not be found.

The slideshow is now hidden below the fold to help with the front page freeze problem on some PCs accessing it via IE. Apologies.
Read more…

Family Album

Going to markets

February 16th, 2009
Comments Off

Kimmy was participating in a grand show with her dance school, which shaped up as a day-long exercise, with two final rehearsals and then two performances crammed into a single Sunday. After dropping her off at the venue in the morning (we later went to the evening show – it was really nice), Natasha and Becky were looking for things to do. Sunday market in Eltham offered them an opportunity to have some fun for a couple of hours.

Various markets have gotten a passing mention elsewhere in this blog. Natasha, if she were to perform her own “what I’ll miss when I go back to America” exercise, would probably place the markets near the top of the list. I have to at least allow that market-going is a pleasurable activity that is practically unknown in the States.

I’m sure somewhere in the vast expanse of the US, food and crafts markets may play a relatively prominent role, but in my neck of Northeastern woods, you only get farmers markets that are nothing but glorified grocery stores, plus an occasional flea market or a something that is tied to a special occasion. A regularly held market that sells produce, delicacies, meats, fish, sweets, articles of clothing, accessories, crafts, possibly antiques and bric-a-brac, etc, all under a single roof or, more often, in a single open space, is not something that I am familiar with in the US.

In Europe, such markets are found in many quarters. Some big, some small. Some open daily, others on a less frequent schedule. Some are popular tourist destinations, while many are tucked away from the prime tourist locations and have a much more intimate and local feel. The UK is not as exuberant with the market culture as contries such as France or Germany, but there are still plenty of them here.

Even when you are not looking to buy anything, browsing a market and checking out what’s on offer is a delightful activity. There may be some basic uniformity in the stalls configuration, but presentation is clearly limited only by the sellers’ imagination, and the resulting visual palette is nothing short of arresting. Wherever meats, cheeses or delicacies are sold, tastings are freely offered. Many vendors, when given an opportunity, engage a prospective customer in friendly banter, discussing or demonstrating their products, putting forward their expertise in a specific field as means of advertizing their wares, or simply aiming to establish a friendly rapport via the true and tried method of “where’re you from? – oh, I’ve been there once”.

To tell you the truth, it is nearly impossible to come away from a market without buying at least something, especially after you tried a few different types of spicy meats, several varieties of cheese, and a couple of brands of olive oil. It’s impulse buying at its best!

I’m pretty sure that you can make a meal out of various tastings available at the larger markets, but if you are hungry, there are always several stands that offer prepared food, from bratwurst to paella. Replenish your energy reserves – and dive right back into browsing.

As could have been expected, Natasha and Becky made a small contribution to the economic recovery on this latest visit, bringing home assorted foodstuffs and seemingly inexhaustible supply of impressions about the things that they looked at. With the half-term upon us – finding us staying put for the first time since we came to the UK – they are likely to work trips to other markets in the city into the program for the week.

European living

Happy Valentine’s Day!

February 14th, 2009

I don’t care much about Valentine’s Day. A commercially-driven imperative to inflate your expression of love for your significant other on a specific day of the year sounds like a wrong concept to me. I am not counting, but I am pretty sure that I tell Natasha that I love her every day of the year.

Natasha often accuses me of not being a romantic, but she is on-board with more or less ignoring Valentine’s Day. No romantic candle-lit dinners (although, we are going out tonight with friends), no candy, jewelry or other gift exchanges (although, she bought me a little addition to my model houses collection the other day for 20p and presented it to me as a Valentine Day’s gift). Just a regular weekend at Casa Burlak.

Some of my readers, I am sure, have an entirely different attitude towards the occasion. To all of you, have a happy Lovers’ Day!


The last time I drank vodka

February 13th, 2009

As I mentioned in 25 things meme and probably elsewhere, I defy stereotypes of a Russian being a hard-drinker. I’m very partial to red wine, I order a screwdriver once in a while, I drink beer under right circumstances (such as when watching sporting events or gathering with friends for a barbecue), I enjoy sherry…

But I don’t drink vodka straight up.

Back in my college days, I successfully combined being more or less a non-drinker with an ability to imbibe a lot of alcohol at parties. Most of the time, I did not even suffer from much of a hangover the following mornings, but there were a handful of notable occasions1 where I lost control of the amount – and/or mix – of my alcohol intake and regretted it a lot afterwards.

This is the story of the very last such occasion. It happened almost precisely 13 years ago. The exact day is probably lost in the annals of history, but it is linked with a birthday date of February the 13th – the numerical symmetry makes it fitting to name today as the anniversary.
Read more…


YouTube’d memories: Tum-Balalaika

February 12th, 2009

In the last couple of years before my emigration from the USSR, I used to frequent the sole Rostov synagogue. Not out of any sort of religious interest, mind you, but purely for social reasons. Perestroika brought some measure of respite to formerly suppressed ethnic identities within the empire, and seemingly every Jew in the city (I am exaggerating, of course; even though Jews were a tiny minority where I grew up, there were still probably around ten thousand or so in the million-strong metropolis) came to Shabbat services every Friday. Youngsters my age were numerous and keen – after all, we were all expected to find a “good Jewish girl” to marry.

It was not the first time that I was introduced to Jewish music, but it was definitely the period of time when I was most exposed to it. Yiddish folk songs played regularly in the background during the receptions at the synagogue, Jewish folk performing groups suddenly started openly touring the country and giving concerts at major venues…

Funny how I came to America and ceased being a Jew, on account of not being observant. I became a Russian, something that eluded me in the country of my birth.

I did keep the affinity for Yiddish songs, though.

Here is one of the most well-known ones. I actually prefer Barry Sisters’ version, but I am lukewarm to the type of slideshow in the available video. The best live version that I could find comes from a benefit concert to honor one of the stalwarts of Soviet singing industry – he is the guy in the striped blazer center-stage.


GCSE choices

February 11th, 2009

If we were to stay in England for another year or two, Becky would have to start studying for GCSE’s next year. Year 9, which she is in now, is when the students choose their optional subjects.

First of all, there are 6 compulsory subjects: English, English Literature, Information & Communication Technology, Mathematics, Science (which encompasses Biology, Chemistry and Physics), and Religious Education.

In addition, 4 other subjects, one of which has to be a modern language, can be selected based on the inclinations of the student.

Becky’s choices are: Spanish, Drama, History and French, with Geography specified as an alternative in case one of her other choices creates a clash in the schedule. There is also a separate qualification awarded for Phys-Ed, which she plans to be taking as well. What got left out are Art, Design Technology, Music and three other languages offered at the school, Mandarin, German and Latin.

Given that Drama, History and foreign languages are Becky’s favorite subjects (none of the mandatory subjects makes that distinction, by the way), it was a pretty obvious choice for her. I may have gone for Mandarin over Geography, but that may be too many languages to seriously study simultaneously. She anyway already has a Russian language qualification


Jumping off a boat

February 10th, 2009

Even a person who never seeks thrills, always drives under the speed limit and avoids the smallest possibility of appearing adventurous can probably name a few “close calls”, situations that had the potential of ending up with unpleasant consequences where it concerned his life and limb. Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of near accidents that could cut my life short, from an unexpected somersault over the front of a bicycle on a busy thoroughfare to the fortunate delay in corporate plans to move our offices to one of the World Trade Center towers.

Then, of course, there are people who thrive on putting themselves in danger, be it mountain climbers, para-gliders, bungee-jumpers, or some such. For them, a close call is a badge of honor and your behavior during critical moments – or, in some cases, the simple desire to experience something that is death-defying – defines your worthiness as a man.1

I am decidedly not a thrill-seeker. Not out of any fear, but I tend to avoid potentially dangerous activities. Partly, that is due to knowing that my vestibular apparatus cannot withstand abrupt changes in motion and/or pressure. Partly, it is because the one time I did something ill-advised for thrills, it left a less than positive memory.

The year must have been 1982 or 83. My family was spending several weeks in summer on the coast of the Black Sea, near Tuapse. My Aunt’s family were vacationing with us, and between my brother, my cousin and myself, we had plenty of good time, as children can have on the beach.

Not half a mile from our patch of the beach, there lay an old and rusted oil tanker.

French by origin, it ran aground in 1967 and managed to wedge itself into the shoreline at such angle and force that all subsequent attempts to free it failed. Left alone and neglected, it eventually became a sort of a landmark, always attracting the attention of passengers of numerous long-distance trains running along the shore to and from Sochi.

It was also a prime diving spot.2

I am not sure after all these years why I was hell-bent on attempting a jump off this ship. I was a proficient swimmer as a kid, but I never mastered the technique of coordinating my body into a proper “swallow”3 position for a good dive. But the idea of trying to jump was somehow very tempting.

You cannot see the portion of the deck used as a diving platform off the ship in this picture, but it must have been at least 15 meters high. There were always a dozen or so college-age kids around, jumping or diving with abandon. Some of them, better skilled and dauntless, climbed to an ever higher platform and executed beautiful dives into the brilliant blue waters below. Others, less inclined to try, simply observed the proceedings and dared their friends to go on.

I can picture myself standing on that platform quite vividly. My Dad was confident that I could do it, but he still allowed me to go for it only on a condition that I had to back out if I felt scared. I hardly felt any fear, though. The distance to the water felt immense, but any creeping doubts were overwhelmed by the expectation of a thrill. The older kids around me were clearly having fun. I had to jump.

Funny how I remember before and after well, but hardly remember during. I used to say that during my jump, the sensation of descending had been replaced by the sensation of not being sure which direction I was moving in, but I later came to believe that I simply had imagined that for the sake of making it sound more fun than it truly was.

The truth is, one moment I left the platform, and the next moment I broke the plane of water.

And it hurt!!

Even though I entered the water at what I thought was a reasonable angle, I still banged my feet and my buttocks quite solidly on the surface. It did not knock my breath out, but when I came up, all I could think of was to get a grip of a floating mattress and not move for a while. Any thoughts I might had had before about jumping more than once were gone in that instant.

It took quite some time to shake off the ill effects of that jump.

That stayed with me until this day: The absence of any – let alone exciting – recollection about the actual jump and the painful reward for doing it. It shaped my entire approach to thrill-seeking activities – even when I do not expect to suffer physical punishment in an attempt to do something “exhilarating”, I expect the experience to be fleeting and unmemorable.4

Never mind that I could have killed or crippled myself. As I grew older, I started to regard that jump as one of those close calls…

1 My apologies for inadvertent sexism, but I do not know nearly as many daredevils or thrill-seekers among women as I do among men.

2 The picture dates from 1988, but I have a distinct impression that the ship was sitting much straighter several years before that.

3 I am not sure if this translates from Russian properly, but the head-first dive position was called in Russian like a swallow, while the feet-first jump was called like a toy soldier.

4 Skydiving, I suppose, is a lengthy enough activity to leave an impression, and I have a feeling that I’d probably enjoy that. Considerations of potential violent protests of my organism stayed my hand so far, besides the outspoken objections of my caring spouse.


Il y a Ilya

February 9th, 2009

Becky and I were engaged in our regular competition of making silly jokes out of what the other person says (Her: “Hey, I know how to copy a URL – I got good grades in ICT”. Me: “Fine, but what about your grades in I see Fanta?” … Get it?), when she put me down with the following pearl:

“Well, my name is Becky and your name is just French for there is.”

I could not think of a come-back.

ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology – British equivalent of a computers class.

Burlaki trivia

Brief weekend recap

February 9th, 2009
Comments Off

Our desire to move house has been quickly replaced by the pragmatic contentment with staying put. A sizable reduction in the rent amount has that type of effect on us.

At the same time as we started to look for different accommodations, we suggested to our current landlord that in this deteriorating market we should be paying less than what we are paying now. And put forward a number. Which the landlord agreed to without any arguments or negotiations.

We should have proposed an even lower number, of course…

In any case, as any house that we might find in Blackheath would no longer cost less than what we will be paying here, and the move would involve certain additional costs one way or another, we reasoned that fiscal considerations trump our desire to be nearer a place that is much more fun. Becky is sorely disappointed: She was already imagining getting extra sleep in the mornings as well as the ease of hanging out with friends.

Having to make that decision somewhat spurred us to look again for more active ways to spend our weekends. It is something that we have done a lot in the first year or so of living in the UK, but gradually stopped doing both because of our relative remoteness from the city center and for perceived lack of as-yet-untried options. But options, of course, do exist.

On Saturday, we went for a tour of nearby Chislehurst Caves. Dating from millenia ago, the 20 miles of underground passages acted as mines, bomb shelters, an entertainment venue and a location for “Doctor Who” filming in their history. The tour was moderately interesting, just the kind of diversion from staying in that we needed.

Here is a picture of an explorer:

We followed that with a meal at a nice restaurant in Chislehurst village.

On Sunday, Natasha and I drove across the southern part of the greater London to Richmond, for an impromptu celebration of our friend Alex’s birthday. Alex and Anya suggested an atmospheric Belgian restaurant in Richmond, where we spent several hours at our favorite catching-up ritual, accompanied by fine wine and food.

Getting out of home on weekends has an undeniable positive effect on us. We need to work on making the next weekend eventful. And the next after that…

Chronicles, London Album

London Imagery: Mottingham

February 7th, 2009
Comments Off

Remember the picture of the empty snowy street that we live on (at the bottom of this post)? Here is what it looks like on a regular day. Much less enchanting.

Our house sits exactly in the middle of a long block. There is as much distance to the intersection behind me as there is what you can see ahead. The cars nearest me are queued up for the traffic light, which is several hundred yards away. Sometimes the queue extends all the way to the end of the block.

London Album

Listen to this

February 6th, 2009

I’m sure a lot of people would love it just for the Star Wars music. I’m mostly impressed with the guy’s singing abilities.

Via The Speculist.

[Ed. Upd.: Speculist since posted that Corey Vidal is a talented lip-syncher, rather than singer. The real singers are found here – Matt was correct in identifying them.)

Idle Amusements

Early February movie roundup

February 6th, 2009

I am of two minds about continuing with this regular series.

On the one hand, I no longer like it: I realize that I lack the wit and imagery necessary to make such reviews captivating and I also recognize the fact that commenting on movies that are all yesterday’s news is hardly of any interest to the majority of you out there. (Unless I happen to accidentally hit on someone’s favorite flick…)

On the other hand, I have this unexplained urge to make some sort of a written statement about every “first-seen” movie.

I’ll allow the “other hand” win, for now. Which means that you are stuck with another one of these.

An Officer and a Gentleman 1982
Desperado 1995
National Treasure: Book of Secrets 2007
The Untouchables 1987
War 2007

Read more…


This could be useful

February 5th, 2009

So, Natasha often enters various contests and promotions. She reasons that it does not cost her anything and you can’t win unless you enter. Over the years, she won an occasional freebie, as last evidenced here.

The local magazine that we receive is always full of various promotions: Free dinner, tickets to some show, a getaway at a “historic” B&B, etc. The entry consists of an email, with multiple promotions often being directed to the same mailbox. So, she sends her entry.

Today, she gets a phone call.

“Mrs Burlak, you entered in Meridian promotion giveaway…”

“Yes, I did.”

“We are sorry, you did not win, but you came in as a runner-up for our six-weeks pole-dancing fitness course.”


“Say again?”

Yes, apparently, pole-dancing is now being touted as the newest fitness fad, on offer at various gyms across the country. I imagine it has to be an athletically-demanding activity, and there could even be a shred of evidence that a regular regimen of pole-dancing improves fitness.

Still, pole-dancing?!

The six-weeks course was one of the promotions in the last edition of the magazine, commingled with a few not as risqué others. The sneaky bastards most likely are calling everybody who entered, giving them a £20 discount off £200 course price tag and sweetening that with the “runner-up” label. It would be one thing if Natasha actually won the free course…

On the other hand, you never know what kind of skill may become useful in this economy…