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Archive for March, 2009

London Tour: Southbank

March 31st, 2009

The Thames Path along Southbank, from the London Eye (seen in the previous installment) to the London Bridge, is one of my favorite walking routes in Central London. At intervals, it gets very congested with tourists and other gawkers, but it is mostly tolerable. The views, though, are great.

Here is an across-the-river vista with the St Paul’s Cathedral.
 

 
And a wider-angle view that takes in several prominent City of London skyscrapers.
 

View of the City of London from Southbank

 
Among the buildings lining the Southbank, a minor point of interest is the OXO Tower. Its tower is actually best viewed after dark from the other side of the river, when the illuminated windows make the vertical OXO sign on its four sides visible from afar. Other than that, this is a primarily residential complex with a bit of an exhibition space.
 

OXO Tower

 

London & Environs, Photography

Family update, 03/30/09

March 30th, 2009

Becky has left for China with her classmates. The itinerary will take them to the major Beijing sights, such as Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square, plus a day-long outing to the Great Wall, and a two-day trip to Xian. I directed her to take as many pictures as she can, with hopes of traveling vicariously through her; it’ll be a while before we get ready to explore the Far East ourselves.

We cannot stop to be amazed at the opportunities that she’s been afforded at her school.

Natasha, meanwhile, has been putting finishing touches on our upcoming family trip, arranging for personal tour guides, tickets to opera, dinner reservations and such. Only 9 days left, after by far the longest stay-home period of our European lives (my short hop to Scotland aside).

I joined a walking challenge with my UCF friends, which means I now walk around all day with a pedometer. To no surprise at all, I do not walk nearly enough on a regular day. Even worse, getting to the desired minimum of 10,000 steps a day is problematic, unless one is willing to get out of the house for 15-20 minutes of vigorous walking at the end of the day. When it’s cold, windy and rainy, most likely.

On the other hand, I seem to be doing ok with the desired minimum distances. Must be those long and graceful strides of mine that add up to enough of a distance even when I’m still short on steps.

On Saturday, with not much of any walking done by 4 in the afternoon, I decided to make a solitary trek around a likely street circuit. The weather alternated between blue skies and sleeting rain all day long, but it was sunny when I stepped out of the house. Five minutes into my walk, an ominous cloud moved in and it started raining again. I wisely carried an umbrella with me, but it was still a not very pleasing experience. I completed my planned route and realized that I was still about 2,000 steps short. It was too dismal outside to keep walking. I went inside.

Two minutes after I changed out of my street clothes, the skies cleared. Go figure. Were I superstitious at all, I might have taken that as a sign…

Sunday’s weather was a bit better. We spent most of the day out and about with friends. Kimmy was in a playground heaven.

Chronicles

A war poem

March 28th, 2009

Becky’s history curriculum this year includes World War I, and as part of her coursework, she was supposed to imagine herself as a Wilfred Owen and write a poem about war.

All I can say is that, parental bias aside, I find it amazing that such a piece can be written by a 14-year-old who never even watches movies about wars. It goes without saying that she got the highest possible grade for it.

     WE WILL RETURN
 
Among the cannons that explode,
We stand and pray and yearn,
After this fight, no matter what,
To home, we will return.
 
The gas creeps in, and kills the slow.
But there’s no time to mourn.
We will be strong, we will prevail,
To home, we must return.
 
The young ones die, so quickly here.
Too much they haven’t learned.
They came for fun, and saw the truth.
To home, they won’t return.
 
I see the blood, I see the guts,
These sights make my eyes burn.
The enemy is gaining strength,
I don’t think we’ll return.
 
The fireworks that light the air,
And make it swirl and churn.
They aren’t of the happy sort,
Can we please now return?
 
There’s no life visible at all,
There stands a lonely fern.
Everything has been so destroyed,
Dear God, can we return?
 
Our rations are diminishing,
There’s not a grain of corn.
We will not live for very long,
Will nobody return?
 
But we must keep our hopes alive,
Though we’re half starved and worn.
One phrase must keep our spirits up:
To home, we will return.
 

——————
Becky first wanted to post the poem on her own blog, but then decided that my larger audience would provide better publicity. As they say, printed with author’s permission.

Children

London Tour: Thames and London Eye

March 27th, 2009
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Westminster Bridge is always chock-full of tourists and you often need to step into the roadway to cross it. However, it offers brilliant views over the Thames, so after walking past the Big Ben, we made the requisite effort. Here is what the river looks like.
 

Thames view from the Westminster Bridge

 
And here is the view across the river from the southern end of the bridge, with the Charing Cross railway station and other buildings along Victoria Embankment prominently in the picture.
 

Victoria Embankment and Charing Cross from across the river

 
The London Eye has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in London since its opening in 2000. I’ve gone on it on several different occasions, and the views from the highest points can rival any elevated viewing platforms elsewhere. Of course, being stuck in a glass capsule with 25 strangers who constantly jostle for better positions to snap fairly useless photos of themselves is not something that I cherish as a rule, and the waits to buy tickets and then to get on are often interminable, so I don’t normally wholeheartedly recommend that visitors to London make the Eye one of their stops. However, anyone who finds it hard to pass up a view of a fascinating city from high above will likely enjoy the experience more than hate it.
 

The London Eye

 
There are a couple of attractions stuffed into the monumental building block between the Westminster Bridge and the London Eye. Among them is the Dalí Museum (which we are embarrassingly are yet to visit). One of the famous Dalí elephants adorns the embankment.
 

Dalí elephant

 

London & Environs, Photography

Quitting AIG: A banker’s tale

March 26th, 2009

With a tip of the hat to Brian, here is a resignation letter from one of AIG bonus recipients that is very indicative of the overall mood within financial industry.

I find these passages the most telling:

I and many others in the unit feel betrayed that [AIG Chairman/CEO Edward M. Liddy] failed to stand up for us in the face of untrue and unfair accusations from certain members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that [Mr. Liddy] didn’t defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut.

None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.

The letter is a bit too heavy on self-justification, but it gets across a point. People have the right to be compensated for their services. A compensation contract should be honored if the person done their job and done it well (to say nothing of the fact that said person is not compensated in any other way).

Inventing laws on the spot to satisfy public hysteria and the thirst to punish “greedy bankers” can only lead to the exodus of better people from those firms that need them the most. Anybody thinks that that can improve the chances for recovery?

Apropos

London Tour: Parliament Square

March 25th, 2009

Continuing with our walk around London sights (previous entry is here), we come to the Parliament Square. Despite the fact that it is one of the busiest traffic circles in central London, the actual square in the middle – obscured by the bus in the picture, unfortunately, – is a pleasant place to linger in, with an unobstructed view to the Parliament and the Big Ben, as well as the Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Westminster to the right (not in this shot’s perspective).
 

Parliament Square

 
And here is just the Big Ben against blue sky. Do you know that the name is not of the tower itself, but rather of its large bell?
 

Big Ben

 

London & Environs, Photography

March movie roundup

March 24th, 2009

You would think that after a short hiatus I’d come back with plenty of stuff to talk about. You would be wrong. I am not touching any of the current events or political topics (not that I have ever been prolific in that area), there is nothing exciting going on at home (only a couple of weeks left before the next excellent travel adventure, though), and I can’t think of a fascinating expat topic to expound upon.

I’m left pretty much with an assortment of my serialized “features”. So, I suppose, I’ll fall back on one, bringing it forward from its usual slot, because (a) there is little chance that I’ll see more movies until the end of the month, and (b) I actually want to talk about movies for a change.

[I heard your collective groan from here. You don't have to be so obvious. Feel free to not look below the cut - I won't hold a grudge.]

In the first half of the month, I watched a few of recent award contenders, interspersed with a couple of “guilty pleasures”.
 

Across The Universe 2007
Hitman 2007
In Bruges 2008
Slumdog Millionaire 2008
Vicky Cristina Barcelona 2008

There be spoilers – I’ll keep them to a minimum, but please be warned.
Read more…

Movies

London Tour: Buckingham Palace

March 23rd, 2009

We have seen dozens of royal palaces around Europe, and the Buckingham Palace in London is one of the outwardly dullest of them, grey, blocky, and all. (The interior is quite impressive, though, if you ever manage to visit it during the two months in the summer that the palace is open to tourists.) But together with the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of its gates, it is still an impressive and lively sight.
 

Queen Victoria Memorial and the Buckingham Palace

 

Just a couple of hundred yards from the royal residence is the residence of the longest monarch-in-waiting in history. Clarence House, as the abode of Prince Charles’s is known, is guarded by these gallant sentries. You can get much closer to them than to their colleagues at Buckingham. (The closest you can get to such a guard that I know – to the point of taking your picture with them – is at the Whitehall Admiralty gate and at the Royal Jewel collection in the Tower of London.)
 

Guards at the Clarence House

 

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The previous entry in this series is here.

London & Environs, Photography

Please go hug someone you love

March 21st, 2009
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And don’t forget to tell them that you love them.

————-
A good friend expressed his concern for me and mine in an email, and that highlighted for me the fact that, if you did not come across my offline notice of yesterday and only saw the title and one line above, you might become worried that something happened to us. What happened was that a friend – and a member of the UCF community to which I belong – suffered a terrible personal loss two days ago. Out of respect for her, UCF blogs all went silent yesterday, but while I promised to return back to my regular blogging activities today, I did not feel like it. I will get back to it soon, I promise.

Chronicles

London Tour: St James Park

March 19th, 2009

Walking along The Mall (which we entered via Admiralty Arch) towards the Buckingham Palace, we leave the lovely St James Park on our left. Even in February, on a warm day, you’ll find people basking in the sun here. Imagine what it looks like on a balmy summer weekend (yes, those do happen occasionally even in England).

 

St James Park with Big Ben in the background

 

London & Environs, Photography

Homework on Fridays

March 18th, 2009

I wrote in the past about my views on British education and its differences from the American brand. The main gist was that under the right conditions, British system looks somewhat superior, but in the state educational environment on grammar school level, I don’t see much of a difference. I kept forgetting to mention one issue that always bothered me, and now it is sort of coming to a head.

Throughout her two and a half years at a state grammar school in London, Kimmy has been given homework only on Fridays, to be turned in on the following Friday. Most of the time, she can breeze through an entire assignment in 15 minutes.

15 minutes of homework a week.

My memory is failing me here, but I am pretty sure that even in the first and second grades in a New Jersey public elementary school she had daily homework assignments, something not too taxing but aimed at reinforcing what was recently learned and at developing a habit of independent work on the course material.

Without such a habit, she is getting to the point where she resists doing her homework even when she knows that she can easily complete it. It’s boring, it’s a waste of time, and all that. And since homework has never been established in school as an important part of the studying process, whenever she gets to something that she cannot easily do within the assignment, she dismisses it as unimportant.

We are pretty relaxed about maintaining any sort of study regimen for our kids, but we always did plenty of extra-curricular studying with them. Kimmy has fun with that. I always held that I did not particularly care about the quality of school instruction on the elementary school level, because it is more important what you do with the kids that age at home, IMHO. But, nevertheless, I’d like the school at least to refrain from instilling bad habits and negative attitude in my child.

So, Natasha has long been supplementing any extra-curricular learning activities with exercises directly related to Kimmy’s current school subjects. We privately expressed our disdain with the homework practices, but Kimmy has always been near the top of her class in all subjects, so there was not a reason for a real concern.

Now she started acting out against homework. She is ok with doing things with Natasha, but not ok with doing her once-weekly school assignments.

We either need to find a way to seamlessly incorporate the actual homework into the stuff Natasha does with her on the side, or to force her to spend a set amount of time on homework every day to work her into a more rigid structure of studies. Which is going to be really silly – stretching those 15 minutes over the course of a week. (It will probably be more strictly-regimented overall studies, both homework and the fun stuff on the side, which has a clear danger of making the latter less fun.) In either case, I feel we’ll be treating the symptoms rather than than the cause of the problem.

I am more than a bit put off by this. Becky, who may have not been much challenged in her elementary school years in New Jersey, but who always had some homework to complete, never had this type of a problem…

———————
I fully recognize that this post can be seen as a negative generalization of the British education approach, a generalization based on a highly-unscientific observational sample of a single school. I admit that I have no knowledge as to whether Fridays-only homework is a standard practice in state British grammar schools. Anyone reading this, whose child goes to a state grammar school in the UK where homework occurs daily, I would greatly appreciate a shout to help me properly qualify my statements.

Schooling

London Tour: Admiralty Arch

March 17th, 2009

One of the streets converging on Trafalgar Square (the previous entry in the series) is The Mall, which runs straight to the Queen Victoria Memorial and the Buckingham Palace. Access to The Mall from the square is through Admiralty Arch. Its name symbolizes solely the fact that it adjoins the Old Admiralty Building. It was not built to commemorate any naval victories, but rather in memory of Queen Victoria.
 

Admiralty Arch as viewed from Trafalgar Square

 
And here is the view from the other side. Interestingly, the archway is built to be concave from both front and back. Not that I know which side is the front, to tell the truth.
 

Admiralty Arch as viewed from The Mall

 

London & Environs, Photography

Three hours under arrest

March 16th, 2009

I only went back to Russia once in the years since I emigrated. Did not like that journey much, for a number of reasons. The pervasive state of dilapidation on Russian periphery at the turn of the century was the primary reason. The commonplace boorishness of service sector employees, from shopping assistants to receptionists, grated on my American-honed sensibilities. The expectation of a bribe clear on the face of anyone with power to make my life simpler or harder made me want to hurl. Yes, seeing many old friends was really nice, but it also made me realize how divergent our values and interests have become.

Natasha ascribes much of my disaffection with that trip to the weather. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go, and with Natasha more than half-term along with Kimmy, I could not postpone it until warmer months. Mid-March tends to be quite cold in the Russian south, with driving rain or wet snow dominating the skies. And so it was, raining one day, snowing the other, freezing overnight and thawing by the midday just enough to make everything one big puddle of mud.

But the very last day of my visit turned out bright and sunny, with not a cloud in sight and the temperatures finally climbing into early-spring territory. I had a few hours before I needed to go to the airport, and I decided to use them for a bit of video-recording.
Read more…

Memoirs, Russia

YouTube’d memories: All You Need Is Love

March 14th, 2009

Having watched Across the Universe a couple of days ago, I find myself constantly humming my favorite Beatles’ tunes. All You Need Is Love is one of the more obvious ones.

I actually have a vague memory related to this song that includes an auditorium full of students and the title of the song written by someone on the chalkboard. Whether it was a declaration of something or just an idle jest is lost in the annals of history. I was already familiar with the Fab Four’s entire body of work then, but the Berlin Wall still stood, and our overall exposure to the Western culture and music was still severely limited. Having those five English words in front of a hundred or so students waiting for an advanced calculus lecture caused a mild furor, to say the least.
 

Music

A travel quote

March 13th, 2009

I’m reading a passage in a travel book that describes a little town on canals in Italy as “not exactly Venice, but rather Bourton-on-the-Water disguised as Portmeirion”.

I realize that not only am I familiar with these references, but I can vividly imagine what the town should look like from the description.

Which turns my thoughts to our upcoming travels. Which is a welcome train of thought in the midst of a depressing week.

Travel

London Tour: Trafalgar Square

March 12th, 2009

On to more famous sights now (the previous entry in the series is here).

Trafalgar Square, in my view, is the center of London, where every first-time visitor to the city eventually finds himself – and, potentially, lingers for a while. It can be insufferable during staged public events and it is always too busy with tourists on a nice sunny day, but it is none the less majestic and impressive. And on a warm summer night, it can even be tranquil.

Nice sunny day it was.
 

Trafalgar Square

 
Here is another angle, with the National Gallery prominently seen.
 

Trafalgar Square

 
I love fountains. There are two identical ones in the square. The church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is one of the attractions around the square.
 

Trafalgar Square fountain and St Martin-in-the-Fields

 
Big Ben, which we will see close up in a couple of chapters, fits into a nice composition when viewed from the center of the square. The sun positioned itself uncooperatively for a good shot, but I felt it was still worth taking.
 

View to Big Ben from Trafalgar Square

 

London & Environs, Photography

On time travel

March 11th, 2009

My brilliant brother pondered this thought the other day:

If you had a time machine, where would you travel first? Assuming that you are universally invincible.

He suggested several more or less obvious choices for consideration.

  • Witnessing the Big Bang.
  • Seeing the asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs.
  • Witnessing the Exodus of Jews.
  • Following Jesus to see what really happened there.
  • Forget the past, I’d go to the year 2020 to see who wins the World Series and place a bet accordingly.

He is torn between the dinosaurs and the World Series.

I pointed out that a much simpler approach to the last item on his list would be traveling back in time just a few days and buying yourself a ticket with a winning combination in the latest lottery drawing. Of course, if you also assume that everyone in the world now has access to time travel, that plan is rendered useless; but then, every such scheme would be unworkable, – I certainly cannot imagine how any betting could be possible when both the bookies and the general public have an unfettered access to future outcomes.

Leaving getting fabulously rich aside, of the choices that Konstantin suggests, I surprisingly find an opportunity of being a witness to the exploits of Christ having the greatest pull on me. Those events continue to have a disproportional effect on modern society; there is more than an idle observational interest associated with an investigation of the veracity of the claims made by the Four Evangelists.

Beyond that, I would love to experience any number of different ancient civilizations at the height of their powers. Going into the future, conversely, does not hold that much appeal to me, I don’t exactly know why.

Anybody has better ideas?

Apropos

London Tour: New Row

March 10th, 2009

The next installment of our virtual walk around London (the previous post in the series is here) has just one picture, of the corner of New Row and St Martin’s Lane in the West End Theater district. Seemingly nothing special here, but I find these kinds of streets irresistible.
 

A corner of West End

 

London & Environs, Photography

Mixed weekend

March 9th, 2009

This has been one of those weekends that can be filed under the oh-so-frequently-used “the good, the bad and the ugly” label.

Starting with the ugly. We decided to go out for late lunch on Saturday afternoon, to a place in Greenwich that Natasha had targeted for a while. The meal was quite nice, the four of us – girls included – had a pretty good time. But when we returned back to our car parked around the corner, we found the passenger-side window smashed in and the glove compartment rummaged through, clearly in search of our portable GPS. My own stupidity is entirely at fault: Natasha always reminds me to remove the cradle from the windshield when we park the car on the street, but this time, I dropped her and the kids off at the restaurant door before driving around in search of a parking spot; when I finally found one, I absent-mindedly took the GPS out of the cradle and put it in my pocket, but I left the cradle in its place; some effing miscreant clearly could not pass up a chance to check whether I was so imbecilic as to leave the actual unit inside.

Upon getting back home, I immediately called my insurance, they immediately put me through to the glass and windshield service, who very promptly arranged for a repairman to come to the house and fit a temporary Plexiglass in place of the broken window. I had to wait up until 1:15am for him to arrive, but still, it was done quite expediently. The window replacement will also occur in my driveway, tomorrow; I already got a phone call from the service to arrange for time. That is chalked up as “good”. I’ve never been in this situation before, so I am not familiar with how this is handled in the States, but I am certainly impressed by the assistance I got here.

What it will do to my car insurance premium remains to be seen.

We followed through with our plans to go to the central London to meet with friends on Sunday, even though our own instincts suggested that a weekend that started badly probably will not be much improved before it is over. The weather quickly turned from nice to seriously bad while we were on the train to the city. The driving rain abated by the time we reached our friends’ place, the skies cleared, and we figured that we did not want to stay indoors. Unfortunately, the temperatures dropped by several degrees in that fairly short span, and even though we did not spend too much time outside, we were dressed lightly enough to get pretty cold pretty fast. Great company and a reasonably good meal at an Italian restaurant helped quite a bit, but the return trip home put in the last word in leaving us leaning towards miserable.

To top it all, I recently pulled the Achilles tendon in my left foot while literally sitting in my office chair. I can’t figure out how not to put any pressure on it as I go about my daily activities, so I keep re-injuring it while doing such mundane things as tying my shoelaces. Looks like I’m going to have to see a doctor about it.

Chronicles

Ходим по Парижу

March 7th, 2009

This little project has been years in the making.

When I worked on the movie about our first Paris trip, in 2002, the well-known Russian pop song (called “Walking about Paris”) was the obvious choice for an opening segment. Unfortunately, I realized that we did not tape a single scene related to the song lyrics then. Making a separate music video for the song became an item on my “someday” list.

A couple of visits to Paris later, in May of 2007, we finally got to taping necessary footage. Becky was enlisted as a principal camera-person and, during our wanderings about the city, she recorded Natasha and me walking around various sights.

Still, I did not get into the mood for movie-making for almost two years afterwards. But Natasha kept prodding me, and I eventually produced a reasonable piece of work, offered for your discerning appreciation herewith.

 

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

 

P.S. I realize that my non-Russian-speaking audience will find this clip less enjoyable, not being able to understand the lyrics. My apologies for that. To alleviate that a bit, here is a rough translation:
 
I dream of being in Paris and being in love.
I see you standing by a café.
I know a little French, so I say Hello and walk with you.
    Chorus
    Noon. Summer. We walk about Paris.
    I’d like to get to know you better,
    So let’s sit down at a café.
    But I only have five coins in my pocket.
Undeterred, like a true Frenchman, I tell the waiter to mail the bill to me.
When there is no money, there is no love.
I better go to Syktyvkar (a town on Russian periphery, chosen here because of the rhyme),
So that I can save up.
    Chorus

 

Family Videos, Travel