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Archive for April, 2009

London Imagery: Regent Street at night

April 30th, 2009
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I am not very much inspired to write anything at the moment, so instead I am picking an item from my little backlog of random illustrations.

This is not a particularly good picture, but I sort of like the feel of it. It was taken with my little pocketcam in less than ideal lighting from the upper deck of a London double-decker bus. What you see are the contours of Regent Street towards where it curves on its approach to Piccadilly Circus. At night, with few people and little traffic, the street looks considerably less commercial and appropriately more regal.
 

Regent Street at night

 

London & Environs, Photography

YouTube’d memories: Pardonnez-moi ce Caprice d’Enfant

April 29th, 2009

The intro to this song always wakes up some deeply buried associations with my childhood – it was used as a theme for a popular TV program (which one, I can no longer recall) back in the 70′s in the USSR.

No less importantly, hearing Mireille Mathieu reminds me of vinyl records and turntables that played a big part in our lives well into the 80′s. We did not have a huge collection of records at home, as I recall, but many of the albums that we did have ended up shaping many of my musical affections. Mathieu’s compilation – she was and still is tremendously popular in Russia – was always one of my favorites.

The lady has the most remarkable voice.
 

 

Music

Name that house

April 28th, 2009

Houses in England often have names in addition to street numbers. Sometimes, they have names in place of street numbers, with the mailing address simply saying something like “Barton House, Gloucester Road”.

This throwback practice is still very much in use in rural parts of the country, but even in central London, every respectable building is likely to have a name proudly displayed above the entrance or near its gates.

In our suburban neck of the woods, many streets are full of named houses. As I have been regularly strolling around the neighborhood streets of late, trying to justify the purchase of a pedometer, I inconspicuously took snapshots of some of the house signs with my pocket camera. Please feel free to click each picture to embiggenate.

 

    
    
    
    

 

Photography, That's England

Not even a little

April 28th, 2009

From an actual conversation in a medical office:

X-ray technician: Are you pregnant at all?
Natasha [after a pause]: No, not even a little.

This is one of those linguistic differences that we explored elsewhere. Brits insist on adding “at all” to questions very frequently, and that throws us off. We view that as a suggestion that there are degrees to which the answer can be positive or negative. With answers that do not leave any middle ground between a simple “yes” or “no”, it sounds comical to our ears.

Are you married at all? Do you have children at all? No, but my friend over there is slightly pregnant.

[update] I suddently realize that there is a vague inference from the above that Natasha may be having some medical issues. Not at all (hey, this is a case where I normally use that construct). The office was, in fact, dental, and the X-rays were part of a regular check-up.[/update]

That's England

Timeshare in demand

April 26th, 2009
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I only once, in passing (look for Florida in that post), mentioned on this blog that we own a timeshare. Without going much into pros and cons of such a possession, we have long concluded that it would be to our benefit to get rid of it.

I had our week up for sale for years, with not a single prospective buyer. Literally, I could not give it away, even though it is a “hot season” week in a reasonably attractive location. Once, a couple of years ago, some “resale agent” whom I contacted, indicated to me that he would take the week off me for a grand sum of $99 (we paid about seven grand for it in 1995, btw), but after some back and forth emailing he disappeared and eventually responded to my persistent messages that he was no longer interested.

A few months ago, Natasha came across a concept of donating the timeshare to charity. It did not cost us any extra, so we submitted our week for donation. The process normally takes a few months, so only a day or two ago I was informed that the week finally went to the “sales department” for liquidation, and once a buyer is found, I will get closing documents to sign.

The funny thing is, literally a week after I submitted the week for donation, I got the first direct offer for the week from an interested buyer. And since then, eight more of the kind.

Not a single offer in five or six years that the week has been up for sale. Nine offers in just the last 3 months.

And I have to turn them all away (although, now I can point them to that sales department)…

There must be some property (and/or, financial) market forces that are making timeshare ownership more attractive to more people. I am suddenly quite optimistic that even if donation somehow falls through, I should be able to find a buyer for the timeshare this year.

And if any of my readers are at all interested, feel free to jot me a note, and I can give you the phone number at which to inquire about my week.

Customerography

London Imagery: Hamilton Terrace

April 24th, 2009
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This is one of the most-fashionable streets in St John’s Wood in Northwest London. I took a few pictures of it with my pocket-cam when we were last in the area, and then managed to stitch a couple of them in a serviceable wide-angle picture.

 

 

And this is the fetching church of St Mark’s, sitting at one of the intersections along the street.

 

 

London & Environs, Photography

Kids-related notes, 04/23/09

April 23rd, 2009

Kimmy has been asking Natasha to arrange for a “fun” birthday party for her this year (it’s still two months away, but it’s never too early to start thinking of one’s birthday, according to Kimmy), as opposed to our normal choice of a party in our back garden. Her interests fluctuate between a swimming party and a skating party. Quite a number of swimming centers in the area offer themselves for children parties, and the few available skating rinks can also be hired for such purpose.

Kimmy excels in both swimming and skating, which is even mentioned in her “bio” on our About page (and I made references to that fact in the past on this blog), so it is no wonder that she feels a swimming or skating party would be fun.

One little problem. None of her school friends can skate. And practically none can swim.

While I am not really surprised with the former – hey, I cannot skate, – I am really taken aback by the latter. For some reason, it strikes me as really odd that an 8-year-old child has not learned how to swim…

Becky, meanwhile, is participating in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award program, which requires her to undertake an outdoors adventure complete with finding her own way in non-urban settings, setting up camp and sleeping in a tent. With a group of classmates – think Girls Scouts troop – and non-intrusive adult supervision. This weekend is the overnight “rehearsal”, somewhere in Kent. It baffles me how exactly going on a hiking trip and staying outdoors overnight can be practice for a hiking trip and staying outdoors overnight, but as with all of the trips that she’s been to lately, hanging out with friends away from parental control is what counts the most. If only she did not have to lug around the heavy back-pack…

The following weekend is the real thing, with two nights away from home, after which she should be getting the Bronze Award. Silver and Gold should follow in the coming years if she chooses to continue.

Children

Not very nomadic

April 21st, 2009

Nathan, who often said in the past that he hates memes1, has actually created a meme of his own, listing the places that he resided in during his eventful life. I put together my own similar list and realized that I actually did not move around that much in my life. (Nathan’s rules are, basically, any place of primary residence or a temporary secondary residence for longer than 30 days counts. Temporary stays are sub-numbered.)

Here is where I lived:

1. Проспект Ленина (Lenin Avenue), Rostov-na-Donu, Russia – 11 years.
2. Улица Казахская (Kazakh Street), Rostov-na-Donu, Russia – 2 years, fully overlapping with #1, as I stayed with my grandparents на Ленина during the school week, but spent weekends in a rented apartment in another part of the city with Mom, Dad and Little Brother.
3. Таганрогское Шоссе (Taganrog Road), Rostov-na-Donu, Russia – 2 years, similarly to #2 fully overlapping with #1; I continued to attend the same school near my grandparents’ place of residence, while as a family we lived on the outskirts of the city in a newly-built apartment complex.
4. Проспект Коммунистический (Communism Avenue), Rostov-na-Donu, Russia – about 10 years.
1a,2a,3a,4a. Yedintsy, Moldova – annually or even semi-annually during my childhood and youth, often for several weeks in a row; two different addresses, neither of which I recall (my Dad should).
1b. Village of Yurkovtsy, Ukraine – my only ever summer in the countryside.
4b. Crimea Peninsula, near Yalta, Ukraine – two months at a youth sanatorium for children with respiratory diseases.
5. 15th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY – I am pretty sure that it was only for a couple of weeks, but it should count as our sole residence upon arrival in the States, with my Uncle’s family.
6. Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, NY – three different apartments at two neighboring buildings over the course of 8 years.
7. Ortley Court, Old Bridge, NJ – 8 years.
8. Present address in London – going on 3 years.

And that’s it. Generous counting will yield less than 15 locations. The not-very-impressive list is unlikely to acquire more than a couple of new entries in the next 15 years, I suppose.

I judge that I stayed at the Westin in Charlotte, NC, for more than 30 days cumulatively, but I recall just once being on a business trip that was longer than a week (and that one was to London, as it were). I also went on a number of multi-week holidays to the Black Sea coast with or without my family as a child, but #4b aside, none probably exceeded the 30-day threshold. I might have stayed in a hospital or two for prolonged periods of times when I was a kid, but counting that takes some fun out of the exercise, even if it adds a location or other.

I always did find it rather amusing that my life in Russia started on the street named after Lenin and ended on the street called Communism Avenue (which actually belonged to the municipal district with the moniker of Soviet). The latter made for fun completion of various application forms with “previous address if less than 2 years at the current one” on them the first couple of years after emigrating to the US.

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1 I would find evidence of that in his prior writings, but Nathan does not have a search facility on his blog, – and I am not that dedicated to making documented claims anyway. (Updated: This statement is erroneous, the search facility is hidden in plain sight on the Blogger screen. Brainlock by yours truly.)

Memoirs

Random Illustrations: A street in Blackheath

April 20th, 2009

This could be a street in any number of American suburbs or smaller towns. Yes, the cars are parked somewhat in the opposite direction, but otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to place it. You’ll have to believe me when I say that it is a street in the quieter parts of Blackheath Village.
 

A street in Blackheath

 

London & Environs, Photography

You have to see this!

April 20th, 2009
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My brother has scanned and posted a couple of childhood photos with both him and me in the picture. Anyone interested, please feel free to head over there and take a look.

The first picture must be from 1978, given the age I’m guessing the brother to be at the time. The second picture is certainly from 1989, taken during our farewell visit to Western Ukraine, when my Uncle’s family was emigrating to the US (our cousin Karolina is in the middle).

Thanks, Kostyan!

Photography

Getting summer-y

April 19th, 2009

The April summer of previous years is late to materialize this year. It’s been reasonably sunny and pleasant for the last few days, but still on the cooler side of things.

That does not prevent a large segment of young English women to adopt a summer-y dress code. We went out to central London for a dinner last night, and practically every other woman that we saw sported the “seasonal” outfit of light blouse, high heels, short skirt – and bare legs. Even when those legs are shapely, looking at them in 50°F weather makes me shiver in empathy (as opposed to a more pleasant natural reaction I might have in a warmer environment). Plus, the common skin tone of an Englishwoman is pasty white. I applaud the self-confidence of any woman who feels secure to display her legs in public, but there is something weird in the sight of bare legs that are clearly never exposed to the sun in the normal course of events.

Our outing was excellent. We went to a restaurant that we’ve been to before, near the Borough Market, to meet up with Sharon and Vic, the fellow expats who started their own excellent adventure in faraway lands only a week ago. There were plenty of topics for conversation between people who heretofore had only known each other online. We ended up staying at our dinner table for good two hours after finishing with our meal, just chatting. It’s nice to make new friends.

And today, the weather is just gorgeous. We all four went to a nearby green space for some playground fun and attempts at playing frisbee. Didn’t want to come back inside…

On a different subject, I spent some time reviewing our expenses from the recent trip and confirmed the well-known observation that traveling to countries with distressed economies is fairly economical. For instance, we had sit-down restaurant meals a dozen times during our trip, and only three times exceeded £50 on the bill (four people, at least six dishes every time, plus drinks, and an occasional bottle of wine). Souvenirs, travel purchases, tickets to entertainment venues were all pretty cheap as well. Some of the biggies (lodging, transportation) were acquired for euros (in that, we are now in much worse position than, say, a year ago), but all of the transactions in local currencies were bargains. Our overall expenses for the trip were about 25% lower than they should have been compared to previous similar trips.

I have a feeling that they could have been even lower. Hungary was our first experience with a currency so out of whack with dollars, pounds and euros, that the lowest price of practically everything started at hundreds of the local currency units, forints. Dividing that price by 300 for a rough approximation – more than in euros, less than in pounds – of the cost of an item is not that taxing an exercise, but it quickly starts playing a trick on you: You look at a price tag in thousands of forints, and even before you do your calculation, you think “Ah, it must be peanuts” – and you end up buying stuff that you would think unnecessary if the price was expressed in more familiar units.

Happened to me a few times while in Hungary. Nothing major, but it probably added up to a few extra pounds.

Chronicles, Travel

A couple of travel pictures

April 17th, 2009

… because every travel post should have some. And by virtue of our late arrival home on Wednesday, I did not have a chance to arm myself with pictures from our recent trip before I posted my brief trip overview. To compensate for that, here are two shots from that adventure. More will come in due time.
 

On Florianska Street in Cracow Old Town

 

On Kossuth Square in Budapest in front of the Parliament

 

Photography, Travel

Back from Central Europe

April 16th, 2009

Two major destinations, three new countries, and, not the least importantly, eight days of almost uninterrupted sunshine – that was the tally of our long-awaited new adventure.

We started with three days in Krakow. On our way from the airport to the hotel upon arrival, Natasha and I had the most vivid flashbacks to our childhood, so East-European- and Soviet-looking the large swathes of the city are. Many edifices of Soviet times remain within what should be called city “center”. The historic core of the city, however, is wholly delightful, with beautiful buildings and streets every step of the way. It is also relatively compact and can be easily covered on foot.

We toured the Royal Castle, stepped into half a dozen of different churches, explored the Jewish Quarter, took a trip to remarkable salt mines a dozen kilometers outside of the city, or simply lingered around the vast Market Square. We also had outstanding dining experiences at practically every eatery that we’ve chosen. Coupled with excellent weather – not hot, not cold, simply sunny and pleasant, – we certainly felt that Krakow loved us. The feeling was – is – mutual.

Our transfer to Budapest was effected by way of a comfortable private van, driven by a friendly middle-aged Slovakian who was more than happy to entertain us in Russian. Since the road from Krakow to Budapest crosses all of Slovakia through the middle from north to south, we had a chance to see quite a bit of that country, too. We also stopped for lunch in the atmospheric town of Banska Bystrica, whose great pedestrian central square is surrounded by buildings that would do honor to any better-known tourist destination.

Budapest turned out to be very different from Krakow, on the opposite side of the large urban center spectrum. Where Krakow’s core retains a small-town, centuries-of-history charm, the Hungarian capital is undeniably big, monumental and 19th-century-planned. It is, nonetheless, a veritable treasure trough of that century’s architecture, with palaces in various “Neo-” styles, common to the architectural boom of the mid-to-late 1800′s, found throughout the central Pest. There are a number of Secessionist – the Austrian-centric branch of Art Nouveau – buildings as well.

Pest, in fact, reminded us of Paris a lot, with its wide boulevards lined by buildings of almost-uniform height, converging on broad squares fronted by impressive palaces.

Buda Castle district is more dramatically positioned, but is less visually arresting from inside. Its main attraction might be the views over the city offered from a number of vantage points. We explored Buda quite a bit too, of course.

Aside from a few churches and a small picture gallery, we did not do much of museum-going in Budapest, preferring instead to walk around and entertain ourselves with “fun” activities such as a trip to the State Opera to see The Swan Lake (yes, we went to the opera but saw a ballet), a visit to the zoo and to an old-fashioned funfair, a morning of soaking at the renowned hot-springs baths, a cruise on the Danube, a browse through the enjoyable covered Market Hall, a folk dance and musical performance… Interestingly, our culinary explorations in Budapest were a notch below those in Krakow, although still quite impressive.

We liked Budapest a lot, too, in a different way than Krakow.

A tremendous trip overall. Detailed entries for Travelog and a picture gallery album will be presented to the public in short order, as usual.

Guess what kind of weather greeted us in London?

Yup, exactly!

Travel

Musical Tiramisu: Stumblin’ In

April 7th, 2009

No specific memories here, just one of my old favorites.

Wikipedia suggests that in 1978 this song rose to the US Top 10, so it might not be totally obscure to my American-born readers, even though Chris Norman and Smokie were primarily superstars in Europe, and Suzy Quatro, an American, was, at best, a B-list performer even across the pond.

Music

Back from China

April 6th, 2009

Well, at least, one of us is. Becky has returned from her school trip, properly enchanted with the Far East, although expressly for reasons other than I might imagine myself being excited about. Most notably, she was impressed with the enthusiastic reception that she and her classmates were met with wherever they went.

She gave due marks to the major points of interest that she visited (Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Xian), but her most favorite parts of the trip related to markets and visiting small villages. She apparently met with reasonable success in price-haggling at the markets, employing a simple adage of “I’m only a student, I only have X yuan on me” (where the original quoted price would be X times 10 or something).

I’m sure she will share her impressions of the trip in her own blog today or tomorrow. Eventually, the pictures will also be available somewhere on the site.

One thing, though, that she was hoping for – and received – upon return was food some other than Chinese. There’s only so much of the Chinese cuisine she can take, apparently (and she is not overly fond of the Sichuan variety that she says was prevalent on the trip). Nonetheless, she insisted on using chopsticks to devour her portion of Olivier salad – something about eating with chopsticks makes the meal go slower, letting you better to savor it. Oo-kay!

Travel

Me, all happy inside

April 4th, 2009

Apropos of nothing, here is a picture of me attending to my most favorite activity – strumming the guitar in a friendly company. With a wine glass within an easy reach – or at least, prominently in the background.
 

 
This was taken during the New Year’s celebration at our house. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s April now. Natasha only yesterday got around to reviewing the shots she took then, and I was not even aware that this picture existed.

Despite the fact that my facial expression does not actively reflect my heart’s content – I must have been trying to pay attention to the Russian New Year staple Ирония судьбы, that we were all watching at that moment, as well – believe me when I say that I like nothing better than spending time like this.

Photography

Remembering high school

April 3rd, 2009

I haven’t done one of them meme things in a while, so I am happy to pick one from Jason. The meme is centered on my high school memories, which I am sure is a subject that will hold a lot of my readers enthralled, given the fact that my high school experience was so much different from that of an American high-schooler of yesteryear.
Read more…

Memoirs

London Tour: Blackfriars to London Bridge

April 2nd, 2009

Continuing our walk along the Thames Path (which we started here), we can more closely see the fine buildings at the Blackfriars Bridge end of the Victoria Embankment on the north side of the river. The red one on the left is the “new” Sion College building (dating to 1886), and next to it is the former City of London independent boys’ school.
 

Sion College and the former City of London School

 
The elaborate London Chatham and Dover Railway crest adornes the Blackfriars Railway Bridge.
 

London Chatham and Dover Railway crest

 
Next is one of the coolest pictures in this entire tour, IMHO. This is the Millenium Bridge, connecting Bankside from the Tate Modern gallery with the City and St Paul’s Cathedral. The pedestrian-only bridge is quite famous for being “wobbly” after it first opened in 2000, but has since been reinforced and modified to eliminate the swaying effect. Along with the Westminster Bridge, it is one of the most popular tourist river crossings.
 

Millennium Bridge

 
A close-up of the City side of the London Bridge, with the now nearly iconic visage of the Gherkin (also known as the Swiss Re Building).
 

The City of London and the Gherkin

 
We are ending our walk near the Southwark Cathedral, which stands next to the London Bridge on the south side.
 

Southwark Cathedral

 

This installment completes the series, but don’t despair: There will be plenty of random London imagery in the future.

London & Environs, Photography

YouTube memories: Besame Mucho

April 1st, 2009

Sunny spring weather (for the last couple of days, at least). Love is in the air (or so the common wisdom dictates – I don’t feel any more amorous than usual). It feels fitting to choose a well-known love song for the next helping of my musical memories.

In fact, the not so straight-forward Besame Mucho association that is lodged in my memory is not about love, per se. I spent a few years in late 80′s heavily involved with the student theater and with the university-wide independent student performance arts circle (can’t think of a better translation for самодеятельность). Besame Mucho was a top number of one of our singing stars. I was never very close with that girl – and I honestly cannot even recall her name anymore – but every time I hear the song, it takes me back to the good times that we had with our performing troupe and friends.

But, of course, there is a veritable love connection there: I met the love of my life through my involvement with the theater. Even though I never serenaded Natasha with this particular number, it is still a sweet reminder of the days when we met.

Andrea Bocelli’s is the most beautiful rendition that I came across on YouTube, even though I probably prefer slightly less melancholic takes. No matter. I hope you are all able to pluck that love out of the air and put it to good use.
 

 

Music