Archive

Archive for October, 2009

Not watching movies (but two drive-by reviews included)

October 29th, 2009

Four months since my last movie overview – and only a couple of movies watched in that period of time. Before I get into an explanation of why my movie-viewing habits have become so insignificant, let me tell you what those two viewings were, and anyone who couldn’t care less would be then free to skip this post altogether. (As always, there’ll be spoilers, too.)

Hancock 2008
No Country for Old Men 2007

Read more…

Movies

From your friendly [former] London resident

October 27th, 2009

I was checking the score of the last night’s MNF game on ESPN, when I came across Chris Berman’s “Fastest 3 minutes in Sports”. Introducing the annual NFL game played in London, he made the frequent mistake of misidentifying one of the iconic city landmarks.

People! Let’s get this straight!

This is not the London Bridge.
 

Tower Bridge, London

 
It is one of the symbolic sights in the City of London, but it is called Tower Bridge.

The London Bridge happens to look nothing special – just another modern river crossing.
 

London Bridge

 
Can we be clear on that once and for all?

London & Environs, Photography

Travel anecdotes: Give me more mushrooms

October 26th, 2009

I’m going to inaugurate a new recurring feature on this blog that I hope will provide a bit of extra amusement for my readers as well as give me an opportunity to talk about things that I love talking about the most – my travel experiences. In this series, I will recount the comical and curious situations that we occasionally found ourselves on our journeys.

Quite a lot of unintended comedy comes as a result of feeble attempts to communicate with natives in their tongue.

When we first went to France, my French was nowhere as it is now. Purposefully studying an audio course or two does not really train the ear for the free-flowing conversation one might have with a native speaker. And French, in my humble opinion, is one of the harder spoken languages to understand, due to its soft sounds and the plethora of monosyllabic words that are easy to confuse with one another or miss altogether… Natasha has always been better than me in the “understanding French” area – I am considerably stronger in speaking and reading departments – but she does not have a habit of intervening in conversations where I might be making a fool of myself (unless she is directly affected)…

One night, for dinner, we picked a rustic auberge in a Loire riverside village. The staff did not speak any English. This was the seventh or eighths day of our trip, and I was pretty sure that I already mastered the process of ordering food in French. I asked for wine, selected appetizers. When I named the main course of my choice, our server, an amiable plump woman in probably her sixties, broke into a pretty quick and lengthy tirade, which sounded to me like “bla-bla-bla champignons bla-bla-bla-bla-bla” with a clear question at the end. Happy that I could discern a word in her speech, I quickly surmised that she was asking me whether I wanted to have a side of mushrooms with my main course. I confidently responded with “Oui, champignons, s’il-vous plait“. She looked at me a bit funny and asked me what surely sounded like “More of them?” I was not at all clear where the conversation landed me by that point, but I still answered affirmatively.

The lady retreated to the kitchen with a mildly amused expression on her face. I started to replay in my head what I thought I heard her say. And it became clear to me that what she was saying was “The dish comes with mushrooms on the side, and you can have this or this or that as another side; what would you like?”

To which I obviously answered that I wanted more mushrooms…

We corrected the misunderstanding when our appetizers arrived. The lady assured me that she was anyway going to bring me potatoes au gratin as my other side. Which worked just fine for me.

We counted that meal as the best on our entire trip. The French country food is unbelievably good!

Memoirs, Travel

Technological advances

October 23rd, 2009

For a reasonably technologically-savvy person, I sometimes find myself utterly amazed by what nowadays technology can offer.

Like, for instance.

I’ve been wearing glasses since my early teens. One pair of glasses that I got myself roughly 20 years ago were so called “chameleons” – the specs that would become tinted in the sunlight. I suppose that made me an early adopter of photochromic lenses, but the problem was, they did not work that well. They would take forever to darken in most blinding sunlight, and would become just barely tinted at that. I abandoned them quite quickly, and ever since always made do with having two pairs of prescription glasses on me – one clear, one tinted.

My most recent pair of clear glasses was nearing its fifth or sixth year of life – despite some fancy-shmancy anti-scratch coating that I paid for when I got them, the lenses started to get worn out. I decided to get myself a new pair and figured I’d go for the photochromic lenses again, with Transitions.

I am astounded at how well they work.

There is maybe a 5-second interval of discomfort and having to squint when I first step outside into sunlight, and then it’s as if I’m wearing sunglasses. What’s more, my eyes don’t feel covered by a darkened glass – from inside out, I can barely tell that the lenses become tinted. The first couple of days of wearing them, I couldn’t help but stop at every other shop window to check my reflection and confirm that yes, in fact, the glasses looked dark grey on the outside.

Brilliant! I’m practically in love!

How about something more domestique

Natasha saw one at our friends’ house and decided to buy a Roomba for ourselves. I realize that robots have been in use in various industries, wherever repetitive tasks are being performed, for decades now. But I’ve never had a first-hand experience with any, let alone with a robot with a certain level of artificial intelligence.

It’s a damn vacuum cleaner!

Which goes around a room all by itself. It bumps into walls and other obstacles – not very bright, by the looks of it, – but then finds ways along the former and around the latter. It makes different attempts to get into tight corners, angling this way and that. It methodically crosses the room and seemingly finds a way to go over every square inch of the surface in a pattern that cannot be understood by mere humans.

And – wait for this! – when it knows that it’s running out of juice, it propels itself towards its base and docks for re-charging. Really!

It is not perfect; it can obviously only do the floor – no stairs or pieces of furniture. But it does relieve us from having to actively participate in the process.

Passive participation is another matter. I could watch the little thing glide around the floor for hours.

Technology rulez!

Technology

B[b]otH interview: Becky

October 22nd, 2009

It took me a while to follow up on Geo’s excellent suggestion, but I finally started to sit down with members of my family to get their thoughts on living in England and being back in America.

First up, the teen.

Burlaki [back] on the Hudson: So, what did you like the most about England?

Becky: Public transportation, definitely. I also liked the fact that people there are more accepting of differences, say, in personal style. I liked the British music a lot. And the food.

B[b]otH: Food?

B: Oh, I don’t mean the English food. But there is definitely more variety there, of all of the different types of food from all over the world.

B[b]otH: Anything you did not like?

B: The weather is kinda boring there – pretty much one season all year long. It was very annoying that shops closed at 5pm… I can’t think of anything else… At some point I disliked the school uniforms – I think they’re nice now. At some point I did not like how the school system worked – I don’t mind it now…

B[b]otH: All right. Now you’re back in America. What do you like most about being back?

B: Seeing my family and friends again… No uniforms in school… I think the school is actually a bit easier, because we have the same subjects every day… Weather is nicer in general – or more “changing”…

B[b]otH: And what do you not like?

B: It’s far away from all the nice countries that you can visit! And there is no public transport, so you people have to drive me everywhere.

B[b]otH: Three years living in England – good or bad?

B: There were some good things and some not so good ones, but it was a good experience.

B[b]otH: If you could do it again, would you?

B: Yeah! [enthusiastically nods]

B[b]otH: When you grow up, will you go and live in Europe again?

B: Most definitely!

B[b]otH: Which country?

B: I’ll put them all in a hat… put the pieces of paper with the names in a hat and pull one out… and if I don’t like that one, I’ll pick up a different one.

B[b]otH: Say, you come up with Albania…

B: I don’t think so. It would be a country like Italy, maybe England, maybe Spain, but I do not like Spanish anymore…

B[b]otH: Ok, your old friends, do they show any interest in the fact that you lived in England for several years? Do they ask about it?

B: Yes, they find it very interesting, and so do all my new friends. My “accent” starts up many conversations on its own.

B[b]otH: You view it as a positive or are you annoyed?

B: It’s a great positive! “Hello” – “Hello” – “Oh my goodness! You’re British!!!”.

B[b]otH: [laughs] What’s your most vivid experience of the years that you lived in England?

B: Probably, all the school trips that I went to… You know, China, Iceland, France a few times, Switzerland… It was all good!

B[b]otH: Not the trips with the family?

B: The family trips too, but there is something special about going with your friends, with only teachers being there… You can’t really ignore your parents the way you can ignore teachers!

On that interesting thought, we adjourned to watch the latest recorded episode of Lie to Me.

European living, Re-pat's culture shock

Belated birthday note

October 20th, 2009

In the fourth year of this blog’s existence, I regressed to the point of neglecting to commemorate one of my children’s birthday.

Let’s pretend that it was by design and that I wanted to conceal the fact that I am old enough to have a 15-year-old daughter…

Becky’s birthday kicked off our fall celebration season in fabulous fashion. We had a pre-birthday celebration dinner with friends, a birthday celebration breakfast with grandparents, an almost-surprise birthday celebration lunch with friends. All in all, for an occasion that we long agreed we were not going to do anything special, we had quite a few special events…

The same date also marked the anniversary of Natasha and I meeting for the first time. I have now officially known my lovely wife for exactly half for my life.

Celebrations

Pear and almond cream tart

October 17th, 2009

Following on one of the notes from yesterday, we are expecting friends over tonight. Natasha is in her element in the kitchen, and here is a dessert she made:
 

 
Pear and Almond Cream Tart (serves 6).

Ingredients:

  • 3 firm pears
  • lemon juice
  • 3/4 pound shortcrust or sweet shortcrust pastry
  • 1 tbsp peach brandy or water
  • 4 tbsp peach jam, strained
  • 3/4 cup blanched whole almonds
  • 1/4 cup superfine sugar
  • 5 tbsp butter
  • 1 egg, plus 1 egg white
  • few drops almond extract

Directions:

  1. Roll out pastry thinly and use to line a 9 inch pie pan. Chill the pastry case while you make the filling. Put the almonds and sugar in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse until finely ground; they should not be pasty. Add the butter and process until creamy, then add the egg, egg white and almond extract and mix well.
  2. Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 375F. Peel the pears, halve them, remove the cores and rub with lemon juice. Put the pear halves cut side down on a board and slice thinly crosswise, keeping the slices together.
  3. Pour the almond cream filling into the pastry shell. Slide a spatula under one pear half and press the top with your fingers to fan out the slices. Transfer to the tart, placing the fruit on the filling like spokes of a wheel. If you like, remove a few slices from each half before arranging and use to fill any gaps in the center.
  4. Place the tart on the hot baking sheet and bake for 50-55 minutes, or until the filling is set and well browned. Cool on a wire rack.
  5. Meanwhile, heat the brandy or water and the jam in a small saucepan, then brush over the top of the hot tart to glaze. Serve the tart at room temperature.

The tart should be equally successful made with other kinds of fruit, such as nectarines, peaches, apricots or apples.

As a bonus for those who don’t necessarily look forward to dessert in a meal, here is something else we’ll be eating:
 

 

Who's Hungry?

Random family notes, 10/16/09

October 16th, 2009

It did not take me long to realize that if I sleep for 15 minutes longer in the morning, but then wake up Natasha to drive me to the bus, instead of walking, I’d be catching the same bus while shortening my door-to-door commute. The weather of the last couple of days makes it an easy decision. Natasha has so far held her displeasure in check…

Of course, it did not take me any longer to realize that if I sleep for 45 minutes longer in the morning, the only side effect of that is getting into the office about half an hour later than before (which is still before 9am). The first time was a case of accidental oversleeping. This morning, I did it on purpose. Given how well I’ve been sleeping lately, I might make it a norm…

Our social calendar has been so congested the last few weeks and for the foreseeable future, that we can no longer pride ourselves on being always ready to get together with friends on a short notice. Between various birthday and celebrations, serial housewarmings and planned outings, we suddenly find ourselves having to plan simple meet-ups weeks in advance. Must be a function of immersion back into our old social circle again – we want to see too many people and do too many things simultaneously…

The calendar includes a couple of road trips to see friends who do not live too close to us, by the way. That’ll be our “travel allowance” for the time being.

I found out that Cablevision Optimum DVR only holds 40 hours of recordings, which means that I cannot keep a large number of movies in the queue for indefinite period of time, similarly to my ways back in England. Given that I only found time to watch one single movie in the last few weeks, the approach of hoarding recordings for the future is out of the window. We might need to consider re-subscribing to a movies-by-mail club…

Whatever little free time I have this weekend will be spent configuring my new home PC and possibly struggling with its putative distance from the wireless router. That should be fun.

Chronicles

Of scars

October 13th, 2009

Tania asked during my recent attempt at a Q&A session: [What] interesting scars [do you have] and how you got them?

I don’t have much to flaunt in this regard, to be honest. I am only aware of two scars on my entire body, both of which were acquired by the time I was barely three years old.

The faint scar crossing my lips at a broken angle is a memory from my very first birthday. As told by my parents, of course, since I have no independent recollection of the occasion. I just learned to walk and was navigating with gusto the living room full of adults. You have to understand that we at the time lived in a two-bedroom apartment with a total square footage of roughly 325. In that space, there lived my parents, my grandparents, my last then-surviving great-grandmother, my aunt, and the little me. 7 people, plus all the furniture! But my birthday warranted invitations for a number of family friends, so there must have been more than that number of people in the limited space.

Not only was I able to walk on that occasion, but I already discovered the joys of running. And when the door-bell rang announcing a new guest, I motored towards the front door. Tripped on something. Hit the pedals of the piano face-first. Blood splattered, my cry must have been heard across town, and the rest of the grand occasion was spent at the office of whatever emergency physician my Grandfather – a well-connected doctor himself – got to fix me up.

It’s possible that I never learned to play piano because of that accident. I must have always subconsciously harbored considerable enmity towards the instrument. I do love when others play it, though.

The second scar is on the ring finger of my left hand, courtesy of another memorable occasion – my aunt’s wedding. According to adult witnesses, I peacefully slept right next to the blaring speakers through most of the proceedings, and was eventually bundled into a car (whether it was to get home or for a change of venues, I have no recollection). The car door closed on my hand, slicing a piece of skin off a finger. I’m sure I again raised the entire town with my cries…

Surprisingly, I managed to go through uncounted birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and such without further mutilating myself in the years since. The non-partying rest of my life was even gentler to me in terms of avoiding leaving physical scars on my person.

Memoirs

Back from КСП

October 12th, 2009

Combining an outdoor outing with an important staple of our newly-congested social calendar, we went this weekend to the semi-annual КСП festival.

КСП, as I once mentioned, is loosely translated into English as Author-performed Song Club. It is a cultural tradition widely spread amongst ex-Soviet intelligentsia: Gathering together around a table – or better yet, a gently-crackling fire, – for the primary purpose of singing under guitar accompaniment.

We went in the past and obviously could not pass up the first opportunity to go upon our return to the States. The event is held in Pennsylvania mountains, on a wooded campground. The weekend was spent on singing, complemented heavily by eating and drinking, with the requisite sleeping in a tent, however little time for that was left after all of the festivities.

There are always a number of organized concerts, featuring both local performers and occasional well-known guest bards from Russia and various diasporas. There are spontaneous performances at whatever sites on the grounds happen to host the most active guests. People often migrate between sites, stopping in to listen to whoever is singing at the moment, picking up a morsel of food or a cup of hot wine, and staying for as long as they desire before moving on to the next site. Some are lazier, preferring to spend the time mainly at their own site, in the company of friends, singing to their heart’s content.

Kids are free to spend the time as they please; younger ones go to the playground, older ones tend to gravitate towards teenage-centric locations. Becky and Kimmy both sang in the kids’ concert, but other than that, they spent time with friends their own age, both old and new.

Friday night was rainy, Saturday night was pretty cold (cold enough that when we finally went to sleep around 4am, we had to keep on several layers of clothing even inside sleeping bags), but we still had fantastic time overall.

I had another opportunity to recognize my grave shortcomings as a guitar-player, compared with all of the virtuosos I saw and heard around the camp. Which did not preclude me from taking a singing lead whenever I had a chance. It’s a good thing I don’t have any meetings in my diary today – my voice is rather hoarse from all the singing and imbibing…

Chronicles

Stat-checking

October 8th, 2009

Checked my Analytics stats for the first time in G-d-knows-how-many-weeks and realized how wholesome and boring the searches that lead people to my website are.

Fully two-thirds of all the searches can be fairly coherently attributed to specific subjects of my posts (over a quarter of all searches are to do with questions related to photo-book software – all due to one single article of my entire output that can be considered a useful public service). One in five searches relates to a destination or place that is mentioned either on the main blog or in Travelog. Another 10% is for seemingly random word combinations that match with something in my posts.

The remaining 5% comprise explicit searches for “burlaki.com”, occasionally misspelled; searches that include names of specific people who commented or otherwise featured on my blog (e.g., “john the scientist”); and searches that consist of rarely-used words that I did happen to use once (“ex-contemporaneous”, anyone?).

I only found a single search query in the last month that sounded weird and seemingly had no direct relation to anything I’ve written: can boxes be tied with string when checking in airlines. Further analysis showed that it points to my travelling in Russia story, to which it matched in a random-word-combination manner.

Nothing of interest, embarrassment or humor at all. Pathetic!

Blogging

Tree-chopping

October 7th, 2009

High winds in New Jersey.

A big branch split off a tree at the edge of our front lawn.

Natasha always had a lumberjack fantasy.

Not what you thought!
 


 

 
By the time I came home, she already talked a neighbor into taking a chainsaw to the thickest parts… The lawn is clean, but we have a pile of chopped wood and branches by the curb. Hopefully, the township will pick it up.

Ah, the joys of homeownership…

P.S. [next day] It suddenly occurred to me that if we dumped a chopped-up fallen tree by the curb in front of a house in England, it would block the entire street. In front of our house in New Jersey, it just looks like a weird little Halloween decoration.

Chronicles, Photography

A little A in Q&A

October 5th, 2009

It’s been almost three weeks since I, in one of the occasional troughs of my blogging “career”, asked my faithful readers for help in generating content in this space. Since then, by force of circumstances, I managed to ignore the resulting questions (although, coincidentally, a large portion of my recent output dealt directly with the house-hunting question posed by Vince and echoed by Cheryl). I might never be able to get another response to a similar questions call if I procrastinate any further.

To be fare, a number of your responses were suggestions rather than direct questions. I will attempt to use a number of them in the days to come, but I cannot do them justice unless I take time to think them through.

In the meantime, I’m sufficiently embarrassed by my long avoidance of a follow-up to answer a few easier questions.

From Tania: Food is always good – what you like, what you don’t, why.

A little over a year ago, I addressed a lot of my culinary affinities and dislikes in this fun meme. To summarize, I am a relatively adventurous omnivore with likes and dislikes often rooted in my childhood memories. I like practically every type of meat. I am reasonably ok with most of seafood. I appreciate many ethnic cuisines. I rarely touch cooked vegetables, but enjoy fresh ones. I don’t have a sweet tooth at all (although, lately I realize that I tend to exaggerate my abhorrence of sweets in public; in addition to my fondness for one specific recipe of cake – mentioned in the comments to the meme – I am not above having a chocolate or a gelato; and very recently, I was reminded that I am quite partial to halvah). I don’t drink hard spirits, but very much enjoy wine or beer, depending on the situation.

In short, I am quite easy to cater for when I come to visit. With apologies to my vegetarian friends…

Also from Tania: Boxers or briefs?

Boxer-briefs, actually. Just the right level of comfort for me.

From Vince: How are you daughters adapting to being back?

In short, Kimmy has been in seventh heaven since we returned, and is happier than ever in the new house and at her current school, while Becky admittedly misses London, her school-friends there and the amount of self-sufficiency that she enjoyed on account of widely-accessible public transportation.

I’m working on following Geo’s excellent suggestion to have them discuss their recent experiences themselves in this space. Stand by for that.

Also from Vince: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Forty-two. For other views, go here.

Burlaki

Brief belated Olympic selection reaction

October 4th, 2009

I realize that a lot more comes into an Olympic host selection than just the appeal of the leaders of each respective country whose cities are in the running. Yet I feel strangely disturbed that Obama’s appeal to the IOC turned out to be a non-factor in Friday’s vote for the right to host 2016 Olympics.

More than two years ago, before Obama phenomenon was in full swing, I made a semi-joking assessment (near the end of this post) that whoever would be a US President today, he/she should be able to easily bring home the bacon, on the basis of who the competition were. As it turns out, whatever goodwill and adulation the outside world has for the President, it did not translate into victory in this particular case. And I felt that his appeal to the rest of the world was an important factor…

Apropos

YouTube’d memories: Toda

October 2nd, 2009

When my Uncle was emigrating a couple of years ahead of us, he left me a handful of cassette tapes for my new shiny tape recorder (which he himself had bought for me in New York on his voyage there several months prior). Among those tapes was an album of pop songs in Hebrew by someone named Benji1.

I became quite enchanted with the 35-minute tape and the 10 songs on it, regularly featuring it in my playing rotation. My exposure to Hebrew was practically nil at the time (it is very close to non-existent even today) and I had no idea what the lyrics were about. But something about the melodies and the sound kept drawing me in.

Toda was my favorite. The title means simply “Thank you”. With time I learned the lyrics to recognize that the repeating first lines of each verse (Toda al kol ma shebarata, Toda al ma sheli natata) have clear undertones of worship, but the rest of the song poetically recounts blue skies, friends, flowing songs, child’s laughter and other heart-warming things to be thankful for in life. In 1989, I knew nothing of the lyrics. Which did not preclude me from memorising the vocals and singing it out occasionally. Years later, I was pleasantly surprised how close my “interpretation” came to the real Hebrew text…

The video of the song that I found on YouTube is by a more-easily-searchable Haim Moshe.
 

 
1 I always assumed that he was an Israeli pop star, but I cannot locate an Israeli singer named Benji on the web. Benjamin Disraeli comes up instead…

Music

Shopping in recession

October 1st, 2009
Comments Off

Natasha was shopping for new beds and mattresses before we could move into the new house.

She walked into a local franchise of Sleepy’s.

The shop was empty save for a lone salesperson. He eagerly approached his prospective customer and offered his help. What followed was an in-depth investigation of the entire stock. Natasha first laid down on a special adjustable bed, was told to relax as if she was falling asleep, and then to grade her comfort at different levels of mattress hardness. That was repeated in different “sleeping” positions – back, side, stomach… (here is the link on Sleepy’s website). Afterwards, Natasha plopped down on every available sample of the level of plushness that she liked the most. The sales guy and her discussed the fine points of density, core and tufting.

All that took a good hour and a half. In the end, Natasha bought a couple of nice mattresses for the family. The total bill was considerably lower than her expectations going in – there was enough of “promotional” room for the salesperson to make the deal attractive.

During that time, not a single other customer walked through the doors of the shop. Not one.

Later that same week, we together went to a couple of nearby furniture outlets to check out potential acquisitions. Again, the galleries were empty. The rare salespeople were fawning. We did not buy anything, being not exactly sure what we wanted and having not seen anything that immediately struck our fancy, but the overall experience was rather weird.

Furniture and mattresses are not everyday type of purchases, and people clearly cut back on buying that in the current economic climate. Surprisingly – or inexplicably – this was my first first-hand experience of how the recession affected commerce. Commuter buses fill up, restaurants have plenty of customers, everywhere I’ve been going in the last year or so, it was not readily noticeable that the crowds may have been thinner. Visiting a couple of empty higher-end shops was a bit of a jolt in that respect.

I suppose IKEA is doing an even livelier business than in years past, though…

Customerography