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Archive for November, 2009

Back from Virginia/DC

November 30th, 2009

For our first family trip since coming back to the US, we decided on a pilgrimage to Our Nation’s Capital.

Ok, not exactly. In truth, our old college friends have long settled down in Fairfax County, Virginia, and we’ve made several visits to stay with them over the years. The driving distance from us to DC area is about 20 miles less than that between London and Paris, if anyone needs a proof that it is a fairly simple and obvious weekend trip for us.

Our friends never made it to London in our years there, so we had plenty to catch up on. We tried to do a bit of sightseeing, too, with a visit to the National Mall, a stop at the National Cathedral, and a trip to Potomac’s Great Falls. It occurred to me that every time we come down, we end up with very little sightseeing, since we come primarily to see our friends, and any touristy activities are mostly coincidental. Kimmy especially wanted to explore much more than we could offer this time around, so I guess we need to plan a true “see DC” trip one of these days.

I got warmed up to the prospect of planning a future trip around taking Kimmy to see monuments and museums that I myself have very dated, if at all, familiarity with (we did conclude that most of our DC sightseeing occurred in the space of roughly 24 hours on our very first, Greyhound-enabled trip to Washington in 1993, during which time we managed to see several museums around the National Mall as well as the Capitol, stopped by several monuments including going up to the top of the Washington Monument, and even toured the Pentagon). In the meantime, we had a great reunion and an overall grand time.

More trips needed.
 

 

Photography, Travel

Presenting Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask

November 24th, 2009

One thing that we missed in our years in England was costume parties that our group of friends holds a couple of times a year. Upon our return, we are finally able to participate in that good fun again.

This fall’s party was styled after some Japanese fertility festival (豊年祭, pronounced something like Ho-nan Ma-tsu-ri). If you Google using those three characters, you will undoubtedly come across pictures of the phallic centerpiece of the proceedings in the land of the Rising Sun. Despite such undertones, the costumes at our party were primarily after common Japanese themes: several geishas, a few samurai, a ninja or two, a couple of sumo wrestlers… A few costumes were truly inventive and spectacular, such as an overgrown Bonsai tree or an Origami (made entirely of paper, by the way).

Our personal approach to party costumes is low-cost/effort first. Yet, as anyone would, we prefer to exhibit some originality. Right from the beginning, I had a brilliant idea of dressing up as some anime characters – none of my friends have more than a passing idea of what anime is, so we were guaranteed to stand out from the crowd. The problem is, I myself have a little more than passing idea about it. However, I do have a teenage child who is quite familiar with whatever anime offerings there exist on American TV. So, we enlisted Becky as an advisor and she suggested that we go as Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask from the Sailor Moon franchise.

Natasha scoured our wardrobes for appropriate attributes, borrowed some stuff from friends, hand-made a couple of accessories, etc. We simplified some elements, but ended up with sufficient resemblance.
 

  

 
We were unique. Of course, no one at the party had the slightest idea of who we were, but that mattered little…

Chronicles, Photography

Musical hits 40’s-90’s

November 23rd, 2009
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I thought this was a really nice compilation of musical hits from 1940’s to 1990’s, so I figured I’d post a link here. It’s a Russian LiveJournal blog post, but the list is heavier on Western music rather than Russian. Those of my readers who are interested in rare insights into the Russian soul that I happen to stumble into, may view this as an exploration of which past Western acts are considered classics by the modern Russian society. I’d be interested in any reactions.

Don’t worry about the text on the main blog page. Just click any year near the top – the listing will be in proper Latin alphabet for non-Russian compositions. Each item is linked to a YouTube clip, by the way.

Via Exler.

Music

YouTube’d memories: Hands Up

November 20th, 2009

The other day, my teenager and I got into one of nowadays frequent verbal exchanges that end with her effectively telling me to mind my own business, since she is grown up and all that and is capable of going through life without her old man trying to teach her at every opportunity…

With a heavy dose of sentimentality – not at all common for yours truly, believe me, – I thought back to the time when she was a little girl, wholly dependent on her parents and not giving them a single reason for worry. Those happy days have been well commemorated in the movie that I made for Becky’s 10th birthday.

Among the scenes in that movie is one where a 4-year-old Becky tentatively dances to Ottawan’s “Hands Up” in our erstwhile Brooklyn apartment. Despite the fact that this song holds a firm place in the “pantheon” of Western musical acts of my youth, it is now mostly associated in my mind with my daughter’s dancing.

By the way, the popularity of this song in the former USSR is well illustrated by the fact that the best YouTube clip of it is that from a concert in Kremlin, some 20+ years after the song first came out.
 

 
That actually reminds me: I need to start working on Kimmy’s 10th-birthday movie. She’s been asking about it for at least 5 years now.

Music

18 again

November 18th, 2009

My oldest friends still recall that November day years ago when I came to classes dressed in a tie and a suit. I don’t know about you but at the college I attended dressing like that marked you out among the crowd of fellow students.

I explained that it happened to be my wife’s birthday and that was my way of celebrating. After all, my wife was separated from me by many miles and vast amounts of ocean water and land at the time.

I got plenty of weird looks on that day but also many respectful ones.

I’ve worked in the corporate world for my entire life and we long ago did away with suits and ties. My lovely wife joined me in the States soon after and I never felt the need again to do something as silly for her birthday.

Which does not preclude me from celebrating every occasion when she turns 18 again.

Happy Birthday Natasha! I love you!

Celebrations

Self-improvement

November 17th, 2009

From the “useless trivia about me” department: I always typed with just three fingers. Middle and index fingers of my right hand and index finger of my left – more than sufficient for yours truly. Thumbs for spacebar and some limited use for the other middle finger, otherwise.

I am reasonably fast at that, too. The downside is, obviously, not looking at the screen while typing, so if, for instance, I happened to have a russificator on at an inopportune moment, I might type a whole line of gibberish before noticing that I needed to switch. Interestingly, I’ve never been making too many typos, so well I mastered the three-finger technique.

But, in a fit of restlessness, I decided to challenge myself and to finally learn how to type blind. I am happy to announce that this little post has been typed up entirely blind. Which only took me roughly five times as long as it normally would.

Don’t expect much in the coming days, in other words.

Chronicles

You can’t have it all

November 16th, 2009

Today’s post was penned by my lovely wife. Hers in the next entry in a small feature of everyone in the family discussing their feelings on having lived in England and returning to the States. The previous post in the series can be found here.
——————-

Travel was number one on our list of the reasons to move to Europe. Growing up in a big but closed country, I could never imagine that one day I would be able to stroll along the Seine or ski in Alps or swim on the coast of the Mediterranean. I was living my dream for the last three years.

Almost.

You see, I’m a social butterfly: I need to be around people who know and love me, who understand my desire to sing karaoke or spend an evening with a guitar. I want to simply call one of my friends – or, sometimes, relatives – and get together just because. Remember the theme song from Cheers?

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

That was the main reason for coming back. That and the size of my refrigerator!

I miss my fruit and vegetable markets where you know your vendor and he knows your favorites; plus, almost everything is one pound sterling a bowl. Those specialty markets (German, French, Spanish, Italian) which were only 10-15 minutes away by foot, with everything on sale from herbs to shoes, were sometimes the highlights of the weekend. The Borough Market is an event on its own – you can have breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner by simply moving from stand to stand and tasting cheeses (not me!), sausages, bread, sweets, and even a glass of something sparkly.

I used to swim three times a week at the local pool for a mere price of £2 for a session – or £20 for unlimited swimming for a month! Here in the States, it is hard to find a sport club with a membership less than $50 a month with initial payment and a contract. I cannot wait till summer weather to use my own pool for a bit of exercising.

One of my other hobbies is badminton, which I became quite proficient at during my years in London (even won a tournament). Sadly, the few badminton clubs in New Jersey are about 30-50 minutes away from our house and I feel I will never be able to go there on a regular basis. Oh well, there is always that hula-hoop!

Free or low-cost concerts or exhibitions are widely available in London area; all you had to do was open the local magazine and choose where to go. I’m sure in New York City such things exist as well – and they do offer walks and adventure clubs in nearby parks – but it is not the same, somehow… Simply dropping by the National Gallery to see of the Monet’s masterpieces was kind of cool…

If you ask me whether I would do it again knowing what I do know now, I’d say – definitely! No question about it! Did we come back too soon and could have seen and done more? Probably. But I think now we can appreciate our unbelievable adventure even more, and we look forward to greeting family and friends at our house with a glass of Bordeaux in hand to tell them stories of waking up at 5:30 in the morning to enjoy romantic Paris.

Expat Topic, Re-pat's culture shock

Boom de yada

November 13th, 2009
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It’s been over a year since this song lodged itself into my – and, hopefully, yours – brain. Today, Vince clued me in on the sequel.

Still brilliant!
 

Amazing World

Travel anecdotes: Know your huevos

November 12th, 2009

After penning my first entry in this series, I realized that we suffered through too many comical miscommunication situations in non-English-speaking restaurants, from randomly choosing a toast spray in a Parisian café and ending up with honey (which I can’t stand) to trying in vain to find something – anything! – that we could recognize on a German-language-only menu in Mainz (which did not turn out all that bad in the end) to the fairly recent mishap of Babylonian proportions. I am not sure if I’ll recount all of them eventually, but they may dominate the proceedings in this feature. Furthermore, this next story again features mushrooms, if in a slightly different role.

Natasha does not eat cheese or eggs. She obviously uses the latter in her own cooking, but if the food is not prepared by her personally, a whiff of either will send the dish back to where it came from (or make it my responsibility to consume it – which I often do not particularly mind). There is not a good explanation for her aversion, and I long ago just accepted it as one of those weird facts of life.

The important corollary to this is that our restaurant orders have to be vetted, lest they contain those undesirables. And when the waiter communication is in a language other than English, French or Russian, the vetting responsibility is solely mine.

On our very first day in Madrid – our very first day in Spain, as a matter of fact, – after a couple of hours of early-morning exploration of the Old City under brilliant azure skies, we sat down for brunch at some outdoor café on a leafy plaza. There weren’t too many patrons at that time of day; we picked a table in the shade and sat down.

The menu was in Spanish and contained no more than a dozen items, every one of which was denoted by a name (“Madrileño”, “Quixote”, “Diablo”, etc.) followed by a list of ingredients. Most of the items had the same ingredient listed first, which I confidently identified as mushrooms. Natasha wanted to consult the phrasebook, but it was languishing somewhere in our luggage at the hotel. I confidently assured her that I learned enough Spanish ahead of time and knew what I was talking about. I offered her a combination of mushrooms and something that I thought she would like and she accepted. Me, I did not want to have mushrooms, so I ordered one of only three choices that did not have that same ingredient listed – some sort of crepe con queso.

We also asked for bread rolls, which Natasha immediately went after on account of being hungry.

People at nearby tables were getting their food ahead of us, and I noticed that they all seemed to be getting omelets. I did not think I saw the word tortilla anywhere on the menu, so at first I thought that there must have been a separate omelet menu that we did not see.

Then, our food arrived. Mine was a pancake stuffed with cheese and some other ingredients, just as I divined from the menu (after all, French crêpe is used even in the US, and the Spanish word is spelled almost the same).

Natasha’s was an omelet, with all of the stuff that I figured listed for that particular type, but not a mushroom in sight.

That ingredient that appeared on most of the menu choices? Huevos. Eggs! Which also explained all of the omelets at the neighboring tables. Mushrooms in Spanish is setas.

We ended up with two dishes, each of which had something that Natasha did not eat.

I ate both of them. Natasha declined to take a chance on one of the remaining menu entries (which did not have either huevos or queso among its ingredients) and instead demolished all of the bread and asked for more.

We had no less than four tapas stops later that day, which helped her recover. Still, she has not let me forget that blunder to this day. She is not above saying huevos whenever she thinks I am being over-confident. It does not help that the word sounds way too close to an obscenity in Russian.

Memoirs, Travel

Future travels

November 10th, 2009

When I last tried to solicit questions from my readership, Tamila jokingly suggested that planning a grand Asian trip would occupy my mind for a while. I don’t think we’re ready for any adventure of such kind as yet, but I did put away a simple idea for a post on the heels of that: Enumerate future destinations for our travels.

Just eyeballing the results of this exercise reinforces my long-held belief that for all my pretenses to be a world traveler, I still have much more to see than I have already seen. Actually, zooming out of my nifty world map and controlling for the fact that China is marked as “seen” only on account of Becky and that the vast expanses of Russia, Canada and the US are marked only because the tool colors each country as a whole, that belief becomes self-evident.

Anyhow, in no particular order of preference…

Europe (not counting potential returns to already visited locales):

  • Scandinavia and the Baltics
  • Russian capitals and the Golden Ring (the former actually visited by Natasha and me, albeit too long ago)
  • Portugal
  • Adriatic countries of former Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro)
  • Greece
  • Turkey
  • Mediterranean islands (Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia)
  • parts of West European countries (France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, etc) that we did not manage to fit into our earlier travels
  • Israel

Asia:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Indochina: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam
  • India
  • [less specifically] Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia

Pacific:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Hawaii
  • Galapagos Islands
  • Easter Island

Africa:

  • Morocco
  • Egypt
  • a safari (Tanzania? South Africa?)

South and Latin America:

  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • Peru
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • various Caribbean islands
  • parts of Mexico beyond Cancun

North America:

  • Alaska
  • Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Arches, and other natural wonders in Western US
  • Pacific Northwest
  • French Canada

I am pretty sure this is not an exhaustive list.

A guy can dream, can’t he?

Travel

Random Illustrations: Cranberry Fair

November 9th, 2009

One of the few fun things about working in NYC’s Rockefeller Center – there are many negative counterweights to it, trust me! – is the various fairs regularly held here. One day they display a fleet of historic fire engines and then torch an old car and demonstrate proper firefighting techniques on that as part of some Fire Safety Awareness deal. The other day it is on to interactive winter sports games to publicize Olympic Team USA. And so on.

To say nothing of a couple-of-times-a-week market during the summer.

One of these recently-held fairs revolved around cranberry. I did not bother to get into details of the occasion, but it lasted a couple of days, with long lines to the couple of points where cranberry-based products were sold – or, maybe, given away. Must have been some publicity event for Ocean Spray.

The centerpiece of the occasion was this large cranberry bog. I ended up taking a picture that did not feature a human in it, so you’ll have to believe me that it’s almost knee-deep. The machine in the corner does point to that.
 

Cranberry bog at Rockefeller Plaza

 

New York City & Environs, Photography

Americans abroad

November 7th, 2009

A person decides to go for a week-long trip to Paris with her teenage daughter. Neither of them have travelled much before, especially to Europe, and they’ve never been to France. Neither of them is much interested in history, art or architecture. They picked Paris as a holiday destination because, well, it is one of the first foreign non-resort destinations that come to mind; plus, a chance acquaintance at the ice rink where the girl regularly skates lived in Europe for a few years and gives Paris very high marks all around.

The woman does not do any pre-trip research. She grills that chance acquaintance on the must-see sights and asks her for various advice, but otherwise departs on her trip with very little idea of what she and her daughter would be doing in Paris.

They end up skipping several major points of interest while in the French capital. Since they are not museum types, they make a cursory visit to the Louvre and pass up all other great art museums. They climb the Eiffel Tower, but skip Ste-Chapelle. They don’t visit Latin Quarter or Monmartre. They do not like walking around much, so they run out of things to do, once they are done with all of the different routes of the hop-on/hop-off tour-bus. Paris bores them. Their best activity ends up a day-long guided tour of Bruges, in Belgium, – regimented schedule, constant English-language narration, no need to improvise in order to keep themselves occupied.

Since they do not speak any French, they tend to have their meals in touristy establishments, where the prices are higher and the portions look fancier but are decidedly smaller. They certainly come away from that not liking the food and bemoaning the cost.

When they are back in America, they tell all of their friends and acquaintances that they don’t understand what’s the big deal about Paris. They could not find anything to do there, they saw almost nothing that impressed them, they had to spend so much money for bad food and cramped lodgings…

Any of my American readers recognize themselves in this portrait?

I sincerely hope not.

You might have guessed from the beginning that the “chance acquaintance” was no one else but my lovely wife. And the person described here is one of the moms that she regularly sees at the rink where Becky and Kimmy have recently resumed their skating. Natasha tried to help the woman before the trip, but the attitude was all wrong; it was as if the woman was expecting to arrive at an all-inclusive resort/amusement park and book additional activities as needed. And her lack of interest in art and culture pretty much doomed the entire endeavor from the very beginning.

No wonder Americans do not travel much beyond “standard” destinations of Disney parks, Florida shores and Caribbean islands. You start off as a narrow-minded highlights-reel-seeker and you make no attempt to experience what a foreign destination have to offer – you probably will lose any cursory interest you may have had after just one attempt…

Present company excluded, of course.

Re-pat's culture shock

Information flow

November 5th, 2009

I’m watching the Yankees on TV last night. Becky, who does not have school in the morning, does whatever it is that she does on her laptop in her bedroom.

The Yanks win the game and clinch the World Series. As delighted as I am, my outward reaction is purposefully muted, on account of Kimmy and Natasha being long asleep by then in their beds.

Yet, 60 seconds later, Becky bounds down the stairs.

“Yankees won?” she asks.

“Yes, it just ended,” I reply, “How’d you know?”

“Facebook,” she shrugs. “Everyone I know just went ‘Yay! Yankees win!'”

Small things like that keep finding me awestruck by how far we progressed in the last decade or so in terms of information access.

Technology

National Debt clock

November 4th, 2009

Every day after work I walk by the National Debt “clock” on 44th Street near 6th Avenue.

Here is a not very good picture from last night (damn the return to standard time! – I can’t get out of the office before it’s dark anymore and my pocketcam is not very good at taking night pictures).
 

 

The upper number is the overall debt figure. Even for mathematically-inclined moi it’s too big of a number to pay any attention to.

The other number is “Your Family Share”. I glance at it every day out of pure curiosity for how it changes.

A few weeks ago, the number was below 100K. I was awaiting the moment it would turn six digits. It grows by just a few dollars every day, so I was sure I wouldn’t miss it by much. Then, one day, suddenly, it jumped all the way to 101,250. Must have been a negative demographic shift or something.

But the day before yesterday – I swear! – the number was 101,331. And then it went down by a few bucks.

Either our debt is getting reduced somehow – or the family growth outstrips the accrual of interest…

Re: Current Events

YouTube’d memories: One Night in Bangkok

November 3rd, 2009

This song is one of “signature” pieces of my DJ days in high school.

As I noted elsewhere, I’ve been an unwilling dancer for my entire life, so it was only natural that I became a “designated DJ” at some point. Everybody else wanted to be on the floor…

I was also the resident komsomol leader, and therefore could be trusted with the tricky issue of which songs to select to play.

Our school discotheques were highly-regulated affairs: Western decadence in the shape of break-dancing and such was strictly disallowed; playlists had to be approved by the school administration. I’m pretty sure that their rule of thumb was: If the particular foreign artist had made appearance on national TV, they received a pass. Otherwise, don’t even ask, there are so many good Soviet songs to choose from…

Now, One Night in Bangkok was written by Andersson/Ulvaeus of ABBA fame, but of course it sounded nothing like ABBA. This alien to socialist art rap, this rhythm that immediately brings to mind that abominable break-dancing clownade! The vice-principal in charge of approving my playlist was positively scandalized upon hearing the song during the dance. Have I, God forbid, lied to her about the authorship?

In pre-internet days, when 95% of our music came via pirated channels on privately-recorded audio tapes, finding a legitimate proof of authorship for any given song was no mean feat. Somebody upstream from me on the tape-dubbing chain must have propagated the knowledge that the song was from the musical Chess, authored by the ABBA creative duo, but it was recorded on the tape as a stand-alone number among other songs by unrelated performers; I don’t think I’ve ever heard one other song from that musical. And anyway, there were few worse ways to torpedo the chances of a song than to admit that it played on the “rotting” Broadway.

Thankfully, I was considered extremely trustworthy by the school authorities. And ABBA did enjoy the highest clearance in the Soviet censorship machine. I had to be my most convincing in inventing the magazine articles where I had read about the song origin, substituting the authors’ experimentation with new popular styles instead of a Broadway play. The vice-principal believed me. The song found a steady place in our rotation – and those who could found ways to perform their break-dancing routines to it despite all prohibitions…

I have not heard this number in over twenty years.
 

 

Music

Baseball

November 2nd, 2009

I am a rare European-born and raised naturalized American who gets baseball. For most of my fellow emigrants, the game is too static, too full of seemingly inconsequential action when only a couple of people seem to get involved (for instance, when the batter takes a ball), and not very athletic on the surface – occasional big-assed first baseman or a pot-bellied pinch-hitter among the major leaguers never fail to elicit an uncomplimentary comment from people of my background.

I can kinda see their point (just as I can kinda see the point about soccer – football – being a boring game where nothing of consequence may happen at all for long periods of times; the key here, of course, is what you count as being of consequence…). And when they ask me what I see in that game, I say that several things appeal to me: it is a rare team game in which your best player can only have as many attempts at scoring as your ninth-best player (and you cannot send him in to bat at the game’s most crucial moment, unless it is actually his turn); the expectation of something exciting happening on the next play – in simplest terms, a home run, – is greater than similar expectations in other team sports; and the stand-alone individual efforts manifested in the direct one-on-one clash of opposing players in the context of the overall team effort makes it easier to identify with the players you root for.

To say nothing of the feeling that if a big-assed, pot-bellied dude can be a major leaguer, then a reasonably-athletic yours truly could be too. Or, rather, could have been – if not for the obvious handicap of not having grown up in America and not having played the game as a child.

Things that are impossible to quantify, in other words.

Unlike football, though, I can’t really get much into watching baseball when the team I root for does not play. But when the Yankees play well into the postseason, watching them becomes a priority.

The few years that we lived in London, the Yanks ended their seasons in disappointment, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs or missing them altogether. We came back – and suddenly the Yankees are the best team in baseball again, and now only one win away from re-gaining the ultimate glory that eluded them for almost a decade. It has been a pretty interesting postseason too, with everything from brilliant pitching performances to overturned umpiring decisions to a once-in-a-lifetime steal of two bases on a single pitch.

And yet, some things in baseball are just plain weird. Joba Chamberlain entered the game in the 8th inning with one-run lead, which he unluckily gave up, exiting with the score tied. When the Yanks scored 3 more runs in the 9th, Joba ended up as the winning pitcher of record, even though he did not pitch anymore and, in effect, was the only pitcher who made things worse for the team. How exactly does that make sense?

Sports

A true Halloween

November 1st, 2009

Finally, a Halloween to my kids’ liking. As I mentioned on a few occasions in the past years (for instance, here), the girls did not get to enjoy much of the Halloween in England. Back in the States, it is all different.

Houses decorated in dozens inventive ways, with whole Christmas-like moving displays and blow-up statues. Parties of kids dressed in all different types of costumes prowling the streets on trick-or-treating quests. I am decidedly indifferent to this type of festivities, but I can clearly see how children might like it.

We did not do much in terms of decorations, beyond a couple of finely carved jack’o’lanterns. We had our fair share of visitors looking for treats, although I suspect our tucked-into-a-corner location reduced the traffic a bit. My girls, of course, had costumes to wear and went on several trick-or-treating expeditions, with different groups of friends.

I suppose this is one of the big reasons they wanted to come back to America.
 

Kimmy as Bag of Sweets, Becky as Velma Kelly

 

Chronicles