Archive for December, 2009

Happy New Year!

December 31st, 2009

To all my friends, near and far, real space or online, and to any accidental reader as well, have a very happy new year! By different measures, the upcoming 2010 will be the most boring and the most exciting year for us in a decade. I wish that your year leans more towards excitement. Let it be full of joy, laughter and love, with a fair sprinkling of pure luck on top.

Happy New Year!


2009 movie round-up

December 30th, 2009

With my very limited movie-watching programme of the second half of the year, I was surprised to learn that I managed to see more films for the first time this year than I did last year (50 vs 47). Below the fold is my by now traditional year-end round-up.
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YouTube’d memories: Hafanana

December 28th, 2009
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Sometimes, the most insignificant of memories lodge themselves in one’s brain…

I must have been four or five when I overheard my Mom and her girlfriends discussing comparative qualities of foreign singers who appeared on the Soviet state TV. I cannot recall anything from that conversation except the consensus that nobody moved onstage quite like Afric Simone did. Which was true on a number of levels, if you consider that a flamboyant display on Soviet TV in that day and age could only come from a representative of an “exotic” country.

That bit somehow stayed with me forever, and the song for which Simone was famous in the USSR – Hafanana – is one of my oldest childhood musical “foreign” recollections.

Natasha, at some point in middle school, actually learned the words to it as part of some “peoples’ friendship” project…


Zero loss

December 27th, 2009
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A few days ago, Natasha found a couple of small items that we thought were lost during the relocation move, stuffed into a decorative box that we did not think had anything inside. A souvenir small Russian wooden bowl, one of the hedgehogs from Becky’s collection, that type of stuff. We sort of gave up on finding them already, and they weren’t either expensive or otherwise too important to us to claim damages from the relocation company, and as it turns out, they were in the house all the time anyway.

With that, we are happy to conclude that we cannot think of anything that was broken, damaged or altogether lost during our relocation from the UK. I think most of the corporate relocations end up with fairly minimal losses, but our return experience must have been accompanied by exceptional luck.

Too bad I did not think of channeling that luck into winning a lottery or something.


Child of TV meme

December 24th, 2009

With a tip of the hat to Jason and Konstantin, below the cut is my own confession on having seen too much TV.
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Burlaki trivia

Movie review: Avatar

December 23rd, 2009

I freely admit that I’m not a cinema-going type. My misanthropic tendencies are acutely tested in the presence of inconsiderable louts with their cell phones, eating habits and inability to refrain from talking to one another during the showing. As a result, I rarely go to the movies, unless it is for some kid-oriented viewing with my children, or a personal can’t-wait-must-see-now target such as a new 007 movie.

Occasionally, though, a new release rises to a level of an event, and I make specific effort to go see it.

In my eyes, Avatar was clearly such an event. Everything I saw and heard in the weeks before it came out, suggested that this movie will open a whole new chapter in the history of cinema.

I was not disappointed.

Below the cut I try to explain what I liked about this movie and why it deserves in my book. If you are not afraid of a vague spoiler or two and interested in my musings, feel free to read on. Otherwise, just go and see the movie. In 3D, preferably.
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Conditions did not permit

December 21st, 2009

The speed limit signs on Garden State Parkway advise the drivers every half a mile or so that the limit is 55mph with a disclaimer of “conditions permitting”.

The heavy Saturday snow did enough to reduce the number of cars on the road, but the Parkway was well cleared, and absent traffic, not one car was driving below 70.

Apparently, conditions did not permit staying under 55.


Winter Wonderland

December 20th, 2009

How I hate snow! How I miss London weather! (Although they say that it’s been quite heavily snowing in London as well these past several days.)

Above is the view from our porch this morning.

Two feet of snow – admittedly, not as much as what people in Alaska or elsewhere have to deal with, but still way too much for my liking.

My driveway is about 20 yards long and 8 yards wide. That’s roughly 1500 square feet. Or 3000 cubic feet of snow that I had to shovel this morning.

Yes, shovel. Because the surface of my driveway looks too delicately fancy and the friendly neighbor advised me against borrowing his snowblower. At least, he himself cleared a quadrant of the street in front of the house, so when the snowplow comes – if it comes – it will not pile up too much again.

Two and a half hours of healthy exercise… Brilliant sunny day… Kimmy in snowy heaven playing outside with neighbor kids…

I hate snow.


Speed limits

December 18th, 2009

How the perspective changes with just a bit of time…

Precisely two years ago, while describing my preparations for the driving test for a UK license, I noted my annoyance with the speed limits treatment in England. The absence of clearly posted limits on any road where the “national speed limit” was in effect required constant mental calculations of what the appropriate speed might be. Single-lane country road? 60. Built-up area with lamp-posts? 30. And so on.

And seemingly as soon as you’d figure out the right speed, you’d come up to a sign demanding that you’d progress much slower on this particular stretch of the road…

After a few months re-acquainting myself with driving in New Jersey, I suddenly recall the “national speed limit” approach with some fondness.

That is because it feels as if the speed limits around where I live are the outcome of some random game of chance. No rhyme, reason, consistency, or common sense about them.

My parents live a few miles away from us, across a fairly densely populated suburban area. There is a school along the way, a Main Street of one of the villages, several mini-malls, a small business center or two. But most of the route is fronted by private housing, set well back from the road, with pockets of green spaces here or there. The road “type” changes in only three places: By the school, through that one village “center”, and it narrows to one lane from two at some point. Yet, by my estimation, the speed limit changes roughly every half of the mile. 35, 45, 40, 25 (school), 40, 45, 35, 30 (town), etc. A slight uphill? Speed limit goes down. An ever so gently wide curve? Down. A few hundred yards of woods? Ok, we’ll add 5 extra miles to the limit, but you can see the next after sign with the lower number even before you registered the presence of this one.

How there are not more accidents among the already less than stellar New Jersey drivers with the constant need to switch gears is a miracle.

I suppose I’m jaded enough to suspect that all these varying limits are artificially created by local councils to fill up the municipal purses in times of need via speeding fines. I just can’t imagine a sensible person finding any sort of justification for changing the speed limit 5 miles up and down that often.

England seemingly does it better, from my current perspective. I no longer have a feeling that I saw so many arbitrary speed limit changes everywhere.

And no, I did not get ticketed recently. This is simply an idle observation that percolated on my “future topics” list for a while.

Re-pat's culture shock

B[b]otH interview: Kimmy

December 17th, 2009 finally got around to interviewing the youngest member of the family on her impressions and feelings regarding Europe and coming back to America.

In the practically unedited words of a 9-year-old…

Burlaki [back] on the Hudson: Are you happy to be back in America?

Kimmy: Kind of… I miss London, but I’m also happy to be back in America.

B[b]otH: What do you miss about London?

K: I miss my friends. I miss the parks that we went to. And I miss my school…

B[b]otH: You miss the school? I didn’t think you liked your school in London…

K: I mean… I miss one of my teachers. Miss Coton. She was my teacher in year 3.

B[b]otH: But last year you had a different teacher, right?

K: Yeah, Miss Sheehan. She yelled at me all the time. I didn’t really hate her, but she was mean to me…

B[b]otH: Ok, forget her. Which friends to you miss?

K: I miss Grace, I miss Gabriella, and I miss Marina… And I also miss Leona, but she was sometimes mean to me too…

B[b]otH: So, you don’t have good friends here in America?

K: I have, like, 30 friends now! And I am a little happier here because I have a lot of friends, I’m quite popular and everybody thinks I’m pretty cool.

B[b]otH: In England, nobody thought you were pretty cool?

K: I was a bit happy there, but a lot of people were really mean to me.

B[b]otH: But you still miss it?

K: Mm, kind of…

B[b]otH: You mentioned you liked the parks – which parks?

K: Mostly, Greenwich Park, and the park down the street with a big field and a playground… and the teeny little park where you go down to the pond… [Ed.: Kimmy means The Tarn, featured here]

B[b]otH: Did you like traveling to all of the different countries?

K: That was my favorite part! I loved that!!

B[b]otH: Which countries do you remember?

K: I remember Spain, France, Italy… I remember Germany… I remember Switzerland… I remember Belgium… I remember we went to a lot of cities…

B[b]otH: Where is Budapest?

K: Is that in… Cracow?

B[b]otH: No, Cracow is another city that we went to. Budapest is in Hungary.

K: Oh, yeah… Hungary!

B[b]otH: Ok, now that you’re back in America, what do you like the most about America?

K: My best friends live here… Tessa, Sammy… I made new best friends… And we have this beautiful, wonderful house, and I think this is the best house that anyone could ever have.

B[b]otH: How about the house we lived at in England?

K: Yeah, it was ok, but it was kind of tiny…

B[b]otH: Is there something you did not like about England?

K: Miss Sheehan… And I did not like the kitchen in England. It was so small… And I did not really like the bathrooms…

B[b]otH: I’m not asking about the house. I’m talking overall, in England, living there, was there something else besides miss Sheehan that you did not like?

K: People weren’t being nice to me…

B[b]otH: Which people?

K: One time, Leona, because a glue-stick broke and I wouldn’t let her use it, she was mean to me all day long… She made me cry all day. And she got me in trouble with the teachers… Usually you get called by name for lunch, and she told me my name was called, and it did not, and I got yelled at because of that… Miss Sheehan yelled at me really loudly, so all the school could hear…

B[b]otH: This type of thing does not happen in America?

K: Not really…

B[b]otH: That’s all you did not like in England?

K: Yeah, my friends were occasionally mean to me, I did not like that.

B[b]otH: But you still miss them, you said?

K: Grace was my best friend and she was never mean to me. And, sometimes, I don’t make sense! [laughs]

B[b]otH: Got it! Ok… If you had a chance to go and live in Europe again, would you go?

K: That is a very complicated question, ’cause I kinda wanna stay here and I kinda wanna go there… I wanna visit but I don’t want to live there… I want to visit my friends and stuff, but I don’t want to live there again… [pause]… unless we get a really big house!

B[b]otH: Unless we get a really big house? [laughs]

K: No, actually, no. I love my best friends here, I don’t want to leave.

B[b]otH: So, you have better friends here in America?

K: Yes!

B[b]otH: Ok, is school harder or easier in England?

K: Harder.

B[b]otH: Why? You didn’t even have homework during the week in England…

K: Oh, American homework is so easy, I can do it in, like, fifteen minutes… In math, we did really complicated things in England… and sometimes, we did not even go over it before getting it for homework [Ed.: weekends only], so we had to figure it out by ourselves… there was this big 4-sheet thing that I usually got on weekends, with so many problems and things to do… and I like it here more, because we don’t get any homework on the weekend… because weekend is to relax, not to work…

B[b]otH: [long laugh] Brilliant! So… What is your favorite place in Europe?

K: I really like… Spain, France and Italy.

B[b]otH: All three of them?

K: Yes… Well, Italy is my favorite… because it’s got all of my favorite food…

B[b]otH: Which is?

K: Pasta, pizza and bruschetta! Of course!

B[b]otH: Excellent!

K: And also chocolate lava cake!

B[b]otH: Chocolate lava cake – is that also Italian?

K: Yep!

B[b]otH: Very good, then. Thank you very much for your time, young lady.

K: No problemo!

European living, Re-pat's culture shock

Becky’s photo-animation video

December 15th, 2009

My eldest daughter reminded me that I promised to put her latest artistic achievement up on my blog. That promise is about two months overdue now, but I’m sure she’ll forgive me. Here is the school project by Becky and her friend.


Becky and Kimmy skating in a local holiday show

December 12th, 2009

Becky and Kimmy returned to the Old Bridge skating rink soon after we came back to the area. The rink traditionally stages a holiday skating show for all of the student skaters and their coaches. Our girls signed up for a number together, which I am happy to present to my audience.

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Family Album

Twelve-sentence tradition

December 10th, 2009

The third annual largely-meaningless exercise of combining the first sentences posted herein each month of the year.

As on previous occasions, not much coherency achieved. A couple of usual traveling undertones, clear relocation markers, a couple of obvious holiday notes… Interestingly, most of these sentences clearly suggested the topic of the posts that they introduced. Does that point to a new level of mastery of writing that I attained or, conversely, suggests that I became too simplistic in my skills, I wonder.

January: After greeting Christmas just a week ago with the song that I most associated with Christmas in my youth, I figured that I need to do the same for the New Year’s.

February: My lovely wife not only feeds me well, but she is also apparently eager to take over this blog with her culinary creations.

March: On one hand, we like going out, if not every week, then at least a few times a month.

April: Sunny spring weather (for the last couple of days, at least).

May: I have very healthy teeth, but my gums are a different matter.

June: And so our last sightseeing trip of the London era is now in the past.

July: Busy at work, plus various relocation-related errands, phone calls and what-not.

August: My regular readers will have to forgive me for being mostly incommunicado these past days.

September: You did not think I’d stay put for long after repatriating, did you?

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

November: Finally, a Halloween to my kids’ liking.

December: Some two years ago, I wrote a cost comparison entry for basic UK-vs-US costs.


Holiday season in New York City

December 9th, 2009

I am starting to dislike Manhattan just a bit again. The main reason is this:

Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Plaza, New York

The damn thing stands practically in front of the building where I work, and is surrounded by so many gawkers that it makes it a challenge to get through, especially at the end of day. And overall, during the winter holidays, New York City is too overrun by tourists for my taste. Hooray for being able to occasionally telecommute!

On the plus side, we could see the whole tree lighting show from our office windows last week. It made for a nice little office party, attended by several families. Brian has a photo report on what we saw.

NYC Album

A Russian musical treasure exhibit

December 8th, 2009

My tastes as far as Russian music is concerned more or less calcified at the point of my emigration. Whatever I liked then, I like now. New acts that sprouted in the last two decades – not so much.

There is a show on Russian TV that purports to select the best of all of the songs written throughout the history of the USSR and Russia. The show is called “National Treasure” (in a nice twist, the first two letters of each of the two words comprising its name in Russian – Достояние Республики – are actually the first two notes in an octave), and each of its episodes examines the musical heritage of a given decade. Two sets of judges – “younger” generation and “older” generation; the demarcation seems to be around the age of 32-33, so I would definitely belong to the latter – vote on each of the presented songs. Three songs with the most votes from each decade progress on to the future program finale.

The judges are all celebrities of one kind or another and they are also asked to openly opine on every number prior to voting. A couple of people produce thoughtful – or hilarious – remarks, but most of the conversation is given to ardent butt-kissing, especially when the performer has a high enough pedigree to only be dealt with as if he or she were royalty. There are some harsh, and even rude, put-downs on rare occasions for some lesser lights, but it is mostly “Fantastic! Super! Amazing! Genius! You are my favorite singer!” and all that. Entertaining enough, I suppose.

The songs themselves is what matters to me. I know enough of Soviet musical heritage from before I was born and practically everything that’s ever been on radio or TV in the 70’s and 80’s to find every tune familiar and to be genuinely pleased when a song I count among my favorites gets high marks from the judging panels.

And then we come to the installment dealing with the songs from the 90’s.

To say that I do not know any of those songs is incorrect – most of them were or still are on the playlists in Russian restaurants in Brooklyn. To say that any of the songs can have a pretense of being considered for anything more than a fleeting note is a gross understatement – but then, I realize that you can’t just skip a decade altogether in this format. Several of the songs were legitimate hits in their time and possibly left a bigger imprint in the history of Russian music than I can imagine from my remote perch. But were I on that panel, I might just leave my ballot blank.

And then, there was this gem, which I’ve never heard before. (This is the original 90’s video.)

My American readers hopefully will not make a mistake to think that this song is sung in Russian. Or, in any language, for that matter. The words – of which there aren’t many – are pure gibberish.

During the performance of this number, I said to Natasha: “I can’t imagine that anyone from the ‘older’ generation would vote for it”. The tune may be catchy enough, and the number itself may have a sort of “pioneering” impact in the ex-Soviet society, but could this be something that people identify with or have fond memories associated with or simply enjoy singing themselves1?

And what do you know!? Both panels, the older one and the younger one, heaped unqualified praise on the group and its frontman, with one jury member, a respected poet in his 70’s, recalling that he once labelled the guy “the new Tchaikovsky” and this song was the proof.


The song got enough votes to become a finalist. Indeed, a Russian musical **national** treasure.

1 Ok, I suppose I can imagine myself repeatedly croaking “Ramamba Haru Mamburu” in a deranged shower moment, but I wouldn’t be proud of my choice. I’m sure.

Music, Russia


December 5th, 2009

I’m walking towards my bus stop one morning, maybe four minutes into my fifteen-minute walk. It’s a crisp clear morning, so I don’t particularly mind the walk.

A car pulls up next to me, the driver rolls down his window and asks: “Are you going to the bus stop? Can I give you a lift?”

Just like that, I am chauffeured to the bus by a heretofore unfamiliar neighbor (whose house is far enough from ours so we shouldn’t be bumping into each other too often).

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that when I am in a car on my own, it never occurs to me to offer a ride in my car to strangers. These Americans sometimes surprise me to no end.


Pictures from DC

December 4th, 2009
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A small album of pictures taken during our recent Virginia/DC trip can be found via the links on the sidebar or directly here.

Website Bulletins

Unusual roads

December 4th, 2009

A fascinating – if, as usual with these types of compilations, arguably incomplete – list of the world’s most unique roads. Sadly, I’ve only driven one of these myself. Which makes it several more destinations that I’ve never been to and need to eventually visit.

Via Instapundit..

Amazing World

A bit of charity

December 3rd, 2009

Natasha realized the she forgot to mention one other thing she misses from England in her little essay.

It is not an obvious point either: Charity shops.

Where we lived in Southeast London, seemingly every other town had at least one of these, selling everything from second-hand clothes to souvenirs to books and CDs. What’s one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, indeed. We bought various and sundry from such shops; for instance, a good portion of my model house collection or the good-as-new gym pants that Becky has since been beating the crap out of for a couple of years now. Just browsing such a shop very nearly approximates going to a flee market, which is something we always find interesting and worthwhile.

We donated as well. A pair of nice shoes that did not exactly fit and was nonreturnable could probably be sold on eBay, but there is an obvious level of satisfaction of seeing them priced at £20 in the charity shop window one day, gone the next day, and knowing that the proceeds benefited a specific cause. A few other accessories and articles of clothing hopefully also found new owners and contributed to some good things along the way.

There is no doubt that people do sell their old stuff on eBay in the UK. Occurrences of “garage sales”, though, were almost undetectable in our experience in the three years there. People instead donate what they no longer need or use, and not in the form of depositing old clothes into a dumpster-like collection box. Rather, they go to a local charity shop, more likely than not staffed with volunteers who reside within the same community, which helps make the shop an ever more trustworthy channel.

If this concept exists in the States, it is barely noticeable. We know of one charity shop within driving distance from our residence in New Jersey, but Natasha has never been much impressed with their inventory. A friend in North Carolina says that she also knows of a similar shop where she lives. Instead, we see garage sales all over the place; you get the feeling of [nearly] giving your stuff away from those, I suppose, even feeling “charitable” in the process.

Anyhow, this is not a big expat insight in any shape of form, just one of those subtle little differences of living in a different country that we suddenly recall with fondness…

European living

Foodstuff costs compared, UK vs US

December 1st, 2009

Some two years ago, I wrote a cost comparison entry for basic UK-vs-US costs. It was based on generalizations rather than some hard data, but I hope it was useful for someone.

Having now been back in the States for a few months, I am probably due an updated treatise on the subject. And, predictably, I find it hard to work up any sort of enthusiasm for an exercise of this kind. Fortunately, my lovely wife has come to my rescue, at least partially. She made quite a few references in these past months that she finds some foodstuff costs to be higher in the US compared to what we knew in the UK, and she graciously agreed to perform a sort of analysis, which I now present for my audience.

A few important notes. One, the comparison is between suburban New Jersey (Middlesex/Monmouth counties, to be precise) and outer edges of Greater London (Lewisham/Greenwich boroughs); it is more than likely than the prices will be different the closer you get to Central London or if you put New York City into the equation. Two, the exchange rate has been holding relatively steady between $1.6-1.7 per pound sterling; I am going to use 1.7 for the conversion. Three, as noted in comments to that old post, UK local salaries are generally numerically lower than respective US ones, which means that proportional outlay for any given product may actually be higher even when the absolute cost is lower; for the purposes of this highly scientific study, we will imagine ourselves receiving a US-based salary, as if we were on an expat package.
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Costs, Customerography