Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

A meal unlike any other

December 15th, 2014
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Imagine yourself, if you would, sitting on a terrace overlooking an amazing landscape. We will tentatively pin the place as a hamlet alongside Amalfi Coast, but it might as well be Albaicin in Granada, Amboise in Loire Valley, or any number of other places. The grand view is not a mandatory attribute – if all you can imagine is a cozy dining room that puts you in a romantic mood, you are fine. The sun slowly sinks into the sea or the fireplace gently crackles in the corner – these attributes are welcome but do not define the experience.

You are here to enjoy what will undoubtedly be the highlight of your overseas trip – a traditional local meal. Haute-cuisine establishments or anything that advertizes itself as having a menu turistico need not apply. We are talking a small bed-and-breakfast whose lovely owner offered to treat you to a dinner one night.

Since we decided to call it Italy, the meal is starting with a flute of Prosecco. Sipping the wine and enjoying the atmosphere, you greet the arrival of bruschetta with enthusiasm, as you do not yet suspect what is in store for you. The opening dish is as non-pretentious as it is delicious.

Then comes antipasto. A grand word to encompass slices of cheese and meat plus some olives and vegetables. You can’t make a dish simpler than that, but for a light eater it itself can constitute a whole meal.

Afterwards, pasta arrives. It could be penne or linguini or tagliatelli or more prosaic spaghetti, but it’s the home-made sauce that will taste as nothing you have tasted before. No point in asking for the name of the sauce – alla mia nonna Maria is the likely answer. You can ask for the recipe, of course, and the gracious host will oblige, but you will never be able to replicate the heavenly taste back home. Must be something to do with Italian air.

Looking at that bowl of pasta if front of you, you are starting to regret the eagerness with which you went after every last bite of the appetizers. You are also starting to consider whether there is any polite chance in hell to tell your host that you cannot finish her offering. However you’d think to express it, it smacks of lacking appreciation for the good woman’s efforts – and you are way too considerate to hurt her feelings that way.

You managed to finish the pasta, but of course, this is not the end of the meal. Next come costolette di agnello with polenta on the side. It does not look elaborate but it tastes out of this world. No way you’ll leave even a smidgen of it on the plate, even if it takes you all night!

Clever person that you are, you try to gauge the remainder of the meal by asking your host in your limited Italian, “And then, dessert?” She makes a face of unbearable sorrow and exclaims what sounds like “What?! You are not having the fish?!?!?!” Embarrassed that you insulted her, you hasten to convince her that you, in fact, cannot wait to taste the fish that she made for you.

After an hour or so you finally claim victory over the lamb chops. To your utter relief, the next course is actually the dessert. The smiling woman tells you something about fish but you are too addled by the amounts of food in your digestive tract to clearly discern whether she was making a joke about fish earlier or simply decided to take pity on you and removed the fish from the menu. The dessert is exquisitely-looking struffoli – the only item on the menu that may not have been made in the kitchen next door but instead bought at the local pasticceria.

Next comes espresso. And after that, five different varieties of limoncello to taste to your heart’s delight. Which you do for the next two hours because getting up from your table is certainly not a physical feat possible at present juncture.

Truly a meal that you will remember for years to come.


As you can probably guess, this was not exactly a fantasy but rather a very fond memory. We did have more or less this exact experience of a meal during our stay on Amalfi Coast more than a decade ago. I find it singularly incredible that we only spent two nights at the coast and each night left us with one of our most cherished memories of all of our travels (the previous night’s experience was recounted in this entry that I posted almost 5 years ago).

It is no coincidence that both of these stories revolve around dining. I am a firm believer in experiencing as much local flavor as practical when in a foreign country. Yes, I do plenty of touristy things and check must-see sights off my list. But if I want to find an approximation of being a local, I head to a market – or seek a home-made meal (although, it should be confessed that I frequently seek popular restaurants offering local fare instead; then, the threat of cumulative expense and the relative anonymity of being a “stranger” who can leave food on his plate combine to safeguard me from inadvertent gluttony even when the food on offer is mind-blowing). Experiencing a foreign culture through food is the most accessible and enjoyable approach no matter where you are.

This post was prompted in part by my recent Amalfi coast World Heritage vignette but also in part by folks at Smartling who approached me to write about my dream dinner destination as part of a project they are working on. I moulded the topic into something that better suits the overall tone of my blog but probably veers too far away from their original intent. Since no promises of monetary or other gains were exchanged, I feel that this exercise of creative freedom is permissible.

They also asked me to cover my views on foreign language website translation. Beyond stating the fairly obvious notion that every respectable business with international clientele nowadays cannot operate without an English-language online presence, I do not know what I can offer. I am a competent reader in four European languages but I certainly prefer to do my research in English. When those English-version sites are bad-quality translations, it impedes my ability to achieve what I am looking for and oftentimes directs my custom elsewhere. Which, I suppose, means that Smartling has plenty of scope to apply their core expertise.

Memoirs, Travel Memories

Travel memories: I once bought a painting

March 7th, 2012

We never pass up a chance to walk through a street market. Sampling foodstuffs, stopping to admire craftsmanship, checking out odd or antique objects on display – there is little in the form of free entertainment that beats that experience. Yet, we practically never buy anything, not being much into collecting things that we probably do not need. We take pleasure in browsing without the added gratification of acquiring stuff.

Street art galleries exacerbate that dichotomy. I love paintings – in another life, given more resources, I would have been an art collector. In my existing life, the only paintings that I can afford to buy are sold on the street markets (not counting an occasional neighborhood garage sale), and I always stop to browse. And almost always let my pragmatism win and refrain from buying anything – after all, a painting bought in the street will almost certainly end up as a relatively expensive souvenir rather than an appreciable asset.

One time, on Montmartre’s famed Place du Tertre, I vacillated for nearly half an hour in front of a beautiful painting of just the kind that I love. By the time I finally decided to let my impulsive desires trumpet my pragmatism, the artist had already sold it to someone else.

While in Cracow a few years ago, we came across a colorful open-air art gallery near Florian’s Gate at the edge of the Old Town. Here are a couple of pictures with different degree of focal length.

Art Market, Florian Gate, Cracow


Art Market, Florian Gate, Cracow

A connoisseur undoubtedly will point out that knock-offs, kitsch and no more than average skill predominate on this display (as is the case at any other such gallery). And yet, for an amateur art lover such as myself, there are plenty of works that strike my fancy.

So I did find one painting that I especially liked. I even inquired about the price. 750 zloty, which at that point was equivalent to about $150. Not too expensive – but I dithered. In any case, I did not have enough cash in my pocket, and instead of going in search of the nearest ATM, we continued our leisurely stroll around town.

Eventually, as we decided to spend some time on a bench in the main city square, Natasha and Becky somehow talked me into going back and buying that painting. I must have had a really wistful expression on my face. And I gave in. We stopped by an ATM, got the cash, and went to Florian’s Gate half expecting the painting to be gone from display.

It was still there, but the guy who gave me the original price was nowhere to be seen. I asked another of the sellers who were all lounging in garden chairs near the center of the exposition. He said, six hundred and fifty. I asked, six hundred even? He agreed. An equivalent of $120 exchanged hands, he took the painting down, wrapped it in some paper, and we were on our way again.

When we got back to the hotel that evening, we realized that the painting was too big in size to transport with us on a plane. I figured it would not survive traveling with the checked-in luggage but also had no desire to spend as much money again to ship it to our address in London, especially since it was attached to a simple wooden frame that would have to be replaced anyway. So I ended up taking it off the frame and fashioning it into a tube, wrapped into a lot of clothing, so that it could fit into our biggest suitcase. Felt a bit of a smuggler, to be honest.

The painting arrived in pristine shape. It’s been hanging in the choice spot in our London house and then in our New Jersey house ever since.

It even partially featured in one of the photographs that I posted in the last year or so. If anyone is adventurous enough, you can try to figure out on your own which painting it is based on the photographs in this post and the partial one from the archives herein. For all others, here is a part of that open-air gallery, which I snapped to remember the painting at the moment when it seemed I would not be buying it. Top row, second from right.

I love that painting.

Memoirs, Travel Memories

Travel anecdotes: Getting gas on a Sunday

November 3rd, 2010
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Driving around the country in between sightseeing stops is one of my most favorite traveling pleasures. Pastoral landscapes aside, you can truly experience a foreign country only when you get away from its obvious touristy spots. And getting lost – figuratively speaking, of course, – on some back roads is the surest way to achieve that.

Sometimes, you can even gain a valuable lesson.

Our first trip to France had several segments in it, all linked by car journeys. One of those drives took us from the banks of Loire to the industrial town of Clermont-Ferrand (which was nothing more than a stop-over for the night and dutifully failed to impress us).

In those pre-GPS days we relied on road atlases and printed directions from MapQuest to get from point A to point B. I also over-confidently relied on my sense of geography. On that particular day, it failed me, and I ended up on a wrong motorway going southwest, when I actually needed to be moving southeast. By the time I realized my mistake, we drove at least 100 kilometers in the wrong direction and lost at least two hours if decided to retrace our steps.

(Would you believe it if I told you that I realized my mistake right after having had passed a motorway exit advising me that the next exit would come up in mere 30 kilometers… That type of thing never fails to occur.)

Long story short, we consulted the road atlas, and charted the “shortcut” across the French countryside. We estimated that in less than two hours we would be able to join the motorway that we needed just about an hour away from Clermont-Ferrand. That would take us less time than going back to our starting point and proceeding from there, and we would actually enjoy better scenery than what usually surrounds motorways.

The small flaw in that plan was the seemingly inconsequential fact that it was all happening on a Sunday afternoon. And the car was running short on gasoline.

See, Sunday is almost universally a “dead” day across Europe. Everything is closed. In tourist-heavy areas, shops may stay open, but didn’t you want to get away from tourist centers! I was not sure whether even local eateries were serving meals in the towns that we were passing through. But all businesses were shuttered. Even supermarkets.

Credit-card-enabled gas pumps were a big rarity in Europe then, so in order to fill up you more often than not had to find a warm body attending to the cash register. On motorways, service areas operate gas stations more or less around the clock. In countryside – no such luck. Not on a Sunday, for sure.

I was becoming increasingly concerned about possibility of running out of gas in the middle of French nowhere when we thankfully came across a supermarket gas station with one pump enabled for credit card purchases.

I pull up with a great sense of relief washing over me. Take out a Mastercard and stick it into the card reader. Carte inadmissible, pops up the message on the reader screen. No problem, this happened to me several times already, somehow not every American credit card seamlessly works everywhere in Europe. I have several different credit cards to cover exactly this eventuality. I try a Visa. Carte inadmissible. American Express? Same result. Another Visa? Nope.

I went through every single one of my half-dozen cards, and none of them was accepted by the pump. There wasn’t any receptacle to put bills into either. How the hell were we going to get gas?…

Another car came to the same pump. Since no other pump was credit-card-enabled, the unsuspecting Frenchman had to wait for me to vacate the spot. I tried a couple of cards for the second time – with the same dismal result – and had to pull out to the side. The guy popped in a credit card and – presto! – started fuelling.

While I was mulling over our options, Natasha got out of the car and went to talk to the Frenchman. We are both reasonably proficient with the language, but she normally defers to me when we need to use it in a live situation. This was not one of those times. Using a vast array of words and gestures, she managed to explain to the guy the situation we were in. Moreover, she managed to arrange for him to pay for our gasoline with his credit card with us giving him cash.

The rest is history. The guy filled up, pulled away from the pump, I pulled back in, he used his card, I filled the tank, gave him €10 more than what I pumped, and we went each our own way.

We arrived in Clermont-Ferrand a couple of hours later, with no further adventures. (Our short stay in the city was an adventure in itself, but that is an entirely different story.)

The lesson, you ask? Since that day, I have always been very careful to plan our European Sundays in a way that did not take us too far away from major towns and motorways.

To say nothing of the fact that having a partner who is not shy about asking strangers for help is invaluable in any tight spot.

Memoirs, Travel Memories

Travel anecdotes: On a bus in Monaco

February 3rd, 2010

Monaco famously occupies a very tiny spot on the French Riviera coast, but its topology is such that if you move from one part of it to another on foot, you will be well-exercised from all of the climbs and descents along terraced stairs.

On our visit to the principality, we spent an entire day there with several sightseeing and entertainment targets in mind. Our planning rested on the notion that sights cannot be that far from one another, but after taking into the account time constraints for a couple of sights and the desire to have a dinner at the end of the day in the historic center, we ended up repeatedly shuttling between Monaco Ville, Monte-Carlo and Jardin Exotique area.

At some point towards the end of the day, we decided that we had enough of walking and instead took the bus. This was on the route that we already covered in one direction – a convoluted and lengthy walk over quite a number of slopes and terraces – but we were pretty sure that the bus ride would not take more than a minute or two, with at most a couple of stops.

We got on a completely empty bus and paid the fare to the driver. He gave us back a receipt. We sat down.

Not a hundred meters into the ride, there was the first stop. A man in a suit and a coat got onto the bus, said something to the driver, and stepped towards us.

Les billets, s’il vous plait” he said, flashing some sort of a badge.

I did not expect anyone to start speaking to me in French at that particular moment, so my reaction must have been that of a complete confusion. The man caught up immediately.

“Your teekets, pleeze.”

I mimed utter relief in response and, after a second of difficulty trying to recall which pocket I had put the damned receipt in, produced said receipt.

The man carefully inspected the piece of paper, nodded with satisfaction, gave it back to me, said “Tres bien. Merci!“, and got out of the bus at the next stop. Which, as it happened, was the last stop and our destination.

I had to produce public transport tickets for inspection on quite a number of occasions in my life, but none of such occasions left a similar imprint on my memory. A completely empty bus, only two stops to ride, no more than a couple of minutes of time on the bus, the tickets bought directly from the driver – and still the inspector did not neglect to show his zeal. Those Monegasque must be really serious about law and order in their little country, I thought to myself.

I haven’t been back to check whether they still do, unfortunately.

Memoirs, Travel Memories

Travel anecdotes: Everybody knows Antonio

January 8th, 2010

While this is one of those little travel recollections that we frequently like to recount, it is not an “anecdote” in the sense that I associate with the word. It does not have a punchline or a comical outcome. It is simply something we recall with fondness.

On our visit to the Amalfi Coast, we headquartered ourselves in a relatively minor location, as evidenced by its name, Minori1.

We stayed at a great B&B high above town, with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea that we enjoyed from our private terrace. The food was great, the accommodations perfect – after all, our demands rarely exceed good location plus cleanliness plus running water – and the hospitality of owners unparalleled. Only one person in the family spoke any English, and not very much of that. Our mastery of Italian was very minimal at the time. And yet, we were greeted as if we were long-lost close relatives and the communication barrier quickly evaporated under the torrent of amiability and warmth.

We asked the owner for restaurant recommendations when we arrived. He pointed us to a place in town that served the best seafood on the coast, according to him. He instructed us to mention to the staff that he sent us there.

We followed his instructions. The restaurant occupied a beautiful stucco building on the corner of the seafront promenade. As a member of the staff greeted us, I managed enough of Italian to explain that we would like a table for two and that Signor Antonio, whose guests we currently were, recommended the place.

The waiter’s already friendly smile stretched as far as his face allowed.

“Antonio! Certo! Him and I, we practically shared a potty when we were kids!”2

We were shown to a small table in an alcove with a view to the promenade and the beach beyond. Quite romantic! Possibly, we would be given the same table even if we were not sent here by our host, but I’d like to think that we were treated like VIPs because of him.

I asked for a wine recommendation. Our waiter summoned another, whose sommelier qualifications probably exceeded those of the first guy only in that the latter spoke a little English. He first tried to explain to us that someone in his family was married to Antonio’s sister’s best friend’s cousin or something, and that he and Antonio were close friends since childhood. Then, he proceeded to point out which of the wines on the menu was the most perfect accompaniment to the meal we were about to have. It turned out to be il vino della casa. Maybe, he did not want to waste some more expensive wine on American tourists; knowing that house wine is often the best value for money in non-touristy European eateries, I’d like to think that he was sincerely helping us avoid overpaying for something we might not enjoy as much.

While we were having our meal, we experienced something that almost never happens at a restaurant in most parts of Europe: Our dinner was interrupted a couple of times by the members of restaurant staff3. First, one waiter or another came to our table to check on us and said something along the lines of him needing to make sure that we’d tell Antonio that his friends know how to look after his guests. Then, at some point, the chef came around to our table, introduced himself, inquired how our meal was, and regaled us with a story about Antonio’s father and himself and a most beautiful girl who ended up either Antonio’s mother or chef’s wife, I didn’t quite get it, with the “losing” guy stoically performing best man duties at the wedding4.

When the time came to order dessert, Natasha picked some torta or other, while I was content not to have anything else. The waiter nonetheless brought us a full bottle of limoncello. As I tried to say that we did not order any, he waved my protest away. A gift, he said. To take home with us. On the house, because we were guests of Antonio.

True to his word, the bill did not include any mention of limoncello. We brought that bottle home to the States with us and it lasted us quite a long time, occasional drinkers that we are.

Neither Natasha nor I remember much about the specific dishes that we had at that restaurant (and we did not yet start the practice of detailing our meals in the travel diaries then). But it remains one of the most memorable restaurant experiences on our travels. Because everybody knew Antonio.

After a day or so, we were pretty sure that among residents, everybody knew everybody in Minori.

1 For those unfamiliar with that area, yes, there is a nearby village called Maiori. As far as I am aware, it is bigger. While still being a minor point of interest, compared to the likes of Sorrento, Positano or Amalfi.

2 I allow that what he said was actually something quite different. But I understood much less Italian then than I do now, and this is all an interpretation of what I think was said, based on such clues as gesticulation and body language, plus individual words that I thought I caught.

3 American travellers frequently complain that once your food is delivered, the waiter seemingly loses all interest in the customer in French or Italian eateries. You often have to make an effort to catch her or his attention when you need something or even when you’re ready to pay and leave. Me, I find that quite all right. Once I start eating, I don’t want to be disturbed by questions about my food and unsolicited offers of help. I want to eat and enjoy conversation with my dining partners in peace. When I need further help, I’ll call for it.

4 See 2 above.

Memoirs, Travel Memories

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 Memories

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 Memories

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.


Greasing my way on Russian Airlines

May 15th, 2009

That day which started with my infamous detention for video-taping local police headquarters, continued with various amusements on my subsequent trip home1.

I was already well-conditioned to the pervasive expectation of monetary “incentives” exhibited by everybody in the service sector. Truth be told, with the exchange rate of about 25 rubles to a dollar, I could safely dispense bribes left and right and pretend they were simple gratuities, so little it cost me in absolute terms. Plus, of course, I was more than willing to “smooth” my passage out of the country as much as I could.

I had a huge and heavy suitcase to check in, full of gifts and souvenirs. At the airport, the woman behind the check-in desk eyeballed it as I was approaching her and adopted a constipated facial impression of someone stoically prepared to fight against any blatant disregard for airline regulations.

And then she saw my American passport.
Read more…

Memoirs, Russia

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.

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.)


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.
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Three hours under arrest

March 16th, 2009

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

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

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

The last time I drank vodka

February 13th, 2009

As I mentioned in 25 things meme and probably elsewhere, I defy stereotypes of a Russian being a hard-drinker. I’m very partial to red wine, I order a screwdriver once in a while, I drink beer under right circumstances (such as when watching sporting events or gathering with friends for a barbecue), I enjoy sherry…

But I don’t drink vodka straight up.

Back in my college days, I successfully combined being more or less a non-drinker with an ability to imbibe a lot of alcohol at parties. Most of the time, I did not even suffer from much of a hangover the following mornings, but there were a handful of notable occasions1 where I lost control of the amount – and/or mix – of my alcohol intake and regretted it a lot afterwards.

This is the story of the very last such occasion. It happened almost precisely 13 years ago. The exact day is probably lost in the annals of history, but it is linked with a birthday date of February the 13th – the numerical symmetry makes it fitting to name today as the anniversary.
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Jumping off a boat

February 10th, 2009

Even a person who never seeks thrills, always drives under the speed limit and avoids the smallest possibility of appearing adventurous can probably name a few “close calls”, situations that had the potential of ending up with unpleasant consequences where it concerned his life and limb. Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of near accidents that could cut my life short, from an unexpected somersault over the front of a bicycle on a busy thoroughfare to the fortunate delay in corporate plans to move our offices to one of the World Trade Center towers.

Then, of course, there are people who thrive on putting themselves in danger, be it mountain climbers, para-gliders, bungee-jumpers, or some such. For them, a close call is a badge of honor and your behavior during critical moments – or, in some cases, the simple desire to experience something that is death-defying – defines your worthiness as a man.1

I am decidedly not a thrill-seeker. Not out of any fear, but I tend to avoid potentially dangerous activities. Partly, that is due to knowing that my vestibular apparatus cannot withstand abrupt changes in motion and/or pressure. Partly, it is because the one time I did something ill-advised for thrills, it left a less than positive memory.

The year must have been 1982 or 83. My family was spending several weeks in summer on the coast of the Black Sea, near Tuapse. My Aunt’s family were vacationing with us, and between my brother, my cousin and myself, we had plenty of good time, as children can have on the beach.

Not half a mile from our patch of the beach, there lay an old and rusted oil tanker.

French by origin, it ran aground in 1967 and managed to wedge itself into the shoreline at such angle and force that all subsequent attempts to free it failed. Left alone and neglected, it eventually became a sort of a landmark, always attracting the attention of passengers of numerous long-distance trains running along the shore to and from Sochi.

It was also a prime diving spot.2

I am not sure after all these years why I was hell-bent on attempting a jump off this ship. I was a proficient swimmer as a kid, but I never mastered the technique of coordinating my body into a proper “swallow”3 position for a good dive. But the idea of trying to jump was somehow very tempting.

You cannot see the portion of the deck used as a diving platform off the ship in this picture, but it must have been at least 15 meters high. There were always a dozen or so college-age kids around, jumping or diving with abandon. Some of them, better skilled and dauntless, climbed to an ever higher platform and executed beautiful dives into the brilliant blue waters below. Others, less inclined to try, simply observed the proceedings and dared their friends to go on.

I can picture myself standing on that platform quite vividly. My Dad was confident that I could do it, but he still allowed me to go for it only on a condition that I had to back out if I felt scared. I hardly felt any fear, though. The distance to the water felt immense, but any creeping doubts were overwhelmed by the expectation of a thrill. The older kids around me were clearly having fun. I had to jump.

Funny how I remember before and after well, but hardly remember during. I used to say that during my jump, the sensation of descending had been replaced by the sensation of not being sure which direction I was moving in, but I later came to believe that I simply had imagined that for the sake of making it sound more fun than it truly was.

The truth is, one moment I left the platform, and the next moment I broke the plane of water.

And it hurt!!

Even though I entered the water at what I thought was a reasonable angle, I still banged my feet and my buttocks quite solidly on the surface. It did not knock my breath out, but when I came up, all I could think of was to get a grip of a floating mattress and not move for a while. Any thoughts I might had had before about jumping more than once were gone in that instant.

It took quite some time to shake off the ill effects of that jump.

That stayed with me until this day: The absence of any – let alone exciting – recollection about the actual jump and the painful reward for doing it. It shaped my entire approach to thrill-seeking activities – even when I do not expect to suffer physical punishment in an attempt to do something “exhilarating”, I expect the experience to be fleeting and unmemorable.4

Never mind that I could have killed or crippled myself. As I grew older, I started to regard that jump as one of those close calls…

1 My apologies for inadvertent sexism, but I do not know nearly as many daredevils or thrill-seekers among women as I do among men.

2 The picture dates from 1988, but I have a distinct impression that the ship was sitting much straighter several years before that.

3 I am not sure if this translates from Russian properly, but the head-first dive position was called in Russian like a swallow, while the feet-first jump was called like a toy soldier.

4 Skydiving, I suppose, is a lengthy enough activity to leave an impression, and I have a feeling that I’d probably enjoy that. Considerations of potential violent protests of my organism stayed my hand so far, besides the outspoken objections of my caring spouse.


Singing in Vienna

January 26th, 2009

It’s a story that long begged to be immortalized in writing, and I finally decided to give it a try. I might even start a whole new category with it, aiming to relay some of the more remarkable and/or memorable experiences from our travels.

Imagine Vienna.

Among end-of-day things to do in the Austrian capital, a trip to the northern suburb of Grinzing to sample heurigen fare counts as one of the most delightful. “Heuriger” is the name for the local new-vintage wine, which over generations gave rise to heurigen, typical Vienna taverns where wine and other drinks are served at the table, while the food can be bought at the self-service buffets; at the most popular establishments, there is live music and the unending atmosphere of good times, for a comparatively small monetary outlay. Wine, music and a “local” experience – we do not need hard convincing to try that combination.

Our first attempt provided middling impressions, though. The recommended tavern turned out to be a fairly modern establishment, serving pretty good food but entirely lacking the authentic atmosphere that we sought. We needed to try again.

On our last night in Vienna, having had first taken a spin on the famous Ferris Wheel at the Prater amusement park, we made another trek to Grinzing, to a tavern by the name of Altes Presshaus.

Now, that was a typical heurige, complete with wooden tables and benches, and serving ladies dressed to evoke simpler times of yesteryear. Two musicians, playing an accordion and a bass, provided an appropriate background.
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Memoirs, Travel Memories