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Anand managed to get here on Saturday, only a day late. Yay! Unfortunately, his luggage hasn’t arrived yet. It seems to have made progress, though. When he first arrived, they didn’t know where it was. On Sunday, we called and they told us it was in New York. Today we called, and they said it was in Frankfurt. So it’s got to get here by tomorrow, right? I hope so. The man is wearing my pajamas.

We’ve been tiring ourselves out, walking around the city. We’re trying to arrange our visit to Moscow. I thought we had a place to stay, with someone who works at the US embassy, but he seems to have disappeared. Today we went and scoped out train tickets, though, and it looks like purchasing them is not going to be as difficult as I remember it being.

Anand was supposed to arrive this afternoon. The phone rang at 9:00 this morning, and it was Anand’s mom, telling me that he had called her and was stuck at JFK in New York. It was 1:00 a.m. in New Jersey when she called, and I know she gets up at 4:00 every morning to do yoga, so she must have stayed up really late in order to call me in (my) morning, or been woken up in the middle of the night!

Anand himself called a little while later, sounding very sad! His flight out of Washington was late, and he and several others missed their connection to London, and the next available flight isn’t until 6:00 p.m. today (New York time). Then, British Airways only flies to St. Petersburg three times a week, so he’ll have to spend another whole day in London to catch the next flight here on Sunday. Absurd!

I was so looking forward to his arrival today. And although Christmas isn’t that important to me, there’s something melancholic about spending it alone in a foreign country.

I’m trying to have a zen attitude about it. OK, he’ll be here in two more days. Tonight’s the Christmas party at the American Consulate, and I’ve invited a few friends, so I have something to do on Christmas Eve. And, the big snowstorm which made a mess of southern Finland on Wednesday has arrived here in milder form, so it’s lovely and snowy out.

Stupid airlines.

Yesterday Ded Moroz (a.k.a. Santa Claus a.k.a. Aunt Kelly) gave me a very cool new mobile phone. It’s a camera phone! And since I’ve been wanting a digital camera, I was most excited about this capability.

Within minutes of taking it out of the box, I had taken a photo of Aunt Kelly and attempted to send it to my e-mail address. I got an error message that said I needed to set up my Multimedia Messaging System. I looked at the instruction manual, which is in Russian, and didn’t get me very far, because even though I can order food and talk to repairmen in Russian, pages and pages of technical text still cause my eyes to glaze over.

I fooled around with the phone for awhile and then went to Nokia’s web site for help. Turns out you can get your MMS settings via text message on the website. Good! But the only service provider they had listed for Russia was Beeline, which is not my service provider. Bad.

I found the website of my service provider, MTS, and they even had an English version of the site. Good! They have a place where you can enter your telephone number to have the necessary text message sent to your phone. Very good! I entered my number several times, and got an error message each time. Bad.

I found the local MTS customer care phone number. I could understand everything the recorded message said, and then they even had an English option. Good! But it only gave me information that I could find on the internet, and didn’t give me the option of talking to a person. Bad.

I found the listing for all the MTS offices in St. Petersburg, and there were several within walking distance of my house. Good! I went to one office and there was a long line. Bad. I waited in line, and finally it was my turn. Good! But I had waited in the wrong line. There was only one agent who dealt with technical issues. Bad. It seemed there was only one person ahead of me in that line. Good! Her issue, whatever it was, took forever to deal with. Bad. Finally it was my turn. Good! The guy stood up and said, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” Bad. There was a chair in front of his station that I could sit in. Good! Then a woman came up to me and said “There are three people in line ahead of you.” Bad.

I left and went to the other MTS office in my neighborhood. There was no line. Good! I explained what I wanted to the technician. He said “Well, it’s a new technology, it might work, it might not.” Bad. I handed him my phone and he messed around with it for awhile and looked like he was making progress. Good! He handed it back and said again, “It might work, it might not.” I tried to send a photo. It didn’t work. Bad.

I left and went to a cafe and fiddled with my phone some more. I got a message saying my MMS settings had been received. Good! I tried to send the photo again. It didn’t work. Bad.

That was enough of that for one day. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Instead of trying to emigrate to Canada, maybe we US progressives need to support Christian Exodus, a group of conservative fundamentalists “orchestrating the move of thousands of Christians” to South Carolina in order to create a theocratic state. Make it millions rather than thousands, guys, and give us the rest of the country back!

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You can estimate his beauty at:

…when people put “really deep” quotes in their blogs, so if you want to just ignore this post, I won’t be offended. I just thought I ought to update, since I hadn’t in awhile.

It has been an uneventful week. I have now recovered from my cold, but much of the week was spent wrapped in a blanket, reading, and sipping tea. Frankly, I didn’t mind so much, except for the stuffy nose part, which I find to be the most unpleasant of common ailments. I’ll take the stomach flu or strep throat over a head cold any day. (Now fate will give me the stomach flu just to spite me.)

I’ve been reading The Gulag Archipelago. There is a section in which Solzhenitsyn describes the people who worked as interrogators in the Stalinist penal system, and admits that if circumstances had been different, he could have wound up an interrogator instead of a prisoner, and would have justified to himself the tactics used. The following quote made me think of moral absolutism of the likes of George W. “Axis of Evil” Bush, and is somewhat surprising, coming from someone who was so clearly wronged in an “evil” system:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil, and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

This morning was just remarkable. It’s a holiday today — Constitution Day — and so most people have the day off, but we still had Russian lessons. So I left the house at 8:40 as usual, and there was hardly anyone on the street. The sky was just beginning to get light in the east, there wasn’t a single cloud, and the air was clear and frosty.

There was hardly anyone on the Metro either, so there was little pushing and shoving, and I was able to get on the first train that arrived and got a seat.

When I got off the Metro, well, I went to McDonalds. But only for coffee! Much as I hate to admit it, I do have a lot of America ingrained in me, and I find walking to my morning destination with a large cup of coffee in hand to be one of life’s simpler pleasures. Even though St. Petersburg is teeming with coffee shops, the cups are tiny, and carry-out doesn’t tend to be an option. (Terry and I experienced the same problem in France.) And while I resent Starbucks’ global takeover and am glad it hasn’t reached Russia yet, there are times when an evil paper cup full of coffee is most welcome. So it had occurred to me while Aunt Kelly and I were sitting in the food court of the mall on Saturday, that McDonalds might just be the place to obtain the occasional cup, particularly since there’s one right across from my Metro exit.

So I went in, and ordered a latte, and it came in a nice paper cup the size of a Starbucks “tall”, which is actually a small, but who really needs a venti’s worth of coffee anyway? The cashier got out a tray, and I said, no, I’m taking it away, and so she got out a bag, and I said, no, I don’t need a bag either, and she said “But the sugar’s in there,” and put the cup in the bag. Well, I didn’t need the sugar either, I just wanted her to put it in my mittened hand, that lovely cup of coffee, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to explain that in Russian at that moment, so I took the bag and removed my coffee from it outside.

I walked the 10-minute walk from the Metro to school, in the cold crisp morning, coffee in hand, watching the sun rise. Non-morning people like me don’t often get to see a sunrise in the lower latitudes, and it’s been so cloudy most days since I got to St. Petersburg that I haven’t often been able to see one here, either. But this morning was just perfect.

The only unfortunate thing is that I am suffering from my very first Russian head cold and am feeling kind of miserable — otherwise I’d be out walking in the last minutes of sunshine right now.

This story is especially for Hugh, because I know he likes this sort of thing.

I recently learned the Russian word for “flammable”, which is “ogneopasno”, a perfectly logical compound word from “ogon” — fire, and “opasno” — dangerous.

The building where I have my Russian lessons is right on the Neva river, and so I get to see lots of commercial ships. Recently there has been a ship docked there that has “ogneopasno” written on the side in big letters. Only, the word is divided in a weird way across four sections of the ship: OG NE OPA SNO. The first time I saw this, I puzzled over it, and then read it as “Og ne opasno.” I thought to myself, “What the hell is ‘Og’, and why is this ship telling us that it’s not dangerous?”

My friend Sergey told me last week that there was a new shopping complex in St. Petersburg “that looks like the malls in American movies!” So today Aunt Kelly and I went, and to my surprise, he was right. It really did look just like an American mall, right down to the shiny new SUV being raffled off in the middle of it. Ignore the fact that the signs are in Cyrillic, and we could have been in Michigan or Minnesota or Maryland. Admittedly, there were a few differences: while the bowling alley and supermarket resembled their American counterparts, they aren’t usually part of a mall in the US.

And then of course there were the fur shops, which we explored thoroughly, trying on hats. Aunt Kelly said “If we were in the US, you’d freak out at the thought of going in a fur shop in a mall.” I said, “If we were in the US, I’d freak out at the thought of going to the mall, period, but somehow here I find its familiarity soothing.” I had a soothing sub from Subway, in a food court which also contained a McDonalds and a KFC. Mmm Subway… though the “Ovoshami” didn’t taste much like my usual Veggie Delight. Could be because of the substitution of cabbage for lettuce.

It’s good to know that in those times when being a foreigner gets tiresome (and it does, from time to time), there’s a place to go to feel sort of normal… and, ultimately, remind myself why it’s more interesting to be here than in suburban America.

The party was a success. The friendliness of Russians in social situations restored my faith in humanity, which has taken a bit of a beating from riding the metro every morning during rush hour. (There’s no need to PUSH like that, people!)

In fact, I had more fun at that party than any I’ve thrown in a long time, and I’ve thrown a lot of parties in the past year. Based on a non-scientific sample of one party, here are some things to note about entertaining in St. Petersburg:

1. Folks arrive early and leave early. The fact that the metro closes at midnight may have something to do with it.

2. Russians bring lots of sweets, so no need to have too many on hand. Fortunately, we didn’t. We received two whole cakes, several boxes of chocolates, and a wafer cake. (Wafer cakes are like those chocolate-covered sugar wafers you can get in little packages in North America, but here you can get a whole 6’x12″ tray of it. Damn I like that stuff.)

3. Russians bring lots of flowers. Good thing Aunt Kelly has lots of vases.

4. Russians bring lots of fruit, and they eat it too! Also, they polished off the crudites completely. Imagine eating healthfully at a party! To my surprise, the olives were not so popular, but that may have been due to their placement.

5. Wine was the beverage of choice, though we did break out the vodka toward the end of the night (apparently the choice of Ghelka brand, suggested by Miron, was a good one, according to Sergey). Beer was not so popular, so I took it upon myself to drink it. My enthusiastic endorsement of Baltica 6, the only Russian dark beer I’ve found, did result in a few people trying and enjoying it. Nonetheless, we have leftover beer to last us a long time. (Anand, it will be beer paradise when you get here, and you can drink it on the street and in the Metro, if you really want to, that is.) For non-alcoholic beverages, juice is preferred over soft drinks.

6. According to my friend Andrei, the sort of party where people stand around and mingle rather than sit down at a long table is unusual. But he liked it. “You don’t have to talk to people if you don’t want to!”

7. Language barriers are easier to surmount when drunk (but then, I knew this well before the party). Several people complimented my Russian, which I have felt kind of embarrassed about lately. I have a “diryavaya pamyat” (holey memory), which means I find it terribly difficult to memorize new vocabulary, and have forgotten a lot since summer 2002.

Oh, and the Chinese girls did come. They were very sweet. They brought candy and a 2-disc set of Chinese folk songs (with fabulous titles like “Red Bean Red” and “Liu County Girls Love Combing Their Hair”).

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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December 2004