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My adventures in Moscow

 

Part III - A more serious entry than usual

 

I had a wonderful trip: met great people, saw wondrous nature, interacted with exotic animals. Not all of my impressions, however, were positive: some realizations shocked me and others horrified me. Here are a few…

 

In Cape Town, I went on a tour of the townships. According to Wikipidia, a township is:

 

In South Africa, the term township refers to the (underdeveloped) urban residential areas that, under Apartheid, were reserved for non-whites (principally black Africans and Coloureds, but also working class Indians). Townships were usually built on the periphery of towns and cities.

 

These townships were the “poor” Africa that most tourists to South Africa (SA) never see. Most of the cities are modern and clean and most city dwellers are white. The black population (and those of mixed race and Indian heritage) still lives in isolated communities, that aren’t visible from the freeway. I made it a point to see ALL aspects of SA and went on a tour of these places. Some shockers…

 

  • Imagine a large empty field next to a nuclear power plant. According to the tour guide, during the school summer break, 18-year-old men build temporary shelters in this field (tents, huts, etc) and spend over a month living alone in order to “become a man”. At some point during this time, the tribal elders visit every young man and circumcise them! No medical training, no anesthetic, no disinfection of instruments! I believe all of my male friends reading this right now, just cringed! To me, it was ironic that such an ancient barbaric tradition co-exists alongside the most modern technology – a nuclear power plant!
  • I didn’t get a great picture of the conditions, in which people live, but this picture will give you a pretty good idea! http://lh3.ggpht.com/_dIgAPkniWsM/R1LiVgvq8dI/AAAAAAAACjk/6INyc_Hag0M/IMG_3978.JPG
  • One of the ladies I met was Gloria. Gloria started a pre-K in her hut. Initially, she took in 8 small children to watch after. Within a year, her business grew to 80 children. http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/south-africa/cape-town/cimg4156.html . When I asked her, why she started this business, she said something that first surprised me, and then shocked me. She said, “I started the business because I wanted to keep the 4-6 year old girls off the street”. Naturally, I asked why, she was concerned for girls in particular. She shocked me by the following… South Africa has a real problem with HIV. One out of every 10 men has HIV (the rate is even worse for women). There is a myth going around the country, that if an HIV infected man sleeps with a virgin, he will be cured of his illness. And since, girls start their sexual life early in SA (10-12 years old), these lunatics go around raping 5 year old girls, just to make sure they are getting a virgin! I was speechless.
    • If anyone would like to donate money or school supplies to Gloria and her organization, there is a reliable way of doing it and I have all necessary information.

 

The Apartheid ended in 1994. It hasn’t even been 20 years since blacks and whites were completely separated. The segregation rules were worse than in the US and some were beyond my comprehension. Examples:

  • A walking bridge over the freeway was divided by a concrete barrier: one side for whites, one for non-whites.
  • Someone with skin other than white could not enter Cape Town (or any other city) without a work permit. So unless, you were heading for your job as a nanny or gardener, you were essentially a prisoner in your township. You couldn’t go anywhere.
  • 70% of the South African population was black or mixed, yet only 10% of the Ministry of Education’s budget was allocated to township schools, essentially leaving the whole black population uneducated. The country is reaping the “benefits” of this policy right now. Blacks may work anywhere, but they can’t…they are not nearly educated enough.
  • In order to give black job applicants, with even mediocre skills a leg-up, the government instituted an affirmative action program called “Black Economic Empowerment”. The law forces companies to employ at least 51% black or colored workers. So if an HR manager has two similar candidates for a position, they are more likely to hire the black applicant. The problems arise when HR managers are having a tough time filling the 51% quota and chose poor black candidates over good white ones. The country is experiencing an exodus of white professionals because they simply can’t find a job. The beneficiaries of this are Australia, Canada and Great Britain. The economic migrants are well educated professionals with native English skills and Europeans ethics.
  • So how do you create jobs for those that have no skills at all? You build and rebuild roads. The highways in South Africa (even in the most remote parts of the country like the savannah) are incredible! They are better than the Auto-Bahn and American highways. They are rebuilt and repainted even though they’d be considered in great shape anywhere else in the world. A development company that wants to win government tenders for road work, HAS to employ a certain number of people. Plus, the most wasteful practice - at the first orange cone (beginning of road work), there must be a man or woman standing there waving an orange flag to caution motorist. At the end of road work, there must be another person with that same orange flag notifying the motorist that s/he can speed up now. My first question was why couldn’t they just secure the flag on top of a cone or special stand, and let the wind do all the work? Then it dawned on me that this was an artificial way to create jobs! What a waste!
  • I was surprised to find that same-sex marriages were legal in South Africa. How bizarre, right? One wouldn’t expect a developing, African nation to be so progressive, right? Then it was explained to me. When the Apartheid ended, there was a feeling of euphoria. Blacks were ready to work with Indians (SA has the largest Indian diaspora in the world – i.e. people from India, not Native Indians), Indians were ready to work with whites, men were ready to work with women. There was a sense of national unity regardless of sex, color or religion in large part due to Nelson Mandela. And gay-rights were included in the new constitution, along with all other minorities. In fact, I have been told, that two men on the street holding hands, could indeed be beaten up, so it’s better to refrain from public displays of emotion.

Current Mood: sympathetic sympathetic

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Part I – How I spent my birthday

 

It’s dark. No artificial lighting…just the foreign stars of the Southern Hemisphere above, trying to illuminate the vast savannah. The blanket over my legs compensates for the cold gust of wind blowing in my face, as I sit in the open Land Rover. The rugged vehicle is “parked” in the middle of the field. We have followed a group of lions here, hoping to catch them at their best: the hunt. The lions are about 20 meters to the right of me. I can’t see them, but I can hear them slowly crawling toward their prey – wildebeests ahead. All is quiet, except for the twigs rustling under the lions’ bellies. All of sudden, we hear a noise…an unexpected noise. The ranger turns on the flashlight and shines it to the left of us – a herd of elephants!

 

This is a moment from my latest birthday: lions to the right of us, wildebeests in front of us, elephants to the left, and completely unfamiliar stars and constellations of the South. Incredible!

 

Part II – A few interesting bits about the savannah and its inhabitants

 

Impala (http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/south-africa/safari-on-my-birthday/p1000832.html)

  • Always divided into two herds – male and female! Every spring, the males fight among themselves for supremacy. The one that wins will have the right of “intercourse” with ALL the females. He will spend the whole year with them. The other males form a “bachelor” herd and “hang out” by themselves. No sex for them!

 

Rhinoceros (http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/south-africa/safari-on-my-birthday/p1000818.html)

  • The males of the species, like other mammals will have morning erections. We caught one of them waking up from his morning nap (see picture).
  • When rhinos mature, they leave their mothers and find a place of their own. They generally will live there alone and mark their territory by leaving excrement around the borders. Females will find male companionship by these markings!

 

Lions (http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/south-africa/safari-on-my-birthday/p1000778.html)

  • Contrary to popular belief, the kings of the jungle aren’t wonderful hunters. Their success rate is only 30%. So they only catch 3 out of the 10 things they go after. For example, the wildebeests they were hunting on my birthday got away.

 

Giraffes (http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/south-africa/safari-on-my-birthday/cimg4236.html)

 

 

 

…to be continued…

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The prize: snowboard of the tallest mountain in Europe!

 

Chapter 1: The cost…

 

I was invited to go snowboarding in May. Contrary to popular belief, Russia is NOT covered with snow year round. For example, there is no snow in Moscow in May. I thought that the only place there is snow during this time of year is “Krasnaya Polyana” (KP) – not far from the Black Sea (where the 2014 Olympic Games will take place). So I agreed to go, and just assumed it was there. I was wrong….

 

A few days before the flight, I called my friend Michael (who is from that part of the country and was going to be our tour guide there) and asked whether we were still going to KP and everything is proceeding according to plan.

 

Michael: Ummmm – where did you get the idea that we were going to KP?

Me: what do you mean? You invited me to go snowboarding! Where else can you snowboard in May?

Michael: Dearest, we are going to Kabardina-Balkaria (KB).

Me: Ummmm – what is Kabardina-Balkaria?

Michael: [probably rolling his eyes] – Anya, Kabardina Balkarskaya Respublika is home to Mount El-Bruce, which is the tallest mountain in Europe. KB borders Chechnya and Georgia. THAT is where we are going!

Me: [long pause] – isn’t there a war in Chechnya and haven’t there been some recent conflicts between Russia and Georgia?

Michael: [long pause] – well, technically, yeah, but it’s very safe!

Me: [long pause again] – NICE!!!

 

Some people go to the Swiss Alps to go snowboarding….I go to a war-zone!

 

I wish I could say that “snowboarding in itself is boring, so I decided to spice things up by going to Chechnya”, but honestly, the new development caused me to pause and ponder whether I was up for this trip. Right now, I can just hear all of my friends say “Oh, this is so Nyusha”! But the tickets were paid for, the snowboard was polished and I had no other plans for the long weekend. We went!

 

Chapter 2: The Housing

 

Michael’s mom has a sister. The sister has a husband. The husband has a high school buddy. The high school buddy is married to a woman that owned the apartment we stayed in! Did you get that? Well, apparently, folks in the Northern Caucasus are as inter-connected as the Latino community in the US. Personal relationships are more important than anything official, so the apartment was offered to us for free. It was a unique experience. Imagine two majestical mountains and a typical, colorful village in the foothills between them. Then imagine a grey, Soviet 5-storie building, completely ruining the view.

 

 

http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/mount-elbrus/cimg4121.html

 

The building had no hot water; the owners installed a water-heater. In order to turn it on, two people must use both of their hands (and sometimes other body parts) simultaneously to turn various knobs and pull levers. Once the water-heater is turned on, you have a choice: boiling hot water or freezing cold water. The mixture of the two proved to be too difficult for this device. So in order to take a shower you have to turn on the cold water and let it run for a few seconds, then rapidly turn on the hot water and wash a body part for approximately 20 seconds. That’s the time it takes the heater to turn the water into boiling water. After the 20 seconds, turn the hot water off and you have another 20 seconds to wash something else, before the water turns freezing cold. All this time, you can only use one hand, since the other hand is occupied with holding the shower head.

 

I was there for three days…I only took one shower!

 

Chapter 3: The people

 

The people are great: open, friendly, not stuck up at all, simple, and kind. When we arrived, we went to a small café nearby for dinner. The café was nearly empty. A large table across the room, however, was occupied by a spirited group of adults, who turned out to be the owners of the café and the nearby hotel. We had some food and wine and one of my friends mentioned that it would be fun to have a karaoke machine (he has a terrible voice, but that never stops him from singing). The owners (who weren’t very sober by that time) overheard our conversation and started yelling across the room, “You guys want a karaoke machine? Hold on, we’ll find one”. We insisted that it wasn’t necessary, but they were relentless! They told us that we were their guests and that our wishes were their command. They found a karaoke machine. They asked our boys to hook it up to a small TV. Anton, who was the one that initially suggested the singing, was invited to sing. He sang a song. The local women went wild! They shouted his name and begged for more. They screamed at their children to leave the nice man alone and let him perform. They lit lighters and waved them around in the air when Anton sang a slow song. They danced next to him when he sang something fast. It was a scene from the Twilight Zone.  

 

 

 

There is virtually no public transportation in that part of the country. Locals drive each other for free, tourists pay private cabbies. As city dwellers, we are used to having transportation options: cab, bus, trolley, metro, etc. What do you do when there is none of that? You come out to the main road (which sees a car only every 5-10 minutes) and hope that someone picks you up. What do you do when there are four of you and you have skies and snowboards? What are the chances that a minivan will drive by and pick you up? As we stood, by the road with our gear, I pondered that! I was really surprised when within 5-7 minutes an old WV minivan stopped and picked us up. Just like that! Like it was no big deal! We didn’t even gesture for him stop. He was just passing by and stopped because he assumed we needed a lift to the mountain. Problems seem to just take care of themselves! 

 

Chapter 4: The Mountain

 

The peak of the mountain is at 5642 meters (18,506 feet) above sea level. That’s freakin’ high! That’s above the clouds. That where you feel dizzy from the clean air and lack of oxygen! That’s where you get sun burned after 5 minutes without sunscreen!

http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/mount-elbrus/cimg4109.html

http://public.fotki.com/ankaalexandrovna/2008/mount-elbrus/cimg4113.html



Chapter 5: The Journey Back

 

The journey from El Bruce to the airport is 125 miles. My friends stayed for another week, but I made my way back to Moscow. The cab that I ordered the night before arrived and my friends came outside to bid me farewell. The cabbie, Victor, was a scrawny, cocky 20 year-old from a small town in the neighboring county (where the airport was). His car looked something like this:

 

http://www.bryansk-lada.ru/images/db/2107-02_medium.jpeg

 

The first words out of his mouth were, “It seems that the transmission is giving out. It might be leaking oil. I wonder if we’ll make it!” And then he smiled. I just raised an eyebrow because that was all I could really do. I got into the car and hoped for the best.

 

The manual transmission WAS noisy, but the first 15 miles we were doing fine. Then the car gave out. Out of the 5 gears usually available to motorists (plus the neutral position), only the 3rd gear worked. That means that the car could be moving at about 25mph to 45mph…not more, not less. It shouldn’t stop either because it is difficult to get it going immediately from the 3rd gear. 110 miles ahead of us, a plane that won’t wait for me, gorgeous but useless nature around us, and a pompous 20 year-old kid behind the wheel of a sardine can. Can it get any worse? Yup.

 

I suggested that we call his base and have another car start driving in our direction, in the event we DO break down. He dismissed the idea, “Don’t worry, we should make it”. So there we were. Driving 35mph on a highway that allows 65mph. Slowly but surely, we were making our way toward my dream: to get the hell out of here! I wanted to be back in Moscow. I wanted to take a shower! I wanted my pillow and by the end of the journey, I really wanted my mommy!

 

At one point, when crossing from one county to the next, we encountered something similar to a border patrol (this was a war-zone, so posts were set up even between counties). There was traffic before the check point! Traffic, was the worst thing we can get ourselves into because we really couldn’t be in a “stop and go” situation. But there was nothing we could do. After a few minutes of “bumper to bumper”, Victor casually mentions that there might be another problem: we seem to be over heating! So now the transmission doesn’t work and we are over-heating. Great. After passing the check-point, and while driving through a field, Victor announces more good news: we are almost out of gas! So now, we are over-heating, the transmission doesn’t work, and we are out of gas in the middle of a field.

 

I can keep going. At one point, it started raining and it turned out that the windshield wipers didn’t work. Then, we got lost because he drove off the main road for a short cut. Another time, he stopped the car to buy a pear from one of the old ladies that were selling them on the side of the road. At one point, when I was lighting a cigarette, he asked me whether my mother knew I smoked! And when I asked him, how old he thought, I was, he estimated my age at around 20!

 

And then, for the kicker – merely 5 miles away from the airport (close enough that I could walk if I had to), he hands me a piece of paper and pen and says:

 

Victor: Write!

Me: [confused] What?

Victor: Your phone number.

Me: [still confused] Why?

Victor: So that I can call you, of course.

Me: [more confused] Why?

Victor: It will be cool!

Me: No

Victor: [hurt] You won’t give me your phone number?

Me: What’s the point? I live in Moscow, you live here!

Victor: Yeah, but we can SMS back and forth!

Me: No!

Victor: I can’t believe you are saying “no” to me – after everything we’ve been through!

Me: Yeah, life sucks and all Moscow chicks are bitches! Get me to the damn airport, for the love of G-d!!!

 

I MADE IT ON TIME! I said goodbye to Victor and ran for the airport! I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d already come to terms with having to spend at least another night in this city and catching the plane the next morning…and yet, I made it on time. Is this journey over? Nope.

 

Chapter 6: The police

 

 

Upon entering the airport, I came face to face with the local police. Again, this is a troubled region, so the police are everywhere. They were checking documents and scanning baggage even before registration. Just in case…

 

Policeman: May I see your documents?

Me: Yeah. Here you go.

P: Your documents are wrong.

M: No, they are not.

P: Yes, your registration is wrong.

M: Where?

P: Here.

M: I believe you are mistaken [now sure, I’m going to miss my flight].

P: Come with me to the airport police station.

M: Can I have my passport back?

P: No. And leave your stuff here.

M: [opening eyes wide and making an innocent, American, teenage face] What do you mean leave my stuff here? That’s my stuff! I can’t just leave it here. What do you mean?

P: [waves at me] oh fine, then drag it with you.

 

Here you should picture me schlepping my snowboard and my huge suitcase across the airport, trying to keep up with him because he has my passport.

 

He knocks on the window and gestures to the guy inside that he has a “client” for him. The guy inside is busy talking on his cell phone, so we have to wait. I knew I had to say something, because if I didn’t, then I would have to call the American embassy and it will get messier!

 

M: Sir, I am sorry my papers aren’t in order, but I don’t even know what I am supposed to have. My secretary does all that for me [it’s not true, I know all my papers were correct, but I wasn’t going to argue with him].

P: [long pause and something resembling a smile]

 

I think he was struck by the fact that I called him “Sir”. I bet he has never, in his life, been called that before and was softened by it. I, however, had a reason to call him that. There is no real equivalent to the word “officer” in Russian and I didn’t know what two stars on his uniform meant…so I didn’t want to insult him by calling him a lower rank then he was. [side note: later I found out that he had the lowest rank a police officer could have, so I could have called him anything and it would have been a compliment].

 

M: Sir, look at me! Do I look like a terrorist? I have NEVER in my life been asked for documents by the police. I don’t know what I am supposed to have!

P: [looks at my sneakers, jeans, dirty hair, and snowboard and realizes that he has caught a dud] Oh, for Christ’s sake – GO! Get the hell out of here. I don’t know why I am wasting my time on you!!!

M: Oh, thank you, thank you…you are a good man!

 

I made my plane that day.

Current Mood: nostalgic nostalgic

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My New Years! [part 2]



 
I can’t just lie at the pool. That's not my kind of vacation. When the three of us discussed our plans for this trip, we decided that we will spend half of it, “lounging” and half of it more actively. To be completely honest, I have never been on a vacation consisting entirely of lounging and had developed an opinion that I was simply incapable of enjoying a week-long inactive vacation consisting solely of sun-bathing, eating, drinking and sleeping. Andrey wanted that kind of vacation. Jake was leaning more toward my camp and warned Andrey that we will want some tourist/cultural activities on our vacation itinerary. Andrey wasn’t thrilled, but agreed, as long as there is enough “lounging” in the program. Around day four, Andrey realized that we have done nothing more than eat, drink, tan and swim and began feeling guilty that we were being deprived of our tourist destinations. He said that he is ready to do “something”. To his surprise neither Jake, nor I, seemed enthused by the proposal. Both of us seemed to become more and more tired as the lazy days went on, and more and more accepting of the idea of a 'minimal movement' type of vacation. Andrey was alarmed. Both Jake and I seemed lazy and unwilling to set foot outside of the hotel grounds. All we wanted to do was lie on the beach and sip cocktails.
 
Andrey, in an attempt to wake us up, took the bull by the horns. He proclaimed that tonight we are going to the nearest town to do some shopping and the next day, we are going to an animal park in the mountains. Both Jake and I protested, but Andrey was determined! We did some shopping and felt that it was too much effort for too little reward. Andrey was relentless
         “We are going to the animal park tomorrow. We have to be at the bus stop, to catch the free shuttle, at 9am!”
         “Are you crazy? 9am is too early” – Jake and I protested in unison.
         “9am and no more discussions! I need to get you two out of your laziness mode. You guys are scaring me”
 
At 9:05, with the help of 3 alarm clocks and almighty G-d, the three of us were at the bus stop in front of the hotel. Our eyes were half shut and no one uttered a word. 15 minutes passed and we agreed that we have missed the free shuttle to the animal park. After short deliberations, we decided to go back to the hotel, have breakfast and discuss our options. While at breakfast, Jake and I were actively trying to persuade Andrey that G-d was sending us a sign that we should spend the rest of the day at the hotel without any outings. Andrey was a fortress. He insisted that we rent a car and drive to the animal park ourselves. We went to rent a car. There were no cars available for that day. We decided to take a taxi to the nearest town to rent a car there. We couldn’t catch a cab. We decided to take the bus to the nearest town. After walking about 100 feet toward the bus stop, a taxi stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. Our plans have changed almost 10 times and it wasn’t even 11 o’clock yet! In town, in two separate rental agencies, there were no cars available. We decided to take the bus to Las Palmas (the main town on this small island) and see something touristy there (screw the animals). While walking to the bus stop, a young lady, selling tourist excursions managed to talk us into buying an all day Jeep Safari through the mountains of the island, for the next day. For me, the selling point was that I get to ride a camel. I don’t know what exactly appealed to the guys. We finally made it to the bus stop. There was a crowd of people, most of them tourists. We waited for 20 minutes. That’s when Andrey broke down. His determination and desire to wake us up, wore off and he started begging us to go back to the hotel. Unfortunately for him, the spell of “lounging” that was cast on us this New Years Day was broken. We had been away from the resort and the pool for nearly 3 hours and were starting to get back to our normal selves. Andrey bribed and pleaded. He begged and threatened…to no avail. Jake and I were ready for adventures and action! The roles had reversed once again.

Current Mood: ditzy ditzy

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My New Years! [part 1]
 
 
For New Years, I, along with two of my friends (Andrey and Jake), was given a great gift: a week-long vacation in the Canary Islands (Spanish; Atlantic Ocean). Some highlights…
 
  1. The resort we stayed at was a five star, time share type resort with everything one could possibly want: tennis courts, pools (not one, but several), a beach, five star restaurants (not one, but several), nightly entertainment, large supermarket on site, bars, a shopping center, a rental car place, valet, concierge, miniature golf, ping pong tables, etc, etc. Having all this at our disposal overwhelmed the ordinarily shy and poor young people, creating a few comical moments…
·         The pool closest to us was huge. It was divided into three parts. It had slides and small islands, as well as a bridge over it. Never having been in such a complex pool, one of my friends Andrey, was at a loss. Jake and I were hovering next to a divider and almost underneath the bridge. Andrey got into the pool and started swimming toward us. Jake and I were about 2 feet apart [hovering]. Andrey decided to swim between us and under the bridge, but didn’t realize that there was a wall under the bridge. He dove under and with powerful strokes, and head-on rammed into the wall. Neither I, nor Jake, expected it, so didn’t have time to prevent it. When he emerged from the water, he seemed fine, and after the initial panic about his health (concussion, etc) subdued, I began laughing hysterically and couldn’t stop for 20 minutes. For the rest of the trip, we kept making fun of him like, “Well, you tried walking through walls, but I guess, you now know that you are no Harry Potter”.
·         When we exited the airport upon arrival, we saw a young man with a sign in hand: “Anfi Resort”. We were planning to take a cab, but decided to use the bus provided by the hotel, since we didn’t look forward to explaining to a Spanish-speaking cabby how to get to a location, we have never been to ourselves. When we arrived, the man at the reception desk informed us that the cost of the transfer from the airport will be added to our room bill. We were surprised, since we thought the shuttle was a courtesy and free. I asked about the price of the transfer and was told that it will be calculated later and we would be informed a few days later. This sent me into a small state of panic, because I assumed that if a dollar amount takes days to calculate, that ride was a VERY expensive ride and perhaps we should have taken a taxi after all. One could expect anything from a fancy 5-star resort! The final tally was calculated on the last day of our stay. The verdict = $36!
·         Another assumption: everyone at a prestigious resort should speak at least some English. Wrong! On the way down to the pool one day, I spotted the maid in the hallway. I came by and asked her to clean suite 844. She didn’t get it. Apparently she spoke no English. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the whole world should know English, I just happened to make the wrong assumption about this particular resort. Reaching back into my subconscious, I pulled out an impressive number of Spanish words. It sounded something like, “Ocho, cuatro, cuatro….limpia…por favor….please….clean….favor por!” The woman answered back “No clean hoy [today]”….then I managed to reach even further into my pea-sized hard drive and asked her to at least take out the garbage…basura. She understood, nodded and I went down to the pool. I was glowing. Somehow, passively and slowly, I managed to learn Spanish! I was so proud. The fact that I remembered the word “garbage” inspired and excited me. I told my friends. They too seemed impressed. Then, as I was laying in front of the pool, basking in the sun and in my own unavoidable brilliance, I started to question where I could have learned this word and why it was neatly ingrained in my already overstuffed-with-useless-information brain? Then I realized that the word “basura” was written on every single garbage can in my high school and that I must have seen it at least 20 times everyday for four consecutive years! Had I not remembered this word, it would have been strange. My self-importance and pompousness about my brilliance faded away and for the rest of the afternoon, I tried quietly to remember at least a few more words in Spanish.
·         One of the restaurants on site was a Tex-Mex type of place (fajitas, burritos, sombreros on the walls as décor). This restaurant was right on the beach with a great view of the ocean. The first time we passed it by, Andrey froze and stood there listening to the live music coming from inside. The band consisted of 2 guitar players and a harp [Mexican style, not classical] player. Andrey, who has recently become fascinated with various types of instruments (he has bought an electric piano and started taking lessons this summer) and music in general, thought that a harp (of all things!) was the greatest thing since sliced bread! He put his foot down and that night we had dinner at that particular restaurant. He listened attentively as the harp player strummed familiar melodies such as music from Carmen and La Cucaracha and even gave him a tip! The harp player (let’s call him Jose), was surprised (not many people are as inspired and as generous as Andrey). After the meal, we saw the musicians taking a break near by. Andrey was mesmerized by the harp. He was possessed. He absolutely HAD to strike the strings. He told us that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t able to fall asleep tonight; hence, the rest of us would be kept up as well. We approached the musicians. They recognized us the tip-giving, loudly-clapping table and smiled. First thing first – Andrey asked to “brrrriiiinnnkkk” (as he put it) the harp [play all the strings in a sweeping motion]. Jose was thrilled with the attention (I am assuming he doesn’t get much), and started showing Andrey how to play the harp. After an improvised 5 minute lesson, we all started to get bored and began saying our goodbyes to Jose and his friends. As we walked into the sunset with satisfied grins, Jose bid us farewell with a wonderful rendition of “Ochi Chernie”, which is a famous Russian song. Life was good. We decided to purchase a harp, when we got back to Moscow.
 
PS Apparently, it is nearly impossible to purchase a harp in Moscow. It is also difficult to find someone to tune it. Can you imagine the “wanted ad”? Thus far, we have no harp…only fond memories of Jose and his slim mistress!



.....to be continued.....

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How to pass a driving test – Russian style!
 
Step 1 – Buy the official road manual and study it.
Step 2 – Sign up and attend a mandatory 3 month driving course (theory and practice)
Step 3 – Take the test.
Step 4 – FAIL the test.
Step 5 – Go back to your driving instructor and give him $200-$400.
Step 6 – Take the test again.
Step 7 – PASS the test and receive your driver license!
 
This scenario happens frequently in Russia. Here is just one story…
 
Meet Mike. Mike is a 30 year old Muscovite professional who has never needed a car until recently. He decided to get his driver license. He read the Russian equivalent of the “DMV booklet” and signed up for a three month driving course. He had no intention of bribing the examiner, but rather wanted to pass the test on merit. During the last day of driving practice, the instructor told him that he wasn’t ready to take the test (read: give me money, and I will arrange everything for you). Mike didn’t bite, and went to the DMV to take the written test. He passed. Then he went to the closed “driving course” (1st part of the test). He passed. Then the problems started. He then had to pass the “street” test (the last part of the test).
 
The DMV forces all drivers to take the test in state-provided vehicles (old, stick shift, Russian-made pieces of junk). Three students pile into the car and each one takes the test with the others present. The first time Mike didn’t pass the “street” test, because of extreme thermal conditions. He, along with two other examinees, were asked to wait at a specific bus station, and told that the examiner would pick them up. Since this took place in February (traditionally the coldest month in Moscow), after waiting for 45 minutes, and not feeling his fingers or toes, Mike chose to cease waiting. He left the bus stop.
 
After that incident, Mike tried 3 more times to pass the test. There was always something that the examiner would find fault with and flunk him. He finally got so discouraged (10 months later) that he decided to bribe the examiner. With his head bowed and spirit low, he handed over $250. On the day of the test, Mike was embarrassed, but he desperately needed the license, so he had no choice.
 
He got into the vehicle (it was equipped with two sets of padles) and started the engine. At that moment, the examiner, grabbed the stick shift and pressed on the clutch. He then told Mike to press on the gas and to stir. Mike was amazed: the examiner was doing all the work for him. He needed to play along and the prize for the charades would be a license. This odd couple drove through the streets of Moscow, complimenting each other’s actions.
 
Mike, naturally, received his driver license. He is not proud, but it seems like he didn’t have a choice. When I heard this story, my first thought was, “Mike actually knows how to drive, but what about all those for whom the examiner’s help was vital in passing? What about all those that have a hard time changing gears and stopping at appropriate times?” Apparently, there are hoards of these “fake” drivers around Moscow, which makes me that much more scared to cross the street.
 
PS While I was writing this LJ entry, a news brief appeared on a Russian news portal: 3 pedestrians were shot at from a pellet gun at 3pm today in downtown Moscow. The pedestrians were arguing with a driver over who has the right of way. One of the vehicle’s passengers got out and shot at the pedestrians. 2 people were hospitalized! NICE!
 
 

Current Mood: scared scared

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The wheels are spinning but no one is home!


For the sake of his privacy, I won’t mention his name or the band he plays for, but my guitar teacher is a member of a rather famous Russian rock band. Their music videos are played on MTV Russia, and their concerts are attended by thousands of adoring fans. He takes on private students because music piracy is so rampant in Russia, he has trouble making ends meet.
 
The guy looks like a typical rocker: long hair, weird t-shirts, tall and muscular. As far as his personality goes, however, he is anything by typical. The guy is a sweetie. When I first met him, I just wanted to hug him. He smiles a lot and is unusually warm. That makes, what happened that Saturday night, even stranger.
 
9pm. Saturday night. I receive a phone call on my cell phone. It’s my guitar teacher. Here is the conversation that takes place.
 
Me: Hi Mike. What’s up? [surprised]
Mike: Hi Anna. [mumbling] I wanted to… I needed to… I have something to… [more mumbling]
Me: Mike, what’s up? Did you want to discuss something with me?
Mike: Yes. I have to tell you something, but … [pause] don’t know how to…[pause] do it!
Me: [confused and curious] I am all ears. Go ahead.
Mike: Well…[mumbling]…I am not…entirely _______ _______ [slurred speech] with the progress you’ve been making.
Me: [still confused] Ummmm…can you elaborate on that? [thinking the man is drunk]
Mike: You see, I expect…ummm…records from my students. [long pause]
Me: [not liking the awkward pause] And I am not giving you the “records” you want? I am under-performing in your opinion?
Mike: [slurring] kinda…!
Me: [surprised] are you saying that my progress got stuck in the mud?
Mike: Not “stuck” per se, more like the wheels are spinning, but you’re not going anywhere (прогрессбуксует)!
Me: [now convinced that the man is high on drugs] [sarcastically] Mike, I am not a tractor or an Oldsmobile. I don’t think I understand your metaphors.
Mike: [mumbling] You see Anna…I have a system…it’s not a perfect system, but a system that works on all of my music students…[another long awkward pause]
Me: [with raised eye brows] And I am the ONLY person that your “system” hasn’t worked on?
Mike: Kinda…!
Me: [wanting him to tell me that he is high] Mike, are you ok? Your voice doesn’t sound normal?
Mike: I am fine – why do you ask?
Me: Ummmm…no particular reason [rolling my eyes]. [pause] Ok, what do you suggest we do about this system and my progress that are stuck in the mud with spinning wheels?
Mike: We should meet!
Me: [taken off guard] What?
Mike: Do you ever find yourself in the city?
Me: [I think he meant “center”] Yes, I work in the center, why?
Mike: Do you ever have lunch?
Me: [shaking my head in disbelief] Yes, I DO eat sometimes.
Mike: Great, let’s meet for lunch.
Me: Ummmm…I am all for that, but may I ask what that will accomplish?
Mike: I want to hear about your musical….[pause] preferences!
Me: What? Why?
Mike: What kind of music do you like?
Me: How is that going to help? [confused once again]
Mike: I just need to know so that I can adjust my “system”
 
At this point, I realized that there is probably little use of us carrying this conversation further. The man was so obviously doped up; I was not on his level. We never met for lunch, but a few days later we had our regular weekly lesson. I was so intrigued about what he was going to say, I came to the lesson two hours earlier.  Once he sobered up, our exchanges sounded very different (but interesting nonetheless), but here is a synopsis of our talk that night.
 
Me: You wanted to talk to me.
Mike: Yes [awkward pause]
Me: Do you remember that you called me on Saturday night? [I could not have been sure that he would remember]
Mike: Of course [seemed hurt that I would even suggest otherwise]
Me: Do you remember what you said to me?
Mike: Of course
Me: Ok, what is it that you wanted to tell me.
Mike: I figured out why you aren’t making as much progress as I want [I personally thought I was making great progress]
Me: And?
Mike: Because my system was designed for Russians and you are American, so that’s why the system wasn’t working that well!
Me: Huh?????????? [eyes wide open]
Mike: Yes, you see you spend your teenage years listening to Western music and the things I’ve been teaching you are more accented on the Russian rock.
Me: Are you kidding me?
Mike: [confused] I am perfectly serious, why?
Me: [got a grip on myself…I wanted to laugh and shake my head in dismay] But Mike [in a calm and steady voice], you have been teaching me scales and rhythm patters!
Mike: So?
Me: Are you telling me that those things are not used in American rock? [in awe] Are you telling me that a C major scale is only used in Russian Rock? Really? [can’t believe what I am hearing]
Mike: [head lowered and looking at the ground] Well…not exactly…but…well…[more decisively] in any case, I decided to switch my teaching method to teach you jazz, funk, and blues. That’s what we are going to learn and you will make progress in no time!
 
 
Now I know why I rarely understand contemporary Russian rock (words and music). When he was calling me on Saturday, he told me that he was just coming back from the recording studio. Now I know how it works. They get together a studio, smoke some pot, then record the songs, and smoke some more. I am starting to think that he might have been a little high when we had our lesson that night too…because what person in their right mind will insist that something as universal as a scale is primarily used in Russian rock, and learning it will not help you with American music???

Current Mood: amused amused

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Why people buy real estate in Russia!

Most of the issues I’ve faced in Russia stem from under-developed Russian infrastructures, inefficient bureaucracies, environmental differences between California and Eastern Europe and simple misunderstandings. A reader, unfamiliar with modern Russian life (by “modern”, I am talking about the Putin era of economic growth) might assume that cultural differences between Russians and Americans either do not exist at all or are inconsequential. That’s simply not true. There are fundamental differences in social mentality, one of which is the topic of today’s entry.
 
The idea of “the future” is deeply engrained in the minds of most Americans. Americans tend to buy housing because it’s a good long-term investment. Americans begin contributing to their retirement account in their 20’s. Americans buy cars and expect them to last at least 10 years, even if they might exchange them for something else before-hand. The US has over 110 years of oil reserve (reference) and yet alternative energy sources (wind, solar, nuclear, etc) are still being actively sought after for the future.
 
Russians on the other hand, tend to live more in the moment. This kind of a cultural difference is easily explained by historical data. In 1917, the bourgeois were displaced and the proletariat took the reigns of power. In the late 30’s, those that were at the top in the 1920’s were removed from power by Stalin. In the 40’s, the country was destroyed by the war. In the 80’s, perestroika made that which was unacceptable only a year ago, perfectly fine. In the early 90’s, communists are no more. In the late 90’s, the government defaults and the ruble loses all of its value, etc, etc, etc. Because of historical instability, most Russians don’t plan.
 
I once asked a Finance Director of a large computer firm, whether or not she has a retirement account. Wide-eyed and of-balance, she asked me why anyone would create such an account. After I explained how the system works in the US, she just waved her hand at me and said that there is no point in investing in the future. She said – “I don’t know what’s going to happen in a week, and you want me to plan twenty years in advance”!
 
And so they live. If they have 20 rubles today, they will spend it today, because tomorrow, that money might be worth-less. It is common to hear phrases like “I get paid tomorrow; let’s go spend my last 100 rubles ($4)”!
 
My two close friends were approved for a 30 year mortgage yesterday. They are purchasing a 3 room apartment for $174,000. They made a $40,000 down payment. My first question to them when I found out was, “You had all this money, why didn’t you buy the apartment earlier, when prices were lower?” This is what they told me…
 
Because we got paid in cash and had several sources of income, we never actually knew how much we made. Money came and went. We never counted it. We lived, traveled, enjoyed life, and always had enough to fulfill basic needs. We rented a studio apartment and seemed to have enough space for social gatherings and for our life in general. And then one day, one of us decided to buy a digital piano…for no apparent reason…just because! And he went to an online music store, one grey Tuesday afternoon and ordered a digital piano. When it was delivered the next morning, he was in shock. The piano was much larger than on the internet ;) It weighed 37kg and was the size of a very large surfboard (long board). The piano was assembled and proudly stood in the middle of the studio apartment. When his spouse arrived that night, she stood in the hallway in awe and dismay. That night the strength of their marriage bond was tested!
 
To make a long story short, after that night, the two decided that it was time to buy a large apartment where all of his toys can have a room of their own. They told me that once they actually sat down and calculated their average monthly income, they were amazed. It turned out that they could have bought an apartment years ago, but never wanted to commit to something so “long-term”.
 
Only in Russia, will someone buy real estate, primarily because he has no place for his new digital toy.
 
 

Current Mood: chipper chipper

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Another stamp in my passport: Bulgaria
 
 
During the Soviet times, it was considered the most prestigious getaway destination of the Warsaw Pact (individuals that received permission to visit non-communist countries could have been hand-counted). Only the most highly placed government officials ever saw the Golden Coast of Bulgaria. And now, I, a simple proletarian girl, was standing on the Bulgarian soil. And while my grandparents, perhaps, would have dreamed for their little girl to be so highly placed in society, as to visit such an exotic place, Bulgaria, in fact, is a rather poor country and is a well known tourist destination.
 
Imagine a long sandy coast of the Black Sea. The thermometer lies. It shows 32C (90F), but I think it is closer to 40C! The sun is beaming down and beads of sweat are forming on my forehead. I mentally thank God for air conditioning and ask for the sun to set sooner.
 
Bulgaria is a country of dire contrasts. It is now a member of the European Union, which in itself is a status symbol, but poverty is evident. Along with this poverty, a visitor is greeted by a never-ending landscape of building cranes. The coast is being “developed”. New apartment complexes and shiny, air-conditioned hotels are sprinkled through out the coast line, right next to the buildings that are on the verge of collapse. Stark contrast! Our hotel is brand new (construction completed in June, 2007). It sparkles! Right across from our hotel, there is a five story building which is literally falling apart: chunks of concrete are lying on the sidewalk and holes in the walls sometime prove to be quite useful for birds to nest in.
 
Another bit that makes the construction (and the contrast) so evident, is the fact that the majority of single family homes that are being constructed are never actually finished. Families live in them, but since the surfacing and finishing work is never completed, the houses look half finished. As I found out, Bulgaria has a strange law that taxes completed houses heavily and leaves those that are “under construction” untaxed. Thus, those families that have a disregard for status live in perpetual state of construction in order to avoid taxation. Innovative!
 
Overall rating of the Bulgarian Gold Coast
 
Food: B+ … I was pleased.
Service: C …although no waiter was actually rude to us, they still have a lot to learn!
Weather: D …Damn hot and humid…it didn’t even really cool down at night.
Potential for economic growth: A …if you have the money, invest in Bulgaria now.
Shopping: A+ …bought a Diesel belt for 5 dollars ;)
 
 

Current Mood: good good

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Buy the most expensive plumbing! It pays for itself!
 
I admit I am not all-knowing. I admit I still have a lot to learn in life. I admit that although the milk has almost disappeared from my lips, I am still a “kid”. These LiveJournal entries are a testament to how much I still have to learn: how to buy a washing machine; how to install a water heater; how to cross the Russian Finish border; how to navigate through our bureaucratic world; how to properly ride a commuter train, etc, etc, etc. It turned that there was one more area of expertise I needed to attain whilst in Moscow: plumbing!
 
In the US, plumbing issues seem to take care of themselves. First of all, most of the plumbing installed is of moderate or high quality and doesn’t often break. Second of all, if it does break, a tenant calls the landlord and the landlord calls the plumber, or if you yourself are the landlord, you call the plumber directly. The plumber comes and fixes the issue. Simple! In the US, I personally, have never had to call a plumber. Perhaps I’ve been fortunate. In Moscow, however, I find myself entrenched in plumbing issues and chores.
 
First Encounter: Two of my friends – Andrew and Jake – who share an apartment, frequently have friends over. Their tiny apartment is a hotbed of entertainment and social activity. Thus, it is vital, as you can imagine, for their sole toilet facility to function properly. First the water began dripping into the bowl. To fix this problem they had to take of the toilet lid permanently (don’t ask me why this helped). Then the plastic cover cracked and was taken of permanently. Then the button mechanism (which you press to flush) stopped functioning because it was too rusty and fell apart. The mechanism was eliminated and their guests found themselves having to put their hands into the water to flush. Finally, all of the insides of the water tank broke off and we had no choice but to visit a hardware store. All of this happened over a period of about two months, so at each stage it didn’t seem so bad. But when the whole mechanism finally stopped working, the issue, as you can imagine, became rather critical.
 
Jake and I decided to stop at the hardware store (similar to Home Depot) on our way from the metro. As soon as we walked in, we knew we didn’t fit in. Hefty women with mustaches were picking out flower-pattern wall paper for the kitchen. A hairy, fat Tadjik-looking foreman was arguing with the salesman over the price of nails. A newly-wed couple was gazing onto the ceiling with a hint of disappointment in their eyes over the extortionate price of chandeliers. We made our way to the lavatory section. At first, I was relieved. The wall displayed only two kinds of toilet “insides”. We had a 50% chance of making the right decision. We looked at the wall. We looked at each other. We looked at the wall. Silence…He has an economics degree and is the Finance Director for a transportation firm. I have an International Relations degree and work for an NGO. We are as far away from handy-men as the Koran from the Wall Street Journal.
 
After awaking from the stupor, we decided to ask for help. A pimple-faced employee made his way toward us as we waved ferociously for assistance. The first barrier to progress was the fact that we couldn’t explain the problem.
 
US: The toilet broke. We need to buy the “insides” of the toilet.
Pimple-face: What exactly broke? Which part?
US: The whole thing.
Pimple-face: Can you be more specific?
US: Well…the thingy that you push that lifts up the thingy that lets the water run into the bowl.
Pimple-face: What “thingy”?
US: The entire mechanism “thingy”
Pimple-face: [rolling his eyes] Ooookkkkk. Why don’t you try these [points to one of the two devices and walks away]?
 
We stare at the suggested item. It looks complicated. We look at each other. We look at the “thingy”. We start giggling. The giggling turns into hysterical laughter. We are folded in two with uncontrollable laughter. Once we regained our senses, we bought the suggested article of engineering and headed home. We didn’t know then that choosing and purchasing the item was only half the battle…we also had to install it.
 
Picture this - three adults (one diplomat, one economist, and one web site developer) are huddled over an open toilet tank with various metal “thingies” in their hands. It took approximately 45 minutes for the three of us to figure out how to install these parts properly. The toilet worked! Victory was ours...but only for about 2 weeks. 14 days from then, we would come to find out that something else broke and inadvertently the plumber would still have to be called.
 
Second Encounter: Let me tell you about Russian plumbers. Unfortunately, a time came when my own toilet broke as well. First the water started dripping into the bowl. Then it was pouring constantly. A good friend of mine, Sergey, fixed the problem miraculously with a nail (replaced a rusted part). This worked well for about three months until a pipe corroded and water began dripping on the floor. I couldn’t put it off any longer and had to call the plumber.
 
In Russia, while each apartment belongs to a particular owner, the building as a whole belongs to the city and thus, the city administration is responsible for housekeeping chores such as fixing leaking roofs (since the roof is common property), replacing faulty common wiring, and patching up leaking pipes. Each building is assigned to a neighborhood dispatcher, and the tenants must call them to get an electrician, a plumber or the groundskeeper. These services are free (theoretically).
 
I got the dispatcher’s number from my landlord. Landlords, apparently, don’t feel the need to help tenants in these cases unlike their counterparts in the States. I called. They took the order and told me to wait. Seven hours later, the plumber came. This is one of the reasons why people don’t like to call the free plumbers…you have to waste an entire day waiting for them to come and even when they do come, they rarely fix the problem because they might not have the right parts with them. Bu I digress...
 
The plumber was a short, balding man with a figure so round that when his hands lay at his sides, they were at a 45 degree angle to the ground instead of the regular 90 degrees. He walked into the WC and nodded. The first thing he asked me was to boil water. A sarcastic, sardonic voice inside me piped up, “Are we delivering a baby today”? Nevertheless, I did. He then asked me for a hammer. I started to worry. Perhaps I was on some “hidden camera” show or was simply in the company of a lunatic? Why does he need a hammer to fix the toilet? A couple of minutes went by. I sat in the kitchen reading a book, when he called again. “Has the water boiled yet?” – he asked. “Yes”. “Can you place this rubber tube into the water”? I couldn’t help it. I had to ask – “Do you really want me to boil a rubber tube?” He nodded. I shrugged my shoulders and did as I was told.
 
Time passed. All sorts of weird sounds were coming from the bathroom (snorting, squeaking, huffing, etc). He then started to sing. I can’t vouch for it, but ‘till this day, I am almost positive he was singing a Backstreet Boys song! He emerged from the bathroom inquiring whether the rubber tube was ready. My sarcastic self couldn’t control myself and asked, “How would one know that it was ready?” He winked and got the boiled plastic “thingy” out of the pot on the stove.
 
Forty minutes later he has stopped the leak. The floor was dry. In the process of stopping the leak, however, he managed to break what my friend Sergey fixed with a nail a few months before. He broke the “insides”. He apologized and said that I need to go to a store and buy the new parts! Having a flash back to the “Encounter #1” above, I waved my head ferociously. I don’t want to go to the store. Don’t make me! Anything but that. He told me I have no choice and that he broke it but can’t replace it. I felt doomed!
 
It’s amazing what a human can do when pinned against the wall. After he left, I took another nail and pliers. I was determined to fix what the plumber has broken the same way Sergey did so as to not go back through the ‘Encounter #1’ ordeal! And believe it or not, I did. A mere 5 minutes later, it worked! I fixed it! Hooray!
 
Side note: the story seems never ending! And I apologize for that, but I want my reader to understand how hectic life becomes if one chooses to install cheap plumbing.
 
Then my cleaning lady came. I complained to her about the plumber while we were making small talk. I left and she proceeded to try and fix my toilet. She broke what I had done and what I was so proud of! She apologized. In the process she also managed to break the toilet seat cover, but that’s just a minor inconvenience. Then the landlord came over for the rent money. He tried to fix the problem himself, but only made it worse. And on and on and on.
 
I now have a fully functioning toilet. My landlord felt guilty for making it worse and bought the correct inside “thingy”. My friend Sergey (bless his engineering heart) installed it. I bought a new toilet seat cover! Hooray!
 
Conclusion: if I ever purchase a home, I will install the most expensive plumbing available at the time! It’s SO worth it!
 
 

Current Mood: relieved relieved

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New Business Idea - Root canal/Bikini Wax…two for the price of one!

 

May my dentist forgive me, for my last cleaning was 13 months ago (before I moved to Moscow)! Feeling ashamed and “unclean” and fully realizing that during my brief visits to the US, I simply don’t have the time for a dental visit, I decided to take the bull by the horns and visit a dentist in Moscow.

 

Let me preface this story by saying that I was utterly amazed when I first saw the dental office that my friend Inna (aka Dr. Rostker) opened in San Francisco a few years ago. Her artistic side shone through the usual drabness of the medical setting and her office is a work of art. Each exam room is decorated in a different theme (Venitian, Japanese, etc), the lobby has a fireplace and the restroom should be on display at an interior design show. Each room has a flat panel computer screen hanging over the patient’s chair which allows him to see his teeth as soon as they are snapped by the digital x-ray machine. In any case – good job Dr. Rostker! Your office rocks!

 

That being said, the Russians outdid the good doctor a bit. Apparently, I accidentally made an appointment at one of the more expensive (cleaning only = $250!) and refined dental facilities in Moscow. Some of their efforts I appreciated, while others annoyed and others amused me. Let’s go down a list of some of the more memorable moments…

 

Décor

 

This office didn’t have a fireplace or a Japanese fountain; it did however have museum display cases with prominent Chinese-looking pottery in them. Each case towered at about 6 feet and had lights and security mechanisms like in a real museum. This is a dental office?  

 

The wall behind the reception desk had four clocks, each showing the current time in Moscow, New York, London and Tokyo. Why would a medical facility need that? Do they cater to the needs of stock brokers, who once they realize what time it is in London, cancel their teeth whitening appointments and run to a computer before the market closes?

 

As I found out later, according to Russian law, every room of a business facility should have a visible sign on the wall identifying an employee responsible for fire safety. Apparently, if the fire marshal discovers a violation, this person, in theory, can be held personally liable. However, since I wasn’t aware of this law, I was amazed when I noticed that there were 9.5 X 11 paper signs hanging in every room (plus reception) identifying this person. The cheap-looking, paper signs printed on a regular office printer looked very out of place pinned up on what looked to be very expensive, beautiful wall paper.

 

The staff

 

The dental office had 4 exam rooms and an x-ray room. Thus, one can assume that at any given moment in time, there will not be more than 8 patients in the office (4 in the exam rooms and 4 waiting for their appointment). So it was strange to have been greeted by three very bored receptionists. Three! Granted, I hate to stand in line as much as the next guy, but what do these three receptionists do all day? It took one of them 3 minutes to service my needs, even though I was a new patient and those usually take more time to process. How much actual work do they do all day? On the other hand, all three were pure “eye-candy”, so if the office does cater primarily to macho, wealthy stock brokers, then perhaps their job description varies greatly from their Western counterparts.

 

Aside from the three receptionists, there was also a formidable-looking gentleman in a suit and tie pacing the front office and the hall between exam rooms. He had a badge of sorts and looked fierce. It took me a good five minutes to figure out that he was a security guard! In a dental office? Really? Again the question came up – who is the main clientele of this office?

 

During the seven (or so) minutes I spent in the front office waiting for my appointment and three minutes filling out the insurance claim forms after the visit, I saw the cleaning lady 4 times. 4 times in 10 minutes! Once she adjusted the magazines and children’s books on the coffee table next to the couch. Once she emptied the trash can in the bathroom which contained only my used toothbrush and floss. Once she readjusted the crayons in the kid’s corner. And the last time she came by to…well…actually…I didn’t actually see her do anything. I suppose she just came around to make sure that everything was still in order!!! This was the first time in my life, I saw a bored cleaning lady!

 

The dentistry

 

As far as the actual dentistry is concerned, it was actually pretty “normal”. I use the word “normal” to indicate “American”. The techniques used and the equipment were familiar. The dentist – a 45 year old Russian woman – was sugary sweet. She treated me as her first ever client: not in terms of her skill, but in terms of attentiveness to the patient. Although it did go a bit overboard at times…

 

She explained the procedure (which was a simple semi-annual cleaning) in great detail. She even told me what kind of solution they will use: blah blah blah lemon flavored. I commented that I was allergic to lemons, but I would imagine that there is actually very little fruit juice in the solution. After the cleaning, and ignoring my protests (“It’s not necessary, really!”), she told her assistant to ask their purchaser to buy a bottle of non-flavored solution for patients such as me!

 

During the actual cleaning, she kept putting tissues on my face so-as-to make sure not to spill anything on my cheek bones. She also gave me special goggles to protect my eyes from the stuff spilling out of my mouth!

 

In conclusion

 

This office wastes money! Having worked in the medical field, I cringe when I think about how inefficient they are. But perhaps their clientele wants them to be inefficient? Perhaps, their patients expect extravagance even at a dental office? If so, then I suggest also offering a manicure/pedicure during the cleaning or teeth-whitening procedures. May be a foot massage? Or a biniki wax? How about a blow-job for those stock brokers? The possibilities are endless…

 

Current Mood: amused amused

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America through the eyes of Muscovites…
 
On my last trip to the US, I was daring enough to bring four of my Moscow friends along with me. Actually, let me rephrase that – initially I invited them to come along with me, but the trip slowly, but surely turned into a touristy adventure, with me at the helm as the tour guide.
 
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to spend my vacation visiting cities I’ve been to countless times and endlessly translating menus and signs. However, the trip turned into an interesting experiment and I got a chance to see America through the eyes of real (non-immigrant) Russians.
 
It was interesting to observe them. They noticed things that seemed trivial to me, ignored things that seemed interesting and often surprised me.
 
Here are some of their comments…
 
  1. All the restaurants, bars and clubs close so early. Night life in Moscow doesn’t start until about midnight, but here all the clubs are closed by 2am. Why isn’t alcohol sold between 2am and 6am? Do authorities really think this action will prevent excessive drinking or violence?
  2. You can’t smoke anywhere! There is a sign in Santa Monica (3rd street promenade) that forbids smoking even on the street! Moreover, there is a posted “no smoking” sign as you cross the parking lot and head toward the beach (also in Santa Monica).
  3. You can’t drink outside. The bartender refused to cell us a bottle of Champaign, when he realized we weren’t going to drink it in the bar! He didn’t sell us the bottle, even when we told him that we wanted to drink it in our hotel room, but all the corner stores were closed by this time.
  4. When we visited my mother’s house, the guys asked for slippers. My mother said it wasn’t necessary because the carpet doesn’t get dirty. Throughout the night, one of the girls kept exclaiming, “I feel so strange – walking around the house in my shoes…California is so clean that even white carpet doesn’t get dirty”.
  5. We drove from LA to San Francisco. After our ride, one of the guys commented how during the entire ride, we didn’t see any accidents on the road. In Moscow, everyone drives so crazily, you see an accident at least once a day.
  6. The guys were constantly reminded that they lacked linguistic abilities. Apparently, every time they went into a store or were sitting in a restaurant (without me), someone will inevitably start talking with them. Everyone asked them where they were from and started a conversation for no apparent reason. And during our last breakfast in the US, one of the girls told me not to translate for her and that she has learned her order and she is ready to do it herself. I smiled and leaned back in my chair. The waitress came over. The girl said “Omelet with bacon and cheese and a cup of coffee”…she said it beautifully, but the waitress (naturally) had more questions – What kind of toast? Would you like cream with your coffee? Would like hash browns or country potatoes, etc, etc etc? The girl said that in Russia, the waitress would just nod and walk away…but not in the US. Everyone wants to "chat"!
  7. The guys made me spend an hour of my time, driving around LA looking for a street that would take us close to the damn Hollywood sign! I couldn’t understand why it was so important to take your picture so close to the letters, but I was told that apparently that sign represents America in their minds and that they couldn’t leave LA without taking this picture!
  8. They loved the fact that in Vegas, you can put $10 into a poker machine (next to the bar) and receive free drinks (including Cognac and Tequila) for as long as you have at least those $10 there. They thought it was the best thing in the world. The buffets, on the other hand, (which personally always amaze me) got a barely warm review.
  9. I don’t know what kind of weather they were expecting (may be a constant 75 degrees), but they kept commenting on the weather. San Francisco was too cold…Las Vegas was too hot…LA was OK, but colder than they had anticipated. One would think they came from a place that has a constant 75F, a nice warm breeze and lots of sun. Moscow has the worst weather…don’t get me started!
 
They loved the trip. We had a good time. We saw the sea lions at Fisherman’s wharf. We took a helicopter ride over Vegas. We went on the Jurassic Park ride in Universal Studios. We dangled our feet in the ocean in Santa Barbara. But next time, I am going somewhere exotic on my vacation…Cambodia or South Africa…I want to be a tourist too! 
 
 

Current Mood: cheerful cheerful

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Do you remember that Alanis Morissette song “Ironic”?
 
A traffic jam when you're already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It's meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
 
And isn’t it ironic that during the three weeks of “hot as hell” weather in Moscow, one has hot water and during the coldest three weeks immediately following that, the same person has NO hot water?
 
I know this is not the first time I complain about this travesty. Last year, I was appalled with this archaic soviet practice of turning off hot water for three weeks during the summer. Nothing has changed. I am still appalled. In fact, this year my anger knows no bounds because after a fruitless effort to change the situation, I am still without hot water.
 
This year I decided things will be different. I decided to go the store and buy a water heater! Oh, if things were that easy! In Russia, they never are!
 
I go to the store and stand in the department which sells water heaters. They cost between $50 and $500. I honestly don’t care about the price – I just want it to function. I am having trouble figuring out the difference between the different models, so I ask a sales associate to help me. After a 40 minute conversation, I leave the store empty handed and dumbfounded! Here are some of the issues that came up…
 
  • The best water heaters (according to the sales associate) are of a certain brand. The store has that brand on display but doesn’t have any in stock.
  • Not all water heaters (that are instantaneous) have a shower head – most come only with a faucet. I don’t want to wash my hair under a faucet. The ones that do come with a shower head, lack a key component of any electrical device…the power chord! To buy the power chord, I would have to go to another store. The sales associate has no idea where this kind of a store could be!
  • Water heaters, apparently, use different voltages. Some are 3 watts and some are 5.5 watts. I have no idea what this means, so the sales associate starts asking me what kind of a stove I have! Why? I just don’t know!
  • If I decided to buy a 5.5 watt heater, then I would have to call an electrician to have a special type of an outlet installed in my bathroom.
  • I called the installation service right from the store. They told me that the earliest an electrician and an installer can come would be in two weeks or so – 3 days before my hot water was to be turned on!
 
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr! I don’t understand! I don’t understand! I don’t understand! Can someone answer these questions for me…WHY:
 
…would you sell an electrical appliance without a power chord?
…if you DO sell an electrical appliance without a power chord, why don’t you sell these power chords as an accessory and place it next to the water heaters? Why would you send a customer half way across town?
…do you ask about the stove, when a customer wants to buy water heater for the bathroom?
…wouldn’t you equip all water heaters with an add-on shower head?
…wouldn’t you train the electrician to install the water heaters, instead of employing two people?
 
In conclusion: my hot water gets turned on tomorrow…so I’ve told my employees that if they ever wanted to ask me for a raise, they should do it tomorrow because I should be in a spectacular mood.

Current Mood: frustrated frustrated

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Now I remember why I quit!

 

When I entered 1st grade, I was not only enrolled in a regular school, I also attended a music school. Russians take their piano-playing very seriously and torture their children until the kids can play a Tchaikovsky piece in their sleep. The school not only involved actual practical training on the piano, but also a class in “theory”, chorus, and band. There was lots of homework and when I started attending, it seemed that the teachers just recently relinquished their right to whack students with a ruler and were struggling to come up with alternate ways to teach. Absent any real methodologies, they retreated to teaching by the book – all theory. Unimpressive and mind-numbing textbooks induced comatose-like blank stares and only the most stoic were able to finish all 8 years of school and not lose affection for music. I was not stoic. I was bored and agitated by this teaching method and would have almost preferred the ruler on the fingers, for this would have prevented my dozing off in front of the piano.

 

After about a year, I quit. My parents, like most parents, asked me to reconsider and warned me that I might regret it in the future. I didn’t reconsider and of course, I regretted it. For years, I’ve wondered, what was so terrible about music school that I voluntarily gave up learning to play the piano: a skill that I enjoy (not learning music, but performing) and according to some, had real talent in.

 

Now I remember why I quit music school. Last week I was thrown back almost 20 years to my childhood. I am sitting in front of the piano. Back straight. Foot on the right pedal. Fingers elegantly bent as if I am holding two golf balls in my hands. My teacher is sitting next to me on the bench. She is not happy. She cringes and says “Anna, you didn’t practice. You need to practice at least two hours daily. If you have to, get up earlier for school and practice before class. You need to learn blah, blah, blah, and blah, blah, blah. You need to practice scales for at least one hour daily. And so on, and so on and so on”. I would retort something, but in the end the feeling of constant failure never left me. At some point, I remember being the best pianist in the class and a soloist in the chorus, but I was miserable. But I digress…

 

I hired a guitar teacher. The agreement is that he comes to my house for an hour once a week. He is charging about $30/lesson, which is comparable with California prices and a bit too much for Moscow. Last Saturday, we had our first lesson. First surprise - he arrived at my door without a guitar. I’ve had teachers in the States and they would never think of having a lesson without having a guitar themselves. I thought that the reason it was so difficult to find someone to come to your house for a lesson is because no one wants to drag a heavy guitar case across Moscow on public transportation for a measly few bucks. That would have explained this guy’s hefty (by Russian standard) fees. This made me think that perhaps I found such a prestigious teacher that he is worth $30/hr even without the guitar.

 

He asked me what I knew and how long I’ve played for. I told him that I took lessons for a few months and then moved to Moscow. I showed him my old notebook and told him that previously I have been learning everything from the Beatles and Aerosmith to Beethoven (I love the way classical music sounds on an electric guitar). Surprise number two: I got a lecture from this guy about how certain music is meant for certain instruments, thus hinting that classical music on an electric guitar is just silly. Ok…to each its own – was all I can say.

 

We went on. When I told him that I won’t be able to meet him every week because I often go on business trips or am otherwise preoccupied, he proceeded to give me another lecture about the importance of practice. He told me that he doesn’t care whether I am in sick or sleepy – I absolutely needed to practice at least an hour a day. He said that if I can’t find time in the evening, I should wake up an hour earlier and do it in the morning! Huuhhhh – he doesn’t know me very well! In any case, this immediately and irreversibly brought me back to my childhood and I haven’t been able to shake this feeling of.

 

The fun went on and on. He made me memorize all the notes on the guitar neck. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important, but no American teacher will do that to a student, if he wants the student to ever come back for another lesson. He told me that the traditional ABC’s of a guitar (most guitar notes are written in ABC’s not Do Re Mi’s) are letters and not notes and that I need to retrain immediately! “A minor” equals to “La minor”! Shit! Who cares?????? He told me that it is imperative for me know that the note “Sol” for example (previously known to me as G) is located on the second line (out of a total five lines on which notes can be written) and I needed to know how to write ALL notes and where they are located on the guitar neck. This went on and on. Out of an hour and a half, I held the guitar in my hands for about 20 minutes.

 

This mind-numbing theory approach gave me a glance back into my childhood. I remembered why I quit music school. I am going to give this guy one more chance, but if I don’t feel any better about the way he teaches I’ll be looking for a new teacher and he go help some poor insomniac fall asleep.

Current Mood: curious curious

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Kazan’ (Republic of Tatarstan)

 

On Saturday, I was invited to a small gathering by a group of friends that were celebrating….well…they were celebrating their returns from business trips. One girl went on a press tour to Dubai, one guy went to a conference in Hanover, and I…well….I went to Kazan’ (Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Federation). As I was sitting there, listening to the incredible stories of 6-star hotels and illustrious wealth of the oil-rich Middle East, and the neatly (almost manically) dusted streets of a German town, I felt the need to say something about Kazan’. Granted my trip was not nearly as glamorous or expensive, but I did after all, visit one of the wealthiest (also oil rich) Russian regions.

 

I was sent to Kazan’ to open a new office there. Although, when the office materialized, it turned out that the local university simply gave us a room, two desks and two chairs and called it an office.  It was gracious, nonetheless.

 

Tatarstan is a very wealthy republic and Kazan’ (the capital) just celebrated its 1000’s birthday (their millennium). A few years ago, the authorities (armed with lots of money) started rebuilding the whole metropolitan area. They wanted to finish by the millennium, but didn’t finish everything. Now, whole city blocks (even in the center) stand in ruins. They were torn down, but nothing new has yet been erected. These city blocks look like a fragment of the post World War II era - as if, the city has recently been struck by Nazi air raids. The wreckage is further underlined by the beautiful, new, modern buildings that were, in fact completed in time for the millennium.

 

 




And right next to that wreckage - there is a new shopping center....doesn't it remind you of Luxor in Vegas?




Beautiful Mosque in the center (also built for the millenium)

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My father in Moscow
 
It is not a secret that history is written by the victors. There are always two ways to tell a story and the ones that write more often than not, tend to exaggerate in their favor. In this case, I will let you decide for yourselves, for I have given up trying to convince everyone that “IT WAS NOT MY FAULT”.
 
My father was invited to Moscow by a radio station called “Radion Shanson” to perform in a concert with other winners of the Best Song of the Year contest. He won third place (out of over 10,000 songs), performed in front of a large and receptive audience and was given a guitar as a present by Andrey Makarevich himself (famous Russian musician) on stage.
 
All in all, it was a good day. My friends, however, chose to focus on a slightly different aspect of the evening, ostracizing me to this day, even though almost two months have passed. Here is what happened…or at least how my friends tell the story!
 
Before the concert our spirits were running high and we decided to lift them even further with a glass of wine (or cognac – but that’s not important). I was excited to see daddy on stage, getting introduced by well known radio personalities and as we later found out, having a song dedicated to him by Alexei Kortnev (another famous Russian musician, singer of Neschastniy Sluchay). When he was introduced, my excitement level spilled over the acceptable adult-behavior limit (the wine/cognac did their trick) and I started screaming in support of my parent, not unlike a crazed teenager at a Bon Jovi concert.
 
My father is a “bard” (folk musician), this type of screaming is not common place at a folk-song concert, so I soon had to quiet down and let the man sing. The nostalgia-drenched song he chose (or was chosen for him out of his repertoire) was about our old Moscow neighborhood. I was so inspired and overwhelmed by emotion that I felt a desperate need to cheer on my daddy. The rock-like cheering and screaming came back, but this time, it was in the middle of the chorus and when the audience was listening attentively to the words of the song…so the total silence was sharply interrupted by my “OOOHHHH, Go, Shurik, Go”. The wonderful acoustics of the auditorium multiplied the yelling and completely stunned my father. He paused. The music continued, but he paused.
 
The pause lasted for about a second and I doubt that anyone even noticed it, but I felt it. My father was definitely searching for the next word because he never held such a long pause in this song, in this chorus.
 
To make a long story short...he found the words, finished the song, won third place, won a guitar and had a song dedicated to him by a well known Russian musician. He also went to the banquet afterwards and had a good time. But my friends kept insisting that I ruined my father’s concert and that I should hereafter behave when I attend such concerts! The evil friends have also spread this incident all over Moscow and now everyone I know giggle whenever this incident gets brought up. In my defense, I would like to say that between my shouting and his pause, a good ten seconds passed, so it was NOT MY FAULT!
 
My love to my daddy! The concert was wonderful! 

Current Mood: ditzy ditzy

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Tahoe, California vs. Vorob’yovie Gori, Moscow
 
My snowboarding friends and relatives will be disappointed. This season, I’ve only been snowboarding once, even though I schlepped all the gear half way across the world. I ask for forgiveness from my sister Liz and from Gera (they are the ones that taught me to snowboard), but you can’t imagine how difficult it is to enjoy this sport without having a car. Even though there ARE small slopes even within Moscow city limits, it is incredibly exhausting to get to them (with equipment in hand) via public transportation. Remember all my stories about the crowded buses and metro? Now imagine making your way through this crowd with a snowboard!
 
I have to confess, that there ARE youngsters and enthusiasts that endure public transportation with gear in hand, but consider me spoiled, I just won’t do it. The alternative is taking a taxi, but that could get very expensive. And as I found out, taxi companies even charge an extra 150 rubles ($7) for what they call a “ski” fee!
 
Now the weather has improved and most of the snow is quickly melting away, so I fear that this season was lost. I did, however, venture out once a few weeks ago. And it was an experience to remember….
 
A friend of mine and I decided to meet up at the nearest metro station (Vorob’yovie Gori). It is situated in the middle of a large park/sport complex. I took a cab to the metro station. What I didn’t know at the time is that this metro station is special – you can’t just drive up to it like with all the others. Since it is located in the park which limits car traffic, an automobile wanting to enter, has to pay a fee. When we drove up to the metro station (having passed 3 security check points that double checked that we have indeed paid the fee), I didn’t see a mountain or anyone with a snowboard or skies. I called my friend who couldn’t wait for me any longer and started making his way toward the slope. He said that he exited the station and followed people with snowboards in hand and that the hike up the mountain was a challenge.
 
This was problematic. I didn’t want to hike at all…after all that’s why I took the cab. I also didn’t see a single soul with a snowboard and everyone I asked, said that they didn’t know where the mountain was. How can people not know where a mountain is? Mountains are usually sizeable and are not easy to miss? Mountains have skiers on them and lifts. Hmmm….was I even at the right metro station?
 
I decided to retrace my friend’s steps. I went inside the metro station (having paid for the ride that I didn’t take) and walked across the platform. I exited through another entrance and finally saw someone with something that resembled winter sporting equipment in hand. I followed him. We went up a hill. It wasn’t a mountain…it was a hill, but with a snowboard in one hand and a backpack in another, I was already tired by the time I got to the top. I found my friend there.
 
We went to buy a lift ticket. The lift ticket was a physical piece of paper that you handed over to the attended of the lift and there was one ticket per ride. Before I saw the actual slope, my friend suggested we purchase 10 lift tickets for starters. “Ten lift tickets” – I exclaimed! I’ve never used the lift more than 5-7 times per day. Each run at a good resort in Tahoe takes a good 20 minutes or even more….plus you take breaks, eat, and use the restroom. Plus, the day was soon coming to an end. We arrived at the mountain at 2pm! How could we possibly use up 10?
 
I should have waited with my amazement until I saw the slope. The mountain, or rather the “hill” was not very impressive. It was about 80 meters. Some Tahoe peaks are over 7000 feet if I am not mistaken, and this hill was 80 meters. The whole ride down lasted less than 10 seconds and that’s only because I tried to control the speed and stretch out the “fun”. After 2 or 3 runs, nature called me and I tried to find a bathroom. Oh, the little things we take for granted! My only choice was to use the little transportable blue booths that the city of Moscow graciously provided for its skiers. I peaked in and firmly decided that I would rather ruin my pants than use this establishment. I also thought it was ironic that the blue booths proudly displayed signs that this “service” was offered to tourists and residents of this city free of charge and with the city’s compliments! Yeah! Thanks!
 
The only other alternative was to go into a restaurant, order something and use their bathroom. My friend and I went into a nearby bar and had a cocktail. The bar’s restrooms were out of order, but at least with a shot of vodka in my system I was able to endure the little blue booth.
 
All in all, the day was enlightening. Don’t try to snowboard within Moscow’s city limits. If you do, don’t drink any liquids before hand. And above all else, make friends with the chair lift operator, because you’ll be spending more time with him than on the actual slope!
 
 

Current Mood: amused amused

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The Russian/Finnish Border

 

I bought a car. The car is lovely. The car is currently in Finland. It has been there for two weeks now. Why? Oh…don’t get me started – it’s a long story and until the journey of transporting the car to Moscow is finished, I won’t jinx it by talking about it. However, I WOULD  like to offer my commentary on the subject of the Russian-Finnish border.

 

Because of my newly purchased vehicle and my inability to comprehend and/or decode Russian law, I crossed the Russian-Finnish border 8 times in a period of about 40 hours.

 

  1. Outgoing – From Russia (7:00am Thursday)
  2. Incoming – To Finland (7:30am Thursday)
  3. Outgoing – From Finland (3:00pm Friday)
  4. Incoming – To Russia (3:30pm Friday)
  5. Outgoing – From Russia (5:00pm Friday)
  6. Incoming – To Finland (5:15pm Friday)
  7. Outgoing – From Finland (1:30am Saturday)
  8. Incoming – To Russia (1:45am Saturday)

 

I believe this now officially makes me an expert on the subject of the Russian-Finnish border, thus I can comment with authority.

 

Passport Control - The Fins…part I

 

I took the red eye train to Helsinki. The coupe had four travelers: one Finnish passport, two Russian ones and my American one. Which one got the most scrutiny? Mine! My passport was looked over for about 10 minutes, my name was written down, and probably scrutinized extensively later. Why? Because it was worn out. The Finnish passport control officer, I suppose, couldn’t believe that an American was on this train and thought the passport was fake. Could a Fin be on the train? Yes. A Russian? Yes. But why an American?

 

My passport is due to expire in 2014 and I was already advised to upgrade it to a new one since this kind of scrutiny will keep happening more often. On the other hand, the rate at which my passport is filling up with stamps (see above) is so speedy, that I fear the point will soon be moot.

 

Passport Control – The Russians…part I

 

The first time I arrived at the Russian border with my car and before finding out that I won’t be let into the country because I didn’t have the necessary paperwork, I had to pass passport control. A heavy-set, middle aged woman looked over my passport very carefully (also noting how worn out it was) and stamped it. But before handing me back the document, she exclaimed loudly “Oh, man – I put the stamp in the wrong place”. A fellow border patrol officer standing next to her, told her not to worry about it because there was nothing that could be done. “You are not going to stamp it again, right?” – she asked. The woman babbled on for another half a minute or so, shrugged her shoulders, sighed, and returned the passport.

 

An hour and a half later, I had to go back to the “outgoing” side of the Russian border because I was returning to Finland. I was surprised to find the same heavy-set woman at the passport control booth (I suppose they rotate their positions just to add a little spice into their lives). She lifted her eyes at me and gasped. “You again?” – she asked. “I thought I was rid of you an hour ago!” In haste, she picked up her walkie talkie and called her supervisor – a young, good natured lieutenant. She rambled on to him about how she made a mistake and put the stamp in the wrong place and how she thought she was rid of me for good and now this odd American young lady is back and she doesn’t know now where to put the stamp! As you can image they figured out where to stamp my passport. I suppose she takes real pride in her work, and so I felt guilty about making her so upset.

 

Passport Control - The Fins…part II

 

500 meters down the road (back to the Finnish border), I stood their helplessly, trying to explain to the officers, why I wanted to go back to Finland. The Fins turned out to be extremely accommodating and I was allowed back into the country with the car. My friend Sergey, who generously agreed to help me drive the car to Moscow, was not so lucky. Sergey is a Russian citizen. He had a single-entry visa into Finland and when we exited the country an hour and a half earlier, his visa was annulled.

 

Picture this: I am standing at the customs counter, trying to get my temporary Finnish license plates back. Sergey is quietly sitting at a bench across from this counter which also houses passport control. At some point, the bored passport control officers notice that there is a man idly sitting on a bench next to them, who seems to be in no hurry to show them his passport or to proceed in any way. They ask him to step up. Sergey approaches and tries to tell the officers the whole story almost in unison with my rhetoric to the customs officers. The Fins ask for his passport anyway. He shows it to them and explains that he doesn’t expect to get back into the country, but he just drove here with me to make sure that I will be let back in before he hitched a ride to the nearest Russian town. The officer is confused. He says, “Sir, you have a single-entry visa, we can’t let you in”. Sergey comments that he is aware of that and that he doesn’t want to go to Finland, and that he will be on his way back to the Russian border as soon as I am on my way back to Finland. The officer is still confused. He announces that he needs to call over his supervisor. The officer’s supervisor appears. He looks over Sergey’s passport. I hear a repeat of the same speech by the supervisor and the same answer from Sergey – “Sir, I DON’T WANT TO GO TO FINLAND”.

 

The last time I saw Sergey that day, was when he was walking toward the “outgoing” side of the Finnish border complex. To say that I felt guilty would be to say nothing at all. He generously offered to help, and I left him with nothing but a hundred dollars in his pocket and his backpack, on the Finnish-Russian border. Poor Sergey.

 

Passport Control – The Russians…part II

 

The last time I entered Russia that weekend, I was extremely tired. My friends at the dealership (in Finland), generously offered to give me a ride to St. Petersburg, but before we left Kotka (the little port town), the head accountant at the dealership (a lovely 25 year old young woman), offered me a drink. “Anya” – she said – “Today was a very stressful day for both of us. I was about to quit my job. Before we get in the car, share a drink with me.” We had a glass of cognac and my mood suddenly lifted. By the time we got to the border, I was in high spirits, but was in no mood to deal with the border patrol again.

 

There is a little piece of paper that you have fill out when you enter Russia as a foreign citizen. It’s about 10 lines long about your nationality and place of work. I was so tired and sleepy that I had a hard time filling it out. I tried once. The passport control officer refused it, due to the fact that it wasn’t legible. She told that me if I couldn’t fill it out in Russian, I can fill it out in English. I did. She refused it again. I filled it out a third time.

 

The next morning, I showed this form to Sergey (we met up in St. Petersburg). He looked it over, smiled, and said, “Were you trying to fill it out in Finnish?” He was right – the form was ineligible…but by the time I got to the booth a third time, the passport control officer, took mercy on my soul and didn’t make me fill it out again.

 

Conclusion: border control folks always intimidated me before, but now I see you can reason with me, play the “pity card” on them, and even confuse them…..as if they were real people! Who knew?  

 

 

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International Women’s day
 
America has Mother’s day….Russia has March 8th – International Women’s day. It is an odd holiday, for it celebrates people for the mere fact of having certain body parts. It celebrates 51% of the population and acknowledges them just for being born! I find that odd!
 
March 8th is a huge holiday in Russia. Women expect and often demand preferential treatment. Women expect to be cooked for or at the least taken out to dinner. Women expect gifts and are steadfast on the issue of flowers: they are expecting them in dozens and not only from their husbands, but from any male they often interact with, like their boss! It is well known, in fact, that flower vendors make as much on March 7th and 8th, as they do the rest of the year (Valentines Day is not that popular in Russia). Vendors get so overwhelmed with demand that they set up tables on the sidewalks and sell flowers right on the street (their little stores would otherwise be cramped with desperate males).
 
What I find most puzzling about this holiday is that the Russian women turn into resolute and proud creatures almost identical to the majority of their Western counterparts. For one day out of the year, the Russian females have strength and conviction and demand to be treated with respect and love. The other 364 days, females tend to take supportive roles, subordinate to their mates. For one day, the world seems to be turned up side down: males explore the unfamiliar world of the “kitchen”, while females are allowed to “take it easy” for a day.
 
As for me, until this day, I didn’t realize how many male friends, acquaintances, and coworkers I really had. My kitchen is filled with flowers and I received phone calls and SMSs throughout the day. The attention was wonderful, but for the sake of the Russian female, I hope that someday, they will be revered all year long and not just on March 8th!
 
 
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The dangers of restaurants

Don’t try to go out for dinner in a group of 3 people or more in
Moscow. Just don’t do it! Some things that seem trivial and unimportant in the US turn into unexpected challenges. Let me give you an example…
 
A group of 8 people decided to get together in a restaurant on Thursday night. They had a desire to congregate in an eating establishment at least one level higher than McDonalds and that was situated within the city center. Those were the only two requirements! I assume my distinguished reader realizes that a whole array of restaurants and bars fall within the above-mentioned parameters in a city whose population comes close to 15,000,000 residents.
 
At first, a sizeable German Beir-Garten was chosen to house the gathering. Later, certain members of the group decided against this restaurant, because of an incident that happened a month prior which involved this group being kicked out of the same establishment for being too drunk! This bunch of fun-loving individuals were appalled that a German bar refused their business for such a ridiculous reason! After all, if beer gardens refused to serve all drunk people, they would be out of business, wouldn’t they? Suffice it to say – having been reminded of this unprecedented occurrence, the group decided to take their business elsewhere.
 
Another restaurant was picked – this time it was an establishment that mirrored the era of Peter the Great. The décor resembled a 19th century yacht. A forward-thinking representative of the bunch, called ahead to make a reservation. To her shear amazement, the restaurant refused to take a reservation, excusing it by saying that they didn’t take reservations on Thursday and Friday!
 
The third choice was a simple night club, with cozy back rooms and a dance floor. Having called them, the “forward-thinking” individual was told that they too, didn’t take reservations over the phone. The individual inquire, “If not over the phone, then how”? She was told that in order to make the reservation, one would have to drive to the restaurant and pay 200 rubles ($8) per guest, in order to secure a table for the same night. The amazed “forward-thinking” individual, wanted to make sure that she heard correctly, “So, I would drive to your restaurant right now, pay, leave, and then come back the same evening”? The answer was “yes”.
 
But at last victory! The fourth choice – also a bar/club/restaurant in a dark basement accepted the reservation over the phone. The overjoyed bunch made their way to the sacred spot. They were seated and the fun began. The waitress – a thoughtful and cheerful young lady, accidentally dropped an empty (but heavy) wine glass on one of the guest’s head. She apologized, but at the same time was expecting praise from the group about her skillful catch. She even asked “Did you see – I didn’t drop the glass on the floor”? The fact that she dropped it on someone’s head didn’t seem to phase her!
 
During the middle of the meal, someone in another part of the restaurant started singing. The group inquired of the waitress, whether tonight was karaoke night. It was not. The waitress informed the bunch that this was the main act of tonight’s performance program. “Hmmmmm, you don’t say?” was all the joy-loving bunch could say.
 
Finally, when the bill was presented and spirits were high due to slight touches of alcohol, the more scrupulous of the bunch found an interesting item on the bill – a few shots of Johnny Walker Black Label! Perhaps if the cunning waiters would have fabricated the bill with the Red Label, no one would have noticed, but the Black Label was noticed and the waitress’ attention was called to the fact that no one ordered JW. She apologized profusely…more than when she dropped the glass on the head!
 
What is the point of the story, one might ask! Well, I leave you with this thought – perhaps it is better to go out on Monday night, when the restaurants are grateful for your business, because going out on a Thursday night seems to leave you a large phone bill, no money, and a big bump on the head!

Current Mood: giggly giggly

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