Sunday, December 03, 2006

Welcome to My Kitchen

Lint In the Frypan

You’re going to have a problem in the kitchen, friend Julia said. There’s no place to put the washing machine.

When Julia says something like that I listen. Julia is a kitchen designer. It was a couple of weeks before the move into my new apartment. I had given Julia the keys to go over and look around.

Oh. . . Oh, of course, the washing machine.

Most apartments here in Russia were built back when most folks washed their clothes by hand in a basin. And in such Soviet-era apartments, finding a place for the washing machine can be a challenge.

But it was too late. A week earlier when I first walked into the living room and laid eyes on the wall of built-in bookshelves, I fell in love and shortly thereafter, proclaimed my serious interest in the place. And, as my realtor can attest, that’s quite different from my usual modus operandi. It was the 7th apartment we had looked at.

Let me think about this for a few days, was my typical response. But on this one, I was smitten from the start.

So okay. I had made a commitment before I thought much about the kitchen. And Julia was right, I had a problem. Next to solve it: I did a kitchen-to-scale mockup with various appliances and cabinets on bits of paper. Julia and I moved those around at length.

On paper, our plan was brilliant. In reality, it was back to the drawing. . .er, shuffle board.

The problem was: What else could be moved out? The kitchen table had already been voted out and into the living room. The gas stove had to stay. The sink had to stay. Seemed as though moving the washing machine was the only option. So we brainstormed. Someone suggested the washing machine in the entry wall – no problem if you don’t mind water hoses running above the floor. Another idea was to put it on the window sill – where it really would fit, space-wise. Or on the kitchen balcony? We kept running into dead ends.

Then handyman Nickolai suggested moving the refrigerator. Out into the entryway seemed logical because of closeness to the kitchen. But I was already set on putting a chest-height cabinet and mirror there, the place for launching from home to the street and back.

And then, voila! We hit on it. We realized that refrigerator could go just inside the living room. There’s an outlet there and the door between the entryway and living room could be easily removed. It works!

Back in the kitchen, a previous resident had strung space-saving laundry lines overhead, as is common and works with the high ceilings. That’s a great place for hanging smaller items. Imagine hanging laundry right over the stove. There are safety considerations with that, of course. But then again, there’s nothing quite like the texture of sautéed lint.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Pyshkinskaya, My Pyshkinskaya.

I’ve gotten comfortable living here on Pyshkinskaya, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare that stretches 16 blocks or so through the center of the city. Pyshkinskaya is lined by stately trees and nine-story Communist-era apartment buildings several decades past their prime. I’ve lived in one such building for seven-and-a-half years now, six months longer that I lived in my childhood home.

My landlady wants to sell the apartment so I need to move – although she did give me dibs on buying the place and offered it for US$100,000 in cash. So, as I said, I’ll be moving soon and the whole process has been quite smooth so far – finding a new place and getting it ready because, for one thing, there’s no hurry. And for another thing, my attitude has been good, so far anyway. I’m okay about this move because I see it as an opportunity.

Last move, my outlook was a bit different. I remember that distinctly. That was four years ago when I lived on 3rd floor of this very apartment building. I had been there for three years and gotten things all spruced up when the owner, Tatyana Somebody-ovna decided she wanted the apartment back for her son and family. Okaaay. As I recall, I did share with her my displeasure about that. (Imagine.) Mostly I was dreading finding a new place, not knowing quite how to go about it.

But, as the Aussies say, “No worries, matey!” A new apartment landed right in my lap thanks to the unofficial network of Russian babyshkas, the grandmothers who know what’s going on with everybody. The sweet, busy-body babyshka (BBB) on 6th floor asked if I knew of anybody looking for an apartment. At first I couldn’t think of anybody (duh) but eventually I did (guess who) and dear BBB connected me with the owner of the newly available apartment.

I came up to have a look around, saw 35 years worth of dusty canning jars, broken windows on the balcony, the rickety cabinets in the kitchen and decided “nyet, nyet, a thousand times NYET.” But later while listening to a sermon (no offense Igor), my mind wandered off to the sage advise of “location, location and. . .location.” The grime and junk could be dealt with. Windows and cabinets could be replaced. But the location was absolutely unbeatable. So the “nyet” became “da”. . . and here we are!

I’ve been on 7th floor for more than four years now. Doing repairs and replacing wallpaper are but vague memories. But the view overlooking Pyshkinskaya out on my south balcony still takes my breath away. To the north, three large windows are in the tree tops and I relish the big sky, the summer sunsets and a family of delicate little birds with blue caps, blue wings and yellow underside, officially the Blue Tit species. I haven’t shed one nostalgic tear missing that 3rd floor apartment. Moving was in my best interests.

So, lesson learned, I’m realizing that another move equals new opportunities. I think I’ll like my new apartment even better in some ways but I will miss Pyshkinskaya with its peace and quiet. I’ll still be able to enjoy Pyshkinskaya, walking from the Vor-osh-il-OV-skee bus stop to our church building. The route goes right past a favorite dining establishment where I feel right at home – McDonald’s.

Left: Views north, northwest from apartment on Pyshkinskaya.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sister with Her Russian Bible. Tallinn, Estonia.

Words Worth Savoring

Sounds like you’re having a wonderful summer!
We really enjoy hearing about you teaching God’s Word!
The pictures are great – they bring back memories of my trips to Rostov!

Those are a few responses to the June edition of *From Russia with Love,* an email newsletter about my service and the congregation here in Rostov-on-Don. Usually I would have found those words delightful and heartwarming. But in June, they hit me like a splash of cold water.

I had started that newsletter telling about the early-morning telephone call I had received the previous week and learning about the death of my dad. Beats me how that sounds like part of a wonderful summer. Of course we can assume that those dear people didn’t make it past the title and certainly not into paragraph one. But for us writer-wanna-be’s who imagine that our golden words are worth savoring, well, that’s a bit deflating.

I was mulling over possible responses, considering letting those folks know that they didn’t fool me, no-siree, pretending to have read my sparkling missive, when another thought hit me like a tidal wave: How often have I given a cursory glance to words from God? How often have I dozed off reading my Bible (no offense, Jeremiah) or not opened it for personal reading to savor its richness and depth? How often has my New Year’s resolution of Bible reading fallen apart before April? Seventy times seven is a number that comes to mind as does 144,000.

Surely it grieves the heart of God when we barely glance at His words, painstakingly written and preserved for us over the centuries.

In all fairness, I hasten to mention the steady stream of communication between me and God. I regularly forward Him the current list of my needs, my wants. I’m often asking for wisdom and guidance, thanking Him for manifold blessings and mercies. But I’m coming to realize that our conversation tends to be lop-sided. I’m doing most of the talking, seems like. And the touching thing is, perfect gentleman that He is, the Good Lord is so patient that He blesses me just for dropping by to chat mostly about myself. I'm starting to do more listening.

Quite a few newsletter recipients did make it through paragraph one and sent me notes of comfort and encouragement, words that considerably eased the sadness. Several read through to the very final notation about Dad’s obituary being posted at, went to the site and signed the on-line guestbook there. How that extra measure made me smile. And surely we warm the heart of God and bring delight to Him when we respect and value His Word, savoring each morsel, even wading through the “and so-and-so begat so-and-so,” knowing that it’s there for a reason.

Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
(Psalms 119:105)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Harry's American Sandwich Bread

Photo: Harry’s American Sandwich Bread: “HOW TO MAKE A GENUINE SANDWICH"

A question for State-side readers: Would you say that the sandwich posted at left is typical of those assembled in your kitchen? I thought perhaps not. And I will confess that I’ve never managed to concoct such a Genuine American Sandwich, despite a rather extensive background in home economics.

Not to worry though. The Slavic soul is fascinated by almost anything that is American – or by anything that is purported to be American – including so-called, American-style bread. Or so hopes Harry. The advertisement includes a picture and a recipe for making such a sandwich, necessary because it differs from the typical Russian-style sandwich. Here, a “BYT-er-brod” is open-faced and on a slice of ba-TON, a long loaf of bread.

Just wondering: Do you suppose that American Sandwich Bread would fly off the shelves, say, in Kansas City? Or in Cleveland? Or would folks there prefer Italian bread? Well, next time you find yourself in Russia, ask for some American Sandwich Bread. Get a loaf before they're all snatched off the shelves.

"For the making of a genuine sandwich."

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Wear Cabbage for Summertime Cool

Let cabbage help you keep your cool. That’s right! Our research has shown that a cool-headed produce vendor attracts customers like. . . like fruit flies. Wear your cabbage-leaf hat with complete confidence knowing that your hat will be one-of-a-kind as well as 100% biodegradable.

And that’s not all. After the sun goes down, your versatile hat can be eaten raw as a nutritious snack or boiled, baked or stir-fried for your evening meal.

Here is our promise to you: Your cabbage-leaf hat will stay intact for 3-5 working days depending upon humidity, dew point and the ruble-to-dollar exchange rate. We suggest after each wearing, simply rinse in cool, clear water and dry your cabbage-leaf hat flat and away from heat. (Dry cleaning not recommended.) Available in classic cabbage green or vivid purple prose. One size fits most. Order your cabbage-leaf hat today while supplies last! (Recipes and nutritional information available.)

If a tree could talk...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Weathering the Storms: Farewell to a Beloved Father

One summer afternoon as a little girl here in Rittman, Ohio, I was draped across the front porch swing of our white, frame house. The sky was dark and thunder rumbled in the distance. Dad’s truck pulled up just then and he came bounding up the steps from work.

He was wearing his dark green work clothes and carrying his lunch box, heavy with a thermos. He smelled of lacquer thinner, sawdust and of honest sweat, smells of a builder. Dad eased his lanky frame down onto the swing beside me. The storm was closer now, the thunder was louder and I was nearly in tears.

Dad draped his arm around behind me. As the lightening flashed, he explained that when two clouds bump together, lightening happens. He told me that God created the clouds and that God made the thunder and the lightening.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Eileen, because God is in control.” Then it began to pour down rain.

I felt so safe sitting there beside Dad, watching the angry clouds churn past. Starting then, I began to appreciate thunderstorms and to marvel at the raw power of God’s heavens.

* * * * *

Forty-nine years have passed since that conversation on the front porch swing. Forty-nine Ohio winters of shoveling snow from the front walk, forty-nine summers with magnificent skies and billowing clouds. Forty-nine years of life in the work-a-day world, raising a family, paying the electric bill, launching kids, keeping gas in the car and easing into retirement.

There have been sunny days and there have been dismal days. In recent years, there have been days when all Dad could hear was the rumbling of the distant thunder, when all he could taste was the bitterness of regrets, when all he could see was the approaching storm clouds.

One dark hour in recent days, Dad may have been overwhelmed by a storm of his own, the wind whipping around his face, raindrops stinging his cheeks and thunder crashing in his ears. Or perhaps he had been scanning the horizon, fearful of what storms tomorrow would bring. Perhaps he wanted simply to control his last days and choose when and where he would leave us. Such things are known only to God.

But had I been with Dad during that midnight hour, I would have sat down beside him. I would have slipped my hand into his and recited these words from the classic hymn:

Master, the tempest is raging!
The billows are tossing high.
The sky is o’er shadowed with blackness,
No shelter or help is nigh.
Carest Thou not that we perish?
How canst Thou lie asleep,
When each moment so madly is threat’ning
A grave in the angry deep?

Master, with anguish of spirit,
I bow in my grief today;
The depths of my sad heart are troubled;
O waken and save, I pray!
Torrents of sin and of anguish
Sweep o’er my sinking soul!
And I perish! I perish, dear Master;
O hasten and take control!

I would stop and look at him,
“Dad, listen to me. You think all is lost. The Prince of Darkness, the Father of Lies is whispering in your ear. Telling you that life has been hopeless and that your future will be miserable. Please Dad, look to the Master. Like you told me so long ago, God is in control. Please Dad, the song doesn’t end here. Dad, please stay for the next verse. . .

Master, the terror is over,
The elements sweetly rest;
Earth’s sun in the calm lake is mirrored,
And heaven’s within my breast,
Linger, O blessed Redeemer,
Leave me alone no more;
And with joy I shall make the blest harbor,
And rest on the blissful shore.

The winds and the waves shall obey Thy will.
Peace, be still!
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea,
Or demons, or men, or whatever it be,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
The Master of oceans and earth and skies;
They all shall sweetly obey Thy will,
Peace, be still!
Peace, be still!
They all shall sweetly obey Thy will,
Peace, peace, be still!

Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, family and friends, life goes on and it will include dark moments. Storms roll across our horizon. We fear that our ship will capsize before we reach harbor. But let us look to the Master of the wind and the waves. He longs to be Lord of each of our lives. He longs to put his arm around each of us and guide us homeward.

During this dark and difficult hour, I am so thankful to have had a dad who pointed me to our Heavenly Father even, and most especially, when the storms come.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Happy Mutual Birthday

I was walking home from church Sunday afternoon carrying two bouquets of flowers when a distinguished 50-something gentleman approached me on the sidewalk.

“Could you not tell me where is located the Black Sea Military Naval Service?” he asked in the round-about Russian way.

“Where is WHAT located?” Our conversation was in Russian, of course, and but I needed him to repeat what he was looking for.

Hearing my accent, he tried to switch to English and shifted his gaze to the tree tops in an effort to remember his high school English.

“Today. . .,” he said in English, gesturing widely. He looked back up to the sky to find more words. “Today. . .,” he continued and stopped.

I didn’t acknowledge that I understood the English but repeated my question in Russian, “Where is WHAT located?”

Instead of answering in Russian he switched to German. I was getting impatient. I was tired, my arms were heavy with stuff and playing language games wasn't on my immediate agenda. But something was starting to click in my mind.

Earlier that morning at church, a visitor mentioned that the day happened to be Naval Armed Forces day, a holiday to honor those who serve in the navy. Here in Russia, many professions have their own holiday to honor, celebrate and show appreciation to those in that profession. There is a holiday to honor those in the medical professions, a day to honor firefighters, days to honor teachers, accountants and those in oil-related industries, for instance. Honorees might be feted with flowers, but it’s likely that the celebrations will include fine food and endless congratulatory toasts.

I realized that the man on the street was assuming from my bouquets that I was connected with the Russian Naval Fleet. And, who better to ask for directions to the Black Sea division?

“English is my first language,” I said to him in English. “But I have no idea where the Black Sea Naval Forces are headquartered. I’m carrying flowers because today is a holiday for me, too – it’s my birthday!”

Something clicked in his mind too about making assumptions. He stepped back, and apologized with a chuckle.

So, here’s wishing a big congratulations to the Naval Forces of Russia, celebrating their 310th birthday. And a Happy Birthday to me, too. At a mere 54 years, I’m feeling positively youthful by comparison.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Tribute to My Dad

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

And What Are YOU Staring At?

I turned around and there were 16 pair of eyes on me. Conversation stopped, all were turned in my direction and gazing unabashedly.

I had stopped by the office of a particular foreign consulate and to my surprise, there were no lines at the service windows. The room was full of people waiting for their documents, however, and officials were busy in the back offices.

Eventually, an official came to the window and gave me his attention. I showed him my passport and began talking through the speaker. My explanation was in Russian, of course, but after two sentences he interrupted and said in English, "WHAT do you want."

He meant it as a question but I wasn’t sure what to think. His words sounded abrupt because of his emphasizing the WHAT and not raising the pitch of his voice at the end of the sentence. Nevertheless, I followed his lead and switched to English. Shortly he interrupted again and told me that I would need to speak with another official later. I doubt that he understood much of what I was saying.

Then when I turned from the window, every person in the waiting room was staring. They had overheard our conversation through the speaker, of course, and found it quite interesting. Just between you and me, I don’t relish being an object of curiosity, particularly when I’m trying to take care of personal business. But, welcome to Russia!

* * * * *

I had a similar experience recently at the bank when picking up funds. The teller was giving me instructions, all in Russian of course, about where to sign the various documents. She was speaking loudly enough that the entire room could overhear and then when she announced the grand cash total, I felt my mouth go dry.

“It wasn’t necessary to broadcast that to everyone.”

I looked around and other tellers had paused mid-task, customers had turned to look and even the security guard was staring in my direction.

* * * * *

And so you see, staring happens and it ranges from gawking at passersby on the street to curiosity about private transactions. I find it unnerving to be stared when I’m conducting personal business. The staring is only momentary, of course; gazes shift to another person or perhaps to a fly buzzing in the window. But after several uncomfortable staring incidents recently, I decided to that I must address this issue of staring. How to deal with it? Through understanding and through humor. As though that were easy. First, a Google search: staring and culture.

First, there were tips for a person from an Okay-to-stare culture being transplanted into the Australian culture:

“. . .it is extremely rude to openly and curiously look at someone you don’t know. . . Some Australians interpret this kind of looking behaviour, no matter how harmless it is intended to be, as an aggressive assault on their privacy and may even challenge you to a fight. When dealing with strangers, Australians try very hard to only glance and perhaps smile briefly at the stranger and then carefully avert their eyes.”

And then I found insight for the person from a Don’t Stare culture who finds herself unnerved in, say, Italy, Indonesia or. . .Russia.

“Remember, you are quite an unusual creature in this setting. Many people on the streets will have had little contact with foreigners. What you look like, what you do, and how you behave will generate intense interest. Don't get angry or try to "educate" people on the idea that staring is rude. It will only increase curiosity, and frustrate you. Relax. Let people look. After all, you are doing your own exploration of the people and places here. What you are reacting to is not so much the staring, but your cultural interpretation of the action”

Okay. I'm understanding staring a bit more. Now for some humor. How about I burst into song with “The Eyes of Russia Are upon You” to the tune of “The Eyes of Texas…,” and add a little soft-shoe shuffle. That would be sensational, especially when I pass a hat for contributions.

Sources: Website of the Indonesia Australia Language Foundation ( Different Pond, Different Fish. (March 2004.); India Web Site.Travel India: An Insider’s View. Cultural Pointers. (2005).

Friday, June 02, 2006

Sunny the Multi-lingual Canary

Monday, May 22, 2006

On Animals and Language: My Multi-lingual Canary

Dogs by the hundred dwell in the high-rise, Communist-era apartment buildings that line Pyshkinskaya, the pedestrian boulevard which bisects our city. I live on Pyshkinskaya myself and enjoy observing the poodles, chihuahuas, dachshunds, German shepherds, rottweilers and bull dogs out with their owners taking care of personal business in the mornings. In the evenings, the dog crowd shares the boulevard with the baby buggy brigade as folks parade until dusk with their little ones, both the four-footed and two-legged varieties.

I notice that the dogs understand Russian. The owner says “syest” and the dog sits.

“Sta-YAT” and the dog stays.

“Ko mne” and the dog goes to the owner. On a good day, anyway.

That got me thinking about animals and their understanding human language. By the way, the average dog understands 165 words, a quick Google search showed. But I’m wondering if the owner were to give a Russian-trained dog the commands in English if the animal would understand. I’m wondering, is it the word itself that the dog comes to understand? Or does the dog understand the word in combination with intonation, particular gestures or the situation?

* * * * *

Actually, I’m more interested in my own pets, Sunny the canary and Kesha the cockatiel. I like to think that they are multi-lingual. I base that on some quasi-scientific experiments I’ve conducted with Sunny.

I say “Good morning,” and he chirps a greeting.

“DO-broy OOT-rah,” and he responds to the Russian.

Today I added Greek to the mix. “KAL-i MER-a,” and he answered.

I like to think he understands. I have yet to test his response to Turkish or perhaps Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, I have yet to test his response to “Today you will be fed to a cat” in any language. (Perish the thought!)

Languages and animals: Maybe someday we’ll understand each other perfectly. In the meantime, there’s some sort of understanding.

“Sunny, heel!"

Monday, May 15, 2006

Tea on the Train.Served in glass-holders worthy of a czar.

Vendor at train stop selling cakes.

Clever vendor at train stop. Carrying hard-boiled eggs like a necklace.

From St Petersburg into Spring

We finished boarding the St Petersburg-to-Adler train, which runs along the western corridor of Russia from north to south, and were settling into our assigned compartments. I sized up the young man with whom I would be sharing space for the next 33 hours and determined that for once, I would not be the first to introduce myself. He was all business, not looking to initiate conversation and I had grown weary of introducing myself to strangers. I had just finished back-to-back conferences in Moscow and St Petersburg and spoken Russian non-stop for 12 days. My quota of extroversion was depleted and I was ready to crawl back into my shell.

Other passengers were subdued as well. Most likely they were recovering from the endless toasts of the previous day, The Day of Victory, the 9th of May, when the nation celebrates the end of Nazi occupation.

The train eased out of the station at 9:40 pm sharp and my travel companion busied himself with a crossword puzzle, taking up more than his share of the fold-down table between us. Our compartment had four berths, two on each side of the window and table. The bottom berths were ours and the top ones vacant. A sliding door separated our compartment from the long corridor.

My mood for silence didn’t dampen my curiosity about my fellow traveler, however, and I began ever so casually to gather clues. He was clean cut and his attire business casual. His jacket was perfectly tailored from wool gabardine. He wasn’t thirty yet and his thick neck, wide shoulders and square hands hinted that he had been a weight lifter or boxer some ten years and 30 pounds ago. His choice of luggage and cell phone indicated that he was of the intelligentsia and I guessed that he was into computers, perhaps a business owner.

The train was picking up speed now, heading past the Stalin-era apartment buildings that towered like unblinking sentinels over the urban sprawl. We sped through the industrial clutter into the suburbs packed with single-family dwellings, past the dachas with their weekend gardens until at last we reached the stretches of coniferous forest and groves of birch trees just starting to leaf. We could see it zoom past our window in the prolonged twilight of the far north.

It was getting late and I was plenty tired but I had misgivings about sharing sleeping quarters with this stranger. Unpleasant scenarios played in my imagination and then it dawned on me: I had packed my weapon of choice, a small New Testament. I deliberately laid the “sword of the spirit” on the table between our births, offered a polite “peaceful night,” rolled over and tried to sleep.

By noon of the next day, after we crossed the Volga and during our 25-minute stop in the village of Elets, my vow of non-communication began to dissolve.

Clamoring off the train, we were greeted by Russian grandmothers, “BAB-yshk-ee.”

“GAR-ee-ach-ee peer-OZH-kee! Hot pastries!”

“SEM-eech-kee! SEM-eech-kee! Sunflower seeds!”

The babyshkas hurried the length of the 12-car train, looking to make a few extra rubles from the traveling throng. I ended up purchasing a vast assortment of food, more than I could possibly devour, but a small price for the photos I managed to get of this slice of Russian life.

These goings-on of mine were observed with amusement by my travel companion and his new smoking buddy, a passenger I had met earlier in the corridor, who had heard my accent earlier and started speaking with me in halting English. Now he was smoking and chatting with my travel companion out on the train platform.

Back in our compartment, Smoking Buddy got promoted to Drinking Buddy. After a swig of vodka, my companion introduced himself as Aleksay and our guest, Ruslan. Aleksay offered that he could speak a bit of English.

“What is your name?” he asked, emphasizing the “what." "Who is your kompany kommander?” he asked, reddening a bit at his efforts.

Care to hazard a guess at his line of work?

“I thought you were a businessman.”

He was taken aback, as though his being military would have been obvious. Ruslan added that he also was military, an instructor at an academy of rocketry. The two of them began a routine that would continue through the afternoon. They would pour their vodka, have a short philosophical discussion while gazing wistfully out the window, make a toast on that theme, gulp the liquid fire and then disappear for a five-minute smoke.

I phased in and out of all that, toasting with bottled water and talking but mostly I was jotting down observations. I had realized earlier that the trip would be fodder for writing and scribbled non-stop about the two of them, their conversation and Russian train travel in general. But I asked questions to look less suspicious with my note taking.

“What is the Russian word for dandelion?" and “They say it’s 1,800 kilometers from St Petersburg to Rostov. So how many miles would that be?” Ruslan calculated it on his cell phone.

As the afternoon passed and vodka flowed, Aleksay continued to soften. He proposed a toast to world peace, another to the blue sky with its white clouds and another to going fishing. Into the second bottle of vodka, Ruslan started looking a bit green around the gills and he headed back to his own compartment.

“Obviously Ruslan is not a real officer.” Aleksay observed.

“PRAV-da? Really?”

“Of course. He’s only an instructor at an academy. A real officer would be able to handle his alcohol.”

That settled, we continued our trip into springtime. The vast countryside whizzed by. Gently rolling hills were draped in soft green. Clusters of homes with corrugated metal roofs were attended by fruit trees in pastel bloom. In the distance on the right was an Orthodox church, its golden cupola sparkling in the late afternoon sun. Near the tracks on the left was a babyshka squatting on her haunches, watching a few goats, a scarf knotted behind her head.

That evening Aleksay started looking out for me. At stops he would ask vendors for Cola Light, my favorite. Later he fashioned a vase from a plastic bottle for the bouquet of lilacs I had found and by the time our train pulled into our destination just before dawn, he proceeded to haul my 22-kilogram suitcase down the steps.

What a gentleman, I thought as he hurried off to jeep awaiting him.

After getting home, I noticed that the tag was missing off my luggage. I always label each piece, inside and out, with my name and the church address and telephone number. I had not taken that tag off but it was gone. I wondered if Aleksay had snipped it off when I had stepped out of the compartment. But I smiled realizing that the worst thing that could happen would be Aleksay Vladimirovich’s showing up at our church building out of curiosity. And perhaps he would be interested in learning more. That wouldn’t be the first time in history that an unlikely character had been interested in the Good News. After all, one of the first converts in the first century was Cornelius. And he was an army officer, too.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Veterans March: They went off to war too young.

Day of Victory: The 9th of May

Veterans March: They went off to war much too young.

Today, the 9th of May is the 61st anniversary of the Day of Victory, celebrating victory over the Nazi occupation of Russia from 1941 to 1945. As I write these words, the first rumbles of the “sal-OOT,” the eveningfireworks have started.

Hundreds of silver-haired veterans marched through the city this morning, the street lined with cheering crowds. It was a scene duplicated in cities spanning the nation’s 11 (or so) time zones: By-standers rushed out into the parade to hand red tulips and lilacs to the marchers. The veterans proudly sported their uniforms encrusted with war medals.

Each of the veterans alive today represents 40 other soldiers who went to the war, according to my number-crunching. The Red Army managed to stop Hitler’s advance across Russia but victory came with a steep price. Only ten of 40 Russian soldiers survived the war and of those ten, only one solder lives to this day, 61 years later. (Another comparison, 62 Russians were killed for each American casualty.)

Victory Day is a sacred holiday, a tearful holiday even decades later. Many attend as families, especially those honoring a grandparent, and haul out special-occasion clothing for the day.

"(Congratulations) with the Holiday!"

Think of the typical Memorial Day celebration in the US, ratchet that up about 25 times, and you have the magnitude of Victory Day in Russia. And, as we say in greeting on such a day, “S PRASD-nee-kom,” that is, “(Congratulations) with the holiday celebration!”

Somebody's Beloved Grandpa. Stopping the parade for a quick photo.

Lots more photos in my photo albums.

Sources: Washington Post, CDI Russia Weekly, Moscow Times – English language on-line edition, Russian television – Channel One, The City Newspaper of Rostov (Russian language newspaper).

Somebody's Beloved Grandpa. Stopping the parade for a quick photo.

"(Congratulations) with the Holiday!"

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"How Many Rubles For an 'A'?"

“University students buy their grades here. Did you know that?”

It was 6:30 last Tuesday morning, the sun had just risen, and air was crisp. I was walking along Pyshkinskaya Boulevard, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare that bisects the center of town, and chatting with a young lady whom I’d met minutes earlier thanks to a stray German shepherd. The stupid mutt had attacked both of us, biting me on the leg and then chasing her, barking and snapping until she tripped and sprawled out on the pavement. As I helped her up, I might have said something in English because the young lady hopped to her feet and began speaking in English.

We continued walking west, talking about my work, about her university studies and about life in Russia. And then she commented about university students’ paying for grades. I asked her to tell me more.

“It’s true,” she nodded. “It’s not uncommon for students to buy their grades here.”

“How much is an A?”

“An A can run between 3,000 and 8,000 rubles.” (That’s US$105 to $280.) “But the good students, the professors know who they are and won’t give them any problems.”

I had more questions but she needed to get home.

* * * * *

The conversation slipped my mind until Sunday after church when walking to lunch with dear friend, Julia.

“How’s Anton?” I inquired. Her son is a freshman at the university. A marginal student in high school, his acceptance into university was a great relief. It was either that or two years in the army.

“Anton’s okay. But he’s not doing very well with his studies,” Julia frowned. “He’s not the best student they have. Anton gets frustrated because he sees others who aren’t studying but they’re making good grades.”

“They don’t study but they make good grades?”

“Right. You know, it’s common here for students to bribe their professors for grades.”

“I had heard that. Is it really true?”

“Yes, absolutely. An A or a passing grade might cost $100. (That’s half a month’s salary for the average wage earner.) Not all will accept bribes. But everybody pays off everybody else here. Students pay their professors and parents pay to keep their sons in school and out of the army.”

“Looks as though the professors make more money. The students get good grades and everybody is happy.”

“Right. Except, of course, for those of us who can’t afford to pay.” Julia was upset. A single mother, she works several jobs to keep going. Her budget doesn’t include a slush fund for bribes. More importantly, she distains corruption. Julia was distressed at how the whole thing was affecting Anton and his studies.

* * * * *

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search on this issue and found lots of information. Russia has a long history of bribe taking. A study that monitors corruption shows that today Russians spend 10 times more in bribes than they did four years ago. Prime victims are business owners who pay large sums for “protection fees” and such, the average being $135,000. (Radio Free Europe. July 2005).

The typical Russian also frequently pays bribes to institutions that are meant to be free of charge including hospitals, police and the army. Higher education now tops the list of bribe-accepting institutions. Students use bribes to get good grades or to get accepted into prestigious universities. (Radio Free Europe. July 2005).

Only half of high school seniors are accepted into a university without resorting to bribes, according to another poll. The average amount of such bribes is US$1,200. (Novaya Gazeta, July 2004) Further, in the first six months of 2004, 5000 Russian families spent over 400 million dollars in bribes for their students to be accepted into university, to pass an exam or to have their grades raised. (Novaya Gazeta, August 2004).

* * * * *

So bribery goes on. But as I see it, that’s only part of the picture. There are many people here with the highest of ethics who find bribery disgusting. There are professionals who operate with the highest of standards. That includes the trauma clinic physician who updated my tetanus shots last week after the dog bite I mentioned. He could have charged me quite a sum and slipped it in his pocket. I was prepared to pay something but he shrugged his shoulders and declined payment.

My guess is that the 50% of students who do get into university without bribery are the top-notch students who are motivated to study. They have no need to bribe and are serious about preparing for a career. The 50% who do resort to bribery are the students out on the academic fringes who would flunk out elsewhere. I need to consult several more of my “local sources” on this topic of bribery. More to come. (And it won't even cost you!)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Lenin's Mausoleum.Cleaning the Review Stands.

Face to Face with Vladimir Lenin

On a bright morning in early March, I had 10 hours to fill in Moscow and, like most visitors to the city, I headed directly to Red Square. St Basil’s Cathedral was exquisite in the early morning light and so, after photographing to my heart’s content and thawing my frozen fingers over a breakfast of tea and blini with a local friend at a quiet café, I headed toward Lenin’s Mausoleum, which overlooks the area.

Red Square is cordoned off in the mornings until the mausoleum closes at 1:00, we learned. That translates into walking about ten times farther than necessary to reach the entrance to the mausoleum. But that, dear comrades, is another story.

Lenin wanted to be buried next to his mother in St Petersburg, they say. It wasn’t his idea to be placed in a glass coffin, his mortal remains on public display for the next 80-plus years. But since his death in January of 1924, thousands have filed past the body of this man who so influenced the world.

Lines are considerably shorter nowadays and on the day of my visit, only handful of us were there. I was totally fine with that. Once inside the mausoleum, it was quiet, dark and chilled. The narrow corridor was lined with black, granite-like stone leading to the steps down into the tomb. In the semi-darkness, only the face of a soldier was visible and he stood under a single light at the end of the corridor. His gloved hand was held chest-high and pointed to the right. So I went that-a-way. At the end of that corridor was the same sight, an expressionless face lit by an overhead light, a gloved hand pointing right. So I shuffled along in the dark, trying to anticipate the steps.

What I saw next reminded me of a phrase of a beloved hymn, Low in the grave He lay. There was the body of Vladimir Illyich Lenin. Very quiet, still and cold. No surprise there. A walkway surrounds the glass sarcophagus on three sides and I paused to view the body that had been there for decades already. The face was almost translucent, like fine porcelain. A guard approached me.

Lady, you must keep moving.
Well, okay, I thought. But I’m the only one in here at the moment, save for those ever-so-watchful guards. I’ll keep moving but it will be slow enough that I can soak in details. See, a person can walk around that coffin in a heartbeat and that’s the end of it. From there,  another dark corridor leads outside. There are no displays and no memorabilia. No photographs and no plaques. All is very solemn, quiet and dignified. And very black.

I was itching to jot down the details quick-like before I forgot. I stepped out into the sunlight, reached for my notebook and started scribbling notes. I needed a place to sit and write. What better place than those stone benches that flank the mausoleum. Before brushing off the snow to sit down, I walked over to the guard for permission.
Nyet, he said semi-apologetically.
That’s understandable, I figured. Those are the review stands from which dignitaries watch official parades and such. But nobody was there; it wasn’t as though I would be taking anyone’s spot. But I understand. The place was to be sacred versus common.
So, how about if I just stand here and write, I bartered?
Nyet, you’ve got to keep moving.
All-righty then. I can walk verrry slowly and keep writing. As I neared the end of the review stands, another soldier there was watching. It was a slow day on Red Square and his full attention was on me.
Zdrast-vwee-tye, I greeted him formally and nodded. His eyes widened slightly, hearing a foreign accent.
Lady, why are you writing? What is it that's of interest to you here? He took at my notepad and I imagined he might confiscate it.
Everything is interesting. I want to remember all these details. And if I don’t write it down right away, I’ll forget it. I wanted to add, And furthermore, in about 30 years when you’re 50, you’ll understand perfectly.
Well, lady, you must remember what you see and write it down after you leave. You may not write while you’re here.
Welcome to modern Russia, I said with more of a smile than I felt.
Da, he chuckled. Welcome to modern Russia.

* * * * *

How about you, dear Blog Reader, have you visited Lenin's Mausoleum? Please do share. . .

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Queue at the Bank

The Etiquette of the Queue

I joined the queue at the bank and congratulated myself for being third in line. It was sure to go fast. Normally we would be using the ATM on the street, but it freezes up in the winter and so we were using a window inside. After 15 minutes, however, we were no closer to the teller and the line was even longer.

Two young men in line behind me seemed to know each other.

"Let's go have a smoke," one said.

When they returned, the guys wanted back their places in line. But first they had to persuade the blond in the cream coat to let them in. After some fussing, she complied but she began a campaign of complaining about the slow service.

The two guys were talking louder now and aiming their remarks at the lady who was first in line. She was wrapped in mink from hat to hemline and had buddied up with lady #2, clad in a cotton coat, scarf knotted under her chin. Lady Mink stayed cool despite the on-going comments from the line and kept signing the long slips of paper that the teller pushed to her through the sliding tray.

"All this waiting for ten rubles, her whole pension," quipped one guy loud enough for all to hear. Her check would be pocket change is what he was saying.

Mrs. Mink didn't look up; she just kept signing her papers.

This wasn't the first time I had observed issues of the queue. Two summers ago, I was 6th or 7th in line, in this very line. As we inched forward, a couple of babyshkas, Russian grandmothers, charged up to the head of the line.

"We're next," they announced. "We've been waiting and we're next."

Actually, they had been resting in chairs along the wall. It's not uncommon here to step out of line to rest or to run another errand. Someone might be in line at the bank, at least in theory, while they are actually at the post office. When they return to the bank 10-15 minutes later, they want their spot back. Those waiting usually accommodate the multi-tasker with a sigh of resignation. But for me, the situation calls for more than a sigh. Perhaps it's all those years of teaching school and monitoring lunch lines, perhaps it's my fondness for etiquette or perhaps it's a reflection of my own culture where one waits in line or loses the spot. So, although I'm learning to be diplomatic about it, I do tend to verbalize displeasure at being pushed back in line. Rarely do I hear anyone else expressing annoyance about this or anything else for that matter.

That summer's day, however, I saw the Russian queue in a new light. The young people in spots 2, 3 and 4 weren't in the mood to be pushed back and they weren't budging. They were standing tight and close.

When the babyshkas got louder, the young security guard came over to investigate. He was blond, boyish and hesitant to get involved. He understood that Russian babyshkas are not timid souls. Chances are he had dealt with a babyshka of his own.

So he tried using persuasion. "Please, people. Please let these grandmothers get in line."

No one moved.

"You've got to let me in line. I'm a hero of the Great Patriotic War!" cried one. With that, she was playing her trump card. Being a war hero has its privileges, which include going to the head of a line and getting a seat on the bus. In theory, at least.

The young woman in spot #2 wasn't impressed.

"Check her documents," she countered. "She's probably just saying that."

Lady #3 had stories of her own. "Well, I've suffered too. My father perished in the war and I was orphaned. Besides that, I had a heart attack last week."

I was rather enjoying the conversation around me. For once I was not involved in upgrading the behavior of the queue.

Another babyshka shuffled into the bank and joined me at the end of the line. She smiled shyly.

"Won't you please allow me ahead of you? I won't take long. And my health isn't so good."

"With pleasure," I said, surprising myself at what a softy I had become.

The security guard overheard our little chat and recognized it as fodder a persuasive speech. He headed back to the front of the line where things were quieter although no one had given in just yet.

"Ladies, there's a foreigner here who was kind enough to let one of our babyshkas in front of her. Let's follow example of this foreigner and be kind to our own elderly."

Oddly enough, I don't remember how things turned out that day at the bank. But I do know that the etiquette of the queue continutes to challenge me as I adjust to Russian life. It's a culture which itself is in transition as younger people are more willing to be assertive and nudge public interaction to a higher level.

So, think you're next in line? You might be. Then again, if you happen to be in this neighborhood, don't bank on it.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Officer on the Job

Officer, Are You For Real?

A traffic cop waved his black-and-white baton signaling the car behind us to pull over. I was in a taxi heading toward the outskirts of the city. Snow piled high along our route was aglow in the late afternoon sun.

"Ooh-rah! So glad we didn't get pulled over!" I exclaimed in Russian.

The driver glanced at me in his rearview mirror and nodded. "All they want is money."

I'd heard that before but I wasn't going to be the first to bring it up.

"How much do they want?" I probed.

"Oh, around 500 rubles for a documents violation and maybe 150 for something minor." The driver's brown eyes glanced toward me in the mirror.

"That's outragous! If police in the States did that, it would be a major scandal!"

"Well, this way the fine is lower and the driver can pay it then and there. Whereas with an official ticket, the driver would have to stand in several long lines to pay it and the fine would be higher. Plus this way, the officer makes some money too."

"Well our system is different. We just write out a check and mail it in with the ticket. It's quick and easy. But it's not cheap. " (Or so I've heard. Ha-ha!)

"Well, here in Russia we have to pay in cash and in person."

Not all Russian traffic cops can be bribed, I've learned. Although I get around on public transport as do most folks. If I did have a car, I imagine that I might do exactly what some other drivers have done when they have neared a cop with baton pointed at them: Pull over immediately, gather documents and wallet and approach the officer with trepidation. Only to discover that he is a life-size, plastic mock-up, a law enforcement decoy. Such an Officer Plastic comes with a two-dimensional police car, a speed gun and the standard black-and-white baton. Although he's plastic, he's no dummy. He manages to bring traffic to a crawl.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Theatre Square Under a Blanket of Fresh Snow

Mary Kay: You'll Find Her Everywhere

(Note: The following I wrote in response to a writing prompt to “describe a recent dream and interpret it.”)

“Steve, what a gorgeous jacket!”
I recognize perfect fit and exquisite tailoring when I see it.

I was taking the elevator to the hotel lobby when Steve got on wearing a pink jacket. On him it looked fabulous not feminine. He was tanned, newly svelte and smiled without explanation.

We were in France at our annual missions confab, the Pan European Lectureship. Steve is a psychologist and participates in our meetings.

Steve exited the elevator and another missionary explained.
“Steve has started doing Mary Kay and is doing quite well with it”.

That explained the pastel pink jacket and the spring in his step. But why did he show up at our missionary conference in his Mary Kay get-up?

Later that evening, the enthusiasm of a Mary Kay pep rally emanated from the hotel ballroom throughout the entire building.

Lucky for Steve, it just happened that his two conferences that summer were scheduled for the same week, in the same city and the same hotel. Now that's taking multi-tasking to a new level.


Saturday morning before dawn, I shuffled along a snowy sidewalk to the natatorium for a swim. I had the entire pool to myself for 20 minutes. Eventually another swimmer dived in and I envied her skill and speed. We swam parallel for a half hour without even making eye contact.

“Oh whoopee,” I thought. “We’ll end up being in the shower and dressing room at the same time – without an iota of privacy – and anybody whose front crawl is that good is probably a snob and won’t talk.”

But I was showered and into my warm thermals with my hair dried by the time Ms. SuperSwimmer made it into the dressing area. I decided to initiate conversation.

“Kak hor-o-SHO vi PLAV-ai-yete!” (How well you swim!).
She jumped right in.

“Spa-SEE-bo!” (Thank you!) “I gave birth two years ago and I’m trying to get back in shape.”

Our conversation was off and running. We were dressing near the warmth of paint-encrusted radiators that run under tall windows. By now the predawn sunlight was filtering through the opaque glass.

“I sell Mary Kay,” she offered.

“I’m from Dallas and I know a lot about Mary Kay!” I exclaimed. “And once I even saw Mary Kay and her family at a cafeteria.”

We had lots to talk about.

“Here, try some of this cream. I use it on my baby’s bottom as well.” She squeezed a dab of pink lotion onto my hand.

She gave me a business card and we discovered that we live on the same street, both in Communist-era high-rise buildings.

That evening, I had Mary Kay on my mind as well as our upcoming missionary conference in Strasburg, France and the likely attendees, including Steve. Somehow all that got woven together in a new situation. I don’t anticipate asking Steve to bring me any Mary Kay products. I’ve got my own consultant locally and maybe even a new friend who will give me points on doing the front crawl.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Frost Inside My Kitchen Window

A Russian Winter to Write Home About

Today is a tropical 20 degrees F in comparison to last week’s severe cold of –20 here in Rostov-on-Don. The cold snap was the coldest weather in a generation for Russia and Eastern Europe. Weathering the bitter cold requires some adjustment and for me, that includes cutting back on iced tea. I pooh-pooh the local notion that drinking anything cold is an invitation to getting sick.

There’s no arguing that Russians know how to winter. They’ve won wars with their wintering skills. They froze out Napoleon and out-wintered Hitler. The Russian proverb, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” reflects their philosophy that if one is dressed right, weather can be managed. And so now on the street we see magnificent full-length fur coats and beaver skin hats which have been stuffed into closets during recent warmer winters.

My own coat, a sleeping-bag style in cardinal red, is a marvel of apparel functionality thanks to Eddie Bauer and Co. It’s guaranteed good to -40 F, weighs kilograms less than a heavy fur and is not a coat likely to be stolen from a coat rack. So I’m plenty toasty outdoors but keeping warm indoors has been quite another story. I’ve finally figured out that wearing not one but two layers of thermals makes a difference, as does wearing a knit hat and fingerless gloves.

Granted, my place has been colder than most. In mid-December when I returned from a 12-week furlough, I was more interested in unpacking than in weather-stripping and rationalized about the merits of not sealing off my two balconies, just this once. I figured that the north balcony would be a great walk-in refrigerator-freezer, ideal for cooling off the big batches of soup that I make regularly and then leaving the south balcony unsealed would allow me to shake my throw rugs over the railing rather than lugging them down the elevator to shake them at ground level. Besides that, I was out of the foamy lengths of weather-stripping.

Frost Inside My Kitchen Window

Suffice it to say, it got a little nippy in this apartment with cold air sneaking in from both the north and south, converging around my favorite easy chair. It’s lots warmer now since our brother Nickolai came over with weather stripping and heavy plastic sheeting which he tacked around the outside of the balcony doors and windows. But in the meantime I got an upper respiratory infection that kept me home several days.

Russian folk have their ways of coping with the cold. Electric space heaters are common as is keeping gas burners on the stovetop going. And then there’s the drinking of hard liquor. Alcohol consumption surged in Moscow last week and in a town further north, an elephant went bezerk and ripped his cage apart after zookeepers fed it a bucket of vodka to help it feel warmer, according to Fred Weir of The Christian Science Monitor.

As for me, with the temperatures for the next five days surging above 0 degrees F, I’m back to enjoying my home-brewed iced tea with plenty of ice. Cheers!

Pyshkinskaya Boulevard on a January Sunday.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Frigid Temps Bring Special Beauty

Greetings from Rostov-on-Don, Russia where frigid temperatures bring us special beauty. Ice collects inside windows in intricate fern or paisley shapes, as though etched by Father Frost himself. But the cold temperatures failed to discourage the holiday version of trick-or-treaters who came by for Orthodox Christmas, Jan 7th, singing silly songs and begging for candy. Fortunately, they’re equally thrilled to quarters, nickels and dimes from this Amerikanka.

Pyshkinskaya Boulevard on a January Sunday.