Monday, September 24, 2007

Of Kings and Queens, Pawns and Lacquer-ware

Checkmate! SHAKH-mat-ee, the Russian word for chess, is a cognate of the English checkmate and last Monday strolling through Gorky Park, I happened upon some SHAKH-mat-ee action. It’s not uncommon to see chess in the park but this was the first time I’ve seen women playing. It was a mild September afternoon and the players were so absorbed in strategy, they were oblivious to being photographed.

Russians have been playing chess for more than 1,000 years and today consider chess an official sport and include match results in television sports coverage. Grooming starts young for those with potential. Vasgen is a sharp kid 10-year-old in our children’s Bible classes and today I asked him about his chess classes. He noted that his classes included five and six years olds and that once he was beaten by a four year old. He has since switched to judo.

Russia has produced legendary players including Garry Kasparov, world champion of chess in 1985 at age 22. He has retired from competition but uses his notoriety to help push Russia toward democracy, he says. And nowadays when headlines scream his name it’s about his sharp criticism of the Kremlin. Kasparov has written a book *Life Imitates Chess.* I would have suggested he consider writing *Chess Imitates Politics* or vise versa. Certainly the political scene is ripe with moves and countermoves. And occasionally we’re reminded rather graphically that some of the key movers aren’t just playing. Checkmate!

A stone’s throw away from the kings, queens and pawns, a souvenir vendor had her khokhloma wares – pronounced hok-lom-A – on display as she does every day, regardless of the weather. Good thing it’s all waterproof, heat-proof and impervious to the elements. Khokhloma is easy to recognize with its red and gold paintings of flowers, leaves and berries on a black background.

Khokhloma is a 300-year-old style of woodworking that developed in the forests along the Volga. Producing a piece is a multi-step process which takes up to three years. Logs are dried for two years, turned on lathes in a workroom where, according to proprietary legend, there are still lathes used by Peter the Great. After more drying, comes hand-painting which can take weeks.

Like everything else, khokhloma has gotten more expensive and so it has been a while since I’ve stocked up on it as a souvenir to take home. A small spoon might run 20 rubles that’s about 80 cents. A little box would probably be 250 rubles or $10. But maybe I should reconsider stocking up on khokhloma spoons. Now that I think about it, they have been a hit with kids back home.

I’m reminded of a young girl in Montpelier, Vermont who just loved the spoon I happened to give her, not sure the occasion. I met her at church summer of 1998 when I was there enrolled in Russian language school. The girl’s mother told me later how much she enjoyed the spoon and insisted on eating her oatmeal with it each morning and then washing it in the dishwasher. Maybe I should reconsider those spoons. As colorful as khokhloma is, I find it a bit garish for the typical home. Perfect for Christmas though, isn’t it? And for kids too. Guess I might start a stash of khokhoma spoons and small items.

* * *
(Teach Yourself) Russian Language, Life & Culture. (2002). Stephen and Tatyana Webber. By McGraw Hill./ Golden Khokhloma, website./ NPR website./ TimesOnLine (UK)./ Book worth checking into: Secrets of the Russian Chess Masters:

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Light's Off. . . but Everybody's Home

Attention engineers and inventors: We need a way to stockpile electricity for home use. We already squirrel away canisters of water for those hours or days when there’s no water, a regular occurrence around here. But when the electricity is off, a flashlight helps out although most folks have candles handy.

As I write this, we’ve got 2 hours until lights go off at 5:00 p.m. At least today I’ll not be surprised when everything goes dark.

But Sunday morning when I was in the midst of my getting-ready-for-church beauty-wanna-be regime, when my curling iron and I had almost persuaded my hair to curl, that’s when the big, fancy refrigerator six inches from my elbow shuddered, sighed and went silent. Not everybody does her hair next to a refrigerator, of course, but here where my living room is an extension of the kitchen – so the refrig is there– and my hallway is an extension of the bathroom – so the mirror is there near the outlet, that’s the set-up.

So with the curling iron cooling, by the time I had checked my electrical breaker box, it was on to Plan B for the hair. Knowing that if my electricity were out, the other 35 apartments in this stairwell were probably also in the dark. I figured that someone would have it all worked out by afternoon when I would be back from church. But alas and alack. Hours later when I unlocked the door, I was greeted by pitch black silence. No low hum of refrig. The place was quiet. Quieter than. . .than an early autumn breeze wafting ‘cross the steppe.

Russian folk express being without electricity as being without lights or bez svyeta. Svyet being light and the –a ending for genitive case because, according to the rules of Russian grammar, that which one lacks, she lacks in the genitive case. So here it was, a balmy autumn afternoon perfect for productivity and creativity and I was stuck in the genitive case.

* * * * *

After a nap, I went down to check with Galina on 1st floor. Those first floor folk are often good sources information. Sure enough, Galina had the scoop.

Maybe this evening we’ll have lights. But maybe not until day after tomorrow.

Oh nooo!

I was envisioning my stash of sweet peppers and pelmeni thawing and spoiling. I asked how she had all this information and I didn’t.

I read the notice posted by the door.

Oh. Ohhh! I get it – functional literacy! So I hurried outside to check the spot and sure enough – a notice was posted. (Note to self: Watch for notices, particularly those where either light or water is in the genitive.)

Around 5:00, I curled up in an armchair and read by a west window. I stewed about my stuff in the freezer: red and yellow peppers, packages of veggies, pelmeni, plum puree. . . I was thinking about calling a taxi to haul me and the semi-frozen stuff to the church building where there’s a freezer. Decisions, decisions.

Then I became very decisive when the vision of a Ritter Sport bar with almonds flashed through my mind. Heading downstairs toward the corner store, I passed two electricians working in the stairwell. Actually, one was working by the light of a cell phone held by his co-worker.

I have a flashlight if you’d like to use it.

Nyet, nyet, we’re fine, said Mr PhoneHolder.

Soon it was 8:00, past dusk and two more hours until bedtime. Didn’t Abraham Lincoln read at night by the light of . . . something?

Still considering my options: I wanted to work on my computer. I could take the laptop and walk 10 minutes to a café. But it's not a internet cafe, certainly not computer friendly. And besides, it would be noisy, smoky and uncomfortable. Or I could walk 25 minutes to the church building or pay like 100 rubles for a cab. . .but at 8:00 pm?

Mulling , mulling, mulling it over. . . what to do, what to do, pros and cons and not knowing if lights would come later in the evening or later in the week. What? What was that sound? I heard a low hum. Then I was heard the printer clank on in the next room. Oh yeah – those electricians came through and we had s-v-y-e-t!

Well, we had same dilemma the next day at 5:00 pm for three hours. And the following day as well. And they say we’re not outa the woods yet with repairs to the electricity.

So I was thinking that it comes down to two things, maybe three: decisions about food that could spoil. And decisions about having enough light for reading. And it would be nice to have the computer working during that time. So, there you have it, you inventors out there. What can you come up with for the rest of us?

Just to aid in your initial research: A quick Google search shows Online Consumer Reports with info about generators – looks as though a person could easily spend $2,000. Let me be more specific about the project: What could a person get for, say, for $100? That is, other than several very nice flashlights and lots of batteries?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Have a Baby! Win a Car!

These folks did! They had a baby and earned a free car. They'll be paying for *it* for at least 22 years though, according to my calculations.

In at least one Russian city, today is being billed as -- how to put this delicately? -- Conception Day. You'll want all the details of course - who knows, this might fly in Your hometown too -- and all the details are here in a copyrighted story.

Happy...Happy...Car shopping! (Note: a refrigerator or cash are other options.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Shopping for Souvenirs in Kiev, Ukraine

Last Friday after a week of sharing a small apartment with six others and teaching Vacation Bible School, I wanted some space and decided on a solo excursion into the heart of Kiev. My goal: face the metro, the St. Andrews Funicular (tram transport up a steep hill) and get myself to St. Andrews Church without assistance. And...I did it! And what a sight awaits the adventurer: St. Andrews Church, built mid-1700’s at the request of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna who visited Kiev and wanted to live there.

In the shadow of St Andrew's, along a cobblestone street are souvenir vendors. Care to join me for some open-air window shopping?

Hanging from the top are fur hats. I was tempted by a white one from Siberian fox. But decided that my lambswool earmuffs are quite warm enough for here in Rostov. Saved about $80 right there. On the table: matroshka dolls, lacquered boxes. Hanging around the back are t-shirts: the red one with the Aeroflot on front tempted me for a nephew.

Matroshkas, the wooden nesting dolls, are the most popular souvenir. This vendor was exceptionally clever - displaying several sets from large to small. Lacquered pins, too.

In the market for a samovar of gold? Nowadays, these are electric water heater uppers. On the very top, set a small tea pot filled with tea concentrate. Then just dilute it as per taste with the hot water.

How about Vladimir Lenin for a stocking stuffer. He comes in various sizes and styles. Makes a phenomenal paperweight. In the end, I bought the usual souvenirs: a handful of postcards, a book about Kiev and...ta-da, a wonderful pencil. Yes, a big, chunky pencil with a little metroshka doll on top, perfect for little niece Lilly Rose, who turns one-year-old next week. I'm imagining that it might be her first pencil. Who knows, maybe she'll fancy herself writer too.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hello from Kiev

Greetings from Kiev (or Kyiv)! Thank you for bearing with me here as I celebrate my first blogging attempt from an Internet cafe. This place here in northern Kiev is crowded - 72 computers here and "gamers" are using lots of them. So there are all sorts of shouts going up, excitment. Lots of...competition in the air.

This evening we are catching the train at 11:59 pm (sounds like midnight to me) back to Rostov. But we have been here helping with a week-long Vacation Bible School for children here at the invitation of Jim and Marina Noyes who work with a church here in northern Kiev. It's been quite a great week! Six of us came from Rostov and shared a small apartment and we're still on speaking terms! This is good.

1) Suitcases tell a story. The three suitcases on the right belong to three different people and held all the stuff they brought to Kiev for 10 days. Yes really. The suitcases on the left belong to one person and held all the things she needed for 12 days. Care to guess which belong to national folk (Russian)? And which might belong to an American? =)

2) Andrey, son of dear Jim and Marina who serve here in Kiev. Photo at "Statue to the Motherland" - a tribute to surviving World War II. When I get back *home* to Rostov, I'll do some research on this site and share it with you. Quite impressive. These Kiev-ites have been through so much history.

3) Late afternoons and evenings we had free for being tourists. Here should be a photo or two around Kiev. This photo is of (me) and overlooking the Dnieper River. Beautiful view of the Left Bank of Kiev.

4) The VBS - FIESTA was the theme. The photo is of big group time. Fifty-one children came total. There were 25 of us on staff. Lots of fun!

Well, this entry is gonna have to do! Somehow it is ending up looking a different from what I had in mind...but I know that you *get the idea!*

Have a great Labor Day Weekend!