Wednesday, October 31, 2007

You Call THAT a Lifeguard?

Tell me please, what is the role of the fellow on the other end of the pool? I directed my question to a swim coach awaiting his young charges.

We can speak English if you wish
, he said pulling on a jacket.

Of course, it’s my first language, I said in Russian.

Not to be diverted I continued on the hunch that my Russian was a notch above his English. That guy there – is he the lifeguard?

Da, he is.

That’s what I was afraid of.

I had just finished swimming laps at the nearby 50-meter pool. It’s such a fine pool that it’s hard to find a sliver of time to do laps between the competitive swim teams, synchronized swimmer girls and the kiddies’ classes. But in the year that I’ve frequented that pool, the fellow stationed at the deep end of the pool has intrigued me. And not because of his good looks either.

I’ve noticed the fellow answering the telephone occasionally. But most often, his nose is in a paperback and he's listening to something through an earpiece. Yesterday as I headed toward shower, I studied his apparel, since – oddly enough – I’m not in the habit of swimming with a camera in tow. He was clad in a t-shirt, sweats, socks and sandals. There was no lifesaving equipment nearby – no shepherd’s crook or ring buoy – unless you count the telephone.

Thinking back 29 years to my own lifeguarding career, I’m wondering – has something changed? As I recall, the concept was to be ready, watching and prepared to jump on in there and rescue the perishing. Or is this a cultural difference? Maybe a lifeguard in Russia is simply an attendant who will summon aid for the drowning – or the drowned.

Mr. Lifeguard was kind of cute though. Maybe next time I’ll flirt a bit – surely that’s a skill that can be resuscitated. Actually, a photo of him in action – or perhaps inaction – is all I need. I’ll just be direct and ask for one. Or, maybe not. Either that or try to grab a shot when I come up for air. The third time. (Note photos above were taken the following week. Another *lifeguard* is pictured here.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

*Falling Back* . . .Even as We Speak

It’s Saturday evening, 9:00 on the button and I’ve already fallen back as we do each autumn. What a gift, this extra hour. And so is the thought of waking up to a lighter, brighter morning. Here in the Moscow Time Zone we're changing clocks this weekend as are others across Europe.

But not everybody changes clocks this weekend. In the States, Daylight Saving Time has been extended through the first weekend in November. So this next week, folks involved in international business will be factoring that differnce into the equation.

During this semi-annual ritual of clock changing, I’ve found myself pitying clock merchants. I think about souvenir shops in Austria, for instance, surrounded by cuckoo clocks clamoring to be changed. That task, however, is a piece of apple strudel compared with that of the poor soul who handles the world clock website ( and has to post current time for 590-some cities around the globe.

Besides dealing with which countries are switching back to Standard Time, that webmaster must also consider the hour at which various countries change back. For instance, EU countries change all at once at 1:00 GMT. That takes care of three time zones right there: GMT, GMT+1 and GMT+2, at least for EU member. But in Russia, for instance, the big switch happens at 2:00 a.m. local time. With Russia spanning 11 time zones east to west, that makes for a lot of updating.

I'm personally affected to some degree by this week-long lag simply because it changes the time difference between me and beloved Significant Others in the States. And that factors in to my canned little formula for determining current time back home. It’s a primitive little system: I'll admit to counting on my fingers. But hey, it works for me and I can tell you in a flash what time it is in the States.

So, instead of counting back from local time the 8, 9 or 11 hours for Eastern Time (ET), Central (CT) and Pacific Times (PT), respectively, I add 4 for ET, 3 for CT and 1 for PT. So when it’s 9:00 p.m. here I add 4 and know that it’s 1:00 pm ET, which includes my family in Ohio and the Carolinas. I add 3 and know it’s 12:00 noon CT including Dallas, my beloved sponsoring congregation. And then of course just 1 hour to know that it’s 10:00 Saturday morning for dear family on the west coast.

And I’m kinda proud of myself in a silly way, that I’ve got the formula tweaked for this week. I’ll add 5 hours, 4 hours and 2 hours. In fact, that applies already because I’ve changed my clocks.

You're probably familiar with that catchy little phrase Fall back and Spring forward – that helps us remember which way to turn our clocks. That works only in English, of course, and makes sense mostly to native speakers. Leave it to our mother tongue that the names of two seasons -- fall and spring -- are also verbs. I've tried explaining that old saw to folks here and even to those fluent in English, it's more confusing that amusing. Granted, that might be a reflection on the quality of translation. =)

Still, I do enjoy feeling clever – even for one brief, shining moment – when folks say, *Oh and which way do we turn our clocks today?* I repeat the little saying to myself and can answer with absolute confidence, *na-ZAD.*

PS: Just happened upon another interesting site .gif with a great map of the world with the time zones color coded. China looks geographically to be spread across five time zones...but the country observes only one time zone from east to west. Anybody been there? Experienced that? Please share!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Something Lost . . . in Translation

Someone recently placed a special cake order with Wal-Mart. The guy called and said "Please write 'Best wishes Suzanne' and underneath that, write, 'We will miss you!'" Well, have a look at the finished cake.

Gotta love it!
(A big Thank You to Julie Bogart for posting this on her blog, I discovered Julie's blogs less than a week ago and she has quickly become a favorite blogger.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Egomaniac in the Mirror

Eight-and-a-half years now I've lived with an egomaniac who spends an exorbidant amount of time in front of the mirror. This little guy turns from side-to-side to catch himself at the most flattering angle.

Meet Sunny, a yellow canary, probably an old codger in bird years. He’s a Russian-born canary and whether his lineage includes Cossacks or Communists, nobody’s saying. But in the evenings, if he has sufficiently brightened my day with song, I’ll open the cage door and when the coast is clear, out he roars. First stop is to see Kesha, the cockatiel next door, where Sunny makes himself right at home, splashing around in the drinking water. From there he zips up to the mirrored corner where an adoring audience awaits.

He tilts his head this way and that, admiring his beak and profile. Then he flexes those feathery biceps of his, broadening his winged shoulders, pumping his wee fist in the air and chirping mantras in a language understood by a feathered few.

Besides being an egomaniac, Sunny is also a manipulator. He knows exactly how to get his favorite delicacy. In fact, at this moment as I write, he is trilling to beat the band. This is typical behavior for mid-morning and he knows that in a minute I’ll brng him some leaf lettuce, tuck it into the clothes pin in his cage and wait there until he chirps a Thank you! I do insist on some manners, after all. But the concert usually ends right there and I know I’ve been had, especially now that leaf lettuce runs 40 rubles a bunch, for pity’s sake. Amazing what we’ll do to please our little critters.

How about you and your pets? Do you see personality traits? And does a pet try to manipulate you? Hold that thought, I need to go find something green and leafy to pay the piper.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Kvas: The Cola of Communism

(Above: Kvas on tap at a tram stop last June. Living Kvas, Excellent: A+ quality, says the sign.)

Wednesday evening on my way home from church, I bought a fermented drink. That’s a first for me and I’ll admit to some anxiety about opening it. I think I’ll hold it until. . . maybe I have company over. It’s a bottle of kvas, a traditional Russian homebrew made from dark bread, water and sugar. Consumption of kvass is on the rise, they say, with the growth of Russian patriotism.

For generations, kvass has been enjoyed by the wide spectrum of Soviet society from peasants to the aristocracy, who sometimes preferred kvas to foreign wines. Nowadays, come summertime and kvas vendors are out on the streets selling the drink from big tanks or on tap. In another use, kvas is the base of cool, summer soups such as okroshka – a-KROSH-ka – a colorful, refreshing soup – a personal favorite.

(Above: A kvas vendor in Kiev last summer beside her tank of Ukrainian Kvas.

If you like cider, you would like kvas. Both are sour, fizzy and a bit fermented but the alcohol content of kvas is so low that it’s considered okay for children. I say let’s keep kvas around for October and Halloween – that’s my American roots showing – but with the first hint of autumn, kvas fades to a mere memory and hot tea becomes the drink of choice.

During Soviet times, kvas was the only fizzy drink available and thus dubbed *the coke of communism* by someone, somewhere. In recent years, commercial bottlers have gotten into the act and at the moment, a bottle of the leading brand, Ochakovo, is in my refrigerator. Another brand, Nikola, has taken a particularly interesting marketing tack – in Russian, the name means *Not Cola* -- interesting to market something on what it is not. (But, come to think of it, that might be the Russian equivalent of *the Un-cola.*)

In recent years, kvas consumption has boomed with an increase in national pride. This move has not gone unnoticed by Coca-Cola of Russia which plans to launch its own brand of kvass sometime. They’re hoping their version will rival Coke and plan to market the drink outside the former eastern bloc countries of Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Uzbekistan – into western Europe, including Germany.

Kvas is probably as popular in Russia as cola is in the US. Commercial kvas is considerably less expensive than cola: 15 rubles for .5 liter versus 26 rubles for a Coke. From a street vendor, a plastic cup of kvas will set you back 6 rubles but make it yourself at home from leftover bread and some sugar for just a few kopeks.

Tell you what, I’ll check the current ruble to dollar exchange rate for you here in a minute. First, I need a quick break to refresh my Diet Coke.

(Above, left: The new fangled commercially bottled kvas and, right, a do-it-yourself kit of convenience kvas: add dry yeast, sugar, boiling water then cover tightly. Wait 24 hours and -- voila -- homebrew good enough to share with. . .a czar.

* * * * *

Thouvenot, Delphone, (2007, Oct 3). Yahoo! News, Russian patriotism drives fermented bread drink craze.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Be Game: Dine at the Wild Animal

Next time you're in St Petersburg and you're antsy for some untamed cuisine, head on over to the Wild Animal Restaurant. The eatery's ad, above, in a visitors map of the city boasts *Nature in all kinds of cooking.* Best of all, as per the Wild Animal itself, they also feature *Eatable prices.* That's definitely worth a try: When the waitress -- okay, the server -- delivers the check, politely request it a la mode. And hope she speaks a bit of French.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Midnight Adventures at Moscow's Sheremetevo-1 Airport

Well, there’s an outlet in the women’s toilet. You can work in there.

Somehow I managed not to bray in response. I was at Sheremetevo-1 (share-ye-MYET-ye-vo), one of Moscow’s domestic airports last Sunday evening and was prepping to spend the night there. Now, if only I had some power, I could work, write and be entertained on my laptop. But the battery was down to 39% and prospects electrical were looking slim.

This wasn’t my first all-nighter at Sheremetevo-1. Last time it was accidental. That was in 2004 or so. . .and that night the food service manager let me set up camp in his restaurant, giving me all-night access to an outlet and table. The night flew by – kinda, sorta – and come morning and departure time I presented Mr. Nice Manager a decent souvenir from Athens. It was well worth it.

But management has changed in the interim and Sunday evening, I learned that Mr. Nice Manager has been replaced by Mr. Hard Line and he wasn’t sympathetic. Imagine setting up a laptop in the restroom. True, outlets are there, but picture a laptop on a wet countertop between sinks or dealing with the aroma let alone the scenery. In short, I had ambiance issues.

What to do. . . what to do. . .what to do? Back when planning these flights three weeks earlier I deliberately timed the overnight layover in Moscow en route from St Petersburg to Rostov-on-Don, figuring that I would catch a cab ($50) to the area’s least expensive hotel ($150) for a quick night’s sleep. That could have worked. But. . . but what I didn’t expect was that my weekend in St Petersburg, which followed a weeklong conference at nearby Peterhof, would run $200 for lodging. Too bad, so sad that my visions of staying in a dorm or with friends didn’t materialize. Alas, the gap between planning, expectations and. . . reality. But God was good and provided and protected and my weekend was extraordinary. Still it came with a price tag and I had grown quite weary of forking over rubles here, there and everywhere.

So Sunday evening at Sheremetevo-1, I decided to take control of the situation (If only!), bite the bullet and pull an all-nighter at the airport like a true Russian. This is one more thing to love about these folks. They’re so hardy and adaptable and willing to be uncomfortable without complaint. Admittedly, some folks down considerable amounts of hard liquor to get there, but that's another story.

Back to the quest for power. Two airport employees were especially helpful, a rare commodity here in the Land of Customer (dis)Service. Granted, it was after midnight and action was slow. But the 20-something police officer working the security scanner at the main entrance was quite helpful. For a minute there he considered unplugging his big x-ray machine and plugging it into my extension cord to share electricity. But we ended up vetoing that one.

Hands down, the Customer Service Award goes to the Information Booth lady. Not only did she smile, a novel concept in a land where smiles are carefully rationed, but she had a spare outlet inside her hut-of-a-booth. She couldn’t allow me inside to use it, unfortunately, but she did suggest that I hand over the laptop to recharge for an hour or two. Oh, did I have misgivings about that.

This laptop is my baby, I told her. No, actually it’s my brain.

She nodded. She’s probably a mother too.

May I ask your name?

It was Vera. Good enough. Vera means faith and I would have faith in Vera.

Two hours later I came back, laptop was 99% charged and good for a couple hours of Super Word Games. Viva Vera!

(Caption: I'm in this photo - can you spot me?)

You know, of course, that the secret to working all night is to set mini-goals. My first goal: stay awake until midnight, easy enough since my flight landed at 10:30 p.m. Next, stay busy until 3:00 a.m. And until then 6:00 and then around 8:00 when it’s time to head toward that 9:30 flight. Being armed with mini-goals and more bottles of Diet Coke than I care to admit, made all the difference. That and the occasional stroll the length of the waiting area.

I found a place to set up camp, in the café area with tables and chairs, no power though, and it cleared out eventually except for a truck driver named Eugene who drives to France regularly and who claimed that he had been up for three days. This Eugene, or Zhenya for short, and I decided to team up and provide security for each other. Like when he wanted to go outside and smoke I would watch his table. And when I needed to go for a stroll, he would watch my luggage, cross-stitch, books, Diet Coke and my beloved Paper-Mate mechanical pencils, all spread across the table as Americans are inclined to do.

What a photo op, strolling through the waiting area, past all the people catching a snooze after the blasted intercom music was finally turned off around 2:00. I was plotting how I might get away with photographing that scene. Best of all was a dignified middle-aged woman in a pink tweed suit who was reclining quite carefully across three seats so as not to muss her suit. She was sleeping with her pumps on and her ankles crossed. Now that’s a lady for you. Fortunately I didn’t have my camera with me because she stirred as I walked by, opened her eyes and would have caught me in the act.

Actually, I was uncomfortable with taking people’s photos that night. There weren’t that many people around and it would have been too obvious. But Zhenya was fine with it. No problem, he said! And he got away with it so the attached photos are thanks to him.

Throughout the night, Mr. Hard Line, the food service manager managed to become more pleasant. Drinking Diet Coke as I was, about every hour I needed more ice. That meant a trip to the bar and once it was Mr. Hard Line who served me. Not that he was softening on his power stance, mind you, but he was fine with the ice. I didn’t mention to him that if he had been like Mr. Nice Guy, I would have given him a souvenir of St Petersburg.

But who knows, maybe next time I overnight at Sheremetevo-1, there will be yet another food service manager and it might not matter if he gives me power or not. Maybe by then Shere-1 will have an internet cafe as does Vnykova -- pronounced VNOOK-ov-a – another of Moscow’s regional airports. It never hurts to dream about progress. Either that or I might have to amend the ladies' room sign to Women's Toilet and Computer Cafe.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Saturday at The Hermitage, St Petersburg

A free day in St Petersburg means a visit to The Hermitage. That magnificent palace turned-art-gallery is a national treasure and is likely the city's premier tourist attraction. This was not my first visit to The Hermitage. I had come with the Pan European Lecture tour in July of 2002 for a taste of the highlights. But after five hours there last Saturday, all I can say is *What luxury! What opulence! What history!*

Even a palace needs to be spiffied up from time to time. Above, a worker vacuums the grand staircase under the watchful eye of some Greek goddess. Most of us passersby stood and stared at this sight, struck by the irony of a noisy vacuum on the white marble stairsway. As this fellow worked his way down the steps, more photos where taken of him than of the gilding and architectural detail that surrounded him. Not that he was particularly pleased about that.

Outside on the street, an early evening view from Hermitage toward Palace Square and the Tower of Alexander.