Sunday, March 30, 2008

"All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go. . ." (Ha ha ha!)

There's a secret to getting packed and out the door without last-minute frenzy. According to Rick Steves, the Seattle-based guru of travel writers, the secret is to be ready three days prior to departure date. And then you'll be ready on time. So that's my secret. Except that I have yet to accomplish that.

This week, however, I have a chance to try again. Wednesday mid-day, I'm scheduled to depart Rostov. That means today, Sunday mid-day, I needed to be ready to go. Hilarious. One bag is ready to go, the souvenir bag, and that's an achievement right there. Perhaps you'd like a look inside. Who knows, one of these souvenirs might be intended for you!

Matroshka (pronounced muh-TROSH-ka) dolls are the most popular Russian souvenir. These are the wooden nesting dolls. The biggest one here is a set of seven dolls and the smallest are sets of three dolls. The container of golden coins are actually chocolate rubles, a great little gift for school groups. Boy will they be surprised when they find out how much they're really (not) worth!

Matroshka magnets are a great for refrigerators and take up lots less packing space than the real thing. I've got 45 of them, including 3 samovar magnets.

Postcards are a perfect souvenir and on the left are seven sets of postcards, 12 to 15 per set. They make great bookmarks and what's that they say about a picture being worth 1000 -- make that worth 100 words in a foreign tongue? Remember kvas, the Russian homebrew? Well, there are starter kits of kvas, the cola of communism back there. And we can't forget some Russian lacquer-ware, called khokhloma, the red and black designed spoons and such. And dear Charity, especially for you, two boxes of Russian tea! =D

These little salt dishes have become a classic gift. I usually pack ten of them and chances are that nine will survive the trip, little chicks intact. This pottery, called Semekarakorskaya Pottery is made in the Rostov area and my dishes are all from this company. Without the hens, however.

I should be packing shouldn't I. And then there are dishes to wash and bird cages to clean. But most of all, I a have responsibility to you, my dear blog readers. That's a priority. Because when I go to exit Russia, the first question they'll ask me at the border is this: Is your blog up-to-date? And then, about the bird cages. So, first things first. ;)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Yuri Gagarin: Remembering the First Cosmonaut

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space is being remembered this week, 40 years after his death. In April, 1961 when he went into space, he was only 27 years old.

Gagarin visited Rostov-on-Don in 1967, and this statue in his honor commemorates that trip. By the way, Gagarin is pronounced Guh-GAH-ren. This is important because perhaps you'll have an opportunity soon to drop that tidbit of information - ever so casually, of course - into a conversation. And knowing that you're pronouncing his name correctly will be a plus. How embarrassing to pronounce it GAG-a-rin. (Oh gag!)

Catch this neat video, Stars Await. See Gagarin in person, feted at a 1960's event in the USSR, the song apparently sung in his honor. It has been translated at that site, Windows to Russia. Watch it to catch a glimpse of Gagarin's jump-in-and-do-it personality.

In Moscow is this 40-meter titanium tower in honor of Gagarin. (Photo courtesy

Back to Rostov: With Gagarin's statue in front of Rostov Technical University, looking south over Voroshilovsky Prospect, a major north-south artery.

According to, Gagarin's death still baffles Russian folk. He was killed during a flight training accident at age 34. But some remain skeptical, even 40 years later. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

Just wondering: Do you happen to remember Gagarin's trip into space back in April, 1961? As for me, I was in 4th grade but our family didn't have television, so we probably learned about his trip around Thanksgiving or so. . . But how about you? Please share your memories of that time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sunflower Seeds: A Russian National Craze

Welcome to Rostov-on-Don, the sunflower capital of the world. I just made that up, to be totally honest. But you know, if it's not the Sunflower Capital of the world, this area deserves to be. They say that Russia is the foremost producer of sunflower seeds and that the Rostov Region is home to 20% of the sunflower growing area in Russia. Probably more sunflowers than Kansas, anyway.

Come summer, there are sunflowers galore around here. If you love sunflower seeds or sunflower seed oil or the candy made from sunflower seeds or even the candy made from sunflower seed husks, this is a good place to be. Welcome!

How 'bout some seeds right now? This babyshka, this dear Russian grandmother, roasted them herself just for you. And a few extra rubles would help supplement her pension.

Russians chew sunflower seeds like Americans chew gum. Or popcorn or peanuts in the shell. They sit and nibble sunflower seeds absentmindedly. Above are Zhenya and Zhenya nibbing seeds last Saturday afternoon in our church kitchen. But we certainly wouldn't want to accuse them of absentminded nibbling.

Most often people drop hulls everywhere – on tables, under park benches. Worse than birds. And believe me, I know a thing or two about birds and their seed-throwing habits. Worse than little piglets, they are. The birds, that is.

These seeds belong to a lady selling fruit and nibbling seeds during slow times. Oddly enough, she declined the opportunity to demonstrate for you the art of seed splitting. Very different from seed spitting, of course.

Back in the time of the czars, Russian soldiers were sent off into the field with a 2-pound sack of sunflower seeds for food. Quite nutritious – protein, iron, potassium but plenty of calories too. Now if a bumblebee happened into the seeds, the protein value would skyrocket. As would the soldier if he got stung. Oy!

In this area, chances are most every household has a bowl of seeds for folks to dip into, like bowl of candy. Certainly more nutritious than M & Ms. Although not nearly as colorful.

Have you nibbled on sunflower seeds lately? Well what's holding you back? ;)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Prima Donna an Absolute Donkey

(Photo courtesy of Reuters.)

Monika the donkey is retiring from her dance career. She has been performing with the Mariinski Ballet troup of St Petersburg, Russia. Read all about her at Yahoo! Donkey Takes Final Bow

Can't help but wonder if those arabesques are getting to her. Oh, but that would be easy, with four legs, would it not? So maybe it's the plies. Now that would take some fancy footwork for hoofer Monika.

Have you taught an animal to dance? Have you ever laughed yourself silly watching an animal dance? Or, just between the two of us here, have you ever danced and felt donkey-like?

Care Package from the USA: Bane or Blessing?

So what can we bring you when we come back for the boys?

I was talking with a neat couple from southern California who were in Rostov for an adoption visit. I had helped them a bit and they wanted to show appreciation.

What do I want from the US?

Listen carefully dearly beloved, those are the golden words, the absolutely most beautiful words to the ears of any expatriate. And the answer was easy. Really, really easy.

I want file folders. I need file folders. Throw in a PayDay candy bar and a magazine or two – People, Good Housekeeping, something light - right off the rack and that would do me a world of good. Especially the PayDay.

That was mid-January.

Neat Couple returned last week to get their boys and invited me to Hotel Rostov to get the goodies. Two packages of file folders and indeed, they are beau-ti-ful!

And then there was the candy. We need to talk about the candy. First, there was not one Payday in the bunch. Not to worry though. There were packages of Butterfingers, Babe Ruths, Junior Mints, 100 Grand, Reese’s peanut butter something new-fangled, Twix. Oh yum. Yummy, yum yum.

Decisions, decisions. What to do with all that candy. In the interest of health and safety, I decided to sample one of each for quality assurance. Hard to know how high altitudes and crossing of time zones might affect the goods. Fortunately – or unfortunately depending upon ones perspective – the quality was excellent. So far, so good.

Then I buckled down to work on my long-overdue newsletter, a project which brings me considerable strain and trauma. Not to mention mental anguish. It really is one of the hardest things I do. During all that I realized what comfort the Butterfingers would bring. And they were calling to me from the other end of the house. I could hear them through the plastic bags and the cabinet in which I had hidden them. It was that loud, truly. Just three of those little Butterfingers couldn’t hurt all that much. . .

Well, things went downhill from there. By the time evening came, I was in a sugar-induced stupor. Let’s make that a self-inflicted, sugar-induced stupor (SiSiS) and I needed help.

I called for intervention.

Hello? My name is Eileen. I’m a sugaraholic and I need help.

I’ll be right there.

The voice belonged to Andrey, the neighbor kid downstairs. He knew exactly what to do with all that candy. He and his buddies would handle chocolate faster than you can say sugar diabetes.

That wasn’t the first time Andrey and his family have helped me out. Thank goodness for neighbors, eh?

Hold on, hold on. Do I hear my name? It’s those pesky file folders, feeling abandoned. Oh do they smell fresh and crisp. Paper, a cellulose product, a source of roughage perhaps? Just a tiny little nibble surely couldn’t hurt anything. What a concept – fat-free file folders! (FF- FF)

Neat Couple probably will never understand how much I got into the care package they brought. Yep, absolutely devoured it.

This is my office. See how much I trust you ~ with all this information? But surely you agree that file folders would be useful to organize all this.

These are photos are of my office exactly as it is, not one little thing done to makie it tidier for this little photo shoot. As embarrassing as it is though, it's more attractive than the extra kilogram that has shown up on my bathroom scale since then.

Surely I'm not alone in this. What particular food that you have learned to stay away from? Other than Russian caviar, of course. ;)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

High Tech Tram Chugs through Rostov-on-Don

Where am I -- Prague? Vienna? I asked myself on the tram yesterday. It wasn't the first time I'd managed to snag one of the snazzy newer trams on Gorky Street.

But it was the first time I noticed the digitial display for upcoming stops. I wondered, Am I really here in Rostov? The mega-cities have long had such high tech trappings with their public transport. But when technology reaches the us, the masses here in in the hinterlands of Rostov-on-Don, you gotta love it.

How about you ~ Do you regularly use public transportation? Or do you have special memories of a time when you did?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Jennifer Lopez Comes to Russia?

Walking along the street today I saw this sign and stopped abruptly.

WE ARE OPEN (in Russian), by Jennifer Lopez.

Take a giant step backward and here's that view. It's a clothing store and I almost got shots of the manniquins in the windows. But then somebody came to the door and seemed less than excited about the having the place photographed. Or maybe she wanted to be in the photo herself. Come to think of it, it might have been Jennifer Lopez in person. Maybe not. I'd say she's got plenty going on at home, having just birthed twins, it is reported.

Say, anybody have information about a JLo clothing store coming to Eastern Europe? I'm wondering if this is *the genuine deal* or something pirated -- as in without permission. Maybe I'll stop in there sometime and demand an explanation. No of course not, I'll just nicely ask for the story. But perhaps one of you dear blog readers can provide enlightenment.

Say, if a store carried YOUR name, what colors would you use? What would you sell? (just nice stuff okay?) and Would you consider coming to Rostov-on-Don? Please say DA!

PS: Thanks to Jeanette Morris for finding J.Lo Goes Global in People magazine (2004, March). So. . . this could be 4 real. Thank you Jeanette!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hello Natasha - The Whole Orphanage Misses You

Hey little Natashinka, Hello from Rostov! You need to know that the whole orphanage misses you. Here are just a few familiar faces.

Doctor Marina misses you. Oh, here you are together the week before you left.

And here is Nurse Anya. She's pretending like she's going to give you a shot. Oh she really misses getting to give you shots! Haha - hahahah. No really, she misses YOU.

Natasha, do you remember Marina? She took care of you when you in another group. That was back when you were a wee little kitten. She remembers you with love.

Oh Natasha here are a few of your 13 brothers at the orphanage. I know they REALLY miss having a girl around! When I was there last weekend, a few days after you had left, there were still only boys in the group. I'll bet soon there will be a girl or two. But nobody can ever replace our Natashinka. We love you and I hope to see you in about two weeks in Atlanta! Love, Eileena

PS: Natasha, can you find yourself in the photo above? See, back there in the back, toward the left. The pictures a little blurry because you little squirts were all moving around so much. And I wanted to not use flash and risk *waking up the kids* (I had orders you know from you-know-who! hahah). Also I was excited so I probably shook the camera. Any-who, there you are! This was naptime on Monday, March 10th.

And guess what else Natasha - let me whisper this in your ear. I also have a top secret photo of you sucking your thumb at naptime. This will be our secret. Or. . .have you already told your mama and papa about this thumb-sucking habit of yours? ;)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A is for Watermelon

Presenting, for your entertainment, the Russian alphabet. Actually, it's called the Cyrillic alphabet. No worries about remembering that though. The main thing is that you know that a is for watermelon. And that's because around here arbus (арбус) means watermelon.

Allow me to introduce you to a very special letter.That would be the letter я. It's the very last letter of the alphabet and looks like a backwards capital R. In Russian, it's a vowel though and it's pronounced yah. A neat thing about this letter, it's also a word. It's the first person pronoun -- I, like in English, with the letter i. As I recall though, in Russian that pronoun is not capitalized - that would be considered egotistical. (Attention native speakers of Russian - input please.) And egocentrism must be avoided at all costs. ;)

I've heard that Russian mothers are known to put their kids in place by saying, Who do you think you are young man? Don't you know that я is the last letter of the alphabet? That's to say don't get too big for your britches when all you can think about I, I, I - remember that I is at the end of the alphabet. In Russian, anyway.

So while a is for apple in English, as you see from the poster, я is for яблоко, the Russian word for apple. This is making me hungry. Think I'll go grab myself an apple right this minute. Either that or a watermelon. ;)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ranch House Restaurant in Rostov-on-Don

Recently, walking along the street here saw this sign with a cactus, a mustang and I wondered, where am I -- back in Dallas?

That word that looks like pectopah, that word might resemble the English pectorals, but believe me, there is no connection.

It's actually the Russia word for restaurant and pronounced very similarly to the English. Here's the low-down on those letters: the Russian р = r in English, the Russian е = a ye sound in English, с = s in English, т = t (although in cursive, the Russian T is formed like an m in English - as below), о = o, р = r in English, а = a in English and н = n in English. So there you have it!

Worked up an appetite yet? Please join me at the Ranch House Restaurant. We can assume dining there at that ресторан is lots more fun than building pectorals!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More Spring Flowers

The Eighth of March, International Women's Day, is so much fun, so big an event in the Russian culture, that I can hardly not share all my wonderful photos with you, dear blog readers. By that I mean, photos of wonderful people that (whom) you really do need to meet.

Even cooks need to be honored on the 8th of March. Especially cooks need to be honored. And at the nearby orphanage, this dear lady cooks meals for 100-some kiddos. She managed a nice smile even though she had to work the holiday. She deserves some daffodils.

Wish I knew her name. I'll have to ask because we cross paths occasionally. Either Natasha or Nadya or Lena or maybe Zhenya. I'll have to check. Or Sveta of course. Those are common names for Russian women.

Meet the narcisus lady. Which is quite different than being a narcissistic lady which we can safely assume she is not. On the other hand, she did pose for three photos without complaint and even smiled. Nice narcisus lady.

Here's the tulip lady with a sweet smile. It even sparkles.

May I photograph your beautiful tulips?

Oh go photograph somebody else, I'm no longer beautiful. She smiled and laughed.

That told me she was special, a babyshka smiling and laughing with a stranger, a foreigner at that.

Oh but you have a beautiful heart.

She laughed, I snapped and here she is.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

You did WHAT in the Army? Part 2

Say, you’re not going to believe this, but last week I wrote about you in my blog and even posted your picture!

What a coincidence that for the second time in a month, I had the same taxi driver, Army Dancer.

I offered him my blog address but he was mildly interested, if at all. I was certainly more excited about this second encounter than he was. And that’s because of you, my dear blog readers: I figured you might have follow-up questions for this interesting fellow. I had at least five questions, myself, and began to lob them in his direction up there in the driver’s seat.

What is your name, if I may ask?


Yes of course. Please add Nickolai to that earlier list of names typical of Russian males. As I recall, Sergey and Zhenya and Volodya and a few others I listed in earlier but never thought of Nickolai.

You mentioned being in a dance ensemble. . .

I had pictured 5 or 6 Cossack dancers, all men, lined up across the stage doing that squat-and-kick-Russian-dance move, whatever it’s called. Looks like murder on the knees.

. . . So, how many were with you in the ensemble?


Oh my, that's way more than five. Let’s see, that’s 96 Russian soldiers dancing around on a stage in Afghanistan instead of fighting the war there? Obviously I have no understanding of local military philosophy.

All men, right?

No, of course not. There were women too.

Did you do Cossack dances?

Of course. We did all kinds -- modern, classic, Cossack. All kinds.

I didn’t ask about ballet or tap. Or square dancing or Texas line dancing.

Our conversation was a bit lop-sided with me doing most of the yakking. But I was determined to move it right along. After all, I figure that language practice is part of the taxi service. So I asked how the previous day’s holiday, The Eighth of March, had gone at his house. Did he buy flowers for the women-folk in his family?

Sure, flowers of course.

No surprise there.

I sensed a chance to editorialize.

You know, it seems a bit odd to me that 8th of March is so much bigger a holiday than The 23rd of February (a Men’s Day of sorts). It’s like 25 times bigger a deal. I think that 23rd of February needs to be more important.

I was a teensy bit proud of myself with my concern for gender equity and all. Chalk it to having three brothers.

Nickolai’s radio was squawking, his dispatcher calling about a ride waiting over at the Intourist.

That’s right he said, the 8th of March is a much bigger holiday.

That doesn’t offend you?

No of course not. Women need more attention.

I extricated myself from the back of the vehicle, gave him 100 rubles and stood there on the muddy street in front of the church building as he roared off to the Intourist.

That struck me. Women need more attention. He said it so matter-of-factly.

A bit ironic, a man who has answered many a curtain call as a professional dancer, performed for applause in a previous life. Quite different from driving taxi. Attention doesn’t seem particularly important to him these days. He was more interested in hurrying to his next customer than reading about himself in a blog.

Say Nickolai, if you dig around the internet and find this blog, let me make a deal with you. Next time we cross paths, if you offer to do that murder-on-the-knees Russian dance move, I’ll give leave you five US dollars. Surely I can find some somewhere. Goodness, I’ll go way beyond that with a photo and another blog post about you. But you’ve got to bring it up. Deal? Da or nyet?

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Home for Natasha: Adoption in Process

Today is the day our Natasha leaves the orphanage. Her adoptive parents, a wonderful couple from Atlanta, Georgia are packing up right about now, preparing to check out of Hotel Rostov and then head to the Ministry of Education for official documents. Next stop, to the orphanage to get Natasha and then to *Rostov International Airport* to catch Aeroflot to Moscow and the US Embassy there.

I'm toying with the idea of heading to the orphanage to capture the *goodbye Natasha* scene among staff there. This little girl is beloved and her leaving is bittersweet. Mostly sweet.

Enter SnowMaiden. Natasha had a starring role in the holiday festivities, December 2007. She played SnowMaiden opposite Father Frost. Natasha was perfect for the role. Admittedly she had little competition, being the only girl in a group with 13 boys. Back in Atlanta, three older brothers are waiting for her. Goodness, one girl and three boys. Think she'll be okay with that?

Last June 1st, the children presented a program for the first day of summer. Natasha starred as a little chick but here she is sitting and enjoying the event.

Natasha has a daddy now. He could well be the first man who has ever held her. And, as you can see, she's positively smitten.

On the other hand, Natasha has been held more than the typical orphan, is my bet. Much of her early years were in the hospital for surgery after surgery. Surely male physicians and staff held her there from time to time.

What a smile. This was yesterday at the end of naptime. Does Natasha have any idea what today holds for her? I wonder. Her parents asked me to explain that she would be leaving the orphange today. I wonder if she could grasp that last night was her last sleep in that little bed. That she would be leaving the orphanage today with her very own mama and papa. And they would be taking her Home.

Rather than heading to the orphanage, I think I'll just stay here and work on things. I'm weepy just writing this. Yesterday's photos will have to be enough on this story. . .

We love you Natasha! And we congratulate you on beginning a new chapter in your young life. But one word of advise young lady: If you expect to march around your little classroom in the US and get chosen SnowMaiden without any competition, you're in for a surprise! But I'll let your parents explain all that to you.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Award for Outstanding Creativity: The 8th of March

Yesterday was Women's Day here in Russia and that means flowers. Or chocolates. It doesn't take a whole lot of creativity to give a handful of daffodils to someone. Come to think of it, that's exactly what I did, the recipients were delighted and that worked for me. But some creative souls have a need to be different, to be unique in their gift or in their presentation. Below are two prime examples.

To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott, Is there a woman with a soul so dead that to herself has never said, "What I want most is a chrysanthemum elephant. Either that or floral giraffe." Well, here you go. . .here's one of each. Hard to beat that for a one-of-a-kind gift.

The clever fellow on the crane here, Mr Crane, wins the prize hands-down for presentation, for thinking outside the box - or rather, outside the building. For the rest of the story, go to English Russia. By the way, at that site you'll see a soldier joining the honoree, Juliet perhaps, on the balcony and shooting down at Mr Crane. Admittedly, Soldier is shooting only film at Crane but my guess is that they're not rivals for the affection of Juliet.

Say, why not have a look yourself and post your speculation here.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Eighth of March - National Women's Day

The Eighth of March is in full-swing. Here are some photos from the street.

In search of the perfect flowers for his wife, his daughter and granddaughter.

Picking out flowers for the women in his life - wife, mother, daughter.

See 8th of March live and in person!

Fruit works too as a gift. This is a sweet sight, a young man with flowers probably for his mother and grandmother. A bunch of daffodils in his hand.

Tulips for sale, locally grown from 85 rubles to 150 for a bouquet of three. (24.67 rubles to the dollar today, anybody got a calculator handy?)

What a nice grandmother. I asked her about the 8th of March holiday when she was young, back during the war. She said they were busy giving bread to the soldiers.

A clever story, How to Treat Women on Women’s Day, in today's Moscow Times.

Friday, March 07, 2008

You Did WHAT in the Army?

So, what did you do in the army, if it’s not a secret.

I was chatting with my taxi driver and, as per usual, looking for some language practice. Most Russian men have served in the military and that makes for good conversation.

I danced, he answered, glancing in the rearview mirror.

You danced? You danced? Why?

Because I was good at it.

No, I mean, why did you dance as a job in the army?

Because I was good at it. I was in the dance ensemble and we performed for the troops.

Eventually I came to understand that Mr. Driver served in the army not as a pilot, a gunner, a mechanic, a photographer, certainly not as a chaplain – but a dancer. And his dancing was during a time of conflict, during Russia’s war in Afghanistan.

We danced to bring joy to the troops, make them laugh. War is a terrible thing and they needed happiness.

You know, now that I think about it, I believe one of our presidents served in the army as an actor.

That’s right. He played the saxophone.

Well, no, that was someone else. I’m talking President Reagan. He was an actor in the army.

The idea of serving ones country as a dancer was new to me. Of course entertainers such as Bob Hope have always made special tours to encourage the troops. But dancers in the army? This was a paradigm shift.

As the taxi neared my destination, I thought about you, dear blog readers. And thought you might like to meet this nice man. Happened to have my trusty camera along and he happily posed for a photo.

So there he is – Army Dancer, Retired. Oopsie, I didn’t manage to get his name. But chances are that his name would be Sasha (short for Alexander) or Seryozha (short for Sergey) or Vova (short for Volodya) or Zhenya (short for Euvgenie) or Vlad (for Vladimir). Because that’s what maybe 85% of the Russian men are named.

Now it’s your turn: Had an interesting conversation with a driver? How about a surprising job in the military?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Primaries on Russian Television

Happenings USA are of much interest here in Russia. Below are images from yesterday's news, the primaries in Ohio and Texas.

In the USA, they are heading toward the results of the second "Super Tuesday."

From Washington, correspondent Ariel Cohen (sp?), In the USA, they are heading toward results of the second "Super Tuesday." Did you know John McCain speaks fluent Russian? Either he does. . . or the translator does.

And Barack Obama also speaks Russian. Well okay, that might be the translator. From Washington with special correspondent Ariel Cohen (sp?).