Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Murmansk, The End

Almost a year after I was there, I now offer you the fourth-and-final instalment of our 5-day trip to the Arctic city of Murmansk.

Let us start shortly after where we left off – upon waking on the morning after our trip to the banya – and continue until my return to Moscow.

We woke up: a good start to any day, and had breakfast, just to make the start complete. We bundled up in our cold-defying garb and struck out into the Arctic for another day of exploring the city of Murmansk.

Our goal for this day was the Alyosha statue, a war memorial on the summit overlooking the bay. The crow-flying route was across a frozen lake, up a hill, then up a much bigger hill to the towering statue behind. If there is a lesson to be learnt from this, it’s that crows have a distinct advantage over humans when making a direct route towards something.

The snow covering the lake was shin deep, but luckily for us there was a well-cut track across the entire width of it, giving the impression that there would be an easy route to lead us directly to where we wanted to be.

The lake came to an end, indistinctly beneath the thick snow. The two strongest indicators of this were the tall, leafless bushes clawing up through the snow, and the sudden cessation of the walking track. In retrospect it would have been sensible not to listen to a certain member of our party (who I shall not name; although I will do myself the service of pointing out that it wasn’t me), who described the idea of pushing on as “fine”. In retrospect it would have been far more sensible to sit in a café and discuss how cold and grey Murmansk is in the winter.

Retrospect is almost always discussed in the context of bad ideas.

We took turns cutting a path through the snow, carving a way up the first hill. It was, as my father might call it, “a tough slog,” the snow always at least calf-height, and approaching our knees in some areas. This meant that each step forward had to be accompanied by a step up to lift the foot clear of the snow. In a warmer time or place I wouldn’t be able to say that we were dressed for the conditions – instead of over-trousers, as I would normally want to wear when trudging through snow, we were all wearing jeans. Jeans have a justifiably bad reputation regarding the outdoors. They are pretty heavy to begin with, but they have a large saturation potential – they absorb a lot of water – and are incredibly slow to dry. This can lead to fatigue and, if not dealt with well, hypothermia.

In warmer conditions, that is. Where we were, in the frozen north, our jeans didn’t absorb a single drop of water. Paradoxical? Consider the fact that it was, at best, 10 degrees below zero. Our body heat wasn’t capable of melting even a flake of snow. Instead, the snow simply caked onto our jeans in a thick, cracking layer. No problem.

We surmounted the first hill with no issue, giving us the sense that things would remain that way. After all, it had only taken us about half an hour to get this far. We pushed on.

At that point in any trip where it is no longer smarter to turn around, we realised that, up until now, we had been sheltered from the wind by the very peak we were now ascending. With the wind now coming at us from the North Pole, we were feeling even colder than before. Plus, Radim kept stopping to take photos.

He had fair reason to, though. Beautiful is never a word I would use to describe Murmansk; we were looking down into a long, deep bay – a canyon beneath the sea – that lead directly to the Arctic Ocean. Across the bay were moving huge transport ships, lumbering tugs and nuclear-powered ice-breakers; from the shore projected long, wide concrete piers, being lapped at by a thin membrane of ice, loading cranes that looked like they could lift the ship as well as the cargo, and an entire city grown up the valley beside and because of that. Beautiful, no; but, beneath the halo of a grey twilight, illuminated from itself far more than from the sun, I will call the view “striking”.

That being said, it wasn’t warm enough for me to stop for the sake of any more than two photos. We had a hill to climb, a statue to visit, and a here to get the hell out of.

After almost a two-hour push uphill, through snow and wind, we surmounted the hill. What we found on top was a massive statue of a Soviet soldier: a 35 metre-tall tribute to the role of Murmansk in The Second World War. It was looking down over the bay, seemingly ready to step down from its 7-metre base to defend the city if ever called forth. With the famous exceptions of Stalingrad and Leningrad (now Volgograd and Saint Petersburg), Murmansk suffered more destruction than any other Soviet city during World War Two. As the USSR’s only year-round arctic port, it drew an attack from a combined German/Finnish force, in an attempt to cut off the Karelian supply route that ran south into the heart of European Russia. Precedent prevailed, however, and operation Silver Fox was brought to a grinding halt by the winter of 1941.

At the feet of the statue was an eternal flame burning from the ground and surrounded by a perfect circle of snowless marble. If it hadn’t been for the twisting winds around us, I would have tried to warm myself near it; but I was wearing a down jacket, and feeling especially combustible, so decided to view it from a safe, cold distance.

The entire journey, from the edge of the lake to this point, had taken almost two hours, and I was beginning to notice something alarming.

Not every part of my body was warm (for a reviewed definition of warm). My arms and torso were OK – under four layers, including the down jacket; my head, with two beanies and a hood, was actually a little uncomfortably warm. I was wearing sturdy gloves, merino socks (thanks Mum) and in spite of the relatively little covering them, my legs were benefiting from having gotten me this far in the first place. But there was still something that I had overlooked.

Above my legs, but not off them, it wasn’t getting any warming exercise; below my torso but not of it, it wasn’t under four layers of insulation; and unable to wilt to the extent demanded, my penis was becoming painfully cold (my testicles were fine though, having retreated to somewhere near my diaphragm). With disturbing notions of frostbite taking root in my mind, I quickly became leader of the Leave Now faction of our group, and we were soon on our way down hill, this time following the paved road that rounded down the hill.

25 minutes later we were back at the head of the lake from where we had started – climbing into a bus – then a café, to sit for much of the remanent of the afternoon, discussing films, Murmansk, and our new-found appreciation for asphalt.


While Mike, Radim and I had arranged to stay here for one more day, it was time for Peter and Pascale to return to Moscow. Extremities warmed, we set of for the train station to see them off.

When we returned to Vadim’s house, we found that he was accommodating another couch surfer, a young Tunisian woman by the name of Sondes, who was studying air-conditioning engineering at The University of Saint Petersburg. If anyone had ever told me that I would one day meet a Tunisian student of air-conditioning engineering while on holiday the world’s largest Arctic city, I would probably have replied “that’s very, specific, of you to say…”

And thus was our second day in Murmansk.


Our party now at minus two plus one, and we were looking for something new and interesting to do. Vadim told us that there was a snowmobiling place in Murmansk, where you can rent the vehicles, and drive around a specially designed circuit. So the four of us piled into a taxi, and headed off to try our hands at snowmobiling.

A little something about Russian taxis, if you’re interested. Or, even if you’re not interested.

They don’t have a fare-metre. That is, the fee isn’t $X per minute, plus $Y flagfall as it is in New Zealand; instead, prices are decided upon in advance. In the case of a so-called gypsy cab, which is just some guy driving around in a 1970s Lada hoping to make a bit of extra cash on the side, the price is negotiable, and bartered over before you even get in the cab. In the case of registered taxis, there is a fixed zone-price, a little like a bus or a train plan, which is non-negotiable.

We took a 45-minute (registered) taxi ride into the range of hills behind the city. Once at the snowmobile place, we arranged to have the taxi driver wait for us (for which the driver had to radio in to central office to establish what the non-negotiable price for sitting around was), while we did our snowmobiling, calculating that it would be cheaper and more convenient than having another taxi come up the hill to collect us once we were done.

First, we dressed up in windproof overalls that were so bulky that they offset the bulbous helmets we were wearing; leaving us looking like the front cover of a 1940s pulp-fiction sci-fi. Then we got a brief instructional talk, climbed onto the snowmobiles, and were following our guide into the forest.

I have an admission to make. I have never learnt to drive. Going beyond this, I have never, in fact, driven anything larger than a go-cart – and that was over 10 years ago. I was put off doing it again after I confused the accelerator and brake pedals while free-wheeling down a hill towards a wall.

Between then and now, though, I had accrued hundreds of hours of driving practice on my Playstation, and was thus able to hold my own driving a snowmobile. If I had had that much experience in a plane, I would probably have received a pilot’s licence long ago. As it was, I didn’t crash into anything, which shows that playing Gran Turismo isn’t an absolute waste of time.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the appeal of the internal combustion engine. It doesn’t seem to me to be about the power that comes from however many horsepower I had sitting beneath me. Here I was, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of winter, in Northern Russia, travelling through the snow at upwards of 40 kilometres an hour. Had we been on foot, this wouldn’t have been so much a fun experience as character building. I suppose what I’m getting at is that the appeal wasn’t coming so much from the vehicle itself, but from the sense of control that it offered: I, a fairly fragile creature when all is tolled, not only moving faster than any human could do on his own, but doing it through falling snow, across fallen snow, at temperatures that should, by rights, have left us dead in short measure. Despite where we were, we still had complete control over the situation – or at least the sense of. Perhaps this is the appeal of cars that I have always missed: the ability to be nothing but human, at yet do super-human things at a whim – to be one thing and do another.


We arrived at the train station. Mike and Radim’s 15 hour train to Saint Petersburg was due to leave only a few hours after my train, a 37 hour journey directly to Moscow.

“It’s not too late to change your mind and come with us to St. Pete’s,” said Mike.

“Nah,” I replied. “I’m planning on going there in the spring with my brother. I’ll save it until then.”

(As it happened, I didn’t make it to St. Pete’s in the spring. Alex decided not to come to Russia, on the grounds that Russia’s visa policy is, quote: really confusing. In fact, I haven’t made it there at all. Which is OK, because there is still time, and where there is still time, there is still time to procrastinate.)

On the return trip I was in a kupe berth, which is four beds in a lockable room, rather than the open ploshkart bunks we had on the way up. I boarded the train, alone this time, and, would you have guessed? I misread my ticket. Instead of going to bed number 8, I went and started to set myself up in cabin number 8. Thankfully, the nice family of four who turned up at the door moments later were more than happy to help the idiot foreigner work out where he was supposed to be.

When I arrived in cabin number 2, home of berth number 8, I found that the occupants of the bottom two bunks had already arrived. They were two friendly middle-aged women, who, between them, didn’t speak a word of English. As the train pulled away, they invited me to sit with them as they had dinner. Having conveyed that I’m a teacher from New Zealand, that I have just been on holiday in Murmansk and now returning to Moscow, and subsequently learned the corresponding information from the women, I found that I had completely exhausted my supply of Russian.

The conversation came to an anti-climactic halt. There was one of those periods of silence in which no-one is quite sure what to say or do next – the kind of silence that follows a comment like “this one time I had to have a parsnip surgically from my rectum. Did that put an end to a great night, or what?!” We suffered a few moments of this, following which the women began conversing in full-speed Russian. I sat where I was for a few minutes, unsure what to do, glancing between the two of them. Eventually I stood up, clambered up onto my bunk, and opened my book.

Lesson of the day: if you’re going to be trapped on a train for a day and a half, functionally alone, carrying only one piece of reading material, make sure that the book isn’t Moby Dick. Don’t take this as negative review of Herman Melville’s classic tale of pacifists stabbing whales; but when faced with the dilemma of reading a 50 page discussion of the philosophical implications of the colour white, and doing completely nothing, one can find oneself entertaining fantasies of being stabbed in the eye with a knitting needle.

The following morning, after a night of travel, a man boarded the train to occupy the remaining bed in the cabin. He was a smiling, stocky man of middle age. (It seems that my idea of middle aged is something like a real adult, with responsibilities that extend beyond showering regularly, and decisions more complex than which brand of frozen pizza to invest in. People like that make me feel a little like an impostor, as though I’m only faking it as an adult, and, one day soon, someone or something will find me and issue a test of my adult-hood; a test which I will fail so amazingly that I will be issued with the two-way choice of either getting married, or going back to live with my parents until I have mastered the art of separating my colours from my whites. And let’s be honest, from a practical perspective it isn’t really a choice. I would have to go back to my parents.) Once again I exchanged life stories for as long as my Russian held out, there was an uncomfortable period of silence, then the real conversation kicked off without me, and I went back to reading, in great detail, about the 19th century process of removing and melting the blubber of a sperm whale while on the open ocean.

At last the train pulled into Moscow. I subsequently discovered that it had been colder in Moscow than in Murmansk while we were gone, which made me feel a little bit cheated. In spite of everything that happened in Murmansk, I felt that the warmth of it detracted from the legitimate of the experience. I had travelled half way to the North Pole, gone into the Arctic, for a certain, boundary exploring adventure, only to discover that, regarding the temperature, it would have been a more legitimate Arctic experience to have just stayed at home. My balmy arctic winter holiday. On the other hand, if I had stayed in Moscow, then I would have just written 8,000 words of book reviews, or more likely, just not.

I leave for Siberia tomorrow. Maybe (hopefully?) it will be properly cold there.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Metro

Having been in Moscow for over a year now, the threshold demarcating overdue has well been exceeded, with regards to my discussion of the Rapid Transit System of Moscow, referred to with breviloquence as "the Metro".

Having now been here for as long as I have, the bizarreness, or perhaps, more appropriately, the unusual nature of the beast, has begun to wane. What began as a thrilling and novel undertaking rapidly descended into normality, to become nothing more than the part of my daily ritual that follows breakfast.

Most notable about the Metro is the sheer number of people who use it every day. Apparently, the annual usage is 2.5 billion passenger rides per year, which is only very slightly fewer than Tokyo's 2.9 billion passenger rides per year; and it is very nearly the same number as the combined users of both the London Tube and Paris Metro (2.6 billion). This works out at an average of 7 million passenger-rides a day, peaking out at 9 million on some days – which is over twice the population of New Zealand.

I am going to try to describe the Metro as best I can, but it is so far beyond anything else I could imagine, that the place I’m depicting and the place itself are barely similar. I've taken it hundreds of times by now, so the new-and-exciting factor is wearing a little bit thin. It's only upon reflection now that I realise just how unreasonable it is to find the Metro less than mind-blowing.

First of all, the system is architecturally amazing: some of the stations are true works of art. Floors of cobbled marble and stone, white marble walls and Soviet mosaics are the norm in most older, central stations. It is also common to see bronze statues, life-sized busts of notable Soviets (especially Lenin) and even chandeliers. Even away from the centre of Moscow one can find anything from clean, unadorned marble, to latticed arched pillars, to bizarre, modernistic-gothic stations that look to be taken straight from a Tim Burton film.

Rush hour, when most of those 7 million people seem to be using the system all at once, is best described as "wow". As soon as you enter the station, you can immediately feel the competition for oxygen intensifying. From this point there is no turning back. Please forgive my use of a cliché, but in this instance, it isn't a metaphor; it truly is impossible to turn around after you have allowed the overwhelming current of people to dictate which direction you are to travel. Through the magnetic card-scanners and past the steely eyes of someone guarding against fare-dodgers (they are almost always, large, middle-aged Russian women, and the fare-dodger is unvaryingly a young man too fast to be caught) and one descends into the depths of the Metro system. Things bottleneck at the elevator, and it is all you can do to shuffle like a penguin, surrounded by like-traveling commuters. At the escalator, one has a two-pronged option: stand on the right side or, for those commuters who believe that it will make a difference, walk on the left.

On the platform at last, and the crush of people has thinned out to a mere squish. Here, the current of people branches into many; crossing, merging, branching further. My station, Ryzanskiy Prospekt, near the outer edge of the city, doesn't offer any transfers to other stations, and the flow of people is predictable: down the escalators and into the train that's going into town. By contrast, in town, where a station can be connected to two or even three others, there is a criss-crossing flow of such complexity that any individual is only equipped to comprehend his or her own part in the overwhelming range of un-choreographed cohesion of movement.

Because of the hectic movement of people – tight-lipped and silent, save for the chorus of shuffling – the well-lit platform (more so due to the vast amounts of white marble used in many of the stations) and the reverberating drones and squeals of the trains' engines and breaks, it takes a concerted effort to remind myself that this is all happening as far as 84 metres below the surface. (The station I am referring, Park Pobedy, is also home to the longest escalators in Europe.)

And we step onto the train…

This is contrary to intuition. As the train pulls up to my station, which is yet only the second station from the commencement of the line, it is already full beyond any bus I have ever seen in Christchurch, and my first reaction is to say “Crap! How the hell am I meant to get into town if the train is already full?” The solution was a vicarious one: the dozen-odd people standing behind, actively denying the obvious, lunged forward in a single, practiced motion, sweeping me half-way into the carriage.

It is a great deal warmer in the train than it is on the platform, or, of course, outside. I don't have to think too hard for an explanation: I am, after all, in a tight space, filled to capacity with hundreds of heaters set to 37. Boyle's Law may or may not be another contributing factor.

As the train pulls away from the station, there is a sudden nudge of momentum. Surrounded by people like sheep in a truck, the inertia of my threatening fall is dissipated throughout the bodies behind me. Climbing to full speed, the gentle rocking of the train – cradle-like, were it not for the drone of the engine – causes all of the heads in the train to resonate, rocking left-and-right in perfect synchrony. With my mind adjusting to the noise of things, I begin to enjoy the incubative sensation of the thing – the warmth; the engulfing feeling of the people around, softer than they are hard, especially the woman next to me in a fur coat, which is too smooth to be compared; the minimum of effort needed to remain standing – and I can imagine myself as a yolk in an egg beneath maternal Moscow. (Yes, I just compared Moscow to a chicken.)

Too soon, my meditative commute is interrupted as we pull up to the next station on the line. Another jolt of momentum, this time from behind, and the doors open. One man steps off the train, demonstrating the presence of mind to have been the last person to step onboard at the last station, and a new mass of people display the same degree of disregard for the elastic limit of human flesh as those at my station had done. A rapid rearrangement of bodies, people jostling for position in order to ensure a minimum of effort at their stop, a sudden encrushing, then, just as the doors are shutting, a man runs up to the train, steps into it backwards by slipping his feet in among the feet of the people who were themselves struggling to remain within the jaws of the train, braces his hands against the top of the doorway, and levers his body inside the train. The doors close, the man relaxes, and we pull away. I hear stories that, in the Tokyo Underground at rush hour, there are men whose job is to push people onto the train so that the doors will close around the enormous number of people inside. Lacking the pathological politeness of the Japanese, Russians have no qualms about doing this job for themselves.

Only now do I realise that I don't actually know where my arm is. It still feels attached, but it certainly isn't anywhere near my side, nor do I seem to be able to move it. I look down and find that it seems to terminate halfway down the upper-arm, disappearing between one man's back and another man's shoulder. While it is about as functional as my other arm (that is, entirely not), the fact that it is pinned between two things that aren't me gives the strong feeling that it really isn't there at all. I’ll have to wait.

Station number four – Volgogradskiy Prospekt – is dead, even at the best of times. It is a large industrial area, all but overwhelmed with smokestacks, and the smell of fish. The train stops here as a matter of posterity, and no one gets on or off.

At the next station, things become interesting. Prolertarsaka sits on the cusp of the residential Outer Moscow and commercial Central Moscow and as such, there are a large number of people who want to get off the train here, and as many who want to get on. This creates an enormous, live-action game of Klotski, with everybody shifting into new locations on the train, trying to either: get on the train before the doors close, get off the train before the doors close or not get off the train, which seems to be the most difficult of the three tasks. A woman, trying to counterbalance her below average stature with above average assertiveness, braces herself as if she is leaving a mountain hut during a blizzard – head lowered and forearm across her face – and strides forward at near-normal walking speed off the train, cleaving a path as she moves. The doors close again, and I am nowhere near where I was when we pulled up. In addition, my feet aren't beneath my centre of gravity, but are rather further to my left than I am used to. Not an issue, though; I am being supported by the communal legs of all those on the train.

Immediately to my starboard, two men are having a conversation. This, in itself didn't surprise me (“what?” I didn't say. “Do I see an example of human interaction? How very strange.”) I was surprised at how close the two men were forced to stand – torsos pressed against one-another, faces only centiemetres apart, and completely non-plussed by how coital this stance might appear to an onlooker, as they discuss the weather, possibly.

We pass through Taganskaya in similar fashion to Proletarskaya, the in-and-out flow of commuters having now forced me hard up against the opposite side of the train.

All to plan, though. The next stop, Kitay-Gorod is the only station on my line where the doors open on the right side of the train. The accumulated pressure of dozens of passengers pressed up behind me, most, it would seem, harbouring the same intentions as I am, reduce my assertive exit into a floundering departure. I stride forward, as rapidly as is practical, yet still more slowly than the other passengers – my own personal allusion to the scene from Return of the Jedi, in which the Millennium Falcon flies clear of the exploding Death Star just as the flames of explosion surround it.

Uniquely among the Metro stations of Moscow, instead of making a transfer to a different platform in order to change lines, here at Kitay Gorod, all I need to do is cross the same platform, board the opposite train, and continue.

I still haven’t made it to work yet. Out of the train once again one stop later at Turgenevskaya, along the platform and up the stairs, I follow the two-way tunnel connecting this station with Chisty Prudy. This transition is, as I mentioned earlier, less a willful decision as it is leaping into the ceaseless stream of people to become subject to the laws of fluid dynamics, and hoping for the best.

Through a semi-circular tunnel to another set of escalators, again with the choice of standing on the right or walking on the left. Again on the platform, again into the train, again taking my seat beside…


Clearly something must be wrong: I almost died getting this far, and now I’m on a train that’s practically abandoned. What has changed?

BKC has over 30 branches throughout Moscow, and only about half a dozen of them in the central city. The rest of the schools are dotted across the area between the inner city and the periphery of the Metro-bound system, and it is to one of these locations that I am making my way on this journey. This means that, having made it into the heart of Moscow, I am now leaving again on a different line. I am in the minority: most commuters come into the city and disembark, leaving outgoing trains virtually empty (virtually empty being relative to the scale set by a city of 17 million people), and some of the seats are available, even at this time of day.

Another four stations later, and I get off the train at Sokolnoki, my last stop. I move up the stairs, past the ticket gates and along the underground corridor. Townward bound men dressed better for a funeral than a day at the office, and workbound women dressed as if ready to appear on an episode of the Fashion Channel’s Label Bashing, (or a Comedy Central parody), march past me in a tight mass, preparing to endure what I have just escaped.

Outside at last. Stretching out in front of me is a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard; to my left, a looming glass skyscraper. Behind is a four-way intersection, choked with cars, and across that stands a McDonalds. Ahead, halfway down the boulevard and on the left, a purple and white onion-domed cathedral towers over the shopping centre beside it.

I take my first deep breath since leaving home, and walk the remainder of the way to work.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Banya

If you're reading this, then I'm going to assume a certain modicum of relief at the return of my blog, after a four-odd month hiatus. All going to plan (although plan isn’t a word I let myself get carried away with), I should be updating periodically (I want to say weekly, but am being realistic enough not to,) with an instalment of my account of those three months when I wasn't updating my blog, but instead finding things to write about.

Eventually, though. I still have a few tales of adventures in Murmansk, Suzdal' and the daily adventure of a Moscovian commute, before I begin recounting my European sojourn.

And what better place to begin than where I left off but the Arctic north of Murmansk?

If you recall, I and my band of adventurers (for is the narrator not inherently the leader of the party?) were in the frozen north, in January, had just finished our first day of exploring the city, and were on our way to visit a Russian, or sauna-house. And so we continue with our story.

In the centre of the city, around a corner, down a short, snow-covered road and into a dead-end and a courtyard surrounded on three sides by a tall, U-shaped building, there was no way we could have found this place without the guidance of a local taxi driver.

We walked up to the main entrance of the banya-house in the centre of the U, and a young woman admitted us and led us downstairs into the private banya. The room immediately at the bottom of the stairs was a small locker room, where we changed from our clothes into a sheet and plastic sandals. Through the other door of this locker room was a large kitchenette/sitting area, for the time in-between sauna sessions. Through the kitchenette and up another flight of stairs was a swimming pool, then a pair of showers, and finally, through the glass door at the far side of the shower room was the sauna itself.

I don't believe that I have used a sauna since I was a child, when I visited one with my old school-chum Joseph Lawless. It was a memory that over the course of 15 years was sequentially demoted the status of something I forgot. Stepping into the sauna -- and encountering all at once the terraced, slat seats, thick, hyper-humid air expanding in my throat after every breath, and, most of all, that smell that I had only encountered once before -- had my brain tearing through whatever filing system it uses to find what that spark of memory was.

Sauna smell, sauna smell . . . Where's the file on Sauna Smell? Ah, here it is. God dammit, why is the Stuff I Forgot file so damn full? And, while we're here, can we please review this But I Intend to Re-Learn it sub-folder? Seriously, this thing is getting ridiculously big: rock climbing, double-bass, Japanese, squash, basic outdoor survival skills and. . . what the hell? Female anatomy? When did we even create this file?

Alright, we'll look at this another time. Right now,
Sauna Smell. Let's see. . . vacation with Joseph Lawless and his family, 1993. Where's the file on Joseph? Ah, here, under Old Friends. Let's see. . . He went to school with me, and lived just around the corner, in that huge house with his huge family. He usually ate ham and mustard sandwiches for lunch, which bugged me, maybe because at the time I didn't like either ham or mustard. He moved to England in 1996, I kept in touch with him as a pen-pal for a few months -- he even wrote me a letter written in code once, which included the P.S. "Sorry if this was too difficult to crack," but that was written in the same code. Hey, I'll put a new entry in the To-Do file: look up Joseph on Facebook.. . . Jesus! This file is even bigger than the Stuff I Forgot folder! Look at some of these entries: get a haircut, wash bed sheets, stop eating McDonalds. Hey, I have three ideas that will make this file smaller: Get a haircut, wash the sheets, and stop eating McDonalds! And look at these two entries: Write a Symphony and Write a Novel. Both? I don’t think so. And when was the last time I even composed anything, let alone a large scale orchestral work? . . . Hey! No looking in the Stuff I Forgot file! No, I doubt that I'll ever do this. I'll re-file it in the . . . But Let's be Honest. . . sub-folder. Alright, I'll leave Write a Novel where it is -- but I'll do myself a favour: I won't experiment with stream-of-consciousness writing when I do. I'm also going to leave Write a Screenplay in there, even though it's a bigger pseudo-intellectual cliché than novelistic ambitions, but only under the condition that I make a sub-folder called But Missed the Chance, to include things like, oh, let's say Study for Year 13 English Exam: yes, I think we can call that ship 'sailed'. And, while we're at it, how about we put all of these Ask [BLANK] Out on Date files in there too? Seriously, some of these files are 10 years old. God, look at all of these. Should I give some advice? No? OK then. . . We'll make a new folder called Missed that Chance, and put those files in there. . . Yes, we'll re-file this entry too. I know I still see her regularly, but any chance I ever had has long gone, she has already re-filed me as a swell friend, so we'll have to move this entry to Missed that Chance as well.

By the way, I have one more entry for this
To-Do file: "Shut the Damn Door, You're Letting all the Heat Out".

We stepped into the sauna and shut the door. Immediately, Vadim and Radim both regular banya users, casually shed their anti-naked sheets and sat down. The rest of us (Pascal excluded, having chosen, in the interests of decency, to wait until all of us were out of the sauna before using it herself) were a little surprised. Any good Anglo-Saxon man is never more naked than he needs to be.

When our surprise subsided, though, we adopted a "When in Rome" approach to the situation, and soon I was sitting in a small dark room, sweating heavily, surrounded by naked men and reminding myself that I am broadening my horizons . . . culturally.

10 or 15 minutes later and I had raised my core body temperature enough to warrant concluding banya-round-1. I stepped out of the room, quickly showered off the sweat, and jumped into the pool -- which I understand to be the tradition -- covered my lower half and returned to the sitting area. The shower is meant to be warm, and only for the purpose of cleaning oneself. The pool is something to do with rapidly lowering your body temperature after the sauna, although the pool was in fact quite an agreeable temperature, and was a pleasant sorbet between courses.

Once all of the men were out of the sauna, Pascal took her turn, complaining about being the only woman, and having to sit on her on own in the sauna.

Banya-round-2, and I asked Vadim and Radim what the purpose of jumping into the pool was. Neither seemed especially confident of an explanation, but a really authentic banya is a stand-alone building, usually near a river, and one alternates between the banya and river, sometimes needing to break a hole in the river-ice before jumping in. And in places where there isn't a river to jump into, banya goers instead roll around in the snow. . .

The look on the face of the woman who ran the banya as we ran past her and outside, wearing nothing but sheets, made me think that maybe it wasn't all that authentic after all.

saunas are fairly common-place throughout the world, and stepping naked into a small room with about 1000% humidity didn't much jar my sense of cultural familiarity. Running outside and leaping into the snow scored a few points higher on the Oliver Burns "Wait, What?" scale, but was offset by the fact that I can now say "Yeah? Well once I rolled around mostly naked in the snow, North of the Arctic Circle in January."

A part of the banya experience that I found a great deal stranger than a coincidence of snow and nudity related to birch leaves and their application.

For reasons that require a great deal of hand-waving to complete the explanation, it's healthy to hit oneself all with a handful of short, leafy birch branches while inside the banya. It's not a self-inflicted beating, the idea isn't to destroy the leaves (or the skin) but rather a series of vigorous taps across the torso and limbs. It has the supposed benefit (can you sense a limited feeling of credulity on my part?) of drawing the blood closer to the surface of the skin, thereby being. . . good. It would appear to be taken for granted that it is a sensible idea, so, naturally, I joined in.

My Wait, What? scale was set to skyrocket further -- from code Eh? OK, as I stepped into the banya and stripped naked; to code At Least I Have a Good Story to Tell as I lay in the Arctic snow; to code I can't Believe Nobody's Pulling my Leg About This as I flagellated myself with foliage. But there was more room left at the top of the scale. My Wait, What? scale in fact reached its second highest possible rating: code Comfort Zone? Oh, Yes, I Used to Have One of Those, a Long, Long Time Ago, only one degree short of code Fuck This! I'm Going Back to New Zealand!

Not being a typical line of thought for me to have, it didn't occur to me that it is virtually impossibly to hit oneself on the back with leaves. A man needs help.

At first there was a bit of controversy, as my inner dialogue, overworked as it was, did battle with itself, one voice in the back of my mind kept saying I don't know if you've noticed, but you’re lying on your stomach, naked and sweating so much that it looks like you've been submerged, as your friend, who is also naked and covered in sweat, beats your back with leaves. Go on, anchor this to your past experiences, go on. I dare you to find a way to make this familiar! While another voice was saying Shut up! This is culturally authentic!

The truth is, though, that is was actually quite relaxing. It's easy enough for an outsider, viewing a novel cultural experience, to pass a qualitative judgement from the perspective of his-or-her- own culture. For instance, an unfamiliar outsider, looking in on the sporting traditions of New Zealand, may see it as a bizarre to consider it recreational for a man to take in hand an a-spherical orb of synthetic leather, stand in front of a line of 15 large, powerful men -- who are united in their desire to forcibly bring to the ground the first man -- and running towards them. Repeatedly. On the other hand, most New Zealanders don’t call this “strange”, they call it “rugby”, or occasionally “Rugby”.

Where an outsider sees naked men hitting one-another with sticks, in insider sees a normal night at the banya; where an insider sees an ordinary game of rugby, an outsider sees 30 men with a poor sense of self preservation. This is one of the things I find that I most like about the world – my view of things is inherently embedded in my background and experience, as is everyone else’s. It is only by exposing myself to different people, with different backgrounds upon which they base their thoughts and views, that I am able to approach the unattainable goal of objectivity: the ability to see things for what they are, and not simply for what I have convinced myself that they ought to be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Return to Several Things

I have been on a four month hiatus, blog-wise. I can offer a 50-percent explanation in that I was away traveling, thus, by extension, gathering material for my blog, which I am slowly putting together in a form that I can put out there on the internet; but I must admit that I really don't have too much of a excuse for the last two months, beyond I am kind of lazy, and write like a glacier. Maybe you'll see something soon. Maybe not, perhaps, but I'll try my darnedest.

Perhaps another anecdote would serve to whet your appetites?

I had a new student in my class a few weeks ago -- pretty normal in a language school. She was a notably attractive Russian lass, which is also pretty normal, I've noticed. Following the end of her first lesson in my class, she, the secretary of my school and I discussed her place in the class, which is, again, pretty normal -- all part of the fine tuning that goes into working in an ELF school. It was agreed that my class is too easy for her, and that she should move into another, more difficult group. So far, all a normal day at the office.

Following that conversation, the student and the secretary began having a conversation in Russian, which the secretary later relayed to me.

"Oliver's a really cool guy," said the attractive new student. "It's a shame I can't really stay in his class."


"Yeah, the only reason I'm taking English lessons is because I broke up with my English boyfriend, and so I no longer have anyone to practice English with."

"Go on. . ."

"So, yeah," she continued. "I was wondering, if maybe he, you know. . ."


" . . . has an English speaking friend that he could set me up with."

Uh huh. Well, that was easy. Usually I have to try first, before I fail as spectacularly as that. This, I hate to realise, is a variation on pretty normal for me.

Yes, Oliver. Welcome back to Russia.

Friday, June 5, 2009

How to Leave a Country

I am no longer in Moscow. For the next few months, instead, I'm traveling around Europe, and hoping that bad things don't happen, while secretly hoping that they do. Don't expect too much from me while I'm away: in addition to the fact that I'm now reliant on internet cafes for my interaction with the wider world, I simply don't have the time to write all that much.

I have some half-finished posts to put up, including the final two installments of my trip to Murmansk, a couple about going to a town to the north-east of Moscow called Suzdal', and something about the Metro; so if you find yourself reading something about Russia, don't necessarily take that to mean that I have returned to the country.


As a parting task, I cleaned out my fridge. An almost complete list of contents included:

A half empty bag of salad greens that was leaking a balsamic vinegar-like fluid.

Another bag of vegetables, unopened, pressed up against the back of the fridge. One half of the bag was frozen, while the other half had become a homogeneous mass of organic matter.

A tub of margarine that was already there when I moved in.

A carton of milk, over which mold had begun to grow.

Mushrooms, I think. I can't recall the last time I bought mushrooms, but that's what they looked the most like.

And something else, which is as accurate as I could describe it.

I'm beginning to worry that if I write too many more posts like this, I'll have my status as a legally independent adult revoked.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Murmansk: Day One

[photos to come]

And so we step off the train.

Law enforcement is Russia is either unapologetically inconsistent, or bewilderingly complex; I haven't yet decided which label to apply. A good illustration of this complex inconsistency, which, I'll note, fits into the chronology of this story without coincidence, is the fact that we were met by a law-enforcing greeting party no later than immediately after stepping off the train. Five foreigners traveling into the Arctic Circle in January attracts attention, it would seem. The promptness of the greeting party -- indeed, the fact that they didn't come down to the platform to meet us but, rather, were already there -- illustrates the unusualness of what we were doing.

"Hey," said the conductor on the phone to the police in Murmansk. "There's a group of five foreigners on the train, heading your way."

"What?" came the reply. "Really? Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"Are you sure they're on the right train?"

"Yes. I checked their tickets myself."

"Do they know what their tickets say?" Asked the police officer.

"It's hard to tell, maybe. But, in either case, they're arriving this afternoon."

"Oh wow, foreigners in Murmansk. I have to see this."

In contrast to what we might have expected from three police officers waiting for us at the platform, our welcoming committee was literally that: welcoming. There was no stoic, our-side-of-the-iron-curtain hostility; instead, what met us was a group of three friendly, smiling (mono-linguistically) chatty men. They seemed intrigued as much as anything as to why a Brit, an Australian, an French-Canadian, a Slovak and some guy from a place they had never heard of would come this far from, well, anywhere, for a holiday. Especially considering that we went past Saint Petersburg to get there. (I'm unfairly speculating as to their thoughts, but they certainly gave us the impression that we were a novelty. I'm also being unfair regarding an average Russian's knowledge of geography: most people here do know of New Zealand. When I tell people where I'm from, a typical response is an expression, not of confusion, but one that couldn't be all that much different from the expression they would give if I had told them that I was from Narnia. That lasts a few seconds, before they say something equivalent to "Hang on. You left there to move to Moscow? What the hell is wrong with you?" And, as much as I like Moscow, I still can't provide a satisfactory answer.)

Every time a foreigner enters a new city in Russia, he must register himself, a little piece of bureaucracy that none of us were familiar with. We were lead to an office in the train station, and Redim, with his serviceable command of Russian, was voted most likely to deal with this well, and sent into the office with a pile of passports in hand. With nothing to do but wait, the rest of us busied ourselves with taking photos of falling snow and saying hello to passers-by in our best Russian.

Had things taken that long in any other country, I might have been inclined to think that something had gone wrong. But this is Russia, and pain-in-the-arse bureaucracy is to be expected, so the only thing I felt was cold.

Redim emerged at last, bleary eyed, passports in hand, and we finally had the all clear to leave the train station. Mike, the Australian contingent on this trip, had with him directions to the nearest appropriate bus stop, a bus number, and a description of the bus stop at which to disembark. The rest of us followed him.

Murmansk buses adhere to all of the premises underlying the basic definition of a bus as I understand it to be. I'm sorry if you were expecting another example of my being made to feel like a foreigner in a far-away land, but it was a pretty ordinary bus.

We got off the bus. There to greet us was Vadim, a local resident and our host for the next three days. We -- we being an extension of the organisational prowess of Mike -- met Vadim on a website called The basic manifesto of CouchSurfing is to facilitate a meeting between two types of people: those who are traveling, and would therefore like a couch to sleep on for a night or two, and those who aren't traveling, and would like a complete stranger to sleep on their couch for a night or two. Based on this first impression of the organisation, I joined later that week.

Vadim lead us the short distance to his flat -- like the apotheosis of Russian flats, it was a translationally symmetrical rectangular prism, which appears to have been dropped from the sky at random. The stairwell was equally typical: dark, dank and unadorned concrete. Inside the flat was a different mater. It seemed to have been recent redecorated, with something a real-estate agent might call "easy flow" from the front door, around the corner into the spacious living room and through into the bachelor-sized kitchen. It turns out that Vadim had recently removed the wall between the front hall-way and the living room to open up what was, deceptively, a Russian-sized flat. I didn't ask the question, but I imagine his answer would have been "What the heck is building consent?"

We showered, changed, and headed out into Murmansk, following the lead of our host/guide.

The city is not exactly what I would have called Paris of the North. Granted, I have limited travel experience (I haven't even been to Paris) -- and my choice of wording plays up my level of experience -- but Murmansk was what I would have expected from the USSR's main northern port.

Aesthetically, I was struck by how different Murmansk was from central Moscow. Moscow, with almost 1000 years of dynamic history to shape it, is something of a chronological crucible; on a walk through the city one can encounter Orthodox churches of Tsarist Russia resplendent with onion domes and triple-crossed crucifixes, standing beside New York-style high-rise offices that look as though they were glass-blown rather than built; or narrow stairways and alleys -- of the kind you could never hope to find by simply reading a map -- leading around corners and through passages bereft of lighting or paint and humming with the sound of mechanical devices that seem to have been imported directly from a not-too-distant-future science fiction film -- into a snow-covered courtyard or another alley, painted in grey, white and pastels, surrounded by doors, most without any identifying labels. In short, Moscow is an amalgam of three worlds: a monarchy and a democracy framing a period of 74 years, during which time the country was both and neither.

Murmansk does not benefit from this historical tripartite. Founded in 1916, 4 short months (or perhaps, 4 short-day months) before the Russian Revolution, it missed out on the decedent architecture of pre-soviet Russia; yet, being a predominantly industrial town, never experienced the benefits of the transition away from communism, either. Because of this, there was little reason for the city to adapt itself to fit the dramatic change that Russia underwent 18 years ago.

With no major fledgling tourist industry or exponentiating commercial sector as imputes, Murmansk has remained quaintly Soviet in outward appearance. From the explicit -- such as painted stone reliefs reading CCCP or Lenin -- to the stylistic -- pastel boxes in lieu of architecture -- this is a time-capsule of a city. (My favourite landmark was a life-size +20% statue commemorating a Russian soldier who, when surrounded by Germans, let of a grenade in his hand, annihilating himself and his would be captors. Never would I have imagined seeing a statue commemorating a person who held a grenade for too long. A
Darwin Award, yes, but never a statue.)

We strolled thorough the streets in afternoon twilight. It wasn't as bighting cold as it might have been -- the city is know to have, in the past, reached an amputating -39.4 degrees, but, during our visit it can't have been less than - 15 degrees, and as such we didn't have to take too many not outside breaks.

I have been considering for days the best way to describe Murmansk. It is not a tourist town -- that much is clear. It seems to me that any charm possessed by the city must therefore lurk deeper; beneath the surface, as it were, beneath the facade of a city so unvisited by tourists that there has never been the overwhelming need to appeal, beneath any lack of ostentation, beneath the city's unpolished shoes, scruffy, product-free hair and priortively functional wardrobe -- beneath all of this, there must be something that brought us here.

As I have already mentioned, Murmansk benefited from neither the pre- not post-Soviet worlds. But perhaps benefit is a poorly chosen word. I dare-say that Murmansk is a stylistic time-capsule: a display of what Russia once was. Statues commemorating The Great Patriotic War among buildings built in International Modern Style Architecture (featureless concrete cubes), babushkas selling fish from tables set up on street corners, intermittent examples of Soviet Realism art, buildings adorned with images of Lenin, and the Hammer-and-Sickle; and all in a city that could justify its existence, even in the new world of market capitalism. Murmansk is a city that never had any need to cease looking Soviet, and this didn't. It is a town that captured the interest of this someone who is too young to appreciate first hand the immense significance of the USSR upon the 20th centaury.

Later on that day we reached the reason for Murmansk. One might assume that the north coast of Russia would be an ill-advised place to found a port. No. In fact, if I were ever to found a port inside the Arctic Circle, this would be one of my first choices of location. The famous Gulf Stream, which brings warm water east across the Atlantic, arrives at the west coast of Ireland with indefatigable zeal. In doing so it cleaves -- the majority of the warm water travels south, toward and beyond Spain, the rest north, journeying past Scotland, Norway and Finland, to warm the waters of Murmansk and the White Sea. In over 30 years of living in Murmansk, Vadim had seen this Artic bay frozen over a total of twice.

Looking out over the bay, only a membrane of ice floating upon it, my impression that this was an example of nature denying its own power began to concede to the impression that this was an it was an industrial port at night. Time for a drink in a bar that's at least 40 degrees warmer.

Our first day in the frozen north is drawing to a close. We spend the next few hours in a bar, drinking vodka and discussing things that none of us would expend the effort to commit to memory, before moving on to a restaurant just up the road. Before we left the bar, though, we met a group of Malysaian students who were studying medicine in Moscow. And, if you would you believe it, Mike knew one of them. We came as far from the equator as civilisation goes, and Mike still managed to bump into someone. I was impressed.

Our day hadn't finished yet. Before turning in for the night, we visited a Banya, or traditional Russian sauna house.
But that might best be left for another post. . .

Friday, May 15, 2009


You may have noticed that I haven't updated my blog in almost a month. If you hadn't noticed, then allow me to be the first to point this out to you.

If I had updated during that time, then you could assume that I would have post something that could be described as either:

A brief anecdote in which I describe a failure to carry out a basic task or rudimentary social interaction, due to my lack of linguistic or cultural knowledge.


A rant about an observation or fact of trivial importance, discussed with more neuroticism than evidence.


An example of intellectually semi-permeable self-gratification, posited as a benevolent act of open edification.

More of the same to come.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How to Launder Clothes

A certain time ago I bought laundry powder. A straight forward enough task, one would be inclined to assume.

My having already used this new powder a couple of times, Enrique, my flatmate, approached me in the kitchen one evening as I was cooking. (In my world, cooking is anything that makes food taste better, and is therefore something more commonly understood as following the instructions on the back of the packet.)

"Um, is this your laundry powder?" He had the box in his hand.

"Yeah," I said. "You can use it if you want."

"No, no," he said. "It's um," he sounded apologetic. "The wrong sort of soap."

"I'm not with you." I mean, soap is soap, let's not be pedantic.

"Well," he said, pointing to a tiny, stylised illustration on the back of the box. "It isn't for washing-machines, it's only for washing clothes by hand."

"They make soap for hand-washing clothes?" This, to me, seemed equivalent to a revelation that my toothpaste was intended for molars only.

"Yeah. But I wouldn't worry about it. I mean, it still works, right?"

I sniffed my shirt. "Seems to." I said.

And so I went on using the wrong laundry powder, until it was time to replace it.

Upon my most recent visit to the supermarket, I was careful to purchase a box of soap powder that had a picture of a front-loading washing machine on it, looking the apotheosis of clean.

"Oliver, is that your laundry powder on top of the machine?"

". . . Yes?"

"Yeah. . . that's not actually soap."

"What do you mean 'it's not soap'?"

"Well, it is soap, but not for your clothes. It's for cleaning the inside of the machine. I don't know what you call it in English."

"I don't know what you call it in English. They actually make stuff to do that?"

"Yeah, they do. You're supposed to add a little bit in with your normal powder each time you use the machine."

I have much to learn about the subtleties of soap.

On the bright side: having used an entire box of The Wrong Type of Soap, it's probably for the best that I brought something with which to clean the inside of the machine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

80 Proof Wasabi Juice

Wherever possible, I try to interpret things as follows:

There are no such things as mistakes, only new experiences, and things that we will know better about next time.


Horse raddish vodka.

It is what it says on the bottle.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fact of the Day

I doubt that this is news: I'm inconsistent in the frequency of my updates.

To remedy the problem, I'm going to pad out this gap, and possibly future gaps, between installments by writing about the most interesting thing I read about on Wikipedia today. I realise that summerising something that someone else has written lowers the tone of the blog (from whatever it tone was to begin with), but I do so as an attempt to strike a balance between the quantity and the quality of my writing (for a given interpretation of quality).

Fact of the Day:

There are 3 sub-species of Blue Whale , two of which have been named in order to broadly represent their usual habitat: the Northern Blue Whale and the Southern Blue Whale. I admire these common names -- they are informative yet brief.

The third sub-species, which lives in the Indian Ocean, has the oxymoronic common name Pygmy Blue Whale. While I appreciate that pygmy is employed here to give the meaning smaller than your regular, I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of describing a creature that can eat 1.8 tonnes of food a day as pygmy.

Bonus fact:

The species name for Blue Whale is musculus. In Latin it has an ambiguous meaning: it can mean muscular, or it can mean little mouse. I can imagine Carl Linnaeus, namer of the Blue Whale, and father of modern taxonomy, getting a round high-fives, or the 18th centuary equivalent, from all of his geeky, Latin-speaking drinking buddies, and laughing: "Ha! I got away with naming the largest creature to ever exist little mouse! I mean, a mouse is already little, but when one applies the diminutive suffix, it makes it even smaller! But this whale is really big, and people will just think that I meant it to mean muscular! Bhahaha!"

I have a new sense of indignation towards a naming system that allows the 24 metre Pygmy Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) to unavoidably be referred to as "little".

Monday, March 23, 2009

In my Local Supermarket one Day

Whether you were wondering or not, Russian supermarkets are essentially the same as New Zealand ones; although there are some little differences -- as Quentin Tarentino and John Travolta would have you know (by the way, over here, a Quarter Pounder is called a Royal Chizberger). For instance, there is a great deal more fish available here, fewer dairy products, and an given specific product is likely to be stocked inconsistently. In addition, produce is weighed in the produce section of the supermarket by which-ever staff member happens to be nearby; not at the checkout counter (a point of difference which thwarted my inaugural attempt at buying oranges).

This little anecdote of mine begins with my being the entire queue for the above mentioned scales. With no staff on hand to work the scales, I stood and waited patiently. Whether I'm expected to call out for help, do the weighing myself, or simply look expectant, I haven't made up my mind over; so I usually err on the side of Anglo-Celtic indirectness, and wait quietly.

As I was waiting, a young woman walked up to me carrying some apples, and joined the queue (joined, or formed? Is one man standing in a supermarket, holding half a dozen oranges a queue, or just a guy standing around holding oranges?) She observed that there was no-one around who could weigh her apples for her, and probably began talking at length about it. When her stream of Russian finally came to an end, I decided not to make her feel as though she had wasted all of that effort in expounding her thoughts, so I simply smiled an nodded.

She continued what she seemed to think was out conversation, prompting me to say in my head Bugger. There goes my chance to apologise for not being able to speak Russian, and hope that she wouldn't ask a follow-up question. She appeared not to notice that I didn't say a word, but then I get the feeling that most people she spoke to did nothing more than nod and smile politely.

A staff-member emerged from the shelves at last, and my new friend exercised her social responsibility as a hot Russian woman to push in front of any men in the line without acknowledgment.

Let us now skip ahead in this story -- past an example of my grocery shopping method (which is mostly just wandering through the supermarket until I see something that I might be inclined to eat).

I spy a man: maybe 40, solidly built, warmly dressed and sporting a mustache you could clean your shoes on. He was swaggering through an alcohol aisle of the store (one of several, even in my small local supermarket), making limited use of his hips and knees, moving like a refrigerator being walked along a hallway. It gave the impression of confidence, but with a hint of a recent prostate exam.

He reached out, and plucked from the shelf a can of pre-mixed bourbon and cola, opened it, and began taking swigs as he walked. Between him and me was my chatty friend with the apples, past whom he swaggered. He looked at her, then down at her skirt, which was really more of a token gesture than a practical piece of clothing, and said "Kholodno? (Cold?)"

She glanced at him, a little surprised. "Nyet."

The man returned his head forward, took another swig, and said to no-one "Molodets (good on ya')," never missing a single stride.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Something that Bothers me Slightly more than it should.

A question that tends to confuse me is "How's it going?"

Before anyone accuses me of lacking even a basic understanding of the rudiments of casual conversation, let me take the opportunity to assert that I am aware that, when conversing face-to-face with someone and initialising a conversation,the standing convention is to utter "How's it going?", or an appropriate variation, which reflects the anticipated formality of the situation. Convention in this situation is so strong that it typically overrides our social imperative to avoid lying, to the extent that we nearly always respond in the positive, irrespective of the actual nature of our feelings.

Now that I have analysed the sentence to the full extent of my ability -- as well as demonstrate my social insight in the only way I know how -- I shall now complain about it.

What confuses me about "How's it going?" is when people ask me as we walk past each other in opposite directions. If the questioner slows to a halt in front of me, then what is expected is expected of me is fairly clear: an answer. But, too often for my pleasure, the person asking the question continues walking, not even slowing. Am I expected to answer? Probably not, since the opportunity to do so wasn't explicitly offered. But, why ask the question at all? One could argue on the grounds of functionality: it isn't a real question, but rather, a signal of acknowledgment. However, "How's it going?" doubles as a conversion initiator: it's something that we say in order to kick-off a conversation.

When people walk past me saying "How's it going?" instead of simply "hi", but not slowing for an answer, there is a mix of contexts. "Hi" is not a conversation initiator: it does not serve the purpose of beginning a discourse. Instead, it acknowledges solidarity, and the fact that the two speakers know one-another, but that they don't have the time or inclination for talking just at the moment. So the two just keep on walking.

When people mix these contexts -- a conversation initiator in the place of a superficial greeting -- it creates confusion (for at least one person in this world). To me, it amounts to functionally saying "I would talk to you but, well, I wouldn't give a crap."

This inspires me to undertake a little project. I will get to the nature of the project in a moment, but first, a brief tangent.

A friend of mine who studied linguistics with me, Rachel, (I wonder if she reads my blog. "Hi," if she does) once set out to change the standard plural of mattress to mattri -- with a small measure of success (impressive, really, if you consider how infrequently the plural of mattress comes up in normal conversation). This project led to a conversation over curry on how theoretical models of language change don't account for "Rouge Linguists."

Now I shall pick up the torch of "The Rogue-Linguistic Variable of Language Change". Here is my proposition: the next time someone asks you "How's it going", in a functionally ambiguous context, don't look at them blankly. Don't display your uncertainty, or say "Pretty-good-how-are-you?" in the few seconds that you are allowed. Instead:

"How's it going?"

"Pretty badly, actually."

Don't slow down, or give the other party the chance to respond. Let them be the one confused, unsure if they are expected to say something or not. I hope this amounts to functionally saying "You're not sure if you want to stop and talk to me or not? Well up yours, you indecisive jerk."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How to Wash One's Feet in my Flat

As is typical for me, this post is about something that happened a while ago. In this instance, though, the time the time delay is large, even for me. I am recounting something which happened in September, while I was between flatmates; I began drafting the post when it was still relevant, but then forgot about it. I don't know how much affect this has on the verisimilitude of this anecdote for you to learn that the issue is long-resolved, but, oh well: here it is.

My bathtub/shower drain is blocked. It happened very suddenly: between showers, it appears. One day my morning shower was typically shallow, the following day, it wasn't. Now, every shower I have ends with me stepping out of soapy, ankle-deep water. Although, in all due fairness to my bathtub, I don't think that the drain is completely blocked; the water does drain away after a couple of hours.

Things were tolerable up until I tried to fix them. I found a plunger in my flat, wedged with admirable force behind the toilet, and thus I took to trying to clear the impenetrable drain. A few seconds of concerted plunging drew some black lumps of -- as a best case scenario -- skin and dirt out of the drain and into the water in the bath. However, the water didn't drain away any faster, and the black lumps simply floated, providing an interesting contrast to the soap suds.

Frustrated, I made lunch, read a book, and waited for a few hours. Upon my return, I found the bathtub empty -- and dark brown. I ran some water into the bath, and took to plunging again. It felt as though I was trying to slay a Galapagos tortoise. I drew up a great deal more partially composted filth, and yet the water was not draining any faster.

One more attempt that evening still produced no resolution to the situation. I can think of worse things than a filthy, undraining bathtub, but I can think of many things that I prefer.

My subsequent morning shower was, therefore, spent making sloshing noises in my paddling-pool of a bathtub; dirt, lather, and unidentifiable drain-filth floating ever higher as I washed.

There's more. It wouldn't be at all interesting if there weren't more.

The water from my bathtub appears to only travel the distance of a few centimeters through its pipe before meeting the water leading from the hand-basin. I know this because, now whenever I brush my teeth, a milky column of toothpaste billows from the drain up into the bath, lingers, then dissipates into the water, to merge with the list of impurities already in the unwanted bath.


I'm becoming frustrated with my clear inability to finish these little anecdotes of mine. So-much-so that I typed "how to finish an anecdote" into Google. My search did not match any documents. I looked up "anecdote" on Wikipedia, and I am now under the impression that an anecdote must have some sort of conclusion to it. Maybe it should be obvious that a story must have a conclusion for it to have an end. Well then:

After about two weeks of washing my feet with dirt and toothpaste, the drain cleared -- note the use of the middle voice: no external agent implied. One day, it wasn't draining, the following day it was. Problem solved. Anecdote concluded satisfactorally.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Murmansk: The Beginning

I can now claim to have visited the arctic circle.

Granted, I could have claimed that at any time I wanted to, but now I can do it without lying.

Early in January I, along with four other English teachers, one of whom speaks competent Russian, traveled by train to the military/port city of Myurmansk, the largest city inside the Arctic Circle. (The Arctic Circle, incidentally, is defined as the furthest latitude from the North Pole at which there is a 24-hours of sunlight at the summer solstice, and is currently 66° 33′39″ north. Fact of the day).

I could begin by writing about Myurmansk, but I won't. I'll get to the topic in good time, naturally, but, of equal interest is the trip itself. We took the train; and the experience -- everything about it -- was so different from any traveling that I have ever experienced before that it reminded me, as firmly as anything else that has happened to me here, that I am, most certainly, in Russia.

To begin the trip, I arrived at the inter-city train station in, what I thought was, good time. However, good time runs quite a lot slower as a foreigner, as I am learning.

Wandering back and forth along the intercity train platform in Moscow, I was beginning to feel a little concerned that there appeared to be only odd numbered platforms at this station. I looked down at my ticket once again, and it still read platform 6. With my train scheduled to leave at precisely 20:44, and the time being 20:42, I decided that I couldn't reliably expect to find my train in time without some measure of help. Presenting my ticket to a woman standing in the rear-most carriage of the nearest train, I presented myself as the bewildered foreigner that I can't seem to help being. She looked at my ticket, and began pointing along the length of the train, speaking in full speed Russian. Then she looked at her watch, and decided to change what she was saying. Her colleague, standing behind her, chose to offer her insight into the situation; and thus I found myself confronted by two Russian women explaining the situation to me loudly, and far beyond any speed I could hope to understand. I wish I knew the Russian for "What do you expect from me?!"

At 20:43, the first woman used her whole arm to beckon me onto the train, to which I obliged. At this point, a young man happened to walk past me, leaving the train. The second woman turned to him, and said something like "we have a stupid American here!"

The man, turned to me, smiled, and said "you speak English?"

"Yes." I said. I do so without expception, I might add.
"She say that you must to be on car six."

And there lay the root of my problem. While perfectly capable of discerning numbers written on a Russian ticket, I don't have such a knack for deciphering what the numbers mean. As this conformation of my monolinguistic capacity dawned on me, the train pulled away from the station. The first woman pointed along the length of the train, and I began to make my way towards my carriage as quickly as the narrow corridors would allow.

After walking through, perhaps, four carriages, I noticed that I was still dressed for being outside: merino undershirt, merino overshirt, woolen hat, woolen socks, my new boots that I got for when I go to Murmansk, polypropylene leggings and a down jacket. Coupled with the back-pack I was wearing, and having nowhere to shed layers, my back was increasingly adhering to my layers of clothing, to the extent that it took no small measure of effort to peel my shirt from my back, when the opportunity at last arose.

Periodically, I would show my ticket to someone dressed as though in a position of authority, and say "kuda?". They would typically respond by pointing towards the front of the train, and thus I would continue the trek. Nearing my goal, I made the mistake of showing one of the train staff my return ticket -- which resulted in my being pointed back the way I had come. It was only after two carridges of backtracking that I realised the inconsistency of the directions that I had received, double-checked which ticket I had out, and uttered a refelxive obsenity.

I did finally reach my bunk. Naturally, I suppose, but it didn't seem quite so inevitable at the time.

The platskart carriage (cheap seats), a relic of Soviet long-distance travel, is an interesting set-up; my first impression was one of a WWII refugee train. It is crammed full of beds, clustered into groups of six. The central aisle of the carriage separates, to the left, a pair of bunk beds, lying parallel with the length of the train, and, to the right, a cluster of four beds, all perpendicular to the train, arranged in two pairs of bunks. On the left, the bottom bed folds and re-arranges to form a small, square table and two seats for use during the day, and on the right, the two lower bunks double as seats around a larger, rectangular table. Regarding storage: the bottom beds fold up, to create a coffin-sized storage space for the lower bunk-renters, and each upper bunk is laid out beneath a flat board, creating a similarly sized storage area between it and the ceiling. There were, perhaps, eight or nine of these clusters along the length of the carrige, and personal space was, to inadequately describe the situation, limited.

At each end of the carriage was a small, air-lock-like area. It lacked measurable insulation, and had windows that were visually impenetrable due to a thick coating of depositional ice. There were ridged strings of air penetrating the room, and anyone with damp hands adhered to the door handles. Without seeking to convey a lack of faith in your deductive capicities, o faithful reader, I can most succintly describe the area thus: it was fucking freezing. It was also the only place where smokers were permitted to indulge their godless habit.

It was upon his return from one of these life-shortening disappearances that Redim, one of my traveling companions, introduced us to another smoker. Vanya was a volunteer soldier (in contrast to a young man performing compulsory military service), which entails an almost monomaniacal sense of patriotism. He couldn't speak a word of English, and told us via Redim that we were the first foreigners that he had ever met. This instilled in me a strange sense of -- what, exactly? -- pride and intrigue, in equal measures. In a world such as ours is, I wasn't sure how to interpret a man who seemed to live in one of the last remaining corners of society that was still untouched by globalism.

I would be surprised to hear that you are surprised to hear that the toilets on the train were: less than inviting. It was in a small, (preemptively lockable) room at the end of the carriage, and served 54 people with admirable success; a fact I attributed to the fact that passengers would visit the facilities in their own, liberal time -- a natural extension of the fact that there wasn't so much else to do. The uninviting nature of the room couldn't be attributed to efficient Soviet decor, nor the perplexing sliding-puzzle tap at the hand basin, nearly as much as it could be to the floor of the room: it illustrated the insurmountable challenge of urinating on in a moving WC. (I got the feeling that even some of the female passengers were having trouble.)

The toilet itself was made of bed-pan steel, and seemed to flush by simply opening a hatch at the bottom of the bowl, rinsing the contents out on to the track below. From this, it made sense that the toilet cubicle would be made inaccessible while the train was stopped at a station along the way; imagine a world where avoiding creating large piles of human excrement on the ground was not a priority. Yes, splattering it along the train-tracks is certainly preferable.

To return to my mention of the limitations of free space onboard the train: while sitting around the table between out bunks, chatting, playing cards and drinking vodka (god, how much vodka we drank on that train), we caught sight of a young man, leading a comparably young woman by the hand away from the toilet cubicle. His face betrayed little, but, contrastivly, she had a sheepish expression, aimed at the floor in front of her feet. We all knew what they had been doing, or, rather, all lept to the same conclusion, since, naturally, it is much less fun to assume that people have been behaving innocently. The appeals of sins of the flesh are so intoxicating that they can make even sloshing around in congealed urine romantic.

It took only slightly less time to travel to Myrmansk, in the far north of Russia, as we spent in the city itself; I never before imagined that I would, or could, spend 36 hours on a train, let alone twice in one week.

And thus, I have discussed the train. Next episode: Murmansk. This installment story is set to be the next Pacific Peso Adventure.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Language Learning Phenomena, with Examples

Allow me to introduce my readers to an item of ESOL jargon: L1 interference. It's an admirably appropriate label: efficiently descriptive. It is the phenomenon where a language learner inappropriately applies principles of his or her own language, such as grammar or syntax, to the production of the language that they are studying.

Some examples of Russian grammar that occasionally produce problems with L1 interference are:

Russian does not include the use of grammatical articles.

Question formation in Russian comes from an alteration of intonation at the sentential level, and not, as is the case in English, by way of a change of word order.

Abstract concepts are typically referred to using a proximate spatial metaphor, whereas, in English, it is far more common to hear a speaker employ a distal spatial metaphor for this purpose.

Additionally, because the Russian language employs roughly half the number of vowels that English does, Russian learners of English do not always appropriately differentiate different vowels in their production of English. For instance, the vowel sounds in hut, hat and heart are often realised in the same way, as something between hut and heart.

All of these examples of L1 interference converging upon a student of mine, as she attempted to ask "Is that a fact?" needless to say, came as a little bit of a shock to me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to Talk to Women

As it turns out, malls in Moscow are BIG -- big enough to provoke the use of upper case lettering. I say malls, when, in fact, I've only been to one so far since I arrived in Moscow, but it was BIG. It was so big, in fact, that at least one of the shops had its own cafeteria.

Aside from being big, there was nothing especially surprising about the complex; there were shops, there were travelators, there was a food court, there was a Starbucks. One thing that did induce surprise in this small town foreigner (most people outside of New Zealand don't have a definition of city that extends down to the size of Nelson), was the sight of a man with what may be the least fulfilling job conceivable: his job was to stand at a desk outside one of the larger shops in the mall, put people's bag's inside clear plastic bags, and then seal the plastic bags shut. Only once all of a given customer's bags were individually sealed was said customer permitted to enter the shop with them. This sight got me thinking: I wonder how successful this guy is with women. Granted, I can't claim to have had any admirable success with the fairer sex -- I can't even seem to make the line "I'm a foreigner!" work, in spite of reassurances that it is a gold-plated draw-card -- but at least I would never find myself on the wrong end of the following conversation. I suppose that the bag-bagger has never had this conversation either, but I like to imagine that there exist people who are worse at talking to women than I am:

"So, what do you do?" Asks the woman.

"Me? I put bags inside plastic bags."

She looks at him for a moment, considering what it is she has just heard. "Oh yes," she says. "I went to a big contemporary art museum in Florida last year. I found it really interesting to try and work out what the motivations behind the artists' work were." Here he opens his mouth, intending to respond, but finds himself rapidly cut off. "No, don't tell me what yours is . . . um, bags inside bags . . . right! I think I've figured it out. You're trying to represent the idea that no world view -- which you chose to represent with the internal bag -- can manifest separately from the broader cultural context -- represented by the outer bag -- within which it exists. Am I close?"

"Well, no. People give me their bags, like a purse, or a shopping bag, or sometimes a backpack, and I put their bag inside a big plastic bag, then seal the plastic bag with a special machine that I have, and give it back to them."

She looks at him again, thinking.

"Oh! Performance art! That's cool, I love performance art!" He blinks slowly, this time not even trying to interrupt. "So, what you're trying to say with this piece is that, no matter how different or individual we think we are -- whether we consider ourselves to be a Prada purse, or an Ikea shopping bag, or a hemp ruck-sack, or whatever -- as soon as we allow ourselves to conform to consumer culture, -- which you represent with identical plastic bags, -- and as soon as we seal ourselves within that consumer culture, we close ourselves off from further expansion: no matter how open we consider our minds -- our bags -- to be."

"No. . . No, that's not it."

She looks at him yet again, trying to decode the motivation behind his work. "No, I'm sorry," she says. "I can't figure it out. What's your motivation?"

"Well, mostly because the owners of the shop pay me. I think their main reason has something to do with shoplifting, or, I guess, not shoplifting. Honestly, for minimum wage, it's difficult to make me give a crap."

"Wait. . ." She looks confused. "You're not an artist?"


"And you don't comment on cultural recursivity, or the social homogeneity of consumerism?"

"Well, not deliberately."

"Oh. . . " Here, the girl makes one of those cliché excuses that people make when decide that they don't want to continue talking to this guy, any more, and scurries off to find someone who is worthy of here attention.

And thus he spectacularly fails to impress the lady in question. Man, I'm glad I'm nothing like that guy.

No, my party conversations usually go:

"What did you study at university?" They ask.


"Oh, really. How many languages do you speak?"

". . . Fuck off."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The History of a Certain Variety of Coffee

A short time ago, I indulged in a cup of kopi-luwak coffee, while sitting in a coffee house in central Moscow. For reasons that will be elaborated upon in due course, kopi-luwak has the notable distinction of being the world’s most expensive coffee. Although, at only 300 Rubles for a coffee plunger of the brew, it was notably less than Wikipedia says the beverage typically costs; ergo, I'm tempted to believe that what I was drinking was, in fact, a blend, intended to simulate the flavour, while only going some way to simulating the price, of the genuine product.

Real kopi-luwak, irrespective of whether or not that was in fact what I drank, is produced with the aid of a creature known as the Asian Palm Civet, which is a relative of the mongoose. The creature, as a component of an reasonably undiscerning diet (one that interestingly enough includes alcohol), eats ripe coffee cherries from coffee plantations around South-East Asia. By way of what I assume is a fairly typical omnivorous mammalian digestive process, the coffee beans emerge, with the cherry-flesh digested away, from much closer to the civet’s tail than from whence it entered. Apparently, the digestive acids of the civet alter the protein structure of the coffee: in a delicious way.

I shall indulge in some more ranting on the topic of "beverages extracted from excrement: a case study" later, but first, I shall recount the origin of the broader category of coffee.

The origins of coffee are, supposedly, as follows. I precursor this by warning that the story is probably-- and here I feel I may be deviating from the writing voice that I have been cultivating with indeterminable success over the course of this blog -- a steaming pile of horse shit. Never the less:

One day an Ethopian man named Kaldi awoke one morning to find that he didn't have any goats. For most people, this is a fairly typical morning; I for one enjoy waking up every morning to find that I don't have any goats. For Kaldi, however, this was a matter of significant professional concern, and thus he went searching.

Eventually, or perhaps immediately (details are naturally clouded in the steam of word-of-mouth history) Kaldi found his goats dancing around a coffee plant. Here is where I became skeptical of the story's authenticity: I have trouble imagining a goat dancing. Loosing control of its faculties, perhaps, but that only really constitutes "dancing" in a club with a name like Shooters, or Propaganda, or anywhere else with a vaguely descriptive one word name. Regardless, Kaldi, evidently lacking in a firm grasp of the risk-consequence relationship, decided to sample the bright red berries growing on the mysterious plant. I shall leave you to extrapolate the remainder of the tale, or, alternatively, read it here. Suffice-to-say, he got tweaked, liked it, coffee entered the Muslim world, then Europe, and is now the world's second most traded commodity.

The origins of kopi-luwak are somewhat less clear, or, maybe, less intuitive. I cannot, in spite of my best efforts, postulate a series of events leading to its discovery that did not, at some stage, include a person digging through civet excrement. Forgive my cynicism, but: What? Additionally, although I cannot find any sourced data to back this claim up, I couldn’t be convinced that a 3 kilogram animal would be remotely likely to pass a full cup-worth of coffee in a single stool. Ergo, the individual who first chose to sift through shit in search of coffee, in spite of, I should like to note, the fact that coffee would necessarily be growing abundantly nearby, did it more than once in a row. The first excavation was apparently not so off-putting as to discourage the individual from doing it again.

Following this, the party in question, I assume, sought to clean the bean, which I suppose is the logical progression; if I had just dug coffee beans out of excrement -- if I had just dug anything out of excrement, I imagine -- I would want to wash it thoroughly. While I can appreciate the imperative to clean the beans, I can only do so on the same level as I appreciate the imperative to remove a self-applied rat-trap from ones genitals.

While a coffee bean, washed of all traces of turd, looks much the same a coffee bean that has never had turd on it, it would be impossible to wash the memory of of the turd-encrusted bean from a sensible person's memory. Yet, those first beans must have been ground, steeped, and the resulting fluid consumed. And all this, despite the fact that whoever did it had no way of knowing that it would taste any good.

Maybe it was a prank.

"Hey [snigger], try this [snigger] special coffee."

"Oh hey, thanks. [Sip]. Hey, this is pretty great!"

"What?! Let me try! [Grab. Heavy sip.] Well, what do you know? We could absolutely sell this for way more than merely the taste would warrant!"

". . . Why is that. . . ?"

Writing this post has made me realise that there is a vast range of synonyms for feces.