Thursday, December 30, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
Maybe if I had spent less time writing about the things I have done. . . No, that's a poor excuse. In two years I didn't even manage 60 updates, which is barely one every two weeks. And one of those was three words long (and still had a spelling mistake).
I did visit Lenin, though. Lenin's mausoleum must rate as the second biggest tourist trap in Moscow, after the Kremlin (which I have also visited). But it has the advantage that I can say "I visited Lenin's mausoleum", without having to explain what it was I actually did, which is more than can be said for the time I went to a banya. Although I will explain. Naturally.
To get to Lenin's Mausoleum, you first have to cross Red Square: 330m by 70m, it is physically and perceptually the centre of Moscow. One of the shorter edges accommodates Saint Basil's cathedral.Opposite that is the State Historical Museum -- a building that Phil described as looking like a cardboard cut-out -- which forces tourists entering the square to choose either going left around the building and through the Resurrection Gates, or right, and not through the Resurrection Gates. The better part of one of the longer sides of the square is taken up by the GUM department store, which is really more of a decorous mall than a department store, and the opposite side of the square is taken up by a wall of the Kremlin; and the Mausoleum in front of that.
The day of my visit was a cold one, and it was snowing. This will have a measure of significance soon, so remember it.
I met two friends, Masha and Phil, outside the mausoleum, at 11. Between Red Square and the mausoleum is a 2-foot high chain fence, put there to dissuade people from approaching the tomb via the shortest route, while not making it seem inaccessible (they have other means of doing that).
The path turned at right-angles to run alongside the mausoleum, then at right-angles again, directing us inside the building and out of the cold.
A man dressed in an impractically formal military uniform, a picture of solemnity, stood just inside the door, at the convergence of a "T" intersection. He indicated to me to lift my hands out of my pockets, then, with his upper arm pressed against his side, pointed with his hand to indicate that we should take the left branch of the intersection. Never once did his mouth open.
We descended a short flight of stairs. At the bottom was a carbon copy of the first guard, complete with pursed lips and unblinking eyes. He did us the service of indicating with the bottom half of his left arm, that we should proceed through the right-angle turn, and continue down the stairs. While the first guard was performing a task that could just as easily be carried out by a piece of paper and some Blue-Tac, this second guard was achieving nothing more than pointing out that walking along an ongoing corridor is preferable to walking directly into a concrete wall.
One more functionally redundant guard later and the hallway opened out into the main chamber of the tomb.
On a raised platform in the centre of the room was Lenin himself. A flight of stairs of either side of the glass sarcophagus lead up to, and then down from, a platform that ran past Lenin's feet.
The man didn't look at all real. Literally. Lenin's perpetual mummification requires regular immersion in some mystery cocktail every 18 months, a mix that includes paraffin wax as a principle ingredient. The stuff seems indelible, and leaves Lenin looking like he would be better suited as an exhibit in Madame Tussdale's.
Ten seconds later, at the most, and with no other tourists around, the guard standing on the platform silently ushered us along. Did he thing we were holding up the queue? Maybe excess viewing speeds up the decay process; maybe the guard was working to a pre-determined script, and had failed to notice that it made no difference. Whatever his reason, we were ushered post-haste, out the other side of the viewing room, past a few more ceremonially pointless guards, and into the winter air, to walk past a few more memorial plaques, before going to get coffee somewhere warm.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Here is why:
First of all, having a Russian titles is maybe a little inappropriate for a number of reasons. First, the blog is written in English. I don't know where the convention originates, but most things I've read match the title language with the content language.
The other main reason for wanting to change the title is that I think my Russian has come far enough that the title is no longer accurate. Granted, it's still fairly accurate to call my blog I don't speak Russian, but I would feel more comfortable if the title were adjusted to reflect my linguistic potential. Unfortunately, as a title Limited Conversation Potential when Employing the Local Language, Although Functionally Competent in Certain High Occurrence Situations, flows like a morning-after vindaloo. I have thus decided to abandon the notion of titular discussion of my Russian.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Monday, May 17, 2010
The above isn’t really relevant, besides the fact that Subway isn’t all that popular here in
Phil (the same Phil who I went to Suzdal’ with, if you want your observant-ness verified) and I popped in for a quick ’tater. Phil approached the counter.
“Adin kartofel, bez sira [one potato, without cheese]” he said, lactose intolerantly.
The woman in the Kroshka Kartoshka uniform grimaced, reached into the oven, pulled out a potato, and started to prepare it. She layered butter on it, which Phil didn’t mind. Then she reached for the cheese.
“Nyet.” Said Phil. “Bez sira. [No. Without cheese.]”
She stopped, her hand hovering just above the tongs, looked at him blankly, nodded, then continued reaching for the tongs.
“Nyetnyetneyt. BEZ. SIRA.”
She looked at him again. “Vi khochete tolka ADIN kartofel? [You only want one potato, right?]”
Now it was Phil's turn to give a blank look. Phil doesn't speak Russian. He knows a few stock phrases for getting food (like “one potato”) and at least one to stop him vomiting it up again (“no cheese”), but going beyond that, and he enters smile-and-nod territory.
“Bez sira!” He said pointing at the cheese and shaking his head furiously. “Bez sira. Bez sira. Bez sira.”
The K-K lady drew her eyebrows together, cocked her head in confusion, then dumped a pile of cheese on top of the potato.
“NYYEEET! BEZ! SIRA!”
She looked at him again, trying to figure out what was so upsetting. Then the (Russian) man behind us said
“Devushka. On skazal ‘bez sira’. [Lady. He said ‘no cheese’.]”
She looked back at Phil, who said “bez sira” again. With no acknowledgment, the woman put the cheese-tarnished potato aside, and pulled another one out of the oven.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
“Race you!” said Wes…
That sounds like a trivial, short-term challenge. Forget that it wasn't actually issued to me; I took it up anyway.
Close on Jill's heels, I bolted down to the fourth floor, the way everyone does when they run downstairs: head lowered and forward to the level of the collar-bone: elbow of one arm tucked hard against the side, the hand hovering a constant 1.5 centimetres from the hand-railing: the other arm half-extended towards the opposite wall: legs pumping in a kind of clunking-shuffling motion down stairs that were spaced for walking, but are too close to make running anything even approaching convienent.
I reached the fourth floor, heard the elevator door above me open, and a plan formed in my head. I say formed as if I reached a the idea by way of cognative causality: a complex series of steps culminating in a brilliant plan. In reality, I thought it would be clever to press the button to the elevator. This would probably slow Wes down.
The third floor, and I decided to invest two seconds to press the button, in order to slow my adversary down even further; and I did it again on the second floor.
I skipped across the lobby, giggling – actually giggling – like a child, at what I must have thought was a truly vulpine act of competition-rigging. I pranced out the door, and caught up with Jill.
A few seconds later, Wes came out of the building.
I regained my composure, or rather, my composure regained itself.
“Well,” I said. “That was, quick.” I was struggling to give an air of nonchalance as I said this, when I was really trying to work out what had happened to confound my plan so badly.
“Yeah,” he replied. “The elevator was full, so I took the stairs.”
“… Good idea.” I said. “It seems to be running very slowly today. I bet that that elevator-load of people are wishing they had done what you did.”
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
200 kilometres north-east of Moscow, famed for its plethora of churches, some dating back to the 13th centaury, Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe, suggests that if I only have time to visit one so-called “Golden Ring” town (a cluster of small historic towns near Moscow), then it should be Suzdal'. As luck would have it, I have only visited one Golden Ring town, with my friend Phil, and it was Suzdal'.
But before we could get there, we first had to buy bus tickets.
The intercity bus station that services routes to the east of Moscow sits at the far edge of the city, adjacent to the terminal Metro station of Shchyolkovskaya. Fortuitously (although deliberately) I had been book-shopping that very morning, and had no ill feelings about an opportunity to read the opening chapters of Stephen King's The Drawing of the Three. (While in the bookshop, my overwhelming sense of intellectual narccissm compelled me to counter this purchase by buying both The Great Gatsby and Umberto Eco's Kant and the Platypus.)
While almost all of the Moscow Metro system is underground, there are short stretches of track away from the centre of the city that emerge above ground. When the trains aren’t so crowded that there isn’t enough room to breathe in all the way, enterprising sales-people offer trivial nick-knacks to sell, and buskers offer music, of a sort.
I heard in front of me some sounds, which I chose not to enquire about: the jangling of coins, the rattling of something mechanical and a deep breath inwards. Had I been more curious about this, and less concerned with Roland the Gunslinger and his confrontation with the mysterious creature form the ocean, it might not have hit my ear like battery acid when the woman standing directly before me began playing the piano-accordion at full volume – the only alternative to not playing that the instrument seems to offer – and singing over the top of it. She may, indeed, have been playing well, but if she was, then she was drowning herself out. I tried to pretend that she wasn't there, that it was possible to keep reading my book, that I live in a world free of war and hunger and spontaneous accordion music. When that failed, I decided to calculate the probability that this woman had of choosing this particular spot to perform: 10 carriages, on a train times four doors on each carriage times two trains running this stretch of track (one in either direction). I wanted to stand up and scream: You had 80 doors to choose from! 80! And despite the fact that your choosing any of 79 of those doors wouldn't have annoyed me at all, you still managed to choose the one door right next to me! Seriously?! But I kept my views to myself, for fear of looking like a crazy man yelling in a foreign language.
This serenade came to an end after what was probably only a few minutes, and the woman then walked down the carriage, as commuters deposited coins and small bank notes into the canvas bag slung through the crook of her elbow, departed at the next station, crossed the platform and boarded the opposite train. Even after her departure, I could still hear the accordion, and her singing – which reminded me of a vibrato-less musical saw – and I tried desperately to read my book in internal silence; but to no avail. Her music, for all that it was worth, lingered like a fart in a tent.
Arriving at last at the final stop on the line, I left the Metro system and wandered outside. A 360-degree survey of my surroundings revealed a large building with the words Bus Exchange written in Russian on the top.
Inside, and the building appeared to be much smaller – a reversed Tardis; for one thing, there didn't seem to be any access to the upper floors. The majority area of the accessible buildings was taken up by inter-city travelers, some sitting on hard plastic bucket-seats, others choosing the more comfortable option of standing. Along the far wall was a row of ticket booths, the women inside shielded from customers by a thick plate-glass window, and communicating my way of an electronic speaker-microphone.
I wandered up to an arbitrary kiosk. My time in Russia hasn't made a conversationalist of me, but I can manage the following pre-syntactic communication.
“2 tickets, Suzdal' Friday morning. Um, please.”
The woman smiled politely, tapped her keyboard with speed and purpose, then tore off a sheet of notepad and wrote 07.00 on it. She handed it tom me, and said in Russian “is this OK?”
7am? Are you freaking kidding me? There’s no way in hell I'm getting up at, what? 5.30 in the morning! I wouldn't get up that early if you set my house on fire! “… erm …”
She must have seen the look of rage and terror in my eyes, because she crossed out the number and wrote beneath it 08.10.
That'll have to do. I suppose we can sleep on the bus, after all.
“OK” I said.
She wrote down the amount that I needed to pay, sparing me the difficulty of cognating foreign numbers (a task which is made all the more difficult by the fact that, at about 30 rubles to toe American dollar, there is always at least one more digit to deal with.) I paid, then asked about return tickets.
“Return tickets? You can do that at window number 7.”
I have to go to a different window to get return tickets? How odd. Or rather, how typically Russian.
I approached booth number 7, tickets in hand, and asked about buying return tickets. This woman beckoned me in silence to hand her the one way tickets that I already had, which she promptly whacked with a large, blue stamp, then handed back to me along with a pile of cash.
Huh? What was, did, these…? Crap!
I skulked away and sat down to plan my next move. I wanted two tickets to Suzdal' and back. I also wanted to avoid showing people one-way tickets and saying “I want to return” which had proved to be ambiguous. I didn't take long to think of a solution, to adapt an approach that is nothing less than a keystone of EFL teaching.
2 х Москва à Суздаль 08.10 1/5
2 х Суздаль à Москва днём (afternoon) 3/5
With this scrawled on the back of a supermarket receipt, I approached a cashier’s window (a different one from the first, of course. A man must save face wherever possible.) I slid my diagrammatic request through the small gap under the window between us, and looked at the woman I hoped would sell me the tickets I wanted. She looked at the paper, then back at me.
“I can only sell you tickets to Suzdal'. You'll have to buy tickets to come back when you’re in Suzdal'.” She said.
“Um, to Suzdal', OK?” I replied. “But I must buy tickets to Moscow in Suzdal'?”
“Yes.” She said.
When it comes to Russian, my ability to form an understandable Russian sentence far outstrips my ability to understand what people have said to me. At times I’m left feeling like a retarded parakeet.
Valid, one-way tickets in hand, I made my way back to the Metro, and sat down in the train to read my book, as we headed back towards town.
Jangling coins, something mechanical, a short breath inwards.
I propose a new measuring scale for lateness – let's call it the Marshal Punctuality Index (MPI), in honor of the Marshall brothers of Christchurch. Those who have met them will know.
The base unit of the MPI scale is the difference between the time between one is technically late, and when one is unsalvageablely or irredemptively late. Consider, as a hypothetical example, checking in for a local flight from Nelson airport. Let us assume for argument's sake that the required check-in time is 60 minutes before scheduled departure. If one arrives at the airport 60 minutes before scheduled departure, as they are expected to, then their arrival at the airport scores a 1.0 on the MPI.
At the other end of the scale, with a 0.0 on the MPI is the absolute last moment at which one can arrive and still achieve the desired result (in this case, to board the plane). Let's take this time to be 10 minutes before take-off. This gives us an MPI differential – the difference in time between 1.0 and 0.0 – of 50 minutes.
Let us, now, imagine arriving 35 minutes before departure time: exactly half way between the requested 60-minutes-before and the 10-minutes-before that we can realistically get away with. This gives us an MPI of 0.5. However, arriving 85 minutes before – requested time plus 25 minutes – is a prompt MPI of 1.5; and anything less than the golden 10-minutes-before will leave us with a negative MPI, which is to say, we blew it, and missed the plane.
There are other variables that can affect the MPI score. For instance, a man with a minor physical disability, such as a broken leg, would probably subtract about 0.1 from his MPI (that is, he would need to allow an extra 5 minutes to get to the flight); a more serious disability, such as being blind or in a wheelchair, would demand a subtraction of something closer to 0.5, or even more. Likewise, carrying fragile luggage, or traveling with children would also affect the MPI. (I feel that the MPI could easily be applied to social situations; indeed, it may be a more appropriate application for it: the differential would be greater for parties than for films, for instance, and +/- variables could include personal familiarity between the arranging parties, the formality of the situation etc. but, as any undergraduate will tell you: That is outside the scope of this paper.)
An MPI variable that I tend to underestimate is the affect of having only a rudimentary understanding of the local language and culture. When I first arrived in Russia, it was almost as bad as -1.0, that is, things took twice as long for me to do as they would for a local. As my understanding of the language develops, this variable looses some of its affect. Although my command of Russian still limits me to the most rudimentary of human interactions, it is stronger than it was: maybe -0.4, if things go well…
You may have assumed that it was a pretty close call for the bus. I could have said that; or I could have written something like:
“Running now. My memory of the layout of the underground route from the train to the building – which corner to turn, which flight of stairs to ascend – was being tested, as much for speed as for accuracy. I had been here only once before, almost a week ago, and I was doing battle with my mind to overcome the unerring uniformity of the subterranean labyrinth wending from the Metro to the air outside. As the clock ticked over further past 8am, and closer, second by second, to the moment at which the bus would depart, we had no time for false turns or backtracking. I had to gather myself, and my breath, and make a decision. There was no time left for mistakes…”
I could have written something like that. But I didn't, for three reasons. First of all, my reaction to running late isn't to gather my wits, weigh my options, and bite the bullet. I'm much more inclined to respond to my own tardiness by saying, “Oh, look. I'm running late. Again.” Second: writing dramatically is best left to people like John Grisham and Stephen King, people who are demonstrateably good at it – and God-only-knows how many half-arsed Grisham wannabes there are in the world. I prefer to stick to what I know: pseudo-academic prattle suits me much better.
Third-and-final: this is my blog. I am both staff writer and editor-in-chief. As such, I don't need to justify what I admit and what I cut.
Did we make it to the bus? Well, yes, of course. Writing about our trip to Suzdal' entails a certain amount of getting there first.
Not that simply boarding the correct bus was any guarantee of that…