Thursday, December 30, 2010

Our Fate in Whose Hands?

A technologically advanced alien race, long liberated from its ancient, terrestrial existence, now travels through the galaxy, encountering less developed races as it goes. Whenever it comes across a planet inhabited with intelligent life, it challenges the inhabitants of that planet to justify their own continued existence, by assembling representatives from all over the planet, and questioning them on matters regarding their specie’s most salient shortcomings. If the delegates cannot convince the aliens that they are worth sparing – that their existence is not a detriment to the universe – the encountered species is eliminated, and the aliens move on.

On their travels, the voyaging aliens come across inhabitants on a relatively small, blue planet lying half way along the length of the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way; and, as it has done countless times before, challenges the leaders of the planet to argue for their ongoing existence.

“Your species,” begin the aliens, “Have a tendency, what looks almost like a compulsion, to make use of the physical resources around you: water, minerals, wood, land area, even the air itself: as rapidly as possible, with no apparent regard for the finiteness of what is available, or with any consideration for what your fate will be when the things you rely on so heavily – reliance that are sometimes natural and sometimes borne of your own actions – expire. How can you justify the continuation of a species that lacks the foresight to consider the consequences that will be suffered by its own children?”

“In all the tens of thousands of years of our history,” responds one, “There was never a need to consider the expiration of resources in an absolute sense. In the past 100 years, our population has increased from 1.75 billion to almost 7 billion. Before then, there was never any need to consider the ‘end of resources’, because there was always somewhere else we could move or expand to, and the idea that there were enough of us to have a measurable impact on the world as a whole would have been bizarre and egocentric. A 4-fold jump in our population in less than 1 percent of our history as a species demands an enormous paradigm shift, and one that we are making far more quickly than it might immediately appear.”

“Yours is a species,” the aliens move on, “That, on the surface, seems to strive for inequality. Nearly half of your planet’s wealth is in the hands of 1 percent of your population, and, with perverse symmetry, 1 percent of the world’s wealth is spread among half of the world’s population. You cannot argue that this is due to a relatively sudden change in the way things are, because you have always had an inequality of wealth distribution within almost any given society in your history. Alarmingly, though, this system has developed into one that delivers money and power as direct rewards, not for contribution or responsibility, but simply to those with a talent for acquiring money and power.”

“You are right and wrong,” says another delegate. “We do not strive for inequality, per se. But it is in our nature to strive to excel. And what is excellence without relativity? That is, we, collectively, move forward on the backs of people who aspire to superseded their peers and predecessors – be that in science, art, or leadership. And, with excellence comes reward. You say that we have failed to develop a system that equates reward with contribution, and, as things stand, that is the case. But this is a result of the same paradigm shift as we discussed before – it is an misappropriation of something intrinsically human. We will always reward those individuals who stand out, as we have always done. The preceding century was marked by developments in technology, and capitalism, and those who most successfully reflected that development were duly rewarded. The problem is therefore what we consider marks an excellent individual: one who can accumulate wealth and power. But views will swing and change in time, as they always have done.”

“And, on the back of one paradigm shift comes another.” A new delegate pipes in. “As a century that was marked by an explosion of population and technology – and an associated exponential schism of inequality – has ended; so we have entered an age of information. Not information technology, in the sense of technological progress for its own sake, but, rather, diffusion of information as has never been available before. And, as we say, knowledge is power. Come and talk to us again in a generation’s time. I believe that our increasing dissemination of information will bring with it a greater equality of power, and, by proxy, wealth, in the coming decades.”

The aliens are silent for a moment. Then:

Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.”

After a pause, a member of the delegation says “excuse us. What did you say?”

Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,” repeats the alien. “The BFF stands for Best Friend Forever. It’s a reality television show on MTV, in which Paris Hilton issues challenges to a group of young men and women, and then eliminates one at the end of each episode. In addition to being insufferably derivative, the contestants are competing not for money, or a glamorous job, or the chance to see the world, but to become Paris Hilton’s friend – they are on the show in the hopes of winning the right to spend all of their time with Miss Hilton.”

“Now, it’s hardly fair...” one delegate begins.

“Of course, we would never base a judgement of a species on one individual,” interrupts the alien, “But when that individual is popular enough to have her own television show in which she is her own prize, we cannot help but harbour concerns regarding the viability and, frankly, worthiness of the species that allows her to be famous. Ongoingly famous, we might add; a flash-in-the-pan celebrity of this nature we could overlook, but the persistence of a starlet whose fame stems from nothing, as far as we can tell, gives us cause for concern.”

The room is silent for a moment, before the alien speaks again. “So, how can you justify that your species deserves to live, in light of Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, its second season, and two spin-off series?”

the room returns to silence.  

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Winter Visit

I would be lying if I wrote that I did as much sight-seeing as I wanted to while I was in Moscow. There's a certain complacency, a There's loads of time to do all the things I want to mentality that comes with living in a place for two years; a mentality that drains the enthusiasm for doing it all. 

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).

We looked at the Mausoleum. It was ten metres away, directly, and it would have taken little effort to step over the fence to reach it. However, to be allowed into the tomb, we first needed to walk through a metal detector, at the Museum-end of Red Square, then walk back towards the Mausoleum along the inside of the chain fence.

The square was clear of snow and ice, but we still scuttled, out of habit, down the length of the square. The road running between the Kremlin wall and the Museum was barricaded off, with the barrier cutting off direct access to the metal detectors and the entrance to the other side of the little fence. When we asked if we could simply step between two of the barriers, to save ourselves having to circumnavigate the museum, the answer was most bureaucratically "no." It seems that there is a need to have a single queue feeding the entrance, so as to facilitate processing the typically large number of people who come to visit the founder of the USSR. That seemed reasonable to me. I was a little put out, though, by the fact that no-one made any concessions for the fact that we were, literally, the only people there. Remember what I said about the weather? We were sent to the back of a queue that didn't exist.

Around the museum, through the Resurrection Gates (appropriately named: they were demolished by Stalin in 1931, and rebuilt in 1996). We got three-quarters around the building, looking at the metal detectors at the far end, and found ourselves in front of another temporary barrier. When we tried to go through the barrier, to follow the family of Korean tourists walking towards the entrance (the only other people we saw visiting the Tomb that day), the armed guard at the barrier told that we were trying to go through the wrong person-size gap in the fence. We had to ask her directly before she told us which one was the right gap.

Through the metal detectors at last, and we followed a path, demarcated by another chain fence -- this one less than a foot high -- that ran alongside and about two metres from the Kremlin Wall. Embedded into the wall were plaques to commemorate the great Russians of the Soviet era, yet, if honesty is to be invoked, the only name among them that I recognised was Yuri Gagarin. On the ground to the left were larger, stone plaques, commemorating dead soviets who, it would appear, were too significant to be commemorated with anything as flimsy as a sheet of steel.

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

Hello, Again

“Alright?”, said Greg, one of my new colleagues, as I walked into the office.

“Yup.” I replied.

He shot me a confused look. “I... it’s not really a question.”

“It’s not?”

“Not really. It just means ‘Hello’.” he told me.

“So, you just said ‘Hello’, and I replied by saying ‘Yes.’?”

“Yeah, I guess you did.”

The following morning I walked into the office, and past my new boss, Maria.

“Hi,” I said.

“Alright?” she answered.

I learnt about this yesterday. I said ‘Hello’, then she said ‘Hello’ . All debts are paid, and I’m just going to look silly if I say anything.

I looked at her, and her expression said in your own time...

“Um, good?”

“Well that’s good to hear.” She said. “You know where to find me if you have any questions.”

“So, when you said ‘alright?’, you were asking a question?”

“Well, yes. It’s a bit like ‘how’s it going?’.”

“Oh. K.”
Yesterday, I met my flatmate’s parents.

“Alright?” said her father.

“Does that just mean ‘Hello’?” I fired back. “Or was it a question? Should I just say ‘Hi, nice to meet you’, or would you like to know if I’m alright?”

The expression that flashed over his face told me that, one way or the other, I hadn’t said what I was expected to.

“Oh, either,” he laughed. “Whatever you feel like.”

I don’t know if I’m going to bother trying to learn Slovak after all; it doesn’t look like I have a firm grasp of the full range of English yet.  

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My First Update in Slovakia

I would like to discuss a phenomenon whose depth of complexity is almost always overlooked, even written off as being not simply mundane, but 'improper'.

Consider a three year old child (a girl, for the sake of pronouns) who says “he beed sad”. On the surface, it looks like the utterance of a girl who hasn't yet come to grasp English verb conjugations, or the subtleties of empathy; but, let's break this utterance into its constituent parts, before we assess it for its merits.

“He”: the decision to use a pronoun instead of a concrete referent like “Michael” or “a boy from my school” reveals that the girl has identified the ideas of established referent and linguistic economy: she knows that the person she is talking about is already clear to the listener, and that to reiterate would be redundant; thus that she can save the effort and monotony of repeating the subject's name or description by way of the phonetically simpler alternative. What is remarkable is that she has navigated her way through the mine-field of ambiguity that leads to using a pronoun, employing it at just the right time, striking the balance between economy of speech with clarity of listening.

“Sad”: to come to the understanding that a person other than herself is sad, the child must first realise that emotional responses are present in others in much the same way as in herself – difficult, if you consider that she has no way of directly experiencing the emotions of others, but must infer the probable feelings of others by way of outward cues only, and, by assessing a combination of face- and body-expressions and the feelings that she would be experiencing in that situation. To identify that another person experiences the world from a different emotional perspective, and then to evaluate and label what that perspective is takes far more insight than we realise.

I left beed until the end because I think that is the most interesting part of the utterance.

“Beed”: one's first reaction to this is to declare it a mistake – an error perpetrated by someone who hasn't yet come to terms with the inner complexities of the English language, when, in fact, it demonstrates the exact opposite. In order to come to the conclusion to use beed, the child first identified that, in order to ascribe a property to a thing (after realising that “sad” and “He” are a property and a thing), they must be linked by a largely meaningless word, “be”, in no other order than thing, be, property. She then realised, by a process of data-crunching thousands of example sentences, that, to describe an event that occurred in the past (to say nothing of the understanding that time progresses unidirectionally, and that the event described happened in a recallable, but inaccessible and unalterable time prior to that of speaking) a “past marker” of -ed is attached to the infinitive form of the verb of the sentence (again, to say nothing of the understanding that, following different sounds, -ed can be pronounced /t/, /d/, or even /Id/, but that these three forms represent the same underlying form and concept). After data-crunching another few thousand sentences, the child has identified where to find infinitive verb forms (following modal verbs such as would, might and could, and the preposition to, and not following other auxiliary verbs such as have, nouns or adverbs), and, therefore, be is the infinitive form of this particular verb, from which all other forms of the verb are derived. The only oversight that this girl committed was not to realise that, this one verb, out of all the verbs in English, completely changes its outward form – from beed to was – in the past form.

We know that the child worked through all of the stages outlined in the above paragraph, because she has never once heard anyone say the word beed, and so couldn't be parroting the adults around her. The only way that beed could have arisen in the child's speech is by complex induction and linguistic analysis.

To quantify the success of this sentence, the girl has used two of the three words perfectly, and one very close to accurately, when all things are considered: 2.5 out of 3, or 83%.

If you are still underwhelmed with the accuracy of “He beed sad”, compare it to “Ground Zero Mosque”:

It's not a Mosque: it's a community centre, aimed at the local Muslim community, but open to all members of the public.

It's not at Ground Zero, it's two city blocks away, on the site of an old coat factory. There is a strip-club closer to Ground Zero than the Coat Factory Community Centre is.

The phrase “Ground Zero Mosque” is, literally, completely wrong. Not one word in that phrase maps onto the real world. 0 out of 3, or 0%.

A three-year-old child is eighty-three percent better at describing the world than anyone who says “Ground Zero Mosque”.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Experiential Refugee

I have renamed my blog.

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.

Second: I don't even live in Russia any more. (As a side note, there are still a few things that might yet appear on the blog about Russia -- but don't be confused; I might finish one of a number of half-formed writings about Russia, even though I'm not in Russia.)

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.

Hence, the new title of my blog: Experiential Refugee.

I was going to go into a pseudo-academic spiel about things like the difference between the formal and informal definitions of refugee; and I was planning to explain the historical context of it all, in order not to seem like I'm demeaning the seriousness of what it means to be a real refugee, fleeing from war and persecution and all the rest of that -- but I got bored with trying to detangle refugee from displaced person, and the historical and diplomatic contexts surrounding the definition; and I chose to believe you would too. I've decided to limit the content of my writings to complaining about women, bemoaning my poor grasp of Russian, and how bad things taste when I cook them.

So, Experiential Refugee means that I've left my home country to experience things I couldn't do in New Zealand. This is not to say that Aotearoa is impoverished of interesting things to see and do -- I just thought it was a clever title.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Explanation Wanted

I just found that I can check the statistics for my blog. No surprise that readership levels seem to be on the wane, since it's been four months since I last updated.

Blogger also has a breakdown of the sites that have referred to my blog -- that is, where people found a link to here. Number one on the list (with a number more at home on a thermometre than on a tally of readership) was Facebook. Either people are clicking the link I have on my FB page, or someone has posted a link to this blog on their FB page; which seems so unlikely that I don't know why I bothered to suggest the idea.

Next on the list is People come to my site from search topics as diverse as anecdotes porusski, govoryu po russki, need for speed most wanted russki, and last time it's only cause we need three questions what colour is your eyes?? po russki. It turns out that, for that last search, my blog is the most relevant thing on the Internet.

We have now crossed the line between that makes perfectly good sense to if you want to participate in the Internet, you need to learn to stop finding things weird.

Number three on the list is the homepage for a company called Kompaniya Reinvest -- a name that would be misleading if it looked like it meant anything. KR deals in renovation and construction of residential houses and apartments in and around Moscow.

The logical question to ask here is What? Behind Facebook and Google, the third biggest referrer to my blog is a Russian renovation company called The Reinvest Company? How on earth does one get from there to here in one step?

If I was bewildered by number three on the list, number four makes me want to quit the Internet. I don't even know what it was that I found, but it looks like the homepage of a 15 year-old Russian shut-in, designed using Geocities and a passing familiarity with aesthetics. The front page of the site is a list of links to short articles (most more like paragraphs than articles) on topics that could only be interesting to people who have given up on self-improvement. There is an article on how snoring increases the likelihood of divorce, an article about a man in Novosibersk who illegally painted markings on the road, a collection of photos of people pulling funny faces, and a description of a book of semen-based recipes (not a review, or a link to where to buy the book, just a statement that this book exists). The only external links were to porn and dating sites, and the most prominently displayed of these was a dead link. And halfway down the page were 12 photos of naked women, six with penises, the other half without.

I'm at a loss. What? How? Why?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Extra Cheese?

In Russia, Subway Sandwiches use cabbage instead of lettuce. Seriously. It's a kind of Chinese cabbage, though, which is fairly lettuce-like, but still, it's weird.

The above isn’t really relevant, besides the fact that Subway isn’t all that popular here in Russia. Its spiritual equivalent – Kroshka Kartoshka – is immensely popular, though. Choose from a range of toppings and they’ll put it on a cliché – I mean, potato. First, the smiling (not really smiling, of course, but not telling your outright where you can shove it, which is pretty much the same thing) employee pulls a foil-wrapped baked potato out of a warming oven, then incises the potato while it's still in the foil, splaying it open to be covered in butter, cheese, and your choice of distinctly Russian toppings (not liking mayonnaise therefore limits one's options).


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.


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

The Race

Leaving my Russian lesson on Monday, on the fifth floor of a non-descript central-city building, my classmates an I came to the elevator/stair junction. Wes pressed the elevator call button, while, at the same time, Jill began decending the stairs.

“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

Suzdal': The Tickets to

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.

What? Seriously?!


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…