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”.