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Barnard Magazine on Literature and Revolution [29 Aug 2007|06:25pm]
An article about my flagship course, "Literature and revolution," appears in the current issue of Barnard magazine. You can read it by clicking here [PDF].
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A word I heard for the first time today.... [20 Jul 2007|12:46am]
....but LOVE: Potterdämmerung (in reference to the imminent release of the final Harry Potter book).

Chris and I are halfway through the Kirov's travelling production of the Ring (currently playing two sold-out performances at the Lincoln Center Festival) so it tickled me especially. Wagner ate our last weekend and will eat this coming weekend as well. Watching those operas is TIRING (especially when the sets are as tedious to look at as the Kirov's are, or I should say, is, the plural not really being called for here. 18 hours of looking at the same bits and pieces, slightly rearranged every so often). That Thomassini review I just linked to is actually right on the money -- unusually for a Times review in my experience.
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Signs of the Apocalypse [27 Jun 2007|02:51pm]
I'm sure it's hard to tell from this totally-not-life-size photo, but the berries on this plate are uniformly GIGANTIC. (I've included a U.S. 25-cent piece -- official diameter 24.26 mm -- for comparison.) They are also unholily perfect in their unblemished redness (or blueness in the case of the blueberries).

Needless to say, they are also, while unimpeachably sweet, really quite bland. I'd know what they were if blindfolded, but if I were a chef I'd refuse to use them for anything other than decoration.

What are they doing to the berries to get them to turn out this way? is what I want to know. What immortal hand or eye framed their fearful symmetry? What godless offshoot of science or alchemy spawned these Frankenfruits? Où sont les fraises d'antan??
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Huh? [05 Jun 2007|11:06am]
Putin calls himself the world's only 'absolute democrat'

MOSCOW, June 4 2007 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has described himself as an "absolute democrat" whose credentials are so pure that he has no peer in the world, a top Russian newspaper reported Monday.

"Of course I am an absolute and pure democrat... the tragedy is that I am the only one, there are simply no others in the world," he told foreign journalists ahead of this week's G8 summit in Germany, Kommersant reported.

"Since the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there has been no one to talk to," he said, in an apparently ironic reference to the Indian independence leader who preached non-violence.

"Look what is happening in North America. The horror: torture, homelessness, Guantanamo, imprisonment without a court or trial," he told the foreign journalists on Friday.

"Look what is happening in Europe: the harsh treatment of demonstrators, the use of rubber bullets, tear gas in one city and then the next, the murder of demonstrators in the streets."

Police have been condemned for using tear gas against protesters in Germany ahead of Wednesday's summit, while Russia has accused Estonian police of a heavy-handed response to recent protests by ethnic Russians in Tallinn in which one protester died.

"And I'm not even talking about the post-Soviet arena," Putin said. "There was one hope, in the guys in Ukraine, but they have completely discredited themselves and events are moving towards sheer tyranny."

In recent months, Russia has been accused by the West of using special forces to clamp down on peaceful protesters in a wide-spread attack on pro-democracy groups in the country.

Um, this is the same country where the police refused to arrest skinheads and religious fanatics who beat up gay marchers in the Pride Parade just the other day, right? The same President who helped RIG the last Ukrainian Presidential election so that "those guys in Ukraine" whom he claims to've been so optimistic about wouldn't get into office? I mean, he definitely has a point about North America. But surely there are SOME "democrats" in the world who could boast a closer affinity to Mahatma Ghandi than Putin can...
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Back in NYC [13 May 2007|02:58pm]
Finishing up about 3 different work projects, trying to find space to put away all the stuff I just unpacked, acclimating to potable tap water, getting annoyed by constantly overhearing strangers' conversations in English.  (When they're in a foreign language, they're much easier to ignore  -- and if too loud to ignore, as in the case of the ubiquitous person yelling into a cellphone on a crowded bus, more fun to eavesdrop on.)  I have a few more photos to put up; that might happen after all the frenzy of graduation is over, later this week.
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Humorina [29 Apr 2007|02:17pm]
Ugh, I'm painfully behind with everything, including this blog. It all started when a tangle of holidays at the beginning of the month left me uncertain about what to post about first. At this point it no longer seems to matter which of these overdue updates goes up first, so here, have a wee photo-essay on Humorina (that link points to a tourist site; the official City of Odessa webpage for Humorina 2007 is here).

So, Humorina is a festival of humour that takes place on --when else -- April 1st every year. Well, nearly every year. The tradition has been interrupted a few times, as far as I understand from Wikipedia (link in Russian). It basically consists of various forms of street theater, culminating in a parade, throughout which the Odessites and, apparently, hordes of tourists from elsewhere in Ukraine as well as from nearby Moldova and Bulgaria, wear various forms of amusing apparatus on their heads (headbands with various ornaments attached to them on springs, etc.) and drink a lot of beer. This year's parade was sponsored by Khortitsa vodka; I didn't actually see anyone drinking any of that, although I did see everyone carrying the free stickers and such handed out by company representatives.

Odessa prides itself on being the city of humor: Isaac Babel, the city's most famous literary son (not to be confused with its most famous literary visitor, who was Pushkin), characterized the city's contribution to Russian culture (by which he, of course, meant himself) as being something like a ray of sunshine amid the gloom that, to this day, remains many peope's impression of Russian literature (thanks chiefly, I'd argue, to Dostoevsky) -- this despite the fact that much of Russian literature is elegantly ironic and/or uproariously funny, and Babel's own sense of humour is in my opinion overrated; Russians will tell you ad mauseam that his work is incredibly "humorous," but his most famous works deal with death, destruction and human suffering (war, pogroms, mindless violence, equally mindless political rhetoric, repression of all kinds) in vivid detail, whereas the most famous works of his contemporaries Bulgakov and Zoshchenko -- to name but two -- bring a much more obviously funny satirical tone to the proceedings. But I digress.

Humorina derives its humour from the usual sources -- upside-down psychology, as Zoshchenko called it, or carnivalesque inversion, as followers of Bakhtin might characterize it, or to put it another way: the logic of normal life is turned on its head. (Which of course passes for business as usual in Odessa: remember the upside-down trees?) Thus Humorina is the day of honest customs officers, of flower-festooned Humvees and cooperating politicians; the everyday bitterness underlying these holiday jests lies close to the surface. It's also a day for making light of "serious"/"high" culture icons: Pushkin, Lenin, the Duc de Richelieu, the noble Cossack. No shibboleth is safe, at least in theory.

Want some pictures? Here you go...Collapse )

And that's your lot. Photos of Prague and Berlin still to come, and I promise I *will* get around to it sooner or later.
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[23 Apr 2007|12:30am]
I know, I know, where are the PHOTOS. I am a terrible blogger. I'll put them up as soon as I get a chance. It's a real pain, putting images in an update, you know. It requires either typing or C&P-ing a lot of code, which is a tiresome procedure. Anyway, it's after midnight and I'm off to bed, but I have a small tidbit to share: an ad that's playing on local radio, advertising the new "Mr. Bean" movie (Mr Bean's Vacation?). It takes the form of a bizarrely monological and unrelated-to-the-movie "dialogue," all spoken by one woman, in English, but with a clownishly thick Russian accent, and it goes like this:
--Good morning, children.
--Good morning, teacher.
--Who is on duty today?
--I am.
--Who is absent?
--Mister Bean is.
--Where is he?
--He is in France. He is ill. He is complete idiot. Odessa is beautiful in spring.
It's just...so...random. Every time I hear it I boggle.
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In lieu of a real update.... [17 Apr 2007|08:48pm]
...because I'm currently writing a presentation for a conference I'm appearing in on Thursday....

Here is a music video that plays every day when I'm in the gym (where there are 2 TVs tuned to music video channels). I won't go so far as to say that Romanians Moldovans are weird, but...well... what exactly is the genre of this song?

ETA: For more context, see the comments to this entry!
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Long time no, etc. [31 Mar 2007|01:17am]
I'm still going to write an entry about Berlin and Prague, but it's already so late that it can wait a little longer, until I finish the two projects I have to have done by April 1. So here's another bullet-point update:
  • The weather has been lovely the last few days: chilly, but sunny.

  • I was informed today that Ukrainian basically has no swear words. If you want to insult someone in the strongest possible terms, you can call them a goat or a pig, or in extreme cases a devil, but that's it; Ukrainian is apparently totally devoid of the pungent lexicon revolving around obscene acts, usually implicating the insultee's mother, in which Russian is so rich.

  • The situation of diglossia around here (Russian the lingua franca of the city and therefore the language of virtually all conversation and of local signage; Ukrainian the official language of the state, and therefore the one that appears on packaging, advertising, and other texts produced on "nationwide" scale) makes for some funny moments when one's brain is between gears, so to speak. Today I saw bread proudly labelled "obidnii" ("offensive"/"hurtful") and was quite surprised until it sank in that the packaging was in Ukrainian ("obidnii"="for lunch").

  • My "scientific supervisor" is a sweetheart: whenever I talk to her she asks "How is your mood? How are your living conditions? You're not going hungry, are you?" Today I told her that I eat varenyky every day, and she laughed heartily. You can't starve to death eating varenyky!

  • File under "only in Ukraine": The Dean of the University division through which I receive my Ukrainian training burst into my class today unannounced (as my teacher was mid-sentence, explaining the genitive case) and jovially asked how I was doing, grabbed my notebook and leafed through it, made some small talk, told me to study hard now because it's getting sunny outside and as it gets warmer I won't feel like studying; basically all but pinched my cheeks (and my teacher's), and then vanished again. Inexplicable. Was he making the rounds? Wandering the halls? Did he come and find us specially? He had clearly had a few drinks with lunch, but I mean, is this normal? I ask you. On the other hand, at Columbia you can't even get an audience with a Dean short of setting something on fire, so there's something to be said for this, er, spontaneous approach.

  • And this is the thing about learning a Slavic language *in* the target country: you end up having conversations like this:
    Teacher: The genitive case, as you know, has several different uses.
    Me: [nods sagely; I do, in fact, know this]
    Teacher: How many uses does it have?
    Me: Um....
    Teacher: Six. The genitive case has six uses.
    Me: Oh. [writes: "Genitive case -- 6 uses."]
    I mean, this is the kind of meaningless drivel (so many hairs one can split: e.g., is the genitive of time expressions a separate "use" from the genitive of place expressions if they both use the same prepositions?) they obviously make Ukrainian children memorize in school. Who cares how many uses it has? Just tell me what they are. The best part is, after she enumerated all the uses, with numbers and everything, it still only added up to 5! The Mystery of the Missing Usage.

  • And finally: the "ling(v)afonnyi kabinet" (language lab) has become our regular classroom (see this entry for my first impressions of it), and today I finally remembered to bring my camera so I could record it for posterity. Tell me that this doesn't look like the set of a 1930s movie about space travel:
Pictures under here...Collapse )
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Bits and pieces [06 Mar 2007|11:27pm]
No real news; I'm working, studying Ukrainian, and making travel plans (Berlin March 10-19). But as anyone who's spent time in the former Soviet Union (and probably anyone who's put in quality travel time to any foreign place) knows, one tends to go about collecting little bits and pieces of trivia that seem to typify aspects of local life, or that are simply unexpected and amusing. Here are a few I've collected over the last couple of days:

  • I forgot to mention in my entry about the fitness club that OF COURSE, in order to join, I had not only to show my passport but to record all its details (number, place of issue, dates of issue and expiry, and so on) on the membership form. I'm sure there are other places on the globe where one might have to present one's passport to join a gym (this isn't just for foreigners, but for everyone), but to me it seems quintessentially Soviet.

  • On my way back from the gym yesterday, I walked past two somewhat inebriated men and was briefly involved in the following conversation:

    First (Quite Drunk) Man (very suddenly): Девушка! Давайте познакомимся.
    Second (Less Drunk) Man (with an air of outraged propriety): Что ты!! Иди сюда, не мучи детей.

    Rough Translation:
    First Man: Hey miss! Let's be friends.
    Second Man: What the-- Get back here, don't torment children!

    For some reason I found this very amusing.

  • Today, thanks to a shortage of spare classrooms, I had my Ukrainian lesson in the lingvafonnyi kabinet (language lab). HOLY COW. It looks like the set of a 1930s Soviet film about space travel. Each little desk-cubicle has a vintage reel-to-reel tape player with giant tapes (the kind you see being used in surveilliance equipment in movies from the 1970s) that, surely, are no longer manufactured anywhere. A big green button, a big red button, a mysterious lever....I don't know if I'll ever get a chance to sneak in there with a camera (probably not), but it ought to be recorded for posterity. And it's a positive crime that this setup is still in use (although from another point of view it's extraordinarily environmentally sound, since the technology upgrade cycle is one of our biggest, and fastest-growing, problems in terms of waste disposal, toxic pollution, and -- of course -- global warming). Still, though -- to compare the dazzling mod cons of my new gym with the battered, decrepit physical plant of the University (hand-drawn wall maps and posters, broken or very rickety chairs, a total absence of computers or digital media) is sobering. Signs of the times.

  • On a lighter note, I have to mention a factoid that EVERY SINGLE PERSON who learns that I'm studying Ukrainian brings up. (You can try this at home -- tell a friendly local Ukrainian that you've conceived a desire to study the language and see what (s)he says.)

    The factoid: "You know, Ukrainian is officially one of the most musical languages in the world, along with Italian."
    The slightly more detailed version of the factoid: "You know, an international panel of judges scientifically determined that Ukrainian is the third most musical language in the world, after French [say what?--RJS.] and Italian." Today I pressed my Ukrainian teacher for more context -- what international panel of judges, and when was this determination made?

    ...Apparently, a panel of 20 judges from an assortment of countries was assembled for the specific purpose of ranking (European? World?) languages in order of musicality. French came first, Italian second and Ukrainian a close third. This important contest was held in Paris (which may not be unrelated to the triumph of French...) IN 1934. Yes, you read that right. Nineteen. Thirty. Four.

  • While browsing in the sports section of Tavriia today, I happened upon the following item for sale. See if you can figure out what it is (all text given in the original English):

    Beauty Server
    new claim for beauty and body firming
    The guide of reconstructing your body and skin by returning to the natural essence

    Answer at the bottom of this post.

I leave you with the following picture, of the sign that hangs in the toilet at Planeta Internet:

Translation: Esteemed ladies and gentlemen!
In connection with the fact that the restroom
is equipped with a unique plumbing system
devised in accordance with aerocosmic technology
under the direction of leading NASA specialists,
a compelling request: throw nothing into the toilet
or handbasin, including toilet paper.
Please use the wastebasket. Thank you.

Oh, and the item for sale at Tavriia was a "vacuum massager." Looks suspiciously like the old-fashioned surgical practice of "cupping," which I'll always associate with the pathos of Chekhov's story "Rothschild's Fiddle." A quick Google seems to suggest that it remains popular as a spa treatment in Eastern Europe, so there you go.
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Hmmm... [04 Mar 2007|10:09am]
Well, not much is going on really -- certainly not much to blog home about. I'm working on a paper for a conference in just over a week. I had my 3-hour Ukrainian class on Friday ("3 hours" in Odessa University terms is actually only 2 1/4 hours, but it still feels pretty long) and AGAIN on Saturday, because the University decided to switch two days in the calendar: Saturday, March 3 became Friday, March 9, and vice versa. This is so that everyone can take a 4-day weekend next week (with International Women's Day on March 8, "Saturday, March 3" on the ninth, and then a normal weekend on March 10-11).

I mean, it makes *sense* on one level, but an another level it seems very Odessan to decide that Friday=Saturday and Saturday=Friday by unilateral decree. And I can't imagine it working in, say, America. What about the people who can't attend classes on Saturdays, because they work or have other commitments in environments where Saturday is still considered Saturday, and not Friday at all?

In other news, I found a nearby fitness club, "Zateriannyi Mir," . A bit costly ($240 for three months, which is the minimum level of membership), but so worth it. The streets have been basically impassable for foot traffic for about a week now, and I've really missed the exercise; plus, even when everything isn't engulfed in a sea of mud, the traffic, low air air quality, and ubiquity of dogs (both the stray kind, which are quite benign, and the chained-up-in-the-front-yard-to-deter-burglars kind, which go NUTS when a jogger passes) make running outside a somewhat dubious experience. The fitness center, on the other hand, obviously views itself as a luxury item (i don't know enough about gym culture in Russia to know whether this is common, but I speculate that it is), and presents itself accordingly; the receptionists are elegantly groomed, the "dezhurnyi instruktor" ceremoniously approaches each client who enters the weight room and offers to create a personalized fitness program for them, and there are at least three types of steam room on the premises: Finnish sauna, Turkish bath, and something called "Roman bath" which I have no idea what is. (The sales manager, who took me on a tour, tried to explain it in terms of temperature [Celsius], which left me none the wiser but with the vague impression that the Romans liked their baths even hotter and steamier than the Turks.)

The interior of the club is as bright and shiny and modern and calculated to satisfy the "New Russian" (or "New Ukrainian") appetite for consmerist luxury, but the outside is adorned with a big, shiny and obviously new hammer and sickle. Draw your own conclusions.

While I'm here I may as well post the remainder of the photos I took in my second week here, while my computer was broken. Just a few shots in and around the building where I live:

Photos under hereCollapse )
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Finally, some pictures of the beach! [01 Mar 2007|10:19am]
It feels odd to be posting pictures of the beach when I woke up yesterday to find
*more* snow falling from the sky (So. Not. Acceptable. What we need now is a nice
warm rain, to wash all the disgusting slush and mud from the nearly-impassable
footpaths!) and the ground outside is covered in slush and ice, but I've been
promising these for a long time, so here goes.
The Black Sea, ladies and gentlemen.

This photo was taken about half an hour's walk (or a 15-minute jog)
from my house. I got unreasonably excited when I went down the hill
and got my first glimpse of the sea up close -- even though it was
February and a little bleak. It's no Pacific Ocean, of course, but
it's a lot more satisfying than the Hudson River.

Panoramas under here...Collapse )

And as long as I'm here, I might as well post a couple more pictures of my neighbourhoodCollapse )

...And that's it for today, folks -- off to do some real work. More news when there is some.
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In Russia, dead horse beats you! [26 Feb 2007|05:26pm]
(I've been reading back entries on the always-and-all-ways wonderful Language Log.
I like this particular formulation of the "Yakov Smirnoff snowclone" not only because it
rings cryptically true but because it reminds me of Raskolnikov's dream [scroll down]....)

Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Since I arrived in Odessa, I've been seeing posters and hearing rapid-fire radio ads
for this:

-- an exhibition at the seaport called "Your Home, Odessa."
This poster, by the way, is a good example of how Russian and Ukrainian tend
to co-exist on the same signs, billboards, and documents: here, the exhibition
title "YOUR HOME ODESSA" is in Russian, but the rest of the poster is in Ukrainian.

The event itself proved to be a fairly boring trade fair with stalls manned by various construction and interior-decor
companies -- not so much "Your Home, Odessa" as "Your Home Depot, Odessa."

But I took the opportunity to look around the port and snap a few photos,
including another one of the famous steps, from the superior vantage point
of the "Marine station" building:

See how far away the top looks from the bottom? The effect is enhanced by the fact
that the stairs are actually 30 feet wider at the bottom than at the top, on purpose
to make the climb ahead look longer than it really is.

And here's a picture facing the other way -- out to sea.

Click to view...Collapse )

Here's another small Odessan curiosity:

-- a statue of Pavel I (Catherine the Great's hapless son) holding an orange.
The statue is explained by the accompanying plaque, of which -- in true Odessan style --
the first paragraph in is Russian and the second in Ukrainian:

The Russian part reads:
"In 1800, our city was on the brink of destruction. Having only just been founded,
it was suddenly deprived of all the privileges which had been accorded to it.
The disfavour of Emperor Pavel [who was inclined to oppose anything that his mother had supported]
fell heavily upon Odessa. All work on building the port ceased; commerce put its business aside.
A general despondency reigned." --A. de Ribas

The Ukrainian part explains:
So the Odessites sent Pavel I a delegation with [a gift of] 3,000 Greek oranges,
which were received by the emperor with gratitude. The delegate G.
[or H??]
Rasksomati returned to Odessa with an official reply from the emperor expressing his
goodwill and [with] 250,000 rubles [Ukr: "karbovantsi"] for the development of the city.
Odessites changed their future! Oranges saved the city!
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And....we're back! [25 Feb 2007|12:16pm]
So.... whatever the guy (nice though he was) at the "Komp'iuter Servis-Tsentr" did, it didn't actually fix the problem with my computer. It did, however, break my space bar (I've noticed that ALL the computers I've used in Ukraine have broken spacebars, so maybe it's just a national feature). So....I'm one keyboard the worse for wear (which is particularly annoying as I JUST installed this keyboard a couple of months ago, after finally tiring of the whole "no B or L" typing experience that was my lot for about a year). On the bright side, this makes me feel less bad about the pittance I paid them for their "three days" of work ($6).

However, thanks to my resourceful spouse, and absolutely NO thanks to Dell (who refused even to think about ways they might help, despite my very expensive four-year "at-home technical support" service contract with them), I've managed to work around the problem by downloading a program that allowed me to disable both my CTRL keys (which is what I SAID was needed from the very first, but does anyone ever listen to me?), and now my computer works again (albeit with a wonky space bar thanks to the useless ministrations of the computer technician who kept it for three days to no avail).

Public service announcement: NEVER BUY A COMPUTER FROM DELL. It's a total myth about their "excellent technical support," and their computers are notorious for falling apart the day after the warranty expires. I know the prices are low, but you really do get what you pay for. Plus, who needs the guilt of supporting their nasty sweatshops in Taiwan??


We now return to our regularly scheduled content with a series of photos from the CRAZY SNOWFALL we had a couple of days ago in Odessa. (A side note: it's FREEZING here. I'm wearing merino thermals, Polartec pants, a wool sweater, a wool/acrylic blend cardigan, AND a fleece vest, and I'm still only just warm enough....and that's INSIDE the apartment. Hard to believe that just a few days ago I was walking on the beach in at least two fewer layers than I have on now...).

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[23 Feb 2007|06:51pm]
So Mother Nature (to use a hackneyed metaphor) dumped a good two feet of snow on us last night and this morning.  And me with not a thing to wear....on my feet, that is.  I've been thinking longingly of my sheepskin boots, sitting in my closet at home.  (It's been a fairly warm winter in Odessa so far, so when packing I gambled on global warming and, it seems, lost.)  The stoutest shoes I have with me are my hiking sneakers, which to be sure are nice and grippy, but not so much with the waterproof, or, you know, the
keeping dry of trouser cuffs, or the protection from the cold.  In fact i would say it's a toss-up whether my footwear today was more
or less practical for the prevailing conditions than that of the Odessa fashion brigade (i.e., all unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 40) who were, of course, in their usual 4-inch stiletto heels.

Today the whole city is blanketed in snow -- I'll upload pictures as soon as I can (with luck, tomorrow....I know I keep saying that...) -- and the winter wonderland effect is quite spectacular.  I've realized that this is actually the first time I've ever been in Russia in winter (and it's not really Russia, yes, yes, I know -- but Odessa was Catherine's Southern capital, so while it's technically Ukraine, it counts as "traditionally" Russia), so actually for me, once I rose above the unpleasant sensation of refrigerated feet, the snow is exciting.  My first experience of "traditional Russian" weather.  It's beautiful snow, too -- if only I had cross-country skis, I'd be sitting pretty.  (Speaking metaphorically again.)  Parents are dragging their kids around on sleds -- it's very cute.

In other news, the man who's fixing my computer thinks it might be ready tomorrow.  Fingers crossed.

In still other news, I STILL do not have a schedule for my Ukrainian classes.  I went all the way to the University AGAIN today (third time this week, on the same fruitless errand), only to find that no one was there because of the snow!  (Contrary to my above assertion, that fact tells you that Odessa isn't a REAL Russian city.)  Well, not exactly no one -- exactly two people were there.  Luckily for me, the very two I needed to see: Sergey Fyodorovich (uppity Grynevych's boss) and his secretary, who's been drawing up the contract for me.  Well, fine -- but it turns out the ACTR office in Kyiv called them and asked to have the contract sent to them directly so that they could sign it (since they're paying the money).  (Too bad they didn't call ME to tell me this was their plan.)  I think they thought this would speed things up, but in fact, it means I now have to wait for the mail to deliver the signed contract back to Odessa from Kyiv.  But, Sergey F'ovich called the Dean on his cell and the Dean said I could start classes on Monday even without a contract.  Except I don't know who, when, where, or how -- so I'm supposed to call him again on Monday morning to find out.  

Two weeks, it's been.  And I don't really feel significantly closer to my goal of learning Ukrainian.  Oh well.  Good thing that's not my only (or indeed, main) goal.

I'm starting to put roots down here, though.  Yesterday I actually gave directions to someone!  Pravda, not quite accurate ones, but still!  A lady on the corner of Uspenskaia and Richelievskaia asked me how far it was to ul. Zhukovskogo, and I said I thought it was two more blocks to the north.  As it turns out, it's actually three, but I wasn't far off, and more importantly, I knew which direction it was in, so there's that.... And today on the marshrutka into town (#150) a lady asked me if I knew where exactly the marshrutka went, other than vaguely "downtown."  i had to tell her that I didn't -- I myself only got on it because I knew it would take me within 5 (long) blocks or so of my goal, and more importantly it takes a pretty direct route to the center -- more so than the #148, which goes all the way to the University but via a more circuitous route -- and more importantly even than that, it was the first thing to come along, and much better than standing in the snow!

Anyway, it turns out that the closest #150 stop to the University is the corner of Zhukovskogo and Ekaterinskaia -- about 4 blocks south and four (or five?) blocks east of my goal, but still quicker, I'm sure, than taking the #146 all the way  I realize this information doesn't really interest anyone except me.

Thanks to my computer's being on the fritz, I've re-become a regular at Planeta Internet, which has its own charm, being (a) on the direct marshrutka route home, and (b) staffed by a particularly pleasant representative of the "nice young man" species.  Having ascertained after several visits that they never actually have milk here -- only Coffeemate or some such offense against cows and hot beverages everywhere -- yesterday I bought milk on my way here and presented it to the young man in question "v podarok," which made him laugh.  Today when I came in he said "Hello, coffee with milk?" and, not wanting to disappoint him (though I was more in the mood for tea) I said "yes."  The thing is, it's just nice to be a regular somewhere -- especially since Russians (and Ukrainians), especially those in the "service industry" (to the extent that that can be said to exist here), don't tend to smile at strangers.  In fact, to the extent that they talk to you at all, it's usually to tell you what you're doing wrong ("You can't bring that bag in here!"  "Lady, can't you read?  This is the exit, not the entrance!"  "Don't you have exact change?" etc.).  So knowing that when I come here the guy at the counter will smile at me is disproportionately cheering.  Same with Sergey Fyodorovich's secretary -- I really like her, for the sole reason that she smiles at me when she says hello.  (To any former students who may be reading this: See, I'm not so hard to please!)

I have babbled enough here for now: will be back with pictures of sea and snow when I can.
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Instead of an update [21 Feb 2007|07:38pm]
My computer broke (and just when I'd managed to get a home Internet connection installed and was feeling almost vaguely connected to the outside world!) , so I don't know when I'll next get to update properly (am currently back at Planeta Internet, after rushing into town as fast as I could to get to a computer shop before everything closed -- I made it just in time).

With luck, it'll be fixed by tomorrow or the next day (the guy at the service center said "at least one day"), but this is Russia (by which I of course mean Ukraine), so you just never know...
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Belated update [20 Feb 2007|04:05pm]
I have got a bit behind with the picture posting. Also with the news posting. Here's the news in a nutshell:
  • On Sunday I went for a walk around the historic part of town with a local student, Masha, who's training to be a tourguide. Pictures from that walk are below.
  • On Monday, i.e. yesterday, a large and smelly gentleman came and installed the internet (along with about 100 feet of spare cable) at my house. So, despite my fondness for Planeta Internet (pictured below), I will be doing my updating from home from now on.
  • Today I went back to the University to (ostensibly) sign the contract they were supposed to have drawn up, indicating how many hours of Ukrainian instruction I'm to receive over the next 2 2/12 months and according to what schedule, etc. Unfortunately, when I arrived (after a close-packed, sweaty 45 minutes on a marshrutka), the Dean informed me that the particular secretary whose job it was to create the contract has been taken ill with some sort of heart disease (to everyone's surprise as she is only 27) and thus the contract will not be ready until Thursday. Oh well. That left me with the rest of the day free to go shopping (I found BROCCOLI at the supermarket! In my jubilation, I also bought a trashy novel in Russian ("vybor Cosmopolitan") to broaden my knowledge of contemporary colloquial and, uh, trashy vocabulary (which you just can't get from 1920s literature, not even Babel).
Okay, pictures from the walk on Sunday:

This is the famous opera house, currently under restoration.
The sculptures and such with which it's ornamented are a mixture
of appropriate figures from classical mythology (Terpsichore et al.),
and busts of composers. (Mozart is especially popular here, having
given his name to one of the city's swankiest and best-known
hotels, near the opera house.)

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[18 Feb 2007|05:59pm]

Not much news today; I meant to bring in photos from yesterday's walk to upload, but forgot. Here are the headlines:

  • The sun came out today, fortuitously, and I spent the afternoon walking around the famous bits of Odessa with a young  (early 20s) student, Masha, who is (a) an alumna of one of the exchange programs with the US that Lyudmyla facilitates, and (b) training to be an exkursovod (city guide).  I'll upload some photos, and pass on the accompanying stories, tomorrow.
  • Also tomorrow.....drumroll....the Internet people are supposed to come and install the Internets at my house!  Fingers crossed that it all works out.

And, well, that's it really.  Stay tuned for pictures tomorrow.

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Photos of my Odessa apartment [15 Feb 2007|07:50pm]

01. A plan I drew of the apartment. My first time doing such a thing on the computer, and I must say I'm pretty proud of it.

See photos...Collapse )
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Arrival in Odessa! [11 Feb 2007|07:48pm]

The moment the plane touched down in Odessa I was assailed by the familiar mixture of elation and depair that for me that characterizes any trip to the former Soviet Union.  Ah, I thought, back in the land of adventure (...and nonpotable tap water, and funny smells).  A land where the authorities (from immigration officials to public toilet minders), while holding themselves to extraordinarily low standards of efficiency and conscientiousness, demand absolute accountability of the populace; woe betide you if you don't have your baggage claim tags (I did), or your receipt from the store when you want to exit (I didn't).  A man nearby found that his suitcase, a formerly sturdy rolling one, had been conclusively broken in transit.  He complained, and was told with a shrug, "Take it up with Austrian Airlines" (though our flight was operated by Ukraine International).  When the inevitable dragon lady demanded to see his baggage claim tag, he replied irritably, "It's mine, it's mine.  What, you think I purposely went and took someone else's broken-ass bag?"  (I forget the exact Russian but that was definitely the gist.)   But I get ahead of myself.

Almost immediately upon our landing, the unique ethos of the former Soviet Union began to make itself felt:

(1) The mere process of getting from the plane to the arrivals hall was marked by a series of typically Russian bottlenecks.  First they herded us onto a bus (a bus that was considerably smaller than the plane we'd just been filling).  Then they drove us to the terminal, where (and this really IS typical), although the entrance consisted of a double door, only one side of it was open (and was being held open by a guard, thus successfully intimidating any non-official person out of doing the sensible thing and opening the other door).  So we filed in at snail's pace.  Passport control went fairly smoothly, but then there was baggage claim -- to exit which you first had to show your claim tags to a dragon lady (who actually checked each on against the bags it referred to, thus slowing things down considerably), then hoist each piece of luggage onto a (single) conveyor belt, which shunted it through an X-ray.  Finally, once you were through all that and had answered whatever random question the customs guy chose to ask you, you had to walk through another SINGLE door into the arrivals hall -- a door that was choked from the other side by eager throngs of people crowding around to see if their traveller was coming and/or offering their services as unofficial cab drivers.  Madness. 

(2) The next immediate giveaway that we were in the former Soviet Union was the ubiquity of ads, in places where a Western country would never think to put them.  The straps you hang onto on the bus?  An ad in each one, in a special plastic holder.  (And that's just the bus from the plane to the terminal!)  Even more amazing, the immigration form you have to fill out at the airport (and retain throughout your stay) has ads on it, front and back -- the one on the front (at the bottom of the offical form itself) is for an online travel agency, the ones on the back are for a hotel, a transport chin, a casino, and AeroSvit, respectively.

(3) If there IS a piece of paper associated with any transaction, be it ne'er so trivial, they WILL check it officiously.  First was the baggage claim check, which no one in any other country ever checks.  Here, they not only check it minutely against the tags on your bags, they also take it from you as though it were, you know, an actual ticket for something.  (A ticket out of the airport, I guess.)  The security guard at the store exists only to check your recipt before you leave; I forgot this the first time and had to go back for the receipt which I'd left with the cashier.  Today, I bought a whole wagonload of stuff (food, stationery, cleaning supplies....) and had not one but two receipts, of which one was exceedingly long.  The security guard looked at my receipts, looked at my cart full of bags, and said "Everything is there, yes?"  So, and I know this will come as a shock to you, but it's not like he's actually *checking*....

But back to the story of yesterday.  Finally I got to the guy holding the sign with my name, introduced myself, and we took off.  I grabbed the seatbelt (pleasantly surprised that his Volga actually boasted such equipment) to strap myself in, but he looked at me funny and said "We don't do that here."  (It's not like there was actually anything to plug the end of the seatbelt into, so this admonition was not strictly necessary.)  On the road we passed the scene of an accident that might have happened an hour or a week ago; the two cars that had careened into each other had been abandoned, still crunched together, by their human occupants.  My driver waved his hand at it reproachfully.  "They found each other," he said, as if the cars were star-crossed lovers.

He drove me to the apartment I'm renting for $300 -- a bit of a trek (about 3.5 miles, as far as I can tell from the map) from downtown, but there are shuttle vans that go straight from here to there for 1.25 hryvnia (or 25 cents U.S.) each way, and a major bonus of living here (aside from the space and the price) is that there's a huge superstore (a German chain, according to Lyuda, who's in charge of helping me settle in) across the street which sells not only groceries but also housewares, electronics, books, hardware, clothes, etc.  (A K-Mart, basically.)  So once I'd met and paid my landlord, Gennady (a prof at the university), and had a late lunch with Lyuda (where I was introduced to the "local speciality," which appears to be a kind of pork schnitzel covered in melted cheese and pineapple; Lyuda asked what the national dish of NZ was, and I eventually said "lamb," but it shows you the kinds of questions you get asked here.  Everyone expects you to have a national dish, a national tree, a national insect, etc...), I hied myself over there and walked about eight miles in the course of buying a kettle, frying/boiling pan, a cutting-board and knife, slippers, tea, food for dinner and breakfast, etc.  (The mileage is driven up by the peculiar Russian logic of store organization -- for example, pepper is considered a spice and thus found with the other spices, next to the salami, whereas salt apparently counts as a "grain" and is found (in 1-pound bags) next to the rice and pasta, all the way at the other end of the store.  For some reason, the frozen foods section and the hunting/fishing equipment section are right next to each other, while the fruit and veggies are separated from all the other food by the sections selling books, toys, etc.  And so on.)

Anyway, by the time I found everything I needed and checked out (three giant bags of stuff, brilliantly calculated on my part to be within my carrying capacity), it was about 10pm and I came home in the dark (a feat of extraordinary orienteering skill of which I'm very proud) and cooked dinner and started writing this bulletin; photos in my next.

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