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A word I heard for the first time today....

....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

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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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

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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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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(no subject)

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 Every time I hear it I boggle.
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In lieu of a real update....

...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.

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

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.