Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lost In Russia

My Volga Spartan son (see last blog) has arrived safely in Volgograd where he will be taking classes at Volgograd Technical University for the next six weeks. He's settled in with his host family, said that drinking the local water is unhealthy, and that he has yet to sample their vodka. He says something called "bread juice" is the popular local drink, whatever that is (he doesn't know either). Wayfinding in Volgrograd can be tricky, he also learned. Here is his latest e-mail to us:

Noon, Friday.

I just got done with class and decide to take the taxi to my home. (Taxis are really marshutkas, vans that hold like 15 people. See picture). Thursday I rode the tram home with my Russia sister so I hadn't done taxis before. I see the #10 taxi that I'm supposed to take and hop in.

After a little while I'm wondering how close I am to home. Seems like this taxi isn't taking me anywhere near my neighborhood. It keeps heading north rather than east. Then he makes a left turn (eastward) and heads down a few blocks.

I see a store with a picture of the New York skyline on its outside wall that I remembered from the day before so I hopped out. I walked around a block or two but this residential neighborhood suddenly didn't look so familiar now. After a couple more blocks I stopped and asked someone for directions. I understood her hand gestures--south and east.

Walked that way for a long time until I came across an outside market. I saw a cute girl so I decided to ask her for directions. She was really polite but said my address was not close, in fact, very far. Wonderful.

So as I'm looking at the hundreds of taxis fly by I see a #10. I flag it down. As I closed the door behind me, the driver started yelling at me. I had no idea what he was saying and I didn't even bother to reply. I just took it. Then the door open and closed again...by itself. I guess he doesn't like people closing his automatic door.

After riding this taxi out I still get the feeling I'm really far away from home. We start heading out to the sticks. I see a gas station and get out of the taxi. Asked the cute girl behind the counter where were we and where my home was. A good 5 miles away.

So now I had to come up with a final solution, I figure these taxis run a circuit and that I should just ride it out till it returns to town. I head out of the gas station, flag down the next #10 taxi and hop in. We immediately head through a poor Russian village. Five minutes later we hit dirt road, then to a roundabout with three taxis parked and their drivers out smoking.

The driver pulls up then immediately turns back and looks at me. The other two passengers do also. I just show him my address and say I need this but the driver is of no help.
Then the two passengers say that I should take this number #10 about to leave and transfer to the #33. So I hop in and take off in another new #10.

We drive for a long time, somewhat tracing that last few miles I had just ridden. I wasn't completely sure I'd seen these streets. Then the driver starts to talk to us and I understand #33...#33. So I get out with another lady, but as I'm standing on the street the driver is still trying to talk to me. All the passengers are staring at me as the driver keeps going on and
on, like he has something really important to tell me. I wave my arms (universal signal for getouttahere) and turn around. Frustrated I walk into a nice convenience store to gather my thoughts and formulate a new plan.

I walk outside and ask the people what street I was on. I find out what corner I'm at and go back inside the convenience store. I see a cute girl behind a desk and tell her I'm an American student lost and need to call my professor. I thought Russian stores wouldn't have phones but it was worth a try. She ended up giving me her cell phone instead.

So I call Professor Merrill and tell him I'm lost. He asks me where and I give him the streets.
He tells me to call back in a few so that he can find someone who knows the area better--he'd never heard of the two streets. I call him a second and third time and the girl he finds says that if I take the trolleybus right out front it will take me downtown. I hang up, hand the phone to the girl and tell her I love her. She and her friends got a big kick outta that.

As I'm waiting for the bus I ask an old lady "Excuse me please, but I have a question" she replies, "What do you need!". I ask her how much it is for the bus but she refuses so I just reply, "Thanks."

Six rubles. And I take the trolley down to Main Street where it takes me right to the hotel where all the Engineering students live. I hop off, and wait for a taxi. I see the #10 and wonder if I take this I will be restarting the entire process. I say, whatever, take the #10 taxi. Finally, it starts
retracing the roads I took in the morning on Thursday. Takes me right out front of the apartment complex of my Russian hosts.

7pm. Seven hours after I started home, I walk in the door. My Russian mom asks me "Scott, where you been". The only phrase I knew to describe it was "walking around town."

She said, "Oh, nice. Come, eat."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Volga Spartan

Our youngest son is doing extra duty in the classrooms of Russia this spring, participating in one of Michigan State University’s study abroad programs. We felt that since his degree program involves international relations, it might be worth a couple added years paying back student loans to expose him to at least one other culture than that of East Lansing frat rat.

This does worry my wife Wendy and I some. Scott seems to have some talent for finding trouble. Russia is not a place to be doing that. It didn’t help when Scott tried to convince us that it was well nigh impossible for a student to get into trouble in a foreign country. Think he was confused about diplomatic immunity. He also insisted it was Russian tradition for students to down a shot of vodka before heading out to class.

And it certainly didn’t assuage our fears when we learned Scott listed his slightly older brother as his official emergency contact. This is the same brother who lost his only cell phone in a bar a couple months ago. A good Samaritan returned it about a week later.

What happens if Scott downs too many vodka shots and engages in a favorite Michigan State pyrotechnic activity, couch-burning, at Lenin’s Tomb? If the U.S. Consulate contacts Scott’s brother Greg to report that Scott was resting rather uncomfortably in some Soviet gulag, Greg most likely would respond with “awesome” or perhaps “hilarious.” Those being a couple of his favorite words of late.

Well, we did our best to send him off on the right note. Scott will be staying with a host family in Russia. Tradition dictates that he bring the family a gift made in America. My parents suggested that we send a jar of Nutella as a token gift (the label on the jar says it’s made in Canada-close enough). Nutella, a creamy mixture of nuts and chocolate, is big in Europe and in Russia also, we presume.

Scott balked at the idea, thinking it might be demeaning to be bringing his host family food, as if to say they don’t have enough to eat in Russia. Besides, his Russian was not fluent enough to translate a gift of Nutella. It might come out for example, “My grandparents said, ‘Eat this!’” That does lose something in translation, making Scott sound like the witch in Snow White.

I suggested that he present the Nutella as “a gift from your grandparents.” That seemed to work better. Just to be on the safe side, Scott also took some Detroit Tiger glassware.

So Scott has been in Russia for a week now, finding his command of the language to be good enough for a first-time visitor. He did complain that at least one Russian had shown a bad attitude in dealing with him. Scott has trouble handling those types of people and can be emotionally candid expressing his feelings in such situations.. I just hope he can be patient and keep his wits about him for another six weeks.

Condoleeza Rice just returned from Moscow, attempting to mend some fences as East-West relations have grown tense lately. I sure don’t need our family contributing to a new Cold War

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Brought To You By

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ben Franklin.

Wrong! At least in this world we live in today. Nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes, AND advertising.

Sure, I enjoy the occasional clever commercial. My favorite is that caveman spot on TV where the caveman says, “Seriously, four feet by five feet. Well, obviously not because I’m looking right at it.” Maybe I like it because somebody else is actually cheesed off about advertising.

I don’t watch as much TV as I used to because I can’t get into a program where I’m watching ten minutes of program followed by five minutes of commercials. How much learning do you think your student could do if his teacher lectured a maximum of ten minutes straight, followed by a five-minute break? How about reading a novel ten minutes at a time?

On an hour-long American Idol this week I counted twenty minutes of commercials using a stop watch. Not only that, but a Coca Cola video display is occasionally used as a backdrop during the program itself. Not enough? Ok, all the Idol judges have separate large plastic Coke glasses prominently displayed at their table. Not enough yet? OK, there is a Coca Cola logo at the left bottom corner of the TV screen just in case.

It’s a new trend in advertising. Be as annoying as possible. How else could you explain pop-up ads and spam? What about that commercial for hed-on (I’m deliberately misspelling it here for personal reasons). Hed on, Hed on, Hed on. Their ads are evilly designed to GIVE you a headache so they can sell you the product, right?

Then they have the nerve to air a commercial where the actor says something like, “I hate your commercials, but your product is terrific.”

NO! I hate your commercials and I NEVER will buy your product even if I have a headache with pain at ten on a scale of one to ten and your product is the only one in the store. THERE!

I’ve noticed another annoying tactic even surfing the net. They’re called “roll-overs.” All of a sudden I have a car driving across my computer screen. What the . . . ? Apparently my mouse came too close to a display ad which then blows up to five times normal size or initiates some animation program that forces you to watch.

Even some of my blogging buddies have ads on their blogs. I won’t name names, though. But you will notice that Big Dave is brought to you by none other than Big Dave. Hmmmm, wonder if I should register that as a trademark.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all this ranting has worked up a thirst. I’m going to grab a Coke.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Travelogue A La Hemingway

Breaking from tradition, our two-family camping trip this summer is headed for Muskallonge State Park in the Upper Peninsula. For the past dozen or so years my family has joined my sister-in-law's family in camping at Silver Lake State Park near the sand dunes off Lake Michigan. So something new this year.

Though we booked our reservations for the middle of July, I already have begun researching recreational opportunities. Nearby is the Two-Hearted River which was featured in a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Then there is the North Country Trail, longest hiking tail in the U.S., which runs from North Dakota to New York. It actually traverses the state park where we'll be pitching our tents.

So I'm already pondering some father-son bonding opportunities in the wilderness. I love this stuff. I'm eligible for retirement this month and my fantasy is to begin a second career as a travel writer, my dream job. Of course, my travel resume is a bit sparse since I'm afraid to fly. I'm not sure an essay on "My hiking trip over the dunes of western Michigan" would get me a by-line in National Geographic.

What I'd like to write is a sequel to Patricia Schultz's best-seller "1000 Places To See Before You Die." Maybe "1000 Places You Can See Without Having To Fly Anywhere."

I'd have to pick some intriguing, exotic locales. So far, I haven't been too good at that. When we went to Chicago a couple weeks ago, our family actually visited two tourist venues, Navy Pier and the Sears Tower, that are listed by MSN's travel website among 15 places that tourists should avoid. Of the 15 such travel destinations at that website, we've been to five--the others being Boston's Faneuil Hall, Times Square and the Animal Kingdom at Disneyworld.

Maybe if I can write like Hemingway I'll find a travel editor who'll take notice anyway. By the way, Hemingway ironically never saw the Two-Hearted River. He actually canoed the nearby Fox River but chose to change the name of the river in his story to the "Big Two-Hearted River." He picked that name after seeing it on a map of the Upper Peninsula, figuring it would appeal more to his publisher and readers.

Hea! Mmmmmmmmmm, that gives me an idea.

Blog topic for next week: "My hiking trip over the dunes of western Siberia."

Now we're cooking. Look for my by-line soon in National Geographic.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dogging the Dog

My son's girlfriend showed me a picture she took with her cellphone of a shirt similar to the one pictured here. I believe she was a bit miffed that I mentioned her extended shopping expedition in my Navy Pier blog a couple weeks ago.

In fact, she commented, her mother told her that if they had visited Chicago as mother-daughter, the shopping may have gone on for days, not just hours. Oh, well. Guess it must be a girl thing.

That's not what I wanted to blog about today. Kind of in a dilemma here wondering what to do about our little mutt Doogie. We had been worried about his upsurge in water intake which began some months ago, very abnormal for him.

So we took him to the vet who discovered infection and prescribed anti-biotics. A couple hundred dollars later, he's free of infection, but still an overly thirsty mutt. The vet wants more tests done including x-rays, also permission to do laser surgery if necessary--starting cost for all of this about $250.

That's where we're at. When I mentioned the costs to a co-worker, he noted, "A box of shells is only $20." Of course, I know many folk including some blogging buddies of mine who would not hesitate to spend whatever it took to help their pet, even if it only postponed the inevitable.

I guess I'm somewhere in between. Other than his drinking problem, Doogie is happy and healthy otherwise. And at 14, he's already outlived any pet I've ever had, or known personally. And anyway I've never seen life as a contest to see who could live the longest; that goes for people as well as dogs.

So I guess we'll adopt a wait-and-see for now. As long as he continues to be a merry mutt, we'll keep his water dish filled and take turns getting up in the middle of the night to let him out. Argghhh! No, we love our dog.

Sometimes in those middle-of-the-night trips to the backyard, Doogie spots a critter, perhaps a raccoon or even worse, a cat. Egads! An intruder in our midsts? The alarm must be sounded. The neighborhood must be awakened and alerted. Bark, bark, bark, bark! Arggghhh! No, we love our dog.

And we'll keep putting up with the occasional accidents, upchucks in living colors, that goes along with the begging and the constant scratching to go out or come in, perfectly timed to coincide with the moment that we're fully reclined in our Lazy Boy recliners. Arrghhhh! No, we love our dog.

Then there's his paranoia of thunderstorms, like the roof-rattler that hit last night, sending Doogie in a panic throughout the house, bumping into furniture and knocking things onto the floor. Or quivering on our bed, shaking it so much that it seemed like one of those cheap hotel beds where you a put a quarter in so it vibrates (uh, so I've been told about).

Arrgghhhh! No, we love our dog. [Sigh]