Saturday, March 13, 2010

3/12 St Petersburg: Party Time, Zamechatalno

Friday morning was mostly relaxing as we cleaned up the house and ran errands to prepare for the party for our friends at Olga's parents' home. Party planning is serious as you have to either cook up and bunch of cutlets and salads - or lug 4 huge pierogi back from the downtown Stolle bakery by way of the metro. In a rare act of kindness - so rare I thought it had gone extinct as the metro station doors have signs in Russian and English commanding people to "Hold the door" - a random passenger not only did this but essentially stopped a swarm of rush hour foot traffic for us by yelling "tortiki!" (precious cakes) and holding people back as we entered the station.

For me, one of the highlights of the party was learning some Russian expressions, which I have translated here into English to bring you the final contest prize-abbondanza of the trip. Be the first to match up all of the numbered English expression with the equivalent lettered Russian expression translated into English. In case of no winner, closest match-up in 1 week wins!

(1) Carrot and stick
(2) Out of the blue
(3) No more horse s--t
(4) Straw that broke the camel's back
(5) Waste not, Want not
(6) Not to be trifled with
(7) Measure thrice, cut once
(8) If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding
(9) Slippery slope

(A) Last drop that overfills the chalise
(B) 7 mistakes, 1 punishment
(C) Whip and cookies
(D) Like snow on the head
(E) Beer without vodka is like money thrown to the wind
(F) 7 times measure, 1 cut
(G) With me jokes are bad
(H) Don't hang noodles on my ears
(I) If you like to ride, then you have to love to pull the sleigh

Friday, March 12, 2010

3/11 St Petersburg: Comradettes

Cousin Paul, Aunt Anya, Olga, and I had a "business lunch" today at the Viking-themed restaurant Valhall. The "Lemonades" section (both in the Russian and English menus) listed all of the soft drinks. There are no lemonades anywhere to be found. In some parts of The States, "Coke" is used to refer to all sodas: Root Beer coke, Sprite coke, Pepsi coke. It would seem the same is true here - but with lemonade. Olga says it's a Soviet holdover that is not very commonly used.

Russian people - particularly of our parents and grandparents generations - do not drink anything during meals, and like to order tea or coffee after the meal. Usually by this point I am extremely parched. You can find the Americans in the restaurant by looking for people drinking Coke (or in this case Lemonades) during the meal.

On the way to Aunt Maya's flat, we shared a crowded bus ride with, among many other people, two girls who were studying English. Olga heard one whisper to the other "too bad we didn't have English class today" as we shared glances and they struggled to write "Hi" on the steamed up window. One eventually drew "i'm alina" and we had a mini conversation mostly consisting of them saying hi, me returning the greeting, and them giggling.

The visit to Aunt Maya's went as expected. We started with a second lunch and a nice nap for me. Once recharged, I "fixed" her CD player (it was unplugged) and her DVD player (switched TV to AV2). Then after a reward of many desserts, I relaxed with a book - all the while she and Olga were deep in discussions about philosophy and books and friends. For me, a visit to Maya's is all about eating, fixing something, and napping - very similar to a visit to my own Bubby's. For Olga though, it is a place of deep conversation. These are two of the many sides of Maya, a complex yet simple woman.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

3/10 St Petersburg: Adventures in downtown

Cousin Paul and I met for dinner at the restaurant Teplo. I love this place. They serve Russian "home cooking" in a relaxed homey atmosphere. High marks for food, service, ambiance, an artfully drawn scene in chocolate syrup, and a waitress who is studying Chinese.

I complimented Paul on his shirt, he told me with some disappointment that he and Annita got it in Italy. Paul says that in Russia, you can't find a good shirt in a normal size. For some reason they believe people who can afford a beautiful shirt should be fat.

When Olga, Maria, and Leonid finished meeting with a book editor/publisher, then came over to meet us. They are considering a project to scan, touch-up, organize, and share all of their historical photos. I asked enough questions to make them possibly reconsider if it's worth it at all :)

One thing I love about St Petersburg - and modern city living in general - is how people can impulsively come together. After overseeing a lecture at their Monochrome Loft, Konstantin and his coworkers Natasha and Dima joined us at the restaurant before we all separated again.

On the way home, Leonid got a panicked phone call that Konstantin had been taken away by the police. It was really amazing watching Leonid spring into action. He drove with purpose back towards the area where we had parted. In the end it was a misunderstanding - the police were just looking for a donation to their retirement fund and Konstantin's offense was in not offering it - but it was really impressive watching Leonid come to the rescue.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

3/9 St Petersburg: Pushkin history lesson

In the afternoon we visited our friend Olga and her baby Lena. In the evening we had dinner at the flat of cousins Lena, Roma, Mark, and baby Misha. But in between something unexpected happened.
Most days we visit friends in the afternoon and family in the evening (or vice versa) on the opposite sides of the city. Not having a car, this necessitates a lot of backtracking by Metro subway. Today we (Olga) planned the day efficiently so we could take a nice walk between the two visits.

The famous Russian poet Pushkin died in a duel at a small park about halfway through our journey. While looking at a memorial column in the park, we were approached by a suspicious-looking 30-something woman who had been sitting at a bench with a man.

Her - in English - to me> Are you from Russia?
Me> No
Her> Do you know who this is?
Me> Yes
Her> It's a memorial to the famous Russian poet Pushkin who died here in a duel
Me> Yeah.
Her> Do you want to learn more?
Me> No but can you take our photo?
(takes photo)
Me> Ok thanks
Her> Maybe you already know everything (walks away, slightly offended)

She tried hard to frame the photo, but somehow managed to cut off Pushkin's forehead and show a lot of the ground. I hope her history lessons are better than her photography. I wonder what that was all about.

3/8 St Petersburg: International Women's Day

Monday was International Women's Day in Eastern Europe and China. We caught up with some of the women from Sunday's party:

  • Olga's mom Maria was receiving calls all day long from people who enjoyed the party.
  • Olga's cousin Masha was relaxing and then travelling back to Moscow.
  • Katya is studying the technology of book editing in University.
  • Natasha has been studying English and working on conversational dialogs - and experimenting with a spy kit.
  • Ira and Maxim have mostly finished construction of their dacha halfway to Finland - and they made us sushi!
  • Ira's parents Anna cooked and Vladimir ate pieroshki (the cabbage was my favorite - along with the apple pie) - their use of Western languages is impressive - I kept doing a double-take when they would say such things as "stand up" and "more tea" peppered within conversation.
  • Cousin Paul's girlfriend Annita was studying for exams.
  • Although not a woman, Paul entertained us with tales of his bi-weekly travels to Stockholm and cooked up a tasty batch of Gl├╝hwein

Monday, March 8, 2010

3/7 St Petersburg: Leonid's 60th birthday jubilee

Woke up 1 pm, trying to recover from a late night out. This was one of the smartest things I've done all trip. I think I enjoy seeing the insides of my eyelids more than almost anything else in the world.

Sunday was Leonid's 60th birthday jubilee. There was too much happening there to possibly describe it in a blog post, so I will mention some of the quirky occurrences.

Dressed up on my new tailored Chinese suit. Olga kept pestering me to put on a gag tie, but I so wanted to try my new purple tie-cufflink-handkerchief set. I looked smashing :)

There were well over 100 guests in attendance. Many I had never met before, but had heard of through one story or another. Some I had met once or twice in my visits to Russia over the past decade. All of which were reluctant to introduce themselves for some reason. The cocktail hour went something like this:

Olga> This is my husband Dave
Guest> Yes I know Dave, we've met before!
Me> (awkward pause)

Still it's fun trying to find something in common to talk about, yet not tip our hand that we didn't know who they were, and frequently when we didn't speak the same languages. For those who are intent on finding a common language, there are several tricks. You can use gestures: somebody was trying to explain to me that his grandfather died of alcoholism. In Russia, there is a gesture where you flick your jaw to signify drinking. There are famous names, for example Picasso means they are a painter, Dzhorzh Kluney means they are an actor, etc. There are words in common: sport, cine, musica, vino, vodka, toilet, aftobus, computer, park. All of these strategies come into play when mingling at a jubilee in St Petersburg.

The central motif of the evening was the thread of musical performances from Leonid, cousin Masha, brother Konstantin, many of the guests, leading up to a reunion of Leonid's youth band The Green Ants.

Leonid has friends from every possible occupation and interest: composers and military contacts and businessmen and doctors and artists and teachers airplane engineers and opera singers and translators and editors and theatre directors and librarians and mathematicians and architects. Leonid seems to value his life based on the diversity of his friends -- and how he has connected them to help each other. Based on what I have seen at this party, Leonid's life is very rich.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

3/6 St Petersburg: old friends, new experiences

Tonight we were waiting at a lounge for some friends to show up, it was getting late and we were super tired. Olga passed out and I decided one of us should look like we belonged there, so I saddled up to the bar and ordered a beer. Whenever anybody asks if I know any Russian, my standard answer is that I know how to order a beer and ask where the bathroom is. Well tonight I ordered a beer, the bartender rattled off a list of varieties, I selected the one that sounded like a dark beer, and she actually poured me a dark beer. I am very proud of myself.

Our last get-together of the evening went later than imagined, ending around 2:30 in the morning. The Metro subway had long since stopped running, taxicab companies we called refused to come to our part of town (Ligovsky in central downtown), there were no cabs to be found on the streets, and everyone we knew was in bed. Our group had to stand on the street not even a minute before the cars started pulling up. I guess it's somewhere between a gypsy cab and hitchhiking. The driver was nice, he is Greek-Armenian and supplements his income by driving people home after a night on the town. I was dozing in the backseat while he had a lovely conversion with Olga. It seems the official taxicab trade hasn't progressed much since the Soviet days, but where there is opportunity, there is entrepreneurial spirit.

Olga wrote about some of the old friends we met today

Saturday, March 6, 2010

3/5: St Petersburg: every visit is reminiscent but unique

Our trips to St Petersburg usually start similarly. We visit with Aunt Maya - often at her flat which generally includes a cat nap for me - but this time at a downtown cafe for everyone's convenience. Maya is completely befuddled by her CD and DVD players - probably unable to play any since the last time we showed her how - so a visit (and nap) to her place is still in our near future.

Photo of Maya with Olga wearing my hat -->>

We need to register me at the post office. This is a 2-hour process that involves filling out forms in duplicate with no errors or crossouts, making the same amount of packing slips, photocopying the forms and passports, and mailing it all to a local office that most likely won't process any of it until after I have already left, if even then.

No trip to St Petersburg would be complete without snacking on pieroshki at a local bakery cafe. We snuck a few in the afternoon at the risk of ruining our appetites later. This is our little secret excursion as, in typical Russian style, our afternoon meeting failed to materialize.

The trip to the market to pick up water and cookies is essential to prevent a grumpy Davey. It is possible to filter, boil, and chill tap water - but who has that kind of patience?

We have dinner with friends Kostya and Polina at a curiously aviation and orchestra themed restaurant called Rubinstain. Despite the name, they don't serve Jewish food - not even Reubens. The menu is in Russian and French (the language of the orchestra?), so it's fun trying to guess what things like "legumes passee" and "potage d'oignon" are.

We end up at Olga's brother Kostya's new photo studio/gallery Monochrome Loft, a sprawling complex in black and white of intricate shutterbug equipment suspended from the ceiling for taking photos in every conceivable angle and method.

I fall asleep in the car on the way back to Olga's parents place, a peaceful end to a great first day.

Please enjoy Olga's take on our first day reunited in SPb

Thursday, March 4, 2010

3/4: From Shanghai to St Petersburg

I'm not a gadget guy. People assume I know all about the latest CPU options and phones and HDTVs, but I don't care for anything that will be obsolete within 6 months. I guess if anything, I'm a gadget nerd. I want hackable customizable underpowered gadgets that I can break and fix. I will never want an Apple product because they "just work" and they weld the hood shut. Anyway the point of this is that airlines outside the U.S. have way cooler gadgets. My flights to (Air Canada) and from (Finn Air) China have power outlets in all economy seats, on-demand movies, and FREE alcohol. The Finnair flight had cameras on the front of bottom of the planes and you could see the view from the flight deck and underbelly. On-demand movies are becoming more prevalent in the US - but good luck getting the rest of those features on a US airline. From now on, I'm flying international airlines if I have the option.
And what's up with all the airport wifi. San Francisco doesn't have it. Most cities in the US don't have it. Most hub airports around the world seemed to have figured it out. Let's step things up here people! In the meantime, it's a joy to have a layover in the Helsinki's and Vienna's of the world.

Btw when Rossiya St Petersburg Russian Airline says they are serving a meal, don't get your hopes up for anything more than a non-alcoholic beverage and little piece of milk chocolate. But I half expected that, which is why I subjected myself to a 5 hour layover in Helsinki rather than take a Chinese or Russian airline for the whole 10 hour trip.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3/3: last full day in Shanghai

Today a lifelong Shanghainese coworker looked at the photo of the disputed appetizer and proclaimed through a translator that they are "century eggs" - you put duck eggs (the cloudy dark green object) or duck egg yolk (the veiny off-white creature) in clay for a "very long time", it ferments, and there you have it. I think I should win the prize as I was the closest! Wikipedia probably says it best:

"Through the process, the yolk becomes a dark green, cream-like substance with a strong odor of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, transparent jelly with little flavor"

ummm yeah i don't see why anybody would want to eat that!?

Yesterday at lunch we were each given two sets of chopsticks. I asked what this is - salad chopsticks and entree chopsticks?? My friends said they are public and private chopsticks. Everyone generally orders and eats Chinese style (what we call family style) and the society has become increasingly concerned with illness/hygiene.

The last couple of days, I have become entrenced in the office culture. I've been getting offers left and right to go out for lunch and dinner, I've had to turn down several people. It was difficult to leave the office this evening, I've grown fond of this town and its people. It's been two years since my last visit, I must make sure to return must quicker next time, I owe that to myself.

The journey is just beginning - continue westward to St Petersburg!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

3/2: Tuesday in Shanghai, but US is yawning and stretching back to life

Today the ambient hotel music changed to Beatles muzak. Mostly Paul's stuff. I guess John was right.

Work was super busy today, and not the busy like I had a million projects, but the kind of busy where every single person from our Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore offices (yes, every single one) converged in Shanghai today, and quite a few of them wanted troubleshooting, upgrades, downgrades, and generally to just plop their laptop on my desk and pick it up later in better-than-new condition.

Went to lunch with two real native Shanghai coworkers (most of my Shanghai coworkers are from other places, generally Singapore). We talked all about the things I had (mis)learned, the intricacies of Chinese zodiac and numerology, the Queen pigeon with bacteria, and were those octopus eggs in ink or olives in vinegar? Turns out they were probably plums in soy sauce!! So nobody wins that prize -- especially me, who wants to try the plums now!

Which brings us to the second contest question: how old am I in the ancient Chinese system? In case there is more than one correct answer, I will accept the one that was told to me today. First correct answer in the blogspot comments wins a prize!

Today I pulled off a coup. It's the first time I have had dinner in Shanghai with one of my coworkers and not with some random person I met on the plane. The coworker in question lives in Beijing and flies down to Shanghai frequently. When pressed, he couldn't think of anything urgent he had to do like darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there, a table for one at the Thai Coconut Paradise could easily be a table for two at the Thai Coconut Paradise, and away we went! Had a fun time swapping stories about office politics, travel, whether Bama and King of Dumplings are actually bad words (he says no) and the like.

The tailor just dropped off my hand-made suit, as the China portion of the trip is winding down. It looks great (the custom shirt looks pretty good too). The bellhop came up to my room too, I guess to act as an interpreter and keep an eye on things while I was changing and probably out of curiosity. One of them was critiquing my choice of ties - but clearly they were both impressed with the craftsmanship of the suit - especially the tailor himself :)

Monday, March 1, 2010

3/1: 2nd work week in Shanghai

Now that I have been here a week, I am starting to pick up bad words. Upon learning that our two bowls full of the lunar new year dumplings cost a grand total of 12 RMB, I said I could live like a king - king of dumplings. My friend stopped me short, explaining that King of Dumplings is an insult, like dummy.

He taught me another bad word: Bama is like the s--- word in Northern China. It can be used as an expletive such as "Oh bama!"

Lunch date today cancelled on me at the last minute, and everybody else had already left or already eaten and returned. Decided to step out and get something fast. Asked for advice, someone said he got a quick burger, and gave me directions. Sounded good enough to me! Yes, friends, today I joined the legion of American idiots who eat at McDonald's in an exotic foreign country. The only redeeming factor is that I was the ONLY non-Asian in the place, which in a way makes it a truly local experience!

I love the metro subway system here. All of the signs are in English, and I do mean ALL. They seem to dedicate significantly more space to English language than to Chinese. All of the stations/lines are laid out so you don't need to know exactly which direction you're going (towards airport or towards railway station? How would I know, I'm going to the mall. It doesn't matter!) You can just follow the signs to the line, go down to the train level, then look at the excellent signs to see if you need the left track or the right track. It eliminates the looking at a big confusing map and trying to ask people before you go down below the surface. A friend in Shanghai told me they have purposely delayed opening newly-competed exits, stations, and even entire lines so everything would be brand new for the Expo. Intense!

Today I rode to my tailor for a fitting during rush hour and I think I got there faster than when I went on Saturday. That's a public transit oddity, rush hour can get you places faster.

The fitting was amusing. Either I'm a pushover or I have no fashion sense or she and her husband are really good tailors, or all of the above - but I could hardly find anything for them to alter, it just seemed to fit me like a not-too-tight-not-too-loose glove. I wonder if there are websites where you can do exactly what I did - pick out the fabrics, style/options, enter your dimensions - and a suit arrives to your door from China in two weeks for about $100. Look out Armani!

Passed through the knockoff stores one last time on the way to the metro. One shop was selling name-brand underwear, as long as the brand is Calver Klain. Somehow they managed to get the font right!

Ok I guess the metro isn't perfect. The rest of the trip I need to get to work early to setup videoconferences, so I was trying to plan out a slightly early night. I totally wasn't paying attention and I got off one station early. Then I wandered around outside a few minutes til I realized what happened. The station I exited at (People's Square) has a gelato shop I've been wanting to try - you walk right towards it as you're transferring from Line 1 to Line 2 -- but the shop entrance door is just slightly on the outside of the paid area - and I never felt like leaving and buying another ticket to try it. So here I am standing outside, struggling to turn lemons into lemonade (I know in the grand scheme of things it's a small lemon, maybe just a Lemonhead). Anyway the gelato was decent :)

Then I got back on the metro and got off at the next stop. Exited, wondered around a bit, and guess what - this time I had misread the map - I was STILL one stop early. Enough is enough, I can walk the extra 4 blocks. I passed the inspiration for my company's logo: a huge Chinese coin.

Finally got to the Thai restaurant a coworker recommended and it was all booked up. Even for a party of one. Really. Just one little person. I won't eat much. Just need a little corner to lean against. Guess who has a reservation to the most exclusive Thai restaurant in town tomorrow!

Passed a bunch of places I decided against for various reasons: hot pot (seemed too complicated and limiting for one person "I'll have one steak pot, that's it"), pizzeria and hamburger shop (too American after McDonald's), some mini marts (fruit and packaged ramen and call it a night), some greasy Chinese restaurants that looked deserted, then I spotted Tsui Wah Restaurant and followed a Chinese couple in. This place is cool. I'm not sure how to describe it, it looks like an L.A. or Vegas glitzy diner, 90% of customers are Chinese, extensive Chinese menu broken down by region, good cold milk tea. They list the top 10 items right at the front of the menu, I love that. I'd come back here again - maybe next time I'm in town and in the mood for a Hong Kong chain restaurant.