Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Polyphasic Sleeping

I've decided to try polyphasic sleeping. The difference between polyphasic and monophasic sleeping, which is what most people do, is that polyphasic sleeping consists of multiple sleeping periods, where monophasic consists of only one.

So for example if you are a monophasic sleeper you probably sleep 8 hours in a night, give or take a bit.

Polyphasic sleeping, on the other hand, happens 4 times throughout the day, 30 minutes per cycle. Usually the sleeping periods (or naps) are spread evenly apart throughout the day. So for example, my current schedule is to sleep for 30 minutes at 10am, 4pm, 10pm, and 4am.

The idea is that your body adjusts from having 90 minute sleep cycles, of which you typically spend 20-30 in REM, to having 30 minute sleep cycles, of which you typically spend 30 in REM.

Though you end up only sleeping a total of 2 hours, those full two hours are in REM sleep, which is the equivalent of getting 6 hours of unbroken sleep in a night.

I see two major benefits: 1) getting unbroken sleep with a 2 year old is nearly impossible, so 30 minute cycles make it much more likely to get the right amount of sleep, and 2) I get an additional 4 hours of time to do things like write a blog post, go to the gym, etc.

I'm trying this method of sleeping for 1 month, then I'll determine whether I'd like to continue or go back to monophasic sleeping.

I must say, convincing myself to get out of bed after 30 minutes at night is the toughest part. Other than that, as of today (end of day 2, start of day 3) I feel pretty good in terms of energy level and wakefulness.

I can also already tell that my body is starting to adjust as I am experience REM sleep which feels longer, so I think I'm somewhere around 15-20 minutes of REM compared with 10 minutes or so when I started.

Is it difficult? So far.
Unpleasant? Only at night.
Potentially awesome? I still think so. We'll see how I feel in a few days :-)

Biggest drawback is seeing LuAnne sleeping peacefully in our bed and having to leave. But with starting a business and soon expecting a newborn, I think this style of sleeping has the potential to have a huge and beneficial impact on my quality of life.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Memory Condition

It's an interesting human ability to be able to live in the present and dream of the past. I think that word dream actually describes it quite well, the more i think about it. It seems like the more time that passes, the more dream-like a memory becomes. Not that it loses it's vividness or potency, but it starts to seem like something that happened to someone else, or something you saw in a movie.

I was talking to someone from my past yesterday - the girl I'd moved to Illinois for, in fact. I didn't really start full-on reminiscing until today when i was getting tired and had a lot of quiet time where introspection couldn't help but creep in.

I started thinking about how much I wanted to re-experience my life. How I wanted to just do it all over again. Not to change anything, mind you, but just to re-experience it. I have a very firm belief that I am in the best place that i could be. Seems a bit egotistical, but i honestly think that i have lived my life the way i've felt is most correct, and i've come to where i am because of it. I cannot imagine any way that i could be happier or more fulfilled in my life.

But wouldn't it be incredible to be able to re-experience it all?

Maybe that's why one of my first beliefs about deja-vu was that it was just you remembering seeing that same thing in a past life, because you keep living your life over when you die.

I used to think that there was a kind of catch, yknow? Live your life over and over till you get it right. But really, what then? Disappear into the ether? Move on to some other plane of existence? Join some cosmic force?

Maybe all our lives we are only experiencing the moment before our death when our entire history flashes before our eyes. Maybe all we see or seem is just a dream within a dream, right?

I was also thinking about how different things feel in my memories than they do in my day to day life. I was thinking specifically back to my time in New York, and my time in Paris. How looking back on it, I feel so much energy and potential in the life I once had. I started trying to extrapolate that feeling into my other memories and determine when exactly i had lost it.

I look back on those times and it's almost as if the world was brighter and i was capable of anything ... so when did the world become rigid and impossible? When did i lose that infinite energy of endless possibilities?

I started placing memory after memory in the best chronological order that i could.

APO Nationals at the Mall of America? Infinite energy and possibilities.
Walking the streets of New York? Ditto.
Rollerblading in Paris? Yep.
Taking part in the Habitat for Humanity "Shack-a-Thon"? Si.
The night before i left Illinois? Still there.
Running laps around that park in Guadalajara? Yes.
Meeting LuAnne at the party. Most assuredly.
Playing XBOX in our apartment? Uh huh.
Moving into our house? Yeah.
Hiking up the Mongollon Rim? You bet.
Surfing in Maui? No doubt.
Going to the Brazilian meetup today? I can't believe it, but yes!

It's amazing, but that feeling that i've always attributed to being solely a part of my memories because it was an intangible (but memorable) piece of my youth is in reality something that i just take for granted on a day by day basis.

The world is so incredibly full of infinite potential, yet while i can feel it in my memories of just a few moments ago, i can't feel it in my perception of current time and space.

To me this boils down to two possibilities:
a) i'm adding this perceived energy to my memories. Altering them slightly to fit both my desired recollection and my current outlook.
b) my perception is accurate in my memories but is impossible to hold on to in the present.

I guess it's kinda like surfing (now that i'm an expert har har) in that when you're riding the wave you're thinking about where you're going, how you're positioned, and the feel of the board under you and the wind in front of you. It's not until you look back or see a picture of yourself later that you comprehend or can appreciate the force that was pushing you forward.

If there's one lesson i can take from all this, it's that my memories are just that. I wasn't better or more capable. There wasn't anything more available to me in my life then than there is now.

Now i just need to learn to appreciate the infinite potential of my present like i do the infinite potential of my past.


Monday, August 17, 2009

The Pretender

There's something that always pulls me in about "The Pretender" by the Foo Fighters.

"What if I say I'm not like the others, what if I say I'm not just another one of your flames - you're the pretender. What if I say that I'll never surrender?"

I suspect that my real attachment to the song lies in the reality that we're all pretenders, some more than others. "Keep you in the dark, you know they all pretend."

Maybe it's the protagonist's reveal: "I'm the voice inside your head you refuse to hear. I'm the face that you have to face mirrored in your stare. I'm what's left, I'm what's right - I'm the enemy. I'm the hand that'd take you down, bring you to your knees. So who are you?"

Who indeed.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

here to change the world

I'm writing this on the night that Michael Jackson died. It's weird even to write a sentence like that, but there it is.

I won't dwell on his death, or even his life, but i thought it important to open with that.

On the way home i heard a song i'd long since banished from my library, Man in the Mirror. It was being played as a kind of homage. As i listened to the song, i momentarily stopped hearing it through the gauze of my adulthood, and suddenly found myself experiencing it with the same intense wonder it had inspired in my youth.

It was a plea for kindness and consideration by a man whose voice seemed to resonate with such earnestness and conviction that i couldn't help feeling compelled to his cause.

This was the moment of my definition. The culmination of all my thoughts about the world and what it meant to be a person. The joining together of disparate inspirations destined for the self-same goal of human salvation through belief in a cause greater than one's own gain.

Every song about those with less, every speech about equality and love, and every moment of comprehension immediately following every painful and hope-shattering event ... they all crystallized into a diamond of guilt and shame for all the things that every person had ever denied another out of greed or pride.

That diamond has rested under my skin - buried inside my soul. It irritates and frustrates me when i ignore it, and makes me feel complete when i obey its desire.

I am man. But what does that even mean? The goals of the masses could be one, but they flounder on the surface of possibility as dying fish will vainly struggle for breath in a fisherman's net.

What are we destined for? Does it matter? Time forces change, but who's to say what that change will be or why?

The firm belief that so many have that a coming apocalypse will forever modify the lives and ways of all of humanity is simply an excuse. They are looking for an external force to act upon the whole of creation in a way that they themselves are unwilling to do.

Give me your sick. Give me your poor. I will give them back to you and say "Do as thou wilt. I am no greater than you."

I want to change the world. I feel something is wrong with it - something that needs to be fixed. A broken bone under the surface of an otherwise normal looking joint. A bone which was never set properly, and aggravates through weakness and pain.

I've considered reaching out to the great minds of the world. Asking for their help and their influence. So many people want more for this world. I feel as if the challenge is not finding the threads, but weaving the tapestry. The question is not how to find those who would make the world a better place, but how to bring them together and give them a common mind.

Jung speaks of a collective unconscious. I posit its extension into the realm of the conscious mind. We are but reflections of our inner selves, and our inner selves are more alike than we could ever guess.

I've decided to spend some time away from my life - a month of silence and solitude. I can't tell you with any great certainty that anything will change in me. I know what i hope to achieve, but it is something that is hard to explain beyond its simplistic veneer. I'm looking to find myself, but that's really not a good way to put it. I guess you'll just have to believe that i think i know what i'm doing. And whether i'm right or wrong, I intend to find out for myself.

The details of my retreat will come out with time, I suppose. There are plenty of folks who already know them, so i'm not quite sure just why i would hide them here. Suffice it to say that's how i feel at the moment, and i'm just kind of going with the flow on this post.

I've become involved in a project of small magnitude but large aspiration. LuAnne and I and 4 others have decided to try to create a moderately sized urban community using existing real estate and resources. Greatly inspired by the considerations of Paolo Soleri, i only regret that I cannot convince him to secure funding for a urban center in Phoenix that might inspire the world.

Our community will grow organically, but we intend it to be a model for life in a manner which does not require the subjugation of one to provide the promotion of another. It will be a place for sharing and life, learning and growth. Edible landscapes, central gathering areas, geothermal resource generation, and consideration for others as part of consideration for self.

It's not here yet, so don't ask for too many details. The community will have a home soon, and will grow from there. The more interest and helpful intention we find around us the better - so please feel free to ask and suggest as you wish.

The butterfly effect may apply here ... who knows? Who knows.

We are here to change the world.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Girl In the Sea

I don't really tell this story. It's one of those things I sometimes doubt anyone will believe - but I guess this is one of those times I just don't care.

The first time i met LuAnne was in a dream.

It was the summer of 2004, while i was spending a trimester abroad in Guadalajara. I can't nail down the exact day or time, or anything like that. What i can tell you is that it was on the second floor of the UAG (Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara) main building, in a corner room with a wall of windows looking into the cavernous center of the building.

I was studying for some test or other when i dozed off and had a vivid dream of one of my fellow students, a girl with curling blond hair, running into the room excited and ecstatic. In the dream I watched as she jumped into the arms of a man who I believed to be another student who was her real life boyfriend. Caught up in her joy, he spun her around - although it was more like her energy and happiness is what caused them to twirl.

It was a movie moment. The kind of thing you expect to exist only in Hollywood. And what was really strange was that although the other person had initially looked like her boyfriend, he felt like me. And even stranger, she didn't feel like her, she felt like "the Girl of My Dreams".

I'm not sure how to explain it any better, but ever since i was a child, i had dreams where i was loved and appreciated by this idyllic girl in my dreams. It might have been a nightmare we were fighting to survive together, or a utopia we shared for the space of a few hours before i woke up. But regardless of the circumstances, or what she looked like, it was always that same ESSENCE.

Anyone who's ever said "it looked like so and so, but it was actually this other person" when talking about a dream knows exactly what i mean.

Now like i said, i've had dreams about this girl for almost as long as i can remember dreaming, though the first dream i can actually bring to mind was some time in the 7th grade or so ... maybe earlier, maybe later. The point is that I recognized her in that dream. The difference was how much i wanted it to be real! I mean, of course I'd vaguely wished upon a dream before, but this was different. Maybe it was because i had only been dozing, but the dream felt so real that i was almost convinced I could have reached through the sheer veil of dream and pulled it into reality.

I thought about that dream a lot. I may have even blogged about it ... though it's doubtful considering certain other circumstances in my life at the time.

That summer a movie called "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" opened in theaters and made its way fairly quickly to the theater in the mall about a half mile from the apartment i lived in with my roommate Marianna.

I walked to the theater alone and ended up meeting a friend from class there. We watched the film together, and walked out to a torrential downpour. We waited a bit for the storm to calm down (as they usually did) and briefly chatted about the movie. It was a pretty big eye-opener for me to hear him say that he didn't really enjoy it, and that he didn't really get it. (or at least parts of it)

I had thought it was a perfect metaphor.

No, it's not that ... It was what I wanted. As foolish as it may sound to wish to have the life of the main character - fighting a losing battle to retain the memories of his "Tangerine" - i found myself feeling as if it was the most noble and undying kind of love there is.

You have to watch the movie, i think, to understand why the circumstances which bring the two people in it together might be considered amazing, or even enviable.

When I finally said farewell to my classmate and walked home in the not-so-diminished rain, I walked home with a barely audible question crossing my lips almost frequently enough to be mistaken for a mantra: "Where is my Tangerine?"

The question brought my dream to mind, and all my previous encounters with my "dream girl", but it yielded no real answers. The only thing i knew ... more intuited than anything, was that she was out there. She was out there and if i didn't find her that wouldn't make her any less real.

It was several months after that that I had the most important dream. I've told a few people about it - always with the same embarrassed look and downcast eyes that people reserve for the confession of some horrible secret that they almost want to be taken as a joke.

I wrote down the details as soon as i woke up, and though i can't find that piece of paper right now (i hope i haven't lost it) I'll tell you what I wrote on it.

The first part of the dream took place in a wide open space, but with people around. I remember red bricks on the ground, and the feeling of some kind of loose gathering. People were there for a reason, but they weren't obligated to stay ... more like the crowd in a central area of a shopping mall than one at a concert or meeting.

I don't remember seeing her at that point, but i remember being aware of her. The dream shifted in that subtle way dreams have. It was almost like the dream was painted on top of another one, and the paint of the first started running off the canvas until only the other dream remained - only the canvas was sideways and the first dream was running off in rivulets to the past.

In the second dream she was with me in a large white room - a new apartment or home. It felt more like an apartment though because the whiteness of it was that stringent cleanliness that only rentals seem to be able to have. That smell and look that almost dare you to do anything other than walk in and sleep in the middle of the room without touching the walls or ruining its great emptiness with your petty furniture.

We were on the second floor - i knew that much. I remember seeing her standing in the apartment with me. Tall, but not a giant. Her hair was dark, but not brown, though that seemed more due to the baseball cap she was wearing than anything.

I think we were having a conversation, but i don't know for sure. I only remember walking up another set of stairs, and that part of the dream ending in a kind of movie-script scene change where the next scene quickly drops from the top like a shade dropping in front of a window.

This next part I'll tell, but I've never quite figured out what it meant or where it fits ... if anywhere. We were at another crowded place, but it was more like being at a stage with sound equipment and projectors set up. Like a mix between a rock concert and a CEO press conference.

On the screen there was a video that almost became the dream itself, where I was chasing my little cousins (Tyler and his sisters) around their parents house in New England.

As the dream pulled back from the video, I remember walking over to my car, which was parked in front of the stage. My recent ex was sitting in the driver's seat of my Explorer, and i knew that she was leaving. (presumably with my car) She had recently moved out, but this almost felt like my guarantee that there was a definite conclusion to our relationship - a kind of finality which i may have needed to supplement my outer strength with a more solid inner one.

This is where the dream ended. I know there were probably a lot of pieces that i missed by not writing them down fast enough - or maybe i missed them because they didn't matter.

What matters is that a month or so after having that dream, i was helping the ASU chapter of Alpha Phi Omega raise interest and attract new members at the Activity Fair. There were many students coming and going, but some lingered long enough to make the air feel crowded and full.

On one of the last days that i was working at the Activity Fair, the students who were supposed to take my place at the table skipped out and i ended up staying an hour longer than i intended. While i was waiting for them to show up, a table set up near me which was for a group called TGS: The Gamers' Society.

Interested, I made my way over there once my replacements had finally arrived and introduced myself. I'll cut my story a bit short, and just tell you that it was through this group of people that I eventually met LuAnne.

After we'd started dating i went to visit my mother in Florida for a few weeks. It was tough because we'd just started dating but it was nice because, as always, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

When i got back she helped me move all my things into the apartment i'd found in Ahwatukee. I have pictures of the day that we spent lugging things into the apartment ... her baseball cap rarely came off as we spent the day talking and moving my things out of the U-Haul up to my new, sterile-white apartment on the second floor.

I can't remember if i put two and two together on that day. I can't even remember when it all fell into place for me.

There is one thing that i can remember as clearly as if it was yesterday. I was staying at LuAnne and Lucy's apartment pretty frequently, especially since she was taking and teaching classes and I hadn't really found a job yet.

So it was that one day when she came home from one of her tests I was there to see her run into the apartment excited and ecstatic, hug Lucy and tell us both about her test, then jump into my arms. As we spun around, more from her excitement and energy than my own movement, I knew that I'd found what I'd been looking for all along.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Global Believing and a Spoonful of Sugar

My interest in world religions was sparked during a gen-ed class at Bradley that I took because a friend of mine signed up for it.

I'm not sure, but i believe it was a class on the religions of the western world. Essentially it was an overview of the three biggies: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Maybe i'm wrong - maybe it talked about Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. It doesn't matter.

What matters is that what I think pulled me in was this window that i saw into the cultures and strictures of societies around the world.

I started understanding that at its most fundamental level, a religion is a set of rules and regulations designed to protect a society from itself and from others. It wasn't until i started listening to Joseph Campbell that another aspect which drew me to such study crystallized in my mind: Religion doesn't just protect a society physically, but spiritually as well.

I mean yes, i'd thought about it, but i hadn't thought about what it meant. The fact that people needed spiritual protection in the first place.

Now keep in mind that i'm not talking about hocus pocus spirituality. I'm talking about your spirit. Your hopes and dreams and fears and desires. I'm talking about the beliefs that help you sleep at night, and the ones that give you something to fight for in the day.

These things vary from person to person, certainly, but if you study world religions you notice a trend in the morals of the stories, and a recognizable cast of characters that may vary in name, but are the same in purpose.

Did you know that there is a Native American legend about a great flood? The legend is said to predate any European contact, and when you read it it is clear that there really is no connection to the biblical flood in terms of Moses or the Jewish/Christian/Muslim God.

That's just one example, but there are many myths throughout the world that share a thread without their cultures being connected.

There are theories that range from the completely mundane: the stories had a common root in pre-history and spread as humans spread; to the spiritual: people have experienced the different faces of the same ultimate reality; to the psychological: there are common needs and wants throughout the psyches of people world wide, that coalesce into a kind of "collective unconscious".

I'm not presumptuous enough to claim that i have the answer, and I'm sure there are even more explanations than the ones listed above, but I do think that there is one very important thing to point out.

These shared beliefs have never stopped existing, and our capacity to share these underlying experiences and thoughts with the entire world is still very much alive today. What's more, those experience and thoughts are evolving.

There are people around the world who grow up with and foster their own set of beliefs (no matter how small they may be) in addition to the ones they are taught by their parents and their society. What's really amazing to me is that i think that people would be surprised if they compared their "side beliefs" to someone else's. Because i'm positive that they would be extremely similar.

So i wonder if there is something that can be done with that. An analysis and understanding of the way that human belief and faith which is shared around the globe is shifting and evolving.

I dunno - seems like an interesting idea.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Return of the Dirty Hippie

It's not that I think I can change the world. I'm not that full of myself. What I think is that regardless of whether i can or not, I should damn well try.

About a week ago i was drunk. Now let's be clear - if you qualify all states of sobriety as a kind of continuum, with sober on one end, tipsy in the middle, and drunk on the end, i was somewhere off the continuum in what i like to call "WTF was i thinking" land.

Somewhere on the way home, as i was riding in the passenger seat and watching the world fly by, I had a thought that shook me pretty badly: "The world is the way it made itself." Trying to change the way the world works is as futile as trying to change the way a person thinks or acts. It doesn't work. The change needs to come from within.

Have you ever quit an addiction? Most people don't know this, but I used to smoke. Granted, it's not like I smoked my whole life, but I did smoke about a pack a day for almost 3 years. I say almost because I quit about 3 or four times in there - always for a week or even a month at the most.

One day I got sick. Not a real bad sick, mind you, but sick enough that I decided that since I could barely breathe as it was, I should maybe lay off the cigarettes until i got better.

About one week later I was feeling better, and I practically hopped and skipped (as much as one can do so while driving) to the gas station to buy my first pack of "post crud" cigarettes. Camel Lights. (yeah, get the laughs out now you Marlboro smokers)

I lit up my cigarette (not sure that doing it while at the pump was so genius) and took my first drag ... which turned into my first gag.

I don't know if it was a stale pack. I don't know if I was still a little sick. What i know is that i can't remember having ever tasted something so foul, and i threw the whole pack away. Now, all you smokers out there know what an effort it usually is to throw a whole pack of smokes away ... trust me - it's usually harder than cutting off a finger. (maybe your pinkie)

Somewhere within that last week, my body and/or my mind had done without my conscious interaction what I had been unable to do for 3 years. I had no reason to quit. No desire to quit. I had simply stopped wanting to smoke.

I think there are a lot of stories like that out there. People who didn't decide to change - they just did.

I think the world is like that. I think maybe all we need is an event, or a movement, or a single thought that gives us a chance to give up our current way of living for a better one.

More importantly, i think that we have the tools and technology to end our need for societal stratification. We have the resources to give everyone everything they want without them having to step on someone else to get it.

Bull, right? No way can i convince someone to work in a factory to make me my new iPod if they've got everything they need, right?

Well ... yeah. Absolutely right. But why does that person need to work in a factory at all? We have computers and robots that can do practically EVERYTHING in that factory.

Uh oh - we've hit the first stumbling points right there, haven't we? First off - computers and robots aren't free! Second, what will those unskilled laborers do instead?!

Free? Of course not! Not in terms of money. But what good does money do? All it does is provide a medium with which people can trade and barter on equal footing. What if it was taken for granted that you got out what you put in?

I actually heard your eyes rolling there, but bear with me. Just assume that it's possible for now, ok? We won't get anywhere if you're not willing to stretch your imagination! As i said fairly recently on a conference call "OK, i've heard all the reasons why we can't and shouldn't do this. Now let's re-focus and try to think of ways that it COULD work..."

So let's pretend that the world would keep turning without money. Who makes the computers and robots that produce the iPods instead of the workers? Well, more robots and computers! At first we'd have to build the builders, so to speak, but after that they keep running with maintenance and programming.

So who designs the robots? The computer systems? Who maintains all these things?

People who like doing those things, of course! There will always be people who like to tinker and fix, and people who like to program and design. In a system where everyone has what they want, everyone can do what they want. This of course raises the question of laziness. Why do anything if you don't need to? Let me ask you - after you've been on vacation for a week, or maybe two, do you want to keep doing nothing? Or do you wish you were doing something you loved? Maybe that something is your job - maybe it's a different job. But you want to do SOMETHING.

Humans aren't lazy, we fill the time we have with the things we want to do. When we're on vacation or the weekend, the last thing we want to do is work, but if all we had was weekends and vacation, all we would be able to think about would be to do SOMETHING. Preferably something we love to do!

So those robots and computers came from a place that made them. Simple as that. And yes, they were free. The were built using raw materials that were gathered by people who like working with their hands. Don't bother son, it's turtles all the way down.

I was going to answer the question about "unskilled" laborers, but I think I already have. They'll be busy doing something they love, and something they're "skilled" at. Because no one is unskilled.

This idea that everyone can have everything and no one needs to be hungry or poor may sound extreme, i know. But it's not ridiculous, and it's not unfathomable. It's not communism, and it's not insanity. It's what we're capable of.

It is what humanity is capable of.

I don't know if we'll ever get there. I don't know if anything i ever do could help us get there. What i do know is that i've thrown away the pack of BS beliefs, and if i can help start that change everywhere else, you can bet your bottom denomination that I'll try. If i can't? If it's hopeless? Nothing's hopeless. And at least I'll be able to say i tried.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Walden Two and the Rantings of a Self-Made Lunatic

For a long time now you've all heard me mention my hippie commune occasionally and with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those of you who've known me for a few years know that i didn't start talking about utopias and communal living only after LuAnne and I got married - it's been an idea i've had for a few years that crystallized into an actual dream (as opposed to an undefined fantasy) once I read Walden Two on our honeymoon.

Walden Two is the fictional description of a theoretically plausible utopia which exists by adopting behavioral psychology as a means of sustaining and controlling a modern society.

In other words: It's a great place to live ... you would like it there.

Walden Two essentially offers everyone who lives there everything they would ever need to survive, as well as all the things which we desire to make our lives happy and fulfilling. The only thing that it doesn't do is give us something which all humans seem to crave above all else:

The potential for more.

The potential for more is a pretty powerful thing. I was just talking to one of my friends the other day and asked "Why would you not want to live in this community i've described?" She answered that not having her own car might be an example of how she would be limited living there. Not that she would need to leave to go do something specific, but that she might want to go somewhere. She needed that freedom.

Certainly this is a small example of a larger need. The need to be able to do something different than what is "prescribed" to us is part of what makes us human! Think about the old "better to have loved and lost" adage. Logically, it is better to have never loved at all - you would be more emotionally stable, and if love didn't exist anywhere else in the world you'd never be any worse off for not knowing how it felt.

Remember that i'm just talking "logically" here. Love brings people together, yes, but think of how many it drives apart. It's unstable at best. (wonderful, sure, but unstable)

Now what about money? Why would anyone need such a crazy thing? If we're all doing our part in the community, we should all get our share of life and happiness. No one should ever be thought of as doing more than someone else ... what would be the point? If they're doing what they love and what they're interested in, then why should their job be considered more valuable than someone else's? Take the reverse: if it's a job that no one wants to do, why shouldn't everyone have to do that job a little and move back to what they love?

But here's where it gets sticky, isn't it? I mean, that whole paragraph could be years of unresolvable debate in and of itself. What i'm trying to get to though, is this: If we all got the same, we would all be the same. If we were all the same, then where would be the chance for any one of us to have "the potential for more"?

I've heard this a lot: "I don't want to survive - i want to live." (if you haven't heard that one lately, watch Wall-E)

Does it need to be one or the other? Do we have to have a world where some people have everything and most have little or nothing so that we can have "the potential for more"?

Couldn't we find some way to have "the potential for more" without taking away the ability for everyone to live at or near the same level? Happily? With their basic human needs fulfilled?

I know i can't change the world, but how can i accept it as it is? Does that make me crazy? Possibly.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Craziest Weekend You'll Never Have

But wow - i totally did. It started off around 9am on Friday morning...


wait. I just want to preface this with a promise of brevity. I don't know that i'll succeed in fulfilling this promise, but maybe having promised it i'll try harder to condense my ramblings.

----Part 1----
--Twilit Pizza--

So like i said: My weekend really started on Friday morning at 9am when i went to volunteer at a different school (school 90) until 1pm.

I met two of the students from the other school in front of my school - then we made our way onto the tram. The tram took a little while and we popped off a little past the furthest i'd walked into town.

It had snowed on Thursday night, so there was still a little around, but it had already started to melt. :-( I don't know that i'll see all the snow i thought i would at this point, but a guy can hope, can't he? Maybe if it snows all day tomorrow and Tuesday?

So anyways .... we got to the school and i did my thing. There was an entire class-full of students crammed into one room (probably about 20 of them) and we had a question and answer session that lasted for about 40 minutes. After that we went to another classroom where they were discussing Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and i chimed in every now and then when asked.

After that I switched teachers (Lena was the original) and answered questions for a classroom full of 5th (i think?) graders. Most of those questions involved the kids asking a question they remembered out of their textbooks, and then frowning a bit when i answered. I did get the feeling like they understood a lot, but it certainly wasn't all. (they were just kids after all!)

So after that i had lunch in the school cafeteria (rice and strogonoff, two waters called "compote" because they have fruit in them, and some bread) and then went to a question and answer session with the eleventh grade class. We ran out of questions eventually, though, so it got a little quiet.

There was one girl who was really interested in Brazil because she would like to go there and to learn Portuguese, so she had lots of questions about that :-)

I tried to leave my contact info for anyone who wanted it - i like the idea that even though i'm going home on Sunday, i can keep helping kids expand their knowledge of the world around them (and how to communicate with it) until they get bored of me :-)

So I left the school around 1 and walked back to school 27, which took about 40-odd minutes. As i was arriving, i met up with the little girl that i mentioned before. This was no big deal until i walked into the building and met with the students i was going to a movie with. At that point I said "ok, i have to go now - we're leaving" and she refused to let go of me. I tried being stern, but that didn't work, so i figured we'd walk up to Tatiana's room and maybe she could help. I don't know that Tatiana understood what i was asking, or maybe she figured i should get myself out of my own mess, but either way it didn't work.

We talked for a little bit about the other school, then i headed down/was dragged by the little girl back downstairs and out the building. We met back up with the people that i was going to the movie with (Anya, Andrei, and Irina - not hostmom Irina) and I tried again to get the little girl to go to class, all to no avail.

We all crossed the street to the trolley and i continued on to the other side of the street - the girl lives on that side, so i figured i could ask her to head home and cross back over to the tramvai. No dice. She *refused* to let go and was making a REALLY big commotion - i was convinced that people would think i was her dad and was just abandoning her on the street.

In fact, i started to think that that had happened because i started feeling people looking at me and hearing people speaking loudly. It took a second to realize that the people speaking loudly were doing so at the little girl - it was a gaggle of girls and they all seemed to know the little girl. They hurried over and tried prying her off me - and once they had succeeded i ran to the middle of the street to get on the tramvai which was just arriving.

From inside the tramvai which i believed would never start moving, i watched with no small amount of terror as the girls eventually relinquished their grip, and the little girl started trying to cross the road. The doors eventually closed, and as the tramvai trundled away i watched the girls leading the young girl away from the road and (hopefully) home.

I really don't know what to do in the future with this girl. I really feel bad for her, and i think maybe that she's placed some of her missing of her parents onto me. I think maybe i need to be a mean person the next time i see her, but that might just make things worse ... i hope that when i leave she just forgets about me entirely - i've only been here a little while, so maybe.

So anyways: we went to the movies.

We got off of the tramvai and got onto another one (in the "center" of town) which took us over the river, through the woods, past grandmother's house, and deposited us past a planted forest (fake trees! fake trees!) and somewhere around Moscow. (j/k)

We walked the rest of the way to the movie theater - dodging puddles and mud as best we could. This wasn't really possible, though, so it was kindof like trying to dodge bullets. Big, wet, dirty bullets that people drive through and splash you with right after you jumped over the last one.

We eventually got to the mall we were going to (about a 5 minute walk) and stomped our boots through the front doors. It was a very pretty mall, with a giant clock in the middle on the floor - you have to see the pic :-)

We went up and bought our tickets to Twilight (yes, Twilight - i won't say it again and you won't repeat it to and of my male friends) and decided to walk about the mall since we had about 40 minutes before the movie. We dropped off our coats at the coat room (yes coat room - they're everywhere... probably something about the sub-infinity degrees they usually have in the winter here)

The plan was actually to go to the supermarket which was accessible through the mall, but we couldn't actually remember how to do that, so "walking about" is what we did.

Eventually we found the way to the store and proceeded to ... gawk at the empty shelves. I guess they hadn't re-stocked yet after some major bigwig threw a huge kegger or something. We never found out why the shelves were empty, but after everyone but me grabbed a juice, we all headed back up.

I made a pit stop on the way, and the only reason i mention it is this: I followed about 50 feet of signs for the bathroom through a small service corridor.

It's not actually very funny. You can just forget that you read that. It was funny when i popped out from the bathroom and waved to my peeps from across the mall, but now ... well ... just pretend i said something funny, but you can't remember what.

Andrei also tried to go up the down escalator, and not on purpose, but i think i've regaled you with enough "funnier if you were there" moments. ;-)

So we get up to the movie theater (call Very Velly ... maybe a play on the mispronounced V? Wery Welly? But that doesn't make sense either unless they meant Very Welly ... ... have you fallen asleep yet?)

I made my way to the concession stand and figured we'd order a big popcorn to share ... ah! There's a combo! Big popcorn and big soda! Oh wait, but i also want to have a beer ... HOLY MOLY! There's Brahma! Why is there a Brazilian beer i can't even find in Phoenix here in Izhevsk?! OK ok, so let's see - Brahma, Soda, Popcorn ... wait - it's only a little more for two sodas ... somebody will want one!

So Anya helps me order, and we walk away from the concession stand with two large sodas, a beer in a plastic cup, and a tub of popcorn. Irina stifled a laugh and said (in the kindest way possible) "Now, you look very American."

We sat down in our seats (you choose them when you buy your tickets ... me likey!) just in time for the previews. Everything was in Russian, except for one thing:

"The following preview..." blah blah blah. But then the preview itself was in Russian! They totally got my hopes up! Grr. It was for a movie about Igor - animated ... looked Tim Burtony.

NEways - the movie was ... well ... i don't know that i missed much by not understanding most of it, but it was good listening practice! (and no, no subs) I will tell you that i understood one very deep and meaningful line, though:

"Sex ... money ... sex ... cat ..."

Now you must watch it, or you will forever wonder what the hell that means.

So the credits scrolled and we marched out of the theater, past the doors that said "Push to exit" in Russian AND English, and back out into the mall. Pretty soon we were out in the cold, then on a bus, then at our final destination... Pizza Hut.

Now it's at this point in the story that i have to ask all readers who have NOT had the good sense to watch Demolition Man to please come to their senses and do so. Immediately.

We'll wait here.



Go ahead, then! Those "..."s were meant to give you time! You weren't just supposed to read them and be on your merry way through the next block of text!


Anyway, assuming you'll know what i'm talking about (lord knows i gave you enough time to watch the movie three times over just now) the Pizza Hut in Izhevsk was akin to the Taco Bell in Demolition Man. There was a Maitre D'. There were facy tables. There were fancy walls. There were fancy prices.

It was the Mother of all Pizza Huts. There were even HOT WINGS. I didn't try them, becuase there were 3 for 6 dollars or something like that, but they were there. (EDIT: This is no big deal in the States, but this is the first and only time i've seen wings here. I mean, i don't think they even have buffaloes ...)

It was about a minute after we sat down that my phone rang. I should mention that before we got to the movie, i got a call from Dima, (one of my friends here) and he explained that Oleg would pick me up to go fishing not tomorrow, but tonight. "Oh" i said ... "i thought we were going tomorrow?" Dima told me that we would be leaving at some point tonight and then when we got back tomorrow, he and his wife Katya would like to have me over to her parents' house in the country and to a Russian banya.

I've been told several times that before i leave Russia, i have to go to a Russian banya, or bath house. I excitedly replied "Hells yeah!" And then my phone died.

My phone dies a lot. If cats have nine lives, my phone has 9 cats per day. It's recockulous.

Flash forward again to when my phone has just enough battery for me to pick up the phone and hear Oleg say "Are you ready to go?"

Flash back a day, and i was telling Irina (my hostmom) that i would be glad to talk with her friend's son Vlad, who was an 11th grader at a different school.

Sensing imminent doom (or at least that sinking promise-breaking feeling) I agreed to swap my SIM card into Anya's phone to try calling Oleg back. Anya played translator on two phone calls immediately after that. One confirming that Oleg and his friend Boris would pick me up at Pizza Hut, and the other telling Irina that i would be home at eight for five minutes to pick up my stuff and then i'd be gone.

This was NOT going as planned.

The Hawaiian pizza arrived, we ate our fill, (except for Irina-not-hostmom who didn't want pizza) and i unwittingly sentenced myself to 24 hours of stomach problems. And not the kind that are really good to have when you're going out of town to a hunting lodge, if you catch my meaning.

Oleg met me outside of the Pizza Hut at around 8pm and walked me over to the car we would be driving in - Eva. Eva was being piloted (and i don't use the word loosely) by Boris. We stopped off at my host family's apartment and i ran inside to get my stuff for the trip.

My host mom had warned me to bring the warmest clothes i had, and basically to wear them all. "You don't know cold" is basically how her warning translated. I started apologizing as soon as the door opened, and Vlad and i talked briefly while i packed my backpack and put on some more layers. We figured on meeting some time before i left, then i headed out the door as everyone said goodbye and wished me luck on my adventure :-)

The car sped off into the road and we were on our way.

----Part 2----
--Boy's Night Out (aka "Fishing") and the Problem of Passarat--

I want to re-iterate that word: sped. I want to re-iterate it because i want you to understand that when i say we careened down the streets of Izhevsk, I'm not just being flip. (which is something we thankfully did not do) Boris is by no means a bad driver, in fact he's a very good driver. So zipping down the roads and past traffic with sharp turns and fast changes wasn't a big deal to him - just me, who sat wide-eyed (except when they were clamped shut) and slack jawed (except when yelping in surprise) in the back of the car.

We took a route that followed along Izhevsk pond, and struck off to the north-east. We stopped first in a store to pick up some necessities. By necessities i mean a rotisserie chicken, 2 bottles of water, kielbasa, cheese, bread, and 2 bottles of vodka.

It was about when we were in line that i started thinking "Man ... i need to find a bathroom." I mentioned it to Oleg and he said the house wasn't too far from where we were. "No problem" i thought.

In about 5 minutes, there was a problem. I won't get too far into the details, but i think it's important to partially enlighten you: On the way to the house, there are train tracks. When you cross the train tracks, Oleg and Boris said that they have a tradition of drinking beer and waiting for the train to come, and then basically making a lot of noise as it passes by.

If you are offended by the word "bowel", skip the next three paragraphs.

Something i totally would find awesome and fun, but for the growing urgency with which i needed to make it to the house. "Screw it" i figured. "If there's an outhouse there, then the only difference between here and there is some wood." I grabbed the roll of TP which they had wisely bought at the store, grabbed a taplight that we were using as a flashlight, and stumbled off into the woods.

I sh!t you not (hahah) that five seconds after i'd found a spot and dropped trou, i saw Boris and Oleg hop into the car and drive off. Fortunately i'd heard one of them say "machina", which means "car", so i wasn't worried that they were ditching me. Unfortunately, they had said "machina", which means "car", and I was NOT that far from the road.

For the second time that night i though "screw it" and went about my business. When the car passed i hunkered down as best i could (in a bright red skiing jacket) and watched as the pool of light from the car passed just to the side of me at a (thankfully) brisk pace. "What the hell," i thought. "The worst that can happen is they see me and have some significant mental scarring for the rest of their lives."

OK, you can start reading again now.

I made my way back to the car (which was only a bit further down the road) and found Oleg and Boris both with beer in hand waiting for me. I handed back the flashlight, put away the TP, and cracked open a bottle of Baltika.

At this point it might be a good idea to point out that Oleg speaks very little English (though he's been speaking more and more of it every time we hang out) and Boris is at about the same place with his English skills. I also should remind the reader that I'm not exactly fluent in Russian. In point of fact, i think that Boris and Oleg may have had a leg up on me linguistically several times in the night.

The point is that all of our conversations took a lot of mimeing, mumbling, and a bit of swearing, but they were a hell of a lot of fun. We talked about Boris' past a little, and his family. We talked about my job, the crazy Russian weather we're having, and the day i leave for Moscow (Thursday) then home. (Sunday)

It was a very good time. (there are even pictures!)

After about 3 bottles each, we got back in the car and made our way the last mile or so to the place where we parked the car to walk the rest of the way. Basically it was a row of houses on the water, and Boris' was the 5th or so in.

As we started walking past the first house, a pair of dog-looking animals came out and started walking past and around us. "Wolves" joked Oleg. Or at least i hoped he was joking. I mean hey, some people keep alligators for pets - maybe these were like "dog wolves" or some craziness!

Round about the time i finished thinking that, my train of thought stopped at the next station, which was a little further down the line than it should have been.

"We bought a rotisserie chicken ... didn't we?" I asked as one of the dogs took a tentative nip at the bag Oleg was carrying.

"It's OK," Oleg said. "I know these dogs."

We walked along with the dogs keeping us company until we got to the house. Boris unlocked the gate and we walked in - the dogs were apparently a kind of fixture in the area, so there was no point in trying to keep them out. As we made it into the house, i snapped a shot of our company and found that they weren't ferocious wolf-dog-alligators at all, but long-haired Rottweiler mixes. (which were, btw, super freaking cute.)

Boris hit the switch on the main circuit to power the house and we went inside. The house consisted of 5 rooms on 2 floors. As I walked in, there was a dining area to my right with a table, which was next to a kitchen with a spare bed. To my left was a staicase leading up, and across from the staircase, a bedroom. Upstairs, there were two smaller rooms with beds as well which are used in the summer time.

As i took in the house, Boris had gotten out what looked like the thruster off the back of a small jet. This thruster was attached to a large tank of propane. This particular voluntourist was a bit flabbergasted.

Boris turned on the gas, cranked on the thruster (it had an ignitor) and a steady blast of heat started coming from the small red jet engine. It was pretty freaking awesome.

It didn't take long for the house to warm up while Oleg showed me around outside: Here's the old russian bath house, (you'll find out about these later) here a storage room, this is where you "Passat" (pee) and, (gesturing at the outhouse) here's where you "Passarat".

We went back inside and Oleg set about cutting up the meat and cheese, and nuking (yes, there was a microwave) the chicken.

Soon after, the drinking began. We all had one more beer to finish of the Baltika, but we didn't touch the other beer we had. We were too busy with the Vodka.

The vodka was, i believe, Taiga. As a general rule, i don't drink Vodka - not since the Vodka/Goldschlager/Tequila/Bathtub incident of '98. (no, i won't tell you unless you buy me beer) So it was with a grimace of anticipation that i poured our first shots, held up my glass, and sent the harsh liquid down the hatch.

Actually, it wasn't that bad. I think, though, that my recollection of the vodka was much improved by two things in reverse order of importance: pineapple juice chasers, and more vodka.

When we were about half way done with our food and drink we decided to head out and do some shooting. No, not with real guns - a pneumatic rifle that only shoots pellets. (you remember what happened the last time i had one of those, mom?)

We trooped outside and Boris set up a matchbox (A MATCHBOX) on the top of a fence about 15 yards away. Being the guest of honor (or because it would be funny) i went first. The rifle was pump action (no CO2) and had a scope on it. Shouldering the butt of the rifle, i took aim and plinked away a pellet into a very dark woods behind the fence. Oleg insisted on a second try, so i pumped the rifle, loaded a pellet, shouldered the rifle, and after taking a slightly lower bead on the matchbox, squeezed the trigger as gently as i could.

It goes without saying that i was very pleasantly surprised and extremely proud when that matchbox flew off the fence and plunked into the snow behind the fence.

It also goes without saying that one should never put one's eye right up to the scope of a rifle, because that sh!t will recoil like a mofo and smack you straight in the face. And so it was with a red tear of joy that i went trotting after the matchbox to show off the neat little hole i'd made from 15 yards away.

Remember that time i smacked my forehead on the corner of a shelf a week or so before the wedding? Well now that mark has a slowly fading brother just above my left eye.


Needless to say, i cared not a wit about my new injury, and we shot at the matchbox, a stick of wood, and the top of a can for at least an hour after that.

After all that work, we obviously needed some food and drink, so we all headed back in to finish what was left... and finish it we did.

By the time i collapsed into bed, it was around 1 or 2 am, almost all the food was gone, and all but two shots were left of the two bottles of vodka Boris and Oleg had bought. (they refused when i offered to pay them back)

Now there's one interesting thing that i've found out about drinking here - when you drink a lot, you crack open a bottle of pickle juice and take a drink before you go to sleep to fight off a hangover. I don't know if it worked for sure, but i certainly had no hangover when i woke up in the morning.

We had woken up late (i was supposed to be back by 10am to meet Dima and Katya) so we hurriedly ate some mandarin oranges, drank some juice and water, and headed out. Oleg and i went first while Boris stayed behind to clean/lock-up the house.

"Hm," i thought. "Maybe the outhouse wouldn't be a bad idea JIC."

Of course, why would i listen to myself? That would be crazy!

So Oleg and i went off and took some pictures of the lake on our way to the car. The car that wouldn't start. Well, not for about 15 minutes anyway! Finally Oleg managed to get her cranking and kept Eva from stalling when idle.

I was officially starting to think i should head back to the outhouse ... like NOW ... so i offered to find Boris, who still hadn't arrived. I started trucking down the path, wondering why i'd waited so long, and thinking "If i hurry, he'll still be there." So of course i wasn't the least bit surprised when i ran into Boris a little further down the path.

"OK, we're late, so i can wait it out" I thought to myself.

We piled into the car, and Boris let us know that we would be taking a passenger with us into town. An old man got into the car and I spent so much time focusing on not thinking about when i could "go" that i completely missed the opportunity to talk to him.

It was kinda funny though, when Boris told him to put his seat belt on, and the man started putting the lap belt across his lap, and the chest strap behind his back. I'm not sure, but it may have been his first time putting on a seat belt.

This time i was extremely glad that we were in a hurry. Every building we passed became a target of my attention as i focused on two things: Finding a toilet, and excusing the abruptness with which i would demand a quick stop.

Fortunately (in hind sight) no such opportunity arose. We dropped the older gentleman off at a bus stop in town, and a few turns later we were at the store where we were supposed to meet Dima and Katya.

I knew we were in a hurry, and i knew that Dima and Katya would be able to take me back to the apartment before we went off, (even though i had the sinking feeling that it was out of the way) but i couldn't wait.

"Oleg, minha nujna toilet."

"Dima and Katya take you you home."

"No no, minha NUJNA toilet, seechahss."

A perplexed look. "You walk a little and go...?"

"No no, passarat." A desperate look.


I can imagine being in his shoes - toilets aren't everywhere, and we would have run into the same problem in the US. If you stop at a random corner in a city, half the places are only for customers and the other are only for employees.

I started pointing at every shop that looked big enough: "Tam?" (there?)

We started walking off toward some shops and i started feeling better, but by the third shop or so it was a bit worse, and on top of that, i could no longer curl up in the fetal position in the car.

Oleg popped into an internet club and explained the situation to the girl, who kinda laughed, nodded, and pointed at the door that said "Toilet." I'm pretty sure that Oleg said more than "do you have a toilet" but at that point i didn't really care.

I charged into the room ... where was the paper?? Walking back out i asked "do you have paper?" "Shto?" (what?)

... oh man ... what's the damn word for paper?!?!?! Thankfully my mind and eyes were in perfect health, so i spotted some paper (certificates on the wall) and pointed.

"Please God, don't let her think i want to borrow the certificate or see their bathroom service record ..."

The girl got me right off and said "bumagi?" "Yeah! Bumagi!" (please God, let it be bumagi ... it SOUNDS familiar ... WHY DIDN'T I LEARN FROM YEKATERINBURG?!)

She hurried off to the back room and came back with a roll of (allelujah) TP, and I (allelujah) hurried off into the bathroom.

When i came back out the girl had another girl with her and they were chatting. I was more than a little embarrassed as i handed her the paper and said "spahceeba," then turned quickly and walked as unabashedly as i could out the door.

It's at about this point that i developed a kind of motto for myself: "What the hell, why bother being embarrassed?" I mean realistically, every time i went somewhere (with a few exceptions) i would likely never see the people there again. Even assuming that i do go back to Izhevsk some day, what are the odds that a random person in a random store would remember me? So really, why bother being embarrassed about anything?!

When i got outside i saw Dima and Katya talking with Boris by his car, with Oleg close by. I'm not sure if i blushed, but laughs were shared and we struck off in Dima and Katya's car. I explained that i had to go back to the apartment first, because i had to get my phone. I'd left it charging at the apartment because i hadn't expected there to be outlets at the fishing/summer house.

I wanted to be able to call Irina or at least leave a note telling her that we got a late start, and that the only way i could go to a Russian banha (due to time constraints) was if we arrived between 8 and 10pm. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but we'd arranged to go to her parents' house around 5, which was a whole hour after i was originally supposed to be back with Dima and Katya.

We turned one street early and ended up at a dead end about 50 feet from the building where i'm living, so i jumped out and raced home from there. Once home, i quickly changed, grabbed a towel for the banha, my phone to call Irina, and my camera charger just in case.

As i headed out the door and locked it I started dialing Irina's mobile number, trying to figure out exactly how to tell her why i couldn't make it on time in Russian.


"Uh, hello? Irina? It's Christian ..."

Not the smoothest of starts, but every conversation has to take off from somewhere. I got into Dima's car and closed the door as i started blurting out the half English and half Russian which has become kind of a norm with Irina and Sergei.

Irina understood what i was saying faster than i would have, and we hung up.

I looked at Dima and said "OK, let's do this!" And with that we were off to the country.

----PART 3----
--Good Place, Good People, Good Golly It's Hot in this Banha--

The car ride took about 30 minutes - not really so horrible. ... Well, on any other day when i wasn't suffering from "Pizza Hut's Revenge" it wouldn't have been too horrible. Also, there was the whole "beer before liquor" (never been sicker) thing from the night before ...

So maybe overall just not a great time to be in a car for 30 minutes.

About halfway through the ride the "beer before liquor" factor started kicking in and i asked Dima to crack the windows a little. The cool air made me feel a bit better, but the fact that i had my mouth practically IN the space between the door frame and the window made it a little difficult to talk.

This, of course, gave me plenty of time to think about how i would probably always be remembered in Izhevsk as "that sick American".

We pulled off of the main road onto a smaller one and stopped at a store so that Katya could pick up some food. As she went in the store, my insides started reminding me that now that my nausea had passed, it was about time to move back to paying attention to other matters. Like finding a bathroom.

I asked Dima as nonchalantly as i could (read: not at all) about whether there might be a lavatory in the store. He said no, but that the house wasn't too far. Anyone who's ever had stomach issues knows that "not too far" to the next bathroom is always going to feel like "way too !@#$ing far" by the time you get there. But i figured we'd burn that bridge when we got there.

Katya came out a bit later with the supplies (i eyed the package of kolbasa greedily) and we got back into the car.

The directions to Katya's house play back something like this in my head:

Turn off the highway of nausea and make your way onto a small, rustic road. Pass the store of incontinence on your left and go through a small country town. On your right, you'll see an old school that's been turned into a discotheque - make a left soon after that onto an unpaved road. Make another right, follow along for a bit, and come to a stop.

The reason you come to a stop at that particular point has nothing to do with arriving at the house. It has to do with what happens to an unpaved road with no gravel when the snow melts and the water has its way with the earth.

If you're not quite sure what i'm getting at, it's mud. A lot of mud. Anyone who's ever lived in a rural area knows what "mud you don't want to drive through" looks like - and that's what we were facing.

We only got about 20 feet in before our suspicion that the small 2-wheel drive car might get stuck became a reality. Katya and i got out to push.

The first step into the morass (if i could ever use that word and feel justified, it's right now) was fine. "No problem," i thought "I just have to watch my footing."

It was around when i thought the word "footing" to myself that my second step found one of the places where i should not have put my second step. My foot sank into the mud up to the top of my boots - which put it at about half-way up my calf. No mean feat considering my height.

With a bit of effort and a slightly disturbing slurping sound, my foot came out of the soggy mess i'd gotten it into. Laughing a bit to myself as i unstuck myself and investigated my new brown jeans, i started toward the back of the car.

After a few good shoves and a near faceplant into the mud (as my feet decided to check out the ground behind me instead of beneath me) we got the car going again ... 3 feet. Into some more mud.

We walked up again and started shoving, but to no avail. Dima asked us to get to the front of the car and he would try to reverse. Went off in my head, but i grabbed a desperate hold of my new motto "What the hell" and got in front of the car with Katya.

We pushed and shoved the car while Dima reversed but nothing happened. OK, well, not nothing. At one point the gas pedal went down a little further, the tires spun a little faster, and the mud flew a little higher. Time switched into slow motion as i realized that i was about to take part in a scene from some ridiculous comedy film.

The first glob of mud to hit me was probably somewhere on my jeans or my jacket, but the first one that i felt was the one that splatted itself on my forehead - just above the right eye, and halfway up my "Hooters" beanie.

Yes. I have a "Hooters" beanie.

Yes. I brought it to Russia.

No. I am not entirely ashamed of my gringovity.

(ok, maybe a little)

ANYWAYS. Getting back to the story: As i said, my beanie and forehead were now host to a quickly warming blob of cold mud. After the initial shock where Katya and I took in what had just happened we broke into a gail of laughter that almost made my new bath worth it.

"Banha," she said.

"Oh yeah. Definitely banha," i responded as we got back to work shoving.

The car wouldn't budge regardless of what we did. We tried shoving, rocking, cursing, (shown to work occasionally) and God knows what else, but no luck.

Katya called her parents to ask if they had something that i couldn't understand, let alone pronounce, but that i assumed would help us to get out of the mud. (something you shove under the tire, maybe?)

Unfortunately, her parents weren't at home. Fortunately, this was because they were just getting back from somewhere, and pulled up near us (but not stuck) within a minute or two.

After a hello and a laugh at my new fashion sense, Katya's mom wondered aloud about how my jeans were dragging on the ground (oh, so haute couture of me) and suggested that i roll them up. I've learned a lot in Russia. One of the things i've learned is that regardless of whether you're in the States or in Russia, when a mother "suggests" something, it's not because you have the option of not doing it. ;-) Katya said that it was too late, and her mother replied "It's never too late." (both were in Russian, but i'm 90% sure on the translation)

I half-heartedly rolled up my jeans (trying not to cover my hands in mud as well) and heard Katya's mom telling her to walk me up to the house while they took care of the car.

Normally i'd argue to stay and help, but between my desire to be polite and the now returning feeling that i should get to the house (and bathroom) sooner than later, we struck off across the field to the house. It was really hilarious how close we were, actually. The portion of the road we were on actually went out another 20 yards, turned left, went about 40 yards, turned left again, and went another 25 yards to the house.

If you're not catching what i'm saying here, we got stuck about 40-odd yards from the house. SO CLOSE!

The field we crossed was pretty frozen and we got to the house within just a few minutes. Katya's incredibly cute puppy, Lyma, was waiting as we went in the front gate. We got into the house, (leaving shoes outside, of course) Katya found me some temporary pants, and showed me where the bathroom was.

Soon after we were all seated in the kitchen of Katya's parents house playing the "feed the guest" game. I love this game. It starts with me being asked if i want to try something, and ends with me being completely stuffed.

I swear - i have no idea how i'm not 30 pounds heavier with all the incredible food i ate while i was in Russia. At Katya's parents' house, we had soup, salad, kolbasa, compote, (water with crushed fresh fruit = hella yummy) etc etc etc etc etc.

Dima asked if i wanted to walk around and get pictures before it got dark (which it does around 4:30pm) and i quickly agreed, if only to get some time to digest before the main dish was served.

We found me a new pair of boots (mine had been hosed down and were drying) and I swore that it was no problem - they would totally fit. They were the largest boots they had at any rate, so there wasn't much option. My feet are about 12 and a half to 13, depending on the shoe. These were NOT 13-size boots. I don't even think they were 12. As i jammed my feet into my new footwear i couldn't help but feel like i was having my feet wrapped ancient Chinese style.

We walked around the house and Dima and Katya showed me a bit of the property. The house had been built by Katya's father ("hand-made" was our word of the day) and the property around it was basically a small farm. We walked over to the far side of the house and over to a long wooden box which was raised off the ground and had a number of small wire mesh doors all along. Inside this long box were a number of adorable, fluffy, cute bunnies. AKA, the main plate for dinner tonight.

I held one of the cute bunnies and tried not to think about whether not i was hungry as i put it back. A comedy bit about "cute animals" came to mind:

"What are you?"
"I'm an otter."
"And what do you do?"
"I swim around on my back and play and do cute human things!"
"You can go."

"And what are you?"
"I'm a cow."
"Get on the truck."

Across from the fluffy bunny kennel there was another one-floor building which wrapped around toward the house a little bit. The segment of this building which was closest to the road was the garage, followed by a storage room where all the wood was kept.

I should elaborate a little on this room, because even though it's something that i'm sure exists in many places, it was the first time that i've ever seen a room filled entirely with logs of wood. I mean, we're talking at least ten feet from wall to wall, and 14 feet to the ceiling, and it was ALL WOOD. This was when the "hand-made" thing started to really kick in for me. This wood wasn't purchased - it was cut and stored. Of course there was probably help, but it's not like they went down to the local Costco, picked up a couple of logs of pretreated wood and a few bricks of Firestarters. It was really quite humbling.

From there we passed the banha (since i'd be going there later) and went into the last part of the building - the petting zoo. OK, it wasn't actually a petting zoo, but there were chickens, geese, and even a goat. I mean, this may not sound too crazy to anyone who's ever lived on a farm, but to a city slicking suburbanite like me, it was pretty wild. (especially the geese. heh heh ... get it? wild geese? wild goose chase? hah hah ... hah ... ::ahem::)

The next and last stop was the root cellar. I've never actually been in one of these, and i'm not even sure that i'm calling it the right thing. From the outside it looked like a house buried in the ground. There was a large mound in the soil as if a giant had been buried there, with what looked like a neck coming out of the ground and ending in a door. We opened the door and walked in slowly. It wasn't exactly sunny outside and we were going into a lightless tunnel, so looking forward all i could see were a few hints of steps and a black maw of nothingness beyond what seemed to be the square shape of a door frame.

It's not that i'm afraid of the dark - i just prefer the light. Chuckling a bit at this "preference" but otherwise without a second thought, i proceeded first down the steps toward the void below. The tunnel was steep and the ceiling very low - it was almost as small as those little short-range planes i get on sometimes. ... almost. The benefit here was that there were no annoying television screens for me to duck under.

The bottom was about 12 steps down (enough to be sober at the bottom, hah hah) and was not quite as unfathomably dark by the time i got down there. Well, at least it was light enough that i could see what looked like another step just beyond the door frame with absolutely nothing beyond that. After a moment's hesitation and a bleak imagining of what might happen if i was wrong about what lay below, i stepped solidly onto the ground i had hoped would be below the last step.

After a second or two of looking around in total darkness, i looked up the tunnel to see Katya following me down ... much more confidently, of course. She reached just inside the door frame and turned on the electric light. I was in a room about 20 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 8 or 9 feet high - enough that i had no need at all to duck.

The walls were lined with large wooden bins that went almost all the way to the middle of the room, leaving about a 2 foot corridor between them where you could walk. They were FILLED with foods that had been stockpiled for the winter. The most prominent were the potatoes, but there were also sacks with other veggies within the bins. On the walls there were several jars of jams, pickles, etc. When i say that almost everything i ate while i was in Russia was home made, i really mean it.

After a few more moments looking around, i turned back to the (now very bright!) tunnel and started back up.

While we had been in the house i had mentioned that the night before we'd been playing around with a pneumatic rifle. Katya's dad had one at the house, so Dima, Katya, and I took turns shooting at a big plastic bottle full of water.

After about 15 minutes, Katya's mom called us in for dinner, so we abandoned our sharpshootery (it's a word, now) and went on in. Dinner was delicious and consisted of potato puree, rabbit, salad, and a bunch of other things including some delicious compote. (water with fruit)

After we'd all had our fill (Katya's mom is a wonderful cook) we sat around talking for a while and looked at some pictures of Katya's family. It was Katya's mother's oldest brother's birthday, and they would be heading over to see him soon, which is i think why they had the pics out. Katya went ahead to the banha and not too long after that Dima followed and told me that when Katya came back it would be my turn to head into the banha.

A few minutes after Dima had left, Katya came back and told me it was time to go. Before i left, though, she gave me a warning: "Don't be worried, but Russian banha no clothes."

Well i sure as hell wasn't going to back out now just because of a lack of clothing. I came to Russia to experience Russia, so my motto sprang to mind ("What the hell") and i walked out the door to the banha. It wasn't dark yet, so i had no problem making my way back around the house to the banha. I think i must have cursed my boots about 10 times walking around the house, because they felt even smaller than the first time i put them on.

I reached the banha, knocked, and went in. Inside was a room about 5 feet by 8 feet and around 7 feet tall. There were wooden benches along the wall opposite the entrance as well as the one to the right. There was also a naked Dima. Well, with the exception of a large hat whose function i'm still a little unclear on ... all i know is that it was tall and looked woolen, so that it looked like a fuzzy wizard's hat.

I disrobed and followed Dima into a door just to the side of the one i came in. The door was much smaller (so that i had to duck quite a bit) and led into what may have been one of the hottest steam rooms i've ever been in.

There was a bench to my left where there were several large ladles as well as a number of soaps and shampoos. On the floor in front of this bench there were two large buckets full of water and two wooden stools. The wall across from the door i'd come in had a large multi-tiered bench which stood about 4 feet high at its tallest point. Across from that (and directly to my right) was a huge, cylindrical metal furnace with a square outcropping on its right side.

Dima took a ladle of water from the square on the right side of the furnace (which was apparently for warming water) and tossed it into the furnace. The room became perceptibly hotter. Dima took another ladle and tossed it in. The room became really freaking hot. Dima asked if it was OK or if he should put more, and of course (because i'm crazy) i said "Go ahead one more time."

As the water on the last ladle was tossed into the furnace, (and i thought my flesh would melt) Dima told me to lie on the top-most level of the bench i'd mentioned earlier. He explained that this was because it was hottest there, since it was high up and directly across from the opening in the furnace.

"Hottest? I'm not sure if i can handle any hotter," i whined, then got up on the bench, where Dima told me to lie face down. As i lay down (and became convinced that my children would have an unexplainable dislike of heat) Dima picked up what looked like an old fashioned broom with a very short handle. The difference was mainly that the broom itself was made of branches with leaves on them. I seem to recall remembering at this point that i'd seen these before, and that the leaves were very fragrant. That was about 2 seconds before Dima started hitting me (not too hard) with the ... well ... whatever it was. When he was done, he handed me the contraption and i did my front.

After that we hung out for a little bit, then went back out into the changing room. Dima explained that you normally do this many times - go in, overheat, go out, cool down. We ended up going through this process about 3 times, then on the last time we stayed in the banha and Dima showed me what the buckets and benches were for.

We each sat down on a bench and used the soap, shampoo, etc to wash off, taking ladles of water from the buckets to rinse. Once we were done, we dumped the remaining water in the buckets over our heads to finish rinsing. After that we walked back out to the changing/waiting room, toweled off, hung out for a bit, then dressed and went back to the house.

When we got back, Katya's family had left to go to her mother's brother's house. I was sad about that because i'd wanted to say goodbye and thank you for all their kindness and generosity. Katya's father had even cleaned all my clothes to get all the mud off them!

We sat around and talked and drank tea and ate a little more, then watched their wedding DVD. I'm not sure how representative their wedding is of a "normal" Russian wedding, but it was certainly different than what would be considered a "normal" American wedding.

There was a small reception outside of the room where the wedding was to take place. Then everyone walked into the wedding room except the bride and groom. They walked in together once everyone was settled in and were married by what looked like a non-religious officiant. After that, there was another reception for everyone to shake hands and kiss and hug. The bride and groom went off to take pictures after that (with a LOT of photographers!) and eventually met what looked like just their family at a restaurant.

Not too long after the video had ended, we decided to try our luck with the car and mud and see if we couldn't make it back to Izhevsk. We gathered our things and got changed, then made our way out into the dark outside. I decided that this time i would roll my jeans up of my own accord before we left.

Saying goodbye to Lima, we locked up the house, turned off all the lights, and got into the car. We idled for a little while to let the car warm up, then started off into the mud. Thankfully, we didn't get stuck again ... until about the same spot as we'd gotten stuck the first time.

To the left of where we'd gotten stuck, there were two wooden beams on several concrete blocks to keep people from avoiding the mud by driving on the side of the road. We cleared those out of the way (rules? bah humbug!) and gave the car a good shove. Dima didn't stop the car until it was well safe of the mud, and Katya and i put the "road block" back up.

Still feeling wonderfully good after the banha, but officially exhausted from the weekend, I silently lamented that this was my last weekend in town as we rode off to Izhevsk. As we went, we passed a wedding party on one of the bridges that we drove over and Dima explained that there is a tradition of visiting/crossing seven bridges after the wedding for good luck.

We eventually got back to Izhevsk and i finally managed to guide Dima to the correct road to get me to the entrance of the apartment. When the car was stopped and everyone was out, i gave Dima and Katya hugs and thanks for everything they'd done, and asked them to please thank Katya's family for me as well.

Reluctantly i turned away and opened the door to the apartment building, waving goodbye again as i turned and walked in.

The weekend was by no means over, but i felt like i'd just had enough weekend to last me for a while. And i mean really, are your eyes even still working?

I definitely have to mention that on Sunday Irina and Sergey and I walked around downtown a little and went to the zoo, then we went to Irina's parents' house and i was ridiculously well fed again. I also had the pleasure of Irina's parents' company - they're really great people!

Pictures of most of what you've read here can be found at my Picasa site - link on the right side of the page. (as well as right here)

OK, that's enough writing for now. Next stop on the blog train? My last day in Izhevsk and two days in Moscow!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Trip Within a Trip

So this weekend i went to Yekaterinburg to tool around and meet up with a new friend.

That's pretty much the gist of it. If you think i'm long winded, you've now read pretty much all the important stuff. If you like to excercise your eyes, by all means continue reading :-D

----Part 1----
--Trams and Trains--

So this was my first major trip since i got here, and i was a teensy bit nervous about it on the way to the station. I had purchased 3rd class tickets and was a little nervous about what it entailed. Irina had instructed me on how to get to the station - either tram 1 or tram 9, but i was obviously still a little unsure. The last time i thought i knew what i was doing on a subway train/tram i ended up *walking* into JFK airport. ... that's a different story, though.

So i took my backpack full of spare clothes and food and headed off. The tram took about 20 minutes, 15 of which were pretty nervewracking because i had been under the impression that the station was much closer. I had also thought that Irina said something about "before the tram stop", and one of the stops that i went through was call "tram depot." So obviously i was not under the impression that this was some new store where you could buy trams, and i was worried.

All for naught, though, i got to the train station about 10 minutes (felt like hours) after that, hopped off, braved traffic (which is what you do EVERY time you cross the street without a crosswalk/light here ... well anywhere really) and walked into the train station.

The clock said something like 16:25, which was plenty of time because my train doesn't leave until 18:15, right? Wrong. You see, all the train schedules here run on Moscow time, which means that my train actually would be leaving at 17:15 by the train station's clock. (for those of you who need help on this one, let's just say that i didn't have as much time as i thought)

So suffice it to say that i was pleasantly surprised when i heard a voice saying over the intercom that my train was going to be leaving at 18:15. Awesome, right? That means i have more time!

So i go into the station, and instead of cutting in front like i was apparently supposed to (since i had already bought tickets) i waited in line. After all, i was in no hurry. When i got to the front of the line, the woman pointed at my tickets, and pointed at my passport, and said, in effect "They spelled your name wrong on the tickets. I can't accept these."

Once i'd blathered a few incoherent words in what i thought was Russian, she took pity on me and re-issued the tickets with the correct name. While i was waiting, i heard someone to my left a few lines down speaking what i thought was English. Once i'd confirmed that it was not just English, but ::gasp:: *NATIVE* English, i immediately piped up.

The following is an exact transcript:

Me: (loud voice, which means everyone within two blocks heard it)
"So where are you guys headed?"

American dude:
"Holy shit!"

Not only had he just encountered another American, possibly the first one of his journey, but said encounter had occured in Izhevsk.

This would be like meeting a man from Taiwan in Alaska. Maybe not the best of odds.

After i'd concluded the business with the tickets, I headed over to get acquainted with my fellow foreigner. After all ... i had plenty of time! So the above mentioned man's name was Scott and he is a resident of Savannah, GA, or thereabouts.

He was here in Russia visiting his wife/girfriend/friend (not sure) and was just passing through Izhevsk. (i believe)

He was heading to St Petersburg, which is where he'd flown into. Apparently he'd heard many nasty stories about Moscow and decided to skip it entirely. I seem to have had a little more Russian vocabulary than him (or so i thought i heard him say) so i can only imagine what *HIS* trip in must have been like!

Apparently his Visa would be expiring a few days before his flight, so he had to change his travel plans to skeedaddle before the fuzz decided to keep him around for a few more weeks. Not in jail, mind you, but he wouldn't be re-imbursed or anything.

Scott and i traded a few anecdotes about our experiences, and he related to me that one should never cross one's legs on the bus or subway. I have yet to discover why, because it was at this point that a nice young lady interrupted the conversation and said to Scott's female companion what turned out to be a very helpful suggestion.

To paraphrase: "Tell this young man that his train will be leaving in a few minutes, and he might want to go get on it."

Saying a hurried goodbye and rushing out the door, i realized (too late!) what had happened: The announcement was for Izhevsk time, not Moscow time. So even though the clocks in the train station said 17:10 (five minutes!!) it was actually 18:10. The announcement wasn't saying that the train was late - it was saying that it had arrived and was boarding!!

I ran past car 11 (my car) about 3 times before finally spotting the number in the window. I hurried on and started hunting for my seat.

This might have been an easier task to accomplish had i any idea where the berth number was on the ticket.

I walked back and forth through the car, focused intently on finding a number (ANY number) on the ticket that looked like it matched the berth format.

Eventually i gave up and hunkered down in a likely (ie empty) spot and decided to wait until a good time to ask, or a good time to pretend this was my spot. A man came by dropping off sheets and asked if i wanted one ... or something. I'm not really sure. (it was loud and he talked fast) I stammered out something like: "I .. uh .. ya ni znayo gdia ... uh .." At which point the nice man took my ticket, found my berth, and took me there. (long story short .... too late!)

The people that i was on the train with were very nice. After we got through the initial "uh, um, ni panymayoo" stage, they started talking to me in small words that i could understand, and we talked a little about what i was doing here, where i was staying, where i lived in the US, etc. I showed them some pictures and explained who all everyone was, etc etc etc.

I spent a bit of time reading and then tried to vault up into my berth. Vault is quite accurate, i think, because the unathletic and/or uncoordinated might find getting into their assigned sleeping space a bit ... ehm ... challenging.

As did i.

There was another man in our area, and he had the same problems as i did. I got the impression like even though he spoke fluent Russian (from what i could tell) he may not ever have been on one of these trains before.

So in all there were four of us. Vlad, Ludmilla, and the unnamed third, with whom i really didn't speak, but we shared a pretty hilarious secret between us.

How do two people who don't speak share a secret? Let me explain.

It was hot on the train. Very. Hot. I don't know if there were just too many people on there (there were quite a few) or if the heater was working overtime, but it was most definitely too hot.

I woke up in the middle of the night and wasn't able to go back to sleep. Vlad and the unnamed stranger shared my fate. (Ludmilla was fast asleep WITH A BLANKET!)

So Vlad heads out to go have a smoke, and the unnamed stranger and i exchange several "ochin jharka"s as if those were the only words in the dictionary. Then, as if connected by some kind of mental mooring which has arisen out of dire necessity, we both turn to the window, and stare intently at what looks like a handle.

After giving a silent nod to each other, he grasps the handle and pulls. ... to no avail. Me being the crafty sort, i start looking for a mechanism which might need to be activated to budge the handle. I put my hands over EVERY INCH of that thing and found nothing.

We took turns shoving, pulling, pushing, prodding, jamming, wiggling, and even twisting every part of the window that we could find and succeeded not a wit.

Frustrated, i gave up and hopped down from my bunk. Burying my head in my hands on the not-so-soft comforter on my berth, i noticed an odd thing.

A sign.

This sign had a picture and three words on it. The second word was "window". The picture was of a man. The last word was "exit". I don't think i need to clarify at this point that the man in the picture was running in the direction of an arrow which was pointing to our window.

I stifled my laughing fit long enough to point this out to the unnamed stranger, and we both burst out fit to split. I'm amazed that Ludmilla didn't wake up, though anyone whose dreams can survive the inferno that was the inside of our train can probably survive a few uncontrolled guffaws.

I never mentioned the window to Vlad or Ludmilla, and as far as i could tell, neither did he, but every time we looked at the window and caught each other's eye it was pretty hard not to get laughing again!

I'll skip some of the more trivial parts of this part of my journey, but i want to make sure that i point out how friendly all three of the people i sat with were, and how i didn't feel at all threatened or frightened on the train in 3rd class as i thought i might.

Dang. I can't believe i've written so much and i haven't even gotten to Yekaterinburg yet. If you're still reading this, you either read very quickly, or you should go give your eyes a break. :-)

----Part 2----
--Arrival in Yekaterinburg--

Once the train arrived i was faced with another situation where i knew nothing of where i was or what to do next. Since following the crowd and then following my instinct has served me pretty well thus far, i figured i'd stick with that model and get going. Sometimes it's easier to get where you need to go (even if you don't know where it is) if you just act like you know what you're doing.

So i pop out of the station and head out into the cold and dark morning. My train had arrived after 8am E-burg (pron: yo-burg) time, but the sun had yet to make any real impact on the night sky. Turning to the left, i walked determinedly toward some neon signs. It was a quick decision, and not the best of ones. You typically don't want neon signs to guide you unless you know where you're going anyway. I continued walking in that direction until i was past the taxi drivers so i didn't look (as) lost and confused, then doubled back and decided to head towards the area opposite the Vokzal (train station) entrance.

The weather was not warm. It certainly wasn't as cold as it could be, but what with the lack of sun and all, it was a bit nippy - mostly from the wind. I ducked down into an underground passageway behind another group of people. I passed a few obvious tourists, but decided to stay my tongue. Even if they were American (or English-speaking in any case) they were heading toward the train station, which meant they probably wouldn't have time for idle banter.

Guessing at every step where i should put my foot next, i ended up on the main street, aptly named after the city: Свердловск. This threw me at first, because i'd forgotten that Sverdlovsk was Yekaterinburg's name, originally.

Finding myself on what was obviously a well-lit main street, i shifted my focus slightly away from looking like i knew where i was going. I spared quite a few glances at quite a few shops without stopping at any. Most seemed to be closed anyway, opening only at 9am. I tried in vain to find a place that would likely have maps of the city AND speak English. I'm sure they were there, or nearby, but i didn't see them.

I walked for about 5 minutes and ran into the beautiful Church of All Saints which even in the muddled gloom of the dark, cloudy morning, looked almost as good as the pictures had promised.

I took a few photos and walked up to a map in an information kiosk. I found the cathedral pretty quickly, then found a building close to it and figured out what direction i was facing, and then found the "You are here" marker. Except that the marker was IN THE WRONG PLACE! I figured i'd just keep walking along the same route, since a straight line is easier to follow back. It would be pretty easy to get back to the train station to meet my new friend Vera.

Vera's train would not be coming in until some time around 11:30, so i had some time to putz around by myself still. As far as i could tell before my phone quit on me, it was only around 9 am.

I continued walking and walked through a large intersection. Without really knowing or caring which way i went (i was starting to think of heading back) i ended up on a less-well-lit more residential road. Think "brownstones" in NYC. I figured i'd turn back and walk back to the train station to check on Vera's train.

Once i got back, i also stopped by a public toilet. I will leave out my experience - suffice it to say that it was quite ... um ... different. Not so different from France, mind you, but this was in a kind of store/port-a-potty. Imagine if you went to a QT and the bathroom stalls were off to the side in the main area. (not within a bathroom) That's about what it was.

Now don't go getting the idea that this is everywhere, cause it's not. I just thought i'd relate this one since it was so ... unique.

OK, so, off to the station. No news on the train, and my phone was on the fritz because of the cold, so i had no way to communicate more than bits and pieces with Vera. I bought an orange Fanta (which tasted different, btw ... more bitter maybe) and figured i'd wait a bit and warm up.

Once i'd warmed up sufficiently, i put my phone in my glove and put on my glove. I figured that this was the best way to restore the battery and phone to working order. (and, btw, it worked)

It had gotten light out while i was walking back and waiting in the station, so i decided to try my luck on the road which ran perpendicular to the main street that i'd walked along.

When i don't know where to go, i like to play a game i call "Let the green man tell you where to go." This game involves walking up to an intersection and going wherever the green man is. You might know the green man by his nickname Walk, but it's the same guy. So i turned, walked across the street, and kept going. I was now parrallel to the main street i'd been on earlier.

This was NOT a main street. It was NOT full of shops. It was NOT the kind of road you go for a stroll on late at night. (well, maybe if you know the city ... and you have mace)

I walked along, treading on a strip of my jeans which had been bound up and then come loose. (I eventually cut it off and now have it in a baggie. It is long and brown does NOT look like a strip of dirty denim... gross)

After passing a few run down buildings, a few apartment buildings, and what i think was a go-kart track, i arrived at an overpass which led onto a freeway. The sidewalk to my right led back into the downtown area, and would eventually hit the main street i'd been on, so i took it.

I was stopped by a young man and woman and asked something - in my paranoia i replied that i didn't understand and hurried along. After thinking about the words and question some more, i realized that they'd been looking for building number 20 on the street we were on and wanted to know if i knew where it was. I noticed the building numbers and turned around to tell them, but they'd walked away and were heading in the other direction.

I decided to play the green man game at the next intersection and ended up on another main street parrallel to the one from before. I passed a restaurant called the "CCCP Restaurant" which was in a large building opposite a war memorial. The war memorial was for the soldiers lost in Afghanistan. (i have pics of most of these things on my picasa site)

I started walking toward the main street i'd previously been on and passed an Irish pub and a hospital-looking-kinda-thing. Instead of taking pictures of either of these, i took a picture of a large archway which led into an uninteresting courtyard. Because that's how i roll.

I ended up on the main street again and figured i'd head back to the train station, as it was getting close to Vera's arrival time. I took several more pics of the Church of All Saints on the way back and got a shot or two with the stark contrast of the beautiful church and surroundings over the backdrop of large commercial and residential buildings along with a few smokestacks bringing up the rear.

I made it to the train station a little late, but the board still didn't list a time for the train. It listed a platform, though, so i couldn't figure out what to do. I headed out to the platform and there was no train.

My glove trick had stopped working on my phone - it was again rendered useless by its faltering battery. I was able to text back and forth with Vera enough to find out that they'd arrived and were buying tickets. I walked into the ticket area and found no one. Further communication revealed that they were in the building next door. I guessed at which direction to go, found the right building, went in, and found no one I returned to the main station, thinking she might come to find me. At this point i remembered that she'd said "2nd floor"

Getting there, i walked up to the second floor, but again found no one. As i was starting to walk back, I heard someone shout my name and found Vera and her friends coming to meet me. They were 4 in total - Vera, Misha, Genya, and Vana. (Misha and Vana are boys - short for Michael and Ivan respectively)

After introductions, we all headed off to the Metro (everyone wondering at least once whether i'd noticed that i had a strip of jeans flying around) and Vera and i planned to go off on our own and meet back up with Misha, Genya, and Vana for dinner.

----Part 3----
--New Friends--

Vera and i started off by going to the Yekaterinburg duma and a large statue of Lenin. We talked about lots of things, including my insistance that we speak English. Maybe i should explain how i met Vera...

There's a website called SharedTalk which i was tipped off to by a friend (Mary) from the Russian Expat club in Phoenix.

The whole idea of this site is that there are people all over the world who want to learn a new language or practice an old one. So you sign up, fill in what languages you currently know and which ones you want to know, and VOILA!

In order to prepare for my trip, i started writing back and forth with several people in Russia. I can't remember whether i found Vera or she found me, but either way we started talking. Vera spent three months in the USA last year, and she has retained an impressive amount of her linguistic ability, though she's had limited practice since she got back.

Once i got here, we set about trying to figure out how we could meet up. She lives in Tyumen, which we discovered is not really very convenient to go to from Izhevsk. The train schedule deposits you in Tyumen around 7 at night, and the train the next day leaves at 2 or 3 pm. Not exactly a lot of good "talk and tour the city" time.

I looked at several schedules and pretty much the only one that made sense was Yekaterinburg, which i found out about quite by coincidence. Another person i'd been talking to online, Katya, (who lives in Izhevsk but i've yet to meet) had suggested E-burg as an option for something that i could do one weekend. As it turns out, E-burg is 4 hours closer than Tyumen, on the same train line!

So, end result, Vera agreed to meet me in E-burg to tour the city with me and practice her English :-)

This brings us back to our time in E-burg together, and why i insisted that we speak English. I figure I get practice speaking Russian every day, so it wouldn't make sense to speak Russian. I admit, though, that hearing her say and pronounce things in Russian was really quite nice. Maybe she has a slightly different accent or something than what i'm used to hearing?

So we walked around and tried to find the "QWERTY Monument" (i kid you not) and took in quite a bit of the city.

One of the many interesting conversations we had was one revolving around the holiday season in Russia. As you may know, the predominant religion in Russia is the aptly named "Russian Orthodox" branch of Christianity. I'll skip some of the more mundane details in favor of one that most of you will find quite interesting:

Christmas is on January 7th.

And that's not the most surprising thing, actually. What i found most surprising was the tradition of the Christmas tree. In Russia, the yolka (fir) tree is decorated and done up just as it would be in the US, but it's not for Christmas - it's for New Year's!

Take all the tree related things about the US Christmas tree (including the giving of presents) and you have the Russian New Year's Yolka.

Christmas is still a holiday, but it's more of a family get-together day, i think.

We talked about many things (ie Vera is a Marketing specialist, but she currently works as a recruiter) and walked more than i have done in a long time. We passed by a circus with a few rides set up outside and had a go at the bumper cars, which was super fun! I was surprised that we didn't have whiplash the rest of the day because i kept slamming the cars together at full tilt! :-D

We stopped for lunch in an Italian restaurant, though Vera and i both agree that though there is a distinction in Russian between a restaurant and a cafe, there is no such distinction in the US. For example: Would you call MacDonald's a restaurant? Maybe so, maybe not, but the word for it is "Fast Food Restaurant".

In Russia, a restaurant is a place where you put on some good duds and expect a bit of fine dining. A cafe is a place where you can go and eat a quick lunch or dinner. But the food isn't restricted to just baked goods and coffee. For example, we ate at a place that in the US i would definitely call an Italian restaurant, but here it's considered to be a cafe.

So we ate at an Italian cafe and Vera gave me a great travel book all about the Tyumen region. I'm not sure what to call it, because even though in the US every state is a "state", in Russia, they might be a "Republic" or an "Oblast", etc. In either case, the book is all in Russian, but i'm excited to try my hand at reading it, especially since i wasn't able to visit Tyumen.

We split a (small in the US) pizza with salmon and several dollops of a very yummy and very creamy cheese. I would guess that it was goat cheese? Not sure. I ordered cream of mushroom soup (soup of the day) and a coffee with Irish cream and Vera had a chai. I really should point out that when i say "I ordered" it really means that i told Vera what i wanted in advance and she had to do the work :-D

We chatted, warmed up from the cool street, rested our feet a bit, and looked at the pictures i'd brought with me of my family and friends. After we were good and ready, we struck off into the street again.

After a while, we decided to stop by a liquor store and pick up a "Jaguar" (energy drink) for her, and a Bud for me. Yes. A Bud. There was no Bud Light or I guarantee i would have gotten that instead :-) It's not that i wanted American beer - i've already tried several Russian ones and liked them quite a bit. It was that i wanted to know what American beer tasted like here in Russia.

I think i already related how different Guiness was, and if i didn't then i just did. :-) Bud was definitely a little different but not much. Though admittedly i mostly drink Bud Light, so i'm not too familiar with how Budweiser usually tastes.

We stopped for a while and chatted and listened to music as we drank on a bench on the street. (no paper bag, and Vera opened my bottle on a post for me) Vera and i share an unhealthy obsession with Sting, so she shared a version of "Shape of my Heart" which i'd never heard, as well as a few songs in Russian.

As we abandoned our bench and started looking for the restaurant where we would eventually meet Vera's friends for dinner, our conversation flipped from topic to topic (as all good conversations do) including the differences between American and Russian humor, my trip thus far, jobs, world economy, etc.

We failed to find the place we were looking for, so we stopped by a movie theater and sat on the bench outside. A woman approached us and asked if we'd be interested in doing some marketing research. Vera told her that we were just visiting, but the woman persisted. The woman said that if we had a phone number we could participate - to which Vera replied that we only had American phones. The woman seemed to doubt the veracity of this claim as Vera is obviously a native Russian speaker, so i chirped in: "Yeah - sorry, i don't really speak Russian..."

The woman nodded wisely and said "Ahhh..." then walked off. Vera and i congratulated each other on our brilliant performance, and eventually went off in search of the restaurant again.

Vera and i stopped by a mall with a fake wrecking ball sticking out of it (check the pictures) and glanced around a bit. It was my first Russian mall, but i won't go into detail because a mall's a mall'a a mall.

We walked into the Sushi place (Planet Sushi) and had a seat at a booth. (interesting, btw, is that Planet Sushi is owned by the same company as TGI Friday's according to the previously linked website) It didn't take too long for Misha and Genya to come along with their shopping bags, and Vana showed up soon after.

Everyone ordered Mojitos (Misha's was a double) and ordered Sushi, except Vana, who doesn't like Sushi. I think that anyone who knows me States-side would be amazed at how little i talk over here. Usually a complete chatterbox, i've really started learning how to listen more than talk. Of course it's anyone's guess how long it'll last once i get back to the US, but i hope that i'll retain some (if not all) of my newfound ability to use my ears more than my mouth.

As an aside, i think it's funny that i just talked about how little i'm speaking and how much i'm listening ... look at how much i'm *typing*!! :-D

I really had a good time hanging out at the Sushi place. Everyone at the table spoke and understood a little English, though some of them would never admit it. :-) I was able to understand what was being talked about most of the time, even if i couldn't figure out what was being said. Vera accepted the role of translator gracefully and generously, though she'd had to put up with my talking all day long already :-D

The sushi was good, though i only had an unagi roll (eel) which is rarely any kind of indicator of a sushi place, i think. I mean, it's cooked, so you really don't know about the freshness, y'know? I should have tried the salmon, but i guess i had a hard time thinking about all the cream in the roll in the picture ... i wanted little or no cream cheese. (and i wasn't thinking straight enough to just get sushi with no cream cheese or to take the cheese out after i got it ... sigh)

----Part 4----
--The Road Home--

Train time eventually rolled around and our waitress eventually brought the bill. To say that the service was a bit slow at this particular eatery might be an understatement. It wasn't that crowded, either, so i'm not sure what took so long. Interesting FYI: tipping isn't done off a percent, but as a flat "good job, here's 50 rubles" thing. I'm not sure about all the rules, but from what i understand that's about all there is to it. Good job, 50 rubles. Bad job, no tip. I think it's about the same for the taxi, but i think it's pretty rare to leave a tip for the taxi at all.

We walked back to the train station pretty quickly and i had my last minutes with my new friend(s) on the streets of Yekaterinburg. I couldn't help but get distracted by my thoughts as we walked along, wondering at all the different paths and opportunities that we all have throughout our lives. If you believe in parallel universes (as i am inclined to do) you might believe that for every moment, and every decision, there are infinite realities where the decision was made differently. For every moment, (not second, but moment) in time, there's potentially a place where everything is completely different - maybe even opposite.

I sometimes wonder about how a river forms. If everything is completely equal, then that river could have developed in an infinite number of places, shapes, and sizes. But all things aren't equal - the river took a certain path, and it wasn't all random. A pebble here, an incline there, a slight breeze along the way. It's not predetermination, but a string of optimal circumstances which form a path of least resistance. So the river wasn't destined to form a certain way, but it was more likely to form in one way than any other. (even if it's only more likely by a tiny margin)

Think of all those infinite realities and countless potentialities that i mentioned before as a boundless landscape, and every moment of your life as a drop of water. We don't have to live our lives a certain way, but there is a path of least resistance. This doesn't mean it's easy by any means. Ease of living doesn't play into it. It's more about living the right life than it is about living the easiest one. (Though something i do tend to believe is that the further you get from your optimal path, the harder life can be to live.)

Anyways, the reason i brought this up was that i was considering how different life would be if i was living in Russia. What life would be like if i'd been there for a while, or would be like if i were to stay after my trip was over. I wondered what it would be like to take the train with Vera and her friends to Tyumen instead of back to Izhevsk. I wondered about living in other countries. I wondered about what i'd be doing if I'd never gone on this trip.

I wondered.

I think that life is about having dreams, but also being able to see them for what they are, and choose only the right ones to follow.

And so i followed my path to the train station, laughing and talking with Vera and her mates along the way. I was getting to be late for my train, so i said a hurried goodbye to Misha, Genya, and Vana, then Vera and i rushed to the train depot. We found my train on the board, had a heartfelt embrace, and said our farewells as i backed away down the tunnel - the desire to go back for even just a few more minutes lingering in my mind until i was practically on the train.

I had an easier time of finding the right car and berth this time around, and was situated within a minute or two. I was sitting across from a mother and her sick child, and couldn't help bad for the kid. She was old enough to talk, but still very young - 3 maybe? 4 at the most. I offered some chocolate that i had in my backpack, but she was too sick even for that.

I decided to let the mother and her child alone. They were obviously not going to be entertained by any mundane attempts at conversation with my faltering vocabulary and difficult accent. For my part, i was still lost in the miasma of my thoughts. I took my iPod out, stowed my backpack under the seat, and hit play when i'd found what i was searching for: "Shape of my Heart".

I know the spades are the swords of the soldier. I know that the clubs are weapons of war. I know that diamonds mean money for this art, but that's not the shape of my heart.

I plunged myself into the music and only came up occasionally to swim over to a new song. I listened to most of my favorites by Sting including Fragile, Ghost Story, and Why Should I Cry for You, then anchored my thoughts to the opening verse of Brought to my Senses.

Alone with my thoughts this evening, i wandered the banks of Tyne. I wondered how i could win you or if i could make you mine.

The wind it was so insistent, with tales of a stormy South. When i spied to birds in a sycamore tree came a dryness in my mouth. For when without rhyme or reason, the two bird they rised into flight, and where the two birds flying i swear i saw you and I.

For those not in the know (ask Dr. Know, there's nothing he doesn't!) that was the song i sang for LuAnne on our wedding day. It used to just be a pretty song, but now it also reminds me some of the best things in my life. (which all begin with "LuAnne's", ie LuAnne's smile)

Thus we reach the end of the story. Nothing terribly exciting happened between when i woke up and when i arrived in Izhevsk. I got home safe and sound, crawled onto the couch, and had a nap for a few hours before starting to write this blog.

I think that this trip will be with me for a long time... maybe forever. I have Vera to thank for that, and for the fact that every time i look back on my trip to Yekaterinburg it will be fondly, and with great longing.