Thursday, December 29, 2011


Did you know that coral is an animal, not a plant? It's odd to think of corals as having any life at all. Personally, I'm used to thinking of animals as sentient beings. (The ocean is really watching us.) Male and female corals release sperm and eggs into the water simultaneously, 4-6 days after full moon in November and December. The sperm and eggs float near the surface in threads of pink goo. I might have seen some of the remains of this goo as I was snorkling in the Coral Sea the other day. The threads float around for a while, looking for a place to implant themselves, and when they do, they immediately start building their calcium shells.

Probably the main danger that divers face is nitrogen poisoning (not sharks)--the longer the divers spend underwater and the deeper they go, the more nitrogen accumulates in their bodies. Nitrogen poisoning has effects so freaky (divers going crazy in the water, or developing nitrogen bubbles under their skin) that apparently there was a Dr. House episode dedicated to it. Divers have to come to the surface very slowly, resting at shallower depths to help release some nitrogen from their bodies. Each diver these days is equipped with a computer that monitors their exposure to nitrogen. Taking rests between dives and spending only a few hours under water each day are all ways to avoid overexposure. The threat of nitrogen poisoning is also why divers are strongly discouraged from flying at high altitudes for 24 hours after their last dive.

The tourist industry in the town of Cairns seems to be prospering from this nitrogen business. People come from all over the world to dive at the Barrier Reef, and are forced to stay in town for at least one other day. That's when they discover that Cairns is surrounded by picturesque tropical rainforest, has zoos and botanic gardens, crocodile sanctuaries, and of course lots of shopping with local souvenirs, etc. And since many tourists are wary of driving on the opposite side of the road, they are shuttled and taxied around between the various attractions. We've met only one couple from the Netherlands, Jorrit and Audrey, who after the boat, are not flying out of Cairns, but renting a camper van and planning to take a week or two to drive to New South Wales. Even in the Cairns area alone, there are lots of fascinating things to see and do off the beaten tourist track. From working dairy, sugar cane, coffee and fruit farms to old gold prospecting towns and communities. I've seen the map, and it looks very exciting. Lots more to do during our next trip to Australia. This time, Dave and I shuttled around Cairns for three days (every time being the first ones to be picked up and the last to be dropped off), and so learning the geography of all the hotels and backpacker hostels in town quite well. There's Rydges, there's Coral Tree, there's contemporary-looking Trilogy, etc. etc.

Trapped in town (and tired after several action-packed days), Dave and I camped out at a cafe in town for the afternoon. It was starting to rain, but a warm, tropical rain. We sat outside, under the awning, Dave blogging and I writing postcards. Very quickly Dave made friends with the guy working the cash register, originally from Hamburg, he likes to spend as much time as he can in India playing around with obscure computer technology and building computer games. He was only in Austrlia for a few months, working for a friend who owned this cafe. According to him, the tourist business in Cairns was down, suffering in the last 2 years from the comparatively strong Australian economy that made the country particularly expensive for tourists from other parts of the world, more affected by the economic crisis. We couldn't quite tell: it was hard to know which shops were closed for the Christmas holiday and which for good.

As we were just about ready to leave and look for dinner, Dave spotted Erika--one of the divers from OceanQuest. She and her friend Alexandra (who is not a diver and didn't go on the ship at all) were meeting up later with more people who'd spent 2 nights on the boat and disembarked only an hour or two ago. We joined in, of course. We'd met everyone the day before, and shared a few meals on the boat together. There were 8 people at dinner, including us. Erika and Alex from Gothenburg, Sweden. Amanda from Washington, DC but lives in LA, Robin from Calgary, and Jorrit and Audrey from the Netherlands, near Amsterdam. We all ate at a central "Night Markets" area -- a food court with mostly Asian shops selling some local fish and various combinations of rice and noodles. After a day of diving (and snorkling) together, we really didn't know about each other except that we were all interested in travel and colorful fish and we all liked the desserts on OceanQuest--chocolate pudding and vanilla ice cream the day we were there, and pineapple cake with whipped cream the day we left. But meeting again after a day apart felt very much like we were reuniting with family members. We had dinner together, and then most of us also had gelato. Cairns is packed with ice cream and gelato shops -- there were about ten of them in the one block radius from the Night Market.

The next morning, Dave and I ran into Eugene and Katya, a Russian couple whom we also met on the boat and who were staying in the same hotel as us. Katya is originally from Kiev, grew up near Tel Aviv, and now the two of them live in Washington, DC, working as programmers. Together, we went to explore the local Botanic gardens and the rainforest, and then they had to get back to the hotel to get a taxi ride back to the airport. Dave and I went back to town for more gelato, and then we followed them to the airport.

As we were leaving Cairns, it started to rain with some force. Cairns is in the tropics, and that's what summer is supposed to be like there: days and days of monsoon, tropical rain. We got lucky with good, fairly dry weather. A few hours earlier, when we walked in the local Botanic Gardens, it was barely drizzling, rain coming down a few drops at a time. We saw lots of different kinds of palm trees and tropical plants, birds that looked like turkeys and chickens, a lake that is known to harbor crocodiles. The morning local paper reported that a python attacked a 2-year old boy. The day before, at a little zoo in a mountain village near Cairns, Dave got to huddle a koala bear, and we took a brisk walk through another part of a rainforest. Lots more to explore in the area, and hopefully we'll come back one day, with a camper van and more diving (and snorkling) buddies.

Dave has blogged about our day in Cairns here:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lone Snorkler at the Barrier Reef

So, you decided to snorkle at the Barrier Reef? It's odd why you, a young, able-bodied woman are abstaining from diving. But don't try to explain your reasons: they aren't good enough. There really can be no reasons (except for your own strong-headedness) why, given that you're already spending a night on a live-aboard diving vessel, you're not working on your diving certification. No, no, don't try to explain. You know that you're wrong to miss a diving opportunity this good. You'll get certified on the next trip. But for now, you're insisting on snorkeling, so here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

1. Most likely, you're the only snorkler on the live-aboard diving boat. No problem. You can swim wherever you like, completely alone. Hovering on top of the reef, you will see many of the same things the divers see, but likely, since you're without a guide or a buddy, you won't be able to identify what you're seeing.

2. Even if you're only snorkling, you still get a to don a wetsuit, so that you won't feel like you're standing out too much in your swim suit. You will also get a warning not to touch coral. Yes, in some parts of the reef, the water will be shallow enough so that you could dive down just holding your breath and touch fish or coral, but don't do it. Leave diving to the divers. The coral and the fish can be poisonous, and you're the only snorkler out at sea.

3. The shark that you see will be less of a shark because nobody has seen it with you (and can back up your story). Also less of a shark because you don't have an expensive underwater camera to document the encounter. Also less of a shark because you didn't find it in its den among the corals, but you let the divers find it, and then the shark found you. Even if in your own imagination the shark is more of a shark because you're the lone snorkler outside the boat, and the shark is going right for you, good luck explaining the experience to the divers, who have donned oxygen tanks and took several hours of training courses so that they can go to the bottom of the ocean and swim with the sharks. Your shark is definitely less of a shark.

4. You will make eye contact with giant, colorful fish, but you will be the one to get scared and run away. Proper divers, on the other hand, are not afraid of anything but their own equipment.

5. Snorkeling right on top of the reef plateau, you might find yourself uncomfortably close to giant purple lips of a clam that look ready to eat you. Everything within your arm's reach will look severely poisonous and/or sharp, but that's because you're a silly snorkler and don't know any better.

6. You might have a harder time seeing stingrays that stick to the sandy bottom of the ocean. If you do see one, it will be more or less by accident because you're not at the bottom of the ocean.

7. You won't see tiny, beautiful worms living in the sand or in the coral at the bottom of the ocean.

8. You might see a giant sea turtle, but it might be less of a turtle because of #3 amplified by the fact that nobody, even a snorkler, could be afraid of turtles. They are TURTLES! Haven't you seen enough movies, snorkler? Turtles are cute, cuddly animals. Turtles are your friend, snorkler! You might as well be afraid of your own shadow, snorkler, or of Nemo the fish.

9. It's entirely possible that snorklers like yourself give diving a bad name. Admit it, snorkler, you're just scared of everything. You're a) chicken and b) a stubborn chicken. Why don't you stop being so stubborn, and simply take a diving class with one of the certified instructors on board? Then you'd be safe in the company of other divers and won't be afraid of anything (except running out of air, getting disoriented at the bottom of the sea, losing your buddy, getting a nitrogen poisoning because of surfacing too quickly, and a couple of other technical details -- which are really nothing to be afraid of since you'll get your training). Stop being so silly, snorkler!

10. Good luck having your picture taken in the water by the ship's photographer. If he does happen to take it, you'll find it in the deleted items folder. Really, snorkler, you'd pay $18 for just one picture of yourself? How odd.

11. Everything about you is odd, snorkler.

12. Snorklers might not get a second helping of chocolate pudding at dinner. Just kidding. Chocolate pudding is for everyone.

Snorkling or diving, the Barrier Reef is a pretty spectacular sight. For a more in-depth view of it, read Dave's blog:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Talking to strangers

On Friday night, the evening of our first day in Sydney, Dave and I settled in for dinner at The Australian Hotel, a pub that attracted our attention by their large selection of pizza. The crowd spilled out on the sidewalk, some sitting at the communal benches all around the perimeter of the building and others standing around in groups and drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. One party left half a pitcher of beer on the table next to ours, and two young women who sat down to wait for their pizza gladly poored the remains into their own cups. Dave and I split a pie loaded with smoked salmon and shrimp, further afield from pizza as in cheese-and-tomato-sauce than we get even in California.

"California, that's where they have that pizza place... what's it called?" asked one of the guys at our table, having inquired where we were from.

"California Pizza Kitchen?"
"Yeah, that's right!"

Conversation temporarily halted. Dave and I share curiousity about people, especially when we travel--meeting people on the road is more or less the whole point of travel for us--and yet neither of us has a particularly easy time striking up conversation with random strangers. I get intensely shy and at the exact time when I get an opening to say "Hi" and "How do you do," I freeze up and run away. Dave is doing a little better than me. A few years ago, when I was doing a lot of travel to Russia, and Dave started making friends on his own and figured out mental tricks to overcome his shyness and chat up strangers at bars and parties. Still, we don't work very well together as a couple meeting new people. One particularly difficult moment was this summer, in Oslo, when Dave smooth-talked an old sailor into inviting us to a private party at a Literature Cafe, but I was too intimidated by the awkward social situation, and at the end we ran away.

At The Australian, we sipped our drinks and looked at the crowd around us. This is the thing to do in Australia around Christmas time--go out to a pub with some old friends.

"I want to have as much fun as they're having," Dave said.

I got up and went to the bathroom.

When I came back, he was chatting to Bill, Fred, Stu, and Patrick, our mates at the communal table. They were all in there 50s or so, locals, or from near Sydney, anyway. They were sort of curious about California, but even more curious about Russia. Bill's dad came from somewhere in Poland, and Bill had a long story about how he found somebody on Facebook with the same last name, but that person lived in Minsk, Belarus. So we talked geneology, and then we talked weather (which has been surprisingly cool in Sydney this summer--perfect for us), and then we talked things to do in Sydney for New Years (the most important question on our agenda for this trip, as far as I'm concerned), and also other hang outs and restaurants we should check out. Bill recommended No Names, one of the oldest Italian joints in the city, where they make their own pasta. (We tried to find it the next day, but it was closed for the holidays already).

And so, we were having fun, and then we had almost too much fun, when Dave and Bill and Fred somehow managed to turn our communal table over onto me and the other two guys. Glasses hit the pavement, two men completely drenched in beer, I escaped with only one wet toe, and what do you know, the guys wiped themselves off with napkins a bit, and then sat down and ordered another round.

Dave's blogging about our adventures here:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Synthesizing Knowledge

Ten or so years ago, my friend Johnnie and I got mired in an argument about the nature of time. It was Johnnie's opinion that time moved forward in a circular fashion, always repeating itself. Russian history certainly gives frequent causes to believe that, and yet, I protested, there's no reason to think that it can't also leap forward and develop in some entirely unexpected dimensions. Moreover, personal time doesn't need to adhere to the pattern of historical, or national time (national time, so arbitrary--who or what defines a nation, anyway?). I'd been living away from Russia for a long enough time already that I couldn't imagine myself being bound to its rhythms just because I had happened to be born there. I don't remember what geometrical model of time I proposed to Johnnie; anyway, this was not that kind of argument. Johnnie advanced his cause in rhymes, and I tried to respond in kind, by writing poetry.

In a way, what I argued against was a deterministic model of the future, a model that I felt would limit my ability to change simply by proclaiming that change was impossible or pointless. It's likely that this wasn't the point of view that Johnnie was advancing, but something I inferred and thought unacceptable. Time, the way I perceive it today, works more like sign in the de Saussure's model of language: it's arbitrary and the way it functions is determined more by social conventions than by its own inherent properties. Storytelling and literature are an important part of this mechanism, they are both formed by and form the social conventions that in turn determine our individual perceptions of time. The novels of high realism observe and structure the ways we see cause and effect and perceive our own lives in terms of plots and arcs. The post-modern novels that try to destroy the conventional notions of arc have to struggle with more than our ideas of what literature is, but also with our ideas of what time is. They are stuck in avant-garde; while time-travel and science fiction novels are too fully mired in literary conventions and offer intellectual food for thought without affecting our more deeply ingrained notions of time.

Somehow these thoughts might (but don't need to) relate to the fact that Dave and I are in Australia now. We landed in Sydney yesterday morning after a 14 hour flight that took us across the International Date Line and catapulted 24 hours into the future. It was the shortest 14 hours flight in the history of 14 hour flights -- we slept for ten of them, and then barely got a chance to do some reading. I read a few Julio Cortázar stories and was terribly disappointed by them (I'd never really read Cortázar before, but he'd been for years at the top of my lists). Maybe it's because I read him in Russian -- and lately I've started to notice that everything I read in Russian strikes me as slightly sentimental.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

InsideStoryTime Gods and Dogs

I'm reading at one of my favorite reading series in town, InsideStoryTime, with a bunch of great people: my Alia Volz, Peter Orner, Gary Turchin, and Sarah Ladipo Manyika (whom I don't know personally yet, but look forward to meeting). The show will take place on December 15, starting at 6:30 pm, at Cafe Royale. Here's the link to InsideStoryTime:

The theme is Gods and Dogs, and I'm thinking of reading from A Dark and Empty Corner, my story that recently appeared on Narrative Magazine, that features God as one of the characters. Or maybe I'll write something new by then about dogs.

Monday, October 10, 2011

It's Litquake week!

Check out my review of James Warner's novel All Her Father's Guns up on HTMLGiant. This is the third piece I've done for them, probably the most difficult and rewarding one to write.

Litquake is rocking the town this week. A couple of friends have been asking me for event recommendations, so I thought I'd post a few cool upcoming events below. Barely Published event on Saturday night was a blast; two fellow SFWW regulars Salvatore Zoida and Ken Yee made 200-something people laugh, yay!

October 10, 2011 - 7:00 PM
San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers and Quiet Lightning Present: The Greenhouse Effect Summer Reading Series, V.3
San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

October 11, 2011—12:00 PM
Lit & Lunch
111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna St.

October 11, 2011—6:00 PM
10 Years Later: A Granta Conversation
The Book Club of California, 312 Sutter St., Suite 500

October 12, 2011—7:30 PM
The Fighter and The Writer: Litquake presents The Barbary Coast Award to Ishmael Reed
Z Space, 450 Florida St.

October 13, 2011—7:00 PM
Flight of Poets
Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St.

October 14, 2011—7:00 PM
Jeffrey Eugenides at Books Inc. Opera Plaza
Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave.

October 14, 2011—8:00 PM
Nordic Noir: A Dark and Stormy Night of Scandinavian Crime Fiction
Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market Street

October 15, 2011—2:00 PM
Invisible City Audio Tours: Everywhere Man
Cable Car Turnaround, Market St. at Powell St.

And, of course, LitCrawl. Everyone must experience this, it's epic! Narrative Magazine will have an event in Phase 1, at 6 pm, at The Lab ( 2948 16th St). I'm definitely there :)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

03 and "you are here"

After a long string of event-packed weekends, this Saturday morning I got a few uninterrupted hours of reading. I picked up two short things, two little books I could quickly finish. Feels good to start off the weekend finishing things :)

The first book was a novella by a French writer, Jean-Christophe Valtat, 03, translated by Mitzi Angel. It's 84 pages long, composed in the form of a single, uninterrupted paragraph -- really meant to be read in one sitting, I think. I was reading it for over a month, a few sentences or pages at the time. Sometimes this was because the sentences were interesting and demanded a lot of attention; at other times, I picked the little book up between the multitude of other tasks, and flipped through the pages instead of really reading.

It's a thought-provoking novella -- a portrait of a young adolescent boy, attracted to a mentally disabled girl living in the same neighborhood. The tale is narrated by himself as an adult, from the remove of many years, maybe decades. Power and powerlessness of attraction are a major theme, as well as the binaries of uniqueness vs difference, beauty vs ugliness, suburbia vs city. Because of the way I read it, my impression of the novella falls apart into certain ideas about the quality of its translated sentences. This, for example: "Oddly, though, this made her face more lively -- she seemed really to face the world, and her gaze came at me as if by catapult." Whatever the phrase might read like in French, this noun/verb paring of face and to face works surprisingly well in English.

I related to many observations about adolescence on a very personal level. This, for example, starts with a cliche, and then dives into the depths of it: "The only good thing about childhood is that no one really remembers it, or rather, that's the only thing about it to like: this forgetting. What else could possibly lie beneath that blissful oblivion but shame: a dark knowledge of that terrible badge of weakness, that inescapable servitude (bearable only thanks to the slow revelation that we could inflict cruelty and evil on the weaker kids), a sickening awareness that just about everything there is to understand was beyond us, made even worse by the lies and inaccuracies that adults feel entitled to spread around, deliberately, or because they don't know any better, about themselves or about the nature of reality?" I love that this long sentence is a question.

The other book I read was a literary journal in which one of my own stories has been published. The magazine is called "you are here: the journal of creative geography," and it's published by University of Arizona's School of Geography and Development. (It's a print publication, and I'm waiting for them to update the announcement on their online page, but this hasn't happened yet). Their XIVth issue published over the summer was dedicated to the theme "Dislocation" that happens to define a few of my stories. What I really love about the smaller university magazines is their willingness to experiment with the genre. The editors of this magazine, for example, asked the writers for their permission to excerpt and edit the stories at will, and also to publish them without acknowledgments in the text, so the magazine reads as a work of a collective (if somewhat disturbed) mind. (Actually, it's not as radical as I thought it could've been: there's a table of contents at the back, and all the writers get their proper credits.)

My favorite part of this magazine, I think, is a poem the editors -- Majed Akhter and Tom Nurmi -- published together with a letter from an associate editor that recommended it for publication. "I want to advocate for consideration of this; given that it appears to be written by a non-native English speaker in a forced rhyme scheme. The formal layers sort of peel off from the content, as one is forced to do mundane interpretive work. ... To me, dislocation here would be linguistic, libidinal and unconscious..." I love the framework of this magazine that allows its readers to find meaning in something that's written in substandard language. I wondered if my own story in this magazine could've been interpreted in a similar way -- it's an older story, and rereading it now, I'm very aware of the extra layer of formality in every sentence that came from my lack of linguistic fluency. The story still sort of works because this peculiarity became a character flaw of my first-person narrator. First-person narrators are good souls :)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Portuguese Artists Colony: Toothless

Next weekend, on Sunday, August 28th, starting at 5 pm, I will be a featured reader at a local reading series -- Portuguese Artists Colony -- who always do a wonderful show with music and live writing at a local art gallery, Fivepoints Arthouse. The address of the gallery is 72 Tehama Street, near Montgomery MUNI/BART station. Come to see the show if you're around!

The theme of this month's reading is "Toothless" -- my first association had to do with aging, but I am trying to interpret the word more broadly. I am planning to read two very short recent stories. One of these stories, "The Weather in Dublin," was published by elimae, one of the oldest online literary magazines.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Priorities of two counter-hip yuppies spending three & 1/2 days in Denmark:

*) Roger Waters' "The Wall" tour in Herning, Jutland (a small town in the mainland part of Denmark, unremarkable save for the Messe Center -- the largest concert venue in Jutland. Next act: George Michael).

*) No fighting! You can have ice cream AND pastry.

*) Carnival in Copenhagen, a Brazilian festival ten years (and three months) past its prime. Copy dance moves from the Danish Brazilians.

*) Bicycle tour through the city. Avoid all castles and churches like the plague that had ravaged their walls, but do bow to the gravestones of Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen and then hop across the city straight to Christiania, the 40-year old hippie enclave.

*) You won't be admitted to Noma, the World's finest restaurant according to some (two Michelin stars and counting), but you can have the breadcrumbs at the bakeries and cafes that Claus Meyer, one of the co-founders of Noma, has sprinkled all around Copenhagen. A breadcrumb literally at the Meyers bakery in the Norrebro neighborhood, and then a couple of macaroons (French-style) and a chocolate-covered nougat at Meyer-owned Sweet Treats cafe in Christianshavn.

*) No fighting! Frozen yoghurt CAN be considered a meal.

*) Cheap out on bus tickets and walk everywhere.

*) Spend 1/2 hour each in three to four well-chosen museums. Avoid all mentions of the word "Viking" or "Royal Castle." What, you haven't seen large knifes and upholstery before?

*) Buy postcards and mail to all friends and family, preferably from the Post & Telegraph museum, but if it surprises you by closing in front of your nose at 4 pm, from the adjacent post office.

*) Amusement park Tivoli! Rides! H.C. Andersen fairy tales! A pantomime show! Waffle cones! Bathroom with jungle sound effects! Go there twice.

*) Eat bread.

*) Talk to locals. They know where the best beer is.

*) Cheap out and don't reserve seats on the train to Herning and back. Then, sit on the floor between two cars for three hours and try to sleep because you cheaped out on buses the night before and got back to the hotel when the sun was already rising.

*) Pack for day trips without any regard for possible weather. T-shirts all the way, even when the locals are piling on jackets.

*) Give due to the local traditional midnight snack: hot dogs and chocolate milk.

*) Find out where the local yuppies hang out. If you don't see them at the pub, maybe they are at a French-Canadian traveling circus show/live electronic music performance (w/ spoken word in English). Go see "Fibonacci," where you will be in the audience with 211 people, 51% male, 48% female, 41 years old, predominantly Danish, but also people from Sweden, Norway, England, Italy, South Africa, Malaysia, etc. The statistics will be a part of the show. You will feel right at home in this nomadic crowd, unattached at the moment to any homeland, doing cartwheels around heavy pieces of luggage.

*) Average lifespan in Sweden is somewhere around 82 years old. Consider moving there?

*) No fighting! There will be more ice cream in the next country.

Dave blogs about all of this in greater detail here:

Monday, June 13, 2011

The National Bestseller

Dave and I left St. Petersburg yesterday and flew to Copenhagen via Stockholm. Right now we're traveling across Denmark, from Copenhagen to a small town in the middle of Jutland, Herning. Tonight, Roger Waters is playing in the large music arena there, and we not only get a chance to see The Wall show in its European version, but also to step off the tourist path for a little while.

The last week of my stay in St. Petersburg was particularly hectic. Dave arrived on Sunday, and the days flew by in a whirl of visits with family and friends--and some sightseeing. Looking back, I think the most interesting event I attended that I didn't get a chance to write about was a literary award ceremony last Sunday. I got a pass to attend this ceremony because the people who run the event, Viktor Toporov and Vadim Levental, are also the chief editor and the associate editor of Limbus press, the press that published my second Russian-language collection in the fall of last year. The event was scheduled last Sunday afternoon, exactly when Dave was due to arrive from the US via Stockholm. My parents picked Dave up from the airport, while I sat among the "press" (according to the pass I'd been given) and observed the local writers and critics.

The award is called "National Bestseller," and when Viktor Toporov invented it 11 years ago, he gave it a slogan: "Wake up famous." The American term "bestseller" here doesn't signify that the book has been a popular choice of the reading crowd, vice versa -- the award is given by a jury of annually selected critics (literary, film, cultural) and fellow creative types. The idea is, I suppose, that (to use a Russian term) an "elite" book would receive a press moment and would then climb higher in the bestseller charts. The prize amounts to $10,000. However, a week prior to this ceremony, there was another ceremony called "Super Bestseller" -- staged in Moscow, the competition was among the ten previous winners of the "National Bestseller" who were competing for the title of the decade and the monetary reward of $100,000. (The award has very wealthy sponsors).

This was the second literary award ceremony that I've had the privilege to attend in my life. A little over a year ago, I was in the audience when the Northern California Book Award in the general non-fiction category was given to Tamim Ansary, the beloved leader of San Francisco Writers Workshop. That ceremony was held in the main lecture hall, the Koret Auditorium, of San Francisco's Public Library. The event was freely open to the public and the people who received the awards got a chance to read a few pages from their books. I remember finding the event very interesting, in large part because I was exposed to the work of the writers I hadn't heard of before.

The award ceremony of "National Bestseller" took place in the Winter Hall of a luxury downtown hotel in St. Petersburg, "Astoria." (During the Soviet Era, this hotel housed exclusively foreign visitors to the country). In the foyer the guests were served drinks (wine, champagne). Many photographers with large cameras were taking pictures of the illustrious crowd, creating the atmosphere of a "high class" event. I mingled with a few people I knew socially until the doors to the hall were opened, then found a seat in the back of the room. The two MCs, Artemij Troitskii and Julia Aug, introduced first the organizers of the prize, Viktor Toporov and Vadim Levental, then the books and the members of the jury. Troitskii (who is a well-known media personality) was playing the "comic" to Aug's "straight man," except Aug seemed very nervous and sometimes got confused about the order of things. Victor Toporov didn't help much by yelling out corrections from his seat to the side of the stage.

Toporov made an introductory speech, in which he characterized the authors of all six books up for the prize as "romantic characters." This is actually something that I've been thinking a lot about lately--contemporary Russian fiction largely seems to answer Northrop Frye's definition of romance. As Toporov pointed out, five of the six novels have fantastical elements to them -- realism as a genre is not particularly popular with the contemporary Russian authors. Part of this is probably a reaction to the official Soviet genre of "socialist realism," part of it is escapism, and part something else that I can't quite define at the moment. In a very romantic pose, two of the writers didn't show up for the event, the third excused himself claiming a broken leg, and the fourth was present in the audience but didn't want to reveal her real name.

As an aside, of six novels up for the prize, five were penned by men and sixth came under a gender-neutral pseudonym, Figl-Migl (the English-language equivalent would be roughly "Hurdy-Gurdy"). In the course of the evening, it was revealed that the person hiding behind this pseudonym is a woman who wished to leave her true identity private. She, they said, was present at the ceremony, but incognito. The ratio of men and women was matched in the jury: one woman among six jurors. The jury had one extra member, the seventh -- the "honored juror," called to resolve ties. She, in this case, was also a woman, a notorious personality: Ksenia Sobchak. Ksenia Sobchak is the daughter of St. Petersburg's first mayor, Anatoliy Sobchak. The man was considered a hero during the Perestroika era, but then his reputation became muddied in the later Yeltsin years. He died young--too young--and whether he died on his own or if he had some assistance remains unknown. His daughter Ksenia, a public personality from a very young age, went through a very rough Lindsey Lohan-type period that included starring in some horrible Moscow-based reality shows. Now and then she appears on talk shows or in the press, and everything she says is immediately noticed and carries a tinge of scandal. In any case, her speech at the National Bestseller ceremony was very tasteful -- in general, she spoke as a professional, delivering her points in a calm and self-assured way, very aware of the impact her words might carry. She expressed some surprise at being invited to judge a literary contest, and then plainly stated her opinion about the two top books. The one thing I found odd about her speech was that she kept referring to herself in the third person: "Ksenia Sobchak thinks..." This created an impression that she treated herself as a brand, as a project, rather than as a human being, as an individual with an opinion.

I'd read or started reading four of the six books up for the award, but not enough to really form an opinion. The book that won the prize, Dmitriy Bykov's "Ostromov, or a magician's assistant," was one of the two that I didn't get a chance to read. Dmitriy Bykov is one of Russia's most prominent contemporary writers. (In fact, I heard that he was invited to lecture at UC Berkeley this coming fall). He's already won National Bestseller award once, and it's somewhat unlikely that winning this award the second time will bring him any more fame. Ksenia Sobchak giving her deciding vote for his novel, talked about it as a "good novel," the kind that has a well-developed plot. Nobody said very much more to recommend the novel. None of the writers (the two of them in attendance) had a chance to read from their books, and so indeed my general impression was that the competition wasn't so much about the books but about the writers themselves and their different poses and gestures, the romance of it all.

Meantime, Dave is blogging about our adventures in Denmark:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Fitness Club "Young Leninets"

In one word, I found Sochi charming. I spent three days there, and though the weather was unusually rainy and overcast, and though right now the city is one giant construction site, and even though I was trying to combine sightseeing by day with work in the mornings and in the evenings, the trip ended up being very relaxed and relaxing. To me, it had a sense of a place that is so far removed from the centers of my world (San Francisco, St. Petersburg) that if my everyday concerns didn't entirely cease to matter there, they at least lost much of their urgency. The funny thing about Sochi is that because of the Olympics it's very much in the center of public attention, and because of its status of the prime Russian resort area it has always been a destination. Sochi is also very important as a city that borders Abkhazia, one of the territories that have become centers of recent conflict between Russia and Georgia. Sochi is one of the Russian strongholds in the Caucasus mountain region--a city locked between the foothills of the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, once a very important military conquest for Russia and a center of a lot of social and military unrest. And yet despite its historical and current significance, despite all the trouble that's brewing in and around it, to the tourist, Sochi feels like a small city, a quiet Southern resort town. The tourist notices spas and potholes, tries to work around traffic jams and looks for a free bench to sit down and finish her ice cream or a cup of kvas. Sochi has lovely benches -- with unusually tall legs, so that when you sit down you can dangle your feet in the air and remember your childhood while doing so.

I visited four museums in Sochi, the Art Museum, the History Museum, the Dendrarium (an extensive Arboretum and Botanical Garden with trees and plants from all around the world), the museum of the writer Nikolai Ostrovsky. The Art Museum had a heart-wrenching photo exhibit, portraits of the children from the local orphanage. The curator of the exhibit told me that there are 64 pre-school children in the orphanage in Sochi, from the smallest infants to clever little kindergartners. The curator had gone to the orphanage with the photographer and her crew when they were taking the pictures, and she couldn't hold back the tears when guiding me to a picture of a little boy captured at the moment when tears burst from his eyes or to a picture of three little girls doing their best to sit still and to listen attentively to their lesson. "The children," the curator said, "were so touching, so sweet." The rest of the museum houses a collection of Soviet art by Moscow and St. Petersburg artists who over the years came to paint at the Sochi resorts; it also has more contemporary art by local artists who have grown up here and in a larger city, Krasnodar, the administrative center of this region.

Perhaps due to the time of day (I visited the museums either early in the morning or late in the afternoons) or to the fact that it's still very early in the tourist season in Sochi, I was the only visitor in all three museums, the Art Museum, the History Museum, and the writer's home. Each time, my appearance caused a flurry of activity: the ladies who guard the exhibit rooms (one lady per room, to make sure that the visitors don't touch or break anything) broke off their conversations and ran off to their rooms, turning on the lights everywhere, opening the protective covers on the showcases. In the Dendrarium I was not entirely alone but for large stretches of the walk it felt like I was -- they told me that they did have a crowd earlier in the day, but by now (I came two hours before closing time) everyone had dispersed. All of these museums in Sochi (like all the theaters in St. Petersburg and many art organizations throughout Russia) are fully dependent on government funding, they could not survive without this support -- they wouldn't know how to even try.

Another word I am finding useful in trying to describe Sochi is the word "province" in the Russian sense. Technically, in the old Russia this word described any township that was not a seat of administrative government of a region. For example, Sochi is a part of the administrative region with the seat in Krasnodar, a city on the other side of the Caucasus mountains, closer to river Don. I overheard conversation of a couple who were discussing the purchase of a flat in a new apartment building that's being built in Sochi. "The management company received all the permissions [necessary to build the apartment building] from Moscow, from Krasnodar, but in Sochi they got turned away. So now I don't know what they're going to do. Probably give somebody more pocket money." Since administratively Sochi is a part of Krasnodar region, and Krasnodar region is a part of Russian Federation, and all the administrative decisions are made in Moscow it's not surprising that the development of Sochi has been so tardy. If everything that has to do with local infrastructure, from road construction to telephony, postal services and all other government services has to be governed from Moscow via Krasnodar -- I can imagine that any new undertaking is not impossible but requires an astounding amount of paperwork and money to sweeten the officials' moods. This is probably one of the reasons why there are so few Moscow and St. Petersburg chains in Sochi -- the coffee shop and fast food and grocery store chains probably cannot or don't want to expand to this area. There are local cafes and fast food shops and grocery stores, but most of the reasonably priced ones are hold-overs from the Soviet era in appearance and menus (which is not necessarily a bad thing, personally I enjoyed eating there very much), and the modern, Western style cafes and restaurants charge prices ten times higher. One day, I could eat a full dinner for under 150 rubles in an old Soviet-style dining room (no bathrooms!), and the next day I'd go to a more modern restaurant and pay 500 rubles for just one dish. In St. Petersburg, the prices of both types of establishments have more or less evened out (not entirely, but as a matter of degree), and there are a lot more medium-range options.

Actually, the best place to shop for groceries in Sochi is the local open-air market. We bought strawberries and cherries, and souvenirs to take home: local spices, local tea (Sochi and Krasnodar Region is the only part of Russia suitable for growing tea and wine), churchkhella (a Georgian treat, nuts soaked in fruit juice). Prices are negotiable and people are friendly, talkative.

Two more notes on the curious condition of Sochi as simultaneously a province of an empire and a showpiece of the same empire. Since Sochi is also the location of many trade shows and conferences, the local hotels and clubs are used to catering to businessmen -- who, in their overwhelming majority, are business men, not women. Thus, for example, on every flat surface in the rooms and in the lobby of the hotel where I stayed (a nice business-class hotel, 4 stars), there was advertisement for the hotel's "Erotic Club 'Twilight'." To translate (as literally as possible), "'Twilight' -- a club of erotic fantasies and sensual temptation for those who truly appreciate the beauties of female bodies. Here you will find exquisite entertainment in the society of sexually appealing dancers. We offer striptease-show that lasts until the morning, a sea of alcohol, intriguing 'crazy'-menu and rather democratic prices."

Restaurant menus do exist in English -- the kind of English very similar to what Dave is finding in post-World Fair Shanghai and post-Olympic Beijing. "Cold fish for fish gourments." "Pizza: a pepperoni, a salami, the bulgarin pepper." "Milky cocktail: milk, ice-cream, syrup with your choice." "Coffee on the sand like turkish."

Leaving downtown on our way to the airport, we noticed an advertisement for a "Fitness Club 'Young Leninets'," a Western style fitness club for young people who believe in the work of Lenin -- the ultimate sign of the rapidly colliding worlds.

Meanwhile, Dave has joined me here in St. Petersburg and is blogging about it:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How the Steel was Tempered

One of the main museums in Sochi is the house of Nikolai Ostrovsky, a Soviet author who in 1930s wrote an immensely popular novel, "How the Steel was Tempered." These days, the novel is ill favored by the literary community. Sometimes, it's studied as a prime example of the "Socialist Realist" genre. Largely though people avoid talking about it because it's so charged with the communist doctrine. There's an ideological passion to this novel that makes it disturbing to people these days. I read it as a child--I remember enjoying it a lot, rereading it several times--but I haven't returned to it since. Ostrovsky's house is located on the street named "Pavel Korchagin," and I failed to recognize the name of the novel's hero in the street sign.

The visit was interesting on many levels, but one thing in particular stood out. (I think I knew some of this information as a child, but I have forgotten it since.) Ostrovsky started writing only when he became completely blind and paralyzed. He had arthritis--his Russian Wikipedia page says specifically that his symptoms would be diagnosed today as Ankylosing Spondylitis. At the time, the medicine could do nothing to relieve his symptoms, not even the pain. And he must've been in a tremendous amount of pain all the time. His spinal cord was probably entirely fused--he was bedridden for about the last ten years of his life. What might be worse, his eyes were inflamed, which means every tiny bit of light hurt him immensely. His rooms in the house (built only after the novel became a huge success with the people and the party leaders) were made of dark wood, the windows shaded with heavy curtains to ensure large periods of complete darkness.

The fact that he managed to write two lengthy novels while sick with this disease I find astounding, and in a way also exciting, encouraging. I must've known this story as a child, this is also why the idea of "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield" was always so attractive to me. "To find" in this context is to find pain. The museum guide who told me the story had tears in her eyes as she recounted the later parts of Ostrovsky's biography--even though she must've given the same speech hundreds if not thousands of times.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sochi, "City-Resort"

I've got an opportunity to spend three days in Sochi this week, and so here I am reporting from the Caucasus mountains region, from the shore of the Black Sea. If you haven't heard of Sochi yet, you will in 2014, when it will host the Winter Olympics. The running joke in Russia is that Sochi, the Southernmost region of Russia, has been picked to host winter sports. Is the rest of the country much too cold? Of course, all the Olympic stadiums are being built from scratch, and it hardly seems to matter what the weather conditions are like. The Caucausus mountains are topped with ice (lately, receding) and already house first-class skiing resorts. Another curious factoid -- Sochi is located at the same latitude as Nice and Toronto.

The climate in Sochi is actually characterized as subtropical--it's moderately hot in the summer (in the 80s) and humid. The city is laden with palm trees, boasts its own unique varieties of yew and boxwood trees. Administratively, Sochi is labeled as a city-resort -- it's hardly a city at all, but rather an agglomeration of Soviet-style health resorts stretching along a thin strip of land between the Black Sea and the mountains. The city, at closer approximation, breaks down into several small coastal villages (and one inland village, in the mountainous valley, where the Olympics will actually take place), united together in one administrative body. The downtown area is quite small, although it too is undergoing major construction before the Olympics. Construction of everything is booming in the area -- from new hotels and stadiums to new roads and bridges through the mountains to new apartment buildings and beaches. At the moment, it can take up to an hour to drive the distance that normally takes 15 minutes.

What immediately struck me upon arrival is how young a city Sochi is. The territory was acquired by the Russian Empire in 1838 as a result of a war with Turkey. The local peoples--Shapsugs, Circassians (?), other "Caucasians"--were pushed out or left on their own for Turkey and Iran, and later in the 19th Century settlers moved in from all parts of the Russian Empire, from Estonia and Germany to Ukraine and Russia proper. Later, closer to the turn of the 20th Century the area became developed for dachas -- country houses for the aristocracy and for the growing middle class. They formed the first spas and parks in the area. The administrative city buildings and most of the largest health resorts were built after the Revolution, starting from the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Soviet construction was only one of the historical layers imposed upon pre-existing cities, here the Soviet city plan and aesthetic is the basis upon which the contemporary construction is developing.

Talking about the Soviet aesthetic, there weren't brand names in the Soviet Union. A grocery store was simply called "Produktovij Magazin" -- "Grocery Store." A restaurant was "Restoran" or a "Stolovaya" -- "Cafeteria." A bath house was called simply "Banya" -- "Baths." If there was more than one restaurant in a city, they would be numbered: "Restoran N1," "Restoran N2," etc. In Sochi this is still very much so. The first thing I noticed across the street from my hotel (a contemporary construction by a Western chain) was a "Stolovaya" and a "Konditerskaya" (Pastries) across the street. A downtown bookstore is simply labeled "Knigi" -- "Books." The attractions that do have names, are named (by pre- or post- Soviet settlers) after other places: Park "Riviera," Cafe "White Nights." There's a general sense that changes of the new, post-Soviet era, came to Sochi much later than they did to Moscow and St. Petersburg (contemporary Russia, after all, takes after the Soviet Union in that all decisions and changes are usually transmitted from Moscow out to the peripheries), and that they are coming now, with the Olympic Games, in the proportion never seen before.

Upon closer examination, the "Konditerskaya" across the street from the hotel sells goods produced by a local pastry factory that does have a name, "Kaskad" -- "Cascade." (This is another peculiarity of the Soviet labels -- when things do have them, they are very arbitrary). I've tried to Google this factory, but came up with nothing. I'm quite sure though they have been in business since the 1960s or 1970s, because the pastries I tasted are very much like the delicacies from my childhood. Long waffle rolls stuffed with baked sweet condensed milk. Choux pastry with scalded creme. Eclairs. Quality eclairs are very hard to find in this world.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Borges the bookstore

At the end of last week, I attended two literary events at a brand new bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg--a bookstore with a telling name, "Borges." Unlike San Francisco and most other cities in the United States, St. Petersburg is experiencing something of a bookstore boom: in the fall, I presented my collection of stories at a brand new location of a local chain, Bookvoed. Now, Borges opened a block away from Bookvoed. A few more blocks away, there's a bookstore called "Poryadok Slov" -- "Word Order," selling "intellectual literature." This bookstore opened in January 2010, and I haven't had a chance to check it out. Perhaps this is because they (and the events they book) focus on non-fiction and film.

Browsing bookshelves on my first visit to Borges, I overheard a conversation between another customer and the administrator. The customer wondered why the store's inventory has changed so dramatically, and the administrator was confused because the store had only been open for two weeks. Eventually, she realized the source of confusion: Borges opened in the space previously occupied by an LGBT store "Indigo" (the term I overheard was: "the bookstore for sexual minorities"). Indigo is still in business, although they moved to a different location--the other part of Nevsky, closer to Vosstaniya. As far as I know, Indigo is the only store in the city targeted directly toward the LGBT community. When I started asking people about it, it turned out that some of my friends had heard of it--Indigo advertised on Nevsky as an Internet hot spot. They also sold (and probably continue to sell) a good amount of English-language books (hard to find in St. Petersburg), Russian-language books from smaller publishers, and stocked cute t-shirts and underwear.

Unlike Indigo, Borges does not (yet?) advertise on Nevsky (the store, although it has a Nevsky address, is located deep inside a courtyard, and is not visible from the street). Perhaps they advertise in other ways; as far as I know, they only advertise to the literary community. Does this mean that the literary community in this city is vibrant and wealthy enough to carry one more bookstore? I wonder. The two events I went to were attended both nights by many of the same people and certainly not all of them were buying books. I am really hoping this bookstore has a long-term business strategy that will enable them to prosper for years to come--it's a cute little space, selling excellent books, and friendly to the local authors. Yay!!

The first event I attended was dedicated to Phillip Roth. Two of his translators to Russian led the debate about the significance of the International Booker Prize he recently won. Also, one of his translators, Vera Kobets, has just released a book of short stories, and so the event was also meant to mark the publication of her book. The second event was dedicated to the publication of a new anthology that contains the work of Andrei Bely Prize laureates. The prize committee and a few of the current and past laureates were in attendance and talked about the future of the prize, the future of literature, and the future of the book. The consensus here is divided, some people think that most interesting stuff these days happens on the Internet, while others think that Internet is inundated by trash and that the only books worth reading are published in paper form. Interestingly enough, nobody mentioned ebook readers -- for one reason or another, they are not making as huge of an impact on book publishing here (yet?). One philosopher (with a large local following) argued that copyright in the contemporary world is becoming meaningless, that works are created by consortium of people and no longer by an individual, and that we're witnessing the complete breakdown and end of an era of individual authorship.

One thing I found interesting during both events is that both the authors and the audience were reluctant when it came to reading from the books. During the second event (the anthology release party), nobody read from the book at all and one of the authors even said "I don't want to bore everyone." During the first event, Vera Kobets did read a short-short (a tiny two page story), but also apologized in advance about reading in general and about the quality of this particular story (she said that its inadequacies are quite blatant but hoped that the audience might find this interesting). I bought both books, and have started reading Kobets's work over the weekend -- I'm enjoying it a great deal. The quality of the prose is impressive, there is a lot of character depth, a large range of subject matter. It's as good of a book as any I've been reading lately in Russian, and yet I wouldn't have ever thought so from the way it was presented. She (and everyone else who spoke about the book, including the man who wrote the intro) spoke about it as a slight but worthy effort of an insignificant woman-writer with a lyrical, poetic style (as opposed to Rothian, detail-oriented and dry). It seemed to me as though the author and her editors were too shy, too reticent, too concerned about the opinion of their peers to speak well of the book (to praise? never!). I registered this as a major cultural difference from the San Francisco lit scene.

Another cultural difference--attitude to cell phones. Cell phones rang throughout both literary evenings; some people even picked up the phone and held brief telephone conversations during the talks. In a room the size of an urban living room, this affected everyone's ability to concentrate on the authors--and yet nobody (except me) seemed to be disturbed or bothered by it. At one point, even one of the speakers got a phone call. Instead of muting his phone and apologizing (what I with my American attitude toward cell phones would've expected), he picked up the call and yelled into the receiver: "Call me back, I'm at a bookstore, in the middle of a speech!" Then, I started to wonder whether this kind of attitude was possible because everyone in the room knew each other quite well and were like family to one another. Considering the fact that I, too, were slightly acquainted with a few of the audience members, I think this is not a bad theory. A book event at a store is not necessarily all that different from a family gathering in a large communal kitchen or a living room. But can one family really sustain even a living-room sized bookstore? Luckily, I've brought my aunt to the first event, and they've now got her to advertise on their behalf.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Autobiographic Geography

St. Petersburg is a fairly large city with a sizable historical downtown, and yet the routes that I traverse on my visits here include only few places of historical or cultural interest; I spend most of my time in the nondescript residential neighborhoods where my friends and family live. And even when I do get to go downtown, I tend to visit the same places over and over again, and never set foot in other fascinating parts of the city. I've spent three afternoons on Nevsky Prospekt--at or around Dom Knigi--the "House of Books"--a centrally located bookstore. Three times I've been to Vasilyevsky Ostrov, the island on the Neva where St. Petersburg University is located. I've gone to the same theatre complex twice, to see shows by two different companies. The Hermitage? The Peter and Paul fortress? The Russian Museum? The Neva embankment? On this trip, I haven't had time to walk around the city at all. I am proud though of making it to the new art museum, the museum that's opened just this fall, Erarta--the museum of contemporary St. Petersburg art. How cool am I to go to a museum!

My parents flat (where I lived from age 8 until 17) is located near "Kirovsky zavod," a famous old factory that stands just outside the historical downtown area. In 1905, the workers of this factory (it was then named after its owner, Putilov) started a strike that became Russia's first revolution (the strike was brutally suppressed by the tsar). My father's father was an engineer at this factory, made a long career from the 1930s until 1970s. When the workers of this factory started a strike and walked from here to the Winter Palace (where the Hermitage is now located), this walk must've taken them at least two hours. Nevsky Prospect is ways away--I've walked the distance only once or twice in my life; measured in subway stops, it's at least five stops away.

It's possible to live in a residential neighborhood and never make it to the historical downtown. In fact, many people who have kids make the trek downtown only a few times a year, to take the kids to a museum or to a show. In my childhood, I remember that every trip downtown was an event, a treat. When, as a 15-year-old, I went to math school that was located in the downtown itself, I loved the experience of traveling to school every day. At least once or twice or three times every week, I would make a detour on my way home from school. I'd walk down Liteyniy Prospect to Nevsky, and head for Dom Knigi--the House of Books, where I'd stand in front of the counter and stare at the books displayed behind the glass and on the opposite wall. I had other routes. I'd go to the Summer Garden. I'd walk across the river to the Finland Train Station. I'd stop by my parents office near Vosstaniya. Many times, one or two of my classmates would come along--we'd buy ice cream on the way and try to get into strange and silly adventures. Talk to foreigners on the street. Walk into a residential building to see if we could find access to the roof. For many years, during my visits back to St. Petersburg, I liked to check up on my favorite side streets and buildings. Now I can hardly make time even for this simple exercise.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


This week, parts of St. Petersburg--not the historical downtown where
there are few trees and little greenery of any kind--are covered with bright yellow flowers. Dandelions in Russia are considered a weed: if you are trying to grow a field of potatoes, dandelions are a nuisance. And yet in the city, even today when mowing lawns has become fashionable, nobody has the heart to mow the blooming dandelions. The Russian word for the flower, oduvanchik, originates from the verb "to blow," it means something that's being blown at or away--something very transitory--referring to the phase that comes after the blooming, when every gust of wind sends little white dandelion paratroopers afloat to establish new dandelion colonies out in the world. Dandelions are ubiquitous.

Yesterday, my friend Lyona, his wife Yulya, and I went to "TsPKO"-- "Central Park of Culture and Recreation" -- a largish park in the Northwest part of the city. Built in the 18th Century in the English style, the park is a system of canals and islands, with a very popular boating house where people can rent traditional wooden boats and row around. Booths selling ice cream abound; also games like darts--the goal is to hit several balloons; if you hit at least three balloons, you get a prize. Yulya did really well at this game, she was able to hit 4 or 5 balloons with 5 darts. I didn't hit any (despite considerable practice several years ago at a bar in the town of Sonoma). On a neighboring island, there are larger attractions--"American slides" -- roller coasters and other rides. My friends and I had ice cream and walked around. Somewhere in the park, there is an old palace that now houses some kind of a museum, but we didn't walk far enough. It was a beautiful warm day. Cheryomukha, "bird cherry," is also blooming. Cheryomukha is a medium sized tree that blooms with small, incredibly fragrant white flowers. I've been a little sick all week--my nose is stuffed--so I'm missing a large part of the spring experience. The dandelions, though, the dandelions--I feasted on the very sight of them.

Dandelions, I know, are a very useful plant. Wikipedia tells me that in China (where Dave is currently partying), it's considered a vegetable. Roasted dandelion roots can be used as coffee substitute. Young dandelion greens are very good in a salad. The yellow flowers themselves can be made into jam or wine (I'm remembering Ray Bradbury's story, "Dandelion Wine"). Honey made from dandelion flowers has a very potent taste and fragrance. In Russia, though, as I mentioned earlier, we mostly treated dandelions as a weed. At the beginning of every summer my grandmothers would concern themselves with making dandelion juice--for vitamins. We, the kids, collected the flowers and helped our grandmothers clean them and stuff them into the large glass jars with a bunch of sugar. In a day or two we were supposed to drink the sweet and slightly bitter mixture. I remember being thoroughly grossed out by it, but it wasn't the worst thing we were supposed to consume for our health as children. Something about the experience was oddly pleasant. It was like drinking the concentrated taste of summer itself.

The main reason my brother and I loved dandelions was because we could make striking gold crowns out of them. My grandmother taught me to weave dandelions into garlands--the stems of freshly picked dandelions are perfect for weaving: they are supple yet bendable. The stems are also full of sap, white when it first leaks out and gray-green when it dries on your hands, on your dress, on your face. It's almost impossible to make a garland or a crown without getting your clothes, your arms and legs and face completely smeared in dandelion sap. To make a thick wreath, we used two or three flowers at once; and the trick was to work fast and to try not to damage the flower. The yellow flowers are very fragile, they remain full and fluffy for only a few hours after picking, and if you're rough in handling them, they wilt immediately.

This is what the summer is like at its best: barefoot in a dandelion patch with a dandelion crown on my head, a dandelion garland around my neck, another dandelion crown I'm making for my brother.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


A few days before I was due to arrive in St. Petersburg, my mother was introduced to an administrator of one of the small local theatre companies. This woman turned out to be a huge theatre popularizer and a ticket resale agent. Clearly good at her job, she talked my mother into buying tickets to at least four shows in the upcoming weeks, and maybe more that I don't yet know about. As a result, I've been splitting my time in St. Petersburg between working (among other things, I'm preparing to give a talk at a major city library about my recent book, Keys From the Lost House), visiting friends--and going to the theatre.

On Friday, we went to see "Скамейка [The Bench]," a Soviet play from approximately 1960s. A man and a woman meet at a bench in the park, and it turns out that they'd met there before and had gone home together. The man is a habitual liar and a womanizer, and the woman is a naive and yet relentless detective, determined to help him and help herself. The production was stylized to the 1960s aesthetic (this didn't please my brother and his partner who came with us), the two actors of "Our Theatre" did a very good job, he, playing a man with many different faces, and she, a woman who constantly wavers between her desire to believe him and her lack of trust in his words. This play would be a great subject of analysis from the feminist point of view: I found it interesting that she initiated all the action in this play, and he was the one constantly on the defensive. They played traditional gender roles in that she was looking for a man to marry, while he was looking for a one night stand, but then it was also quite clear that this particular man would be a huge nuisance to her as a husband, and he thinks of one night stands as a kind of a chore.

On Monday, my parents, my aunt Maya and I went to the opera at the Mariinsky theatre, to see "Boris Godunov." Blame a young conductor or the ancient staging (the theatre restored Tarkovsky's production from 1960s or 1970s), this particular opera was a slow, depressing bore. This, despite the fact that all the singers were in excellent form, and our family friend, Akimov, sang the major tenor part, Grishka Otrepiev. His sweet, colorful voice woke us up once in a while, but by the end of the performance most of us were overcome with deep, albeit fitful, sleep.

Tonight's theatrical engagement was with a company named "Not Very Big Dramatic Theatre" (as opposed to the local "Bolshoi Theatre" and "Malyi Theatre" -- the Big and the Small theatres). The play was called "The Orchestra," written by a French playwright Jean Anouilh in 1962. After WWII, a man obsessed with an orchestra imagines the difficult private lives of the musicians. The acting was excellent, once again this week, especially parts of the play that were mimed or done in incoherent speech. I was not a huge fan of the dialogue--some of it felt much too melodramatic. The staging was very imaginative and inventive--characters used very simple and clear signs to indicate change from realist mode into a more introspective scene. Great use of simple props--like buckets of water to wash the floor of the theatre at several key moments during the play. What was particularly unexpected about this play: I think, this is the first time, when on the stage of a St. Petersburg theatre, I get to see a love scene between two men. It was the best scene of the play, too. The actors had great chemistry with one another, and although they stopped shy of a kiss, they seemed completely in love. There was also a hint at a sexual relationship between two women, little more than a hint, really; worse, intimations of an abusive relationship. I wonder what this relationship looks like in the text of the play. Would love to see other productions!

Both of the plays we saw ("The Bench" and "The Orchestra") were produced by small theatre troupes. Each of these companies employs about 10-12 actors. Both of these small troupes are sponsored by the government. The Russian government pays actors salary, also pays rent. This enables them to stage rather ambitious plays (like "The Orchestra" that seemed to require the participation of the entire company) in small spaces. The auditoriums at these theatres are limited to about 200 people, and despite their excellent qualities, neither of the plays sold out. I kept expecting the actors to ask for money at the end of the performance, but they never did. Such a thing is unheard of here; instead, at the end of the performance, dedicated theatre patrons give their favorite actors flowers--and applaud until their hands develop callouses.

By the way. One of the pieces "The Orchestra" played (in addition to a bunch of French chanson) was a Squirrel Nut Zippers song, straight from the 50s, right! Go Zippers! Except, I bet the theatre never paid the band any kind of usage fee.

Dave is in China, and blogging from China again:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Eating fish in St. Petersburg

I am in St. Petersburg again. It's warm here, in the 60s, but there's still a sense of everything waking up after a long winter. The trees are still budding, the fragile green leaves are slowly unraveling, turning towards the sun. The grass is coming up from under the ground in uneven patches. Lots of sand dust in the air. Pale yellow and beige buildings look like they need a new coat of paint. The good weather feels tentative.

In St. Petersburg, it's koriushka season. Koriushka, "European smelt," is a small white fish, traditionally fried with some breading. They say, fresh koriushka smells strongly like cucumbers -- not sure if that's the most accurate analogy, but it certainly has a peculiar smell. They also say that in the old days, in the spring, the whole city of Leningrad would smell of koriushka. The fish is found in all the northern seas, including the Baltic. It also lives in the lakes and rivers, including the Ladoga lake near st. Petersburg. It spawns in the spring, when ice melts and water warms up to +4C. This is also the fishing season. The traditional recipe is as simple as can be: clean off the scales, take out the guts (leaving the roe and the head), coat with flour and salt, and fry in butter or oil. Some people add eggs and breadcrumbs to the flour before frying.

Last night, my parents treated me to some koriushka that they bought already cooked. To warm it up, my mom fried it again. "You can never fry koriushka too much, that's the best part."

Here's a picture of koriushka from a blog that also has step-by-step cooking instructions:

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I didn't have time for the daily blog on this trip, so here is a single gigantic post about the week's events.

Day 1: Woke up at Disney World, drove about 2 hrs to St. Petersburg, to the Dali museum. Listened to the Junior Docent tour -- 5th graders each chose a painting, wrote an essay about it, then lectured the visitors to the museum on their painting. My dad asked one girl, "What do you mean, 'hallucinogenic'?" She thought about it for a moment, then said: "You know, honestly, I don't know."

The museum has a very good collection of early Dali works, before he went to the Madrid Art school. They clearly show the genealogy of his work from post-impressionism and his affinity to figurative painting versus abstract, something that defined the rest of his career. When he outgrew surrealism, he turned to classicism and Christianity for inspiration and themes for his new figurative works.

Next, I took my parents to the St. Petersburg's Fine Arts museum, where they were introduced for the first time to the work of Georgia O'Keefe. Her paintings are virtually unknown in Europe, and they made a big impression. I think I had given them postcards and albums before, but it's not at all the same thing. At the museum, we met a very friendly security guard, Rosie. She heard us talking Russian, and volunteered to help. She herself was from Bulgaria, and could speak several Slavic languages equally well. She told us where to go for a Russian store in St. Petersburg, also pointed out a few interesting destinations in the area (like the Greek beach and neighborhood to the North of the city) that unfortunately we didn't have time to see.

We walked to the St. Petersburg pier and the upside down pyramid. On the way, stopped to take pictures in front of the history museum that had good signs of "St. Petersburg" -- the two St. Petersburgs are as different as two cities can be, and a picture like this tells a good story. Saw pelicans. Watched them for a while. Took pictures of them. My aunt particularly is very attentive to all life forms, she likes to pet dogs and cats, to feed birds, to look at alligators.

Next, we drove to the beach on the other side of St. Petersburg and took a swim. Luckily, we got there when the sun was about to set -- otherwise, the heat would've been completely intolerable for my parents. We went into the water altogether, meantime plucky seagulls almost stole a plastic bag we left behind. My dad saw the thieves and ran out of the water to fight the birds for our belongings. We hung around the beach waiting for the sun to set, and saw another magnificent bird: an egret or a heron who like a little puppy begged every passerby for food.

We had dinner in the old Latin quarter of Tampa, Ybor, then checked into our hotel, then walked around Ybor some more. I think my parents were slightly intimidated by the quantity of tattoo parlors we passed (they were closed for the night, but still impressive), loud clubs with long lines in front of them, dark alleys of small office buildings, and the heat that persisted into the night. The hotel where we spent that night, right in Ybor, turned out to be a major honeymoon destination -- we ran into at least two wedding parties that night.

Day 2: Woke up in Tampa, drove all the way across Florida to the Kennedy Space Center. My dad's engineering firm does some business with aerospace construction bureaus in Russia, and so we enjoyed the opportunity to hit at least two major NASA sites on this trip. While at Disney World, he and my mom took a ride that recreated the experience of take off and heightened gravity. They almost lost their breakfast, but enjoyed the thrill.

In the aftermath of the latest nuclear disaster, my aunt had brought a Geiger counter with her from St. Petersburg. She measured radioactivity in all the suspicious points on her route. It turned out that on board the plane we're exposed to radioactivity 10 times higher than normal. My aunt showed her findings to a flight attendant and the flight attendant took the counter to the pilot to confirm that these findings were within expected parameters. They were. In Dave's and mine apartment the radioactive elements were at about the same level as at my aunt's own flat in St. Petersburg. When she pulled out the counter in the parking lot of the Kennedy Space Center, the results were slightly lower than at her flat.

At KCS, my mom and my aunt went to the 3D movie that told the history of the Space exploration -- they were very impressed with the quality of the movie and with the number of Russian cosmonauts featured in the story. Having grown up with the cult of cosmonauts and space exploration, we know surprisingly little about the history and mechanics of space flight. My aunt loved the experience of catching with her mouth little drops of juice spilled in weightless 3D world.

My dad and I went to the briefing on the upcoming Shuttle mission, saw pictures of the crew scheduled to go up April 19th. Later in the week, we found out that the flight was moved to 29th because of "a scheduling conflict" with a Russian flight. The last flight of the last shuttle is planned for June, but its status remains unclear. They have the Congress's authorization for it, but due to the current budget crisis, they don't have the money and might not have the money by June.

We took the bus tour through the Center, making two stops: one at the observation deck from where we could see the booster already on the pad. The orbiter, they said, was still inside its hangar, going through the final checks. I never quite understood when and where they hook up the orbiter to the booster -- inside the hangar or on the pad? The second stop of the tour was at the museum dedicated to the Saturn rocket -- the rocket that delivered men to the moon.

My aunt was most excited by the alligator sightings in the ditches by the side of the road inside the KCS. The bus driver joked that alligators were their additional level of security, and after I translated the joke to my aunt, she believed it literally for the rest of the week.

After leaving the Space Center, we drove two hours north to the town of St. Augustine, "the oldest continually settled European settlement in North America." On approach to the historic downtown, we drove by the ruins of a fortress, very much like something you'd see in Spain or France. The small old town is very lively with tourists by day, and closes down quite early in the night. My mom couldn't resist buying an alligator head for souvenir in one of the first shops we saw. Then we walked to the Atlantic coast and tried some crab cakes and flounder at a local restaurant. There was a lovely band playing on the terrace, but outside was still much too hot for my parents, and we hid in the air conditioned inside.

The evening was long and exhausting. My dad's back was hurting. We were exhausted after spending a lot of time out in the heat at the Kennedy Space Center. Wine at dinner improved everyone's mood a bit, but then we had another 3 hr drive ahead -- we were scheduled to spend that night in Tallahassee. We got to our hotel at 1:30 am and were asleep by 2.

Day 3: Drove around downtown Tallahassee with its one tall building. Then headed out en route to New Orleans. The drive was about 6,5 hours long, and we hit four states in one day: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. We made two stops, one in Pensacola, one in Mobile. Pensacola was hot, hot, hot! I started to become concerned about my trip plan: my family was getting cranky with the lack of sleep, with various aches, with unusual food, the heat was getting to them. We had no patience to look for quality lunch, and so stopped at a bar in the middle of the historic town (Spanish town?). The best thing we found on the menu were tomatoes stuffed with tuna salad. My mom made a meal of chips and salsa. We packed half of all of this to go: we were too exhausted even to eat.

Mobile surprised us all with a humongous cruise ship we found docked there, and with the lovely colonial houses on the Government Street. I'm not sure what I expected of Mobile -- I know of Alabama primarily from the Civil Rights era history, which means a few very random tidbits. Every town we passed had some kind of cultural center with museums and theatres and stadiums. We kept talking about what we'd find in small cities in the middle of Russia. Somehow the idea of a trip like this through Russia seems prohibitive. Lately, we've been hearing of a few brave souls who've attempted this, but these adventures require weeks of careful and clever planning (such as renting a Russian-made car that could be easily repaired outside of the major cities). And what one finds on the road except shabbiness and desolation is not exactly clear.

This drive took us through some amazing landscapes. The seemingly endless Appalachian National Forest in Florida. The giant bridges over bays and rivers. Later, the many mile long bridges through the swamps and the bayous. My one major regret is that I didn't schedule enough time to visit one of the parks or springs we passed.

Finally, at 8 pm, we arrived to New Orleans. This was Saturday night on the weekend of the French Quarter Festival, and so we drove straight into town, parked on the perimeter of the Vieux Carre. Dave and I had been to New Orleans once, nine years ago, for New Years, and so I had a rough idea of the geography of the town, but really didn't have too much to go on. I asked the parking lot attendant for a map. He didn't have one, but he gave advice. Straight ahead was Bourbon street and the river embankment, to the right was Canal street, and to the left--Esplanade. "But don't go there," he said. "There are a lot of bad people out that way." He looked us over and then added, "Carry all money and valuables in your pockets, leave your purses in the car. There are a lot of bad people in town for the festival." He was clearly unhappy with the influx of people into town.

Luckily, I was the only one in our group who understood him--my dad speaks English quite well, but in the South the accents were unusual for him, and he only got the gist of what was said. New Orleans was partying. People of all ages were out in the streets, drinking rum cocktails from funky tall glasses, smoking cigars, dancing. The French Quarter Festival was a lot like New Years but with less topless girls and with lots of great music. It seemed like there was a band playing on every block -- and that's not counting the five or six big stages constructed in different squares and on the riverfront. No matter how tired and achy we all were after the long drive, it was impossible to remain cranky in New Orleans. We walked out to the embankment of Mississippi in the last moments of sunlight and photographed the barges on the river and people sitting on the grass listening to the music. We got dinner at a nearby bar, then continued to walk the streets and people-watch. My aunt bloomed. "I had this feeling in San Francisco, but then I wasn't sure yet," she said. "Now I know: I love people." She walked up to somebody on the street and asked her: "You're beautiful. Can I take a picture?" My dad was into rock, my mom was into jazz, my aunt was into dancing, and we got to do a little bit of it all.

Day 4: Two weeks before the trip, when I had started looking into hotels in New Orleans, it turned out that all hotels in or near the French Quarter were already sold out (because of the festival). I got two rooms at a hotel across the river, in Gretna, which, in retrospect, may have been a good thing, because we were able to get a few hours of sleep uninterrupted by drunk loud people. With our intense sightseeing schedule, were getting about 6-7 hours of sleep a night, and every moment counted. When we woke up on Day 4, a Sunday, we drove back to the city, and I took my family to the restaurant called The Court of the Two Sisters, where Dave and I had eaten years ago, on our first trip to New Orleans. Back in 2002, Dave and I were only a couple of years out of college, and this was one of our first joint trips together. We were enchanted by the buffet brunch at this restaurant, by the feel of the New Orleans courtyard, by the jazz band that accompanied the dining experience. Now, nine years later, it all seemed a little cheesy, overpriced, overcrowded with tourists. The food was good but not great, the band was mediocre. Perhaps my tastes have grown more sophisticated with age, or perhaps the restaurant has really changed in the intervening years -- the experience was not the same. Nevertheless, my parents and especially my aunt seemed to enjoy the place as much as Dave and I had done once; for my aunt, I think, this courtyard brunch has become one of the quintessential New Orleans moments.

New Orleans was hot, and we didn't have a precise sightseeing plan. We meandered the shops--my mom was impressed by the quality of art and souvenirs available in almost every window--then hid from the weather in the museum of Voodoo. Almost all other museums were closed for Sunday. Even the famous cemeteries were closed, or closed at noon, which I should've expected but didn't. My parents had been to Argentina and France, so they think they saw similar cemetery structures, but still it would've been interesting. I sent them to take the boat tour on the Natchez -- something Dave and I also did in 2002. They saw a lot of industrial activity on the river, and probably heard some historical information about New Orleans, but missed most of it due to language barrier. My aunt, looking for something in her purse, dropped her Swiss Army knife into the Mississippi. But none of this mattered, because party on the streets was still continuing. The city was the spectacle, and we roamed the streets as much as we could in the heat, and listened to the different bands. I met the owner of one of the souvenir shops, and she told me she divided her time between New Orleans and San Francisco. In New Orleans, she missed the BART system and also good restaurants -- I didn't catch whether she meant all restaurants (that seemed a little drastic) or all certain kind of restaurants, like Mexican or sushi. She too seemed jaded from the influx of people that weekend, not particularly interested in talking about the good parts of New Orleans.

That night we drove to the Oak Valley plantation, about an hour northwest of New Orleans, up the Mississippi River. We spent the night in one of the two-bedroom cottages on the property. This was our one experience with something like the local nature--we got bit by the local mosquitoes and got to walk on the lawn around the property. They still grow lots of sugar cane in that area, and we saw some of it in the form of unimpressive little sprouts. Apparently, sugar cane is a late summer crop.

Day 5: In the morning, we toured the Oak Valley plantation, learned some of the history of its owners and a little bit of the history of the people who worked on the fields. Then, we drove a few miles to tour another plantation, by name of Laura--both stops recommended by my friend Suzanne. Their tour is based on the memoirs of a woman who remembered four generation of her family living on this plantation. The tour focused on the creole lifestyle and management practices. They also had an interesting tour of the property, including one slave cottage that would've housed two families. On this tour, we learned a little bit more about the slave system on these plantations. Apparently, this plantation is associated with the history of the Brer Rabbit tales. A folklorist Alcee Fortier, who lived nearby, collected stories told by the plantation slaves and eventually translated them and published in English. Wikipedia is a lot more tentative about this origins story: "Fortier did publish such a book and may have collected the tales at Laura and his own family's plantation."

Later that day, we drove another 6 hrs west to Houston, making two stops on the way, one in Baton Rouge and one in Lake Charles, LA. The downtown Baton Rouge seemed boarded up -- we were looking for lunch, but saw only sketchy pizza places. Eventually, I found a very lively university area, where we got fantastic sandwiches. In Lake Charles, we stretched our legs and walked around the very pretty lake in the middle of downtown. We didn't dawdle very much -- we had a friend to see in Houston that night, and so we were focused on getting there. Also, my mom had started reading us a book from my aunt's ebook reader collection -- a post-Soviet science fiction novel (Boris Akunin's Фантастика) -- and, even though the book was very intellectually problematic, we were all hooked.

That night in Houston we met Grisha, a son of my parents' friends, architects from Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria (Bashkortostan), a region in Russian Federation. Grisha's grandparents and cousins live in the States and he too is a resident here, trying to make a living as a geologist, working on the Gulf and looking for more oil digs. He was telling us about all the people who were put out of work when after the BP explosion and fire all the drilling in the Gulf stopped. Grisha drove us to the Kemah Boardwalk--sort of like Pier 39 here in San Francisco, but with bigger restaurants--but since it was after 10 pm, all the restaurants and oyster joints were closed. We went back to our hotel, and had a party in my parents' room with leftover sandwiches and sweets.

I spent the week rooming with my aunt. As far as roommates go, she was an extremely easy-going one. Most of the time, she didn't mind that I was on the computer while she was trying to fall asleep. A couple of nights, she had trouble falling asleep and so I took my work to the bathroom. Every morning, she woke up with or even before the alarm clock, set up an ironing board and proceeded to iron the clothes for the day. Along with the Geiger counter and a hair drier, she had brought an iron from Russia (even though, as it turned out, most hotels had one in the room). She was also going to bring an electric tea kettle, but at the last minute decided against it. We ended up drinking a lot of the hotel coffee.

One thing that she noticed at every hotel and at every restaurant bathroom was the uniformity of most plumbing equipment in the US. In all the States she has visited on this trips, in all of the hotels and private residences, in all the airports, and in all of the restaurants, there was very little variety in the models of toilets (and all have water in it--unlike the European toilets, where water is only at the very bottom of the bowl) and faucets. In contemporary Russia it has become a point of pride with the different restaurants to install inventive faucets. And in every European country, one spends quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to operate the bathroom machinery. In the US, the standardization was disconcerting.

Day 6: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 was a day of triple significance. On this day 50 years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to be rocketed into space. Then, twenty years later, this was the day that the US flew the first space shuttle--a ship that could return back to Earth and land like an airplane. Thirty years later this day signaled the end of the shuttle program. We were in Houston, and so we went to the Houston's Johnson Space Center to take another tour. Unlike KCS in Florida, the Houston facility does not have an airfield, there are no pads and landing strips. But this is where all the administration and research facilities are housed. Here, we got to see the giant building, where astronauts train for upcoming flights. They have an exact model of the International Space Station, a shuttle, Soyuz capsules, etc. We also saw the Mission Control room from where the Apollo missions to the moon were managed. When the Apollo program ended, this room lost its practical purpose and became a museum.

When we got to the Mission Control room, our tour guide turned on live TV, and we saw the current Director of NASA, Charles Bolden, give a speech in which he marked the ending of the shuttle program and listed the museums around the country that would receive the remaining shuttles when the program would be finally shut down. Atlantis would go to Florida, Discovery to the Smithsonian, Endeavor to Los Angeles, Enterprise to New York. Houston was not on the list--they didn't even get to keep the training shuttle they already had, that was scheduled to go to a museum in Seattle. Disappointed, our tour guide turned off the TV and cut short his presentation. It was an emotional day for a lot of people involved with NASA. Even Charles Bolden, making his speech on TV, broke down to and almost cried when remembering his dead comrades and when trying to envision the future of the space exploration. Now that the shuttle program is ending, the American astronauts are scheduled to use Russian Soyuz capsules to go up to the International Space Station for at least three years, while NASA and Boeing design and test their new generation rocket. The future of American space exploration will depend, in a large way, on private enterprise, so for NASA this definitely means an end of an era.

We continued this conversation later that day when we met up and had dinner with a man my dad had known from college back in the 60s and 70s. Peter works for NASA as a translator from Russian, he and his team translate technical documents to English, interpret live conversations, and also train astronauts in the basics of the Russian language. Peter lives a couple of miles away from the Space Center, and pays to access a NASA satellite channel and also Russian TV channels. He made us a traditional and delicious Russian soup, a rassolnik (a soup with pickles) with chicken kidneys. Also Russian traditional blini with homemade (Peter had made it himself) cottage cheese. Peter and my dad were doing vodka and cognac shots, and reminiscing about their youth, telling stories, and talking about space exploration. Back in the 60s, Peter had been a member of a very popular Leningrad rock band. He was a couple of years ahead of my dad and his classmates, and so when my dad and his friends started their rock band in college, Peter's band were their heroes. I haven't seen my dad drunk on more than a couple of occasions before, so this was fun on all kinds of levels.

Meanwhile, no alligators on the property of the Johnson Space Center, but we did see a herd of generously horned cows. The tour guides were joking that these are "Moooon Cows," genetically modified cows for tests in space; but really this is an award-winning herd being raised by the local high school students and exhibited at state fairs, etc.

Day 7: We had breakfast at the hotel, toured the excellent Menil Collection, and drove to the airport. The Menil Collection is a great museum, not very large, but organized as if around a single strand of thought, on the intersection of the tribal art and the high modernist-surrealist art. The highlight to me were the Rene Magritte paintings -- I have seen so many reproductions of them before, but I don't think I've seen any of them live. A wine bottle painted over with a clouded sky entitled "The Curvature of the Universe"--I love that. But all of his work is equally playful and thought-provoking.