Archive for the ‘Russian and Ukrainian Culture (Articles)’ category

Apartment Fire… Close Call

February 17th, 2010

It started at around 1am. Dasha was in the bedroom sleeping, and I was in the main room finishing some work. That’s when I smelled the smoke. I open the door that leads to the little hallway, at the end of which is the apartment door — the only door out. The smoke in the hall hit me immediately. I coughed my way to the door and opened it.


Not good. I couldn’t see two feet. Back inside — close the door.

“Dasha, I’m sorry but you need to get up,” I said, as I pulled the blanket off her. “There’s a fire.”

She sat bolt upright. “Fire?!”

You could hear the yelling, now. A neighbor urging people to wake up and get out, get out!

No, this is definitely not good.

Dasha’s getting dressed and I look at myself…Yes, street clothes. Good idea. But looking back, that’s probably when we lost our chance to get out.

She scurried to the main door — “No, don’t open it, sweety,” I told her. “It’s bad.” She put her ear to the door, trying to hear what the people were yelling. “Fire,” she repeated. “That lady is saying get out. Mark, what do we do?”

You don’t find yourself in many situations like this in life. The mind moves fast. “Can you get me the towels your mom gave us, honey? The thick ones.”


“Soak them good in water and put them at the base of the door.” While she did that, I started packing the essentials: Passport, money, laptop, medicines. It’s funny the things you grab when you have only thirty seconds to pack. For some reason, I grabbed all the pens on my desk and stuffed them in the bag. I guess I figured good writing utensils were hard to come by in Ukraine.

Bag packed, I headed to the balcony. I looked down: twenty feet to the pavement. You don’t realize how high up you are until you contemplate jumping. A fall this high, you’re lucky if you only break your legs. Jumping was going to be an option of last resort.

2floors up
Dasha joined me on the balcony. She needed the fresh air. I peeked back into the main room and noticed she’d also put wet towels by that door, too. Good girl.

That’s when the power went out.

BOOM — total darkness. That was one of the worst feelings, because Dasha truly was terrified. People are screaming, the place is filling with smoke, and now it was dead black inside the apartment. The heart rate triples. Fight or flight.

I knew Dasha had my phone, because she tried calling the fire department while she was dressing — but alas you can only call from a land-line. But I wanted the phone as a makeshift flashlight…”Dash, use my phone. It makes light.”

She fumbled with it. Panicking. “It’s not working! It won’t turn on!” The darkness was crushing her. She was crying, now.

“Let me try?” I asked, as calmly as possible. I turned my phone on, and finally we could see a bit. “Candles, honey. The ones my mom gave us. Where are they?”

“In the kitchen. Above the stove to the left.”

“Ok. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

I took a last breath of fresh balcony air, opened the door to the hall — phoo, smokey! It was that stinky, industrial smoke. I hurried to the kitchen, and grabbed the candles and a box of matches. Wait! The flashlight. It was in one of my jacket pockets. As I searched for it there by the apartment door, I listened, too. It worried me that there were no sounds in the stairwell. I suspected no one was leaving because no one could leave.

I joined Dasha back on the balcony and gave her the task of lighting the two candles. I think giving her something to do took her mind off the fear. A little.

“Next, sweety, I need some thin towels. Are there any in the bedroom closet?”

“Yes.” She went to get them.

I took one from her and turned on the flashlight. “I’m going to see how far I can get down the stairs. Do you remember how many flights of stairs to go down? Three flights, or just two?” I know — I’ve been living in this apartment for a year, I should know whether there are two flights of stairs or three. But I guess I was panicking a bit, too. And I wanted to be sure. She closed her eyes and counted. “Three.”

Damnit. “Ok. I”ll be right back sweety.”

“No!” She was crying freely, now. It hurt to look at, let me tell you. I hugged her tight and assured her everything was going to be fine.

I put the thin kitchen towel over my mouth, opened the apartment door and stepped out. The flashlight penetrated maybe two feet into the smoke. I couldn’t see my own feet, and had to guess where the steps were. I took a step to the left, to the stairs, and was swallowed by the haze. Could I hold my breath and make it down? Three flights? How was I going to hold the rag over my mouth, hold the flashlight, and hold the railing, too?

I hurried back inside.

Shit. This could be a problem.

Before heading to the balcony, I zipped into the kitchen and opened the windows there. At least get as much clean air into the apartment as possible. I wasn’t really worried about the smoke, because leaning out the balcony, there air was fine. But Dasha learned from the people yelling outside that the fire was in the basement — two floors below us. People saw flames. And if the flames came up…
We needed another way out.

“Sweety? I know we have lots of different sheets. Can you find me the two longest ones?”

“Yes, I know which ones.”

I can’t believe I was even considering such a move. Tying together bedsheets? Does that even work? But at the moment, I liked the idea a whole lot better than jumping. Dasha did, too, judging from how quickly she found them. “Help me make a knot.”
sheets and radiator
After we tied the two sheets together, I tested them. “Pull as hard as you can, Dasha. Stand by the bed in case they untie.” But they didn’t. I doubt we had 200 lbs of pressure on those things — no where close to my body weight, in other words — but it was something. Luckily, below the bedroom window there’s one of those archaic solid iron radiators they still use here to heat apartments. That’s where I tied one end. Then I unraveled the rest out the window. The bottom sheet dangled maybe six feet above the pavement. It would be good enough. If it came to it, we’d toss the mattress out the window as a cushion.

“Mark, I don’t think I can climb down. My arms are weak. What if I fall?”

“We’ll tie a second one around your waist, ok? If the knot slips on one, the other will hold you. It’s not far. You’ll go fast.”

And there we waited, sitting on the bedroom floor, huddled under a blanket. It wasn’t that cold, especially considering it’s the middle of February, but the worry makes you cold, I guess.

In the end, the fire department showed up and we were able to get out — down the stairs — at about 4 am.

And what I learned from this? Be prepared. Have a plan, and have a backup plan. Keep fresh batteries and water in the house. And don’t panic.

Trip to Turkey Part II

February 7th, 2010

shoesAfter buying a few things in the bazaar, you try to find an exit. The bazaar is indoors, but it feels outdoors. No air-conditioning, for example, and no doors, so there’s a strong natural flow of air. When you find an exit, you then must wind your way through narrow streets lined with slightly larger shops, and slightly less aggressive sellers. You weave your way around men transporting merchandise on handcarts, and tea-delivery guys who carry these specialized trays with cups of tea. The Grand Bazaar is at the top of Istanbul’s main hill, so any street that goes down will eventually take you to the river, which was our destination.

Along the way, you pop into whatever cafe hits your fancy. As with the shops in the bazaar, the cafes have a narrow range of themes: Sultan’s Kebab Cafe; Akmet’s House of Cheese; Sultan Akmet’s House of Kebab & Cheese; and so on. I wasn’t blown away by the food. We went to a place called House of Kebab but the shish-kebab was run-of-the-mill. For my lira, the best of Istanbul cuisine is their Turkish baklava, which differs from Greek baklava in that they don’t use honey, only sugar, and they have a double-whammy pistachio baklava which was awesome.

If you ever travel to Istanbul, here’s a useful tip:

Never accept any help from any man on any of Istanbul’s streets. Why? Because you will end up in his leather jacket store drinking warm apple juice as he explains all the reasons why you need to be buying one of his leather coats even as you sit there bundled in your own leather coat.

But the jacket store is only a warm up. The leather salesman — the guy you originally asked directions from on the street — will somehow bring up the topic of carpets. When you ignore it, he takes this as a sign of great interest on your part, and insists on leading you across town to his friend’s carpet store. Here, as you politely gulp down more little cups of warmish apple juice, you will learn the sum total of human knowledge on the topic of Turkish rugs. Such interesting facts as why a mere 450 knots per square inch makes for a terrible rug, and how Turkish double-looped knots are superior to any other form of knot. You will be able to write a doctoral thesis on tassle quality, the benefits of mixed cotton versus pure wool carpets, and the meaning of each abstract symbol woven into the rugs.

I repeat: Do not accept help from any man at any time in Istanbul. Believe me, he wants you to buy something.

quick update… not related to Turkey, but the far east… This is a quick heads up. I may be starting a learn Russian site in Japanese language, for Japanese people who want to learn Russian. Will be putting it here ロシア語

My Trip to Istanbul Part 1

February 5th, 2010
Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

I live here in Sevastopol, Ukraine. I moved here in 2008 to continue to learn and master the beautiful Russian language. Due to Ukrainian law, foreigners have to cross the border every few months, so my latest trip took my and my girlfriend Dasha on a boat, across the Black Sea, to Istanbul.

Here’s what happened…

The center of Istanbul is its Grand Bazaar — a labyrinth of tiny shops, all selling variations on a few main themes: Jeans, jackets, jewelry, rugs, lamps, scarfs, ceramics and handbags. When I say tiny shops, I mean tiny. Ten feet long and ten feet wide, at most. Some bigger, some even smaller. And virtually all the salesmen stand outside their little shop and — to be blunt — they accost you. Here are their standard openers, and my usual response:

SELLER: Yes, please!

ME: Fine, thanks!

I still don’t get why they open with “Yes, please.” I actually took a moment and gathered a few of the sellers around to explain to them that it’s the wrong way to open. A simple Hello is much better. Anyway…

SELLER: My friend, we have carpets.

ME: If I’m your friend, then what’s my name?

It’s a good comeback and they never follow up after that.

SELLER: (re; Dasha) How about some jewelry for your wife?

ME: My wife?!

SELLER: Your second wife?

I love that one. He’s not even joking. Remember, Turkey is the land of harems and multiple wives.

SELLER: Hello, can I help you spend your money?

ME: Yes, I have three Turkish lira (about $2 US)…show me your Rolexes.

The two shops we bought from were the two that didn’t accost us and didn’t give a hard sell in the least. We bought a nice handmade Turkish lamp, and a pair of jeans for Dasha. As for the bargaining process, let the seller tell you the price. Then, offer half. He will moan about it being less than his cost, etc, etc. Prepare to settle on the halfway point between his first price and your 50% offer. So, I asked how much were the jeans Dasha wanted…

“Ninety Turkish lira.”

“Fifty,” I said.

“Fifty? My friend, that is less than the 24 Euro’s I buy them for. Usually I only take off five lira, but you’ve been nice today, trying to get her to buy a pair. How about 75?”

“That’s more money than I actually even brought with me today. I can go to 55.”

“Fifty-five? You see how we’ve been here thirty minutes and no one has come in. If I sell them for 55, I make such small profit, this is very difficult. Did I mention my wife and our newborn baby, Little Akmet? How about 60, so I can at least make a small profit?”

Bear in mind 60 lira — about $40 US — is what we were originally prepared to pay. Maybe still a bit pricey, but they were good quality jeans. I hem and haw, looking as dour as possible. “Hmm, 60. I suppose that will do.”

Our first day here, I thought I was being very clever when — as the first few sellers accosted us in English, “Yes, please! You want to buy my rugs?” — I answered in Russian, “Ya ni ponimaiyu!” (Which is Russian for, “I don’t understand.”) But they would immediately switch to Russian! Dasha explained that Turkey is a prime getaway for Russians because it’s no problem to get a visa. And thus, it’s very profitable for these shop owners in the grand Bazaar to speak good Russian. I’d say 90% of the salesmen speak English AND Russian. Pretty impressive, when you consider that both English and Russian are totally unrelated to Turkish. And these guys probably have functional Arabic as well.

Read Part 2 here and… I wonder what Nike shoe co. will have to say about these knock offs…

Experiments with Russian Pizza

December 9th, 2009

Dasha and I were in the USA this summer, and we spent a lot of time in Manhattan. Oh, how a man begins to yearn for good pizza, living here in Ukraine. (The sacrifices I’m willing to make for you guys!) The best pizza in the world can be found – if you’re curious – at Famiglia’s, just north of Times Square. If I recall, it’s at or around 50th and 7th Ave. Certainly in that neighborhood. Get a slice of plain cheese….

…and then mail it here, to Sevastopol. My address is:

Ok, kidding. But Russians just have no concept of pizza. Yes, you made it round, that’s a good first step Igor, but ultimately the shape isn’t nearly so important as the taste. If they remember to put tomato sauce on, it’s an afterthought. “A smattering of tomato sauce” would be a good description. And they ain’t using mozarella, I can assure you of that. It probably *is* cheese of some sort. Down at the chemical level, you are probably looking at cheese-like molecules. But it doesn’t taste very cheesy. And the bread itself upon which their “pizza” is based? Think: Plain old white bread.

I wanna grab the “chef” by the collar: “How dare you call this pizza?!”

But at least it led to a linguistic insight. I’m happy about that, even if I grumble every time I try a new pizza joint here. The insight was this:

Say “pizza” to a New Yorker, and imagine what thoughts run through their mind. (Especially if they’re regular’s of Famiglia’s Pizza.) Imagine the sight of it, the smell, and of course the incredible taste. All those associations a New Yorker has with that word.

And now imagine some your typical Ukrainian. Say the word “pizza” to them (the words are identical, even if the foods surely aren’t!). What image does a Ukrainian have in his mind? What sorry taste? What uninspired smells? There’s a huge difference between the meanings of this word between our two cultures.

And so many words are like that, even cognates. The reality of the two words are so different, you have to visit the country to truly understand the Russian meaning, the Russian concept of words like “pizza” and “apartment” and “train” etc.

So, come here to get a grasp on Russian language and culture.

Just don’t order a slice of cheese pizza while you’re here.

Russian Souvenirs | Nesting Dolls? No Thanks!

September 6th, 2009

Your parents just returned from a trip Moscow…What gifts do you think they bought? If your first thoughts are vodka and nesting dolls, it might be time to broaden your knowledge of Russian culture. Here, then, is a description of Russian souvenirs with photos I took this afternoon.

vweesheevanka - Traditional Russian Clothes
The above shirts are called ‘vweesheevanka’…though I personally just call them, “Those Russian/Ukrainian looking shirts.” These folksy, rustic designs date back hundreds of years, and you’ll often see people wearing them, especially on national holidays. There’s really no analogous piece of clothing in the U.S. Let 700 years pass, and then I suppose blue-jeans will have a similar significance. In any case, a quality ‘vweesheevanka’ is surprisingly expensive – you can spend $40 easily — but the quality is very high, and they’re all done by hand.  It’s fairly lightweight and thus makes for a good souvenir.

Russian wooden spoons make good souvenirs
Wooden spoons

Though the scale might be hard to determine from the photo, the wooden spoons pictured above are easily a foot long. Hand painted, they are intended to be used and not merely hung as decorations (though if you buy one, wash it by hand and not in the dishwasher.) Each unique, they are things of beauty, but cost surprisingly little (especially when compared to those shirts). Figure about $5 per spoon.  They are a very good Russian souvenir option due to their low cost vs visual appeal.

like thin rugs - rooshneekee are a possible souvenir choics
The ‘rooshneekee’ pictured above are like thin rugs, meant to be draped over framed religious icons. They are also used to decorate wedding and other holiday tables. Figure paying between $15 to $20 for one, depending on the length and intricacy of design.

Russian bread makes a great gift
The mound-shaped items above are actually breads, not cakes. Called ‘karavai’ they can sometimes be sweet, but are usually plain white bread. The elaborate decorations on top are themselves edible, made simply of flour and water. Karavai are consumed only at weddings. They are torn into chunks which are then handed out to the guests. A fair price for a large one is about $20. Hey, that’s wedding favors for you!  I havn’t tried packing these in my suitcase and not sure what customs would have to say, since they are food.. but I still thought they should be included as they would make for a fairly unique Souvenir from Russian.

The boolavah - a great souvenir!
Ah, the boolavah! My favorite Russian souvenir! It’s actually a Kazakh weapon (think Ottomans and ancient Turks). Only the head Ottoman warrior carried such a spiked club. Though intended now, obviously, just for decoration, the tips of those spikes are sharp as pencil points! It’s fun to hold, and you almost hope for a ruckus to break out, so as to find fair opportunity to wield it.

Kazakhs paintings another souvenir option
Speaking of Kazakhs, you can find paintings of them everywhere in the F.S.U. This one, about 24” X 24” is on sale for $17 or so. I’m not bowled over by the quality – they often have a paint-by-the-numbers feel about them – but hey, it’s not for you, it’s a gift for a dear friend or relative.

So, forget those tacky nesting dolls, and the thoroughly predictable bottle of vodka. When you come to Russia or Ukraine, get something more authentic. Anyway, that’s the scoop on Russian souvenirs!

Food in Russian and Ukraine: Of Trees and Pigs

August 30th, 2009
A common food in Ukraine

The worst food in Russia - Salo

One of you guys asked about the FOOD IN UKRAINE, which I’ll get to, at least in part. Today I’ll cover the worst Russian food. The reader also asked about sports here, but all I’ve seen is soccer, soccer,soccer, and a bit of street hoops. Ok, so here’s today’s blog post:

This city is so green and lush. If the trees had it their way, there wouldn’t be a building or even a brick in sight, but instead one endless forest. And since there’s virtually no landscaping whatsoever (which is GREAT, by the way. How I despise those noisy, polluting leafblowers which are ubiquitous in the U.S. and do nothing other than blow leaves and debris from the sidewalk, onto the street and into the air. Can anyone say broom?) What was I saying? Oh, yeah, so since there’s no landscaping, the grass grows full length. As do the weeds. It’s a jungle out here. And it often looks like it’s snowing; there’s some tree from which falls this cottony/snowy substance. Anyway, it’s been a long time since I’ve lived in so verdant a city.

This is a bit of a non-sequitor, but they eat pig fat here. In my opinion Salo (pig fat) is the worst food in Russian/Ukraine. It’s not pickled, not fried, not prepared in any way, in fact. Just a white slab of pig fat, which they then slice into thin strips and eat on bread or crackers. I’ve been offered it more than once in the little time I’ve been here. My landlord Oleg offered to leave me his pig fat in the fridge, as incentive for moving in. Pig fat, you say? Hand me that lease immediately!

Anyway, more about food in Ukraine: For breakfast I either cook kasha (which is boiled oats. That makes it porridge, I guess? Tastes decent enough, and cheap.) Or I eat muslix cereal.
The other meals vary. Every day I have Greek Salad, which is delicious and consists of the following: diced tomatoes and cukes, olives, fetta cheese, diced yellow peppers, and a very tasty light dressing similar to Italian. So, that’s a given, whether I make it at home or buy it in some cafe.

I like pelmeni, which are basically small raviolis with various fillings. They cook in seconds. I occasionally make pasta, but you can’t find spaghetti sauce here. I’ve bought several versions of their spaghetti sauce, and they’re simply ketchup. Yuch. I also do chicken and rice sometimes. And smoked fish on fresh bread. I would kill for good cheese just haven’t found any cheese whatsoever that’s worth commenting on. And toss in lots of baked bread products. The other day the bakery made this mini loaf of what was basically pound cake with a thicker, darker crust. Oh my God was that delicious. I have GOT to find a different route home!

And there you have it. A snapshot of the food in Ukraine.

EX-PAT SHAKEDOWN – Bribery and Corruption in Ukraine and Russia

August 24th, 2009

russian-bribe-corruptionBribery is alive and well in the F.S.U. I’ve written an article about my own experience bribing my way past an airport official to get a bottle of wine on my flight, but that was only one story. Since then, others have come in.

A reader in Vladivostok told me about his run-in with a traffic cop. He has a Russian driver’s license and all the necessary documents. As far as he could tell, he wasn’t doing anything worthy of being pulled over, but the cop standing on the side of the road nevertheless waved him over. As soon as the cop heard his British accent, the slot-machine sounds of hitting the jackpot must’ve been ringin in the cops ears. For the apparent violation of not adhering to the correct lane (although there are no lane divisions on that particular road), this guy had to pay an on-the-spot fine of 200 rubles. Such a fine breaks ones morale more than one’s wallet.

Another reader, let’s call him Michael, said he walking out of a bar in Simferopol, Ukraine when three cops jumped him and hauled him down an alley to a makeshift interrogation room. They made him empty his wallet on the table and helped themselves to all but a five-spot enough for bus-fare back to his flat. As far as he could make out, he was being fined for not having his immigration card with him, though most ex-pats don’t carry it with them. The safest place for this vital document is either locked in your apartment, or in a safe at the bank. In any case, it’s clear these uniformed hooligans were simply looking for some quick drinking money and found an easy target.

A third reader, an older man from Texas, told about the time taking the train from Kiev to Moscow. When Russian border agents came on the train at the crossing point, this Texan was told he’d have to leave the train because he didn’t have the right type of visa. His was a multiple-entry business visa, and they claimed he was obviously traveling for pleasure because American businessmen always travel by plane. The Texan’s fine was a hefty 400 rubles.

I still think these are isolated incidents. I’ve been living for over a year safe and sound here in Sevastopol, Ukraine, and that one bribe I made was of my own choosing. It was indeed my fault for not checking the bag that had the wine. These other guys who knows. Three or four samples does not make for sound, statistical evidence. But if you have your own stories of having to pay impromptu fines to Russian authorities, please send them in.