Archive for April, 2012

Return to the Motherland

Posted: April 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

In the past month, I have done a fair amount of traveling. I flew back home again on Aeroflot, and it was a nice flight again. On the new Airbus planes, there are cameras that show the front view of the plane during takeoff and landing. It was fun on April 3rdto see the snow blowing around the runway during taxi and takeoff. Actually, Aeroflot was miraculous. We started boarding on time and left the gate two minutes ahead of schedule. We also landed at JFK about 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

My attempts to take photos of the snow at the airport didn't really work out. The best I have is the snow in contrast to the black of this bus.

I had one of the best seats on the plane, right behind the bulkhead and the front of economy class. Thus, I had basically unlimited leg room. The seat next to me was also empty, so I had plenty of space to lean into when I wanted to sleep. The guy two seats over from me was a funny young Russian guy who had his sunglasses on the entire flight.

The bad side to sitting behind business class was that I got to witness the better food and drinks that those passengers were offered. At one point, I saw a stewardess eating ice cream. I want ice cream. The food in economy was the usual airplane crap. The second meal was a Russian attempt at Chinese food. I could only stomach one bite. The fun part was that there was a fortune cookie with the meal. Sadly, it did not contain lucky numbers or those “learn Chinese” lessons.

The purser on the flight was pretty funny. He made some interesting announcements in Russian and his English was quite hilarious. Upon landing, he welcomed us in Russian to “Johnny Geraldy Kennedy Aiprort.” Close, sir, close. Then, in English, he wished us all an “adorable day” in New York. As usual, upon landing, people were eager to get out of the seats at claim their luggage. The purser kept ordering people in economy class to sit down. At one point he singled out a woman and said “lady in the yellow shirt, sit down immediately!”

Yeah, about that... I mean, it's like writing "PLEASE STEAL" on the blankets.

It also wouldn’t be a flight from Russia without a lot of booze. The passenger at the window on the far side of me enjoyed his duty free purchases on the flight. Unlike on Delta, Aeroflot does not constantly tell the passengers not to drink their purchases. At the start of the flight, there is a pre-recorded announcement against the process, but no one actually stops the passengers from doing so. The man enjoyed about half of his bottle booze, which looked like cognac or whiskey. At the end of the flight, he offered a steward a bottle. The steward gladly accepted the bottle. After we landed and I was waiting for my luggage, the man was behind me. He reeked of alcohol and count not stand-up straight. He took out his phone to call someone and barely got it up to his ear. I just thought “please don’t puke on me” as I waited for my luggage.

Also, once again, flying Aeroflot was advantageous because I was one of the few American citizens on the flight. Because I was at the front of economy, I was one of the first people off of the plane. Then, I walked very quickly to passport control, where I was the first person in line. The only thing that slowed my return was waiting for my bag, but thankfully it was in the first group of bags to come off of the plane.

Finally, I realized that the migration office in my city runs a scam involving multi-entry visas. The migration office claims that with a multi-entry visa, I can only leave Russia, return, and leave Russia again. If I want to take more trips, according to the office, I need to get a new visa, which involves 20 days, paperwork, and 1,000 rubles (roughly $35). This time, I found out that I needed to fly home late on a Saturday night. The following day, I checked with my fellow Fulbrighters about the visa and realized that it is good for as many trips as I want to take in and out of Russia within the dates that it is valid. So I didn’t need to have a new visa made the last time I went home and I didn’t need the government official’s help to get it done in 3 hours. Such is the fun of dealing with bureaucracy in Russia.

Yesterday, I made it back to Ulyanovsk. I both did and did not want to return to Russia. For obvious reasons, I didn’t really want to leave my family again. On the other hand, I there are a lot of cool people in Ulyanovsk that I missed. There are also a lot of things that I want to do here.

Sadly, these slippers take up too much space to take with me. I also can't sit on the couch all morning watching Netflix in Russia. 1. I don't have a couch. 2. Netflix doesn't work in Russia.

I made sure to bring back more necessary things with me. One of the things I needed to bring was a waffle ball bat, as people here want to learn how to play baseball. My only problem was that the bat didn’t fit in my bag. Clearly, I could not take it onboard with me; although, I have a hard time imagining someone trying to take over a plane with a plastic bat. I thought of taking a different bag that was much larger and fit the bat, as well as my regular bag, inside of it. The bag was old and had a hole in it. The idea was to get rid of the old bag upon arriving in Russia. There was only one snag: it’s hard to throw out a bag at an airport or train station without looking like you’re going to blow it up.

The essentials for two more months in Russia.

I was given two art tubes the day before I left, so I managed to make my own fancy waffle ball bat carrier at home. I was allowed to free bags on Aeroflot, so this wasn’t a problem. Also, I have seen a Barbie Dream House as well as a microwave as checked “luggage” at Sheremetyevo before, so I figured I would be okay with my carrier. I was worried that something might happen to the tube and that I wouldn’t have the bat after my effort. Thankfully, the tube came out pretty quickly at baggage claim. Then, I worried for a while that my regular bag hadn’t made it. I had put the two pieces into the bag drop off together, so I guess I had some reason to worry. Thankfully, it also arrived intact.

You should be glad I don't design luggage for a living. I felt very Russian with my handle made of twine and tape.

I left America on the 18th and arrived in Moscow after a nine hour flight from hell. As it is spring, it’s apparently “take your baby to Russia” time. The plane was full of children. I had the misfortune of having one next to me on the plane. During the first hour, the child screamed like crazy. Then, the child kept moving around his seat, which caused his mother to readjust the dog shaped pillow on which he was sitting. Every time that she adjusted the pillow, she hit me with it. Eventually, the child calmed down. At one point, I turned towards the aisle and attempted to sleep. I was maybe asleep for half an hour. Luckily, when I woke up, I looked at my feet. When I did this, I noticed that the mother had made a bed of sorts for the child on the floor, the only problem being that the child’s head was where my feet should have been.

Towards the end of the flight, a steward provided a huge source of amusement for me. He had a conversation with the woman next to me. She asked what she had to do to make her connecting flight. When he told her that she had to go through customs, she seemed shocked. The steward responded with, “You aren’t shocked that you have to go through customs in America but you are when are go to Russia? They have to see how many cigarettes and sausages you are brining. Russia is a modern country, you know. In fact, it’s nicer and more beautiful than most countries.” The lady across the aisle from me and I started to laugh a little at this exchange. The weird thing was that the woman asking the questions was Russian, so you would think that she might have caught other flights within her home country.

On the train, I had interesting compartment mates. There was a woman of about 35, and two men in their mid to late 40s. One man was the boss of the second man. I had a wonderful conversation with the three of them. The boss proceeded to drink half a liter, plus a little more, vodka by himself and went to sleep early. I continued my conversation with the other guy and woman for a while longer. At one point, we started to talk about literature and the novel “The Master and Margarita.” This was a fun coincidence as I have been reading parts of the novel in my Russian class. Eventually we went to sleep, but the night was terrible. The drunk boss proceeded to throw up all over his bed, which was above mine. The scary thing was that the other two weren’t really bothered by the incident. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much on the train that night.

Today, I met up with a few friends. We took a ride a little north of the city to pick up one friend’s son. The road to where her son was staying went through a tank training ground. There were signs that said “Warning Tanks” and “Stop here and fire.” Sadly, I didn’t get any photos of them. What was more sad was that I was told that I could not go for a ride in one of them. I guess I won’t get to go for a tank ride in Russia. Too bad. Then, we headed back to her house and had a nice evening hanging out in her backyard talking and eating shashlik, or barbequed skewered meat.

Oh, and there’s no hot water in the dormitory. Again. For another week. Welcome back to Russia!


For My Mother

Posted: April 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

World's best mom.

Very early in the morning of April 5th, my mother passed away after a long and hard battle with lymphoma. Thankfully, I was able to spend a week and half with her in March and I was able to spend the majority of the day with her in the hospital before her death.

The last year has been tough. She was diagnosed with lymphoma on my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary last year. However, she fought hard and braved through waves of chemotherapy and radiation. She was able to see my college graduation as well as most of my Fulbright to Russia. She was in remission for a few months and was back to fully enjoying life. I came home and had a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s with my family. My mother and I baked hundreds, if not thousands, of cookies, a cake, and numerous pies as per our tradition. We also went skiing before Christmas, which was her favorite hobby.

After my Christmas vacation, my mother drove me back to the airport. The last time she hugged me was when I was waiting to go through security. Somewhat sad, we said goodbye, but not for long. My mother excitedly told the woman at the start of the security line that she would be visiting me in Russia in a few months. My parents had planned to come to Ulyanovsk in March. I spoke with my parents weekly on Skype, and all my mother could talk about was her preparations for the trip.

Then, almost exactly a year after it all started, the lymphoma came back unexpectedly and aggressively. Within a matter of days, my mother was hospitalized as she fought against the disease. She was heartbroken when my father told her that they could not go to Russia as planned, but became excited when my father said that I was on my way to see her. She rallied bravely for almost two months, but her body could not withstand the chemotherapy and she passed away peacefully with my father holding her hand.

A lot of people say they have the best mother in the world, but I know for a fact that I had the best mother. Personality wise, I am much more like my father; however, my mother was responsible for the person who I am today. I know she knew how much I love her, but I don’t think she knew how grateful I am for everything she did for me. All of my major interests are a result of her.

Yes, I am aware that I am wearing a pink dress in this photo. That was back before I could make decisions for myself. As my mom liked to tell me, that's back when I basically had a mow-hawk for hair. It makes up for the dress.

My love of cars and driving are from her. My mother was always and excellent driver and enjoyed to drive quickly. Somewhat to my mother’s ire, I also developed her love of driving a little too quickly. I also inherited her die-hard love of diesel Mercedes sedans. While my father purchased the first diesel Mercedes in the family, and before he met my mother, the true aficionado of these vehicles was my mother. Two years before I was born, she traded in her BMW 3 series for my beloved 1987 300D. Although she missed the much more sporty Bimmer, she loved the “yellow car” very much when it was hers. It was in this car that I came home from the hospital after I was born. I have had numerous first days of school in the car, and I went to and from my 8th grade, high school, and college graduations in this car. It was also the first car that I drove, and is the first car that I personally own. My mother loved the car when it was hers, but later lost interest in it after it became my fathers. Although she refused to ride in it in later years (unless when absolutely necessary, like when the roof rack was needed to carry home some furniture), she always had fond remarks and memories about the car.

The old Mercedes was also the family winter vacation car until we moved to Connecticut and got at SUV. We took many ski trips in the car and I still have the ski racks. That is another way in which my mother influenced me. She was an avid skier, both downhill and cross country. My mother taught me how to ski when I was little, but I later switched to snowboarding. While some things changed, we always went skiing as a family around Christmas time and around spring break in New England. We would also take numerous shorter day and weekend trips throughout the winter months. One of the things she wanted to do whilst in Russia was to go cross country skiing with me.

She never gave up on skiing, even after she fell and dislocated her shoulder doing it over ten years ago.

Another one of our winter traditions was to bake excessive amounts of desserts at Christmas. My mother was an excellent cook and baker. While I do not have her finesse for cooking, she taught me how to bake very well. Baking is a simple and fun hobby with the best rewards ever. I have inherited my mother’s point of view that it is a sin to bake from mixes. I also have inherited my mother’s love of sweets. While some people might refer to this as gluttony, I prefer to call us epicures, which implies having refined tastes and is less pejorative.

Yummy cake baked by my mother for my dad's birthday. Also, the look that I got very frequently from her. The "I can't believe you are related to me/where have I gone wrong/it must be your father's genes" look.

My mother was also responsible for my favorite sport, martial arts. When I was in the 3rd grade, she saw that the town parks and recreation department offered Tang Soo Do. She told me about this and signed me up. I trained in Tang Soo Do every year and eventually earned my first degree black belt in my senior year of high school. In college, I joined the Tae Kwon Do club and actively trained for four years and competed in various tournaments. Although my mother was bored with martial arts, she did come to a few tournaments with my father while I was in college. She wanted to see a few of my tournaments during senior year, but she was physically unable to attend due to her treatment. She was happy when I said that I had found a place to continue Tae Kwon Do in Russia.

Perhaps the most important influence my mother had on my life was helping me to develop my predilection for foreign languages and traveling. My mother was an avid world traveler who studied many languages throughout her life. Most importantly, she like me, majored in Russian. She, like me, also studied French, German, and Latin. My mother also knew a little Spanish and Chinese. Her interests in languages stemmed from her interests in travelling the globe. I do not know how many countries my mother had visited, but I have been to most of the countries in Western Europe with my family, including Iceland of all places, as well as Japan, China, and Thailand. My mother was very adventurous, especially when it came to trying new foods. From her, my family has developed a love of almost all foreign foods. From my mother, I developed my love of extremely spicy foods.

Thailand with mommy, nana, and my big brother. Dad took the photo.

As I had mentioned in a previous post, it was my mother who encouraged me to take Russian and signed me up for it in my first year of high school. She also actively supported my study of Russian at college. She had majored in Russian in college and earned a master’s in Soviet Studies from Yale. When I was in high school, she helped me with my Russian homework from time to time and also with my French homework. She was happy when I did a summer program in St. Petersburg and was overjoyed to visit me there. Both of my parents had visited the Soviet Union before they knew each other and wanted to see the new Russia.

My mother was very happy when I again followed in her footsteps and began to study German in college, although that is another funny story left for another time. When things didn’t work out with my attempts to go back to Russia for the summer after my junior year, my mother encouraged me to do a summer program for German, which I did. Again, my parents visited me in the summer and we had a delightful weekend trip to Munich. Thanks to this summer program, I was able to work out a minor in German by taking a few more German classes my senior year. I even won a German prize from my college, and a history prize, both of which were incidents of good news, which gave my mother happiness and hope while she was undergoing her first round of treatment. She was incredibly happy when she found out that I got the Fulbright and was happy that I didn’t wind up in Siberia. All in all, she seemed interested in my city, although she didn’t seem too interested in visiting all of the Lenin museums.

Words cannot express how devastated I am at the moment; however, I am happy that my mother lived a wonderful and adventurous life. I would be a completely different person without her, and I am greatly thankful for everything she did for me and my family and for all of the fun times that we had together. While she is physically gone, she will always be in my memory and I hope that she continues to watch out for me and my family from heaven.