Friday, January 27, 2006

Global Voices, Ukrainian Blogs

Here's one of the more interesting links I've found to this site, Global Voices, a Harvard Law-sponsored "guide to the most interesting conversations, information, and ideas appearing around the world." In their article today, they round up all the Ukrainian blogs, including mine in a paragraph near the bottom that is devoted to blogs dealing with "non-political" subjects.

Before the Orange Revolution, there were barely any English-language blogs anchored in Ukraine; now there's even mine, busying itself with men and women and dial-up connections. This is the growth capitalism promises: entertainment, less dreary matters than politics -- cake, as a French aristocrat once so famously put it. And I am so happy to cook it up.

If you're looking for on-the-scene reports from other countries, Global Voices apparently has it. Hadn't heard of the place before today, but a quick glance says I'll be back.

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Our Man in Odessa, an update

Here's an update on Bill Fields, the subject of a three-part series last year.

As you may remember, we met in November in Odessa. Bill had returned to Ukraine still limping from the broken leg he suffered while visiting Ukraine, in search of a bride, in February. He had hoped to re-connect with the woman he'd left at that time, but instead he found it impossible to locate her -- even her son couldn't say where she was.

Bill was very disappointed, but after picking up his rented phone and calling a wrong number, he wound up on a date with another woman -- one he'd actually planned to meet, if Oksana, the only woman he'd seen in February, wasn't available (he'd lost contact with her for several weeks). This second woman didn't speak English as well as Oksana, but she had a son who did and so the three spent the week together.

When Bill left, he was still hoping to hear from Oksana (her son said she'd be home in December, back from an extended business trip), though he was also pleased to have met this new woman, for whom he bought a set of language CDs with the hopes of reconnecting at a later date.

Here's the update, received by email this week:

The lady I was seeing while I was in Odessa did not work out due to her son was doing the translating for us and there was a misunderstanding. The lady Oksana who disappeapered has not returned home yet but occasionally I am able to talk to her son and he does not know when his mother will return. She was supposed to be back by Christmas but that did not happen.*

This email brings a lot of questions to my mind, but I'll let them idle till March, when Bill and I will meet again in Odessa. He's still determined to meet a Ukrainian woman, it seems.

I have been corresponding with another lady from Odessa. She is 45 years old and is an accountant. We write each other about every day and I will be coming to see her ... Well I will close for now and write Yulia my letter for today.*

Names changed to protect identities.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Books Read This Year

I read somewhere over on the book blog The Millions about the rewards of keeping track of what books you read. Helps your memory recall, the entry went. Keeps the books with you longer. And so that was enough to push me over the edge (I'd been thinking about doing such a thing myself) and turn my "Now Reading" sidebar into one promising "Books Read This Year."

But because this is the age when truth is negotiable, something that can be bartered down to the "essential truth" or the "best available truth at the time, and remember -- the same truth had by the Germans and the British," I thought I should explain what "Books Read This Year" means -- or rather, what it doesn't mean.

"Books Read This Year" does not mean these are books that I've read this year. It's very possible that the books on this list will be those I've read, and this year at that, but it's just as possible that I've only flipped through them, picked out a story or two, and then moved on, just as I've very possibly done in previous years.

Take Anton Chekhov. (Please, they say in the Poconos.) I've got his collected stories listed, but I'm still moving through it, two or three stories at a time, with no real passion to hurry up my pace.

Then too I must explain "This Year." It should not be considered a hard truth, delineated by the borders of those opposing months, January and December. For example, I started Underworld in November of 2005 (after aborted readings in 2004, 2001, and 1999), but I finished it in January, so it qualifies. Same for Heart of a Dog; I began it last year, shot it dead last month.

As for On Beauty, it qualifies for the list even though I'm in the midst of it. So "Read" should not make you think of a completed action; it can very well mean the present progressive.

(Did I tell you I've considered a job as a political speechwriter? I think I could thrive in Washington. Know anyone?)

So, make a list of your own and play along at home, or just watch me redoubling my reading efforts each time I look at my list and feel a great shame. That's all I've read? And I'm a writer? And it's June?

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Better Google

Used to be, if the government wanted to know what its populace was thinking, it had to go door to door and pull you out of bed in the middle of the night. Maybe then you'd cough up everything you know on your neighbor and your wife and your friend's best friend and your counter revolutionary cocker spaniel.

But now, as this article announced a couple days ago, the US government just has to phone a few companies in Silicon Valley and ask to see the logs tallying every search made in America for the week of ... let me see, uh ...

Everyone but Google has coughed up the documents so far, and Google is probably only holding out because it doesn't want to divulge trade secrets that might be leaked to its competitors.

Well, I won't belabor this point. I could go on about how I think someone, doing nothing wrong, can easily be mistaken for a "bad guy." (I was just researching Hoover Dam, I didn't ever think about blowing it up!) I could say how people will eventually stop doing worthwhile things if they fear they'll be mistaken of terrorist activity. Which will inhibit research, development, intellectural growth, even business -- everything America puts in its advertising campaigns. Or I could just say this is a waste of tax-payer money, all this lawyering for private records and analysis of mountainous data.

But instead of doing all that, I will, in the time-tested tradition of throwing a wrench into the works, point you to two search engines no one's using in the Oval Office.

Scroogle, a Marxist search engine, is essentially Google without the ads. This may be illegal -- filtering such content out of Google's search function -- but then Google and Yahoo are no better off, according to Scroogle:

These (search) engines crawl the public web without asking permission, and cache and reproduce the content without asking permission, and then use this information as a carrier for ads that generate private profit. We are convinced that if citizens scrape Google and strip the ads, and make the scraped results available as a nonprofit public service, that this is legal.

So far, Google hasn't served Scroogle with a cease and desist. Read this for more.

Even better, and not just because it shares an ad-free environment, is Clusty, a search engine better than Google.

Look at the way it groups together various sub-categories within a search for this blog. Instead of having to scan through page after page, you know right away which links reference the Crosby, Stills and Nash song "Everybody I Love You" and which ones reference a blog entry. Pretty great, I say.

Use Clusty. They don't track you. It allows for freedom of thought. It's purty too.

If you don't like that, you can always go to Patriot Search, a search engine that sends your results, with a wink and a smile, directly to the desk of George W.

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Feminine Virtues

This article in the New York Times should be of interest to Ukraina-philes, as it comments on the rise to power of two women to the top political post in their respective lands:

For Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (of Liberia), an economist and banker who was inaugurated Monday and is the first woman elected president in Africa, and for Michelle Bachelet (of Chile), a general's daughter who was elected as Chile's first female president, a key to victory was the power of maternal symbolism - the hope that a woman could best close wounds left on their societies by war and dictatorship.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir, the strong women of the previous generation, Ms. Bachelet and Ms. Johnson Sirleaf have embraced what they have both called feminine virtues and offered them as precisely what countries emerging from the heartbreak of tyranny and strife need.

All this reminded me of something I saw a couple weeks ago (and should have photographed) when I took a ride on Kyiv's funicular, a closed-car that descends on cables down the hill overlooking the Podil district. The driver's compartment sits at the front of the car, the passengers sit behind this in segmented compartments that have five or six seats running from one side to the other. Nastia and I thought to sit in front to get the best view, but when we got to the lead passenger compartment, we saw the view from one of the seats blocked by a 2006 calendar (this was only a few days into the new year) that was beautifully designed, if blatantly manipulative.

There was Yulia Timoshenko wearing all white against a white backdrop, with the edges of her top so blurred, so vaguely ethereal, that she looked more angelic than terrestrial. Before her beatific smile, in the cup of her hands, was a small pile of dirt, so dark and rich, from which grew the first seedling of a green plant.

The calendar didn't need any campaign slogans for the March election; it was all there in the image. Vote for me. I am white and pure. I can mother you. I will help Ukraine grow.

I couldn't find an image of that calendar online, and I didn't think to take a picture, but there's another strong image above, the heart in the form of a check-mark that is being used by Block Yulia -- the coalition headed by the braided one.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

My Own Little Private Botswana

It is currently 82 degrees Farenheit at Seretse Khama International Airport, which we all know serves the beautiful African nation of Botswana. More than a year ago now, when I first imagined a Fulbright Fellowship, I thought I might apply there. Not the airport, the country. You know: fewer applicants, better chance. I thought I could spend a year abroad in a pith helmet and khaki shorts, walk around in knee socks and learn to wax my mustache. I would take to using a cane, I told myself, and write an African novel in the tradition of Naipaul (Oh how I love In A Free State).

But then I came to my senses, came to the country best suited to me, artistically and personally, and now ... oh, how I long to be in Botswana, to be strolling the streets of Tshabong or Selebi-Phikwe, if only for the weekend. Because 82 degrees Farenheit, this is a magical number. 82 degrees F, 28 degrees C. In a word, warm.

In Kharkov, it is currently another word, and though that one is not fit to print in a family magazine, this one is: inhumane. If this were a gulag, the prisoners would have the day-off. The temperature used to have to drop to something like -31 degrees or something for the prisoners to win this rare reprieve, but even if today is only the forecasted low of -21, it feels like -32. Yahoo tells me so. Snow falling like we got all the snow for Kharkov and much of neighboring Belgorod too. Winds at 26 kilometers per hour, and all of it coming out of Siberia like some foreign oil minister's bad dream.

I've seen on the news how some villages in Russia have had weather that's dropped to -60. The radiators burst, the ice built up on the walls inside the homes, snowdrifts in the kitchen. They interviewed one lady in front of a bus. Even the looters aren't working, I'm sure.

Here, my radiators are humming along just fine, though I do long for a non-communal control of the heat. I'd like to crank it to eleven, turn my apartment into my own little private Botswana, eat a peach in my undershorts. But I must make do with either this city-wide or building-wide heat. Turned on in October, off in April or May, I suppose, and the temperature regulated by someone other than me the whole while. Used to be like this when I was in Germany, my birth country, but I only know such a thing from my parents, as I was barely sentient myself then, not even two years-old when we left.

I am wearing two pairs of thermal underwear, American and Norwegian. Two wool sweaters, a long-sleeve, and a wool thermal undershirt. Socks: two pair, one wool. I have never loved wool like I have loved wool this year.

I awoke this morning thinking of the birds. I'd seen them outside my window just the day before, when the first dusting of snow began to fall. Stupid birds, I thought. Why do you winter here? Botswana, I thought to tell them. Winter in the former British Protectorate of Bechuanaland. Fly out over the Kalihari Desert, see the salt plains of the Makgadakaki Pans.

But these birds couldn't be so stupid, and so I got to wondering where they spent their summers if they were wintering here. The Ice Continent? Greenland? If not very stupid, these birds were stronger than any I've known, refugees from the horrors of Deepest Antarctica or some other floating glacial island that carries on it little more than a few twigs for a small and shabby home in the arms of a bare, two-pronged tree.

This morning, the birds were gone. Saw only one black crow, who swooped down in front of my window as if directed by the hand of Ingmar Bergman. A friend in the states had emailed me about a recent trip she'd taken during winter break. After swimming in the Indian Ocean one morning, she returned to find a kangaroo sitting in front of her tent. A kangaroo, I thought. This was the symbol of a decadent life. A kangaroo wouldn't last ten minutes in Kharkov. A pouch? What do you need with a pouch? Down fur, that's what you should have. Feathers at least. Go talk to the birds.

The trams aren't working today, the snow piled up too high. More of this forecast for days, as far as the extended forecast extends. If there weren't contact with the outside world, the internet and TV, I too could believe in The End Times, that this was all a portent, a sign, that we had sinned and this was our punishment.

But in the modern world, even in coldest winter, I'm more enlightened. Somewhere, I know, somewhere ... Botswana.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What is your novel about?

Whenever someone asks me this, I either 1) politely try to say nothing at all, because, like Flannery O'Connor first announced, if I could reduce it to one line, I wouldn't have needed to write all those extra pages, or 2) go on at great length, tiring out myself and the person listening to me, until I feel like a fool for talking so much and/or the other person finishes off their drink and with a tight smile slips away.

The problem is, oftentimes I have a hard time explaining what the novel's about because I have a hard time knowing myself. It's so many things at once, it's wild and it's woolly, it's A Big American Novel, it spans generations, it goes from Hitler's Bunker to the Animal Testing labs of Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark, there's 9/11 and a northern California cult, latter-day pilgrims who refuse all food additives and wear clothes no more modern than the 50s -- American Fundamentalists, the press calls them. On and on like this I can continue, unfurling one loose strand of narrative only to tie it down and let go of another, but now I've discovered a way to succinctly give my pitch, a way to boil it down to the simple and most basic truths: respond to the question -- "So what's the novel about?" in a language I only half-ass speak. Like tonight when my new Russian tutor, a 70-year-old woman who teaches me how to make my consonants soft more for the company than the profit, asked me, "What is your book about?"

This was our second meeting. She'd known I was writing a novel since first we met. Still, I hadn't expected to get into this. I only half-ass know Russian, she knows that and I know that. I speak it well enough to get back and forth in a cab, into and out of the French bakery; in no way am I equipped to discuss the finer points of narrative. So after looking at her dumbly, a look I'll call Gorbachev-in-Retirement, I at last managed this simple sentence, "An American family."

I thought to add more. I thought to describe the timing of the novel -- Y2k to 9/11, with flashbacks from 1940 on up -- but already she was interrupting me, correcting one of my endings.

So. My novel is about an American family. There. That simple.

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Cold Weather

After receiving a warning to wear my thermals if I went outdoors, I pulled up my abandoned SBC Yahoo page to see what the weather was like today. It wasn't so bad, I thought: Zero degrees. After half a winter here (or an autumn and a start of winter, as my girlfriend corrected me) I've grown used to the cold. Only Yahoo wasn't speaking to me in metric, it was giving me the temperature with an "F" beside it. It no longer computed. I hit the Celsius button just to see what that meant. Then I understood. Currently, it read, -18.

I clicked the extended forecast to see when relief would come, but apparently the relief was today. On Saturday, it's supposed to reach a high, repeat, a high, of -17 and a low of -23. (At this point isn't "high" the wrong word? Shouldn't there be a word for "less cold, but still freeze-your-teeth-off cold?") For you Farenheit people that means the high will be zero, the low -10.

And that's not the worst of it. Today, though it's currently "only" -18 Celsius, it "feels like" -26. That's an actual meterological number, filed away under "more current conditions," and so tell me, why say it's -18 if you're just going to later tell me it feels eight degrees colder? Isn't the temperature a reflection of the, well, temperature, which is based on, when it comes down to it, your response to the weather, a tactile sensation? And if it feels like -18, isn't it, in fact, if someone held a gun to your head, -18?

Secondly, how do they determine this number anyways? I mean, they've got all this fancy equipment to measure solar flares and thermal drifts, they've got massive computers that spit out extended forecasts and chart the pull of the moon, and then at the end of it all they say, "Yeah, but, you know, the number we gave you? It's all wrong. Feels way colder."

Do they lock the intern outdoors without his boots? "It's negative eighteen, Michael! But what does it feel like?!"

I'm off to put on my second pair of thermal underwear, one pair Norwegian, the other American, a sort of United Nations of undergarments, a UN Security Council of warmth, because I'm a Californian and I'm afraid that means everything feels another ten degrees colder to me.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Everybody I Love You: The Book

Before coming to Ukraine, I read Culture Shock! Ukraine, a book so woefully out of touch (the author is Meredith Dalton) it actually advises non-drinkers not to travel to Ukraine. Do not buy this book. It's outdated and just plain dumb. Shortly after I sold that book on the internet, another title was published, Lonely Planet's first guidebook dedicated solely to Ukraine (before it had been lumped together with Belarus and Russia or all of Eastern Europe). This is a much better book, though it favors the tourist cities of western Ukraine and the destinations of the Black Sea.

Something seemed wrong about that. After all, 50 percent of all tourism to Ukraine is based on the marriage agencies, as this article from last August suggests, and tourism is up at least 15 percent since the Ukrainian government rolled back the visa requirement, thereby making it an impulse buy for Americans, Japanese and Western Europeans to come to this corner of the former Eastern Bloc.

If anything, Lonely Planet should have written their book with the marriage agency traveler in mind. For starters, it should've dedicated more than five (mostly textless) pages to Kharkov, which for many people is their main destination in Ukraine. (Kiev, in comparision, was given 30 pages). Granted, Lonely Planet is the first group to acknowledge Kharkov in any substantial way. In all the other travel books I looked through while browsing the stacks at the Book Barn in Davis, I saw maybe a handful of lines dedicated to the city of 1.5 million -- and many books didn't even mention it at all.

The smaller cities of Eastern Ukraine, many of them home to thriving marriage agencies, receive even less attention in the pages of Lonely Planet. So ... yeah, I couldn't help but think the book people needed wasn't available. Traveling here for most people is an adventure, something that represents a great change in their behavior, a new risk in their life, but it shouldn't be like entering the jungles of 19th Century Siam. What times do the trains run between Kharkov and Kiev, you know? And can I stop off in Poltava? Should I take the bus instead? And why is it wrong to think I can rent a car?

Nothing too deep, this, but for many people pretty valuable information. And so yes, seeing as how I'm learning all this stuff anyway, and will be learning even more with all the travel I have planned for the spring and early summer, I thought I should bring everything together under one cover (two if you flip the thing over).

Originally I had planned to write an expose of the marriage agency scene. But without an advance of some kind, some interest from a publisher, I just don't want to commit the time and energy to the project. I've got other things to write. My novel, for one, and my short story collection, the last of which will contain some stories set against the back-drop of the marriage-agency scene. The book I now have planned won't be literature, for the most part, it'll be information. So that's something I can handle and probably something more people would want anyway.

What will Everybody I Love You: The Book look like? Well, it'll probably have a different title. Beyond that, this is what I'm thinking at present:

* It'll profile the forgotten cities and the marriage agencies in each.
* It'll tell you where to stay, what to eat, how to find a decent cup of coffee or a tall glass of beer.
* Give information about the trains and buses.
* List internet cafes and phone banks, so you can always get online or make a phone call or place a fax.
* I'll include storiestoo, because I can't leave the writing side entirely behind. So stories like this one of Bill in Odessa will appear to give you an idea of those who've gone before you. These won't be romances. They'll be stories that share real experiences, good and bad.
* And no doubt I'll also include some of my commentary on local customs and whatnot, like I so often do on this blog.

Because the marriage agencies often come and go, I think I'll focus my interviews on those companies that've been around for at least two or three years. That way, for each city profiled, there'll be at least one good profile of a marriage agency from that city, along with a profile of its owner/operator. If there's one that interests me more than another (because I'm still researching this stuff for my short fiction), I'll search that one out. But if an agency contacts me, I may agree to profile that one. We'll just have to see.

If nothing else, I'll list all the marriage agencies I know of. I'll also accept ads from any that choose to contact me. This won't influence the editorial side of things, if only because I'm too stupid to get rich that way. And in the end, once a journalist, always a journalist.

I don't know. This is an announcement. I wanted some feedback, but then too I wanted to hold my feet to the fire, to do this publicly so I couldn't just turn my back and wave my hand and walk away. Tell me what you think. Tell me what you'd like to see.

Thanks -- Stephan.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

And the answer is ...

Okay, so about three years ago, when my last good pair of Levi's gave up the ghost, I went to the store and bought a new pair. Just looked for my size, took it to the front counter, paid with plastic, and went home. How I always did it. My waist didn't change, so why should my order? Only, when I got home and put them on, I found myself not in a pair of Levi's, same as Elvis and Jimmy Dean wore, but something better suited to a Sir Mix-A-Lot video.

I looked at myself in the mirror, my legs somewhere within the baggy folds of blue, my ass lost in a sea of denim, and I -- no, I didn't cry, but there was a great loss in my spirit, I felt it like a crack running through a great shelf of ice, and so I reacted as only a writer would. I wrote a letter. To Levi's. Cursing them this way and then that, saying how dare you? How can you possibly change the 501, the maypole around which American culture dances? Because that's what they'd done. They changed the 501. I'd looked on the internet and read the articles saying just that. So I wrote and I wrote, asking, How dare you infidels take over and do such a thing? These are Levi's!

And the response that came back, well -- I went searching for it, wishing I'd kept it in the backlogs of one of my email accounts, because it should serve as a historical record, a testament to the stupidity of America at the start of the new millenium -- it said, owing to changes in style and the American diet -- the American diet! -- it was believed that a change in the design of the 501 was necessary to keep up with current trends. Hence, they were looser, baggier, bigger.

So because some fat ass went to the McDonald's drive-through one too many times while listening to MC Hammer on the stereo, you're going to take away my blue jeans?

I could have written them back with these sentiments and many more, but I realized they were lost souls, wandering along toward their own little private Apocalypse, the whole sick crew wearing baggy blue jeans and damned to the core.

So instead of writing another letter, I returned my blue jeans and went scrambling around looking for the last of those made the original way. I thought I found some in Texas, when I went to visit my grandmother for Thanksgiving, but I don't know -- after a couple of years, they still don't feel right. They're better than what I had, but still all wrong. Made in Guatemala. By people who've never seen Rebel Without a Cause.

Cut to the present day: Kyiv, January 2006, the Globus shopping center on Maidan Nezalezhnosti. A Levi's store. I go in, like a pilgrim. And what do I find? Blue jeans. That fit right. Close to the leg, high in the seat. I look around and see more. A Levi's corduroy jacket with sheep's fur lining. Just like I couldn't find in America anymore. Just like I used to wear in middle school. I wanted to hug the sale's girl, my girlfriend, the men working at the store with hair that stood up in back. I was home, in Ukraine. And how funny would that be, I thought, if my friends found out and asked me to bring a few pairs back to the states.

"You're going to America? Bring Levi's! They go crazy for Levi's over there. You won't have to buy a thing!"

It used to be what you heard when you went to Eastern Europe, not from it. But now the times have changed, and you have to smuggle American fashion back into America.

So yes, I bought a pair of Levi's. And a jacket. That's what's in the bag. I'm sure I'll get another pair before I leave. You need one?

P.S. Levi's still sucks, if only for the sacrilege of changing the 501. Do not view this post in any way as an endorsement. I dislike their corporate model, their business plan, the people working in their offices in San Francisco, even the cars they drive to work.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Big Lonesome No More

One of the things I've realized over here is how dependent I am on magazines and the like. Just to read something that I don't intend to follow from cover to cover -- that's what I've been craving. Something for the bathroom, bedroom and boudoir. Well, today the cavalry arrived (or the Navy, I should say) in the form of a shipment of magazines from Jim Ruland, formerly of the United States Naval Academy (or at least one of its more far-flung vessels), now a resident of Los Angeles.

Though his debut collection of short fiction, Big Lonesome, didn't arrive with the reading material (it's in the mail, I'm told) you all should all rush out to the local Book Barn and buy a copy (or stay in, eat another bag of chips/pint of ice cream, and do it like this). Having read Ruland's fiction before, along with his non-fiction, I know you'll enjoy what comes your way. And if credentials are what you need, know the man has a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. If that isn't enough, look at the picture above. The man's got so much ink it spills off his pen and onto his skin.

Okay, now that your 'pass the mic' moment is over, see more things Ruland by visiitng his Big Lonesome blog. That, or attend one of his Vermin on the Mount fiction readings, which have only failed to excite the LAPD into action because of their Chinatown location. "Forget it, Gittes. It's Chinatown." Ruland emcees these affairs, I'm told, and though it hasn't happened yet, he may just bite off the head of a live bat at the next staging, this Saturday. He's just that type of guy. The type not to be scared off by all this bird flu stuff.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

I'm Back

For now a few glimpses (for the sake of a couple jokes) into how I spent the last fortnight.

Belgorod (Dec. 31, 2005 - Jan. 1, 2006) -

While celebrating the new year at My Girlfriend's house, I was somehow convinced to karaoke “Yellow Submarine.” If I was under the influence of something, it was not alcohol. In fact, after stopping by a friend’s house earlier that night, My Girlfriend had explained to the man of the house – more than once – that I didn’t drink, not a little champagne, not even just a shot of vodka. “Visiting Russia and not drinking?” he laughed. “That’s like going to Disneyland and not seeing Mickey Mouse!”

If I was quick enough, I would’ve told him about my trip to Disneyland as a high school senior, when I didn’t see Mickey Mouse but did drink too much vodka mixed with Donald Duck orange juice. But then a quick wit’s the stuff of fiction, and that’s a story for another day.

Kyiv (Jan. 5 - Jan. 7) -

While passing a bookstore, I saw a familiar sight in the display window: Bill Clinton's smiling face on the cover of his very thick biography. The title's "My Life" in English, and apparently the publishers (or Clinton's own protocol specialist) didn't think it necessary to tinker with it for the Russian-language edition. "Moy Zhisen," it reads, which made me think Monica could come out with her own edition and all she'd have to do is change a pronoun: "His Zhisen."


On the Seventh, we left Kyiv, but only after visiting Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square that was home to last winter's Orange Revolution. On this day, no protesters were present, but the place was thick with Santas (Orthodox Christmas is Jan. 7, owing to the old calendar -- the Julian, I believe). All of the Santas were prowling about, looking for a camera and someone to throw their arms around. But even though we didn't want to pose with one, we were still asked for some money. This one kept trying to get 3 Griven out of me, maybe 60 cents, just to take a picture with the square in the background. No, I kept telling My Girlfriend, I don't want to give him money, tell him we don't want him in the picture, just us. Finally, when he did relent, he just stood there staring at the back of my digital's LCD screen while we shivered before him with smiles as frigid as the temperature (-5). He kept pushing the camera's button -- too lightly, I thought -- and kind of shaking his head, as if he weren't sure if he'd taken a photo. Then at last, when I was sure we had an Idiot Santa before us, My Girlfriend on my urging went to show him how to work the damn thing, and I, apparently, looked off in disgust, going, "God, this filthy Santa can't even take a picture, and still he wants sixty cents?"

But of course, as you can see above, he was in fact getting it right all along -- several times, in fact. And for some reason, though My Girlfriend asked that I delete it, I love this shot.

As for what's in the bags I'm holding, the short answer is: the end to a very long quest. I'll give you the long answer later this week.

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