26 February 2007

That ringing in my ears...

The apartment in which I'm living is located on a major Moscow thoroughfare. As such, one rightfully expects a fair amount of traffic noise. My apartment does not disappoint in this regard. And while I tune out the noise with my dissertation during the day and with earplugs at night, it, like Comrade Lenin, "is always with us."

Nevertheless, I recently came to the conclusion that there was an unusual amount of siren-laden emergency vehicle traffic that passes in front of my building on any given day. Not just one or two police cars, mind you - several sets of sirens go whizzing by at the same time. Normally I would just ignore it like the rest of the "urban symphony." But then I started to wonder - am I living in an unsafe neighborhood? Is this a major thoroughfare for violent crime?

My fears were put to rest several evenings ago:

"R," host dad exclaimed, popping his head into my room. "Did you see our President go by?"

It turns out that Putin himself passes my apartment every day on the way to and from work. Imagine that! I was ready for him tonight. At the first sound of sirens I jumped to the window and pressed my face against the glass. Not a wise decision given the 15 degree temperatures on the other side of the glass.

Traffic heading out of town is brought to a halt, while the lanes heading toward the city center are cleared entirely. It is along this open stretch of road that the row of sleek black limousines passed with their flashing, blaring retinue surrounding them. As in America, you never know which car the vozhd is riding in. I chuckled when I looked at my watch - 7:30 pm; I seem to recall reading that average American President doesn't leave the Oval Office until 11:00 or later. But then again, maybe Vlad does some work from home.

I thought about going out there some evening to wave at him, but something tells me that wouldn't be a good idea...

23 February 2007

Adventures in Babysitting

Today was "Defender of the Fatherland Day," formerly known as "Soviet Army Day," the holiday when Russians, well, celebrate their army. In fact, it was not a day-off-from-work holiday until 2002 when Putin made it one. Incidentally, it's also informally known as "men's day," when woman express affection and gratitude to the men in their lives. I suppose one day out of the year is enough for them...

Rather than defend the fatherland tonight, I defended the home front. Which is to say, I somehow managed to land babysitting duty for Host Family's 7-year old granddaughter. Not sure how that happened; this is why I should have studied Russian harder when I had the chance.

She's a very sweet kid. In fact, she reminds me a lot of my sister as a child: a little bossy at times, a little demanding, without an overabundance of patience. But, as with my sister, there's no doubt that she has a heart of gold. She seems to spend every weekend here, which fills the apartments with frequent delarations of "BABUSHKA, I don't WANT to go to bed now!" and similar demarches.

The funny thing about Ksenia is that I don't understand most of what she says to me. I was troubled by this the first couple of weekends. After all, weren't my language skills closer to hers than to adults? Probably not by much, since no matter how you look at it I have the vocabulary of a 3-year old. I finally realized that it was context that was lacking: when an adult is speaking to me, most of the gaps in my vocabulary knowledge can get filled in by the context of the conversation. But since the kid is inclined to verbalize every random thought that pops into her head, I rarely have that thread to cling to. Thus, I just smile, nod, say "oh, really?" a lot, and laugh when she laughs. Roughly the response of a 3-year old.

As Babushka and Dedushka had a banquet to go to tonight, I was put in charge. The original verbal contract went something like this:

"R, Will you be home on Friday?"
"Uh, yes."
"Ok," she says, turning back to the phone and addressing Ksenia's father. "R will be here on Friday, he can watch her."

The first act of the new regime was to reform the evening's menu. While Host Mom/Babushka had informed us both that we could have tvorog (Russian cottage cheese, but drier than our version) with sour cream and sugar, I decided that something a little more substantial was in order. After all, I need more than a pile of cream cheese, sour cream, and sugar for dinner. Makes a lovely dessert, yes, but I need something I can sink my teeth into. Not to mention some fiber...

"Ksenia, do you like Italian food?"
"Yes, I do, but my dad doesn't like it. One time....[lost the conversation here]."
A couple minutes later after a particularly funny [read: untintelligible] story, I got a word in edgewise:
"Well I was thinking that we could have some pasta for dinner."
"No, Babushka said we can have tvorog with sour cream, and... [lost it again]"
"Well, maybe we can have both. You get the tvorog, and I'll make the pasta."

I can't tell you how good it felt to be mincing garlic. 4 weeks of not cooking has been hard for me. Sweetening my trimphant return to the kitchen was the fact that not only was it a good homecooked meal, it was MY homecooked meal, something I would eat at home. There is a separate post on my relationship with Russian food in the works, but for now let's just say it's gotten a little repetitive lately.

And so, a little garlic, olive oil, marjoram (it was the only Italian-esque herb they had), and grated cheese tossed with spaghetti was a little slice of heaven.

"You know what I really like, what would make this even better?"
"What?" I asked doubtfully, narrowing my eyes at her.
"I'll show you...[lost it here. Something about her teacher, I think]"

She flopped over to the fridge and pulled out a packet of ketchup, wielding it like a saber about to eviscerate my culinary nirvana. Before she could reach the table I blurted out, "Oh, I don't really like ketchup, no thanks!"

"But it's SOOO yummy this way," she said, covering her plate with a serpentine swirl of the glowing red...substance.

Fortunately she relented and we did not have to resort to physical combat. Because while I may have the linguistic skills of a 3 year-old, I have the fighting skills of at least a 10 year-old.

[I didn't really understand the next 15 minutes of conversation, but I can only assume that there were some REALLY FUNNY stories since we laughed a lot...]

After dinner we played checkers, which I handily beat her in. Take that, kid. That will teach you to threaten my pasta with post-Soviet ketchup!

Then we took out a big sheet of paper and I drew in pencil a rainbow trout leaping out of the water to eat a fly. As my mother and wife can tell you, this is the only thing I know how to draw well. I've been drawing the same picture since 5th grade, impressing everyone that looks at it. But beyond that I have the drawing skills of an advanced 12 year-old. Ksenia got out her watercolors to fill in the colors, and I told her what colors to use. Like I said, she's a bit strong-willed, which is why the trout has a red belly instead of a gray or white one. Oh well, we'll say it's a spawning greenback cutthroat trout. Except the back is black because she was still paying attention to me then.

We were in the middle of painting the picture when Babushka and Dedushka came home. Needless to say, they were highly amused at the sight of us at the table intently focused on the picture. And of course, they were impressed with the trout. I definitely scored some points with them tonight, as they assumed I would just do my own work or watch TV. But not me! It is my solemn duty to Defend the Fatherland! I mean, Entertain the Granddaughter!

So it was a fun evening. Something a little different for a change. Host Dad came in my room a few minutes ago and thanked me for taking care of her.

"It's good practice for when you have kids!" he said.
"Yes, you're right," I replied.

As he shuffled out the door I thought to myself, "I just hope mine don't turn out Russian, because I don't understand a damned thing they say!"

He who controls the toilets...

Here's a snippet from Radio Liberty about the recent struggle in the Ukrainian Parliament over the appointment of President Yuschenko's nominee for Foreign Minister. Why can't American congressional politics be this exciting?

"The votes took place during a three-day row between lawmakers of the
ruling coalition and the opposition, in which pro-government deputies
blocked the parliamentary rostrum and held control over the
electronic voting system, while opposition deputies were in control
of the electric system and some other parliamentary facilities,
including toilets. The opposition switched off electricity in the
parliament building during the afternoon session."

22 February 2007

Mission: Impossible II

I decided to try my luck today and obtain the documents from the Ministry of Culture that will allow me to export the artwork I bought. After calling UPS for details and phoning the number they gave me, I was pleased to discover that the office is located on the quaint Old Arbat street, tucked behind the apartment that Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once lived in. Incidentally, there is a large bronze plaque on the building's exterior making note of that fact...

"Splendid, I thought. This might actually turn out to be a civilized endeavor!"

I went to the office at 1:30 with all the documentation - copy of my passport, photos of the piece, receipt. Not really knowing where to go or what to do, I entered the office and mumbled something about needing a document to take art out of Russia. The woman at the desk thrust a form at me and directed me to fill it out.

After admiring my nice cyrillic penmanship I went back into the office and was curtly told that I would be invited back when they were ready. Um, ok, I'll just wait outside. But time marches on, inexorably toward the 2:00 lunch break. When the person ahead of me exited the office, the security person directed me to go in. But when I entered I was met with indignant shock:

"It's 2:00, it's lunch time, come back in an hour!"
"Ok," I replied, "in an hour, right?"
"Yes, an hour. Come back at 3:00 but don't be late because we're closing early today."
"Do you want me to leave the paperwork here?" I timidly asked.
"What would I want that for? Can't you see I have all of these ones to work on already?" she barked in reply.

I went and got lunch at a shashlyk (kebab) joint on Arbat street to satisfy my undying lust for meat. At 3:00 sharp I was back at the office, only nobody was there - still out to lunch. At 3:10 the woman who barks was back but the "expert" didn't return until 3:30. At 3:40 I was finally invited in.

Then began a 15-minute debate between the two women over what the sculpture was made out of. I did my best to assist the discussion but was not considered helpful by either party.

"Why did you write that it's papier mache?"
"Because that's what the man who sold it to me said it was."
"It can't be. It looks like plaster to me."
The other woman jumped in: "But look at that color, it looks more like biskvit (I don't know what that is)."
"But they wouldn't make a bust out of biskvit. What about [unknown material]?"
"No, that's black, this is white."

You get the picture. This went on for some time. I timidly asked why we couldn't just put down that it was plaster. Wouldn't that be easiest?

"Because I can't appraise it if I don't know what it's made out of."

Is it possible that I was dealing with someone who took her duties seriously, who took pride in her work?

"You'll just have to bring it in."
"But I can't bring it in, it's very large and it's already packed up."
"Hold on, let me try this..."

She called some colleague at another office and described the puzzle. Hanging up the phone, she said, "Well, they might be able to tell us what it is. In the meantime, take this slip to the bank up the street to pay 130 rubles (about $5)."
"You mean I can't pay here?"
"No, but be quick because we close in 10 minutes."

I bolted out the door and down the street nearly killing myself on the ice. Having paid, I returned to the office where the mood had improved significantly.

"Ah, we have solved the mystery!" the expert exclaimed. "All this time we were looking at the pictures trying to figure it out, and here it's written on the receipt: 'bust made of plaster.'"

Mind you, this is the "official" receipt that I paid a guy $20 to make for me with the help of the original guy who sold the bust to me. Knowing that I would need something official-looking for just this scenario, I had returned a week after the purchase to get the receipt. Since they don't give receipts at the flea market, my new friend Gennady had arranged with an art store to make one up for me. Everything has a price.

I still really don't think it's plaster, as it's too light to be plaster. But I wasn't going to argue with the expert, who placed the utmost importance on the true nature of the material. "And my colleague told me that in the 1980s they used a plaster-clay mix, which is why we didn't recognize it." She had become quite pleasant and friendly, perhaps because she had solved the mystery, perhaps because I had paid already.

"So," she said handing me a slip of paper, "call this number in about a week to make sure the documents are ready."
"Ok, so I call the number and then come here to pick up the documents and that's all I need?"
"No, you go somewhere else to pick up the documents, you don't have to come back here for anything. The address is on the paper."

And so, it looks like we're in for at least a trilogy, as next week will take me across town for the next installment of this wild goose chase...

21 February 2007

The Big House

My affairs took me past the Lubyanka yesterday, the infamous headquarters of the KGB and its successor, the FSB. I've always tried to keep my distance from the Lubyanka, as its bloody and sinister history hangs like a dark cloud over its yellow brick edifice, sending chills down one's spine. At least it does mine; I don't know about ordinary Russians. I suppose deep down I have a fear that if I get too close it will lash out at me, snarling and baring its teeth before devouring me. Or in the very least someone will emerge from its unassuming doors to arrest me. Irrational, I know, but it's enough to keep me on the other side of the street when I have to walk past it.

Maintaining the "other side of the street" rule yesterday would have taken me around the perimiter of the massive square in front of the Lubyanka, a detour the length of 4 city blocks. Not wishing to spend more time than necessary chilled by the frigid winds, I gathered my courage, held my breath, and stepped into the street toward the building.

As I briskly clipped along the icy sidewalk stretched out before the notorious prison, I couldn't help but recall the thousands upon thousands of victims that had been incarcerated, tortured, and executed within its walls, their last vision on earth being the cold, dark, dank walls of its subterranean dungeons. Great and ordinary men alike had ceased to exist on the other side of the stone wall that I was now passing.

Casting furtive glances from time to time at the curtained windows and passing the surprisingly small, nondescript front doors (I suppose I was expecting a set of massive jaws filled with daggers for teeth), I reckoned that the odds of being devoured today were tipping in my favor. And in fact, the building seemed far less terrifying up close, when all you can see is a few square feet of stone and brick in front of you. The full and most chilling effect, I concluded, could only be gotten by observing her in full profile.

I had nearly covered the full distance and was nearing the safety of the next block when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. It was a large bronze plaque affixed to the wall of the Lubyanka. I recognized the sculpted relief profile in the plaque immediately - it was that of Yuri Andropov, who served as the head of the KGB before succeeding Brezhnev as General Secretary of the Communist Party. Risking being arrested, swallowed, and digested on the spot, I slowed my pace to read the text on the plaque.

It was of the sort that is common around Moscow: "In this building from 19XX-19XX lived/worked [insert important individual here]." While sometimes the individuals memorialized by these bronze plaques are well known, I'm often not familiar with the individual under consideration, as they include all sorts of artists, musicians, and scholars in addition to the better-known political and military figures. For example, there is a bronze plaque that I pass every day on the way to the metro stating that some Academician lived in the building; I can only hope that someday a massive bronze plaque at my graduate apartment complex in the States will proclaim to the world that I once lived there.

In the vast majority of cases the buildings to which these notices are attached would be unremarkable and indistinguishable absent the plaques and their semi-famous former residents. That is to say, they are normal apartment and office buildings in which someone important in the Soviet era happened to spend some time. Let me repeat that: they are normal buildings.

You can probably see where this is going, why I was so startled to see the plaque memorializing Andropov affixed to the exterior of the Lubyanka. The implication of that plaque is that Andropov is the most significant and memorable thing that every happened there. "Here is where a great man once worked!" it proudly proclaims. Absent Andropov and his bronze likeness, we are led to believe, this is just another building. "Now please, respected citizens, go about your ordinary business."

I can only assume that my gaping mouth was mistaken by the beast with dagger-teeth as a display of power (they say that if you encounter a bear you should make yourself big, loud, and scary. Perhaps Russia really is just a big bear). As such, it seems to have been scared away and didn't devour me.

Just another building? Can it really be possible that someone believes that Andropov's years there are what makes it notable? Is this what we should remember when we think of the Lubyanka?

What of the blood of generations past that still seeps out of its foundations? What of the cries for mercy that fell on deaf ears, trapped within its stone walls never to be heard by living souls (for the souls attached to those deaf ears had died long before their trembling victims)? What of the suffering wives who waited faithfully outside its windows every day, struggling in vain to learn the fate of their already-departed husbands? What of the children who were blackened as outcasts for life, paying a heavy price for the non-sins of the father? And what of that which could have been, that which never was - what of the stirring prose, flowing poetry, and delicate arias that were never written, never spoken, never sung, because they had been shattered by a piece of lead in the back of their creator's head? What of them? Where is their plaque? WHERE IS THEIR PLAQUE?

I assumed that the farcical revision of history could only have been the crude work of the Soviet "dinosaurs," the crumbling geriatric comrades of the Brezhnev generation. Likely affixed to the wall in that utterly unremarkable period between Andropov's death from kidney failure in 1984 and Gorbachev's ascent in 1985, this was perhaps the only notable thing that Chernenko's brief reign produced. Bravo, Konstantin Ustinovich! Perhaps you believe in the plaque and what it stands for. But as for the rest of us, we're not buying it!

This is where I intended to stop writing. A fine indictment of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet regime, isn't it?

You can imagine, then, my shock when my daily inhalation of Russian news this morning included a reference to the memorial to Andropov attached to the wall of the Lubyanka: after an extended absence following the collapse of the Soviet regime, the plaque was re-installed in 1999 by another former Lubyanka chief who made the move down Nikolskiy Street to the comfort of the Kremlin's brick walls. His name? I think you know it already.

And so, this is not simply a footnote of history, it is part of the narrative that is being written today. What is written on the plaque is insignificant; it is that which is left unsaid that speaks volumes. The silence is deafening.

19 February 2007

Mission: Impossible

I have recently acquired a rather large piece of artwork which takes the form of a plaster bust. While the time is not right to relate the entire story (as it does not yet have a conclusion), I will provide a snapshot of a recent chapter that perhaps sheds some light on Russianness.

This scene centers around my interactions with a certain UK-based moving company which operates in Moscow and advertises its services in an attractive, accessible webpage on the leading website for expats in Russia. Seeing that they also sold packing supplies (which I needed to prepare the bust for transport to the US), I called them. The conversation, mostly in English, went something like this:

"Hello, do you sell boxes?
"Just a moment....Yes."
"I need a very large box for an object that measures 75cm x 55cm x 55cm."
"Ah, our largest box is wardrobe. It is 100cm x 40cm x 45 cm. How many would you like?"
"Do you have any other large boxes, because that one won't work."
"No, we don't. Let me check."

Let me interrupt at this point. I was amused by that particular phrase: no, we don't, let me check. If you're so sure you don't have it, then why bother checking? Or if you're unsure and have to check, why say a flat-out no?

She returns to the phone: "I'm sorry, we don't have anything else. The wardrobe is the only one that will work for you."
"But it won't work for me, since the object is 55 cm wide and the box is only 45 cm wide. It won't fit."
"Oh, yes. Sorry. So do you want one?"

I eventually acquired a discarded flatscreen TV box outside a large electronics shopping center and cut & pasted it into a box of the appropriate size. Now I needed packing materials. Again, I called the moving company.

"Hello, do you sell bubble wrap?"
"Yes, how much do you need?"
"I don't know, not much."
"We only sell by the roll. One roll is 100 meters x 15 centimeters."
"How much does a roll cost?"
"Uh, $150 US Dollars."

I ended up going to an outdoor market and buying a foam mattress pad instead.

My final interaction with them was regarding a document I need from the Ministry of Culture stating that this is not a piece of historical or cultural significance. It's generally required of all artwork and antiques that are taken out of Russia. Again, the moving company advertises their expertise in this matter and promises to obtain all necessary documents for clients. The catch is, I'm not moving, I'm only shipping one box. I explain this to the woman and ask if I can pay them to get me the document anyway. After all, they probably do this every day - would it be that much more difficult to include one more application in the stack they drop off at the ministry?

"No, it is impossible. Let me ask."

Again, the juxtapositioning of impossibility and possibility. There are various explanations for this phrase, or dare I say, mentality. First, it is possible that the word "impossible" doesn't translate into English quite right. But no, невозможно pretty much means the same thing. The other possibility is that officially, everything is and always has been "impossible." But unofficially anything is possible with the permission of the boss. It's a phenomenon I encountered when getting my visa at the Russian consulate in the States. One minute it was "impossible" for me to get the visa in time for my departure date ("it is the law, you know."). The next minute the boss had intervened and made it quite possible. Apparently "the law" is flexible when the boss wants to be.

Thus, while the linguistic translation of "impossible" might be direct, the cultural translation of impossibility is not. However, while the possibility of possibility amidst the impossible is always possible, sometimes the impossible is impossibly inevitable: sadly, when she returned to the phone, she told me, "No, I'm sorry, it is not possible unless you go with us." Not wanting to explain for the third time that I don't have anything to move, just a box to ship, I thanked her and hung up.

And so, I am off on what may be an impossible (read: possible) mission, trekking to the Ministry of Culture myself to seek out that piece of paper that says Lenin is of no cultural value to the Russian Federation.

18 February 2007

Thursdays with Ilych

A posting of something written but not yet posted. My apologies to those of you for whom this is a repeat.


I visited the old man yesterday. THE old man.

I remember the first time I visited him seven years ago. It was a perfect day for the occasion: the chilly October winds cut through the square and through my jacket, while the darkening gray sky threatened to blanket Moscow in her first snow of the season. It was quiet, peaceful, and somber. It was perfect.

I don't remember waiting long to see him. The impatient American in me must have been pleased; the Russophile in me could only have been disappointed at being denied the opportunity to engage in a quintessential Russian past time. As I filed across the cold cobblestones I remember my heart racing as I approached, not quite believing that I was soon to meet the man about whom I had read so much.

He was smaller than I expected, more serene than I expected, and frankly, quieter than I expected. One expects more from a man who changed the course of a country (and by extension) the world, even if he has been dead for 80 years. It's hard to reconcile the peaceful image of a sleeping grandfather with the historical forces he unleashed (created?), but I suppose that's all part of the mystery. My Russian comrades and I shuffled through in silence, and I couldn't help but wonder why they were there. I was a tourist, a foreigner. They were the product of his system, though I doubt many of them were there to thank him for the results.

Since that day I've been back to Lenin's mausoleum many times. I think today was the seventh. None of the subsequent visits have measured up to that day in October; this seems to be one of those activities that is always better the first time. The sun has been shining, the air has been warm, the Japanese and Swedish tour groups flanking me have giggled, pointed, and chatted. Despite the fact that the guards surrounding Lenin hush any talkers, simply breaking the silence erases the mystery (I keep avoiding using the word "magic" for fear that my meaning will be misconstrued; I suppose I'll get to that below).

Even today wasn't quite right, despite the lack of foreigners and the chilly temperatures (about 15, I think). The sun was out today, along with a tour group of Russians, complete with the requisite tour guide narrating the infamous line of Soviet heroes buried in the Kremlin wall that visitors to the mausoleum are required to pass after exiting the tomb. These were not the dwindling communist sympathizers that often constitute the Russian visitors to Lenin, but rather tourists visiting a now-foreign country (figuratively speaking). Their presence speaks volumes, but so did they. Hence, my dissatisfaction with the experience.

Yet despite the fact that conditions are never perfect and the excitement and wonder of that first time are gone, I still shudder when I step through the doorway into the dark marbled entryway, slowly descend the steps to the left, and emerge into the chamber below that glows in the soft light emanating from the glass sarcophagus. The thought that always crosses my mind as I look at him - the thought that keeps me returning to him time after time- is the same thought that first captured my interest in all things Russian so many years ago: here lies a man who, for better or for worse (more worse than better), created something - a country, a people, an idea - that truly shook the world. Even more stunning was the ease with which his creation came crashing to the ground 74 years later, passing into the fabled dustbin of history. Regardless of what you think of the man and his politics, few people in history can be said to have influenced its course as greatly. And so this is the magic of Lenin's tomb for me: it is not only a reminder of what got me here in the first place, but it's also a fleeting window into one of the most fascinating eras in human history.

And so I will return again and again until he rests there no more. My host mother visited Lenin once as a child; my host father has never been and never will. My Russian isn't good enough to explain the above to them, and even if it were I doubt they would understand. So I simply tell them, "I'm a student of history and politics, so it's very interesting to me." They seemed to be satisfied with that answer, though perhaps it was just the fact that their favorite tele-drama was coming on TV. In any case, we didn't address Vladimir Ilych any further.

What will the next visit look like? I've decided to wait until the weather is perfectly awful. Frigid temperatures, blowing winds, falling snow, and dark skies. Conditions that will keep all but the most sullen, somber, and contemplative from embarking on a fading pilgrimage. Maybe then the mystery, and dare I say magic, will be restored.

17 February 2007

Onward to the shining future!

I have finally caved to both external and internal pressure and have decided to launch my own blog. I've been hesitant to do this for a number of reasons. First, I don't particularly care for blogs, especially those of amateur political pundits trying to tell me what to think. Perhaps it's a latent authoritarian streak in me, but it seems that the web has made things a little too democratic. What happened to the good old days when elites made politics?

My second reason for avoiding blogging is a feeling of self-consciousness that I don't have anything interesting to say. This stems from my distaste of the "torrential banality" type of blog that describes every detail of a mundane life.

And yet something has compelled me to begin writing. True, certain individuals have been prodding me to do this; that I won't deny. These same individuals have also opened my eyes to the better side of blogging: articulate, well-informed writers commenting on parts of the world that tend to get incomplete coverage in the U.S. news (anyone know what happened in Belarus yesterday?). Better yet, these writers have interesting things to say! Thus, my overal stance on blogs has softened a bit.

Finally, the most important reason is that I forget things. Wandering the streets of Moscow I encounter dozens of interesting things every day. Or at least they seem interesting to me. By the time I get home at night I've probably forgotten most of them, although I can still visualize where I had an interesting thought; unfortunately the thought itself is gone. On the off chance I remember something that evening, by morning it's really gone.

Thus, this is an effort to remember and record so that one day I can look back on my "wild days" in Moscow and remember what life in this mysterious (baffling?) place was like. And so, the primary purpose of this blog is personal. These are the things that struck me as I walked down the street, the thoughts that rolled around in my head as I inhaled a bowl of borshch, and the enlightenment I gained while nearly crushed in the doors of a Metro car.

Nevertheless, though I am my own target audience, I am pleased to share these thoughts with anyone who happens to stumble by. Enjoy!