St. Pete Day 3

Today started with an ice-cold shampoo. Hot water is a rare commodity here at the Herzen Hotel, especially in the mornings, and there was no way I was taking a shower in that water. It isn't just that we run out of hot water, you turn the handle, and nothing comes out. The water you do get, from the cold side, isn't merely unheated, I swear it's actively cooled, it can't be much above freezing. We've discovered that hot water seems to be plentiful later in the day, so you just have to remember to take you showers at night before you go to bed. I had forgotten that the night before, thanks to the Vodka, so I settled for a shampoo of my hair and selective use of a washcloth. My scalp literally went numb from the cold water while trying to rinse the shampoo off, which is an entirely new sensation for me. I don't suggest you try it.

After regaining sensation in my head, I went downstairs for the usual breakfast, with pancakes and jam this time as the main course. Chuck and I then met downstairs with Alexey, who thought we were going to briefly meet with the IT staff of Herzen, before doing some sight-seeing. Much to our surprise, our schedule was suddenly changed, and we were going to be attending a conference about "Democracy, Technology, and Sustainable Development" with the UNI faculty.

More to our surprise was that we were going to be presenting at said conference at an unspecified time in the very near future. I wasn't really dressed to attend a conference, much less present at one, but we didn't have time to change, so off we went. We do have presentations, which we already gave in Moscow, and we planned on showing them here to the IT staff, not faculty, so at least we have something to work with. I was somewhat surprised to discover I had no network access in the room that we'd be presenting in, though I was going to have it for the planned IT talk. I was even more surprised that the interpreter I thought we'd been using wasn't present. To add to our frustration yet further, we weren't actually on the program for the conference, so we didn't know when we'd be speaking, though I got some amusement from one of the other faculty members having suddenly been presented with a new topic for his speech, which was vastly different from both his area of expertise and his prepared material.

So, as I tried to wrap my head around giving a speech, which now had to be twice as long, without access to the internet, to a new audience, at an unspecified time in the near future, while wearing jeans, I began to get somewhat flustered. Fortunately, it worked out that Chuck and I aren't actually presenting until tomorrow, so I have some time to monkey with my presentation a bit, and wear the proper clothing. It turns out that we're still presenting to the IT people, immediately after the conference, and that I will have network access for the second presentation.

The first presentation of the conference was about out-sourcing of call center jobs to India, and was pretty interesting. Then we had a break for lunch. We were told that there'd be a special lunch for us back in our hotel cafeteria/restaurant, but when we arrived, there were no tables set up for us, so we wound up crossing the street to eat at a fake British pub called The Office. It was taking a while to order, so two of the UNI faculty who had to present departed, though a few of us remained, finding lunch much more interesting, and by that point, I'd had enough surprises that I'd been "flexible" about for one day, I wasn't giving up lunch on top of it. I decided just to have some french fries, and a coke, and then went back to my room and ate my leftover pizza from the night before.

I spent some time getting organized in my room, then met Chuck to go visit Quo Vadis, the internet cafe on Nevsky Prospect. We got online for an hour, which was about 80 roubles ($2.85) and I got a little work done. I also managed to find the St. Petersburg access number for the pre-paid dial-up provider I used in Moscow. Quo Vadis is really a nice, well-run internet cafe, and the machines are wiped after each user.

I then returned to my room, and attempted to get online. The phone jack in my room here is unique, to say the least. It has the old-style 5-pronged Russian connection, as well as two of the newer RJ-11 jacks just like you'd have in any house in the US. I couldn't get a dial tone out of either of the RJ-11 jacks, and my 5-prong to RJ-11 converter wouldn't physically fit the construction of my jack. I finally resorted to getting out my Leatherman, and disassembling the jack, where I discovered that whoever wired it didn't bother to connect the wires for the RJ-11 connectors that were part of the the phone jack. Since all the wires looked the same, I just opted for installing my converter now that the exterior had been removed, and I was able to get online with my laptop at last!

After a couple of quick postings here, I met the rest of the UNI delegation downstairs for our "special" dinner. What a great meal it turned out to be. A big van arrived to take us all to a restaurant called "Backstage" which is part of the Mariinsky ballet house here. I managed to avoid all the appetizers, which were various forms of invertebrate sea life, stuck with the good bread rolls, and waited for my entree. I ordered a beef fillet in pepper sauce, which was excellent. I told Alexey it was the best beef I'd had in Russia, and as he'd ordered the same thing, he said that it was the best beef he'd had in Russia in his 26 years of living here too. I had plenty of white wine, and we had great conversation at my end of the table, between Chuck, me, Dr. Vajpeyi and Dr. Connors from UNI, as well as Alexey, and a Russian woman named Galina, who I just met for the first time. We talked about politics, books, movies, history, and generally had a great time over the course of three hours. For dessert, I ordered a hot fudge sundae, which came with lots of little bits of fruit in the bowl under the ice cream. It was pretty tasty, though I wished I'd gotten the cheesecake after I saw how good Alexey's looked.

We made plans with Galina for some specially arranged tours later in the week. We're getting an exclusive tour of the Russian mint here on Thursday, so we'll see where all the coins are made for the entire Russian Federation. On Friday, we're getting a rare tour of the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was killed. Well, where they started to kill him at least, as he was allegedly poisoned, shot, beaten, stabbed, then thrown into a canal where he eventually drowned. Knowing the history of the Russian monarchy, I'm surprised it wasn't declared a suicide. In any case, I'm looking forward to those tours.

Now it's time for me to see if I have hot water and can take a shower...

St. Pete Day 2

Day two started with us finding the rest of the UNI delegation downstairs at breakfast. There are several faculty members and librarians here as well, though each group has a separate schedule. Breakfast was an omelet, orange juice, yogurt, and bread and cheese. I skipped the omelet, and ate the rest, then got ready for some more sight-seeing. The morning started with a visit to Herzen, the State Pedagogical University that Alexey works at. He took us to see his office, and we learned why he is so thin, as it's a long walk up a lot of stairs to reach it. Since Chuck and I are internet addicts, we seized the opportunity to get online as soon as we saw a spare patch cable in Alexey's office. Chuck's laptop turned out to have a bad NIC, so my AirPort Express came in handy again, as I just popped it in place, and set up an impromptu wireless network for Chuck and I to use. The Herzen network admin helpfully poked some holes in the firewall, as they've got it locked down so tight we couldn't contact either an external IMAP or VPN server, but once he opened those up for us, we were right as rain.

We got about 15 minutes of network time in before Alexey showed us the video conferencing room that was set up here last winter by other UNI staffers. It was nice to see a completed room, and they've certainly invested some money in this room, and it shows. They've got echo-canceling acoustic tiles lining the whole room, and have put in a new projector, sound system, and even little booths for people to do simultaneous translation in. It was a pretty high-tech room, all things considered.

Alexey also showed us one of their computer labs, which was pretty nice, filled with new computers from a local white-box manufacturer. We talked some more with the Herzen staff, though most of the time was spent with the MISiS people conversing with them in Russian, while Chuck and I looked over the technology approvingly, then it was time for lunch.

For lunch we went to another pancake house, I think they're called Bliny (prounounced blee-nee), but I could be wrong. I passed on the herring flavored variety, and settled for a plain one with strawberry jam, which was pretty tasty. I added a Coke and some cabbage salad to the order, which made for a good lunch, all-in-all.

Alexey had to return to work, but he left us instructions to meet a tall, dark, and beautiful woman for our trip to the Russian Museum back at our hotel. We didn't have any trouble spotting Anna from Alexey's description, as she met all three descriptors spot on. Anna led us to the Russian Museum, where we pretended to be Russian in order to get in for a cheaper price. As I read the rules, however, our visa allows us to get in at that price anyhow, as only people on tourist visas are supposed to pay the tourist prices, and we're on work/business visas. Also, my Lonely Planet book says that in practice, the Russian ticket takers will also sort of encourage you to pay the Russian price, rather than the inflated tourist price, so it's apparently a pretty common dodge.

Anna proved to be a capable tour guide, though her voice was suffering somewhat, as she'd gotten tossed into the river/canal the night before while partying with some friends, and was trying valiantly to overcome the certain sickness that was the result. The Russian Museum is filled only with the works of Russian artists, and is quite interesting. The paintings are on massive canvases, and depict much of Russian history, as well as Biblical, Greek, and Roman themes. Pitr and Vladimir were with us as well, and after two hours, we'd seen the entire museum. Anna bid us farewell, Pitr and Vladimir returned to the hotel, and Chuck and I set off to poke about the tourist-trappy souvenir market that was near the museum.

All of the vendors in the souvenir market were hawking wares that were almost identical, fur hats, nesting dolls, amber necklaces, and drinking flasks were everywhere. Dickering is a necessity in this market, and most of the vendors are friendly and speak English well enough to sell you their wares. We didn't purchase anything, however, as we were only on a scouting expedition now, and while I may pick up a few gifts there, most of them had the look and feel of cheap mass-produced goods, rather than quality items that I'd rather give as gifts.

We meandered back to our hotel, and decided to rest a bit before finding some food for dinner. I was craving American food, so I talked Chuck into a visit to Pizza Hut, which isn't too far from Herzen. We weren't sure what to expect, as even American chains are "different" in other lands, and I'd heard that the local KFC and Subway franchises were not much like the American counterparts. I'm happy to report that Pizza Hut is an excellent place for someone to get a great pizza in St. Petersburg. I bought a medium pepperoni pizza, and a couple slices of garlic bread, and Chuck had a pasta dish along with the salad bar. The pizza was delicious, just as good, if not better, than any American Pizza Hut pizza I've ever had. I ate half the pizza, then loaded the rest into a take-home box to stash in my refrigerator back in my room.

After dinner, we decided to see if we could use that wi-fi down at Zoom, and lugged our laptops the few blocks to the cafe. Unfortunately, the access cards they sold for the wi-fi didn't actually work, and we just kept getting "authentication failure" messages in our web browser when using the usernames and passwords from the back of the cards. The staff weren't able to help us much, as they're just reselling access from another company, but they did refund our purchase price on the cards.

As we were sitting there, my ears picked up the sound of American being spoke at a table near us, and I introduced myself. It turns out that the table was occupied by Chris, an American from New York, Chris, a Canadian from Ottawa, Catherine, a Dane, and Svetlana, a Russian. All of them are students at local universities, though Chris (NY) is actually two years older than I am. They've come to St. Petersburg to get their degrees, not just for a semester or two of study, and after some brief chatting, they invited us to join then at the yellow-floored place down the road for some drinks.

Chuck and I joined up with them there for some Vodka, with cherry juice to wash it down, and I had a Long Island iced tea too, which was somewhat difficult to order, as the waitress thought I was actually trying to get an iced tea, so we had to point it out to her on the drink menu before we got our order in. After a few shots of vodka, we were sufficiently relaxed and started talking all about the experience of being visitors to Russia, both the good and the bad.

Eventually, someone (I think it was Catherine) suggested that we try another club down the road called "Lenin's Mating Call". As the name suggests, this club is an unusual experience. Chris (CA), Catherine, and Svetlana went ahead, as Chris (NY), Chuck, and I returned to Herzen to leave our laptops behind.

We caught up with the advance team at Lenin's, which is unique to say the least. The decor is faux-Soviet era, with lots of red velvet and busts of Lenin scattered about, quite posh. All over the top of the restaurant/bar area are LCD displays which show an interesting mixture of soft-core pornography videos, interspersed with Soviet-era propaganda films and slogans, generally in 30 second clips of each. The bathrooms, which have magnetic locks, also have little web cameras in them, so after you finish going to the bathroom, you turn around, and see yourself on camera in the little LCD display in the door, and realize you've been watched the whole time (from behind). I'm not exactly sure why the cameras are there, but it's amusing, nonetheless.

Chuck and I learned that we will never want Juniper-flavored vodka again, as it's like drinking Pine-sol, though the unflavored stuff was pretty good. Canadian Chris and I had a political discussion, as he's apparently a Republican, even though he's from Canada. He admitted he doesn't pay much attention to his local politics, as he's in Russia for 6 years to become an expert in counter-terrorism.

Catherine and I talked a bit, she thought I was Danish when I'd walked in to the Zoom. I explained that I was one-quarter Danish, and that I called my paternal grandfather Bestefar, the Danish word.

Around 1:00, the rest of the group needed to disperse, as they raise the bridges in St. Petersburg at 1:30 to let the ships in and out of the city, and they don't lower them again until 3:00, so they had to depart in order to make it home. Chuck and I managed to make our way back to Herzen, where I quickly zonked out, with the help of all that vodka I'd had earlier.

St. Pete Day 1

We left Moscow right on time, with our driver managing to cram Alexey, Pitr, Chuck, and I into a Pontiac Transport van. He expressed much displeasure at the amount of luggage we had, as apparently he'd been told that since we has left the video conferencing equipment, we wouldn't have much luggage. In actuality, our luggage occupied the same space, it was just much lighter now. After some creative space management, we all got in, and began the mad dash to the train station. I don't know how fast we were going across Moscow, but my estimate is between 70 and 80 miles per hour, and as I was in the front seat, this was both exciting and terrifying, and I got a strange look from the driver as I was scrambling around for my seat belt, as hardly anyone wears them here. We got to the station an hour before our train was to depart, and spent a bit of time milling about, before we were able to board. Chuck and I wound up sharing a two-person compartment, which would have been spacious, except every single square inch of floorspace was consumed by our Luggage, which wouldn't fit in any of the niches made for it within the compartment. We just sort of had to dive for the beds from the doorway, but, as the train ride was from midnight to 8:00 a.m., we were sleeping almost the entire trip anyhow.

I've never traveled by train before, it was quite pleasant, almost magical to go to sleep in one city and wake up in another. The beds were comfortable, and we had a non-smoking compartment that was pretty nice, all things considered. One of the women who was in charge of our car came along as we departed and collected 160 roubles ($5.45) from us, but we had no idea what it was for. We found out later from Alexey that it was for our linens. Why they don't just build that into the price of the ticket is beyond me, it'd seem to be easier than having to take cash later, but we were fine with it, just didn't know what we were paying for at the time.

The next morning, the same woman woke us agressively. The train had been warm most of the trip, but about 2 hours earlier, I'd had to actually get under the blankets on my bed, as I was cold, and I was really in a deep sleep and didn't want to get up. I thought there was possibly some trouble now, as it seemed far too dark outside for us to be at St. Petersburg already. So, Chuck and I pulled ourselves together, and I reached for my watch. I was surprised to learn that it was 7:50 in the morning, and it wasn't light outside yet. St. Petersburg is quite far north, and it doesn't get very light here until after 8:00 in the morning.

We gathered our things together, and left the train, to be greeted by a breath of fresh cold air as we stepped on to the platform. You know how I said that Moscow isn't cold? St. Petersburg is cold. My un-scientific definition of cold is that if you can see your breath, it's cold. In Moscow, I couldn't see my breath. In St. Petersburg, you have time to make a nice sketch of your breath before it cools and dissipates.

Alexey and Pitr found us on the platform, and we set off to find our driver. He'd brought a Subaru station wagon to get us, and we got to watch another driver attempt to deal with all of our luggage, while still squeezing 5 passengers into the car. St. Petersburg was pretty sleepy at 8:00 on a Sunday morning, and the streets were quite empty as we made our way to the Herzen University Hotel.

Upon arriving at the hotel, we learned that our rooms weren't ready for us yet, so we had to check our luggage with the security guy, and then Alexey took us on a walking tour of the city to kill time. I was cold, hungry, and half-awake, but I learned that St. Petersburg is much more European than Moscow is. In fact, if there wasn't any Cyrillic writing in a photograph, you'd be hard-pressed to identify a scene from St. Petersburg compared to any other European city. After killing an hour, we returned to find our rooms were ready, and we got checked in.

We only had time to drop our luggage off in our rooms before meeting Rimma, who was to take us on another walking tour. I did manage to at least grab a Snickers bar for breakfast from the hotel store before we started out. We walked around the town some more, looking briefly at various cathedrals and buildings before being deposited at a restaurant for lunch.

I'm not sure what the name of the cafe was, but it has a yellow floor that's lit from below, and compared to Moscow, the prices are quite good. I had a caesar salad, a Pepsi, and a pork chop that was at least an inch thick, and was quite juicy.

We were originally scheduled to tour the Hermitage art museum that afternoon, but our guide didn't show up, so Alexey eventually came and gathered us up and took us to St. Isaac's Cathedral, where we climbed all 262 steps to the top for a breathtaking view of the city from above. I wish I'd known there were 262 steps before starting, as I wound up gasping for breath on the last 50 or so, not having any idea of the length of the climb we were in for when we started it.

Chuck and I each snapped off several pictures here before we made the trip back down. Next we walked to a lovely park filled with sculptures, I wish I could remember the name, but by this point my brain was pretty well drained, as were my legs.

We returned to the hotel, where I finally got a shower, changed, and then Chuck and I went to the Zoom Cafe for dinner. I had a ham and cheese sandwich on toasted bread, followed by a piece of orange cheesecake, and Chuck ate about three other things, as he was really hungry. We found out that Zoom had wi-fi, and inquired about pricing, so that we could come back later with our laptops and use it.

We walked back to the hotel and promptly went to sleep, having walked at least 7-10 miles over the course of the day.

Last Call

It's our last night in Moscow, and, also, our last night at Friday's. Today started with a bit of drama. After breakfast, Chuck and I thought we'd do some laundry. Chuck got a load done, and I had two going when I found an angry Russian woman at my door. I went and fetched Alexey to translate. Apparently, we weren't supposed to use those washers and dryers, as they're only for washing the hotel linens. Oops. It was an honest mistake, I'd seen other guests in there using the iron and the washers too, so I thought it was okay. They left the door to that room ajar the whole time, so it wasn't like I snuck back somewhere to do it. Oh well, another lesson learned. Chuck already had gotten his laundry out, but I had two loads there. As Alexey moderated, I apologized profusely, and she offered to do my laundry for a fee, to which I agreed, though really, they only needed to be dried at that point. Alexey said it was going to cost me 50 rubles each (about $1.75) which I thought was a bargain, all things considered.

Later, that fee turned out to be 900 rubles, or about $30. Ouch. At least she neatly folded and ironed my clothes, so all I had to do is drop them in my luggage, but $30 seemed a bit steep. I'll have fun explaining this on my expense report.

At noon we met Katya and Galina, who were going to take us sight-seeing today. Irina was there too, and she gave Chuck and I some Russian nesting dolls, a honey-based food product that I don't understand yet, and a Russian pincushion doll. We thanked her, and then left with Katya and Galina for the Metro station. We decided to skip the cemetery tour, because it was raining today, so our first stop was the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. They had a lot of neat ancient Egyption, Assyrian, Greek and Roman artifacts, as well as many paintings from the 16th Century on. Artists such as Matisse, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Rembrandt were featured throughout the museum, and we walked all of it, though Alexey remarked that the museum was small, which makes me fear the amount of walking in store for us once we get to the Hermitage in his hometown.

After the Pushkin, we went to the Church of Christ The Savior, and toured the inside, which is very beautiful. It was interesting to compare the interior of this church, which is only a few years old, with the ancient cathedrals elsewhere in Russia. Same ideas, just much more modern and opulent, it's probably one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world.

We left the church behind, and began a long walk to find a restaurant. We wound up eating at something called "Drama" or perhaps "Drava", (I didn't get a clear translation) near Red Square. Actually, almost on Red Square, which was open today, and filled with people. This was a fairly upscale restaurant, and they had menus in English. We all opted for the buffet, which thankfully was also labeled in English, and was pretty good. I started with a Korean carrot salad, which is long shreds of carrot, almost like spaghetti, but covered in a spicy sauce or oil. I also had a pepper salad, made of green and red bell peppers, that was good too. Next I tried an Uzbeki dish, which was purported to be a cheese pastry, though mine turned out to be of the meat variety, it has been placed in the wrong dish on the buffet, but it was quite good. Think of sort of a hot-pocket, filled with sausage, but this was much thiner, like a quesadilla, without the cheese. It looked good to Chuck too, he went back and got a cheese one, which he also said was good. I had a potato, and tried some of the buckwheat and bacon, which helped me realize that the grain we were served the other morning was buckwheat. There wasn't much bacon in it though, so I was glad I didn't take much. For dessert, I tried some poppy seed pastry, which was good, not very sweet, sort of like a coffee cake. I also had some "Honey Cake" which was excellent, also not very sweet, but quite tasty.

After lunch, we took the Metro back to MISA and began packing for our train. We're being driven to the station at 10:30 tonight, and the train leaves around midnight for St. Petersburg. Apparently, Chuck and I have either a compartment each, or we're sharing one, we're not sure which. Alexey wasn't fortunate enough to get a compartment, but we're hoping we can smuggle him back there if we've got separate rooms.

In any case, my next post should be from St. Petersburg, though I don't know how long it will be until I get internet access.

So what's Mosow like?

Several people have asked me just what Moscow is like. Now that I'm leaving, I'll answer. It's much like any big city in the U.S. Personally, I think it's a lot like Chicago, with a touch of Washington D.C. thrown in. Chuck is from the Chicagoland area, and he agrees. It's got a strong industrial base, but also a vibrant nightlife, and there are great crowds of people moving throughout the city all day long.

I was also asked if Moscow smells. It does not smell, well, at least not any more than any city does, just the normal smell of traffic, vendors cooking food on the street, and construction. One excellent smell is the smell of fresh baked goods in the subways and the underpasses under the main streets where there are kiosks selling pastries and other goodies. Moscow certainly smells a great deal better than Cedar Rapids, the city we flew out of. If you've never been to Cedar Rapids, your nose thanks you. The sign may say the City of Five Seasons, but the locals call it the City of Five Smells. The only olfactory offense in Moscow is cigarette smoke, which is much more prevalent than it is in the U.S. these days. MISA is actually a bit of an anomaly, as they don't allow smoking, and Chuck and I got some amusement listening to Alexey grumble about this when he'd leave to go take a smoke outside.

The Metro or subway system in Moscow is unique as well. I've ridden the one in Washington quite a bit, and it's the only one I can compare it to first-hand. Each Moscow Metro station is unique, and they're usually decorated in a neo-classical style, with lots of marble and columns, much nicer than the drab concrete tunnels of D.C. The trains move very very fast, and they're generally somewhat crowded, though not overwhelmingly so. It's very cheap to travel by subway, I think the price is around 10 rubles, or about 35 cents, and, unlike the states, the price doesn't vary based on your destination. That 35 cents gets you anywhere you want to go on the Metro system, which is quite large. There are two things to beware on the subway, one is the doors, which I found out close quite fast, they caught me half-in, and I had to squeeze through pretty quickly, as they don't open back up. I'm surprised I didn't get bruised. The other thing to watch out for is pickpockets, as they like to strike in dense crowds where they can escape and you have a hard time chasing them. I caught a kid of about 12 years old trying to pick my back pocket when I was in the Subway one day. Fortunately, my wallet was in my front pocket at the time, with my hand firmly around it, so all he got out of the deal was a handful of my chubby butt. Even if he had gotten my wallet, he'd have gotten about $40 and my UNI ID card. Not such a big score.

Moscow also has a lot of restaurants (spelled PECTOPAH in Cyrillic) which are just as expensive as anywhere in Chicago or any other large U.S. city. There are a lot of young people who frequent them, and there seem to be a great number of wealthy people in Moscow as well, and there'd need to be, to support the large number of clothing shops that are too expensive for me to shop in.

As I've mentioned before, the streets are full of luxury cars, though traffic is chaotic. Several of our tour guides mentioned that they don't drive, and have never learned, because they're too terrified of the traffic. I can't say I blame them, and I know many New Yorkers feel this same way, as well as they don't want the hassle of having to find parking spaces for the car. If I was a Muscovite, I can't say that I wouldn't feel the same way, though the Beltway in DC has its share of bad drivers too.

Muscovites dress up somewhat more than the average American does, but they'd be right at home on Manhattan. I've taken some notes, wondering exactly how well I blend in, and I'm sorry to say that I don't at all, though a 10-year old girl did think I was a Russian in a shopping mall the other day, so that counts for something. Anyhow, if you're coming to Moscow, and you want to blend in, first you're going to need to darken your wardrobe. Black is by far the dominant wardrobe color here, and I didn't bring anything black with me. Also, shave off your facial hair, I haven't seen anyone under the age of 50 with facial hair here, other than myself. Next you're going to need to drop that extra weight you're carrying, as Russians aren't nearly as fat on average as we Americans are. In a given room, I'm probably the biggest guy around, both in height and in girth, so I don't think we'll be seeing an NFL expansion team in Moscow anytime soon, unless they find some husky country boys to play on the line.

I've also noticed that jeans with vertical wear lines are hot here, sort of like vertical stripes of lighter and darker denim around the jeans. I think I've seen these in America as well, but they're much more prevalent here. Women here also are very fond of the mini-skirt (hey, so am I) and they're generally dressing to impress. Men tend to wear a lot of dress shirts and pants, though jeans are pretty prevalent too. You'll see almost no T-shirts though, and no khakis. I've literally not seen a single person wearing what would be a "standard" business casual outfit in the U.S., such as khakis and a blue button up shirt. Of course, that's what I wore the other day when I was giving my little presentation, which is exactly when I noticed that no one else dressed that way.

I've watched some Russian TV in my room, and while I was disappointed to discover that this model of TV wouldn't let me select an alternate audio stream, it was still fun to watch some. Chuck watched more than I did, so he can probably post a comment with more info, but I've got to say that Russian MTV is waaaay better than our sorry old MTV station. First of all, they play Music Videos, and I mean they play more than a half-hour a day. Almost every time I turn on MTV here, it's videos, both American and Russian in origin, though I did catch Ren & Stimpy one day, in Russian. Many American shows are shown here, dubbed into Russian. The funny thing is that the English soundtrack is underneath the Russian one, so it's like the actor has two voices speaking at once. I caught an episode of the X-Files the other night, and I've seen the Amazing Race as well. I also caught an episode of Russian Idol, which has the exact same theme music as American Idol, but seems to have two hosts, and no trace of Ryan Seacrest or the rest of the cast. The most shocking thing about Russian TV, to a typical prudish American, would be the late-night movies that, well, could probably best be described as soft-core porn. Nothing too shocking, really, just the sort of stuff that Cinemax shows at night in the U.S., I'm just not used to seeing it on broadcast channels.

Other than that, Moscow is your typical big city, more like any big city in the U.S. than it is different. I'm looking forward to St. Petersburg, which Alexey tells me is much more beautiful than Moscow, though as a native Petersburger, he's obviously more than a little biased, which he readily admits. There's a bit of a rivalry between the two cities, since Peter the Great moved the capitol from Moscow to St. Petersburg, then the Soviets moved it back to Moscow later, both cities feel that they are the "true" jewel of Russia.

Everyone also asks me if it's cold here. The answer is a definite no. It's no colder than it is in Iowa this time of year, it's been in the 40s or 50s all week, and though we were told to expect rain, the only rain we saw was today. It's been pretty pleasant weather for walking long distances in the city, not too hot, not too cold. Moscow is not in Siberia, and it's really no colder than the upper midwest of the U.S. as far as I can tell.

Well, it's time to sign off from Friday's and catch a late-night train to St. Petersburg. Da svedanya!

Friday's on Friday

We finished up the testing with UNI, our project was declared a success, so Chuck and I watched at the MISA staff disassembled everything so that they can re-assemble it when the renovation of the classroom is complete. With Alexey and our now-empty equipment cases in tow, we made our way to Formis, the on-campus bar, and had our last meal there. They must have heard about the feast we had at lunch, as they only had one plate for us, with chicken, kidney beans and french fries. It took me a bit to figure out what part of the chicken it was, because they don't serve the unnecessary bony part of the drumstick, so it was only the top part. There's nothing wrong with that, there's nothing to eat on the rest of it anyhow, it just didn't look right at first. After our light dinner, Alexey went off to bed, and Chuck and I came here to our usual haunt to get online, and update you all on the day's successes.

Project Complete

Today is the last day of the installation of our video conferencing system, and everything is ready to go. The day started with the usual breakfast ingredients, with an omelet. Before we left for the classroom, I wandered around until I located washing machines and dryers. Now that I know where that is, I can wash my clothes before packing them for St. Petersburg tomorrow.

We headed over to the classroom, where we were greeted by the arrival of a new computer and projector to complete the set up. It takes a few days, but eventually it all comes together.

Chuck worked on setting up the final componenets, while I messed around on the internet and played some Civilization III. Pitr came in shortly, and presented Chuck, Alexey, and I with gifts of Vodka, chocolate, and what I think is seltzer, though I'm not sure, I haven't asked Alexey to translate the can yet. We presented Yuri, Andrei, and Pitr with some UNI-branded gifts that we'd brought along, things like playing cards, shot glasses, and other assorted knick-knacks, as well as a pound of Twizzlers candy. All of which were well-received.

At 1:00 Alexey took us over to meet Tim & Holly from UNI, the folks from our International Programs office, as well as Olga, the head of the same program here, and Vladimir, their Vice-Rector for...something that escapes me at the moment. He was an outstanding host, and we were treated to an unbelievable meal. I started with some Savingon Blanc white wine, and bread and cheese (which is always good here). Next we had some pork, potatoes, and some fish which was excellent as well. Vladimir came around the table, and before I'd realized it, had deposited about 3 oz. of black caviar on to my plate for me to try. I'd never had caviar before, and being faced with what I'm sure is an expensive quantity of it made me somewhat nervous, but I was determined to be a good guest so I gave it a shot.

I got a laugh from everyone for putting it on my bread with my cheese at first, before I realized that it was butter you were supposed to use, rather than cheese. Tim took over, and instructed me in the proper way to eat it. It wasn't nearly as strong as I'd feared it might be, it's very mild, and not at all unpleasant. You can tell it has a high fat-content, as it's very rich, though I thought it tasted better after it had warmed in my mouth. I ate all the caviar I was given, using about 4-5 pieces of bread to do it, and wound up consuming almost 3/4th of the bottle of white wine, as everyone else was drinking red.

For dessert, Vladimir presented us with some "sugar-melon" which is outstanding. It's a white melon, which tastes like cantaloupe, only with two or three times the sugar content. It's very sweet and juicy and practically melts in your mouth, I don't know why I've never seen it in the U.S., it's delicious. After dessert, we toasted each other some more, and talked about our experience in Moscow. I mentioned how much I had enjoyed the Vodka that Alexey had ordered for me, and Vladimir insisted I take the bottle of Vodka that was on the table for dinner. I graciously accepted, and noted that it was of a different brand than the stuff Pitr gave me. I'm glad we have plenty of room in the equipment cases for our gifts.

Vladimir also insisted that we try the unique Russian garlic pieces, which he said were fermented or pickled, I didn't quite get it clearly, and he said the process used to do it is a closely guarded secret. They were quite good, and I ate the whole garlic clove before I quite realized how strong it was. Chuck was amazed I'd eaten the whole thing, but I'd already had most of a bottle of wine by this point, so it went down fine. After another toast by Olga, we broke up to return back to the classroom to test with UNI.

We stopped back by our rooms, so I could deposit my vodka, and attempt to brush my teeth, as the garlic I'd eaten had remained quite strong in my mouth. I like garlic, but man, I could kill a rhino with my breath at 30 paces. My toothbrush didn't do much to dull the taste, but we headed back across the courtyard (Chuck walked, I sort of staggered, being a light-weight when it comes to drinking alcohol).

We arrived in time to be presented with some gifts of chocolate by Andrei, which he said were the best chocolate in Russia. We then sat around watching a Russian-dubbed copy of The Matrix Reloaded on the projector while waiting for UNI to come online.


We ate the usual breakfast, with the new addition of a sort of hot cereal, which we think was made from barley or hominy, and tasted fine, though I think it would have been great with some honey. We then crossed the courtyard over to MISA, and were pleasantly surprised with the arrival of the new TV and VCR for the classroom. The projector hasn't arrived yet, but that doesn't really matter, we really needed the TV to rule out our NTSC-to-PAL converter as a source of trouble. The TV is a really nice one, a big Sony Wega Trinitron, and we were extremely glad to see a normal video image appear on it, as it means all the gear we lugged from America is working properly. The internet connection is back up too, the MISA staff worked late last night, and eventually tracked down a bad patch cable somewhere in the network, so everything looks ready for our next testing window at 4:00 this afternoon (7:00 a.m. Iowa time).