29 November 2010

Commode Culture Clash

Having been a near daily user of men's bathrooms in US and Russia, I have noticed a distinct difference.

American men freely engage in conversations with their co-urinating pals in the bathroom.  The conversation can be about last night's ball game, the latest dream sports car, that hot girl they dream about having inside that sports car, or whatever.  Most of the time, it is just useless chatter that hovers slightly louder than the sound of the running stream.

Taking Care of Business in America

In Russia, all conversation ceases once drainage begins.  It is as if touching that appendage down under somehow interferes with speech.  This makes me wonder if I am witnessing a cultural difference or a different vocal cord placement on Russian men.

28 November 2010

Presidential Pardons and Turkeys

Many Russian readers did not understand the turkey reference and the related presidential pardon.

The US president, like many heads of state, has the legal authority to forgive someone who is either accused or convicted of a crime.  In 1989, President George H. W. Bush officially pardoned the White House turkey, setting a precedent that has since become an annual American tradition.

The word "turkey" as multiple meanings, one being a large and rather tasty domesticated bird, another being a person who does something thoughtless or annoying. In the latter sense of the word, the first presidential turkey pardon dates back to 1974 when President Gerald Fold pardoned President Richard Nixon for any crimes that may have been committed against the United States in the Watergate scandal.

Other presidential turkey pardons have included George H. W. Walker's pardoning of Kasper Weinberger and Bill Clinton's pardoning of Marc Rich.

And so, this Thanksgiving, President Obama conducted his second presidential pardon which, like the first, was to save yet another turkey.  President Obama, being an intellectual sort, and as reported by The Onion, apparantly deliberated long and hard before picking the right turkey from the lot of them out there.

26 November 2010

Really Missing the US Today

Happy Thanksgiving, a wonderful American holiday.  It is my favorite.

Thanksgiving is a celebration of the fall bounty, of generosity, and of friendship.  Its origins go back some 400 years to when Virginia was settled by colonists and the generous help of Native Americans who helped the colonist survive through the tough winter.  It has been an annual holiday since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed it as a national day of giving thanks.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of its universality.  Americans of all religions, creeds, colors, and social status (except Angelina Jolie) partake of this day of feasting around a large dinner table with friends, family, and sometimes strangers.

The trouble is, being quite a distance away from home, I am far away from this very nice day in the US.  This really makes me miss home and my family in the US.  The good thing is, Moscow is really fun for the rest of the year (except when the smokes gets thick, or only hot water comes out of the pipes, or when I am stuck in traffic jams, or when it gets really cold, or when it gets really hot or ...)

In any case, Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Other Turkey Will Be Pardoned by A Future President

20 November 2010

Just Put Your Lips Together and ...

My Moscow apartment is located in a building that was built in 1918. The apartment was refurbished (ремонт - in Russian vernacular) in the early 1990s, shortly after the end of Soviet Union. The current apartment construction offers a snapshot of the goods that suddenly became available int he Russian market at that time, like halogen lamp fixtures and a hot tub.

Time Machine:  1980s Hot Tub

Just for the record, I hate hot tubs. They are one of those useless 1980 in-vogue items like parachute pants and Chia Pets.

I hate hot tubs but I am stuck with one.  So, when it is broken, I feel obliged to fix it.  Over the short past short while, my wife and I have replaced pipes, tubes, screws, and fixed leaks.  We had a specific leak that needed a specialist.  As we were going to have the honor of hosting a hot tub specialist in our apartment, it seemed appropriate to ask him to fix everything else that was wrong with this 1980s relic, like the pneumatic switch that turns on the water jets.

The pneumatic switch is a safety feature.  Because the hot tub is full of water, all electronics should be isolated; but, water jets and bubblers run on electricity and they should be controlled from inside the hot tub.  As such, the answer is to create an air pump (the pneumatic switch) that activates an electric switch somewhere else where it is safer.

Well, the distinguished hot tub specialists showed up (three of them, all of them smelly), and not a single one had the parts to replace the pneumatic switch.  To appease us, the cleverest of them all disconnected the air tube from the switch and said:
But this is not a problem.  To turn on the jets, just put your lips together here and blow.

The smelly and unattractive lad somehow managed to invoke the very sexy line from Lauren Bacall in the 1944 film, To Have and Have Not.  Admittedly, Lauren Bacall's performance was somehow more inviting.

Unfortunately for Russians, this type of behavior - namely shoddy workmanship, painful workarounds, incomplete products, bad services, and broken promises by vendors - is the norm (but things are progressing and getting better).  Russians are a very patient bunch.  I surmise that there is nothing out of the ordinary to them with putting their lips together and ... blowing.

19 November 2010

Reaping Sown Seeds

Many Russian friends were surprised that the rate of heroin usage was so high in Russia. As a matter of fact, it should be expected.

When large powers invade other nations, they often do so with a specific set of goals. However, those goals often do not include "anticipate the unintended consequences a long time from now."

During the Vietnam War, the US military became unwitting couriers of narcotics manufactured in Southeast Asia and sold in the US. Enterprising American soliders used military craft to smuggle the goods into the US, sometimes in the cadavers of their dead brethren. Once the drugs were recovered in the US, they went through underground distribution channels and were sold widely around the country.

Later, when the US funded and supported the Islamic Afghani insurgency against the Soviet Union, it unwittingly sowed the seeds of the absolutist Taliban.  In turn, the Taliban harbored Al Qaida.  And Al Qaida committed the single largest act of terrorism ever on US soil.

Oops!  That Was NOT The Plan.

I can assure you that it never occurred to policy makers and military planners that, through military action in Vietnam, they were setting up the US military as drug couriers.  Likewise, in the 1980s, no American official ever thought that there would be an 11 September 2001.  But - very sadly - both are now history.

Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, heroin usage was muted in USSR.  Most customers of this trash were in Afghanistan's neighboring countries:  China (the problem was opium, a cousin of heroin, and the problem was ruthlessly eradicated), Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and all the way through the Western edges of Europe.  After the Soviet invasion and the subsequent Soviet collapse, free-market-minded soldiers and ex-soldiers sensed a fresh new market in Russia, had the connections and familiarity with the supplying country, and helped develop Russia as the world's largest heroin market.

And so, the seeds were sown.  In this case, they were poppy seeds.

Coming to the US Sometimes Soon - Bulk

12 November 2010

Live Fast and Die Young: Alcohol, Tobacco, Heroin

I have not found a good explanation for the short life expectancy of men in Russia, but at least alcohol, tobacco, and heroin are contributing factors.

A bit of background:  A few The mortality rate amongst boys is much higher than girls.  At birth, there are slightly more Russian boys than girls (1.05:1) and, by the age of 15, there many fewer boys than girls (0.92:1) (this gender imbalance has major implications for both men and women).

According to The World Bank, Russians' life expectancy is less than the world average.  This graphic provides a good overview of life spans in Russia versus the rest of the world, the US, and Sweden over time.  Notice the up and down nature of the Russian line, versus the other lines on the graph.

The average life expectancy of Russians is 68.7 years.  For Russian women, the expectancy is 74.7 years.  Russian men, on average, live a whopping 12 years less than their fair ladies with an expected life span of 62.8 years.

Alcohol is the visible stain on the Russian soul, but this stain has been around for so long that it is considered a permanent fixture.  Russians like drinking, know that they like drinking, and like the fact that they like drinking.  Apparently - and I am vague on the facts - some Russian tzar had to make a choice of converting his nation either into Islam or Christianity.  At that time, muslims were at the apex of culture, wealth, and politics.  Accordingly, the tzar was favoring joining forces with the muslims but ultimately decided against it because it meant saying goodbye to the bottle.

I have not found any hard statistic quantifying the degree to which alcohol drags down Russian life expectancy, but the World Health Organization says that Russian alcohol consumption is twice the level that it has set as a tolerable standard.

An Unfortunate and Common Site

Smoking surely is a Russian life clipper; and, per my observation, more Russian men than women take up this nasty habit addiction.  There are many more smokers in Russia in the US but, in general, there are many more smokers in the rest of the world than in the US.  I found it interesting when visitors from Europe made the same observation.  Russia's Health and Social Development Ministry also agrees as it just described Russia as "the most smoking nation in the world."  Apparently, up to 400,000 Russians die a year due to smoking-related illnesses.

Russian Roulette

Heroin is also a (not so) hidden addiction that is killing Russians before due time.  According to recent statistics published in the BBC, there are 2,500,000 Russians hooked on this disease.  In the US, there are around 800,000 heroin addicts.  The respective 2010 populations of these countries are 139,000,000 and 310,000,000.  In other words, 18 Russians out of every 1,000 is addicted to heroin compared to less than 3 Americans out of every 1,000.  Sadly, Russia is world's larget heroin market; the single country of Russia consumes almost as much heroin as the rest of Europe.

Afghani Army Invades Russia

I see evidence of this affliction on occasion when I am taking a walk about even the most respectable parts of Moscow:  I disgustingly kick syringes and needles carelessly dropped on the walkways out of sight.  If visuals do not bother you, here is some more ugly evidence.

11 November 2010

Weird, Sometimes Interesting

I have witnessed many more outlandish T-shirt inscriptions in Russia than I did in the US.  Lack of fluency with English leads to some weird, at times interesting T-shirt statements, many of which must be inadvertent.

Of course, there was the infamous f--- you T-shirt that I wrote about in April, stating:

F--- you
You f---ing f---.

Regrettably, no English letters were omitted.  Fortunately, the sheer vulgarity of the message was lost on nearly most Russian bystandars.

About a year ago, when the H1N1 flu was creating a global scare, I saw the following T-shirt message:

Pigs Flew?
Oh, Pigs' Flu!

This, of course, is a reference to H1N1's original name, the swine flu.  Swine flu was renamed to H1N1 at the behest of the fat pig executives in the pork industry to prevent a collapse in the bacon market.  Notice that in English it is the "swine flu" and not "swine's flu."  I imagine that when swine flu was first translated to Russian, it came across as something like "the flu that belongs to pigs" and was retranslated to English as "pigs' flu" for the purpose of making what someone construed as a clever T-shirt.
Yet Another Variation

The most melancholic award goes to the man sporting this inscription on his T-shirt:

I Will Never
Fall In Love Again

This unloving message stands in direct contrast to highly amorous one that I witnessed today:

Are You
Interested In

A the risk of racial profiling, the fellow that wore the T-shirt looked like he was from a part of the world where men's answer is universally "yes," but I did not have the heart to ask him about his origins or his T-shirt.  

In most of the world, polygamy (having more than one spouse at a time) is taboo and illegal.  Practically, it is a headache. Financially, it is a disaster. So, I am not sure what interest anyone would reasonably have ... then again, even polite company chuckles desirously at whispered ménage à trois jokes.

10 November 2010

We Have Another Record

Late July and early August were miserably hot times in Moscow.  Moscow set a high temperature in record with 38C (100 F).  It is November; while I cannot say it is miserably hot, I can say that it has been unusually warm.  So warm, in fact, that more record high temperatures are being set.

Worried?  Don't Bother; You Will Be Extinct Soon.

Here is a bit of relavent news from BCM.  The accenting is mine.
The Hydro Meteo Bureau (Weather Service) for the Moscow city and the region reports that another temperature record for this time of year was set in Moscow on Tuesday evening. After the sunset, the staff of the base weather station at the All-Russia Exhibition Center scored the air temperature of 11.9 degrees Celsius (53.42 F°), which is 0.2 degrees higher than the previous temperature record set in 1952.
This Wednesday may also bring another temperature record. The weather service employees predict that the air in the capital will warm up to 11-13 degrees C°, while the highest level for November 10 has been so far 12.6 degrees C° (54.68 F°). This temperature was marked in 1927.
As previously reported, 22 temperature records were beaten during the past summer in Moscow, including the record temperature of July 29, when the air got heated to 38.2 degrees C° (100.76 F°).
To be ahead of the times, I have started on my business plan for tropical tourism in Moscow.  The planned launch date is 2020.

04 November 2010

Russia's November Holiday

I am enjoying a four-day weekend in Moscow, thanks to the "National Unity Day" holiday in Russia.  This post-Soviet holiday replaces a Soviet 7 November holiday.  That 7 November holiday marked the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the "destruction of capitalism" and all those bad things were joyously celebrated.

7 November in USSR:  Celebrating Years of Stunned Growth

As it turns out, the destruction of capitalism in Russia was not such a good thing as it severely slowed progress in this very intellectually and resource rich country and created many destructive behavior patterns (more on this later).  But, at least, the holiday was a good thing, and that much of the Soviet legacy had to be preserved.  In search of an early November event that could be celebrated with fervor, Russians reached back to 1612 when they liberated Moscow from Polish rule (as part of a longer series of wars from 1605-1618 during the Times of Trouble).

Foreign Invasion of Moscow in 1605
False Dmitriy enters Moscow on 20 June 1605. Painting by Klavdiy Lebedev.

Having visited Warsaw in October of this year, I learned that living Polish memory defines Russia the Soviet Union as the invaders and the Poles as the invaded.  Although I did not ask this question directly, I would believe that nearly all Poles would be bemused - or perhaps offended - by the virtue of a Russian celebration of freedom from their Polish oppressors.  To signify their bitterness about years of effective Soviet rule over their country, many Warsaw residents point out the elephantine Pałac Kultury i Nauki [Palace of Culture and Science] in a dialog similar to the following:
Varsovian:  Did you see that building in center of Warsaw?  
Amir: You mean the Palace of Culture and Science, the gift from the Soviet Union?
Varsovian:  Yes, that gift; the gift that we paid for for fifty years.
To Poland, From Joseph Stalin, with Love

Regrettably, the National Unity Day has become a Russian ultra-nationalist focal day of sorts.  This is yet another ironic twist for Russia's early November holiday.  Unfortunately, the ironic twist is of a sad and a sick sort, given what Russia suffered at the hands of Nazis who had a similar foul and far-right ideology as their modern-day Russian skinhead brethren.

I Shaved My Head and Sold My Soul