Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Muddling Along

4:30 AM. After some initial shyness, the apartment cat has decided I am the best thing since borshch. My surge protector had two black plastic twist ties (to which my family gave the specific name “widgets”—I was confused for years when I heard other people use this term for non-twist-tie-related items) wound around the cord, and these are apparently the best cat toys ever. From about 3:30 AM local time (remember, it’s light outside), we’ve had a game of fetch going (interrupted by my necessary excursion to the bathroom for a shower—I went to sleep around 9:30 in my clothes). I toss a tie, and it is brought back to me, again and again. At present my tuxedo-wearing furry friend is curled up next to me on the couch/bed, watching my typing fingers—many of which are now wearing shallow scratches from a set of extremely sharp claws (he puts the widget down for me to throw, but when I am picking it up, it is sometimes too unbearable to see it move without snatching at it). Oops. I guess the game wasn’t over. He just jumped down and brought me the other widget, laying it next to the first and looking at me significantly. Ok, Ok. Here we go again! [Yes, I am Purelling my abused hands to keep away feline-borne infection).

The contriteness in my letter to the Russian professor (and prayer!) had the hoped-for result. He accepted my apology and agreed to meet me this afternoon at his office, where the archive-introduction letters will be waiting for me. I hope that he is not too chagrined upon hearing my halting Russian to think this is a good idea, supporting me in writing and all.

Later today I am supposed to go over to Ira’s church to use the Internet, where I will upload this post to my blog. It turns out that the Dell people, in a fit of remarkable foresight, made the powercord for my laptop so that it will handle from 100-220v, dispensing a steady output from this input range. So, I can indeed plug the computer (with an adapter) directly into the local current without frying the computer or flipping the circuit breaker. Can’t use my surge protector, unfortunately—that overloads the system in a dramatic pyrotechnic flash. There aren’t any unsecured local wireless networks (that really would be too much to ask!), but I can work offline.

It’s curious what things have changed and what has remained unchanged since my last stay here in the former Leningrad. I am delighted (and surprised) that the public transport system is now electronic passcard enabled—really cuts down on all the worry about tokens and tickets. The bus conductors have little digital readers for the cards and much more cheerful expressions—formerly they looked harassed, what with the constant dispensing of change and paper tickets. Many of the buses are new, but the great old subway cars (built by factories which had won the Order of the Red Banner) are still in service. The famous statue of Lenin outside Finland Station was vandalized last year (I don’t love the man by any means, but I think that was a pity—it’s a historic landmark), but the enormous heroic mosaic inside of the metro station of the same leading the people to Soviet victory is still in place, totally ignored by all the commuters bustling through the gates. There are little touch-screen computer screens in the metro stations where you can pay your cell phone, utility and other bills by credit card, but the metros still have the same comforting smell of metal and engine lubricant, and are cleaner than I remember they were last time. The escalators still plunge down more than 250 feet in the old city center (for those of you familiar with the DC metro system, the Petersburg escalators make the Rosslyn ones look like the short and pokey contraptions they are), but there are no more irritating auditory business ads afflicting the ears as you speed up and down, just a simple message about “please assist other passengers and keep the metro system safe”—the sort of announcements with which DC travelers are all too familiar.
The inner courtyards of downtown apartment buildings here have been substantially renovated (the muddy potholes and broken gates are gone, replaced by new gates and neat paving stones), and parking and lines on the roadways have been regularized. Traffic is normal urban heavy, but now in designated lanes. Fines for hitting pedestrians are now enormous (formerly, if you got hit, it was pretty much your fault from the point of view of the drivers), and so driving behavior is much more reasonable. Crosswalks are better marked. I’ve seen both sexes driving—it doesn’t seem to be the male-dominated preserve it once was. There are still some Ladas on the road, but the other cars aren’t all expensive Mafia-owned Mercedes anymore—Kias, Hondas, Fords, and so forth are the norm, I’d say.

The so-called “fat years” of high oil prices have been good for the local economy in many ways—there are modern new apartment and office-buildings dotting the cityscape (the area near the airport has been particularly built up). Pollution remains prevalent, though—buildings are dusty with soot—and there are many pieces of fine architecture that remain unrestored, some with plants growing from the cracks in the concrete balconies. I saw the local militsia beckon over several dark-skinned men in the metro and demand their papers, so racial profiling is still going strong. I hope to keep my head down and avoid catching the official eye, although within a day or so my registration should have gone through and I’ll have no reason to be concerned about being pegged an illegal.

I met my apartment-mate Mina last night, a friendly short blond woman with two teeth and a daughter (now living in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and 1 ½ month old baby) who shares my first name. I had such a difficult time understanding her questions! I hope my Russian language conversational facility returns soon—it’s ironic, I’ve understood almost all of the official exchanges heretofore, but someone starts asking me informally where I was born, how long I’m staying in Russia and so forth and I’m totally at sea. Mina introduced me to her two adolescent grandsons, one of whom has short dreadlocks, and told me that they would soon have a computer which I was welcome to use. I made a bit of semi-comprehensible small talk (the boys grinned when I remarked that “email is very important”) and then excused myself to rest. In a few minutes, there was a tap on my door, and Mina beckoned me to “come meet my daughter.” Huh?

I followed her into her room, and there on a webcam was her daughter in Holland, holding the grandbaby. High-speed internet video connections are a wonderful thing! And clearly Russians have embraced such technology with enthusiasm. The grandsons were watching a Russian-dubbed episode of “South Park” on the TV. I rolled my eyes and they grinned at me. The other Katya spoke perfect English, and apparently her mother had told her that I didn’t speak Russian worth a darn, because when I told her I was going to be doing archival research, she expressed concern: “The archivists don’t speak English.” Argh. I think I must sometimes radiate an aura of incompetence. Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it’s a bad thing. Good because people will often take pity on me; bad because they wonder what on earth I’m doing, claiming to be a Russianist, let alone one at a fairly advanced stage of her academic career. I ain’t got the mad linguistic skills, that’s for sure. Well, hopefully I can muddle through.

Story of my life, muddling. I am a muddler. And usually muddled.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Arrival in Russia

Ira is off at court (where she's been serving as a translator) assisting at the deportation of an American who overstayed her visa. I am taking the time to do some online puttering.

Arrived safely in St. Petersburg late last night, after several delays, lost luggage, much running around airports for new documentation and boarding passes with a couple of random Russian acquaintances (made in the mutual cheerful frustration around the baggage claim in Moscow). It was still afternoon-bright outside, despite the late hour--the White Nights are at their height.

Installed in decidedly down-at-heel flat on top floor of century-old building where random electrical wires festoon the vestibules. Only one bulb in the three-light chandelier in my room works, as one is broken off in the socket and the other is simply cracked.

I chose this room over the larger, brighter alternative as that door did not lock. Got Grigorii, the slightly rank, chip-toothed owner, to replace the small-room's cot (the fabric suspended from the springs looked so old and rotten I didn't think it would support my weight) with the couch from the big room. The couch is similarly ancient, and missing one side (the arm and the feet are gone at that end, so it sits at an angle), but I expected it would be a bit more sturdy and comfortable than the camp-bed.

I did sleep excellently last night, despite the White Nights (wrapped my head in a scarf to shade my eyes, as the sun never truly set) and the fact that I had blown the fuse in my room--dropping the whole apartment into darkness--trying to plug in my surge protector. Need to figure out the system (using all the converters I brought with me) before attempting to attach my computer to the unstable Russian electrical network.

Woken up at three by a horrible crash from the (unoccupied) large room next door. Had been forewarned upon my arrival at the flat that there was a cat in residence (although the animal had not yet shown itself, and the only evidence of its real existence was the penetrating smell of tomcat urine in the toilet-room), and so was not alarmed by this. Cat later came into my room (which can be locked, but only by a key, and I didn't want to trap myself needlessly) and explored the premises, before hooking its paw back under the door, reopening it and departing. Otherwise, the night was undisturbed, cool.

I was initially less melancholy today, as Ira helped me get to the travel agency to register my passport (all foreigners must register their addresses within 3 business days of arrival) and to obtain electronic metro and bus passes (so much easier than the old paper ticket and bronze "zheton" system) at the Victory Square and Lenin Square metro stations. I also had my two housekeys and the "magnetofon" pass to the building copied (peace of mind--I don't know that the flat owner has duplicates, and I'd hate to get into a spot). And I acquired a cell phone (bought a new sim card for one I borrowed from Ira's eldest daughter, whose husband--I just found out, after asking about the number of "Murmansk" souvenir magnets on her refrigerator--designs submarines).

Felt like I was spending cash like a drunken sailor, to use a navy-related metaphor, but on necessities. I put my groceries (bought at a "Diksi" corner supermarket) on my Visa card. The ruble is trading at about 30 to the dollar. My grocery bill was R192.96 (a 400g bag of sushki, small loaf of bread, two petite cucumbers, a couple of bananas, 1 kg of sugar cubes, 1 liter of apple juice, 1 kg of kefir, and a roll of budget toilet paper). A 50-ride metro card was R720, the month's bus pass was R635, the keys and magnetofon cost me R480, and I got a key chain for R600. So, of the several thousand rubles (from changing $100) with which I began the day, I have several hundred left. But the rest of my stay's in-city transport is paid for.

I was made somewhat more melancholy this afternoon by coming to Ira's house to check my email and discovering that the professor here in St. Petersburg on whom I was relying for his formal archival introductions had sent me a sharp note saying that as he hadn't heard from me until a couple of days ago (though he did say that he'd heard previously from Silverman, who I'd asked to serve as an intermediary), he _hadn't_ written the letters for archive-access, and besides, he was going out of town as of 2 PM. I responded with what I hope was an appropriately apologetic and conciliatory note asking for grace. We'll see what transpires.

The weather's lovely. Although I am happy I packed all sorts of necessities like paper towels and soap (the apartment has nothing, not even toilet paper supplied--thank God I brought a few rolls, because it was way too late to go shopping when I got in last night), I did not think to bring a kettle, pan or utensils. There are no dishes, either. Ira is going to lend me the basics.

Though I couldn't have anticipated the lack of food-related supplies at the flat, I could kick myself for not bringing more pants. Whereas in the olden days, Russian women wore nothing but dresses, the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme, and I could count on one hand the number of women I've seen in skirts. Even middle-aged and older ladies are wearing pants these days. I'm going to stick out like a sore thumb in my long, brightly-patterned (and hand-washable) cotton skirts. And I really did want to blend in!

It's past 4:30, but the sunlight looks like 10:30 in the morning. I am starting to fade from fatigue. I think I'll call it an early night (once Ira gets back and I've made it home safely with my shopping bags) and hope that archival access is possible tomorrow.

Monday, June 22, 2009

I'm OK--A General Wellbeing Bulletin

My credit card information may have been stolen last week, and I may have tiny yellowish bruises all over my skin from knees to ankles, but I was not in the metro crash this evening that killed at least 6 and injured many others.

I didn't hear the phone calls asking if I were OK because I was first at the gym, and then at a trivia tournament where I was incorrectly guessing the names of old Rolling Stones songs. I am Truly Sorry for panicking the family thereby!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My 'Hood, Straight Up

My brother Nate lives in a tough part of Atlanta. His house was burgled last year, and two weeks ago his next-door neighbor was robbed at gunpoint while taking out the trash. My own ‘hood in northern VA has a somewhat different atmosphere, but now, finally, we have a bit of street cred…in the form of our own rap. Check it out, yo.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Русская дружба/Американская дружба

The Tony Woodlief WSJ article on the internet-forum distorted meaning of friendship which I mentioned in my previous entry has prompted me to pull out an essay I wrote five summers ago on the differences between Russian and American linguistic distinctions on the same subject. I had immediately translated my reflections on the subject into Russian—it went through three drafts sent back and forth between Chicago (where I was cat-sitting at the time) and St. Petersburg before my friend Irina, who was proofing my translation, declared it acceptable—in the hope that I could get it published in a Russian-language journal. To that end, I wanted Ol’ga, a Russian acquaintance of mine (who is also a professional academic and avocational philologist in her 30s), to provide intra-textual responses to my assertions. I thought that together, the two of us could speak to the cultural confusion that surrounds this subject, and perhaps establish an intellectual framework for Russian-American understanding, at least on the level of terminology-comprehension, if not true international agreement. But the project did not pan out at the time, and has been sitting, half-finished, in my "Ruminations for Publication" MS Word folder ever since.

The following is the original English version. Places where I would call for my Russian collaborator to chip in her two kopeks are noted. Obviously, the thing needs some updating--for instance, I need to mention the irritating Facebook “friending” phenomenon, plus the equally silly “BFF” texting abbreviation. Other suggestions and (courteous) corrections are welcome.

Preparatory to my rapidly-upcoming trip to Russia (ten days away—and no, I still haven’t gotten my visa!), I am going to try to contact Ol’ga again, in hopes that, at long last I can interest her in the project. Perhaps she even has some contacts with media outlets (a university literary journal, maybe?) that would agree to consider it for publication.

Russian Friendship/American Friendship

Introduction: Because friendship is one of the fundamental human relationships, people born in one country tend to assume that all people, all over the world, have the same concept of friendship, and that all languages contain exactly equivalent terminology to describe this relationship. Especially in this age of almost-instant global communication between private individuals, not just national governments, the accuracy of this assumption becomes an important factor in deciding the question of whether “international friendships between peoples” is possible, and in fact, what the phrase really means. For instance, let’s compare the vocabulary of American friendship and the vocabulary of Russian friendship.

In Russian, levels of interpersonal familiarity are described by many different words. When Americans study the Russian language, among the first words they encounter are “drug”, “priyatel’”, and “znakomyi”. But from that moment of linguistic instruction on, Americans speaking Russian rarely employ the words “znakomyi ” or “ priyatel”; instead, they almost always say “on moi drug” (he’s my friend), “ona moya podruga” (she’s my friend) when referring to anyone within their social circle. Is everyone really the American’s “drug”?

Many English lexicons simply translate the word “friend” into a single Russian word—“drug,” yet from Russian the same dictionaries translate “priyatel”, and “znakomyi” into that single English word “friend.” So, what does the word “friend” signify in the mind of the native English-speaker? Surely, it’s different from the Russian idea! Are there different sorts of American friendship? Do Americans differentiate between levels of intimacy, or do they recognize just two categories of people, the known and the unknown? Is it possible that Russians and Americans share similar understandings of the subtleties of their social relationships, and that they can explain these to one another?

My observation: One method of ascertaining the working definition of “friend” in the native English-speaker’s vocabulary is to look at famous statements and popular maxims in that language’s literature and culture that mention friendship. A good reference-book for this purpose is Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, subtitled “A collection of passages, phrases and proverbs traced to their sources in ancient and modern literature.” Although not, of course, exhaustive, Bartlett’s is widely used and admired; its still being in print one hundred fifty years since its first publication is testimony to this — of course, it has been regularly revised and enlarged over time. Originally issued in England, the Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations copyright is now held by Little, Brown and Company, a large American publisher with offices in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Bartlett’s contains more than 130 quotations mentioning the word “friend”; a sampling of these from several centuries, from several parts of the English-speaking world, from both men and women, should suggest threads of perception about friendship which are common to Anglophone cultures in general, and perhaps to American culture in particular.

One fact quickly becomes clear looking through the Bartlett’s index: from the beginning of the sixteenth century at least until the mid-twentieth century the King James Version of the Bible (even when it was not a repository for their personal faith) was an essential reservoir plumbed by English-speaking writers and orators for imagery, metaphor, and allusion. Of course, the Bible itself is an ancient, Middle Eastern book, but the King James Version (translated into English by a committee of churchmen and scholars under King James) had a fundamental effect on the language and thought of English-speakers. One of the Bible’s numerous observations on friendship, Proverbs 27:6, which reads “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful,” may have shaped a 1794 verse by English poet William Blake: “I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end. / I was angry with my foe; / I told it not, my wrath did grow.”

The Bible’s Apocrypha (a number of scriptural books which in the West only Roman Catholics regard as canonical, but whose contents were familiar to many literate English-speakers through the end of the nineteenth century), contains such piquant statements as: “A friend cannot be known in prosperity: and an enemy cannot be hidden in adversity.” “Forsake not an old friend; for the new is not comparable to him: a new friend is as new wine; when it is old, thou shalt drink it with pleasure.” That certain English-speakers were mindful of these serious admonitions about the worth of long-term, solid friendship is apparent from a sixteenth-century stanza, wherein English poet Richard Barnfield (1574-1627) supplied a warning about casual friendship: “Everyone that flatters thee / Is no friend in misery. / Words are easy, like the wind; / Faithful friends are hard to find. / Every man will be thy friend / Whilst thou hast wherewith to spend; / but if store of crowns be scant, / No man will supply thy want.”

A little more than three hundred years after Barnfield, American writer Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918), grandson of President John Quincy Adams (who traveled to Russia as a young man), made two similar claims about the nature of friends: “Friends are born, not made,” and “A friend in power is a friend lost” (Adams wanted to disabuse his readers of the false notion that “power in the hands of friends is an advantage to them”). Adams wrote also of the rarity of true friendship: “One friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three hardly possible. Friendship needs a certain parallelism of life, a community of thought, a rivalry of aim.”

In 1937, American poet Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) wrote in a letter to her mother, “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” Nin’s genesis metaphor implies the very rare joy of having found a friend, an almost supernatural event. The experience of this great event had been celebrated for a long time by her fellow American lyricists. American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) once wrote: “Elysium is as far as to / The very nearest Room / If in that Room a Friend await / Felicity or Doom—.” Another American metaphysical poet and prose-writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), likewise associated the mere presence of a friend with joy: “Happy is the house that shelters a friend.” Emerson provided this definition of the person in question: “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”

Sincerity, comfort, steadiness, intellectual compatibility, and personal enrichment are all characteristics of friends that have been repeatedly celebrated by Anglophone writers. The seventeenth century English poet George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote: “The best mirror is an old friend.” One of Herbert’s contemporaries, a translator, advised, “Choose an author as you choose a friend.” English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) claimed “…there is no friend like a sister / in calm or stormy weather.” The great Victorian writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) noticed the value imputed to a person by his relationships with others: “no man is useless while he has a friend.”

We understand from Bartlett’s, therefore, that thoughtful English-speakers of the past have thought seriously about what a friend really is, and have understood that though the term “friend” may be widely used, a deep, real commitment of one person to another is rare and precious. But how can Russians speakers know what sort of relationship is being described when an American talks about a “friend”? Why, if a real friend is so uncommon and valued, do Americans often employ only that one word “friend” to describe all people they know, both casually and intimately?

[Ol’ga’s observation:]

My observation: When Russian native speakers hear or read English, they should note the age and character of the speaker. The wiser and older a person, the less likely he is to use the word “friend” lightly; his friends are those which have proven themselves faithful over years. Among the young, the word can indeed describe enduring attachment. But it often happens that to a young person, “friend” may mean someone with whom he’s become acquainted over just weeks or months, whom he likes, whom he hopes to know better. Too, the expression “a friend of mine” can be used as a synonym in young adult casual conversation for “a person I know.” Usually, if a listener asks, “Who is your friend?” the answer will make the relationship clear: “Oh, we’re just coworkers,” or “I met him at church almost eight years ago, now she is like a sister, etc.”

[Ol’ga’s observation:]

My observation: A still clearer picture of the actual levels of American friendship is revealed by spoken intonation and adjectival modifiers: a “close friend” is usually gained over time, you’ve sat at his kitchen table many times, spoken over the phone, shared thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears. Likewise, the old-fashioned descriptor “bosom friend” (which ceased to appear in common usage after about 1920) implied deep emotional closeness. A troublesome title is “best friend”: to elementary school-aged girls, this usually is a passionate attachment to one or two other girls of the same age. To say “best” at this stage of development is a sign of hard-to-sustain intensity; smart parents avoid placing too much importance on the typically short duration of “best friendships”. Occasionally, such relationships of childhood “best friends” do not wholly dissolve, but become simple, genuine friendships that deepen over years. Among adults, the term “best friend” is more serious — it is usually reality-based: it means one or more persons who live in your innermost emotional circle [thus, the coquetry in the lyrics that the movie actress Marilyn Monroe once sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”]. As a serious example, a girl whom I got to know in 3rd grade -- whom I soon called my “best friend” -- is still my friend: We are close friends. She is one of my best friends. In fact, now we share a mutual affection for Russia—like me, she has been to Russia several times.

[Ol’ga’s observation:]

My observation: It is also important, when one hears an American use the word “friend,” to pay attention to the circumstances in which the conversation takes place, and to note the occupation of the speaker. For example, American politicians always use the word “friend” during campaigns to refer to a fellow party member against whom they are not standing for election, who is running against a member of an opposing party: as the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Thus, a man who has just been introduced to another man will publicly state: “He is my friend.” But the immediate intimacy of political friendship is often thoroughly insincere; when a common enemy disappears, the real interpersonal feelings of the politically-expedient “friends” become visible.

Amusingly, the first entry in the Bartlett’s index under the word “friend” refers to a statement made by an American politician—in a speech to the United States Senate in 1884, G. G. Vest said, “The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.” Seventy-five years earlier, English poet Lord Byron had written similar words: “The poor dog, in life the firmest friend, / the first to welcome, foremost to defend,” but West’s remarks are infused with a particular bitterness. He obviously did not share the attitude of Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. president at the time of the American Civil War, who had announced in 1864, “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I have come to lay down the reins of power, [although I may] … have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.” Of course, Lincoln was neither a usual man nor a typical politician.

[Ol’ga’s observation:]

Conclusion: Insofar as it is possible to make generalizations about entire countries (especially two large countries with many ethnic groups like Russia and the United States), it seems to us that Russians’ more precise basic vocabulary is in accord with their cautious, past-proven historical outlook on friendship, while Americans’ tendency to use general terminology demonstrates their perpetual hope in positive possibilities. For instance, compare the Russian proverb “Old friends are better than new friends” with the American proverb “Good friends are hard to find.” We see in these two statements how perspectives on the process of growing in friendship differ. Although it may be true—as a Russia-loving American once observed—that Russians are initially looking for someone with whom to share their sorrows, while Americans are looking for someone with whom to share their joys, it is also clear that loyalty is valued in both cultures, that psychological and emotional closeness is indeed an internationally-recognized principle. Therefore, we would conclude that friendship itself is the same; once members of each culture understand the other’s different means and methods of declaration of levels of intimacy—yes, international friendship is not only possible, it becomes more probable.

Friendship, Non-Facebook Style

Tony Woodlief (he of the "Sand in the Gears" blog, linked on the sidebar above) published an article on the character of true friendship in the Wall Street Journal this past week (he also frequently contributes to World magazine). Mr. Woodlief (like many of my real-world friends) is on Facebook (a networking site I Loathe With My Whole Soul), and confessed in the WSJ piece that many of those several hundred persons who are listed as his "friends" on the site are strangers, and some may not even like him, whereas the few friends his small son has are those who truly love him.

The one networking site to which I do belong is LinkedIn [although I have never finished my profile--every time (which is once a month or less) that I log in, I am reminded that I have 85% still left to fill], a professional forum that supposedly will help me make employment contacts. Someone asked to add me to their network yesterday, and so I got on the site to accept the invitation, and on a whim decided to search for people I knew. After a series of fruitless searches for high school acquaintances and old college buddies, and a couple of successful finds of first cousins (2 in the DC area--who knew?!), I smirked (remembering the WSJ bit) and typed in Tony's name. And, lo, his profile appeared. So I decided to email him a request to join my network. Which he did within just an hour or so. Which I think is hilarious. Especially since, although LinkedIn offers a list of "How you do you know X?" options, including "colleague," "classmate," "we've done business together" and so forth, nothing fit better than the label "friend." And I've never actually laid eyes on the man. But he did, for some incredible reason, list "What a Rummy Nation" among the "Blogs I Dig" on his own, a couple of years ago. Which was incredibly nice of him, and really something that a friend would do.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Sarge died this past Monday. It so happened that I'd brought my black dress home, and my mother had a pair of sandals I could borrow, and so I attended the funeral Thursday. It lasted two hours. It was thoroughly encouraging, filled with repeated testimonies of how God had used him in others' lives, and a short, direct and grace-filled address by his widow--not about her husband, but about what God had taught her during the five years of caring for him. Crushingly, she was the first person whose identity he forgot, and it was a tremendous blow--at the onset of the disease, they'd been happily married 41 years. "If you don't think that was a perfect opportunity for Satan to hurt me," she said candidly, "You don't know what is." Then, she testified that God had indeed subsequently given her--she having beseeched Him through soul-bearing, gut-wrenching prayer and believed Him through perseverance--that real "peace that passes understanding." That she was able to stand up at her beloved husband's funeral and speak coherently and clearly of this was more evidence of its reality.

Sarge was a fixture at First Pres, which my family began attending when I was in third grade. He'd been with the Augusta Police Department for decades by that point, and Sunday morning and evening he was on site at our downtown church, stopping traffic and shaking hands of all of us crossing Telfair Street, handing out chewing gum to the kids and calming smiles to their harried parents. Almost until the day he retired, after almost thirty years of overseeing church security on his off days (when he wasn't on duty with the police or coaching Little League), I knew him only by the name "Sarge."

He'd seen all of us grow up. You could tell he was a Christian, although he usually wasn't in the sanctuary, and in fact he wasn't a member of First Pres--he belonged to a Bible church situated on the dividing line between the rich and poor sections of town, where his wife and children faithfully attended.

The Bible church sanctuary was full. The front dais was oddly cheerful, as the Vacation Bible School train-themed skit backdrop had been left up, as the family had decided Sarge would not have minded. There were probably three hundred people in attendance, including a good 30 police officers, all in uniform, who filed out, caps in hand, to take up positions as pallbearers and escorts for the long cortege, which wound down into South Augusta, over railroad tracks, past abandoned auto lots and a shuttered shopping mall, to Hillcrest Cemetery, which actually sits on the crest of a hill.

I was pleased at how many people pulled over to the side of the road and stopped as we passed, an old custom of respect for the dead not often observed today. Though how much of this was spontaneous and how much was inspired by the sheer numbers of law enforcement vehicles (both cars and motorcycles) involved in our slow-moving parade was difficult to judge.

The graveside service was short. A prayer, and all four verses of Amazing Grace--sung a capella and without the provision of printed words. Thank God it's one of my favorite hymns. The family sat under the green funeral-home tent and fanned themselves with the provided paperboard fans (American flag on one side, funeral home advertisement on the other--another staple at Southern funerals I am happy to see still surviving). The 25 or so policemen and -women stood silent, grim and stiff in two lines, looking on and not singing. The ceremonies were over rather abruptly, and we all lingered uncertainly for a moment before beginning to drift back to our cars. But then, doesn't death of a loved one always leave us at loose ends?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Bulbous Blueberries

I got to Augusta, GA, at 11:20 PM last night, and by 7:50 AM this morning I was on my way to Dublin, GA, to visit my grandparents. After the usual huge lunch and a postprandial nap, Mums, Grandmommy and I went out to the farm to pick blueberries. Just so you know I don’t exaggerate as to the size of these blue monsters, I took a few pictures…

Friday, June 05, 2009

My Summer Sans Susan :(

Susan bought her tickets for France today. She leaves August 2 and returns August 24. I’m to return from Russia August 1. So we’ll have about 12 hours together between the time she picks me up from Dulles and the time I drive her there the next day. She’s leaving for Colorado June 20, not coming back until after I’ve left for Russia, and as I’m planning to be in GA all of next week, we’ll have only June 15-20 to hang out from now until almost the beginning of September. It’s going to be a lonely summer. Yes, on the one hand it should be fun, and productive for both of us (me doing research, her brushing up on her French before teaching it for the first time in the fall), but she’s a dear friend, and I’ve become used to having her at home in the evenings, happy to share a meal and a movie and a chat, if we’re both so inclined. My home-life has been so companionable, and restful, the past 2 ½ years, thanks to her, and now I’m looking at 9 weeks of living alone, both here and overseas.

What I’m going to do with myself stateside in August is now in question—I’ll probably be desperate for someone to hang out with. Maybe I’ll arrange to visit my sister, for one. Speaking of which, my 4-year-old niece informed her yesterday, “I don’t want to be good. I want to be bad.” Significant pause. “And I don’t want to learn, either.”

Rita was consistent with her first statement. She was bad all day. I do not know whether she learned anything from this experience, or was content to revel in her original ignorance.

My little nephew has said, “Hi!” shyly to me on the phone twice this week. After I’ve responded in kind, he has pulled away from the receiver, looked at my sister and asked for clarification: “Who dat?” I’m desperate to see him and his wickedly self-aware sibling soon. At Christmas, I was a favorite relative. Now, I’m probably just a stranger. “Who dat,” indeed.

Update: It looks like I'll be driving all the way to GA on Monday after all. The girl with whom I plan to stay in Moscow sometime in July is having her going-away- from-DC party Sunday night. Or maybe I'll skip it, since I plan to see her in Russia anyway. Decisions, decisions...

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Doings of Late

It was more challenging to find a Western Union than I thought it was going to be. I went to two drugstores and a grocery store before stopping in at a down-at-heel gas station for information. A slatternly middle-aged woman clutching two packs of Marlboros told me I could find them at a second, less grand, grocery store, which I did. The well-to-do don’t send money this way, I suppose, preferring to use Paypal or some other Internet-based system rather than paying through the nose to put cash into the hands of family or strangers. But the Russian banking industry (like the Egyptian, as I found out last year) does not like to cash foreign checks, and the modern electronic means are outside the access of most common folk. So I paid $34 for the privilege of dispatching $400 overseas for my month's lodging. I had the recipient’s full name, including his patronymic, and I sent him an email telling him the transfer number and that he should let me know when he had retrieved the cash, but beyond that, there are no safeguards.

I haven’t gotten my visa yet, but I don’t expect it for another week. Just so long as it arrives prior to the 27th, I'm fine.

I’ve given over my book inventory (all 150 lbs of it—I weighed it last night and took it to the UPS store this morning) to Amazon Fulfillment, which promises to keep it dry and ship pieces to customers as they purchase without my having to lift a finger. Given that I’m going to be out of town at least five weeks this summer, I figured I’d try this method of bookselling (one that doesn’t require my constant monitoring)—and the orders will qualify for the much-beloved Free Super Saver Shipping on Orders Over $25, which may juice my sales in a day and time when I’m not the only one penny-pinching. I now have several cubic feet of free space in my bedroom I didn’t have before, too!

My jewelry website on is populated respectably for the first time in its several-years’ existence. Late last week I photographed many of my pieces and actually got around to cropping and posting them. You can take a look by clicking on the Petrides Studios link on the sidebar above. Suggestions welcome.

Must go work on the next several chapters of Two Motherlands, and pick up two books on the St. Petersburg Military-Medical Academy which the Georgetown ILL office managed to find for me, bless them. The Graduate School did fix my registration problem yesterday (apparently they have the system automatically set up so whenever you receive a degree, you go inactive—my MA earlier this year deactivated my account), so I’m registered for fall. But nobody at Georgetown’s thrown any financial aid my way. Yet.