Scenes from a Russian Winter

A Memoir

Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same.  It’s a truthful retelling of past events.  However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that.  Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right.  Memoirs are about impressions and memories.  That’s what I’m doing with this post.  I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes.  It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative.  I do hope you like it.

Scene One: Prelude.

It is cold.  Extremely cold.  I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat.  Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago.  When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face.  The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright.  We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway.  Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.

A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop.  We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey.  The bus has already gone.  It will be some time before the next one.  Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away.  The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time.  We pose for some pictures in front of the church.  At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold.  Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped.  The cold is invasive.  It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing.  My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos.  Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip.  By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.

Chapel

If you look carefully, you’ll see Jenia’s furry collar has iced over where her breath strikes it.

Scene Two: Country House.

The village is tiny.  How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks?  Maybe 50.  It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate.  And I can’t wait to get indoors.  I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet.  We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences.  A German shepherd barks.  A man scolds it in Russian.  The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.

Indoors, the little house seems warm.  My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace.  It’s been on, but running very low.  Still, it feels wonderfully warm.  Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.

Walking

Entering the village, packed snow just a-crunchin’.

Yard

The backyard of the country house is where the gardening goes on during warmer times.

Smoking

Ryazan’s factories belch smoke on the horizon.

Field

The road back to Ryazan–traveled by foot (obviously with some exceptions) to the railway.

Frost Flower

Furry

Jenia keeps her hands warm with some sort of furry mittens.

Scene Three: Catching the Train.

There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees.  “Oh, no, what time is it?”  Says my tyosha.  She finds the time, and says to hurry.  We hurry.  “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me.  I’m in the lead.  So I begin to jog.  I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores.  Jenia jogs behind me.  “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.”  So I run.  I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife.  “Go ahead,” she says.  “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!”  I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me.  A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me.  It’s clear he’s going to wait for us.  The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board.  We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath.  An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay?  What’s the matter with her?  Asthma?  The car is mostly empty.   Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows.  All are old enough to appear grave and dignified.  After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows.  Birches rush past.  There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there.  A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.

Train Lada

Engine

Having arrived back in Ryazan, I pause to snap a photograph of the train. The conductor is, again, watching for any passengers rushing to make it in time.

Boarding

This guy, rushing aboard, is blessed, like us, by the willingness of the conductor to keep an eye out.

Crossing

The small railway station where we disembark. To get to the other side, you cross the tracks.

Street

A Ryazan street. This place would be beautiful if the buildings had a coat of paint every now and again.

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An Escape

Chapel Detail For Rhiannon

I’m learning to enjoy life in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, even though I find some aspects of the local culture more than a little off-putting.  I’ve discovered that if I keep myself busy with things other than work, which isn’t quite what I expected, I can have a good time.  But, both Jenia and I have been ready to escape for a while.  Where to go?  We toyed with an affordable trip to Thailand, courtesy of Cobone or Groupon.  But we ended up going where we’d planned all along–Russia.

And what an escape it is.  We’ve swapped heat for cold (it was about 80F during the day in Al Ain, and here it’s mostly been around 0F, although we had one day of icy -17).  Instead of wearing sunglasses and shorts, we wear furry hats and thermal underwear.  We’ve swapped the minarets of mosques for the onion domes of Orthodox Churches.  And of course, we’re experiencing another culture, one which neither of us have spent time in for quite a while, even though this is where Jenia’s from.

Russian culture, like the country itself, has an outward coldness that is shocking to the first-time visitor.  Most passersby on the sidewalk aren’t friendly at all, and make no effort to be.  Store clerks don’t give you the time of day, unless you seek them out and ask them something.  Their idea of customer service is a bit different from what we’re used to in the West, and certainly differs drastically from the fawning attention you get as a customer in the UAE.  Compound these things with sidewalks and parking lots which are hardly ever cleared of slippery and dangerous ice and snow, and you have a place that’s not very welcoming.  At least, that’s how it seems until you are invited into someone’s home–then things are entirely different.  Apartments are snug and warm, and rarely will you find more gracious hosts.  You’ll be fed delicious home-cooked meals and tea–which is an excuse to eat still more food, in the form of sweets.

Of course the best part of being here is spending time with family, which is something we haven’t done since moving to the UAE months ago.  We’ve enjoyed a white Christmas (although, interestingly, the Russians don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25, but rather on January 7, which is when the holiday falls according to the Russian Orthodox calendar) and we’re sure enjoying this change from the desert.  It’s a nice escape.

Church

It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the  time we had the photo taken.

It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the time we had the photo taken.

A White Christmas and Tales of Leningrad

The chances of a white Christmas have gone up exponentially.  We are in Russia right now.  It’s been six years since I, Shon, have been here.  Jenia’s been gone a long time, too; nearly three years have elapsed since she’s been home.  But here we are.

When we got off the plane at Sheremetyevo and headed for our train Tuesday morning, we were greeted by frigid -21C weather.  If I remember right, that’s -6F.  You know what?  That makes for quite a shock when you’ve just come from Abu Dhabi.  Before long, we were whisked southeast to Ryazan, where the temperatures have remained a little less severe (but have still hovered just a few degrees above zero most every day).  The cold isn’t all that’s news here, of course.  In fact, that’s really not news at all.  It’s winter in Russia; what else would it be, if not mighty chilly?

This trip is about family.  To that end, we’ve been coddled and fed delicious home-cooked meals.  Borsch (we’ll leave off the puzzling letter “t” that often gets included in the English translation of that word), vareniki, mushroom soup, apple pie, and much more.  And it wouldn’t be Russia without a whole lot of tea drinking.  “Cheorniy ile zeloniy?”  I’m asked: black or green?  “Zeloniy, spacibo.”

Speaking of tea, this afternoon we visited Jenia’s 90 (almost 91) year-old grandmother.  She is an animated 5’1″ or so, a little stooped, quite slender, with a ready smile and a characterful face.  Naturally, we settled down to tea and sweets before long.  While the ladies were visiting, I probed the apartment with the camera.

Apartment

Conversation

The apartment and its decor speak about Babushka Anya’s life.  Sitting atop an old inkwell on the desk there is an icon which she had with her at all times, even through the Soviet years.  Hanging on the wall there is a gilt-framed painting which once, prior to WWII, belonged to a German household.  It came back from Germany with her when she returned from WWII.  The painter bears a name that must not be famous; one of her grandsons tried googling it recently for her and got no hits.  Above one of the doors is a pair of antlers from a saigak, a souvenir from her son’s time in Kazakhstan.

Desk

Painting

Somehow, the topic of her wartime experience was raised.  At only 19, she was pressed into service in Leningrad.  Just a girl, she was placed in charge of a pharmacy in a mobile medical detachment which sat just behind the front lines.  As a pharmacist, she mixed and prepared medications.  Her equipment included a vat that had been taken from the Germans.  “It was non-stop work,” she said.  “When there was fighting, the wounded didn’t stop coming.  We went without sleep for days.”  In fact, she and the other paramedics were so exhausted that they took naps while traveling–by foot.  “We would walk like this, one on each side, arm-in-arm,” she said.  “And we’d say, ‘I’m sleeping now,’ and the others would carry us along as we slumped.  Then we’d wake up, and the next one would go.”

Paramedics

Babushka Anya shakes her head, and says, “I can’t even imagine how we did it now.”

Among her army decorations is the equivalent of the Purple Heart–for she was wounded more than once.  One of those times was when a German airplane spotted the three medical tents, even the one that she was in, which had been set up with one side against a high river bank, making it much harder to spot (and probably saving her life).  The plane was audible long before anyone could see it.  Finally, alarms were sounded and the tents were emptied, doctors helping patients out and to other locations.  Anya had a wounded man she was helping, but they couldn’t make it out of the tent in time.  She huddled by the exit behind a stack of crated supplies, but couldn’t feel at ease about it.  There were stretchers leaned against that side of the tent which was next to the bank.  She and her injured patient lay length-wise there, seeking cover.  And it was a good thing, too, for the German plane accurately strafed all of the tents.  The one that she lay in was destroyed.  The stack of boxes she’d sheltered behind at first was annihilated.  The supporting tent poles were shot to pieces and the canvas collapsed around them.  The patient siezed her in his grip as he was struck.  When all was quiet, she was grimy, wounded by shrapnel, but alive–and her fellows on the ground were thrilled when she rose alive.

“There were so many times when I couldn’t understand why I lived,” she said.  “It had to be the grace of God.”

Anya met her future husband on the frontlines–he worked in a neighboring medical squadron.  Their story is a great romance that lasted the entire war, even as he was shipped East to fight the Japanese in Mongolia, and she went to Germany.  One of the photos she showed us, of her wearing an immaculate uniform, stretched out on the grass before a lake in Austria, bore the legend, “To George, to remember.”

In Austria

The immaculate uniform was something that she was always careful to keep on hand.  She kept her white collar and cuffs clean, and always wore them.  “I was an example that the officers used for others,” she said.  “There was no reason not to be neat.”  This is one of the reasons she doesn’t like WWII movies.  “They’re unrealistic,” she says.  “Everyone’s always dirty, and that’s not how it was.”

My perceptions of the war having been partly shaped by viewing films like “Enemy at the Gates,” which depicts Russian troops being ordered into battle despite having ranks mostly unarmed, I asked her about weaponry.

“The first two years there was no shortage of weapons,” she said.  “Then they started to get old and fall apart.”  But salvation was arriving.  “The Americans had sat back and watched to see who was going to win–the Germans or the Russians–and when they saw that we were, they decided to help us.  So they gave us Studebakers, which helped a lot.”  Before the arrival of the American trucks, everything was moved about by horses.  The pharmacy that Anya ran included a two-wheeled cart that she was responsible for pulling or pushing when the squadron moved.  Besides the influx of American equipment which made life much easier, heavy artillery began arriving, and that made a big difference in the war effort.

These days, most of Babushka Anya’s fellow soldiers have passed away.  “It used to be there were people I could talk to about it, that understood, and knew what it was like.  But now there’s noone to talk to.”  Her face darkened as she thought about this.  “When Georgiy [her husband, who was a military pediatrician before and after the war, and a GP by necessity during it] was alive, he never drank vodka.  But on Victory Day, he would ask me, ‘Anichka, can I have fifty grams?’ Then he would raise it and address her, saying, ‘Dear Senior Lieutenant, to our victory.'” Remembering this, her face warmed and happiness tugged gently at the corners of her mouth.  Georgiy, tragically, lost his life in an ice-fishing accident when he was 70.

Our tea long-since finished, Jenia’s grandmother apologized suddenly.  “I hope I haven’t bored you,” she said.

Hands

“Not at all,” we both assured her.

“I’ve never been through it, and,” I added with a grin, “I hope to never go through it, so hearing your stories is very interesting.”

“Thank God you haven’t,” she said with an earnest chuckle, “And hope you never will.”

Table set

We made to help her clean the table–the cups and saucers, the utensils, and so forth–but she stopped us.  “I have nothing to do,” she said.  “Leave them.  Then I will have something to keep me busy.”

Fam

Besides the stories that the decor tells, the apartment itself, in size (which is one room, other than the kitchen and bath), color, and appointments, tells what Russian living is often like.  The kitchen is large by local standards, but the stove is tiny, and the counterspace extremely limited.

Fridge

Kitchen

Stove

After a bit more small talk, we took our leave, out of the cozy apartment, and into the cold.  Outside, we made our way along the road, slick with packed, icy snow.  The danger of slipping and falling is ever-present in this country, where only a few sidewalks are ever cleared of snowfall, and driveways seem to never be.

Pathways

And so, with Christmas right around the corner, we expect a white one, and we will be happily celebrating it with the company of family.

Camels and Water

There’s this nifty group called Al Ain Weekends which organizes trips in the area.  The wife and I and our friends Frank and Melissa joined one of these trips yesterday.  The trip found us joining a convoy of fairly fast-moving 4x4s driving over a miserable, washboarded dirt road into the desert just outside of Al Ain.  I’ve not been a particular fan of Kia quality, at least not Kia ca. 2005, but the Sorento managed to make it without losing any parts, despite the creaking and rattling that filled the interior of the vehicle with a constant din as we pounded along.  Young Bennet, our friends’ 6-month old baby, seemed quite oblivious to the whole thing, strapped in what must be a very cushy car seat.  The Kia, to its credit, did manage a bit of pretty soft sand without any issues when I put it into 4-wheel drive, and I’m more inclined to forgive its fairly significant quality shortcomings as a result.

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After what seemed like a long ways of vehicular punishment, we arrived at the farm, nestled around a number of dunes.  This was interesting for several reasons, not the least of which was the chance to see two baby camels, a week and two weeks old, in the company of their mothers.  Besides the babies, with their thick, sheep-like fur, there were also dark-brown camels and nearly white ones of varying ages and sizes.  Some were bred for racing.

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There was a large male being kept in a separate pen from the others, in preparation to meet and mate with a female in the near future.  I guess isolation guarantees he’s plenty ready for the opportunity when it arises.  He seemed quite irritable, at any rate.  Go figure.

Many of the beasts wore rope shackles around their front feet.  I don’t know the reason for this, although I can guess.

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These dromedaries appeared well-fed and well-watered.  There were at least three men around who worked on the farm, which also had a sizable enclosure for goats.

20121214-IMG_006020121214-IMG_0040The calves were, much like their bovine counterparts, pretty dang big, considering they’ve only been shuffling this mortal coil for a week, and very mobile.

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20121214-IMG_0050A camel farm such as this contains all the treats for the senses that a farm elsewhere does.  Put yourself there for a second.  Your feet sometimes sink a smidgeon, but usually the sand is firm enough.  Occasionally the wind whips some grit into your eyes.  The air is redolent with the scent of fur and dung.  There are grunts, whiffles, and growls as the large herbivores respond to an onslaught of touristy types.  The mothers weren’t too pleased to have such a number people crowd around them, and eventually headed for safer territory, a good distance from us.  For such large animals, they’re easily spooked and quite skittish.  Our travel guide, the guy who organized the trip, had to ask repeatedly for folks to quiet down for the sake of the animals, who were often uneasy.  Of course, I’d probably be uneasy if, out of the blue, two-dozen SUVs unloaded a ton of westerners and their screaming children and they mobbed me, too.

We took the chance to climb some of the orange-red dunes that surrounded us as our time at the farm drew to a close.  The drive home was much more relaxing, albeit considerably more boring, as we left before the convoy did, and accordingly moved at a much more relaxed pace.  It did have its moments of interest, however, as the sky, which had been threatening rain, finally delivered, and my meagre windshield wipers, victims of the summertime and, well, most all the time, UV light, soon were mostly tattered.

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Al Jahili Fort

We took a stroll around Jahili Park here in Al Ain recently and made an effort to get some good photographs.  I think we succeeded, by and large.  Here are some of the images that we like best.

Jahili F1 Jahili F2 JahiliF3

Door

Door detail

JahiliB&W IMG_0496 Entry

So teaching for ADEC does have its benefits.  This is an interesting place and there is a lot to take in.

Update on Nadia

Friends, remember I wrote about my friend Nadia?

Well, I am thrilled to tell you that thanks to generous donations by people from around the globe, she was able to collect enough money for the first 2 or 3 of the necessary 4 surgeries. She is now in Israel with her mother, going through tests and scans to figure out the best course to proceed with treatment. So far, they decided they will begin with her left hip joint.

Nadia will need at least $15,000 more to complete the surgeries needed. If you feel like making her your Random Act of Christmas Kindness this year, please check my previous post to learn about the ways you can help.

Thursday List: Dear Santa

I think it’s lucky we are not brand-dependent. We won’t be running around the local supermarkets in a frenzy, looking for “Comet,” certain that none of the dozens of local cleaners will work as well. My face won’t turn into a pumpkin if I turn away from Clinique ($70-something for a moisturizer that costs $25 in the US!) We may miss Red Robin (great vegetarian burgers), but, truth be told, everything or most everything we used to cook in the States we can cook here as well.

Still, there are things we miss. Silly things, most of them. Embarrassing, even. Supposedly, some of them may be found here from time to time, but you have to be very lucky. So, Santa, here’s what we want for Christmas:

1. White Cheddar Cheez-Its. Oh, how I want some White Cheddar Cheez-Its! I’d probably eat any kind at this point, but none are available.

2. Cape Cod Salt & Vinegar chips. More junk food, I know, but these are the best.

3. Soy protein powder for Shon. Everything here is whey-based (gives Shon a cough), meat-based (we are vegetarian) or completely artificial.

4. Pad Thai noodle kit by Thai Kitchen. We are starved for Thai and Japanese food here. It can only be found in big cities and is ridiculously expensive. If you think good sushi is expensive in the US, think again.

5. Japanese sprinkles for rice. Man, I miss the Asian supermarket! I would also kill for a giant bag of frozen vegetable potstickers.

6. A craft store in Al Ain. Apparently, nobody is interested in crafts here. There is a very small selection of yarn at fabric stores, no jewelry-making or scrapbooking/card-making supplies at all. The biggest selection of crafting supplies I found was at a local bookstore and we’re talking about 1 (one) aisle of construction paper, canvases, several different kinds of paint, yarn, foam, and styrofoam. I may be able to make Mod Podge at home, but there’s no way I can come up with my own Armour Etch!

I may be seen kissing the floors of Hobby Lobby and Michael’s when we return to the US.

7. A candy thermometer. While I’ve successfully made marshmallows without out before, it makes life so much easier! Apparently, people don’t make candy here either.

8. A decent photo printing service somewhere in this vicinity. I am not paying for shipping photos from Shutterfly, and the only two photo printing shops we found here seem to be using regular printers. Yikes.

That’s all I can think of for now. Give me a month or two, and I’ll probably be changing my stance on brand-dependency. That’s what might happen when I run out of my hair products from the States and remember what life was like before Aveda, CHI, and Big Sexy. Then again, may be not.

Stereotypes: Broken.

Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.

A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.

Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites.  We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.

The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.

Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.

Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses.  Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt.  We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.

They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother.  “Even the Always,” Bedad said.

I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”

“You know Always?”  The maxi pads.  Yes.

“He put on his leg,” Medina said.

We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.

At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.

“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.

“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”

“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.

Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”

We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal.  As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”

“Shattered,” I added.

P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.

P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.

National Day

Did I ever tell you that I maintain a column for the hometown newspaper “The Citizen’s Times,” based in Cuthbert, Georgia?  Maybe not.  If not, it’s probably because you didn’t ask.  Anyway, I do.  I don’t know if anyone reads the column or not, but the editor keeps on taking my articles, so I guess it’s not a total flop.

Usually I find that writing for a newspaper and writing for a blog are two very different things, and although I might share ideas, very rarely am I able to adapt one directly to the other.  There was one time when I missed a deadline, though, that the editor copied a post from here and used it for the week’s article, so, hey, whatever works.  This week, though, I think my article will work just fine for the blog, too.  And you’ll love seeing the pictures that accompany these words.  One of the joys of blogging is the unlimited space–plenty of space for images.

So, without further ado, I present to you my week’s article from the Citizen’s Times.

National Day

By Shon Rand

The long weekend is over.  I went back to work today.  Fortunately, the remaining workdays before the trimester ends are short ones, so they’ll pass quickly.  But you don’t really care about my working environment, do you?  I’ll save that mundane stuff (Ha, if only that were true!  There’s never a dull day at my job) for another week.  Anyway, did I mention a long weekend?  That’s right; we had a four-day weekend that included Sunday and Monday off.  It was lovely.  The occasion?  National Day.  The United Arab Emirates celebrated its 41st birthday on December 2, and they did it in grand style.  The lead-up to the holiday covered at least two weeks, during which time various decorations started appearing about town: lights (the UAE’s flag is red, green, white, and black, so the lights are a pretty fair approximation of Christmas lights, and they put us in the holiday mood) ornamented the date palms, buildings, and, give or take, any ordinarily unoccupied space in the middle of a random town square.  We started seeing cars and trucks all decked out in stickers, flags, and even appliqués that bear the face of UAE founder and all-round-hero Sheikh Zayed.  Jenia and I photographed a couple of the most over-the-top ones, and when we shot one, the driver stopped and rolled down his dark-tinted windows to pose, waving double peace signs.  His passenger called out, “Happy National Day!”  There were fireworks shows, which usually featured the colors of the flag.  There was a manic kind of consumeristic–and perhaps exhibitionistic–patriotism that we don’t really see in the USA around Independence Day, despite the basic idea of the holidays being the same.  The holiday has come and gone, but the lights still hang, and people’s cars are still wearing their holiday apparel.  It’s quite a thing to behold.

How 'bout the windshield applique?

How ’bout the windshield applique?

The Sheikh shows up again.

The Sheikh shows up again.

Peace signs all around!

Peace signs all around!

Even motorcycles are not exempt from the madness!

Even motorcycles are not exempt from the madness.

If iPhoto will cooperate, I’ll add some more photos later.  For now, I fear I must call it a night and retire to my bed.  Until the next edit.

 

 

More Dubai: Mondial 2012

It’s supposed to be Money Monday.  And I’ll find a way to make this work: I’ll talk about the price of admission for this nifty event we attended today.

Anyway, on the the subject.  Today’s recreational event: go to Dubai.  To do this, we have to find our way past at least two closed roads to SkyDive Dubai, within sight of the Palm Jumeirah, which is hosting the Mondial 2012 world parachuting championships.  Our agenda is simple enough: watch skydivers from all over the world compete.  What we end up doing instead is watching them practice their formations on the ground and pack their chutes.  While this is kind of interesting, there isn’t anyone actually coming down in parachutes.  So we hang out and talk for a while, and basically do a bit of baking in the sun.  ‘Cause it’s still pretty hot.  Shorts weather, easily.  And finally, after what seems like forever, we almost leave when there’s still no parachutists descending.  Our friends, Frank and Melissa, who have their baby in tow, are getting restless, and so are we.  “Let’s wait five minutes,” I say, hoping, but quite doubtfully, that we might yet get to see some action.  And then, as we are on the verge of leaving, to our delight, the distance championship event begins.

In the Air Chutist1 Duo Windsock Sign

Here’s what it’s like: you’re standing in the sun, a tad too warm, the sun blazing right at the point that the plane has just dropped sky divers from.  That makes it hard to see them, because you’re squinting and covering your eyes.  But you can see them, nonetheless, even though you’ve scrunched your face up like a kid who just sampled his first lemon.  And you watch as they gently float along the air currents, turning now and then.  Then one of them, a bit lower than the others, kicks up his feet and tugs on the lines, and he leans forward, the leading edge of the parachute tilting, and he picks up speed like mad.  You hear the speed, the sizzling of air cut by the parachutist and his canopy, and then he’s skimming the pool in front of you, before he pulls up at the end of it to try to gain some height and fly the greatest distance possible before he touches the ground.

Now, in between all of this boredom and drama, we decide it’s high time to grab some lunch.  There’s a camel tethered near the gate, on display for tourists like us (and like the Asian skydivers who were posing and photographing each other next to it when we arrived).  It’s keeper, an old Emirati guy wearing a tan kandora, spies the beast spread his legs a little and start urinating.  What’s the old fellow do?  He goes over and sticks his hand under the stream, cups it, and lifts it to his face.  “What’s he doing?”  Asks Melissa.  “Is he smelling it?” says Frank.  “I don’t know,” I say, but I have my suspicions.  We can see more clearly the next time he does it.  Yup.  He’s drinking the urine.  It is like a horrific car accident–you can’t take your eyes off it, it’s so terrible.  Sadly, or fortunately, in Jenia’s opinion, we are too far away to capture this singular act on film.  Anyway, the women making repelled faces and Frank and I wearing rather more intrigued ones, we we make our way to the dining hall.  And when we get there, we end up, quite by accident, with front row seats for a stunt show by a young Polish motorcyclist named Rafal who goes by the moniker Stunter13.

Our friends were posing for a lovely shot with this camel, well before the urine drinking took place, when suddenly he started sneezing.  Melissa was a little taken aback.

Now, allow me a switch to the past tense as I finish up.

There were also BMX stunt riders and a motocross team on hand doing hourly shows. At one point there was a standing invitation to go take a leap from a tower into a huge airbag below.  Would’ve done it, but by that time we were all ready to go.

Oh, I forgot to mention the part about money.  Want to guess the asking price? All of this was entirely free.

Tired of baking in the sun, regardless of the nifty stuff going on, we moved on to the huge Mall of the Emirates to eat a real meal (because there wasn’t much available at the Mondial) and enjoy some air conditioning.  Thank goodness for technology, and particularly for navigation systems, because Dubai’s roads are nothing if not confusing, and several were closed so we had to take more circuitous routes.

Russian Team

The Russian team enjoys the sunshine while packing their ‘chutes.

For some video of the parachutists and the motorcycles stunt show, click here: (I shot it myself, using that dandy iPhone of mine).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P2jiPKghYE