• Behind The Iron Curtain – #1 and #2

    Before I move on with the continuation of my ever-popular crapper series I’d like to clarify something. The reason I am writing these is not to get some compassion for the misery that I and my countrymen had to go through. Even with the lack of modern conveniences millions of happy and meaningful lives were lived in the USSR. Many scientific breakthroughs were made by people who after work went back to their crappy communal apartments. Many cultural masterpieces were created by people with no running water in sight. Millions of children were conceived while someone else was sleeping in the other corner of the same room. On the other hand, there are miserable people leaving in the mansions with 6 bathrooms and loads of toilet paper. What I am trying to say is that life conditions are important but even more important are families, friends, surroundings, etc. When everything else is peachy, the toilet paper shortage is not so relevant.
    Now back to the subject.

    Outdoor Plumbing.

    Outdoor plumbing is an oxymoron.
    There wasn’t any plumbing outdoors. In most of the rural areas and old parts of town for their natural needs people visited an outhouse. Regular outhouse looked kinda like this sans the raccoon, heating and funny signs. It was normally situated above the giant hole in the ground which sometimes was pumped out à la “Dirty Jobs”. (notice the abundance of the French words in my blog). I am not sure how the rest of them were emptied but I’ve never heard about septic tanks until I got here. Some of these were regular “squat” types and the other ones had a way to sit down on a toilet seat. If you ever get to visit one of these I recommend to not look down the hole. Just take my word on this.
    People who owned these outhouses kept them clean and tried to insulate them from cold. I’ve never seen a heated one, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. During the cold times of the year these places did not encourage prolonged sessions with a funny book.An old army joke talked about having to have a partner while going to the bathroom above the Arctic Circle: one will do his business and the one other will stand by with an axe in case the first one had to be separated from the toilet. In these areas liquids freeze before they hit the ground.
    As I’ve mentioned above, many toilet facilities were of the “squat” type where you’d find a hole of various shapes (with some evil crap inside, don’t look down) and sometimes there were markings where to place you feet. Feet placement was also guided by disgusting stuff on the floor. You just had to try not to step in the unknown hazardous waste (not all people have excellent aiming skills and that’s all I’m going to say about that). When I was in the army our outdoor facility was a huge concrete building with 40 to 60 holes in the floor and a 20 yard trough for #1 (I’ve heard that Chiefs stadium has some of these). In the morning, when 300 people visited it at the same time my eyes would tear up, and not because I was so proud or whatever. It wasn’t a smell anymore, it was a wall of ammonia-laden mist. Surprisingly,within few minutes, the smell became bearable and you could go on about your business. To sanitize the out-buildings they spread some kind of powder similar to mix of DDT, dry Clorox and Lysol. I should also mention that the building had no doors and partial walls so all the warmth was generated…sorry, I told you not to look down there. When we were on a mission they just dug a trench and surrounded the area with tarps (no roof). Notice that the squat toilets did not discriminate against handicapped, elderly and pregnant women. Just imagine doing it with any of these conditions. I still have great balancing skills.
    Sometimes people rebelled and improved the age-old design as shown in exhibit to the right. Sometimes it was more ingenuous than that but this will give you an idea. Notice that there are no dividers. Enjoy the company!
    If you are feeling deprived of the genuine squat toilet experience, some schmuck is promoting a device to convert your nice, comfortable throne into a squatting nightmare. It will cure your depression, impotence and make your hair grow back. I, on the other hand, will enjoy some time in one of my two bathrooms with an issue of “Consumer Reports”.
    To be continued.
    P.S. This blog is not responsible for trauma caused by your attempts to climb up on your toilet. Do not try this at home.

  • Theatrical Critical

    Recently I had a chance to attend the Coterie Theatre’s “Science Fiction Triple Feature” with my only celebrity friend and a real theater critic Grace. Sitting in the same room with multiple theater critics I thought that I should try my hand in their craft. My review follows:

    Her voice pierced the darkness- horrified, pained, disturbed. She rushed to the stage wearing something that was thought of as futuristic fifty years ago. Is that how they imagined us then? (I need to update my wardrobe). I couldn’t look away from the stage while She was there. I felt what She felt – the horror, pure animalistic horror of facing a bloody death in your own house. I saw the threat through Her eyes, I heard it in Her voice, I followed Her every move. Were there other people on the stage? Perhaps… She gripped my attention, all of it. Lights went out with Her final scream.

    The stage became a medical office, this time She was a teacher struggling with the moral implications of Her decision. She did something out of compassion and now was facing the unintended consequences. I could see Her hurt, tears in Her eyes, Her voice was breaking up. Sometimes She had to turn away from the audience; Her shoulders slumped under the weight of Her conscience. I knew Her pain will stay with Her long after the main character drifts back to his child-like state.

    She appeared on the stage once more, wearing some post-apocalyptic garb fashioned out of a burlap sack. She danced in the uneven light of the fake fire. I felt She wasn’t sure about the future. It was exciting but terrifying. Her world was only as big as the circle around the fire. The darkness covered what was left of the civilization – ruins, rusted metal, shorted out power lines. I knew she would make it; she had the passion and determination – something the new generation of humans would need to persevere.

    I caught a glimpse of her in the hallway; a beautiful young woman happily smiling, all the pain and drama left resting on the stage until the next show. I smiled as well, for I have just seen the Actress.

    Free pizza and ice cream were in my future.

    I’d like to thank the Coterie for the great evening.

    For a real professional review please check out Grace’s article.

  • Checked Off My Bucket List: Coast Starlight

    I always wanted to see the beautiful Pacific Coastline, a frequent feature on travel shows and computer screensavers. My original plan was to drive a part of Highway 1, but one day I had an idea to see an even larger part of the Coast from a rail car window – a much more relaxing and hassle-free way of travel. Since writing about traveling by train in 2008, I’ve become an even bigger fan of Amtrak, riding the rails to Chicago at least once every year. It’s a stark contrast with the air travel, where if it were any closer to the cattle transport they would have to give passengers antibiotics and tag their ears. I didn’t have to think twice about buying tickets on the Coast Starlight – one of the most picturesque routes in the country. In addition to the usual advantages of Amtrak – refundable tickets, no charge for luggage, comfort and humane treatment – this time I paid for a roomette in a sleeping car and automatically became a first class passenger. I knew it right away when an attendant brought a small bottle of (cheap) champagne as soon as the train left Seattle. The price of a sleeping car also includes all meals, coffee, juices and fruit in the car, access to a private lounge car and (on this train) a free WiFi. The roomette is not as roomy as one might think, but it’s comfortable enough and private, so no one is schlepping past you at night and the light is not on. The ride is pleasant, the food is not bad at all (did I mention it’s paid for?), the stops are infrequent and the views are breathtaking. I thought it was worth the money, even though it was not cheap.

    These are some photos I took from the train, some of them are blurry, so you will feel like you are on the train…or drunk.

    This is the Seattle King Street Station, it’s currently being restored so there isn’t much to see inside.

    Continue reading →

  • Russian Gourmet:Beets

    Americans generally eat anything that moves (possum, snake, turtle, squirrel, etc.) with the side dish of anything that grows (sprouts, green beans, asparagus, etc). That’s why it always surprises me when my co-workers make disgusted faces and puking noises when I say something about beets. Why beets were chosen for the role of the hated vegetable is still unclear to me. What’s clear is the fact that they are delicious, slightly sweet, low calorie and help cure everything from cancer to icy roads.

    I, on the other hand, love beets and eat them frequently. They can be boiled, roasted, steamed, microwaved and eaten in soups (readers of this blog already know about borscht), salads,by themselves and with other vegetables. My favorite simplest beet recipe is just shredded cooked beets, little bit of minced garlic, mixed with some mayo or sour cream. For a more complex but still easy to make salad I like vinegret (mine is not exactly like this guy’s recipe but he took better pictures).
    So forget your childhood fears and on your next trip to the store buy a bunch of beets. You’ll be peeing red for a week!
    For more recipes check out Alton Brown’s “Beet it!
    P.S. No matter what you’ve been told by crazy vegetarians, the root is the edible part of the beet plant, leave the tops for your pet goat.

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  • Berlin Wall: Many Years Later

    In 1989 I was in the military and the events in Berlin went largely unnoticed in our little installation. We watched the news as long as it didn’t distract us from the our main occupation – counting days until the discharge. 20 years later, when the excitement of breaking down a hated symbol of the Cold War died down many people are still not sure if it was a good thing.

    In a poll this year, 50 percent of easterners agreed with the statement that “East Germany had more good sides than bad sides.” Eight percent signed off on the statement: “People there were happier and better off than today in reunified Germany.”
    Just as some easterners long for their lost paradise, many westerners think they would have been better off without reunification.

    In the end, the Wall couldn’t really exist any longer and the resentment most likely resides in the generation who had to bear the brunt of  the reunification and all the hardships associated with it. History is moving along and today is a good day to take a look back at the way it was just a short 20 years ago.

    The image below was painted in 1990, later destroyed and was being repainted last summer.

    The best and the funniest movie about that time is the award-winning Good Bye Lenin! It’s truly worth suffering through the subtitles.