Thursday, May 10, 2012


OK, more about my life soon. But for now, I just wanted to share something that made me feel really upbeat about the US and my job here in Russia. There's a Russian blogger on a 2-month roadtrip through the States (some pre-trip organizational support from the Embassy here, but no ongoing contact as far as I can tell). His blog is awesome, and I recommend anyone with at least some Russian to read the whole thing. He is getting a truly comprehensive view of the country-- from small towns in the Midwest to a Sun City in Arizona.
The story I wanted to translate, though, came from his time in LA. He stumbles into a rally for immigration reform, a full-on public demonstration with banners, bullhorns, and hot dog stands. As you may know, public political protest is somewhat of a topical issue in Russia at the moment, and I was eager to see what Sasha made of the American variant. (He doesn't quite grasp the full complexity of the US immigration debate, but then, who does?) He makes a big deal out of how well the event is run and how good the general vibe is. Smiling people, good food, music & dancing, police nearby but not interfering.

The kicker comes when he sees this group of men, holding an undiplomatically-worded banner directly in front of a line of police officers. Sasha asks one of the officers why they're not doing anything about it. Here's the officer's response:

"We've got freedom of speech here. If he doesn't like the police– he can say so. I don't have the right to arrest him, because he hasn't done anything against the law. Even if I personally don't like it, I won't touch him. But if one of these people throws a bottle or attacks an officer or insults me personally, I've got the full right to put him in handcuffs."

Whether he knew it or not, at that moment, that LAPD officer was pressed into service as a diplomat, and he knocked it out of the park. Though one peaceful rally does not equal change (anywhere in the world), what a great representation of the American political system. It doesn't always work this smoothly, but when it does, it's impressive-- even halfway around the world.

How I am

My face looks like some sort of post-apocalyptic Martian landscape.  I've been confined to my apartment all week, with no human contact save for periodic visits to the doctor and a couple welcome deliveries of food. I drift in and out of sleep, which mercifully stops the itching.

Yes, I have the chicken pox. To answer the immediate questions, no, apparently I didn't have it as a child. No, I don't know where I caught it.

However, it turns out the old saw about silver linings and clouds holds true even for really itchy, disfiguring clouds. Today, in day 4 of quarantine, I've picked up enough energy to cut down on the napping. That has left more time to catch up on other things-- soon to include this blog. Stay tuned for more on life in Moscow soon.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Notes From the Ground

I'm here! I'm alive! Longer posts hopefully to follow. However, for now, all I can manage are a few photos and a series of quick impressions of my first four days:

The cold is bearable. It takes me 10 minutes to prepare to go outside, and it's always a struggle to decide how many layers to remove once you're inside. I've also caught myself beginning to describe food primarily in terms of its temperature. As in, "This soup is so warm! I love it!" However, so far, it hasn't been so cold that I haven't wanted to go out and explore. (One Russian guard captured what seems to be the prevailing local sentiment on the cold snap I arrived with: "Winter ought to be winter.")


Spurred on by my chilly ears, I went and bought the warmest hat I could find today. It was a good adventure: I went to a fur expo at a fairground north of the city. In preparation, I learned all the fur vocabulary I could find. If you were wondering, in rough ascending order by price, furs come from rabbits, raccoons, beavers, sables, mink, martens, foxes, and wolves. I ended up with a leather hat with big puffs of raccoon fur around the edges. Either because I'm a shrewd bargainer or because they were so surprised to see a foreigner there, I got it for about 70% off. (My bubby would be proud).


I've forgotten a lot of geographical knowledge since I last spent significant time in Moscow five years ago. At this point, I need a map to get anywhere. However, there are lots of places that spark strong sensory memories-- I suddenly recall where something is in the grocery store or on the embassy compound, and I remember eating specific dinners in specific restaurants.


I'd forgotten how much I get a perverse sense of pleasure from trying to talk about things I don't know the words for. Today, I bought honey (there are so many kinds!) and a big bottle of mead from a little shop. To do so, I had to have a conversation that started with me saying "I've never had Russian honey before. What would you recommend for a first taste?" and which involved many, many unfamiliar words (describing various qualities of honey and the process of producing it.)


You can't truly grasp what an insane variety of shampoos we have available to us until you shop in a foreign language. I spent 10-15 minutes in the supermarket figuring out the words for 'oily hair', 'long hair', 'thin hair', 'dandruff', 'volumizing', 'shine' etc etc etc.


My place is bare and it's strange to be living alone. I need to force myself not to just spread my things out over the entire surface of the apartment-- after all, who would care? As a side note, it looks like my household goods shipments may be hung up in visa / customs red tape for a good long while, so my apartment is likely to remain bare.


I've had jet lag about as bad as I ever have here, but everyone's been understanding of the fact that I'm not fully functional yet. I impressed my work sponsor to no end by the mere fact that I stayed awake until the end of my first day here. Resetting my sleep schedule is incredibly hard, though, since it's pitch black when I am supposed to be getting up. The sun doesn't rise until past 10AM, when my colleagues have already been hard at work on the visa line for a solid two hours. Last night was the first night I didn't wake up at 3AM, and I still ended up taking a two hour midday nap.


I'm still in the process of finding friends. So far I know most of the people in my section at work, a few people from my social sponsor's office, and one Russian-American friend I knew from back in DC. On Saturday, she took me to a cool art exhibition at an artists' retreat about 30km outside of town. It was a lot of fun-- I plowed through a few conversations in Russian, ate delicious plov cooked over an open fire, and enjoyed the art. I'm still hoping to find places to play music. There's an embassy band, which I might join, and I've emailed a couple of local bluegrass musicians, so we'll see how that turns out.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How to spend a month without a job?

I'm in the enviable position of having a full month without any firm commitments. Today is August 12. On September 12, I'll report to the State Department to start training to be a diplomat. I hope to spend the time between now and then as well as possible. I have three things in mind-- and you can help with each.

1) Play lots of music. Unfortunately, both of my bands are missing members due to people moving away. I'll practice a lot on my own, but would like to play with people too-- in part because it's fun, in part to try to put together a new band lineup for the fall. If you know any awesome musicians (bluegrass or otherwise) who might like to play with me, put us in touch!

2) Read books. Yesterday, I finished reading my first novel in months and months. I want to keep that going-- to expand my reading list beyond what can be contained in Google Reader. Send me recommendations for what I should be reading!

3) Take on challenges. My friend Amanda has started a project where she solicits challenges from friends and completes them. Potential challenges are very broadly defined as things that are hard but fun to do. So far, for example, she and her partner in awesomeness have walked from DC to Baltimore, written and performed a 10 minute play in iambic pentameter, and more. They are currently writing a young adult novel, staging a mass wild west style showdown (rock-paper-scissors style) in a public park, and more. There are plenty of potential challenges ripe for the taking on the website, but I'd like to hear what you think I should do. Send me ideas for challenges, ideally ones that can be accomplished in a month! Bonus points if you want to collaborate to tackle a challenge with me.

Besides these things, I'll be fixing bikes, swing dancing, and catching up with friends. Be in touch, especially if you have mornings free and would like to schedule things early in the day. So far, the hardest part of unemployment seems to be getting out of bed at a reasonable hour.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Escalator etiquette

It turns out that the seemingly worldwide convention 'stand on the right, walk on the left' is familiar to only about 60% of the residents of Budapest. I'm curious about how this happened, and what it says about Hungarian culture. I've taken for granted that in DC, Moscow, and every other city I've been in with escalators, people will contritely get out of your way if they forget and park themselves on the left hand side. Here, it doesn't happen. If you don't get to the escalator as one of the first 10 or so people, there's a very good chance that someone will have, given a choice between standing on the right and left, decided to buck the general trend and block the left hand side. And it's rare that they get the hint and scoot over when you come climbing up the escalator behind them.

One hypothesis would be that it's a symptom of a culture that's more accepting of waiting and less accepting of hurrying. There are plenty of places where this is the case. People in much of Europe wait for walk signs to turn green, even if there's not a car in sight. But Budapest is not one of those places. It's definitely a get-across-as-fast-as-possible kind of city.

This should have been an opportunity to learn the Hungarian for 'excuse me', but I've somehow forgotten to ask anyone.

Monday, June 15, 2009

In Budapest, in the home stretch!

I've dug myself into a serious blogging hole again. And as in the past, I think the only thing to be done is to make a brief reckoning of the things I have to catch up on, then skip ahead to the present. So, here are all the things I hope to write about soon:

-- Some mop up posts from *way* back in UK and France. A couple funny moments from London, trying to help Bellatrix and the Boxettes win an online talent competition. A trip to Brighton to visit Layth, who's got an amazing beatbox practice regimen and results to match. My Saturday at the Beatbox Academy, and a followup conversation with academy instructor Jes Sadler. My magical first day in Paris. An extended interview with L.O.S. in Angers and brief highlights from my visit to Ezra's trailer
-- More thoughts from Ã…rhus, including the incredible Cosmos show, jamming with VoxNorth people (differences between a cappella jams and beatbox jams), a vocal jazz workshop with Jesper Holm, and incredulity at Denmark's level of English education.
-- A few more posts from the European backpacking adventure. Why the Deutsche Bahn is wonderful. Review of mako!mako concert in Brno. Prague Hip Hop Subway Series. A gypsy music concert in Prague (Deladap)!A look at beatbox in experimental avant garde music in Poland (TikTak).
-- The Beatbox World Championships in Berlin! Reconnecting with friends met all over Europe. Highlights and a summary of the competition results. Online bickering over the judging.
-- Arrival in Hungary. First Roma music show (Romano Drom) and problems with the language barrier. A brief history of 'authentic' gypsy music and the divisions among Roma in Hungary. Athe Sam festival-- a week of concerts every night.

And here's what I'm up to now:

I arrived in Budapest ten days ago and have settled into a very nice little flat in the IInd district, Buda side. Budapest was originally two separate cities-- Pest in the east, Buda in the west, divided by the Duna (Danube) river. They were joined by bridge 900 years ago or so, but somehow still retain slightly different characters. Pest is busier, with more nightlife and a more regular gridded street plan. Buda has more green spaces and a huge castle up on a hill.

I'm really enjoying having my own place to live, something I literally haven't had all year. It's not ideal for pursuing full immersion in Roma culture, but after the amount I've been traveling in the past couple months, a stable home base was too attractive to pass up. I've been struggling to overcome what is probably the hardest language situation I've been in all year. I can't really decipher any Hungarian, and I don't have an English-speaking host to explain everything to me. This often results in comedy. Today I made pasta sauce, which turned out quite nicely. The spice packet I'd bought in the supermarket, however, only had preparation instructions in Magyar. I tried typing them into Google translate, but got very odd results. A sample sentence: "Defecation of the dough after the 50 ml of water is to be set aside to prepare the pesto."

Project wise, I've spent every night over the past week at a festival of Roma music held at a big club in the center of Pest. It's one immediate revelation about this music that, even though it's a folk music and even though Roma people face pretty serious discrimination in Hungary (rising to violence in isolated cases), their music is at the cutting edge of hip. The club was packed over the weekend and pretty well populated even in the middle of the week. I struggled with the reality of being shoulder to shoulder with the musicians I wanted to learn from and not being able to speak with them at all. Roma as a group are very poorly served by the education system, and those who work as traditional musicians are even less likely than most to speak English or another foreign language. For the record, while I've met a couple of people here who speak a little Russian, the most useful language to speak if visiting Hungary, apart of course from Magyar, is probably German. English is a close second.

I did manage to meet a group of English-speaking Roma people-- they're students in the Roma Versitas program. The program supports Roma enrolled in university, seeking to increase the numbers of Roma in skilled professions. They had a 'living library' at the festival where passersby could browse a catalog of subjects relating to Roma culture and then have a student sit down with them and explain a chosen subject. I made friends with a couple of the Roma Versitas students, which will be a great help during my remaining time in Budapest. My new friends are, it must be said, mostly either from mixed Magyar/Roma families or from Roma families that have embraced an urban lifestyle, without much contact with other Roma. Only 1% of Roma end up getting college degrees, so you would expect that 1% to be from non-traditional backgrounds. However, any hope I entertained of meeting an English-speaking Roma person who had close contact with relatives in a traditional Roma community in rural Eastern Hungary now seems far-fetched.

Health-wise, I had a new episode of (what's pretty much confirmed as) staph take over both legs and creep up my stomach. It was pretty debilitating, and I went to the doctor here after just a few days of trying to tend to the boils myself. He gave me a prescription for amoxicillin, though also took blood and a pus sample. The whole encounter cost $266, but the antibiotic has knocked the boils right out, so at least that's better.

More soon! I'm a little engrossed with what's happening in Iran right now, so am spending more time than I should refreshing various blogs to look for updates. However, I'll also find time to update my own (much less important) blog.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

American beatbox / Euro beatbox: Kid Lucky interview

(written two weeks ago, during my first stop in Prague. I'm now finishing up my second stop, and am headed to Berlin for the World Championships this weekend.)

I arrived in Prague, got money out of an ATM (one crisp 1000 crown note), apologetically bought a 35 crown sandwich and got change, bought a ticket for the subway, and was at my 9PM appointment at a hole-in-the-wall hiphop club by 9:20. The guy I was meeting with, an American beatboxer named Kid Lucky, showed up around 10 with a smiling Czech girl on his arm.

Kid Lucky spent a long time developing a beatbox scene in New York, and is now doing workshops and concerts in Europe, basing his European life out of Prague. I'd heard a lot about the perceived differences between American beatboxing and Euro beatboxing, and so I really wanted to hear Kid Lucky's perspective on the question. Once he showed up, he did not disappoint. I pulled out my notebook and tried to catch the best quotes, wishing I could record (it was a bit too loud in the club for that).

Kid Lucky starts from the position that beatbox and hiphop are inseparable. Beatbox may have spread throughout the world along with hiphop culture, but it is still (or should still be) tightly connected to its roots, the beatboxers who created the art form in the early 1980s. He thinks that's what gets lost a lot of the time in Europe. "You have to know history, so you don't think you're so great," he explained. "What [European beatboxers] are doing isn't new."

That took us into a discussion of terminology. His problem is not with musicians who want to use similar techniques to beatbox to create new forms of music. It's more a question of those people appropriating the name 'beatbox' to describe what they do. If you're not based in hiphop, Kid Lucky insisted, "Stop calling it beatbox. Beatbox is within the realm of hiphop."

Many beatboxers in Europe, Kid Lucky continued, would better be termed 'vocal percussionists'. The real pioneers of beatbox, he explained, rattling off a list of the godfathers of the art, had more going for them than just drum sounds. "Every beatboxer was an emcee. Every single one of them."

Lucky's own style derives from this view of beatbox. He coined the term 'beatrhyming' to describe what he does. It combines freestyle rap with vocal scratching-- taking words and mashing them up like a DJ would do with a record on a turntable-- and just brief moments of vocal percussion. It lets him, without any loop pedals or backing tracks, create solo performances that carry clear messages along with a beat. "The whole thing about beatbox is doing it all," Kid Lucky says. "You are a one man hip hop show." He says he created the style mostly to use in battles with other beatboxers, to bring something to the table that no one else was doing.

Beatboxers today, most of whom can't put together their own lyrics, suffer from what Lucky calls 'Kenny Muhammad syndrome'. Muhammad is a top beatboxer who emerged in the late 1990s, and whose most famous routines are frequently copied by novice beatboxers. Kid Lucky has a bit of a grudge against Muhammad, whom he blames for creating the notion that a beatboxer could do nothing but drums and sound effects. He also has little respect for many of the big names in European beatbox (it's worth noting that he excepted the French), whom he sees as derivative acts at best, copycats at worst. He took a dig at the UK scene, saying, ""All those cats are biters. Every single one of them. And now there's this new crop that's biting off of them!"

I felt compelled to rise to defend Europe, pointing out what I saw as a much stronger community of beatboxers, all helping each other get better and learn new things. He responded that the top beatboxers in the US are still a close bunch, but they just show a sense of community in different ways. "We're not all online all the time, but we'll phone each other, and if you have a gig somewhere you can come crash at my place."

The major difference, he said, is that the European community looks inwards first and foremost. Beatboxers seek to win the approval of other beatboxers, which leads to them developing routines that can be fully appreciated only by other beatboxers, who know how hard it is to do the things they do. Conversely, in the US, beatboxers aim to make it big with a wider audience. "You're trying to prove yourself to other beatboxers," Kid Lucky says. "We're trying to make money."

Kid Lucky told me that the future of solo beatbox is in words-- in creating routines that offer new, original lyrics that carry a message. There's nowhere left to go in increased technicality, he suggested, and the logical place to go is back to the roots of the artform. Whether this becomes accepted among the broader community of beatboxers, he says, "depends on who wins the PR war." He's doing his part, spreading the gospel of hiphop to would-be beatboxers across Europe, and serving as a kind of hiphop guru here in Prague. I'll write more about my experience with his Hip Hop Subway Series, which is putting on regular, mobile ciphers (jam sessions) in the Prague metro. The most recent one, this past Sunday, drew a crowd of around 80 people.