Saturday, September 23, 2006

New Year’s in St. Pete’s

Sep 18-24

This time I made it to Russia. Only 3 months late for the wedding, but I got to Saint Pete's and was able to deliver the wedding gift that's been waiting in my luggage since the last time.

New passport, new visa, and the immigration officials at the border didn't ask me anything. Just looked at my papers and stamped them.

The most intense experience of the whole trip was watching “Akeelah and the Bee”. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a Starbucks Media inspirational movie about a little girl that goes to a spelling bee. If you still plan to see it, skip this next section.

Begin spoiler section

I caught glimpses of the movie during the flight. Glimpses in the literal sense, since my headphones were actually connected to my iPod, playing something completely different. I was also reading a book so only raised my head to see the movie from time to time.

The amazing things is that I’m pretty sure I got most of the plot anyway just by watching facial expressions and animated discussions once in a while. Here’s my version of it:

  • Akkelah has stage fear.
  • At the beginning of the movie, the only white character in the movie encourages her to compete (the rest of the characters are mostly African-American.) I don’t know if that’s important or not, though I’d have marked this guy as her agent were she an actress. As it is, he was probably her teacher.
  • Her mom is against her competing. Probably afraid of what will happen if she fails. She comes from the over-protect-your-child school.
  • She continues to compete, and despite running out in the middle of a few spelling bees, she seems to advance to the next level every time.
  • Somewhere along the way she picks up a father-figure guru in the shape of a bearded Samuel L. Jackson
  • At the final spelling bee, she starts with about 50 other kids. The losers are winnowed out during the competition.
  • During a break, she spies another competitor kid’s father strongly admonishing the kid about how important winning is and that he mustn’t lose and that he has to be the best. I got all this from the stern finger shaking the father did. Both father and son were Asian-American. I would have called this stereotyping, but then I was only glimpsing the movie. He might simply have been telling the kid that his mom would have been proud of him no matter what, that he should have fun, and that dad loves him despite the frozen somber expression on dad’s face. He might have been drying his wet finger by moving it quickly up and down or chasing away a very single-minded fly.
  • Of course later in the competition, when the kid stumbles a little and almost misses a word, dad gets up and says something out loud and all the parents look at him with a “what are you doing to your kid, this is america, life choices, etc.” kind of look and he sits down in shame.
  • Akeelah gets over her stage fright by remembering how she practiced the word she needs to spell while rope-jumping. A bit of fake rope jumping on stage kicks-in her contextual memory and she gets through the rough spots. She also has some flashbacks to discussions with the guru.
  • Meanwhile the Asian-American kid, despite dad’s strict disapproving glance, manages to stick in the contest until all the other kids except Akeelah are gone.
  • In order to not offend any minority portrayed in the film, both Akkela and the Asian kid win the competition. They share the trophy. I guess only Rocky can lose and still be inspirational.

Now here’s my main question: Why oh why, if this movie is supposed to inspire, does Akeelah only smile during the last act. Throughout the movie, whenever I’d raised my head to take a peek, she had a sour expression on, her mouth was turned down, she was crying or running away from the crowd. How inspirational is that? Do I have to win in order to smile? I don’t get it.

End spoilers section

Saint Petersburg in the fall has a capricious weather. It can turn hot or cold, sunny, foggy or rainy on a whim. I got lucky – it was mostly sunny, though a bit foggy on the weekend.

Friday night was Jewish New Year’s. This is one of the high holidays for Jews, usually celebrated in an elaborate family meal with a bunch of special dishes and prayers. Since I was out Firday night with some friends and colleagues from Sun, I decided to get a mini-ceremony going. While sitting in a Japanese restaurant, I pulled out a jar of honey and a few apples, cut the apples up and had everyone pick a slice and dip it in honey. I told them all they're my adopted family for tonight, then explained the tradition of welcoming the new year with a prayer for a sweet new year and we all dug in. I’m sure the waiters were almost as surprised as my non-Jewish friends. I caugt Dasha and Vitaly humoring me and my strange customs.Saturday morning one of my friends picked me up and we went to tour the city a bit. We started with a church tour, went into the famous colorful church, the name of which I can never remember, then kept walking onto Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg.

There are more photos of the inside of this and another church in the following album:

Saint Petersburg
Sep 23, 2006 - 13 Photos

At that point, we decided to stop for a drink in one of the local cafes. One of the things I learned during my army service was how to carry something that you don’t want snatched away from you. In the army, that’s the gun. If it’s hanging from your shoulder, it’s very easy to snatch away. Either walk with it hanging from your neck where you can see it, or wear it over your neck and under your arm, that way no one can simply pull it off. And it works! My camera was still there when I took it off to sit down at the restaurant. The only missing thing was the lens.

Some enterprising dealer in used photographic equipment managed to twist it off the camera and spirit it away. I’ve been hunting for this lens for over 4 months. Eventually I bought it on eBay since Nikon is just not able to create them at the speed the market wants to buy them. It was barely 4 weeks old. I can tell you it’s very sad to walk around with a very capable camera that can’t see a thing!

But remembering Rocky (I don’t think Akeelah’s sulks will do me much good), I decided this was good training for my upcoming Vietnam trip. I’ll be there for a month and will need to watch my stuff well. If I lose my camera on that trip - no photos for the rest of it. For now, I just ordered a new lens (off eBay, again; at a premium, again), and hopefully it will wait for me by the time I’m back from this trip.

My main regret? Next week I’m in a conference at Mt. Saint Michele on the beautiful French coast and I will not be able to take any pictures of it. Oh well – I guess I’ll have to work there after all.

And finally: for those of you who celebrate it now, have a happy, sweet new year! May all your wishes come true (except the ones that go against mine) and may you live long and thrive (which is Kaiser Permanente’s way of plagiarizing Star Trek’s “live long and prosper”)! For those of you who don’t, my wishes still go with you.

Eran, Saint Petersburg, Russia

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Yael said...

Shannah Tova to you too. sorry aobut the camera. maybe you should (as you swollow your pride), buy a disposable camera for the French memories???

Anonymous said...

Darn ... that Yael is just too quick with good suggestions! I was going to suggest the same thing -- Happy New Year, and enjoy the rest of your travels. - Pete -

Gal said...

Mont St. michelle is just too beautiful not to photograph!
You must find a way to take pictures.
Also, it's worth visiting both at night and during the day.

Shana Tova!

Petersburg guide said...

Happy New Year to you!
This church is really very beautiful! And for you to know, the name of the church is the Curch on the spilt blood or the second name -the resurrection church.
It was built in 19 century at the place, where Our tsar Alexander II was killed. It was constracted by the architect Rinaldi in the old Russian style.