Saturday, January 28, 2006

Nina and Rolex 24

I am so tired right now that I can't even feel my feet. My poor toes are hurting very badly and my head is still spinning. It's been a heck of a day so far and it's only 5pm.

First thing in the morning (actually, it was around 10 am) we went to Halifax Harbor Marina to see an exact replica of Christopher Columbus' favorite ship, "Nina". It is, I must note, "the most historically correct Columbus replica ever built", according to the "Archaeology" magazine. And you have to trust those folks - they know more about the subject that I ever will. The original Nina was one of the three ships (the other two were "Pinta" and "Santa Maria") that sailed to America in 1492. "Nina" made the entire First Voyage, unlike less fortunate "Santa Clara" that sank of the coast of Hispaniola on Christmas Eve 1492. She also sailed on the Second Voage to Cuba and the only one that survived the hurricane of 1495. After being captured by a corsair, she was freed by its Captain and made it back to Hispaniola, this time as advance guard ship, on Columbus' Third Voyage. So it's a pretty venerable ship with a long and romantic history.
It was rebuild in Valencia, Brazil, in 1988 by an American John Sarsfield and a team of local shipbuilders, using only period tools. After its maiden voyage it was filmed in guess which movie? (No, not the "Starship Troopers") Yes, "1492"! Since then, the ship sailed to over 600 ports in the US. Its 93.6 feet of length feel surprisingly tiny. We have private yachts in the Marina that are bigger than "Nina". It was pretty amazing to walk the deck and imagine this tiny shell of a Caravel crossing thousands of miles of open seas and battling 20-foot waves.

We then drove just down the Beach Street to a new News-Journal Performing Arts Center. It was officially opened yesterday with a performance of "Beauty and the Beast" and a shampaign reception. But the tickets were too expensive. So instead we went on a free tour of the place today. It is not the most architecturally remarkable building and some of it is painted canary-yellow. Plus there's still some landscaping that needs to be done. But inside it's a whole different story. It has one of the most beautiful lobbies I've seen with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a panoramic view of Halifax River and the beach side. The main stage has fantastic acoustic and a lot of top-notch technology. It appears there isn't a single bad sit in the house! The place also serves as a gallery of art work for Florida artists.

Out in the sun again we proceeded through the arts and crafts fair to an portable rock-climbing wall. Now, I didn't care much to climb it. What I was after were the little trampolines with bungees. The whole thing works like this: You're strapped into a harness that's hooked on both sides to bungy cords. These are pulled tight enough so they almost lift you in the air. Then you jump, up to 20-25 feet in the air and slowly come down as the cords soften your descend. Most people think that this is for kids only, but it's perfect for adults as well, as long as they weight under 240 pounds. I went first and immediately started doing backward and forward flips. I even managed to do a double! It seems like an easy thing, but actually after about 30 seconds or so you get really tired and out of breath. And after a 3-minute ride is over, your feet feel like Jell-O. Chris also decided to join in on the fun and soon he was jumping and flipping.

After catching our collective breath and making sure that our stomachs returned to their proper places we went to our favorite place in the mall, Mr. Dunderbacks. It's a German-style deli that serves really great sandwiches and tiny potato cakes. They also sell whole bunch of gourmet cheeses, sausages, mustards, dressings, and different wines and beers, but these are all expensive. The place is tiny and always very busy. Inside it's made to look like an Octoberfest tent. All its decor is on sale, from deli items lining up every single inch of the walls to woven baskets hanging from the ceiling to plaques with smart-ass sayings all over the place. You might think that the best place to sit is at a little bistro-style table with tiled tops showing coats of arms of different German towns. But the best place is actually along a bar that runs the length of the establishment. I don't know why, it just is. Mr. Dunderbacks is a chain (we've seen it in Raleigh, NC as well). So if there's one near you, give it a try. Order "Der Red Baron" on rye or a ruben on pampernickel bread - they are really good. And don't forget the potato cakes!

Then it was time for Rolex 24. Actually, we were late since the race started at noon just as we were starting on our potato cakes (I'm telling you, they are that good). But it's a 24-hour race, so it's not like we were going to miss it anyway. We are not race fans and can't tell much about the cars or the drivers. Why go to a race then? Well, living in Daytona we worked the races before and I would always get curious about what it would feel like to be a spectator and on the inside of the track, not outside handing out T-shirts and credit card applications. Rolex 24 opens the Speed Weeks here and is the most affordable major race. The tickets normally cost $30-$50. That's for 24 hours and you can re-enter as many times as you wish. Now, Daytona 500 tickets are at least $150 each. Plus you can never find any parking for Daytona 500 and have to either walk 3-4 miles or pay up to $35 for a day and walk 1 mile. Only race fans do it. And we aren't them. But get this - we ended up paying only $10 each because we had military IDs (a student ID produces the same effect, so there's no need to run after your friendly Army recruiter). We walked to the infield and to the Fan Zone where there was a wine and cheese tasting in process. It's a new thing ISC is trying this year to appeal to a more refined crowd. There's still plenty of beer and a chilly cook-off right next door. Our cheap-o tickets didn't include entries to the garages, but those stay empty during the race anyway. Instead, we went past Lake Lloyd and past all the RVs and trucks and cars and people drinking beer and listening to the race on their scanners to where the Ferris Wheel was. There we bought tickets for a ride and got a bird's eye view of the entire Speedway. It was almost as great as flying in a helicopter, but much cheaper. Then we slowly made our way back to the car and drove home. We might still drive back for the fireworks a bit later.

Friday, January 20, 2006

3 Years

Wew, time to slow down and catch my breath here. These past few days were so busy, I had no time to even read a book (Lesly Downer's plain but informative "Women of the Pleasure Quarter: the Secret History of the Geisha"). Instead, Chris and I have been busy celebrating our third wedding anniversary.

Ok, so it's not a very big celebration. So what?! Look at it this way - considering that so many marriages fall apart every year, every successful year must be cherished and celebrated as if it was a major milestone. More than that, statistically, marriages are most susceptible to divorce within the first 5 years. So every year lived together is worth celebrating. And every year lived together well is worth almost having a parade and some fireworks. But we didn't want to have any of that stuff because we are laid-back and modest and don't like stressing people up by forcing them to wear costumes and hold baloons and march in parades. So instead we quietly celebrated by ourselves.

This year we decided to skip the whole gift-giving part. After all, Christmas and New Year's gift-hunting frenzy is still fresh in our minds. Instead, we chose an extended celebration over 3 days. Luckily, the circus was in town and they provided all the needed oompa and fireworks. So first we went to Barnum and Bailey's on Tuesday night. The show was at the Ocean Center, here in Daytona. This place is usually a dump, hosting stuff like Cheerleaders Competitions, proms for local highschools, and senior expos. But once in a while they have note-worthy events such as rodeos, motorcycles shows, ice-skating championships, and circus. Incidentally, this was a pretty good show with acrobats, a contortionist man, a juggler, flying trapeze people, an elephant, horses, alligators, 13-foot pythons, and sadly, with clowns (I really don't like clowns. The only thing that I like less than clowns in a circus is tamed bears).

On Wednesday night we went to the Melting Pot in Orlando. It's a fondue restaurant. It's really nice and low key. They don't serve a lot of food, but somehow you end up completely stuffed. And we even ordered chocolate fondue for dessert. So when our waiter asked if we needed anything else at the end of the evening, I requested a little cart to cart me out of there. But we could not possibly skip the dark chocolate Amaretto fondue flambeed tableside (that means a waiter sets fire to the liquor and tries not to trigger the fire alarms). Dipping a double-chocolate brownie into gooey yummy melted dark chocolate - try to beat this, all you Atkins dieters. Oh, and if you tell them that you're celebrating a special event, they will even snap your picture and put it in a little paper "Melting Pot" frame for you - for free. So if you're in one of those Melting Pots (it's a chain), just tell them you're celebrating something or other (they never check facts, kind of like newspapers). Oh, and their pictures are really good too; they must be using some sort of high-speed prettifying technology. I always look very cute on their pictures (and you know that in real life I have my homely moments and lots of them).

Oh, and yesterday we rounded the celebration up by going to a classical music concert at a Peabody Auditorium here, in Daytona Beach. They had Sofia symphony orchestra & chorus performing "Carmina Burana" and there was also Bulgarian ballet "Arabesk" performing along. And then they had the ballet performance of Ravel's Bolero. [Wikipedia has tons of interesting facts about Bolero, but do you know that some speculate that it's famous form was borne out of an onset of Alzheimer's decease?] Both are very famous works and are perfect for all sorts of celebrations of romantic events. Most of the crowd was way past their sexual prime (you know, it's Daytona Beach), but even these septa- and octagenarians appreciated the sexual energy of the dance. I just hope they forgot all about it by the time they got home (or else, old folks getting it on "Cocoon"-style - pretty disgusting!)

Oh, and then the opening chorus of "Carmina Burana", O Fortuna, just sends shivers down your spine! It's a bit depressive and dark, but hey, what follows is a lively romp through some hills and some dales and an occasional tavern or two and on to making out and such in the "Court of Love" part. Seriously though, it was a beautiful concert.

"O Fortune, like the moon of ever changing state, you are always waxing or waning; hateful life now is brutal, now pampers our feelings with its game; poverty, power, it melts them like ice.

Fate, savage and empty, you are a turning wheel, your position is uncertain, your favour is idle and always likely to disappear; covered in shadows and veiled you bear upon me too; now my back is naked through the sport of your wickedness.

The chance of prosperity and of virtue is not now mine; whether willing or not, a man is always liable for Fortune's service. At this hour without delay touch the strings! Because through luck she lays low the brave, all join with me in lamentation!"

Monday, January 16, 2006

Game 4 - His taste in women was...

His taste in women was just like his taste in wine. He drank it all, but he preferred beer. Not like he was "playing for the other team", you know, it's just he really preferred beer to anything else, including women.

He spent every evening at a tiny corner gas-station turned a watering hole. This place was so dingy, it deserved to be visited by him. It used to be a tiny two-pump gas station back in the days. At some point it quietly went out of business just as the neighborhood was turning into a slum where not that many people owned cars. Those that did oftentimes left the pump in a hurry without paying. Those that didn't either ignored a tiny convenience store inside or tried to rob it. And so the gas station was shut down and abandoned.

Some time later, new owners filled the front window with bricks, put bars on a tiny side window, painted the building white, put a row of bar stools inside and a picnic bench outside and hung strings of Christmas lights throughout. The no-name bar was open for business ever since. It had no parking lot and most regulars walked to it. Nor did it have a restroom which did not unfase same regulars in the slightest. A tattered menu in a greasy plastic case listed grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburgers and hotdogs as its only offerings. Friday night special was unlimited potato chips. The rest of the time it was peanuts for snacks. Bottles of ketchup and tiny yellow-green hot peppers crowded the bar.

He would come here every night, order a hamburger du jour smothered in a yellow-white mix of mustard and mayo and with a side of pickle straight from a 7-11 across the street. Or if he felt a bit adventurous, he would get a cold hotdog on a rather stale bun and sprinkle some relish on it. Invariably, he would ask for a Bud. And then another one. And another one. And so he ate his food and drank his beer and tried to make out what was said on a tiny 13-inch TV in the far corner. If there happened to be a woman, single and looking, next to him, he would strike up a conversation. Sometimes it ended up with him picking up just a tab, other times - with him picking up the gal as well. Neither one happened very often for this bar was not made to satisfy womansfolk tastes. But he never complained or tried to find a livelier place. He liked his women, but he really preferred beer.

Last Weekend

What did we do last weekend? Hmm, well Friday night was spent at Tanya's house. She came back to Daytona for a weekend and invited us over. And so we ate pizza (I mostly abstained since it had pork stuff all over) and drank beer (again, I abstained because of a headache). But don't you worry, I didn't leave hungry. There was cake there too!

On Saturday we decided to stop by the animal shelter to look at cats and dogs there. Yeah, we're secretly thinking about getting a play-pal for Xander because sometimes he drives us nuts when he gets bored. We also took some cat food and cat litter there. We saw a lot of really adorable cats, but didn't choose any one of them. We decided that Xan is still too young. Besides, he's pretty silly now and can't teach a new kitty anything but mischief.

Instead, we went to the mall because JC Penney had a big sale. First they discounted stuff 70% and then - another 40%. But even if they didn't have a sale, I would go anyway because I had nothing else to do. Oh, plus I really need clothes to wear. Unfortunately, buying clothes is tough. As I said many times before, Daytona Beach is not a fashion capital of the world or even Florida. We don't have any decent stores. So I ended up buying just one little top. It was originally $36, so the math wizards among us can quickly calculate how much did I buy it for. For those who don't have calculators laying around, it was $10 - a pretty good bargain.

The rest of the day we watched movies. Chris had to watch "Troy" for his class on Mythology. Then we tried to watch "Wedding Crashers" but the movie was so dumb and pointless that I couldn't stand it for more than 10 minutes. So instead we ended up watching "The Day Without Mexicans". It's a pretty good "mockumentary"-type movie. It's not especially funny or weird or thought-provoking. And it does lean to one side of the whole illegal immigration argument. However, it was way better than either "Troy" or "Wedding Crashers".

On Sunday we got all nerdy and went to our Arts and Science Museum to see mummies. In reality there were no mummies, just their sarcophagi and many interesting artifacts from Ancient Egyptian tombs. Egyptians were really fixated on the whole afterlife experience. So they put their best-made things in the tombs of dead people. But in their belief, they did not have to bury an entire 12-person china set in order for a dearly beloved to be able to invite other mummies to eat and drink in the afterlife. Instead, they would put miniture plates and cups in the tombs and hoped that those would be transformed into life-size things through magic. Same logic applied to the rest of the goodies. Also, they made little doll-like statues of their dead and placed them in the tombs as well. Why? Because whenever a dead person would be called to do some work in the afterlife, such as plow a field or heard cows or what have you, the mummy would make the little statue alive through magic and make it work instead. That's pretty sleek, if you ask me. I wouldn't mind having this little statue myself, in this life of course.

So with all the little statues and miniature utensils and models of granaries and boats and such, the whole exhibit looked like a ghostly toy story. It was pretty cool though and we were lucky to get there early since after noon the small museum was full of people, mostly with little kids.

Afterwards I tried to sign up for ice-skating only to find out that the classes at a local rink started a day before. Bummer. So then we tried to sign up for some dancing lessons. But the place was closed because it was a Sunday. Double bummer. Then we started walking around because the weather was so nice and warm and sunny. But a lot of stores and even restaurants were closed. Bummer-bummer-bummer, but that's life in Daytona Beach. So then we went to one place that stays open all the time - Barnes and Noble. And then - on to Target. And then - home to watch "Some Like it Hot".

The End.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Game 3 - You may have already won...

Life takes some funny twists and turns… A couple of weeks ago, just before Christmas, to be exact, I received a rather believable-looking, business-sized white envelope in the mail. As I mentioned before, my mailman tends to be rather disrespectful and rough with any correspondence that is outsized. So this letter, like so many others, bore signs of damage. It was addressed to me, but as for the sender, there was no address, just a word “Peerless” at the top. Additionally, the front of the envelope was stamped with “You May Have Already WON!” in bright red letters.

Everyone gets these annoying letters once in a while. They inform you that your name was randomly selected from a big all-knowing database at the Publisher’s Clearing House and therefore, you are about to get a million dollars, a house, a brand-spanking-new SUV, a 42” plasma TV, or some such cool prize. I don’t buy this anymore, not after ending up with 2-year subscriptions to Blender, Good Housekeeping, and Conde Nast Traveler. Oh, and I didn’t win that million after all. So in short, I throw these kinds of envelopes away unopened. Or I open them, find out about a prize, day-dream about it for the rest of the day, and throw the envelope out anyway. Why should this time be any different? And so I dropped it in the green recycling bin before opening the front door and forgot all about it. Again, that was right before Christmas.

Right before New Year, I was checking my e-mail and saw something from Everyone gets these annoying e-mails once in a while. They flash pictures of 42” plasma TVs, brand-spanking-new SUVs, new houses, or what a million dollars in $20-dollar bills would look like. I don’t even open these e-mails anymore, not after spending hours unsubscribing from various newsletters and getting rid of viruses and Trojan horses. So I deleted this e-mail as well, marking it as junk. Again, that was right before New Year.

Yesterday, I was working when I heard a knock on a door. I ran downstairs and signed for a piece of registered mail with no return address, just a word “Peerless” at the top. That was most unusual indeed. I tore the envelope open and found a small letter advising me to call a toll-free number as soon as possible to claim my prize. I won!!! For the first time in my life, I actually won something!!! It took me maybe 15 seconds to grab the phone, but my whole future life flashed before my eyes, complete with a round-the-world trip and a shopping spree at Barnes and Noble. I dialed the toll-free number, and then entered the 8-digit winner’s confirmation code. “Good Afternoon and welcome to Peerless. My name is Sue.” I heard. I’ll name my first baby Sue, even if it’s a boy, I caught myself thinking…

To make the long story short, my first issues of Shape, Popular Mechanics, and Cooking Light will arrive in four to six weeks. As for my prize, I am still in the running.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Game 2 - Far, far away

Rules - Think of a person who really bugs or annoys you. Think of a place you'd like to send this person. Then - mentally - send them there! Start with: "The post card arrived..."

A post card arrived in my mailbox today. It was oversized and as it happened with all oversized mail that arrived at our place, it got bent and twisted mercilessly and mindlessly by a frustrated mailman. A crooked bend broke its glossy surface and revealed its soft white underbelly. The corners looked worn and the edges were unmistakably burnt. At the same time heavy water damage and something that looked like an oil stain managed to turn the picture into a kind of a Rorschach’s test on a flaming red background. The card definitely traveled a long way.

Too eager to look through my other mail, which included a new issue of the National Geographic, I hurriedly shuffled the card to the bottom of the mail pile and started walking home. The house was blissfully quiet and Xander kept out of sight. “He’s in a garage, hiding in shame”, I thought fleetingly about my crazy cat. Earlier today we had a big argument over his constant mewing and a broken vase and I advised him to go straight to hell.

I set all the mail on a tiny bistro table that served us as a dining table and a convenient surface for dumping daily papers, mail, keys, stray pens, and empty cups. Something red and glossy fell on the floor. It was the post card. Mechanically I leaned over to pick it up and became frozen in place as I read the following message in red ink on the back of it.

“Dear Yelena,

Don’t worry about me. I am in a Hell of a place and having tons of fun. Everyone here understands me perfectly well and provides me with hours of entertainment (something you couldn’t find time for). I got here on a special HELLicopter that arrived to pick me up just as you wished me to come here. So thank you for HELLping me. There are plenty of cats and kittens HELLd here and we all run around and play. There are also many interesting places to go explore and smell and chase and nobody minds if I make a mess or break things. People here all have to be very nice to us cats and pet us and play with us on demand for as long as we want to. We also get to scratch and bite them and mew in their ears. Also, every time we break something, and there’s always stuff to break into catzillion little pieces, they get to run HELLter-skelter and pick up the pieces and glue them back together. People get really funny about all this. They also have to learn cat language, the CATalogue, so they can better understand our CATcalls. So all the newcomers are made to watch our favorite Hell channel, the CATV, until they learn. Also some people here have to clean our giant litter box. This is called “the ultimate punishment” and is reserved for some really bad people. In short, they are CATerers for us cats.

I am one of the smartest cats here too. I taught others tons of entertaining things, like sticking their noses into every mug, stealing the glue-sticks, ambushing and tripping people and doing other CATastrophic things. Everyone knows and loves me. When people see me, they run! It’s CATegorically because they want to be the first to pet me and hear me mew.

I must say, it gets a bit hot here sometimes and then I think of a nice cool tile on your living room floor. So maybe I’ll be coming back home soon. Until then, I’m sending you my loudest and proudest MEWWWW!

Xander, the HELLbender

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Game 1 - A Little Gerbil

A set-up is to write a short (up to 1 page) story that has words Alabama, insensitive, and massage in it and that starts with "Sometimes I feel like a gerbil running around and around in his wheel."

And so it goes:

Sometimes I feel like a gerbil running round and round on his wheel! Now if I were a gerbil, I imagine I would be a particularly small and whiny one with tiny little whiskers and an uncommonly bushy tail. I would also try to run both forward and backward at the same time just to keep a little boy or a little girl who owns me happy. And I would also try to calculate my angular acceleration while contemplating the existential absurdness of the wheel itself, just because. I would end up getting my little uncommonly bushy tail caught between the spokes and I would bump into a rim of the wheel with my pink and slightly crooked nose. I would be a clumsy little bugger for sure.

As such, my wheel world is limited to work and to my house. But since I work from my house, my world is even tinier and it’s getting increasingly tougher not to bump my pink and slightly crooked nose on the edge of it. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time dreaming up the amazing trips I would take if I only could. Some of them don’t even have to be particularly exotic. They can be say trips to Alabama, especially after I watched “Forrest Gump” last Christmas. Plus now that I have my laptop I can work from the road.

Work-work-work… That’s what makes this world go round in a manner of gerbil’s wheel. It’s not even the money any more. Or how would you explain some of us staying with lower-paying jobs instead of exploring other opportunities? It’s more about routine, even in non-routine jobs. The whole idea of knowing that you are going to be doing something supposedly productive for eight solid hours a day warms one’s heart. How depressing are some of the weekends and holidays, when we get thrown out of our regular schedules! Work-work-work… Whatever it takes to become insensitive to the little tiny voice inside that urges you to get a round-the-world ticket on Travelocity departing tonight or to jump in a car and drive straight to the Grand Canyon or to even bike to the beach and spend a day staring at all the vacationers who got two-week reprieves from their own little wheels. Stay quiet little voice, stay quiet, or a big hungry cat will come and eat you!

I am a small whiny gerbil with tiny little whiskers and an uncommonly bushy tail. I am thoroughly committed to the values and the will of my wheel. Oh, my feet are so tired from running countless circles. My shoulders are aching. Oh, I would give half of my wheel for a good massage. And I would rock myself to sleep in the other half of my wheel, now looking like a cradle. My head is spinning… That must be an even tinier gerbil running its butt off calculating its own angular acceleration while contemplating the existential absurdness of it all. Run little gerbil, run!

Writing Exercise - Explanation

Well, Chris got me this gift card to Barnes and Noble so I could buy any book(s). Of course, my wish list is about 3 pages long, but it's on Amazon. So I go on Amazon to retrieve the book info from my wish list and then try to find it on Barnes and Noble website. The problem is Amazon is much cheaper plus I can buy a lot of books real cheap if I buy them used. I just can't seem to bring myself to spending $20 on a book that I can have for about one-third the price, even if I pay for it with someone else's money (a gift card). So I've been willy-nilly about using my card for a while now. But yesterday we went to B&N store and I found this book, "Write Brain", full of writing exercises. There are 366 of them to be exact. Now, I'm not saying that I'll definitely be writing every single day now; weekends are definitely a time off! But I will try to do as many exercises as possible. And I'll post some of them, or maybe even all of them, on my blog.

A Saga about the New Year's Party and Other Events

And so as usual, Friday the 30th of December, was shaping up to be a slow day. Boss promised to let us go early. We were all in high spirits and I was making tons of cooking, cleaning, last-minute shopping, etc plans. And so as usual, I ended up working until just past 6pm! Worse yet, I was so tired and pissed off that I couldn't even think about the unfinished house chores. And so most of it was left until the next day.

I started my last Saturday of the year unusually early, stirred by the thought that the house was still not ready for the New Year and the food was not cooked. Now, it's not like we were hosting a party at our place, so what would it matter if the floors were clean or not. Well, it is more of a ritual than a necessity, I suppose, for me to clean every nook and cranny of the house right before the New Year. And so, with a lot of help from Chris, the house was sparkling like a New Year tree (which we didn't have this year because of Xander's tendency to tag on, bite, and destroy anything that's left out there for tagging on, biting, and destroying). What's a New Year tree? Well, it's a Christmas tree for people raised in the Soviet Union where Christmas and other religious holidays and their symbols were replaced with more secular ones.

I performed wanders of multi-tasking and not only finished all the cleaning (including washing the windows, scrubbing bathrooms, organizing closets, etc) and laundry, but also cooked some holiday dishes. When the question was decided as to where to celebrate the New Year, we pretty much had little choice. Our place was out of the question since we have only enough furniture for 2 people and only enough table ware for 4 people. Tanya's house would do nicely, with its comfy furniture, huge fireplace, a piano (for drunken sing-alongs) and a pool table (for those who don't participate in drunken sing-alongs). Unfortunately, Tanya was out of town. And so Albina's place became the most natural choice. Her condo, even though small, is on the 15th floor or a beachside condo tower with unobstructed views of both the ocean and the river. Most of the Port Orange and Ponce Inlet can be seen and on good clear days you can easily see the lighthouse and even New Smyrna. In short, it's awesome! And even though there's no room to fit a piano, she's got a karaoke machine and several DVDs with Russian karaoke. That's even better, since none of us can play piano to save our lives.

Well, anyway, since it was shaping up to be a traditional Russian New Year (poor Chris ended up being the only American at the party), the menu was appropriately traditional. Albina was going to make a couple of salads, including a huge bowl of the Olivier salad, meat and potatoes, and bought a Russian cake. And so I decided to make beet salad, called Vinaigrette Salad, and Herring under Fur Coat. Yes, that's the name of the salad. Many Americans, including my husband, find salted herring quite disgusting. But it's really dressed up (in "fur coat") and disguised very well in this salad. Chris didn't notice the herring until I told him that it was there. Basically, making this salad involves covering chopped herring filets with layers of boiled and grated vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and beets) and mayo. Follow the link for the recipe and a great picture. My only suggestion is go light on mayo - I only put two layers of it, one on top of carrots and the other one - on top of beets - and it was perfect. This salad looks really great and impressive, but takes time. Fortunately, here in America one can buy herring filets that are already de-boned and ready to be cut.

I decided to prepare Chris's favorite Pistachio Salad not only as an outlet for him, but also to bring something new and American to the otherwise purely Russian table. This salad is fun and super-easy to make. It doesn't require any chopping or any other preparations. Everything comes straight out of a box or a can. In short, it's so perfectly American, that I'm going to officially call it the American Dream salad (easy, sweet, smooth, and its light green color reminds one of American dollars). I got the recipe from Gradma Phyllis.

The original plan for the New Year celebration included stopping by a club or two on the way to Albina's. Unfortunately, I realized, belatedly as usual, that I had nothing to wear to a club (most can relate to this, right?). Even more unfortunately, I live in Daytona Beach, where we have one tiny shopping mall. But most unfortunate was the fact that our shopping mall NEVER has clothes are are both stylish, affordable and that fit me. I did go and honestly tried to find a nice dress or a top. Alas, after 3 hours of running from store to store, I gave up and headed home to finish my preparations. So the club thing got cancelled.

Instead we arrived at Albina's place a bit earlier. Soon other guests arrived, 10 in all. Two that I must make a note of were Yelena and her daughter, Yelena. They proved to be the most fun, in sharp contrast with Alla and her "недоросль" son. We started off with a round of drinks and a buffet arrangement of all the foods. Both Yelenas, Albina and I were all in favor of karaoke. Eleonora and my husband chose wisely to be on our side. But Alla objected on the grounds of this kind of entertainment being rude, crude, and unprofessional (I think she's missing the whole point of karaoke). Since we all live in a democratic country, the issue was put to a vote and the majory ruled to start karaoke. For about an hour it was just me and one of Yelenas, since Albina was too busy running between the kitchen and the living room. We sang on, Alla's comments about our unprofessionalism and insufficient voice talent nonwithstanding. Eleonora joined us albeit without a mic (she's shy like that). And as more drinks were consumed, Chris began to read aloud some of the karaoke lines.

Of course, at some point we stopped to eat and generally catch our collective breath. And we did it just in time because it was 10 minutes to midnight. So we filled our flutes with champaign, switched TV to some news channel to watch the ball drop on Times Square in NY, and helped Reggis Philbin count down from 10 to "Happy New Year!". Afterwards we all ran out on the balconies (there were two) for a semi-panoramic view of fireworks over Port Orange, Ponce Inlet, and South Daytona. I secretly made a wish to win a lottery and buy a penthouse somewhere on the coast with a panoramic views just to watch sunrises, sunsets, and fireworks.

After the fireworks we started watching some Russian videos. It was fun, but not nearly as much fun as karaoke. I was tired and Chris was trying very hard not to fall asleep. And so we wished everyone happy New Year one more time and went home.

First day of the New Year was so perfect that it made me re-think my idea of moving away from Florida. Big blue sky and weather hot enough for sun-bathing is nothing to sneeze at! Having a job is great, having a beach to escape to is even better! We bought some Starbucks and walked on the beach, just talking and watching vacationers. Then we went to see "Chronicles of Narnia and it was just great - a perfect winter-time fairy tale that's not just beautifully filmed, but romantic and suprisingly mature in its themes.

The second day of the New Year was even more perfect. It was a bit less hot, but sunny and calm. We had no specific plans and so decided to explore Cassadaga. It's a very small town, rather a village, about 20-minute drive west from Daytona Beach. It is most famous for being a year-round camp for all sorts of psychics, fortune tellers, Taro readers, aura readers, and spiritualist. So if you need to get your palm read, drive to Cassadaga any day, walk into a small bookstore right across the street from the Cassadaga Hotel and use their courtesy phone to call psychics on-duty (their names and numbers are displayed on a dry-erase board in the store) to make an appointment. The day we visited there were only two psychics on call, but several places had the "Open" signs. It's always best to call ahead not only to discuss the rates, but to make sure that you wouldn't be interrupting someone else's reading.

We didn't get our fortunes read, but instead walked around the town for a little bit. The place is actually very tiny and can be seen in less than 2 hours of very leisurely walking. The houses are mostly old and traditional, not at all unkempt, except for a few, but wearing a mysterious patina of age. The gardens are all overgrown and promisingly charming with tiny fountains, sparkling globes, garden decorations, and "Psychic X-sing" signs here and there. The quietness of the sidestreets is interrupted with soft purrings of cats sunning themselves on porches and with sounds of wind chimes. There are several parks in this tiny town, the best one being Colby Park just a short walk from both the hotel and the bookstore. It's just a very serene and relaxing place, that's it. And DeLand, with all its bars and restaurants and nice little shops and historic buildings is only a short drive away. So sure, we went to DeLand afterwards, but most of the nice little places were closed for the New Year's. But it was a nice day nevertheless and a nice ending to our long holiday.