Monday, October 24, 2011

Red Arrows and Moscow Mules

With the Russo-ferro-historic adventure I had just had, I was ready for one last epic Russian train experience to end my trip, and so I sought it out and caught it and refused to let it escape my clutches. If I didn't have time to do the entire Trans-Siberian, I would at least partake in some form of transit steeped in Russian tradition and history. What kind of history, you ask? Read on, Dear Reader, and see.

Every night at 11:55 the Krasney Strela* departs from St. Petersburg, headed to Moscow on an eight hour overnight trip. If you are wondering why the train leaves at such a specific time (why not round up to midnight?) you are very perceptive and hopefully a healthy cynic. Like most aspects of Soviet life, it was not planned by a mere coincidence. During the days of yore when Soviet bureaucrats would often travel between the two cities, they scheduled this luxury train service to shuttle them back and forth, leaving just before the official end of each day so that they could justify paying themselves for an extra day's work. The train is encrusted in the trappings of Soviet refinement and hypocrisy; red velvet is draped over most surfaces, red silk curtains frame each window, and silver and gold embroidery remind passengers more times than necessary exactly what train in which one currently has the pleasure of sitting. As the train pulls away from the station each night, speakers tucked high in the rafters of the cavernous station play a pompous ditty composed to be the theme song of this self-important vehicle, an embodiment of one of the major reasons that the Soviet system collapsed**.

It was glorious.


(exhibit A)

Before my departure I somehow stumbled upon a Couchsurfing party of students and travelers from over a dozen countries, where, using mysterious powers of persuasion, I convinced a representative of each country to sing their homeland's national anthem.*** My internal clock seemed to sense the importance of timeliness in this moment, however, and I left the party with more than the proper amount of time to get to the station, and arrived there composed, ticket in hand, and even found my track number without a hitch. I cannot recommend enough the revolutionary idea of arriving at the station more than 15 seconds before you are meant to depart. Really.

I was magnanimously escorted to my compartment,**** where I settled in to sip a canned Russian beverage blending black currant juice and champagne. I was told afterward that this is a drink that no one over the age of eleven would embarrass themselves to be seen drinking in that country, but it proved to be a delectable beverage of the highest quality, so I have no regrets! The theme song played, the wheels groaned into motion, and just as I thought I would spend a quiet night sweeping through the Russian countryside, being carried forward in time and space with nary a disturbance or distraction, a loud thump resounded in the hallway and the pocket door swung open violently, revealing a dark, swaying silhouette.

Startled, I took stock of the situation. The figure was a man, obviously intoxicated, and he gripped the door frame with white-knuckled determination. From the looks of him, he seemed to be a wealthy Russian businessman who had been booted from an swanky bar after ten or twelve too many overpriced vodkas. He attempted to speak to me in Russian, but before I could offer up one of my well-practiced survival responses, he lurched sideways and collapsed onto the nearest bunk, luckily unoccupied, and left the conscious world.

Thus alone again, I returned to my libation and writing, and settled in for the night, my last in the Russian Federation.


NOTES:

*Russian for "Red Arrow," which I have on good authority is the most politically charged train moniker in history.

**In my humble, biased, and shockingly unqualified-to-make-such-sweeping-statements opinion.

***Speaking of which, America, the optimism and glory of your national anthem is SO impressive when compared to those of many small European countries, whose anthems I assume must have been composed by lesser-known monks and hurdy-gurdyists during the black plague or some other time of severe internal strife.

****A second class, four-person cabin with sofas that were converted by agile attendants into beds that were made of the Russian equivalent of goose down, marshmallows, cumulus nimbus clouds, and the wings of cherubs.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vodka!

The following evening I finally got to drink Russian vodka in the traditional regional style. Room temperature, straight up, in shot glasses, with lemon, apparently, and in staggering quantities, as per the helpful direction of my hosts. I managed to keep a steady pace along side them Pleased with how I was progressing, but ever conscious of my health and well being, they encouraged me to follow their example by periodically eating little open-faced sandwiches with cheese and tomato to absorb some of the fiery beverage's effects. This is an important step that most young Americans seem to forget during their forays into the world of distilled libations in tiny cups.

With their friends at the rockabilly club just a few blocks away, I became a bit of a celebrity, and the vodka-misted fifteen minutes of fame was really too much for my sensitive ego- by the end of the night* I had large groups of Russian people toasting to my long life and happiness, and explaining to me why my presence in their country gave them hope for the future of life on earth. Vodka, the thing that Russia is probably best known for, had exceeded all of my expectations! It was a good day to be me.

Prying my eyelids away from each other and swinging about the leaden appendages that used to be arms, legs, and a cranium the next day, however, was another story.

But I would not be thwarted by a hangover that rivaled the unique sensation of being hacked into six pieces with a rusty axe, because the coming day would be my last day of proper sightseeing in not only the city, but the whole country. Of course, for a young lady such as myself, the only proper attraction with which to close my Russian peregrinations would be nothing less than the "Центральный музей железнодорожного транспорта РФ."** this was not just any typical railway museum, this was advertised as the second biggest shrine to railway transit in the world. The lying, callous sadists at saint-petersburg.com billed it as such:

This is undoubtedly the country's best museum concerned with railways and charts the complete development of railways in Russia and the former USSR, from the very first Russian steam locomotive, built by the father and son Cherepanov team, to the modern railways and engines of today. The museum boasts some incredibly detailed models, most notably one of a cargo station with railway cars going up and down a hill.

The Railway Museum also owns a collection of old locomotives and cars, which is displayed at a separate location, just outside St. Petersburg (from the Vitebsk Railway Station take a local train to Parovozny Muzei).

Address: 50, Sadovaya Ulitsa, 190068
Metro: Sennaya Ploschad/Sadovaya
Tel:        +7 (812) 315-1476
Open: Sunday to Thursday, 11 am to 5:30 pm
Closed: Friday, Saturday and the last Thursday of the month


I showed up on its doorstep, at the proper time and date, probably the single most overly-excited tourist on within a kilometer of Sadovaya metro station, to find a large steel lock holding fast the doors of a disintegrating, apparently abandoned building with no signs of human use in the past decade or so. I was not amused, as you can tell.


(You may have win the battle, Russia, but you will not win the war.)

Luckily, things move fast in my microcosm, and as I had planned to meet up with some other couch surfers to witness the wonders of the "museum," and when I found them, one of them informed us of another locale where historic Russian trains were kept! Not even Russia itself could keep me from seeing the Russian things that I was determined to see.

We drove to an old station on the other side of town, which had been converted and redeveloped into a stylish shopping mall and entertainment center. I was very pleased by this, especially when I saw the huge flock of antique cars and engines parked behind the structure, as if they had gotten into formation in preparation for my visit. I posed with some small children on top of a locomotive from the early twentieth century, which was great fun, and embarrassed everyone involved, myself excluded.


(Tiny Russian child, well trained in the art of torturing foreigners, prepares to pounce on idiotic American pathological blogger)

By far the most exciting was the car that had been outfitted to be able to not only store nuclear missiles for transit, but also launch them directly from the tracks.


(Makes American Railroad barons look like gentle shepherds who had your best interest at heart. iPad users, tilt device to view in proper direction.)

Afterward, I finally found some beautiful tiny butterflies to buy, in the weirdest little floral shop I have ever seen. It felt like a scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but dubbed into another language and much, much creepier. I stopped briefly at a couch surfing party on Nevsky Prospekt Street with just enough time to drink one more delicious Russian beer and coerce every attendee to sing their respective national anthem*** before running to the train station to catch the 11:55pm Krasney Strela.


NOTES:

*And by "end of the night" I mean 6am, which in any other time and place I am relatively certain is morning.

**Or if you can't read Cyrillic, which I am now convinced most Russian cab drivers cannot, The Central Railway Museum.

***We were over fifteen countries represented, so this was no trivial feat, let me tell you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

From Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland to 18th Century Monastery

Twenty minutes later, smoldering piles of garbage, heaps of junk metal, and scrawny vegetation gave way again to a deeper forest, which then emerged into a vast gray landscape, flat on all sides. Power lines strung along the track were followed by a broad and poorly paved highway, with low gray structures crouching along either side of our route, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting foreign trolley passenger who made the mistake of traveling so far away from the safety of the city center. I could see nothing but sadness and desolation stretching interminably toward the horizon. Another quarter of an hour passed, and most of my companions drifted toward their respective destinations, leaving only the most melancholic and fatalistic of us on the clattering car.

It was time to take my life back into my own hands, and alight from the obviously doomed vehicle, come what may.


(Am I being too dramatic?)

I yanked the rusty chain and the trolley shuddered to a halt in the middle of an intersection, between a vacant lot, a blown out apartment building, and a gas station where one hunched man stood cynically next to a pump, looking at it as though he was almost totally convinced that no gas would come out were he to try the button.

Ah, my stop!

I half expected a pack of rabid dogs to emerge from an uncapped sewer to maul me on the spot, but I tentatively stepped onto the gravel and remained miraculously intact. The trolley groaned back into locomotion and moved slowly away from me, and I am convinced I heard someone snicker maliciously as it did so. The old gas station patron watched me, unimpressed, and a truck of indeterminate age and functionality drove slowly past, its driver glaring in my direction. I considered walking away, but thought better of allowing the tracks* out of my sight. I stayed put, convinced that complete stillness would protect me from a crazed Russian mobster's senseless wrath, until I saw a dark shape on the horizon. I could hear it before I could recognize it visually, but I knew what it was, and my heart leapt with a joy that could not be compared to anything but the feeling that damsels must have when they are tied to railroad tracks and Dudley Doright appears.

What did the trolley say? Where was it going? All I knew was that it was away from The Nothing and toward what I hoped would prove to be Saint Petersburg or any other populated civilian center.

Maybe it was just my overwhelming sense of relief, but I swear that the ride back was shorter, the weather was sunnier, and my fellow passengers were some of the loveliest and most lighthearted Russians I have ever shared transit with. Perhaps they had all narrowly avoided the Russian equivalent of the Grim Reaper** as well.

To celebrate my survival I went directly to Alexander Nevsky monastery to pay my respects to the patron saint of Piti and thank him for sparing my tiny insignificant life. One of my alltime favorite Tsars, Peter the Great, built the complex in 1710 in honor of a battle that took place in a totally different location. It is surrounded on all sides by a river and canals, and has a gorgeous garden, necropolis, and extremely clean public restrooms inside.


(That is more like it)

Truly a fabulous place to eat three or for mayonnaise salads and reflect on near-death experiences. I made the mistake, however, of trying to walk around outside the protective wall after my exploration of the grounds, throwing myself into a situation confronting speeding cars, evil-looking auto dumps, collapsing industrial buildings, and an undeniable lack of any sort of navigable pedestrian embankment. The city certainly has its less picturesque aspects, and I seem to have a knack for finding them.

That night, after an evening of the most gracious Russian hospitality I could dream of, I was invited to take my understanding of Russian nightlife to a whole new level at a real live Russian rockabilly bar, where being American would finally work to my advantage***!


NOTES:

*That would potentially lead me back to civilization?

**Known in Russian as "The Very Grim Reaper."

***I think.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Curiosity and Danger on the Outskirts of Piti: Not Even Lenin Can Save Me Now

I sent the morning wandering in the neighborhood on Petrogradskaya Island in a vain search for two elusive vintage stores. While they proved to be nonexistent, I found many other intriguing specimens during while on the hunt. I took the metro* for the first time, and upon leaving I almost immediately stumbled upon a nearly hidden bookstore that felt like it was the entrance to a wormhole leading to some more serious, literary past. Beyond stacks of Russian books that obviously had no meaning to me was a little cafe nestled amongst a forest of hanging and potted plants. Scratchy jazz wafted toward me from an unknown source, and elderly Russian intelligentsia types sat around tiny round tables muttering in low tones to each other. A younger generation of bibliophiles had propped laptops amongst their thick volumes and notes, and conducted very important sounding conversations. The aged proprietress, wrapped in a shawl, told me that the meal was only for her librarian staff, but that she could give me an espresso and a slice of freshly baked cake if I wanted. This pleased me greatly, so I sat and happily enjoyed a warm apple lemon coffee cake with black current sauce while poring over small prints by contemporary Russian artists, vintage photographs, and Russian cartoons. I selected some pen and ink drawings, a sketch of a hedgehog, some Victorian children's portraits, and old propaganda posters** and tucked them away, feeling like I had stumbled upon a priceless treasure trove and been told to take a handful of my favorite gems.

Wile wandering the neighborhood I also found a tiny sewing and craft store filled from floor to ceiling with buttons, zippers, and ribbons, with a sour old woman perched on a stool guarding her wares. I was the only other person in the shop, and her beady glare assured me that any sudden movement on my part would most certainly spell my doom. I also found more beautiful hand painted signs, such as this one.


(I promise you that a garage door so cute as this does not exist anywhere in the US)

Finally even my dogged optimism failed and I accepted that I would not be purchasing any second hand Soviet fashions that day, so I settled on another form of entertainment: buying many more salads with the highest mayonnaise to other ingredients ratio as possible. Armed with three saucy dishes, I wandered down a cobbled street in search of a friendly outdoor eating area. Suddenly, around a corner came an adorable little antique tram.


(A streetcar named desire?)

I was overcome with an uncontrollable desire to ride this tram to it's mysterious destination, so I hopped on. It seemed like a fantastic way to have a little adventure and see an unknown part of the city, with a built in escape plan in the form of a railroad track leading back to the city center. After crossing a canal, the tram rumbled happily along the sunny streets, slowly passing Piti's northern train station, Finlandskaya***. It slowly passed pedestrian filled squares, and manicured parks. I felt very good about my spur-of-the-moment decision. 


Until the route changed.

After a sharp left turn my little tram plunged into a wild, overgrown forested area that looked like it had at one point been Soviet car factory, then a junk yard, finally being reclaimed by the elements. Among scraggly trees and half buried car parts, gypsy camps had sprouted and clusters of steely-eyed young men sat around smoldering campfires smoking rolled cigarettes and staring at the tram. They looked resentful of the disturbance we caused them, and as though they wouldn't bat an eye at the proposition of taking over the tram, holding us ransom, and becoming the self-righteous villains in a slow moving yet terrifying revolutionary film.

I put my iPad away.


NOTES:

*Ten times more user-friendly than Moscow's, with helpful hints and pleasant greetings posted all over the modern and well-lit stations, in Russian and - gasp! - English. Plus fares are paid with brass tokens, which I find very quaint.

**Some of which I have framed and have become part of my growing wall of tribute to global kitsch, or "glitsch." Please spread this term, as the new globalized hipster buzzword. Many thanks.

***Finlandskaya station is the historic location where Lenin gave his first speech upon returning to Russia from seventeen years in exile, speaking to his supporters en masse from the roof of his armored train car. A very exciting moment in Russian train history to be sure.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lost in the Hermitage

Back in Russia...

When the sun doesn't set until 4am, and rises at 6, one's sleep patterns inevitably become a bit skewed. I awoke, disoriented, after having slept a few hours on another shockingly firm Russian mattress. These Russian mattresses, I tell you, they are not cushions so much as artfully crafted sacks of plywood with rocks and sand placed in them at perfect positions to bruise your spleen and squeeze out your spinal fluid as you fitfully toss and turn. Luckily, I had no desire to sleep in, as I had the Hermitage on the horizon.


(A prohibited snapshot of the interior!)

The Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great* and is a huge complex of stately buildings, the four most prominent being the Winter Palace and its three cohorts apparently not worth their own names, the Old, New, and Small Hermitages. It is the largest museum on earth. Entering the complex after awkwardly stringing my bicycle to a solitary royal fence from where I was more than half-sure it would no longer be when I returned, I was struck by four things in particular:

1. IT IS FREE FOR STUDENTS!

2. The enormous scale of every aspect of the space. I felt like tiny Alice in an austere Tsarist Wonderland wandering the cavernous halls.

3. The opulence, and its political connotations and historic significance. The wealth and luxury were stunning- most of the doorknobs were golden talons holding giant rubies- but more so was the realization that this extreme concentration of wealth was the reason that the Russian people finally lost it in the October Revolution of 1917. I stood in one room where every surface seemed to be encrusted in gold, and reading an informative plaque I found out that it was the room that the oligarchy had sat in to eat their last meal before the palace was stormed moments later.

4. The absolute impossibility of navigating the labyrinth via the free "maps" one is given with entry. Inexplicably sponsored by Korean Air, I attempted time and again to get my bearings by looking at the large brochure with its high-quality printing and full color depictions, but it was all a cruel guise to lull me into a false sense of security. I became so utterly lost at one point toward the end of my visit that I seriously considering setting up camp and waiting for a guard to escort me back out.

Three of my favorite treasures from the museum were thus:

1. A small oil painting of what was apparently the first Russian hipster, complete with pompadour, tiny mustache, tight breeches, and various shiny and ostensibly useless accessories adorning his person,

2. An ancient Armenian artifact of what looked like small clay links, labelled in English as "snaffle bits,"

3. An enormous and unbelievable golden clock that consists of an entire forest scene, with a peacock in the middle.



The picture is good, but this video shows some of the unbelievable details. The really amazing thing is that the British gentleman who designed the clock sent it to the palace completely disassembled and with no instructions whatsoever, and it took the royal clockmaker nine years to figure it out. Well worth the effort, if you ask me, and so shiny.

After seeing these and approximately 10,000,000 other wonders of human creation, I was starving and very ready to find a curious Russian snack outside of the museum, but spent another hour trying to find an escape, becoming increasingly desperate until I finally nearly sprinted through about a mile of Egyptian antiquities to the main hall, which at that point I could only dimly recognize, the hour of my arrival being so long ago.

I celebrated the conquest of the Hermitage with a delicious and scandalously inexpensive cabbage and mushroom pie at the most adorable Russian pie shop in the history of the confection. I can't for the life of me recall its name**, but I can tell you that it was along a canal in Nevsky Prospekt, had two floors, and had a very friendly wooden cat as its mascot. Do yourself a favor and find it when you are there, and get the most pie for your 45 cents.


NOTES:

*I am fairly certain she chose that name herself.

**Even with the power of google, apparently "pie shop wooden cat delicious" is not enough to be able to suss it out of the interweb. I am ashamed as well because I should have memorized it by now, as I ate its wares at least three times, maybe more. Okay, okay, definitely more.

Friday, July 15, 2011

White Nights in the City Where Everyone Goes Crazy

My Russian hosts in Saint Petersburg told me that their city is famous for being one which drives people to insanity. The home of Dostoevsky* is here, an 18th century Orthodox saint from the region was called "crazy Xenia" by all who knew her, and when I googled "crazy people from Saint Petersburg" I found a song by a sad looking woman called Elizabeth White which has lyrics that definitely prove this theory. They say it is because of the gray and rainy weather, which I got a healthy dose of during my time there. As far as I know I managed to avoid losing my mind in the four days that I spent in Russia's most loved city.

Because of extreme northern position of Piti** on "the globe," during January and June there are extreme shortages and/or surpluses of sunlight, with corresponding pinnacles of the longest night and day of the year opposite each other on the calendar. For the winter months, this means dismal days where the sun rises at 10:30am, barely struggles over the horizon, and dips below the North Sea again by 3pm. There is nothing to do but drink vodka, mope, and write melancholic music. During the summer, the sun rises at 4am and one can enjoy a noon-like sun exposure until about midnight, when the sun starts its slow descent to skim the earth before shooting boldly into the air again. This means little sleep, long, leisurely outdoor adventures, and an overwhelming sense of optimism***.

Even with all of my technical sidekicks I still had a devil of a time finding the home of Sasha and Mischa, a fraternal duo mastering the Russian music scene by publicizing new bands, Djing, and producing their own original music. Lucking, once I did, I was highly impressed by their gorgeous flat in a monumental centuries-old building overlooking the canal in Nevsky Prospekt. I was warmly welcomed and immediately given a tour of the tiny vintage haunts around town, as well as through a historic and infamous arts collective called Pushkinskaya 10, complete with art galleries and studios, a dive bar, a record store, a school, and a secret tiny cafe in the top of a tower.


(of course, the only pictures I took were of adorable signs like this one)


(and this one)


(and also this one)

We then procured a bicycle for me, and began an epic cycling tour of the entire city, which took us through the long streets lined with marble Italianate mansions, Roman amphitheatres, hundreds of opera houses and theatres, over tiny islands, by onion-domed cathedrals, through manicured parks and dark forests, and even past a blue marble mosque. At one point we stopped briefly at an outrageously overpriced, still-under-construction nightclub in a forest, where our bicycle gang rode angrily away when we found out that a drink at the half-built bar would be more expensive than any drink I had ever purchased. We ended on the coast, looking toward, I assume, the North Pole, and drinking the only beer I apparently will try, Kozel Cerny.

It was 2am, and twilight was finally setting in.


NOTES:

*And his most famous protagonist, Raskolnikov, also called the city home. However, there are heated disputes as to which homes each figure actually or hypothetically dwelled in. The place where he died has been made into a museum that is essentially a dark and depressing Dostoevskyland.

**As it shall henceforth be known.

***Luckily, vodka consumption levels remain constant at this time.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Russian Riddles

Question: What is long, green, and smells like sausage?

Answer: The Electrichka.

While definitely long and green, I did not find the local electric train that I took from Novgorod to Saint Petersburg to be noticeably more or less odorously porcine than any other Russian train. I left Novgorod early in the morning, on the northbound electric commuter train headed to Saint Petersburg.


(the station in Novgorod)

Arriving at a time that for me was uncharacteristically early* I sauntered up to the ticket window to casually mumble a series of demands at the clerk. She seemed to be very rushed and flustered, as was the centuries old babushka behind me, who began shouting and gesturing about my apparent sloth-like pace. Wanting to protect my leisurely ticket-buying moment, I shouted back about clocks and times and "ye plokha govaryoo pa Russky**" and she retaliated with a repeated chanting of "Bostra Bostra Bostra***" as she shoved my ticket in my hand and pushed me out the door, across the tracks, and onto the dated electric train. Annoyed and asking myself why such a tiny raisin of a woman would want to terrorize me so, I had been safely boardec for approximately three seconds later the train lurched into motion. So I yet again must admit I barely made my train, though I felt little to know stress about it because I had no idea. Thank you, little babushka, wherever you are.

Electrichkas are an important piece of Soviet and post-Soviet history, and are still widely used today because of their economy and prevalence throughout the country. Since their inaugural ride in 1926, the system has expanded to over 4000 different routes administered by Russian Railways alone, and their prevalence accounts for them showing up periodically in modern poetry, literature, film, and even rock music. They are sometimes referred to as "wild dog trains" because poor vagrant populations have been known to ride for extremely cheap or even free, connecting five local lines, all the way from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. I was pleased to experience the light, aging train for one leg of my journey, but as the approximately 100 miles from Novgorod to SP took over four hours, I can only assume that the 450 to Moscow would be a bit tedious at best. the ideea of a free ticket becomes slightly less enticing in that light.

During the early morning ride I was entertained by various stimuli, and was happy to get an intimate look at the lives of rural Russian people on trapped on wooden benches a snakelike vehicle chugging though the pale countryside. I watched an elderly couple eat a full meal on disposable plastic dining ware that they then carefully cleaned and placed back in their picnic baskets for later use, pleasing me greatly. I listened to a mother teaching a young boy the names for colors and simple landmarks, and I was amazed to realize that their conversation was almost verbatim of a typical Rosetta stone lesson.**** I finished Chekhov's short play, Ivanov, which is by far the most humorous work I have ever read*****, sipped countless cups of black tea, and gnawed on some confusing Russian tea crackers that were shaped like 'O's, textured like rocks, and tasted like dust. A very pleasing morning it was, to be sure.

I arrived at midday at the bustling Moskavskiy Voskal eager to experience the city that is called Petrograd, Leningrad, The Venice of the North, the Northern Capital, or just Piti, depending on who you ask and where your loyalties lie.


(Welcome to Piti, my friends!)


NOTES:

*Ten minutes before the train was due to leave the station.

**My favorite and most used Russian phrase; roughly, "My Russian is very bad."

***I found out later that this word means "rush" or "hurry." There is no better way to learn new vocabulary than to have it shouted repeatedly at you while being attacked in a foreign country in the small hours of the morning.

****After only eight lessons I could almost communicate like a three year old! Really!

*****That ends in the suicide of the protagonist.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Importance of Being Foreign

A gas station in the distance gave me hope, and I entered saying hopefully,

"Anglisky...?"

Friendly laughter on the part of the clerk assured me that I had no such luck, so I embarked on a linguistic journey that sounded something like,

"Please... We is, where? I want... Novgorod, please? Bus 7, Novgorod?"

She started to respond when a man holding a large bottle of beer in one hand and a matching bottle of vodka in the other looked over at the proceedings and said,

"You- Novgorod? I..." and he finished his sentence by miming the international gesture for reckless drunk driving. My response of, "Da! Da! Novgorod!" settled the issue and the clerk smiled happily at us, pleased to have been the broker of such a quick solution to my hopeless lack of direction and the man's apparent acute boredom and vast excess of spare time.

We hopped into his large American SUV and headed in a direction that I did not think would lead us to Novgorod, but moments later I proved to be delightfully mistaken as it materialized in the distance. Meanwhile, the man used gestures, Russian, German, and English* to piece together some information about his life and mine, while calling everyone he knew to announce that he had rescued a poor American girl from certain death in a swampy graveyard in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, he thrust his phone at me, and I found myself speaking with a 16-year-old student of the English language who was desperate to meet me, and inviting me on a walk through the park. Of course I had to accept, and we promenaded through the Kremlin, chatting about his life and studies, as his whole family and social circle called him and he explained his great luck as well. Suddenly his girlfriend and another girl showed up to verify my existence, and we adjourned to have tea and blinis in a little cafe. The young people explained that they had never met a native English speaker, and were desperate to practice with someone such as myself, as there was only one English teacher in the town who had ever even set foot in a visited an Anglophone nation. I felt like I was magical.

One issue that that they were very candid in discussing with me was the lack of proper access to English education in their region. The other was my use of knee-high gold stockings, which one girl scathingly described as "in Russia, you are like, very... freak." This explained why for the past week when any Russian women of any age had seen me on the street they had been pointing at my feet, whispering to each other, then, more likely than not, breaking out in barely disguised dirisive laughter.


(My Russian Youth Fan Club and I in front of Lenin in the town square. They are not actually giants, I am just a terribly awkward photo taker.)

Already it was near 11pm, and the sun was setting, so my friends and I posed for a photo in front of Lenin and parted ways, they back to their suburb and myself to have a nightcap of honey and black pepper infused vodka** at a cute, friendly cafe with the cute and friendly name of Nice People. If you visit Novgorod and do not want to learn Russian or eat only things you can point at, I highly recommend this place, which has the most adorable slogan of, "It's easy to find Nice People in Novgorod."***

So true.


NOTES:

*In that order of fluency and coherence.

**A local specialty, according to the waitress, which made my eyes water and pleased me greatly.

***I would patronize them again merely for how clever their marketing is!


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Great Novgorod

I had decided to spent one night in Veliky Novgorod on my way to Saint Petersburg, in order to experience a piece of Russia less frequented on the typical tourist circuit. I accomplished this task with flying colors, I must say.

I found may way to the Hotel Kruis* and was told via perturbed gestures that I could not enter my room until 10am. I was directed to what I was assured was the only internet cafe in town that was open at the ungodly hour of 7am, "Kafe Luxe," and told curtly to return at the proper time. I trudged through the silent, misty morning until I crossed paths with a drunken couple stumbling out of a building from which thumping bass, black lights and swirling disco ball reflections were streaming. I glanced at the sign and was horrified to see that I had apparently arrived at my destination, God help me. I peeked in the door: abandoned. I sat down hesitantly, and instantly the music stopped, normal radiant lightbulbs were re-employed, the curtains opened, and the sweetest waitress in the entire country appeared, beaming at me. We used only the friendliest of sign language and Russian vocabulary strung together into a beautiful chain of makeshift communication, and within moments she proudly placed this selection of breakfast items before me, chirping "Priatna appetita!" as she skipped over to a neighboring table to eat her own identical meal.


(Breakfast always best with a good dose of Chekhov. Yes, there are peas with my eggs.)

I was so pleased with that experience that I had the energy to visit the main sights of the town as its inhabitants were slowly waking up. Novgorod is known as one of the very oldest cities in Russia, with a walled, moated enclosure called "The Kremlin" at its heart. Inside is beautiful manicured lawns and parks, lovely statuesque 17th and 18th century municipal buildings, a huge bronze statue commemorating Russia's 1,000th birthday**, and the oldest church in the whole country. Crossing a bridge over the Volkhov river, one can meander through a menagerie of ancient Orthdodox churches of varying age and size. I am certain one could potentially do other things as well, but I am not sure what they are.


(The Kremlin, protecting Russia's oldest church)

After seeing so many religious sites so closely situated to one another, I suddenly needed a nap.

I am sure the Hotel Kruis is haunted, but I got a relatively clean room to myself for 400 rubles, so what are a few troubled supernatural presences in the grand scheme of things, really? In the afternoon*** I took a public bus south of town to a truly unique and amazing place, the "Open Air Museum of Popular Wooden Architecture 'Vitoslavitsky.'" I got a chance to really enjoy some Russian countryside, which is just as underrated as its food, if not more so. As I had no idea where I was exactly, after what I felt was a sufficient amount of time I pulled on the sleeve of the sweet old woman taking bus fares and started to read the Russian letters that apparently when said quickly in succession described my destination, because she immediately yelled at the driver and shooed me gently off the moving-only-slowly-at-that-moment vehicle, at the gate of the park.

Now, having seen the sights of Red Square and The Hermitage, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vitoslavitsky was by far the most charming, awe-inspiring, and enjoyable Russian tourist attraction that I have ever seen. Set in a breathtaking wood on the edge of Lake Myachino, the "museum" is really a collection of brilliant Russian folk architecture from the 16th to 19th centuries. The enormous houses and churches therein are all have fantastic, whimsical designs, beautiful carved details, and some are even open to tour the recreated interiors. Wandering about, I caught glimpses of stout women in period dress sweeping their porches or carrying baskets to and fro, and atone point I even saw a fox, which delighted me more than I probably should admit. These pictures really cannot do it justice, but hopefully they will convince you to visit, should you be in the area.


(O Glory! O Rapture!)


(Taken just after seeing my pet fox)

Why they would ever stop building houses in this way, other than the terrible fires that constantly ravaged Moscow when it was built solely of wood, I will never know.

I was told that walking just a kilometer or so in one direction from Vitoslavitsky would take me to a working monastery who's name escapes me at the moment. It is actually irrelevant to my experience though because I obviously walked in the totally wrong direction and ended up exploring an abandoned Orthodox church surrounded on all sides by a peculiar cemetery. Each family plot was fenced off and had a small wooden picnic table and benches, and each grave was marked with crosses with photos or engravings of the faces of the dead, and most were decorated with huge amount of artificial flowers. The effect was charming and yet erie, all the more so as I slowly came to terms with the fact that I was utterly lost.


NOTES:

*A hotel/hostel hybrid in a five-story grey block building that I was quite sure was abandoned at first, but upon entering was dazzled by a lobby so reflective that it made me wonder which was was up. They have no website, do not respond to email, and their staff speaks only Russian, but they are a part of the Hostelling International network somehow!

**Oh, to have seen that birthday cake! Ha! Ha!

***Which in this part of the world lasts for approximately eight to ten languorous hours.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Traveling Alone in Russia: A Mistake?

My first Russian train ride started off very poorly. The following is a direct transcription of my hastily scribbled notes from the actual ride, as I somehow did not see it fit to use my personal computational device at the time.


(Gray, dismal, and much worse than my tiny camera could ever convey)


"I nearly missed my train as usual- but this time it was not due to poor planning on my part but the fault of the complete absence of signage of any kind, specifically in English, in the entire train station complex. There seem to be three or more different station-like buildings huddled on top of the Leningradsky Metro stop; between them has sprouted a sort of informal marketplace where useful things* are sold to travelers, in the unlikely event that they happen upon their train. I wasted five precious minutes fighting with a woman who tried to sell me warm beer, presently found a both cheaper and colder source, and then proceeded to be bullied by various teenaged security guards and ticket takers until at last throwing myself onto my train literally one minute before it pulled away from the platform**. Two attendants peered skeptically at my printed e-ticket, muttering its details to themselves or to each other, I shall never know which, until sufficiently convinced of it's authenticity. Thus I was given the "grand tour" of the train, being dragged through fifteen sweltering cars on the way to my own. The third class accommodation is designed to provide a social bench seating scenario during the day and tolerable sleeping at night, but sadly, it does neither. Armed with not vodka but two large beers and two boxes of strange Russian chocolates, I asked at least ten people in my vicinity if they spoke any English, while enticing them with my goodwill tokens. I got three blank stares, three very negative hand gestures, three "niets" and one "is very bad, and not like chocolate." These statistics we're enough to discourage even me, so now I am eating chocolates and drinking Kozel Cerny in forced solitude. Woe!"

Apparently I can be a bit dramatic at times. I went on complaining to myself until they "shut off the lights in order to trick us into going to sleep, while an insane four-year-old ran the length of the car swinging from bunk to bunk like a monkey and screaming in very convincing Russian."*** It never got fully dark, as we progressed toward the Arctic Circle and daylight stretched to twilight and back again merely brushing shoulders with evening. I curled myself around my possessions and closed my eyes for a few hours, finally giving up around 3am, picking my way through a jungle of sleeping bodies to the giant samovar at the end of the car to medicate myself with black tea and lemon, and continued to do so until our 6am arrival in the town of Novgorod. As the other passengers awoke, my diabetic bunkmate asked if I slept, and I said that the hard wooden bench had kept me fully conscious for the duration.**** He looked at me, thought for a moment, and replied,

"For Russian, is not hard."

I will never complain again.*****


NOTES:

*Thousands of types of beer, cigarettes, and meat pies, as well as disposable cell phones, dried fish, and rather disturbingly, various knives and other self defense implements. I was very distressed to find not a single purveyor of fine Russian vodka, however.

**21:50! Right on time!

***Is it too self-obsessed to quote oneself in one's own blog? Mark Twain did it at times, but at least under the pretense of referencing other actual published works in a roundabout manner.

****I have slept on many an unfortunate surface but I really must warn you these are not American or even European mattresses but, exaggeration aside, more like cardboard with a sheet on top.

*****Obviously that is completely untrue.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lock up your New Maidens!

The next day I finally woke up around noon, the sun having been mostly-downish for approximately six hours.

After a typical Russian breakfast*, I headed out to find Novodevichy, a convent founded to celebrate some military victory or another in the early 16th century. They great thing about all of the ancient religious sites in Russia is that they seem to amass a rather twisted and sordid history of near destructions, rebuildings, repurposings, and myriad other transformations depending on the sociology-political environments that they endure. Such is the case for the beautiful riverside convent Novodevichy, named "new maidens" to commemorate all the young ladies of unknown progeny or ill repute coerced into interning themselves there. Under Soviet rule it was made into a museum of women's emancipation and apartment buildings, and as a way of trying to make amends with the Orthodox church it was converted back into a theological institute, and is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the highlights was actually an art exhibit that had various insights into Russian philosophy and ecology, which had English translations that were so exquisitely poetic that I didn't know if they were accidental or purposeful.



If you are going to be locked away against your will, at least let it be somewhere beautiful.

I was caught in a sudden downpour of phenomenal cosmic power before going home to be taught the secret recipe for traditional Russian borscht, which, at the conclusion of my lesson, proved to be the most delicious one I had ever eaten. Russian food is enormously underrated, I tell you. I hardly even miss the word "picante."

Finally, it was time to catch the train to Novgorod. I read from some reliable source that the less you pay for your ticket on a Russian train, the higher the potential for interesting social interaction, so of course I insisted on purchasing a third class open bunk accommodation for approximately 30USD for the eight hour overnight ride to Novgorod. It would be an evening to remember, for better or worse. I was vehemently urged by all Russians to sleep on top of all of my belongings, surely a great sign.


NOTES:

*Consisting of black tea and a grimace.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Look At Me, Russia

A really amazing Russian language culture and events listing is www.lookatme.ru. Through this listing, I found out that an International Food Festival and an Art Bazaar were taking place in Moscow while I was there.

My second night at Gorilla's* I kidnapped a tiny Korean minister called Lee and made him accompany me to a club/cafe called Gogol. When I tried to order a drink in Russian the bartender started laughing at me and shouted, "No I cannot understand you I am from Las Vegas Ha Ha Ha Ha." When I tried again with another man, I got an appreciative eyebrow raise. Tricky people, these Russians.

The next day even though it was raining I dragged Lee and a front desk clerk** to the food festival at Sad Hermitage. Sad apparently means "garden" but in this case it was actually kind of sad, as the food was borderline insultingly overpriced and the drizzle depressed the scene. Surprisingly, I ended up selecting Russian food from one of the friendliest vendors. I saw only pickles, tiny potatoes, and black bread, which was perfect, but then once I was in possession of the bowl I found a secret layer if four types of very sinister looking sausages, which of course I had to try. Let us just say, I am fairly certain that that meal effectively doubled the amount of different seemingly inedible animal parts that I have ever consumed.


The Native American group at the festival, who had no food, but were eager to get me to participate in a rain dance with them; of course I complied.

Then, I met my Russian hosts, who took me to the Vinzavod art center for the bazaar. Comparing the contemporary arts and crafts upswells in San Francisco and DC with that of Moscow was a rewarding experience, and I was impressed by the amount of creativity and innovation with some inspiration from nostalgia and kitsch, but not a heavy reliance on them. They also had handmade lollipops in the shape of roosters, always a good thing.

An architectural-philosophy-urban-hiking-excursion led us to Kitay Gorod***, which turned out to be my favorite neighborhood in the city, and correspondingly house my favorite restaurant, Pyr E. O. G. I never would have found this spacious, hip bar/cafe/restaurant without the expert knowledge of my hosts, nor would I have been able to finish the 3200 mL antique teapot full of home-brewed, unfiltered draught beer either. Our kettle 'o' beer was accompanied by delicious savory pies with assortments of little pickled salads for only 130 rubles, a price that could have easily been tripled elsewhere.


Best dinner in Russia thus far.

Later that night they helped me to buy my first Russian train tickets, to a small town eight hours away called Novgorod.


NOTES:

*Which, if I did not say so compellingly enough before, is a very pleasant place with literally the most helpful and genuinely friendly staff I could ever dream up. This is an especially dramatic quality given that this is Russia we are talking about here.

**Who shall remain nameless to protect their identity.

***Which means Chinatown but does not, has not, and presumably never will have anything to do with said nation or its people.



Thursday, June 23, 2011

This Way to Russian Dolls



Russian nesting dolls, or "madrutchka," as my infinitely forgiving Russian teachers keep telling me, have become my sick tourist obsession. I have yet to find a set in which I am desirous of investing, however. I encountered a series of enigmatic signs such as this one, followed them to their terminus at the end of an alley, but there was no beautiful hand painted folk art to be found.

Moscow has proven to be a very exciting and confusing place for me, not only because I remain unable to properly use any technology that could aid my planning and coordination. Therefore, to help all of you avoid any possible mistakes when you visit, I will tell you about my experience through a list of "Do's and Dont's" most of which I "did."

DO: Make friends with a Russian person, or at least aRussian speaker, as there are never any cool event listings in English, and English signage usually consists of 1/10th of the information necessary to accomplish simple survival tasks like crossing the street, let alone doing interesting and worthwhile activities.

DONT: Begin to love and rely on them so much that when faced with Russian society as a whole with no translator/accomplice/advocate you become a shadow of the person you once were and literally give yourself nightmares about non-English-speaker conspiracies.

DO: Pay the student price all the time, they have never checked my card yet. Pay only 50 rubles to go into St. Basil's in Red Square, it is actually nine different churches smashed together, and probably the weirdest place of worship I have ever toured.

DONT: Expect to have any informational placards translated into English anywhere, ever. Also don't expect public restrooms, and if they do exist, don't think they will be Western style*.

DO: Wander the GUM, a beautiful maze of Victorian arcades, once the place where dismal lines queued for scarce goods, now where luxury boutiques peek out from beautiful cherry blossom trees, and a fairytale-like fountain crowns is the center of it all.

DONT: Even dream that you can afford to buy anything there. It is more likely that a shopper there would mistake me as their serf and carry me back to their fiefdom with them.

DO: Buy as many beautiful Russian dolls as you can.

DONT: Skip a perfectly beautiful set because you think you "might find an even more perfect one later." You are tempting fate, a dangerous game!

With these simple steps, you are sure to have as good a time, if not even better, as I am in Moscow. On my first full day in the city, under the care of a friend's mother who works in the city, I got the privilege of seeing the most beautiful church I have seen in years**, a lovely collection of 19th and 20th century European painters, the famous Arbat street, and an epic exposition of Russian dance, history and folk dress at the Soviet style behemoth hotel, Kosmos. I was also exposed to the Russian delicacies of blini c ecraw, glacé, kbac, and a salad with the delightfully horrifying name of "herring under a fur coat."*** You may not recognize me when I get home.


NOTES:

*Otherwise known as including a seat, toilet paper, and a flushing mechanisms. Any or all of these can be missing in a given toilet here. I am not complaining, merely warning.

**The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was inspired and designed in 1813 by Alexander I to celebrate the retreat of Napoleon from the city, constructed by Nicolas I in 1832 in a different style and location, was demolished in 1931 by the Soviets, made into the world's largest swimming pool by Kruschev, then rebuilt in the mid-nineties by the Russian Orthodox Church. Talk about politically influenced architecture!

***Crepes and red caviar, coffee with ice cream, a lightly fermented rye drink that is served from tiny kegs in the street for about 75 cents, and a Napoleon style salad with layers of herring and raw onion, potato, shaved carrot, shaved beet, and a beet mayonnaise topping, respectively.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Outwitted by Technology, Inwitted by My Wits Alone*

I accomplished my job of delivering my 53 severely culture-shocked students back to their homeland, but not before having to deal with a rather frustrating airport lost luggage scenario. Six girls in my group had their baggage either lost, incinerated, or thrown from the cargo bay over the Atlantic, we will probably never know which. The Russian staff refused to acknowledge my Anglophone pleas, and seemed apathetic to a point of near sadism. Seeing my students' anguish over their year's belongings' disappearance reminded me of the priceless advice my father gave me from an impressionable age, which is to always avoid at all costs the checking of any luggage. Thank you, dad.

Finally, I was able to make my way into Moscow and let my adventures begin! My only hindrance was that my phone said nothing but SOS, and I could not get wifi, and I apparently have grown quite attached to these technologies. I like to think I am rather savvy with arriving in foreign places with no plans or directions and generally finding my way about in a blundering and yet vaguely successful manner, but without a guide, map, or any functioning wireless internet receiving device, after a mere moment's shock I transformed into the MacGyver of international backpackers. Armed with only:

A. A Cyrillic Moscow Metro map stolen from a magazine in the "AirExpress" that connects Domodedovo to one of the rings of Moscow City,

B. A blurry recollection that Godzilla's was somewhere between two metro stops named after famous Russian literary figures,

C. One week's worth of Russian language training, thankfully including the alphabet, numbers one through ten, and the words "please" "buy" and "ticket,"

I managed to make it to my chosen housing establishment, resorting only twice to simply standing in the middle of a crowded street shouting "BOLSHOI KARETNYE SHEYST!?!" until a disgruntled passerby would shove me in the correct direction as they hurried by.**

Sometimes I astound even myself.

I checked into Godzilla's, a lovely place with some of the best wallpaper I have ever seen in a hostel, and promptly passed out in my bunk. It was maybe 6pm at this time, but I had lost all sense of minutes and hours and knew only the sweet sensation of horizontalness*** until an hour or three later when even that great comfort could not protect me from the gnawing sensation in my gut, which had somehow transformed into a gaping-mouthed beast who could only be appeased by large amounts of exotic and unrecognizable foods. I knew this beast well, and I could not deny it its demand!

I ventured out into the warm afternoon, and moved through twisting alleys that quickly gave way to posh broad avenues lined with sinfully expensive Italian boutiques and gourmet groceries and cafes. One place, a local chain called Coffee Mania, charged over 4 USD for an espresso. I moved away from these places, continuing my beady-eyed hunt for all things pickled and/or covered in mayonnaise. I quickly came to a pedestrian street lined with sidewalk cafes, bistros, and the Moscow outpost of Le Pain Quotidien. Glancing at the prices of these restaurants, I remembered being told that Moscow was ranked literally the most expensive city on earth, and it all made sense to me. I settled on an unassuming little place called Cafe Cena, which I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who is not well versed in Russian cuisine and does not dare to make a 500 ruble commitment to a food they have never seen or heard of, let alone read its name. Cena was a little cafeteria with various cold salads, soups, blinis, casseroles and other hot foods, all laid out before you to pick at leisure. After peering at everything with great interest for longer than was socially acceptable, I piled a rather large selection of pickled beets, cabbage, and other weird looking pickles on a plate, and paired it with a steaming cup of a soup that appeared to have, upon close inspection, more pickles, beets, onions, olives, and salmon in it's rich tomato broth. A chunk of black bread and a tall black beer, and I had assembled the strongest tasting meal I have had since eating something called "El Volcán" in Mexico City. And all that for only 320 rubles- a steal!



Satiated, I wandered the neighborhood, noting fashion trends, fancy cars, attempting to read Cyrillic, and looking in a really interesting bookshop**** until the clerk told me that they were closing, it was 11pm.

The sun was still up.

I somehow found my way back to the hostel again to befriend foreigners***** , shower the endlessly patient, beautiful, and impeccable English-speaking staff with inane questions, and write this blog entry, which I promptly lost and had to rewrite. Oh technology, how you torture me.


NOTES:

*If you are wondering if "inwitted" is actually a real word, I hate to break it to you but it is possible you are reading the wrong blog.

**I highly recommend ins tactic for anyone who has no shame, can read Cyrillic, and does not bruise easily.

***Would you be ever so kind as to see asterisk number one.

****Of which there are many in Moscow; They Russian people seem to be impressively well-read and rather intellectual overall, from what I can gather from my extensive research into the topic. You certainly don't see American metro stops called Whitman and Twain, do you?

*****And what fun to finally fit into that category again!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Yonder! The Russian Frontier!

"And do you not rejoice in your soul too? This is our Russia - it is yours, Tsarévich; All your people's hearts await you there, your Moscow waits, your Kremlin, your dominion."


I thought this quote to be quite dramatically apropos as read on a transatlantic flight connecting Washington D.C. to the aforementioned megalopolis, Moscow. Never mind that it is an excerpt from Alexander Pushkin's very underrated play,Boris Godunov, and the people approaching the border are an army of Poles and Lithuanians led by a renegade monk masquerading as the heir to the throne of Ivan the Terrible in an attempt to overthrow the current Tsar, another murdering tyrant himself. I maintain the highest of hopes that I will experience an eventful but significantly more pacific entrance.

Everything has happened so fast, I have hardly planned a thing, though I suppose that does not differe much from my usual modus operandi. Just so that you can know as much about my trip as I seem to, humor me as I revert once more to a list format:

1. Upon my arrival in Moscow June 17, I have one night booked at Godzilla's Hostel, the "largest and most famed hostel in Moscow," which is a member of my favorite non-profit youth travel accommodation, Hostelling International. My goal in staying there is to compare the hospitality and amenities of the two capitals and construe wildly inappropriate and generalized judgments about the two respective societies as represented by what I find there. I tried to arrange a half-day shadowing work experience there in advance, but to no avail. Perhaps I shall convince them upon my arrival.

2. At some point in Moscow, the mother of a Russian contact of mine has promised to take me to an evening of theatre, which I am eagerly anticipating.

3. I hear Lenin is buried in Moscow, is this true?

4. I will, of course, take the train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. The express train takes four hours, but in order to spend as much time as possible drinking vodka with strangers** I plan to take the local train, which takes twice as long, at least one way. I of course will remark in great detail on the highlights, lowlights, and differences between the two state-owned rail systems and the passengers that fill them.

5. My desire to see more than just the two urban centers of Russia led me to drift across a Google map of the space between Moscow and SP until I saw something labelled with a name that struck my fancy. This happened at a place called Novgorod, which I found upon further internet searches to be described literally as the loveliest, most historic, and most charming town in the whole country. I want to go to there.

6. I have plans to surf the couches of some lovely people in Moscow and SP, but I will not offer their personal details until I meet them and glean from them what those details actually are.

7. I hope to attend a famous midnight music festival in SP on June 25, the night before I leave to fly back to the States, given I can manage to survive until then.

8. Does anyone know what the "Hermitage" is?

And I think that is about all that I have planned. If I have time, I hope to find some sort of monument to Mark Twain, or Russian fan club devoted to him, and perform a reading there, invited or otherwise. Also, I have been practicing my Russian skills with great vigor and enthusiasm, and have already been told by countless native speakers that my accent is impeccable. My ego burns with the fire of a thousand suns, and I am fairly certain I will be paying "the Russian price" for all major tourist attractions by sometime early next week. I am writing this from somewhere just beneath the southern tip of Greenland, surrounded on all sides by 53 adorable Russian exchange students in matching turquoise t-shirts***; each and every one completely acknowledges my supreme power over them until we get through customs in Moscow, at which point I will wander away to try to figure out exactly how one gets from the Domodedovo airport to the only hostel to be owned and operated by a giant fire-breathing Japanese lizard.


I see no kitschy oversize reptiles here.

NOTES:

*My poor starved readers, desperate for any crumb of information about my happenstance...

**I have memorized the phrase, "I have a bottle of vodka" in Russian. In English phonetics, it is, "Oo meenya bootlika votkee" in my case to be followed immediately after by some sort of ridiculous winking or miming gesticulation.

***I am their leader and therefore my t-shirt is red. I am drunk with power! It must be power, because it certainly is not wine, as United Airlines apparently charges for all decent beverages which would make me much angrier if I had actually paid for this plane ticket. Humph.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Provincial Supertramp (attempts) Going Global

My love of all things free has triumphed over reason yet again.

This winter I spent much of my spare time at American Councils for International Education, reading applications from foreign high school students to win year-long scholarships to study in the US. They administer many different study abroad programs across the globe for American and foreign students, but most of my experience was with their FLEX program. FLEX reaches out to students in former USSR countries, and has been in existence for as long as the soviet Union has not. It was such an amazing thing to get to read about the hopes and dreams of sixteen-year-olds in places like Uzbekistan, Armenia, and of course Russia, and know that I was a part of helping them reach their education goals and, in many cases, leave their country or even town for the first time. But allow me to get to the point.* After a few months of helping out at American Councils, I was invited to fill a coveted roll as a "Flight Leader" to help escort fifty students back to their country of origin at the end of their study abroad experience on June 16.

In other words, I was being offered a free ticket to Russia, an impressive feat, even for me.

Not only that, they did everything for me for my business visa application, which is a lot when it comes to Russia. One needs various forms and other pieces of paper, including an ominously named "Letter of Invitation," in addition to $140 for the ostensibly gold leaf stamp in your passport that will allow you to venture into that country. However, due to my apparent international fugitive status, I was the only flight leader to have his or her visa application denied, and with no explanation as to why**. On June 10, the coordinator was ready to replace me, but I sprang into action, the thought of losing my free golden ticket triggering an intense adrenaline rush and cat-like defensive reflexes. I began the application process again, with only seven days until the plane on which I had a seat reserved would take off, with or without me.

At the Russian Embassy, clutching hastily assembled official-looking bits and bobs, I was told with a sigh by a woman with an ear-length bob and beige, shapeless shift dress that I did not have enough consecutive pages in my passport for their enormous, glorious visa stamp. I had to spend the entirety of the next day, June 11, in a terrifying windowless place called the US Passport Agency, waiting for emergency pages to be added to my tattered travel document. Waiting there, an elderly gentlemen saw my reading material*** and said,

"Mark Twain, hmm? Cain't go wrong with Mark Twain."

I glanced up, and before me was an apparition, the ghost of the master himself. A shock of white hair and beard, a creamy linen suit, and an expression one part grouch and two parts bemused genius belied his identity. He winked as he explained that he was a writer as well, and told me to tell my father that he had raised me right. After a few minutes of literary criticism and philosophizing, he wished me luck in Russia, and left to buy vegetables from a nearby farmers market, or return to the grave, I am not sure which.

I took this to be a very propitious sign, and returned to the Embassy on June 12 with my newly altered passport, knowing that it was my last shot at my own Russian Holiday****. After approximately nine minutes of literally shuffling my papers back and forth across her desk, she took painstaking care in affixing various notes and binder clips to my application, and told me to come back again on the 15, the day before my hypothetical departure.

It is 7pm on the 15th of June, and I have got my visa.


NOTES:

*The point ever being: How does this get me interesting free things? Well, first of all, they gave me loads of gratis lunches but stop wasting your time in the notes, go back to the top, and read on for the real freeloader victory.

**I am, in fact, not a fugitive, however this is not the first time I have been unceremoniously and mysteriously turned away from a notoriously exclusive country.

***A book of short stories by Mark Twain, of course.

****The lesser-known and more dreary sequel to the classic Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Tribute to "the Ansel Adams of railway photography," Richard Steinheimer

A truly special man, railroad photographer Richard Steinheimer, died this month at his home in Sacramento. He was with his wife at the time, whom he met in the early 80s when she was working at the Sacramento Railroad Museum. How fitting!



His images are so beautiful, and his life should definitely be made into an HBO Special or a movie starring Clint Eastwood, or something equally honorable.



Read the full LA Times obituary here, and learn a bit more about the life and work of this rare breed of visionary artist.

NOTES:

It is summer. Soon, more to come on prevenient travel plans for the warm months...

Monday, February 28, 2011

Budget travel: Not Just for Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves

(Cher knows what it is like to be a traveler on a budget)


I will not waste time here explaining the long silence between my last post and this* but will get right to "the good stuff," if you will.

So. Now that you have saved a nice little pile of your local currency** you are ready to start hemorrhaging said cash by way of your travels. Congratulations! The first thing that you need to think about buying is obviously some sort of transportation from where you are to where you want to be. Unfortunately, if you are planning on crossing any oceans, it is almost necessary to buy a plane ticket. It used to be quite easy to hop on to ships and work a bit to pay your way, thus both saving money and have a much more interesting experience, but now impromptu jobs like these are all but extinct. The trick to finding the lowest rates on international airfare is to be flexible and patient; compare lots of different dates and expand your search to neighboring airports, and you may just find a gem. And obviously, the sooner you book, the cheaper it will be. I use all the typical sites like Farecompare, Kayak, and Expedia, but also check the airlines' corporate sites once I see a trend. But buying airline tickets is so boring, so let us move on.

If you are staying on your continent (or, once you arrive on the continent of your choice) you are going to need some ground transit. Now, obviously I am a little biased when it comes to comparing different modes, but I do acknowledge the necessity of buses and cars at certain very specific times. If we conceptualize it as a pyramid of transit, we can build a base of the railroad, supplemented by bikes, horses, buses etc, with a very sparing usage of automobiles only when absolutely necessary. On the subject of purchasing Amtrak tickets, I have myriad tips for the attainment of the cheapest fare possible.

Are you a student? For $20 you can become a member of the Student Advantage rewards program, giving you 15% off all tickets and select other discounts as well. Over 65? A similar discount program exists for you. Travelers who will be completing their trip within a specific timeframe (15, 30, or 45 days) and plan to cover a lot of ground may save money by getting a USA Rail Pass which gives you a set amount of "travel days" within that period, for a flat rate. You may want to chat with an agent before making that purchase though, because they are a bit convoluted in structure and confused even me, a veritable railroad savant. Frequent travelers will be happy to know that there is a totally free Amtrak Rewards system that collects points from all of your tickets and puts them toward future travel or other less interesting things. Perhaps you are a businessperson, or just love charging train tickets and paying for them at a later date. You, big spender, may be interested in the Amtrak MasterCard, which gives you loads of kickbacks, rewards points, and, I've heard, personalized holiday greetings from a direct descendent of one of the Big Four. Lastly, if you have a streak of activism in you I would highly recommend becoming a member of the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP), a terribly underrated advocacy group for our endangered class of traveler. They have brokered a deal with Amtrak where as long as you book three or more days in advance, you get 10% off your fare as well. You also get a fabulous bumper sticker that says "I'd Rather Be on the Train," which is worth the $40 yearly membership alone.

In addition to these programs, Amtrak is always cooking up new ways to get cheaper tickets, which are advertised on their website and range from double rewards points on certain fare zones to contests where the person who can come up with the best trip wins a free ticket to anywhere***.

If you cannot find a trip in your budget with at least one of these tools, I respectfully recommend to you the book Hobo Sapien: Freight Train Hopping from Tao to Zen by Wayne Iversen.

On the subject of buses: I really do not enjoy even acknowledging this as an option, but a sadistic company called Greyhound does exist, and it connects terrifying and hepatitis ridden "stations" in almost every American city. Their tickets are always the same price, as far as I know, but they might not be, and regardless I have spent too many sleepless nights praying that the knife-wielding psychopath next to me will simply keep laughing softly to himself and not decide to make me his next victim**** to give Greyhound any more space or recognition in this entry.

There are also various budget private bus companies that run only popular tourist and commuter routes, for unbelievably low rates. Megabus and Bolt are two popular companies in the northeast, among others. When going shorter distances, another option for those who do not mind a few awkward transfers to save some monies, is connecting various municipal and regional transit systems, be they subway, bus, or rail. This usually takes a bit more research and coordination, but can save you quite a bit of money if you plan right.

Finally, I will give a nod to the Hitchhiking 2.0 phenomenon of Craigslist rideshares, a very adventurous mode of transit, not for the faint of heart. All you need do is either sift through ride offers from individuals traveling in your direction, or write your own ad describing your route/destination and what you can contribute to the travel experience. While I have heard stories about the potential dangers of these arrangements, I have had only positive, albeit not relaxing per sé, experiences thus far*****. Of course, there is always good old fashioned hitchhiking, but then you open yourself up to interactions with the truly insane, like the time I was picked up by the Golden Gate Bridge by a woman positively brimming with entertaining anecdotes about vehicular manslaughter and police chases.

Or, weather and quadriceps permitting, you can always hop on a bicycle, which almost certainly will be the cheapest, slowest, and most adventurous undertaking of your life, and will leave you with both weird tan lines and freakishly toned legs. If, like me, you fancy yourself just enough of an "active" traveler to want to take a bike along with you on the train for those unexpected fits of athleticism, you can box a bike on Amtrak for a very reasonable rate ($10-20 depending on facilities and box stock) or some commuter routes even have bike racks. Just check in advance to see what you are working with.

Soon, ten ways to spend 50% less on room and board in the touristic destinations of your choice, and later, the explanation of the age old adage that the best things in life are free.


NOTES:

*For full details, you will have to await my three-volume autobiography, to be published one hundred years after my death. For now, suffice it to say that I have been studying, working, and networking in true DC form, and am now a junior Congresswoman representing Delaware.
**I refrain from using the term greenbacks as I know I have a large, sensitive, international audience and the money in many other countries sometimes strays from the proper, classic shade of green we Americans all know and love.
***How have I never won that contest? Amtrak, how can you turn a blind eye to the suffering I endure through this unrequited love?
****I am too young to die!
*****For example: crossing the Canadian border with an Ethiopian man and being deemed very untrustworthy by all government officials from both countries, or spending six hours in a Jeep with an aspiring professional hulahoopist and her dog, while listening to electronic-dub-rave- jams at such a decibel that there is no question as to whether my ears sustained permanent damage. We stopped for juice at her mother's condo on the way.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Scrooge Takes a Trip

Recently an enquiring reader and prospective tramp asked me how someone such as myself, with a scanty income at best, can make big trips that involve anything other than a dismal routine of hitchhiking, orphanages, and dry crusts of bread. I have always prided myself on being a cheapskate, but this question made me realize that the art of scrimping may not be so natural to some as it is to me, and I could potentially share some secret advice with you to make your trip planning easier, and travel more accessible.

When it comes to budget travel, it is as much about things you do in preparation for your trip as things you do while traveling that will allow you to travel farther distances, for longer periods of time, and with greater comfort and flexibility, without needing to become a penny-pinching miser in the process. For me, it is important not to waste money or spend excessively when you do not have a steady income, but also not to let yourself become so obsessed with budgetary considerations that you stop having fun. If you refuse to see museums or historic sites because of admission prices, or eat only gruel for every meal, you will hardly notice you are in a different city anyway, so you may as well just stay home and sulk there.

With that said, there are sooooo many little tricks for squeezing every last drop of awesomeness out of your funds, however limited they may be. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few things that I generally do beforehand, with trekking on the brain.

At home...

Trim your expenses. Everyone has heard the typical tips like:

Eat out less.

Carpool.

Cut down on what some people would call "retail therapy."

But I take it to the next level. First and foremost, take advantage of free things as much as possible. Working at a youth hostel, people leave travel food* behind all the time, and I always snag it and put it to good use. Thus, I end up spending a maximum of about 50 dollars per month on groceries, most of which is at the farmer's market, which is cheaper, healthier, and more fun than the grocery store anyway. Carpooling is a great idea as gas prices creep up** but I dare you to get rid of the car entirely if possible and save that monthly insurance bill. I know this is not very feasible in some of our suburban environs unfortunately, but I only go by train, bus, feet and bike, and that cuts out a lot of costs in my daily life.

This next idea may sound a bit too obvious, but I will offer it anyway; I have virtually cut out shopping as idle entertainment. I have about four outfits, and if I tire of them I dig in my parents' attic and find some old thing from high school to rotate into my wardrobe. I buy new socks when mine get holes. If I do buy apparel or household items, I get them used or from discount stores with awesome close out bargains. I generally borrow books, movies, and music from the library instead of buying them. It is free, opens me to a huge realm of genres, and keeps me from cluttering my space and hoarding too many things***. And when you hang around the public library I promise you will meet people even more intriguing than on the train.

Furthermore, I know this is not possible for people with houses and families and the like, but every time I leave to travel for a period of more than three months or so, I get rid of everything but a few essentials and give up my apartment. This way, I am never paying rent in a place that I am not occupying. If you would rather not take up a homeless status, you could always consider subletting your dwelling for the duration.

Perhaps this was a bit more about every aspect of my daily life than you bargained for- you are welcome!

Next time, more questionable ways live a life of frontier zen asceticism, but while your trip is in progress. Think


NOTES:

*Oatmeal, peanut butter, apples, rice, beans, trail mix etc. As a rule, I generally eat like I am on the Oregon Trail.

**And, as we are train fans, we have no business driving cars around anyway!

***The fewer things you own, the fewer things hold you down and keep you from getting out and adventuring.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Year! New You!

It is very cold. I have been collecting research about railroad history and contemporary function since October, and have followed the rails from the Pacific Northwest to the Southernmost Point. But my studies are nowhere near complete! There are still loads more routes I need to ride, weird museums to visit, and insane people to meet. However, in order to replenish one's wanderlust and endurance one really must allow oneself a brief respite from the grueling demands of the nomadic lifestyle every once in awhile, in order to keep fighting the good fight. I intend to do precisely that for the rest of the winter, until daylight extends past the tragically early hour of 4pm and temperatures rise above "no coat could protect me from this torment" degrees Fahrenheit.

During this time I will be relocating my base of operations to Washington, D.C. on a semi-permanent basis.

I decided on this change in coastal alignment for a few reasons, namely to increase my potential for productive personal development and general seriousness, as the inhabitants of our nation's Capitol are known for their drive and ambition, and the city is rife with mid priced chain eateries and Irish pubs that will in no way distract me from my work.

Pastimes and activities for the upcoming months are as follows:

Compile notes and ramblings from past months and prepare for future tramping,

Be a crappy intern at pseudo-governmental organization,

Learn to Lindy hop,

Start dabbling in grad school, 

Develop hair brained scheme for the procurement of small green pieces of paper to pay for all of the above.


This is a tall order, but I am optimistic. I will also keep writing periodically in this locale, addressing more travel and history topics, as well as taking some local trips and riding the DC Metro to keep my rail transit instincts honed. So please, no one panic that I will go AWOL and leave you with no other recourse than to read the writing of legitimate, trained journalists*.

I have two last pieces of important information before I sign off for this post. The first is that I partook in a Myers Briggs personality indicator test and found that I have the exact same personality profile as my hero, Mark Twain**. The second is that the story of my crossing the US with my father was published on indie travel site, Boots 'N All! Though for some reason they used other people's pictures and not my glorious photographic masterpieces.


(How could you not want to share this with the world?)

Next post, by fan request: Ways to save money to travel, and spread that money as far as it will go once you are on the road.


NOTES:

*The horror!
**I am currently reading his fifth and last travelogue, Following the Equator, in which he compares the railways of various countries the world over and says the following of New Zealand's railroad: "Where there is comfort, and no need for hurry, speed is of no value- at least to me; and nothing that goes on wheels can be more comfortable, more satisfactory, than the New Zealand trains... When you add the constant presence of charming scenery, and the nearly constant absence of dust- well, if one is not satisfied then, he ought to get out and walk." We are obviously soul mates.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"White River Junction: It's Not That Bad!"

So read the very modest town motto displayed on the municipal website. But what an understatement it was. In fact:

I am proud to announce that I am awarding the 2010, "Underrated Railroad Town of the Year" Award to White River Junction, population 2,059. Congratulations, Vermont, for this enviable achievement.

We took a bus* to the outskirts of the city, which is actually made up of five distinct hamlets that have all banded together for support and more interesting parties, and were immediately scooped up by their free municipal transit system, which dropped us off on Main Street, around the corner from the glorious monument to the railroad era that is the Hotel Coolidge. The huge brick structure was built in 1849, about ten steps from the railroad depot, and originally served as a railroad hotel. Now, it retains the stateliness of the bygone era, but with a multipurpose use and a healthy dose of loneliness and dreamy nostalgia**. The Coolidge is part hotel, part Hostelling International affiliated hostel, and part student housing for the nearby Center for Comic Studies***.


(Be Still My Beating Heart)

I really do not think that I can express passionately enough my love for this place, you really need to go there and experience it. The staff was extremely helpful and sweet, the kitchen and bathroom facilities were spotless and well-stocked****, the room was toasty, the beds soft, and the lights were controlled with dangling chains that you pull to turn them on and off, which were so much fun! There are beautiful portraits of trains on the walls, and the creaky wooden floors and long hallways give the whole place an ancient, mysterious feel that inspires one to go hunting for friendly but misunderstood ghosts of train conductors and loggers and barmaids.

We set out to exploring right away, with our first stop being Revolution, a boutique-cum-espresso bar that sells beautiful vintage things as well as the work of local designers. Continuing our snowy wandering, we came to a bright workshop full of the most beautiful fabrics and crafts and butterflies and fantastic creatures, and we were drawn toward it like moths to the flame. Inside we met an amazing matriarchal family led by Rubina, a super-feminist genius artist, who has been working for over a decade designing custom wedding dresses and constructing costumes for operas and ballets from Montreal to London. She told us her wedding dress philosophy, explaining why she refuses to design gowns that are white or strapless in a valiant attempt to work against the established wedding dress industry.

The family invited us to have dinner with them after we sifted through their labyrinth of period costumes, and then they made a call to the proprietor of the Main Street Museum, and he agreed to open his trove of curiosities to us for a private, late-night viewing. This is why it pays to get to know the locals. In the cavernous, dimly-lit space were exhibits of tiny shoes, embalmed cats, old dolls, and a horrifying, pig-like swamp creature in a glass case. There were also tributes to train hobos, examples of essentially every animal that one can stuff and mount on a wall, and a research area where visitors can select books from the proprietor's vast library***** and read and take notes on them at their leisure. The Main Street Museum is certainly, as they say, a "Must-See."



(Note the helpful equation at the top left)

Before racing to the southbound Vermonter the next morning we also had a chance to buy organic, grade B Vermont maple syrup at the tiny, adorable food co-op, and have gingerbread lattes at the trendy new cafe in town, the Tuckerbox Café.



(The co-op offers free fruit to kids, which is a great idea, but caused me to have an epic moral debacle regarding my questionable status as a child)

Before I can finish this post though, I just want to reiterate the glories of this place, rated one of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America by Budget Travel, a legitimate travel publication.


NOTES:

*Yes, I know I swore I would not take any more buses this year, but the 1.5 hour drive through snowy forests with my dear friend was really quite cozy, as the three other passengers were all sleepy skiers and not strung out axe murderers as per usual.

**Which are to me like food and water to most other humans.

***The college is obviously an important, thriving part of the community, and comics and zines are proudly displayed in all of the local businesses in town.

****Towels, washcloths, shampoo, fabric detergent, or anyone? How about free hummus in the fridge and and blender and French press at your disposal? Don't mind if I do!

*****When I asked him how he had developed his impressive collection, he said that every book on public display had at one time been attributed with changing the life of either himself or someone he knew. Obviously this man is a genius.