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.


*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.*****


*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.


*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 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.


*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.


*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.


*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.


*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.


*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.