Thursday, October 25, 2007

Finally Sharing Pictures on Flickr!

I've decided to start publishing most of my pictures on Flickr - actually, I decided that a long time ago, but I take a while to follow through on things.  I had previously been posting them all on Facebook, but most of them have broader appeal, so I want to put those on Flickr and keep the "college antics" ones on Facebook.  I do eventually want to relocate previous ones, but one step at a time - and so, that first step is a set of pictures from a hiking trip that I went on in mid-June with a bunch of friends from the New Orleans trip.

Enjoy! is my Flickr homepage.


PS: Kudos to Microsoft's free Live Suite; Live Photo Gallery lets you publish your pictures straight from the program.  That was a big help in actually starting to do this, since I have most of my pictures tagged and captioned here, albeit in Photoshop Elements, and duplicating this effort each time I wanted to upload pictures was a major deterrent to doing so.

Another thumbs-up for Live Writer, which lets you blog entries with ease, including adding pictures, categories, etc.  Thumbs half-down for Word 2007, which only offers basic integration with - in particular, no images and no categories.  So I have to choose between Word's superior offline feature set (proofing, etc) or Live Writer's online feature set.

Maybe someday Microsoft will stop reinventing the wheel (for example - the Zune doesn't use Windows Media Player, but rather reinvents it with different features, and that means you would need to keep two libraries.  Fun!  I have to admit though, I am far more impressed with Zune v2, and am also surprised that they are upgrading the features of v1 as well.  Maybe I'll write about that another day.)

Flickr Tags:
<-- Another neat Live Writer feature

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

9/13/2007 - The Trip to Budapest

I had been thinking about whether to take the day trips to Budapest and/or Bratislava, and in the end decided to do just the trip to Budapest. If I'd had more time, I'd have gone to Bratislava as well, but I didn't want to spend half of my would-be time in Vienna going elsewhere, since Vienna was so nice. Next time, perhaps. : )

The trip was terrific. It took about two hours to reach Budapest by bus. It was a nice ride, and we passed by the Hungarian city of Tatabánya, which is home to the "Turul" monument, which is the mythical bird of the Magyars' (Hungarian people's) origin myth. It is the largest bird statue in Central Europe, but to me, it was fairly unimpressive from our vantage point.

When we reached Budapest, we had a short bus tour through the city, and then lunch. It was beautiful, though I learned that 70% of it had been leveled during World War II. In contrast to Austria (which had also been widely damaged, evidently), the country was not rich enough to instantly rebuild it, so it was, in many places, still run down.

At lunch it was as though I was back in America; we were eating at a restaurant in a Best Western (Hungarian food though), and I was at a table talking with a couple from California and a woman from Phoenix. We talked about various things, including travel, and then the whole real-estate crisis. Needless to say, I ended up telling my story, and then the couple from California was talking about theirs; they had traveled a lot, and had been to a few different places on this trip, including having taken the day-tour to Prague the previous day. They said they preferred to see things in depth, and so on a two-week vacation they might see only one or two cities, because they wanted to really experience them and remember them and so forth – I didn't quite understand how that philosophy fit together with their taking these one-day trips to Prague and Budapest. The topic shifted to the real-estate stuff in the US, and they said they were not shedding any tears about the realtors, as they went through some of their bad experiences (they've moved seven times), though I kind of lost interest.

After lunch, we subsequently went on a walking tour through the city. There was a Russian couple (living in the US) with whom I chatted briefly; I had heard them ask the guide whether she'd ever been to any of a few ex-Soviet countries they named (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc). Consequently, I wondered whether they were Russian, and then heard them speaking to each other. Another element of Russia that was strange to see here were Russian nesting dolls as souvenirs. I didn't quite understand what they had to do with anything here. Apparently someone else raised a similar question or the guide read my mind, because I overheard her say that they were Hungarian-made, which she imagined might have been the point; she too disagreed with selling them there since they had no relevance to local culture, but admitted that they were popular souvenirs, so it benefits them in the economic sense. Shrug. The ironic thing is that this "traditional symbol of Russia" was actually brought there by the Japanese.

After the walking tour, we then had some free time (two hours or so); I went up to the cupola of St. Stephen's Basilica, offering a great view of the city, and then walked around "Andrassy Street", one of the main pedestrian boulevards. I indeed ended up making it to Budapest after all, although I regretted the almost uselessly short amount of time, although between the walking tour and the free time, I did get to see a lot of the city.

On the way home, I talked at length with a man from Singapore. I hadn't realized English was the native language there, as he did have what I would consider an accent. He was a real estate lawyer who was on a 2-week vacation; he had succeeded where I hadn't, arriving in Italy and seeing two or three cities there (Milan, Venice, and Florence maybe) by train before taking the train to Vienna, playing it by ear. He gave me his card, telling me to let him know if I ended up traveling to Singapore someday. Ironically, earlier in the day, the man from California had said Asia was a lot of fun, except for Singapore. Hm. Guess I'll have to see for myself.

Anyway, he also helpfully reminded me (as have others along the way) that this is an opportunity I won't see again once I start working full time – yeah, I'm acutely aware of that (thus visions of sugarplums and teaching or the Foreign Service dance in my head). Черт знает.

He also was telling me of some of Singapore's draconian laws, among them being caned for vandalism – I have little sympathy for this; vandalism is a crime that benefits no one and is just a big nuisance. Another one is being hanged for drug trafficking. Wow.

We talked about music a bit also. He had ended up buying 20 books (many were thin; it was a few small bags) at a store and remarked at how gloomy and unfriendly the staff was. I remarked at how friendly Vienna seemed, and he agreed, but said he hadn't had the same level of friendliness that I had, encountering some less helpful people in the train station information office, and his first night's hotel.

In Budapest, there is a "6-star" hotel, the Four Seasons. We wondered about this, and then wondered what the point is, since if you're traveling somewhere you're usually only in the hotel for a few hours a day, mainly to sleep – as long as the hotel is nice enough and close enough, why pay thousands a night?

He had bought some food (there was lunch on our trip, but not dinner) and gave me some, as he'd bought too much for himself. It was a slice of pizza with peppers, corn, and other flora non grata embedded in it, so I "saved it for later" and tried to eat around the vegetables before just tossing it. So it goes. I met the first bum/beggar I'd seen as I walked around before returning to my hotel. I was relieved as I pulled out a bit of change (to "feed his dog"), that I had succeeded in not grabbing any full Euro/two-Euro coins. On that note, those Euro coins are a psychological menace, because it's very easy to spend some "spare change" that amounts to several dollars!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

10/1/2007 – Scott Adams Predicts the News

I have in fact come home, but I have been too busy at the moment to catch up with writing entries about my trip. Nevertheless, I saw the following and had to share it:

Scott Adams describing the news (

"Indeed, all of the news is nothing but basic stories with randomized features. Watch as I predict tomorrow's headlines today:


(NB: Scott Adams proposes that, "As regular readers of [his] blog know, all coincidences are clues that we are holograms programmed by our long dead ancestors before the planet was annihilated.")

This was amusing because the same formula seems to apply internationally as well (I thought it was just the U.S. that had shallow obsessions with irrelevant "newsworthy" figures, but Europe is quite obsessed with Madeleine McCann in the same exact "JonBenet Ramsey" kind of way. And even if there is real news on the case, that's no excuse not to indulge in baseless speculation! Ugh.)

The other day (ok, last week in fact), I went into the city [i.e. Manhattan] to hang out with some of my Stony Brook friends. One might think that, having had to deal with several different foreign subways in other languages, the NYC subway system would be a piece of cake. Nope. It's significantly more complex, even more so than that of Moscow (map). I took an "express" train instead of a "local" and thus missed my stop and had to backtrack, wherein I had to wait nearly twenty minutes for another train (apparently there was construction) since the first one that came did not match the platform. (The express was an A train, the local was a C train – I was waiting at the C platform, but an A train came, and not sure which to believe, I waited for a second train to be sure).

The finicky metro cards are a fairly terrible design. There is always a huge funnel of people trying to go through the turnstiles, and it seems that there's about a one-in-a-million chance of the reader actually working on the first (or even second) swipe. The other subways that had electronic cards sucked in the ticket and spit it back out, which always worked the first time (unless it was invalid). The better of those sucked in the ticket at the front, and then spit it out at the actual turnstile just as you approached it. The voices on the trains were automated (and thus audible), instead of mumbling gibberish, and in many cases there was also a visual indicator of the stops as well as where you were (as with some of the newer subway cars).

Scott Adams describes his experiences here, hilariously as always:

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Wilkommen in Wien (Part I)

I arrived in Vienna to rain. The flight may as well have been domestic; there was no border control or customs on departure or arrival as the flight was within the EU. This time I'd had the novel idea of actually emailing the hotel to ask for directions. This worked out mostly well; I took a shuttle bus to "Südbahnhof" and was then to take a "bim D" train one stop to "Schloss Belvedere." Right. My flight was a late one, leaving Italy at 9:30 and arriving in Vienna after 11. I fortunately made the last shuttle bus - very fortunately, as the next wasn't until early morning (5 or 6 AM). Based on this fact, when I got to Südbahnhof (a train station), I was unsurprised that the public transportation was largely done for the night. I figured I would have to take a cab - ok, at least I'd made it most of the way from the airport so it probably wouldn't be too bad. A taxi sat in the parking lot; I asked the driver how much to get to the hotel. To my great surprise he said it was straight ahead, only a few blocks away, maybe 500 meters or so, and even returned to the car to get a map and showed me how to get there. What a pleasant surprise!

I began to fish my umbrella out of my bag; he came back and said he would take me for 6 or 7 euros. Not particularly keen to walk in the rain and dark, I agreed. As we set out he named the lower price of 6 euros. We reached the hotel, and I was greeted by a very friendly, somewhat eccentric-seeming fellow at the reception desk. I took some tour brochures/maps (something which had of course been absent from the hotel in Rome). Among them were day trips to Bratislava and Budapest (and Prague, incidentally) - maybe I would reach them after all! There looked to be a ton of things to do; I lamented my short stay.

The next day I walked around after breakfast. Oh, what a terrific hotel! Sure, more cornflakes and ham/cheese sandwiches, but the location was marvelous. The room was quite nice too - whereas some of the others I likened to cozy little bedrooms, this was like a cozy master bedroom. It wasn't all that expensive either. Although I was enamored by Vienna, thus far I loathed the weather, which skittered between overcast, rain, and heavy rain. My first stop was a colossal palace, Belvedere, which was quite close to the hotel. There was a WWI monument there too - oh, right, Austria/Hungary used to be an empire not too long ago.

Afterwards, I made my way to the center. On the way, I passed a WWII monument; I thought to myself that it looked very much like a Soviet war memorial. Sure enough, I turned the corner and saw "Август 1945." Who'd have known Russian would follow me everywhere (as well as that damned umbrella song)? I then saw another giant palace, the Habsburg. A door was open and I ambled around inside for a while. Neat. I ended up at city hall, which could easily be mistaken for a large gothic church. I walked around inside there for a while too, both times keeping my door of plausible deniability open by only going through open doors and noting the German word for exit ("Ausgang") as to ask confusedly for it should the need arise.

In contrast to earlier cities, I saw few beggars, and in contrast to my previous stop of Rome, no middle-eastern immigrants running souvenir stands nor blacks selling counterfeit Prada bags nor rowdy youth all over the place. It was overall a very clean, and austere but friendly place. Cars were noticably deferent to pedestrians at crosswalks too. Another neat feature was a city-wide bike system - there were bike stations peppered throughout the city, and you could rent a bike from, and return it to, any station. The first hour was free; thus, if you used it right you could ride through the city entirely for free (well, sans a one-time 1 euro "registration fee" - still). I didn't end up using it, as I prefer to leisurely walk around and see everything; for this reason I didn't buy rollerblades in St. Petersburg last year as Kim had wanted to do, and it also obviously contributes to my massive amount of photography.

I made my way back to the Habsburg on the way to, well, elsewhere; someone was selling tickets to a concert there. (I had heard someone earlier in the day trying to sell tickets but figured I'd worry about it later - the best way to avoid doing things is to decide to "worry about them later" and by then, it's no longer an option, and thus: decision made). I looked at the program and wasn't terribly excited; tickets were 59 euros or 32 euros depending on which section you wanted to sit in. As I thought about it, as I did want to see a concert at some point during my stay, the man said that for students all seats were 25 euros. Sold. I went to dinner nearby, and the waitress was really friendly, which was another reinforcement of that aspect of the city.

I ended up with a nice 2nd row seat next to a couple from Ireland, with whom I chatted. The concert was good, and turned out to be surprisingly entertaining. Some of the songs had singing as well, and one of the singers was quite a jovial fellow - although I couldn't understand him on account of not speaking German, his facial expressions and gesturing made that minor point irrelevant, as it was clear that whatever it was, it was supposed to be funny. There were five singers altogether, each doing various songs before one including all of them. Among these singers were two young Asians, one male and one female. The male especially had a terrific voice; it was unbelievable to match this rich tenor's voice to its owner. The girl also sung well, although her accent was noticable even to me, but a hilarious moment ensued when she was paired with the first guy - they were dancing, and it was obviously some sort of romantic duet, and so at the end he lightly kissed her hands, but then abruptly pulled her in for a strong kiss on the lips, leaving her visibly surprised.

More amusement accompanied the polkas, which already evoked a smile as the musicians (particularly one of the clarinet players) showed their obvious enthusiasm. Except, that is, for one of the two bass players who couldn't have looked grumpier or less enthused throughout the concert if he tried, barely moving his hands when plucking the strings and moving his bow as little as possible, in particular contrast to his neighbor. Anyway, during most of the polkas, there would be some sort of skit by one of the percussionists, usually with the conductor. For example, during one, he played a two-tone whistle at regular intervals during which the music was paused: high, low; high, low; high low, and then: low, high! The music remained stopped as the conductor "glared" at him, and so he stood up, pointed to the sheet music, and shrugged. During another one, he used some kind of whistle, and then started to switch between it and a birdcall, and then during one of the the bird-whistle iterations, he held it for what seemed like minutes, standing up as he blew until his face was nearly purple, earning applause (and laughter) from the audience.

But one of the most entertaining was when they brought out what appeared to be an apparatus fashioned out of a log, and then he put two anvils which he hit with hammers that he took from a knapsack. Of course, as he and the conductor "reviewed" before starting the song, the percussionist would hit them as loud as possible and would try to hit the conductor's fingers as he pointed to which anvil to hit. During the song, the percussionist pulled out a bottle from the knapsack and took a swig, and then he sleighted a Playboy from the conductor's stand and opened it to the orchestra, with the aforementioned clarinet player gesturing to rotate it as to see the centerfold. The percussionist then to turned it to us to reveal - a puppy dressed in a sweater. Then he wagged his finger at us. It was a really delightful concert.

I returned to the hotel on foot - the hotel was really well-located - and the same man who checked me in the previous night greeted me, and remembering me, gave me my key, happily proclaiming, "Ah yes, Mr. Sowul, number 41!" which made me smile even more than I already was. So far I'd had a terrific success rate with friendly, helpful people.

The next day consisted mainly of walking around aimlessly; I walked through "Stadtpark" and then through a good deal of the city on the way to its iconic ferris wheel. I went up near sunset, and then made my way back home. The following day was a day-tour to Budapest.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Arrividerci, Roma (Part III)

The next day I went throught some more of the city, mainly more parks on the west side of the center, before ending up at St. Peter's again. While I was standing around, a girl came up to me and asked if I went to Stony Brook, indicating my bag. I said yes; we chatted for about 2 seconds (she was from East Islip, and asked where I was from) before she darted off. Hm. Even so, it was the most I'd heard in native English in weeks. I wanted to see if the cupola at St. Peter's was open today, as the notice that I'd seen the previous time I had been there implied that the closing was only that one day (of course). It was, so up I went - 550 stairs (or so) each way. What a terrific view!

Subsequently I was to meet Lidia and have dinner with her family - while I waited to meet her, I saw another student of the "keep going until you hit the car in front/behind you" school of parallel parking. As her mom drove us, we stopped occasionally to see views of the city. Lidia showed me around her apartment a bit; there was a Ukranian woman staying with them for the time being. We had some pizza and spaghetti (and bread), a combination which Lidia said was not usual for them to eat, but so that I could have some of each. Her sister joined us; Lidia said she had made the sauce. We talked some more about language (she speaks nine), and they drove me back to the hotel; on the way we saw some more sights, including the Circus Maximus, now illuminated, and much to my surprise the lights were all different colors. She and I agreed to meet for lunch the next day, and I bid farewell to her mother and sister.

By now I'd seen most of what I wanted in the center, so I bought a day-ticket for the metro and decided to just go around; my first destination was St. Paul's cathedral. This was my first excursion on the "B" line of the metro, and it was quite a contrast to the clean, modern "A" line (which was reminiscent of Prague) - the wagons were old and almost completely covered with graffiti. St. Paul's cathedral was also amazing. Subsequently I stopped at the adjacent "Piramide" station, where there was indeed a pyramid. I looked around there for a few minutes before continuing on and meeting Lidia. We got some pizza and walked to Piazza del Popolo and chatted while we ate there, before heading back for some ice cream and looking in vain for somewhere to sit as my two cups of ice cream begain to melt. Afterwards we headed back to the metro and bid each other farewell; I walked around a little longer before taking the train to the airport, which was a nice ride at sunset, with a rainbow in the distance.

The flight was fairly uncomfortable; fortunately it was only little more than an hour. It was an MD-80 with three seats in each row, and not enough room in the overhead bin to fit my backpack. Coincidentally, the Alitalia inflight magazine also featured St. Petersburg as the cover story.

Oh, and in addition to popped collars, I hate sweaters tied around people's necks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More in Rome (Part II)

The next day, I again missed the morning shuttle; I thought it finished at 10:30, but no - that was the last departure from the metro. Arg. Lidia and I were going to meet in the evening and join her friends to watch a Russian movie, so I again explored the city during the day. I saw the Circus Maximus, which was filled with lights for some reason - later I found out that there was a, well, wouldn't you know it, "La Notte Bianca" (White Night) festival throughout the city. I also walked through a lot of the nearby ruins before making my way up to a park near Villa Medici and Piazza del Popolo, whereabouts I later met up with Lidia and we walked around a bit, with the festival now in full force. We took the subway (free now) to her friend's flat, where there were three of her friends, one of which was from Ukraine. Who'd have guessed. While Lidia and I walked to the metro we had talked about various things, including 9/11 (that day was the 10th). Thinking back, it was hard to know exactly how we had all found out (a classmate told us while we were in math class, but I don't know how he himself found out; I think he had seen it on TV in the library), but further, it was hard at first to remember whether I had indeed seen the towers fall live, because of the endless replays on the news throughout that day and the following few days. I remember having read Newsday that morning and noting the date was 911, like the emergency number. Hm. How little I knew how the world would change a few hours later?

Right, so we went to her friend's house, where Vladimir and I cast our votes for Операция "Ы" ("Operation "Y") to which I was introduced in the culturology class. Parts of it involve last-minute preparation for exams, about which we later had to write an essay, "От сессия до сессия студенты живут весело" ("Between exams students are carefree"). I agreed with this in my essay, saying that it was universal, or at least that students in the US and Russia were the same in this respect, and now Lidia was providing evidence for it in Italy, having a few hundred pages of text still to read before her test. I really enjoyed the film and thought it was terrific - just purely funny, good-natured humor. I loved it, and look forward to watching other Shurik films (I had earlier seen one thanks to an assignment for Russian class back home, wherein I had to watch a Russian film and talk about it in class; my roommate and I had watched one where Shurik makes a time machine and ends up switching time periods with Ivan the Terrible. I had really enjoyed it but didn't realize there were other Shurik films. I also learned the actor had a sad life, unsuccessfully trying to avoid being typecast, and then becoming an alcoholic and living in poverty after the welfare system disappeared, before dying of a heart attack.) Shortly after the movie we went home, and as I walked back from the metro (this was about a half-hour trip now that I knew where I was going) I saw a fairly suspicious car fire. Hm.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Rough Start in Rome

The next day I took a cab to Kiev's airport (which was about an hour away), as the constantly slow and overcrowded public transport didn't fill me with confidence. The airport was interestingly (read: badly) designed: it was bizarre, confusing and inconvenient - arrivals and departures were mixed, and there was nowhere to sit as customs control was before check-in, and so you had to wait for your flight to be checking in before you were able to pass, so there was of course a colossal crowd standing outside this barrier. After that it wasn't so bad, but somewhat delayed. I worred as I wasn't sure how much time I had for my layover, and I hadn't packed my luggage for contingencies, almost begging for such a fate. Fortunately that worked out. I had a brief stay in Prague airport, and then was off to Rome. Czech airlines has terrific legroom (obviously an important factor when you're 6'+), so the flights were very comfortable. The inflight magazine, coincidentally, had St. Petersburg as the 'cover story.'

Upon arriving in Rome, there was apparently a large Asian plane that had preceded ours, based on the massive queue for immigration, and Lidia had said she'd meet me so I looked around for a while before finding her and her mother. I was worried they'd left or something, but they had hit traffic. She said she'd mixed up the dates of her exams, which were not the 21st as she originally thought, but rather the 12th, so she was going to need to study for the first two days I was there. I assured her that it was fine, and that she should of course do as convenient for her. They drove me to the hotel, with some difficulty as it was far from the center and hard to find. We had to ask for directions a few times. The first time we saw someone standing on the side of the road and slowed down as to pull over - it was a prostitute. We sped back up and mused that she had different questions in mind. We asked police at some point - it was strange to be in the mindset of being able to trust them again. Eventually we made it to the hotel, and I expressed my gratitude as we agreed to meet up again in a few days.

A man and a woman were working at the reception desk. As I was checking in, the man asked if I spoke French. I said no, and half-jokingly offered Russian instead. Ha ha. Well, the woman spoke Russian, so we indeed completed our business in Russian. Who'd have thought. Of course, Lidia and I communicated mainly in Russian as well, and indeed we met in St. Petersburg last year as I introduced myself with my incipient Russian skills. The hotel seemed nice; I was practically in my own little bungalow. Working the lights was mystifying initially. I had to insert my keycard into a slot in the wall. And keep it there, I learned, after the lights went out a few minutes later. There was another airport nearby, so I had the roar of airplanes to lull me to sleep. Right.

Breakfast the next morning was included, so that was nice to have again. Of course, it consisted of the apparently universal ham/cheese sandwich and cornflakes, although there was a satisfying array of desserts here as well. The contrast in wastefulness between Russia/Kiev and here was also apparent, with plastic cups at breakfast, and the daily replacement of my plastic cup in the bathroom as well as the bar of soap I would end up using maybe twice.

The hotel had a free shuttle to the metro, which was fairly far away. The hours were fairly inconvenient: from 8 until 10:30 in the morning, and from 5 to 9 in the evening. So I thought, anyway. I was flummoxed when I got to the metro, as all they had were automatic machines that took coins, and all I had were 10 euro bills. I finally found a cashier and waited in line for about 15 minutes only to find out, sorry, he had no change. I looked around in vain for an internet cafe for which I'd earlier seen a sign, figuring I could get change that way. It seemed to not exist, and I grew very frustrated and angry that I apparently had no way to solve this problem, so I decided to walk, dammit. There were some ruins I explored along the way, and then ended up having to backtrack in lieu of climbing the fence next to the fairly busy road I'd been walking down. I made it to the next metro stop, or rather, a metro stop, and resigned myself to buying a water to break the 10 euro bill, and made damn sure to stockpile coins from that point on.

So I finally made it to the center, and all my frustration evaporated as I walked through the city, seeing all these amazing things from history, ruins mingled with modernity, mixed with monuments. I saw the city from the top of Vittoriano, offering a terrific view, and then went to the Colosseum, which was amazing to see for real! It began to rain while I was there. I had pizza and pasta for dinner, relieved to finally be somewhere where it was natural to eat Italian food all the time. I went to an internet cafe and, due to terrorism laws, had to show my passport. I wondered how that could possibly help unless they monitored you, and then drew the unfortunate conclusion. I wrapped up and returned by 8:30 and called the hotel for the shuttle by payphone, as I'd not succeeded in finding a SIM card yet. The phone was really quiet and the volume button didn't work.

Anyway they informed me that the shuttle stopped at 7. What? (There was an airport shuttle from 9 to 9, and I mixed up the 19:00 posted at the desk). I asked how to get back but couldn't hear and ran out of money. I paced back and forth for a while, hoping for a taxi but not succeeding, and strongly missing gypsy cabs. I asked a few stores/restaurants if I could call a taxi, but they either had no phone or refused outright. Desperate and out of ideas, I decided to walk. That I didn't know where to go did not deter me; the map I had only covered the center, so I was literally wandering the streets, at night, in a foreign country, where I didn't know the language, and tried to head in the direction I thought the hotel was in the vain hope of finding it. Life's full of small challenges. I actually reached the street, but my address was 95 and this only went up to 91; it continued on the other side of the highway which I couldn't cross, so I had to find my way around. I had to backtrack quite a bit, and then overshot when walking around the cloverleaf-esque thing, and found another hotel and asked how to reach my street, but he didn't know (nor did the guests that had just entered), thinking it was somewhere in the center (yeah, I wish). I didn't really have enough money for a cab (those 50 euros went really quick), so I backtracked and continued, and after three hours or so I actually made it; I tried not to entertain the million what-ifs that came to mind throughout. I saw the sign at the desk for the shuttle and it indeed said 19:00, and so I asked how to get back otherwise, and was told to take a cab. Nice. So that meant I had to be back everyday by 7 PM. What crap!

So the next day I overslept and missed the breakfast and the shuttle bus. Nice. There was a map on the wall in the hotel, so I prepared to set out on foot, as I (sort of) knew where I was going this time. (I asked, but they didn't have any maps for me which had the hotel or its surroundings. Nice). A cab arrived as I was leaving, and after it had dropped off its passengers I asked the driver if he could take me to the metro for less than 5 euros, as that was practically all I had - the hotel, of course, conveniently lacked an ATM. He said yes, although it was metered and came to 5.50 or so, so I gave him 6 euros (I had a grand total of 9). So I took the metro and withdrew a lot more money this time as I reached the center, and got a SIM card from a place that had been closed by the time I had reached it the prevous day.

I got some brunch - a small pizza, water, and ice cream. The total: 18.50 euros. What? The small gelati was not 3 euros as I thought (which was still pricey) but rather 8. Whoa. I mean, it was delicious, but $10? Clearly the era of cheap ice cream was over (but it was delicious, so I had more throughout the day). I walked through the city, seeing, among other things, the Pantheon and Castell Sant'angelo on my way to the Vatican to see St. Peter's Basilica. Being there was also unbelievable. It was amazingly big, grand, opulent. I also visited the papal tombs, which included that of John Paul II. It was quite a magnificent church, probably dwarfing every other one I've seen (or close to it). I was irked that all the churches here, especially this one, were turned into tourist traps with little pay-kiosks for information or to turn on the lights or such things, along with large crowds of people just talking loudly and taking pictures and videos; at least in Russia there was some semblance of respect.

I then went up to the cupola, which, due to repairs, was partially closed. I could only go up to the terrace and the inner ring (inside the church) which was still amazing. I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel but it was closed by then, so I got dinner and went home. I just made the last shuttle, the route of which I carefully noted. I had scheduled my follow-up language evaulation for the Russian program for 11 PM that night, so I had several hours to kill and so I listened to music and napped. I was relieved that that had actually worked out (ensuring that reception was aware and was able to forward the call and so forth). This time was far, far easier than the pre-program evaluation, although the line was still extremely noisy as it had been the first time (in spite of assurances that the problem would be fixed this time), so that messed things up a lot. Still, it was very much easier than the first one, so the program (and/or the 10 weeks in Russia in general) had obviously helped a great deal.

No Soviet Pensioner Left Behind

Two other aspects of Kiev were transportation and beggars. The metro and the bus may have been cheap, but the cost was that of time: the metro, during my travels, came only every five minutes or so (compared to 1 or 2 minutes elsewhere) and sometimes as long as eight minutes elapsed between trains! Consequently the trains were almost always packed. And as for the buses, in busy areas, the bus stops would actually have lines extending down the sidewalk/street.

Most of the beggars I've mentioned outside the churches were not run-of-the-mill bums (on that note, while I was in walking around in Manhattan the night before orientation - nearly three months ago! - one such bum was carrying a sign: "Give me money for drugs, booze and hookers - hey, at least I'm not bull___ing you." This led to many onlookers, of course, and he started yelling, "hey, this isn't a ___ing press conference, where's the ___ing money?"). Anyway, they were not run-of-the-mill bums were rather old babushkas, victims of a world that changed too late for them; when the Soviet Union collapsed and was replaced with new fledgling capitalist societies, it may have opened up the future for coming generations, but it pulled the rug out from under this one. They will probably not live to see a benefit from the change, but rather will eke out their days in poverty, abandoned and sacrificed to the future, their world having simply changed beneath their feet and left them behind through no fault of their own. This was not the case just in Kiev, of course, but elsewhere in Russia as well, as prices rise while "New Russians" prosper (Moscow is the most expensive city in the world), but of course pensions are what they are. Countless others despondently sell fruit or flowers outside metro stations. I think men have largely avoided this problem because they're already dead by this age; in Russia the average male life expectancy hovers around 60.

On a lighter note, I did manage to get Chicken Kiev at the airport - as Anna put it, the equivalent of finding French fries in France!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Chicken Kiev (i.e. Kiev, part II)

The next day I started out a lot later. The breakfast buffet wasn't included and was a fairly steep $7, and I could see that it was not worth that at all, so I instead went to a cafe. I took a random bus randomly somewhere, and it was so bumpy it could have been a theme park ride: it was a semi-trailer bus, and I was all the way in the back, so the effect was like a catapult vaulting me into the air with every bump. I found my way to the metro and took it to somewhere near the Botanical Gardens, to which I made my way. As I had exited the metro, I saw a police officer, who was guarding the exit, glance down at my bag (my Stony Brook shoulder bag), and was unsurprised when a moment later he asked to check my documents. I didn't know whether they did that, so I was glad I'd been keeping my passport on me.

The bus conductor had been friendly, yelling at length at 2 young girls when they didn't have enough for the fare (but letting them stay on) and also friendly was the attendant at a food stand, literally yelling at me to stand in line when I inquired about a refrigerated Snickers. I decided she could take the Snickers and shove it. The garden was a gigantic park, with a small monastery in it, and I walked around the complex for a long time. While there I saw a strange hummingbird-like insect hanging around the flowers. I tried to take some pictures, and got about one decent one before what looked like a giant yellowjacket (a cicada killer, I think) swooped in on it, and they fell into the brush; I heard some struggling (i.e. lots of buzzing) and needless to say the overgrown bee was the one that emerged. I saw another hummingbird bug and hung around to see if it would be taken down, but no such luck. After the park I made my way to the city center where I hung around for a while before returning to the hotel. As I was going to sleep there were fireworks going off outside (shrug) so I watched that for a while.

While walking through the city the next day, I had seen young military cadets walking through the streets (as had been the case in Russia of course), reminding e of my Russian professor from Kiev, who recounted his schoolchildren days from time to time. He had also had military training growing up, as it was compulsory, and by 8th grade he could disassemble a Kalishnikov in 8 seconds, with reassembly bringing the total up to 25. At one point I stopped in a park, where people were playing chess, backgammon, dominoes, etc at the tables. A backgammon game ended not far from me, and as he collected the kopeeks I was unsurprised when the man sitting there invited me to play. I said I didn't know how, and was further unsurprised when he said that was fine, and named the sum of 15 hrvina. He grew impatient as I hesitated, and as his phone rang, discretion got the best of me as I decided that, although it'd be another cool story about how I learned backgammon from a stranger, in Russian, in a park in Kiev, I decided it wasn't going to be worth the frustration, and when he answered the phone I skedaddled. Later on in another park (well, not quite a park) there was a man practicing with a whip while another looked on. Shrug. I continued on down a hill and, due to reconstruction, a long dirt road which also reminded me of the Wild West (similar to Arkhangelsk). Back on Khreschatik, there were some impressive break dancers (as opposed to in the atrium of Benedict at Stony Brook), and I watched that for a while before taking the metro home, just missing the marshrutka back to the hotel. One might naively expect that the remainder of the day's events involved taking the next one and calling it a night.

Nope. Another old man who also didn't make it on the bus started talking to me. He was, I think, another shoe salesman, but not as well off as the Land Rover-driving Oleg in St. Petersburg, complaining that he'd read in magazines that some sort of shoes were "in" but was having difficulty selling. He showed me a woman's show which he had hanging around his neck, a sort of strange, ogromnoe (huge) necklace, as well as two others in his shoulder bag. He asked me what I thought of them. I said I didn't really have too many opinions on women's shoes, and so he asked the girl standing next to me what she thought; she said she didn't like them all that much. He said that at home, he had thousands of shoes, and that he was trying to open a shoe museum. The girl marveled (nichego cebe!) and asked how long he'd been collecting and he said since the war. He had earlier complained about how much money the USSR had spent in Cuba, Indonesia (or maybe it was Thailand), I think complaining that there was enough need for it in the Soyuz itself. He said he'd written Yuschenko (and others) about his museum but there seemed to be little interest in the idea. He then asked if I had a videocamera, and invited me to film his collection and try to get some news coverage in the US. I explained that I had one more day and said I would try. I wanted to help this 70-year old pensioner at least partially fulfill his dream, but he wasn't home when I called the next morning, so that was that.

So after calling, I went out and ambled around, not knowing what else to see, and at night took a river cruise on the Dnepr. While I waited for launch, another boat passed by, Verka Serdjuchka's "tuk tuk tuk" playing loudly, which made me laugh. Ah, Verka Serdjuchka - a Ukranian singer, who sings in Russian as he cross-dresses as a comical woman. He was going to run for parliament in Ukraine, I heard, pledging not to come to work in costume. I was hooked when I heard "vsyo budyet khorosho (everything will be fine)" and saw its video, and hooked my suitemates at Stony Brook as well. Enjoy:

The boat ride was all right; I'd hoped for more of a "tour" as opposed to a party boat, for for 25 hrvina ($5) it was good enough. I got acquainted with a young couple; the girl asked why I was by myself, and I said I was just a tourist and explained a bit of the story. I wasn't sure whether she, or one of her friends, was getting married imminently, because she was talking about said friend, and then a wedding, and then some imminent travels that she was going on, so I wondered if that meant she was getting married and that was the honeymoon, or what. Oh well. She asked what I thought of Kiev, Ukraine, Ukranians; I said I hadn't had enough time or contact to make much of an opinion, but that owing to the Soviets, probably, I didn't see that much of a difference. I remarked that it was interesting if unfortunate that Russian had become the de facto language, but at the same time, if it hadn't, we'd not be able to talk to each other. She assented, but said she didn't really care, and that language was just communication, a sentiment I'd heard in previous conversations from time to time (often to protest the Russian-only rule during our program). She said even amongst her friends she spoke Russian, as it was just easier. After the Soviet Union's breakup, Ukranian became the official language again. An example I found amusing was at the "Площа Льва Толстого" metro station, where the дь (in Russian it's "Площадь") had simply been removed, its dirty silhouette remaining as evidence.

A different Verka song came on (the infamous "Russia Goodbye" - another "controversy"), and I remarked on that and told the story of how I'd heard on the radio and got hooked, and then hooked my non-Russian-speaking suitemates. I said my Russian professor didn't really like Verka, as he considers that it makes a mockery of Ukraine - much to his chagrin, when he had a project translating songs and showing their videos in class, I had half the class doing various Verka Serdjuchka songs - but she said she didn't mind, and that it was all in fun. The trip ended; we said goodbye and good luck, and I returned to the hotel. The next day was my flight to Rome!

To Kiev!

The Ukranian woman on the train woke me up about an hour before our arrival in Kiev so I could get ready, but then she apologized as she realized I didn't really have any such need, so we just looked out the window while we waited. One of the Russian women sneezed, and I said "bud'te zdorov'e" (the Russian equivalent to "bless you" - literally "be healthy") and the Ukranian woman asked if that implied that we also said something in English when someone sneezed, and what it meant (since, in Russian, the meaning is clear), so I clumsily tried to explain that, as far as I knew, way back when they thought your soul was trying to escape or something, so it meant something to the effect that "may God grant you that everything is fine" (this was the best I could muster in Russian). She also asked about what kind of trees we had as we watched the forests through the window. I said we had all kinds, but near me it was mainly oak and pine, but that it depends on the region, e.g. in California there are the giant sequoias. As we approached the city, she asked if we had such ogromnie (giant) cities; I said I didn't really know, but that they were probably smaller, but taller, and she was saying something to the effect that it's unhealthy to be living up that high, that there are these vibrations and so forth. Shrug.

We arrived at the station and said our farewells, with the Russians joking that they were looking forward to my book (we'll see). The train had arrived at about 8 or 9 AM, and I took a taxi to the hotel for 60 hrvina ($12). Upon checking in, I was presented with a glass of champagne and a "congratulations." Well alright, cool. (I later learned they were celebrating their 35th anniversary that week). The hotel was nice enough, but still it was so far away. I showered and walked to the city, crossing a long bridge across the Dnepr (yes, the same Dnepr as in Smolensk), with a giant statue of a woman with a sword and shield ("the lady motherland") in the distance, as well as monasteries dotting the hills.

I was hungry as I walked uphill towards the statue (a World War II monument) and its surrounding memorials to WWII and, to my surprise, Afghanistan. Oh, right, I'd forgotten about that (as had, evidentally, the Russians). I ate at a little cafe, which was dirt cheap. Yet another benefit of learning Russian was that I could function here (thanks to the Soviet Union basically making Russian the de facto language during that time). I went into a museum about the war in Afghanistan as well as, evidentally, some other communist interferences and such. It is interesting to note the sympathy felt toward the tragic destruction wrought on the Soviet Union from WWII, which was, let's say, a righteous defense against the Nazis, and then see the other side, i.e. the war of aggression into Afghanistan which also resulted in pointless calamity. I realized that, although we consider recent history more peaceful than earlier, when Europe was seemingly always fighting, it really isn't much better, with it still being a constant series of hellish wars. The war(s) of 1812, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Iraq again (off the top of my head), to say nothing of all the genocides that have happened and are still happening. We really live in a hellish world, it's just that the US itself has been largely insulated from it. I was reminded of a news report I'd seen while watching TV in Murmansk, with these child miners working at soldiers' gunpoint for nothing, as the soldiers would steal everything. These people could barely fit in the caves and were covered with scrapes and worked like hell for nothing. What kind of life is that?

Things remained cheerful as I made my way further to the WWII monuments/museum (though strangely, there were a lot of wedding parties, just like at a statue of a grenadier in Murmansk. Shrug. There were also a lot of schoolchildren in suits). I went here too, seeing more relics of destruction, including a wrecked plane, whose engine was mostly intact and exposed. I marveled at all the complex machinery built and destroyed for war, and at how much money, research, materials, etc, that goes into making things all these instruments of death and destruction, designed solely to kill other people.

I continued walking around the hills, seeing over the wall into a nearby monastery, which I entered later in the day - the "Kiev/caves monastery", and there were indeed a series of underground caves which one navigated with candles, with tombs of, well I don't know whom, but some weren't fully covered and I'd see some shrunken, rotting fingers here and there. There were some altars and other things too here and there in the caves. The whole place was huge. There was a depressing line of beggars along the street outside the monastery as I continued my walk towards the center of the city.

There was another park with a giant arch with two soldiers in the middle, evidently representing Russia and Ukraine. There were some theme park-like attractions as well, and it offered a terrific view across the Dnepr (as did most of these things on these hills). I continued to another monastery, which was somehow related to Stalin's famines and repressions of the 1930s, which were meant to punish Ukranian peasants for their insubordination. I continued on to Khreschatik, the main boulevard of Kiev, which was like Times Square as a colossal block party. I was even angrier that my hotel could have been right here were it not for my stupid credit card company. I walked along, then took the subway (50 kopeeks! i.e. 10 cents) and then a bus (75 kopeeks) - that's right, kopeeks are actually somewhat useful! (A kopeek is 1/100th of a ruble in Russia, or 1/100th of a hrivna in Ukraine. But in Russia, because of inflation, nothing is less than a few rubles and everything costs an even multiple of a ruble, so kopeeks are completely useless. The exception is supermarkets, which will have things cost something like 21 rubles, 20 kopeeks, and so are extremely irritating). The total - 1.25 hrvina - 25 cents. I'd had quite a day, arriving that morning on the train and exploring a huge swath of the city of the course of almost 12 hours walking up and down hills.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Exploring Babel, Part I (On Languages)

So Julia and I were chatting in the bliny place. "Is Russian harder than Spanish?" she had asked. I answered, as I had to earlier presentations of this question, that each language had its difficulties. I said to Julia that Russian and English were certainly more related to each other than say, to Japanese or Arabic, so it was all relative. Russian may be complex with its cases (nouns change form depending on function - the last vestige of this in English is I/me, he/him, etc), but verbs to me in Russian are easier than Spanish, with two sets of endings in Russian, rather than the dozen or so sets of endings for all the tenses in Spanish. In Russian there are just a pair of verbs, with one set of endings for present and a ridiculously simple set of past-tense endings. I said I imagined it was tough to move in the other direction, to the dozen other tenses in English - in Russian there are, "ya prochitayu, y budu chitat', ya chitayu, ya chital, ya prochital" - which in English are approximately, "I will read, I will be reading, I am reading, I was reading, I have read." You choose between the two verbs based on whether it is a single, completed action or not; in a sense you are focusing on either the result or the process.

Of course, in English are additionally, "I read (present), I read (past), I do read, I did read, I am reading, I was reading, I will be reading, I have been reading, I will have read, I will have been reading, I had been reading, I had read." I think that's all of them. She admitted that it was tricky, but said the upshot was that for almost any given situation there was a tense for it. She said French was even worse, with some tenses only for speaking and others only for writing. Describing texts, she said, was especially fun.

I said I guess you could say the same thing for verbs of motion in Russian, that they are complex but precise (there is no simple "to go," but rather two pairs of verbs: one pair for going under your own power (on foot) and one pair for going in a vehicle. One of each pair is for unidirectional motion and the other for multidirectional. Yeah.) I said that this system was also complex but precise, but sometimes I really wish there was just "I go/I went". It gets especially fun in complicated, multi-step journeys.

Another difficulty of English for Russians is of course that of articles: when to use "the" or "a". My Russian professor said he considered it among the hardest things, with almost every rule you could come up with being broken in some situation.

I said Russian was nice with its heavy use of word roots, as there is a lot of building from stems, especially prefixing verbs. I said spelling was also relatively easy, except reduction of unstressed vowels and consonant assimilation. An example of vowel reduction is "thank you" - spasibo. Although written with an o, the word is stressed on the "ee" sound, and so it is pronounced "spasibah" - this was especially painful when the guy who led off at the Rolling Stones concert said he only knew one word but knew it perfectly, and then proceeded to repeatedly butcher it as "spasiboh." Mick Jagger did pretty well though.

Consonant assimilation is similar in principle to the English rule, "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." I'll admit I don't remember what that means, exactly, but in Russian the rule is, "when consonants go walking, the second one does the talking" or something to that effect. The point is that when you have voiced consonants near unvoiced consonants or vice-versa, they become like whatever the second kind is. Voiced/unvoiced consonants are v/f, z/s, g/k, etc. The only difference between each of those pairs is that in the first, the vocal cords move, in the second they don't. Anyway so if you have something like "v Kieve" (in Kiev), it turns into "f Kieve" since the K mutes the v. Fine. The point is that these two features make it difficult to know how a word is really spelled. Of course, English is far more nightmarish - rough, but through. Knife and phone, have but crave. Etc. I mean, we have spelling competitions (i.e. spelling bees). That is evidence enough of how difficult it is.

We agreed pronunciation-wise, English->Russian was largely easier than the reverse. The difficulty going into Russian is largely consonants, but going into English it's largely vowels, and vowels are a lot harder to fix than consonants. For English-speakers the only real vowel challenge is "ы" (somewhere between i in "bit" and a in "about," I think). Of course in English, we have a huge amount of vowels, but of course one of the difficulties is "sheep/ship" - especially vis-a-vis "sheet" and "beach." Ужас.

We moved on to dialects; she asked me if I'd been able to notice any dialect differences yet in Russian; she said in the north they spoke particularly fast, theorizing that because of the cold they had to conseve their breath. I said I knew of Volga (no vowel reduction) and Moscow (exaggerated reduction of o->a) and of course "hovorit'" like Mikhail Gorbachev, which is almost like Ukranian, but that overall I couldn't tell much yet. I did notice in Moscow that they seemed to say "the doors are closing" much more clearly ("dveri zakriva-yoo-tsya"). I had talked of American regional differences a bit, also with Sveta and Natasha, and said I was surprised that in our group the differences were relatively light. When I exemplified the southern drawl with Sveta and Natasha, Sveta responded with a joking acknowledgement, "the phone was greening so I pinked it up and said, "yellow!"

It was another interesting, unintended consequence of taking Russian (although my list of intended consequences numbers about zero, I think) that I was able to communicate in Kiev. The old man with the shoes said "hovorit" and "zvonit," but still. It was also interesting to somewhat be able to understand Ukranian most of the time, though some sentences I would find almost incomprehensible. Reading was more trying, as there would often be spelling differences that, until I thought it aloud, I didn't realize what it sounded like in Russian. Belorussian seemed farther away speechwise, judging from the train ride to Smolensk, but my other Russian professor had shown me some Belorussian when I visited one time, as she was doing research in it, and it seemed fairly close to written Russian, except that reductions were often written out. For example, in Russian milk is written "moloko" but pronounced "malako", with the stress on the last o, but in Belorussian it is indeed written "malako." This makes it easier to pronounce, but you lose the stems; for example, milk as an adjective is "malochniy" (stress on the o), and so the relationship is clear in Russian (молоко/молочный) but less so with the "o"s turned into "a"s in Belorussian.

So, between my exposure to Russian, some Ukranian, some Czech (trip to Prague), and a bit of Belorussian, it's been interesting to see all these overlaps and differences in these Slavic languages.

Reflections on Russia

So, after ten weeks in Russia, it was finally time to leave. What a journey it was! Not long ago, I couldn't see myself going to the other side of the world (on a whim, pretty much), especially not to Russia, this strange and unfamiliar place, but of course now I don't regret it for a second (I did for a day). Indeed, last year's trip was my first time abroad. Who could have guessed where it would take me and how many people I'd meet? I met many friends last year in St. Petersburg both from Russia and Europe, as well as the other Stony Brook students whom I met there. After last year's trip, I ended up going to Prague (and Dresden) for New Year's with Alex, Anna and Michelle, who I'd met in St. Petersburg - although Alex didn't quite make it to Germany, but rather Ustí nad Labem, courtesy of forgetting his passport. Then in the spring, I went to New Orleans with Michelle, Anna, and Jenna, as Jenna was one of the main organizers of the trip.

And then, I was able to go back this year, and I was reunited, although briefly, with many of the Russian friends I'd met, though this time conversing mainly in Russian, which had earlier been impossible. I also made several dozen new friends, from the US and from Russia (and beyond). I saw familiar sights in St. Petersburg, many of which had changed in the interim - completing repairs or starting them, perhaps (like the Hermitage) - or even while I was there (like the Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge, which had finished its reconstruction and reopened during my months there). Bus and metro fare had increased by 2 rubles, to 14, and the cheap McDonald's ice cream cones had as well, to 8 rubles. Other things hadn't changed - and other repairs looked like they hadn't made any progress at all. Of course, I also saw many new sights in St. Petersburg (and beyond), and took a few thousand more pictures.

Even more, after the program in St. Petersburg, I traveled around on the Russian railroad (and a single Aeroflot flight, whose plane did not spontaneously lose its wings and drop out of the sky) on my own, spending a cumulative 72 hours / 3 days on the trains, with a new adventure and some new acquaintances almost every time. I traveled to five cities - St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Moscow, and Smolensk - out of the seven I had originally planned (I didn't make it to Vladimir or Nizhniy Novgorod), not including the cruise, which took me additionally to Petrozavodsk, Kizhi, Valaam, and a little village (Svyrstroy). I had grand plans for traveling through Europe on the railroad, hoping to see Kiev, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Munich, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville (and whatever else on the way). Although that didn't quite come to fruition, I will still see about half of that (albeit mainly by plane): Kiev, Rome, Vienna, Barcelona, and Bilbao.

I'll miss the simplicity of life in Russia - the gypsy cabs (ie. any passing car) always at your disposal, the low-cost ice cream (and low-cost everything, basically). I won't miss the crooked cops nor the lack of street signs at corners. Nor the strangely ubiquitous mullet. It was very exciting and rewarding this year to actually be able to communicate in Russian (however rudimentary it might have been). And even though I still can't explain my reasons for studying to those who ask (as Natasha pointed out in Moscow, "nobody asks why you're studying English"), I certainly can't complain about the results. I'll be back, one way or another, but for now - счастливо, Россия!

Back to Moscow (and, as Verka Serduchka might say, Russia Goodbye!)

On the train back to Moscow, in my compartment were a mother and son, who was late 20s / early 30s, and an older man (with characteristic smell of said). It was a relatively short ride (six hours) and so I didn't feel the need to bring food with me. I had breakfast in Smolensk and figured I'd eat lunch upon arriving in Moscow, as I'd have a few hours until the train to Kiev. Towards the end, the woman wordlessly gave me two apples (and insisted), and when I came back from using the bathroom - the only time in the entirety of my train travel, and on the shortest ride - go figure, she had a napkin laid out with some cookies and various other snacks for me. Shortly after this we all started talking. The guy had asked me from what Baltic state I was; confused, I said I was from America, and inevitably I told them my saga. The man was flying to Israel, and the mother/son were also going to Ukraine, but I forget if they were going to Kiev or elsewhere - I know we had compared trains and that we weren't on the same one. The train arrived, and that was that.

I took the subway to Kievskiy Vokzal, and checked my things in the baggage room for a fairly steep 150 rubles, then walked around as it was a really nice area. I had just caught some of the Bourne Supremacy on TV (in Russian) while flipping through the TV in Moscow a few days earlier, and had seen most of the last part of it which takes place in Moscow, with Bourne arriving by train from Berlin at this station; in contrast, I didn't have any spectacular foot and car chases. Anyway, the station is nice, and there is a large fountain/square (Europe Square), plus an elegant glass-enclosed bridge (Rostovsky) overlooking the river, which I crossed, and then took the subway (from Smolenskaya, incidentally), to eat and use the internet cafe. I returned to the station and decided to use the bathroom before the trip to Kiev, and it was the most disgusting thing I'd seen, literally a step above a hole in the ground. You (apparently) sat practically on the floor. I'll leave it at that. Luckily I didn't have to do that, as I just wanted to avoid having to use the bathroom on the train, but the train is actually far better.

I had about 25 minutes and began worrying when I returned to the luggage room and saw the window locked that I'd used earlier, but the door was open a bit farther down, so there was no problem. I walked to my train. I was car 1, so it was either going to be a very short walk or a very long one. My heart sank when I saw the first car: 26. It was going to be a very long walk. A few cars later I looked at my progress and saw "3." Confused, I backtracked, and it turned out 26 was just tacked onto the end. (On the train, the woman next to me said she made it to 8). On the way back a woman was asking for money, apparently to go home on the train. I gave her 20 rubles, and she said she needed 1000 for the ticket (!), so I said, well, that's too bad because I don't even have anywhere near that (since I wasn't going to be needing any rubles soon enough). As the train left there was a great twilight view out the window, with the glowing superstructure of bank towers under construction in the distance looking like something out of a science fiction movie.

In my compartment were 3 women, two Russians (sisters) and a Ukranian woman that lived in Moscow. The one Russian woman said, "давайте познакомиться (let's get aquainted)," just like in the textbooks, and we gave our names, and thus we were acquainted, apparently. We had to fill out migration cards (ugh) and although Russia's paperwork was annoying, at least they'd refined it enough that the migration card fits perfectly within one's passport - the Ukranian one is a bit larger and doesn't fit unless you fold it. Curiously, it has Ukranian and English prompts, but not Russian, so they had a tough time until the Ukranian woman helped out. They asked how I was doing it with no trouble, proposing that I'd done it before and remember, and I said, well, it's in English (the conductor had asked our nationalities when giving out the cards). I told them all about my travels as well, and they said, wow, I should write a book, which I said I'd thought about doing. I joked that I could offer it in English and Russian, maybe. The Ukranian woman was going to Kiev to see her son for a day, and the Russians were vacationing in Odessa, the train's ultimate destination. I went to sleep, and at 3 AM we crossed the Russian border - or something, because Russian border control did their thing, but the Ukranians didn't until we'd traveled another 3 hours, during which time I wondered what was up, whether they'd missed our car, or what, I don't know. After 10 weeks, I had finally left Russia. When we reached Ukranian border control they stamped my passport on the back (past the visas, on the "amendments" page), after flipping through it for a while. Who knows.

Smolensk, Part II

So I wasted a ton of time at the internet cafe (I would have taken care of the travel stuff later). I returned to the hotel and called the travel agency, giving them the new credit card details. They called right back; AMEX isn't accepted by the hotel in Kiev. Faaan-tastic. I had them cancel the reservation, and then went back to the internet cafe to reserve a new hotel in Kiev. This met with much failure, what with it being a day away, plus, many other hotels also apparently didn't accept AMEX. After a long while I ended up with my last-ditch effort at Expedia: a crappier hotel quite far from the center, which really pissed me off as the original one was right in the center. The new one was cheaper, but that was a small consolation. I was quite angry that I'd wasted most of my one day in Smolensk dealing with this crap. Once I did finally have everything settled it was about 6:30 and evening. It rained lightly, on and off, and I walked to the edge of the city center towards the Dnepr river, where the wall marked the boundary, and crossed the bridge just outside over the river. The sun behind me, there was a fantastically bright rainbow in the dark clouds ahead. In fact it was a double rainbow, as I'd seen last year at Площадь Александра Невского (Alexander Nevsky Square), when the others had gone to see Swan Lake.

As I stood at the bridge taking pictures, a young man asked me whether I was taking them as a художник (artist) or лично (individual). I said just for myself, not wanting to go into nuance, and then he asked if I was a tourist. I said yes (sorry, Joe, not "unfortunately." - One time, my suitemates and I were in Costco buying food for a feast (мало ли почему / don't ask why), and I took a picture of our massive purchase (lots of it candy and such), and the attendant asked whether we were tourists. Joe, being, well, Joe, answered "unfortunately." Having made sense grammatically, it took us a second to realize that it actually made no sense whatsoever. Anyway, the attendant then informed me that they'd have to confiscate my camera if I took anymore pictures. Well ok then.) He asked whether I was going to see (a few things which I don't remember) and I said I was only there until tomorrow. We talked, and he asked whether I'd been to Petersburg and Moscow, and I said yes; he said it was good to have come here as well, as Petersburg was "Europe" and Moscow was "America" and that everyone tended to forget Russia was a big place with many more places besides the capital. That's the gist of it anyway. I agreed and said that was why I was here, in part to see other parts of Russia that weren't so heavily visited by tourists. We talked - well, mostly he - for a long while, maybe an hour or so, with his train of thought stopping at many places, so I can't remember it all in detail - that and I was concentrating on understanding him. He spoke slowly and clearly - not out of deference to my limited skills, as the issue of my origin and study of Russian came up only in the middle of the converstation - but it seemed they just talked slower in general there. Even so, I had a difficult time for vocabulary reasons, but most of the time I got enough of the gist. We exchanged emails - yet another new Russian contact - and he apologized for taking up my time, which I assured him was not a problem at all. I walked around some more and then returned to the hotel for the night after getting some dinner.

The next morning I checked out and got some breakfast; as I was checking out, the receptionist asked if I spoke Russian. I said yes, and she asked if I could explain to them what the guy next to me wanted. He explained to me (in English) that he had a bus to Moscow, and had taken a taxi to the bus station, but that it had taken him to the railway station instead and so he missed the bus, and had to take another the next day, and so he needed to stay another night. I clumsily conveyed this to them; put on the spot, I didn't remember the more precise ways to say these things, which came to mind after the fact, but c'est la vie. I had breakfast and left to the railway station to take the train back to Moscow, and worried a bit as I had a few minutes of unsuccessful attempts to hail a cab, but eventually succeeded. This one was 70 rubles. Wow! The Russians sure seem to have gotten supply and demand down pat. That was even better than what I'd thought the previous night should have been (I figured about 100 rubles). I gave the guy 100 rubles and told him to keep the change. Back to Moscow!

Sunday, September 2, 2007


The new train's ultimate destination was Brest, Belarus. As I stood on the platform, a man asked me if I was from Belarus. Having misheard him, hearing the ending for destination as opposed to origin, and thinking that he was asking whether the train was going there, I answered yes, and when he said "I don't believe it (ни фига!)," I realized and confirmed what he'd asked, and said sorry, no, I was from the US. On the train, a family (evidently from Belarus, based on their talking amongst themselves in what I assume was Belarussian) was asking me something, and when I responded, the daughter asked if I was from Poland. I decided not to delve into the details of my family tree (my grandfather on my father's side is of Polish descent - no way I was going to successfully convey that in Russian succinctly), and simply answered that no, I was from the US. I was surprised that the inevitable follow up, "зачем" (namely, what are you doing on the train to random places?) didn't result in either case, but all the same it was nice to have a rest; the trip was quiet like to Murmansk, though the Belarussian family talked to one another.

This train was not Russian railroad, but Belarussian. Linen wasn't included, which may have explained the price, but I didn't need it anyway (it was a six hour ride to Smolensk). This train had newer cars (though I think they were still Russian, based on the factory name), having readouts of temperature, time, and whether the lavatory was occupied. The beds also had fold out railings to prevent one from falling off, which had crossed my mind the first time to Murmansk. Of course, I merely ended up smashing my elbow on it at one point. We arrived, and I nearly beaned the guy on the adjacent bed as I took my unbalanced suitcase from the top rack. I took a taxi for 200 rubles ($8), which I thought was kind of steep, but figured what the heck, he and his beat up car could use the money more than I.

I settled in; the elevators here were also Russian, but there were three so it didn't matter much. My room was quite nice; it felt like a cozy bedroom. The key was like that of Murmansk, strange and annoying as it was impossible to know how to insert it (the cross-section is a semi-circle, and there was no way to predict which way was going to be up when inserting the key). A lone mosquito kept me up for most of the night as I'd hear it buzz toward me as I dozed off, but would then wake up and swat it away, driving it off for a while to repeat the cycle again.

The next morning, another mediocre breakfast, and I've obviously concluded that the one in Murmansk was just really good (relatively) and not that all the others since are that bad. It still pales compared to that of Prague, which was really fantastic, and I'd say one of the best I've seen anywhere. It spoiled me. I went for a walk, and saw a statue of who I correctly guessed was Karl Marx, and then, whoa, there was the wall of the krepost' (fortress) around the city center which I walked around for a while. There were various war monuments and another wall of hero-cities, and then a museum to World War II (aka the Great Patriotic War) which I explored. I felt bad about using my student Id once I realized it was a 5 ruble difference (20/15) as the 5 rubles were certainly not going to put me in the poorhouse. It was again a grim reminder of the horrors of WWII, which the US never really felt, as most of Europe and Russia had been laid to waste like Pearl Harbor. And for what? What had the Axis accomplished in the end beside pointless destruction and death?

As I continued to walk around the city, I put a bit of money on my phone to get rid of the small amount of debt that would be blocking it. No sooner did I do that, than did the travel agency in Moscow call (through which I'd booked the hotel in Kiev). Seems my credit card company was rearing its ugly, stupid head again. The woman said a lot of things but I boiled it down (what an odd phrase) to "карта не работала? (the card didn't work?)" and she confirmed I'd need another one by tomorrow to hold the reservation. I started panicking a bit, and was irate and started swearing as heavily as I had when my phone was stolen. I was going to Kiev in a day, and now I had no confirmed reservation. I continued walking around but was distracted by anger and worry; I couldn't enjoy the stuff I was seeing as I walked around the city. I needed to go to an internet cafe at some point to get my father's credit card info to give to them, which he'd sent me when I started having problems with mine. Basically internet purchases were not going to go through due to fraud worries, in spite of my instructions that I'd be traveling through Russia until September 1st, and Europe thereafter. I could only use it at physical places unless I gave advance notice (24 hrs) which was effectively impossible. This was terrific. Of course, this was stupid as even though I'd used the credit card at a physical travel agency, it was the hotel in Kiev that was trying to put it through, and thus, я не получился (i.e. no dice). Sure, I said I'd be in Russia until September 1st, and now a hotel in adjacent Ukraine is charging my card a few days before this. Surely the two are unrelated.

I managed to put it out of my mind when I reached the edge of a hill with a terrific view of the valley and more of the city in the distance, with more krepost' wall behind me further up the hill. I climbed my way up there and started walking along the wall, and then there was a tower with an opening to go through, to the other side of the wall, so in I went. But not only that, there was a staircase to go up to the wall (like Peter and Paul's fortress in St. Petersburg). So I did, walking along the wall, practically no one in sight, though there was lots of trash in the stairways and corridors, mostly plastic beer bottles and broken glass ones. The city lay to one side, hills and valleys to the other. This was amazing! I was worried when on the cruise, Natasha (a guide on our staff) had said she'd been to Smolensk but didn't enjoy it. There were two children who came up another stairway and passed me in the other direction. I reached another tower at a corner of the wall, and went inside, which was also incredible. It was a cavernous, open cylinder, though another giant pile of trash lay at the bottom. There was a staircase to get to the very top, and I did. This was real, not some sanitized tourist attraction, just pure history. No guardrails protecting someone from walking out into the center, or off the walls. I reached the end of the wall and went down more stairs; there was a cobblestone road with houses, as I'd seen from above. I eventually ended up back towards the center of the city; there were flowers spelling out "Смоленску - 1143 (Smolensk is 1143 years old)," similar to Moscow, which was "merely" 860.

I made my way back to the hotel, where I inquired as to an internet cafe. I got the number I needed, and made further reservations to Bilbao, and decided to call it quits from there and tried to find a flight home. I ran into trouble, as the flights I found were either problematic or absurdly expensive. There was a (relatively) inexpensive 2-stop flight from Swiss - that was the problematic one, as the first segment (Bilbao to Madrid) was a code-share on "Spanair" and didn't offer e-tickets, so that was out. The remaining ones were about twice the cost. Round trip was significantly less expensive, even including the same flights that I'd found for the one-way. Somehow adding the tickets from the US to Spain made the ensemble cost several hundred dollars less. Shrug. I figured I'd try that but at the end discovered that you had to display the card at the first segment (i.e. leaving NY), and I further discovered that not using earlier segments cancelled subsequent ones. So that wasn't going to work. So after playing around I settled on an Iberia flight to Madrid, and then booked the remainder separately through Swiss. (I looked into staying in Madrid for a few days, but it was more than I was willing to pay). This means it's two distinct flights, so this leaves open a window for problems with the connection that would be my responsibility (though I scheduled the first flight as early as possible), plus my luggage can't be checked all the way through. Oh well. So I'll be back September 25th!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Moscow, Part II

I had decided not to go to Nizhniy Novgorod, deciding that one day there would be better spent as two extra days in Moscow (which turned out to be a wise choice). Surprisingly I was even able to return the train tickets (minus a 2.20 ruble fee). So the following day Lidia, Natasha and I finally managed to meet up. Lidia was looking for an old Soviet book a library had lent her, having trusted her to guard it with her life, but her dog had eaten (really!). We met later on, and I remarked at the construction that had been taking place in Red Square, building some sort of stage for something related to Moscow's 860th birthday and remarked at Moscow's age; she reminded me that Rome was almost almost 2800 years old. Touché. Also with Natasha arrived Sveta, who I had met last year but whose contact information (or name) I hadn't gotten before I left, so it was good to catch up with her as well. Lidia soon had to leave; she was flying to St. Petersburg the next morning and had plans, so we bid her farewell, and then the remaining 3 of us walked around, went to a coffee house, and then walked around further. I shudder on how much money I've wasted on ice cream and other such indulgences. "I spent all my money on ice cream and junk food. The rest I wasted." The next day I saw Lenin's tomb, which was quite unbelievable. Also buried at the Kremlin wall (among others) were Brezhnev and Stalin. I was amazed to really see Lenin. I didn't know what to expect, maybe just a closed tomb but it was glass and you could actually see him. I wonder how they preserve him (and for how long they will be able to do so - or whether it's really actually him). I had overheard an English-speaking guide the day before mention that this wasn't his idea; he wanted to be buried with his wife in St. Petersburg. A fitting irony that his communist ideology ended up ruining at least his last dreams too. I lingered, but was yelled at, "не остались!" (don't remain!).

Later I went inside the Kremin and saw a bunch of churches and other random things; it was also amazing to really be there. There were some babushkas picking apples in a garden inside. I later saw the church of Christ the Savior, which awe-inspiringly big and actually had two churches, one on the lower level and then the upper. I think St. Isaac's was far more impressive overall though. Outside I got an SMS from St. Petersburg Katya, asking how it was going, and I replied that things were good and that I really liked Moscow, but not to worry, I still loved St. Petersburg. She replied, "don't even think of loving Moscow more than Petersburg!" I then tried to figure out how ot meet both Natasha and Irina on this last day (which I'd thus far managed to avoid), and surprisingly it more-or-less worked; Natasha and I met up at Universitetskaya, and then Irina joined us a bit later.

While I was waiting at Universitetskaya, sitting on a bench, I saw an old guy sitting next to me talking to some teenagers or thereabouts. I couldn't hear them, what with the metro, but somehow, my mind assessed this situation and told me that he was crazy and that they couldn't get away. Sure enough, when they left, he saw presumably saw me writing in English and had me read something about the English king, and said (in English) that no one sat next to him without the permission of him, the English king. Oh boy. Before I could assent to this and flee, he kept going. He spoke to me mainly in English, although it was hard to hear with the trains going back and forth. It was also hard to understand him not because of his English, which he spoke quite well, but rather because half of it was rambling nonsense. He said something about saving Poland form some sort of Soviet invasion in the 80s, and that he'd saved the world and thus was now the English king. Forgive me if I didn't get all the details of that quite right. It was apparent that in spite of his, maybe schizophrenia, that he was otherwise quite learned. In between the nonsense he spoke of, among other things, the upcoming US elections. He figured the next president would be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (saying the fact that he was half [n word] made him a strong candidate among blacks...and then something about AIDS and syphilis). He also made a pun about Bill Clinton, saying that Hillary had "убила (ubilla)" him for his tomfoolery in the White House (with which he had no problem, by the way). He asked me whether I had studied technical things or humanities, and I said technical (computers and math). He said humanities was better - people were far more interesting. Indeed. He apparently didn't hear the computer part, because he was saying that he respected only computer science as a technical field as there were enough mathematicians, but computers were the future, and so I clarified that I was a computer science major first. He was a doctor of political science, and he started telling me about his dissertation from 30 years ago; it was something about the traits of capitalist nations, but I couldn't quite hear or understand him, as it seemed he was reciting it (in English). He also said he hoped the Soviet Union could come back (not the same way) and said it was possible.

He spoke English, I'd say fluently, and there were parts where he spoke perfectly sensibly in between the ramblings and gibberish. There was something in French on the first sheet about Chirac, and I wondered if he spoke French as well. I marveled at this man, obviously once sharp and clear, his once-young mind now muddled by dementia. It's amazing and downright scary how one's mind can just disintegrate, e.g. Alzheimer's, with one being helpless to stop it or even being blissfully unaware of it - who knows what goes on inwardly within one's consciousness when the outward signs point to nothing? He eventually left, the episode reminding me of a similar one last year with Anna, where a Russian guy went on about such things about Russians having invented the radio, the television, etc, although that time it was entirely in Russian, in spite of my not understanding him, with Anna translating from time to time. As I walked away I saw Natasha on the train and amazed her by meeting her as she exited it; I tried to convey what she had just missed.

So she and I walked around there at the university, and then met Irina at Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow hills?) which is a really nice station, with an open view of the river from the Metro. We were unfortunately at the wrong exit (not realizing there was another) and I was unknowingly without cellphone service. We checked upstairs after a while, and found her, and then I got the messages and missed-call notifications that I hadn't known I was missing. We chatted, and the rapport was fairly interesting, as conversation in Russian when meeting people is fairly rapid fire and doesn't elaborate past what is asked (as I'd seen a little bit in lessons, but this was the first time I'd really experienced it). We walked along the embankment for a while and stopped at a cafe. Afterwards, we had difficulty finding a metro, yet again, but Irina hailed a cab to the metro (less than 5 minutes away, of course) and that was that.

The next day was my last in Moscow; I was leaving early afternoon to Smolensk. I went to the internet cafe and made arrangements Vienna (following Rome) and Barcelona. The internet cafe was terribly slow, thanks to a slow proxy server (basically, all web requests were going through one machine). I stayed longer than I wanted, until an hour before the departure, and compounded by other small things - I missed my train. The "baggage check" at the hotel in the morning consisted of leaving it behind the counter in the lobby; when I returned, all the luggage had been moved downstairs to the real luggage room, which was confusing to find (you had to use a specific elevator and press the button to the 6th floor), and then the attendant wasn't there so I had to wait a minute. Of course my luggage was all the way in the back so I had a tough time retrieving it through the jungle of other suitcases. I hurried to the metro; fortunately I exactly made the train - unfortunately, at the transfer, I just missed it, being unable to make my way through the crowd in time. The doors closed right in front of me. At the train station, I only saw a sign for suburb trains (but the long distance onces turned out to be there too), and I rushed around frantically trying to find the track info. I made my way upstairs to the waiting room to see it was exactly 14:06 (my would-be departure time), and saw my train on the board briefly before it disappeared. Блин (equivalent to "fudge").

I swore lightly but didn't worry too much as there would probably (hopefully?) not be much trouble getting another train as Smolensk was on the way to Belarus. I figured out the scheme of the station, and maybe have made the train if I'd known exactly where to go, although I may not have made it to my car on time all the same, as it takes a while if you're far down the track. Oh well. I bought a ticket to the next train for only 380 rubles (about $15) which left in another hour-and-a-half, and settled down. I was surprised to actually be able to return the ticket for the train I just missed, albeit for about 1/4 the cost; still, missing the train had only ended up costing me a net 200 rubles ($8), so off to Smolensk it was.