Friday, January 30, 2009

First shots from Russia

On a rare occasion, the sun comes out and the sky isn't totally grey. The sun seems to prefer Fridays, so do I.

Liberty, sometimes it's two-faced.

Bundling up next to the fish cart.

This is some sort of business center, but it looks pretty menacing.

The new with the old.

It seems as though this ship sailed in through the ice, because the anchor, which i believe is perhaps an old oil drum full of concrete, is half above "water".

And my favorite, "The Devil's little I mean I mean bug"

From the perspective of a frozen hangover

So I suppose that at the moment I live a pretty charmed life. Yesterday after school, two friends and I went to a really rad restaurant. The name means Attic, and it looked a bit attic-like. They had more ties than I myself own, and I was a little jealous. I had the most amazing beef stroganov, one of my favorite dishes of all time, and an amazing fruit salad, with more fruits mixed than I saw even in asia. It had a sweet cinnamon sour cream sauce over it. Maybe its just because there are so many terrible places to eat, but I do believe this restaurant makes it into my top 5 in the world. Great atmosphere, great food, strong drinks. We got a bit lost walking back to my apartment, but found it eventually. Those who know St Pete, will know Nevsky Prospect. Its a very touristy street with mostly shops and restaurants. I live on what I've been told is the second biggest street for shopping. But not really any tourists. Its kind of nice. While its sometimes difficult to find a little locally owned store, or any shop with clothes I can afford, its nice to live in a nice section of town. After my friends left, I headed to the Irish pub I frequent. Its not cheap, and there's nothing really Irish about it. They do have a great selection of Scotch, but its outrageously expensive. Anyway, I sat and chatted with the employees, as I do about once a week, had a few White Russians, a few beers, one bought for me by a man on his way out (the best kind of free beer, no obligation to talk!) It was a good time. If it were possible for me to be in a lower tax bracket, I could probably write these drinking sessions off as "tutoring sessions".

This morning I of course woke with a massive headache. But its Friday, and I got no job, I ain't got no money, and I ain't got shit to do! So I head to the cafe for an americano. And then I head to a little Italian joint for lunch and some reading. Here is where it occurred to me that life is pretty good right now. I go to school 4 days a week, and I do what I want the rest of the time. I don't have too much money, but I don't have to work, and what little money I have was free. Things aren't perfect, but for the amount of effort I'm putting into life right now, I'm getting a lot more out of it.

But then it occurred to me, while I'm having a blast, and making memories, what I'm not doing is getting anywhere towards having a career. A real job. Something with some sort of opportunity for, what? upward mobility? I'm not in high school anymore. I'm closer to 30 than I am to 20 and that scares the shit out of me. What do I have to show for it besides a photo album and few interesting stories? And I feel completely incapable of getting any direction.

Well, this has been a fairly pointless diatribe. I took some pictures today, I'll go work on those.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Disclaimer and further Clinical musings

So I've been handing out this blog address left and right. With that comes new readership that may or may not understand my perspective, or for that matter, my general disposition. I generally write only when I think I have either, something interesting to say, or an interesting way to say something. Often this comes from a very cynical place. So while it may seem that I'm having a terrible time, quite the opposite. I'm loving this. Here's another quote from the same Chekov story:

Bitter as my mood was, I remember I seemed to try make myself gloomier and sadder. Shallow, self-centered people, you know, have moments when the consciousness that they are unhappy gives them a certain pleasure, and they will even coquet with their own sufferings.

So I had to go back to the clinic today to find out if I had inadvertently inhaled some hiv while I’ve been here, although I did have a bit of fun in Thailand…

Anyway, this clinic, people stay there, so its really more like a hospital. It’s so old. I’ll have to go take pictures one day when I have nothing to do. There are cats living in it. Really? Cats? The place is full of pregnant women and cats. I’m allergic to cats, so I hope I don’t get pregnant in Russia!

I would also like to comment on M & Ms. There is zero quality control here where this delicious candy is concerned. I do feel that they deserve more respect. In one bag of M & Ms, I counted perhaps 5 that were in fact some what round. The rest were mutated. Too big, too small. Many looked like Nerds. Obviously they taste the same, but for any musicians who want to picky about M & Ms on their riders, they may have to have them imported.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It ain't so bad.

I'm going to start with something positive, and then of course immediately change streams. The weather/temperature outside has no bearing on my need for ice cream. Honestly, when its hot, the last thing I want to put in my mouth is a milk product. Russians will eat ice cream no matter what. In the freezing rain there will be an ice cream cart sitting by the metro, in the park, etc. I love it.

I've been told its a full moon. I could check, but it makes my day make sense, so I choose to believe it. I went to bed at a decent hour last night. No alcohol. My alarm went off and I wanted to die. I forced myself up and out of bed. Forced myself to school. Forced myself to stay awake. Worst day ever. Teacher of course goes over ass-hard concepts today, one after another. I wanted to shoot myself. Then the last thing is watching this disturbing video of some 13 year old girl bitching about her boyfriend breaking up with her. Anyone who holds a baby doll for comfort is not old enough for a boyfriend. At times I thought she was possessed. Irrelevant really, just added to my general malaise today.

After class I went for visa pictures. That went so-so. Jumped a bus for the university clinic for yet another hiv test for my visa. The first one wasn't soviet enough I suppose. So you walk in the clinic, and like everywhere in Russia, the first thing you come to is a coat check. In addition to checking your coat, you must pay 5 rubles for little booties to cover your shoes. I had the forethought to have a Russian write down that I needed a hiv test and the results certificate. I can't imagine how this would have gone down had I not done that. First I show it to the coatcheck lady, "Blah blah blagovich blavnaya registrator" and a finger pointing left. So I head that way and find the "Registrator" closed for coffee break. I show the paper to another employee and apparently I was in the wrong place anyway because she says something that I understood to mean "Straight, straight, blahbloneechesky first clinic." I begin to head that direction and end up in some sort of Silent Hill scene. Run down hospital with a few pregnant women smoking cigarrettes. A saviour comes up, I show her and say I don't understand Russian and she smiles (no small feat here, though I run into it more often than you would think) and walks me to the clinic, which I never would have found with the previous directions. She directs me to the "Registrator" of this wing. I show her my paper, she takes my passport and documents my existence and points and says something that involves cashier so I go to that window. Here's where things get messy. First of all, I'm dealing with my health. Secondly I'm dealing with money. Thirdly, I'm dealing with a visa. Fourthly, I'm dealing with Russians.

So the lady quotes me a price that is much lower than what I was told I would need to pay. I was specifically told that I had to pay one amount for the test and one amount for the results certificate (go figure, I want you to know if I have the hiv, but I don't really need to know, so just the test please). So I ask if that amount is for the tests and the certificate, of course in the most broken Russian that ever existed. She can clearly hear that I don't speak Russian, yet she chooses to speak ultra fast and with an attitude brimming with sulfur. Before I know it, I've lost my shit. Now I'll lose my shit on people I know, but I am almost always overly polite to people in the service industry, even when they are being rude. Honestly, I don't know what happened. I kind of blacked out. Which is no good when trying to understand a foreign language. She basically told me to go somewhere else, but I couldn't understand where. The place I thought she meant, a small office behind me, was empty. So I went to the first window, where she chooses to act like she has no clue what I want. And they both keep saying something to that effect. What the hell?! Its written on paper in your language! How difficult is this situation? So this young pregnant girl comes to my rescue, maybe I've been reading too much Russian literature, but I do believe her baby will be blessed especially for his mother being so kind. Anyway, she tries to understand what I need and goes to the cashier to explain this. At this point, I don't care if I pay for the certificate now, just take my blood and I'll bring back one of my "guys" to figure out where my certificate is later. Then the cashier says something about the number eight. Thats the only word I understand, and I see the young woman trying to count out in English on her fingers, so I say "8?" and I hear the cashier say in Russian, "She understands." Bitch. Maybe I should take it as a compliment that she thinks my skills are more than they are, but seriously, if I understood would I have had a complete meltdown?

So the question is, am I getting fed up with Russian processes, or am I just taking on Russian attitudes. Jesus. It occurred to me today, and again, I'm probably reading too much, that maybe there's something to my love of gypsy music. Maybe the music calls some ethnic puzzle piece long lost or perhaps buried in my family tree. Maybe in fact, I am genetically predisposed to be an irate Russian. I tell you, I have adapted well more than I thought I would. Bitching aside, because god knows I just like to bitch, and it really has bearing on my current location. Maybe I'll take on a new name. Esmerelda?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In others words

I read an article by a Russian in an English language paper here in St. Pete. The author attempts to write an article commenting simultaneously on the ineffectiveness of Russian politicians and the joy Russian drivers get from running over pedestrians in crosswalks. She also makes an interesting commentary on the recent extension of presidential terms in Russia. She points out that in the 90's, when these terms were being, well determined, that a "year would last so long that a person could hardly survive it." And now you blink and a year has gone. So due to "Time Inflation", we must lengthen the terms. It almost makes sense. And I've always thought we should lengthen our terms. Its just a matter of how the powers that be managed to make this constitutional change happen.

But that wasn't really my point. Really I just wanted to share a quote from the article about the crosswalks. "The Zebra (crosswalk) is just where people get run over. It's a tradition, a national sport-the pedestrians are run over in their own space for crossing. You have to agree that it is stylish, somewhat logical, and definitely an expression of the national character."

What? I'll let you ponder that for a bit.

What I found to be perhaps a better "expression of national character", was a tagline on the front of the magazine. In big letters it says, "Nothing changes on New Year's Day" And in smaller letters below it says, "But still we can celebrate."

And on a different note entirely, I was reading a short story by Chekov called "Champagne." I pulled this from it:

It sometimes happens that during an arithmetic lesson, when the very atmosphere seems heavy with tedium, a butterfly will flutter into the classroom from out-of-doors. Then the urchins will all crane their necks and follow its flilght with curiosity, as if they saw before them something strange and new and not simply a butterfly.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I love gay men

When I checked the weather this morning, it said 40 percent chance of precipitation. What does that mean? In WNC it means that there is a 40 percent chance something will fall from the sky. Perhaps here it means there is a 40 percent chance of mass accumulation, or a 40 percent chance that said precipitation will last longer than 50 percent of the day. We're getting into some crazy algebra now. An easy equation to stand by though, there is a 100 percent chance that something will fall from the sky. I will attempt to sort out the weather mans math.

So life is wet to say the least. My housing is, well a constant source of annoyance at the moment. Should I stay or should I go. Pros, dinner is included, Russian is spoken in the house (although they have zero ability to slow down. They seem to speed up when I ask them to slow down, or they speak in broken English.) Around the corner is a nice pub. Its sickly expensive, but the barkeeps are decidedly less "Russian" than a lot of the people I meet. They are super friendly and put up with my fantastic ability to butcher the hell out of their language. But unfortunately, I have to fold my bed up every day and other minor annoyances, like not being able to cook my own food, and therefore eating meat paddy products nearly every day. The other place would be own apartment, but on the ass end of town. Full of students, but that leads to the trap of speaking English all the time. I think I've pretty much decided to stay where I am and just buy a transport card so I can go out to the ass end of town to visit friends.

School is going pretty well. I have one teacher most of the time and she is fantastic. The other teacher we have for only one session. I think I'm older than her, and slightly less bitchy. She seems to enjoy confusing us and then acting put out. She's quite talented with making the Asians feel like assholes for not understanding her. Its kind of sad really, both teachers give them a harder time. But then sometimes just let them say things completely wrong. I don't know if they get fed up, or just realize that it is fairly impossible for tongues trained certain ways to unwind and redirect themselves.

A few nights ago we had a bonfire by the "sea". Crazy? Yes. But we had a blast. You know when your alcoholic beverage, that was room temperature when you left, starts to form ice crystals, it may be too cold to be covorting outside. At some point I said something about bringing Richard Simmons videos next time to keep warm. While the most useful method would be to use them for firewood, I did mean to do excercises. A guy from China asks me who Richard Simmons is. I explain that he is a raging homosexual that does excercise videos. Later we were discussing rock music. After explaining that Avril Lavigne does not qualify as punk and that in fact Rock is dead, and pop has sadly taken over as some sort of Hermaphroditic Tsar of Music; I made the comment that a gay man (Freddie Mercury) rocked harder than Chad Kroeger could ever hope to even after drinking a bottle of jack daniels and snorting 2 bags of coke. (Unfortuneately, this was sad much less colorfully, one must speak stiltedly when in these International soirees.) After I made this comment, he accused me of being obsessed with gay men. I'm not sure that was warranted. I got to the point of frost bite and bid my adieus, because, if you were not aware, "adieu" means "to god", and at that moment, I wasn't sure that I wasn't on my way to a meeting with the big guy. I frigidly, and completely stiffly, walked to a bus stop and jumped on the first one to the metro. I did not die. I did however take pictures in the metro station, which I found out today is completely illegal and had the police seen me, they probably would have taken my camera.

So death and camera removal avoided, I am safe and thawed in St. Pete.

How are you?

Friday, January 16, 2009


I saw the sun for the first time in a week today. I hadn't really missed it, but it was odd. I walked outside and thought something was wrong. Blue sky with grey instead of all grey. I hopped on the metro and rode the line to the end, just outside the city. That's where they keep the big wal-mart type place and the mall. I got off the metro, crossed the street to the bus stop. As I walked toward the bus stop, I saw a man lying under it. Covered in a blanket. Except it was covering his face too. And he was laying on his back with his arms by his sides. He wasn't sleeping. Apparently they hadn't had time to pick up the body yet.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

One time I went to Cairo

View from my hotel in Cairo:

My local Koshary shop, next to a gorgeous building

First off. How did I end up in Cairo. Well, it wasn’t planned from the beginning, but it was certainly planned before I left. Well, it was planned that I go there. I rarely make plans between airports. Basically, sometime around November, I bought a ticket from Bangkok to Moscow. The cheapest carrier was Egyptair, changing in Cairo. So I called up Egyptair and asked if I could push off the second leg of my flight, as I had a few days before school started (and actually, I think that had I come to Russia when originally planned, I would have been breaking some sort of rule about registering within 3 days of arrival because the school was on holiday, but I digress, or did I digress, i.e “but I digressed”). The airline said no. For some reason, just before I left, I called back and asked if I could push it off, and this time they said yes. Weird.

So, I flew from Bangkok to Cairo and immediately went to the museum, which I have discussed previously. You may scroll down for that diatribe. After going to the museum, I went to the Citadel, which is a fortress of some sort built to protect the old town. I have zero history for you. I purposefully was a terribly uneducated tourist. I have this romantic idea that some time in the future, I will go to Cairo with some handsome intelligent man, and we will do the town properly. Or at least I’ll go by myself with a good history book. I’ve found a well written history book can take the place of a man…well mostly… Digression?

Citadel, yes. The taxi driver that took me out there kept babbling in Arabic and petting my leg. I did not care for that, but he was old and fragile and I could have broken him. Thankfully it did not come to that. Within the citadel are a Mosque and some terribly trite museums. The mosque is quite gorgeous. “Quite gorgeous”. That was a terrible choice of words. I’m leaving it. I’ve never been in a mosque in the US. But I tell you, all the ones I’ve seen, with the exception of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, are breathtaking inside. There is one down the street from my flat here in St. Pete that I’m excited to check out.

I took a taxi back from the citadel and en route, the driver convinced me to use his services to see the pyramids the next day. I had done very little research as to how to go about viewing these things. I knew I was nearing the end of my funds so I took him up on his offer. In the end, I paid slightly less than I would have had I gone with my hostel. But I’m sure I dealt with more hassle. I did have the benefit of doing what I wanted when I wanted.
So the next morning, I go for some koshary, quickly grab some coffee and chat with one of the attractive front desk guys. They seem to only hire attractive eligible men at this hostel. The driver is meant to be there at 8. The desk guy says he will come upstairs. 8:10 the elevator opens and my driver comes in none too pleased with me. Apparently he did not think he was supposed to come upstairs, and now we’re late. Angry Arabs and Americans don’t historically make for a good mix, but I went along anyway.

On the way we stopped in the Coptic area of Cairo. What all is contained there, I’m not sure. But I saw a Greek Orthodox church, The Hanging Church, and a cemetery. I was lucky enough to walk in during a service at the Hanging Church. Not sure what the balloons are about, maybe someone can enlighten me, because internet usage comes at a premium.

And then on to Giza. I’m going to transcribe some notes from my journal here:
Oh my back hurts. I didn’t go inside the big pyramid, aka Cheops. For one thing, it costs 20 bucks. For another, its not worth contorting yourself if no one you know witnesses it. I’d actually probably be in the hospital by now if I had. So my driver took me to Giza. Where I promptly shelled out 20 bucks for a horse and buggy around the site. Bribes flowed after that. Even though I bought a ticket, and went through “control”, the buggy had to pay the cops to get in. And everywhere we stopped to make a picture, more grease. What is the point of bribery once it becomes regular business? Is it even bribery? The carriage I thought would be a more stable ride than riding a horse itself. I was most definitely wrong. I think the constant jostling started my back off. After touring around a bit, the buggy driver dropped me off in front of the Sphinx. In retrospect, I did not need a ride. I could have walked, but I like being driven around. For 20 bucks though, it certainly could have lasted longer. I wandered around the Sphinx…which incidentally was smaller than I imagined, and then headed back to the taxi.

Then on to Saqqara. Which could be spelled Sakkara, and often is. But pseudo-intelligentsia will tell you its Saqqara. Maybe I’ll spell it Suckaruh. Except that insinuates it sucked, which it did not, I only want to insinuate that taking words with a different alphabet and turning them English is not an exact science.

There is a small museum there named after Imhotep. I enjoyed it much more than the actual Egyptian museum. One-you can take pictures. Two-they have nice cards, nice acrylic plaques actually; explaining everything. My guess is this museum is funded by the French.

Then on to a tomb and inside what was left of a small pyramid. Incidentally, just last week they found new mummies at this site. Anyway, as soon as I stepped into the small pyramid, I knew I’d made the right decision about the Big Pyramid. 45 degree angle, in about a 4x4ft shaft, for about 30ft. I think in the Pyramid of Cheops, this scenario replicates about 10 times. Again, not worth it without witnesses.

Below: Pyramid shaft of Death

Everywhere said no pictures…and everywhere, no one was watching…
Then I head another part of Suckaruh where 5 guys in dresses claimed to be “chiefs” and wanted to guide me. While these places are fairly under developed for tourists, i.e. few signs or even safe walking paths, if you keep your eyes on the sap who actually pays one of these “chiefs”, you can figure out where the good stuff is. Who knows? Maybe I missed some amazing stuff, but if I don’t know about it, it doesn’t exist. Plus it leaves more to explore when I come back with my super hot, intelligent…history book.

Below photo taken by "Chief" in a dress.

You can see below an example of how these sites are taken care of. There's some barbed wire, but I'm pretty sure people are living in some of these places. Hieroglyphics, barbed wire, and garbage. I guess when you grow up with this stuff, its not so interesting.

We were meant to go to another pyramid site after this, but I was tired, and didn’t want to get bored with such amazing things. Believe me, its easy to do. Anyone who travels can tell you about being “Churched” out, “Mosqued” out, “Kasbah’d” out. I didn’t want to leave Egypt bored.
On the way back, my driver, surprisingly named Mohammed…stopped at a restaurant he said was good. This translates as, “Its not cheap, and I get a kickback”. Usually I avoid such places, but I’d spent about 2 dollars in the two days I’d been there, so I thought I’d treat myself. I didn’t even ask how much it cost until after the meal, which is probably for the best, as I avoided getting indigestion before the meal. This restaurant clearly only serves tourists. Either busloads or taxi fares. But usually you get decent quality at those kinds of places. This place was an exception, in that the food was outstanding. I’d really have to rate it in my top 3 meals of all time. I’ll go ahead and tell you, it cost 20 bucks. Well, it did before I bargained a bit, but that only knocked a couple dollars off. You could choose between SheishKabab, Chicken, Fish, or Mixed Greens. Sheish Kabab sounded about the most likely to have some sort of Egyptian flavor. What I got was a spread of the most amazing Arabic food. The sheish kabab was actually the least enjoyable. There was a plate of fresh pita, a plate of eggplant, a plate of Feta mixed with cucumber and tomatoes, a plate of tahini mixed with eggplant and other spices, the most amazing herbed rice and some merguez. I knew as I was eating it, this was not going to be a cheap lunch, but I didn’t care. While this was obviously a higher class version of the food Egyptians make in their home on a daily basis, it was definitely a taste of the orient, and I savoured every second.

After coughing up the cash, we headed back into town, and as usual, the driver stopped somewhere to try to get me to buy something from his friends. He didn’t really try too hard. I think he realized I had spent way more money than planned on lunch and I was at the end of my checkbook.

This is an example of housing in Cairo. Giant brick blocks. Like lego houses. Windows look like an afterthought:

Slightly better housing:

One of many weekly burnings of an Israeli flag. Its funny to think that some guy is making a lot of money making Israeli flags just so they can be burned:

When I got back to the hotel, the owner invited all the guests to the roof for tea, and we ended up in political discussions much like the night before. I excused myself and spent 2 hours packing. I don’t how I do it. When I had to catch the elephants in Luang Prabang, Laos I definitely packed in about 7 minutes. In general I’m a mess, but I’m an organizing freak. If I have the time, I will spend 2 hours packing.

In the morning, the hotel arranged for a taxi to take me to the airport. But like so many things, taxis have to pay to come into the airport, so they bribe the cops to scoot in on the side, which means carrying your luggage across a parking lot to save a few bucks. I’m reminded of the Tom Green episode “Undercutters”. He follows pizza delivery guys on their delivery and when the customer answers the door he says he’s from Undercutters Pizza and pulls out a toolbox full of pizza ingredients, promising to make what they ordered for half the price right there. I should retitle this blog Digression.