Taking a step back

After weeks with my brain, body and heart going in different directions, and different paces, I think I’m almost realigned.

During my final few weeks in the US – the fraught, busy days in New York; the harried few days in Mass – I had no choice but to sublimate any deep thought going on. If I stopped to think, I could not possibly have gotten through all the goodbyes, never mind packed my bag properly.

Walking home after having dinner at Zoom Cafe a few days ago, I felt that I had stepped back in time to when I was new in Budapest, trying not to look too American while earnestly trying to learn the language and culture. For the most part, since I moved back to the US from Budapest, I’ve been vacationing in hot and/or tropical climes – the Caribbean, Africa, SE Asia. If I happened to go to Europe, it was to visit friends or family in Budapest, London, Hamburg, Greece. So being here in Europe, as a tourist, embarking on this weird experiment…it’s familiar.

In the two days since my dad left, I’ve been taking meditative wanders through the gritty yet trash-free streets, reacquainting myself with European rhythms. And there’s no question that this is a European city, albeit with unambiguous Russian flavor.

Nearly everyone – the women especially – is impeccably dressed in fashionable tailored coats and high heels. The friezes, gargolyes, mouldings and other detail of the 17th- and 18th-century architecture cause unabashed gawking, my days ending with a stiff neck and sore shutter-button finger. Though the cars have gotten bigger since the teeny Fiats and so on from my first trip to Europe, they are still smaller than American cars, the better to navigate the narrow alleys of the old city…and to triple-park on the sidewalks and the side of the road.

And then there are the Russian elements: the impossible, 5-inch spike heels. The cheap mini-mini skirts and too-tight backless rayon blouses.  And the mullets! Dirt-colored boy mullets. Purple girl mullets. I won’t be surprised to see a poodle dog mullet. And from the people on the street, the well-dressed old ladies (not quite babushkas) guarding the rooms of the museums, the Russian-Asian cashier at the 24-hour shops…nothing but cold stares. These looks – the passive eyes, the set of the mouth – are far from emotionless or bored. They betray some sort of underlying hostility, almost aggression. Before I leave Russia, I hope to be able to find the right words to describe them.

Then again, the smiles and kindness that I have experienced seem all the more delightful for having been hard won.  Though of course, I am naturally suspicious of over-friendliness…those with a smile on their face and a hand in your wallet.

My sauerkraut and sausage is here. More in a bit…

Too busy

I realize that my posts (and photo uploads) so far have been slap-dash, meandering, and probably boring. The problem, I realize, is that my brain is going at a million miles a minute. On one plane there are logistics: trying to figure out what to do every day – reading as much as possible beforehand to make any experience richer, negotiating options with my dad, then plotting transport, food and tickets. On another plane there is the moment: sharing as much as possible with my dad, absorbing all that this new and fascinating city has to offer, attempting to learn and understand a new culture and language. And finally, there is the personal reality, slowly seeping in, that my little life experiment has begun. I seem to have no room leftover for the sort of reflection required of good, or even decent, writing.(Seriously. You should see my journal.)

After my dad leaves, on Wednesday, I think I’ll take a day and just sit reading and drinking coffee and allowing the reality of the past month or so find a comfortable nook in my psyche.

Uh, I guess that’s the end of my announcement.

St. Petersburg: museums and culture so far

Hard to believe it’s already three days in. But then again, oh, what I’ve seen!

After taking it relatively easy on Thursday, our first day, dad and I went to the Hermitage on Friday and Saturday. We had bought a two-day, all-access pass over the internet. And even after two full days, angry legs and feet, and hours and hours of gawking, two days didn’t even come close to being enough.

The main Hermitage museum is really a complex of three interconnected buildings: The Large Hermitage, the Small Hermitage, and the ridiculously ornate, mint-colored Winter Palace. It’s definitely bigger than both the British Museum and the Met. I’ve never been inside the Louvre, but I’m told it compares, quantity- and quality-wise. The thing is, the State Hermitage Museum *also* includes a few other buildings: The Menshikov Palace (home of the first governor of St. Pete), Peter I’s Winter Palace (now a theater), and the gargantuan General Staff Building. Oh yeah – and then there’s the storage facility, and a porcelain museum somewhere.

Anyway, we went to the main Hermitage the first day and the Menchikov and Peter’s Winter Palace the second day. (I also went back to the main Hermitage the second day to see…well…I’m not kidding when I say there is one  enormous room each of Picasso, Cezanne, Gaugin, and Matisse. And at least half a room each for Van Gogh and Monet. And of course the first day was the Rembrandt *wing*. Over the top.) I don’t normally go insane and take tons of photos in museums, but I lost it at the Hermitage. I guess by the end I didn’t really believe it was *true*, so I had to take pictures.

Let’s see: I’m trying to figure out how to explain this. You know how in most museums there are throw-away rooms? The ones you walk through rather quickly, and throw a half-assed glance at the walls? Well, there are no such rooms that I saw here. (OK, maybe one or two. Our of hundreds. I mean, who needs to see another goddamned ancient Greek vase?)

So that’s the main Hermitage. In comparison, the Menshikov Palace and Peter’s Winter Palace lacked the scale and grandeur, and therefore were kind of a disappointment.

These lesser two, however, are interesting to compare. Peter was the tsar, the guy who founded the city. Menshikov was his good friend, a victorious general in the Great Northern War (during which the Russians won the land for St. Pete from the Swedes). To thank him for his service, Peter named Menchikov the first governor of St. Petersburg. In other words, Peter was the head dude and Menchikov was his ass-kisser.

While Peter wanted his city to reflect the grandeur and culture of major European cities, personally he seems to have preferred (relatively) more simple things. His palace consisted of simple, small rooms full of lathes and other mechnisms that he liked to tinker with. He didn’t (seem to) care much for gold and other material trappings of royalty. He did, however, *love* his tsarist power. I guess he was an early hacker.

Menshikov, meanwhile, grew up on the streets of Moscow, selling pies to earn money for his family. He used political prowess to rise quickly through the ranks of the army, acquitted himself quite well during the Great Northern War, and used his connections to become a powerful man. His palace, I think, reflects a nouveau-riche obsession with showing off power and wealth. The palace is by far more opulent than Peter’s, and the walls are hung with dozens of paintings depicting decisive battles in the war, and portraits of himself (and his cascading wigs), his family, and (most telling) of Peter and *his* family.

Egads I’m running out of power (my computer’s and my own) so I’m gunna run. More on St. Petersburg the city – mullets, miniskirts and all! – l8r.

Privyet from St. Petersburg

My dad and I arrived in St. Petersburg, safe sound and sleepy, yesterday afternoon.  There was a bit of excitement at the border, of course: There was an *error* on my visa – the date of entry was for April 23 instead of April 22. Can you believe it? After all the bad craziness around getting the visa, someone along the way effed up.

Anyway, I went to the consul’s office in the airport, wrote a letter explaining the “clerical error,” paid a $25 fee, and received an amended visa. Dad was nervous, to say the least, but it all worked out in the end. In case you’re wondering about the final cost of the visa: $505. I’d cry if I wasn’t laughing so hard.

But that’s over now. Dad and I are all settled in at the Petro Palace Hotel, a reasonably friendly hotel just a 2-minute walk from the Hermitage museum. The weather is perfect – sunny and around 50 degrees – and there’s no rain forecast for the week.

This morning we took a walk up to the Hermitage buildings (there are three) along the Neva River, to get our bearings. The Neva is dotted with ice floes, which I hear are the seasonal attraction in the early spring. The buildings, boulevards and cars here in the so-called “historic heart” remind me of Budapest – mostly 18th and early 19th-century European architecture, Ladas and Mercedes triple-parked on the sidewalk, etc.

St. Petersburg is a relatively new city, founded by tsar Peter the Great in 1703. The story (briefly) goes like this: While Peter was traveling in Europe, trouble-making Muscovites tried to instigate a coup by questioning his claim to the throne. He cut short his trip, sent about a thousand of the plotters into exile, and decided that he would turn Russia westward, embracing European values.

Evidently he was in love with Dutch culture, so he decided Russia needed a great city by the sea – in this case, the Baltic. So he went to war with Sweden to kick them out of the region, started building the city, and moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The nobility was pissed, but what could they do? They picked up and moved north to St. Pete, a city built on what was once a swamp. St. Pete remained the Russian capital until Lenin moved it back to Moscow in 1918.

Tomorrow (probably) dad and I head to the Hermitage. We’ve got a two-day ticket, but that probably won’t be enough. There are 120 rooms in three enormous buildings. There’s European art the Middle Ages to the present. There are rooms and rooms of prehistoric, ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts. There’s the Oriental collection from the Middle East to Japan. And possibly more – it’s too overwhelming for me to even consider.

Stay tuned.

See how frugal I’ll be?

Thanks to Jeff Ubois for sending me this link:
Is A Nomadic Location Independent Lifestyle Cheaper Than Living In One Place? A 12 Month Breakdown for 2008

It’s a confirmation of something I suspected: It can be cheaper to live a range life than a fixed life. And given the lifestyle I adopted in NYC (nice apartment, $10 martinis, sushi) versus my range lifestyle (cheapie hotels, bottled water, street food) I’m thinking I’ll be spending about $1500 less per month.

Of course, saving money isn’t everything. But it makes the fiscal conservative in me feel better.

My eyeballs are falling out of my head

It’s 6:30 am. I went to bed at 1:30, woke up at 5, gave up trying to go back to sleep at 6:15, and then got up to make coffee. I suppose it’s fine that I’m awake so early – today is my Craigslist moving sale, and I’ve got a lot to do before strangers enter my apartment, give me money (I hope) and take away my things.

But really, I wish I had gotten more than 3 1/2 hours of sleep. Yesterday was my going away party (New York version) (thanks again for hosting, Drea and M2!) and I’m emotionally drained. It was kinda like going to your own funeral, if you and your friends believed in an afterlife – everyone’s sad that you’re going and will miss you, but then again happy because you’re going to a good place, maybe a better place. Plus, you’ll all meet again someday and frolic in a field of wildflowers or something.

A beautiful day

Tonight I’m suffering my first insomnia for a few weeks. Perhaps it’s the leftover glow of excitement from my first – and only – game at The New Yankee Stadium. Sure, it was an exhibition game (against the Cubs; the Yanks won 7-4) but it was the first game played by the Yankees in their new ballpark.

I have to say, I kinda hate The New Stadium. It felt like a cross between a midwestern shopping mall (too airy! too friendly!) and a slick, modern museum. At Gate 6, the walls of the cavernous, bright foyer were festooned with larger-than-life flags depicting Yankee greats (Goose, Reggie). Along the double-wide concourse, sparkly new food counters inexplicably sold the same old sausage, hot dogs and fried chicken fingers. Above the counters hung enormous black-and-white photos of more Yankee greats (The Babe, Mickey, Lou). From the perspective of this Red Sox fan, it felt like the team is trying to remind itself how great it is (once was?), given the high-priced failures of the past decade. But maybe I’m projecting?

Overall, the stainless steel and grey, brightened only occasionally by splashes of Yankee blue, felt like a food court. Even the women’s rooms – once cramped, smelly and painted a remarkable Pepto Bismol, were cool and sophisticated. My first reaction was, Thank GAWD that awful pink is gone! After about a second, though, I realized I could be in the ladies’ room at the Cherry Tree Mall in Winetka, or at the MoMA, or anywhere at all. Viscerally, none of it rose to the special occasion that is a baseball game – especially given the ticket prices. The stadium lacks any sort of charm.

The one saving grace is the field. The dimensions of the playing field are exactly the same, though there’s less foul territory. The signature picket fence, carried over from the old stadium, saves the advertisement-laden center field”score board” from stock sports-Jumbotron flashiness. And don’t even get me started about the lack of useful info in the new scoreboard/signage. (What time is it? What’s this dude’s batting average? What did Jeter do in his last at-bat?) Oh – and the fonts they use! A usability nightmare. But I digress…

I hate the new stadium because I’m a Fenway-lovin’ Sox fan, you say? Well, you’re wrong. My Yankee-lovin’ friends shared my negative assessment. We recognize, of course, that part of our reaction is sentimental; it’s different and therefore bad. And since I’m given to sentimentality – even more so now, during my last two weeks in New York – I’m glad it’s not just me.

But despite all this…I have to say: It was a BEAUT-iful day for baseball. I’m glad I got to go to a game. Baseball, I’ll miss thee whilst I’m away.