Crazy Christians!

When, last spring, I first thought of moving to Istanbul, I talked over the idea with Kate, who I’ve mentioned quite a few times in this blog. The logic went something like this: instead of moving back in with my parents while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I would move somewhere where the rent is cheap and maybe get to know a new part of the world. It sounded logical, she said. It even sounded like fun. We flirted with the idea of moving over together, but as our summers took us in different directions – her to work in Boston, me to China and the former Soviet Union – it looked more and more like she would be starting work in New York City and I would be arriving in Istanbul on my own.

Which is what happened, sort of. I arrived in Istanbul and started to look for work, and Kate enrolled in a job training course. Or at least I thought she had until she wrote me and told me she’d found a good fare and bought a ticket to Istanbul.

Inside one of hundreds of cave churches

I didn’t manage to keep her in the city for long. Armed with a sturdy backpack and a sense of adventure that makes me look like a hermit, she set off for Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, or so was the plan last time I checked. But first she eased her way into life on the road by exploring Turkey.

It didn’t take more than a single entry on her blog to convince me to put my own pack back on. The fact that the correspondent I had been working with had decamped to Pakistan for an indeterminate period, and that flights to Capadoccia, where Kate was, were $30, sealed the deal. I left the next day.

Capadoccia, in central Turkey, has some of the most interesting geology on earth. Four volcanoes covered the region in lava a few millennia ago. Persistent winds wore the soft stone into cone-shaped towers, and rivers carved colorful gorges through layers of pink, white, and yellow lava.

From the 5th century onwards, Capadoccia became a refuge for early Christian sects deemed heretical by the orthodox church. They burrowed into the stone cones and, sometimes, underneath, digging subterranean cities with as many as eight stories. They eeked a living out of miniscule farms fertilized with pigeon droppings. To this day, it is said that a man won’t be taken seriously as a suitor unless he has a sizable flock of pigeons.

The most elaborate cave churches are covered in frescoes,
most of which date to the 11th century.

Many Capadoccia natives have capitalized on the exotic appeal of their homes by turning them into inns. I discovered Kate lounging on a bed of carpets on the deck of the excellent Kelebek Cave Hotel soon after I arrived. Though we were staying at the also excellent Kose Pension – on the roof, no less – she had, characteristically, already made friends in town. Ali, the innkeeper, was pouring wine liberally, and it was established that there was nothing that could possibly be done with the afternoon but watch the colors of the valley change as the sun set.

My second day, we turned to the serious business of exploring. Life in the underground cities could not have been much fun. The tunnels are tiny, designed so that attackers would be forced to move slowly and therefore killed easily. It may be a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but the little girl in me thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Cowboys and Indians seem so quaint compared to cave-dwelling heretics and pagan/Muslim/Orthodox crusaders.

The Goreme ‘Open Air Museum’ – a series of remarkable churches in the most widely-visited town in the region.

We didn’t have to guess at what life would be like in the cone towers because Ali invited us to his friend Apo’s place for a barbecue. As the lamb was grilling, Apo showed us his sumptuous (well, for a cave) living room. It was covered in Turkish carpets and tapestries, which I had expected, and had a wireless router, which I had not. Ah, modernity.

Most of Apo’s friends didn’t speak English, but I bonded with one who was playing a saz, a six-stringed lute-like instrument that is common in Turkey. He showed me some basic chords and we began to sing together, no doubt to the horror of anyone who was listening.

I had trouble falling asleep on my overnight bus home. From the center to Istanbul in the northwest is a solid eleven hour drive through the Anatolian heartland. Occasionally the bus would shudder to a halt next to a roadside stand that had appeared, unannounced, out of the surrounding blackness. A small crowd, usually old women, was waiting at each, clutching small cloth satchels and huddled against the late October chill. They shuffled on board, taking the places of a handful of equally wizened old women who melted into the night outside, and then promptly fell asleep.

I did manage to drift off a little past two, but woke with a start just past three. A woman the color of dusty hills and at least as old had fallen asleep with her head on my chest. She was wearing the drop-seam pants that have recently become fashionable (‘genie pants’) but are in fact native to this region. The story behind their origin goes something like this: one early Christian sect believed the Messiah could be born again at any time, so they had their women wear drop-seam pants that would catch baby Jesus II when he popped out. The pants would also help hide the baby in case Herod II decided to come try to kill him. Evidently, no one is going to notice you walking around with a baby tucked in your pants.

When I woke up again in Istanbul, the old woman had disappeared back into the countryside, far from the skyscrapers and housing complexes of the city I now call home. Reflexively, I checked for my wallet, but I really didn’t need to. As a Turkish friend explained to me, Turks protect guests in their country – they use the word guest, not tourist – with almost religious passion. This is changing in the increasingly developed tourist hubs of Old Istanbul, Izmir, and Troy, but I still feel safer in Turkey than in, say, Paris or New York City. Kate, meanwhile, continues to defy anyone’s notion of what is safe for a small blonde woman by hitchhiking around the Middle East. If I could think of a single place in the ‘west’ where she’d be as safe doing that I’d feel slightly more charitable towards the people who have managed to convince conservative America – make that most of America – that the Muslim world is full of bloodthirsty fanatics.

Getting there: Fly into either Kayseri or Nevsehir on one of several cheap flights a day from Istanbul’s airports, then take a 20 lira one hour shuttle to Goreme. By bus or car, it’s an 10 to 11-hour ride from Istanbul or Izmir. You could stay in the slightly more upmarket Uchisar, but we recommend Goreme for its range of accommodation options and proximity to the best sites.

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Reflections, directions

I’ve discovered that when you start working two jobs, you don’t have much time for blogging anymore.

But in much, much more interesting news, Kate Bloomer has been traveling all in and out of the middle east. I can’t get enough of her blog and photos. My friend since we were wee bairns and my best friend since college, Kate is a constant source of inspiration: if you take a look at her blog, maybe she can be for you too.

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Rise, traveller

(originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I first noticed him when he crossed the threshold into Hagia Sofia the wrong way. In Buddhist temples, you always enter with your right foot first and leave with your left foot. Since living in China, I’ve picked up the habit of watching how I enter religious spaces. He stepped in with his left foot first. I followed with my right.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia isn’t much of a religious space any more. The building has gone the way of the nation that surrounds it: an important seat of early Christianity, it converted to Islam and then a secular institution. The Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum was one of the things that drew me to Istanbul, but I’d put off visiting once I arrived because I was suffering from the Lonely Traveler’s Blues. Three hundred and sixty days a year I am happy to explore all the world has to offer. The other five, I wonder why on earth I have left family and friends in all the places I’ve lived, and hate the idea of surrounding myself with strangers in a foreign city.

It usually passes in a day, sometimes less, but my first few days in Istanbul proved especially trying. It was my own fault, completely. I’d come to the city without a Plan, armed with only a few distant contacts and ghostly potential job leads, and about a hundred different impulses but no specific reason why I had decided to stop in this city, of all places.

It had taken a massive effort of will to get myself to Hagia Sofia, especially when I found out the entry price was 20 lira, or $13, which was my daily budget. It was this strange man stepping over the threshold the wrong way that drew me in as much as anything else.

We followed tandem paths around the building, looking at the same mosaics in different order. I took pictures across the sanctuary while he took pictures of the dome. He wandered over to a window and nudged it open. I had to stand on a ledge to see out. In between the ancient buttressing, you could see the mosque Sultan Ahmet had constructed at the beginning of the 17th century. Some say he built it as a challenge to the old Roman Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, a very visual demonstration that the Muslim Ottomans could match or outdo their 6th century Christian predecessors. But why, I thought, would he have built a structure that looks so similar? In my eyes, the two buildings look like brother and sister: one dressed in pink, one in blue, but obviously from the same family.

Muslims call Christians and Jews ‘people of the book,’ like themselves. All three faiths believe in one God, arguably the same God. Just as the Christian Bible incorporates the Hebrew Bible as its old testament, the Quran tells the story of Abraham, and Moses, and even Jesus. The view that dominates western media, intentionally or unintentionally – that Christians and Muslims are fundamentally different types of people – makes no sense to me. Over the last two months, every fear I harbored of the rise of militant Islam has been countered by acts of extraordinary generosity and friendship. For every jihadist who is profiled in the news, there must be a million peaceful men, women, and children whose stories never get told. I can’t blame the media, though: they have to write what sells, and what sells is and always seems to have been violence and fear.

I made my visit to Hagia Sofia long before I was qualified to make any sort of judgment on the country or the people around me. On that day, I was still nursing my inexplicable Lonely Traveler’s Blues, though something was pulling me out of it. Certainly most of the credit must go to the Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque, two indescribable monuments to human achievement which cannot fail to inspire. But part of it, too, was my silent museum partner.

We ended up talking, finally, by one of the toppled columns that litter the garden around Hagia Sophia like fallen leaves. I asked if he was Italian. I’d based my guess on the fact that he was wearing the kind of pointed boots I have only ever seen on gay men and Italians. No, he said, he was German, here studying Turkish, and what was I doing in Istanbul?

I don’t remember which of my stable of answers I gave him – interest in the Islamic world/medieval history/contemporary EU politics, desire to travel, lower cost of living, love of kebabs – but it was enough to start a conversation that continued for the next four hours. We visited the blue mosque and strolled through the garden outside the Sultans’ old harem. As the sun set, we stopped for tea at a cafe looking over the Bosphorus, the bustling strait of water which divides Istanbul’s European half from its Asian.

We parted ways soon after that, each pleading dinner commitments, though I know I at least could have easily missed the dinner I had planned. It was better, I thought, to leave things as they were. We’d had a lucky meeting of minds in the heart of old Istanbul, but we had separate lives to return to in the world outside. He was heading back to Germany in five days, I was hoping to find a job that would support me in Istanbul until I went home for Thanksgiving. At the last minute, he gave me his email address, but when I waved goodbye from the bus I was pretty sure it was the last time I would ever see him.

As my bus trundled up the European side of the Bosphorus, I looked at Istanbul with new eyes. Pale mosques, lit by spotlights, glowed yellow, and their reflections danced in the water. There had been nothing particularly remarkable about our meeting, but it revived whatever had been laying dormant since my arrival in Istanbul, and I was finally ready for the city.

Istanbul had apparently decided she was ready for me as well. I found an internship with CNN’s correspondent in Istanbul the next day and moved into a fantastic apartment in the center of the city a week later. My neighbors offered to show me around, had me over for dinner, and one, a Greek, invited me to his niece’s Christening.

And so the traveler part of me has gone with the lonely blues, at least for now. A new friend of mine recently asked how long I’ll be living here. I think I surprised myself as much as her when I said I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. I will live other places, I’m sure, and might never call Istanbul home. I’m not even positive I’ll be returning after Thanksgiving. But I will always pass through here, and always be looking forward to my next stay. This is not a place that can be visited once.

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A Greenwich Citizen

As I’m sick of being harangued by the one or two people who actually read this blog about the lack of posts over the last month, I’ve decided to make like a real writer and recycle old material. I’ve been writing a biweekly column for The Greenwich Citizen, a local paper from my hometown, since the beginning of August. If you can tolerate the odd bit of Greenwich arcana, please click the links below for a fresh take on some old places. I’ve tried to insert them in more or less chronological order – apologies for the occasional redundancies.

Go East, Young Woman, and go Crazy with the Country

Dear, Dirty Dongguan

Spot of Golf, Genghis?

O Sad Siberian Night

The Bush-Ahmadinejad Connection

A Country to be Proud Of

Everyone Should Have Experience

(Actually, I have no idea how many people read this blog. At least two, guilty of mentioned haranguing. Please feel free to email or comment to let me know you’re reading – I’d love some feedback!)

Also, here’s pretty picture of the Basilica Cistern, in Istanbul’s old city, because everybody likes beautiful pictures:

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It snowed yesterday morning. Since I moved away from Boston in part to escape winter, this was a discouraging development. To make matters worse, I live in a beautiful high-ceilinged old apartment with gorgeous picture windows that retains about as much heat as a ventilation shaft. I’m too cheap to turn on the gas, which can run to about $200 a month (to give a sense of scale, that’s just under the amount I pay for rent), and the only clothes I have were packed with China’s tropical heat in mind. I wrote my roommate, who’s currently in Kabul, to see if she had any suggestions for avoiding hypothermia.

‘Let’s look into electric heaters? Isn’t that what other poor people do?’

And, in a separate email: ‘its so hot here. im so glad i brought that sleepingbag.’

Kabul: temptation rears its ugly head, yet again (see ‘The Detroit-Kabul Connection‘).

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Marooned in a Marathon

In nineteen years as a committed athlete, I never ran more than a mile and a half at a time. My bone density is nonexistent thanks to the years I spent swimming three hours a day instead of engaging in normal childhood activities like jumping rope. I’ve sprained each of my ankles twice and they still occasionally give out without warning. My shins ache for a week after I run any distance and I never feel like I’ve gotten a good workout (probably because I can never be bothered to go for longer than a mile and a half).

In other words, I loathe running. I hate it so much I would spend an extra forty-five minutes on the erg, that torture machine for rowers, when the rest of Radcliffe Crew was running the Arsenal loop.

Given the above, it may seem odd that I signed up to do the Istanbul mini-Marathon. But, like Britney Spears, I’ve stopped trying to justify myself with age… Except my version of growing up entails picking up running instead of unplanned pregnancy, head shaving, and making out with Madonna.

Luckily for my ankles, the start of the marathon was so crowded that running wasn’t an option. The huddled masses at the starting line didn’t break free until well into the course, and even then the human traffic was denser than your average New York rush hour sidewalk. I did try to run, honestly, but I’m pretty sure my mile and a half threshold still stands.

About a mile in, there was a particularly dense knot of people surrounding something moving low on the ground. My New England resentment of bottlenecking lost out to my burgeoning reporter instincts and I hustled to catch up with them. Turns out there were a pair of midgets (dwarves? I never know the correct term). They were taking three Lilliputian steps for every one of mine and I thought how torturous it must be to do an entire marathon with an ogling entourage. They weren’t even getting paid for their pains.

Two miles in, we reached the first bridge over the Bosphorus, the channel of water that divides Istanbul’s Asian side from its European. Part of the appeal of the marathon was the opportunity to run from one continent to another on a bridge that is at all other times closed to pedestrians (the one in the picture above). The sun came out just as I hit the crest of the bridge, turning the water hundreds of meters down a deep turquoise and making the pale stone of the minarets that carpet this city glow. This would be such a beautiful sight if I were not running, I thought.

The end of the bridge marked the halfway point of the run and I grew increasingly bored. I took turns eavesdropping on the people around me until I found some who spoke English.

They were a pair of girls about my age wearing headscarves and jeans. After exchanging the obvious pleasantries – ‘hey! you speak English too? Isn’t it cool to run over the Bosphorus bridge? What a pretty day!’ – we moved on to more pressing questions. Like, why are you doing a marathon in jeans? (why not? We’re just walking), Why did you decide to run the marathon? (it was our boyfriends’ idea, they’re running up ahead), Why do I never see women in headscarves on the street after dark? (blank stare). I didn’t feel comfortable asking them why they wore headscarves in the first place without establishing some kind of rapport, but just then we passed a Starbucks and I really needed to go to the bathroom so I nipped in.

I came out of the Starbucks just in time to see the midgets running by. Inspired, I jogged the rest of the way to the finish line.

When you finish a run, even if you walked most of the way AND stopped in Starbucks, you want to have some kind of celebration or recognition. I don’t know that many people here yet, though, and certainly noone well enough to expect a slap on the back and a post-marathon beer.

I picked my own poison by moving to a strange city where I didn’t know anyone, and lord knows I’ve moved enough to be used to this by now. But loneliness hits you at the strangest times. Standing just past the finish line, sweating, staring into the sun that shines on this incomparable city at the center of the world, I wondered for neither the first nor the last time what I am doing here.

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A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)

Charlemagne once said that to learn another language is to have another soul. If the man speaks the truth, I am on a quest for my fifth soul: I started Turkish classes the Tuesday after I arrived.

Pinching pennies as always, I passed on the highly recommended but expensive language school that most foreigners attend and found a discount program taught out of a teacher’s apartment. Hakan, said teacher, is a wiry-haired anarchist who speaks fluent Russian, Arabic, Turkish, English, and Hebrew. He has absurdly wide nostrils – the phrase ‘cocaine pipes’ comes to mind – and doesn’t seem to own anything that’s not black.

The one other student in the class was a Nigerian man who entered Turkey for ‘a conference’ and never intends to leave. After five minutes of Hakan and me trying and failing to pronounce his name, he said that we could call him Nibs (an odd choice, but at least it wasn’t Icemen). Hakan took great pleasure in telling Nibs how to get a job and a visa under the table. He also took great pleasure in teaching us when he felt like taking a break from chain smoking. After the two day free trial I decided this was not the best use of my time and threw my hat to the wind.

The proverbial hat landed at the steps of CNN’s closet-sized bureau in Istanbul, and so suddenly I have become an aspiring reporter. A disgruntled student with an uncomfortable shoe gave me my first clip by throwing said shoe at Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF. But things began to get really exciting on my third Tuesday in Istanbul.

We spent the morning at the annual meeting of the IMF-World Bank conference, which was remarkable most for its complete lack of inspiration. Most of the work of the conference – keeping the pockets of G7 bankers lined, disenfranchising the poor – had been done behind closed doors in committees and seminars over the weekend. Tuesday and Wednesday were for the press and the public.

As we unpacked the camera gear I noticed the cameraman had packed a gas mask. Fat chance we’ll be using this, I remember thinking. We were in a vast conference center protected by a thousands of policemen. They barely let me in the place, even with press accreditation. No shoe-throwing dissidents were going to spoil this party.

Not long after we arrived, I got an email from one of my new friends, a former (?) anarchist turned international lawyer. It was a forward from another anarchist, calling for people to ‘make the streets of Istanbul miserable for the people who make our lives miserable.’ The action was supposed to begin at 10am. We were doing live shots until noon.

Noon came and we went. I was partially right: no shoe-throwers were getting anywhere close to the conference center. They were being blasted by water cannons mounted on Armored Personnel Carriers on the street outside. But I was wrong about not needed the gas mask.

We left the conference around noon and made our way towards Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul. The maze of ancient streets that radiate from Taksim square are perfect for two things: touristy aimless wandering and playing cat-and-mouse with cops who want to stop you from vandalizing shops and creating general mayhem.

 It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. We either followed cops or gravitated towards the spots where lots of police helicopters were buzzing overhead. Protesters wearing scarfs over their face threw rocks through shop windows and at the cops, and the cops returned fire with tear gas and water cannons.

My brother has always claimed that you can go anywhere if you look like you know where you’re going. I did not expect this to apply to walking into the middle of a cop-protester skirmish, but our cameraman strapped on his gas mask and walked straight through the police line. I followed.

It turns out inhaling tear gas kind of feels like having strep throat. Reflexively, you start crying, which then psychosomatically leads you to panic, and all you can think of is stopping whatever mischief you are up to and running away. Thankfully, the sensation passes after a few minutes, and quicker if you squeeze lemon juice into your eyes. The correspondent, cameraman, and camera intern were hit much worse than me, and if my internet connection were faster I would link to the footage we shot that was briefly the top hit on… I leave that to the more enterprising to Google (and if you feel like posting the link below, that would be great). UPDATE: Here it is!

Who knows what the next two Tuesdays will bring?

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First impressions

I arrived in Istanbul on id al-fitr, the last day of Ramadan. Since Ramadan is a month of fasting, I figured I’d be landing in time for the biggest party of the year. Not so. The feast day, called Little Bayram here, is a time to make respectful visits to distant relatives, and feasting is strictly optional.

Greater Bayram (in Arabic, Id al-adha, Feast day of Sacrifice) will be at the end of November this year and sounds much more exciting. It involves slaughtering sheep. Unfortunately, I risk being disowned if I don’t go home for Thanksgiving, though now that I think of it, my brother Robert might be up for a ritual sheep slaying…

Istanbul is more religious than I thought it would be. Lots of women are covered up – more by far than there were fifty or even twenty years ago, according to my host’s mother. My host is my brother’s friend’s ex-boyfriend’s friend. He grew up in Turkey but went to the US for college, which gives him peculiar bicultural tastes. He hates beer but he likes Family Guy. He expects his Mom to cook at home but he’ll cook to impress an American girl (a Turkish girl would consider a man cooking for a woman heresy). Like a European man, he knows how to dress; like an American he thinks it’s ok to wear sweatpants in public.

No matter where I go in the city, the call to prayer stops me in my tracks five times a day. It doesn’t seem to cast the same spell over the Istanbul natives, which is understandable as they’ve heard it every day of their lives. I wonder if I’ll live in this city long enough for the call to lose its exoticism. I hope so.

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This is a boring one

One of my colleagues in Madrid last summer, Tom, used to work as a steward on a private airline that specialized in flying in and out of conflict zones. Their motto: ‘where bullets fly, we do too.’ I asked him why on earth he would choose to work for them instead of, say, Delta.

‘Simple. I never wanted to get stuck on the Des Moines-Minneapolis route. We were flying Paris to Sarajevo. Wouldn’t you rather have your layover in Paris?’

People keep on asking me why I wanted to move to Istanbul. I don’t really have an answer for them, but something along the lines of Tom’s makes sense. There is nothing wrong with the live-in-Brooklyn/Queens-commute-to-Manhattan life I so nearly embraced alongside three quarters of my graduating class. But for the time being, I want my layover in Paris.

Istanbul isn’t even a figurative bridge between East and West. Half the city is literally in Europe and the other half is in Asia. It is the city where the East tries to go West: immigrants have swelled the population of Istanbul from two million to twelve million in the last thirty years. They arrive, realize getting into Europe is not easy, or that Bulgaria and Romania don’t hold that much appeal, or that Istanbul is nice enough, and that it’s full of nice buildings abandoned in the mid-century purges of Greek and Armenian citizens; they pick the locks, set up camp and never leave.

Then there are the odd ones who come from West to East for all their various reasons. Maybe they want to see what life is like in the spicy and sweet melting-pot of the world. Maybe they want to see if Istanul’s latest renaissance will bring it back to the status of international prestige it has always had and lost. This was once Rome. Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire here in 330 AD, and its rulers called themselves Romans, not Byzantines, until falling to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. I want to see if it is going to be Rome again.

In other news, because I’m horribly behind, please see Miss Kate Bloomer’s blog as she’s actually been writing a little about the day-to-day of my/our life over here.

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Deportation is a drag

In the Lonely Planet rundown of facts on Kazakhstan, it lists ‘oil, steppe, Borat’ as the key features of this Central Asian republic. I got a lot of Borat jokes when I mentioned to American friends that I would be visiting ‘his’ country. As I got closer, I started getting responses with a little more substance. Among the expat community in the Ukraine, for example, many people have been to Kazakhstan.

‘They’re great people over there,’ said an American diplomat I met, fresh off a two year tour in the country. ‘None of this Slavic tendency to depression, none of the southeast Asian urge to try and swindle you. Muslim hospitality, though they’re not terribly religious. You’ll have a ball.’

‘Almaty, the old capital, is as ugly as the Paris suburbs,’ said Guillaume, the French artist (see ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a mummy‘). ‘Great setting, with those gorgeous mountains in the south, but they’ve torn down all the pretty stuff and built horrendous apartment buildings.’

‘Almaty… great… clubs…’ mumbled a drunk English businessman.

I was going to Almaty to visit Emma, a classmate of mine from Harvard who is teaching at a university there. I loved the Ukraine but was definitely looking forward to a familiar face. Unfortunately, the border control had other plans for me. Despite the information on the Kazakh Embassy website and every guidebook and traveler forum I read that said you could get a transit visa at the border if you were staying less than five days, you cannot get a transit visa at the border even if you are staying less than five days. After 45 minutes in the country I was promptly deported back to Kiev.

I went to a pub near the Golden Gates, the historic point of entry into Kiev, with some people I’d met in my first few days in Kiev to wash away my frustration. We happened to run into the American diplomat who had raved about Kazakh hospitality and I told her about my experience.

‘Oh, I probably should have told you the border guards are total assholes,’ she said. ‘They turn away one out of every five Americans, I think just for fun. It was a total nightmare at the embassy. They would turn away dignitaries who had flown half way around the world.’

That might have been good to know, I thought, though I suppose it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. At least I was in good company.

‘Everyone else is great, though, really, you must go back,’ she said. I hope I will have another chance. The flight (with eventual destination of Istanbul) was the last one I booked with the money from my job in China at the beginning of the summer. It may be time for a reality check. But first there’s Istanbul.

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Pragmatic if not practical

‘Les filles sont fait pour fait l’amour,’ was the opening line (and refrain, and pretty much entire text) of French rocker Adanowsky’s set at the Moloko Music Festival, the culminating musical event of Kiev’s Gogol International Modern Art festival. The song seemed especially fitting here in the Ukraine, where women are as uncannily beautiful as their Muscovite cousins (see ‘The Moscow-New York Connection‘).

To the delight of almost every male expat, and the trepidation their female counterparts, there is a rich tradition of Ukrainian woman – expat man relationships, or so I gathered from the cover story of the Sept. 3 issue of ‘What’s On Kiev‘. The article blithely lays out the pros and cons for each party. Some highlights:

‘The delights’ Ukrainian women can offer the expat man:
– No matter how ugly, overweight, or out of shape you are, you can probably find yourself a young wife with a face you can’t believe and a supple body to die for!

‘The dark side’
– Don’t allow yourself to entertain the foolish thought that because your Ukrainian wife expects you to be the breadwinner, going off to work every day and earning fortunes (she will expect this, by the way), she’s going to be stuck at home being a housewife… she will expect you to hire a nanny, a cleaner, a cook and a maid.
– All Ukrainian women believe that men are bastards. They will fully expect you to be drunk all the time and to be unfaithful in equal amounts. She will treat you as if you are doing all this, even when you’re not, which will certainly drive you to drink, and probably drive you to being unfaithful, in the unlikely event you’re not already

‘The Good’ about expat men for Ukrainian women
– Chances are they can give you a better lifestyle than their local counterparts. Then again, an ex-pat in Kiev is never going to be worth what an oligarch’s worth, but if you’ve got no access there, a foreigner’s a good option.
– Most western men know it’s a bad thing to beat a woman, while statistics show that might not always be the case with Ukrainian men.

The Bad and the Ugly
– He’s going to be old. While that might not matter now, try and project into the future and calculate how old he will be when you’re his age. He may well be dead by then, but then again, that might not be such a bad thing. After all, you’ll have the passport and all his money.
– An expat will not be as generous with his money as his local equivalent. He will tell you it’s because he doesn’t have the fatalistic attitude to money Ukrainian men have and that he thinks of the future, but you know it’s just cause he’s a tight bastard and doesn’t appreciate how much it costs for you to look the way you do. He simply does not understand!

Naturally, the article was the subject of many conversations among the expat community. I thought it was a joke. On the contrary, said nearly everyone I talked to, it’s spot on. Even the Ukrainians I talked to didn’t seem to take much umbrage with the fact that it painted their women as gold-diggers. ‘Of course women want to be taken care of,’ said one man. ‘My wife has told me she doesn’t want to do anything but play with our children all day. Of course it is my responsibility to provide for them.’ ‘It’s just the reality of life over here,’ one woman echoed. ‘And it’s so true, what they say: foreign men don’t understand how much it costs to look good. I used to date an American who said I should get a job if I wanted to spend $2000 a month on spa treatments. How ridiculous is that? I dumped him and started dating a Ukrainian man who owns a spa.’

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Everyone should have experience

The flight from Kiev to Almaty takes five hours, the same amount of time it takes to get from New York to London. This is because Kazakhstan is nearly the size of the continental United States, a fact that both baffles and amazes me. 

People have been crossing this land for thousands of years on various branches of the silk road, but relatively few have chosen to settle here. The names of the civilizations that have risen and fallen here evoke the Lord of the Rings: Scythians, Tatars, Zhungars, Huns, Mongols. Kazakh, from the Turkish word for ‘adventurer’ or ‘outlaw’, is a relatively recent term, appearing in the 15th century to describe a hodgepodge of ethnicities just starting to develop a collective national identity. I wondered what a Kazakh might look like: were they fair-haired and Germanic looking, like some of their eastern neighbors in Urumqi, China’s predominantly Muslim western province? Dark and Slavic, like their Russian neighbors to the north? Mongolian, with high cheekbones, tan skin, and Asian eyes?

The answer, as far as I could tell from the border, was all of the above. Customs was the farthest I got during my visit to Kazakhstan, having been told mistakenly that I could get a transit visa on arrival. 

The first customs official looked eerily like the proprietor of a guesthouse where I’d stayed in Mongolia; the one who refused my visa application was blonde and puffy, like he’d had bratwurst for breakfast. The one who spoke enough English to explain that, contrary to the information on the embassy’s website, I could not get a transit visa for my stay of less than five days, for reasons that remain unclear, was a friendly Slavic giant named Pavlov. 

He escorted me to a flight back to Kiev and handed my passport to the stewardess, mumbling a complicated sentence in which the only word I could understand was ‘deported’. I was surprised how much the word bothered me. Travel has always been easy for me, a fact I have grown to appreciate more and more after seeing people of different races subject to humiliating ‘random’ searches and non-American passports being examined skeptically. Noticing I was upset, Pavlov put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, you,’ he said. ‘It’s experience. Everyone should have experience. Good experience, bad experience. Come back soon.’

My flight to Kazakhstan had been overnight, and so I appreciated being able to see the country pass underneath me on the way back. Almaty, the old cultural capital, is in the southeast; Astana, the current capital, is closer to Russia in the northwest. Between them stretches a vast plateau of Mars-like bleakness. There are some mountains, though the biggest by far are in the southeast, spilling into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The majority is inhospitable steppe land, occasionally punctured by lakes white with salt. The Soviets used vast swathes of northern Kazakhstan for nuclear testing, and in a twisted way you can almost see why. If anywhere on earth has to be sacrificed to atomic waste, here seems as good a place as any.

Less than an hour outside Almaty, we fly over a mountain with rings carved by the wind, like a giant terraced field. It is the only thing resembling human habitation I see in four hours, by which point we’re flying over Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Russia, and finally the Ukraine.

I’m disappointed to have bungled my first experience of Central Asia. Whenever I mentioned I was going to Kazakhstan, people exclaimed how lucky I was to travel there while it was still relatively undiscovered. The people, they say, are incredibly friendly, a tradition born out of their nomadic heritage. ‘When you have only your herd and family for company, you begin to really like strangers,’ said a Ukrainian man I met on the train. Almaty, set against the backdrop of the Alatau mountains, is one of the more stunning cities in the world, according to an American diplomat I met in Kiev, and the nightlife rivals Moscow. Astana is quick becoming the Dubai of Central Asia, as foreign investment pours in to get a slice of Kazakhstan’s 35 billion barrels of oil (and, potentially, 65 billion more, if the government’s estimates are to be believed). 

Despite the picture that Sacha Baron Cohen paints, Kazakhstan is the most economically advanced country in the region, and by most accounts the stablest. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been ‘democratically’ elected to head the government since 1989, though not a single election has been declared fair by foreign observers. Growing resentment over the fact that 16% of the country still lives below the poverty line, despite annual growth of around 10% a year, could change that, but for the moment he has a firm grip on power. His ability to forge a multiethnic government with close ties to both western governments and his Russian and Chinese neighbors shows he is a politician of no little importance.

In the end, my deportation was little more than a few hours of hassle and a chance to catch up on some reading. Sympathetic airline personnel didn’t charge me for the flight and I got to spend a few extra days in Kiev, a city I am beginning to love. Kazakhstan is not going anywhere. ‘Come back,’ Pavlov had said as he waved me on to my flight. It won’t be long, I hope, before I have the chance.
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Something there is that doesn’t love a mummy

I have been thwarted nearly every time I have tried to see dead bodies this summer. I saw one, towards the beginning, at the Changsha Provincial Museum in China, a mummy of some ancient queen. She was lying there as hundreds of tourists were pushing each other – seriously pushing, elbowing too – to get a glimpse of her. Normally Chinese people give me more personal space than they give each other. I call it the sphere of fear (my personal space). But everyone was looking at the mummy, so they didn’t notice I wasn’t Chinese, and I was bumped around like the rest. Eventually I wormed my way in and looked into the gaping maw of this poor ancient dead woman. It’s morbid, by definition, but absolutely fascinating. I was not looking at a vase or a plate or a piece of jewelry but a person who had used all these things, had thought, lived and breathed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We each define art and history in our own way. Call me twisted – I’ll call you crazy for thinking Mark Rothko is worth a second glance (looking at you, Hilary).

When we got to Beijing, then, it was only obvious that we should go and see Mao, who lies mummified in a tomb in Tiananmen Square. Well, it was only obvious to me. Gretchen and Jeanne had no interest in the pilgrimage and made me feel kind of creepy about wanting to. You’d think I’d have grown out of feeling subject to peer pressure. Nope.

Then we got to Moscow. Lenin’s body lies in Red Square, in a completely anachronistic Soviet block (har har) among the fanciful old imperial buildings. You used to have to wait for hours to be able to see him, but the queues have died down in recent years and it only takes about 45 minutes. Again, the rest of my party wasn’t interested, but I talked about it with an American ex-soldier who I met in my hostel. Somehow our wires crossed and he went without me; I figured I’d go the next day but apparently Mr Lenin does not accept visitors on Mondays.

Here in Kiev there’s an impressive collection of mummies of monks underneath the Kievo-Pecherskya Lavra Monastery. It sounds like dead body Mecca: an underground crypt, still lit by candles, with the remains of these venerated holy men an arm’s reach from the corridor (not that I’d want to touch them, I’m not thatcreepy). I visited the monastery with Olivier, part of the cultural attache of the French embassy, who was giving a tour to a visiting French artist named Guillaume Reynard and his friend Florence.
I’d forgotten how bitchy French women can be. I’m not talking about my host, Laure, who is a total angel: how else could you describe someone who agreed to host me in her apartment for free after one email exchange over Florence is cast of a different mold. We spoke in French, which I learned in high school and improved when I lived in France from 2004-2005. Not far into our visit, she turned to Olivier and said ‘She speaks French like a retarded Parisian’ – then turned and gave me a saccharine smile. ‘Her French, it’s not bad,’ chided Olivier, ‘and she can understand everything so far as I can tell.’ Florence didn’t offer an apology.

Just before the gates to the monastery, Florence declared that she was crevée (exhausted) and so we paused for a café before going in. We toured the grounds of the upper monastery, which was stunning in the decaying afternoon light. Much of the cathedral had been reduced to rubble by either the Nazis or the Soviets, noone’s really sure. It’s been rebuilt in fine form, with only one pocked golden dome (furthest left, above) showing the legacy of the tough twentieth century. It was all well and good, I thought, but where were the mummies?

‘Oh, I’m afraid we don’t have time because we stopped for café,’ said Olivier. ‘It closes in fifteen minutes.’

Some sort of divine providence witnessed my pain at missing yet another opportunity to see dead bodies, and so gave me a second chance. My trip to Kazakhstan did not pan out as planned (more on that soon) so I have another three days to revisit the Lavra and improve my unimpressive body count.

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A Country to be Proud Of

(Originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I liked the Ukraine from the moment I arrived. I flew in from Stockholm, where a sandwich in the airport costs $20. In Kiev, that same $20 will cover the forty-five minute taxi ride into the city and a beer once you get there.

I don’t usually take taxis, no matter how cheap they are: if public transit is a tenth of the price, which it usually is, anything else seems indulgent. I also don’t make a habit of getting a beer on arrival, but my plane arrived late and I was scheduled to meet my couchsurfing host, Laure, at a pub at 9pm., which I described in greater detail in my previous column, is an online social networking site for travelers of both the armchair and literal variety. It connects budget travelers, or ‘surfers’, with people who are willing to let them sleep on a spare couch, bed, or section of floor for free. Laure is a thirty-something French diplomat who lives in the posh embassy district just north of Kiev’s historic center. When she wasn’t dispensing visas to hopeful emigrants, she took me to embassy parties and tacked me on to a private city tour the embassy had arranged for a visiting French artist. Fortune can be so kind when you go looking for it.

I didn’t know what to expect of Kiev. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find gorgeous white sand beaches in the middle of the city. Their appeal is lessened by the fact that the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened a hundred kilometers upstream. Radiation poisoning isn’t really my thing, so I skipped the beach and hit the usual tourist sights. Kiev’s cathedrals are magnificent orthodox confections, with starry domes and darkly glittering icons in their candlelit interiors. The state museums are average, but Ukraine’s oligarchs have a long and faithful history of sharing their acquisitions with the public in sumptuous townhouses: the exhibition of rock star artist Damien Hirst’s skeletons in billionaire Viktor Pinchuk’s icy modernist gallery was only the coolest of the bunch. A few miles down the road, an international modern art festival was intellectually stimulating during the day and a raging new music party every night. On the street, funky folk art rises next to gorgeous eighteenth century mansions. Ubiquitous kiosks sell the two things essential to Slavic well-being: chocolate and vodka. Hundreds of meters under ground, the subway stations drip with mosaics and chandeliers, like medieval grottoes masquerading as bomb shelters.

Kiev’s wealth seemed strange for a country that suffered under Stalin, famine, and the Nazis. I had a hunch I wasn’t getting the full story, so I bought a ticket on a 10-hour train ride west to Lviv, near the border with Poland. Against Laure’s advice, I traveled fourth class, which meant a seat on a bench in an open carriage. I was surprised to find the carriage mostly empty. A few old men hovered near the bathroom – a puzzling choice, as it reeked of stale sewage – and a shirtless man sat on the bench opposite me eating a neon green bell pepper. He said something in Ukrainian, inhaled deeply, and gave me a wry smile.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked in Russian. The two languages are similar enough that people fluent in either one are able to understand each other. Ukrainian is slightly softer: heard from a distance, it can sound like French. I don’t speak any Ukrainian but have picked up a little Russian.

‘Why yes!’ he said, excitedly. ‘I think. I have learned it but I have never spoken to a born English speaker.’

I told him his English was excellent, and asked what he had been saying in Ukrainian.

‘Oh. I was saying: the toilet, the national smell of Ukraine.’ And he laughed.

Ukrainian humor confuses me. You can’t call it black humor, because it’s depressing rather than ironic. I suppose, when your country was arguably the worst-suffering industrialized nation of the 20th century, a twisted sense of humor comes naturally.

The shirtless man and I spent the rest of the train ride discussing movies, music, and systems of governance. There are so many problems with the Ukrainian state, he said: corruption, flawed educational systems, vanishing social safety net. He still loves his country, though.

‘I hate my country, but we can change.’ The way, he thinks, is to raise a new generation that does not expect the state to take care of everything, like his does. I brought out my US Passport to show him a quote I’d found inspiring, written on the last page of the visas section:

‘Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds… to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.’ – Ellison S. Onizuka

He smiled again, this time ruefully. ‘You have made me depressed,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I think it will be easy to change and to make good Ukraine’s potential. But we would never have that writing in our passport. I never want to be American, but sometimes I admire you.’

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The Bush-Ahmadinejad Connection

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

Backpacking, for all its wonders, can be tiring. I took refuge from hostel beds and train bunks at an old friend’s house in northern Sweden at the beginning of September. Philip, who sang with me in the Christ Church Choir, has just moved back to his mother’s hometown of Östersund, a little more than halfway to the arctic circle from Stockholm. It was a wonderful opportunity to sit back, hammer out some job applications, and revel in those things I never realized I was taking for granted: drinkable tap water, toilets with seats, and relatively unpolluted air.

Sweden, at least in the summer, is pretty close to paradise. I don’t like to think of what it would be like in winter, though everyone around here says it’s most beautiful in the twilit snowy months when the sun only shines from 11am-2pm. I am not cold lover. The ninth circle of hell, according to Dante, is not the inferno of popular imagination but a ring of ice, where Satan suffers in deep freeze for all eternity. That was pretty much my experience of Boston in January and February. I have no desire to go somewhere even colder.

But back to the summer. It’s clear, cool sometimes, and starkly clean. Old barns in romantic states of disrepair dot the hillsides and the lakes – everywhere, lakes! – never seem to stop sparkling. It’s a bit like northern Michigan except the roadside greasy spoons are replaced by artisinal cheese shops and gourmet bakeries. You can’t have everything.

We went mushroom hunting in the mountains on my first day. Philip’s mother insisted that we talk loudly to scare off any bears that might be in the area. I thought this was a bit silly until we came upon a large pile of recently produced bear droppings. I then had a flashback to Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man‘, a documentary about a man who observed Alaskan grizzly bears. He thought they had accepted him into his pack until one ate him alive. We began singing nervously, then raucously, imitating opera singers and post-menopausal community choir members with uncontrolled vibrato.

I spent more than a week being coddled by my surrogate mother’s home cooking and broadband internet, but all good things must come to an end, and so I headed south on the 7th September. I spent a night in Uppsala, a medieval university an hour outside Stockholm, with an old friend named Viktor, who did a year abroad at Greenwich High School back in 2001. Other than Viktor, I’d never met a foreign-exchange student before I got to Harvard, which was full of both internationals who had spent years at public schools in the US and Americans who had studied abroad. I’m not sure why foreign exchange is so uncommon in Greenwich, and I think it should change. I fully appreciate that the Greenwich Public Schools offer an excellent education, one that I profited from for thirteen years. But there are millions of intangible things one can gain from time abroad: sensitivity to people of different cultures, gratitude for the smoking ban (a stray cigarette burned a hole in my favorite scarf in the Kiev airport), awareness of the kind of hurdles and benefits that affect people living in different parts of the world.

Spending serious time abroad is different than being well-traveled. Going to a lot of exotic destinations doesn’t necessarily mean you have learned about another culture, as any college student on their way back from Cancun can tell you. A semester or a year are better for observing and, eventually, absorbing the rhythm of life of another culture.

If you’ve already graduated from high school or college, or if time or money constraints make travel difficult, there are other ways to branch out: take couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is sort of like hitchhiking for apartments. Open-minded people who have a spare bed or room can create a profile on or its sister site, and travelers can send requests to ‘surf’ for a night or several. An essential tenet of the community is that you are not to pay for the privilege, or demand payment: it is meant to be an opportunity for cultural exchange or simple altruism. While the potential for abuse is remarkable – the host is giving a set of keys to his/her apartment to a stranger, the hostee is putting his/her personal safety at risk by staying in a stranger’s home – reports of abuse have been few and far between. And it’s not just a young hippie thing. Though the majority of surfers and hosts are in their twenties and thirties, a growing number of retirees and empty nesters are opening up their homes. I’ve used the service to sleep for free in Burgos, Moscow, Stockholm, and now Kiev, and never had the slightest problem: on the contrary, I’ve made some very good friends.

Standard protocol is that you send out five requests a few days before you arrive. One or two won’t get back to you, one or two will be busy or out of town, and hopefully, one or two will offer their couch. My host in Stockholm was Meysam, a twenty-nine year old Iranian PhD student who lived in the university dorms in the north of the city. We spent two long nights in the kitchen of his dorm with an Italian woman who lived down the hall, arguing about international security policy and whether it was important to get married before you were thirty. On the latter point we all agreed it wasn’t; on the former we had more to talk about. Meysam supports Moussavi, one of the reform candidates that challenged now re-elected Iranian President Ahmadinejad, but he abhors US/UN attempts to dismantle Iran’s nuclear development project. ‘We have a right to clean, nuclear energy,’ he said. ‘Why on earth would we make a bomb? It would be suicide. But it’s also suicide to rely on outdated, dirty technology as the world is getting warmer.’

The man has a point, I thought. But did he expect the international community to trust Ahmadinejad? Shouldn’t there be a revolution against his illegitimate regime?

‘Of course the election was to some degree rigged. But you have to respect the rule of law. We’ve tried in the courts, but they’re biased, which sucks. I don’t know much about American history, but didn’t something similar happen in your country in 2000?’

‘I don’t think you can compare Bush’s election with Ahmadinejad’s,’ I said.

‘But didn’t the other candidate, whatever his name was, have more of the popular vote?’

I didn’t have a very good response for him.

‘Anyway. What I am getting at is that we should not do anything crazy. We will gain support and try at the next election. Maybe we will have a Kerry, but maybe we will have an Obama. We’ll see.’

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Biting people at country dances

A second entry on Sweden! I should be writing about the more exotic places, but here is the first place I’ve actually had time to get things down. I’ll get back to the rest someday. In the meantime, I feel like I have to work through in writing the most surreal experience I’ve had since my drinking contest with a communist party official (see ‘A Nation Run by Immortals‘).

Logdans is a traditional Swedish country dance, sort of like a ceilidh or a square dance. One of Philip’s friends invited him last night to the final Logdans of the season. ‘If you want to show your American friend some real Swedish culture, this would be a good opportunity,’ she said.

We drove to a nearby town and parked Philip’s car in a hay field. A pair of women were stumbling toward a dimly lit barn, wearing the sort of dresses only long-legged Swedes and eastern Europeans can get away with. A vague beat floated across the field. Philip’s mother had said this was a country thing, and I’d borrowed a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt. Now that it looked like I was going to a rave, I was quite sure I was not wearing the right clothes.

When we got closer, though, I heard the faint twang of country music and saw, to my relief, that the majority of people were wearing jeans. Inside, the floor was packed with couples foxtrotting to the gingham-clad five piece band.
I have not foxtrotted since swing was big in the late nineties. Thankfully, I was swept up by a tall man named Gustav, who propelled me backwards through the crowd with the assurance of a good dancer. Because it was so crowded, we kept on running into people. I muttered ‘Excuse me – excuse me – excuse me -‘ in Swedish but then stopped because no one seemed to care and because Gustav was giving me a strange look.

‘Why do you keep telling people not to bite you?’ he asked in English.

I blushed crimson. Philip and his mother are training their new dog and so I’ve picked up a rather strange vocabulary in addition to the usual hello-excuse me-please-thanks: go lie down, roll over, calm down, don’t bite. Evidently, my command of even those few words was shaky at best.

Relieved to find he spoke English, I explained myself and I asked him about Logdans. He said in Stockholm, where he’s from, it’s seen as a total hick thing, but it’s still quite popular up here in countrybumpkinville. It should be, I said, it’s loads of fun.

‘You should come back, then.’

‘But it’s the last one of the season.’

‘You should stay for the next season.’

I need to get out of here before that becomes too tempting.

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Fourth Home

‘Frozen yogurt!’
‘Drinkable tap water!’
‘Paper towels!’
Gretchen and I are like kids on Christmas morning in the arrivals hall of Stockholm airport. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing all the things just mentioned. Discovering them suddenly, unexpectedly, reduces us to squealing infants.
‘Fresh air!’
‘Tall, attractive men!’
‘Wine gums???’
This last discovery makes this Friday in Sweden the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Wine gums, a sort of hard gummy candy native to the UK, are for me what a shot up the arm is for a heroin addict.
We’re back in the western world after a wonderful but exhausting hiatus of about two months. We’re both heading north to Jamtland, a province about halfway up Sweden, where my old friend Philip has just moved, and are planning on some much-needed R&R as we abuse his family’s washing machine, internet connection, and kitchen. Gretchen will then be heading down to Italy to do some traditional Eurotripping and I’ll be off to Kiev, Almaty, and Istanbul.
There’s nothing like being on the road to make you appreciate the little comforts of home. It also serves to broaden your definition of home: when I first lived abroad, in France from 2004-2005, London became the place I’d go to for comfort food and a dose of family time. Gradually, Paris began to feel the same way: I still remember my mother’s shock when, over Christmas dinner in Greenwich that year, I mentioned how excited I was to go home.
Here in Sweden, I’m realizing for the first time how much my desire for home can be satisfied with a few things that I can take for granted in the western world – tap water, etc – and a friendly face from my past. Philip and I lived together in a tiny apartment on the 8th floor of a majestic eighteenth century building underneath the Eiffel Tower during my gap year. He finished college this June as well and moved to his mother’s home town of Ostersund, Sweden. Philip’s been informally adopted into the Morris family for a long time now, so I’m looking forward to getting to know his a little bit better.

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Drink for the thirst to come

The great train journey has ended: Gretchen, Edward, and I arrived in St Petersburg at four the morning on the 25th. The Moscow-St Petersburg line is by various accounts the most trafficked train route in the world, and the Trans-Siberian Lonely Planet (inferior, in my opinion, to the Trans-Siberian Handbook) assured us that extra attention was paid to comfort and cleanliness on the overnight trains. We did not find this to be the case. Perhaps we should have expected when we booked the cheapest seat that we would be sitting in a smelly, dimly-lit and infrequently cleaned car, but we’ve been spoiled by the quality of the trains in Siberia (see ‘Life on the Skids‘).

In St Petersburg I remembered that I am no longer a student but a twenty-three year old on a trip around the world. While I firmly believe you should never stop learning, and though I always say you can and should travel at any age, there are some things that are best done when you’re young. These include: eating richly while your metabolism can still handle it, dancing until eight in the morning while your feet can still handle it, and kindling intense friendships with people who live on opposite corners of the world while you still think, ingenue-ously, that you will actually keep in touch.

And so I spent tragically little time in the Hermitage, the greatest art museum in the world (photo at left). I saw, but didn’t see enough, of St Petersburg’s main sights: the Russia-Disney spires and glittering interiors of the Church of Spilled Blood, named for its location on the sight of Alexander II’s assassination (side note: why did so many people want to kill the man who freed the serfs and initiated the Trans-Siberian railway project? Seems like he had some pretty good ideas); St Isaac’s Cathedral, like London’s St Paul’s dressed up in Soviet green and gold; the sky-piercing tower of St Peter & Paul fortress’s cathedral; the streets and gardens which play second fiddle only to Paris in Splendor & Magnificence’s top 100 list.

I did spend time in Cuba Hostel and, thematically, at the dance clubs Fidel and Achtung Baby. I spent a lot of time – some, I feel obligated to point out, in museums – with Paolo, Guy, and Tim, who I met at my hostel. Tim is two years younger than me, from Amsterdam, and manages to support his travel addiction by working IT for six weeks in between travel stints of six months. In other words, he is further proof of my long-standing hunch that Dutch people are the smartest in the world.

 Guy and Paolo, classmates at Oxford, are at the tail end of a travelfull post-graduate year, both apprehensive and relieved to be starting full-time jobs next week. I’ve met so many people like them, like myself, who choose to spend their meager savings on independent budget travel. Our future careers (and our debts) will wait a little while for us, so why should we rush to greet them? Why not exploit our expired student cards while we still look like we deserve the discount? Why not see the world while we can sleep on a bench and look like harmless youths instead of vagrants? Why not travel while we can crash on a stranger’s couch for free because we don’t have a family in tow? The pennies of a twenty-something take you places that a retiree’s riches never can. And, of course, vice versa. But I’m optimistic and hope I might try both.

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The Moscow-New York Connection

‘I’ve noticed something,’ says my brother as we wait for the subway in one of Moscow’s sumptuously decorated stations (above). We don’t have to wait long, as it runs on roughly 90 second intervals. I look at my brother, who is obviously trying to put a complex thought into words. ‘It’s the women in Moscow,’ he says. ‘They’re all beautiful.’

Unlike my brother, I don’t have to be a gentleman, and so I can say with impunity that the women in Moscow are not beautiful but gorgeous, smoldering, melt-the-resolve-of-a-priest hot. They have the kind of bodies that I latterly thought existed only on the pages of Maxim magazine. How Russian men function I cannot imagine: every straight American male I know would be unable to tear himself away from the continuous beauty pageant that is the street.

‘But there’s something else,’ says my brother, bringing me out of my reverie. ‘They dress themselves so well and do their hair and makeup – they’re undeniably trying to get people to look at them. Then when you catch their eye they give you this look of utter scorn, even disgust. It’s the same with the women in New York, who, by the way, are the only women I’ve seen who might even compare to the women here. It’s incredibly frustrating.’

I try to argue that women make themselves look beautiful for their own sake, because it makes them feel individual, superior perhaps… and then I realize I’m confirming my brother’s point. I’m good at confounding my own arguments, which means my decision not to go to law school is probably a good one.

[For an abrupt change of topic with stretched segue] The women in Moscow aren’t the only beautiful thing in town. The city could never be confused with one of those jewels like Paris or Venice where every facade deserves its own postcard, but it packs a punch of its own. There’s the vast imperial complex of the Kremlin, where even the J.Crew-watermelon-and-green bell towers look macho; the stunning ‘Seven Sisters,’ skyscrapers erected by Stalin, which defy all the negative stereotypes of Soviet architecture; the gold onion domes of the Church of Christ the Savior, gloriously reconstructed in 1997, (more on that in a second); the too-big-to-be-ridiculous statue of Peter the Great: in sum, enough evidence that this is one of the mightiest nations in history to earn respect from even the snobbiest Europhile.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was torn down by Stalin in 1931 (photo courtesy of wikipedia) to make way for a monument to socialism, to be known as the Palace of the Soviets. After the demolition of the 19th century masterpiece, rather bashful structural engineers informed Stalin that the riverside location would not support the weight of the planned palace, so Stalin had the site turned into a swimming pool instead. This seems to have been a popular way to repurpose those pesky religious buildings: I visited another church that had been reclaimed from swimming pool status a few days later. The tile floors and stadium-style seating centered on the altar were a surreal combination for me, as I spent all of my extracurricular time growing up in either a swimming pool or a church. It seemed like deliberately little effort was spent trying to make the place look like a church again, which made the place almost more holy: wherever two or three are gathered together, right?

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Life on the Skids

Trans-Mongolian veterans we met in Beijing, Ulan Bator, and Irkutsk kept on saying that the three and a half day journey between Irkutsk and Moscow flies by, but you never quite believe that will be the case. Three and a half days in a giant moving bunkbed? Gretchen and I were traveling plaskartny, the lowest class, with sixty bunks packed into an open-plan carriage. We were going for the experience, expecting the kind of broadening discomfort you get from living with absolutely no privacy.

As it turns out, the only source of discomfort was the shortness of the bunks, evidently not engineered for anyone above five foot eight. People talked quietly, played card games, shared meals, and only lit up in the no-man’s-land between carriages, sparing me the fifteen packs of second-hand smoke I had expected to inhale over the trip. The bathroom didn’t smell – though why would it, really, when the sewage drops straight out onto the tracks – and the carriage was cleaned multiple times a day. Though this is the provodnista (train attendant’s) job, at least one or two of the cleanings are usually carried out by the children traveling on the carriage. We learned this when Gretchen was prodded out of her mid-afternoon nap by an excited preteen saying ‘Russian tradition! Russian tradition!’ and pointing down the corridor. It took her a minute to realize the person wearing the teal cleaning uniform and vacuuming the hall was not Ana, our beloved provodnista, but Nikolas, a boy from a few bunks down. Nikolas has one of those unfortunate ‘I skinned a cat and pasted it to my head’ mullets that are for some reason fashionable, so I can understand the confusion. I slept through it but caught a shot of another of the kids, Alex, when he did his duty.

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