Archive for September, 2007

  • Rob Spectre
  • 29
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 18 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

“I was born very far from where I was supposed to be, so I’m on my way home.” -- Bob Dylan

I was surrounded by dentists and drag queens on the corner of 4th and Howard, each wary of the presence of the other. Waiting for the crosswalk light to turn white, the fellow next to me fixed his six inch pumps and asked me, “Do you know where the Love Parade is?”

“Sorry man,” I replied. “Love is one of those things some of us weren’t meant to find.”

Getting the reflective distance necessary to evaluate such an adventure takes a few days. Jet lag gives your brain tunnelvision; it is functioning almost like it should, except the peripheral thoughts that keep us all company are a shambling goo. The “thank yous” to waitresses get back to English from Russian. The signal attenuator for English language goes from 11 back to 0. Morning tea turns to coffee, BBC World is replaced by San Francisco Chronicle, and cold stares at my hair shift to warm amused smiles. I catch up on the new release in movies (3:10 to Yuma), music (Foo Fighters, New Found Glory), and video games (Team Fortress 2). I’m returning to the life I left and the jackets aren’t quite fitting the same. The transition isn’t easy, but inevitable.

Near instantly, my gastrointestinal system goes into high fructose induced shock. The first four days in Russia I had a similar problem as my body expelled all the artificial flavors and preservatives had ingrained a certain level of expectation in the system that keeps the human machine running. The introduction of real sugar in the Coca-Cola, real meat in the salami, and real rye in the bread was enough for my body to tell all the yellow number 5 and MSG to kindly get the fuck out. The first four days the shit couldn’t get out fast enough. It was like I was eating real food for the first time and the whole of my abdomen was extremely fucking confused.

Returning to the ways of old has the gut traffic jammed up like Monday morning on Highway 101. As I pick up the Metamucil from the corner drug store, the woman behind the counter chuckles. She can laugh all she wants -- in three days I know which restroom I’m going to visit.

On the flight to St. Petersburg I watched No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary of Bob Dylan. A fitting overture to this Russian opera, Dylan describes his principal motivation for this place called “home.” Having come close but never quite, I can sympathize. Already the swath I’ve cut through this planet’s bountiful harvest is longer than most. And in every corner of this earth I have the privilege of seeing I see in the eyes and in the hearts of humans an earnest sense of belonging. The very real sparkle in the eye of one identifying oneself as home.

Some of these folks found it immediately. Some have found it after travels longer than mind. Education pulling oneself from agrarian Nigeria to the capital of Russian cosmopolita. National duty sending one from the outer reaches of Siberia to Cold War listening posts on the South Pole. The business of video games getting a self-proclaimed East Coast punk stuck in Warsaw.

Travelers all, the best we can hope for is a clear road and good company a fair part of the way. These friends we make and these hearts we break along the way serve as the guideposts to finding our way home. Little angels whose angles are best when perpendicular to our own, giving us the strong turns on the path that effect the real change we wish to live.

I don’t know if I am any closer to home after visiting St. Petersburg.
But I do know the way back if it is there.

Flickr:

Do svidaniya I

Do svidaniya II

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 28
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

Getting introduced to another country through commerce restricts one to a very specific experience. Traveling as a tourist or even as a visitor, one sees largely what he or she would like to see. It’s an experience that is on demand; the only limitations are the extension of the tourist’s research.

A business trip makes for some remarkable differences. The experience is compressed massively. The day-to-day is conducted in the same manner, in the same language, and in mostly the same paradigm to which one is accustomed. The experience of being in the country happens in intense, brief intervals. One’s decisions usually run along the line of “Aight, if I go to the blini stand by the Metro for lunch and scarf it in 10 minutes, I can steal 45 minutes to run through this museum/cathedral/tour and be back in time for the conference call.”

The transitions are jarring. An average morning will see one’s standing shift from welcome guest in an English speaking hotel to a fierce competitor for a morning snack to an annoying foreigner trying to order a cup of coffee. In the Operations Center and rehearsal room one is the ultimate authority but in a ten second exchange on the Metro one learns how little one really knows. Constantly tossed between knowing everything and understanding nothing, international business forces an agility of the mind that colors the experience in very interesting ways.

So after more than a day and a half of straight travel over eleven time zones from one side of the world to the other, I am pressed to draw some conclusions about this adventure. What perspectives about policy, technology, and punk rock are changed if only for exploring them in another place? There is magic sometimes in geography. A human being can’t go to a place like St. Petersburg without leaving different than he or she arrived.

The most difficult adjustment I think is expectation. In Piter, one is surrounded by architectural greatness constantly. A walk even down a side street or alley will expose oneself to the kind of architecture Americans save only for state capitols or courthouses. A walk down any street in St. Petersburg makes one feel mighty if only for sharing space with these buildings. A walk down any street in San Francisco makes one feel like it is a city bought with a bad check.

Russians are not impressed easily. When a lady invites you into her home and one brings flowers in America, one is heralded as a some combination of Lancelot and Jesus Christ. Bringing a lady flowers in Russia it is expected. Opening the door for an old woman is how men live, not how they impress girls. Russians carry an ever present expectation of greatness that is set by books by Dostoevsky and songs by Tchaikovsky. The food they eat, the vodka they drink, the clothes they wear, the very world they describe both in conversation and in cultural production is one proud and powerful. Genuineness persists simply because anything short won’t do.

Just being in the company of those with such expectation elevates oneself. There are moments in California where I wonder if just getting up before 10am is the only barrier to employment and romantic interest. How can man do anything great when surrounded by mediocrity? Good enough food, good enough buildings, good enough music produces an existence that is good enough for what?

Good enough is something humans should expect to be destroyed, something that should be fit only for animals.

Flickr:

Peterhof

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 26
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

I leaned heavily on my network leading up to the trip to St. Petersburg. Hitting up every friend of Russian descent I knew as well as a whole host of websites, I scrambled a collection of good and bad advice. Even with this research, my preparation level for the journey was not what one would refer to as optimal. A level head, a little cash, and a sincere desire to immerse myself in the culture got me through most situations.

For the discriminating traveller in search of a genuine experience in Russia, finding valid information on what you should expect is difficult. Google, usually a proveyor of data more relevant than Scripture, has some sort of mechanism when the user provided input is “russian travel tips” that switches its output from “Gospel” to “bullshite.”

Nothing can prepare you adequately except extensive training in the language, history, culture, current events, and geography of Russia. For all those without that luxury and wish to discover genuinely what this incredible country is all about, (d)N0t offers this guide for fighting the future in the Russian Federation.

1. Grok the duality.

There are two ways to handle any situation: the right way and the Russian way. The right way involves proper documentation, strong communication skills, and strong connections in the international intelligence community. The Russian way involves a certain level of acceptance that you are in a different country. The right way generally requires no money and a lot of time. The Russian way generally requires no time and a lot of money.

There are Russian prices and there are Everybody Else prices. Become good at dividing by two. Call bullshit cautiously; there are situations where it is and is not acceptable to haggle. When it is not acceptable it is usually *really* not acceptable.

Haggle with sidewalk vendors and taxi drivers. Do not haggle with museum personnel and police officers.

2. Make friends locally.

Russian travel guides suck ass if you’re looking to see any weird shit. The only resource is local. If you are not conducting business, it is easiest to make friends with university students in a bar off Nevsky. Buy a drink and wait. Everyone there knows you’re not Russian and eventually someone will come up to you and ask.

3. Everything is time sensitive.

Liquor stores, McDonald’s, and nightclubs are open 24 hours. Everything else is not. Local commerce compensates heavily for hangovers, meaning everything opens around 11am. Change your money at banks with American interest on Saturday afternoons for smallest lines.

Photograph architecture early in the morning, catch museums from 11am-4pm, jump on boat tours from 5pm-8pm. Pubs till eleven, nightclubs till tomorrow.

4. Eat meat.

Russia is rough on vegetarians. It is a little easier in St. Petersburg, but you’ll never be able to eat anything outside Nevsky Prospect.

Suck it up hippie. The sausage is the experience.

5. Learn the Metro.

You’ll never be able to figure out the bus system on your own. The Metro is definitely something you can put together in a week’s time. Practice only during off-peak daylight hours (11am-2pm). Be comfortable with being in a far away place where no one can understand you and find your way back home.

6. Cut your hair.

If you have any aspirations for romantic interest during your visit, I do not recommend half foot spiky hair. You will get stared at everywhere you go and get sub-standard or no service at some restaurants.

Blue hair is fine. Long hair is fine. No hair is fine. Spiky hair, however, will cause you some problems.

7. Fly Lufthansa.

Unless you hate yourself. Then choose something else.

8. Carry cash in diverse denominations.

Popping a 1000 ruble note at the wrong place will get everyone around you agitated. Keep a good amount of cash on hand in different denominations. Vendors hate making change and aren’t afraid to tell you to piss off. Few places take cards, less take cards from Americans. You’ll also need a good amount of money on hand to deal with the police if necessary.

9. Become a meteorologist.

The ability to accurately forecast rapidly changing atmospheric conditions would be an exceptionally handy skill to have. Otherwise, be prepared to carry around a coat in the heat or get frostbite when you’re wrong.

10. Don’t panic.

Whether you are hitchhiking across the galaxy or getting a ride from Peterhof back home, do not under any circumstances freak out. Generally good advice anywhere in the world, displays of weakness can kill. No one is going to help you if you start crying.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 25
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

I woke up on a Tuesday morning, making it into the office a good hour before the rest of the group was in. Sending out the emails and status reports that come with taking a two week assignment away from the corporate HQ, I got a hasty email from a boy of mine from Providence.

“Dude! Is everything alright over there?”

“Yeah, things are going great.”

“The government dissolved dude! It’s all over the news.”

Sure enough, across all major news outlets the headline read “Putin Dissolves Government.”

Naturally, I was excited as hell. I was in a country whose government was dissovled. Would I see panic in the streets? Would I be a first person witness to a return to communism in Russia? Would it be improper to ask if Fantasies of State Department helicopters come to whisk me back to the safety of the United States filled my thoughts while everyone rolled in. “Twentysomething Blogger Gets Pulitzer for Front Row Account of Russian Coup,” the headline would read. Ganking internet access and inside interviews hours ahead of any other news organization, delivering a punk rock perspective on a moment of history.

When the guys came in, I asked my boy Roman, “Dude. Did your government dissolve?”

“Dissolve?”

I showed him the article, “Everyone is talking about it man. Did Putin seize control?”

Immediately the room roared with laughter. “No, no. This happens all the time.”

Curious, I pressed for more. Roman replied, “Every time before elections the President dismisses everybody. It is normal.”

“Why is the BBC saying it is dissolved then?”

“Well, it is. But it is no big deal. Happens all the time.”

In that moment, the cynicism for which Russia is stereotypically known came into full focus. Many of the guys in the room had already been through one world shattering event and through sheer experience alone had little fear of another. They told me tales of life under Gorbechav, under Yeltzin; stories after the fall of the wall, after the Cold War.

Americans talk about Vietnam like it was the worst thing their generation faced. I was in a room full of guys who had calmly strode through the kind of political calamity only Russia in modern history has experienced. The kind that rolls through our neighborhood in big iron tanks or reads your mail. The kind that gives you three days to switch all your money to a new currency.

The kind I can only read about or hear from the people who have been there. Cynicism in Russia is not negative or pessimistic. It is a trait of natural adaptation in an ecosystem so volatile the only people on the planet capable of living through it are Russians.

No other people on Earth could handle it.

Flickr:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 24
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 14 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

It was coming up on midnight, the crew was out of liquor, and we were looking for a remedy. We had a couple squads making up a total expeditionary force numbering eight. Walking hurriedly as we were all underdressed for 2 degree drizzle (Centigrade of course), we had struck out twice. Football match with England and the Russian national team, but I suspect it had more to do with their American company.

After some righteous laughter from a Russian punchline questioning the navigation skills of our guide Denis, I wondered what was so damn funny. Misha, a fellow lover of good music (and a strong English speaker), inquired excitedly, “Rob. Have you heard of Ivan Susanin?”

Russian history not being my specialty, I had no clue.

“Oooh!” Misha exclaimed, “Ivan Susanin is great historical person. During the World War, Ivan Susanin was close to St. Petersburg and was captured by the Germans.”

Pasha interrupted, “Polish! They were Polish.”

“Whatever. They. Were. Bad,” dismissed Misha. “Ivan was hero of the war because these Germans asked Ivan Susanin to show them where the camp for the army was and he said he would. So he led them on foot for hours and they asked him, ‘Ivan. Where is the camp?’ And he said back to the Germans, ‘We are very close.’”

“Polish!” cried the group.

“Whatever. They. Were. Bad. Ivan Susanin continued to lead them through the forest, and the Germans were getting very scared. They had traveled for miles as he guided them through the forest. Finally they made it to a swamp, and the Germans asked him, ‘Where is the military?’”

“Rob, they were Polish -- 18th century,” interjected Pasha.

Misha declared, “Whatever! They. Were. Bad. Ivan Susanin had led the Germans to a swamp when he was supposed to lead them to the military. The Germans asked him, ‘Where is the army?’ and Ivan Susanin replied, ‘There is no army here. Why would they camp in a swamp.

So they shot him. But the Germans could not find their way out and they died as well. He is great Russian hero.”

I need some clarification. “So the guy died?”

Misha replied, “Yes, but he took many Germans with him and was declared a hero. And whenever someone is leading you somewhere and not doing good job, we ask if he is Ivan Susanin.”

Next day we are eating lunch. Misha interrupted the conversation, “I was shitting you yesterday Rob. Ivan Susanin was not during World War. It was during the Polish Invasion.”

“I think I like your version better Misha,” I replied holding up a Pepsi in a toast to the Russian definition of heroism.

Flickr: Spilled Blood

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