• Rob Spectre
  • 07
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 1 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

The second in (d)N0t’s series of foreign dispatches, the coming weeks will feature pieces taken from St. Petersburg, Russia. Traveling there under the thin guise of tourism, bedlam from behind the curtain will be thoroughly documented with words and pictures, carefully reviewed by the US State Department and the FSB, and delivered to you in full rich mono. Anticipate meticulously detailed retellings of acts dastardly and daring, photography of the strange and surreal, and descriptions of hangovers so severe you’ll vomit in your mouth. We can all agree the decision to toss a Kansas-raised East Coast punk behind the Iron Curtain with command of Russian and his own mouth second to retards ill advised at best. The consequent anarchy shall serve as your entertainment in regular doses.

All my friends – and my Russian friends in particular – think I’m in a whole lot of trouble. One friend said I was the wrong guy with the wrong attitude at absolutely the wrongest time in Russian history. Another told me St. Petersburg is a different place.

He said, “It is like Mars.” Like Mars is a place I wouldn’t want to go.

  • Rob Spectre
  • 08
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

After arriving and immediately collapsing from 28 hours of travel, I woke up around 7am local time. Anxious to get out and meet Russia face to face without an interpreter to embarrass, I hastily slurped down some coffee and yogurt while the hotel staff giggled at my hair.

St. Petersburg is a city that wakes up like it has a hang over. City blocks full end to end with enormous five story buildings, the streets were eerily empty with virtually no one awake save a few assorted winos and yawning policemen. The city immediately seemed hollow, with streets enormously wide and conspicuously empty of people.

My hotel is tucked away in an easy corner near the on the Neva river bordered the Moscow and Nevsky Prospects. Most of the buildings seem like they are the result of ambitious public works projects during the Communist Era. My cheeks flushed swiftly from the air that hung cold, stiff, and very quiet. I tried to remember when the last time I got to breathe winter air, the endless summer of California spoiling me with the weather that bronzes skin while softening hides.

To the person, my hair illicits grave concern. Punk rockers are a rare commodity it seems. I saw a few skate punks on the way from the airport in getting harassed by the police. While seeing them, I commented to my gracious host Anya that it was bullshit.

“What are you trying to say to the world, with your hair?” she asked genuinely.

“How do you mean?” I responded, amused.

“Are you trying to identify yourself with a particular kind of music?”

“Not really, I just have two cowlicks.”

“What is cowlick?” she asked, thoroughly nonplussed.

I laughed, “Nevermind.”

After a polite pause, she indicated, “You will have trouble with police, I think, with your hair like that.”

“I always have trouble with the police with hair like this.”


Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down

  • Rob Spectre
  • 10
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 3 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

“Do you have problem with the emos in your country?” she asked, gravely concerned.

The first night that I wasn’t comatose in St. Petersburg I caught with one of my colleagues Dima for some sushi. Our first time meeting, it was with great relief that I discovered he was a geek of the first rank with shoulder length stringy hair in the tradition of the finest dungeonmasters. As we made small talk on the way to the restaurant I had discovered that the Piter native was a strong photographer and into The Cure, much like another photographer I know. Dima also is a student of philosophy leaving us much to discuss. With his work largely in the postmodern thought and mine existential, we didn’t share many of the same favorite authors, but made for a welcome discussion.

With his help on the menu, we found the requisite California and Philadelphia rolls. No matter where in the world one goes, we asserted, these two rolls are on every Japanese food menu. The conversation between us frequently contained nervous laughter as we both tried to find common vocabulary with which to speak. Soon we were joined by his girlfriend and between the three of us we found a good rhythm to keep up a conversation. With his knowledge of English coming from The Cure and hers from jazz standards, we had a good basis from which to build.

As we were rolling down to listen to her sing, she intimated about The Emo Problem.

“Do they also cry in your country?” she inquired.

Sadly, I had to respond yes. For all of Western culture, I apologized for the blight we had inflicted on our neighbors across the world. I also related the origin of EMO (which used to mean Ex Members Of hardcore punk band) and its subversion by the hands of commercial evil. She went at length to describe the problem, with their emo kids crying over everything, running around on longboard skateboards with pierced lips hopped up on Chicken McNuggets.

“Oh, the emos love the McDonalds. They are always there. Always crying.”

As we passed some graffiti written in English, someone clearly had expressed a grammatically erroneous statement that is as true in St. Petersburg as it is in San Francisco vis a vis the Emo Problem.

“Get you fuck out!!”

  • Rob Spectre
  • 11
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 4 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

An Irishman is born with the ability in whatever city he is in to locate the nearest pub. Boundless charm, good looks, and impeccable taste would be enough for any to be born with, but this of all the genetic benefits of being born Irish one stands above all. No matter how great or small the grasp of local custom, language, or geography, an Irishman walks out and it calls out to him like the North Star shining on the manger of the baby Jesus. Wherever that Irish pub lies, Irishmen are drawn like Muslims to Mecca in holy reverence for the Way, the Truth, and the Pint.

And it was upon this great gift I relied after a hard day’s rocking to cross the canal and home in with frightening precision on Mollie’s, purportedly the finest Irish pub in St. Petersburg. Like most bars in St. Petersburg, it was a basement establishment tucked away underneath some prime retail frontage in a street well off the path from Nevsky Prospect. Without even a sign to indicate what it beheld, a Guinness coaster in front of the establishment belied what lied within. A heavy door, Jameson mirrors, and a long oak bar established the firm’s legitimacy, though certainly not Irish by the strictest definition of the term. Fairly put, it lacked the stake that New England could lay claim to the Platonic form of Irishness, however after a year and a half suffering in the poor excuse for public house that passes in California I was pleased indeed.

Much like every time I go to Kansas, gasps, whispers, and thinly-veiled derision followed my entry. However, quite unlike Kansas, Russians are not at all ashamed to stare, making for an uncomfortable walk through the reserved tables to a seat at the bar. For a moment I was worried that I was unwelcome, but fortunately this gift passes both ways.

At the moment I sat, the jukebox played “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” After I had order my pint, it followed with “Personal Jesus” covered by the Man in Black. A few pints and a steak later, my gratitude for the pub’s warm embrace was boundless.

On the walk home I had wondered if it was the man drawn to the beer like a siren, or the beer – like a loyal sweetheart – drawn to the man.

  • Rob Spectre
  • 12
  • Sep
  • 07
This entry is part 5 of 19 in the series Behind the (Former) Iron Curtain

Like most proper cities, St. Petersburg is one that is best navigated by foot. With the convenient position of my hotel, the lionshare of the city center is a leisurely stroll from my room with few locations that are unreasonable to hoof. Most everything is either a 20 minute walk or a 45 minute drive away, it seems. However, my office is on the other side of the Small Neva River, which is certainly walkable but much faster to make use of the subway system of Piter.

After a quick premier by my associate Denis, I was left largely to my own devices to navigate the Metro. It took precisely one drive from the hotel to the office to elect the Metro, which by comparison is three times faster and one hundred times safer. Between BART, Caltrain, PATH, and Boston’s T-system I would like to think I am an accurate judge of commuter rail quality and frankly prefer the ability to occupy one’s commute with reading or fiddling with my iPhone as opposed to issuing terrified shrieks at every intersection.

Additionally the Metro affords premium people watching time, for a culture is never as transparent as when it is five minutes late for work. Unlike American rapid transit, Metro stations serve as congregation points with small pockets of folks socializing nearly all times of the day. This has exposed valuable information about the Russian rule of law:

  1. Minimum legal smoking age is 12.
  2. Drinking on the street is not so much permitted as recommended.
  3. No blood, no foul.

St. Petersburg, being settled on the delta of the River Neva, has a pretty high water table. As a result, its subway system is located approximately two inches from the center of the earth. The escalator to the train stretches for what looks like miles. Never in my life have I seen such a single long continuous staircase.

“Jesus,” I thought to myself. “Wonder if people had to walk this.”

At that precise moment a 60 year old man walked by me literally running down the stairs without a hint of sweat on his brow. Say what you will, but Russians are carved out of wood.

I’ve been in several mosh pits that are tamer than trying to get on one of these damn things. As soon as the door opens, minor bedlam erupts with frantic pushing to make it in before the door closes. At first I thought perhaps I had caught this particular entry on the wrong day as I was initially jostled. However after catching an expert elbow in the kidney by an old hunchbacked woman I knew the blow she delivered came from a century of daily practice. By the time I had my foot punctured by a third stiletto heel, it was on like Donkey Kong. The last 20 feet to the entry I cut a swath of humanity worthy of the former Soviet Union. Sparing not child nor minstrel all who remained in my path were prompted ejected, falsing their hope of catching the 8:40am Metro. After grabbing a military officer by the shoulder and chucking him aside, ducking into the train only moments before it slammed with shuddering finality, I smiled. Literally pressed up against 50 or so people like we were watching Rage Against The Machine at Coachella, they smiled with me. They shared grins implicitly approving of my rapid adaptation to this age old Piter tradition. They welcomed me as one of their own.

At the next stop, the Metro tram belched people. As I emerged triumphant from my first baptism of fire, I was dishearted as I looked at the station around me.

In my fervor, I had forgotten that perhaps I should have taken the correct train.