Tuesday, July 27, 2010

crafty crossover

As I'm home more often than I'm not, I've considered turning this into a craft blog during the non-travel times. I do snack a lot when making things; lots of trips between the living room and kitchen, so it's not entirely off topic. And current circumstance has presented a golden opportunity for blog hybridization.

So when I was standing in the lost luggage office in Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, fumbling around unsuccessfully through my pockets and remaining carry-on to locate the boarding pass stub of the flight that lost my luggage (it was hiding in my back pocket and I somehow missed it multiple times), while simultaneously trying to hold onto and not lose track of my passport and recently processed migration card (neither of which you want to lose while in Russia), it occurred to me that a passport cozy was just the thing I needed to keep all those bits of paper organized. Etsy has too many options for me to bear browsing through. The standard fare (faux) leather passport wallets smack of corporate flunkie (although I remember poring over the Coach catalog in the 80s and coveting one of their passport wallets, this back in the day before Coach became the dross it is today. I digress). Conveniently, I live half a block away from a fabric store, so wandered over to browse the bolts, only to find a choice range of nifty printed Japanese cottons and linens. The bus image was thematically appropriate, and the polka dots and stripes decidedly distinguishing and adorably obnoxious at the same time.

I toyed around with the idea of making it a wallet-style bifold, with a pocket for the passport on one side and a pocket for tickets and such on the other, but didn't think the fabric alone would hold the shape well. While I noodle through ideas for some manner of stiffener, I decided on a simple open-top pocket with exterior pockets design for the first version, and voila.

The exterior pocket wraps around, so it's essentially three pockets. It's not the most precisely made little thing; my seams are a little bunchy, despite an attempt at layering, and some of the wrinkles resisted the hightest linen setting on my iron, or else I was being stingy with the steam. I was planning on a little security flap at the top, but didn't quite leave myself enough extra fabric. Plus I made life hard for myself by trying to keep the stripes lined up, which sort of worked but took longer than I would have liked. Improvements will be made on the next version, if I even get there; the fate of this is be stuffed with papers and then stuffed into a bag, so as long as the stitches don't unravel, it will be doing its job. Fortunately, I'll get a chance very soon to put this to the test, as I'll be jetting off next week to points east.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I look and feel like this pigeon

At least I did when I took the picture. At the time, we were both wet, cold, bedraggled, and at least a teensy bit miserable. But at least I could hold an umbrella.

I'm home now, so here's a distillation of Prague and Dresden.


A crush of tourists (including me). And yes, it's really pretty and crammed full of gorgeous buildings, statuary, and a million architectural and design details, but also spoiled by modern signs for whatever shop/service pinned over the door. I wish I had seen it before 1989. Also, there's not a lot of wasted space, at least not where I was. Some of the streets are so narrow, it's difficult to step back and appreciate the architecture. It's also quite gritty; pollution is turning the stone dark brown, dark grey, and black. It didn't help that it was cold, windy, and raining my first full day there, which are not conducive to looking up. I thought the Hrad (Prague Castle) was overrated as a tourist attraction. It's worth a visit for sure, but I wouldn't put it top on the list. Maybe if I had popped for the audio tour on top of my ticket I would have gotten more out of it, but at some point I grow weary of paying admission fees and extras. I think 90% of the admission tickets I've paid for on this trip have been over $10 each, including churches in Russia. I realize that after one has spashed out for airfare, hotels, visas, souvenir synthetic fur Russian hats, and whatnot, a $10 ticket is nothing, but after three weeks it becomes tiresome. Had I done my research before getting to town, I would instead liked to have day tripped to Kutna Horá and the ossuary at Sedlec. Next time. I wanted to see the Jewish Cemetery, but didn't because that also has an admission fee, which is rolled into a ticket to other sights in Josefov, and since I didn't have time to see all of them, I saw none of them. After spending the first full day first wandering the streets of the Malá Strana neighborhood, and getting steadily soaked as it started raining in the afternoon, I splashed back to the hotel and spent the evening at the bar, working through cappuccinos and dinner.

The Medieval Art of Bohemia gallery at the Anežský klášter (Convent of Saint Agnes) is worth it, not only because it's only 150 Kč ($7.50) admission, but there is good stuff on display. I think I was able to absorb the art since it was all religious in nature, and therefore repetitive; instead of several hundred paintings of different subject matter, it was several hundred paintings of limited subject matter. I could approach a painting, immediately know what it was depicting, and focus on its particular details in relation to the others, both in the gallery and elsewhere. Like how Bohemian crucifixion paintings seem to be more blood splattered than their more Western counterparts; blood dripping down Jesus' arms and spraying all over the Virgin Mary. And I get a kick out of odd depictions of saints and their respective methods of martyrdom - like Saint Margaret cuddling a housecat-sized dragon who's more cute than killer.

More cheap opera (Die Zauberflöte). It was a seat, but only 100 Kč ($5.00). I was hoping to see the inside of the Stavovské divaldo, which has a really pretty exterior:

but nothing was on, so I went to the Státní opera Praha, and it paid off with a great performance, and a really sumptuous interior. Opera doesn't seem like the big draw in Prague; at least a quarter of the seats were empty.

Church of sv Jakub - it was open, but all the lights were off, so it was a little hard to see the decomposing forearm on display. It's been there for over 400 years - apparently someone tried to heist some jewels, a statue of the Virgin Mary snagged him and wouldn't let go, and the local butchers freed him in the only way possible. Despite its almost inaccessible location - hanging on a chain, which is suspended from a bar, which is sticking out of the wall near the ceiling - I'm guessing at least a few creatures have nibbled on it; I only know it's a forearm because the guidebook told me so.

Walking around - since Prague's big draw is really its architecture, you need more than 2.5 days to soak it in, especially when one of those days was spent getting soaked.

Also full of tourists, but of a different flavor than Prague and Vienna. I'm gauging this by the amount of English and other languages I hear being spoken. In Moscow, virtually none; in fact, pretty much the only language I heard spoken in Moscow was Russian. It was jammed with tourists, and the vast majority were Russians, being patriotic and having their photos taken in Red Square. St Petersburg had a more diverse selection of tourists. I think a lot of foreigners will go to St. Petersburg, but not Moscow. Possibly scared off by the latter? Moscow has intimidating aspects, but it wasn't nearly as scary as the literature I read beforehand made it sound. Vienna - everyone from everywhere was there. Bratislava - not enough data; most of the English speakers were British party boys, so they throw off the numbers. I think Eastern Europe should start charging more for beer. Prague - everyone. Dresden - Germans.

Other than being a pleasant place to loll about on lawns and by fountains, the Zwinger has the Old Masters Gallery; taking a deep breath and steeling myself for another injection of fine art, I shelled out 10 euro (see?), and headed into the galleries. By the third floor I was just walking and staring, but it turned out to all be worth it for the extensive display of Lucas Cranach the Elder's stylized portraits, thankfully situated at the beginning of the tour. There's also a small altar by Jan van Eyck in one of the other rooms, so small it's easy to overlook. He has excellent technique in perspective and texture. The altar is one of those pieces that you could look at a hundred times, and find a new detail each time, although a magnifying glass would come in handy.

Dresden has a booming bike culture. Half the populace is zipping around the sidewalks on junky bikes, tinging their bells to warn pedestrians to get the hell out of the way. Bikes are barely locked up; sometimes the wheel is simply locked to the frame and it's leaned up against a wall, and piles of parked bikes are everywhere. The only helmets to be seen are the ones on display in bike shop windows, or on the occasional toddler. The prevalence of cobblestones precludes skinny tires. Or maybe all the skinny tires riders have been eliminated, due to lack of helmet.

Music for the masses - Dresden seems to have more street accordion players than average. Most of them were women, almost always accompanied by a small dog. But other than accordion pootlings, I saw one more opera my last night in Europe. For free, sitting in the Theaterplatz next to the opera house, with a soda and a bag of potato chips. The Semperoper was putting on a premiere of Gounod's Faust, and televised a live feed to a movie screen for the plebes. It was also the same night as the Nacht der Kirchen, where the churches stay open late. I had missed the one in Vienna due to lack of motivation (it was the same night I went to the Volksoper), so after the show I wandered over to the reconstructed Frauenkirche. Burned in the firebombing of February 13, 1945 and left for decades as a pile of rubble, it's been rebuilt using original stones where possible (the dark ones), and new light stones otherwise.

It's kind of tasteful on the outside, kind of ghastly on the inside. It's like a pink and baby blue frosted cake. The Blue Church in Bratislava also kind of looked like frosting, but at least there was a harmony between exterior and interior. Not so much with the Frauenkirche. Then I moseyed over the the Kreuzkirche since it wasn't too far away. The interior wasn't anything special, but at least it was plain and spartan, and not ostentatious. I walked back to the hostel through the weekend party that is Neustadt, on the other side of the River Elbe - everyone is just sitting on the sidewalks drinking beer, or spilling out of bars and cafes. I stayed in a hostel for my last two nights in Dresden, and fear I may have become That Person in the hostel, when I had to get my gear sorted out in the middle of the night. I tried to be quiet, but complete silence when dealing with a rucksack, and trying to strip linen from a bunk bed is impossible. I actually just got piles of stuff out of the dorm room, and sorted it out in the stairwell, managing to avoid the worst noise transgression - the crinkly bag. I'm pretty sure the snoring guy had already woken up a couple other girls, so I don't feel so bad, plus since I got back late and spent the night sitting in the common room, they didn't see my face, so my identity is safe. When I started walking to the train station at 4:45, it was already light outside, and people were still hanging around the clubs, and sitting right in the middle of the street. There weren't too many cyclists out yet, so I suppose they were safe for at least a little while.

And that's it. I flew home from Frankfurt, where Terminal A has poorly designed (shocking for something German) toilets throughout, and for once, I saw lines for the Herren instead of the Damen. Some of the gates have their own toilets secreted behind walls, so look for those if you're in need of a loo.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

day tripping in the wrong direction

Bratislava is an odd cocktail of a city. I'm not talking about the Old Town section, which, like most old towns in Europe I've visited, are a (at times woeful) mix of historic architecture, trashy souvenir shops, cafes, and ice cream stands. Outside of the old town is a juxtaposition of a dilapidated city emerging from the clutches of Communism, flashy glass office highrises, and various architectural eye candy. One of the more picturesque sights is the Blue Church of St. Elizabeth - located directly across the street from a gruesome Sovietesque apartment building which may or may not have been inhabited. Elsewhere in town were gutted buildings and piles of what appeared to have once been buildings, just a short walk away from a neatly manicured park along the Danube embankment.

I arrived in Bratislava at 10:30, and sometime around maybe 17:00 realized that my scheduled two days and two nights had been overly generous. I had placed a moratorium on museums, so there wasn't a whole lot to do except wander around the Old Town and its environs, and since Old Town is pretty dinky, even that didn't take a whole lot of time. The few hours after arrival even included sitting for a spell in the sun along the Danube embankment, detouring into a shopping mall for a snack and a pit stop, and catching a disco snooze when I checked into the hotel later mid-afternoon. Which is not to say Bratislava is devoid of charms, it was just a sleepy sleepy place after the Vienna whirlwind. Other than gaggles of tourist groups snapping photos of the weird statues dotting the town, the streets were kind of deserted. Maybe it had something to do with being Sunday, and it was also overcast and sprinkling all afternoon. By 19:00 I had made my way up to the castle, where I killed more time sitting on a wall, hiding from the rain under my umbrella, gazing out over the city, and contemplating my next move for the following day. As I had already paid for two nights at the hotel, options were:

a) day trip elsewhere in Slovakia
b) sit in a cafe all day
c) go back to Vienna

I had spent all my pre-vacation time prepping for Russia, and everything after that has been done on the fly. In other words, I wasn't prepared for anything post-Russia. None of the day trips suggested by my guidebook grabbed my attention. I'm not inclined to sit still on vacation, unless there's food or coffee in front of me. And I figured if I was going to sit in a cafe, I'd rather do it in Vienna where there was more going on to keep me entertained. Vienna and Bratislava are only a one hour bus ride from one another. After spending Monday morning trying to take in a couple of sights, I caught the noon bus back Austria-way. Most of the day was spent wandering the maze of streets around the Graben, which I went to specifically to search out the swankiest public toilet in central Europe, designed by Adolf Loos, and totally worth the 50 cent usage fee. I tried to take some photos, but none of them really came out; I was worried that the hefty matron would yell at me in German and/or physically remove me if I lingered too long in the stall, so all my pics came out fuzzy in my haste. I wish I could just transport one stall back home to be my toilet. After downing another whipped cream topped Einspanner coffee, I spent a final evening in the 2 euro standing room at the Volksoper (Die lustigen Niebelungen). I hadn't done my homework on the synopsis, and as this performance had no supertitles, all the dialogue was lost on me. It was oddly liberating, because all I could do was take in the action, listen to the music, and laugh at the cameo of two pugs dressed in green dragon suits. The written word can be a distraction. Sometimes I find myself going through museums and reading all the captions, but forgetting to look at the object on display. One the bus back to Bratislava I was the only passenger - an entire squeaky clean Eurolines coach and driver all the myself for a paltry 6 euro. The driver appeared slightly perplexed at my appearance at the VIB Stop 3 at 22:30. I was wondering if he was obliged to make the run if no one was aboard, but didn't know how to ask.

In conclusion...Bratislava is definitely worth visiting, but perhaps a day trip from Vienna would suffice. And as cute and car-free as the Old Town is, I found the area immediately outside the center more interesting.

Friday, May 28, 2010

four reasons why I love Vienna

1. Coffee, coffee, coffee. Overpriced yes, but worth it for the languid coffee house culture which sadly does not exist in America. You get something to eat or drink, and sit for as long as you like without being pestered by the wait staff. In fact, if you want anything else, you have to get their attention.

2. Cheap opera. How cheap? Cheaper than the coffee. I saw three operas three nights in a row for a grand total of 8 euro. They were standing room tickets, but since the second night at the Volksoper (Orpheus in der Unterwelt) wasn't sold out, us few standees in attendance were allowed to plonk our butts in velvet seats as soon as the lights went down. I had practically an entire row to myself. Since the soles of my feet are kind of wrecked from tromping around Russia, this was a good thing. The first night at the Wiener Staatsoper (Salome) was sort of brutal. Not only is Strauss a bit out of my opera comfort zone, the temperature in the gallery seemed to be rising steadily throughout the intermission-less performance. Still worth it, though. I'd do it all over if I could. But be warned that standing room in Vienna can be vicious. There was a minor kerfuffle involving shoving, fisticuffs, and police intervention the third night, back at the Staatsoper (appropriately for this trip, Eugene Onegin). No kidding!

3. Public transit. This can also be said for Moscow and St Petersburg. Cheap, efficient, barely any wait time between trains. And no matter how sardined the cars are, everyone pretty much behaves themselves (other than the one guy who was passed out in the Moscow metro). I can only imagine that Europeans visiting the Bay Area are shocked by the state of our public transit, where at times you need to wait 20 minutes for a train, and then once aboard, there's always a good chance of having some unpleasant experience.

4. You can ride your bike on the sidewalk, or your get your own lane in traffic, complete with traffic signal. Even the horse-drawn carriages don't get their own lane.

Tomorrow I'm off to Bratislava. I feel like I've rushed around town, yet barely touched the surface of Vienna, so I'll need to come back soon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Half the people on the streets in Vienna seem to be munching gelato cones, so soon after I hit the streets, I did the same.

I was slightly worried about leaving St Petersburg, since I had booked a ticket on an airline I had never heard of before purchasing said ticket (AirBaltic), and because I had heard there were some funky procedures when departing Russia via air. I left for the airport four hours before my flight just to make sure I could get through all the red tape in time, which meant I left the hotel at 0600 after falling asleep at 0300. Turns out it was all fine; there are two security checkpoints at Pulkovo-2 airport, both with long lines, but I got through both with loads of time to spare, and a full pat-down to boot. Plus I had this swell view of the propellor from my 2D window seat.

The last two weeks have been full-bore sightseeing. I get up and go each morning, and don't stop until dinner. I crash out as soon as I lay down. I have more blisters on my feet than I care to count, and some of them are in places that I didn't think it was possible to develop a blister in. I think I may need that treatment where you stick your feet in a tank of little fish who nibble off all the dead skin, but I'll need a really big school of those little fish. Anyway, I've arrived in Vienna with not much planned out, and not too much time. Need to hit the guidebook tonight, if I don't just zonk out.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Before I left home, I set my rucksack down by my front door and sat on it for a few minutes. My guidebooks say that Russians do this before a journey to bring good luck, and I figured when going to Russia...

Today is Tuesday, May 18th, and we've been running around non-stop since arriving. No time for proper writing! Here's a distillation of what's been happening.

We almost lost our luggage upon arrival in Russia, and got a first hand look into the remnants of a lingering bureaucracy that still requires everything to be in duplicate and stamped. Thankfully the wayward bags were merely tardy, and showed up on the subsequent Lufthansa flight.

The taxi ride from Domodedovo Airport to central Moscow took two hours. And our driver was cranking though, except when he was caught in traffic. We all managed to sneak in a nap to the lullaby of Moscow gridlock. Since it was a fixed rate ride, it wasn't as outrageous as it seems.

My first dinner in Russia was an entire chicken. I knew I had ordered "pressed chicken", but didn't realize it was really "a pressed chicken." More on the language barrier later; it deserves its own post.

Yeliseevsky's Gastronom - the fanciest grocery store I have ever been in. They have super high ceilings bedecked with chandeliers.

Gorky House Museum - gorgeous Art Nouveau interior.

dinner at Stolovaya No. 57 - a retro Soviet cafeteria in GUM. More chicken (a reasonable portion this time) in sour cream and tomato sauce. For side dishes I grabbed a beet salad, and picked up something fluffy looking that turned out to be somewhat of a savory cheesecake.

GUM - to be admired more for architecture, inside and out, than the range of designer stores within selling overpriced items. We checked out apparel at Bosco Sport, which is hawking Russian Olympic team gear, and almost nothing was under $100. Most items were well over.

Russian fast food in the form of bliny, which were really quite tasty. Cheese, mushroom, and yogurt.

The Kremlin - cathedrals, enormous cannons and bells, and displays of goose-stepping and rifle-flipping during the Presidential Regiment procession. Despite being born and raised without a shred of religiousness, I quite like the Orthodox churches, with their iconostasi and how every inch of the interiors have been painted. And I finally saw a Fabergé egg in all of its eggness at the Armoury. I remember being shown some pictures of them when I was a kid, and I couldn't really fathom why someone would want to decorate an egg quite that much. They didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. It makes more sense now, that I understand the importance of Easter in the Russian Orthodox church, but was disappointed by the eggs on view. I expected them to be...more Fabergé than they were.

dinner at Cafe Mu-Mu. I had to go because it's cow-themed, with chairs, bowls, and cups patterned like Holsteins. Also, it's two blocks away from our hostel.

breakfast at Cafe Mu-Mu. Kasha, apricot bliny, eggs on toast, and a little container of a yogurt drink that seems to get handed out with every breakfast.

Walking around Moscow at midnight on a Saturday. The atmosphere was almost exactly the same as it had been twelve hours earlier, except it was dark out. Crowds of people were clogging Red Square, lolling about the lawns in the Alexander Gardens that border the Kremlin, snapping photos on the bridges of the Moscow River, making out along the embankment of the same, riding bikes through the plazas, and in general milling about the streets. Traffic was just as nuts as it had been during the day. Saturday night was an event called Museum Night, where the museums are free and stay open late, past midnight. Lines were still spilling from the doors of some, and on a whim I hopped into a line that was moving quickly, and saw a photo exhibit from the Moscow Biennale.

Lenin - I suppose this is what you look like after you've been mummified and maintained for over 80 years by a secret (not-so-secret anymore recipe). Kinda waxy. The interior of the mausoleum is all black marble and the lights are low, which can be hard to navigate after you've entered from sunlight outside. Not to worry, there are guards posted at every turn and corridor whose only movement is to raise an arm to indicate the direction to go. There's no stopping to gawk once inside the room; if the sight of the guards posted at each corner isn't enough to keep you going, I've read they will physically prod you forward, should you come to a halt. Lenin's tomb shines like a beacon in an otherwise black room. I was concentrating so hard on him during my walk through the room, I took in no other details. Once inside the mausoleum, you're out again with just a couple of minutes.

Communist kiddies singing anthems on Red Square - I don't actually know if they are some Communist Youth League, but as we were waiting around to view Lenin, we saw groups of children sporting red caps and white shirts, waving red flags with depictions of Lenin and the hammer and sickle starting to gather. As we left the mausoleum, we saw that the entirety of Red Square (and it's pretty big) had been closed to everyone else, and hundreds of kids were gathered in the middle singing anthems.

Saint Basil's Cathedral - if you've seen a picture of Moscow, you've seen a picture of Saint Basil's. The interior is a number of small chapels, rather than one large space. Wandering through the corridors and navigating the staircase within a wall made me feel like I was in The Name of the Rose. Inexplicably, there was a couple on the verge of making out in one of the chapels. Public displays of affection are pretty common here, and don't tend to raise any eyebrows that I can see, but I sort of assumed there was some rule that applied when inside a church. Apparently not.

Moscow River Cruise - not terribly stimulating, and the boat really poked along, but I was happy to be off my feet for a few hours. I have at least four blisters from pounding the pavement.

Novodevichiy Convent and Cemetery - nice for a wander, and a fun scavenger hunt for graves of famous people. I sought out Russian composers. The cemetery is very green with lots of trees, birds making a nice-sounding rackets, and extra large bumble bees drifting around the flowers.

Romanov Boyar House - a glimpse into how the boyars lived. I was pleased to see some of the textiles on view looked exactly like those illustration in The Firebird.

Getting lost wandering around the streets. I like to wander cities I've never been to, and just get lost in the streets, including going to neighborhoods the average tourist may not venture into. As stimulating as places like Red Square can be, I want to see the places that Ivan Average spends his days.

In two days I'll be on a train to Saint Petersburg. There's still so much to see here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

searching for Baba Yaga

здравствуйте comrades, from Moscow!

My mental image of Russia has been indelibly shaped by Boris Zvorykin. He's the illustrator of an edition of The Firebird and Other Russian Fairy Tales that my parents bought when I was a kid. I think they actually bought it for my sister, but I've, uh, acquired it. And now here I am in Mother Russia. I'm hoping to come across some clever, talking animals and toys who can get me out of a jam, beautifully patterned fabrics, colorful architecture, and Baba Yaga. I suppose I'll realistically only find two of the above, but I'll still be keeping an eye peeled for a little house on chicken legs.