Wednesday, May 30, 2007

30 May 2007

I spent a long weekend in Vilnius, but that will have to wait. So much travel, so little blog-space! St. Petersburg is many things that Zurich is not – it’s big, it’s chaotic, it’s noisy, and it’s dirty. The population of St. Petersburg is almost two-thirds of the entire population of Switzerland. It’s not as populous as New York, but I’ve been Swissified, so it was a bit overwhelming, but very exciting.

St. Petersburg is huge – the subway is unfathomably deep underground, and the trains go for long stretches at high speed between stops – unlike in Zurich, there’s no debate between walking or waiting for the next train. You never know exactly when the train will come – there is no set schedule, and although there are timers on the platforms, they only tell you when the last train left. The trains run very frequently, though, so you don’t have to stand there for too long thinking, “If only I hadn’t stopped tie my shoe, I would have caught the train.”

Another strange thing is that a lot of the subway stations have safety doors instead of platforms, so you wait in what appears to be a hallway with heavy-duty elevator doors every few meters. When a train arrives, you don’t see it, but the safety doors open. You hop in as quickly as possible once the train doors open, because the safety doors slam shut with enough force to make you question their usefulness as “safety” doors. Once you’re in the train, you often can’t see the stations for more than a few seconds (because of the safety doors), and all of the station names are in Cyrillic, so it can be quite, er, exciting trying to get where you want to go.

There are hundreds of buses that run on tangled routes. The drivers speak only Russian, you get in, pass them some money, and they hurtle through city streets unfamiliar to confused travelers like me. Where does bus K-113 go? I have no idea, I just hope it’s going in roughly the same direction I want to go. And then there’s the practice that my friend and I dubbed “hitchcabbing,” which we did once while we were there. Basically, if you stick your hand out, palm down, while standing next to the street, somebody will stop. It’s usually not a cab. A lot of people in St. Petersburg earn some extra cash by picking up random people and driving them where they want to go. You get a car to stop, pop your head in, tell them where you’re going, negotiate a price, get in, and hope you didn’t just make a huge mistake.

There are tons of museums, some beautiful, some bizarre – one even has a collection of babies with birth defects, preserved for display. Yes, they have pickled, deformed babies in jars. That was less disturbing, however, than the stern warnings we read about drinking the tap water. Apparently, the tap water in St. Petersburg is so full of heavy metals and critters that even the locals don’t drink it. We were warned to use bottled water, even for brushing our teeth, for fear of catching a fun little parasite that is impervious to antibiotics, can withstand being boiled for up to ten minutes, and which can remain active for years after the initial infection. Eek.

There were many things that we could hardly fathom – the universal use of nylons and stockings by all women, regardless of whether they were wearing shorts, skirts, sandals, or flip-flops; the use of Russian dressing on foods ranging from pizza to sandwiches; the fact that we walked over 35 miles (56 km), despite having taken trams, subways, and buses for the “long” stretches; the strange feeling of watching the sun set at 11:30 p.m. – and many things I didn’t even mention here. It was an amazing weekend, and worth the angst over getting our Russian visas, which only arrived the morning of our flight out of Zurich.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Editor's Note

Still tired from Vilnius, so for now, there are pictures up from St. Petersburg, and I'll post on Wednesday :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

23 May 2007

Where to even begin? I don’t think the extra-long weekend in Helsinki and St. Petersburg will fit in one entry, so it will have to be at least a two-part special. Let’s start with Helsinki, since that’s where we went first. We stayed at a Finnish friend’s apartment, and arrived there late at night. We opened the door to her apartment, which led to… another door, about 18 inches in from the first door. This door-in-a-door thing seemed odd, but it showed up in our hotel in St. Petersburg, as well, so maybe it’s a regional quirk, intended for storing wet shoes, umbrellas, or sleds (which is what our friend’s subletter was keeping in the inter-door space).

We closed the curtains to keep out the light (very important, since at this time of year in Helsinki, it’s light past 11 p.m. and it gets light again at 4 a.m., and summer solstice is still a month away), and went to sleep. We got up the next morning to find our way to a salon (haircuts rank high on the list of things to do outside of Switzerland, due to the astronomical cost and high probability of getting a charming mullet at Swiss salons), and as we made our way there, we noticed that the vast majority of the population in Helsinki is blond. Naturally blond.

This observation was confirmed by our hair stylist, who told me that my dark hair was very exotic and unusual (tell that to the billions of people with black or brown hair, and to the millions of them who dye their “exotic” hair blond). After we left the salon, we noticed that many people in Helsinki had “backwards” roots – their hair was dyed brown or black, and the roots were coming in blond. I spent the remaining time in Finland feeling very special and unique, indeed, until we reached Russia, where, as in the other places I’ve been, blondes supposedly have more fun.

Finnish is apparently one of the most difficult languages in the world – they have all sorts of declensions and conjugations, and they use so many umlauts and repeated letters that it seems like they’re just trying to make it more impenetrable to the rest of the world. A sample phrase in Finnish will show you what I mean: “ja käyttää saatuja tuloksia tukena päätettäessä ravintolakilpailutuksesta.”

Finland’s population is well under six million, so all Finns learn additional languages in order to communicate with the rest of the non-Finnish world. The first foreign language that they learn (which is also used on all of their signs, underneath the Finnish) is Swedish, a very judicious choice, seeing as Sweden has a population of over nine million, meaning that a Swedish-speaking Finn can communicate with almost fifteen million people, about a quarter of a percent of the world’s population! To be fair, Sweden and Finland are neighbors, so I suppose Swedish is quite useful for many Finns. After Swedish, most Finns learn English, which allows them to talk to a larger percentage of the world’s non-blond population.

One of my favorite things to do in a new country is to browse for unusual products. The tourist bureau had brochures advertising a necklace that was commissioned to commemorate the historic win of Finland’s heavy metal monster group Lordi in Eurovision 2006. Have you seen Lordi? The three best products for sale in the Finnish grocery store we went to were Lordi gummy candy, instant strawberry soup (just add hot water) and canned braised reindeer. We later saw canned bear and canned elk, as well. Our Finnish friend says that such unconventional (by American norms) meats are standard fare – her family freezes half of a reindeer or half of an elk every year to eat during the winter months.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

15 May 2007

When I lived in New York, and before that, when I sang in college and did international tours, my friends and I used to blow of steam every once in a while by imposing ourselves on a poor, unsuspecting karaoke bar. Because of the nature of karaoke in New York (and apparently also in Toronto), everyone cheered and sang along when we would do a screaming, jumping, heartfelt rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and no one really minded that we were standing on our chairs and sounding like a pack of rabid animals. That’s what you do at karaoke, right? You go with friends, pick the loudest songs from your youth, and howl them out in a show of friendly bonding.

Not in Switzerland. The Swiss take their karaoke seriously. Unless you go to karaoke at an expat-dominated bar, the mike is dominated by people who favor Celine Dion ballads to show off their vocal prowess. I went to one karaoke night when “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and the Titanic song were each sung twice. At Swiss karaoke nights, one person earnestly belts it out into the microphone while the rest of the bar politely listens. Although the singers are sometimes impressive, it’s not the rowdy bonding experience that I’m used to.

This past Friday, a few friends and I decided to go to karaoke night at an expat bar, so our audience was decidedly less staid than the patrons of the more Swiss karaoke bars, but even so, I think they were a bit taken aback by our, how should I put it, enthusiasm. We had at least two people on each of the three mikes for every song, and we ran around trying to get the less stunned-looking members of the crowd to join in. Near the end of the evening, one fellow karaoke participant, searching for something nice to say, complimented our English (keep in mind that we were all American or Canadian), and another singer said that he admired our "energy."

The next night, I watched the Eurovision finals for the first time. Eurovision is sort of like Star Search for all of Europe. Every country sends one group or singer, their top pick, to compete, and the top 24 countries make it to the finals. People vote by phone or SMS, and then each country then submits its people’s votes in a strange quasi- electoral college voting system. After having watched the contest, I have to say that I have no idea why they get so serious about their karaoke here, because the performers on Eurovision, their countries’ best, were mostly exceptional only for their "energy."

My favorites, for your viewing pleasure, were the Ukraine (which came in second in spite of, or perhaps because of the cross-dressing Elton John-type singer and his knee-socked go-go boys), Sweden (note the lead singer’s flashy necklace and the guitar player’s 1980’s mother-of-the-bride shirt), France (that black thing around the guy’s neck is a stuffed cat), and Greece (he shimmies better than Ricky Martin).

After much fuss and angst, we finally secured our visas to go to Russia! They arrived this morning, just in time for our evening departure. Whew. The people at the Russian embassy and consulate in Switzerland rarely answer their phone, and they are rather hostile and unhelpful (independently confirmed by my dentist, who also happens to be going there this month, and who had similar difficulties getting a visa). Everything I’ve ever heard about Russian bureaucracy and efficiency has been proven in our dealings with the hotel and the embassy, but I’m hoping that all the amazing things I’ve heard about Russia are equally true. We leave today for Helsinki, Finland, and then spend the weekend in St. Petersburg!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

8 May 2007

This past weekend, my friend (who is from Kentucky) hosted a Kentucky Derby party. He served Southern food and mint juleps, and we used my TiVo and Slingbox to watch the race (I picked the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, so I came out about $5 ahead).

It seemed that half the conversations involved explanations of the Kentucky Derby, TiVo, and Slingbox, so that throughout the evening, you would hear snippets of conversation, “it’s the most important horse race in the U.S.,” “Have you heard of Secretariat?” or “it’s a box that streams live TV to your computer.” Strange to think that such an established event in the States is virtually unknown here – a German friend asked me if it involved chickens, which confused me until I realized his only point of reference was Kentucky Fried Chicken. A significant number of conversations also involved an explanation of grits, “Well, it’s sort of like polenta, I guess?”

Anyways, a friend and I are going to Helsinki and St. Petersburg next week. Well, at least we hope we’re going. It all depends on the Russian embassy. We tried repeatedly calling them in Bern, only to get busy signals every time. We had assumed that, since their website was in English, that someone in the office would speak English. When my friend finally got through to the office in Bern, the man only spoke Russian and German, no English, and he refused to answer any of her questions, asking her instead whether she had looked at the website. The official embassy website didn’t have the information we were looking for (although it did have choice sections like “What is Russian Visa”), but I guess there was no way for the man to know, since it was in English. I called their consulate in Geneva, and was able to get the necessary information in French.

With dubious hope, we wired money to the account she had specified, and mailed our passports, visa invitations (from the hotel), itineraries, pictures, and visa applications to them, and will just have to hope that they return them in time for our departure next week. The Russian visa application for Americans is quite extensive, asking, among other things, for a list of all countries visited in the last ten years, and the dates of the visits. For me, that’s 28 countries, and there’s no way it was going to fit in the space provided. They also asked whether we had any special training in explosives or nuclear devices. I’m guessing the right answers to those questions would be “No.”

This trip was planned to use up one of the Swiss holiday weekends, which are front-loaded, so that we have lots of vacations built into the first half of the year. Although I fully appreciate the abundance of long weekends, it does make travel planning a bit frantic, since this year, May has three long weekends. The first was spent in Strasbourg, the second will be spent in St. Petersburg (assuming we get our passports and visas back in time) and Helsinki, and the third was unplanned until recently. Decent fares are hard to come by on holiday weekends, since everyone scrambles to head out for a break.

But we found one. Vilnius, Lithuania.

We knew very little about the place before booking, other than the fact that we had never been there and the tickets were reasonably priced. Some quick research has turned up the fact that it is home to the only statue in the world honoring Frank Zappa. Not to be outdone, St. Petersburg boasts a collection of pickled babies in jars. This is going to be an interesting month.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

2 May 2007

Sorry for the delay, I took a last-minute trip to France, because it was a long weekend, and it looked like rain in Switzerland. How’s that for an excuse, eh? In any case, after spending the entire afternoon and evening outdoors on Saturday, three friends and I decided to rent a car on Sunday to go to Italy. Sunday morning, we decided that the town we were going to go to in Italy wasn’t very convenient, so we went to France, instead. Strasbourg, to be precise.

We packed the car with four people, a dog, four backpacks, three cameras, enough snacks to supply an entire kindergarten class. I considered picking up a package of trail mix, not because I had any particular desire to eat trail mix, but because the German term for it has always amused me – literally translated, it’s called “student feed,” the food you give students, just like “chicken feed” is the food you give chickens. Upon further reflection, I bought cookies, instead. We had no maps; instead, we put our faith in the GPS system installed in the rental car. The GPS woman proved to be quite stubborn and difficult to work with, and very vocal about her opinions, but in the end, we followed her instructions. She was all we had. But, it worked out, we made it.

Given all the hubbub in the States about passports and crossing borders and so on, it’s remarkable how lax the borders are in Europe. Border patrol between EU countries is almost non-existent. The border police aren’t allowed to stop vehicles unless they have a particular reason – such as an international manhunt, I guess. When we crossed from Germany into France, there wasn’t even a person manning the booth.

Between Switzerland and the EU (non-Europeans often forget that Switzerland is its own little island in the middle of an EU sea), border control seems to be purely for show. As we crossed from Switzerland to Germany, a man in a military beret glanced at the car and waved us on. We could have been illegal immigrants, and he wouldn’t have known. We could have had a bazooka, ten migrant workers, three terrorists, four kilos of crack, (and a partridge in a pear tree) and he wouldn’t have cared. On the way back into Switzerland, they were just as uninterested in checking our passports, human or canine.

Yes, dogs have passports in Europe, so that they can cross borders without being quarantined. Dogs also do all kinds of other things that are usually reserved for humans, at least in the States. Fiver comes to work with me almost every day, and he came to France and stayed in the hotel (the desk clerk seemed surprised when I asked whether dogs were allowed). In restaurants in Switzerland, waiters sometimes bring him water before I’ve even had a chance to order a drink for myself. Last week, I took him to a restaurant where the waiter even brought out a bowl of dog food so that Fiver could eat dinner at the table like the rest of us.

And finally, an “only in Switzerland” moment for your entertainment. Recently, Zurich has been installing lots of 24-hour garbage drop-off points around town, which are basically underground reservoirs topped with lidded metal tubes. You lift the lid, drop in a trash bag, and it drops down the tube into the reservoir. A kid fell into one of the trash reservoirs, and was extracted with minimal fuss, because, being Swiss, the garbage authorities had anticipated the fact that a kid would eventually fall in, and had conducted drills and exercises to ensure that they could quickly and efficiently get the kid out of a garbage chute once it happened. There won’t be a Baby Jessica story in Zurich any time soon.