Friday, October 24, 2014

Amazing Peterhof Palace- Russian Versailles in St. Petersburg,

There are certain places you'll see that are so beautiful and impressive that you're better off letting them speak for themselves. Peterhof Palace, often called "Russian Versailles," isn't far from the city of St. Petersburg, and is well worth the trip.
Originally built by Peter the Great in the early 1700's each succeeding czar kept adding on the palatial complex, full of fountains, canals, and gardens.
Ravaged by German troops during the Second World War. It was, Thanks to the work of military engineers and over 1,000 volunteers, most of the Peterhof 's major structures had been fully restored by 1947. Interestingly, many of the valuables were buried on the grounds of Peterhof, and remained hidden from the Nazis, and were unearthed after the War.
Below you'll find photos and videos of the vast palace, gardens, and fountains which make up Petrhof.
The statues of Peterhof

canal behind me, decent distance to palace 

paths through a forested garden
The beautiful grounds, fountains and castle of Petrhof

Galina and myself

beautiful ornaments at Peterhof 
here you'll find fountains that seem to detect motion, and soak those trying to get through them

A palatial view of the fountains and gardens of Peterhof

Music plays to a crescendo as the Peterhof fountains shut down for the day

twas a fun day

Learning Russian + Teaching English via WOOFS in St. Petersburg. Russia

Aliska is all saddled up and
ready to ride her horsey
Her doting and loving parents gaze upon their four year old Aliska with profound pride and love.  She's cute, confident, and quite mischievous, loving the opportunity to taunt and wind up the large playful dog who's paid her family a visit for the week,
I'll be sitting, minding my own business, and I'll feel a scratch on my arm or leg.
"Woof," the dog (probably a Labrador) softly acknowledges he's being harassed.
Aliska retreats for a moment, then sneaks up again, trying to incite her new friend to play "Woof! Woof! Woof!" cries out the poor dog. The large dog curls back into a ball on the floor, or goes back to eating from his dish, or continues chatting with his lovely hosts, leaving a gentle growl lingering in the air as a warning.
Once again, Aliska momentarily shies away, then attacks with more ferocity, tickling the dog mercilessly. "WOOF! WOOF! WOOOOOOFFFFFFFFFFF!!!" responds the agitated pup while tickling Aliska to her great delight for upwards of 30 seconds, before slowly withdrawing, leaving the little girl with a huge smile etched across her face.
Wait two minutes ... repeat. The pup might growl, but he clearly has no bite.

We get along famously, but as our primary communication is in woofs and laughter, we invent a new a new game to teach other our respective languages. Sitting across from one another, I hold up various objects. "Appelsin," I'll announce in Russian as I roll the fruit to Aliska. "Orange," she'll state after a moments reminder, as she tosses it back to me. Repeat numerous times then switch to new items ranging from balls (myatch), to stuffed rabbits, to apples (yablacko for those scoring at home.)
I'm proud to be teaching Aliska a proper language.

here is Aliska's and Richie's language learning game

Believe it or not, I benefited as well.
Few Russians speak English, but my learnings came in handy when we went to the grocery store and an employee casually approached me asking if he could help. "I don't speak Russ-- wait a second. Aplelsin! Appelsin!  Appelsin!!" I cry out excitedly pointing to the oranges attracting the attention of the entire store wondering what retard could get so excited over fruit. Even at the age of four, Aliska's face matched the shade of the nearby beets from all the extra attention I brought us. What a proud moment.
And finally, might I thank Aliska for being so awesome, playful, and even occasionally thoughtful and kind (a slippery slope for most 4 year olds.) I had so much fun with you, and I know there's an excellent chance my you've forgotten my English lessons, so let me express how much I miss you in the one way I'm certain you'll understand: "WOOF! WOOF! WOOOOOOFFFFFFFFFFF!!!"

St. Peter, the horse dragging Aliska's carriage, then yours truly playing airplane with her. She demanded so many flights you'll excuse me for having got quite dizzy

Thursday, October 23, 2014

In Search of the Mythical Soviet Unicorn- fun in St. Petersburg

Highlights from my last visit to Russia included getting ripped off purchasing a train ticket and my brother's fiancee being nearly kidnapped. I imagine such a tourist experience, not untypical.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I think Ruskies are inherently bad people, it's that their political systems and leaders have stifled basic freedoms, motivation, opportunity, and joy to the point that not only Russia, but all former Soviet Bloc countries suffer from what I call "The Hangover of Communism."
So when my dear friend St. Peter, whom St. Petersburg was named after (I looked up his claim, it's true) invited me to visit, he had his hands full in the persuasion department.
Shocked that I wouldn't succumb to a bribe (unheard of in his country,) Peter changed tactics as fluidly as Kasparov on a chess board. Playing upon my sensibilities as a dreamer, he promised me the chance of being the first Westerner to capture video evidence of the mythical Soviet Unicorn; otherwise known as a Smiling Russian.

St. Petersburg Airport
Frantically searching for my bag I finally locate it on the wrong carousel. I exit the terminal to find my gracious host wringing his hands, not because this prominent businessman wasted an hour of his valuable time, but rather because he feared my visit to his country would be greatly colored by this first event.

On the road we see a statue of Vladamir Lenin; I suggest that we return after sundown to chop off the head. Peter pulls the car over.
Carefully and measuredly he explains, "Now Richie, you've teased me mercilessly the last few years for my choice of birth country, and a lot of what you say might be true, but it's polarizing and unhelpful. Russia has far far more than what you're focusing on. Please, please Richie, try to have an open mind."
He then shoves me out of the car at gunpoint and forces me to eat the proverbial Russian "apple of knowledge." Event shown in below video.
Eating the Russian Apple of Knowledge- penance for my anti-Ruskie views

The Truth
family portrait: St. Peter, Mischievous Aliska, Super Saint Olya, yours truly

I'm reunited with Peter's family, his wife Olya, and his confident and fun loving four year old daughter Aliska. They are warm, caring, kind, and fortunately for me, as promised, St. Peter is determined to show me the best of what Russia has to offer.
While there is traffic here as in any metropolis, we enjoy the ride teasing each other and playing games as a family on the way (yes, I felt like a member)
We enjoy our time at the local amusement park, go-cart racing, indoor sky-diving, and visiting Petrhof Palace. In the evening it's dinners, chats, and runs around the neighborhood. I can't deny it  ... "I had a great time."  (there, I said it Pete, willingly. I had a great time in St. Petersburg. Happy?)
check out the catapult ride Peter, myself, and friends went on and our reactions

Dancing in the amusement park to MC Hammer with the kids

To boot, Peter's friends also were generally warm and happy. They're also rather well to do. I believe there is a strong correlation between these two facts as most Russians slave away for little reward financially or otherwise. In Putin's Russia, wealth is concentrated at the top, generally amongst those with political connections.
That said, to merely call the journey a "success" is an understatement, as, though exceedingly rare, I can confirm the existence of the Russian Unicorn, and I thank my host profusely for evidence this long hoped for scenario could in fact exist in reality. And though I can never again describe Russia as "hell," my dear St. Peter, it will be a long time before I describe the city gates you've so graciously held open for me as "pearly."
But being with your family was a little slice of heaven.   
St. Peter, Olya, and Rich ready to hit the air tunnel 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Real Estate in St. Petersburg, Russia MKElite- great serviceI

I step into the offices of MK Elite, probably the leading real estate firm for St. Petersburg high-end properties. As an American considering staying for some time in this beautiful city, I really want to find a place pretty quickly.
I know the owner Peter Voychinsky from a previous visit to this fair city. As he used to live in both Miami and Los Angeles, his English is excellent, which I'm incredibly grateful for, as it's not always easy for me to communicate in Russian considering the only words I know are "spaciva" and the word for "orange." ("apple-scene" as I pronounce it)
The office is neat and organized as Peter introduces me to his staff, a surprisingly friendly bunch who are celebrating a comrade's birthday. They offer me a glass of champagne, and ask me questions about America. With a touch of alcohol, there is laughter.
Now it's time to get down to business. Peter takes me into his office bringing one of his senior associates with him. They help determine my price range and tastes, along with where I'll need to travel while I'm in the city, which is great, as their local expertise which will save me TIME, which will be in short supply coming up. We discuss some of the possibilities, and having seen some of the places, Peter's associate weighs in. Her experience means I won't have to see all the places on the list, again saving me time, but where I'll be taken, she's pretty certain I'll enjoy.
She's correct, I really like four of the five places I see (the other was okay) and I found her to be personable, and spoke English pretty well.
All I can tell you is that I  felt well served, so if you're in the market for St. Petersburg real estate, and want to see what they have to offer- here is the contact info for MK Elite.

MK Elite Website- St. Petersburg Botique Real Estate
+7 (812) 777-12-20 - Saint-Petersburg+7 (495) 212-06-17 - Moscow
Санкт-Петербург, Наб. реки Фонтанки, 13 БЦ «Оскар»

Disclosure: I am not getting paid a cent. for this recommendation. It was not asked to write this, nor did the firm have any idea I was going to do so. It's merely my reward to them for their friendliness  (rare in Russia) and their excellent service.

Communistic Food- what is it? Remnants of Communism in the Czech Republic

Cesky Raj National Park- 

Walking within the confines of the national park, we wade into the bushes to pick a few choice blackberries. Not quite ripe, and my friends hungry, we exit out the park for a few minutes to seek sustenance more satiating,
A black and white board shows the available choices. The kitchen is cold and grey, the silver colored pots on the stove the grandest decoration. If feng-shui exists, everything here is the polar opposite, the energy of the kitchen would drag down a full moon if it's orbit were any closer to earth. The Communistic Chef, a 50 something year old woman, who clearly grew up under Soviet Rule, looks like she hasn't smiled, perhaps ever. She throws around some cutlets of schnitzel like a garbage man would your trash he's tossing into an incinerator.  
Our Communist Chef
 I order a small cup of soup out of politeness, and watch my friends squirm as they take a bite out of their "beef" goulash.
Marek explains how the dish reminds him of when he was a cook in the Czech Army. "We'd sell the beef we were given on the black market, no one had anything and I'm not proud of it, but we'd actually make money that way. To cover for what we'd done, we'd create 'beef stew' with no zero meat. We'd throw in as many of the ingredients as we had, maybe we'd grind in some stone for weight and then use ketchup and sugar to add flavor to beef stone stew." (I'm pretty sure he was kidding about the stone, but who knows)
That's pretty much the Communistic Kitchen recipe used for the "tomato sauce"- ketchup, water, sugar, and some flour. The taste? Pretty much what I'd imagine stone soup would be like.  
 Our food explained
Examining left-overs from weapons to gas masks of the Soviet Empire 

Sidenote: This incident is just another example of what I refer to as The Hangover of Communism still a commanding presence in the former Eastern bloc.

Czech Paradise- Cesky Raj National park

Czech Paradise (Cesky Raj), it's sheer cliffs jutting up towards the sky is featured on water-bottles sold around the nation. It takes a couple hours to get there by car from Prague. Black and blueberries abound in the national park, and can be freely picked during the summer months.    
If you're looking for a nature getaway while in the Czech Republic, then below are some photos and videos of what you'll find and see.

me and Dannika Big?
A different angle of the sandstone formations here

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Tour of former Nazi Germany + the Monuments of Berlin

I get off the S-Bahn and pass through Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin.
The Recichstag Building
The streets are a history buff's dream, museums and historical landmarks abounding. Looking for someone to make sense of it all, I run across one of the best guides I've ever seen, an Englishman named Sam Noble (could a name be more British?) appropriately studying to get a PhD in history.
Monument to those who tried to stand-up to Nazi rule
Sam is entertaining and knowledgeable, and it's clear he has his routine down. Despite the numerous laughs he provides anyone on his tour of Nazi Germany would describe it as "sobering," and I include present day Neo-Nazis in that statement as you'd have to deal with the reality you lost motherfuckers!

Most of the monuments were created after the war to commemorate the fallen. The irregular square shaped square tablets you see here honor the politicians who attempted to stand up to Hitler, all of whom were quickly murdered for raising a dissenting voice.
Soviet monumentto the fallen soldiers
Looming large is the Soviet Monument for the unknown soldier, with 2,500 Russian servicemen buried beneath and around the monument. It was erected in a former green area near the Reichstag, where Hitler had planned to build "Adolf Hitler Platz" after the war, in honor of himself.
If you examine the statue of the soldier, the hand is as large as the head. Stalin, in his infinite compassion, had the sculptor executed.
No, just kidding, from reading Communist history we know Uncle Joe would never stoop to such a thing.  The hand symbolizes the powerful and mighty Soviet empire holding back fascism and the Nazis.
Video of the Soviet Monument to the unknown soldier

WWII Soviet tank
Not open to the public, we arrive at the remains of Hitler's bunker, the spot where he committed suicide. Sam points out the fact that almost all high ranking officers of the Nazi party, war mongers that they were, who sent in armies to be slaughtered for the glory of battle and holding a position, who destroyed and ended so many lives, cowardly took their own rather than face the public's wrath.
At the time of suicide, Sam relates how Hitler lacked the ability to slaughter his own dog. A man who unblinkingly sent millions to their death.

the holocaust memorial
Erected at a large cost to the public the Holocaust Monument sits on uneven ground, with rectangular blocks of different heights and widths. I'm not clear what the designer's purpose was besides maybe a creating a feeling of confusion, a place where it's hard to get your bearings, where nothing seems to make sense, perhaps representative of what the victims of the Holocaust went through.
Surprisingly, there is absolutely no graffiti here, Neo-Nazi or otherwise.
This is due to the fact that at great expense the German government had a chemical solution applied to each of the blocks to which paint and other substances could not adhere to.
remnants of the Berlin Wall
A scandal broke out when it was discovered that the company which supplied the solution (sorry) was a subsidiary of the same corporation which supplied the Nazis with the poisons used to gas concentration camp victims. After much public uproar, the company decided as a gesture of goodwill to refund the people of Germany the full cost of the chemical application.
My sincere hope is that the government employee knew of the connection beforehand, took a bribe from the Nazi company when he awarded them the contract, then, after the work was done, leaked the facts to the media, and lead the charge by the government to get the money back. Now that is German efficiency!

The monuments of Berlin- 1 minute video 

Treptower Park in East Berlin, Germany

The Spree River by Treptower Park
The S-Bahn circles the city's center, at last arriving at Treptower Park Station.
On one side of the street a massive open and green public space along the Spree River, extending further than eye can see. On the other the city of Berlin.

I lug my heavy bag over my shoulder, its wheel toast, down the clean streets, making my way past bakeries, restaurants, and apartment buildings.
Settling in for a moment, my hosts give me a quick account of their beloved Berlin, describing it as far more diverse, with a different feel and culture than the rest of Germany, which is far more conservative.
Heading back out to explore, I immediately see evidence backing their statements. The Treptower area is former East Berlin, and today quite trendy, a center for artists, hippies, and musicians.
Soviet war monument in Treptower

I head back to the park, a huge green space interwoven with hiking trails and bike paths criss-crossing through small vestiges of forests. Every tree in the park, and in all of Berlin, is assigned a number, and kept track of by the government. If nature were to think the Germans to be Big Brotherish, I'd understand.
Treptower is home to a huge and imposing Soviet war monument, constructed from material rightfully ripped out of former Nazi headquarters.

Exploring, I walk several kilometers through the woods and realize that I'm running out of bread crumbs to find my way back out. On my way back I find a gingerbread house. I'm pretty it's an art project constructed by one of the Treptower's more avant-garde artists, but I elect not to knock.