Friday, May 29, 2009

Istanbul- Warm People, Friendly Scams

the old gates of Istanbul
Istanbul –where East Meets West
The only city to be part of two continents, Istanbul is home to over 16 million people. Looking from atop a hill down at the metropolis below, I can’t help but feel a slight a moment of intimidation from its vast size.
My taxi drives between the ocean and the ancient walls of the Ottoman Empire that once proudly protected its jewel. They stand now, crumbling from old age, yet dutifully trying to carry on their mission.
Driving into the Sultanahmet region the streets narrow drastically. Vendors abound, hawking their wares on the sides of the road. We pull into my recently renovated twenty two room hotel, the Darussaade Istanbul.
I am greeted very warmly, and the service throughout my stay was outstanding. I put my bags away, and go out and explore.
My first stop is the Havat Café and I am greeted by Havat himself, a super friendly, caricature of a Middle East shop keeper whose lined, mustached face expresses a genuine mirth and enjoyment of life. Warmth radiates from him as he smiles and laughs, his food acts in similar manner.

The Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque of Istanbul
One of the most famous attractions in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, an enormous, impressive structure with six 200 foot high minarets surrounding it. It is actually the third largest mosque in the world.
I enter in, the massive interior has few worshippers, as the mosque is about to close for the day. While technically a handsome building, I am not wowed. I have been to much smaller Mosques in India that were not only far more beautiful, but much warmer in vibe.
interior of the  blue mosque
Turkey is probably the most modern country in the Middle East, with a largely secular government, and is currently trying to gain membership to the European Union. In stark contrast to the culture of equality seen through most western nations, in a tiny little corner, covering perhaps 1% of the Mosque’s area, is a “Woman’s Section,” the only place in the Mosque women are permitted.
(I have been told since that women are also allowed to worship upstairs)

Exploring the surrounding Sultanahmet area, I find numerous small restaurants, sweet shops, and ice cream parlors lining the road. Meat on a stick is shaved off and put into pitas ready, along with olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes that constitute salads in this region of the world. The place is busy and prices while substantially cheaper than America, I am told by locals, are “tourist prices.”
Many little carts sell corn on the cob for one Turkish Lira (66 cents.) Storekeepers nearly bear hug you into their shops.
Eventually you learn that it’s best to ward off the never ending line of salesman, but being new to the Middle East, I was curious. I allowed myself to be taken in by several rug vendors.
Apparently Turkey is the #1 carpet producer in the world, and these rugs aren’t cheap. Almost every third store sells hand woven rugs, and they assure you that not only are they of exquisite quality, but are certain to increase in value if you hold onto them.
A small silk rug, done by a “master,” depicting the scene from The Last Supper is offered to me for $20,000. Other rugs sell far cheaper, but there’s a minimum of $300 for the least expensive rug.
The store where I am is a family establishment. In addition to rugs, they sell various decorative plates and glasses, which are artistic and nicely finished. I pick up a plate and ask how much.
“Oh this one, not much,” says the merchant, his eyes akin to a no limit poker player with the nuts, figuring out how much he can extract out of you, “only $90.” Sorry, he overbet the pot by a long shot.
Regardless, we had a nice, polite conversation. I tell him he has an impressive store. Walking out I ask  how much money the store makes a year.
“One million dollars,” I am told. An impressive figure til I discover that their family has 2,000 members who share the wealth.

The Dervish
A Turkish dance performed by a male wearing a sort of tan, thimble looking hat and a white Cinderella dress. It consists of him twirling around for the duration of a song with one arm stretched out parallel to the ground, and the other by his waist. The only impressive thing about it is that he’s able to do it for so long without getting dizzy.
I ask a store keeper what the point of the dervish is. It is believed that continuous spinning allows one a connection with Allah, for it clears the mind of thought, which I totally buy into. It is another form of meditation for the dancer.
The Palace

The next day I visited the Sultan’s palace, where a guide gave us a tour and history of the royal chambers.
The Sultan's family crest
Perhaps most intriguing was the harem section of the palace, where the Sultan sheltered five hundred Russian and European concubines. If you think it’s unfair the Sultans refused all the local girls, then you haven’t seen Turkish women.
The Sultan was allowed four official wives, and as many unofficially as he wanted. You didn’t necessarily want to be born a prince back then. Each women plotted to kill the others’ sons, until there was only left standing, who would then be crowned King when Papa died. I’m sure if you turned it into a reality show today it would get great ratings.
the Sultan's armor
Unlike China, where the Emperor had thousands of wives who were never touched by a man, after nine years of service the concubines were free to leave and marry outside of the palace. Generally they got handed off to the Sultan’s generals.
The Cistern

Definitely far and away the coolest experience I have ever had at a man made tourist site. The Cistern was built as an underground water storage facility. To support the structure, Roman columns were built under the surface of the earth.
the blackness around the columns. Waist deep water
Underground, walking on a narrow platform inches above the water, dimly light with soft, eerie Middle Eastern music playing in the background, moving through a forest of perfectly shaped Roman columns, I felt as though I were transported onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie.
To top it off, at the bottom of two of the columns are heads of Medusa (the mythological Greek woman with hair of snakes who turned mortals to stone when they gazed upon her.) No one knows why they are there. Well, not no one. I’m sure Indy could tell you. (movie idea?)

Medusa- upside down at the bottom of a column
The Grand Bazaar
A bazaar is the Middle Eastern equivalent of a mall, only without the fancy decorations or cleanliness. At the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul there are thousands of small stores, selling everything from clothing and trinkets, to jewelry and gold. The place has more bullion than Fort Knox.
I come upon a stand selling Turkish slippers. I begin negotiations with them for a pink pair (for my Goddaughter.)
"I stand at $10."
"Come on, $20. Good deal."
“I’ll give you ten dollars.”
“What are you a Jew?”
I heard this refrain elsewhere as well, Middle Easterners don’t hide their anti-Semitic feelings. Maybe it’s just a negotiation ploy.
“You tried to sell me these for $40. Who’s the Jew?”
A few exchanges later, I smile, say good-bye, and turn to leave. They call me back and sell me them for the $10 I was willing to pay. One thing about Turks, they’ll smile broadly at you, and do their best to skin you alive.

For the few of you who doubted whether or not we elected the right man to office, 100% of the people I talked to in Turkey like Obama. (20 sampled)
100% of them did not like Bush in the least.
Isn’t it easier to get things done when you have rapport with the people and they’re behind you? Obama’s words will hold a lot of sway over here. I’m glad.

Rich’s Night Out
So wanting to go see the Istanbul night life, I asked the boys at the hotel and was told that Taksin Square was the place to go. They told me to go to Club Riddin and ordered me a cab, which took me no problem to my location.
Taksin Square
It is a busier, less pretty version of the Santa Monica Promenade. I walked around and visited some bars, and after an hour went to Club Riddin. Apparently, it is a couples only club, and as I was alone, was not granted entrance. So I went next door to a disco, determined to experience whatever Turkish night life would hold.
$10 to walk in the door. Let me look around and see if it’s worth it I request.
“No,” comes the disgruntled uninterested voice of the cashier.
Forget this, I’m not dealing with that surly attitude. I walk out.
So a guy has seen me walk away from two clubs. He approaches me. Something odd about the way he does it, and I’m suspicious.
After speaking with him for a minute, he tells me the second club I tried to get into was a transvestite bar.
“Give the guy a break,” I think to myself, “he knows what’s what. Why were you suspicious of him? Cause of the odd way he dropped his shoulder, or whatever imperceptible body movement he made when he came up to you?”
“Well, I know a club,” he tells me, “It’s a little too early for some of these, but this one’s happening.”
“You know what,” I state politely, “I think I’m done for the night. Besides, I’m not inordinately fond of Turkish women.”
“Actually, Russian women at this club mainly,” he states.
'What the hell' I think to myself, let’s see this place.
Off we go, walking about 500 yards, we’re talking, Obama, America, his dreams of going there. Doesn’t seem like a bad guy, why did my suspicious radar go up?
We get to the club called Playshow. I walk in. About ten girls, none of them even close to beautiful, the employees, myself, and my new ‘friend.’ Something ain’t right here.
“Hookers?” I ask.
“Just sit, talk to the girls, relax,” he replies.
I survey the scene a little bit. Something is definitely off here. A guy walks up to, “Can I get you something to drink sir?”
I think about it? “How much is a Coca-Cola?” I ask.
“Twenty dollars,” comes my answer.

So there it is. BAM. I wonder how much expensive drinks are. I very politely excuse myself and walk back towards the square, somehow not at all angry that they had tried to rob me.
I find out later, this is a common scam. Nice man befriends you, takes you to a club with what passes here for ‘hot chicks.’ You order some drinks, the girls ask you to buy them some drinks, and all of a sudden you have a thousand dollar bill. If you profess poverty they will gladly escort you to the ATM.
I’d rather someone be straight up with me and point a gun at me and tell me to empty out my wallet. You sell someone a vodka cranberry, who thinks the most you could POSSIBLY charge is like $15, and you sell him a few for $70 each without telling him, and then force him, under threat of bodily harm to pay you, that is flat out theft.

I get a taxi cab. How much back to my hotel, I ask, having paid 13 Lira to get there.
“Meter, meter,” says the cabbie.
“15 Lira max,” I reply.
“Meter, meter.”
“15 Lira or I find another cabbie.”
“Meter, meter.”
I walk away.
“Okay, okay, he calls after me. 15.”
I get in the cab, he comes to my hotel.
“Fifty Lira,” he says.
Sounded like fifteen to me. I happen to only have a 50 Lira bill. I hand it to him.
“Okay,” he says smiling, “You go.”
“Can I have my change?”
He points to the meter which says 50 Lira. “Meter! Meter says 50.”
“Dude, I was very clear with you. 15 Lira, give me my change.”
We argue for two minutes. “Meter says 50.” “I have no change.” “I don’t remember that.” Every excuse in the book.
Finally he gives me my 50 back and tells me to go. Maybe I should have gone, but I end up paying him 20 Lira somehow. He had change, maybe he had more. I don’t know.
I go to my hotel room. Suddenly I felt very sad.

Overall, I would say that Turkish people are quite warm. It’s difficult for me to impugn a whole nation based on the actions of a couple people, but it is not unfair to state that most of them will skin you alive if you let them.
I’m not sorry I went, but aside of the Cistern, I really didn’t see anything that made go “wow,” nor is Turkey an especially cheap holiday. The surrounding area is somewhat pretty, but if you want true beauty go to Thailand, Iguazu Falls Brazil, Fiji, or Maui. On the whole, I would say, skip it.

Next up--> Egypt
(a view of the ocean from the Sultan's palace)
(Hi Mom!)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Jew Detector + Powder Tower (Prague, Czech Republic)

Prague is full of landmarks and beautiful buildings, from the opera house and concert hall called the Obecni Dum (beautiful) to Powder Tower (landmark.)
Powder Tower in Prague
The History of Powder Tower
Powder Tower, to give it its due, has a long and boring history. I'll only tell you that its name is derived from a period where it once held vast quantities of powder, making it either the world’s first distribution center for cocaine, or an armory, my guide wasn’t clear.
winding narrow staircase of Powder Tower
I always marvel how people in the 16th century were able to build such structures. Answer: not well … the spiral stone staircase is steeper than my last bungee jump only less safe. The staircase was so narrow, I could barely squeeze myself up, which would make it an ingenious design if, you feared an invasion by Weight Watchers Anonymous. but not too many soldiers of the 16th century were members, mainly because Weight Watchers had not yet been invented, which was too bad for the architect, seeing as he was burned at the stake.
Spectacular view of Prague from atop Powder Tower
views of Prague from Powder Tower
Taking a bike tour of Prague I learn that the main challenge throughout Czech history were wars over religion. Thankfully, as a trained historian, I can tell you this is singular to the Czech Republic and has absolutely no bearing on world politics today. Thank God!
Without getting into the whole Allah/Jesus debate, one of our stops was the Prague Philharmonic which during World War II was annexed by the Nazi Gestapo’s for use as their headquarters. Atop the building are sculptures of some the greatest composers of all time, including Felix Mendelssohn.
The Nazi Gestapos, being open minded, kind hearted people, even keel people that belong in power, deeply objected to having a Jewish composer glorified on their roof, and decided to destroy the statue. The challenge- they had no idea which composer was Mendelssohn.
So they sat there scratching their heads til one of them, whose nickname was Einstein, came up with a simple, elegant solution. “Jews have big noses,” he stated, a halo of brilliance appearing over his head.
Captivated by the profound genius of the statement, the Gestapos headed to building’s roof, armed with their Jew Detectors (more commonly called rulers.) After measuring the nose of each statue, the officers were grinning ear to ear having for having identified the scandalous, subhuman, Jewish figure of Mendelssohn, who, and I quote, had the biggest schnazz "by a longshot.”
So, with a collective effort for good, the Nazi’s toppled the statue from the roof, watched it fall 70 feet to it’s death, and congratulated each other on a job well done.
Two days later, Hitler arrived in Prague, and paid a visit to Gestapo Headquarters, and found, lying face first on the cobblestone street, a statue of his his favorite composer and noted anti-Semite, Richard Wagner.

Laser teeth whitening in Prague if you are in Praha, this is my friend's laser teeth whitening place!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Czech Please- Oh Yeah!!

Czech Please- Yes!!

From the air, the Czech countryside is a lush green from the many rains that fall. Stepping outside the airport, I was filled with a warm feeling of invitingness, rather than a cold, grim sense of dread I felt in Moscow.
Upon entering Prague, I was struck by the cities beauty, a word I normally reserve only for nature.  The architecture is a mixture of medieval, renaissance, and modern that blends in perfectly together. Many of the side streets are cobblestone, and each building, while often with a modern façade, was built long ago and has withstood the test of time. Ancient castles and towers line the skyline, in addition to eye pleasing domes.
Prague is easily the most beautiful city I have seen.

The street I am staying on is called Narondi (National Street.) On Nov 17, 1989 it was where the protests against the Communists began that gave the Reds their queue to exit. Also on the same day during World War II the Czechs marched here against the Nazi occupation. That march was, shall we say, much less successful. The Czechs, having a less perfectionist, more “hang loose” attitude than say Hawaii, have rounded up their fifty percent success rate, using the guiding mathematical principal of the Pythagorean Theorem (developed by none other than acclaimed Greek mathematician Bob Theorom) which states, “when the hypotenuse of a triangle is exactly 50% of the sum, you round up based on the ‘what have you done for me lately’ principal,” thus making the intellectual Czech Republic the first country to justify a national holiday via mathematical proof.
(True fact: In an effort to save national face, the Russian’s have purged Nov 17th from their calendar. You jump directly from the 16th to 18th. If you think Rich is making this up, then you try deciphering a calendar written in Russian.)

Arriving on a European holiday of some sort, the streets are packed with tourists. Walking around, I note a plethora of restaurants, ice cream shops, banks, and modern stores, as well as numerous small casinos. I go into one. Nothing like Vegas, tiny, yet still turning a profit. Human nature and capitalism being what it is, there always will be people who will willingly give away their money.

The next morning I begin with a run. I happen upon the Charles Bridge, a water crossing of world renown fame which is lined with sculptures and monuments; a swan lands three feet in front of me. I pause to admire it.
a view of Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge
I come to the base of a hill and see a fascinating monument, a tribute to communism.
Monument to Communism
The inscription on a stone base nearby reads:
The memorial to the victims of Communism is dedicated to all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose live were ruined by totalitarian despotism.”
-- Take a good look at the forlorn, sliced open, half figures. I believe the monument speaks for itself. Powerful.

The steep hillside itself is more like a forest. I chose to jog up rather than take the tram. Atop, I ran into Prague castle.
the main entrance to Prague Castle. Friendly friendly.
Inside I found various chapels, windy spiral stone staircases, armories, and a prison. Inside the armory, replete with middle aged swords, armor, and shields, I noted one, as professional biologist, that I singled out of special importance.
Finally scientific proof of the existence of dragons
a midevil dungeon. Actual size
You often hear about midevil “dungeons” but having seen one, let me just say, do not become reincarnated as a 15th century prisoner. Your existence consists of an area so small if you’re more than eight years old you probably can’t stand up. You don’t even want to know about the toilet.
Another delightful benefit of being a prisoner during the middle ages, (aside of the living conditions) was that, depending on the King's mood, he could either put you on the rack or one the other numerous delightful devices Sean Hannity would gleefully approve for “enhanced interrogation,” or, if you were really lucky, perhaps the King would one day, lying on his freshly scented lavender silk sheets, between orgies, realize that he had been a little harsh coming down on you for sneezing in his presence, seeing that for ten years you had only the company of diseased rats, and had lost all your teeth to scurvy, and you were, after all, his favorite younger brother, the one who had rescued him from that arrow that surely would have pierced his heart had you not dived in front, for which you’ve suffered lifelong respiratory problems and didn’t even get a thank you (this was during his self-admitted "selfish stage") and recognizing that merely paying off the church for forgiveness might not totally wipe the slate clean of sin when appearing before St. Peter, so after an epiphany of mercy, he finally decides to take pity on you, and send you-- directly to the executioner, which has the double benefit of insuring once and for all you never ascend to the throne, thus putting the final stamp on your sibling rivalry. (he wins)
headsman axe and chopping block.
Discussion Questions:
1) If you were reincarnated as a Czech King, wouldn't it be better to execute your brother right away. I mean, wouldn't he have the right to be angry with you after ten years in the dungeon? Explain.
2) If you were to equate the King versus Brother Prisoner sibling rivalry in sports terms, wouldn't it be accurate to say the King won in a "blowout?" Why?

Laser teeth whitening in Prague if you are in Prague, this is my friend's laser teeth whitening place!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Scammed in Moscow- The Train Station

Scammed in Moscow-

I packed my belongings, took a cab (apparently a different one than Nessa had- zero troubles) and got out at Leningravsky Railway Station. As I approached the line, a Turkish man with a few gold fillings saw his mark, and asked me where I was going. Despite the fact that he spoke about as much English as I did Russian (nil) he managed to communicate with me that he would help get me on the train to St. Petersburg.
“Follow me,” he says, grabbing one of my suit cases and guiding me from the line, outside train station to a different ticket office, where they sold me a train ticket for 4,500 rubles. (about $150-- More expensive than a last second Southwest Airlines ticket in the states)

train station- Moscow
I looked at the ticket trying to see if I could decipher any of their alien alphabet, but being illiterate, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, and so I followed my guardian angel back out to the platform where he escorted me to my train. A security guard/policeman saw us, and came over, a glimmer and twinkle in his eye. (When you see happiness in Russia, be suspicious) I actually thought he was going to try to shake me down. He greeted my guardian, I’m positive they knew each other. As they were speaking Russian, I will translate the conversation for you as best I can.

Policeman (P): You again. How are you?
Guardian Angel (GA): Another day, another sucker.
P: American?
GA: I believe so.
P: I hope you socked it to him. Super power my ass.
GA: (proud) See for yourself.
P: Can I see your ticket?
(Rich pulls out his ticket, policeman looks at it, admiringly)
P: And how much did you charge him?
GA: 4,500 rubles!!
(Policeman smiles admiringly)
P: You’re the king man. The absolute king.
(Guardian Angel grins from ear to ear)
GA: Well it helps that the guy is an idiot.

So now, Guardian Angel is kind enough to escort me to my train. He explains to me through gestures that I am to board at 4 PM, and that he hopes Russian Mob doesn’t find me beforehand, but if they do, it’s not his problem. But, you know, at least I found my train, I tip him 50 rubles causing him to look at me in disbelief.

GA: Is this for me?
(Rich nods, GA becomes very amused as he takes the bill.)
GA: King idiot.
(Guardian Angel walks away shaking his head)

The funny thing is I was like 90% certain that I was being taken advantage of, and I kind of was like, well, if that’s the price of getting on the right train, so be it. When I got to St. Petersburg and told the story my guide, he looked over the hieroglyphics on my ticket and told me the real price was 2800 rubles.
So Rich got scammed out of $80. I sure wish I could get back that tip.

Up next- St. Petersburg

Monday, May 18, 2009

Back In The USSR

Well, for those of you in "the know" I left a few days ago for a trip, around the world beginning with Russia. For those of you who don't follow worldwide events, consider this is your update.

Over the next 6 weeks we here at Rich Has Too Much Time Industries will be travelling to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague, Istanbul, Egypt, Indonesia (Bali), Thailand, and Korea. We will keep you updated on our impressions, events, and sightings ... provided we have the time.

Back In The USSR

In a sign of our new host country’s warm intentions, whose affable easy going citizenry have brought the world such blessed memories as Communism and The Cold War, our plane was greeted and immediately boarded by well wishers consisting of Russian commando health authorities who shined a laser into the ear of every passenger. Their excuse: looking for swine flu. The truth: intimidation. The world must be remain fearful of the Russian bear.
Visit a gas station in the US and the oil company mascot is a shell, the number 76, or a smiling tiger. In Russia, they use a fire breathing wolf. My cabbie zoomed through Moscow traffic at the rate of 2 miles an hour, and got me to my hotel in what he claimed to “record time” – one and a half hours.
“Tip?” he asked, holding out his hand.
I checked into the Renaissance Hotel, across the street from the Russian Olympic stadium and unpacked my bags, and waited for the arrival of my adopted older brother Chad, and his fiancée, Vanessa Rousso who had come to town to play a high stakes poker tournament.
After acclimating ourselves to the our new surroundings, and playing some cards, Chad and I took the evening shuttle to the famous Pushkin Square, named after famed 1930’s Russian capitalist, Vladamir Square.
We were looking for Pushkin Restaurant, which was difficult, because Russians use an alphabet borrowed from alien invaders from the planet Zoxan. It’s kind of like a game show, “and behind this door we have either a famous restaurant, or an army firing range. Rich, do you dare open that door, or you can elect to take a plane home."
Compounding the problem, Russians are generally as helpful wolves, but not as friendly. Fortunately, I have been endowed with an incredibly well honed sense of direction passed down my ancestor, Ferdinand Magellen, and I don't mean to brag here, but I, in record time managed, to get us lost.
Just kidding, we found the place, and I have to say, it was one of the coolest restaurants I have been to. It had an old, dark, kind of cool, aristocratic feeling- a restaurant where Russian nobility of the late 19th century would have congregated. The service and the food was excellent.
One thing about Moscow, it's super expensive city in the world. A ten minute cab ride costs $30, and I bought two oranges for $5. (That’s the advertised price per kilo) There are no bargains to be had in Moscow, but this restaurant was well worth it.

St. Peter's Basilica
In the morning, the three of us set out to see the Moscow landmarks. First on our list was St. Peter’s Basilica, which is located in the famed Red Square.
St. Peter's Basilica- Moscow
Take a good gander. It’s even more impressive in person. Definitely my favorite thing I saw in Moscow.
Interior walls are painted with various religious figures, and I know that the 15th and 16th century were slightly rougher than how we live today, but at least in some Italian art you can occasionally see a smile. Not Russian. Most of the depictions of Jesus and the saints are of pure unhappiness and suffering.
I pointed to an especially mean looking angel, and asked Chad, “How’d you like to have her give you a helpful visit in the middle of the night?”
“No I wouldn’t” replied Chad.
(I’m not sure whether this is supposed to be Ivan The Terrible, or Jesus Christ, either way he’s a site for sore eyes cause he’s probably the friendliest looking person we’ve seen in Moscow.)

The Honest Cabbie

Having explored St. Basil’s Basilica together, we decided to get lunch at the shopping mall in Red Square. Yes, Dolce Gabana in Red Square, is there a surer sign Communism is dead?
We were set to go into the Kremlin next, but the Venus Fly Trap of the mall had ensnared the more impressionable member of our party. In the interest of hiding this person’s identity due to the nature of the ensuing events, let’s call this person “Vanessa R”. … no wait, too obvious, we’ll go with “V Rousso.”
V Rousso wanted to shop. Shop shop shop. Shop til you drop!!
Chad and I, on the other hand, being men, (the sane gender) had zero interest in joining her, and V Rousso found distressing the idea of taking a taxi home by herself in Big Bad Moscow at 3 A.M. (or whatever time mall management decided time away from their loved ones was not worth the next several thousand dollar profit they would earn by selling V Rousso another set of Versace shoelaces,) but after several reassurances from Chad, her fears were assuaged and she dutifully set about her tasks of adding fancy labels to her closet, and concurrently eliminating Russia’s national debt.
When the mall finally closed (3 AM) our girl asked security to escort her to a cab, noted that it had old fashioned roll down windows and that the cab driver seemed incredibly surly - nothing out of the ordinary for Moscow. She got in and told him to go to the Renaissance Hotel.
Now cabs, like EVERYTHING else in Moscow are pretty damn expensive. V Rousso thought she was going to be paying $35, $50 max, so when our friendly cabbie offered the bargain “friend” rate of $500 our girl said, “Niet!!”
“You pay! You pay!” the cabbie stated in what I am sure was an incredibly sweet tone, as he locked the child proof doors.
V Rousso started screaming, “Let me out!” jostling the door in effort to free herself.
“You pay! You pay!” the cabbie yelled.
So being clever, V Rousso pulled out her credit card, and handed it to him, knowing she could charge it back, but unfortunately in opening her wallet, exposed the $10,000 in cash she had on her, which was like pouring blood in the water during a shark feeding frenzy.
The cabbie, being a clever Moscow scammer, first ran her credit card, had her sign the bill, THEN grabbed her purse. While they wrestled for the it, he decided that now would be a good time to try to kidnap V Rousso, and put his foot on the accelerator.
V Rousso, with one hand wrestling for her purse, used the other to open the rear window, managed to yank her purse away for a split second, grabbed her $20,000 Armani sweater bag, and jumped out the window with the cab going ten miles an hour. (saved by heavy 3 AM Moscow traffic)
The poor girl was in a state of shock when she walked into the hotel and nervous wreck as I tried to calm her down.
Come to Russia – we treat you right.

The Kremlin
Skip it, they don’t let you meet Putin, and all you’re going to see is more unhappy figures in old cathedrals, although, I did see a carved statue I thought was very cool.
the sword in one hand, and a castle in the other, an example of a saint having being venerated because he is able to protect the town.
On my own
The next morning I headed out on my own to explore Moscow. Having nearly mastered the subway, I managed to get to a gigantic cathedral (more unhappy faces) and then headed up the street to Pushkin Museum (named after the famed Russian industrialist of the 1960’s Alexander Museum)
I have to say, they had quite a collection of paintings and artifacts ranging from Greek, to Egyptian, to Italian sculptures. It was pretty cool, but I am no art connoisseur, and there is only so much I can take, so I headed up the street figuring out how to navigate myself around Moscow.
Unlike Los Angeles, which has a restaurant at every corner, Moscow seems to have very few. (either that or illiterate Rich doesn’t know the sign, and thus chose not to open the door for fear of releasing the velociraptors ) I did however, see a Heineken awning, and starving, I ended up eating a Mexican restaurant in Moscow. (paella for those of you keeping score at home)
That evening, while Chad was still playing the tournament, I took Vanessa out to Pushkin restaurant, and had a really nice conversation with her. She felt a lot more comfortable getting into a cab with me beside her. How can you blame her?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

St. Petersburg, Russia- the Hermitage + Pros and cons of visiting

St. Petersburg

There was a very nice woman who looked out for me on the train, (she must not have been born Russian) and with her help, I arrived safely in St. Petersburg, where I was picked up by a friend of a friend, St. Peter.

True fact: During Communist rule, the city was called Leningrad, after the Reds fell, they renamed it after my new friend. Or so he claims.

St. Pete doesn’t let his fame and power go to his head. He is really down to earth, honest guy who makes a great host. He works at a major real estate company, whose “for sale” signs adorn every major building in the center of town. I have memorized their phone number, because Pete points to every single one of his sale signs. He’s a proud boy.

St. Petersburg sits on the Finland Bay and the city is known as the Northern Venice, as various rivers and canals cut through the city. Also, the sun sets at midnight here which means that I have no sense of what time it is. Businesses close down while it’s still light out, and the streets are deserted at what seems like noon.

After chatting over food, it was either 11:30 at night, or noon if you’re looking at the sun. St. Peter drives me to what was advertised on the Internet as a 4 star hotel, which I was getting for the bargain price of $90 a night. The lobby was okay, the elevator itself a bit dodgier, and I opened my room door and the only thought that went through my head was “Am I in prison?”
If you told me this was a jail cell, I’d believe you. I literally cannot lay down width wise because it is less than 6 feet across. The shower gives me at best water 3 degrees above freezing, and in order to bathe, and the water pressure and unchangeable angle of the shower-head forces me to lean in at a 60 degree angle for any water to hit my skin.

This used to be the home of the Czar and his posse, so most buildings in the center of town are quite exquisitely designed in a 19th century sort of way.

Of course, I made my  obligatory visits to the Cathedrals, as well as paying to get into a Russian navy exhibit where I understood absolutely zero. Not a word of English, Spanish, or Italian. (probably a good way to keep 19th century Maritime secrets seeing as I’m a spy)

Then there's the Hermitage, the former  palace of the Czar, now a first rate Museum.
Rich + St. Pete in front of the Hermitage. Pic taken 10:30 PM
Tickets have two prices- one for Russian nationals, and one for tourists. Pete instructed me to walk in and say, “Priviet” (meaning hello,) in a harsh, authoritarian tone (so I might be mistaken for Russian) and if the worker asked me anything , to raise my left arm up and drop it rapidly while making a harsh, unfriendly guttural tone as if to say, “Leave me alone woman, I just might be a crazy Russian”
So I walk to the ticket counter. “Priviett,” I scowl, placing down 100 rubles (the Russian price) on the counter.
She looks up at me, “350” she states.
I raise my arm up and drop it in disgust, “leave me alone woman, I’m a crazy Russian.”
She looks at me blankly, “350,” she expresses to me in an un-amused tone.
“Ya Ruskie! Ya Ruskie!” I retort absolutely outraged.
She takes a beat, leans into the window ever so slightly, “350.”
We might have won the cold war, but the Russians won this battle. What a warrior, my hat’s off to her.
Inside I saw art ranging from ancient Egpyt, to Greek, to Roman, to Russian and Spanish. I have to say though, my favorite part of the museum was a section devoted to Russian school children. At least I think it was Russian kids …
Children’s art, or 18th century master? Rich couldn’t tell you. As he’s been told, Rich would be unlikely to succeed in a career as an art dealer.
I also a saw a statue of Marcus Aurelias and his son Lucius (both of whom were depicted in the movie Gladiator, leading me, as a trained historian, to conclude that the movie was not only based on historical events, but is rather an accurate account of what transpired (word for word as the producers took a time machine back to 100 AD!) Probably the simplest way to write a script. I'm envious.
statue of Marcus Aurelius
Still, there is only so much time I can look at art without getting a weensie bored, and so after a few hours, I departed the czar’s palace and headed out to find some new adventure.

St. Pete and Olga
Each night I was in St. Petersburg joined by Peter and his girlfriend Olga after they got off of work. I have to say, they were both very very nice people, and Olga snapped 90% of the photos that I took in St. Petersburg.

The last evening I spent there was the nicest. I frankly get tired of the city and it’s concrete, I need green. Pete and Olga took me to an island (many nearby islands in the Finland Bay) and we took a walk down a road lined by trees in all direction. It was very close to being in a Russian national forest, and I’d imagine this is as pretty as Russia gets. (not exactly Thailand or Fiji)

We had a great time running around, throwing a tin foil ball back and forth and at each other. We also happened upon a miniature zoo, where we saw, in the middle of Northern Russia, and I swear I am not making this up, an ostrich.

(Russia's favorite native bird)
(Russian Fox- if this isn't the best picture of a fox ever taken (by Olga) I'd like to see what is)

On the whole, I probably allotted far too much time for Russia. Aside of St. Pete (the man) and Olga, there wasn’t much about Russia I liked. I think it has to be the most tourist unfriendly place I have been to outside of, let’s say, Northwestern Pakistan.

Nevertheless, as I deeply care about you guys, I have compiled an exhaustive list of travel tips and recommendations about Russia which are below.

Rich’s exhaustive list of travel tips for the USSR—skip it!

On the other hand, if you ever thought of moving to Russia, I have also carefully weighed in on the pros and cons of doing so--

Con: friendliness that make New Yorkers seem like Fijians,
massive corruption, the Russian Mob, Vanessa’s taxi driver and others like him, you’re automatically illiterate with the alien alphabet, bottles of Evian available for $7, bone chilling winters

Pro: The absence of black people gives you an excellent shot at making the Russian national basketball team.

That’s all for Mother Russia- up next—Prague!