Note From Jon


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Refused: Return to Artomatic

My favorite art show has returned. For the first time, Artomatic is back after only one year (I’d previously seen it in 2002, 2004 and 2007). The schedule has been somewhat erratic since Artomatic is free and takes up a lot of space (1000+ artists tend to do that). Lots of free space is a tough order though, so it’s usually in a building being renovated or demolished (an old Hechinger’s, EPA building, DC Children’s Museum, Patent Trademark Offices). This year it’s the brand new Capital Plaza I… before the interior floors are drywalled and decorated. Capital Plaza I is located just a block from the New York Avenue metro and an easy bike ride from my office so while it can’t quite compare to last year’s Crystal City location, there’s certainly nothing to complain about.

I’ve been accused of enjoying traditions (I do) and with this being my fourth show and last year’s lessons fresh in my mind (and blog) I feel like I am close to perfecting my system for experiencing Artomatic. Here are the key components:

  • Bike to the show – Not so critical but part of the tradition and a good way to balance art and athletics (plus, unlike last year, they have bona fide bike parking)
  • Go on a weeknight – Sadly it’s closed Monday and Tuesday, so Wednesday is the golden time at Artomatic. It’s quiet and the artists aren’t usually around… which means Darren and I can discuss the work candidly (and it’s easier for me to bring you some photos)
  • Plan multiple trips – This is the key. The show lasts four weeks and I plan to go once a week.
  • Plan short trips – After a couple of hours I start to lose focus which makes it hard to…
  • Pay attention to the details – Some of my favorite work didn’t mean anything to me until I read a title or the artists statement

The Flight of the Conchords show (deservedly) won out over Opening Night at Artomatic this year so the first trip was the following Wednesday and starting from the top we hit floors 12 thru 10. Here’s what I found there…

I was a little concerned that after only one year much of the artwork would be the same work I saw last year (and likely the pieces that weren’t good enough to have been sold yet!). So far that hasn’t been the case. I saw several artists I recognized and all of their artwork was new to me this year. For example Emily Greene Liddle returned with a new entry in her food-on-a-hook temptation series (incidentally she’s also the most searched for artist on my blog… or at least the most searched for artist whose seekers end up at my blog!). This one is titled (or not): Untitled (Jalapeno). I don’t know what to make of that. It’s not really untitled because of the (Jalapeno)

But that does segue into a rant that Darren could really handle better than I. When Darren becomes our benevolent dictator (more on that in a future post) I expect a “Darren Decree” along the lines of “All artwork shall have a title”. Since I haven’t created art since high school I certainly won’t tell artists what to do but I will point out that quite often the title makes the piece for me. Here are two examples. Sanjay Suchak’s photo of the pigeons by the river took on a completely different tone after I read the title. I’d say that tone was ominous except that they are pigeons so whimsical is probably a better description of how I felt about… Battle of the Potomac. Likewise I took another look at Alexandra Zealand’s geometric relief when the title Addiction, Part 3 clued me in to the fact that it was composed entirely of used coffee filters (it’s much more obvious what they are from the shot I took than it was straight on).

Other pieces I liked because they triggered particular memories for me. Joseph Merchlinsky’s possibly political “Kill” actually didn’t do anything for me, but it did remind me of the much subtler work I mentioned last year as my favorite piece from the 2004 show where the artist (who I'm happy to have now found out was also Joseph Merchlinsky!) used “I Voted” images in Red, White, and Blue and Green, Black, and Red to create the vague silhouette of the infamous hooded Abu Ghirab prisoner. And taking me even farther back in time was Tim Grant’s Hording Beanie Babies. For some inexplicable reason I am about to admit that a decade ago my girlfriend at the time and I actually enjoyed driving around and collecting them. In fact if I remember correctly (and I hope I don’t) that Stegosaurus and Inky the Octopus were actually fairly valuable. To this day I believe there is a trash bag full of them somewhere in my parent’s basement… and now if Tim’s work sells for $900 I may have just found out how they can actually have some value again! In case I still had you fooled into thinking I had good taste, I imagine that façade has been completely demolished now so let’s move on…

Yes, let’s shift the focus to Darren… who apparently had a dream about Fidel Castro shortly before this trip to Artomatic. Who dreams about Fidel? Actually not only was Fidel in the dream… he was Darren’s great uncle! Anyway he was telling us the story of his dream just before we came across some of his comrades. He’s even got the right color scheme going, almost like he planned it… hmmm perhaps he really is plotting a socialist revolution to become our benevolent dictator!

One goal of the trip was to find some artwork that we could put up over our mantle which has now been blank (well except for a wreath around Christmas) for over four years (and we’ll consequently become the only straight men to ever purchase artwork for their mantle). We’ll keep looking through the rest of the floors but we definitely found a strong candidate. Tiny Ghosts produces a series of works that consist of two framed photos with a handwritten story beneath them. As you can see, the text usually contains an unexpected twist beneath the second photo. Tiny Ghosts has a coffee table book of the first 100 pieces which we’ll buy and probably select three of our favorites ($60 a piece framed) to hang over the mantle.

Sometimes even a good title isn’t enough for unsophisticated art viewers like myself, and that’s why I love the Artist’s Statements at Artomatic. For example, I learned that Brian Lusher had taken a mass produced bust of Jesus (shown unpainted at the top) and shown the wide range of expressions that can be painted on. He also had an interesting write-up on how his intention wasn’t to blasphemously (to some) portray Jesus as a drag queen, but instead to show the idea that Jesus is in everyone (including drag queens). Without the artist statement and blank bust I doubt I would have even realized what was beneath the makeup. Chris Combs (or as I remember him, Chris Cones) had a series of seemingly subjectless photographs where even titles didn’t help me, until I read his artist statement which begins with him saying how he keeps seeing cones everywhere. I went back and looked over his photos again and it all clicked. Each photo contained an orange traffic cone somewhere and the title referred to the cone, as seen in my favorite one Lurking.

And in the case of Tracy Lee’s Refused: Return to Sender the art basically was the artist’s statement. Darren and I both nearly skipped right past the exhibit that seemed to contain nothing but pages of slides hung from the wall and a small collage of family photos. There wasn’t much there visually to be called art and I can’t really think of any other art venues that would have shown the “work”, but that is the beauty of the unjuried nature of Artomatic. As Darren and I walked away Sara had taken the time to read the artist’s statement, and she called us back to read it. I nearly missed my favorite piece of the day, and also the most thought provoking. Read the statement, then look at the collage titled 80 Proof Childhood (doesn’t everyone drink beer for breakfast?) and the return letter which gave the exhibit its name. Powerful stuff. Thank you for sharing Tracy.

Finally, the peep-o-ramas returned for the second time and there are plenty of fun ones. My favorite this year (though it makes me sad) is ‘The Apeepening’ Leaves Hain’s Point. And that’s what I’ve got so far, but I will soon Return to Artomatic…

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Nothing to do with Russia...

...and not much to read either. Just enjoy the photos from Gerry Hofstetter's "Lighting to Unite" at on the National Cathedral. The DCist ran some less egocentric photos including ones of the front of the cathedral.

Note to Jon:
  • My friends hate it when (or at least how) I take photographs.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Russia Reflections

I realize that not everyone (anyone?) has the time or interest to read through the world's wordiest travelogues. Others (or at least Joel) get confused reading them out of order because the last entry is at the top. Just for you I'm providing a couple top ten lists and adjusting the post order so you don't injure your scrolling fingers.

Top 10 Least Favorite Things about the trip to Russia:
10) You can't enter or exit the Kremlin on the Red Square side
9) Despite numerous attempts I never found a Russian Asterix comic to add to my collection
8) Separate stairways for each floor of the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory
7) Having to buy your playbill at ballet and theatre performances
6) Nobody will actually take credit cards in Moscow (regardless of what the signs and window stickers might imply)
5) Lack of english in most museums and tours (granted we have even less Russian in ours)
4) 3 o'clock canal tours that leave at 2:55
3) Frustrating visa process. Unless you are on a tour or in one hotel the whole time, spend the $30 for a support letter from
2) April renovations!
1) Having a broken metro escalator be a life-threatening experience

Top 10 Favorite Things about the trip to Russia:
10) Learning Russian replaces Hs with Gs. As in Gamlet, MakDonald's Gamburger, Gary Potter and Alkogolic.
9) Soups! Horcha and Borsch
8) Continuing the odd travel tradition of finding someone holding a chicken (in this case a Nesting Doll)
7) Free student admission to the Hermitage
6) Learning about Love Locks on the Patriarchal Bridge
5) Portion sizes (grams or mL) are displayed on the menu next to the prices
4) Most pleasant souvenir shopping experience abroad at Ismailovsky Market
3) Figuring out how to buy train tickets to St. Petersburg without using English
2) Aesthetics and efficiency of the Moscow metro (when escalators are operating)
1) Discovering Russian artists at the Tretyakov Gallery and Russian Museum

Still curious (and easily confused like Joel)? Here are the links in chronological order:
Day 1 - Moscow. Ismailovsky Market
Day 2 - Moscow. Lenin, Kremlin and Red Square
Day 3 - Moscow. Buying train tickets
Day 3 cont. and Day 4 - Moscow. Novodevichy Convent, Matryoshka Museum, Don Quixote, Pushkin Fine Arts Gallery, Tretyakov Gallery, Eugene Onegin
Day 5 - Moscow. Kolomenskoe Reserve and Metro Tour
Day 6 - St. Petersburg. Hermitage, St. Isaac's Cathedral, Swan Lake
Day 7 - St. Petersburg. Peter and Paul Fortress, Canal Tour, Russian Museum, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

If for some reason you still want more, here are three final slideshows covering:

Russian People

Church Domes

Recognized Brands

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Russia Recap: Day 7

Friday April 25th

Having only two days in St. Petersburg did not deter us from trying to see everything on our tourist wish-lists. Thursday had been productive but we still had to mail postcards, visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Russian Museum, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, take a canal tour and catch our train back to Moscow at 9:30. I also promised to let us fit in three full meals, since I discovered Thursday that Kristin’s body is not a fan of my trademark two-a-day big meal plan (apparently most nutritionists aren’t either).

The hotel’s breakfast buffet took care of meal number one, and there was a post office on the second floor of the building across from the hotel (the one with an advertising jumbotron on top). That went smoothly and, unlike my lost postcards from Africa, I have confirmation from most recipients that they have actually arrived (which is a good indication that it is taking me too long to post these recaps!). After a brief rendezvous with Joe to make sure he was ok (he’d had a rough trip digestively speaking) we were off to the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Due to renovation work (shocking!), the gate nearest the metro was closed, forcing us to circle the perimeter of the fortress in order to enter. As a result we witnessed someone climbing the wall into the fortress—odd because it’s free to enter, but it was in keeping with an invasion theme that played out all afternoon—and we passed by many sunbathing Russians whose techniques (usually standing) and swimwear choices (thongs… on men) I found perverse and often baffling (listen to act 4).

We arrived at the Nevsky Gate and learned that one-hour canal tours launched from their pier every hour on the hour. I was excited because this tour option combined a canal tour with our transit back from the fortress. I did some quick scheduling in my head: Noon-3:00 fortress, 3:00-4:00 canal tour, 4:30-6:00 Russian museum. Suddenly it seemed possible that Kristin and I would each get to visit our top priorities for the day (the fortress for her and Russian museum for me). All we had to do was catch the 3pm boat... Entering the fortress, we heard a thunderous explosion, which I realized was the daily noon cannon (well, artillery now) that I had thankfully read about. I took it as the starting gun for our three hour tour of the fortress.

The race started smoothly enough, with a trip to the Boat House that held the small sailboat Peter the Great learned to sail on—and which is now surrounded by the ticket office and gift shop. Then into the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where we tracked down the relatively understated tomb of Peter the Great. Surprisingly, his tomb barely stood out from the others in the cathedral. Off to the side, the only differentiating mark (unless you can read the Cyrillic name) is a bust of Peter placed on top.

Next stop was the St. Petersburg history museum in the Commandant’s House. As Kristin will tell you, don’t stop after the first two relatively uninspiring rooms on the first floor. The bulk of the museum is on the second floor, and the exhibits seem to get more and more impressive with each room (that may be biased because there was also more and more English as we went along). I enjoyed the scale model depicting how the Alexander column was erected. Held in place by nothing but gravity I was impressed it wasn’t swept away by the tidal wave that engulfed St. Petersburg a few years later (which was depicted in a panoramic painting in the same room).

It was lunch time and we set off to track down the café in the fortress before finishing our tour at the Rocketry museum and a walk atop the fortress walls. Here’s where things got interesting. We got directions to the café and set off to the east side of the fort… which happened to be under construction. In Russia it would appear there aren’t the same liability issues we have here in the U.S. and you are basically at your own risk. So nothing prevented us from picking our way through the ongoing construction (the workers ignored us completely) and making our way to the café. The café however was closed. As was the restaurant. As was the Rocketry museum. So we nimbly navigated our way back out of the danger zone, while I wondered why Russians couldn’t be as polite as the New Yorker I’d recently heard make the following statement to tourists in Manhattan: “There’s nothing for tourists on 9th Avenue, for fuck’s sake!”. Today, there was nothing for tourists on the east side of the fortress!

It looked like Kristin was doomed to a snack lunch again, or else we’d have to cut our visit to the fortress short. But she was resourceful and managed to determine that the small snack kiosk offered a microwave-heated personal pizza which provided the required sustenance. We ate lunch on top of the fortress wall at the only spot which was available to sit, right on top of the stone commemorating St. Petersburg’s recent 300th anniversary. Without spilling too much on the stone, we finished lunch and walked the rest of the fortress wall taking in the views across the Nevsky river, as well as an unusual event going on at the fortress: periodically a skydiver would appear from the sky and land (as far as we could tell) in the fortress. First someone scaling the wall and now paratroopers were attacking. It must not have been much of an issue because the soldiers manning the artillery that had welcomed us at noon seemed more concerned about me photographing them than they did about the intruders. No one seemed to notice when the helicopter swooped in later (I can neither confirm nor deny whether it was a helicopter gunship)

The prison section of the fortress was also closed for renovation but we did find a torture exhibit that had a separate entry fee. Since it was 2:30 and we couldn’t envision what would be in the exhibit to justify the separate charges we opted to head to the dock early… right after we visited the restrooms. It turned out the only thing worse than the food situation in the fortress was the restroom situation. No one seemed to know which ones were open and we got conflicting directions, none of which matched up with the map we had. Our search eventually took long enough that we were in danger of missing our tour (and more importantly to me our chance to visit the Russian Museum where I was excited to find the rest of the works by my favorite Russian artists I’d discovered at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow). Eventually we crossed the fort to a temporary restroom we’d seen by our lunch spot. From the line we found there, I am certain it was the only working toilet on the island that day. The problem was that it was a pay toilet. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t have the money… it was that the woman taking the money felt she needed to clean the restroom between each customer! We’d be on a boat for an hour so forgoing this pit stop wasn’t an option. Clean faster woman! Mercifully she skipped a couple of cleanings and we got through with about seven minutes to run (and run we did) back to the pier. We arrived to watch the three o’clock tour pull away from the pier… at 2:55. Our pleading to climb aboard was fruitless and the next four o’clock tour would leave less than an hour to see the Russian museum. I felt defeated. There would be no more sublime moments appreciating a wall-filling Ivanov, or sharing what I’d found at Tretyakov with Kristin.

But then there was hope. A previously unmentioned 3:30 tour. That might just give us time. The price was higher but I was just happy to still have a chance at seeing the Russian Museum. I relaxed and enjoyed the tour. It was in Russian so it was more about being on the water and seeing the city from a different perspective than gaining any trivia or historic insights into St. Petersburg. As advertised we disembarked at the Admiralty at 4:30 and set off briskly for the Russian Museum. We got there before five… but couldn’t find the main entrance. Screw it, we saw a door and went in. We weren’t supposed to be there but we found a woman who found a woman who found a woman who spoke English and relayed back to the first woman that we wanted to enter the museum. She looked concerned and kept mentioning five o’clock, I kept saying “The museum closes at six right?” (according to the Lonely Planet). She led us around the building and to the main entrance and indicated that we needed to run. It turns out the museum stops selling tickets an hour before closing. We ran. At exactly five o’clock we rounded the corner into the Kacca room, to find the ticket seller… surprised to see us but willing to sell us tickets. I didn’t even think to ask for Kristin’s student discount. We bought the tickets, checked our bags and set off in search of my favorite Russian artists.

The experience didn’t replicate that from the Tretyakov because we were considerably more rushed (I feared each room we entered would have the exit door shut and we’d be forced to backtrack out of the museum). Still we did manage to find all of the artists I hoped to and Kristin got a feeling for what I had appreciated so much about the galleries of Russian artists. After about 45 minutes we had skimmed through the entire collection, including the temporary exhibit of landscapes which contained a new favorite painting of bears in the woods…which I later discovered I’d seen painted as the backdrop for the bear trainer at Ismailovsky Park a week before. Success. I was happy and relaxed.

And then I saw the sign for the exit out of the wing we were in. Of course we couldn’t go out that way because our bags were checked back at the main entrance. The museum closed in less than 15 minutes. Could we still get back to the main entrance?!? Or were we about to be ushered out the nearest exit as the museum closed? I suddenly had visions of a desperate conversation with Russian security along the lines: “Museum closed” “But we have to get our bags!” “Museum closed now. You can get bags tomorrow.” Tomorrow, when we’d be in Moscow boarding our plane home… without our jackets or bags! The race was on again. Back through the halls, again hoping we didn’t find our way blocked with a closed door. On several occasions doors were indeed shut directly behind us… But we got through. And now, outside again with our bags, the race which I’d felt began with the noon cannon was finally done.

I would certainly recommend more than two days in St. Petersburg, but with a bit of a frantic (or perhaps fanatical—sorry Kristin) schedule we’d managed to do everything that was on our wish list. We were left with plenty of time to take photos at the St. Basil’s-inspired Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, finish off our shopping list at a mini-market near the church (well except for my never-to-be-found Asterix comic book), and eat a leisurely dinner at Gastranom (get the beef stroganoff, not the stuffed pike), before we caught our overnight train back to Moscow.

The trip back was a mirror of our trip up except that Joe and the empty bunk were exchanged for some quiet Russian women in our cabin. We went into a café in the Moscow station for breakfast… and quickly left when Joe was told that a coffee and scoop of chocolate ice cream would run $32 (thankfully they told us up front rather than surprising us with an absurd bill). Instead we found the cafeteria style breakfast spot where the food was more realistically priced. After a metro ride to Rechnoy Vokzal station at the top of the #2 line, and a two dollar mini-bus ride to the airport, Kristin and I were soon flying back home, passing over Greenland, and passing up the opportunity to buy the Duty-free Delta Doll. It was an amazing (and long-winded) trip. I may put together some top-ten list recollections, but for now the only thing to say is: Thank You Kristin!

<-- Day 6 ---- Reflections -->

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Congratulations Mims, you are now officially more educated than your big brother :-)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Russia Recap: Day 6

Thursday April 24th

During the night, our fourth bunk was filled by a guy who got on at one of the intermediate stops (which explains why the conductor was so adamant that we not set any of our bags on that bunk back in Moscow). While it would have been fun to check out the first class Spalny Vagon, the goal of having a good quiet night’s sleep from Moscow to St. Petersburg was achieved. Well it was achieved to the extent that you can get a good night’s sleep while having to get up at 5am (something neither Kristin nor I excel at) in order to be off the train when it arrived at 5:30—they don’t seem to like you hanging around the train once it arrives, so I guess sleeping in isn’t much of an option.

We were immediately grateful for our choice of hotel, Hotel Oktiabrskaya, which is right off the square in front of the train station. The main hotel dominates the square nearly as much as the train station, but we stayed in the smaller (and cheaper) filial branch of the hotel on a different side of the square (and I definitely recommend that approach to anyone making a similar trip). As expected, we couldn’t check in at 5:30am, but there were no problems checking our bags in their luggage room (including Joe’s who didn’t have a reservation at the now full hotel).

Baggage stowed, we followed a recommendation Joe had for a breakfast buffet at Marius Pub, which did an admirable job of replacing the breakfasts we’d become accustomed to at the President Hotel. It probably helped that it was the restaurant attached to a hotel whose price may have rivaled what we paid at the President Hotel. We scanned the Lonely Planet over breakfast and I confirmed my suspicions that none of the places we planned to go in St. Petersburg opened before 10am, including all of the theatre kiosks where we hoped to get tickets to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. After having Gamlet sold out in Moscow I felt we needed to get those tickets as early as possible, but the Lonely Planet was adamant that in order to avoid the Hermitage lines you needed to be there an hour before it opened at 10:30. We had a conundrum but eventually chose to avoid the Hermitage lines and try our luck with ballet tickets in the afternoon.

Joe set off to find himself a hotel while we leisurely explored Nevsky Prospect and the canals to fill the hours before the Hermitage opened. We eventually settled in “line” (a group sitting around) out front of the museum. As we waited, a man walked up to us—directly to the two of us—and said he had two tickets to Swan Lake that night that he needed to get rid of and did we want them? Too good to be true? I was skeptical, having bought counterfeit tickets to a Jaguars/Ravens game years ago, and having read Lonely Planet’s section warning about ticket scalping. It described foreign theatre-goers being embarrassed as they were forced by zealous babushkas to pay the difference between the Russian price and the foreigner price when they were caught with Russian tickets. My skepticism grew when we mentioned that we were actually looking for three tickets (Joe planned to rejoin us that evening) and he said he had a colleague that he could swap tickets with to get us three together. I examined the two tickets he had and felt they were legitimate at least (and confirmed the date, time, and show etc.). He was asking 500 Rubles (~$25) per ticket which was between the prices I’d paid for Don Quixote and Eugene Onegin. Eventually, we decided it was worth the $25 for us to know we had the tickets and not have to spend any more time that day dealing with them. We agreed to buy them and he went to make the trade with his colleague.

Being April tourists may have hurt us at several locations, but nowhere did it help more than the Hermitage. The lines discussed in the book never really formed and we were able to enter the museum quickly (after our ballet scalper found us inside at the ticket window with our three tickets). We felt even better about buying the ballet tickets when it turned out Kristin saved nearly $20 on her admission to the Hermitage. Most places had discounted admissions for students (and Kristin took advantage of them with her GW card as a doctorate student), but the Hermitage had quite a discount indeed. Free. I paid about $20 (and it was still a bargain) and Kristin paid absolutely nothing. Best deal in Russia. Photos are allowed in the Hermitage... but not coats. Every theatre and museum had a complimentary (and tip-free) coat check, but this was the first time I was turned away at the entrance and forced to check my coat. Photos for coats was a fair tradeoff, and if I'd been made to walk around barefoot it'd have been worth it. Like the Moscow metro, photos are the only way to capture our three hour tour (sans shipwreck :-p) of the Hermitage. As you’ll see, it was as much about the art of the Hermitage as it was the art in the Hermitage:

Hardly satisfied that I’d spent all the time there that I wanted, I knew I would have to save a deeper exploration for a future trip. We had time for a short excursion before we needed to get back to the hotel to check-in/shower/get presentable for the ballet. Kristin had been hankering to climb something since we arrived in Russia and we’d finally found an opportunity, the colonnade of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. I feared the view would cost nearly $16, but Kristin correctly surmised that the we could skip the $11 museum fee and go straight up the colonnade for $5. 262 mostly spiral stairs later, we had our view. St. Petersburg is compact enough that we could see nearly all of the main attractions from the top and get a good sense of the city layout.

Back at the hotel we met up with Joe so he could pick up his bags and learned we’d been wise to book our hotel in advance. Joe had spent all morning tracking down a room (ultimately ending up at an unmarked B&B up Nevsky Prospect). We planned to meet back up at Café Idiot for dinner before the ballet… but we never got there. Dinner and the theatre were a long walk back near St. Isaacs and we were running a bit late so we decided to take the metro. That was a bad idea. While less extensive than Moscow’s, St. Petersburg’s metro runs just as frequently is seems to be just as crowded per station. They also have the same problem if an escalator breaks down. And one did. We discovered this as we entered the large room at the top of the escalator. The usually empty room was overflowing with people, all funneling towards the two-by-two entrance to the escalator. Turning around wasn’t an option as the hallway poured people into the room behind us. The room couldn’t grow so as more and more people flowed in we just got cozier. The funnel soon felt more like an evil tube of cake icing with the back being squeezed and pushing us with more and more force towards the one narrow exit. I started to consider what might happen to us “icing” as we shot out of the tube and onto the top of an escalator. It wasn’t a pretty image, though perhaps not inappropriate if someone tumbled at the top. It was becoming increasingly difficult to stay standing (or to breathe) as each surge threatened to send us to the floor. It felt like only a matter of time before a squeeze from the back would come with enough force to topple those of us now in front. It was really starting to feel like that surge would be timed to coincide with our arrival at the top of the escalator. But we had to focus on standing, breathing and holding on to some bit of one another. Just before we reached the nozzle our grip on each other was broken. I watched one girl ahead of us get pinned to the metal railing leading to the escalator. It was all we could do to resist the surge just long enough to let her slide loose and get onto the escalator. Breathe. Stay standing. And then we were out. On the escalator. The pressure was instantly released and we were sliding safely away from the chaos. Mercifully, the escalator rode out horizontally for a good ways before descending, so in hindsight it was unlikely anyone would ever be the first domino to topple the whole set of us down to the bottom, but the danger of being trampled in that room was very real. We didn’t hear anything behind us so I can only assume that no disaster occurred but honestly I don’t know how.

As a result we missed out on Café Idiot and had to call Joe (kudos to Quad-band phones and AT&T for enabling them to communicate) to change our meeting to the theatre. No fast-food options presented themselves so Kristin and I found an Irish Pub next to the theatre and asked for whatever food they could have ready in ten minutes. Perhaps the Washington Redskins and William and Mary memorabilia above the bar was a good omen because in ten minutes we were splitting a delicious plate of that Irish speciality… Spaghetti Bolognaise. Still, we were cutting it close and the lights were flashing us to our seats when we arrived in the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory. That wouldn’t have been a problem if there were ushers to help us to our seats. There weren’t. When our seat numbers were taken in the Orchestra we realized we needed to be up in the balcony. Except we couldn’t find the stairs. We ran in and out of the orchestra and the lobby and pretty much everywhere we could find before at last coming across the one stairwell off in the corner. Up we went. Out into the Mezzanine. Which weren’t where our seats we either. We could see the balcony we had to get to one level higher. It’s just that the stairs didn’t go there. We puzzled over the M.C. Escher-inspired staircase for a bit before deciding that stairs did go up there… we just couldn’t get to them from the Mezzanine. No, to go up you have to go down. Back at the bottom of the stairwell, there was a separate stairway that intertwined with the first, skipped the exit onto the Mezzanine and led finally to our seats… at the very back row of the entire theatre. That section was pretty much empty so we opted to sit down at the front as the ballet got underway after waiting for the frantic Americans to find their seats. Watching this ballet made me realize how much storyline there actually was in Don Quixote… and confirmed what I had suspected: I’m not a fan of ballet. Rather than complain about wanting a story I should really just go see a play (or at least an Opera)! Still it was a worthwhile experience, if only to discover this peculiar stairway design—which incidentally had those of us on the balcony descending to ground level and then halfway back up again to the Mezzanine where the refreshments and restrooms lived during intermission. Hopefully you didn’t down your liquid refreshments on the way back to the balcony and then realize you now needed to go back to the restroom. You’d never make it. Might as well just piss off the balcony. Anyway did I mention the stairway they had in this place?

After the show it was still light out, despite being past 10pm. As we took a sunset walk home past all of the day’s monuments, I realized it was the latest that it had ever stayed light where I was at. That record wouldn’t be broken by the next (longer) day because I’d be headed back on a train to Moscow by that time. But before then Kristin and I still had full tourist wishlists for Friday. Probably too full… As an early birthday present to Kristin (and yes, because I wouldn’t have been there without her) I figured her wishlist took priority. What? You think I made that up just because today happens to be Kristin’s birthday? I can neither confirm nor deny that. But I can wish Kristin a very merry birthday. Happy Birthday!

<-- Day 5 ---- Day 7 -->

Friday, May 9, 2008

Russia Recap: Day 5

Wednesday April 23rd

On Wednesday I explored outside of the city. Well at least on the outskirts of the city. The metro came above ground to cross the Moskva River, and I passed soviet-era cookie-cutter apartment complexes. I’d originally hoped to work in a day trip to a Golden Ring town during my time in Moscow, but settled for my friend Dana’s recommendation to visit the 4-acre Kolomenskoe Reserve overlooking the river.

The novel I’m rereading, Edward Rutherfurd’s Russka, refers to it in one of its stories:

…Cossacks rode out to look at the tsar’s country residence at nearby Kolomenskoye. Sited by the Moskva River, it was a curious jumble of buildings—some wooden, others of brick covered with white stucco. Its tent roofs, onion domes, and towers flanked by ascending pyramids of kokoshniki suggested a silent, powerful peacefulness like an Indian temple. They returned to the city feeling refreshed.

I’d say refreshing is a good description. It helped that I didn’t have an agenda of things to see there and simply wandered the park for a few hours. Apparently it is frequently used as fairgrounds and I could see some of that infrastructure (including some quaint carnival rides). With no festival underway, most visitors (on a Wednesday afternoon at least) were women with strollers. Strollers, pigeons, and construction. Have I mentioned Russia tends to get renovated in April in preparation for May tourists :-p This time I didn’t care because I’d planned to enjoy the admission-free park, river views, and finally lovely weather and to only admire the buildings from the outside. Construction was no problem for any of that… so long as I avoided the benches with the “wet paint” (I assume) sign on them. I returned to meet conference-completed Kristin “feeling refreshed”.

On the way back to the hotel I made a detour to the Okhotny Ryad mall. It’s an underground mall near the Kremlin which Lonely Planet describes as “catering to all income levels”. In my international travels I try to collect foreign language copies of the French comic series Asterix the Gaul. I was excited to get one in Russian and having not walked by a single large book store I decided a mall was a likely spot to find one. I was wrong. I don’t know about the variety of the prices in the stores, but one thing Okhotny Ryad does not have is a variety of merchandise. The entire mall consists of three kinds of stores: clothing, shoes and fashion accessories. Aside from a food court there is literally nothing else. Nothing. Not that it’s small. Okhotny Ryad is three stories… of nothing but clothes, shoes and accessories. Okhotny Ryad nearly sapped the refreshment I’d soaked up at Kolomenskoye.

The one last thing Kristin wanted to be sure she did in Moscow was to tour the metro stations. That may seem strange in some cities (actually every city that I can think of)—some metros are worth riding once for the experience, but none that I know of are worthy of a station by station tour. Moscow is the exception. Absorbing Ivanov’s masterwork in the Tretyakov Gallery was my favorite moment of the trip, but the Moscow metro was my favorite thing about Russia.

The photos tell the story of the individual stations better than I can. Even beyond the aesthetics the metro system is impressive and I compiled some notes as well as a 10 top ten list of what I liked about it:

First, my few gripes:

  • They do not let people walk stationary escalators as we do in DC (they are just closed off—and they got pretty upset at one guy who jumped the barrier and walked up).
  • Unlike DC trains, they have no ceiling bar to hang on to in the area by the doors (where you are most likely to wind up standing when you get on a packed train). Hope you’ve got good balance.
  • Escalator breakdowns are a serious issue. Chaos ensues. The remaining working escalators can get so backed up that entire rooms and hallways quickly fill with people. The force of the crowd pushing for the escalator can be terrifying, as well would learn…

And some random recollections:

  • Each platform services only one line. That means lots of walking between platforms but less confusion.
  • We saw workers with scrapers riding the escalators to remove advertising stickers that had been slapped on (we also saw a guy riding the escalators slapping them on).
  • We ordered fare cards by going to the Kacca and holding up fingers for the desired number of rides.

And finally my top ten favorite (non-aesthetic) things about the Moscow Metro system:

10) Their lines have both a color and a number associated with them. They may not be friendly to those in wheel chairs (tons of stairs and escalators) but they take pity on the color blind.

9) If it isn’t so crowded that the escalator is packed two-abreast, they follow the (non-tourist) DC convention of stand right, walk left.

8) They do a fairly good job of crowd control by splitting walkways into two “lanes” either with separate hallways or temporary fencing. This works as long as the escalators are all functioning.

7) The metros have public trash cans. Well none on the platforms, but they have small ones right after the turnstile to deposit spent metro cards. They were the only public trash cans I saw in the city!

6) Many trains had an electronic station meter that would fill up as you passed each stop and blink to mark the upcoming station.

5) All the fare cards work like Smart Trip cards, just tap it on a pad by the turnstile to enter (and a handy display lights up with the remaining number of rides on the card).

4) The price is right. If you buy a 10-ride pass, each ride costs 17 rubles (about 70 cents) and all trips cost exactly the same, no matter where you go.

3) The escalators move fast. I’d say twice as fast as DC. Since the majority of their escalators are long enough to make Rosslyn’s seem ordinary, that speed is a good thing (just be careful getting on and off!). According to the Wikipedia, Park Pobedy has the longest single escalators in the world so we made a special tour detour to ride it.

2) Trains move fast too and we never once had to wait in the tunnel while a train ahead of us cleared the platform or because they were single-tracking.

1) Most impressive to me (rivaling even the aesthetics) was the frequency of the trains. Each track has a clock at one end of the platform with the current time and elapsed time since the last train left. During rush hour the average time between trains seemed to be 45 seconds. 45 seconds! At almost all other times it was between 1 and 2 minutes. The longest time by a considerable margin was one 5 minute wait on a Sunday night.

I ♥ Moscow Metro

Dinner at Café 44 was decent (but credit-card unfriendly—despite the sign in the window!), and after a fruitless search for Asterix in a huge bookstore that Kristin found near our Polyanka metro, we set off to test how well I had done buying our train tickets to St. Petersburg. We managed to navigate the rush hour metro with all of our luggage by utilizing the relatively emptier first or last metro cars, and got to Leningradsky Vokzal about a half hour before our train left. Well a half hour before we thought our train left. We found our train number on the wall-size electronic board, and with some improvised translating we decided the time was still 9:30, but we couldn’t identify a platform number. One other thing troubled me. There was one column we couldn’t identify. In that column was a single word after each train. I assumed these words meant things like “On-time”, “Delayed”, “Boarding”. Our train had a word that wasn’t on any other train on the board. Well it was in one other place: Next to our same train over on the arrivals side. I’m usually optimistic, but one terrifying likely translation popped into my head: “Cancelled”. That’s not good. Kristin turned to the information counter for an answer while I turned to the Lonely Planet. At about the same time we found out that unknown category was Frequency, and the words were “Daily”, “Odd-numbered Days”, “Even-numbered Days”, and yes “Cancelled”. But our train was chyotnye (Even-numbered days) not otmenyon (Cancelled). Phew. Before my mind could dwell much on the fact that our tickets were for Odd-numbered days… I got the thumbs up from Kristin who had been so friendly with the information lady that she actually led us all the way to the platform and our train (which had a different number than we thought, and this one did run on Odd-numbered days). This was typical of the trip where we’d stay true to our gender stereotypes: when in doubt I looked to the book/map and Kristin asked for directions.

Aside from not being able to translate our tickets well enough to know which car we were in (and therefore having to stop and check at every single car down the length of the train), our tickets and passports passed inspection and we found our cabin just fine. Joe had the same problem translating his ticket and actually ended up in the wrong cabin initially—where he made friends and was given a beer. When someone showed up to claim that seat, Joe found his real seat and as I’d hoped, Kristin, Joe and I were “vamistya” in the same cabin (and it seemed the fourth bunk was unused). I decided I liked the top bunk where both my luggage and my person were up and out of the way. As the train rolled out of the station we settled in and headed straight to bed to cram in as much sleep as we possibly could before our scheduled arrival in St. Petersburg… at 5:28 am.

<-- Day 3 and 4 ---- Day 6 -->

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Happy Blogiversary to me!

Don't mind me, just wanted to take a short break from recapping my Russia trip to pat myself on the back for documenting the past year of my life. I know my mom appreciates it (Hi Mom, happy early Mother's Day), and I imagine it'll be a nice (or embarrassing) time capsule for myself someday. It was exactly one year ago that I posted this note, and so like my favorite retired blogger might say, Happy Blogiversary!

Since you've had the opportunity to learn about me this past year, I figure it is only fair for me to disclose what I've learned about you. Some of it is a bit disturbing (read on to see some of the searches that have led here). That's right, since about September of last year I have been tracking you while you read about me! Could you sense Google ogling you? They have a free Google Analytics service that has recorded the following:

Since September, 1,630 of you have visited 4,360 times and viewed 7,173 pages. You stick around for an average of 1 minute and 53 seconds.

Other than the main page, these are the pages you've read most often:
Note To Africa 246
Darrenisms 225
Facebook Freefall 122
I'd Climb the Highest Mountain 122
Gauley Lama 80

You've come from 699 cities (in 55 countries), with these being the top 5 (who do I know in Montreal anyway?):
Arlington 1047
Washington 879
San Francisco 186
Montreal 110
Falls Church 107

These were my biggest days and the posts that caused them (congrats Joel, your disaster Date Lab takes first place):
2/13/2008 Joel's Date Lab Debacle 74
12/19/2007 Holiday Party 62
1/2/2008 New Year's Cabin Camping 51
9/17/2007 Gauley Rafting 49

Those of you that don't know me most likely found this blog searching for something else (sadly there's nothing remotely useful here on anything but perhap the last item on this list):

1) 36 times you've wanted to know about "driving cross country"
2) 36 times you've asked about "Facebook's geography quiz" (with many of those asking how to cheat!—shame on you, learn some geography!)
3) 29 times you were looking for "skydiving shoes". My Keen's worked, but my one jump hardly qualifies me to recommend skydiving shoes.
4) 28 times you were searching for "behr deck stain". Again, a sample size of 1, but it's been a disaster for us. We stained it two years ago, then touched it up last fall, and this spring it's an embarrassment (I should post new photos)
5) 28 times you were looking for the quote "The Lord said Peter, I can see your house from here". This one baffles me. I know it as a line from a Roger Waters song, can that really be the source of all these hits (relatively speaking)
6) 27 times you came here for information on tying a "safety knot". They're important, keep searching
7) 23 times you wanted to find out about Hassan Bah in Doucki, Guinea. He's great! If you are in Guinea make the effort to visit him in Doucki and spend a few days hiking with him. My experience is here.

But the real reason I enjoy Google Analytics is because I can see what you searched for that got you here, and there are some funny ones (several frankly that I have no clue why they would link here). Since I'd rather not reinforce some of these searches I'll be posting a photo of this list:

Let's see what I learn about you before my second Blogiversary...

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Russia Recap: Days 3 and 4

Monday April 21

With my one assignment complete, I had two and half days (and evenings) to kill before Kristin finished earning our hotel room by attending her meetings. I’ve always admired people who travel on their own, but felt it wouldn’t be something I’d enjoy. Therefore with the exception of a day in Dakar on my way home from Africa I’d never really traveled alone. Now admittedly that was one of my best days in Africa (which probably should have served as a clue) but I still wasn’t sure how I’d adjust to solo travel in a country where I’d just barely managed to buy train tickets despite all my carefully prepared paperwork.

As you may have noticed, I enjoy theatre, and figured it would be a unique opportunity to experience some Russian style. With the help of the Moscow Times (the couple of links on the left bar below “Calendar of Events”) I’d researched what shows I could catch during my free evenings. I’d brought a list of my options with me to the theatre kiosk which can be found in most metros. My second ticket purchasing experience of the day was considerably easier than my first, but only because the woman spoke English (she had a daughter living in Miami)… because all of my top choices were sold out (I’d figured I’d go see Hamlet hoping my familiarity with the storyline would help offset my unfamiliarity with Russian, but it was not to be). After some wrangling, even in English, I wound up with tickets to see the opera Don Quixote at the theatre inside the Kremlin (for $35) and a one-act play of Eugene Onegin (for $15) at the supposedly controversial Taganka Theatre.

Feeling thoroughly accomplished at ticket purchasing, I set out for my planned activity of the day: exploring the Novodevichy Convent. After a rainy Sunday at the Kremlin I was hoping for sun shining on my outdoor activities today. It rained. I guess it was appropriate for a convent, especially one that had served as a sort of prison (and now tomb) for Peter the Great’s sister and first wife. I was particularly excited to come here because the Peter the Great miniseries I watched during high school had left me with vivid memories of the treachery of Peter’s sister Sophia who’d been confined here. In fact the miniseries basically had the theme that it was Peter vs. the women and the church. Well today it was me vs. the rain and the construction. The main building (and resting place of Tsarevna Sophia) is the Smolensk Cathedral. It was closed for renovation when the Lonely Planet book was published (2006). Turns out it is scheduled to open…May of 2008. Still there are dozens of other buildings, churches, and bell towers in the convent so I figured I’d explore them. I figured wrong. I spent the afternoon photographing puddles and pulling on locked door after locked door (one that did open I realized quickly enough was leading to the nuns’ private quarters). Basically there were two buildings open to me (and the lobby of one church) and neither were particularly historic. They each held exhibits of religious artwork, which was quickly holding little interest for me. I had my lunch of bread and water (seemed appropriate) and set off for the cemetery around back. It was raining harder and I think I was almost relieved when I approached the gate and an extremely serious looking guard made an X with his arms and shook his head at me. I tried to signal “Do I need to go around to another gate?” and he made it pretty clear that whatever was going on in there today (there were some fancy black cars out front) I was not welcome inside.

Next stop was the Matryoshka Museum (the famous Russian nesting dolls). The museum was free, which frankly it should have been since it consisted of exactly one room with no English, and the oldest doll was from… 1950. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy checking out the dolls that were there, and I realized that the set from 1950 with a woman holding a chicken under her arm would be perfect for me. In Indonesia one of my favorite photos is of a boy holding a chicken under his arm, and on my favorite day in Guinea I have a photograph with… a woman carrying a chicken under her arm. Not surprisingly the set in the museum was not for sale (that I could tell) but there were replicas in the extensive gift shop downstairs (it was twice the size of the museum). The prices were higher than Izmaylova market but not unreasonable for what I was willing to spend. Unfortunately the cashier said they didn’t take credit cards but I splurged and purchased my chicken-woman set with my dwindling cash. After I paid, I noticed the sign on the counter. The sign for Visa and Mastercard! I called her on it and she said the women who knew how to work the machine didn’t work that day. This was a common refrain. Lonely Planet may say Moscow is credit card friendly, but it sure wasn’t to me.

I had just enough time to swing by the hotel and change into some theatre appropriate clothes before setting off for Don Quixote at the Kremlin. Knowing how sensitive they were about photos of Lenin, I feared there would be issues bringing a camera into the theatre so I left it at the hotel… which proved to be my loss (and yours) as I missed some beautiful photos of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s at night (and if I was as bold as some other audience members, maybe even photos of the show). Inside the enormous soviet-feeling State Theatre I found my seat (once I deciphered the words for row and seat in Russian). It was actually in the 13th row in the orchestra… and the absolute last seat in a row that probably spanned nearly a hundred seats. Still it wasn’t too bad and I settled in for the opera. It turns out the opera I was there to see was no opera at all. I was watching the ballet of Don Quixote. I’d wikipediaed the storyline at the hotel but I learned quickly that at best the ballet was loosely inspired by Don Quixote. Since I’m a fan of storyline, the second act was easily the best. Let me show you what I mean: The second act opened with more dancing in a tavern where Don drives away an unwanted suitor for the innkeeper’s daughter. He leaves for more adventures and ends up watching a play-within-the-ballet in some village. When an unwanted suitor emerges in the play, Don charges the actor, then the audience, then a windmill (the windmill wins and a—presumably stuffed—Don comes flying off the blades). Injured, Don heads home and collapses in a forest where he dreams of fairies… who dance. The act ends when Don awakes and some nobles show up. Here’s what happens in the third act: Don watches dancers at the nobles’ court. That’s it. That was the end of the show. Of course it is my fault for wanting a ballet to be an opera. Still it was a fun experience and I learned some things about Russian shows:

  • People still call Bravo here
  • There are encores and curtain calls at the end of each act (and even at the end of some dances)
  • Many in the audience rushed to the edge of the stage during the standing ovation
  • You have to buy your programs
  • They broke the cardinal rule of encores! They returned once the house lights came on (and it was like their 4th or 5th curtain call at the point). This rule really should be universal (as should a limit of at most 2 encores). I’ll bring these up with Darren who is compiling a list of decrees he would enact if he were a benevolent dictator (maybe I should start documenting those along with Darrenisms).

Here’s the problem. When I was on my own I took far fewer photos so I decided to combine the photos for days 3 and 4. I use slideshows because Blogger’s photo insertion capabilities are unacceptably pathetic (all photos insert at the top and must be excruciatingly dragged down into place, no easy way to do captions, preview mode doesn’t match how it gets published etc.). As a result I only have one slideshow and planned to make one entry for both days (and that’s after spending a whole entry on the ticket buying). So. Consider this the end of act one (and as you’ll see it would be just like a Russian one-act). Go get some snacks, use the restroom and come back for act two (aka Day 4) when you are ready. Deep breath. On to day four…

Tuesday April 22nd

The sun came out! And I had a whole day planned inside at art galleries… I did walk to the first gallery, and I was rewarded. I crossed the Patriarchal Bridge behind my hotel and started photographing the Peter the Great statue, The Church of Christ the Savior, and the Kremlin Cathedrals in the distance. Then I glanced down at the bridge and noticed a huge padlock attached to it. Then another. Then I realized there were dozens if not hundreds locked all the way up and down the bridge. Many had names and dates and I began photographing them. Another photographer joined me shortly and asked me something in Russian. Since he also spoke English I found out he was asking me if I knew about the “lovelocks”. I didn’t and he provided me some background. He said the tradition started in some European country… maybe Paris, maybe Italy. It started in 1993 (the date was specific… if not the location). Couples would place locks on a particular bridge (or two bridges in the case of Moscow) to commemorate their love or marriage. It turns out the man I met, Alexander, goes around photographing the locks and has a website ( —which Google will translate for you) devoted to them. He seemed like a good guy (he tried unsuccessfully to adjust the settings on my camera to take a photo with both the lovelock and Kremlin in focus) and I’ve enjoyed exploring his website and seeing many of the locks that I remember from the bridge. It was the perfect start to what would be my best day in Russia.

I eventually found the Pushkin Fine Art Gallery (which has split into two galleries since the Lonely Planet was written). The Kacca woman was helpful and let me know that the Impressionists that I probably wanted to see were actually at the other museum next door. The highlight was finding my uncle’s favorite Renoir, “The Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary” and being reminded of the vast range of Picasso’s styles. I spent several hours enjoying room after room of artwork that I didn’t recognize by artists who I certainly did (Renoir, Picasso, Degas, Gauguin, Cezanne).

From there I went straight to the Tretyakov Gallery with room after room of artwork I recognized (well the styles at least) by artists I had never heard of. The Tretyakov has only artwork by Russians, but the styles are familiar, with portraits, landscapes, Impressionism, Cubism, etc. The Tretyakov also has laminated English pages in each room to carry around with you. I was engrossed. I spent all afternoon discovering new favorite artists and artwork. This gallery would only be in Russia, whereas the works in the Pushkin could be in nearly any major city. At one point I walked through an entire room of portraits, including several identically posed paintings of different people. I was confused until I came into the next room which had an entire wall filled with Ivanov’s masterpiece “The Appearance of Christ to the People”. All of the life-size portraits I had seen were merely studies for this larger work. I sat in the middle of the room to take it all in and looked at face after face that I recognized from the study portraits. The overwhelming size of the painting screamed “Russia!” to me, and quite unexpectedly I found that this was my favorite moment of the trip. In a photograph the scale and detail are lost and the only way to experience this colossal piece of art was to come to Moscow and sit in this room. I experienced that moment several more times through the gallery, seeing Surikov’s “Morning of the Steltsy” depicting a graphic scene from the miniseries (and history), and finding my two favorite artists Vereshchagin, with his photorealistic depictions of scenes of travel and war, and Serebryakova, whose candid scenes of her family life stood out from the rest of the modern works that I didn’t connect with.

I ate a solo dinner at the Russian chain Yolki-Polki, which was good, and a fun atmosphere (they decorate it like a Russian country cottage and the staff wear traditional outfits). It was gimmicky but I went with it since I was having such a great day. After dinner it was off to see the one-act play Eugene Onegin which I really hoped would not turn out to be a ballet in disguise. I guess it seemed a bit strange to watch a play in another language, but I remember seeing Peer Gynt at the National Theatre in Oslo during high school (granted what I remember is some of the staging where Peer escapes from the first act by climbing up the set which is built like a giant computer motherboard… perhaps it wasn’t the original interpretation of the play). Eugene Onegin (or Yevgeny Onegin in Russian) did not disappoint. While I barely picked up a word, I won’t forget the staging. The stage was a grid of eight rooms covered with curtains. The curtains served as screens to display the actor’s silhouettes, as musical instruments (when they slid them rhythmically during songs), and everything from togas to turbans to carriages (hard to explain) wrapped around the actors. One actor wore an “I ♥ Pushkin” shirt and delivered his lines while balancing atop a ball.

On several occasions the actors came into the audience. In fact Eugene Onegin himself (well if I understood who the characters were at all) came into the audience. I don’t mean he walked down the aisle. I mean he started shimmying down a row. My row in fact. He squeezed past person after person until he was 5, 4, 3, people away from me. Oh no! Did he somehow know I was the silly American who was sitting in a play without understanding a word? He had come to expose me. I prepared my “Ya Nye Pyenemayo Parusski” (I don’t understand Russian) response, and prepared for the humiliating laughter of the entire audience. I had survived the “Ass-Hole” chant as a Sox fan in the bleachers of Yankee stadium but how would I handle this? 2 people away from me. He spoke. The women next to me answered. Then he returned to the stage. I was not to have a part in this odd play after all.

The show sort of jumped the shark (as if I could tell) midway through when there was a crazed man draped in a polar-bear fur lashing out from a table in the middle of the stage. The second half dragged since the novelty of the staging was wearing off and I was now just not understanding the increasingly longer monologues. If it lasted as long as an American one-act, it would have been the best show I’d seen this year (nudging Argonautika which had a weaker second act) but it was a Russian one-act, and as such it went on for over two hours! By the end I found myself translating the program I had bought, which listed their other repertory shows… including “Gamlet” aka Hamlet. There is no “h” in Russian (there is a “kh”) and so they replace Hs with Gs. This can be pretty funny. As we learned at various points on our trip, Russians watch Gamlet, read Gary Potter, order a Gamburger at Makdonalds, and may be an alkogolic if they drink too much vodka…

<-- Day 3 Train Tickets ---- Day 5 -->