Monday, October 30, 2006

Borat - the Movie Review

I was fortunate enough to attend the pre-screening of "Borat"-the movie last Thursday - a week before its official release in the US.

I have to say, it was one of the most hilarious films I have ever seen. I must have got a year's worth of laughter: during one sequence, I must have laughed non-stop for 15 minutes, with tears on my eyes, the whole lot. You'll know the scene I am talking about when you see the movie, but let me just say, it involves 2 naked men and a lot of unaware bystanders.

Unlike many people in America, I am actually well familiar with Borat's work from "Da Ali G Show". I love Borat's skits on unassuming Americans, when he makes total idiots out of people with a serious face. He particularly likes embarrassing Americans, who have absolutely no clue about Kazakhstan and take everything he says for face value, by trying to kiss them at greeting, making totally politically incorrect remarques, putting them in very dubious situations and flirting with women left and right. He does, after all, have a very big "khram" and he is Kazakhstan's 6th most famous person.

So the movie is largely based on those skits, assembled in a sequence according to the basic plot: Borat goes to America to explore its culture with hopes to find it useful for his own nation. Of course, a movie would not be a movie produced by a bunch of Americans if it didn't have a fairly primitive sub-plot involving a lady, but that's a minor drawback. The bigger criticism is that some of the circumstances from this sub-plot have not been developed to their full potential in the movie, such as scenes with frat boys, for instance. The same can be said about some of the interviews with more well-known people, which could have been given more footage.

But I suppose Baron Cohen did not want to make his movie overly political. It has enough jokes as it is to make most Americans raise eyebrows in disbelief: here's your anti-semitism, homophobia, misogynism, all sorts of racial bigotry. These are just some of the things that Americans are afraid to talk about ever in public, and Borat, being from a "foreign" culture, gets away with making these jokes loud and clear (and with a funny accent). By the hysterical laughter in the audience, I can conclude that Americans have themselves got tired of politically correct rules they have imposed on themselves and that it is time for humour to become funny again, rather than the toothless, cowardly comedy that white men in the US are allowed to do.

So, mimicking Borat, I give my two thumbs and a grin to the movie.

In fact, I still laugh out loud when I recall certain scenes from it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Old Travel Diaries: Copenhagen, October 2004

So I decided to go Copenhagen to see the city and visit Mette - a girl I met some time last June in San Francisco. We hung out with her and her friend in Anu and then 1015 - they were students returning from a semester in Washington and doing the American sightseeing. We had a good time and exchanged information, which I have to admit, I haven't used much.

Still, when I re-opened the contact with her when I came to Krakow, she immediately invited me to visit her in Copenhagen.

And so I booked my flight - a direct one from Krakow, for a change. It was very convenient, actually. I was in the Danish capital by 3 pm. Mette instructed me how to get to her area of town by train, and then she met me at the station. I was a little worried I might not recognize her after almost half a year and having seen her very briefly and mostly at night. But we both recognized each other straight away.

We went for a quick walk, despite the light drizzle. However, thanks precisely to the rain, the Little Mermaid - only 10 minutes walk from Mette's place - was almost deserted, quite unusually, as she'’s normally surrounded by scores of tourists with cameras. It's sad, really, that Copenhagen's most famous sight is a less-than human sized simple sculpture of a girl with a fishtail facing into the industrial harbour. We also checked out some of the sights I once briefly say 11 years ago, on my first trip to Denmark (and Western Europe). As I only spent less than 2 days in Copenhagen back then, I almost forgot about most of the sights. Granted, most of them are rather modest. Nyhavn, a canal with some of the most picture-perfect houses in the city, was more like a construction site - they were renovating something. Mette and I had a beer, which was some of the most expensive I ever had (7 Euros each), and that definitely helped breaking the ice a little bit.

Then we came back and went for dinner at Mette's student dorm (disgusting food, really), and met some of her friends. One of them - a guy named Christian - seemed to be her best friend. He apparently had heard about me, and we sort of hit it off relatively quickly. He was very friendly, smart and like most Danes, spoke very good English.

Later, Mette managed to borrow a bike for me, and the 3 of us - she, Christian and I -– drove off to some big student party. It was weird riding a bike through the whole city, but apparently, public transport, as alcohol, is beyond most students' means in Scandinavia. At the party, however, drinks were reasonably cheap, and it was fun for me to watch the young Danes, a small but proud and fun-loving people, enjoy themselves.

The next day was drizzly again, and we decided to go to some museums. The National Museum was quite nice and interesting. They had a curious exhibit of old art alongside modern paintings on similar themes. Very impressive.

Then we met up again with Christian who had some kind of a date with an extremely dorky and skinny English PhD student, and we did a bit more sightseeing of the evening Copenhagen.

I kept asking Mette anbd Christian for something traditional Danish to eat, and we came to a rather stuck-up restaurant full of elderly people in suits and ties. Mette and Christian kept giggling about how funny this whole thing was to them. They must never normally come to that sort of establishments. Then we tried to hit the nightlife, but again, the prices were dear, and we had to reject some bars and clubs. Finally, we ended up in a rather OK club, where we even danced a little bit and had a couple of drinks.

On Sunday, Christian had to do studying, so Mette suggested we borrowed her parents'’ car and drove around a bit. It sounded like a good idea to me, and we took a train to a suburb where her parents lived. They were not at home, her brother was though. He’s a young fellow, looking a bit different-– dark hair and all. Mette's father's Hungarian, and he must look more like him than she does.

We drove to a relatively well-known museum of modern art in Humlebaek -– Louisiana. It's part indoors, part outdoors. The exhibit was just the right size - manageable without being too tiring, and we had a lovely light lunch in the cafeteria there. I must say that some of the best shots in this whole trip so far were taken on that day. Louisiana overlooks Oresund, the straight between Denmark and Sweden, and the cloudy weather was actually very photogenic. I ended up having a whole series of photos of Oresund, as this was the closest to any nature trip I had taken since I arrived to Poland.

This was a special trip in other aspects, too. Denmark had always occupied a part in my heart dearer than most other countries. This was the place I visited back in 1993, still a teenager, when I, by a total fluke, got an opportunity to work for a beekeeper Hans Roy for the summer. I actually had to go to Moscow to get the visa, as I was really excited indeed about it. I had been to Poland prior to that, which barely counted as a trip abroad, and of course in the US, but never in Western Europe.

I remember how Denmark struck me as almost a fairy-tale land, a toy country. Everything was small and tidy, highly organized, but pleasant, clean, tasty and nice. Except the weather, which was unusually cold that summer. On some days, it was as low as 13 degrees. As a result, many flowers were not in bloom, the bees were hungry and unproductive, and Hans was angry and grumpy. He was a bit strict with me, and I didn't really feel too happy. I was staying at his house in Ringkjobing, on the west coast of Jutland, which was picturesque, and the town was cute, at least for me who until then had never really seen any Northern European towns. But I got quickly bored. There was nothing to do after 5 pm when the work was finished. Hans liked to sit at home and read newspapers after work. He did take me to a couple of local happenings, such as an air show or a parade. I actually got to fly on a 2-seater plane, which was very cool, although back then I had no idea how much people normally pay for such a pleasure, so I probably didn't appreciate it as much. I remember a Latvian girl, called I believe Liga, who I almost fell in love with upon a brief encounter or two. She was a worker with another beekeeper like me, but unlike me, she spoke fluent Danish. I was really smitten with her actually, but nothing much happened between the two of us. The other beekeeper stopped coming to us, and I had never seen or heard from her again.

Then I took up to hitchhike every weekend to cities nearby - Herning, Holstebro, Esbjerg, Skjern. It was surprisingly easy. I would prepare placards with a name of a place I wanted to go to, and people would frequently just pick me up. I must have looked pretty innocent at 18. Everybody spoke English, and as I told people about myself, they often treated me with beer, food or even offered me money, as one old couple did. Alas, these times are long gone... I'd like to see myself try to hitch a ride now.

Still, these trips were not without risk. The risk that one day I would not be able to find the ride back. Mind, I had to take one-day trips as I could'’t exactly afford a hotel or even a hostel. Hans was paying me the equivalent of about $100 a month, which seemed like a lot of money to me, and it would be in Belarus, but Denmark has always been one of the most expensive countries. As the circle of my cities expanded - I got cheeky enough to hitchhike to Viborg, Aarhus, Kolding, Vejle, Ribe.– I once got stuck as I could not pick up a ride. It was late and dark, and I had to make that difficult call to Ringkobing to ask Hans to get me out of Herning. Fortunately, it was only about 40 minutes away. Still, I must have got him out of his bed, as he barely spoke to me after that.

Another highlight of my stay with Hans was a couple of times we went to a tiny island of Avernako south of Funen, where he kept a colony of bees for breeding purposes. No other bees were allowed on the island except his. It was interesting getting up early, driving across the country, and going there on a ferry.

So there were plenty of differences between that Danish trip and this recent one. I could actually afford to go out, eat out and visit the sights this time. I was not bothered by the sound of passing cars. And I even had a Danish girl that was taking and showing me around.

So overall, this was an unusual and a special trip. Mette and I parted as good friends, and we still email each other. Heck, she invites me back already.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Second Chances

Destiny. I mean, what exactly is it? Who can ever say – this person or this job or this opportunity is your destiny? Nobody. We simply do not know. We all love talking about it though, but almost always in the past tense. We can all be geniuses in hindsight. But no matter how smart we are, we can be staring that fateful person in the eye and not recognize the destiny they are about to bring upon us. We can refuse an opportunity that could change our lives forever. And – not even flinch. Because unless we took it, we simply would never know.

Only on rare occasions does life allow is second chances. And those can present us with choices that are truly life-defining. And we can make informed decisions for once, because the past is suddenly ahead of us once again. The past can become future.

And yet again and again, we reject second chances. We refuse the luxury of having knowledge about what can happen next. Our eternal quest for uncertainty has the best of us.

Second chances. I wish all of us had more of those. And I wish we would take them more often.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

1000 Places to See Before You Die?

So Miss Elaine and I had an argument about the 1000 places to See Before You Die list. She did not seem to mind the fact that the list is VERY heavily Euro-centric, which would not be a problem by itself if Patricia Schultz did not list almost every street corner in London, Paris and Rome as places to see before you die. She almost completely ignored Eastern Europe, and even all of Russia had only about 10 entries. She focused heavily on hotels and restaurants; something of which very few should be a must-see before you die in my opinion. Places like Angkor and Machu Picchu were listed as one, although they take days to discover and usually consist of several parts, each definitely worthy of a mentioning.

Finally, it's one thing Schultz did not put Minsk, Belarus on her list. I can understand her western naivete here. But what about Kiev? Vilnius? Tallinn? Even in San Francisco, America's most beautiful city, she listed only the Cable Car tour! No Golden Gate or Bay Bridge, no Lombard Street, no sealions at the Fisherman's Wharf, no view from Twin Peaks or even Sequoia groves and parks in Northern California. Appalling.

Well, it is still a list, and a travel one at that, so I did go into the labour of finding it online (I would never buy such a book), and compared my own travel achievements to date. Turns out, I visited a whole of 206 places from the list so far. And yes, I have to admit she does mention world's most important sights overall, if a but skewed up. So, here you go.

Great Britain:

1. Tower of London

2. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

3. Lands End

4. London

5. Winchester Cathedral

6. Hadrian's Wall

7. Cotswolds

8. Canterbury Cathedral

9. Lake District

10. British Museum

11. Hyde Park

12. National Gallery

13. Tate Modern

14. Tate Britain

15. Westminster Abbey

16. Portobello Rd, London

17. Regent's Park, London

18. Oxford University

19. Bath

20. Stratford-upon-Avon

21. Warwick Castle

22. Salisbury Cathedral

23. Stonehenge

24. York Minster

25. Isle of Skye

26. Na H-Eileanan Siar (Scotland)

27. Edinburgh Castle

28. Caernarfon Castle, Wales


29. Dublin Pubs

30. Connemara

31. Galway

32. Dingle Peninsula

33. Ring of Kerry

34. Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland


35. Vienna,

36. Stephansdom, Vienna


37. Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp

38. Bruges

39. Grand Place, Brussels


40. Mont St. Michel

41. Paris

42. Arc de Triomphe, Paris

43. Sacre Coeur, Paris

44. Centre Pompidou, Paris

45. Tour Eiffel

46. Louvre

47. Musee D'Orsay, Paris

48. Notre Dame, Paris

49. Bastille Day in Paris

50. Ile St. Louis, Paris

51. Jardins des Tuileries, Paris

52. Place des Vosges, Paris

53. Ste. Chapelle, Paris

54. Chartres cathedral

55. Versailles

56. Loire Valley

57. Antibes

58. Vieux Nice


59. Grand Casino, Monte Carlo


60. Branderburger Tor

61. Museuminsel, Berlin

62. Agyptisches Museum, Berlin


63. Crete

64. Santorini

65. The Acropolis, Athens

66. National Archaeology Museum, Athens


67. National Archaeology Museum, Naples

68. Pompeii

69. Roma

70. Galleria Borghese

71. Colosseo

72. Foro Romano

73. Spanish Steps

74. Trevi Fountain

75. Vatican

76. Campo dei Fiori, Roma

77. Via dei Condotti, Roma

78. Sistine Chapel

79. Firenze

80. Galleria dell Academia, Firenze

81. Duomo di Firenze

82. Ponte Vecchio, Firenze

83. Piazza del Campo, Siena

84. Venice

85. Galleria dell Academia, Venice

86. Chiesa dei frari, Venice

87. Doge's palace, Venice

88. Grand Canal, Venice

89. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

90. Basilica San Marco, Venice

91. Piazza San Marco, Venice

92. Museo San Marco, venice

93. Torcello


94. Canal Cruise, Amsterdam

95. Keukenhof

96. Oude Kerk, Amsterdam

97. Red Light District, Amsterdam

98. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

99. Van gogh Museum, Amsterdam

100. Kroller-Muller museum, holland

101. Delft


102. Evora


103. Sevilla

104. Sagrada familia, Barcelona

105. Madrid

106. Museo del Prado, Madrid

107. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


108. Lucerne festival

Czech Republic:

109. Hradcany, Prague

110. Karluv Most, Prague

111. Staromestske Namesti, Prague


112. Castle Hill, Budapest

113. Gellert (Szecenyi) Baths, Budapest


114. Rynek Glowny, Krakow

115. Wawel, Krakow


116. Armory, Moscow

117. Red Square

118. Moscow Metro

119. Tretyakov Gallery

120. Hermitage, St. Petersburg

121. Pavlovsk

122. Petrodvorets


123. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

124. Tivoli, Copenhagen

125. Louisiana Museum

126. Odense


127. The Ring Road


128. Essaouira

129. Fes

130. Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

131. The Great Sahara

South Africa:

132. Phinda reserve,

133. Drakensberg


134. Victoria Peak, Hong Kong


135. Palace of Winds, Jaipur

136. Taj Mahal


137. Angkor Wat


138. Ayuthaya

139. Ancient Thai Massage, Bangkok

140. Grand Palace, Bangkok

141. Hill tribes

142. Ko Phi Phi

143. Phanggna Bay

144. Phuket


145. Getty Museum, LA

146. Hollywood

147. Monterey Peninsula

148. PC Highway, California

149. Cable Car, SF

150. Napa Valley

151. Sonoma Valley

152. Yosemite

153. Disney World, Florida

154. Savannah, Georgia

155. Oahu, Hawaii

156. Chesapeake Bay

157. Legal Sea Foods, Boston

158. Cape Cod

159. Nantucket

160. Bellagio, Las Vegas

161. The Strip, Las Vegas

162. NYC

163. Central Park, NYC

164. Empire State bldg, NYC

165. The Met, NYC

166. MOMA, NYC

167. Rockefeller center at Christmas, NYC

168. Statue of Liberty, NY

169. Ellis island, NY

170. Times Square

171. 42nd Street, NYC

172. Brooklyn Bridge

173. Grand Central Terminal, NYC

174. Lower Manhattan, NYC

175. World Fin center plaza, NYC

176. Museum mile, NYC

177. Outer Banks, North Carolina

178. Oregon coast

179. Crater Lake

180. Cliff walk, Rhode Island

181. Shenandoah NP, Virginia

182. San Juan Islands, Washington

183. Pike Place market, Seattle

184. The Mall, DC

185. Smithsonian, DC

186. Whitewater rafting, West Virginia


187. Whistler, BC

188. Sun Yat-sen park, Vancouver

189. Granville Island, Vancouver

190. Pacific Rim NP, BC

191. Royal BC museum, Victoria

192. Vieux Montreal


193. Chichen Itza, Mexico


194. Recoleta, Buenos Aires

195. Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires

196. Iguazu falls

197. Glaciar Perito Moreno

198. Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

199. Bariloche


200. Pantanal

201. Paraty

202. Carnival, Rio

203. Corcovado, Rio

204. Ipanema beach, Rio


205. Torres del Paine


206. Colonia de Sacramento