Monday, November 27, 2006

What Am I Then?

Inspired by Miss.Elaine.Eos, I have decided to find out, how Virgo I really am. Not that much, it turns out. I've always suspected that I did not possess any of the Virgo traits that are actually useful...

You are 47% Virgo

But at least I am reassured of my roots.

Your Inner European is Russian!

Mysterious and exotic.
You've got a great balance of danger and allure.

I have also found out some other interesting things about myself. For example, I am a good driver, although I still have 30% of a feminine driver in me. I am only 60% Democrat, I should learn Japanese (and my Japanese name is Souta Kimura), my pornstar name would be Jason Jizzy, I suffer from mild depression, I act 29 years old, I should never date an Aquarius (spot on!), I am Los Angeles (not San Francisco:(, and my Russian name should be Dimitri Ilya Lebedev. Funny how I chose Dimitri as my Vegas name a couple of months ago.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving. If there is one American holiday I really enjoy, this is it. To me, this is a piece of that idealized America which I admired and idealized and dreamed about as a boy. A celebration of perseverance, peace, forgiveness and success at the dusk of the year.

I like the fact that there are no greeting cards to sign, no presents to buy, and no ridiculous costumes to wear. And once a year, Thanksgiving makes me think about my family and miss it. Because this is a holiday of the last gasp of autumn, rapidly changing into winter, and the last flash of sanity before the Christmas season begins.

OK, there is also turkey involved. Turkey is not a very tasty bird, and apparently, it was not even eaten by the pilgrims at that first Thanksgiving. It’s a pain to cook, it’s huge and harsh, its skin is unchewable, and it’s usually stuffed with some unidentified mixture of produce. But thankfully, on the Thanksgiving dinners I’ve been to, there’s always plenty of other foods to eats, and I always end up stuffing myself tighter than even the biggest turkey.

I remember my first Thanksgiving about 13 years ago. My first semester in a small college in Pennsylvania was coming to an end, but after 3 months in America, I have seen very little outside of the sleepy small rural town where I was studying. And that’s when I received an invitation to visit my distant relatives in New Jersey for Thanksgiving. I managed to bum a ride, and was on my way.

I can still recall that feeling of awe and shock when I saw New York City for the first time on that visit. My aunt took me for a little excursion across the Hudson River around the Lower Manhattan. We strolled in the narrow canyons of financial streets, watched ferries depart for Statue of Liberty, and took the lift to the top of the World Trade Center. It was open-roof access at that time, and it was absolutely stunning. My aunt also took me to the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center where there was already a huge Christmas tree, Fifth Avenue, Central Park and of course, the Times Square. I must have looked like Borat, standing there with my mouth open, gazing around me in reverie of the shining neon light and billboards.

I also remember the excellent dinner at my aunt’s house. I got to see my distant Polish relatives who have lived in New Jersey for years. They were very welcoming and warm, and it was fun communicating in the mixture of Polish and English. There was vodka, lots of it, there were potatoes, there was Polish sausage, there were delicious salads, there were pickles, there were cakes and pies, and of course, turkey. I had been feeling nostalgic in my small college town, but this was as close to being home as I’d ever felt in America. It was a great Thanksgiving, and I have loved that holiday ever since.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Chinese Woodcat

When I was a young boy, my grandmother had a cat. It was a beautiful fluffy female tabby, sort of grey-ish colour. Being a village cat, she was pretty much left to her own devices most of the time and possessed all the skills of a wild cat, such as mouse hunting and self-defense. But she was also very affectionate and trusting to people. She really enjoyed being stroked and would immediately purr when taken on lap, which I used to do quite a lot when I was at my grandmother’s, which was practically every summer.

Her only affiliation with my grandmother’s house was food scraps she was given from the table. She was not allowed to spend the night in the house, she was often a nuisance in the kitchen at daytime, and only occasionally would she receive the human attention she wanted.

The cat (Kisa was her name, which is sort of generic Russian for “Pussy”) had kittens at least once a year. Not many; usually just two or three, and a lot of time only one would survive. They were beautiful kittens usually, with either smoky or black fluffy fur, depending on who the father was that particular year. We’d normally try to give them away, but sometimes there would be nobody who wanted them, and my grandmother didn’t want another meowing cat around the house. That’s when my uncle would do the job of drowning the kittens in a nearby lake.

When I was 11 or 12, it suddenly occurred to me: why not sell the kittens at the pet market in Minsk? This way, everybody would be happy – my grandmother, who wouldn’t have to deal with any extra cats in the kitchen, the kittens themselves who would be spared an imminent death, my uncle who wouldn’t have to come to the village from his nearby small town, and myself, who would feel proud as a cat savior and earn a few rubles for pocket expenses.

The first kitten I sold was so pretty we actually kept it in our apartment in Minsk for a few days. It had a very fluffy, soft smoky-black fur and dark blue button-like eyes. Although my mother was always against pets in the city, even she liked the kitten and didn’t mind him in the flat on the condition of being washed with a flea shampoo. The flea shampoo was so stinky that the poor kitten, whose fur was full of horrible stench, was suffering and even vomited several times around the apartment. I took it to the pet market the next day.

Storozhovka Pet market in Minsk was only open on Sundays, but it was a remarkable place. At that time, Minsk did not have a zoo, so for those children who did not have grandmothers in a village or who could not have pets at home, it was the only place where they could look at and pet live animals. There were babushkas selling kittens by a dozen; greedy breeders with puppies of huskies and German shepherds, with devoted yet sad bitches standing by as witness to the purity of breed; alcoholics trying to sell stray teenage puppies they found at dumpsters; old men with chickens, ducks and geese, and little yellow chicks, ducklings and gooselings (?); men selling goats for milk and even an occasional sheep. All that meowing, barking, yelping, bleating, quacking and cock-a-doodle-dooing blended into one happy cacophony, and I loved few things better than visiting Storozhovka.

When I brought the kitten and took it out of my coat, almost within a minute there was a young couple next to me. “What a cute kitten!” said the woman. “Can we buy it, can we buy it?”

It was obvious the man liked it, too. “How much?” he asked. I didn’t have time to think of the good price, and I said, “Five rubles”. He almost immediately agreed, handed me the money and the happy woman took the kitten in her hands. As I watched them walk away, clutching the kitten next to their faces, I was astonished at how easy it proved to be and that I could have probably asked a good 20 rubles for such a pretty kitten. I was also a little sad I wouldn’t see the kitten again.

The story of my successful sale of the kitten spread quickly in the village. It was told and re-told by my proud mother and grandmother, and soon I was offered kittens from other feral cats in the village. None were as pretty as Kisa’s kittens, but nevertheless, inspired by the early success, I spent a good few Sundays trafficking and selling kittens.

I would wake up early in the morning to make it to the market at reasonable time. The train stop for Minsk was about 4 kilometers from my grandma’s house. I would put kittens into a sack if it was one or two, or a woven basket if it was more than that. My grandmother was reluctant to lend me the basket which was apparently very important to her, as she was skeptical about my whole kitten enterprise. Nevertheless, I would hang the sack of the basket on the bicycle, ride it to the station and take an hour and a half journey to Minsk. Some kittens were very quiet and slept all the way. Others were very loud and persistent in their desire to find their estranged mother. I would normally have some bread and pig’s fat for them, as they would normally be old enough to eat that, but a lot of time they would try to crawl out of the sack, mew at the other passengers and cause nuisance. To keep them warm, I would put them in the inside pocket of my jacket, and they would crawl out and poke around and try to climb into my sleeves. Most passengers didn’t mind the commotion, though.

Then I would take a tram from the train station in Minsk to the Pet market, and finally, arrive into the usual hustle and bustle. I became pretty savvy with pricing kittens. People liked fluffy ones better than short-haired ones, and as one-toned as possible. Eyes were important – blue were particularly in demand. If you were a short-haired striped kitten with yellow eyes, you had very little chance of being sold for any good money, but usually, I would sell them nonetheless to some kids for a couple of rubles, even if it took me all day of standing at the market and advertising. I even adopted the chant of a woman that I saw at the market every Sunday, who probably made living selling stray cats. “Kotiki, kotiki, barhatnyie zhivotiki!” – “Kittens, kittens, velvet tummies!” It rhymes a little better in Russian. One time I got as much as 25 rubles for a very cute grey fluffy kitten that looked like a tiny living teddy bear. 25 rubles was almost too much money for my mother to allow me to keep, but I kept it nevertheless.

Once I had a kitten with me that was a bit of a deadweight. It was not quite all right after it was born: its head was too big, and its tiny body was too skinny and not very fluffy. Its eyes were narrow, as if they have not quite opened fully. It was also a screamer.

When I brought it to the market, some alcoholic told me, “Son, you know what the right price is for that cat? 50 kopecks.” That’s half a ruble and would not have even covered the train ticket price. Still, I stood there with that kitten, asking probably 4 or 5 rubles for it. Surprisingly, its grotesque physique generated considerable interest among the public. People were stopping, asking me what kind of a cat it was. Just because I was selling the kittens, people treated me as a cat expert, so I told them it was a Chinese woodcat - probably because of its narrow, slanted eyes. I couldn’t believe how many people took it completely seriously. Finally, I was able to pull it off and sell it for way more than I hoped for – definitely more than 50 kopecks. I was happy I didn’t have to dump that kitten off at some house and run away.

Once I did have to do it, though. I had a batch of very boring kittens – they were mousy grey, with stripes and very short fur. I stood at the market till it closed trying to sell them, but to no avail. I couldn’t bring them back to the village, and I certainly couldn’t show up with them at our apartment in Minsk. So I just let them out of the sack in the bushes near somebody’s house. To this day I like to think that they somehow survived.

After that, it became harder and harder to sell kittens, almost as if something changed. The following winter, Kisa, my favourite cat ever, disappeared. She must have died of cold or starvation, as my grandmother was spending lots of time with her relatives in Poland, and nobody of the grown-ups wanted to take her to their houses for the winter. The rest of the villagers got jealous of my earlier successes with selling kittens, and would no longer give me their kittens. And so I never sold kittens again.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Old Travel Diaries: Barcelona, November 2004

On my Krakow project, I had a bit of bad luck with the Barcelona trip. I've tried unsuccessfully to go there several weekends in a row, but somethign always prevented it: lack of tickets, huge thunderstorm in Krakow or just better things to do. Before I finally made it out there, I had heard so much about the place that I was actually quite excited to go. However, the trip turned out rather average. I suppose it always does with places which are a bit overhyped – it’s not easy for them to live up to expectations in the course of one weekend and me being on my own. The hostel I booked was not busy, and it was hotel-style – double/triple rooms all over the building with hardly any communal area. I did meet 2 Finnish girls in the canteen downstairs, but they seemed to have had a rather busy schedule, and I have not spent any time with them.

So, I just hung out on my own. Ramblas was nearby, and it was everything they said it was – busy, bustling, full of tourist traps and streetlife. The first night, I fell for one of those traps – set menu at some restaurant, which was way overpriced for the lousy quality that it was.

Nightlife in Barcelona was overrated, too – people simply go out too late for an old fart like me. At 2 am, when it seems to peak, I am ready to go to sleep. So I didn’t go anywhere on my first night.

My hotel was situated in Barrio Gothic - a truly old part of central Barcelona. It turned out to be almost the best part of the entire city, at least for me. I absolutely loved walking around the dark narrow streets, enjoying the light contrasts and taking photos of people disappearing in the distance of the alleyways.

The next day, I did the obligatory Gaudi sightseeing. Before that, I fell for another tourist trap – a tourist bus ticket. Bad idea – overpriced again, and then you are stuck trying to make most of the spent money, while you could move around much faster in the metro. I suppose the tourist bus is more for the dumb Americans who cannot navigate a metro system in New York, let alone in a foreign city, but more likely, it’s for naïve pensioners who fall for the scary stories of salesgirls about the complexities of Barcelona’s public transport.
Nevertheless – ticket in hand, I was on my way around the Gaudi town. Have to admit – apart from Sagrada Familia, Gaudi is overrated and in effect is another tourist trap. I visited Casa Pedrera and Casa Batllo, of which the latter was a better choice. Funky indeed, but certainly not deserving the genialization and extreme praise the audio guides were offering. Casa Pedrero was actually quite boring.

Now, Sagrada Familia is indeed a breathtaking structure. Its towers are everything you had seen from the photos and more. Unfortunately, Sagrada Familia is also far from being completed, yet the queues for the towers are huge, with most of the waiting happening inside the tight claustrophobic tower corridors. But once past the waiting, the maze of walkways upstairs and views from the narrow windows are impressive indeed. I spent a good couple of hours meagring from tower to tower on endless walkways and tiny passageways. I might have even taken a leak inside of one of them in-between groups of people for the lack of any other option.

I was also quite impressed by the Picasso Museum. Not being a fan of the late artist at all, I was rather surprised to discover that he indeed had an outstanding artistic talent which he unfortunately stopped putting to use aged about 22.

On Saturday night, I met 2 English girls, and we ended up spending quite a bit of time together. One of them was cuter than the other, and naturally less friendly, although both of them were all right, just a tad snobbish. We also met on Sunday by the cathedral, and then again for dinner – one of the nicer dinners I had had on my travels, in a smart-stylish place on Ramblas. Kind of reminded me of a restaurant in San Francisco, also named Ramblas, serving faux Catalan fare although rather good.

And that was really about it. On the night before I flew back to Krakow, I made a short stop at the Miro Museum, which actually turned out pretty good, despite the fact that I am - again - not a fan of the artist at all. But it was closing, so I did not see the entire exhibition. I also made it to the city beach, which was really not that impressive. Overall, Barcelona is a pleasant and even a beautiful city, but somewhat overhyped in my opinion. Perhaps it was a case of overblown expectations, or maybe it was just the November blues. I think, however, had shopping been my travelling agenda, I would have had a lot more fun there.