Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Uncle Sergey

When I was 14 years old, my mother left me all by myself for the first time in my life. She had an opportunity to go to England for her teacher’s training for 4 months, and after much hesitation and considerations, it was decided by the family that I could support myself for that time.

It was a school time, so I had to be in Minsk, and pretty much fend for myself. My mom left me a few easy recipes, and my aunt would send some food in jars with my older cousin, who would come each week for his studies from their small town in the province.

I won’t lie; it was a difficult time for me. I had always been a loner but never quite as alone. I missed my mom, and living by myself was unusual, strange and hard. I would come home to the empty apartment, do my homework, watch whatever was on 2 channels of TV, cook some food and go to bed. My mother wrote letters to me, and it was a tremendous joy to open the mailbox and find a letter from her. Weekends would be particularly hard: there was no school, my cousin would be at home with his mother, there was no mail and I would spend the entire days in the apartment, counting minutes till the new week.

My mother left for England in the mid-August; she was due to return some time around Christmas. One weekend, at around the end of November, I suddenly got a phone call from uncle Sergey, my aunt’s husband and my cousin’s dad. My aunt was in the hospital for several days for some checkups, and my cousin Yura was away on some school trip, so he was lonely, too. He invited me over to his house in Stolbtsy for the weekend.

This was strange indeed to me. My uncle Sergey was a burly, grumpy, sombre man. He was never known for any kind of affection, care or any other feelings. My aunt spent her life fighting him and his alcohol addiction and anger bouts. My grandmother has always nagged him for being lazy and drinking too much, and even my cousin has been closer to his mom than his dad. In other words, uncle Sergey was somewhat of an outcast of the family. His relation with me has not been exactly non-existent, but very marginal. He would semi-jokingly threaten to punish me whenever I would forget not to throw toilet paper into their commode (which would clog it), and made fun of my lack of physical stature, but one thing we did together was solving crossword puzzles. I was a clever boy in my preteen years, and uncle Sergey would get a new crossword puzzle several times a week with his newspaper.

“Why don’t you come over, Zhenik?” he said on the phone. “Aunt Ira’s gone, it would be just you and I, no women, no yelling or nagging. We’d watch some TV and solve crossword puzzles. There’s food here, so don’t worry, you won’t be hungry.”

I hesitated for just a little (it was, after all, weird to be at my aunt’s house without anyone but my uncle around), but then agreed. I packed my little backpack, locked the door and went to the railway station by the city bus.

It was already cold and snowy. I took the late Friday evening train to the town where he lived. The train journey was only about two hours long, but it was a world apart from my Minsk life. It got dark early, and I could hardly see anything but snow through the icy window of the frigid train. I bundled up, trying to read my book, Jack London’s “Martin Eden”, and keep warm on the hardwood seat of the suburban train Minsk-Baranovichi.

My uncle’s house was another 15 minutes walk through the snowy path from the station. I tried to keep my feet dry, which was difficult in a foot-deep snow and dim lights of the small town in midnight. When I arrived, uncle Sergey was happy to see me; in fact, happier than I had ever seen him before. He warmed up some buckwheat porridge and pork chops, and opened some fruit compote for me, He was very friendly, and cracked funny jokes as we sat together, watching late night TV in his well-warmed living room.

Uncle Sergey made bed for me in my cousin’s room, and I slept so well; in fact, better than I had ever slept since my mother departed for England almost 4 months before. I slept in late the next morning, and my uncle made breakfast and tea. The day was frosty but sunny, and we had spent it watching more of TV, reading, solving crossword puzzles and playing with the cat. It was beautiful and snowy outside, and it was quiet and peaceful in the house, without the usual hustle and bustle whenever my aunt, my mom and my grandma were around. Later in the evening, uncle Sergey made dinner, and we again, watched TV and solved crosswords.

I left back for Minsk on Sunday, ready to spend the remaining couple of weeks before my mom’s arrival in good spirit. That weekend was the only time I had ever spent with my uncle. He went on being his old lazy alcoholic self, at least according to my aunt and my grandmother. When I saw him last on my trip home a couple of years ago, he was a frail shadow of his former self. He died of diabetes complications on Christmas day, shortly thereafter.

I don’t remember many specifics about being in my early teens, but that weekend with my uncle stuck in my memory, with all the smallest details. It was certainly the best time I had of those miserable four months that I was alone.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Top 10 Dos and Don'ts London

I wrote this review a while ago on Epinions. Well, here it is on my blog for any of you who might be going to the Foggy Albion any time soon.

There is no good way to describe this city in the scope of a simple review. There is also hardly a way to form an opinion about it from one, two or even three visits. One needs to spend some significant time in Europe's largest city to begin to appreciate it's goods and bads. And there are plenty of both!
I spent the total of about 8 months in London, both on business and pleasure. What can I say?
First off, it's big. Make it huge. Since most buildings are not very tall, the city spread out sideways, and now it takes a good 2 hours by tube to ride from one end to another. But few visitors need to do that. Most concentrate on Central London's treasures, all within the Circle Line of the Underground. Still, that is a large area stretching for miles and miles.

Since most people who would read this review are probably planning a relatively short-term trip, may I suggest my 10 do's and dont's lists, based on personal experience.

The 'Dos':
1. Get a Time Out London - your best source of what's going on around town.
2. See a show. Whether a musical or a play, West End offers world's best theatre. Get your discount tickets on Leicester Square.
3. Go to a nightclub. I can speak for house music - Ministry of Sound, Fabric, Home, The Cross are just the few that come to mind. Never mind the steep entry fee - London's DJs still dictate what's hot in electronica. There's also plenty of clubs of other music styles.
4. Get a weekend (day) travel card. It will save you lots of money on tube and buses fares which can otherwise be way over the top. Beware of multiple delays on tube each day as well as periodic strikes!
5. Remember to visit the free sights - National Gallery, Tate, Tate Modern, British Museum. You can also visit a Parliament session - it's quite entertaining. Of course, the sights where you have to pay are just as great. London Eye and the Tower of London are the ones that come to mind. Not to mention Westminster Abbey - the definite must.
6. Go to Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park on Sunday morning. Truly a democracy in action!
7. Try some traditional English food. Despite what you may hear, it's hearty and tasty. Chimes restaurant in Pimlico is one of the best places, but any pub grub would do. Indian food is great too!
8. Do a guided theme walk. They are listed in Time Out and are a nice way to learn the insights about London and maybe even meet some fellow travellers.
9. Do your shopping on Oxford and Regent streets. It may be more expensive with the strong pound, but the choices are great. Selfridges is a good department store, while Harrods is good mostly for window shopping.
10. If you stay over 4 days, try to get away for a day. Take a trip to Salisbury and Stonehenge, or Eaton and Windsor, or Dover, or Oxford, or Cambridge - choices are great and English countryside is charming.

Now, the "Dont's":

1. Don't expect a stress-free visit. London, as any large city, has its crowds, its rudeness, its impatience, especially with foreigners. Bear with it.
2. Don't exaggerate your walking ability when in London. It's tiring, so plan to use public transport and wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Shorts won't do. Few European women and even fewer men wear them, so they'd know where you are from before you open your mouth.
3. Don't ask stupid questions loudly. They only contribute to a rather unfavourable image of American tourists. What else can an Englishman feel when asked at Oxford Circus, 'which direction is Oxford University?'
4. Don't get in a minicab (illegal taxi) without firmly negotiating a price first. These drivers may not pay their tax, but they are very convenient late at night when no black cabs are in sight. But they know it all about screwing a tourist, so be firm and don't hesitate to refuse excess fare.
5. Don't, if possible, visit the major sights on a weekend. In addition to tourists, there'd be day-trippers and school groups from the surroundings.
6. Don't overtip. Tipping is indeed optional in Britain, and not always expected. Certainly do not tip a bartender for a bottle of beer. I don't think you should in any place, but that's my personal opinion. Tip for a cocktail, though.
7. Don't openly take pictures of punks on Piccadilly Circus. They may break your camera 'by accident'.
8. Don't buy tube tickets from touts. Often they are expired, and besides, you can get cited for it.
9. Don't bother seeing a movie in the West End. Hugely overpriced, it's no different from a cinema in a shopping mall in your home town.
10. Don't let the weather ruin it for you! Take it as a part of London's life, and besides, it rains 4 times less there than in Chicago anyway!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

This time 7 years ago

7:40 am in LA is a strange time and place to wake up with nostalgia for Europe, but that is precisely what happened this morning. I must have been dreaming about that page in my past, because when I finally managed to open my eyelids, in my mind, I was not in California, but in an unidentified, but definitively European city, cathedral bells, bicycles and drizzle and all.

Once again, my mind was racing on a decrepit ladies’ bicycle through the cobbled streets of Loenen aan de Vecht, a village near Amsterdam, which happened to be my home base during my 3 years in Europe. I was rushing to buy cheese and smoked fish at the street market underneath the tall church tower, which was leaning not quite so slightly, much like its infinitely more famous counterpart in Pisa…

It was chilly and drizzly outside – a normal Dutch weather, but the geese and seagulls at the numerous nearby canals were feeling quite comfortably. During the rare days of sunshine, I would take a half-hour bus journey to Amsterdam, just to walk around, or visit a museum, eat some Indonesian sate and have a glass or two of Hoegaarden at the Three Sisters bar on Rembrandtplein.

Or, if I felt as if Loenen was not pastoral enough, I would drive an hour and a half in any direction, across the ever pancake-flat Dutch terrain, either north to Alkmaar with its cheese fairs, or even further north to the North Sea islands of Texel or Terschelling, or east to Hoge Weluwe, a patch of forest and sand dunes in the middle of the country, or south to Utrecht, or west to Leiden and Delft, beautiful old towns.

Later on, I briefly moved to Rotterdam, a bustling industrial city with vast expanses of its port, which I never particularly liked, but that was towards the end of my European tenure and I didn’t care as much, especially after my beaten up bike was stolen (and no doubt resold to another sucker). Holland was a strange country for me – I liked it for its coziness and solidity and liberalism, yet it never felt like home to me. I never learned Dutch, I hated the sound of it and I never made any real Dutch friends. But that was OK, as I was traveling so frequently around Europe I hardly had time to be lonely.

And once again, as I was waking up this morning, the ring of bicycle bells from Amsterdam transformed in my ears into the cacophony of honking of scooters in Paris, the smell of croissants and Nutella in Basel morphed into the pungent aroma of vindaloo in London, taste of Leffe beer in Luxembourg faded into flavour of Chianti in Venice, and feel of frigid drizzle on my skin in Glasgow mercifully changed into sweaty relaxation of a steam sauna in Rotterdam as I tucked myself into the blanket many thousand miles away and so many summers later.

My 3 years in Europe seem like a kaleidoscope of first impressions now – a long, pleasurable yet undoubtedly transient time in my life. I do not think about it as much as I used to, as it is so much harder to relate to Europe in San Francisco, a city that is dominated by its strange, alien Asian culture, which I will never understand. As I am failing to integrate, I am steadily losing my connections to my roots, and as I discover other parts of the world, I am missing behind what I used to love and where I used to live, perhaps where I will never return to.

My snoozer alarm went off once again. I turned on the TV, where a chirpy newswoman was reporting, with much excitement, about a DIY arrest of Nicole Richie. Behind the window, a traffic jam of SUVs was steadily forming and enlarging all the way to Hollywood and Highland. Overweight tourists in shorts with digital cameras were already flocking this barely walkable patch of Los Angeles. I had a meeting to go to, and had not even ironed my short yet. It was time to get up.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Cuba - A Journey in Time. Part 3 (Cienfuegos)

By day 4, I was ready to leave Habana. I knew I’d be back before I left Cuba, so it wasn’t a farewell. I was determined and excited to see more Cuba, and so there I was, on the Habana-Trinidad Viazul bus.

Now, technically, there are two inter-city bus companies in Cuba (not to mention the unaffiliated pickups and trucks and local buses of various degrees of discomfort): Astra and Viazul. Astra is slightly cheaper, and operating mostly Chinese-made buses, while Viazul has some fairly comfortable Busscar buses from Europe and is a few convertibles more for just about any journey. Unfortunately for the pennywise backpacker, bus stations around the county are on some kind of a plot to force all foreigners to use Viazul, because clerks either outright refuse to sell tickets for Astra, or say the Astra time-table is very inconvenient, or some other lie like that.

So Viazul it was. I decided to postpone Trinidad for one extra day and spend the evening and the next morning in Cienfiegos, a provincial center southeast of Habana.

At the bus station, I was greeted by a crowd of casa particular owners and touts, each trying to lure me to their house for a room rent. I read my Lonely Planet on the bus, and had an idea of where I wanted to stay, but ultimately, I succumbed to the most honest-looking woman who had a small photograph of the room and the house. I believe her name was Yanay, yet another unusual female Cuban name. I followed Yanay, with my huge backpack on my shoulders, to her apartment, which turned out to be rather close to the center of town.

Cienfuegos (Cubans pronounce its name without the final “s”) was a village compared to Habana. Small, undoubtedly provincial and fairly quaint, it immediately reminded me of Stolbtcy, a town in Belarus where my aunt lives and where I spent a good portion of my childhood. Only, unlike Stolbtsy, Cienfuegos was hot and tropical, and it was by the water.

I took a walk along a few downtown streets, and bumped into a couple from my bus from Habana. He was Belgian and she was English, and they looked like one of those boyfriend-girlfriends of a few years, when they were comfortable enough with each other to travel together, but not quite yet serious enough to marry each other. We ended up splitting a horse carriage towards the small beach on the Cienfuegos harbour, and spent a couple of hours there, drinking beer and watching the waves and locals catching crabs.

I also met a German lesbian couple. Normally, I stay away from lesbians anywhere, let alone German ones, but these were exceptionally pleasant and charming. They were not older than 26, and it took me a while to get to the understanding that they were a couple. I wish they’d just declare it, sparing all of us the guesswork and awkwardness. At any rate, we ended up having a dinner at a local peso place, which – totally surprisingly – turned out OK. After dinners in the expensive paladars of Habana, this was a welcome segue into the Cuban province. I had rabit, I believe, and apart from tasting like chicken, it really wasn’t bad. I wish I could say the same about the local beer. Just like with everything else, Cuban beer made for foreigners is just fine, but the stuff the locals buy for “moneda nacional” is just dreadful. It tasted almost as if someone dissolved a tablespoonful of cane sugar in the glass of beer.

Me and the lesbians had a fun time talking and eating, but then it was time to go to sleep. Cienfuegos displayed a complete lack of any nightlife, certainly on a weekday night. Suited me fine, as I was ready to go to bed.

In the morning, I had breakfast, lovingly prepared by Yanay’s old mom, and was on my way to finish exploring the town. One of Camaguey’s sights was an old Spanish-era cemetery, which was all the way on the outskirt of town, and it took me over half an hour to walk there. The further I got from the town centre, the more the town reminded me of Stolbtsy – single-storied concrete houses, somewhat dilapidated and Spartan yet solid enough not to be called shacks; stray dogs picking at rubbish piles; half-naked children playing football in the dust; old-timers sitting in their doorways and giving each foreign passerby (about one a day) a long, examining stare.

The cemetery itself was nothing special, but it was funny how I could not just walk around by myself. There was indeed a female employee who took it to herself to follow my every move and shadow me as I was gazing at the tombs. She did try to give me a Spanish-language tour, but I declined. She, in turn, declined my tip of a CUC. Fair enough.

I had to get back into the town, get my backpack from the hotel and catch the bus for the short journey to Trinidad, Cuba’s second most popular town after Habana.