Moscow’s Magnificent Municipal Metro

MEMORY LANE
     First, some rare genius. You know how I got my visa to Russia the first time? I went to the Russian embassy in Rangoon, Burma. In the 1990s, no one was going to Burma, which is exactly why I went by on a lark. The consul was smoking on the front steps of the embassy, he was so bored. He was bemused that I wanted a visa, and he let me have one without all the usual paperwork. I had no intention of going to Russia until I had the visa in my hand, but this once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity couldn’t be passed up.

moscow metro

     


kent balloon moscow

     


     How about the majesty that is the Moscow metro stations? Some of them are very beautiful, as you can see. They try to preserve its timelessness as there is no advertising in the stations and maybe one sticker inside the trains for a mobile phone company, but that’s it. However, there is free wifi throughout the metro and often you can get a phone signal even though the interminable descent on most metro escalators feels like a journey to the center of the earth, it’s so deep.
     The system is very comprehensive, a la Paris, but Moscow is many times bigger than Paris. (In St. Petersburg the distance between stations is nothing short of incredible. I am always afraid I am going to fall asleep and wake up in Finland.)
     The signage is awful. If you are on a train and can’t understand or hear the announcements, you are screwed. Even then, though, I love the innovation of a male voice announcing the stops on trains coming into town from the suburbs and a female voice for trains going to the suburbs, ostensibly for the blind.
     The passengers are all very quiet. You’ve never been on a metro where so many people are reading hardcover books, no doubt thinking deep thoughts.
moscow metro

     


quiet on street

     I’m sensing a message here.


yeltsin grave

     Boris Yeltsin’s grave


ballerina grave

     A ballerina’s grave


church beheading

     That’s quite a church name.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION (US$1 = 66 rubles)
     There are no tourist offices in Moscow. Zero! There used to be one off Red Square, but it’s closed and they only say there is a phone number you can call. Bush league! There are at least ten dotted around St. Petersburg. At least there are the fantastic In Your Pocket guides, easily the best thing around for anywhere in Eastern Europe.
     It’s 31 rubles for a metro token in St. Petersburg and 50 rubles for a stored value single ticket in Moscow, though in Moscow the price comes down quickly if you buy a 5, 11 or 20-ride stored value card.
     The practical information is kind of weak this time. To beg your forgiveness, I will send a postcard from Russia to the first person who comments below.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

The roots of my affection for Russia, Russians & Splean

spb band

     We all enjoy listening to music in our own way.


     I found the first Russian pop song that I like. I heard it at a flea market and went over to the guy blasting it on his tape player to have him write the name down. Then I noticed he was selling what looked like homemade photos of half-naked women. The lower half. He tried to entice me, randomly pulling out an 8×10″ glossy of a woman languorously leaning against a car, asking, “Erotica?”
     The band is Splean and the song is “Anglo-Russkiy Slovar” (English-Russian dictionary). The video is horrible.

ef russia

     Get in the van!


     Other than my previous visit to Russia last century, which left an indelible mark on me, I have spent the most time among Russians while working for EF language school/camp in California. It was a summer program where European and Asian teenagers came together to live on the Long Beach State campus to learn English in the mornings and have free time otherwise. It was the “otherwise” that made it hell for all of us working there.
     The Russians made an impression. They arrived angry upon realizing that what they were promised back home from EF was all lies. EF lied to everyone, but the Danes, for example, took it in stride, deciding to make the most of being in California. The Russians weren’t so forgiving, and many of them made it their raison d’etre to cause trouble.
     Some of them. I tried to focus on the others, who were extraordinarily well-read and expressed pure contempt when I confessed that not only had I not read any Russian classics, but few American neither. They were deep, thoughtful people, and they piqued my interest about Russia and drew me towards them. That is, when I wasn’t taking some numnut to the hospital thirty minutes after telling him not to run by the pool or when they weren’t stealing my keys, or getting caught for drinking, or burning the fence, or for anything else I have successfully forgotten.
ef russian girls

     


     Everyone who thinks I should write a book about my travels, the best stories are really from the three summers I did that ridiculous job, partly thanks to the Russians. Just look to the left here. Sorry the picture is small. I can’t find the original, but this is evidence of the mistake I made on a weekend trip to Las Vegas when I told everyone to dress up because we were going out for a night on the town. These two Russians were 14 and 15 years old.
     There are a dozen stories just from that one weekend, but when you take hundreds of Euro teens to Las Vegas, it’s impossible to come away without a dozen stories.
chinese in russia

     The Chinese. They’re also attracted to Russia. The Chinese have completely dominated Europe this summer, and their numbers are no less prodigious in Russia. It’s very surprising that the Chinese have such a huge presence in out-of-the-way places of heavy cultural significance like Suzdal.
     What are we to make of Chinese tourism? At first I was dismissive, thinking that the Chinese probably don’t even know where they are half the time, but I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. On my first trip to Europe, I hardly knew anything about the countries I went to before I visited them, and what better way to learn about the world than to go out and see what’s doing? So I applaud you, Chinese tourists. Welcome to Europe! Now please, can you all stop shouting? And close your legs.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

How to visit the Hermitage Museum and Kremlin for free

     In Moscow I walked from Red Square to Lubyanka where the former KGB headquarters were, but I couldn’t remember which building it was in the vast intersection. I stopped to ask two policemen and they pointed across the street. When I asked what the building was now used for, they laughed, one of them saying, “Same.” The other said, “New KGB.”

kremlin guard

     I think most Americans imagine that visiting the Moscow Kremlin is like stepping into a hornet’s nest of Cold War intrigue, spies lurking around every corner, that it is a tightly controlled, dark and foreboding place. The truth is that visiting the Kremlin is like being on a college campus in summer. A California college campus. It’s open and leafy, quiet and peaceful, with small packs of tour groups being led to and fro. All the action is on Cathedral Square and the Armoury, and then the rest of it is an unremarkable super-clean expanse of open spaces and gardens.


kremlin ford

     Years from now the only thing I am going to remember about visiting the Kremlin are all the Fords I saw being driven around. Ford! What pact with the devil has Russia made to have Ford be the official auto supplier to the Kremlin?


     I haven’t discussed politics with Russians I am meeting other than to ask in a roundabout way, such as if a flight to Crimea—a part of Ukraine until recently—is considered a domestic flight. Everyone does appear to be pretty OK with the annexation of the ethnically Russian parts of Ukraine. With that reasoning, shouldn’t Latvia be next, as it also has a very large Russian population on its eastern border? Latvia had its independence once before, unlike Ukraine, but is that the only reason? If Hungary decides tomorrow to invade all of its neighbors to reunite those many territories that have long been ethnically Hungarian, is it the same thing? Feel free to educate me.
     This is an article in the New York Times from two weeks ago about the mood in Moscow at the moment. I don’t know what to think of it partly because I am a simple tourist not here long enough to know and partly because I don’t feel confident to say I have grasped the feeling here.
     I will say that—again, these are just the fleeting observations of a dude passing through that may or may not resemble reality—I have been caught off guard by how conservative Russia feels. Maybe subdued is the better word. I wasn’t expecting Sodom and Gomorrah, but the population is well north of 10 million, and yet it isn’t chaotic at all. There isn’t much honking on the roads, very little public drunkenness, and no hotheads. I also haven’t been out at night much, so take that into consideration.
kent red square

     Cheesy yet obligatory photo from next to Red Square in Moscow. I’ve been wearing these same clothes for eight long months.


st basils

     St. Basil’s Cathedral.


red square view

     95% of Red Square is blocked off for city celebrations next month.


MEMORY LANE
     When I asked the policeman where the KGB headquarters were, I had a flashback to a time in Kiev, Ukraine when I asked directions from the police and they demanded to see my passport, took me outside, took me down the street into an apartment block, walked me behind a stairway, and said I had to pay $100 because of a “problem” with my visa. I stood my ground and as the price came down to $50 and then $20, I laughed, took my passport, and left.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     So how can you visit the Hermitage and the Kremlin for free? Hermitage tickets go for 600 rubles and the Kremlin Armoury Museum is 700 rubles. The thing to do is to simply buy a bunch of tickets and resell them to the people at the end of the line. It’s more lucrative to do this at the Hermitage where lines are especially long and ponderous, but the Kremlin has timed entry into the Armoury and most tourists don’t want to wait all day. Cash cow.
hermitage line

     See this line at the Hermitage? This is for people who want to buy tickets at the ticket office, but behind them are ticket machines with much shorter lines where you can buy a bunch at a time. Sell six tickets for 700 rubles, and boom, you have a free ticket. Then give some customer service by showing them the line to enter because it is poorly signposted. Another FREE business idea from The Dromomaniac! I give and I give and I give…


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Hockey Night in St. Petersburg on the Dying Ruble

     Look at this ticket below. 50 rubles to see professional hockey in Russia! That’s about 70 cents. I am not sure exactly because the ruble is free-falling. ATTENTION: THE RUBLE IS SEVERELY ILL! NO ONE CALL A DOCTOR! It’s lost 10% just in the last two weeks. It was 63 to the dollar when I arrived and now it is over 70. I am afraid to take too much out of the ATM at one time. My Russian friends get angry when I tell them I do a little dance in front of moneychangers, but look at this chart of the exchange rate over the last five years. It’s been hovering around 30 forever, so I am allowed this one summer of affordable Russian travel. Thank you. Now pass the caviar.

hockey ticket

     I believe it was only 100 rubles for the best seats, but I didn’t even think of it. Sometimes my mentality is as if I have lived through the Depression or my parents were sharecroppers.


hockey arena

     The remarkable thing about the evening was how unremarkable everything was. It was just a Russian version of pro hockey with some local differences, but it was all fine and good. I had flashbacks to the last time I went to a sports event in Russia (see Memory Lane below) so I had low expectations. By now I have accepted that my last trip to Russia was the ancient past.


kiss cam

     The kiss cam. See? Some things are transcultural, if that is a word (and even if it isn’t, go get the domain name transcultural.ru; yet another free business idea from The Dromomaniac.) If you aren’t familiar with the kiss cam, here is a minute of kiss cam video.


hockey cheerleaders

     These cheerleaders kept jumping into the viewfinder of my camera every time I tried to take a photo. So needy for attention.


hockey food

     I’m not sure what this is, and I thought of Robin MacAlpine, but I heard the national anthem and ran to my seat.


top shelf

     Top shelf goal from the mascot during intermission.


     Ilya Kovalchuk, a legitimate former NHL star, is the big draw in Russian pro hockey, though even he has to wonder about playing hockey in August. Here he is scoring on this penalty shot goal:

     SKA St. Petersburg is the reigning Russian champion but Sochi scored the first two goals. SKA woke up, scored the next five, and I left with a few minutes remaining into the warm St. Petersburg night, beating the foot traffic to the metro.
MEMORY LANE:
     Last time in Russia I went to a soccer match, Brazil vs. Russia. It was a big deal, a huge crowd in a huge stadium (Luzhniki?) but the facilities were so antiquated that if you wanted to use the toilet, you had to walk outside of the stadium and go next to a tree. I wouldn’t call it a fun-for-the-whole-family atmosphere either.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     Buy any professional sports tickets that cost 70 cents. At worst you can sell them on ebay. Maybe.
     Hey, if you made it this far, since you probably don’t like hockey, as a token of my appreciation I’ll send a postcard from Russia to the first person who leaves a comment below.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Novgorod to St. Petersburg, Russia and it’s manly cuisine

mens cuisine

     Men’s cuisine! Yes, yes, and yes! It’s about time people recognize that we men need our own cuisine! Thank you, Russia! Thank you! I had to benchpress 200kg at the door just to be let in, but when I tried to order a caesar salad and some artisan brie cheese, the bouncers threw me out.


     To go the approximately 300km from Novgorod to St. Petersburg I took a very nice, 400-ruble (US$6.20) train called “The Swallow”. I arrived in St. Petersburg at night on the main drag, Nevsky Prospekt—fun to say in Russian—and I was overwhelmed by the scene. It was as if on someone’s first visit to USA, they came over the border in small-town Arizona, visited Yuma, then went straight to the Las Vegas Strip on a Friday night. The jolt was severe. Nevsky Prospekt was jammed at 11pm. People everywhere. Foreign languages were overheard, which was never the case in Pskov and Novgorod, both sizable cities of 200,000 to 300,000 people. Just as I was getting my bearings, suddenly fireworks began shooting up from the middle of the street. St. Petersburg was telling me something.
     I had to walk by St. Isaac’s Cathedral to get to my Couchsurfing host, and in the square a parked car was blasting The Cure’s “Lovecats” while three guys danced on the street. What is going on in this town?!
belarus plate

     I only bought one thing at the flea market, a Belarus license plate for 150 rubles, about $2.40. (No, I don’t know what I am going to do with it, and I thought about that when I bought it, along with the realization I am going to be carrying around a Belarus license plate in my backpack for the foreseeable future.)
     The funny thing in this photo, if you don’t notice it, is that the bus stop’s information is three meters (ten feet) off the ground! How can anyone see what’s written on it? I’m tall and I could hardly make anything out. This isn’t uncommon either. St. Isaac’s Cathedral is in the background.


spb flea market

     The Udelnaya flea market was fun and well worth a visit, though I think any flea market is well worth a visit. I very rarely pass up a chance to go to a flea market. If I am in any town on a weekend, it is often my first question to the people at the tourist information office. The second is “What is the capital of South Dakota?” You’ve got to keep these people on their toes.
     I was looking for funny postcards to send to faithful readers of this blog (See? It’s all about you!) but didn’t find exactly what I wanted. If you are into old Soviet metal pins and aren’t picky about what kind they are, those things used to have value but you can almost buy them by the kilogram, supply is so high now.


scary pictures

     I put an open request on Couchsurfing for St. Petersburg and thankfully a professor named Galina offered to let me stay with her and her granddaughter, but the mosquitoes have been ferocious, plus it is hard to sleep when these pictures are above your bed. That said, the location can’t be beat, right downtown in the same building as the Vladimir Nabakov Museum.
     It can be entertaining to see who is on Couchsurfing, Going through the listings, one host started her introduction with, “I look beautiful, work hard, study with pleasure and have fun with passion. I am like weather. Never settled or calm. When I do not follow my instincts and trust only logic, I get in trouble.”
     What do I do with that information?


     It’s said that St. Petersburg is Russia’s most European city. It appears to be true, right down to the absence of screens on doors and windows. I have never understood this. Not having ice cubes or having a fondness or techno-pop, OK, these are personal preferences, but what’s with the European hostility to screens? The mosquitoes are feasting on me.
toilet bus

     I don’t know if this is ingenious or depressing, but this is a bus converted into a toilet on Peter and Paul Fortress, the main tourist site in St. Petersburg.


stubborn dough

     Stubborn dough! This is from an Uzbek/Japanese restaurant and shisha bar. I know, I know, this is all kinds of wrong, but I suddenly had a hankering for Uzbek food, stubborn dough and all. Stubborn dough can arguably be men’s cuisine, too.


spilled blood

     OK, OK, I guess I should have a couple of nice photos. This is the interior of the Cathedral of Our Savior of Spilled Blood.


novgorod cinema

     This is how I like my towns, with a cleanly designed, stand-alone cinema right in the middle of it. Novgorod.


novgorod beach

     Beach volleyball behind the Kremlin in Novgorod, the place to hang out on a warm afternoon. My well-tuned Volleyball Ear detected no professionals in the vicinity.


     Memory Lane: Last time in St. Petersburg I stayed in a hostel near Finland train station next to a prison. Prisoners would wave a cloth through a small window to try and communicate with family outside in the parking lot as they yelled, trying to be heard among the other people yelling. Good times!
you are hear

     I thought I was already their.


     PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     As pleased as I am to be here, I detest the requirement to register within seven days of arriving in the country. Your hotel/hostel is obliged to help you do it. Even if you stay privately, they have to do it. The forms are painful, but it helps to remember that it’s travel pain, not working-in-the-coal-mines pain.
     To buy a train ticket, beforehand I usually have an English speaker write a note in Russian that I want a particular train, the class, a seat facing in the direction I am going and in the middle of the car, if possible.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

From Latvia to Russia with love—and fear

wifi graffiti

     21st century activism.


     On a hot day in Latvia (or anywhere in Scandinavia) you have to go to the beach. It’s the law. The reason is because it might be the last time for the year. That’s how bad the weather is up north.
     I went to the seaside in Jurmala, which is a Latvian word meaning “seaside.” (I wonder if Riga means “capital”?) I was walking along, minding my own business, when I heard beach volleyball in the distance. We native Californians, we have what is called in medical journals “Volleyball Ear”. We can hear great beach volleyball before we can see it. We can hear the crisp passing, the solid serves, the confident spikes, and simply know. My ear led me to stumble on two of the world’s top players during a practice, Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins. I stayed for nearly an hour, asking a woman next to me about the guys. I didn’t say anything about The Ear. No reason to invite skepticism on a hot day.
samoilovs

     Samoilovs spiking. Can you hear it?


     If you have never heard of those guys, then you might know another Latvian sportsman, basketballer Kristaps Porzingis, who was drafted by the New York Knicks this year. I fear the worst for his future, especially since now he has that Knicks taint on him. (See Lampe, Maciej)
ship hotel

     A ship shape hotel. Ten euros for fifteen minutes of massage. In Thailand I think you could get a two-hour massage for that and have money left over for a watermelon shake plus another two-hour massage. In fact, I can hear every Thai masseuse packing their bags now and studying Latvian.


riga statue

     Statue right in the middle of Riga. Isn’t she a beaut?


riga woman statue

     Another evocative statue, in a different way.


art nouveau building

     There is a quarter in Riga with many art nouveau buildings that were much more impressive than I could have ever guessed. So beautiful! This is just one facade. It was hard to get one good photo of the scale of it all.


riga hostel

     This is a new hostel in Riga, a renovated former farmhouse called Amalienhof and it was great because few people know about it, but that will change, and when it does, one toilet for 15 people won’t be cozy. 10 euros. It is outside of the center, but in the center Riga is plagued by stag parties. British lager louts come in droves to take advantage of cheap flights to party like they might die tomorrow.


RUSSIA! (but with a warning from the Estonians)
     I took a twenty-euro bus from Riga to Pskov. That’s too much for only 290km, but that’s all there is. I noticed a thirty-euro night bus. I think you pay more for a less surly driver. Only eight people were on the bus, including a Dutch guy with a stroller, but no baby. He is literally delivering a stroller for his brother from Holland to Russia because his brother simply forgot to bring it with him.
     I had to get stamped out of southeastern Estonia, but the guard gave me a pamphlet and a warning about overstaying my Schengen visa for Europe. I am pretty sure I have a good two weeks left, but he was serious about making sure I understood despite not being able to communicate well. I think I overstay my Schengen visa every year, but no one has ever said a peep about it.
     The Russian immigration officer went through my passport stamps three times. I can never watch them too closely because it cracks me up. For some reason I think it is the funniest thing to watch them scrutinize my Kyrgyzstan stamps or whatever catches their eye, and it’s a bad habit that is going to get me in trouble some day.
pskov view

     A view of Pskov with the Trinity Cathedral in the distance.


trinity cathedral

     My airbnb host’s living room. Were you fooled? It’s Trinity Cathedral.


lenin statue pskov

     Lenin statue on Lenin Square in the center of Pskov. Laissez les bon temps roulez!


     I’m a little spooked about Russia. Day One went pretty well, but for some reason I have the idea I really need to be on my toes. I feel like an infant with hardly being able to speak. I really need to learn some verbs. I can read the alphabet and my vocabulary is slowly growing, but my sentences are like grunting when I can only say, “Small! Small!” in a restaurant.
     First person to reply below gets a postcard from Russia—if you want one.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A new way of traveling old Europe, even Belgium

     There’s a new way to travel Europe! Instead of buying a railpass, rushing around the continent and staying in crowded hostels, you can take advantage of some new tools, namely, BlaBlaCar, MeinFernbus, and Airbnb. And, I learned something new about cruising, of all things, that I had always dismissed out of hand.
     I stayed with an Airbnb host in Heerlen, Netherlands who reminded me of myself, which is almost never good. He saw how lucrative it could be to rent out his own room, so he slept on the couch and listed his room every day on Airbnb. Once, on a whim he listed it for $10 and I snatched it up five minutes later, he said.
     I was coming from Germany and normally I would hitchhike, but it was projected to be the hottest day of the year so I used blablacar.com from Frankfurt to Aachen for twelve euros and hitchhiked the rest of the way.

brussels airlines check in

     I flew from Brussels to Riga, Latvia, my first time flying Brussels Airlines, and what do you notice about this check in? No one is there! No one to ask if you have an onward ticket! No need to dress up and have a story ready! You print your own baggage tag and are off. If had an Ethiopian passport or if this was a non-EU destination, maybe things would have been different. (I didn’t realize Latvia is now a Schengen country nor that they used the euro. See? I still make rookie mistakes.)


Cruising?!
     Anyway, my Airbnb host was to cruising what I am to low-cost traveling. He knew how to book the cheapest cruises, some last minute, some booked far in advance. Of course I picked his brain and he showed me these websites:
     http://www.costacruise.com/usa/cruises_list/201511.html
     http://www.cruisetravel.nl/Cruises
     https://www.pullmantur.es/en/cruceros/transatlanticos-desde-europa.html
     Later this year he is flying to Dubai for 300 euros round trip, I think he said, on Eurowings, aka SunExpress, and then taking a seven-day cruise for 200 euros, all inclusive. (Keep an eye on Sun Express for cheap flights on their new routes to Thailand, Cuba and Dominican Republic. I have flown them before very cheaply from Turkey to Germany.) He admitted that he was one of the youngest people on some cruises, but the facilities and food are so good he doesn’t care and he isn’t a big socialite anyway. He pays 60-70 euros more to have a single room since he always goes alone.
     One of the most intriguing cruises is going from Canary Islands, Spain, to Salvador, Brazil. It’s nine days and can be had for as low as 250 euros sometimes, he claims. The idea of using a cruise as transport is big, if it really is true and all taxes and fees are included in the prices he tells me.
big frites

     This is from Denderleeuw, Belgium, a tiny spot on the map, and look at this mountain of french fries. Incredible.


     More remarkable than the inhumane portion of french fries was the presence of an American couple also eating next to me in this tiny village. They were in Denderleeuw only because they found a cheap Airbnb place, but they were going around by train. I told them about BlaBlaCar, and the other piece of this puzzle is Meinfernbus, also called Flixbus, which is comfortable long distance buses, sometimes with wifi. I have done all three maybe ten times now.
frituur menu

     I don’t claim to speak Dutch/Flemish, but I can understand a lot. This menu, though, is all Greek to me. Bewildering, but I am not convinced Dutch/Flemish people can understand it all either!


frites medium

     A medium portion! Two euros plus fifty cents for mayonnaise.


zaventem sign

     Showing the ultimate faith in hitchhiking is trying to hitch to an airport, because if you get stuck, you’re toast. I thought of this when I was at a highway gas station outside of Brussels, but before a German woman and her child had taken me, then a Moroccan guy, and then from the gas station a wealthy older couple not only took me but decided to drive out of their way and drop me off right at the terminal. I was almost faster than the train.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     If you are traveling between countries with blablacar.com, you need to check both countries’ websites because they don’t have the same listings. Use Google Translate to read the listing, but when writing a driver, you can assume that everyone reads English. In Germany, after you have signed up, you can see the phone number of every driver, but in France you can’t.
     I used to be down on Airbnb because I didn’t realize that the property owner can set not only the price from day to day but also insist on extra references like your Facebook account (as if that means anything.) I still don’t like “cleaning fees” that aren’t part of the base price, but I am becoming a fan. In some big cities it makes no sense to use hostels when you can get a room cheaper, especially if you aren’t alone.
     I am normally high on Couchsurfing, so to speak, but I am too last-minute to get hosts or I just don’t have luck. I still try. My fear is that Airbnb will replace Couchsurfing, which would be a great shame.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

The Worst Dressed at the Best Wedding in France

kent caleb

     I look like I lost my golf ball. I had to borrow this shirt because my supply of decent clothes is lacking. I might have accidentally bought women’s pants again. Black and blue running shoes not shown. Embarrassing.


     On a perfect summer day last weekend I found myself at the wedding of Caleb and Celine in very rural northeastern France, an American/French wedding with a Prague theme, where they met as students. Their clothes were custom-made in Ivory Coast, where they just returned from teaching. Celine’s dress was only $120. (See, if I was a professional travel blogger, I would have a link to the dress maker in Abidjan and I would make 10% off future sales, but I am a complete amateur.)
     As I understand it, the norm is to have the civil ceremony in the mayor’s office next door, and then the church wedding happens right after, but Celine and Caleb had the civil ceremony over a year ago, you know, to kick the tires, as we Americans say.
     Usually during a wedding service my eyes glaze over as I wonder if there will be guacamole at the reception or I stare at the stained glass windows and imagine how long it took to make them, but this was different. I found it quite moving and powerful and I felt stronger about them as a couple, which there wasn’t much room for, because if they ever get a divorce, then there is no hope for any of us.
place setting

     My table place setting. Guests came from different countries, so to facilitate communication, our languages were shown on our nametags. (What flag corresponds to Pig Latin?) To say I speak French is generous, but I’m telling you, don’t sleep on me becoming a fluent-for-an-American speaker; I pick up quite a bit every day I am here, and I am motivated.
     I was on the verge of trashing the event hall for using the Spanish flag instead of the Cuban flag, but I took a deep breath and the moment passed.


champagne supply

     The champagne supply (this was maybe a third or a half of it) was rivaled only by the cheese supply. Someone tell me again: how can French women be so thin with all this cheese and heavy stuff they eat? Bird-like portions? Smoking?
     Several of us helped in the kitchen since they needed some extra hands. They had hired a girl from the village to work, but in true French fashion she tried to organize a union and go on strike before they had even cut the cake.


badminton church

     Celine’s badminton friends formed this canopy outside of the church after the ceremony.


celine catherine

     Celine and one of her two beautiful sisters, an unmarried one! I was so caught up in the spirit of the wedding and struck by how pretty Celine’s sister is that I was about to get down on one knee and propose…that we become Facebook friends.


catherine dancing

     Celine’s sister maintained the momentum of the night deep into the wee hours as music DJ and dancing queen, racing back and forth to the console to start the next song. I was waiting for the right moment to ask for her Facebook hand, but then a better-dressed, better-dancing twelve-year-old horned right in, killing all hope. Devastated.


house abbey road

     Caleb’s family doing their Abbey Road pose.


fire lantern

     Bonded by a lifelong love of arson, Caleb and Celine gave everyone lanterns that blew far off into the night. It was a cool effect, but we Californians in the group remarked that in our bone-dry state this act would get 2 to 3 years in prison. An impressive fireworks show followed.


caleb dance

     This was also Caleb’s face when I showed him the clothes I intended to wear at the wedding. This was part of a performance, a dance for each of the many places they lived. A lot of effort and planning went into the evening; there was one surprise after another.


prague cake

     As the theme was Prague, this cake is a model of the Charles Bridge. This wasn’t a cake just for show either; the chocolate was high quality and the petites choux a la creme along the base were delicious. If only I hadn’t eaten a wheel of cheese by the time this came around. A paper Vltava River wound its way through the tables dotted with statues of Czech monuments. Czech cakes, beer and guests were imported.
     I am likely to meet my future wife dumpster diving, which is going to make for an awkward display of banana peels and old yogurt cups strewn throughout the table at my wedding. Maybe I shouldn’t get married.


wedding bottle

     


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Duplicate Airbnb in France: the perils of hitchhiking

     Hello from France! Before we begin, do you know the best French song ever? I have it right here for you! How convenient! It is by Les Rita Mitsouko and it is called “Marcia Baila“. Without exaggeration I have watched this video over 100 times since I was told about it last week, it’s so good. Let’s call it the indisputable apex of French culture:

     I had a long, crazy day hitchhiking from up in the Swiss alps down to the French plains. The end of the story is that I have found myself in a destination I didn’t intend, Strasbourg, France, sleeping with two attractive twenty-year-old French girls named Chloe and Anais (of course!) who wish they had English-speaking boyfriends.
     Just getting to Strasbourg seemed improbable. At dusk a young French guy dropped me off in a wretchedly bad spot well off the highway because his GPS told him to. I swear, almost no one knows how to work their GPS, and I am in a lot of cars. Fiddling with the GPS while driving has to cause more accidents than being on the phone as it requires more concentration. Worse, a generation of people are losing their sense of direction in their capitulation to GPS. I will now step down from my soapbox.
     So there I was in a gloomy village south of Strasbourg in the approaching dark. I didn’t know where to stand to try and continue because no place was safe from the swift traffic. Walking up or back down the road looked pointless. I saw no evidence of a bus service. I didn’t know what to do, so I practiced yelling French obscenities. After that was exhausted, I stood next to the road, lost, and for some reason inexplicable except that once in a blue moon the travel gods smile down on us hitchhikers, there was a lull in the traffic and a guy in a BMW stopped in the middle of the street and motioned for me. I wasn’t even standing with my thumb out.
     He was a Moroccan-Frenchman named Said and he saved my hitchhiking butt. He was getting off work and for reasons I never understood, he stopped in the middle of the road and offered me a ride. He took me to the Strasbourg train station though it might not have been his destination. He was pleasantly surprised to have a Californian in his car, showing off the American music on his iPod. He loved American music, he said, though he couldn’t understand a word of it.

strasbourg gare

     Strasbourg train station the next morning, a modern facade over the grand old architecture. Does it work?


     The beginning of the story—I’ll make it quick; sorry to jump around. Think of it as Pulp Fiction for hitchhiking—is that Roof-san left me at the end of the village in Les Diablerets, we man-hugged to say goodbye, and before he was able to turn his car around, a Spaniard had stopped for me. I always like that validation of hitchhiking where friends can bear witness. What I am glad he didn’t witness is that I got stuck at the bottom of the hill in Aigle where some cars stopped, but they weren’t going my way, and it ended up being a long and slow slog getting out of Switzerland. Standing in the steady drizzle didn’t help.
     It was a funny coincidence that a few days ago I visited a friend in Zurich who was about to visit Salvador, Brazil, and then when I hitchhiked out of Zurich I got a ride with a guy whose wife is from Salvador, Brazil. Then yesterday Roof-san played his band’s song, “Mauritius Girl” and then I got a ride from two Mauritius girls—women, I should say—along with a husband, from Basel up past Colmar, deep into the Alsace region.
     I don’t know France well. I have been to Germany countless times, but France is largely terra incognito for me. At the highway gas station there weren’t many cars, and most ignored me with gusto, so between cars I soaked in my rural, bucolic surroundings. If I had to describe France in one word, it would be languid. I just looked it up and I am using the word wrong, but the land has a lazy, time-worn, sensual, unhurried feel to it. Maybe bucolic is the best word. The feel is almost hypnotic.
     The Mauritians led me to the young French guy afflicted with GPS Syndrome to Moroccan Said to sleeping with two French girls. I guess I should clarify my prepositions. I slept with two French girls in the same dorm room. See? Not an A-level story. Everyone thinks that because I travel a lot, the road is nothing but kicks, man, like it’s all one long Jack Kerouac novel. It is just as often hitchhiking in the rain and sleeping fitfully in squeaky dorm beds.
hands in flour

     This bakery is called, “The hands in the flour”. On principle alone I had to get something, and I devoured a wicked torsade. Usually I stay away from torsades as they are too dry, but I am in France now.


     My destination was Nancy, a random town I picked because I had never been, it was close to the wedding this weekend, and I found a cheap Airbnb place I had paid two nights for. But once in Strasbourg I learned I missed the last train to Nancy. I checked Eurolines for a bus and blablacar.com for a ride, but I ended up stuck in Strasbourg. On a whim I checked Airbnb (thank you free train station wifi!) and was shocked to see 49 listings under $20 in the heart of the city. The vast majority are from Tom’s, where I paid only $12 plus a persnickety Airbnb fee of 15% or so. Normally on Airbnb when you make a booking the host has 24 hours to get back to you, but if they have dozens of listings, I knew they’d be very quick to respond, and he needed only 10 minutes or so. Tom’s Fair House is partly a hostel, but with so many properties, I didn’t grasp the whole operation and I wasn’t curious enough to ask questions.
     I didn’t mind paying for two cheap Airbnb places for the same night since it was due to my own inefficiency, but the point of the story is to not assume cheap accommodation options don’t exist in big cities. Options that include pretty French girls are rarer, yes, but you never know, which is one of the main points of traveling, the serendipity.
french hitch sign

     A hitchhiking sign my Airbnb host in Nancy made for me to use tomorrow.


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The people you meet hitchhiking in Switzerland

     Seven months on the road as of today.
     Greetings from Switzerland where I am visiting old friends, all of whom I met in Asia while traveling. Every time I visit friends in Switzerland or most anywhere in Europe but acutely so here, it feels like a seminar in how to live. Most everyone I know has a life to be emulated: the way they eat, the use of their free time, their progressive attitudes that inform their actions and a long list of small day-to-day things that appear insignificant on the surface but aren’t in my eyes. Traveling is hardly conducive to any of it.

sri lanka hitchhike

     If you think the only people who pick me up hitchhiking are greasy truck drivers, think again. This Sri Lankan beauty took me from Zurich to the first highway gas station.
     At that station, another attractive woman in a sporty BMW convertible said she could take me to the next town. I declined, saying I wanted to go farther to the next highway gas station, but I paused to look everything over and said, “I can’t believe I’m not going with you!” She said, incredulous, “I know!”


     I have always had pretty good luck hitchhiking in Switzerland, though this headline I saw yesterday gave me pause for thought: “Two men arrested over Yverdon hitchhiker death”. Gulp.
     Hitchwiki, the information exchange board for places to start hitchhiking, has too many entries for Switzerland that start with something like, “Technically it’s an illegal spot, but if the police don’t see you…” No way. I have been hounded by Swiss police too many times. There is no crime in ultra-rich Switzerland (other than the usual FIFA-style white collar crime and the occasional hitchhiker slaying) so the police have nothing better to do than check up on us. Once in Liechtenstein next door I had a police car make a hard stop and two guys burst out of the car demanding to see my passport. When I reached for my pocket, they flinched, and their hands moved towards their guns. When they inspected the passport, looking back and forth between it and my face, one finally said to the other, “It’s not him,” and they sped off.
gstaad parking

     I thought a quintessential Swiss photo of soaring mountain peaks, lush vegetation, and dramatic vistas would be apropos here, but instead I give you this, a Gstaad parking receipt. You’re welcome.


     The water in Switzerland is hard, so I have to use lotion after showering or my legs look like the California desert. Sometimes in places with not much traffic I get out my lotion and quickly try and use it before the next car is in sight, otherwise it must look strange to oncoming motorists. I always try and imagine the conversations in cars when they see me, usually between the man driving and the woman in the passenger seat:
     Man: What the hell is that guy doing?
     Woman: Moisturizing! Let’s pick him up.
     Man: Hell no! Americans are such freaks.
The Mercenary
     About 30km outside of Basel I had a too-short ride with a fascinating guy, a heavily tattooed, burly ox with a neck as thick as my thighs. He described himself in German as a professional soldier, a mercenary. He was an ethnic Albanian, the third time in three days an Albanian picked me up. (They are always male drivers and when I tell them the only Albanian word I know is “shpirtim” (my sweetheart), there is always an awkward two seconds.)
     He had fought in Iraq, which he said was a picnic compared to Afghanistan. He had been to Afghanistan three times during the worst of the war, fighting the Taliban from five meters away in Tora Bora. (He said the Taliban will never disappear unless you nuke all of them at once; they are so dedicated and fervent in their ideology that there will always be replacements for any that are killed.)
     He made $1300 a day, money too good to pass up for a guy made homeless and penniless by the Kosovo war. He had survived it all, now living the good life in Switzerland. He supported his entire extended family and was now bored, but with a wife and kids, his fighting days were behind him.
     He had fought along side the French Legionnaires, too. I asked him what percent of the Legionnaires are French, and he guessed two percent. Many come from Eastern Europe, a surprising amount come from Vietnam, Nepal and other impoverished countries, and everyone seemed to get paid on a sliding scale depending on how prosperous or poor your country was.
     He saw horrific things, as one would guess. I didn’t prod him for war stories, but he was adamant that the media grossly under-reported American casualties in Afghanistan.
isis cafe

     The Taliban can’t be contained and the Islamic State (called ISIS in USA) is opening internet cafes in Salzburg, Austria.


lauenensee

     OK, OK, I will give you a classic Swiss photo, this being the Lauenensee near Gstaad.


diablerets view

     Just one more nice photo, and then that’s it! Here is Les Diablerets, the view from my friends’ holiday home in the alps. This hardly captures the expansive 180-degree view.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     In Europe I almost always hitchhike with an American flag on my backpack for the novelty value. There are very few hitchhikers these days, and just about zero American hitchhikers. Sometimes drivers tell me they pick me up for that reason, such as the guy near Berlin who was wearing a University of Georgia cap. In spite of this, usually drivers don’t put one and one together and are surprised when I tell them I am Californian. I would hitchhike with a California flag if I thought it was recognizable.
     I should add this nugget of info on Hitchwiki: if you want to hitchhike north out of Bern, go to the Wankdorf Stadium with tram 9, walk north to the highway entrance another 100-200 meters and it’s golden. The second vehicle stopped for me, a Berliner in a camper van. (A few days later I found myself at the same spot—in the rain—and I got a ride in 10-15 minutes.) Almost any ride will be good as the Grauholz highway gas station is only about 5km away.
     BlaBlaCar is still the way to go if you want to try rideshare in Central Europe—and there is no reason not to try rideshare. Switzerland is stratospherically expensive. The train to get out of the city center to the closest highway to hitchhike can be more expensive than a rideshare between towns.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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