Friday, October 29, 2010

St. Petersburg 101 (Part 2)

Last week in this space I related impressions we had on a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. In that brief report, the focus was on the place and the sights we saw. In this outing I'll try and get less physical and more personal, in talking about the people in general and one set of encounters in particular.

Whenever you travel, you have to remember that, like Blanche DuBois, you depend on the kindness of strangers. And by and large all we met were friendly and helpful. True, the old babushkas working the registers in the little grocery stores or selling tokens in the Metro (for 22 rubles each, about 73 cents) had an attitude that anything other than exact change was an insult. But beyond that, mime and pointing and a few words of pidgin Russian managed to get us food, directions, admission and the occasional fresh "peeshka" or donut covered in sugar.

But without a doubt our most memorable encounters were two evenings spent with our son's host family. While he is studying in St. Petersburg for the fall semester, they provide him a room and 2 meals a day. They have accepted him warmly and eased his transition into the culture, for which we are very grateful. So when we were planning our trip, we suggested to him that we would love to thank them by buying them dinner at a local restaurant.

They accepted the invitation and made reservations at a homey Georgian place. Dinner was a fun and lively affair (and delicious as well), and we were taken when halfway through they invited us to join them several nights later in their flat for a home cooked meal. It's the kind of encounter that no organized tour can ever hope to duplicate.

Elena is a private teacher of English, while Andrei works in advertising. Her English is excellent, while he understands more than he speaks. Their daughter Nastia (short for Anastasia) and her boyfriend Igor are both students, she in psychology and he in computers and art, and both had a far better grasp of our tongue then we did of theirs.

Their flat was small, three rooms plus a kitchen and bathroom. Like many Russians they have a dacha about an hour out of the city, though it has no heat and is very rustic. It does have apple trees which provided fruit for the wonderful tart Elena made to accompany the borscht, vodka, wine and tea we shared around the table in their living room. To us they seemed typically middle class, and indeed by the end of the evening we lamented the fact we didn't live closer to one another.

Our conversations went in fits and starts, as we shifted topics and languages, with plenty of sidetracks to translate both literal words and cultural ideas. They talked with pride about the history of their country, and the hardships in particular the people of St. Petersburg endured during the war, a memory still surprisingly fresh. They lamented how the police are corrupt and not to be trusted, and marveled as to how our experience in the US is so radically different. We talked about how money and power drive governments and actions, though they have all but given up hope that they have any impact on theirs, while we take it as an article of faith that we have a say in ours.

They have a skewed view of the U.S., driven by the images they see in American films and videos, and have a hard time understanding our diversity and openness. That said, it is their dream to visit this country, particularly New York and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, visa issues make it exceedingly difficult for  individual Russians to come just to tour.

But our time together was also filled with shared experiences as much as pointing out contrasting cultures. Andrei, who has a background as a musician, was encouraged by Elena to sing a haunting Russian folk song. He then played the piano in their apartment, as did their daughter and our older son. We looked at family photos and swapped recipes: she told me how to make the apple tart we enjoyed, and my wife gave them recipes for chili. And we struggled to explain what a marshmallow was, and why in its Fluff form it tastes great on the peanut butter we all love.

It's hard and probably foolish to extrapolate from this individual encounter to anything beyond what it was: a gathering of two families from different cultures and countries and the search for common ground. But we found just that. And as big as the world is, it reminded us that it can be a small place, and we do best when we treat it as such.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes someday to host Elena, Andrei and Nastia in his home. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

St. Petersburg 101 (Part 1)

In our circle of acquaintances, it's not uncommon to know those who travel outside these shores. The locations vary: Western Europe is a usual destination, as are South and Latin America, and the major cities of the Far East. But tell someone you're going to Russia, and even among experienced road warriors you'll likely get a raised eyebrow or two. But with our youngest spending a semester there, it offered us an excuse to try something very different. And so we journeyed to St. Petersburg to spend a week and get a sense of the place.

Anyone guidebook will tell you the basics. A very manageable city on the Gulf of Finland, it sports such major attractions as the Hermitage, one of the great art museums of the world. Also not to be missed, (and we didn't) are St. Isaac's Cathedral, The Peter and Paul Fortress and The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.  Add in the Kirov ballet, a few blini and some vodka, and a journey outside the city to Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great whose grounds and gravity-fed fountains are one of the wonders of the world, and you have a trip for the memory books.

But what follows are a few more personal impressions of the place beyond a blow by blow of the premier attractions. By no means definitive, it's some of the things that struck us as we walked... and walked and walked and walked... around the core of the city and to a few outlying areas. Colored by our own biases and experiences, while also being almost comically selective as to what made an impression on us, it is none the less what we remember most once we strip away the simple recitation of where we went and what we saw. For this week, the focus will be on the physical sense of place; next, on the people.

The first thing that caught our eye was the colors. Many of the buildings are mint green or soft pink or pale yellow or baby blue. Whether it is indeed to make them stand out from the snow as we were told, or for some other reason, it gives the city a certain fairytale quality which contrasts mightily with what you expect from a place that is so associated with historical repression.

But if the buildings are colorful, the crowds certainly are not. The people are almost exclusively white and European looking. You see slight variations from Slav to Nordic ("Piter" itself being 40 minutes by plane from Helsinki) to some slight Mongolian influence. But you literally see no dark or truly Asian faces walking down the street. Meanwhile, the clothes and shoes are 180 degree opposites of that. Yes, it is a city, but dark tones don't just predominate, they overwhelm. We passed many a store sporting huge collections of boots and shoes that Henry Ford would have appreciated: you could have any color as long as it was black.

The streets and sidewalks were pleasantly wide and the buildings refreshingly low, making it feel similar to and yet somehow different from other European cities. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that it was all but demolished in the great Siege of 1941-1945 and then rebuilt, a memory still fresh both individually and institutionally. Indeed, we were shown explosive damage from the war marked with a plaque, and further a field passed a bomb shelter adjacent to a haunting cemetery filled with war dead, whose headstones were each miniature coffins filled with fresh flowers.

But if the canals and rivers felt like Amsterdam, and the many parks and squares like London, the numerous onion dome churches and signs in Cyrillic reminded you that you are in a place the hails from a different heritage than the west. The alphabet conspires to make it all but impossible to discern at first glance what's on a given street. That being said, we were able to finally decipher the hieroglyphics enough to know the places where we could get a bite (кафе) and the ubiquitous food shops which were open around the clock (24 часа). And we noted that "yucas" only seem to come in sets of 24.

Space won't allow a full reporting of impressions made over the entire week, but there are plenty more: the leftover Soviet era buildings, the brand new sleek Mercedes contrasting with the barely running ancient Ladas, the brides posing with their husbands in front of almost every major landmark. Suffice it to say it was indeed far different than what we were used to. And the people? That, comrades, will have to wait till next week. Until then, das vadanya.


Marc Wollin of Bedford never knew he liked blini so much. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Bomb Swab

As I shuffled down the security line at the airport, I did the usual dance. Out of my backpack came my laptop; in went my keys, money clip and phone. I kicked off my shoes and placed them on the belt to the scanner, along with my suitcase and backpack. A quick self pat down to check for any leftover guns I might have missed, and I moved to the line for the metal detector. After a nod from the guard, I stepped smartly through the machine, brandishing my boarding pass in front of me like a process server with a summons.

But my road warrior persona was shattered by a "beep-beep-beep" from the detector. My smile fell as the officer put up a traffic cop hand to stop me from going any further. I felt like a common tourist as I quickly rechecked myself. Did I forget some change in a pocket? Was I wearing a non travel-friendly belt buckle? Did I neglect to remove all my hunting knives? Nothing turned up. And indeed my warden was shaking his head. "It's not you," he said even as he continued to survey the hoards in front of him. "You've been selected randomly for additional screening." He unclipped a radio mic from his shoulder and spoke into it: "Swab on lane 14."

Seems I had fallen prey to the latest procedure designed to keep us safe in the skies. The original focus on security was on obvious weapons such as knives and guns. That was broadened to include other common items which could be used in an offensive capacity like scissors and nail clippers. Of course, anyone familiar with James Bond or Jack Bauer also knows that you can create a lot of mayhem with a spoon, a dog leash or a roll of quarters. And it was comedian George Carlin who noted that if you really wanted to, you could probably kill somebody using the Sunday New York Times.

Then the game changed. After 9/11, the airlines installed hardened cockpit doors. And while weapons were still a concern, the realization came that you could blow up the plane itself without ever bothering the pilot. Exacerbated when the infamous Shoe Bomber tried to set his Nikes aflame, the authorities started to concentrate more on the possibility of explosives. And so they began a program called Explosive Trace Detection or ETD.

In ETD, a small piece of material is rubbed around the edge of a suitcase or package. The cloth is inserted into a highly sensitive instrument that can detect trace amounts of chemicals, such as the nitrates used in bombs. The test takes just a few seconds, and assuming your aren't packing a gift of fertilizer for your aunt's begonias, usually turns up negative. Seeking to keep the bad guys guessing, they added a similar random trial for hands this past February. And it was this particular program that selected me as the lucky 28th caller to win the prize.

Another guard took me over to the side and asked me to hold my hands out, palms up. He then wiped both with a small band-aid looking piece of material, then slid it into a detector. A few moments and a green light popped on. He thanked me, and I was good to go collect my stuff and head to my plane. As tests go, this one was a breeze.

Perhaps too much a breeze. According to the TSA, they have had to make some adjustments to reality. Since the machines are incredibly sensitive, they've had to turn down the dial just a bit. Seems they were getting a bunch of positive indications from people who used nitroglycerin as a heart medication. And farmers, those who have shot a weapon recently and even certain hand lotions can set off the alarms. But the agency says that the one test doesn't exist in a vacuum. Should the alarm get tripped, it would just mean further screening for that individual. And if you're more worried about germs than bombs, they say that unlike the swab they use for suitcases, the hand swabs are used once and then disposed.

While it's another invasion of privacy, the ACLU has signed off on it. That's because there is no profiling involved, no invasive testing and no invasion of privacy. Your hands are already out in the open. So other than exposing them as filthy, there is little in the way of compromising your basic rights. So if you listened to your mother and never leave the house with dirty underwear, if you're flying you may now want to apply that to your hands.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't mind the airport screening, as long as he's not stuck behind a tourist. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

A View from Italia

It was a Friday night when I first met Francesco and Catia. I was having a late dinner in a hotel bar in Orlando after flying in that day. We chatted quickly for a few minutes, just long enough for me to find out that they were Italian and on their honeymoon. Catia wanted to go to Alaska or Cuba, but they settled on a tour down the east coast. They started in Montreal, then continued on to Quebec, Toronto, New York and Orlando, before ending in Miami and heading home. For Francesco, it was his second time in these parts; for Catia, her first.

Then the following night, while I getting another late night bite at a sushi bar in the same hotel, they sat down next to me again. We laughed, and joked about them following me. Then we politely ignored each other as they ordered. But when I saw Catia struggling with chopsticks, I leaned over and offered to help. And we started to talk... in English I might add. Francesco's command of the language was more than competent, Catia's a bit less so, but both were far better than my pidgin Italian.

I asked them about their perceptions of America. The first thing they said was that it was "too big." They were both struck by the many different races they encountered. "We are used to different people but in the same form, as they are all Italian," Catia told me. They were also impressed with New York being such a melting pot, though they did note that "people there seem confused about the time... always running, no one is sleeping." But they also remarked on how friendly everyone seemed.

They were quick to say what they admired about America. "This is a country of opportunity," said Francesco. "Italian people came to US four generations ago. The first generation worked hard with, but had nothing. The second generation started to have something, and it continued. By the fourth generation they were able to go to college. The US is wonderful. If you work hard, study hard, you can have anything. That's not like in Italy. There you work hard, but you stay in same place for 30 or 40 years."

I asked them what they would tell people about what they saw and felt... not about the specific places they visited, but about the country as a whole. Catia said, "America is quite the same as the movies we see." When I asked which movies she meant, she said "Saturday Night Fever" and "Rocky," this despite the fact they hadn't been to Brooklyn nor Philadelphia. I asked her to explain what she meant. "In the US you love your country. It's not like that in Italy. We don't love our country as well as you... we have no flags hanging out the window."

They offered opinions on a number of other things. I threw out a topic, they discussed it in Italian, then Francesco answered for them both. Politics: "US politicians want to do something good for the country. That's compared to Italy, where politicians only want to have more money. In Italy we have a lot of Madoffs, but they don't go to jail, they stay in Parliament." Obama:  "We admire Obama... he is like Jesus Christ. Not in a religious sense, but in that he gives everybody hope. But he says one thing and does another. He goes on expensive vacations and doesn't care enough about poor people."

I asked them what we needed to do more of or better. First on their list was environmental issues: "You Americans need to use cars with less power. You're good at recycling, but need to use less oil... you don't care about the environment enough." They also talked about the food: "You people eat unhealthy... everything is fried." And they critiqued what we consider Italian cuisine: "good, but too much garlic."

As their table was called, I asked them one last thing: would they come back? They both nodded in agreement: "We will come back, because it's the country of opportunity," said Francesco. But they also missed the slower pace and feel of their home country, and wondered if there might not be a better balance in work and play. "Italy is too slow, too safe.  America is too fast, too unsafe. Maybe we'd all be better if we were a little more in the middle."

Slow down. Fewer fried foods. More recycling. Less garlic. It might not be the whole answer to our troubles as a country, but it's a start.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to talk to people with different experiences. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Hot and/or Cold

It's tough being in the middle. Doesn't mater what it is: middle seat, middle child, middle age. In each case, you have to watch as others ahead of you get the best pickings while those behind have the benefit of being the baby and being catered to. You spend your time there muddling through and watching and waiting, hoping that sooner rather than later circumstances will change, and you can move to one of the ends where the view is better and you have some room to stretch and finally let out the clutch.

That's kind of where we are on the calendar. It's hardly cold, but short sleeves and white pants seem past their "use by" date. On the other hand it seems a little early for coats and boots, and a sweater winds up being carried as much as worn. Dress for cool and you wind up sweating; dress for warm, and you're wrapping your arms around yourself trying to conserve heat. And there's the pure mental surrender that comes with switching to winter weight anything. I can't make that turn just yet; I just can't.

My confusion extends to my choice of beverage in the morning. Back somewhere around Memorial Day I made the switch in the morning to iced coffee. Not the sweet Frappa-Coffino-Latte-esque thingie with whipped cream and a drizzle of caramel on top that packs about 1000 calories a sip. Rather, we're talking the regular brewed American stuff cooled and poured over ice. In addition to having almost no calories save the type of milk or cream you put in, it has the added value of delivering my caffeine in a form that quenches my thirst and cools my core. Like the old Doublemint commercial, for my money that's two, two, two mints in one.

However, usually within a week or two of Labor Day, the night air turns a bit cooler. And so just as I put my shorts in the back of the closet and bring my sweatshirts to the front, I try and make a clean break. I put away the big sippy cup my wife bought me that can handle two cups of joe and a lot of ice, and reach for the deep blue mug I like that isn't so massive that by the time I get to the bottom the brew has cooled to lukewarm at best.

But this year, just as I got my arms around the change, it snapped back the other way. The other day I went for an early run, then made a pot of the hot stuff. I poured a steaming cup, and took a sip. One more taste, and I knew I had made the wrong choice: I was dripping sweat like I had malaria. So I rummaged through the cabinet and found my "cold" cup, filled it with ice and dumped my mug into it. After swirling it around to reduce the temperature, I eagerly gulped it down in a single swig, lowering my body temp even as I stretched my bladder.

Of course, the next day the pendulum swung the other way. Based on my experience the day before (and with the very definition of insanity being to do the same thing and expect different results), I started out with a glass of cubes and filled it to the brim. But a sip later and I was shivering. So I fished out the ice, filled a mug and slipped it into the microwave for a couple of minutes. It emerged watered down, but hot enough to take away the chill.

So for now at least I'm trapped in a nether world, not knowing which way to turn. It forced me to recall the wisdom of Cliff Clavin, the mailman on that seminal TV show "Cheers." When asked about this very problem, he pointed out that, "When the British ruled the Punjab, they drank steaming hot pots of tea on the hottest days of the year to balance out their inside and outside temperatures. So conversely, drinking an ice cold drink on a cold day actually results in a more comfortable body temperature." But then Diane the waitress asks, "Then why do you drink ice cold beer on a hot day?" Cliff's response: "What else are you going to do with it?"

Cliff, thanks for the guidance. I guess for now I'll just have to stay flexible.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes his coffee both hot and cold, but his tea only cold. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.