Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Moscow: the living brain in the comatose body

The distance between Moscow and St. Petersburg is about the same as between New York and Chicago, but at least for me, as probably for most travelers, the journey between them didn’t really give any sense of distance or land in between, as it consisted basically of boarding an overnight train, drawing the curtains and waking up eight hours later in a new city. It’s like two planets separated by a void. Maybe there’s something to that. Russia must be the country where the capital cities have most thoroughly sucked all the energy and life out of the surrounding provinces, as indicated by the fact that most estimates seem to range around 70% of the country’s financial capital being in Moscow.

On the other hand, Moscow does possess a real greatness, and with its hills and forests and monasteries, in some ways has more character than St. Petersburg’s dictatorially imposed obeisance to the flat, straight-lined, symmetrical ideals of conflict-free harmoniousness, like the Ritalin-enforced peace of an elementary school. It is also more alive: more money, more people and, despite the stereotype of “Russian” Moscow in contrast to “Western” St. Petersburg, Moscow is now a much more international center than St. Petersburg, which is basically just a fancy-looking provincial city.

But this liveliness seems more than a little unhealthy. The money and prices in Moscow are more than inflated. We stayed at the Marriott, which granted is probably not exactly typical, where rooms are $1000 a night, a omelette and coffee for breakfast goes for $65, and wireless access is $15 an hour. That would be one thing in New York or London, but in Russia that $1000 is equal to a sixth of average yearly income. I can’t help thinking that the bubble that is modern Moscow is a bit like taking a Viagra and getting an erection lasting for more than six hours: you might be amazed that such intensity of pleasure could last for so long, but in the end you’re still going to have seek medical attention or risk permanent damage.

p.s. The Moscow Marriott, like any good American hotel, claims saving water as the reason for which they only change your sheets if you request it, which is kind of funny, not just for trying to play the environmental awareness card in Russia, but because the water pressure in the shower, glorious as it was, makes me doubt somewhat the depth of their devotion to the cause of water conservation. Bathing with that thing is like aiming a hurricane at yourself. I’ll be dreaming about that while cautiously dribbling cold water over myself when showering for the next two weeks due to the fact that they turn off the hot water in apartments in St. Petersburg in the summer, allegedly to make repairs.

The White Nights

Though even more minds may be leaking out of Russia than capital or nuclear secrets, St. Petersburg possesses, though only for a few months of the year, what is by definition the ideal of enlightened existence, namely unending daylight. Though with electric lighting the rest of the world has learned to mimic this condition, which incidentally means that the great Enlightenment began not in the 18th but at the beginning of the 20th century, two centuries earlier Saint Peter the Intrusively Tall, in choosing to build a capital city in an artic swamp, had stumbled upon at least this one advantage. Even in the heavy hours the light grows dim but never enough to quite preclude the most basic elements of cultivated life: reading a book–or writing. There’s something slightly inhuman about this though, since there exists as well a nighttime inside living things, whether or no it corresponds to anything in the surroundings, which demands a time to rest.

Of course for me the light is blocked out, living as I do in the permanent nighttime of a lightless gypsy cavern, hedged in by sparkly purple curtains, giant teddy bears with full red promiscuous lips and willow-like nets of beads hanging from candles and chandeliers all somehow carrying on the spirit, even if in cheap and degraded form, of the rococo motifs all over the walls and ceiling of the 18th century building. Since the ever-bumbling institute where I’m studying, which is fittingly named after Aleksandr Nevsky, who, defeating the Teutonic Knights in the 1300’s, struck an early blow for Russian culture against the Teutonic characteristics of efficiency and competence, I suppose I will have a few more days of my own underground life, though as a matter of fact I am the opposite of the Underground Man. He claimed to only be speaking to himself but was actually read around the world, whereas I think I’m addressing the whole world but am really only speaking to myself.

A death foretold

The mantra of the managing classes in the age of globalization is to make your job unable to be outsourced or performed by machines. By electing its presidents with huge majorities in every election Russians have made the results of those elections like those that easily can be and generally only are obtained by massive voter fraud. As long as 70% of them are going to continue to rubber-stamp the ruling cabal in every election, they might as well go back to fraud instead of taking the time and trouble to count the actual ballots. In this respect the voters have turned themselves into unreliable, inferior substitutes with short attention spans of the secret police.

Which is why even if the elections have been genuine and honest I would still say, as I will say, that the woman in whose apartment I am now living turns out to be one of the last Russian democrats. On my first memorable evening in St. Petersburg, while she was showing me around, she smoothly segued in about two sentences from showing me how the TV worked, to commenting that it was all garbage anyway because Russia has no free press, to declaring that Russia is a fascist dictatorship. She also said that she marches in the pro-democracy protests and at least claims to be a friend of Garry Kasparov, although perhaps just spiritually or in the sense of political affiliation. Maybe she can see which direction the wind is blowing, since she somewhat looks like and has decorated her apartment like a fortune-teller. But as Bob Dylan would say, in Russia today it doesn’t take a weatherman. Or maybe it’s some form of rebellion against her mother, who sits in the living room watching TV all hours of the day and night while proclaiming that it is all an expression of corrupt, decadent Western culture that is going to cause World War III.

In any case, my host has made me see that there is something admirable in a place like this in such a cause like democracy that might be worth fighting and even dying for, but I find it almost impossible to connect the concept as it exists and in what it signifies for her with the numbskull popularity contests that go by the name of elections in America. I suppose it’s like in apartments, where someone’s roof is always someone else’s floor. I might well take to the streets on the American system’s behalf if it came to a clear contest with something like the Russian, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to waste my time trying to choose between the vying marketing strategies in which candidates constantly cloak themselves and which serve to conceal any pertinent truths that people might delude themselves into believing that they’ve learned about them. In this respect our elections are inferior even to the Pepsi challenge. Especially since I probably stand less chance to influence the political system by casting the decisive vote in a presidential election than, as a grad. student in literature, by personally coming to power in a military coup. But in any case, even as Russian democracy is dying with little mourning, or at least being shorn of any of the good graces that might make it respectable, this strange woman with the heart of a flood wall has my full attention.

New York, part II

Money can buy strange things. When it comes to, for example, the public beach near Brooklyn that a friend and I visited on Saturday which is accessible by subway and free to the public, as compared to the beach a little further away that we visited on Sunday and that requires taking the Long Island suburban train and paying a surprisingly high entrance fee, a mere $22 may not be enough to buy a police helicopter but it is enough to buy the absence of a police helicopter constantly canvassing the beach, as well as a remarkable instantaneous skin-lightening procedure for the other beach-goers.

Of course money can’t buy everything. But with even less, in fact with the mere effortless fact of being born you can apparently gain the infinite self-satisfaction with which an obese old woman this very morning at the table next to us in a café while we were sitting down interrogated us, with absolutely no preface and before my lowering body had even reached the chair: “You’re not from New York, are you?” To which I wanted to reply: “No, which is what guarantees that I’ve traveled more than two blocks from home in my life.” But then again, if you antagonize old women the world is never on your side.

The city is such a thunderous furnace of barely contained chaos, it’s no wonder it’s been so hot the last couple of days that it almost seems like the weather gods’ contribution to the atmosphere for the Puerto Rican National Day parade. I was envious of the guy covered only in flour and a loincloth that we saw in Williamsburg one night who came staggering out of a bar where the band which he seemed to be associated with was playing and started performing some sort of cataleptic dance on the sidewalk. Then again, for me to pull off all my clothes like that would have required some sort of justification as performance art, which seems to throw a burka-like veil of respectability over all forms of public nudity. As my friend said, “Even though they may not have any particular merit, I’m sort of glad that things like that happen here.” Which probably sums up the American public’s attitude towards its arts scene, and maybe to New York as a whole, as well as anything can.

New York, part I

“What a city, right? 18 million people with six degrees or less of separation by coughing.”

“Maybe that’s why the buildings are all so ugly, like they’re not ultimately here for our benefit. After all, the fences of a cattle pen don’t need to be pretty either.”

“What makes them allow themselves to be herded in so docilely? Maybe the cattle already inside denigrate the open range as ‘sprawl.'”

“We’re really below the level of cattle though, since we’re choosing to pack ourselves in. Speaking of which, how are we going to afford living here? I heard the city has a rent control policy to keep prices down, but that none of the apartments in the city are cheap enough to qualify.”

“I suppose we could always share a bed to save money.”

“Yeah, nice one. So to save valuable tongue space shall we just make out all the time too?”