Thursday, July 26, 2007

Odessa: Trouble, anyone?

It's hard to know where to begin to articulate the weekend Ariel & I had in Odessa, Ukraine...

It has the qualities of a Tarantino film, where the first scene shows sea of carnage, then everything goes hazy and you're taken back to the beginning to see how it all unfolded (and it still makes no sense).

[Scene 1: Odessa airport]: Two exhausted, hungover foreigners, trying to fathom exactly what happened over the last 48 hours. We've just received word that a friend of ours in Moscow has turned up after going missing for 36 hours after Friday night, except he thinks it's only Saturday. We can relate to how he feels, but the images (and the photos... oh yes, the photos) keep running through our addled minds...

This weekend, more than ever, the photos tell the story far better than words... The link to them is here, but even more than usual, parental or professional psychiatrical supervision should be exercised for anyone under the age of... well... pretty much anyone, really...

We coined a new phrase: "When in Ukraine, do as the Russians do", which pretty much guided our philosophy for the weekend, which included pumping nightlife, late-night swimming with mermaid-like nymphs, Russian karaoke, identically dressing sisters, a fire outside our hotel, extraordinary women ("what do you mean you're sponsoring me, you haven't even bought me a Mercedes"), a restaurant called "Assol", hulking Odessan thugs looking for a fight, nightclubs styled on Greek ruins, the list goes on...

Odessa is a beautiful town of approximately a million people on the shores of the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. It has a rich history dating from pre-Roman times, and its city centre is gorgeous, with classical architecture, fountains, a beautiful promenade, and lovely shady avenues. We spent approximately 15 minutes there.

About 20 mins south of the city centre is Arcadia Beach, with the most happening nightlife in the Ukraine (which is saying something). Right on a lovely beach is a stretch of happening nightclubs. Each follows a different theme, classical Greek ruins, a Mayan temple, Western/cowboy, a pirate ship, etc. Our favorites were Ibiza (resembling a whitewashed Flintstones version of an open-air anthill), and Itaka, a giant dancefloor presided over by faux-Greek ruins.

A chronological rundown simply doesn't work for this weekend, so here are some snapshots from what we can remember:

  • Late-night swimming with half-naked swinging girls, ginormous scary babushki, random passed-out dudes and some reoccuring Belorussians;

  • The identically dressed sisters who took us on wild ride around Odessa, taking us to corners that even Odessans feared to tread, and were determined to bleed every last dollar out of us;

  • The rapid & violent response to Cam attempting to have a cultural and enlightened discussion with a young lady at a bar, only to be approached by a local thug & his posse, claiming that the aforementioned young lady was his wife and threatening a most unpleasant end to the trip. Thankfully after an Oscar-winning "No speakski Russki" performance by Cam, plus a dose of Aussie charm, the two became firm friends;
  • The karaoke bar which aforementioned sisters booked out to showcase their singing skills, resulting in entertainment and Cam's first karaoke in Russian (video available pending a 3-album deal) ;

  • Whiplash, sunburn, and hearing damage from spending a day at the beach club. The 40 degree heat, even hotter girls, sizzling mohitos, but sadly only lukewarm Brazilian music made for a memorable day;

  • The pirate-ship named restaurant/nightclub called Assol;

  • The fire and response by 50 year-old fire trucks (not to mention our new friend the ex-Soviet intelligence police officer), outside our hotel;

  • Being hit on by gay tourists from Kiev (first time I've heard "spasiba" with a lisp);

  • The Ukranian girls seemed to be even more narcissistic than Russians, with one dining companion repeatedly walking down the road to another cafĂ© to use the bathroom, as it had a larger mirror;

  • While the antics of the previous 36 hours weren't enough to earn us as much as a warning, the hotel was quick to boot us out with KGB-like efficiency, practically breaking down our doors and heaving us into the street at checkout time.

A memorable weekend (if only we could remember it all)... Viva Odessa!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Russia: Land of Oz

As if life in Russia wasn't already random enough, following a minor hurricane that swept through the Moscow hinterlands last Friday, one of my colleagues ended up with an upside-down dacha in his backgarden (photo left).

As a testimony to Russian architecture & sturdy building traditions, the structure landed completely intact, windows and all, after flying over his fence in the middle of the night.

Reportedly, there were no wicked witches (or even babushki) trapped underneath, however, no amount of clicking of ruby-encrusted high heels (of which there are plenty in Russia) would return the dacha to its previous position.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Regional Exploration- Vol #1: Yaroslavl

As is so often the case with great epiphanies, a bunch of us were sitting around somewhat embeveraged the other weekend, and the observation arose that if, as so frequently stated, Moscow is not reflective of the "True" Russia, we should probably get ourselves to the regions to find out what this ephemeral Real Russia consists of!

As it turns out, apparently Real Russia consists of shirtless stocky dudes with mullets (some even have all their teeth!), more churches & weddings than Vegas, bisexual 17 year-olds, nightclubbing 13 year-olds, shorter skirts and higher heels than were previously thought possible by modern physics, and of course the occasional blue horse.

Photos of all of the above are here.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Scenic Yaroslavl, about 250km NE of Moscow, was chosen for our first regional excursion through Cam's scientific process of drawing a 400km circle around Moscow (limit of car/train for a weekend), and then comparing the cities within against Wikipedia's list of the largest cities in Russia.

Yaroslavl is one of the most ancient cities in Russia, apparently founded by Prince Yaroslav the Wise (not sure if self-titled) in around 1000 AD, when he slayed some poor locals' sacred bear by hacking it to bits with his magic axe (Russia always has such a peaceful (pieceful?) history). It's located on the mighty Volga river, and boasts more churches per capita than anywhere I've seen outside of Utah or the US South.

The above would have been particularly useful to know before Ariel & I jumped on a train there, but what the hell...

We spent the next few days wandering the city again & again (it's not that big), partying ourselves into oblivion (not sure if having the local McDonald's next door to our hotel helped or hindered), dining at Yaroslavl's top restaurants (all three of them- good food!), and partying at it's hot nightspots, named creatively like "Joy Party", "Metro Fashion Cafe", "Tarzan", and "Pyatnitsa (Friday's)". We weren't sure if another venue called "Viagra" was so named because of the age of its patrons or their aesthetic qualities.

Other than Viagra, the nightclubs seemed to be principally populated by pre-pubescent Russians demonstrating the finest dance moves a vodka-(or sugar?)-induced haze would allow... We were particularly entertained by one of the (approximately 300) wedding parties we saw, having their reception at Joy Party, with the bride getting down (dress & all) on the dance floor! We were able to seek sanctuary at some places catering for an "older" (above 17) crowd. The local clubs often offered local "variety" (softcore cabaret) shows of varying degrees of quality... We even emulated the Moscow experience by being "feised" at one establishment! For those used to Moscow nightlife, the "early" closing times of 5am came as a bit of a shock!

We met a number of interesting people (ie the gentleman pictured to the right), and found people generally friendly, and far more interested in life and events outside of Yaroslavl and Russia than Muscovites, although virtually nobody spoke any English. Unsurpringly, virtually everyone we met was pretty negative about Moscow, perceiving Muscovites as arrogant, shallow and self-obsessed- Ariel & I were perplexed as to how people could possibly have developed that impression!

The town itself was very pretty, packed with churches, parks, and a historical Kremlin, as well as beautiful walks along the Naberezhnaya (Volga River embankment). Yaroslavl was, however, far more run-down than the centre of Moscow, and virtually every building and monument was in a state of disrepair.

Prices for everything were far cheaper than Moscow. The cost of the whole weekend, including our tickets, accommodation at Yaroslavl's best hotel and eating & drinking the best the city had to offer, was barely more expensive than a single night out in Moscow.

Overall, Yaroslavl was a fascinating trip, as a destination in itself, a break from Moscow, and an insight into a different world.

Looking forward to my next regional adventure!

Cold Shower, Anyone?

Potentially as an antidote to the hordes of scantily-clad gorgeous devushki roaming the streets of Moscow in summer, the local government mandates cold showers for everyone in the city for a month during summer.

Seriously, a little-known fact to those of you who don't live in Moscow (but is unsurprisingly ubiquitous knowledge within), is that both the heat and hot water services in Moscow (and most ex-Soviet cities) are centrally controlled by the government (come to think of it, like pretty much everything else in Russia... {sigh}).

The impact of this is that one fine day in October, regardless of the actual temperature, one's apartment will start to perform it's best impression of the Chernobyl-4 reactor, necessitating open windows and air conditioning throughout winter, despite -30 outdoor temperatures.

Perhaps to counter this excessive overheating, to prevent heatstroke among Moscow's resilient elderly babushki, to make Moscow's metro in rush hour event more fragrant with slavic pheremones, or to make the population a little more pliant ahead of elections, the city's hot water is shut off for about a month each summer, region by region. (Actually, I've heard it's to service the pipes, but I'm sure this is just propaganda).

So I woke up one fine morning last week, already not at my most timely for work, to find a complete lack of hot water. Thinking that my fine company would not leave me in a hot-water-free apartment, I immediately performed a detailed cupboard-by-cupboard search of my apartment & it's surrounds. This left a soggy trail of footprints and bubbles through my apartment and Stalinist-chic hallways, leaving my poor cleaner certain that I must have embarked on an impromptu mid-shower melange of drop-the-soap and hide-&-seek.

Despite startling neighours & dust bunnies, and a brief tool pillaging of Citigroup's building maintenance team, I was left trying to decipher a maze of Babylonian complexity, as the post-Soviet engineers had attempted to introduce my boiler into the building's existing infrastructure with an over-engineered system of valves that would make my high-school physics teacher proud.

By using the anguished yelps and loud Russian curses from around the building as a form of crude sonar as I worked the valves, I was able to identify the right sequence to connect my boiler to my shower without (hopefully) depriving anyone else of water or heat. Hopefully I'll be able to reverse the process without mishap next month!

Btw, in case you're interested, I took the photo at the top of this post from my bedroom of the bar across the street from me which had even more Ferarri's, Bentley's and Hummers in front than usual last week.

Cruising in Croatia

A couple of weekends ago I had the chance to visit my parents on their yacht in Croatia. They live the tough life by spending the European summer cruising different parts of the Mediterranian. Since they are doing the Adriatic this year I took the chance to return to Croatia to cruise with them in the central part of the country where I hadn't previously visited.

It was wonderful to see Mum & Dad, since I only get the chance to see them a couple of times a year. I boarded in Zadar, and we cruised a number of islands including Dugi, Pasman, and the Kornati National Park. The weather and sailing conditions were perfect, with brilliant sunshine, sea breezes and 30 degree temperatures every day.

Days were spent sailing from place to place, and we'd typically moor near a lone restaurant in an isolated bay, where we'd be served delicious grilled local fish & seafood, and drink substandard Croatian wine (thankfully I replenished the boats' vodka supply from Russia).

The islands we were sailing around were beautiful, and varied greatly in topography and foliage, from the barren rocky islands of the Kornati with the steep cliffs on their seaward side, to the pine forests of Pasman.
The water was crystal clear blue, with visibility down tens of meters. Snorkeling for sea life was not particularly rewarding, but I did manage to find some carved stone remains which I steadfastly maintain must have been Roman.

It was the first time I'd had the chance to Mum & Dad's gorgeous yacht, which is very spacious, and they've built custom-designed systems for everything, from the decktop hammock, to the full-boat sunshades!

Not only was it great to hang out with Mum & Dad, but it was a nice change from the frenetic pace of Moscow, and a chance to catch up on some sleep after my birthday weekend the week before!

The photos from the trip can be found here.