Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kaliningrad Kraziness

OK, I hear you ask- what's Kaliningrad? That question will be answered later, but it was actually a backup choice after my hopes for visiting Moldova were cruelly dashed. I had wanted to visit the impoverished but up & coming state of Moldova, which in a bid to attract visitors on Jan 1, 2008 eliminated visa requirements for the US, Canada, EU, and of course all former USSR countries, but had overlooked the poor Aussies in this process.

This left only Australians, New Zealanders and some sub-Saharan African countries still requiring visas. This was further complicated by the Moscow consulate requiring an original invitation, yet with an active Russian embargo against Moldova, this meant the Dept of Immigration in Chisinau would have had to give my invitation letter to the train conductor of the weekly Moscow train, who would effect a handover with my driver at the Kiev railway station. While this cloak-and-dagger Soviet-era process added a certain intrigue and was no doubt reliable, this process took 2 weeks longer than I had available, so we decided to head to Kaliningrad instead.

Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave on the Baltic, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, and is not actually connected to Russia proper (as Ariel said, "I think it's west of Ukraine"). As a former part of Prussia, it has a long, proud German heritage, which was largely obliterated by bombing in WWII, leaving it with a concrete and not-so-proud Soviet heritage, with just a hint of German (although, unfortunately, not in the cuisine).

Ariel, Guri and I embarked on this journey to the unknown (even more unknown than usual, since Cam forgot the guidebook), and landed in a dark rural airfield a million miles from anywhere, where we were informed that there was only a bus to the city, 25km away. We eventually arrived at the beautiful (by Soviet standards) Hotel Kaliningrad, which overlooked the brand new shopping centre (rent $25/sq. m). Despite being wedged between two EU members, Kaliningrad is more "regional" than cities I've visited in the middle of Siberia- absolutely nobody spoke English, (or German, for that matter), there was no McDonald's (a plus, except when we were hungover), and the streets still maintain their Communist-era names and monuments (corner of Karl Marx and Dzernzhinsky Ave, please!). In fact, Kaliningrad is so isolated, the locals even retain some positive sentiments about Moscow!

These positive sentiments were unfortunately not extended to foreigners, as we found as we were "feised" by several local restaurants, but thankfully the nightclubs saw things differently, although occasionally requiring some persuasion (Cam copped a Moscow attitude when feised due to his "sports shoes" with an "are you kidding, this is PRADA!" response, which opened the doorman's eyes- thankfully my Russian doesn't extend to "and they cost more than your annual income", which may have made him a little less hospitable).

We definitely enjoyed the local hotspots, but may have been influenced by occasional lingerie show and ubiquitous topless dancers, but then again, it is Russia. The clubs played our favourite Russki-Pop and top-40 hits, and had a fun crowd who was definitely out to party! Ariel found it most amusing that girls who could bust out a full set of lyrics to Justin Timberlake's latest hit were unable to communicate in a single word of English. Notwithstanding, everyone in our crew communicated with the locals in their own unique way, and by 7am we found ourselves back at another branch of the same restaurant where we'd had dinner. It was refreshing to see average menu prices of ~$3-4, compared with the same dishes in Moscow for ~$30.

The following morning (ok, afternoon) dawned with another dose of miserable Baltic weather, but we (actually, maybe just Cam) were determined to explore the city. We staggered to a strange cave-like restaurant, where as the only patrons, we had an acceptable Russian meal, and then strolled around the city centre. Of particular interest (other than Cam's fascination with Soviet architecture) were the local wedding traditions of locking an engraved padlock on the railing of a bridge, and throwing the keys in the water to signify endless love (at least without a bolt-cutter).

Our selection of restaurant that evening posed some challenges, as we were determined to find something edible that wasn't Russian. We stormed out of an early recommendation, when the combination of a cleverly-disguised Russian menu and the lack of either Red Bull or Tonic caused Guri to revolt, but then a starved Cam almost killed him when our backup option's kitchen was already closed (so much for Moscow's 24hr scene). Thankfully we found an acceptable Italian substitute and the evening progressed (assisted by absinthe shots).

Sadly, despite the public holiday the following day, our only late-night venue was the same Prada-debacle casino, which apparently offered a happening scene. Personally, I'd debate this, but thankfully the doormen were sufficiently cowed that they didn't make any further dress code commentary despite my thai t-shirt. After a few more hours of mediocre and middle-aged hits, we got the party started Moscow-style by bribing the DJ the equivalent of a month of Kaliningrad dinners to play "Moscow Never Sleeps", our favourite club anthem (definitely worth a listen), and a few other current Moscow hits, which kicked things into higher gear.

Staggering home from the nightclub, I managed to take a detour through the less-touristy (if that's even possible) side of Kaliningrad, some debris-strewn waterfronts, industrial shipyards, rusty suspension bridges, potholes the size of a mid-sized European country, and the mandatory Park Pobedy (Victory Park), a standard in any Soviet town. Unfortunately in this one the eternal flame to commemorate war dead had been extinguished by the delightful Baltic weather. I thought this seemed a travesty on this long weekend to celebrate the sacrifices of the military, so decided to relight the flame (after tossing the required three coins for three wishes into the cauldron- including the vital wish not to be incinerated). Despite a slight miscalculation in wind direction, I'm happy to report that the eternal flame in Kaliningrad is once again burning brightly.

Half an hour's sleep later, a bleary group of Muscovites commandeered a taxi and headed to the airport, thankfully navigating the sodden country roads without incident and making it to our flight before check-in concluded. Peering through the haze, Cam thought he noticed something familiar about the Aeroflot check-in girl. "Were you at Zhara nightclub on Saturday?", I enquired. The poor girl turned about seven shades before remaining red and peered ever more intently at her check-in screen. Thankfully I'd already been allocated a seat.

The photos can be seen here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Crazy Neighbours

Life in Moscow is certainly never dull. For some time now I've had a complicated relationship with my neighbours who live down the hall. The apartment belongs to a monolingual Russian couple and their kid, the wife seemingly spending most of her time inhabiting the landing.

To spice up her life, in recent months she's taken to listening for any female visitors of mine, and when she hears the telltale click of stiletto's, she leaps out from the apartment and launches a volley of abuse in our direction, accusing these poor innocent girls of being prostitutes, and occasionally rating them against their immediate predecessors.

Shortly after New Year, I arrived home one evening to find a huge mass of clothing, boxes, and other detritus piled on our landing, accompanied by a large handwritten sign. The sign indicated that the wife had returned home that afternoon to find her husband in bed with a back alley hooker from Khabarovsk (her graphic description of said hooker was not flattering), and as such he could now find alternate accommodation. Apparently he came home a little later, was a little perturbed to find his underwear and other belongings strewn in the hallway, and ejected the wife and kid for a month.

Yesterday evening, I was surprised to hear a knock at the door, and this incredibly drunken couple and their friends were outside my door, entreating me to join them for shots and celebrations for Vladimir's birthday. We immediately began to drink shot after shot of vodka, eat all the traditional Russian delicacies, from black bread with sale (lard), to pickles, Strogonoff, Salad Olivier and more types of pickled zakuski than I could jump over. Vlad was determined to get a loan from me (the subtle differences between investment banking and personal loans was lost on him), while Marina continued her abuse of me and my lifestyle, and vowed to find me a "nice" Russian girl to marry (although she also made several graphic offers of herself should I be willing to pay). I introduced them to DJ Кэм and brought over a bottle of Smoko (home-made Swedish liquor). We sang in Russian and English, they plied me with endless gifts of DHL clothing (his employer), and made me wear a Nerpa* hat.

8-10 shots later, I staggered to the door to get ready to meet my friends for dinner, and returned many hours later (tiptoeing as usual) to find a bag of fresh fruit outside my door as a gift from my new friends. While Marina will no doubt continue her abuse (with hopefully no more offers of herself), I felt honoured to have these wonderful, warm, if somewhat quirky people welcome me into their lives and share their hospitality and celebrations with me.

*A Nerpa is a rare freshwater seal from Lake Baikal.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Serbian Celebrations- Guri's 40th

Coordinating 16 guys from all corners of Europe (plus some intrepid travellers from NY) for a 3-day weekend in Belgrade, Serbia, was never going to be easy- the fact that we were going there to celebrate Guri's 40th birthday would make it even crazier. Why Belgrade? Seemed like an interesting place, and it has a wild (and well-deserved) nightlife reputation!

The 4-day extravaganza kicked off with a civilised dinner (accompanied by 2 bottles of vodka) at Galereya, followed by a wake-like bottle of champagne over the still-glowing embers of nightclub Dyagilev, which had burned down earlier that day. The coincidence of the passing of Dyagilev, (where so many memories have been shared), and Guri's 40th, (where so many blackouts have been shared) so moved James that he felt compelled to pour champagne (French, not Soviet) on Guri's head. Thus began the wild partying which moved on to Soho Rooms and Club Opera, leaving a trail of empty glasses, wallets, and devushki in our wake.

Following a debaucherous evening, where Alex perfected the "quick followup" technique, which would land him in trouble later in the weekend, we headed straight to the airport from Opera for our flight to Belgrade, Serbia. Upon arrival, we filled our stomachs, ascertained there was nothing to see, and prepared ourselves for the evening ahead. Having done careful homework, Cruise Director Cam had booked the hottest nightclub in Belgrade for the evening's post-dinner partying. Unfortunately, someone had forgot to mention that Belgrade is dead on Friday nights, so although it was a spectacular venue and all 3 of the women in attendance were gorgeous, this left the other 13 members of the group a little dispirited, and several promptly sought other forms of paid entertainment. Unfortunately, the chosen venue consisted of one stripper of somewhat generous proportions (estimated at 3x a regular stripper's weight, apportioned to all the wrong places), who was more intent at removing one of our group member's clothing than (maybe thankfully) her own. Upon trying to leave, the group was relieved of significant sums of cash and sent on their way.

In the meantime in another part of town, a smaller contingent had found our way to a barge in a remote stretch of the Danube packed with locals and the reknown Serbian "Turbofolk" music, which was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the wild dancing set up a rocking motion, which sent Ariel scurrying for dry land, and both Cam & Ariel discovered that Russian sponsorship traditions are alive & well in Serbia (why us?).

We departed the barge and made out way gingerly through the toxic wastelands of outer Belgrade to try and find another venue. Unfortunately, while in Moscow at 4am things are really only getting into the swing of things, Belgrade pretty much shuts down (or at least stops entry) after 3.30, leaving us despondently headed home.

The next day dawned cloudy and cold (as always) and we determinedly set out to see Belgrade's only sight, the Citadel. Admittedly, it's pretty cool & has a great restaurant. Earlier that day Steve & Myles had been spotted jogging in some of the spiffiest (and certainly tightest) running gear ever seen in the history of Yugoslavia.

More afternoon wandering and a stop at a bar or too (including Mama's Biscuit House- wtf?), we found ourselves at a traditional Serbian restaurant, consuming copious amounts of grilled meat, vodka, and watching Guri dance to somewhat authentic Serbian music, which made some of our grill a little indigestible.

Thankfully, Cam's research was on the money for our nightclub venue, and the crew ran amok, meeting all sorts of new friends and thankfully avoiding most confrontations. The most significant altercation was when Alex's patented "quick followup" strategy encountered Guri's patented "Privet- it's GURI!!" strategy, but Peacemaker Leo was able to defuse the situation. Steve even ended up on a pizza date, but apparently the cold light of day (or the harsh fluorescents of the pizza parlour) put an end to any further festivities.

A small group made an early exit to revisit some of the other notable venues in Belgrade, and headed back to Magacin (MUCH better than the night before), Teatro (why do they have tables throughout the dance floor?), Plastique/Mint (thanks to Cam's fluent Serbian), before staggering home, at which point Cam & James played cupid to a couple of otherwise shy lovebirds, and then Cam & Guri sat on the stairs and watched and listened to the havoc of the evening, including the hotel chasing a missing bed from one of our rooms, people coming & going (and coming again), including a couple to one room- (Guri, your friends are sick puppies), before finally falling asleep for at least 2-3 hours and then hauling ass to the airport.

Usually, the flight home is uneventful (although occasionally productive), but Alex's perserverence finally won through when a drunken, worldly girl from Bashkirkistan passed out in his lap, and the two spent the flight blissfully intertwined in the back of the Aeroflot TU-128...

The photos are here.