Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Prague...Finally!

Greetings and sorry for the delay!

We have finally arrived in Prague and are already in love with this old, beautiful, easy-going city. After a long travel day from Russia, (one 6-hr train ride from St. Petersburg, a 3-hr layover in Helsinki, complete with another attractive sunburn, a 2-hr flight to Frankfurt, and 1-hr flight to Prague...whew!) we made it to our home sweet home for the next month. Our hosts are wonderful, gracious people, named Petra and Honza, who have provided an excellent room for us to stay in. We have a huge window, table and chairs, and comfortable sleeping quarters. The apartment is well-located, in a quiet neighborhood outside of the center, smack dab between two enormous, green parks. I bet you can guess the best part about parks in Prague. You've been reading the blog... That's right! They have beer! There are several pubs in each of the parks near us, and on our first day in the city, Honza us to one of them. You order beer ("pivo") from a little stand, then drink it at picnic tables that overlook the entire city. It was an amazing welcome to this wonderful European gem. I wouldn't be surprised if this ended up being the best place we've ever traveled. The beer is cold and delicious, the people are nice, what more could you want?

Petra and Honza have also been very hospitable when showing us around the area. Our second night here, Petra took us to one of the oldest bars in Prague to meet some of her friends. They were so friendly, generous, and eager to practice their English. Petra was explaining to us that Czech people really enjoy speaking English with Americans because, apparently, we're very patient with their sometimes broken sentences and thick accents. I, for one, appreciate any foreign situation in which I can use my native tongue and be accepted, even welcomed for it. I would extend the gratitude the other way. Regardless, it's great talking with young Czechs who enjoy speaking English. It's been a lovely time so far.

The general ambience in Prague is open and laid-back. The country itself bears the semblance of a young nation, despite the age of Bohemia and the city itself. This atmosphere is the result of the overthrow of Communism which occurred in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution. Czechs are a people who relish and appreciate their freedom because the presence of very real oppression is fresh in the collective memory. Even Petra, in her early thirties, remembers quite vividly how different things were under Communist rule. Her father was even demoted at his job for listening to a particularly outspoken Czech folk singer years ago. We really have no idea what this type of legacy entails in the U.S. We're lucky for the freedoms we have always had, and should appreciate them on a daily basis. The result of such awareness in Czech Republic is a very laissez-faire social attitude. It's hard to describe this difference; it's more of a feeling that appears in high relief after visiting a place such as Russia, which seems like the third world. There is a vibrancy and joie de vivre in this city that is refreshing and invigorating for us, weary travelers at this point.

About the delay in the blog... We haven't been able to get wireless to work on my laptop here, so I'm borrowing Honza's. I will try to update in the future as much as necessary, but I'm going to be getting pretty busy once school starts on the 4th. Maybe I'll get John to take up a bit more responsibility with the writing. However, if anything exciting happens, I'll be sure to post it up. Just know that we're safe, happy, and really enjoying ourselves. Love to everyone!

Friday, June 25, 2010

White Nights Are the Best Nights

Hello again from Russia!

Wednesday night was, without a doubt, the best time we've had so far on our trip. We experienced the white nights first hand, which involved a pretty late outing, but it was worth it. Each evening in St. Petersburg, the draw bridges must be lifted so that large boats and barges may pass through. The lifting of the bridges, during white nights, is quite the social event for locals and tourists alike. The setting for this occurrence is so whimsical and ethereal, like being in another dimension. To be specific, we ventured out from our hostel at 1:30am, and when we reached one of the main bridges on Nevsky Prospect (the major drag here in S.P.), the bridge was already up. Drunken boat captains were recruiting passengers for their mystical nighttime cruises. Hippies blowing and dancing with fire drew a crowd on the banks of the Neva. Exhausted adolescents crippled by too much beer and too high heels staggered in the streets. It was lovely, exuberant madness. We even saw a man dressed like Darth Vader. Anything was possible.

We sipped on some canned Gin & Tonics, available at any convenience store, and watched the boats pass through the open bridge. Around 2:30am, the sun finally set, casting a pink glow over the whole city, setting fire to the gentle ripples on the river's surface. White lights outlined the edges of the bridge, setting it apart from the pastels on the horizon. The scene was breathtakingly beautiful. This was truly a unique experience that I will always cherish. We sat on a ledge, talking politics with our Czech companions, drinking until the sunset morphed into sunrise. To be sure, full darkness never settles here. In a preternatural sequence of moments, what you've been witnessing as the setting of the sun suddenly becomes its ascent. I don't know many places on earth where this simultaneous phenomenon occurs. We were stunned.

After a couple of hours at the river, we decided to head back to our hostel. We happened upon a 24-hour Subway on the way. It was 3:30am, and we were hungry. The restaurant was crowded and filthy. The meat was mysterious and watery, and the bread undercooked. I braved the restroom which was as frightening as any horrific moment in the Communist revolution (see the lower appendix entitled "A Word on Russian Water Closets"), and John cursed the employees because they were out of sweet onion sauce. Then he had a beer. It was a memorable meal.

As you might infer, we were forced to sleep in the next morning. Once we finally rolled out, we hopped on the metro, got out at the bus station, then rode out to one of the famed tsarist summer homes, this one entitled Peterhof Palace. This site is best known for its elaborate fountains and location adjacent to the Baltic Sea. We admired some lovely architecture, marveled at the fountains, walked out to the sea through the royal gardens, ate some hot dogs, then headed back to the city. We didn't visit the inside of the palace because of the fees we already had to pay to get onto the grounds alone, hence the lack of historical perspective and artistic musings here. You can't walk five feet in this city without paying for something (once again, see the lower appendix on restrooms). Each building in this complex called for a separate ticket, aside from the rubles we shelled out just to get through the gates. It's ridiculous. Regardless, we had a fun, if frugal, time.

That evening, we dined on Russian fast food at Teremok -- a chain specializing in the Russian favorite, bliny. Bliny are a lot like crepes, but better. This restaurant had dozens of possible fillings from caviar to cabbage to caramel apple. They also served up all the traditional Russian soups, including a delicious borscht which I had to exchange my initial soup for. The cold vegetable soup that I ordered seemed harmless enough. Vojta translated it (there was no English menu to speak of) as a cold vegetable soup made with beer, garnished with sour cream. Sounds great. The girl at the counter retrieved a bowl of raw veggies from the kitchen, plopped in a generous amount of sour cream, then, to my horror, filled the bowl to the top directly from the beer tap. That was the "broth." It wasn't even regular beer, it was this strange, low alcohol, yeast drink served at most fast food restaurants in Russia. Imagine a cross between Bud Light and grape soda...extra yeasty. I took a few bites of the soup, that was also garnished with super hot horseradish mustard, then had to wave the white flag. It was the weirdest, and probably most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. I don't want to hear any crap from any of you until you've tried it, either. It was traumatizing.

A Word on Russian Water Closets
1) You aren't allowed to flush your TP. You have to put it in a little trash can next to the shitter. Eeeew.
2) In public places, you always have to pay to use the potty. I learned quickly to lower my water intake. At night, after a few beers, a dark alley will suffice.
3) The hand dryers never work. Don't even bother trying.
4) Cleanliness standards are slightly lower than those in the
U.S. This is a euphemism.

Today, we awoke to thunderstorms, so we stayed in bed until the sun came out. Great idea. Once out, we walked a few kilometers to the Dostoevsky museum, located in the flat where the author wrote The Brothers Karamazov, and eventually passed away from a chronic lung disease. We took an audio guide to lecture us through the few rooms of the apartment, a great investment. We learned so much about Dostoevsky's life; that he was well loved and respected by Russians during his lifetime, was a dedicated father and proponent of family life, and a tireless advocate for the well-being of his fellow man. The tour was incredibly informative, and quite moving, at times. John was thrilled to find such a reward after plowing through both Brothers and Crime and Punishment before our trip. After this excellent excursion, we walked to the cemetery where Dostoevsky is buried, along with his wife and stenographer. John was the only one who went in. The rest of us didn't want to pay. I'm sure it was great.

Near the cemetery is the complex housing the Alexandre Nevsky monastery. Inside is a beautiful graveyard and gardens, along with another lovely Orthodox cathedral. We quietly entered the church during the saying of the liturgy, a very bizarre type of religious service. One monk recites scripture quickly, like a trance-inducing, singsong incantation. The faithful respond by crossing themselves at appropriate times and rocking back and forth. During the invocation, a hidden choir of monks chimes in with eerie, musical callbacks. Throughout the church, set to this soundtrack, old women, heads covered, walked from icon to icon, kneeling to the floor and touching their foreheads to the cold stone. They then rose and kissed the objects of worship, Jesus's feet, the Virgin's cheek, the soil of Jerusalem. Their lips moved rapidly in desperate prayer. It was very emotional. We felt much like intruders, so made our rounds, then exited into the sunshine. Again, a unique, unforgettable experience.

After some quick dinner from a street vendor (schwarma good), we caught a tour boat and experienced the city via canal. We were too lazy to search for a tour in English (few and more expensive), so we settled for a Russian narrator. Despite the communication gap, it was a lovely ride. Can you guess what we did while we're right! Beer! It was a great evening trip and a must-do for tourists in S.P. We had a wonderful time. Now we're back at the hostel, resting up for a big day at the Russian museum tomorrow. It's our last day in Russia tomorrow, so we hope to make the most of it. Love to everyone at home!

Interjection from Kochancz:
OK, it's been awhile since I've said much on this blog. Katie pretty much sums up my opinions, and I'm quite content to let her speak for me. However, I feel like some of our readers might be interested in hearing a little something from me at this point. Our trip in
Russia has been fascinating, as Katie has aptly described. In America, we often don't think other cultures too much. We have our own problems, and it is usually enough to worry about our individual stuff from day to day. Culturally speaking, Russia is at the far end of the world for us, an exotic place that was our traditional enemy for so long, and in many respects, a place which we are unable, or unwilling, to understand. Katie has illustrated most of what I'm trying to convey here, so I won't repeat too much. I am very thankful to Vojta and Zuzka for extending an invitation to travel here. Without any knowledge of the Russian language or the Cyrillic alphabet, it would be next to impossible for us to travel here. Vojta has been our mouth, and we really appreciate his effort and proficiency with the Russian language. I find it intimidating to order even a hot dog here without his help.... That being said, the place is wonderful, and the Russians find it interesting and amusing to see Americans traveling through their land. Some Siberian guys told us that we should tell all of our friends to come, and there is nothing to be afraid of. I agree, but we still must be aware of the differences. All in all, we have come to a place where most Americans avoid for historical and communications (some come for short periods on cruises and tours, but it is infinitely easier to visit Western Europe), and it has been an extremely rewarding and informative visit for us. The geographic aspects of the visit have been very cool, as we are farther north than the major Alaskan cities (but the climate is much milder). We are both very happy to have come here, but it will be very welcome to arrive in Prague and settle down for the month.

Side note on Dostoevsky:
OK, I have turned into a bit of a Dostoevsky nerd in the past year. I've plowed through two of his major novels, and I must say, this was one of the best literary choices that I have ever made.
Saint Petersburg features prominently in Dostoevsky's works, especially two that I have read, Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground. Here, the city becomes the setting for major existential drama, the place where humanity functions on both its and basest levels. The landscape allows for some horrifying acts, but also becomes the ultimate outlet for humanity and religion. Although Dostoevsky has been criticized for using religion as the end-all-be-all for the existential problems of the human condition, here you can begin to see how he formulated these ideas. Placing this in perspective with the history of Russian politics and society (Dostoevsky himself was condemned to execution before being pardoned at the moment of his death and sentenced to several years of hard labor in Siberia...), the author possessed an amazing view on humanity and the relationships that we share. He ultimately suggested an alternate path for the Russian people, one not based on revolution, which he figured would ultimately lead to totalitarianism and repression (and he was right), but one where people would relate through good ole' peace, love, and understanding. I'm risking a basic ramble here, so I will conclude. Don't be daunted by the page counts in Dostoevsky's novels. He offered something which writers today won't contend with. The major tragedy is that his vision was unfinished. He died before he could complete the second half of The Brothers Karamazov, and had visions for several more novels in mind. I found immense pleasure standing in his old house today, or standing before his bones in the cemetery, even though it cost me 200 Roubles... The books are basic in the canon of literature, and visiting the locus of this literature has been one of the most rewarding of pilgrimages.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Long Nights Call for Long Beers


More from Russia!

We’ve finally jumped into our sight-seeing after a long recovery from the grueling overnight bus ride. It’s lucky for us that we’re traveling with our Czech friends Vojta and Zuzka. They are much more familiar with the culture here in Eastern Europe and Vojta speaks enough Russian to survive. I can’t really begin to list all of the minor differences that make this place so strange. It would be hard to explain without sounding xenophobic or culturally elitist. It’s just unfamiliar, and the inability to communicate whatsoever is a new sensation.

Yesterday, we got off to a pretty late start, relatively speaking. The “white nights” here are really perfect for John and me because we like to stay up late and sleep in. That lifestyle works out well here. To explain, right now it’s 11:30pm and still daylight. Very cool. Later this evening we might go out and watch the opening of the bridges. Here in St. Petersburg, there is a network of canals, and at certain times of night, they draw them up to allow large boats to pass through. It’s supposed to be pretty cool. And we can drink beer while watching it! Hooray!

Back to the sights. We started off yesterday with a visit to the Kazan Cathedral, an impressive church whose architecture represents the fusion of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a combination that Tsar Paul, commissioner of the church, saw as a sort of “super-Christianity.” The interior is dark, cavernous, and decorated in the Baroque style – lots of colorful, veined marble, gold, and elaborate carvings. The mood inside this place of worship was very somber. Through the center of the church, people formed a long line, waiting to kneel before and pray to an icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Most of the women wore head coverings, and each of the faithful appeared deep in thought, choosing his or her prayer carefully. You would know a Russian icon if you saw one – paintings, usually of Mary and Baby Jesus, composed in a Pre-Renaissance style, without a sense of spatial perspective, often inlaid with gold and rich pigments. In Russian Christian traditions, touching, kissing, and praying to these icons is an important ritual. We purchased a small replica of an icon, a little shiny Jesus, at the church gift shop. This visit was very interesting because of the architecture and mood of the cathedral, and also because we were able to see the church-goers in action.

When we exited the cathedral, the rain had begun. It rained. And rained. And rained. And then it got cold. Then colder. Then colder still. It was the worst weather we’ve had so far. We had the brilliant idea to visit St. Petersburg’s main museum, Hermitage, to get out of the rain. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We arrived at Hermitage, a magnificent palace painted mint green and white, situated in a huge open square. There was a very long line. We guessed it would take up maybe 45 minutes to get in. It rained the whole time we waited, and when we finally reached the gate, we found that yet another line formed inside, twice as long as the one we had already waited in! This was when the really bad rain started. I think Zuzka almost died of hypothermia. Our friends aren’t really art fanatics, so I started to feel pretty bad that they were enduring all the shittiness just so John and I could up our Caravaggio count by one (There were also other things we wanted to see…). Eventually, they got fed up, and left us there. After two hours of waiting in the cold and rain, we finally made it in. Then we had to wait in another line for tickets!

Pardon my language, but there is only one word for this whole situation – clusterfuck. It was the most inefficient thing I’ve ever seen. We were also pretty upset because by the time we got in, the museum was only going to be open for another hour and a half. We tore that place up! We collided with small children, elbowed through tour groups, and took the stairs two at a time. This was the most crowded museum I have ever been to. Around every corner lurked a guided tour, blocking the view of important, famous works that we needed to check off our list. We got extremely frustrated and started standing in front of the groups, pretending not to notice them. John got scolded by a saucy Italian lady leading a group of Asians. “Excuse me, sir! Can’t you see there’s an excursion here!” she said. “Yes,” John said, then continued looking at the tiny da Vinci painting that was about as interesting as a dog turd, in retrospect. “Do you understand?!” she said. “It’s an excursion!!” John finally caved, and stepped out of the way. It was infuriating, trying to look at paintings when groups of twenty-five to thirty people were crowded around every single one. The most upsetting part about this museum is that you can pay extra if you want to take pictures, otherwise you are forbidden. Included in the price for photography is permission to use a flash. Fragile paintings, like those by da Vinci, can become ruined over time when exposed to flash photography. I guess whoever is in charge of the Hermitage doesn’t really care. I’ve never been to another museum housing such treasures that permits flash photography. It was shocking.

Anyway, bitching aside, Hermitage is indeed one of the most important museums in all the world. The depository itself, in this case, is just as beautiful as the art work. The former palace boasts astounding, elaborate architecture and some of the most beautiful interiors that I’ve ever seen. I wish we could have had more time there. Nevertheless, we saw our Caravaggio, along with some unique works by Rembrandt and Rubens. The modern-contemporary galleries were also fantastic. We saw a whole roomful of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, which are some of my favorites. There were also a handful of works from Matisse’s Orientalist period – very interesting. The modern German section was displaced by works on loan from the Picasso museum in Paris, a real bummer. I was looking forward to those paintings, and I’ve seen enough Picasso to last me several lifetimes. All in all, Hermitage was a hectic, but satisfying experience.

After the museum, we reconvened with our friends for some authentic Russian food. We dined in a small restaurant decorated to look like the inside of a cottage – dim lighting, rustic wood tables, knickknacks and scenes from fairy tales painted on the walls. We had borscht, a traditional Russian beef and cabbage soup, another sour pork soup, the name of which escapes me, and also some hearty dumplings filled with potato and mushroom or pork and beef. We had been freezing all day, so this meal was unbelievably comforting, and certainly more delicious than most of the overpriced fare we had in France. Oh, and there was beer. More Baltika 7.

Today, finally, we had beautiful weather. It was sunny and pleasant all day, perfect for walking around the city. The sun is brighter, for lack of a better word, here, and today ir was encircled by a rainbow all afternoon. It was so beautiful. We started our day with a walk to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This is one of those sweet, quintessentially Russian churches that looks like stacked cupcakes. You’re probably familiar with St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This one is very similar, and completely dazzling. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside, but the exterior was completely breathtaking. Nearby, we visited a souvenir market where we picked up some gifts for family and friends.

After the church, we walked to St. Petersburg’s point of origin, Zayachy Island or The Fortress of St. Peter and Paul. This island is the site where Peter the Great first founded the city, after seizing the area from Sweden. There are multiple buildings on this island, most of which were closed today because it was Wednesday, whatever that means. We were able to visit the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, notable because it is the burial site for several famous Russian leaders such as Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and the last family of tsars, the Romonovs, who were murdered in 1918. The circumstances surrounding their execution are sad and interesting. It was several decades before their remains were actually located, and the bones were only moved to the Cathedral, despite some contention from the church, in 1998. The inside of this cathedral is also typically Baroque, however, there are floor-to-ceiling windows that let in enormous shafts of light, illuminating the whole space. This church is characterized by lightness, where many other churches of this same style are weighty and imposing. It is a truly lovely space.

We left the island and took a walk down to the river. We got in some incredible people watching down there due to the astounding number of weddings and proms taking place this evening. Since all of us are newlyweds, it was fun to watch the other couples having their photos taken near the water. One Russian wedding tradition that we observed involved drinking a glass of Champagne, then breaking the glasses together. This left a precarious mess for the young prom-goers to tread over. The dresses on the young girls were pretty interesting, and everyone was wearing pantyhose, even with open-toed shoes. Zuzka informed me that this is customary among Eastern European women. She and I had more fun that we should have, making comments on all the fashion statements. It was a great way to spend the evening. Oh, and we were drinking beer, again.

After the people-watching fest, we took dinner at a really great Georgian restaurant. The cuisine is a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking – lots of skewered meats, spicy stews, and a homemade bread called levash. I had a cold, summer dish of poached salmon in cilantro and garlic puree, along with a Greek style salad with the creamiest, most flavorful feta cheese I have ever had. John had pork skewers, potatoes, and chicken soup. We also had some Georgian wine (a lot like Pinot Noir)…and more beer! Could you guess? Now we’re back at the hostel, chatting with our Ukrainian roommates, two very nice girls who plan to become teachers of English. This makes it easy for us! We’re having a great time and we hope for more sunshine ahead, despite the fact that I got a little fried today. (My sunscreen got confiscated at the London airport. It was my fault. We haven’t found any more yet. It’s so expensive!) We might visit a place outside the city tomorrow, if the weather holds out. We miss all of you and hope things are well. Much love!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Greetings from Russia!

And here we are in St. Petersburg!

This is definitely the most exotic, far-reaching destination that we have ever experienced. Things are different here, starting with the Cyrillic alphabet which has absolutely no affinity to the Roman characters that we’re used to in the West. The only establishment that we can recognize without looking inside is McDonald’s, thanks to those ubiquitous golden arches. We are travelers apart here, unable to communicate, bewildered, and humbled. It is a truly unique and disorienting sensation. I’m currently working my way through The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera for the second time. It’s assigned for my Czech lit class in Prague. Kundera elegantly explains the plight of the traveler, “Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.” Ain’t that the truth.

We arrived in the city at 5am this morning. It is now midnight and still light outside. Talk about your disorienting factors. We were exhausted after our long bus ride and slept until 1pm. Our body clocks are completely out of whack, and the seemingly everlasting light here does not help. I don’t want to sound upset or disappointed, quite the opposite; the long days are fantastic. We wandered the streets until 11pm, in full daylight. I woke up today wondering whether it was time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. We settled on a schwarma (like a gyro…delicious) and walked the streets. We took in the major monuments of the city and strolled beside the River Neva and her subsequent network of canals. We had some rain, but we’re used to that by now. The rain is more bearable because there is no law against drinking beer in the streets. I don’t have to tell you that we took advantage of that opportunity. Baltika 7 has been our poison of choice thus far. A Russian favorite.

There is not much to report in terms of sights just now. We’re basically getting our bearings in this mysterious city. We plan to visit Hermitage (S.P.’s version of the Louvre) tomorrow, and also the glorious fortress of Sts. Peter and Paul. We’re hoping for clear weather but not counting on it.

John would want me to tell you that we made pilgrimage to some important Dostoyevsky sites today. We visited the apartment that served as the inspiration for the residence of Raskolnikov, the pro/antagonist of Crime and Punishment. The site was marked by a small monument. Nearby, you can look up at three flats in which the author himself lived. He wrote the novel while living in one of those places. John was pleased.

A brief note on fashion:
The mullet is back. I have seen dozens of Russian men sporting what we would term a “rattail” in the states. It would be better called a “beaver tail” over here. They are quite wide and prominent. See the provided illustration.

I want to conclude this portion of the blog by expressing the intense disorientation that comes with visiting this part of the world. Everything is different – the people, the food, the customs. We are very far away from Western Europe, which intensifies our distance from home. However, what I realize as I travel is that people everywhere are really the same. The divisions that exist between nationalities are exclusively the products of constructed ideologies and overarching, (falsely?) unifying beliefs. Who creates these myths? It is not the individual. Everywhere you go, people are people. It is possible to love and appreciate people everywhere, despite what we have been taught about who is good or bad in this world. I feel fortunate to set foot upon a portion of the globe that is shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding for so many Westerners. I hope that I can respectfully absorb the aura of this place and further my understanding of what it means to be a citizen of our world. The multiplicity of ideas, practices, and ways of life present on earth is truly baffling. Contacting a culture that is so different from my own is unbelievably enlightening. I’m exhausted, confused, and anxious, but I feel truly lucky.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thwarted! (For real, this time.)

Greetings from behind the Iron Curtain!

I'm writing you from a coffee shop in Talinn, Estonia, a place I never thought I would visit. It is a beautiful town with a charming, Medieval center filled with all of the tourist amenities. We met up with our Czech friends Vojta and Zuzka in the Frankfurt airport, flew to Helsinki, Finland, then took a ferry across the Baltic sea to Talinn.

Oh, yeah, we also survived our night in Charles de Gaulle Airport. That was a nightmare. Once we got to the airport, everything was fine. However, the Paris metro was an absolute disaster, due to the evening's World Cup match. Algeria won. You might recall the Algerians from a prior post entitled "A Real, Live Frenchman." They were the ones climbing on tour buses and getting chased down by the cops. In short, the train we needed to the airport was canceled due to rowdy, drunken behavior. We had to take a different train, which does not service the airport, to the suburbs. This train was beyond packed with intoxicated, obnoxious individuals on their way home. If John had still had a wallet on that train, it would have been gone for sure. Someone shouted "Fucking tourist!" at him because of his backpack, and a crazy rasta man yelled at me because I hadn't watched the World Cup game. We met some really nice French people on that train who helped us to find a shuttle (organized by the train system due to the cancellation) to the airport once we left the train. We then took a scenic tour through the north suburbs, a place tourists should avoid if possible. Regardless, we made it. It was 2am when we reached the airport, and our flight left at 6:30am. We rode the plane with a raucous, Scandinavian death metal band who may or may not have been the openers for the AC/DC concert that occurred in Paris that same night. I believe the concert-goers definitely multiplied the number of crazy wasted people on the commuter train. While others drank coffee before getting on our early flight to Frankfurt, the death metal band chugged (in every sense of the word) Heineken and Champagne. I'm just glad no one barfed on the plane. They were quite entertaining, especially when they were taking off all their dog collars and chains and spikes before going through security.

Anyway, we made it to Estonia, had a lovely dinner with our friends, then explored the city of Talinn a little bit today. Again, I'm sort of writing in a hurry, and we don't have our luggage with us, so no pictures again. Sorry! But, here's the latest: Due to some faulty information from our hostel today, we rode the tram the wrong way and missed our bus to St. Petersburg. Oops. We were able to book seats for a later departure, this evening at 9:30pm, so no major problem. Only slightly thwarted. I don't know when I'll be able to get wi-fi again, but I'll try to update as soon as I can. I hope everything is going well at home. Happy Father's Day to all the dads! Love you all!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Joyeux Anniversaire, Kochancz!

Salut de Tours!

First, we want to say "merci" to Sarah for recommending a wonderful area of France for us to visit. We've had so much fun here despite the tragically dismal weather. It's been overcast during the past 10 days we've spent in France and usually rains two or three times per day. (I really wanted to go to Provence, but, in case you haven't heard, they're having deadly floods down there right now, so we should consider ourselves lucky.) Here, the air is perpetually misty, and it's cold enough to wear a jacket and a scarf...but that just makes me look more French, so it's not so bad. Anyway, Tours is really our first French experience outside of Paris. To be sure, visiting Paris is a lot like visiting New York City; you don't necessarily get a feel for the common people. As I mentioned before, people in Tours are very friendly and easy-going, and the food/beverage scene is great, much less expensive than Paris. What makes the Loire region truly unique is the plethora of castles (chateaux) located in the countryside. The landscapes around here are also quite beautiful -- very green, lots of open space, beaucoup de vinyards.

Tours is a beer drinking city. Yes, there are a variety of excellent wines to be had in this region (we've sampled a few), but this is a college town, and the pub is king. Let me tell you again about the pedestrian city centre's fabulous. Tucked away amidst a few narrow, medieval-feeling streets, between buildings varying in style from Gothic to modern, lies an entire district of bars, shops, and restaurants. Here in the oldest part of the city, appropriately, there are no cars allowed. At the heart of this area is la Place Plumereau (or "La Plum") where businesses literally spill out into the square. The whole place is filled with tables bustling with eaters and drinkers. We've gone out for drinks a couple of times in this district. We've become addicted to native French Belgian style beer called Grimbergen. It's so delicious and on tap at most establishments. It's very refreshing, just the right balance between drinkability and robust flavor. I hope I can get it back home!

Anyway, last night, we headed down to La Plum for dinner, and it was packed with fans ready to watch the World Cup -- France v. Mexico. The French are quite aware that their team sucks pretty bad, so watching the game was more about the partying than the match itself. Two of the pubs on this square had set up televisions facing the central area with all the tables, so everyone could see the game. I was way too busy watching people to pay a bit of attention to the football. I was also starving, and ordered a delicious Pizza Romano -- super thin, snap-in-your-mouth crust (just the way I like it), red sauce, Emmentaler cheese, ham, and (the best part!) an over-easy egg right in the middle. The runny yolk oozing all over the pizza made it taste vaguely like a breakfast sandwich. It was fantastic. John consumed his third French steak, this one with Bearnaise sauce. We also learned a very important French word on this trip, "seignante," which means, "bloody." This is essential vocabulary for us when ordering steak. Compare this revelation to when John learned the word "carciofi" (artichoke) in Italy. Okay, enough about food. We concluded our evening at another pub (the one where we ate only had crappy beer "au pression," which means "on tap," another important phrase!). This one was called Mac Cool's, and they had our Grimbergen. We threw back a pint and watched the rest of the game. France lost. No one seemed to care.

Okay, to rewind, we also did other things besides drink beer here in Tours. We visited two chateaux, Amboise and Chenonceau. Both were quick train rides outside of the city. Amboise is one of Sarah's favorite sites in France, and for good reason. The town itself is absolutely adorable. Imagine a French version of Nashville, IN. So cute! The chateau is the only attraction to speak of, but it draws a good crowd. The chateau overlooks the Loire river, and is situated high on a hill above the village. If you want to know the history of this place, please consult Wikipedia or some other source of information. French history is some confusing shit. There were about eighty million wars and a jillion kings and queens and dauphins and dukes and stewards. Be happy you were never a French school child, I bet learning all that stuff was ridiculous. Anyway, the chateau was beautiful, inside and out. There were some lovely gardens and a magnificent view of the river and surrounding valley. At the moment, I'm writing you from a coffee shop in La Plum, so I can't post any original photos, but I think the generic postcard shots are better than the pictures we took with the overcast sky.

The most interesting part about Amboise is the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. Here's some history that I was able to grasp. The chateau at Amboise represents the alighting of Renaissance ideas onto French soil. The building itself was originally built in the Gothic style, but was modified according to Renaissance sensibilities by its various inhabitants. Francois I, a king well-loved for his patronage of the arts, invited Leonardo da Vinci (amongst other notable artists) to become a member of the French court at Amboise. Da Vinci spent the final years of his life there, mostly working on architectural drawings, some of which actually came to fruition in the surrounding areas. His body rests in a specially erected chapel which has a lovely, ornate facade and beautiful stained-glass windows. For us, this was the most interesting part of the visit. John thinks that, with this pilgrimage, we've seen the tombs of all the "Turtles" (Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello). It was a big moment for him. Merci beaucoup, Sarah. Tu avais rasion. C'etait vraiment magnifique.

Should I go on another food tangent. Okay, just for a second, then back to the castles. At a small restaurant in Amboise, literally at the foot of the ramp leading to the door of the castle, I had a classic French item called a galette, which is basically the savory version of a "crepe." I could not decide on a filling, so I went with the special of the house. It was special, indeed. Basically, the chef took all the ingredients of an American cheeseburger and put it inside a salty pancake...complete with wilted, rubbery lettuce. I should have read the menu more carefully. I'm happy that I had a galette, finally, but I will never be able to think of it, or a cheeseburger for that matter, in the same way again. Maybe next time I'll go for the standard ham and cheese.

Onward, to Chenonceau! This chateau is quite famous, probably due to its immense grandeur. The grounds themselves are much larger that those of Amboise, and the castle is completely least I think it probably is; they had the front covered in scaffolding for renovation, so we couldn't actually see it. Merde. What's unique about Chenonceau is its superlative defensibility, made possible by the fact that the structure itself actually straddles the Cher River. Check out the picture, and you'll see what I mean. It's really, really cool. Throughout the tour, you're essentially on a series of little islands connected by moats. We had terrible, terrible weather this day, but we still had a pretty good time. The inside of the castle was lovely, but, yet again, I had a hard time following the history. There were lots of ladies, most notably Catherine de Medici, who were in charge of this place over the years. We saw them up close and personal in a ridiculous wax museum connected to the cafeteria that I really can't believe we had to pay extra for. Oh, well. At least it was out of the rain. We saw all of the various bedrooms and studies and libraries inhabited by these queens and mistresses inside of the castle. The most interesting part of the tour, for me, were the kitchens. There were lots of original utensils, fireplaces, meat hooks, cutting boards, etc... down there. You could also look out a window down onto the little dock where boats used to pull up to deliver produce. Also, while in the kitchens, I noticed a group of French school children dressed in wizarding robes, complete with the Griffyndor crest! I think they were pretending to be at Hogwarts. It was adorable.

After the castle, we took a walk through an original 16th century farm where we came across a hiking trail leading into the woods. We wandered around back there for quite some time, eventually circumnavigating the castle itself without ever coming across another tourist. John was ecstatic to be off the city streets and stomping around in the woods for a while. It was a refreshing jaunt. We saw about a thousand crazy-looking snails and slugs as we walked. No wonder the French eat so much escargots. Those little guys are everywhere!

Oh, let's not forget...Happy 25th birthday, John! We're spending it bumming around Tours some more. I visited the local H&M and John went shopping at the flea markets in the streets. He found some great pins for his collection. Now, we're drinking espresso and relaxing before the daunting tasks that lie before us. We take a train back to Paris this evening, then it's straight to the airport where we have to wait for our flight that doesn't leave until 6am. Then we meet Zuzka and Vojta in Frankfurt, fly to Finland, take the ferry to Estonia, then ride a bus for 7 hours to St. Petersberg. Hopefully, next time you hear from us, we'll be in Russia, sanity intact. That's all for now. Au revoir, France! Amour et bises!

Go to this website to see what lies in store for us at the Charles de Gaulle airport tonight!