Tuesday, December 25, 2007

It's A Wonderful Life, 2007

A sunny Christmas morning in Brooklyn. The house is quiet as is the block. All have flown or drove off to be with family or still slumbering in their beds dreaming of sugar plum fairies. I should be in Miami with friends right now but changed my plans. It’s OK, I need to be alone in the quiet with the cats snuggling at my feet in my own house today. After all the ups and downs of the last month leading up to this day, I’m happy just sitting in my kitchen drinking a cup of tea with the morning sun at my back.
The Underground Market is over for Maruska and I, we packed up on Sunday and got out of there. It wasn’t the big money maker for us that we expected but we went away with lessons learned and lots of new friends. The last few weeks were very frustrating for many of us for all the press and PR the market got didn’t generate many sales. Mainly I think because people fear a recession and are spending less this year on gifts. The housing debacle that is going on right now has scared people and thus they cut back on their spending. It has taken a toll on us designers and artists who are making a living at markets like this. Overall, many of us at the Underground made the money we expected to make which took a toll on our psyches as well as our pocketbooks. But we came to be a little family, supporting each other, laughing and crying together, uniting as a community. Tons of money was not made but good friends were made and that’s priceless.
So as I sit here in the quiet of my kitchen, shedding the noise and madness of the holiday shopping month, I think of all the new friends I got this Christmas season and that makes me happy. Maruska, Tommy Tee, Jen and PJ, Ryan, Monkey, Edgar and Zach, Jamie, Shy, Maya, Sarah and Mark, Chris, David the T-Shirt guy, Denitza and Elizaveta--the Bulgarian sisters, Teresa, Colin, Angela, Jonathan, Vinny, Phil and Roberta, and Chane. Thanks guys for a great time. Here’s to more good times and success in 2008!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Burning Man Chronicles-Part 2

Ladies and Gentleman, today there will be no crashing planes into buildings. Yes, 6 years ago on a Tuesday in September that’s what was going on here in New York City. Explosions, buildings crumbling into dust, clouds of smoke and ash all over the place, absolute madness on a clear blue day. Well this Tuesday we have a somber, rainy, muggy day. I’m not one for reflecting on that day or wringing my hands in grief, life goes on, a bit changed, but it goes on.
Speaking of dust and explosions, let me go back to Burning Man before that is all a distant memory. The culmination of this arts festival/hippy love fest in the Nevada desert is the burning of a giant wooden man on Saturday night. The man himself was burned early this year by a disgruntled veteran burner who was upset with the way things were changing on the playa. But they rebuilt him in time for Saturday night’s torching. I was surprised at how small he was perched up there on his pyre of large logs. Still, when he went up in flames it was impressive. Not to be upstaged, the oil derrick of the “Crude Awakening” exhibit was torched as well Saturday night in a gigantic ball of fire, the largest explosion to date at Burning Man. After a fantastic fireworks display, this 100 ft or so wooden structure was immolated with four giant blow torches in a matter of moments. The throngs of people looking on howl and screamed with excitement, hooting and hollering across the dark Playa. It actually threw me back to that Tuesday 6 yrs ago when I watched the second plane crash through the south tower of the World Trade Center, the force of the explosion pushing heat against my face there on the Lower East Side. Impressive as it was, it was more disturbing than exciting for me. Guess for as much as life goes on, that day is still with me.
Another part of Burning Man are the giant dust storms that sweep across the ancient lakebed getting dirt everywhere and blocking out all the art exhibits across the Playa. You can see them creeping across the giant open space and you hurry to get your goggles and dust mask on. Winds whip up to 100 miles an hour and the fine dust gets everywhere imaginable. The wise advice is to hunker down in your tent or at the closest camp to provide you shelter until the storm finishes. Sure that’s the logical thing to do but many, yours truly among them, found it extremely fun and liberating to get out and run around during the dust storms. There were drumming circles that would drum away during dust storms so whenever we were enshrouded in a giant dust cloud, the drums could be heard all over Burning Rock City, calling the brave out to bang and dance around. If you’re not up for dealing with the dust and dirt, then Burning Man is not the place for you. One must embrace in order to survive. Of course, these dust storms wreak havoc on rental cars (and everything else). My mom and sister-in-law took care to hide the evidence of where I took the rental car by giving it a good washing before I returned it. Even back in New York at LaGuardia, you know who on your flight was at Burning Man for their bags are covered in the dust. Always a great conversation starter. Post-dust storm one day, we had a little rain show (which equals mud), after which there appeared in the sky a fantastic, full double rainbow. Of course this rare phenomenon sent all the burners screaming and yelling out onto the Playa to photograph it. It was an amazing surprise event for us all.
So now after more than a week since the big burn, we are all back in our little New York routines; Pete, Jackie, Marshal, and the rest. We all feel connected by this incredible adventure and recount stories from the week over meals and drinks. Some of already have plans afoot for one year from now returning to the Playa for more fun. Until that next time, we all bask in the after glow of the burn.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Tioga Toomey's Whoa Nellie Deli

Coming down I-395 South about 2 hrs from Reno, there’s a must stop place to eat. Driving along Mono Lake through the town of Lee Vining you’ll come to the 120 turnoff to go into Yosemite (the eastern side). Also known as the Tioga Pass, it is a busy route in the spring and summer as vacationers explore the High Sierras and take a drive into one of the most famous National Parks in the US. Right there on your left is the Tioga Gas Mart/Mobile. Believe it or not, inside you’ll have one of the best meals of your life served up with good humour at Tioga Toomey’s Whoa Nellie Deli. Now you could call this entry a plug for my baby brother’s restaurant and, in part it is, but if my brother Matt was just dishing out hot dogs and hamburgers, I probably wouldn’t put him on my blog. You want juicy pork chops with a berry glaze and a side of garlic mashed potatoes and spaghetti squash? How about some crunchy lobster taquitos with fresh tomatillo sauce? Or a meaty dose of venison encrusted with pepper and walnuts with a brown sauce to bring out all its gamey flavors? Well head down to Tioga Toomey’s Whoa Nellie Deli for some great food and drink for a reasonable price. Plus you get a great view of Mono Lake from the outdoor seating area. Some nights you’ll even get a band playing. So what are you waiting for? Get in the car and head out west! Sunset over the lake, a glass of wine and a sumptuous dinner served by a great guy and his staff and dress code is casual—who can beat that?? But don’t dawdle for they close up on October 28th, when the Tioga Pass closes for the winter. If you don’t make however, there’s always next year. They open for business in April when the snow melts, bears come out of hibernation and the pass reopens. If you do stop by, tell them Tom, Matt Toomey’s big brother, sent you.

The Burning Man Chronicles-Part 1

Coming to you live from Lee Vining, Ca! No I cannot say that I am coming to you live from Black Rock City, NV, home of Burning Man for I have already passed through that place. Yes I tried to come to you live from Burning Man but it didn’t happen. Burning Man is like Brigadoon, the winds and dust storms part for a week on an ancient lake bed in northern Nevada, an entire city of happy folk appear in all sorts of garb, doing all sorts of interesting things and then it disappears back into the blinding dust storms. One is caught up in all the exciting goings on around Black Rock City (BRC) that they lose all thought of the outside world. Cellphones don’t work, no Internet connection, no newspapers besides the dailies recanting events around town. Part of me wanted to blog while in the moment but I was more into being in the moment with my fellow BRC citizens and blogging could wait.
Burning Man, already an institution to many and I’m sure many people around the country as well as the world have heard of it (so I won’t go into huge details). An arts festival in the middle of the high desert in Nevada, an experiment in communal living, a giant dance party, a week long drug fest, a week long sex party—everyone interprets Burning Man in their own way. To my Christian brother it’s “that pagan thing in the desert”, to other outsiders it’s that festival where everyone goes around naked caked in body paint and mud, a site of untold hedonism. It is what you want it to be. But instead of labeling Burning Man, it’s better to go and experience it with your own eyes.
Burning Man is one of those things on my list of things to do before I die. I came to this event completely void of expectations (but with a tent, a sleeping bag, costumes and gallons of water), like a book with no words in it that would write itself as the week evolved. Everyday was a new experience as I got on a bike a rode off across the ancient lakebed to a different adventure, new people and good times.
I stayed at “Astor Place Reimagined”, Pete and Jackie’s uber deluxe NYC camp where Astor Place, that famous downtown communal spot, was rebuilt on the Playa at Burning Man. It was great to sit on the stoop with a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise, all sorts of BRC citizens cruising by on their bikes either going home from all night partying or starting their day, saying good morning to them all, some stopping to sit and chat, others to spray paint graffiti on the subway entrance.
Now some people at BRC feel that one needs to do massive amounts of drugs to properly experience Burning Man. I’m not of that ilk—not that there’s anything wrong with it, just my drug days are over and I don’t need to have a temporary altered state to enjoy something. Still, others do and that’s OK, for Burning Man means something different for everyone.
For me Burning Man was all about community and acceptance. It has that San Francisco groove (as I call it) that welcomes everyone in to be part of something special. It’s that same feeling that drew me to San Francisco in the first place. No pressures to fit into a mold, no judgements, just free to be you and me (and not hurt anyone in the process). Driving down to Matt’s house in Lee Vining, I passed many a burner in a dirt-caked automobile and even though we didn’t know each other, we are connected because of this event. I am now part of a larger community.
The highlights of BM were many. Probably the best memory I have of the week was a giant flying carpet driving around the Playa on Sunday morning, crowded with all night partiers who were swaying to the gentle Commodores tune “Easy Like Sunday Morning”. As we were busy taking down Astor Place, this giant carpet on wheels cruised by, everyone waving their arms and shouting “Good Morning” to us. Other highlights include the two semi trucks welded together, the Monkeys—a giant zoetrope run by bicycle and drum power, the Crude Awakening exhibit—five giant metal human forms worshipping to a giant oil derrick (which was exploded in a mass of huge flames on Saturday night), the art cars—a variety of creative modes of transportation which carried people all around the Playa: giant cats, fish, a Chinese junk, a huge boom box that blared music, a stage coach with moving horses and the Roller Boogie skating rink where I relearned to roller skate.
During the day the Playa had a feeling of vastness but when night fell, it was an illuminated fairground crowded with art cars, bicyclers, flame throwing machines and all sorts of activities. Like a giant carnival in a black sea, people whizzed about from one thing to another all night long. Some partied on the floating double decker boats that rolled around the Playa, some yelled and screamed at Thunderdome where people jumped around suspended from bungee lines wacking the shit out of each other with foam bats (very un Burning Man but fun all the same). There was Dance, Dance Immolation! Where you could dance to a tune jumping from one lit up not to another on a giant keyboard. If you missed, you get a shot from the flame thrower (of course you were dancing in a giant flame proof suit). The creativity was endless and inspirational as well. If I do this event again, I already have my art car imagined: a huge tea pot on wheels that will carry people about serving tea at various points along the playa. Back at camp we’ll hold tea dances, every day a new kind of dance. Maybe in a few years time. For now I relish in the afterglow of a fantastic week of community, new friends and inspiration.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Black Sea R&R

I’m a simple man. I don’t need much in life to make me happy. Give me a little pansiyon overlooking the sea in a small coastal town and I’m happy. After all the trials, tribulations and hard work at Kashka Suu, I deserved a few days to unwind at the sea.
Amasra is one of those tiny seaside towns that quadruples in size in the summer and goes dead in the winter. These kind of towns dot coastlines all over the world. This one in particular is heavy on the Turkish vacationers and light on the foreigners so I and the handful of Europeans here did turn heads about town. Amasra has a mixed up history being a Roman port, then Byzantine, then Ottoman and now modern Turkish. Remnants of former conquerors are everywhere from the ancient castle walls to the looming silhouette of Attaturk looking down from on high. But no one cares about those political things now, they come here to take the sun and swim in the inviting waters of the Black Sea.
The town is quaint and small enough that after one day of walking around, you start to see the same people over and over again. It’s one of the charms of a summer town. There was the girl on her bike who rode out to feed old bread to the birds at the end of the pier, an old man who took his morning swim by the ancient lighthouse tower, the young couple seen in the café overlooking the bay every afternoon. For awhile I felt I was reliving “Lady With A Lapdog” (Chekhov darlings!) that short story that I was tortured with way back in Russian literature class in college. It felt very much like an old world beach resort.
Drinking tea, eating figs, having a swim those were the high demands on my list since last Thursday. Life is great when you get off your merry-go-round for a few days isn’t it? Rick drove up from Ankara on Friday night for the weekend to continue our visit. Drinking Raki, eating fresh fish, driving down the coast to the beach at Chakriz, laying about under umbrellas until sunset—utter bliss. After three days of R&R, it was time to drive back to Ankara to catch my flight back to the US. Couldn’t leave Turkey without a steam and a scrub in the hamam. Had a glorious massage and scrub down this evening so I’m getting on my flight to Istanbul all squeaky clean and post-hamam glow. May this clean feeling last until I hit JFK who knows how many hours later. Late night flight to Istanbul, waiting 6 hrs in the airport, then on to Frankfurt and further on to JFK. Where has the summer gone? Have I been gone only 2 months? Seems like an eternity. Oh what awaits me at home? Bills, work search, household worries and so on. But there are good things too; my cats, the garden, the neighbors, friends, etc. It’s only a few days I’ll be there before I fly off again to Nevada for Burning Man. The adventures just never end do they?
PS: Anyone looking for a dynamic, self-starting, well organized person for some part time work? I’ll be looking for some kind of part-time work or consultancy gigs when I get back, starting in end Sept. Let me know dolls.

The Safranbolu news

Cockle-doddle-doo! Coming to you live from Safranbolu (home of saffron producing in Turkey). The rooster has been crowing in the barn outside my window for the last hour and at first it was quaint but now it’s a little annoying I must say. The clock tower is just ringing 8 am here in this idyllic, UNESCO-approved hamlet of well preserved Ottoman era houses. For those of you familiar with Rothenburg o.d. T, it’s the Turkish version. You can look it up on a map if you’d like. I’ll give you a hint, it’s near the capital of Turkey.
Anyway, this was my halfway stop point yesterday as I make my way up to the Black Sea coast. One of those “must see” places according to my friend Rick and a chance to stay in a fancy old Ottoman house with all the antique trappings of old world charm. Notice the way they splay the bath towels on the bed in a giant bow. Spent the afternoon walking around the narrow, curvy streets, having lunch at the old caravansary, photographing windows and doors (my hobby), and going from one hilltop to the other for views of Safranbolu. I’m happy to report that I didn’t buy let alone stop to gaze at any souvenir shops or purchase any Turkish delight. It all looked like junk made in China, not stuff made locally (well except for the towels and tablecloths). So liberating to just walk by all the tchotchkes and not feel compelled to buy (and I’m sure folks back home are breathing a sigh of relief). After an afternoon of checking out the town and soaking up the flavor, I headed back to the Selvili Koshk hotel for a rest before dinner. I was thinking of having a steam and a scrub in the old hamam and then a light dinner but before you know it I was passed out, dead to the world. As much as I tried to get up, I just couldn’t and slumbered away in my soft bed in my Ottoman room until that rooster woke me from my sleep. Now it’s time to head over to the new town and catch a bus to Amasra on the Black Sea coast.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Herati Roll

It just so happens that Herat is home to many graves of famous Sufis. Some of these tombs are known for their mystical healing powers or places to get wishes granted. People come from all over to make their pleas and receive some inner satisfaction from worshiping at these shrines of hope.
The main one is the grave of Ansary, an ancient Muslim who is buried on the outskirts of town. Of course like any holy place, besides the pilgrims, there are the odd lot of beggars who harass you as you make your way to the holy site. On our way through the graveyard to Ansary’s grave, we were followed by a crowd of boys pretending to be dumb, deaf or just plain retarded. Khaled and Seluhaddin, my guides to this site, caught some of them at their own game by getting them to talk or act like the normal kids they are. I guess we all have to make a buck somehow.
My guides, and former students, decided to take me to a few other shrines around town. Along the way we picked another former student, Zubair. Zubair has gone through the most dramatic change of all the alumni from our program. He went to a goofy, funny young man to a serious, no frills, devout Muslim. As you can see he’s grown a full beard, let his hair go long and makes himself out to be some sort of Muslim cleric. I guess a year in the US has made him go the other way and reach deep into his faith.
Anyway, we headed to another outskirt of town to a small shrine of another great Sufi prophet. This site has mystical, unexplained powers. Here one lays on the ground at the foot of the grave, concentrates hard on a wish they want to come true, turn themselves once or twice and suddenly this unexplained force spins you fast along the ground either in a straight line to the back wall or at a curve to the side wall. Going straight back means the wish will come true, flipping to the side means no wish. In a way it’s sort of like being that triangular piece in the Magic 8 Ball that flops around in the purple fluid until it reveals the answer to your wish.
One by one we all tried this. Khaled and Seluhaddin went, both flopping toward the side wall. Zubair laid down, went deep into concentration and spun straight back toward the wall. His wish will come true. Then it was my turn. I borrowed a patou from a guy also eager in getting his wish and laid down. Like Zubair, I went deep in to meditation, focusing hard on my wish, after a minute I gently rolled myself over once, then twice then something began to spin me, pulling me along the ground at fast speed. My eyes were tightly shut as I spun uncontrollably along the earth. Which way was I headed? I let the ground take control of my body. Everything was pitch black and I stopped. I lay there for a moment face down, afraid to see where I landed. I felt as if I curved and went to the side wall. Part of me thought that being an infidel, my luck wouldn’t be good at a Muslim shrine. But when I lifted my headed to see where I was, lo and behold I was at the back wall, with Seluhaddin’s foot next to my body to stop me from crashing in to it. My wish will come true!! The great Sufi prophet likes me!! “What was your wish Mr. Tom?”, asked Seluhaddin. “I’m not telling you. If I do, it won’t come true.” And I’m not telling any of you readers either.
Afterwards we drove to yet another shrine by the ancient minarets of Herat. These 5 minarets (there used to be 11 originally) tower above the skyline at all sorts of angles. 4 of them look pretty solid but the 5th one is at such an angle I expected it to fall down as we drove past it. Fortunately, some took the forethought to strapping large ropes around it to keep it upright. At this other shrine, also a Sufi prophet, people grind up rice or dried chickpeas in a little bowl on his grave. They feed the powder to their children to make them smart and wise. Also you can make a ball out of mud and leave it on top of his grave. When it dries, whatever ailment you have will go away. I didn’t really believe this when my boys told me about it. On the way back to the car, I scratched my head on a low branch from the tree at the gravesite. Was this the great Sufi prophet’s trick or just a random act of being tall and not bending low enough? Only the Sufi knows…

Friday, June 08, 2007

My Charlevoix Moment

The other day I was accused of having a vagina. I can’t say how I would usually react to such a statement but since it came from a 4 yr old, I answered with giggled surprise. My little charges of the evening, the lesbians’ boys, now know what their penis is and apparently have heard of a vagina too from their moms. We were coloring and yes, the crayons looked like penises (well they do), they know they have one but some how they don’t think I have one. Well, I wasn’t about to go into with them.
Now I’m with the lesbians and their boys at their weekend home in the Hamptons. So nice and quiet out here, well quiet aside from the bratty outbursts now and then but those aren’t that often and sort of roll of my back. I love “summering”—renting a house in a summer town where there’s little to do beside go to the beach, stroll into town, make delicious meals, do lots of reading and just relax. I spent my childhood doing that with my extended family in Charlevoix, MI. About 20+ people, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma all in one big house for about a month of fun and relaxation. Charlevoix is still a magnet for us and now the next generation is taking their children up there in the summers. I unfortunately am not part of the summer throng to my childhood mecca because I choose to spend my summer in Kyrgyzstan and other exotic places to the east. One of these days I’ll toss off summers in the east and make an appearance in the northern MI. For this weekend, I’m happy to be having a mini Charlevoix experience in the Hamptons.

Monday, May 07, 2007

It's Tampa Time!

Coming to you live from the Tampa International Airport!! I just had the security people throw away a perfectly good bottle of Neutrogena shaving crème (just bought the bottle too dammit!) and not give me the privilege of going through the high tech blow dryer that checks you for hazardous particles. Instead all the senior terrorists of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area were getting blown.
Ah, Florida. What a whacked place. Spent four days here visiting my friend Tom and selling shirts at the Wagon Wheel flea market in St. Pete. Sales weren’t great over the weekend but at least the weather was good and the people watching amazing. Lots of fat people here, unhealthy eating habits and ugly looking people. The cruelest thing I saw was parents with children on leashes like pet monkeys. That always upsets me to see that—the poor kids.
I love the camaraderie among vendors at street fairs and flea markets wherever I go. There’s the initially “Ooh, what are you selling?” and then the low down on sales and how the market is in general. Apparently the Wagon Wheel, an enormous flea market in St. Pete is better in the fall/winter so I guess I’ll have to make a return trip to in October or so when all the tourists are here and buy buy buy. This time of year, according to Denise, one of the regular vendors, is only locals and most of them are cheap. Cheap and without taste I may add. I think mega-stores like Wal Mart and K-mart have dumbified people. They’d rather spend $1 less on something boring like an Elmo shirt than have something original and colorful on their child. I just don’t get it. Overall, I sold a dozen shirts and paid off my space for the weekend, plus gave out a ton of business cards and met some interesting people. Hopefully, I’ll get some Internet business out of it (if these white trash lunkheads know how to use a computer). Yesterday was dreadfully hot (thank God I was in the H pavilion out of the sun) and a bit slow so I sauntered over to the book seller a few booths down and bought a book on the history of caviar to help the time fly. A good read, especially since it all takes place in Russia in places I’ve been so I could relate. After a while I got more into the book than selling shirts and started to get a little ornery toward all those bitties who’d open up the shirts, utter “How cute” plop it down unfolded and leave. One woman said she just bought one for four (I was selling my white ones for 5) and I replied over politely “Well, why not pay a dollar extra for something original?). She walked away. The semi-retarded girl who was helping her grandfather across the way from me sell every piece of crap under the sun (videos, old toys, games, Pokemon cards, etc.) wanted to buy a shirt for $1. “I’m a vendor” she told me. “Well they’re $5 darling”, I replied a little tired from the heat to be patient. “Too much money!” “It’s a good price for the shirt and I’m not selling it to you for a dollar honey.” That was the end of that little. I wanted to say “Listen, retarded or not/vendor no vendor, you ain’t getting a discount!!” but I refrained. To the left of me was William the deaf/mute portrait artist. He was a sweet guy and we made conversation through hand signals and reading lips. I came to his defense when he turned off the overhead fans because they were blowing pastel dust into his eyes (I know that feeling) and some of the other vendors got on his case. The burly blobs who sat selling fishing reels and hunting knives. They complained loudly and I complained back in his defense. That kept them quiet for a bit (until they went and told the management who rolled up in a golf cart all high and mighty). I packed up all my stuff, promising the jewelry girls next to me that I’d be back in the fall or winter when the real buyers would be there.
Now besides t-shirt promoting, I hung out with my friend Tom who lives in Tampa with his brother Paul. They bought a cute little house and fixed it up real nice. Sister Angie (no she’s not a nun) was down from their home state of Ohio for the weekend as well so after the flea market we were out partying, swimming at the beach and having a good time. Saturday and Sunday was the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in St. Pete which was great. Saw Jerry Lee Lewis, Miss Koko Taylor and Dickie Betz (formerly of the Allmand Brothers). It was all the same for me really, I was just happy to be chillin’ on the grass in the late afternoon/evening sun with a crowd of fun people, listening to the music. There was lots of food on hand to eat and I opted for one of the BBQ stands. For dessert I took a risk and tried a deep fried Snickers bar. Deep frying is an art form down here, they deep fry anything from alligator meat to Oreos. I’ve heard a lot about the deep fried Snickers so I thought I’d try one. I watched how they dipped it in sweet batter then threw it in a vat of hot oil until it was done. The guy asked me if I wanted powdered sugar on it to which I said know (that would have probably killed me). Overall, it was rather disgusting and don’t really recommend it at all. If my doctor finds out about this, she’ll probably box my ears.
Speaking of ears, I’ve got this nasty sinus infection which has plugged up my ears so getting on the plane is not really exciting. I know once we get up at a cruising altitude the pain will begin. Hopefully my ears won’t blow out leaving me deaf forever. I’m sorry what did you say?? Bon voyage!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Garden Blog

Blogging in the garden at 8 am. The sun slowly warming the plants, birds singing in the trees, cats basking in the morning sun on the patio, the sounds of buses and cars from beyond the confines of my yard trickle in as another day in Brooklyn begins. A plane flies overhead, making its way to LaGuardia (yes I’m in their flight path). A friend of mine returned from Pittsburgh yesterday and said he flew right over my house—he saw my backyard . Isn’t that nice?
I just have to digress for a moment and tell you how fabulous my garden is looking. All the bulbs I thought wouldn’t come up this year are making appearances—tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and grape muscari my favorite. The peonies I wrote off for dead are getting bigger by the day, the clematis is winding their way up the pergola, things I forgot I planted are poking slowly out of their hibernation. Upstairs I have seedlings in their mini greenhouses sprouting up, awaiting the time when they get to go in the garden once the ground is warm enough and I figure out exactly where they will go. Jung Seed, the company I ordered from sent me double the amount of seeds accidentally so I’m going to have nasturtiums, sweet peas, delphiniums and tomatoes up to my arm pits. Maybe I’ll have a plant sale or something.
Wanda, Eddie’s mother is putting her laundry out. She’s got the third story clothes line on a pulley that’s attached to a tall ladder like structure at the back of the yard (everyone’s got one). The pulley creaks and whines as she pushes the line out after hanging a shirt, then another shirt and another creak. Wanda is in her eighties I believe and still going strong. She’s great. Her son Eddie lives with her and he and I trade news and gardening tips over the back fence. He’s a true Brooklynite; accent, attitude and all. Eddie is always busting my chops about being from California and not knowing how to garden ala the east coast (it’s true I must admit) but I retort with the rhetorical question why California hasn’t fallen into the ocean (answer: because the rest of the country sucks). He’s going to look after my yard over the summer while I’m gone so the place doesn’t go all to hell like it has the last two years when I was away.
All quiet over the other fence since Pete and Jackie have been gone for the week in Florida. They come home today and I’m off to Florida tonight for the weekend to sell some Tcat t-shirts (have YOU placed your order yet on line???) and visit a friend of mine. I miss P&J, so dull here without them. Georgeanne, my neighbor on the other side, I heard is in the hospital apparently to get some fat removed from the bottom of her foot. I find that hard to believe, fat on the bottom of your foot, but if you look at the size of her and her brood it is possible. Veronica, the neighbor two doors down says she has diabetes and is getting her foot amputated. It could be the case since her kids all seem glum when I see them. Poor thing I hope it’s not the case.
Wow, already the beginning of May where has the time gone? Before you know it, I’ll be off on a plane bound for Afghanistan with a bunch of kids. Before then I have many miles to go before I sleep and lots of t-shirts to sell too. My shirts won’t be ready until Monday (ARGH!) there was a problem with the printers or something and they needed more time. It’s OK, at least I got a deal on my next printing job out of it. More time to tweak the website and prepare other products like collage art work and the Von Trapp Cats. Von Trapp Cats you ask? Basically a small stuffed kitty made out a variety of upholstery fabrics I came across. Very hip. Hey if Maria could make clothes out of curtains, I can make cats out of upholstery fabric. You can see those on the website soon. Got to finish stuffing some. Maybe today before I stuff a suitcase full of clothes for Florida. So let me start my day darlings. Ciao for now.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Return to Ekaterinburg: Part 1

Remember the scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” when Jimmy Stewart goes back into town with the angel and his beloved Bedford Falls has become the wretched Pottersville? Well, that’s sort of the feeling I have here in Ekaterinburg. Traffic gluts the main streets of the city, high rise elite apartment complexes and steel and glass
business centers mar the view, neon, cafes, restaurants everywhere, all night stores and fast food joints have created a new night life on the once dark streets of the Ural capital.

Can this be the Ekaterinburg I once knew? Yes it is and it has changed. Mostly for the better, a bit for the worse but that’s progress I suppose. The E-burg I once knew isn’t here, there are little bits of it here and there but for the most part it is gone. I walk around the town a bit like Jimmy Stewart staring in disbelief and remembering how things were way back when I first came here in 1992. That was long ago and yet not so long ago.
My biggest amazement so far was my trip to IKEA with my friend Galina. She recently bought an apartment in one of the deluxe new buildings and needed furniture. So off we went in her little KIA to IKEA. Whoa, wait a minute, IKEA in Ekaterinburg?? Yes darlings, in a huge mall called MEGA is IKEA, The Body Shop and all the other material trappings of the west right here on Moskovsky trakt where there used to be a field or a cluster of trees. To think Galina and I used to travel the region checking distribution of food aid, making sure all the babushka and large families were getting it and not shady people out to make a fast buck, and now we were walking around IKEA shopping for a dresser and chairs. It was interesting to observe the Russians looking at the furniture, trying out couches, eating in the café in big family units, kids playing in the kids’ center—doing what everyone else in the world does in IKEA. Shopping comes so natural to the Russians. Thinking back on how wretched things were here in 1992, when there was practically nothing to buy in the shops, sugar, eggs, frozenfish and fresh cow lung, it’s amazing that now I can sit in the kitchen area of IKEA and watch people buy new furniture for their homes. Galina and I sat in the kitchen section trying out chairs and wound up chatting for about 30 mins, catching up on our lives and common friends’ lives as well. It was nice to have a chat in a kitchen without being stuffed with food (going to people’s houses here is taking a toll on my stomach—I can’t eat that much!).
All IKEAs are the same, if you didn’t know, and I whizzed Galina around the store much to her amazement. She was never good at directions and was a bit embarrassed that I knew the way to IKEA better than her. As per tradition with Nina, after our purchase, we have a hot dog and coffee at the snack bar by the exit. Galina was arguing with me that the hot dogs are in the restaurant half way into the store. No I disagreed but she didn’t believe me until I asked a salesgirl and she confirmed
the existence of the snack bar at the exit. So post-purchase, despite the fact we were on our way to her mother’s house for lunch, Galina and I had a hot dog and coffee as per tradition.
I’m big on traditions and as per tradition, I visit my old haunts when in town as I like to do. I go to TSUM, Gum, Passazh (the main department stores) to have a look at the farfor and souvenirs, visit the Art Salon on the corner of Malysheva and Lunacharskogo (it got junky—how many naked ladies and pseudo-O’Keefe’s and Van Gogh’s can one paint?). Some of the other traditional places I like to go are no
longer there but what to do. Another non-materialistic tradition is visiting the Ekaterinburg zoo. A friend of mine, Alexei is the director of the monkey house so I get a behind-the-scene tour of the zoo. His boyfriend, also Alexei, and I meet up and head through the personnel entrance to the zoo. We go check out the monkeys and then go upstairs to Alexei’s office for a chat, then he takes us around the zoo, showing me all the new animals and new buildings that have been built on the territory. This zoo has really come a long way. The first time I came here, one left more depressed than when they entered. The smells, the sad looking animals, the neglected cages and pens. Now it has expanded the cages, built nice brick buildings with proper heating and environments for the animals. Childrens’ art covers the walls, everything is clean and bright. This native born San Diego, who grew up in the world’s best zoo, was quite impressed. It’s fun going around with Alexei and Alexei, because they know all the animals and can talk to them. We had a nice chat with Elza the tiger who after a few puff sounds gave us a big meow. Alexei tenderly calmed down Johnny the chimpanzee who was riled up by a bunch of teenagers who banged on his cage. I
was happy to see my favorite animal in the zoo, Almaz the hippo, was still alive. He just celebrated his 30th birthday and had a big banner above his enclosures (he has a summer one and a winter one). My former office was a block from the zoo and back then, Almaz’s home was right at the entrance so I got to see him everyday walking around, sitting in his pool, sleeping in the sun. Now he has a much bigger space, with egrets and other birds to keep him company. He’s gotten quite fat and when I saw him he was a big blob sleeping with his back to us. Backside or not, I was happy to see Almaz.
Since being here, most of my time has been spent seeing old friends and going from one house to another, eating, drinking, catching up. Ugh! It’s a little too much. Helped Galina put together the four pieces of IKEA furniture yesterday which was a nice break from the eating and sitting around. I need activity, movement and would rather work, walk, whatever instead of eating and drinking and sitting for hours all the time. After putting together four pieces of IKEA furniture however, one goes a bit crazy, and I was ready to sit and eat and drink again. Went to my friend Masha’s house for tea which turned into food and drink and looking at tons of pictures. I forgot how much she talks (a lot about herself mind you) and after a few hours I was ready for a change of scene. She insisted on walking me home so she walked and blabbed all the way. I stopped to send a telegram (I love sending telegrams) and up date my blog. There she was right by my side—Oi vey woman go away!!!! I thought but refrained from voicing my feelings. She showed me all the changes around town which was rather interesting, telling me more things about herself right up to my door. I said goodbye, finally getting the words in between her blabber and went upstairs to bed. Today I’m taking a break from all that and am going to walk around town with my friend Zhenya. He’s not a big talker fortunately so it should be a nice day. I have to go up and see the big cathedral they built on the site of the Ipatiev house (where they killed the tsar and his family), plus visit a few other shops and places as per tradition.