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.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Moscow Files Part 2

Where did this week go? I was having such a fun time in Moscow that I didn’t get around to blogging I guess. Now I’m in Domodedovo airport sitting in a nice café having some tea and a croissant, waiting for my flight to Ekaterinburg. It’s amazing the changes at this airport. For those of you who remember Domodedovo, it was considered the farthest and the worst of the 5 Moscow airports. It’s still the farthest but far from being the worst. I remember the Intourist registration and the bus out to the little waiting lounge with a junky café on the tarmac. Now it’s as if I’m in a modern western airport. Plus the express train from the city was an added delight to the trip to the airport. No more cabbies with their outrageous cab fares.
My whole week has been sort of a sentimental journey and sentences beginning with “Remember when…” were uttered thousands of times. I’m a sentimental guy so reminiscing about the early days with Mark, Richard, Artem and other friends was great. It’s still amazing to think how much things have changed and how much they haven’t changed since the early 1990’s. Things have gotten more expensive, lots of new development (some nice, others ugly), changes to the way of doing things, more people in the capital. Moscow seems to have become a harsher city, people more aggressive, a bit nastier. I don’t let it bother me too much and when they push and elbow their way on the metro, I reply with a fierce elbow and heavy block. Grrrrr!
I firmly believe in the “You can never go back” theory and I know that in Ekaterinburg things won’t be the same but friends will be the same, as in Moscow—that doesn’t change. Spent most of my mornings in Moscow at the “Chaika” swimming pool doing my laps. It never gave me full satisfaction but more stress due to the fast pace of the place and the oodles of people who came to swim like me. Quite a switch from my “Kaspii” in Astana where Daniel greeted me every morning and chewed the fat a bit before I went into the pool, sometimes a lone or with one or two other people doing laps. I look forward to going swimming in Ekaterinburg in the mornings, wonder if it’ll be as stressful as “Chaika”. The rest of the day was spent lunching, having coffee with friends, walking around the old haunts, etc.
I trekked out to “Dom Farforov” one afternoon in the cold, wet snow to check out tea sets (my long time obsession). The store had changed tremendously, full of Villeroy and Boch, Rosenthal and other European fine china. In a corner at the end of the store was a small case of Lomonosov china (from St. Petersburg) set a ridiculously high prices. Can go back, can you? I sighed and left the store, going to the bus stop that would take me up to the Moscow State University, down passed my old apartment and onto Kievsky train station near Mark’s house. The bus took forever to come and the weather was nasty—bitter cold, wet snow, mud, water everywhere. Still I waited for my sentimental bus ride through the Sparrow Hills. It was worth the wait. Although the new convoluted way of buying a bus ticket caused a few minutes delay as other passengers glared at me as if I was an enemy of the people, the bus windows dirty to the point of not being able to see much, it was relaxing to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis and enjoy a gentle bus ride through a quiet part of town. Not many changes in the Sparrow Hills to blog about, but on Mosfilmovskaya, my former street, giant buildings loomed over the 5-story Khrushevky a sign that the once quiet heavily treed area was changing. Sad really, but I guess everyone wants a bit of wooded area in the city. Oh developers—the plague of the world!!
Popped in to see my ex, Artem after a swim. He and Richard, his present live about a block from the “Chaika” swimming pool with their two toy terriers, aka Dogs from Hell. Seems I woke him up at the early hour of 11:30 am (Oh these Muscovites start their day late) but still we had a nice visit. After all these years, he and I have remained friends as well as with Richard. Actually Richard and I were friends before they got together. We were together for 2 years and they’ve been together for 12. My how time flies. Most of our time was spent catching up, having some tea, checking out each other’s web sites and keeping those little yappers at bay—ferocious little creatures, at one point one lunged at my leg trying to take a nip out of me. I can go into lots of details about my past with Artem but we’ll save that for my memoirs.
The weekend came and as protocol would have it, there was the whole round of gay bars and clubs to go to. Friday had us all meeting up for dinner at a Lesbian (uh Lebanese) restaurant before heading to “Cherdak” one of the newer clubs in town. It was all the usual things a gay bar could have, music, drinks, go go boys and handsome, mixed crowd. Besides the people I came with, I didn’t seem to know anyone in the crowd. It was OK, I still had fun. After copious drinks there, we piled into cabs and headed to “Shans” the big gay disco in town. I remember being at the very first “Shans”disco in 1992 with Kevin Gardner, passing out condoms and promoting safe sex. It was in a small space in Dom Akterov with not a lot of people. Now “Shans” is in a big space with four bars, two discos, a karaoke bar, a dark room and a great drag show. In a way, just like any other gay club in the world. My how things have changed! Around 6 am I grabbed a cab home, leaving Mark to his own devices at the club, Vincent having left a bit earlier. Vincent’s a crazy character—a bit wild for the Moscow scene (he’s been banned from two bars already) but is a lot of fun. A mass of creative energy, fresh ideas flowing from his brain, some getting fulfilled, others not. He’s got a knack for getting things going so he’ll do well here. He’s already starting speed dating at a bar here. Will be interesting to see how that goes over here in Moscow.
Saturday morning/day found us lounging around the apartment watching “East Enders” and other shows on BBC, nursing hangovers and regaining our hearing after a night of clubbing. Just like in the old days when I used to fly in from Ekaterinburg for the weekend and Rick, Jon and I would go out til all hours on Friday and spend Saturday watching BBC and lounging around the apartment all day until we got enough energy together to go out for a meal or something. Vincent got locked out of his apartment so wound up sleeping with me on the couch which caused a ripple of gossip when Mark passed through the living room and we waved good morning to him. He didn’t know the whole story and assumed we were shagging and went into his room, called Richard in secrecy under his duvet to spread the gossip about us. Ah gay gossip, I don’t get this in NYC.
Andrei, my friend from Ekaterinburg, arrived in the afternoon on his way to a week long conference in Barcelona. Vincent and I met up with him in the uber-glamorous European Center next to Kievsky train station at a café. To think this chic mall sits on a former park that was full of drunks and gypsy beggars in the 90’s was a bit mind boggling. Not many people can remember back that far or were not around in the old days but I was. So was Mark and Richard and we had many moments of reminiscing about the good/bad old days. It still blows my mind how things have changed in such a short time. Back in the early 90’s when people said it would take a good 10 yrs. to develop Russia, it seemed so long. Now it’s 15 years along and things are looking good. Anyway, luckily Andrei wasn’t in a “I have to go to a gay disco”mood but more go with the flow and the flow went to the Kinoteatr “Oktyabr” where we saw “The Queen” in English. A second time through, it was still an excellent movie. Don’t know how well it will translate into other languages because so much of the film plays with the different kinds of English, lot of great nuances in the language that are lost in translation. Post-film, we traipsed around Moscow from restaurant to restaurant in the chilly rain looking for a place to eat. In the end we had Lesbian food again and called it a night.
Sunday was spent at an old colleague’s from the CARE days, Olga, who I happened to find out about through a friend. They say if you know three people, you know the world and it’s so true. So in a casual conversation over a cappuccino with my friend Irina, it appeared she knows Olga with whom I worked with many moons ago (1993 to be exact) at CARE. She was an office assistant back then now she works for the American Bar Association doing all sorts of things. My how far we have come. Her kids are grown, she has a fabulous apartment, just divorced her husband (it was a mutual agreement and they are still good friends) and is very happy. We spent a snowy Sunday afternoon catching up over lunch and a bottle of red wine which was nice. I love reconnecting with people after a long absence.
Post-Olga met up with the boys at Sanduny banya for a steam to round out the weekend. We used to do this regularly when I lived in Moscow and it’s so nice to just sweat, steam, dunk in cold pools and hang around socializing wrapped only in a sheet. Afterwards went to Krisis Genre, one of the swank eateries in town for a meal and to check out one of the waiters. Mark had been chatting with one on line so he wanted to check him out. Anton I think his name was and he was working in the balcony. We couldn’t get seated up there so we sat downstairs and checked him out from below. OK looking but he had a mullet which got a thumbs down from me. It seems the mullet is all the rage here in Moscow—UGH! Little do they know if they come to NYC, they’ll be ostracized if the US Customs guys don’t get a chance to cut it off at JFK. A night cap at another hip bar, Suzy Wong’s (sorry no Asian drag queens) and it was off to bed. Next stop—Ekaterinburg!

The Moscow Files Part 1

You’ll have to excuse the absence of blog postings for the last few days but on the run, one cannot always get to an Internet connection. Plus for some reason, my friend Mark’s wireless connection won’t let me get into my blog site. Sorry dear readers (all four of you—hah!).
Bitter cold here in the Russian capital, that wet cold that goes right to your bones. Not the pleasant dry cold of Astana where you feel great at -20 degrees celcius. First day out, I had to get some swimming in so I metroed down to the “Chaika” swimming pool for a leisurely hour of laps in the pool. Can I tell you that this was the most stressful swimming experience I had? Everyone is on edge in this high paced swimming complex—rush, rush, rush, barking orders. Felt more like boot camp than a place to exercise and unwind. First I had to get a medical certificate to say I was healthy enough to swim in the pool which took about 15 minutes, then I had to rush into the changing room, figure out the ancient locker system, take a shower, and go out to the pool. I opted for the hour pass and they are strict about the hour. Once your hour is up, get out of the pool! The cool thing about “Chaika” is that the pools are outside and well heated so as snow is falling, steam is rising from the two warm pools. Through the lifting steam you can see the coloured swim caps of all the swimmers doing their laps. In my rush I forgot my cap in my locker and one of the guards on duty barked at me, “Where’s your cap? You need a cap!” “I forgot it in the locker, is it mandatory?” I replied. “You can swim in this pool” as he pointed to the smaller one in the back. I plunged in trying to figure out which lane had less people for you couldn’t see them through the fog on top of the water. I put my head under to see which lane had less breast stroking bodies in it and opted for those lanes. For a few minutes I had a lane to myself then I notice I had two neighbors, both slow swimmers. Then I hopped into another lane and was speedily swimming along trying to keep up with Mr. Olympic Swimmer who was always coming up behind me with his fast crawl. By the time my 30 minutes were up, I had actually gotten a good work out even though my nerves were a little frazzled. I’ll go back today and see how pleasant a time I will have.
Post-Chaika I went over to the Arbat to do my one Moscow tradition: eat at the McDonald’s and go to my favorite souvenir store “Arbatskaya Lavitsa”. I was rather hungry from the swim and devoured my Bic Mac meal happily, not caring what damage this meal will probably do to my digestive system. It’s the only time I eat McDonald’s really. So tradition is tradition be it unhealthy or not.
After my McD’s lunch, I had to stop by Vincent’s place to have him register my Russian visa (one of those nerve wracking bureaucratic procedures that needs to be done the first three days you are in country). Vincent is a Swedish guy who runs a hostel on the Old Arbat called Smart Hostel. Basically it’s cheap lodgings for the oodles of backpackers who visit Moscow, their starting point for the Trans-Siberian train trip. Vincent’s assistant was in the process of dragging IKEA mattresses into the hostel on the 8th floor of an apartment building. Somehow Vincent had booked 25 Dutch people into this flat that could technically hold about 12 and bought some more mattresses to throw around the floors of this converted 3 room apartment. I loved Vincent’s “we’ll figure it out as we go” attitude as Ruslan brought in more and more mattresses from the tiny elevator. Reminded me of the old days when we did all these sort of crazy things here in Moscow. Nice to know there’s a new generation of expats giving it a go here. It’s also nice to know that even after a four year absence from Russia, I still have no desire to buy all the tchotchkes that were on display at my souvenir store. Although the prices are reasonable and the ladies so pleasant in the store, I just looked around and thought “What a bunch of crap”. I did wind up buying a few things for friends in the US but refrained from the whole hog shopping extravaganza I usually do. What I really want (and need like a whole in the head) is a tea set. They had some really nice ones but they were quite expensive like in the $400-$500 range. I just need something small and cute that I can carry back on the plane. I’ll shop around at some of my favorite “Farfor” shops around town.