Saturday, December 1, 2012

Special Edition

                                     Wherein I Come To You Hat in Hand, Literally

Christmas is a good time for reflecting on the blessings you have received in your life and to look for ways to share those blessings with people who may not be so fortunate.  I know we all have our favorite churches and charities and annual 5 kilometer races that we give to every year.  But this year, if you could see your way clear, would you consider supporting a lovely, wee girl?

Let me explain.  Last month, my family received a bit of devastating news.  My little cousin, Sydney, is 11.  She lives in Utah.  She was just diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and has started her 50-week course of chemo at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.

She’s a little trooper and her web pages are here, Team Sydney  and here,  Sydney's Blog and here, Facebook .

So, I asked her if she wanted me to send her a fetching, little French beret to add a bit of penache to her newly bald dome and she said, “yes, please.  In teal, if possible.”  Her momma, my first cousin, told me that one of Sydney’s dreams is to someday travel to Paris, (a dream shared by many, Sydney!)

The family then informed me that they had set up a way to donate to Team Sydney.  Why, I asked, what’s the problem?   Is it the health insurance?  It turns out that their insurance is not going to cover about 50,000 USD of the medical bills in the next twelve months.  Travel, hotel, and babysitting expenses for the family will come to another 10,000 USD or so over the next year.  My cousin’s husband is a hard-working guy, but 60K is a lot of money.

On the bright side, her prognosis is excellent and her spirit is as bubbly as usual.  So, if you are looking for a way to give thanks this year for your own good fortune, consider sending a cool hat (teal) and/or a fat check to:

Team Sydney

P.O. Box 352

Grace, Idaho  93241


Or, you can pay with Pay Pal here, Sydney's Blog .   Just click on “Donate” and it will tell you how to proceed with your credit card.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you and wish you the happiest of holidays.
Xoxo,  Trailing Spouse

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 23

 Wherein We Get Swindled by a Berber

O, Glory Day, I have a whole afternoon, evening and following morning with nothing on my To Do list except write in my blog.  My Christmas shopping for the relatives in the US is done, (thank you Dubai mall), the packages have been mailed, the second mortgage has been taken out to pay for the shipping charges, my French homework is caught up and my hair has been dyed.  I even clipped my toenails, but that is probably more information than you needed to know about my To Do list.

We left off as I was leaving for Morocco, which is a country in Africa, in which we visited two cities, Casablanca and Marrakesh and drove cross-country between the two cities.  If you are a pleasure traveler, (i.e. not on a business trip), do not waste your money on Casablanca.  It is a very large, modern city sans character and it is hard to tell that you are even on The Dark Continent.  I was picturing an exotic, romantic village selling Humphrey Bogart t-shirts, but I don’t think they have ever even heard of that movie.  Or, if they have, their marketing people just suck.  (Hey, all you recent marketing grads with no job prospects—there’s a huge opportunity just waiting to be cherry-picked in Casablanca).   If you are on a business trip, however, Casablanca is great.  It has a Starbucks and Wifi in the hotels, a lovely waterfront with good seafood restaurants and a ginormous mosque that you can stand in front of and get your picture taken in order to change your Facebook profile.  It still has a long way to go, mind you.  Casablanca’s no Paris, but it is comparable to say, Omaha.  For Africa, Omaha is pretty good.

The car ride from Casablanca to Marrakesh was really interesting.  Our chauffeur, who was Mr. Big’s No. 1 guy in North Africa and who baby-sat us the entire time we were in his country, (truthfully?  I think he got some memo from the home office that said “Mr. Big and Trailing Spouse are your problem for the next five days.  Do not let them out of your sight and do not let anything untoward befall them”), was APOLOGETIC as he was driving us across vast swaths of hard-core desert studded with the occasional mud-manufactured village.  Hey, North Africa Guy, stop apologizing.  This is awesome!  This is Africa!  Cue the camels!

North Africa Guy was shocked and dismayed that we were planning on staying for three days in the medina.  The medina is the ancient part of Marrakesh where all of the tourists go to haggle and barter and get their picture taken with camels, monkeys and cobras.  The medina is, literally, a zoo.  It is also dusty, dirty, hot, stinky and a haven for pickpockets, hence, the reason North Africa Guy was so hesitant to drop us off there for three days without his eagle eye upon us.

NAG:  Are you sure, Mr. Big, that you want to stay in the medina?  There are lovely hotels outside the walls in suburban Marrakesh where, I say in my most humble way, you might be more comfortable.  Where there might be, say, clean running water and non-ptomaine-inducing meals to be had.

BIG:  No, no, NAG, it’s quite alright.  My beloved bride wants to absorb the true African flavor.  That, and she wants to launch herself into the thick of things and out-haggle the locals over some rugs.  Thanks anyway, though.

NAG:  It’s your funeral.

At least that’s what I though he said, but he mumbled and I didn’t quite catch it.  Maybe he said “it’s your decision” but I don’t think so.

Okay, as much as I hate to admit it, NAG was right in a lot of ways.  The medina is absolutely filthy.  DO NOT wear open toed shoes or light-colored clothing unless you are Jack Reacher and you normally throw away your shit at the end of the day and buy new stuff the next.   The medina is VERY third world.  There are no cars allowed inside the rabbit-warren of streets except on two or three main roads.  At any given time, one might see a giant tour bus filled with gawkers, surrounded by a donkey cart overflowing with green grapes for sale, three large men in caftans riding one scooter with a sheet of drywall balanced on their heads and a random street urchin with a pet monkey begging for change.  Glorious.

The name for a hotel inside the medina is a “riad”.  This translates to “charming, boutique hotel owned by a non-Moroccan that serves alcohol and provides an oasis of peace and calm at the end of a day which was spent inside the nightmare known as the medina”.  Our riad was the El Mansour  and it was owned by a fabulously gay Brit with an eye for decorating.  Really, it was heaven. 

NAG dropped us off, hesitantly, at the edge of the medina with strict instructions of where we were to meet him for dinner, “right here.  I will meet you right here at 8 p.m.  Not one minute later.  Do you have my mobile number?”  Yes, NAG, you have given us your mobile number at least ten times.  You even wrote it on my hand.  I know he was thinking, please, please, dear Allah, let these people still be alive by this evening.  We were met at the edge of the medina by one of the riad employees and escorted, on foot, through a bunch of twists and turns, deeper and deeper into chaos.

Once inside the hotel, and after a welcoming pot of hot, mint tea which was oddly refreshing even though it was 90 degrees F outside, we were given “the lecture”.  This is where the hotel employee STRONGLY ADVISES you where to go, what to do, what NOT to do and, basically, how to remain intact with all of your belongings still attached to your person, while you are outside “in the wild”.  His recommendation?  Use a private guide/escort everywhere you go.

Did I listen to this man who has lived here all his life, probably since the time that he, himself, was an urchin-monkey-boy?   Of course not.  I am too stupid to do such a rational thing.  My reasoning was thus:  I am on a mission to buy a bunch of cool rugs for pennies on the dollar and a guide is not going steer me to the good places.  A guide is going to steer me toward his family and friends, ergo, not into bargain land.

C’mon, Mr. Big.  Put down that cup of tea and let’s get a move on.  Time’s a-wastin’.  Now, if there was ever a time in 26 years of marriage that Mr. Big shoulda put his damn foot down, now was the time.  But he missed that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and off we went without a guide.  We had a map.  We had a few francs and a few euros.  We had a general idea of where we were headed.  And, after about 8 minutes and 400 meters, we had a new friend.

Ooooh, let me tell you.  This guy was good.  Really good.  We were walking down one of the main roads on the way to our first destination, the rug souk, (souk = market), when a semi-normal looking guy sidles up beside me and says “Monsieur and Madame, bonjour!  I’ve just finished my shift at the El Mansour and I saw you walking toward the market.  Do you know about the Berber market that is only held on Saturdays?  No?  Well, they have much better merchandise, especially rugs, than in the daily souk.  The Berber market is just here, to the left, would you like me to show you?”

Well, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, so I was a little skeptical.  This squirrely little guy did have three things going for him:

1.        He was speaking in French, so he knew we were Swiss.  (No.  They ALL speak French.)
2.        He did work at our hotel.  (No.  He was a street spy.)
3.        He dangled the carrot of some exotic market THAT NO ONE ELSE KNOWS ABOUT in front of me.  (Please.  I may want to revisit my comment about the turnip truck, because, apparently, I DID just fall off of it and it has left me in the dust.)

I offered some token resistance to the Squirrel to the tune of “no, but thank you anyway, and, before I totally blow you off, can you tell me a little bit more about this secret market?” kind of thing and, at that point, he knew he had a fish on the line.  What can I say?  I followed the Squirrel down a side street toward what I was sure was going to be some fabulous, hidden, Berber rug market.  I mean, it would be worth it to just meet a real Berber, right?

Okay, it was a rug shop.  But it was a three story rug shop being run by a 400 pound man of dubious Berber descent wearing white robes and a gold pointy hat and gold pointy slippers.  Y’all!  It was Ali Baba!  And the legends are true:  Ali Baba does have piles and piles and piles of beautiful carpets.  I was BEDAZZLED.  It was sick.  (At this point, it is important to remember that we still think our new “friend”, Squirrel, is legit and works at our hotel and that he is doing this out of the kindness of his heart.  This sentiment, however, was about to come to an abrupt end.)

I realize this story is going on too long, but I’m trying to set the stage, here.  So, we’ve got Ali Baba, the Big Kahuna, sitting on a bench with me with his hands resting on his giant belly and his pointy, gold feet peeking out from under his robe.  Squirrel has disappeared completely.  Instead, we have Ali Baba’s henchmen unfurling carpets out in front of me one after the other after the other and we have poor Mr. Big pacing around the edges of this brick and mud building praying that the Navy Seals are going to swoop in and save him.

The negotiations started getting down to brass tacks.  I was enamored with Ali’s carpets made out of goat skin.  I had never seen such a thing.  Ali even had one of his henchmen take out a Bic lighter and TRY TO LIGHT THE CARPET ON FIRE to show me how resilient his Berger goats were and, though my chalet might burn to the ground one day, my goat skin rug  would still be lying there, intact, on top of the ashes.   I was like, dude, I’ll take two.  What else you got?

And then.  And then.  It came time to pay for three rugs that I eventually decided upon at a price that I THOUGHT was awesome.  Granted, it wasn’t pennies on the dollar, but I was pretty proud of myself for haggling Ol’ Ali down by 80%.  Yes, pretty durned proud.  I pulled out my credit card.  (Hey, it’s a STORE, right?)

Ali Baba:  Madame, don’t you have cash?

Me:  Well, I have some cash, but not enough.  Don’t you take Visa?  It’s a Swiss Visa, after all.

Ali Baba:  How much cash do you have, exactly?

Me:  I have x amount of euros and x amount of Swiss francs.  (It wasn’t a lot, not nearly enough to cover the price of the rugs.)

Ali Baba (while trying to peer into my wallet, no lie):  I will take all your non-Moroccan cash and, perhaps, your husband could go to the bank machine and get the rest?

Me (starting to get a little bit uncomfortable):  No, I don’t think so.  I think I am done here.

Y’all.  The price of the rugs miraculously dropped by 50% in an instant and, in a peculiar juxtaposition, also fell my my blood pressure, common sense and any remaining futile resistance.  At that point, I looked at Mr. Big and said, “Honey, it is time for you to go to the ATM”, and lo and behold, Squirrel appeared in the doorway with, you guessed it, A SCOOTER, on which he was going to whisk Mr. Big away to take him to the ATM, which he did and we paid fully in cash and I got my rugs.

Okay, these people, these pseudo-Berbers, were not subtle.  As soon as Ali Baba had the cash in hand, he started doling out PORTIONS to all his henchmen and Squirrel, The Finder, right in front of us.  What a racket.  But, really, I didn’t care because I had my goat skin rugs and I was happy.  Mr. Big, whose eyes were rattling around in his skull over all these happenings that were astronomically outside his comfort zone, and who had still not recovered from his scooter ride where he spent the entire time trying not to come into physical contact with Squirrel’s back, grabbed my elbow and said, “we need to get the hell out of here before A) we die, or, B)you buy any more rugs of questionable skin content.”

Squirrel disappeared as soon as he had his commission in hand, never to be seen or heard from again, abandoning Mr. Big and I to find our own way through the lab rat maze out onto the main square where the hits just never stopped coming.  It’s a well-known fact that all of the activity in Djamaa-El Fna, which is pronounced like “c-e-n-t-r-a-l  s-q-u-a-r-e”, is the number one tourist rip-off on the planet.  Should you really, really want your picture taken with a monkey or a camel or a cobra, well, it is going to cost you.  If you even get within 10 feet from these hucksters, they are going to try to take your money.

While we were strategically skirting around the edges, being careful not to make eye contact with any shysters, suddenly Mr. Big finds himself with a snake just a-danglin’ around his neck.  Yes.  He had been roped in by one of the Snake Charmer’s handlers.  I was like, okay, here we go.  This is the way it works.  The main attraction sends out “feelers” into the crowd.  This advance guy negotiates a deal with the tourist.  The tourist pays 10 euros into the kitty and the tourist then gets to take a bunch of pictures of the main attraction, which, in this case was a snake charmer and also, not unimportantly, gets to have the snake removed from around his neck.

Luckily for me, all of these Moroccans speak French.  Well, I lit into him like I was his mother and he had just tracked dirt into the house.  He thought, just from looking at my husband’s clothes, that he had snared some naïve American tourists.  No, sir.  I have just been swindled by a Berber and I am now wise to your ways.  You need to get that stupid snake off of my husband’s neck before I make somebody bleed (which is the most horrible thing I know how to say in French.)  Needless to say, I got my pictures of the snake charmer and his cobra with no further ado.

This has been a long story, but a good one, yes?  I will have to begin writing Marrakesh Part Two.  I mean, I didn’t even get to the part where we were walking in front of the movie theater and spied the man carrying two live chickens upside down.  I also didn’t touch on the bizarre practice of the butchers who leave the penises on all of the animals.  Good stuff coming, my friends.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 22

My Name is Bond.  Jane Bond.

This month has been ridiculous.   We took a little 5-day vacation to Morocco in North Africa, which I will tell you about in the next post, but, before I go into that craziness, I have to catch y’all up on what occurred in just the last two weeks.   Five days ago, my niece, who lives right outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had a baby, which makes me a Great Aunt.  Somehow, that sounds older than GoGo, the charming name that my grandchildren call me.

A Great Aunt is someone who wears a shawl and walks with a cane and keeps a Kleenex up inside of her sleeve to take care of random bodily emissions.  There are no “cute” names like GoGo, or Mimi, or Nana for a Great Aunt.  It is what it is.  So, I am now Great Aunt Trailing Spouse, which is fine and I have already embraced this new status but poor Mr. Big is another matter, entirely.

Me:  Mr. Big!  She just had the baby!  You are now a Great Uncle!  Look, look, here is her picture on Facebook!

Mr. Big:  I’m a what?

Me:  Great Uncle, you silly man!  OMG, she is presh in her little Polartech cap!  She looks just like Small Son in his ski hat.

Mr. Big:  Is that really such a thing?  Great Uncle?  I think you are making that up.

Unfortunately for Mr. Big, no one in his family ever lives long enough to attain the status of Great Uncle.  He has really bad genes, ergo, he had never even heard of the term.  How sad is that?  In my family, we have awesome genes, (plus, we procreate early and often), and we have gazillions of family photos of 5 generations and, occasionally, six.  Generations.  It’s true.  Nothing kills us.  Nothing.  My relatives live, routinely, into their hundreds.  If you die before you are 100 in my family, you are letting down the side.  We say things like “oh, such a pity.  Cut short in her prime at 91.  So sad.”

So, I became a Great Aunt to a little princess named Harper and my little sister became a Grandmother, which just cracks me up.  You just wait, all you young people reading this.  It is a very big deal—these are real milestones, not unlike turning 21 or getting arrested for the first time or buying your first house or whatever.  You think your rites of passage are all behind you?  Think again.  Someday you will achieve “Great” status and it is a mind-blowing thing.  And, if you are very lucky and you are borne of good genes, you will achieve “Great, Great” status and then you are really cooking with gas.

In the same week that I became a Great Aunt, I went to a Lady Gaga concert.  I am nothing if not diverse.  I am trying to be That Immensely Cool Old Gal so people have something nice to say at my funeral.   As in “well, she was a royal bitch but she was a COOL royal bitch. 

Did you know she wore a mini-skirt and went to see Gaga in her 50’s?”

Please try to picture my husband at a Gaga venue.  Oh, wait, first try to picture a bunch of Swiss people at a Gaga venue.  Yawn.  Gaga kept yelling at the audience to “get off your &^%$ing asses!  This is not a $#@%ing funeral!”  The Swiss don’t dance much and the only singing they do in public is to the accompaniment of alpenhorns and cow bells, so it was just hysterical watching them force themselves into having a good time.

 Furthermore, and may God strike me dead if I’m lyin’, but the ticket-takers hand out earplugs to everyone as they enter the concert.  It’s true.  I saved mine.  Concerts are too loud for delicate Swiss ears, hence ear plugs.  I wonder if Gaga knows they did that?

Mr. Big, unlike the Swiss, was having ENTIRELY too much fun.  He was singing completely-made-up lyrics and dancing in his spastic white man fashion.  It was appalling, really.  At one point, I had to make him stop.  Just.  Stop.  Please.  It was right after Gaga had climbed out of a 50-foot inflatable zippered vagina.  He got a little carried away.  As one tends to do in that situation.  Entirely understandable.

Anyway, if you get a chance to go to one of her concerts, I highly recommend it.  It is waaaay more than just singing.  It is like rock opera or musical theater on crack.  The stage sets, the props, the costumes, the dancers—the whole spectacle is just over the top in every aspect.  Especially the lighting.  (Hi, Mac!)  Yes, the entire reason we attended the grand event was because our friend is Gaga’s lighting guy. 

So, it was just our good luck that he alighted in Zurich and we were able to spend some time with him.  I took him out to lunch the next day and fed him some weinerschnitzel.  Somehow, I do not think that was a fair exchange.  I’m sure I enjoyed the concert much more than he enjoyed his breaded pork cutlet, but I try to do what I can with what is available to me at the time.  C’est la vie.

What else?  Well, I went back to French school after the summer break.  They put me in an advanced class with a bunch of people who already speak French.  I think I’m going to quit.  Seriously.  After the first session, I went to my teacher and told her that she was sorely mistaken if she thought I belonged in that class.  She was very reassuring and tried to tell me that that was, indeed, where I belonged.

Ooh, I promise you, Teach.  I do not belong here.  These people can speak for 15 minutes in French, non-stop.  These people are not trying to translate every word from another language before they say it.  They are just, uh, talking.  I cannot do that.  I do not know what I have done to mislead you, Teach, but trust me.   You need to GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE.  These people are scary good!

Plus, I think one is a spy.  Yes.  Monday, when I arrived in class, there was a new girl.  Her French was much better than mine and, truthfully, I wasn’t paying her a lot of attention.  In French class, my brain is 100% occupied with trying to understand what my teacher is saying and then trying not to make an ass of myself when I reply.  I barely register the other people in the class.  Yesterday, however, one of our assignments was to read a 2-page essay on the French school system and then speak for 10 minutes or so to the other students about the school system in our own home country.  Lawd, give me some toothpicks for my eyelids, right?

So, I was going last and the new girl was going to second to last.  I was COMPLETELY not paying attention to what anybody else was saying because I was silently practicing what I was going to say when my turn came around.  New girl starts talking and about half way through her dissertation, I hear the word “Iran” which catapults me right out of my fugue state.  Wait, what?  You are from Iran, new girl?  Then, of course, I was kicking myself for not paying better attention.  Was she new here in Switzerland?  Why was she here?  Good God, she could be anything!  A journalist, the ambassador’s daughter, a spy, a housewife, a spy posing as a housewife, anything.  Anything at all.

My mind was awhirl.  Am I giving away state secrets if I talk about the dysfunctionality of America’s school system?  Keep in mind that I am the only American in the room.  In fact, I am the only person in the room with English as a mother tongue.  I quickly change the course of my oral dissertation and tell the class, in French, bien sur, that the only problem with the American school system is in trying to assure that ALL students, regardless of their background, ability or gender, are afforded an equal opportunity to pursue the highest degree of education that they want to achieve.  In fact, that the American school system is second to none.

What else was I going to say with a potential spy in the room, eh?  That the poor kids in Mississippi test out to about the same level as the common garden slug?  Am I going to say that with a spy in the room?  No, I don’t think so.  Luckily for you, America, you have been saved by me to carry on another day and no one will be infiltrating Mississippi on my watch.  I am a little worried about tomorrow, though.  Suppose the topic in class is Airport Security, or God forbid, our opinions on nuclear energy.  I could really use some guidance here, so if someone from the State Department could just give me a buzz, that would be great.  And maybe send me one of those cool, little recorders disguised as a pair of reading glasses, too.  Thanks.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 21

Buying a Completely Inappropriate Gift for the Grandkids

We did our whirlwind trip to Russia in only five days.  Hopefully, for those of you going there on vacation, you will have much longer to enjoy the sights, absorb the culture, eat the food, etc.  I took up the whole last blog post on just one Russian bar, so let me clue you in on the rest of the trip.  Now, this is going to go fast, so pay attention.

My number one priority was visiting Anastasia’s Summer Palace, Tsarskoe Selo, (OK, it really wasn’t HERS, you know that, right?  It was her dad’s and he was a Tsar, so she like, got to use it.  She was, as we say in America about all the Euro royals, a Member of the Lucky Sperm Club).  My husband, bless his heart, had no opinion on the itinerary for the day, (for once), so we trundled down to the concierge to find out the best way to go to the palace which lies about 15 miles outside of St. Petersburg.

The most efficient and popular way was to walk 6 blocks down Nevsky Prospect, look for a multitude of kiosks advertising their daily tours and ask around of the various people wearing sandwich boards about guided bus tours, in English, to Tsarskoe Selo.  Now, y’all know that Mr. Big is not a fan of public transport, but his is also not a fan of spending money.  He tentatively asked the concierge if it wouldn’t just be easier to take a taxi, but he quickly jumped on the bus bandwagon when she told him he would have to pay the driver to sit there all day and wait for us for the return trip.  Cost:  approximately 10,000 rubles.

Russian money is one of those currencies that make your head hurt to do the conversion rate.  So, even though 10,000 rubles might only equal 15 cents, it still sounds like a lot.  It was certainly enough to make the blood drain out of Mr. Big’s face, I can tell you that.  Off we tripped to check out the tour buses.  Turned out, there was only one tour bus per day to the Summer Palace that conducted the tour in English, so we had four hours on our hands to kill before the tour left.  Hello, shopping.

Funny story.  One time, about a hundred years ago, Charming Daughter and I were in an antique store in Asheville, North Carolina and stumbled upon a set of Russian nesting dolls with all of the Russian leaders on them.  I mean, the biggest one was Gorbachev, Breshnev was in there, and back through time through Stalin and, finally, the teeniest one was Lenin.  Well, to find this set in North Carolina was just, um, shocking, really.  Like, WHO IN GOD’S NAME, had this decorative item on their mantle?  Ever since then, she and I have had an inside joke about “voold you laak zum Vruusian nestink dolls?”  And then we crack up.  Every time.  I know, I know, inside jokes are so boring.

Anyway, while strolling the streets of St. Petersburg waiting for our bus, Mr. Big and I came upon kiosk after kiosk after kiosk with, you guessed it, Vruusian nestink dolls.  Of course, I must buy some for my daughter, but then, I got a load of the price tags.  Crazy expensive!  (The real ones.  The ones made in China are cheaper.)  They have nesting dolls that are girls, they have nesting dolls that are world leaders, and, my favorite, they have nesting dolls that are American college football teams.  What?  Yes, on a street corner in St. Petersburg, Russia, there was a set of University of South Carolina Gamecocks nesting dolls.  No Clemson ones, though, so we gave them a pass.

The next kiosk had something that we did buy, however.   MRS. DOMESTIC SON, if Grand One is reading this, please make her stop!  Grand One and Grand Two like to play chess.  They are actually quite good.  Right before my eyes was a wooden chess set wherein the chess pieces were Russia vs. America army people.  The queens were carrying tiny briefcases with the word “bomb” written in Russian on them.  (Why the American queen’s suitcase had Russian writing on it is anybody’s guess.  Probably because the person who painted it did not speak English).  OMG, I must own this so-not-politically-correct-memorabilia.  So I do.  Natch.

After negotiating with the vendor by using my FINGERS because she was pretending to speak zero English, I’m pretty sure I paid upwards of 6,000 US dollars for the chess set.  It was either six thousand or six hundred or six.  Pick one.  Anyway, Domestic Son will have to hide it if he ever has any Eastern European friends over for coffee.  It’s that bad.  I love it.

We had time to visit the blue-green-yellow cathedral in one of the main squares before we had to catch our bus.  I don’t even know the name of the cathedral, but you can’t miss it. It is in the middle of St. Petersburg and it is lime green, turquoise blue and sunshine yellow with a million people standing around it taking pictures.  Mr. Big is a sucker for a cathedral and he heard, while eavesdropping on one of the tour groups outside of the church, that the mosaics inside were fantastic.

DON’T DO IT, PEOPLE!  It’s a giant rip-off.  It’s not even a CHURCH.  It is one big tourist trap.  There are gift kiosks INSIDE the “church”.  Here’s a hint:  if there are people haggling over t-shirt prices in the nave, you are not in a house of God.  You are in a house of commerce.  Fair warning.

Our English-speaking tour guide on our bus was hysterical.  She so did not speak English.  She had completely and phonetically memorized her four hour tour.  Her accent, her syntax, her word choice; just mesmerizing.  She was like a computerized taped tour and by that I mean that, as we passed one landmark or another, she would launch into this canned spiel in whatever crazy language she was speaking and, when she was finished, she was finished.

 If anyone on the bus attempted to ask her a follow up question, she would just raise her eyebrows and smile.  SHE HAD NO IDEA WHAT ANY OF US WERE SAYING.  The drive out to the palace was 35 minutes of absolute hilarity.  I kept looking around the bus at the other five people, (yes, on that day in St. Petersburg, there were, apparently, only 6 English-speaking tourists in the whole city), to see if maybe I was just totally STUPID, but, no.  The other five, including my beloved, were as equally in the dark as I was.  The woman was incomprehensible.  But funny.  So, I just sat back and took notes for the blog and tried to make her say even funnier things.  Which was not difficult.

For example, upon arrival at our destination, I immediately noticed that some of the architectural details on the palace, like the window sills, had been gilded in gold, but the vast majority were only painted in this faux-gold-toned paint.  I asked about this and she explained, haltingly, that “zere iz no money”. 

Yes, unfortunately, that is one of those ugly downsides to killing off your aristocracy.  If you execute all of the dudes with the money, who is going to pay for the upkeep on the 218-room houses?  Who?  Farmer Ivan?  His wife?  I think not.  No, no.  It is now up to the Russian taxpayer to pay for the upkeep on Tsarskoe Selo.  Do they like paying for palace renovation with their tax dollars?

“It iz not a qvestion of laak or dizlaak.  It is a qvestion of duty.  As the money comes in, leetle by leetle, ve pay for the gilding.  Vindow by vindow.  Now, does anybody elz haf any qvestions bezides zis voman?”

To wrap this up, if you go, both the Summer and Winter Palaces in St. Petersburg are worth the tour.  That’s two days, right there. 

The Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow are worth one day, if you count walking through the highly-westernized two-story mall on Red Square.  (You cannot afford anything at this mall.  If you want to pay $400 for a pair of jeans,  just come visit me in Lausanne.)

The four-hour train ride between the two cities is educational because you get to see the countryside, which was quite enlightening.  Unlike my chess set, I’m going to try to be politically correct here.  The villages in the Russian countryside are not quaint.  The houses look to consist of tar paper and galvanized tin.  In four hours, covering about 500 miles, I saw MAYBE eight paved roads.  It looks to be a hardscrabble life out there in the country on dirt roads in depressing housing conditions.  Hopefully, those conditions are on the rise for the Russian people.  But only after they finish paying for the gilding on 782 more window frames at the Summer Palace.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 20

 Where We Chill Out with Some New Russian Mobster Friends

My first recollection of anything Russian was in primary school in the 1960’s in California.  We had three kinds of “drills” at school:  fire drills, earthquake drills and Russian bomb drills.  Fire drills were not so bad because we got to go outside on the playground and leave the books and pencils behind.  Earthquake drills and Russian drills were miserable, however, because we all had to crouch down underneath our desks for what seemed like an eternity and when they finally let us crawl out, my outfit was always dusty and dirty, which made me mad.

So, for many years, I pictured Russians as these big, nasty guys who were going to come to my school, shake it like an earthquake and ruin my nice little sundress.  The bastards.  Then, when I was in my twenties, I read a Danielle Steele book called “Zoya” and I became extremely fascinated with the story of poor Princess Anastasia and how more of these nasty, Russian guys executed her entire family INCLUDING HER SICK LITTLE BROTHER.  Her body wasn’t found for decades and it was all a delicious and decadent mystery which my 26-year-old drama queen self just gobbled up.

I remember trying to picture myself with multiple palaces at my disposal like Anastasia.  She had a palace for every season but (according to Danielle Steel, that renowned historian) her favorite was the family’s Summer Palace, Tsarkoe Selo.  Now, I didn’t have a clue how to even say that but I just knew that I wanted to go there one day.  One day when I was no longer petrified of Russians.

Fast forward 24 years to a time when Americans trip in and out of Moscow like it was in Canada and Russians nosh on McDonald’s burgers and shop at the Levi’s store in the mall at the Kremlin. 

There’s even a Mexican restaurant on the street leading to Red Square called Borscht & Burritos.  (Kidding, I think it’s called Tequila something or other.  If it was MY restaurant it would definitely be called Borscht & Burritos.)

So, obviously, it’s time to go see my Summer Palace, right?  Before Russia starts getting too westernized and loses all its’ “russian-ness”.  Oh, ho, ho, there’s no chance of that happening any time soon!  First of all, Americans still have to get a visa to travel to Russia which is giant pain in the buttocks.  After you’ve taken care of that issue you are given another slip of paper on the airplane.  You have to write down exactly where you will be every day that you are in Mother Russia.  You will be expected to keep this with you on your person at all times and hand it over to anybody who asks.  (We were asked twice.  Once, I couldn’t find mine which caused quite a stir and pictures of gulags in Siberia began running through my head.)

Speaking of the plane, here is a rule of thumb:  if the passengers all clap when the plane lands, that is the signal that you are arriving in a not-quite-fully-developed nation.  They are clapping because they have arrived ALIVE and that can never be good.   If you go, don’t be discouraged by the drive from the St. Petersburg airport into the city center.  It’s kind of. . .grim.  It didn’t help that, in spite of the fact that it was the middle of summer, the people were wearing coats and boots because it was only 50 degrees F outside.

Once you get in the city center and start seeing all of the monuments and old buildings and the main shopping street, Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg scenery gets much better.  As a matter of fact, if one were going to try and characterize Russian “style”, one might call it “over the top”.  If one were being nice.  If one were being truthful, one might call it “Bordello Chic”.  The architecture, the décor and furniture in the hotels and shops, the palaces, in short, everything, is overdone, overdecorated, overgilded, oversized,etc.  I was just too, too much.

As you will see from the pictures, the Russians think there’s nothing that can’t be improved with a little gold leaf.  They also love marble, crystal and this funky shade of blue that was apparently Catherine the Great’s fave.  If a Russian can somehow combine all four of these elements AT ONE TIME, well, they are just over the moon in Decoration Nirvana.  More is more in Russia.

For example, the bar in our hotel was so scary and intimidating, we couldn’t even drink there.  There were six, SIX!, 12-foot tall statues of Zeus or somebody holding up the ceiling in a room about the size of a single-wide.  There was another little bar/restaurant about a half a block away that looked much cozier and laid back.  So, we went there twice.  Natch.

The first night we went, we noticed nothing amiss.  There were two tables of some really big, burly guys but we thought they were just there to drink massive amounts of vodka and watch the Olympics.  BTW, the Russian programming of the Olympics is A HOOT!  It is all weight-lifting, wrestling and gymnastics.  All the time.  Period.  Our dinner was delicious—borscht and pierogies.  Very traditional.

Late the next afternoon, we stopped back in for apertifs and that was when we noticed something very strange.  One of the big guys from the night before was back.  I just thought, OK, he’s a regular.  But this afternoon, he was with, well, there is no nice way to put it really, he was being entertained by two ladies of the evening.  (Technically, in this case, I guess I would have to call them ladies of the afternoon.)   And his bodyguard.  Oh, excuse me.  ONE of his bodyguards.  His OTHER bodyguard was still standing inside the front door of the restaurant where I had mistaken him for the maître d’hotel.  But that couldn’t be right, could it, since the REAL maître d’hotel was actually standing right there next to me showing me to my seat?

Slowly, it dawned on me that this “regular” might be a Mafia guy.  There was another customer to my right, all by himself, talking on his phone, but making eye contact with HIS bodyguard out in the vestibule.  Now, I am not the brightest bulb in the box, but I did own a little restaurant for 15 years and even I know that a little, neighborhood bar THAT ONLY HAS 6 PEOPLE in it, (two of whom were Mr. Big and I), did not need 3 bodyguards to maintain order.  Mercy.  That’s a 2:1 ratio.  That’s a recipe for gunplay, in my book.

As one of only two people in the restaurant who was not packing heat, I decided to put my theory to the test.  I wanted to see if those two dudes out in the foyer worked for the restaurant or if they worked for the clientele.  Putting on my snootiest Swiss expression and strut and my ultra-high Parisienne French accent, I sauntered out to ask them the location of the toilettes.  I got two blank stares.  I asked again in English.  More blank stares.  Since I had run through my entire repertoire of languages with no response, I turned and made my own way to the bathroom, of which I already knew the location since I had just been there the night before.

Upon returning to the table and summoning the waiter to bring me another glass of wine because there was no way in hell I was leaving this excitement, I whispered to Mr. Big without moving my lips, “Dude, we are in a Russian mob bar.”

Mr. Big:  No shit, Sherlock.  Did you think those two chicks were that guy’s daughters?

Me:  Well, actually, yes, initially.  But the two guys with guns in the vestibule who won’t stop staring at us are what really tipped me off.

Mr. Big:  This guy sitting next to me with the phone is quite scary.

Me:  I know.  Isn’t this fabulous?  Quick, order another drink.  And man up and order vodka this time, would you?  You can’t sit in a mob bar and drink pink wine.  Puh-leeze.

About this time, Mob Guy With Hookers lights up a cigarette INSIDE THE RESTAURANT like it was his living room.  After putting my eyes back in my skull, I summoned the real maître d’hotel  and asked for an ashtray because I have two smoking friends back in the US who will absolutely die of jealousy that I was smoking inside a restaurant.  (Hi, Chris!  Hi, Doug!)  Anyway, the waiter LOOKS OVER AT SMOKING MOB GUY with his eyebrows raised and he receives the go-ahead to go get me an ashtray.  This was when I realized that one is probably not allowed in regular, i.e. non-mob-affiliated, bars to smoke, but since I was now one of the gang, well. . .g’head, girl.  Rock on with your smoking self.

OK, nothing else happened.  No one died or was gunned down or anything.  I did wave good-bye and say au revoir to all my new friends.  None of them paid any attention to me, however.  In spite of the fact that we did not become Facebook friends, I am pretty sure that, should I ever need to have Mr. Big “taken care of” I know just where to turn.

Here is the link to the hotel where we stayed:  Taleon Imperial Hotel  The Mob bar is, of course, nowhere to be found on the internet.  Just go out of the hotel, turn right and go about three doors down.  If you have to go through two sets of bullet-proof glass doors, you are in the right place.  Tell them Trailing Spouse said “hey”.