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”.