Aug 27 2010

Rasputin’s Remains

In his series of articles in the New Yorker about traveling through Siberia, Ian Frazier laments that the town of Pokrovskoye does not have a museum dedicated to its most famous son, Grigory Rasputin.  Born a peasant, Rasputin was the sex-crazy, self-proclaimed visionary who moved to St. Petersburg and gained influence over the royal family by supposedly curing the bleeding of Tsarevitch Alexey, Nicholas and Alexandra’s hemophiliac son. Soothing, compassionate, and blessed with what I’ve heard described as a particularly well-placed wart, his influence over the royal family was matched only by his influence over aristocratic women, whom he convinced could find salvation by having sex with him.

“Rasputin, it was said, gave off a powerful odor of goat,” writes Frazier. “What a museum you could make about a guy like that! Oh, well.”

There may not be a tribute to Rasputin in his home town, but it seems that Frazier – busy as he was making an epic over-land journey across Siberia in a sour cream delivery van – missed page 268 of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Russia. There, in a box titled “Off-beat St. Petersburg,” is a small blurb that reads “Inspect Rasputin’s Penis – the mad monk’s meaty 30cm-long member is the chief attraction at the otherwise eminently missable Museum of Erotica, housed in a venereal disease clinic.” Perhaps this reflects poorly on our priorities,  but Peter and I made it one of our first stops.

According to a set of complimentary Rasputin postcards that we received along with our tickets, the Museum of Erotica’s formal title is actually “the Museum of Erotics, Center of Prostatology, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences.” It’s an imposing title for an institution housed in the basement of an unremarkable building about a mile east of the Summer Gardens, whose stairway leads to a large cardboard cutout of a tanned, buxom woman wearing nothing but a white bikini  and a stethoscope. Next to it hangs a poster of the clinic’s founder – Dr. Knyazkin – sitting in a chair and dressed in white, glaring as he takes notes on a red clipboard. He is surrounded by women dressed in costumes that would be described on Halloween packaging as “slutty nurse,” complete with stiletto heels and giant, suggestively positioned syringes. A dignified entrance, it is not.

This would be weird enough if the place were simply the Museum of Erotica. But it really is a functional venereal disease clinic. In addition to detailing the circumstances behind Rasputin’s death (“March 24th, 1917, 2 to 7am: Rasputin is cremated in the furnace of a heating boiler at the Polytechnic Institute”), my postcard pack also lists some of the available services, including urology and “andrology,” gynecology, laboratory and functional diagnostics and, most intriguingly, “sexology and sexopathology.”  And there were customers: as proof that Russia has very low expectations for patient privacy, the erotica museum doubles as the clinic waiting room; we saw embarrassed-looking men sitting on benches in front of cases filled with porcelain figurines of copulating pigs. Occasionally, a side door would open, revealing examination chairs and what looked like legitimate medical equipment, albeit equipment staffed by women with larger than normal cup sizes.

Once we’d made it past the entrance, we approached one of these large-breasted slutty nurse figures, a friendly young woman who was sitting behind a desk in what looked like a normal hospital reception area, but for the abundance of genitalia on the walls. Looking us up and down, she correctly guessed we were there for the museum, not the clinic. Then she gave us pairs of blue booties to put over our shoes.

While I would never describe the museum as “eminently missable” – how could that be true of a place that features a large poster of a woman in leather boots, red bra and military hat with the title “The Cold War Just Got Hot”? – I will say that I don’t remember many of its exhibits. But that’s probably because the display I do remember has been etched in my mind in such clear, painful detail that it is likely to haunt me in my sleep: the enormous, brown and bloated penis of Grigory Rasputin, floating in a jar.  Pointing downward, it sits calmly suspended in clear fluid, beckoning the viewer with tentacles of wispy hair. It is repulsive, the penis, the sort of thing that fills you immediately with visceral disgust even as you inspect it for signs of its legendary warts (I couldn’t find them). But here is what I did gather about its history, taken from my un-fact-checked postcard collection and a laminated piece of paper next to the exhibit titled “Brief History of Founding Rasputin’s Penis.”

-At the age of 19, Rasputin was married to a girl from the neighboring village. He had three children with her, though he was prone to “alcohol abuse and vagabonding.” At the age of 30, he supposedly gave up smoking and drinking and converted to vegetarianism. He did not, however, give up his sexuality; rather, he brought it with him to St. Petersburg where, surrounded by impressionable (and repressed) female admirers, he successfully convinced many of them to have sex with him.

-In between affairs, Rasputin gained influence over the royal family by, as noted above, supposedly curing their hemophiliac son. This influence earned him enemies and would-be assassins, among them the syphilitic Khionia Guseva, who approached him in his native village posing as a beggar and stabbed him in the stomach. He survived.

-Prince Felix Yusupov Count Sumarokov-Elston was a man who, according to my postcards, liked to “sing on stage in the woman’s attire.” He approached Rasputin seeking a cure for his homosexuality, but then fell in love with him. Alas, his unrequited affection morphed into hate, and he conspired with a different lover, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, to murder Rasputin. (Pavlovich later emigrated from Russia, married the daughter of an American railroad tycoon, and entered the champagne business.)

-Yusupov and Pavlovich, working with another assassin and, possibly, help from the British, lured Rasputin into Yusupov’s palace on December 30, 1916. They fed him poisoned wine and sweet cakes stuffed with cyanide. Neither worked. Rasputin eventually figured out there was something funny going on with his breakfast and tried to flee, at which point all three of his would-be killers tried to shoot him. One succeeded — though there are still rumors that Rasputin didn’t actually die until his assassins threw his body into an icy river.

-Fast forward to 1999. A small box was found in an abandoned house in a Parisian suburb that used to belong to Akilina Laptinskaya, Rasputin’s secretary. According to my postcards, the casket contained photographs, letters, “and some mummified hairy shrunken object, which turned out to be Rasputin’s penis.” How the penis got there – or, for that matter, how it was identified — I do not know. The postcards only offer this tease: “The full story of the phallus and the occasion on which it was cut off the body is explained in the ‘Big Rasputin Book’ by Dr. Knyazkin (DEAN Publ., St. Petersburg, 2007).”

-The museum obtained the box (and penis) in 2000. But what do you do with a shrunken phallus? Again, my postcards: “Before the unique penis found its place in the exhibition of the first Russian Erotic Museum, the staff of the Centre of Prostatology had to restore it scrupulously. The organ was steamed, the sticking together hair was detached, the wounds were sutured and the penis was filled with gel. What came to hand [!] was semi-erected phallus 24 cm long, which is kept in the special solution in order to be preserved forever.”

I left the museum with many questions – about penis rehydration, about why it was cut off in the first place and, perhaps most of all, about the story of Dr. Knyazkin, the founder of the clinic, author of the history, and the keeper of the artifact. All over the museum were posters featuring his face. Most notable was the one in the exit hall, framed above a display of letters – perhaps from fans. It is a photograph of  Knyazkin and his prize. Staring into the camera, he clutches the base of Rasputin’s penis with his left hand, its mass dwarfing the microscope that sits behind it on the table. Knyazkin’s right index finger delicately pushes its head toward the camera, as if he is a parent coaxing a shy child. The look on his face indicates he is performing work of grave importance.

There are many things about Russia that I don’t understand.

The good doctor, striking a different pose.

It was even worse in person.

Aug 26 2010

To the Banya!

Peter and I travel remarkably well together, partially because each of us is usually willing to follow along with whatever uncomfortable and/or unpleasant experiences the other can come up with, like Latvian water aerobics, or a homestay with Mongolian nomads. But it took a bit of prodding to get him to accompany me to a banya, a traditional Russian bathhouse where people partake in the sadomasochistic practice of baking in a hot steam oven before beating themselves with branches.

“Why would I want to do that?” he asked me. “And are you sure I don’t need my bathing suit?”  It was a good question. Not only did the concept itself sound unpleasant, but we were visiting Moscow during the midst of what some meterologists have called the worst heatwave in a thousand years, which was accompanied by a smoke cloud caused by nearby wildfires. It was not a day that made one want to voluntarily get even hotter. But it was our last afternoon in Moscow before we got on the Trans Siberian railroad that night. We – by which I mean I – had to do it.

After several days of great weather, the smoke had returned.

We’d considered going to a central, famous bath called Salduny, but upon learning that it was nearly $50 a piece just to enter – plus the fact that according to my friend Christine, the men’s half contains all the fancy stuff and the women’s half sucks – we found a recommendation online for a different bath slightly out of city center for half the price. Na Presne, I think it was called. The bath was pretty close to an easy-to-reach subway stop. But as we’ve learned over the past few days, “pretty close” in Moscow can easily be ten or fifteen New York blocks – the city is big. What’s more, the street signs tend to only be in Cyrillic, and only tell half of the story: blocks in Moscow are so large that they often have entire mini-neighborhoods inside of them, complexes of apartment buildings and shops in what you’d think would just be a courtyard.

The bath was in one of those courtyard mini cities, and it took us a good fifteen minutes – complete with several wrong turns and interactions with security guards – to finally find it, a large, brick building with a blue logo that looked like “Bath” and separate men’s and women’s entrances. After wishing each other luck, we parted ways, both a bit apprehensive about what lay in store.

After I paid the entrance fee, an attendant gave me a voucher for a towel and led me to the changing room/lounge area. It was an open room with cartoons on the wall of happy bathers sitting in wooden tubs; the bath attendants and several customers lounged at small tables watching what appeared to be a Russian version of Scrubs on a TV dangling from the ceiling. There were curtained-off changing rooms, but apparently my ticket was only good enough for an open stall right next to the television, which made it seem like the entire roomful of people was watching me change.

I’ve been to baths before, but I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect in the Russian banya. My first challenge, it turned out, was finding the parilka – the steam room that’s the essence of the Russian banya experience.  After taking a shower to rinse off, the first room I came across was an open space filled with rows of benches and buckets of water, presumably to soak your venik, the bundle of birch branches you beat yourself with to exfoliate and stimulate your skin. I would imagine there are times when the room is filled with row upon row of bathers, but with the weather being as it was, there were only a few women standing around, lathering their bodies with various beauty treatments. Nearby was a tub labeled “hydro-massage,” where a woman lay submerged as an attendant worked on her back.

A door led to what I assumed was the parilka – a mint-scented sauna with stadium-like rows of wooden benches and a large bucket of water next to a metal-doored brick oven. No one else was in it, the door was open, and the two bath attendants who came in to sweep leaves off the floor and refill the water politely indicated that I might want to leave. Something clearly happened in this room, but not now.

So I decided to buy time in the Finnish sauna, a room next to the parilka that was so hot that I couldn’t breathe through my nose without worrying about singing my nose hair. This was a dry, penetrating heat; I managed only several minutes before realizing that if I stayed any longer, I might actually pass out. So I escaped to the final room: a large plunge pool, totally empty, with three water spigots – one that looked like a large round showerhead, one with cascading water like a gentle waterfall, and one that was just an open pipe (useful for massage). The water was freezing, but I took the plunge, and was rewarded by the feeling I remembered from the Russian Baths on East 10th street when I’d dared to pour a bucket of freezing water on my head: shock, breathlessness, and then exhilaration. I realize I sound like a soft drink commercial, but there’s no other way to say it: it was deliciously refreshing.

But this was not what I’d come for. Eventually I heard an announcement in Russian over the loudspeaker and saw a small parade of women entering the Russian bath. I followed, taking a seat on a bottom bench as I observed the people around me – a variety of ages and sizes, naked except for sandals, sheets, and very silly bell-shaped felt hats, which are popular as a way to protect your hair from the heat. How exactly they protect your hair – or from what – was unclear, but the effect was to make it seem like I was bathing with a group of nudist female Robin Hoods. As was perhaps appropriate, these Robin Hoods were braver than I, and several of them spread their sheets on the top layer and lay down upon them, face down, as if sunbathing in an oven. Others simply reclined, their sheets falling to their waists. I sat wrapped prudishly from armpit to knee, waiting to see what might happen next.

Soon thereafter, a bath attendant entered the room. A round woman, also with a felt cap, she was wrapped in a special sheet, one decorated with cartoon figures of people soaking in a banya and beating themselves with branches. I could tell right away that I liked her, even as she pulled the door shut behind her. (I remembered a review I had read online of these particular baths, which claimed that the attendants actually locked you inside until the heat became unbearable – I was grateful that it seemed she had simply closed the door.)  Glancing around at the women under her care, the attendant pulled on two heavy gloves and cranked open the oven, which let out a disconcerting creak. Working quickly, she then began ladeling water from the nearby bucket onto the fire, each splash landing on the hot rocks with a hiss. I counted 113 ladles before she pulled the oven door shut and turned back to face us. As the steam spread, the room became much hotter; several women in the top row groaned.

Next, the attendant picked up a bowl of water that had been sitting by the door and carefully measured several drops of scented oil into it – the source of the peppermint smell that permeated the room. Warning us with what must have been Russian for “watch out!” she began turning in a circle, flinging ladles full of the water around the room. Droplets of mint-scented water hit the walls and our heads, adding to the room’s already refreshing smell.

The attendant walked to the middle of the room. Assuming a warrior-like stance, she picked up a different cartoon sheet and began swinging it in circles above her head to spread the heat. Please take a moment to imagine this scene: a short-haired, rotund woman clad in nothing but sandals, a sheet and a bell-shaped felt hat, violently swinging a towel around her head like a lasso. Waves of scalding air hit my back; sweat began to flow. This was the real deal.

But she wasn’t done; instead, the attendant dripped mint oil onto two bunches of branches sitting on a bench by the door. Picking them up, she worked her way around the room, waving them above each of our heads as if anointing us with delicious, mint-scented steam. She even gave one bather a playful smack on the back. I loved the attendant and her silly felt hat. And, truth be told, I wasn’t even that hot. This was nothing compared to the Finnish sauna.

That turned out to be because I was on the bottom level; when I returned for a second round and dared to go higher, the heat quickly became unbearable. But that first time, I remained pleasantly warm as the attendant put down her branches and opened the oven again, ladeling in more water beore eventually leaving us to steam on our own.

I alternated between steam room, sauna and plunge pool, realizing at some point (I believe in the cold room) that I was completely content: my aching feet had temporarily stopped hurting, I could feel my circulation pulsing through my body, and the contrast between heat and cold was leaving me feeling delightfully calm. It was a shame, I thought to myself, that no such tradition exists in the United States, a place where it is considered weird to sit naked in an incredibly hot room with strangers and have people beat you with branches.

My only regret was that I didn’t buy a bundle – something had gotten lost in translation in check-in, so instead I merely watched with envy as several fellow bathers slapped their thighs and backs. But I can live vicariously through Peter.  He entered the Russian sauna at the same time as a couple of others and apparently felt the need to prove his manhood by engaging in a one-sided battle of the baths (I don’t think the other men knew they were playing). After lying with the men on the highest, hottest level for 10 minutes, Peter was about admit defeat when the men threw an additional challenge, standing up  from their bench and beating themselves with their branches. Intimidated, but not wanting to appear so, he joined in.  By the end, his birch bundle – which he subsequently christened “Ivan the Terrible” – had left small red welts all over his back.  Still, as we emerged from the baths, rosy-faced and refreshed, we both decided it was worth it.

The outside of the baths.

Moscow, we still love you!

Aug 25 2010

Peter’s Photo Post

Here are a few of my favorite photos from the trip so far.  (Catherine’s favorite remains the one of Rasputin’s wiener.)

Catherine searching for Christine and Nick's Corn Babushka

A Soviet Spy

Man and his Water Bottle

At least he has a lucky charm

Catherine in St. Petersburg

Some Suitcases

Offerings to the Siberian Shamans

Our door to Hapsalu

Long Shadows

Goodnight Moon

Swallow at Sunset

Our Bicycles, Cuddling

Aug 21 2010

Welcome to Russia

Peter celebrated our arrival in St. Petersburg by listening to the patriotic anthem that is Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.” It seemed a fitting way to mark the transition between the easy part of this trip (Iceland, France, Italy, the surprisingly comfortable Baltic States) to the lands that lie ahead – Russia, Mongolia, China, and beyond. Gone are the days of toilet paper-stocked public bathrooms and potable tap water. From now on, I’m going to have to think twice before rinsing my toothbrush in the sink, and have a high – if not guaranteed – chance of getting severe diarrhea before I return to American soil.

Despite having spent time in China, I wasn’t quite prepared for the culture shock of Cyrillic, which we first encountered on a train across from the platform at the border. Being surrounded by characters is disconcerting and frustrating, to be sure, but there’s a certain comfort that comes from having absolutely no comprehension – after a while, you stop thinking of them as words, and they become more like interesting decorations on everyday sights like grocery stores and pharmacies. But with Cyrillic, there are just enough letters in common to make you feel like you should be able to read it – oh, look! An “M” — but enough differences to ensure that you can’t. Making things worse, the letters that do look similar are pronounced differently – “H” sounds like “N,” for example, a backwards “N” is “I” (as in “ee”) and “P” is “R.” Also, many of the letters are written, from an American perspective, backwards. The effect is to make me feel not just illiterate, but dyslexic.

Eat, pray, what?

We were met at the train station by a woman named Tatiana, who coordinated the homestay program we signed up for  — a cheaper and potentially more interesting arrangement than a typical hotel in which you stay in a local’s spare room. Our local was Dmitry, a friendly electrical engineer who shared an apartment with his mother on the bank of the river, just across from the Hermitage. It was in a fantastic location, though when Tatiana first led us to the apartment, we had our doubts: its entrance was inside a Soviet-style courtyard, in a building with crumbling steps, a decrepit-looking elevator and, perhaps most disturbingly, large piles of bags of concrete rubble stacked on each landing. (Dmitry later told Peter that the rubble was there because they were demolishing the top floor of the building in order to add some luxury penthouses. “But we are worried it may make the building fall down,” he commented, in what we hoped was a joke.)

This was right after they took away the rubble bags.

The apartment was basic but relatively spacious – three rooms sharing a foyer with a bathroom, shower, and small kitchen. The only problem was that it was warm – St. Petersburg was in the midst of a heat wave – and there was no air conditioning (in fact, when we asked if most people had it, Tatiana laughed). More on that later.

And there was one other weird thing: the entire city was covered in smog. Granted, there are hundreds of wildfires burning in Russia right now and Moscow is currently covered in a thick layer of smoke. St. Petersburg, however, is hundreds of kilometers away. There was not supposed to be smoke or smog. But there it was – thick enough that it was obscuring the skyline, and smelling slightly sweet, the distinct smell of burning wood. We found this curious, and so tried to get a local explanation.

“Is it usually like this?” we asked Tatiana, as she drove us to the apartment.

“Yes, this is the weather,” she said, enigmatically.

We had no further luck with Dmitry.

“So, is the visibility usually this bad?” asked Peter.

“It is not usually this hot,” replied Dmitry.

“Can you normally see farther?” I asked, wondering if perhaps he had misunderstood.

“I hope that perhaps it may cool down.”

No smoke here.

But from what I can tell, this denial of environmental contamination may be a cultural thing. How else to explain the crowds of bikini-clad bathers blanketing the banks of the Neva – the large river that flows through the center of St. Petersburg – happily plunging their children into the water despite the fact that, according to Lonely Planet, all of European Russia’s main rivers have viral and bacterial levels that are 10 to 100 times higher than permitted? Or the fact that Dmitry returned to the apartment one night proudly clutching a bag containing a fish he had caught – and which he intended to eat – from that same river? Who cares that the tap water in St. Petersburg is sometimes tainted with giardia, that water-borne parasite responsible for stomach cramps, nausea, and incessant diarrhea?

Fresh from the Neva.

The water's great!

Needless to say, Peter and I did not jump in. Instead, we walked across a long bridge to the main part of town, where we paid our first foreigner’s ticket price (Russia, like China, has the irritating habit of charging foreigners much more than locals for many sights and museums) and went into the gruesomely named Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, which is decorated floor to ceiling with fantastic mosaics and, on that particular day, had a light layer of smoke floating beneath its ceiling’s vaults. It  is also across the street from a craft and souvenir market, which gave us our first chance to stare at hundreds upon hundreds of Russian nesting dolls, some painted traditionally, others decorated with rather unflattering images of Putin, Britney Spears, and Barack Obama. It was there that I first experienced one of the paradoxes of travel: the desire to buy things that you would never want if they were available at home. Am I honestly going to decorate my office with Russian nesting dolls? And, if I were, am I really going to take them all out and line them up in a long row to prove how many there are inside? The likely answer is no – which means that I either don’t really care whether the doll has 5 parts or 20, or that I don’t need a nesting doll to begin with. But I still am probably going to end up with one.

First day verdict? I like Russia.

Aug 17 2010

Sleepless in St. Petersburg

August 8th: Our last night in Finland before getting up at 6 for a train to St. Petersburg. Neither one of us falls asleep before 1:30 am.

August 9th: First night in St. Petersburg. Quickly discover that the city’s reputation for mosquitoes – it is, after all, a former swamp – is justified.  In our hot and humid room, we both spend the night fighting off small, agile dive bombers, too nimble and fast for our clumsy swats. Peter spends part of the night watching mosquitoes fly into our room through the window, circle the ceiling like planes in a landing pattern, and then fly back out to invite their friends. We learn one of the Catch 22s of our room:  the sheets keep off the mosquitoes, but it is too hot to sleep under sheets. Both of us get about five hours of restless sleep.

August 10th: The worst night of not just Russia, but the entire trip.

9:35 pm: Return to our room, already exhausted from a lack of sleep the night before. With the window closed, we spend about 35 minutes on a search-and-destroy mission. Kill about seven mosquitoes, including one that is so attuned to vibrations on both walls and air that it evades us for a full 25 minutes.

10:00 pm: I take a shower. As I’m standing in the tub, I notice that it would be very easy to lose my balance and fall out of the tub, crashing onto the floor below and seriously hurting myself. Make a mental note to hold onto the wall while washing my feet.

10:07 pm: Peter takes a shower. About five minutes into it, I hear a loud crash. Peter has fallen out of the shower while washing his feet. Luckily, his only injury is a jammed thumb. But the same is not true for the shower curtain, which came tumbling down with him and is now broken on the floor. We write Dmitry an apology note.

10:30-11:30: Watch the latest episode of Mad Men, trying to ignore an ominous flying object that occasionally darts across our screen.

11:35-12:15: Round two of Operation Mosquito Kill. At some point, Peter gives up and just begins reading, claiming that a combination of ear plugs and Tylenol PM is going to help him and the mosquito co-exist. I refuse to admit defeat, spending an additional fifteen minutes inspecting the walls as if I am a psychiatric patient.

12:16: Catherine: 1. Mosquito: 0.

12:25 am: After noting that the temperature on our alarm clock reads 88 degrees, we turn off the light. Peter has a balaclava on his head; we both are wearing socks. I lie spread eagle on my bed, trying to expose myself to as much air as possible while still under a sheet. I pull out a device I bought in the Milan airport advertising itself as “the world’s tiniest fan” and duct tape it to the night table, just in case.

12:26 am: Despite the fact that the window and door are closed, there are more mosquitoes. Where are they coming from? Can dead mosquitoes reproduce?  Regardless, they want blood.

12:47 am: Zombie fuckers.

1:07 am: I feel like I am suffocating. I try turning on the fan, but it sounds like a small propeller plane. What’s more, I am convinced that letting it run for more than five minutes will break its tiny engine, depriving me of future tiny fannage in days to come. I turn it off. Even in my exhaustion, I still retain my tendency to hoard.

2:23 am: The air is thick and hot. Caught between wakefulness and sleep, I have a flashback to fire safety class and decide that clearly the best thing for me to do is to lie down on the floor.

2:24 am: Peter: “Why are you on the floor?”

Me: “Because it’s cooler here.”

Peter: “Really?”

Me: “No.”

Peter: “Okay.”

I get back into bed.

2:39 am: HOW IS IT ONLY 2:39 AM?

3 am: For the first time in my life, I wish the night away. Peter is still awake as well. We make a group decision to risk further mosquito invasion by opening the window. I take the duct tape from under my fan and use it to tape the lace curtain to the ceiling in an attempt to improvise a screen, not caring that the holes in the lace are more than large enough for mosquitoes to fly through, entire families at a time.

Peter's attempts at defense.

3:15 am: Discover that what we thought was a Catch 22 might not in fact be one – the room is both hot and mosquito-filled at the same time. No need to choose! At some point Peter gives up on his own sleep and decides, in his delirium, that the least he can do is try to protect me; I wake up to find him standing above my bed with a headlamp pointed at my face, swiping at the air. This doesn’t strike me as odd.

4:15 am: A group of loud, drunken men decide to have a fight directly below our window.  “Go down there!” I command our mosquitoes. “Fresh blood!” They take no notice.

5:20 am: It is still hot. So, so hot.


7:49 am: Mosquitoes: 39. Peter and Catherine: 0.

Peter in the morning.

We wake up bleary-eyed at ten, having gotten a total of about three hours of uninterrupted sleep. Dmitry asks us how we are and Peter somehow gets Dmitry to bequeath us his fan, a treasure that we had glimpsed in his room the day before and which Dmitry has unwisely relocated to the front hallway to keep him cool while eating breakfast. In a different context, this might have made me feel guilty. But instead, as soon as Dmitry leaves for work, Peter and I grab the fan and put it in our room.

Dmitry: 0. Peter and Catherine: 1.

Aug 15 2010

Our Dirty Laundry

One of the most consistent challenges of this trip is trying to keep on top of our dirty clothes.  This doesn’t seem like it should be much of a problem – after all, at home I do laundry once a week, maybe week and a half. But there is a major difference between home and the road, and it boils down to this: underwear. I’ve got four pairs with me – or, rather, three plus an emergency back-up – and I’ve learned the hard way that I can only wash them in the sink so many times before they’re in need of the real deal.

This hasn’t been too much of a problem, given that we’ve stayed in apartments or hostels with machines often enough to avoid letting anything get truly offensive. But the result of our laundry uncertainty is a compulsion to wash our clothing whenever we’re within 10 meters of a washing machine. Who cares if the previous load was two days before – I can always find something in need of a good soak.

What we’ve discovered is that washing machines in Europe are far more evolved than those in the States. Or, at least, they’re more complicated. Instead of a simple dial decorated by minutes and a couple pictograms of cotton balls and delicates, these machines have multiple knobs, multiple buttons, multiple temperatures, and, quite often a life of their own. Yesterday, for example, Peter decided to do a load of laundry at Dmitry’s (our homestay host in St. Petersburg) – a good choice considering that we’d been spending every night sweating through our clothes. But having recently destroyed his shower curtain and commandeered his fan, we felt a little weird asking if we could use his washing machine. So we did the obvious thing: put in a load while he was at work.

Fine, it was a little sketchy. But what was the harm? And besides, we could just wait till the wash cycle was done and hang the clothes surreptitiously in our room.

But we had underestimated the options available on a Russian washing machine. Peter started a load on what he thought was an express cycle; 35 minutes later, it was still doing exactly what it was before: adding small spurts of water and then rotating the drum one turn, then spurting water again. Noticing that it was stuck on what appeared to be Step 3, he tried to move it toward its rinse cycle – but the dial responded by clicking forward on its own, working through 14 different steps before settling again on 3.  The water, while copious, was still filled with suds. Making things worse, it was a front load washer – which meant that even if we could get the machine to stop spurting, we couldn’t get our clothes.

Eventually Peter managed to get the machine to go through a spin cycle and, with some coaxing and unplugging, got the door to unlock. But there was a problem. Not only were our clothes wet and slightly slimy, but the detergent we had used smelled like ammonia – so much so that I insisted he had washed our clothes with toilet cleaner, despite the fact that the bucket was directly next to the washing machine and had a picture of a shirt on it.

We shut the door again, tried to start the wash on a different number. It clicked forward to 3, the washing machine equivalent of “Fuck you.”  Accepting defeat, we left the house.  I can’t tell you what happened next.  Maybe the machine spent the entire afternoon stuck in its wash cycle, running up Dmitry’s hot water bill. Maybe it grew tired of its little game and stopped on its own. Maybe Dmitry came home, wondered why we tried to wash our clothes with toilet cleaner on the endless cycle, and reset the thing for us. All I know is that when we got back that night, the machine was silent and its door was unlocked.  Our clothes smelled fine.  As for my underwear?  I’ve got four clean pairs.

Aug 8 2010

Farewell, Estonia! (Subtitle: This Post’s For Doug)

I cannot believe that it has already been more than a week since water aerobics (thank god I didn’t read this article before attending). Peter and I are now in Helsinki, Finland, contemplating whether it is really a good idea to follow through with our plan to go to Moscow on Wednesday, given that the city is not just in the midst of its worst ever heat wave, but is also blanketed by what’s being referred to as “choking smog,” thanks to hundreds of wildfires burning near the capital. (According to Russian health authorities, an hour outside is the equivalent of smoking 60 to 70 cigarettes.)

This could be us.

This is a photo from a Moscow webcam this morning. I am not kidding.

It’s giving me flashbacks to our night spent downwind of the Iceland volcano. Except, oh, wait, we escaped the ash cloud by driving for ten minutes. Apparently all of Moscow is covered. What’s funny, though, is that I’ve been emailing some Moscow hotels, trying to place some place that’s air conditioned, and they make no reference to what’s going on. “Hello, Catherine! Yes, we have a room available. You may choose from a deluxe room with king bed or standard room with queen. Thank you for your inquiry!”

Now, I understand you don’t want to scare off your potential customers, but given the current situation, wouldn’t a little acknowledgment be nice? Nothing too dramatic — maybe something like “I am typing this email with a wet rag over my face” or “I must go now for the air is too thick to breathe”? I mean, come on, people. There’s a smog-choked elephant in the room.

Anyway. We’re going to see what to do about that. But first, our Baltic finale. After Riga we took a detour to the Estonian islands of Muhu and Saaremaa. It’s been a couple days now, and my memories of being in spandex shorts are quickly fading, but here is what I can tell you about them:

We spent our first night in Muhu, in a random guesthouse on the side of the road run by an Estonian woman who spoke absolutely no English. With her daughter-in-law translating, we established that Americans do not often come to Muhu (“An American? It is like you are from Mars!” she exclaimed), that she had an abundant supply of cucumbers and fresh peppermint that she was willing to share, and that she had a surprisingly nice badminton and volleyball court in her yard, along with a water feature, that is apparently used by people who rent the guesthouse for family reunions. We really liked this woman, who wore a smock-like dress and was so generous with her vegetables. She apparently liked us, too, and as she showed us around her miniature sports complex, we all engaged in a very peculiar human behavior: continuing to speak our native languages to each other even though we had no idea what the other person was saying. Perhaps this says something about the superficiality of most human conversation, but the fact that we didn’t understand one another didn’t really matter.

Her: Estonian Estonian Estonian Estonian [pointing at a swing set] Estonian Estonian.

Us: What a lovely badminton court that is. Do your grandchildren know how to play?


I don't think she was used to having strangers in bike clothes put their arm around her shoulder.

The previous evening the bike ride from the bus station to her house had been beautiful — except for one part where the GPS led us through what was basically a bramble (Peter was eaten by mosquitoes; I ended up with leaves stuck in my gears and a very confused inchworm on my water bottle).

This is a road?

Having planned a route on mostly paved surfaces, we thought the ride to Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa, would be beautiful — if, at 100km, a bit long. Oh, but we were wrong. The road was mostly just through trees, with no view on either side. Far worse, though, was the wind: Saaremaa is hit with powerful winds from the southwest, and we were biking right into them. .

The causeway between Muhu and Saaremaa. The prettiest part -- and also the windiest.

Oh, the wind. It’s funny – when you’re in a car, you don’t think much about air resistance. But trust me: when you’re biking, you think about the wind. And when it’s blowing in your face for 100km, it sucks. Making things worse, part of the road we were supposed to bike on was in the process of being repaved, which meant that for the time being, it was only partially covered in asphalt, leaving behind patches of rocky gravel that got kicked up by passing cars. What’s more, for reasons I haven’t figured out, it smelled like beef jerky. For at least 10km, I felt like I was in a Slim Jim factory.

After a light lunch of boiled frankfurters, sauerkraut and potatoes (for me) and beef stroganoff that Peter referred to as “cow snot” (for him), we were back on the road, into the wind, for a few dozen more kilometers to Europe’s most accessible meteor crater. Left behind a couple thousand years ago, the spot is now marked by a small round pond, a deli and a long hallway of local women selling handicrafts. I bought a doily.

We pulled into the island’s capital, Kuressaare just in time to get caught in a downpour on our way to dinner, where we engaged in one of my least favorite activities in the Baltic States: trying to get the attention of the waiter. I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be some sort of regimented training program here for people in the restaurant business called “Never Make Eye Contact.” It does not matter how long you sit at your table. It does not matter if you turn yourself around in your seat, disengage from conversation, and devote your entire attention to trying to bore holes in the waitress’s back with your eyes. She will not look at you. Nor will she bring you menus. Despite this, when she finally does stop by your table – fifteen, twenty minutes after you have sat down – she will try to take your order, then act irritated when you point out that you have no idea what the restaurant serves (what a horrible feeling it is to see her walk away). But if you get up to fetch your own? Forget about it.

This skill even extends to counter service. Peter and I have both taken turns standing in front of a cash register as the person behind the counter – literally two feet away – makes cappuccinos, rearranges chocolates in the display case, washes dishes, all without ever acknowledging that you are standing there. In the worst instance, I made the mistake of asking a young woman if it was all right for us to sit down before waiting the requisite five minutes until she maybe decided to look up. She became gravely offended – who did I think I was? A paying customer? — turning her back to me, finding solace in the espresso machine, and refusing to turn back around even when specifically ordered by her boss. (We then waited a half hour before someone arrived to take our orders.)

But anyway. Kuresaarre. A nice town, made even nicer when we decided to ditch the bikes for a day and rent a car so that we could see the other side of the island. Go Estonian coast!

Still windy.

Our prepubescent sense of humor are in full force

And then, thighs still aching from our adventure in the wind, we took a bus to the town of Haapsalu, a former spa resort favored by the Russian monarchy that is now best known for its impressive castle.  What I know it for, however, is its spiders. As we walked around on our first evening in town, I made the mistake of looking up at a lightpost. There, stretched between it and a nearby wall, was an intricate web. And on that web clung not one, not two, not three or even four, but upwards of 20 spiders. Big spiders. Meaty spiders. The kind of spider that can make you worried, even if you’re not usually particularly arachnophobic, that one is going to crawl up your nose in your sleep and make a little nest there before biting you with poisonous venom that travels straight to your brain, leaving its countless babies to devour your corpse from within. Or, you know, something like that. (It does occur to me that the main reason I’m not normally scared of spiders is that I’m not usually surrounded by them.) And it was hardly just that light post. Rather, there were spiders everywhere we looked – hanging in door jambs, off bus stops, clinging to walls. We were staying in an ancient guesthouse which we’d previously considered charming and quaint for its rough wooden walls and exposed brick. But those nooks now seemed like nests; I made Peter thoroughly check the area around our tiny bed to make sure there wasn’t anyone who might be tempted to take a nighttime stroll across our sheets. Luckily – and truly bizarrely – there wasn’t. And I will say this: Haapsalu did not have many mosquitoes.

Those black dots are all spiders.

Big ones.

This is before we noticed the spiders.

And so we were off to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where we spent several days relaxing in the cobblestoned streets of its Old Town and wondering where the hell all the Americans had suddenly come from. (Cruise ships, it turned out.) I also made a point of finding a local gym and signing up for a “Body Combat” class (Peter politely declined), where a young blonde woman led the class – all female – in rounds of punches and kicks narrated mostly in Estonian, but broken up by key phrases that suggested that aerobics might really be the next universal language (“Thai box!” “Tai chi!”). Most of my attention was taken up by trying to kick myself far away from the woman next to me, who had body odor so bad that it eventually infused the room – but I was still surprised when our perky and friendly instructor pretended to hold someone down on the floor and punch them in the face (we followed along to the beat). I have gone to many an aerobic boxing class in my day, but that is a move I have never seen.

Next up was Helsinki, which we got to via a 3.5-hour ferry, with its very own karaoke bar on board. (My favorites were a very gruffly sung “My Way” and “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for, though this kid’s Elvis gave them a run for their money.

Helsinki is a city known, at least by me, for its salmon soup and exorbitant prices on, well, everything. Dear lord, people – it’d have been expensive in dollars, let alone Euros. Inspired by hotel rates, we decided to make our first foray into “Couch Surfing,” an organization in which people volunteer to let you stay a night or two, for free, in their homes. We happened to get lucky – after a meterologist didn’t get back to me, I found a couple right in downtown who enjoyed good food, good company and, most importantly, were willing to let us have the keys to their apartment for two nights. So nice! We spent yesterday taking a walk around the city, and were surprised to meet these guys, a group of young men dressed up as tuba-playing babushkas who we had seen before both in Riga and in Talinn (they must have been doing their Baltic circuit).

And then in the evening, we met our hosts for dinner at their country cottage, which was located pretty much in the middle of the city.

Let me clarify: apparently at some point in Helsinki’s past, maybe the 1920s, the government decided to set aside some land so that poor people could grow vegetables on small plots of land. Tiny, tiny cottages were built, surrounded by vegetable patches and fruit trees, and while the rest of Helsinki was modernized, these enclaves were not. So a twenty minute tram ride from the heart of downtown will now take you to this sunken green area (apparently it used to be a swamp used to bury horses) where narrow gravel paths lead past these tiny red wood homes, each with little outdoor cooking areas and beautiful flowers and vegetables. I have never seen anything like it. I have also never seen a wild hedgehog – but as we walked up the path toward their house, there one was.

Well, hello there.

The house – which is basically one room – was so small that there was no running water inside or, for that matter, toilet (there was an “eco-loo” up the path), which I suppose might get annoying if, like our hosts, you spent the summers there. But it was lovely for a night – and despite the modern buildings around it, it only took a few minutes to completely forget where we were.

I like food.

And now we are on the train to St. Petersburg, technically already in Russia. We just got our first whiff of the so-called “acrid smoke” blanketing much of the country – and, I’ll admit, it wasn’t particularly pleasant. Here’s hoping for rain.

Our first moments in Russia.

Aug 1 2010

Aqua Aerobics in Riga

There are countless reasons Peter is the perfect husband for me. Here is just one of them: he came with me to a Latvian aqua aerobics class.

As previously noted on this blog, one of my absolute favorite things to do is going to exercise classes in foreign countries. So, naturally, when we pulled into Riga (the capital of Latvia) for a few days off the bikes, I started looking up local gyms. It wasn’t long before I’d discovered “City Fitness,” a New York Sports Club-esque chain with branches throughout the city. Putting our cell phone to good use, I called three of them to see what classes were on offer – and discovered that, in addition to usual standards like “Fitness Yoga” and “Total Body Workout,” one branch offered aqua aerobics.

Now, after my traumatic memories of high school swim (I still have dreams about my co-captain berating me for skipping practice in favor of cabaret rehearsal), one might think I’d have gone for “Abs and Back” instead. I did not. I have done everything from Cardio Striptease to some weird fad, popular in Berkeley CA circa 1999, where you wear slippery booties and pretend to speed skate in place. But I have never in my life done aerobics in a pool.

It’s safe to say that an obsession with fitness classes is not something that Peter and I share. In fact, on the rare occasions when I have strong-armed him into joining me, disaster has ensued – most notably when we attended a Croatian pilates class on our honeymoon and Peter lost the use of his left thumb (he needed emergency hand surgery to get it back). I was sympathetic, but still wanted him to come to kickboxing. What is it they say about physical exercise? “No pain, no gain”? I mean, come on. It was his left hand.

Regardless, I was very surprised when Peter did not immediately recoil at the idea of joining me in the pool. In fact, he said that, if pushed, he “might actually do it.” That was all I needed. I settled on a class at six o’clock the next day, timed so that if I really wanted to, I could join yoga at 7:30 as well (“I’m only going to one class,” said Peter preemptively, upon seeing the look on my face). And then began 36 hours of anticipation.

When we got to the gym – a later one than planned, since while I knew the club was in a Radisson hotel, I hadn’t realized that Riga is home to four of them – the woman behind the desk assumed that I was just signing up for me.

“No, two people,” I said, gesturing at Peter, who was standing directly beside me with swim trunks in hand.

Two people?” she repeated, ignoring Peter as she glanced around for my mystery companion.

“Yes,” I said, “Two.”

The look she gave Peter made it pretty clear that while Abs and Back might be co-ed, aqua aerobics was not. In fact, I got the sense that never, in the entire history of pool-based fitness classes, had there been a male participant under the age of 85. But money was money. As we waited for her to give me change, I noticed a closed-circuit television on the desk, the camera for which was trained on the pool. The screen showed a group of grainy black and white heads bobbing in the water, arms splashing as they tossed plastic balls in the air – the 6pm class that we had missed (there was another class at seven).  I told Peter to look away.

We emerged from our respective locker rooms to the sounds of Cher’s “Do You Believe In Life After Love,” accompanied by the sounds emanating from the teacher, a blonde, spandex-clad woman named Olga who bounced energetically on the edge of the pool – not in the water herself —  as she demonstrated moves to the class. She appeared to be yelling things in Latvian, though given the acoustics of the pool, it could have been Russian, Lithuanian or even English. I couldn’t tell. But I did know this: she was yipping.

I mean that exactly as it sounds. Whenever she wanted the ladies in the pool to do a differerent move – and they were all ladies – she made a high-pitched barking sound, the same timbre and intensity usually associated with a chihuahua. When demonstrating a favorite exercise – say, extending the ball to one side and your legs to the other – Olga let out an entire series of yips, occasionally finished by a blood-curdling “yoooo!”

Aqua aerobic spy cam

Though she was not actually in the pool, Olga never stopped swimming. When it was time for rest between sets, she shifted her weight from side to side as if kicking, swirling her hands by her hips to keep herself afloat – an aqua-aerobic tic that I wondered if she were able to control in the rest of her daily life. Did Olga tread water in line at the post office? Did she practice her flutter kick under her restaurant’s chair? Who was this woman? And how had she come to this career?

Regardless, she seemed to be enjoying it. We watched as the class ended with a series of easy-looking exercises – the tossing of beach balls back and forth, a series of choreographed stretches set to the Latvian equivalent of Leonia Lewis, a round of yips and applause. And then it was our turn.

The previous class was barely out of the pool before Olga began again – no rest for the weary – restarting the same cd and beginning her side-to-side faux-water-treading move with a smile beaming from her face. Our class, made up of a combination of young women in bikinis and several rounder women in one-piece suits – and, of course, me and Peter — followed along as best we could. But it quickly became apparent that moves that are very easy in air become much more difficult in water – and there was no way to keep up with Olga’s pace. Grinning, she began doing front kicks while simultaneously swinging her arms back and forth at her side, timing her moves to the music’s pulsating beat. I tried to do the same, but failed – not only was the water too thick to maintain a speed anywhere close to that of Olga, but it was difficult to move all of my limbs forcefully through the water without, well, actually swimming somewhere. My kicks pushed me backwards; the awkward movement of my arms kept throwing me off balance.

Olga did not care. Now we were to use two feet at once as we kicked to the side, to the front, to the side, to the front. Too fast! Too fast, Olga! What do you think we are exercising in? Air? I felt like I was doing aerobics in a vat of Jello. I tried using just one foot, balancing my other on the ground so that could perform both movements without dunking my head underwater. Olga saw me, held up two fingers, made a telescoping gesture toward my legs. I see you, she mimed. Two feet. Two! She sat on a stool to demonstrate.

Oh, I got what Olga was saying. I just couldn’t do it. Bizarrely, though, given my clumsiness, I had also begun to develop a fantasy of becoming a professional synchronized swimmer. Wouldn’t that be an unusual skill? I thought, trying to perform front to back leg sweeps without getting water up my nose. And such a good workout, too.

It turned out that Peter was having the same thoughts. From my perspective, he was giggling as he, too, attempted to kick his feet front and back through the water without drowning. But that’s  not how he described it afterwards. “I was really good,” he said, as we walked back toward Old Town. “Did you see me? Did you see me do those kicks?”

Whatever kicking glory either of us achieved was short-lived; Olga was now tossing small, rainbow colored balls at us, the same balls that had looked so ridiculous in the hands of the six pm class. I had thought that perhaps they were medicine balls – you know, the weighted ones so popular in American abdominal classes. But these were simply filled with air – and, weighing about five ounces each, seemed like ridiculous accoutrements for a class already taking place in the buoyancy of water.

Oh, Catherine. Yes, it’s true that tossing the balls out of the water might be pointless – especially when Olga had us do a 360-degree turn before catching them gain, which  just made me dizzy and got water in my eyes. But holding the balls under water was a different story. The balls did not want to stay under water. They protested, fighting for the surface as if they were small animals we were trying to drown. Olga, not satisfied with just having us row with the balls – a more challenging exercise than you might think – demonstrated that we were to hold them between our thighs while peforming two-legged side kicks, side to side. This awkward movement was too much – the balls rebelled. The pool began popping with rainbow explosions as, one by one, they escaped from our thighs.

Undeterred, Olga held a ball in one hand and began to run in place, high knees, moving her hands up and down in rhythm with her legs. It looked ridiculous but, as I realized as my ball escaped to the surface yet again, that most movements that are funny on land are even more ridiculous when attempted in water. Olga may have looked silly, but we were the clowns.

As all this was going on, I noticed that Peter – who was high-stepping with the best of him (he claims his larger hands helped keep the ball submerged) – was no longer the only man in the pool. He had been joined by an older gentleman who, but for the fact that he was wearing reflective goggles and a bathing cap, bore a striking resemblance to a walrus. A dirty walrus, it turned out, who decided that of all the times he could take a swim, he would show up when there were a bunch of bikini-clad women in the pool doing side kicks. He was soon joined by another goggle-wearing younger man, and the two of them paddled in slow circles, lurking like sharks, until the churning of our movements made it too hard to see.

I thought aqua aerobics was an hour, but at 7:40 Olga changed the music to what I recognized as the “warm down,” and began what was clearly her favorite part of the class: synchronized stretching. Or, rather, synchronized arm positions. The moves – extending our arm into Vs above our head, touching one shoulder and then the other – did not relax any muscles that we had been working, but it did provide the temporary illusion that Olga was the captain of a particularly untalented synchronized swim team.

As I swooshed my arms through the water, trying to imitate Olga’s hand positions, I had a sudden flash to what Olga’s past might have been: a promising synchro performer under the Soviets whose chance at Olympic glory had been snatched away by the movement for Latvian independence. And now? Reduced to teaching aqua aerobics classes four times a day at the Radisson Blu Daugava. Cruel world!

Then again, Olga seemed quite happy; it was I who was wondering whether the wardens at Karostas Cietums had ever considered water ballet as a form of re-education for their prisoners. And yet, I loved it. The class ended the same way as the one before: with a round of yipping (on Olga’s part) and applause (on ours).  We left, hungry and wet and – on my part at least – willing to do it all again.