Monday, August 31, 2009

It’s really hard to know what to write about Ypres. It’s like the enormity of the thing, the place, the history… it’s beyond words. Again and again my expectations were challenged. Again and again the sheer lunacy of the thing and the unfathomable tragedy of the results were driven home. All I can really do is tell you about it, so here goes.

I started at the Menin Gate for the 8:00 pm Last Post Ceremony, armed with warnings from several people that I should take tissues. I had excellent instructions from Andre, my host at the B&B Hortensia (“Walk along the ramparts to the Gate.. get there by 7:30… go down the stairs here… try to stand here… the buglers will be here… ”). Right from the start it wasn’t what I was expecting. The Menin Gate is big. I don’t know what I was picturing, but it wasn’t that.*

The Menin Gate

The walls of the "Monument to the Missing" are inscribed with the names of almost 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers of the Great War whose bodies were never recovered and so could not be properly buried and marked. Every wall is covered with names, organized by country and regiment. Naturally I looked for the Canadians, and I didn’t have to look hard.

The Princess Patricia’s, one batallion now based at CFB Shilo, Manitoba

Just before 8:00pm they stopped the traffic going through the gate, and by this time there was quite a crowd gathered, probably a few hundred people. Most looked like tourists, but there was a fair number of uniformed people too, some obviously veterans.

Some of the crowd

And then the buglers arrived – four of them, which is three more than I was expecting. I suppose this makes sense though - with just one set of lips, there’s always the chance of a wrong note or a slip-up. After one warm-up note, they launched into the Last Post and again I was surprised. It wasn’t slow and plaintive, it was loud and fast and almost defiant and the acoustics under all that stone made the notes reverberate. The whole thing was more stirring than mournful.

The buglers

After that, a single soldier stepped into the centre of the opening and recited this verse from "For the Fallen" by Laurence Binyon.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

And then a series of wreaths were laid. Some by uniformed soldiers who must have been on active duty, and some by grey-haired veterans with medals and memories, and one by a group of spotty English public school teenagers. And then it was over for that day, but would be repeated the next day and the day after. They do it every night**. The whole thing was quick, but poignant, and a good warm-up for the next day.

For Thursday I’d booked a spot with Salient*** tours to see some of the famous WWI sights around Ypres. The tour was a small one – only 8 of us in a mini-van with a guide. We started at Hill 62 – at a memorial to the battle where Canadians fought to defend Ypres from April to August of 1916. Not a well-known battle, but once again I was face-to-face with the Canadian presence. Like almost all memorials, there was a little weather-proof enclosure that housed the Visitor’s Book. I signed it, little realizing how many more there were to come.

The Memorial - everywhere I went that day had those little crosses and lots of Canadian flags.

After Hill 62 it was a very short ride to the Trench Museum, which I think was only a re-creation, but still chilling. There was a long series of trenches zig-zagging through a pleasant treed area called Sanctuary Wood, though back in the day the trees had been blasted to nothingness and the soil churned into a deadly soup of mud and blood and barbed wire – nothing like the quiet place I walked through. The thing that really hit home was seeing the shell holes that still marked the landscape. I walked through the trenches but it was impossible to imagine what it would be like to launch over the top into a rain of machine-gun fire, and end up, if you were really lucky, diving for one of those shell-holes into 6 inches of water and a few precious moments of cover.

The trenches

And the shell-holes

The “In Flanders Fields Museum” I visited later that day had a room with a big sign outside it warning people that the exhibit inside might be shocking, since it was meant to simulate something of what it was like to be in the trenches. It was a complete joke. A large, dark-ish room with two rear-projections screens showing black and white images, and some music and voice-overs, and the occasional flashing light. Ridiculous. It seems to me that in order to even remotely approximate the experience in the trenches you’d need dress everyone in wet wool and heavy leather boots, shove them face-first into 3 feet of mud, and leave then there for 2 weeks. Oh, and shoot at them at lot, of course.

And then it was cemeteries – Essex Farm first. It’s a small plot of land, but is the last resting place for 1,200 Commonwealth soldiers. That was another shock – such a small space of land, but so many dead. Essex Farm is especially significant because it’s at the sight of a former dressing station where Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields”. The guide pointed out a spot near the main road where McCrae apparently sat on the back of an ambulance and penned his famous poem. If you grew up in Canada you probably know them by heart, but hearing them read out loud on the very spot where they were first set down is a very different experience than hearing them at a Remembrance Day ceremony in a school gym in Saskatoon.

One set of five or six markers at Essex Farm were crammed tightly together, and our guide explained that this wasn’t for lack of space. It was probably because the men there had served together and were killed in the same battle – probably even by the same shell. Their remains couldn't be separated so they’re buried like they died – together. God.

Then it was a German cemetery – Langemark. Very different in style to the Commonwealth war graves. Much darker and more Teutonic somehow. Rather than standing stones, there were flat markers on the ground, each with around 15 names on it, making Langemark the final resting place of about 44,000, which includes 25,000 in a crypt at the same site. Again, the numbers were hard to fathom.

At each of our stops the guide unrolled a large map of the area around Ypres and pointed out an important hill or town or road. Different trench lines were marked in different colours, and you could clearly see the bulge in the lines around Ypres. It looked like a huge area until I saw the scale of the map – 3 inches to the mile. It was TINY. I could have run across the whole map in about an hour and a half. And how many thousands died there? So many that they’re still discovering bodies all over the area - 12 to 15 every year. And unexploded ordnance is unearthered regularly. Farmers dig it up and stack it by the side of the road and crews come and pick up.

Pile of shells awaiting disposal – the pointy ones leaning up against the post still have their nose-cones, so they’re probably still live.

After Langemark we made our way to another important Canadian memorial. It was a short drive. In fact, they were all short drives. The scale was heart-breakingly small. Here’s where we went next:

The Brooding Soldier (the Saint Julien Memorial) . Commemorating the Canadian defense against the first gas attack on the Western Front. Brilliantly designed by Frederick Chapman Clemesha and surprising to encounter in real life.

Finally, it was Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, and our last stop. 12,000 graves, but again, it seemed small. Maybe it’s just my in-born Canadian sense of scale, or maybe I’ve seen too many perspective shots of “crosses, row on row”****, but the area covered by Tyne Cot was just smaller than I was expecting. The immensity and awfulness of the whole thing made me feel like there should be ranks of white markers stretching beyond the horizon, but in fact it only took a minute or two to walk from one end to the other. It seemed too small for the enormity of the events.

Tyne Cot

As with my post about my black cab tour through west Belfast, I’m struggling with finding something to say about this experience. There’s nothing I can add here that hasn’t been said before, or that isn’t wholly inadequate to express the tragedy and stupidity of what happened in this place. It was horrible and mostly stupid and way too many people died.

Let’s just not do that again.

* This points out one of the things that’s been bothering me about this trip lately. There’s so much to see, and so much history behind it all that I feel like a complete moron most of the time. It’s like I’m bouncing off the surface of things with only the barest glimpse of what’s really underneath. For Ypres I feel like I should have read at least 1,000 pages of WWI history before being allowed to leave the train station and enter the town. And it’s the same everywhere I go. It’s depressing.

** From Wikipedia: "Except for the occupation by the Germans in World War II when the daily ceremony was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery, in Surrey, England, this ceremony has been carried on uninterrupted since 2 July 1928. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres in the Second War, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate despite the fact that heavy fighting was still taking place in other parts of the town."

*** It turns out that “salient” has a military meaning here – it’s not the adjectival "having a quality that thrusts itself into attention" meaning I'm familiar with. In military parlance a salient is a military position that projects into the position of the enemy – one where the defending force is behind the front line but because of the bulge, is surrounded on three sides. Ypres was just such a position for the Allies in WWI. It’s also in a depression in the landscape, so not only were the Allies almost completely surrounded, they were surrounded by German guns on high ground, which helped contribute to the slaughterhouse effect.

**** Another surprise – the graves aren’t marked with crosses. They’re plain white markers, as you can see - decorated with regimental badges for the UK soldiers, a rising sun for Australians, a springbok for South Africans and a maple leaf for Canadians. During the war when these cemeteries were started the graves were marked with simple wooden crosses, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission replaced them all with permanent stone markers, and maintains cemeteries and monuments from the two World Wars all over the world.

More weird food for Holland

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A quick post, to introduce a couple of the other weird foods I sampled while in Holland.

1. Kroket: These generally seem to be offered from “vending wall” apparatus / shops that are most popular late a night. Here’s a look at the one I tried, in the train station at Rotterdam:

Insert coins, open door, retrieve "food"

The kroket I had was $1.40 and looked like a big, fat, breaded hotdog with no bun. It turned out that the outer breading enclosed a completely textureless ooze of grey-ish brown matter that tasted like a combination of liver and gravy, and had the consistency of baby food. It’s probably best when consumed drunk. And I can’t figure out how they get the breading on that stuff because it really has no structure at all. It would be like trying to spread icing on a bowl of soup.

2. Patatje Oorlog: Far superior to the kroket. Patatje oorlag is fresh, hot fries*, topped with mayonnaise, a warm satay-like peanut sauce and finely chopped onion. God. Sooooo good. If I had regular access to patatje oorlog it wouldn’t be long before they were knocking a hole in the wall of my apartment building to allow the forklift to retrieve my grotesquely bloated corpse. I mean honestly, fries and mayonnaise and peanut sauce? I’m surprised they don’t come with a syringe of lard to inject directly into your butt.

* Or “chips” if you must, or “hot chips” if you’re Australian.

The Central, the Baronie, the Strowis and the Ashes

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Apologies for the gap in posts, but I’m just finishing about five days off which I spent hanging around in Utrecht doing a whole lot of nothing. It was good, but I started to feel a bit like I’d lost my way, so it’s nice to be back on the road (or rails, to be more precise). As I write, I’m on a train to Rotterdam, to connect in Antwerp and Kortrijk, ending up in Ypres around 5:30pm (or Ieper, depending on whether you’re speaking Flemmish or French).

So really, what does one do in Utrecht for 5 days? In my case one bounces around among a few choices of accommodations, drinks coffee and beer, has a few runs around the canals, watches cricket, lays about, plays pool and backgammon and cribbage with other hostel-dwelling people, and generally unplugs for a while.

Utrecht – quite charming. It's got canals and bicycles and tourists and coffee shops so it's kind of like Baby Amsterdam.

And so what does one blog about after such a week? Well, since I gave so much space to Rucksack’s Hostel in Glasgow, I feel like I should really add a few words about the 3 different places I stayed in Utrecht, because they were, in each case, quite singular.

I started off at the Hostel Utrecht City Centre, which had such, err... unfavourable reviews it really needed to be investigated. It was from there that I Twittered: “I'm in Utrecht, at a hostel where the common room has 12 electric guitars, a drum kit, a grand piano and a banjo. It will be a long night.” There seemed to be a mediocre jam-session going on all the time, though the bongos and tambourine were left mostly untouched, and there was no accordion in evidence (Thank God for small mercies).

The Common Room (note banjo on the left)

The place really was interesting. Unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, the fridge and cupboards were full of food, and it was all included – you could basically graze your way through the day – as long as you were fond of bread, pasta, rice, eggs and cheese*. They laid out an impressive spread for breakfast, including hot food, and they encouraged you to make up sandwiches to take with you for the rest of the day. It really was a dream for the 20-something kids who were just there to smoke up. They could hang around, play guitar, get high, and eat whenever they got the munchies. It really felt like an unsupervised college dorm. All that atmosphere for just €22.00 per night.

On the downside, my bed was in a dorm with 19 other bunks, and attempting to sleep, wake and otherwise function in a room with 19 other people is just not fun. Also, the cleanliness of the place was - and you may detect a slight note of sarcasm here - not exactly sparkling. And the bathrooms were curiously under-lit, though given the general state of the place this may have been a wise decision on the part of management. It was like showering at dusk while wearing sunglasses. Despite the ample cheese supply (and a lovely cheese omelet I had quite late that night), it was time to move on the next day.

Unfortunately the other hostel in town was full, so I was forced to look further afield and was on the way to a quite expensive hotel farther out of town when the Hotel Baronie appeared. It was total crap, but it was cheap and private, and after bunking up with 19 others I was prepared to endure some squalor for the promise of a little privacy. And how could I not be charmed by the decor in the “foyer”? Mirrored tiles on the walls, and – I swear this is true – black light fixtures that made anything white glow in that weird purplish way. The less said about the room, the better**. Let’s just call it challengingly ugly and have a quick look at one corner, though the arresting grubbiness of the place just doesn't come through in photos:

Yes, that is dried up duct tape holding the doors closed on that stack on non-functional sheet-metal lockers. The Baronie made liberal use of sticky tape for function and decor – the entire bedside table was covered in brown packing tape, I presume as a quick way to cover the blood spatter.

However, as you can see, the room had a TV, so I got to watch a few movies, and some late-night re-runs of “The Simpsons”, and a weirdly large number of Dutch shampoo commercials. And it was quiet and dark and I got to sleep as much as I wanted. Still, two night was more than enough for the Baronie’s charms to wear thin.

Finally, I was able to move to the nice hostel in town – Strowis. It was completely booked when I first arrived in town, but space finally opened up just as the Baronie became intolerable, so I was happy to move. It turns out that Strowis might actually be the nicest hostel I’ve stayed in so far. The common room was large and bright and clean and had free wifi. There was coffee and tea and beer and wine and chocolate for sale all the time. The back garden had lots of places to sit, and a giant umbrella to shelter under in the rain. The bathrooms were spotless and plentiful, and the rooms were clean, airy and simply but pleasantly decorated.***

The Common Room at Strowis.

There was also a reasonably well-equipped kitchen, though it didn’t open until noon and was locked at 9:30pm on the dot. I suspect this was to encourage everyone to buy the €6.00 breakfast on offer, but I found it a bit ungenerous. Then again the breakfast was nice, so it wasn’t all bad. I can understand why the place was booked up – at only €16.50 for a dorm bed, and equipped as well as it was, it really was the nicest place I’ve been. It’s big enough to force them to be well-run, but small enough that it was still friendly, and with ample opportunity to meet other people and, say, play backgammon in the garden for hours on end.

And that was Utrecht – a string of different beds, all with a story. There were also a few runs in the afternoon heat, and there was a frustrating day of running around trying to figure out how to transfer the funds for my new computer to my personal assistant in the UK, and there was an evening spent playing pool in a Irish pub with one Brit, one Aussie, and one Dutchman, while watching Day 4 of The Ashes****. I’m pleased to report that England prevailed in a surprising and decisive victory, thus eliminating the need for a fifth day of play. The score was something like this:

“England made 792 over-under for Australia's one not out, despite Hussey’s century of 12 fours, 19 sixes and 3 Flemberton twelves. English bowlers managed 127 flap-casts on a complete match of 47, and Wallace marked his fourth spinnaker in international play (an all-England record for left-handed Welsh batsmen born in a month ending in ‘R’).”
Or something like that. Honestly, I almost understood the game for one brief, shining, beer-assisted moment in that pub, but it’s all gone now.

What I’m really pleased to report is that the visiting team of England-Canada bested the Aussie-Dutch local duo at 8-ball, with Canada potting the winner despite clamourous and unsporting attempts to throw the shooter off her game. Sorry Australia, it just wasn’t your day.

* There were, and I am not exaggerating here, two full shelves of the refrigerator absolutely crammed with packs of shredded cheese. I know I may be a bit liberal with the hyperbole on occasion, but in this case I would confidently say that there was about 20 pounds of cheese. There was so much of the stuff hanging about that the next morning when I was packing up to move on to a new place, I found melted cheese stuck to the sole of my shoe.

** The state of the sheets will have me in therapy at some point in the next twenty years, mark my words.

*** I had a room on the upper floor where there were big exposed wood beams angling up along the side wall. Pretty, but positioned in precisely the right spot for me to walk into them at full tilt. Naturally I did this at the first opportunity, and dealt myself a blow that left me whimpering with astonishment and checking to see if my brain was dripping out of my ears.

**** The importance of The Ashes to English and Australian cricket fans was explained to me like this: “Imagine that Canada played the United States in a big, important hockey tournament in 1882, and the Americans were so pleased when they won that they gathered up all the Canadian hockey sticks and burned them in triumph, and carted away the ashes of the burnt sticks and stuck them in a little trophy to parade around. Imagine how much the Canadians would want those ashes back the next time the two teams met." The back-and-forth battle for The Ashes goes deep into the soul English and Aussie cricket fans.

Pick of Pics - Amsterdam

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Don't try and tell me you didn't see this one coming...

And we're back! And we're in Amsterdam!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I received the new computer yesterday, thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of Anne who I think is my second cousin once removed, but this week it would be more accurate to call her my personal assistant. Thanks Anne! Also thanks to LJO, my Amsterdam mailing address and hashing buddy. And now on to an actual post that I wrote yesterday:

I've come to this conclusion about long-term travel: you spend about 70% of your time feeling slightly uncomfortable - a bit warm, a bit chilly, a bit tired, a bit sweaty, a bit grubby, or usually a combination of the above. That leaves about 15% of the time for feeling perfectly content, and about 15% of the time for feeling perfectly wretched. Right now I'm in the 70% zone. Amsterdam is hot today - 32° and sunny - and as a consequence I'm sweaty and sticky and grubby and really wish I had a cool, private room to hide out in and relax.

Instead, I'm at the the pleasant and spacious Openbare Biliotheek Amsterdam - the library. There are scads of free internet terminals here, and I didn't even have to wait long to get one. A quick check of the TNT courier website indicates that my computer shipment was delivered in good condition to its destination in Amsterdam, so I'm just awaiting a call from my new best friend in the Netherlands to let me know I can come and pick it up. It will take me a while to get it tweaked to my liking, but I should be online right out-of-the-box, which will be a relief.

Tomorrow I move on to Utrecht for a few days of relaxation. I don't plan on doing much touristy stuff, and may not blog while I'm there either, so don't worry if I'm out of touch again.

As for Amsterdam, here are a few thoughts on the things I've done and seen:

Anne Frank House: I believe it's actually mandatory for every tourist to visit Anne Frank House, judging my the length of the queue. It's the highest-grossing tourist attraction in the Netherlands, so perhaps they tag you with some kind of invisible RFID chip to alert border guards if you attempt to leave the country without attending. I was foiled in my attempt to buy a ticket online so I had to wait in the queue, which was not nearly as long as the one for the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, but I was standing there for just under an hour. Once inside, though, I judged that it was worth the wait, despite the whole time inside the house being approximately equal to the time spent waiting in line.

The story is so universally known it's like it's a part of everyone's shared history. And you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by it, so it made the experience of going through the actual rooms quite moving. I'm not sure how much is original, and how much is a recreation, but the building itself and the rooms in it are the very rooms those 8 people hid in for more than 2 years. You can see the room Anne stayed in, and the pictures she cut out of magazines and pasted on the wall. And you can see the swinging bookcase that hid the entrance to the "secret annex", though it turns out the bookcase is a reconstruction. Still, it was all quite evocative.

Bike Tour: The Copenhagen bike tour was so fun that I was determined to do the same thing here, and in fact there was a Mike's Bikes tour company here too, though they don't seem to be affiliated with the Copenhagen operation. This bunch were decidedly on the bohemian side, but it is Amsterdam after all, and they were a lot of fun. The bikes in Amsterdam all come with two locks - the standard wheel lock encountered in Copenhagen, and a heavy chain lock too. The guy who set me up with the rental begged me to use the chain to secure the bike too something. Apparently it's a favourite trick of drunken partiers to throw bikes into the canals. About 25,000 per year are pulled out by barges that look like giant floating claw machines.

Thank you to Pete, our Mike's Bikes tour guide, who turned out to be from Ottawa! That was really nice since it meant I didn't have to explain where Winnipeg is when he asked where I was from (My standard reply to this question has become "It's in the big flat bit in the middle."). Two thumbs up for Mike's Bikes, because the tour was only €18, and I got €2 off because the tour I tried to take at first was canceled due to lack of interest, and I got 50% off the rental of a bike for doing the tour, so my bike rental for the whole 4 days in Amsterdam was only €18. Go to Mike's Bikes. And say hi to Pete for me.

Mike's Bikes 3808

And having a bike in Amsterdam has been even better than having one in Copenhagen - the city is just made for bikes - all the narrow streets that run along the canals are great for cycling. And there are a LOT of canals. Pete said there are more bridges in Amsterdam than in Venice. I'm prepared to believe there are also more bikes.

Bikes and water - about 98% of the contents of Amsterdam. (The other 2% are a mix of tourists and hotels.)

Albert Cupymarkt: I'm a bit museum-ed out at this point, so despite there being fantastic and famous museums here like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum and Rembrandthuis and blah blah blah, I am just not in the mood, especially after the art-overload of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. So yesterday I got up and had a run and then biked over to the Albert Cuypmarkt, a long pedestrain street in De Pjip district, that was full of wild stalls selling everything from shampoo and CDs to lychee nuts and herring.

Fish stall

I had Steve's Weird Food for the Netherlands: broodje haring, which is a few fresh herring on a soft white bun topped with chopped onion and a spear of sweet pickle. It was... fishy but edible. I think I can die happy without having broodje haring again, but neither was I repulsed.

Broodje Haring, it looks sort of like a hot dog, but don't be fooled.

Hashing: I did not expect to be able to do a hash run while in the Netherlands because the schedule in Amsterdam didn't mesh with mine. What I neglected to remember is how close together the cities are here, so last night I got a ride with LJO, my Amsterdam hashing friend, and we went to hash in The Hague. We ended up getting there a bit late, so we had to find the start of the trail on our own. And it turns out that LJO is a much faster runner than I am, and I had done 9.4 km that morning, and it was warm and humid, so the run itself was a much greater effort than I was expecting, and much, much longer than any other hash I've done (Including anything hared by Greasy). Still, there was cold beer at the end, and even a BBQ at the home of the hare. And the trail marks were the cutest I have ever seen (even if they seemed to be missing for kilometres at a time...).

Little feet! Sooooo cute.

Canal Cruise: Also mandatory, though I managed to find one that wasn't the bog-standard canned-commentary giant corporation one (Thank you "Lonely Planet Amsterdam Encounter"). I went with the St. Nicholas Boat Club, a small club run by volunteers who maintain a tiny fleet of two small open boats that can go into the narrowest canals and under the lowest bridges. They run two tours daily and don't do a lot of commentary, but will answer questions if they know the answer and encourage you to bring anything on board that you might want to eat, drink or smoke. And I met a nice young American guy that I chatted with the whole time, which made the morning that much more pleasant. (Adam - I hope Haarlem was fun, send me an email and let me know!).

Our guide Ken at the tiller, with drawbridge in the background

And that was my time in Amsterdam. I'm definitely ready to move on tomorrow, especially since the hostel I'm staying at turned out to be right in the heart of the Red Light District. (I chose it because it was close to the train station. Maybe next time I'll do a bit more research). I can't believe I've got any sleep sharing a 10 bed room with giant windows that overlook Warmoestraat, thank God I have earplugs. It's certainly a colourful neighbourhood...

Bikes covered with leopard print fun fur, Warmoestraat

Fall back and regroup

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ok, yesterday was not a stellar day in the history of the Go See Run Eat Drink enterprise. I've had other not-so-good days (Glasgow leaps instantly to mind, as does an aimless Tuesday in Dublin) but I think yesterday was the worst so far. It was still not bad enough to cash in my Winnipeg Hash Luxury Hotel Voucher. I did consider it, but that really wouldn't have solved the problem.

Just for the record, here's what happened to my beloved Eee PC. I woke up a bit late and a bit fragile after an evening with the Copenhagen Hashers (great trail, 5 drink stops, with a maximum of about 100 metres between each. Nicely done CPH4). It was pouring rain, but I couldn't face another hostel breakfast so I chucked the Eee into my daypack and rode off on my rented biked headed for café that had become my favourite because the proprietor was friendly, the latté was generous and the wifi was free. By the time I got there I was approximately as wet as if I'd stood fully clothed in the shower for 10 minutes. Of course this would have requierd being able to get into the shower, which is by no means a guarantee when sharing facilities among 10 people. So I was ready, really really ready for a latté and a pain au chocolate still warm from the oven, and a "morning plate" with a dish of greek yogurt, syrup and granola, served alongside a bun with meat and cheese, dark rye bread and jam, and a soft-boiled egg.

Yes, I was drenched, but I was drying, and I had coffee and chocolate and the promise of a pleasant morning of food and free wifi. I think I was approaching the state the Danes call "hygge", a word that has no proper equivalent in English, though "cozy" is in the right neighbourhood. My sense is that "pleasant physical and spiritual contentment" might be closer. The Rough Guide describes the concept this way:

"...a mixture of conviviality and intimacy. You'll sense hygge when you sit sipping hot gløgg in a toasty warm candlelit cafe while snow is falling outside, or around a midsummer's eve bonfire with people chit-chatting around you and the odd traditional folksong being sung."

And then out came the computer, and hygge went out the window. When I packed the Eee in my daypack I neglected to put it in its little protective sleeve (stupid). And I ended up sliding it into the same pocketas my set of traveling cutlery (also stupid)*. So when I removed the computer, there was, literally, a fork sticking out of it (which gives a fresh meaning to the phrase "stick a fork in it, it's done"). I guess the fork got wedged between the keyboard and the screen, resulting in this inevitable equation:


That's supposed to be displaying my desktop, not some kind of modern art stained glass nightmare. Not to mention the missing page up key...

I gasped so loudly when I saw it that the people at the table next to me looked up. And I kept gasping, because the only alternative seemed to be tears.

And you know the rest. I checked with a computer shop and the repair is not cost- or time-effective. (And I just have to pause here and say an ENORMOUS thank you to Antje at the front desk of the DanHostel Copenhagen City. When I told her what happened she sympathized, and talked me down off the ledge, and showed me on a map where the computer shops were, and gave me an hour of internet access for free and called me "sweetheart". She was a rock.)

Eventually I decided to try and salvage something from the day and get in a long run while I was still in a good city for running. I stocked up on sports drink** and headed out. I was determined to do 25 km, which would be my longest run since the Fargo Marathon. And I did it, despite stiff winds around the lakes and a nasty fall on a gravel path in Christiania. I got back to the hostel exhausted and (literally) bloodied but triumphant, and miraculously did NOT have to wait for the shower. By the time I was clean and had a beer, a sandwich and a full can of Pringles, I was vaguely on my way back to hygge, but the day still had a few curves to throw at me.

First: laundry. 30 kroner is not bad for a load of laundry, and soap was included, and you didn't need change for the machines. The trouble is that in a hostel containing over 1000 beds there were exactly 2 washing machines and one lonely and overworked tumble dryer. Now in general I think the Danes have a lot of things figured out, but I have to say that whoever was in charge of the Laundry Room Design and Outfitting Sub-Committee for the DanHostel Copenhagen City (and you just know there was a committee involved) should be soundly flogged with every wet pari of boxer shorts, every damp Oktoberfest t-shirt and every sodden pair of worn out jeans that gets left in a sorry pile in the queue for that dryer every day.

I did manage to head up top my room with a neatly folded pile of clean, dry laundry by 1:00am, but there was still one more treat in store. When I opened the door to my room I was astonished to find my bunk already occupied. "Wha...?!??". As I stood there, open-mouthed in amazement, the guy in my bed*** woke up and started trying to explain. He was French, and I didn't get everything he said because we were trying to be quiet so as not to wake the others in the room. "We are three" he said, meaning that he'd checked in with two other friends and he figured they should get three beds together. In fact there was an empty bed in the adjoining room, but instead of taking that, he neatly removed all of my stuff from my bed (and this was a LOT of stuff - clothes, books, toiletries ... I even had the Aeronaut locked to the bed post), stacked it all near the door, and climbed into my bed with his head on the pillow still wrapped in my silk sleep sheets.

I truly cannot properly describe the bald-faced audacity of this maneouver. I wanted to throttle him, or at least march him down to the front desk where his sins could be properly explained to him. Instead I did the Canadian thing and was polite, and spoke French to him, and even used the formal "vous" form as opposed to the informal "tu" form. I did not, however, allow him to remain. After the day I had I was not going to let some smarmy French git steal my bed. I think evenutally he realized I was not going to relent, and took his sheets and slunk off to the other room, and the bed that was supposed to be his in the first place.

Well I mean, really.

And that was my day. Started badly, ended badly, and had a few vaguely hopeful moments in between. Still, I'm glad to beat a hasty retreat from Denmark. There's a lot I didn't do there. I did not eat any proper smørrebord, and I did not so much as glimpse a herring. I did not go to Legoland or the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. And I did not smoke up in Christiania. But I did hash, and run, and ride a bike, and found a nice café and I had several danishes.

Yum. Also pictured: my new blogging system, which involves scratching marks in a bundled collection of flat pages for future upload. Positively prehistoric. Also, all that writing is doing nothing for my old surfing injury

And now I'm in Amsterdam, and have been in contact with a friendly hasher to whom I can have a new computer shipped, and it looks like I may eventually get my hygge back.

* If the little carabiner that holds the knife, fork and spoon together hadn't packed up a few weeks ago, the cutlery would have been hanging neatly out of the way... or if I'd got up earlier and gone for a run instead of fleeing for the cafe... or blah blah blah..."what if" is a road to madness.

** And what is it with the fizzy sports drink over here? Why would you want to drink something fizzy while you're exercising? I bought 2 bottles of something called Carlsberg Sport, and it was carbonated! And in the UK the most popular sports drink is Lucozade, which is also fizzy and has the added disadvantage of having a name that sounds like a brand of medicated cream you'd apply to a nasty rash.

*** Not always a bad thing, mind you, but really really not on that night...


Saturday, August 15, 2009

A very short, very sad post. This morning I managed to break the screen on my beloved Eee PC 901*. I can still plug it in to an external monitor, but in a shocking lapse of forethought I have failed to pack an external monitor with me, so that is small comfort.

Consultation with a friendly Danish computer shop confirms that a repair is possible if I would like to wait 2 weeks and pay more than the cost of a new machine, so I'm in the market for something new.

Suggestions are welcome, since I'm considering upgrading to something with a large internal hard drive. The current best contender is the Eee PC 1000HE, which is bigger and heavier (yuck!), but has even better battery life than the 901,and a bigger screen (yay!). I'd also loveto hear suggestions on how to get find something with an English operating system. Or how to have something shipped to myself when I have no fixed address. (I'm thinking hashers can help here, again.)

Needless to say, it's been a crappy day here at GSRED. And of course you get no pictures. Oh, and it's rainy here today, which only adds to the general level of misery. Suddenly, home seems very far away.

*Let's not get into how it happened. We'll just say that I was careless, and if I could get Superman to fly my little computer around the world backwards, I would be more careful next time.

Newsflash: Denmark Clean, Orderly, Expensive; Danes Happy and Beautiful!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ok, perhaps this is not news. In fact, I've been having trouble thinking of things to write about Denmark, since at first blush it really seems to be as advertised. Apparently Denmark topped a 2006 survey of the world's happiest places to live, and I can see why. Everyone seems to be skinny and smiley and oblivious to the fact that their beer costs about $15.00/pint. The whole country feels a bit like it came out of an enormous flat-pack box from IKEA. (And if that's the case, I'm pretty sure there's a gold-plated allen key displayed somewhere in a tastefully lit case in a tidy and inviting museum with free public bathrooms.)

The hostel I'm staying at is the epitome of all this. My Rough Guide* to Denmark claims that The Danshostel Copenhagen City has 1020 beds and is the largest city hostel in Europe. I can confirm that it is 18 floors of spotless white corridors and pale hardwood floors. Efficient, but a bit soul-less.

The hallway outside my room on the 14th floor. It's a long way from the Millennium Falcon Room...

And it's true about the bicycles. They're everywhere. Businessmen in suits ride them, women in high heels ride them. There are special lanes on the streets and special traffic lights just for bicycles. It's quite charming. Apparently there are more people than bikes in the city and 40% of Copenhagen residents bike to work, year round. Also, they get parked everywhere. At first I I thought they weren't even locked up, but it turns out the Danes just have really clever, almost invisible, built-in bike locks**. I've rented a bike for two days, and it's great, as was the 4-hour bike tour I did***. (Bike with Mike!)

Gratuitous pretty picture of Copenhagen, which has little to do with the surrounding text

All of this wholesomeness has inspired me to clean up my act a bit after the vodka-fueled days back in Russia. I got up early on my first morning and went for a 10k run before breakfast, which meant I got to see the famous Little Mermaid statue long before the crowds of tourists were there. It is small, underwhelming, and about 4km from the centre of town - a perfect destination for an early morning jaunt since I was able to check it off the list without taking up prime touristy time.

Here it is. Whoop-de-doo. Even the duck seemed unimpressed.

But back to my bike tour, which was very informative. Mike had loads of interesting tidbits that he passed on about Denmark, and Danes, and Copenhagen. Lots of the stuff in this post is from him, but I suspect Mike is not actually a professional statistician or anything, so take them with a grain of sale. Then again, he did tell good stories.****

As I've mentioned a few times, Denmark is expensive. The latté and tuna sandwich I've just finished was 83 K, about $17.00. Part of the reason things are so expensive is that taxes are high, to support a cradle-to-grave social welfare system. Another part of the reason is that Denmark's minimum wage is positively lavish - 105 K per hour, or about $21.50/hour. That means that not only is the guy preparing the latté making over $20/hour, but so is the guy in the back washing the cup, and the woman who comes in at midnight to mop the floors, which is lovely for them. On top of that, everyone gets seven weeks of paid holidays every year. So Danes (and tourists) pay to support all that, but the results seem quite impressive.

See? Even a slurpee is $3.00

And of course Danes are recyclers and environmentalists. 20% of the country's power comes from wind, and the whole infrastructure for that didn't even exist 25 years ago. Also, the waters in the port of Copenhagen are so clean they're certified as "blue flag", the only big city with that distinction. Again, 25 years ago the water was crap, but now it's clean and lovely. And they're also huge buyers of organic foods. And there are machines in supermarkets to help recycle bottles, and on and on and on.

Not surprisingly, their attitudes on stuff like homosexuality are pretty progressive too. They legalized it in 1930, and were the first country to legalize same-sex partnerships, in 1989. At the same time, though, Denmark is also a very homogenous, somewhat xenophobic society, and in 2001 they elected a right-wing government "which immediately passed strict laws curbing immigration." (Rough Guide). In 2002 the same government enacted legislation discouraging Danes from marrying foreigners, and they were re-elected in 2005.

So it's not all twisty pastries and open-faced sandwiches and happy blonde people. Still, after the chaos of Russia, it's a nice place to land for a while. Now just let me check my credit limit so I can order another beer.

* No, not Lonely Planet. What can I say? The Rough Guides were on sale for 20% off in Dublin, and I was feeling miserly. Never again. I don't like how they're organized, and I'm not fond of the maps, and some pages have already fallen out. To top it off, on my first night I tried to do a 9:00 pm walking tour listed in the book, and showed up at the right time and place and there was not even a sniff of a tour of any kind. I even asked a friendly and helpful waitress at the restaurant outside of which this event was supposed to take place nightly, and she had no idea about it, and neither did the colleagues she went and asked on my behalf. My kingdom for an LP Copenhagen City Guide.

** My tour guide, Mike, actually said that bike theft is terrible here - about a quarter of a million thefts per year in Copenhagen alone. Most of them between 8pm and 2am Thursday to Saturday. So it's a good thing they have those crafty locks, which look like this:

See how the shiny bit slots in between the spokes? No messing about with chains and such. And no one seems to be bothered about locking bikes to an immovable object, they just get parked, locked and left.

*** Ok, the tour was great, but after 4 hours of on-and-off cycling over a lot of cobblestones the area of my anatomy usually referred to by yoga instructors as the "sit bones" is, er, tender.

**** Like the one about Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik, unmarried, who visited Sydney during the Olympics and snuck off to a quiet bar one evening for a bottle of Carlsberg. There he met Mary from Hobart, Tasmania, who had no idea who he was, and was possibly even completely unaware of the existence of his tiny Nordic kingdom. As in all good fairy tales, the Prince fell in love and married the charming commoner, who will now become Queen Mary of Denmark when the Prince ascends to the throne. Mike said, "I'm an anti-monarchist, but stories like that just melt my heart."

Random Observations on Russia

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: so much happens every day that I feel like I need to live for a day, then take a day off just to gather my thoughts and blog. Of course that's not going to happen, but I have been trying to note down little things. It's hard to tie them all together into a coherent post, so I'm just going to throw them down here completely randomly.

- The faces really are different. I notice it in men mostly - the high, wide Slavic cheekbones and very little facial hair. And it feels like every man in Russia has the same haircut. Also, Russian women seem tall to me. I'm used to being unusually tall, and I'm not here. Or maybe it's just that they always wear high heels.

- Riding the bus for 3 hours from Moscow to Vladimir was like being in northern Canada - lots of trees, a mix of conifers and deciduous - punctuated by high tension power lines. We passed small towns that seem as forgotten as any on the road to Waskesiu, except that the churches have an onion domes and the cottagey houses on the sides of the road have distinctly eastern touches around the windows and gables.

House through the trees

- Public toilets often charge for use, usually about R20 in Moscow and larger centres, R10 in small towns. Toilet paper is sometimes provided with payment, sometimes in a big roll outside the stalls, sometimes missing entirely. Toilet seats are apparently optional. There are also usually lines of porta-potties in parks and public areas, and they're tended by someone who collects payment for them. These attendants always have one of the units set up as a sort of office, where they can shelter if it rains, and keep cleaning supplies and useful items on hand. It's funny to think about someone using a porta-potty as an office, but the whole system works pretty well and the attendant keeps the other units from getting horrible.

The usual configuration, this one is outside Mikhailovsky Castle

- Most of the big buildings here are painted in bright colours instead of being left bare like I'm used to seeing. They're not actually stone - mostly they're brick covered in stucco, but the effect is still striking, especially in St. Petersburg, where they are every colour of the rainbow.

The Winter Palace (home of part of the Hermitage), a lovely shade of green

- It turns out that there isn't just one Kremlin. "Kremlin" actually means fortress, so most cities and towns have a kremlin. In fact, asking someone who's been to Russia if they've seen The Kremlin is a bit like asking someone who's been to England if they've seen The Castle.

The outer walls of the Novgorod Kremlin

- After spending the last two months in the UK and Ireland, where almost every square inch of the tiny islands is inhabited and manicured, Russia feels vast and sort of unkempt. It's not dirty, but I guess there's just so much of it that there's no way you could cover the whole place with wrought iron fences and hedgerows and such. In fact, it's more like home in that respect.

- I haven't seen many people walking dogs. Most of the dogs I've seen look like they're feral and only half a step from wolfishness. Also, it's popular to have wild animals on display. Here's a shot of one of two bear cubs being handled by a couple of guys outside the Hermitage. There were also two monkeys and an eagle nearby.

Aw... cute. At least for another few months, after which there will probably be a story in the St. Petersburg Times-Chronicle about how this guy was mauled to death because he fell asleep with a Mars Bar in his pocket.

- In some ways Cyrillic is actually easier than English because each character only makes one sound, and you pronounce every letter. I'm getting the hang of it, and even managed to order a whole meal by myself after reading the menu in Russian! It was CYШИ, one of my favourites. "ДВА СУШИ ТУНЕЦИ, ПОЖАЛУЙСТА". Still, I really have to concentrate to get my brain to say "R" when it sees "P". Or "V" when it sees "B". My favourite characters are the Җ (the zh sound in "leisure") and the Ц ("ts") and the Ш ("sh") and the Ф ("f"). It's way easier to remember letters for which you have no previous preconceptions.

- There are these little kiosks everywhere (in fact, I think "kiosk" may be a Russian word). They're self-contained shops that sit on the sidewalk, and they have stuff plastered in the windows to show what's for sale. Some of them have so much crap in the windows that you have to peer into a tiny opening to tell the person what you want. This means you can't just point, which means you have to know how to pronounce what you want, which is annoying. Luckily "Kit Kat" sounds the same in Russian.

A kiosk, with empty window space - a rarity.

- We've seen approximately 7 squillion bridal parties having pictures taken at the sights we've been to. On the Saturday we arrived in St. Petersburg we did a walking tour and once we got to the touristy areas you could hardly move for the brides everywhere. I have to believe that jockeying for space with 14 other brides at the castle / statue / bridge / monument to Lenin makes the day seem slightly less special. Then again the lax open-container liquor laws make the whole thing a lot more jolly.

- Some stations in the St. Petersburg Metro have walls that separate the platform from the tracks, and sets of doors in the walls that line up with the doors of the train. Waiting on the platform makes it feel a bit like you're waiting for one of 40 different elevators to arrive. (No pictures of this, because one of our group took a picture in the Metro and was chastised by a Metro Cop with a large hat.*)

- Every room in every museum has some kind of attendant in it (Seriously - every room. And I don't know if you know this, but the Hermitage is BIG. And there was someone in every room). I'm not sure if this is for security or just to give people jobs or what, but there's always a chair sitting in a corner (usually with a sweater over it) and a bored looking babushka type waiting to pounce on you if you get too close to anything. They are kind of intimidating and make me feel a bit like they think I'm going to pee on the carpet. Then again, sometimes they turn out to be really nice, and tell you all about the exhibits, like in the Museum of the Seige of Leningrad. The woman there really tried to give me the low-down but it mostly was like this: "Russian Russian Russian... blockade... Russian Russian Russian Russian ... road of life... Russian Russian Russian Leningrad Russian Russian ... small bread... Russian Russian".

A typical specimen, shown in her natural habitat

- The Russians have done a really tricky thing with the words for "entrance" and "exit". There's only one character different between the two, and the pronunciation is very similar. ВXOД is entrance, pronounced "vkhod"**. ВblXOД is exit, pronounced "veekhod". That's a bit like saying "exit" for exit and "ext" for entrance. Bastards. It's like they're deliberately trying to make things confusing. All in all, I've just about had it with Cyrillic. Right now I feel like saying, "Ok, you've had your fun. Can you get out the proper letters now please?"

- I mentioned it above, but Hermitage is really big, and overwhelming, and the place is positively lousy with tourists, most of whom seem to blast through as part of big tour groups led by a harreid guide waving some kind of distinguishing flag, fan, flower or other notable item. Still, it's got a posh room or two, and a few paintings by some people you may have heard of (Da Vinci, Raphael, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso blah blah blah.) It's all way too much to take in, and I had a two-day ticket***, which helped some, since I didn't feel like I had to see all at once. Even so, after the 4th or 5th gilded stateroom, or the 20th Picasso, it's like things are going in one eye and out the other. I was happy to leave this afternoon to go see the freak show at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography.

Like I said... lousy with tourists

Then again, there are some pretty impressive rooms. I don't even remember what this one was called, except I know it wasn't the Gold Room, because the Gold Room had WAY more gold.

- And really, it's nice to be back on the right side of the road.

And that was Russia. I'm off to Denmark tomorrow, where I get my alphabet back, even if it will be sprinkled liberally with extraneous slashes and dots and things. And I fear my days of 60 cent beer are over for a long long time.

* There seem to be a lot of people in uniform around and it's impossible to tell which ones have the authority to shoot you and which ones might be the equivalent of a mall cop. However, any hats that go with the uniforms are usually the size of a hubcap.)

** The kh is the throat-clearing sound in the Scottish pronunciation of "loch". Or the sound of having something furry stuck in your throat, as I have mentioned before.

*** Big big big tip for anyone who is thinking of going to the Hermitage: BUY YOUR TICKET ONLINE BEFORE YOU GET THERE. The lineup to get in can be beyond horrendous. On Tuesday it wound, two or three people wide, through the central courtyard and out into Dvortsovaya Square, and it was not moving much. People must have been standing there for hours. If you order online they send you a PDF to print that lets you jump that queue, swan in through the Exit doors and present your voucher at the information desk. It's brilliant. No, wait. It's VITAL.

The Banya

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ah, the banya - a Russian bathhouse. This is definitely another one of those things I'd never had done if I wasn't with a group and accompanied by a native guide. To quote the trusty LP:

"The main element of the banya is the parilka (steam room), which can get so hot it makes Finnish saunas seem wussy by comparison*. Here, rocks are heated by a furnace, with water poured onto them using a long-handled ladle... After this... people stand up, grab hold of a venik (a tied bundle of birch branches) and lightly beat themselves, or each other, with it."

Yup. I went to a Russian bathhouse and beat myself with sticks while standing naked in a steam room so hot that it felt like I was trying to breath scalding hot chocolate pudding. It was surprisingly refreshing, and we all agreed that it's easy to understand why this is a weekly ritual for many Russians.

Russian Banya (Not my photo. Unsurprisingly, I did not take my camera into the banya. Ours was much more dimly lit, and had no men in it.)

Here's how it goes, or at least how it went for us. We arrived at the banya and Katherine, our leader, gave the boys instructions, since they'd be on their own in the men's side of the banya while the rest of of would be in the women's side. She handed them 100 rubles and said, "That's to buy the whips", at which point their eyes got quite large. In fact, the whips - veniks - are bundles of thin birch branches with the leaves still on them, about 18" - 24" long and around an inch in diameter where they're all bundled together.

RuA venik (also not my photo, but they looked just like this)

So off the boys went, somewhat apprehensively, I think. The rest of us headed to the women's side and into a sort of communal change area where women were hanging around, all naked except for sandals. They were chatting, and changing into and out of clothing, sitting around drinking beer, and generally being completely uninhibited. We were not so uninhibited, but managed to make it into the steam rooms in various states of undress.

I cannot describe to you how hot it was in that dimly lit room. I was covered in sweat and condensation about 3 seconds after entering; it took quite a bit longer before I was able to breath. The floors were all wood, and there were benches around the edges, and stray leaves from the birch branches stuck to the floor. The whole place smelled vaguely woodsy. We spent 3 or 4 minutes in there before coming out to cool off. During this time, our birch branches were soaking in a pan of water, I suppose to soften them up. We took them in with us when we went back in a Katherine administered the whipping, one bundle in each hand. Basically you just get smacked all over your back, butt and legs. It doesn't hurt at all, as the LP says, " ...the effect is pleasant and cleansing: apparently, the birch leaves and their secretions help rid the skin of toxins." After a good whipping, you go out again and stand under a cold shower for a few minutes. They also had one shower stall with a big wooden bucket full of cold water that you could tip down on top of your head. That was fantastic.

And then you go in again for more steam and whipping.** It looked like a very social thing - lots of women were lying down on the benches while friends whipped them. Some whipped themselves. Some just sat around sweating. And after a time you go back out for another cold shower, and repeat the cycle as often as you like. I think I did it 4 times before soaping up in the communal cleaning area to get rid of all the sweat and banya leaves.*** There were showers there too, and lots of stone benches with big shallow pans where you could soap up. I particularly liked filling the pan with cold water and dumping the whole thing on top of me. By the time we dried off and got dressed and met the boys outside I was pleasantly knackered - sort of like you feel after a long run and a shower. Or maybe like after a massage. Satisfyingly noodle-like.****

And then we went for supper, where I had caviar blini and two large Heinikens. It was a good day.

* Steve, Lisa... have at 'er. But I'm here to tell you, that place was HOT. You could probably do booming business cooking soft-boiled eggs in the parilka.

* *Ok, I just have to say here that I cannot begin to imagine what the comments are going to be like on this post, so please keep it clean. And yes, yes I do appreciate the extreme absurdity of the whole thing. But I'm telling you, we all agreed it was really nice.

*** Katherine says there's a phrase in Russian used to describe someone annoying who won't go away. You say they "stick to you like a banya leaf".

**** This might also be partly due to the fact that it was a VERY long day. We'd arrived in Novgorod after getting an overnight train from Moscow, which was very cool. I slept quite well on the train, but train sleep only goes so far. Once at the hotel I waited for the cafe to open so I could have breakfast, then went back to bed for 2 more hours that morning. The group reconvened at noon for a walking tour around Novgorod, then I found an internet cafe for a while, bought some breakfast supplies, went for an 8km run and had a beer and a bag of chips before we finally met up again to get the taxis to the banya. It's no wonder I was feeling a bit done in.

Bonus Gratuitous Photo of Random Lenin Monument: Because I've been in Russia for a week now, and haven't posted any Lenin monument photos yet, so I'm surprised I haven't been officially reprimanded. This is the weirdest one I've encountered - tucked into the woods on the side of the road, next to a path I ran along in Moscow. Nothing nearby, no indication as to why it might be there. Actually, there may have been an indication, but it was likely in Russian. Regardless, it was odd, and not, at the same time.

Pick of Pics: Suzdal

Saturday, August 8, 2009

I'm trying to concentrate on making my photos more interesting. Here's one I thought turned out quite nicely:

Suzdal, vodka and a much needed nap

What a different thing it is to be in a group. For about two months now I've been mostly on my own. Sure I've met people and I've been with family and I've hung around with single-serving friends in hostels and I've had runs and drinks with hashers. But I've always been essentially on my own a lot of the time. Now I'm with this tour group and it's been a complete change, and one that's been mostly great so far.

The gang, at the Novgorod Kremlin

Having a guide all the time is really good too. It's a nice break not having to worry about finding a room for the night, or figuring out how to get from point A to point B, or arranging tours. We've got a group leader - Katherine - and she shepherds us around and translates things and answers questions and tries to keep all eleven of us in line. And she does it all wearing strappy high heels, which is frankly astonishing, but not at all unusual over here.

Being with a group also makes it easier to try new things. For instance, I probably would never have interacted with this fantastic woman in Suzdal who was selling berries and pickles by the side of the path if I hadn't been with other people who dove right in. So I had a nice homemade pickle for a mere 10 Rubles.

The pickle-selling babushka

Seeing Suzdal was nice, and we did the traditional touristy things - mostly looking at Russian Orthodox churches, which I'm sure I could do on my own, but is more fun with a guide and a group.

Painted icons at one of the churches in Suzdal. Russian Orthodox church walls are completely covered in paintings like this, and I mean completely. (Sorry about the flare from the window, but my tiny camera, or possibly my tiny brain, is not able to compensate for this kind of thing. Helpful hints are welcome.)

Being on an organized tour also means I can get to places and see and do things that I would never be able to do on my own. For instance, in Suzdal we went for a dinner at a real Russian house, cooked by a real Russian woman, assisted by her daughter, sitting at a big table in the kitchen.

Here's the gang, on the second course (a creamy fish stew served in a clay pot).

And here's the main course, a potato casserole-ish thing and a big meatball

Our hostess was Lena, who poured the first round of vodka shots almost as soon as we sat down, so really it was all her fault. I guess it's downright rude to have people over and not offer them vodka. We had ours chased by a slice of lemon sprinkled with pepper, which is apparently traditional and kind of helped it go down better. And kept it going down better because before the meal was over there were three more rounds of shots, some of which were done by balancing the shot glass on the back of the hand (I was only partially successful at this technique, at least on my fourth shot, but it's vaguely possible I may not have been at the top of my game at that point). We left dinner and staggered back to our beautiful guest house where we had the whole place to ourselves. On the way we stopped to stock up on more vodka and beer and chips and chocolate and bags of little dried fish, which are beer snacks.

Steve's weird food for Russia - dried kalimari. There were also tiny dried anchovies.

Things deteriorated quickly when we got back*, though I did manage to completely dominate at Bananagrams, a sort of free-form speed Scrabble game, despite being somewhat hammered. (Funny, no one's asked me to play again since...) I believe I staggered to bed around 1:00 am or 2:00 am. I do know that when I woke up the next morning I was in a state of, er... significant discomfort. Let's just say that it turns out that vodka in lavish amounts does nothing for my stomach. We had breakfast back with Lena, who plied the boys with a hair-of-the-dog shot of vodka along with the omelets and blini, but I was definitely not interested in that. In fact, I was silently praying for death.

The mini-bus trip from Suzdal back to the city of Vladimir was also not great for my stomach, so by the time we arrived I was ready to skip the mandatory tour of more Russian Orthodox churches and pay any amount of money to secure a bed for a few hours. Luckily one of my colleagues, an Australian guy who was feeling approximately as fragile as I was, headed off to the park across the street for a nap on the grass under a tree. I jumped at that chance, and spent a couple of hours snoozing, which helped matters immensely. When we woke up we found a MacDonald's / Burger King knock-off (in fact, is was actually called MakKing) that had burgers and fries and coke and free wifi. So, when we rejoined the group for the bus back into Moscow I was feeling approximately human again.

And you know something? I haven't had a shot of vodka since.

* Karen - the mix of 40th birthday party music in my iTunes was a hit with most everyone in the group, except for Sam, who spent quite a bit of time scrolling through my library declaring, "You have the worst music collection ever". Luckily, it was done in a diverting Aussie accent. Also, he's the one who ended up dancing with a guitar not long after, and who remembers virtually nothing of the night. We have many excellent photos of Sam, so if he gets snippy about my music again, Facebook awaits.