Sunday, April 17, 2011


I didn't have time for the daily blog on this trip, so here is a single gigantic post about the week's events.

Day 1: Woke up at Disney World, drove about 2 hrs to St. Petersburg, to the Dali museum. Listened to the Junior Docent tour -- 5th graders each chose a painting, wrote an essay about it, then lectured the visitors to the museum on their painting. My dad asked one girl, "What do you mean, 'hallucinogenic'?" She thought about it for a moment, then said: "You know, honestly, I don't know."

The museum has a very good collection of early Dali works, before he went to the Madrid Art school. They clearly show the genealogy of his work from post-impressionism and his affinity to figurative painting versus abstract, something that defined the rest of his career. When he outgrew surrealism, he turned to classicism and Christianity for inspiration and themes for his new figurative works.

Next, I took my parents to the St. Petersburg's Fine Arts museum, where they were introduced for the first time to the work of Georgia O'Keefe. Her paintings are virtually unknown in Europe, and they made a big impression. I think I had given them postcards and albums before, but it's not at all the same thing. At the museum, we met a very friendly security guard, Rosie. She heard us talking Russian, and volunteered to help. She herself was from Bulgaria, and could speak several Slavic languages equally well. She told us where to go for a Russian store in St. Petersburg, also pointed out a few interesting destinations in the area (like the Greek beach and neighborhood to the North of the city) that unfortunately we didn't have time to see.

We walked to the St. Petersburg pier and the upside down pyramid. On the way, stopped to take pictures in front of the history museum that had good signs of "St. Petersburg" -- the two St. Petersburgs are as different as two cities can be, and a picture like this tells a good story. Saw pelicans. Watched them for a while. Took pictures of them. My aunt particularly is very attentive to all life forms, she likes to pet dogs and cats, to feed birds, to look at alligators.

Next, we drove to the beach on the other side of St. Petersburg and took a swim. Luckily, we got there when the sun was about to set -- otherwise, the heat would've been completely intolerable for my parents. We went into the water altogether, meantime plucky seagulls almost stole a plastic bag we left behind. My dad saw the thieves and ran out of the water to fight the birds for our belongings. We hung around the beach waiting for the sun to set, and saw another magnificent bird: an egret or a heron who like a little puppy begged every passerby for food.

We had dinner in the old Latin quarter of Tampa, Ybor, then checked into our hotel, then walked around Ybor some more. I think my parents were slightly intimidated by the quantity of tattoo parlors we passed (they were closed for the night, but still impressive), loud clubs with long lines in front of them, dark alleys of small office buildings, and the heat that persisted into the night. The hotel where we spent that night, right in Ybor, turned out to be a major honeymoon destination -- we ran into at least two wedding parties that night.

Day 2: Woke up in Tampa, drove all the way across Florida to the Kennedy Space Center. My dad's engineering firm does some business with aerospace construction bureaus in Russia, and so we enjoyed the opportunity to hit at least two major NASA sites on this trip. While at Disney World, he and my mom took a ride that recreated the experience of take off and heightened gravity. They almost lost their breakfast, but enjoyed the thrill.

In the aftermath of the latest nuclear disaster, my aunt had brought a Geiger counter with her from St. Petersburg. She measured radioactivity in all the suspicious points on her route. It turned out that on board the plane we're exposed to radioactivity 10 times higher than normal. My aunt showed her findings to a flight attendant and the flight attendant took the counter to the pilot to confirm that these findings were within expected parameters. They were. In Dave's and mine apartment the radioactive elements were at about the same level as at my aunt's own flat in St. Petersburg. When she pulled out the counter in the parking lot of the Kennedy Space Center, the results were slightly lower than at her flat.

At KCS, my mom and my aunt went to the 3D movie that told the history of the Space exploration -- they were very impressed with the quality of the movie and with the number of Russian cosmonauts featured in the story. Having grown up with the cult of cosmonauts and space exploration, we know surprisingly little about the history and mechanics of space flight. My aunt loved the experience of catching with her mouth little drops of juice spilled in weightless 3D world.

My dad and I went to the briefing on the upcoming Shuttle mission, saw pictures of the crew scheduled to go up April 19th. Later in the week, we found out that the flight was moved to 29th because of "a scheduling conflict" with a Russian flight. The last flight of the last shuttle is planned for June, but its status remains unclear. They have the Congress's authorization for it, but due to the current budget crisis, they don't have the money and might not have the money by June.

We took the bus tour through the Center, making two stops: one at the observation deck from where we could see the booster already on the pad. The orbiter, they said, was still inside its hangar, going through the final checks. I never quite understood when and where they hook up the orbiter to the booster -- inside the hangar or on the pad? The second stop of the tour was at the museum dedicated to the Saturn rocket -- the rocket that delivered men to the moon.

My aunt was most excited by the alligator sightings in the ditches by the side of the road inside the KCS. The bus driver joked that alligators were their additional level of security, and after I translated the joke to my aunt, she believed it literally for the rest of the week.

After leaving the Space Center, we drove two hours north to the town of St. Augustine, "the oldest continually settled European settlement in North America." On approach to the historic downtown, we drove by the ruins of a fortress, very much like something you'd see in Spain or France. The small old town is very lively with tourists by day, and closes down quite early in the night. My mom couldn't resist buying an alligator head for souvenir in one of the first shops we saw. Then we walked to the Atlantic coast and tried some crab cakes and flounder at a local restaurant. There was a lovely band playing on the terrace, but outside was still much too hot for my parents, and we hid in the air conditioned inside.

The evening was long and exhausting. My dad's back was hurting. We were exhausted after spending a lot of time out in the heat at the Kennedy Space Center. Wine at dinner improved everyone's mood a bit, but then we had another 3 hr drive ahead -- we were scheduled to spend that night in Tallahassee. We got to our hotel at 1:30 am and were asleep by 2.

Day 3: Drove around downtown Tallahassee with its one tall building. Then headed out en route to New Orleans. The drive was about 6,5 hours long, and we hit four states in one day: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. We made two stops, one in Pensacola, one in Mobile. Pensacola was hot, hot, hot! I started to become concerned about my trip plan: my family was getting cranky with the lack of sleep, with various aches, with unusual food, the heat was getting to them. We had no patience to look for quality lunch, and so stopped at a bar in the middle of the historic town (Spanish town?). The best thing we found on the menu were tomatoes stuffed with tuna salad. My mom made a meal of chips and salsa. We packed half of all of this to go: we were too exhausted even to eat.

Mobile surprised us all with a humongous cruise ship we found docked there, and with the lovely colonial houses on the Government Street. I'm not sure what I expected of Mobile -- I know of Alabama primarily from the Civil Rights era history, which means a few very random tidbits. Every town we passed had some kind of cultural center with museums and theatres and stadiums. We kept talking about what we'd find in small cities in the middle of Russia. Somehow the idea of a trip like this through Russia seems prohibitive. Lately, we've been hearing of a few brave souls who've attempted this, but these adventures require weeks of careful and clever planning (such as renting a Russian-made car that could be easily repaired outside of the major cities). And what one finds on the road except shabbiness and desolation is not exactly clear.

This drive took us through some amazing landscapes. The seemingly endless Appalachian National Forest in Florida. The giant bridges over bays and rivers. Later, the many mile long bridges through the swamps and the bayous. My one major regret is that I didn't schedule enough time to visit one of the parks or springs we passed.

Finally, at 8 pm, we arrived to New Orleans. This was Saturday night on the weekend of the French Quarter Festival, and so we drove straight into town, parked on the perimeter of the Vieux Carre. Dave and I had been to New Orleans once, nine years ago, for New Years, and so I had a rough idea of the geography of the town, but really didn't have too much to go on. I asked the parking lot attendant for a map. He didn't have one, but he gave advice. Straight ahead was Bourbon street and the river embankment, to the right was Canal street, and to the left--Esplanade. "But don't go there," he said. "There are a lot of bad people out that way." He looked us over and then added, "Carry all money and valuables in your pockets, leave your purses in the car. There are a lot of bad people in town for the festival." He was clearly unhappy with the influx of people into town.

Luckily, I was the only one in our group who understood him--my dad speaks English quite well, but in the South the accents were unusual for him, and he only got the gist of what was said. New Orleans was partying. People of all ages were out in the streets, drinking rum cocktails from funky tall glasses, smoking cigars, dancing. The French Quarter Festival was a lot like New Years but with less topless girls and with lots of great music. It seemed like there was a band playing on every block -- and that's not counting the five or six big stages constructed in different squares and on the riverfront. No matter how tired and achy we all were after the long drive, it was impossible to remain cranky in New Orleans. We walked out to the embankment of Mississippi in the last moments of sunlight and photographed the barges on the river and people sitting on the grass listening to the music. We got dinner at a nearby bar, then continued to walk the streets and people-watch. My aunt bloomed. "I had this feeling in San Francisco, but then I wasn't sure yet," she said. "Now I know: I love people." She walked up to somebody on the street and asked her: "You're beautiful. Can I take a picture?" My dad was into rock, my mom was into jazz, my aunt was into dancing, and we got to do a little bit of it all.

Day 4: Two weeks before the trip, when I had started looking into hotels in New Orleans, it turned out that all hotels in or near the French Quarter were already sold out (because of the festival). I got two rooms at a hotel across the river, in Gretna, which, in retrospect, may have been a good thing, because we were able to get a few hours of sleep uninterrupted by drunk loud people. With our intense sightseeing schedule, were getting about 6-7 hours of sleep a night, and every moment counted. When we woke up on Day 4, a Sunday, we drove back to the city, and I took my family to the restaurant called The Court of the Two Sisters, where Dave and I had eaten years ago, on our first trip to New Orleans. Back in 2002, Dave and I were only a couple of years out of college, and this was one of our first joint trips together. We were enchanted by the buffet brunch at this restaurant, by the feel of the New Orleans courtyard, by the jazz band that accompanied the dining experience. Now, nine years later, it all seemed a little cheesy, overpriced, overcrowded with tourists. The food was good but not great, the band was mediocre. Perhaps my tastes have grown more sophisticated with age, or perhaps the restaurant has really changed in the intervening years -- the experience was not the same. Nevertheless, my parents and especially my aunt seemed to enjoy the place as much as Dave and I had done once; for my aunt, I think, this courtyard brunch has become one of the quintessential New Orleans moments.

New Orleans was hot, and we didn't have a precise sightseeing plan. We meandered the shops--my mom was impressed by the quality of art and souvenirs available in almost every window--then hid from the weather in the museum of Voodoo. Almost all other museums were closed for Sunday. Even the famous cemeteries were closed, or closed at noon, which I should've expected but didn't. My parents had been to Argentina and France, so they think they saw similar cemetery structures, but still it would've been interesting. I sent them to take the boat tour on the Natchez -- something Dave and I also did in 2002. They saw a lot of industrial activity on the river, and probably heard some historical information about New Orleans, but missed most of it due to language barrier. My aunt, looking for something in her purse, dropped her Swiss Army knife into the Mississippi. But none of this mattered, because party on the streets was still continuing. The city was the spectacle, and we roamed the streets as much as we could in the heat, and listened to the different bands. I met the owner of one of the souvenir shops, and she told me she divided her time between New Orleans and San Francisco. In New Orleans, she missed the BART system and also good restaurants -- I didn't catch whether she meant all restaurants (that seemed a little drastic) or all certain kind of restaurants, like Mexican or sushi. She too seemed jaded from the influx of people that weekend, not particularly interested in talking about the good parts of New Orleans.

That night we drove to the Oak Valley plantation, about an hour northwest of New Orleans, up the Mississippi River. We spent the night in one of the two-bedroom cottages on the property. This was our one experience with something like the local nature--we got bit by the local mosquitoes and got to walk on the lawn around the property. They still grow lots of sugar cane in that area, and we saw some of it in the form of unimpressive little sprouts. Apparently, sugar cane is a late summer crop.

Day 5: In the morning, we toured the Oak Valley plantation, learned some of the history of its owners and a little bit of the history of the people who worked on the fields. Then, we drove a few miles to tour another plantation, by name of Laura--both stops recommended by my friend Suzanne. Their tour is based on the memoirs of a woman who remembered four generation of her family living on this plantation. The tour focused on the creole lifestyle and management practices. They also had an interesting tour of the property, including one slave cottage that would've housed two families. On this tour, we learned a little bit more about the slave system on these plantations. Apparently, this plantation is associated with the history of the Brer Rabbit tales. A folklorist Alcee Fortier, who lived nearby, collected stories told by the plantation slaves and eventually translated them and published in English. Wikipedia is a lot more tentative about this origins story: "Fortier did publish such a book and may have collected the tales at Laura and his own family's plantation."

Later that day, we drove another 6 hrs west to Houston, making two stops on the way, one in Baton Rouge and one in Lake Charles, LA. The downtown Baton Rouge seemed boarded up -- we were looking for lunch, but saw only sketchy pizza places. Eventually, I found a very lively university area, where we got fantastic sandwiches. In Lake Charles, we stretched our legs and walked around the very pretty lake in the middle of downtown. We didn't dawdle very much -- we had a friend to see in Houston that night, and so we were focused on getting there. Also, my mom had started reading us a book from my aunt's ebook reader collection -- a post-Soviet science fiction novel (Boris Akunin's Фантастика) -- and, even though the book was very intellectually problematic, we were all hooked.

That night in Houston we met Grisha, a son of my parents' friends, architects from Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria (Bashkortostan), a region in Russian Federation. Grisha's grandparents and cousins live in the States and he too is a resident here, trying to make a living as a geologist, working on the Gulf and looking for more oil digs. He was telling us about all the people who were put out of work when after the BP explosion and fire all the drilling in the Gulf stopped. Grisha drove us to the Kemah Boardwalk--sort of like Pier 39 here in San Francisco, but with bigger restaurants--but since it was after 10 pm, all the restaurants and oyster joints were closed. We went back to our hotel, and had a party in my parents' room with leftover sandwiches and sweets.

I spent the week rooming with my aunt. As far as roommates go, she was an extremely easy-going one. Most of the time, she didn't mind that I was on the computer while she was trying to fall asleep. A couple of nights, she had trouble falling asleep and so I took my work to the bathroom. Every morning, she woke up with or even before the alarm clock, set up an ironing board and proceeded to iron the clothes for the day. Along with the Geiger counter and a hair drier, she had brought an iron from Russia (even though, as it turned out, most hotels had one in the room). She was also going to bring an electric tea kettle, but at the last minute decided against it. We ended up drinking a lot of the hotel coffee.

One thing that she noticed at every hotel and at every restaurant bathroom was the uniformity of most plumbing equipment in the US. In all the States she has visited on this trips, in all of the hotels and private residences, in all the airports, and in all of the restaurants, there was very little variety in the models of toilets (and all have water in it--unlike the European toilets, where water is only at the very bottom of the bowl) and faucets. In contemporary Russia it has become a point of pride with the different restaurants to install inventive faucets. And in every European country, one spends quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to operate the bathroom machinery. In the US, the standardization was disconcerting.

Day 6: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 was a day of triple significance. On this day 50 years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to be rocketed into space. Then, twenty years later, this was the day that the US flew the first space shuttle--a ship that could return back to Earth and land like an airplane. Thirty years later this day signaled the end of the shuttle program. We were in Houston, and so we went to the Houston's Johnson Space Center to take another tour. Unlike KCS in Florida, the Houston facility does not have an airfield, there are no pads and landing strips. But this is where all the administration and research facilities are housed. Here, we got to see the giant building, where astronauts train for upcoming flights. They have an exact model of the International Space Station, a shuttle, Soyuz capsules, etc. We also saw the Mission Control room from where the Apollo missions to the moon were managed. When the Apollo program ended, this room lost its practical purpose and became a museum.

When we got to the Mission Control room, our tour guide turned on live TV, and we saw the current Director of NASA, Charles Bolden, give a speech in which he marked the ending of the shuttle program and listed the museums around the country that would receive the remaining shuttles when the program would be finally shut down. Atlantis would go to Florida, Discovery to the Smithsonian, Endeavor to Los Angeles, Enterprise to New York. Houston was not on the list--they didn't even get to keep the training shuttle they already had, that was scheduled to go to a museum in Seattle. Disappointed, our tour guide turned off the TV and cut short his presentation. It was an emotional day for a lot of people involved with NASA. Even Charles Bolden, making his speech on TV, broke down to and almost cried when remembering his dead comrades and when trying to envision the future of the space exploration. Now that the shuttle program is ending, the American astronauts are scheduled to use Russian Soyuz capsules to go up to the International Space Station for at least three years, while NASA and Boeing design and test their new generation rocket. The future of American space exploration will depend, in a large way, on private enterprise, so for NASA this definitely means an end of an era.

We continued this conversation later that day when we met up and had dinner with a man my dad had known from college back in the 60s and 70s. Peter works for NASA as a translator from Russian, he and his team translate technical documents to English, interpret live conversations, and also train astronauts in the basics of the Russian language. Peter lives a couple of miles away from the Space Center, and pays to access a NASA satellite channel and also Russian TV channels. He made us a traditional and delicious Russian soup, a rassolnik (a soup with pickles) with chicken kidneys. Also Russian traditional blini with homemade (Peter had made it himself) cottage cheese. Peter and my dad were doing vodka and cognac shots, and reminiscing about their youth, telling stories, and talking about space exploration. Back in the 60s, Peter had been a member of a very popular Leningrad rock band. He was a couple of years ahead of my dad and his classmates, and so when my dad and his friends started their rock band in college, Peter's band were their heroes. I haven't seen my dad drunk on more than a couple of occasions before, so this was fun on all kinds of levels.

Meanwhile, no alligators on the property of the Johnson Space Center, but we did see a herd of generously horned cows. The tour guides were joking that these are "Moooon Cows," genetically modified cows for tests in space; but really this is an award-winning herd being raised by the local high school students and exhibited at state fairs, etc.

Day 7: We had breakfast at the hotel, toured the excellent Menil Collection, and drove to the airport. The Menil Collection is a great museum, not very large, but organized as if around a single strand of thought, on the intersection of the tribal art and the high modernist-surrealist art. The highlight to me were the Rene Magritte paintings -- I have seen so many reproductions of them before, but I don't think I've seen any of them live. A wine bottle painted over with a clouded sky entitled "The Curvature of the Universe"--I love that. But all of his work is equally playful and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Messy travel

I'm not, not ready to step away from my writing desk, where piles of books and magazines ground me in the sense of things moving, work being done. And yet here I am at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Florida, where hotel building are named "Cabanas," "Ranchos," and "Casitas"; terra-cotta and cement galore; a small cup of watery coffee costs $2,25, Internet access is $10 a day; and drinks at the decorative pond in the middle of the resort are being charged to my dad's credit card. Who cares about the seedy showiness of it all when I'm here with my family--my parents and my aunt--whom I haven't seen since September, so many new stories, work dramas, snow plowing accidents, rainfall, thought-provoking literary gatherings ago that it feels like forever.

My parents and my aunt are visiting from St. Petersburg. My aunt--my mother's sister--spent five days with Dave and me in San Francisco while my parents stayed in Chicago and visited cousins in Milwaukee. Today, my aunt and I flew to Orlando, where my dad was just finishing up a three-day conference. This conference was what had set in motion the planning for this crazy adventure we're in the middle of right now. We're going to explore Central and Northern Florida, then drive to New Orleans--we will be there during the weekend of French Quarter Festival--and then continue on to Houston, Texas.

Life is good, and yet I'm here at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort, spending much of the day in my room in one of the "Cabanas." It's not like I've been dying to see Disney World, but yes, it does feel silly to not see it now that I'm here. My priorities lie elsewhere: I have a cousin in town. She came to meet us here at the hotel. My cousin's name is Muffet, and her mother Fanya was a younger sister of my grandmother's father, Grisha. Fanya had left Russia before 1917, and so we've only reconnected with this branch of the family a few years ago. I've never met Muffet before, and neither did my dad. Muffet's mother, Fanya, had read and kindly commented on a few of my stories several years ago, when I was first starting out as a writer. She and I communicated over the phone, and I never got a chance to meet her before she passed away. Muffet brought picture albums to show -- of her mother, and also other family pictures. Several prints were copies of the ones my parents have at home: my grandmother's grandparents, Mordecai and his wife, whose name none of the cousins can remember.

My mom and my aunt did go to the Animal Kingdom today, and spent most of the time in lines. They saw some monkeys and parrots. The highlight of their day was petting some adorable lamb. They petted the lamb, and then were able to wash their hands immediately afterwards in the washbasin providently provided by the park administration. I love traveling with my aunt who's in the US for the first time. Onion rings are a wonder, airports are a challenging puzzle, giant glasses of water half-filled with ice are a health hazard, public libraries are a pinnacle of convenience, mangoes are to be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, while cognac is a rare drink only poorly substituted with whiskey. Why do ATMs speak Spanish and Chinese (in addition to English), but not Russian? Why do you (I) make such a big deal of composting at home, if you leave unfinished salad at a restaurant? Are oysters dead or alive when served fresh in the shell? Aren't they supposed to be breathing and squeaking when you eat them? Do all rental cars have this smell or does it go away eventually? Good questions, all, and the answers I can give are hardly satisfactory.

My aunt doesn't speak a lot of English, but she claims to be able to understand locals wordlessly, by intuition. She finds very clever solutions to the language barrier. For example, she and Dave found a highly technological and yet brilliantly simple way of communicating with one another: two computers and Google Translate tool that now translates as you type, and not only displays the translated word but also voices it aloud. They managed a surprisingly profound conversation this way.