Thursday, June 16, 2011


Priorities of two counter-hip yuppies spending three & 1/2 days in Denmark:

*) Roger Waters' "The Wall" tour in Herning, Jutland (a small town in the mainland part of Denmark, unremarkable save for the Messe Center -- the largest concert venue in Jutland. Next act: George Michael).

*) No fighting! You can have ice cream AND pastry.

*) Carnival in Copenhagen, a Brazilian festival ten years (and three months) past its prime. Copy dance moves from the Danish Brazilians.

*) Bicycle tour through the city. Avoid all castles and churches like the plague that had ravaged their walls, but do bow to the gravestones of Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen and then hop across the city straight to Christiania, the 40-year old hippie enclave.

*) You won't be admitted to Noma, the World's finest restaurant according to some (two Michelin stars and counting), but you can have the breadcrumbs at the bakeries and cafes that Claus Meyer, one of the co-founders of Noma, has sprinkled all around Copenhagen. A breadcrumb literally at the Meyers bakery in the Norrebro neighborhood, and then a couple of macaroons (French-style) and a chocolate-covered nougat at Meyer-owned Sweet Treats cafe in Christianshavn.

*) No fighting! Frozen yoghurt CAN be considered a meal.

*) Cheap out on bus tickets and walk everywhere.

*) Spend 1/2 hour each in three to four well-chosen museums. Avoid all mentions of the word "Viking" or "Royal Castle." What, you haven't seen large knifes and upholstery before?

*) Buy postcards and mail to all friends and family, preferably from the Post & Telegraph museum, but if it surprises you by closing in front of your nose at 4 pm, from the adjacent post office.

*) Amusement park Tivoli! Rides! H.C. Andersen fairy tales! A pantomime show! Waffle cones! Bathroom with jungle sound effects! Go there twice.

*) Eat bread.

*) Talk to locals. They know where the best beer is.

*) Cheap out and don't reserve seats on the train to Herning and back. Then, sit on the floor between two cars for three hours and try to sleep because you cheaped out on buses the night before and got back to the hotel when the sun was already rising.

*) Pack for day trips without any regard for possible weather. T-shirts all the way, even when the locals are piling on jackets.

*) Give due to the local traditional midnight snack: hot dogs and chocolate milk.

*) Find out where the local yuppies hang out. If you don't see them at the pub, maybe they are at a French-Canadian traveling circus show/live electronic music performance (w/ spoken word in English). Go see "Fibonacci," where you will be in the audience with 211 people, 51% male, 48% female, 41 years old, predominantly Danish, but also people from Sweden, Norway, England, Italy, South Africa, Malaysia, etc. The statistics will be a part of the show. You will feel right at home in this nomadic crowd, unattached at the moment to any homeland, doing cartwheels around heavy pieces of luggage.

*) Average lifespan in Sweden is somewhere around 82 years old. Consider moving there?

*) No fighting! There will be more ice cream in the next country.

Dave blogs about all of this in greater detail here:

Monday, June 13, 2011

The National Bestseller

Dave and I left St. Petersburg yesterday and flew to Copenhagen via Stockholm. Right now we're traveling across Denmark, from Copenhagen to a small town in the middle of Jutland, Herning. Tonight, Roger Waters is playing in the large music arena there, and we not only get a chance to see The Wall show in its European version, but also to step off the tourist path for a little while.

The last week of my stay in St. Petersburg was particularly hectic. Dave arrived on Sunday, and the days flew by in a whirl of visits with family and friends--and some sightseeing. Looking back, I think the most interesting event I attended that I didn't get a chance to write about was a literary award ceremony last Sunday. I got a pass to attend this ceremony because the people who run the event, Viktor Toporov and Vadim Levental, are also the chief editor and the associate editor of Limbus press, the press that published my second Russian-language collection in the fall of last year. The event was scheduled last Sunday afternoon, exactly when Dave was due to arrive from the US via Stockholm. My parents picked Dave up from the airport, while I sat among the "press" (according to the pass I'd been given) and observed the local writers and critics.

The award is called "National Bestseller," and when Viktor Toporov invented it 11 years ago, he gave it a slogan: "Wake up famous." The American term "bestseller" here doesn't signify that the book has been a popular choice of the reading crowd, vice versa -- the award is given by a jury of annually selected critics (literary, film, cultural) and fellow creative types. The idea is, I suppose, that (to use a Russian term) an "elite" book would receive a press moment and would then climb higher in the bestseller charts. The prize amounts to $10,000. However, a week prior to this ceremony, there was another ceremony called "Super Bestseller" -- staged in Moscow, the competition was among the ten previous winners of the "National Bestseller" who were competing for the title of the decade and the monetary reward of $100,000. (The award has very wealthy sponsors).

This was the second literary award ceremony that I've had the privilege to attend in my life. A little over a year ago, I was in the audience when the Northern California Book Award in the general non-fiction category was given to Tamim Ansary, the beloved leader of San Francisco Writers Workshop. That ceremony was held in the main lecture hall, the Koret Auditorium, of San Francisco's Public Library. The event was freely open to the public and the people who received the awards got a chance to read a few pages from their books. I remember finding the event very interesting, in large part because I was exposed to the work of the writers I hadn't heard of before.

The award ceremony of "National Bestseller" took place in the Winter Hall of a luxury downtown hotel in St. Petersburg, "Astoria." (During the Soviet Era, this hotel housed exclusively foreign visitors to the country). In the foyer the guests were served drinks (wine, champagne). Many photographers with large cameras were taking pictures of the illustrious crowd, creating the atmosphere of a "high class" event. I mingled with a few people I knew socially until the doors to the hall were opened, then found a seat in the back of the room. The two MCs, Artemij Troitskii and Julia Aug, introduced first the organizers of the prize, Viktor Toporov and Vadim Levental, then the books and the members of the jury. Troitskii (who is a well-known media personality) was playing the "comic" to Aug's "straight man," except Aug seemed very nervous and sometimes got confused about the order of things. Victor Toporov didn't help much by yelling out corrections from his seat to the side of the stage.

Toporov made an introductory speech, in which he characterized the authors of all six books up for the prize as "romantic characters." This is actually something that I've been thinking a lot about lately--contemporary Russian fiction largely seems to answer Northrop Frye's definition of romance. As Toporov pointed out, five of the six novels have fantastical elements to them -- realism as a genre is not particularly popular with the contemporary Russian authors. Part of this is probably a reaction to the official Soviet genre of "socialist realism," part of it is escapism, and part something else that I can't quite define at the moment. In a very romantic pose, two of the writers didn't show up for the event, the third excused himself claiming a broken leg, and the fourth was present in the audience but didn't want to reveal her real name.

As an aside, of six novels up for the prize, five were penned by men and sixth came under a gender-neutral pseudonym, Figl-Migl (the English-language equivalent would be roughly "Hurdy-Gurdy"). In the course of the evening, it was revealed that the person hiding behind this pseudonym is a woman who wished to leave her true identity private. She, they said, was present at the ceremony, but incognito. The ratio of men and women was matched in the jury: one woman among six jurors. The jury had one extra member, the seventh -- the "honored juror," called to resolve ties. She, in this case, was also a woman, a notorious personality: Ksenia Sobchak. Ksenia Sobchak is the daughter of St. Petersburg's first mayor, Anatoliy Sobchak. The man was considered a hero during the Perestroika era, but then his reputation became muddied in the later Yeltsin years. He died young--too young--and whether he died on his own or if he had some assistance remains unknown. His daughter Ksenia, a public personality from a very young age, went through a very rough Lindsey Lohan-type period that included starring in some horrible Moscow-based reality shows. Now and then she appears on talk shows or in the press, and everything she says is immediately noticed and carries a tinge of scandal. In any case, her speech at the National Bestseller ceremony was very tasteful -- in general, she spoke as a professional, delivering her points in a calm and self-assured way, very aware of the impact her words might carry. She expressed some surprise at being invited to judge a literary contest, and then plainly stated her opinion about the two top books. The one thing I found odd about her speech was that she kept referring to herself in the third person: "Ksenia Sobchak thinks..." This created an impression that she treated herself as a brand, as a project, rather than as a human being, as an individual with an opinion.

I'd read or started reading four of the six books up for the award, but not enough to really form an opinion. The book that won the prize, Dmitriy Bykov's "Ostromov, or a magician's assistant," was one of the two that I didn't get a chance to read. Dmitriy Bykov is one of Russia's most prominent contemporary writers. (In fact, I heard that he was invited to lecture at UC Berkeley this coming fall). He's already won National Bestseller award once, and it's somewhat unlikely that winning this award the second time will bring him any more fame. Ksenia Sobchak giving her deciding vote for his novel, talked about it as a "good novel," the kind that has a well-developed plot. Nobody said very much more to recommend the novel. None of the writers (the two of them in attendance) had a chance to read from their books, and so indeed my general impression was that the competition wasn't so much about the books but about the writers themselves and their different poses and gestures, the romance of it all.

Meantime, Dave is blogging about our adventures in Denmark:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Fitness Club "Young Leninets"

In one word, I found Sochi charming. I spent three days there, and though the weather was unusually rainy and overcast, and though right now the city is one giant construction site, and even though I was trying to combine sightseeing by day with work in the mornings and in the evenings, the trip ended up being very relaxed and relaxing. To me, it had a sense of a place that is so far removed from the centers of my world (San Francisco, St. Petersburg) that if my everyday concerns didn't entirely cease to matter there, they at least lost much of their urgency. The funny thing about Sochi is that because of the Olympics it's very much in the center of public attention, and because of its status of the prime Russian resort area it has always been a destination. Sochi is also very important as a city that borders Abkhazia, one of the territories that have become centers of recent conflict between Russia and Georgia. Sochi is one of the Russian strongholds in the Caucasus mountain region--a city locked between the foothills of the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, once a very important military conquest for Russia and a center of a lot of social and military unrest. And yet despite its historical and current significance, despite all the trouble that's brewing in and around it, to the tourist, Sochi feels like a small city, a quiet Southern resort town. The tourist notices spas and potholes, tries to work around traffic jams and looks for a free bench to sit down and finish her ice cream or a cup of kvas. Sochi has lovely benches -- with unusually tall legs, so that when you sit down you can dangle your feet in the air and remember your childhood while doing so.

I visited four museums in Sochi, the Art Museum, the History Museum, the Dendrarium (an extensive Arboretum and Botanical Garden with trees and plants from all around the world), the museum of the writer Nikolai Ostrovsky. The Art Museum had a heart-wrenching photo exhibit, portraits of the children from the local orphanage. The curator of the exhibit told me that there are 64 pre-school children in the orphanage in Sochi, from the smallest infants to clever little kindergartners. The curator had gone to the orphanage with the photographer and her crew when they were taking the pictures, and she couldn't hold back the tears when guiding me to a picture of a little boy captured at the moment when tears burst from his eyes or to a picture of three little girls doing their best to sit still and to listen attentively to their lesson. "The children," the curator said, "were so touching, so sweet." The rest of the museum houses a collection of Soviet art by Moscow and St. Petersburg artists who over the years came to paint at the Sochi resorts; it also has more contemporary art by local artists who have grown up here and in a larger city, Krasnodar, the administrative center of this region.

Perhaps due to the time of day (I visited the museums either early in the morning or late in the afternoons) or to the fact that it's still very early in the tourist season in Sochi, I was the only visitor in all three museums, the Art Museum, the History Museum, and the writer's home. Each time, my appearance caused a flurry of activity: the ladies who guard the exhibit rooms (one lady per room, to make sure that the visitors don't touch or break anything) broke off their conversations and ran off to their rooms, turning on the lights everywhere, opening the protective covers on the showcases. In the Dendrarium I was not entirely alone but for large stretches of the walk it felt like I was -- they told me that they did have a crowd earlier in the day, but by now (I came two hours before closing time) everyone had dispersed. All of these museums in Sochi (like all the theaters in St. Petersburg and many art organizations throughout Russia) are fully dependent on government funding, they could not survive without this support -- they wouldn't know how to even try.

Another word I am finding useful in trying to describe Sochi is the word "province" in the Russian sense. Technically, in the old Russia this word described any township that was not a seat of administrative government of a region. For example, Sochi is a part of the administrative region with the seat in Krasnodar, a city on the other side of the Caucasus mountains, closer to river Don. I overheard conversation of a couple who were discussing the purchase of a flat in a new apartment building that's being built in Sochi. "The management company received all the permissions [necessary to build the apartment building] from Moscow, from Krasnodar, but in Sochi they got turned away. So now I don't know what they're going to do. Probably give somebody more pocket money." Since administratively Sochi is a part of Krasnodar region, and Krasnodar region is a part of Russian Federation, and all the administrative decisions are made in Moscow it's not surprising that the development of Sochi has been so tardy. If everything that has to do with local infrastructure, from road construction to telephony, postal services and all other government services has to be governed from Moscow via Krasnodar -- I can imagine that any new undertaking is not impossible but requires an astounding amount of paperwork and money to sweeten the officials' moods. This is probably one of the reasons why there are so few Moscow and St. Petersburg chains in Sochi -- the coffee shop and fast food and grocery store chains probably cannot or don't want to expand to this area. There are local cafes and fast food shops and grocery stores, but most of the reasonably priced ones are hold-overs from the Soviet era in appearance and menus (which is not necessarily a bad thing, personally I enjoyed eating there very much), and the modern, Western style cafes and restaurants charge prices ten times higher. One day, I could eat a full dinner for under 150 rubles in an old Soviet-style dining room (no bathrooms!), and the next day I'd go to a more modern restaurant and pay 500 rubles for just one dish. In St. Petersburg, the prices of both types of establishments have more or less evened out (not entirely, but as a matter of degree), and there are a lot more medium-range options.

Actually, the best place to shop for groceries in Sochi is the local open-air market. We bought strawberries and cherries, and souvenirs to take home: local spices, local tea (Sochi and Krasnodar Region is the only part of Russia suitable for growing tea and wine), churchkhella (a Georgian treat, nuts soaked in fruit juice). Prices are negotiable and people are friendly, talkative.

Two more notes on the curious condition of Sochi as simultaneously a province of an empire and a showpiece of the same empire. Since Sochi is also the location of many trade shows and conferences, the local hotels and clubs are used to catering to businessmen -- who, in their overwhelming majority, are business men, not women. Thus, for example, on every flat surface in the rooms and in the lobby of the hotel where I stayed (a nice business-class hotel, 4 stars), there was advertisement for the hotel's "Erotic Club 'Twilight'." To translate (as literally as possible), "'Twilight' -- a club of erotic fantasies and sensual temptation for those who truly appreciate the beauties of female bodies. Here you will find exquisite entertainment in the society of sexually appealing dancers. We offer striptease-show that lasts until the morning, a sea of alcohol, intriguing 'crazy'-menu and rather democratic prices."

Restaurant menus do exist in English -- the kind of English very similar to what Dave is finding in post-World Fair Shanghai and post-Olympic Beijing. "Cold fish for fish gourments." "Pizza: a pepperoni, a salami, the bulgarin pepper." "Milky cocktail: milk, ice-cream, syrup with your choice." "Coffee on the sand like turkish."

Leaving downtown on our way to the airport, we noticed an advertisement for a "Fitness Club 'Young Leninets'," a Western style fitness club for young people who believe in the work of Lenin -- the ultimate sign of the rapidly colliding worlds.

Meanwhile, Dave has joined me here in St. Petersburg and is blogging about it:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How the Steel was Tempered

One of the main museums in Sochi is the house of Nikolai Ostrovsky, a Soviet author who in 1930s wrote an immensely popular novel, "How the Steel was Tempered." These days, the novel is ill favored by the literary community. Sometimes, it's studied as a prime example of the "Socialist Realist" genre. Largely though people avoid talking about it because it's so charged with the communist doctrine. There's an ideological passion to this novel that makes it disturbing to people these days. I read it as a child--I remember enjoying it a lot, rereading it several times--but I haven't returned to it since. Ostrovsky's house is located on the street named "Pavel Korchagin," and I failed to recognize the name of the novel's hero in the street sign.

The visit was interesting on many levels, but one thing in particular stood out. (I think I knew some of this information as a child, but I have forgotten it since.) Ostrovsky started writing only when he became completely blind and paralyzed. He had arthritis--his Russian Wikipedia page says specifically that his symptoms would be diagnosed today as Ankylosing Spondylitis. At the time, the medicine could do nothing to relieve his symptoms, not even the pain. And he must've been in a tremendous amount of pain all the time. His spinal cord was probably entirely fused--he was bedridden for about the last ten years of his life. What might be worse, his eyes were inflamed, which means every tiny bit of light hurt him immensely. His rooms in the house (built only after the novel became a huge success with the people and the party leaders) were made of dark wood, the windows shaded with heavy curtains to ensure large periods of complete darkness.

The fact that he managed to write two lengthy novels while sick with this disease I find astounding, and in a way also exciting, encouraging. I must've known this story as a child, this is also why the idea of "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield" was always so attractive to me. "To find" in this context is to find pain. The museum guide who told me the story had tears in her eyes as she recounted the later parts of Ostrovsky's biography--even though she must've given the same speech hundreds if not thousands of times.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sochi, "City-Resort"

I've got an opportunity to spend three days in Sochi this week, and so here I am reporting from the Caucasus mountains region, from the shore of the Black Sea. If you haven't heard of Sochi yet, you will in 2014, when it will host the Winter Olympics. The running joke in Russia is that Sochi, the Southernmost region of Russia, has been picked to host winter sports. Is the rest of the country much too cold? Of course, all the Olympic stadiums are being built from scratch, and it hardly seems to matter what the weather conditions are like. The Caucausus mountains are topped with ice (lately, receding) and already house first-class skiing resorts. Another curious factoid -- Sochi is located at the same latitude as Nice and Toronto.

The climate in Sochi is actually characterized as subtropical--it's moderately hot in the summer (in the 80s) and humid. The city is laden with palm trees, boasts its own unique varieties of yew and boxwood trees. Administratively, Sochi is labeled as a city-resort -- it's hardly a city at all, but rather an agglomeration of Soviet-style health resorts stretching along a thin strip of land between the Black Sea and the mountains. The city, at closer approximation, breaks down into several small coastal villages (and one inland village, in the mountainous valley, where the Olympics will actually take place), united together in one administrative body. The downtown area is quite small, although it too is undergoing major construction before the Olympics. Construction of everything is booming in the area -- from new hotels and stadiums to new roads and bridges through the mountains to new apartment buildings and beaches. At the moment, it can take up to an hour to drive the distance that normally takes 15 minutes.

What immediately struck me upon arrival is how young a city Sochi is. The territory was acquired by the Russian Empire in 1838 as a result of a war with Turkey. The local peoples--Shapsugs, Circassians (?), other "Caucasians"--were pushed out or left on their own for Turkey and Iran, and later in the 19th Century settlers moved in from all parts of the Russian Empire, from Estonia and Germany to Ukraine and Russia proper. Later, closer to the turn of the 20th Century the area became developed for dachas -- country houses for the aristocracy and for the growing middle class. They formed the first spas and parks in the area. The administrative city buildings and most of the largest health resorts were built after the Revolution, starting from the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Soviet construction was only one of the historical layers imposed upon pre-existing cities, here the Soviet city plan and aesthetic is the basis upon which the contemporary construction is developing.

Talking about the Soviet aesthetic, there weren't brand names in the Soviet Union. A grocery store was simply called "Produktovij Magazin" -- "Grocery Store." A restaurant was "Restoran" or a "Stolovaya" -- "Cafeteria." A bath house was called simply "Banya" -- "Baths." If there was more than one restaurant in a city, they would be numbered: "Restoran N1," "Restoran N2," etc. In Sochi this is still very much so. The first thing I noticed across the street from my hotel (a contemporary construction by a Western chain) was a "Stolovaya" and a "Konditerskaya" (Pastries) across the street. A downtown bookstore is simply labeled "Knigi" -- "Books." The attractions that do have names, are named (by pre- or post- Soviet settlers) after other places: Park "Riviera," Cafe "White Nights." There's a general sense that changes of the new, post-Soviet era, came to Sochi much later than they did to Moscow and St. Petersburg (contemporary Russia, after all, takes after the Soviet Union in that all decisions and changes are usually transmitted from Moscow out to the peripheries), and that they are coming now, with the Olympic Games, in the proportion never seen before.

Upon closer examination, the "Konditerskaya" across the street from the hotel sells goods produced by a local pastry factory that does have a name, "Kaskad" -- "Cascade." (This is another peculiarity of the Soviet labels -- when things do have them, they are very arbitrary). I've tried to Google this factory, but came up with nothing. I'm quite sure though they have been in business since the 1960s or 1970s, because the pastries I tasted are very much like the delicacies from my childhood. Long waffle rolls stuffed with baked sweet condensed milk. Choux pastry with scalded creme. Eclairs. Quality eclairs are very hard to find in this world.