Saturday, July 4, 2015

Food of the Gods

Marika's in da house
Pretty much no matter where you go in the world, Italian food will be tasty.  Cultures that will fuck up everything else (I'm looking at you, England) will manage to get pasta right.  This is mostly attributable to it basically involving boiling noodles and adding sauce, but the fact remains: if you're afraid to eat anything else, put your trust in pasta.

That said, I didn't cook the month I spent in Venice in 2001.  Mostly I was being lazy (heh, I really didn't cook much the month before I went to Venice...or the month after...or really much during my college years...or in the years since then...) but there was also intimidation factoring in there.  I get along pretty well in Italian, in spite of never learning it, but I can't rely on it.  At this point in the game I can look at a package, make some inferences, and 9 times out of 10 I'll come out ahead, but I didn't have those coping skills fourteen years ago.  I'm making up for it this week.  My final AirBnB host, Lorenzo, showed me my shelf in the refrigerator, and I thought to myself, "Heh, not likely."  And then I went to dinner and spent 25 euro on gnocchi and water, and had to reevaluate.  So I'm experimenting, and it's been nice.
Fresh gnocchi - a new way I'm willing to eat potatoes
Taking cooking classes has kind of become one of my things, and I was desperately scrambling before I left to figure out where I could do one.  Acquolina Cooking School was actually the first one I came across, but I putzed around before I actually contacted them (in retrospect, I'm not sure why).  More than anything else I was interested in learning to make homemade pasta, and when I finally emailed them, they said they'd do the pasta class on Friday, July 3, even though Monday was ordinarily pasta day, so I was ecstatic (in fact, so ecstatic that - in the ensuing emails - I skipped over the part that said cash only and had to run out to an ATM, grumbling at myself all the way).
Ravioli stuffed with fresh cheeses
Fortunately the bancomat wasn't that far and in 10 minutes I was back and meeting Marika, our chef for the day.  Villa Inez, where the cooking school is held on Lido, is her home, and the kitchen was fantastico - hey, you know you're in Italy when you've got  frizzante on tap.  We started by making three kinds of dough - regular, basil, and gnocchi.  She had all sorts of great Kitchen Aid machines and things to make it less time-consuming.  A crew of 8 of us were cooking these things for FOUR HOURS, but in the old days yo mama'd be up at 6 to start making everything.  Once the dough was wrapped up airtight and setting in the fridge, we started making sauces and fillings.
Tortellini with meaty goodness filling
We finished the gnocchi by cutting them into little pieces and rolling them against a fork, and then learned how to roll out the dough.  The tagliatelli reminded me of how the Tsataan made their noodles...rolling up the dough and then cutting strips...but you had to wait until it had dried some or else the dough just stuck to itself.  The ravioli and tortellini could be made right away, though.  The ravioli was pretty straighforward, but the tortellini...oh gosh, that was hard work.  You had to cut the dough in a square, sprinkle it with semolina so it doesn't stick together (you cut them all at the same time), keep them covered so they don't dry out, brush the semolina off, put the filling on top, moisten half the sides, fold it over, seal it up, then fold the two acute angles together and pinch them into a little sitting shape.  It was exhausting.  It was also my absolute favorite dish.  Once upon a time, Evil got me addicted to Trader Joe's tortellini, and I used to think they were pretty good.  Now, I don't know if I can ever go back.

Alright, probably I can.  Remember: I'm lazy.
One finished product: tagliatelli in buttery sage sauce
Finally, at long last the time had come for us to dig in.  The food was superb, in spite of the fact that we noobs did most of the work.  Attribute that to Marika's AMAZING recipes and guidance.  The table was set with what I recognized as Murano glassware, and when I asked Marika she explained that her husband's family is one of the original "secrets-handed-down-from-father-to-son" glassmaking families, dating back to, like, 1400 AD.  We were also served special prosecco that either her sister's in-laws made or her sister-in-law's family made (I don't remember which, because by that point dessert was on the table and it kind of derailed my brain a little bit, and all I could think was, "I wonder if Enkhaa knows a good place for us to hunt wild strawberries this fall so I can make this...")  Part of me kind of wanted to try it, but fortunately alcohol's never been the hard part of my religion to live up to.
The grand finale: panna cotta alla fragolina di bosco
As I mentioned before, Villa Inez in on Lido, and it was SO REFRESHING to be there.  I'd been putting off heading out there; I went to Lido several times when I was here before, and loved spending a morning or an afternoon at the beach, but there were far fewer tourists here back then, and I had visions of beaches in China, where the sand AND the water are absolutely packed.  After all, Burano used to be a sleepy little island - when I went in 2001 I was pretty much the only tourist there, but this time, there were people everywhere with their freaking selfie-sticks.

So I walked straight across the island to the beach.  I had time before we started cooking.  I didn't have to go that far to tell that there was a difference.  Almost all the people I passed were living there - having a breakfast espresso and brioche, moving slowly and enjoying life, not taking shitloads of photos.  Out at the beach, there were a handful of people.  Admittedly, it was 9:30 in the bright and early, and I'm sure it was busier the later it got, but I don't do the beach in the afternoon, so this was good enough for me.

I went back the next day.  I was a little pissed at first - apparently I was too early for the first #2 vaporetto, and had to take linea 1 instead (which stops at every freaking point along the way.  I could have SWAM there faster than that!)  But it was a cool morning, and I had a chocolate brioche before hitting the beach, where I laid out my towel before walking into the water.  It was chilly, but I've been taking partly cold showers at Lorenzo's (mostly because it's so hot here that it actually feels good), so I adjusted quickly enough.  I relaxed, floating in the water, rocking to the rhythm of the waves, and when I decided I'd had enough, laid in the shade under a boardwalk (which, as far as I could tell was built for no other purpose than to throw shade) and read.  If that's not a great way to start a morning, I don't know what is.

A Night at the Opera

Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy???  11 out of 10 specialists in stuff agree that dwelling on the past is useless, and I try to listen to specialists, particularly when I've gone to the effort to make up statistics for them...thus I haven't made a huge deal out of the fact that I was originally a band geek.

As in, like, a GIGANTIC nerd.  

Yes, I went to band camp (I also played the flute, but I was in middle school, so no American Pie references, please).  

When I started college, I had every intention of growing up to be a concert flautist, and one of the classes you had to take was a listening lab, in which the classwork involved going to concerts.  The shows the conservatory put on were all free, if you got your ticket at least 24 hours ahead of time, and so suddenly all my dreams of being classy and going to the opera were coming TRUEEEEEEE!!!  Well, I eventually gave up on the whole musician thing (mostly because I couldn't actually get INTO the conservatory), but I still love going to the opera, even though sometimes the lovers need to just fucking DIE ALREADY so I can go home.

The last time I went to the opera in Italy that was definitely the case.  It was a rendition of Verdi's Aida staged in Verona's Colosseum.  Normally I would think that watching an opera in the most intact Roman colosseum in Italy was totally gucci, but it started sprinkling about the same time they let us in to get seated.  And when you play a delicate musical instrument that costs several thousand dollars, the show does NOT go on when rain is involved, thus is was two in the morning before it was over.  However, opera is the artistic equivalent of football for Italians, I went then, and I went again last night, since Teatro la Fenice gives me even more artsy street cred.
Teatro La Fenice (Fenice meaning "Phoenix," which is ironic since it's burned at least a couple of times) is the kind of dope yolo swag opera theater they show you in movies and tv and stuff when people go to the theater.  It's posh.  It's got velvet seats and honest-to-goodness boxes.  I spent almost as much money on the bloody ticket as I did on the cooking class I did yesterday morning (more to come on that another day).  I was hoping for a Verdi opera, because nobody knows how to use a drinking song in an opera quite like Verdi, but I settled for Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans, because I know how it ends (no spoilers yet...keep reading).
The theater was absolutely stunning, so I was expecting great things from the staging.  However, I had my first misgivings when I noticed that the orchestra pit was actually an orchestra platform.  The band, in all their glory, with all their reading lights, were kind of a distraction, and the divas...oh yes, all the characters were played by women.  Apparently Vivaldi wrote it for the girls' orphanage at which he was music master, but it took the supertitles for me to figure that the badass I originally thought was the title character was actually the antagonist...actually moved around the orchestra, as well as having the stage behind them.  Instead of having an actual set, they used stripes of light through smoke and artfully arranged wooden cubes, when they were called for.  It was very interpretive and minimalist, and was a stark contrast to the theater.  I didn't particularly care for it.
Don't ask what the secret ingredient is...
Okay, spoilers coming - watch out, opera fans.  Judith is a biblical story, but even if you've read your Bible cover to cover, chances are you haven't heard of her.  Protestant bibles group her with a number of other books known as the Apocrypha (also known as Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Bible), since most scholars agree at this point that it's not actually historically based.  It IS, however, a pretty badass story.  Judith is a young Jewish widow during a time the Jews are at war (you can assume it's Babylon, but let's face it - most of the Old Testament is carnage...that is, once you're past who begat who and all the rules about who you are not allowed to sleep with).

Anyway, she gets fed up with her countrymen who are participating in one of the world's great pastimes - whining about how things are without having the faith to actually do something about it - so she puts on her big girl pants and ingratiates herself to the enemy general, Holofernes.  Then she gets him schnockered and chops of his head with his own sword.
Thanks to 11 Points for the great illustration of the importance of art historians
Well.  The staging may have been okay, and it may have taken a really long time to get to the freaking point (I know - it would have been a very short opera if they didn't sing every line three times, but it was hot in the theater!) but in the end, Juditha Triumphans failed to disappoint.  When she cut off his head a whole rain of red...stuff? beads maybe???...fell from above the stage and hit the floor at the same time.  SPLASH!  Best part of the staging, game over!  Judith waved the sword around a little more and there was more singing - and the singing was phenomenal, and the orchestra was absolutely sublime.  I realize I'm being a real jackass, because I'm not really talking about the central point of going to the opera, aka, the performances, but I'm not a music critic and it would be stranger if you went to an opera in Italy and it wasn't outstanding.  These people take their opera seriously.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

This is a gondola.
Silly Venetians.  Boats go in water, not in a palazzo!
Part of the picture people have of a romantic trip to Venice involves a gondola ride.  If you are part of the many couples in this city who have been making me want to vomit by sucking face all over the freaking place, you may want a gondolier (boat rower) who can sing to set the mood, or perhaps have an accordian player along for the ride.  If you are one of my fellow single ladies, you might prefer a smoking hot one with some sexy guns from "rowing his boat" all day (namsayin'?).  But here's the thing about a gondola ride: it costs 80 euro for the first 40 minutes, and 40 euro for each 20 minutes after that.  If you want to do this in the evening (ie, the time of day when you are NOT covered in grotesque amounts of sweat), well, it goes up to 100/50 after 7 pm.
If you are smart but you care enough about the bragging rights of saying you've ridden a gondola, you can do what I did in my poor, broke college days and take the traghetto across the Grand Canal.  That only costs 4 euro (now...like everything else, it was much cheaper in 2001), and doesn't involve all five hundred bazillion tourists taking photos of you and your love bunny playing tonsil hockey because it makes a good photo.  It also only lasts a couple of minutes - the traghetto is basically a quick way to ferry across the Grand Canal, and is cheaper than the vaporetto (water bus).
Now.  If you are no longer a poor broke college student, and would end up being by yourself in the damn boat (and thus, probably reading, which means really a waste of money and possibly making yourself motion-sick), and furthermore, have run out of penis festivals and temples of erotica to visit, thus shifting your raison d'voyage to having some kick-ass learning experiences, then Row Venice might be for you.  For the 80 euro you would have spent for 40 minutes riding, you can get 90 minutes of instruction on how to row yourself.
I think I came across them on TripAdvisor, and immediately I signed up to take a course.  It sounded like a lot of hot, sweaty fun (pretty much every kind of fun there is to have in Venice is hot and sweaty, come summer).  I've paddled a canoe a time or two, and although I don't have the greatest track record of staying afloat (ask Babysis and she'll tell you), their website talked about the boats that they use: batellini coda di gambero.  It's a slightly different design from the better known gondola,  a design that is flat-bottomed and thus, a LOT harder to flip...or to fall in from.

I met Nan, my teacher, near the marina, where she helped me in and showed me the basics.  They seemed pretty...well, basic.  Then I got to start trying, and oh my freaking sweet Hell, it was a lot harder than they make it look.  It was easier on the body than paddling a canoe - I guess the oar lock helps your body do the work, and the motion is a lot like walking, or it's supposed to be...I never quite got it right, and my oar kept popping out.  Which brings me to how it's harder than canoeing.  I don't know why I couldn't figure it out.  Possibly because - contrary to how graceful I ALWAYS seem, haha - I am not a very coordinated person, and your body does a lot of different things when you voga properly.  There's the weight shifting back and forth, while not going up and down, but your knees are bent softly, twisting your wrists, pushing the oar FROM THE TOP, pulling it back, keep it flat!  So many different things going on at the same time, and while it's something you just have to do and practice, I'm a visual learner, and you can't see all that, so I followed Nan's commands not to look at the oar, and I didn't fall out or drop my oar, which given my track record is success.

The sweat absolutely rolled down my face.  It was hot, but it wasn't as hard work as I was expecting it to be, and it was as much fun as I was expecting.  I'm not sure if I'd do it again, but I'm really glad I tried it.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Take Me To Church

When I travel, there's usually a spiritual element in the works.  I didn't really plan for it in this trip, but I guess at this point, I don't really have to anymore.  Still, Orthodoxy and Catholicism aren't exactly my cup of tea.  I haven't been into that many Orthodox churches, but I remember the Catholic churches I visited in Paris and in Venice on my first go-round, and after the first one or two they kind of blurred together.  Maybe it's the fact that I've never had much of a taste for crucifixes, or the fact that painting the same scenes over and over kind of robs the artists of their creativity and keeps things from being interesting.  Or it could be the fact that they're too close to what I believe myself - so they don't have the exotic appeal of other traditions.

Whatever the case may be, I didn't give too much thought  to the churches I would see, other than St. Basil's, and yet, as it turned out, there was nothing I loved in St. Petersburg more than the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood.  Not only does it have a fantastic name (it was built by Emperor Alexander III as a memorial for his father, who was killed on the site) and a delightfully whimsical exterior, the inside's a knockout as well.  I walked past this thing several times before I went in...not because I didn't want to go in, but because I was savoring it.

I'm not as well-versed in Russian art as I should be.  I'm familiar with icons, and that's about it.  So when I saw the interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood it actually blew me away.  The people were so much more lifelike than I was expecting.  In icons, the saints tend to look more like a symbol than a person.  The mosaics in Spilled Blood - and the entire ceiling and all the walls were covered with them - looked amazingly realistic, considering they are made out of bits of tile.  As a work of art, the smaller depictions of saints were balanced by larger murals, which showed scenes from the life of the Savior, and the artists used patterns as accents and framing motifs, which broke up the space.  And the colors - oh man, they were amazing!  I do love me some color.

I hadn't really intended to visit any other churches in St. Petersburg, but I was wandering past Kazan Cathedral and decided to check it out.  It was free and the sun was finally out, so I appreciated the shelter.
There's a difference between a church that is a museum and one that is not.  The Spilled Blood is now simply a museum.  Kazan Cathedral is not.  The smells of fire and beeswax hovered in the air to meet me at the door.  There were tourists, you can rest assured of that, but there was much more reverence.  And there are places to sit and contemplate the power of God.  It was a nice change.
My first stop in Moscow was the Kremlin, which (amazingly) opened before St. Basil's.  I've seen enough diamonds in my day that I didn't care to spend an extra $14 on the armory, so I just saw Cathedral Square.  Dem onion domes (you might not like onions, but you can't help loving onion domes).  It's possible I've been reading too many of the Dresden Files books in a row.  As I sat in the Assumption Church (and you know I hate to make an ass out of you and umption) I tried to feel the passing of all the people come and gone through here over its history.  It gave me goosebumps.  I also tried to imagine my life without Chinese tourists.  If they hadn't been there, it would have been a much quieter, more reflective visit.

Anyways, so I'm in the cathedrals, and when it's just me I have impulses to check out the acoustics.  I have a decent voice - some have even called it amazing -  although I guess there could be a more appropriate choice than Hozier.  Still, it makes me think about organizing a flash-mob, choir-edition, for our next school trip.

Finally I made my way to St. Basil's (aka Sankt Vasily, which appeals to me because I KNOW a Vasilis!)  Anytime I have thought of Russia, its acid trip onion domes are the image that come to mind.  Sadly, the main chapel was undergoing work and I didn't get to see it, but the smaller chapels and their bits and pieces - the tomb of Vasily among them - were just fine with me.  It is as strange on the inside as it is on the outside - there were passages at elbow-height scattered throughout the chapels on the first floor, and I wasn't sure what they were for.  Air?  Light?
The decorations (frescoes, unless I'm mistaken) on the inside were bright and colorful and patterned to.  As I was exploring the second story a group of male singers performed, and I was right about those acoustics - they're pretty gucci.  However, this is one of those times when I think the sequel was better than the original; the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood was designed with St. Basil's in mind, but I was drawn back to it in a way that its predecessor didn't.  Which is weird, since I really hadn't really known about it before I got to Russia.
Well, that's it for Russia (I think), but I have one more church to talk about.  When I started to plan the final leg of my trip, I told myself that I would only do things here in Venice that I hadn't done before.  I visited a LOT of churches when I was here in 2001, but one that I'd learned about in art history and was really excited about, the Scrovegni Chapel, was under renovation, and we didn't get to see it, so it was definitely on the list this time.

The thing is, the Scrovegni Chapel is in Padua, so it was a little bit of a side journey for me.  Last time I was in Padua we took a boat up the Brenta Canal, visiting Palladio's villas along the way.  I loved that ride, but I took a more straightforward approach this time - six euro and 26 minutes on the train got me to the city of Romeo's exile.  The chapel is not far from the train station, and I remember walking past it on the way to the train station then - I remembered it was set down a little from the sidewalk, and that there was some kind of wall around it - an old Roman arena, as it turned out.  The Scrovegni family built their palazzo (which is long gone) and chapel there.  It was Scrovegni, Jr's work, in order to give a little push in the "right direction" to the soul of Scrovegni, Sr, who was apparently the usurer (money-lender) who inspired Dante to place them in the seventh circle of hell.

I have no pictures of the inside for you; you'll have to visit the website or run a search for them, but they won't do it justice.  The barrel vault is blue, spangled with stars, and there are religious scenes three-deep along both walls.  Here's the thing, though: this is Giotto's masterpiece and it's famous because he does something different.  He makes Mary, the Magdalene, John - all these people, into REAL people.  They're more than just characters in stories.  You can see the anguish and even the tracks of tears on the faces of the women whose children were slaughtered by Herod's troops as Christ and his parents escaped to Egypt.  Before Giotto (and even to a lesser extent after), religious art was lifeless, merely symbolic.  He made the stories relateable.  Standing in that room, experiencing it firsthand, was well-worth a little side trip.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Back to the Start

I can't even begin to name all the ways that my first trip overseas made me who I am, but nevertheless, studying abroad, even for only the month it was, had a huge impact on young, (relatively) innocent me.  Today I've come full circle, made it back to the beginning, and so I thought I'd write about it.  Venice was my first, unless you count Canada, which none of us do (sorry, Engrish), and even if we did, I didn't choose it.  In the fall of my fourth year of college I took printmaking and my professor, Subler, talked about a program that the University of Iowa did in the years of the Venetian Biennale (those would be odd-numbered ones), and I knew I had to do it.  I hadn't been obsessed with Venice the way I once was with Paris, but the thought wouldn't leave my head.  I HAD to do this.  That's how my dad ended up driving me to the Kansas City airport early in July 2001, slipping me a $100 bill when I was ready to go through security, "For emergencies" (he does that), and turning me loose on an unsuspecting world.

Well.  Not quite yet.  It takes a little more than an hour to fly from KC to Chicago, where I spent the night before my first trans-Atlantic flight, and maybe that long to get from Midway to O'Hare, which a number of people were very helpful in helping me to manage.  It's hard for me to believe this now, fourteen years later, but when I tried to figure out how to take the L between the two airports that day, I was made nervous by a single, simple transfer.  I've come a long way, baby.

Back in the day you could get some kickass deals on hotels with the right site - although I can't remember which one off the top of my head - and I stayed in the O'Hare Hilton for $35 bucks that night.  I got checked in and got my luggage to my room, sat on my bed, and basically burst into tears.  I should tell you (if you don't already know) that I cry at the drop of a hat, but even so travel's a big old ball of emotions, and fear and sadness factor into it at points.  You put yourself in a giant tin can and hurtle across distances that were imposing, less than a hundred years ago, and in the (relative) blink of an eye, you're a third of the way around the planet.  You've taken a machete to the jungle and cut it back.  "The world is not just books and maps, it's out there," at once much bigger than you could have imagined and much smaller than it used to be, because now you're in it.  That's cause to mourn, as well as to be a little bit afraid, because you don't know what's going to happen out there, and how it will change you, and when you get back, you won't be the same person you were before.  You can't say if you'll be changed for the better, but you will be changed for good.  Or at least you will if you do it right.

So I cried in the room and went to sleep early and managed to pull myself together for my first international flight from Terminal 5, where I met up with the crew from KC as well as the students from the U of I and wherever else we came from.  We had a layover, in Belgium, I think, and although I remember feeling like it took forever (7 hours was a lot of time for me then - now I think it's a short flight!) we eventually made it to Marco Polo airport, where we collected our luggage and were herded outside to get a water taxi to Campo San Maurizio.  I leaned over to look at the water, and promptly had my sunglasses fall in the drink, but hell, sunglasses are overrated.

We were whisked off to Campo San Maurizio, where the 20 students participating in the program were staying in two apartments.  It may have been crowded, but honestly I don't remember thinking so at the time.  During the days we were in the studio or scattered, doing stuff, and in the evenings the veterans of the group taught us newbies the game that would make a card shark out of me...Canasta!  Some of my flatmates cooked, but most of the time I was out eating pizza and gelato, and believe it or not, I lost 5 pounds that month.  Lots of bridges, 'nuff said.

The month was daily routines punctuated by activities.  The routines were my morning walk through campos still waking up, stopping to buy a croissant - some days crema, others cioccolata - at the bakery up the calle from the studio and a bottle of aranciata, before starting my artistic endeavors for the day (which did not amount to much - fiddling around in my sketchbook for the most part).  The activities ranged from the Biennale to a puppetmaker's workshop, a maskmaker's workshop to trips up the Brenta canal and to Padua.  There were the strains of the Brandenburg concerto (charming the first day or so, but they got annoying pretty quickly) from the guitarist who busked next to the well in our campo, afternoons on the beach at Lido, the night Piazza San Marco flooded and a couple of my classmates and I went to splash in water sparkling from the Plessi installation set up in the windows of the Museo Correr.  There was taking the vaporetto out to Murano and Burano and the Cimitiere, and the bus up to Mestre where I went to church a couple of Sundays.  And in the end there was my first art show, staged for one night only in the entry to our flat, just off the campo, for which one of the KC crew made tzatziki, which I'd never had but fell in love with that night.

It was over too fast, and while at the end of the month I was ready to go home, the magic of that month lingered.  Walking along the same routes each day convinced me that slow travel was the only way to go.  The lady I bought my croissants from knew me, knew I would be there every morning and what I would get.  I had a place I fit, and that set the tone for my future expat life.  As a high schooler, I was really disappointed that I didn't get to do the "grand tour" thing with a band group like my friend did, but who knows?  If I had, I might not have ended up coming at the world the way I have.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Moveable Feast

It took me a while to figure out why my friend Meen sent me a postcard of subway stations when she visited Moscow.  The tiny little stamp-sized photos didn't really do the actual places justice, and with the exception of Gyeongbokgung Station in Seoul (which used to have displays of children's art which delighted me each week on my way to church), the metro has always been a very utilitarian aesthetic experience.  Close space, lit well enough to see, well-marked, but not works of art.  It was only when I began my due diligence for this trip that I figured it out.

Art museums are the vaunted halls of the learned (say that right, please...learn-ed), and there are lots of people, at least in the States, who don't get anything out of them.  They feel uncomfortable there, because we've made them sacred temples...don't talk too loud, don't walk too fast, show reverence to the gods of Elementia and Principalis, and their prophets, daVinci and Van Gogh.  Call me cynical, but I don't see this getting better anytime soon, because we've also managed to fuck up education - and don't even get me started...I'm an art teacher.
The Russians...actually, let's call a spade a spade...the Soviets have entirely different ideas about who art belongs to.  The commie bastards might have fucked up a lot of other things, but their hearts were sort of in the right place.  The people were the ones to put up on a pedestal.  Art should be accessible to all.  Their metro system is designed to reflect this.

After hitting the Kremlin and Red Square, I decided to kill some time on my first day by riding the rails aimlessly, to see what I could find.  I started at Okhotny Riad on the red line, it being the closest to the Kremlin, and went one stop.  I got out, took a look around at Lubyanka Station, and walked to the transfer on the pink line, Kuznetsky Most.  I went another station down the line, to Pushkinskaya, and then walked to its transfer, Chekhovskaya on the grey line.  This time I got daring and decided to go for TWO stops, to Mendeleyevskaya.  Once again, I got off and walked to the transfer station.

Some of the stations I'd been through thus far had opulence reminiscent of the Winter Palace.  There were chandeliers and vaulted ceilings and art deco details.  But I hadn't been blown away until I got to my next transfer, Novoslobodskaya.

Jackpot.  Novoslobodskaya (yeah, the names are a handful, aren't they?) was everything I didn't realize I needed in a subway station.  There was stained glass.  There was a mosaic.  There were gold moldings adding a subtle emphasis to the arches.

I have to admit I found it a little hypocritical, this enshrinement of art for the people, particularly when I noticed authors or artists in the sculptures and stained glass.  Communism and intellectualism aren't exactly friends (if you don't know your history) and although my understanding of that period of human history is not as strong as I would like it to be, I have a feeling that if its leaders had taken better care of their intelligentsia, communism wouldn't have failed quite as direly as it did.  The fact that these professions are depicted at all is a bit surprising to me, since a lot of the art seems pretty propagandistic (if that's not a word, I'm making it one), with the working people...with their children, and their dogs, and their chickens, and their jackhammers, and their guns...showing up a lot.  But I guess it's the thought that counts.

That satisfied most of my interest in the metro system, but there was one more thing I wanted to check out: the Aquarelle train.
In 2007 (Moscow's Year of the Child), the Aquarelle (aka, Watercolor) train came onto the tracks.  It's not just a train - it's an art museum on wheels.  Or at least, that's the idea behind it.  The windows on one side of each car have been blocked out and those panels have framed works of art hanging on them.  In theory, it's a great idea, and I've got to admit, I've been thinking ever since I saw it about how this might look if - theoretically - I could get in touch with one of the bus companies in UB and showcase prints of student work on the bus!  But it didn't really seem to work that well in the Moscow metro.  See, those paintings take up sitting room, and so there were people (some of whom had the sort of - earthy fragrance - not normally associated with fine art) standing in front of them, which sort of took away from the art gallery experience.  Then there's the fact that the doors between cars were locked, so you couldn't move from car to car the way you can on the Seoul Metro, which kind of hindered you from SEEING ALL THE ART!

I spent about 50 minutes waiting for that train this afternoon.  Under other circumstances, I might be a little bitter about wasting my time, but hell, I'm on vacation, and I'd already seen my big 2 things AND found the Krispy Kreme (mmmmm, donuts!)  As an added bonus, the station that I spent all that time waiting in was Ploschad Revolyutsii, and even though it definitely didn't take 50 minutes to check out all the sculptures in the station, I never got tired of watching people interact with them.  Since they were bronze, you could tell where people had touched the sculptures, as the oil in their hands wore off the patina from the metal.  The dogs in the sculptures got the most love, and just about everyone who walked past them patted the dog's nose.  Some of them just reached out in passing, but others actually set down their parcels to take a moment to pet him.

I'm not much of a dog person, but even I thought that was sweet.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Longest Day of the Year

 I would make a terrible princess.  I was born several centuries too late, so it's a moot point, but I can trace my ancestry to Edward III, and from him basically to most of the royal families in Europe, so I'm calling it a near miss.  I could have been a princess, and I would have done a shitty job of it.  I can pull off poise when I want to, and occasionally I can manage diplomacy (veeeeery occasionally), but I'm stubborn as hell and over the years I've come up with a shortage of fucks.  Don't like my cleavage?  Think it's horrible that I would invite my newly graduated students who have been slaving away for me several months to lunch in my apartment???  Sorry, I'm all out of fucks to give...I used them up on things that matter.  Like doing my damn job, or women's rights.

However, I DO have a taste for some of the finer things in life.  Good food, music, art, traveling...I could do with a princess' income, or her digs.  So I braved the swarms of tourists to visit the Winter Palace yesterday.
The Winter Palace (officially the Hermitage, but I'm a wannabe princess today, not an art teacher) was the home of the Russian emperors and their family.  Since 1917, it's been a museum, and although it did undergo some..."renovations"...during Soviet rule, it's been restored for the most part.  Some of the rooms were absolutely breathtaking.  I think the library was my favorite, although the smoking room made me regret my lifestyle for a while - there are times when (perhaps) I want a house, so maybe I could dress it up with all the treasures I've collected during my years abroad.  Orientalist-style smoking room?  Bitch, please - you should see my belly dance studio.
Okay, so I lied about not being an art teacher today.  The building itself was ostentatious, but the art collection was killer, too.  Look at this - it's a freaking room of Rubens!  Every painting in the room was by Rubens, with the exception of a few by his school.  When I went to the Louvre, they had a roomful of Rubens as well, ones that Marie de Medici commissioned for her husband, the king of France (which one?  I don't care.  Look it up yourself if you care that much).  When I saw those paintings, I may have cursed Marie a bit...why couldn't she have told Rubens to throw a few naked men in there for good measure?  This room of Rubens answered that question for me.  The central figure in the painting on the right?  That's not one of Rubens' trademark voluptuous women; it's Bacchus.  And voluptuous just doesn't look that great on a man.
I'm a little ashamed, but I didn't see the whole Hermitage.  I should be able to spend more than three hours in a palace/art museum, but my feet were swollen with museumitis, and the crowds - egad, the crowds!  There were just too damn many people there (for the record, if you're going to do this, I think afternoon is better...there was no pushy-shovey line to get in when I left around 2, and at least some of the tourists were on their way out by then.  Definitely buy your ticket in advance if you go in the morning).  I did some more wandery around-ish stuff, including hitting Starbucks and going to pick up my tickets for the ballet that night.  Extra super special performances at the Mariinsky Theater are part of the White Nights lineup and since I LOVE the ballet I had to go.  Well, I say I love the ballet.  I've been re-evaluating that statement since last night.  I think what I actually love is passionate dancing and men with nice muscles wearing tights.  The dancers last night were spectacular, and I liked the stage design and the costumes, but Jewels (the show I watched) was a little meh.  I actually had to work to keep myself awake (admittedly I was a little jetlagged, but still), and I found myself thinking about how much more I would enjoy it if they were all belly dancers, so I guess you shouldn't be surprised that I left at the second intermission.
Part of the reason why I left was the fact that it was Scarlet Sails night.  Initially I heard that Scarlet Sails - which is a St. Petersburg thing - took place in May, but when I started walking around town I saw signage for it that said it was taking place last night, so I was SUPER excited.  I walked along the Neva embankment under the twilit sky, and got to Palace bridge around 10 o'clock.  I actually wanted to go further up the river, but the police had blocked the street, so I found a place as close to the side of the bridge as I could and waited.  And waited.  And because I'd been on my feet ALL DAY, they hurt, so I found a place to sit down and pulled out my Nook.  Which wasn't working.  Somehow, between getting to the ballet and sitting down on the bridge, my e-reader had unregistered itself, right where Harry Dresden was about to confront the ENTIRE White Court of vampires.  WHAT THE HECK, NOOK???  So I sat and waited some more, albeit with less patience than I would if I were reading.  At which point it started raining.  It was chilly - did I mention the fact that I was wearing sandals and a skirt?  That factors into this fiasco, thanks to the ballet - so I put on my hoodie, but finally around 11:30 I was fed up and said, "##%# this *&$@@!, you *@&!" and left the bridge.  But my night was far from over.  Thanks to the barricades, I couldn't head back to Irina's the way I had been going (which involved a lot of walking but I didn't think I'd be able to get a taxi) and because I was cold and wet and alone and my feet hurt when I finally DID come across a taxi on the other side of St. Isaac's, I let him talk me into paying about $20 to take me home.  And it was the best $20 I've spent yet.