Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mongolian Summer

The snow is coming down in tiny little nano-flakes tonight, as I sit here trying to patch together what my summer was like after leaving Italy.  I've been in denial about the fact that it is Getting Cold now, but I can't do it anymore.  On a weekend like this, you can't help but wish for some sun and heat, and sadly, when I tried to go for pho yesterday, the Pho House was Closed (I peeked in the window and the register and stuff was cleaned out - eek!), so I guess it's apropos that I'm finally sitting down and hashing this out.
Because I have this funny thing about not being considered a resident (my family says this is a thing, so I'll try it out...THANKS, OBAMA!) I only stayed stateside for about three weeks this summer.  After I came back from Italy I was in UB for a week (Naadam!), which was good because my freaking suitcase got lost.  Again.  This is the same suitcase that got lost en route to both Siem Reap and Athens, which makes three times in a six-month period, and this time I didn't actually get it back before I left again - I had to pick it up in Seoul on my way home, and when I finally DID get it home, I declared it cursed and left it there...but I digress.  That week I was lucky to have my first visitor in Mongolia - and in fact, my first visitor since that time when Evil came to Ras Al Khaimah......Azhaar, my belly dance teacher extraordinaire, part-time therapist (the part-time being where my one-hour lessons became two), and pretty much all-around amazing person.
In addition to being a dancer, Azhaar is a musician.  Although I think she decided to come to Mongolia primarily because I invited her, when I started talking about all the kick-ass music and dance we were going to see, she got a little bit excited.  Most visitors to Mongolia during the 11-13th of July find a way to get in on the Naadam action.  To be fair, Azhaar and I made one brief trip to the stadium area, more to take in the madness than anything else, although we made sure to have a Naadam khuushuur and managed to watch a little archery while we were at it, but that was not what we spent our time and money on.  Instead, she found a friend on facebook to take her shopping for a morin khuur, and spent her first day doing that while I worked on finishing our mural at school with the Kawaii Kid (whom, upon meeting, Azhaar declared that she couldn't escape Korea.  I might have laughed at that a little).  The next day, we did some wandering before meeting up with Engrish for dinner and a show.  Khusugtun is a Mongolian band, runners-up in this year's Asia's Got Talent, and stars of the Night Temple Museum event held at Choijin Lama Temple on July 9th.
I've seen a lot of incredible performances since living in Mongolia, but none of them beat this one.  It wasn't just that Khusugtun was fantastic, although they were.  It was the setting that made this concert so special.  The Choijin Lama temple museum has a pretty incredible atmosphere...a bit spooky and otherworldly, and is possibly one of my favorite Buddhist temples.  Seeing it at night, with the accompaniment of Khusugtun's music, gives me chills just from the memory. 

We saw some other great music that week - we went to the National Morin Khuur Ensemble, a concert in Sukhbaatar Square, as well as the Mongol Deeltei festival.  I forgot how much I enjoyed traveling with Azhaar - as I indicated when I filled out her tourist survey, she is a first-class culture vulture.
I came back to Mongolia in early August to - strangely enough - a second visitor, Evil's niece, Katie.  It was a completely different experience, showing Katie around.  She was really interested in culture, too, but more of the nomadic lifestyle culture than just the music and dance.  I wasn't sure I was going to be able to take her to a Naadam, since the season was sort of over by then, but she made it just in time for the first Danshig (religious) Naadam in over a century.  It was basically the same as any other Naadam, and even took place at Khui Doloon Khudag (where the horse races normally take place) but additionally involved a lot of monks chanting, and rumor has it that Tsam dancing took place, although I didn't get to see it with my own eyes.  This gave her the opportunity to have Naadam khuushuur (which, if you can't tell by the fact that this is my second mention of it in this post alone, is a tasty treat), so it was pretty lucky all around.  At least until we left the city.  True to my word, I arranged for some nomadic experiences for her, and we went out to Kharkhorin first to see Erdene Zuu Khiid with a plan to visit Enkhaa's herder friends on the way back.  And then Katie spent the whole night sick, so our marvelous plan was cut short.  Still, she had a good time and it's always nice to have company visit.  Although I was ECSTATIC when I was FINALLY alone in my apartment.  Two months is a long time to either visit or be visited.  I can't state that enough.
Although her timing was good on the Naadam Katie missed, by a mere couple of hours, a falconry festival held at Chingisiin Khuree Tourist Camp, near the airport.  As I've mentioned before, it can be hard to find out about things going on in and around UB, and I only found out about it because my famous friend Allyson had been the day before and posted about meeting Ashol Pan.
Ever heard of her?  She's this really badass Kazakh girl eagle hunter.  When I went to the eagle festival in Olgii two years ago, she hadn't become famous, and all of the hunters we saw were men.  A year later she was there, and already a news story - I was kicking myself for going the wrong year (although I guess if I had gone in 2014 I would have missed seeing the dumbass foreign guy get attacked by an eagle, so you pick your luck).  I hopped at the chance to meet her, and she was sweet enough to pose for a photo when Enkhaa introduced me and the newly-returned Five to her that morning.
Stupid *@#%!^$ bird.  Nobody messes with Khublai
Ashol Pan was really the star of the show, but that didn't stop the organizers from putting on a little pageantry.  They opened the festival with a reenactment of Khublai Khan and his hunting party, explaining that not only did they hunt with eagles and falcons but even used TIGERS to hunt.  The part with the falcon didn't go so well, since the bird decided it wasn't interested in coming to him, and finally had to be bribed with something dead and presumably tasty to make a small hop from its handler to Khublai's hand.
We got to see some of the same exercises that Engrish, Geek, and I saw at the Eagle Festival (which is good, because our fall break no longer lines up with it).  They had finished with a performance of trick riding when Five and I decided it was time to be off.  I could have watched it all day, but I'd lost my sunscreen and nobody was making khuushuur, so Enkhaa brought us back to Zaisan, and we eventually met up with Engrish so that the terrible trio could reunite at long last. 

Ever since then, school's pretty much been non-stop and I've found some new things to torture myself with, but we did manage to take a much-needed vacation to Greece, which I'll have to tell you about the next time I sit down.  Til then~

Monday, November 9, 2015

Art Teacher in Paradise

So it turns out that blogging has become the thing I do when I can't sleep (my last post), or when I have a little extra time in the morning (this post).  I just looked at my "all-time" stats and it was kind of sad to see the downward trend of my hit mountain, but what can I say?  I got art shit to do.
One of the reasons my printmaking teacher, Subler, encouraged us all to participate in that study abroad in 2001 was because the Venetian Biennale takes place on odd-numbered years.  A biennale is an art event that takes place approximately every two years (literally it means every two years but has come to be able to fit other regularly spaced events), and the event that made it a thing all started in Venice in 1895.
Well, the 2015 Biennale was the fifty-sixth in the history of the event, but of particular note for me and Mongolians because this is the first year Mongolia has participated, and this helped to spur me on in my desire to make it back to Venice this summer.  I first learned this when an acquaintance posted their IndieGoGo campaign on Facebook.  I'll let you read the story yourself via the link...long story short, their goal was to raise $50,000; they only raised $820 and awareness, but sometimes awareness is what you really need, because somebody's fairy godmother got on the horn and made stuff happen.

I managed to locate Palazzo Mora (which hosted the Mongolian Pavilion as well as a couple of other national pavilions) fairly easily, one of my first days in Venice.  One of the great things about the Biennale is that there are all these palaces with doors wide open to let you see internationally renowned art FOR FREE.  I rushed through the door and up the stairs, past some really cool pieces of art (such as a hallway of shoes made of bullet casings and some really fascinating sketchbooks) til I made it to the Mongolian pavilion.  It featured the work of two artists, T. Enkhbold and Unen Enkh, and the installation, featuring rough materials such as felt and leather, reminded me so strongly of Mongolia that I might have felt a little homesick as I sat on the floor and watched one of the videos, in which Enkhbold sets up his ger on a faraway the Netherlands, if I'm remembering correctly, but it's been several months thanks to my computer problems, some laziness, and the fact that the Kawaii Kid keeps suggesting really interesting anime to me.
One of the things that blew my mind in 2001 was the insane variety of materials and creations on display at the Biennale.  I had forgotten how much of it there was until I made my way to the Giardini this summer - the main things I remember from the 49th was Ron Mueck's Big Boy, Do Ho Suh's floor of people, and (of course) all the video art (particularly the Bjork video with the robots...beautiful, in a weird way...)  Walking through the Giardini, I remembered more, but couldn't be distracted by ghosts of the past.  There was the artist who made swatches with different kinds of earth and an installation which read Peace, but could only really be seen from the right perspective.
I LOVED the Australian (I think - sorry guys, like I said, it's been a while) pavilion.  It had the feel of a crazy antiques shop where skulls had been painted on the cuckoo clocks while someone had defaced currency with swimming sperm.  I also appreciated the tree on wheels outside one of the pavilions (German?), but I think I loved the Japanese pavilion the most at the Giardini...
Chiharu Shiota's installation, "Key in the Hand," featured about a million keys (rough estimate) strung through the million miles of red yarn tangled throughout the space...and a few rustic boats.  I felt like one of those keys must be mine, and if I could grasp it I could untangle it's line from the others, finding my way back to...something.  I liked the feeling of possibility it invoked in me.
It was just after I'd purchased my vaporetto pass and was taking a ride somewhere (possibly to Murano) that I realized I recognized a name on one of the posters - Rashad Alakbarov.  As soon as I figured out why I knew his name I totally fangirled.  Alakbarov is an Azerbaijani artist who creates the most amazing installations using light and shadow.  I tracked down "The Union of Fire and Water" at the Palazzo Barbaro (which, I swear, would make a great haunted house.  It had some serious presence!) one afternoon to see his art in person, and it.  Was.  Fantastic.  Not only was his work even more amazing in person than it is on This Is Colossal but it fit perfectly into the mood of Palazzo Barbaro, particularly the message, "I WAS HERE," which was reflected off a grouping of mirrors.  But my personal favorite was "DO NOT FEAR," spelled out in the shadows of knives.
My last stop was the Arsenale.  I hate to admit this, but I was a little undone by the time I got there.  It was hot, the sun was shining, and I was thinking more about the dinner I was supposed to have that night with a Shanghai friend who happened to be in Venice at the same time (historic ravioli.  Need I say more???)  Also, the Arsenale always kind of strikes me as a madhouse - it's just sensory overload!  I took a good look around, and I liked what I saw, but by that point in time, I was a saturated sponge, and there wasn't much more art I could soak up, no matter how much I wanted to. Nevertheless, with everything there is to see, I'd love to take my kids to Venice for the 57th Biennale.  I can't even imagine some of the things they'd say about the art, but I'll probably have to, since I have no idea how I'd plan that and keep it reasonably priced.  Still, a girl can dream.
Oh, hey - I have one last thing to tell you (all six of you regular readers)!  Last fall I entered the Harmonic UB Tourist Photo Competition.  The original deadline was in September 2014 and I hit them with my best shots (yes, I live here, but I am still a tourist...or at least travel around Mongolia.  Details!), but then they decided they wanted to give more people a chance to compete, so they changed it.  To September 2015.  So I waited patiently for the next year for the damn thing to wrap up.  There was an exhibition of the best photos on the concluding weekend, but I didn't know about it until the photos were added to the facebook event, and although they said winners would be announced soon, none were ever posted on any of the associated pages...I would know, because I was watching and waiting.  My hopes were dashed while we were in Greece (I have a lot of writing to do...) and Engrish said she'd got an announcement that some Chinese woman had won the contest, but I was dubious, since there were supposed to be three prizes and c'mon, what the heck, why didn't I get an email, too?  Finally, one month and a week later, I get a short, very innocuous message in my hotmail account letting me know that I've won second place!  Honestly I was hoping for first place, because the prize was a trip to the Gobi and I've never been, but I don't mind going to Khuvsgul again, if someone else is paying.  So, yeah.  Another second place win for me.  Yay!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dat Glass, Doe.

It's been a helluva long time since I wrote anything.  My guests from this summer are partly to blame, particularly Belynda...if she hadn't been here after I got back from Italy, I might have finished writing about my trip then.  Or maybe not - my laptop won't connect to my wifi at home so I have to type on my stupid little transformer, which is fine when I'm traveling but annoying any other time.  Also, there's the fact that I was at home for the better part of a month, and don't even get me started on what internet is like in the styx.  And now school's started, so I've been busy with other things...such as planning a trip for my students to Greece, which it turns out none of them are going on, because in spite of what I believe about them, they can't think for themselves.  But better late than never, right?
I have two things from Venice left to write about, and this is the first.  As per the fact that I've changed my reason to travel from phallic worship (having run out of sites to visit) to learning stuff, I put some serious effort into tracking down a place where I could start to learn how to work with glass.

When I was in Venice in 2001, I visited Murano, and loved it - loved being away from the main part of the lagoon and seeing the glassblowers work.  I think anyone who watches it finds glassblowing fascinating.  Dale Chihuly is one of my favorite artists of all time, and I had dreams of being able to sculpt glass like him.

Well, the course that Abate Zanetti, the workshop I found that offered beginner courses, had for that week was not "How to Blow Glass Like Dale Chihuly."  It was lampworking beads, and I figured it was better to start small, anyways.  I signed up, and when they reached their minimum number of students (2, it turned out) I paid my deposit and started getting stoked about the fact that I was going to making some stuff out of glass.  Yee.  Haw.

The first day of the course I rolled my sweaty ass out of bed and made my way to Fondamente Nove to catch the vaporetto (via the cafe where I bought my brioche and aranciata).  I was SUPER early, partly because I didn't want to be late, but also because I've become an early riser (NOT to be confused with a morning person...just because I'm up before the sun doesn't mean I want to talk to anyone - or hell, even see them...)  I strolled around the island, which was quiet, since most people were still asleep, and sat down to read for a while, until I got a gnat in my eye and had to go looking for a mirror so I could fish it out, which is the state I was in when I came to Abate Zanetti.
They have a showroom where they give a presentation of the noble history of glasswork in the lagoon as well as having a display of pieces of art that were created based on winning designs submitted by schoolchildren (which reminds me - I was going to have my brats enter...guess I need to go back and look at their website).  On one side of the showroom was the fornace, where hot (literally) men were making big, amazing things.  On the other side was the lampworking studio, where we bent the fires of creation to our whims and made stuff.
This is the "lamp" we used, and it felt like the blazing heart of the sun.  Lampworking basically amounts to melting the glass rods in a small, intense fire and shaping it around metal rods to create beads.  With a little practice, you could make other things, as well, and around day 3 (aka, when I realized that being precise and perfect wasn't really my thing), I started experimenting with putting petals and things on my beads, with limited success.  I had a lot of fun with that, but most of those beads didn't survive, as there are principles of heating and cooling at work that I either didn't understand or wasn't really aware of.  It DID make me think that I'd rather sculpt glass than blow it.
One of the techniques we learned was how to decorate our beads with thin rods we'd pulled out of the larger rods of glass.  You heated them in the fire, and just briefly touched them to the bead to get dots and - if you had enough control - swirls on your beads.
These are some of my finished pieces.  It was hard work, and scary at times - while you're heating a rod, sometimes it will crackle and even shatter.  We wore protective goggles and cotton clothing, but I still got a sliver of super-hot glass on my arm at one point.  I also came to have a new appreciation for my students - every time our teacher Diego came over to my side of the workspace I felt the impending judgement, sure that I was about to hear "Disaster!" which was one of his favorite English words.  But eventually I just decided I didn't care, and I was just going to have fun with it, and while my beads aren't masterpieces by any means, I really enjoyed the course.

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 ( 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.