Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Grandfather Frost & Snow Girl

Somerville, Mass - This year for the holidays, Jerry painted a statue of Grandfather Frost to sit on our front porch. Grandfather Frost, or Ded Moroz, is the Russian Santa Claus. Instead of being fat and jolly and dressing in red, Ded Moroz is tall and stern and he wears a decorative blue robe. And instead of elves, he hangs out with his grand-daughter Snegurochka, or Snow Girl. He rides in a traditional troika, pulled by flying horses. And he shows up with gifts on New Year's Eve (as opposed to Orthodox Christmas, which takes place several days later on January 6).

Apparently, Ded Moroz is a fairly recent tradition, developed in the 19th century after Moscow playwright Alexander Ostrovsky wrote the fairytale Snegurochka.

In the early years of the Soviet Union, the regime tried to ban anything that hinted of folk traditions, religious practices or bourgeois pettiness. Ded Moroz was guilty of all three, and he was declared to be "an ally of the priest and the kulak" (the latter being the much-maligned wealthy peasant). Being a friend of holy and rich men does not sound so bad to you and me, but in the Soviet era, it amounted to being an enemy of the people. How's that for irony… You spend all that effort to deliver gifts to good children all over the world only to be branded an enemy of the people!

This condemnation did not last too long, however. The regime soon learned that characters like Ded Moroz and Snegurochka could be used to promote its propagandistic messages of the glories of communism.

Ded Moroz might come flying in on a rocket ship, glorifying the accomplishments of the space program.

Pristine scenes of snow-covered countryside were replaced with smoke-stacked skylines, symbolic of the industrial production and economic progress under communism.

Grandfather Frost was not only a gift-bearing, bearded old man, but also a worker, a soldier, an activist… or perhaps an cosmonaut (how else would he be able to navigate his way around the world in a single night?). But he was certainly a man of the people.

And like the Star of Bethlehem, the Red Star of Communism always shone in the sky, guiding the people to their bright future!

Click here for more cool Soviet postcards of Ded Moroz, Snegurochka and all their cosmonaut friends.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Zookeeper's Wife

Somerville, Mass - Jan and Antonina leapt at the chance to shape a new zoo and spend their lives among animals. In 1931, they married and moved across the river to Praga, a rough industrial district with its own street slang, on the wrong side of the tracks, but only fifteen minutes by trolley from downtown.

When I started reading The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman, I thought it was going to be about a woman's adventures with animals. Given, the subtitle is A War Story, but still, I thought that the book would be about the way the animals at the Warsaw Zoo survived WWII.

I even suggested that Jerry should read the book, which combines history and animals, two of his passions. "No way," he said. "I know enough history to know that those animals are coming to a bad end."

And of course he was right. Within the first 100 pages of The Zookeeper's Wife, the zoo animals are either shipped off to Germany for Nazi breeding programs or savagely slaughtered, victims of a private hunting party for Gestapo officers. Brutal.

It's a rough beginning. But Ackerman's story is ultimately an uplifting one, as the empty animal cages and extra bedrooms are turned into safe havens for Jewish refugees. Jan and Antonina Zabinski - the zookeeper and his wife - become active in the Polish Underground, risking their own lives to shepherd hundreds of people to safety. This history is retold largely based on Antonina's journals, which explains the title.

In 1940, the Nazis ordered all Jews to relocate to the Warsaw Ghetto - that's more than 400,000 people restricted to a tiny enclosed portion of the city. I had read about ghetto, but The Zookeeper's Wife provides incredible, intriguing descriptions of life in this neighborhood. Ackerman does not overlook the squalor and starvation and disease that the ghetto-residents endured. But she also informs us of the ways that they sustained themselves —organizing illicit schools, publications and cultural performances, all of which was illegal.

Once the Nazis started evacuating the Jews from the ghetto to concentration camps in massive numbers, the Warsaw Zoo became an important way station for individuals trying to escape. The Zabinskis set up an elaborate code language, naming their guests after animals so they would not be recognized. They built a series of tunnels between their villa and the cages to allow for undetected movement around the grounds. Antonina was the caretaker of the household, and despite the immense danger of the situation, she always strived to maintain a cheerful and comfortable atmosphere for the guests around the villa. In all, some 300 people passed through the Warsaw Zoo on their way to safety.

The Zabinskis' story - Ackerman argues - is just one example of thousands of such heroic feats. She writes of printers who provided false documents for escaping Jews, beauty salons where they could get "Aryan" makeovers, schools that would teach them Christian customs– all so they could pass as non-Jews in a Nazi world. Poles could be killed not only for aiding and abetting Jews, but also for their failure to inform on their neighbors. Ackerman estimates that "70-000–90,000 people in Warsaw and the suburbs, or about one-twelfth of the city's population, risked their lives to help neighbors escape. Besides the rescuers and Underground helpers, there were maids, postmen, milkmen and many others who didn't inquire about extra faces or extra mouths to feed."

When the Nazis began the final phase of their plan to exterminate the Jewish residents, the Underground rose up in armed resistance. They put up a heroic battle which lasted more than two months, but to no avail… After the uprising some 7000 Jews were shot, while tens of thousands were shipped to concentration camps at Treblinka or Majdanek.

"Then, one terrible day, a gray rainfall settled on the zoo, a long, slow rain of ash carried on a westerly wind from the burning Jewish Quarter across the river. " The ghetto was destroyed, block by block, building by building, along with any remaining residents.

When we were in Warsaw in 2000, we paid our respects at this moving monument which remembers the residents who lived and died in the ghetto. Now there is also an Uprising Museum, which opened in more recent years. But not surprisingly, nothing really remains of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The camp at Treblinka was also destroyed by the retreating Nazis, but I visited the camp in southeastern Poland, Majdanek, which had seen the extermination of some 235,000 people.

After reading The Zookeeper's Wife, I am disappointed that I didn't visit the Warsaw Zoo when I was there. At the time I was not aware that it was such a historic place! Just out of curiosity, I looked it up in my guidebook, which describes Praga very much like Ackerman did: "a large working-class district… just across the Vistula from the Old Town."

For some reason, it warmed my heart to see that the zoo is listed amongst Warsaw's sights:"Just beyond the Slasko-Dabrowski Bridge are the Zoological Gardens. Established in 1928, the zoo has some 3000 animals representing 280 species from around the world." Antonina Zabinski always acted as the matriarch of the zoo, taking great pains to ensure the comfort of her guests, no matter what species they were. I imagine that her protective spirit continues to inhabit this place, still a peaceful haven for the creatures that she loved so dearly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rock `n' Roll

Somerville, Mass - Keeping with the theme of the moment, we went to see Tom Stoppard's play, Rock `n' Roll, at the Huntington Theatre. Tom Stoppard is another Czech émigré writer who fled Czechoslovakia, but he left as a small child, on the day of the Nazi invasion in 1939. Stoppard actually lived most of his life in England, but he was active in human rights issues in Central and Eastern Europe throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He uses both of his homelands for the setting of Rock `n' Roll, which follows the lives of a dissident living in Prague and a Marxist philosopher living in Cambridge.

The Czech protagonist, Jan, does not start out as a dissident. In fact, he is a Marxist scholar himself, and he believes in `socialism with a human face'. But even more than that, he believes in rock `n' roll. For Jan, music is the truest expression of opinion, emotion and individuality. Referring to his favorite band, the Plastic People of the Universe, he says: "They're unbribable. They're coming from somewhere else, where the Muses come from. They're not heretics, they're pagans."

So when rock `n' roll becomes antisocial and essentially illegal in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, Jan unwillingly becomes a dissident. He joins his musician friends in jail. They are not trying to make a political statement, but they are trying to make a creative statement. Sadly, under the communist regimes there was no room for creativity without politics.

In Stoppard's play, Jan is contrasted with his earnest and active friend, Ferdinand, who is always trying to get Jan to sign petitions and attend rallies to influence the communist regime. Jan resists such involvement: he doesn't want any trouble; he just wants to be left alone to listen to rock `n' roll. For him, the music is the message. As stated by the founder of the Plastics, "Rock `n' roll wasn't just music to us, it was kind of life itself."

Ferdinand doubts the legitimacy of the Plastic People of the Universe and their message, questioning what these long-haired rockers could possibly contribute to his dissident movement. Ferdinand works alongside Vaclav Havel, who is a part of the "official" opposition - political activists working within the system to try to reform it. The musicians by contrast disdain anything that is "official" - even if it is the opposition.

In the end, Stoppard seems to come to the conclusion that both sides of the movement are essential to stand up to the system. The official opposition did much of the work - circulating petitions, making speeches and advocating for change. But the musicians were uncompromising, genuine and passionate in their efforts to express themselves. That's all. They were the reminder that "life itself" was at stake in this battle.

We all know how Rock `n' Roll ends. The Berlin Wall is torn down. The Marxist philosopher becomes disillusioned. The dissidents become respectable members of society, taking jobs in the new democratic government. The Stones play in Prague.

It's a happy ending, to be sure, but there is a hint of wistfulness from Stoppard, especially when Jan's character announces that the Plastic People of the Universe are going to America. The Plastics endured communism without compromising; will they endure capitalism with as much courage?

Monday, December 8, 2008


Somerville, Mass - One of the tools that the dictatorial regimes of Eastern Europe used to encourage "loyalty" was to deny the right to work to intellectuals and artists who were suspected of having uncommunist sympathies.
Without a means of earning a living, the targeted individuals had a choice: they could renounce their offending works, sign a pledge of loyalty to the regime and denounce other outlyers. Or, they could give up their right to work in their area of expertise, taking a job as a window washer (as the main character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I wrote about in a previous post) or a baker (as in Tom Stoppard's Rock & Roll, which I will write about in my next post). In some cases, these individuals could not work at all, and were forced to depend on the generosity of friends of family to support them.
In the Soviet Union, artists and writers were required to create communist-utopian-themed socialist realist works. Otherwise, their license to paint, or write, or whatever, would be revoked, and the artist would officially become a "social parasite". This tool was also effectively used by the Nazis in their occupation of Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries. And - sometimes we forget - it was also used by the United States during the Cold War.
The documentary film Trumbo was a jolting reminder that my country's history is not so different from totalitarian regimes I am writing about.

Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood's most beloved directors in the 1930s. But he was a harsh social critic (case in point, his most famous novel, Johnny got his Gun). And he was a communist sympathizer. His antiwar ideas did not make him very popular with the US government during WWII. They certainly attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. (No joke: that is really what the committee was called up until 1969. Very Big Brother.)
Trumbo was one of the "Hollywood Ten" who refused to provide any information about their own or others' political involvement. He invoked the First Amendment to defend his right to express his point of view in his books and films. He was blacklisted and eventually jailed.
Trumbo's story is ultimately one of triumph, as he continued to write under assumed names. In 1956, the Oscar for Best Story was awarded to Robert Rich for The Brave One, but it was never claimed, as Robert Rich was Trumbo's pseudonym. In 1960, he received credit for Exodus and Spartacus, with assistance and support from other Hollywood notables. It was the beginning of the end of the blacklist.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place in 1993, when Trumbo was posthumously awarded the Oscar for Roman Holiday (1953). The original award - 40 years earlier - had been given to Ian McLellan Hunter, who had not written the screenplay, but rather provided a front for Dalton Trumbo.
So Trumbo finally received his due.. Meanwhile, all across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, thousands of artists, intellectuals, writers and filmakers were opening their studios, uncovering works and unleashing long-dormant creativity.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Czech Film Festival

Somerville, Mass - What a lucky coincidence. Here I am, working on the Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe. And in the local movies theaters, there is a flurry of films coming out of the Czech Republic. In the past month, I have seen two of them: I Served the King of England and Beauty in Trouble. And just to round things out, I watched The Unbearable Lightness of Being while riding my bicycle trainer on a cold day this week. Together these three movies pretty well cover the last century of Czech history...
I Served the King of England is based on a novel by the celebrated author Bohomil Hrabel. Oddly enough, I have had this book for years. I started to read it at least once, but didn't get very far. After seeing the film, I wonder why not.
The protagonist is Jan Dite, a waiter in pre-war Prague. His defining characteristics are his diminuitive size and his good luck, which lands him lucrative jobs and lovely ladies. As Dite moves through the ranks - from back waiter in a local pub to maitre d' at the prestigious Hotel Paris - Czechoslovakia moves through history. First, the German residents are ostracized; then fortunes are reversed when the Nazis arrive; eventually the Nazis lose the war and the Soviets move in.
Czechoslovakia does not actually fight in WWII, but rather allows the Nazi occupation with varying degrees of resistance. The scene is repeated under the Soviets. All the while, our hero's life is inextricably tied to the fate of his country - even as he seems to be able (or willing) to do little to alter it.
Dite does achieve his dream of becoming rich and owning his own hotel. But under the communists, it doesn't last long. That seems to be a theme: your time on top will not last for long.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being picks up where the first film leaves off. This most famous of Czech novels, by emigre writer Milan Kundera, was made into movie in 1988. Disclaimer: the film is a US production, but it stars mostlly European actors (the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis) and it was filmed in France. It's very cool in that it uses real archival footage from the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.
This is another novel that I have owned for years but never read (though I have read many of Kundera's other books). Only this past month, I dove into the Unbearable Lightness, and was so inspired as to follow up with the film.
The story centers on Tomas, an accomplished doctor and womanizer who lives in Prague in 1968, during the period of political liberalization known as Prague Spring. He falls in love and marries the vulnerable but devoted Tereza, but he refuses to give up his polyamorous ways. The film examines the complexity of relationships, not only between Tomas and Tereza, but also between these characters and Tomas' lovers. But all of these very personal exchanges take place against the backdrop of the historical events that unfold.
In August 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. All of the previous political reforms are undone, as the new puppet government reintroduces restrictions on press and travel. In the film, Tomas and Tereza emigrate to Switzerland to escape the crack-down that will follow. But Tereza is unhappy in her adopted home, and she returns to Prague. Tomas follows, even though it means they both must endure increasing persection - becoming targets of political blackmail and eventually losing their jobs.
The two main characters are essentially apolitical: they are concerned with their personal affairs and their professional aspirations. At one point, Tomas states bluntly and boldly "I don't care about politics." But they are thoughtful people, considered members of the intelligentsia. And they inadvertently and inevitably get drawn into the nasty politics that pervades the country.
Finally, Beauty in Trouble takes place in postcommunist Prague. It is not based on a book, but rather a poem by . But it is a delightful and insightful drama about a family trying to find their way in the midst of the tumultous transition.
Marcela and Jarda are a rough-around-the-edges couple, working hard to make ends meet and create some kind of stability for their two children. They get by with extra income from Jarda's chop shop. It seems like their relationship is constantly on the edge of self-destruction, with Marcela withstanding a lot of abuse from Jarda. But their sexual attraction trumps all bad feelings, and they always seem to kiss and make up - quite literally.
When Jarda is arrested for stealing a car, Marcela finally takes her cue, leaving her husband and moving in with her mother and her mother's boyfriend. The victim of the car theft is Evzen, a wealthy Czech emigre who has returned from Italy to settle his dead mother's estate. Evzen is clearly taken with his romantic image of his ancestral home, reading Kundera and showering the local people with kindness and empathy. He even takes pity on Marcela, lending her money and offering her to stay in his empty house. One thing leads to another... romance ensues...
Marcela is torn between the passion she still feels for Jarda and the peace she feels with Evzen - between preserving the family for her children, and creating a newer, healthier family for her children.
The characters in this film are brilliant and funny, each representing a different element of contemporary Czech society. The older generation is clearly the hardest hit by the collapse of communism: Jarda's mother joins a hardcore evangelical church (which seems about right, since her old religion - communism - has been completely discredited); Marcela's mother is cynical and single-minded, constantly encouraging her daughter to get her hands on Evzen's money. Both are delusional about their relationships and their country.
At the other end of the scale, the children are impressionable but adaptable. They move freely back and forth between their grandmother's cramped apartment and Evzen's Italian villa. They learn to swim; they learn to speak Italian; they are the next generation - the future of Czech.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bond for President

Somerville, Mass - I am not normally a fan of action-adventure films, but I have to admit that I have a thing for the new James Bond, played by Daniel Craig. It's not just his constant cool under pressure or his killer bod, it's also his uncanny resemblance to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
James Bond and Vladimir Putin have more in common than steely blue eyes and well-defined pecs. They also share an unwaivering commitment to duty, putting their lives on the line for their countries. And of course, they are both trained killers. (Before Putin was president, he rose through the ranks of the KGB. He is famous for having a black belt in judo, amongst other deadly skills, no doubt.)
This comparison has made me realize something about why Putin is so popular in Russia... wouldn't you want James Bond to be your president?
There was recently a story in the news about Putin's visit to a nature preserve where scientists are tracking and studying Siberian tigers. When one of the tigers suddenly broke free from its restraint, Putin sprang to action and shot it with a tranquilizer gun before it could attack or harm anyone. Everyone at the park was impressed with his shooting skills and grateful for his quick-wittedness. Sure, it's not often that Putin has to call on his skills... but he's still got it!
The new Bond film Quantum of Solace is of interest for another reason. Alongside Daniel Craig, the film stars supermodel Olga Kurylenko. Apparently, communists in Russia are aghast at the "moral and intellectual betrayal" by this Ukrainian beauty.
"In the name of all communists we appeal to you, Olga Kurylenko, wanton daughter of unclean Ukraine and deserter of the Slavic world. The Soviet Union educated you, cared for you, and brought you up for free, but no one suspected that you would commit this act of intellectual and moral betrayal," read the statement by the St Petersburg communist party.
The statement goes on to reprimand Kurylenko for playing alongside James Bond, a "killer of hundreds of Soviet people and their allies." Sometimes I wonder if the communists are resigned to making people laugh, since they are otherwise irrelevent in international politics. I swear, you can't make this stuff up!
"Your peers are engaged in struggles against NATO and you lounge around on the Cote d'Azur. How could you desert your homeland in its moment of need?"
I say, who can blame her? Olga probably feels that teaming up with James Bond is the next best thing to teaming up with Putin himself...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Communist Dracula Pageant

Somerville, Mass - As soon as I saw the playbill for this production at the American Repertory Theatre (ART), I knew I had to see it. The image of the Romanian dictactor Nicolae Ceausescu smiles out from the poster, but somebody has drawn Dracula fangs to enhance his mug.

You never know what to expect from the ART, which tends toward unconventional characters, minimalist sets and surreal storylines. So who better to tackle this rather absurd episode in Romanian history? And - since I am currently working on Lonely Planet's guide to Eastern Europe - what better diversion for me on a Friday night?

In short, the play is about the 1989 revolution in Romania, which brought about the downfall of the worst of the communist-era dictators in Eastern Europe: Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. It's hard to follow unless you know the history... thankfully, the program provides the necessary background information.

The inspiration for the play was a real-life event that took place in 1976, when Romania celebrated the 500th anniversary of the death of Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, best known as Dracula. This 15th-century Prince of Wallachia (a province of present-day Romania) was the namesake and inspiration for the vampire character in Bram Stoker's novel. He was renowned for his cruelty and ruthlessness.

But apparently he is also Romanian national hero. Nicolae Ceausescu perceived himself to be a sort of heir to Dracula's historical legacy, which was celebrated in 1976 with as much pomp and circumstance as the Romanians could muster. The concept of a "communist dracula pageant" seems more than a little ridiculous... and it is. Which is why it is the perfect starting-point for the production.

One theme of the play is the constant juxtaposition between fantasy and reality. The Ceausescus were masters at creating their own reality, starting with their revisionist history about good old Vlad Tepes. A few other examples that are referenced in the play:

  • Nicolae Ceausescu was a terrible shot, but he frequently went hunting with his security guards, who would drug the bears so Ceausescu could shoot them.
  • Elena Ceausescu was educated only up to fourth grade, but she considered herself to be an accomplished scientist, founding laboratories and signing off on other scientists' work.
  • Nicoale Ceausescu held titles such as the "Genius of the Carpathians" and the "Shining Light of the Romanian People".

In December 1989, in the northern town of Timisoara, a small group of people protested against the eviction of a Hungarian priest. Troops fired on the protestors, killing about 200 people, which fuelled more demonstrations. In response, the government organized a "spontaneous" rally in support of Ceausescu - another manufactured reality, but this one was debunked. The dictator's speech was not well received and he was not able to calm the crowd. Skirmishes broke out, and the rally eventually turned into protest riots.

The whole thing was televized. The Ceausescus fled.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were arrested the next day. Still living in fantasy land, they refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court and turned down the services of a defense attorney. Not that it would have done them any good. The trial lasted less than an hour; they were found guilty of genocide and executed. You won't get a more surreal storyline than that.

The Communist Dracula Pageant tells the tale using all of the props promised in the subtitle - hallucinations, phosphorescence and bears - which only accentuates the surrealism. The historical events fly by without clear comprehension of what's going on, capturing the chaos and confusion of the uprising.

It is a startling reminder that nobody knew how these events would play out in 1989. Even in Romania itself, it was not clear if this was a revolution or just an absurdist play... Indeed, Ann Washburn's play questions - as many Romanians do - if the revolution wasn't yet another fabrication - a clever cover for a coup d'etat.

It's been almost 20 years since these fateful events occurred in Eastern Europe - Romania being the last of the Eastern bloc regimes to fall. For me, this play was a wonderful, welcome reminder about why I chose to study this wacky part of the world. Where truth is stranger than fiction...

Photos courtesy of the ART.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Vote for Change from Around the World

Somerville, Mass - Today I am receiving congratulatory messages from friends in all corners of the globe, including Costa Rica, Russia and Dubai. The world is celebrating this election right along with us.

Since I spent the first half of this year on the road, I had a different perspective on the presidential election - the foreign perspective. It was striking to me that everywhere I went - Belize, Italy and Russia - people were excited about the possibility of President Obama. During the course of the campaign he has advocated for diplomacy instead of coercion, and the world appreciates this new approach.

Foreign Policy printed a roundup of some excerpts from the foreign press:

From Germany: "Obama is America's offer of reconciliation after all those years of premeditated political provocation, of military action not backed by international law, of America's claim to be entitled to military pre-emptive strikes." - Spiegel Online

From the UK: "Yesterday’s results were head-spinning stuff… The country regarded loftily by many Europeans as hopelessly racist and irredeemably right wing has voted to be ruled by a black man, at the head of a party committed to economic redistribution and a foreign policy rooted in peaceful diplomatic engagement."  - Times of London

From France: "The World Waits For Obama's 'Change': The victory of Barack Obama arouses hope and attention in the four corners of the globe, even in countries usually hostile to Washington." - Le Figaro

From Israel: "Former Congressman Mikva said that 'Barack will be the first Jewish president in the US... He has a yiddeshe nishama,' [a 'Jewish soul'] Mikva said. 'He is committed to Israel and its security concerns and understands that democratization does not happen by force but by example.' " - The Jerusalem Post 

From Kenya: "President Kibaki: 'This is a momentous day not only in the history of the United States of America, but also for us in Kenya. The victory of Senator Obama is our own victory because of his roots here in Kenya. As a country, we are full of pride for his success.'" - The Daily Nation  

I love these last two... It's no surprise that Kenya would claim Obama as one of their own. But to hear this from an Israeli is unexpected, considering that the presidential candidate was lambasted by the "pro-Israel" contingent in the US.

From Ireland: Nothing can beat the claim by Irish folk singers: "O'Leary, O'Rily, O'Hara, O'Harra, There's no one as Irish as Barack Obama."

You know this went over well in Boston... Vote Irish! Vote O'Bama!



Monday, October 27, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

Somerville, Mass - Last month my book club read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson an David Oliver Relin. What an inspiring book! In short, it is Mortenson's account of his efforts to raise money and build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
His experiences over the past 15 years make for a captivating read. One of the appeals is that Mortenson is an unlikely hero - a climber with a fairly itinerant lifestyle to start. The story commences with his failed attempt to summit K2. On his descent, he gets lost and wanders into the Pakistani village of Korphe. The villagers take care of him and nurse him back to health, and he foolishly promises to repay them by building a school for the children. Thus begins his quest to make a difference in the lives of the children, the villages and the world.
Moretnson's experiences are a true testament to how one person can change the world. He is one person. It's clear that he is a pretty special person; most importantly he is culturally sensitive, which extremely important to his mission. But still, he is one guy. And furthermore, when he starts, he has NO IDEA what he is doing. This is what I found most inspiring... he stumbles into this project, he makes a commitment, but he is absolutely clueless about how to carry it out. It was just a whim.
It is only through his persistence - okay, stubborness -, his hand-on approach to action and his absolute trust in his relationships that he gets things done. And what he does is amazing. Mortenson now works under the auspices of the Central Asia Institute. Since its founding in 1996, the Central Asia Institute has opened 78 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing education for thousands of children.
For me, it was a perfect time to read this book and to start to think about the ways that I can "change the world". With the Tour d'Afrique, I have been presented with an amazing opportunity - to fulfill a lifelong dream to go to Africa and go on safari; as well as to fulfill a more recent goal of doing a long-distance biking expedition. (For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, click here to get the update.) But I realized that this is also an opportunity to something really productive, not just for myself but for my world. It is a perfect chance to raise money for a good cause and give it back to the communities I will be biking through.
I am really excited and energized by the idea of combining so many of the things that I am passionate about: travel, physical fitness and social justice. And Three Cups of Tea has challenged me to really think creatively about how I can use this unique opportunity to really accomplish something positive. Stay tuned!
  Photos courtesy of the Central Asia Institute.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Song for Sarah

Somerville, Mass - Isn't it interesting to see how other countries perceive the upcoming US presidential election?

This hilarious video blog commentary comes From Russia with Love!


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Somerville, Mass - Now that I am training for a 1500km biking expedition across Africa, I feel like I need to take every chance I can to ride my bike. I started riding occasionally with the Charles River Wheelmen, an excellent group that organizes rides several time a week. But I'm also doing a lot more riding on my own. For now it's not really an organized training program - I'm just trying to get out on the bike four times a week, and clock about 100 miles a week. (Never mind that I will be doing 100 miles a day in Africa... trying not to think about that.)

On Tuesday I was scheduled to give a book promo talk at a bookstore in Hyannis on Cape Cod. Lonely Planet is working in conjunction with Borders bookstores and the AARP to inspire older people to travel (and buy travel books). LP authors are appearing in bookstores all over the country to speak to AARP members. It's not really about any particular destination, but more of a general talk to get people thinking about where they might want to travel and how to go about planning a trip. I have done a few of these talks, which usually do not draw large numbers; so it's kind of an informal chat where I get to exchange travel adventures and planning tips with the audience members.

Anyway, since the talk was on Cape Cod in the evening, I had this great idea to spend the afternoon riding the Cape Cod Rail Trail -- it's a beautiful bike trail that goes for 22 miles from Dennis to Wellfleet, traversing idyllic ponds, salt marshes, pristine woods and peaceful residential areas. Near the terminus is the wonderful, wavy Cahoon Hollow Beach, which makes for a perfect picnic destination. After a bit of rest, you ride back. 

I figured that as long as I had an hour or so to cool down and clean up at the end of it all, I could manage to appear respectable at the book talk. Unfortunately, I totally misjudged the amount of time it would take to ride the CCRT. It's not that I thought I would go faster than I did - it's just that I am bad at math.

For some reason I was thinking it would take about an hour and a half, so I gave myself two hours just to be safe. I had a fantastic ride to Wellfleet. But when I arrived - now 22 miles from my car - I realized that had taken me about an hour and a half. One way! I immediately forgot about my picnic (which was just a Cliff Bar anyway) and hopped on my bike to pedal back.

I don't know if it was the wind in my face or the new awareness of time that made the trip back seem twice as long. I got back just in time to make a quick change in the car and go straight to the bookstore. So much for cooling down and cleaning up!

I had brought a complete change of clothes, but this is the point at which I discovered that I forgot my shoes! So I showed up at the bookstore in biking shoes... I was a little embarrassed but friends assure me that this is perfectly appropriate for a travel writer. (At least the bookstore was carpeted so I was not clicking around on my toe clips.)


Friday, October 10, 2008

Tour d'Afrique

Somerville, Mass - You have heard of the Tour de France, right? Well, let me introduce you to the Tour d'Afrique, the latest - and definitely the craziest - adventure that I have gotten myself into.
This biking expedition goes from Cairo to Cape Town - that's 11,800km from north to south along the east coast of Africa. Some people actually do the whole thing (yes, insane people), which crosses 10 countries in about four months. But for the slightly less insane, the route is divided into eight legs. That's where I come in...
Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, is sponsoring two LP relay teams for this incredible event. The teams are made up of writers, photographers and staffers, as well as Tony himself. Somehow, I was selected to participate. So next April, I will be pedalling 1500km across Botswana and Namibia. My section of the route is called the Elephant Highway, as Botswana is home to one of the world's largest populations of African elephants. I wonder if I can outride an elephant...?
If 1500km over the course of 11 days seems like a lot of riding to you... well, welcome to the club. This is one of the longest sections of the Tour d'Afrique and it is certainly farther than I have ever ridden my bike before. A century - 100 miles - is a sort of biking milestone. Personally, I have never ridden a century in my life; but in April I will be riding them back-to-back!
When I got the news that I was selected for the team, I immediately ordered the Lonely Planet guide to Botswana & Namibia. Here is what it says under the section about Getting Around by bike:
Botswana and Namibia are largely flat - and that's about the only concession they make to cyclists. Unless you're an experienced cyclist and equipped for extreme conditions, abandon any ideas you may have about a bicycle adventure. Distances are great and horizons are vast; the climate and landscapes are hot and dry; and even along major routes, water is scarce and villages are widely spaced.... And cyclists may encouner potentially dangeous wildlife while travelling along any highway or road.
Sounds perfect, right?
The good news is that this section of the TDA is mostly paved and it is very flat. So at least I have that going for me. And honestly, all those minor details like water and such will be taken care of by the TDA support staff.
All I have to do is whip this body into shape so that I can handle the mileage. So you can see what I will be doing over the next seven months... If anyone wants to go for a bikeride, give me a call!
Photos courtesy of Tour d'Afrique, Ltd.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fritty the Kitty, Feline Extraordinaire

Somerville, Mass - Fritty the Kitty passed away peacefully in her sleep early Sunday morning after a short illness with a bad liver. She was 19 and a half years old (that would be 95 in cat years). She had one litter of five kittens, whereabouts unknown. Born on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, the young aristocat opted to forego a life in politics and to travel and see the country. She lived in North Carolina (where she terrorized the local song bird population); Indiana (where she ravaged the chipmunk population); Georgetown area of Washington DC (where she was known as the mouse decapitator); and Ohio (which she positively hated). She also spent short time living in Wisconsin and Michigan. In 1997, Miss Fritty retired to Lutz, Florida (where she turned her attention to the local lizard population). Never one to stay still for long, she left Florida and headed back north to Boston in 2005 (she said it was for the culture). Sunday afternoon a cat funeral was held in her honor; she was buried in the backyard of the pink house next to the Rose of Sharon. Fritty the Kitty, one of the great felines of our time, RIP.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Face Control

Somerville, Mass - These days, Moscow nightlife is much about being elite. The trendiest spots are guarded by bouncers who take their job a little too seriously. The use "face control" to keep out potential patrons who won't enhance the atmosphere at their establishment by looking fabulous and spending money. And they really do call it "face control".

But it's about so much more than your face. It's a quick and devastating head-to-toe examination to determine if you are the kind of person that they want.

It's based largely on what you are wearing (but notice they don't call it a dress code - it's way too arbitrary for that). Stepping out in Moscow requires dressing up, especially for women. Short skirts and tall heels are an absolute must. But it's not only that women have to wear short skirts and tall heels - they also have to look good in them.

My friend Tommo told me a story about an expat friend - let's call him "Matt" - who organized a private party at a Moscow club. When Matt showed up at the club with two slightly overweight female friends, who happened to be from Australia, the bouncer refused to let them in.

"But this is my party," Matt protested.

"You can go in," the bouncer replied Then, jerking his head in the direction of the women, "But they can't."

"But they're with me," Matt was flabbergasted. "They are with me and this is my party. I'm the one who decides who can attend."

"Sorry buddy, we have standards."

Fortunately, this conversation took place in Russian, so the Aussie chicks didn't understand what was going on. I have no idea how Matt explained why they were not admitted to his party.

One surprising fact about face control: it's much tougher on women than on men. That's because good women outnumber good men in Moscow by huge proportions. This has always been the case, due to wars, alcoholism and poor health, not to mention the general brutishness of Russian men (exceptions dually noted!). Russian women are well aware of their odds, so they go to great lengths to make sure they are as attractive as possible.

So the clubs can afford to turn away any women who do not meet their "standards" because the bouncers know that some other drop-dead gorgeous devki will be along shortly.

It is intimidating for sure. I came up with a few tips to help the readers of the Moscow City Guide negotiate the arbitrariness of face control:

  • If possible, book a table. Dress up: think short skirts and tall heels for women, black for men.
  • Arrive by car. The bigger the better.
  • Arrive in a small group, preferably with more men than women. If you're alone, imply that you're meeting somebody, even if you're not.
  • Speak English. Foreigners are not as special as they used to be, but they're still pretty special. And they still (supposedly) have money.

And if all else fails, you can always hire the `nightlife concierge' that is employed at the Ritz Carlton. No joke - his job is to help his patrons get past face control.

Honestly, all this business leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Moscow nightlife reviewer Micha Rinkus wrote that "The Western egalitarian is easily bruised by the blatancy of face control...' and she was talking about me.

Frankly, I don't see what all the fuss is about... Moscow is filled with fun and funky places, beatnik bars, bohemian art cafes that would be more-than-happy to have me walk through their doors. (And no, they are not filled with ugly people.) Why would I want to subject myself to that scrutiny and possible humiliation? Even if I get in the bar - nine times out of ten I can't even afford to buy a drink!

I seem to be in the minority with this opinion, however. The Moscow entertainment publications like element ( focus almost exclusively on these upscale, elitist places, as do several popular nightlife blogs.

There is Max Campbell ( who writes indepth club reviews, including detailed descriptions of the clubs' interiors, critiques of the music and comments on the attractiveness of the women. I guess those are pretty much the important factors.

My favorite is Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears (, who provides hilariously biting commentary about Moscow clubs and the characters that frequent them. Complete with photos. Tthis is exactly how I like to experience the Moscow club scene - so I can make fun and laugh, but I'm in no danger of being humiliated myself. Thank you, MDBT! Thanks to you, everybody can enjoy Moscow nightlife!

And while MDBT is donning the high heels, slipping through face control and sneaking photos, I'll be up the street at a more "democratic" bar, getting my groove on with the two Aussie chicks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Matrioshka's Beginnings

 Somerville, Mass - I'm still hard at work writing about Moscow. This week I was writing about shopping and where to get the best Moscow souvenirs. This is an excerpt from the Moscow City Guide.

Rare is the tourist that leaves Russia without a matryoshka. The hand-painted wooden nesting doll which so symbolises Russia is not, as you might imagine, an ancient handcraft developed and perfected by generations of peasant families. Rather, the concept was adapted from a traditional Japanese toy. 

In the 19th century, Russian artists were eager to embrace cultural styles that would unite traditional and modern elements, and contribute to the growing sense of national identity at that time. Savva Mamontov, a celebrated patron of the arts, established art studios at his Abramtsevo estate where artists could do just that. Toys were considered a particularly creative form of folk art, and Savva's brother, Anatoly, set up a workshop to revive and develop folk-peasant toys. In this workshop, Mamontov had a collection of toys from around the world, including a Japanese nesting doll depicting the Buddhist sage Fukuruma. Inspired by this prototype, the toy maker Vassily Zviozdochkin and the artist Sergei Maliutin created the earliest Russian nesting dolls, identifiable by their Slavic features and peasant dress.

During this time, Matryona and Matryosha were popular female names. Derived from the word for 'mother', the names conjured up images of a healthy, plump woman with plenty of children. Thus the diminutive of the name was applied to the nesting dolls, symbolic of motherhood, fertility and Mother Russia.

At the beginning of the 20th century, large-scale production of the Russian matryoshka began at the toy centre at Sergiev Posad. Here, artists developed a unique, realistic style of painting the dolls, depicting colourful scenes of village life, patriotic historical figures and beloved literary characters.

The Bolshevik regime began cracking down on this creative outlet as early as 1923. The exhibition and sale of any matryoshki not consistent with the regime's artistic or ideological goals were banned. The ban also included the depiction of such controversial figures as tailors, bakers and any entrepreneurial types; Gypsies (Roma), Jews and other ethnic groups; fantastical figures such as mermaids and goblins; and so on. Eventually, the matryoshka's diversity and creativity diminished, and she adopted one standard female image. Factory production began in the 1930s, and this 'art' was nearly lost.

The 1990s saw a revival of the more original matryoshka, designed and painted by individuals. Production returned to artists and craftsmen, who are free to paint whom and how they wish. As a result, modern-day matryoshki take on every imaginable character and style.

 Once again (this time due to market forces), artists often get inspiration for this Russian handcraft from foreign sources. From Warner Brothers to the Bush brothers, from the Red Sox to the Red Wings, from the Simpsons to Star Wars, many Western popular cultural images are depicted on the dolls these days





Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rock & Roll Yard Sale

Somerville, Mass - It seems like it's been decades that we have been saying that Union Square is "up and coming". In fact it has been seven years - ever since we moved into the pink house, which is a four-minute walk from this mini urban center.

In that time, we have seen businesses open and others close, but there are always customers in the Ex-con-venience Store. That place isn't going anywhere. 

I still believe that Union Square is on the upswing, despite the construction that has been ongoing for about a year, and the recent closure of my favorite shoe store (while I was off buying shoes in Italy - I have only myself to blame!)Aside from the businesses that come and go - and others that endure - there is a sure sign that Union Square is on the upswing: community events.

In recent years, Union Square hosts a thriving Saturday-morning farmers' market, which attracts shoppers all the way from North Cambridge. Our little square also maintains a regular schedule of fun and funky events organized by the Union Square Arts Council.

So this afternoon we went to the Somerville Rock & Roll Yard Sale, which was a mini flea market of used records, old stereo equipment, handmade jewelry and vintage clothing. The crowd was impressive, ranging from yuppie to goth, along with plenty of kids and dogs. I was disappointed that the Sikh gentlemen were not in their usual benches in the middle of the square. But it was a pretty diverse crowd, nonetheless.

The local bars and cafes seemed to be doing a brisk business (although nobody was buying shoes). Unfortunately, the yard sale did mean that the new bar Precinct could not set up its outside tables, which has been a draw this summer. 

From a rock & roll point of view, the yard sale received mixed reviews. There were a lot of different dealers, with plenty of vinyl for sale. But the place was crowded, so it required jostling for position, just to get a chance to rifle through the boxes. We went in search of glam rock (apparently we really need to add Ballroom Blitz by The Sweet to our record collection). But we had to settle for British invasion (an early album by the Kinks).

True, it takes ten minutes to drive through the Union Square because of the row of orange barrels blocking off this or that lane. That's why you should get out of your car and walk... you might just find live music, congenial crowds and maybe - just maybe - that Beach Boys album you wanted.