Monday, June 30, 2008

The first jewel in the Golden Ring

Vladimir, Russia - Ancient Rus grew up in the clutch of towns northeast of Moscow that is now known as the Golden Ring. The whitewashed walls of these once-fortified cities still stand, in many cases. The golden spires and onion domes of their monasteries still mark the horizon, evoking medieval Rus. Bells ring out from towering belfries; robed holy men scurry through church doors; historic tales recall mysterious, magical times.

This is where I will be spending the next week. I have left the big city behind, opting for the charm and tranquility of provincial Russia.

For the first time ever (in Russia), I am the driver. I decided to rent a car to save time, as many of these towns are accessible only by slow and sporadic buses. I am always a little nervous about driving in an unfamiliar place, but driving in Russia is particularly daunting to me. Traffic in the city is an absolute nightmare, and it always seems like the drivers abide only by parking lot rules. But I picked up my car on the outskirts of the capital and left town, thus avoiding the worst traffic.

"Do you know the way?" asked the helpful lady behind the rental car counter. Not exactly. I mean, I know what it looks like on the map. Basically, I had to make two turns - one to get on the ring road circling Moscow, and one to get on the highway heading east to Vladimir. It seemed simple enough - and amazingly, that's exactly how it worked. Two turns, two hours and two hundred kilometers later, I was in Vladimir.

That's when things went awry. I didn't know where to park. But there right in front of the ancient Assumption Church, I saw the big blue "P" symbolizing a parkovka and I went for it. No sooner did I make that fateful third turn, when a police officer appeared in my view, and he waved me over to the side of the road.

The Russia GAI - or traffic police - are notorious for harassing drivers and extracting bribes. They are allowed to pull drivers over arbitrarily, and they often do. I knew that my documents were in order and I was not aware that I did anything wrong, so I was not going to play any games with him.

This guy approached my car, introduced himself, asked to see my documents - all in a very professional manner. He then informed me that I had made an illegal turn - I have no idea why that was an illegal turn, but apparently I did not see the sign. (Later I went to check, and in fact there was no sign that said no right-hand turn. But there was a sign with two arrows - one going straight and one turning left, so I guess that means you can't turn right.)

Regular readers will remember that in yesterday's blog, we learned the Russian word for "penalty" or "fine". The shtraf, the officer informed me, would be 100 rubles. Four dollars. I was stunned.

Of course, I had already prepared a little speech, so before I could think too much about it, I answered that I would not pay him anything. If I did something wrong, I explained righteously, he should write me up in the proper way, and I would pay at the police station or wherever I was supposed to go.

The officer looked mildly amused. He assured me that if I he wrote me up and I did not pay, I would not be allowed to leave the country. Apparently they would stop me at the border. (I am skeptical of this, but who knows...?)

I assured him that I would pay. "So you want me to write this up with all the papers?" he asked skeptically. "Yes, please."

So he did. My shtraf is the same - 100 rubles. But I have to go to the Sberbank and pay it, instead of putting the money in his pocket. Hell, I don't have to worry about points on my license or increases in my insurance rates... I might as well do my part to support President Medvedev's war against corruption.



Sunday, June 29, 2008

Last Saturday, Last Stop

Moscow, Russia - With the rising price of real estate, Moscow is experiencing suburban sprawl. People are moving farther and farther away from the center, where the forest of apartment blocks is growing wider and denser.
The Moscow metro reaches out to all of these corners of the city. If you look at a metro map, it looks like some sort of creepy crawly creature, with a ring line circling the center, and and ten different radial lines reaching out in all directions.

With the exception of taking a trip to Izmailovo market or Novodevichy monastery, most visitors to Moscow have little reason to venture outside the ring line. Indeed, most foreigners living in Moscow reside and work in the center; the best clubs and restaurants are in the center; the best shopping is in the center; why would anybody leave the center (except maybe to go to Ikea)?
But a group of stalwart adventurers has started doing just that (leaving the center, not going to Ikea). On the last Saturday of every month, the members of the Last Stoppers Club pick a line and ride the metro as far as they possibly can. Each month they go to a different stop. And the Moscow metro is expanding at such a rate that there are new "last stops" being added all the time, so the club has yet to repeat itself. Read all about it at
Who knows what the Last Stoppers will find when they exit the metro station and come above ground? But whatever they find, they intend to do as the locals do... and when I say "locals" I don't mean Muscovites, I mean suburbanites. The worst case scenario is standing around drinking beer from the kiosk. (Surprisingly, I don't think the Last Stoppers Club has ever come to that.)
Last night I joined this daring group to see what goes down at Strogino, a brand new metro stop at the end of the dark blue line #3. At 8pm, we met at Kievskaya, which is the station at the intersection of the ring-line and the blue line. We were a fine-looking group of Russians, Americans, Norwegians, Brits and maybe some others - about twenty in total. At least half the crew were first-time last-stoppers, while others have been regular participants for months. And we were the only passengers on the train when it pulled into Strogino, 40 minutes and 40km later.
Strogino station is beautiful, sparkling with chrome and marble. At the street level, two spaceship-style glass structures - one on each side of the highway - house the entrance to the metro and the escalators leading underground. But once outside, we were surrounded by Soviet-style apartment blocks. It was an unlikely destination for a night out on the town, but there right next to the metro station was a big restaurant and sports bar called Penalty. Just to clarify, this was not øòðàô (shtraf), which would be Russian for "penalty". It was Ïåíàëòè which nothing except the transliteration of the English word.
All 20 of us filed into the pub, where we were promptly denied service because our group was too big. Before you say anything bad about the Russian service sector, I will clarify that we were invited to sit out on the terrace, but it was not an enticing prospect in the rain. So we decided to move on.
The next stop was the beer kiosk - not as a destination in and of itself, but just to buy some beers for the road. (There is no open-container law in Russia, so you can drink a beer walking down the street, and many people do.)
And then our group of 20 continued walking along the highway, past the apartment blocks and construction sites, in search of somewhere to hang out and have fun like the locals do.
It was only a few minutes before a sort of mirage appeared across a busy intersection... could that be a strip mall? It was! It was a strip mall out in the Moscow suburbs. And there, wedged in between a shoe store and a slot machine hall, was another restaurant/pub, this one called Beer-Line. Again, not Ïèâíàÿ Î÷åðåäü (pivnaya ochered) which would be "beer line" in Russian, but Áèð-Ëàéí, which is nothing more than the transliteration from English.
Beer Line had no problem finding a table for 20, nor did they balk at our steady stream of demands for pizza and drinks. Each end of the table was supplied a "tower" of beer - that's a seven-liter container from which we could fill our own mugs - and it was miraculously replaced each time it was emptied. The pizza was tasty, the conversation was scintillating; and so we passed a very pleasant evening at Strogino. I had to admit that I was surprised that life in the Moscow suburbs would be so civilized.
After that our group had a parting of ways. There were the die-hards who wanted to go back to Penalty for afterhours. They could not get enough of Strogino. The rest of us, however, retreated to the city center for the remainder of the night. The burbs are fine but let's not overdo it. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Money Money Money

Moscow, Russia - New Russia is awash in money. Sports cars, designer clothes, high end shopping malls, gourmet grocery stores. There seems to be a sense that the more it costs, the better it is. As a result, everything is overpriced (and the sad state of the US dollar does not help matters much).

As one of my co-authors commented "I am flying through money over here, and I don't even have a toilet in my room." That missive is from the Far East, so you can imagine how it's going in the most expensive city in the world.

I too am burning through my budget. The main problem is that I am trying to eat out two meals a day, the better to sample more restaurants. But that goal is in direct competition with my goal to spend $50 a day on food. When I say $50 a day, it seems very generous, but I am struggling!

What I don't understand is how ordinary people are surviving in this overpriced city. Although Russia has a small population of unbelievably wealthy residents, most people are decidedly middle class. Yet restaurants are packed, as are shopping malls, movie theaters and beauty salons. Economists warn about inflation, but to the average observer, there is no sign that the spending is slowing down. Here are some of my favorite examples:

There is a new Starbucks on the Arbat, and apparently it is the most expensive in the world. Go ahead, complain about  coffee-driven gentrification and overpriced real estate in the US. But Muscovites don't flinch at paying 200 rubles for a capuccino, even at the local chains. At today's exchange rate, that's more than $8. 

The new fancy "European Shopping Center" near Kiev Station is apparently the largest urban shopping center in the world. It contains an indoor skating rink, indoor parking, fitness club, movie theater and a slew of restaurants and designer stores. Including the capital's first luxury pet store and spa. Cats & Dogs features carrying cases and full pet wardrobes by all your favorite deisgners, as well as beauty services like grooming, manicure and massage. Business is decidedly brisk.

The Gallery of Russian Ice Sculpture recently opened in Krasnaya Presnya park. While the art of ice sculpture has a long history in Russia, it is usually exhibited outside. In winter. This gallery is a year-round, indoor exhibit, which changes every six months for your viewing pleasure. Nice way to cool off when summer in the city is getting you down!





Saturday, June 21, 2008


Moscow, Russia - Out with drab, old-fashioned sameness and in with slick shiny newness. That's what Moscow is all about.

The city of Moscow is pouring billions of dollars into the development of a new business district which will be known as Moscow-City. In Russian, it's called "Moskva-Siti", the transliteration of the English word city, which must somehow be symbolic of its modernity and globalism.

At the moment, the place is a gigantic construction site. You might say this neighborhood is up-and-coming, with an emphsis on `up'. Skyscrapers of glass and steel tower 20 stories over the rest of the city, shining like beacons to Moscow's wheelers, dealers and fortune seekers.

There are two brand new metro stations - sleek and modern - without any of the brandishments that the older Moscow metro stations are famous for. And a covered pedestrian bridge connects two shiny buildings on opposite sides of the Moscow River. The walkway is lined with shops and cafes, all with huge glass windows overlooking the water. As far as I know, these tall towers are not for residential space, but rather, banks, businesses and all the other offices associated with capitalism.

Moscovites are excited about this development, as well they should be. This cutting-edge architecture is bringing their capital into the 21st century. Moscow-City is forward-looking and money-making. It has the potential to revamp the world's image of their city.

Meanwhile, if you know where to look, you can find the remains of last century's cutting-edge architecture, less than a mile from here. In the 1920s and 1930s, Constructivist architects were inspired by the revolution to incorporate socialist ideals into their designs. They used sharp angles and geometric forms and lots of glass and steel. While this may sound like the contemporary skyscrapers we see in Moscow-City, its goals were very different.

Many architects concentrated their efforts on communal housing, which was envisioned to be the social unit of the future. The idea was to minimize individual space, encouraging residents to cook and eat together in communal dining areas, to share household chores and childrearing responsibilities, to free women from the daily grind of housework, and - according to architect Moise Ginzburg - to "[create] a new way of life."

The constructivists fell out of favor in the 1930s. When it came to family life, Stalin was conservative, preferring traditional gender roles and family relationships. Many constructivist buildings were forgotten, falling into disrepair over the course of the following decades. Only a few examples of this once cutting-edge architecture remain in the capital, the best being Narkomfin.

Built in the 1920s, Narkomfin was an apartment building for members of the Ministry of Finance. Apparently the block served as inspiration for Le Corbusier, as well as serving as a prototype for apartment blocks around the city. The style may not appeal to everybody, but its place in architectural history is undeniable.

These days, the place is in rough shape. It is still inhabited, but it is suffering from extensive water damage. More importantly, it occupies a prime place of real estate next to the American Embassy and a fancy new shopping center. Unfortunately, the ideals that inspired that constructivists don't do much for contemporary businessmen and bureaucrats... you gotta wonder how much longer Narkomfin will last.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Where is Mara now?

Moscow, Russia - The title of my travel blog used to be "Where is Mara now?" The idea was that the blog would answer the question that is burning inside all my faithful readers. (I have recently changed it to the more straightforward "Travel Blog" just in case it's not burning so much.)

Anyway this past week I was hard pressed to answer that question myself! Up until yesterday, I was home in the pink house. But I was being torn in all directions - answering editorial queries about my manuscript on Belize, showing photos and telling stories about my hiatus in Italy, and trying to prepare myself for my upcoming month in Russia. All that without leaving my house (in America). Four countries on four different continents left my head spinning.

Nonetheless, I managed to get on an airplane yesterday and this morning I woke up in Russia.  Belize and Italy are far behind me - as is America for that matter.

Not quite, though. In Moscow, I am sharing an apartment with an Italian woman and I already had to field one phone call from her monolingual mamma. The sun is shining and temperatures are up - not quite Belizean weather, but certainly warmer than when I left Boston. And the days are so long! I'm writing at 11:30pm and the sky is only now losing its last shades of light.

Just to ease my transition into Russian life, I had dinner at that all-American institution, the Starlite Diner. For those of you who have not been to Moscow, the Starlite is a long-standing icon for expats in Moscow, easing the transition for many people like me over the last decade-plus.

On my way there, I noticed that Bobby McFerrin (of Don't Worry, Be Happy fame) will be here next week. Did anyone else think that he committed suicide? I guess that was a nasty rumor - an urban myth - the work of somebody who was trying to be ironic, no doubt. Get to the bottom of it here.

In any case, you better believe that I'll be at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall next week, grooving with Bobby, not worrying and being happy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Let's go to the video clip

Somerville, Massachusetts - A few people have asked whatever became of my attempt at TV stardom, so here is an update...

In case you missed the background on this story, a few months back, I was invited to audition for the role of travel host for the new Lonely Planet TV show. I was in Italy at the time, and I frantically put together a video clip about Carnival. In retrospect, I realize it was not the most original idea for a show that is supposed to be about getting off the beaten track. But I was short on time and I was new to the country, so I was working with pretty limited resources. And the video did not come out half-bad, if I do say so myself. If you have not yet seen that creative masterpiece, you can do so here. (And check out my new page on Italy while you are at it!)

It did not take long for Lonely Planet to decide that I am not the travel host they are looking for. The "new faces of Lonely Planet" are two of my colleagues, and you can see their video clips here:

John Vlahides

Dominic Bonuccelli

It's pretty clear from these successful clips that my perky presentation style was not exactly what LP had in mind for their new show. Indeed, the folks at LP TV announced that "we still haven't found the right girls to join John and Dom on the road." So it's not that I was beat out by some exceedingly talented and attractive women; they just didn't like me. Boo.

Anyway, it was my very first foray into the TV world, and I have to admit that I got a little charge out of standing in front of the camera. And somebody must have liked my clip, because I did get a follow-up nibble. LP has hired me to make a short video about my favorite places in Moscow while I am there next month. If all goes well, my own version of the Battleship Potemkin will be posted on the Lonely Planet website. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Moscow's Image Problem: Who is to Blame?

Somerville, Massachusetts - Every time I return to Russia I am forced to recall my rocky history with the Motherland. Every time I apply for a visa, I wonder how much research that visa officer is going to do before he decides whether or not I am worthy to return. Every time, I sit on pins and needles, hoping that nobody is keeping track of my past battles with the tax police and other Russian bureaucracies.

This time around, I was careful not to state explicitly my mission in Moscow. I certainly did not mention my affiliation with Lonely Planet. That's the last thing I need... to remind the powers-that-be about my previous efforts to promote their fair city. I am hoping to sneak in under their radar, so they have no idea that the Moscow City Guide is being updated.

That's because my last update went over like a bag of bricks with the city officials. I can't explain why... nobody loves Moscow more than I do. Nobody is more enthusiastic about the history, the art, the nightlife, the dining... my god! I even love the dining in Moscow! That is nothing short of an irrational attachment.

Nonetheless, the city officials did not pick up on this enthusiasm when they perused the Moscow City Guide.

Apparently, in the summer of 2006, Moscow appeared at the top of two Top-Ten lists: Most Expensive Cities and Rudest Cities (neither of which had anything to do with Lonely Planet, these were random polls conducted by various research firms that were probably later banned from the city streets). In response, the city administration launched a public relations campaign, which - for some reason - entailed an all-out attack on my well-researched, purely-positive guidebook.

First, a report appeared on Russian Center TV (the Moscow-government-run TV station). "The guidebook was published by the popular publishing house Lonely Planet. Those who develop tourism in the Russian capital were shocked by recommendations given by the authors. They had never read such things about Moscow before." The report goes on to complain about warnings against crime, prostitution, fake vodka, AIDS and mites in Moscow.

Mites? Excuse me? I'm not sure what book they were reading. Okay, the Moscow City Guide does make a passing mention of the very real dangers of drinking fake vodka and engaging in unprotected sex. But it hardly dwells on these issues; we assume our readers are responsible adults.

That said, my book does not gloss over the potential dangers and annoyances of traveling to Moscow. Travelers need to be aware that crime is on the rise in Moscow so they can take the proper precautions. This is not a question of "image"; it is a question of fact. Just ask the Moscow Prosecutor, who had held a press conference on this topic earlier that same week.

This was my favorite comment by an Intourist official: "How could they write that prostitutes were standing on every corner in Moscow? ... This guide suggests that one can meet a loose woman in Moscow, but this is not true!" First of all, the guide does not make a big deal about prostitution in Moscow. It certainly does not say that prostitutes are standing on every corner. But c'mon - I'm not saying anything about the moral turpitude of the moskovski devushki - but if that tourism official is not aware that prostitution is a thriving industry in Moscow, perhaps he ought to get out more.

Despite its inaccuracies, this story spread like wildfire in the Russian press. The Russians love to blame foreigners for their troubles. My contacts sent my stories that were in all the major newspapers: Izvestiya, Moscow News, even the People's Daily (in China!).

Still, we might have ignored the exaggerated assertions. Until the story was picked up by The Guardian, which is one of the major daily newspaper in the UK. You can read the Guardian's article here.

Anyway, Lonely Planet responded, saying that "Lonely Planet is overwhelmingly positive about travel to Moscow. Traveler numbers to Moscow are increasing, and deservedly so. Our aim in publishing a guide to Moscow is to encourage more travelers to go there and to experience all that Moscow has to offer.”

I was also invited to respond, and I was quoted in a few articles. This is from Russian Newsweek (my translation!): "The guidebook was written by American Mara Vorhees, a professional traveler who, of course, now is indignant about the claims of the Moscow television station, but nonetheless demonstrates a love of the city. This `enemy of Moscow' seems to be quite an enthusiastic person, like those foreigners who live for a long time in the Russian capital without needing to."

That's me, one of those foreigners who live for a long time in Russia even though I don't have to!

Anyway, we didn't hear much about it after that, except one nice letter from a Lonely Planet reader:

"As a resident of Moscow for the past nearly 2 years, I just wanted to send you an e-mail of support in the face of the absurd comments made by the bureaucrats in Moscow. It is quite obvious that they have never read the book. It is also quite obvious that these people have no sense of humor. We found the previous Moscow book really useful...

If the Russian authorities were really keen to do something about their fairly negative perception among tourists, then they would be wise to shake up their immigration staff, tell their police to stop harassing tourists..., put the signs and station names in the metro also in latin script ... and generally make people feel a bit more welcome." Amen, Fran!

As far as I know, that was the end of the war between Lonely Planet and the Moscow city administration. And I have no idea what happened to the city's ill-fated PR campaign.

But I just got my visa in the mail. So I can breathe a sigh of relief (I can do my job!) And whether the city officials like it or not, I will be back this summer, telling more truths and spouting more superlatives about mad Moscow!