“When possible make a legal u-turn”

I’m a sucker for rental car GPS, even when I know pretty well where I am going. This was recently a problem.


Two nights ago I had to travel from JFK to White Plains, NY — a trip I’d never made previously. Easy, right? Well, not so easy when the Hertz Neverlost demands that you exit on the Hutchinson expressway when that exit is closed for repairs. So I exited as soon as I could and figured I’d just find somewhere else to get on the Hutch. As I drove around sidestreets, frontage roads, and massive mall parking lots — which are cartographic black holes to the GPS — the unit kept recalculating, recalculating. But each time it forced me right back to the closed exit.

OK, fine. Reset. Choose “Least Use of Freeways.” Recalculating, recalculating. Right back to the !@#$% closed exit. At this point it became comical because it dawned on me that I would have to deliberately get lost. Really lost. Really far away from the right path — all in order to force the GPS unit to calculate a path that bypassed the closed exit. And this I did. Getting lost in NYC is not particularly difficult, of course, but the sheer density of interconnected streets makes getting sufficiently, distantly lost a challenge. It worked and I travelled through some very quaint, eerily quiet towns on my way upstate. To add insult to inury the device actually started telling me to turn in the opposite direction from what the map (and logic) clearly demonstrated.

Of course, I had a printed map in the passenger seat the whole time. But I showed that GPS unit who was in charge, yessir.

Security perverts

An open letter to depraved male travelers who are titillated by security procedures at airports:

Sirs, I know you travel a lot. Travel is tough. Long days and nights away from your significant other. This is understood and I empathize. But this does not give you the right to turn the airport security checkpoint into a private fantasy.

Here are some tips:

  • Partial disrobing in proximity to a woman doing the same does not constitute foreplay.
  • The woman in front of you definitely does not find it funny or novel when you snicker “Any more clothes into the bin and this would be R rated!”
  • Barefoot does not mean nude.
  • There is nothing you could possibly want to see going on behind that curtain there. Just move on.
  • A blouse is not an overgarment so settle down there, Sparky.
  • You may not choose who gives you a patdown. Also, there is no patdown with release.

If you absolutely need your fix of TSA-inspired turn-on, I recommend the Internet. I am quite certain there is a niche fetish forum devoted to this sort of thing.

Thank you for your understanding.

Питер 2.0

I’ve been back in St. Petersburg, Russia this week, my first visit in seven years. Much has changed, nearly all for the better.

The flight over on Lufthansa was pleasant as the snowstorm in Chicago kept most of the passengers at home. Lufthansa has recently overhauled its seats, providing in-seat power without needing any special adapters. The plug universally accepts nearly all global standard plugs. Why can’t more airlines do without the funky connector, I ask? There’s even an in-seat Ethernet port which briefly got my hopes up, but, no, the Boeing Connexion service remains shut-off. You know, it’s not like they de-orbited all the satellites. Why won’t some enterprising soul purchase them and reinstate in-flight connectivity? Please?


St. Petersburg is bustling. In 2003 the city celebrated its 300th anniversary and clearly it got spruced up for the event. The colorful, stuccoed facades of nearly all city buildings, gorgeous even back in the doldrums of the 90’s, are a vibrant pastel confection that contrasts wonderfully with the permagray of the sky and frozen canals. The uptick in the economy is visible nearly everywhere.

I stayed at a relatively new hotel, the Novotel, just off the arterial Nevsky Prospekt. It was adequate, if quaintly backward in its attempt to be a modern western business hotel. Internet connectivity was purchased by the byte, about a rouble per MB. I had no idea what to purchase, though I quickly learned that one eats up 100MB (the default purchase) without even thinking. I actually complained about it, thinking there’s no way I used 100MB over an evening of e-mail checking and web surfing. And yet, I’ve probably purchased close to 3/4 GB of throughput since I’ve been here. (And they raised prices 50% in the middle of my stay!) The hotel gym was pathetic: two flimsy bikes, one treadmill with a tread that slipped dangerously, an elliptical (broken), and two weight machines that looked like Ivan Drago castoffs from the 1980’s. Old-style Russian hotel amenities are still available, of course: prostitutes prowl the lobby bar late into the night offering “company” should you so desire.

Speaking of love for sale, I arrived on Valentine’s Day. This Hallmark holiday seems to have ridden the globalization wave nicely. My colleague and I could find no place to eat due to holiday “specials” at nearly every restaurant. We were actually waved off from a few restaurants before even getting to the host. But still, there’s an abundance of new places to eat. (And not a Starbucks in sight. My colleague drinks decaf coffee and was repeatedly stymied.) Fewer restaurants exhibit the once-standard pole-dancing entertainment, also a plus. No really, it is not so easy to dine with a topless waif sliding up and down a pole to throbbing Russopop. But, replacing vice-for-vice, nearly every restaurant we went to featured hookah pipes. (There’s no such thing as a non-smoking section in practice.) Shisha is amazingly popular here. Not only can you order dozens of flavored tobaccos, but you get options for the liquid in the chamber: water, cognac, wine, juice and even milk.

The beauty of the city is remarkable, given how ugly winter tries to make it. Slushy black snow covers every sidewalk. Dangerous ice slicks mark regular distances between building downspouts that empty right into the public walkways. And yet, the ice can be gorgeous. The Neva river is frozen solid with a small path broken through for the occasional intrepid watercraft. Each morning the path had formed a thin layer of ice on it, a scabbed laceration down the middle of the blindingly white river.


Nightclubs power the evenings here, as they do in Moscow and, according to a Russian pal, in Kiev. (He could simply not say enough about the supermodel-caliber club-life of Kiev these days.) The music seems a touch better than it did back when I first visited. It is still clogged with House-inspired Russian cheese, but I think there’s hope. We returned to an old haunt known to me only as the “Thursday club” because that’s when we’d visit it in years past. I finally asked what the real name of the club was. In passable-English my friend said “it is like a whore’s house.” Ah, I see. And all these years I just liked to drink Baltika beer there and dance. Only later did I learn that he said “like a horse’s house.” The club occupies a former stable, you see. It is right in front of the amazing Church on the Spilled Blood. Bathed in floodlights, the traditional Russian church never fails to strike awe when you stumble from the club in the wee hours.

We had a bit of free time on Saturday so we set out for the Bolshoi Puppet Theater. Everything was in Russian. We had no idea what we were watching. But it was fun to see a full-scale production done with puppets. The skill required was considerable and it was a pleasure to hear the hall full of kids chuckle. (Also a little depressing as both my colleague and I have small children at home. If you want to be instantly homesick, go sit amongst several hundred happy children in a foreign country.) The theater itself was a fire hazard waiting to happen. When the house lights went down it was absolutely pitch black. No aisle lighting, no exit signs. Children wailing. Panic could have ignited quickly. Instead, a puppet show started.


Keeping with the kid theme, we attended the St. Peterburg Circus. This circus is the oldest in Russia. It was in a stunning but dilapidated hall off the Fontanka quay and provided a theater-in-the-round for its one-ring show. I hadn’t been to a circus in many decades and yet the mixture of delight and horror as the entertainers performed death- (or least serious injury-) defying acts came right back to me, like I was eight years old. Everything was just a little bit shabby. The auditorium, the performers’ outfits, the ropes and pulleys that prevented human splattering in the ring — it all seemed a little worse for the wear. One wonders if there is any kind of circus safety review board in Russia. Most depressing of all were the animals. On the one hand it was the most diverse bestiary I’ve ever seen. To the typical circus menagerie were added porcupines, foxes, ostriches, rats, and at least two species of critters I could not identify. (Though no elephants and much to my chagrin no bears. C’mon, aren’t Russian circuses supposed to have bears?) But the big cats, horses, and dogs were all mangy and old and a few of them looked actually injured or arthritic. I’m not saying they were abused — at least not in the ring and at least insofar as being in a ring isn’t taken to be abuse — but clearly they were past their prime, just like the lion-tamer and his assistant, actually.

It is interesting to compare this mini-rebirth with the tempest of development going on in Beijing right now. St. Petersburg seems to be upgrading where Beijing is building an entirely new infrastructure. At least most of Питер was recognizable seven years on. I can hardly get my bearings in Beijing after even a few months away.

Of course, I was in town working with the fantastic Hermitage Museum. It too seems to be on the uptick with long-needed signage enhancements and halls packed with visitors. But more on this topic later.

A small photoset is available.

UPDATE: Yikes, maybe I spoke too soon. Just hours after I wrote this and left town a bomb went off across the street from my hotel, injuring six. Details here.

See also: Return to the Hermitage

Tags: russia, saintpetersburg


In the past year I’ve visited the seats of power of three empires — the Russian, Chinese Qing, and Turkish Ottoman — that all imploded in the first 25 years of the 20th century. The imperial palaces have become public museums known today as the Hermitage, Forbidden City, and Topkapi Palace, respectively.

All are struggling to make themselves relevant to the public, but almost invariably this comes from trying to make their aesthetic opulence available to a wider audience. Little energy is expended on explaining what the palaces meant in the larger sense of empire. While amazing places to visit, these sites are mostly wunderkammer tableaux, not devices for telling the tale of conquest, governance, and power that they really represent.


The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

In all of them there exists a room with a throne carefully roped off and preserved for curious tourists to admire. Certainly it is interesting to see where heads of state sat, but it may be done for political reasons too. The throne is such a symbol of power — autocratic power — that its vacancy is comforting in a way, a reminder of a past to take some pride in, but not to repeat.


The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

It is a fine line. These cultures don’t necessarily seem to want to glorify the past form of government. The Forbidden City for instance was only saved from destruction during the Cultural Revolution by a forward-thinking Zhou Enlai. But there’s a latent pride. An acknowledgment in the empire-as-museum that theirs was a great country once and perhaps can be again.


Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

Of course, there’s irony in the way each of these countries govern today. Two are democracies with extremely powerful heads of state, one is a communist country with imperial ambitions of a different sort. There’s more continuity between what the palaces represent and how the nations wish to be viewed globally today than you might think, methinks.

Will Capitol Hill one day be subsumed into the Smithsonian megaplex on the mall? A democratic palace-museum ode to a former mode of government?

See also: This is no country for old men and Regeneration

No, this is winter

I left town on Tuesday during an apocalyptic snowstorm for St. Petersburg, Russia — one of the few destinations from O’Hare with less clement weather than Chicago. It’s pretty damn cold.

Dog Coat M

Bungeed-comforter, makeshift paw-mittens, and some green spray-paint on the head just to make it more bizarre.

See also: Now this is winter

“All four engines have failed”


I’ve been obsessed with plane crashes lately. No, obsessed isn’t right. Oppressed, maybe? I seem to be encountering information about air horror wherever I turn. Always nice before a series of trans-oceanic flights.

A few weeks ago I watched Superman Returns. The Man of Steel says to the passengers of a wingless jumbo jet he’s just safely landed, “I hope this incident hasn’t put you off flying. Statistically speaking it is still the safest way to travel.” It is a direct lift of a line Christopher Reeves also uttered in the original Superman from 1978. Certainly true, but for me it fails the truthiness test.

Then, as I babysat my computer during a marathon session of video rendering, aimlessly clicking through Wikipedia, I landed on Aviation accidents and incidents (part of the hell’s-gateway-esque Disasters Portal). Browsing through the air disasters really was like rubbernecking a car accident. I couldn’t turn away. I read every article in there. Airshow accidents, In-flight airliner explosions, Midair airliner crashes, Deliberate airline crashes, Fuel exhaustion on commercial airliners … the subcategories are scarily unique and many.

What you start to realize is: Damn, there are a lot of disasters where we don’t really know what happened. And then, once that’s sunk in: Damn, I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often. There are some fascinating incidents. The jet that ditched in the Neva River in St. Peterburg, Russia without a single loss of life. The mentally-ill Japanese pilot who deliberately crashed on landing. And the worst of all collision of two 747’s on Tenerife in 1977.

Then — somehow, I wasn’t specifically looking — I stumbled upon this video of Boeing testing the structural limitation of the 777 wing. They found it. (And if I am ever in a plane with a wing bent like that I will have involuntarily evacuated my bowels well before structural failure, yessiree.)

Then yesterday, this story of a 747 that lost all four engines and actually landed safely. It is a terrifying tale. Again, I was not searching. I must be unconsciously sifting these things out of my feed reader or something.

And finally, gallows humor. This artwork/concept for a crash landing pillow that gives you the option of suffocating yourself before crashing. For the true control freak, you may now take charge of your own death, flaming airframe be damned. You know, it’s said that the only reason you’re told to put your head between your knees during a crash is so that your dental records stay as close as possible to the seat number for identification.

Anyway. Not sure what this obsession is all about. It would be one thing if I were actively hunting this information out, but I’m not. I feel like I’m in an M. Night Shyamalan flick.

I depart Monday.

Places 2006

My travails travels this year. Defined as any place I’ve stayed at least a night with asterisks representing multiple visits. (Bit of a meme, isn’t it?)

Albuquerque, NM
Armonk, NY*
Atlanta, GA
Austin, TX*
Beijing, China*
Chicago, IL (sweet home)
Eddyville, KY
Galena, IL*
Houston, TX
Istanbul, Turkey
New Orleans, LA
New York City, NY
Nicosia, Cyprus
Orlando, FL
Paw Paw, MI
Rockport, TX
San Jose, CA
Santa Fe, NM
Southampton, England
Washington, DC*
White Plains, NY


For Turkey Day I spent some time with the male members of my family on the now-annual fall fishing trip to coastal Texas. This was the site of last year’s encounter with Larry the Fishing Guide. We hired him again. Most decent guides know where the fish are. Larry has a preternatural ability to know what the fish are doing. He reads the barely-subsurface topography of the intercoastal and can tell you why a school of drum is in this place but not 15 feet to the north. Of course, he’s constantly on his cell phone with other guides so there’s bit of a hive mind aspect to the local knowledge. But still. Larry’s uncanny.

Larry has a great verb: “to box.” As in “Nice one, John, that’ll box for sure.” As in “that fish is large enough not to get us arrested if we keep it so we can put it in our onboard freezer box.” To say “that’ll box” is easier, you see.
My favorite Larry trick? He sets the drag on his poles (which we all use) to the exact tension so that if the drag lets out you know you have a fish that’ll box. If the drag does not give then you’ll be tossing this particular fishie back. Think about that. Drag tension varies from reel to reel and yet he is able to set the drag precisely to differentiate a 19“ redfish from a 21” redfish. It worked too.

The new experience this year was flounder gigging. You go out at night into the extreme shallows and stand at the bow of your floodlit flatboat with a trident ready to spot-and-spear the flounder. It is so primitive and, well, satisfying. There’s absolutely no sport to it at all, but it is astonishing how much fun it is. It just shouldn’t be, but it is. Bloody too, as the pierced, spewing flounder are arc’ed into the holding tub on the end of trident.

Actually the best part is the marine life you see. In those shallows with that much light at night you encounter herons, crabs, jellyfish, mullet, redfish, and even porpoise. In fact, for most of our evening we had a two-porpoise escort. They played off whichever side of our boat was away from shore, effectively pushing fish into even shallower water for us. Smart creatures! The flip side of this natural beauty is the clear evidence of human negligence. Propeller-scarred lanes of sand criss-cross the grassy shallows like a satellite photo of Europa. Granted, navigating the tricky waters and tides of the intercoastal is difficult*, but some of these scars were deep and suggest foolishness rather than ignorance.

It is a bit eerie too. Some people gig flounder without a boat by walking in the shallows. These die-hards trudge through the muck with a lantern powered by a car battery floating in a sytrofoam enclosure tethered to their waste. They also drag a bag of bleeding flounder. This is intrepid bordering on stupid given the sharks that patrol the same shallows. The last thing I’d want is to try to outrun a blood-crazed shark with a car battery strapped to my waist.

[*] Quote of the Trip: “John, do you know how to use a sextant?” — father-in-law after we somehow ended up in Corpus Christi bay at night miles away from where we should have been. I am ashamed to say that I did not know how to use a sextant. But if he had an astrolabe …


Last week I was in Cyprus — that small island tucked into the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. Getting there was perhaps too much of the adventure. First, I could hardly find a flight. The online travel tool was at a total loss and I wasn’t much help. That the country is split between a recognized entity, the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus, and the non-recognized Turkish region to the north, didn’t help flight plans either. Add to this that the name of the capital “Nicosia” is not what Cypriots call it (“Lefkosia”) and that the airport is in a different city altogether and you have a planning nightmare. But it gets better. While booking the travel agent informed me that though there were a few flights on Lufthansa coming in, there were no flights going out. Say what? Do they ship the planes off the island? While she was trying to sort this impossibility out she gladly offered up flights on a Cypriot carrier. A little voice in my head resulted in a quick googling that reminded me that, no, I’d rather not fly on a Cyprus airline. I like landing near mountains, not into them. In the end we got it all sorted out with a connection in London.

But oh the connection in London! The security procedures following on the foiled chemical explosives plot have gnarled Heathrow fiercely. The queuing clusterfuck was a thousand times worse than I’ve seen domestically — and that’s saying quite a lot in post-9/11 America. I ended up missing my Cyprus connection. So, I was re-routed to Frankfurt for a [pause to shudder] seven hour layover. I found a quiet corner and a reclining chair, locked my laptop to my body, and fell asleep. When it was all said and done and I was in my hotel room in Nicosia it was 5am. Just four short hours until my keynote talk at 9am. I’m told I did fine, but frankly I don’t much recall it. I might as well have been drunk I was so dazed.

I didn’t see much of Cyprus. Nicosia is on the interior and most of the beauty is found on the coasts, or at least that’s what the throngs of Eurotourists would suggest. As a former British holding Cyprus still drives on the left, always a source of white-knuckled passenger-side terror for me. It caused me to reflect that most left-driving places in the world are actually islands, remnants of imperial road habits. This makes sense. Being islands, places like Australia, Japan, and the British Caribbean can drive however they want since their roads don’t link up with right-driving roadways. But left-driving isn’t only for islands. India and much of sub-Saharan Africa drive on the left. So my question is: what on earth happens when you cross the border in your car to a right-driving country? I envision a morass of confused motorists surrounded by small mountain ranges of junked vehicles that simply didn’t make it. Anybody know how this works?

Part of my duties in Cyprus included meeting with prominent persons connected to cultural heritage management on the island. I had the pleasure of meeting Bishop Nikiforos of the Cypriot Church. (Greek Cyprus is Greek Orthodox, but it has a centuries-old tradition of complete autonomy from the official Greek church in Istanbul.) Nikiforos might be the next Archibishop of Cyprus depending on elections this week. It would be the equivalent of the Cypriot Pope. But he’s a humble guy, really. What I didn’t know is that I was supposed to kiss his hand. I didn’t know because I wasn’t told. I just shook his hand all American-like. Howdy, partner! My colleagues quickly did the shake-and-kiss and all I could muster was a look of complete ignorance. I couldn’t even refer to him correctly. My colleagues and I spent about a half hour trying to figure out the English equivalent of the Greek honorific that is bestowed on a bishop. They kept saying I should call him “Beatitude,” but I knew that didn’t sound right. He wasn’t a proverb. Finally we figured that I needed to address him as His Beatific, a word, yes, but not one that just rolls off the English speaker’s tongue. I might have said it once, but it sounded so silly that I just mumbled and kept on talking. Frankly, I’m surprised I was let off the island for such heresy.

I missed Halloween while I was there. This was doubly bad since Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and it is the birthday of my youngest son. I mentioned this to one of my Cypriot colleagues. Clearly she felt bad about it because she secretly had the hotel create an authentic Greek toga costume for me. She even had a local florist fashion a laurel wreath from an olive plant. So, there I sat at 4am Cyprus time alone in my room waiting to videoconference with my trick-or-treating family back home hoping like hell that there was no fire emergency in the hotel. Wouldn’t that have been a sight. Who’s the fratboy American in the lobby?

Nicosia in many ways is a sad place. The medieval town center enclosed by beautiful Venetian walls is crudely bisected by the UN buffer zone separating the Greeks from the Turkish. The difference between the two sides is striking. Though the border is much more permeable than it used to be, the economic disparity is real and obvious. Greek Cypriot troops and the Turkish military stare each other down while UN guards maintain order. Animosity over the Turkish invasion of 1974 is so palpable and frankly stated that you’d think it happened last month. Clearly it is a wound that will take generations to heal: one of my Greek Cypriot colleagues noted that the house he grew up in in the north is now a UN depot on the first floor, a Turkish residence upstairs, and a brothel in the basement. A terrible predicament to be sure, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was so much ado about a truly tiny place. I certainly don’t have a solution, but stepping back a bit it is obvious that Cyprus is far too tiny to be split in half, especially given its historical role as a crossroad of cultures.

From Cyprus I went back to London for a few days of meetings. Turns out I showed up for Guy Fawkes Night, which is actually Guy Fawkes Weekend as far as I could tell. The country seemed to be shooting off fireworks from the moment I arrived to the moment I left. I might actually be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder the shelling was so constant. But you really must applaud a holiday based on a foiled plot to detonate parliament. One wonders what they are really celebrating — that Guy didn’t succeed or what it would have been like (BOOM!) if he had?

Waiting for my flight home I queued in back of an irate American woman demanding recompense for the $300 of cosmetics that the BAA relieved her of at Heathrow. I just shook my head and took my seat. Turns out this irate American was my seatmate. And her anger was more understandable than I had at first thought. She had all her items neatly measured and baggied, per the guidelines. When she departed Germany to make her connection in London British Airways told her that the bag was fine. Yet, in Heathrow they yanked it.

Say what you will about carrying several hundred dollars’ worth of cosmetics on your person, but she had a good excuse: she was Nancy Gustafson, a professional opera singer. And not just any opera singer as I would learn over the next few hours, but one of the best, a frequent soprano collaborator with every one of the Three Tenors. My first comment was “But, but, you’re not fat. Aren’t you supposed to be fat?” Like she’d never heard that before. It was a fascinating conversation. Basically the top tier of opera singers have no home. They travel the world constantly. She was practicing in her seat for a Russian opera to be performed in Tokyo on Tuesday. This was made more difficult because she doesn’t speak Russian and, well, belting out practice verses on an airplane is generally frowned upon. She was also suprsingly geeky, carrying a Vaio, MacBook, and Treo. And her iTunes library, whoa! Let’s just say there’s not a great deal of overlap with my library. She did have some pop in there, though, including the first track in the library wonderfully titled “I Don’t Give a Fuck.” See, even opera singers slum it sometimes. Nancy’s website is down at the moment, but you can learn a bit more here.

And so, to the two of you who’ve made it this far: you’re insane, but thanks. Must make shorter posts!