Tuesday, March 31, 2020

My Two Dennarii


I have watched political and social changes all my life starting with the ‘lone gunman’ assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.

Informally for most of it. More attentively over the past twenty years. With critical interest lately.

The futile, ‘Yankee Go Home!’ sentiments of post WWII countries living under the boot of the benevolent hegemon have given way to the orchestrated reorganization of the Global South into a world entity based on a new kind of power, new to us at least: Cooperation instead of Empire. The so-called multi-polar world. But it has not yet tipped, there has been no fall of Rome event to cast the crumbling empire into the gutters and make way for the ascendancy of the next. Whether it lives up to its noble ambitions or not can never be certain. Not until the new world becomes the current world and the current world becomes irrelevant to all but thoughtful historians and late night trivia. As Victor Chernomyrdin said of the tumultuous times in 1990’s Russia, the crazy nineties, “We wanted the best, but it turned out as always.” Revolutions, reorganizations, and rendezvous with destiny turn out like that, as always.

For the time being the Uni-Polar world stands.

My fear is that a revolution will change the world once all the conditions have clicked into place. My terror is what comes next. Most revolutions are followed by counter revolutions, local uprisings, secessions and civil wars, war lords and drug lords morphing into barons and Mafia dons, and eventually into ‘legitimate’ statesmen and patricians-the doge of Venice was once a common pickpocket, or another age of terror. Even free, City on a Hill, America had her Shay’s and Whiskey Rebellions, brutally put down by her Cincinnatus-esque father, Geo. Washington, while bankers bought up ‘worthless’ Continental dollars from local farmers in Tennessee and Kentucky that the Federal government, at the instigation of Alexander Hamilton, had agreed to honor, unbeknownst to them. And nobody was about the tell them that their money was actually worth something. Money gathers money. The one percent wear many cloaks, all with pockets. Examples from other times and terrors are legion. As Baron Rothschild is alleged to have said, "The best time to make money is when there is blood in the streets."

There are exceptions, of course. The constitutional conventions. Bismark and the Second Reich. Franklin and the Articles of Confederation. Dekanawida and The Iroquois Great Law of Peace, which influenced Franklin at the constitutional convention 200 years later. Plato’s Republic. Confucius’ Divine Rule. Even Machievelli’s “The Prince” was a stab at writing a republic into existence. But the rallying cry for most revolutions is, “Here it comes again, just like never before!” And then they proceed ‘as usual.’

And then there was COVID-19.

The exceptions seem to be revolutions via Le Guillotine de Biologe. There are War and Famine, but Pestilence is Death’s most faithful servant. The one percent will always eat and are responsible for most of the world’s wars and the picking of pockets, but they succumb to pestilence as readily as the unwashed, charging headlong into Death’s Petri dish. However, there are a lot more unwashed doing a lot more essential, yet unrepresented, services. We can do without 10, or 20, or 50 percent of the useless eaters of champagne and caviar at the top. Hell, they only ever serve themselves, anyway. Not so the beer, meat, and potato eaters at the bottom.

What does this have to do with politics? Revolutions are politics by other means. These are the consequences to the traumatic act, not the main event itself. These are the side effects that nobody anticipates. The things that ‘turned out as always’ though nobody saw them coming. The sub-plots to the main story. The variations on a theme. Blow back and repercussions. Whether it is a pandemic or a plague, a war or drought induced famine, what comes next is all that matters.

In the military they are called force multipliers. In engineering they are called mechanical advantages. In society they are called black swans. They are all basically just levers. Social levers, political levers, narrative levers, musical levers, theatrical levers, war levers, biological levers, cultural levers. Things that make other things happen, only more so. Yet they are always hidden, never anticipated. It’s not the virus which comes and goes like a dancing hurricane that leaves devastation in its wake. It’s what comes waltzing in afterward.

We cannot suffer the past to come unto us, so we invent new, more impressive sounding names for things like these so we can pretend that our ancestors never dealt with anything of this depth. That we are smarter that those who lived before us and who never had to deal with such weighty things. “Nobody ever had to deal with a calamity like this before!” we regale ourselves and then proceed to do exactly what they did in the same circumstances. As always.

It’s also how we inoculate ourselves from learning from history. If those poor, naive, illiterate peasants never had such things in the past, then they have nothing to teach us about such things in the present. But thank God we can use our superior wisdom of such things, along with our brilliant solutions, to instruct the future. We, who cannot learn from the past, busily recreate it. As always.

That doesn’t shield anybody from repeating the same mistakes. As always.

We are in for pain and rebirth. Whether it is at our own hands or at the hands of the creator tyrant, Mother Nature, time will tell.

The future is accelerating. As always.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Next Revolution


After the last great plague in Europe in the fourteenth century, the population was decimated. Actually, decimated would have been better, since ‘to decimate’ comes from a Roman army practice and means to kill one in ten soldiers who were considered bad luck to the rest. 

You were forced to draw a lot and if you were among the one in ten who drew the bad lot, you were obviously unlucky and had to go, whereas in some places eight in ten died of the plague; an octo-decimation. And this included everybody, the lucky as well as the cursed, the one percent of the day as well as the peasants who were basically line items on the deeds to the property owned by the barons.

This produced a unique situation, unparalleled in history. The peasants were scarce enough to dictate to the nobility what they were and were not prepared to do and how much they were prepared to do it for. Imagine that? You no longer had to tolerate living in their isolated villages, communes, soviets, kibbutzim, hamlets, mill towns, suburbs, parishes, counties, satraps, hamlets, or any other socio-economic system where you were tied to the means of production for life. Soon after came the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution, consumerism, capitalism, and an expanded standard of living to baffle a pampered potentate. We could all live like barons now! It lasted for a while, I guess.

Now we have a government that wants to bribe us into remaining in our dependent state for a thousand bucks while at the same time telling us it isn’t that bad and we will all be singing hallelujah in the shoulder packed crowds come Easter!

Forget about checks. Who needs Socialist golden calves to worship? Redistribute wealth? Why bother. It will all gravitate back to the scabby sores of the ruling one percent, anyway, and we will all land back on their open air prisons sooner or later, like always. It’ll just be a new one percent, same as the old one percent. 

I propose something much more capitalistically inclined. CEO Redistribution!

We are approaching one of history’s extinction events, which will be followed by gross re-shuffling of life, the universe, and everything, massive suffering, quite possibly quite a bit of death, a re-calibration of priorities and values, and a new world standing in the ashes of yesterday. Maybe even another Age of Reason. We could use some reason right about now. It may involve pitchforks and guillotines. Or just a peaceful transfer of power, prestige, and personality from one set of psychopaths to another. Or the meek might just inherit the earth and find that it is quite accommodating. Whatever happens, it will be something different, and something the same.

So let’s get at it!

You! Over there. On the street corner smoking tide pods! You are now the CEO of Boeing. Go resurface some runways! That Fairfield County mansion isn’t going to opulent itself, you know. And the girl next to you with the acid hair? Your runway will be in Milan. Show the burgeoning nouveu-middle class how they’re supposed to carry themselves. Maybe you can create a fashion accessory based on the surgical mask.

You! In your parents’ basement. You are now the owner of Marvel Comics. Hell, take all of Hollywoodland. No-one's doing anything useful with it now. In the age of dwindling toilet paper, you can make propaganda movies to teach people what the left hand used to be used for.

You! Morally bankrupt SJW. You are now the president of a bank. Neither one has much value and is all about arrogant posturing, so you should be right at home. And not one of those whiny, small town, private S&L’s. Those went out with George Bailey. You are the president of the mega-hyper-greedy Croesus Interstellar Boom and Bust Company. Avoid the rush. Start demanding bailouts now. When infinite bailouts come from the Fed, evaporating goods and services will become infinitely expensive! Wouldn’t you like to own a bazillion dollar bow tie? Who wouldn’t!

The entire 2020 graduating class of the Krusty Kollege of Klowning and Kookery from Kookamunga, Kentucky! AKA American Academe. You can take all of the seats of congress, both House and Senate. Hell, take the Judicial branch, too. The Oval Office is taken. There’ll be jugglers in the isles. Volkswagens overflowing with chattering noise-heads. Hordes of Media Mavens misreading and misreporting it all. Hell, all that’s missing now is squirting lapel flowers.

You! Homeless girl living under a tarp. You can now start handing out TARP money that the country does not have, not just your own. Don’t try to burn it for heat, though. I hear it’s toxic.

As the papier mache temple of modernity collapses, let us deplorables give it a whack. And we might not even need a guillotine. It’s been done before... And before… And before… It’s always turned out the same, anyway. Why change now?

There’s only one question. There always is. Who is going to grow the food?

Hallelujah!

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Lights on Top of the World

Day -72 Wednesday 10/16/19 14:41:00.
Location: +28.214772 -82.265699
Wesley Chapel, Florida. USA.




Dear friends, I am at it again. I’m off on a grand adventure this December, this time to the snowy north. I will be traveling to Norway via St. Petersburg, Russia, to view the northern lights. Well entrenched in the arctic circle, I fully expect to be challenged, particularly during the winter solstice season. I start this December 27th, as near to the winter solstice as I could get, and travel from Tampa, Florida to Kirkenes, Norway, a deviation of:

27° 56' 50" N 82° 27' 31” W - Tampa, Florida.`
69° 43' 30" N 30° 3' 6" E - Kirkenes, Norway

There is a 41° 46’ 40” difference in latitude and a 112° 30’ 37” difference in longitude. Nearly a third of the way around the world. What fun!

I will travel mostly by train, from St. Petersburg north to the border with Norway, where we will transit countries via bus. A few days will be spent in Norway viewing the northern lights, sightseeing, and generally being cold and exquisitely entranced by it all.

I am in a tour with the same group I used to travel the trans-Siberian railroad last year. Maybe you saw my travel log of that adventure. It was a wonderful time. I learned a few things on that trip, one being that I could take a few days extra before and after my scheduled trip to have on my own. I will be staying a couple of days in St. Petersburg before the start of my trip and a few more in Moscow at the end before departing from the Sheremetyevo Alexander S. Pushkin International airport this January.

On my trip last year I found my times just wandering away from the group were most enlightening. I met some very nice people. A lovely woman at the Bolshoi ballet named Paulina. A couple of wise crackers in Ulan Ude. And some very nice children who wanted to have their pictures taken with us. And there were those bar flies in Novgorod who wanted to know what I thought of Russian food. “It’s wonderful,” of course I said. And so it was.

Since I shutter boxed my actual tour with a few extra days on either side to go wild in St. Petersburg and Moscow, I have some decisions to make. What do I want to do in Russia’s two top cities? Well, I’ve always been a fan of subways and mass transit, being familiar with New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Berlin, London, and Paris’ subways. They are all cool. I visited a couple of train stations in Russia last year and they were all impressive. I’d like to get into the actual Moscow underground. That sounds so revolutionary. Da, comrade. I just didn’t have a chance to more than just walk through a subway station last time I was there. You really have to see the murals.

I have tickets now to a play in St. Petersburg. It’s a kind of Russian folk show with native dancing and songs. Intermission includes some local food and vodka. I’m sure it’s the Russian version of Disneyfied Americana. I also got a ticket to the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Iolanta by Tchaikovsky. There are some other places I’d like to see in Russia, while I’m there.

I’d like to visit the park of old Soviet relics. It’s a place where Muscovites decided to put all of their Soviet Union monuments that the modern country of Russia wishes to disavow. They didn’t just tear them down. No iconoclasts they. Instead they banished them outside of the city gates and left them, undisturbed. So that people can view them. And take from them what they want. Or will. Or are capable of. Or won’t anyway. Just like us and our dark history.

I could stand in fascination of a place like that. I remember the cold war, some parts of it, at least. What damage it did to me as a person and us as a nation. Two nations. I believe in honoring the past, not second guessing it. There, in that park of old Soviet relics, I might see the train wreck of a civilization, in slow motion. A creeping disaster. One moment at a time. Bringing headlong annihilation.

Shan’t we wonder at it? Can we avoid it? Could you stop it if that dreadful specter came your way? And even worse. Could you live it again, willingly and with fervor, not knowing the consequences? Not knowing the despair and the loss of charity your deeds may forge. Not knowing the cries of future generations, the many tear wrenched sobs of, “What hast thou wrought?” I dare not think of it.

Well, I don’t want to start my new adventure on a depressing note, Russian though I am. It’s in our DNA, they say. It’s certainly in our poets. Let’s just look to the north. To the bright iridescent lights of the northern sky and the reindeer sleigh rides and the snow queens and crab feasts and ice hotels against the dusty, burnished sky of night, eternal. And cold. And man against nature, or at best, cold partners in the snow. The brilliant, biting snow.

What journey do I face? What wonder encompasses me now?

Stay tuned for more.

T minus 6 days and counting…
Day -6 Friday, 12/20/19 14:43:00.
Location: +28.214772 -82.265699
Wesley Chapel, Florida. USA.


Prologue

Everything is politics. People who say they don’t like politics mean they don’t like your politics, only their own. Everything is politics of one sort or another: Man to man, few to many, several to others, and sometimes; one to all. All is politics.

One man’s political meat is another man’s political poison. And the game of politics continues, unabating. Everything is politics.

And the tools of politics? Ah, now. There’s the art.

The Beginning

I am busy packing, buying last minute supplies, and checking the weather in Kirkenes, Norway. It is currently 18 degrees F, icy, and dark. It will be 14 degrees, partly cloudy, and dark tomorrow. The forecast for the next few weeks is: Dark. I’ve got my yak yarn toke that Patsy made me from some of the yak wool yarn I brought back with me from Siberia last year. She very graciously made some of it into a hat for me to wear on this trip.

I am booked on a trip to the arctic. Specifically, Kirkenes, Norway. To get there I have to fly from my home in Florida to St. Petersburg, the one in Russia, and join a group of travelers. From there we will board a train and travel north through the Russian lands to the border with Norway, cross through immigration, and spend a few days in Norway, hopefully seeing splendid and spectacular sights of the northern lights. Let us hope. From there we will cross the border back into Russia and travel south to Moscow and fly back to our homes; richer, wiser, and more ennobled by the passage.

I am checking and stowing all my electronics and charging cables. My camera. Check. Tripod. Check. Cell phone and tablet. Double check. Adapters for European style electric outlets. Checkedy, check. I’ve got all my Merino wool layers of clothing and a single digit rated parka from Columbia Sports. All sorts of checks there.

The other day I got an email from Firebird tours with an attachment entitled, ‘Arctic Explorer Clothing Guide.’ It outlined what levels of thermal isolation deprivation I should prepare for, and what additional thermal spacesuits they will provide us because we will probably not bring enough. Even if we bring enough, we still won’t bring enough. And if we bring more? I hesitate to think what would happen then...

I fished out what Russian money I still have from last year. The exchange rate is still about 62 rubles to the dollar. I’ve got 1650 rubles in bills and from a few ten ruble coins. Those were thrown in a jar with some other coins, euros, pounds, krones, and some coins from the Philippines. Never been there, but I seem to remember a friend giving them to me, so I guess I’m now obliged to go. About 27 bucks all told. I don’t know if I will need any Norwegian money, the kroner. We will be in places where they don’t accept credit cards and may not accept greenbacks. We will be in Norway for two nights. I’m sure I will buy something there. A ticket to the banya if nothing else.

I’m sure I will look funny in Tampa airport next Thursday dressed up like Admiral Peary. Or Dr. Cook, if you prefer. I just hope I don’t get lost for 14 months, as well. But I’ll have the last laugh… The last, shivering, hypothermic, laugh! Now won’t that be fun?

Allons-y!

We going or what?

 
Day 1 - Thursday, 26/12/2019 02:55:00. UTC 26/12/2019 07:55:00
Location: +28.16336 -82.3439
Tampa, Florida. USA.



I am currently sitting in Kristin's house waiting for 3:00AM. My son-In-Law, Seeth, picked me up at my house in Wesley Chapel last night and will bring me to Tampa airport shortly. I need to be there by 4:00 for a 6:00 flight. I'm operating on about five hours of sleep, which for me is pretty good. I will be arriving in St. Petersburg at 11:40 AM their time on Friday, about 25 hours from now, and eight time zones away.

Tampa airport is quiet. I'm waiting to board my flight. The checkin kiosk didn't recognize me. I couldn't check in on line last night, either. Something to do with how I made my reservations, I suppose. I put in my destination of St. Petersburg, Russia, which seems to have flustered the ticketing system. It also billed me in Canadian dollars. What, no rubles? Go figure. I had to manually check in at the JetBlue window.

My luggage is checked all the way through to St. Petersburg. I'm surprised. I expected to have to retrieve it in JFK and recheck it with Aeroflot to Moscow, and then get it again and check it in for the flight to St. Petersburg. That has been my experience in the past when I have entered another country and made a local connection. They don’t like to check your luggage across borders. I figured it was some kind of security bullshit.

Speaking of security. I brought my carry on to the porno scanners. They let my cell phone go through but wanted my tablet taken out. But I had a steel water bottle in my backpack. It was empty but they couldn't know that from their scanners, could they? They never mentioned it. I also realized later that I was wearing a money belt. I've had issues with those before. Then again, I've also just passed through unmolested many times. TSA makes no sense whatsoever. I guess that is the point. Maybe a money belt tings a bell. Maybe it doesn’t give a shit. Do-be-do-be-do!

The plane is an A320. At least it's not one of those Boeing death planes; the Boeing 666 RIP.

I arrived at JFK airport in Jamaica, Long Island, NYC. It is an octopus of terminals, gates, checkpoints, concourses, and confusion. And that’s just on the inside. I got off my flight and knew I would be nowhere near the Aeroflot terminal. I checked my flight online and it was departing from terminal 1. I was in terminal 5.

I asked someone how I find terminal 1? “Follow the green signs to All Terminals.” “Gotcha.” “Go down one flight of stairs, to the right, and then up two escalators…” “OK.” “Or one on the elevator.” “Um… Sure.” “And make sure you stay on the ‘All Terminals’ side.” “OK…”

Yikes!

OK. I went in the general direction she indicated and didn't see any signs for terminals, All, Some, or Neither. So I asked someone else. “Go back up and U-turn before you get to the terminal,” she said, very helpfully. I had gone down the wrong alley. Not a good thing to do in New York. But that’s OK. I wasn’t lastingly lost. Not yet. “And don’t forget the green signs!”

“You betcha!” I found the mischievous green signs. Some said ‘All Terminals.’ Some said Jamaica Station, Taxis, and Parking.’ Some just said ‘Other Terminals.’ Huh? Eventually I found the Air Train station and the Terminal 1 bound car. Finally, I got off and headed toward the entrance. I saw signs for Lufthansa, Korean Air, Turkish Air, and Air France. Looks like my place. I checked my boarding pass for the gate. My boarding pass listed the gate as GATE. Very helpful.

I found Aeroflot. It didn't look busy. I went to check in. I was told I had to get another boarding pass issued by Aeroflot. My JetBlue pass wasn't good enough for them. "Where do I get that?" I asked. ‘In line "E",’ I was told. Line E was so long that it was divided into sections. You had to wait in one line around the corner and have an agent keep you there until she could let people into the real line in quantum packets. OK. Some people can progress into the real line. Promise. And she was checking passports and visas. "Where is your final destination?" "St. Petersburg." That got extra scrutiny.

I finally got my new, improved, Cyrillic boarding passes. My luggage is still going directly to St. Petersburg, so that's nice. I was afraid I’d get all the way to check in and be told that I had to go all the way back to the luggage carousel and re-check in my luggage. Do not pass check in, do not collect safe passage. No boarding pass for you!

I was directed to security, where I was dumped into another Escher-esque crowd control queue.

All told from the time I arrived at JFK from Tampa to landing at the Aeroflot gate for flight 101 to Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport took two hours. Only three more until we leave.

Moscow airport was pretty quiet. The temp is about one below Celsius. If it stays like this, I'll be fine. I breezed through passport control and got my magic form I'll need to stay in any hotels and to leave the country in three weeks. It's got my name translated into Cyrillic and everything. Джонатан ховард люкс. I found the shuttle to take me to Terminal B for my domestic flight to St. Petersburg. Finding my gate was confusing. The departure board listed my flight, SU-14, as being in gate B301-364. That made no sense. But it gets better. The only security entrance I found was listed as Gates 100-124. I asked two different people where I was supposed to go. I was told to use that entrance. “The one in the corner. Over there. What, are you mental or something?” “Well, as a matter of fact…” The board inside said to use gate 116. I didn’t see any gate 364 anywhere….

So now I am sitting by gate 116, which is the gate for flight SU-14 to my final destination in санкт летерьург. It will board in about a half an hour. Yes. After three tries someone just said, “Ya. It’s over there, dummy.” Like I was supposed to know that. Well, I should have known I was a dummy. Here we go.

And they just changed my gate to 123. Down stairs, over somewhere.

Ye, gods. That was a nightmare. My flight to St. Petersburg was delayed an hour due to weather. We sat for an extra hour and then sat on the plane while they de-iced it. I got here around an hour late, knowing that I had a ride waiting for me. I should have a ride waiting for me. I was supposed to have a ride waiting for me. But nobody was in the luggage carousel room. Maybe they are outside, I thought. But I still had a nagging feeling. Not my first today!

What if my ride doesn't show up? I can just call them. Or just get a cab or explore mass transit or something? Does my phone work in St. Petersburg? Or at all?  Then my luggage didn't arrive on the belt. Oh, baloney. I waited to talk to someone, who couldn't find any record of my luggage but then said it was coning on the next flight from Sheremetyevo, which was landing right about now. “Why don't you go wait by the belt some more?” Now I had something else to obsess about. I hunted around until I found the name of the hotel I was staying at; The Grand Hotel Europa. But I didn't have its address and I couldn't connect to any of the self-proclaimed free Wi-Fi connections floating around. And my itinerary contained an ominous message. ‘Note: You have made your own arrangements at the Grand Hotel Europe.’ I did what now? When I booked this tour, I requested a few extra days at the beginning and end to have some extra time on my own. Don't tell me I was supposed to do that myself? I started fretting that I'd get to the hotel and be told I wasn't expected until Sunday. No room at the inn! I don't think Russia likes tourists who are street people.

In the meantime I got a call from Firebird tours asking me where I was since my ride is waiting outside for me. Oh, thank goodness! I explained the situation and said I'd be there as soon as I could. Well, at least I knew I had a ride waiting for me, even if I had no place for them to take me to when I found them.

My luggage continued to not arrive, this time it didn't arrive on another flight. I went back and got back in line for the helpdesk on the island of lost luggage. My phone rang again. They really wanted to know where I was and when I'd be available to be hauled to my hotel. I'll be out in a minute, I said. The luggage lady had me fill out some forms and said they'd deliver my luggage to my hotel. Ok. I think. Thank you nice Russian luggage lady.

I left the building and found my ride, a very nice Russian woman named Elena. Except she now had to pick up another passenger and didn't have enough time to bring me anywhere, whether I belonged there or not. She called another driver for me. My new driver whisked me away. It was a long drive. At least 45 minutes through a very confusing downtown St. Petersburg. I tried to distract myself from obsessing on my impending homelessness by sounding out Cyrillic building signs. I got Koffee, Magazeen, Produkt, Optik, and several others that sounded like possible transliterations. It really took a long time to get to the hotel. Tomorrow night I have to find that folk show at somebody's palace... Marianski or something. I’ll get there. That is assuming I have a place to stay tonight... What if I don't have reservations and they have no free rooms? Who knows where I might end up for the next two nights?

In the end I was fine. I actually did have my rooms reserved and paid in full. They were waiting for me. And the hotel was a luxury palace. This hotel is four European stars and I'll be very comfortable here. Hopefully I will get my luggage soon. The big item is my camera. I don't want to lose that. The rest is wool clothing. My pills, chargers, tablet, and phone are in my carry on, so I am not missing anything critical.

I have now been up for more than thirty hours and am getting my second wind. I think I'll go out for a walk. What does Sankta Peterburg have for me?


Days 2 and 3, Friday, Saturday, 27/12/19, 28/12/19 13:36:00 PM. UTC 28/12/19 10:36:00
Location: +59.92423 +30.30466
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation


It's been a confusing past two days. Quite literally. Now that I am in at least a temporary lending agreement of my senses, I am in a fit shape to evaluate what went on.

Currently, I am sitting in what I think is a Khazak restaurant drinking coffee and eating a lovely Tiramisu Mascarpone pastry up the street from Mariinski Palace, where I will be seeing a show tonight.

Enough context.

After being awake for an estimated 32 hours, 14 of which were spent on aerial container ships and in foreign airports (all airports are foreign,) losing my luggage, almost missing my ride, and not being sure whether I had a place to sleep in or not, assuming I was going to be allowed to sleep, I think I can safely say, What the-?

Yesterday I woke up in what I was sure was the morning. It was dark out, but, here and now, the sun rises late and sets early, so I'm sure it'll be coming around soon enough. And going even sooner. Plus it was overcast out and probably rainy. I got up to find that the maid wanted to clean my room for some reason, and I had somehow missed breakfast. The clock on my phone said it was nine PM, but that was not possible. It must be in an alien time zone setting and still jet lagged. I decided to go for a walk.

The GPS on my phone was working intermittently and Google maps was working by memory. And without mercy. I was trying to find where I had to be to see the show I am seeing tonight. It was several blocks away. I'd say it was in a theatre district but all of St. Petersburg is a theatre district... And a university district, and a cultural district, and a dance and symphony district...

I had explored my immediate neighborhood the night before, enough to find Nevski St. and Pushkin Park and Bolshoi North. Plus a nice restaurant I want to try, maybe tomorrow. OK. So I kind of know where my hotel lives. And thus do I know how to get back home.

I couldn't find a touristy map of the sites in St. Petersburg. I like to do that at the concierge desk. Just give me a nice, colorful map of wherever I am with English subtitles and show me how to get from points here to points there, would you? I brought up Google Maps while I had Internet at the hotel and dialed in the Mariinski Theatre, making sure to bookmark my current location. It doesn't hurt to leave breadcrumbs behind.

I strove off and very quickly Google Maps lost its mind. It plotted out a logical path for me to follow but as soon as it lost the Internet, it demonstrated no talent for dead reckoning. As soon as it lost contact with the mother ship it was literally lost. It lost its context, memory, and reason to live and showed me going in the opposite direction to what I clearly had been and started giving me contradictory directions.

Google started to babble.

If you are trying to lead me down into Shelob’s lair, at least give me a 'my precious' once in a while. Geesh.

I followed its advice once or twice, fool that I was, and found myself going in virtual circles. I had my own sense of where we were supposed to be going and just relied on Google for the specifics. Let's see... Here's the main street down the side street from my hotel. Nevsky St. I think. Committed to memory. There's where I want to be. Here's Google's golden path from here to there. Let's at it. Google wants me to go down this side street. OK. Down I go. And turn here. Wait. That doesn't look right. Where am I again? And how? And why?

I was somehow turned around and disoriented... Again... Let me see. What road am I supposed to be on? Where? And in what direction am I supposed to be going?

It was very good at getting me lost in one square kilometer. I tried recontextualizing, but only about one in twenty street corners are labeled. Is that the Miyka River? Nevsky Ave? Sadovaya St? Who knows? It's Unlabeled Avenue according to St. Petersburg city planners. I was on side streets that only a mother avenue could love.

Let me zoom out the map a little bit. No, I don't want to see all of Russia! Just a little bit more of St. Petersburg, thank you. And which way are you pointing? Let's put north up for now. Computers can be very helpful until they lose their minds. A nice, crinkly paper map would do nicely sometimes.

Eventually I found the theatre. And along the way I noticed that I had a text saying that my luggage that once was lost has now been found (hallelujah!) And would be found in my hotel soon. The text was time-stamped at 5:55PM on Dec 27. Wait. That's not right! It can't be that late. Can it? Must be that confused phone again...

Gradually it dawned on me that, yes, it was 12 hours later than I thought it was. Either I had been abducted by aliens and had missing time or my body had sopped up some of that 32 hours of sensory deprivation time I had expended in the skies over the northern hemisphere over the past few days.

I finished my exploring of time and St. Petersburg and managed to find my way back to the Grand Hotel Europe. I had a vodka or four in the bar and went to bed. That, at least, I could find.

Today (I think it's today) I woke up in time for breakfast. Well, the front desk called to let me know my luggage was there so that woke me up. Same thing. I got an amazing European breakfast and a change of clothing and asked the maid to come a little later so I could take a shower after eating.

I went out exploring again, reploring? And got lost several times. Sometimes in the same places as yesterday! The good thing about getting relost is you just have to remember what you did the last time to get unlost. Sometimes it even worked. Although I quite frequently got lost again somewhere else. The street I was on tended to restreet itself in an entirely unstreetworthy direction and send me toward some other perplexing destination of its own design. I got lost so often it became my ground state of being.

I saw landmarks. I found the Stroganoff palace, which was just a place on the map yesterday. Just one more palace on the pile. I came upon some places from the other side. Wait. Wasn't I here yesterday? Yes! I came down that street! By that monument! I had lunch there! Well I thought at the time it was lunch. I had been looking for breakfast. Maybe I had dinner. It was good, anyway.

I just passed a minimarket! It's always fun to sound out words like that from the Cyrillic. ME-NE-MAR-Oh. Minimarket. They have those here, too? I suppose. They have all sorts of things that civilized people have.

It's 2:30 at the Khazak restaurant and they just gave me my check for the coffee and the pastry. Guess it's time to go.

Four hours till I need to pick up my tickets at the Mariinsky Palace. What will I do until then?  I wonder if there's a library around here? Hey, Google! Nah! He's pretty much useless without his gods in the sky. Better just keep walking.

While wandering around, getting cold, and not finding a warm place to sit down, I came back to where I thought the performance was. It had struck me as odd that there was a Mariinsky palace and a Mariinsky theatre and that the performance was at the palace, not the theatre. I was standing under the portico, partly for shelter, looking through the door when someone came up to me and asked if I needed help.

At least I assume that's what he asked. He said something in Russian. I said I was looking for a show in English, realizing that we didn't understand each other. I pulled out the paper confirmation and started reading it to him.  A show... At the Nikolaevsky palace... Wait. What? He pointed at the palace I was in front of and said 'Nyet!' I agreed, Nyet! and read some more. Restoran-Nyet. Truda St. Da. That's where I am supposed to be. He pointed cross the river. Light dawned. I had the wrong palace but the right one was near. I was close.

Da, Spacebo. I thanked him.

What an experience to communicate with someone I share only a few words with.  Yes. No. Thank you. A few street names. A piece of paper. And a desire to understand. Marvelous.

I found my palace, the right one this time, and another exciting part of town. There's a vodka museum here. Really it's just a restaurant but museum sounds cool. Maybe I should open a beer museum in Wesley Chapel! I can sell beer with hot wings served by equally hot women. That's never been done before! It should put me on the map.

It's almost time for the show, which is entitled, "Feel Yourself Russian" and is of the genre, "Folk Show." I'm sure I'll want to buy a samovar.

The Nickoleavsky palace is, in a word, palatial. I went inside and breathed it in. The entryway was paved in marble and parquet floors. Staircases just erupted in every direction, branching outwards like fractals as they grew and blossomed. Statues stood naked and modest in their niches, looking down and saying, "I belong here. Do you?" in their modesty.

It was a luxury I could get used to.

I checked my coat and found the lavatory. I peed to Mozart.

At 7:30 the guard inspected my ticket and stood back to privilege me with one of those magic staircases. On a landing a Baroque woman invited me to take a glass of wine and continue upstairs. She looked right out of Viennese high society. I definitely can get used to this.

At the next floor we privileged aristocrats sipped our Russian wine, red or white, they are still sweet and mostly of Crimea, and viewed some Russian handicrafts. I bought a music box and some chocolate for my kids.

And then the show started.

We were ushered into a theatre that sat maybe two hundred. A social gathering of friends and acquaintances if you are a Russian Baron. And the show began.

I can't really describe it. There was singing, dancing, and acrobatics. And there were Cossacks jumping and ladies dancing with veils and flirting with those very Cossacks and us members of the gentry audience. And silk and satin outfits and feet pounding on the stage and blood pumping through veins of fire and passion. And funny bits and an orchestra velveting the stage with music, the balalaika, the accordion, and the flute. And the voice and the body, all in motion. All sublime.

Intermission met us back in the landing, mind you, this was all done in only the antechamber of the palace, where we had a sampling of Russian fruits and caviar, vodka and wine, cheese and more music. And then act two.

It was enthralling. Beautiful. And folksy. It was earthly and divine. And oh, so Russian.



I belong here, do you?


A footbridge over a river or canal in St. Petersburg


The sumptuous Nikolaevsky  palace

Welcome, kind nobleman


Would you care for a glass of champagne?

Stairwell by Escher

Day 4, Sunday 29/12/19 10:29:00. UTC 29/12/19 07:29:00
Location: 59.93641 30.33099
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation



With dreams of dancing Cossacks still in my head, I headed down for breakfast. Or up. Today's breakfast was served in a ballroom on the fifth floor. I rode in the wood paneled elevator being treated to videos of Russian caviar and treatments at the spa. There should be a way to combine the two. I'll put that in as one of the amenities of the Grand Hotel American. You can't have too many manatees in your knock off resort.

There was smoked and pickled fish. Vegetables. Rolls with Siberian lingonberry jam. Cheese and cold cuts. Coffee and freshly squeezed juice. Bacon and eggs, cooked to order. I could get used to this. No, wait... A second??? Maybe…” Yes1 There it is. I AM used to this. I'll never be happy with motel cook-your-own waffles again.

Last evening was the kickoff party for the tour. At 7:30 we met for champagne and introductions. Our group is being joined by another group when we leave on Tuesday. They are the Smithsonian group. Who are we, the chopped liver group?

There are several support staff, including an astronomer who will give lectures on the train, a doctor, and assorted guides, staff, and friendly Russian young people who will respond to our every call. All told our troop numbers 57 souls. We're not really a troup. Sounds too much like a traveling circus. An expedition?  We appear to occupy the entire train, with two dining and two bar cars. This is definitely not the trans-Siberian, which was basically a commuter train of the Russian Transportation system with our sleeper car hitched on the end.

So I guess we'll be riding the disorient express. Now that we're starting this Shackleton thing we’ll have to learn the ropes so we can go ahead and hang ourselves with them.

Tomorrow we begin.

Vocabulary word of the day. Пожалуйста. Pazhalesta. You’re welcome.


Day 5, Monday 30/12/19 19:29:00. UTC 30/12/19 14:29:00
Location: 59.93641 30.33099
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

Today is the beginning of my actual tour. I can stop playing around now. After another stunning European style breakfast, we met in the hotel lobby. We were given our agenda for the day at last night's reception, so we knew what to expect and what was expected of us. Show up, basically. We got our receivers so we could at least still hear Elena, our guide, even if we had somehow gotten ourselves lost in some cratered ruin somewhere. Yes, Elena. She was the one who came to pick me up at the airport.

"Didn't we have more people?" I heard Elena's voice in my ear say.
"I don't know." Her assistant, Charlotte, muffled back. "Don't you think we have enough as it is?"
"Elena! I'm here. Where are you!?" I shouted at the earpiece.
"I could have sworn we had someone else with us..."
"ELENA!"
"Maybe. But it's lunchtime and I'm dying for some borsch right about now."
"HEY! I want some borsch."
"Good point. Let's go. I'm sure he'll show up somewhere... Eventually..."
"EE-LANE-AH!!! Right. She can't hear me. Definitely a drawback."

St. Petersburg was founded on May 27, 1703 by Peter the Great. It's named after Peter, the First Pope guy not Peter, the Great guy. That area had been conquered by Sweden and Peter wanted it back. It seems great powers are always squabbling over small, but strategic, borderlands.  So he took it and built a fort on one of its islands, St. Petersburg is actually built on several islands.

Peter the Great did a lot of other great things. He introduced European culture and styles to a backwards Russia. He instituted the Russian Navy. He sent bright young nobles to European universities to learn science and art and bring it back to Russia. He set in motion the inertia which became the Russian Empire. Great, indeed.

Through all this, and considering how interdependent Russia and Europe became, Russia was and is still considered backwards and inferior by Europe. I wonder how much longer before they give up on the west entirely?

We headed for the village of Pushkin south of St. Petersburg. On the way Elena pointed out the sites and recounted the history. There are 2000 palaces and mansions in St. Petersburg. What, are they disposable? Or do they really have that much nobility? And with that much nobility and aristocracy hanging around was the hemophilia really necessary?

Here on the left is a hospital. Pushkin set his novel, The Queen of Spades, here. They certainly love their Pushkin. It was the only novel set in a mental hospital. Hell, my whole life's been set in one of those. And here's where he died in a dual at age 36. Someone had insulted his wife.

Eep!

Pushkin was a poet and a literary type and the other was a military man with a lot of experience shooting at things and people. Couldn't he just have left a flaming bag of poop on his doorstep? I suppose not.

Why do the good die young and the ones who kill the good keep on living?

Our first stop was the palace of Catherine the Great. Nice place. Good accommodations. Quiet neighborhood. Private tutors available. Comes with kingdom pre loaded with serfs. FHA approved.

We came in through what I assume was the servants' entrance. There were no naked Cupids in the walls. No columns dripping with gold leaf. No fifty foot mirrors. Just a cloakroom and a place to put on some slippers before going up to the grand galleries. And a gift shop.

Now, Catherine the Great was a piece of work. A Russian masterpiece who came from a minor princedom in Germany. She didn't like her husband but made up for it by eventually not liking the son she had by him. So she killed him. Arsenic, they believe, though it's hard to prove considering all the heavy metals they routinely used in cosmetics and in medicine. Let's just say she poisoned her husband to be safe.

She had a reputation for having deviant sexual appetites, which made her just like all other aristocrats. But she tried to advance the rights of the peasants. Now she was really poking around below the belt. That kind of behavior can get a queen a bad reputation.

Like Peter, she increased the Russian Empire both east and west. She added much of Poland to Russia and conquered Crimea, thus removing it as a springboard for Muslim attacks from Istanbul. That vastly improved Russia's security. It still does today.

In the east she sent expeditions to expand Russia into Siberia. Natives living around Lake Baikal welcomed the chance to become Russians. They protected them from invasions by Mongols. In return, Catherine let them live as they wanted to.

She became the Empress Catherine, eventually to be great. And she was great.

We made sure our listening devices were working and that Charlotte was walking behind us so we wouldn't lose ourselves, you know what that could mean. And up we went.

I actually gasped when I stepped into the first room. It's not the type of thing you see every day, any day, ever in your life. Here was a space about the size of a basketball court and the similarity ends there. The floors were inlaid exotic wood. There were carved columns on the walls gleaming with gold leaf. Hundreds of pounds of it.

There were tile stoves in the corners and murals on walls and ceilings. Some rooms had tables and chairs set up for cards or chess (with coral and ivory pieces.) Some were set for dinner. Many had musical instruments in them; harpsichords, pianos, strings. Room after room, excess after opulent display.

And then the amber room. The walls were inlaid with thousands of pieces of polished amber. The Nazis had taken a fancy to it while they had been busy starving the population of St. Petersburg, and had removed it and taken it back to Berlin. It has never been recovered. Probably somewhere in Argentina. The museum had restored it using old pictures. For some reason we were allowed to take pictures here, but no flash. Let's hope these are never required to restore a future looted amber room.

Outside the grounds were glazed in sleet and snow. It was slightly above freezing and raining. The gardens had been prepared for winter. Boxes stood here and there like bee hives. These sheltered statues, left homeless in the freeze.

You have to ask yourself, why do people need that much obscene displays of wealth? If I had a tenth or a hundredth of that I would be happy for life. Maybe even several. Of course, we wouldn't. We'd be happy for a while. Then it would become common, expected. Taken for granted. Then disappointing. Then boring. Then despised. And we would lust for more.

The grass is always greener on the other side and the wealth you possess not is always more precious than the one you should have. True of kings and tsars. True of everyone else.

And why should we care? I can't have doormen just hanging around by the doors of my palace waiting for a lady in a hundred yards of silk to need a door opened. And how often have I looked at a wall and said, "That's just not ambery enough!" Or, "Who must I kill to get a fifteen foot mirror in here?!" Simpler times.

Ah, well. There's no justice in the world.

We had lunch at a place called Blok's Restaurant, named after somebody important in St. Petersburg history. Here we had another one of the once-a-day meals we have three times a day. I was still set from breakfast. But you know. I don't want to insult my hosts.

We had a salad that would have been enough for lunch, soup, filet mignon with asparagus, wine, and a fruit, jellied, yoghurt thing for dessert.

We all wanted-Nay, needed, a nap after that. What we got was a tour of St. Isaac's cathedral, the fifth largest cathedral in the world, and a visit to the Faberge museum.

The cathedral had an interesting history. One tsar had started it but died before it was finished. His son took all the remaining material to build his own palace and stiff the church. Hey, all his friends were building palaces!

Another more devout tsar commissioned an architect from France to build a bigger, better, more godly cathedral. It was right after the war of 1812 and France was still reeling from that little Napoleon binge they went on. They were grateful to get any business they could. Except the architect lied. He wasn't actually an architect. They still managed to complete the cathedral in forty years. That's nothing in cathedral years.

Then the paintings on the walls started melting because, well, Russia. It's cold and wet a surprisingly large amount of time and they forgot the central heating. So they replaced the icons and pictures of God creating unicorns with mosaics made from ceramic tiles colored with gold, silver, and other nasty stuff. Probably arsenic. They look nice.

And now for monsieur Faberge and his eggs.

The Faberge museum is in an old, unused palace. That seemed to be a theme. During Soviet times palaces, churches, and other detritus of the ruling class were turned to the public good, by which they meant the party good, by which they meant whoever was ruling the party at the moment, good. Public good! Though they never messed with Catherine's palace. The Russian people would never have stood for it.
Center courtyard of Catherine's palace
All of these would have been gilded. They were too hard to maintain in the Russian winter so she had them stripped of their gold veneer

Lenin and company had been friends with American oligarch Armand Hammer. He lent them a lot of money and for payback he convinced them to sell him a lot of Faberge artifacts for their value in metal. He bought the gold but not the art, in other words.

During the nineties a plunderer, er, collector in America was going to auction off his collection of Faberge artifacts. A Russian oligarch heard about it, called the buyer, and said, "Name your price." He bought the lot. He then bought a palace in St. Petersburg and put everything on display. It's a private museum. The government had no involvement whatsoever. It was the crazy nineties, after all. The government was corrupt, broke, and looted. The last thing they could do was, well, function, let alone invest in culture.

We saw a little bit of the museum, about 15 eggs. Faberge made about 60, of which about 50 are still in existence. If course, he made more than just diamond encrusted baubles for the Romanoff's. He made delicate items out of enamel. Jewelry. Tea sets. Smaller, cheaper items for mass sales so he could keep the lights on.
Catherine the Great's private church

A clock, I suppose
And now we go 'Upstairs!'
We came back home and I was tired. I already had two, once-a-day meals and could have had another, vouchered by Golden Eagle tours, at one of the fine restaurants at the hotel. I could also just call room service. Or I could also just go to bed.

I looked at the room service menu and decided I should eat something, I don't know why. And why not room service? The pate is always greener and all that. A little decadence is alright every once in a while. And a palace. With room service!

I do have some Romanoff in my background, after all. And look what happened to them? What can go wrong? I ordered the beef Stroganoff, Russian honey cake, and some wine. And then to a noble sleep.
 




Dmitri, our classical pianist


And Masha.

The captain and some of his staff. Our leader, Marina, with the microphone








Set of Iolanta. The New theatre at the Bolshoi

Bows all around

Russian state bird, the pigeon, with a statue of  Alexander Pushkin under him






I literally gasped when I entered this room

These all would have been candles in Catherine's day

Lots of candles

Of course, all the gold is tissue thin, but one room contains 180 lbs of it smeared on the walls.













One room's furnace






Chess set, with pieces made of coral and ivory



The Amber Room. We are allowed to photograph here, now, but with no flash






Midas' daughter


A Green Room...

...a Pink Room...

...and a Peach Room



Romanoff family tree. I am oddly missing.






The Cathedral of St. Andrew









Faberge Museum










The Romanoff family's humble home, the Winter Palace





Did I say I was impressed with Catherine's place?


This is a clock

The owl represents night and the rooster represents day. The peacock represents...Peacocks



They only let if chime once in a while. We were there during one of those whiles


The Rembrandt Collection








The  only Michelangelo




Church on Spilled Blood erected on the site where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded  in March, 1881

My berth


Lounge and bar car


Welcome to dinner, Sir


New Year's Eve


Father Frost and Assistant

Bored, taking pictures from the train window










Kirkenes, Norway



Hitch up the huskies!


Not your traditional huskies. These are bred for endurance.

Six huskies pulled three of us along with ease









Julie, our driver








Native Sami and reindeer

Those are Northern Lights

Really

I hope

Air raid shelter from WWII

Out for King Crabs




Hold this, will ya?

It was in the single digits that day


Kirov, a noted Bolshevik revolutionary against the Tsar. He was assassinated, assumably by Stalin, which started his notorious purge.

Nuclear icebreaker V.I Lenin








Natural history museum in Murmansk




The Russians and the Natives kept out of each others' affairs and were peaceful


Soviet era supersized monument to the liberation of Norway



The sun at its zenith

This was what the transit from car to car was like. And both sides were moving differently.

A place setting. With a sheaf of wheat in a napkin in a pretzel. What should I do with this, I wonder?

The Romans had the right idea.

See what I mean?


The Kantele, a traditional stringed instrument

Folk dancers. Similar to those I saw in St. Petersburg








Peter the Great pointing to the site of his weapons plant that helped him defeat Sweden

Children playing hokey in front to Soviet era appartments

The ubiquitous Lenin


Wooden church in Suzdal. Part of a reenacted village





The town well







Kids in inner tubes pulled by snowmobiles

Clock that is numbered in Cyrillic letters
The incredible, Russian, wall-mounted cat


Into Moscow. Russians love their Christmas decorations

The president's residence at the Kremlin








St. Basil's Cathedral. Really called the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat. It is actually nine separate churches joined together



Luck dog's nose, kept shiny by subway riders





It has an aviation theme



Pushkin restaurant on Pushkin square. Everything is is as it would have been in Pushkin's time

Street theater

General Georgy Zhukov. General, Marshal, and Minister of Defense. He led the Red Army to drive out the Nazis and march to Berlin, He was too popular with the army for Stalin to kill him


Peter the Great. Ya, he also founded the Russian navy


Gorky Park









I like this one




Stalin, with defaced face







Leonev Brezhnev

Carnations. Someone thinks he deserves honor



Lenin. With a triumphant Peter the Great over his shoulder

USSR Stronghold of Peace



Glory of Labor





Decorations that look like champagne glasses




That's eerie


Eternal flame with honor guard



Changing of the Guard






A winter fair in Red Square


Stone age tomb in the History Museum

Look at me, I'm a Viking

Exquisite Bronze Age reins






Dessert decoration given Catherine the Great by a Prussian prince


What the commoners wore




Not Christmas decorations. These are the street lights around Red Square

In the Museum to the Great Patriotic war of 1812