Ich Bin (Ein) Berliner: Friends New and Old in Berlin

OK, I’m not a donut. But props to those of you who recognize the quote.

So I’m about a week behind in posting – I left off right around when I flew to Berlin last Monday. For my first night I stayed with a friend of a friend who lives just outside the Ringbahn (the circle line around the city). She was such a gracious host that I’m seriously considering trying Couchsurfing if other hosts are like her…(or I’ll keep depending on the friends of friends network since it worked so well for me both in Seoul and Berlin).

We had a leisurely lunch and chat, allowing me to recuperate from my early flight. I then hopped on the S bahn (one of Berlin’s two train/subway networks, and no, I have no idea what the difference is between it and the U bahn) and in under half an hour I was at the Brandenburg Tor (Gate), a symbol once of the division of Germany and now a symbol of reunification. Who can forget the pictures of the mobs of people celebrating the fall of the Wall there? And with all this historical build up, I must admit I thought it would be…bigger. Oh well, it was impressive all the same, though the guys trying to earn a few euros by dressing up as an American and a French soldier for photo ops were kind of weird. (Not that they hold a candle to the Darth Vader I saw a few days later. I almost posed with him. I mean, he had an extra light saber!)


I took a look at the outside of the Reichstag, one of the houses of the German parliament, and then headed south towards what I will call the Holocaust Memorial. (I think the official name is something like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). It’s an impressive piece of public sculpture, which purposefully does not specifically reference the Holocaust (though you could consider it as representing tombstones – decide for yourselves).


I continued my walk south, more or less following the line that separated East and West Berlin, to arrive at Potsdamer Platz. I saw a lot of informational signs about both the Nazis and the Berlin Wall on my route. The city of Berlin has done an excellent job of providing information to build awareness.

Potsdamer Platz is symbolic of the new unified Germany – no longer a wasteland divided by the Wall (or a bombed out shell), it is full of new buildings for a new beginning. There are some pieces of the Wall there, covered in graffiti and pieces of gum in defiance of the DDR (East German communist government).

I wanted to wrap up my walk at Checkpoint Charlie, which meant that I passed a strip called the Topography of Terror. This is a block that housed both the Gestapo and the SS buildings along with other Nazi instruments of terror and control, and today houses a great (and free!) exhibit. I ended up spending quite a bit more time than planned there, so walked to Checkpoint Charlie afterwards with the idea of returning later to see the museum.

I headed back for an amazing dinner (my new friend being a good cook, too) and then off to bed!

Relaxing in Riga: Cappuccino Cremes, Soviet Cameras, and Church Organs

Last Thursday I flew from Moscow to Riga, the capital of Latvia. I was visiting the EU once again, which seemed almost like being in western Europe – such a difference compared to Asia and Russia.

I had gotten a great deal on a hotel in the Riga UNESCO Old Town, and was staying in the old, 17th century wing of the building. I opened the door to my room and noticed that the floor sloped quite a bit, but the room had a definite charm which included half-timbered beams. The mini-bar was actually also quite reasonable, so I was able to satisfy my craving for water, Pringles, and something new, made in Riga…Black Balzams, a local liqueur that’s 45% alcohol and, more importantly (for me at least, it depends on your priorities), quite tasty. Remember that tilting floor? Well, it was even more charming by the end of the evening.

I had found a couple of interesting walking tours online, and was taking the first one during my first day in Riga. This one was a private photography tour where I could use an old Soviet-era camera called a Zenit. It has a light sensor in front that makes a needle swing in different directions; you adjust the aperture and shutter speed to make a second needle align with the first to ensure your photos aren’t overly washed out or blurry. I had a lot of fun playing with the camera, and the photos look like they came out quite well. It’s almost a shame – I would have liked to play more with fade out effects!

Anyway, we walked through much of what is called the Quiet Center, an area that is full of Art Nouveau buildings, many of them currently housing international companies or embassies.

I also discovered an amazing coffee drink my first day in Riga: cappuccino cremes, cappuccinos with a thick topping of (optional: chocolate) panna cotta.

After my walking tour, I took it easy until it was time to go to an organ concert in the Riga Dom (Carhedral). It seemed like a great way to see the church and occupy an evening, and tickets were only 5 or 10 lats. I opted for the cheap seats as supposedly the only difference was the view. Unfortunately, a large group of 30 or 40 school children also had cheap seats and I was surrounded by whispering and wiggling kids. I was torn between being happy to have only paid five lats versus thinking that maybe their whispers couldn’t be heard in the ten lat seats! I did, however, manage to enjoy the concert anyway!

I realized it was time for dinner and stumbled across a modern Latvian restaurant that literally had one seat left. I ordered some lamb, a glass of wine, and started writing some notes in my little notebook diary as I had forgotten my kindle at the hotel. I almost got the feeling that the restaurant thought I might be a food critic or blogger, as I caught some looks at my scribbling. The chef came out with my dinner, but it was the wrong dish. I pointed out that I hadn’t ordered fish, and I think my poor waiter was yelled at. (Fish was above the line saying lamb on the menu, and I think he saw my finger and didn’t hear me say lamb. After all, English isn’t his native language.) I got my lamb and it was delicious. When it came time for dessert, and I was asking about after dinner drinks, my waitress told me to forget the menu, she would give me something really Latvian. I then had Latvian apple brandy on the house – definitely worth waiting for my dinner!

Around the Dom




Day 2, I took the free alternative walking tour of Riga, one that goes outside the Old Town to places actual Riga residents go to, like the Central Market, Stalin’s birthday cake (like the Seven Sisters design in Moscow but with a baroque point so it blends into the panoramic view – after all, Stalin was several years dead by the time the building was completed), and the “Moscow suburb”. We saw an old wooden church, and since it was Saturday (aka wedding day) we all got distracted by a bride and groom posing for wedding pics.

On my last day, I made sure to see parts of the Old Town I had missed, drank delicious hot chocolate, and picked up some hostess gifts for my stay with friends at my next brief stopover – Berlin.




Trojan Gold: Last Day in Moscow

My last day in Moscow, I resolved to try one last time to get through Red Square to see St Basil’s. Imagine my surprise when I was actually successful! Better yet, apparently it was the free Thursday (though if it not being free would have reduced the crowds, I’d have been ok with the trade-off).

St Basil’s is a rabbit warren of little chapels, mostly empty on the ground floor. Due to the crowds, I almost missed going upstairs, which would have been a real shame as it was the prettiest part of the cathedral, with frescos and icons from different periods in the different chapels. It also gave a good view south over the city to another of the Seven Sisters.

I then walked to the Pushkin Museum of Art, specifically to see the Trojan Gold room. Walking there took a bit of a detour: Moscow is a city of underpasses, and the route I had chosen had no way to cross the street. I backtracked to the State Library and continued on. Again I was lucky and didn’t have to pay an entrance fee. I went straight to the Troy room.

All that went through my mind when I got there was Keat’s poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. (Unlike some of my friends, I cannot declaim Homer himself.) The display was pretty spectacular. Most of it is just loops of gold, most exciting for its context. However, the diadems and earrings that Schliemann draped on his wife for the famous photographs were magnificent:


The GULAG: Day Two in Moscow

I really wanted to see the Gulag Museum so headed out in that direction first thing. The museum doesn’t open until 11, however, so I thought it appropriate to start at Lubyanka Square, where so many prisoners started on their trip through the Gulag Archipelago that Solzhenitsyn made famous.

A quick definition for those of you who do not know what the Gulag is. It’s an abbreviation referring to the administration of camps, and the camps referred to were hard labor camps to which political prisoners were sent between 1930 and 1956. Who were political prisoners under Stalin? Anyone and everyone: priests, kulaks (peasants who were thought to be rich – aka not in penury), Germans, Chechens, writers, dissidents, anyone who looked at someone wrong, and the list goes on. The number of people moved in forced migrations and through the camps number around 28 million. Millions of those died from the brutal conditions. Others were shot. Think of the work camps of Hitler being carried out for 26 years and you get an idea.

Lubyanka is an innocuous looking, but huge, building on one side of the square. Its name is synonymous with secret police. It housed the KGB and Lubyanka Prison (a political prison) and now houses the FSB. A little way away from it is a stone, a monument to the victims of terror. A poster shows some of the faces of the 40,000 shot during various periods of terror during Communism. This little monument didn’t seem to get much attention when I was there, but a number of wreaths bear testimony to the fact that there are people who care.

Chillingly, Lubyanka Square is just a few blocks from the lovely building that houses the Bolshoi ballet. Go up the street to the right of the theater, passing designer boutiques, and you’ll come to a narrow entrance way with barbed wire at the end. It’s the Gulag Museum, whose courtyard is set up like in a camp, complete with wooden guard tower.

It’s a three floor museum. Starting on the top, you see a gallery of artwork made by Gulag survivors and a number of personal effects. Each cluster of items belonging to a person has a card next to it detailing that person’s reason for arrest and time served. The bubushka monitoring the room sold me a couple of books about the Gulag that seemed to be local print runs: a book written by two women survivors and another book about resistance in the Gulag.

The ground floor room is currently housing part of the exhibit The Commissar Vanishes, exploring photo manipulation primarily under Stalin. It’s fascinating to see who is cropped or airbrushed away, and the difference in levels of sophistication.

The basement continues the exhibit, but in a venue that looks like a room for Gulag prisoners. To one side is an isolation cell. It is extremely difficult to come out of that museum unmoved.

Next it was back towards the Red Square, to the State Historical Museum. While I think the museum is fine, the English descriptions are outdated or lacking. My biggest issue with the museum, though, was my own fault. I had misread the description and thought there were rooms set up like interiors from different periods, but they were actually just painted in the fashion of those time periods.

I was hoping to head to St Basil’s, but once again Red Square closed as I got there. This was starting to feel personal!

Back to the hotel to rest my feet, then out again to Arbat Street to stroll and watch the street musicians. Arbat ends on a square housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the buildings known as Stalin’s Seven Sisters buildings, a huge building with neo-gothic embellishments that is surprisingly (ok, to me, I admit bias when it comes to Stalin) attractive. I was happy to see it as I had thought I wouldn’t have any chance to see the Seven Sisters, and while the area around the Kremlin is lovely, it pre-dates Soviet Russia which is of some interest to me.

I ventured out one more time to see Red Square at night. I’d heard its ethereal. I think I must disagree with that assessment. Maybe I went too early, and the weather was really nice and warm so people were out in droves, but the GUM building had stadium lighting and there were lots of crowds. My assessment: pretty, but not that different from the day. I could imagine it being ethereal at 2am in the snow, however.












The Kremlin

Tuesday, my first full day in Moscow, was the day for visiting the Kremlin. The Kremlin itself is a cluster of historic cathedrals around the Cathedral Square, several government buildings including what I think is the upper house of Russian government, a garden which we couldn’t go into (perhaps because it was too close to the government buildings), the building called the Armory which houses a museum containing Imperial treasures, and the walls and towers surrounding them. The cathedrals are covered with frescos inside, which I personally find more appealing than the iconostasis (wall of icons). Perhaps because it’s Moscow, or perhaps because it’s such a big tourist destination, or perhaps because these churches are pretty much now museums, they didn’t insist on women covering their heads in the churches (an important sign of respect in Russian Orthodox churches). I did, however, and felt quite silly being the only person doing so until some Russian women came in and also used shawls to cover their heads.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the Kremlin and the Cathedral Square, including the obligatory awkward self pictures to prove I’m really seeing these sights.








I hadn’t originally bought an Armory ticket because they cost twice that of the Kremlin and I didn’t really care about seeing silver plates. Then I realized ten Faberge eggs are there, so I caved in and went. Only seven, sadly, were on display. The one celebrating the completion of the Trans-Siberian was one of the missing ones, but there were still some lovely eggs (and some less lovely as I thought them overly ornate). My favorites include one that is covered in enamel clover leafs and a gold egg that is a clock/vase with flowers.

I also greatly enjoyed the display of coronation gowns and mantles from the early 18th through the 19th centuries. One of the 19th century ones had such a tiny waist that I have to wonder whether that empress actually deformed her rib cage with how tightly her corset was laced.

After the Armory, it was time to head to Red Square! As soon as I got there, they started clearing it and cordoning it off. Perfect timing! At least I got some photos minus the crowds.

I hung around for quite awhile, thinking maybe I’d see Putin (aka a car with shaded windows). Nope, just three cars with their roofs down and with a soldier standing in each one as they drove in a procession…that was literally driving in circles. Strange. I think they may actually have been trying to block off the square to prevent demonstrations about the embezzlement trial of a main opposition figure and anti-corruption blogger, Navalny. There is a lot of concern in Russia that this is completely politically motivated and fabricated, as local investigators had closed the investigation through lack of evidence, according to the Moscow Times.

After the Red Square, I checked out GUM, a pretty white 19th century building on one side of the square that is essentially a designer mall (they call it department store) today but was, in Soviet times, notorious for long lines and few items on the shelves.





Made It to Moscow

On Monday, I headed to Moscow. I had used the same British travel agency (Real Russia) who had done my visa sponsorship and booked my Trans-Siberian tickets. Highly recommended!

For this leg of the trip, I had an e-ticket, so I didn’t need to exchange it for a paper ticket as I had my Trans-Sib ones. Yay, one incomprehensible interaction avoided! (Although in all fairness, so many more people speak English in St Petersburg and Moscow than elsewhere in the country.)

I had booked the high-speed Sapsan so as to avoid another overnight train. Apparently the engine is made by Siemens – I kept seeing ads on tv for Russian Railways talking about their working with Siemens and another company I can’t remember. Anyway, the Sapsan to me (not being terribly interested in trains) looks like other high speed European trains inside and out. But for those of you who are train nuts, here’s a picture


I will mention that I am proud of myself for being able to put my backpackers backpack on the overhead shelf without help. I’m a big believer in not packing more than you can carry/manage yourself provided you are young and healthy and not moving somewhere, but it’s not easy to practice what you preach when you’re traveling for months at a time and you have the wimpy upper body strength that I have.

I took the metro to the stop the hotel had listed, found a map outside it, and figured out where I was going. I walked along, realizing with delight that the red building to one side was probably the Kremlin, that really was a brief glimpse of St Basil’s, and the historic center of Moscow is much prettier than I’d have thought, with a number of neo-classical buildings. I’d been expecting something, well, something Soviet, I guess, massive and without frills.

My hotel was only a 10 or 15 minute walk away from the metro, and they were able to give me a room on the top floor. I could see the Kremlin and what I later realized was one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters buildings from my room:



I’ll put in a quick plug for my hotel, the City Center Courtyard Marriott. It was in many ways the nicest Courtyard I have ever stayed at (despite being a business hotel, and despite my great fondness for my Courtyard in Irkutsk) and the location is amazing. I’m just glad I booked it with points, as I think it might have been over $500 a night if you include the breakfast I got for free because of my status. Moscow really is the most expensive city I’ve stayed in – I spent more on food and museums than anticipated, even compared to Tokyo.

Sailing Ships, Politics, and Dosteovsky: Day 5 in St Petersburg

Remember the nice Russian women who spoke English and were on the train with me when I got on in Irkutsk? Well, Natasha really did mean her invitation to come check out the ship she crews on, the Mir. It’s a large sailing ship used as a training ship for the merchant marine cadets. (I just checked and it even has its own wiki page, so google it to see lovely pictures until I can get mine…groan…off of my camera finally.)

Aasa and I headed out to the quay where the ship is moored, next to an old submarine that’s now a museum and by a lovely Russian Orthodox Church. We managed surprisingly to get there right on time, and were wondering what to do to hail the ship as neither of us wanted to pass the “no entry” sign at the bottom of the ladder even though we had an invitation. Shouting “ahoy” seemed appropriate for a sailing ship yet also extremely embarrassing. Luckily for my dignity, one of the crew members came out on deck and we called up to him to ask for Natasha.

We then were lucky enough to get an hour tour of the ship. You have an idea that the ship is big when standing on her deck, but it just didn’t really sink in how big (capacity for 200 people) until we got to go all around it. We saw the officers’ dining area, the crew’s dining area, and the captain’s (which made me feel like I was in a Horatio Hornblower novel of the Napoleonic wars). We saw where they store the sails. Since the crew member who repairs their sails was there, we got to see the cuff-like device they use as a thimble to get the huge needles through the fabric of the sails. We went down into the warmth and noise of the engine room (which made me feel like I was in a movie set.) We saw the navigational bridge and got to try out a sextant, which was incredible.

After our tour, we sat in the crew’s lounge and had tea. Unfortunately, Natasha got called away to lead a school tour. Since it was a busy Sunday, we left.

We stopped for lunch and then headed over to the Museum of Political History. The museum apparently acts as a concert venue on Sunday afternoons, so we couldn’t see all of the exhibits, but as we were both pretty tired we didn’t mind too much. We started out looking at an exhibit of documents and photographs (and a few artifacts like uniforms) from the Russian Civil War. The English language guides were extensive. The highlights were the room that was Lenin’s office and the room next to it which was also a recreated office. We could see the balcony where Lenin would address the crowds.

We then ran upstairs to a one room exhibit on the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the title of the exhibit indicated that it would address whether the collapse was natural or a “criminal conspiracy”, it was really just an exhibit of (interesting) political posters and an outline of the events leading up to the collapse. Not that I think the collapse was a criminal conspiracy, but I was hoping to learn more about various schools of thought in Russia and how they viewed the collapse. What I got out of that was at least the museum curators view the collapse the way we do in the West.

The last part of the museum was what we had come for, so it was unfortunate that it was on the end of the route. I was exhausted, so I only took a twenty minute walk-through. This part of the museum had displays (photos, articles of daily living, documents) on the Stalin period through Brezhnev. The most interesting display to me was the nook that was set up to look like a samizdat writing/publishing room. (Samizdat was the underground publishing movement under Communism.)

I wanted to take a look at Dosteovsky’s
neighborhood on my way back so I detoured a few blocks to see the street he lived on and a couple of houses where Raskolnikov might have lived. (I already posted pictures of those and the WordPress app even uploaded it in duplicate so you can enjoy it to your hearts’ content.)

A Moment of Silence, Please

It can be hard when traveling to keep up to date with the news. And it feels heartless to keep touring today without doing something, even though there is nothing of substance I can do. I woke up this morning to news of the Boston Marathon explosions. And also to the reports of people running towards the chaos to help; Bostonians offering drinks, bathrooms, places to stay; first responders and hospital staff doing their jobs of saving lives.

And I offer the little I can offer, in asking those of you who read this for a moment of silence for those killed and injured, good wishes or prayers for recovery, and acknowledgement of the kind things that people are doing in Boston in response.

Following Peter the Great: Day Four in St Petersburg

Saturday was our day to be Peter-centric in Peter’s city. We took the metro out to Peter and Paul Fortress, the original fortifications built as St Petersburg became a city. You get a great view of the other side of the river from the fortress.

It is much like other fortresses with ramparts and such. Near the center is the cathedral. Sadly, the outside was undergoing renovations, but the inside was pretty and interesting. Aasa and I spent awhile deciphering the ornate Cyrillic lettering to try to figure out whose Romanov grave is whose. (We didn’t, at least for most of them.) The effort made us hungry, so we walked over to a restaurant by Peter the Great’s cabin. I enjoyed duck risotto and great conversation.

As the ticket office for the cabin was momentarily closed, we walked a few blocks over to see the cruiser Aurora, which is quite impressive. I can see where it made a good piece of Soviet propaganda. We didn’t bother to wait in line to board it, however, as we were anxious to see the Peter’s Cabin Museum.

This is one of the most interesting historical site museums I’ve seen. It is actually the entire furnished cabin that Peter the Great lived in (for all of three weeks) as the Peter and Paul Fortress was being built, and is therefore the first building in St Petersburg. Peter declared it a museum about 15 or 20 years later, which is either a comment on how he viewed himself or how he viewed St Petersburg – I’m guessing the former. And then they built a building around it to preserve it, which is a little odd and quite clever.

Sightseeing, as always, taking longer than expected, we had to postpone visiting the Museum of Political History to the following day so we could run some errands before the ballet. Alas, my conversation was not sufficient to prevent all toothache, so we headed to Stockman’s on Nevsky Prospect to buy a home remedy (cloves) and some bread, cheese and salami for dinner. Then it was a mad rush back to the hotel to eat and change and head to the Mariinski Theater.

We saw La Bayadere, with some updates to the original Petipa choreography. The third act was especially amazing with one of those huge scenes of the corps de ballet in white classical tutus taking up the whole stage like in Swan Lake. We also saw a male soloist in the second act whose leaps to my non-connoisseur but mildly knowledgeable eye seemed to have the same grace and “ballon” as the principal dancer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he rises to become a principal.

The theater itself is gorgeous. Interestingly, it doesn’t have seats, but actual chairs, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a theater before. We were in the third row of the first circle (essentially a third floor seat) and since there is no incline to the balconies, this last row was raised on specially built boxes with little indentations for the chair legs. They also let you rent opera glasses at the coat check, which meant I could see the expressions on the dancers’ faces.

One cost of the charming gold angels and embellishments on the walls of the theater is that part of one obstructed a small part of the view from one of our seats. I was pretty upset as I had tried really hard to get good seats. The good news was that we had a great view other than that – the theater is not so big that you’re far away from the stage in the circle boxes where we were. It was a lovely end to the evening.

Picture: view of St Nicholas with the Mariinski in the background seen on our walk home from the metro



My Conversation Cures Tooth Aches: Day Three in St Petersburg

No really, just ask Aasa. My conversation helped distract her from the tooth ache that plagued her trip, poor thing. Apparently my conversation skills are just that good.

I suspect things like the Hermitage also helped, if I’m quite honest. How could it not distract?

We walked to the Hermitage, getting great views of the Neva, St Isaac’s, and of course the Winter Palace.


At the Hermitage, we went to check out the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art as planned. There is a painting by Matisse of red dancers on a blue background that reproductions don’t do justice to. You can see the tension and the movement of the dancers quite clearly, despite what looks almost like primitive figures. It’s a powerful, stunning painting – one of my favorites from their collection.

We also took a look at some of my favorite State Rooms. As we were heading back from one wing, we heard men’s voices mixing in harmony. Somehow there was a small male A Capella group singing while we were there and we had managed to time our visit so that we heard them. Serendipitous!

I’m not sure how it happened, but we ended up staying at the Hermitage longer than planned. (Surprise!) That was pretty much our touring day, as we went out for a very late lunch/early dinner at a place around the corner from the Hermitage. This place has a cabaret at night, and we made grandiose plans to go see the cabaret that we never followed through on because we were so tired from touring. Instead, we went shopping so we had food for breakfast and could try Russian sparkling wine in the coziness of our hotel room, with our poor sore feet raised!