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100 Things About Me
The Bull's Testicles Project
Russia Trip: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Best of 2002: Movies, Books, Music.
Best of 2003: Movies.
Best of 2004: Movies, Books.
Best of 2005: Theater, Books.
Best of 2006: Theater, Books, Television.


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Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Nicholas Nickleby and the Mystery of the Missing Mole
No Boxing Day holiday for me this year (last year we were in Canada, where Boxing Day seems to rival the big 2-5 for all-round mega-importance), but after work and a refreshing bowl of pho, courtesy of the Than Bros. (which, of course, also means some kick-ass coffee with condensed milk and a lovely cream bun), we were off to a free screening of Nicholas Nickleby.

Slate’s second-string critic wrote it off as “an after-school special in Victorian finery,” and he may be onto something, but I don’t think it was an intentional down-market tilt. There’s no way one cute boy, especially one forever branded as “the under-age boyfriend in the British Queer as Folk,” could induce scores of American teens to go see a movie where every other character is either grimy and scraggle-toothed or evil. Just as Rabbit-Proof Fence was saved by brilliant casting, Nicholas Nickleby was doomed by one bad hire. The problem is that Charlie Hunnam—the eponymous hero—can’t handle the lines.

I’m a Northerner myself, and I’ve suffered my share of accent-related slights, so I don’t think it’s a Northern thing—the poor lad was struggling manfully to flatten out his vowels, anyway—but he just couldn’t get the rhythm right. Dickens—especially in this script—isn’t Shakespeare, but the actors need to be in full control of their breath and at a minimum they have to be able to pronounce the words and at least seem to know what they mean. Except when he was shouting in righteous indignation, Charlie’s speeches were a confusing mess.

It’s a terrible shame, because the rest of the cast was excellent, with one mysterious exception: Barry Humphries in full Dame Edna Everage mode seems to be have been directed to swallow all her good lines; a funny joke about the aged male lead in a production of Romeo and Juliet was totally ruined by the virtual inaudibility of the punch line. Otherwise, though, Jamie Bell (you may know him from such pale imitations of Kes as Billy Elliot), Christopher Plummer (the silver fox was so hot he turned me on!), Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Courtenay, Nathan Lane, and especially the great Timothy Spall were outstanding, but nevertheless, the movie was a bit fat nothing-burger. Not terrible, not embarrassing, but not very good. And all because the main lead—a handsome devil to be sure—can’t, you know, act.

One last thing: Nicholas Nickleby is supposed to be good and tall and handsome. Obviously Charlie Hunnam got the part because of his looks and his bod (the skimpy justification for a shirts-off scene at Dotheboys School wouldn’t even have passed muster on an Australian soap opera). Given all that, why did the U.S. distributors feel the need to airbrush out Charlie’s Enrique Iglesias mole? His mug’s on-screen for about 100 minutes, so I think the movie-makers must be OK with it, but check out the movie poster and the official Web site. A smooth, bump-free fizzog for the boy from Newcastle.
Rabbit-Proof Fence
It’s become a sort of habit of ours to go to the movies on Christmas Day—lots of parking spaces, no problems getting a good seat, and always lots of fresh new movies released just in time to qualify for Oscar nominations. This year we plumped for Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce’s story of the struggle of three “half-caste” Aboriginal girls snatched from their home and shipped to an institution 1,500 miles away to walk back to their families.

It’s a great movie that handles its agit-prop elements very deftly. Kenneth Branagh is brilliant as the civil servant driven by a missionary zeal to “civilize” mixed-race children, to “breed the black out of them,” as he’d put it. Branagh manages a nicely nuanced portrayal of someone who truly believes he’s acting out of love, being cruel to be kind. He’s not a sadistic Nazi (though, of course, he’s played that role pretty effectively in the past), he’s a sadistic do-gooder, a 1930s spin doctor who gives earnest slide shows to the women’s institute with the same passion he uses to bully policemen into wasting manpower chasing three kids around the vast Australian desert. (He was so damned reasonable in the part, in fact, that I wondered what the two mixed-race kids sitting with their parents in the row behind me would take away from the film. Since the Aboriginal characters often spoke in their native tongue, and the kids may not have been old enough to read the subtitles at the required speed, Branagh’s measured tones may have had more of an emotional impact, despite the repulsiveness of his position.)

The three girls are amazing. The official Web site goes through the usual palaver about the difficulties of casting, but in this case I have absolutely no problems believing it. This was a movie where the pool of suitable actors was relatively limited, the chances were that those chosen would have very little—if any—professional experience, and they had to be effective because they were on-screen, driving the film’s action, for most of its 94 minutes. All three did a great job, but Everlyn Sampi, who played Molly, the eldest and the leader, was amazing. On the Web site, Noyce says, “In Everlyn I see that star quality I have only seen twice in my career, once in Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm) and then again in Angelina Jolie (The Bone Collector) but now I had seen it a third time in Everlyn Sampi.” He may be dissing Sampi by putting her in that company.

So much of the film is the camera looking down on them from on high or gazing up on them from below, but all three girls—especially Molly—stay right in the middle of the picture. It could so easily have gone wrong—it would be easy to grow bored of their wanderings or lose interest in the chase—but the actors kept a tight hold on the audience’s attention.

Some critics complained that Noyce held back too much and kept the emotional temperature too cool, but I think that restraint make the movie’s political message all the more effective, especially the final coda that takes the story out of the closed world of history and bang into the middle of real life as it’s lived right now.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

Does a Tsetse Fly Have Me Undone?
No blogging activity from me over the holiday season—not much activity, period, actually.

I’m now convinced that my screwed-up-sleep-pattern problem isn’t monumental jet lag, as I’d earlier thought, but rather, sleeping sickness or narcolepsy. The minute I achieve anything approaching a “normal” schedule—work plus a potluck, which I managed on Monday (it was a gathering of the folks from my Russian class, and my lazy potluck contribution was a tin of holiday cookies sent to us by R’s sister), for example, the next day I’m spent from the moment I get up.

On Christmas Eve, I woke up at a decent hour, ran errands—gathering up festive foodstuffs and other holiday goodies—watched a DVD and … zonked out. At 4 p.m. I had to go to bed, where I immediately fell into a deep, deep sleep from which R had a hell of a time rousing me (I swear, a bucket of cold water was coming next). When I finally hauled my ass out of bed—we were due at some friends’ for holiday dinner—I was dopey and dull, and once again my head started to droop at 9 p.m.

The same thing happened on Christmas Day. I managed to stay in bed until 8 a.m., had to work for a couple of hours—from home, thank God—opened gifties, went to the movies (Rabbit-Proof Fence), had Christmas dinner, watched the Sopranos season finale, and … my eyes closed. I fought it for a while (which wasn’t doing anybody any favors, since my personality became that of a tired 2-year-old), but I was fast asleep by 8. On CHRISTMAS DAY! Despite the fact that I wanted to get stuck in to some of the great new books I’d received as gifts, or listen to my new CDs, or eat some leftovers, or just not be so damned boring.

At 3:30 this morning, my eyes were like saucers. Looking on the bright side, one good thing about this aggravating affliction is that I’m shockingly well-informed. Once I’d heard Morning Edition all the way through, I listened to News Hour on the World Service, got up and read Slate’s “Today’s Papers” on my Sidekick, and headed off to Victrola to read the Times before work!

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Seminar Stories
I’d better write about last week’s seminar before too much more time passes, or I might forget some of the juicy details. Actually, “juicy details” makes it sound as if there were scandals and shocking revelations—the sort of shenanigans that conference attendees in Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge novels get up to—and there weren’t, but it was exceedingly cool and a little bit strange.

First, the strange. The seminar was held in a Soviet-era conference center about an hour out of Moscow (or about two hours when I went because of the pre-Constitution Day holiday traffic). The accommodations were a weird mix of minor privations and spoiled-brat luxury. For example, there weren’t actually any beds—just couches with the back cushions removed. Thick ‘70s-style cellulose sheets were placed on top of the couch’s coverlet—not tucked, mind you, they weren’t really big enough to be tuckable—as if their only purpose was to protect the couch from nocturnal emissions. There was a blanket provided, but the rooms were so hot that you had to strip off the second you closed the door behind you; using the blanket was unthinkable. (Am I complaining that the room was too hot? Hell, no!) Since I was an “expert,” I had a room to myself, though the seminar participants had to share.

The real throwback was the food—there was lots of it, and I was certainly never hungry, but it was, well, weird. The breakfast buffet was massive, with way more choices than at the fancy Western hotel I’d stayed at in downtown Moscow. All manner of Russian milk products—a version of fromage frais whose name I don’t recall, yogurt, egg custard; kasha; cold cereal; bacon; hot dogs; fruit; the sort of breakfast choices that I associate with Holland/Germany/Scandinavia: rolls and cheeses and cold cuts (some of which were very stinky for first thing in the morning); and then bowls of cold, chopped vegetables: beets, corn, carrots, cabbage, peas, and monster platters of parsley. (Nothing says “good morning” like a plate full of parsley, I always say.)

Lunch, which was served around 2, was the meal I understood least. It always seemed to start with a featured appetizer presented nouvelle cuisine style on a big plate: a sardine, a slice of tongue, or some other morsel of meat. On the table were cold vegetables (yes, I know many of them are actually fruits): sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and, of course, parsley; once, there were some kidney beans sitting on a leaf of lettuce. Once the appetizers were cleared, big hunks of mystery (to me) meat would be brought to the table. To say these were tough would be an understatement—anyone brave enough to attack the chunks would then have to fish great hefts of inedible gristle out her mouth. Then we had a choice of peculiar soups: goat, spinach, etc. After that was yet another choice—generally between fish or meat, though the meat was usually very tough and the fish more bones than flesh. Dessert was fruit, piled high on the table. As a special treat, we experts were plied with Russian beer to wash down the grub (though often I was the only one decadent enough to accept). A “new Russian” who shared our table one day sighed, as he extracted some huge bones from his fish, “I swear this place hasn’t changed a bit since Soviet times, especially not the menu.” For me, this was a bonus: time-travel tourism.

I’m afraid I can’t tell you about dinner, because I never managed to stay awake that long. In all my years of traveling, I’ve never had my ass kicked quite so comprehensively by jet lag as on this trip. Writing this exactly one week after I returned, I’m still a chrono-mess—the last two nights I pretty much passed out at 7 p.m.

Anyhow, before you start to think that all I did at this seminar was fret about cellulose sheets and gristly meat, let me assure you that it was—and I say this despite my lifelong membership in the cynic’s club—life-changing. About 120 participants—split pretty evenly between the genders—came from the “regions” (I now recognize that this is Russian for “boonies”): lots from Siberia and bunches from the Urals and the Volga basin, the Caucasus, Kaliningrad, and Krasnodar. Their suits may not have been Moscow chic, but the peeps inside them were sharp as tacks. (When I got back, I told an American friend who spent several years in Russia that I was hooked, she e-mailed back: “It is interesting that you cite the folks from the hinterlands as clinching your Russia-bug—they are so friggin' poor (i.e., not Moscow nouveau riche) that they are forced to ‘remain Russian,’ hence more black bread, poetry and doses of Russian soul. Don't know that you can find that in Moscow much anymore.”)

Each session was two hours long, but this was broken down into a 30-minute presentation and a 90-minute question-and-answer period. As one of the Brits said, in Britain or the States, you’d get about three polite and very superficial questions after a talk; here the participants worried the speakers like dogs going after sheep. Particularly with the Russian speakers, no matter how exalted (and some were very high-level visitors—the deputy editor of Izvestiya, the general director of a TV network, a member of the Duma, the author of the new law on the media, etc.), as soon as the talk ended, the hands would fly up. The questions were smart, aggressive, and confrontational, but at the same time completely respectful. In Russia, it’s clearly culturally acceptable to have a no-holds-barred discussion without any ill-feeling. (It’s a good job debate isn’t an Olympic sport.)

It was the sort of gathering where you could learn more in two days of dinner-table chat than in years of study. Attending the presentations of the British and U.S. participants—John Lloyd of the Financial Times, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, Les Echos, my God who doesn’t he write for, the man’s a genius (for real); Ben Wegg-Prosser of the Guardian (who I knew from his attempt to start a British version of Slate); Andrew Brown of the Channel 4 parliament show, Powerhouse; Claudia Kolker from Houston; the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum—was a media studies master class, and hearing the Russians speak made me want to give it all up and become a Russia hand. I also got a huge blast from meeting Pilar Bonet, El País’ Moscow correspondent, who I’ve been reading for years. She too was incredibly smart and friendly and funny—and let’s face it, any time I can drink beer with lunch and speak Spanish with a journalistic hero in the same day is cojonudo.

In the end, though, it was the school’s organizers who had me reaching for the Kool Aid. When a couple of last-minute scheduling snafus meant they had to somehow fill six hours of programming on the third and final day, they turned one of the sessions into an impromptu reflection on “tolerance” with six or seven people—a mixture of staffers, graduates, and friends of the school, all but one of them Russians—sharing personal experiences on the topic. I’ve been to dozens of similar sessions in the last 20 years and have grown pretty much immune (I could lead a diversity seminar in my sleep), but I was incredibly moved by this one. Afterward, it was impossible not to realize that after the last couple of hundred years of Russian history—serfdom, Stalinism, totalitarianism—even attempting to set up truly free, democratic institutions is a remarkably brave and slightly crazy project. It’s such a difficult task, but at the same time, it’s absolutely essential.

Apparently, my session (the shockingly vague “How the Internet Is Changing U.S. Journalism”) went down well with the punters, so they asked me to come back again. My parka and snow boots are standing by.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

A Whiny Wednesday
For some reason I was aggravated for much of this particular Wednesday (Dec. 11). For one thing I never did figure out the sleep thing. Without chemical assistance* I was completely unable to control my circadian rhythms—at 4 p.m. I’d fall into a deep sleep, and at 2 a.m. I’d be wide awake. It’s all very well living on your own schedule, but when you have to coordinate with little things like meal times or opening hours (or, writing this a week later, work hours) it all gets a bit more complicated. So, on Wednesday morning I was in a foul mood. Things seemed way more complicated than they needed to be, and I was tired and experiencing the vacation equivalent of the Sunday evening mardies, when you know your precious free time is running out and you just don’t feel like you’ve taken full advantage of it.

I set out to see Lenin’s tomb with a presentiment of doom, and sure enough when I got there (my third time in that exact spot in the space of three days) I stupidly told the truth when the soldiers guarding the entrance asked me if I had a camera. I mean, yes, I did, but it wasn’t a problem for me not to use it, and a) I didn’t feel like tramping back to the Kremlin proper and trying to figure out where to check it; and b) I didn’t quite feel safe just leaving my precious little metal box off in a room somewhere given my sense of direction (would I ever find the check-room again) and my virtually nonexistent language skills (would I understand exactly what they wanted me to do). Basically, I had to decide whether to schlep back to the cloakroom and check my camera or give up on seeing the shrunken monkey man. Of course, those would be the choices for a normal, balanced person. Instead I got into a fight with the soldiers (quite an achievement when your vocabulary’s as limited as mine). Let’s face it, even in English I wasn’t going to persuade them to ignore the rules and let me in anyway (there’s not a whole lot of security rule-relaxing going on these days), and in Russian it was a dead cert. Instead, I came off like an ugly American demanding my rights when I knew I was in the wrong.

I gave up on Lenin, temporarily at least, and decided to kill some time in the underground mall across the street. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I got stuck in a Sbarro pizza, the mall didn’t open for another 30 minutes. These are the things guidebooks don’t prepare you for: What’s the best thing to do when a) it’s -15; b) there’s no place to go sit down within a mile radius; c) you don’t want to wander aimlessly because you don’t want to tire yourself out needlessly since complete exhaustion is guaranteed within a matter of hours anyway? After a few minutes brow-wrinkling I decided to give up on politics and head off for a bit of culture instead.

So, I ducked into the Metro and headed off to the Tretyakov Gallery’s modern art building. I didn’t have a very clear picture of where the museum was located, so when I left the Park Cultury Metro station I tried following the crowd, but I pretty quickly figured they were heading to Uglyville rather than Beautyland. After a bit of map mauling (for me, map-reading is like mind-reading; there’s no rational way to do it, I just sort of squint my eyes and make a big mental effort for a bit, then I just randomly pick a direction and proceed by trial and error), I realized I needed to cross the river.

Most Moscow streets, I discovered, are pretty pedestrian-unfriendly. There’s no way for a sane and sober person to cross above-ground; instead you have to descend into an underpass (and boy does capitalism thrive in those subterranean walkways). Since I had to cross the river to get to the Tretyakov, I was glad to see that there was a pedestrian walkway along the side of the highway, since I certainly didn’t feel like walking alongside the traffic in the snow. As was the case most of the time during my days of tourism, I was the only person walking across the bridge and later the only person cruising the gallery. (No Dressed to Kill scene for me!)

The Tretyakov’s sculpture garden is the home of the Garden of Fallen Heroes—a collection of giant sculptures of now-rejected idols—Marx, Lenin, Brezhnev, etc. I spent what felt like forever struggling to hold the camera at arm’s length and put myself in the frame with Karl, Vladimir, and Leonid, though I was largely unsuccessful (except at looking like a freak). I was able to cajole a lone passer-by to take my picture alongside one of the massive figures, but it was cold and she didn’t want to make a long job of it (or spend too much time without her gloves on), so it wasn’t a very successful picture either.

The museum was wonderful but overwhelming: an endless parade of rooms, artists, styles, biographies, and, oh yes, art. There were a lot of great pieces by artists whose names I didn’t recognize (Cold War, schmold war), but after a while I was too conscious of my aching hips and sore back and the various ways my feet were announcing their displeasure to really enjoy the art. This museum store was charmingly drab and unimproved. It was also refreshingly cheap: I bought two books, a couple of postcard packs, pens, calendars, and other trashy trinkets and still had change from $20

I was too wiped out to do anything else, but I had to wait for a few hours for my ride to the seminar center, so I ended up roasting in the hotel bar listening to bullshit expat business conversations and staring at some real-life Russian equivalents of the Sopranos’ Paulie and Sil. Well, actually, they were a couple of rows down the ladder from that—they were two well-dressed, good-looking young men who sat staring at their cell phones or wiping imaginary lint off their jackets. It was only when they went over to a larger table on the other side of the room to accompany some older gents out of the building that I realized they were goons.

My ride arrived around 8:30 and after a couple of miserable hours in traffic (though I was accompanied by a very charming, English-speaking representative of the Moscow School of Political Studies), I arrived at Golitsyno, and headed straight to my cell.

To be continued …

* When I got back to work and told a colleague who’s a sort of professional traveler about my struggles with jet lag, he said, astonished, “Didn’t you take Halcyon?” So I guess that’s the way to handle it next time, though I’m not entirely certain how to get hold of Halcyon.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Tuesday on Tverskaya
I’m writing this in pain. The consequence of doing that special toe-point snow shuffle for three or four hours wearing heavy-ish snow boots is a slow-burn ache in my hips, sore soles, and hurt calves where the top of the boots hit my legs, albeit muffled through two pairs of socks and long underwear.

Pretty much all I ate today was another monster American-style breakfast of pancakes and bacon. I feel guilty eating such Yankee food when there are so many interesting-looking restaurants around, but when I’m out I just don’t feel like stopping, and when it’s time to eat (Russians seem to follow a southern European eating schedule despite their climatory differences with the Med folks), I’m wiped out. On Tuesday, I got back to my hotel around 4 p.m., intending just to drop off my tacky tourist purchases and head out into the snow again, but instead I fell asleep watching EastEnders on BBC Prime (a pattern is emerging), and only got up at around 1 a.m. It’s not the right sleeping schedule, but at least I got the required number of hours kip.

My first stop Tuesday morning was the Central Museum of the Revolution—a messy but interesting collection of pictures, posters, and memorabilia. It was hard to figure out exactly what was going on—it’s a monolingual museum, and my rudimentary Russian couldn’t handle the long expositions; there were no quick overviews I might have had a chance with. Basically, though, the museum presented artifacts from a swath of modern Russian history, beginning pretty much in the late 19th century. There were images of the Romanovs, through revolutions (failed then successful), revolutionaries, the setting up of the Soviet Union, and World War II, but at that point things got confused and confusing. Suddenly I found myself in an exhibition of capable but uninspired contemporary landscape paintings, and then in the middle of a series of Dalí drawings, which required a special ticket that I didn’t have. The army of older women who have the lonely task of guarding the exhibits (I was the only visitor on that snowy December morning) were alarmed at my wandering into the wrong exhibit and took great pride in pointing me toward the continuation of the permanent collection, but I felt like I’d lost the plot.

Spaced among the rooms are little “interior fragments,” stage sets that are intended to present a slice of life of a particular time and place. Some of them were hard to contextualize—artifacts from a traveling circus seemed rather specialized for a general museum, but I’d read that there were two particularly interesting scenes: a glimpse of life on the Afghanistan front in the 1980s and a “typical” Soviet-era communal apartment. Unfortunately, despite much wandering, I never found these treasures, since the final rooms seemed to be given over to images from the Russian Orthodox Church—patriarchs, priests, nuns, vestments, etc. I’m sure the resurgence of the church is a very significant change in Russian life, but the goodies behind the glass were very un-fascinating, at least without the benefit of interpretive text.

As I was getting ready to leave, I followed a sign for the museum shop, which turned out to be the most unusual I’ve ever visited. These days, major museum shops highlight the down side of globalization: homogenization. You see the same concept in lots of different iterations, the only differences being that each museum “personalizes” the products by slapping on an image from their collection. Not at the Museum of the Revolution. Here the product was history, since it was basically a second-hand store. You could buy “typical” CP badges/buttons (I got about 40 for about $30—I saw them cheaper in a lot of places, but here I could browse and pick out the ones that drew me for some random reason), the kind of tchotchkes you see in lots of places, but also posters (obviously taken off folks’ walls), stamps, leather goods, old radios, old cameras, space paraphernalia, etc., etc. People were coming in off the street selling their possessions to the store manager—two old guys came in to shift some Christmas tree ornaments while I was in there. In effect, the museum store’s a relatively inexpensive junk shop!

After that I spent quite a lot of time getting turned around. I’ve always had a terrible sense of direction, but since I was pretty much retracing my steps from the day before and was just walking in a straight line (the street I’m staying on leads right to the Red Square/Kremlin area), I figured there was a chance I wouldn’t get lost. Fuhgeddaboudit! By the time I’d found Lenin, the object of my search, he was closed up for the day. Then I tried—and failed—to make a return visit to a couple of other places we’d visited on Monday.

In a state of almost total exhaustion I stumbled upon a Metro station (almost literally—it’s -10 or so, with snow on the ground, so walking conditions aren’t ideal), where I proceeded to get semi-hopelessly lost. It didn’t really matter, except that I was already so tired, but in the end I found the place I was looking for (a huge bookstore on Tverskaya I’d popped into earlier when I hadn’t wanted to schlep my purchases around), then headed back to the hotel.

One of the weirdest things about Tuesday was how many Russians asked me questions—I could tell they were asking directions or whether you could access buildings from certain points, but I wasn’t able to answer. I’ve always had the weird pheromones that mean people stop me on the street to ask directions, etc., (which, given my nonexistent sense of direction is always tricky—I don’t want to diss them, but I always know they’d be better off just asking someone else), but I was still surprised to be questioned yesterday. I just don’t look Russian—I don’t mean physically, for one thing in this weather no one’s showing their features, but in the way I dress. In a part of the city where most people wear furs or sober-colored cloth coats, I’m decked out in a bright-blue down parka and a wooly hat with a whale motif.

I probably won't be able to blog again until early next week. I'm off to the seminar tonight, and I don't think I'll have Internet access there.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Monday in Moscow
On Monday morning, after a monster room-service breakfast, I met Natasha, the contact of a contact I’d hired to show me some of Moscow’s ropes (since I’m touristing for just a short time, I didn’t want to waste any of it figuring out basic bits of geography or logistics). She showed up in the lobby of my hotel in a shockingly magnificent mink coat, scored, I later learned, on one of her trips to Canada when she worked for a joint venture.

Her English was great and she was a pleasant person to hang out with. I hadn’t requested that she drive, but since it was so cold out, she brought her huge American SUV, so later in the day I got to have that very special experience of driving around the city in rush-hour traffic.

We parked down near St. Basil’s, and although she works as an interpreter rather than a tour guide (as she had to insist to a ticket-taker at the Kremlin—my rudimentary Russian made out the word “constitution” as she remonstrated with the dude; it turns out he was giving her trouble, reminding her unauthorized tour guides were NOT permitted and she was reminding him of her constitutional rights to speak English wherever she wanted), she was full of fact and factoids about Russian and Muscovite history. When we were in the various churches inside the Kremlin complex, I was glad to have an Orthodox person around to explain the various rules of the church and to give me some clues about the iconography. In one of the “show churches” (Natasha had explained that many of the rules of Russian orthodoxy were relaxed in these temples of tourism—there was no encouragement for women to cover their heads as is usually required, for example) two women were deep in prayer, oblivious to the visitors wandering around them.

After photo-ops at the cannon that never fired and the bell that never rang (apart from the translation and clue-giving, it was worth several dollars to have someone available to snap me in the various stations of Moscow tourism—though I was so bundled up against the cold it could be anyone in the snaps, since pretty much all you can make out of me is my glasses frames), we went for a snack at a café overlooking Red Square in the old GUM department store, now a mall full of international boutiques. (My recommendation from the menu? The smoked salmon with lemon and olives—a monster portion of the good stuff and well tasty even if the olives are black jobs out of a can.)

Having restricted myself to the very Western/tourist-dominated bits of Moscow, I was shocked to visit the GUM bathrooms. I’d heard about the need to grab a helping of toilet paper when you paid your 8 rubles to use the lav, but I hadn’t been warned to expect a hole in the ground in a fancy “Western” facility. In a cold climate when you’re bundled against the elements, it’s a challenge to squat-pee with sufficient focus to keep your clothing dry, but I’m glad to say I succeeded. I was dying to ask Natasha how she managed to avoid soiling her magnificent mink, but it was an inquiry too far.

Afterward she drove me out to a place near the university where street vendors sell typical Russian tourist tchotchkes. After picking out some tacky items, I stupidly left them in Natasha’s car, so I may have to buy yet another Putin-Yelstin-Gorbachev-Brezhnev-Lenin matrioshki before I leave. I really wanted to get a cheap fur hat, but I was embarrassed. Now I wish I had because I imagine my chances of getting a good price were better when I had a Russian with me.

Finally, we made a little foray into the Metro. She picked out a couple of the more scenic stations for our demo—Mayakovsky, with its beautiful mosaic ceilings, followed by Revolution Square, which boasts some lovely Soviet-style statues on the station platforms. By now jetlag was setting in, so I returned home around 5:30 for some relaxing BBC Prime TV and a very early night. Too early, perhaps, since I’m now typing this at 4:30 in the morning!
Getting There
What’s the best thing you can say about a discombobulating 15-hour three-plane journey that takes you to a place that has a nine-hour time difference from your home? Probably that you didn’t get lost, in a fight, or vow never to ride that airline again. I didn't!

The SAS flight from Seattle to Copenhagen was incredibly civilized. There was no hectoring or double-checking to make sure the folks on the plane were obeying instructions. They simply made their requests in English and a Scandinavian language (probably Danish, since Hamletland was the plane’s destination?) and then they went about their business. There was no peeking to make sure you’d obediently fastened your seatbelt, stowed your luggage, or put your seat in the locked, upright position.

The service was excellent. As always seems to be the way on Transatlantic flights, the booze was flowing freely; as never seems to be the way on Transatlantic flights, there was a decent amount of legroom. The seatbacks offered individjy screens and a choice of about seven movies, on which I watched Blue Crush (it made me want to see it on a large screen where the surfing shots must’ve been spectacular) and Hollywood Ending (apparently, no one’s told Woody Allen that he’s turned into a bad impression of himself, though it’s been obvious to me for years now). The cabin crew passed much of the flight changing their clothes—one of the male stews donned a full-on chef’s attire, complete with a natty little kerchief, in order to serve dinner; the women modeled tabards, which, I am now convinced, make everyone look homely.

In the Copenhagen airport, another “we trust you not to do anything too stupid, so we’re not going to try too hard to stop you” homeland, I was struck by a little box they’d placed in every toilet stall. At first it looked like an ash tray, but then I noticed a big “no ciggies” sign and some other international symbology. It was actually a safe place to discard hypodermics, razor blades, and safety pins. In the age of plastic diapers, safety pins are only seen in places where clothes are made, so since there were no sewing machines in the ladies’ lav, I’ve got to think the bin was intended for the disposal of drug paraphernalia. I’m all for safe needle exchange, etc., but my God you’d need some pretty massive stones or jones to do drugs in an airport, one of the most security-personnel-intensive places on the planet.

I was in business class on the flight from Frankfurt. It’s weird how only 15 months or so after 9/11, it seemed outrageously transgressive to be using metal knives and forks or drinking out of glass stemware on a plane. I was sure that a bunch of federal marshals were going to stand up at some point to bust us for improper materials usage.

When we finally arrived in Moscow, I was very grateful to get the full VIP treatment. No standing in line or having to suffer the indignity of carrying my own bags for me. Instead we got to wait in a nice warm Soviet-era lounge, where an army of staffers polished glasses or tried to look semi-busy, though they didn’t seem to feel obliged to try too hard to give the illusion of diligence. In the hotel, a standard soulless American jobbie, I was pleased to find my favorite luxury: a cotton bathrobe so plush that my weedy little shoulders could barely hold up the fat, phat fabric.

Saturday, December 07, 2002

On My Way
What a week! I'd say it's a miracle I got through it without a heart attack, an ulcer, or a head of white hair. Well, I suppose there are more stressful things than a wild visa chase, but let's just say that after midnight office visits and way more calls to Moscow than I ever thought I'd make from my home phone, my Russian visa arrived this morning just six hours before I head off to the airport.

I've arranged to spend a few hours with a translator/guide on Monday so I can make the best use of my time in Moscow (I think I'll have three free days, though I'm not entirely sure what's supposed to happen on Wednesday--I may have to head off to the seminar site early). Yesterday, I finally found a Web link for the seminar, where I'm one of the invited "experts"! It's far more heady company than I expected. Check it out!

I'm taking my laptop with me, so I hope I'll have a chance to blog from Russia. Talk to you soon!

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Real Women Have Curves
Don’t let the title put you off. Real Women Have Curves, which I saw today, is astonishingly free of “ism” rhetoric or cheap points-scoring. Its most outstanding feature is its honesty—rather than making political statements about size-ism or sweatshops or class mobility, the movie presents a slice of life that feels very real. And that’s the most effective statement of all.

It’s a family story. Ana is just about to finish high school, and although her Mexican immigrant family lives in East Los Angeles, she got into and bused to Beverly Hills High School. Her experience of life is very different from that of her classmates—they’re already thinking ahead to their Ph.D.s, while Ana’s mother wants her to go work in her sister’s sewing factory, where Mexican women piece together gorgeous prom dresses. Ana’s mom and dad want her to go to work, but her English teacher, also Latino, thinks she can go far and encourages her to apply for college.

You probably think you already know how it’s all going to work out—and maybe you’re right—but the director, Patricia Cardoso, and writers Josefina Lopez, who wrote the play the movie’s based on, and George LaVoo, who adapted it for the screen, avoid most of the stereotypes and clichés they could so easily have succumbed to. Ana doesn’t have any private space, but this is just shown, not harped on. Mr. Guzman (played by George Lopez) nags Ana to write her college entrance essay, but we don’t get the tired old voice-over read-though of it, we get to guess what she wrote about. Ana’s sister Estela has to really struggle to keep her business going, and perhaps she’s being exploited and in turn exploiting her own workers, but maybe she’s learning the skills she needs to succeed, so that she too can become like the woman who pays her $18 for each dress that sells for $600.

But the most impressive slice of honesty is the portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship. Carmen, played to perfection by Lupe Ontiveros, is difficult. She’s rude and melodramatic and often cruel (she constantly chides Ana about her weight—one of the hard-to-believe plot elements is that this harping wouldn’t bother a teenage girl, no matter how strong-minded). This isn’t an aspirational mom beating the odds to get her girl a slice of the pie; this is a scared, sometimes vindictive woman who’s tired out and impatient and wants to get her daughters married off, while despairing that she ever will. She isn’t a bad person, but she isn’t nice either. She loves her daughter, but she has a very weird way of showing it. Perhaps Ana is a little too full of herself, a little stuck up. As crazy as it seems, a summer of sweating over a steam iron seems to do her some good.

America Ferrera, in her first movie role, is amazing as Ana. The Boston Globe’s film critic gushed, “I have seen the future of Hollywood movie stardom, and its name is America Ferrera.” Later in the review he admitted America “isn't ready to celebrate a Honduran-American teenager with a figure out of Rubens,” but it should be. Ferrera has the enviable ability to seem natural and “unactorly” and totally convincing at the same time (Ingrid Oliu as Estela doesn’t manage this trick, even though she has years of acting experience, but she still seems really right for the part). In one memorable scene Ferrera (and several other actresses) strips down to her skivvies, and it’s sort of shocking because it seems too true to happen in the movies. She’s zaftig and beautiful and sexy and way too real for Hollywood.
Not That There's Anything Wrong With That
R and I spent two and a half hours in REI’s “flagship store” Saturday afternoon. Probably if we weren’t so hopelessly un-outdoorsy it would’ve taken a fraction of that time, but we were like Hutterites at a leather convention: mystified and slightly appalled (do people really pay $60 for a pair of gloves?), curious but ultimately supportive of the exotic way of life (OK, so they use these axes to climb slabs of ice, but why?). It’s not my bag, but hey, if it makes them happy …

For some reason, we were the only people who chose to take the elevator from the parking lot to the store’s main shopping level (I mean, come on, it was cold out, and you have to negotiate several flights of rickety rustic wooden stairs just to go spend money). Then, we were oddballs because we weren’t wearing shorts (OK, the short-panted people were a minority, and if my legs were that ripped maybe I’d be baring my knees on the last day of November, but it made me cold just looking at them).

The staff were really helpful, even though I suspect they get a bonus for seducing shoppers into embracing their lifestyle. The endless willingness to recommend products that would get a person off the couch and into the woods, the cute little tchotchkes that make the hiking trails beckon (hey, I bought this tiny thermometer that attaches to my coat’s zipper, maybe I’ll go for a walk to see if it works ...)

Then I got winded on the boots-testing trail, which must’ve been all of 10-strides long, and came to my senses.