Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime"

These lists are everywhere, I'm sure you've seen them:
etc. These lists play on our fear of the temporal nature of life, our fear of not living well enough, of missing out on something. The popular list format  is also a catchy way to draw in readers with the modern day attention span of a fruit fly. These lists, however, can have some harmful consequences that I'd like to address. [Full disclosure, I actually have the 1,001 Places to See Before You Die book and I love it].

The evils of third-party travel bucket lists:

  •  They make something concrete out of what is, in reality, quite ambiguous. There are some things most people agree are life changing, quintessential travel moments, such as riding an elephant in SE Asia, hiking through the ruins of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, and seeing the great European capitals glitter and shine in their timeless glory. Even these categories, however, are pretty vague: which country has the best elephant rides (is it even a humane activity to partake in?), which ruin is the "must see": Chichen Itza? Machu Pichu? Which city is more classic: Paris? London? Rome? You see where the ambiguity lies.
  • People have different preferences. So what if you hate art? If it doesn't give you pleasure to see it, even the undisputed masterpieces of the world, you'd be wasting your time spending 5 hours at the Hermitage even if it is the #1 museum in Europe. You'd be better off taking that time to do a canal tour or have a traditional meal. Everyone's travel style is different, and these lists tend to favor the compiler's preferences- it just isn't fair to make people feel like they're missing something necessary.
  • They're judgey. Has anyone ever said to you, "well, you missed the real country-x" or "but that's not the real experience"? People develop notions that there is one way to travel: even alternative travel communities often tout their brand of couch surfing, backpack toting, otbp, back-door-finding travel as the only way. Although for the most part, those travel-hippies are my people, I absolutely can't support any style of travel being objectively the best! These lists propagate the idea that travel has an ideal form, an apex, a model- and anyone who thinks that is just plain wrong. There are as many different travel styles as people, and of the 8, 117 municipalities in Spain, if you'd rather see a village on the sea than Barcelona or Madrid- even if it's not on a list- that's okay.
  • You'll have the best trip by doing and seeing what you want. Not what a list tells you to. These lists can guilt you into taking trips your heart isn't really singing for (like my trip to Italy), and can end up costing you time, money, and stress that can be really harmful. I don't care if everybody and their mom (even including me) is telling you to go to country-z, if you aren't into it- DON'T GO*.
  • The encourage on-the-surface traveling. I sat down with the first list I've linked above and check off the places I'd been. As I went through, though, I had to make a third category: haven't been, been, and need to go back. That third category is for places I have been in name, I followed all the rules: left the airport, stayed overnight, ate a meal, whatever your personal criteria for having "been somewhere", I've done it. But I still don't feel that I've really seen these cities, and that is a personal, qualitative measurement. For example: I spent 17 hours in Istanbul, saw only one or two of the sights that most people would consider "must see", yet I feel that I experienced it better than my 2.5 days in Vienna! A list with check boxes makes it seem like the most important thing is to get the passport stamp, not to actually absorb the city and understand what it's all about.

There are great things about these lists as well:

  • For people just getting into international travel, they can help familiarize them with some of the most popular destinations
  • They can help even the most seasoned traveler decide where to take his or her next trip
  • They often come with beautiful pictures 
  • They inspire and feed wanderlust 
  • They are generally fun and lighthearted, and encourage travelers to reach out to new places they might not have thought of otherwise
Let's just keep in mind that, in general, these lists are one person's or a small group's opinion, they are by nature very limited, and they can have an exclusionary effect that we want to avoid. As long as you walk into it with your eyes open and the bias apparent, however, there's nothing wrong with a little wistful indulging! So, in that vein, I have combed through dozens of lists to find my personal favorite, and added a few amendments.

Check it out:

The original**


In my opinion***, you can skip: Houston, TX; Las Vegas, Nevada; Rome, Italy; Stockholm, Sweden; The Caribbean and the Bahamas (yes, the entire thing); Huangzhou, China

In my opinion, you should consider instead:
Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

St. Petersburg, Russia

The Republic of Georgia

Dalmatian Coast

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Xinjiang Province, China

more places in Africa that I am, regretfully, not familiar with...yet  ;)
Lalibela, Ethiopia

*Some restrictions apply, including but not limited to: being scared for no good reason, being boring, being lazy, being lame.
**This is from Travel and Leisure magazine, and the locations have one "essential" thing to do next to them- just keep in mind that these suggestions were made with the typical T+L reader in mind (this reader is likely older, whiter, and richer than you).
***"In my opinion" here means, if you travel like me, if you value the things I do, and have similar preferences, you'll probably agree with me

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Struggle of Transition, Starring: the Grocery Store

Since I've been back at UVA, I've been super busy. Getting used to new classes, my new apartment, and new people have taken a lot of my energy and occupied a lot of my mind- which has been so good because now that things are starting to normalize I'm going a bit crazy. Transition is TOUGH.

One of the places I've felt this hardship most acutely is the grocery store, which has become pretty much my least favorite place at this point.
Before going to Russia, I didn't really cook for myself. I was (and actually still am) a pretty terrible cook and had no clue about grocery shopping. When I got to St. Petersburg, however, it was sink or swim- especially after April when my host mom stopped making dinner for me. I learned how to cook a few staple dishes and got creative in the kitchen. I knew what to stock my fridge and pantry with. I knew exactly what to buy at the grocery store. It was awesome feeling so independent and successful! Of course there were times that I got frustrated when the small store near my house didn't have the products I wanted and I'd have to take a bus to the big supermarket for things like peanut butter or tortillas, but overall I was very content.
Enter, American grocery stores...
I had been longing for a choice of more than 3 cereals, craving fresh green beans and broccoli, and dying for some whole wheat bread and skim milk. I apparently forgot, however, just how much I was "missing".
So here's a helpful catalog of my thoughts while grocery shopping tonight to help you understand what I'm feeling (because I know you all care so very much...)

Enter the store:
OMG SO BIG...can't read those signs (because my sight is failing me, nothing to do with Russia vs America), where is the bread?
Would love some 50cent dushyes (pear soda) right now
I wish they had rolling basket combo things like in Okay Express

These tomatoes suck. Probably not even grown in America and so so expensive.
These peaches suck. Soo expensive.
These plums sucks. SO EXPENSIVE.
I'm need to rearrange my grocery budget...
Fresh broccoli! Fresh green beans!
Wow, melons are cheaper here, but it would be so heavy to carry home...oh wait, I have a car!
Wish tomatoes didn't suck...

I totally forgot this section existed. Do people really need a special section for stuff that's less than 100% chemicals? 
Look at all the granola varieties!
So many protein bars.

my favorite sausage
Frozen foods/meats:
Hey, maybe I can actually afford to buy meat here! ...nope, not really...but a bit cheaper
Maybe I'll just get some frozen chicken strips...LORD HOW MANY AISLES OF PRE-PREPARED FROZEN FOODS CAN THERE BE?!?!?! *this is where the panic really started to kick in*
Okay, abort mission, let's just go for a sausage (my staple meat product in St. P)...all I see is raw Jimmy Dean and deli meat...chemicals, preservatives, nitrates, I think my mom said to stay away from those...hey, there's a sausage! "Ingredients: animals byproducts"...and it's like a dollar so I think I'll skip that. I guess no meat.
Soooo much cheese! Yummmm way better variety and types I've actually heard of

(Probably what I was most excited for because I love cereal)
I can't remember what kind I used to buy before I went to Russia...let's see what they've got
Wow, is it really this whole aisle?
my corn cereal
Is there a Kroger brand of every single cereal?
How do I choose between vanilla almond crunch and crunchy almond blueberry??
Let's compare nutritional value- wow, whoever regulates this labeling does an incredible job compared to Russia. Props to the FDA (?)
Wait, is all that cereal too?!
*lungs start to contract, chest feels tight, eyes begin to redden* don't cry, don't cry, you can do this
Fine, this one is fine...I wish they had my Lyubyatova corn flakes...those are perfect

yes, that is milk in bags

Yay skim *no enthusiasm*
But maybe now I like a little bit of fat...I'll try the 1%
At least I don't have to guess what all the strange Belorussian dairy products are...although that was sort of fun

In the condiment aisle:
Why is it arranged by ethnic group??
Wish Heinz had the same products in America*
Where are the fridge-convenient squeeze bags of condiments?
No "burning Mexican ketchup"?
Why are there 100 types of olive oil and no sunflower seed oil? How will I cook anything???

"Wow, a bagger! How nice!" (girl looked at me like I was crazy)
Kind of a waste of plastic bags...
Might as well add this chocolate thing...

Sitting in Car:
Holding back tears. Feel like a failure. Never doing that again.

I've always thought of myself as someone who loves variety and change, who can't sit still and loves new things. To a large extent that's still true, I just miss the Russian version of me who felt like nothing needed to change, who wasn't bored and starving for new adventures, who was a successful independent if anyone wants to send me some starter recipes or a care package with my Russian cornflakes, Krasnodarskiy tomatoes, and Kronstadt sausage...that would be awesome.
Sorry if this post was depressing.
Thanks for reading.

*In Russia, Heinz sells way way more than ketchup. They have a ton of condiments including lots of cool Asian-inspired cooking sauces that I lived off of. They have canned vegetables. They have an enormous line of baby food products- cereals, soft foods, drinks, and a weird hippo mascot. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Little Things I Forgot

**Written 8/23/14**

Flying over Iceland

As soon as the plane landed in Chicago I got this strange feeling inside. I was a stranger, an outsider, but also I knew I would blend in so seamlessly. I was afraid to slide back into my old life without a fight, to just melt into the crowd and rejoin the army mechanically following the predetermined  socially acceptable path into a future of baby showers and 401Ks. I had the overwhelming urge to run, to hide, to just curl up into a ball, shut my eyes and ears and not let any of this stuff leach into me. But of course I couldn't do that, so I pressed forward, with the song lyrics ringing in my head "I'm not afraid of anything, I've got the whole world in front of me", trying to believe them.
Thankfully, I go to Charlottesville tomorrow and school starts Tuesday so I don't have much down time to contemplate my return and likely bawl my eyes out. Keeping such a tight, busy schedule keeps my mind off of all the things I'm missing and the nagging feeling that I'm somehow out of place here.

Anyway, I have to get back to packing for school, but here is a kind of funny list of things I had forgotten about America or things that kind of shocked me coming back Stateside

  1. Those skinny, flippy light switches. In Russia, almost all the light switches look like this:
  2. Bugs in the house. My apartment very occasionally had tiny rolly polly things, but I probably saw three spiders my entire time in Russia.
  4. Drinking tap water! I wished for this luxury every single day abroad. 
  5. Riding in automatic vehicles! I had forgotten there was an alternative to the herky-jerky life of manual transmission. 
  6. DRIVING <3 
  7. American money is so flat and monochrome 
  8. Everyone sounds like me
  9. HUGE cups...and to-go cups in general
    Seriously, that's like 30 oz
  10. People eating full meals in public/on the go
  11. People joke and chat with total strangers
  12. I spent so long being able to think elaborately but only being able to communicate in short, awkward stutters that I got used to words not really being that helpful. Now I'm shocked that I can communicate so freely and I don't need to plan out my sentences before speaking!
  13. Air conditioner in the house
  14. HUGE comfortable bed with fluffy down comforter and pillows
    Zuko waking me up on my cloud-bed
  15. People wearing shoes inside the house
  16. A totally stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry
  17. Insane water pressure in the shower
  18. Everyone dressed so casually 
  19. My mom's house is enormous. How can we take up this much space? Also- 90% of the stuff in my room is complete junk that I just want to disappear and never see again before it inevitably reintegrates itself into my overstuffed, over stimulated, material based life. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why I'm Scared to go "Home"

I'll admit it. It's not just that I don't want to go back to America, or that I'm not ready (both true), but that I'm actually scared...let me tell you why:

I'm scared that all the wonderful friends I've made here will forget me. I'm scared that I won't fit into American culture. I'm scared that all my friends in America will have forgotten me. I'm scared that there won't be a place for me anymore- in Yorktown or Charlottesville. I'm scared to go from a solid home here, back to the floating, constant non-permanence of American college life. I'm scared I will have changed. I'm scared I won't have changed. I'm scared for the culture shock I know will come. I'm scared to forget my time here. I'm scared to lose my Russian language skills. I'm scared to stop having something that automatically makes me stand out as unique and special. I'm scared to return to the land of instant gratification and constant self-absorbed-ness. I'm scared to go back to real university and study harder than I have the last 8 months. I'm scared to eat "normal" food again. I'm scared to lose my steady-ish source of income. I'm scared to leave my internship where I feel like I'm really making a difference. I'm scared to leave the city that still amazes me everyday. Most of all, I'm scared to leave the one place I've lived in my memory that I haven't felt trapped, the one place I haven't felt the need to constantly be planning my next trip, to constantly be looking to the future. In St. Petersburg, I've finally been able to live in the moment, to enjoy and appreciate now to the fullest. I don't know how going back to university- which is essentially just constant preparation for the future in the "real world" will affect my new outlook. I'm scared I'll forgot how to be happy to just be.
Of course, it's not all dread. There are certainly things about America that I'm looking forward to- seeing my family and friends, lower prices, never feeling lost in translation, every food option I can imagine, having my entire wardrobe, being academically challenged, etc...but it's not going to be easy. Yesterday I had my final baseball practice and at the end I couldn't help it, I just started sobbing. Of course I looked like a total idiot, and most of the guys on the team just felt awkward and didn't know what to do, but a few people I've become really close to gave me hugs and kisses and told me how much they'd miss me right as the sky cracked open and rain poured out, drenching us all huddled in tears and now was a perfect way to end what became my favorite activity in St. Petersburg.

I think this quote sums it up pretty well. If you've lived abroad, you'll understand this:

  “So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there…
         To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

4 Reasons NOT to go to Italy

This is just a short post...a warning of sorts. To read my full Italian experience, click here.

1. Money. 
Saw this classy souvenir in every city- 15 Euro
Unless you're making the big bucks, Italy will be really rough on your budget. Coming from anywhere outside Western Europe, really, Italy is very expensive. This is a problem that causes many others: first, there's the struggle between good food and affordable food. In Italy of course you want to eat the best food, that's a huge part of the reason most people visit the country, but it's difficult to eat out for less than 10 euros at anywhere other than a kebab stand or a tourist trap with re-heated frozen spaghetti. Second, stretching your budget on 2 euro bus tickets and tiny 1 euro slices of fruit stresses you out! It's hard to relax when worrying about money. Third, Italy is a country best experienced with a knowledge and passionate tour guide. As much as I hate organized tour groups, in big cities it is literally impossible to avoid the lanyard-toting, headset-wearing gaggles of chubby foreigners in khaki shorts, so I say embrace it! You're obviously a tourist, so take advantage of the position to get a good tour guide who can turn cathedrals from another pretty fresco into an actually memorable, educational, culturally enlightening experience. There are also so many hidden secrets and treasures in Italy that you really miss going it on your own (unless of course you've done extensive research and remember everything you've read about the details of the chapels and statues and fountains). Of course, getting a guide means spending more money which puts you in another tight spot. Fourth, frugal accommodations and transportation exist in Italy, but you must check options often and book early, while also sacrificing comfort and western-style customer service. It really depends on the type of traveler you are, but your dollar goes a lot less far in Italy than many other countries.

2. Because of Impressions You've Gotten From Films and TV
Under the Tuscan Sun, Roman Holiday, Letters to Juilet- those landscapes and lifestyles exist, but you won't see them. Okay, you MIGHT see them. Maybe if you charter a yacht and sail up the Amalfi Coast, or rent a car and drive through Tuscan villages, knocking on locals' doors. The sad truth is, the rustic, idyllic life than many people imagine as quintessentially Italian is not accessible to most foreigners. It is far more likely that you will shuttle quickly from city to city along with the other tourists and hear more English, Chinese, and Russian than Italian. You'll eat more "touristic menu"s than home cooked meals, and see more multi-lingual directional signs than TV-style life.
Typical Roman man taking in the piazza

3. The People
Italian people are not known for their hospitality or jolliness, and you shouldn't expect that of people you'll interact with in Italy. Now, I'm sure there are plenty of nice, kind, friendly Italians- in fact, Roman and I met one of them when we couldn't find our hostel in Porto Venere and some random teenager who spoke English climbed all up and down the cliffs to help us find it! However, you will likely spend time in 1)cities and 2)touristy places. Italian city slickers are definitely too cool for you, and they will let you know by ignoring you as much as they can. In touristy areas (everywhere), the Italians you run into will be in the tourism industry- either giving you fake smiles if you pay enough or they want your money, or making it very clear that they would rather be anywhere else. If you manage to make it off the beaten path and find a cool locals bar (that you probably found on the internet by Googling "authentic local bar", and thus has already seen plenty of tourists just like you desperately searching for an off the beaten path experience), the bartenders will likely ignore you and make a big show of serving all the locals first. Italians are rude to tourists- they'll yell at you for bringing luggage on the bus, they'll mutter under their breath and shake their heads at your confusion while reading a map, they'll roll their eyes when you try to communicate through your broken 10th grade Spanish...but the upshot is that there are scores of other tourists to share your awkward dejection. 
Awesome local pizza place, but the guy at the cash register literally pushed me out of his way and they were overall not happy to have two tourists who needed help with the menu and tried to pay with a credit card...

4. Too Many Tourists
This is probably the number one turn off of Italy for me. I live in St. Petersburg, where millions of tourists a year flood the main prospects and sights- maybe I just know the city well enough to frequent the non-touristy places, or maybe it's just that the sheer volume in Italy is beyond comparison, but I've never experienced the boiling, seething rivers of hatred in my blood towards tourists as I did in Italy (okay, maybe that's a bit intense, but bear with me). The swarms of tourists are crushing, crippling, and oppressive. Venice alone gets an average of 50,000 tourists (almost the population of Yorktown) a day. Almost everywhere you go you are following and being followed by other tourists, shops and restaurants are heavily geared towards tourists, and there is a constant barrage of vendors trying to sell you umbrellas, magnets, water bottles, t-shirts, etc. I understand there were some compounding factors to my trip- we stayed mainly in cities, we were there for only a short time hitting the main sights, and we went at the peak of tourist season.
Venice, St. Mark's Square
So to lessen this burden, do the opposite of what I did. From what I've read and personal anecdotes, however, even in the low season there are still impressive numbers of tourists. If Chinese couples shouting to each other about how to pose for a smiley peace-sign picture on their iPad across the main hall of St. Peter's Basilica doesn't sound like a historical, culturally enriching experience...I think you understand my frustration.
This especially cut me in contrast with the last trip I took- to Georgia, which was basically the opposite of this open sewer of tourist filth. I visited Georgia just before the start of the tourist season, and with a population of less than 5 million, everyone in that country seems to know everyone. We in fact ran into the same tourists multiple times in different cities! Everyone was friendly and warm and we found ourselves the only foreign tourists or among a very small group at more than one sight. In fact, now that I think about it, I think the only Americans I saw the entire trip (other than my travel partner, Kaley) was an expat family living in Tbilisi where the father worked for the New York Times.
To give Italy a little credit, I did notice a significant increase in stress as I moved from Cinque Terre to Milan to Venice to Florence to Rome- the more touristy, the worse the city was. (Venice is basically hell, and I spent a lovely day on my own in Milan reading in a park). 

Overall...I understand why people like Italy. Especially people who haven't been there or who have lived there for a significant amount of time. I don't really understand how anyone could like Italy after a short whirlwind trip through major cities and sights at the peak of tourist season. If you do what we did, you will almost certainly be wasting your time and money. If you're still set on visiting Italy, take my advice and plan a trip that moves slow, that leaves lots of time for exploration, forget the "highlights" and the guidebooks, and try to get out of the cities. Unless you have a specific thing you want to do/see in Italy, some strong connection to the country, food, or language, or are very wealthy, my recommendation is to put off traveling to Italy. Italy is spoiled. Its glory days as a travel destination are long gone, and waiting can't make it any worse than it is. For your next trip, try to visit somewhere that still holds a little mystery, magic, and purity left before it goes the same way as Italy...good luck and happy travels.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Missing the Mark in Italy

It's hard for me to admit this, because I like to style myself as somewhat of a pre-professional traveler, but my trip to Italy was for the most part a failure.
I even made a list of reasons not to go to Italy...
There were certainly good moments on the trip- wonderful moments! But overall, there was more stress than smiles, more unfulfilled expectations than moments of wonder, and more frustration than delight. Italy just...isn't my style- and I've always known that! I've said time and time again that Italy just wasn't on the top of my list of places to go, I knew it wasn't the type of place I would enjoy with my style of travel. I ended up being totally right. But the trip wasn't a total bust, and it's definitely worth recounting some of our adventures, so here are the highlights (and lowlights) of my trip to Italy.

When I first arrived to Milan I had about half a day to myself before Kirstyn arrived and those hours were really quite pleasant. My impression of Milan was really positive. Before I went, reading information about the city made it seem like an impersonal, bnoring, quasi-Italian, grimy business capital. I did get a distinct feel for the buisiness atmosphere of the city- lots of people of all ages zooming along on their little motorinos in beautifully tailored suits, and Milan is of course known for it's fashion and shopping which couldn't be missed. I didn't think the average Milanese was particularly stylish, but walking around the gorgeous "Rectangle of Gold" and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was a wonderful glimpse into a certain lifestyle.
Piazza Scala
There was a wide selection of shops ranging from Zara and H&M to Prada and some place selling 100 Euro hand-carved pipes. Inside the Galleria there were little swarms of Chinese and German tourists clicking their shutters incessantly, but here and there was a business man negotiating something into his Blackberry while smoking a cigar and throwing back a tiny espresso, or an older woman with heavy makeup and perfectly coiffed hair sitting at the Gucci cafe with her tiny dog laying at her feet. There were so many moments where I felt "this is so Italian!" and I initially thought that if Milan isn't "traditionally Italian" enough for some people, the rest of trip would be amazing. Milan saw my first Italian pizza (mozzarella, potato, and sausage), and my first Italian gelato (crema and nutella) and my first smoking hot Italian young businessman in tight slacks and a suit jack on a motorino flirting with me! So overall, yes, Milan was a positive experience. Of course the duomo was also gorgeous, and especially loved the Catholic University, late 4th century Saint Ambroggio Church, and quiet neighborhood surrounding them. In Milan I got the feeling that instead of a busy center that fades into more residential areas with less character, the whole city was like the very center had gradually relaxed and melted into the edges to form a large plain of pedestrian areas and high quality stores. It's hard to describe, but I liked it! I didn't get any grimy or industrial feel- although our hostel was certainly substandard. When I came back to Milan after Venice to meet up with Roman, the one thing he wanted to do was go to the AC Milan football we made a two hour mostly walking pilgrimage in terrible heat to see a big empty stadium...but Roman liked it, so that's what's important))

Venice is where the negative aspects of the trip really began to pile up. Maybe I just had expectations that Milan would be the base and everything would get even better from there, but it didn't really work like that. Venice was...crowded. Hot. Expensive. There were WAY too many tourists for my liking. Apparently Venice gets 50,000 visitors a day and it was really oppressive. Absolutely everything was geared towards tourists, it was nearly impossible to find anything local and authentic. The only real locals we saw were a few old ladies early on a rainy Friday morning, and the shop assistants and waiters at restaurants- many of whom weren't even Italian, but immigrants from North Africa and Southeast Asia. In Venice, there aren't really street signs, but there are signs leading tourists towards the major sights like St. Mark's Square and the Rialto Bridge/Market. There was literally a moment, when it was raining, and a big swarm of tourists, many dragging suitcases up and down the stairs and bridges, clad in ponchos, umbrellas clashing, shouting in Chinese and English, all pushed through a narrow alley following a sign towards St. Mark's Square, and I felt exactly like I was in a theme park. Like Busch Gardens' "Italy" section. I think that metaphor really carried through the rest of the trip as well. There were certainly things I loved about Venice, though! At night when it was cool and quiet, the canals were really beautiful. The architecture reminded me a lot of St. Petersburg (which was built by Italians), and I thought that was really cool. Because the whole city is SO geared towards tourists, there are lots of fun restaurants and shops, which is good, but also not really authentic Italy. There are no cars in the city, which is super neat, and there are lots of little alleyways and tiny courtyards to explore!
Adorable alleyway we found
The thing is, Italy is so imitated, and so well imitated throughout the rest of the world, that seeing it was surprisingly un-shocking. Nothing was completely new or unexpected, it was like I had seen it before. It was also a bit hard to tell what was real and what was fake. There are a lot of authentic old buildings, but also a lot of replicas. Are the gondeliers doing it for the tourist money or because its their family trade? Are the pizza-makers singing in the restaurant to draw in tourists or because they're happy? Does that fruit seller grow those in his garden or import them from Ecuador? You just can't I found myself being pretty skeptical about everything. I would go back and give Venice another shot in the off-season, but my experience there was certainly not one I'm eager to repeat soon.

Cinque Terre, La Spezia, and Porto Venere
Here is what I would call the best part of our trip. Unfortunately it was only two days, one night, but it was the closest we got to the idyllic Italian countryside paradise of the movies and I loved it! It was also our only time spent on the coast, and the only hours of relaxation I really enjoyed during this "vacation". Cinque Terre, or "Five Lands", is a series of five towns clinging to the Mediterranean coast of north western Italy. It is still touristy, but mostly Italian tourists from other parts of the country. It is also really popular for backpackers and hikers with its gorgeous cliff-side trails. We rode the little regional train up and down the coast to some spectacular views! Our hotel was actually in Porto Venere, another small town about a 30 min busride away from the regional hub of La Spezia. Porto Venere was so quaint, the perfect Italian post card! Our hotel was up high on a hill and we had a great view of the beach below. We had an AMAZING seafood dinner with wine and gelato for dessert. Perfect night))) Then the next day we went to the biggest town of Cinque Terre, Monterosso, and, despite threatening storm clouds, swam in the Mediterranean! If I could do it again, I would have spent the majority of our trip there.


Florence Duomo
Piazzale Michelangelo
I had pretty high expectations of Florence, and while I can't say it was exactly what I'd hoped for, I can definitely see how people love it. The train journey through Tuscany was much more beautiful than the city itself- rolling hills, mountains in the distance, little red roofed villas and stately palazzos. The city itself had less character than I expected, but the center was certainly worth seeing. We climbed the Campanile (bell tower) and got beautiful aerial views of Florence, we climbed up a big hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, basically the balcony of the city, and saw the urban core melt into the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Thanks to some wonderful tips and recommendations from my friend Emily who studied abroad in Florence, we found the BEST gelato (muscato and peach granita was possibly the best thing I ate in Italy) ever and got more out of the city than we would have otherwise. I liked Florence overall, but I felt like I was missing the magic. I think if we were to have someone who completely adored the city show us around and transfer some of their passion, it would have left more of an impression.
Posing in the garden of a convent with orange trees!

Well...I read a lot of articles before I went about how Rome is hard to get on the first visit, and almost impossible to love. The best you can really do is to try and handle the city through its overwhelming chaos. I actually didn't find the city to be that overwhelming, perhaps because our hotel was in a very quiet neighborhood outside the center, or because our short stay only let us see the highlights, but I can't say I loved it either. Rome was definitely the city I liked least out of everywhere we went. It was awesome to see the ancient ruins alongside well preserved medieval and renaissance architecture, and I decided I liked the latter much more. It was actually difficult to reconcile my ideas of the Roman Empire with the experiences we had in the rest of Italy. We dedicated a day to "Ancient Rome" and it was hot, dusty, and tiring. Roman knows a ton about that period, and he was loving it, so maybe having a knowledgeable tour guide would have improved my experience. We also spent a day at the Vatican, and that was really really cool. I loved it and I would definitely recommend it. I love the mystery and tradition of the seat of the Catholic Church. I've read enough about the Papacy to really get into it! (Plus at every corner I was pointing out Angels and Demons references...) The Vatican Museum is enormous and full of interesting details. One of our best nights we spent in. On our last night in Rome, we picked up pizza from a restaurant on our street that was hopping with locals all night long (it was absolutely delicious), cracked open a bottle of wine we brought all the way from Florence, enjoyed a juicy watermelon, and just relaxed, decompressed, and reflected on our trip. I can see myself returning to Italy at some point, giving it another shot, but honestly I can't see myself going back to Rome- I've had enough.
Castello Sant'Angelo


If I could do it again...
  • I would go with a bigger budget.
  • I would have read a book or two about ancient Rome or general Italian history before I went to get me in the mood, so to speak.
  • I would have hired private tour guides (bigger budget)
  • I would have spent all the time on the coast and in the countryside relaxing, with maybe day trips to Venice and Florence.
  • I would have met some Italian people.
  • I would have eaten more local specialities rather than just constantly (totally delicious) pizza and pasta
  • I would have tried more local wines
  • I wouldn't have missed my flight home and have to spend 13 hours in the tiny, terrible Bergamo airport.
  • And the biggest "would have"?...I would have spent the money on a different trip altogether. 
 The initial reason to take the trip was to see my darling best friend Kirstyn, and that was a total success, so in the end, perhaps the trip wasn't so much of a failure after all. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An Accidental History of Russian Music

and other audio thoughts.

Here is a link to the Top 40 in The Netherlands right now so you can see for yourself. I'm not saying America is a bastion of musical integrity, but SERIOUSLY?
Check out this gem. Calamari.

By far the most popular music in Russia in the last few years has been American imports. I don't want to get into a whole history of Russian musical tastes, but a quick, non-scientific anecdotal breakdown:

Soviet Union: Soviet singers. Mostly Russian, but notable "southern" (Caucasian) influence. In the late 1940s the USSR tried very hard to block out the evils of Western music- particularly jazz. This was a LONG period, much too long to generalize like I am, but I don't want you to get bored and stop here's an example of early Soviet music- this song is about war (a popular theme in a country ravaged by 4 wars in the first have of the 20th century), and also from a film. It's called Если завтра война (If Tomorrow Brings War).

In the 1960s and 1970s, "VIAs" (vocal-instrumental ensembles) were the big thing. VIAs were generally state-organized groups of singers and musicians who would performs songs written by the Composers' Union of the USSR. Only officially approved VIA were allowed onto the main stream of Russian music. VIAs developed a pretty distinct style, poppy and youthful, radio friendly, yet strictly in accordance with Soviet standards. This time period also saw the rise of "bards". These were solo singer-songwriter acts with roots in the traveling folk singers of the past. With deep, emotional lyrics and easy to sing, repetitive songs, bards were often seen as an alternative to VIAs.
This song is from bard Vladimir Vysotsky- Жираф большой, ему видней (Giraffe is big, he sees it better)

In the 1980s, rock rolled under the Iron Curtain. As not official VIAs, most Soviet rock bands that developed in response to "Beatlemania" and other western influences were forced to operate underground. By the late 80s, through perestroika and simply lax censorship, rock clubs began to spring up and rock music became the mainstream. Here's where there is music that I actually really like. Bands like Nautilus Pompilus, DDT, Kino- great stuff! На пример (for example):
Nautilus Pompilus, Goodbye America (1988)

DDT, Осень (Autumn)

According to Lenin:
"Every artist, everyone who considers himself an artist, has the right to create freely according to his ideal, independently of everything. However, we are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases. We must systemically guide this process and form its result." (thanks, Wikipedia!)

Then comes the 1990s. With the fall of the Soviet Union all hell breaks loose in Russia, but the music was legitimately good. The product of struggle and suffering + collapse of a great power and ideological symbol + loose of an official unifying, collective mission + the task of having to redefine your national and personal identity + no money, no food = great art. Many people would disagree with me- especially those who grew up listening to Soviet music. 90s music has a different tone- darker, hollower, but I dig that. Plus I have no emotional ties or memories of Russia in the 70s/80s/90s so that doesn't enter into my personal preferences. Rock was still the major genre in this period, but leaning more towards alternative rock. Punk, ska, and electronic influences were also strong. Some notable acts: Дельфин (Dolphin), Ночные Снайперы (Night Snipers), Ленинрад (Leningrad), and so many others! Here are some samples...
Дельфин- Весна (Dolphin- Spring)

Пилот- Ждите Солнце (Pilot- Wait for the Sun)
 Bi-2 - Счастье (Happiness)

Чичерина- Ту Лу Ла (Chicherina- Tu Lu La)
PS- this is my alarm clock in the morning!

And then came our current century. With the advent of the Internet exploding globalization, Russian music has more western influence than ever. As Russia scrambled back to its feet under President Vladimir Putin, much of the hardships that drove the angst of the past few decades faded to the background. Mainstream artists today produce much more of a western-inspired pop/dance/electronica sound. Some might call this music vain, weak, uninspired, silly, or even "terrible". I would agree on many levels. BUT- I also generally love it. So there's that. Let me give you a few examples of the 2010's (is that what we're calling this decade?) best pop trash:

Дима Билан- Задыхаюсь (Dima Bilan- I'm in, you take my breath away)

ВИА ГРА - Перемирие (Via Gra- Truce/Armistice)
*Note the group's name, derived from the Soviet VIAs!

The classic Greek dance beat (this probably has a real name I just don't know...but it's the main beat in this track, I'm sure you'll recognize it) is also finding fans in Russia.

The early 2000s particularly produced some music that was a little more substantial. White boy rap got pretty popular.
(If anyone asks- Guf is dead)

Noize MC- На Марсе Классно (On Mars It's Cool)
*This song was a collaboration with a guy from DDT!

Alternative metal and more hardcore sounds gained popularity, along with heavy metal and power metal like:
Ария- Такая вот печаль (Aria- Such Sorrow)

I also want to mention pagan or folk metal (oh my goodness, when did I start to know so much about metal??) because I really like the band Arkona. This genre in Russia is marked by Russian lyrics, themes on nature and other folk elements. Check them out!
Аркона- Гой, Роде, Гой! (Hail, Rod, Hail!)

Most of you probably know t.A.T.u, the "lesbian" electronic pop-rockish duo that experienced international success in the early 2000s. They existed.
Folk rock also hit it pretty big in the 2000s thanks to acts like Pelageya (now a judge on the Russian Voice TV show) and Мельница (Windmill).
Пелагея- Казак (Pelageya- Cossack)

So! What started as me wanting to share the horror that is "Salsa, Tequila" with you has turned into a brief history of Russian music...
If you made it this far- thanks so much for sticking with me!
Let me know what you think. Did I leave off your favorite artist? Did I get something wrong? Want more Russian music? Comment below!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Feeding a Mountain Soul in Kazbegi


I hope taking so long to write this post has built the suspense up for my dear 30-ish readers, so without further ado, here is an account of my adventures in Kazbegi, Georgia.

Kazbegi from above
I have always been of two souls- half city and half mountains. There is something that just feels so right with me being in the mountains, living slow and natural and honest, but it also scares me thinking that I wouldn't be able to access everything I'm used to, especially after last summer in DC, going to school in Charlottesville (fairly big city), and now living in St. Petersburg. I guess it's something I'll have to consider more as I get closer to graduation, but of course there are more jobs to be found in the big city. I think living so long in Yorktown where I so often felt hopeless and trapped in the suburbs without the "urb" has scared me away from being able to just relax and melt into a life in the countryside. The good news is that Georgia is about the size of South Carolina! It's quite easy to travel even from one end of the country to the other so you can go from Tbilisi into the mountains in less than 3 hours by marshrutka as Kaley and I did!

It's difficult to explain Kazbegi, impossible to do it justice, but I'll try. From hot mid/high-80 degree Tbilisi, we drove the bumpy road north. I was squeezed between a young Belorussian girl going to visit friends and a Georgian priest who talked on his cell phone half the trip. It rained on and off, and my head was higher than the windows, but I contorted my back and neck so I could see out the windows occasionally to catch glimpses of high, winding mountain roads and snow capped mountains. During the trip I re-read the beginning of Mikhail Lermontov's "Hero of Our Time"- one of my favorite novels and a big part of the reason I love the Caucasus so much. It was mind blowing to read descriptions of the very same mountains I was climbing- then in an ox-drawn carriage, now in a rickety mini-bus, but both stunned by the towering peaks and intrigued by the foreignness of the people, language, and customs.
We found the marshrutka in Didube (see my previous Georgia post for a detailed description), Tbilisi's transportation hub, in the morning and came back in the evening for the journey. When we first scoped it out in the a.m. we met a man who gave us a business card for a guesthouse in Kazbegi run by his brother. I politely pocketed the card and forgot about it, since we already had a Lonely Planet-advised game plan for finding a guesthouse. When we returned to Didube later, the man found us again and said his brother would meet us off the marshrutka. This time we had to forcefully decline. I finally conceded to call him if we had any trouble finding our planned guesthouse, that he would be our backup plan. Turns out his persistence led to one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
When we arrived in Kazbegi, we hopped off the marshrutka into a light drizzle and much colder air than in the lowlands of the capital. Waiting for us there was, of course, the brother whom we had told not to come. I am certain my Russian had been clear and firm on the point that this hostel was not our first choice, but these guys didn't let up! We managed to bargain the cost down to 15 lari (about $9- which we later learned was the lowest price they had ever taken in travelers for!) a night including breakfast. The weather was getting worse, he had a new, clean Jeep standing by, and the Belarussian girl intimated that we wouldn't find a better price in town, so we finally agreed and let ourselves be swept off to the guesthouse. I will spare you the details of the house and the people, honestly, it kills me not to describe you ever blade of grass as is embedded in my memory, but I know my reader better than that and I doubt half of you even made it this far, so I'll get to the juicy bits.
The reason this was such a stunning experience is two fold: firstly, the backdrop was straight out of a fairytale. Warm days, cool nights, an idyllic town full of horses, goats, sheep, and herding dogs nestled in the cradle of the mighty Caucasus the way a cracked egg sits in the nest of gooey bread and cheese in an Adjarian khachapuri. Secondly, the people were and are phenomenal. Every person we met, without exception, opened their homes and hearts to us. Everyone wanted to feed us and talk to us and just communicate. In such a small, insulated town there is not much to do other than "guesting" and having foreigners, especially outside the tourist season as we were, was an exciting event. This was proven on the first night when a steady stream of neighbors, cousins (they all seemed to be related somehow), and friends dropped in to either talk to us if they knew some Russian or more likely just sit on the couch across from us and stare with a nervous smile as Kaley and I scarfed down a delicious dinner. Our hosts, Nata and Mito, treated us not like hotel guests but like family staying from out of town. We had our own section of the three-building complex with our rooms and a bathroom, but the living room and kitchen were shared with the family. They have two sons and several other children who frequent the house, the most adorable puppy in the world, Nagaz, 40-ish sheep, and a horse. Nata makes fresh bread and gets butter from her neighbor, she wishes they would buy a cow because a cow is a sign of a good household, she teaches Georgian at the local school as well as running the guesthouse. She was so patient with Kaley and I as we stuttered out Georgian phrases, and we were able to converse comfortably in Russian. The people in that community were overflowing with warmth and light and kindness. They interest in us was genuine, not just surface curiosity, and made us feel so welcomed and wanted I can still feel the imprint of their love on me.
We had 3 days packed with adventure, so here's a breakdown of the events:

Day 1: Arrive to Kazbegi, eat bread and butter and cheese and tomatoes and cucumbers until we're sick, get to know Nata, watch Georgian television, practice English with David (Nata's oldest son), and get carefully inspected by about 10 neighbors.

Yard of the Guesthouse

Day 2: Hike to Gergeti Monastery (meet a gang of motorcyclists who are traveling around the world- of course the Georgian of the group invites us to travel a bit with them and we politely decline), make the 2.5 hour hike up the long way through foot-deep mud, pastures, and a graveyard. This trip also saw the birth of our slogan "If cows can do it, we can do it!" because as we huffed and puffed up the mountain we saw cows grazing nonchalantly and their patties marked even the steepest sections of trail, so those mountain cows became our inspiration. In the afternoon, discover Nagaz and love him silly, then convince David and his cousin David to give us a ride on their horses. Unfortunately, our David's horse was grazing somewhere in the mountains unknown to him at the time, so we rented another horse from another friend/cousin (I forget exactly how much, but really cheap), and the two David's took us up to a recently built quaint church called Ilya where most locals go to worship. We laid in the open, grassy fields for a while, before galloping back down the mountain!
Cows doing it

Reached Gergeti!

Day 3: Mito drives us to the small small village of Juta (60 people), from which we hike the Sno Valley. We hike three hours in one direction, through the valley and towards the foot of an old volcano which is all covered in ice, then turn back and hike the other direction for about an hour and a half where we get less than a kilometer from the Russian border with Ingushetia! I SO regret that we didn't have our passports with us, otherwise we would have crossed the border and back over for a little mini-trip and passport-stamp gathering adventure. Next time I'll come prepared. After hiking we come back to Kazbegi, where we discover "Google Market" and some of the town. A veritable feast awaits us at Nata and Mito's and we chow down on bean stew, khachapuri, veggies, and Georgian homemade vodka "cha cha". After dinner, a cousin invites us to take one last horseback ride through the mountains at sunset. My heart nearly breaks at such a beautiful moment. So many emotions flood our minds as we do our utmost to stay up late and squeeze the last drops out of Kazbegi despite being exhausted after the last two days of hiking.

Mito wanted a "fotki-motki" before the Sno Valley hike

Ice cascade
(I was at the bottom of it, but it's kind of an optical illusion, looks like it goes up and down, doesn't it?) 

I was not impressed by the sudden hail storm

That's the Russian border station

Market Google
Amazing feast

Day 4: We say goodbye to everyone (especially the ball of sunshine Nagaz), strap on our giant backpacks, and head towards the city center to catch a marshrutka. A van pulls up next to us almost immediately, driving is one of the cousins who we only briefly met, but he offers us a ride to the center and we accept. The ride is silent except for soft strains of pop music on the radio as our friendly driver doesn't speak Russian or English, but the kindness he afforded us was enough to fill the space between us. We leave.

Nagaz being adorable
I left Kazbegi with a heavy heart. It was physically painful to leave that place, that magical, suspended realm between the harsh reality of my life in America and the hurried confusion of my life in St. Petersburg...I feel there is still so much to learn from those mountains and I know that one day I'll uncover more of their secrets.

PS- Don't forget to check my Facebook in the album "If Cows Can Do It, We Can Do It" (now the title makes sense, right?) for all my Georgia pictures!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Signs of Summer in St. Petersburg

  6 Ways to tell Summer has come to the Venice of the North

  1.  The topols start flying! The first really hot day in St. Petersburg, I noticed small white balls of fluff floating through the air all over the place. At first I thought it was coming off of some construction site or truck or someone's clothing, but they were all over the city! Turns out, it's just some tree sex. The seeds of the poplar (тополь) tree are generally released in June or July, but this summer is unusually hot unusually soon.
  2. The tourists come out. I live right next to the Russian Museum and "Arts Square" with several theaters. Everyday there are dozens of tour buses parked out front releasing hundreds of eager tourists in tennis shoes, high socks, and khaki shorts. Just from a visual and auditory scan, most seem to be Chinese, Korean, British, or Scandinavian/Baltic.  
    Pushkin Statue in Arts Square surrounded by poplars
  3.  Food carts everywhere. After working at a food truck for my first year and a half at UVA, I have developed a deep appreciation for meals on wheels. While I haven't yet tried a хот-дог (hot dog) from a cart, I have enjoyed several ice cream treats! I especially enjoy watching the parade of vendors rolling their carts down the streets in the evening at closing time.
  4. Black people appear. Going along the lines of #2, with the influx of tourists, students, and seasonal workers, diversity goes up! During the winter months there is the occasional black person, but they are generally few and far between here in St. P. In January I probably saw one black person every 2 or 3 days and now I'm seeing 3 or 4 each day! (I use the word "black" here to denote people of probable African descent, not in the way Russians use it to refer to people from the Caucasus and Central Asia). 
  5. Skin is revealed. If you come to Russia in the winter or spring, it is easily to be think that Russian women are quite modest in comparison to America. Although it is not unusual to see mini skirts and tights on even the coldest winter day, it is rare to see exposed breasts or shoulders. Until the day the mercury hit 30 degrees Celsius, women were largely wearing light coats and long sleeved shirts. I got intensely stared at for showing my shoulders in April even though the weather was nice that day! I was starting to get scared that women never show their upper half here, but then...BAM Russian women left and right are barely clothed! Of course not everyone dresses revealingly, but shorts shorter than my hand are not uncommon and tank tops abound. I guess the key is waiting until the heat builds to an unbearable level, as close to June 1st as you can push it, and then watch the crowd- you can't be the first one to shed your winter modesty, but once the tide starts it is powerful.
  6. White Nights. Probably the most iconic sign of St. Petersburg summers, white nights is the period of the year from about the end of May to the beginning of July where the sun doesn't or barely sets. Yes, that's right. 2 am and it still looks like 5 pm. There are wonderful things that happen during white nights- crazy all night parties, dozens of festivals and concerts, and a special joy that Russians rarely express. It also makes it really hard to sleep...instead of the sun regulating your body clock and daily routine, you suddenly find it to be 11 pm and you haven't even thought of dinner yet!
    A bridge opening during white nights

If you're visiting St. Petersburg in the summer, check out this Lonely Planet article about what to do to have the quintessential SpB summer experience!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Georgia on my Mind

It has been almost 2 weeks since Kaley and I returned from our trip to Georgia. I have finally decompressed enough to be able to write about our incredible trip and share with all my readers the wonder that is Georgia! I won't write every detail, but I'll try to hit some highlights and then perhaps delve a little deeper in subsequent posts.


Day -1: Istanbul
Day 1-3: Tbilisi
Day 4: Day trip to Mtskheta, evening travel to Kazbegi
Day 5-6: Kazbegi
7: Gori
Day 8-9: Batumi

Istanbul: We left SpB on a sunny Monday afternoon and flew to Istanbul. We met up with our host, C, who we found through Couchsurfing. C met us Taksim Square when it was already dark. We got a quick tour of the Sqaure, saw Golgata Tower, and then ate a delicious dinner of Turkish food at an authentic (a bit grimy) local cafe. Then we treated ourselves to some dessert:
Pistachio ice cream and creamy pudding

Turkish coffee and Turkish delight!
Yes, we read our fortunes in the coffee residue))
We spent a veryyyy short 4 hour night at C's apartment, then got a cheap taxi back to Taksim Square in the morning, caught the shuttle to the airport, and continued on to Georgia <3

Tbilisi: My first impression of Georgia was hot. Hot, humid, lush green hills, and public transportation. We took a bus from the airport which made several stops along the way and quickly filled to the brim with sticky, steamy, hairy, loud Georgians. My 65 liter backpack was pushing me off the tiny bus seat and jamming my knees into the hard plastic in front of me, the rotating selection of old women in the seat next to me provided one direction of interesting people watching, but looking left I saw the beauty of the Georgian capital slowly rise out of rural, forested road. We had absolutely no idea where our bus stop was, but in fact we had no problems as it seemed that everyone else on the bus did! We hadn't said a word to the driver, yet as soon as we reached our stop the driver and several other passengers started shouting "Rustaveli! Metro!" at us, and shuffling us off the crowded vehicle. The owner of our hostel met us at the bus stop and walked us to the hostel, only about 5 minutes but it was so nice to have a personal escort! The hostel was a great experience, making friends with some other Egyptian guests and hanging out with the hostel owners every night.
We hit the highlights of the city: Mtatsminda, Mama Daviti, the Mother of Georgia statue, Narikala, all the gorgeous churches, Dry Bridge Market, strolled Koti Apkhazia street, and pampered ourselves at the sulfur baths in Abanotubani.
At first, to be honest, I felt like Tbilisi was a less  impressive St. Petersburg, like a forgotten Soviet capital sinking into the greenery around it. The longer we were there, however, the more I was able to see the unique character of the city. Tbilisi is not cosmopolitan, it is not fast paced, it is not wild. Instead, it is friendly, personal, intimate, easy, and so beautiful. I loved how you could see the low foothills of the Caucasus rising from almost anywhere in the city, but my favorite part was how small it was! Size-wise, Tbilisi is pretty walkable, though not as much as some other cities (like Prague or Paris). It really feels tiny when you end up running into the same people again and again! There's a pretty solid list of attractions that the tourists cycle through (there were particularly few tourists since we came before peak season), but we also ran into locals more than once! It's so easy to build relationships here- asking directions can lead to a 30 minute walking tour and a chance encounter on the street can lead to a delicious home lunch! This small-town feel continued across the country as we ran into old, and made new, friends everywhere we went!
Tbilisi is also dotted with comfortable cafes and plenty of options to sample local cuisine! Here in St. Petersburg, most Georgian restaurants are on the fancy and pricy side, I was delighted to find that in Georgia, food is incredibly affordable, and even better than Russian imitations. We rolled away stuffed from every meal and rarely spent more than $10 including drinks. There are also plenty of street food options. Tbilisi is a wonderful place to get your footing in Georgia- definitely glad we started there.
View up at the Narikala fortress

Mtskheta: Our last morning in Tbilisi, we woke up and quickly headed out to Didube metro station- Tbilisi's transportation hub. From there you can go practically anywhere in the country or beyond! Here's where reading Georgian or at least Cyrillic will really come in handy as the dozens of buses, marshrutkas, and taxis are marked with their destinations. Clearly identified as tourists by our strange clothing and confused, searching faces, we were quickly surrounded by drivers- "Devushki, where are you going? Batumi? Kutaisi?" We were firm-
"No thank you, Mtskheta"
"Are you sure? Kutaisi is beautiful this time of year, only 10 lari!" they pushed a little bit, but once we insisted our plans were solid once or twice- and here comes my favorite part of Georgia- they stopped trying to sell us and began to help us. Time after time, a driver would lead us to the right bus, lead us to the right driver, send us over to the guy who has a guesthouse in our destination. The "small-town feel" appears here again, as the network of drivers seems to be a sort of brotherhood, where they work together not only for their own profit, but for the benefit of every visitor who stumbles through the exhaust-filled maze of Didube. We never had a single problem with finding the right transportation, and rarely needed to figure out anything on our own. Just wait a minute or so and someone is sure to appear who can help.
Anyway, back to Mtskheta! We headed there on a Marshrutka, about 30 minutes and dirt cheap (I think less than $2). Of course the driver pointed out the city center where we should get off, and we immediately found the enormous, beautiful Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Translated as "Life Giving Pillar"- read it's origin story (with much better pictures than I could take) here. I have seen hundreds of beautiful churches: Spain, France, Austria, Germany, Russia...and I honestly think my favorite of all is Svetitskhoveli. Not the most ornately adorned, not the most flashy, but the most holy, the most steeped in history, I felt the ghosts around us as an almost tangible presence, it was incredible...
We easily found a taxi driver hanging out around the front of the church who agreed to take us up to Jvari Monastery and gave us a mini-tour of Svetitskhoveli as well! The view from the monastery was as spectacular as everyone promised, and I saw my first (certainly not my last) herd of grazing cows on our way up the mountain! 
After Mtskheta we went back to Tbilisi, picked up our bags from the hostel, and said goodbye. Then we headed back to Didube and picked up another marshrutka north to Kazbegi!
Looking down at Mtskheta

Am I missing something or is this really from 1042??

Kazbegi: Hands down my favorite place in Georgia. I even wrote a separate post for Kazbegi here! Quick overview: mountains, snow, hiking, mountains, horses, amazing people, bread, cheese, adorable puppy, mountains. Did I mention mountains? We hiked to less than a km from the Russian border with Ingushetia and rode horses up a mountain to a tiny stone church! Definitely a must-go on any trip to Georgia. We spent 3 nights in Kazbegi and then reluctantly pulled ourselves away to continue our trip.
A little teaser...more in the Kazbegi post!

Gori/Uplitsikhe: From Kazbegi we drove straight south back to Tblisi, the easiest way to get to Gori. Once again we found ourselves at Didube (turned out 4 times in 1 trip!) and easily found a new, air conditioned, seat-belted (rare) mini van headed to Gori. It was only 1 lari more so we opted for a little taste of luxury. The trip was about an hour and a half, and I arrived in Gori admittedly with some of the wind out of my sails after having to leave my Caucasian paradise that morning. Gori being a dirty, forgotten, dust bowl of a town certainly didn't help. Of course the people were extremely outgoing and helpful and some strangers who happened to be near us basically figured out our accommodation for us! Beyond that, though, we got more awkward stares in Gori than any other city, probably because they're least used to tourists (*quick note on the awkward stare: Living in Russia, I'm used to getting stared at for everything from not wearing pantyhose to showing my shoulders too soon in the season, but what I'm calling an "awkward stare" here is one that lasts a little too long, one that you're not really sure where it's coming from, and/or one in which the starer is particularly creepy). The central Shida-Kartli region where Gori is located is drier and flatter than the rest of the country and it was immediately apparent. After dropping off our bags and freshening up at our guesthouse, we headed out to Uplitsikhe. The "bustation" was a cesspool, really nasty place, but we found a taxi willing to take us round trip for a good price. The drive outside the city was nice and idyllic- I saw old couples riding on wagons full of hay being pulled by donkeys! Uplitsikhe itself, an ancient cave city which may date as far back at the 3rd century BC, was neat to explore, but it would have been more engaging with a guide. We returned to Gori and hit the Stalin trail, seeing Stalin Avenue, Stalin Square, the Stalin statue, and of course the Stalin Museum which was mainly pictures of him and his colleagues throughout the years. The tour was good, in fact, not very political and didn't get into the details of his policies, just talked about his cycle of life. After a pick-me-up of Natakhtari (fruit soda) and khinkhali (meat dumplings) we headed back to our guest house for a TERRIBLE night of sleep. I felt every spring in that damn bed and it was too short with a head and foot board so I had to sleep with a bend at my waist so I could straighten my legs and not trigger my restless leg syndrome too badly. Have you ever had to sleep like a BOOMERANG? I get it, I'm taller than the average joe, but honestly- that shouldn't have even qualified as a least our breakfast the next morning was good! Our host fed us homemade (almost everything in Georgia is) fruit khachapuri, cheese khachapuri, plain bread, cheese, and apple jam. So delicious we stashed some leftovers in our bags for later! Then we finally hauled ass out of that place to Batumi.
Just hanging out in ancient cave city

We climbed to the old fortress on a hill (Gori means hill) and were the only ones there apart from the guards! The city was tolerable from this vantage point.

Batumi: Batumi is a fine city. It is definitely a resort town and although it was a little dead while we were there, it's clearly bustling in the summer. From what I read online I had pictured a little strip with some shrimp shacks and a few guesthouses on the coast, but there is actually a downtown with a few skyscrapers, streets with European facades, and cute cobblestoned lanes. Many of the restaurants, buildings, cafes, and shops were under renovation or just closed for the season, but there was still plenty available to us. Some of the highlights: a show at the dolphinarium, a toe-dip in the Black Sea, a chance visit to a girls' dance school, and so much Natakhtari   <3
Dolphin show with city in the background

A section of the port

Now we're home in St. Petersburg and the weather is finally heating up (it's actually really hot, yesterday was 86 F) and I'm still missing Georgia...but it's time to refocus and buckle down to put the last 3 months of my program into Russian-learning overdrive!

Like I said: stay tuned for Kazbegi and more insights on Georgia! Thanks for reading, folks