Part I - Latvia and Russia
Hello from Athens, Greece!
My Europe 2007 trip is almost over now, and a lot has happened…
First stop was Riga. Where’s Riga? It’s the capital of Latvia. Where’s Latvia? Latvia is one of the three Baltic countries. Where are the Baltic countries? OK, stop asking me so many questions, and check out this map:
You could say it’s in the north-eastern corner of Europe – straight to the east of Sweden, and just before Russia. The three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) were all of part of the former Soviet Union, and gained their independence in 1991 right after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Latvians haven’t had it easy in the 20th century:
“During the periods of Soviet and German occupation, Latvia lost 555,000 people, or more than a third of its population. This is the number who were murdered, killed in battle, sentenced, deported, scattered as refugees, and who disappeared without a trace.”
from the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, 1941-1991
First the Soviets occupied Latvia is 1941. Shortly after, the Nazis came in and ran the place for a few years, until the Soviets eventually prevailed at the end of World War II.
The museum was fascinating and I learned tons about the entire history of Europe. Latvians are struggling economically, and the switch to Western style democracy with mostly capitalism has improved the lives of many, but others faired better under the Soviet system. This is a topic that interests me greatly, but I have so little information about it, I won’t attempt to write any more about it at this time.
So why did I go to Latvia?
Salsa! I was invited to instruct in their big salsa congress there, and like virtually any city in Europe, it has a thriving salsa scene:
I found the above posted in several spots in the metro (subway) system for Riga. Like all European salsa festivals, instructors from all over were invited. Luis Vazquez and Melissa Fernandez were there (Luis, one of the three famed Vazquez brothers, who largely are responsible for putting the LA salsa scene on the world wide Salsa map, has decided to live in Europe for the time being, and is popping up at festivals all over the place. Everywhere I go, I hear that he has either recently been there or is soon coming.) The festival's website is http://www.rigasalsafestival.com
The organizers did a great job of running the congress, with three nights of parties going till late, and several classes packed with dancers. The festival was run by eight woman, who I think are all in this picture along with one lucky guy (I believe a DJ hired from Holland):
I think my favorite part in going to these congresses is running into people from other places. Some of these people I have seen in other places in the past, and it’s always a blast to run into them in what-should-be-but-really-isn’t unexpected places.
The world keeps shrinking
Of course, the majority of people there were Latvians, but Europeans like to travel to congresses all over the continent (and beyond.) At the congress, I met and/or danced with people from Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Switzerland, and Austria. This includes a woman from Pakistan who is studying in Geneva, Switzerland, two guys from New York City (one of whom had bought my ReplayerStudio software in the past, and told me he was going to be there), and another American who has been living all over Europe for the last twenty years. I met a group from Thessaloniki, Greece (Greece’s 2nd largest city) – the guy comes up to me – Nikos – and says that Giorgos from Athens says hello. Giorgos is actually the guy whose house I am at right now, giving 5 days of private lessons to. I had never met Giorgos before, nor Nikos, but they know each other, and so I got to hear about Giorgos in Athens, from Nikos (who is from Thessaloniki) while in Riga. The world keeps shrinking and shrinking… Another guy comes up to me, Octave, from Sweden, and says, “hey how’s it going!” Well he looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember where. He had to remind me that back in 2000, during my first visit to Sweden, I was hanging out with him and his friend Tony in Tony’s apartment in Stockholm.
A flash from the past
This came from a woman from Finland named Henni. The story starts back in 2000 in Oslo, Norway. I was there teaching workshops, and Henni came all the way from Finland with her partner to attend the classes. Then, about two years later, I was visiting my salsa friend Dennis in New York City. (Anybody remember Dennis Gittens from Denver, Colorado?) Dennis was living in Denver for a few years, hanging out, dancing salsa, but eventually decided to head back to New York for the more intense city life. So I’m visiting him in NYC, and we go out dancing for the evening. There, he introduces me to his dance partner, Henni! Henni had decided to also move to New York – but from Finland. That was quite a coincidence. Now, five years later, I run into her again in this event in Latvia. “What are you doing here?”, I ask. “Just here for some fun”, she says. “OK, but isn’t it kind of far from New York City?” Turns out she had moved back to Finland a few years ago, and made the short plane flight from Finland to Latvia for the weekend party. The world is getting smaller and smaller.
I’ve always wanted to visit this place, and since I was going to be in Latvia, Russia is only a stone’s throw away (by plane.) Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, was just about a one hour’s ride by plane from Riga. Plus it was going to be the beginning of September – a perfect time to visit. St. Petersburg is up very far north, and the days would still be long, not yet very cold, and just past the rush of tourist season.
Russia isn’t as easy to travel in as many other countries. For starters, unlike many other countries for someone traveling around on an American passport, you can’t just buy a plane ticket and show up at the airport. I had to obtain a visa first. Well, several phone calls later, and after having filled out various forms, FedEx’ing my passport away for a couple of weeks, and over $300 consumed, I had the visa I needed to get into the country.
Another onerous requirement is that every tourist “register” while in Russia. Apparently, wherever you go you must get your visa registered within three days for every place you stay at. Apparently, the police can stop you at any time, and ask to see this document, and if you don’t have it you’d get fined, bribed, or worse (actually probably not worse.)
I had also heard hotels were quite expensive. I’ve been to 40 countries now, and I can always find an affordable hotel. Well, Russia may be the exception. I walked into at least 7 places – many of them are inside quite ugly, rundown buildings. The hotel would have no door front at all. You climb up a couple flights of stairs in a dingy stairwell, and come to the “entrance” of the hotel. You pass through the door, and you enter a much nicer, more modern, clean area. Something obviously remodeled in the last handful of years. Prices – the absolute minimum was $100. Usually $140 to $180.
OK, so I think this must be a pretty nice room. Instead, I’m led down this small hallway, with the doors to each room quite closely spaced apart. I see the room – it’s tiny, tiny! And I heard consistently that the prices for rooms in the capital of the country, Moscow, are about double! A Russian friend of mine, who had been in Moscow on business told me how his 4 star hotel room cost him almost 800 Euros. That’s over $1,000 U.S. Dollars!
Moscow is now number one
As it turns out, Moscow is now rated the most expensive city in the world. St. Petersburg isn’t as bad, but the prices for hotel rooms are enough to quickly kill a solo travelers budget. Luckily, I discovered something that, for some reason, hasn’t caught on in a big way yet. There are several websites that advertise “apartments” for rent. These are scattered around the city and concentrated in the more popular tourist areas. Anyway, I never stayed in a high priced “sardine” hotel. Instead, I found one of these apartments. The first one, for $130 per night, was ideally located, and was a rather large apartment with a full kitchen, laundry machine, stereo, TV/DVD, computer with an internet connection, printer, home telephone, and even a full-sized tube of toothpaste (which I never used.) In addition, they had books, a dartboard, and board games.
The next place was just $107 per night, and was even bigger. It has two bedrooms, plus a smaller room, and a rather large kitchen. If a group of people were traveling together this could get seriously cheap. I had no idea what to do with all of the space.
The KGB in my apartment
Why anyone would want to stay in a hotel when they can have all of this is beyond me. However, please read on … Part of the $130 deal is getting picked up at the airport and driven to the apartment. But the taxi guy didn’t speak any English. We get to the apartment with all my bags. We go down this back alley way, enter through a big metal door, and climb up this big-time rundown stairwell. Then we come to a big iron door. He puts in key in the hole, turns it, and we go through the door … There are several men in black suits and someone flashes a card that says KGB. The next thing I know, I wake up in a dark and dank prison cell …
OK, just kidding. So we walk through the door and into this very nice apartment. I’m like, “so what now?” Then he hands me his cell phone, and this woman tells me in broken English that she’ll be there in 10 minutes and to wait for her. The taxi guy takes off. Sure enough, the landlord shows up 10 minutes later and she explains everything to me and then everything is fine. She leaves me her cell phone number, and says she’ll meet me back here in three days at 11:00am to have me check out.
No receptionist here
Well, the place was great. But it occurred to me that every time I went outside, I was carrying the only way to all of my stuff – the key they gave me. At first I forget to take her phone number with me. And even if I had it, and I had been mugged and lost everything in my pocket, I would have dug quite a deep hole for myself. I wouldn’t be able to get into the place, wouldn’t so easily find the apartment “landlords”, and wouldn’t have a dime on me. I got smarter the next time. I had a cell phone with the numbers. I collected some numbers of some local people who I became friends with, and remembered the name of the business that rented the apartments. However, getting mugged might still keep me out of the streets for the entire night or more. If one stays at a regular hotel, you can at least go there and go right to the receptionist who would make you feel like s/he is saving your life.
Anyway, travel (as well as life in general) is full of risks, and that is a risk I’m willing to take. Although I have to say, staying in a private apartment instead of a public hotel the first couple of days has more risks. And remembering to have a few numbers on you (separate from your wallet and cell phone) is probably well warranted.
Cell Phone Heaven
It’s getting ridiculously easy these days to have cell phone service when traveling from country to country. I own an unlocked GSM phone. Now, soon after arriving to a new country, I buy a SIM card. A SIM card is a little chip you buy and then place inside your cell phone. It defines your telephone number and how much time you have remaining on your card (before you have to “recharge” it with more minutes.) Anyway, it’s getting easier and easier each year. These days, you can walk right into a cell phone store, and immediately purchase such a SIM card. In some countries you can just buy one right from a kiosk – as simple as purchasing a bottle of water. Prices?: Latvia - $4, Russia - $5, Greece - $7. This gets me a local telephone number and some minutes. The rate for calling per minute is usually pretty high, but, as in all of Europe, receiving calls is totally free.
“Where’s the English?!”
I was somewhat shocked to realize that Russia has the fewest English speakers of anywhere I have ever been. For the older generation, it makes sense that they wouldn’t speak English, but I did expect it of the younger generation. However, that was not often the case. In addition, Russians use a different alphabet called Cyrillic, and only mildly resembles our Latin alphabet.
After I while, I could at least read some simple stuff. Sometimes, the context helps you out:
To be continued …
Part II - Russia Revealed
Hello again from Russia.
Lots of Tourist Attractions Here
For a day trip, I took a boat ride to “Peterhof”, often called “The Capital of Fountains”:
This sculpture is supposed to symbolize the victory of Russia over Sweden in a battle from the early 18th century. (The lion is depicted in the Swedish coat-of-arms, so the sculpture shows a Russian opening the mouth of the Swedish lion)
I can’t even read my own name!
So, three days after arriving in Russia, it was time for me to change apartments. The landlord does in fact show up at precisely 11:00am that day (I got the impression that if a Russia says they will do something at a certain time and place, then you can be sure it will happen), and has in her hand the very important “registration” that every tourist must carry to show to the police in case you are stopped. Normally, the hotel in which you stay does this for you. Since I was staying by myself in a secluded apartment, I wasn’t so sure this would be taken care of. The woman says, “here you go”:
OK, I say to myself, it’s got an official looking stamp on it. But how do I know it’s real?
Then she shows me the back:
Then I think to myself, “Hey this document doesn’t even have my name on it. How do I know it’s for real?” I ask her about that. She says, “Yes, it’s right here on the top of the back page:”
“That’s not my name”, I told her. “Yes it is,” she said. So, I took a closer look, got out my Cyrillic alphabet guide, and started to transliterate the letters:
Wow – I couldn’t even read my own name in Russian! In the end, I had a lot of fun learning to read the Russian alphabet. At times it slowed me down. For example, in the Russian subway, reading the signs of what station I was in, or the names of all the stops a particular subway line would go to, was a far slower task than if it were our Latin alphabet. I never realized explicitly before, but reading names in a foreign language is fairly easy if it’s in our alphabet. Reading names in another alphabet is another story. This should make places like China, Japan, etc. all the more interesting.
Dealing with the cold Russian look
How were the people? Well, it took some getting used to. Just like the weather, the people can act cold – at least towards strangers. Whenever I was dealing with service people – waitresses, bank tellers, ticket offices, I was usually met with a cold look, and a total lack of outward friendliness. This really threw me off. A simple smile is so inviting and disarming, and I’m used to seeing it in most of the countries I visit. Not so in Russia. However (and I’m still trying to figure this out), this doesn’t necessarily indicate that the person isn’t friendly. Russians tell me that they don’t believe in giving artificial happy smiles. I could relate to this, as I’ve always had a small problem with the standard American greeting you get at check out counters and elsewhere, “Hello, how are you?” I always think to myself, you don’t even know me, so you really expect me to honestly answer this question? The only acceptable answer of course is, “I’m fine.” If you’re having a bad day, you basically have to refrain from honestly answering the question.
OK, so I’m thinking, “that’s cool”, people are being more up front about their emotions. But it sure felt strange and not very warm. So, were Russians warm at all? Some of the time if I would really try to engage them, they would respond and warm up and be more helpful and eventually smile. Others not.
Salsa in St. Pete
Although, I wasn’t scheduled to teach workshops in this city, I luckily did have some salsa contacts. I had a list of various people who had purchased my salsa videos in the years past. Some of the emails had changed, but one, Alexander’s, was still good, and he was so nice to respond and arranged to meet me and take me for a night out on the town. So on Friday night, we meet, I jump into his car with his wife, and off we go to explore Salsa in St. Pete. After a drink, they take me to a really nice club called “Salsa Loca.” The place was full of competent, fun and friendly dancers. There, he starts introducing me to a few of his friends. Soon, I have plenty of people to dance with, and I’m exchanging emails and phone numbers. My favorite dancer of the evening, Alena, asked me to come out salsa dancing the next night – apparently some event outdoors.
OK, but how I am going to find the place? Alexander couldn’t make it the next evening, and Alena hardly spoke a single word of English. I felt pretty much on my own in St. Pete, and staying in this completely isolated apartment, in this new, strange country…
Enter my Russian savior – Юлия
What is “Юлия”? Acutally, the question is, “Who is Юлия?!”:
Ю – This is a single letter believe it or not, and is pronounced like the English, “YU”
Л – This is the Russian letter for “L”
И – This is the Russian letter for “I”
Я – This is a Russian letter, and is pronounced like the English, “YA”
So that makes, “YULIYA”, or simply, “Julia.” It’s like everything is a big puzzle around here!
Just as we’re leaving for the evening, “Julia” steps forward, introduces herself, gives me her phone number, and tells me to call her so we can meet and she can take me to the salsa spot for the following evening. Julia spoke great English, and knew everybody in the salsa scene. I sensed in a split second that this woman would end up being my friend and help me out a lot while in Russia.
The next day we do meet, and we walked together to this outdoor salsa place. She starts explaining lots of things to me about Russia in very clear English, and I knew I had a friend there that I could count on. I ended up hanging out with her and her friends several times, going to local cafes and restaurants, and of course salsa dancing. It’s people like her that make traveling such a positive experience.
Salsa in Siberia?
Outdoors? Russia is starting to get cold. I wouldn’t expect an outdoor event of all places. So the next night, they take me to “The Spit of Vasilievsky Island.” It turns out it’s right by the main river, right by one of the most picturesque spots in the entire city, with fireworks going off by the river a distance away.
Here’s a video that will give you an idea of the scene there:
Well, it was a little chilly out there (about 10ºC or 50ºF), but nobody seemed to mind. I just kept dancing to stay warm, instead of sweating my brains out as happens in many indoor clubs. It was a total blast to be outdoors, in a beautiful part of the city, dancing the night away. I’d love to find more such outdoor venues.
It’s gonna be a real late night
After about two hours, I go with Alena, Julia, and a new character – the man who calls himself the “Russian James Bond” – Anton. We all hang out in a cafeteria restaurant, drink and eat and prepare for the next salsa venue of the evening. While there, my new friend, Anton, finds out that I haven’t yet tried any good Russian vodka. “Yeah, well I don’t usually like to drink before going dancing”, as some excuse to get out of what I knew was coming. As you may know, I hardly ever drink, and didn’t want to deal with a hard shot of alcohol right then. But Anton wouldn’t have any of that. He pours me a whole shot of the Vodka. I finally try a little sip, and it burns the heck out of my throat as it goes down. “Oh, come on, drink the whole thing in one shot!”, Anton shots out. Everyone is watching. “OK, I’m in Russia now, and every visitor must go through this.” So I grab the drink, pour it all right down my throat, expecting several seconds of burning agony. Instead, it actually wasn’t that bad, and I think at that moment I truly made a new friend. The next night, I even asked Anton for another shot, and he was more than happy to oblige. Then, before I knew it, he presents me with entire bottle of vodka to take home with me.
A few minutes later, now about 2:00am, it’s onto the next club for Saturday night. We walk down the block and walk into a club named . At first glance, this appears to be just a strange collection of consonants. I had no idea how anybody could dance in a place with that sort of a name. But I knew better at this point. Actually the name is quite common. Once you transliterate the letters, you get ! Inside it’s a different scene. A much more sweaty and smaller venue, but the music kept coming and everyone was seriously partying and dancing until I gave up at 4:30am in the morning or so. The night was a ton of fun, people were very open and friendly, and I’d sure like to return someday.
A little international relations can’t hurt
While there, this stocky, strong and semi-drunk guy named Dmitry started talking to me. His English was limited to a few words, which far exceeded my Russian vocabulary. He wanted me to tell him where I was from. “United States,” I said. He didn’t understand. I said, “America.” Still, no comprehension. Then I whipped out a copy of my passport and pointed to the part that said, “United States of America.” At that point, I thought he still didn’t know. Then I grabbed my host for the evening, Alexander, whose English was quite good, and asked him to explain to this guy who I was. So they spoke for a while. Then Alexander told me that I shouldn’t have told him where I was from, as he said Dmitry doesn’t like Americans because of what they did in Serbia.
I decided I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of our being friendly to one another, and I would try to make this guy understand that the U.S. Government and the U.S. people are not the same thing, and that many Americans have very different opinions from one another. So, with Alexander translating everything, I explained at length how much I hate the current president, and how where I live so few people I know support him. I kept talking and talking, and eventually he warmed up to me, and he started giving me lots of smiles and even hugs – my small international relations mission complete.
All in all, my brief visit to Russia was well worth it. Some stuff was a pain -- there was the more paperwork for a visa and registration than for any other country I’ve previously visited. I also encountered the highest hotel prices by far of any city I have ever visited. And despite the lack of smiling faces, having to deal quite often with people who spoke no English, and having all the street signs, menus, etc. appearing in a different alphabet, this was more than made up for by seeing this amazing city, making so many friends, having a blast salsa dancing, and finally being able to see firsthand what was the heart of the Soviet Union, the country with whom the U.S. was ready to go to World War III.
Russia divided into three
I kept hearing that there are three countries here. One is St. Petersburg, the cultural capital. Another is Moscow, the financial and political capital. And the other, is the rest of Russia. So I guess I only saw St. Petersburg, and not the real Russia. St. Petersburg is pretty much like Europe, and I am really quite curious to return here one day to see that “other country” – Россия.
written by Eric "El Cubanito" Freeman.
Eric travels regularly and has visited 40 different countries so far.
If would like Eric to teach salsa and/or write about your event, country, or city,