Monday, October 31, 2011

Flexibility - Moscow, Russia

Your kitchen tap is leaking, the electricity system is not working, your oven is broken or you need to install a new curtain in the living room. The expert is very expensive and busy: if you call him today he will be available in one month. No need to worry, there is the husband by the hour. We're not talking about extra-marital relations or polygamy here. You call a guy whose number you found god knows where, one who doesn't have any specialization but can do pretty much everything, just like the good old husbands. You explain what he has to do and agree on a price on the phone, he will come soon after that, with all the tools and materials needed for the task. If he didn't know how to solve the problem he asked someone else to teach him or sent a colleague who can do it. He solves the issue, you pay him (prices are reasonable), bye bye.

You need to move to another neighborhood, to send some furniture to your uncle's flat or to get rid of something bulky. You are by yourself, you'll never make it. You walk downstairs, get out on the sidewalk and look around. As soon as you spot an immigrant from the Eastern republics of the former Soviet Union - a Kazakh, an Uzbek, a Tajik - you stop him.
"Good morning, I need to move some furniture."
He already knows what you are talking about and doesn't lose his composure. He won't think that you are crazy nor crack up laughing.
"How big? How many floors? Where to?"
You explain everything, you negotiate the price and you walk him to your place. If backup is needed he will take care of that.

You went to a party that ended late, you didn't come by car because you knew you would have a drink too many and the area where you live is not well served by public transport. Taxis are expensive and need to be booked in advance. You go out, you stand near the curb of a main thoroughfare and stretch an arm, waving your hand. Not when you chance to see the first taxi...when you spot the very first car! Like that, random. If it's not a Jaguar or someone in a hurry they will certainly stop. And if the first vehicle won't, the next one will. You explain where you have to go, they will propose a price and if you think it's too expensive you can negotiate. When you come to an agreement you finally get on the car. It didn't take you more than a minute.

Who would have thought that one day we would have envied the former Soviet Union for it's flexibility?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Secret and mistery - St. Petersburg, Russia

I'm following the continuous human flow of the Nevsky prospect sidewalk until it disperses in the huge space that surrounds the Hermitage, then I turn left, bound for St. Isaac's Cathedral. When I am a few meters away from this Russian version of Rome's St. Peter, I catch glimpse of a little paper stuck to a door, half hidden by the scaffolding of some restoration works. Museum of the history of political police. Basically a magnetized asteroid in front of which I suddenly turn into a tiny hair pin.
The church also exerts a strong attraction though. I stand on that place for a few seconds, my thighs shaking, following the alternating impulses that push me here and there. I process the little information that I managed to gather and I make a brilliant non-decision, postponing everything: typical of me in cases like this. The museum closes at 6pm and the ticket counter at 5.30. I still have thirty minutes left and the Cathedral is only a few steps away. I'm going there first and I'll see what she's got to say. If she whispers sweet words in my ears, gently tickling my lobe, I'm going to stay there, otherwise I'll come back here. And the latter is exactly what happens, only it takes me twenty minutes to realize it. When I open the door to the museum building it's already 5.26. After trying two dead corridors I manage to find the right one, I push the handle but the door doesn't budge. I am about to leave when I hear something creaking and I see a woman getting out of the room.
"I'd like to visit the museum."
"I'm sorry, it's too late."
I put on a pitiful expression while I mutter something. She murmurs something back with an uncertain air. It's the cue I was waiting for: I move closer to her.
"5.30, closing time..." she says, while another lady pops up from behind the door and crosses her forearms like some kind of referee to make me understand that it's closed. I show them my phone that reads 5.28. Hand in d4: checkmate!
"OK, follow me!"
95% of the exhibition is explained in Russian but the lady hands me a set of plastic-coated sheets where one can find the photos mapped out wall by wall and the relevant captions translated in English. Although this is a good idea it also tells a lot about the scanty number of foreign tourists that visit the museum. 
I've always been extremely fascinated by everything that has something to do with the most elusive, sinister and controversial aspects of history. I watch all the black and white photos, standing in admiration in front of those that thrill me the most, reading the explanations on the precious sheets that I turn back and forth. The old times of the tsarist spies, then the Bolsheviks and Dzerzhinsky restructuring. His death, the images of Trozky, Stalin, Bukharin and Molotov who carry his coffin. The CHEKA, the KGB, the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis and the secret prisoner exchanges with the USA. The missions in Afghanistan and Chechnya, internal terrorism and present day FSB. 
In the wonderful room where Dzerdzhinsky used to work I run into a guided tour group. What a good choice, deciding to come and visit this museum I have taken care of two of my hobbies at once: history of espionage and beautiful women (in this case the hobby only consists in admiring them, of course). Now between a picture and the following one I can't help glancing at three or four specimens of these giraffes that have kept tormenting my thoughts since the moment I arrived to Russia.
Their guide is a pedantic and verbose old woman though: I leave them behind and in a matter of minutes I'm in the last room, where the lady who sold me the ticket, who had already come and helped me earlier, gives me some further interesting details. She's wearing a pair of slippers, thick stockings, a plaid-like-skirt, a felted sweater and G.P.'s spectacles. She has no make up and her hair is tied in a ponytail, of course. She reminds me of a librarian of a B-movie, and a little bit of Grandma duck as well. A very kind woman indeed. She plays down her nice gesture explaining that I owe the opportunity to visit the exhibition well after the closing time to the group of hotties that I've just seen: she'd had needed to wait for them to leave anyway. I ask her if there is a guest-book and while I'm writing my comments, choosing my words with care, she begs me not to mention the fact that she personally helped me.
"I'm not an expert."
"But you were great!" I answer thinking that it's just a display of false modesty.
"I do know some details but I don't have a good general knowledge of the subject. And then it could cause troubles with my supervisors."
It seems that she has been swallowed up by the atmosphere of secret and mystery that shrouds this place, as if she were also scheming in the web of an organization that operates in the dark.
"Well, in that case, I definitely won't!"
I end my comment writing that the staff is very kind and polite. This should be a rather discreet and neutral complimentary remark.
I steal a last look at the booted sex bombs that one after the other are flocking into the room and then I go out, while the powerful arms of the Baltic climate strike my face with a frozen whip. Fortunately it's still October. Not such a red October, but a rather gray one. 

Photo "Alexander Column, chair and backpack" by Fabio

Monday, October 10, 2011

Elections and scams - Bangkok, Thailand

July 2011. It's election time in Thailand. Continuous waves of people are converging toward the main arteries of Bangkok - Sukhumvit, Vipawadee, Pahonyothin - headed for their provinces of origin, in most cases located in Isan, in the North-east, close to Laos.
I'm walking W. to get a taxi that will take her to Mochit, a bus station that today is sunk in a grounding-time international airport kind of chaos. A tuk-tuk driver offers his service for 300 baht when normally, using a metered taxi, the ride should cost 100-150. We get rid of him quickly. The first taxi driver asks 300 baht as well. She lets him go and waves another down. Same story. The third cab too, as well as the fourth one.
This smells fishy. It's a stench that pricked my nostrils often in the past. I follow my instinct, as if it was one of those lines of smoke chased by the long and quivering noses of the cartoons. While she's walking toward the center of the road to give it another try I stay near the curb and look carefully around. As she's drawing near the window to speak with the driver, the tuk-tuk owner that wanted to cheat her is waving his arms about and signaling to his colleague to ask her 300 baht. The other follows his advice and W., obviously, dismisses him.
This time I got you, lousy swindler. I take W. by the arm and walk her a few meters away. She follows me - incredulous while I tell her what I've just seen - far enough from the scoundrel, where a taxi driver - honest like most of those who don't swarm around the tourists - agrees on using the meter.
"Thais should never behave like that...especially with other Thai people..." she keeps repeating until the door is closed.
"...with anybody..." I think while I wave her goodbye.
She won't be able to reach home and vote, as all the bus seats are sold out until the next morning, but at least she managed to hold on to her dignity. And a few banknotes as well.

Image by globalvoicesonline

Thursday, October 6, 2011

At the alcoholics'/4 - Bangkok, Thailand

The whole series "At the alcoholics" is dedicated to Jack London, author of "John Barleycorn".

Continued from here.

I'm at the alcoholics with R. We're having a drink before we let the viscous Bangkok night swallow us up. R. stands up and goes to order a bottle of soda and some ice from the girl with the face disfigured by the bags under the eyes. On the way he says something to the constantly drunk woman. Bad mistake, not usual for a wise guy like R. Upon hearing his voice, even though she doesn't have a clue what he's talking about, she shrugs off her lethargy, takes a quick look around and her blurred radar, god knows why, stops exactly when it detects me. I keep an eye on her, careful of not staring, pretending to be looking elsewhere and - like a student facing her teacher who is scanning the names in the class register to decide who to examine - hoping to become an invisible presence and go unnoticed. Vain hope, naive as I am sometimes. She struggles to stand up, staggers while walking, almost knocks down the bottles and tables on her way and lands with a heavy thud on R.'s seat, right next to me. She looks at me and smiles, with a siren charm, an old siren, devastated by decadence, street life and alcohol. Then she mumbles something. While I'm trying to understand what language she's actually speaking, a carcass-smelling whiff grinds my throat. The stench keeps wafting in the air even after she shuts her mouth: it's not only her breath, it's a smell that her cloths and skin are imbued with, that she has got on her all the time. A little like the one given off by those people who eat too much garlic.
R. realizes what is going on and comes to help me. She smiles at him as well, turning him from a rescuer into a second prisoner. Soon after that we are joined by the bag-under-the-eyes-girl who, after putting down the ice bucket and the bottle of soda, talks to her in Thai, articulating her words clearly so that even I can understand her well.
"Hey, these guys are friends!" Well, maybe not exactly friends but, as this is simply a stratagem to get us out of a mess, we'll let her do what she pleases. We obligingly nod.
"You cannot try that with you understand?"
Terror gets hold of our helpless and susceptible imagination. Try to do what? The thought that some tourist, stupefied by Sangsom, might have taken her to his hotel for a handful of baht clutches my stomach, tugging it forward, backward, sideways and along slanting lines. However the admonition works and the drunkard stands up and leaves, her pride apparently untouched. The ensuing relief relaxes my guts. R. sits at my side and we start to talk again, while the breeze of the fan blows the vapor of the ice toward the trees and the wet street.


Photo by Lachlan Hardy (CC)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Funny signs/3

I often come across some funny signs, billboards, notices and labels. When it happens I always make sure that I don't leave the spot without a photo. I'll post them here a few at a time.

Traditional French pizza? Yeah, they also serve authentic Italian specialties: baguettes, quiche, Croque Monsieur...(Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Welcome...once more??? (Walmart mall, Kunming, China)

OrganisN! What a pity, they almost made it...they spelled it right up to the very last letter. By the way, this bin thanks you each time you throw away your rubbish. (Green Lake, Kunming, China)

A few mistakes...(Cafe in Kunming, China)

Reacestate??? What exactly do they sell here? (Kunming, China)

Getting a massage and holding the price list as a token of gratitude. (Bangkok, Thailand)

You have to fight a war if you want to go to the second (2ed???) floor. (Walmart, Kunming, China)

Thai Super police...never sleeps! (Bangkok, Thailand)

Where shall I append this extra "S"? Hmmm...numberS...passengerS...ofS? Who's gonna be numberS! (Thai speed catamaran)

This is creepy! (Singapore)

You can find more funny signs here.