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Germany (I)

germanyI co-wrote this monster of a guide along with Andrea Schulte-Peevers, Steve Fallon and Anthony Haywood.

I covered Bavaria, the ever-lovely Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, half of Lower Saxony (maybe the bigger half), half of Baden-Wurttemburg (the smaller one), Saxony and Saxon Anhalt.

And while Steve covered Berlin, I wrote the Trabant joke.

All told, probably my favorite parts of the country were the ones I thought I’d least like: Saxony – Leipzig is one of the hippest cities I’ve ever visited, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where they grow trees along both sides of the road so that in summer it canopies all the highways.

This originally protected the horse-drawn fish carts as they made their way from the Baltic to markets in Berlin.

A Day With Russia’s Most Hated Public Servant

GAIguyIn the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI.
GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.

And they do.

But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.

On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.

In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.

7 AM: Roll Call

No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.

9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)

“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him.

“Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”

Oh.

10 AM: Parking Lot

Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes – which is all of them.

10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway

There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.

11.15 AM: Racing Through The City

Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals – they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service.

We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…” He can tell all that by passing them at speed.

Amazing.

Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally. Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.

Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway

This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk.

The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.

Sergei says that radar detectors are E’unfortunately not prohibited here’.

That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’

12.15 PM: Racing Home

As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away. As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly,

‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.

And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.

Orlando Gets A Hostel

Sun-bronzed guests lounge by the pool. Others mingle by the lake, some splashing by in pedal-boats. The fountain gurgles. But as new guests check in, the document that desk clerks ask for is not a passport.

It’s a hostel card.

This is Hostelling International’s latest experiment: the HI Orlando Resort.

For the past several years, Hostelling International has been quietly working on its image, trying to make its product – budget accommodation with a socially and environmentally conscious twist – more accessible to people over age 26.

HI’s surveys of hostelers around the country showed a great need for a second Orlando-area hostel, and it took the plunge earlier this year. Similar market research resulted in additional hostels in cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

Heavy Competition
“The challenge here,” says Beth Barrett, general manager of the new hostel, “is to try to insinuate the hostelling experience into the center of the glitziest, most neon-filled tourist strip in the entire country.” The Orlando area has one of the highest concentrations of hotel rooms in the United States.

By taking on all the glitz and the inexpensive motels that line Route 192, about five miles south of the Disney theme parks, Barrett faces a somewhat unfamiliar dilemma: Some motels here offer double rooms at less than the cost for two to stay in the dorms.

HI is hoping the difference of a few dollars won’t be enough to make guests stray, even at the thought of more privacy. The idea here is to bring people together – in the common areas, the kitchen, the TV room – to share experiences and travel tips. And that intimacy is the first thing to go in traditional motels, where guests lock their doors and turn on the tube.

Knowing What To Expect
“Hostelers seek out hostels for a lot of reasons,” says Toby Pyle of HI’s public relations office in Washington. “Camaraderie and interaction with other travelers comes before price.” Indeed, hostelers have flocked here, and seem to agree with Pyle.

“For two of us it cost $36,” said Glen Richards of Snells Beach, New Zealand. “We saw a place down the road that had a double room for about $30, but at the hostel we knew exactly what we were getting into.”

That certainty – knowing that hostels will provide services like directions, help with trip planning, onward reservations, cooking facilities and helpful staff – is one of the things that has kept hostel stays so popular all over the world. The guest book here shows visitors from as close as New Jersey and as far away as Germany, England, Australia and New Zealand.

But it’s not just the feel-good idea of hostels that’s drawing the visitors: The hostel offers many of the same perks as motels on its two acres of property, such as the pool, lake access and volleyball and barbecue areas. Jet ski rentals are available next door. All the rooms are air-conditioned, and the whole place is accessible 24 hours a day.

Former Motel
The hostel was, in fact, a motel that HI took over earlier this year. The project, which is estimated to have cost Hostelling International $1.5 million, is in the final phase of a $100,000 renovation. The ribbon-cutting ceremonies will take place in December, though the hostel is already open for business.

While many of the rooms have been converted to dormitory-style accommodation, with four wooden bunk beds per room, others are still standard motel-style rooms with one or two queen-size beds, some with kitchenettes.

Private transportation services shuttle guests between the hostel and the area’s attractions – Disney and other theme parks in the area such as Sea World, Wet & Wild and Universal Studios Orlando. The same transport options are available at the area’s motels at similar prices.

Real Central Florida
The difference here, aside from the pool and prime lakefront location, is probably in the staff and activities. “Some people come here, spend four days at Disney and go home,” says Barrett. “That’s great, but they haven’t seen Orlando.”

Hostel staffers help to coordinate day trips in the area, working closely with the existing HI Orlando Hostel downtown, so guests can see some of the real Orlando and Central Florida: places like the Morse Museum of American Art, the Central Florida Zoological Park and the Orlando Science Center.

“We just hope that people will stay here a bit longer and see what the area has to offer,” says Barrett. “There’s a whole lot of interesting things near here that haven’t been touched by theme parks.”

Playing The Ponies In Northern Moscow

ippodrome_2It was a clear and sunny Sunday, and I was at the Ipodrome Raceway, in the outer-north section of the city, watching Russian harness racing at its finest. I’m one of many people who sometimes forget that Moscow has a raceway – and die-hard punters and an entrenched gambling sub-culture – so I had been looking forward to coming to this one, as did my friend Lena, who came with me.

The faded glory of the 160-year-old racetrack hit me immediately; the crumbling grandstands still sport an intricately patterned mosaic tile ceiling, and the stands themselves are carved in a sort of pseudo-baroque “Sport Of Kings” theme. It would be fair to say that the crowd – mainly men – had been doing a healthy bit of drinking by the time Lena and I arrived at 2.20 pm, about an hour and a half after the first race began.

Entry tickets are 5¢, and a programme was 60¢. On first glance it seemed that this racetrack was like any other. Throughout the grandstands were huddles of three and four men, busily marking – in thick magic marker – their programmes, and working on their systems. They argued and cajoled each other, and many passed round litre-bottles of vodka ($2.40 from the concession stand).

We finally figured out where to bet and headed for the windows. There are windows for bets of 10 roubles, 100 roubles and, for the big spenders, 1000 roubles. In US dollars, this translates to windows for bets of 0.002¢, 2¢ and 20¢.

We watched as an unbelievably complicated bet was being placed by the man in front of us in the betting queue that sounded something like this:

“Number five in the sixth and then the system says 7, 3, 8, 10, 2…”

He was, I was told, playing an “Express 7” where he picks seven horses per race in the exact order in which they will finish, for several races. The odds of his hitting this are 5,000,000 to one.

After he was half way through calling out the circled numbers on his programme, the woman behind the thick bulletproof glass with the microscopic opening lost patience and reduced each of his bets from 10 roubles to one rouble, thus removing any potential advantage he may have been after. He stormed off in a huff.

The people in line (who seemed desperate to get their bets in on time) were kind enough to tell us how, and which horses, to bet. We played an “Odinar 3”, which turned out to be a simple matter of picking the winning horse for three races to collect.

How much you collect is based on the fantastically complex method of odds posting, which to me is uniquely Soviet in that no one knows what they are until the race has been over for about ten minutes.

For each race, the horses are posted on the illuminated, computerised scoreboard. Underneath the horse’s number is a three digit number, based on a weighted index whereby each horse starts with 10,000 points which are continually divided by a weighted divisor based on the amount of money bet on that horse. The lower this three-digit number on a particular horse, the higher the amount of money bet on it. At the end of the race, the jackpot is divided by a “coefficient”, which determines the payoff.

Aside from actually telling you what the odds are, this is about as accurate a way to tell where the smart money is as you can get. In race 6 we had bet on Stanbul (as had, apparently, everyone else in the place: its starting index read 000).

Stanbul won by more than ten lengths.

We ran into the gent who had stormed off from the betting window. His name was Kazbek, and he said he’d been coming here for 21 years, and that he’d been interviewed by French television, and would we like to give him some money to bet for us? Er, thanks, no, we just came to watch.

Kazbek? Hey

But he was off like a shot.

The second and third races of our Odinar 3 came off as planned – with our horses winning handily in both. Filled with the optimism of a serf who’s hit the Lotto jackpot we headed for the ticket window to cash in our winnings. Our bet had been 4000 roubles. Our payoff was 1300 roubles.

That’s total, not in addition to the 4000.

Hold on a second here. How could we pick three winners in three races and lose 2,700 roubles? “The coefficient,” said the wizened lady behind the glass, and before we could say another word we were bashed out of the way by an elderly babushka holding a thoroughly magic-markered programme and several thousand roubles.

Of course, it is possible that I just didn’t have any idea what was going on.

Kindly, Fussy Bangaman (And Other Russian English)

Creative English is a worldwide phenomenon; Japanese tee-shirts or Indian shop signs written in it have been the subject of articles ad-nauseum.

But there’s a charm to the English spoken in Russia that must be mentioned. Often times – especially with names that go on forever – it’s simply a holdover from the USSR days: the ” Leningrad Order of Lenin Metropolitan Subway System Named After V I Lenin” springs to mind.

Sometimes it’s the Russian compunction when speaking the English to pepper the sentences with the articles so missing in the Russian: ” Tomorrow I am going to the Moscow” said one friend, whom we all dubbed ” The Daniel’.

But Russian English is its best when trying to be showy, especially in advertising. ” Two crumpled eggs served from the frying,” is how one menu (which gave a translator credit to a ” Dr of Philology’) temptingly described an omelette.

Pizza Pronto holds that it has a ” Comfortably and cozy atmosphere! Real hospitality of the personal!E’

Restaurant Austeria’s ad claims it’s ” probably the oldest resturant in the city and becouse of it “Austeria” suggesting you the traditional Russian cooking. Big choice at drinks and foods, not higt pricesure making “Austeria” a wonderfull places for lunch and dinner’

‘Bank MANATEP St Petersburg’, weE’re told, ” Invites to collaborate artificial personos and offers a wide range of banking services.’

Safety instructions are usually good for a laugh; the ” Rules of the Lift” in the lifts of the Pribaltiskaya Hotel warn that ” the cabin arriving at the floor produces both the light and sound signals; the light signal indicates further direction of the cabin but the direction of the cabin cannot be changed by pushing the buttons.’

Runner up for best Russian English appeared in the ” English’-language magazine St Petersburg Today. This is the introductory paragraph under the headline ” Our Advice” – not one word has been omitted:

“How is it possible then to know in which direction the numbers increase? Turn left of the building Number 20 and go straight. There is your building Number 40. Accordingly, if you are standing on the opposite side of the street, right side to the building, the beginning of the street is behind your back.”

But the winner in town is this sign, in the window of Pivnoy Klub, a small beer bar in Central St Pete, which promises the following:

“Only here country primitive kitchen all in the nature fire welcome to kindly fussy Bangaman.”

I collect these things, so if you find any more of these in your travels, please send them in to me.

I’m always on the lookout for the few new fussy Bangamans.

Where Are The Nooklear Wessles?

I’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a ” Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t ” very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (” Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The ” fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

” Hi!” I said, with a smile, ” May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, ” Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, ” Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

” What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

” He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, ” You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”

And Now, A Little Trabant Joke

TrabantThe Trabant (1949 to 1989) was the GDR’s answer to the Volkswagen. Intended to be economical, convenient and ubiquitous, it succeeded in being only the latter.

Despite production times from hell (the average Trabant owner waited nine years to get their lemon), the Trabi, as it was affectionately dubbed, is still one of the most common cars on the road in Eastern Germany.

Each Trabi took so long to build because its plastic pieces (most of the vehicle’s parts, aside from the frame, hood and other necessarily strong sections, were plastic) were molded by workers running hand-operated molding systems.

A plastic car, you say, with a two-stroke engine that you had to wait two years to own?

That reminds us of a little joke.

A Texas oil man heard that there were cars in East Germany so popular that buyers had to wait years to take delivery of one. He immediately sent a check to the Trabi factory.

The directors, sensing a propaganda coup in the making, arranged to send him the very next car off the line.

Two weeks later the oil man was in a bar, speaking with some friends.

“Ah ordered me one o’ them Trabis them folks over there in East Germany wait 12 years to get,” he drawled.

“And you know what? Them East Germans are so efficient. Wah, just last week they sent me over a little plastic model so I can know what to expect!”

 

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This (minus the graphic) appears on page 250 of Lonely Planet’s Germany travel survival kit.