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It’s The Taxis, Stupid.

Violence is the No. 1 concern of foreigners contemplating a trip to the United States, according to participants at a Pow Wow round-table discussion that included top tour operators from Japan, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Australia and Venezuela [1994].

The panel, hosted Tuesday by Bob Dickinson, Travel Industry Association of America chairman and president of Carnival Cruise Lines, allowed tour operators to explain what their customers like and dislike about the United States.

“A trip to the USA is a dream visit,” said Naoto Katsumata, deputy general manager of Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., which sent more than 100,000 Japanese visitors to America in 1993. “But what scares us most is the gun problem. If there was a solution to this, the amount of Japanese tourists to the USA would double.”

While stories of violence in the United States have created a feeling of dread among potential visitors, the tour operators were all generally positive about this country.

“One of the things Australians like most about America is how friendly the people are,” said David Farar, U.S. product manager of Swingaway World Holidays in Sydney.

“Most of our tourists enter through the West Coast and travel across the country, and practically everyone comments on how welcome they feel, and that gives great peace of mind.”

But violence was mentioned by all of the panelists as the major concern.

“There was a poll taken in Britain,” said Christopher Smart, president of Great Britain’s Jetsave Ltd. “One of the questions asked was what is the most violent place in the world. Kenya and Turkey came in third, followed by North Africa, but 47 percent named Florida the most violent destination in the world. That is the perception of the man in the street in Britain.”

Other subjects touched on were a seemingly universal dislike of American taxis and their drivers.

The major concern of the buyers themselves was the small amount of money the United States spends promoting itself, something tour operators, who work on narrow profit margins, feel should not remain the responsibility of the private sector.

“When we speak of countries’ perceptions of the U.S.,” said Smart, “consider that Morocco spent $1.3 million promoting its country in the U.K. last year; France $2.1 million; Turkey $1.2 million; and the United States Travel and Tourism Association spent $40,000, which was $40,000 more than they spent the last year.

“Travelers have the world to choose from, and America’s world share of tourists is down. As a tour operator, I have the world to sell my customers, but I can’t sell a destination. You have superb, dedicated people at the TTA, but you have no budget. And if the violence continues to be an issue, you will need a massive advertising campaign.”

Ermanno Fici, general manager of Jetset Voyages in Paris, agrees. “You need to educate people to increase tourism in America,” he said. “There needs to be a program to teach people that America is a diverse place with many attractions.” The Travel Industry Association of America has been lobbying to increase federal government spending on tourism.

“Travel and tourism to the United States brought in $74.4 billion last year,” said chairman Dickinson. “And the USTTA is operating on a budget of$20 million. This government spends more than twice that promoting U.S. agriculture overseas, which brings in less than half of the amount tourism generates.”

The Clinton administration is aware that tourism is now a major U.S. concern, and Travel and Tourism Association Director Greg Farmer has announced that the first-ever executive-level panel on travel and tourism will be held at the White House in late 1995.

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.”

Europe Develops An Online Brokerage Culture

Further evidence of the development of an online European brokerage culture emerged Monday when German online broker Comdirect AG, which will soon replace LHS Group Inc. on the Neuer Markt’s Nemax 50 Index, announced that it almost doubled its customers in the first half of 2000. Comdirect’s customer head count rose 97%, to 545,000, and customers made about 5.4 million transactions, up from 1.6 million in the first half of 1999.

“Overall, online brokerage is definitely a part of banking life in Germany now,” Alexander Hendricks, Banking Analyst at ABN AMRO Bank, told TORNADO-INVESTOR.com.

But throughout Europe the nature of the online customer is changing. In Germany, public acceptance of retail investing has gotten huge shots in the arm from successful IPOs such as Infineon, T-Online and online broker Comdirect – the last two amidst absolutely horrendous market conditions. But the face of the typical German retail online brokerage customer is changing from the early adopters – more aggressive, sophisticated high-volume traders – to a more staid, middle of the road investor.

“The sophisticated investors were already on board,” said Marc Rubinstein, e-finance analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston, “But in Europe there’s an increasing amount of shareholders.”

“There’s been an explosion of interest in the stock market, in Germany,” said John Glendinning, Managing Director of comdirect.co.uk, “much of which coincided with boom in the market, led by the Deutsche Telekom float, and there is a large expansion of share ownership. “

The trend is widespread, and follows an overall pan-European interest in stockholding that has developed very recently. “Over the year ending May 2000,” said Credit Suisse’s Rubinstein, “there were 400,000 new shareholders in France – and a significant proportion of those investors are going online to manage their own accounts, so you see there’s a huge structural upside, beyond any cyclical factors that the market might bring.”

The problem for online brokers, then – and for those who invest in them – is finding new sources of revenues in order to maintain the growth rate of profitability. While Comdirect lists €11.9 billion in “assets under management”, they make very little for actually “managing” that money: because as an online brokers they are discount brokers, not managers, and do not charge traditional management fees.

The mainstay of the online brokerage bottom line has been transaction fees, but as new customers who trade less than the early adopters come in, and competition increases, analysts agree that transaction fees will be the first to come under attack.

“That’s one of the main reasons we’re not bullish on discount brokers,” said Metehan Sen, Senior Analyst for Financials at Sal.Oppenheim, “the fact that commission income will come under pressure in Germany – per trade you just won’t get the same amount you could two years ago. And then consider that marketing expenses, the costs of getting each customer, are skyrocketing.”

Consors and Comdirect have both begun offering services above and beyond the traditional offerings of a discount broker, and are doing them very cheaply in order to entice more warm bodies and increase that ever-import “assets under management” figure. These services have begun to include allowing customers to buy into mutual funds at reduced or no commissions or holding fees, and Comdirect will soon announce a suite of insurance products in Germany.

The revenue stream is not all fees: analysts estimate that margin lending – where the broker who borrows money at, for example, 5% and lends it to the customer at 8% to effect a transaction – comprised nearly 25% of Consors’ top line in 1999. And “order flow” – gathering up stock orders and flowing them through certain paths thereby getting a payment for diverting orders to a particular market maker – also brings in revenues. In the US, margin lending and order flow payments make up substantial percentages of online brokers’ bottom line. But things move fast – in the US companies such as Datek Online have been competitively forced to pass on their savings, and now rebate their order flow payments to customers.

The increased competition does not mean that some online brokers won’t do well – they will. In a rising market, as the hordes leap on to the bandwagon, online brokers consistently shine. But with the competitive mix of price, additional services and heavy marketing expenses, the shine will have just that much less luster.

If You Go To Prague…

If you do decide to go to Prague, there are a few things to keep in mind. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start.

Visa
Americans, Brits and other European citizens need no visa, just a valid passport. The Czech currency is the Koruna (Kcs); US$1 = Kcs33.50, 1 German mark = Kcs18. Tourist information: Prague Information Service tel +4202 187, Old Town Square.

Costs

For an overnighter, this flight for four people worked out cheaper than taking the train!.

Plane rental:

US$107 per hour wet. Landing fee: US$18.50 Approach Fee: US$9. Handling & Assistance: US$17 Parking: US$4.50 Airport Tax: $14.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Atlantic (tel +42 02 2481 1084, Na Porici 9) where singles or doubles are US$107 or US$125 per night with breakfast.

Contact

Prague Airport is on +4202 2011-1111; Mr Sovak at +4202 2011-4383. Munich Flight Information is at +49 89 9780-350/1/2, fax 970 1424. Munich WX-Brief is at +49 89 1593 8135/6. Munich Flyers is at +49 89 6427-0761.

Closing Your Flight Plan

VFR Flight plans are automatically closed by Prague tower on your arrival at Prague airport, so there’s no need to telephone anyone. But on the return to Germany you must remember to close your flight plan by calling Munich Flight Information.

Charts

Jeppesen (www.jeppesen.com) VFR/GPS Chart Germany ED-5 covers south-eastern Germany, western Czech Republic and the entire area near Prague’s Ruzyna Airport; Chart ED-6 covers Munich and Augsburg. Buy VFR charts in Munich at Geo Buch, Rosental 6 (tel 089 265-030).

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.”

Trainride Of A Lifetime Aboard Copper Canyon Railway

Whenever you buy an economy class ticket, you’re gambling that what you give up in luxury will be compensated for by the people you meet on your journey. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway, a segundo class ticket is a hands-down winner.

The segundo train offers the same breathtaking views of the Copper Canyon as the South Orient Express because it runs on the same tracks. But the best part is that a ticket costs about $10.

The train itself reminds me of something out of an old western: a creaky, painted wood-and-sheet metal carriage, wooden seats, open doors at either end and a tiny concession to luxury in the form of some tattered curtains.

Although a Texan named Tim and I were the only foreigners aboard at the onset at Los Mochis, by the time we got to Divisadero there were four Australians, two Canadians, two Germans and a bewildered-looking group of Americans who had clearly taken the wrong train.

But gradually, as we stopped in tiny towns along the way, the car filled with the stuff that a Mexican train ride is all about: a shabbily dressed, silken-voiced guitar player pleasantly serenaded the passengers with the sounds of Indian folk music. Poker games were running at both ends of the carriage, but when one of the dealers smiled (revealing a gold front tooth with a club design carved into it), I decided to sit this one out.

The station platforms swarm with crowds of locals, to whom the train is an economic lifeline, hawking home-made burritos, tacos and other less identifiable offerings, while livestock being loaded and unloaded contribute to the general confusion.

Spectacular Scenery
Many of the passengers are Mexicans, just getting from point A to point B. But when the train rolls around that first mountain curve just north of El Fuerte and the scenery starts revealing itself, everyone on board rushes over to the right side of the train and watches in fascination.

Train buffs, always looking for an opportunity to see other sections of the train while it twists around hairpin turns, are a tad miffed at being so close, yet so far, from their view. As the train rockets around the bends, it enters and leaves tunnels so frequently it seems as if a rambunctious child is standing at the carriage’s light switch and turning it on and off. Sticking your head out of the window is a daunting task.

At Divisadero, where the primera train makes a 15-minute stop, the segundo takes advantage of its more proletarian scheduling to sit at the highest point of the canyon along the route for up to an hour. At 8,669 feet above sea level, Divisadero is the main overlook into the canyon, and the Copper Canyon Natural Park. The view is, in a word, spectacular.

Skip the Souvenirs
I had been warned by every guidebook not to buy the chatchkas that are being peddled by the Tarahumara Indians who mill about the station, and judging by the sales I saw, everyone else had read the same books.

It’s hard to take an interest in crafts while looking out over the ruggedly beautiful canyon. To the left, it seems as if some cataclysmic cruise ship had plowed its way through solid mountain walls, beyond which lies rocky terrain that dips and rolls as far as the eye can see.

Mellow Evening
On the move again, as the early evening set in, this rattle-filled train seemed to take us back in time; the evening light and the sounds of the tracks entering the car through the open windows made me think of riding the Orient Express. A beautiful family of Mennonites boarded, and sat as inconspicuously as one can dressed in traditional 19th-century attire.

The poker games had consolidated; there was some drinking but the group was maintaining its friendliness to the point that I sat down with them to watch a couple of hands. As if to demonstrate how badly I can judge a poker game, I noticed that the man with the gold tooth was hemorrhaging money.

Throughout the carriage, people were interacting with the familiarity of a group that has just gone through something together. The passengers on the segundo were talking among themselves, sharing a bottle of Presidente brandy or some chips, or starting a game of dominoes on the seats. And to tourist and local alike, it was obvious that what we had just seen was close to magical.

Gay Influence In Miami’s Rebirth

The Miami Beach portrayed in the new big-budget action film The Specialist is a city on the cutting edge of all that is trendy, fabulous and chic. Only a few years ago, Miami Beach was falling apart, with crackhouses lining the sidestreets, and with so many poor and elderly residents that it was called “God’s waiting room.”

Now, in a blockbuster movie, we see Sylvester Stallone dashing around on screen, stylishly blowing the place up. Southern Miami Beach, or South Beach’s undeniable chicness is partly due to a truly unique atmosphere of tolerance and cooperation. This is what first made the area attractive to a group that would be a driving force behind its rejuvenation: gay men.

“When you have an area of impoverished ethnic minorities, there’s less of a middle class morality to confront the influx of gays and lesbians,” says Eugene J. Patron, a columnist for TWN, a local gay newspaper.

“Everyone is essentially an outsider to the social and political mainstream.” Local residents, mainly elderly Jews and Mariel Boatlift Cubans, were indeed perfectly accepting when gays from New York, Philadelphia and other cities began to move in and renovate the city’s once grand art deco treasures.

The beginnings
“The early influx,” says Tim Barnum, President of the SoBe Business Guild, an organization of gay-owned or “gay friendly” businesses that has seen its ranks grow from 10 members three years ago to over 150 today, “was made up of gays who saw a style they liked here, that could be fixed up and changed. If the old City of Miami Beach had its way, this whole place,” he said, pointing to the sidewalk cafes and art galleries lining Lincoln Road Mall, “would be gone – flattened – with some high-rise buildings around the edges.”

The high-rise buildings were headed off at the pass when the Miami Design Preservation League succeeded in having the entire Deco District granted landmark protection by the federal government. The largest landmark area in the nation, the Deco District’s unique hotels and apartment buildings have now been renovated with a decidedly colorful flair; the facades painted with pastel pinks, blues and greens that make for a walk into the roaring 20’s or an unguided tour of the very best in American Kitsch, depending on your views.

Prices were such that people from New York, who would spend summer weekends at The Hamptons or Cherry Grove, Fire Island, saw the economic sense of buying or renting relatively inexpensive apartments in South Beach, in which they would spend winter weekends. “We had New Yorkers realizing that they could rent an apartment here for a year for what was two months’ rent in New York,” says Barnum. “So we got a lot of gay New Yorkers coming down to dance a couple of weekends a month.”

The Boom
And with the cheapest beachfront property in a major metropolitan area in America, South Beach attracted a fledgling art and culture crowd. Younger artists, whose careers had been stunned by the recession, found cheaper studios and apartments, and an affluent, educated and art-conscious audience.

Then came the SoBe Boom. As South Beach began to be rediscovered by international fashion magazines, models started popping up everywhere. The beautiful people crowd had deemed the place to be “fabulous”. Hurricane Andrew, which devastated most of South Florida in the winter of 1992-1993, proved to be an economic boon to the Beach as displaced Floridians took up temporary residence here. And as more and more people began relocating, investment began to pour in as never before.

‘You feel the tolerance’
The result is a charming city with a sense of inclusion that is palpable at every turn. Like a large, accommodating restaurant, South Beach provides everyone with what they want without offending anyone else. No matter what the question – smoking or non-smoking, family beachfront to topless to nude, Fabulous to pedestrian – the answer is “Why not?”

“You feel the tolerance here,” said a local resident, who moved to South Beach from Germany a year ago. “Somehow the people who live here have achieved what others fail to.”

One place this tolerance was apparent was at the opening of what is being billed as the nation’s largest gay-owned and operated resort, the 226-room Shore Club, which had a ribbon cutting ceremony on October 7. Like South Beach, this hotel doesn’t write off one group to accept another, as evidenced by some interesting demographics in the party attendees: there were as many small children running through the crowds as there were drag queens, and several elderly women were dancing up a storm outside the resort’s ‘Love Lounge.’

And as anyone walking down Lincoln Road Mall during a monthly “art gallery walk” can attest, anyplace where drag queens and body-building in-line skaters mingle with elderly Jews and young couples with children could hardly be called a “Gay City.”

“It certainly is not,” said Michael Aller, Miami Beach’s Tourism and Convention Coordinator. “At one time we had almost an absence of schools, and today we’re bursting at the seams!” The newly-built South Pointe Elementary school now has 700 students; Nautilus Middle School has 1,620 students, and North Beach Elementary’s more than 900 students have created the need to build an extension to handle increasing demand.

The Magic’s in The Mix
“The Magic’s In The Mix,” gushes a publicity kit from SoBe Business Guild. But it’s more than a throwaway tag line; “The Mix,” as some locals refer to it, is probably the city’s biggest asset and best attraction.

Maintaining this harmonious conglomeration of races, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation is the new priority of community leaders on both sides of the political fence. Miami Beach’s City Commission in December 1992 passed unanimously an Equal Rights bill, protecting citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And Unidad, an Hispanic political group which represents the sizable Hispanic community here, works closely with the Dade ActionPAC, the political arm of the local gay community – in fact, Unidad is actively seeking support from the gay and lesbian community here to aid in the political empowerment of the local Hispanic community.

Managing the Success
With successful gentrification, which is what’s happened here, displacement is inevitable.

“Whenever you’ve got this much investment and this many new people coming in, there’s got to be some displacement,” said SoBe Business Guild President Barnum, during an interview at a Lincoln Road Mall coffee house. “And the face of the beach is changing. This restaurant’s rent has gone from $1,500 a month a couple of years back to $6,000 a month today, and they’ll probably have to close soon.”

For many young people, both gay and not, Miami Beach had been a magnet because of low rents and ample employment opportunities. But with property values and rents rising 25% over the last year alone, those who once saw the Beach as a Mecca are now looking elsewhere.

Big money has discovered the beach, and the temptation to capitalize on a Disney-like scale may prove to be too much to turn down. German developer Thomas Kramer’s high-profile purchase of South Beach’s low-rent district known as South Pointe – and the subsequent displacement that the purchase caused – has alienated him from almost every local political group. Even his moneyed co-residents of the exclusive Star Island, just off South Beach, bitterly fought Kramer’s plans to build a Xanadu-like summer home there.

They lost.

In addition, a controversial casino gambling proposal would bring a free-standing casino to South Pointe, which would affect all residents across the board. Proponents say that the casino would bring much-needed jobs to the community, while critics say that it would adversely affect the quality of life that South Beach’s residents have worked so hard to create.

But at least for today, South Beach’s “mix” seems to be healthy. At the opening of the Shore Club, which was formerly a hotel for Jewish retirees, two elderly women sat on folding chairs by the poolside, holding their purses and smiling. They were gently tapping their feet to the driving disco beat and watching the predominantly gay revelers dancing and watching an elaborate show featuring drag queens and a fireworks display.

“We’re all having a wonderful time,” said one, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. “It’s so nice to see all these people enjoying themselves.”

In The Steam: A Russian Banya

There’s a level of clean that can be attained, Russians say, only through the rigorous action of a ritual Russian banya. A combination of dry sauna, steam bath, massage and plunges into ice-cold water, the banya is a weekly event that is as much a part of Russian life as, say, bowling in Bedrock.

And in Russian, the word banya has come to mean far more than its dictionary definition, which is bathhouse.

Preparation begins at home, where thermos flasks are filled to their cork-plugged brims with a specially brewed tea. These teas are peculiar to the banya: a cunning mixture of jams, fruits, spices, tea and heaps of sugar. Armed with this brew, the bather heads for the baths (picking up a couple of beers or some vodka along the way is not unheard-of either).

People usually go to the banya on the same day each week, forming a close circle with others there on the same day. The closest equivalent in the West would probably be your workout buddies.

These circles are as communistic as Lenin could have ever hoped. Bricklayers and airplane pilots, laborers and professors and traffic cops and teachers find common ground amid the steam.

After a “warm-up” in the dry sauna (the word’s the same in Russian, pronounced SA-oo-na), you’re ready for the parilka – the dreaded steam room.

The parilka will have a furnace in which rocks are heating. Onto these, bathers throw water, usually with a dash or two of eucalyptus or other scented oil. When the room’s got a good head of steam going, the bathers grab bundles of dried birch leaves (vennik), dip them in hot water and, well, beat each other with them. This beating (which isn’t violent, and feels a lot better than it sounds) is said to rid your body of toxins.

As one might suspect, all that steam makes the air even hotter, but bathers continue to throw water on until visibility is nil and the room is unbearably hot, at which point everyone runs out coughing.

As if the relatively cold air outside the parilka weren’t enough of a shock to one’s system, the next step is a plunge into the icy cold waters of the bassein, whose health benefits I’ve yet to work out (they’re probably incredibly important).

After the plunge, it’s out to the locker rooms wrapped up in sheets, where events of the world are discussed over the tea (or whatever). Then the process begins again. Sessions can go on for two or three hours.

Every Russian town has a public banya; larger towns and cities have several. Baths are segregated by sex.

Foreigners are very welcome. If you go, you’re likely to be viewed as an honored guest, asked hundreds of questions about where you’re from, chided for being wary of the procedures (such as spending a half-day stark naked with a bunch of sweaty strangers) and, finally, treated to rigorous massage and beating.

Oh, and one more thing. Alcohol affects you faster in a banya, so if you do partake (you’ll no doubt be invited as a gesture of friendship and goodwill), be careful and do it slowly.

Even in Russia, it’s considered bad form to lose your lunch in a steam room.

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.

Surviving Oktoberfest

Alosius, the Bavarian fairy tale goes, descended from heaven to deliver a note from God to the Bavarian government, but got so sidetracked drinking beer in the Hofbrauhaus that he never got around to making the delivery.

If Bavarian beer is reason enough for one man to give up his place in heaven, it’s no wonder that each year 6 million people from all over the world descend on Munich for the Oktoberfest – the granddaddy of beer festivals.

The festival, which runs Sept. 16 through Oct. 1, is Munich’s largest and most economically important tourist attraction. Tourists and locals will leave behind almost $750 million this year, and a lot of that will be in chunks of $5 and $7 (the prices, respectively, of a pretzel and a one-liter glass of Bavaria’s finest).

There’s not a whole lot you can do about those prices, but there are ways of cutting costs during your stay.

There are several factors working against visitors economically during this year’s Oktoberfest, not the least of which is the near-collapse of the dollar against the deutsche mark (currently about 1.4 to the dollar). Where you can cut costs is on basics – accommodations, food and transport.

Accommodations
The largest expense is accommodations, and since hotel rooms are almost completely booked, it’s a seller’s market all the way. Unless you’re the most die-hard adventurer, go for a package deal; it can save you money. Average rack rates (“off-the-street” prices) in the city’s hotels range from about $60 to $125 per night; you can cut this practically in half by booking a package well in advance.

Unfortunately for hostelers, Bavarian youth hostels leave much to be desired – service can be grumpy and at the prices they charge you may as well stay in a bed and breakfast or guest house.

If you haven’t pre-booked, a wonderful local resource is the Fremdenverkehrsamt counter at the central train station and airport, and at the central office of the Munich City Tourist Board at Sendlinger Strasse 1 near the Marienplatz.

The friendly, English-speaking staff members at these offices will do their best to match your budget and book you into a hotel, B&B or hostel for a $3.50 booking charge. They also dispense reliable tourist information and maps of the city.

If you’re under 26, the cheapest place too stay is at the Jugendlager am Kapuzinerholzl – it’s a giant circus tent that gives you a place on the floor with mattresses and blankets, hot showers and free tea for an incredible $5.

Last but certainly not least there’s camping, and the weather is usually good enough to make this worth your while.

Food
Here’s where they really get you at the Oktoberfest tents.

After a liter of beer or two, the reluctance to part with $20 for a glass of beer and a chicken leg tends to waver, so make sure you eat before you arrive. Munich has an international range of restaurants, but national foods that are inexpensive in the United States – Indian and Mexican, for example – carry luxury price tags here.

Doing it yourself is obviously the cheapest way. Supermarkets vary tremendously in price. Avoid shops in the central train station at all costs, where prices for staple goods are 30 to 50 percent higher than in regular shops and markets. Also tempting – but expensive – is the outdoor Viktualienmarkt near Marienplatz, which looks like a quaint European market but is actually a luxury farmers’ market for rich locals and tourists.

The cheapest places to head for supplies are Aldi or Norma supermarkets. There’s a good Norma in the center on Landwehrstrasse just west of Sonnenstrasse, about five minutes from Karlsplatz (Stachus). The store has lots of canned goods, cold cuts, prepackaged bread, sausage and very inexpensive wine – you can get a decent liter of Italian, French or South African wine for $1 to $2.50.

Grabbing a little something is easy enough. Look for Muller bakeries and Vinzenzmurr delicatessens all over the city (several in the center). Muller has small cheese rolls and pizzas for about $1.75, and Vinzenzmurr has hot buffets and salad bars (watch the price there) and snacks from about $4 to $6, and a wide selection of cheeses. Buy a loaf of Supersonne (sunflower bread) or Finnenbrot (dark, heavy, grain- and seed-filled bread) from Muller and a couple of chunks of cheese and sausage at Vinzenzmurr – two of you will be set for the day for under $10.

Another good option for cheap eats are Metzgerei (butcher shops), which sell uniquely Bavarian snacks such as Leberkas, Schinkensemmel or Salamisemmel – respectively, a pate-like substance, ham and salami served on crusty rolls with mustard. Toss in some excellent German potato salad and enormous pickles and you can usually get a filling meal for under $5.

Finally, there are many Greek and Turkish fast-food restaurants in the area around the central station that serve shish kebab, falafel and Turkish pizza for about $3 each.

Getting Around
The festival is held at the Theresienwiese – Theresa Meadows – a 10-minute walk from the central train station, and is served by its own metro station. If you’re asking directions, say “d’wies’n” (dee-veezen), the diminutive nickname, which is what everyone around here calls the place. Trams and buses heading that way, though, sport signs reading “Zur Festwiese” – to the Festival Meadow.

You don’t want to have much to do with a car during the Oktoberfest; you wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near the fair anyway. Munich’s excellent public transportation system goes on overtime during the festival, and the price of a ride is about $2 with the purchase of a Streifenkarte – five-ride strip ticket.

A special single-ride ticket for any area within two U-bahn stations of the central station is about $1. The tickets are available from kiosks, bus drivers and blue vending machines marked with a ”K” all over the city.

On any mode of public transportation (U- or S-bahn, bus or tram), you need to validate your ticket yourself. The ticket strips have numbered sections from 1 to 10. You need to cancel one section for each transport zone you will cross into; most rides in the city center take two strips.

Failure to validate your ticket can result in a hefty on-the-spot fine of about $85 by the ubiquitous inspectors who pop up out of nowhere and enthusiastically prosecute scofflaws.

Munich’s comfortable (usually Mercedes-Benz) taxis can be expensive propositions, with a short ride in the center averaging $7 to $10, and a ride to the airport commanding $50. If you’re ready to part with that, you can catch a taxi at stands throughout the city, or order one by telephone.