Those jarred babies — not quite jarring enough

As promised I made it to the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. Also known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography — the oldest museum in Russian, opened in 1727 — it’s also known to connoisseurs of the grisly and gross as the Great Hall of Deformed Human Fetuses in Jars (not really). It’s a delight.

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And yet there aren’t as many specimens as I was hoping for, nor was there much in the way of the truly macabre. A few tweaked human skeletons — that fella’s really gigantic — a two-headed stuffed fox and some rusty surgical tools complemented the array of squishy, floating babies. Those twisted wee ones delivered the goods, a frisson of the freakish that some of us crave.

I was expecting more in the way of anatomical and medical exhibits, but the museum is largely dopey ethnographical artifacts — Native American beads and pottery, African huts, Eskimo furs, in tiny dioramas — you can see at your local natural history museum, but newer and brighter. There’s just one small floor of jarred bambinos and gnarled bones. It’s up top. Follow the arrows, greedily.

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It’s pretty good — three stars — but not quite enough to nourish its reputation as a world-class repository of the ghastly. I went for the morbid, not the ethnography, and found myself in and out in 30 minutes or less.

Philadelphia has Kunstkamera beat. Its famed if smaller Mütter Museum is a richer, more concentrated, more intense experience: jarred fetuses; innumerable human skulls both ghoulish and elegiac; various startling skeletons of the diseased, deformed and degraded; cankered floating body parts; chilling surgical devices; and the topper, Chang and Eng’s death cast and conjoined livers.

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Giant’s skeleton at Kunstkamera Museum

I don’t want to knock its Russian counterpart, but the Mütter, as specifically a physician’s institution, is more complete and well-rounded, satisfying the more ambitious demands of creep-seekers. Kunstkamera is very much worth a visit — do go — but know its limitations. While it offers a world of wonder, the Mütter offers galaxies.

 

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Travel travails: trying to jettison on-the-road angst

Just before I embark on my vacations people reflexively ask if I’m excited and looking forward to it, assuring me I’ll have a wonderful time and wads of other tinkly bromides. Invariably I grimace and nod, “Yeah. I think so … Sure. OK, thanks.”

But I’m never sure, and it’s not OK. As I pack and prepare I’m a minor wreck, wracked, withdrawn — enthused, yes, but freighted with the cargo of myriad far-off what-ifs and other terrifying variables.

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I have no qualms about flying; I like flight. My innate angst resides in about, well, pretty much everything else: Flight on time! Make my connection! Will it rain at my destination! Will my Airbnb be as cool as the photos! Will I be able to communicate with the locals! Will I get robbed! Will I contract a food-borne illness! Is that baby-jar museum as rocking as it looks!

I had a small stroke applying for my Russian visa recently. As I’ve noted earlier, it was a multi-tentacled task and very pricey. With the stroke, I developed a bleeding ulcer. For some reason this trip — much more than my jaunts to China, Vietnam, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria — has me more angsty than ever.

I write this today attempting to relax in United Airlines Terminal C at the airport, from which I’ll depart to St. Petersburg, Russia, with a brief stopover in Zurich, Switzerland. I have mere minutes to catch my connecting flight. The layover is impossibly miniscule.

It is not promising. I have four stomach-twisting inklings: 1) I will miss my connection. 2) I will be spending the night in Switzerland, on my dime. 3) My luggage will be in Russia. 4) I will lose a day in St. Petersburg. (Bonus inkling: I will sob.)

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Besides that eventuality, I am also worried about the fact that you can’t drink the water in Russia — it will do a number on you. That’s barely a concern. Bottled water is a cinch and I’ve done the don’t-drink-the-water routine in several countries. But will the hair dryer work sufficiently? Will I fumble financial transactions, not knowing well the rubles/dollars exchange? Will my accommodations’ TV have satellite or simple local cable (I kinda need my CNN)?

These are obscenely, stupidly first-world worries, of course. I do swimmingly out of my comfort zone while traveling and I revel in the developing-country experience. I’ve proven it repeatedly. But I’m weirding out a little this time.

Relax, you’ll have a great time, they say. And I believe them, shakily. I’m conjuring my own anxieties via my own dark thoughts. These are fictions. I’m in the airport, through security, decompressing, with hours till my flight. I have a glass of wine. The journey has begun, and it’s not half bad.

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The Himalayas, out the window, above Nepal.

The strange allure of the Progressive Insurance girl

She’s bubbly and beaming, high-volume, with a flip of dark hair and a face like a lollipop. She irks as she endears, bemuses as she bewitches. She’s a bundle of energetic contradictions, bursting here, retracting there. Her expressions blink and change like a neon sign. Her eyes are popping globes. And she just sold you a bunch of car insurance.

Flo is her name. She’s the spokeswoman for Progressive Auto Insurance, lighting up televisions in a series of commercials in which her perky cashier pitches the money-saving merits of Progressive to customers. She works in a sterile, all-white big-box store, and her florid makeup stands out like paint spilled in snow.

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First she caught our eye; now she’s snatched our heart. Viewers are smitten. They’re crushin’. They want to know: Who’s that girl?

From a blog at HoustonPress.com, with the headline “The Cult of the Progressive Car Insurance Chick”:

“Am I the only one completely and totally enamored of the woman in the television ads for Progressive car insurance? You know, the ones starring that babelicious brunette named Flo with her ‘tricked-out name tag’ and her ’60s style eye makeup and her kissable red, red lips?”

No, sir, you are not. There’s more where that mash-note came from, out there in the blogosphere’s infinite confessional space: “She’s hot.” “She’s weird but, God, she’s fine!”

Others have naughtier ideas that they’re perfectly comfortable sharing with the world, even if we can’t do so here.

“It’s so weird,” says Stephanie Courtney, the actress who plays Flo.

We spoke to Courtney because we had to. We had to know if she was real or just a cartoon character. If she was at all like the effervescent Flo. If she really wore that much make-up and, hey, who does your hair?

Courtney has been playing Flo for several years. Which makes her the face and voice of Progressive, a peer of the Geico gecko (do they ever hang out, compare rates?) and the old Verizon guy. She follows in a heady tradition of corporate mascots, from Palmolive’s Madge to Tony the Tiger.

It’s been quite a ride for Courtney, a senior member of famed Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings. It began with a simple audition for a commercial. She showed up in a polo shirt and ponytail. She did some improvisation.

“They wanted someone with a lot of personality,” Courtney says by phone from her Los Angeles home.

They liked her and signed her.

Then, the look. That look.

They cut her hair, gave her bangs. They subjected her to two hours of hair and make-up.

“They tease my hair, spray it and stick the headband in it,” Courtney explains.

“And the makeup is like painting a portrait on my face,” she says, laughing. “It’s insane. It totally changes things on my face. It’s like having a mask on.”

One of Flo’s best-known lines is: “Wow! I say it louder.” (You had to be there.)

Courtney has popped up in the movies “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Blades of Glory,” and was one of four leads in the smart adult comedy “Melvin Goes to Dinner,” which won the audience award at South by Southwest in 2003. She also had a recurring role as a gossipy switchboard operator on the hit show “Mad Men.” And you may have seen her doing yoga in a Glade commercial.

The job pays well, Courtney hints. She doesn’t have to worry anymore about pesky things like rent.

How much is Courtney like flamboyant Flo?

“It’s me at my silliest,” she says. “You start off with a script, but at the end they usually let me put a little zinger in there. We put a little mustard on it. That’s when it gets fun.

“Flo could be one of my improv characters, always on and sort of cracked in a weird way.”

But who is Flo? What is she? People wonder …

Like this blogger: “Is it her fabulous comic timing, her over-the-top facial expressions, her cute-as-a-button retro flip? Or is it the slight hint of a bad girl that lies just under the surface? The promise of a tattoo under that checkout girl uniform? The possibility of a motorcycle parked out back?”

Her character has been compared to a vintage Vargas pin-up girl, ’50s burlesque dancer Betty Page and, adds Courtney, a “fetish chick.”

“I don’t know what it is,” she says. “The way I play her, she’s pretty much the most asexual thing on TV right now. I think the Geico lizard puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does. But I do think the cavemen are totally crushable.”

Though Courtney is married to a sixth-grade teacher, Flo appears alluringly single. So pine away, in the same brunette-crush way you did with Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island” and Velma on “Scooby-Doo.”

Because things couldn’t get much stranger than they already are for Courtney. Top this: People are dressing up as Flo for Halloween.

“That makes me so happy. But I do have to warn them that it takes two hours in hair and make-up,” she says. “I wish them luck.”

Stray, dogged thoughts about the world’s street mutts

The coolest friend I met on back-to-back trips to Istanbul was a dog.

I met the stray during a May visit and then, staying in the same area of Sultanahmet, met up with her again in October. She recognized me immediately and we enjoyed a fast, happy reunion. She jumped on me and her tail swept like a furious broom.

Stray dogs are plentiful in Istanbul and are protected by the city. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. My pal wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

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Medium-sized, camel-colored and sweet as a peach, Red Tag wasn’t always around and she didn’t follow me through the city. She had a life of her own. I would see her by my boutique hotel in the morning and in the evening, and she would sit near me at my nearby watering hole at night. One night she hung out with a group of people as we caroused by the Hagia Sophia, staying up till dawn, a trooper.

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Red Tag at dawn after staying out all night with human revelers.

I didn’t spoil Red Tag, though I did occasionally buy her a can of tuna to nosh on as a treat. Street dogs unavoidably crack my heart, and my first instinct is to feed them. Near Gallipoli, Turkey, I bought a stray puppy a can of tuna that she gobbled up gratefully.

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Tuna for a puppy in Turkey.

It’s not always so. In India I bought some peanuts, the only nearby food, for a crazy puppy that ignored the offering. Another Indian dog rebuffed the samosa I tried to give it. Rice wasn’t appreciated by mongrels in Vietnam. For some reason I assumed these derelict doggies would eat anything.

These memories bubbled up while reading a recent story about street dogs in The New York Times titled “Stray Dogs Started Turning Blue. Then the Street Mobilized.” It’s a great, heartening article about how well strays in India are treated and protected. Even though I’ve been to India, it’s an eye-opener:

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India pup, with cow hoof.

“India has some of the most pro-dog laws on the planet. It is illegal here to kill healthy strays, and the result is millions of them — perhaps as many as 30 million across the country. Packs of dogs trot through the parks, hang around restaurants for scraps (which they usually get), and sprawl on their bellies inside railway stations as rushing commuters leap over them.”

This is a far cry from, say, China, where dogs are rounded up as people food or killed outright as pests. Sickening.

In Hanoi I saw an actual “dog restaurant.” Outside was a silver bowl filled with cooked dog paws and, ironically, a chained German shepherd serving as a guard dog. Eating dog is a kind of virility ritual — it’s a guy thing — and when a table of drunken men spotted me spotting them, they tried to rope me to their table, yelling and gesticulating. Later, in an open-air market, I saw dog carcasses basted like turkeys for sale.

Is this cruelty or culture? A culture of cruelty, I say. But let’s not wade into pitched arguments of moral relativism and abject hypocrisy here and now. Later. Maybe.

Red Tag, terrible as it is to think, has probably passed by now. It’s been a while and she seemed to have some age-related arthritic issues when we hung out. She was kind of a loner, but I saw she had friends that curiously looked a lot like her. She was protected by a big-hearted city that coddles its stray dog population, much as India is demonstrating to its mutts and mongrels. I always feel so bad for street dogs in my travels — mangy, mistreated, malnourished. This delivers a whisper of hope.

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Street hounds of Istanbul. Let sleeping dogs lie.