Overrated travel spots? You decide.

Stumbling through the web today, my eye caught a bit of click-bait I couldn’t resist. Headlined “Overrated Places That Aren’t Worth Visiting,” and located at YourDailyDish, it appealed to my love of lists, penchant for snark and discriminating view of world travel.

A pithy, withering litany of 21 so-called overrated spots, laced with a pinch of snide drollery, the dishonor roll is little more than a light-hearted provocation for easily distracted web surfers. There are surely a billion such lists out there, better, funnier, more substantive, more informative. But this one, despite some dubious grammar, boasts surprising off-the-beaten-track locales that may raise eyebrows.

The list is pure meringue that you can’t take too seriously, and you can make a sport of comparing your impressions of a place to the shamings here. I, for one, can attest that Miami, Las Vegas and contemporary art museums earn their slots. The Great Wall of China, not so much.

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The list follows below. Each name is a hyperlink to its web page. (Caveat: the pages are larded with obnoxious yet easily dodged ads.)

  1. The Terraced Rice Fields in Vietnam
  2. Seasonal Waterfalls
  3. The Great Wall of China
  4. Manneken Pis in Brussels
  5. La Bocca Della Verità in Rome
  6. Four Corners Monument
  7. Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts
  8. Contemporary Art Museums
  9. The Confucian Temple of Shanghai
  10. Empire State Building, NYC
  11. Leaning Tower of Pisa
  12. Miami
  13. Niagara Falls
  14. Mount Rushmore
  15. Venice, Italy
  16. Las Vegas
  17. Statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen
  18. The Hollywood Walk of Fame
  19. Champs-Elysees, Paris
  20. Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
  21. Blarney Stone, Ireland

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The welcome problem of where to go next

Wanderlust is a malady, chronic and unquenchable. It’s a greedy thing. It wants, desires. It pulses with passion. A lust to wander — exactly as advertised. Lust isn’t a neutral word. It implies the untamable, the uncontainable. It’s hot to the touch.

I’m forever locked in wanderlust’s fevered clutches, craning my neck in search of the next journey somewhere far away. I need to move. I demand experience. I devour culture. I like airplanes.

This year found me bounding near — D.C., Philadelphia, Boston — and swanning far — London, Montreal, St. Petersburg, Russia. Last year was Spain, for the second time; the year before, Paris, for the fifth time. If all that hadn’t broke the bank, I’d now be giddily racking my brain and scanning maps to locate my next adventure.

Let’s do it anyway. Where next?

Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from Central and South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm.

But I’m picky. I won’t name names, but some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.

Though I enjoyed insanely sweaty jaunts in Thailand, India, Egypt and Vietnam (the latter was best), I mostly spurn hot, tropical climes. I don’t do palm trees. Sand: the great deal-breaker. No matter where I go, early spring and early fall are my optimal travel times.

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I go for cities, jostling, clamorous metropolises, be it Shanghai or Barcelona, Berlin or Mumbai, Tokyo or Hong Kong, Istanbul or Marrakesh. That to me is where the action is, not enveloped in frothing seawater on a Boogie Board or panting across sinuous mountain hiking trails.

Before choosing Russia for my recent fall trip, I looked hard at South Africa, but decided it was both too expensive and too outdoorsy. There is fairly cosmopolitan Cape Town, known mostly for its seaside “scenery” — cliffs and water and the like. Victoria Falls and overpriced safaris could not seal the deal. I’m not mad about seeing hyenas in their natural habitat, when all is said and done. (Why do tourist safaris seem so canned, so kind of phony?)

Some time ago I came close to buying tickets to Argentina — zesty Buenos Aires! Wine! Steaks! — and Brazil, until I peered closer at the year-round temperatures and the Brazilian proclivity for volleyball and Speedos. Only Rio’s storied favela piqued my interest in the end, so I swiftly looked elsewhere for the next journey.

I picked Istanbul for its European patina and Ottoman exoticism, and, once there, was instantly won over by its luminous culture, wonderful people, Old World beauty, dazzling mosques and cobblestone-y charms. A weekend trip to the fairy-tale cave village of Cappadocia topped a perfect two-week vacation. I have since returned to Istanbul, and will surely go back.

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul

But not now. I’m looking for the new, the untouched, the virgin vacation. Japan oddly beckons, but I’ve been there twice, though I’d like to dedicate more time to Kyoto; I think I rushed it. Swaths of Northern Europe — Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark — fail to excite. I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip. Prague is near Hungary, but I’ve done that and wasn’t bowled over. A bit too touristy, a bit too lightweight.

I’ve been to Poland, Mexico, China, Austria, Nepal, Cambodia, Beirut and Israel. But I’ve never been to Australia, and I don’t yen to go, for many of the reasons noted above. (“Sun and fun” as an ideal does not compute.) Toronto looks lackluster. Indonesia seems too balmy, if unspeakably gorgeous.

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

This is a crazily superficial, obscenely first-world conundrum to be stuck in. I’ll pry myself loose when the time comes, when I’m ready for the next big trip (Chicago? Taiwan? South Korea?). Meanwhile, I gaze at my suitcase with longing, hoping to fill it soon, even if I have nowhere to go. Wrote Stephen Sondheim: “Stop worrying where you’re going … If you can know where you’re going/You’ve gone.” 

The 10 best movies of the year, so far — Part II

In July I scared up a list of the 10 best movies of 2017 up to that point. (That list is here.) Since then, the Oscar-bait season has commenced and the year is almost a wrap. I’ve caught up with some of the movies I missed earlier and saw many of the new batch, though I have yet to see raved-about titles like “Call Me By Your Name,” “Lemon,” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

For now, here’s the second installment of the best movies of the year, so far:

1. “Lady Bird” — By turns a sweeping and intimate coming-of-age dramedy of devastating charm, heart and honesty, Greta Gerwig’s feature debut stars a phenomenally nuanced, preternaturally poised Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior grappling with the usual: budding hormones, blossoming opinions, bristling anti-authoritarianism and a mother (the great Laurie Metcalf) with whom she’s at crippling odds. It’s familiar ground, but Gerwig and Ronan whip it into a consistently fascinating, funny and profoundly felt journey that’s not easily shaken. Indeed, it’s intoxicating.

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2. “The Florida Project” — Ugly yet beautiful, soaked in blazing Day-Glo Floridian hues and druggy homeless miseries, Sean Baker’s affecting follow-up to his 2015 stunner “Tangerine” celebrates the anarchy of childhood as told through the impish eyes of a little girl named Moonee (jaw-dropping newcomer Brooklynn Prince). She lives in a long-stay motel with her bedraggled (and be-drugged) mom (the superb Bria Vinaite, a kind of Courtney Love doppelgänger at her mascara-running worst), where she forms a pack of fellow summer-break youngsters who raise hell to the perpetual consternation of motel manager Willem DeFoe, who’s at his fuming best. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s illuminating and something of a tour de force, with a miraculous denouement that swells the heart with hope.

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3. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — A teenage girl is raped and killed and months later the case is still not cracked. The girl’s fed-up mother (a ball-busting Frances McDormand, who will get an Oscar nod) rents three blood-red billboards that accuse the local police of ineptitude in handling the case. No one is happy about it, especially the police chief (the reliably riveting Woody Harrelson) and his loose-cannon underling (crackpot genius Sam Rockwell). As Tarantino once was, writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) is a master at balancing dark humor and bloody crime kicks, seamlessly blending violence and whorling emotional textures. The film is streaked with a Coen-esque unpredictability that’s whiplashing and totally winning.

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4. “Good Time” — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dirty, dangerous two-bit criminal, who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The lo-fi film, by the gifted Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What”), pulls you on a thrilling run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it exhilarates as it harrows. Co-writer/co-director Benny Safdie’s performance as Pattinson’s mentally disabled brother will cleave your heart.

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5. “Jane” — There’s heartache, too, in this absorbing documentary about famed chimpanzee expert/primatologist Jane Goodall, which is composed of hitherto unseen film from her decades in the African jungle, as well as family home movies. Goodall comes off as a winsome Mother Teresa, trying to preserve her hairy pals and the planet to boot, and the footage often grazes the breathtaking (and heartbreaking). Caveat: Along with primates dying of terrible diseases, there’s a nauseating burst of internecine chimpicide on display. It’s brief, but brutal.

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6. “Wind River” — Taylor Sheridan, writer of the gritty near-masterpieces “Sicario” and  “Hell or High Water,” tackles another noirish crime drama for his fine directorial debut, which starts at a chug but gathers velocity for an uncommonly intelligent thriller about people and place. After a brutal rape and murder on a remote Native American reservation in snow-socked Wyoming, a green FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to take the case. She’s joined by a compassionate local wildlife officer (a soulful Jeremy Renner) and soon they are deeply, and dangerously, entangled in the crime’s harrowing complexities. Sheridan’s a superior writer — the dialogue is terse and crackly — and his instinct for mood is unerring. Somber, but bracing.

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7. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” — This bizarro documentary peek at the extreme idiosyncrasies of an overly committed artist — in this case the mercurial Jim Carrey — is as squirm-inducing as it is enthralling. In the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” Carrey portrayed daredevil comedian/performance artist Kaufman, but he pulled a full Method stunt, refusing to step out of character after “Cut!” was yelled. Kaufman was the apotheosis of strange — inscrutable, volatile, scarily unpredictable — so Carrey’s on-set behavior as “Andy,” seen here in rare footage, rattled, roiled and enraged crew and co-stars. Director Chris Smith interviews Carrey today, and the actor explains his reckless impulses. Or at least he tries. (On Netflix)

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8. “Baby Driver” — As an expert getaway driver for a group of high-stakes bank robbers, Baby, as he’s called (a solemn but beat-happy Ansel Elgort), drives like a demon, churning smoke and pulling 50 mph pirouettes to the groovin’ pulse of tunes blasting in his ear buds. Director Edgar Wright has a clever concept — boy wonder drives the likes of Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx to turned-to-11 classic rock, funk and soul — but it doesn’t quite take off for a full-bodied narrative. Still, the music’s a kick and you get the best car-chase porn this side of the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

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9. “Obit.” — “Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely everything to do with the life,” says New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox in Vanessa Gould’s tonic and info-rich documentary about the technical, curatorial and artistic aspects of writing compelling narratives about those who’ve passed. Zooming in on the august obit desk at the Times and its stable of crack stylists, the movie traces the creative evolution of the form — today obits can be “just as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects” — shows the persnickety process of winnowing worthy subjects from lesser ones and unveils the muses behind the writers’ elegant, punchy, even humorous essays. “Maybe it’s macabre, maybe it’s a little morbid,” one writer notes about his craft. This film shows that that is simply not the case.

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10. “Mudbound” — A sharp cast and lavish period detail invigorate this evocative and lushly filmed snapshot of a racially turbulent postwar Mississippi. Director/co-writer Dee Rees describes the relationship between a white family and a black family, which is uneasy at best, thanks to the harsh indignities of Jim Crow rule. Sometimes savage, sometimes soapy, the film aspires to an epic scope, but its made-for-TV feel, a conventional, predictable sheen, thwarts its loftier ambitions. (On Netflix)

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Animals pulling heartstrings

If seeing animals in distress upsets and ruffles you, you may want to skip the new documentary about primatologist and famed chimpanzee doyenne Jane Goodall, simply titled “Jane” (in theaters). While most of this fascinating film is a frank, intimate portrait of Goodall and an enthralling overview of her groundbreaking studies with the wild chimps of Tanzania’s Gombe, there’s enough heartache to plunge you into an unrelenting funk. A sickening wave of sadness rushes over me whenever I think back on it.

(Spoilers follow.)

Maybe it’s me, but watching an old chimp we’ve come to know and adore contract polio, becoming so crippled that he has to drag himself across the ground, no longer able to climb or feed himself, and so ill that his human observers at last shoot him, is unbearable.

There’s the momma chimp that falls sick and dies slowly under the crestfallen eyes of her grown but dependent son, rendering him an inconsolable heap that stops eating and dies two weeks later. If you’re not shattered by now don’t miss the full-blown chimpanzee war between rival groups that leaves the jungle floor strewn with furry corpses. (And then there’s the obligatory scene of a poor lone zebra getting taken down and torn apart by a pride of lions.)

It’s powerful material that makes for a powerful film, one that I fully recommend despite that fact that I carried my heart in various pockets on the way out.

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I’m a softie. Animals make me sad even in the best of circumstances. I worry about them. I wonder if they are comfortable and happy. From the wildest fauna to the most domesticated mongrel, I ponder if creatures get nuzzles and belly rubs, eat tasty and plentiful food, play and frolic, read good books and dance occasionally.

Street Dogs in IndiaStreet mutts, of course, rip me asunder. I’ve seen them all over the world and so many are suffering in some capacity, be it malnourishment or crippling traffic injuries. Almost masochistically I’ve volunteered at animal shelters. Next to the glee of successful adoptions are haunting images of broken, damaged, hopeless animals confined to veal-sized pens. And service dogs for the blind and handicapped — let’s not start. That’s a double-whammy, when I feel terrible for both animal and human.

I enjoy seeing healthy dogs with healthy owners on walks, out and about. But weirdly that wasn’t the case on my recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Bounding dogs on leashes ambled the city sidewalks and parks. Happy and hale, they were the picture of doggie luminosity. Yet at some point I hoped I wouldn’t see any more dogs on my trip. They were bringing me down, making me blue. I unaccountably felt bad for them, even though they were clearly fine.

This is pathos at its worst. It’s feeling so much that the emotion becomes misplaced. I recommend a strong prescription medication.

Goodall’s puckish chimps buckle me, but it’s a contained anguish. Animals, from the suburbs to the Serengeti, will always disquiet me, reasonably or not. Yet of course they also furnish joy and wonder, comfort and companionship, which can’t be underplayed. Like people, they are prickly conundrums, fascinating if so terribly fragile.

Slamming the book on these books

I’ve mentioned before that I am an impatient reader, the type who gives a book about 50 pages to hook and dazzle me before I put it aside, moving on to the next potential winner. A chronic putter-downer, I dispense with underwhelming books a lot — I’ve spurned 10 titles in the past three months — always with a gulp of guilt, a soupçon of shame, a drizzle of disappointment. Are my standards too high? I don’t think so. I simply ask: Astonish me.

A few of the books that didn’t survive my recent scorched-earth dismissals were three volumes I’ve read before and loved but wound up not being in the mood for, rather unreasonably: “The White Album” by Joan Didion and Nabokov’s twin masterstrokes “Lolita” and “Speak, Memory.” I cracked them, read some, and hurriedly (blushingly) lost interest. Perhaps it was the been-there, done-that syndrome. (I’ve read “Lolita” twice already.)

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You’re catching me in the act — I’m this close to putting down Catherine Lacey’s hailed new novel “The Answers.” At page 42, I’m not bored or wholly unabsorbed, but I’m getting perilously antsy. The protagonist is drab, the setting is vague, the advancing complications not that gripping. Still, I don’t think I’m done with it — yet. Lacey’s 2014 debut novel is “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” which netted praise and awards. I picked it up. I put it down. I’m giving the author another shot. It does not look promising.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have a back up book if I toss “The Answers.” I have on order at the library Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” and Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” — both highly acclaimed literary novels by authors whose previous books nimbly enchanted. I could buy them at the local indie book store, but I’m far too fickle and fussy a reader to gamble cold cash like that. Not long ago, I spent $30 on Michael Chabon’s icky “Telegraph Avenue” — a total bust.

As shown, I’ll discard a book no matter how many laurels it wears or rave reviews it gets from critics and opining Amazon parasites. Recently, Dwight Garner of The New York Times gushed about the late J. P. Donleavy’s 1955 comic novel “The Ginger Man,” calling it a “picaresque masterwork” and so forth. So I picked it up. I read some. Then I scribbled in my journal:

“Started ‘The Ginger Man’ and hated it off the bat. Fifteen pages and I’m done. Don’t like the style, the humor, the taste and texture. Reminds me of Kingsley Amis’ brassy ‘Lucky Jim,’ which I’ve tried to read twice and couldn’t make it click.”

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Then there’s the bantam-weight fluff of that satirist of suburbia Tom Perrotta, which, yes, I naturally put down. The book, his most recent, is “Mrs. Fletcher,” a comedy about a middle-aged woman who gets entangled in a web site called MILFateria.com. The novel flies along on middlebrow wings. It’s pop-lit, shorn of profundities and wisdom, though peppered with satirical observations and caustic cracks. I wanted to stick with it, and Perrotta makes the experience  easy and breezy. I liked it until I didn’t — too many empty calories, like eating marshmallows. Next!

That would be Claire Mussud’s middlingly reviewed coming-of-age story “The Burning Girl,” which didn’t burn or glow — wasn’t even warm to the touch. I loved Mussud’s “The Emperor’s Children” and admired “The Woman Upstairs.” A new simplistic style hijacks her sophisticated prose, her sink-your-teeth-into ideas, grace and suavity. It has an unbecoming YA tang.

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Next up was the book I really wanted to read, Gabriel Tallent’s ballyhooed novel “My Absolute Darling,” which has been called the mightiest debut of the year, the glimmering fall must-read. It follows a rustic, rough-hewn teenage girl named Turtle and her adventures wandering about the forests and craggy coastline of Northern California. Supposedly it’s quite harrowing. I found no harrow.

I read more than 200 of its 432 pages and as ravishing, even astonishing, as the writing is — Tallent should become a nature writer; his descriptions are swooningly lyrical — a real plot, a chunky narrative, never bloomed. There’s a lot of writing going on, but little else.

Maybe I should have stuck around. Maybe I’ll go back to it. Maybe I’ll wait for the movie. Meanwhile, in the midst of writing this, I’ve made more progress on Lacey’s “The Answers.” That sound you heard was two covers going smack.

Bury me in the ball

What to do with your body after you die?

For me, it’s easy. I’ve instructed loved ones to cremate me, then put my ashes in a pickle jar, drive down the interstate doing 70 and dump the powder out the window — although the car behind, wiper blades slashing furiously, likely won’t be overjoyed by the Mount St. Helens-esque storm.

It’s simple, it’s cheeky, and it’s entirely illegal. For someone bent on cremation — I’m not getting leeched of my precious fluids, then pumped with toxic chemicals and put out to rot in an obscenely overpriced box for eternity — there must be another way. And of course there is.

I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I can remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, I watch movies about it, I dream about it, I visit cemeteries all over the world to get close to it.

I mull mortality, yours and mine, every single day. I’m a realist, but it’s a quivering kind of reality. As mortician-author Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood “sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.” It’s a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.

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Cremation is flat-out horrifying, but for me it’s the only option, none of which are especially appetizing. But then what? Ashes and bone kibble stored in a handsome urn and set on the mantel like an ornate candy jar? Cremains scattered over the San Francisco Bay or some other picturesque point of personal poignancy?

No, I got it. Bury me in a ball.

What’s that? It’s this: the wonderful underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. First you’re cremated. Then your ashes are stirred with concrete and shaped into a hollow, hole-pocked reef ball, which can be up to six feet wide and five feet tall. Resting on the seafloor, its goal is to provide a teeming marine habitat for fish, coral and more.

image.jpgSeveral companies do reef burials, but Eternal Reefs of Florida specializes in more personal balls. Three sizes of reef balls run from about — hang on — $4,000 to $7,500, according to AtlasObscura.com, which goes on:

“The larger reef balls can accommodate multiple sets of remains, so that families can be ‘buried’ together, turning the ball into a sort of underwater mausoleum. Surviving friends and family can leave handprints, markings, and messages in the wet cement.”

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The reefs are fashioned from “environmentally-safe cast concrete” and are “placed in the permitted ocean location selected by the individual, friend or family member,” says the Eternal Reefs site.

I grew up on the Pacific Coast, from Santa Barbara to the SF Bay Area, and I’ve always loved SeaWorld and I’m a big fan of grilled octopus. The reef ball sounds like a ball, smack in my bailiwick for the eternal snooze. I’m intrigued by its eco possibilities, that it can nurture fishies and coral and plants and sea anemones and, if lucky, some impish sea otters. In the picture above, it’s not the prettiest grave on the lot, cankered and barnacled with squiggly mysteries of the sea, despite the dazzling Van Gogh hues. (Kind of looks like a six-month-old jack-o’-lantern.)

We should figure this out before it’s too late, while we’re still here, cognizant and, well, alive. We plan for vacations with great care and great expense. This is the most epic journey of all, the final destination, one-way ticket in hand. Not sure about you, but I want to go out with a splash.

Happy Halloween.

Frustration to ‘The Firebird’ — the sublimity of St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, Russia, catching an Uber the hell out of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was nigh impossible and immaculately exasperating — client and drivers just could not connect and a flurry of cancelled rides ensued — so I found myself trekking down bustling Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare in this wonderfully massive city, pocked with shops and banks and restaurants, groceries and souvenir kiosks. I strolled contentedly (ignore the steam poofing from my ears) till I could stroll no more, and located a spot at a landmark from which to finally hail an Uber ride. (Did I mention the average Uber fare ran me about $1.50 US? A dollar-fifty. Yes, at this point I’m grinning.)

What I was doing at the famed, winsome Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the tippity-top of Nevsky Prospect, was looking at graves, mostly those in the famous Tikhvin Cemetery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other brand-name bodies lie.

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For about $7 US, one is invited to amble the leafy paths of the 19th-century burial grounds and, with map in hand, á la those furnished at the unsurpassed cemeteries of Paris, seek out the eternal mattresses of the famous and infamous. The weather was cool, distinctly autumnal, the leaves turned and fallen. It was bliss.

Dostoyevsky lurched at me:

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As did this distressed woman, who perhaps witnessed my Uber travails:

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For this visitor, St. Petersburg was glorious that way, in its vibrant, tumultuous history, which is epic and bracingly complex, riddled with shake-ups, triumphs, reversals, oustings, wars, creeps (that’s you, Rasputin), revolutionaries (that’s you, Lenin), and cataracts of blood. Where else would there be this, the knockout, perversely titled Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the spot where Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb:

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Endless canals stream through St. Petersburg, requiring scores and scores of small bridges, reminiscent of Amsterdam and its canals, or Paris and the regal Seine.

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And, as I boasted in an earlier entry, I located unfettered beauty at the ballet in the legendary Mariinsky Theatre. I watched, and reveled in, Stravinsky’s landmark fairytale “The Firebird,” perched in a fine dress circle seat. It was lush and extravagant. My view:

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Bonus shots: The Winter Palace, once the official home of the czars in the 1700s, in the sprawling Palace Square. This is the main building of the boggling Hermitage Museum.

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Below, a Hermitage guide describes Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite “Madonna and Child” from 1478:

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And that’s all from Russia. I’ll spare you the food porn.

Tippling, Russian style

In St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, no one in a bar bumptiously offered me a shot of vodka as I had been cautioned they would. (Sad face emoji.) The only offers came from poised waiters in nice restaurants — not from chummy, drunky, rambunctious imbibers who wanted me to be their new American comrade in guzzling. This, surely, is a good thing.

I took it slow and easy, tossing back my first shots of the typically clear, but sometimes amber, libation in the controlled environment of the illuminating Russia Vodka Museum, an expansive and engrossing shrine to Russia’s national beverage.

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Guide Veronica explaining the vodkas I was about to gulp.

In a brisk and fact-packed 30 minutes I was shown the place by the delightful, fluently-English Veronica as my personal guide. I learned scads about the history of Russian vodka, from pre-Ivan the Terrible days in the 12th century to Putin’s relationship with the gullet-stinging spirit. The museum is top-shelf, full of text (in Russian, alas), colorful bottles, distillery artifacts, Stalin-era propaganda and unintentionally comical human wax figures. It’s thorough and classy.

If you opt for it — and you must — the tour concludes with a vodka tasting of three regional samples, and includes “chasers” of pickle, herring and onions and something else that escaped me but was fishy and delicious. The tour and tasting cost barely more than $10 US, a steal.

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Three shots, three edible chasers.

Before my only official shot of vodka in a bar-restaurant setting, I became a regular at the enchanting Dead Poets, a relaxed, stylish gastrobar where the bartenders are hipster mixologists with expert instincts and eye-crossing dexterity. They fashion quite the concoctions — like my favorite, the whiskey sour, which they do with care and panache — that are elaborate and fanciful but just the right amount of modest and unembarrassing. Nothing was too fru-fru, too tawdry, despite the simpatico bartenders’ twee haircuts and rococo facial hair.

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Best whiskey sour, ever. Notice the egg-white froth.

No, my sole shot of ice-cold vodka (curiously, the shots at the museum were room temperature) occurred at the acclaimed Duo Gastrobar, a tiny, mid-range restaurant, serving delectable meals, like amazing bone marrow with ginger sauce and crunchy apple pork rib.

Dessert menu? Pass. Let’s move on to liquid pleasures. For about $4 Duo offered one kind of vodka, the classic Beluga Noble, in a shot. Vodka in Russia, they say, must be served chilled, otherwise send it back. This was a frosty, good-sized shot, with lemon slices to bite after quaffing it down. Vodka, of course, is the smoothest liquor to shoot, as it tastes of hardly more than alcohol fumes. It has character if scant flavor.

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The lone chilled vodka shot in Russia.

As he delivered it, my server volunteered his confusion as to why vodka is his country’s national drink when tequila and whiskey, for instance, contain so much more texture and nuance. True, I nodded, and we laughed. But it was bracing and fine and if I wasn’t heading over to another bar, the youthful, disco-lighted Mishka, where drinks are two-for-one during a very long happy hour, I’d have ordered another. When in Russia …

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.

 

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.