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.

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.

A gallery of the ghoulish in Russia

If jarred fetuses bother you, if pickled body parts give you the heebie-jeebies, look away, click away. You have two seconds …

Let’s proceed.

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For my tiresomely upcoming trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I’ve found the East’s beautiful cousin to America’s incomparable cathedral of the grisly, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. It’s the Kunstkamera Museum, aka the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. I have to quote the web to get it right and concise (apologies):

“The Kunstkamera is the first museum in Russia. Established by Peter the Great and completed in 1727, it hosts a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. Peter’s museum was a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to preserving ‘natural and human curiosities and rarities.’ “

OK. We got it. (Wait. Two million items? Yes!)

Now let’s get to jarred babies. To unvarnished ghoulishness. To this:

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I’ll get to more such stuff for you, via words and pictures, when I get there in a week or so. I imagine this is a mummy, or someone took a picture of me after last night’s bender.

Now some beauty before we all upchuck. The museum resides in a typically wedding-cakish palace-like edifice so common in St. Petersburg:

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Right, but let’s not forget its contents:

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Three heads are better than one.

Reviewing the museum online, a visitor notes that a highlight is the “fetus floor” (well, yeah); another notes the evocative scientific instruments (probably chilling in a “Dead Ringers” way); and yet one more declares: “After traveling over 50 countries, that’s the most bizzare thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really gross.” (Jittery excitement.)

Why is this appealing? I can’t quite nail it, but I know it’s the same reason why wide-eyed, slack-jawed throngs packed freak shows of yore, why giggly gaggles of school children are whisked to the Mütter Museum, why macabre taxidermy and bone specimens are top sellers at the crowd-pleasing Evolution store in New York’s SoHo.

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We are curious about mystery, the outré, the weird and wondrous. We are strangely enriched and even, with a flinch, comforted confronting the repellent and gasp-inducing. It’s not a game. Gallows humor may tinge the experience — hey, that looks like Uncle Mike! — but it’s surely not ha-ha funny. It’s about expanding the mind and the world of earthly experience. It is, with a peculiar poignance, about us. 

Brushing aside loneliness to bask in solitude

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“Solitude must be welcomed rather than feared. In the mental and moral equipment of a radical or critical personality, this realization is of the essence.” — Christopher Hitchens

I’m the inveterate navel-gazer, the incorrigible woolgatherer, the loner who picks his moments in the spotlight and never gets dragged into them. Hardly the social butterfly, I prefer the cozy gloom of the cocoon. While getting out is good, solitude is golden.

I’ve traveled the world with girlfriends, but usually it’s a solo affair — much easier, more peaceful, more relaxed. I meet people on the road, lots, and those fleeting encounters are just the right measure of intimate human contact.

I once had a friend meet me in Japan for part of a vacation and I wrote in my journal, almost as a reminder, semi-dreading the company, “I walk the Earth alone.” I was being facetious. Unfortunately my friend read this. She was light years from amused.

“Hell,” said Sartre, “is other people.” One wonders if he said this with a wink or a wince.

“Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” — Jodi Picoult

I’ve never understood people who can’t be alone. I have friends who would never conceive of going to a movie by themselves. I’ve never understood extroverts. I’m the sort who ducks down a different aisle if I spot an acquaintance in the grocery store. I’m sort of like a film noir antihero, alone in my trench coat, head bowed, buckled with ennui, smoking like a fiend, trying to make my way in an unjust world. (Ha.)

I have a mild misanthropic streak, an anti-social strain, though I’m no solitudinarian — actual word! — or recluse. It’s nothing severe enough to prevent me from enjoying a good party or get-together, even if I’m occasionally the guy who leaves early through the back door without saying proper farewells. (“People-proof your heart,” sang the Posies.)

My own skin doesn’t fit well. Which means comfort among others doesn’t come easy. Traveling, I love to read in cafes, scribble in journals at bars, roam streets, cathedrals and cemeteries alone, without the nattering of companions. I move to my own beat, that of a different drummer — and, as a longtime drummer, a pretty good drummer.

“I don’t like being able to be reached. I enjoy my solitude. Even people having my phone number seems like too much.”Brie Larson

Yes, I quoted Brie Larson. But I like her style here, despite her unbridled exhibitionism as an Oscar-winning actress and all the happy-face fraudulence that it demands. I searched her images and they’re topless this and bikini that. She shares that brainless visual cotton-candy with a boundless global viewership. So much for solitude. And yet I believe her quote, and wholly relate.

She probably doesn’t like to be reached because she gets six thousand calls a day. I don’t get any, maybe two, and it’s still too much. Even marketing calls feel like an invasion on my solo-hood. When my phone rings my first response is, Who the —-?

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” — May Sarton

There is indeed a difference between loneliness and solitude, and the gulf is dramatic. Loneliness yearns for something more, usually other people, to fill an existential hole. There’s a neediness, even a dependence and desperation, there. It enshrines incapacity.

In solitude one reaps energy from oneself, without the jumper cables of outside forces. You create your own space on your own terms, with your own powers, cultivating your mind, with the option of joining the wide world at anytime. Great freedom defines solitude. It’s the incubator of creativity and art. It’s the locus of self-communion. And, far from being bereft and desolate and unduly selfish, it’s all rather invigorating, nourishing and exhilarating.

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Booking the right book for your travels

My Russian visa finally arrived after an intensive, grueling process that cost half as much as my flight to St. Petersburg. It shouldn’t be so difficult, so discouraging — do they actually want visitors, you begin to wonder.

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In Turkey you go to a counter first thing off the plane and buy a $20 visa sticker for your passport and you’re done. It takes 15 minutes. Syria was a bit more involved: I had to send about $100 with my passport to the nearest consulate, they stamped it and sent it back. (There was more to it than that, in my case. I had to get a whole new passport because mine had an Israel stamp, a no-no with Syria.)

But enough with the pesky visa. The minor ordeal is over, let’s hope, despite the irretrievable hideousness of my visa photo, in which I look like a low-grade Russian street gangster. I can’t get over it. The customs inspectors will probably block my entry and send me home.

On to the next level of travel planning — what book to bring for leisure reading in the airport, on the plane and wherever else down time must be occupied. This is serious. A few times I’ve taken the “wrong” book on trips only to realize at page 30 that I don’t like it and I’m then screwed until I find an English-language bookstore at my destination. (“Moby-Dick” and Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” were two of those.) A book I bought in the Amsterdam airport was Ian McEwan’s brilliant “Enduring Love” — a blind score after I purposely left the book I’d brought on the plane.

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Now, instead of risking disappointment on an untested title, I stick to classics and favorites. Rather recently I brought “Franny and Zooey” to Paris, “Catcher in the Rye” to Spain (yes, a little Salinger kick), “Stoner” to California and so on. For Russia I’ve picked a novel by a Russian titan which ranks in my top two or three favorite novels of all time: “Lolita” by Nabokov. One, there’s the Russia tie, even though he wrote the America-set book in English. Then there’s the fact that it’s a known quantity of peerless quality. I’ve read it twice, and now is the perfect moment to revisit. (As queasy as I can get about the subject matter, Nabokov’s extravagant prose, so transcendent religions could be founded on it, eclipses moral squirming.)

I also assign pre-reading — homework — for my journeys. Besides the sights and practicalities of guide books, I peek and poke through histories, ransack the web and watch as many documentaries on culture and history I can find. That means a lot about the Czars, Lenin and Stalin for this vacation. Today I picked up — more like lugged — David Remnick’s Pulitzer-winning doorstop “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.” It’s thick, it’s heavy and, so far, bloody and gripping.

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And my planned visit to the free Nabokov House Museum, the author’s home from his birth in 1899 to 1917, necessitated grabbing Nabokov’s celebrated autobiography “Speak, Memory,” which I read many years ago. Much of the book is set in the house, a repository of writerly ephemera, artifacts, decor, desks and his beloved butterflies.

This Nabokov jag dovetails nicely with my St. Petersburg trip. I will read part, maybe all, of the autobiography, leaving me with “Lolita” to crack in the airport in a few weeks. Meantime, I have the Remnick opus, “Lenin’s Tomb,” to hold me over, all 12 pounds of it. Reading’s a huge part of travel, I think, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s informative, transformative, and it propels you just a little bit further on your voyage with words, wit and wisdom. It enriches, expands, excites. It’s like its own whopping journey.

My romance with travel — quote of the day

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Paris

“Traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love of travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby — I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to — I just don’t care.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

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Istanbul

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Paris

How to drink vodka (or not) with that Russian swagger

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It sounds like the most rancid cultural cliche, but I keep hearing that vodka shots are a compulsory part of visiting Russia if you go to local bars, which I most surely am. Ritual reigns. Toasts, garrulous and heartfelt, are mandatory. Friendships are forged over the clear, biting liquid. Backslaps, perhaps high-fives (please no), succeed the flaming gulps. Vodka is a social lube, a social glue. After a week in St. Petersburg next month, I fear that I’m going to have made dozens of new (bibulous) friends and wind up with the squinchy elfin aspect of this fellow:

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“The national drink is an inseparable part of Russian social life. Vodka is drunk everywhere, with the intention of breaking down inhibitions and producing a state of conviviality Russians refer to as dusha-dushe (soul-to-soul). When a Russian taps his throat, beware: it’s impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship.”

So writes The New York Times. “Impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship”? I will find ways. I can be terrifically anti-social. I don’t want to be around too many guys who “taps his throat” as an alarm bell to guzzle a shot I might not want. I get more than two shots from these tipplers, well, then, comrade, my nice relaxing night at the bar may quite be over. I’ll take a beer, sir, and the check, and … who in hell pays for those shots? I have a stinky feeling I’m getting stuck with the bill.

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I hate Russia. I hate vodka.

Not really. Indeed, I have firm, jazzed plans to visit St. Petersburg’s newish Russia Vodka Museum, dubbed “excellent” by Lonely Planet, a glassy, liquidy historical survey of the beverage through storied, stumbling Russian yore. A 30-minute guided tour in English and sizable samples of three vodkas with traditional Russian snacks — pickles! herring! — is about $10, and I’m dimly gobsmacked. That sounds pretty fine.

I love Russia. I love vodka.

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Russia Vodka Museum. Looks like a well-stocked vodka bar. As it should.

Vodka in Slavic means “little water,” but it seems more like big water in Russia. Supposedly invented in Poland, the drink’s name was first recorded in Russia in the late 1700s. Today there are hundreds of brands of vodka available there, though I doubt my go-to, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a Texas upstart, moves many units.

Imbibing the spirit, as I said, is a ritualized affair, almost a drinking game, freckled with frat boy machismo and cornball sacraments. The Times notes the dubious “vodka procedure,” which entails guzzling a nice big shot, neat, of course. It continues: “Prepare a forkful of food or chunk of bread. Inhale and exhale quickly, bringing the food to your nose. Breathe in and tip the vodka down your throat. Now breathe out again, and eat your food.”

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I don’t think so. That sounds a bit like yoga for alkies. Can’t I just order a vodka tonic, a Cape Cod, a, huh-hum, White Russian, vodka martini, or something divine and aquamarine, conjured magic-potion-like by a multi-tentacled mixologist? Of course I can. And I will.

But I also want Russia’s traditional, unalloyed vodka experience. I’ll do a shot or two, hopefully with guys who don’t whoop a lot or slam their glasses down on the table and beat their chests. I can’t speak a lick of Russian, so who knows what kind of rigamarole I might find myself.

I’ll just say this: Temperance is golden, abstinence is mournful, more than five shots is suicidal, and eating herring with your vodka is, plain and simple, foolhardy. Na zdorovie!

Beirut: beauty, bowed, but not broken

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Luna Park, a tumbledown amusement park along Beirut’s Corniche seaside promenade. It appeared shuttered and cobwebbed, far from its heyday as a respite from the country’s civil war in the 1970s.

Beautiful but battered, regal but raw, Beirut is like a patient in recovery, with ample physical therapy ahead of it. No longer crowned the “Paris of the Middle East,” the Levantine Mediterranean city, one of the world’s oldest and a beguiling twinning of East and West, remains a tourist draw of exotic splendors and fragrant pleasures. If it bears unconcealed bruises, Beirut still, with its lush, war-torn history and an exuberant cafe and bar life, is a multilevel dazzler.

I can’t say my weeklong visit some years ago went as planned. Trouble was had. After I took a photo in a neighborhood where I was told explicitly not to take a photo, I was detained by Hezbollah goons who roughed me up a little, rifled through my bag, flipped through my books and demanded to see my “papers.” I felt like I was in East Berlin, circa 1960. I felt like I might be tortured, disappeared or beheaded. It was no joke. I came out alive, shaken and shaky for the rest of the day and night, but not enough to deter me from haunting a choice bar in one of the city’s crackling nightlife districts. Beirut knows how to party.

Would I go back? Probably not. But I’m glad I went. It’s a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.

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Pigeons’ Rock, or Sabah Nassar’s Rock, in the Raouche area along the Corniche.

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Lebanese Army vehicle, downtown Beirut. Its presence, imposing and unsettling, wasn’t unlike those of the grim-faced armed soldiers patrolling malls and mosques.

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One of countless bullet- and shell-riddled buildings all about the city.

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Proud produce merchant.

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Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, remains an icon in Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut. Taking this photo got me into a world of trouble with local authorities who were convinced I was a western spy.

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Hezbollah rocket on display in the middle of a south Beirut street.

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My (tiny) bar of choice in the ever-hopping Gemmayze district, which throbs with bars and clubs and revelers. That guy in the neon-ablaze storefront window on the far right is a DJ.

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Blasted shell of the infamous Beirut Holiday Inn. During the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76, the hotel became a war zone in the Battle of the Hotels.

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Girl in taxi, texting.

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Delightful if pontifical Orthodox priest who gave me an earful about God, history, life.

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Ceiling of the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut.

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Prayer on the Corniche. (Luna Park Ferris wheel in far distance.)

Ballet in Russia, a quintessential splurge

Even though my Russian visa still hasn’t been officially issued — it’s in the tortured, Kafkaesque pipeline, though they have said (brusquely) that it should ship in two days — I went ahead and bought a ticket for the ballet at the famous, chandelier-encrusted Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

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Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

I’ve been to the ballet once in my life — Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s clashing “Rite of Spring” in San Francisco, eons ago. Granularly, I know next to nothing about the art form, though my appreciation for it is lavish. I think Misty Copeland is recklessly awesome. (I think the Natalie Portman movie “Black Swan” is curdlingly rotten.)

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Misty Copeland in the title role of “The Firebird,” American Ballet Theatre

The mid-October matinee is for Stravinsky’s 1910 “The Firebird,” a Technicolor Russian fairytale told in two “scenes,” which runs a zippy 50 minutes. The ballet, with choreography by Michel Fokine, was Stravinsky’s breakthrough as a composer, followed famously by “Petrushka” and the “Rite of Spring.” My ticket in the Dress Circle was a doable $48.

I’ve been reading up on the performance, and came across choreographer Fokine’s fascinating notes:

“When staging the dances I used three principles that are utterly different in terms of character and technique in this ballet.

“I created the evil kingdom using grotesque, angular and sometimes freakish and sometimes amusing movements. The monsters moved on all fours, jumped like frogs, did different ‘tricks’ with their legs, sitting and lying on the stage, their hands like fish fins, at times under the elbows, at times under the ears, the arms were entwined, they moved from one side to the other, squatting and so on, in a word they did everything that twenty years later began to be known as modern dance and what at the time seemed to me to be the most suitable means of expressing a nightmare, horror and ugliness. Virtuoso leaps and frivolity were also used.”

This sounds splendidly transporting. Which is precisely why I travel. Expect a vivid report next month. And if anyone has opinions or comments about this ballet or St. Petersburg or what have you, please share. Thanks.

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