First of all, let me say that the people in Vladivostok have it rough. Very, very rough. It is a poor, polluted city in an abysmally poor region called Primorye. Due to its strategic military importance, it was a "closed" city until 1992. They are trying desperately to catch up for the 50 or so years that they were shut off from the rest of the world's technological and engineering advances, but it's going at a pretty slow rate. There are still plenty of statues and signs up from the Communist era. But now there are also plenty of billboards for vodka, washing machines and cat food.
LIFE IN VLAD:
The geography of the area is unkind--hilly and rough--and the weather is brutal. The life expectancy for men is 57. For women, it's 63. It's simply not an easy place to live. And, from what I gather, most people who are born there, live there their entire lives and die there. Because it is so remote, it's hard to get out of there and move on to greener pastures as it were. As a result, I found the people to be hardened and suspicious. They will stare unabashedly at anyone they discern is "foreign" and are, for the most part, downright unfriendly and brusque. But, that's just the way they are. I didn't really take it personally.
The traffic is utterly insane. There are no lines painted on the pavement, and they literally do not have stop signs--just yields. And, in a city of 700K+, they've only got a handful of traffic signals that drivers view as suggestions only. There are tons of traffic circles that are utterly maddening. They defy description or logic. The pedestrians all have death wishes and just cross, willy nilly, whenever and wherever they want to. And they'll do it at night, in a blinding snow storm while wearing all black. They are fearless. Or nuts. It was hard to tell. And the best part is that it all happens on top of several packed inches of snow and ice on the badly pot-holed roads.
The buildings are, for the most part, run down and in various states of disrepair. I saw very little new construction. There are lots of high-rise apartment buildings that were built during the Soviet era that now look like Chicago's Cabrini Green from "Hoop Dreams." Very, very sad. Most buildings have a very sterile, institutional look and feel to them. Makes you think that everything's a mental hospital.
There was a market across from the hotel that I went to a couple of times. I affectionately started calling it the UnFriendlyMart. It was intense. When you walked in, there was a tiny bakery counter with fresh bread and pastries for sale. Then you had to walk though a security gate (and past the first of 3 security guards) into the store's 1,000 sq. ft. of floor space, every inch of which was merchandised beyond belief. In the back, there was a deli/meat case and in the front was an insane liquor selection along with a few dairy items. No fresh vegetables. No over-the-counter medications (you've got to go to a pharmacy for stuff like aspirin, etc.). Lots of products that I had no idea what they were (hmmm...is this crackers...or tampons?). And most everything I looked at was at least a month past its "best by" date.
I only actually ate at restaurants twice during my trip. The rest of the time I existed on expired crackers and V8 from the UnFriendlyMart and other snack foods I brought with me from the states (raisins, Luna bars, peanut butter crackers, fruit leather).
My first restaurant experience was at the hotel's restaurant. For lunch. I was the only customer. The menu was in Russian and a brave attempt at English. For instance, there was one entree that was called "The Gulf Stream," and the accompanying description said "A warm stream on your table." Intriguing? Yes. Appetizing? Um...no. Anyway, the description of the things I ordered and what actually showed up on my table were not exactly the same. The salad was hard boiled eggs, onions, apples and mayonnaise, all mixed together in a whitish-yellowish glop. The soup was oily and fishy smelling, with a couple of shrimp floating around in the broth. The shrimp had their tails on, which made for awkward eating. The bread they brought as an accompaniment was very dry and stale. I was still hungry after my soup and salad (imagine that!), and so I ordered dessert. This was actually quite good: A margarita-type glass filled with tiny little eclairs, about the size of the tip of your thumb, served with a coffee cup filled with melted dark chocolate and cognac. You dipped the eclairs in the chocolate, and it was very, very good. That lunch cost about $28. About 12 hours later, I woke up with the most intense diarrhea ever. Lots of fun.
My second restaurant experience was at an Italian place down the hill from my hotel. I went there with 2 American couples I'd met at the orphanage. When I got there, I warned them, "I am about to make an utter pig of myself, so I apologize." I was so thrilled by the concept of real food, that I ordered salad, soup AND entree. Diarrhea be damned. My salad was amazing--a great Greek-style salad. Utterly yummy. The soup was good--a clear vegetable broth with fresh veggies floating in it. My entree, vegetable lasagna, was decadent. Filled with eggplant, spinach and lots and lots of cheese. I chowed down, all the while being stared out by a glaring, smoking Russian sitting a couple of tables away. I'm sure I looked like the stereotypical American Pig. But I didn't care. It was the first (and only) night in Russia I went to bed without my stomach growling. And it didn't even make me sick, which was an added bonus.
- When you go to change money into rubles, they are PSYCHOTIC about the quality of the dollars. They have to be new and completely free of flaws or ink. Period. Look at the bills in your wallet right now. How many of them fit that description? Now you can begin to understand what a huge pain in the ass this is.
Svetlana: "No. I won't change this $100 bill. Is no good."
Karla May: "Why?"Svetlana: "Because of the red ink." (Svetlana points a 2-in. long fake fingernail to a pin-head sized fleck of red on the edge of the border of the bill.)
Svetlana: "No good!"
- Smoking is okay, anywhere, any time. Even if you're working the reception desk at the "4-Star" hotel.
- I saw some of the most amazingly beautiful fur coats and hats on women when I was there. I don't advocate the use of fur for fashion. But when it's 12-below for 6 months out of the year, I am not going to begrudge these people for donning fur. I'm sure they were a hell of a lot warmer than I was in my cloth coat.
- When I asked about getting a cab to go to a restaurant that had been recommended to us, I was told by one of my translators that, "Only prostitutes take taxis." Interesting.
- Russian television is the strangest thing I've ever seen (more on that in a future post). It makes Telemundo look like C-Span.