Thursday, June 30, 2005

Earth Girls are Easy

Irkutsk, Russia

I woke up this "morning" at 1pm. We went out last night looking for trouble. We found it in the form of two Irkutskian girls hanging out in the park: Kate and Nastia. They took us on a whirlwind tour of nighttime Irkutsk. We sang Karaoke, drank vodka and orange juice and Russian beer, walked the streets setting fire to the summer snow, sat in parks, strolled down to the River Angara, and generally had a grand old time despite the formidable language barrier. We ended up back at our hotel at 4am, way drunker than we should have been. They walked themselves home.

We had originally planned to go to Lake Baikal today, but it was not to be. By the time we were organized and out the door, it was already 3pm. There was no way we would be able to get to the Lake and back in time. So, we just spent the day walking around Irkutsk, and had a nice hangover-y midday supper at the Disco Cafe. We ended up at a large indoor market where we bought all the food supplies we will need for our upcoming three-day train trip to Vladivostok.
We're leaving tomorrow, early in the 'morn.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

First Video

Mike has just finished editing Operation Cromulent's first official video. You can take a look see if'n you want.

If you are having problems playing these, please download and install VLC Media Player.

Update (Jason 3/19/12): We have moved all of the videos to the youtubes. You don't need VLC anymore, but you should download it anyway cuz it's the bee's knees.

Au Revoir, LA

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Schmime Zones

Somewhere in Eastern Siberia

At this point in the trip, I'm dealing with three different time zones. First, we've got GMT, which is the universal time zone of the blog. All of my posts are referenced with this timestamp, and my iBook is permanently synced with the Greenwich. That's 5:24 pm right now. Second, we have "Moscow Time", which is currently GMT +4. This is the time zone that all of the Trans-Siberian trains run on. No matter where in Russia you are, all of the train schedules are listed in Moscow time. This can be a lot different than the local time as I believe Russia spans 11 time zones. So, Moscow time: 9:27 pm. Last, but not least, we have the time zone that I am currently in. I'm not sure exactly where in Siberia I am, but I know I'm about 9 hours away from Irkutsk, screaming through the Russian night on train #340, and we just entered Moscow Time +5. So, the current local time is 2:27 am (tomorrow), and almost everyone on board is asleep. I'm stuffed in the hallway right now (so I don't interrupt my four bunkmates) clacking away on my laptop. Every once in a while, this Russian dude squeezes by me, and gives me a strange look. He even tried to talk to me at one point, but I didn't speak Russian, and he didn't speak English. So, there you go.

Life on the train has become fairly routine, and it really does pass quicker than you would expect. Wake up, eat some noodles, drink some tea, read your Dostoyevsky, fuck around with Photoshop, have an apple, make some D20 notes, do some Garageband work, eat more noodles, have a jerky conversation with a drunk Russian, get beat in chess, go to bed. One day down, and the morning brings Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

Monday, June 27, 2005


Omsk, Russia

We're in another crappy internet cafe in Omsk.

This city turned out to be a little more interesting than I expected. The Trans-Siberian travel book advised us that there was nothing of interest to be found in Omsk. While it's true that there isn't much of interest to a tourist (museums, cathedrals, etc), it was still an enlightening view of life in Siberia.

Once we got off of the train, we were fairly eager to get a room, and take a hot shower. So, we got the de-luxe double suite in the Hotel Siberia, hastily dumped our shit on the floor, and made for the bathroom. No. Hot. Water. Mike didn't seem surprised by this discovery, but I was both dismayed and dirty. I managed to take a brisk wash in the freezing siberian tap water, but it was way to cold to soap up or use any shampoo. I probably should have grown a pair and taken a real shower anyway, but I just couldn't manage it. After two days on a train, I wasn't in the mood for more character building. I'll just have to wait for Irkutsk to slake off my travel dirt.

But, the whole no-hot-water thing was pretty much the only bad thing about Omsk. It was a humble little city, with some nice parks, and a very cool view of the sun setting over the fork in the river. We had some nice meals, and we went to a couple of clubs. We also met a guy at Bunker named Roman, who spoke english and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to pimp me out to all available Russian women.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Naked Hairy Russians

Somewhere between Moscow and Omsk

We are on the Trans-Siberian train, making our way east across Russia. Five of us are crammed into a space the size of a small, walk-in closet. Jason, Mike, Mama, Babushka, and Baby are ridin' the train to nowhere.

Moscow turned out to be better than the first day would indicate. The weather improved dramatically, and we weren't as far removed from the city center as it first seemed. But, we didn't have a lot of time in the Moskva. It turns out we had to catch the train a day earlier than planned, and we had a few chores to do. So, we ended up doing some touristy stuff, but I don't think we got a very good feel for the city. We walked around a bit, but we didn't really meet any locals, and we didn't do anything that was distinctly "Moscow".

Well, that's not true. The afternoon before our train left, we went to a russian bath house. A very unique experience.

Finding the place was a challenge in itself. We walked down to the older section of downtown Moscow, winding our way through slanted cobbled streets flanked by thin ten-story buildings. We eventually found our way to the back alley that was fronted by the bath house sign (Sandunovskaya Baths). The only thing we found there were well-dressed Russians in brand new BMWs, having a pow-wow with some local police, and slightly angry and exasperated employees in dirtied smocks trying to help the bumbling Americans find the entrance to the bathhouse.

We made it in, but took us some time to deal with the door lady. At this point, Mike has become very adept at communicating with Russian speakers through a mix of grade-school russian and pantomime. We climbed up the marbled steps, made it past the doorman, and entered luxury. The main room was like an old-style ritzy bar with huge leather sofa-seats and lacquered wooden booths. Except it wasn't a bar; it was a locker room.

Fat, hairy russian men wrapped only in towels (and sometimes nothing at all) sat in the sofas, and walked around carrying pints of beer and cups of tea. Plates of salted fish and soups spotted the room, and uniformed waiters loafed around, picking up trash and arguing with the customers.

Eventually, we got towels and sandals, ditched our clothes, and made it to the bathing portion of the house. There were four sections to the bathing room: the showers, the pool, the sauna, and the wooden casks. The showers had hot and cold water, and the pool was cool. The saunas were unbelievably hot. The bathhouse regulars would sit in the hottest upper portions of the sauna and beat each other with birch branches, gossiping about whatever. It was way too hot up there for me. I had to stay near the bottom of the sauna, next to the entrance, where there was some cool air cutting the blistering heat coming from the central oven and heating lamps. The wooden casks were filled with ice-cold water. The idea was to jump into the casks directly after coming from the sauna, and shock your body into relaxing. I tried it once, and it hurt.

The strangest thing was the experience of being surrounded by hairy, naked men. I would like to say that I was objective enough for it not to bother me, but it was disorienting at first. It's just not something that I'm used to, so I wasn't quite sure how to behave. But, it only took about five minutes before I tuned it out. It became part of the background noise of the baths.

Overall, it was a very relaxing experience. It ended up costing us about 1500 roubles ($50) combined, but it was worth it. The knots in our backs were gone, and we were cleaned and prepped for 2 days trapped on a cramped, stinky train.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Rest Stop has Replaced the Bath House...

Moscow, Russia

We went to a bath house. It is my favorite memory of Moscow. Stop giggling.

It took us a while to find the place. We stood right in front of it saying things like "surely >this< isn't it..." for about five minutes before finally going in. It was not at all what I expected. The entrance is a fairly ornate wood and marble job with a theatre-style ticket window. General admission costs 800 roubles a head. You trade your ticket at the door and walk into what must be the most ornate locker room in the world.

There are several ranks of facing leather-upholstered dark wood pews surrounded by a number of curtained private rooms. It is well lit and their are very Russian-looking paintings and colored glass all the way up the high walls. The place looks like the bar at a 19th century gentleman's club. I expected to see men in suits trading witticisms between puffs on pipes. Instead, there were naked (except for towels) Russian men trading mostly disinterested looks between scratches.

Customers pick a seat, get naked, grab a towel and some slippers and head off to the baths. There are several strong showers with ample hot water, a very cold marble pool that reminded me of a Vegas casino, wooden tubs of super-cold water, and the hottest steam room in the world complete with (birch?) branches for smacking your friends with. The general pattern seems to go something like shower/steam/shower/pool/steam/shower/steam/shower. After all that, you wrap yourself in your towel/blank and go sit in the locker room / bar and have a beer or (in our case) some tea with honey and lemon. We watched tennis on a big flat-panel TV and chatted very briefly with the guy in the next seat.

At first, I was afraid that we were someplace where we would not be welcome. The parking lot was full of Range Rovers and Merc SUVs. There was not a word of English spoken. As it turns out, nobody seemed to care that two tourists had wandered in off the street. The staff sorted us out when we looked confused and otherwise left us alone. After days of very generous and active hospitality, it was reassuring to feel some good old-fashioned indifference. I feel relaxed and ready for the long train ride to Omsk.

Moscow is Colored Headache Grey

Our train arrived into Moscow at 06:00 on a grey, cold, and rainy morning. We were both grumpy, dirty, and tired from the journey and it was showing. After calling every other hotel, city-center hostel, and travel agent in Moscow, we resigned ourselves to sleeping in a hostel out in the boonies. A long-ish tube ride and a very cold and damp walk later, we were in front of the reception door of the Sherstone Hostel - greeted by only a "we open at 9" sign. It was 8. Several grumpy cups of tea and some akward conversation later, we finally met Anastasia, the hostel administrator.

Bless her heart, she set us up as quick as possible, but the room we were allocated was full of hammering workmen. At this point, I thought Jason was going to die from a combination of fatigue, odor, and an intense need to urinate. About 30 minutes later, we were in our little room (shared with two others - a Swedish student called Anna and a Russian accountant recently returned from Boston called Sergei).

Put simply - our arrival in Moscow was not a happy one. After a nap, I walked Anna to the Metro than got very lost trying to walk back to the hostel via the scenic route. I did find a big flea market and scored some very sweet strawberries for the low low price of 140 roubles. After retracing a lot of steps, I got back to the room feeling damp and even unhappier. A warm meal at a local cafe and 2 beers later, I was feeling somewhat restored. Some vodkas and a bit of video editing before bed lightened spirits further.

The next morning, we didn't have enough roubles between us for breakfast, so we headed directly into the city. Bank. Lunch. Internet cafe. Things were looking up. We scored JP Rail pass exchange orders at a very helpful travel agent and then spent an hour drawing pictures and exchaning broken English and Russian to get train tickets to Omsk. That done, we walked up to Red Square and saw all the things you think of when you think of Moscow - St. Basil's, The Kremlin, and Lenin's tomb. Next stop - an American-themed bar/restaurant. Reports of free wifi at said bar turned out to be false, but the food was good, and Anna came out to join us. A quick stop by the Arbat for a beer at a student pub before running back to the hostel to make it in before some imaginary "they lock the doors" deadline of midnight.

We leave for Omsk tonight, having not met an locals, not really had a good time, but also not really having given Moscow much of a chance. Last TODOs are: stock up on books, food, water, and toilet paper. If time permits, we are also going for a dip in the local public bath and hopefully get a massage from some burly Russian. My shoulders are not used to carrying things 6 hours a day. Time for a bit of luxury.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Moscow, Russia

We arrived in Moscow this morning via overnight train from St. Petersburg. The accomodations on the train were surprisingly comfortable, but I suffered from one of my common bouts of insomnia. By the time we arrived in Moscow at 6:00, I had only gotten a few hours sleep. I also hadn't taken a shower in a few days, so I was a-stinkin'.

Our first view of Moscow was very bleak. It was raining and cold. All of the buildings seemed to be made of the same dead, grey concrete. Plus, it was ear-lie in the 'morn, so everyone we saw seemed sleepy and grumpy.

We spent about an hour finding accomodations in the area, as our original hotel plans had fallen through. Apparently there is some kind of festival or conference going on this week, so all of the hotels in the city center are booked. The only place we were able to find was a hostel that was about a 30 minute trek from the city. 20 minutes on the metro with our huge bags, then a 10 minute walk through the cold rain. And I was wearing sandals, so my feets got wet.

By the time we got to the hostel at 8:00, I really had to pee. But, we didn't have a room yet, and the reception wasn't going to be open until 9:00. We hung out in the hostel cafe as my urge to pee got stronger and stronger, and my mood worsened. By the time the reception opened at 9:30, I was not in the right frame of mind to deal with anything, or anybody. Of course, we had to deal with the reception lady, doing about half an hour of paperwork involving visas and passports. Finally, we got a room, and we hiked up the stairs and through the hostel maze to our dorm, and a welcoming bathroom.

Except the room was under construction, and they wouldn't let us in.
It took Mike another half-hour of dealing with the reception lady before we could get a room that wasn't being torn apart by angry russians with hammers. I spent most of that time pacing in front of our initial room, trying to ignore the fact that my bladder was trying to force its way through my abdominal wall.

Eventually, we got into our room, and I was able to release my burden.
We are now staying in a four-room dormitory with a Russian who just moved to Moscow to find work and a Swedish tourist. I had a two hour nap, and I'm feeling a lot better. But, my first impressions of Moscow are not good.

Monday, June 20, 2005


St. Petersburg, Russia

We got back to our crumbling wreck of a hotel around 11 PM and decided to go back out. The crowd at Metro was a bit on the young side. Jason in particular was keen to see more of the nightlife in Saint Petersburg. I was doubtful that there would be much action in town at this late hour on a Sunday, but I kept my thoughts to myself, and was ultimately rewarded for my silence. The longer we are at this, the more I learn to trust Jason's instincts.

Not long into the fifteen minute walk to the metro, a group of college-aged Russian kids tumbled out of a door across the street and started walking along in the same direction. One of them (a very lovely girl who we later learned is called Simona - pronounced Simoooona), crossed over to our side and demanded a light. I tried to play it cool and use a bit of Russian, but I'm sure any observer could see the "wow" written on my face. She took my matches and returned to her friends, only to cross the road (without once looking for traffic) again to return them. I made a "throw 'em here gesture" and she pitched the small box directly into to my waiting hands, smiled a bit, and trotted off around the corner after her friends.

I was just about to give myself a good kick for not making more of an effort to make contact when we rounded the same corner directly into the hands of our soon to be captors. In mere seconds we were surround by Simona, Stacia, and Daniel who demanded to know our names and where we are from, but also insisted that we return with them to Simona's place so we could all have a party. Jason and I bought some food (cheese, salami, and Twix) and some bottles of wine and headed back off the direction we came in the company of our new friends.

I have never been in a crack house, but the entrance to Simona's place looked like what I a Russian crack house must be like. No lights. Crumbling plaster. Big scary doorway. The building was the same kind of early 20th century design that you see all over St. Pete - wide staircase with ornate, modernist banisters and high ceilings. I had spotted many of them and was pleased to actually see the inside first hand even if it was dark and a bit spooky. Three flights of stairs and we reached Simona's door. It was a good 2 inches of heavy steel and reminded me of a secret bunker or a hatch on a ship.

Behind the crack house entrance, the spooky steps, and the blast door, there was one of the nicest apartments I have ever seen. The main room had a very high white ceiling holding up a heavy glass chandelier supported by matching white walls covered in distinctively Russian paintings. The floor was mostly open and made of a light-colored wood with a deep red patterned carpet in the middle. Large double doors opened onto a small balcony that overlooked the street. The rest of the place was a confusing maze of rooms. Among them were several bedrooms, 2 modern kitchens, a formal-looking dining room, and at least one bathroom. Daniel told me that the place had once been two separate apartments.

Waiting for us in the flat were Polina, Antonio, and one other girl (who's name I can not remember). The latter two were mid-shag (as Daniel put it - I was surprised to hear that word from a Russian) and they later disappeared again, presumably for more of the same. We set about the wine and food with gusto and the conversation flowed easily from topic to topic. We talked a bit about California, English, wine, music, and the nature of love. There was a great deal of dancing, many cigarettes, and the carpet was scrubbed and re-scrubbed as successive glasses and bottles of wine were kicked over or dropped.

Simona told me that the reason she had stopped us on the street was because she felt a harmonious energy coming from me and Jason. Despite characteristic skepticism, I cannot help but feel that she was right. I felt very comfortable and free in the company of our hosts. We all were looking to have the same kind of high-energy silly fun. I like that wavelength.

Everyone started to drift off to sleep around sunrise, so we decided to make our exit. It took about an hour to get out the door. Polina cried, Stacia and Simona showered us in gifts, and Daniel made arrangements to see us the next day. I feel a deep affection for our new friends in St. Petersburg and am very thankful for having been kidnapped. Our chance meeting was a great stroke of luck, an experience not soon to be forgotten, and just the kind of thing I had in mind for this journey.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Road Trip Pics

It took me a while, but I finished the Road Trip photo album. Here it is.

Sleepy Sleeperson

St. Petersburg, Russia

It's 14:30 in St. Petersburg. I got up about an hour ago, and Mike is still passed out in his undersized bed. We went out last night with our friend Angela to the Metro Club, somehwere near the southeastern end of St. Petersburg.

Angela is a local college student who I "know" through a very tenuous connection. Raisa is a woman who I used to work with at Nanostream. Angela is Raisa's husband's sister's daughter (AKA niece-in-law). Anyway, Raisa had always known about the trip, and frequently mentioned that I should get in contact with her family in St. Petersburg when I got there. I guess she keeps up with the blog, because a couple of days ago, she emailed me to give me Angela's contact information, so we could have a resident show us around.

And show us around she did. All yesterday, Angela and her mother (whose name I forget. Damnit.) met us at the Gorkovskaya metro stop at 14:00 yesterday, and walked us around St. Petersburg, showing us the sights: Cathedrals, Peter and Paul's Fortress, the Hermitage, the Winter Palace, more cathedrals. We also took a relaxing boat ride around the rivers and canals of the city. It was a warm and pleasant afternoon. The soft drone of the tour guide washed over me as the city lazily floated by, and I was sitting next to a very cute girl who would occasionally lean over to tell me about the city with an adorable Russian accent. It was rough. The rest of the day was taken up by dinner and a long walk home.

That night, we went out with Angela to the club. Interesting. The whole scene reminded me of my early clubbing days. The music was loud (if a bit dated), and the crowd was young, but nobody seemed to know what to do on the dance floor. There was a lot of rocking back and forth with big smiles. But, it was kind of a blast from the past, and there was drinking, so it was fun. Around 5:00, my right knee started bothering me, though, so we had to leave.

On the ride home in the taxi, we saw the aftermath of a horrendous accident. I'm guessing some drunk guy just lost control and plowed his car into a huge tree. The cars here are small, so the tree won. Big time. Plus, it seems that nobody wears seat belts in this country. The taxi driver stopped and asked one of the gawkers what happened. Angela then informed us that there were two "funerals", and one person injured. Quite a way to end the day.

Update (6/22/05 Jason): It turns out I had things mixed up the whole time. I had always thought that Raima was Raisa's husband. It turns out that Raima is just another way of saying Raisa. So, Angela is Raisa/Raima's sister's daughter (niece). And her mother's name is Ludmilla.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Feeling Beat in Saint Pete

St. Petersburg, Russia

We arrived by overnight ferry from Tallinn last night. The ferry was very nice - a good quality of service at a reasonable price. We had a Nordic buffet, worked on some D20 characters (Juan will have a field day with this), and turned in. Jason had the bright idea of getting out of bed at 4 AM to catch the sunrise. We followed through with this plan and braved the cold to see the sun come up over the Baltic Sea. I got some good video and we both shot a bunch of stills. As an extra bonus, we met some Estonian girls on the sundeck who had been drinking straight through the night. The more talkative of the two, Anna, told us that she is performing in a show tonight in St. Petersburg. We have some clues as to where:
  • in a church
  • near a main streeet
  • not far from The Hermitage
We have decided to try to act on these hints and have a go at making the show. Looking at the map, we already have several candidates in mind.

First impressions of St. Pete are not great. It's very grey and we are staying in a dump. It's a $40 a night dump, but a dump nonetheless. Nobody seems very happy here and not as much English is spoken, so we are relying a bit on my half-remembered college Russian to get around. It has come in handy here and there and I'm very pleased that we got any utility at all. Thanks to Erin L for talking me into taking those courses in the first place.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Hollywood to Hollywood

Tallinn, Estonia

After taking it relatively easy yesterday, we decided to sample a bit of the famous Tallinn nightlife. Chris C suggested the unfortunately named Club Hollywood where Wednesday is "ladies night". We put on our going out clothes (much like our staying in clothes, but with more hair gel), had a few drinks over a light supper, and set out for da club. Club Hollywood opens at 10 so we arrived at midnight thinking that was ample time for things to get rolling. First impressions were very bad - a room full of lights and house music and a few overweight English guys sipping pints.

Things changed quickly. While we communed over vodka tonics, the daughters of Tallinn started to arrive in first a trickle, then a stream, and finally a torrent. Before I could say "tere!" the place was filled from floor to rafters with tall, thin, fair-haired Estonian beauties who are not shy dancers. It was not long before Jason's 16 Dexterity and my 17 Charisma landed us in the company of two demure sisters and their impish friend. The next couple of hours flew by in a blur of drinking, dancing, sweating (in my case - Jason does not have sweat glands), and having a properly good laugh.

Come about 04:30, the lights came up and we were back to being in an empty club but this time in the company of 3 of Estonia's finest and a long jumper from the national track team. He suggested that we all go round his for a gourmet Estonian breakfast. A short cab ride later, I was BBQing marinated pork on the balcony while our host assembled a fry-up and Jason entertained the girls by break-dancing to the Ace of Bass.

We made it back to the hotel for about 09:00, had a bit of sleep, and checked out at exactly noon. Since then, we've been drinking recovery tea, exchanging kroons for rubles, laying around in the park, and playing hacky-sac with some drunken Finns and a few locals. I have come to believe that all Estonian women are beautiful all Estonian men are friendly - making this perhaps the nicest country in the world.

The boat for St. Petersburg leaves in 2 hours. It's an overnight trek that apparently features a massive Nordic buffet. Huzzah! Despite efforts, we do not have solid hotel reservations and have acquired only about $50 worth of Russian currency. Out guidebook says that hotels can book up in the summer, so I'm a bit nervous that we might spend much of tomorrow struggling to get accomodation at a reasonable price. I'm curious to see how my half learned and half remembered Russian will stand up to the test of actual natives.

In closing - it is agreed that the first stop on The OC has been a success. We were thinking of Tallinn as a bit of a test case for the trip. Test passed with flying colors.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Night Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia

Arriving in Tallin was kind of like getting off one of those moving sidewalks at an airport. All of a sudden things slowed down and I felt a bit uneasy but I kept on moving forward. The two weeks prior to that moment of disconcert saw some 6 thousand miles of travel by plane and train and automobile, 6 cities on 2 continents, 2 official "bonne-voyage" parties, and countless good-byes with friends that didn't last long enough at all. As soon as we hit the ground in Estonia, I stopped worrying about who I wasn't spending time with and if I was forgetting anyone or anything. Any last good-byes will have to be made on the phone or via email and any final details will have to remain unresolved or be taken up by one of the numerous "cleaning-up-Mike's-mess" volunteers out there (propz to those kidz - you know who you are). I have very much relaxed and started thinking of "going to the park for a bit" as something that takes half the day.

I manged to make some time for exercise today. I used the local cultural center and concert hall (an embarassing Soviet-era eyesore) as a giant stairmaster then had a short run near Tallinn harbor. In an effort to meet the locals, I jogged a bit down a dock before being turned back by angry shouts of what must have been "you are scaring the fish, stupid gringo" in Estonian. That incident aside, it felt good to work up a sweat. Physical activity is something that can easily slip to the back of the queue when you are traveling. I am trying to have a run at least every 3 days.

Since arrival, I have shot only 25 minutes of video. This isn't enough to do much at all with. I am taking the camera everywhere, but not using it. Two problems here. One - it is hard to identify subjects when you still have not decided what you are making. Two - I feel like a massively dorky tourist loser holding a video camera in front of me all the time. I am going to dedicate some time soon to working out a framework for the documentary and actively make time to do nothing but record video.

The plan for tomorrow is to take a trip outside of Tallinn to see a bit of countryside before returning to the capital for a night in a dance club. The nightlife here is meant to be good and the women are numerous and very exotic. Let's hope for a rockin' last hurrah before we jump the ferry to St. Petersburg on Thursday night.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Bloc Party

We made it to Estonia this morning, and I'm feeling much better. I think I caught the infection early enough, so it shouldn't bother me too much.

London Calling, Brawling, Shot-calling

Jesus Green, London, England

In about 20 minutes, I'm going to wake up Jason, and we will pack up and make our way to Stansted Airport to catch our 06:45 BST flight to Tallinn, Estonia. This will be the "official" first stop of Operation Cromulent.

I spent our unexpected extra day in Londoin visiting friends - Kirsty R, Matt A, and Robert H. Crossing off those entries put only a minor dent in my "to-see" list. I could easily spend another week in London just visiting mates and all my old haunts. I love this town. I knew it would be difficult to come and go. I was ready for the anxious sadness that I am feeling right now, but that hardly makes it any better. There is no doubt in my mind that I will come straight back to London after The OC is done.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


Oh. Before I forget. I was introduced to an interesting London character a few days ago. Banksy. He's a graffiti artist who specializes in stencils, and has made quite an impression on London culture. He's a very well-known figure 'round these parts, and I have personally seen a few of his works. You can find his website at

No More Cancer

The Home of Jonny British, London, Engulund

We were supposed to leave London and fly to Tallinn, Estonia this morning, but we didn't. I'm sick. Yay!

It turns out that the feast of cigarettes I had a few nights ago turned into another throat infection, which really blows. I'm on the one series of antibiotics that I brought for the trip.

At least I learned that it's probably the cigarettes that have been causing me these infection problems. Looking back at it, I think that most of the infections I've had over the past year were preceded by a night of heavy smoking. Well, no more. I've given up smoking for at least the trip, and quite possibly for good. As much as I enjoy the occasional cancer stick, having throat infections is stupid.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Eddie K.

The Home of Jonny British, London, Engulund

Our lovely hosts are making brunch for us: some chorizo and bacon breakfast burritos. The smells and popping of a fried meal serenade me as I write this update in the kitchen.

We returned yesterday from Northern England. A little town called Chepstow that skirts the edge of the England/Wales border. We stayed at the not-so-humble abode of Jules and Patrick. The house and surrounding land was beautiful, and the company was excellent. The children were tight little bundles of energy, running around and diving headlong into everything.

We ended up staying up all night, drinking Stella Artois and smoking cigarettes. Oh my god the cigarettes. I have never smoked so much in my life. Patrick is a machine. When I woke up the next morning, my lungs felt like they had gone all thirteen rounds with Apollo Creed.

But, besides the debauchery, we also met a very interesting person named Eddie K. He and his wife own the horses that are being kept in the Jules and Patrick's yard. When I first met him, I thought he was just an older farmer-type from northern England. It turns out that Eddie used to be a blues piano player in the 60's, and a quite accomplished one at that. He toured with the Beatles, and had a few stories about life as a rocker. It turns out the Paul McCartney is his eldest son's godfather. He also had a story about being the only white guy at the James Brown concert at the Apollo in '64. Mike has mentioned wanting to do a more complete filmed interview with him when the trip is finished.

I'm still trying to find an internet reference for the man.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

To Da Norf!

Somewhere between London and Bristol, England, UK

We're taking the train from London to Bristol to go see Mike's third cousin July and her husband and two kids. We may or may not be going into Wales, but we will have a nice time "up north", possibly going for a swim. It's been nice and sunny for the past three days here in the London area, which everyone assures me is unheard of.

It's good to see Jonny British again, and it's nice to finally meet Jenny, after all I've heard about her. They are both gracious hosts, providing both the food and the shelter so needed in these trying days. They are quite a pair, and when you throw Mike into the mix, you can see why they all get along so well. Mike has frequently commented that he felt like Jonny and Jenny were his adopted UK parents, and I was never sure exactly what that meant. However, now, after witnessing their family reunion first hand, I think I do.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

One Last Quickie

Shannon, Ireland

I'm sitting in the plane on the tarmac of the Shannon airport. We've just finished the overnight portion of our NYC to London flight. Next, it's on to Dublin, then London. It will be over a year before I step into the US again. It's a bit weird typing that.

New York worked out well. Lots of friends and family showed up to bid us farewell, and I got to do a little bit of sightseeing. I still had a few chores to do while I was there, so I don't feel like I did as much of the tuorist thing as I could have, but, what are you gonna do?

The bon voyage party was a blast. It turns out the Fuelray Lounge was perfect for our needs, and they gave us a kickass reserve section. I think everyone had a good time.

More later...

Monday, June 06, 2005

Last Day in NYC

Quick update on recent days:

* The leaving party was a tremendous success. The venue was perfect (nice one, Jason) and everybody had a rockin' time. My parents showed up and surprised us all. I did not think they would make the journey from farthest Flushing to darkest Manhattan. Billy T did his once annual 'drink up and puke down' routine. I find that entire ceremony very refreshing for some reason.

* I have seen my (genetic) family for the last time for more than a year. That is tough.

* Today is our last day in the USA. I plan to spend it making mental notes about how people live their lives so I'll be able to make intelligent comparisons in the future. I may even shoot some video - something I've been a bit shy of for fear of getting labelled a "tourist" or even worse - a "documentarian".

* Karaoke jammy jam last night. Good.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Bon Voyage Party in NYC - June 4th

We threw ourselves a Bonne Voyage Party in NYC on Saturday, June 4th.

Check out the original announcement for details about when and where.

The shin-dig was very well attended. All biological parents, many siblings, LA-based homies, Chicago peeopz, and even some NYC randoms (like the Amazing Dave H) showed. We ended out the evening with some memorable (because of Allan E) diner eats. There are pictures.

Mike's NYC breakdown:
  • Thu Jun 2nd - Arrived on train from DC, dinner at John's with Astle/Croucher clan
  • Fri Jun 3rd - Last minute trip shopping, hip-hop club outing
  • Sat Jun 4th - Da Bonne Voyage Party
  • Sun Jun 5th - Sight-seeing with Juan, dinner with LA/Chicago crew, karaoke
  • Mon Jun 6th - Trip to JFK, leave the US for London

Friday, June 03, 2005

If I Can Make it There

New York City, New York, USA

We made it to the Big Apple. I'm relaxing in my tiny room in the Malibu Hotel. It's actually not a bad room considering that it cost about $100/night in a town that considers $250/night standard.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


Philadelphia, PA, USA

I'm sitting in the train station right now, waiting for Amtrack to change the engine on our ride. Apparently, we're 45 minutes delayed, but I didn't really notice. When I boarded the train, I sat down next to an old black man napping against the window. Over the course of the ride up to Philly, he woke up, and we started talking.

His name was George, and he had something to say.

George was born in May of 1924, and had eight siblings. His family started in Georgia, but when he was five, the depression started, and they had to move to Philly to find work. He specifically remembers Hoover and how he "fucked this country up". In 1935, he recalls FDR providing him with his original social security card, which he showed me, slowly fading away in his cracked leather wallet. His mother died when he was fourteen, and he left the house to look for work.
He was tall for his age, so he was able to convince the government that he was a ripe sixteen; old enough to get work on one of FDR's New Deal projects. He ended up in a small town in Pennsylvania, which he affectionately referred to as "the coldest fucking place in the world", building new roads through the Appalachian hills. He only stayed there for two months before he left, hitchhiking his way south, getting odd jobs as a farm-hand the whole way down. When he finally made it down to Florida at the grizzled age of sixteen, he got work at a lumber yard hauling poles on a truck. He had never driven a truck before, but he took the job anyway, and learned quickly. After doing that for a few months, he met a man in Jacksonville who needed a driver to do long hauls. He took the job, and found his career.
George worked as a trucker for this man for close to forty years, hauling cargo all around the southeastern seaboard, occasionally getting to such far off locales as New York City, and Sioux City, Iowa. Eventually, after almost four decades, George and his girlfriend found themselves trapped in a blizzard in Upstate New York. The generator on his truck was busted, and it was way too cold to drive without heat. He tried in vain to get his employer to send enough money to pay for a replacement generator, but he refused. So, George left the truck trapped in the snow, and his girlfriend convinced the Red Cross to drive them to Philly. He never talked to that guy again.
For the next fifteen years, George worked as a trucker for a few more employers, spreading himself out a little further from his roots in Florida. It's not clear to me what happened during those years, or how he ended up retired and taking the train from Fredericksburg, Virgina to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
George never got married, never had any kids, and seemed very happy to have someone to talk to on the train. I would have guessed that spending fifty years as a truck driver would be lonely, but he shook his head and hands vigorously when I suggested it. He had an interesting theory about people making their own happiness and not getting caught up in the unnecessary stressses in life. An interesting point of view coming from a man who almost got killed a couple of times just because of the color of his skin.

And now, he's gone. Back to Philadelphia to live with Christine and her son.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Vienna, VA, USA

After an eventful fuck-up at the airport, we made it to DC last night a few hours earlier than expected. I felt kinda bad as I was being pushed ahead of the line in front of a very irate old man, but, them's the breaks. I was being nice, and he wasn't.

Erik's looking good with his shaved head and Karen is as stunning as ever. We just finished a little quality time drinking with Jackie and her man-friend Andrew. Tomorrow, we are off to brunch with the rest of the Layson clan. It's good to be back in suburbia.


Washington, District of Columbia, USA

Today we violated the laws of physics. Our plane out of Charleston was delayed and we arrived in DC 2 hours ahead of schedule. I'm still not quite sure how this went down but I'm convinced it has something to do with tau leptons. Or gin. Or maybe unicorns. Or something. Either way, Jason's (full genetic) brother picked us up at the airport and we are now resting comfortably in his house in McLean (sp?), VA. My sister Jenny has come along for the ride. Jason's family and my family seem to get on pretty well. There is a big brunch tomorrow, then Jenny and I are going to sneak off for some tourism. The holocaust museum is top of the list followed by the various Smithsonians and maybe a bit of pure dumb fun to take the edge off of all the killing and rocket ships and natural history.