Saturday, December 12, 2009

Prison Break: Tickets Purchased

I fly to New York City on the 12th of January. The next day I board a flight to Kiev. I arrive in Kiev around 2 in the afternoon local time on the 14th.

It will be a grueling flight over; two connections involved. But that made the price much cheaper. Worst case is I miss a connection; I've lived through that before at Charles de Gaulle when I missed my flight to Slovenia due to a late trans-Atlantic arrival. But since I'm flying into Germany things should be more efficient. Really. Their airports are much more sensibly designed than Paris's CDG.

Lately, Kiev looks like this.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Prison Break: Nothing Will Ever Be the Same Again

The plan was to visit Eastern and Central Europe for at least a few months to write and to DJ. The biggest question regarded how to disentangle myself from my office here in the states. Ultimately, the best case scenario would have been one that would have allowed me to hold all my cards for as long as possible.

The best case scenario came true yesterday.

I had two aces up my sleeve that, until this week, I had been completely unaware of. The first was the vehement support of my co-workers, who demanded that I be able to continue working for the organization even while overseas. Their sincere testimony to my importance—instanteous and unprompted—showed that I had a bedrock of support hitherto unknown to me. This support made the thought that I be allowed to work remotely from Eastern Europe more palatable to upper management, and strengthened the case for granting me a leave of absence instead of pursuing termination.

Lessons learned: it pays not to suck at your job, and it pays to have people like you.

The second ace was a bit more comical; until Monday I had been unaware that I had accrued 9 weeks of vacation time. This, according to my supervisor, made everything much easier to arrange.

After many hours spent mentally running in the hamster wheel Monday and Tuesday (coupled with physically running around campus and, on a cold and rainy Tuesday, the fifth level of the parking deck), my supervisor and I concluded that there were two ways things could have gone:

1) Termination from my job in January, me becoming a contractor to the organization, and my vacation time being dolled out to me in one lump sum in the form of a physical check mailed two months after departure.

This was an undesirable scenario. Since I won't have a permanent address in two months, the check would have to go to somebody else to cash. That introduces too many variables for my comfort. And, of course, having no guarantee of employment upon returning means I've lost a card in my hand.

2) A three month vacation/leave of absence combination, padded by hours spent working for the organization remotely as needed, allowing me to continue to receive regular monthly direct deposit payments for the first 2 to 3 months with the guarantee of a job to come back to afterward.

Things went the second way.

The journey will be stressful, my world will be a very different place in a few months, and there will be plenty of questions I will need to answer soon (3 months will go by in the blink of an eye). But it is better to depart this way than any other way.

As I walked home from work yesterday I turned my eyes upward to the Biltmore Hotel. It shined in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun against a crisp blue sky. I walk past the Biltmore every single day, but yesterday, and for the first time, it looked gorgeous to me.

Last night at Apres Diem, Seth remembered how it felt when he left his job. "I realized for the first time that I had been living in a bubble."

This hits the nail on the head. Today I see the world crisply. I see it with all its possibilities wide-open to me. Atlanta looks beautiful for the first time in years because it is no longer my prison.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Prison Break: Field in Motion

I ordered the cell phone from Telestial today. I have canceled all utilities (31 December end date). All but the top of the ladder at my organization know of my imminent departure.

I have the full support of my team. If it were up to them, they unanimously and passionately agree that they want me working 51% time remotely from Eastern Europe, which was my best case scenario. It's doubtful that will become a granted reality, but the worst case scenario (aside from utter termination) would enable me to tap into 10 weeks of earned vacation time.

During our team meeting today, when all this was revealed, I was shocked by how strongly my co-workers supported my working remotely (as opposed to leaving the organization). In fact, at one point, as they described how irreplaceable I was, tears sprung up in my eyes. I was extremely surprised by how valued I was. In fact, this is the first time in over a decade of working at my organization that I felt truly valued.

For the first time during all my planning, this is actually looking like a good idea. In fact, if I have access to about three months of funds, or long-term steady (albeit half-salary) work, I might have to actually rethink the amount of "roughing it" I should do. It might be right to consider renting apartments in some locations. Just thinking out loud.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Prison Break: Ball in Play

"Start now. Today. Tomorrow is always too late"
--Bill Drummond

At 8 AM today I sat down with my supervisor and informed him of my plan to go to Europe for at least a few months. Whatever happens, I feel the same sort of relief anyone who has unloaded a burdensome secret feels afterward. The ball is in play. At last, something can happen.

The perfect scenario is one where I work 51% time for my organization remotely, logging in for 4 hours a day, 3 PM to 7 PM Eastern European Time, which is 8 AM to 12 PM Eastern Standard Time in the United States. Thus, I continue to draw a salary while I travel. It could be the difference between a short, anticlimactic adventure which concludes with me being flat broke versus many months spent exploring Eastern and Central Europe.

But my supervisor strongly suspects that the director will not approve of this. Although many people work remotely a majority of the time here at our offices, he thinks that if the powers that be were aware even of this basic fact they would be unhappy. Justifying my working from Europe would be a tougher sell still.

The alternative scenario is a leave of absence. This could even be cleverly engineered so that I hold onto my benefits. The way this would work is that I would alternate between two weeks of vacation time and two weeks of absence, resulting in the 51% threshold I need to continue my benefits.

Of course, the real risk here is that there might be a strong incentive to simply let me go. After all, what if, after all that, I wind up not returning to my job at all? Of what benefit is that to the organization? On the other hand, I should be entitled to take my vacation time, so it seems like nothing is lost, there.

So the hamster wheel goes round and round.

My supervisor asked if I would consider waiting until July, after the end of the fiscal year. I said no. The time is now. Tomorrow is always too late.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Prison Break: Cell Phones and Hamster Wheels

Cell Phone

If you go overseas you're probably going to want a cell phone, since cell phones provide comfort. My friend Seth found a good company online called Telestial which offers cell phone packages for under $150. In such a package they send you an unlocked cell phone (yours to keep) and a pre-paid international SIM card (the card you put in the back of the phone that allows you to hook up to the local wireless network). The SIM card offers you both a U.S. and U.K. phone number. If you are a U.S. Sprint customer who has talked with that company about "renting" their cell phones while abroad, you will see immediately why this is a significant bargain.

For travelers, this is the 21st century version of phone cards in public phone booths. The SIM card connects the cell phone to any local wireless network. Your call is directed to a computer which then acts like an old-fashioned operator and makes the connection to the other phone. This somehow reduces the rate of the call. And since you always pre-pay on a SIM card, there's no contract or monthly fees. You can "reload" your SIM card by simply dialing 1-9-1 on your phone, then go through an automated system which results in the instantaneous adding of minutes.

In some European countries Telestial's international SIM card will get you a better rate than even the local SIM cards would. But Ukraine is outside the EU, so the international SIM card, while handy for that first phone call when you get off the plane, is better saved for a rainy day. The rate from the international SIM card to a mobile phone in Ukraine is an astonishing $1.84 a minute. So, there you should buy a local Ukrainian SIM card (I believe these are sold in various mobile phone stores). This would bring the price down to a more manageable 36 cents per minute. And incoming local calls are free.

I will be ordering a phone next week. I will let you know how it goes once I'm overseas.

Running in the Hamster Wheel

A Romanian friend wanted some American Christmas music, and the only person who knows more about old pop music than I do is my sister. So I called her for guidance. She opened up her personal music database (we are definitely related) and then provided a long list of classic and off-beat holiday classics. After getting a good list (including Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and Burl Ives's "A Holly Jolly Christmas," which will be blended with such tasteless Eurotrash as Crazy Frog's interpretation of "Last Christmas"), my sister and I discussed my impending adventure and my sanity.

Her objections to my adventure were well (and kindly) argued. She spoke of our father, who died in 2002, and the hole that his passing left in our family. Mom lives alone, my sister lives a few hours away from her, and I am currently in Atlanta. My going to Europe for an extended time effectively destroys a large percentage of our cohesion as a family. I think of the world as a small place, but I am in the habit of dropping into Romania whereas many other people are not regular travelers. It is true that if a family emergency demanded my return home, leaving Atlanta is easier to do at the spur of the moment than leaving Ukraine.

Some families are sprawling and busy; others are like a losing "Survivor" tribe, its members picked off one by one until either there's a merge or extinction. My family is on the extinction course. This becomes another reason to take my chances and go on this adventure. I will not find the confidence I need in life sticking to the same routine. I need to find my true identity. Only then can I look another person in the eye and say, you know, I'm one hell of a dude.

Planning Stage: Ukraine (Part 3: Lviv)

View Larger Map

There is an urban legend about a prisoner of war who, in order to preserve his sanity while in captivity, retreated to a "warm, safe place" in his imagination: his favorite golf course. Every day he pictured himself playing a round of golf. When at last he was free and back in the United States he picked up his golf clubs, strolled out onto the course, and played the best round of golf in his life.

While the story is probably fiction, the value of visualization in sports is well-known. I read an excellent book on gymnastics from the Sport Psychology Library which discussed this concept. I think people who read fake or removed-from-context "inspiring stories" in motivational books would be better off studying how real athletes deal with real pressure when they compete (objective biographies are also instructional).

Nowadays, as I unwrap and assemble Office Depot boxes, pack up books, and plug holes in my walls, I frequently imagine myself in Ukraine. What will I look like over there? How will I carry myself? For that matter, how will I carry two CD turntables and a mixer without breaking my back? My disadvantage in visualizing Ukraine is that I am not already personally familiar with that "golf course," so I cannot expect to play the best game of my life there. But like a gymnast who has seen competition elsewhere, I have been to other places with overlapping elements. I am familiar with the "overcharge the American tourist" taxi scam; it's the same in Romania as it is in Ukraine. I find that city metro systems are all fairly similar and all pretty navigable, whether it's the sprawling one in Paris or the simpler "cross and ring" of Bucharest's. So, while Ukraine intimidates me because it is an unfamiliar destination, I am betting that many situations I encounter over there will overlap with past travel experiences.


Lviv was recently deemed the best city in Ukraine to live in. It seems to have a progressive vibe to it (just the sort of place where one might expect to find the excellent DJ Tonika spinning drum and bass).

It looks a million miles away from Kiev. The streets are lined by old buildings very similar in appearance to those you'd find in just-over-the-border Poland. It looks like a less manic place than Kiev, so it might be a nice way to wind down from the energy of that city. All is not perfectly idyllic; somebody writes that the city has corruption problems in the business sector. I'm not sure if my sort of business as a DJ would be impacted by that or not.

It's a sprawling city of under a million people, most of whom probably live in the drab, communist-era apartment buildings surrounding the city (I imagine it's a lot like Lublin, Poland in that regard). However, the historic center is said to be very charming, and there are affordable hostels located in it.

Advertised apartment rentals are as expensive as budget hotels in Kiev, so the hostel route once again seems to be the best way to go. Hostels cost between $7 and $15 a night (and $15 guarantees you a single room, which may well be worth paying for for at least a couple days after the high pressure cooker I expect to encounter in Kiev). Traveling in the dead of winter means I might be able to get a double room all to myself.

(An aside on the subject of the dead of winter: the Bradt travel guide notes that in winter Ukraine daylight hours amount to a total of seven.)

The Nightclubs and Discos

I am quite intrigued by the whole disco/casino/strip club combo concept, which I had not encountered before elsewhere in Europe. This seems to be the norm in Ukraine.

Millennium might be the most progressive of these entertainment complexes, since every Thursday they invite "all women to get pleasure from watching a bright show of Kiev strip dancers." The men get their show on Friday. By the way, the female DJ in the photo off the preceeding link is, I think, the aforementioned DJ Tonika. However, some describe it as a place for "high rollers," which might make it off limits for the trashy street pigeon. Then again, as the name of my blog suggests, one club's trash may be another club's treasure.

Disco Mi100 is another big entertainment center with the usual mix of strip club and disco, and in this case also bowling. This place actually looks like a lot of fun when reviewing pictures. The DJ talent seems to be bigger names, but the intimacy of the dancefloor makes it look like just a cool little disco. It smells like a possibility.

Picasso is described as being popular with the student crowd. It looks like a fun joint.

Pirate-themed Tortuga has a very strong student vibe, and reminds me somewhat of Slovenia's Metelkova. This could be an excellent choice for DJ'ing.

San Remo is said to be a popular student venue, but I cannot find a web page on it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Prison Break: How to Leave a Country Pt. 1

At the very least, I hope that one day this blog will prove a useful resource to other Americans who might want to hit the road for a while. To that end, anyone reading this who wishes to add comments offering advice and recommendations is strongly encouraged to do so below. My own advice will be spread out inefficiently for a while, since I'm learning as I'm going, but at some point I will compile everything into a single place for easy reference.

Visited State Farm Insurance Company today and learned the following:

1) Car. Best-case scenario is to find a friend who is willing to take over paying your insurance policy. That means you don't pay for what you're not driving, and friend can enjoy driving your car in your absence (this also should help keep your car's engine happier).

Note that the name on the insurance must be the same as the one on the car's title (presumably that name is yours). So, add your friend to your own insurance policy and then have your friend take over paying that policy.

Your insurance company will need your friend's name, address, date of birth, and a copy of their driver's license in order to be added. If your friend is over 30, so much the better; then it should not add extra cost to your insurance plan (this surprised me). In such an arrangement it seems monthly payments would be best, because then your friend pays only for the months s/he drives the vehicle, and you can simply take over the payments again when you return.

Another option is to find a good place to park your car during the entirety of your trip, then get the minimum insurance. Finding that "good place" is the challenge, though. You'll probably either pay for parking someplace or wind up storing the car at a friend's or family member's. I think having a friend store your car while denying him/her the pleasure of driving it is a pretty big favor to ask, but maybe your friend does not wish to assume the responsibility and cost, and would rather have the car sit.

A sticky issue could be the titling, depending on the time of year you must renew your title versus when you plan to return. I am fortunate because my car's title arrived in November, so for 11 months there is no issue. I am unaware of how best to handle this situation if, say, your titling comes up two months after you leave. Comments/advice would be appreciated, here. Can you renew your title from abroad? Can you renew it far in advance?

2) Renter's insurance. That's easy; just cancel the policy for everything after your last day at the apartment. Make sure you have an address for them to mail the refund check to (it sounded from my discussion this morning that they won't send one until after policy ends). You don't want to miss out on that reimbursement check.

On to other matters.

I get especially nervous about these plans at night. That's when I am most alone, both physically and psychologically. I have not been sleeping well. I got hooked on "Glee" because it's a feel-good mental vacation from the treadmill. But when I turn out the lights I am back in the hamster wheel again. When I dream I dream of the impending trip. When I awake the first thing I think about is what I have to do to make this thing work. Hamster wheel goes round and round, round and round...

Top concern is running out of money, and it's hard for me to budget when I do not know what circumstances I may find myself in.

Been trying to figure out if I can get an affordable phone that would work oversees, but Skype still seems to be the cheapest and best answer. "Best" is relative; my laptop will basically be my Swiss Army Knife, and if it gets stolen I will be fairly fucked.

On the other hand, I can always log onto Skype from any other computer and make that emergency call then.

I am currently burning about a hundred CDs to take with me. As I see the growing size of the stack, I wish I'd had a better experience with my MP3 mixer. My MP3 mixer, an M-Audio Torq Xponent, was too unreliable in a live setting; the "regular" CD turntables are much better. But they are also much heavier, and I will be lugging them around until they get stolen.

Music is being stored in three places: laptop, on CDs, and soon an external hard drive, which I will pick up closer to departure time. In theory, whatever mp3s I don't get around to burning on "regular" music CDs I could burn anytime, including right in the middle of a DJ gig.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Planning Stage: Ukraine (Part 2: Kiev Nightlife)

View Larger Map

Well, my sister, who is sensible, is not on board with my doing this, so I regret I mentioned it to her. It's a shame some people cannot be told things; they force us to become liars.

Packing of belongings is moving along. I am patching holes in my apartment walls and boxing up my library. I hope to be more than halfway moved out this week and completely moved out by end of next (save my mattress, computer, DJ equipment, and some other essentials).

More Kiev

Ukraine's brutal presidential campaign will culminate on 17 January, provided swine flu paranoia doesn't delay the vote. I want to be there for that.

Hotels in Kiev are expensive. Renting an apartment will not get you a good value either (prices online suggest a nightly rate that is about the same as what you'd pay for the Holiday Inn Express here in the states, which is to say around $60 a night). As Bradt's travel guide notes, Kiev has yet to discover the budget hotel. One can take a gamble and rent an apartment for possibly much cheaper from any number of entrepreneurs, but Bradt's discourages this (too many ways to get scammed).

The only other options are hostels or a personal connection with a couch to sleep on. I would prefer the latter, as the hostels look like the usual 4 to 8 bunks per room, and it takes just one snorer to spoil everything. (If it should come to that, I will certainly be bringing my noise cancellation headphones and earplugs with me.)

Regarding Ukraine night life, it seems a large number of dance clubs also double as strip clubs and casinos. Some of these are described as "entertainment centers," and their website splash pages begin at that broader level, with a menu to narrow the scope for the different specific offerings.

Heaven looks like a potentially fun place (I love their advertising), though again I fear it may be too trendy for me. Clips on YouTube show the usual gyrating, scantily-clad professional club dancers on the bar counter. But in studying so many clubs in Eastern Europe lately I'm beginning to recognize that such may simply be the norm for club culture in that region, so sexy girl dancers perhaps does not equal pretentious in that part of the world. Indie bands play live at Heaven also, which is a positive sign.

Arena Night Club looks primarily to be a big-name place, for the likes of Antoine Clamaran, David Guetta, and Inna.

Disco Radio Hall, formerly Modabar, looks like an especially promising venue. The pop is clearly right up front (they put Katy Perry on one flier). I will definitely aim for this one.

Cocktail Bar 111 is situated in a posh hotel. Reviews are mixed, but it sounds as if it could be appealingly trashy.

Pa Ti Pa had Hungarian ex-porn star turned DJ Niki Belucci perform; she removed her clothing while DJ'ing as well. As it turns out, there are other Kiev venues where topless girls DJ. Which makes for some formidable competition.

Tiësto has played Decadence. Fave Ukrainian house group Gorchitza has also. Described as "ultra exclusive," one site says the door policy can be "harsh." It does look lavish, and therefore is probably not my kind of place.

Azhur is described as an "unpretentious" disco. Decor and music are based on the 60s-80s. That would be a fun and interesting DJ challenge. Crowd looks older, unsurprising considering the retro atmosphere. The venue looks quite beautiful and the door policy is relaxed.

Random Observations

Friend Darko from Croatia on the subject of whether or not I can play turbofolk in the Balkans: "Turbofolk? Do not go there!"

Renting an apartment in Tallinn, Estonia for a month is far more reasonable and affordable than renting an apartment in Kiev.

If a cop asks for your passport on the streets of Kiev, you give it to him to look at. If a cop asks for your passport on the streets of Bucharest, you don't. That's because in Romania real cops don't ask to see your passport; only cop impersonators do this.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Prison Break: Alcohol and Coffee

I am switching back and forth between the audio for a Slovenian-based music video channel called Play TV and Big FM, a Deva-based Romanian top 40 station. Play TV's repertoire is quite varied, a mixture of new, newish, and old tracks. It's the old that interest me the most; I study the top 40 charts from over 20 countries every week, but seeing a video for, say, Mysterious Art's 1989 classic "Das Omen" is an education (incidentally, I look forward to the day girls start dressing like the Mysterious Art singers again).

This weekend saw some major freaking out on my part. I thought I had at least until the end of the month of December to move out, but my landlord told me in an email that I opened around five in the morning that I'd have to leave on the 18th. I definitely didn't need that at that particular moment.

Turns out he had made a mistake, I do have until the 31st to move out, and so 24 hours later I am feeling better about things again. But regardless, the time is fast running out. December arrives Tuesday, a week of December will be spent at home for Christmas, and a couple weeks after that I will be on a plane to somewhere.

I find that when I drink too much and then mix coffee into the formula I am susceptible to bouts of extreme paranoia. Waking up groggy from alcohol while my heart is racing from the effects of caffeine means my brain operates drunk-weird at a high rate of speed, which is a terrible combination. The goal this December is to lay off the drink, because it's cutting deeply into my efficiency and making me afraid when I should be problem-solving.

Regarding problem-solving, today I thought about Herschel Walker, an American football player who was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. I read his autobiography where he talked about living with this, and I walked away thinking how useful it could be to have multiple personalities to tackle different problems. This is probably not the lesson I was supposed to get from reading his book. Actually, that would make a pretty good TV series premise, but I suspect it would be too offensive to get the green light. :-D

A friend of mine has now been captivated by the "The Manual," a book published back in 1988 by members of the KLF which instructs the reader on how to have a number one hit. I had read this book many years ago (though I did not go on to have a number one hit), so it is interesting to see it surface again in another person's life. Wikipedia quotes from it: "Firstly, you must be skint and on the dole. Anybody with a proper job or tied up with full time education will not have the time to devote to see it through... Being on the dole gives you a clearer perspective on how much of society is run... having no money sharpens the wits. Forces you never to make the wrong decision. There is no safety net to catch you when you fall."

The soundtrack:

30 November 2009 - beginning 4:09 AM in Slovenia - Play TV

U2 - Magnificent
RIO - Shine On
Ayumi Hamasaki - Fairyland
Soho - Hippychick
Lady Gaga - Love Game
Shwayze - Buzzin
Akon - We Don't Care
Alesha Dixon - Breathe Slow
Kate Voegele - 99 Times
Akon - Right Now (Na Na Na)
The Pussycat Dolls - I Hate This Part
Stevie Jewel - One Last Kiss
David Guetta - Everytime We Touch
Sash! feat. Stunt - Raindrops (Encore Une Fois)
Hillary Duff - Wake Up
Freemasons feat. Bailey Tzuke - Uninvited
Public Domain - Operation Blade
Kidbass feat. Sincere - Goodgirls Love Rudeboys
Ian Van Dahl - Believe
50 Cent - OK, You're Right
Calvin Harris - I'm Not Alone
Velvet - Fix Me

30 November 2009 - beginning 5:09 AM in Romania - Big FM

Andru Donalds - Mishale
Cascada - Evacuate the Dancefloor
ATC - Around the World
DJ Bobo - What a Feeling
Jimmy Cliff - I Can See Clearly
Thomas Gold and Matthias Menck - Everybody Be Somebody
DJ Antoine - This Time
Jessica - How Will I know (Who You Are)
Marc Anthony - When I Dream at Night
Kate Ryan - Ella elle l'a
N Sync - It's Gonna Be Me
DJ Project vs. Deepside Deejays - Over and Over
September - Because I Love You (Dave Ramone Radio Edit)
Big Ali feat. Dollarman - Hit the Floor (Snap Remix Extended)
Jewel - Intuition
Yarabi - Again
Manian - Turn the Tide (RIO Radio Mix)
LLP vs. John Puzzle feat. Chriss - I Miss You (Radio Mix)
Cobra Starship feat. Florida - Good Girls Go Bad (Remix)
Inna - Amazing (Radio_Edit)
AnnaGrace - Let the Feeling Go
Dario Zack feat Starchild - Funky World (Radio Edit)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Planning Stage: Ukraine (Part 1)

View Larger Map

I have a difficult time appreciating today's Russian pop music (the once-mighty Tatu now seem a lifetime ago). It must come down to some sort of a cultural divide that, without considerable effort (perhaps involving the application of blowtorches), I cannot traverse. However, I am optimistic that I can overcome this prejudice. Consider: I used to look down on turbofolk and its various offshoots, but now I find that music to be quite pleasurable (like the hardcore techno I used to enjoy in the days of my youth, turbofolk puts a pot over your head and hammers away at it until you are senseless, which can sometimes be a good thing). So, with luck, one day I will connect with my inner Russian and learn to enjoy Russian pop music.

Ukraine, as their soon-to-be ousted President Viktor Yushchenko will tell you, is not Russia. Ukraine has had an ugly relationship with Russia pretty much forever. A Holodomor (the alleged mass-starvation of Ukrainians under orders of Joseph Stalin) marks the lowest point. If you read carefully you'll note my use of the word "alleged," and if you follow the preceding Wikipedia link you'll find the familiar "The neutrality of this article is disputed" at the top of the page. That's because Russia denies that Stalin deliberately targeted Ukrainians. To say that he did would be to accept that his was an act of genocide, and "genocide" is always a prickly word in foreign affairs. Whenever genocide is mentioned you always have to witness the same song and dance, the one where you have the victim country giving a high-end number of people killed while the accused aggressor country gives a low-end number of people killed; and the victim country always says that they were deliberately and specifically targeted, and the aggressor country always says, "Oh no, it was just a terrible tragedy that took the lives of people on our side as well," and this is all really quite tiresome to witness over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

After the Orange Revolution of 2004, which heralded a break from communist tradition and ushered in a government that was more EU-focused, Russia began a tradition of hammering Ukraine (like turbofolk hammers that pot on your head) over gas transit fees. Every month of the year, be it winter or summer, there is always some new story about problems with Ukraine paying for gas and Russia complaining about this, which in some instances has led to Russia cutting off the pipeline entirely, which then results in collateral damage in the EU (e.g., shivering Bulgarians). Some variation of this continuing drama will undoubtedly play out once again this winter, and I desperately hope to be in Ukraine when it happens.

Russian pop groups are welcome to crash the Ukrainian top 40. The majority of the Slavic-tongued songs on the Ukrainian pop charts are from Ukrainian artists (e.g., Dazzle Dreams, Druga Rika, Gaytana, Gorchitza, Quest Pistols, Tina Karol, and some of the 11 members and former members of the girl group VIA gra). But the likes of Dima Bilan (Дима Билан) and Fabrika (Фабрика) still graze in Ukraine's top 40 pastures. There is also an interesting issue about Ukrainian performers who sing in Russian instead of Ukrainian, which some feel is traitorous, especially since President Yuschenko has long pushed to make Ukrainian the sole official language of the country. However, when one considers the much larger Russian-speaking market it seems not particularly shocking that Russian would be an attractive language to sing in for some Ukrainian artists.

Eurovision has made minor stars out of two Ukrainians. The first was Ruslana, who won the whole competition back in 2004 just before the Orange Revolution took place (in fact, she became an avid supporter of the Orange Revolution and even sat briefly in the Ukrainian rada, or parliament). The second was Verka Serduchka, who, well, you just have to see this.

Actually, any country where Verka could become a superstar must have a lot to recommend it. They say that a society can be judged by how it treats its poor; I think the same could also be said for how it treats its LGBT community. But Wikipedia says that the guy playing Verka is, if gay, a closeted one, and so perhaps there are still some issues to be sorted out over there.

Ukraine may wind up being the place I visit first, since January will see their elections (so far this year no candidates have been poisoned), and it's also the time of year when the Russians are most likely to cut off the gas, which would just be interesting. My friend Andrew may also be there at the same time, which would make things especially fun.

My Ukraine research has been pretty light, but the places I know already I would like to visit are Kiev and Lviv, which are both fairly Western-friendly places. Sevastopol and parts east, near the Russian border, are generally more Russian, and, as an American, I am not sure how I would be greeted in such areas.

In the coming days I will write more about the clubs of Ukraine, my favorite music artists from that country, and the discos I am contacting in the hopes of DJ'ing over there.

In other news, here are my recent music recommendations on my other web site.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Prison Break: First Missed Deadline

Waiting by the phone
I don't like to be alone
I need a fix of hope
A hint of love in your voice

Shark & Sylvain feat. Lara Love - Call Me

Thanksgiving is on its way once again, and so Atlanta increasingly resembles what the protagonist saw after waking up "28 Days Later."

The Peachtree Street Vortex is closed for three days this week. The Vortex, which prides itself in its rock 'n' roll aesthetic, is the last place in Atlanta one would expect to find shuttered for three days of Thanksgiving. But a waitress at Charlie G's 11th Street Pub (Nathan's and my alternative hang-out choice last night) explained that the reason for the closure is renovations, so Vortex is hereby forgiven.

Although Charlie G's has a good selection of quality beers, I deliberately opted for weak, cheap American beer. Yuengling seems to generate a lot of positive reviews, but to me it tastes little different than Michelob Ultra. The stuff is like water, but that can actually be good if you are trying to pace yourself. Unfortunately, they ran out of cold bottles of Yuengling because I drank them all, so in the end I switched to the higher alcohol Stella. But my Yuengling plan still seemed to work. Despite ostensibly imbibing too much, the bar tab was small and my head feels perfectly fine today.

But I'm tired. I nodded off before midnight last night only to awake at 3:30 this morning in a state of panic over the Eurotrip plans. I spent an hour struggling to get back to sleep, but anxiety wouldn't allow me to. So I gave up on sleep entirely. From 4:30 until 5:15 I sat on the floor of my bedroom sorting through my Very Important Papers in an effort to find my original lease so that I could be clear on the terms of breaking it. I could not find the original lease on account of my being a disorganized idiot, so at 6 AM I wrote my landlord for a new copy.

Going through my old papers reminded me of how long I have actually been in Atlanta. Despite the feelings of life paralysis I've felt so acutely, by many measures my world has changed dramatically. One would hope that would be the case after 14 years. Still, I look around me and see that other people's lives changed much more than mine, and more positively as well, and that's the whole problem.

D-Day is effectively here; I ought to be mailing my rent check today in order to ensure that it gets to the landlord on 1 December, and it ought to include two months of rent, the extra month's being my punishment for breaking my lease. In other words, today should have seen my first major commitment to the Big Plan. But I balked on account of not having the lease to review and will likely send the rent check on Friday instead.

In addition to paying an extra month's rent, I will forfeit my deposit. This is how life puts manacles on you. But that only makes me more determined to break out of here.

From 6 to 7 I shredded old financial documents at the office. If nothing else, making plans to head to Europe has gotten me to do some necessary housecleaning.

The lyrics that open this blog entry are insipid, as most lyrics are when transcribed, but they work well within the context of this particular song. The inspiration for quoting them comes from the fact that I continue to look for a sign from somebody that I would be welcome to participate in the party overseas. So far my emails to various clubs have failed to garner any replies, though admittedly I haven't been sending out nearly as many as I should. Every message I do send seems to disappear into a black void, and considering how big my plans are, the lack of encouragement is...well...the word would be "discouraging," wouldn't it?

A review of my finances suggests that I will arrive in Europe with about $5000 to my name. I will have to roll my savings account (which has a pesky minimum balance) and my CD (which has turned out to be the most useless investment I made in the last calendar year) into my checking account so that I can actually access that money.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Planning Stage: Slovenia (Pt. 2 : Maribor, Celje, Piran, Portoroz)

I am in a good mood. I finally tracked down high-quality recordings of two great Estonian pop tunes not available to me for months: Urban Symphony's "Päikese poole" and Birgit Õigemeel's "Moonduja." My McAffee anti-virus software stopped one Trojan from infecting my system during this important rescue operation. These are the exciting risks I take tracking down European pop songs. I am the Chuck Norris of Estonian pop music downloading.

Birgit's "Moonduja" is an especially interesting song; a strange time-signature, icy synth stabs, and ethereal vocals weaving around chunky R&B beats. It's kinda spooky. This is the perfect song to have float out of your radio at three in the morning. Birgit came to fame by winning the first Estonian Idol competition in 2007, and this performance of REM's "Everybody Hurts" shows how she did that.

Two days ago I began writing about Slovenia, their clubs, and which clubs would make a good match for my blend of Eurotrash, turbofolk, and the odd song by Journey. I wrote last time that most clubs in Ljubljana seem to fall into one of two categories: the elitist venue and the alternative venue (the photo above is one I took just before New Year's in the waning days of 2005 at the none-more-arty Metelkova complex). Sadly, my DJ style puts me somewhere in the middle.

I found considerably more to be cheerful about looking at the nightlife in some other Slovenian towns. Of these places, Maribor, Slovenia's"largest" city seems the most promising.

Maribor has music coursing through its veins. It hosts some big music festivals each year. Their Lent Festival is the biggest music festival in Slovenia.

Clubs that appealed to me included:

KMŠ - A student disco that also hosts some big (in Slovenia) acts, including the excellent DJ Sylvain and Leeloojamais. I also see that KMŠ has a Ljubljana branch which may be worth investigating also.

ŠTUK - Another student disco, this one described by an "In Your Pocket" writer as "a place you come to for dirt cheap drinks and all night parties, not subtle ambiance and sophisticated discourse." In other words, I think there is trash to protect and serve in this establishment.

I had spent some time in Celje back in 2006, but the trash club scene does not appear to be much to speak of. YouTube videos suggest that there are some interesting places of the more turbofolkish variety there. These would be a pleasure to drop in on, but I don't think my DJ'ing would be particularly welcome.

Finally, I looked at some of the clubs in Piran and Portoroz. These places seem to boom during the warm weather months, but they strike me as having a cooler-than-me vibe to them. I tend to avoid places that advertise their "elite atmosphere." But advertising and reality usually diverge, and perhaps some of these places would be way more accommodating than I imagine.

So, I emailed KMŠ (also joined their Facebook group) and ŠTUK. This has made for a good day's work, though I suspect I am going to put in another day's work today as well. :-D

Monday, November 23, 2009

Prison Break: Drinking and Talking Part 897

It's Thanksgiving week, and I am thankful for the fact that there are very few people in my office today to see what I look like the morning after a night spent with my enablers at the Park Tavern. The Park has a "if it rains, all draft beers are $1 each" rule. It rained yesterday, and so in this manner the weather has had an adverse affect on my health.

Carson and I met up at the Carroll Street Cafe at 3 PM yesterday where we studied satellite maps of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in an effort to determine an ideal base of operations for me. In each of those countries one has easy access to Scandinavia, where conceivably there would be more money to be made as a DJ. The ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki costs around 30 euros. The trip from Estonia to Scandinavia can be full of surprises.

Of all the emails I sent to Estonian clubs last week there have been zero replies. This puts a serious crimp in my confidence. I feel this is the week I have to buy the plane ticket, so where will I go? Should I just go to Estonia and see if I can make something happen?

The better idea is probably to go to Romania. I have many friends there. I'm comfortable there. I spent several months this year studying the language, and while I am by no means proficient I should be able to do OK once immersed in it. The country is centrally located in Eastern Europe. And there's one cute girl I want to date there as well.

Seems like a no-brainer, but the problem with Romania is that I've been there so many times already that I'm not especially motivated in the same way I would be if I were visiting a "new" country. I'm not especially fond of the club and music scene there lately, either. Romanian pop has changed significantly since I started listening to it in 2000 (I wrote a little editorial about this a while back for BalkanInsight). While it would be sensible to go to Romania, I feel a green light from Estonia would give me more of an adrenaline rush, since their pop scene is so much more exciting to me right now and there would be the shock of the new to motivate me.

But considering the stress I am putting myself under, beginning my adventure in relatively cozy Romania might be the smartest way to go.

Carson told me that, as a DJ, my biggest downfall was my sincerity. What's the opposite of a backhanded compliment? A fronthanded criticism? Anyway, he has a point. I'm quite averse to spinning in many different club environments, as yesterday's Slovenia blog entry demonstrates, and it would be more beneficial to me if I were willing to play the trendier genres. I shut too many doors before I am willing to give things a try, and that inflexibility is not the best way to survive as a DJ in Eastern Europe. "You've got to become Mr. Lava," he said, referring to my fictional alter-ego.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Planning Stage: Slovenia (Pt. 1 - Ljubljana)

Last night's merriment was had at the Book House Pub (the photo is from that, and I am the handsome blonde guy in the middle of it). I imbibed less last night, got to bed relatively early, and so awoke without the usual bloodshot eyes and headache of recent days. I turned down the temptation to hit MJQ Concourse after the pub because I'd punished myself enough Thursday and Friday night and I needed to sharpen myself in order to get stuff done today.

A couple days ago I wrote about Estonia. I thought it would be fun to a play a sort of six degrees of separation game today, so here goes. Caater, a Eurodance group from Estonia, frequently partners with the Finnish Eurotrasher K-System. Finland recently stepped messily into Slovenia's elections when a Finnish TV station accused the Slovenian Prime Minister of accepting bribes. And so we find ourselves in Slovenia today. How was that?

Balkan Slovenia has a lot in common with Baltic Estonia. Both are tiny countries with small populations (2 million people live in Slovenia). Both are relatively well-managed and are doing very well financially for formerly communist states, in part due to their luck in geographic placement (Estonia is tied to the ultra-wealthy Scandinavian region, and Slovenia shares a border with Italy and Austria). Slovenia is currently the only former communist state on the euro currency; Estonia will likely adopt the euro in 2011. Both countries have their share of regional and cultural tensions, but overall these are not so bad.

A big difference between the two lies in their music scenes. Much of Estonia views itself culturally as Scandinavian, and Scandinavia loves its pop and dance (think ABBA). Neighbor Russia has a love for the tawdry and trashy, and these worlds intersect in Estonia to create some really stellar pop music that manages to move the feet while also giving a little bit more to the brain.

Slovenia, on the other hand, tends to be mellower. Their music gravitates towards the live. They love their jazz. Their RTV Big Band spits out tons of high-quality recordings. Maribor hosts a jazz festival as well as a more general music festival. Tolmin hosts a metal festival each year.

Turbo folk does not seem to be popular in Slovenia, but turbo polka is. Turbo polka sounds exactly as you would imagine.

I have been to Slovenia once before, so I know a little bit about the feel of the country and its nightlife. The trip was fabulous, despite my being chased back to my hotel by two thugs one night in Ljubljana (probably glue-sniffers, the hotel porter reckoned).

My goal is to DJ through Eastern and Central Europe, and since I've already laid eyes on three towns in Slovenia you would think I'd be able to come up with some good ideas for places to spin. You would be wrong.

The "problem" with Slovenia seems to lie in its tastefulness. After spending a chunk of my afternoon today reading up on Ljubljana clubs both new and old to me, I realized that there seem to be two extremes of club taste in that city. One is the exclusive, luxurious club that is staffed by bouncers who will deny you entry if you are wearing the wrong clothes--or might beat you to death if you invoke their ire. Point is, a stuffy or exclusive club is one where the focus is more on the preening, networking, and hooking up, and less on the music.

The other extreme is the ultra-alternative venue. I speak here primarily of Metelkova Mesto, which I partied at on two different nights in Ljubljana. Here you find your hippies, crusties, squatters and travelers, as well as your gay/lesbian/trans-gender community.

Metelkova totally rocks. But this presents its own strange problem for a Eurotrash DJ like myself. My music is not tasteful enough for that community. It's hard to follow a drum & bass/dancehall set with Cascada's "Fever."

Interestingly, in Ljubljana my best bet would probably be at Metelkova's gay clubs, because only there does a blend of pop, trash, and house find balance. I know this because some friends and I stumbled into a Metelkova gay club on New Year's Eve, and we demanded to be let by skeptical door staff despite not being gay enough because the music was so freaking awesome.

So, maybe gay clubs in Ljubljana are better.

What is missing in Ljubljana that would make DJ King Pigeon's mouth water? It seems there is a lack of student discos catering to the younger, poorer, yet well-educated pop fans out there. This population exists in abundance in Warsaw, Poland, and fuels some awesome nights at places like The Parc. But I haven't seen signs that such a venue exists in Ljubljana.

I might need to turn to Maribor or Celje to find a better fit. I will do that tomorrow, and post part two of my review of Slovenia then.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Prison Break: Two Nights of Drinking and Talking

Between now and my departure I am going to alternate between two types of journal entries. One will deal with the psychological and organizational aspects of what I am attempting. The other will deal more specifically with the countries that I wish to visit and my plans concerning those countries. I wrote a bit about Estonia yesterday, so now it's time to turn back to the psychological issues and the planning.

I'm groggy and hung-over from two nights in a row of pleasurable conversation. At Apres Diem, Vaidas and I talked until 11:30 PM, he drinking whiskey and Coke and me downing five Stellas. The fifth Stella was a bad idea, though I woke up fairly alert the next day and was productive.

Vaidas was born in Lithuania, and as a kid he visited many of the countries that lay behind the Iron Curtain. Romania in the late 1980s, before their 1989 revolution, was a big shithole, he said, a country where people begged visitors for soap and cigarettes. It's little wonder that Ceausescu and his wife wound up being executed by firing squad during the revolution.

Vaidas talked about spending $3 a night for a "hotel" in...I think it was Belarus, but we kept flipping back and forth between countries and we were drunk so I cannot be sure anymore. I will say it was Belarus, because this story fits Belarus. In Belarus he stayed in a cabin, and each room had its own fireplace. A babooshka would come in and tend to the fire. He said he gave her a $3 dollar tip. After that she came into his room to throw logs into the fire all the time.

Belarus remains the most Soviet of all the former Soviet states (George W. Bush called it the "last remaining dictatorship in Europe" back in 2005). Without a good and trustworthy friend to travel with it would likely be too unsafe for me to explore this country on my own. I am hoping to find such a friend, because there aren't many places like Belarus left, so it would be interesting to see the country before change comes. Alexander Lukashenko, their President for 15 years now, is going to have to go someday.

Places like Belarus, Moldova, and Russia are among the places where bribing is most rampant, but Vaidas said $3 was enough to get a cop off his case, again I think in Belarus. (Incidentally, in reviewing this story everything in Vaidas's world appears to cost $3.) The art of the bribe is something I hope I do not have to learn, but in the sink or swim environment I am entering it may become a necessary skill.

After Vaidas and I finished with our conversation, we stumbled out into the night where we discovered a long line of teenaged girls and their mothers spilling out of the movie theater. Vaidas asked a mom and her two daughters what was up, and they replied that they were waiting to see the premiere of the new "Twilight" film.

Last night, Nathan, Seth, and I met up in Little Five Points. At the Brewhouse Seth expressed for the first time some reservations about the risks I was taking, affected in part by the things Vaidas had said the night before (Seth had been there for the first half of that conversation). Nathan also for the first time confessed that he initially thought the idea of running off to Eastern Europe was a bad one, but now admits that if I don't do this I will forever wonder sadly what might have been.

Nathan and I wound up at the Yacht Club after we dropped Seth off by his car, and we had an excellent conversation which was punctuated by the brief appearance of two cute Emo girls, one in a flannel shirt, who sat across from us, but then seemed to think that a poor idea and left to join other friends.

After getting home I watched "Survivor" over the Internet, downloaded some songs I'd been looking for via Shareaza in tandem with Pirate Bay (since Google doesn't offer these particular tracks, which were Esmee Denter's "Admit It" and Daan's utterly superb "Icon"). Then I passed out and regained consciousness around 11:30 this morning.

Because I signed up for Google Adsense, I suspect you will see several ads for alcohol treatment. I saw an ad today for help in finding your gay mate. If this sounds like something you want to click on, please do; it will help me out.

It's strange stepping into the commercial world after running the site non-commercially for about a decade, now, but I need to think about ways to generate revenue because I am not going to have much money when I arrive in Europe.

I told my sister in an email about my plans for the first time today because I need somebody with a physical address I can trust who can collect and deposit (the likely meager) checks I might receive from advertising revenue.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Planning Stage: Estonia

Yesterday's 2 hours of planning my DJ Eastern European Misadventure focused on the clubs of Estonia. Estonia is a country of 1.5 million. They speak Estonian, Russian, and most know some English. My friend Vaidas, who has traveled around the region, tells me that Russian is not all that commonly spoken there despite the shared border with Russia. Estonians seem to see themselves more as Scandinavians with an Eastern European swagger. Their language, to my American ears, sounds much more Scandinavian than Russian.

The Estonian music scene is fantastic. It proves that population does not have a bearing on the quality of one's pop music. You might think a country of 1.5 million would have, at best, one or two talented artists. Estonia, it turns out, has a lot of good stuff to offer. Here are some great relatively recent Estonian pop tunes:

Hannaliisa Uusma (HU?) - Sa meeldid mulle
Birgit Õigemeel - Moonduja
Laura feat. Tafenau - Lihtsad asjad

I visited TurismiWeb and went through their long list of Estonian nightclubs to find places that looked like they would fit my own DJ'ing spirit, since the whole goal of this adventure is to DJ my way through Eastern Europe. I checked out photos from the various clubs' galleries, studied their advertising, and from that selected six candidates. I sent emails out to those six yesterday. The clubs I selected are in the towns I have indicated in the map above.

The winners were:

Beach Club (Pärnu)
Club Panoraam (Tallinn)
Club Red (Viljandi)
Lifeclub (Põlvamaal)
Nightclub Oscar (Tallinn)
Ööklubi YES (Valga)

So I wrote to each one of them, included a link to my latest Eurodance mix, and now await a reply.

Prison Break: Beginning of a New Life/Total Freaking Disaster

Sometime around 2 AM on 14 November, as I stood in the parking lot of my apartment complex in my underwear hoisting and then dropping an armchair into the dumpster (much to the delight of my neighbors, one of whom opened his door to inspect my progress before slamming it shut again in rage), I realized that I had reached the point of no return.

The path to that point began with depression in middle school, which morphed into depression in high school, which turned into depression in college, which then became depression in Atlanta, which became a half-hearted suicide attempt in 1997, which became therapy in early 2009, which became a drunken me throwing out an armchair at 2 AM.

The dumpster incident sounds like the sort of thing my fictional alter-ego, a Eurotrash DJ named "Mr. Lava," would have described in his blog on my Euro-music website "Eurotrash or Eurotreasure?" But this incident was real, as am I, and this blog will describe only real things as I move towards the biggest change of my life.

The current plan: to leave Atlanta for Eastern Europe in January 2010, and to DJ my way through the part of the world that I have long found the most exciting and interesting. I also intend to write about my adventures and discoveries, both here in this blog and also for other publications.

I have little money to start with. I presume I will have no health insurance. Not sure how that works, actually; that will be next week's task to determine. I am devoting 4.5 hours a day to planning this adventure, those hours divided into categories such as: "Finding gigs in Europe," "Eurotrash music research," "Cleaning out of apartment," and the always useful "Miscellaneous."

Sounds like a stupid plan, especially when you consider how little cash I will leave with. But oddly enough this is partly why I am leaving my job in the first place. If your job pays you dirt, then you may as well find another job that pays you dirt, but that you love doing.