Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Mother's Concern

"I just checked your photo site yesterday, am feeling a Mother's concern about so many reference to pubs, bars etc. I know the picture probably does not represent the trip but would like to see more scenery."

Updates - 30 January

From Kiev, Ukraine
Perhaps I've let my readership down at this blog. In fact, I have been hard at the writing, polishing up the Gorchitza interview and beginning a few other articles that I think will be of general interest. These will be submitted to various non-blog outlets. So that takes time away from writing for the blog. But here I am, back at last, so let's go!

As the old joke goes, on Wednesday night an American, a Frenchman, a German, and three young Ukrainian women walked into a sushi bar. We then moved on to an excellent cellar bar that the girls recommended. I discovered there is actually an excellent Ukrainian wheat beer that tastes almost exactly like America's "Blue Moon." (I know Nathan will read this with great interest.)

One of the girls is a dancer. She bragged about her strength, so I challenged her to an arm-wrestling competition. She nearly beat me. She told me she will be doing more strength-building for the next month and promises to beat me next time. I have no doubt she will.

On Thursday I boarded a train and began a 28-hour long journey from Kiev to Bucharest. A fun young couple, whose only shared language with me was a little bit of German, provided company for about half the journey. Afterward I had the compartment to myself. At night it grew too cold, but by day the temperatures rose to sweltering conditions. I found no way to control the climate in my compartment, so I was literally sweating on the way down to Bucharest.

Advice to 50 year-old men who speak no English but who nonetheless invite themselves into my compartment in order to talk to me about being an American: I am not interested. Sorry. It's not that Americans are standoffish. It's just that it's intimidating and creepy when I am traveling alone and some guy who has no language commonality with me invites himself into my space bubble like that.

I arrived in Bucharest only a few minutes late, where I was greeted by Adi, who works at my friend Razvan's IT company. Razvan was struggling back at the office with the installation of a bunch of new office furniture--desks and cabinets and the like. The place was in chaotic disarray when I arrived, and some of the cabinet doors had been installed improperly, so the company doing that received a lot of fussing as they tried to make it right. Reconnected with Marius there, who is working on building a house about thirty minutes from the office.

Razvan's apartment is extremely cozy, and it is wonderful at last to have a room of my own to disappear into. Two adorable cats add to the comfort. And of course, most of all, Razvan's and girlfriend Roxana's hospitality has been tops.

I am now preparing to meet up with Cristina, the young woman I met on the airplane two weeks ago. We have been looking forward to this ever since we parted at the Frankfurt airport.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bank of America: Possibly the Most Incompetent Bank on the Planet

Bank of America took down my Ukrainian address information in order to send me a new debit card to replace the one Piraeus Bank in Kiev refused to return to me without all manner of ridiculous bureaucracy.

It's been one week since I spent five minutes patiently spelling all the letters out for the Ukrainian address to a Bank of America representative. And today I learned that Bank of America went ahead and sent the card to my listed home address in the United States instead.

So I'm back to square one.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Gorchitza Live Project - Crystal Hall - 22 January 2010

From Kiev, Ukraine
Sexy dancers in sci-fi clothing and a young woman braided like Yulia Tymoshenko were among the many hundreds of people crammed into an invitation-only music performance in honor of the official opening of Crystal Hall, a venue said to be Kiev's biggest nightclub.

Gorchitza kicked things off with a lively set of funky house tunes. Their singles "Time is Right," "One True Message," and the currently charting "Final Cut" went over well and saw many in the crowd singing along. But the new material from their forthcoming album was particularly tantalizing, especially a track called "Friend," which saw singer Allois depart halfway through as the tune transformed into a tough-as-nails instrumental techno workout that tore up the dancefloor. Considering Gorchitza has solid English-language lyrics married to clever musical ideas, all they need now is some international distribution and a few good gigs in other countries to find them fans outside Ukraine.

Jay Sebag, aka "The Voice of Martin Solveig" who has been lending his vocals to the popular French DJ's hit tunes for years, belted out a set of Solveig tunes. Think of it as particularly brilliant karaoke. The diminutive Mr. Sebag doesn't look like he should have a voice that big, which makes watching him strut up and down the stage working the crowd all the more wonderful.

DJ's Light and Lulik steered the ship competently throughout the night.

And I can't give a bad review to the two rapper guys and DJ from Moscow, because somebody else at the club last night did, and after the would-be critic told them that they sucked one of the rappers leaped off the stage and kicked him in the head. So I will simply note that these tough guys have a bright future ahead of them performing medleys of other artists' top 40 songs and kicking people in the head.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Gorchitza - First Reaction

Super talented group, second album coming soon, so watch for a multinational release. They sing in English. Really, nothing should stop them from becoming a prime force in European pop music. If the Romanians can do it consistently these days, Gorchitza deserves a shot also.

From Kiev, Ukraine

The Sunshine/Preparing for Gorchitza

Not a cloud in the sky today--a very rare sight in Kiev. Ice is coming off the sidewalks as well; the city seems to be digging out. It might be the coldest day since I got here, however; perhaps a Siberian cold front chased the clouds south.

I am headed for a Gorchitza VIP/press-only event at a club's grand opening. Just learned it's got a black and white dress-code theme, so I spent the morning running around town with Lauren looking for stuff we could wear. I think I have something to wear now, but Lauren has been frustrated trying to find clothes that will fit and be stylish. Gautier, a nice French guy who is doing an internship at the French embassy here and who is also bunking with us, will also be along for the fun.

The band's manager told us that since it's an invitation-only event there is no entry fee, but he suggested, "you can bring some whiskey as the present for band - ))) it should be warmly accepted))" So today I learned where to buy whiskey in Kiev: basement of the Billa grocery store. Cost for a bottle was about $30; whiskey is a luxury item in Ukraine and Romania, so it makes sense they would ask this Yankee to bring that. :-))

So next time I write expect to hear a lot about the very talented Gorchitza. Here is their latest, currently-charting single:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Kiev Metro

From Kiev, Ukraine
At various camouflaged locations all over Kiev there are metro stations. The entrances to these are tucked away amongst various shops and stores. To find one, just look for the "M" hovering above the entrance. It's a bit like finding Waldo, minus the fun.

Once you locate the entrance to the metro, you descend some stairs into an underground shopping mall. The mall is a good place to observe beggars, entrepreneurial babushkas, and groups of teenagers sipping from open containers of alcohol.

More menacing than drunken teenagers are the police officers walking in groups of two, three, or more as they patrol the area. They are there to serve and protect. And to hassle you. Do not. Under any circumstances. Make eye contact with the police officers.

Once in the underground mall you spend still more frustrating minutes trying to locate the entrance to the metro itself. Sometimes there is a sign directing you to that entrance, and sometimes there isn't.

Eventually you find it. You buy your tokens from a woman at a window near the entrance, place a plastic blue coin into the turnstyle slot, and away you go.

In some metro stations at some times of day the crowds are terrifying. People flow towards the escalator in a waddling mass, bodies crushed against one another. Your ears are bludgeoned by a cacophony of shuffling and stomping and shoving.

You are made especially aware of that noise when you are jostled onto the escalator, for then a sharply-contrasting quiet falls. You have entered the eye of the hurricane. Everyone stands still, their once-shuffling feet now silenced, as they rush downward into the bowels of the city. The machinery moving the escalator makes a menacing throbbing sound. Occasionally a coin rolls by, released by some kid above you who is curious about how far it can go before it bounces off of something.

While the escalator itself moves swiftly, the journey is long. (And some metro stations require two long escalator rides.) People going up survey those coming down (and vice versa) with impassive stares. Advertisements glow in light boxes along the way to tempt the captive audience. Lauren tells me that many of them are advertisements for the advertising spaces they occupy.

Your ears detect the coming roar of the crowd. You exit the eye and reenter the storm. The sounds of shuffling and stomping and shoving fills the air once again as the crowd peels off into opposite directions towards their subway cars.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Swedes Invade the Hostel

From Kiev, Ukraine
Every bed in the hostel is occupied, and even the employees are having to make sacrifices. Two employees slept in our room and had to endure Piet's amazing snoring. The next night they opted for the kitchen instead.

This is because a group of Swedish high school kids have arrived. They are finishing their secondary school experiences and will soon take tests to determine their future career tracks.

They are here to learn specifically about how Swedish business in conducted abroad. So they are visiting various Swedish companies based here in Kiev. One of the instructors explained to me over breakfast that there are certainly warmer destinations to consider taking the kids to, but that Kiev is cheaper, and so they come here.

It's Cold

Today it's cold. We visited the Mother Motherland Statue today, and it was a real hike. Definitely the coldest weather I have experienced so far. Weather Underground suggests that temperatures flirted with the single digits in degrees Fahrenheit; wind chill made it feel sub-zero in degrees Fahrenheit.

At least we had these cheerful Soviet anthems to march to en route to the Mother Motherland statue.

Tymoshenko Takes Kiev

From Kiev, Ukraine
Today I picked up a free news publication which I could not really read on account of it being in Ukrainian :-B. But it included a very interesting map showing how the people in Kiev voted, raion by raion (raions are like neighborhoods). Yulia Tymoshenko took first place in every raion, with percentages in the mid-to-high 30s. Sergey Tigipko came in second, and Viktor Yanukovich, who came in first for the country as a whole, came in third in every Kiev raion with percentages in the mid-to-high teens.

Kiev's support for Tymoshenko despite her finishing second in the nationwide election reminded me a bit of Atlanta, Georgia, which often votes differently from the rest of the state of Georgia.

Wikipedia already has maps showing how the country voted. On the maps on that page, percentages equal percentage of total national vote the candidate earned there.

Piraeus Bank is Holding My Debit Card Hostage

From Kiev, Ukraine
They admit that they have it, but they are asking for all sorts of paperwork to be sent from my bank in order to return it to me, very unreasonable. Of course, Bank of America was closed on Sunday and on Monday as well (MLK Day Monday). It is 4:24 PM on Tuesday and the debit card office has been open only half an hour today due to the time zone change. This whole experience has really sucked. The branch manager is always out, and so it looks like I'm going to have to cancel the card.

Actually, I am reporting it stolen, and I am going to explain that it was stolen by Piraeus Bank in Kiev.

Others at the hostel say that Piraeus Bank has a reputation for this sort of stuff. But other banks in Ukraine have done this, too. Christy, a girl who spent one night here last night and has been in the Peace Corps in Ukraine for a year and a half, says she has had to cancel four (!) cards due to these sorts of things.

UPDATE: Card canceled, new one is en route via courier.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Letter to My Mother That Contains Relevant General Information About Where My Head is At Right Now, But That Omits the Stuff About the Debit Card...

...Because That Would Stress Out My Mom to No End and I Want to Spare Her That

From Kiev, Ukraine

Hi, Mom. So I am finally at the point where I can begin to relax a little bit. The jet lag is not entirely cured, but I'm on a fairly normal schedule, rising about 8 AM each morning and going to sleep by 11 or midnight each night. I still tend to wake up at 2 AM and lie there in the dark for a while, unable to get back to sleep for a few hours. But I'm getting close to solving this problem.

Life at the hostel has fallen into a routine. There is a cheerful camaraderie here, and somehow, despite a full house in recent days, there is no problem getting a shower, nor is there ever a line to the bathroom.

The first few days here, when I was tired and stressed, made for a city of danger and scowls. Now that I am finally decently rested and know of a few nice places to hang out I can finally sit back and enjoy the warmer faces of people engaged in cheerful conversation in the coffee houses and pubs around town. Heard some great live jazz last night, and today I am in a wonderful cellar pub scored by, well, more jazz, with free wi-fi. If you were on Skype we could video chat right now.

Been keeping people informed via a blog and my growing stream of web photos (if you go to the link I sent earlier you will see that it is updated each day with new images). It's interesting to post vacation photos as you go, versus the old tradition of inviting everyone to a slide show a few days after you get back.

I have learned several valuable skills already, including what to buy at the supermarket and how to tie a scarf in the proper Ukrainian way. My developing skills of argumentation and debate when dealing with Ukrainian bureaucracy should also serve me in good stead when I return. I am 38, but being in a tougher world like the one in Kiev makes me feel I have lived naively, so it's better late than never to sharpen the skills.

Perhaps tomorrow I will finally get to the embassy, now that the rush of the first few days is subsiding and a routine is beginning to emerge...

I have already made some good friends at the hostel, including an especially wise for her years young American woman who is married to a Russian man. Only 21, she has acquired more life experience already than I probably ever will. She has become everybody's mother in the hostel, frequently insisting on cooking traditional Russian meals for us because she says the ingredients would spoil before she used them otherwise.

Have been hanging out with a writer who has been published in some notable places; we have been chatting about the election from time to time as we keep running into each other at the same dives. Of course, I have made my own observations as well, though I have always been more interested in the pop cultural spectacle surrounding such events, filtering them more as an outsider; his Russian background allows him to penetrate more deeply, though differently. I think we're a Venn diagram, and that makes for good conversations since we both surprise each other with our perspectives. Anyway, I'm not the only American who came here with the idea of writing about it.

And I met a nice young Romanian woman on the plane flight over the Atlantic; we plan to meet in Bucharest soon.

In short, I have done more living in the past week than in the last year combined. I guess that's what I came here to do, and now it's happening. It's been a stressful, but also wonderful week. And really, it's not even that cold.



My First Major Problem in Kiev

On my first Saturday night in Kiev my debit card disappeared. My partners in crime for that evening's adventuring and I felt it was likely that the card had been sucked up by the ATM machine I had visited at the beginning of the evening. But I could not be certain because I did not recall losing it in there. (For the record, I was stone-cold sober.)

In Ukraine, Bank of America can't help you. I remember TV ads telling stories of vacationers who lose their card, but happily a replacement card arrives right away and the vacationing couple party on. The reality is a lot uglier, and over a week after I lost my card I still don't have a replacement. Consider that Bank of America claims that a replacement card can be sent between 4 and 16 days. That's not a practical range.

How do you get cash without your debit card? Your checkbook will be of no use. When I went through the process of using Western Union I was refused at the end. Lauren suspects that Ukraine is probably a "blacklisted" country for money wire transfers from the U.S. due to fraud problems in Ukraine. So, I could not even send money from my credit card to myself in Ukraine via Western Union.

Another credit card could work in an ATM, but you need the pin number for the other card, and I have no idea what my "regular" credit card's pin number is. If you call Bank of America in order to get that information they will tell you they don't have it ("even we can't see your pin--for security reasons"). The pin cannot be emailed, nor is it retrievable via your own personal Bank of America page. The only way to get your pin is to have it mailed to you. And I'm in Ukraine with no fixed address.

One Bank of America person I spoke with told me I could call a certain number and reset my pin without knowing my previous pin. She tried connecting me to that phone number, and then got back to me telling me that the number was out of service. Even she was puzzled by that. She gave the number to me to call myself and I called it several times, always getting that same out of service message. Another dead end.

Bank of America debit card services are there for you, except on Sunday, and also on Monday when it is a holiday, which it is today. Emergency card services are there 24/7, but all they're going to be able to do is cancel the card, which is not in your interest when you think the card is in a Ukrainian ATM and you hope to continue to use it.

The Art of Haggling with a Ukrainian Bank That May or May Not Have Your Debit Card

On Monday morning, just as the bank opened, Natasha, who works at the hostel, and I went to the bank. Natasha did all the talking, and I passively watched. We were told that my bank needed to send a physical letter to them proving my identity and ownership of that card. Ridiculous as that was, that just seemed to be it, and so we left with a Ukrainian-language form I needed to fill out.

Lauren, who is made of tougher stuff, immediately said this wasn't right, and that I needed to fight more. So she and I went back to the bank twenty minutes later, demanded to speak to somebody who knew English, and went to work.

The downstairs of the Piraeus bank is staffed exclusively by beautiful, thin, young women. Only one of them, Natalya, speaks English decently.

Natalya explained that to return a card my bank would have to write them a letter which included my name, my passport number, the card number, and was signed. In addition to an electronic version a physical version would also have to be mailed to the bank.

So we argued a lot about that, and tried to explain that in America no bank has our passport number, so there's no way my bank could include that in a letter. But more importantly, I was still not 100% sure that they even had my debit card. You would think a simple question would get a simple answer, but here's how the conversation went:

Do you have my card?

"Fill out this form," Natalya replied.

But do you even have my card? I don't want to fill out a form if I don't even know if you have my card.

"On this line, put your name and surname."

And my card? Do you have it?

"Your passport number here, please."

And so on.

Lauren then told her that if they did not have my card we needed to know that, because I'd definitely want to cancel it, then. She concluded this with:

So. Do. You. Have. The. Card?

"Yes," Natalya relented.

And this was sort of a relief; now I knew the card was not lying on a street somewhere in Kiev. On the other hand, Natalya still insisted that we get a letter from my bank proving I am the owner of the card.

Consider this: my debit card is my property from my bank. It was lost in some other bank's ATM. The other bank decides to take my card away from me and refuses to give it back to me when I ask for it. I have my passport, social security card--every single means of proving identification known to (an American) man, but they still won't give it back. How is this not outright thievery?

So then, again at Lauren's encouragement, I decided I needed to go head-to-head with the Branch Manager. This has resulted in two more appearances at the bank today, both times only to find the Branch Manager was not in. You can imagine how thrilled the young women on the first floor of the Piraeus Bank were when I made my fourth appearance today.

I try again tomorrow.

Jazz at Art Club 44

A fun night at Kiev's legendary live music venue. Two bands played. Their drummers "dueled" at the beginning, then delivered some impressive solos. After that they were joined by other instruments, first by a jazz-funk instrumental duo (with a lightning-fast bassist), followed by a smooth instrumental jazz ensemble featuring both drummers, which proved surprisingly fun after three half liters of Stella. Everything was indeed...most excellent.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Election Day in Kiev

From Kiev, Ukraine
It's a lazy Sunday at the hostel. My ATM card is AWOL, but it is almost certainly in the Piraeus Bank ATM machine. The machine has been out of order ever since we went back to it looking for the card last night, suggesting that the machine's failure to regurgitate the card was connected to its downfall.

Since banks are closed on Sunday, there is nothing I can do until Monday, so I may as well hunker down today and relax.

I woke up early due to worry about the debit card. Things always seem worse at night than they do in the light of day; I feel pretty confident about things, now. Anyway, I got up at the crack of dawn, showered to wash away some of the smoke from last night, and then ate an apple. I boiled water because the tap water in Ukraine is not safe to drink. I then filled my water bottle with the boiled water and refrigerated it for later. I won't be able to buy bottled water until money situation is straightened out tomorrow, so this will do.

Lauren, snorer Piet ;-) and I went out to a great cellar pub last night and had a terrific discussion about politics. Hip student types occupied most of the tables and the air was thick with smoke. Smoky air is a novelty to me now, and even though I am not a smoker myself it brings back fond memories of venues I frequented in years past before smoking bans went into wide effect. Indeed, waking up to the smell of my smoky clothes and hair was actually a tiny pleasure.

We were surprised by the appearance of a former hostel-mate, Keith, who is a writer of note documenting aspects of the election. He had ditched the hostel for an apartment. He may have been playing, but he made a daring prediction that Yanukovich will win the whole election today--no runoff. (Most expect a runoff.)

Piet, Lauren, and I are all lying in our bunk beds staring at our laptops. Weather outside is exactly the same as it was the last few days: white skies with no trace of blue anywhere, specks of snow falling like dandruff, and cold.

The Finns invade today. There will be a large group coming in that will occupy every last available bed.

CORRECTION (19 January): The Finns turned out to be Swedes.

Breaking News

Debit card missing. My only cash line. Probably in ATM at bank, but banks probably closed tomorrow. Film at 11.

UPDATE: My finances are good, and there simply have to be other ways to access my account. So I am feeling decent. "There are seven ways to solve every problem."

Anti-Snoring Machine

From Kiev, Ukraine
When I got to the hostel I found I had five roommates. I was informed right away by Lauren, one of the backpackers here, that at least two of them were snorers. This was exactly the sort of situation I feared would happen when opting to bunk in a room full of people.

And the first night was terrible. Even though I wore both earplugs and noise-reduction headphones, the snoring cut right through.

This is when I switched into "Survivor" mode. At 3 AM I removed my earplugs and headphones. I then listened closely to determine who exactly was snoring around me.

The next morning I said to Lauren, "You and I have something very special in common. Neither of us snore. How about we form an alliance? Perhaps we can move to a double room someplace else in the hostel."

Lauren agreed to this, so we then asked the manager if we could move. He agreed to help us out by moving us upstairs. But then we learned that one of the employees in the hostel WHO SLEEPS IN ANOTHER ROOM had been awakened by the snoring, and she went upstairs to escape it only to find that it was just as loud up there!


I switched to plan B. Plan B was to build an Anti-Snoring Machine. Not a machine that would stop a snorer from snoring, but a machine to prevent me from hearing snoring. Here is what I did:

1) I went to and downloaded the one hour sample of white noise on the top.

2) I dropped the mp3 into Sony SoundForge.

3) I deleted the fade-in and fade-out of the 1 hour sample.

4) I copied and pasted the file several times in order to stretch it out to 8 hours, checking the transition the 1st time to be sure it resulted in steady, unbroken sound.

5) I do not know the maximum length of a music file for an iPod (I don't have an iPod). But 8 consecutive hours was too long to fit on my personal digital recorder/player. So, I would have to play it from my laptop.

7) The resultant file played smoothly in iTunes.

8) I set the computer up beside my bed, elevated it with two books, spread apart in order to better let the battery breathe, and then draped a shirt over the screen in order not to disturb others if I needed to wake up and make volume adjustments throughout the night.

It was a success. Our bunkmate snored last night, but the white noise, in combination with my earplugs, completely eliminated the sound. I slept very well. In fact, I had to be shaken awake at a quarter to ten!

The one disadvantage is that clunky headphones are uncomfortable to wear when sleeping. But this problem was a delight to have compared to the annoyance of listening to snoring all night.

By the way, Piet, who is the snorer in question, is a great guy.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Kiev in January

From Kiev, Ukraine
Everybody in Kiev is playing winter sports in order to get from point A to point B. The city cannot afford to keep clearing the many streets and sidewalks of ice and snow, so a dirty gray crust of ice forms everywhere, presenting a walking challenge for all. Some of the hills around the city, which are topped by picturesque churches that beckon both tourists and the faithful, are especially steep, presenting a sense of danger as one descends.

One person staying at the hostel, Lauren, who lives in Russia with her husband, is here in Kiev as she waits for a new 3-month visa to be approved so that she can continue working in Moscow. She has proven an excellent guide. She showed me where to buy groceries, SIM cards, and jeans. She has also offered abundant good advice. She is only 23, but possesses the worldliness of someone in her thirties. She also knows passable Russian, as a result of being married to a Russian man. So she is a good friend to have in this city.

For a hundred dollars I got a great pair of jeans and three sweaters. Oddly enough, Lauren has never found long underwear for sale in Ukraine or in Russia, so the four pairs I brought along are now an especially precious comfort to have.

We also visited the Chernobyl Museum, which provided a fantastic overview of that tragedy, especially in tandem with Lauren's own knowledge of the event (again, very useful, considering that the placards are all in Russian or Ukrainian, none in English).

Some Random Observations

Beards are very rare here, so despite the comfort they provide in these cold temperatures I am ditching my effort to grow one in order to blend in a bit better.

If 3/4ths of the city cannot change them and the remaining 1/4th complains when they do, the ATMs in such a city really shouldn't dispense huge bills. A city like Kiev, for example.

CORRECTION (19 January): Lauren lied about her age; she is in fact 21. :-))

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Arrival in Kiev

Don't know if you've seen the movie Before Sunrise, but basically that happened to me and a young woman today, except that instead of running around a romantic city all night long we were stuck in an airplane, and then the Frankfurt airport. So my travel plans have already been altered as we hope to meet up in Bucharest in a couple of weeks.

Regarding less-sensational personal revelations, I made both my connections (Frankfurt and Dusseldorf), the second one just barely, but of course barely counts. So now I have taken my first walk around Kiev. This was a tremendously surreal experience after years of studying the various Kiev webcams pointed at Independence Square. Night fell fast here at around 5 PM, which is actually quite perfect considering my jet lag. The sidewalks are slippery with dirty ice, some of that ice quite thick. The natives slip and slide on this stuff, sometimes deliberately attempting to slide along it short distances in order to cover the distance more efficiently.

The hostel here is full and active. Most of the guests are online; obviously myself included. I am seated in a lounge area watching an HD TV showing Ukrainian programming.

I learned that one group of people who fill Ukrainian hostels are Russian-based foreigners whose 3-month visas in Russia have expired. They must leave the country until paperwork for a new visa is completed, a process that can take weeks or even over a month.

Tymoshenko TV ad on right now.

I suspect I'll be able to sleep through the snorers tonight, considering I have only grabbed a few minutes of sleep on the heels of a poor night of sleep in NYC (my fault; too much fun).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Run: NYC

Dropped off minutes ago at West 46th and 9th Avenue, in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York City, after a heart-pounding taxi ride through city traffic filled with (what appeared to this placid Atlantan to be) a couple dozen near-accidents scored by a chorus of angry horns and, on the radio, Billy Joel's "Tell Her About It" (shudder). Night is falling outside the Mercury Bar, which I picked in part because of its proximity to Amy's place, and also because of the Guinness sign overhead. It's basically a sports bar, but with classy leather booths and a friendly waitress named Lina who told me about a DJ friend of hers who I might be interested in contacting. So I am already networking. Amy and Paula will arrive soon; I'm writing to fill the time before their arrival.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Last Full Day in Atlanta

I'm just sitting at the Buckhead Mercedes/SmartCar center, so I might as well blog. I'm getting a tire replaced before I turn the SmartCar over to Greg, who drives off in it this evening. Cost is nearly $200, $125 for the tire and $65 for the labor. The last month has been full of expensive surprises.

Tomorrow I fly to NYC for a last evening with my friends up there. Then it's off to Kiev. I decided to arrange for a taxi in Kiev to take me from the airport, because I know I'm going to be exhausted and stressed from trying to make two connections between New York and Ukraine.

Friend Liza loaned me a kick-ass backpack that is a considerable upgrade from the one I currently use. I will finally do a dress-rehearsal packing of my stuff tonight in order to see what I can realistically carry.

Friends Laura and Bryan loaned me a pair of gloves that will be much appreciated.

Yesterday I bought some great new shoes from REI that are both club-appropriate and sensible for walking in the cold weather.

Brookstone offers rechargeable heated insoles, but at a hundred bucks these are well outside my price range. $4 versions of these sorts of things can be had at REI, but they are for one-time use only. I'll let my feet suffer a little.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Prison Break: How to Leave a Country (Part 2)

I wrote earlier that I am inefficiently filling my blog with scattershot observations and tips about leaving the U.S. for a while for the benefit of others who wish to do something similar, and that I hope to compile these into a coherent series of pages in the future.

So here's another random tip, this one regarding payment of last bills. If you're like me you get a dozen different bills. I have utilities bills, cable bills, a web-hosting bill, cell phone bill, and so on. Some services you'll want to continue paying for (my Eurotrash web site hosting fee, for example). Most others you'll want to cancel.

If you're afraid you're going to forget about a bill, begin a spreadsheet a couple months before you leave where you list each and every bill that pops up on your statements as well as the cost of those bills. Eventually you should have a good, definitive list of who is asking you for money and a rough idea about how much money they're asking for (keeping in mind the fluctuating cost of heating and so on), so you can be sure you settle things with everyone by the time you fly out.

Just a random tip, but I didn't want to lose that thought.

A Good Little DJ Tool - Calculate BPMs of Your MP3s

I was about to spend hours calculating BPMs for my thousands of Eurotrash songs. Then it occurred to me that somebody must have already written a freeware program that would do this automatically with digital music. I was right. And you can even view the final results in a "beats per minute" column in your regular file view. Fantastic! I am DJ King Pigeon, and I approve this message!

Download it here:

UPDATE: Unfortunately, it seems to be skipping the m4a (i.e. iTunes files). Will see if there is a workaround for that.

UPDATE (10 January 2010): Seems there is no software out there that can calculate iTunes BPMs.

Ukraine - Hostel Booked

"Irony" has been the operative word this week here in sunny Atlanta, where temperatures plummeted into the teens (that's in degrees Fahrenheit) and two inches of snow and ice prevented most friends from making it to my Friday "Going to Kiev" get-together. There is a larger party tonight which will make up for some of that.

My friend Nathan, at whose Decatur house I am staying, was not able to drive up the steep and icy hill just outside his front door, so we nixed our last Vortex/Apres Diem night plans and hiked to the James Joyce Pub instead.

The hike was fun. In the early darkness we wandered through a woodsy area where some unknown wild animal crunched around in the leaves by the trail (my wind-up power flashlight failed to flush it out, but I'm sure it was a wolf ;-)). As we crossed a small bridge a MARTA train gracefully swung by underneath, its amber windows glowing and a few passengers visible as it glided towards Atlanta.

Once at the James Joyce bar counter, an older woman walked up behind Nathan and put her hands over his eyes saying, "I hope you're who I think you are." He wasn't, and she laughed and apologized and went on about how she had met somebody at the bar before who wore a sweater similar to Nathan's. It was all terribly awkward. I suspect this was her version of a pick-up line; that her story was fiction. This being my last Friday night in Atlanta for at least a few months, I was not interested in having a kooky woman invite herself into the conversation so that she could awkwardly hit on married Nathan.

Fortunately, friends Bryan and Laura arrived. Conversation was delightful. Laura flushed out plans to pursue freelance writing, we speculated about what the best bar in America is (and what qualities a great bar should have in the first place), and we weighed the merits of Def Leppard versus Poison. Bryan and Laura gave us a lift back to the top of Nathan's hill, we hiked down it, and after going to bed at 11 PM I awoke refreshed enough to be penning this blog entry.

Today I booked three nights at a hostel in Kiev, so I now have a place to go when I arrive. Picking one was tough; many highly-rated hostels can be found on the website. I told myself I could sample several during my visit if I so desire, so if I'm unhappy with the first one I'll just move on to another.

Tours to Chernobyl were advertised on the web site as costing "a small fee," but the confirmation email revealed that small fee to be 120 euro per person, which is not a small fee at all. Will likely have to do this, though; it's a rare opportunity.

Back of my heel is injured, but Nathan, who leads a very active lifestyle, quickly diagnosed the condition and recommended stretching exercises that will, over time, solve the problem. I already sense improvement.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Final Days in America

December was spent moving out of my apartment. It was hell.

I moved about 80 bankers boxes of stuff to Seth's office for storage. The apartment was pretty empty when I left for the winter holidays; just furniture remained. My time with my mom and sister, who live in Central and Northern Virgina, was wonderful, but obviously no progress could be made in moving during my visit.

While I was in Northern Virginia my landlord sent me an email telling me he was charging me $145 for damages I'd done to the walls. He said he would charge me even more if there were any other problems. I did some research online and found sites that said that the security deposit, which he had pocketed as a penalty for my breaking the lease, could only be used for such repairs (in other words, he could not keep my security deposit for himself and then charge me an additional $145 in damages). I was in for a fight with my landlord.

When I returned to Atlanta I went over to my friend Nathan's house, which he had kindly offered to me as a place to stay in comfort during the remainder of my time in America. But the keys didn't work. He was out of town, so I had no choice but to return to my nearly empty apartment and sleep there wondering where I would spend the days between the end of my lease and his return.

The next morning I found a back-up key that got me in. Relief.

I spent last Tuesday, Wednesday, and half of New Year's Eve day Thursday cleaning the apartment. My downstairs neighbor Matt was thrilled to have my bookshelves; the rest of my furniture was picked up by the Salvation Army. I gagged on the fumes of floor-cleaners, appliance paint, oven cleaner (4.5 years of grease in that oven), and bleach in my efforts to get the place looking awesome.

I might have a future as an apartment cleaner, but it was not in the financial interest of the landlord to agree, so during the walk-through we went to battle over the $145. We fought and fussed, and in the end I handed him $80 in cash, which he accepted, and I was done with it. Strangely, after the negotiation, he seemed quite cheerful with me, almost as if he half-admired me for standing up for myself.

There was a lot of, "Wow, four and a half years!" and that sort of thing.

On my way out I said goodbye to the best mailman on earth, Lee, and then drove away from the apartment for the last time.

Moving out was hell, but Nathan's house in Decatur is heaven. I had it to myself until tonight, when Nathan returned from Africa severely jet-lagged and sleep-deprived. He went to sleep around 7 PM and he is sleeping still.

Tomorrow I have to fix a flat on my SmartCar and will likely get the car serviced before turning it over to my friend Greg. On January 12 I leave Atlanta for New York, and on January 13 it's off to Kiev.