футбол Spells "Football" in Russian

Zenit celebrate their 2008 UEFA Cup final victory over Rangers
When we were in Russia recently, I got the chance to see my first ever match in the Russian Premier League. The match was on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon in St. Petersburg featuring last year's League Champion, FC Zenit vs FC Krasnodar.

Russia, and Russian football has been in the news in the last year because of the upcoming 2018 World Cup and the corruption scandal within FIFA, the governing body who awarded the event to Russia, in what some are saying was "questionable circumstances." Setting the FIFA politics aside, I was really excited when I learned that Zenit was playing at home while we were in St. Petersburg and that Petrovsky Stadium was just a 45 minute walk from our Airbnb apartment.

Petrovsky Stadium seats 21,000 and is completely surrounded by water 
Kick-off was scheduled for 4:30 pm but I set-out early to make sure I found the stadium and arrived in time to soak-up some of the pre-match activities. The walk was easy. The stadium is located on a tiny island and I mean really small, because the stadium takes up the whole place with 21,000 seats all on one level. The pitch is located inside a running track so the place lacks any sense of intimacy, especially at the end zones (curvas) where is sat.

In order to get onto the island, fans cross one of the two bridges and then run through a gauntlet of police and security forces, no worse than at other stadiums in Europe but somehow it felt a little scarier. The KGB is now called the FSB and I wondered if, or how many, agents were part of the security detail.

Before I got to my seat, my backpack was searched three different times.
When I arrived I spotted a group of young ladies who were face painting the Zenit logo and or team colors for just 150 rubles ($2.50). As you can see, I stepped right up just as I had done when we saw Barcelona play last year at Camp Nou.

Young lady who did my face painting

The finished product

With that done, I took a lap around the outside of the stadium to check things out before the match.  I stuck up a conversation with a group of policeman standing in front of this "paddy wagon" which looked like it was made in the 1950's. Turns out, it was made in 2006 and the driver pulled out the registration certificate to prove it. We all had a great laugh!

Paddy Wagon waiting for customers. What year do you think it was made?
I headed for my seat and had my backpack searched for the 3rd time before two very friendly young stewards showed me to my seat. I was surprised that the crowd seemed so laid back. There was no music, no cheer leading announcer, hardly a chant and even right up to game time you could almost hear a pin-drop in the stadium.

My seat was up high in the north end so I was looking into the sun the whole match and as you can see from the pictures, I was far away from the pitch. The ticket cost 800 rubles, which a year ago would have converted to $24 but because the value of the ruble has fallen dramatically I actually paid just  $12.
Not a soul around me spoke English so I for the first time ever I wasn't able to find a seat-mate who could answer my questions about their national sport. Before long, the match got underway and fans started to cheer but not like anything I've seen at matches across Europe. As the match progressed I got the impression that the crowd would have been more comfortable at a tennis match.

In the 25th minute FC Krasnodar scored to go up 1-0. Zenit stepped up their game but the Krasnodar goal keeper rose to the occasion and made some incredible saves and his offense managed to find the net again in the 49th minute so Zenit went into the locker room at the break down by two goals to none.

Just a beautiful day for football
As the second half unfolded I thought to myself that even the players seemed to be  playing without passion. On the plus side I didn't see any players faking injuries or diving hoping for a foul. On the other hand, none of the Zenit players seemed to be bothered by a ticking clock and a two goal shortfall. Even the few cheers from the Zenit Ultras seemed more like a group of high school students reciting a poem in unison. In the 72nd minute, their seemed to be a minor flare-up with some pushing and shoving  in the middle of the pitch but that was quickly squelched by the referee and before long the he blew his whistle. The home team lost. None of the fans seemed to mind and everyone filed out the stadium like good comrades.

Young Zenit fans had a great day out even though their team didn't appear to show up for the match.
I'm glad our schedule worked out so I could see a match in Russia so now I have a feel for just how popular (or not) football is in Russia in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup. I learned that the average attendance in the Russian Premiership last year was an unimpressive 12,500...in a country of 142 million.

Afterwards - I had read that Russia was building a new stadium in St. Petersburg for the World Cup and that made sense to me after seeing the match at Petrovsky Stadium. So two days after seeing the Zenit match I went to visit the new stadium in a huge park on Krestovsky Island. Turns out they started building Gazprom Arena 10 years ago, long before FIFA awarded Russia the World Cup which made me want to go see it even more. I wondered how could they be building a stadium for 10 years and still not have it finished.....even in Russia?

So off I went. I took the #6 trolley and then transferred to the Blue Metro Line and before long, found myself in this huge and beautiful park. At one end, about a mile from the Metro stop, I spotted the stadium - work-in-progress. It was a Monday morning and I saw actual workers and cranes at work. I've read that they expect to finish the stadium well before 2018. They say it might end-up being the most expensive stadium in the world. (With the falling value of the ruble, comparisons to US dollars is hard but I've seen estimates that it will cost in excess of $1.4 Billion which is probably on the low side.

New home for FC Zenit after 2018 World Cup will seat 67,000 fans. Wanted: More Fans to Fill Stadium!
Assuming Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup, assuming that the new stadium is completed and assuming that Zenit moves out of Petrovsky Stadium after the World Cup, I have to wonder what 21,000 dispassionate Russian football fans will look like sitting in a 67,000 stadium for decades to come.  As a Russian friend told me, we like big things in Russia. Some things in Russia are just hard to understand and this might be one of them.


Russian Around

It was time to behold Mighty Russia!
After touring every country ever run, or run-over by the Soviet Union we were ready to take on Russia. With only two weeks to spend in the two most most visited cities, I am not sure we got the real exposure we were looking for, but we got enough to take a way a few impressions.

The Golden Tickets - Russian Visas.
In order to visit Russia Americans need to get a visa. I told this story previously, so just to recap, you need to apply for the visa while in your country of origin. As it turns out, we were far, far away from the USA. A friend in Seattle told us about a travel agency in Seattle that could work miracles in case like ours, so we parked in Belgium for two weeks while we sent our precious passports via FedEx to Red Star Travel on Queen Anne Hill. With enough money in your checkbook and a little paperwork - you, too, can have a fancy Russian visa in just ten days. Thanks Red Star!

There were a couple of things that were confusing upon entering Moscow. One was the need to fill out an immigration card at the airport before going through passport control. If I hadn't seen a page about it in the very back of the in-flight magazine, we wouldn't have known. We were already a little jumpy about this process since we hadn't pre-registered where we would be staying and for how long (another requirement we'd read about). We found a table with the forms and scribbled what we could and approached the booth. One person at a time - no happy couples approaching the window together, thank you very much.
This was definitely not the stamp we received in our passports
After presenting my passport, and waiting what seemed like ten minutes while I was scrutinized and processed with a minimum of personal interaction (certainly no "Welcome to Russia, enjoy your stay!") there was a frenzy of rubber stamping and a green light indicated I could pass through to "the other side". During this process, another form was printed out, stamped and split in two parts - one half left in our passport, the other half filed who knows where. I am telling you this now, because it has repercussions later. Michael also got the green light and we headed to our Airbnb.

Our first rubles. There would be many more rubles needed along the way!
Michael's first Russian friends - made buying SIM cards at the airport of course.
In case you didn't know, this says SCRABBLE. Welcome the the Cyrillic alphabet!
After 45 countries and 125 cities we Senior Nomads felt we could navigate any metro system, anywhere. Having said that, we weren't prepared for the almost exclusive use of the Cyrillic alphabet and almost non-existent English translations in Moscow. This had to be the most challenging system we encountered during our travels. The good news is the metro stations are as beautiful as any travel guide will tell you - there are even guided tours of the most opulent stations, so if you had to be lost it wasn't all bad. The station names are not easy to see as you approach each stop because they are posted on the wall behind the train, not on the wall you can see from the windows facing the platform. Michael and I became obsessed with counting stops on our fingers as we traveled from point А то Б.

The Moscow metro system map - they say the brown circle line was based on a coffee stain made by Stalin on the original plans and no one was willing challenge him on it.
The actual maps had the stations spelled out in Latin letters. The best way to cope was to break down the name of a destination and form a familiar word you could spot quickly among 16 or more letters.  Like "Snop" inside of Krasnopresnekskaya or "Harvest" in Sukharvskaya. Our stop became "Napkin".  One day we took Napkin to Biblio and changed trains to Brat, returning via Moldy back to Napkin. The other fascinating part of this system is some of the lines are so deep in the ground it takes a full six minutes on an escalator to get to the platform - and there could be a several minute walk after that! Plan accordingly.

The ornate entrance to our nearby station - affectionately known as Napkin.
Not your average Metro passageway! There were so many like this.
beginning a six minute escalator ride!
 Our host and his young daughter met us at our apartment and showed us around. Once again, the exterior of the building was a little disappointing, but the apartment itself was very nice. We've become used to this ... so if you travel using Airbnb don't be discouraged by the front door of your building, it's what's on the inside that counts. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5747355

Home sweet home. We've learned it's whats on the inside that counts.
The kitchen and the living spaces were very modern and comfortable.
While our delightful host Stas was showing Michael how the wifi worked, his proud 8 year old daughter showed me how to turn on and dim the lights in every room. As we were finishing up, Stas mentioned that during the summer in Moscow there can be challenges with hot water. He just needed a minute (and a lot of packing tape) to rig up an alternative heater for the shower. He stuck a portable electric heater onto the bathtub with the tape and ran the cord over the bathroom floor to an outlet. This was supposedly going to bypass the hot water issue by heating the shower water separately. It looked like a sure path to electrocution to me. We did suffer a lack of hot water during the week, along with no water at all at one point, but there wasn't much to be done about it unless you know Mr. Putin. Here's the apartment: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5747355 

I am sure the President has unlimited hot water in his house - wherever that might be.
Speaking of Putin. Michael truly dislikes the man so he was discouraged to see so much positive "Putinabilia" everywhere. Dozens of tee-shirt designs, phone covers, action figures, playing cards and even nesting Matryoshka dolls that revealed ever smaller Putins. Most often he was portrayed like as a macho playboy or James Bond character. In the end Michael decided the best route to world peace is to encourage people to Pray for Putin. Could be a T-shirt... 

Obama and I had similar feelings about our experience in Moscow.
 After much anticipation, I found Moscow to be big, bold and ... well, sort of boring. Of course we had a full weeks worth of must-see sights and they were all very impressive, but there was a haunting, antiseptic feel to the city. For one thing, considering it's size and population it is "Disneyland clean". Hardly a scrap of paper, a cigarette butt or graffiti could be found anywhere near the city center. As we traveled further out of the tourist zone things became a bit more disheveled, but not by much.

We had an excellent guide for our free walking tour on the second day that helped us put the city in perspective and explain Russian culture - especially why people here rarely smile. Apparently a smile is as special as a kiss and should not be given lightly. I'd say it's because they live in Russia.

The Iconic St. Basil's Cathedral. It was as beautiful as expected.
One of Stalin's Seven Sisters skyscrapers. This one, the Department of Foreign Affairs was in our neighborhood.
A visit to St. Basil's cathedral with it's multi-colored domes and intricate passages along with live music performances was a highlight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9CT2y6XfyM

We also toured the Kremlin - did you know that the location of Putin's residence is top secret? And we stood in an very, very long line with tight security to visit Lenin's Tomb. The many guards on duty kept us moving at a quick pace and had a special talent for whispering "Shhhhhhhh!" The man has been embalmed and left to look like he's napping for almost 90 years, so I doubt he's going to wake up because of a little whispering! It was a bit creepy. Speaking of creepy... later in the day we were working on the blog and a few other things and I Googled "Grumpy Putin" for an image. I went from 'full bars' to the dreaded rainbow spin and finally got a message that basically said the Internet was unavailable and to try again later. Michael got a similar message when searching for the break-away republic of Transnistria. Coincidence?

You can count on finding an Airbnb and Starbucks in just about every city.
Michael walked over the the bridge to where Boris Nemstov, a vocal Putin opponent was tragically shot this past February. There was an impressive memorial of flowers, photos and letters that were guarded 24 hours a day by volunteers to keep them from being swept away by the police. Meanwhile I dropped into the famous GUM department store - the only place in Moscow during the cold war where the privileged few with US Dollars could purchase high-end goods. Some things haven't changed in that only the privileged of any nationality, regardless of the currency can shop there now. The famous GUM ice-cream cones and foil wrapped ice-cream bars, however are still delicious and a steal at a buck each.

Michael at the Memorial site for Boris Nemstov.
I became rather attached to a particular brand of Russian ice-cream bar. Anytime became the right time for ice-cream!
On our last night in Moscow we had dinner with our host Stas and his wife Svetlana. They were interesting. Russian food is not. Svetlana was one of Moscow's first Airbnb hosts and as such has become a liaison for new hosts and is the Moscow contact for Airbnb. She started with one apartment and now has five. She has an interesting eye for decor. A couple of years ago she hosted Airbnb's CEO, Brian Chesky in one of her flats! Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2445855?s=Nt6eTrAR

Dinner with our hosts Stas and Svetlana.
After our week in Moscow we headed to St. Petersburg by train. It was a pleasant four hour journey on the high-speed Sapsen train. What a lovely, romantic city! For me, it was everything that Moscow was not. It was more approachable, and while still being equally important in Russian history it didn't seem to take itself so seriously. Our experience there felt more like a attending a glamorous dinner party as opposed to a stern lecture. Even the metro system seemed to breath easier.

The artwork and the opulence of the Hermitage did not disappoint!
Our apartment had a serious lack of charm in such a romantic city. Our host's friend met us and he was great, and we even met his mother. And on our last day, the owner of the flat, Vladimir drove us all the way to the airport! But even with all that love, we felt like we were ready to head home. It also happened to start pouring rain shortly after we arrived and that always adds a level of dreariness to any situation. We needed our rally caps so To Bed! Tomorrow is a brand new day. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4851244

At the front entrance to our apartment complex. "Let me out!"
A look into the courtyard from our landing window.
Inside the flat. At one point after the war three families lived in this space.
We knew that we were supposed to register with the Russian authorities with details on our whereabouts during our stay, but our Moscow host told us we didn't have to do that until we started our second full week so we could wait until we reached St. Petersburg to file. Since we were not staying in a hotel, the workaround was to find a nearby hostel and pay them a fee to register us as their guests. Our host went with us to the front desk of a hostel on our street. It was then that we discovered it was very important to have our halves of the form that had been stamped on entry and slipped into our passports. Since we weren't really sure what they were, Michael kept mine as a memento for our daily journal and tossed his. Uh-oh. Our hostel owner told us he would not be able to register Michael without it and explained this could cause some serious trouble at departure from the country that might result in a hefty fine at best, or if things went really awry, perhaps some time in a Gulag! I got my registration paperwork approved and became a legal, temporary citizen of Russia, but poor Michael spent the week in St. Petersburg paperless in a land that reveres paperwork.

The church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was a highlight.
Meanwhile we set about exploring one of our new favorite cities. I whipped through an excellent biography of Catherine the Great and her creation of the Hermitage collection. It made walking the halls of that magnificent palace come to life. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was one of the most incredible buildings I've even been inside. I am a huge fan of mosaics and there wasn't an inch other than the equally beautiful inlaid marble floors that wasn't covered in shimmering images made from tiny peices of tile. During our stay here Michael and I headed separate directions one day. That in itself was a treat - even though our days together may be numbered. He attended a Premier Russian League football match with FC Zenit which he will write about shortly. I found my way to a Saturday afternoon performance of the Russian State Circus! It was a great experience with outstanding acrobats, tumbling clowns magnificent horses and dancing tabby cats. The next night we experienced Swan Lake as performed by the Russian  State Ballet Company - a beautiful production with twice the swans of any other performance we've seen!

Michael having a good day out at a Zenit match in St. Petersburg.
Tigers, bears and elephants have been replaced with pigs, cats, monkeys and spectacular horses.
An evening at the ballet was a beautiful way to celebrate Michael's 70th birthday.
St. Petersburg was recently named the top destination in Europe by the World Travel Awards and this article does a great job of showing off the highlights of the city. http://news360.com/article/311450503#

Michael said he was happy to be leaving Russia  - a feeling similar to the one he'd had back in 1974. There was just one small hitch between him and an airplane seat - the dreaded lack of registration paperwork. I could go on my merry way since I had my passport, my registration, my boarding pass, and of course the coveted stamped half of my entrance form. I approached the Passport Control window and found the uniformed matron to be up-to-speed on the no-smiling policy. She collected my papers, stamped my passport with authority and buzzed me through the gate. All I could do was watch from the other side as Michael squared his shoulders and approached the window. It could have been worse - she did ask for the paperwork and Michael confessed to his sins. There was a moment of silence followed by a short reprimand and finally the thump, thump and THUMP of her rubber stamp. Free at last.

Yes or no? YES! Michael could leave the country!
We learned more than we ever expected about 20th century history during our travels through Eastern Europe, and saw the powerful influence of the former Soviet Union first hand on the places we visited. This quick glimpse of The Motherland was a perfect ending. Our next stop takes us to a large family gathering back in France with a surprise twist! See you there.

Thank you for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Blazing through the Balkans Part II

Targeting the Balkans as we near the end of Year 2 of our Senior Nomad travels. 
 Welcome back! Here is part two of our Blaze through the Balkans.

Bucharest, Romania: At the Sofia train station we made the mistake of looking a bit confused and that led to a dervish of a man who asked if we needed help, and without waiting for the answer grabbed our heavy bags and took off. He turned and impatiently waved for us to follow him and there wasn't really an option. Actually, he was helpful since the station was under-going renovation and indeed, we might have gotten lost trying to find our platform. He found our train, hauled our bags on board and lifted them up onto the overhead racks. It appeared by his body language that we needed to tip him. We gave him around $5. and he became very agitated and angry because he saw I had more money in my wallet and yelled we had given him our "Toilet money!" Apparently just enough to use the toilet. We dug deep a bit deeper and gave him all our remaining Romanian cash which apparently topped up the toilet money. He was still put out, but we thanked him profusely and then encouraged him (firmly) to get off the train. Wow. Rough start to a long, hot journey.
The train ride to Bucharest was long and hot - but we enjoyed meeting other intrepid travelers on board.
We shared our cabin with two teenagers from Turkey who had just graduated from high school and were traveling for the summer. Not only were they happy to practice their English with "actual Americans" they were enjoyable to spend time with. We made friends with several other passengers from a variety of countries as we slowly chugged our way to Bucharest - Michael meeting most of them in the passageway of the train where he could find a breeze if he stood on his toes near a partially opened window. For miles we passed field after field of brilliant sunflowers with their heads turned to the rising sun. In between there were abandoned factories and desolate villages. This is a part of Europe that is truly struggling to find it's place in the new free market economy and the EU.

Michael catching a breeze in the passageway.
An abandoned train station along our route.
Sunflower fields stretched for miles and brightened an otherwise bleak landscape.
We had been forewarned that the taxi drivers in Bucharest were the worst as far as taking advantage of tourists. We'd heard harrowing tales of unsuspecting passengers being driven far outside their destinations, of having their luggage held hostage, meters (if you found a cab that had one) that were set to run at twice the legal rate, etc. Fortunately for us, one of Michael's new train buddies was Romanian and he was willing to help us get a cab. Unfortunately, driver after driver said no because we weren't going far enough or they didn't want to take the amount our host had suggested we pay. Our friend had to catch up with his family, so in the end we were left on our own. We walked across the street to the Vodafone store to get SIM-cards so we could call our host and figure out a new plan. While in line a very nice woman heard us discussing our plight and offered to call a taxi for us and even waited with us until it arrived and made sure the rate was fair. Whenever we've needed assistance no matter the city or the circumstance, we have always found helpful strangers - it gives us continued faith in humanity.

As we got deeper into this part of Europe, the Airbnb apartments begin to get more "interesting". That is the word our daughter Kelly uses when she doesn't want to offend. Like "Mom, this new soup you made tonight is interesting. Meaning you don't need to make it again". In the case of our next apartment "interesting" began at the door. When the taxi pulled up we thought there must be a mistake since we were in front of an" Erotic Shopping Mall". But no, the address was correct. Our host popped out the entrance door next to a sex shop to welcome us and help carry our luggage.

Front doors can be deceiving - the apartment was actually quite nice.
The location actually turned out to be good and the apartment itself wasn't too bad either - however, just outside our window we were treated to all-night Karaoke caterwauling from one of many nearby  bars. And trust us, the later it got, the worse it got...I still have "Big Mary Keep on Rollin', Rollin' Rollin' on the River...boop, boop, boop, boop, boop." in my head. Here's a link to the apartment: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4202554

Bucharest was a jumble of neo-classic, Bauhaus, art deco, and Soviet-era monoliths. This was a bright
spot in our neighborhood that was part of a rejuvinization of the old town.
The first day we took our usual free walking tour of the city and our guide informed us the confusion between Bucharest and Budapest is one of the top 5 Geographical mistakes in the world. Here's a link to a website that confirms his story: http://www.bucharestnotbudapest.com/gallery.

The history of this country is a violent from one century to the next - the last century being no exception. Everywhere you looked you saw the heavy hand of Romania's ruthless dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu influence on this city. Not only did he terrorize his citizens, he blighted Bucharest by tearing down historical buildings to construct massive housing blocks and bureaucratic monoliths in the name of systematization - and, to glorify himself he began construction of the "Peoples Palace", the second largest structure in the world. In 1991 as fledgling independence for Romania became a reality, the much despised Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas day. He did not live to see his palace finished.

The Palace of the Parliament, also known as the "People's Palace" is finally being used for all the right reasons.
One of 1,000 elaborate rooms inside the palace. Ceausescu died before he lived out this particular fantasy. 
Note: During these past few weeks we were managing the sale of our house from the road.
The house sold easily, but there were challenges along the way in getting documents signed and sent back to Seattle. Often e-mail correspondence was fine, but we needed to get a Limited Power of Attorney notarized and sent back as soon as possible so our friend George could sign the closing documents for us. The only solution was to visit the US Embassy in Bucharest where they perform this service (for a fee of course) for US citizens. We made an appointment online and took a lengthy bus ride out to the fortress that is our embassy. I think the "no photos" signs and the sweeping cameras started about 100 yards from the first fence. 

The mighty US Embassy in Bucharest opened in 2011
No photos. No phones. No electronics (including Kindles), No backpacks. No kidding. 
This imposing marble structure was built in 2011 and it wasn't designed around the casual visit. Once we showed the guard (one of many) our appointment confirmation, we were checked against a list and then put through rigorous security checks that included taking just about everything out of my purse. Note to self: clean purse! They also took our Kindles and cell phones for "safe keeping" since no electronics were allowed past the entrance. The actual notary process was easy. Next we had to find a FedEx office and get the paperwork back to Seattle. Not as easy, but we managed.

The bus from Bucharest to Chisinau was a tight fit! 
Chișinău, Moldova: We finally reached a city even we couldn't pronounce (Quiche-en-ow) in a country few people can find on a map. Moldova is Europe's poorest country, and one of the most corrupt - quite possibly, those two things go hand-in-hand. We arrived by bus. It was a ten hour journey in a 20 passenger Mercedes mini-bus with leg room designed for those without legs. Once again, Michael became friendly with our fellow sardines. We especially enjoyed chatting with the man sitting next to us who didn't have an actual seat - he sat on a stool in the aisle. His name was Roman and he was heading home for a month's leave from his off-shore drilling job in Algeria. He was beyond helpful when we arrived in Chișinău and used his cell-phone to wrangle a taxi that we shared and got us to our next Airbnb.

Roman was our hero - he helped us get a cab, rode with us to our Airbnb and wouldn't let us pay.
Michael is such a gregarious traveler. If not for his curiosity and willingness to strike up conversations around politics and football (soccer) with just about anyone, and his dedication to using Google Translate, we would not have met so many people willing to help us in countless situations, let alone share their pride and concerns about their country.

Our apartment turned out to be large and luxurious! And albeit Russian style, nicely decorated. We had air conditioning, a huge TV, fast Internet, a lovely big bed, and a shower that did tricks. We didn't explore it much further than music and mood lighting, but apparently it can fire water at you from 20 different nozzles and be turned into a steam room. Maybe next time. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1514277

Our host helped arrange three private tours while we were here. That isn't our usual style, but there is very little in the way of tourism here and we wanted to get the most from our short stay. We booked a day trip to Transnistria, a place that is far off the radar, a city tour and a winery visit. 

Michael and I and our tour guide in Chișinău.
Day Trip to Transnistria: The first day we were picked up by Laurencia, our delightful guide for a trip to Transnistria. Where? It is a small strip of land wedged in between Moldova and the Ukraine that calls itself a country. Not a single country recognizes them, not even the Soviet Union. Who, by the way, runs the place. It has a president, a currency, a national anthem, a border crossing and ... that's about it. No other country will exchange their currency, and citizens carry either Romanian or Russian passports. Here's a link if you want to know more: https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Transnistria

The hammer and sickle are proudly displayed at every opportunity in Transnistria!
Michael had read a lot about Transnistria and just had to see it for himself. In short, when the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991 Moldova became an independent country but a small group of people (about 500,000) didn't want to go that way so there was a short war between Moldova and the people who lived east of the Dniester River. As we learned, Russia sent "peace keepers" there in 1992 and never left - a bad habit of theirs. The war ended in a classic stand-off. Undeterred, the citizens of Transnistria declared themselves a country and are sticking to their story.

Lenin looming large in front of the Parliament buildings of the dubious country, Transnistria.
 We had heard that visiting Transnistria is like going back in time 40 years to the U.S.S.R. As it turns out, we saw only one very large Lenin statue in front of the Parliament building, an old soviet-era tank on a granite pedestal in a park, and hammer and sickles in abundance, but that was about all the "throw back" we could document. If anything, a new hypermarket that just opened two months ago was far more interesting. Inside, it was similar to Costco, as in a huge warehouse space filled to the brim with food, clothing, household goods and vodka - lots of vodka.

Just a glimpse of the vodka aisle! This store was a big as the Russian ego.
Just a few of over a hundred garish garden ornaments on offer at the Sheriff Hypermarket.
The only thing lacking was customers. The parking lot was nearly empty and inside the employees outnumbered customers 20 to 1. To me it felt like a cover for storing provisions for a huge influx of Russians in the not too distant future. Maybe I was looking for a conspiracy theory to make the trip worthwhile - but there was a sprawling complex of military housing being built nearby, and with the ambiguity of who runs this place, it looks like a great staging ground for any kind of Russian mischief. So... think about it.

Michael and I with our tour guide Irena in Chișinău
We finished our last day in Moldova with a tour of the city. There isn't that much to see, but we certainly saw the influence of communism in the square-jawed architecture and massive statues of war heroes. Michael took a tour of Cricova, Moldova's largest winery - he enjoyed the experience except for the fact there wasn't a tasting included in the tour. In fact it didn't look like tastings were offered at all. A wine tour with no tasting is a sad day out. But Michael was able to see Putin's own stash of wine in the deep underground cellar and sit in the Board Room where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday.

The tour of Cricova winery was interesting ... until there wasn't a tasting.

Michael had a Putin sighting at the winery. He has his own stash deep in the cellars.
That's a wrap on the Balkans and we thank you for following along! See you in Moscow and St. Petersburg!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Blazing Through the Balkans!

From one former country called Yugoslavia seven new nations were created!
If you are like me, you get the Baltics and the Balkans confused. If you are really like me, you wouldn't know where they are! Both are in Europe and though the names are similar, one is up north and the other is down south. I use the "t" in Baltics to help me remember they are on "top".

Two years ago I wouldn't have been able find the Balkans on the map.
Last summer we visited all three of the "top" countries that make-up the Baltics: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It was a fascinating couple of weeks exploring countries that only became independent from the Soviet Union 25 years ago. If you are interested, in reading about our trip here is a link to those posts: http://seniornomads.blogspot.ru/2015/07/do-you-know-way-to-kosovo.html  http://seniornomads.blogspot.ru/2015/07/the-balkan-maze.html 

This is a beautiful part of the world - Montenegro is fast becoming a popular tourist destination on the Adriatic coast!
Since the Balkans are much bigger, we wove them into our travels over the past two years. By this summer, we had visited nine out of the thirteen countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. We were down to the final four: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Moldova and Romania.

The Balkans refers to a very large peninsula just a boat ride across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. The region is made up of thirteen individual countries, although it wasn't always that way since most of those countries formed what was Yugoslavia up until 1989-92. Here is a short recap from Michael

From 1945 - 1991 six of the Balkan countries were united as one country called Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Tito. They were: Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Now they are all independent countries plus, Serbia was forced to give-up the southern part of their country to create a new country called Kosovo, which is recognized by 108 countries but not by Serbia.

All this is either confusing or fascinating. I don't think you will be surprised to learn that Michael finds it all very much in the fascinating column and I can tell you that after visiting every single one of these countries, I too have been caught up in the inner-workings of these brand new nations and how each of them has chosen to govern and present themselves on the world stage. And I also became a bit protective of them since Russia is just a stone's throw away and seems to feel a recent need to grab back some lost territory.

This truly is a sentiment amongst people who can remember being under Soviet rule.
Before embarking on this latest tour we had to get to Macedonia from Brussels where we'd spent a couple of weeks waiting for our Russian visas to arrive. Michael used his trusty Skyscanner app and found affordable flights through Cologne, Germany so we pulled over for a two night "pit stop". What a fine city.

Just when I thought we'd seen all the churches we'll ever need to see. Along came the Catherdral in Cologne.
Just one of the details in the entry way to this breathtaking cathedral.
We stayed in the center of the old town which was also a shopping mecca filled with very cool, independent boutiques. We squeezed in a walking tour and a visit to their world famous (and rightly so) cathedral. But most importantly, we found an American sports bar called Champs where we were able to catch the final two rounds of The British Open from St. Andrews in Scotland. Our Airbnb was very nice as well: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6548097

From Cologne we flew on Wizz Air to Skopje, Macedonia to start our "Balkan Blaze." We are on a fast pace staying just four days in each of the four countries! Here's the first of two installments on our travels. First up Macedonia and Bulgaria.

Alexander the great's connection to Skopje is tenious - but he and his kin make great statues
Skopje, Macedonia: This city was just plain crazy. I am not sure I can wordsmith how strange it was. Michael describes it as a mash-up of Disneyland, Las Vegas (especially Caesar's Palace), a Hollywood movie set and Pyongyang, North Korea. All I can say is I've never seen so many statues, monuments, and neo-classic columns jammed into one square mile. Apparently most of them weren't there five years ago! And many buildings in the city center that were there are getting facade face lifts to match the "movie set".

A collection of bronze communists depicting a typical day at the office.
One of thirty statues spanning the "Bridge of Artists".
I am going to let England's well respected newspaper The Guardian tell the story - it's worth reading: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/apr/11/skopje-macedonia-architecture-2014-project-building We talked to a few locals about their strange cityscape and they shrugged, rolled their eyes and blamed it, as always on corrupt politicians, and the mayor in particular - a man who seems to put far greater value on reinventing Skopje's history as he sees it over addressing the needs of his citizens. He would not be the only megalomaniac we'd come across in this region.

We found what looked like a great free walking tour online, so to warm up we walked a mile to the meeting point. We waited under a blazing sun until well after the start time along with a few other would be walkers, but the guide never showed. Frustrated, we went across the street to the tourism office and asked the person behind the desk to call the number on the website. Eventually he found the guide (fresh out of the shower) who said "he just wasn't feeling it lately." What? The least he could do was take down his website! Good news, we found another tour the following day with a more than willing guide (maybe even over zealous) who took us on a four hour march in 90 degree heat, but helped tell the tale behind this enigmatic place. Luckily the statues were so huge you could find a little shade and if you stood in just the right place you caught some spray from the fountains. We had a fine lunch in the old town - grilled Kebabs,  beans baked in a casserole and a fresh cabbage salad, all washed down with a frosty local beer. 

Our guide pointing out another massive statue. This on sits in front of the 1950's Parliament building.
A delicious lunch of grilled kebab and bubbling casseroles filled with smoky beans.
Our Airbnb was about a half hour walk from the city center in an area that had not yet benefited from "State Beautification", but by the time we stumbled up the dark stairwell all we wanted was to be off our feet and down a cold beverage from the fridge. The fridge wasn't in the kitchen itself, but sat outside the apartment on the porch. The apartment was a bit of a time warp - we met our young host who grew up in this flat with his sister and their parents, who also lived here with their parents, etc. Not much in the way of upgrades, but comfortable. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/717852

We took a break from the oppressive heat and spent the next day on the water in nearby Marta Canyon. The main activity on offer was an hour-long boat ride to the top of the lake to visit a cave. So as the saying goes, at least in Alexander the Greats Skopje "When almost in Rome do as the Romans do". We hopped on one of several rickety tour boats (life jackets optional) and pushed off.

A straight forward message in a beautiful park, but this sign could work in many place.
Note: there are often times we've come across a situation and say "that would never happen in America!" - and most of those times human safety is involved. Like the time we saw a man welding with no eye or hand protection, and a lit cigarette nearby, and certainly no steel-toed boots or hard hats for the macho men on construction sites in most places we've been lately. We've lept over potholes that could swallow a dog whole, raced across intersections that showed no regard for pedestrians, resisted the urge to snatch babies from the laps of mothers riding in the front seat of cars, eaten food that as near as we could tell had never met a single health standard, and, even with all that knowledge, decided to take a boat cruise to a cave.

This could have been the last picture you ever saw of the Campbells alive.
Off we go to the Cave of Potential Death.
After a picturesque run up the lake we pulled up against a creaking dock with a tangle of stairs that led to the "trail head" to the cave. Getting out of the boat and onto the dock was the first life threatening experience. The second was climbing the steep path to the cave on uneven stone steps and narrow switch-back trails with just the occasional hand rail. The third opportunity to never be heard from again was on the decent into the dark, deep, wet, bat-infested cave itself. Again, no handrails, slippery stones and meager light from single bulbs relying on a groaning generator. If that beast had given out for any reason ... well you can guess the rest. Now I know why we have never taken to Spelunking. Although the stalactites and stalagmites were interesting - even more interesting was the man teaching his children how to remember the difference - "tits" hang down. Stalactites! Get it?" Happy to emerge in daylight, we practically scampered down the trail feeling lucky to be alive. 

Our ride to Sofia. Nice be be back on a comfortable bus.
Sofia, Bulgaria: After our time in Skopje,  we took a 5 hour bus ride to Sofia. It wasn't bad - there was plenty of leg room and interesting scenery, and as always we were both deep in our books. Our Bulgarian host met us at the station and drove us to our newest home. The front door wasn't much to look at, but that was becoming more and more the case in this part of the world.

The apartment itself was really very nice and the location was great: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4543540  I was happy to see a big screen TV with tons of English speaking channels - including The Food Network! I was so excited, and it seemed like ages since we'd just plopped on a couch and channel-surfed. There wasn't a button on the remote that listed the stations, so I started flipping through the channels: Eurosport, check. BBC, check. Sky, Fox, E! and CNN, check. This was getting good! Then, just after I whipped past the Disney Channel, National Geographic and Nickelodeon, I landed on a string of stations serving up eye-popping, hard core porn! Luckily we didn't have any grandchildren with us because this stuff was one-click of the remote away from Sponge Bob Square Pants (a kinky show in it's own right). Luckily I had been jotting down the channel numbers of stations we wanted to watch - and anything else became optional.
I came across Seinfeld reruns and so much more...
It was hot so we were happy the free walking tour started at 6:00 pm that evening just a few blocks away. There is a lot of ancient history in this country - we came across many excavations of Roman ruins and Byzantine churches alongside muscular communist structures that overtook the city after World War II. I would say that Sofia is a bit of a snore - unless you are trying to sleep. It turned out our bedroom window faced a busy road with late night drag racing and early morning (as in 5:30 am) daily garbage collection.

There were many of these knee-level kiosks in Sofia. You just sort of squatted down and bought what you needed.
In most cases it was beer and cigarettes.
Bleary eyed, the next morning we split up and  I took a Bulgarian Cultural Walking Tour and Michael took the Communist Walking Tour, it being his 3rd such tour in the former Soviet Union countries we've visited. I'm sure he could teach a class when we get back.

The architecture in Sofia was a mix of stunning buildings like this next to concrete postwar monoliths.
Ancient ruins dotted the city and were open for exploration.
Having time with a local connection beyond chatting with our host or tour guides is always a treat. We were able to spend an afternoon with a friend of friends while we were in Sofia - Ivo. He met us for a long lunch followed by ice cream desert at a 2nd restaurant - he was welcoming and gave us insights on living in Sofia. He was optimistic about the future for his generation, but echoed what we heard from others that the older generation, including his parents, remembered better days under Soviet rule. More stability. Less stress. More certainty about their future.

Our new friend of friends,  Ivo - we spent a great afternoon together.
Time for us to head to Bucharest. Not Budapest. Apparently the confusion between the two is one of the leading geographical mistakes on record - we'll triple check our tickets.

See you there for Blazing Through the Balkans II in Romania and Moldova, and thanks again for following along.

Debbie and Michael,
The Senior Nomads

P.S. During this period of travel we sold our house in Seattle. We are truly nomads now!

The Senior Nomads

No Waffling in Belgium

After a leisurely week on the Gullet it was time to get back to the business of being Senior Nomads. First on the list was continuing our efforts to get Russian Visas so we could visit that country before  heading back to Seattle in September. We had tried several different approaches while traveling  including pleas into the intercom box at the Russian Consulates in Paris, Prague and Budapest. We believe what they said in Russian was "Go Away".

How many times do I have to say no!
In reality we knew you had to apply from the US, and obviously that wasn't possible, but Russia was so tantalizingly close that we racked our brains for a solution. Then, Michael remembered there was a a fellow Seattle Rotarian named Bill Robinson who traveled to Russia often and sent him an email asking for advice. He recommended we contact a company in Seattle called Red Star Travel. Michael jumped on the case and connected with Albina Netchaeva, one of their visa specialists! It would require filling out forms and sending our passports (gulp!) back to Seattle for a couple of weeks for processing, along with a sizable check but we decided to go for it. 

It wasn't too difficult to be exiled for two weeks in the land of waffles, chocolate and beer!
Since we would be without passports for two weeks, so we decided to camp out in Belgium while we sent our passports home and waited for our visa applications to be processed. Besides, by taking an Airbinb in Brussels we could host our 5 year-old grand daughter Colette for a week during a school break and it was easy for Mary to deliver her from Paris.

Colette loving her first class train journey to Brussels and excited about delivering the FT to Grandpa!
Our first apartment was about a 15 minute walk from the center of the city. Our lovely hosts, Elsie  and Irena were a delightful couple. They lived just down the street from our place (Elsie's brother's apartment) and when we arrived invited us up for drinks and delicious appetizers while they shared their favorite parts of the city. In addition to their day jobs they host occasional dinner parties in their apartment for travelers who love food through this website:  bookalocal.com As a welcome for us they prepared small plates of salad made with diced green apples, cucumber and red onion tossed with yogurt and dill topped with melt-in-your-mouth smoked mackerel fillets. So simple and so delicious! Here's a link to our apartment: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1849048

Our lovely Brussels hosts, Elsie and Irena. They were the best!
We had two days before Coco's arrival so on the first day we took the free walking tour of the city to get oriented. That night,  Michael set his alarm for 1:00 am and got up to cheer on the US Women's soccer team as they beat Japan 5-2 in the final of the Women's World Cup from Vancouver. Later that morning he caught-up on his sleep while I shopped for kid friendly provisions and made a photo scavenger hunt on my phone at Brussels main square, the Grand Place. Our hosts arrived to fuss over  Colette's bedroom set-up and lent us a great a game to play - Tumbling Monkeys!

We played Tumbling Monkeys many times - if you have a 5 year old, get this game!
Coco and Mary arrived by train and we had an hour with Mary before she headed back to Paris. I was pleased Coco didn't seem at all concerned about her leaving and easily settled in with us. She did have one night where she truly did miss her mother and shed some tears and had a few hiccuping sobs, but after some excellent back rubs by grandpa she fell asleep and was up early the next day asking for Honey Nut Cheerios.

I had a great time creating photo scavenger hunts on my phone. This lovely goose was high up on a building.
This Royal pup was stitched on a pillow in a shop window.
On our first day together we headed to the city for our scavenger hunt. The next day Michael was able to visit the European Union Headquarters and visited the Parliamentarium, an interactive exhibition that explains the inter-workings of the EU. Admission is free and he recommends it for anyone interested in recent European history and current events.

Michael heading to the EU interactive exhibit, a highlight for him in Brussels.
Coco and I played in the park and had a fine day out. But mostly we wanted to get home to play Tumbling Monkeys, the card game Happy Families and put the jigsaw puzzle together with Grandpa. If it sounds like I was in "Mooma Heaven" that would be true.

Fun at the royal park - nothing like a little fountain spray on a hot day.
The puzzle masters at work!
Soon it was time to pack up and catch the train to Antwerp where we had booked our second week in Belgium. This time, the rest of Coco's family would join us for a few days. Because there would be seven of us, we rented what looked like a fairly large and lovely house. Having said that, I may have fallen in love with it without fully understanding the layout. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4733497

Me standing in front of our latest Airbnb - the narrowest house in Antwerp.
Michael taking the half empty bags upstairs. Most everything else was taken up bit by bit.
With Colette in tow, Michael and I opened the front door and discovered, as our host proudly shared with us that we had rented "the narrowest house in Antwerp!" I knew the minute we walked in there would be serious challenges ahead. It truly was narrow, only 8 feet wide by four stories tall. That turned out to be 78 tight and winding stairs to navigate several times a day by tiny humans ages 1, 3, and 5, their parents and two Senior Nomads with hip and feet issues -all with no banister along the last open stretch to the main floor. And even though we were hoping Jacques might take his first steps while he was with us, we also didn't want his first one to be his last.

This was taken as the Mary's family were leaving, thankfully all in one piece!
When we weren't concerned with safety hazards we could appreciate the quirkiness of the house. It opened directly onto a pedestrian-only shopping street that made for a great play area (when it wasn't raining) and it felt like we were living in Antwerp 100 years ago. Except 100 years ago the alley behind the house wasn't covered in really cool graffiti. I quickly made another scavenger hunt that Marcel could master along with Colette. They both had eagle eyes!

The alley around the corner was perfect for another scavenger hunt!
Here's the first image of about 20 for the kids to find!
This was Marcel's favorite.
 Antwerp is an easy walking city and we found some great "dragon houses" as Marcel calls churches - and we even found a giant statue featuring several fire breathing dragons, a severed head and arm, a frog and savage women with water spewing from their mouths. Everything a three year old boy could ask for.

Climbing on the scary dragon statue in the rain.
Mary had been here before and had a few places she wanted to revisit including a take-away restaurant called Chips. Now the Belgians would argue there are no "French" fries and that in fact that delicacy was first created in Belgium. Chips is one of the finest preveyors of this deep fried dellicasy in the city so we loaded up with enough to feed twenty people along with seven different dipping sauces and called it dinner.

we devoured five  of these "small orders" of fries. Enough to fill a kitchen sink!
Jacques had the best vantage point for our long walk to the port.
The puzzle team hard at work.
Just outside the door was a great place to kick the ball with Grandpa.
Having survived "The crazy house" as Colette called it for three days, it was time for Mary's family to catch the train back to Paris. Michael and I still had a few days left in Antwerp. We'd heard from Red Star back in Seattle that our visas had been issued and that our passports were on their way back - Nostrovia!
Our precious passports returned. Thank you FedEx!
Russian visas secured! Now we could plan our trip.
The next day I spent an afternoon at the famous Antwerp Zoo. It was a lovely place to spend a summer afternoon - but once you've seen the Woodland Park in Seattle it's hard to appreciate anything else. The next Belgian experience had to be a dinner of Moules Frites. Mussels with French (Belgian Fries) a national specialty. As a seasoned traveler, I knew not to seek this dish on the main tourist routes - but even on the back streets this simple meal cost $25.00 at a minimum. I had a better solution - make it at home with local ingredients. A fine result was had with $7.00 worth of ingredients - it was a Senior Nomad moment.
I arrived just in time for the hippos to have lunch!
Speaking of hungry hippos ... my home cooked mussels were the best.
On our last day we took the train to Bruges. This city was almost too perfect - sweet canals dotted with swans and weeping willows reaching from their banks as if to take a drink. Beautiful brick-row houses proudly wearing their construction dates from the 1600's. Horse drawn carriages clip-clopping on the cobbles, traditional Belgian waffles with burnt sugar edges - and a 50% off sale at H&M. An excellent day out.

Continuing the eating theme - that would be my decadent Belgian Waffle on the left. Michael's on the right.
Back in Antwerp Michael headed to the Fedex pick-up facility and returned with our precious passports complete with our newly minted Russian Visas. We have several Eastern European stops before arriving in Moscow and St. Petersburg next month. Learning more about recent history of this part of the world has been fascinating, and Michael often says "we're taking a graduate course in 20th Century European History".
When we are done with this next month of travel we will have earned one of these!
Our next stop would be Cologne, Germany for a two day "pit stop" as we moved further down the game board towards Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova before exploring Mother Russia. 

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads