Farang Day

Today I took my first day off in more than three months.  The hardest part was forcing myself not to think about work before finally being satisfied if I wasn’t stressing about it.  Once a month, I tend to succumb to my Westerner tendencies and do something utterly touristy.  Today it was heading to Pantip Plaza to buy pirated DVD’s a three dollars a DVD and then to the embarassingly posh Paragon Mall to catch "The Pursuit of Happyness" in a huge Western-style theater.

I feel nostalgic when I see A&W’s in Bangkok.  We don’t even have those in Tokyo, Seoul, or Taipei.  I saw a Burger King today – the first I’ve seen in Asia outside of the Taiwan International Airport and Korea.  My strange moment of the day came as I read "The Satanic Verses" in a Bangkok Burger King surrounded by Midwesterners and Dutch families.  At least I felt safer reading there than elsewhere – posession of the book is a punishable offence in Thailand.  What that punishment is, I have yet to discover.

I have grown oddly comfortable to haggling.  I am to the point where paying the asking price for something would feel strange.  I noticed that in Tokyo the last time I was there.  I felt like I was getting ripped-off all the time.

I like that you stand in the movie theaters while they play a little reel that shows how much the king works for the Thai people and how much he is loved by them.  Both seem to be true from all I have seen.

I find it condecending when foreigners seem to look down on the Thai people’s compassion for the king as being either submission to an oppressive policy, blind nationalism, or the result of manipulative political propaganda.  I see the Thai’s near universal (expressed) support for the king to be as valid or deluded as say, European’s belief that America is the antichrist of international politics without bothering to investigate their own country’s role in the state of affairs.  It’s just as valid as young, liberal Americas belief that seeing inconsistencies in the American system of government somehow makes them progressive, critical thinkers.

We all have our fantasies built on fantasies built on fantasies that help us feel protected, blameless, or empowered.  It is only through the observation of others’ fantasies that we can truly identify our own.

It was good to get away from work.  I enjoyed the film a lot for the pacing and Smith’s very human performance.  It reminded me a bit of the money-grubbing film trend of the eighties, however.  The moment that I related to the most was the protagonist’s realization that he had $21 in his bank account.  It reminded me of the day about 10 months ago when I realized that all I had in the bank was $31 Canadian and about $15,000 US in debt.

I’m glad to have pulled myself out of those times.  I’m not a multi-millionaire yet and no one’s made a movie about me that money-obsessed Thai twenty-somethings will cheer at, but Smith’s character took 25 full years to manage that, so give me some time.

In Your Pocket: Part 2

In Your Pocket: Kaunas

Let’s be honest. Kaunas is to Vilnius what Robin is to Batman. It’s BarnacleBoy to SpongeBob, Dannii to Kylie, Rocky to Bulwinkle, Weasley to Potter, and David Hasslehoff to a black car, some silicone balloons or just about any inanimate object.

Kaunus’s bus station is a purely functional affair offering little in the way of modernity or comfort and plenty in the way of concrete, shady looking characters in tracksuits, and rubbish bin fires. The best thing to do on arrival is to leave immediately.

They’re animal crackers in Kaunas. Not only do they have a Zoological Museum slap bang in the middle of the main shopping street (complete with a big concrete turtle in the foyer for kiddies to ride on and have nightmares about), but they also have the only zoo in Lithuania…

…with much less of a fishy past there’s also the new aquarium in the Mega shopping center. They proudly claim that it is the biggest shopping centre aquarium in Europe. Wow! Huh?

…(at the zoo) there are basically newer style and older style animal enclosures – and the older style enclosures are horrid in every respect. Some of them have rusty bars so tightly spaced that trying to look through them is like examining the back of an old refrigerator (complete with occasional growling noises).

Cages that you can actually see into house miserable beasts that are motionless, bored and forlorn; or are just wearing down grooves in the dirt with their constant pointless pacing. They’re like the public service of the animal world, but they don’t get to go home at 5…

…more pleasing are the delightful (possibly lobotobized) seal duo that constantly pop their heads out of the water and look at you as if they’ve never seen a human before. "Oh, look! There’s a human. Oh, and there’s a human! Wow! There’s a human…" You get the idea. They seem to be delighted to see you as you will be to see them The kids will love it until they get a good splash in the face…

…then to a systematic series of displays that starts with blobby, spongey, sucky, and slithery things and moves up through the animal kingdom to culminate with the charming tableau of a small child looking up at a polar bear eating a seal (The child may not still be there when you visit…)

Restaurants > Lithuanian > Metu Laikai

Somehow it manages to be both gloomy and frilly inside – so it’s like eating in Grandma’s undergarment drawer.

Restaurants > Mediterranian > Pompeja

In the evenings you can even enjoy the entertainment, such as the "Pompeii giddy vortex mind-blowing erotic dance," whatever that is.

What to See > Pharmacy Museum

Apparently, dissolved hair from Venus (the goddess of love, not the planet) is an excellent elixir to keep ladies looking young and lovely. And they’ve got some here. They’ve also got the ground-up heads of dead people which, apparently, take the edge of epilepsy.

What to See > Wacky Kaunus > Devil Museum

Of particular interest are the Hitler and Stalin devils, doing the dance of death over a helpless Lithuania. Dating from Soviet times, Stalin wasn’t in fact depicted as a devil, he just happens to look that way. Essential visiting, this one, especially should you get the chance to see one of the handful of people who believe in asking the devil’s help whilst at the museum.

What to See > Wacky Kaunus > Museum For the Blind

Despite the name, this isn’t a museum for blind people with touchy-feely or talking ehibits, scale models of famous buildings or essays in Braille. In fact, it’s not really a museum at all. It’s more like an opportunity for sighted people to experience blindness and grope around in absolute darkness in the catacombs beneath St. Michael the Archangel church. We won;t tell you exactly what’s in there as that would spoil it, but clearly the designers have had some experience with padded walls and stockings. This is one of the strangest things you’ll never see in Kaunus

What to See > Castle Cruising

Raudondvaris Castle

It’s not really a castle at all, rather a big house with a castle-like bit stuck on one end. The round pointy tower was presumably built to look pretty, as it certainly wouldn’t have been much good at defending against anything more aggressive than, say, boredom.

Vilkija

…The letters C and Z enabled people to write words like cezeti (to scuffle), ciuozi (to skate), and cezeciuozoujame (which means "we skate and scuffle at the same time" and which we just made up).

Raudone Castle

…At the end of that time, Krispin Kirschenstein – a wealthy merchant, not a crunchy sugar-coated breakfast treat – built the current castle.

Birstonas > Getting There

If you’re a fish, finding your way to Birstonas is a doddle. Just swim along the Nemunas until it goes all wiggly and you get dizzy and you’re there. If you’re a person, it’s a bit more tricky…there is only about one road sign that points to Birstonas, and it’s pretty much in Birstonas.

From Kaunas by car

Pretend you’ve gone completely mad and want to go to Warsaw. You’ll drive out on the A5, heading towards a place called Marijampole. As you haven’t gone completely mad, however, you’ll turn off onto route 130 pretty quickly and follow signs to Prienai.

Birstonas > Spas > Tulpe

Accomodation is healthcare bland – fine for those who are recovering from something, but otherwise unspectacular…

Birstonas > Spas > Versme

Founded in 1975, and designed to resemble what the locals thought the future would look like at that time.

Druskininkai > Where to Stay > Jerevan

Out of town and out of the question unless you like the idea of a technicolor yawn before bedtime. Rooms are colour-themed and totally tasteless. The pink room, in particular, is hideous – pink curtains, shimmering pink bedspread, heart-shaped lamps. Small girls might like it, but for everyone else, staying here is a headache waiting to happen.

In Your Pocket: Part 1

The Political Scientist furnished me with three handy travel guides when I was last in Lithuania.  While functional, they have served as a great dose of that fine country while I have been on the road.  Sadly, I have finished the last of them this week.  I wanted to share some of this series of guidebooks’ better entries.  Today’s entry:  Klaipeda In Your Pocket.

Taxis aren’t always available.  If you don’t see one, head to the information desk on the 2nd floor of the arrivals hall and do a little steering wheel mime.  After they’ve stopped laughing, they’ll call a taxi for you.

If you need to store your luggage, you’ll need to exchange 1LT for two old soviet 15 kopeck coins…the machines are directly behind the ticket window and most of them don’t work.

The bus station is diagonally across the street from the train station and is nothing to write home about unless you like writing about dirt and concrete.

We don’t want to sound like your mum, but it has to be said.  Go easy.  Lithuanian beer is all light and bright in terms of taste and texture, but packs a punch.  It seduces you like Lolita in a summer dress and then takes you down like a body slam from Jabba the Hutt.  It can even lead gentlemen to go to bed with one and wake up with the other.

Despite the Miss Disability contest held in Kaunus recently, Lithuania does have an attitude towards disability that is a bit more mature than “just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you’re not sexy.”  In terms of bad taste, Miss Disability was up there with Miss Captivity, the beauty contest held for female prison inmates in 2002.

Beer Halls > Memelis
There’s nothing like a menu with bad photography to put you off your food, especially when the long spiraled sausages look like they have been deposited by a dog.

Italian > Buon Appetito

Aside from offering the best impersonation of mozzarella cheese sticks in all of Lithuania and an array of cheap pasta concoctions, the real appeal of this Italian restaurant seems to be the cheap drinks, cheaper beer (3lt), seedy casino atmosphere, and a sad stripper.

Turkish > Senamiestis

It has an arty and alternative feel to it and is frequented by those who think a crappy trestle table next to a bad mural on a crumbling wall is cool.  The most alarming thing about the place (apart, maybe, from the “not real chicken” on the menu) is the untapped potential.

Clubs > Global

If you are a man and would like to fit in, dress in some Adidas knock-offs, slap on a black leather cap and a frown and bump into as many people as possible as you walk around the club.  If you consider yourself a woman, you are already too old for this crowd…Global is full of rough and rowdy gangs of men in various stages of hallucinogenic disarray and the teenage girls that tend to be impressed by such idiots.

Clubs > Kalifornija

About as stylish as a tinfoil hat, but amazingly very popular.  It really is a tatty and run-down dump which, like any good dump, is constantly frequented by a squabbling flock of sea birds and mangy cats (so to speak)…as grim and a s tacky as a rusty bucket of hot tar.

Ask for a dance
Most people you meet in clubs will speak English very goodly.  If you want to ask for a dance, however, it’s always very impressive if you try to use a little Lithuanian language.  At least your tounge will get to do a little dance.

Wanna dance? – Nori sokti?
Would you like a dance? – Ar jus noretumete pasokti?
Something to drink? – Noretumete isgerti?
You have beautiful elbows. – Tu turi grazias alkunes.
Thank you – Aciu (Like a sneezing sound).
Good night – Labanakt.
I’m drunk. – Ugsh gweartus (as in English, almost).

Expat – Juodojo Katino Smukle 2
The impressive barmen utilize their impressive bottled tools quite well, though with a bit too much tossing and shaking for a thirsty man…if you opt for dinner, reflect on the fact that old Adolf once ate in the building back when Klaipeda was known as Memel.  We don’t know what he ordered.

What to see > Castle Museum

…There are some frighteningly bad dummies with bug eyes and alarming furniture-stuffing hair…

“A side note about the Nazi’s and Soviets” – some excerpts:
Mary, Queen of Peace Church – since the grand struggle was completed, the Soviets (bless them) closed it, ripped off the spire, and turned it into a concert hall.  St John’s Church – thoughtfully leveled and turned into a shopping center by the Soviets.  Beachfront – In 1978 the Soviets also had the good sense to demolish the last surviving pre-war home of the area, enabling a part of history to be lost.  Annchen von Tarau – The original girl standing in front of the Drama Theater was removed at some unknown time during WWII, possibly by Nazis (who were supposedly upset that she had her back turned towards a ranting Fuhrer shouting at the masses from the theater balcony in 1939), possibly by the Soviets (who stole just about everything that wasn;t nailed down during their unwelcome stay in the country).

Aquarium & Dolphinarium

…is where the action really happens in even more spectacular shows with dolphins, sea lions, and synchronized swimmers.  Highly recommended for families with children and James Bond-style villains who wish to dip enemies in a pool of hungry… penguins.

Seaside Cycling
This will take you through various calm and pleasant fishing villages where, if you’re the type of cyclist who dresses in colorful Lycra, people will look at you quizzically from their windows.  They’ve never seen a parrot riding a bicycle before.

Palanga > Where to Stay > Voveraite Vardu Salvadoras

The name of the street this modern hotel is deposited on translates as “lover’s alley,” and for no bad reason.  This is where the young and beautiful come to woo, and the hotel provides adequate shelter for many of them.  The rooms are bright and cheerful (some come with excellent views of the above-mentioned young things going all the way on the nearby dunes) and the restaurant is, seemingly, the result of Salvador Dali going into the mail order catalogue business.

Flowers
When giving flowers in Lithuania, there are certain rules that should be adhered to if you wish to keep on the right side of your sweetheart and/or future parents-in-law.  First, unless somebody just died, make sure you give an odd number of flowers.  One ill do, but is not welcomed unless it is a single red rose for the one you love.  Lilies and chrysanthemums are potent symbols of death and should be left well alone unless heading to the cemetery.  If giving flowers to members of the older generations, avoid yellow ones.  Yellow is the colour of jealousy, and can be traced back to the Middle Ages when Yellow was the traditional colour of dresses worn by ladies of a questionable profession.  Carnations, especially red ones, are the symbols of the communists.  Again, avoid.  And if you just happen to be in Lithuania for International Women’s Day, it’s appropriate to give red tulips.  The tradition among men is to buy a bunch in the morning, dish them out willy-nilly to female colleagues at work, then turn up at home late at night rather tipsy, clutching the last, droopy specimen.  It is then traditional for he wife to set about the man with a large heavy object.  Ah, love!

That’s Why We Get Paid The Big Bucks

There are those sweet deals when you get ridiculous amounts of money for a piddling amount of effort.  Then, there are those months of work that go by with nothing but the internal satisfaction of a job well done.

Can you guess which ones are my favorite?

This last month has been work of the second type and it has been truly refreshing.

Today I performed my number for free as part of an evening showcasing the work of three of my students.  They made me truly proud – their work stands on its own and they’ve applied everything I’ve wanted to teach them in the six weeks we have been working together.

And they’re so handsome and beautiful and eager and happy to be on stage.

But all this can disappear so quickly.  I need to run a business.  In order to run a business, I need to see that this investment is going to pay off in the long run.

There are certain steps that I must take to insure that this will happen and they all must occur in the limited time between now and March 5th.  If I fail in this, it will no longer be economically feasible for me to continue my rewarding and valuable work here in Thailand.

It’s terrible, realities like this.  All the pieces are there, ready to be fit together, but mobilizing all the hands that hold them can certainly be a monumental challenge.

In any case, guys – you performed brilliantly tonight and I hope I will be working with you again in the very near future.

When the Weeks Go By Like Days…

…months go by like 4.3482 days (on average).

Sometimes success is more of a liability than failure, especially when everyone expected you to fail in the first place.

I had my first fitting for "the suit" today.  I’m happy with what I see, but I am always taken aback when I see how goddamned tiny my tailored clothing looks next to "adult" clothes.  I’m so used to walking among giants but not used to holding a jacket the size of a grown man’s handkerchief.  In any case, the CCC (Cotton Conservationists Consortium) should be happy that my shirts consume about 50% less cotton than those of a normal man.

Thai Time: Running Around in Circles

I said that it is important to adapt to things like the pace of life, work ethic, motivation, and work environment from culture to culture, sub-culture to sub-culture, and sub-sub-culture to sub-sub-culture.

If we are meant to meet at 1PM, for example, it is not uncommon to have people show up at around 3pm or so.  Not a problem, as long as you adapt to it.  My noon meeting (which I set for 10AM in anticipation) was a bit of a disaster.

The idea was to get dresses for the two women in the band.  I wanted to take them to one of Bangkok’s oversized boutique malls, Paragon, and get a couple of high-quality, high fashion, simple black dresses.

They suggested another mall, one that was sure to have a greater selection than Paragon and that would be orders of magnitude cheaper.  They swore to it, so I decided to go with the local wisdom.

I knew full well what it would be: a multistory warehouse of counterfeit brand-name ripoffs and cheaply made clingy synthesic things modeled after whatever Paris Hilton wore on a red carpet six months ago.  Not a problem.  You can sometimes stumble across great finds in places like that, and it seemed as though I was in the presence of professionals.  "As long as you can try the dresses on," I said.  "You can try them on sure," they say,  "maybe."

"If ‘sure maybe’ means ‘yes,’ thn we can go there."

I can skip this part of the story, right?

So after wasting an hour getting to the place and sitting down to eat at the Thai A&W, I was late for a meeting in the Paragon.  My idea was that I would go to my meeting, the ladies could browse around the shopping complexes, and then show me what they had found, I would buy it, and we could head back together.

Had my meeting.  Called my friends.  Where shall we meet? Starbucks.  OK.

I show up at Starbucks and no one is there.  I call them again, "Are you still here at the Paragon?"

No, they are waiting for me at Centrum, a smaller, cheaper mall 90 minutes acoss town.  I have 2 hours before I am supposed to teach my class.

Ah.

Times like this remind you why deep breathing was invented.

It makes you reflect on the nature of frustration and anger.

Hey; this was no one’s fault – logic does honestly work differently across cultures.  My Thai is no good, and their English is spotty; we communicate enough to be friends and make jokes, but not to plan  complicated shopping trip, especially when things are going poorly.

This was a trip that was meant to take three hours total.  By the time we had found two dresses that would do the job, we had spent eight and a half hours running around Bangkok.

Hey.  No problem.  I felt at home in this city for the first time.  I knew how do deal with the glacial pace of traffic on Fridays when no taxi will pick you up or less than 300 baht.  I knew that I’d need to hop onto a scooter taxi and that they’d try to rip me off by at least a factor of two.  I zipped around like an action hero – from eleveted train to express riverboat to scooter – and accomplished my own mission impossible.

To top it all off, later that evening after my class, after rehearsal, and after deciding that I wouldn’t have time to train today because of our little adventure, the owner of the theater passed by to tell me that she had just remembered that she had bought two dresses for the ladies.  Could I return anything I had bought for them?

No problem.  Life is life and the trick is to stay to keep your net wide enough to let all the negative little things pass through.  And besides, I found sweet cuttlefish crisps with a great mascot.

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The Suit: Part II

Heat.  Real heat.  I’m not sure If I have ever experienced tropical winters before – Hawaii doesn’t count because constant trade winds keep everything in a constant state of flux (did you know that the Hawaiian Islands are the landmasses that are furthest away from any other on Earth?).

It’s 1AM in Bangkok and 85 degrees outside.  I am attacked by mosquitoes within seconds of stepping outside.

Today I was fitted for my suit and after some consultation with the tailor decided to go with a black suit and a light blue shirt.  I brought in all those items that I have been meaning to have altered for the last three years.  It was nice to have his feedback and to see that once all the clothes actually fit me, my original fashion instincts were right on target.

The really interesting aspect of the day was the post-deal discussion with my new Thai tailor, James.  Turns out he is a bit of an "international tailor to the stars" here in Bangkok (well, he made all the clothes for two Steven Seagal movies, anyways – his star-studded list of local clients is much more impressive), and we chatted at length about some of the finer points of men’s fashion in Southeast Asia.  We talked a lot about the different materials he had in stock, where he makes his purchases, and his honest opinion about their quality.

As I am making a free advertisement for his store for our show on March 3rd, I also asked him about his advertising policy and negotiation strategy with local clients versus his foreign clients.  He advertises an obscenely low price for two suits and five shirts, but when he showed me the materials that come at that price, it’s clear that in this part of the world, you get what you pay for – or, more precisely, you get what you negotiate for.  There’s a lot of other interesting details and strategies that I’m going to keep between tailor and client for now.

That was my lesson learned today: when you are talking to a craftsman, it’s a good idea take the time to learn about his thoughts on the craft – especially his opinion about what defines a quality product – before he starts work on yours.  My feeling is that we are working on this suit together; seeing the suit evolve over my four or five fittings is going to be a real pleasure.

But, more importantly, the tourist moment of the day from a guidebook’s section on local "nonsexual" massage parlors:Dsc00534_1