Thursday, December 17, 2009

Merry Christmas

From my humble home to yours...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Waxing philosophical

On construction sites in Amsterdam there will often be a statement spray painted in English on a ply board or cloth that covers the work area.  Although some may seem somewhat profound, the majority leave you deep in thought thinking: "huh??"

(When tears are your only friends)

There is one, however, which I've deemed my favorite. It was simple, honest, and in today's world quite possible.  It stated:  "Will my future love be genetically engineered?"  Only time will tell.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Typical conversation

The following was from a phone call I had at work with a Dutch guy from another service provider.

guy: "Where are you calling from?"
me:  "Amsterdam"
guy: "But you're not Dutch, are you?"
me:  "no"
guy: "So, where are you from?"
me:  "America"
guy:  "Ah, so what brought you out here?"
me:  "I moved out here a year and a half ago for work."
guy:  "No plans to go back there?"
me:  "Not any time soon, no."
guy:  "I see ... you like weed a bit too much, don't you?   ... Me too."

Monday, December 7, 2009

The best things in life are free

I don't consider myself cheap, just highly attached to my money. It may be a genetic trait- on my dad's side.

Needless to say, my eyes always light up when I see the words "Free".  Free sample: I want one!  Free ride: let's go.  Free concert: heck yeah.  Free software download: maybe that's why my laptop is so slow lately. Free book: bring it!  Free entrance: I'll beat you there.  Win a free trip: where do I sign up?!?  Free food: WATCH OUT!

While we were walking up the Round Tower observatory, we passed by a small window that looked into the church which is attached to it. On the window was a flier for a free Bach orchestral concert at 16:30.  (That's 4:30pm for non-military time readers).  Judith and I looked at our watches, and agreed that we had plenty of time within the next 30 minutes to look at the tower and take our seats before the concert started. 30 minutes later we were seated in our own pew seconds before the first note was played.  The concert was beautiful, and the church was more so.  Each wooden pew was lined with lit candles, and a door physically separating you from the aisle, making it feel like boxed seating.
The following day, as we were walking around the winding alleys of downtown Copenhagen, I spotted a church.  Although quite plain in appearance, it drew me in... and knowing that it is free to enter most churches we decided to take a look.  I had once heard that the original Christus statue was located in Denmark.  I had forgotten as quickly as I heard it... until entering that plain looking Catholic church -- mainly because it stared me in the face from the end of the aisle way.  It's as striking as it's replicas, and the plainness of the church only enhances it's beauty.

Some of the trips I take revolve around one free event that I plan on and look forward to, and this was one such trip. Since it's dedication in 2004, I've wanted to go to the Copenhagen temple, and I had never imagined 5 years ago that I'd one day live close enough to it to take a weekend trip to satisfy that desire.
Free things truly are the best.  Especially since they allow me to save money for my next trip!  Ole!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Just like a guide book.... but better.

Before you hop on a plane to Copenhagen,... because I know you're just about to book your flight, take note of the following top 3 can't miss spots .  Honestly, who needs Rick Steves when you have me? 

1. The Little Mermaid:  No one can go to the land of Hans Christian Andersen without seeing the monument which was paid tribute to him, and essentially put the city on the map.  Besides, there's nothing better than watching a bunch of Japanese men in suit and tie standing in front of the semi-clad woman on a rock, holding up their hands in the form of a peace sign.
2. Tivoli Gardens: A place where the the title is actually "I lov(e) it" spelled backwards can't be anything less than brilliant! Plus, it's nothing short of a fairytale land that inspired the imagination of H.C. Andersen and Walt Disney.  Situated in the heart of Copenhagen, Tivoli a park filled with amusement rides, wonderful restaurants, and during this time of year a huge Christmas market. It may not be entirely worth the entrance fee, even with the awesome lazer light show, but it is one heck of a site to see - especially in the evening when most other places are closed.

3.  The Round Tower: Europe's oldest functioning observatory, built in 1642 is your can't miss spot for the best view of the city.  It's just over 12 stories high, but has less than 12 steps to reach the top.  Did they have a stone age version of an elevator you ask?  No, although that would be really cool, they have a spiral ramp that leads all the way up to the top in order for the king to ride up to the observatory by horse and carriage. Over the years there have been many creative attempts to reach the top besides walking... or carriage.
In 1902 a German tourist drove his car up to the top, and in the past few decades an annual unicycle tournament has been held every spring to see who can be the first up AND down the slope on one wheel without touching the walls or falling down.  Record time is 1 minute and 48.7 seconds set in 1989... and once I hone my unicycle skills I'm sure the new record will be 1 minute and 47 seconds.

Ok, now you can click the purchase button.  Have a nice trip... and feel free to thank me later.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thoughts from a semi-seasoned traveler

Surprisingly, Copenhagen is very similar to Amsterdam.  Both sit on the water and have matching architectural styles. Both cities are quite flat and have many bike paths thus providing an ease at which to ride a bike.  Both are generally rainy at this time of year, and are small enough cities to get from point A to B on foot. People in both cities speak English, and...that about sums it up.

What got me, though, was the fact that each similarity was slightly different. (Yes, I know that's an oxymoron). But, let's take English speakers for example.  Although I have no problem getting anywhere I need to go in Europe by speaking my native language, some countries are more fluent in English than others.  I've been to 3 of the 4 Scandinavian countries now, and before I had gone to Denmark I thought everyone in Scandanavia knew English just as well as my fellow (current) countrymen.   -- Guess I have to be wrong about something at least one time a year.--    The number of English speakers in Copenhagen, although quite a large amount, was drastically less than what I am used to here in Amsterdam... or than what I had encountered in Sweden and Norway for that matter.

Just to throw in one more example, for the sake of... one more example I'll mention the bikers. There are plenty in both cities, however in Amsterdam we have no fear and dominate the roads; in Copenhagen they ride with helmets(!!!), what?? Here we lock our bikes with non-penetrating, industrial strength iron chains - generally more than one; in Copenhagen all they use is the flimsy back lock. Here, if the light is red and there are no cars coming, we go; there... they wait. Obviously we're the tougher of the two and would win a smack down with one arm tied behind our backs. No contest. Although, if an honesty/law abiding/safety first award was given out, we'd probably be given second place.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wonderful, wonderful Copen-sumthin’

Over the weekend I came to discover that Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales were not at all like the "happily ever after" versions Disney dreamed up. The Little Mermaid kills herself, Thumbelina is told by her husband that her name is ugly so he changes it to one he feels is suitable, the Emperor was made a laughing stock because he was scammed by the makers of his "new suit" - thus walked about in the nude, and the Little Matchstick Girl freezes to death on New Years Eve.

No wonder Denmark is ranked #1 in suicide rates among children!

(above remark is a joke, not an actual fact)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Where was Claire?

Clue #1: This city is one of the two most expensive in the world for tourists,(recently beating out Tokyo). Added note: I've already visited the other of the two.

Clue #2: The culinary specialty of this country is an open faced sandwich. A slice of rye, piled high...

Clue #3: The city's landmark sits on the water, an image of beauty and imagination.

Clue #4:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Stroke... stroke!

I recently read that 95 percent of all Dutch children have a swimming certificate by the time they leave primary school. The other 5 percent are of ethnic minorities who's cultures don't place a priority on swimming as an upbringing. Upon asking a colleague if his children have their certificate yet, he responded, "Well, of course. They're required to have it by 8 years old. This is Holland after all." True, this is Holland... we're surrounded by water.

Not only are we surrounded by water, but without the dikes we'd be under it. No wonder nearly the entire Dutch population knows how to swim. If, by any chance, the dikes broke the country would go from looking like this: to this:Swimming master or not, maybe adding a life preserver to the first aid kit would be a good idea, since no one can tread water forever.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rothenburg revisited

She lives in an excellent location, my mother that is, right near the heart of Bavaria. It actually couldn't have been a better location if I had hand picked it myself. Not only is she only 2 hours away from the Neuschwanstein castle, but she's a mere 30 minutes away from Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The small walled in city of Rothenburg just happens to be my all time favorite, and was so nice to see in the fall - to contrast the summer views I had seen last year.

We didn't do anything particular while there, other than eat at our favorite restaurant, walk inside (nearly) every shop the city has, and take pictures... lots and lots of pictures.
And we can't forget the laughing...
... because there was more of that than anything else.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Once apon a time...

... in a land far, far, away lived a man in search of an abode suitable for his beautiful, sleeping, princess. Why, she could not wake up in any old castle! Nor could her memory be attached to a structure anything less striking than she, herself, was. So the man looked high and low, he traveled vast continents, battled mighty dragons, and swam the mighty oceans to find his inspiration. It wasn't until his journey reached Bavaria that the search was over. There it stood, atop the mountains, as magical as any castle ever before seen. It was all the inspiration Disney needed to create a castle for his Sleeping Beauty.

And if Walt Disney found it beautiful enough to replicate, for what is known as the symbol of Disneyland, then it has to be special. The Neuschwanstein castle is one I've wanted to go to for years, all thanks to pictures I've seen and my visits to the most "Magical Place on Earth". Now that I've been to my fair share of European castles, I can honestly say that Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein castle is by far my favorite. King Ludwig spent most of his life's savings (and that of his family's) on the construction of the magnificent building. His entire vision was based on Wagner's operas. The only tragic part is that Wagner and King Ludwig died before it's completion. Fully completed or not, the castle stands supreme. It's situated on a mountain that overlooks the entire valley and is accessible by bus, horse drawn carriage, or by foot. Although it appears, from a distance, that a hike to the castle would take nearly an hour, it took us no longer than 25 minutes to arrive at it's gates. All but one of the 16 completed rooms were lined with murals on the walls depicting one of Wagner's pieces. The murals weren't only confined to the rooms alone, but the corridors as well. And the one room that does not have murals adorning the walls was turned into a cave... an all out cave, with stalagmites and stalactites and one opening that lead to an indoor garden/reading area. It houses two chapels -one public, one private-, a state of the art kitchen (at least it was at the time), a concert hall where Wagner's music was to be played (and actually is once a year), indoor plumbing, and central heating. It truly is a castle well before it's time, and absolutely amazing.

It's just a shame that in the middle of construction King Ludwig was killed, or committed suicide - no one is quite sure because after his body was found in the river it was immediately buried, thus hindering any possibility of discovering what truly happened. But crazy or not, I hardly doubt his death was an act of his own accord, especially with the prospects of living happily ever after in such a magestic castle.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Home is where your mom is."

As you can probably tell by now, I don't pass up any opportunity to travel - even if it includes a 16 hour round trip car ride in a 3 day period. My mom and brother officially moved to Germany last weekend, as I accompanied them in a rental car with all of their suitcases (which were stored in my apartment while they were house hunting the week prior). And I thus donned the role of being the dutiful daughter, while my own selfish desires loomed beneath the surface. I wasn't really going to Germany to help them move, I was going for the two extra days we'd have for exploration-- once all the suitcases were brought into their house, of course. The journey "home" in and of itself was quite the memorable experience. Leaving at 10:30 in the evening, traveling throughout the night on roads that were not lit in dense fog made for little sleep when it was my mom's turn to drive. Despite my love for her, her driving - especially at night- scares me and at some points along the way I feared for my life. The Tom-Tom, which we were so glad to have, wasn't always on our side. We were only 15 minutes away from her house when the it directed us to a road that was blocked. After requesting to change the route, we were directed down dirt roads made for tractors in never-ending fields. It was dark. Pitch dark. We could have hit a cow. Thankfully we didn't. But we did nearly end up in a ditch.

Right before I returned to Amsterdam the Tom-Tom stopped working. I was in a panic. Yes, it's not always accurate. Yes, it sometimes leads us onto dirt roads in never-ending fields. Yes, it sometimes shows us driving off the road, when in fact, there is asphalt under all 4 wheels. But I, for one, can't live without it. And to take it one step further, I haven't a clue how people managed driving on poorly identified roads before it was invented. There's no way I would have made it home if the Tom-Tom didn't miraculously started working in the brinks of my desperation... which, thankfully, is exactly what happened.
So, I drove home stress-free, while enjoying the autumn leaves on the trees which lined highways for hundreds of miles,... until I got closer to the Dutch border when all I saw was rain. At least, then, I knew I was nearly home - my home.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


My mom and brother have arrived.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Strings of street lights, even stop lights, blink a bright red and green

Forget the fact that the Dutch don't celebrate either Halloween or Thanksgiving. Or the fact that Sinterklaas comes in the middle of November, thus giving good reason to start decorating much earlier than my American attitude deems acceptable. No, there is a different reason Christmas lights go up towards the end of October.

I'm sure they were put up early to counter act the effects that come with the doom and gloom of daylight savings which occurred on Sunday. When pure darkness changes from 6:30pm to 5:30pm overnight, there is nothing better than a few twinkling lights to bring some cheer- instead of the automatic response which would have come otherwise: tears.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is this heaven?

I could think of no better way to end my thoughts on Russia than what I found to be the best part of it all. When we came across a small strip of land in Voronezh I felt as if I stepped onto a tiny piece of heaven... on earth. It's as if the Russians knew the deepest desires of my heart, without me even knowing it, and brought those desires to life.

On this tiny piece of heaven were kiosk after kiosk of homemade cookie vendors. Cookies were showcased in glass windows with a small opening for the transactions to take place. The sheer brilliance of it all made my heart leap with joy.

If I'm able to design my own heaven it will have a million cookie filled kiosks and, even though the ones in Russia were only $1.00 per pound, the cookies in my heaven will be free. And yes, you'll be more than welcome to come visit.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Toystory's house

Before my journey to the Mother Land I started reading Anna Karenina. I've had that book on my "to read" list for years. It's one I'd stand in front of at bookstores or libraries debating whether I should even pick it up, as it secretly intimidated me. But with the prospects of Russian travel, and a free copy of the book, I opened the cover and dove in.

The story is compelling, Tolstoy's usage of the written word is brilliant, and the picture he painted of Russian life in the late 1800's had me thinking back on the book a number of times during my trip. Although 120 years have passed since it was written, Tolstoy captured the Russian mentality and gave a greater understanding of why Russia is the way it is right now. But reading the book and visiting the country he called home wasn't quite enough. Not when I knew he was born and raised in Tula, which was one of the stops on our list.

Although Jana, who had already gone before, and Cam, who dubbed him 'Toystory' and had no real attachment, didn't mind going we spent a few hours on Tolstoy's homestead. Again, we had to deal with the logistics of Russian guards who initially didn't want to let us on the grounds, but we prevailed. The acres of land were covered in trees and green meadows. His house was... old and historic. Nothing too noteworthy about it actually, since we were only allowed to see it from the outside, although pictures I've seen of the inside are beautiful.
The two things of note on the estate were the following: Tolstoy's raised grave (somewhat creepy if you ask me) and the tree of Love. During the final days of his life, Tolstoy packed up his things, renounced his wealth, and left for the countryside to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. He didn't make it too far, as he got ill and died at a train station in a nearby village. He was then buried on his estate in a location he had previously requested. Why they made the grave raised, however, is beyond me.

A few hundred feet away from his grave stands two intertwined trees. Somewhere down the line it was thought to be a Love tree that holds magic powers to grant one's wish of love if they walk around it three times and then place their hand on it while making their wish. Naturally we all took part... some of us more reluctantly than others on account that she thought the tree would jinx her. But now only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Lady, lady, I make you good deal!"

While in Moscow, Cam and I would pick up an item and ask Jana "will this be less expensive at Izmaylovsky park? Yes? Well, how about this one? Wait, are you sure they'll even have this there?" Obviously we were looking forward to our day of Russian souvenir shopping.

We got to the park a little after lunchtime, on empty stomaches. The first thing I wanted to do was eat since I was famished. But as soon as we paid our 5 Rubles and entered the gates of the park, the sites and sounds enveloped me and my one track mind immediately shifted. Before me was a veritable smorgasbord of souvenirs! Stand after stand of nesting dolls, ornaments, pens, hand carved chess sets, music boxes, mirrors, hats, magnets, and so on.

At that precise moment it was as though the haggler I never knew I had inside me was released and came out in full force. 1200 Ruble items were knocked down to 800. 'Lowest priced' items became even lower. So-called good deals were made even better. At one point, one of the guys I was buying a souvenir from even said I was (and I quote) "a really good sales lady". My head got bigger as my pride swelled. I was on a roll. I shoveled out money here and there; I bought this and that - all because it became a game to me. At the end of the day my wallet was nearly empty, but my hands were full of bags I could barely manage to carry.
It wasn't until we stepped out of the gates, 3 hours after we entered, that it occurred to me: I was still hungry! Then and only then, even with the bags of overflowing goods in my hands, I recognized how much fun I truly had. After all, nothing else could have overruled my grumbling stomach other than that.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Russian Parliament

In order to get into the Kremlin you have to go through a security check. So, we thought we were being a bit criminal when we snuck in my tiny camera after putting our others in a locker along with my purse. We were the ones played for fools though, when we saw every man, woman, and child snapping away with their cameras.

In order to feel our rebellious act was justified, I did take one 'no-no' shot inside a cathedral which was too beautiful to pass up. Thankfully I wasn't caught, otherwise who knows if I'd have been torn from the grasps of my friends, while kicking and screaming, and banished to Siberia.

The Kremlin, or parliament, is a square with governmental buildings, cathedrals and a few museums. Visiting it was an all day event, with most of it spent in the Armoury. The Armoury is the largest of the museums in the square. It's filled with gold and silverware, weapons and arms, carriages, faberge eggs, dresses, thrones, and so on. It was hard to imagine that Russians once experienced such refinery. But instead of moving forward, they were halted if not thrown back a step or two. It is nice to know that they now have started to repair the damage that was done and can get back on the path that leads to progression.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Church with the onions on top

St. Basil's Cathedral. For centuries it has been one of the most iconic churches known to man, and is very likely the first thing one thinks of upon hearing the word "Russia". No one purposefully goes to Moscow without taking a moment to stop by the Red Square to view the incredible structure, right? After all, not stopping to see St. Basil's Cathedral would be as absurd as going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, to Beijing without stopping to see the nearby Great Wall, to Egypt without seeing a pyramid, or to Amsterdam without seeing Claire.

Every person I've met who has gone to Moscow has their picture in front of the church. It's an unwritten rule. You can't return from your trip without it, and there really is no better way to prove to the world that you've been to Russia than that one single picture.

So it's easy to understand how I felt when the entire Red Square was closed to the public the week we were there. Guards were posted at every entrance and sneaking through was not an option. All we wanted was the traditional I've-been-to-Moscow,- see-here-I-am-in-front-of-St.-Basil's picture. So we asked if we could, but the guards wouldn't budge. We begged, they responded "no, closed". We pleaded, they responded "no, closed". We nearly tried bribery, but then came to our senses.

Try as we might, they wouldn't let us on the square to see the front of St. Basil's... until a moment of divine inspiration. My friend Jana who had served a mission in Russia, been to the cathedral a number of times, and of course spoke the language, tried a different approach. She asked, "is the museum open and can we go in?" "Yes," the guard responded, "just wait here for the tour guide to escort you up". We couldn't go on the Red Square, we couldn't go to the church, but we were granted access to the museum --- which is INSIDE the cathedral! As I sit here typing this, I still can't understand the logic. We stared at Jana with quizzical looks of shock, to which she simply replied, "well, that's Russia for you."

We couldn't take pictures from the square, but we could take as many as we wanted from the cathedral grounds, inside and out. The church is as remarkable in person as it looks in photo, if not more-so. Time passed as we took advantage of our opportunity to be 'on the Square, but not really.' When we were ready to leave there were 3 guides at the gates of the cathedral. One looked at us and started yelling at the 2 others so quickly that I was surprised that Jana even knew what she was saying. One of the two others nodded during her reprimand and escorted us off the square. We weren't supposed to be left alone on the grounds, gratefully we were.

And my gratitude only increased when I had a few hours to spend in the city the following week before my flight home when the Red Square was open to the public. I was able to go home happy and prove to the world that I have been to Russia!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Father of Russian Communism

Although his intentions may have been good, in trying to revitalize a country that was falling into dismay, I don't know if I'll ever understand why Russia continues to honor the man who founded years of bleakness. Lenin's memory will not be soon forgotten with the many statues that pay tribute to him in every village and city. It appears, to the common traveler, that the first leader of the USSR is idolized. It is a hard concept to digest, especially when coming from a country where religious and political freedoms are slightly taken for granted.

But no matter your thoughts towards the man, you can't pass up the opportunity to see Lenin's tomb when visiting Moscow. The red and black pyramid shaped tomb sets the mood of what is experienced inside. No cameras are allowed, there is to be no talking, no stopping, and everyone needs to walk in a single file. If any of those rules are broken a guard is quick to reprimand.

The inside of the tomb is also red and black, and quite dimly lit. As you enter the door, a stern faced guard moves his left arm and directs you to turn down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs another stern faced guard moves his right arm and directs you to turn down the corridor. (May I add that there is no other way to go than the way they're directing, so the fact that they're doing so must be for dramatic effect... otherwise they think we're clueless). At the end of the corridor you're again directed to turn down more stairs, and so it continues as you reach Lenin himself.

Whether it truly is Lenin or a wax statue of him is disputable and will probably never be disclosed. Either way, the word creepy doesn't even begin to describe what you see as you look inside his coffin. But, in a line that can't stop moving, his viewing only lasts a few seconds and you come to the end of the tour you had just barely begun. However short the tour was, though, the site of him is ever ingrained in your mind. And during the few times you think back on Lenin's immortalized body or statues of him scattered around the country, only one word comes to mind: "why?"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The time machine

As soon as I arrived in Russia I was overwhelmed with all I could see around me. The buildings, the landscape, the language, the fashion -- OH, the fashion! -- there was so much to take in. By the time we all met up we had two hours to buy train tickets, take a quick look at the Red Square, and get all our things for our overnight train ride to Veronezh (pronounced Ver-oh-niche).

With my senses still at full alert I took in a lot more than I otherwise would have as we entered the train. It was easy to tell from the outside, the train was not up to par as the ones I've been on in Europe. Inside was dimly lit with dark walls and Persian runner rugs in the narrow halls. I heard the words "spasibo" and "pazhaluysta" passed around from the mouth of one person to another like a game of hot potato.

The room, also dimly lit, was small and cramped and had a rug which coordinated with the one in the hall. The walls were covered in a dark red fabric and the window, which we quickly opened due to the lack of air circulation, was dressed with glittery champagne colored drapes. The blankets provided looked like quilted table cloths. All told, the train screamed "RUSSIA" and couldn't have been better if I had come up with the design myself.

By 11pm we were all in bed as the train rocked back and forth on the tracks. With the window open we could hear every squeak and turn the train made. 30 minutes later the train started jerking to a halt. The breaks were squealing- the sound was nearly deafening, we were still rocking back and forth, and with the occasional jolt from the train slowing we were lucky we didn't fall out of our beds.

That's when it happened. The voice. A strong, abrupt, commanding female voice over the loud speaker saying something in Russian in a tone that made my blood run cold. The heat, the cramped room, the fabric walls, the Persian rug on the floor, the rocking back and forth, the jerking, the voice... it was all too much. All I could think was, "HOLY COW, WWII!". And as blasphemous as it may sound, the vision of Jews in gray jumpsuits lined up on the platform of the train station where we had just stopped came to mind.

No, there really was no better way to say "Welcome to Russia, Claire!" than that.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Country of contrast

When traveling somewhere I usually have a basic idea of what the surroundings will look like along with the way of life, whether it be a 3rd world country or a westernized local. There may be some culture shock involved, depending on where I go, but that's taken into account. Likewise, I knew Russia would be quite the experience, but I never realized that it would be unlike any country I've ever visited.

The effects of communism are ever present. Moscow is a spectacular city with some of the most beautiful architecture I've seen yet. The metro stations are works of art. The streets are spotless, the gardens are well groomed and even the guards are periodically checked (clothes adjusted, hat set straight, face wiped clean) to ensure perfection. But 5 feet outside of the city center is an entirely different world.

The world outside of Moscow city center is one filled with row after row of tall gray dilapidated buildings, 20 year old cars on the brinks of death, potholes the size of Montana and unkempt yards. Granted, not all of Russia is as extreme as the picture I'm painting, but a large portion of what we saw is exactly how I described.

No matter where we were, every person we passed on the street (and there are MILLIONS) walked by straight faced. I made it a game to smile at them to see who would smile back; all I got in return were odd looks. But the moment a conversation started it was easy to see that they are the warmest, sweetest people who'll give you the shirt off their back and leave you with a hug and well wishes.
I'm so glad I was able to see both extremes, and that all my time wasn't spent in "tourist Russia" - Moscow- which is the Russia the former communist leaders wanted the world to see. And in doing so, it was easy to see past the rough exterior, which was presented, into the heart of Russia, which is warm and inviting.