FBA (Real Time Travel)

September 28, 2008

“Choose career, choose family, choose friends” - £$%& that! I got a Samsung DV3 HD LCD and a Sky+ Digibox, I don’t need anybody else. I can pause live TV, go to the pub, come back and watch whatever program I missed. And get this: I can fast-forward through commercials and bits I don’ like! I can fit 2 hours of real time television into 50 minutes! Now beat that (but you won’t - ha ha)!

The paragraph above has got many exclamation marks. I must be real excited. Well, I guess I am, because pausing the TV feels like I can control it. It sort of scares me a bit, realizing that I must only be able to enjoy things in life that I am able to… control. Then again, it is probably true for most of us.
For example, we enjoy travelling as the ultimate way to be in complete charge of our lives. We find it exciting - to be on the go. But travelling instantly becomes tedious when it gets to the bit we have no control over, such as, for instance, flying.

On a positive side, if flying with BA, you are not in any danger of getting bored. In fact, British Airways are doing a very noble thing by deliberately lowering the standards of their services; to the point where their customers are so exhausted by delays/cancellations/lost luggage etc, they are quite happy to sit in a plane knowing that they are actually at last flying somewhere.
The strategy was originally devised by BA to help the customer battle anxiety caused by the many potential dangers of flying itself - in psychology this maneuver is often called “the innate diversion”.

It is fun to see how, sometimes, when taken to extremes, this strategy trips itself over, falls on its own head and bites its tongue. Anybody who was passing through Heathrow last Christmas is sure to remember how some not entirely favorable weather conditions were used as an opportunity to cancel many international and all domestic flights. It caused a riot, despite the customer services frantically handing out leaflets on what to do “when your flight is being canceled”, where British Airways apologized for any inconvenience caused and offered to cover an overnight stay in one of the designated hotels (nice one, although the cover was something like £100 per person and the cheapest room rate was like £150).

Many call Heathrow a mess. They don’t appreciate the fact, that its one of a few places where a true adventure may be had. Remember Alice in Wonderland? In Heathrow you may go down some narrow corridor that gets narrower and narrower with its ceiling getting lower with every step, and at the very end there is a tiny door. You open it and whoosh! - you find yourself within the huge enclosure of international departures. Imagine that!

To be fair, BA is not the only airline that trucks things up. Strangers get their flights canceled every second. The point is that we cannot be in less control of our journey than when we take a flight. An RV is by far the best choice for any self-respecting control freak who is not pressed for time. However, the train is the only option that offers the “plan your own route” opportunity without the immediate disadvantage of being tied to your own means of transportation.

The Trans-Siberian Express is ideal for such creative synthesis, where the fusion of constituent elements (that’s bits of your journey) into a new compound (that’s your desired route) positively reduces any proposition of mundanity to simply non-existent. Ta-da!

Filed under: Life Outside Russia
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 6:08 pm

Mind of a Clerk

September 15, 2008

I saw it happening to others… Yesterday it happened to me: the debit card not going through, payment incomplete, life suspended until the girl on the check-out finally rolled her eyes and called for assistance.

When your card gets locked, the action plan is as follows: pay with a different card or cash, get to the nearest cash point, check your bank balance, call your bank (best from somewhere private). Do not let the shop manager take you to customer services and sort it out for you, because she won’t. The bank people will still want to speak to you and you, my friend, are going to spend about 20 minutes on a phone answering some damn stupid questions. This, in turn, is going to make the rest of the shop aware of your real full name (what if it’s French?), your real date of birth (what if you are a woman?) and the name of your mobile network (what if you are with Virgin?).

They know how to have fun, the bank people (or is it just an example of contemporary white-on-white violence?). They will tell you that it will take five to ten minutes to unlock your card. Fifteen minutes later it might work or it might not, depending if the person who was unlocking your card on the other end got distracted midway or not. For me it took another phone call to complete the procedure.

By the way, the reason my card was locked: it was used after a period of non-use (fair enough, I have been out of the country for a while and not used the card abroad) to make a considerably large payment, which was suspected to be fraudulent. It was my own phone bill. Who’s laughing now? Not me, I am crying and let me tell you: it takes a very special person to make a grown man cry. You know the type.

Sadly this type seems to occupy key positions in some pretty impressive infrastructures. Forget banks. How about education? Council? Inland Revenue? Home Office? I have seen verbal insults hurled at these people, they have been called incompetent idiots. No reason to be rude here. They are simply demons - children of Satan - set upon this Earth to make the lives of the true children of God difficult.

People like myself, unfortunately, prefer not to get involved. We sit back and watch the cookie of world affairs crumble. I think we (bright and educated people) have messed things up already by not putting enough effort into taking the key public service posts at the time the latter were shared out. I guess, we did not wish to get caught doing “dull” jobs. Shame, should have done it, even if only out of duty (much like defending your country in case of war).

Now it’s too late for any kind of action except the most direct: revolution. For this the time is yet to come. For any revolution to be a success the correct set of criteria must be in place. The ruling class (senior management in this case) must no longer be capable of ruling (tick this box) and the class that is ruled (the consumers) must no longer agree to capitulate. And herein lies the problem: in post-modern capitalist society we have created a happy customer, who does not care about quality of service.
Moreover, we also have lumpen-consumers, individuals who have learned how to use and abuse the present system successfully. This is a serious issue in its own right, it does not fit into this post and deserves a post of its own. To be continued…

I don’t know where travelling comes into this post though. Maybe here, this looks like the work of a dedicated team of professionals. Keep it real.

Filed under: Life Outside Russia
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 1:42 pm

Halifax Revisited

September 8, 2008

Hey, I am back home after a long summer away (work, not play, alright?) and its another two weeks before I allegedly get snowed in with work again. I am officially on holiday, ha-ha.
I settle myself next to a cup of tea and a great green recycling bag that has mostly newspapers in it and go through some of the Halifax Evening Courier back issues. This looks like a sensible way to discover what’s been going on in the area and to make up for all times the above newspapers went into the recycling without even being opened.

Now, the issue I pick up is a random choice (Friday, July 11, 2008), anybody who does not believe my story can track it down on line and check it against my words.
The front page displays some unfortunate ugly bird “who is trying to makes sure” the school dinners are delivered without fail. Well, I have seen better front pages (for example “milk vanishes from doorstep, perhaps stolen”), but it’s early days. See what’s on the next page, shall we?
A girl took part in a mass brawl that “left houses smashed, people stabbed and a teenager with part of his ear bitten off”. Apparently “…scores of people [were] brandishing knifes, bricks and iron bars…”.
Wow. Next page. Six Halifax teenagers have appeared at Calderdale Youth Court charged with “three violent town centre robberies in a day”.
Ok, stay positive, read on. A man was accused of dangerous driving and “causing death” (a 24-year old on a bike knocked down a 75-year old woman).
Right, next page. A bus driver fell asleep, “careered out of control” and injured 40 of his passengers (one died of the injuries 19 days later). Turn over.
Changes to bus passes of “children from low income families” caused a riot amongst their parents (and I can well imagine what a parent of a “low income family” is capable of). Right, what’s next?
Youngsters (and we are talking infant schools here) “voted horror mystery their favourite” at the local Children’s Book of the Year awards. Nice. And the weather?
A “touring theater company’s second open air offering in Halifax fell victim to inclement weather again“.
The paper also says that on this day in 1937 George Gershwin “…died aged 38 of a brain tumour”. Not a very good day then, huh?

Ok, I am a reasonable person, could be a coincidence, I suppose, let’s have ourselves another Evening Courier. Random choice again, July 15 this time.
The cover story: a father of four had planned to wave a starting pistol about after breaking in, but “accidentally fired it in his pocket” while drinking at working men’s club. The bloke “had a balaclava, a ski mask, gloves, hats and a crowbar with him” in a bag. He has been jailed for four and a half months (for possession of cannabis though).
Same day saw a drunk man stuck in a tree, pills stolen from a chemist, blaze in a derelict club and a war tribute nicked for scrap.
These papers should have stayed unread. I no longer desire to do any local catching up and decide to go for a relaxing drive. As I am driving down the road I see a newsagent’s stand: “Shotgun Drama in Pub: Pictures”.

They say you should avoid three places: Hell, Hull and Halifax. Don’t know about first two, never been there, but Halifax is in this threesome for a very good reason.
Moral of this story: for better places to be visit www.ostwest.com now!

Filed under: Life Outside Russia
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 12:29 pm

Winter Specials

September 5, 2008

Die-hard clubbers and ice-fishermen share an invisible bond: it’s them and not the morning factory shift who fill in the first Metro train at the break of dawn; an intersection, where both sleep-deprived groups merge before going off their separate ways. There is no further understanding between them: just like heroin addicts, ice fishermen recognize only their own kind and, unless you are one of them, you meet the wall when you look into their eyes.
My memory has the record of the only time this crack in the social sidewalk was bridged. A friend of mine, the drummer in a band, was coming from an all-nighter. He was carrying bits of a drum-kit. The guy sitting opposite had some massive drills on him. They checked each other’s tools with mutual respect.
Indeed, no matter what mind-altering substances are consumed by an average clubber on a night out, compared to the state of mind of an ice-fisherman (imagine all the Zen of fishing multiplied by the cold of a winter morning, plus all the future uncertainty a fresh ice cover may offer) its all just chicken-shit.

Sadly, local ice-fishermen are a dying breed, winters in St. Pete are not as cold as they used to be, in fact they, just like the Russian Christmas, are no more (someone was really bad, I guess). What we have instead of a winter is five months of misery: its still dark when its time to get up for work and its already dark when its time to go home. The air is nice and warm, thanks to the heavy through traffic and seriously damp as well, thanks to the heavy through traffic again. Consequently it might be only minus five but it feels deadly (just like when you get out of the shower and the room feels seriously cold, do you know what I mean?).
People of St. Petersburg generally spend their winters in, hugging radiators and counting the days to the first sunshine. Outdoors isn’t fun anymore, the gray and slushy muck that covers pavements can only be classed as a parody of real snow.
When I was a kiddie we used to scoot on black ice and do cross-country skiing in the suburbs. Nowadays, the only bit of winter activity that is still on offer in St. Petersburg is the ice-skating. There is an ice-skating rink directly on Dvortsovaya and some other rinks set up in most parks around and out of town.

However, if you want a real Russian winter you have to chase it. This means going Tundra. But don’t just go anywhere, my friend, shop around. Kamchatka along with mount Elbrus guarantee some of the best skiing/snowboarding adventures. Lake Baikal is sure to provide some breathtaking scenery to go with its dog-sledding. Ekaterinburg is famous for its “Troika” rides and other romantic winter escapades.

To be perfectly frank, Siberia is not exactly my bag of hammers, I’ve only been there once during winter and I retain fond memories of the hotel I holed myself up into. Not because I was dressed slightly inappropriately, although I would not advise anybody to travel that far North without some sort of a hat and a pair of gloves, I just didn’t feel like getting out of my room. We all get slightly anti-social from time to time, I guess.

Filed under: Russia - everyday life
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 12:40 pm