Saturday, 12 January 2008

Not the sort of powder you get in Sydney...

The one area in which Europe far surpasses good ol' Oz, we must admit, is ski fields. Once New Zealand becomes the next 2 states of Australia this will be debatable, but for the moment it is sadly true.

Although not a snow bunny by nature, having a week off between jobs in January I decided to book a package trip to go snow-boarding in Chamonix. I made the booking with a company by the name of 'SpeedBreaks'. Harmless enough I thought, but it turns out to be a subsidiary of another company called SpeedDater, and apparently I'd booked myself onto a singles skiing holiday... Many will now be thinking wistfully of snow trips with university ski clubs and the associated shenanigans. Think again. Remember, I'm travelling with brits here, and most were single for good reason. Fortunately, a few others had made the same mistake, so we were spared any painful 'getting to know you' games.

Embarrassment aside, the week on the snow was absolutely astounding ('gnarly' in the parlance of serious snowboarders I believe). Having not been on a board since a few day trips from Canberra, I was grateful for the fact we were staying at a UCPA centre - as usual, the French know how to do things, with their network of non-profit centres making elitist sports accessible to the masses - with free tuition. By the end of the week I was cutting turns off-piste and playing in natural half pipes and loving it... I'd tell you about the apres-ski goings-on, but alcohol-amnesia prevents it.

Having been so impressed by the UCPA in January, a group of us decided to get in another cheeky long-weekend of snow (organised by ourselves rather than joining another singles trip) over Easter staying at the UCPA centre in Flaine. While it may be an abomination of a building, it is right at the foot of the slope, and covered in a foot of powder (as everything was while we were there) I'm prepared to forgive them. Again, the Alps delivered. Fresh snowfall every night and another flurry most days made for perfect boarding conditions. The highlight of the evening activities was without a doubt the snowboard instructor singing Nirvana's 'Rape Me' on karaoke night. A very modern serenade...

Sadly the weekend, and the season, ended. There were more than a few moments on the slopes spent considering ditching everything and becoming a snow-field worker so I could do this all year round... but the risk of turning something so magical into just a mundane job wouldn't be worth it.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Beetrootin' across the USSR

Moscow NYE
Originally uploaded by patfoz.

During a tumultuous period where I was constantly tossing up whether or not to quit the UK , I decided that I definitely needed to have done some more travelling before heading home with my tail between my legs. One of the results was a more or less spontaneous decision to sign up for a trip across Russia over Christmas and New Years with some buddies from the ABS.

Choosing a destination on a whim like this can be extremely liberating - you have no overblown expectations, you have no real preconceptions about how good it should or will be, but on the flip side, you have absolutely no idea of what you're getting in to. It wasn't until I'd already handed over my massive wad of savings that I found out Russian winters often dip below -30C, and that there is still a major issue with tourists being ripped off by corrupt police. Nevertheless, a little research (any guidebook) and preparation (new thermals and snow gear) had me excited about peering through the rusty iron curtain.

The trip kicked off in St Petersburg, which completely lived up to everyone's reviews as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The Hermitage was even more extensive than I was expecting, and after half-a-day staggering between the halls crammed with art, I was very much ready to have a culture detox by checking out the freaks in the Kuntskamera. Sublime to the ridiculous.

In a similar vein, following one night spent at the ballet seeing a modern interpretation of Giselle (which no-one could follow - I blame the suitcase of babies and the fact the duke and the dancer looked alike), we saw 'Feel Yourself Russian!', a cheesy show of folk music and dance. Despite the cheese factor, it was a fun night out and the Cossack dancing is mighty impressive. That was followed by a night on the turps in an underground bar. By the time we surfaced, the mild winter had turned to blizzard and no one could remember how to get back to the hotel. Luckily the vodka fairies were looking out for us.

Next stop on our Russian odyssey was Novgorod, birthplace of the Russian nation. Legend has it that the town came to prominence when a local fisherman named Sadko caught a magic fish that taught him to become a percentage-taking middle-man... Sadko is honoured in the highest possible fashion in Russia - there's a vodka named after him.

For me, our brief stay in Novgorod was the highlight of the trip. Unlike St Petes and Moscow, it is a proper Russian country town, surrounded by bleak fields and buffeted by ice-cold winds roaring across the plains. It's also where we saw a Russian man so drunk he couldn't defend himself when his wife started beating his head against the wall. Yes, Novgorod showed us the real Russia!

Moscow was something else again. A huge metropolis that could be any other, except that everything isn't quite right. Public transport that runs efficiently and on time. Huge mega-clubs where the men are more interested in actually dancing than watching the topless dancing girls. Mullets in fashion. We braved the crowds and military cordons to get into Red Square for the NYE fireworks, and for the first time in a long time, I didn't find it disappointing. Just being in such an iconic place, with such a huge crowd made it all worthwhile. And we weren't even drinking vodka!

Like the trip in Spain, this trip was made all the better by the people sharing the journey. Thanks to Cass and Craig for letting me tag along, and to all the other Beetrooters for making it a great week. Funnily enough, as soon as I touched down in London, I started feeling completely miserable again...