By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato
Went through customs/immigration four times in the last 24 hours going into and back out of Croatia. There was no problem going into Croatia, it was going from Austria into Slovenia to get to Croatia and back again. What a hassle- held up at the Slovenian border for 3 hours while they sorted over all the paperwork when all we wanted to do was drive through the country to get to Croatia. After all that they wouldn’t let our resident Jamaican into the country so she had to take a cab back to a hotel in Austria and wait for us to come back the next morning.
Having a semi-day off today after 8 shows in a row. We are in the middle of a 24 hour drive from Croatia to Switzerland and had to stop for the drivers to sleep. So I’m hanging out in Innsbruck, Austria for the next 9 hours until we leave. Would be ok if we got here earlier in the day, but it’s 9pm and everything is closed… Have not been going to bed until after the sun comes up every day. Our shows are late (starting around 11:30 or midnight) and wrapping up around 2 or 3am. It took me a few days to realize that the sky isn’t brighter in Europe…it’s just that I’m going to bed when the sun is coming up!
The next week went by like one very long day. After working 8 days straight with little more than a few hours to relax before going into the next run of six in a row I was pretty much running on auto pilot. Actually it was more like walking around in a coma, exhausted and just running on reserves.
Managed to get a night in a hotel room in Belgium after the show, the next show was in Utrecht, Holland (just a few hours away by train) so the crew decided to spend the night and take the train the next morning. What was originally a 2 hour train ride turned into 3 1/2 after we missed our stop and had to backtrack. I think there are actually more bicycles than cars in Holland. I was nearly taken out by a fleet of cyclers on their way to work the next morning when I accidentally wandered into the bike lane. The roads in Utrecht are barely wide enough for a car to drive down so bicycles make much more sense, and there are literally thousands of them. They take their cycling seriously here.
We move on to Germany for two shows and afterwards start our next huge drive to Barcelona, Spain from Munich, Germany. We stop in Borges in the south of France to spend the day while the drivers sleep. It’s a quaint little French town where NOBODY speaks English. Finally a hotel room all to myself (at least for the next 6 hours), where I can use all of the towels and be as messy as I want to be and watch CNN until I can recite the news by memory. I wander down to the lobby to find everyone gathering for dinner. We find a French restaurant to have an authentic French dinner during which our tour manager and monitor engineer are devastated to find out that the filet mignon they ordered actually means pork tenderloin here. After dinner we check out of the hotel and get back on the bus to finish the drive.
Barcelona- the longest load out of my life. All of our equipment has to be fastened to a chain motor and lowered from the roof of the building (since the club is on the top floor) to the street. The German stage hands would have laughed at the two flights of stairs and carried the gear down on their backs but not the local crew at this venue, they are doing their best to make sure no one ever accuses them of being overly enthusiastic. It takes us almost 3 1/2 hours to load out what should have taken 40 minutes. We finally get on the bus and start heading for Madrid as the sun is coming up.
The next few days were a complete blur, desperately needing a real day off (in one place and not on the bus). Did another show in Spain then a day off and two shows in Portugal. A crazy load out in Portugal as we end the show and get on the bus and race to the airport to make our flight to Russia.
During the last week or so in Europe I begin day dreaming about how great it will be to be back in the states. Meals in a restaurant can be had in an hour or less, with the bill coming promptly at the end.
I can walk into any store and understand every label and price tag without having to do arithmetic.
I along with my bags can fit into my hotel room.
Adult sized elevators that hold more that two people.
Vegetarian food is abundant- no meat, no problem.
Knowing exactly what to expect when I walk into a public rest room, and knowing exactly which one to use.
There cannot be enough said for good old American plumbing. I just cannot understand why the rest of the world hasn’t caught on yet?
There is more than one television channel in English.
A king size bed is not two singles pushed together.
Before going to Russia I was warned by the stage crew in Portugal that in Russia our power will go out at some point during the day. I asked why, thinking it was some kind of nationwide brown out thing that they do to conserve electricity, but they told me otherwise, ‘it goes out because it can’, meaning someone will come around after it goes out and you will give them money and it will come back on…..OK I get it. Happens at all the shows they say- Russian Mafia, I get it.
Let me digress a bit, the group I am working for was invited to come to Russia to perform two concerts. The invitation came from one very important and powerful Russian who very much enjoys American music, I will refer to him as Mr. X. This man has his own beer, which is very popular in Russia. He owns a chain of micro brewery/restaurants there and our first show will be at one of them. We didn’t have to worry about our power going out because well, let’s just say Mr. X is quite connected. As a matter of fact we guessed that he might own a large portion of Moscow. We were met at the airport by his people (let’s call them Gino and Ciro), with two busses to take us and all of our luggage to the hotel. Gino, who looks like he just walked off the set of the Sopranos, informed us that if we needed to exchange any money into Russian Rubles, we should do it with him instead of our hotel and proceeded to pull out an enormous pile of cash. After we checked into our hotel we were taken to the private dining room at Mr X’s restaurant where a meal was prepared for us and we were introduced to Mr. X who promptly reminded us that he was responsible for us coming to Russia. The scar that ran from his mouth down along his jaw was enough for us to know that he has been around. We do our show without incident, no power going off at any time. Somehow after meeting our host I didn’t think we were going to have to worry about that. After our show in Moscow, we immediately headed to the train station to catch an overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg for our second show. We are escorted by Ciro and a few other people who worked for Mr X. As our coach bus pulls up in front of the train station, Ciro tells us not to get out of the bus as he leaves for a few moments. I watch thousands of people entering the station. When Ciro returns he instructs the driver to pull around to the back of the station at the same time Ciro puts a sign in the front bus window with Mr X’s name on it. Not only do we avoid having to deal with the throngs of people in the station, we are driven right up to the train we will be riding. It’s good to be connected.
The Train Ride:
The train was very old. We had compartments with four bunks, two on top and two below with a small table in between. There was a shared toilet at each end of the car which proved to be yet another new experience in non-American bathroom facilities. First, you are prohibited to use the toilet until 30 minutes after departing the station. Why? Because you’ll find that when you step on the lever to flush, the bottom of the bowl opens up to reveal the tracks beneath. So everything that goes in the toilet ends up on the train tracks and they don’t want it all piling up at the station- hence the 30 minute rule. The bathroom was about as uninviting as it could be, metal floor, metal walls, metal bowl, sink with no running water and no towels. There was a small supply of toilet paper, which ran out about 3/4’s of the way into the journey. Ever try squatting above the bowl on a moving train? There was no dining car, food or beverages on the train. Would have been nice to know before hand since this is about an 8-10 hour ride. So we polished off the small stash of rations that we had brought with us. We felt a little like barbarians devouring cheesecake with our fingers since we had no utensils, and cutting plastic water bottles in half to make wine glasses. I think our group had the entire car to ourselves and the whole episode felt a lot like camping. It was definitely an interesting experience, not a bad one, but not one I would be eager to repeat. The guitar player who was one of my three compartment mates brought his backpacker guitar with him so we chilled out to some light strumming and the soothing vocals of one of our girl singers. We were the most popular compartment in our train car because ours was the only one with an operable window, we had food, and I had a stash of Lever 2000 miracle wipes and hand sanitizer. We had been warned before going to sleep to put anything of value in our pockets (cameras, wallets, phones, etc…) and sleep on top of it for fear of it disappearing in the night. When we woke up in St Petersburg the next morning we were a little stunned to see the tall quiet stranger who sat in the corridor all night had removed his suit jacket which now revealed the two holsters he was wearing each containing handguns. He appeared to be following us as we exited the train creating a not so tiny bit of apprehension among the group. We were quickly relieved to find out he was one of Mr X’s men who was sent along for our protection.
The show in St Petersburg is in what seems to be an abandoned building that has been converted into a nightclub. I can’t tell if it’s in the process of being remodeled or demolished. There is construction garbage everywhere. Things are a bit unorganized but our power never goes off and there is an endless supply of Russian Vodka being forced upon us. After the show Mr X wants to take the band out for a night on the town. So as not to insult our intimidating host they reluctantly agree. Two of the band members rode with Mr X and they had quite the interesting evening, needless to say. At one point as Mr. X’s driver was speeding through the city streets and they were pulled over by the police. The driver immediately got out of the car and started yelling at the officer who was yelling back and motioning him to get back in the car. Finally the driver told the police who was in the car, the driver appeared at the back window, took one look at Mr X, promptly apologized and got in his car and left. Like I said, it’s good to be connected.
It’s our last night in Russia before we fly home. As usual I’m to excited about returning to the USA to be able to sleep. Two flights from now and we will be back in Washington DC.
At the St Petersburg airport we are having difficulty getting through customs with all of our equipment. Despite having all of the proper paperwork and having had it stamped by the Russians on the way into the country, we are being told we don’t have the proper documentation and need to pay thousands of dollars for the equipment to leave the country. This is the way it is in some parts of the world, corruption at its finest. Our tour manager is trying to keep his cool with the customs agent because he knows he’s got all his ducks in a row and this is clearly extortion. Finally he throws up his hands and tells the agent “Well Mr X said this is all the paperwork I need”, upon hearing the name the customs agent immediately backs off and questions “Mr X?” the tour manager tells him that Mr X is the reason we are in Russia, “Have a nice day, no problem, go along, thank you” replies the agent. Once more- connections…
Finally out of Russia, we land in Frankfurt for our layover and the problems aren’t over yet. Trying to board a US bound plane in Frankfurt is complete chaos. Due to heightened security measures our group is immediately pulled aside to be profiled and drilled by no less than three airline gate agents. Due to sheer lack of communication and utter confusion amongst the airline personnel, once we finally board the plane we are harassed once again by an agent on the brink of a breakdown as he shouts at us for our baggage claim stubs which we have already presented several times. He can’t seem to find what he is looking for (nor communicate exactly what it is) and yells at us that he is not going to let our bags on the flight. This is confirmed as several of our bags are spotted on the tarmac as we are taxiing away from the gate. Wonderful.
Some 8 hours later we arrive in DC and of course we are missing 6 bags, mine included. Great, normally I wouldn’t be worried having been through this before, but considering the attitude of the gate agent in Germany and the over the top security measure to thwart terrorists, I feel an enormous sense of panic that I will never see my bag again. I immediately start making a mental list of its contents so I’m prepared when I contact my insurance company about the loss.
In the meantime I check into my hotel and quickly settle into my room, since I have nothing to unpack. I turn on the TV and find myself automatically going to CNN forgetting that all of the other channels are in English too.
Ahhh to be back in America….. Whenever I get home from a foreign tour, it always takes me a few days to realize that I am back in the USA. I find myself speaking with that silly pseudo foreign accent that we Americans adopt when abroad because we think people will understand us better, and I can’t seem to form complete grammatically correct sentences anymore -i.e.: “Where is toilette?”, “How much for Coca cola?” “How do I make outside line, phone call?”
I have a terrible time with people’s names when I first meet them because I haven’t been able to pronounce let alone understand most of the names for the past month. I’m convinced that my waiter ‘John’ just told me his name is “Jorg”,and ‘Carl’ the guy that I’m working with from the sound company today is “Karo”
I also find myself ignoring everyone because I still think I can’t understand what they are saying. It will take me a few days until I start listening to conversations going on around me and actually acknowledge what strangers are saying to me instead of just shaking my head and saying “English please” .
I keep looking for the 0 floor button in the elevator to get to the lobby. Crossing the street becomes one of the most confusing tasks of the day- after having to look the wrong way for oncoming traffic in random European countries, I now have no idea which side of the street the cars will be driving on.
I’m looked at oddly by the waitress when I order water with no gas,
I vow to not eat cheese and bread for the next month. I can stop eating at only Italian restaurants (because their menus are the easiest to decipher).
I set out the next morning to buy some clean clothes while I anxiously wait for my luggage to show up. Happy to be back in the U.S.A. I wander into a department store, pick out my purchase and get in line at the counter. When it finally becomes my turn, my fond reminiscing of America is rudely interrupted by harsh reality. OK so yeah the sales clerk speaks English as a first language, but she’s still completely unresponsive and could care less about helping me, she’s just there to put in her hours and collect a check. ‘Customer service’- appears to be a foreign concept here. As I watch her painfully slowly count and then toss my change on the counter I want to tell her she should go back to the hospital until she completely recovers from her coma.
My next stop is a diner for some lunch. I am pleased to not have to get out my foreign language dictionary to decipher the menu, but a bit stunned when I notice the entire wait staff speaking in Spanish to each other. Ahh to be back in America.
In my hotel room that night I find myself actually annoyed with the television so I decide to turn it off and catch up on some reading. I snack on an apple I bought earlier noticing that it’s not very sweet, actually it doesn’t have much flavor at all. I start thinking about the apples we had in Germany, probably the most delicious apple I ever ate. Then I remember the tomatoes in Italy. Here we grow grapes with no seeds and giant Franken-tomatoes that can withstand disease and bugs, but have absolutely no flavor. In Europe, fruits and veggies are fresh, not conceived in a lab and you can taste the difference. The may not be as big or last as long but why sacrifice flavor for something to stick around on your counter for a whole month.
My mind wanders onto other things- in Europe people resolve their differences with an apology and forgiveness rather than blowing each other away. Differences in race, culture, personal preferences are more than tolerated they are widely accepted. People in Europe consider exercise riding a bike and walking to work, NOT parking in the spot that is not closest to the entrance. In Europe things are a lot smaller and people tend to have less and really appreciate the things they do have. That dinner that lasts for four hours in Italy is a time to reconnect with friends and family not a time to wolf down your food and rush off back to the tv, computer or job. They seem to get along just fine without 200 channels, 24 hour everything, 3 cars per family, jobs that require them to work 60 hours/week. Homes are small, cozy, and well lived in. Amenities are sparse. There is such an overabundance of ‘stuff’ in America, we have everything and too much of it. So much, that we take it all for granted. Wouldn’t it be great if we could combine the best of both worlds? I guess that would leave us with a whole bunch of all different kinds of people all getting along, having and using only what they need, eating delicious food, enjoying each others company and good old American indoor plumbing.
Gotta go, my luggage has just arrived!
All the best,