Monday, August 3, 2015

Things to Know Before Traveling to Russia: Part I

While international tourism arrivals in Russia are down this year, the fact is, politics aside, now it a fine time to visit the country. The ruble's value has plummeted, and fresh artistic attractions in St. Petersburg are among the draws.

  1. At the end of 2012, $1 U.S. bought 30 rubles. In July 2015, $1 buys 57 rubles. In other words, the ruble has nearly halved in value in two and a half years. The dollar's new buying power is especially noticeable in the Moscow hotel market. Hotel rooms that cost $400 a night in 2012 are going for $150 a night today.
    Shopping at GUM, Moscow's
    famous shopping mecca, is much
    less expensive than it was just
    two years ago.
  2. The Cyrillic alphabet was imported into Russia during the 9th century by St. Cyril and St. Methodius (poor St. Methodius. All the work and none of the credit). Back then, the alphabet had 42 letters. Now, there are only 33 to confuse you. Try to learn a few key letters before you go. The skill will greatly help you navigate your way.
    Learn the language by reading the signs.
  3. Good cheese is hard to find. In August, 2014, Vladimir Putin put sanctions on many agricultural imports from the European Union, including cheese. While domestic production has soared this year (the first quarter of 2015 was up nearly 30% from the comparable period in 2014), eating local cheese is making Russians bleu.
    Customers at the upscale Eliseevsky Market
    in Moscow are missing their imported cheese.

Mayokovskaya (Маяковская) Station, built in 1938,
is considered among the most beautiful
in the Moscow Metro system.

4. The Moscow Metro is 80 years old. The first line was launched in 1935, part of Stalin’s vast plan to update the city's transportation system while creating "palaces for the people". Today, the Moscow Metro carries about 2.5 billion passengers a year (versus about 1.5 billion in Paris and 1.7 billion in New York). Many of the system's 200 or so stations are works of art. The earliest stations are filled with scenes depicting the idealized Soviet citizen--the farmer, the factory worker, the athlete, and the soldier.

Soviet solder in bronze at the
Ploschad Revolyutsii ( Площадь Революции)
,Metro Station

Ceiling mosaic at
Маяковская Station

5. Getting a visa for Russia is a giant pain, even if you live in a city with a Russian consulate. If you go through the process, get a three-year visa. It's not that much more expensive, and it will spare you the red tape if you want to travel to Russia again within the time span. Want to go to Russia without seeing red? St. Petersburg has a relatively-new 72-hour visa-free program which I will detail in the next post.      
Tourist poses with Lenin and
Stalin near Red Square

Monday, July 27, 2015

Learning Foreign Languages: Russian 101

Having just returned from my second trip to Russia, I am finding that my ability to read the language has improved vastly since I first posted this. It's a good thing, too, as getting around the country without some knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet is challenging. And so, for wannabe polyglots, here again is a primer.

To get around Moscow by Metro, it is
essential to know how to read Russian.
In St. Petersburg, however, there is English signage.

Now that we have covered the basic Cyrillic alphabet, let's proceed to a reading lesson. I chose to spend my one free day in Moscow last May wandering the Arbat and silently phonetically mouthing out the names of familiar fast food franchises. I highly recommend this strategy for those trying to learn the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain that is Cyrillic.

First, we visit McDonalds. This one is easy, right? MAK=MAC. The fourth character looks like the Greek delta Δ--which is D. O becomes an A sound in Russian when the syllable is unstressed, so we've got DO. In our previous lesson, we learned that H =N, so HA is NA. The third to last character is the Cyrillic version of L. Then we are back to delta, and C=S. What does it spell? McDonalds.

Very good. Now, let's get a cup of KOФE. Note the third letter, which looks the same as the Greek version of F (phi). Sound it out. You have coffee. Excellent. But where to get our coffee? Perhaps CTAPБAKC.

Now we need a doughnut to accompany our coffee. We do not get coffee at the pink and orange establishment above, because we cannot read the sign that says "Coffee & More". After all, we are reading in Russian. But ДAHKИДOHATC sounds Дelicious. To translate, we need to close the one hole in our doughnut sign literacy.  И =ee. Hence, Dahnkeen Donahtc. Close enough.

Let's moo-ve/MYB (merely a transliteration) on. 

MY MY, or Moo Moo, is a popular fast food chain in Moscow. If you can't read the Cyrillic, just look for the black and white корова.

Finally, let's wash this all done with a bottle of BOДA. B=V. The O sounds like A, due to the stress. Voila, Vahdah. Let's take a sip and call it a day/ДEHb. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Traveling in Russia: Nine Images of Moscow

Just revisited Moscow in July thanks to Viking River Cruises. Here are nine images taken in Moscow. Revisit this blog soon for more pictures and ponderings.

Vintage Portrait of a Young Pioneer
at Izmailovsky Market.

Cyrillic 101: Mockba=Moscow

I spy the Kremlin.

The famous GUM department store has transitioned
into a luxury mall featuring Louis Vuitton and
Manoli Blahnik.

Leaving Moscow on the Viking Truvor.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

CNN Coverage of Silent Airports

My most recent piece for CNN appeared earlier this month.

Silence, please. This is an airport

(CNN)Think airports have been giving you the silent treatment recently?
You aren't being paranoid.
Increasing numbers of airports, especially in Europe, are taking on a "silent airport" philosophy.
This doesn't mean they'll be entirely noise-free.
Nor will Marcel Marceau-style mimes roam the terminals offering directions and gate information to wayward passengers via hand gestures and sad faces.
Instead, the idea is to reduce noise pollution, such as airport-wide announcements, without sacrificing timely and helpful updates of information.  
International airports were once characterized by their cacophony of sounds, competing gate announcements and indistinguishable intercom messages, along with the Babel of languages being spoken within their confines.  
    This is all changing.
    While the silent airport concept is not entirely new, advances in technology are allowing airports to more easily adopt the practice.
    Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International (ACI), says there's a growing desire among airports and the airlines they serve to "create a calm, relaxed ambiance" without being disrupted by announcements.
    "Passengers can wind down while they wait for their flight to board in the common airside lounges, commercial, and food and beverage areas," she says.

    New navigation tools

    In June, Helsinki Airport in Finland -- a country where the tourism slogan is, aptly, "Silence, Please" -- became the most recent airport to adopt the silent concept.
    As part of its commitment to quieting things down, announcements for flights are made only in boarding gate areas.
    Lost track of time in the duty-free shop?
    Too bad.
    Nobody's going to call you to your flight, as announcements in all terminals will be made only in exceptional emergency circumstances.
    Heikki Koski, vice president of Helsinki Airport at Finavia Corporation, says that improved flight information display systems and interactive kiosks, together with advances in mobile technology, including the ability to develop comprehensive apps, are changing the way airports communicate with passengers.
    Munich, Germany-based InfoGate Information Systems is one company developing such technology.
    Its multimedia, multifunction systems are designed to provide efficient information services and indoor navigation.
    For example, at Munich Airport, InfoGate kiosks allow for face-to-face, albeit video-based, conversation with a live customer service representative in the traveler's language of choice. Additionally, documents can be scanned, printed and exchanged between the two parties.
    Interactive signs, on the other hand, give directions at the touch of a finger. Passengers can tap a "you are here" display to get directions and estimated walking times to their destinations.
    The highly-anticipated new airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia will open with the way-guiding InfoGate Interactive system in place, according to Manfred Zotl, the company's managing director.
    Thanks to Bluetooth technology, passengers can also get information as they are going from Point A to Point B. 
    "Bluetooth Low Energy and beacon technology can improve way-finding, and location-based messaging to passengers... keeping passengers informed depending on their (specific) location and the time they are supposed to be at the gate," says ACI's Gittens.
    Of course, an airport will never be as silent as a monastery.
    There will continue to be a need for airport-wide emergency announcements, along with boarding calls.
    But at silent airports, the latter can be confined to specific gates, as has been adopted in Helsinki.

    How do you say "your flight is ready for boarding" in Mandarin?

    Another issue In this day and age of wide-ranging international travel is language.
    It may well be that the language of the airport is not that of the traveler. Oftentimes, the default second language is English.
    However, according to the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands, of the world population of 7.2 billion people, only 1 billion speak English, and only 400 million are native speakers.
    And even if travelers know the language being spoken, local accents and fuzzy intercom systems may make the announcements unintelligible.
    In an attempt to ensure that announcements are easier to understand, Amsterdam-based AviaVox has developed phoneme technology.
    AviaVox managing director Johan Godin describes the technology as "digital speech fragments that can build words and these words then can build sentences."
    "These sentences are being generated by system software in which strict rules on grammar and pronunciation are programmed in order to make a computer speak as if it was a native human being," he says.  
    Moreover, if an Air China flight, say, is being moved to a different gate, the system can incorporate Chinese in its messaging.
    AviaVox is already installed in several European airports, including, Bristol, Cardiff, Eindhoven, Lodz, Poznan and Genoa.
    Finally,  in more and more cases, there's an app for that airport.
    Most apps for international airports provide flight status updates, interactive terminal maps, weather information, and security guides, along with other airport-specific features. 
    So, as long as passengers have a (charged) device, all the information they need should be in the palm of their hands.
    Journalist Laura Powell was one of CNN's original travel reporters. Her focus is on international travel news and trends.

     Here's a link to the original story.