Hello, and welcome to a little piece of John on the World Wide Web. This website serves as a link to my good friends around the world, a place to pass along information and whatever else comes to mind, an online record of my existence, and another blatant example of my love of self-promotion and undying egotism. Enjoy!

Island Holidays

January 10th, 2011

In addition to going home to see the family, the annual Christmas/New Years holiday trip took me once again to the Caribbean and specifically to the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin. The half-Dutch, half-French territory is quite different from last year's destination, Barbados, but also quite similar in many ways.

We stayed on the edge of Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of the island. Some online guides I had read led me to believe this town was where all the action was on the island. That's true, if by action you mean tons of duty-free shops that cater to passengers of the cruise ships that dock at the port each day and close at sundown. Otherwise, there's not much to do around there.

The French side of the island was the place to go for good food, as well as decent service compared to the slightly more surly folk on the Dutch side (who reminded me of Barbadans). Restaurants in places like Marigot, the French capital, and Grand Case were the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable if relaxing trip.

Only on our last night did we find what passes as the island's center of nightlife — basically a cluster of newer resorts with a shopping mall, casino, nightclub and a few restaurants and bars. Soprano's piano bar provided a decently entertaining evening on a trip during which most nights involved going to bed early like old people!

Another highlight was a one-day sojourn to the nearby island of St. Bartholemy. This French island was packed with the rich and famous who celebrate the New Year in style in this otherwise sleepy, secluded getaway. The yachts in the harbor and in a parked flotilla off shore were a sight to behold.

And we had a long layover on the way home, providing an opportunity to take a look at the old town in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan has a wonderful quaint European feel to it, with bustling shops and some cafes and restaurants although I thought it could use more of the latter. I'd like to visit again sometime and take more time to see the place so adding Puerto Rico to my list.

Mystical Minsk

December 19th, 2010

Belarus gets a bad rap in the Western media. Our governments call its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictators in Europe. In fact, following contested presidential elections this month, the government harshly cracked-down on protestors, beating and arresting scores of people including the losing opposition candidates right on the main squares in the capital of Minsk.

But the Minsk I saw a few days earlier was something completely different. First, the background: one of our friends needed to drive his car out of Russia and back for customs-related reasons, and decided to make a run to Minsk. Six of us decided to join him for the weekend, some for the car ride but most of us flying in and meeting them there.

Minsk is exactly what you'd imagine a large Soviet city to be. Rebuilt after essentially being razed during World War II, it is a picturesque city of broad avenues and grand Stalin-era architecture. It is clean. It is orderly. The people are generally friendly and the prices are cheap. More surprisingly, despite its perceived isolation from Europe, it is strangely cosmopolitan, from the Turks populating its top nightclub to the Italian chefs at its top restaurants. Despite that feeling that not much has changed since the fall of the U.S.S.R., there was also a certain modernity to the place.

There aren't a lot of sights to see in the city aside from walking down the aforementioned avenues and enjoying the view, so most of the rest of our time was spent eating great meals or sampling the city's somewhat-entertaining nightlife. In that way, it was much a 48-hour endurance test, but a fun one at that.

Ibiza 2010

September 29th, 2010

The second half of September could mean only one thing — time to head back to Ibiza for the annual pilgrimage.

We arrived on September 18 with a serious plan in hand, involving 10 days and 11 nights with a well-balanced combination of beach visits, culinary destinations and evening entertainment. The result was one of my most packed but enjoyable visits to the island yet.

Highlights included seeing several friends who are either resident in Ibiza or were visiting from all over the place — the U.K., Switzerland, Japan and elsewhere. We made a one-day voyage to the neighboring island of Formentera and tooled around on a scooter from one end to the other. We also dined at everything from a fish shack to a Michelin-starred garden restaurant.

One of the more interesting culinary experiences had to be our lunch at Cala Mastella. The restaurant there is famous for once having turned away the King of Spain for not having a reservation! You have to reserve a spot at least a day in advance. There is one seating per day, at 2:30. In the back of the half-covered, half-open air room is a big pot in which the proprietors make traditional Ibizan fish stew (bullit de peix), purportedly with fish caught by the owner that morning. That's followed by a serving of rice cooked in the leftover broth from the stew. Delicious.

Overall, we visited 7 beaches and toured one new village (plus 4 villages on Formentera), had a top notch meal every night, and I managed to make it to about 12 different parties. Regarding the latter, house music made a triumphant return to the scene this year after years of techno dominance, but the house in fashion was a deeper, darker, almost underground style which I really enjoyed listening too. Also, the trend towards more outdoor events took hold and while there was a bit of oversaturation (such that some events were poorly attended) it is a welcome trend.

I'm already looking forward to next year and making plans to visit more locations and also complete my set of the island's Michelin-starred restaurants. It is amazing to me that after 10 years there are still plenty of new things left to see  on this little island.

London — Football, Carnival and Muse

September 15th, 2010

I was in London for a couple of weeks in August/September and in-between work commitments, meetings, and various outings with friends, I had time to take in quite a few events of interest. Among them were the Chelsea matches at home against Stoke City and away against West Ham. Both matches were victories, I am glad to say.

Notting Hill Carnival
I arrived in town on England's traditional end-of-August bank holiday weekend when there are parties and festivals galore. One of them is the Notting Hill Carnival, when that whole section of the city is blocked off from traffic and thousands and thousands (if not millions!) of people take to the streets to enjoy food, music, dancing and revelry.

Any British readers will know what I'm talking about, but for me this was my first experience with this event and I loved it. There's a large Caribbean influence in Notting Hill and that is reflected in the carnival where you can have some jerk chicken, rice & beans or a roti as you grab a beer from the local off-license store and dance to some reggae at one of the many stages where DJs had set up their soundsystems. There is a parade down one of the main thoroughfares with floats and dancers following along.

I spent much of my time in the northern part of the borough where the Good Times and Sancho Panza stands were. The DJs at both of these zones played mainly house music, with Norman Jay's Good Times stand adding in some disco and funk to the mix.

I enjoyed it so much on the first day, Sunday, that I returned on Monday for another run. Fortunately, I had some friends around on both days so thanks to them for keeping my company. I'm already thinking about scheduling a trip for next year! I’ll post some photos soon.

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Muse Concert at Wembley
I have been to Wembley Stadium for football matches and even for a couple of American football games but hadn't yet taken in a concert at the venue. When I heard that Muse was playing, with Lily Allen opening, I jumped at the chance to see them.

Sadly, my friends and I arrived halfway through Lily Allen's set and I'm not sure her sound is quite stadium-friendly, but I enjoyed hearing it nonetheless. I had already seen her full show at the Exit Festival last year. Allen is a guilty pleasure of mine. No reason why I should like her brand of pop but I enjoy her witty, very-English lyrics and (probably fake) singing accent. I know…

Muse came on after and did very well. I had never realized what a stadium rock band they are, but the fact that they'd filled Wembley and the serious attention paid to lights, visuals and performance tricks (eg. the suit with the lights, the rising mid-crowd platform, the member of the band floating up into the air for one song, etc.) showed me they really wanted to put on a show and put a lot of effort into it. Apparently they do this once a year or so, or so I heard.

Turns out I know a lot more Muse songs than I thought and it was good to see them live. Couldn't really find fault with their performance.

Summer Concert Wrap-Up

August 26th, 2010

Another busy season of concerts this summer and despite a bit of travel and the massive heatwave I managed to make it to a few shows.

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Seal
Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel made an appearance at the B1 Maximum nightclub in July. One of the best male voices in popular music, he nevertheless hasn't put out any music of note in quite a while. Luckily, Seal has had enough singles over the years to fill a show with greatest hits and please his adoring public, accompanied by a very capable band, as you'd expect from a rumored diva such as he.

Seal started more than an hour after doors opened and apologized to all in attendance, explaining that he was told by the promoters he didn't need to be on stage for another hour. Kudos to him for taking the stage quickly once the crowd started chanting for the show to start.

Last time I saw Seal play was in Boston more than a decade and a half ago, so it was a pleasure to catch up with him again.
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Gogol Bordello
This was my fourth time seeing the kings of “gypsy punk”and, just like the first time, this show was outdoors as the group graced the stage at the Green Theater in Gorky Park in late July. By now their shtick is familiar — a rabblerousing show with lots of movement, stage presence and solid musicianship.

There appeared to have been a couple of changes in this very international group of performers, adding a couple of new dimensions to the show (I'm thinking specifically of the small Latino guy who would come forward and do vocals on occasion). As always, a good time had by all.

Iggy Pop
Iggy & the Stooges are now almost regular visitors to Moscow, with this appearance making it three concerts over the past five years or so. I went to the first but missed the second so I made a point of getting over to Milk nightclub in early August to catch their performance. Unfortunately, the air conditioning system in Milk was not powerful enough to handle the massive heatwave Moscow was experiencing and the concert hall must have been near the 40 C mark inside. In short, it was a bit of torture to get through the show. Iggy was Iggy — bouncing, twisting and turning around on stage. Overall, it was OK, just tough to get through.

U2's 360 stage with opening act Snow Patrol

U2's 360 stage with opening act Snow Patrol

U2
Moscow’s biggest concert event of the year was U2 on August 25. My friends and I bought tickets back in December, fearing this first ever appearance by the group might sell out. It didn't but came relatively close in a stadium that holds 80000+ people.

Bono & Co. arrived in Moscow a few days earlier and took in the sights. Among the known stops on their itinerary were museums, a visit with President Medvedev, and an evening at a local karaoke bar. I heard Bono sang something by the Beatles.

The concert itself was top notch. The band ripped through all its hits and played for at least two hours if not closer to two and a half or more. Songs were, as you'd expect from these guys, interspersed with political messages on various issues. Aside from the music, the stage, lights, and visuals were on another level from most shows you'll see. The “360”stage was amazing, although it would have been cooler in the middle of the stadium, as it was envisioned, instead of closer to one end (the end furthest from my seat!).

It's still hard to top Billy Idol's show earlier in the summer but this one is my runner-up for Moscow concert of the year at the moment.

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I Survived Moscow's Summer of 2010 (but didn't get the t-shirt)

August 15th, 2010

When I returned to Moscow from the slight chill of wintery South Africa, the city was at the start of what would be a six week heat wave of epic proportions. From late June until early August, not a day went by when temperatures didn't reach 30 degrees C (86 F) in the city. Some days, it got up to the 35-40 C (95-104 F) range.

I remember one day checking to see the temperatures in other major cities in what are usually warmer climates to see if their weather was hotter. Los Angeles? No. Miami? No. Cairo, Mumbai, my beloved Ibiza. Nope. Every one of them cooler than Moscow. To put it in perspective, Moscow is at about the same northern latitude as Glasgow, Scotland or Edmonton, Canada.

The hotter days, up around 40 C, set all-time temperature records — not just for those particular days, but for any day since they started keeping records! One top meteorologist hypothesized that, since there were no written accounts of such serious heatwaves in the pre-weather record era, it was probably hotter than it had been here in 1000 years.

With the heat came wildfires — literally hundreds of them throughout the European part of Russia. Forest fires burned whole villages in some parts of the country. In the Moscow region, peat bogs were ablaze, covering the City of Moscow in a blanket of acrid smog whenever the wind blew in the wrong direction. Health officials likened being outside for an hour to smoking two packs of cigarettes, and visibility was measured in the tens of meters at times. Airports even diverted flights.

Bolshoi Moskvoretsky bridge. Usually, St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremilin's towers are visible on the other side.

Bolshoi Moskvoretsky bridge. Usually, St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin's towers are visible on the other side.

In mid-August, the heatwave ended almost as quickly as it began, and the rains finally came. It was too late to save the crops in some parts of the country, resulting in a ban on wheat exports as the government tried to keep domestic prices from skyrocketing.

I've never been one to fret much about global warming, but I suppose this phenomenon was good evidence for those who advocate a stronger position on the matter. Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev softened his stance on the issue, admitting for the first time that it's something to worry about! Interesting for the head of a country that, in the coldest parts of Siberia, wouldn't mind if things got a little warmer.

South Africa and the World Cup

June 29th, 2010

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I just got back from one of the trips of a lifetime.

Firstly, there’s the World Cup. It’s the biggest sporting event on earth (sorry, Olympics!).

Then you’ve got the first World Cup in Africa, a football-crazy continent, an occasion that was long overdue.

And lastly, there’s South Africa. What a great country and what great hosts for the 2010 World Cup.

It was a trip that had to be taken, and I’m unbelievably happy to say I was there.

We arrived in Johannesburg on June 12 and spent 16 days in and around that part of the country, attending 6 games in the tournament: group stage matches USA v England in Rustenburg, USA v Slovenia and Brazil v Cote d’Ivoire in Joburg, and USA v Algeria in Pretoria, and first knockout stage matches USA v Ghana in Rustenburg and England v Germany in Bloemfontein.

In between games, we spent some time with our good friends Nigel & Celeste and Aditya, whom we have to thank profusely for giving us places to stay in the Joburg suburbs of Krugersdorp and Sandton, respectively.

We traveled to Kruger Park for three days, during which we saw four of the “big 5″ game animals (no leopards!) as well as a ton of other wildlife. We stayed in a lodge with a view of the Crocodile River just outside of the park. I have to thank Celeste and her relatives Dalene and Louis for showing us around Kruger. I’ll post a separate photo gallery from that part of the trip at some point.

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Back in Joburg, we visited the black township of Soweto twice – once on a tour with a stop at the Hector Pieterson museum, which commemorates the beginning of popular uprisings against apartheid, and a second time to dine at the famous Wandie’s Place shebeen (a local bar/restaurant). We drove through the the Lion and Rhino Conservation Park in the northern suburbs of town. In Pretoria, we stopped by the Voortrekkers monument, the Union Buildings and Church Square. And, thanks to Nigel, we spent a night at Sun City, the world-famous resort nestled in the hills near Rustenburg.

It was a lot of travel. And much of it required getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road. But it was well worth it. South Africa did a superb job organizing this tournament. People were welcoming, security was spot on, the facilities were in great shape… everything was just well done. My only complaint was the highway out of Rustenburg! (and the park & ride lots there!)

South Africa, aside from being a beautiful country, has some great cuisine as well. From simple steaks to various types of game meat to seafood from neighboring Mozambique, we ate delicious food at reasonable prices almost everywhere we went. The local wine and beer were perfect for washing all that great food down. I gained 3 kilos.

And then there was the football… some stellar moments.  The United States’ amazing comeback from 2-0 down versus Slovenia comes to mind, including the US goal that would have made it 3-2 (instead of the final result of 2-2) had the referee not been an idiot. Then there were the rapturous scenes when the USA scored in the last seconds of the game against Algeria, therefore winning their group and setting up an ill-fated date with Ghana in the round of 16. The USA v Ghana match was entertaining, despite the outcome and the USA’s exit from the tournament, as we were in a corporate box next door to Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer. Many pictures were taken. And then there was England’s goal-that-wasn’t-counted against Germany, although the Germans looked good value to win the match anyway.

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Soccer City stadium

The atmosphere around the stadiums before, during and after matches was also something to behold. The Brazilians win for most animated fans, both at the stadiums and beforehand at places like Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. The Americans, said by FIFA to have bought more tickets than people from any other country (South Africa aside), were also lively and came dressed up for the occasion (who says we don’t love soccer!?). England fans sing like no one else. It was a carnival all around, every where we went. And South African vuvuzelas, while a noisy annoyance when watching these games on TV, were actually not hard to get used to inside the stadiums.

I could go on for ages. I’ve probably use more superlatives in this post than any normal grammar or style guidelines might dictate. But it was really that fun. My only regret is not making it down to Cape Town or Durban, which I hear are lovely places.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that and let the photos do the talking… when I get around to posting them…

Spring Concerts

June 5th, 2010

The Moscow concert scene picked up in spring, as it often does in recent years, and a load of good shows have been coming through town… especially if you like hard rock! Metallica, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Queensryche, Megadeth, Slash and various aging metal acts have been or are coming this spring and summer. Not really my cup of tea, although there has been plenty to keep me busy as the weather gets warm.

Cranberries
I saw Delores O’Riordan in a solo concert a couple of years ago and was disappointed, not so much because of her performance but because the sound at B1 Maximum was horrible that night. Delores returned to Moscow in May with her reunited band, the Cranberries, this time trading the big club venue for the Luzhniki indoor arena. Unfortunately, the sound wasn’t much better and the concert only slightly better than that. Sure, they played almost all of their good tunes, but the show never quite caught on fire. Solid, enjoyable, but not spectacular.

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Chris Isaak
By comparison, this concert the following week knocked it out of the park. Isaak and his band looked like there were really enjoying themselves and the sound at B1 Maximum was on the better end of its wildly variable scale. Chris & co. went through all of his hits, some new tunes, and even an Elvis song, with the only glaring omission from my point of view being my old fave “Can’t Do a Thing (To Stop Me)”. Isaak’s voice (and hair) haven’t lost anything despite his advancing age. Really a fun show.

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Fun Lovin’ Criminals
I’ve seen Huey & co. several times now so there are no surprises in a FLC concert, but they’ve got some good new songs out and those, together with the oldies, made for an enjoyable concert. This one in early June was held at the Green Theater just outside Gorky Park and the outdoor amphitheater setting left me with mixed emotions – it’s a great place to see a show, but I think FLC are better suited to a dimly-lit club. Still, a solid performance and a nice evening (thanks, in part, to our crashing my friend Ariel’s nearby office party and getting a few drinks prior to the concert!)

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Billy Idol
Many of my concert experiences have proven that, if you live long enough, the bands and performers that you never got around to seeing live in your youth eventually come around on a comeback tour. Thank goodness for that, or else I wouldn’t have had a chance to see this old high school favorite in what was one of Moscow’s concerts of the year. This show went on for hours, with every single tune you wanted to hear (nothing left out) and even some older stuff from Billy’s Gen X days. Most importantly, longtime collaborator Steve Stevens was on hand to lead the band and show of his virtuoso guitar playing. My friends and I had “fan zone” tickets for this must-see event, on the dancefloor of the Luzhniki arena up near the stage. It was the perfect place to dance around to old favorites and witness an example of what rock concerts are supposed to be. Top notch stuff from Idol & co.

FA Cup Final 2010

May 16th, 2010

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Despite going out of the Champions League a little earlier than hoped, Chelsea FC had a very successful season, finishing top of the English Premier League for the first time in 4 years. It was great to celebrate winning the league, which was sealed on the final day of the season with a resounding 8-0 thrashing of Wigan, but as much fun as was had, it was not the same celebrating it in Moscow as it would have been in London.

After winning the league, Chelsea still had to play in the FA Cup final, the culmination of a strong run in the world’s oldest football competition. It was the perfect excuse for a weekend in London.

For those who haven’t been, a day out at Wembley stadium is a treat. Sure, it’s quite a crush getting to and from the place by public transport (and driving in is even more difficult) but we had the proper strategy this year by heading there early and meeting up with some friends for a good Chinese lunch at a place across the street.

The game was somewhat lackluster but the result what it should have been – Chelsea won 1-0, thus securing its 3rd trophy of the season (including the Community Shield last August) and capping the most successful season in the club’s history.

Our celebrations lasted late into the night, making it somewhat difficult to get up on the Sunday. But rise and shine we did, as there was a victory parade through the streets of Fulham. This was my first time attending such a parade and I enjoyed the whole thing – the team riding by in open-top busses, the fans with their kids out in the streets, the celebrations in Eel Brooke Common, and the unrestricted throwing of many kilos of celery (Chelsea fans will understand that last part).

Here’s hoping for an even more successful season next year when the Champions League final, which rotates around Europe, comes home to Wembley. I hope we’ll be there.

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Winter Concerts

March 1st, 2010

I only made it to two concerts over the post-holidays winter period. I'd planned to go see Ian Brown's show but wasn't feeling well that day and ended up missing it. I did go to see the Crystal Method but it turned out that their show was more of a DJ set than a concert. Disappointing. I left early. The shows I did go to, however, were quite good.

Peter, Bjorn & John

Most people I know probably couldn't recall the name of this indy rock band, but they had big hit back in 2006 with the immensely catchy tune “Young Folks”and its whistled refrain. The show was at B2 which is a stone's throw from my apartment so I decided to pop over and check them out. These guys have a very melodic sound which is something I like, and the small venue size was perfect for them to interact with the crowd. They took a chance (much like Natalie last December) and played the big hit in the middle of the show. The effect was perfect — it livened up the crowd and made the remainder of the show more interesting. I'd see them again if they come to town. Still need to listen to their albums though.

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Depeche Mode

Well, what does one say? Probably my favorite music act of all time and I still never tire of seeing them live (this was my 6th time, not including seeing David Gahan solo). This year's tour focused more on their later albums with not too much nostalgia although they did surprise with some tunes from Black Celebration and a couple of other choice oldies. David Gahan's voice still booms, as does Martin Gore's. Martin strummed his guitar, Andy pretended to be playing something, and the backup band supplemented that which was sequenced. It all sounded great.

If I were to complain about anything it would be the enlarged general admission (dancefloor) area in Olimpiisky as that meant not everyone on the floor could actually see the stage (I strained to catch glimpses of the band). Also, the system for getting bracelets for admission to that area of the arena — in a tent outside the venue after standing in line in the cold — was probably the dumbest thing I've seen. Oh, and the overflowing cloakrooms were a mess. In fact, one of the worst organized shows I've seen.

But, in the final analysis, it’s not such a big deal? I saw Depeche Mode. Rock on.

One footnote: Nitzer Ebb was DM’s opening act. I’ve loved these guys’ music since school, and I danced like a fool when they closed with “I Will Give to You”, but I thought they just sounded poor in an arena setting. I’ve seen them twice in club settings and that’s a much better venue for their style. In Olimpiisky, their sound just didn’t fill the space.