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!

Caribbean Vacation

January 8th, 2010

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We've got this now well-ensconced tradition of heading somewhere for New Years that's closer to Florida, where we go for Christmas, than it is from Moscow. Thus far, that's taken us to Mexico, Argentina and Hawaii. This year, we decided to go somewhere Caribbean because, strange as it may be for someone from the East Coast, I'd yet to visit a single island. After much thought and debate, the final destination selected was Barbados.

Now, as a former British colony, there's not much exotic about Barbados aside from driving on the wrong side of the road. In fact, it's really just a relaxed island with some nice beaches, clear blue waters, and good weather. It is somewhat overpriced for what you get but I suppose that should be expected since they rely heavily on tourism and also have to import a lot of things.

In terms of sightseeing, there is a couple of old colonial towns to drive through but they haven't been kept up especially well. There's a nature park where you can go see some of the indigenous green monkeys (and lots of turtles!). And you can visit the sugar plantations and tour the local rum distilleries. That's about all there is to see.

Nightlife is a curious thing. Their nightclubs play, for the most part, a mix of dancehall reggae, pop/R&B and hip hop. They would probably be tolerable if you were with a group of people intent on having a good time. The local kids seem to be having fun, and they do like to go out. That said, there are only about five nightclubs on the island, three of which are concentrated in the St Lawrence Gap neighborhood where our hotel was conveniently located.

We found some decent restaurants both for local and international cuisine, our favorite of which was probable the Brazilian-style churrasco place that served as our venue for both New Years Eve and our last night in town. The weekly fish fry-up in Oistins was also entertaining. My favorite discovery of the trip was “roti”— basically, take a chicken or beef curry and wrap it up in some naan as if it were a burrito. Delicious! (but very heavy!) We also brought back 2 bottles of delicious locally-made Mount Gay Rum.

Overall, I left thinking that I liked Barbados. We certainly had a nice relaxing visit and a good stay at our hotel, the Southern Palms. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I could say I loved the island. There are a lot of other places I'd like to check out before I plan on making a return trip.

I’ll get around to posting the photos at some point soon.

Autumn Concert Marathon

December 12th, 2009

Lots of good and varied musicians made their way through Moscow this autumn and I took advantage of the opportunity. Here's a quick rundown of the highlights:

October

Red Wire Black Wire — My talented guitar-wielding friend Greg repatriated from Moscow back to the US at the beginning of 2009 to try his hand at the music business, settling in NYC and joining his brother's band, Red Wire Black Wire. Following a US tour in support of their first album, Greg made his triumphant return to Moscow with the band for a two-night stand at local live music bar Crisis Genre. If you're in New York, catch these guys live because they've got a surprisingly good stage show for a band with a largely electronic sound.

Massive Attack — These moody purveyors of ‘minimalist' (ex.-trip hop) music are not the most exciting performers on Earth. Last time I saw them, I made the mistake of getting dancefloor tickets and my legs nearly fell asleep from standing through the show. This time I knew better so I got some rather good seats and thoroughly enjoyed the show. The band's live act is all about visuals and there were plenty of thought-provoking statistics, videos and graphics flashed upon the stage's screens. The music is solid in presentation, mostly performed live (my pre-requisite for a good electronic act live show), and moving in its moodiness.

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November

Beyonce — Ya, I know. Don't ask. Not my style at all but some friends had an extra ticket. I will give her credit for an elaborate stage show and very strong voice. The sound in the Olimpiisky arena was quite poor though.

Marilyn Manson — My second time seeing the master of macabre at Moscow club B1 Maximum and it was basically the same show as the first. The highlight is, of course, his strutting around stage like the menace he thinks he is. Solid backing band and most of the hits played so few complaints.

Underworld — The venue for this was an out-of-the-way event hall usually used for corporate parties and dinners. It didn't really fit the occasion at all. However, this UK electronic dance act are always fun despite minimal instrumentation (basically a DJ and a instrumentalist/singer) if only because their songs are just that good.

A-ha — Norway's best-known export were on what they said would be their last world tour. A lot of people don't know that they continue to put out good pop-rock music (see their recent effort Foot of the Mountain) but they decided to call it a day and this tour was a greatest hits package to say thanks to all their fans. The skipped my favorite song (I've Been Losing You, from their 2nd album) but otherwise rant through this hits and some album favorites from the early days as well as the singles off of their last few discs. Morten's voice was in good form and the band, although relying slightly more on sequenced backing tracks than their last couple of tours, still sounded great despite the poor sound in the Olimpiisky arena. My 4th time seeing A-ha and, apparently, my last, but very glad I went.

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December

Gogol Bordello — What can I say? The on-stage madness and mayhem of this ‘gypsy punk' band continues unabated. The venue this time around was the club Milk, which while generally a better venue than their last visit at Tuning Hall, was somehow less conducive to enjoying the show. Part of the problem might be that they sold a lot of tickets this time — the place was packed. I think the wonder of seeing these guys has warn off on the 3rd go-around, as we know what to expect, but wouldn't pass up the chance to see them again.

Natalie Imbruglia — The pixie from Australia is best known for her uber-hit “Torn”, and rightly so as it's a terminally catchy tune, but she's actually got a lot more interesting music out there. She's also quite the live performer. I was surprised and impressed, especially given that I'd expected her voice to be a lot weaker. Even more impressive was the risk she took by playing Torn halfway through the concert instead of holding it for the end. Unfortunately, I was only able to listen to the latter parts of the show, not view them, as a friend of mine took a tumble down some stairs and we sat with him waiting for the ambulance.

Going Home Again (20th Anniversary Edition)

September 21st, 2009

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I have a bit of confusion when it comes to the word “home”. Sometimes, home means the city where I live, Moscow. Sometimes, it means the country of my birth, the United States of America, or the city where my parents live. But my favorite reference for the word is probably Washington, DC, my hometown.

Prior to this month, I had not been “home”since my parents moved away six years ago. However, now I had the perfect excuse to visit: my 20th high school reunion.

I approached the trip with a certain amount of fear and trepidation. No, I wasn't worried about people being more successful (I'm doing OK), or better preserved (good on that front as well), but I just still can't believe it's been 20 years. Actually, 21 years, since I left for university after junior year. Time has flown by, yet so much has happened.

I stayed with a good friend (who was not a classmate) in the center of town for 3 of the 4 nights I was there. Aside from a schedule of 4 reunion events, I had plenty of other people to catch up with. Suffice to say that I had a hearty lunch and dinner pretty much every day, beginning with my traditional visit to Taco Bell on the Wednesday I arrived.

The reunion events included a school tour on the Thursday (following a major renovation), an informal drinks gathering on Friday, the formal event on Saturday (followed by several hotel room after-parties!), and a family picnic on Sunday. I attended them all, although I skipped the post-tour American football game to have dinner with a group of friends.

It must be said that I had a great time everywhere I went. All of my friends look great. They have interesting lives, families, etc. I was thrilled to catch up with people and surprised to hear they don't think I've changed a bit. I just wish I had more time with everyone.

And that's the downside of a quick trip like that, and of a high school reunion. You get snapshots of the people you know and the places you've been, but you don't really get time to soak it all in. I guess that's the price you pay for living an interesting life overseas, but for the first time in a while I really miss DC. The atmosphere in the city, under our current federal administration and probably also as a result of the work of the past couple of city mayors, is alive and exciting. Here’s hoping I make it back for another visit soon.

Ibiza 2009

September 16th, 2009

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We made our 9th annual pilgrimage to our favorite Balearic island for 10 days this month. As usual, the trip included visits to various beaches around the coast, several as-yet untried restaurants and, of course, the regular compliment of parties. As in the past 5 visits, our place of residence was the resort of Playa den Bossa (PdB), and we once again rented a car so as to explore as much of the island as possible. Despite spending 7-15 days on Ibiza over each of the past 8 summers, there still seem to be a myriad places (beaches, villages, restaurants, smaller nightclubs) we've yet to visit.

A new tactic this year was to try to “go local”on the restaurant front, taking the advice of longtime Ibiza residents on places they frequent. Beach trips were often designed around the choice of restaurant, allowing us to visit several new beaches while at the same time dining away from PdB. The system worked, for the most part, although there were occasions that our early dining time (usually around 6) clashed with the general Spanish tendency to close between lunch and dinner and reopen around 8. Still, we found a couple of new places we really enjoyed, including seafood restaurant S'Illot des Rencli in the north, Cas Mila on the west coast, and Ancient People in Ibiza Town. Michelin-listed S'Oficina in PdB also gets an honorable mention.

On the party front, the return of quality beach parties this season had to be the highlight, from the resurgence of the landmark Bora Bora to the emergence of newcomers Ushuaia, Delano and Sands, PdB has become a fun place to spend the afternoons and evenings dancing on the beach. We also found our way to a couple of local-oriented parties in smaller venues like PK2 and Aura, which I hope to repeat next time around.

The big nightclub parties Ibiza is famous for were less exciting for me this time around, although I did still go out on 9 of 11 nights. We were there just at the beginning of closing party season, but only one of the parties I attended was actually a closing party. Highlights of the trip included SuperMartXe on Fridays at Privilege, with its cabaret show, striking visuals and fun atmosphere. In terms of music, Cocoon on Mondays at Amnesia (attended twice) still takes the cake. The Zoo Project also gets a mention for a wacky good time at a great outdoor venue.

As usual, our time on the island was nowhere near sufficient, but I had further travel ahead. Suffice to say that we will be back next year, likely for the closings once again as my favorite period (openings in June) clashes with the World Cup.

The Wines of Bergerac

September 5th, 2009

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The first Thursday in September brought one of the best, if short (24 hours!), business trips I've had in ages. The task was to take a couple of journalists to visit a winery in lovely Bergerac, France. After settling in at our hotel, located on a scenic golf course, we dined on wonderful French cuisine and tasted a variety of wines from the region. A peaceful night of sleep was followed by a winery tour and another amazing French meal before heading back to the airport.

Bergerac is a very interesting place. Rolling green hills covered with wineries and other agriculture. The countryside is dotted with little hamlets and dissected by small winding roads. The wines are fabulous too — unfortunately overshadowed by their neighbors in Bordeaux but not inferior in any way.

I'm hoping to make another, longer trip down there at some point, and also to explore the city of Bergerac, which I only saw in passing on the way to the airport. It's a wonderfully peaceful place and I've rarely eaten, and drank, so well!

Summer Concerts

August 30th, 2009

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An interesting an eclectic selection of concerts graced the stages of Moscow in the latter weeks of summer, and I was fortunate enough to attend three of these events.

First up was an old favorite: Suzanne Vega. I had been a fan of Ms Vega since back in high school but never had an opportunity to enjoy her live show. She arrived in town on July 31 for a show at B1 Maximum with a stripped-down band – just herself, a guitarist, and bassist. Their set was heavy on all her old favorites and I was thrilled to hear songs like Left of Center, Marlena on the Wall, Caramel, Calypso, Small Blue Thing, etc. And, of course, her mega-hits Luka and Tom’s Diner. The only disappointment was the omission of Solitude Standing, one of my favorites. I thought Suzanne’s voice sounds better now than it did in her youth – a little bit stronger and fuller. The 2- and 3-part arrangements worked, even without percussion. A very enjoyable show.

Next up was the Nu-Note LoungeFest which was a 3-weekend, outdoor affair taking place in the lovely Hermitage Garden park. Week 2 on August 15 featured Skye Edwards, former lead singer for the band Morcheeba. In fact, I hadn’t realized until reading up on her before the show that she’d left Morcheeba. However, I am glad she did because she’s a singer with a fabulous voice and her solo album and this tour give her a chance to spread her wings. Of course, she sang some old Morcheeba favorites like Parts of the Process, Otherwise, etc., as well as her solo material. She’s an adorable stage presence as well, and her jazzy voice loses nothing live.

I went back to Hermitage Garden the following week and bought a ticket to enter before noticing that it was a different jazz festival that week! It was a nice evening anyway, but the following week Nu-Note was back with its final edition on August 29, and the headlining act was Nouvelle Vague. This is the French band that does cover versions of alternative rock songs I love from the 1980s, formerly in Bossa Nova style but more recently in a Bluegrass-tinged style. I saw them in the concert hall B1 Maximum a year or two before, and I have to say I enjoyed that show more. I’m not sure if it was that there was just more atmosphere or it was a better performance. In any case, this time around it was a nice evening but not quite what I’d expected.

Christ and the Car Thieves

July 23rd, 2009

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I was coming home from a long night out on Saturday morning and had to get something out of my car, which was parked in the courtyard of my apartment building. I noticed some glass on the ground nearby and thought, “what idiots broke a bottle there?  I'm going to have to be careful backing out tomorrow.”

Only when I got closer did I realize the glass came from the window of my car's front passenger-side door. Someone had broken in and tossed everything around the front seats. Fortunately, they had no interest in taking the car's documents, a tube of super glue, the factory-installed car model-specific radio, or the power cord to my mini-computer. I assume it was the latter that sparked their interest, or maybe my windshield-mounted mobile phone holder, which looks like it could be made for a GPS unit. Too bad they thought I was idiotic enough to leave the computer in the car overnight, because all they accomplished was wasting everyone's time.

As it was Saturday, there was really nothing I could do until Monday so I ended up having to go park the car in my office garage for the next few days. The insurance people were competent and more or less tried to be helpful, although it still took until Tuesday to work out how I could get the window repaired quickly.

Today, Thursday, I finally got the glass put back in. I am extremely glad to be back on the road. It was interesting how, despite having taken taxis everywhere for more than 7 years before I bought the car, it was unpleasant to have to return to that routine.

But the best part of the whole thing is this: ISTT, the glass specialists who repaired my car, have a small shop in a parking garage… underneath the Christ the Savior Cathedral! It turns out there is also a car wash down there, and I'm told there's a banquet hall too (which even serves meat and alcohol during Lent. Oops!)

I wonder if this means my new passenger door window has been blessed. The next time someone tries to burglarize my car, they'll probably choose a different window.

Update: I have since learned, following an unfortunate traffic incident in which an emergency utility truck scraped the front of my car, that something was stolen in the break-in. They got the digital camera I kept under all the papers in the glove compartment. I kept it there in case of unfortunate traffic incidents! Good thing this accident was in daylight hours as my cell phone camera worked just fine.

Starbucks Update!

July 17th, 2009

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The Starbucks in my office building is now open for business! They put up the signage just before I left for vacation 2 weeks ago and, when I returned earlier this week, they were already up and running.

Firstly, that means not having to listen to any more banging and sawing, as it is directly under my office. More importantly, iced vanilla cafe lattes are within easy reach.

I’m trying to figure out if we could install a dumbwaiter or coffee pipeline directly into my office to save me the trip downstairs!

EXIT Festival 2009

July 13th, 2009

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As with last year, this month’s trip to Montenegro was combined with a visit to the quaint little city of Novi Sad, Serbia for the massive annual 4-day event that is the EXIT Festival. This year was the 10th anniversary of the music festival, initially organized by local students as a protest against the repressive government of Slobodan Milosevic. As per tradition, the event was held in the giant Petrovaradin fortress, which lies across the bridge from the city on the shore of the Danube River.

Petrovaradin is the 2nd largest structure of its kind still standing in Europe. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, there has been continuous settlement at Petrovaradin since 15000 B.C. There was already a fortress at the site in 3000 B.C. Construction on the current structure began in 1692, about five years after the Austrians had recaptured the territory from the Turks.

EXIT, voted the best music festival in Europe in 2007, brings together about 20,000 music lovers to see literally hundreds of performers on 20 stages. The crowd at this year's event seemed a lot more Serbian to me than last year, probably a result of the recession as fewer people traveled from the UK and elsewhere in Europe. However, the Brit contingent was still rather large.

Highlights of Day 1 (Thursday, July 9) included main stage performances by British chanteuse Lily Allen, with whom I was very impressed, and indie rockers the Arctic Monkeys, whom I found somewhat disappointing. After that, it was down to the dance arena for Steve Lawler vs Lee Burridge and Sasha v John Digweed. In honor of the 10th anniversary, they booked pairs of DJs and had them play back-to-back. It was a great idea and worked out well as both sets were great. Unfortunately, I got really cold in just my t-shirt by early morning so I had to leave just as James Zabiela and Nic Fanciulli came on.

Day 2 featured main stage performances by Manic Street Preachers and Korn, both of whom I found to be much better than I expected and rather enjoyable. I took a break up at the Reggae stage in between the two sets and nearly got trampled in a stampede to get into one of the fortress's tunnels when the rains began. Heidi vs Justin Martin were in the dance arena later and were decent, but the highlight of the evening was Ritchie Hawtin vs Dubfire - all the techno drumbeats you can muster, as you'd expect from them. But then the rains began again, so I gave up and went back to the hotel.

On Day 3, I met up with a couple of friends and arrived just in time to see the last few songs of punk legend Patti Smith's set. A bit disappointed that I missed part of her show as she’s still got voice and energy to spare, but I was subsequently comforted by an absolutely amazing show by electronic music legends Kraftwerk. Wow. And then Moby came on and absolutely rocked the place. It was a great night of live music, followed by my longest stay in the dance arena — basically until closing time at 8am. Etienne de Crecy did his “live”music-and-lights show, which I'd seen in Moscow a couple of weeks earlier and which I totally enjoyed. Sebastian Ingrosso v Steve Angello and Eric Prydz v Adam Beyer ably provided the soundtrack for the rest of the night, although Angello still needs to learn to never touch a microphone (why MC your own DJ set!?).

Sunday, Day 4, began with a visit to a small stage at the highest point in the fortress, where a friend had won himself a turn on the DJ decks by sending in a mix to the organizers. He did great, especially since he was given horribly faulty equipment to work with, although the location meant there were only a handful of people around to hear it. Afterward, we raced down to the main stage to catch a song or two at the end of Madness's set. Prodigy was on next but, as I've seen them live a couple of times, I went back uphill to the Fusion stage for the legendary punk band, the Buzzcocks. Then it was down to the dance arena for top Serbian DJ Marco Nastic (along with Valentino Kazyani), who usually closes out the festival but not this year. I suffered through Japanese Popstars (or maybe wandered off for a bit… can't quite remember) and then caught the beginning of Sander Kleinenberg v Darren Emerson, and at that point realized that my tired old legs couldn't take any more.

All around the festival, the people of Novi Sad exhibit the wonders of capitalism, whether it be renting out their own apartments, increasing hotel rates, or selling everything from cans of beer to corn on the cob along the streets and sidewalks approaching the fortress. This is their annual cash cow, and I don’t begrudge them that (it’s still a very inexpensive city). The best piece of marketing I saw was the Serbian co-owner of a Chinese restaurant, who parked his car, full of thermal containers of stir-fries and rice, under a big homemade sign that said “F**king Good Chinese Food”. He got my attention… I bought food from him twice.

In closing, I'll just say that EXIT is as mad and fun an event as you'll find anywhere, especially if you love all kinds of popular music. I really hope to be back next year.

Montenegro 2009

July 10th, 2009

I was quite taken with the beauty Montenegro when we visited in July of last year. Towering green and granite mountains descend almost directly into clean, sparkling blue waters. The countryside is dotted with ancient churches, monasteries, castles and fortresses. Winding roads take you past quaint villages and scenic valleys.

The country is aiming to become a major tourist destination and while its facilities still have some way to go, a lot has been invested to upgrade the tourism experience. Four- and five-star hotels have popped up in towns along the coastal highway from Budva down to Bar. There are plenty of restaurants around serving fresh fish and other national dishes. Local money and foreign assistance (mainly from the EU and US) have been used to repair and refurbish tourist attractions.

So, with last year's journey fresh in our minds, we returned to Montenegro for a week's vacation this month. We truly retraced out steps, too — we booked the same car rental agency and the same hotel in the same village – the 4-star Hotel Montenegro in Bechichi, just outside of the tourism center of Budva. When we arrived, the nice young man at reception even said he remembered us from last year… right before informing us that we'd been upgraded, at no additional cost, to their 5-star neighbor, the Splendid Hotel & Spa. Bonus!

Over the course of 6 days, we drove down the coast to Bar, an industrial port town but one that also has an historic old town (really more like an old fortress) nestled up in the hills. We visited the quaint former trading village of Rijeka Crnojevica, which has a famous bridge over a river leading to gorgeous Skadar Lake. We later had dinner on the lake's shores.

On another evening, we returned to the beautiful walled city of Kotor, located on an inlet bay surrounded by mountains and capped with an old castle. The walk up to this mountain fortress nearly killed me (it competes with the one in Tbilisi as the tallest mountain I've climbed on foot) but the view is magnificent. We later dined at a rustic restaurant further down the road the encircles Kotor bay.

Other side trips included a visit to the ugly capital city Podgorica and a harrowing journey to the Ostrog monastery. The monastery is built into the side of a mountain and is quite a sight. The road leading to it is a death trap (one lane, two-way traffic!). On my way up, I was within a meter or two of losing a game of chicken with a full-sized bus. I had a monk pray for me while there, so hopefully that helped get me back down safely. Our final evening was spent dining at Sveti Stefan (pictured above).

I also tried out Montenegrin nightlife which is, well, quite amusing! They have several outdoor nightclubs along the shore in Budva which stay open until 1:00, then the action moves inside the giant Trocadero nightclub (not to be confused with the outdoor Trocadero club… especially when talking to taxi drivers!). In Montenegro, there isn't really a dancefloor — the clubs’ floorspace is full of bar tables. People stand, chat and dance around their own tables, upon which they rest their drinks, complete with wait service. Curious format. Word of advice – make sure you are shown to a table by a waiter, rather than just walking up and standing at one. Otherwise they get pissy, bring other people over to your table, and tell you to go away because it’s reserved!

And one other thing I tried while there — parasailing! It's a lot of fun, but it leaves a lot of bruises where the straps were! Can't wait to try it again sometime.

All in all, a wonderful trip and I look forward to visiting this delightful little country again. Photos are already online.



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