Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Napoli & Beyond

(Before my memory fails me completely, I want to try to finish my account of the 2017 Europe tour. Shortly after my last post (way back in February!), I left for Japan, and the blog fell by the wayside. But it’s never too late for now!)

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

December 10

After Malmö, Sweden, the next stop on my whirlwind tour was Helsinki, Finland. After a short train ride and a short plane ride and another short train ride, I wound up at Helsinki Central Station. I wandered around in a stupor, wanting to make the most of my one day there but feeling too exhausted to do anything. I had written down several sights I wanted to try seeing, but they were all too far away. I wouldn’t have time to see them before the show.

In the end, I decided the best idea would be to go for a walk.

I walked through Kaisaniemi Park, admiring the public art and withered roses. The Botanical Garden appealed to me but I couldn’t find a way in.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Then I went in a store called Music Hunter and got my dad a vintage button with “Great Balls of Fire” on it along with a piano, flames, and little flashing red lights.

I found the front of the Botanical Garden and realized you had to pay to get in, which wouldn’t have made sense for how little time I had. Instead I spent a long time loitering outside and watching a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. I’d only seen a couple of them once before, in Oregon, where they’re rare, so this was an exciting encounter.

My camera died and I guessed it was time to move on.

At Elisavet’s, preparations for the show were underway. It ended up being a huge potluck with tons of people from the Couchsurfing community and beyond — including Rhienna Guedry and her partner, who are also from Oregon.

I wish I had written about this sooner or taken more notes so I could say more about it! I played an hour or so of songs, and everyone was so kind. But the details are a blur… I do remember that I ate very well, and that the keyboard was a nice one.

December 11

After a few hours of sleep, I had to slip out quietly and head back to Helsinki Central Station. From there, I boarded the train that would take me, like Lenin before me, to Finland Station in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Fast forward past a fairly uninteresting train ride in the dark, followed by a nerve-wrecking border check, and bam, I arrived!


Ah, Saint Petersburg. For so many years I’d longed to visit you.

And to be honest, it ended up being a mixed bag. Too much time zone hopping and too little sleep had left me frazzled, and the absence of anything resembling normal daylight took an additional toll.

I was also starving.

Fortunately, I had lots of rubles from my show in Kaliningrad, and I knew how to use them.

I took a cab to Veggie Box, a tiny vegan eatery in an adorable village of (apparently stackable) boxes stuffed into some sort of alley/courtyard situation.

On the way to the venue, I saw Moscow Station, Nevsky Prospekt, and the monument to Aleksandr Pushkin. A tunnel-ish passageway led me to the courtyard where Etobar (literally “this is bar”) was located.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

Etobar was a cool, jazzy sort of place, though they were playing a strange twangy version of the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” when I arrived.

I got acquainted with the bartender and a guitarist named Anatoliy Garkin while I waited for my show time. It was fun speaking Russian with them — I felt fairly competent, which was nice.

Evgeny, the person who organized this show for me, arrived from work a little after I started. The show was going well until I was in the middle of “The Sound Narrows”.

I wrote this song when I first met Adam — my partner of almost 6 years, if you’re out of the loop — and I was feeling especially homesick and sentimental at this point in the trip. So it was particularly jarring when my heartfelt performance was interrupted by a man who came up, laid a hand on my shoulder, and told me to stop.

“Блюз играешь?” he slurred rudely. (“Do you play blues?” with the informal “you”.)

I gaped at him, speechless, and he took the opportunity to push me off the piano bench. He sat down, struck a chord, and began to croon an old blues classic — “Let It Be”.

Anatoliy, whom I had met earlier, made a beeline to this usurper of the stage and confronted the man. Nevertheless the man persisted, and when Anatoliy tried to remove him by force, the man spun around and the microphone toppled over. I backed up to the bar and watched anxiously as they pushed each other around. The mic was down but the merch table still hung in the balance.

In rushed the manager, who broke them up before it could come to blows. In the midst of this, I met Evgeny, who assured me that it would all be okay, and the man was just drunk.

Once the man was back in his seat, the manager approached me and ordered me to go back and keep playing.

My jaw dropped again. “Is it safe to?” I asked Evgeny. (The manager had already zipped away.)

Hesitantly, I returned to the piano and resumed playing, but I sang timidly, almost in a whisper. It was a huge relief when I finally made it to the end of my set.

A more pleasant memory from the evening was when a woman came up to me after the show and thanked me for playing, telling me that it was her birthday and my show had been a wonderful birthday concert. She handed me one of my Incredible Distance postcards, where she had written a sweet note. I still have it, and I’m still grateful when I read her kind words.

The next two days were spent exploring Saint Petersburg. One enormous highlight was the former residence of the great poet Anna Akhmatova (see her work “Requiem” — I haven’t read this translation, however). Perhaps most special of all was the chance to see the angel in Palace Square and visit the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum.

When I was 13 years old, I was hugely into Scholastic’s Dear America and Royal Diaries series. Carolyn Meyer’s Anastasia introduced me to the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution. The next year, I got my nerdy little hands on an advance reading copy of Gloria Whelan’s Angel on the Square, and that “absorbing saga” solidified my interest in all things Russian. To see the angel on the square, at Christmastime no less, was a childhood dream come true.

The angel on the square.

The angel on the square.

December 15

After three days in Saint Petersburg, I met up with my friend Jack in Italy. We trekked around Rome for a day, saw everything you’d expect us to see, visited some Catacombs, then headed to Napoli, where we ate the most amazing pizza for basically every meal. (In between meals, I scarfed down many of Italy’s shockingly easy-to-find vegan croissants.)

On the morning of my show in Napoli, we took a trip to Pompeii, which was incredibly cool. (If you go, I do recommend taking a guided tour, just because they can tell you so much about what you’re seeing. When you guide yourself — at Pompeii or anywhere — it’s too easy to skim the placards or brochures and miss lots of not-to-be-missed things.)

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

I started writing my song “Pompeii” — the first single from Look at the Harlequins! — years and years ago, probably around 2010. (I have so many song ideas that I just haven’t gotten around to…) I guess visiting Pompeii got the old song fragment floating around in my head again, because it was one of the next few songs I wrote after all my winter touring.

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

Back in Napoli, Jack and I found the venue (after finding more pizza), which was a sort of community center. This show was organized by Luca of the Napoli Couchsurfing Group. He put together such a special event, and I had such a lovely time with everyone. There were so many sweet moments… Getting to speak Russian with a woman named Regina who was visiting from Venice… performing “Limits” with Jack in the audience (I wrote the song after Jack stayed with me and Adam in Eugene — it was the first song I’d written in three years)... everyone snapping along to “Sparkbird”…

The evening came to a close, and that show in Napoli ended up being the last one of the tour, though others had been planned. From Italy, Jack and I went on to France, where my show in Marseille turned out to be a logistical impossibility. Instead, we visited museums. We hiked through the Calanques National Park. We found a park with a pond full of nutria.

We parted ways there, Jack heading back to London and me going to Morocco. My shows in Morocco also fell through, in part because I fell in a huge hole — but I should save that story to tell at future shows.

I ended up back in London, where the tour had begun nearly a month before. I went to a vegan Christmas market, had my first London theater experience (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), and ate a Christmas eve pub meal with Jack and his family.

I stayed Christmas Eve at an airport hotel. On Christmas morning, I walked from my room straight to the airport, then sat on a bench writing a few last postcards before boarding my plane back to the US. When I arrived ten hours later, it was Christmas morning again.

Kaliningrad: сердце тёплое

December 5

The distance between Gdansk and Kaliningrad isn't incredible — a drive of approximately 115 miles (or 185 km) — but the bus from Gdansk to Kaliningrad runs only once daily and departs at 6:00 AM.

My previous day had started, impossibly, at 3:00 AM (GMT) in Winchester, UK, and ended around midnight (CET). Thus had begun a week of burning the candle from both ends every single day: waking up before 5:00 or 6:00 AM, spending the first half of the day on planes and trains, navigating completely unfamiliar cities, sightseeing for a couple hours when possible, getting acquainted with the next concert's hosts, setting up for the show, performing, being present with the people who had so graciously given me their time and attention and other resources, then finally trying to sleep for 5 hours before waking up and doing it all again.

Oh, and eating. I must have eaten at least a few times.

Touring is exhausting, especially for an independent musician. Support independent musicians. Share their music, buy their merch. If something they wrote is important to you, write to them and tell them.

Okay, back to the travelog.

Before leaving Iza and Ola's flat, I neglected to refill my water bottle, so I had only a few sips to last me the entire trip to Kaliningrad. And while it should only take 2 and a half hours to cover the distance between Gdansk and Kaliningrad, there's no telling how long you might spend at the border.

Before we reached the border between Poland and Russia, the driver gave us an opportunity to use a restroom and do five minutes of duty-free shopping. I searched desperately for water and found none.

We got back on the bus, drove to a checkpoint, and the driver locked the bathroom. (Apparently this is the rule, the bathroom has to be locked and unoccupied throughout the whole border-crossing process.) An official boarded the bus and strolled down the aisle, collecting everyone's passports into a stack and then leaving the bus with them. After several minutes, an official (the same one?) returned and asked who the American was, and I sheepishly raised my hand. My passport was given back to me, sort of separately from all the others for some reason.

Everyone then had to drag themselves and their checked luggage into a sad little building. The interior had the brittle, jaundiced quality of ancient Tupperware. The lighting seemed to be off, and other than us bus passengers, the room appeared to be abandoned. There were some little booths and flap turnstiles in the middle, separating us from a derelict baggage scanner. I glanced around a little less than hopefully. No drinking fountain.

We were a loose, sleepy group, until an official woke us up with an order to get back behind a line that no one had noticed. He then asked who the American was, and I once again identified myself, reluctantly. He gestured for me to follow him, and briskly we passed through the flap turnstile, at which point he spun around and, aghast, told me to go back through it.

I returned to the other side and stood there, waiting to be called forward, and then heard a knock-knock-knock to my right. A tight-lipped official withdrew her hand from the glass of her booth, which was so dark as to appear unoccupied. She took my passport and thumbed through it, then held it up in front of her and instructed me to face her squarely. Her eyes moved from my photo to me, back and forth a few times. She spent some time typing on her computer, and asked me a few questions about why I was visiting Kaliningrad. Then, at last, she stamped my passport and sent me through the turnstile.

Another official had emerged from somewhere to operate the baggage scanner and, inevitably, conduct a more thorough inspection of my bag. The items under particular scrutiny were my little box of business cards, and another small box of tour magnets.

Finally, I was allowed to move on to the post-inspection waiting area. There was a beverage machine, but it served nothing but coffee. I was parched, but I was also overheated and I don't drink coffee. In lieu of liquid refreshment, I figured I could at least wait for my bus in the refreshing wintry air.

A few seconds after I went outside, men in ushankas were chastising me and ordering me back into the building I'd just escaped from. Sulking, I headed inside. I was comforted when various fellow passengers attempted the same thing and were also reprimanded.

An ushanka-wearing Russian border control officer stands outside a small office building.

An ushanka-wearing Russian border control officer stands outside a small office building.

When I reached the city, I was supposed to take a bus to meet Vlad, who organized my show in Kaliningrad. I didn't know how to buy a ticket, but I got on a bus and hoped for the best.

I didn't see anywhere to buy a ticket. Maybe it was necessary to buy a ticket from a machine before taking the bus? I just stood there on the bus, not knowing what to do and hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble. (In Gdansk, some jerk ticket inspector on a train made me pay him approximately $30 USD when I had the wrong kind of ticket, even though the ticket itself cost only a couple dollars.) A middle-aged woman wearing some sort of official-looking bag noticed me and approached me, and I realized with relief that you just buy your ticket directly from such a person. It's a very laid-back system. If you need a minute to find your money, she just sits down and waits, or she comes back to you later. If you need change, she makes change.

It was a pleasant experience, but I missed my stop. I crossed (ridiculously wide) Leninskiy Prospekt and caught a bus heading in the opposite direction. Yet again, I missed my stop. At this point, I decided to walk to meet Vlad. While trying to find him, I saw some Eurasian Jays (having previously seen only one, very briefly, in Karuizawa, Japan), some European Blackbirds, and — most excitingly — my very first Hooded Crows. They were pecking around in the grass on Kant Island (a.k.a. Kneiphof or Остров Канта).

 I finally met Vlad — an incredibly sweet, thoughtful, talented person with so many incredibly sweet, thoughtful, talented friends. We chatted as he led me to the flat of his friend Liliya (who is, I think, an oceanographer), where I would stay that night. I glanced around the courtyard and tried to soak it all in: the overcast sky, the puddles, the assorted cars parked haphazardly on dirt among sparse, bare trees, the shack bearing the graffiti “ПРОСТИ МЕНЯ! Я ЛЮБЛЮ ТЕБЯ!!!”

Once in Liliya’s flat, I finally quenched my thirst, gulping down a glass of water and refilling it immediately. Liliya kindly offered to make me some vegan food, undoubtedly saving my life. There in the kitchen, Vlad played his song “Сердце безголовое” (“Headless heart”), as Liliya cooked and I sat mesmerized.

Vladislav Barabashov plays his song "Сердце безголовое," as he did in Lilya's apartment.

After we ate, Vlad gave me a walking tour of Kaliningrad. Many people I met lamented the dreary weather and said, “Kaliningrad is beautiful in summer.” I found Kaliningrad to be beautiful even in the drizzle. But coming from Oregon, I knew exactly what they meant — I say the same thing about Eugene.

Kaliningrad and some Black-headed Gulls, with Königsberg Cathedral shrouded in mist.

Kaliningrad and some Black-headed Gulls, with Königsberg Cathedral shrouded in mist.

We walked alongside the river — which was teeming with Black-headed Gulls, particularly near the bridges — and encountered one of Vlad’s friends. Not long after this, we ran into another friend. Both times, he gave them a big hug in his big coat. As we walked on, he said, “Usually people shake hands, but when I see someone I know, I like to hug them.” We talked about the show, and he said he hoped the evening would be тёплый — literally, warm, or in this case, heartwarming.

We crossed the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост), which leads to Kant Island. This is one of those bridges that everyone puts romantic padlocks on.

I happened to notice a declaration of queer love on the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост).

I happened to notice a declaration of queer love on the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост).

The island itself used to be the site of a town, and the university where Kant taught, but most of it (and the city of Königsberg in general) was destroyed in World War II. Königsberg Cathedral was left in ruins nearly half a century and was only reconstructed in the 1990s.

Königsberg Cathedral.

Königsberg Cathedral.

In front of the cathedral, I saw my first Russian stray dog. The dog looked dead, but was only sleeping. I asked Vlad where the dog's human was, and he told me this was a независимая собака, an independent dog.

Независимая собака.

Независимая собака.

We walked on and I was excited to see Дом Советов — The House of Soviets, a hideous work of brutalist architecture that the Soviets built to replace Königsberg Castle. It was constructed between 1970 and 2005 and has never been used for any purpose whatsoever.

The House of Soviets, a.k.a. the Monster or "buried robot".

The House of Soviets, a.k.a. the Monster or "buried robot".

Eventually, it was time to go to Катарсис (Katarsis) to get ready for the show. We transported ourselves and Liliya's keyboard in an enormous taxi van that Vlad called a "minivan". 

Katarsis was a cozy, intimate little independent bookstore, café, and performance space. I'm so grateful to Vlad for finding such a perfect venue for my show, and for organizing it. And I mustn't forget his friends and family. Elisaveta, Vlad's wife, made adorable tickets, and Rita also helped a lot with setting up. Everyone was so wonderful.

The show went amazingly well. I think it was one of the best shows I've ever played. The audience was so enthusiastic and appreciative. I felt an unfamiliar nervousness when I was playing "Japanese Garden": I was going to be singing in Russian for an entire audience of Russian people. I focused on performing the song like I normally would, and the English and French sections breezed by. Then, suddenly, the moment of truth (или момент правды) was upon me.

It was hard not to smile, and then it was hard not to laugh, while I was singing. I've played "Japanese Garden" hundreds of times, but this was so different. I could feel the audience's responsiveness to the Russian lyrics, then I could hear them laughing when I sang, "Относительно дополнительной сосновой шишки—" ("With respect to the additional pinecone—"). It must have been so bizarre to hear Russian lyrics written and sung by a non-native Russian speaker — especially the kind of lyrics I write. 

At the end of the concert, Vlad came on stage and whispered to me that he would speak to the audience and then, if it was okay with me, I would play one more song. I stood at the side of the stage as he talked, and I smiled, and I only sort of listened because I was in that strange fugue state of the performance. When it was time, I returned to the piano and played "A Person," and then, embarrassingly but hilariously, Vlad informed me that he had told them I was going to play "Japanese Garden" for a second time.

During this encore performance, people clapped along with the Russian section. After the show, there were so many people to meet and talk to, and every single one of them was so sweet. Throughout it all, I felt euphoric. Vlad and I agreed that it was, as he had hoped, a heartwarming show.

And then it was time to pack everything up; and then we were squeezing into a taxi; and then Sergey was carrying the keyboard up the flights of stairs to Liliya's flat; and then Liliya was cooking again, but this time for half a dozen people.

As Liliya graciously, inexplicably prepared food for everyone, Vlad and Evgeny (and Sergey, briefly) played several songs. I felt like I had been accepted into an elite underground singer-songwriter salon.

Vlad plays a song.

When Evgeny played «Молитва Франсуа Вийона» ("The Prayer of François Villon"), even I was able to sing a few words.

Дай же ты всем понемногу,
И не забудь про меня.
Дай же ты всем понемногу
И не забудь пpо меня...

With warm hearts, we said our goodbyes. I had only just met all these people, but it felt like a reunion. I had only just met them, and already it was time to give hugs and say goodbye.

I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, using the tub as a sink, like Liliya and Vlad had explained to me. Then I crawled into my foldout sofa bed. I was exhausted, so exhausted that it was difficult to sleep.

A few short hours later, it was time to wake up. Thanks to Liliya, the eternal source of nourishment, I tried my first ever persimmon. Liliya called the taxi, and I realized with gratitude that she and Sergey were coming to the station to see me off. The taxi arrived, and the driver was like a character from a movie — my memory is too foggy for a physical description, but suffice it to say that when he opened the trunk of the car, he produced a gnarly stick to keep it propped open while I put my suitcase inside.

I wanted to stay here in this strange, fascinating place. I wanted to spend more time with these friendly, creative people; I wanted to hear all their songs. I wanted the taxi to turn around, or at least slow down. Instead, we arrived at the station too quickly, found my bus too quickly, and too quickly it took me and my warm, achy heart away from Kaliningrad.


At Katarsis, before my show. (Vlad, me, Rita, Elisaveta.)

At Katarsis, before my show. (Vlad, me, Rita, Elisaveta.)