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Kaliningrad: A deeper shade of gray

kaliningrad-in-gray

“Even when suppressed, history has a way of bubbling up to the surface. In Kaliningrad, that gray blob of dislocated Russia in the heart of the EU, local creatives have turned this bubbling into an arts scene. For visitors, the city-formerly-known-as-Königsberg provides a surreal, and economical, crash course in Teutonic Knights, WWII, the Cold War and today’s Russia. Plus, with the Baltic Sea, there are long stretches of unspoiled beach…”

Read the PDF of my travel feature published in Code magazine here.

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Posted: March 29, 2016 at 1:21 pm.

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Hospitality, Moscow-style

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I’ve had recurring dreams about showing my parents around Moscow. I would be taking them to major sights or exposing them via friends to that majorly psychotic brand of Slavic hospitality. But alas, such a trip never happened. (I did take them to former-Yugoslavia once. It was a mixed success. While my parents did get a taste of Slavic hospitality, they also flashed-back to their WWII childhoods – the taste of war was just still too fresh. But that’s another story.)

Last summer my Moscow dreams came partially true. My parents and I visited Moscow, Ontario, Canada (pop: 65). For a second as we drove across the town line, it even seemed like the real thing. Unfortunately, the rising spires of a Russian Orthodox church turned out to be a cluster of farm silos.

We stopped at the Variety Store and Gas Bar by the crossroads – aka ‘Downtown Moscow’. I hoped to buy local souvenirs to use as payback for hospitality the next time I was in Moscow proper. The proprietor Gord, a large older man who did not seem prone to movement, laughed when I asked if he sold Moscow-branded baseball caps or t-shirts. “I got chips and root beer. That’s pretty much it.” Gord laughed again when I asked if the town was originally founded by homesick Russians.

moscowontariocanadaApparently, Moscow was originally called Springfield until government agents dropped by in the late 19th century to tell the hamlet to change its name because there were already too many goddam Springfields. So in the name of not confusing the postal services any further, Springfield was renamed Moscow since it happened to be the anniversary of Napoleon’s wintery retreat from Moscow proper. “And hell, it gets cold here too!” Gord laughed.

We bought root beers as a small compensation for Gord’s story before making our own retreat. Just as we were about to pull out, Gord ran outside. Huffing, puffing and verging on a heart attack, he was holding a piece of paper. It was a photocopied certificate embossed with ‘Mos’ and a cartoon cow [pictured above]. He said he just found this last copy in his desk drawer and we could have it. Thanks Gord! Consider it laminated!

As we drove off we all agreed: Moscow is one hospitable town.
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Posted: October 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm.

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CODE’s ‘edit and reconstruct’ issue

CODE21LR-379x469The spring/summer 2012 issue of CODE magazine has been out for a while.

Besides managing as managing editor, I wrote a travel feature about grey – but mighty and magical – Kaliningrad. This city-formerly-known-as-Königsberg is now a dislocated blob of Russia in the heart of the EU, and offers crash courses in Teutonic Knights, WWII, the Cold War and how to build arts scenes out of freaking nothing. It’s also got killer beaches and drunken pine trees.

I also had the honour of interviewing Magnum Force of Street Style (and cover boy) Nick Wooster, as well as the Dutch artist/designer Joep van Lieshout. As founder of Atelier van Lieshout, Joep has brought the world fully-realised ‘Free States’, slave camps and rectum bars. Now he’s just come out with a line of unisex handbags. So I asked him if he was undermining his past work, playing with people’s minds or just being hilarious – he definitely proved to be hilarious. He also had interesting things to say about order vs. chaos.

This issue also has features from two of my favourite writers: Sarah Gehrke (on Noses) and Floris Dogterom (on doodle tattoos). And the design is by the inspired lads of Het Echte Werk. So check, check, check it out. It’s now available at the world’s better mag shops – including Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum in Amsterdam.

Read about CODE’s ‘2012 Survival Kit’ issue here.

Posted: June 4, 2012 at 11:54 am.

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Heading to Berlin…

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Posted: April 26, 2012 at 11:26 am.

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NYC through the stomach

By Steve Korver, October 2011

The US economy is generally collapsing more quickly than other economies. So it’s really a perfect time, exchange-wise, to visit New York City and indulge in what is the centre of the food universe. However it does help having a food-obsessed host to point the way. And with some luck, you can also squeeze in some more traditional sightseeing.


It’s smoking
54431-rect-220Char No. 4 is a bar-restaurant with a passion for bourbon. Its interior is appropriately amber-hued and woody. The 19th-century row house location in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn might make it potentially pretentious. But it’s not. They serve ‘American fare with a focus on smoked meat’. And anyway, I have long trusted my food-obsessed host to regularly reward me for knowing him. He is the man who earlier introduced me to such global culinary touchstones as the ‘herring in a fur coat’ at Petrovich and the rainbow of innards that they concoct at St John. Continue Reading…

Posted: October 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm.

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The fine art of Yuri Gagarin

nuijensThe booklet ‘Yuri Gagarin, 50 years of Human Space Flight’, part of our on-going Road to Gagarin project, won the first prize in the BLURB Photography Now Competition 2011, in the category Fine Art. Way to go René Nuijens – you saw, you shot, you produced, you conquered! Thanks designer Ewoudt Boonstra! But of course the biggest thanks goes to Yuri himself. Earlier this year he got us to Cuba and now he’s sending us to NYC. Yuri, you’re simply the greatest.

Posted: September 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm.

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Guardian’s Amsterdam City Guide

Guardian Travel playlist for Amsterdam by De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig by Guardiantravel on Mixcloud

The Guardian just published their online guide to Amsterdam. It’s quite fine indeed and features some fine local contributers — including the folks behind Unfold Amsterdam. My contribution involved asking the Dutch gibberish-hop collective De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig about their favorite Amster-songs. The interview was both hilarious and exhausting. Sadly much of what they said proved to be too racy for a family newspaper. My favorite part was when they claimed that volkszanger Andre Hazes was the nation’s Tupac and was actually black — ‘but you know how the history books always change everything.’

Posted: June 28, 2011 at 10:38 am.

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Mladic found

mladic_arrestedWhile Yuri Gagarin was my heroic rocket into Russia, General Ratko Mladic was my runaway genocidal horse cart into Serbia. I would never compare the two men. I’m just saying it’s sometimes handy to have a focus when entering new territory. And actually my original entry into Serbia in the late 1990s was via the crazy kinetic music of gypsy brass bands. Guca! But I soon got confused by the discovery that this music – developed and played by Rromani musicians – had evolved into becoming the nationalist soundtrack to the idea of a ‘greater Serbia’. How did that happen? Yes, the war in former Yugoslavia proved to be very confusing. For a while I retreated into being a tourist: enjoying the food, the drink, the dance, the people and the non-war stories. I also enjoyed being asked: ‘Um, you do know that lately we don’t actually get a lot of tourists around here?’ Regardless, ignorance was bliss and I even ended up discovering some lovely and largely forgotten wine regions in Bosnia and Croatia… Yes, it’s vital to remember what happened in Vukovar, but it’s also important to visit a place like nearby Ilok. People are people – and the nice ones are often best enjoyed with a glass of fine wine.  

Later, almost 10 years ago, I spent a few months living in Belgrade with my ex-Yugo ex-girlfriend who was working on NIOD’s Srebrenica Report. She was there for Mladic and I was along for the ride. Milosevic had just been arrested two months earlier and so it was hoped that Mladic was soon to follow – or at least that he would want to tell his side of the story of what happened in Srebrenica when the Bosnian Serb troops under his command rounded up and methodically massacred 8000 Moslem men and boys. We ended up staying in Belgrade through 11 September 2001 – witnessing the dawn of the emerging apocalypse in a post-apocalyptic city. It made a deep impression.

My ex-Yugo Ex never did get to talk to Mladic even though he was still being spotted enjoying football matches and restaurants around town (and apparently living – bizarrely – on Yuri Gagarin Boulevard). But we did get to share mixed grill with one of Mladic’s best friends. And while I don’t have the balls to name him by name, I can say with all confidence that this general was a scary little shit – a true mini Mladic, but one who had cut a deal with the International War Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to cover his ass.

Sadly, there is no justice for all. But at least today I can finally update the introduction to my Welcome to Yugoville archive which asked ‘Where’s Mladic?’ The runaway genocidal horse cart is now behind bars a few kilometres up the road in The Hague. Perhaps his presence there will help remind many of the governments of Europe – in particular the Dutch one – that flirting with nationalism/populism is as a dangerous game as it’s always been. Sorry to preach in clichés, but it can really still happen anywhere. That’s what I learned in Serbia – and the rest of former Yugoslavia. People are people. Politicians are politicians. And the damaged are damaged and often dangerous – Mladic being the perfect example. There are always those who are willing to turn the rhetoric of politicians into something bloody. But meanwhile I think I might finally plan a return trip for some crazy ass brass at Guca. Hopefully the people are closer to completely liberating the music back from the politicians. Then we can really eat, drink and dance.

Posted: June 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm.

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Yuri Gagarin, human (50 years human space flight)

Our Road to Gagarin project was originally inspired by what we came to call ‘cosmonautic kitsch’ and the JFK-level of conspiracy theories around Gagarin, the myth. But recently we got to meet people who knew Yuri, the human. In tribute to the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s flight, I have put together some excerpts from these meetings with remarkable people. Cosmos Libre!
 

GagarinTown, House mum GagarinAs it turned out, the road to Gagarin was one of the better highways we ever drove down in Russia. In 2002, it was very new. Our driver Alexei, meanwhile, was very old school. He was a boy in Moscow when Yuri’s First Flight was announced. Like all his friends, Alexei skipped classes to be part of the masses that flowed to Red Square to celebrate. ‘But we were not punished because it was a great, great day. Our country had nothing, yet we were the first to enter the cosmos. From then on, every boy wanted to be a cosmonaut and every girl his wife.’ But times changed. Alexei doubts that his 15-year-old daughter has even heard of Gagarin. ‘She just wants dance and debt.’

Alexei’s views of the universe have only seemed to have darkened in the decades since the bright and glorious days of the First Flight. ‘By the time Gagarin died, everyone was tired of him. Within a year he was fat from vodka but still he became a general. The later cosmonauts were actually much cleverer since they were real scientists. Yuri was just an animal for an experiment.’ Alexei also claimed that Yuri wasn’t even first: that it was some Vladimir Ilyushin, son of a famous aircraft designer, who was the first to enter space. And in fact, most people now believe that Yuri himself was responsible for the still-mysterious training flight crash that killed him in 1968.

Suddenly our ambitions to make the ultimate coffee table book about Gagarin seemed a bit under-considered. Continue Reading…

Posted: April 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm.

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Yuri Gagarin in Cuba (50 Years of human space flight)

The first human in space, Yuri Gagarin (1934-68), was our rocket into Russia. But it was usually a wintery Russia. So it was a refreshing change when last month he had us blast us off to a warmer place: Cuba. It was also a bit of a different planet. So thank you, Yuri. Thank you.

Gagarin will always be Cosmonaut Number One. But he also came to hold another title: president of the Soviet-Cuban Friendship Society.  As such, the tiny cosmonaut who had conquered the vastness of outer space also became a symbol for a tiny nation who had seemingly conquered the vastness of American business interests. It was interesting times…

Barely a week after Gagarin’s first flight on 12 April 1961, the US-backed invasion of Playa Giron (AKA Bay of Pigs) tried to overthrow Fidel Castro’s two-year-old revolutionary government. But the attack only worked to strengthen Castro’s position and ally Cuba more closely with the Soviet Union. The resulting increased tensions with the US would build up towards the Cuban Missile Crisis (AKA October Crisis) 18 months later.

So what exactly was the role of the first off-world traveller in the events around what many consider the closest the world ever got to blowing itself up?

In Havana, we not only got to ask the first black dude in space (who incidentally credited his dentist wife for his Yuri-competing grin), but also an old chess-playing buddy of Che…  Thanks Yuri! We also went off-road in search of a school and a goose farm named after Gagarin. It was ‘ganso journalism’ at its best. Especially since due to unforeseen circumstances (stereotypically involving an unlicensed 1950s Chevy and a young lady of the Revolutionary Police), we went without an interpreter. But luckily the international language of Yuri got us far (as you can see in the above clip).

However the fact that the Spanish word for goose, ganso, is also Cuban slang for gay, did lead to a few moments of deep confusion. Thanks again Yuri!

Posted: April 12, 2011 at 10:05 am.

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