Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ice is Terrible and other Random Thoughts

I hate the ice. We had freezing rain all last night, I slipped and fell down while going to my car.

Which reminds me of something I pondered while in Moscow ... why are so many stairs and sidewalks in Russia made of polished granite? I mean, after thousands of years, you would think that Russians would have come up with a smarter alternative.

Because, I do hear this rumor that it gets pretty cold in Russia.

After walking the winter streets of Moscow, I can understand why Russians make such wonderful figure skaters. Their sense of balance has to be extraordinary to manage the icy sidewalks of Moscow. No joke.

I should also add, that the polished granite stairs and walks are a pet peeve of Natasha, also. She also believes that our President should make Americans get out and walk more. He just said that we are addicted to oil and need to break our habit .. so maybe Bush and Congress should outlaw driving your petroleum-burning car to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or something. Ha. Ha.

Isn't it a little bit "me too" that Putin does a press conference on the same date as the US President's State of the Union address? Even though many Russians try to tell me that they don't think about or compare themselves to the US, it certainly seems that their politicians spend large amounts of time talking about and goading "the west" and US. Iran policy (blatantly cold-warish behavior on Russia's part), general talking about the superiority of Russian missles (blatant salesmenship in the wake of Iraq), and then timing a press conference for the same time as the US Presidents annual State of the Union address (blatant frontpage headline grabbing). Katja says she hadn't even heard that Bush was giving such a speech (she doesn't follow politics) but numerous news sources in Russia were discussing it and comparing it to Putin's press conference the next day.

I don't think that Putin's alternately bullying and then flirting press conference style would fly very well in the US. I'm sort of amazed that he can get away with it in Russia ... this is the behavior that women write songs about? A man who loses his cool when questioned about Russias defense of a massacre in Uzbekistan ... and implies it was all some plot by foreign states? Flirting and silly questions, coming from "all blondes"? I am also surprised that the reporters, even at the end of a long press conference, would ask such a silly question as to how Putin stays in shape. Like they don't know that already? Even I have read about Putins physical regimen ... I am sure that most Russians alternatively take pride in that or make jokes about it.

If you don't know the story of Andrei Sychev or aren't familiar with the system of Dedovshina (дедовщина) that occurs in the Russian Military, you should definitely read this blog entry and links including photos of a recent protest. Basically, as the Russian government requires military service and pays rather poorly ... the army operates on a system of seniority thuggery. Think of a perverse version of college fraternity 1st year hazing ... the kind of hazing and beatings that cause young men to kill themselves to escape it ... and you get the general idea.

It isn't a great thing and it makes me feel bad for Russian people that their leaders don't take this problem seriously. Maybe some general imagines it toughens up the soldiers. However, I can promise you it does nothing for the fighting morale of an army. Russia would be better off with a smaller army, that is paid better, and is comprised entirely of volunteers. I know this is what Putin says they are moving towards; sooner would be better.

I ordered a book on Katja's recommendation, The Golden Calf (Zolotoi Telenok) by Ilya Ilf and Evgeniy Petrov (translation by Richard Shupbach). Seems the movie was on television the other night and it got her thinking about this book, which she really enjoys and wished I could read. Maybe someday I will be able to read it in the original tongue. I'll report back when I am done with it in a couple of weeks.

Monday, January 30, 2006


I caught an interesting article today, via MosNews ... from the CATO Institute. For those who don't know, the CATO institute is a private conservative organization / think-tank. I would say I generally agree with their writings and opinions, but not always. They tend to be real conservatives, as opposed to most of the crop of big-spending Republicans we have been saddled with over the last two decades.

In any case, the article "NATO Insists on Poking Russian Bear" is worth reading, and certainly would be a popular opinion within Russian. However, I take particular issue with one of the authors statements:

"Russia -- like any other country -- tends to get alarmed when the world's sole superpower extends security guarantees and military cooperation to countries on its borders."

Really? Like any other country? I'm drawing a blank here. What other countries??

I mean, really ... I'm very curious what countries Mr. Logan and Mr. Carpenter are thinking about. France? Germany? Italy? Is there any western European country that would become anxious about the US extending security guarantees to a country on its border? Is there any other country, anywhere? I would say that most of Asia, Africa, and South America really wouldn't become "alarmed" at the US promising to defend another sovereign nation from attack. Is Columbia anxious because it borders Panama? Actually, even Venezuala would likely be defended by the US if it were attacked, even if such agreements are not in place. Is New Zealand anxious because the US would defend Australia? China anxious because the US would defend Japan? (Ok, maybe China gets anxious ... a little.)

In fact, I would say this alarm is strictly a Russian situation. No other country in the world is so paranoid about having strong countries on their borders, as Russia. I would say that through their history, this is even justifiable. Russia has been repeatedly invaded .. and truly devastated by invasions. The scars of this history are present even now ... Russians have long memories.

Now, Americans who might be reading this ... try not to laugh ... but many Russians really believe that they are going to be invaded again someday. No really, I told you not to laugh. Stop laughing now. There is more than ice and tundra in Russia. Really, I've been there. Many Russians believe they could be attacked for their resources. Oil, metals, wood, what have you.

I think the real problem is that, in many ways, Russia is not treated as an equal partner in the west. Russia sees this snub and carries a chip on its shoulder, along with its always present paranoia / xenophobia regarding outsiders, invasion, etc. The desire to be treated equally manifests itself these days in various counter power-plays around the globe ... particularly in the last few years of the Putin era. The US military being tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan has created many openings for the Russian government and military to regain influence (Iran and China being prime examples of buyers of Russian air-defense systems).

There are reasons why Russia isn't really REALLY allowed to sit at the grown-up table (consider recent calls by Leiberman and McCain to suspend Russia's G8 status). Much of it is the historical behavior of the Russian government. But it becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy; because Russia is snubbed as a REAL power, their behavior tends to be contrarian. They will fill the void on the other side of the table, as it were. This puts the ability to end this cycle of "cooperation, but not really cooperating" squarely in the hands of the US and western nations. In this regard, the future expansion of NATO really makes no sense.

Further, I think Jackson-Vanik makes no sense. It serves both US and Russian interests to promote trade, rather than restrict it. It creates a situation where common interests make NATO less and less important, even to Russians who carefully watch their borders. It makes Russian paranoia regarding NGOs less credible as well, or certainly opens the door for civil and charitable influence in Russia through the business sector, rather than through artificially constructed civil organizations.

Mr. Logan and Mr. Carpenter's article is otherwise spot-on. Recognizing Russia's particular issues with expansion of NATO and US influence on its borders, and how Russia might see this as provocative (where I believe many other nations would not and certainly not the same extent) is important to US and Western Europe foreign policy. At this point I could launch into a discussion of Russian oil, old Western Europe vs. new Eastern Europe ... but I'll leave that for a topic at another time.

Friday, January 27, 2006

One of my favorite topics ... FOOD

I started thinking about Beaker at SVO again. Image of him chomping away on Pringles and lamenting no White Castles in Russia. One of my favorite topics is food, and I always find the comparison and sharing of Russian recipes very interesting. I've been good at trying lots of different foods while in Russia and Kyrgyzstan over the last few years ... and I'm going to throw down a list of things that I have tried and tasted with some thoughts about each item. I'd love to find a more comprehensive website with Russian recipes and foods ... the ones that I have found all seem to lack a certain something.

Also, I realize that many of these food items are not strictly "Russian" .. there is a strong influence of southern foods in Russia, just as there is a Mexican influence in much of what Americans eat. But I think every item here is commonly found in Russia, and less common in the US.

It is worth noting that large Russian family dinners stick to the tradition of a 1st course, 2nd course, etc. 1st course is generally small finger foods, salads, pickles, fresh vegetables that are in season (radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, etc.). Some smetana (sour cream) and condiments such as tomato sauce (finely chopped tomatoes with onions) or crushed red peppers. Smoked fish, or smoked sausage or meats are also eaten at this time. All of this is rather tasty, vodka-friendly foods. Strong tastes seem to go well with the clean vodka taste.

So in order of recall ... here are some of the things I have tried over the last few years:

Black tea from dried loose leaf, made from zavarka (заварка) with hot water added
- Painful lesson that I wrote about earlier ... you don't drink just the zavarka .. it is the concentrated brew. Let's not be like Sascha, Katja's neighbor! Tea made this way is much sweeter and less bitter than from teabags ... even my daughter is crazy about it now. Russians will tell you that teabags are made from the broken crap and dirt and twigs and such that are found at the bottom after the good tea is removed.

Various Russian Pickles
(cucumbers, mushrooms) and Salats (carrot salads most notably) - Traditional first course fare. In the US, pickles means cucumbers, even as we acknowledge that other foods may also be pickled. In Russia, you should be specific, to call it pickles could mean any number of vegetables that are pickled to preserve food. These pickles and salats were all rather good with occasional shots of vodka mixed in ... which brings me to:

Vodka (Водка)
- Well, it has to be discussed, doesn't it? I mean ... Westerners think of Russia and it is inevitable that they will also think of vodka. It can be a touchy subject actually, as Russians can be justifiably defensive when accused of all being drunkards.

So, a few points and observations: Russians do drink vodka, but my times of drinking vodka were not as I imagined they would be. From movies, literature, and stereotypes I had this idea that drinking vodka with a Russian ... would be like doing battle. There would be one shot, and then another, until someone passes out.

The reality is much different.

As I was taught, the senior head of the table is responsible for the bottle. A small shot glass (about 40 ml) is for everyone who wishes to drink. There is no drinking without eating ... I was taught this is a sign of bad character. And there is always some toast that is given with a drink. There is no shame in saying you don't wish another drink, or that you don't wish to have another vodka either. And it is a shot of vodka starting with the 1st course about every 20 minutes or so (well ... faster than that when it is New Years with Viktor!)

None of this is to say that Russians do not suffer problems with alcoholism, just like any other culture. I would say they are more afflicted with this problem, than most countries. But this does not make the majority of Russians drunkards or even heavy drinkers in general. I'll visit this topic another time with more stories and data if I can find it.

Carbonad (Карбонад) -
Smoked pork, similar to Canadian bacon (oops, not to offend Canadians and others ... who simply call it back bacon.) Rather tasty side dish with all the 1st course veggies. I can easily say this is one of my favorites, carnivore that I am.

Smoked Fish (Копченная рыба) -
Russians seem crazy for the stuff .... especially Russian men. Katja's family doesn't seem too fond of it, but I see smoked fish everywhere in Russia. When in Bishkek the men of the Skochilo clan would dig right in with fork and fingers and mouth down close to the plate. I've found a few places to buy it here in the US, and it is really very rich food. The fish becomes soft and the flavors concentrated from the loss of moisture and smoking. I think it needs vodka to be fully appreciated. I'm told that Russians also really enjoy smoked fish with pivo (пиво = beer). Say it like "PEE-va" to you non-Russian speakers out there ... unemphasized "o" is said more like "a" in Moscow Russian dialect. Moloko (молоко) is Ma-la-KO ... Horosho (хорошо) is Ha-ra-SHO. That is enough Russki for you today, Мои друг.

Plov (плов)-
Yummy. Uzbek-style, I am told. Big fragrant mound of spicy rice with lamb chops. This was the 2nd course and main dish in my first big family meal in Bishkek. Typical rice pilaf that American's make from some box is but a pale pale shadow of this dish. In Russia and CIS, the best food is still found in the home. I'm afraid this isn't always true in the USA.

Kotleta (Котлета) -
Literally a cutlet ... sort of like a gourmet approach to meatloaf or a hamburger. Mine was with tomatoes and dill and onions on top. Not served as a sandwich, but as a slice of meat on the plate. Had this at a popular university hang-out cyber-cafe in Bishkek.

Pelmeni (пельмени) -
Americans would look at these and call them perogies. Some might call them raviolis. Either way, they are small little stuffed dumplings, served in juice or soup. Tradition has it that they are Siberian, and supposedly the word comes from Chinese for "ear bread". Seeing their shape, one can easily imagine that. They are often made at home in large batches and then frozen. I've heard in Siberia, they would be made and placed on a large wooden board, set outside in the winter time to freeze them, and kept indefinitely in that fashion.

Mante (манты) -
Another type of dumpling, larger, stuffed with meat and onions, and steamed. Oksana Skochilo made the first bunch that I had in Bishkek. She showed how the fold of the dumpling indicates various nationalities ... Uzbek style, Kazakh style, etc. Not that I remember any of this. Andy and Oksana ground their own meat for making mants, with a big metal meat grinder, something like my grandmother would have. Was served with a chopped tomato and onion condiment.

Shashlyk (шашлык) -
Americans would see this and call it shish-kebob without the veggies. Russians that I've said this too are greatly insulted, and point out all the differences. The meat is MARINATED, generally some vinegar-based marinade as near as I can tell. And you must cook it over wood coals ... very natural ... strictly speaking you shouldn't grill it over a gas flame, for example. Lamb is preferred, but can be made with pork or rarely chicken. As I remember, we got VERY drunk this night in Bishkek ... big shame on me for staggering home that night!

Tvorog (творог) -
Now, this will translate as cottage cheese, but it is actually closer to the less common farmer's cheese. At first look you might compare it to ricotta cheese also, but ricotta is made from whey and not curd (who knew?). Katja makes her own tvorog. She has a big glass jar, about 4 liters, just for making it. Special long thin spatula. Cone-shaped strainer. Let me tell you, she is a tvorog professional. It is like her own special art. Anyway, it is really quite good, very mild and all natural. If you can find some farmer's cheese in the US, give it a try.

Blini (блины) -
Crepes. Or Blintzes if you prefer. Well, Russians will call them pancakes ... but any American will say such flat things can't be PAN-CAKES. Pan - something maybe, but nothing like a CAKE. Katja has seen my American pancakes, and there is a word for them in Russian. She and I have agreed to call Blini ... blini .... as it is a perfectly acceptable word in English. I've had them plain, with smetana and sugar, with apples, with jam, and with meat. There are even more styles than this - I forget all the kinds offered at Teremok, for instance.

Kasha (каша) -
Porridge, generally buckwheat (which isn't a wheat at all) but it can be semolina (yep, Cream of Wheat = kasha) or various other kinds. Oatmeal would be a type of kasha, for example. Katja isn't fond of buckwheat porridge, but her family has a special pot just for it, keeps it rather nicely.

Balik (балык) -
Fresh meat. I am told that it is usually in a Kazakh form of smoked raw fish ... but what I had was smoked raw meat. Like sushi for carnivores. It was still obviously raw, it had the limpness of raw meat ... fresh is how they called it. Sergei was eating it, so I guess it has to be very healthy somehow. But while your eating it, it really seems sort of luxuriant and rich in your mouth. Thick and meat, smokey and juicy. Yum-yum. But I am an unapologetic carnivore.

Kolbasa (Колбаса Русская) -
Well, you might think this is kielbasa .. and it is close or similar. Smoked and dried a little bit, with largish cubes of fat ... this is basically a form of smoked sausage. Wasn't bad .. Katja bought it for me to eat with cheese, bread, and other light foods. I'm a man, so she guessed I wanted some meat (she isn't a heavy meat eater at all).

Bizhbarmak (Бижбармак) - Kazakh dish, large flat home-made noodles with sliced onions, lamb, and juice from cooking the lamb. We had this on New Year's, it was great, I found myself eating it all night and the next day also.

Ukha (уха) - Fish soup. I've had a couple of varieties, the fanciest one was in Rybinsk and had several sorts of fish and calamari also. In Russia most soups are eaten with smetana.

Borsch (борщ) - Beet/cabbage soup. Every family seems to have a different variant, I've found them all good. And they are better with smetana added just before eating ... makes the soup creamy and the fat carries the flavors of the soup better.

I am sure that I am forgetting something ... If I remember it I will come back and add it to the list. Some other things worth noting ... the Russian diet seems to use more dairy products. Butter (maslo), sour cream (smetana), kefir, yogurt, cheese (syr), tvorog ... all seem heavily consumed in the Russian diet. The idea of using margarine is generally preposterous to Russians, by the way.

Latest edits on January 29th

I will try to keep this to things that I have actually eaten. I've been reminded of some food items that should be on the list:

Buterbrod (бутерброд) -This word is obviously borrowed from German, meaning literally "butter bread". A Russian might tell you that it is a sandwich, but any American will look at it and say that it clearly is NOT a sandwich. Buterbrod is more like open-faced sandwichs that you might be served at as hors d’oeuvre at a party. Thick slice of bread, some butter spread upon it, cheese or caviar on top. I've had them with chicken liver pate (was excellent actually) and other toppings also. A bit lighter and more sophisticated than the typically American sandwich, I would say.

Solyanka (Солянка) - A meaty soup, primarily started with beef kidneys, but likely with other meats as well (one recipe I see here calls for veal, beef, ham, and sausages .. in addition to beef kidneys!) Very good hearty soup.

Salo (Сало) - Mmmmm ... Salo. Ukrainians are famous for eating this, of course. The first joke I ever heard told by a Russian involved a Ukrainian eating salo on black bread and calling it a delicacy. Salo translates as "bacon" but my understanding is that it is lard or pig fat ... often whipped or mixed with garlic or other things. I've also seen slabs of pig fat, like bacon without the meat and unsliced ... and this is also called salo. I can say that salo is ok, but not my favorite item that I had in Russia.

Rassol'nik (Расольник) - Similar to Solyanka, both feature beef kidneys and possibly other meats and vegetables. However, my understanding is that Rassol'nik has pickle juice in it, giving it a bit of acidity and vinegar taste.

Beef tongue (язык or язык говяжий) - Yep, if you are American you probably think this sounds gross, but it is really very good. My grandmother cooked beef tongue, and I never found it that appealing. While in Russia, it was always served presliced and was extremely tender. At Korchma it was cold and sliced, like a very tender cold-cut. Was served with various other meats, aspics, and cheeses ... like a very fatty Ukrainian antipasto.

Caviar (икра) - Various forms, most abundant and cheap is red caviar (красная икра) from salmon. Typically we had this as a buterbrod ... it is really rather good, especially when fresh. Katja had a special little ceramic pot with a plastic top for storing caviar airtight after opening. Even so, I found that it became more salty and fishy with time .. so best eat it all in one sitting!! - black caviar (черная икра) and pressed black caviar (черная паюсная икра) I actually have not tried. They are rather expensive, even in Russia and quite illegal now in the US due to a ban on sturgeon caviar. That isn't to say that, someone like ... oh ... maybe Volodia ... might carry back a few cans of choice black caviar in his carry-on luggage.

Morozhenoye (мороженое) - I'm sorry to say this but ... I have yet to see or have any good Russian ice cream. For a country and people who like to pride themselves on being all natural, their ice cream is more like candy, than like ice cream. Whipped stuff with gelatin in it, with lots of candy chunks or chocolate coatings. I think if it were left at room temperature, it wouldn't even melt. Plus they just serve annoying small portions of it. When I was in Bishkek, the ice cream stand had one flavor (Creme Brule aka caramel) and the server carefully weighed the grams onto a cone. I was dumbfounded.

American ice cream pretty much whups the bejesus out of Russian ice cream. Breyers, Ben & Jerry's, Edy's Grand. Sports Bars, Klondike Bars, Dove Ice Cream Bars. Boxed or on a stick. Or the ultimate ... soft serve ice cream (creamee's it was called in my youth). You order a small softee and it is almost more than you can eat.

Notes on typical Russian Bread (хлеб) versus typical American Bread - In general, Russian Bread tends to be rather European bakery style, crusty, chewy, unsliced ... purchased in a whole loaf of white or dark bread. There are many styles of it, of course .. and you can buy small loaves of sliced bread as well. American bread tends to be pre-sliced and softer stuff (even the whole wheat and organic whole grained breads here tend to be softer). I think the American bread is softer partially because much of it is made by machines and the softer dough is necessary. But also, I think Americans just like their bread to not be too resilient or chewy (for some reason).

Now, you can find bread in Russia that is similar to what is typical in the US ... and you can fined bread in the US that is just as crusty and chewy as anyting in Russia. But in general, the majority of the breads sold in each country fall into the categories that I spelled out above. I've had some Russian friends come to the US who had difficulty at first finding bread that they liked ... but it is here, usually in deli sections, where stores might bake their own loaves of bread.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oops, I almost forgot ....

Oops, I almost forgot to relate one last story from my New Years trip to Russia. While I waiting to board my plane, there was a 30-something American guy talking with a couple of English speaking 20-something Russian girls. Actually, the women had been to the US before and seemed rather westernized. From what I gathered, it seemed to me that they lived in the US and had been in Russia visiting family. The American was a tall, lanky, skinny guy ... long hair, almost no chin, sort of bug-eyed. Imagine Beaker from the Muppets with long dark hair and you get the general idea. He apparently works for Samsung, computer programmer or IT guy or something. I don't pretend to know that field.

In any case, in the span of about 10 minutes, this guy managed to reinforce almost every stereotype that Russians have of Americans ... particularly regarding food and cars ... that I have ever heard. He was sitting there drinking a Coke and chomping on a pack of Pringles and talking about how he couldn't wait to get a McDonald's quarter pounder with fries. He then started going on about White Castle sliders and how he once consumed 30 of them. He apparently had been in Russia for about 3 weeks as a result of work, and claims he couldn't find anything good to eat (!) The hotel he stayed at also gave him some sort of information, like "don't drink the water or eat the food" or some other silliness.

I felt a bit embarrassed to be American after listening to him. After all, I had just amused the airport security people with my small amount of Russian. When they were patting me down and asked to see what is in my front pocket ... I reached for it and offered my wallet, saying "это кашилок" ... they were very amused and tested my Russian some more. I think it is only proper to make an effort to learn some of the native tongue, when traveling in another country. Seems very disrespectful to me if you do not make the attempt.

So, I couldn't take it anymore .. and I went over and quietly interjected myself into the conversation. It was interesting to see the reaction of the girls he was talking up, and surrounding people, as I pointed out to him ... how his Pringle-eating, Coca-Cola guzzling, McD Cheeseburger coveting ... is very stereotypical. In fact, I hadn't ever even MET anyone who loved such food as much as this guy was describing. It was like meeting the fabled Bigfoot ... long rumored to exist, but never actually witnessed in the wild. He was pretty good humored about it and we started talking about other things. He REALLY wasn't interested in any Russian food, however .. it made me feel sorry for him.

Now that I have finished writing about this New Year's trip, I plan to keep this blog going with Russian cultural topics that I find interesting. I see there are enough political and social commentary blogs regarding Russia, and I figure I will mostly leave that to the heavy hitters. I'm more interested in other Russian topics anyway .... culture and history, food, clothing, language, and such. I'm working on a posting regarding Russian Fairy Tales currently, and have a long list of other topics I want to write something about. Anytime I read something interesting, I am sure to drop a more immediate posting about it.

For example, today I read a short little nothing piece about an English speaking reporter in Bishkek, trying to buy some shoes. I enjoyed the article mostly because I had been to Bishkek in 2003, have friends there, and remember how it was at the market. The author, Mr. Ethan Wilensky-Lanford, apparently works in central Asia and does free-lance writing and traveling there. Interesting way to make a living ... why didn't I ever think of it? Seems he also keeps a small journal at Reed College, his alma mater. If you are interested in central Asia at all, would make for some interesting reading.

I'll have another posting soon regarding Elena, my friend in Central Asia ... how I know her and how her photojournalism career is going these days.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Day 11 - Time to Go, SVO to JFK

Day 11, Time to Go, SVO to JFK - Ugh. So this is it, the last day of the trip. I guess I was all over being sad about it. At the end of my first visit with Katja I was positively miserable. I was sad yesterday and now I am just accepting. Better to have good spirits and make the most of the situation. Katja had come to the same conclusion. We had arranged for a taxi at 9:30, anticipating that the traffic could be bad on a Friday morning, especially if there was some light snow. So we were up rather early at 7:30 and downstairs having breakfast shortly past 8. The breakfast buffet was mostly empty, just two other couples in a large room ... and a second room with all the students we had seen the day before (they kept them separate, which was probably a blessing.) Much of the food was salads and such ... Katja called it "leftover" salads and most likely it was. I was interested in more traditional breakfast fare ... tea, blini, eggs, rolls ... and some kefir to try because I am told it is good for me. This was my last chance to be healthy, Russian-style. Katja isn't fond of kefir, which seems unusual to me as she eats lots of dairy products. She makes her own tvorog (farmer's cheese), eats cheese like it is going out of style, yogurt, tons of butter, and milk more sparingly. Russian milk tends to have higher milk-fat than the stuff you see in the US. The Rostov dairy Moloko was listed as something like 4.8% milkfat and I have read that lots of milk here is higher than that. I know that one evening Natasha tried to pour some milk, and it didn't want to come out at first ... a small plug of milk fat had formed at the top of the milk! Oh sure, and that milk fat isn't going to clog your arteries! It's perfectly natural! Anyway, I eat lots more dairy products while in Russia. We were well prepared this morning and gave our key to the conceirge one last time. This is one peculiar feature of Izmailovo ... you have to check in on each floor to get your key back. You get a slip of paper when you leave the floor, and return that to get your key each time. Maybe it is for security purposes, but I think it is to keep people from bunking up 4 or more to a room. Our taxi driver was rather quick and the traffic was light, so we found ourselves in Sheremetyevo with plenty of time to spare (my flight wasn't even listed yet). We decided to have some tea and coffee at the TGI Fridays in the airport. As we saw the menu, we decided up on some ice cream as well ... I had been craving and talking about ice cream the entire trip, and hadn't found anything really suitable. Russian ice cream sold in stores tends to be either American Snickers, Mars, or some other candy-filled crap, or a similar gelatinous and whipped Russian version. However, this little slice of American served up REAL ice cream ... nothing but ice cream ... THREE gignormous scoops in a BIG goblet. Now this .... THIS is American-style eating. You order something, expecting to get this <-----> much and you are surprised when it arrives at the table and you have <----------------------> (!) THIS much! Anyway, we couldn't eat all the ice cream. Very wasteful. Also very American-style. But it was great, I was completely bloated with ice cream now. I wouldn't crave it for weeks now. Katja and I went over the menu, and I pointed out some of the items and arrangement of the menu that would be typically American. Buffalo wings for example. And an ability for a restaurant to put together a diverse menu, with something for almost anyone (well ... unless you are a strict vegan or something). And so now ... we had killed enough time and said our good-byes. T'was time for me to wait in line .. and then another line ... and get checked in ... and go to another line to have checked bags searched ... and then another line for passport control (and give them that damn migration card) ... and then another line to have myself screened for metal and bags xrayed ... and then another line to have my bag searched for matches and other things. And then finally, another line to give my boarding pass and to get on the plane. Yep, these Russians are GOD-DAMN STATE OF THE F*CKING ART when it comes to waiting in lines. This time actually went much faster than the last time I passed through Moscow. I got a chance to use some Russian while waiting in line, and one of the people searching my bags seemed impressed that I spoke any at all. On the flight, I was seated next to Volodia .. a Russian university student who lives in the US since he was about 9 or 10. His friends in the US called him Vlad, which he said ... strictly speaking isn't really Russian and isn't a suitable form of his name. But I had no trouble saying Volodia. Mother is a professor at some university in Florida and his father lives in Russia and owns a bread factory. He is returning after spending the holidays with his father. At first he started speaking Russian to me, I must have looked very Russian today, as I got that from the flight attendants and others also. Good ol' Volodia brought some bottles of booze on board also, and was looking for a drinking partner. So it was Johnny Walker Red on ice for me, once the flight got going. Unlike Gleb, he was smart enough to bring a screw-top flask of booze. I knew I was going to have to drive from JFK after this flight though, so I tried to stay somewhat sober. I also tried to get some rest, as it was going to be a long day of perpetual sunlight as we came home. And as much as I enjoy visiting Russia, I have to say .... there is something comforting about returning home to your native country. Hearing your native language spoken and understanding every word ... feels like being at home wrapped in a warm blanket.

Day 10 - But Baby, It's Cold Outside

Day 10, But Baby, It's Cold Outside - That Thursday before I departed was going to be spent bouncing around Moscow ... doing the touristy thing. But somehow neither Katja or I was exactly looking forward to it the way we should, and -22 C temperatures that day prompted us to stay warm and explore our hotel and vicinity. Basically, we were sad about my trip coming to an end and felt like spending time together rather than time in public places.

We slept too late to make the breakfast buffet (bad habit) so we decided to find lunch in one of the cafes in the Izmailovo complex. We settled on a little restaurant on the 3rd floor. It wasn't anything special, but the hostess seemed nice. We had rejected this place the evening before, with Anja .... she apparently didn't like the bartender. The hostess was very nice, telling us exactly which dishes were made on premises and which were pre-prepared items that weren't as good. For example, their blini were some frozen kind and merely reheated, so they were systematically rejected. The food was good, traditional Russian stuff, nothing too remarkable. I find that the tastiest fare in Russian foods typically come with the 1st course, and seem to be meant to compliment drinking with vodka. Vodka's rather astrigent effect works well with stronger flavors. The vodka basically cleanses the palate ... or at least that is my theory. Not that I am a frequent drinker of vodka, mind you ...

There was a group of young students in the lobby of the hotel, posing and making pictures. Mostly girls with a couple of guys. Russian girls really seem to vamp for the camera ... I've read others who have also observed this behavior. I'm not sure if it comes from looking at magazines or stories of girls discovered selling fruit who go on to become supermodels ... or some other factor of which I am unaware. I'm not sure what the deal was with this group of students, Katja said they were likely from another city on some excursion in Moscow. In all respects they seemed just as hyper and enthralled as any group of American students on a trip to the big city. Even though Izmailovo Beta has two banks of 6 elevators (one set goes up to only the 14th floor, the other set goes from 14 to the top) ... it seemed that only 2 or 3 of the elevators were working and the teenagers were tying up the elevators, going from floor to floor ... to see where their friends rooms were, etc. So a rather largish crowd formed at the lobby, waiting to get an elevator. When the elevator did arrive, I was witness to some of the worst "me first" Russian behavior. Russians are aggressive in-line and few seem to have any fear of cutting in front of you ... if you are slow to move, they are going to get on first. We crammed into the first elevator, above the stated capacity (nobody seemed to care except Katja) and finally made our way upstairs.

We spent most of the rest of the day talking about plans, arranging suitcases and bags, reserving a taxi for 9:30 am to take us to the airport, and other things. Wasn't one of my more cheerful days spent in Russia. We decided upon ordering from room service that evening.

Here I will relate a story from my first visit with Katja. The last time Katja and I stayed in Izmailovo was the last night of my first visit to see her. The woman who took our order and delivered the food (same person, as it turns out) was rather nice, brisk, active older woman, probably in her late 40s to early 50s. She delivered the food in almost breathless fashion ... "Tak .... tak .... tak" as she arranged the items on the table in our room. Salads, tea, bread, cheese, water, chicken, etc. After she was done, she began talking with Katja ... I caught very little of the conversation. But after I paid and the woman left, Katja was laughing.

What was so funny? The woman was talking about me. She apparently wanted to know if Katja was (romantically) interested in me or not. I think Katja didn't reveal too much to her ... and the woman proceeded to talk about what a good catch I appeared to be! We still joke with each other that I could always hook up with that woman from Izmailovo Beta, if I need a date ...

Monday, January 23, 2006

Day 9 - Road to Moscow

Day 9, Road to Moscow - And so we find ourselves waking early, calling a taxi, and heading back to the Yaroslavl Train Station. I should have gotten a better picture of it, as it is I only have photos of the chandeliers inside the building. Anyway, we are on our way back to Moscow via a slow train, riding Platzkart. This trip was a bit more crowded than our last short trip to Rostov and the train was less hot and humid. But the dirt remained just the same. The passengers were mostly all dressed in clothes this morning also, although we were riding the same train and time as our last short trip via platzkart to Rostov V. One passenger across from us ate some hot noodles (cooked with water from the Titan) and immediately decided to climb up on the bunk and go to sleep. This prompted Katja to cite a Russia saying about eating and sleeping. Now I have eaten, and it is time to sleep. Now I have slept and it is time to eat. There was an older man and woman who sat next to us on the trip. They seemed rather nice and had that air of dignity of which Katja has made me so aware. The man had a shirt, sweater, and sort of tweedy blazer on, with a rather light coat. His coat was no heavier than my Carhartt jacket, which was criticized by Sergei as not being heavy enough. He was quite concerned for my health, wearing such a coat. I mentioned this to Katja, but she did remind me that the old man was Russian and used to the cold. I guess my frail American physique can not possibly deal with the real Russian winter. Of course, I wasn't there during this latest cold snap, and I understand it is the unpredictability of Russian winter weather that prompted them to be so concerned for my choice in clothing. My coat did not have fur inside and neither did my boots (we'll have a later discussion of these Russian dress shoes with fur inside) ... so in their eyes I was I'll prepared with my wool-lined canvas Carhartt jacket. The train ride was ... boring as hell. Occasionally a much faster train going the other way would pass (VVOOOOSHHHH! and our train would shake ... who rides THOSE trains? Why can't we get a train like that!?) We didn't bring a big insulated picnic bag, as I observed others on the train using. One woman traveling with her daughter (they both had identically dyed dark purplish red hair ... not lovely) had such a basket. They were prepared for a real feast, she even had a nice table cloth and cutlery, salads, fruit, pickles, meats, cheese, bread. This is rather typical of the Russian train riding experience. Others ate noodles and instant mashed potatoes (a small and chubby girl near us was eating both of these and more ... Katja criticized her father for feeding her too much). This reminds me of prior discussions I had with Katja and others regarding women and body image in the USA. My girl Yana in Harrisburg had remarked that since coming to the US from Moscow in 2003, she had not noticed so much that American men are bigger than Russian men ... but she had really noticed at how American women are much bigger (fatter) than Russian women. I had pointed out that I think lots of this stems from the idea that has permeated America in the last 20 years, that if you tell a young girl not to eat something, that you will harm her body image and she will become a starving bulemic or anorexic teenager. Media reports of young women trying to make themselves look like "unnatural" models, starving themselves, leading to health problems and such ... have made the mothers of America very reluctant to tell their daughters not to have another ham sandwich. In fact, if I were in a public restaurant and heard to tell my 9-year old daughter not to eat something or to not have another dessert because she is becoming chubby ... I would get glares and remarks from women who overheard or saw this. To the surprise of many Russians, the news media constantly tells Americans that for a woman, being a bit large is the normal and natural body-type. Plus size women's models are not considered large, but are considered to be more reflective of what a woman's body really is like. American women rejoice in news stories that remind people that at one time, large women were considered more beautiful (Rubenesque). Russian women who visit the US are surprised that they can't find any clothes that fit them (everything is too big). American women glare and make catty remarks to Russian women who are slender and wear tight clothes (as Yana and others I have spoken to can vouch for). In Russia for a woman to wear size 0, 2, 4, or 6 is normal. In the US this is definitely considered small ... to the point of being unhealthy. I can't say which body image is correct ... except that I KNOW that being obese is a health problem, it is a problem in the US, and both men and women in this country would be well-served to eat smaller portions and to get out and walk more. The differences in attitudes towards body image is most pronounced in regards to women in Russia and the US and I thought it was worth mentioning. I am fully expecting to get lambasted for this part of this post. Have mercy on me, oh women of America ... who are preparing to open up a can of whup-ass on me, citing medical research, Body Mass Index (BMI), and other data to tell me that my remarks are marching our young women towards sure Bulemic shock. Amen. So back to the trip ... our slow train to Moscow. One interesting discovery that I made on the train ride .. the toilets on Russian trains just empty onto the tracks below. Basically you can even see the train tracks passing by underneath when you flush. The conductor for our wagon announced he was closing the toilets in 20 minutes (once we came to be near Moscow .. about an hour before our arrival time). The reason, of course ... is to not dump raw sewage near where more people are living. Of course, this restriction wasn't enforced during the majority of the trip, so small places such as Yaroslavl and Rostov Veliky .... can get as much raw sewage as train-riding rumps can create. I told Katja that I was glad that her parents home wasn't too close to the train tracks! The train took a good thirty minutes to actually stop in Moscow ... going slowly, slowly, slooowwwly to ...... an .......... eventual ......................... stop. Many braking events over those last thirty minutes gave our bones a good shake. I hadn't noticed such delayed and harsh braking when we stopped briefly for my last good-bye to Sergei and Natasha in Rostov the Great, but apparently this is required in Moscow. I had thought perhaps there is some maximum speed limits for trains within the city limits ... but it didn't seem as if our express train on the way to Yaroslavl met some required maximum speed. We departed our train and dragged our bags towards the metro station. We were staying at Izmailovo Beta for the last two nights ... rather affordable place and not terribly uncomfortable based upon our last trip there. We met Katja's friend and university groupmate Anja at the train station as well. Anja is a rather cheerful and dramatic girl. Her English was excellent in September when Katja and I met her in her hometown of Rybinsk. However, she seemed a bit rusty this time. We dragged our suitcases through the Moscow Metro and across the icy street and sidewalk leading up to Izmailovo Beta. For the uninformed, the Izmailovo hotel complex consists of 4 multi-story hotels ... Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Vega ... located on the east side of Moscow. I'm not sure of any distinction between the hotels, as far as class or such ... they all appear about the same to me. They are quite affordable compared to most places in Moscow. They were originally constructed for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and they have been renovated since. The entrances and lower floors seem reasonably nice and the rooms are ok ... certainly not terrible, but a bit spartan. I've been their twice and I would say the service is a bit uneven. The first time Katja and I were there, was the end of my last trip ... and room service was really very good, even kind ... towards us. This trip I will detail a bit more but ... the service wasn't quite what we expected. We checked into our hotel room and Anja seemed quite excited about our visit. She is a bit hyper anyway, and she and Katja were joking around ... she kept switching to Russian, which slowed down my participation in the conversation a good deal. Once we were checked into our 28th floor room, we decided to go eat .... neither Katja or I had eaten most of the day. We explored the restaurants in the hotel first, and found them a bit lacking. We considered the sushi place in the hotel ... but the when we asked about the menu items and mentioned sushi, the waitress made a surprising (and rude) remark about ... "god, I am pregnant and if I have to smell sushi, I'm going to barf". I am not sure of her exact words for "barf" but Katja and Anja said it was actually surprisingly rude ... so we skipped it. The hotel was dead quiet anyway, so we decided the food there couldn't be very good. Clever Anja decided to ask the doorman about restaurants in the area that might be interesting or suitable. Something about how Anja asked, must have annoyed the guy, because he became quite sarcastic, saying something about anything would be suitable for the likes of you, and eyeballing me, suggested we go to McDonald's (!). He was one of the few people on this trip to quickly surmise that I am American (despite the Carhartt jacket which many here just didn't recognize as typical American). Considering I don't eat McD's at home, I certainly wasn't going to eat it in Russia. At this point, Anja suggested we take the Metro to Korchma, an Ukrainian-style restaurant chain in Moscow. There was one near where she lived with her boyfriend (he would have been with us, but was apparently not feeling well) and so we were off ... Korchma was rather crowded upon our arrival. We checked our coats (typically Russian ... seems only nicer restaurants do this in the US anymore.) We were seated a bit too close to the door, for my tastes ... but I don't speak out too much while in Russia. It was actually drafty and the hostess brought blankets for Anja and Katja ... the couple of women near us also had blankets worn almost as shawls across the shoulders. Korchma was otherwise a pleasant surprise, rather western in its service and style. The waiters and waitresses wear these old-style Ukrainian costumes, which I suppose they feel a bit silly about. However, we subject our waiters and waitresses to the same sort of costume abuse, so I suppose it is a lesson learned from the west. I tried salo for the first time while at Korchma. Tasted rather garlicky and at first I thought it was hummus ... as it has a similar but smoother taste. Anja was taking care of most of the ordering, she is rather assertive like that. I actually think that she must come across as a bit pushy or "new Russian" as I noticed that Katja seems to get a better response from people. If my Russian was better, I could probably pick up on the language and tone that she uses. One more note to remember, you would-be travelers to Russia: the Value Added Tax (VAT) here is (drumroll please) 18%. So when you order at a restaurant ... another 18% is added to the bill. It used to be 20% (or so I read) and there is talks of reducing it by 2008. Either way, it is a pretty steep tax. When bothering to speak in English, Anja spent much of the night talking about how in love she is now, and how she wants to be married to her boyfriend, and be a good obedient wife. She was speaking about how fulfilling it would be, to have a man who is better than her, and makes decisions for her ... and she can just stay at home and be a good wife (!) This didn't sound like the same Anja from my last trip, as last time she was talking about how important and responsible she is at her company, and how they make aircraft engines and she has to deal with all their foreign clients and she is very good at making all their arrangements and even people who have been with the company longer can't do all the things she can do, etc. So I started to joke and tease her a bit about what she was saying ... and as she became more emphatic, I said "Oh come on Anja, you must be joking ... I can't picture you being subservient to some man." this current boyfriend (Dima) apparently is a big-wig or thinks he is a big-wig at work ... he splits his time between Rybinsk and Moscow .... and he likes to tell Anja what she can and can not do, and when she will or will not do it. Seems she had to work her schedule to even go out with us, and he expected her home at any hour now. I was teasing Anja about the requirement that she get home immediately, trying to prompt her into staying out later with us ... it is still New Years after all. I wanted to go out later, we talked of going bowling or something ... but it sounded like Anja thought we were underdressed for bowling (as the place she was suggesting is also a night club and required you to look a bit nicer than jeans). Anja also caved in to her boyfriends demands and was working to get home by 21:30 or so. So this first night was cut short. We found a taxi and took Anja home and then went to the nearest metro station. The taxi driver charged us almost nothing, something like 80 rubles and I gave him 100 and told him to keep the change. Cheapest taxi ride I ever had in Moscow. Yana, who used to live here was horrified with the rates I paid for taxi's in Moscow ... she always used to thumb down the nearest car and negotiate a price for a ride somewhere (yep, you can do that in Moscow). Later, I will be told by this guy named Volodia how the rates vary not only according to your being a foreigner, but also how you speak Russian, etc. He said I am in the worst case, having a non-Moscovich Russian speaking woman with a foreign guy, they are going to stick you with the highest price they can. Let that be a warning to the rest of you!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Days 7 and 8 - Yaroslavl is Closed

Days 7 and 8, Yaroslavl is Closed - Did you know that almost everything in Russia closes down for the first 10 days of the year? Probably Katja and I should have thought about this more ... as we found ourselves walking around Yaroslavl on January 2nd trying to change some dollars to rubles and to buy a few grocery items. And water. Yaroslavl water is the pits. Even Moscow water is perferable (I don't consider Moscow water all that bad, but Katja wouldn't touch the stuff).

But Yaroslavl water is discolored and smells like a swamp. Yumm-eee! So we were also on a mission to buy a few bottles of water as well. And maybe some ice cream ... I had been having a hankering for some ice cream also (not sure why I had this craving).

The streets of Yaroslavl were surprisingly busy, despite the fact that not much was open. There were some shops that were open ... restaurants ... grocery stores. But anything that was official and useful was closed. Like banks. We eventually found a casino where I could change some money (although not at a favorable rate .. I got 27.8 rubles to the dollar there). Such is the price of convenience. I also find that when changing money, almost any like mark or scratch on your $50 or $100 bill will result in the other party protesting that the money isn't any good. Sometimes they will accept it at a discount. (!) To heck with that, I just give them another bill that is nearly perfect. You could try to debate it, but what is the point. Besides, my Russian isn't nearly good enough.

So we found a suitable grocery store. Grocery stores here tend to be a bit smallish with less selection, require you to check your bags, and to go through a one-way metal gate to enter. Then the only way for you to then exit is past a cash register. Yep, you are pretty much figured to be a thief until proven otherwise (at least that is how I see this lay-out through my American eyes). When you pay, your rubles will be routinely scanned under a black-light to see if it is counterfeit. I wanted to make a photo of this but I was told "nyet".

All the women at these registers sit. (I never saw a single young man working a cash register.) And for some reason, all the women who work at these registers seem to be of a single type - young, round-faced, round-bottomed, not too tall. Like later day milkmaids or something. I don't want to perpetuate a stereotype, but that is the sort that I have seen in the dozen or so grocery stores I have visited in my visits to Russia.

What other things were different? More smoked meats, smoked fish, and sausages than you see in the US. Less beef steaks and various cuts of meats. Liquor is sold in groceries stores, which you won't typically find in the US. Over-the-counter drugstore or personal items (Shampoos, toothpaste, etc.) required us to check out of the grocery section and go to the other section of the store. I am sure there are stores where these products are mixed, I just haven't seen them.

Lastly ... Music. What is with Russian stores and this boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom house music pounding pounding pounding pounding all the time? Electronic dance-hall crap. Bump bada bump bada bump bada bump bada bump bada bump bada bump. It is all I hear in Russian stores. I thought this American soft Muzak was bad. But after 20 minutes in a Russian grocery store I'm about ready to pull all my hair out. Russians seem to tune the pounding disco house music dance club beat out ... which just goes to conditioning, I suppose. I found that it just made me want to get out of the store as quickly as possible, however.

Carrying the bags of food back to the Exeter House only reinforces my impression of how lazy we Americans are about some things. Like walking. Man, are we ever lazy about walking. Russians will walk for kilometers in the wintertime with bags of groceries. If I am going a kilometer or more almost anywhere, it usually involves a car. And it isn't that I don't enjoy walking, when I am forced to do it (like in Russia). I find it rather pleasant. But, why would I take 30 minutes to walk somewhere, when I can drive there in 5 minutes? I think it must be a cultural thing ... Americans might see it as wasting time to walk ... Russians might wonder what is your hurry?

Katja and I decided upon chicken breasts with rice for one meal dinner and pasta with peppers and tomato for the other. She has real stomach problems with anything that is too greasy or too spicy. Katja perpetually is drinking Borjomi to keep her stomach calm, due to this. She claims it is all related to salmonella poisoning with some bad smoked fish when she was young. Dysbacteriosis, almost never diagnosed in the US ... is a fairly common Russian diagnosis.

I brought a portable DVD player with me, and fortunately I could connect it to the smallish TV at the Exeter House. This allowed us to watch a string of movies together. Almost Famous. Ray. The Last Samurai. Rob Roy. My Fair Lady. Gattaca. Dances with Wolves. The 13th Warrior. And Katja's favorite, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Yep, seems that American Redneck humor is a real favorite with her. I had to explain some of the jokes, but she still thought it was very funny. I hadn't even BOUGHT that disk, my parents gave it to me, almost as a joke.

And so we settled in to a few quiet days in Yaroslavl, before our long day of travelling back into Moscow, where we would meet Anja and end this trip.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Day 6 - Beer for Breakfast, Lenin in the Snow

Day 6, Beer for Breakfast and Lenin in the Snow - Surprisingly, I was the last one awake on New Year's morning. Typically I wake up rather easily and somehow I managed to snore for a bit longer than everyone else. But I was bright and chipper. Natasha told me with a small smile that Putin had announced Ukraine was cut off from Russian gas. Katja said later that even Putin was smiling when he made the announcement. From what I gathered, the whole thing was rather theatrical, with a staged shutting off of the gas shown on TV. It certainly seemed to raise Russian spirits, to get some revenge on Ukraine. Even though Katja says she is at least 1/4 Ukrainian herself, it seems Russians are annoyed with these Ukrainians complaining all the time about Russia. The grudge match between these two countries seems all rather personal. I have my personal opinions about all this, but I'll skip that for now.

We had some breakfast (coffee instead of tea, although I usually drink all tea when in Russia. When in Rome ...) and Katja's grandfather came over to visit. I had met him the night before, but he was quiet and left the festivities early. He seems like a rather serious man, actually. I had saved my last (and heaviest) New Years gift for him. He is apparently a beer drinker and has been for most of his life. Katja had suggested a bottle of American Beer for him. Hmmmmm ... some gift, sez I. I had originally wanted to mail him a 12-pack of Sam Adams Beer, the mixed 12s that they have around the holidays. But she felt that was too much or too heavy to carry and the mail might break the bottles.

So I compromised and carried a 6-pack of mixed Sam Adams (in bottles, of course) in my duffle bag. Boston Lager, Boston Ale, Black Lager, Old Fezziweg, Cranberry Lambic, and Winter Lager. I thought it would be tasty enough and interesting enough, and certainly better than Bud, Coors, or Miller (Miller seems to be quite popular in Russia ... and I consider it the least worthy of the big 3 American Beers). A couple of bottles were cracked open to try, and Sergei and Natasha each had small glasses and tastes of the beer. Sergei asked what was IN the beer, and our weird product laws actually don't require beers to list ingredients. I know he was wondering what bad, unnatural, American stuff we were dumping into our beer, even if it tasted good. I told him that I believe Sam Adams was the only American beer to meet Bavarian purity standards for beer (actually their advertisements persuaded me this was the case). In any case, the beer seemed a popular choice and a little hair of the dog never hurt anyone.

After that, Katja and I were off for a walk. I wanted to try to get some photos of the town while the weather was clear and the snow as fresh. We also had to get train tickets for later that evening. Along our way we came upon Katja's old school. I made some rather nice photos of V.I.L. under some snow ... I thought they came out rather well, all things considered. How did I describe the school when I returned to the U.S.? "A once proud building that has seen better days." It is hard for me to imagine that this is where Katja spent much of her school years, after her family moved from Almaty to Rostov Veliky. She says that it has the highest ceilings of any school building in Russia ... which given the architecture and height of the stories is easy to believe. I imagine that it seemed more like a museum than a school, however. One ironic point is that I graduated from the oldest public school in Vermont (People's Academy ... how is that for a communist sounding public school?) and the architecture of the two buildings isn't all that different. I didn't get to walk in Rostov's school, but the old wooden floors of PA creaked like you wouldn't believe.

Katja and I made our way around past the Kremlin and around the lake, down towards the soldier's barracks. I may have some photos of that walk later, if the film comes out decent. We found one open store and got a few last minute items for her mother. We had dinner before departing, Victor came over and Alexander their neighbor .. and we had some more vodka. I teased Victor a little bit about his missing midnight the night before, he smiled and was rather cheerful about it. I think Alexander was feeling a bit less shy and he started to ask me some questions about American politics, wondering about my opinions of George Bush, and curiously, Condoleeza Rice. I tried to explain a few points of American politics. Most Russians are just as clueless about American politics as the typical American is of Russian politics. Clinton is considered a rather good president, by Russians, it seems. This is despite the fact that they remain angry at the US for Kosovo (which would probably surprise many Americans ... We think, what is there to be angry about in Kosovo? And why would Russians care about it?) But I digress.

Also, let me make a small comment on Russian tea (chai in Russian ... a word that is increasingly familiar to Americans) and this neighbor, Alexander. Normally, Russian tea is made in a small pot with loose black tea leaves. This makes the brew, or zavarka. Then you add hot water (kipyatok) to make the tea the strength you want to drink. The first time I had Russian tea (long ago in Bishkek), I feel that I embarassed myself by pouring my cup almost full of zavarka, not realizing that hot water was to be added in the 2nd step. Ignorant American coffee-drinker that I am, I had no idea how this worked or why. Well ... this guy Alexander routinely drinks zavarka and only zavarka and in the biggest cup he can find. I mean, a big cup even by coffee mug standards. I made a joke about it being "maximum chai" but he insists everyone else drinks tea wrong. He called his brew "minimum chai" meaning it was the minimum that tea should be .. stronger would be better. I love strong black coffee ... but this was something else. Either way, it is a pain in the butt for the host to make several pots of zavarka, just for this guy.

Because of this, I got a little side lesson from Katja regarding tea, Russian prisons, and something called "chephyr". Apparently very very strong tea can have rather potent effects ... like speed. Russian prisoners will cook the stuff down into a strong black brew, called chephyr. While Alexander had not been in prison (thank god) he had a taste for very strong tea and the caffeine buzz that it produces. I suggested he try espresso ... to my surprise he had never heard of it!

We also played Russian Lotto, which was new to me. Basically not too different from Bingo, but no letters are involved. We all took turns calling numbers, which was an interesting challenge for me when it was my turn ... but I don't think I made any mistakes, even if I spoke a bit more slowly than everyone else.

And then we were off to Yaroslavl again. For some mysterious reason, I was very sad again when leaving Katja's parents home. It isn't much by American standards ... but they have a good life and I enjoy and respect her parents a great deal. I always am thinking about my now deceased grandparents in Vermont and how I felt visiting them as a boy, when I am visiting Katja's family in Rostov the Great. And at this point I also know that my trip is more than half over as well.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Days 5 and 6 - New Year's in Rostov Veliky

Days 5 and 6, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in Rostov the Great - So now we are in Katja's hometown, Rostov Veliky. If you know nothing about Rostov V., it is worth checking out (these photos are from late September). We were returning there to spend the holidays with Katja's family, which really was one of the main reasons I had come ... to spend a real Russian New Year's with Katja. We had spend time decorating the New Year's Tree with Sergei mostly in charge on the evening of the 30th (this ritual not really differing from decorating a Christmas Tree). Today was going to be spent largely on food preparation. We were to go to Katja's aunt and uncle's place in the afternoon, where Sergei and I would enjoy a trip to the banya. Then we would have a large dinner in the late afternoon, and return in the early evening to Katja's parents home for a supper and the remainder of New Year's.

Through all of this, I really didn't have all that much to do. Katja and I attempted to get some train tickets for our New Years day return to Yaroslavl and the Exeter House. This was thwarted by the woman (aka the Ticket Nazi) at the ticket office telling us "No tickets for you! Come back tomorrow, maybe I will feel like selling them then!" She actually said that they didn't know yet what tickets might be available, which I find hard to believe. I think where we were just short riders (about an hour from Rostov V. to Yaroslavl), they didn't want to exclude others from making purchases who might be travelling from Moscow to a more distant region. Still, the bluntness or rudeness of the woman surprised even Katja. Yes, yes, we all know the cliche ... the idea of friendly customer service hasn't really arrived in Russia yet. When you do get service that is friendly and timely, it really should be appreciated. That being said, I should also add that Russians are nowhere near as dour or unfriendly as many portray them. I am often pleasantly surprised. Later in this trip, I will come to the conclusion that Katja brings this out in Russian people also.

After our failure at the ticket office, we were off to get an appropriate gift for Katja's aunt. I had brought a bottle of Bailey's Irish Creme as a gift, but it was traditional that we bring something else for the dinner host. Natasha had suggested a plant, so we were going to find something at a flower shop. Also, I had forgotten my gloves back in the US, so this was a perfect opportunity to visit the market in Rostov and buy a pair of nice Russian-style fur gloves for me. I also had in mind to get some fur-lined mittens for my daughter, Rebecca.

Real Fur Gloves!
The woman selling the fur gloves was quite a character ... born saleswoman, I would say. Katja did most of the talking, as my Russian is suspect. The saleswoman picked up on the fact that I was a foreigner (sometimes I pass as Russian, but only if I keep my mouth shut). She asked where I was from, and was VERY EXCITED when she found out I was American. We tried on a couple of pairs, and found some that Katja and I both approved. Postscript to this purchase - The week after I left, Katja had decided to get some fur gloves for my son Tyler also. She returned and the same saleswoman was there, telling Katja how her
gloves were SO GOOD THAT EVEN AMERICANS BUY THEM! She had been using my visit to her booth as a marketing strategy! I should send that woman a little American flag and placard reading "Fur Gloves So Good, Even Americans Want Them!" She apparently didn't immediately recognize Katja, so Katja laughingly explained to her .... "oh yes, they are so great that I am here to get a pair for his son also!" It was pretty funny. I wish I had made a photo of that saleswoman just to show you here. I would be quite impressed if these fur gloves were made by her or actually made in Russia. Unfortunately I suspect from the label that they are imported from China or something.

They are real fur, however; Sergei tested them with a match as soon as we returned home with them. All natural products are generally considered superior in Russia. I myself think that some natural products are better but some man-made materials can out-perform mother nature ... but it isn't a topic for debate here. Just remember when in Russia ... natural is good, unnatural is bad. The idea of natural vs. unnatural
and its implications will be a topic for another post, where I will expand greatly on this idea and its implications in world culture and attitudes towards and even within the United States. You think I am joking, but this is really one of my pet peeves.

Ooh! Снежная королева
One great discovery that we made at a bookstore is an illustrated Russian version of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen" (Снежная королева). The illustrations are what really sold me on this book to give to my kids. The illustrator is Vladislav Erko (Владислав Эрко) and I would have to say he is quite brilliant. From what little I can gather, he lives in
Ukraine and has done illustrations for Russia or Ukraine editions of Alice in Wonderland and the Harry Potter series as well. Very detailed and richly designed stuff, I would definitely consider just buying a print as a gift or to hang on my wall above my desk. I will be doing a post about Mr. Erko a bit later on, I am still researching where you might be able to buy copies of his work or find him elsewhere in print.

Ты думаешь, что я не человек?
Our errands were complete, so we returned home to find Sergei and Natasha getting busy for the holiday. Along the way, I happened to bump shoulders with some Russian guy (he was drunk). I am being polite to say I bumped shoulders, he sort of banged into me as we walked around a corner. He wasn't a very big guy and he started yelling some things at me. He ostensibly wanted to ask a question, but I realized he also had an alterior
motive ... to start some trouble with a guy bigger than him. What is it with short guys anyway? I kept my eyes front and kept walking away from the Russian Napoleon. I understood only a little bit, but Katja confirmed that he was trying to start a fight, yelling "You don't think I am a MAN!? COME BACK HERE!" He wasn't alone though, and his buddy kept him walking the other way. Interesting to see that drunken billigerent behavior isn't exclusively an American trait. Katja and I both think he hadn't realized I was American, or else he might have been more persistent.

Ahhhhh .... BANYA!

So now it was time to head to Katja's aunt and uncles place for the all-important banya. As I had done this only once before, I was going with Sergei again. Sergei is a
banya master - he brings to the banya the same interest, curiosity, and knowledge that he displays in all things that interest him. He goes to the banya every week and I would be willing to bet that he can write a short history of the Russian banya and how it differs from sauna, etc.

Victor (Katja's uncle) has a rather nice banya. I've tried to make photos of it, but they always come out very steamy (duh!) ... but it is nearly as nice as this one on the left (which is some finnish style sauna, but follows some of the same principals. It is a white sauna with a wood stove in the same area as the predbannik (предбанник) just outside the entrance to the steamy banya. I guess Victor and Sergei collect the white birch branches for the venik themselves (you can buy them in the store, but of course this is inferior to collecting your own). There are two faucets in the banya, one for hot and the other for cold water. You have a ladle for throwing water on the exposed part of the stove and making steam (chut' chut', pozhaluista!). Unlike this arrangement in the photo, the benches are closed off and the wood is slightly inclined so water placed on it drains to one end. The wood benches get quite hot themselves, so water placed on them before sitting is essential. There are two large bowls for water (one for each user) and felt hats to wear on your head (you think I'm joking? I'm not) that look sort of like Kyrgyz-style felt kolpaks.
In between steam sessions, we went out into the snow. It wasn't quite deep enough for a tumble in the snow, but we found some clean stuff and rubbed it on our upper bodies ... before returning to the steam. I felt much more comfortable this time, than my first banya in September. I'm thinking it would be great to do this once a week ... Hey Victor, how do I build a banya anyway?

Having throughly steamed ourselves, it was time to eat ... we were running a little bit behind
schedule anyway. I was sorely under dressed for the occasion, but Katja told me not to worry about it. I'm American, so I can get away with it, I guess. I should have made more photos of the food, Oleg (Katja's cousin ... his name is properly pronounced almost as "Alek") made quite a good salad and some spicy sweet pork as well. He fancies himself a chef, but Katja has a difficult time with fatty or spicy food ... so she is never able to enjoy his cooking. Oleg, Katja, and I are stage right ------->

During dinner, Viktor had it in mind to get me drunk. ;">He was nearly successful, I matched him for about the first 4 or 5 vodkas during the meal, but I am thinking .... long-range (it was only about 6 or 7 pm at this time) and I didn't want to pass out under the table by 11 pm. I took a sip of orange juice around the 6th toast and he pronounced himself the winner ... I'm thinking that we hadn't made it to the finish line yet! :-) He's running a sprint and I am looking to run a marathon, I suppose ...

I found out later that he "fell asleep" before midnight. I joked with him and asked how his head was the next day. He actually seems like a rather good-natured man, he does rather well in business for himself
(although I guess he did even better under communism). Sergei did rather well and steered clear of vodka for the evening, choosing to partake of some white wine instead. Clever man!

So now Katja, Ira (her other cousin) and I are off to Katja's house to finalize some of the food preparation. They also were trying to pry me away from her Uncle Viktor, as he was enjoying drinking too much with me around! I must encourage bad habits ... shame on me! I was trying to be in the spirit, singing some songs and laughing it up on the phone with Katja's dear groupmate Anja ("Oh Anja, our New Year's is terrible without you!"). Apparently I was a dead-ringer for being drunk, although I figure 6 vodkas in two hours while eating isn't too bad. We had a nice frosty walk home in the dark ... there is something about winter, snow, and the night time that I find peaceful.

Well, except for the racket I was making.

At Katja's home we set about chopping more onions for the bizhbarmak (Бижбармак) we were having later and shredding beets and carrots for salads. I tried to do most of the slicing. Natasha has a device for this, like something Ron Popeil would sell, but perhaps more sturdy. I was
schooled on the proper technique, apparently it is better to lift the holder each time and put it down and make a slice ... rather than the back-and-forth sawing motion I employed. Still I managed to do ok and it put me to some task other than drinking for the next hour or so!

Now everyone was dressed and ready for the late evening celebrations. I had a Santa Claus hat that I dragged out, Katja had bunny ears and Sergei has a sort of jesters hat with bells. Yep, she changed clothes from the red tunic style sweater she had on earlier. Later, Alexander their next door neighbor would show up with a sort of .... dog costume. Was rather festive actually.

Dinner was great, of course .. and I had only a little more vodka (Katja would kill me if I had too much ... very poor form, you know). Natasha is a rather good cook and she had been working on aspects of this meal all week (such as the ballerina cake which took over a day to prepare). I have a good photo of her, I'll show her being rather dignified in a midnight blue velvet dress. We gave out New Years gifts also, I had a stash of items I had carried from the US ... and I got a Russian flag and some other excellent items in return. Katja knows all my secrets, and is very thoughtful (are you reading this, dear?)

Of course, the big highlight of the evening was Putin's speech, pre-recorded and timed rather well to be shown just seconds before the stroke of midnight (I was told it is usually about 10 minutes before, but this year it was finished just moments before). I suspect he was in front of a blue screen, and his background was almost an implausibly perfect image with the night time view of the Kremlin walls, a spotlight on a proudly waving Russian flag ... really not subtle but rather nicely framed. So what did Putin say on this festive occassion? Something to the effect of:

"My fellow Russians. I speak to you tonight ..................................... to reflect on our many challenges .... in 2005. ........................................... It was not an easy year for us .............................................. but despite this we had .... many proud successes .................................... and we look forward to an even greater year in 2006. С новым годом!!"

Man, that guy can draw out a dramatic pause like no one else. It is like Mr. Rogers if he had become a politician. He also manages these small ... pursing of the lips ... as if he is seriously contemplating what he just said, or weighing the words he is about to speak. Very serious, very DIGNIFIED. It is important to remember that word, boys and girls, when speaking about Russia. Despite so many roots (or maybe because of these roots) in peasant culture, Russians are often dignity-minded. Yeltsin was sort of a buffoon to many of them (well, ok, I guess I can see that). Bush's poor manner of public speaking and overly blunt and assertive behavior doesn't lend him much dignity in their eyes either. Besides, they are mostly all sure he still drinks like a frat-boy.