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.

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