Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Back from the Dead & Back in the USSR

Reviving this blog after years of neglect.  The last four years in a nutshell- Russia, teaching, vodka, adventures, Pittsburgh, grad school, coffee, new adventures.  Managed to get back to the East and it feels good to be here, for a little while, at least.  My home for the next couple months is the absolutely delightful Kyiv.
Beautiful Kyiv

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"To Russia We Drink and Pour Again"

It had been a while since I had done anything touristy and stereotypically Russian, and culinary blogger and expat extraordinaire Jennifer Eremeeva (The Moscovore) was organizing an excursion to the Vodka Museum, so of course I signed up immediately.  Over the summer I had been in the vodka museum in Mandrogi, which had an impressive array of bottles from different eras and areas, but our schedule was tight and we only had time to admire the bottles and do a couple of shots before we had to run back to the good ship Sergei Rachmaninoff.  
Thus, I set off for the museum, which is housed in the fake kremlin next to the huge souvenir market at Izmailovsky (a Disney-esque structure minus the charm/magic of Disney) with a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for little water.  I made good time getting out to the Izmailovsky market complex, which was looking slightly more charred than usual as the result of a recent fire.  A friend of mine's friend knows the guy who owns the whole thing, and the fire was, to put it mildly, not an accident.  Neither were the previous two fires.  When you're the mafioso who operates the largest souvenir market in Russia, you're bound to make a few enemies.  Happily, the blaze had not affected the Vodka Museum, and the tour proceeded in an informative and entertaining fashion.

We got a pretty thorough history of the origins and development of vodka, which I shan't recount in its entirety because you can read about it on Wikipedia.  But some of my favorite fun facts were Peter the Great's 'penalty shot' rules, and the drunkard's medal.  Peter, in addition to being a fan of mustaches and a proponent of Western technologies, was something of a prankster.  Like most Russians, he enjoyed throwing a good party and occasionally having a laugh at his guests' expense.  Anyone who arrived late to a Peter the Great party had to take a penalty shot of vodka, a tradition which prevails with some people to this day.  The modern penalty shot is about 50 milliliters, however Peter, being a man of great stature and greater tolerance, considered an appropriate penalty shot to be one and a half LITERS, which meant that said latecomer usually spend the remainder of the evening on the floor.  So fond of this trick was Peter that he took to invoking the penalty shot rule on guests who were NOT late, to the point that foreign dignitaries began only attending the parties in pairs, so that one could take shot/floor duty and the other could talk policy with Peter.  Despite drinking heavily and often, Peter was able to stay coherent after DAYS of drinking, and he simply could not abide a drunkard.  In order to make an example of people who couldn't keep themselves together, he introduced the drunkard's medal, a 'prize' given to common folk found guilty of public drunkenness.  This engraved, weighty medal was designed to be worn around the neck, thus providing a major inconvenience for the wearer, as well as exposing him to the ridicule of his neighbors.

One more story, because it's a good one- Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg has an extraordinarily long spire topped by an angel statue, which is, of course, a striking and distinctive architectural detail, but it also means that maintenance is a pain in the rear.  In 1830, the angel's wing was broken by a storm, and city administrators searched all of Russia for someone brave/foolhardy enough to climb the spire and repair the wing without the aid of scaffolding.  They were about to abandon hope when Pyotr Telushkin, a plucky peasant from Vyatskoye, stepped forward.  Telushkin succeeded, and everyone was tremendously pleased.  The Tsar was so pleased that he summoned Telushkin and told him that he could have any reward he desired.  Telushkin revealed that what he most desired was a document with the Tsar's seal that would allow him to drink for free in any establishment in Russia.  The Tsar acquiesced, and Telushkin got his document, which he promptly lost after a night of imbibing.  He returned to the Tsar and asked for another, which the Tsar refused with the rationale that Telushkin would just lose that as well.  The Tsar found a brilliant solution however (what else are Tsars for?) and had the contents of the document tattooed on Telushkin's neck.  For the rest of his life, Telushkin had only to expose his neck to any barkeep in the Motherland, and he could drink to his heart's content.

Designed to look like an ordinary workman's toolbox, this was actually a clever vodka-smuggling apparatus. Lined with velvet so the bottles wouldn't rattle.

"Vodka without beer is money to the wind"

"No to drunkenness!  Sobriety is the norm of life!"

Counterfeit Smirnoff. Also, you used to be able to buy vodka in cans such as those. Those were the days...?

Found a bear.
So yeah, the museum was a little touristy, but also full of fun facts and cool things to look at.  Our tour also included a traditional Russian lunch of salad, borsch, salmon, rice, and blini, and, of course, a vodka tasting, which included a mild honey brew, a berry-derived vodka which was more reminiscent of madeira or something along those lines, and a standard but quality clear vodka.  I give the overall experience my stamp of approval- if you get the chance, check it out!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Museum of "Mosfilm Cinema Concern" and Other Things Worthy of Admiration

The excursion to Mosfilm film and tv studios on Friday was a little bit of a letdown.  It wasn't so much about how films are made as much as "here are some things that may or may not have been in films.  Admire them!".  Though the promotional material they gave us promised a "chance to see the mysterious and magic world of cinema", the tour was focused on showing off the studio's collection of antique cars and costumes.  This is something of a theme I've noticed with Russian museums/attractions: they aren't so much concerned with interesting facts, a unique experience, or "fun" as much as they are with forcing you to admire objects which they have deemed worthy of admiration.  For instance, I went to both the Tolstoy museum and the Pushkin museum today, and didn't learn anything new about Tolstoy or Pushkin.  The Tolstoy museum was focused on manuscripts and photographs (including pretty much an entire roomful of Lev Nikolayevich looking imposing and beardly), while the Pushkin museum was filled with portraits of Pushkin's relatives and contemporaries whom he might have known, and various trinkets from his life.  Each room of the Pushkin museum was also equipped with a startlingly pushy babushka to make sure you didn't breathe on the exhibits the wrong way and showed proper appreciation for all items.  For example, in the very first room:

Aggressive Pushkin Museum Lady: Did you read that sign*?
Us: Yes
Lady: It's very important that you read it!  Go read the sign.
Me: I read the sign.
Lady: Go read it again!
Me: Okay, I will! (hustles over to sign to avoid wrath of Russian museum lady) 
*There was nothing that important on the sign.  It just explained how the house came to be used as a museum.

She then started to single us out:
Lady: Did you look at the items on the table?
Megan: Yes, I looked at all of them.
Lady: What was that one called?
Megan: I don't remember...?
Lady: You weren't paying attention!  Some people think it's a candelabra.  BUT IT'S NOT.  It's a *somethingsomethingsomething*.
Megan: Okay, Sorry.
(We flee to the next room)

Later on in another room I am standing and reading a sign.  Around this room are chairs for guests to sit in.  You can differentiate between the chairs meant for sitting and the chairs meant for display because the chairs meant only for display have a little rope across the arms.  Apparently, while I was reading the sign my knee was touching a chair (WHICH WAS NOT A DISPLAY CHAIR BECAUSE IT DIDN'T HAVE A ROPE).
Me: (Reading sign)
Angry Pushkin Museum Babushka: Stop doing that!
Me: ?
Babushka: Don't lean on that chair! Why are you doing that?  Stop touching the chair, devushka*!
Me: (jumps away from chair to avoid further scolding...)
*devushka can mean "Miss" or just "girl" depending on context/tone.  The way she said it, I'm pretty sure it meant "girl".

Anyhow, back to Mosfilm.  No one got a scolding, but the tour guide seemed about as excited to be there as at a dentist appointment.  She explained in monotone how various props and costumes were acquired and what movies they were used in.

Costumes, yay
Room full o' heads

There were some neat things, though.  My favorite was a life-size recreation of a section of old Moscow.  The set was pretty large, big enough that you could go into the center and not see anything beyond the set, so that for an instant you could imagine you were in the Moscow of old.

Full-size model of several streets of Old Moscow.  Pretty cool.

This mural was pretty cool, too

The worst part was an animatronic diorama portraying a scene from the first horror film to be made in the USSR.  It's called "Viy", based off of Gogol's story of the same name, and is about a guy who has to read prayers for three nights over the body of a witch.  Terrifying things happen, and on the third night Viy, the King of Gnomes, appears and the guy dies of sheer fright.  The diorama was laughably cheesy and lame, but the gnomes were still dreadful.  These aren't cheerful little guys in green caps who steal flower pots and giggle.  These are eat-your-beating-heart-and-torture-your-corpse-for-eternity gnomes.  The recollection of it has been enough to make me uncomfortable to go to sleep for the past few nights.  I seriously considered running out for some holy water and chalk (which you can probably buy at any babushka kiosk.  They sell everything else under the sun, so I wouldn't be surprised).
Moving diorama of Gogol's "Viy".  Truly the stuff of nightmares. 
Afterwards we grabbed lunch at a popular and tasty cafeteria-style restaurant called Moo Moo.  This is usually an adventure in itself; I just put stuff on my tray and find out what it is when I bite in.  One thing that I expected to be a roll was actually filled with apples and cinnamon, and one thing I expected to be a dessert pastry was filled with veggies and egg.  Still good!
We then putzed around a big mall for a while.  Though I don't hang out at the mall much at home, I think it's a good sociological study to see what kinds of things people are shopping for, what people are wearing, and what is in demand/valued in a certain society.  People-watching is a great way to learn.

Promotional event for 'smooth taste' cigarettes outside the big mall near Kievskaya.  These talented individuals were teaching the crowd dance moves to 90s hip hop.  Way entertaining.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Туда и Сюда - Around Town pt. I

Cathedral of Christ the Savior.  This one was built in the 90s, Stalin had the original torn down and a huge outdoor swimming pool sat in its place for many years.

Ahh, a lion!

The statue "A Worker and Kolkhoz Woman".  So much better seen in person.  I don't care who you are: this thing is inspiring.

The Cosmonaut Memorial.  The memorial is in the shape of the trajectory of Yuri Gagarin's launch, I believe.

Alexander II contemplating the Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Obligatory St. Basil's shot

Red Square from inside St. Basil's

One of the "Seven Sister" buildings as seen from Moscow River

Basic Incompetency

I'm no stranger to confusion.  I spend probably 50% of my normal daily life not being exactly sure what is going on.  Here it's more like 80%.  I exist in a state of perpetual confusion, and for the most part, I'm okay with this.  Being perplexed forces you to pay more attention to your surroundings, and you learn more.  Something I'm still not accustomed to, however, is the difficulty in making myself understood and the challenge of completing simple interactions.  Even if I try to prep myself by practicing the phrases I will use and looking up any words I might need beforehand, there are always curveballs.  This usually results in my signature Blank Stare, which is answered by a "what is your problem" stare from whoever I'm talking to.  Because I look like I could be Russian, the first assumption is that I'm an idiot.  Depending on how long the interaction lasts, the other party may or may not realize I'm a foreigner.  How Evgeni Malkin sounds to us when he gives interviews in English is basically how I sound to Russian people when I speak Russian.  Some examples of me in action:
Going to try on clothes at the store:
Me: I have four clothings.
Fitting Room Lady: This is the men's fitting room.
Me: (signature Blank Stare)
Fitting Room Lady: ...This is the men's fitting room.
Me: (comprehension dawning) Oh, I'm sorry.

Getting lunch in the cafeteria:
Guy in Line Behind Me: афйоаьгвкьйлвнйлауиькфмднвканйиелрчриайк *
Me: Pardon me?
Guy: авнйкнвишеуфоерфуионмвйчуиераписдк?
Me: (Blank Stare) I'm sorry, I don't understand.
Guy: (gives "are you an idiot" stare) You don't understand?
Me: No, I am a foreign student.
Guy: (gives up)
*I think he was trying to make small talk about the juice with fruit in it that they usually have at lunch.  No clue.  Maybe he was saying it was good, or that it wasn't good?  I drank it anyway.  No adverse affects.

Getting a hot dog in a pretzel roll from the food stand owned by possible Kazakh gypsies:
Me: I would like one hot dogs, please.
Possible Kazakh Gypsy Lady: What?
Me: Hot dogs?  In a roll?  I would like?
Possible Kazakh Gypsy Lady: A sausage?
Me: No, a hot dogs, please. (pointing to the hot dogs in the window)
Possible Kazakh Gypsy Lady: Aha! (gold-toothed smile)
Me: (smile of relief because I am getting a hot dog) Thank you!

Man, those hot dogs are delicious.  Overall, I'm okay with people thinking I'm an idiot, because I know I'm making progress.  Last night though, I went to see a play ("Three Years" by Chekhov) of which I understood very little, and by the time I got out of the theater I was exhausted and felt dumb as a brick.  I was having a lot of trouble putting coherent sentences together and conversing with the Russian people that we were with, which was making me more exhausted, which was making me more incoherent, and so on.  I'm pretty sure they thought I was a complete airhead, which I'm not okay with, and so by the time I got home I was very grumpy.  The only remedy for that is to get some rest and remember that tomorrow is a fresh day with no mistakes in it (yet!).
A gorgeous pink palace I saw while walking around last night.  Possibly Catherine the Great lived here?  Too tired to have any idea what was going on at this point.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Onward, Comrades!

The Most Uncomfortable Seat in the House and Other Tales from Teatralnaya

Friday evening I had made plans to go see a ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre with a couple other students from our program.   I was instructed to get there early as we had to wait in line for student tickets, so I did, which was a good thing because I obviously don't understand the system.  There is apparently some type of understanding between the theater and Russian students and an informal handwritten list, prepared a day in advance, which saves your place in line for the next day (the day of the actual performance).  Luckily my friend knew about this and had put my name on the list for me.  Some Spanish tourists, however, were not so fortunate.  The Spanish couple had gotten to the theater early and were first in line, which makes sense in theory.  However, they made the grave mistake of thinking that things in Russia are done in a reasonable way.  One of the Russian students in charge of orchestrating the secret list/theater-student agreement got into a shouting match with them, and during the grand finale of this exchange Marina basically told the Spaniards that they had no rights in Russia.

While this was playing out, those whose names were on the list were engaging in the Russian tradition of standing in line while not actually standing in line.  In Russia, it is perfectly acceptable to go join someone that you know at their place in line, regardless of how long the line is or how long anyone else has been waiting (in the US, we call this "cutting"), and it doesn't create the same animosity among the other line-standers that it would in the US.  I myself stepped out of the line for a while to grab some ice cream and get some personal space (Russians don't have the same perception of personal space that Americans do.  I've been doing okay with this so far, but it is harder to deal with when I'm tired).  But people milled around, struck up conversations, left and came back, and some girl offered me ham.  Finally, we filed into the box office.  I presented my studienchisky billet (student ID) and 100 rubles to the unsmiling lady and was rewarded with a ticket.  Sergei, a fellow line-stander with whom I'd been speaking until my words ran out looked at our tickets and laughed.  "Do you understand that?" he asked, pointing to the seating information.  Indeed I did.  It read неудобное место, literally 'uncomfortable space'. 

"How bad could that be?" I thought to myself.  Well, it was pretty bad.  Our seats were at the top on the far left side, and it was impossible to see the stage.  Right as the show was about to start, the usher told us that we could go stand in a spot with a sightly better view.  As the show progressed, however, people filtered out of the theater, so we kept inching gradually over, and by the third act we had decent comfy seats that allowed us to see almost the whole stage.  I have zero complaints though.  For about three bucks I got to go into the Bolshoi (which is an experience in itself), and enjoy most of a ballet performed by incredible dancers with sumptuous costumes.

Afterwards, we walked around the Alexander Gardens for a little bit and then went to a cafe with Sergei and his friend, Sergei*.  It looked like a grubby Japanese restaurant from the street but was actually a sort of converted basement space, kind of industrial and modern and really cool, and something you would never find unless you were with Muscovites. 
It's Bolshoi!

*There is very little variation in Russian first names.  Since I've been here, I've only met one person with a name I didn't recognize.