Friday, July 30, 2010

"If You Like Something, You Need to Drink it"

Some sage words I received from my host father Sasha last night. I've been asked to write a little bit more about food culture in Russia, and I am all too happy to oblige. Food and drinking are, in my opinion, vital parts of the 'Russian experience', and some of my favorite times here have been spent over a good meal or a bottle of vodka. Russian food is often considered by foodies to be pretty damn horrible, but like their opinion about German cuisine, I have to disagree. I have found Russian food to be on the whole to be quite tasty. Unlike in America, Russian cuisine is still very much seasonal, the time of year very much dictates what one will find in the продукты (grocery store) or киоск (roadside kiosk, of which there are hundreds). Being the summer, I have eaten a lot of fish, and vegetables, and by vegetables I mean tomatoes, cucumbers, and the ever present dill. Meat, usually chicken fish or sausage, is in soup form, even in the hottest of weather. Борщ (borscht) is always a possibility, since everything seems to go well with beets, though often times soup will have barley or some other grain in it. Russians are positively obsessed with mushrooms, and they are considered quite the treat. One can often find them in the traditional Russian блины (a crepe like pancake) or served over rice or meat. I have eaten, (and also cleaned and gutted I am proud to say) quite a bit of fish, which can be a soup, served on its own, smoked, or salted. I quite enjoy salted and smoked fish, especially with a can of beer. In the summer, strawberries and raspberries round out my diet.
What is most fascinating in Russia however is the drinking culture. The American stereotype is that all Russians are drunk all the time, and that is partially true. A large segment of the Russian population, especially men, drink to excess. Drinking, as well as drugs such as heroine, are an escape from what for some is a rather miserable existence in the new Russia. As such, the average life expectancy for Russian men hovers right around 50, and Russia's ethnic Russian population is nosediving. Among 'cultured' Russians however, drinking is quite different. Russians really only drink on special occasions, what they don't tell you however, is that anything can be made into a special occasion. For example, a special occasion was the day after my first rabies shot, when I felt good enough to drink again. And let me tell you, when Russians drink, they drink. If I have learned one thing in Russia it is never try to out drink a Russian, you will lose, and in embarrassing style. My first Sunday here (at 6 am mind you) was spent in near horror as I was almost drunk under the table by a 16 year old Russian girl. Traditionally in Russia, special occasions were celebrated with vodka, and it was considered rude not to finish a bottle of vodka once it was opened (many old Russian vodka bottles can't be resealed once opened). This tradition still survives, and Russians will sit and make toasts (as I was told by one Russian, "You don't have a drinking problem if you aren't drinking alone or can still make a toast to something.") to one another with shots of vodka (no mixers here) chased with pickles or cucumbers, until they have drained one or more bottles. After the fall of the Soviet Union however, the price of vodka has skyrocketed (a bottle of Russian Standard will cost you at least 900 rubles, which for most Russians is quite a bit) and as such, beer and wine (often with a very high percentage of alcohol per volume) have become staples of Russian drinking culture. Russian food and drinking culture have deep roots in the Russian psyche. In the days of the Russian Empire, Russian Orthodoxy was a mainstay of peasant life. The bible preaches against wealth and the hording of wealth, and as such, Russians viewed, and still do, frugality and wise spending as negative character traits. This, coupled with a environment that was often times too hostile to grow food to eat, Russians came to become a culture of consumption. If Russians came into a large sum of money, food, or drink, it was immediately consumed, anything else would be un-Christian and un-Russian. That mentality, with a few exceptions, survives until this day. Russians don't save money, and good food is consumed almost immediately, the one exception I have seen being rare fruits like lemon, which are often rationed out in thin slices over many days, and even weeks!
Andrew, I hope you found this informative/coherent, I'll gladly chat with you about it more, Russian culture (food and drinking culture included) is so multi-faceted that it is almost too hard to describe in such a small amount of space.
In other news, I'm done with classes!!! Today was my last day of exams, and now I can officially say I have completed courses at an elite Russian university. Our last day was celebrated with a banquet, where every group did a small presentation, such as singing a song, or reading poetry. Our group did a short play of Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" with a script I borrowed from my Second Year Russian class at home. I reduxed my role as Lisa, the beautiful (?) grand daughter of the old campus. Once again, as seems to happen far too often in my time as a Russian student, I ended in a dress, much to the enjoyment of our classmates. The rest of the evening was spent with Lyuda, exploring the half of the water museum that was open. It was fascinating, and it was great to see Lyuda again. Our tutors had been payed for the time they had spent with us earlier in the semester, but it was really touching to learn that she considers me a friend, and wants to spend time with me on her own accord. That about does it from here, I'll hopefully post once more before we leave for the Arctic. Our first stop is going to be the Solovetsky Islands, then the island of Kizhi, and lastly the city of Petrazavodsk (in case anyone was interested in looking those places up).

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Been...

One week since I've posted last, I apologize once again. I got a lot to write so I might as well get down to it. When I left you last I was still haunted with thoughts of putting small children in jars. I am proud to say that since then I have not encountered any canned mutants, and I am rather content know that if I so choose, I never have to set foot in Kunstkamera again. My past week has been real busy, as evidenced by the fact that I didn't post anything. I spent Tuesday afternoon with Lyuda, trying first to find, and then go to St. Petersburg's "water museum". I was rather fascinated by the idea, what exactly does a water museum display, collections of rare water samples? The history of water? As it turns out, the water museum is a history of all of Peter's many different water ways and water works. I would like to say that the museum was fascinating, however, I never got to saw it. As per usual, the museum was inexplicably closed. We ended up spending the evening walking around the area, one of St. Petersburg's more scenic neighborhoods. Wednesday was spent as the mass grave for the victims of the Leningrad Siege. The area, where over 490,000 unidentified civilians and soldiers lie buried, is truly sobering, and oddly beautiful at the same time. To think that one could almost bury every American who died in the War in that same area is mind blowing. Not only that, but you could bury all the dead and NOT know who they were. The park, not typical of most things Soviet, is rather unpretentious in its design. Simple dirt mounds with stones marking the year of the grave, flank a central walkway leading up to a statue of "the Motherland" behind which stands a wall marking the spot as the place where the heroes of the city are buried. For being basically a piece of propaganda of the Soviet government, the words written there and the park as a whole were surprisingly touching and moving. I would have taken pictures, but of course that was the day my camera decided to malfunction and stop taking pictures. The rest of the week was spent in obscurity without a camera. The highlight being Friday, where a group of friends and I went to St. Mixail's Castle, otherwise know as the Engineer's Castle. I think I explained the history of the palace in an earlier post, so I'll forgo giving you all another long winded history lesson, however much I might enjoy them. The castle ended up being rather disappointing. The castle is filled with secret passages, trap doors, and tunnels built by the paranoid Tsar Paul, but the museum made no mention of them. Instead, it displayed some rather unimpressive Russian art from the 18th and 19th Centuries, which mostly consisted of Russian artists trying to rather poorly knock off the art of their decidedly more talented Western European compatriots. To top it all off, there was a temporary exhibition of contemporary and modern art. As some of you may know, I rather despise modern art, and let's just say this exhibit did nothing to change that feeling...
The weekend I spent doing things with my friend Evan. Everyone else went on a trip to the medieval city of Pskov, and only Evan and I were left to keep poor Peter company. Saturday we hoped to go to Pavlovsk, home of the Tsars after Catherine up until the end of the Monarchy in 1917. Due to some rather unexpected and rather heavy rain, we delayed our trip, and instead spent the afternoon at the Russian ethnographic museum. The museum, still heavily reminiscent of a Soviet propaganda effort, has seemingly endless displays of the endless number of ethnic groups in the former USSR's borders. The museum was thoroughly enjoyable, though the museum never explained how the shore dwelling reindeer herders (the rough translation of some ethnic group's name) managed to make not only clothing, but roofs and boats out of fish skin. I really wanted to know! I had no clue you could skin a fish, let alone use that skin to make a house!
Sunday we made our much anticipated trip to Pavlovsk, which is about 20 kilometers south of the city. The palace is surrounded by seemingly endless parks studded with, as my guidebook puts it, "hidden temples and the like", while we didn't find the Temple of Doom or anything like that, we did find some rather nice statues of Greek gods and perhaps my favorite structure круглый зал, or roughly translated, circley hall. The place itself was quite beautiful, but like all the Tsars' palaces, it was painfully ornate, often to the point of being garish. Sandwiched between tours in Russian, German, French, and English, we managed to learn quite a bit about the museum. The most interesting, ridiculous, and tragic part of the palace's history the Second World War. Occupied by the Germans in 1941, the palace, beyond being looted, as most all landmarks were by the Nazis, the palace largely survived four years of warfare intact. After the museum's liberation in 1945 something tragic occurred, the Red Army accidentally blew up the palace... Now, at this point, like me, you may be wondering, "How does one accidentally blow up one's palace?" I'll tell you, smoke a cigarette in a room full of landmines like one genius Red Army soldier, and you can kiss your cultural heritage goodbye. In the ensuing inferno the palace was largely reduced to rubble, understandable, since most of the palace's 100+ rooms had been booby-trapped with explosives. Due to a painstaking restoration effort however, the palace has been largely restored to its former grandeur.
Today was our second to last day of class, and probably my MVP performance of the summer. In addition to supplying a nearly ready written script for my classes final presentation (thanks to second year Russian we will be performing a comic rendition of Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" with me once again taking on the role of the beautiful young Liza) I spent over an hour today giving a presentation of Soviet Policy during the first months of WWII. Needless to say I was feeling pretty good about myself academically. To top it all off, I passed my first random document check by the Russian police. My ramshackle photocopy passport, coupled with my rather vehement assertions that all my documents were in order I'm pretty sure made the poor cop wish he had picked on someone else to try and extort for money.
That about does it from here, I'm currently lying on my bed recovering from a delicious dinner of sausage, sauerkraut, soup, and 11.5% alcohol by volume beer. And with that I leave you with a video of Russian tanks dancing ballet, oh Russia how I love thee. Hope all is well with you guys!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kunstkamera: I'd Like My Mutants Pickled Please...

Once again, sorry for the lack of posting, seems just have a tendency to crop up and unfortunately eating, sleeping, and going to school all come before blogging on my list of priorities. The past week has been an up and down one, sickness mixed with some fun mixed with some interesting adventures. It would take too long to write everything here so I'll give you the Reader's Digest version. Wednesday's excursion to the Baltika beer brewing factory was a lot of fun. Beer brewing is really fascinating to learn about, and being the biggest brewery in Europe, the factory tour was quite impressive. The tour ended in the sampling room, a huge table lined with multiple bottles of the 30+ beverages Baltika brews, plus some rather odd tasting (white mushroom flavor anyone?), yet extremely tasty chips. While much fun, my attempts to sample all thirty beverages ended in delightful failure, and the rest of the day was spent rather blissfully lying in the sun at the park. The rest of the week was quiet, the most interesting point probably being my failed attempt to purchase a copy of Cosmo in Russian. The woman behind the counter first stared at me, and then refused to sell me the magazine on the grounds that I am a man, and only women can read Cosmo. My assertions to the contrary were disregarded and rebutted, and I went home cosmo-less.
Today my friend Kelsey and I ventured to Kunstkamera, Peter's first public museum. Founded by the ever-busy Peter the Great, the museum was meant to dispel Russian notions that illness and child deformities were caused by such things as the evil eye and curses, but rather were caused by "internal damage as well as fear and the beliefs of the mother during pregnancy", only a slightly more enlightened interpretation, but a step in the right direction none-the-less. Regardless of its good intentions, I think both of us would agree that the museum is more gross than anything. In a few short words, imagine cases full of deformed fetuses (two-headed, cyclopses, and multiple limbed fetuses just to name a few), babies, decapitated heads of children, and random amputated limbs and organs, all nicely pickled in varying sized jars. Next to these rather morose displays, were rather gross (though informative) explanations of what was in the cases, how they were prepared, and how Peter came to acquire them. Apparently, in addition to his various other obsessions, Peter came to be rather engrossed in human anatomy and dissections during his time in the Netherlands. The collections were acquired from two Dutch (their names are far too garbled and Dutch to be memorable) men, one of whom apparently became rather famous for his life-like "jarrings". Basically, the man injected brandy mixed with pepper into the veins and tissue of his 'masterpieces' (the museum's words, not mine) to make them appear more life-like. His most famous works include various 'studies' (my words, not the museum's) in human intestine, and a preserved head of a child with glass eyes. Needless to say the museum is not for those who are weak in the stomach, have just eaten lunch, or plan on eating any time in the next week or so.
After the museum we sat in a park near the Admirality and the famous Bronze Horseman and recovered for a while. By a while I mean a few hours, in which every time I saw a small child or baby all I could imagine was them sitting in a pickle jar for 240 years. Now I'm going to try and eat dinner, a venture that may very well end in failure, wish me luck!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

St, Isaac's, Peter and Paul Redux, and Lyuda to the Rescue

My week up until this point has been very quiet. Sunday was spent at the hospital getting my third rabies shot, and wishing my mom a happy birthday. Even though all I did that day was walk the three or four miles to the clinic and back, I was exhausted. Unfortunately the vaccines seem to wipe me out, and afterward I always seem to wind up only having the energy to sog in front of the TV, though sometimes even that is hard. Yesterday was quiet as well, though I was successful in my quest to find an electrical adapter for my computer cable. Yesterday's second highlight was learning more about our final 8 day excursion. We're going to travel up north to the White Sea, later I'll be less lazy and include the names in a post so you guys can find them on a map if you want. Today was a fun day, I spent the afternoon with Lyuda and her college friend Olya. We went to St. Isaac's Cathedral, a really beautiful church whose rotunda you can climb and look out across the whole city. Being the idiot I am however, I forgot to put a memory card in my camera. I was in luck though, Lyuda had a camera and took pictures, hopefully she'll email them to me soon and I'll be able to post them here. Afterward we went on a very long walk (almost 5.5 miles by the end I believe), which took us through the Peter and Paul Fortress again, and to the Mixailsky Palace, or Engineers palace. Mixail was a rather paranoid tsar, and built the vibrantly orange palace with numerous secret passage ways and doors, in an attempt to foil assassination attempts. Ironically enough, after only forty days in the palace Mixail succumbed to the very thing he feared, assassination. He was strangled with a curtain by his military officers. The palace is surrounded by beautiful parks, one of which contains a rather nice (for Soviet architecture) memorial to Leningrad soldiers how died during World War II.
That about does it for me, I'm exhausted, and want to get enough sleep before our tour of the Baltika Beer Brewery tomorrow. I'll leave you with the picture of a shack made out of cardboard that has sprung up on the way I walk to the Metro.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Peter and Paul Fortress and Stachevember 2.0 Fail

I feel like I need to compensate for the fact that I didn't post much of anything this week. So here I am with my second post of the weekend. Today we were quite touristy and spent the day at the Peter and Paul Fortress, the center of old St. Petersburg and the city's main defensive installation. The fortress, in typical Russian fashion, is an inexplicable mix-match of things. Barouque, neo-classical, and any number of different style of architecture compete for attention, just as the varied different museums, monuments, and beaches compete for one's time. We started out our day at the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the city's first, and the final resting place for the members of the Romanov Dynasty. As most things commissioned by the Romanovs, the Cathedrals interior was ostentatious and opulent to the extreme, but the caskets however, were surprisingly plain. Simple white marble tombs with an orthodox cross on the cover. We spent a good hour there, tacking on to different tour groups and trying to puzzle together the long and complicated Romanov family tree. Except for wanting to give a piece of my mind to some Chinese tourist who chose to sit on some poor Tsar's tomb, it was quite enjoyable and one the highlights of the day. After a short break and some surprisingly good ice cream (who would have ever thought orange and mint ice cream would go well together with white chocolate?), we moved on to the fortress's prison, which housed such notable inmates as Maxim Gorky, Leon Trotsky, and Vladimir Lenin's brother. The prison was actually pretty boring, plus we had an insufferable group of French tourists in front of us, who took up the entire corridor and wouldn't let us past. After that it was off to the space museum (why would an 18th Century fortress have a museum about space and rocket technology you ask? I couldn't tell you...) another museum that was slightly disappointing, and probably hadn't seen an update since the end of the Soviet Union. Lastly, it was the fortress museum, which we had been led to believe was a walk along the fortress's walls. While that was not the case, the museum was fascinating and provided some relief from the sun outside. We ended our day with lying on the bank of the Neva outside the fortress. It was about seven, and while looking at the sun you would think it was still noon, it had cooled down to a rather pleasant temperature. After an hour of sun-bathing (my skin now almost doesn't look like I've lived in a dark cave my whole life) and "admiring" the Russians and their interesting swimwear choices (speedos don't look good on fat Russian men)I went back home.
Starting around the first of July, I was thinking about things I could do/write about in my blog. After too little thought, I settled on the idea of doing a second Stachevember. Stachevember, celebrated in November (hence the name) is a yearly exercise in humiliation as my friends and I spend a month growing rather disgusting mustaches (an accompanying facial hair). Stachvember is always fun, we write our own blog about it, and it's fun to watch us all grow from mostly well-kept young men into men who look like they're homeless. However, this Stachevember 2.0 was not at all fun. Needless to say, growing a grody disgusting beard by one's self in the middle of summer isn't really all that much fun. As such, as of today I officially throw in the towel and concede my attempts at Stachevemeber 2.0.
That about does it for me. I wanted to watch the Germany-Uruguay world cup game, but unfortunately the channel it was on comes through as static on my home tv. I hope the Germans won, I thought they deserved to go all the way to the finals. Tomorrow is my third rabies shot, but other than that I don't have anything planned, it might just turn into a homework day. Now I'm sitting and admiring the first true darkness I've seen in about a month (it's 1AM and the sun set about 20 minutes ago).

Friday, July 9, 2010

Я ещё живь: I'm still alive!

Hey all,
Sorry I've been MIA for the past week, I've had the week from hell. After my lovely day in the hospital Sunday my week just seemed to hover at shitty for a very long while. Monday and Tuesday were downer days, I guess coming off of an emotionally draining Sunday. Wednesday should have been better, but I ended up spending the day getting intimately acquainted with my apartment's toilet, as well as the bathroom at the Russian museum of political history. I think I ate something bad and got food poisoning, but whatever it was it was pretty unpleasant. That being said however my week did have some highlights.
Highlight #1. (If you can call it a highlight) I got my second rabies shot, I'm one step closer to not being rabid!
#2. I met my tutor finally this week! Her name is Lyuda and she's super friendly and super sweet. We went for a nice walk at the beginning of the week, and watched a new Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz movie in Russian at the movies last night.
#3. Not so much a highlight as an adventure. Tuesday I decided to walk home from school, thinking it would be a nice 45 minute walk or so to calm my nerves and relax. Needless to say I should have done a bit more looking at the map, because it was only after walking through some of Petersburg's seedier areas for two hours that I finally managed to stumble home.
#4. I got to talk to a lot of my friends from home this week who I hadn't heard from in a while. Thanks Mickey, Liv, Nicola, and Dana, you guys really helped me out this week!
Other than that all is quiet here. I might take the night off and try and get some sleep, but we'll see. This weekend is rather open, a planned trip to Pskov was moved, and except my rabies shot on Sunday, I have no commitments. I think I might go and see the Kunstkamera museum. A museum of deformed body parts and preserved animals collected by Peter the Great meant to educate the Russian people on "modern" science concerning disease and deformities. I was hoping to go see a soccer game next weekend, but according to everyone I talked to, there is approximately a 90% chance that if we try to go to a soccer game we will be beaten up by hooligans, harassed by the police, or arrested by the police because we're foreign (an unofficial crime it seems like in Russia) or some combination there of. Needless to say I don't think any soccer games are in my near future...
And with that I think I'm done, I'll leave you with some pictures of the rather scenic beginning to my multi-hour trek home on Tuesday.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


No, not the good kind of shots. I canceled my beach trip and decided to go to the doctor instead. After sitting for six hours, I was told I would need rabies shots. So instead of partying on the beach for the fourth I got two shots in the arm, one for tetnus and the other for rabies. And the good news doesn't end there. Not only am I lucky enough to get two shots, I get to have five more! I'm going to be getting rabies shots periodically for the next two months. A nice little memento from my summer abroad...
Hope everybody has a better 4th than I did.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Дача visit: A study in Fermented Bread, Physics, and Russian Field Medicine

The weather held up this weekend so I got my first chance to visit the дача (summer house). After a successful day at school (my tutor finally got in touch with me) a дача visit seemed like a perfect way to end the week. And it was. I met Aleksander Ivanovich (my host dad) at the електричка (a train as far as I could tell) station, and spent a lovely half-hour riding out into the Russian countryside. Once there, we met up with Aleksander Vassil'ich (my host grandfather I guess you could stay) and after buying fish from a none too sanitary looking styrofoam box on the side of the road, we set out to the дача. The evening was really quite wonderful. After having cleaned and gutted our recent fish purchase (I am pleased to announce that I am apparently a natural at fish-gutting) we had a delicious dinner of fish stew, sauteed hotdogs and the obligatory tomato/cucumber/dill salad. As I have discovered is typical of all gatherings of Russian men, alcoholic beverages were a necessity, and I had my choice of vodka, beer or квас, an oddly sweet drink made from fermented bread. After more than a few toasts to the victorious Dutch national team (congratulations Joost, if you even read this...) and a discussion about physics and religion with Aleksander Vassil'ich, I was quite exhausted and ended up falling asleep rather early.
I was up and at 'em early today though, and while I passed on trying to learn how to weld, I did do some yard work and helped pull out some weeds that had grown to block the door to the outhouse open. After, I decided to take a walk on the roads around the dacha. They all ran through some really beautiful birch forests, and I wanted to take some pictures.
This is the point however, where my story takes a turn for the decidedly comical. As I was walking home, after having arranged a gathering spot to celebrate the 4th of July tomorrow, and still musing about the rather funny looking milk truck (it was like an American oil truck, except it was full of milk) when all of a sudden I hear a dog barking from the woods. I think nothing of it and continue walking. All of a sudden out of nowhere I see this grayish-black blur burst out from the grass, I keep walking until I feel a sharp pain in my calf. I look down and this nasty little dog had latched its mouth until my leg. Needless to say I was none to pleased, and in a fit of annoyance, punted the little bastard back into the woods where he came from. For all you animal lovers out there I think the dog was ok, it yelped and ran back into the woods. I personally think it got what it deserved, as did the two babushkas behind me, who nodded rather approvingly after my display of long unused soccer skills.
The dog managed to put five little holes in my leg, which bled a surprising amount. Anyway, back at the dacha I was subjected to more home Russian medicine. Which in this case consisted of dumping near boiling water on my leg. As I writhed in pain, the logic of this rather sadistic treatment was explained to me. Fevers are meant to cook germs and kill them, the prevailing logic is that boiling water can be used to induce a similar affect. If enough boiling hot water is applied, ones blood will get so hot to the point that the germs will boil and die.
After my boiling treatment, and the application of a brown looking liquid to my leg, I was sent off home to (one can assume) receive more treatment in a place with clean, running water. Apparently my situation wasn't bad enough that we couldn't scope out the beach that we're going to tomorrow first, so Alexander Ivanovich and I spent an hour or so sitting in the sun.
Now I'm home, after another round of brown gel I'm sitting and relaxing. Soon I'm going to take a much needed shower (I still smell like fish guts) and try and get some homework done. I'm posting some pictures of the dacha, as well as some from my university, including one of the university's cat, who I've fondly named Evgenni Stalin.