Monday, March 14, 2011

The first pancake is always lumpy

*This post brought to you on a Monday afternoon when I should be trekking out to the Wasteland, but am instead at home sick! Is it sadistic that I much prefer being sick than heading out there?*

There's a Russian saying that I discovered when I was in university - Первый блин всегда комом (pear-vi bleen vsegda kamom) - the first pancake is always lumpy. I loved this phrase so much that I wrote it out on a piece of paper and taped it to my wall, right by my laptop, which was where the magic (was supposed to) happen when it came to essay-writing. I figured the phrase would inspire me by reminding me of a very important truth: that nothing we do is ever perfect the first time, and that's ok.

Think about the times when you make pancakes. Is the first one ever that great? Usually not. The pan might be too hot, or you didn't use enough butter or cooking spray, or you overestimated the size of the frying pan and now a giant blob is spreading out to the sides and you have no idea how you're going to flip that thing. The pancake might end up being too burnt, or too soft and gooey. The thing is, your first pancake is always, well, lumpy.

Then you start to get the hang of it. You figure out just how much batter you need, what the right temperature is, and everything starts to come together. Soon enough, you're flipping perfect golden disks like a pro, or at least like a (soon-to-be) princess:

It is the same thing with life. (Yep, I'm going the cheesy "Full House" hugs and learning moment route prepared!) There are bound to be a few lumps the first time you do anything - the thing is, you have to accept that and be ok with it, rather than beat yourself up.

Last weekend was full of both literal and metaphorical pancakes. Let's start with the literal ones first, because those are the yummiest:

I really wish I was a talented photographer:
these blini were WAY more delicious than
they look here!

Last Sunday was the final day of Maslenitsa (Butter Week), the Russian version of Pancake Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday, only the feasting lasts an entire week instead of just one day (makes more sense, right? 40 days is a looooong time to fast, might as well stock up!)

Maslenitsa has pagan and Christian roots, so in addition to using up all the household fat before the Lenten fast, there's also an effigy burning (fun!), naked polar-bear dips, icy-pole climbing, copious vodka-drinking (but that happens pretty much all the time anyways), and an emphasis on the coming of spring as rebirth. Writer Jennifer Eremeeva of "Russia Beyond the Headlines" writes that Maslenitsa "is really a tenacious rite of spring belonging to a much older, more pagan culture of nature worship, agrarian traditions, and a heightened awareness of the change of seasons."

The last day of Maslenitsa is known as "Forgiveness Sunday," when you're supposed to go around to your friends and family asking for forgiveness for the bad things you've done over the past year. Then its time to party! And, of course, eat. The staple of the week are blini - a cross between a pancake and a crepe that you stuff either with sweet fillings (nutella, ice cream, jam, fruit, honey, tvorog) or savoury ones (caviar, sauteed mushrooms, salty smoked fish, sour cream). BLINI PUT AUNT JEMIMA TO SHAME. They are so, so, SO good.

So on Forgiveness Sunday my friends and I celebrated the end of Maslenitsa as well as Jason's birthday by gathering at his and Ksenia's flat in Moscow. I brought some blini that one of my students had made me, and we all just basically ate, drank, ate some more, and played games. We took a break halfway through to run down to the produkti and stock up on more ice cream, napkins, and alcohol (cuz, you know, we hadn't had enough already):

The next day, I took the train, along with Natasha, Colleen, Stuart, Ryan, and Nikolai, about 70km northeast of Moscow to a little town called Sergiev Posad. Sergiev Posad is the most important monastery in Russia, and the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was founded in 1345 by St. Sergius of Radonezh, and is still a working monastery (home to about 300 monks) today.

The monastery is surrounded by walls, and within these walls are some of the most beautiful, colourful buildings I've seen. I love Russian architecture, and with the fresh white snow and shining sun, the bright colours of the domes glittered and shone with brilliance.

The entrance arch that we passed under on
our way into the Lavra

It almost looks like a gingerbread house,
doesn't it?

The tomb where Tsar Boris Godunov and his
family are buried! So cool!

Warming up in the little cafe run by the monks
- the prices were awesome
(10 roubles for a cup of tea...Starbucks has nothing on them!)
and all the little cakes and pastries were "Fast Friendly"
(no butter, fat, sugar...but somehow still delicious)
now that the Lenten Fast has kicked off.

Stu bought a fur hat while we were there - can you
guess which hat is real and which one is H&M?

It was a fun little day trip, but I do have to say that it wasn't quite what I was hoping for. I realize that Sergiev Posad is an important religious site and a place of pilgrimage for many, but I guess I was hoping that there would be more of an emphasis on its history too. After all, Peter the Great used to escape here during his troubled teenage years, and Empress Elizabeth would walk from Moscow to the monastery once a year. But it was definitely targeted towards religiously-minded pilgrims rather than historically-minded tourists, so keep that in mind if you decide to go. There were scores of tables set up outside the monastery walls, selling everything from religious icons to magnets to matryoshka dolls to fur hats. Inside the monastery, it was the same story. It kind of seemed like every building we walked into was just selling more of the same stuff. That being said, I did buy some lovely matryoshka dolls for some of my girl cousins, and I also bought two icons (one of the Trinity, the other of St. George, the patron saint of Moscow) that are copies of Andrei Rublov's famous icons. The prices surprisingly weren't that bad inside the monastery, but outside they can get pretty steep, so be prepared to barter!

On the way home, we ended up getting on the wrong train and added an extra hour to our journey back to Mytishi. That's when Natasha said sagely, "We have a saying, Первый блин всегда комом," and I excitedly exclaimed, "I know what that means! The first pancake is always lumpy!" (hey, its so rare that I DO know what something is in Russian that you can't fault me for being thrilled!)

So now I turn your attention to the metaphorical pancake of this post. It was our first time going to Sergiev Posad, and ok, so we made a mistake and got on the wrong train, but that's just life. You've got to take the lumps with good humour and remember for next time. And meanwhile, just enjoy the ride.

All this talk about pancakes is making me hungry! Okay, I'm off to rustle up some food...definitely craving some classic sick food of cinnamon toast and tea!


  1. Very true, just have to make sure that the proverbial pancakes don't stay lumpy...

    Question; whats the difference between blini and crapes? Had crapes a couple years back at a restaurant and they were exactly like the blini that mom and grandma make. Only difference that I can think of is that crapes you can only put 'sweet' stuff into where as blini you can practically put in anything edible - fish blini = not so fun surprise.

    P.S. Mom says shes "Hi and great job!"

  2. Beautiful photos. I have some inspiration for the 2011 Christmas gingerbread houses. I will get the draftsman on the drawings.

  3. Will we out-Hunter the Hunters on this one? Or is there no way Noah's Ark 1998 can ever be surpassed?

  4. Beautiful pictures, congratulations on the blog.
    you know the Amazon in Brazil.
    here are some photos from my blog to beaches and restaurants in the forest:

  5. thank you Luciana! I will check out your blog right now :)