Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Borscht Belt

Borscht. It is one of those quintessentially Eastern European dishes, one which every Russian or Ukrainian will argue is made best by their own babushka. And one that Rhea and I decided to make last week. After all, how can we live in Russia without experiencing borscht? (Next up: I want to tackle making blinis!)

We loaded up on the ingredients - beets, carrots, celery, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and cabbage - at the Spar grocery store across the street from Rhea's flat. Then we got to cutting, peeling, boiling, and slicing up all the veggies:

We decided to make a vegetarian (or "Christmas") version, although it can be made with beef and pork fat as well. It is a very hearty soup, especially with the potatoes added in, and is one of those soups where the flavour actually just keeps improving. Rhea and I both love beets, so we added in lots, but you can make it a little less beet-centric by increasing the ratio of the other veggies.

The HUGE pot we used!

Stirring the onions and cabbage together, after saute-ing them

We also used vegetable stock in addition to water. We were going to add in the water that the beets had been boiling in, but it was just too much liquid, even in that big pot! We made enough soup for both Rhea's household (Iain certainly lucked out with his flatmate!!:) and mine, as well as some leftovers to give to Oleg, who still hasn't claimed his...I may just keep his jar and not say anything about it! I froze some as well for some point in the winter when I'm feeling cold and lazy! This soup is really tasty, and for anybody who might be thrown off by the traditional assumption that borscht = beets, I urge you to give it a shot. Served with a dollop of smetana (or sour cream for non-Russian readers) on top, with a bit of fresh dill and a wedge of warm brown bread, this is a perfect, simple meal for cold fall evenings. It is also VERY colourful, with the bright red beets and orange carrots. I don't know about you, but I love colourful foods; they just make me happy!

Rhea and I followed it up with a quick beet salad she whipped up with mayonnaise and dill, and added in some vodka for what was definitely a very Russian meal! Then we sat down and watched Trans-Siberian, an absolutely awful movie where the Americans act like they own the place and the Russians are portrayed as evil and sadistic (I can think of a few other movies where that's the basic plotline :). You might think two Russophiles like Rhea and I are biased, but seriously - watch this movie and I think you'll agree! (Its a little like Taken, where the girls are just such idiots about being in a foreign country!) But enough griping. It really was an awesome night in, and the best part was that there were so many leftovers!

Vegetarian "Christmas" Borscht:


- 2-3 raw red beets
- 1/2 cabbage, shredded
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 potato, diced (optional)
- 1 large onion
- 2 liters (8 cups) water
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp. white vinegar or lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste, or take 5 tomatoes, boil them, peel them, and mash them together before adding them into the soup, as Rhea and I did
- 1 tbsp. chopped dill
- Salt and pepper

  1. Drop the beets into boiling water and cook until they can be pierced easily with a knife. Place into cold water until cooled. Peel the beets (the skins should now slip off easily) and cut into thin strips, or chunks, whichever you prefer.
  2. Sauté the onion in the oil until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and cook a minute longer.
  3. Add the beets, carrots, potato and water and cook until the vegetables are just tender.
  4. Add the shredded cabbage and cook until tender. Add the tomato juice or paste, dill, salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Add lemon juice or vinegar to taste to make the borshch slightly tart. Simmer (the longer, the better!) and serve very hot, with a dollop of sour cream and some warm bread. Enjoy :)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A little R and R

Red Square and running, that is.

On Sunday I took part in what was without a doubt the coolest thing I have ever done. Nike hosted a huge 5k run that started in Red Square, dubbing it "Run Moscow: Dyen' ii Noch (Day and Night)."Our main objective is to combine and inspire a large number of people to make running a part of their lives," Nike Run manager Olga Koroleva said in an article I read one day at the Central School in The Moscow Times. Apparently running isn't too big here in Russia, and Nike is hoping to tap into a new marketing and advertising opportunity. Adidas seems to have a monopoly on sporting goods here in Moscow, I've noticed - in particular the ubiquitous track suit:

Whenever I've gone for a run around here, I definitely get some odd looks. And I think I've only ever seen one other guy running around Mytishchi (probably a crazy expat as well!) On my first Sunday in Russia, I went for a run in the gorgeous Gorky Park in Moscow, and saw a few more people running, so maybe it is a little more common in the city than the suburbs. (As an aside, the other day two of my new Russian friends, Oleg and Sasha, saw my copy of Women's Health magazine. They immediately started snickering, thinking I was reading Men's Health, but when I pointed out that it was actually for women, they were astounded. "We only have Men's Health here in Russia," they said. "Um, don't women care about their health too?" I asked. Their answer? A bemused shrug. Hmm.)

Anyways, the article I read went on to highlight the challenges facing Nike in trying to "boost a sport that in Moscow usually brings to mind stray dogs, aggressive drivers, steep pavement and a suspicious public." Not exactly encouraging, huh?

A promotional ad for the run

Russian MTV VJ and running enthusiast Irina Ponaroshku rather fancifully (in my opinion at least) said, "You always hear of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City running in Central Park in New York or see pictures in glamorous magazines of Madonna jogging the streets of L.A.'s Beverly Hills, so why not Moscow?" (Not to quibble, but it was Charlotte who is the runner in SATC, but whatevs...the point is Irina Ponaroshku sounds a little bit like an airhead). The writer of the article seemed to agree with me, writing snarkily that Ponaroshku "obviously has never by chased by a pack of rabid dogs while running through air thicker than syrup." (Reading this retort caused me to actually laugh out loud, garnering some strange looks from other passengers on the metro!)

Based on the article, then, it doesn't seem like this run would be all that popular. Rabid dogs and smoggy air don't exactly attract runners...but my friends Hannah, Rhea, Kendra and I all wanted to give it a go regardless. Combining Red Square and running seemed like a match made in heaven for me. Plus, the whole free t-shirt sounded great! I've been wishing I packed a few more clothes than I actually did...

Hannah and I in the free shirts! Very nice, although small...we are both wearing women's mediums!

So we registered online as "foreign guests" and on Sunday afternoon Rhea and I made our way to Red Square, getting off at Okhotnii Ryad station and walking over to the Kremlin. This was my first time actually seeing Red Square, so you can imagine how thrilled I was. I just kept smiling to myself and repeating, "I'm so excited!" which I'm sure Rhea eventually had to find annoying. Or charming?

Red Square There are NO WORDS to describe how amazing it is. I urge everyone to come to Russia just to see it (and you can stay with me!) because it is breath-taking. Outside the walls of the Kremlin are beautiful fountains, bridges, a meandering little river, and some statues, including this one of Red Army General Georgy Zhukov:

I realized after the picture was taken that the kind woman who snapped it had also chopped off poor Zhukov so all you can actually see are his horse's feet. But it was very impressive! Zhukov is the most decorated general in Russian and Soviet history, and he was instrumental in fighting the Nazis during World War Two.

After walking around outside the Kremlin, we entered the walled citadel through Resurrection Gate and walked out onto Red Square. Contrary to popular belief that Red Square is so named because of the colour red's association with Communism, Red Square (Krasnaya Pla'schad in Russian) gets it name from the ancient Slavic word for beautiful, which used to be synonymous with the word for red ("Red" in Russian is krasnii and "beautiful" is krasivii; two words I ALWAYS mixed up in first year Russian, much to my prof Nazia's chagrin! But they sound so much alike, and at least now I know that they technically were the same word once upon a time!). And it truly is beautiful. A wide expanse of cobbled stones, seeming to stretch on forever before being anchored by the stunning collection of churches collectively known as St. Basil's Cathedral.

Where's Waldo? Try to find me!

St. Basil's was built between 1555-1561, during an emerging national renaissance in architecture. Although there's some controversy over the inspiration and genius behind the building, the conservative theory is that St. Basil's is a product of distinct Russian traditions of wood and stone architecture coupled with elements borrowed from the Italians living in Moscow at the time. It has been said that there was no precedent for such a building, and nothing since has ever managed to truly capture the magic and dreaminess of it. It honestly does not look real; like something you'd see in Disney World or in some alternate universe. The onion domes looked like swirls of Dairy Queen ice cream, and the colours!! So bright and all topped off with shiny gold Orthodox crosses! I'm gushing right now, but seriously...St. Basil's is without a doubt the most incredible thing I have ever seen.

Rhea and I walked around for a bit, just taking it all in. I saw Lenin's Mausoleum, but not his enbalmed body - yet. It is only open for public viewing on specific days of the week. But its definitely something I want to see! A little morbid, but one of those "Must-See" things in Russia, I think. I also saw Lobnoye Mesto, a circular raised platform from which the tsars used to give speeches and criminals were executed. Now tourists and locals alike throw kopecks into the middle of it and make wishes. At least now I know that kopecks do have a use. During the intern training, we'd joke a lot by making bets with kopecks, which are virtually worthless (like, one-thirtieth of a penny or something like that). So now maybe I'll just save up all my kopecks and come here every now and then to make wishes!

We were both totally entranced by a bride and her wedding party posing for photographs, and I convinced Rhea to sneak a few pictures:

How beautiful is she? Just to let you know Mum and Dad, I've found where I want my wedding photos to be taken one day :)

We also walked past GUM (pronounced goom), one of the world's most expensive department stores (even more so than Harrods' or Bloomingdales!) It runs along one side of Red Square, and although we didn't go inside, the outside was absolutely stunning. I definitely want to go back, but only for window-shopping unfortunately...

Rhea and I!

We then made our way to the registration, going through security fairly quickly and then waiting in line. This was around 3pm, and registration opened at 4, so we had a bit of a wait but we quickly realized it was good to come early as the crowds were starting to build! It was while we were in line, just chatting, that of all a sudden a woman turned around in front of us: "Is that English I hear??!" she exclaimed, obviously, in English. Her name was Sarah, and she was with her husband Phil, as well as a Belorussian named Dima (Dmitri) that they had just met in line and who happened to speak excellent English. We all did introductions, and when they said they were Americans, Rhea asked from where. "San Diego," they answered, which was a crazy coincidence! "Me too!!!" Rhea said, and then it turned out that both Rhea and Sarah had gone to the same university, UCSD, too. What are the chances? Sarah and Phil had just made it to Moscow after traveling all the way from Ulan-Bataar, in Mongolia, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, with another couple. Ummm...taking the Trans-Siberian across Russia is a dream of mine, and Rhea's, so we had a lot to talk about!! Sarah and Phil were so nice, friendly, and interesting, and we ended up hanging out with them for a few hours before the run. They have a three year old daughter who they had left with Sarah's mother back in Taiwan, where Sarah is originally from, and they were going to spend a few days in Moscow and St. Petersburg before heading back to Taiwan to pick her up. They exchanged phone numbers with Rhea and when they get back to the States, they're going to email us and send us the link to their blog, and check out ours'. I love this little network of friends from across the world I'm making here!

Dima was also super-nice, hilarious, and very helpful. I've realized just how great it is making a Russian friend because they can help translate everything! :) Plus they are also generally just really interesting people. Dima had spent a few semesters in the States, studying, both in Boston and Myrtle Beach, and his English was fantastic. We had a lot of fun hanging out with the three of them, and then when Hannah and Basile (a teacher from Boston at Language Link) arrived, the seven of us stayed together, stretching and talking and getting ready for the race. Registration was really simple, and then it was just a matter of waiting until the race started at 7:30. At one point the guys were all sitting on the ground, and Sarah went to join them. "Have you heard the Russian superstition?" Dima asked us as she sat on the concrete. It turns out that Russians fervently believe that if a girl sits on cold concrete, she will be unfertile. Sarah shrugged and laughed. "Well, I think we're done at one!" she said, but then noticed that the three of us - Hannah, Rhea, and I - all stayed standing. "Is that why you guys won't sit down?" she asked, and we all laughed but remained standing...just in case!

The stage getting set up for the concert after the run

Keeping the peace...haha, yeah right

Our race bibs!

Yes! Finally got a picture with a militsiya guy! He was totally humouring me though...

At the start line...getting nervous!!

What we saw behind this point we were getting a little scared about being crushed when the race started. It turns out there were OVER 12,000 runners participating!!

And we're off!

Running along the Moskva River, towards Park Kultury

The Moskva River again

Success!! Post-run high

The run was awesome - nice and easy 5k, flat roads, and there were so many spectators lined up along the river and over top the bridges cheering us on!! The build-up to the race was so intense: there were so many people and when the clock started counting down, everyone just started yelling in Russian - "Chetirii, tri, dva, ras!" Four, three, two, one! The enthusiasm and intensity of the crowd was just so incredible and infectious. It felt like we were extras in a scene from Braveheart or something! All that was needed was for someone to scream, "Freeeeeedom!" as we raced under a bridge. Someone did, in fact, yell "Run, Forest, run!" which I thought was pretty freakin' awesome. It seemed the run was over in no time, although it did take me 27:35 to finish...not my fastest time, but for me it was much more about the experience than completing it in a certain time. Afterwards, we all met up and just hung out and listened to the concert for a bit, although none of us had really heard of the bands playing (Sophie Ellis Baxtor, Cheese People, some Russian band...) Then we made our way back to the metro and parted ways. All in all, it was probably the best day I've had in Russia so far and something I will never forget!!

St. Basil's by night

Hannah, Rhea and I

GUM all lit up for the night...walking home

*More pics are on my facebook page!

"This is just the beginning"

So said Jim, one of the teacher-trainers of the Intern Training Program that I just (!) finished.

We were all a little sad to see the training come to an end, but he reminded us that this is only the beginning of our time here in Russia, and that the friendships we made and the memories we shared in this short month of training are only going to continue over the next nine months. Then he proceeded to hand out our grammar exam - a bit of a downer after that motivational speech! I thought I had done horribly on it, especially the phonetics part, but amazingly I somehow got 99%. I'm still flabbergasted, but hey, I'm not going to draw their attention to my shoddy phonetic transcriptions (just in case that 99% was actually a 79% or something...)

After we got our exams back, the 11 interns (we were originally 12, but Michael, who is from Munich, conveniently had "visa issues" that required him to fly back to Munich the day Oktoberfest started and would take him till the day after it ended to sort out...hee hee, I hope he's having fun there!) decided to go out for food and drinks at a staLOHvaya - a cafeteria-style restaurant/bar - called Vokzal (train station). It was a great night out after stressing so much this past month over practice teaching, observations, and the grammar exam. Most of us are placed at schools either in Moscow or the suburbs, although Rod is headed to Volgograd, a 22-hour train trip away (God, this country is huge!). So we will hopefully all be able to keep in touch. I've gotten really close with everyone, so last night was an awesome way to celebrate together.

I got home last night really late, woke up early to get to the Central School for one last time, and now I'm just basking in some free time before I start teaching. I've been assigned two classes so far - a private lesson twice a week with a thirteen-year old boy, Roman, and a class of 15-16 year old advanced English speakers. Hmm...if these teens are anything like my friends and I when we were teenagers, I should be okay. But if they're more like, say, my sister and her friends, this could be...interesting. :) We've constantly been warned by the teacher-trainers that teenagers are HELL to teach, but I'm remaining optimistic. And Roman sounds...well, a bit bratty to be truthful - his original teacher was my flatmate Stuart, but apparently Roman isn't the biggest fan of Stu's Edinburgh accent, and he is insisting that he get an American teacher. Since Rhea and Colleen are both already busy teaching, that leaves me, and I just hope a Canadian is good enough for this kid. I felt a little bad coming back to the flat today and telling Stu that he's been rejected, but he was a good sport about it and just muttered something unintelligible in Scots! And then told me that Roman is OBSESSED with Will Smith and the movie Bad Boys - has anyone seen it and can give me a quick breakdown of it so I can impress this kid?

Oh - Monday night was my last night practice-teaching, which was also kind of bittersweet. I ended the class by playing "American Pie" and having the students (adults, upper-intermediate level) write in the missing words in the text. It turns out they all know and love the song, so it was a really fun listening exercise to do! Then to my surprise, they all came up to me at the end, asking me for my contact info so they could add me to facebook. Elena, an adorable babushka who speaks really great English, gave me two big dark chocolate and almond bars, from a famous luxury Russian chocolatier, A. Korkunov. I ate a bit of one on my metro ride home that night, and I think I'm going to save the rest to use for baking! Katya, another student, asked if she could take a photo of me. I readily agreed, although I quickly realized how embarassing this was potentially going to be. "Turn your head to the side so I can see your flower!" she instructed, pointing to the flower I had pinned in my hair earlier that day. Then she arranged me in this unbelievably CHEESY pose - think like the absolute worst pose you ever had to do for a school picture and times it by a thousand. She made me rest my cheeks in my hands and look off into the distance dreamily...I'm blushing furiously just thinking about it now, and knowing that somewhere out there such a picture of me actually exists. But what else could I do? I didn't want to refuse her. And then she had a bunch of questions for me about why I had chosen Russia, why I loved Russia, what my favourite things about the country were, etc etc. She grew up in Tajikistan and she had told me earlier that she taught herself to read as a child with the Communist newspaper there. A very, very different upbringing, but one which I find fascinating. I got into a really interesting conversation with her and Vic about why exactly I love Russia. I think one of the main things is that this country is so culturally rich, so many talented genuises have come out of such a grim, dark history - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Akhmatova - writers, musicians, playwrights, poets, ballerinas, composers...

"But doesn't Canada have people like that?" Katya asked me seriously. It was a little awkward, because I really do love my country, but the truth is, we don't have that rich cultural heritage, at least in my opinion. Oh, I know people will protest and say, "How about Margaret Atwood? Or Pierre Burton?" And yes, I know that we do have some Canadians who have contributed to literature, music, culture. But in comparison to Russia? And then I also realized that Vic comes from a place with an equal amount of rich history - England. So maybe its because Canada is still so young. Perhaps a Canadian Pushkin still needs to come along and revitalize our literature. Okay, that's enough of my philosophizing. I guess the point of my little story is that I have constantly been made aware, in my month here so far, of how warm, hospitable and friendly Russians are. In the streets, they can definitely be forbidding and stern-looking, but overall every Russian I have gotten to know has been overwhelmingly kind and helpful. It was also such a rewarding feeling to walk out of that classroom having established relationships with these students. This is why I love teaching: that feeling of mutual respect and enthusiasm, the knowledge that you've helped someone, and they in turn have taught you something too. Oh, and the free chocolate is an added bonus. :)

So here's to new beginnings! Na zdarovie!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A visit to the ярмарка (yarmarka)

Today was absolutely gorgeous out, that quintessential perfect fall day where the sun is shining, the leaves are golden, the sky is blue, and everyone is outside, enjoying Mother Nature's last few gifts to us before the winter comes. And since this is Russia, I'm fully aware that I can't take days like today for granted. (But oh, to live in a place where everyday is this amazing!)

I slept in today, which was glorious, then went for a good, 45-minute run around Mytishchi. After eating breakfast, I made plans with Rhea to go for a hike in the main park here. Mytishchi has a lot of stereotypical Soviet architecture, its true - big, ugly concrete block apartments - but it is not an ugly city at all. There are green spaces everywhere, tons of trees planted along sidewalks, and little parks and courtyards all over the place. The biggest park is the one where we headed today. Part of it is forested trails, which is where I had run earlier (flashback to high school cross-country meets!! :) and part of it is paved with wide boulevards and plenty of flowers and benches whereupon several people sit to just relax and enjoy their ice cream (Russians LOVE their ice cream!!)

The paved walkways eventually wind down along the river, where there are lots of trees, more flowers, pigeons (you can't escape them here! Even "golubchik" - pigeon - is a term of endearment!)! Everytime I've gone to this park, I've been struck by the amount of families with young children there are here, just walking, running, and scootering around. I love how Mytishchi has so many young families, and how everyone just loves being outside. Today was extra special for a lot of people here, as there were about six or seven different weddings going on. After the ceremony, the wedding party traditionally comes to the park for pictures as well as to take part in a Russian wedding tradition. The bride and groom attach a lock (usually a heart-shaped one) to the wrought-iron bridge and then throw the keys into the river. It's so romantic (and optimistic, but I am one of those true-love believers who love things like this!)

There are also some interesting statues in the park, as well as an Eternal Flame for soldiers who died in the Great Patriotic War (1939-1945, what we call World War Two). It has been estimated that the USSR lost 26.6 million people in total (civilian and military deaths) - an astounding and sobering number. The memorial is always covered with fresh flowers, and there are usually at least one or two people just standing in front of the flame, reflecting.

Other highlights of the park are the beach volleyball courts, the tennis and basketball courts, and the numerous playgrounds dotted throughout the birch forest section. If it wouldn't totally creep people out, I would definitely play on the equipment, because everything looks like so much fun!! Think back to every piece of equipment that has been outlawed in Canada for being too dangerous, and you've got your average Russian playground. But that's what makes it fun! There's also this random inflatable pool there (fairly big, circular) with these giant, clear plastic balls that they put kids into and the kid can roll around in this huge ball on the water...hmm, that explanation was very vague. Imagine a clear plastic ball that gerbils or hamsters play in, and that's what it is, basically. Only a lot bigger. And there's a kid in there instead of a gerbil. When I first saw this, my original thought was horror because it was just so...gerbil-like. Then my inner kid kicked in and I thought it was really cool. I'm still a bit divided: what do you think?

Anyways, Rhea and I walked through the park for awhile, then turned back onto the streets and stumbled upon a ярмарка (yarmarka), or market. In many ways, a yarmarka here is a lot like any farmer's market in Canada. Individual stalls set up by people, selling produce, honey, fish, meat, etc. But whereas in Canada you mostly see farmer's markets on specific days of the week, and in certain places only, here yarmarkas can be found everywhere...and all the time. On the side of a busy street in Moscow, in a corner somewhere, beside the grocery store, alongside the highway...they are also often open until late at night, which makes buying some late-night cabbage very handy when you've suddenly got an urge to make borscht (I will save that story for another post's topic...)

So we walked through this yarmarka, which was quite large, and we became really excited when we noticed all the selection. Most of all, however, it was the huge pile of арбуз (ar-BOOZ, watermelon) that caught our eye - and the ripe, juicy half-section of one that was tempting all passersby. Powerless to resist the siren call of such a summery fruit, we were like Eve in the garden of Eden. So we hurried back to my flat to get our money, bought a huge watermelon, and then walked past a few more stalls because my appetite for fresh produce had been whetted. I ended up buying a few cucumbers (which I love cutting up and dipping into fresh Russian cheese, or tvarog) as well as several small tomatoes. The men running the stall where I bought the tomatoes immediately noticed my horrendous Russian (I couldn't hear the price they told me, so I had to ask "skol'ka sto-eet? How much?" a few times, apologetically). But they loved it! They asked me where I was from, and then they told me they were Uzbek. They tried to sell me a few more things, but I just laughingly shook my head and kept saying, "Nyet, nyet, spasiba! No, no thank you!" Then to my surprise they handed me a big bunch of juicy grapes AND a pomegranate and said, "For you! Free!"

I thanked them very profusely, as the pomegranates and grapes were pretty expensive, and made sure that they were, in fact, giving them to me for free (I didn't want any miscommunications happening, ending up with me in jail or something...) Then Rhea and I walked back to my flat, cut open half the watermelon, and sat in my sunny kitchen eating it with two spoons - total bliss! We watched an episode of Jersey Shore (she has the entire season 2 on her hard drive - yes!!) and laughed/groaned at The Situation's antics and Angelina's overall obnoxiousness. Cheesy reality tv it is, but oh so entertaining. :)

Now I am just finishing dinner and eating some of those grapes for dessert. I was never really a "grape person" before, which sounds strange (but I used to be very picky about fruit) and now I'm wondering why I wasted so many years of my life not eating grapes! These ones are delicious!! Thank you, kind Uzbek men for your generous gift of fruit!

Well, I suppose I've put off studying for my grammar test long enough. The Intern Training Program is over this wednesday, but not before they test us on everything we've learned so far. Modal verbs, phrasal verbs, present perfect continuous, phonetics...ahhhhhhhhhhhhh! I think my mind is going to explode. Wish me luck!! (notice the use of the imperative there... :)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Victoria, meet Reese... A Saga

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, that is.

On the first Friday of our intern training program, Kendra, from Atlanta, Georgia, brought all of us girls some miniature Reese's peanut butter cups as a treat after lunch. We may have only been back in the USSR for a few days, but we were already missing that peculiar North American combination of peanut butter and chocolate. (I looooove peanut butter and so far I have been very careful to ration the little that I have - peanut butter can be found here, but it is very, very expensive and therefore not something I'm going to be eating this year once my limited supply runs out!)

Imagine our surprise, then, when Victoria (from Nottingham, England) expressed confusion over our delight: "What are Reese's peanut butter cups?" she asked innoculously in her delightful, oh-so-posh sounding accent.

And so began her introduction to a classic American candy:

Posing with the wrapper, not really sure what the fuss was about

The first bite: I think her eyes say it all here...

"Mmm, this is bloody good"

And now we have another addict to peanut butter/chocolate here at the Central School in Moscow :)

(Victoria, for her part, has brought us British "sweets" to try, but I think in terms of candy the Americans have a monopoly. That reminds me of a chocolate bar I saw while standing in the checkout at the grocery store on the weekend: it was a Nestle brand, but all in Russian, and the title of the chocolate bar was "For Men." I'm not really sure why it was only for men, or what would have happened if I had tried to buy it, but I was definitely intrigued. What was so special about this chocolate bar that only men could eat it?!)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Birthdays and brownies

Happy 50th birthday to my amazing Dad!! You have taught me so many things, big and small, and I know you've touched so many lives in your 50 years :) Love you so much Dad!!

On a Moscow-related note, I went to Le Pain Quotidien ( or Khleb Nasushnii in its Russian translation) today with my friend Melissa. We were so excited! I have only ever seen Le Pain Quotidiens in New York City, and hadn't had the chance to go in one, so I was really looking forward to it. It reminded me of a Dean and Deluca, only exclusively featuring organic and homemade breads, pastries, quiches, fancy spreads, hot drinks, and beautiful chinaware. Soft French music was playing in the background, warm lights flooded the store with a soft glow, and the whole atmosphere was just overall tres chic :) Melissa and I had such a hard time picking something out, but we finally both settled for a good old American "brah-oo-ni" (brownie). It was quite good, very moist and chewy, definitely worth the 75 roubles (a little over 2 dollars CAD) we paid. It was an excellent mid-afternoon treat in the middle of all this intern training!

Check out all that delicious fresh bread!

Speaking of baking, on Sunday Rhea and I baked a zucchini bread with chocolate pieces (you can't buy chocolate chips in Russia! we just broke up pieces of a milk chocolate bar) and a lemon glaze. It was very dense but delicious...we had a moment of trepidation when our taste-tester went to take the first bite, suddenly realizing that maybe we should have tested it ourselves first, just in case, but all was well. I brought some into class today for the other interns to try and it was a hit! Next up on our list: chocolate chip cookies!

Alright, now that I'm leaving you hungry and craving chocolate...I'm going to go see if I have any Nutella left :)

Monday, September 20, 2010

The first few days (pics)

Lunch our first day of training, at "Coffee House": Hannah, me, Rod, and Vic

A detail of the stained glass at Novoslobodskaya metro station (it goes all down the main corridor)

In the metro again; Novoslobodskaya

Detail at Medvedkovo station; all power to the Soviets

The militsiya, just chillin' in packs as is their style

A little piece of (capitalist) heaven: Starbucks in Moscow!

Mmm lunch time :)

Food always restores my good mood! I'm in my intern training at Language Link's Central School in Moscow, but we're on our lunch now so I'm diving into an ochen fkoosna (very delicious) sandwich: soft, freshly baked rye bread with honey and smetana (kind of like sour cream; Russians put it in everything here!). For dessert I've got an apple and a slice of the zucchini bread that Rhea and I baked yesterday. So, despite current roommate woes, all feels right with the world!

I still have quite a bit of "catching up" to do on this blog, so I'm going to go back to where I left off, my first morning in Mytishchi. Rhea was told by the administrators to bring me to the Central School for 10am, so we woke up around 8 and boarded a marshrutka (bus) that would take us to the metro station. Although some suburbs of Moscow have their own metro stations, Mytishchi does not so in order to get into the city, you need to take a bus ride that can be anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour and a half, depending on the traffic. Generally, it's pretty fast in the morning, although friday afternoons are deadly!! After getting off at Medvedkovo station, Rhea helped me buy a metro pass and then down the escalator we went. The metro is an amazing deal here - 1,000 roubles buys you a 60 pass card. Once you swipe your pass, you can ride the metro for as long as you want, because everything is connected underground. Its also very fast - trains come approximately every minute. And it is every bit as beautiful as legend has it. When I get internet back in my flat, I'll post some of the hastily snapped photos I took (supposedly, it is illegal to take pictures in the subway, but I did it anyways, just discreetly so the militsiya wouldn't notice). The first time Rhea took me on the metro, I couldn't stop staring around me in amazement. Every station has a different theme and feel to it. Some glorify soldiers and victory, others the distinct nationalities of the Soviet Union (Uzbek, Turkmenistani, Georgian, etc), and they all have delightful, fun-to-pronounce names: Babushkinskaya (grandmother), Botaniicheskii sad (Botanical Garden), Sveevlovo, and Novoslobodskaya are just a few of the stations I whiz past on my way to work each morning. It's usually REALLY crowded in there, and nobody smiles. It can actually get a little depressing, looking around at all those somber, stoic Slavic faces (ooh, how's that alliteration?)

I have to admit that a part of me still gets a little apprehensive when I'm on the metro. The terrorist attack that took place on the Moscow metro was only a few months ago, and sometimes when I'm standing in a train built on Stalin's orders, hurtling through the belly of the earth, I can't help worrying that another bombing might happen. But then again, you could worry about stuff like that your whole life, and never actually enjoy living, so I just try to stay in the moment and appreciate the history and architecture around me. I have to change trains twice in my commute, and both times there's an escalator that is SEVEN stories high! The first time I took it, Rhea told me not to look down - which I did immediately, naturally - and had the worst case of vertigo! It stretches upwards forever, never seeming to end, and then finally you get to the top and look down and you can't even see the beginning. Some mornings (when I'm in a rush or feeling ambitious) I try to walk up the whole thing, but I usually end up panting rather unattractively and so I just stop. Plus they keep the metro VERY hot down there! This will be nice in the winter for sure, but it's not exactly conducive to exercising, so I mostly just stand there and let the escalator do the work!

After getting off at Novoslobodskaya (where the first thing that greets us is, ironically, a huge "Mak Donalds"!) Rhea showed me how to get to the Central School. It's just down a block or two from the station. The walk is very interesting: there are lots of vendors selling everything from flowers to pirated dvds to bras; there is a "Coffee House", a chain of Starbucks-esque cafes; a sushi restaurant (sushi is very popular here, and you can find "Yakatoria"'s, a popular sushi brand restuarant, everywhere!); an amazing and unfairly placed shoe store that I have to walk past every day (but I guess that's a good exercise in self-control :); a few banks and businesses; and a perfume shop, Bon Joli, that my friend Vic and I duck into every so often on lunch for a spritz of Burberry Brit (very school-girlish of us, I realize!) The whole walk (if you don't stop to buy some local veggies or stare longingly at the perfect pair of slouchy leather boots) takes about 5 minutes, and then you go through security and you're at the Central School.

The first day of intern training was relatively easy and informal, as everyone was mostly still jet-lagged and getting used to being here. I met the other interns and immediately felt such a rapport with them - they are all so fantastic, funny, and easy to get along with that this whole intern training has been a blast! There are twelve of us: three Brits, seven Americans, one German, and one Canuck - me! There's a LOT of friendly teasing, and everyone's kind of pinpointed me as the scapegoat for a lot of the jokes, I think because Canadians are kind of half American, half we don't really belong to either group! Sometimes Zach, who's from Minnesota, will stick up for me because he says Minnesota is like the "second Canada", as will Vic who is British and loyally supports a Commonwealth nation! :) Just about all the interns love Russia and Russian culture, language and history, so it's been amazing being with people who share the same love for Mother Russia that I do!

Four of us interns went out for lunch that day to the Coffee House down the street, where I had a caprese salad (spinach, boccocini, tomatoes, and an olive oil/balsamic vinegar dressing) and a cup of tea. I really wanted to get a picture of us there, so we asked a man sitting near us, and he was so friendly and effusive we ended up talking to him for another 10 minutes. He asked me where I was from, and when I said Canada, he perked up immediately: "Ahhh, Ca-NAHD-ka!! Home of hockey, hmm?" I smiled and nodded enthusiastically. "You like Aleksandr Ovechkin, da?" he asked next. "Uhh..." I stammered, now feeling slightly awkward. How do I tell this kind old man that most Canadians actually think Ovechkin is an arrogant jerk who disrespected Don Cherry and that, no matter how good Ovechkin is, Crosby is generally considered more of a gentleman? Hmm...some things are better left lost in translation, I think. So pulling the diplomatic, ambassador to Canada role, I smiled brightly and said, "Oh yes, we like Ovechkin! Very good hockey player!" and just left it at that. Forgive me, Michael?

Coming home from the first day of intern training, I got very lost (again...this theme will repeat itself for the next few blog entries, I'm afraid!) but I eventually found my way home and although it was raining at this point, my spirits were in no way as dampened as my feet and the bottom of my trousers. I was just SO excited to be in Russia and to have met such awesome people so far that nothing could bring me down. And so I changed into cozy warm clothes, made some hot tea, and just sat down and relaxed in my little kitchen, feeling like it had been a great first day in Russia.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Technical Difficulties

So I fully intended to keep updating my blog throughout this past week, but it appeared that the Fates (slash annoying roommates) had something else in plan...

Apparently when you live with a couple who are obsessed with Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, internet getting cut off indefinitely because they've gone over the bandwidth from downloading the Governator's cinematic masterpieces is a very real possibility. So I've had no internet since Wednesday, and since C&S refuse to pay the debt unless I pay a third of it (which is ridiculous, I didn't do any downloading!) I'm not sure when I'll have internet in my flat. On top of that, I was really sick yesterday and just generally am feeling bummed out and depressed right now. It's almost my dad's 50th birthday and I'm really missing my family. Hopefully everything gets sorted out soon - in the meantime, please just keep sending happy thoughts my way; I love and miss you all!!

Monday, September 13, 2010

I'm here!!

It's been two weeks since I arrived in Russia, and now that I finally have internet in my flat, I can update my blog! These past two weeks have been some of the most life-changing ones I've experienced. Is Russia everything I've dreamed it would be? Well, yes and no. Its too soon to tell though - all I know is that I am SO excited to keep exploring this country over the next ten months!

I have no idea where to begin, so I'm just going to follow a piece of advice from The Sound of Music, and "start at the very beginning." (By the way, my friend E is living in Austria right now...if you're reading this, can you please do the movie tour? :)

Monday, August 30 - Flight out of Toronto

So excited and nervous at the same time! My mind was racing at this point, wondering what I might have forgotten to pack (unfortunately, I forgot Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth, which is such a fantastic book so far...I only had 300 pages left, so I'm keeping my eyes peeled for English copies of it here in Moscow!) We arrived at Pearson in good time, although traffic was a little slow on the 401. Saying goodbye to my parents and my brother was really hard... I'm going to miss them so much!

My "little" brother, who now towers over me! Love you Michael!

After saying goodbye, I made my way through security without a hitch and spent a little bit of time wandering around the shops. I found the sequel to The Pillars of the Earth so I bought that, hoping that I didn't really need to read the whole thing before moving onto the sequel. Luckily the sequel was set two hundred years after the end of the first book, so I was okay! I found my gate and boarded the plane, where I was sitting next to an older British couple. I had been hoping for a window seat, and luckily the man asked me if I wouldn't mind taking it. "Wouldn't mind? I'd LOVE to!" I enthused, somewhat shocking him with my huge smile. "Thank you!!" So I had a window seat all the way to Heathrow...and again on the flight to Domodedovo in Moscow! (which I found out is pronounced dama-DYEH-da-va)

The flight was smooth and actually really fun. I haven't flown that much in my life (as a member of the Starr family, we prefer the lure of the open road...and my mum's peerless navigational skills!) so it was really exciting to be on a plane. I loved the little personal tv screens! I watched a movie (Dear John, which I'm embarassed to admit made me a little weepy), the first episode of Glee, and then I made a personalized playlist, which was really cool. They have a bunch of different musical options, and you can pick and choose what you want on your list. I napped on and off, and got up a few times to stretch my legs. The meals? They were actually pretty good! Dinner was risotto and veggies, with a roll and a little cheesecake for dessert, and breakfast was a hearty, good ol' British brekkie:

Here are a few more pics:

My first glimpse of London

The cozy airplane socks!

After arriving at Heathrow, we had to take a bus to the main terminal to catch the flight to Moscow. I was the typical North American tourist during this short little bus ride, becoming very excited once I realized that we were driving on the "wrong" side of the road. But it was so cool! After we pulled up the main terminal, I had a two hour layover but this was barely enough time. It took forever going through security...this poor couple in front of me accidentally dropped their diaper bag, and a jar of baby food fell out and broke, splattering pureed squash all over the floor in the line. Well, you would have thought they had spilled anthrax or something, based on other peoples' reactions. Think loud, obnoxious sighs and disgusted mutters as people had to skirt around the spilled baby food. One women started to freak out, screaming about how disgusting it was. Ok people, seriously - have you never travelled with a baby before? It can't be easy. Let's give the poor parents a break.

Anyways, the plane stayed on the tarmac for a while after we boarded, due to an "engineering problem." (Ummm...) but luckily we took off after an hour-ish for Moscow, and the rest of the flight was pretty nondescript. I arrived at Domodedovo around 4pm Moscow time.

My first view of Russia!

I was a little worried about going through customs and migration, because I had heard that Russian officials can be very intimidating and will scrutinize all of your documents. However, I actually passed through everything very quickly, filling out a migration card and then getting waved through to baggage claim. My suitcases were right there and so I lugged them off the conveyor belt and made my way out of the airport. This was when I started to get a little nervous - what if the driver from Language Link wasn't there? There were a TON of people standing there waiting, holding up various signs for people, travel companies, and businesses. And then I saw the Language Link sign! Relief!

The driver spoke only Russian, so there was a bit of a language barrier there, but he was really friendly and asked me some questions about Canada, the cars we have there, etc. The drive from the airport at the bottom of Moscow's outskirts to the very top was so surreal - maybe it was the lack of sleep - but I just couldn't believe I was actually in Russia. I tried taking it all in - the heart-stopping traffic jams, the crazy driving (up on the curbs! No traffic lights!), the pulsing Russian music from the radio intermixed with the occasional Katy Perry song...and of course the driver's frequent epithets at other cars - which, I think, were mostly for my benefit, because he'd swear and then look at me with a grin and a shrug, like Welcome to Moscow.

About an hour and a half later, he pulled up to a building that really looks like your stereotypical, Communist-era apartment block. He had a care package from Language Link to give me, which was really great - fresh, new sheets, a welcome letter with a map of the Moscow metro, a tin of biscuits, a package of sugar cubes, and some Russian tea. It was a little touch that meant a lot! Then he took me up the five flights of stairs to my flat, which was a little creepy...there are no lights in the stairwell so it gets REALLY dark at night...thanks Dad for the little flashlight on my keychain you got me - it has been a big help!! :)

Once we got up there, he gave me my keys, checked to make sure I was ok, and then left. There was a letter waiting in the entrance for me, from my new roommates, a couple - Colleen and Stuart, from Edinburgh, Scotland. They had gone out for dinner, and told me that I could have my pick of the two bedrooms left in the flat. One had bunk beds and a long desk, but the other one was HUGE (I'll put up pics of my flat soon!) and had this gorgeous chandelier, a balcony, floor to ceiling tapestries, a pull out couch, a Laz-y Boy type chair that also pulled out into a bed, a single bed, and a wall-length oak cabinet/dresser. Hmmm...guess which one I picked?

I laid down and napped for about 15 minutes until I heard the door open and Colleen and Stuart let themselves in. They were in the middle of the Internship Training Program, so they had been shuttling back and forth between Moscow and were pretty exhausted too. They were headed back there that night, so we did some quick introductions and then they pointed me in the direction of a grocery store. It was around 8pm at this point and I had just realized I was starving. So, in the mood for a little exploring that would also include food, I set off for the "Perekrestok." Bad idea.

I found it fine, and quickly purchased some milk, a bottle of water, and a few apples. But on my way back to the flat, I got soooo confused and disoriented. All the flats here look the exact same, in my defense, so I wandered around for a while. I tried getting into one entrance, but my key wouldn't work, and that just attracted the attention of an overzealous babushka living there. She came storming out into the street, saw me trying to get in, and immediately launched into a barrage of Russian. "Ya ne panimayu pa-russki," I stammered out. Her eyes narrowed. "Angliiiiiiskaya," she snarled, then promptly pulled the door shut, locking me out. At this point I had no idea what to do - her voice had pretty much reeked of hatred, so I wasn't going to try that again. I found another apartment entrance that looked (surprise!) just like mine, and I got a man to open the door and let me in, but once I got in I realized it wasn't my block. I headed outside again, but this time I used my bottle of milk to prop the door open, just in case I needed to get back in again. I'm not really sure what was going on in my head at this point...I was just becoming more and more frantic, and I was pretty convinced I was going to have to spend my first night in Russia sleeping on a park bench. Finally, finally, I found an entrance that would open up for my key...dismissing my bottle of milk as a necessary casualty, I left it propping up some other door and ran up the five flights of stairs to my apartment, tears (I am embarrassed to admit) streaming down my face. Literally two minutes after I got in, the phone started ringing. Timidly, I picked it up. "Katie? It's Rhea!"

Rhea is another intern at Language Link, from San Diego, who I found out over the summer was also going to be posted in Mytishchi. We started emailing each other over the summer, and got to know each other, which was awesome, because it made moving to Russia slightly less intimidating. I have never been so happy to hear someone's name through an intercom. I let her into the flat, and she came, like the amazing friend she is, bearing gifts - namely, her delicious homemade bread, Nutella, milk, and some other food that she thought I might need. She basically saved my life that first night. How incredible is she?!?!

I had some of her mouth-watering bread and we chatted over tea at my kitchen table. Right away, it felt like I had known her forever. I'm so happy we're both in Mytishchi! She lives in a flat about a 20 minute walk from mine, so although I would prefer to be roommates with her, at least its not too far! She stayed the night and then the next morning took me into the Central School in Moscow for my first day of intern training.

Alright, I'm going to publish this post now and continue with the story tomorrow! Miss you all!!