Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So long, farewell...for now!

Off to camp for a month...will write if I can find Internet somehow but if not, I'll be back at the end of June! Have a great month everyone and wish me luck with Lady Victoria, the woman who runs the camp :) Should I be practicing my curtsy?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Weekend Recap

Besides packing for camp, marking tests, and waging an unsuccessful war against the new bane of my existence, mosquitos, I managed to get some sightseeing in during my last weekend in Moscow/Mytishi.

On Wednesday morning I leave for camp, where I'll be teaching English for a month before coming back to Moscow for one day and then...flying back to Canada! Where has this year gone?!?

On Saturday I took the metro to VDNKh, then using my powers of navigation (you can stop smirking, oh ye of little faith! Because...) I managed to find Ostankino Palace and parkgrounds. Touring the palace has been one of the things I've been dreaming about since I read Orlando Figes' excellent cultural history of Russia, "Natasha's Dance," and was introduced to the love story of Count Nikolai Sheremetev and Praskovia Zhemchugova.

Be warned, their love story is definitely not a classic "meet-cute" rom-com adaption starring Katherine Heigl-worthy tale. Nikolai was the heir of one of Russia's wealthiest aristocratic families, and, as such, he had little to do with his time but bum around Europe, get inspired by all the culture there, and return to his family's vast holdings in Moscow to try and replicate the art he had been exposed to. He set up a serf theatre on his estate, where his serfs (read: slaves) were trained in classical opera and would perform massive spectacles and plays for thousands of guests.

The star of his serf theatre was the beautiful serf Praskovia Zhemchugova (which means Pearl), and naturally, Nikolai fell in love with her. In a move echoing that of his contemporary across the ocean, Thomas Jefferson, Nikolai began a relationship with his serf - a relationship that must have had some odd dynamics, to be sure. Yet it really was true love, because eventually he married her - Moscow society be damned! - and he moved her to the beautiful pink and white stucco palace he had built in the northeast of Moscow. There, they lived together away from society's prying and scandalized eyes, and Praskovia quickly became pregnant. Tragically, however, she died shortly after giving birth to a healthy male heir. Nikolai, overcome with grief, built a hospital in her name to care for women, a goal she had always wanted to fulfill, and he himself followed her to the grave only a few years later.

I was transfixed by this story when I first heard it, and last year I used it as the foundation for a paper exploring the curious institutions of serf theatres that sprang up around Russia in the latter half of the eighteenth century. It is a story that continues to sadden and intrigue me, and so I was very excited to be able to tour the palace where Nikolai and Praskovia spent their brief period of happiness together.

The Lonely Planet guidebook was NOT very helpful in directions, so I just kept the massive Ostankino TV tower in my sights and eventually the wide expanse of a man-made lake filled my view and beyond that, I glimpsed the pink and white palace. Unfortunately, pretty much the entire exterior of the building was under reconstruction! Scaffolding was everywhere, blocking any real view of what the palace looks like - very disappointing!

You can only tour the inside of the palace on your own between 4-6pm, and as I got there around 2:30, I had to pay 350 roubles to join the Russian-language tour group. That was okay, as I managed to understand most of what the guide was saying (on a random sidenote, he increasingly became cuter and cuter to me as the tour went on...does this mean after nine months in the country I am falling under the charms of Russian men?!) and like I said, I had some previous knowledge of the palace. It was beautiful inside, but very cold, and we had to wear these giant slippers on over our shoes to protect the floors.

The highlight of the tour was definitely getting to see the legendary serf theatre that Nikolai had constructed! It truly is a feat - there was even a removable floor, and all sorts of props and stage equipment to make his productions a rival of the greatest theatres in Europe! I tried to imagine myself in Praskovia's shoes, having to perform in front of her lover - who also happened to be her master.

After the tour, I walked around the park, which was bustling with Russians out enjoying the warm weather and sunbathing. If only we could all be so comfortable with our bodies as this man, sprawled out in his speedo:

Saturday was also a celebration of sorts for some people, as I saw a group of rowdy, tipsy men storm through the metro waving a flag, wearing green hats, and singing loudly. I asked a friend later on if there had been a special day.

"Yes," he said. "It was Border Guards' Day."

"Oh. What do they do?" I asked.

"They guard Russia's borders" was the reply. Oh. Ok. As the Russians say, "спасибо капитан очевидно." Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Sunday was a museum-free day, as I spent a wonderful day at Tsaritsyno Park with my friends Iain and Ilya. We brought a picnic and a frisbee (a 700 rouble adidas frisbee at that, so you'd think maybe that would have helped us play better!) and walked all along the wooded trails as well. Tsaritsyno is such a beautiful park (it was my second time being there, I blogged about it previously here) and I had a great time! It was really sad saying goodbye to Ilya afterwards; as I'm going to camp, then to Canada, then to England, and he's moving to Finland after he defends his PhD on the 16th, I'm not sure when I will see him again. But I believe that we never know how or when our paths may cross again with people, so I'm keeping an open mind. Who knows what adventures (or countries) I may experience next year?

At the back of the palace, with some of the scaffolding

Outside the Tsaritsyno metro station

Intricate "royal icing" look that reminds me
of a gingerbread house!

Iain in action!

Breath-taking views of the lake at Tsaritsyno, which
is in the southeast of Moscow (on the way to
Domodedovo airport, on the same green metro line)

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!
Climbing to the top of a fairy-tale tower in the woods.

And of course, what would a day out in Moscow be
without a Segway sighting?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Russian word of the week: комар

The newest Russian word I have added to my vocabulary over here is directly related to my inability to sleep last night: комар (kah-MAR) = mosquito.

Yep, it looks like mosquito season has launched here in Moscow. I usually keep my balcony window open during the day because my room gets so stuffy and hot now, but the downside to the cool breeze are the mosquitos that are lured inside.

It's not until nighttime, though, when I turn off my light and prepare to sleep, that I hear that telltale whiny buzz next to my ear...

As a result, I barely got any sleep last night as I would JUST be drifting off when ...bzzzzzzzzz...I'd sleepily slap my hand in whatever direction the sound was coming from, but this meant that more often I'd be slapping myself - on the cheek, on the ankle, on my elbow...you get the idea! And then there's the psychological mind games mosquitos play with you when you're CONVINCED you can feel them on your skin biting you!

This morning I woke up groggy, itchy, and bent to destroy any mosquitos left in my room. I've been generous enough with my blood supply! Of course, they're silent now but I know by nightfall it will be...


Saturday, May 28, 2011

In their own words...again

A few months ago, I shared some of the essays that my advanced teen students had written on their favourite place in Russia. The overwhelming majority of them chose their own hometown, and the result were well-written, moving reflections on the importance of their family and friends in establishing a sense of home and community. For the final test of the year, I skipped the usual essay question and asked them a series of questions about English (with one trick question at the end!). Their answers are too good, cute, and funny not to share!

1) Why are you studying English?

- Because I want to know some foreign language and English for me the easyest and studying helps me to fill my time with great pleasure.

- I want to be a programmist, and all computer languages are in English.

- I want to speak English free and can speaking with people of another country.

- I'm studying English because I just like it. That's all.

- I'm studying English for many reasons. First, I need it to get good Job. Secondly, its intresting. Thirdly, English is international language and everybody should know it to communicate.

- I want to get a well pay job.

- My dad.

- I want to talk to people from different countries.

2) What is your favourite word in the English language?

- Congratulations! I don't know why :)

- soccer.

- Quintessentially.

- Congratulations!

- Cookies (accompanied by drawing of cookies)

- Pancake

- Bad-ass :)

- Awesome

- Okay.

- Maybe, or possible.

- F*** (except without the asteriks...and followed by the student writing - "I shame of me! :)"

- I know, that this sentence is the most beautiful: sellar door. I don't know why, but I love this sentence.

3) What is your LEAST favourite thing about English?

- Causative have.

- Grammar...I hate grammar!

- Pronouncing the word "although" (Russian doesn't have a "th" sound, so this is a very hard word for my students to say!)

- Tenses

- Phrasal verbs, I hate them.

- It has got too many tenses.

- Grammar and listening.

- Its alphabet. (Have you seen your own alphabet Valeria?!? All those backward Rs and triangles and handwritten Ts as Ms?!? And you think the English alphabet is hard?)

- Listen how african americans speak. (umm, okay...I know I've been in Russia too long because this answer didn't even faze me. I was just proud that Dmitri used the term "African American" instead of the standard "n word" that is used here!)

4) What was your favourite thing we did this year in class?

- Oh, to tell you the truth, I liked everything we did in class: games, tests, going outdoors, talks, watching films and so on. I'm really glad that I was entered your group. It was a very cool studying year. Thanks a lot for everything! :)

- Just communicating with each other, finding out more about you. I was really entertained when we were teaching you Russian swear words! (hahaha...a very memorable class for me as well, Polina!)

- Its a game, that we have played, but no too much. (Ah yes...that one...vague statements are the best)

- Lesson of studing American teenagers English

- When we play -> (student drew a stick figure swinging from a gallows...so I assume she means when we played "hangman" with vocabulary words as we did not regularly act out guillotine reenactments)

- Discussing funny topics with you!

- My favourite thing was when you had a New Years Party for us!

- Oh many things, but maybe when you had our lesson outside!

- When we went outside.

- I like in Christmas when we see film and when we speaking all class and you say "no grammar today!"

- I love our lessons and I can't say what is this.

5) And the final question...

- Russians :)

- RUSSIA!!!!!!

- When I look TV Russian team was better but now it possible Canadians.

- I don't like hockey and so I don't know anything about it! But I think...mmm...Russians :)

- Its a provocation question, but I don't really like hockey, because I prefer soccer and watch only its games.

- Of course, Russians. I'm patriot of my country!

- Russians - forever! But I'm not really interesting in hockey, so It's not important for me who win.

- Tajikistans! :)

- I'm not hooked on hockey, but I think both are very good. (Diplomatic answer...)

- Do we get better mark if we say Canadians?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cat's got my tongue

I'm speechless.

I've seen some pretty strange things in my time here in Russia, from a woman riding her pony down busy, bustling Arbat to children playing in giant gerbil-like clear balls that float on water. From tough teenage boys drinking beer in the park while wearing shirts with teddy bears on them to six-foot tall "glamazons" stalking over treacherous ice and snow in stilettos.

But this one may just take the cake.

First, a little bit of background information. The fifth-floor landing in my apartment building (where my flat is) is usually quite bare, save for a random ladder (and, of course, the infamous magic witchcraft books that were there back in December). But gradually over the past week or so more and more furniture has been accumlating there, for some mysterious reason. Now it looks like someone is setting up an office!

(Added note: this morning when I went for my run I saw an addition to the bookcase: now it is packed with books. Very strange....)

So last night I went to take the garbage outside. I unlocked our heavy leather door, humming a tune to myself innocently, and stepped out onto the landing...

Where a veterinarian (at least, I hope it was a legitimate vet) was standing over an unconscious kitten performing some type of surgery on it while three other people (the cat's owners?) stood around watching!

I gaped in shock for a minute or two but no one seemed to register my presence or my disbelief. I've mentioned before that my family are not "dog people" or "cat people" so I had no idea what was going on to this poor kitten, save that it was sprawled out on the desk and...SOMETHING was being done to it. And that no one seemed to think this was strange!

I texted one of my Russian friends once I got outside and received this reply:

"Perfectly normal situation! The doctor was making the cat not have babies. Its usually done on the kitchen table but I guess they wanted to use a different table. Last year Maks (her cat) got this on our kitchen table!"

Um...okay, am I the only one who thinks that there is something incredibly unsanitary about neutering a cat on your kitchen table? Shouldn't that be done at a veterinarian's office, on a sterilized table that people don't have to eat off of? How is this "normal situation"??? I don't mean to sound like the judgemental foreigner here but everything about what I saw last night just FREAKED. ME. OUT.

Only in Russia? Russians out there, is this standard practice?

Monday, May 23, 2011

You say da, I say yes, they say ouai

Today I got into a debate with a Russian man over Quebec, the French-speaking province of Canada. I was strolling down Arbat, enjoying the sun and the fact that I don't have to make treks out to the Wasteland anymore on Monday afternoons. I popped into a Russki Souveniri shop and right away was bombarded by an over-zealous shopkeeper trying to talk me into buying the tackier of his offerings.

"Mmm, panyatna," I said in an attempt to shrug him off. "Understand." As in, ok ok I get it, now leave me alone to peruse in peace!

He got the message and left me alone for a bit, until I approached him with my intended purchases in hand (I won't reveal what I bought, in case the recipients are reading this, but I do hope Kelly and Jacqueline will enjoy their gifts!).

Now that I had to speak more than just a word in Russian, he could tell by my accent and frequent pauses that I was a foreigner. "Oh, I thought you were Russian!" he exclaimed, which is definitely flattering - I love it when people mistake me for a local! I always feel a slight thrill like, Yes! I managed to trick you!

"Ot kuda? Where are you from?" he asked.

"Canada," I answered, pronouncing it the Russian way - Kah-NAH-dah.

He then asked me if I was from the French part of the country. I suppose I answered this question a little TOO vehemently, blurting out, "oh nyet, nyet!"

And somehow he interpreted that as a reason to engage me in a good-natured debate about why I apparently don't like Quebec. It's not that I dislike la belle province; I did an immersion program there three summers ago and loved the experience, the language, and the culture (the lard-heavy diet, not so much!). It's just that I think Quebec needs to suck it up and get over the fact that the English beat the French back in 1759. Anyways, that's neither here nor there on this blog...it was just really interesting and somewhat surreal to be debating the issue of Quebec separatism with a Russian souvenir shopkeeper thousands of kilometres away from the subject in question!

On a totally unrelated note, now that its May, the hot water is getting shut off throughout the country for two week periods as workers fix the pipes. According to Katya no one knows when their hot water will be turned off, as it depends on the district you're in, but if you're lucky, you will know someone in another district who still has their hot water and will let you shower at their flat - with the agreement that you'll return the favour when its their turn! Since I went three weeks in December without ANY hot water (a bitter memory that I will never forget and probably keep complaining about every now and then!), I think I can deal with no hot water in May.

Well, its just after 7pm here and I have a class to teach at 7:30 - better get down to the school!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

VDNKh - the Stalinist Disneyland

Happiest place on Earth?

Entrance to VDNKh

VDNKh (an acronym for Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy - whew, what a mouthful!) opened in 1939 as a general purpose trade show, designed to showcase the economic prowess of the Soviet Union and its republics. By 1989, the waning twilight of Communism in Eastern Europe, there were 82 pavilions covering an area of 700,000 square metres. Each pavilion was dedicated to a specific republic (for example, Armenia or Belarus) or a specific industry/trade (the Engineering Pavilion, the People's Education Pavilion, the Space Pavilion, etc). And of course, there was the architecture - breathtaking, ornate Stalinist buildings designed to send a strong message to the world and to the USSR's own citizens: look at us! Look at how successful and mighty we are!

Nowadays, it has been renamed the VVTs (All-Russia Exhibition Centre) and the only remnants of its former Soviet glory are found in crumbling pavilions and statues of proud proletariat workers with chipped paint and missing mosaic tiles. There would be a certain ghostly gloom to the place, a fairy-tale gone awry, if it wasn't for the massive crowds of people who swarm the parks and pathways of VDNKh every day (although the name change was brought about 1992, Muscovites still refer to it by its former name - pronounced va-din-ha - and the nearby metro station also bears this name).

It has now expanded to encompass 2, 375,000 square metres - larger than the principality of Monaco! There are amusement rides, bumper cars, fountains, a giant ferris wheel, games, and food stands - truly something for EVERYONE. People of all ages whiz past on rollerblades and bikes, and you better watch out for the train - loaded with children but still chortling along at a very fast pace! - that comes barreling down on you with no warning! It is like Disney World...on steroids. In an alternate universe. Truly, only in Russia!

I went there with my parents two weeks ago, and we were all captivated by its mix of the ornate, the gaudy, the free-wheeling fun, and the sense of historical atrophy. Today, I returned with my friend Katya (from yesterday's Dior adventure) on a day that dawned warm and sunny. As we bounced along on the bus into Moscow, the radio DJ urged the listeners to "grab some friends, grab some beers, grab some sticks (for grilling shashlik) and let's head into the forest!" Indeed, on the bus ride there and back home later this evening, I saw people going into and emerging from the forest loaded down with shashlik supplies!

However, shashlik wasn't the only thing on the Muscovite agenda today. We got to VDNKh around 1pm, and it. was. PACKED. First thing we did was head to the giant, 73 metre-high ferris wheel that would normally dominate the skyscape if it wasn't for the Ostankino television tower (reminiscent of Toronto's CN tower, it even has a glass floor too!) and the enormous, mighty Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue that famously opens up the beginning of every Mosfilm studio movie made in the Soviet era.

The ferris wheel cost 250 roubles for closed car and 300 roubles for open car. Katya and I opted for the open car option, as it was such a beautiful day out, and I'm certainly glad we did. The view was outstanding! (Unfortunately though I did something to my neck the other day, so my view was restricted to just what was in front of me!) If you want an unparalleled view of Moscow, I definitely recommend it. I was taken aback just by how GREEN the city is. You imagine Moscow to be a city of gray, bleak blocks of apartments but this is just not true. Check it out for yourself:

After the ferris wheel, we rented rollerblades - 300 roubles for 2 hours which was more than enough time for exploring the area (including the beautiful wooded Botanical Gardens that is attached to VDNKh) and for stopping to sit by the fountain and enjoying a cold cup of kvass and some cotton candy!

Cooling off in the fountain

Naturally, my inherant grace and athleticism were on full display to the envy of all:

You can't see it here, but I am clutching that
railing with a death grip to keep from falling
into the lake.

All in all, it was a great day and if you're in Moscow - and want a break from the forest and shashlik, although why would you? - head over to VDNKh, rent some rollerblades, ride the ferris wheel, soak up the slowly decaying Soviet architecture, and watch out for that train!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

J'Adore Dior

On February 12, 1947, a Frenchman named Christian Dior launched a fashion collection that immediately took the style world by storm. Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, upon viewing the wasp-waisted dresses and coats, the full flounced skirts, the wide petticoats, and the ample decolletage, was moved to exclaim, "It's such a new look!" The name stuck, and Christian Dior's "New Look" entered the fashion history books.

Why was this so revolutionary? Europe and North America were just recovering from the devastating Second World War, a period in which women - fighting on the homefront as well as the battlefields - were less preoccupied with dressing in a "ladylike" manner. Fabric rations also meant that clothes were simpler, more austere, and much more focused on comfort and practicality than haute couture.

By 1947, the time was ripe for change, and Dior was the man of the hour. His ultra-feminine dresses and coats - he once memorably said, "I have designed flower-women" - ushered in a new era of femininity and grace, an era in which women proudly expressed their desires to "feel pretty" again after a long period of wartime asceticism.

Last month, a new exhibit exploring Dior and the infuences he drew upon opened at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts here in Moscow. To say it has been wildly successful would be an understatement. Muscovites have been FLOCKING to see the exhibit, and buzz has been generating that the exhibit may show in New York, Milan and Paris at some point. As a fashion and history lover, I was very curious to check out the exhibit for myself, so today my friend Katya and I took the metro to Kropotkinskaya station, got off in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and came face-to-face with...a long, snaking queue to get into the museum!

Apparently the lines have been out the door since the exhibit opened, regardless of the day or time. We waited outside for about an hour, which wasn't that bad, and luckily it was a beautiful, sunny day! The Pushkin Museum is a gorgeous building dating from 1912, and the grounds around it are just beautiful - lots of fresh tulips and lilacs!

Once we got inside, we paid the fee (400 roubles for me, 200 roubles for Katya as she is still in university and got a discount with her student card - lucky! I miss my student days!) and checked our coats. No cameras were allowed, unfortunately, so you'll just have to take my word when I say that the exhibit was stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Everything was arranged so creatively and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of aesthetics. One room, for example, had massive Ionic columns marching down the centre, with mirrors EVERYWHERE (including on the ceiling) so you felt like you were floating through the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Tchaikovsky was playing in the background, the room was lightly scented with Dior perfume...it was incredible!

Not only were more than 100 dresses on display (ranging from his first ones in 1947 to just-off-the-runway Spring/Summer 2011!), but there were also paintings by Picasso, Malevich, and the Impressionists, all of whom were sources of inspiration for Dior. There was an Egyptian mummy with mannequins grouped around it, all robed in Egyptian-inspired Dior gowns. Russia and Asia were also strong influences on Dior, as well as the Belle Epoque period, the 18th century (think Marie Antoinette!) and of course...flowers. Dior LOVED his flowers!

Another room was all about the "Stars of Dior" - the celebrities throughout the years who have been clad in Dior. This was probably my and Katya's favourite part, although we'd be hardpressed to choose. The room was dark, with flickering lights, flashbulbs, and video on the walls showing famous people in Dior couture. And then there were the dresses...

They had dresses displayed that had been worn by Princess Diana, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Grace Kelly, Olivia de Havilland, Elizabeth Taylor's dress she wore to the Oscars one year, Penelope Cruz, Charlize Theron...it was incredible! Katya and I just kept clutching at each other as we passed gorgeous dress after gorgeous dress, each one imbued with its own history and story. These were dresses we've lusted after in magazine pages, now all come alive in front of us - so incredible!

This exact dress was one of the gowns
on display at the exhibit, worn by Princess
Diana at the 50th anniversary of the
House of Dior in 1997.

Nicole Kidman at the 1997 Oscars, back
in her Tom Cruise period.

This coat, worn by French first lady Carla
Bruni-Sarkozy in 2008 on a state visit to England.
I stood next to this coat today, and the Queen stood
next to it back in 2008, so by proxy does that mean
I've stood next to the Queen? :)

The entire exhibit was just breath-taking and if you are in Moscow or planning to be here up until July, I strongly recommend visiting it. Of course, plan to spend several hours in total here, not only because of the queue but because you will not be able to stop gaping at all the clothes, objects, sketches and paintings on display!

Now I'm off to daydream wistfully about ballgowns, gloves, and red wool traveling coats. Why couldn't I have been alive in the Fifties?!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Guest Post: Rick's Review

And now let me introduce you to my dad, Rick. As someone who has a painting of Paul Henderson's famous goal on Vladislav Tretiak in the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series proudly hanging up in his basement, I was very interested to hear my dad's take on Russia.

While planning our trip to Russia to visit our eldest daughter we were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the country, the paperwork to get into the country and the transportation to move around once we were in the country. I have to tell you it turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

My vision of Russia prior to us going was one that many people my age probably have- kind of an east versus west, cold war, spies, you know the kind of stuff you read in Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novels. You picture everything in black and white and visualize miserable looking people in long coats staring straight ahead. Man, was I wrong!

Upon arriving at Domodedova, we were met by a pleasant immigration officer who spoke English and efficiently gave us our 10 day immigration card. Again, there were no armed guards or no KGB following us. Heading out through the sliding doors, we were greeted by dozens of smiling people, some holding placards waiting for their charge, others anxiously waiting for loved ones, and the rest were taxi’s, all wanting our business. We quickly scanned the crowd for Katie but could not find her. To all the cab drivers who approached me I just nodded my head and said “nyet”, meaning no. A lot of them spoke English so I would tell them we are meeting someone. After walking aimlessly around for about 15 minutes and not finding Katie anywhere we started passing the same cab drivers again, I am sure they were saying “sure, you’re meeting someone”. Anyways, one of the cabbies offered his phone to us so we could call Katie. I thought it was a very nice gesture since he probably saw we looked worried.

Back in the USSR - waiting for Katie
outside of Domodedovo Airport

Within a couple of minutes Katie arrived with her friend Iain and after hugs and handshakes I saw the phone- offering cabbie out of the corner of my eye give me a thumbs up. At this point I should thank Katie’s friend again for helping her navigate her way from Mytichshi to the airport which takes about 2 hours of bus, subway and back to bus again.

Reunion after 8 months apart!

Katie was determined to show us Red Square before we saw anything else and although it was beautiful and amazing the fact that we were with Katie, whom we have not hugged since August 30 made it all the more beautiful.

Katie navigated our way back to her flat in Mytichshi with a series of subway and bus rides. Upon entering her city that was founded in 1460 and has now grown to almost 200,000 people, we were greeted by 3 huge taps elevated about 50 feet in the air. These play a significant role because Mytichshi is famous for its aqua ducts and in the 18th century supplied the Kremlin with their first taste of pure water.(Editor's note: The statue of the water taps is considered a bit of a joke here in Mytishi! Although people are proud of the fact that their city supplied water to Moscow, the statue is a tad ridiculous looking...)

Finally, we arrived at Katie’s flat. Up 5 flights of stairs and let me tell you Julie and I were feeling every step, after all it was a mere 18 hours ago that we boarded our plane in Toronto. Heading down the hallway to Katie’s room all we could think about was getting to bed but no, we dropped our bags, freshened up a bit and headed out to eat. Crossing her parking lot we walked by the 5 year old, 9,000 seat arena that is home to the “Mytichshi Atlant”, a professional hockey club belonging to the KHL. Unfortunately, there was no hockey as they lost in the first round of the playoffs despite going the year with a 32-22 record. The restaurant was a pizza style place and for 9:00 on a Sunday night it was fairly crowded. The food, as it was during our whole trip was delicious and always presented nice. One clear difference from Ontario is they never give you the check until you ask for it, and I almost forgot to add, there are no taxes. Walking home we noticed the streets were still fairly busy and seemed completely safe, even the beer drinking people in the streets did not pose any threats, yes, I said beer drinking in the streets. It is legal to walk around with a beer in your hand. I had to prove it myself although it wasn’t until the next day. What a great concept.

Enjoying a beer at the park

It already felt as though we were there a couple of days but it was only about 6 hours and my views of Russia (too much TV and spy novels) were completely changed and I could hardly wait to wake up the next day and continue our adventure in a very friendly and welcoming country.

A big thank you to both my parents for the amazing trip (memories that will last a lifetime!) and for their blog posts. I know you were jet-lagged and the last thing you probably felt like doing was writing :)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Guest Post: Meet my mum

I've been in love with Russia ever since I was twelve. My parents fully supported my love of all things Russian (except for when I'd cheer for Team Russia during hockey...they never supported that!) but they didn't really understand what it was about such a cold, forbidding country that fascinated me so much.

I think I can now state quite confidently that after our fantastic trip last week, they totally get my love of Russia. But I don't want to put words in their mouth. So I asked them to both write a guest post on my blog about their experiences. Without further ado, meet my mum, Julie:

Good Eats

Katie recently asked her father and me if we would be willing to write a guest post for the Devushka Diary. “No problem”, I thought. As soon as I get over my jet lag I’ll whip something up about one or two of the amazing experiences we had on our recent journey to Mother Russia..

Now where to start? There are just so many things that I could write about. The architecture, the history, the people? Suffice it to say that the trip was everything we thought it would be, and more.

Being somewhat of a foodie, I thought that what we ate would make a perfect topic for my guest post. It also happened to be the one question that was repeatedly asked of me when I returned. I have to admit that I was a little concerned about that very thing before we left. Not for myself. I can pretty much eat anything, and am quite adventurous when it comes to trying new cuisine (within certain hygienic standards). Rick not so much. I did assume that potatoes, beets, and bread would be in ready supply, and since he loves those I knew he wouldn’t starve to death.

To most people’s surprise, including our own, we ate very well everywhere we visited. In fact, I have been trolling the internet the past two days for recipes to recreate some of the fantastic meals that we enjoyed.

Here’s a sampling of the wonderful food we discovered in Russia.

The “best salmon I ever had”. I think I uttered this constantly throughout the meal.

Our first introduction to Shashlik came courtesy of Bakinskiy Bulvar in Mytishchi. The meat, fish, and vegetables are grilled over open coals in an outside cookhouse. From my window seat I could see the waiters running inside with the piping hot delicacies served over fresh lavash. As Katie mentioned in an earlier post, Georgian food became our go-to cuisine. I believe Rick had chicken shashlik that evening, and Katie enjoyed an eggplant dish.

Another helping of shashlik. This time a mixture of meat veal, chicken, and pork, courtesy of Gennatsvale on Arbat.

Somewhere around this point, Rick discovered the absolutely decadent cheese bread khatchapouri. Here`s a photo of it alongside the peppers and eggplant dish that Katie ordered. Yummy!

My meal that night a tasty lamb stew with garlic-mashed potatoes and some of Rick`s khatchapouri. I don`t know if he knew that we were sharing!

Yes, note the ashtray in the background of the above photo. Sadly we had to enjoy all the wonderful food in Russia with the aroma of cigarette smoke nearby. Canadians slightly younger than me have never had the pleasure. We always asked for non-smoking sections, which are available, and it was never a real problem.

While in St. Petersburg we discovered a gem of a restaurant close to our hotel. Actually it was Rhea and Mike who discovered it. We just enjoyed the fruits of their discovery. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we had two dinners at Balzac. I loved my eggplant and tomato smothered in mozzarella.

Rick was quite satisfied with pork tenderloin in a mustard crust, and served with rice and vegetables.

Katie`s tuna with vegetable spaghetti

Of course I saved room for dessert. A traditional Russian medovnik (honey) cake. Who needs chocolate? This was sinful.

One of my favourite meals was the one we had on our last full night in Mytishchi. This was all about the company and the warm and fuzzy feelings. Instead of eating at a restaurant, Katie and I walked down to the local Perekrestok (a popular grocery chain). We picked up some ingredients to prepare a meal of zakuski. Think “appetizers” if you are in North America, and “dim sum”, “antipasto”, “tapas”, or “hor d’oeuvres”, if you are in other parts of the world. We were even able to score some still-warm-from-the-oven bread. The bread in Russia was varied, delicious, and cheap.

After a relaxing hour or so of nibbling and talking and laughing, we hit the streets of Mytishchi for an after-dinner stroll. It was a beautiful evening still quite light out for that time of night, and warm. It was wonderful to see and feel the city that has been Katie’s home for the past eight months. Rick made one more stop for ice cream. Seeing the beer, and knowing that his days of drinking in public were soon coming to an end, he picked up a traveller. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me and was not able to snap a photo of him as he walked double-fisted and delirious with enjoyment.

On our return to the flat, Katie put on a pot of tea. The two of us sat in her kitchen, sipping tea and leafing through the Royal Wedding newspapers and magazines I had picked up enroute through London the day after the big event. It was an evening I didn’t want to end.

But all good things must come to an end, and so too did our Russian adventure. It was much too short, but we enjoyed every minute of it.

Now if I could only find some of those recipes! Any readers who know how to prepare some of the fabulous meals featured here please send them my way. And the salty, paprika-like grains that garnish the shashlik what is that? The sauce that accompanies the beef and pork shashlik what are the ingredients? The real coup would be to recreate that mouth-watering khatchapouri that Rick (OK, all of us) enjoyed so much. Anyone?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Getting there is half the fun

I'm a firm believer in that it is the journey, not necessarily the destination, that is important.

(Cue eye roll here)

Cheesy inspirational sayings aside, it's definitely true that the trip TO somewhere can be just as fun as the actual holiday. I have very fond memories of sitting in the backseat of a mint-green Ford taurus station wagon, eating Fruit-loop licorice necklaces and reading Nancy Drew books while my family made our three-day long drive to Marco Island, Florida. We'd get out of the car every now and then to stretch our legs and check out the wares at Cracker Barrel (the best restaurant ever, hands down) and then we'd be back on the open road, "Hotel California" and Bruce Springsteen anthems blaring.

On my most recent trip, to St. Petersburg with my parents, we elected to take the overnight train from Moscow. There's something about the Russian railroads that seems so romantic, don't you think? I had visions of me cosily ensconced in a little coupe, staring out a window at the snowy steppes while sipping tea and eating blini. Preferably with a guy named Alexei or Dmitri who would be reading Anna Karenina out loud in its original Russian, which I would of course naturally understand perfectly. (hey, this is a fantasy, right?)

This was not the case on Tuesday. We got to the Leningradsky train station around 11pm, but we had to wait for Rhea and her dad to meet us and help us print off our tickets. They got there just after midnight (our train was due to leave at 12:44am) and Rhea and I made our way to the machine where you could print the tickets.

I entered my nomer zakaza (order number), as well as my passport number, and a screen came up that informed me my tickets were printing. Then, all of a sudden, to my horror the word "oshibka" started flashing - mistake!

My tickets weren't printing! The clock was ticking! What to do???

I tried again. No luck. Rhea tried her numbers...and her tickets printed without a problem! My parents were standing a little ways away, talking to Rhea's dad Mike who we had just met. I could feel my mum's stress and tension beaming across the room to where I was, silently freaking out. Were we just about to throw 9,000 roubles (for three coupe-class round-trip tickets) down the drain?

Rhea and I ran over to the information desk, where there was, naturally, a loooong line-up. Full of extremely talkative people with problems that required lengthy discussion, of course. The minute hand on the clock ticked relentlessly on. My parents were looking increasingly frantic. And then...our saviour appeared!

In the form of a tall, handsome Russian guy named Sergei. Full disclosure here: I'm a horrible flirt. I just don't know how. I blame my innate awkwardness and the fact that I used to sport perfectly circular glasses and a retainer. But Rhea - tall, blonde, California-cool - has absolutely no problem with this and soon enough Sergei was issuing a stream of Russian to the women behind the desk. Then he quickly led us to our carriage, spoke rapidly to the security guards who were checking tickets and passports, and before we knew it...we were on the train! It was literally 12:42. Sergei dashed off (not before giving Rhea his phone number - natch!) and the train started its eight hour journey to St. Petersburg.

The train itself was VERY nice - cosy coupes with four beds each (bunk beds), all equipped with fresh sheets, blanket, and pillow. My parents befriended the porter and they ended up trading some coins with him. They gave him a loonie and a toonie (our ridiculously-named Canadian one-dollar and two-dollar coins) which threw him into ecstasies. In return, he gave my dad a 1967 USSR ten rouble coin. He also kept returning to check on them and bring them coffee and tea!

I shared a coupe with one other girl who didn't speak English and went to bed right away. Which was actually kind of nice, considering the situation on the way back to Moscow on Saturday night...

Once again, we JUST made the train. Because once again, there was a problem with our tickets. Rhea and her dad printed their tickets with ease, but that stupid "oshibka!" kept flashing for me until I wanted to punch the machine. This time, there was no Sergei in shining armour (in Adidas track-suit?) to save the day, but at least we were somewhat expecting a problem so we were able to just show our passports and get on the train. This train left a little earlier, at 10pm, and as soon as we stepped on board, we could tell we weren't in Kansas anymore...

This train was more reminiscent of an old Soviet train from 1988 or something. The suspicious gazes we were greeted with by the porters and the fellow passengers seemed to confirm the fact that we had traveled back in time and back behind the Iron Curtain.

The train was boiling inside, so my mum and I stood in the narrow hallway by a window that was open a crack, trying to catch a breeze. My parents had to share their coupe with two other women, (one of whom had incredibly bad body odour) and about ten pieces of luggage. Now, these coupes are TINY. There is barely enough room for each person to put their shoes and one bag. Here's a pic of one of the women in their coupe, unloading her stuff the next morning in Moscow:

The impressed look on my mother's face says it all:

I had to share my coupe with three men, all of whom snored like freight trains, but I do have to say that the moving train had a lulling effect on me and I slept pretty well until 4:30am when the female employee/former Soviet shotput Olympian (at least, that's what she looked like!) came by pounding on all the doors to wake the passengers up. A great wake-up call. Thank God for the little bar on the side of the bunk that kept me from rolling off the bed onto the floor in my sleep-induced haze!

But, like I said, half the fun is getting there. Riding the Russian rails was a memorable experience and definitely more interesting than if we had just flown to St. Petes. The next dream I want to fulfill: taking the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way across Russia to Vladivostok - a week long journey! It sounds incredible, but I might have to consider shelling out the extra bucks to have a private coupe with a friend or two...not sure if I could last a whole week sharing a space with smelly, snoring strangers!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When in Russia

It started off innocently enough.

We saw a sign in the lobby of our hotel in St. Petersburg (the Nevsky Forum, which I highly recommend for travelers...incredible location, as well as a five minute walk from Moscovskiy train station, the rooms were gorgeous and the staff were so helpful and welcoming) for a Thursday night "Russian hospitality" evening.

All it took to spark our interest were the words "free vodka shot" and "complimentary blinis." Yep, we're classy like that.


Being the freeloading tourists that we most definitely are, my parents, Rhea, her dad Mike and I planned our day accordingly so that we ended up back at our hotel just in time. The first shot went down smoothly, and the blini were delicious. And then my dad had The Idea.

The first shot is the smoothest

"How about we get a bottle of vodka?" he suggested.

By "we", he meant that he would sit and wait in the hotel's sitting room while Rhea, my mum and I ventured out to the street in search of the Russian national drink. But that was ok, because more vodka seemed like a great plan. But oh how good ideas can so quickly become bad ones...

We picked up a bottle as well as some various zakuski, the Russian word for appetizers that you use to chase shots with. They tend to be pickled or dried/salted foods - we bought pickles, strawberries, rye bread, a lemon, and some dried herring, aka fish jerky, which Rhea loves and I had always thought looked revolting. Then we skipped back to our hotel, where my dad and Mike were waiting in a cosy little table overlooking Nevsky Prospekt.

Aww, cute father-daughter bonding moment
over a bottle :)

One of the hotel employees saw our supplies, guessed what we were about to do, and offered to wash the strawberries and get us some shot glasses. Oh, this is why I love Russians...in Canada I doubt the hotel would have ever been cool with us drinking and eating our own stuff whilst hanging out in their lobby (and getting louder and more obnoxious as the liquid in the bottle dwindled), but here it was just like, "Awesome. Let me help you get drunk!"

Our zakuski...I believe I consumed about 98%
of the pickles.

He returned with chilled shot glasses and our zakuski neatly laid out on platters (so nice!) and we got down to business. I remember the first hour or so quite pleasantly. We made some eloquent toasts to Russia, to friendship, to traveling...and then things started to get a little hazy. The toasts started to get a little more random.

"To puffy shirts!" we toasted, clinking our glasses together merrily. (And yep, that was a total Seinfeld reference...)

"To the Blasdels, the pre-Mayflower family that's pronounced BLAZE-del not Blahz-del!" (that would be Rhea and her dad, whose last name is Blasdel which I had been mispronouncing these past eight months).

"To...what's your name? Pavel? Like Pavel Datsyuk? Can we call you Pasha? To Pasha!" (this said to the hotel employee who kept coming back to check on us every now and then).

"To nude walkers and Holy Fools for Christ!" (don't ask...just trust that it somehow made sense at the time)

And so on and so on. I started to forget what else we toasted around the eighth or ninth shot. We finished the bottle, placed it immediately on the ground (its bad luck in Russia to put an empty bottle on the table after you've finished it) and then someone - we're really not sure who to blame here - suggested getting another bottle.

Somehow I ended up in a grocery store with Rhea giggling hysterically to myself and taking random pictures of alcohol and baby food side by side in the shelves while we debated over which brand of vodka to get (should we go cheap or cheaper?). I remember thinking to myself how clever and normal I was acting and how none of the passersby in the street could possibly detect how drunk I was. It all seemed like a hilarious secret to me, although I'm fairly sure that pointing to a janitor cleaning the floor in a store and screeching, "She's riding a seg-way!" when in fact she is pushing a bucket of soapy water is a bit of a tip-off that I was not totally sober.

Going from baby food to vodka...weaning them
young here in Mother Russia.

Somehow Rhea and I made it back to our hotel with the second bottle of vodka and the shots re-commenced. The dried herring that had previously looked so disgusting to me now seemed...well, appetizing. As appetizing as brownish-gray pieces of fish jerky can possibly look.

Why do I look so pained? Could it be
the fact that I was eating FISH JERKY?!

Sometime after the fish jerky episode, I knew I had to get back to our hotel room. I'm not going to get into what happened next, because a) it's embarassing, and b) I don't completely remember anyways. Let's just say Rhea is an awesome friend for holding my hair back and getting me into bed somehow.

My parents got back at some point in the night, and before you think it was just me who couldn't handle their alcohol, in my defense I was not the only one completely smashed. To preserve their dignity, I won't go into details here...but I think its safe to say that my parents won't be touching vodka for a while...

The parting shot of the night, courtesy of my mum
as she tried to figure out how to work my camera
at 7am

Around 7am, the three of us woke up, still drunk, and my mum started talking about how we had to get up in half an hour to get on a boat to Peterhof. "Uhh, there is no way in HELL I am getting on a boat," I mumbled, and thank God she dropped that idea, that's all I can say. My dad and I stayed in bed until 1:30pm, when I finally forced myself to go into the hotel lobby to meet Rhea and her dad (who, by the way, had smartly stuck to beer and Dr. Pepper!).

Who did I run into immediately but Pasha, our ever-so-helpful friend/hotel employee from the night before, who had probably been laughing at the stupid foreigners who couldn't handle their vodka. He grinned at me and asked me how I was doing.

"Dobrye ootra - good morning," I said, turning red as a Russian beet. I've always prided myself on being able to handle my alcohol, and not being one of those girls who only drinks fruity little cocktails, but here I was, the morning after making a complete fool of myself in front of him and the entire Russian staff...!

My mum joined us at 3, and we all swore never to drink again like you always do the day after, and then eventually I forced myself to go to a museum I'd been hoping to visit, and my parents forced themselves to go for a walk. It was a gross day anyways weather-wise, so we didn't feel too bad about the day being a total write-off. My dad got some good hangover food in the form of Pizza Hut, and then we all had a very early night.

But you know what they say - when in Russia, do what the Russians do.

Or at least make a valiant attempt!