Mar 3, 2015

Не наступай на меня! (Photo collection: Moscow in winter)

My Dear Readers,

I know that the blog has been limping this year.  I won't say I'm sorry for the reduced output, since Time Flying has always been a free service, and frankly I can't remember any of you ever writing a Russia blog for me.  But I do feel bad, if that makes you feel good.  The unfortunate truth is, this third iteration of the blog has faced new and unforeseen challenges, the most significant being my creative death.  As with any death, the long-term prognosis isn't good, but I have managed to gurgle up another photo-tour of Moscow - this time, in winter.

In the "autumn" installment of this photo-introduction, I stressed Moscow's unique place in Russian hearts and minds, but only in the abstract because I hadn't yet left my apartment.  In this week's post (read: this semester's post), I will try to emphasize how different Moscow is from the provinces where this blog was born, in addition to continuing my Moscow-in-all-seasons photo series.

It is difficult for the American reader to grasp the singular and exalted status of Moscow within Russia.  In the United States, residents of any great city might claim that theirs is the finest - that New York is the American melting pot realized, that San Francisco is the paragon of urban beauty, that Chicago is possessed of the true American spirit, or that Miami is a place somebody might consider visiting.  In Russia, to make any such claims about any city other than Moscow is absurd - Moscow is the finest city.  If you think it's Irkutsk, you're a redneck.  If you think it's Maikop, you belong to some delusional and insignificant ethnic minority.   If you think it's St. Petersburg, you're trying to complicate my point.  Perhaps St. Petersburg is some disposable organ like a kidney, but Moscow is the beating heart; all other cities are frostbitten extremities.

To some extent, it's just a matter of fact.  Moscow is the largest city in Europe by population, so long as we assume that a) it is in Europe, and b) Turkey isn't.  It's also the oldest city in Europe, if we assume that a) you don't know history, and b) you can't use Google.  In this photograph of Moscow from space, Moscow is by far the easiest city to see from space:

On the other hand, many Russian cities are large, old, and have electricity.  How is life really different here?

First of all, Moscow is safe.  Gone are the bitter winter nights in Irkutsk, counting my drunken, zig-zagging steps home out loud in order to stay awake, knowing that wherever else I pass out would be my icy grave. Gone are the panicked days in Maikop, memorizing passages from the Quran to appease the Islamists who mistakenly believed I'd converted.  In Moscow, Russians and foreigners mingle freely, each man and woman speaking, dressing, drinking and believing as they see fit, with nobody to judge them but Allah.

Of course, Moscow is a city of over 11,000,000 people, so one should still take normal urban precautions. Watch your valuables and stick to well-lit streets that you know.  Don't pursue any formal partnership or intelligence-sharing agreements with NATO.  Don't touch things.

But with a little common sense, Moscow really is an orderly, predictable and pleasant city in which to live and work.

At the same time, Moscow is lively.  If Maikop seceded from the Federation, the TV news would have to show viewers where it is on a map.  Moscow's politics is Russia's politics, and all meaningful political events happen within 30 minutes of my apartment.   One reason I've been posting less is that I've been busy reading news, watching TV, writing essays and observing demonstrations from a politically-neutral distance.  I have kept that work separate from the blog because, as you know, Time Flying generally treads lightly in political matters. However, I want to make an exception today, as recent events have made neutrality nearly impossible.  I think that Russia's flag-making and flag-rental industries have become far, far too powerful.    

The flag-industrial complex here is a parasite that feeds on discord, and Moscow is its biggest, bloodiest host.  The flag profiteers, as far as I can tell, support all parties but cherish no ideals; they will just as soon don the Russian tricolor to dupe thousands of useful idiots...

... as squeeze a handful of rubles from Russia's lone Tea Partier.

Here they are sowing discord at an opposition rally against the war in Ukraine, flags of all colors in all directions:

And here, forging a consensus, lining up behind the social-democratic Fair and Just Russia Party on People's Unity Day.  It makes you sick.

Speaking of People's Unity Day, what the hell is People's Unity Day?  Alas, it's not just flag-waving that makes Moscow lively - it's also the national center of quasi-political holidays I've never heard of. 

I've been in Russia on November 4th before, but this particular holiday is absent from my exhaustive 2008 holiday post.  Apparently, People's Unity day is a) a celebration of diversity and peaceful coexistence within Russia, and b) a protest against diversity and peaceful coexistence within Russia, depending on which competing rally you went to.  I went to the "celebration" one, but I stood at a politically neutral distance.  I probably don't need to tell you this, but the original purpose of the holiday was to commemorate the unity of Russia's peoples at the stalemate-conclusion of the Polish-Muscovite War, 1605-1618.  I, for one, reject the tidy repackaging of that war before the dust has settled.

Apparently, that holiday has existed since 2005, but I think only Moscow was told.  There was yet a newer holiday this year, of which I saw no trace except for this billboard near my apartment: February 15th is now the Day of Remembrance for Russian Citizens Fulfilling Their Service Obligations Beyond the Borders of the Fatherland.  

A more generous translation might be "Remembrance for Russians Serving Abroad," but I'm not here to sugarcoat things.  And besides, the wording needs to be precise, to distinguish this holiday from Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, which comes only a week later.

I probably don't need to tell you this, but the original purpose of both holidays is to shatter any illusions left over from Valentine's Day.

Finally, Moscow is beautiful.  Okay, so were Siberia and the Caucasus.  These photos are the second installment of my three-part series, "Moscow in all seasons except summer."  The paired photos are meant to be viewed together, of course, but the last one stands alone and is truly spectacular.   







Although on the whole I've found Moscow to lack some of the magic of the provinces, Christmas Eve was an extraordinary exception.  Right before midnight, on my way to mass, directly above Moscow's oldest monastery, my friend Tim and I spotted these pillars of colored light in the sky. The streets were empty except for a single old babushka, also walking to mass, and she hadn't noticed them until I stopped her to ask what they were.  She said she had lived in Moscow her entire life and had never seen anything like them; that they were clearly a sign from God, and that clearly we kind Americans were sent to reveal it.  She then began crossing herself in a state of rapture, only slightly more rapturous than ours - it's worth noting that the lights were far more vibrant than they appear on film, and that the brightest orange-gold ones in the center appeared to be in the shape of a church organ.  After about ten minutes, the lights dissipated.  In the morning, people all over the city were talking about them.

Whoever can correctly identify the cause of these lights can guest-write the next blog entry. I'm off to Siberia.

Jan 23, 2015

Грузинская рулетка (On dining out in Moscow, pt. 2)

These are the stunning mountains of the Svaneti region of Georgia. I'm not there.  

I'm in Moscow.  That's the thin end of a hammer, the first tool I found to pry open a stuck elevator door at 2 a.m. a few nights ago.  The hammer, it seemed, didn't provide enough leverage.

This is Georgia's ancient capital Tbilisi, pride of the Caucasus.  Its winding alleyways, stone turrets and ancient church domes speak to over 1500 years of history, all preserved to a degree rarely seen in either Europe or the Middle East.  Again, I didn't take this picture, I'm not there.

These are two curtain rods and a broomstick.  Our thinking was that, though each of those things would be too weak on its own, maybe all three at once would free the six people trapped inside the elevator.

And finally, these are the Russian mechanics that eventually showed up, two hours later, with purpose-made tools.  We all celebrated together afterwards.

Though I've never been to Georgia, my impressions of the country and its people are quite positive. Russians seem to think otherwise - at the risk of stereotyping two nations at once, all Russians think that all Georgians are singing, dancing, wine-drunk, language-poor melon peddlers who just happen to have a delicious national cuisine.

I, for one, don't care for stereotypes; all I hear is "delicious national cuisine".  And Russians do respect and enjoy Georgian food, even while they consider the Georgian people unsavory. At least in Moscow, Georgian is by far the most popular of the "Soviet ethnic" cuisines. It's a sunny valley of this:

 tucked away in mountains of this:

As I noted in my last post, "Soviet ethnic" food seems to have fared much better in capitalist Russia than the trendy Western import-cuisines.  This can be explained by simple economics - the free market only improves quality when people know what they want.  In the case of "trendy" foods, the sushi trusts smothered their competition in the cradle, so unassuming Russians are stuck buying mutton dressed as tuna.  But because the Soviet Union already had Georgian and Uzbek food, the market ran its natural course - bad restaurants folded; the better restaurants competed for discerning customers by cutting prices; and the profit motive gave me E. coli twice in two weeks.

Georgian wine

Recall the golden rule from my last post - in Russia, cheap food is worse, but expensive food isn't better.  So imagine my delight when I found a dirt-cheap Georgian cafe right next to my metro stop! I'd had my first (delicious) Georgian meal the week before, and already had the figurative Georgian bug.  So I strolled in, confident that expensive food is not better.


These are khinkali, the signature Georgian dish.  They are a particularly tasty variant of meat dumplings - in their ideal form, they're stuffed with raw ground lamb, herbs, and bullion, then steamed and served with a tangy plum (tkemali) or spicy tomato (satsebeli) sauce.  Because they are sealed before steaming, the meat juice and bullion cook into a soup inside, which you drink from the dumpling before eating it.

What happened next - really, later that evening - was so awful that I can only describe it by italicized allusion.  What matters most is that it happened very quickly - in my panic that night, I was forced to make some seat-of-the-pants decisions.

Lamb shashlyk

A week later I was back at it - if you read this blog, you know why.  This time though, I corrected my mistake - I went to a more upscale Georgian cafe called Saperavi in a swankier neighborhood.  That first time, see, I'd simply misinterpreted the golden rule.  Cheaper food is worse, I reassured myself.

Walnut paste and herbs in eggplant rolls

What happened next - really, later that evening - was different only in the fine details. Rather than horror, this time I met it with grim resignation.  I'd made my bed.  And now I couldn't sleep in it.

Khachapuri po adzharski

If two times seems like too many, I would only say the following.  First of all, it's actually three times, if we count an identical disaster that befell me in a hotel in Buryatia in 2008, after I ate the exact same dish, only there they're called pozy.

Buryat Pozy

And second, don't lecture me.  Sure, one could argue that if this were a khinkali exam, 1/3 would be an F.  But as I see it, if this were the khinkali World Series, I'd be batting at least .333, which (for the nerds and foreigners among you) is nothing to sneer at.  I say "at least .333," because every time you eat khinkali, it's at least 5 individual dumplings, and there's no reason to believe that all five had E. coli each time I got sick.  I may be batting as high as .900, and with an average like that I'd be an idiot not to swing.


But really, neither of those metaphors is apt.  If we consider all I've written about food in this blog - and I swear this is the last time - it's obvious that circumstances have driven me to play khinkali roulette. And in that light, losing and surviving twice is an amazing feat!  

Dec 14, 2014

Я СВОБОДЕН (On dining out in Moscow, pt. 1)

I have a confession to make - I've been eating Russian food again.  I've already blogged on this topic ad nauseam (get it?), but I have yet to take a trip to Russia so brief that I can fast through it.  And besides, as I've said, Moscow isn't exactly Russia - eating here is a world apart from the pigs' heads and forced potato-labor of this blog's past lives.  Flush with Western imports and with its finger to the pulse of global trends, Moscow is the undisputed culinary capital of Moscow Oblast.  Of course, Western imports were banned weeks before my arrival, and when it's this cold, a pulse can be hard to find, but the city does its best - whatever your palate desires, Moscow can produce a workmanlike equivalent.  

To this end, Moscow serves not only Russian food and "Soviet ethnic" food (the topic for my next post), but what I'll call "trendy" food, a whole world of essentially identical eateries, varying only in the gender and ethnic makeup of the waitstaff.  For instance, a Russo-Mexican restaurant might be staffed by poncho-clad Armenian men, but Russo-Japanese is best served by Uzbek girls with chopsticks in their hair.  This post will describe one such Japanese restaurant, but please do not interpret the story as idiosyncratic or isolated - like everything else on this blog, it is true, representative, presented without bias or insight, and a metaphor for all of Russia.  


I never intended to eat trendy food - here's how it happened.  On break from work one day, I went to my usual lunch-place Cafe Prime, which I like because the pre-packaged sandwiches seem fresh, or at least very cold.  Unfortunately, my card was rejected there, so I left in search of a place that would serve me food before swiping the card.  That's how I ended up at Wabi-Sabi, one of the three balancing powers in Moscow's faux-competitive sushi tri-opoly.  Like all trendy restaurants in Moscow, the inside was dark and incoherently decorated, lined with TVs showing silent videos of Moto-cross, and booming with Christmas-themed, feel-good hip-hop too loud for you to hear your waitress.  Before I continue, I want to stress that I've never written a piece of fiction in my life.

When you sit down, you are issued a portfolio of colorful laminated paperwork.  It would take 15,000 words to describe the maddeningly complex ordering procedures at Wabi-Sabi, but fortunately, I have 15 pictures.  I'll begin with the main menu, photographed from the side. It has 26 pages, each with 8-10 options on it, beginning with neon-colored cocktails and I think ending with more neon-colored cocktails.  A conservative estimate would be 250 staple menu items.

Because I was there between 11:00 and 5:00, I also got a lunch menu, in fact the "new" lunch menu, with the mocking title "I AM FREE."  At the top, it promises "even more dishes," from 180 rubles. 

The inside is a grid of even more dishes, organized along two axes - the X-axis is in ascending order of price, and the Y-axis is the usual sequence of courses in a meal.  On the right page, underneath another reminder that I AM FREE, are seven different permutations of the five categories along the Y-axis, for instance, salad + soup + roll + main course, or salad + soup + roll OR main course, with corresponding prices for each complex.  This is in addition to individual prices for each item, and the red table of "special lunch prices" for a seemingly random assortment of drinks.  

Inside the new lunch menu was this small piece of paper, which actually challenged my Russian - all that was clear to me was that, for whatever reason, I could write my phone number on this piece of paper and expect to hear from Wabi-Sabi.  Then it told me I AM FREE, and that Wabi-Sabi has a new lunch.

That was the full extent of my food options, but only because my party was not big enough for the 'special banquet menu',

and it was not late enough for the half-priced after 11:00 p.m. menu:

If you're not sure you chose the right adventure, the whole Wabi-Sabi experience can be replicated in 20 locations across Moscow, some of which have even more menus.  Just grab a map, a magnifying glass and an abacus, and use this handy guide to find a Wabi-Sabi with a children's menu, or a breakfast menu, or both, or neither, or a "game menu," or a "hookah menu" without a game menu, or a live DJ or live music but not both.  Also, remind your waitress that something is 10% off, and another thing is 99 rubles, 120 rubles and 130 rubles.  She certainly doesn't remember.

The staple menu and the lunch menu actually overlap significantly, and with each item I ordered, the waitress asked me to specify from which menu I wanted it - that is, if I would like it for 20 rubles more or 20 rubles less.  One golden rule of eating in Russia is that cheaper food is worse, but more expensive food is not better.  Keeping this rule in mind, I deliberated a long time, but ultimately chose to pay 20 rubles more.  In the process of ordering, the waitress proposed two different sides, including french rolls that "were not on the menu," but I declined.  Soon I would eat, and as per my plan, then I would pay.  Having successfully ordered, I finally had time to browse the secondary literature, not directly related to the menus.

Aside from the varying price schemes for lunch vs. dinner, Wabi-Sabi offers no fewer than five discrete discount deals and programs, unrelated to the time of day or the size of your party. These were advertised on the plastic table-placard, and on two extensions that stuck out the sides of it. First, there is some sort of club-card, provided in partnership with Sviaznoi, one of the two balancing powers in Moscow's faux-competitive wireless duopoly:

Second, some 10% off something, but also, a free drink on any order over 600 rubles,

Third, 10% off if you take it to go,

Fourth, a third champagne glass free after my first two:

And fifth, discounts on select large sushi combos:

Food hasn't arrived yet?  Browse the Wabi-Sabi internal magazine they leave under the menu-portfolio.  As you'll notice on the cover, it offers 250 of something, +10%, multiplied by 2.  

The inside offered another 30% of something, or off something, or in addition to something...  

...with 30 of something else in 7 ways, which can be elaborated on in person, online, or by phone, including through smart phone apps available at the App Store or through Google Play.  

Game theory suggests that there are more possible meals at Wabi-Sabi than there are atoms in the known universe, and YOU ARE FREE to choose any one.  I chose a bowl of miso soup and a salmon roll, which was a little warmer than the sandwiches at Cafe Prime, and then I waited twenty minutes for my debit card to work its way through the sushi-bureaucratic apparatus.  The card swiped fine.

A lot of "trendy" food follows the Wabi-Sabi model, but for whatever reason, "Soviet ethnic" seems to have developed along healthier capitalist lines since the 1990s.  Why these places in particular have thrived is unclear - Russian food is a riddle wrapped in a horse intestine, inside phony packaging from Belarus.  You'll see what I mean in my next post - Georgian food.  I know you think you're full now, but believe me - it never lasts.