Aug 1, 2011

До встречи (Until next time)

On a train from Irkutsk to Moscow, I saw a traveling Ukrainian solider drink an entire liter of vodka in one standing.  I say 'standing' because, for the duration of his feat, he stood between the bunks in our tiny four-bed compartment.  He wanted to be on his feet for two reasons. First, he wanted to look my friend Natasha in the eye with each of his twenty successive toasts to her.  But second, and more relevant to my metaphor, he stood to ensure that each word of his treatise on domestic and world affairs would reach his foreign, top-bunk audience.  After a final, impassioned soliloquy on the people's relationship to gray hats (military) versus blue hats (police) in former-Soviet society, he made a surprisingly subtle exit.  He hung his gray hat on the door and, with a soldier's precision, laid face-down and perfectly symmetrical on his bed, apparently leaving no room to breathe.  When we got off the train the next morning, he hadn't moved.

And so, like our Ukrainian hero, my blog has said its piece and either passed out or died.  At the very least, it won't move until I reach my next Russian destination.  For those of you new to the blog, please take a look at the 'most popular' posts on the right sidebar, or browse through the archived entries below them.  I've added an English-language description to each title to make the content more accessible. Feel free to subscribe, using whatever it is people use to subscribe to things.

Thanks for reading, mom.


Addendum!  There is now a new edition/spin-off of this blog, this time about Finland.  Find it here.


Jun 14, 2011

Американ бой (Final Photo collection, Maikop)

The city pool in winter:
 and the same pool before I left:

 View of the park in winter:

 And the same park today.  This shot is taken from the top of the blue thing on the right:





And just as the harsh Russian winter inevitably turns to spring, I have shed my hideous Russian leather coat and become an American.  This post, like the last, is just a photo collection.  I'm home again, where life is pleasant but not worth blogging about.  For example, recently I went to the T-Mobile store to buy a new charger, because it turns out my Russian phone won't work on their system.  I'm disappointed, because it had a ton of features I liked, including "Fake Call," where you hold the phone to your ear and pretend to talk in order to avoid an unpleasant situation:

Life at home is much like I remembered it, and much unlike Russians imagine it.  My car isn't registered so I have to take care of that; there's a family of red squirrels in the attic that we need to trap and remove.  God bless America.  

Or as this unknown Russian put it, USA FOR EVER NEW JERSEY WEST PATERSON. 

A little research shows that West Paterson, NJ is now called Woodland Park, NJ, and is apparently Shangri-La to at least one resident of the Republic of Adyghea.

And so, even in this remote corner of the Russian Federation, American culture looms large.  Here is Bruce Willis, vouching for his favorite Russian bank:

Russian advertising often comes off as a clumsy, unsubtle imitation of ours.  Unless there's some nuance I'm missing, the caption reads "I'm cool.  So is Trust Bank."  It might as well say, "I'm famous.  You're not.  Do as I say."


Today's Russia is sometimes called a 'transition' economy - not quite capitalist, but a long way from socialist.  This also manifests itself in advertising.  They know how to sell, but they don't know how to compete:

"After a long day of rustling cattle, I unwind with the bold flavor of any brand of cigarettes."


As you've probably noticed, the ever-fashionable English language is everywhere in Russia, but usually in some distorted form.  It's like a game of telephone, where American products travel to China and then to Russia before they reach me again.  This shirt says "YOU GIVE YOUR LOVE TO LOVE TO CAPTURE THE THE DELAY."  Two 'the's in a row.  I translated it into Russian, but she kept telling me I must be translating it wrong:

This was my grading book for my students, bought at the school stationary store.  It's part of an extensive 'metal' series, which celebrates seemingly random objects made from metal:

As I understand it, Russia imitates what it imagines the West to look like.  This isn't just in advertising - at first glance, much of Russia observes the same rules and standards that we do.  But like always, it comes out a bit funny.  For instance, all grocery products have packing and expiration dates on them, they just aren't observed and don't mean anything.  For instance, this yogurt expired the day it was packed:

Here's a tip for visitors: dates in Russia, like in Europe, go day/month/year, as opposed to the American month/day/year.  This is especially important to remember when buying food.  If a jar of spicy Uzbek peppers expired on 03/09/2007, an ignorant American might think it's been bad since March of that year, when really it only expired in September.  Boy was I relieved.


A few times throughout this semester, we've followed the life of the little green man in the walk signal.  I wanted to post his last two adventures, before the photographs lost all context.  Here he is tempting fate, crossing a Russian street in a thick fog:

And this one is perhaps the most interesting of all.  It's a relic from the winter of 1942, when Nazi forces briefly occupied Maikop.  Our green glowing hero is permanently stuck in an emphatic fascist goose step:

For obvious reasons, this walk signal touches a lot of nerves in the city.  Here is a rally of local Communists at Lenin Square on Victory Day, petitioning to have the green Nazi removed.  The big banner reads "DO NOT CROSS, FASCIST OCCUPIERS!"


And so, another adventure in Russia is wrapped up, and with it my blog.  I never made it to the beautiful national park outside the city, which remains my biggest regret from this trip. Otherwise, Russia was good to me, and it's only a matter of time until I return.  For my part, I feel satisfied with my language progress, and all signs indicate that I did a fine job teaching.  I'll leave you with these words of gratitude from one of my students:

Don't ask me about Russia when you see me; I have nothing further to say about it as of the end of this sentence.

До встречи,

May 31, 2011

Сочи 2011 (Photo collection, Sochi)

After two months of concerted effort, I finally left Maikop last weekend.  My destination was Sochi, better known as the site of the 2014 Economic Bubble.  Here is the official countdown:

Here is what the bubble looks like as it inflates: 


This post, and the next one, are just photo collections, which I post every so often as insurance against inevitable camera-theft.  Also, to open your eyes to stuff, share the beauty of things, and celebrate Russia.  But those goals are secondary, tertiary, and quaternary.  Mostly, I expect my memory cards to get stolen before I make it home next week. These are for completists only, don't expect any more real entries - the blog is going back into hibernation, to await the day when I return to the post-Soviet parallel universe.

And if Russia is a parallel universe, then Sochi is a parallel universe.  A different one, that is.  Parallel to both. The wormhole from Russia to Sochi was very beautiful, and looked nothing like the Russia I know.  Almost like some kind of parallel universe:

 So it turns out the Caucasus are very beautiful, even though I've only seen the foothills.  I haven't made it to our nearby national park, but the photographs are stunning, and this trip to Sochi was a good consolation prize.  We (French guy and I) went to Krasnaya Polyana, where they will hold the skiing/snowboarding/bobsledding/other mountain events for the 2014 Olympics.  It's a site about 30 miles from Sochi.  Here's a view of the town from a nearby mountain ridge:

This clearing is a training facility for the Russian Olympic lumberjack team:

The Russians are newcomers to the sport; the previous 30 gold medals have gone to the team from Wisconsin.  For those interested in Russian history, that snowy mountain ridge marks the Russian border with Abkhazia, the breakaway region over which Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

Krasnaya Polyana is located in the Sochi national park, so all the construction is immensely ecologically destructive - the park is home to bears, boars, several types of wild cat, goats, and all sorts of other plants and animals that are not accustomed to bobsled chutes. Several years ago, I translated World Wildlife Fund Russia's annual report, which includes much well-phrased information about the environmental impact of the games and efforts to protect the park.  See page 8 for the Olympics, and any other page for pretty pictures and proper English, except for page 51, which they unwisely chose to translate by themselves.  For my semester of work on this translation, by the way, I was paid less than minimum wage and a huge traditional Russian valenok in the zadnitsa.  But revenge is best served cold, and mine was cold as poached black caviar on ice.  I worked hard, thanked them for the opportunity, and even translated a second document for them. Then three years later, just last weekend in the park, I shot a leopard.

"Please do not shoot the leopards."

Sochi, official site of the Winter Games and home to all the skating/indoor events, is actually a sub-tropical Black Sea resort city.  There are palm trees everywhere, mediterranean architecture, people in Hawaiian shirts, and otherwise no indication that you are in Russia.

Okay, one indication:

But even Lenin isn't working here - it's not clear in this shot, but in Sochi he's just holding a copy of the Soviet newpapser Pravda, looking not into the bright Communist future, but rather, for a place to sit and read.

This is the seaport:

And the sea:

Every picture I took, I made sure to have a palm tree in the foreground, just to drive home the 'parallel universe' thing:

The city has a huge famous arboretum in the center, full of classical-ish statues and fountains.  If you really want to know, Sochi looks this way because it was built under Stalin as a resort city for vacationing party members and, during the war, for the military brass.  And Stalin liked neoclassical architecture.  Okay, now that that's out of the way, take a look at these two pictures:

As I said, this is the penultimate blog entry of this trip.  Come back next time for the ULTIMATE entry - one final photo collection.  Again, I would like to thank everybody who subscribes to the blog by email. To unsubscribe, simply call your internet provider and cancel your plan.

May 21, 2011

Там лучше? (On Russian impressions of America)

Traveling in these parts, especially to a city not frequented by foreigners, can be a responsibility.  Although the media have colored Russian impressions of America, most Russians will give a real live American a chance to speak for himself, and in doing so, speak for his entire country.  If I have dinner with a Russian family, and can temporarily contain my stupidity, arrogance, and greed, that can have a very real impact on hosts that have heard nothing good about our people.  That family, and all the friends they tell, might even think that all Americans are reasonably intelligent, humble and generous.  But it cuts both ways - I can't fake it all the time, and if I do cross a Russian, he or she will almost certainly associate the incident with my nationality.  For example, last week I got on a bus with no money in my pocket.  When a  Russian does it, it's a perfectly understandable oversight.  But when I explained myself, my accent betrayed me, and the woman collecting fares gave a dismissive, almost disgusted shrug.  I tried to strike up a conversation with her a few moments later to smooth things over, introduced myself, and apologized again.  But the damage is done - for the rest of her life, she'll think that all Canadians are dishonest and cheap.

There's no denying that the media have preserved their Cold War instincts.  I was still dead at the beginning of perestroika, but I can say with some certainty that the news in 2011 doesn't differ greatly from the news in 1985.   Bias and disinformation are the bread and sour cream of news reporting between our two countries.  Think back - when was the last time you heard news about Russia that wasn't about corruption, poverty, or evil undemocratic politics?  Here in Russia, news about America is much the same - if some dude gets shot in Chicago, Russians hear about it before I do.  They get that, and military aggression, and tornadoes, and pictures of fat people.  Of course, there are exceptions - we'll get an occasional Reclusive Russian Math Genius story, and they get an occasional Heroic American Grows Gigantic Pumpkin, but for the most part we're taught to look down on each other.  Admit it - you think Russia is a bad place to live.  Just as surely, Russians think you're rich, dumb and shallow.

So Russian impressions of America, like American impressions of Russia, tend to be wrong.  They range from curiously wrong, to amusingly wrong, to offensively wrong, but rarely do they leave 'wrong' territory. The difference is, Russians don't just get America in the news.  They also get our popular culture, a mysterious force that turns our richest, prettiest people into ambassadors, in much the same way Russians turn dogs into pelmeni.  This skews their impressions in a totally different direction, creating a very confused, often absurd portrait of our country.  My favorite example came from a Russian teenager I met on an airplane.  We spent an hour talking about rap and rappers, and Eminem in particular.  At the end of the flight, his parting words left me in one of my speechless, Russia-induced stupors.  At the gate before we parted ways, he looked at me with a hopeful smile and declared, "if I ever go to America, I want to go to Detroit!"

I can't count the number of Russians who have asked me if I've been to Miami.   For whatever reason, Miami occupies a special place in the Russian imagination.  That city, New York, and Las Vegas are to Russians the Troika of American cultural life.  And it isn't some local phenomenon, either - an American source in Moscow confirmed that Muscovites, too, are enchanted by America's 44th-largest city.

In Maikop, I've seen a curiosity about America that I have never seen before in my life, and never imagined existed to quite this extent.  People I've never seen before will hear my accent, approach me, and bombard me with America-questions for thirty minutes at a time.  They want to know everything about everything - how people live in Miami, what it's like to have an American girlfriend, what the average American thinks of Russia - and I'm always happy to pretend I know.  A lot of them ask me if I went to school in a big yellow schoolbus, and light up when they hear the answer.  On the personal level, people are (almost) without exception curious, friendly, and eager to communicate with us.

 On the city-wide level, we foreigners are small-time celebrities.  This is an article in Soviet Adyghea about our work at the university, where the French guy and I are treated with great kindness and respect.

On the national level, the Russians think we're rich, dumb and shallow.  But two out of three isn't bad.  And for what it's worth, despite what you've heard, Russians are alright.


Ever since I changed to the email-subscription format, nobody that isn't my mother has been leaving comments.  Get on that.  If you don't know what to write, try to answer the single most common question I get from Russians - What do Americans think of Russia?  Don't be afraid to be honest - they're not reading the blog.

Again, I would like to thank everybody who subscribes to the blog by email.  To unsubscribe, simply grab the handle of the knife you just jammed into my back and pull out forcefully.

May 10, 2011

Когда я ем... (On Russian cuisine, part 3)



 When Russian cuisine surprises you, you'll wish it hadn't.  For instance, I couldn't have guessed what "kholodets" was just from the name.  Can you?  The root is "kholod," which means "cold."  Lots of good foods are cold, right?  Like ice cream - ice cream is cold.  Maybe kholodets is like ice cream.  Boy was I surprised when I found out it isn't so much like ice cream, but more like meat-jello.  And that's another thing - for all the time I spend praising the breadth and flexibility and precision of Russian language, they've got no word for "jello."  Pushkin himself, for all his poetic simplicity, couldn't have described jello in fewer than five words.  Indeed, Russia is a puzzling and contradictory land.

What was I saying?  Oh yeah, food.  I thought I had already complained about the food ad nauseam (get it?) in my Irkutsk entries, but by popular demand, today's topic is once again local fare.  I was hesitant, because I don't want this iteration of the blog to echo my writings from Irkutsk.  But here I am, writing a second 'food' entry, in the wake of my second and third 'language' entries.  On the other hand, those two topics do figure prominently in my daily life here.  Who knew that talking and eating were so integral to the human experience, right?  Besides, my Irkutsk entries were something of a caricature, described in stark yellow-and-white for the sake of entertaining the reading public.  In reality Russian food, like Russian everything, is marked by nauseating highs as well as nauseating lows.  Put differently, it's not all pig heads and pig tails.  They also eat the delicious stuff in between.

In Siberia, my host mother was trying to fatten me up for the winter, and failing that, to fatten me up for the spring and summer.  Here in the Caucasus, without concrete weight-gain targets, I've actually been eating pretty well.  Take a look at this holiday spread from Easter with my professor's family.  There's red things, green things, pink things and black things, as well as the more standard yellow and white things.  As for drinks, there wasn't only clear firey stuff, but gold-colored stuff and even deep red-colored stuff.  This was just the appetizer-phase.

Next came the shashlik, a Russian/Georgian/Armenian/General Caucasian variant of shish-kebab:

Wait, sorry, that isn't the right picture.  Here we are:

Sorry it's sideways.  Note the sad, longing dog-eyes in the background - that's how delicious shashlik is.  I know what you're thinking - dogs think everything is delicious.  But take a look at this picture:

That's the dog, two hours after the shashlik was all gone, and he was still upset.  Click on the image for the full-size version, or else you won't appreciate the depth of the resentment he felt.  And it wasn't resentment because he didn't get any shashlik - he did. This was a more profound, personal disappointment in me, for being like all other bigoted humans and not giving him a full portion.


So Russian food isn't all bad.  That said, this isn't one of those doe-eyed travel blogs that reflexively celebrates every aspect of  the host culture.  On this blog, you get the cold, hard, dense, pale-yellow starchy truth, and I still maintain that everyday Russian food is heavy enough to knock a foreign gourmand unconscious.  The food really isn't that great.  Take, for example, this highly fictionalized account of Pelmeni:

This is what sociologists call a "national myth" - a romanticized narrative that a nation repeats ad nauseam (get it?) until they believe they have a balanced diet.  Pelmeni are actually kinda gross - dough, dill if you're lucky, and meat of uncertain origin.  I eat them because they're easy and quick to prepare, and because if I don't eat I'll die. But I can't feign the love for them that Russians do.  And I definitely don't read the ingredients on the packaging.  I'd rather not know the breed, if you catch my drift.

That's more or less how I feel about most Russian non-holiday staple foods - Russians truly believe they're delicious, but having grown up elsewhere, I can only understand it as a sort of mass psychosis.  There are exceptions, of course - borshch (borshcht), plov (pilaf) and bliny (crêpes) are universally appealing.  On the other hand, one could argue than none of those are actually Russian.  On the third hand, there is a great wealth of truly, honestly delicious odds and ends, which when combined creatively, can make for interesting meals.  For example, if you buy affordable fresh pomagranate juice from Azerbaijan, spicy Bulgarian lecho, and a loaf of bread, you can eat bread with lecho and drink pomagranate juice.  Also, the Adyghe people are renowned for their cheese-making.  Here's a picture of the cheese-section of the market:

The cheese comes in wheel-form, string-form, herb-rubbed-string form, and giant unshaped blob form.  Sometimes it's smoked, sometimes it's mild and subtle like mozzarella, and it's always fresh.  Last week, one of the sales-babushki forced me to touch one of the cheese wheels, to prove that it was still warm from the cheesing process.  At first I was sold - I'd never touched such warm cheese before.  But then her scheme backfired, since the whole routine seemed a bit unsanitary.  It's better to buy cheese that hasn't been touched by fifty different Russians.  That's what my dad always said.  So I bought other cheese, and it was great as always.  Through some combination of cheese, tasty fake caviar, prunes, bread, local honey and an Uzbek cafe, I've made it three months without a real functioning kitchen, and haven't even tired of the food.

Oh yeah also, Adyghe national dishes include shyps, a thick brownish soup made from chicken bouillon, and pasta, which despite the misleading name is a corn-meal cake similar to polenta.   Didn't think I'd fit that in there, did you?  Remember it, too - if you ever meet an Adyghe immigrant, you'll blow them away.

That's all for today, I'm a bit rushed.  This entry isn't very well organized, but just assume it's a conscious stylistic decision I made, in order to reflect the patchwork nature of Russian cuisine.  Tune in next time for whatever it is I write about next time.


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