Posts Tagged ‘food’

Just before 8:30AM on Wednesday June 7th, I walked to the Khabarovsk train station to undertake the longest leg of my Trans-Siberian journey. I would be on the train for roughly 58 hours. For this jaunt, I was on train 007 – Vladivostok-Novosibirsk. While waiting at the platform, a 20-ish student approached me and asked if he was in the right place for his train. He was French, spoke somewhat broken English, and zero Russian. He was indeed in the correct place, and it turns out that he had the bed above mine in the train. His name was William. He had some time off from university, and he decided to take the Trans-Siberian and make some stops along the way. His grandfather had done it the year before, so that was one of his motivations to take the trip. We would be together on the train for 50 hours, until he got off at Ulan-Ude, a stop that I wanted to make but didn’t have time for as my trip was already 16 days long.

Novosibirsk-Vladivostok carriage number 12, my home for 58 hours.

As we got to our area, we met out other traveling companions. The person with the lower berth across from me was a 70 year man named Boris. He was traveling from his home of Khabarovsk to Ulan-Ude to visit some relatives. When William and I got to our spots in the train, Boris was sitting with his wife. They both sighed in relief when they found out that I spoke Russian. Boris’s wife was not going with him, though, she was just saying goodbye to him. In Russian trains, it’s common for people seeing you off to walk into the train and help you get your things settled at longer stops. The conductors allow this, and a few minutes prior to departure, the conductors walk through the carriage telling those accompanying passengers to leave the train. Boris was quite the character, and he made sure my time passed quickly on the train.

Bad photo, but the only one I really got of Boris.

Above Boris was Ulugbek from Kyrgyzstan. He had been in Korea (which Korea was slightly unclear) on a work contract. Ulugbek was an engineer who works in hydroelectric stations. He was riding on the train from Vladivostok to Krasnoyarsk. I was worried because we got onto the train already 13 hours into its journey, and Ulugbek had an unrefrigerated rotisserie chicken that he proceeded to eat over the next two days. He was also very friendly and pleasant company.

Ulugbek and his collection of most likely rancid food.

Along the window there was a 20-ish girl who was a student at Far Eastern Federal University, who was riding back home for the summer. I forget where exactly she got off, but it was towards the evening of the first day. She had to switch trains to ride to some smaller city called Tynda. She was asleep most the day that we were with her, and she didn’t say anything to us, though she did tell Boris she was a student and going to Tynda.

The train itself was pretty nice. It was the newest style of older carriages. The bottom bunks had padding for your back when you were seated, and I had the coveted spot in the carriage that had an outlet. In the older trains, not every spot has an outlet. Usually the second series of berths on each side have one outlet. Then, there is usually an outlet by the toilets at either end. I didn’t have to worry because I could change my phone whenever I wanted, but others in the carriage took turns standing by the toilets and watching their phones. Others just decided to chance leaving their phones by the toilets. On our longer train, we had police officers patrolling the carriages, and at times they would ask whose phone was being charged as a reminder to look after ones belongings. The carriage we were in didn’t have air-conditioning, or if it did, it was broken. Thankfully, our window opened. And, unlike the older trains, these newer carriages have LED displays at both ends of the carriage that display the Moscow time, the temperature in the train, and whether or not the toilet is free.

Pretty nice for platskart.

Although my ride to Irkutsk was long, it wasn’t bad. I alternated my time in the train talking to my companions and reading. The train also makes a few longer stops each day, and in the Russian Far East, villagers have created their own small businesses around the train schedule. They know when the long-haul trains make stops and line up near the station to sell provisions.

The food sellers in Belogorsk.

In Belogorsk, for example, I managed to buy a hardboiled egg, some potato vareniki, and a local fish called harius. I opted to go for hot smoked, which leaves the flesh pliable and soft as opposed to cold smoked, which dries out the fish and almost turns it into jerky. The meal was scrumptious. While at the stop, a man selling fish looked at me and turned to the woman with the eggs and vareniki and said in Russian, “Do you speak English? You better.” I responded that I speak Russian, and they were happy.

Hot smoked harius.

I then had a discussion about the differences in fish smoking techniques. I also had to help William buy food as he couldn’t communicate with the people at all. After we ate our food, I watched in horror as Ulugbek added a large quantity of unrefrigerated mayonnaise to his bowl of ramen. The standard train foods for these journeys are sunflower seeds, a Russian pastime, and either instant noodles or potatoes. Every Russian train carriage has a water boiler for tea and food.

Golden Lenin of Belogorsk.

Most of my entertainment from the train ride came from talking with Boris over the first two days. I spoke a little with William, but his English was bad, which limited our conversations. Boris was a bit of a provocateur, and was full of lots of interesting information about Russia. He constantly spoke in a weird slang, and refused to ever use common words to explain himself. He asked me if I heard about what to say if someone asks if you want a brick in Vladivostok. Apparently, this is a petty form of extortion. The person being asked is to respond, “how much?” and then pay said amount, otherwise they will be beaten and robbed. Apparently, there are lots of similar tactics on Russian roads in the Far East. Often, people will just sit on the side of the road and say they don’t have gas, or will try to sell you gas. Sometimes, they’ll leave something on the road for you to stop and grab. In all of these situations, I was told to never stop. However, if stopped, it’s always best to pay what amounts to the bribe. Finally, when traveling on Russian roads, it’s good to have a weapon in your car trunk. Boris was once stopped by a group. One guy talked to him while another searched his trunk. They both left him alone after the one who opened the trunk found a large machete. This also partially explains the wooden mace that the government chauffeur in Ulyanovsk had in his car trunk.

Typical view at a stop: everyone out and smoking.

Between teaching me about how to survive in Siberia, Boris spent time provoking me and those around us in the train. We discussed Russian history at one point. He was angry that I didn’t know a word or two about tributes during the Mongol conquest of Russia. I said that my specialty was Soviet history. He said that it wasn’t an excuse, that instead my program was probably weak or that I was lazy. I responded that I don’t have time to read about early Russian history in depth because I have to spend my time reading about the Soviet Union and other history. This then caused Boris to launch into a lecture about how I have time because I do not work on a kolkhoz, a form of village based Soviet collective farm. Had I lived in a kolkhoz, he said, I would truly not have time. I would have to wake at 5:00AM to feed the chickens and milk the cows, make breakfast, wake the children, “pat [my] husband on his head,” and send everyone off before doing my assigned labor task on the farm for the day. This then caused Boris to lecture about American women. He wanted to know why it was acceptable to go shopping in house clothes or sweat pants. In his mind, women need to dress up to buy groceries or run simple errands. In his eyes, a woman should always be made up and strive her best to visually please the men around her. That was a fun conversation, and one of many of different cultural views about the gender roles and marriage ages in America versus Russia along the train ride.

At one point, when William and I were speaking in English, we caught the attention of two young girls in the train. One asked what we were speaking, and was surprised when I said English. She said she studied English, but refused to say anything to me from being shy. Eventually, she told her mother about us, and then her mother came to talk with us. Boris then began to provoke the mother and said that her daughter didn’t speak any English because she refused to say anything to me. Boris then proposed English lessons on the train. He said he was the director of the school and would get 70% while I would get 30% of the proceeds. When asked why the cut was so large, Boris cheekily responded, “because I’m here getting you work, while you’re being lazy and just reading books.” He then said that lessons would begin promptly at 8:00AM the next morning. I groaned about the early hours, and he laughed. Although Boris liked to poke fun at people or stir up trouble, he was truly a nice man. One night, he noticed that I had gotten cold while sleeping and got a blanket for me.

Boris was also immensely entertaining because he somewhat befriended the lady who walks through the train selling food and drinks. He offered all of us, plus her, some food and drink. She accepted the offer, and would sit down with us when she passed us by. She affectionately called him “ded,” basically, “gramps.”

Making friends with the food seller.

One of the interesting experiences on the train was with the police. They extensively patrol the trains in the Far East. At times they were doing document checks, but they never asked us for our documents. I have rarely seen the police on trains in Russia. I have only on one occasion seen them on one of the trains between Moscow and Ulyanovsk, and they asked for my documents then. I remember being confused, and the older woman in the kupe with me said that it was nothing to worry about and normal. They did a little more on this train, though. On the second full day on the train, we stopped at a small place called Mogocha. About fifteen minutes after leaving the station, the police walked through our carriage with a man in handcuffs. There was one cop in the lead and there were two behind. The second cop had his hand on the back of the man’s neck/head, forcing it down. The man’s hands were tightly cuffed behind his back, and he was bent over and walking in a stress position. The third cop was carrying the man’s bag. Boris said that he had never seen that before in all of his years riding the train. He seemed to think that the man had tried to ride on the train without a ticket, but from a conversation I had just before getting off the train in Irkutsk, it seems that the man might have been belligerently drunk. He was hauled off of the train when we stopped in Chernyshevsk.

Also on this day, as we rolled through some middle of nowhere part of Siberia, it began to snow. I had not expected to see snow that south in Siberia in June. It was crazy.

On the second day, the girl had gotten off of the train, and no one new joined our area. This meant that we could sit at the two smaller window seats when we pleased. At one of these periods, William’s passport fell out of his pocket, which caused me to have a discussion with Boris about Russian passports versus American or European ones. Russians have two kinds of passports, internal and external. The external passport is just like ours and is used for leaving the country. The internal passport serves the function in Russia that our driver’s licenses do, basically, and then some. They include information about birth and age. They also include where the person is registered to live, marital status, and information about children. While talking to Boris, a man in the next berth over noticed that I was foreign and began to speak with me. Andrei was a sailor who works on large freight ships. He was traveling from just outside of Vladivostok, Nakhodka, to see his children in Irkutsk, where he had grown up.  Andrei was very friendly and went on long rants about the divisions within Russia between Moscow and Siberia. In his opinion, Moscow steals everything from Siberia and gives nothing back. Boris at one point was jealous that Andrei was taking over as the one to tell me tales about Russia and told Andrei that I probably didn’t understand what he was saying. What Boris didn’t know was that I understood Andrei’s slang better than has because Andrei used simpler words and words that I was familiar with.

Andrei mid-speech about something.

In the morning of the second day, when we made our “breakfast” stop, Boris told me to buy something called “сера” (sera), which is a Siberian gum. It’s made from tree sap/rubber. It tastes like chewing a mixture of a pinecone and a rubber band. I can’t say I super loved it, but it did make my mouth feel cleaner around sporadic trips to the somewhat gross toilet to brush my teeth. You buy sera by the stick. I got one. Others bought bushels of them. Apparently, it’s only common to buy in the Far East.

Sera – Russian gum.

As the train carried on across Siberia, I alternated between reading and staring out of the window. I had heard someone describe the Trans-Siberian as “the greatest Russian novel ever written.” I’m not sure where I heard this, but I agree. It was easy to spend hours just looking out of the window, watching the scenery change. You would fall asleep and wake up in what looked like a completely different country as the geography and vegetation would change drastically. The temperature also fluctuated between hot, comfortable, and downright cold. At one point, the provodnitsa walked through the car and asked if we were cold and if they should turn the heat on. They were taking a poll of the passengers and their comfort level. I said I was fine and just put on a warm shirt. Thankfully, they didn’t turn the heat on. The villages that came and went along the rail lines were fascinating to look at. Although some of them looked a little rough, none of them looked totally rundown. There is clearly poverty in Russian villages, but they don’t look like war zones like some of the places I’ve seen in ex-Soviet republics. I now really want to find a way to spend at least a day or two in an actual Russian village.

Village life.

Another interesting part of riding through the Siberian wilderness was looking at the cars. The number of vehicles in the villages was pretty small, but almost every settlement had either an UAZ Bukhanka, UAZ 469, or a Lada Niva. Ulyanovsk pride for Siberia! On the whole, cars in Siberia were interesting to observe. Most of the cars in Vladivostok were right-hand drive, brought in from Japan. As you ride across back towards Moscow, the percentage of right-hand drive cars shifted from about 90% to 40%. I suppose the Urals are the dividing line for this trend. In European Russia, it’s possible to find a right-hand drive, Japanese import car, but it’s rare.

Ulyanovsk pride in Siberia.

 

After Boris and William got off in Ulan Ude, I spoke with Andrei quite a lot on the leg from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, an additional 8 hours on the train. This was the best part of the trip because we spent most of it riding along Lake Baikal, and the view was mesmerizing. Andrei gave me tips for what to see or do in Irkutsk and told me the history of the area and the Angara River. He also gave me his phone number and said that he would be glad to show me around the Vladivostok area should I wind up there again.

Lake Baikal from the train.

Just about two hours before Irkutsk, the train made a stop in a place called Slyudyanka, and a man of about thirty got on and took what had been Boris’s space. He was nice and well prepared for the long train ride. He had brought a combination strip outlet/extension chord with him to power his laptop. He offered some of his snacks, and asked if I wanted to watch a movie. I declined as I was getting off of the train soon and had to gather my things. At that point, another guy came into the area and asked Andrei where the foreigner was. He said that he was in another car with a French guy, “from Brussels.” I told him that Brussels was in Belgium. He said, “Whatever. He speaks French and English. I don’t speak much English. Please come and translate for him and two other foreigners.” The new guy next to me asked why I had to do that. The strange man said that the others around them in the carriage also didn’t speak English, and that most of the others around them were foreigners, like my neighbor, and spoke Russian with an accent. My new neighbor then got angry and said, “What do you mean foreigners like me and what accent?” The guy responded that he was clearly from a different country. The neighbor responded that he was born and raised in Irkutsk, and that his family was from Dagestan, which is part of Russia. The weird guy again said whatever and ushered me off with him.

My new home? It would probably be a good place to write my dissertation distraction free.

We walked into the next carriage and I met the Belgian guy, who was named Arthur. He was talking with two Italians who were going home from an 11 month trip around the world. Both Arthur and the Italians were on the train for the sake of saying that they had done the Trans-Siberian. They were all riding from Vladivostok to Irkutsk, stopping in Irkutsk to see Baikal, and then going from Irkutsk straight to Moscow. I chatted briefly with them and then went back to gather my things. Andrei and my new neighbor wanted to know what was going on, and I said the strange guy was just drunk and that there was no need to go off and talk to the others. However, when I got off the train, I did end up sharing a taxi with Arthur, who must have been some sort of rich Belgian playboy or trust-fund guy. He talked about having spent the past three months in Asia. He also had an American Express Platinum card in his wallet. His hostel was near the one where I was staying, so I figured it would be ok to grab a cab with him. We took a Yandex taxi for under 100 rubles, which was funny because the taxi driver asking if we wanted a ride quoted 500 rubles for the same ride, and I just laughed in his face.

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I just got back from a weekend trip to Yerevan, Armenia. I’ve wanted to go to Armenia since my sophomore year of college. In spring 2009, I took a course in the politics of the ex-USSR. We studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and how it impacted each of the 15 republics, as well as many of the Eastern Bloc nations. A major component of the course was to spend a semester studying one of those nations. We had to write a research paper on them as well as make drafts of a Wikipedia page of sorts for the country. The professor told us that it would behoove us to choose a country that had a close history or political relationship with another country. The other country would be our partner, and we were supposed to help each other out. My good friend Lauren and I met to strategize and pick nations that we thought would work well together and wouldn’t be immediately chosen by others. Being a huge fan of the band System of a Down, I wanted to go with Armenia. For those of you unfamiliar with System of a Down, they’re a metal band from Los Angeles. Each of the members is of Armenian heritage. They played a great concert at Yerevan’s Freedom Square in 2015 for the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Lauren chose Azerbaijan, and our semester of research took off without a hitch. After spending months researching Armenia, I became fascinated by it. I even strongly considered applying for a Fulbright ETA to Armenia instead of Russia. Although Russia won out in that decision process, I had not given up on eventually going to Armenia. Thankfully, one of my fellow ASEEES grantees has been doing research in a few republics other than Russia. Erin was wonderful and let me visit her and crash at her place.

On Friday morning, I headed off to the airport. On the way out of the dorm, the strictest dezhurnaya, Olga, saw me leaving and asked why I was leaving so soon. She had evidently noticed that I had not been around for a few weeks and was confused as to why I was again heading out of the dorm at an early hour with a full backpack. I explained that I was going to Yerevan for the weekend to visit a friend researching there, and that I had to do the super quick turnaround due to Russian migration laws. When you travel within Russia, or return from abroad, you have to register your place of living. I traveled to Ulyanovsk when I did to make sure that I could see two of my best friends and to ensure that I wouldn’t have problems with migration concerning the trip to Armenia. I had booked the tickets to Armenia moderately far in advance with regards to Erin’s schedule. Immediately after returning from Kazakhstan, I handed in my papers at the university to register at the dorms. According to Russian migration laws, a foreigner has to register their visa within 7 business days in a new city. Then, when I traveled to Ulyanovsk, I registered at my friend Ira’s apartment. It takes me a week to get my registration from the university, as opposed to immediately if registering with a private citizen through a post-office or police station, so I knew I wouldn’t have time to reregister after Ulyanovsk before heading to Armenia. That’s why I decided to come back from Ulyanovsk on a Wednesday and fly out on a Friday, I wouldn’t have to bother with reregistering.

The flight left Sheremetyevo a little late, but we were scheduled to land early. The flight was mostly fine. It wasn’t quite the steal of $15 roundtrip to Kazakhstan, but the miles reward flight only cost me $50 roundtrip. We got the standard “breakfast” meal of a fish sandwich, yogurt, and chocolate bar with a drink. Around the time that they were serving me, we started to hit some light turbulence, so they stopped the hot drink service. After the meal service was cleaned up, we hit some moderate turbulence. You know it’s never a good sign when they tell the crew to take their seats. We were jostled fairly roughly for about five or ten minutes. After that, though, it was fairly smooth into Yerevan. My plane even had WiFi for streaming of entertainment on personal devises. There’s a reason why Aeroflot has recently become the top rated European airline.

Entertainment on your device on some B737s.

The skies were clear, so I had a great view of the mountains, countryside, and city the whole way into the airport, which was pretty awesome.

Passing through customs was also a breeze. Although a few flights had landed around the same time, we moved through the line quickly and efficiently as there were about 15 customs officers working to process all of the passengers.

After making it through the airport, I met Erin and we grabbed a taxi back to her place. We managed to take the same taxi that had dropped her off at the airport. She had told the driver that she was picking me up, and he had given her his number and told her to call in case he was still around. To my glee, our taxi was a 1997 Mercedes W210. Erin spoke with the driver in Armenian, but he also spoke Russian, so I questioned him about his car a little. He seemed pleased that I was so interested in it. While on the topic of cars, Armenia was a vehicular paradise for me. Many of the cars are old Mercedes, mostly C and E classes from 1995-2003.

1997 W210. A luxury ride into Yerevan.

There are also a smattering of Baby Benzes, the W201, and a few of my beloved W124s, though those were rarer and are generally post-1990 face lift models. There were also a fair number of newer E Classes of the W211 and W212 models, a smattering of W140 S Classes, and a surprising number of Geländewagens. For the German car nut, Armenia is probably a place to travel to hunt what are becoming collector’s items in the USA and Europe. I saw a few 190Es plus some rarer tuned Mercedes. There were a handful done by Brabus or Carlsson. However, I’m not sure how legitimate all of these are. My taxi back to the airport on Monday was clearly modified. For example, the driver had affixed a gear knob that said V12, and the steering wheel was from a 2002 or so W210, and not 1998, which he said the model was. I’m also second guessing the authenticity of some of the W124s. A former neighbor from Ulyanovsk lives in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He told me that it’s common to apply the newer body kits to the first generation W124s. He did that himself to his W124.

A common view of lots of Mercedes.

Mercedes were by far the German car of choice in Armenia, but there were also some great BMWs, including a drool worthy M3, and some Audis. Opels were also quite common on the streets. German cars made up either 1/3 or ½ of the cars on the road. The remaining models were split between Soviet cars, like Lada Zhigulis and Nivas, or my beloved UAZ and odds and ends of other companies from Europe, America, and Asia. I asked my driver back to the airport on Monday about all of the Mercedes in Yerevan. I wondered if there was a company that bought them wholesale and brought them in, but he said it was all private buyers who went to Germany and drove them back.

The green 190E on the left is a collector’s item now.

After dropping off my stuff at Erin’s apartment, we set off to explore downtown Yerevan and grab some lunch. Our first order of business was to walk down to the main street and hop in a marshrutka, which took us further into the center. In Armenia, the marshrutki are predominantly old GAZelle models. Unlike in Russia, you pay when exiting the marshrutka. Also, unlike in Russia, you can stand in the old model of marshrutka.

In the center, we headed to a hipster microbrewery. There is a vibrant Armenian community in Los Angeles, and it seems that some of LA has moved back to Yerevan. The microbrewery had excellent beers, one of which was an apricot wheat lager. Armenia is known for its fruits, one of which is apricot. The menu had sassy descriptions of trendy foods such as Tex-Mex and poutine. While I am generally missing Mexican food in Russia, I couldn’t help but order the poutine to troll my Canadian friends. It was delicious and I regret nothing.

“Any resemblance with the name of a well-known politician is out of pure coincidence.”

Erin and I also ended up splitting a tasting flight of the local brews, all of which were great. In addition to the superb apricot beer, there was also a wonderful and tart cherry one.

Delicious.

From lunch, we wandered around one of the main squares of Yerevan, Opera, and then we popped into one of Yerevan’s many cafés to have a pick me up of coffee. Yerevan has a very European feel. It reminds me a lot of France, actually. There is a huge coffee and café culture. Everyone enjoys sitting out on the street, sipping coffee, and watching the crowds go by. Yerevan is also moderately accessible for a foreign traveler, especially one with knowledge of Russian. Most people over 30 are bilingual in Armenian and Russian. People under 30 seem to be bilingual in Armenian and English, or are trilingual with Russian.

Cafe life.

Architecturally, Yerevan is also a mixture of Soviet and European. Although many of the older buildings are in the standardized Soviet five or nine-story blocks, they have their own character. There is a lot of volcanic stone in Armenia, the most common of which is in a pinkish hue. Most of the buildings are constructed of this local stone, so they don’t have the same depressing quality as the grey blocks of the rest of the USSR. Located on the periphery of the Soviet Union, it seems that Armenia was also granted some leniencies to allow its local culture to flourish. Again, which the buildings are in somewhat standardized configurations, they often had uniform and ornate balconies as well as embellishments such as carvings and columns. While this architectural style is often vaguely brutal in the terms of Stalin’s neoclassical style, in Armenia it makes everything look like a Mediterranean paradise.

Armenian architecture.

From coffee, Erin and I relaxed a bit before changing, grabbing a taxi, and heading off to another one of Yerevan’s venerated traditions, a jazz club. We went to the most famous venue in Yerevan, Malkhas Jazz Club. There’s live jazz starting at 9:00PM nightly. We went and had a nice table with a decent view of the musicians on the ground floor. The band was great, and the food and drinks only added to the experience. I was able to get a perfectly cooked, rare filet mignon for about $10. The White Russian I had with it made it an evening of surprisingly affordable decadence. The cover charge, food, drink, water, and gratuity was less than $25.00 for me. That’s another nice and handy thing in Armenia. In most restaurants and cafés, a 10% gratuity is automatically applied to the bill.

Steak, cocktails, and live jazz. Pure paradise.

On Saturday morning, Erin and I ventured out of Yerevan to two nearby and major sites. Her landlord gave us the number of a taxi driver, who took us out and back for about $25.00. He picked us up from the apartment, which is actually right next to his usual corner taxi stand, and drove us about an hour out of the city along the winding roads of the countryside to Garni and Geghard.

The countryside in Armenia is simply stunning. Yerevan itself is built at the base of and then up a mountain. We drove up the mountain and then found ourselves riding along road paradise. I would love to rent a car and drive around the back roads for a week or two. Unlike in Georgia, the drivers seemed fairly calm and more or less respected the lines on the road and kept to reasonable speeds. Along the road, we passed stands selling local food delicacies, small villages, dacha settlements, and a very interesting farm fresh butcher. There was a shepherd with a pen of sheep. You could pick out the sheep and the guy would kill, skin, and cut it for you on the roadside. Farm fresh eating indeed. Sadly, I didn’t manage to catch a picture of that.

The magical Armenian countryside.

The first place we went was the Temple of Garni. It was probably built in the First Century AD to a sun god. It was repurposed into a royal residence after Armenia’s conversion to Christianity. According to Wikipedia, it was ruined in an earthquake in the 17th century, and was later rediscovered during archeological digs. The Soviets reconstructed in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s the only Greco-Roman colonnade building in the former Soviet Union. The temple itself was pretty impressive, but the views from it of the mountains, valleys, and rivers were stunning.

Garni.

While walking back to the taxi, we popped by the stands of local food vendors and acquired a few provisions for our travels. We bought a fruit leather called T’tu Lavash or Lavashak. Basically, fruit is cooked down with water and then spread out to bake, traditionally in the sun. Think of it as an all-natural fruit roll up. I believe we got a pomegranate one. We also got a second one that was apricot that had walnuts rolled up with it. Finally, we got a traditional bread that’s frequently sold at Garni and Geghard called Gata. It’s a sweet bread, and the local variant is filled with something called koritz. It has the consistency and almost the taste of marzipan, but it’s just flour, sugar, and butter.

Gata.

Armed with snacks, we got back into our taxi and rode to Geghard, which is a monastery complex that’s partially carved out of a mountain.

The complex was founded in the 4th Century and the main chapel was built in 1215. Perhaps few know the religious history of Armenia. The Armenian Apostolic Church was founded in the 1st Century AD, and Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD. In comparison, the Roman Empire Christianized under Constantine the Great during his reign from 306-337 AD and it only became the state religion by the end of the 4th Century. Kievan Rus’, a predecessor of the Russian Empire Christianized in 988.

We wandered around the various caves and chapels in the complex before having a picnic in the shade on the back side of the territory. The monastery was pretty austere.

Many of the monks lived in little cells that were hewn out of the mountain. Being fairly isolated from society, the monks took to harvesting honey for nourishment. This tradition continues to this day, and there are a ton of bee hives around the territory of the monastery.

Geghard.

After our picnic, we rode back into the city and rested for a  bit before walking into the center of Yerevan. We walked around one of the other main sites, the Cascade, before grabbing dinner at a Caucasian restaurant called Kavkaz that had a mixture of Armenia, Persian, and Georgian foods. We split a delightful khachipuri; a dolma platter (pronounced tolma in Armenian) which included stuffed cabbage, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes; and a meat, potato, and spice dish called ker u sus that translates along the lines of “shut up and eat.” Everything was delicious and I was too busy stuffing my face to remember to take a photo of the meal. We also had a cool yogurt drink called Tan. It’s basically just watered down yogurt, and it’s super refreshing and cooling, especially in the hot weather. Coming from Moscow, it was indeed hot in Armenia. When I left Moscow, it was around freezing, and it was in the 70s during the day each day in Armenia. It was a treat to walk around in short sleeves and to sit outside for most of our meals.

After dinner, we headed to a rock club called the Stop Club to catch a band playing covers of 70s hard rock. They were pretty good. They played the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and the Doors among others. The mostly stuck to bluesy hard rock.

You can still smoke indoors in Armenia. The singer always had a cigarette in his hand.

On Sunday morning, we had a later start and walked into the downtown for brunch outside at a wine restaurant before making our way up the Cascade.

The Cascade.

With the inside of the Cascade is the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. The museum is broken up into five levels that go up and into the mountain. On each level, it’s possible to walk out onto the Cascade and get different views of the city. It’s also a convenient way of heading up the mountain. The last few flights have to be done on foot.

Downtown Yerevan from the Cascade.

At the peak, there is the Monument to 50 Years of Soviet Armenia, as well as a planned but still unfinished space for the expansion of the monuments and museum space of the Cascade.

50 Years of Soviet Armenia.

From the top of the Cascade, it’s a quick walk over to Victory Park, which has a variety of war monuments ranging from those who died during WWII to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The highlight of Victory Park is the Mother Armenia statue, which originally was a statue of Stalin that was only taken down in 1967.

Mother Armenia.

One cool part of this Victory Park is that no one seems to care if you climb on the military hardware on display around the base of the Mother Armenia statue. One piece of hardware is a T-34 tank, which was the main Soviet tank of WWII. It was the first tank to use sloped armor, and is sometimes known as the tank that won WWII. I, naturally, never pass up the opportunity to climb one if it is offered. It’s dissertation research at this point.

На Берлин! To Berlin!

We then took a marshrutka back down into the city so that we could take a ride on the Yerevan Metro. The marshrutka was already full, so we had to stand for the ride down the hill, which was a little unpleasant. The driver was speeding, and I made the mistake of looking at his instrument cluster. What I found was a series of broken gauges. The rev counter was stuck at 5,500 RPM, the speedometer didn’t function, and the needles were missing from the fuel and oil gauges. Thankfully, we arrived without harm, and hopped into the metro. It was opened in 1981, and looks like most Soviet metros. It is built with the simpler caterpillar design of halls, but they are moderately ornamented with national themes.

The cars themselves are the standard 1970s design that continues to run in Moscow and Tbilisi, but like in Tbilisi, the cars have been renovated recently with investment from the European Union.

While not as frequent as the Moscow Metro, trains run every 5 minutes.

From the Metro, we walked back to Erin’s place with a quick pit stop at a vendor by her street. I had noticed a man selling homemade wine and spirits out of the back of his Lada. He was selling them in recycled water and soda bottles.

Buying wine from the back of a Lada. What could go wrong?

I asked what he had to offer. He had a variety of flavors of wine including raspberry and cherry. He offered a sample of the raspberry wine, which I bought a bottle of for about $3.00.

The delicious raspberry wine.

Erin and I then relaxed and had some wine in her apartment before walking into the center for dinner at an Indian restaurant. Stuffed to the gills with butter chicken, lentils, and nan,we walked to the second main square of Yerevan, Freedom Square, via a quick stop at Opera Square again. We saw the start of a rally on the eve of Genocide Remembrance Day. We didn’t quite catch the start, but people had gathered for a candlelight vigil before marching off somewhere else in the city.

Gathering at Opera, the standard point for mass meetings in Yerevan.

Freedom Square was nicely lit up at night, and they have a fountain, light, and music show in the evenings called the Singing Fountains, which we watched for a while. The song choices were quite eclectic. When we approached the square, we heard Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” before also hearing Wing’s “Live and Let Die,” “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King, and Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” From Freedom Square, we hopped back on the Metro and went home for an earlier evening.

On Monday morning, we woke up early so that we could attend the traditional ceremony for Genocide Remembrance Day. April 24th is a holiday in Armenia for that cause. From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire launched a genocide against its Armenian population. The arrest deportation of Armenian intellectuals, which started on April 24, 1915, is seen as the starting date of the Genocide. Every year, Armenians gather at the Armenian Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd to walk up the hill to the monument and lay flowers inside the memorial. One of Erin’s Armenian friends said that we should get there around 8:00 to avoid waiting for a very long time. We got up and walked to the taxi stand at the end of Erin’s street and found a nice man with a W140 S Class to drive us as far as the bridge that leads up to the memorial complex. Some of the roads were closed to regular traffic to accommodate the large crowds heading to the memorial. Incidentally, this was the first time that I got to ride in a W140, so I was pretty excited. I was not excited, however, when the driver used most of the power of the V8 engine to rocket us down the hill while his break wear indicator light was on. My only consolation was that these cars are absolute tanks, and unlike in Georgia or Central Asia, the seatbelts in the backseat were still installed and functioning.

Heading into the Genocide Memorial.

We walked across the bridge and found a flower vendor near the base of the complex. We climbed up the hill with the crowds and eventually wound up in a fairly large crowd at the top of the hill to wait our turn to enter the memorial and lay our flowers around the eternal flame. The ceremony was understandably a very big deal, and a variety of news outlets were televising the procession.

The flowers at roughly 8:20AM.

The event was also incredibly well organized. The crowd was funneled up the complex to the monument along one main path. From the top, the crowd was then taken down to the other side along a different path. At the base of the path, there were free busses, which were there to take people either back to the other side of the memorial or to one of the metro stops, which we rode on back to Erin’s neighborhood. We then walked back into town for a brunch at a café where I had something that more or less approximated a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a bagel. We then strolled back to her apartment with a stop via a nice bakery for some cookies.

After a quick drink of a little more of the raspberry wine, we headed outside for my taxi back to the airport. We had arranged with the guy who drove us to the Genocide Memorial for a taxi to take me to the airport. The guy was supposed to be at the apartment at 12:15, but when he wasn’t there around 12:30 we deiced to call a taxi through Armenia’s version of Uber, GG Taxi. At the same time that the GG Taxi arrived, the other driver showed up. He was slightly annoyed that we had called a GG Taxi, but it was his loss for showing up about 20 minutes late for a ride to the airport. I was also not so secretly happy to get to ride back to the airport in a 1998 W210.

A slightly modified 1998 W210.

I had already checked in for my flight, so I just had to wait in line for a short bit to get a boarding pass. Immigration control once again went very quickly with the 20 or so kiosks that were set up to process travelers. The terminal itself is fairly new and quite small. There are about six gates, a few kiosks for food and drink, and newsstand, and great lounge chairs with views of the runway, Mount Ararat, and free WiFi.

Probably one of the nicest airport terminals I’ve ever been in.

Although our plane boarded a few minutes late, we pushed back from the gate 2 minutes ahead of schedule. The flight was calm after some light turbulence around takeoff, and we landed in Moscow 20 minutes ahead of schedule. I made it through immigration reasonably quickly and without issues and was back in my dorm well ahead of my 9:00PM laundry slot. And so concludes a the trip to my 6th ex-Soviet Republic.

Last night I went to see one of my favorite bands, Trubetskoy. Well, they’re actually the remains of one of my favorite bands, Lyapis Trubetskoy. After the band’s 25th anniversary, they basically dissolved. One of the singers went and formed the band Brutto, while the other singer and a few other members, such as the guitarist, went on to tour as just Trubetskoy. Lyapis Trubetskoy started out as much more of a ska influenced band, and they got progressively more rock and metal over the years. They hail from Minsk, Belarus, and have also become far more political in their messages and lyrics over the years.

К нам приехал Тубецкой!

I’m a pretty huge fan of the band. I listen to their music quite frequently. I saw them play in Ulyanovsk five years ago, when they were still Lyapis Trubetskoy, and my department cubicle and apartment in Pittsburgh are decorated with their posters.

Lyapis Trubetskoy posters from Ulyanovsk and a map of Ulyanovsk are what every home needs.

 

The concert was held in a very small club venue called Club Theatre. I went with Anne-Marie. I got her a ticket for the show as a birthday present. We had celebrated her birthday in the dorm with the full crew, and a good night it was. The pièce de résistance of the night was the surprise made by two of the other French Canadians – poutine. One had produced a packet of gravy for the poutine. The other fried up the french fries from scratch, and some Russian cheeses were used as a passable substitute for cheese curds. It was delicious and wonderful.

Poutine à la russe.

Before we went to the venue, we went to a nearby Georgian restaurant called Chito-Ra. I had found it by chance by looking for restaurants near the concert on Yandex maps. I later found out that a friend considers it to be the best Georgian restaurant in Moscow. When we got there, the place was packed, and we had to wait about 10 or 15 minutes before we could sit. The food was indeed excellent. We got my favorite khacipuri, khachipuri po adjarski, which is a delightfully decadent bread boat filled with melted cheese and a cracked egg on top. We also split an order of khinkali, Georgian dumplings, filled with a mixture of beef and pork and greens.

Georgian for the win.

From the restaurant, we walked over to the club and waited in the hallway for about 30 minutes before being allowed to walk onto the floor. The hall was tiny, which was nice because we were fairly close to the group. At about 8:30PM an opening act took the stage. They were a ska group called Faktory, and they were pretty good. They had some funny songs about social media and another about taking selfies and selfie sticks.

Around 9:00PM, Turbetskoy took the stage and opened up with their anthem and signature starting song “Trubetskoy,” which fans had been chanting the lyrics of while waiting for the group to strat. “К нам приехал Трубецкой; он как Моцарт но живой” (Trubetskoy came to us; he’s like Mozart, but alive). The chorus goes on to list a number of famous musicians in various repetitions such as Lennon, Joplin, Hendrix, and Elvis.

They gave a lively show for about 90 minutes that included a two song encore. They pretty much stuck to playing songs from two of the later Lyapis Trubetskoy albums, Kapital and Manifest, while also mixing in some of their newer songs. They sadly didn’t play my favorite song of theirs, “Kapital,” but they did play some of my other favorites like “Ogon’ki,” the video of which is what led me to discover the band. Even if you don’t understand Russian/Belorussian, I highly implore you to watch the two following videos. “Ogon’ki” or “Lights” has an interesting collage of Soviet nostalgia.

Kapital is a fun play on the modern world versus the era of Communism. I just love the chorus that says, “In my left hand a Snickers; in my right hand a Mars; my PR manager is Karl Marx; Capital.” This video has English subtitles.

 

The crowd at this particular concert was also interesting. There seemed to be more women in the crowd than men. Those attending were dressed in a mixture of regular flannel and jeans casual to full punk vests and plaid pants. There was also one very creepy spectator, who freaked out me and Anne-Marie. He was dressed in a jester’s outfit, and sat in the smoking area and just stared at people. We both had moments of legitimate fear upon seeing him. There was a really intense mosh pit at the show, but thankfully we were insulated by a few rows of people in front of us who intercepted the stray moshers.

Scary jester guy in the background. Zoom in for full effect.

I was slightly worried about getting home after the concert. As of the first of the month, there is a new security firm with the contract for the university. We’ve got all new guards, some of whom dress like nightclub bouncers in cheap suits. In general, they seem friendlier at first than the previous guards. I’m just slightly upset because now I have to forge all new relationships with the guard staff. In addition to getting new guards, we also have a new curfew. Previously the dorm closed at 1:00AM, which was fine with me because that’s when the metro stops running. Now, though, the dorm supposedly closes at 11:00PM. We were not notified of this change by anyone at the university, only through trial and error and word of mouth from people trying to enter or leave between 12:30 and 1:00. Before heading out, I asked the guard when the dorm closes. He said that it is indeed now at 11:00. I said I was going to a concert and wasn’t sure when it would end. He said it was ok, that if there was a problem, there’s a buzzer by the door (it took me a long time to find it when heading out), and to ring that if there was a problem with the door being closed. They’re not very punctual, though, because the door was still open around 11:15 or so when I came back.

In general, the earlier curfew is a problem. In Ulyanovsk, the dorm also closed at 11:00PM, but there the public transit stopped running around 9:00PM. My current options are to lead a very boring life and always return home by 11:00PM; be extra crazy and stay out until 6:00AM, when the doors reopen; sneak through the crack in the vehicle gate, which is under video surveillance; or to climb over an 8 foot wall between some buildings on the periphery of the university campus. I’m not entirely thrilled by any of these options.

I also have succeeded in achieving a massive personal victory in the wake of last week’s somewhat depressing situation with the DDT concert. I complained to the ticket office about how thousands of us were left out on the street in the rain while the concert started. My complaints there got me nowhere, but I also complained to the band’s tour manager, whose email address I found on their website. After a few days, he responded. Apparently my Russian complaining skills are at a very high level. He apologized for the situation and offered me tickets to any other DDT show in 2017. I responded that the offer is nice, but was also useless unless the band had any other planned concert dates in Moscow or America that were not listed on their website. Currently, the site shows only concerts in Siberia in April, one show in London, and a few shows in Israel in June. I said that it was meaningless to offer free tickets if I had to fly to a different city or country and also pay to spend a night or two there. He then answered that the band will be at a festival in Moscow in July, sadly after I already leave, and that the band is in talks to finalize a concert in New York in October. I said I would go for the October tickets, and I’m to email the guy in September to set that all up. My faith in DDT as a a group that cares about its fans has been restored.

We are sorry about the entrance problems, we apologize, and offer you tickets to any DDT concert in 2017.

On late Sunday afternoon I met Erin in the Prospekt Mira metro stop to go to the ДДТ (DDT) concert. DDT is one of the best known late-Soviet, early Russian Federation rock groups. They were mostly based out of Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg, and have always had fairly political messages in their music.

We went to an Indian restaurant that was in the lobby of a hotel near the stadium before the concert. The food was pretty good. The staff was funny there. When we asked for the food, we said we wanted it to be spicy, and not Russian spicy, which means not spicy at all. She then asked if we wanted Indian spicy, and we responded that we didn’t want it quite that hot. When we finished our meal, the coat check guy asked if we were from America. He then said his friend had invented something for cars and he wants to patent it there. We said we didn’t really know patent law, but we said he should give it a try. He then asked if we knew a program where people design things and get to show them to potential investors. I told him that in English it’s called “Shark Tank” and he asked me to write it down for him.

The concert was both wonderful and miserable at the same time. The tickets said that it started at 7:00. We had just general admission tickets for the floor space. We arrived somewhere around 6:30 and the doors were still shut. There were literally thousands of people standing on the street in the rain. At that point, I suddenly realized why the ОМОН (OMON), aka the Russian SWAT/Riot police were the ones in charge of crowd control. We kept standing and every now and then the line would shuffle a few feet forwards.

The crowd before us to get in at 7:22PM.

Around 7:30 or so, it seemed that the concert began while at least half of the crowd was still outside of the stadium.

The crowd behind us at 7:22.

There were no announcements made about what was going on at all. I took to checking Twitter and Instagram to find a mixture of people in the stadium demanding the group come on stage and angry rants of those stuck in the mob with us. I killed time by engaging with a fellow enraged mob member through Twitter, and posted my angry photo on social media with the caption “Что такая очередь” (what is line), a pun on one of DDT’s most famous songs “Что такое осень” (what is autumn).

Twitter and Instagram were full of these. The caption says “‘Wonderfully’ organized concert – 1.5 hours after the start and thousands of viewers on the street.”

After about two hours of standing in line in the cold and rain, we approached the entrance. As we got closed, we were literally crushed in the crowd. Erin and I both remarked at how dangerous the situation was, and how we’ve rarely felt uncomfortable like that at concerts. You also begin to realize in situations like that, or just generally around in Russia, that most places here are death traps. Emergency exits are often locked or blocked in this country, and like lifeboats on the Titanic, there aren’t nearly enough.

At the door, we showed our tickets and passed through metal detectors and a bag check. We then went around to a different line where we had to get wrist bands before being let onto the floor to see the show. Unfortunately, we didn’t know about the wrist bands, which were off to the side, and had to go around some barriers and back. The organization of this concert was non-existent. It was held at the Олимпийский Стадион, Olympic Stadium, which was built for the 1980 Olympics. There was no indication of when or where people should go, and there are internet rumors that the organization was intentionally botched as a sign/punishment towards Yuri Shevchuk, the openly political and critical leader singer of the band.

Once inside, the concert was fantastic. The band was lively and played a steady stream of music plus two encore songs. They must have finished close to 10:30, so they gave a three hour concert, which is a pretty impressive feat. I got to hear them play a number of their most famous songs, including Последный Осень (Last Autumn, which I jokingly called the lesser Осень), but sadly I didn’t get to see them perform my favorite Что Такое Осень (What is Autumn). I’m not sure if they played it earlier in the show of if they oddly decided not to play one of their biggest hits. One of the encore songs was my second favorite song of theirs, Родинда (Motherland), so I was somewhat placated.

Red for Rodina.

Nonetheless, it felt like a sucker punch to miss half of the show. I was even more disappointed when I checked the news after the show. Yuri Shevchuck and the band knew that there were thousands of fans on the street who couldn’t enter the stadium, yet they decided to start the show anyway. The moral of the story is the DDT is great to see live, but anything at the Olympic Stadium should be avoided.

Other than the concert, there’s not much else to report. Work is progressing as usual in the archives. Watching Russian TV has once again proven itself to be useful for my research. I started watching a series called Мажор (Silver Spoon) on Netflix. It’s overly melodramatic and some of the plot points are over the top, but it has its uses. From a cultural standpoint, it’s a fascinating show because it’s about the son of an oligarch who begins to work for the police after some rather improbable situations. Part of the plot involves shady goings on of gangsters in the 1990s and there’s something about an oligarch connected to crime who is untouchable because he’s a member of the Duma. Only the first season is on Netflix, but the second season is available without subtitles on youtube for those who are fluent in Russian. The language of the show has also paid off. From it, I learned the word for autopsy (вскрытие), which came in handy when I stumbled upon some autopsy reports of German POWs in a collection of files of the Department for Repatriation in GARF. Watching countless hours of television has its uses when it’s in a foreign language.

Life in the dorms is fairly quiet with the exception of continuous problems with new neighbors. The French and Germans smoke in their rooms, the kitchen, and the toilet, which is unpleasant for those of us who don’t smoke. After getting into trouble for doing so, which is forbidden in the dorms, some have begun to burn incense in their rooms to try to hide the smell. As a result, the dorm halls and some of the rooms smell like a terrible mixture of cigarettes and lavender. We also have one neighbor who is about 50 and speaks only Russian and German. Based on a few conversations with her, I’m pretty sure grew up in the former East Germany in a Russian family. She speaks Russian with a slight accent, and one of the Germans said that her German also has an accent. She had some very strange comments about my research and the post-war development of West Germany, which were of a standard Marxist-Leninist perspective. She has decided that we are now friends, which is annoying for me, and also terrible when I went to leave my room at 10:00PM one night and found her standing outside of my door. I’m hoping she had just arrived as was about to knock and that she hadn’t been just standing outside my door for an unknown length of time.

I’ve also had a few good days of food lately. While over at Alla’s one day for blini, she invited me over again to have dinner with the Canadians and to bake with her. The main course for our feast was roast leg of lamb that Alla gets from a specialty market.

Om nom nom.

Alla became interested in my signature baked good for family functions, a key lime pie from my grandmother’s recipe. She was eager to try it, so I converted the ingredients into metric and headed over earlier than the others to bake the pie. I had to slightly modify the ingredients as well. I usually use cream of tartar for the meringue, but I had to try a corn starch one for Russia. The result was pretty decent, but not quite up to my usual pie. I guess this just means I will need to bake more. What a terrible burden.

I’ve been fairly intensively consumed by archival work recently. Normally I don’t like to write too much about what I find or see in the archives, but I’ve come across some interesting stuff lately, and I had a quintessential experience with the head archivist at Socio-Political Historical Archive (RGASPI) this past week.

Photo of a cool sunset by Red Square to distract from a ramble about the archives.

Photo of a cool sunset by Red Square to distract from a ramble about the archives.

In the military archive (RGVA), I’m collecting more supporting evidence but I haven’t found anything particularly new or shocking. The folders entitled “Sentenced War Criminals” in the Stalingrad Oblast were not quite what I had hoped they would be from the title. After 1950, the Soviets insisted that they held no more German POWs; rather, they only had sentenced war criminals. While undoubtedly many of those held had indeed been properly sentenced for actual war crimes, others were likely falsely imprisoned through show trials under a pretext that was internationally acceptable during the burgeoning Cold War. I was hoping to find information about these trials that evaluated POWs and designated them as war criminals. Instead, it was about 600 pages of guys being sentenced to various periods of jail within the camps for refusing to work or obey orders. There was a funny one about a guy who was sentenced to a week in camp jail for wandering around shirtless and in his underwear and cutting in the line to get mail.

In State Archive (GARF), I’ve begun working in some different collections. One has to do with bread rations during the Soviet famine of 1946-1947. As typical Soviet documents, they don’t actually admit that there is a famine. However, it is quite clear from what’s inside the documents that there was a major famine. They talk about how the camps did not have enough bread to feed the POWs. There were also many documents, especially from the republics of Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia, punishing the POW camp staff for missing food. During the famine, the camp staff clearly stole bread and potatoes. At least in these republics, they were caught and sentenced to a variety of different punishments for this.

As I’m dealing with Russian archives, I also had two “fun” incidents recently. The first involves the electronic catalog for GARF. There is an online catalogue on their website, but it doesn’t work properly. I thought there was way less on my topic in GARF because of this. For example, typing POW in the online catalogue comes up with zero results, but if I search the catalogue on the computers in the reading room at the archive, I get hundreds of results. So now I’ve got a bunch more to read through there.

I also had my first personal experience with the true Misha treatment at RGASPI. He refused to give me volume 2 of opis 2 of the Molotov fond. When I registered he only gave me the third volume, and I found some great stuff with POW repatriation or UN commissions/Cold War related stuff in those files (lots of correspondences between the Western allies and the USSR about German POWs in Soviet hands). However, someone else working in the archive had specifically told me to get a folder from volume 2 as she had ordered it and seen things about the POWs in it. I asked Misha for volume 2 but was told that “foreign affairs are only in volume 3. There is nothing for you in volume 2. There’s nothing else here for you. Go to GARF.” After some arguing back and forth and me showing him a citation for a particular folder a few times, he relented and pulled out volume 2 to look up said folder. Trying to prove a point, he flipped directly to that folder instead of letting me look at the volume myself. When he got to it, he read aloud the description, which included the German POWs. “Well, you never said the word repatriation,” he grumbled as he handed me the whole volume and walked off.

While doing my laundry last week, I was perusing the bookshelves in the lobby of the dorm. I found a copy of an Ian Fleming collection in Russian, which includes “Diamonds are Forever,” “From Russia with Love,” and “Doctor No.” I’m pretty excited to read them in Russian. I was confused by the book at first, though, when I pulled it off of the shelf because it claims to be a collection of detective novels. If you know me, you know my love of James Bond films, video games, and books is pretty extensive, except for the travesties known as the Daniel Craig films. Those suck. End of discussion. Some of the coolest days in the archives for me are when I come across SMERSH documents. SMERSH was a Soviet counter-intelligence agency that stood for “Death to Spies.” SMERSH features prominently in Fleming’s novels and a couple of the James Bond films. Those are the days in which I don’t hate my otherwise fairly dreary existence of reading dusty documents.

Ian Fleming - Detective Novels.

Ian Fleming – Detective Novels.

How do I cope with the boredom or insanity of the archives? I’m glad you asked. Sometimes I have a variety of food adventures around the city or in the dorm. For example, we have become regulars at the Uzbek restaurant Café Anor. We go there often enough that the staff recognizes us and the server knows to bring us two portions of adjika, the hot sauce.

Some nights I just put copious quantities of hot sauce on my eggs. Eggs are somewhat interesting in Russia in that they don’t come in a dozen, but rather in a pack of ten. I feel like there’s some Soviet joke to be made about only decadent capitalist imperialists having eggs coming in a dozen. img_3331

Maybe I spent a little too long reading files from the propaganda department. They love throwing phrases like capitalist imperialist around. I also improved my eggs with Sriracha, which was one of the prized possessions in my suitcase full of odds and ends. If I have to be responsible and trek to an archive in sub-zero temperatures, then I get the liberty to draw on my food with hot sauce. There is also a reason that I study history and not art, which is evidenced by the photo. In some ways I bring nothing but shame to my maternal grandparents, who were talented artists and long-time art teachers in the New York City public school system. Don’t worry, none of this is cold induced brain damage. That all happened years ago when I frequently fell down the stairs in my youth. Gravity and I are still on neutral terms at best.img_3332

Or, I have the wonderful luck of being friends with Anne-Marie, who had gone to cooking school and worked professional in the restaurant industry. On Monday night this past week we made a delightful macaroni and cheese with a béchamel base to which we added three cheeses, one of which was brie. It was superb.

There is no such thing as too much cheese.

There is no such thing as too much cheese.

Then, on Wednesday, we decided to make dinner with the leftover macaroni that was inspired by an internet food post about grilled cheese sandwiches with mac and cheese in them. I decided to step things up a notch by buying bacon at the store, which also happened to be on sale that day.

Om-nom-nom.

Om-nom-nom.

The other news in the dormitory is the turnover of the students. Over the course of the last week I said goodbye to the two remaining students who wouldn’t be back for a second semester. And, after a few quiet days of there only being three people on the floor, the new neighbors have begun to arrive in droves.

Napoleon has managed to somewhat achieve his goals 200+ years later. The three new French Canadian students are living on my floor. All of my Italian neighbors, with the exception of one, have gone back to Italy. Supposedly there are supposed to be eight new Italian students this semester, but if they’re here, they aren’t on my floor. Instead, we have quite a few French students from France on this floor, and there is also another group on the sixth floor. Thus, I am now completely surrounded by the French in the middle of Moscow. I feel like I’ve been transported into the world of “War and Peace.” I’m in some pre-1812 aristocratic Russian settlement as the corridors are filled with French speech and the only Russian uttered is broken. My only solace is that I don’t think there will be any balls held in the dormitory. Perhaps I should mention that I disliked the peace parts of “War and Peace.” There were too many balls, and Natasha’s inability to choose between her love interests was insufferable.

Outside of the comfort of food, I rely on going to Taekwondo to physically beat out my aggression.

Dojang sweet dojang.

Dojang sweet dojang.

This past week, I cut my arm pretty badly while fighting and there was a moderate amount of blood. When walking home from practice I thought about stopping at the pharmacy to buy some sort of antiseptic for the cut on my arm, but then I remembered that there is always vodka in a the freezer in the dorm.

This was my second time that I’ve spent Thanksgiving in Mother Russia, and this time I made up for the last time in a spectacular way. In Ulyanovsk, I had to spend the day teaching and taking classes. My celebration in the evening was to eat some chicken that I got at the rotisserie chicken stand near the dorm. This time, like a truly gluttonous American, I had two fantastic Thanksgiving dinners in Moscow.

As Thanksgiving is a national holiday back home, I took the day off from going to the archives. The real celebration happened in the afternoon, and evening. I have become friends with one of the undergrads spending a semester learning Russian here at RGGU. He is fortunate to live with a wonderful host mother named Alla. Alla went above and beyond to make a Thanksgiving dinner for the undergrad, one of his classmates, myself, and our adopted American Anne-Marie (who is Canadian, so she’s technically also American, but whatever). The others all had classes in the afternoon, but being free all day, I got to Alla’s apartment early to help her prepare dinner. This was slightly easier said than done because Alla’s apartment doesn’t have a working phone system to call the apartment from the outside. Luckily, a neighbor was entering the building around the same time as me, so she let me into the front door and I climbed up to Alla’s apartment. We then spent the next two hours continuing to get things ready for dinner, drinking coffee, and chatting. There really wasn’t too much for me to do to help, as Alla had done most of the work already. My help was cutting a few potatoes before they were boiled to make the mashed potatoes, cutting and peeling apples for the apple pie, and partially setting the table.

The complete spread for Thanksgiving No. 1.

The complete spread for Thanksgiving No. 1. It was like Thanksgiving at home, but with vodka.

Eventually, the other Americans showed up after their classes, and we continued to finish setting the table, mash the potatoes, and check that the turkey was fully cooked. I cooked the extra stuffing that did not go in the turkey on the stove top in a pan, and Anne-Marie carved the turkey. For the meal, we were also joined by Alla’s aunt as well as Alla’s cousin and his wife. After they arrived, we sat at the table and had quite the feast.

We started with an aperitif of sparkling wine, before we tucked into the meal. In addition to a lovely turkey, Alla had made stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and a hybrid Russian-American salad of some sort. All of the food was spectacularly delicious, and we had a good time chatting the night away in Russian.

The dessert course was also spectacular. In addition to the apple pie that I helped to make, Alla had made a pecan pie. Both pies were scrumptious, especially with a healthy addition of Russian ice cream. Russia is well known for some of its dishes and staple exports such as caviar and vodka, but it is little known that Russia makes excellent chocolates, candies, and ice cream. Unlike in America, much more of the food in Russian is locally sourced and uses natural ingredients. The ice cream is a good example of this. Unlike in America, it is definitely made with cream and real sugar. The result is a decadent and smooth ice cream that is good to enjoy whenever. I may or may not be known to wander down the street in the heavy negative temperatures while enjoying a Russian ice cream cone or equivalent of a Good Humor bar. But back to Thanksgiving. The pies were great. Alla’s cousin and his wife decided that both were good, but they felt that the apple pie was better. I like to think that this was because I helped, or maybe it’s because Alla liberally splashed some cognac into apple, sugar, and cinnamon mix.

Dessert course.

Dessert course.

Then,  yesterday, I had Thanksgiving round two at Erin’s apartment with Slava and Anne-Marie. I met Slava and Anne-Marie around 12:00 at metro stop, and we swung by a shop to get ingredients and some wine to bring to Erin’s. We were basically responsible for cranberry sauce and an apple pie. Getting the ingredients was a little easier said than done. The night before, Anne-Marie got some frozen cranberries and the cinnamon at a store in a different neighborhood. We went to the nearest food store to Erin’s. It was a small, independent grocery store. It had almost everything we needed. We at first tried to find a different, chain grocery store across the street. According to Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google, the store should have been there, but it didn’t exist. So we went back into the small store, and got the majority of the things before heading down the street to find a store that sold wine. We thought we found the place down the block. It said it was a universal store, and there were pictures of food items on the sign. We went down the stairs into the shop, which turned out to be solely a hookah and tobacco store. It turns out that the store we wanted was at the end of the block, hidden from our view by a flower store. While walking back, I noticed a bent wire with some tape over it on the ground at a parking area. It was a homemade slim jim, the tool used to break into cars. Generally, people in America use metal coat hangers for the same job. The idea is that you take a piece of wire, and slip it down a car door at the window seal. You then fish around the door until you find the wire that controls the door lock, which is then pulled up to unlock the door without a key. I’m going to assume someone in the Dinamo area is currently missing their car.

Someone is probably missing a car.

Someone is probably missing a car.

We then went from the store to Erin’s. We got in through the front door and spoke with the woman whose job it is to monitor who enters and exits the building. We said that we were going to Erin’s, and she told us to go around a few corners and to take the elevator, because if we took the stairs, we would not be able to find the apartment. However, when we got out of the elevator, we immediately found the apartment, which is across from the stairwell. Upon arriving at Erin’s, we got to work on preparing the meal. Anne-Marie took charge of the cranberry sauce, and Erin saw to the cheesy mashed potatoes, turkey breast, and beets. The apple pie was a team effort in that Slava peeled the apples, I cut them up, and Anne-Marie mad the crust from scratch and saw to adding the cinnamon, sugar, and lemon.

Feast No. 2.

Feast No. 2.

All of the food turned out phenomenally. We gorged ourselves in the dining room, and made sure to add ice cream to the hot apple pie at the end. The ice cream was a little funny in that the only vanilla ice cream for sale in the local shop was sold in log form in a plastic bag. None of us had ever seen that before outside of Russia, and even Slava was confused by it. Our solution was to slice off some hunks, and it worked out well.

Cutting the ice cream to adorn the pie.

Cutting the ice cream to adorn the pie.

We also had a surprise bit of entertainment between dinner and dessert when we heard the doorbell. It turned out to be a police officer, which surprised and scared us a bit. Apparently he was going around the apartments to do routine checks that the correct people were living in them. That is, he was checking that the people living in the apartments were indeed registered to live there. Thankfully everything was in order, and he left after about five minutes of doing some paperwork.

All in all, it was a great evening, and I had a wonderful time with my two Thanksgivings.

On Sunday I crossed another item off of my Russia bucket list, I finally went snowboarding at an indoor ski area on the outskirts of Moscow called Senjkom. Two years ago, I had seen the place from the bus while going to the Memorial Museum of German Anti-Fascists for research. I was willing to trek out by myself for the experience, but thankfully one of my Austrian neighbors was also interested in experiencing an indoor ski area. So, on Sunday morning, we hopped on the metro to one of the last stops on the purple line in the north-west of the city. From there, we hopped on a minibus and took about a fifteen minute ride to the ski area.

Seeing the area peak out from behind all of the residential buildings.

Seeing the area peak out from behind all of the residential buildings.

At the ski area, we paid for an hour of skiing each. We could have paid for more hours or the whole day, but one hour was more than enough because there is only one, fairly short slope. After buying the list passes, we headed to a different are past a turnstile to rent equipment, also for the hour. I got a fairly decent Burton board, a little shorter than I normally like, but it was fine. The boots were super worn out and terrible, and according to the rental agreement I signed, were worth 0 rubles. I probably should have seen if I could have walked off with them. The equipment rental was also available by the hour or by the day. Thankfully, included in the hour, was an extra thirty minutes to allow for changing into gear and whatnot. After we got our equipment, we went off to the locker rooms to drop off our extra stuff. The locker was pretty cool. My lift ticket was an electronic card. I closed my locker and a central computer bank flashed the number for the locker and then I touched my card to that point and it locked the locker and saved the locker number onto the card. At the end, when I was done, I touched my card up to the point and it opened the locker up again.

The day's ride.

The day’s ride.

The skiing itself started counting down from the first time you touched your card to the turnstile in front of the lift. The area itself included a poma and a quad for getting up. There was one main slope, equivalent to a Green Circle in the American ranking system, as well as a small terrain park with boxes, rails, and a larger jump with an airbag below it for landing. My neighbor and I were a little concerned by the airbag, because in theory landing wrong on an airbag with skis could maybe led to some injuries, but we ignored that and amused ourselves with going down the one trail. We went down probably six or so times. The trip down itself only took about a minute at a reasonable pace, but the ride up and getting on and off of the lift took up the majority of the time.

First ride of the season: check. Snowboard in Russia: check.

First ride of the season: check. Snowboard in Russia: check.

The snow itself was pretty high quality for artificial snow. According to their website, they create the snow by cutting down blocks of ice. The ice shreds are then blown onto the slopes, which are groomed with snowcats, presumably every morning or evening.

Going up.

Going up.

The complex was a little strange in that it was completely filled with advertisements for Austrian ski resorts. All around the “base lodge” there were ads, and then on the wall of the “mountain” itself there were pictures of the Alps to set the mood for skiing.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time there, but even halfway through the hour, the slope was already getting a little boring. My neighbor amused himself trying to spin around on his skis, while I mostly just went straight down on the board. Because the slope was completely even and fairly well groomed, there weren’t really options to do small jumps or anything like that. And the fairly shallow nature of the slope more or less created a self-imposed top speed. I tried to take a video while going down the slope, but I’m no Brian Sisselman (if you get the reference to 1980s Warren Miller ski videos we should be best friends) so everything was shaky and terrible.

Not terrible for a single slope in a building.

Not terrible for a single slope in a building.

I also had another completely off of the wall adventure today. For lunch, I went to a fairly hipster restaurant that specializes in cooking dishes made from nutria, which is a kind of rodent. Someone had sent me an article in the British press about this place, and someone else had sent the article to Anne-Marie the same day. The two of us decided to go on a culinary excursion for lunch to try the nutria, or “rat” burger from the Bistro Krasnodar. If you know me, you know I love eating different and exotic meats. There is a specialty butcher shop in Pittsburgh and I have a dream of eating my way through the offerings. According to some articles that I read, nutria isn’t really common in Moscow, but the chef who created the restaurant hails from Krasnodar, where nutria can be a fairly common source of food.

The nutria aka rodent burger.

The nutria aka rodent burger.

The burgers came out and we were beyond pleasantly surprised. The meat itself had a very mild, almost bland flavor, with just the tiniest hint of gamey/wild taste to it. The burgers were perfectly cooked and lavishly accompanied by lettuce, tomato, roasted peppers, and some kind of herb mayonnaise/aioli. It was by far one of the best burgers I’ve had in my life, and certainly the best burger that I’ve had in Moscow.

Om nom nom.

Om nom nom.

I paired my burger with a beer from Krasnodar that was on tap, and Anne-Marie got a cider. For about $12, I got a great burger and the beer. This included a small discount for a weekday lunch special. The place also had a great soundtrack of rock hits featuring the Black Keys, the Arctic Monkeys, and Blondie.