Archive for January, 2010

How I manage to stay thin and still eat bratwurst, coffee & cake, Bavarian beer, and Russian-American diner food: Words and Pictures

January 30th, 2010

(Title a tribute to OK! magazine.)

According to Russians, how you spend the night of December 31 – January 1 defines your entire year. If that is the case, I’ll be having a pretty calm and uneventful 2010; however, if the rest of the month is any indication, I’m in for exactly the opposite! New Year’s was spent in the company of Masha’s family eating a traditional Russian meal at midnight, watching Medvedev’s New Year’s address to the nation, drinking champagne, and going out walking on the town square, where we did some dancing and hung out with Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka. It was fun, and I was in bed before two, although many Russians continue their festivities all night and into the next day. On the night of the first I had a slightly rowdier party with Nadya and her friends, on the second had a last, small meeting of the VIP English Club, and several hours later left for my travels. Here’s what I wrote during my interim in Moscow:

January 10 – Moscow. My trip to towns not Ukhta has so far been refreshing and fun. Vacationing in Russia does entail a certain amount of stress, however. True to my Dad’s neurosis about traveling, I called a cab to leave at 2:15 am for my 3:30 am train on the 3rd. On the way to the train station, a car speeding through a red light hit my taxi, neatly taking off its front right corner, and sped away. I, who was sitting in the back passenger side, received a nice bruise on my knee from the seat in front of me, but another taxi soon arrived to take me away. I still ended up getting to the train station before 2:45 and having to wait for a while. I arrived in Kirov the evening of the 3rd, where I had been planning to walk around and explore a little on my own, but I was tired and felt on the verge of illness, and there was a blizzard outside, so I just had a shower and some tea before going to sleep. (Note–I have been diligently taking my vitamins and have not gotten sick yet.) I woke up at 4:30 the next morning to catch another train; this time, I had ordered a cab for 5 am that didn’t show up until 5:20, but I made it to the train station right on time for my 5:47 train and arrived in Ekaterinburg to meet Alisa that night around 7:30.

Ekaterinburg is one of my new favorite cities in Russia. We had great weather there: -5 to -10 C, not too windy, alternately sunny and snowing. There was tons of fresh, clean snow on the ground, piled up and contributing to Ekaterinburg’s extremely Russian aesthetic. Russia really does look good in snow. The best parts of Ekaterinburg were the beautiful, colorful old buildings along Lenin street, the River Iset’, and the incredible ice town in the center that put all the other ice sculptures I’ve seen to shame. In addition to the park part of the ice town, there was an art contest dedicated to Chekhov’s 150th birthday with some amazing pieces. Other than that, we went to a bunch of cafés and restaurants, of course, saw the Church of all Saints, with its many memorials to the Romanovs, who were killed on that spot in 1918 and are now Orthodox saints, and went to see Sherlock Holmes, which was pretty fun. We also noticed that Ekaterinburg has a thing for pubs of different nationalities (English, Irish, Dutch). We stayed in a cool hostel which was really just a regular apartment with bunk beds in it, so we had a bathroom, kitchen, and computer with internet almost all to ourselves; there was one guy from Australia staying there as well, but we didn’t see much of him.

On the 6th, Alisa and I took a six-hour afternoon train to Perm. On the way, a Tadjik guy in our compartment kept trying to make conversation; he asked if we were speaking German, what language they spoke in America, if Canada was by Brazil, and if Vancouver was the capital of Canada. He didn’t believe that it was actually Ottawa. He also informed us that it’s impossible to get Saudi Arabian citizenship and kept laughing at us when we said that there is free speech in the US.

In Perm, we didn’t do much of anything because it was -35 C. Upon arrival at the hostel we took a walk to a Sushi bar for dinner and came immediately back afterwards for tea with our hostess. We were staying this time in a tiny hotel/hostel with about 4 rooms on the first floor of an apartment building. The manager was a girl in her 20s who apparently is the owner and only employee. We don’t know when she sleeps, showers, eats, does laundry, etc. etc. There is a tiny kitchen area in the hostel but it doesn’t have a stove or oven, only a tiny fridge, microwave and chainik. She offered to have her mom, who is a cook, make us breakfast in the morning, so we accepted and woke up to fried eggs and tuna on toast (for no extra charge!). After that we braved the cold and walked all the way through downtown to the Perm State Art Gallery. What with stopping at every café and a few shopping centers along the way to just warm up and/or drink tea and mulled wine and eat crepes, it took us about four hours to get there, only to discover that it was closed because of Orthodox Christmas. So we took a couple pictures of the view of the Kama River by the museum and walked back (slightly more quickly this time) and had dinner at the intriguing Mexico bar. The burrito was quite tasty and pretty authentic, but we had to sit with our coats on our laps because it was so cold, and we came into contact with Russian ignorance of nacho cheese sauce. The nachos were advertised as being served with cheese sauce, but when the chips came and we asked for the sauce, the waitress looked befuddled and said she guessed they could make some sauce….which they did, by mixing shredded cheese and horseradish into some mayonnaise. Tasty, but not very nacho-esque. In any case, I would recommend going to Perm when the weather’s a bit nicer; I haven’t seen any of the tourist sites but I can give a review of any café in town.

Later that night we got on our overnight train to Nizhniy Novgorod. It was a pretty fun ride; we were in a compartment with some talkative older-middle-aged people – a husband and wife, as well as perhaps a cousin of the wife. The cousin-woman was making conversation with me and Alisa and offering us sunflower seeds and tea as soon as we got on, and then the man struck up a conversation with some MChS (Ministerstvo Chresvychainyx Situatsii – Ministry of Extraordinary Situations, i.e. paramedics, firefighters, rescuers, etc) students in the next compartment – I guess they were exchanging army service stories, but then the boys came over to our compartment (intrigued by the young American girls) and began to tell us all about the MChS academy, show us videos of their campus, and so on. That kept us relatively entertained in the few hours until it was time for bed, and we arrived in Nizhniy at the very reasonable hour of 9:00 the next morning. At the train station we met Emily, another Moscow Fulbrighter, and took a taxi to our hostel, which was another great pick. We stayed in a triple room in the dorms of the Linguistic Institute, which were in a decent location, very clean and well-equipped, and super cheap.

We then spent that day and the next just wandering around the center of town. The weather was back to how it was in Ekaterinburg, and this city was also covered in fresh snow (but it didn’t stay quite as clean as E’s).  We saw the kremlin (fortress walls), the Volga, some churches and a monastery, a cat exhibition (the teeny kittens were so cute!), a woman with an owl advertising an exotic animals exhibit, and a million cute, hip bookstores and cafés (the most important parts of any city). We also found an independent movie theater and saw a Belgian-French film called Rumba, which was sad, absolutely hilarious, and wonderful.  Both nights we ate at an Italian restaurant above a bookstore called Biblioteca, which was delicious. The train back to Moscow was short and uneventful, although it did make for a night of inadequate sleep: the train left at 11 pm and arrived at 6:15 am…and of course they have to turn the lights on an hour and a half before the train arrives so everyone can wake up, change, use the restroom, turn in their sheets, etc. For now I’m staying in Emily’s apartment, since her roommates are away. I plan to go to a couple museums in Moscow and I might still take a day trip to Vladimir, but mostly I want to relax, hang out with Alisa, Emily, and their friends, and prepare to leave for Germany on the 14th!

What really happened in Moscow:

After arriving at 6:15 am on January 10th we went straight to Coffee House for breakfast and saw two men eating a hearty breakfast accompanied by coffee, orange juice, and a carafe of vodka. Over the next few days I stayed at Emily’s and enjoyed the perks of Moscow (shoe shopping, more or less real coffee, Americans, and the majestic sight of afternoon sunlight on churches and the Kremlin – shocking after Ukhta) but was also reminded of the downsides (mainly that it’s huge, dirty, and expensive). We had a party with some of Emily and Alisa’s friends, I went with Emily to the Bulgakov house, skating on Red Square, a Tibetan restaurant, and a beautiful play based on Guy de Maupassant short stories at the Arts Theater, and on the 14th Alisa and I flew to Munich.

Anna and Kate (more friends from study abroad) found us in our hostel the next morning, and we kicked off our vacation in delicious Bavarian style with the traditional breakfast of white sausage, sweet mustard, pretzels, and wheat beer. Anna basically planned our entire week and a half, so we were kept quite busy and got to see tons of cool stuff. Besides the food, the highlight of our day in Munich was the potato museum, filled with absurd art and hilarious information in English (“There is very little that doesn’t exist.”). We took the train to Prien am Chimsee for dinner that night and found our hotel for the next few nights. It was actually a big, old family home where they rented out rooms to tourists. The family was great – the mother ran the hotel and gave us delicious breakfasts in the mornings, and the five kids (ages 2-12) were perfectly blond, German, and really cute. That description also pretty much applies to the house itself. From Prien, we took a day trip to Aschau and took a cable car up into the Alps. Confirmed: The Alps are still one of my favorite places on Earth. However, it was kind of cold and the paths were mostly impassable, so we soon came back down for lunch and then walked around for a while. We ended up seeing a sign for a waterfall about an hour’s walk away, so we decided to check it out. It turned out to be not only a beautiful walk but also the BEST WATERFALL EVER. I think it beats that one in Oregon, Brendan – at least in the winter months. Our consensus was that we probably walked 20 km that day, so back at the house, we were glad to relax, drink wine and eat bread with cheese, salami, jam, and butter. J

The next day we went to see a castle and a convent on some islands in Chimsee, after which Kate left to go back to Ukraine, and the rest of us left the next morning to spend a day in Salzburg, Austria, where we saw a bunch of the places where they filmed The Sound of Music and the Hohensalzburg Fortress, then continued back to Nuremberg, where Anna lives, that night. Anna had to work all week, so Alisa and I hung out on our own during the days. Here are some of the things we did that week: saw the Nazi museum in Nuremberg; got a thorough and well-researched tour of the city from Anna; went to Rothenburg ob der Tauber and had 1. amazing malt beer from the oldest monastery brewery in Germany, 2. the best light beer I’ve ever tasted at a 10th-century restaurant, 3. Rothenburg’s famous Snowball Dreams (verdict: disappointment); toured the underground, medieval beer brewery/storage/bomb shelter tunnels in Nuremberg; had Kaffee und Kuchen several times; cooked tacos, black bean soup, and brownies with Anna’s friend Alex and her roommates; explored the boutiques of Nuremberg. On Friday we went to Bamberg, another adorable medieval town, and continued to a hostel in Würtzburg in the evening. On Saturday we explored that city and had a tour of their Residenz with a guide who spoke delightful English, and then we went out on the town in the evening because we had all bought colorful tights. We made the poor guy who was stuck sharing a hostel room with us take our picture and then got happy hour cocktails and dinner. It was wild, really. The next day we had a peaceful Sunday (with a long coffee and cake sitting in a cute café) in Aschaffenburg and in the evening Alisa and I went on to Frankfurt while Anna headed home.

We wandered around Frankfurt for a day and a half, saw the river, the churches, the European Central Bank, the Modern Art Museum, and several cafes and restaurants, and on Tuesday the 26th we said good-bye to Germany, to ease of transportation, to smooth, flavorful beer, and we flew back to Moscow. The contrast between getting to the airport in Frankfurt (11 minutes by subway, the entrance to which was right outside our hostel) and getting back to the hotel for the Fulbright seminar in Moscow (1.5-hour delay on our flight, passport control, baggage claim, 45-minute train to Paveletsky station, an hour on the metro, a 20-minute walk to the hotel, a 5-minute walk from the main hotel building to the one we’re actually staying in) was depressing. The next few days were somewhat surreal. First of all, I found out on Monday that my grandfather had died, so that was on my mind all week. That, combined with the fact that the Colts made it to the Super Bowl, made me miss home a lot. Furthermore, we Fulbrighters constituted an American island in a bewildering yet (under other circumstances) familiar foreign city. We made the best of our time together (meaning that I remember it through the haze of almost no sleep), listening to research presentations from 10-5 on Wednesday and Thursday, visiting the Starlight Diner (the classic American venue in Moscow) twice, and partying like we were best friends in a college dorm. It’s now Saturday evening. I flew back to Ukhta this afternoon and theoretically begin work again on Monday. It will be strange settling down for another four months in Ukhta after the excitement of January, but hopefully all the fun I had bodes well for the year ahead.

PS There will be pictures up within the next week. Check back soon.