Itinerary, July 2008: Tallinn, Estonia, and St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia. This is my first time in Estonia and my first back in Russia since the move.
Travel companions: Parents, born and raised in Russia.
My verdict: Russia is a foreign country in which I happen to speak the language.
Parents' verdict: The exterior has changed (shops full of consumer goods), but the Soviet mindset and bureaucracy are alive and well. (Note: This doesn't apply to Estonia. Tallinn looked and felt like a perfectly civilized, European city.)
Best thing eaten in Tallinn: Something called "Witches' Pudding," a mashed potato/mushroom/cheese casserole. Can anyone point me to a recipe?
Best surprise in Tallinn: Biting into these little fruit tartlets, filled with farmer's cheese instead of butter cream.
Best way to spend an evening in St. Petersburg: Walk down Nevsky Prospect, to the Hermitage, then to the Neva River.
Other ways to have fun: Go grocery shopping and gaze at half a dozen varieties of farmer's cheese (including raspberry and poppy seed flavors).
Best way to stick to a food budget in Russia: Eat rye bread (17 rubles, a little less than a dollar) and chocolate-covered sirki (about 5 rubles, or 30 cents). Wash this down with kvass--rye bread beer, lightly carbonated, mildly sweet and very refreshing (20 to 40 rubles, depending on the vendor).
Best way to blow a food budget in Russia: Eat anything else. Why is Eastern Europe still considered cheap? (It's not.)
Best surprise in Russia: The fast food chain Teremok, which sells sweet and savory blini and soups. Ideal meal: Borsh, blini with goose liver pate and half a liter of kvass. Other ways to pass time in St. Petersburg: See palaces.
Go on long walks in parks: Read some Pushkin: Things to avoid: Interactions with clerks, cashiers and office workers of any sort. You will be ignored at best; yelled at at worst.
Parents' final verdict: Farewell, Russia. No love lost.
My verdict: Someday, I'll be back. If only for the goose liver blini.