Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Here's what you do: cut up some radishes, carrots and cauliflower florets. Or use whatever vegetables you have on hand. It's all good here. Add some chopped parsley, dill and scallions. Crumbled feta, diced ham or turkey and a hard-boiled egg, quartered, work nicely here, too. Dress with whatever you like. Crunch away.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Preheat the oven to 425. Cut up a large head of cauliflower. Place in a foil-lined pan. Add about 2 tbs. olive oil, a good shake of paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir so the vegetable chunks are evenly coated.
Cut up a medium red onion into slices; dice ¼ pound bacon into 1-inch pieces. Add the onion and bacon to the pan. Roast for about 20-25 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so.
Remove from the oven and add cheese—practically any kind and any amount will work here. I added about ½ cup each shredded cheddar and diced havarti. Roast 10 more minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender but not overcooked. Add 1 cup frozen peas, and stick the pan in the oven for another minute or so, until the peas are defrosted.
Serve with good, toasted bread. This is also great over rice, especially when topped with a poached egg.
Monday, June 15, 2009
In Tallinn, I really liked a restaurant called Kuldse Notsu Kõrts. I blogged about its delicious potato-mushroom casserole here. The restaurant manager kindly shared the recipe.
In St. Petersburg we stayed with a friend of my mom’s and usually ate at home. We picked up groceries at some of the local stores—Netto is a reasonably-priced supermarket chain that I remember. The stores have come a long, long way from the scarce Soviet times. You can get everything that’s available in the U.S., plus local convenience foods like frozen pelmeni and manti (meat and lamb dumplings, respectively).
I have to note that produce and dairy products tasted better than what you get at U.S. supermarkets. The cucumbers were fresh and sweet; the tomatoes tasted like tomatoes. I’m still impressed by all the different dairy and cheese goodies you can get in Russia—dozens of varieties of farmer’s cheese, different kinds of kefir, rhiazenka and sour cream.In St. Petersburg we went to the famous indoor markets (Sitni Rinok and Senney Rinok), and I wanted a taste of everything. These places sell beautiful (and pricy) fruit, vegetables, pickes and preserves, cheese, fish, meat, spices, dried fruit, sweets, you name it. I didn’t take any photos because the vendors start hawking their goods as soon as you make eye contact, but here’s a sample pic. This photo and the one at the top of the post are by Shannon Rae.
As for restaurants, I’ve become a huge fan of Teremok, which I wrote about here. This fast food chain makes traditional Russian dishes like blini and borsch. The food is good and fresh, and the service is quick and reasonably good by Russian standards. I loved Teremok’s kvass (rye bread beer, below) and mors (a cranberry drink).
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Before this trip, I had been to Moscow once, when I was 8. My parents, grandparents and I came here for an interview with officials at the American embassy a few months before we immigrated to the U.S. It was January, bitterly cold and snowing. My parents took me to see the Kremlin, pointing this way and that to the famous landmarks. My dad carried me through the Red Square. I closed my eyes to shield them from the blowing snow.
This time, my dad and I head to Moscow on our own. My parents hate this city the way some Americans hate New York. It’s loud, rude, expensive and dirty. Muscovites and St. Petersburg natives have always been rivals, I learn. Still, we’re unlikely to visit this part of the world any time in the near future, and Moscow is on my to-do list. My dad, the native St. Petersburg resident, pulls the short straw on this one.
We take the overnight train to Moscow and get in at 5 a.m. Just past 6 a.m., we’re at the Kremlin. The Red Square is nearly deserted, besides the occasional office worker and packs of stray, sad-eyed dogs.
Everything's closed and we walk around aimlessly. On our third lap, two cops flag us down. They’re young and they’re drunk. They ask to see our passports. They study our train ticket stubs to and from St. Petersburg. They look at that vitally important "registration" document it took hours to get in St. Petersburg.
Our papers are in the order, they finally admit, but walking around this early in the morning is unusual for tourists, they say. It's downright suspicious! They are, to their credit, surprisingly jovial. I’m guessing it’s the end of their shift. Now they want to chat.
Where are we from in the U.S.?
Near Chicago, my dad says.
Chicago? The hell you say. One of them whistles. Chicago is impressively far away.
Now it’s our turn to ask questions. Could they recommend a bus tour of the city?
Oh, you don’t want to take the bus in Moscow, they say. The traffic jams are awful! You'll be stuck in traffic for hours.
Traffic jams are pretty bad in St. Petersburg, my father says.
Ours are much worse! they reassure us proudly.
We wish each other well and go on our way. The sun has risen, and the Red Square is slowly filling with tourists.
We go on a tour of the Kremlin (overpriced and underwhelming).
We take that bus tour of the city, and don’t get stuck in traffic.
We go to Arbat, the famous pedestrian shopping street. These days, everything is under construction here; you have to shout over jackhammers to be heard. My dad points to the nearby American embassy. He sneaked in there sometime in 1989 to grab an application for asylum in the U.S. You had to wait for the Soviet guard to turn away, he says. If you were spotted, you could get arrested and lose your job.
The good old days! Now, it seems like no one’s excited about America anymore. The U.S. hasn’t lived up to its promise here. People are hungry for Euros, not dollars. (I have to note that a few months ago George Soros claimed that America’s economic collapse is comparable to that of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.)
There's a lot to think about. It’s hot, and we’re tired of talking over the din. We go to Teremok (Russian fast food chain) on Arbat to eat blini and drink kvass--rye bread beer (photo below). It's cheap, cold and delicious. We head back to the station to catch our train back to St. Petersburg. A few days later, we'll head back home.
Next: A few notes on food.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
One day, we go on a walk down memory lane.
We see the communal apartment where my parents lived in the early 1980s. I spent the first year of my life here.
We walk past the building where my dad grew up. He stops at the front door, considers ringing the doorbell, but thinks better of it.
There was a store on this corner, a public bathhouse across the street, he says. They’re gone now. Later, without us, he goes back to his old primary school, and gets kicked out by the custodian.
He had lived in this city for more than 30 years. Now, he has a whole different life in the U.S. His life is split in two.
-Does that make him sad, wistful?
-No. He’s firm on this. I can’t imagine what I’d be doing if we had stayed here.
Neither can I. It seems inevitable that we should immigrate to the U.S. How would my life have turned out had we stayed? I don’t know. I rarely even wonder about this alternative universe.
We go to Kupchino, a suburb on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. This is where we moved when I was a year old. Kupchino is home to ‘70s and ‘80s-era high-rise apartments, gray, multi-story blocks. These days, it's also filled with strip malls and big-box stores. They’re even building churches, unimaginable in the atheist Soviet times.
This is where we’d be living if we hadn’t left Russia, says my dad. This place leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
Everyone wanted an apartment here once, my mom sighs. There was a 20-year waiting list for one these!
Across the street from our old apartment building, there’s a children’s hospital. It was under construction from the early ‘80s to the mid-'90s. Now it’s open for business, but like everything else, it looks empty and abandoned. We visit my old school (below); it’s closed for renovations. So is the neighborhood library where my mom once worked. There's nothing here for us. We head back to the city. The nextday, we’re off to Moscow (where we almost get arrested).
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
My parents are debating whether Russia has changed since the fall of communism. Their consensus is this: Superficially, the country has changed. You can buy everything that’s available in the West. People are driving cars and traveling. Nearly everyone has a cell phone. What hasn’t changed? The Soviet mindset, the bureaucracy, the stone-faced apathy and rudeness of the clerks and cashiers.
When we arrive, our host, an old friend of my mom’s, says we may need to “register” our visa. What this means, we later find out, is that if you come to Russia on a homestay visa (issued to you personally by a Russian citizen)*, you need to check in and get special paperwork from the city where you’re staying. Fail to do this and you face heavy fines and other unspecified misfortunes.
So on a Monday morning, we head to a nearly police station to register. We’re told you can register here only on Wednesdays, 1:30-2:30 p.m., but other stations might be open. We traipse around two more police precincts before we’re directed to the city’s visa registration office.
Naturally, there’s a line. Registration is held from noon to 1 p.m. only, we’re told. People have been waiting since 5 a.m. Put your name on a list, someone adds, but you probably won’t get in. We sign a piece of scrap paper and wait. Someone else advises us to register at the post office. It's faster, they say.
Okay. Anyone know where the nearest post office is?
No one does. We go outside and ask strangers for directions. People shrug. The hell with it; we head back and wait some more.
Did you fill out the paperwork? we're asked as it gets closer to noon.
Everyone laughs. If you don’t have the paperwork, you’ll be waiting here all week!
We race to fill out paperwork. We need multiple photocopies of our passports and visas. There’s no copy machine in the office. We go in search of one at a travel agency across the street.
Can we use your copier? We ask the young staffers.
They give us a deer-in-the-headlights look that's a customer service trademark here, but nod.
We make copies and run back to the registration office.
It turns out we need yet more copies of something or other. I keep our place in line; my parents race to the travel agency. It’s now closed for lunch, but they sneak into a nearby office complex and sweet talk the security guard into letting them use a copy machine.
It’s almost 1 p.m. now. Surprisingly, the line moves fast. At 12:55 p.m., we get called in. But it’s not us they need, it’s my mom’s friend, who invited us. She goes in; paperwork is issued; she’s out in two minutes. We get a little paper document that says we can stay in St. Petersburg. Lose it, and there will be hell to pay. (After we leave the country, our host must come back here and complete more paperwork testifying that we’re gone.)
We fly out of the registration office into the afternoon sunlight. We’re elated, we feel free. This is what it was like in the Soviet times, says my dad. You would bang your head against the wall trying to get something done. But when finally got it, you felt so happy! It’s different in the U.S. Everything’s easy!
*(I understand that if you travel to Russia with a tour group, or stay in a hotel instead of a private home, the travel agency or hotel staff can take care of the registration. Don't quote me on this, though; ask your travel agent.)
We spend the next several days seeing the city, which is beautiful and majestic and sometimes reminds me of Paris, but with grander architecture and a sadder history.
We take a few day trips, too...
Pushkin/Tsarskoe Selo (Czar's village). Pushkin, the famous 19th century Russian poet, went to school in these parts. This was also a summer residence of the Russian czars: Pushkin
Peterhof (palace, fountains and gardens)
Next: Down memory lane in St. Petersburg
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
St. Petersburg. We have a history with this city, my parents and I. My father was born and grew up here. My mom came here in her early 20s, hungry for big city life and culture. I was born in St. Petersburg and spent part of my childhood in this city, although the regal, famous St. Petersburg of books and postcards is a distant memory. This rankles my mom. “Don’t you remember this?” she asks me every time we stroll past a museum or a monument. “We took you here all the time.”
I don't remember riverboat tours down the Neva river or Spas na Krovi (Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood).
I don’t remember Nevsky Prospect, the famous boulevard where people go to see and be seen. I don’t remember Letny Sad (summer garden), a lovely refuge from the noise and dust of the city. I don’t remember the Bronze Horseman, the famous monument to Peter the Great. I don’t remember white nights. We catch the tail end of this phenomenon when the sun never really sets. The sky is indeed white long past midnight, turning milky gray from 3 a.m. all through the early morning. These photos were taken at 11:30 p.m. A few childhood memories do stand out. The Kazan Cathedral, for example, where, in 1987 or ’88, a Japanese tourist took a Polaroid photo of me. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to keep it. I remember the Hermitage. When I was 6 or 7, my parents took me here to see the Knight Hall, an exhibit of mediaeval armor, always popular with kids. I remember the Rostal Columns along the Neva river. Before we left for the U.S. in 1991, my mom took me here for a goodbye tour of the city. She wanted me to see the famous landmarks so that I wouldn’t forget. Who knew, then, if we would ever come back again?
This is the sentimental, beautiful, wistful part of the trip, the part that makes we wonder what life would be like if we had never left. Of course, I know very well that life would be harder and poorer had we stayed. Tomorrow, the vagaries.