Home Again, Home Again

I’m still trying to process the idea that I’m home again. The last few days of my trip were rushrushrush and then I was in New Jersey and I had family members and friends to see and that was rushrushrush and now I”m back in Charlottesville, I had wonderful friends in town and classes have started again and that was most definitely rushrushrush. I guess I’m still wait for the sense of being back to hit me.

On my last full day in Europe, I took a ferry down to Tallinn, Estonia. My roundtrip ticket on the ferry was 24 euros, so I wasn’t expecting much. Imagine my surprise when this was what pulled up to the ferry terminal.

It made for a pretty swank ride, and reminded me of a certain other ship that I sailed on last summer. I spent the three hour ride to Tallinn reading, drinking tea and wondering if the bad weather was going to make me get seasick.

I spent my time in Tallinn wandering around Old Town-checking out the architecture, snooping in antique stores, accidentally eating tuna quiche (yuck) stroking my own ego by taking pictures of myself in every available surface.

Tallinn was the perfect town for strolling and winding down at the end of my trip.

My trip home involved a bus from Helsinki to the Helsinki airport, a plane to JFK airport in New York, a bus from JFK to Port Authority and finally a bus to New Jersey. By the end I was tired, cranky and not just a little bit smelly. Luckily long phone calls to some of best friends made up for the utter exhaustion (although nothing fixed the smelliness), as did hugs from my mom and a huge heaping bowl of pho.

The next few days were a madcap race to spend time with some of my favorite faces such as this little guy:

and then dinner with my grandparents (and Uncle Doc!) at my new favorite restaurant in Philadelphia:

and then my own little (or not so little) guy who promptly reminded me how ill behaved he is by stealing a lollipop from the baby & eating it before I could do anything about it.

The final whirlwind of my trip was my ride back to Charlottesville to go meet up with some Semester at Sea friends who were heading off for the Fall 2010 voyage. Lucky ducks. I got to spend the day with one of the sweetest families I know, running around Monticello and being entertained by their 4 year old son.

It was the perfect way to cap off this amazing summer. A reminder of my absolute favorite thing about traveling-all the great friends I’ve made.

So I’m back. I have no idea when or where my next big adventure will be, but the past few years have taught me that amazing opportunities are always just around the corner. Until then, I’ve got some friends to catch up with.

Hello, Charlottesville, I’m home.



My confession for the day is that I wasn’t actually looking forward to going to Helsinki. A few days ago I may have even tried to get an earlier flight back to the U.S. because I was pretty positive that there would be nothing to do here, but was thwarted by FinnAir’s $220 ticket change fee.

When I was looking for tickets to Russia, I knew I wanted to have a layover for a few days in another country. My thought process is that if I’m paying all this money to go to Russia, I might as well fork over the extra $100 for a layover in another country. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, I only knew where I didn’t want to go-England or France. I’d already been to both countries a few years ago, and it seems silly to repeat places right now when there are so many other countries I haven’t been to. So that eliminated both British Airways and Air France as airlines I would be flying. When I tossed in my flight plans to Russia into Kayak, FinnAir popped up as a reasonably price alternative. So my lack of forethought and impulse control grabbed a hold of the situation and suddenly I had a ticket to Russia with a five day layover in Helsinki.

The second key factor is that I am the worst (or best if there was a Biggest Procrastinator contest) procrastinator on the planet. When I booked the ticket I thought, “Eh. I’ll look up information about Helsinki another day.” Which would be fine if it was during the school year when I booked my ticket because I can be shockingly good at actually being productive during the school year, but it was the summer. When school is not in session I exist in a form that is roughly somewhere between a solid and a liquid. I’m like this semi-solid puddle of a person that drools a lot and watches reality television shows. Did I do any research about what there is to do in Helsinki? No, of course not. So of course I came here expecting there to be nothing to do because I didn’t look a damn thing up. When did I learn that Finland claimed independence from Russia in 1918? This morning on the boat to Suomenlinna. And when did I learn that I should go to Suomenlinna because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rated the #1 thing to do in Helsinki on Trip Advisor? That would be two hours before I got on the boat to Suomenlina when I decided to Google “Things to Do in Helsinki.”

Now I’m really glad that the airlines are ruthless bastards about changing ticket dates because I love Helsinki. It’s a beautiful city, with lots of interesting things to do. I’m now going to present my list of reasons why Helsinki is awesome.

1. The People Are Very Blond:

They aren’t joking when they say that Nordic people are blond. Being here is like being in a live action version of Children of the Corn. It’s blond hair and blue eye galore.

On Suomenlina, I was fairly convinced that every time I walked into one of these underground barracks, I was going to be met by a bunch of towheaded children with vacant eyes who wanted to kill me.*

2. How the People Here Sit at Cafes

This is how the tables and chairs along the Esplanade, the beautiful green strolling area right along the port, are arranged. Everyone sits facing the Esplanade so you can talk to your friends and people watch at the same time. At 6 o’clock it seems as thought the entire city is sitting there drinking either beer, wine or cider with friends and people watching.

3. Street Performers are in Abundance Here

The buskers here in Helsinki take it to a whole other level. Where else have you seen someone playing a massive xylophone on the street for spare change? The Disney Marathon was here yesterday, and there was a New Orleans style band playing along the route to help cheer the runners along.

4. The ATMs are called Otto. I think this is hilarious. Hello, Otto!

5. The Coffee

I don’t really drink coffee in the U.S. It normally hurts my stomach, and giving caffeine to someone who is pretty sure she has Adult ADD is a terrible idea because it’ll make me not blink for hours. On top of that, ever since I started having my brain problems a year ago, I haven’t really been sleeping well. I rarely sleep through the night anymore so with the exception of chocolate (because I will definitely pick chocolate over sleep), I try to avoid caffeine. But look how pretty that drink looks. And the Finnish are the #1 consumers of coffee in the world so I figured the coffee must be good. So I had to give coffee a try. I did. And guess who didn’t sleep at all last night?** That would be me.

6. I know exactly two words of Finnish

As you can imagine, if you do zero preparation for a trip then you probably don’t know a single word of the language as well. Ha! I know exactly two Finnish words:

-hei: This means hello and sounds like “hey!”
-Kiitos: This means thank you.

I was really digging my stellar Finnish vocab yesterday so I greeted everyone I saw with “Hei!” and said “Kiitos” to every person who so much as allowed me to go first on the tram.

So around 3pm yesterday when I decided I wanted a coffee, I came across a sign that advertised a pretty picture of coffee for 2.90 euros with the words “aamu kahvi.”
I decided I was going to stun the barista with my grasp of the Finnish language.

“Hei! Aamu Khavi. Kiitos,” I said in what I was certain was the most eloquent Finnish she’d ever heard. I pointed to the sign next to me with the advertisement.

“Aamu means morning. That’s our morning special. It’s 3pm,” the barista responded in perfect English. I guess I wasn’t passing for a local after all.

Hmmm. So I guess I could amend the title of this section to I know exactly three words in Finnish.

7. No one here knows me so I can try out new hair dos

Another thing I like about Helsinki is that no one here knows me, so I can try out new hair styles and no one will tell me that I look like an idiot.

I’m a huge fan of Jane Aldridge’s blog Sea of Shoes, and she recently wore her hair in cute little buns on the top of her head. Since she’s a redhead and I’m a redhead, I decided that I would also look awesome in cute little hair buns***. Since I sincerely doubt that this is true, I decided to indulge myself here where no one will burst my bubble.

They’ll stay behind in Helsinki, have no fear, but gosh they were fun to try out for a day.

8. There are Hidden Bits of Beauty All of This City

Like this-impromptu street ballet. I’m also a huge fan of The Ballerina Project so catching a little bit of this while waiting for the tram made my heart skip a beat.

Needless to say, I’m really really enjoying this beautiful city.

*Yeah, I’m completely aware that I was a creeper taking pictures of random strangers from behind. I thought it was better than being obvious about it, but in hindsight it’s still creepy.
** To be fair this could also be due to my roommate at the hostel. She is a 50something year old Russian woman who snores and farts in her sleep like a wildebeest.
*** This is how my deluded logic works

It’s Time, My Friend, It’s Time

Well, I’ve said my good-byes to Russia. My first time here in 2003, I was devastated to leave because it was my first trip not only to Russia but outside the U.S. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to come back. Back then that trip seemed so big and so impossible that it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. In 2007, I came back as a graduate student, and yet I still got teary eyed when I was dropped off at the airport to return to the U.S. I knew I’d be back. Being a graduate student in Russian literature pretty much promised that at least one more trip back would happen, but it was my first time living with a host mom & being a part of someone’s family while there. This time I’m still sad to leave, but I’ll be back soon I know this.

On my second to last day of class my teacher asked what I wanted to do on the last day. “Let’s watch your favorite Russian movie,” I replied. It seemed to me that after 20 days of 3 hour one-on-one instruction that included reading 23 short stories and poems, we could have a little bit of a break on the last day. “Oh, that is a good idea,” she said, sounding relieved. When I asked what her other student, the one that has lessons right before me asked to do, my teacher replied, “She wants to give me her opinion on Russia.”

Immediately I understand the look of panic on my teacher’s face. When someone says they want to give you their opinion on something, it’s rarely positive. It has happened every time I’ve been to Russia–someone in the group will absolutely hate Russia. They will dislike the people, the food, the buildings–everything about the country. They will count down the days until they go home.

I love Russia, but I’m not blind to it’s problems. I think if I was, my professors would wonder if I’ve ever read any Russian work ever. You can’t step foot inside Russia, and not see the problems. They’re big and they’re glaring. The huge gap between the poor and the wealthy, the corruption of the police, the staggering alcoholism, and hell, the surface of every building in the country could use a good power washing. In writing this blog, I’ve tried to share the best parts of Russia, or at least the things that I love about it so that my family and friends will understand why I like being here so much & why I choose to study it. I could write about all of the bad things. There’s enough here to make anyone not want to come back. I could write about the fact that on my first day in Moscow this trip I walked past a dead body on the street, and maybe I should so that I give a fairer glimpse into life in Russia can really be like for someone not there just for the summer & on a cushy university stipend.

I think when it comes to studying Russia, it’s easy to see the bad. It’s probably one of the most apparent things about the country. There’s 200 years of literature that brilliantly documents the bad, and how it crushes people. I think to love Russia, to want to come back and see how she does, you have to be willing to see the good and the beauty too.

Russian Trinkets

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about today, but then I remembered a photo my lovely friend Jaime sent to me. It was a photo of a Russian souvenir store in New York City. So it got me thinking about what types of souvenirs come from Russia.

Since I planned to go to Izmailovsky Park, Moscow’s famous souvenir market, it seemed like a plan. Izmailovsky Park pretty much has any kind of Russian souvenir or sketchy “could be black market” item your heart desires.

I’m going to focus on the ones that are legal to bring back to the United States, which means that none of you are getting an AK-47 as a souvenir-sorry.

My favorite souvenir are the lacquer boxes. They range in size from massive jewelry boxes to itty bitty pill boxes. Likewise the prices of the boxes can vary from $2.00 to the sky’s the limit for the very detailed one. The themes painted on the boxes are typically from Russian fairy tales, but you can find ones painted to look like famous paintings or famous Russian landmarks as well.

If there’s one souvenir that’ll get the roubles out of my pocket, it’s a lacquer box.

Another popular souvenir is amber, the petrified sap of trees.

You can find this attached to various forms of jewelry from rings to necklaces,

or full of creepy little critters.

Likewise, jewelry made from semi-precious stones are also a big souvenir hit.

And then there are the matryoshka dolls-the famous nesting dolls. These are the epitome of ancient Russian folk art, right? Wrong! They didn’t actually come to Russian until 1890 when Sergei Maliutin saw Japanese nesting dolls & decided to create a Russian version. The dolls earned a bronze metal at the World’s Fair. However, just because they aren’t officially native to Russia, doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the little buggers.

Other souvenirs can range from traditional-like folk art on plates & jewelry,

to old Soviet gear & kitschy Soviet style goods (Soviet Union flask & shot glasses, anyone? They’ll match your gas mask nicely).

to old Soviet cameras that the seller assured me work “perfectly.”

So that’s a run down of what souvenirs you can find in Russia. I have more nesting dolls than one person should ever own, so I kept my hands away from the rubles and on my camera instead.

Moscow (To The End of the Line)

When it comes to cities in Russia, Saint Petersburg is my first love. Seven years ago it was my first glimpse into Russia, and the rumor is that you will always love the city you visit first in Russia the most. I can’t even think of Russia without my mind first slipping on to Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare of St. Petersburg.

So here’s today’s confession: I love Moscow too. I’m suppose to dislike it. Its bigness, its indulgences, its contrast between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor, but my goodness, I do love Moscow.

This is my third time in Moscow. I was here in 2003 for a few days, then for 7 weeks in 2008, and now another few days this trip. I’m at the point that I can wander around without the aid of a map, and I have done all of the BIG TOURIST THINGS that one is suppose to do in Moscow. There’s no need to conquer Moscow at a breakneck speed to see everything because for the most part I’ve done that already. There’s no need to head to the Tretekov Gallery because I’ve done that. I’ve already seen Lenin, and trust me, one glimpse at waxy ghoulie Lenin is more than one needs in a lifetime. Instead I can wander around, and check out things that first timers to the city might not notice-photography exhibits, little cafes, short term exhibitions. It means I get to see my favorite things again too.

I’ve been meandering around the city, and seeing where my feet will take me. Yesterday, apparently, they did feel like getting into tourist mode for a while as I found myself heading towards Tverskaya Street, a main street that feeds into Red Square. Tverskaya was where the bus dropped us off in 2003, so walking down there feels familiar. It’s a street of wealth–home of the Ritz Carlton & expensive restaurants.

It’s also where I stopped for my first treat of the day. Another confession-my first treat was not Russian food. It was gelato from my favorite gelato stand in the Oxotni Ryad shopping center. I love this little gelato stand, and make a point to go there several times each time I’m in Moscow. I armed myself with some summer berry gelato, and headed towards Red Square, because even though I’ve seen it so many times, it’s something I never get tired of seeing.

This view is what feels magical to me:

That’s it. That first glimpse of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Walking up the cobblestones of Red Square, and just seeing that hint of the onion shape domes in the distance-not even the whole thing, makes me break out into a smile every time. Whenever it comes into view, I get that feeling of, “Holy shit, I’m actually here. I’m in Russia!” Honestly, it’s surreal.

So I continued to wander. I headed down to the Arbat, a street once famous for housing many of Russia’s finest writers from Pushkin (buddy was everywhere), Lermontov, Gogol and Tvestaeva, but has now become the haven of Starbucks and souvenir seekers.

Here you can get temporary tattoos and caricatures on the street, sushi galore (Russia’s love affair with sushi and mojitos is still going strong), or your staggering $10 cup of Starbucks coffee.

I managed to find myself an inexpensive cafe and spent a few hours relaxing and reading over beer. It was divine.

One of the sights I passed on the way to Patriarch’s Pond. Statue of Mayakovsky.

Today, because I am a creature of habit, I went to two of my favorite places in Moscow–Bulgakov’s apartment and Patriarch’s Pond. If you know me, this isn’t a surprise. In fact, it’s probably making a few people roll their eyes and say, “Of course.”

Mikhail Bulgakov wrote my favorite book, The Master & Margarita*. I pretty much adore this book, so I almost always stop by the apartment museum dedicated to Bulgakov. The book is a Russia classic, and well loved so the museum is filled with sketches from various scenes in the book, as well as a mailbox where you can leave letters for the Master & Margarita.

The first scene of The Master & Margarita takes place at Patriarch’s Pond, which is just a few blocks away from Bulgakov’s apartment. I wandered over there, and spent some time reading & avoiding the heat of the day. Alas, there were no gigantic vodka loving cats or men offering invisible body creme in sight.

The area is also home to one of my favorite apartment buildings in Moscow. From far away it looks like it has Tatlin’s tower & a gigantic clam shell chilling on the roof. Up close it has amazing balconies. Every time I walk by, I’m convinced I’m going to live there someday.**

After that I decided it was time for a little lunch. There’s a great little (air conditioned!) Japanese place not far from my hostel, so I decided to get out of the heat, and have some lunch. It was awesome.

On my way to the lunch place I discovered that the Contemporary Russian History Museum was having a special exhibit on Chekhov. Since I’ve been on a big Chekhov kick lately, I decided to go check it out. If you don’t know who Chekhov is–well he’s one of Russia’s most famous writer. He’s typically considered one of the world’s best playwrights with famous works such as The Seagull, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya. Plus heaps of short stories.

I’d been to the Contemporary Russian History Museum two years ago, and while I remembered liking it, it didn’t really stand out as a place I had to go back to. Well, that was before they renovated it. Now, it is incredible. There are tons of interactive exhibits including a hall that seems to be dedicated to just Putin and Medvedev–including a video library of Putin speeches on a touch screen.***

The museum is laid out in a way that combines the history and beauty of the original building with some really amazing exhibits–a giant soviet star made out of black pipes and red scarves, the entire office of a top soviet official set up so that you are viewing it from behind his desk. I was really impressed with what they’ve done with the place.

The Chekhov exhibit itself was so unique. Chekhov lived in a variety of cities throughout Russia, and now each city has its own Chekhov museum. This exhibit combined all of their resources, and made one massive exhibit using black & white cardboard to recreate each house–turning it into one continuous structure.

Chekhov’s desk. This entire structure is made of photographs printed on cardboard.

Plus there was a photo timeline lining the entry of the exhibit. Young Chekhov was kind of a hottie, wasn’t he? In a Heath Ledger/Joseph Gordon Levitt kind of way.

This is the list of various Chekhov museums & exhibits in Russia that contributed to the exhibit:

Hard to read, but it’s kind of impressive that:
a. There are so many museums & exhibits in Russia dedicated to this one man
b. They all came together & pulled off such an amazing display.

I’m at a loss at how to end this post, so since I miss my host mom already, here’s a picture of Zinaida fanning the cat. Good night!

*Notice there is no The in front of Margarita. It’s not about a guy and his frosty tex-mex beverage. Margarita is a woman.
**More likely, I will be hit by a car as I stand there gawking up at the building like a fool.
***I snuck this picture just for you, Arin.

Last Day in Vladimir

The still working convent of Bogolyubovo

Today is my last day in Vladimir. I blinked and somehow over a month went by. I spent this past weekend doing all of the things I said I was going to do the first week here, but never got around to doing.

The Dormition Cathedral

On Saturday, I finally made my way into the Dormition Cathedral. This is the big church on Church Square, and I’ve been meaning to go inside for weeks because on the ceiling is a fresco by Andrei Rublyov, the famous 14th Century icon painter. So I donned a dress that covered my shoulders & my knees, tossed on a head scarf and went into the church.

Since the church doesn’t allow photography on the inside, you’re just going to have to take my word that it was absolutely beautiful on the inside. Extremely ornate-lots of gold chandeliers and a massive iconostasis.

The church also has the relics of 4 people. The bodies are covered but you can see their mummified hands sticking out of the cloth. On the wall above one body was a picture of Aleksandr Nevsky, who was the Grand Prince of Vladimir & Novgorod in the 13th Century.

“Oh, how cool!” I thought, “This is Nevsky. Hello there, Mr. Nevsky, so nice to see you.”

Later in the day I met up with my roommate and told her about how I got to see the body of Aleksandr Nevsky. She then promptly & correctly informed me that he is not buried there-his remains were moved to St. Petersburg in the 18th Century. So I have no clue whose body I was introducing myself to.

Sunday was laundry day for me, which was about as thrilling as you’d expect doing laundry to be. While I waited for my laundry to be washed, I did take a trip over to the Museum of Crystal and Lacquer Boxes. That was again a place where photography was not allowed, so no photos of that either. Let’s just say I looked at a lot of crystal glasses. And a lot of lacquer boxes. There were no surprises there.

The Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. It’s a lot prettier if you pretend that that’s morning fog just rolling off the field, and not toxic smoke from 800 wildly burning forest fires.

Today, however, was my trip to Bogolyubovo, a small town about 6 miles from Vladimir. This is the site of the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl River. The legend behind this church is that it’s so holy that whenever the town floods only the church remains untouched by the water. The church is a 12th Century construction, and considered one of the finest white stone buildings in all of Russia. The church is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Also, when searching the internet to find the correct dates & information for Bogolyubovo, I came across this website: I enjoy the part that says there’s nothing to do in this town other than look at the three listed tourist sites. Way to get people to visit, Wikipedia.

My favorite part of the day was the walk to the church. To get there from the center of town you have to walk for about 20 minutes through a gigantic field. It was a stunningly beautiful walk, and a light breeze made it a walk instead of a death march.

A path through the birch forest on the way up to the church.

The surrounding scenery made me feel like I was once again in a Russian novel. A huge sweeping field, a stone pathway to the church, a birch forest, and then—GOATS!

Loads and loads of goats! Just goats galore. They were on the bank of a river enjoying some grass and having a drink. They seemed to pop out of nowhere. I thought they were fantastic.

They might not have been playing violins, but I definitely felt a sense of happiness.

Tonight we’re going to have an early birthday celebration for my host mom. Her actual birthday is the 11th, but I will be in Moscow by then. My roommate and I are going to surprise her by bringing home a cake. This morning she gave each of us a pile of Russian cards and Soviet era postcards as a good-bye present. My good-bye & thank you presents to her are socks (she has not been able to buy new socks in 7 years, so it’s definitely high time the lady had some new socks), a pair of slippers and some more coffee.

I’m going to miss it here so much. Not only is the city a great little city with lots of interesting things to see, but I lucked out in getting such a great host mom, and a wonderful teacher at the American House.

So good-bye, Vladimir, you’ve been awfully good to me.
I’m off to Moscow in all its smoke-filled glory tomorrow.

The Reading List

This is a list of what I read for my classes here at the American House. Out of the three programs I’ve done in Russia, this one has by far been my favorite. You just can’t beat one-on-one language instruction–especially for three hours a day.

The program lets you choose how you want to spend those three hours, and I went the route of reading things in Russian and then discussing them with my teacher. In 20 days we read 23 different works including shorts stories, poetry and songs.

My amazing teacher, Nelly, picked a variety of works for me to read, going back and forth between the classics like Bunin and Chekhov to modern writers like Erofeev and Tolstaya. We read things that covered the high literary style to works that used a lot of slang. I now know heaps of different ways of saying breasts in Russian.

What I Will Think,
The Threshold,
Tomorrow, Tomorrow
Enemy & Friend
Erofeev-Solzhenitsyn & James Bond
Naked Beach
Rubina-Such a Long Life
Petrushevskaya-Chopin & Mendehlsson
Kochetkov-Ballad of the Wagon
Chekhov-The Joke
Death of an Administrator
Narbikova-The Watch
Kobal’-The Teapot
Istomin-God Collects Coins
Popov– How They Ate The Rooster
Grin-The Green Lamp
Bunin-Clean Monday
Light Breathing
Paternak-Winter Night
Akhmatova-Half-open Door

On my own time I read the following Chekhov plays:
On the Road
The Proposal
The Wedding
The Bear
A Tragedian in Spite of Himself
The Anniversary
Three Sisters

The Great Big Blog of Russian Food

Today is my last day of classes here at the American House. I feel like I blinked and suddenly a month passed by. I’ve been meaning to write this entry for weeks now, but kept putting it off because I wanted to do it justice since it’s probably one of my favorite things to talk about-Russian food.

It’s one of the first questions I get when I tell people I’m going to Russia (besides “Why?”). “How’s the food?” My answer is always the same, “Awesome!” It’s true, I love Russian food. When prepared by a host mom it’s always fresh, always hardy and always comforting. When I meet someone who says that they don’t like Russian food, I’m automatically suspicious of them. My brain goes, “I’m sure you’re a nice person-for someone with no soul.”

Granted, there are a few exceptions to that-it’s darn tough to be a vegetarian here. It’s just a concept that host moms don’t understand, and they will often try to sneak meat into your meals. The way that I understand it is that they feel you don’t like meat because of the taste, so they’re going to prepare it the best way you’ve ever had it & man, will you be surprised when you love it. Most of my friends that study Russian put their moral & culinary objections to meat aside when they step foot in Russia because it’s just easier to go with the flow.

For now I’m going to talk about food that your stereotypically Russian host mom cooks, and hopefully in Moscow I’ll be able to write a little about street food since that’s also one of my favorite types of Russian food.

So let’s start with breakfast. It’s a force unto itself. Russian breakfasts are huge. When I first sit down to breakfast here the morning after my arrival, I’m always staggered by the size of a Russian breakfast. A typical breakfast at Zinaida’s includes a bowl of kasha (think oatmeal) the size of a hubcap, yogurt, tea, and then these wonderful little devils:

Blini. These are probably what I miss most when I’m back in the U.S. These delicious little crepe-like treats are the highlight of my morning. In the bigger cities in Russia like Moscow & Saint Petersburg you can buy them on the street & have then filled with ham & cheese or chicken or bananas & chocolate. I like my morning blini with homemade raspberry jam. You’ll notice that there are three on the plate. This picture is from a few weeks ago before Zinaida began trying to trick my roommate and me into eating more. A week or so ago she got the brilliant idea to stack two blinis on top of each other & lining up their edges perfectly so that we were actually eating four blinis instead of the requested two or three. She even tried to go up to five one day before we called her out on it. Like I said, Russian host moms are tricky little things.

Breakfast usually leaves me waddling to class so I skip lunch on a daily basis. At six o’clock each night it’s dinner time.

Dinner always begins with a bowl of soup. Zinaida sticks with two types: veggie soup & borscht.

This is the veggie soup. It’s also around the time that Zinaida discovered I was taking pictures & sharing them via email so that’s why it looked like a parsley bush exploded in my bowl:

And this borscht:

You’ll notice it’s not the bright magenta color that you sometimes see in pictures of borscht. Each host mom has her own special recipe for borscht. I have to admit that I’m partial to Zinaida’s out of all the borscht I’ve had. A lot of borscht recipes call for mutton, which I don’t really like. Zinaida makes her with chicken, and goes light on the beets and adding in carrots and potatoes instead. I like to eat mine with thick slices of Russian bread. I love it.

After the soup of the day comes the main meal. Zinaida varies it up quite a bit, so there’s almost always something new on my plate that night.

I’ll start with one of my favorites: pelmeni.

These are little dumplings of awesome filled with some kind of meat-either chicken, beef or pork. I’ve had them both boiled and sauteed (Zinaida sautees hers). When I lived in the dorms of Saint Petersburg seven years ago I ate mine boiled & topped them off with a bit of vinegar and salt. The sauteed version is so flavorful that they really don’t need any condiment.

On another night we might have a cutlet served with potatoes. A cutlet is ground beef, spices & some onion. They’re pretty popular in Russia, and very tasty. You’ll notice this picture was also taken during Garnish-pa-looza.

Another version of the cutlet is a chop of some type of meat. One night Zinaida made breaded pork chops, potatoes and cabbage.

One of the special meals that Zinaida made for us one night was Plov, an Azerbijan rice pilaf dish. The dish consists of rice, heaps of spices, chicken, dried apricots, and some type of tart little berry that I have no clue how to translate into English. According to my quick google search to make sure I spelled the dish correctly, I found out this dish is served to highly respected guests. It was, in short, amazing. The perfect combination of salty, sweet and sour.

And then, of course, are the things that accompany every meal-bread, fruit and cucumbers. I’m obsessed with cucumbers. The ones that we have here are tiny compared to the ones you get your typical U.S. supermarket. They’re bumpy and have a ton of flavor. Zinaida prepares our fresh cucumbers “Russian Style” which may or may not be a real thing. She slices them length wise, scored them and rubs them with salt. I almost always have at least two cucumbers with my dinner. Sometimes three.

Zinaida also makes her own pickles. They’re super salty, which I love, and very tasty. She has three massive of jars of them pickling right now on the kitchen counter.

The bread goes along with the soup. Vladimir is pretty well known for its bread. There’s a big bread factory not too far from where I live so Zinaida always picks up a variety: the standard (and delicious) Russian black bread, white bread, dried fruit bread and seven grain bread. Given the sheer amount of parsley in this picture, I’m going to guess that this picture was also taken during Garnish-pa-looza.

Sometimes, she’ll even throw in an extra veggie or two for us to try. A few days ago she brought home fresh peas for us to eat raw while we wanted for dinner to finish cooking.

As I’ve said before, this area is surrounded by farmland so there’s always of plenty fresh berries. Zinaida brought home a mixture of black currants, red currants and gooseberries (which she claims were Pushkin’s favorite berry) for us to try.

And as always, it was more food then we could possible eat, so she made a fresh fruit juice for us out of the leftovers.

So that’s my great big blog of Russian Food. When I get back to the U.S. I want to have a Russian dinner party. Hopefully these pictures will entice people into coming.

Smoke Monsters

Me in my super trendy face mask. Like the fool that I am, I’m still smiling for the camera despite the fact that you cannot see my face.

Here are some pictures of the smoke all over the city. The State Department has offered to evacuate American students participating in the CLS program because the smoke is so bad.

For a reference point, here is the street that I was standing on for Saturday’s festivities, you can see the red brick church in the corner of the picture*:

And here’s the same street yesterday with the red brick church on the left side of the picture:

Quite the difference, right?

And the same red brick church from behind:

Yesterday was pretty bad. I smelled like a gigantic cigarette for the bulk of the day. We went to go watch a live soccer match. I don’t know how the players were able to play because it hurt to breathe just sitting there. I can’t imagine running for 90 minutes in the smoke. The air was so thick with it that when I looked down at my white watch, there was a fine layer of grit covering it. Just imagine that being in your lungs.

Can you find the players in the smoke?

No one seems sure how long the smoke is going to be here for. A good strong wind from the North East will blow it away from us, but the air has been pretty still.

I’m playing it smart today and wearing a face mask because my throat hurt from being outside yesterday and by the end of the day it was getting painful to breathe.

Greetings from the land of Rus!

*The signs are for a project for a girl recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. My friend Hannah is collecting photos of people with messages of luck in front of famous landmarks from around the world, so this was one of the photos I took.

A Visit to the Museum

First, let’s start off with a picture of this smoke that I’ve been talking about. That’s from yesterday. The smoke is worse today. This morning I couldn’t even see the buildings across the way. It’s pretty awfully to be honest. People are walking around with masks over their noses & mouths. My eyes water almost immediately upon setting foot out the door. I’ve been indoors for about two hours now & I still smell like a gigantic cigarette. Apparently it’s even worse in Moscow. I head there next Tuesday so I guess I’ll find out for myself.

On to a happier subject. On Sunday Zinaida informed us that she was taking us to the museum. It was her present to us-a personalized tour of the museum. “But don’t speak around anyone. I’m getting you in for free by telling them you’re my nieces from out of town.” This made the trip even sweeter. I enjoy any type of craftiness.

The personalized tour of the museum was fantastic. Remember a few days ago I wrote that Zinaida had a literary salon? The salon was in one of the halls of the museum. This is where our tour started. We had the room all to ourselves which made for ample opportunities of getting great photos. It was easy to see how much the hall meant to Zinaida.

The whole day was a blast–we toured the picture gallery again (my roommate & I went there a few weeks ago) but this time we were allowed to take pictures for free. In most museums, churches & places of importance in Russia you have to pay an additional fee to take photographs. Zinaida still had enough pull at the museum to get this fee waved. We wandered through the special exhibits on Asian art and beer as well as a trip through the children’s museum on the bottom floor of the museum.

Afterward Zinaida announced that she had to take the bus across town to buy cucumbers, and would show us a park where a concert was going on that afternoon. It seemed weird that my host mom would have to go somewhere special to buy cucumbers given the abundance of them in this town, but I shrugged and followed her to the park.

The park was massive-a combination of an amusement park, zoo, playground and wooded area. There was a large stage set up next to the fountain where more concerts would take place as part of City Day weekend. My roommate and I wandered around checking out the rides and cooling off with watermelon ice pops.

When the heat and hunger got too much later in the day, we headed back to the apartment. As I went into my room, a book was on Coffin-A-Go-GO. It was a book that my host mom had that was about the church in the next city over. It’s a beautiful picture book of the history of the church and pictures of the area in all four seasons. It’s a stunning book that I drooled over. It turns out that she had originally bought the book at the museum, but they don’t sell it there anymore (she had checked that morning). It turns out that she went all the way across town to hunt the book down for me! On such a hot day with her cane & her heart condition, she made the trip because she knew that I liked the book so much. I’m going to miss her so much.