Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Trip to Kazan

As I mentioned in my last blog post, at the weekend I went to Kazan, 13 hours on the train to the south-east of Moscow. Kazan is the capital of Tartarstan, and wasn't conquered by Moscow until the 1500s, when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tartars (St Basil's Cathedral was built to commemorate its fall). It is the largest Muslim region in Russia, and has its own language, Tartar, which is widely spoken and used on signs*. Historically poor, Kazan is being done up as a result of an oil bonanza - but I've since learned that Tartarstan is apparently investing heavily in alternative energy to attempt to diversify its economy - watch this space. The result of all this is that it feels a lot different to other Russian cities, and since I've more or less reached my tolerance for Russian churches, it made a nice change.

We got there at about 8:30am, and stepped out into the snow. For whatever reason, Kazan is significantly colder than Moscow, and the temperature was around -5. It then got colder through the day, so including wind chill, it's fair to say it was nippy. This had benefits though - not just the snow, but also the ice on the river. Leaving our hostel and walking into town, we saw people standing on the ice and fishing - so we scrambled down to the river, and stepped gingerly onto the ice. Possibly stupid - the ice was a bit slushy - but not something I've ever done before and very exciting!

We then made our way to the Kremlin, a world heritage site containing, among other things, a mosque (recently restored) and the Ivan the Terrible tower. In the snow, it was fairy-tale beautiful, so we climbed up to it and walked in to look around the mosque, clambering around the walls of the kremlin at the same time. I could have looked at it for hours, but it was freezing, so after a quick tour, we went to find a some lunch. And how we succeeded - we found a place called 'cafe de Paris', staffed by someone who spoke great English thanks to a stint in Birmingham, was friendly and welcoming (unusual for Russia...) and served great pumpkin soup and an amazing aubergine gratin. The only disappointment was being too full to eat dessert - but we determined to come back for dinner. I'd tell you all to go, but sadly he's having to shut down - the citizens of Kazan clearly don't realise what they're missing!

Fed and watered, we headed out into the cold again, walking round to see the lake (covered in ice) and the market. The market mainly sold food downstairs - a couple of us got a bit over-excited by the relatively cheap jars of passata, and bought some back to Moscow to facilitate tomato-based cooking - but upstairs was what I can only describe as the Russian version of T.K.Maxx. Win! Even better, it was 2 for 3! I was desperately trying not to go mad (I already have far too many clothes, and I need to transport everything back to the UK in a fortnight), but did end up with a shirt and a cardigan, but the others did pretty well, and by judiciously combining our items to maximise the value of the freebies, we all got quite a lot off, and left feeling pretty pleased with ourselves! Emma was particularly excited, having acquired a jumper with squirrels on it to remind us of the previous day's taxidermy!

Next stop, dinner. We found a bar covered with fairy lights and playing an epic soundtrack, and took ourselves in. The cheap cocktails were disappointing, but the wine was still about a fifth of the price it would be in Moscow, so we were still pretty pleased with ourselves, and the place was nice enough, albeit filled with underage drinkers and a big fat man who repeatedly came up to us and asked to 'get to know us' while we yelled at him to go away and asked the manager to chase him off. Disappointingly though, Cafe de Paris was having a salsa evening... so no apple pie for us! Foiled, we turned back to another cafe, where we had lovely tea and tirimisu, before getting a gypsy cab back to the hostel.

Next day, we got up and headed back into town through thick, driving snow, to see the Ivan the Terrible tower. It's called that because of a local legend that Ivan the Terrible insisted on marrying a local princess. Horrified, she demanded he build her the world's tallest tower, then flung herself from the top of it. Sadly the story is apparently not true, but the tower still stands, slightly crooked, above the Kremlin. Next, we completed our tour of the major sights by visiting the Cathedral of Peter and Paul - complete with balcony for views over Kazan's rooves. It was interesting enough, but basically just another Russian church, so we kept the visit short before going off to find food. Distressingly, Cafe de Paris was closed, so our attempt to get some apple pie was foiled again, and we ended up in an English pub.

We then headed back to the hostel, via some very dangerous statues of Lenin. It turns out that when you try to climb on marble to take comedy pictures, it's a bit slippy and you fall over and get massive bruises. So don't do that. We also stopped in at an art exhibition, which seemed to be mainly filled with angry cartoons, but also had a band, some poetry reading (one anti-government poem, which I found interesting) and a really cool installation with glass bottles that made different tones when you hit them with a pen. We enjoyed that a lot.

Hurrying out of the building where the exhibition was being held, we went back to the hostel, grabbed our stuff, and headed for the train. Sadly, just as hot as the day before, but despite the sleepless night, it was a lovely weekend. Kazan feels very different to Moscow - much smaller and more relaxed, culturally different, and with enough to keep you busy for a weekend but not so much that you need much longer. Highly recommend it to anyone wanting a weekend break outside Moscow.

* It also had local food specialities, which don't include Tartar Sauce - that was invented in France, and named after the Tartars because, allegedly, both are a bit rough.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Trains

The trains are one of the great Russian experiences, especially the night trains. Obviously the trans-Siberian week-long adventure is the ultimate, but you can get a lot of the experience on shorter journeys as well. This weekend I got the train to Kazan, 13 hours away, with three friends, and it encapsulated a lot of what's unique and special about Russia

Arriving at the station (eventually), we stepped out into a huge brick and steel building, filled with steam from the trains - all made of metal and with uniformed attendants checking your ticket and passport at each door. There was a roof, but it wasn't enclosed, so it was as cold inside as outside, so we hurried to our train with our breath on the air in front of us. The combination of the cold, such a huge building, the smoke, and the guards looked like what a Russian station *should* look like, and set us up right for the trip.

Once you get used to the trains, they're all basically the same. Three classes- super expensive, second class, where you have four people per cabin, and third class, where there are about 50 beds in a dormitory carriage. When you get into your cabin, you get a mattress roll, a blanket, a pillow and a plastic package containing sheets and a tea towel. Each carriage has a samovar (hot water boiler) so you can make tea and cuppa soups or noodles, because the Russians can't live for more than about an hour without a cup of tea. They all have loos and sinks that have hot and cold taps and a drinking water fountain but no running water (actually, to be fair, the super modern train we got on the way to Kazan did have water). And they have an attendent, who checks your tickets and sells you tea and coffee and snacks and shouts at you if you get out of line. Allegedly, if you ask nicely, they will occasionally open the windows in the corridor for you, but I have yet to see evidence of this.

The practicalities of train life still have a lot of novelty for me, which makes it fun, and this one was particularly magical. Getting on the train, we were quickly out into the snow - it was dark, so we could only see a little way out of the train, passing occasional lights and settlements, miles and miles of silver birches reflecting the light from the train, and perfect, untouched snow beside the train. Then, of course, Russian weirdness kicked in. We stopped for half an hour, and everyone got off and walked around a bit - and there were a load of random traders selling not what I would expect - chocolate, crisps, pies, etc, but glow-in-the-dark Christmas trees, chandeliers, and, best of all, one guy with a selection of taxidermy - two squirrels and a ferret. Perfect for all those occasions when I've been on a long journey and thought 'you know what I need now... a stuffed squirrel'. So we got off, and wandered round a bit, and laughed and jumped in the snow, and back on the train we got.

Back on the train, we got through a couple of bottles of soviet champagne and a whole load of food. On Russian trains, you normally see babushki getting on with lots of huge bags, then opening them up to reveal enormous quantities of food which they share around with younger people. As we were in a cabin on our own (second class has four people per carriage), we weren't in a position to find a babushka, so we'd each channelled our inner babushka to bring as much food as we can manage. The Russian trains are less of a drink-fest than the Georgian ones, as well - there seem to be more families getting them and, generally, fewer large groups of rowdy men, though we did get one group banging on our door aggressively for a while on the way to Kazan before our sole Russian speaker scared them off.

After that though, things go downhill. I've blogged before about the Russian insistence on heating all buildings to about 26 degrees, and the trains are even worse, because they don't have little windows to let air in, so they start in the low 20s and build up steadily through the night. By the time we went to bed, our train was 28 degrees in the corridor, and hotter in the carriage - the only way I could make it bearable was by pressing my feet against the window so that at least part of me would be cool. In a way it was funny - snow outside and sweltering inside - but quite looking forward to someone telling me they're thinking about the Trans-Siberian, and being able to say in all seriousness that they need to be sure they're ready for the heat!

So: when travelling on a Russian train, be sure to bring skimpy clothing, ideally a fan, cuppa soups, booze and teabags. Don't bring your stuffed squirrel, because you'll be able to buy that along the way.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Moscow Diary: The All-Russia Exhibition Centre

One of the trips I made during my early weekends in Moscow was to the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. It was built during Stalin's time to showcase the technical achievements of the Sovient Union, with pavilions representing each region of Russia and each Soviet Socialist Republic.

Obviously, in the new Russia, such things had no place. Going there now, Stalin would turn in his grave. Many of the pavilions are closed, others are visibly dilapidated, others have fallen down (or burnt down) entirely. The only one that looked in good order was the Armenian one, which the Armenian government maintains and uses to market Armenian Brandy (I tried it, and didn't like it, which helped me get over my disappointment at not making it to the distillery in Yerevan earlier this year). The others have mostly been colonised by small traders - whether they're allowed to be there or not, or something in between - selling anything from bulbs and seedlings to leather gloves to fur coats to meat kebabs to fancy jewellary.

Yet despite all this, the fallen grandeur shines through. There is a gold-plated statue, with women representing each Soviet Socialist Republic (allegedly the Ukranian is the prettiest and has the largest breasts). Some of the pavillions are truly beautiful - built in the same period as the Moscow metro, and with the same architectural impulses and same desire to take the best - or most grandiose - of different styles. There's some cool stuff there, like a space shuttle. And it's in a nice park. All in all, this is the closest I can ever get to visiting the Soviet Union (unless I ever make it to North Korea...), and it was bizarre and fun and something you couldn't find anywhere else.

So it was with mixed feelings that I read in today's Moscow Times about a plan to renovate the park, and turn the buildings to various uses - museums on the Soviet Union, a 'Quality of Life Centre', leisure centres, shopping centres (real ones, not tiny stalls!), and hotels. I can see that it would be good for the area - the stallholders will lose their income, but others will get jobs, and the area is horribly under-utilised. A museum on the Soviet Union would also be a welcome addition to Moscow's cultural scene, and this does seem like a good place to have one. And shopping centres, leisure centres, and hotels are the obvious things to do with big old fancy buildings. Russia is booming, and having prime real estate and glorious buildings slowly decay doesn't make sense.

But, at the same time, it makes me sad. The buildings seemed evocative of the collapse of the Soviet Union - the buildings constructed to showcase its proudest achievements, now decaying to nothing. At the time, and when I think about it now, it evokes the poem Ozymandias, the symbol of fallen empires everywhere. Capitalism - the stalls that flourish in those buildings that are open - is grafted onto this, sitting uncomfortably in Soviet casing and looking more than a little shabby in comparison, in the same way that informal markets colonising Roman fora must have looked odd when that empire receded. And in all of this, ordinary people were visiting and having fun - playing on inflatable dragons, drinking brandy, or just wandering and shopping. It is this juxtaposition - Soviet grandeur, informal capitalism, and modern zest - that give the place its charm.

Russia has every right to move forward, but I can't help being sad about it, and very glad that I was here to enjoy it.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Gearing up for Winter

It’s definitely winter now in Moscow.

When I arrived back from holiday on Monday, it was still dark, with drifting snow in the air. As I left the station, watching dark figures in shapeless dark coats bent into the snow, I thought that this was what I had expected Russia to look like. Dark, grim, snowy, cold, and filled with faceless citizens.

Of course, it then got light and work and sleep helped me to shake off my post red-eye imaginings, but all around me I continue to see signs that winter is here. Every morning there’s snow in the air, and often in the evenings as well, and on Thursday morning there was snow on the ground. The metro is full of shops selling good hats (stylish ones, but made of wool or felt or fur), and whereas they’ve been deserted for most of the time I’ve been here, this week ever time I’ve gone to and from work I see people surrounding them trying on hats. Same goes for gloves – leather ones with lined inners are everywhere.

Most of all, there are the coats. A few people are still in wool, many more are in thick down coats like people wear in Boston, but now the furs are starting to come out. Every morning when I go to work I notice more people in furs than the day before – incredible, silky coats in all shapes and sizes, looking as sleek and strokable as if they were still on the animal. I often have to restrain myself from going up behind them and stroking them – but I think that might be frowned on!

The knowledge that it’s already as cold here as it is in an average January in the UK makes me nervous, but at the same time I’m excited – everyone around me knows what’s coming, but for me it’s new, and each day is like a discovery. There are dangers, like my often-mocked fear of death by falling icicle, but whole new possibilities, like skating and cross-country skiing. And either way, it’ll be an experience.

So today, I joined the Russians in gearing myself up for winter. I already have Mum’s sheepskin coat, and a warm woolly scarf. But I wanted some gloves and a better hat to help me fit in with the crowd, so off to Ismailovsky market I went. An hour or so of wandering around, didn’t find a hat I liked. Then I could only find one stall selling leather gloves, and the guy wouldn’t let me try any of them on, which seemed inauspicious.

But then I found a stall selling reasonably nice black leather boots, and decided to try some just to cheer myself up. Turns out, they’re totally fleece lined! Genius! Like the warmth of Ugg boots, but more waterproof and without having to be the person wearing Ugg boots. So I bought some, thus rendering obsolete my previous plan of ‘wear hiking boots and look like a tool’. Regular readers will be saddened to know that I went with ‘flat’ rather than ‘patent leather over-knee stilettos’, but they did have those so if I have left-over money at any point, those might make their way into the wardrobe as well!

And after that, it got better yet – I found another stall selling wool inner soles to keep the cold from getting through the soles of your shoes. They also sell felt ones, but they didn’t have any in my size and I was worried they might be too thick to fit in my shoes, so I stuck with the woolly ones.

Update: have now hatted myself up - got a fairly poor quality but definitely real fur fur hat to keep my head warm and toasty :-)

End result: I might still not know what’s going to hit me, but I’m starting to feel prepared.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Food

I really like Russian food, which I’m told is unusual. But soup makes me happy, and I like cabbage and pickles, and I’ve discovered a taste for grietchka, or buckwheat, a Russian staple that you eat with mushrooms.

I enjoy shopping for food here too. Russia has a reputation for being insanely expensive, which isn’t entirely undeserved, but like Geneva, it isn’t too bad once you know where to go. The supermarkets are fine – there’s one near where I lived in Dinamo that’s pretty cheap – and as long as you don’t mind taking the time to check the price of EVERYTHING before you buy it, you can generally come out without bankrupting yourself. All around the city there are little produkti (food shops), that sell salads, generally involving beetroot, and meat and carbs that you can use to put together a lunch – and they do it for reasonable prices. I’ve been rubbish about bringing in my own lunch, because if I can get something good for 75p, why bother.

And there are markets everywhere – one near work most Fridays and some other days on a cycle I can’t figure out, and another near where I’m living at the moment (not sure what days). They sell all sorts of good quality food, and it’s cheaper than the supermarkets (unlike farmers’ markets back home...). And since I love vegetables, it’s a great way to stock up. Best of all is the honey – they have great vats of it, and you can taste it then buy it by the half-kilo. Cheap it isn’t, but I honestly believe honey to be a cure-all, and this is some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted.

Another thing I like about the food is that it’s incredibly seasonal. In the UK, you can get the same stuff year round. One of the things I enjoyed about Geneva was the seasonality – squashes in the autumn, then different types of veggies and different types of fruit gradually appearing in the spring, expensive at first and then the price gradually dropping till they were dirt-cheap, then gradually rising again. It forced me to think more about eating in season and to experiment more with food, and the excitement of new things appearing added to the joy of each new season.

Russia is the same. When I got here, tomatoes and peppers were everywhere and were cheap, so I made enormous amounts of fresh tomato pasta sauces. Now, tomatoes are unaffordable and you can’t find a pepper for love nor money, but potatoes and carrots are cheap, so I’m on to the soup. There are also beetroot everywhere (and cheap) – so I’m experimenting with how to cook beetroot (let me know if you have ideas) – and squashes. The salads on sale in the produkti near work have changed too, so I’ve had to start trying new things. Eating this way makes me feel closer to the land, and more like its ‘real’ food, grown in real places by real people, not halfway around the world or in a greenhouse. This is how I’m supposed to eat. And I like being forced to experiment. I can’t fall back on a pasta sauce, and I’ll get bored of soup soon enough, so I’ll have to figure out something to do with the beetroot, like figuring out how to make borsch.

So what will I miss when I get home? The markets, for sure, although they presumably stop at some point before the babushki freeze to death. The grietchka. The beetroot salads. The honey. The fact that when I buy real food in a market it's cheap, not horribly expensive.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Top 5 Metro Stations

5. Novosyabodskaya

A tough spot to fill, but stained glass windows underground is just cool.

4. Mendeleevskaya

They're very different, but I like some of the newer stations too. They're generally whitewashed and in a minimalist style, but with something to make it interesting - at Mendeleevskaya it's the lights, which are a zig-zag metal creation with round balls at each corner, running all the way down the centre of the station. The station is named after Mendeleev who invented the periodic table, so we think the lights are supposed to be evocative of the elements. Which is pretty cool.

3. Komsomolskaya

Like Versailles. Chandeliers, bright paint, mosaics depicting the history of moscow. Gloriously, ludicrously over the top.

2. Mayakovskaya

Impossibly elegant. It makes me want to dress up in a ball gown with long elbow gloves and sip champagne while making witty and intelligent conversation. Or maybe dance a waltz with someone in a tail coat. Sadly they don't approve of you doing that kind of thing on the metro.

1. Ploschad Revolutsi.

By far the most fun. Life-sized statues of happy workers, students and revolutionaries - anyone the Soviets wanted to celebrate - flank each column, and one of them has a dog whose nose you rub for luck - see how its nose is rubbed clean in the picture. The fact that the station is called Revolutionary Square is the icing on the cake.

Moscow Diary: Dating

Today I've been mostly thinking about dating (David, if you're reading, don't worry, it's not me that's doing it).

A British friend has a date with a Russian, and looked into how to behave. Obviously, as I've mentioned before, the man pays for everything. And your date involves dinner as a matter of course. After that, they'll definitely walk/drive you home. So far so different to the UK. The worst part, though, was when we found out that he was likely to bring flowers - what on earth do you do with flowers in a restaurant? We worried about it for a while, but both consulted our colleagues, and it turns out that this is a common occurance, so Russian restaurants are well-prepared, and will give you a vase to put them in. Brilliant.

As we were talking about it, my colleagues naturally found it hilarious that I didn't know this stuff, so we talked about dating more broadly and what we did in the UK. I don't think I've EVER had a first date that didn't involve the pub, and everyone I mentioned this to seems to agree. I found this weird when I went to the US as well - not that it came up for me, but they all seem to do a designated date activity, like dinner or a movie. I find this idea frankly terrifying - it opens up a minefield of convention, like who pays, what restaurant you go to. Plus if you hate them you then have to sit through a whole meal with them. And since it's so obviously a date, some poor soul has to do the asking out. Nightmare. In the pub, you avoid all this - it avoids the paying issue, as you can buy rounds in boy-girl-boy order, and it's easier to run away early if it's going badly. Plus everyone needs some Dutch courage.

The funniest part though, was when I asked my colleague who had lived in the UK what she found odd about dating in the UK, and she replied that the hardest part was figuring out when she was being asked out. That puzzled me a bit, because it honestly hadn't occured to me that that could be an issue. In fact, thinking about it and bugging a few English friends about it over skype, we came to the conclusion that the ambiguity is the whole point of the pub date model. Going for a drink in the pub is such a normal activity that it doesn't have to seem like a date, so if it doesn't go well you can pretend you were just having a drink with a friend - easy!

But on the other hand, now that I actually think about occasions when it has been a problem, it's pretty hard to unravel if you *do* know the code - can't imagine what it's like if you don't! And if you don't know the person well enough or see them often enough to be able to find a way to ask them out for a drink without obviously asking them out for a drink, it's pretty hard to make it happen. Being able to ask someone out for dinner without that seeming uber-keen and scary does make it rather simpler. And being in an environment that doesn't revolve around getting drunk would also be handy for things like knowing if you actually fancy someone and actually get on with them.

Of course, I'm a socially awkward English person who needs a drink to talk to a stranger and finds the idea of a formal date frankly terrifying, so I like the pub, but I have to grudgingly concede that they do have a point. But either way, there's a whole different strategy underlying it, and it does reinforce my long-held view that without the pub the English would have died out a long time ago...