Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mastering the Art of Russian Sanctions Cooking

When Russia banned US and EU food imports for a year, I wasn’t too concerned. I am too cheap to pay $10 for imported peanut butter and I thought maybe this was Russia’s way of jumping on the “eat local” hipster bandwagon. Besides, I was on vacation in the US at that point and I was missing my Russian staples. I had long since depleted my stash of vodka and cherry juice and had resorted to making my own kvas and caviar.

One of my weirder cooking endeavors

I returned to Moscow in September to find that the supermarkets still had aisles full of French cheese, Spanish olive oil, and Italian Nutella. I thought stores were selling off the last of their summer imports, but rumor had it that Western goods were just making their way to Russia via Belarus. I still wanted to encourage the local economy (that’s not treason, right?), so I started frequenting the next best thing to a farmer’s market in Russia.

There are various old women over/under the bridge by my metro who stand in the cold all day peddling pantyhose and produce. When I picked up a luscious bunch of blackcurrants for only $1.25, I thought it was a steal – until I bit into one and discovered they taste like violin rosin. It took many cups of sugar and an hour slaving over a hot stove before I had a jar of blackcurrant jam and something remotely edible.

You might think this would have prevented me from buying more berries the following week, but you would be overestimating my intelligence. I tried again, this time with an even prettier bunch of berries, the name of which I didn’t understand.

Me: Kalinga?
Woman Under the Bridge: Kalina! [bursting into a Russian folk song]: Kalinka – malinka moya!
Me: Oh!  I was forced to listen to that song on repeat this summer in Gatchina!  Yet I still have no idea what a “kalina” is.

Калина, or “high-bush cranberry” as it’s known in English

I went home and popped some berries into my mouth, only to quickly spit them out and Google, “Is kalinka poisonous?” Kind of, as it turns out. According to Wikipedia, “The guelder rose is very mildly toxic, and may cause vomiting or diarrhea if eaten in large amounts.” So naturally, Russians (and now me) flavor their vodka with the berry. I’ll let you know how mine turns out in ten days when it’s ready for consumption (assuming it doesn’t kill me).

Even though I was 0 for 2 on the berries, I went ahead and made a third local produce purchase when I saw that my favorite bridge-dwelling babushka had finally grown something I recognized: leeks. Problematically, I got it into my head that I needed to make Leek Apple Cheddar Soup, which would require an embargoed Western good. I made a trip to the fancy schmancy grocery store, where I found four lonely blocks of Dubliner cheddar, one of which was growing some Irish green mold. So much for that Belarus theory.

I’m hoping I don’t have to rely on my roadside grocers for Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. I’ve already accepted it’s going to be a Russian fusion-inspired feast (Sanctsgiving, if you will), but I will need some Western ingredients. I’m pretty sure pumpkin pryaniki are going to be the greatest thing to happen to Russia since sliced black bread.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Winter in October

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s snowing already, but after a mild Russian winter last year (i.e., the harshest winter I’ve ever experienced) it all feels a bit soon. My coping strategy thus far has been denial. As you might imagine, it hasn’t been very successful.

A snowier moment from December 2005 for dramatic effect

I had a work event to attend first thing this morning, so I took to the 23°F (-5°C) streets in a dress and nylons and hoped that frostbite wouldn’t set in before I reached the metro. Once I arrived at my destination, I made a beeline for the bathroom—not because I needed to use the toilet, but because my ever-so-Russian bun had been blown into disarray by a fierce wind. As I was pinning my hair back into place, a man walked in. We eyed each other suspiciously until he broke the silence.

Man: Girl, you’re in the men’s room.
Me: I don’t think so.
Man: This isn’t the women’s bathroom.
Me: There was a woman in here when I came in.
Man: Then she was in the men’s room too.

He waited for me to leave, but I wasn’t going anywhere until I’d fixed my hair, so I just stared him down until he disappeared into one of the stalls. Then I glanced back into the mirror and saw a bank of urinals reflected behind me. Oops. Too obstinate to admit defeat, I finished repairing my updo and returned to the business event feeling somewhat less than professional. I blame Russian fashion for my mistake—pantyhose are so tight that I haven’t had proper blood flow to my brain in weeks. Good thing we’ve only got about eight months of winter left.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Office Mute

When I returned to Russia last month after 30 hours of travel, Dima was the first person I spoke with. Exhausted as I was, I greeted him in Russian and then launched into an explanation of how I only wanted us to speak to each other in Russian from then on.  All the while, I wove erratically between the formal and informal forms of address, even though formality went out the window sometime around the evening he accidentally opened the door for Molly and me in his underwear. My attempts to change our language of communication were not remotely successful.  Our very next conversation was in English and we haven’t gone back since.

I resolved to make the office my new “Russian only” language zone.  I stuck to that plan, but I also didn’t say anything other than “Privet” for two weeks. I really don’t know why I get so nervous about speaking Russian in certain settings—after all, I have no shame telling gypsy cab drivers my life story and I’ve been known to chat up young gentlemen on Molly’s behalf, even telling one guy she thought he was “wonderful” because I didn’t know the word for “cute.”  But when it comes to speaking Russian in front of English-speaking Russians, I refuse to open my mouth.

I very well may have remained the office mute for all eternity had fate not stepped in—by locking me out of my office last week. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, I plopped myself down next to the receptionists and another co-worker, gathered my nerves, and started making conversation. They were surprised I could speak in full sentences, and even more astonished to discover I had a personality (I made a joke about how awful Russian men are).

“Dzhessika,” they asked, “where did you learn to speak Russian so well?!”

I’m not letting their compliments go to my head because I know I still have the vocabulary of a kindergartener. In fact, I’ve re-enrolled in Russian classes and have also started watching a Russian TV series recommended by a Russian friend. So far I’ve learned the phrases, “Don’t leave me,” “I’m pregnant,” and “Bastard!” I’m not sure that will be of much help in the office, but at least I’m prepared if I start a turbulent relationship with any of the aforementioned “awful Russian men.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Moscow and the Meaning of Life

On Thursday morning, I’ll be speaking to the new group of Fulbrighters, who are going to be congregating in Moscow for their Fulbright orientation. I’ve been wracking my brain for advice to impart, but to no avail. I don’t know that they really expect useful information from me, but since Thursday also happens to be my 30th birthday, I feel like I should be a font of wisdom by now. In actuality, the only thing I’ve figured out after 30 years on this planet is that the meaning of life is not going to be found in Russia.

My most insightful thought on Russia was actually stolen from a friend a few weeks back. Convinced that he was saying terribly wise things, I scrawled down his quotes on a napkin throughout the evening. Sometime between him telling me “I’m not Carrie f***ing Bradshaw” and “It’s like a butcher shop with no raw meat,” he also said that life in Moscow is “akin to falling down an elevator shaft.” For whatever reason, all three of these things struck a chord with me, though I had a little trouble piecing together the context the next morning (I’m still only 1 for 3). Regardless of what he meant, the elevator shaft line is being appropriated for the first sentence of my third chapter of the fourth draft of my novel (if I ever get there). But somehow, I don’t think that’s the best opening for a talk with a group of government-sponsored grantees.

If I don’t figure out something brilliant by Thursday, I might just recycle the plot of my novel and pretend like it’s my real life. That was basically my Moscow experience, even if it all happened in my head. And maybe that goes for the meaning of life as well.

Autumn in Moscow, just because