More random observations

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What can I say?  It's still grey and chilly, and we're nearing the end of what purports to be the coldest and wettest September in Moscow since the 19th century.  And my head cold is lingering with quiet insistence, in the sort of way that make me think it's taken up semi-permanent residence and is now rearranging the furniture in my sinuses, browsing through take-out menus thinking about whether to have pizza again, and moaning that the TV reception sucks this far up in the nasal cavity and it might miss the new episode of "Downton Abbey."  In short: meh.  Nonetheless, I have a few observations I've made which I now share with you.

On the mutability of Russian Names

We've got an contact list at work which is, naturally, populated mostly with Russian names.  I had to look someone up a while ago and discovered something that any Russian will find as normal and obvious as 2+2=4, but which seriously blew my mind.  I was looking up the correct (Roman alphabet) spelling for the name Ogurtsova (Огурцова).  And there, right next to Ogurtsova was listed an Ogurtsov.  "Hmmm…" I thought.  "That's interesting.  We've got two people with almost the same last name."  And then I realised that Ogurtsova was paired with a female first name and Ogurtsov was paired with a male one.  The plot thickens…  I trolled through the whole list and discovered that any last name that ended in A was listed alongside a female first name, and (almost) any last named that ended in a consonant was listed with a male first name.  (The only exceptions were for last named that were obviously not Russian, like the Tanya Adams or something like that.)

I quizzed my local go-to person on all things Russian - my co-worker Anna - and she confirmed what I'd begun to suspect.  Last names in Russia are not fixed and immutable.  They change according to the gender of the person they belong to.  So your family name might be Semonov, and you'd call your son Dmitri Semonov, but if you have a daughter her name would be Tatiana Semonova.  I'm not sure why, but I find this disturbing.  It just feels wrong to think that a last name could be mucked about with so easily.  It was the same when I found out that Russian proper names are changed according to the case they're in in a sentence.   For instance, the city I'm in is Moscow, in Cyrillic:  Москва.  But what about this sign?

I heart Moscow
(This picture is included for illustrative purposes only.  I'm not at all sure at this stage whether I heart Moscow or not.)

You can probably all tell that this sign says "I *heart* Moscow", but why does Moscow have a Y at the end instead of and A?  Why is it Москву instead of Москва?  Well in this sentence, Moscow is the direct object of the sentence, so is declined in the accusative case, meaning that the last A is dropped and replaced with Y.  Simple.  (Note: Not really.)

And this doesn't just apply to places.  It also applies to people's names, and that's what I find unaccountably disturbing.  Getting back to young Dmitri Semonov… if we were to talk about Semonov's cat, his name would be declined in the genitive case and become Semonova, which makes him sound like his sister, except that his sister's name in genitive becomes Semonovы. (And now I'm mixing Roman and Cyrillic letters, which is just wrong, but I'm trying to illustrate a point.  Michael - if you're reading this: Sorry!).  And it's not just last names, it's all names.  Anna becomes Annы or Annе or Anny or Annой

My point is this - in English names are a fixed thing.  His name is Johnson.  This is Johnson's book.  We were talking about Johnson.  I went to the concert with Johnson.   Not so in Russian.   Linguistically, I suppose this makes the meaning of a sentence clearer.  And when you're looking someone up on a phone list, you can tell with certainty whether it'll be a soprano or a baritone on the other end of the line.  But I still can't help but find it unsettling.

On the Odd Habits of Russian Cashiers Regarding Paper Receipts:

This one is really weird.  There's a little ritual that occurs almost every time you buy something that produces a paper receipt.  I notice it most at the grocery store.  Just like at a store in the west, the products get scanned, the total is rung up and I dig out my roubles.

(Aside: Now I even remember to bring all the small change from the dish on my bedside table, which is normally mostly useless because roubles are one of those tiny currencies like Vietnamese Dong (Actually not nearly as bad as Dong.).  The smallest note - 50 roubles, is worth about £1, or about $1.50.  Coins come in 10руб (20p), 5 руб (10p), 2руб (4p), and 1руб (tuppence).  The now-mostly-defunct subdivision of a rouble is called a kopek, with 100 kopeks in a rouble.  50 kopek coins are common and sometimes you find 10 kopek coins, which are worth about 1/5th of an English penny.  Anyways, for some reason the clerks at the grocery store get really sniffy if I don't have small change, so now I take everything I've got and painstakingly count it out every week, thus thwarting their chance to look down their noses at me, at least about that one tiny thing.)

But back to the weird thing about receipts.  After I've presented my roubles and kopeks and the machine has spit out the long paper receipt, just before the cashier hands it over she will always put a tear in the paper.  Sometimes it's a big tear that goes halfway through the paper at the top of the receipt, or sometimes it's a small hole made by folding it over and making a tearing the middle.

Here's one that's been torn in the middle.

This happens EVERY TIME.  It also happens in other shops, mostly smaller ones, but with enough regularity that it's obviously A Thing.

So what is The Thing?  Here's the best I can come up with, based on a bit of googling.  It seems that tearing the receipt somehow marks the transaction as "complete" and may go back to the Soviet Era when shopping was conducted differently.
Supposedly, this practice goes back to the Soviet days, when most stores had the merchandise behind counters and glass cases. To make a purchase, you would ask an employee to get the merchandise for you and prepare a sales receipt, which you take to a second employee/cashier. After you paid, you would take the receipt back to the first employee to pick up your stuff. Then that employee would tear the receipt, to finalize the transaction, and prevent customers from trying to come back and get a second item later for free.  (Thanks to Carpe Diem for this explanation.)
Another blogger even went far enough to uncover a Russian statute (Law Number 904 dated 1998) still on the books that apparently states:  "Receipts are considered closed with the simultaneous release of goods (rendering of services) and the use of a stamp or tearing [the receipt] in a specified location."

So there you have it. The grocery clerks are simply conforming to Law 904.  Which makes me wonder whether Law 905 is something like "Each transaction shall be further verified by the clerk or attendant looking sideways at the purchaser to indicate general disdain or disinterest."

On the Life Underground:

Moscow is a big city in many ways.  In particular, and I know I've mentioned this before, they are inordinately fond of very wide streets.  This would pose a problem for pedestrians, if weren't for the existence of another particularly common Muscovite phenomenon - the perehod.  (Переход.  Pronounced with that throat-clearing "H" heard in Loch.  "Pair-u-HODE")  A perehod is simply a pedestrian underpass that allows one to cross safely beneath a busy street.  But it doesn't stop there.  It's true that some perehods are quite plain (even, dare I say it, pedestrian!  Ha!).  But many, especially in busier areas or near metro stations, are lined with tiny shops selling just about anything.

Here's a shot of the perehod leading to Dinamo metro, in my 'hood.

As you can see, it's not exactly Selfridges.  Ceilings are low, lighting is generally not great, and the shops are incredibly tiny.  In most cases I'd estimate that the square footage of an average kiosk in a perehod could be as little as 4' x 8-10', or maybe a bit bigger.  Certainly you'd never have the room to lay down sideways in most.

A shop in my Dinamo perehod.  

And I don't know about you, but the first thing on my mind on the way to the Lubyanka metro is not "Where can I pick up some nice painted miniature soldiers?"

Most shops in perehods are far too tiny to admit patrons so usually the shopkeeper sits inside, with all his or her wares crammed into the windows on display.  Business gets transacted through a tiny hatch, which makes buying in a perehod somewhat intimidating for someone with limited language skills.  It means you really need to be able to describe what you want, because pointing can be tricky when the seller has no real line of sight to what you're pointing at.

See what I mean?


And what can one buy in a perehod?  Almost anything is the quick answer.  I took photos and notes at Dinamo and at another large perehod at Lubyanka metro, and here's the list I came up with: women's clothing and undergarments, purses and accessories, magazines and newspapers, jewellery, kids' clothes, umbrellas, ID photos, drinks and junk food, cigarettes, keys and locks, stationery and greeting cards, lottery tickets, mobile phone accessories, linen and bedding, watches, football souvenirs, fresh baked goods, real estate, pantyhose, batteries, electronics and flowers.  They're like a whole little subculture (literally sub-, in fact.)

And that's all for this week.  Next Saturday I'm off for a quick vacation in Canada and an even quicker stop in London to renew my visa.  And though I've only been here for a short time, I'm really looking forward to the break.  Let's all just hope that my sinuses smarten up sometime before I get on the trans-Atlantic flight.  Please?

Izmailovsky Market

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I'm writing this on Saturday and it's cold and wet (again) and I've got a bit of a head cold that's added a vague cotton-wool effect to the last few days, so I'm taking the day to relax. I'll hole up in my gilded cage and watch Moscow roll past from the rain-spotted window of the 16th floor lounge, while I think about attempting a large pot of stovetop Boeuf Bourguignon later this afternoon.  Perhaps after a bit of a nap.  Luckily, I was very industrious last weekend and so I have something to tell you about today.

Last week was also cold and wet, but I had more energy and a purpose and less cotton wool in my sinuses, so I made the trek out to Izmailovsky Market.  Izmailovsky is a huge outdoor souvenir and flea market that's open all week, year round, but is definitely most popular on weekends.  The market is, like many things in Moscow, a bit large for comfort.  (Like the streets, for instance.  I suppose if they didn't need them 16 lanes wide they wouldn't build them that way, but that reasoning doesn't make it any easier to cross when you feel like you should stop for lunch half way through.)  Similarly, the market just keeps going and going, and being the thorough and dedicated blogger I am, I explored almost all of it.  I was also doing some very early Christmas shopping, so it was a good excuse to get into a lot of the nooks and crannies.

By far the most common item at the souvenir market seemed to be the traditional Russian stacking dolls called matryoshka. (Sort of pronounced ma-TROOSH-kuh.  Not to be confused with mashrutka - pronounced ma-SHROOT-kuh - which are privately run minibuses that operate alongside the larger public buses, but are cheaper and generally have terrible safety records.  Though come to think of it, it would be fun to have a matryushka set made up in the shape of mashrutka.  Ha!  A mashrutka matryoshka!  That would be excellent!  Ok, I'm finished with my little Russian spoonerism… back to the matryoshka.)  You know the ones I'm talking about:

This is actually a picture I took the first time I visited the market… in 2009.
More on that later.

Tradition states that there should be an uneven number of dolls in a set.  Five is the most popular number, though I saw sets at the market that may have been ten or more.  And while the traditional matryoshka are painted with a female figure dressed in a colourful peasant dress, it's popular nowadays to paint them in all kinds of different themes.  Russian leaders are a common subject, and you often see sets that start with Lenin and work their way in through Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, ending with a tiny little Vladimir Putin, which I find hilarious.  And the souvenir sellers definitely pander to the tourist market because you can get matryoshka for basically any NFL team you want, and Premier League football, and NHL hockey.  I even saw matryoshka of Star Wars, the Simpsons and Spongebob Squarepants.  I strongly suspect that it's not actually legal to leave Russia without purchasing matryioshka, so I stocked up to avoid any possible trouble.

Soviet-era memorabilia is also popular - stuff like reproduction propaganda posters and fridge magnets and postcards and such.  And there's a whole section of military stuff too.  Like if I'd wanted to pick up a handful of empty shell casings I'd have had no trouble at all.  The vendors tended to be reasonably friendly and open to a bit of haggling, though I'm terrible at that kind of thing and generally prefer to pay more than to press the point even a tiny bit. Still, even I got "a deal" on a few things.  And I was hugely impressed with the language skills of a lot of the stall holders.  I was shuffling through some posters or books or something and trading a few words of English with a seller, and then he turned to negotiate with another patron and switched seamlessly into Spanish, and spoke Russian with his boss.  Other sellers were the same.  I suppose it just makes sense, but I still find it impressive.  I recall this from my travels a few years ago, running into service people in the poorest places where a waiter or hotel clerk would hop around through English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, whatever. It's humbling, I tell you.  Especially when I have trouble just remembering my tiny Russian vocabulary.

(Language-related aside:  I am trying to use what Russian I have, but often when I do I'm stymied by my tiny vocabulary and I feel very inadequate.  Sometimes when this happens to cheer myself up I'll construct the sentence in my head in French, which is much much easier, just to prove to myself that I'm not as thick as I feel at the moment.)

A lovely, helpful vendor who actually didn't speak much English, but was infinitely patient with my halting Russian

Back in the market, I was pleased to discover the more interesting upper level, which is built up on a huge wooden platform accessed by semi-hidden stairs from the more touristy lower level.  Making large structures like this out of wood seems to be pretty common here, and it gave the whole place a really cozy feel.

Here's a shot of the upper level

That higher level is where the real flea market part is - lots and lots of smaller stalls that seemed like the world's biggest Garage Sale (for UK readers: Car Boot Sale, or kind of like the tatty northern end of Portobello Road).  Some people were quite organised, in proper divided booths.  Other smaller traders just had their wares spread out on a sheet on the floor.  And there was a whole section I skipped that was all framed artwork - paintings and such.

Spot the cartoon copper diving helmet!

I made one or two small purchases in the flea market, but the best part about the upper level was that it also led to a whole different attraction - the Izmailovo Kremlin.  Those of you who haven't read my my other blog may not remember that "kremlin" is actually a somewhat generic word for castle or fortress.  So while we refer to The Kremlin and mean the-big-walled-fortress-in-the-middle-of-Moscow-next-to-Red-Square, in fact there are kremlins all over Russia.  So asking someone who's visited Russia, "Did you see the kremlin?" is a but like asking someone who's visited England, "Did you see the castle?".   Izmailovo Kremlin is a bit weird.  I definitely don't recall this kremlin from my visit in 2009, but it turns out there is an excellent reason for that.  A quick consultation with the Lonely Planet Moscow reveals that the whole Izmailovo Kremlin complex is completely fake and has only been there for a few years. This goes a long way to explaining why the whole place feels sort of like Medieval Russia Disneyland.

It's all much too new, clean, and brightly coloured to be anything but fake.

Then again I was quite charmed by it all, probably because I wasn't expecting it and it made a nice change from the endless miles of people hawking tea towels with Lenin's face on them and kalishnikovs and such.  The Izmailovo Kremlin is a series of connected buildings arranged around a big central courtyard that you enter through a whitewashed tower.  Inside are shops and restaurants, and an outdoor stage, more small market stalls, and a water feature and bridge and pony rides and people dressed up like Cossacks and, well, all kinds of odd and quirky things.

Like the blacksmithing demonstration.

And the Vodka Museum

And the giant wooden… er hotel? Conference Centre?  I dunno.

And the metal tree provided for loving couples to attach padlocks to, and then throw away the key.

And though the translation escapes me a bit, I'm pretty sure this is a wedding chapel.
This assumption is also based on the fact that the place was positively heaving with newlyweds and wedding parties.

I really enjoyed soaking up the crazy atmosphere in the Izmailovo Kremlin, and bought a few more trinkets, and a nice cup of very sweet hot spiced mead with honey, and paid 20 roubles to use the toilet.  I even poked my head into the Vodka Museum, though I didn't bother to pay the entry fee for the whole deal, I just nosed around in the gift shop.  By that time I was getting tired, and my wallet was almost empty, and my shopping list was taken care of, so I started to wander back to the metro.  It was only then that I realised the market is right next to the hotel I stayed at when I visited on an Intrepid tour in 2009.  I'm not sure how I managed to NOT notice this on the way in considering that I think the hotel is the biggest one in Europe.  It was a bit weird looking at it all again from this new perspective.  I distinctly recall visiting the souvenir market with my roommate from the tour group when we had a few hours to spare.  That was back when I was in No-Souveniers mode, so I contented myself with getting a tiny keychain matryoshka which is still with me today.  And I remember going for a run in the park across the road from the metro station, and I remember the little shop where I bought beer and potato chips on my first night in Russia.  What an odd thing... to be living in Moscow in the first place, and then to end up stumbling into a wistful moment of deja-vu.

And now it's time to fire up the stove and get a big pot of something warm and filling on to simmer.  And there's also the small matter of that nap...

GRUB! Pelmeni

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I have not been bowled over by Russian cuisine yet, but maybe that's because I haven't eaten much typically Russian food yet.  And, given their fondness for dill and propensity to add sour cream to almost anything, I suppose it was inevitable that eventually I'd find something that appealed to me.  Such was the case when I picked up a bag of frozen pelmeni in the grocery store.  (Pronunciation note: it's pell-men-ee)

Pelmeni in the freezer
The pelmeni and other assorted random frozen things.

Pelmeni fall into that vast family of food that arises in almost every culture - the small package of something flavourful wrapped in thin dough.  It's Russia's contribution to the the wonton/ gyoza/ ravioli/ perogy/ kreplach category (a sub-category of boiled/steamed dumpling that falls into the larger clan that includes samosas, empanadas, and even stretching to Cornish pasties, calzone, sausage rolls, Jamaican patties, Pizza Pops and… well I could go on and on.)  Pelmeni are usually round and the ones I got were about an inch across, though apparently they're often larger - up to about two inches.  They're stuffed with ground meat, in my case a combination of beef and pork, but sometimes mushrooms or even fish.  And the dough casing is supposed to be quite thin, making for a pleasing ratio of dough to filling.

The frozen pelmeni, ready for the pot.

Apparently pelmeni are well-suited to freezing, and often associated with Siberia, where they were preserved by the simple expedient of leaving them outside (probably for about 15 seconds). I just thought they looked at lot like tortellini, and I was planning to do something pasta-ish with them.  When I got them back to my room I thought I should look up what one is really supposed to do, which, as I suspected, does not normally involve pesto.  It turns out the usual method is to boil them in broth to make soup, which sounded a bit dull.  I elected to ignore that and treated them like tortellini, and they were FANTASTIC.  You know how toretllini and ravioli can often have a sort of indeterminate mushy filling that's kind of hard to place?  Pelemni have none of that.  A pelmeni might look like tortellini on the outside, but inside they're denser and chewier and the meat is coarser and more flavourful.  In short, they are scrummy and I devoured a bowl of pesto pelmeni in short order, with little regard for the monumental culture clash I'd just created.

Later in the week I tried something a bit more traditional.  They weather has turned autumnal and I was looking for something quick to make after work, and also looking for any excuse to eat more pelmeni, so it seemed a great time for soup.  Here's an odd thing: you can't get canned soup here.  You know the aisle in the supermarket that's lined with cans of Campbell's Chunky and generic chicken noodle and scotch broth and cream of tomato and all? That doesn't exist here.  At first I wondered if I was just shopping in a particularly crap place, so I consulted with the one Russian native on our team at work.  Anna is my go-to person for all questions of Russian culture, language and cuisine so the fact that she was puzzled by the very notion of soup in a can confirmed that this deficiency is, in fact, normal. This doesn't mean you can't get soup in a grocery store, it just means you're limited to envelopes of dehydrated soup only.  There's a reasonable selection of dehydrated stuff, but it's all in that Lipton-Cup-a-Soup sort of style, meaning that you only every get little cubes of unidentifiable vegetables paired with those skinny short noodles that added together make it look like you're eating a bowl of punctuation marks.  In fancier stores you can also get fresh soup in plastic pots, but the familiar can of condensed soup is absent.

So back to my mid-week supper.  The soup came from an envelope, which meant it was a very simple thing to throw the dry soup, frozen pelmeni and some extra frozen vegetables into a pot of water and cook up a reasonable supper in very short order.  Here again, the pelmeni shone as an excellent addition, and really made the soup into a meal.  It was also yummy and filling the next day for lunch.  Two points for pelmeni.

Anna was pleased and impressed that I'd embraced this little bit of Russian food culture so heartily, and told me that if I liked pelmeni, I had to try varenyky. Ha!  I grew up in Saskatchewan, which has almost as many Ukrainians as Ukraine, so the notion that a varenyky (or perogy) might be something unknown and exotic is a little bit like suggesting that I might enjoy watching a game of the fast-paced winter sport known here as Хоккей.

In any case, Anna told me her favourite way to have pelmeni, which agreed with several accounts I'd read online, so it seemed clear that this was a method that needed trying out. Basically, the boiled pelmeni are drained and then fried in a pan, and served with Russian sour cream, called cmetana (with a soft c, "smetana") and, oddly, a dash of soy sauce. Apparently this is often done with leftover pelmeni that were cooked in broth the previous day (though the notion that there might be "leftover" pelmeni is difficult to believe.)  One person online even commented that despite the fact that he greatly preferred the fried option, his Russian-born wife insisted that the first batch must be eaten in broth instead of skipping directly to the fried version.  Luckily, I have no such compunctions, as must already be evident, given the culture-blind pesto-pelmeni combo described above.  Off I went to the grocery store to pick up some cmetana and soy sauce.


Cmetana seems to be a pretty big deal.  Where sour cream takes up one section of one shelf in the average North American dairy case, the cmetana section in my local shop is roughly 10 times that size.  And it's not exactly like North American sour cream either.  I got the slightly-less-fat version and can report that it's not so tangy as sour cream, and is thinner and smoother.  More like creme fraiche.  The milder taste is quite nice, and I also enjoyed it on some fresh figs I had for dessert, along with a drizzle of warm honey.  (And can I just say that 6 fresh figs cost about £1.50 which is bloody brilliant.  And honey is a whole other world here.  I really need to blog about honey…).  But back to the fried pelmeni.

Here it is, in the pan.

I have a touch of my Mom's propensity to muck around with recipes, so I added some onions and sliced mushrooms to the pan (reasoning that fried perogies without fried onions are a crime against God and Man and pelmeni probably fall into the same category).  I cooked the pelmeni in a pot of salted water, drained them, and tossed them in the pan for a generous amount of time until they got golden brown and delicious.  Then, a generous dollop of cmetana and a splash of soy sauce.

And here's the result

Unsurprisingly, it was excellent.  What's not to like? Chewy, sausagey dumplings, FRIED, with onions and mushrooms and SOUR CREAM, and a bit of salty seasoning?  I ask you, what could be better? (This, and the figgy dessert described above just go to bolster my long-standing conviction that there is no food that is NOT improved by the addition of sour cream.) I hoovered through the bowl in record time and had to hold myself back from a second helping.  I did manage to restrain myself, meaning I had a few leftovers for lunch the next day, which was exactly what I needed after a long and chilly afternoon of Christmas shopping at Izmailovsky Market.  Which is definitely a story for another week.

Happy Birthday Moscow

Sunday, September 8, 2013

I actually did proper bloggy things this weekend!  In fact, it was a bit of a two-for-one deal. A colleague at work recommended the Contemporary History Museum a few weeks ago, and it seemed like the perfect destination given that the weather this week has been positively sodden, meaning that a big indoor museum sounded like just the ticket. Also, the museum recommendation came with the report that the place was home to a truly excellent telephone, so how could I not go? (Yes, telephone.  Look, three different people waxed rhapsodic about this phone, so it seemed like the kind of thing that should be seen.)

However, by the time I got out of the hotel on Saturday morning and then escaped the mobile phone shop where I tried (unsuccessfully, of course) to top up the data plan on my iPad, the weather had turned quite pleasant.  When I emerged from Tverskaya Metro to head for the museum I was greeted by dry skies, which made me less inclined to dive into a dusty museum.  Also it was clear that something interesting was afoot, because the sidewalks were all barricaded off from the street.  Of course!  Saturday was Moscow City Day, the annual celebration of Moscow's birthday.  This year the city turns a spritely 866, and in celebration they'd obviously blocked off the street for a parade.  This conclusion was bolstered by the proliferation of marching bands milling around on the street obviously waiting to get started.

Tverskaya Street desserted... eerie!

I asked around (in Russian, even) and determined that the parade was going to start in only half an hour so it seemed downright silly to miss it, especially given that the sidewalks were almost deserted so a prime parade-watching spot could be had easily.  I waited around until things got underway, which they did almost exactly on time (a bit of a surprise).  The parade seemed to be an international showcase of marching bands, as evidenced by the display of flags at the front.  In fact it turned out to be nothing but marching bands, so I'm guessing maybe it was some kind of competition, but really I have no idea.  This is one of the sometimes fun, sometimes annoying things about venturing out into a foreign city.  Stuff happens around you and you often have only the vaguest notion of what's going on. It's best just to go with it.

The Russians started things off, naturally.  Then I watched the Finns go by, and then the Austrians.  But the the highlight was undoubtedly the arrival of the UK contingent, resplendent in kilts and audible from a mile away.  The bagpipes had arrived!

Kilts! Bagpipes! Moscow clearly needs more of this.

Annoyingly, it seemed that the organisers had a rather imprecise grasp of the concept of a "parade" because the bands kept stopping for long periods, which really killed the mood.  And then there was the Chinese delegation, which was inexplicably made up of a group of men with absolutely no musical instruments at all who simply marched along carrying big sticks.  What?

The Chinese.  Noticeably lacking in bagpipes.

Nonetheless, the pipers got my blood going and I was feeling like if it was a competition then the Brits had things in the bag.  That is, until I came upon the troops from the United Arab Emirates who not only had bagpipes, but also trombones and saxophones and all manner of drums including something that looked sort of like marching bongos.  It was deliciously weird. I mean first of all, UAE? They're not exactly known for their marching band culture are they? And then the instrumentation... Fantastic.

The UAE marching band.

When I finally tore myself away from the mesmerising combination of bagpipes and bongos and made it to the museum, I was a bit choked up to be charged for two tickets so that I could take photos. Apparently the camera needs its own ticket. (And why was I charged 250 roubles for each ticket when my colleagues had paid about 150 per person?  Honestly, the things I do for this blog...) Then again, there was the promise of the fantastic phone ahead, so I carried on.

The museum is housed in a huge pinkish building on one of Moscow's main roads. Formerly the home of an aristocratic Russian family, then the headquarters of the English Club, the building is quite lovely by itself.  The exhibits trace Russian history from about the start of the 20th century through to Perestroika.  All of the commentary on the exhibits is in Russian, but most rooms offered a short page of English to describe the contents of the room, so I wasn't completely lost.

The English Club library room.  Not bad.

I found the beginning a bit dry, but as the subject matter turned to the Revolution, WWII and beyond, things got more interesting.  Interesting enough that I made the mistake of leaning slightly too far into a replica display of an office for the Supreme Worker's Industrial Fabrication Collective (or something like that) and tripped a motion sensor that sounded a very very loud alarm.  Oddly, none of the many security guards in the place paid the slightest notice, and later on when I had moved further into the museum I heard the same alarm sound again, so obviously they just ignore it now.  (Marginally related aside: The office and the hotel both have metal detectors at the doors and every time anyone goes through, they buzz.  Every time.  And I've never seen anyone pay the slightest notice.)

The office display.

But back to the museum.  Naturally there was a generous helping of great propagandist stuff, and I took a lot of photos so that I could get my 250 руб worth. (All photos, including ones of the parade, are over at Flickr in a set called "Moscow City Day", including bagpiping video!)

For instance, there's this great replica of the famous statue of "Worker and Kolkhoz Woman".

And what's the point of being a brutal dictator if you can't have your face on a three foot high ceramic vase?

Or a nice Avant Garde commemorative plate.  And now that I look a bit closer at that, err, banner... tea towel... tapestry... whatever it is... see the bottom left corner? I'll be you dollars to blini that hole used to have Stalin's face in it.

There was a good room about the Space Race.

And I think this was my favourite exhibit.

By the time I got all the way through Perestroika I was getting a bit peckish and thinking it was time to head for the nearest café.  That's when I rounded the corner expecting to find more displays or, ideally, the stairs back down to street level.  Instead I was confronted with a darkened hallway and a plastic folding chair unceremoniously blocking the way.  The handwritten sign on the chair said, "Sorry, there is no exit". Of course.

Luckily, I didn't mind having to make my way backwards thorough history to find the way out because on my first pass through I'd managed to completely miss the World's Coolest Phone. It was smaller than I was expecting, but still quite excellent.

The promised phone.  The receiver is a hammer and the cradle is a sickle!

On my way out I also cruised through a display of Soviet propaganda posters and a truly bizarre exhibition of photographs.  It was called "Good and Evil", and was sponsored by TV channel.  As near as I could tell it was all photos of celebrities made up to look like characters from fairy tales or stories, each with elaborate makeup, costumes and backdrops.

Olga Drozdova as, well, I'm guessing she's Pinocchio, right?  There were also two different photos of two different guys playing Gollum, and a vampire, and a Baba Yaga and a group that looked like the Adams Family and, well, you sort of get the idea. Or more likely you don't, so welcome to my world.

This is the kind of thing I was referring to earlier.  Stuff happens around you and you often have only the vaguest notion of what's going on.  Maybe if I'd been able to read all the accompanying signage it would have made some kind of sense.  Coming as it did after the Unites Arab Emirates Bagpipe and Bongo Corps, the space-going pooch and the chrome-plated jingoistic telecom equipment, it was a bridge too far for me.  I made a hasty retreat (after stopping in the gift shop for a bit of early Christmas shopping) and then decamped to the nearest café for a very large coffee and a bit of what passes for normality these days.

And so passes another week in Moscow.  I miss the bagpipes already.

That's the way the city crumbles

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My work days have been long lately, so my time to do blogworthy things has been minimal. And though most of my time has been spent at work, or in transit between work and hotel, there's one thing that I keep noticing about Moscow.  If I were to phrase it politely I'd say the place has an somewhat unkempt air about it.  Unmanicured.  Scruffy.  If I was going to phrase it in a brutally honest way, I'd say it's kind of, er, falling apart.  Crumbly.  Decaying. So today I have some photos that might illustrate what I'm talking about, and some random related thoughts.

First let me say that I don't mean the entire city is on the point of collapse.  There are lots of areas that are neat and clean and all spruced up.  Certainly I've been in cities that are in much worse shape than Moscow. (Africa, I'm looking at you.)  Especially in the centre of town there's not much that differentiates Moscow from a western city. (Ok, that's a lie.  There's the Cyrillic for one thing.  And the fact that I've never seen a black person on the street who wasn't a Ceremonies employee.  And there's the bizarre glut of 24-hour flower shops, which is a whole other blog post.)  But if you look closely, even in the more affluent areas, it's just, ummm, untidy.  Corners of concrete are chipped and uneven. Construction works are generally not barricaded and random holes in the pavement are not unusual.  Grassy spots are usually one third grass, one third weeds, one third bare and rarely mowed.  Areas that would be neatly paved in a Western city are often just packed dirt.  Paint is peeling.

photo 1.JPG
This sidewalk outside the office is typical.

Maybe it's a hangover from the Soviet Era, when I'm guessing that people had more pressing issues on their minds than whether the ceramic tiles in the passageway to the Metro were cracked and the lawn mowed. Maybe I'm hanging around in crummy areas.  And I suspect that things are gradually improving.  But still, below are a some photos I've taken as I'm going about my business.  I haven't been seeking out all the dingy spots - these were all taken on the way from the hotel to the metro:

Random holes in the paving, semi-barricaded.

Volleyball anyone?  This sports ground is definitely operational, but you wouldn't suspect it from the sign.

It's just... decay.

I love this.  In a way, the city is bathed in a sort of wabi-sabi aura.

Because I've been running with the Moscow Hash, I've also had a chance to check out four different big public parks in the city and my observations about Moscow hold up there too, though in the case of parks I'd say it's less a case of things falling apart and more that Moscow's just got a different style.  My perceptions are probably a bit skewed since I've been living in London for three years (Hang on… THREE YEARS?  When did that happen? Have I fallen into some kind of time warp from watching too many back-catalogue episodes of Dr. Who?).  Parks in London can sometimes be manicured to the point of absurdity.  Think about the shaped topiary and the formal gardens and all those Capability Brown-style composed vistas… that's definitely not Moscow.  It's not unusual to find all kinds of different activities in a park, but in general there seem to be fewer big open grassy areas and more areas of natural trees and undergrowth and rough pathways.  I suspect a Moscow park could be ten times the size of an English one as require half the gardening staff.  Moscow's green spaces are a whole lot more Assiniboine Forest than they are Hyde Park.

Not a single topiary Lenin in site.  What missed opportunity.

Adding to the general aura of untidiness are these big ventilation tubes I've noticed running overground.  (I apologise for not having a photo because of the aforementioned work hours... I'll try to remedy that.)  For now, imagine a large galvanised steel tube, maybe two feet in diameter.  The sort of thing you might expect to see suspended from the ceiling in an industrial building, expect that it's running along outside, propped up on blocks.  I have no idea what's in them.  Heated air?  A city-wide borscht distribution system?  Refugees being deported in some kind of human-sized pneumatically propelled capsules?  There's one I find particularly amusing because there's a point where it runs right across a sidewalk, so they've built a little wooden stairway and platform for pedestrians to walk up and over the pipe. Then the tube makes a vertical-horizontal-vertical trip over a driveway to let vehicle traffic pass underneath it.  This strikes me, in my limited experience of the country, as very Russian.

And yet for all my rants about crumbliness and decay, they also seem to be quite concerned about keeping things clean.  Our two-story office has several cleaners (all women, of course) who roam around gathering dirty coffee cups and cleaning them by hand before then putting them in the dishwasher.  And I was walking down the hall once and saw one of them scrubbing the wall because there was a scuff on it.  Another time on a run I saw a woman with a bucket of soapy water getting ready to attack a random section of a low granite wall outside the Metro station.  And though it can take hours to get your food in a restaurant (no, really) the same wait staff will swoop in on an empty plate like a vulture on a fresh carcass. I've had waiters pull my coffee cup towards them on their way past to check if it's empty so they can take it away.

Also, there are people employed to sweep the sidewalks all over the city.  They have those pushcart rubbish bins on wheels, but the amazing thing is that they're equipped with brooms that look like they come straight out of a fairy tale.  They are literally made out of bundles of twigs.  And they don't just sweep paved areas, they also sweep those areas of packed dirt. They sweep the dirt off the dirt.

Russian Street Cleaner
This isn't my picture, but it is genuinely what a 21st Century Moscow street sweeper's broom looks like.

In other news, I went on a river cruise last weekend with a bunch of people from work.  It was too dark and too fast-moving to get any really decent photos but after the cruise we went to the cocktail bar at the top of the Hotel Ukraina, which is in one of Stalinist Seven Sisters, a series of famous building in Moscow that are particularly iconic.  My Watermelon Fizz cocktail by itself was excellent but probably not worth the astonishing cost, however, coupled with the architecture and the view over the city lights, it was almost worth it. (Actually, it was totally worth it because I didn't pay for the drink at all.  My boss paid for the round and I think it only cost one of his kidneys.)

The Hotel Ukraina, with something that appears to be a pink bat-signal coming out of one of the side towers.  This shot was taken from inside the moving boat through a curved glass window in poor light, so who knows what's going on there.  Regardless, it's an impressive building, especially if you're peering out of one of those tall windows at the top with a strong yet fruity cocktail in your hand.

And finally, just to keep RobH from yipping, here's a shot I forgot to include in the Metro blog from a few weeks ago, with me posing at the base of a huge statue of Belorussian partisans at Belorusskaya Station:

I resisted the suggestion that I stand directly under the man's outstretched hand so it would look like he's patting me on the head.  And I stand by that decision.