Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Men in Russia have many important roles to fulfill. They bear a lot of responsibility for supporting their families – they are bread winners. They court and spoil their women – they are gift and flower-givers. As I learned from my textbook and from one of the girls from our group who received a bunch of pink roses from a secret admirer, the kind and color of the flowers has a lot of meaning. For example, white roses mean innocence, red roses mean love, and red carnations are a symbol of victory (and are typically presented to veterans on the Veteran’s Day). But flower-giving, romantic as it may be, seems very impractical to me. There is another Russian tradition which is much more to my taste – that of a сумка-bearer ([soomka] = pocket book). Yes - Russian males carry their beloved woman’s pocket book! I spotted them all around the town, especially in areas such as parks or at social events. I still have to figure out whose outfit the сумка's are supposed to match – the female’s or the male’s. What do you say ladies - should we adopt this nice tradition here?

Russian food

No wonder so many Russians are overweight - Russian food deserves its separate chapter. There is a lot of things here I want to stay away from, tasty as they may be – pancakes, pies, different kinds of noodles, heavy sauces, sweets (I have to confess – halva and strudel I could not resist), cakes, and of course their ice-cream (rich and creamy, but not as sweet as in the US). Luckily for me (well, relatively lucky – my goal here was to lose weight, not to gain), there are a lot of yummy things here I eat with pleasure. Fish is on the top of the list. I go to the local farmers’ market where the vendors let me taste different kinds of smoked and salted fishes (pretty much like somewhat salty sushi quality raw fish) before I decide to purchase what I like. Then there are cheeses – at least twenty different varieties at each kiosk – and the same procedure applies. The tasting easily suffices for my lunch, and I bring home a bag full of goodies I can eat for the next couple of days. On the way home I stop to buy some home made pickles, fresh radishes, tomatoes, and cucumbers from street vendors on Lenin Street. In the morning I visit the same tables to get my snack – sweet fresh crop apricots, muddy strawberries (half the size compared to the ones you can get for $1.25 at Smith’s, but they actually taste like strawberries that ripened under the sun and were washed by the rain), and nectarines. The cherries are amazing too, but unfortunately almost as pricey as at home. I haven’t been using any spices besides salt and pepper (yes, I am amazed I am surviving without my daily dosage of garlic), but all this produce is so tasty by itself that spices would only spoil it.
And then there is the food that my host mom makes. It’s quite simple because apparently she doesn’t like cooking (or other housework), but amazingly tasty. My favorites so far:
- cabbage leaves cooked with rice and meat (I remove the stuffing and eat the cabbage, but together they are even more yummy)
- beet and pickle salad
- pea soup
- mushroom soup
- kasha with shredded carrots

I yet have to taste the borsch she makes – by far my Russian cuisine favorite.

To my friends in SLC

Being ten years older than the kids in my group here, I feel a bit left out. Unless I am the one organizing an event (or inviting people to an event organized by Katya, my host mom’s 21-year-old daughter), I am left out. It’s probably my own fault, too – I am sure if I asked if I can come along, they wouldn’t say “no.” But I don’t even know what to talk with them about – a different generation and different interests. All I want to say is that I miss you guys: I miss biking with you, hiking with you and our dogs (oops – I almost typed “gods” – well, almost true :P), I miss skiing together, and barbecuing, and talking dogs and sports and food, and watching movies and listening to the Latino radio station

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Бездомные собачки (homeless dogs)

They are everywhere, especially during early morning hours – filthy bundles of dreadlocks stretched out along sidewalks if it’s warm, and curled up if it’s colder. Usually it’s a whole pack – three, four, or five dogs. I’ve also spotted lonely ones, often growled at and chased away by a united group. None of them look starved, though. I was told that beggars and drug addicts share their food with them. Of course it was a great surprise to Katya and her friends when I said that this would not be possible in the US. Even back home, where few dogs are as lucky as ours (many are chained or, at the very best, spend their whole life outside), there are no homeless animals - there is always someone who will give them food and shelter.

Surviving in a Russian car

First of all, many cars have the steering wheel on the right. My initial thought was that they must be mail cars, but no – they are simply cars that have been imported from Japan. They are not exactly legal, so to discourage people from buying them, they introduced higher taxes on such “machines.” Overall, they are still cheaper, and so quite popular. (the citizens belonging to the upper (affluent) class would rather pay more and get a European car, though.) Then there is the seatbelt issue. According to the law, the driver and the passenger in the front should wear them, and most Russians would rather not get a ticket (I have heard that it’s better to say away from the police here). But it’s the ticket threat alone that makes them wear it – when I put on the seatbelt in the back, people laugh at me. It’s like this country is full of my ex-husband’s grandmothers (his refused to wear the seatbelt; she’d also disregard red lights (why stop if nobody is coming?) and claim it was impossible for her to have had an accident (“How could I hit him if I didn’t see him?”)). And OF COURSE there are no lanes, and driving around town is like competing in a car race. After a ride with one of Katya’s girlfriends this afternoon I am convinced that going 85 on I-80 from Park City is very SAFE – as long as I don’t smell burning tires and there is no city bus stopping right in front of us when we are rushing to make the green light. Ok, well, I bet those of you who have traveled to places like India think I am being a drama queen. But really, having grown up in a country that is barely becoming civilized itself, I think this is a jungle!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dog show

There is a lot of affluence, and a lot of poverty around here. It seems that Russians want to get the best of the western world yet it doesn’t exactly work. Today we drove a BMW X5 to see a working dog show by the local police department. Fake polar bear skin seat covers spoiled the interior of the SUV. Roads without pot holes are unseen, so the drive was more like a jeep tour in Moab than a Sunday morning ride in a luxury car. The show itself was a little sad too. First of all, it was clear that most of the dogs – German Shepherds, Labradors, Caucasian Shepherds, with an exception of a Spaniel - suffered from hip displasia. Watching them run and jump was quite unlike watching our happy pack on a hike. Even the handlers looked like they were in pain as they were running along with their animals. True, the dogs were able to do many interesting tricks, but overall it seemed like a very unsuccessful attempt at a Schutzhund trial (if you have not seen one of those, imagine watching a K9 performance on Cops, except that the K9 and the cop are both handicapped). Then we went for an early afternoon cup of tea (заехли на чай – people drop by for tea all the time) to one of my host’s friend’s brand new mansion in the suburbs. It was evident that the owners have a lot of money, but everything looked like work in progress even though the house was “finished” four years ago. I have to wonder if it’s the mentality or the lack of skill. It’s like they never get anything done right, and stop half way in the middle – kinda the way I would go about installing an air conditioner without properly pre-drilling holes for screws and patching any openings with duck tape (that really is the way I would do it, which means I would most likely ask Alex to install it for me). The tea party actually started with quite a few shots of brandy and what I assume to be typical Russian snacks – slices of cheese, sausage, and other meats, caviar, bread, and cookies – and by the time it came to tea my host and her two female friends were beginning to sing. Thankfully our driver didn’t drink.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I can’t believe that it’s been a week since I left SLC. Definitely time to define some thoughts about the “new” world around me. It seems like a blend of the reality I remember from my childhood and all the things I have learned about Russians form my textbooks. It’s not just the way things look, but also how people around me talk and behave. The most striking – and yet so obvious – thing is that people try to dress elegantly. Some do it better than others. You will find girls wearing leopard-skin shirts and purple skirts, and tall blondes that look like they walked off a fashion show stage. Make-up is normal and expected. When Katya, who is a licensed beautician, suggested that she will help me with my make up when we go to the theatre, I knew right away that the only way out would be to say I am allergic to cosmetics. All off her friends, who stop by unannounced (ok, they call her on the cell five minutes before they show up) wear make up and high heels. They also call her mom “тетя Наташа” (auntie Natasha), and for Katya all of her mom’s girl friends are also “тетя.” This doesn’t surprise me that much as it was also a common practice in Poland when I was growing up, though not on such a wide scale (I perhaps had two or three тети). Then there are бабушки (elderly women) and дядушки (elderly men). I buy my veggies from them on Lenin Street and Karl Marx Street. They typically sit on their little stools placed right along the sidewalk all day long and try to sell a few bunches of leeks and a few pickles. They take lunch breaks, too: «Маша, давай поработай ниемножко, а я пообиедаю» (Masha, why don’t you work a little bit as I have my lunch) - said one of the street vendors to another as she was taking the first bite of her sandwich (бутер-брот) – two thick slices of white bread with something in between. But bread here is good. I found a full grain with NO SUGAR or SWEETENER ADDED! I get tvarog (Russian cottage cheese that is nothing like the cottage cheese we buy in plastic containers at Smith’s), canned fish, fresh tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers (they actually taste like tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers, not water – and you can find an occasional worm in them, too) and make my yummy sandwiches for breakfast and my first lunch. I get my second lunch at столовая – a student cafeteria, where I can get a nice cabbage or beetroot salad for 25 cents (soups and main courses run at 50 cents). Food at such low prices is not available anywhere else, though. Overall, the cost of living seems to be as high, if not higher, than in the US. And so I can’t understand at all how people here make it by.