Winter has Cometh to Moscow!

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Our “dress rehearsal” during a brief cold-snap in October

Nearly 6 months into our lives as Muscovites and ex-pats in Russia, not a snow flake had fallen (or at least that I had seen). Temperatures were hovering close to 50 degrees most days and rain was more than abundant. This is not what I signed up for. I bought the warmest coat I could find (Patagonia – of course during a 50% off sale so it was still only moderately expensive), we practically bought a snowsuit for the dog, and Dani bought what we affectionately call “the sleeping bag” coat for herself. We were ready for winter months ago. But in early November, we found ourselves switching to our fall light jackets! Umbrellas were needed more than gloves and hats. Russia, you are supposed to be cold and snowy. I want snow, dammit.

I love snow. My whole life, I’ve never lived somewhere that got more than 3 or 4 snowstorms a year. I survived Snowmageddon in DC a few years ago, which was AWESOME for the most part, but I’ve never been able to experience a snow covered life before. Almost everything is better when it snows. Everyday ugly turns pretty. The air is crisp and strangely invigorating. Every tree looks like a fine piece of art. As long as the roads are safe when you have to get somewhere and you’re dressed warmly, snow is grand. I love snow.

November has come to pass, this is December. It is a whole new ballgame, folks. It was 10 degrees last night and the highs are below freezing for the foreseeable future. I am beaming with equal parts excitement and pride when I announce – IT IS SNOWING! In fact, for the last week, it has snowed at least in some form every day. An inch here, a snow shower there, nothing crazy. But right now, as I write this, it is really snowing. The dog is in his snow suit, we are in multiple layers upon layers and the ground, buildings, cars, trees and even the people are covered in white. The usually ugly Moscow streets and buildings have taken on a new life. The parks are beautiful and the train trip from the airport, which passed several miles of forests and open fields and little onion-dome churches, provided the best snow-covered scenery I’ve seen in ages. Picture it, tiny, ancient brightly colored onion-dome laden churches, made of wood, covered in snow on the Russian countryside. Now that is the stuff.

Being an experienced and avid amateur travel photographer, naturally I don’t have a single picture of these beautiful scenes. But I do have some phone snaps of the streets around our house, just to prove that it is indeed snowing. But they are also kind of interesting to me because they represent some very Muscovian (not a word) aspects of Moscow. And what the hell, I’ve thrown in a gratuitous pics of Max in a coat (two coats at the same time, actually). Ok, and a baby in a snowsuit too. Because no blog is complete without a pic of a baby in a snowsuit, am I right?

Oh so Moscow. Ads for fancy stuff, snow falling, an expensive glowing mall in the background and a crappy old car in the foreground.

Oh so Moscow. Ads for fancy stuff, snow falling, an expensive glowing mall in the background and a crappy old car in the foreground.

Women in coats. A common scene in Moscow.

Women in coats. A common scene in Moscow.

Behind this snowy scene lurks one of Stalin's famous Seven Sisters, a gothic tower that is now the Radisson's Hotel Ukraine.

Behind this snowy scene lurks one of Stalin’s famous Seven Sisters, a gothic tower that is now the Radisson’s Hotel Ukraine.

And here we have...Max in two coats. In the snow.

And here we have…Max in two coats. In the snow.

Baby. In a snowsuit.

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Categories: photo walk | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

I went to Pyongyang for dinner. No, for real. I did.

Filing this under “things I never, ever thought I would do”: Going to dinner at a North Korean restaurant in Russia.

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I have a bit of a fascination with North Korea. Everything about the country and what little we know about its government baffles the mind. It seems utterly insane that an entire country and society can be completely closed-off to the world in the 21st century, a time of almost total globalization, and that a government can continue to have near-total control over everything its people do, regardless of the conditions they live in or little freedoms they are allowed. But let’s put aside, however hard it may be to do, the prison camps and starvation and poverty and oppression for just a few minutes. Let’s do it briefly just for the sake of a very unique cultural, and culinary, experience.

It’s not every day that my wife texts me to let me know that some friends are going to a “North Korean restaurant” for dinner. In fact, it’s never happened. What is a North Korean restaurant and how does that actually exist? I’m a big fan of Korean food, I’m always down for a new cuisine type and, as mentioned, North Korea is…well…interesting. I have so many internal questions. How did these North Koreans escape their home country? How did they open a restaurant? What is different about their food vs. South Korean food? Will it be scary there? Is there an even greater chance of being under secret surveillance while eating at a North Korean restaurant while being an American while living in Russia? (A lot of whiles, but it was for affect.) Who knew North Korean restaurants even existed?

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We joined two friends at the nearest metro station and made it to the restaurant, called Pyongyang Korea, at about 6:30pm on a Thursday night. The guy who invited us was wondering if we should have made a reservation. We opened the front door to two attractive, tall, slender and well dressed employees who immediately welcomed us by saying hello in Russian and motioning for us to follow them down the stairs to the restaurant. We walked down two short flights of stairs with our friendly escorts into a large and almost entirely empty dining room. The four of us were shown to a 6 person table (passing by several 4 person tables) I assume for ultimate comfortability. We were then welcomed again and given three menus (for the four of us) and left to peruse the menu while our waitress walked to the bar and stood beside three other waitresses, all four of them now staring at us. I don’t think they were staring at us to be rude or to watch us, rather to show their willingness to take our order or assist as soon as we were ready. They would however continue to basically stare at us for the rest of the meal.

Our friend who had picked the restaurant, and had a little background knowledge on it, which I did not, mentioned something about it being state-run. After briefly arguing the point and forgetting we were not still in the U.S., it hit me. This is actually a restaurant owned and operated by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. These young ladies are not dissidents who escaped and are trying to make a living in Russia, they are state recruited and trained to run this restaurant abroad as a direct representation of North Korea. I am sitting at a table owned by the Dear Leader himself (actually I don’t know if ‘Un’ qualifies for that title, or if that still belongs to the now departed ‘Il’) and being served by young ladies who grew up in, and most likely will return to, the most isolated and closed-off country in the entire world. Then it also hit me…is my money benefiting the government of North Korea? Again, it had to be put aside for the sake of the cultural experience. Plus, the restaurant was seriously empty.

After getting over my initial shock of this realization, my excitement returned to trying the food, comparing it to South Korean cuisine and enjoying a night out in Moscow. The staff, as far as I/we could tell, spoke Russian fluently. They clearly had years of training in language and service. We picked some known items off the menu, at least those we could figure out that we knew, like bulgogi and bibimbap. But we also asked for a few recommendations and made sure to get what I believe is the most well known dish of North Korean cuisine, a cold buckwheat noodle soup (raengmyeon or 랭면). Obviously this cuisine has roots in the food of their brothers to the South, who actually were their brothers until about 60 years ago, but has been adjusted over the decades due to very limited resources, ingredients and most likely refrigeration or cooking capabilities. The food was all tasty with unique flavors, but the dishes that we were familiar with didn’t excel past the Southern varieties we’ve had before. The cold soup was not my ‘cup of tea’, but our friends enjoyed it more than I did. The bimbimbap had an overly-fried egg on top instead of the semi-raw egg that you get to mix down to the bottom of the hot pot so it cooks itself amongst all of the other deliciousness all mixed in, but I will live. And the bulgogi was more than satisfying. But forget the food, the real star of the meal was…THE STATE RUN NORTH KOREAN TELEVISION PLAYING PICTURES OF PEOPLE KISSING  KIM JONG-UN’S HEAD OVER AND OVER AGAIN ON LOOP ON THE WALL BEHIND US. As well as many females singing songs about stuff and people marching and stuff. BUT KIM JONG-UN IS ON TV BEHIND ME. AND OMG WAS THAT KIM JONG-IL TOO!!!

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That is a terrible photo of the TV showing Kim Jong-Un. I promise you, it is Him.

I couldn’t help but be a little paranoid. Are we being spied on? Are these impeccably trained waitresses actually our minders? I quickly stole cell phone pictures of the TV while trying to not be seen. Will consuming this propaganda make me a friend of the place affectionately known as the “Hermit Kingdom”? Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it really was a rather surreal experience when you sat back and thought about it all. But then again, if you just found this place wandering the streets and simply popped in for a bite to eat, I suppose you could just see it as any other restaurant. Any other restaurant aside from the pictures of the great Il and Un streaming straight from Pyongyang, that is. Oh and also, occasionally the waitresses all danced in unison to the background karaoke style music. But for some reason, I am the only one who ever witnessed it. When my friends turned around, they stopped. Aside from that, this could have been any other Korean restaurant.

After splitting two glasses of soju (Korean rice liquor), we paid the check. When we approached  the door to walk back up the stairs to the exit, all four waitresses waved excitedly and nearly in unison while as they repeatedly said goodbye to us in Russian.

I just ate at a restaurant owned by Kim Jong-Un. In Russia. Bucket list? Complete.

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Photos: Everyday Russians Being Russian

I love travel photography. I enjoy photography in general, but when traveling, especially abroad, I get instant inspiration. Everything is so different from what you know. Everywhere you look, someone or something is doing something that looks weird to you because it’s not what you are used to seeing. These differences are what provide me with inspiration. The more I travel and the more I photograph, attempting to capture culture is what fascinates me the most. And usually capturing culture is done by capturing people. Even if they are doing absolutely nothing but sitting on a park bench, they look different to you. Their clothing is different, their hair style is different, or even their facial expressions are different.

I might seem like a creeper to some, but I became a little more bold this past sunny Saturday and set out to capture for all 5 of my readers what everyday Russians look like while they are…being Russian. You’ve all seen what St. Basil’s cathedral looks like, but do you know you know what everyday Russians look like? In no way do I claim to have captured what all or most people in Russia look like, or how they act. In this particular post, these pictures are all from public parks in Moscow on sunny summer days. I do look forward to similar captures on cold, blustery winter days though! This is nothing more than a random assortment of my photographs.

Without further musing, I present to you Everyday Russians Being Russian.

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Photoshoots with your friends in public are very popular. But this one was just too cute to resist.

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A family photo op on a very interesting sculpture bench.

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These girls were standing in front of a limo on the street drinking champagne.

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Just behind the champagne ladies, these ladies were taking a break and talking to the pigeons.

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A young lady asleep on a park bench in the sun, a relatively common sight.

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This section of Gorky Park was full of jugglers practicing.

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Young love in the park. PDA’s are very common place among younger people. This is a very, very rare inter-racial relationship.

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Smoking is everywhere at all times. This girl helps her friend with a light.

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An intense chess match played out with several observers in the park.

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Eagerly awaiting his opponent.

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Purely an assumption, but I believe these were tourists from Africa. They were getting ice cream from a stand.

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Couple in Gorky Park.

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One of my favorites. Babushka in the park.

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A bride doing an interesting pose for her pre-wedding photoshoot.

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A kid playing a water bottle in the park.

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A clearly trusting young lady sleeping in the park.

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One of my favorites.

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Ping pong tables are in almost every city park in Moscow.

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They start ’em young!

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A young girl and a red squirrel have a chat near St. Petersburg.

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Too cool for school. In St. Petersburg.

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Selling corn on the cob in the park in July.

Categories: photo walk | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

If protests are magnets, I’m made of metal

When I was in Athens in May of 2010, the city erupted. The Greek economic crisis was at the beginning of its boiling point, massive austerity measures had been announced and, in the historic birthplace of democracy, the people took to the streets. Not only did they take to the streets in mass, but their rage over the proposed cuts brought out violence and looting, including the burning of at least one bank which resulted in death. The unrest even resulted in the airport closing, the ferries closing and some of the metro stations closing.

Photo by Dana Ayers, a travel partner in Greece

Just a week before, I encountered several sporadic May Day labor protests in the streets of Istanbul. May Day is seen as an international day of supporting and fighting for labor rights in many countries around the world, including Turkey.

A few years before that, on the only day I have ever spent in Paris, it happened to be Bastille Day. While almost all shops and businesses were closed, our walk from the train station to the Eiffel tower took us past a few different small groups voicing their concerns, although I can’t remember what it was related to.

Living and working in Washington, DC, protests are a daily occurrence. While I’ve participated in a few large scale protests over the last few decades, I’ve observed and had to avoid many, many more day in and day out. Sometimes a group of 20 forming a picket line in front of a nondescript downtown office building  to fight for health benefits, sometimes a few thousand people wearing green chanting for freedom in Iran in front of the White House. Sometimes tens of thousands marching through the streets to protest the Inauguration of a President they don’t believe is legally the President.

Regardless of the cause, this is democracy. In a democratic society, people elect those that govern them. Because democracies are mostly representative democracies, the people don’t vote on every issue that affects them. Their representatives do that for them. So how do citizens voice anger over decisions made, by the people they elected, in real-time? They protest. They take to the streets. They raise awareness over issues they feel so strongly about, issues over which they are willing to draw criticism, be seen as an outsider or a nuisance, or sometimes even potentially lose their job, in order to speak out about what they see as wrong.

I’ll spare you yet another personal analysis over what kind of democracy exists in Russia, but on paper, Russia is a democracy for the most part. What you don’t necessarily see often in this Russian democracy is civil dissent. Protest, to be more specific. It happens, but it’s rare relative to other democratic societies. Partly because dissenting en masse is not a part of the culture, partly because dissenting en masse can bring great harm or jail time. But protesting in public, when holding a permit, is legal. As long as it doesn’t involve any gay symbols, because those harm children and will get you arrested.

I hop off the train in St. Petersburg, excited to explore a city that is not Moscow in Russia. My hotel is about 3 miles away and I can find a bus that goes nearby or take the metro with a transfer. But if my travels have taught me anything, it’s that walking through a city is by far the best way to experience it. So I set out on foot, pulling my suit case behind me and a stuffed backpack on my back. I stroll down Nevsky Prospect, the main drag through town. After about a mile of walking, I notice a few people shooting pictures across the street. Beside them are three very large police vehicles that are clearly for transporting a large amount of people. Police officers, some heavily armed, appear up and down the street. I have to find out what’s going on.

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One of the three Police vans for transporting those arrested.

I cross the street after a few minutes of internal debate given that Russia does not take kindly at all to foreigners engaging in their internal politics or any potential unrest. But I have to at least get a few pictures, especially since I have all my camera gear on my back. I pull out my camera and snap a few shots, trying to figure out what’s really happening. Navalny. The blogger turned opposition leader turned Moscow mayoral candidate, one of the very few public figures who strongly opposes Putin and tries to organize opposition efforts, was sentenced to 5 years in prison that morning. These are his supporters mulling about, handing out flyers and gathering in a public square. No real protest leader exists, but after 15 minutes of relative quiet, small chants start to break out. They grow louder as police start to infiltrate further. An officer with a loudspeaker yells in protesters’ faces, those who have come to close to a fountain. I will note, that while I don’t know what he is yelling, he is ending it with “please” most times.

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Yell at me to move back and I will taunt you by photographing you as closely as possible.


People with camera gear are everywhere. There is probably a guy with a D-SLR camera for every 10 protesters. There are a few official media, but my guess is this is mostly the blogger crowd. Navalny is one of their own, and they will not let this event go unpublicized. I snap as many shots as I can, then back out from the center, hoping to prevent any problems for myself. But I find the whole display fascinating. I’m witnessing democracy not in my own country, but in a country that has struggled with real democracy for years. A county that draws significant international attention for its crackdown on opposition. I’m witnessing that opposition in person, even if it is just a few hundred people standing in a group occasionally chanting. Each person that gets arrested draws loud applause from the whole group. Then a chant begins, usually just Navalny’s name but sometimes it includes something something PUTIN. Another and another is arrested, loud applause breaks out. Why they are being arrested, I don’t know. But I have to guess it is for something like standing on the public fountain too long, or possibly pushing an officer. Then a newly handcuffed protester tries to evade, he falls to the ground kicking. The crowd cheers like crazy, the symbol of defiance seems to invigorate their cause.

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Solidarity for Navalny was shown by holding up this paper. This lady has passion in her face.

About 45 minutes in, and the protest seems to have leveled out. The crowd is still large but I’ve got a hotel to find and it’s starting to rain. I’ve witnessed somewhat subdued opposition, but I’ve witnessed opposition with passion and drive nonetheless. And I’ve got pictures to tell a story with, a story about democracy happening. One I’ve been privileged enough to witness in many countries around the globe. I’m just not sure if protests are drawn to me, or I am simply drawn to protests. It’s a cultural experience like none other.

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Hiking for Moose in Moscow

Last Saturday, I decided what I needed was to get out of the city. Moscow is huge and very urban and after spending more than three weeks completely within its grasps, it was time to get away at least for the day. I happened to come across a posting online for a “test trip” for a new English speaking outdoors company that organizes various activities outside of Moscow. Hiking outdoors, leaving the city, 50% off and I can bring my friends? Awesome! The hike was to a park which is technically partially in the Moscow city limits but is known for moose. In fact, the name of the park translates as “Moose Island“. How on earth could I pass up the opportunity to see a moose in Moscow? I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Before I knew it, 4 friends were joining the two of us as well to head out for a long day of sightseeing and hiking in the great moose-laden outdoors.

What I thought I was going to see (from the company’s website for the hike):

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What I actually saw:

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Don’t get me wrong, it was fantastic to spend a few hours surrounded by dense forest, happily identifying several plants and trees that are the same or very similar to varieties I recognize from back home. But this hike was far from what I expected! What turned out to be more of a long walk through the woods than a “hike” was highlighted not by wild animals or waterfalls, but rather abandoned hospitals and a never-ending concrete wall with graffiti quotes about revolution and secrets, supposedly painted by our guide himself.

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We saw craters which were from WWII (or as it is known here, the Great Patriotic War) bombs and abandoned railroads, hiked inside the broken gate of a long-ago abandoned hospital possibly for the mentally ill, and walked for a mile or so along a thin embankment between the “great wall” and what can only be described as one of Russia’s premiere mosquito breeding fields.

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While Dani did in fact survive our adventure, she came away with over 30 mosquito bites (I counted). She has a love/hate relationship with the little critters. They completely adore her and she absolutely hates them.

Despite the lack of moose and interesting scenery, the six of us were all happy to have seen something new for the day, and decided to not let the fun end there. We headed for Sokolniki Park, a great Central Park style area right by the tram that dropped us off. We ended the day with several hours of fun in the park, including many litres of beer, shashlik and even, yes, vodka.

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Sidewalks Are for Driving ‘Round These Parts

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Much to my surprise, driving in Russia seems to be fairly orderly. Perhaps things are different in the city streets of Moscow vs. the rest of the country, but based on the slew of dashcam videos (please watch) available from Russian cars as well as my experience with how people drive in several other countries, I expected a little more…well, crazy. But what I didn’t expect was needing to dodge moving and parked cars while walking. While walking on the sidewalk, that is. You know, the raised concrete platform that is not the road. It’s made for people to be able to walk without being in the road, at least in every other place I’ve ever been in my life. But here in Moscow, there isn’t all that much difference between the road, a parking lot, a shoulder or a sidewalk. I thought the fact that parked cars littered the sidewalk was odd enough, but when we almost got hit by a bright yellow Porsche driving down the sidewalk, I found it a bit ridiculous.

And to clarify, in case you are thinking by “parked” I mean like they have assigned parking spots or they are parking in any sort of defined order, don’t. Sometimes they park parallel to the road, sometimes perpendicular. Sometimes diagonally. Sometimes half on the sidewalk, sometimes all on the sidewalk. Basically you just park where ever the hell you want to. I don’t think the concept of parking enforcement exists, at least not where I’ve been. I can see advantages to just creating  a parking spot whenever needed, but the whole risking your life while out for a casual stroll with your little dog on a wide sidewalk is something I’ll have a little hard time getting used to. Perhaps a few random pictures, all taken within about 3 minutes, will help articulate this little part of everyday life. Despite what it looks like, these are not on the street. This is the sidewalk, which happens to be especially wide here. There IS a parking lane, which is used,  in between the road and this sidewalk. The car in the middle just decided to park on the grass in front of the grocery store, but the guy on the right saw no need to have to walk that far. He parked directly in front of the store. On the sidewalk.

 

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That May Be a Ferrari Out Front, But I Still Don’t Have Hot Water

As you may have gathered so far from the blog, Moscow is a modern, westernized, wealthy city. This is not the developing world. I may live in a drab Soviet apartment building but there are Bentleys (yes, plural), Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked on our street (and many parked on our sidewalk, in fact. Today we were almost killed by a bright yellow Porsche 911 driving down the middle of the sidewalk, but that topic warrants its own post). Anyway, I’ve gotten off topic. This post is not about cars.

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View looking down from our apartment window

Moscow is just like living in any large American city, except for a few small details. Hot water. Aside from stays in bottom-dollar hostels in South America or maybe a weekend getaway at a remote cabin, I don’t think I’ve ever lived without the not so modern convenience of hot water. You have a hot water heater, stuffed in a hidden closet somewhere. It heats up water when you need it, just for your house, and it works. It gives you water that is heated. Makes sense, da? Neeee-yet! In Moscow, the Soviets (I assume it was the Soviets, but I have not fact-checked this anecdote) dreamed up this magical communal way of giving everyone hot water. Everyone must live in the same sad and depressing high-rise apartment, everyone must eat the same bread, everyone must work for the same employer, everyone must get the exact same hot water. Not just water, but the same hot water. You do not heat your own water, mother Russia does that for you. But what Russia giveth, Russia taketh.

Hi Dani, Hope your day is going well sweetheart! It’s unbearable spending more than just a few minutes away from you, I hope you can hurry home soon my love!

Anyway, the plumber was here today to fix the broken sink and stuff, and he insisted on trying to tell me something about the heated towel rack thing, he kept repeating one Russian phrase over and over again and pointing at it with a hand motion that resembled a small explosion. I told him I did not understand, but after the fifth time, I just said ‘Da’. He decided he wanted to write his phone number down because I’m pretty sure he knows I am dumb and have no idea what we discussed. He probably thinks I will cause the towel rack thing to explode.

But I think I know now what he was trying to tell me…I just took a freezing cold shower and am still shivering. I think he was telling me that he broke the hot water and we will have to call him to fix it.

We can haz hot water again?

Much Love,

Your amazing stay-at-home husband.

This is not quite verbatim of an actual email I sent to my wife, but I wanted to represent the fact that I am, indeed, an amazing husband. Anyway, not the point of the story. We have no hot water and I thought for sure that plumber (oh god did he smell bad, he must have no hot water either!) was the reason. My lovely wife didn’t have the heart to reply to my email knowing that we’ve been struggling getting used to some…challenges with our new apartment, so instead she told me the news in person later that day.

Her: “Oh about that…I forgot to tell you that it’s kind of a thing. Moscow shuts off the hot water for 10 days every summer.”

Me: “Um what? They can do that? But how? Why? Um, are you sure?”

Please to read: http://themoscownews.com/local/20130523/191538600/Hot-water-shutoffs-send-shivers-down-Muscovite-spines.html

Every summer, the Soviet water system has to be “repaired”. In order to do that, they go block by block and shut off the hot water to the entire block for 10 days. And they even now provide you with a handy website so you can check the dates of when you will be without one of your basic industrialized world essentials. It is quite nice of them if you think about it. They built a website for us! You can track the dates of our cold showers by seeing the image below.

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Our Cold Shower Dates

So I guess it’s not that bad. I mean, we still have water and electricity. Just not that posh, trendy “hot water” stuff all the rich people have in the rest of the world.

Moscow, Russia – it’s 90% of the way there.

Categories: Russian Challenges | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Remember That Time I spoke Russian??

In case you didn’t know, Russian is an incredibly hard language to master for a native English speaker. Learning vocab is hard enough for anyone, but the oodles and oodles of grammatical rules and cases and different sentence structures and all kinds of stuff makes it very difficult to become “fluent” in. Depending on who you ask, it’s often grouped in with the 5 hardest languages to learn in the world for an English speaker. I might be ambitious in most of my life, but I didn’t “choose” to want to learn one of the hardest languages on earth…it chose me (get it, you don’t choose Russia, Russia chooses you??).

A few months back, I literally did not know more than two or three words in Russian. I took basic beginner level once-a-week classes to try and learn the very basics, but the effort has been very intimidating. I tried to make Dani speak Russian to me at home in Arlington so I could “immerse” myself, but that only proved to be incredibly frustrating for both of us and we were completely unable to communicate…go figure. Fast-forward to actually living in Russia. I’m doing the Rosetta Stone thing and really dedicating an hour or more each day to it. I don’t expect to feel comfortable with even basic conversational Russian for some time, but there was that one time I spoke Russian. That one time was TODAY! And it felt pretty awesome.

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(NOTE: Actual friendly electrician not pictured)

Our little apartment in Moscow needed a number of repairs so the landlord and workers have been in and out the last two days. Dani has been around each time so I just hid in my corner and hoped nobody would try to talk to me so I wouldn’t have to reveal my inability to even speak. Well today Dani selfishly went to Russian class, when she was supposed to, instead of staying around to protect me from Russian speakers who might walk through our door. So imagine my shock when I was woken by the doorbell and realized that it was just me (half dressed) and the Russian electrician (fortunately, fully dressed. Overalls and all). I managed to throw on some pants among the repeated ringing of our bell (who even knew we had a bell!) and got to the door to answer.

Then it happened. I was forced, with no possible escape or alternative, to utter a few Russian words and pretend I wasn’t completely inept. How did I start? Well, right after saying “hello”, which is not actually easy in Russian, I went right for the disclaimer. “I don’t speak Russian well”, which you should be proud of me for because I could have gone with “I don’t speak Russian.” and just crawled back into my corner. The friendly electrician, who only said one word of English the whole time he was here (“milk”), said he knew I didn’t speak Russian well (yes, I understood this). Dani had told him the day before to watch out for my mad linguistic skillz.

Once we established the disclaimer and my catch-all excuse, we managed to have a few different mini-conversations and I even asked if he wanted coffee. I then made coffee and we sat around our tiny kitchen table and drank it. And we talked about how small the dog was. That the small dog’s name is Max. And the fact that he has two dogs at home, one is 5 and one is 8. I then asked him if he had the rest of the light bulbs we needed (he did) and I then thanked him and said goodbye.

This incredibly sophisticated conversation all happened in Russian. That’s right. I speak Russian. 

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Extreme Sticker Shock: Coffee Prices in Moscow

I was prepared for Moscow to be an expensive city. It always flirts with the top spot for most expensive city in the world in various annual rankings, but you never really know how those rankings directly effect everyday life. So far, prices here have seen about even with Washington, DC…which is to say expensive, but not shockingly so. DC is one of the more expensive markets in the US so, aside from Turkish burritos, nothing is cheap here or there. But what I didn’t expect was the price of a coffee or espresso based drink. WOW.

I work from home and have to start getting out and spending a little time at cafes during the day. While I haven’t come across any independent coffee houses (I suppose they are all more cafe/restaurants), there are many, many coffee chains in Moscow. There are two on our block, Red Espresso Bar and Shokoladnitsa (Шоколадница). I checked out their menus online and was amazed at their coffee prices! There was no way I was going to spend this much for just a quick cup of coffee. A 12oz americano was just under $6 (with our favorable exchange rate too) and a 10oz cappuccino is $7.25.

So, I decided to go check out the local Starbucks instead. I am definitely not a fan of Starbucks in the US, but sometimes US chains overseas have more fair pricing because prices are based on a corporate formula instead of gouging in certain areas. After waiting a few minutes in line at the busy shop and doing all of the conversions in my head, it hit me that Starbucks was even more expensive! While I usually either go for an Americano or a cappuccino, when I started seeing prices for various latte sizes going over $10…I split. 

I ended up at an Illy cafe and had a decent Americano and a croissant for around $10. Not exactly a bargain, but now I know what to be prepared for.

If you live in Moscow and know where to go for a great cup of coffee at a less-shocking price, let me know in the comments!

And if you are even in Washington, DC and are looking for a fantastic cup of coffee and a great place to enjoy it, go straight to Pound The HIll.

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American Pride Alive and Well in Russia

American Pride Alive and Well in Russia

Two things I learned today:

(1) Don’t believe what you’ve heard. Russia loves the good ol’ US of A! This dude is proof for sure.

(2) Jean shorts are not dead.

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