Wednesday, September 03, 2014

From Russia With Love

I'm very disappointed with Moscow. It was not the chaotic place I expected or what the travel guide cautioned about. Either all the crooks were on vacation or it felt very safe, very normal, like any other cosmopolitan, modern capital. To hear it from our horrid travel guide (Fodor's -- but they all suck), we were supposed to look over our shoulders at all times for pickpockets during the day and bands of marauding drunks at night. All we got was a bunch of mostly local tourists and regular folks, with the occasional drunken bum here and there; nowhere near the amount of homeless people one sees in New York. Perhaps they were on vacation too.

The Bolshoi
Other than giving our brains a workout with the cyrillic alphabet, Moscow was easy. The Moscow Metro is the 8th wonder of the world. I want to live there. Each and every station is spotless. There is no garbage, not on the tracks, not on the platforms. I wonder if the Russians simply don't have that terrible custom of eating "on the go", or maybe they are just good citizens that don't like their city to look and smell like a dump, or maybe Putin sends them to Siberia if they litter, but whatever it is, it's working. Walking the streets of Moscow, from Red Square to far flung working class neighborhoods which were just as clean, I got angry about the cesspool of filth that is New York City. Why do we live in a giant trash can? Why don't we have good municipal cleaning? We should be ashamed of ourselves.
The metro was first built by Stalin (a very evil man) for the people, and it is a marvel of public propaganda and Soviet grandeur, that actually works. Many trains are old but in working shape. You never have to wait over five minutes for a train. And the stations! Each one has a different motif, from the streamlined art deco of Mayakovskaya, to the Soviet rococo of Komsomolskaya. We actually took a ride on its circular line and got off on all the stations, just to see them. It's a great thing to do on a rainy day.

We did not interact much with the locals. Like New Yorkers, they live and let live. A couple of women heard us speaking Spanish and asked in halting English where we were from and we had fun conversations with them.
The first weekend the city was deserted. If there was a war in Ukraine, you could not tell. Peace and quiet, except for the unfortunate custom of restaurants to broadcast techno music at all times. Apparently, this is a thing.
Moscow is an imperial capital. It has grand wide avenues, and huge imperial and Soviet buildings. It is pretty majestic. And it seems that the gazillions made by the oligarchs as they divvied up the spoils have trickled down. The city is clean and well preserved. I imagine this was not always the case.
We saw spawns of oligarchs in some places. The girls tend to wear a uniform of Louboutin high heels and flared miniskirts and lots of bling. Girls who are naturally six feet tall love to wear six inch heels to make everybody else feel like dwarfs. People who look like peasants go into the Louis Vuitton store (catty corner from a frieze of Marx, Engels and Lenin) to buy stuff for their sullen teenage daughters. For Russians, when it comes to luxury, more is more. Like a bottle of vodka that comes in its own Fabergé egg with crystal shot glasses and costs thousands of dollars. We saw that in this here humble supermarket:

We went to the Kremlin's armory museum which showcases the gowns and jewels of the Tsars.
You look at the accumulation of bling and you understand why there was a revolution. Too much! And now it's like that all over again. 80 years of brutal communist rule, to go back to oligarchs. In the meantime, Stalin destroyed a huge cathedral to build the largest outdoor swimming pool the world has ever known. He basically created a new religion of communism, with the same lies and fantasies as any other religion, plus a reign of terror. Now they have rebuilt the cathedral. Apparently, underneath it there is a car wash and a dry cleaner. We looked for them, but could not find them.
Highlight of the trip: Lenin's mausoleum. Lenin is still lying in state, in a somber, cool and sinister art deco mausoleum. He is embalmed. He is a redhead and had a beautiful nose. One of his hands is clenched. He looks rather pasty and shriveled, from all these years of being dead. Everybody loves Lenin (pronounced Lyenyin). There are statues, and the national library and plaques in his name. Stalin, on the other hand, is almost nowhere to be found.
Russian brides take pictures in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, around the corner from Lenin's corpse.  So cheerful!

What is interesting is that remnants of Soviet grandeur are proudly preserved. We went to a fabulous Soviet park that wants to resemble both Versailles and a World Expo.  Besides the Museum of Cosmonauts (super fun), it has pavilions for all the Soviet republics, and things like geology and petrol. The Soviets basically replaced religious iconography with their own iconography. There are always solid, hardworking Slavs looking forward into the future with resolve, when they are not carrying sheafs of wheat. The story of the triumph of the revolution is told through magnificently executed tableaux all around the city, the communist equivalent of stained glass panels in medieval churches. It's all a crock of bull, but at least they had great artists and designers in charge. I'm sure that the more you see thick sheafs of wheat and vases laden with fruit, the more privation there was, but that is propaganda for you.

To infinity and beyond!
Crock of bull
Commie kitsch
The Bolshoi was on vacation, as was the opera, but September promised to bring a lot of culture back. There are a lot of theaters. We went to the Moscow version of Pere Lachaise to pay our respects to Chekhov and Prokofief. Einsenstein was also buried there, but we could not find him. Some of the tombs are inscribed with the hammer and sickle in lieu of a cross. Religion is the opium of the masses, huh?

With my main man, Anton Chekhov.
Boris Yeltsin's grave. A disaster. 

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Crime and Punishment

To quote Chekhov, I am in mourning for my life in this homey restaurant from Hell. 
Hello, tovariches! Back from Moscow, which was surprisingly grand, unbelievably clean, and easy to handle. My cholesterol count must be through the roof, as I spent ten days eating Russian food. This hearty and tasty cuisine, by the way, is the reason why almost everybody on my mother's side of the family succumbed to heart disease, and where I am probably heading as well. Alas, when in Russia, how can you not have the smetana*?
One evening, after walking enough miles for a Siberian forced march, we saw a cute little restaurant on a corner. Aromas of pasta sauce wafted from it. After all that borscht and varenikes, good old Italian pasta sounded like a swell idea.
So we walk in at around 10 pm, and a very sweet, smiling waitress welcomes us. The place looks like somebody cute's living room, full of tchotchkes. There is a big table with Japanese people and a couple of other tables. It takes her a while to bring us the menus. In general, service has been slow and erratic in Moscow, but not rude. Food always arrives cold and with not much chronological order.
My two companions order first, an appetizer and a main course each. She writes it down. Even though all the menus have an English translation, most waitstaff do not speak English, so like Alan Turing, they need to break the code and make sure that that which we are pointing to in a strange alphabet in the menu is the same thing we are ordering in Russian.
Then it's my turn. I order the tomato basil pasta. I am told: not possible.  She taps on her wristwatch. No pasta of any kind. So I order the fish, which Magnificent Arepa has ordered. No fish for me. No fowl either. No entrees. Apparently, my friends can have dinner, but I'm late to the party. While we are trying to figure out what on earth is happening, the waitress keeps running back and forth to handle the other tables and the kitchen, where I imagine, an ogre of a chef is wringing her neck for letting us in so near to closing time (11 pm).
After much pantomime, we understand that she is telling me that I can only have appetizers. At this point, the universal code for dining expectations is broken. How is it possible that two people at the same table will be served dinner, but not I?  In New York, the hostess would have made a face like she's smelling farts and said that the kitchen is closing in ten minutes, but this was not an option here. Here the option was: some of you will eat what you want, but not all.  One of you will eat what I tell her to eat.
Normally, I would not object to the only-appetizers plan, but the list of offerings was not very appealing. I ordered the herring with boiled potatoes and raw onion (like a cossack, you bet), but the rest was further down the scale of foods that hunter-gatherers in the Steppes eat. Stuff like boiled pork skins or cold vegetables. Nyet.
She brings our bottle of wine and starts uncorking it, still without addressing what is to happen to me. We gesture to her that before we drink, we need to solve my dinner problem. Our facial expressions denote a growing frustration. She keeps smiling, the mousy bitch. So far, she has gently steered me away from food but has not offered alternatives. She simply does not seem to understand what is my problem. I am to have herring. Is that not enough?
So, hungry, or rather quite hangry, I have a tiny little meltdown and I stand up and announce that we are leaving. Some sort of ado ensues and then the waitress points to the pasta carbonara and says that she can offer that.  How a pasta carbonara is faster and easier than the tomato basil one is a question that will haunt me until the end of time. Because of this kind of communication glitch, one spends a good amount of time in restaurants pondering questions along the time/space continuum such as, if everything takes so long, why does it all appear at the table at once? Or, it is possible that they were making the sauce from scratch, ran out of tomatoes, or Einstein was plain wrong?
Anyway, the waitress apologizes. I apologize. We drink to everyone's health. Food arrives. To the waitress' utter amazement, I exchange my hard earned pasta for the fish Magnificent Arepa ordered. By the way, Arepa ate pasta carbonara for three or four consecutive days, once both for lunch and dinner. They make a decent version in Russia.
We finish this food, which is quite tasty, and look forward to our friend's beef Strogonoff.  We wait. And we wait. And soon there is no one left in the restaurant, and the waitress is cleaning up. Then we start getting interesting cues, like the chef going out the door with a huge pyrex in hand (with which I'm convinced he will feed my friend's Strogonoff to his family and/or dog). The Strogonoff never arrives. The waitress smiles without explanation or apology until the bitter end.

*Cream: it's on everything.