Saturday, June 27, 2009

Week 4 France Day 22, Wednesday June 24, 2009

“Today, we leave Marseille,” I thought when my alarm woke me up. It was 9:30, with our bags packed and a train at 12:45 pm for Pézenas, we headed out to find some breakfast. We returned to the little shop we had stopped in the day before; Lissy got a pain du chocolate. I stole a little piece, but saved myself for trying a different patisserie; believe me, I was incredibly glad I did. This patisserie was beautifully set up. Items were color coordinated and placed in sections. The walls inside were splotched with big dots that came out at you, looking like french macaroons. Tall tables with large stools and the fact that they served coffee, called you in, to take a seat. But what really caught your eye and brought one to walk in initially was the window display. Behind a large glass window lay 2 levels of pure evil. Concoctions for the innocent passerby to be slowly tempted and lured inside. Quiches, pizzas and breads, along with tarts, brioches, croissants, pain du chocolates and my breakfast choice were all laid out, in baskets, white plates and tart pans. I stuck my head up to the glass, looked inside, saw breakfast, and in we went.

I had narrowed it down to two items. A brioche, but this one stuffed with cream and pink grapefruit, or this gigantic unbelievably insane looking almond croissant. I went for the almond and a glass of coffee; I could not have been happier. Lissy got her usual, pain du chocolate and a coffee with milk. She seemed happy as well, but not in complete ecstasy like me. OH MY GOD, it was good. It was, and I say this full heartedly, quite honestly one of the best things I’ve ever had the pleasure of putting into my mouth. The rich buttery flakey layers of dough, filled with chocolate and almond paste were topped with slivered almonds and powdered sugar. The sides were all caramelized from the intermingling of the butter and the sugar. The first bite and last, or the head and the butt as I liked to call them, were the best of all; the tiny little ends, perfect in every way. We bought a few things for lunch on the train, including three macaroons of my choice and left to take a short walk before returning to the hotel.

Down at the old port, things were busier than the previous day; this was because today, the fish market was on! Stand after stand of seafood, vendor after vendor, yelling how fresh their fish was in attempt at making a sale. One woman was skinning monkfish, another scaling mackerel. There were bins of eels, squiggling about in their tiny holding area. Another shallow pool of water containing live octopus, half of their bodies exposed to fresh air, their lower parts struggling to breathe, awaiting their bitter fate as someone’s dinner that evening. Two men sat in beach chairs under an umbrella, with a tiny table in front of them containing row after row of the same looking shell. Lis began to talk to one of them and as it turned out, he spoke Italian; Napolitana Italian, with a French accent. In other words, he was hard to understand. After a comedic conversation, about god knows what with him, we headed back to the hotel, as it was getting late.

A taxi was called and a few minutes later our ride appeared. A bright yellow taxi passed us by, as Lissy looked back at the receptionist waiting out front with us, puzzled; it wasn’t our ride. A clean black Mercedes pulled up. A suave stylish French man sporting designer sun glasses and an expensive watch got out of the driver’s seat and took our bags; this was our ride. We were off to the station, a trafficky mess emerging as we continued to drive seeing as it was “sales” day. In France, stores can’t just have sales when they please,t hey are regulated, so every store has sales at the same time. This, was sale time and the streets were packed with cars and people, heading out to get the best buys. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the station.

It was about noon, so we had plenty of time to get our tickets, get to our platform and board the train calmly and relaxed, even with our 3 heavy bags, right? Well, seeing as it was Lissy and me we are talking about here, something had to happen to add a story to what should have been a short uneventful ride, and it did.

After waiting with our bags for about a half hour while Lissy went to buy tickets, I saw her walk over to me. She didn’t look pleased and there were no tickets in her hand. She walked over to a machine and tried to buy tickets through that. Her credit card would not work. She went back into the ticket office and at 12:40, two minutes before our train was set to leave, she came running over, we grabbed our bags, and ran over to our train. We were in car 4, we started off at car 20. If we had to run all the way down, there was no way we’d make it before the train would depart, so when we made it to car 13, we boarded with our bags, and Lissy set them down, saying she would just stay with them. That was fine, she could, however she paid for seats and I wanted to sit in them. I dragged my large bag through the thin aisles, all the way down to car 4, another french girl behind me doing the same thing. Ten minutes later, I got to my seat, tired and sweaty. The sadder part, the train seemed to have been postponed by ten minutes, so we could have made it down to 4 to begin with; but then again, what fun would that have been?!

I saw Lissy coming now, lugging her red suitcase, about two minutes behind me. She came up to me, quite upset and asked me if I was going to get the last bag. “No!” I said in a resentful tone. I hated that duffle bag with a passion. The amount of work it has added to this trip, the weight, the excess baggage; I wanted it gone. She looked at me, and went back to get it. I began to worry when she had not come back and twenty minutes had already passed, but I had all of our valuables with me, so I could not leave my post. About 35 minutes later, she made it back, taking a rest in another car, sitting next to a sleeping man. She said we should have just sat there and not come all the way up here, but who knew it would be a somewhat empty train. Things worked out in the end, however, as we met a young couple from Napa, California, who, when we had to switch trains, helped us with our luggage. I have too much pride to ask for help, Lissy on the other hand had no problem asking these people we just met, and so, it got the duffle off of my hands, thankfully. The next train was pretty short. It was a free seated train and so we squished ourselves and our bags on, taking up way too much room. When we reached the third stop, Agde, earlier than expected, we got off, carried our bags down the stairs, up the stairs and to the exit. There, we waited for Katia to pick us up at 3:15. At 3:40, she showed up, came into the station, gave us hugs and then went back outside to move her car closer. The drive to their house in Pézenas took a bit longer than expected because we were stopped at a train crossing for a good 20 minutes, but it went pretty quickly after that. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in the charming little village of Pézenas, known for antiques and Molière, a famous French playwright.

We left our bags in the car for the boys to bring in later and entered the house. It was large; a garden, swinging chairs, and fruit trees as you walked in, then a pool, and the back of the house. There was a large outdoor table where we ate dinner, green vines growing along the walls four stories tall. It was a salmon shade of pink and had a brick colored thatched tile roof. It was just the sort of thing you see in the movies; the rich families renting out a gigantic mansion in the south of France and we were there. The rest of the family and other house guests had gone on a hiking adventure to steal wood from a national park, so we were greeted by baby Masha and Lena, the nanny. After some tea and a quick sit, we all went out to the center of the tiny town, for some shopping and saw Aleric’s parents (also staying in the house at this time) on their way back to the house.

Katia wanted to go to her fruit lady to get a crate of flat white peaches. Lettuce and tomates au poivre were also bought and on we went to get some meat. I followed her inside, unsure as to the decorations. There was a picture of a horse and a horseshoe, I had no idea what it had to do with meat, but it all made sense when Katia told me he was the only horse butcher in town and proceeded to buy a few pounds of horse sausage. Oh good. She showed us where she gets oysters, usually buying from the woman in the left stall, however we talked to the personality man on the right stall, telling us if we eat oysters we’ll be strong like him and the other guy working there; both above middle aged with pot bellies. We stopped at her favorite patisserie to get a few baguettes and back to the house we went, to drop things off. We headed out again, this time in the opposite direction to get some other veggies from the town legume lady, who also carried fresh goat’s cheese coated in various herbs and spices. We bought some melons, cheese, and sampled some items, returning to the house again. Lissy and I headed straight back out again to explore some more of this enchanting little town.

We walked up the cobblestone roads, passing a charming little bed and breakfast, down the cobblestone streets, to the Jewish ghetto and walked about, looking at all of the shops all along the streets. The set up to this town, reminded me a bit of an organized, European India, with its various vendors and items, a lot of the clothing; loose cotton shirts or the ali babba style pants and a bunch of leather sandal shops. One apartment down a small side street had a cat bed outside of the window of the second story, umbrellas attached to shade the resting cats above. I took a picture and as I did so, a bunch of other cats appeared from inside of the house and an older woman who had been standing there, looked at me. As we passed by the front door, it appeared to be some sort of organized cat colony museum. The lady’s eyes followed us as we walked quickly away; it was slightly creepy.

We walked back now, intending to stay put at the house this time and along the way, we got into an argument on a difference of opinions. Upon our arrival, the rest of the family had still not returned and Katia and Lena had started dinner. I joined in, helping to chop with a cheap crappy dull knife and crying at the first cut of the onion. Dinner was all done by 8:15 and the rest of the family and friends finally returned home about a half hour later. Aleric, the 12 year old twins Dominic and Lucas, the sweetest 8 year old girl Nikita and the friends, Anton and his also 8 year old daughter Alliyah, all came in looking slightly exhausted. This didn’t stop Katia from sending the two boys out to the car to get our luggage, although Lucas chose to ignore this and I was stuck helping Dominic, once again, carry that stupid duffle bag. Lissy unloaded the duffle bag of presents to the happy kids, all except Lucas, who wasn’t going to get anything since he didn’t help. They got their unpainted matroshkas and Aaliyah and Nikita got matching dresses they put on and twirled about in, smiling the entire time. Lissy told Lucas he could have his presents if he promised to help her, his mother and his father when asked. Of course he agreed, later on, not keeping his word, as I knew would happen.

We ate around the table outside, as the sun was setting. Cuttlefish stew, rice, leek and pancetta tart and then cheese and salad. Good cheese is quite possibly one of my favorite foods, served with a crusty baguette and a simple salad; I was in heaven. As if this wasn’t enough, dessert was next. Cut strawberries topped with an almond meringue was spooned out into our bowls. Katia called it “pudding”, which confused Lissy and me, as there was nothing pudding-esque about it. She poured heavy cream over the individual portion and was convinced it was pudding. I helped to clear the table and by the end of this chore, we, being a group of 12, there were large stacks of plates, pots, utensils, and glasses; the kitchen was a mess. It didn’t seem to bother Katia, who said it’d be done in the morning and so it was time for bed.

Unlike Russia, this family went to sleep, generally, before 11, and so we were in bed early, shutting the lights off by midnight. Unfortunately, although I would have loved to have fallen asleep immediately, I had a bit of a problem, as Anton’s room was next to ours and through the walls, you could hear, and feel his snoring. I thought it was a heater rattling, only to find out the truth. After a while of struggling with this, and a blanket over my head, I finally was out, waking up periodically to Anton’s songs and vibrations.

Marseille in a Day: Day 21, Tuesday June 23

As most can tell from prior stories, when Lissy and I set a plan, it’s usually not followed, which is why when we got out of the hotel slightly later than we originally thought and ended up staying an extra day in Marseille; it was really no surprise. We were at reception by ten o’clock, trying to figure out what to do with our bags for the day. We had to checkout by noon and wanted to walk around the town before catching a later train to Pézenas that evening. Lissy talked to the receptionist for a bit; a nice young french lad. As I came downstairs a few minutes later, seeing what I needed to bring down, she had been convinced that we should stay another night and head to Pézenas the following day. I was a bit concerned. The town didn’t look all too great to me the night before, but I put my optimistic face on and we walked outside to find some breakfast.

The down from night to day, was just that, the difference of night and day. The dark deserted streets were now filled with happy locals out parading around the town in the bright sunlight. The tiny streets were filled with tiny shops, all cute and filled with goodies. From gorgeous sun dresses, to our next stop, sweets. Our noses never deceive us as we were led across the street, about a block down, to a patisserie. I got a pistacchio macaroon, bright green in color and filled with pistachio cream. Lissy got a pain du chocolate and a swirled croissant with chocolate and cream that she generously shared with me. The intense pistacchio flavor of my macaroon made me smile. It was larger than the normal macaroon. Although after every bite I said I wouldn’t finish it, as it was too sweet to eat all at one time, a few minutes later I was licking the last of the filling off of my fingers. Darn my sweet tooth. Nothing (until the next day) however compared to Lissy’s pain du chocolate. It was the perfect start to the morning, flakey tasting of butter with every bite, still warm, filled with melting chocolate. I wanted nothing more than to wrap myself inside it, and eat my way out. By the time Lissy had finished, she was covered in little specks of dough that had flown back at her sweater with every bite and every gust of wind and her face had chocolate spread around her mouth. I was used to this, as it was the norm for her, but still it made me laugh. As she turned to me, a huge spread of chocolate smeared across the right side of her face, she pointed up at a building with excitement. She took off, ran up the five steps and walked around a tiny park area, a few food stalls set up, to what looked to be the City Hall. Then we walked down to the old port, where all of the action was.

We were surrounded by water, boats and crowds of people all standing near the water’s edge out by the dock. There was a large ferris wheel. Apparently the daily fish market that usually goes on at that time, at that place, was being put off as the crowd standing around was petitioning the ride blocking off much of the street. We walked around there for a while, bargaining for a pair of sunglasses from a large African woman sitting on a towel and checking out the times of boat tours to little beaches and rock valleys way out. There was one at 2 and one at 5. Our plan was to walk around the City and come back at 2 to catch the boat. We’d see how that worked out, it was a plan after all and we all knew how those went.

We walked around Old Marseille, quickly, passing through what felt like nearly every little street, making our way to the New Cathedral. We had a fruit vendor cut a cantelope and took pictures of me making a mess eating it in front of historical sites. We visited the Veille Carhite, where there was a strange art exhibit going on inside in which light was shining down and winds were blowing about, while 2 dresses hung from the ceiling, dancing with every gust, moving to the beat of the eery pop jazz playing in the background. By this point, it was about 1:30 and we headed back to the waterfront, stopping to get some sandwiches and a typical provencial onion and anchovy topped bread. We didn’t wait to get to the boat before eating that part of the meal; oh was it good. When it was finished, we had wished we bought two.

We made it to the boat with 8 minutes to spare. All of the good seats outside were taken, so Lissy made a man move over to make room and I squished myself onto the stairs. We figured something would open up eventually, after all, there had to be someone who wouldn’t want to sit outside for the full 3 hours in the sun right? We ate our sandwiches, chicken and ratatouille on a crispy baguette and Lissy pulled out cookie dough filled inside with nutella. While I ate some figs, Lis took more pictures of me eating fruit in France. A little after two o’clock, the boat headed off, passing a few of the historical sites we had visited earlier on the way. Then it was into the middle of the waters we went. Fifteen minutes later, we reached the first of the tall mountains surrounded by water. It was gorgeous, tall, rocky, lush greenery grew atop it, and little rocks surrounded it. The water around it was a bright shade of teal, not a drop of trash in sight, perfectly clean, crisp and pristine. It sounds like I’m describing a good glass of wine. A bit later, we hit the second, then the third, then the fourth. We had 25 to visit, and after the first couple, and the first hour had passed, Lis and I wished we had done the two hour ride instead of three. In no way am I saying it was not beautiful, because it entirely was, but have you ever heard someone go to Asia and say they say were too many buddhist temples, or Italy where they were completely catherdral’d out after? Well i was rocked out, and so, seeing as someone had left their bench out in the front of the boat, I took it, lay down and fell asleep in the sun for the rest of the trip, or at least until Lissy woke me up. She told me to get out of the sun so as not to get burnt, in which case I ignored it, went back to sleep and woke up the last 5 minutes of the boat ride.

Safely back to shore, both of us now exhausted from the sun, we stopped at a bar, where Lis got a drink, a rest and a view of the Wimbledon she had been missing. Nice and refreshed, we set off again, to continue exploring the City. Once again, we left quickly, making it to an abbey at the top of a hill, where 3 drunk frenchman sat outside. Inside, a group of black women chanted prayer in a small room, led by a tiny white grandmother looking sort. After that, we climbed even higher, to the highest point of the City, up a bunch of stairs to the Notre Dame de La Gare. We climbed up, yet a few more stairs, to get to the Basilica itself. Once again, I was taken aback by yet another mosaic covered interior; Jesus. No, literally Jesus, up above, in tiny pieces of gold tiles. It was nearly enough to make me want to go Catholic, until I began swearing at how “fucking gorgeous” I thought it was, and decided it was a good thing I wasn’t, as just for saying that I’d probably be damned to hell. We were shooed out about 5 minutes later by a worker, as it was now closing and we made our way back to the hotel to rest for before dinner.

Dinner was between the two dishes of the area, cous cous, or bouillabaisse. Seeing as the bouillabaisse was extremely pricey and most of the places serving it seemed to be catering to the tourists with the prices, views, and ambience, we settled on a well rated Tunisian restaurant, specializing in none other than, cous cous. We ordered a bowl of chick peas in a spicy sauce and a tagine with vegetables and lamb shoulder. It was followed up by a shot of sweet mint tea about a tablespoon of pinenuts placed on top of it, something neither of us had seen before. We asked about this. It was typically Tunisian, the waiter told us. We thanked him and told him everything was delicious and we heard this restaurant was good so that’s why we came. He proudly called his father over and they pulled out a review from the NY times, which he wanted us to read. After finishing, we thanked them again and walked home. We walked through different side streets, through a dodgy square and around a block, until we made it back to our hotel, safe and sound. Shortly thereafter we went to sleep so we could be ready to go early the next morning. Tired, content, we did Marseille, in a day.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 20, Monday June 22 GOODBYE RUSSIA, HELLO FRANCE!

Every time I think that I will have an uneventful day, things seem to go the opposite way. I thought today would be a boring day of travel, a day where I would have a sort of break from detailed descriptions and my writing work would be easy. I was wrong, and so, the long, long day of happy endings and numerous plane rides begins.

I couldn’t get myself to wake up early, hoping I’d make it over to the renok to say goodbye to the Uzbeki bakers before we left. I finally woke up, hearing Tanya in the kitchen talking to Lissy. I got up, took a shower and as I headed to my room, I heard a male voice as well. It was Elusha; I could tell from the laugh. While I sorted my things and got dressed, I heard a knock on the door from Lissy asking what kind of Stollie’s I wanted for breakfast, if Elusha were to go. I don’t like to eat heavy things before I fly, so I told her nothing and continued to get dressed. When I came out to make myself some breakfast, there sat Elusha and Lissy, fancy china out, Tanya cutting sweet Stollie’s and placing them on a plate. “Yum Yum!” she said to me as she licked her fingers. I took a yogurt out of the fridge. Both Tanya and Elusha looked at me, pointing to sweets, gesturing for me to have some. I smiled and said. “No thank you”, but they continued to try to get me to eat it. Although a sweet gesture, a serious pet peeve of mine is people trying to get me to do things I don’t want to do, or to which I have repeatedly said “no”. After about five minutes of this taunting, I got slightly annoyed, reverting to the opposite of being happy and trying, but being angry and even more turned away from eating it; I hate pushiness.

“Just try.” Tanya said pointing to every piece, licking her fingers in between. “Ummm good.” I ate my yogurt while they all moaned in delight, more than usual, trying to persuade me to eat it. After a half hour of this, I took a small piece and ate it. That was all it took. Don’t get me started on eating sweets; I can’t stop. That one small piece turned into about five and before I knew it I was stuffed with Stollies. They couldn’t allow me to leave Russia hungry or even remotely in between. I had to be full and I was. At two o’clock, we left for the airport.

The ride, was similar to that of when we arrived, except with Tanya instead of Sasha. Elusha drove his large SUV through the crowded streets of St Petersburg, blasting that techno pop the young Russians love and speeding, all while switching lanes and bobbing his head to the repetitive beat of the music. Most of the way there, we took city streets instead of the highway, waving a final goodbye to the city.

“Goodbye St Petersburg! Spasiba!” Lissy cried out, waving to the buildings.

“We will be back. We will be back soon!” Tanya yelled winking at Lissy.

“We will be back.” Lissy added, note the fact that “soon” was no where in that sentence.

As we got to the airport parking lot about an hour later, Elusha, sideways parked his car in between a few others at the curb to drop us off and then went to park for real. We squished ourselves into the airport and waited for Sasha and little Andre to arrive. The Russian airport was not organized in the least, as a line formed out the door waiting to go through security. There was no prior ticket check or anything of that sort in another room, but as soon as you walk in, a line is already waiting. We snuck off to the side, weighing our bags on the scales to make sure they weren’t too heavy, like our bellies from the last few weeks. Luckily, they were all under; don’t think I could say the same for us, sadly. As Lissy put her third bag on, the large duffle carrying all of the presents, Tanya had a sudden thought. We were flying a small airline, not continental, but inner Europe and a second check in bag might not be a possibility. If it is, there would most likely be a fee involved. Elusha went and checked on this matter; Sasha and Andre arriving now for a final farewell. Lissy gave Andre a big hug, who seemed shocked at this touch of a female and sort of smiled awkwardly, backing away after. As Elusha came back with a man who worked there, he tried to get the situation figured out. The man thought most likely, the third bag would not be allowed on, or a severe charge like 20 euros a kilo would appear, but he wasn’t sure. Elusha went around once again to find out more about this situation. Lissy decided not to wait and freaked out, repacking everything.

I was so happy that I had spent an hour packing and reorganizing my bag the night before, so I could take things out, carry them in my backpack and put presents inside of my suitcase; Oh joy. Lissy pulled out two large jackets, trying to see if we could wear them or at least carry them onto the plane. Dresses were jammed into my luggage along with a bunch of other clothing items and some art supplies. Books were taken out and put into Lissy’s backpack, so she had a light load on her shoulders, not. About thirty unpainted wooden matroshkas were taken out and placed into every free available space in Lissy’s bags. We all stood around watching Lissy in a frenzy, pulling random crap out of this large body bag sized duffle and squishing it where there was no space. When we weighed the bag again, by the end it had gone from about 20 kilos, down to 5. Elusha came back now with another airport worker, slipped him a 500 ruble bill and the guy helped us to go on. We said our goodbyes, giving the three kisses, thank yous, and smiles. As I gave Andre the three kisses, on the third he moved away and I started laughing, as did Elusha; I was rejected by a twelve year old, how sad.

Walking through security now, we skipped the line, our bags were brought straight to the ticket counter, not having to carry nearly a single thing. When it was our turn, Lissy asked about her bags. Things didn’t look good, as they talked amongst themselves in Russian. I couldn’t understand anything, but it looked confrontational. In the end, it turned out it was fine, as she came from the US with two bags and could continue to travel with the same amount; all of that for nothing! We took all of the heavy stuff from our backpacks out and replaced them into the duffle. As the bag was being moved onto the conveyer belt, Lissy remembered one more thing and the bag was brought back to her. She opened her purse and her backpack, pulling out the thirty crammed matroshka dolls from big pockets, little pockets, side pockets, behind zippers, anywhere and everywhere. Meanwhile the ladies behind the counter looked on in humor and amusement. The duffle was packed pretty well again and back on the conveyer. We were now on our way to our gate to wait for our flight. We stopped along the way to go to the bathroom, Lissy staying with the backpacks while I went. When I came back, I saw her rummaging around in her bag, pulling out yet another few matroshka dolls. While she was waiting in line for the bathroom, I used some leftover rubles to buy her a Bueno chocolate and stored it in my bag, saving it for a good time to use it as a bitchy diffuser. As I finished my transaction and walked the three feet back to our bags to put away my wallet, I saw a young man yell after a woman who had left her purse behind. She continued to walk and instead of going after her, he left the purse on the seat. I had no idea which woman it was and could not leave my things alone, but felt terrible and watched the purse until Lissy came back. She looked through the pockets and we found the plane tickets, for the same flight we were on. As we got our things together and were ready to walk to the gate, a woman came running towards us, as we put the tickets back into the bag. It was her purse and she looked as if she was going to have a heart attack. She was freaked out, and although now relieved, I’m sure her heart was still pounding in the fear of losing the purse and all of its belongings. She thanked us tremendously and we walked behind her and her friend to the gates. They made it back to the large group they were with, pointing to us and smiling, the whole group looking at us with appreciation as we stood behind them inline. They were a bunch of friends from Portugal who had come to Russia, and we saved the day.

Later on, we were on plane number one. Although we were in the very last aisle, where the seats don’t go back, we were one person short of the three and had a chair in between for a bit more space. It was nice. Two hours later, we arrived in Munich and walked around the shopping filled, restaurant ridden, mall like airport until we got to our gate for plane number two.

Plane number two, sadly would not be as nice of a ride as plane number one. Lissy and I had separate seats and as I settled into the window in row 9, I watched her head back to row 21. I took out my book and read as I looked up at the passing passengers, curious to know who would be sitting next to me in this full flight. A bald man, with bright blue eyes, carrying a newspaper and what looked like a camera case finally made it over, taking the seat next to me on the aisle. After a few minutes of sitting next to him, I was glad this flight was only an hour and a half, unsure if I would even make it that long.

He seemed friendly at first, having a seat, introducing himself and asking about what I was reading. His name was Thomas, he was German, going to France for a business meeting and lived in Spain. He asked about my book and made an effort to start a conversation; a nice gesture you usually don’t find of people on planes. A few minutes later, I wished he hadn’t. My book was about different things in the restaurant industry and I should have known from the start that things would go badly, when after finding this out, he asked if we should have dinner. Thinking I misheard him or his English was bad, I ignored this comment and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Wrong move. He moved in closer, continuously staring at me in a creepy older stalker type of way. Lissy made her way up now to see how things were going. Seeing that “we were talking” as she told me later, she thought I was enjoying myself and went back to her seat, alone, as there was no one next to her. Sadly I only found this out once we were off the plane. As she walked back to her seat, Thomas whispered, “I’ll take care of her.” I choked on a breathe at that second and nearly barfed.

Thomas started moving around frantically, looking out the window talking about how he usually has that seat, or something like that and asked about moving. I asked if he wanted to switch or move and he said, “he wanted to sit next to me.” Gross. He continued to move around and freak out, and so once again, I asked if he wanted to move or something; he answered with the same response. Eh. As if things weren’t bad enough, he wouldn’t stop talking, so I opened my book and began to read, hoping maybe he would get the idea. He took out his newspaper. Although through my peripheral vision, I noticed him look up a few times over in my direction, I ignored it and continued to read. That was until he got bored with his paper and decided to read my book along with me. “Zis is much better zen politics” he said. When it got to a point where he couldn’t see the page, he leaned in closer or grabbed the book and moved it towards him. Oh for the love of God, who does that?! Bored with this foolishness, I flipped through the pages, looking at the index and glossary, until he finally stopped trying to follow along. Eventually he got up to go to the bathroom. I took my ipod out immediately, put it on full blast and squished myself into the corner, my book in front of my face. The flight attendant walked by, looking at me and smiling under her breathe; I think she knew what was going on. When he came back, he looked at me, where I moved even farther into the side of my seat, blasted the music even louder and covered my face with my book. I was about two minutes away from coughing, sneezing and talking about my cold sores and case of herpes. He took out his paper once again and continued to read. Alas, my plan had worked! For the remainder of the flight, we kept to ourselves. When the plane landed and he got off, he said not one word to me, but grabbed his things and left.

After getting our luggage, buying our bus tickets and an hour ride later, we had reached the Marseille train station. We lugged our gigantic load through the station trying to find a taxi. Asking a man as we got off the bus, he told us he would take us. We walked away, finding the taxi point ten minutes and two breaks later. We walked down into a basement type area, smelling strongly of piss and loaded with men, smoking, talking and standing around; 20 taxis in a row parked. It was about ten at night and dark, and we were the only people besides these men down in the taxi area. They all stopped, looked at us and one man came over to grab our bags and lead us to a taxi, while another guy got in the taxi to drive it. He charged us a bloody twenty euro for a ten minute ride, saying it was a night charge and extra luggage fee. He left us at the middle of the street in front of our hotel, not helping with our bags and quickly drove away. We lugged our luggage inside and checked in with a lovely older French man. He gave us our key and our tv remote. I took the stairs to the first floor, sending Lissy up in the tiny European elevator with the baggage. She opened the room and turned around to me.

“It’s not very nice.” she said to me with a grim expression. Although the smell of the room was a little “old” and the bathroom smelled as if someone had just taken a poo, the room itself was not too bad. Drab and out of date with its pale blue decor and sheets, it had a bed, a table, a tv, a shelf/closet and a working bathroom; it was alright with me. Lissy went to the window to open it.

“That’s depressing.” I heard her say as she then closed it. Tonight was off to a great start. It was now eleven and instead of going out for a nice walk, we settled in, getting in our pjs and lounging around, hoping to get an early start tomorrow instead. We certainly weren’t in Russia anymore.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Russia: Day 19, Sunday June 21, 2009

It was our last full day in Russia. Time had passed so quickly and now it was finally coming to an end. We were going to spend the day with Sasha, visit the cemetery where his parents and brother lay and then have dinner at his house. We started the day off pretty early, actually leaving the house by noon. We walked to the Central market to meet Fuxie and get our last taste of suluguni. As we swung the doors to the Central market open for the last time (of this trip at least) Fuxie came to hug us, bags of fruit from Alli Babba in hand and then we met up with Nana, seeming happy to see us. She talked of how hard life was, is and will continue to be; what she had been through in her life, how difficult money was and how hard work is. She wanted me to take her to America to make the cheese there, smiling as she said this, exposing her lack of teeth. She had just two suluguni wheels left and we bought them both; one for Sasha’s house, the other for Tanya’s, later.

Nana was gorgeous in her own way. Not gorgeous as in beautiful, but in an artistic sense with her special, unique features. Her wrinkles, the shape of her pointy nose, her deep black eyes, her missing teeth smile; she was a prime specimen for a fantastic picture. The only problem, she was shy. When I pulled out the camera to get a picture of the suluguni lady holding her suluguni proudly, she blushed, threw her hands out in front and ran to the door, hiding in the bright light that shone through. “PLEASE!” we begged. Finally she posed for a second, slightly moving as I took the shot. Eventually we got a few, some with Nana, some with Nana and Asia, some with all 3 of us. She smiled graciously at us for listening, buying and appreciating her and her product. I loved Nana, and as we took our cheese and left, I looked back at her, knowing that she (and her fantastic product) would be one of the few things I’d really miss.

Leaving the renok now, we headed for the Metro to Sasha’s house. 2 stops, a switch over and 4 stops later, we arrived near his house and took the short walk over until we arrived at his building. The elevator had just broken simultaneously with the door buzzer to let us in. As if by perfect timing, when the three of us got to the back door, Sasha walked out to take his trash out. All of us tired, full bladdered, carrying bags, we lugged ourselves up the 5 flights (luckily they were short) to his abode. Once inside, Fuxie washed the fruit she bought, placed them into bowls, and we sat around for a bit munching on fresh fruit and having drinks. Alli Babba had good fruit, that was for sure. The apricots were sweet and tart, the nectarines juicy and ripe and the cherries; don’t even get me started. Let’s just say those two pounds of crisp perfect cherries were, for the most part, split between Fuxie and me in a short half hour. I was so full afterwards, eating an apricot as well and let’s not forget the nectarine I had on the walk from the station. I was stuffed on fruit for the next few hours.

We left the house now, heading off to the cemetery where Igor was buried. An hour later, we arrived to a strange looking, industrial, weed growing, rusty building site. Was this it? God how depressing. It was not it, although we walked through this little storage area, over a train track, crossed the street, a few more blocks, around the corner, stopping to buy some fake flowers and walking a bit more. We finally made it to a long black fence, which we had to crawl under to get in. Now inside, we walked through muddy ground, wild weeds of flowers and long grasses, and about 1000 grave stones from about the early to mid/ late 1900s. At last we made it to Sasha’s family’s grave site. It was a large stone with a picture of his mother and father on it. In front was a white square tile where Igor, as I soon came to know it, was. Sasha stuck the flowers he bought into the dirt in front of it, formed a cross with hand gestures letting the next person go. Fuxie went next, doing the same and then Lissy, minus the cross part. I stood there watching the whole thing. It reminded me of the people praying in the churches. So unaware of everything around them, in their own world of hope. Death, religion and belief are strange things to me and to observe people in their act is a very interesting thing to experience. The different expressions upon people’s faces, their body language, their hands, the way they part their lips, or the emotion in their eyes, it’s all there as they pray or remember, for themselves or someone else. They are in no way self conscious, as they are so fixated on their desire, that everything around them is irrelevant for that one moment. They are in their own space, a time of hope and their actions are for them and their loved one, for no one else. To see someone so intense, so vulnerable is a difficult thing to watch, but yet at the same time, there’s a sort of peacefulness to it; a person away from the outside world for just a second, relieving their pain, their passion, their faith. This is what I saw as each person said their words of prayer in silence in front of the grave stone.

Now that everyone had said their hellos, goodbyes and what nots to Ig, we set off, trying to hitch a ride home. This didn’t work; no one stopped. So we caught a slow and bumpy tram to a certain point (not good when you really have to pee!) and then a bus the rest of the way. A block away from the house, Sasha stopped into a bakery to get a cake. Lissy told him I had to pee, so he came back to the house with me while Lis and Fux stayed behind; although by the time we got to the house, they had run after us, so in the end we all ended up together anyway. Inside, his wife and daughter awaited, greeting us at the door. I ran past them to the bathroom as we entered, causing an awkward beginning for me and his wife. I came out of the bathroom to find everyone in the “living room” area, sitting around as Masha and Valia prepped some salad in the kitchen. A table was being set up, chairs brought out, alcohol, drinks and finally the Stollie’s perogs on plates. I went into the kitchen to bring out the suluguni and a knife, Valia and Masha staring at me as I opened the door and asked. I left quickly going back where the rest were. A roast was brought out, as was the salad and we all sat down to eat; although Fuxie had already started. Fuxie made a toast to Igor for bringing Lissy into their lives and Lissy for bringing me and then we ate. Perog with meat, one with cabbage and one with white fish; all delicious fillings surrounded by tender bread. Alongside of it, some of the fresh cheese and salad, all made for a tasty, tasty dinner. As we ate, Valia did her weird breathing, taking a large bite of food, then making a sort of snorting sound and a deep breathe. I kicked Lissy every time, and we both made eye contact, trying to pretend we didn’t notice; it was hard not to. They sat around and talked for a while. Valia, then, brought us gifts; a small bell and a spoon holder of St. Petersburg for me, and a photograph taken by Masha for Lis. We thanked them for their generosity. As we lay on a bed in the room while we rested before dessert, Lis and I drifted off for a short nap, waking up a half hour later so we could eat some more. Dessert wasn’t anything special, a dry cake with sweet sour cream, so I skipped it, scraping the sour cream off of Lissy’s plate. As the adults all conversed, Masha asked me for some photographs. Not having the right card or cord for her computer, we exchanged emails instead. I sat in her room with her for a while looking at her photographs and she showed me her claymation films she learned to do one day while she was bored. She was extremely talented and creative. A few pictures later, it was time to leave. We said our goodbyes for the last time and took the Metro home; Sasha coming with us.

Fuxie rode with us for a few stops, standing in front of Lissy as she sat and jumping for the pole above her; she was too short. I laughed as I sat across from them watching this. It looking like Fuxie was trying to do some sort of club booty shaking dance instead. When it came time for Fuxie to switch trains, she smiled, looking like she was going to cry and said goodbye, telling us to come back soon. I waved to her as she walked off and couldn’t help but keep a smile on my face; she was so damn sweet. Our stop was next and we got off and walked home. Tanya made tea and she, Sasha and Lissy drank it while watching part of a movie, while I packed. Sasha left at some point, although I was unaware. Lissy and Tanya finished their movie, cutting open the other suluguni later on for an evening snack. Damn them! I couldn’t say no to my last chance at this cheese, and so, (reluctantly of course) I had to have some too. Then it was off to bed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Russia: Day 18, Saturday June 20, 2009


I looked out my window when I woke up. It was bright, sunny and beautiful; I was excited. Ten minutes before leaving, we all thought we heard what sounded like pouring rain and gasping out the window, we saw the sad reality of a cold, cold, rainy day. Dressed in layers, a coat and holding umbrellas, we set out into the wet puddled streets, making our way to the central market, with a few stops along the way of course.

Once again we found ourselves back at the Souvenirs’ fair, Lissy getting even more wooden toys. The sales man really liked her for her bulk buys. Behind the carts tourist goods was the the Spas-Na-Krovi Cathedral, or Church of Our Saviour on the Blood
. We had talked about going to visit it for a while and being as the trip was coming to an end, we bought tickets and went inside; it was magical! Other than the 200 people from different tour groups all squished, blocking off every free space to walk, I was in love. Enthralled by the beauty that lay in front of me, the whole church was covered from floor to ceiling in mosaics; tiny tiles lay across nearly every square meter, representing Jesus in his many years and a bunch of other saints. Gold and other bright colors brought everything to life and my neck hurt after from looking up for so long. I appreciated everything about this church, exterior, interior and all, but when it comes to me being refined in religious places, I find myself always having trouble. I respect those around me, but me, myself; I have a habit of posing for sacriligious pictures next to Jesus and his Disciples. The free range of camera shooting, allowed me to do just that, perhaps offending a room full of on-watching tourists as they saw me posing next to their lord and saviour. After a few shocked faces and feeling satisfied with the amount of pictures taken, we walked out of the church, now finally heading to the central renoc to meet Fuxie.

We got there about a half hour later and opened the doors to the market; Fuxie stood waiting for us. She was so adorable, holding her bright red umbrella, looking around, anxiously, her face lighting up when she finally saw us come through the doors. She waddled over to us and greeted us with the three Russian kisses. Then we walked back over towards the entrance where the dairy women were set up. The first vendor was Nana, or as I like to call her, the suluguni lady. I ran to her, excited as ever to get my chunk of cheese, only my worst nightmare had come to life, she had run out. NO! It couldn’t be; it wasn’t so. We walked here all day, in the pouring rain. I was hungry, and craving a nice fresh piece of suluguni. I guess it wouldn’t be happening today. Lissy and Fuxie spoke with Nana for a bit, meeting another cheese woman, Asia and her daughter. Nana had promised us a suluguni for the next day.

We left her stall in search of some good fruit. Fuxie led the way, bringing us over to a table filled with bright orange and red spotted apricots and the item that first caught my eye, dark plump cherries. As we gazed at the vast array of bright colored fresh fruit, the vendor came over with an apricot, washed it off and had us taste it; gorgeous to look at, not so good for taste. He brought us another sample of a different variety, this one being better and we bought half a kilo. He then introduced himself, as, and I say this in full truth, “Alli Babba” and brought us some cherries to try. Oh they were perfect, sweet, crisp, meaty cherries; another kilo of fruit sold. I asked to try a nectarine, thinking we wouldn’t buy any; I was wrong. We bought three of those sweet juicy yellow fruits to eat, right then and there. Before leaving, I took a picture of Fux and Lis with Sir Alli Babba. He requested one with me after. When I went to take one with him, he threw his arm over my shoulder. All of the vendors within his sight, looked over, full attention on us, laughing. We thanked him for the fruit and I ran out of there, embarrassed as ever, waving to Nana as we left.

Making our way outside, we were surprised to see the sun. Along our two minute walk across the street to the super market, we actually began to sweat slightly. We bought a few things from the store, including my most prized novelty gift yet, Matroshkaya doll vodka, and headed out once again, to an art store around the corner. Lissy was on a mission; a mission to find unpainted Matroshkaya dolls; in essence, shaped wood. Walking into this art store, storing our groceries and vodka in the locker, we walked to the back, where the wooden items were. We saw a bunch of these unpainted Matroshkaya dolls. Lissy began grabbing one after the other, excited like a small child in the Disney store, picking up one Mickey doll after the other, unsure as of which one to buy. After opening several of them to count the number of dolls inside, Sasha came in, greeting us with a shopping basket. The two of them went through nearly the rest of the remaining dolls, counting each one to make sure it had the right number. I stood off to the side with Fuxie. After ten minutes of this insanity, only hoping things could get better, I made my way to a chair in the corner to sit. The chaos only worsened, as Lissy picked up a carved wooden bird and held it up. It was a whistle and as she blew into it, a high pitched noice screamed out. Sasha picked one up now too and then Fuxie; all three of them blowing into these toy whistles. I had wondered how many other mouths had been on these and how sad it was that these toys covered in god knows who’s germs, would be going to children. The young crew working at the store came over to watch, laughing and talking amongst themselves as they stared in our direction.

45 minutes, 25 Matroshkayas, 3 whistles and 5 art books later, we walked into the now freezing rain ridden outside, carrying these items, plus our purses, plus groceries, umbrellas and a few other things, attempting to shelter ourselves and these items from the waterlogged sky. We were on our way to meet Tanya at Kofkas Bar for our last dinner out and we made it there within a half hour, now 8 o’clock. We shoved everything into the trunk of Tanya’s car and walked as a group into the restaurant.
We had a table reserved for us somewhat in the back. We hung our coats and sat down. A large variety of food was ordered and the first thing to arrive was the oh so popular, oh so delicious, marvelously greasy, cheesy delight, khachipuri. One was just with suluguni and one with cheese and caramelized onions. Although the cheese one was good, the cheese and onion was beyond words. I mean think, melted cheese, fluffy crispy fried bread and sweet, soft, butter cooked onions. Can one really argue with me when I say it’s a match made in heaven? Dolmas, stuffed grapeleaves with a sour cream and herb dipping sauce were brought out, as was a typical Georgian dish of chicken covered with a walnut curry sauce and topped with pomagranite seeds, served cold. Tender crispy pieces of chicken, with this flavorful sauce and the sweet fruit; yum. We had large Siberian dumplings with a garlic sour cream sauce and after we downed all of these, the main courses began arriving. Fuxie got her kabobs and Tanya, her flattened grilled garlic chicken. Sasha got his fried puffed bread with a scoop of meat in the middle, burning to the touch, and steaming when opened, liquid oozing out from the inside. Lissy and I were splitting the lamb soup, and when it arrived, we both looked down excited, yet full at the bowl in front of us. We ordered one more khachipuri anyway though, to go with the soup, eating that before the soup and becoming too full to actually eat the item that was good for us. I think melted cheese reigns high on the list above it all. Stuffed to the brim with Georgian goodness, we waddled out of the restaurant; Sasha and Fuxie running to catch the last of the Metro trains, Tanya, Lissy, and I headed to Tanya’s car to go home, or so we had planned.

It was a holiday today, the celebration of the end of school, for those graduating high school. In essence, it was basically a town stocked with teenagers walking the streets, drinking beer. As I mentioned earlier, it was cold out, really cold, but these girls didn’t care. They celebrated their finale of school, by dressing in a mix of street walker and going to a sweet 16 party; in short tight dresses and 4 inch heels, walking the entire night, most likely somewhat plastered, cold and with achey feet. There’s a Russian saying for the girls, “They suffer for beauty”; I would never, ever, ever survive it. As we passed by a large group partying it up by our car, a waft of old alcohol swam into the air, that sick stink left over on the carpets after a crazy party, was already reminiscent in the town. As we drove through the crowded streets trying to get home, half of them were shut down making more walking space for these kids to go through. Attempting many alternate routes, an hour later we arrived back at Tanya’s house. Sadly, it would have taken less time to walk.

Arriving home, I wanted to get some yogurt for the next morning, so I walked outside, Lissy and Tanya following me. I wanted to go to a market, only it was after 11, and there were not many 24 hour stores near by, other than the dreaded one across the street. Chicken and other scraps of meat sit in the display window as you walk in, and a cat greets you on a chair. Everything looks old and dirty, and the saleswomen wear melancholy expressions on their faces as they hand you your items. A long line of celebratory kids waited to buy beer and so we decided to go out and get stuff the next morning instead, returning to the house
.
We were all wide awake now, drinking tea, and other things, and by 3 o’clock, we finally headed for bed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Russia: Day 17, Friday June 19, 2009

This was a first. Today we set a plan we actually followed. Did those words just escape my mouth? But, no, it couldn't be, could it? We set out (although an hour later than planned) to the Hermitage around 12:30, meeting Katia in the courtyard around 2 after a nice walk, a short stop in a market and some picture taking. She stood on the grass, her gaze fixed on something, a cigarette dangling from her lips like the last few times I had seen her. We waved to her as we got closer and finally, she saw us. A long line had formed for the ticket booth and she took our hands, and walked past everyone.
"I kind of feel bad." Lissy said as she looked at all of the families waiting.

"I don't." I said smiling. As we reached the front, Katia showed the guard some card of sort and we walked in, skipping the entire line, the entire wait; it was a beautiful thing.

"You still want to tell me you don't feel bad?" Lissy asked, turning around to see a bunch of people staring at us in disbelief.

"Not a bit." Katia left us at the front for a minute to go get a ticket. She came back with the first ticket, then went around to another booth to get another one; both free, under her name. She told us to put on an old ugly soviet face if questioned and pretend to be her. She escorted us to the start of the museum, waiting to make sure we got in without any problems. All went smoothly and within 20 minutes of arriving, we had gotten inside, gone to the bathroom, checked in our coats and headed up the stairs to the exhibits; no wait, no paying, no problems. I looked at Lissy and told her I couldn't have been happier that she had connections here. She smiled back.

We headed up the Royal stairway taking pictures along the way, pushing through gigantic tour groups and started the 2 1/2 hour journey through the museum. Lissy wanted to see a couple of the palace rooms before getting to the paintings, so we walked through some gigantic bedrooms and a long hallway containing about 800 portraits of men from the Royal families. I was bored and anxious to get to the Italian Renaissance and the Impressionist, or at least, a later period; one containing far less cliche portraits. After getting lost a few times on our way, we asked directions, passing Bruegel's, El Grecos, Titian's, Rembrant's, Raphael's and far more masterpieces. It was ecstasy. Things got better though, when we headed to the 3rd floor and I was surrounded by 15 rooms of the late 1800s to mid 1900s of bright, colorful, smeared, blotchy, dotted, Impressionist masterpieces. Oh yes, we hit the jackpot big time. Picasso's, Monet's, Manet's, Degas, Gogan, Van Gogh, Cezanne. Life was good. I began posing next to nearly every picture, copying the pose of the subject behind me, tour groups gazing at me with weird glances and I blocked the picture before them. How I love to draw in perplexed energy from foreigners. Timing worked out perfectly, seeing as by the time we reached the last of the Impressionist section, we had to leave.

It was 5:15 and we were walking fast, trying to make it the theater earlier to catch a bite to eat; both of us slightly famished. This was the least we had eaten in the last 2 weeks and our stretched stomachs grew hungry. We looked for a market where we could pop in and get some fruit or yogurt; something fast. There were none. Why is it that every time you want something, it's never there. There are always stores, three on one block, yet now there were none. When we reached the theater, 45 minutes later, I looked down the block, finally seeing a store. I went alone, asking Lis if she wanted anything, answering with a head shake. She walked into a cafe to get some real food. I saw the apples and picked out a nice juicy one; then I needed to weight it. I couldn't figure out the scale. I put the apple on and pressed the number but it refused to work. An old lady went ahead of me, I figured I'd just watch and copy, as she had apples too. It didn't work for her either and a woman came over to show us another scale, as this one was broken. I followed the lady around the corner, realizing now what was going on and waited to weigh my apple. Little did I know that this Eighty plus year old woman had about 15 items that she needed to weigh. I waited patiently behind her to weigh my one item, while a queue had formed. Nearly ten angry Russians stood behind me with small amounts, while the poor frail old woman slowly took her time, weighing her various items. Eyes were rolling, feet were tapping, coughing hints were being thrown, under their breathes words were said. When the old lady finally finished, I threw my apple on and hurried as quickly as I could, so as not to be bombarded by the angry crowd; then I ran. I thought this two item stop would be fast why? Nothing is fast in a Russian grocery store. With my yogurt and apple in hand, I headed over to pay, waiting in another line. Finally it was my turn. The lady asked me something in Russian. I shook my head and said niet. She asked me another question and finally one more, answering niet to all of them, thinking I actually understood. Did i want a bag, Did I have a card, Did i have change? No, no, and no! This Russian language was turning out to be easier than I thought. I walked happily down the road now, back to meet Lissy, drinking my yogurt slowly along the way. When I got back to the theater, Lissy was waiting outside for me, a pissed expression upon her face, as she reached her hand out, asked if she could have some and then proceeded to drink half of my yogurt. Blood sugar low, I was pissed, having asked her earlier if she wanted anything; now changing her mind. I guess Tanya had shown up and was angry we weren't waiting for her, so just as Lissy was about to order a soup, she was called outside. She didn't get any food into her belly and now wanted mine. As she handed me back the little bit that was left, I pushed it back at her, I didn’t want it anymore. We were both tired and hungry, Lissy even angrier than I, at Tanya. Things were not about to be good. As we walked towards Tanya across the street, I ate my apple, we changed and walked into the theater; an angry awkward silence and mad faces upon all. Lissy exploded once, Tanya back and then more silence.

The door to the theater was opened by a bubbly happy faced Natasha and I couldn't help but put a smile on my face as I saw hers. It was that contagious happy look. Although as soon as she left us, the blank mean expressions were turned back on. We walked up to our seats, passing the theater cafe along the way, where Lissy got some food for herself. She sat down with her champagne and salmon toast, asking if I wanted any. "No, I bought what I wanted." I said a mean sarcastic tone. Then I remained quiet once again. Tanya looked at me. "You have very sad eyes." she said. I sort of laughed at this, but kept a poker face. The first bell rang for the opera to start, then the second and then the third and final. We entered into the seating area and took our side balcony seats.

It was an awkward view, we literally had to turn our heads to see and the chairs were not the cushy fake velvet covered ones like in most theaters, but more wooden table chair-esque. The orchestra began playing, the strings a bit off tempo and out of tune, and then the curtains opened. This opera was like a soap opera set in a Russian countryside 100 years back, and like soap operas, I couldn't deal with the stupidity of it. I laughed for the most part, gazing up at the translated poetry of Pushkin above our heads, as the opera actors sang them in Russian.

Evgeny Onegin was the tale of of love, jealousy and passionate betrayal. Let me explain the story in street english okay? So basically, you've got these two sisters, right? Olga is whimsical, free, child like, in love with a boy she's known since childhood. Tatyana is quiet, shy, hiding herself in her books of romance, never really living outside of that. Then one day Olga's boyfriend comes over with his friend Onegin, where instantly the shy Tatyana falls in love, with just a single word. Expressing herself through a letter, she's tragically rejected, being called, young and naive. Blah blah blah. Then one day, they're all at a ball, where Onegin, having a miserable time, mad at his friend Lensky for bringing him, dances with his best friend's girl Olga. Lensky overreacts telling Olga she doesn't love him anymore and she in turn gets mad at him for being so dramatic, and continues to have a jolly time with Onegin. Then Lensky gets angry and tells Onegin they are no longer friends, where he challenges him to a duel. Tatyana thinks she might lose her love Onegin, and cries for that, while Olga cries because her love Lensky called her in blunt terms, a whore, and now the drama has really broken lose. At the duel, Onegin shoots Lensky dead and then cries. It’s now two years later, where Onegin has just returned from traveling and is at another ball. He sees this gorgeous girl going around talking to royalty, while he himself is talking to an old ambassador, or someone important like that. He asks who the girl is and the ambaassador says its his wife. As she turns around, he realizes it is Tatyana, now bold and grown, as opposed to the heartbroken girl he once knew. He is suddenly in love. Go figure. Later on, Tatyana is in her bedroom, singing to herself about the feelings of girlish love once again coming over her and why did Onegin have to return. Onegin comes into her room and reacquaints his love. The final scene left me even angrier than I ever could have imagined. This whole 3 hour opera built up to this final scene, where basically Tatyana tells Onegin she loves him, but it can't work and walks away; Onegin left on his knees to cry, all alone. The music was pretty, the singing impressive, the story, gag me with a wooden spoon please.

It was after 11, the opera now over, as we said our final goodbyes to Natasha and headed home all starving. We made salad, Kasha and caramelized onions, and feasted at midnight, later going to sleep around 3:30 a.m.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Russia: Day 16, Thursday June 18, 2009

We were going to the Hermitage. Really, it was for real this time. It was going to happen. We were going to be out early and head over before a line started. Don't look at me like that. I know in the past, every time a plan has been made, it's been slightly altered, but this time, we swore we would make it happen. Why am I so naive?!


After rushing once again, to make sure I was ready on time, I came into Lissy's room, dressed and good to go. Surprise surprise; she wasn't. I went into the kitchen and had some breakfast by myself, sick of the waiting. I told her to get me when she was ready and an hour later we left. So much for the plan eh? On the way, we passed a little truck selling sweets and bread by the Metro station. We stopped to look and Lissy bought her first sweets of the day. Nothing special, just a sweet roll. An hour later, we made it to the big green palace. The line was shorter than the day before, much shorter, but still a good two hour wait. It was windy and cold and as we stood in line for the first half hour with all of the other families; I once again wanted no part of it. I love art, I wanted to see it, but waiting out in the cold for a long period of time, standing in one place doing nothing, was of no interest to me. I have no patience for certain things, and lines are one of them. I was mad it was later than we had set to be there and a mood swing came over me. I became quiet, a sulky mad expression plastered on my face. Lissy's friend, Katia, knew someone at the museum who could get us in, apparently without waiting. She called her while I stayed in line and ten minutes later, came to get me telling me we were leaving to go meet Katia.


We walked a good hour to the Metro station near Katia, stopping first at a little local joint, making fresh pishky or donuts. It smelled of old oil, but they were being fried fresh, unlike the last she tried, and so she bought one this time, instead of the 3 like last time. I tasted a bite of the fresh fried dough, dusted with powdered sugar. It was still hot, slightly burning my fingers as I ripped a piece off and to my surprise it was good. A bit greasy, yes, but not at all oily or old grease tasting like I had expected. I was happy she found a good pishky place and she seemed to be too, as she finished it off getting powdered sugar everywhere. We continued walking to the Metro station, waiting for a call from Katia as to when she'd be there. When we got there, she still had not arrived, so we walked around a little. Lissy popped into yet another bakery, getting something filled with apples, a strange little tvoreg thing and two pear tarts. Oh it wasn't all for her, one of the tarts was for Katia, don't worry.


We headed back over to the subway stop, finally getting a call from Katia. These two women had trouble finding each other. I stood back for the first minute laughing, until it got to the point where it was almost sad. I grabbed Lissy, walking her straight ahead about ten feet to where Katia was standing, both of them still on their phones to each other trying to locate one another. Finally realizing they found each other, they began laughing and we headed towards the "Hay" renic, to say we'd been to yet another, market. It was called Hay market, because it was where the stables used to be, not it housed a whole other type of animal chaos.


There really are no words to describe what we saw next, but sheer perfection. The image I had envisioned in my head from the moment I began thinking about going to Russia. As we turned the corner, it was night and day. The calm night sky of the beginning of the market housing a few stalls selling sunglasses or slippers was leaving. As we walked along, the bright sun came out, so much so, that it almost burned my eyes, almost. There were 2 produce stalls selling items cheaper than inside, the sunset before the painful light. We tried an apricot from one, it being mulchy and lacking flavor, we walked on. "Eat and Run!" the stall man yelled after us. That was only the beginning of the clammer to come.


Stall after stall, all lined up in a row, and the same thing across from it. Herds of people walking through the narrow passage in between, struggling, pushing, squeezing through the crowds to get to their grocer, getting in and out as quickly as possible. A hard feat to accomplish in general in Russia, as things seem to go a bit slower. An even harder feat to accomplish here, beyond the hustle and bustle and running of the market, things moved slowly, and patience truly was a virtue. We waited in line for 10 minutes behind three other women to get some fruit from one vendor. Katia told us this was a calm day, we should come back later in the summer; I wasn't sure I wanted to. Various young guys would move through the crowds pushing heavy carts filled with fruit. They'd drop one thing off at one stall, then move on to another, working their way, with difficulty, through the sea of people. A good portion of the buyers were older women. The babushkas, with their drab skirts, white shoes, aprons, sweaters and scarves tied around their heads, bartering and pushing, holding bags of fruit as they forced their way to get to what they wanted. At their old age, they were experts on this, doing it their way, and getting things done. It was impressive to watch, and I stood there, a slight stage of paralysis kicking in, trying to figure out how this worked. I was overwhelmed. It was exactly what I wanted. Exactly what I had hoped for a Renic to be. My definition of Russia in my head prior to the visit, and now that I was in it, I had absolutely no idea what in god's name to do. I sort of, sadly wanted out. I understood nothing, the crowds were too much, I had no idea how to get out, I was somewhere in the middle, Katia way ahead of us, Lissy a few feet ahead, a woman pushed by, using her bag to get people out of the way, making an opening for a working boy carrying vegetables to make his way through as well. What the hell was going on and what was I doing here? Finally catching up to Lissy, I grabbed her arm in arm and we made our way to the end of the outdoor portion of the market, meeting up with Katia at the calmer indoor section. Whew, I laughed off the panic, overwhelming, confusion I had felt outside and it turned into a sense of joy. I got to experience the Russian market. I got to be pushed by an old lady, and barter for apricots and move through a crowd. I got to feel the sense of Russia I had wanted, and now I could breathe again.


Inside were a myriad of stalls of produce. There was the usual sections of meat, fish, poultry...the produce, the dried goods, the dairy with cmetana, tvorg and other goodies and the spices. Katia brought us over to a spice vendor and began sticking her fingers into everything tasting them and telling me what they were. I vowed not to buy open spices anymore, out of fear of who else's hands had gone into them. After all that, she didn't even buy any. The last stop in the market was a cheese lady, where she picked up some salty goat's milk cheese and we tried a few more, buying a chunk of the same and a piece of shitty (in comparison to the fresh one at the central market) sulugumi. Then we walked off, had a quick stop for some coffee and headed on a slow paced 20 minute walk to Katia's studio.


It was in a small apartment complex next to a park, the sixth floor was an artist's studio; one room for her, another for an old painter and a common area in between with the bathroom and tiny kitchen area. Katia coughed her way up the stairs, a cigarette still dangling from her mouth as we reached the final floor and she opened the door to her studio. It was a bit dirty and needed some fixing up and an element of cheeriness added to it, but other than that, it was perfect. Windows let sunlight in, it was high up, and covered in her art and posters of paintings from around the world.; anything from early unknown Chinese art, to Van Gogh, to photos from the Carnival in Venice. Her table was set up with a piece she was working on, she stitched the main portions in and had a helper to do the background work; the annoying part according to her. Her needle point was outstanding. The colors, the patterns, the pictures, all clear and executed to the finest level. After sitting there for a while, falling asleep as she and Lissy talked about who knows what for the next half hour, I was ready to go. When we were about to leave, Katia remembered she had some Armenian vodka in the cabinet and poured Lissy and herself small glasses as a symbol of appreciation and cheers. Another fifteen minutes went by and we left the building. Katia was a character, lovely, sweet and full of stories, but they went on and on and on. She went about doing things very slowly, so I was relieved when I thought we were finally leaving her presence for the day. I spoke too soon. She had other plans for us.


Wanting to show us a few of her favorite spots in the city, she took us on a half hour walk to some buildings and a messed up park. She told us the history of various things and then described the beauty of a variety of pretty ugly buildings. It was boring, a short walk feeling way too long, and finally going around in a circle, we arrived where we started. She left us, walking off to her house, while we walked back to ours.


First, we had to make a stop. We were hungry and having not eaten all day, aside from the apricots in the renic, it was time for some food. We stopped in a bakery along the way, the same chain as the one near the renic closer to us. I got a poppyseed bun with chocolate glaze while Lissy tried something with tvorg in it. I enjoyed mine immensely and as an added bonus, there was even a bathroom inside, adding to the great fortune of this stop. I got my sugar and a toilet. Double whammy!


We walked on further, heading back into the center of town, when Lissy got a call from Tanya. She was going to be in town later and wanted to know if we should all meet at the Blini House for dinner around 9. Lissy agreed. It was a little after 7 when this decision was made, meaning we had 2 hours to go, for a place that was at most an hour away at a slow pace. Thinking on the spot, we headed over to the Souvenirs’ Fair to pick up a couple more presents of Matroshkas and wooden toys.


When we arrived, most of the vendors were closing down. Luckily a few were still open , hoping that those straggler buyers such as us, would come to them, having no other choice since the rest were closed. We went straight to the first woman we saw, but weren't too keen on her selection. She brought us next door to her friend and we bought a few more, bargaining with her for the best price. Now a little after 8, we walked through the park next to the Cathedral and headed over in the direction of the Blini dom.


It was cold, and we walked quickly to get there. Lissy had a hard time finding the street it was on, since there were no names posted anywhere, but we finally made it, arriving exactly on time. Sasha arrived a few minutes later, only to leave again to run a quick errand. The blini dom was interesting. The waiters, like some other places we had been to, or passed by, were dressed in old style Russian wear; the girls in puffy dresses with braided hair, the one guy in long loose pants and a loose shirt. The colors were bright yellow and red. They sure did like their theme restaurants here.


The entire restaurant was a cloud of smoke. There are no rules against smoking indoors so everyone does it, filling their lungs and those around them with heavy stinky tar and nicotine; it's nice. The table next to us was filled with about seven Russian guys in their mid 20s, smoking, drinking and cursing. Tanya joined us now, walking over to the table of boys after about 5 minutes and asked them to kindly stop using profanity. Oh sweet Jesus, someone help her. They told her they would, as long as we stopped speaking in English. She said okay, both tables falling back on their words as we began speaking in English and they began swearing once again. Lissy place the food order a few minutes before Sasha returned, getting 2 giant plates for him and herself containing six pancakes, salmon, herring, and caviar; Tanya getting a few less, with sour cream and jam. I was hungry, but I did not want pancakes, so I ordered nothing and watched everybody. As the meal came to a close, a man walked by our table in passing to get to the bathroom behind us. As he squeezed on by, he shouted in a deep loud voice "I am going to the bathroom" in Russian. He came out a minute later, sort of tripping over himself and began reciting poetry in the same deep loud voice, while he stood there, his fly unzipped, and his eyes cloudy. Someone had a few too many vodkas. Finally he went away, Sasha, so very much relieved, did not appreciate this man whatsoever. We too left the restaurant. It was 11:30 and we walked to the car, laughing at the "mushroom pharmacy" across the street.


When we got home, I ate some leftover salad, had some tea, and went to bed. Dinner at midnight, felt like the afternoon as I looked out the window at the bright sky.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Russia: Day 15, Wednesday June 17, 2009

It was raining. It was windy. It was cold. This was a great start to today, but at least we'd be inside of a museum right? We were going to the Hermitage today and it couldn't have been a more perfect day, as it was freezing and rainy. Being inside looking at masterpieces seemed like the perfect thing to do; apparently everyone else thought the same thing too. When we got there at the grand time of 2:30 in the afternoon, there was a line of people literally around the block. It was like Disneyland in the summer on a holiday weekend. I wanted no part and Lissy wasn't entirely too keen on the idea of standing there for a minimum of an hour and a half. We decided to save it for the next day and headed off to the souvenirs market to buy what else but souvenirs.

The market was filled with rows of tiny carts all containing basically the same items. Some sold china, some sold cheesy Russian navy and fur caps and most of them sold matroshka dolls. "Pagolsta!" They would say to us with a fake smile, trying to look as warm to the friendly tourist as possible, taking their hand and showing their items, like a game show girl on the Price is Right. "Please come look at my shop." We wandered around bartering, trying to find the average price of the matroshkas, finding a nice lady who gave us a good deal. I bought a few cute bright little dolls, Lissy, some bigger ones and some typical wooden Russian toys and we were off. We were going to go to the Central Market to pick up some more sulugumi since we were out, but it was cold and Lissy was hungry, so we headed off for some lunch instead.

Kofkas Bar was where we ended up. We sat down and waited about 15 minutes for the waitresses, just standing around, to make their way over to us. Lissy ordered a hachipuri (with sulugumi of course) and a lamb and vegetable soup. I remembered the soup from last time. It came in a very large red ceramic bowl and had large chunks of tender lamb, stewed eggplant and tomatoes, a ton of garlic and was sprinkled with cilantro. It was delicious and perfect for a day like today. When the waitress came back with our food, carrying two of these large bowls, I raised my eyebrow; Lissy smiled. "You ordered two?" I asked. She nodded. While this bowl was definitely big enough to split, she was ready to down the entire order. As I got towards the bottom of mine, and finished my half of the hachipuri, I was comatized. Sitting drearily at the table after we had finished, I was nearly falling asleep, while Lis headed off to the bathroom. When she came back, we left, heading over now to Natasha's house. We called Katia first to see if, perhaps, we could meet up with her before hand to check out the market near her house.

We had about an hour before we had to be at Natasha's. Seeing as we were short on time and both covered in rain and freezing, we took the subway, meeting Katia at the stop. There wasn’t enough time now to do anything but head over to Natasha's. Katia crossed the street with us, bought a pack of cigarettes and called a car over to take us. By this, I don’t mean a taxi; I mean a car, from the street, driving with a random person none of us knew. A brown station wagon stopped at the light and when it turned green, he pulled over to the side of the road and we hopped in. A 60 something year old, slightly pudgy, balding man was driving, blasting bad umpa techno Russian pop. His seats were all covered with a brown and yellow psychedelic cow print and Katia told him where to take us. This was too weird for me. I'd heard hitchhiking stories and seen the horror films. I was not interested in becoming mince meat for some crazy cannibal and his human pies. I sat in the back with Lissy, looking around. Katia sat up in the front seat, speaking loudly, asking the guy if he would turn down his music. Twenty minutes later we made it to Natasha's house and I jumped out happy to be alive. Katiea paid the man 100 rubles, the equivalent of a little over 3 dollars and he drove off happily with his newly made profit.

We said goodbye to Katia and she walked around the corner to her home, while we walked into Natasha's. Nastia met us outside and escorted us in. It was warm inside. Natasha came over to give us hugs and welcome us. Andre sat at the kitchen table in his robe, watching TV. Natasha went into the other room and came back holding a tray of sweets she had made for Andre's daughter the day before. They were for after the bagna, but she let us sneak a little taste before. Natasha is the best cook I've met so far in Russia. All of her food is delicious, made with a lot of love, happiness and butter. After all, that's the best kind of food. When we finished our tea, and our little tasters of what was to come later, we left for the bagna, which conveniently happened to be directly across the street.

We entered a building, with a sign in front and a long tile paneled hallway, looking more like the entrance to a YMCA than a bath house. I was scared. I don't like strange spa activities, like getting naked and bonding with women in a sauna, or being rubbed down with various oils and getting massaged, or in the case of a typical russian spa, being beaten with branches by a large woman with a unibrow. I had no idea what to expect and I always get nervous when I have no idea as to what is about happen. I was relieved when we walked into a private room with a couch, a tv, some water bottles, a fish tank and a fussball table. It was like a crappy college common room and I wasn't sure what was so bagna-esque about this, but I could sleep on the couch for a couple of hours, no prob.

I sat down, and made myself comfy while Natasha and Tanya unpacked their big duffle bags they had come in with, pulling out towels, bottles of water, hats, shampoos and sandals. The room had sandals for us to use, but the women said they were dirty and didn't want us to use them. Okay, so we can sit in a wooden room where other naked asses have sweated, but don't put on the sandals; It made perfect sense to me. Lissy called me over for a second where she opened another door, showing me to the bagna part of this private room. Oh, there was more. A small steam room with two levels of wooden benches and a pit containing hot rocks over which to pour water to create steam, was the first stop. There was a cold pool, a shower and Lissy's favorite thing, the cold water bucket, to cool you off when you come out from the sauna. When we reentered the lounge area, the women were tearing off their clothing. I went into a changing room, thank you very much, to put on a bathing suit and a shirt. When I came out, they told me the sauna was too hot for my bathing suit and the lycra would explode. I went back in and put on a large t-shirt Tanya let me use. Then she handed me a large winter beanie hat to wear, telling me it was too hot and I needed to protect my head. They also said all of my earrings, being metal, would burn me and I should take them out. They were all fresh piercings and there was no way, not to mention, I couldn't get the one in my nose out; I'd just have to take the burn like a man. The women were all wrapped in white sheets (thank goodness) until we got into the sauna where they took them off and sat on them instead, wearing nothing but their head protecting hats. Let me just say, right here, right now, I still cringe at the image; three older females, completely nude, hairy crotches staring at me for the entire time we were there. I shudder to think.

After five minutes inside that heat ridden room, I couldn't do it anymore. I don’t sweat that much on a hot summer day hiking Runyon Canyon and I can't stand heat. I got myself the hell out of there and headed straight for the cold water bucket. Before I left, the women told me to keep my hat on, as the difference in temperature from hot to cold isn’t good for my head and I can't just take the hat off; just one of the strange theories told to me that day. Lissy followed me to the bucket, excited to see my reaction. She can't handle anything cold or shocking. Apparently a few years back, the last time she was in Russia and did this, the guy working outside could hear her scream. I stood under a large wooden bucket, reached up for the handle attached to a string, pulled it and water came pouring down. Too bad I was standing in the wrong spot; it missed me and splashed a little onto Lissy. I let the bucket fill up again and stood a little further forward, splashing myself with a good amount of refreshing cold water, squealing a little from the shock of it, then relaxing as my body started to cool off; ah, it was nice. Apparently now I was supposed to return to the sauna to sweat my ass off and repeat the process; oh joy. Another round in the sauna, another cold water bucket, and now everyone was heading into the cold pool, except Lissy. I followed them in, Tanya splashing about in the cool waters, Natasha wading in it, Lissy coming up to see what the fuss was about. She sat at the ladder, dipping her feet in, screaming at the temperature. I was standing near the ladder. Tanya in turn, went over to the ladder to try to pull Lissy in, sticking her ass a little too close for comfort, near my face. There's nothing like 50 year old flabby ass in your face to wake you up and make you feel slightly nauseous. After the pool, we all settled down in the lounge area for a bit and then repeated the entire process once more, before showering. When I got out of the shower, I walked around barefoot, letting my feet dry before putting my shoes on. Tanya and Natasha freaked out at this, telling me to please put my shoes on as the floor is too dirty, containing germs from outside in it and I don’t want that on my beautiful young feet. The Russians and their strange theories.

It was just about 8 o’clock now and we were done with our two hours. Everything was packed up and we were heading out the door, when the ladies asked me to put my hat on, so I wouldn't get a chill walking the few feet back to the house with my wet hair. I looked at Lissy who smiled, laughing under her breath at all of the things they had told me today. I put it on, making them happy and also getting them to shut up. Back at the house after drying my hair, we all sat around in the kitchen sipping tea and eating Natasha's "Napoleons".

The Russian's have this other thing they do, calling some of their desserts by a French name, completely different from what the French dessert actually is. This was a perfect example. Like the "souffle" cake a week back, being some sort of gelatinous airy sweet, not a souffle, this was a layered cream, and puff pastry, but not a Napoleon. It was a thin thin layer of cream and berry jam inside of puff pastry. However, it wasn't puffy, but completely smashed down and there was some sort of glaze and walnuts on the top of it. It wasn't anything like its French counterpart, but it was insanely delicious. Like I said before, Natasha is a fantastic cook and truly a sweet, fun, person. You can't not smile when you're around her. After finishing off her plate of sweets, we headed home.

Ten o'clock and still light outside, we made salad, buckwheat and salmon. We sat down to eat, watching, once again, some already crappy film, badly dubbed in Russian. I fell over after stuffed, at least this time with healthy food.