Archive for ‘living in Moscow’

December 7, 2012

Goodbye Moscow

My last days in Moscow (for a while at least) have been pretty awesome (despite getting pushed on a metro and witnessing the flight of a really gross snot rocket). One of those “coming full circle” kind of feelings. I said goodbye to some of the closer friends that I’ve made, venerated relics of Saints, was fed by super nice nuns (who also had their driver give me a ride home because I was pregnant and had to carry stuff), ran in to Lydia while chatting with said nuns and got to say goodbye, ate most of the things that I will miss, saw an interesting exhibit about the New Martyrs of Russia, and brought another successful baked good to the volunteers…a lenten one that I kind of made up:

I rolled out store bought lenten pastry dough, spread a mixture of melted margarine, sugar, and apple pie spices on it, then added tiny diced apple pieces (that also had some of the spice on them) and rolled it up. I cut the roll into slices and baked them until they looked done. I also wrapped some up like a little croissant, but the big roll thing was easier. They were a little messy, but good! I’m just glad the last thing I brought wasn’t a total disaster.

THINGS I WILL NOT MISS  (in no particular order)

Snot rockets

“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” on constant loop at Merei

Russian TV (except the religious channels, Voronini (Russia’s remake of Everybody Loves Raymond) and Kontrolnaya Zakupka)

The stink eye for not having small change

The super icy sidewalks

Smokey streets and restaurants

Trying to say English words in a Russian accent – does. not. work.

The guys from the tatoo place and the Erotic Museum trying to hand me flyers all day, every day

5000 rouble bills

THINGS I WILL MISS (in no particular order)

Baklava from Merei (grocery store on Noviy Arbat)…possibly the best!

Nostalgia brand sirok

Borcht from Shtolle, Anderson Cafe and Taras Boulba

My darling volunteer group

The birch trees – during each season

Packed churches

Sretsensky church bookstore and Sofrino (make that most church bookstores)

Friends that I saw, old and new

The regular bookstore near our apartment on Noviy Arbat with the best children’s section

Pickles, cheremsha

Soyuz Orthodox TV channel

Blini in the parks during Maslenitsa

Hachapuri from JonJoli


It’s not goodbye forever. But for a big chunk of time. I am so ready to go home, but little pieces of my heart are spread across the city of Moscow. Hopefully someday soon we will come back and collect them with the baby.




November 30, 2012

A Definite ‘Up’ Day

In recent posts I have shared stories about how I am a babbling idiot or that some Russians are mean. So I think it’s time for a happier recollection of a pretty great day I had.

A couple weeks ago I spent a few days volunteering at a children’s hospital (one that I visited with the youth conference in July). There wasn’t too much I could do there being pregnant and the hospital having recently transfered many of the kids to a new location, so eventually we all realized it was best that I stop, but this story is from before that.

To get to the hospital I would take a half hour ride on a metro, wait for a mini-bus thing (called a marshrutka) and take that for about 40 minutes to the last stop. Marshrutki can be kind of unpredictable as far as departure times go. My second day going to the hospital the wait for a marshrutka was incredibly long. Nothing was coming. And the line is outside. And of course it was freezing. And a few minutes in to the wait it was drizzling. And my umbrella was at home. Thankfully my coat is waterproof and my schedule at the hospital wasn’t strict, so I was ok waiting. Just a little nervous since I am now two people and not just one.

A little old couple was standing behind me in line. They were using this martrushka in this particular area for the first time. After a while of waiting, the little old lady looked at me and politely demanded that I stand with her under her umbrella. She generously held it over us as she told me they had never used this marshrutka before and she wondered what was taking so long. Unfortunately I couldn’t shed any light on the situation since this was only my second time and the first time I took it, the marshrutka basically came right away. Our conversation topic basically stayed the same the entire wait, but it was pleasant none-the-less.

When the marshrutka finally came, I sat behind the couple. Before exiting, the little old lady turned around and said she wished me much happiness and health. A very sweet wish to offer someone you only ever spoke to about a mini-bus and the weather. I smiled and returned her sentiments. And of course thanked her for her kindness.

I arrived at the hospital to spend another afternoon sitting with Lydia. A woman who takes care of a 9 year old boy in the hospital. Kyril was abandoned by his birth mother and adopted. While riding a bike he was hit by a truck and severly injured. Incomprehensibly, his adoptive parents chose to also abandon Kyril who was now lying in a hospital bed, unresponsive, but alive. Lydia was assigned to him and for a very long time never left his side. When we came to the hospital in July, one of our parcipants was able to relieve her for the first time in weeks so she could go take a walk. Kyril is doing much better now than he was in July, but he still cannot speak, control his movements, or get out of bed. I pray someday he can run around and play like little boys his age. And I admire Lydia for her dedication. She has a life and a family of her own, but she gives it all up to support Kyril. She loves him as one would her own child.

I knew this day was her birthday because I overheard her telling someone the last time I was there. Despite the fact that I didn’t know her that well, I wanted to bring her something. The only thing I really had to give her was a little paper icon copy of the Kazanskaya Mother of God. I had just received it a few days prior after venerating the icon itself. The icon was in Moscow for the Kazanskaya Feastday (November 4th, new style calendar). Andrei and I were fortunate to go to services that day at the Kremlin where the Patriarch was serving and the icon was present. Later, the icon was brought to an Orthodox “Expo” and that’s where I had the opportunity to venerate it. To be able to do this while pregnant was especially significant for me. After venerating the icon, they handed me the paper copy. My plan was to take it to the hospital with me when I, God willing, give birth in April. Knowing that Lydia, in her situation, would not have the opportunity to actually venerate this majestic icon and I did, I decided this would be my gift. She deserved it much more than I ever could.

I had no idea how much it would end up meaning to her. She told me that what she wanted for her birthday was to buy an icon and to be in church. Although it didn’t exactly happen that way, it turned out that the hospital priest came by to give Kyril Holy Communion and blessed Lydia for her work. Then I came and gave her an icon. This was enough to fulfill her birthday wishes. Her intense gratitude and tearful joy was incredibly humbling for me.

It definitely was one of the best gifts I ever gave.

And a pretty great day in Moscow.

November 3, 2012

…Aaaand Back Down Again

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share another awkward Moscow story. The awkwardness all fueled by me – not any scary Russian cashier or pulled over taxi driver (who really was a funny guy). Althoug  the woman working at the dry cleaners, where this story takes place, was a little frightening. But she wasn’t mean. Just expressionless and a little cold. I, on the other hand, was a complete wierdo.

The first time I went to the dry cleaner next door (Himchistka No 1), I just popped in to check prices. The place is small so the lady behind the desk/register was about 3 feet away from me. I looked at their price list in complete silence and for some reason the fact that she wasn’t asking me if I had any questions and that we hadn’t even made eye contact was making me really uncomfortable and hot and sweaty. At the same time I was happy because I just wanted to check the price and not necessarily use their services. On my way out I tripped up the alternating sized stairs and almost broke my face. I ran out before I could see if anyone saw me. I returned later with a skirt and gave it in to be dry cleaned.

This was months ago during one of our other trips out here.

Two days ago (only the day after the incident with the taxi driver) I went to the dry cleaner to drop off shirts for Andrei. This would be my second time using their services (but the third time in the place). She inspected the shirts and then asked for my last name. I started to spell out Schafranek (in Russian Ш-а-ф-р-а-н-е-к) and somewhere in there messed up the letters and had to start over. I don’t have to spell my last name out loud in Russian very often, so have pity on me. Plus the lady was scaring me in my already awkward state. Again, she wasn’t mean…I just expected her to be so I was already on ‘Defenseless American Idiot Mode’.

I remembered that the first time I used them, for the skirt, they had completely botched the spelling of our last name (most likely because of me, but whatever). So I knew it wasn’t going to pull up a record when she spelled it correctly this time. Nothing came up on her screen, as expected, so she asked, “Have you been here before?” For some reason my brain thought it would be easier to just say no than to explain that they spelled my name wrong the first time. So I answered no. She asked me again had I ever been there (as if she didn’t believe me) and I lied again, looking down at my hands, “No.” I could feel the look of blushing childish guilt spreading over my face. Why couldn’t I just say my name was wrong the first time? All I wanted to do was throw the shirts at her and run out.

She continued to create an account for me with the rest of my details, “What’s your first name?”. Easy, Olga – everyone in Russia can spell that on their own. Then she asked for my number. And I had a mini panic attack. In my 2 second pause before answering I realized that perhaps my old record with the messed up name would come up because the phone numbers would match. Even though the name was mispelled it was close enough to see that I was the same person (plus my first name would be there too). And then she would know that I lied, possibly about the stupidest thing you could ever lie about. Within those 2 seconds I decided that if it did bring up my account I would just say that Andrei must have come in with something and left my name and phone number for who knows what reason. Luckily nothing alerted her in the system, or if it did she stayed silent for which my ego is forever grateful.

She printed out a pick up slip and receipt for me that I had to sign. I signed my initials. At home when I sign initials I sign, OSS (Olga Stephanie Schafranek). Without really thinking, but sort of half thinking, I went to sign in Russian and signed OCC (an O with two Russian S’s). Which is wrong. My initials in Russian are ОСШ (Ольга Степановна Шафранек). I just stared at the receipt as I gave it back to her…defeated. I wasn’t going to try to write over it or cross it out at this point. I had already messed up my name once in the last 5 minutes, I wasn’t going to show her that I did it again. Although she could figure it out for herself if she looked.

At least I watched my step on the way out that time.

I’ll have Andy go pick up his shirts.

For those interested: one pencil skirt cost 600 roubles to dry clean; two dress shirts also cost 600 roubles. 600 roubles is about $19.

October 31, 2012

Success and Awkwardness – The Emotional Rollercoaster That is Living in Moscow

For me, life in Moscow is an emotional roller coaster; a series of ups and downs usually based on my comfort level in a given situation. Most often, my comfort level depends on my command of the Russian language that day – yes, that changes…Every. Day. My comfort level can also be dictated by the amount of confidence I have in the moment. These levels and moments shift quickly. One minute I am so proud of myself for navigating the metro maze, until I ask for directions above ground and realize I went to the completely wrong metro stop. Or the days I am ‘owning’ living in Moscow only to be belittled to nothing by a cashier because I can’t give her a 10 rouble coin to make the change easier (or worse, when I give a coin thinking it will help make change, and I’m totally wrong). As if I purposefully planned to ruin her day by not having the 10 roubles – like I would intentionally put myself into a situation where I have to apologize profusely and wish I could just disappear or fear one of the 45 unnecessarily staffed security guards will shoot me on the spot. Ok, maybe it’s not that bad. (yes…it is).

Yesterday started as a success story. My last post described my disaster of an attempt at making rice krispy treats for my volunteer group. Fortunately, I was able to find American marshmallows and started all over again.

The rice krispy treats were new to everyone and loved by all. I drizzled mine in chocolate which makes them more fun and cool and complicated looking. Right?

…Just say yes.

In my explanations on how I made the rice krispy treats I learned a couple new words for my ever expanding Russian-culinary vocabulary. There were volunteers there that I hadn’t met yet, and since it was obvious I wasn’t from around here it sparked some major interest. One girl was digging my accent. Everyone asked the usual questions: “How do you know Russian?”, “Were you born here and then moved to America?”, “Where is it better – Moscow or America?”, “How is life in America?”, “Are there many Russians there?”, “Are there any 100% Americans who are Orthodox Christian?”, “Does the Orthodox youth get together a lot?”, “Who are you voting for, Obama or Romney?” (I could have an F.A.Q. post for questions we get asked in Russia). A new question last night was if newspapers are really delivered by little boys on bikes.

The evening was ending very successfully. I was interacting with people a lot and making new friends. I also got to spend some quality time with an old volunteer friend over some tea after everyone had left. She’s been super busy and we haven’t had a chance to catch up. Even though I was happy with my previous conversation, it was nice being able to talk more in depth. Not about the usual “Oh cool, you are from America” stuff, but more girl-chat stuff. I left the church (where we cook for the homeless) thinking I was completely in control. That I am totally awesome at living abroad.

It was slurrying outside and totally gross so I decided to try to find a cab/car to take me home. I saw a car stopped at a red light with an orange box thing on its roof. Preferring a legit cab over a gypsy cab I ran up to the guy’s window and started waving. He didn’t see me right away so I started waving more frantically to get his attention before the light turned green. He rolled down the window and I asked him to take me to my apartment on Noviy Arbat. Only I started the sentence weird and then said Noviy Arbat in a total accent. I have an accent, I know, but not nearly as bad as the one that came out. Oh no, here comes the awkward downfall after the successful evening. I can feel it.

The guy was nice enough, but shook his head and shrugged his shoulders and said (in Russian), “There’s a police man behind me.” There was indeed a cop car behind him, but I thought it was weird that he wouldn’t take me. Maybe there’s a rule if you’re stopped at a light. Perhaps he feared the cop would bust him for something made up by letting me in the car. I had no idea, so I just ran back to my friend (who was responsibly waiting to make sure I got into a cab). I told her he said no because of the cop behind him. We started to look out for another cab when the light turned green and the guy pulled up to the curb. “Oh look, he’s going to drive you,” my friend said. So I quickly walked back to the corner and got into his car. Only to realize the policeman was coming up to his window. He didn’t take me because he was in the middle of getting pulled over. And he didn’t drive up to the curb for me. And I was in his car. And now how am I supposed to sneak out of his car without him realizing I got into it??? Giving up on not being noticed I jumped out of his car and started to run like a lunatic. Once you (I) feel awkward, it’s all downhill from there. I caught up to my friend who hadn’t gone far and we tried again to find a cab. Then the pulled over guy started waving me over and said he would in fact take me as soon as the police finished their business. So I got back in the car. And waited. After about 10-15 minutes and after paying off the police 1000 roubles, the cabbie was ready to take me home! I guess I could have just gotten out and tried for another cab that wasn’t pulled over, but it was warm in the car and I was already beyond awkwardness redemption anyway.

The cabbie rightly guessed that I was foreign…duh. Once I said America he guessed California. I would like to think it’s because of my nice smile and wavy hair that he guessed right, but I think California is one of maybe two states people in Russia know. I did tell him that I now live in New Jersey (which is near New York, to reference state 2 of 2 for Russians).

I laughed away my awkwardness the rest of the ride. We chatted about the hurricane on the East Coast , America in general, and the Russian police. And I think I nailed it in the end by saying, “Drive carefully” (in Russian) before jumping out of the cab.

October 24, 2012

Million Dollar Disaster

The other night I totally Macgyver-ed my Quinoa Pilaf with Cremini Mushrooms. I’m currently back in Moscow, but haven’t met up with Andrei’s cousin to get our bag of stuff. So I don’t have a mesh seive…in other words no way to rinse the quinoa before cooking it so it doesn’t taste bitter. Trying to rinse it in a cup then use my hand as a strainer just created semi-permanent quinoa gloves and elevated blood pressure. So I went with the next thing I could think of which was the french press. It came out well and I was proud of my resourcefulness. This dish is a foolproof dish, by the way, it tastes delicious anytime and anywhere I make it.

I served the pilaf with some veal tenderloin and the whole dinner was a beauty. I was so happy because my week long grace period since arriving should really be over and I need to start making more creative and less boring meals. Maybe I’ll say I should do this once a week just so I don’t raise the bar too high. Anyway, as may be evident, I was super confident in myself after this meal and was ready to tackle the next thing -bringing something awesome and new for my volunteer group. I did a lot of repeats last time so I wanted to bring them something I hadn’t made yet. If I could find the ingredients I thought maybe rice krispy treats drizzled with chocolate would be just the thing.

In one of the fancy grocery stores on our street I found the cereal. Actual Rice Krispies. For $12 a box. But have you ever noticed how when you are outside your own country money really feels more like Monopoly money…like, fake.

The next challenge was the marshmallows. I knew I wouldn’t find them anywhere near me because I had never seen them before in this area. There are aparently grocery stores that sell lots of American items, but would they have marshmallows, who knows. Plus I don’t know where those stores are anyway. So I went for the Russian marshmallow look alike – zephyr.

It feels, smells, and basically tastes like a marshmallow.

If it looks like a duck…right?


It melted into a clumpy mess. A light cloud of vanilla scent hung over the apartment, but I guess all the good smells left the actual sticky mess in the bowl. That did not smell as appetizing. I didn’t want to represent my exotic-ness (ok, ok…American-ness) by harming people with radioactive rice krispy treats so I dumped the bizarre mixture.

With only a couple hours left before my group met, I tried desperately to think of something else to do with the $12 box (worth $4 max back home 😉 ) of Rice Krispies. On their website I found a recipe using sweetened condensed milk. I ran to the store (for like the 5th time that day) and got the rest of the ingredients needed (well, I skipped the coconut and the nuts).

I’ve made a similar dessert before (my Gooey Bars) which are always pretty popular so I figured this would be a great last minute fix.


Disaster number 2 of the day ensued. Maybe I did something wrong, but the sticky mixture would not harden correctly and I could not take it off the foil. Foil doesn’t really taste that great, so I brought nothing to the volunteers this time. Except promises for something amazing the following week. Which now I have to come up with.

That recipe is called Lunchbox Coconut Surprise. As in, “SURPRISE – this recipe sucks!”

I’m irked by the word “Surprise” in recipe names. Same goes for “Magic”. For some reason those words always apply to recipes with sweetened condensed milk.

The whole time I was subconsciously aware that Kellog’s is on the “No-Buy GMO List”. Perhaps that’s why nothing worked out for me. I can hear my mom and sister cringing back home. As am I. Russia band GMOs (which is AWESOME), but they may have forgotten about some of their imports.

(side note: if you are in California, please VOTE YES on PROP 37. Google it. It could really start to make a difference nationwide. The rest of us are counting on YOU).

There is a girl in the group that started baking things too; especially while I was gone. I’d like to pat myself on the back for being her inspiration, but then where would my humility be? She is now inspiring me to get back on the ball before my reputation is replaced altogether. How silly that I feel threatened by the new cookies and cakes on the block…

October 15, 2012


1. What’s it like living in Moscow?

It’s interesting, difficult, exhilirating, spiritually uplifting, frightening, fun, and frustrating all at the same time. We’ve been having a good time.

2. It must be so cold

The winter is freezing beyond my comprehension of freezing. Not the whole time, but a lot of the time. We walked one time on one of the coldest days and I was pretty sure that my legs had gone permanently numb – although at the same time I could feel the ice cold wind cutting through my legs like knives.

3. What is the food like?

The Russian food (so regular food) and Caucaus & Georgian food is very good and the bakeries are also pretty delicious. Almost every Italian restaurant has a sushi menu. Don’t ask me why. Almost every sushi roll has cream cheese in it. Again, don’t ask me why. We have not found the perfect buffalo wings in any restaurant or American chain, but we have come close…sort of. I feel like many dishes in international cuisine restaurants are either exaggerated stereotypes (if that makes sense) or bizarre interpretations. I wish I could get a job fixing menu translations (I’ve seen salmon spelled simon and backed instead of baked)

Ordering at a restaurant makes me feel like I am role-playing in a language class (every time)

4. What are the people like?

For the most part the people are fine. I have met so many nice people and made several dear friends that I always miss when I’m gone. Some people you will encounter seem to have a bad day every day and they take it out on you – especially if you are clueless, helpless, or pleasant.

5. Do you have an apartment there?

No. We jump around different apartments within the same company, although we have stayed in the same apartment for separate trips. They are furnished (mostly by Ikea) and are run like a hotel. They are in real apartment buildings where other Russians live.

6. What do you do there?

I don’t really know. I try to discover new things, restaurants and secrets in Moscow. I’ve been volunteering and hope to add one more project to my current one.

7. You’re Russian must be getting so good

Not really.

8. Have you gone to the theater?

Not as much as we would like. It’s on the goals list.

9. How long are you going to be traveling there?

We don’t really have a definite answer for this. It kind of depends on Andrei’s project. If it gets delayed, we keep coming to Moscow.

10. Do you prefer living in Moscow over the United States?



Updates most likely will be added as more FAQs come my way…

June 26, 2012


I think I have determined that I really just like the idea of camping, more so than actual camping. For which, by the way, no one here can seem to provide us a confirmed translation. So before a lovely trip to St. Petersburg, Andy and I went ‘na pohode’, ‘kemping’, and/or (who knows) ‘na peek-neek’ with some of Andy’s co-workers and their friends…

“Na pohode”

“Na pohode” really means more like hiking, which we did none of, therefore we can’t really call it that. Instead we sat around and alternated between eating, drinking, escaping the rain, playing charades, getting yelled at for speaking to each other in English, bartering with the neighboring campers for fish while they tried to amaze us with magic card tricks, playing Trivial Pursuit (yes, Mama and Papa, in Russian), spraying ourselves with most likely toxic amounts of bug spray, playing Twister, and picking caterpillars off of everything.

I also irrationally sulked about not having s’mores. But for this I will blame the blog (and not entirely on my husband who just didn’t have the vision in the store where I found Russian marshmallows and somehow convinced me out of buying them). How AMAZING of a blog post could have been written about introducing s’mores to people who don’t know what they are (yes, those people exist), in a foreign country, on a wacky camping trip, using Russian marshmallows, chocolate and whatever graham cracker substitute I’d have to find. This is what happens when you start blogging. Everything is constructed into a future blog post.

“Kemping” (that’s camping in a Russian accent)

“Kemping” is not considered a word by all Russians (even though we saw it in the store by the tents) so we can’t really use that either.

Whenever I go camping (or outside in Jersey in the evening) I am always eaten alive by mosquitos. I was kind of hoping since some random Muscovites I encounter don’t seem to want to acknowledge my presence that, while kemping, Muscovian mosquitos would act the same. No such luck.

Camping in America is usually restricted to special authorized areas. In Russia you can pretty much put a tent anywhere. Even, like in our case, in a field behind a sign that marks the territory as forbidden for people. I wish I could have seen mine and Andrei’s faces as we passed that sign, already after dark, on a road with deep puddles for booby traps.

The friends of our friends had made it already, so after a several hour detour that the GPS took us on, we called for directions. Andrei and I still don’t know how our friends found the place when both parties said things like this: “After you reach the dirt road there will be a pile of rocks and a butterfly sitting on a flower, take a left and then make a right at the ladybug” or “There is a field to our right and to our left, and a tree…which way do we go?” The first group to make it could remember a chunk of wood on the ground, but not deathly puddles and a No Trespassing sign.

The car after the road of puddles was another story. But despite the fact that the bumper would probably break off at the next dragonfly to whiz by (where we had to make another left, by the way), I knew it would be ok. Men here can fix broken engines with bubblegum and bottle caps.

“Na peek-neek”

“Na peek-neek” suggests a one day leisurely picnic somewhere without sleeping overnight in a tent. But we slept in a tent (for THREE nights) and didn’t have a toilet or a shower. In our tent we sat and slept through two very scary rainstorms and in another tent a couple’s cat peed twice on their blankets. During our meals bugs took baths in and had parties on all of our food. In the back of my mind were my mother’s words “…aaaaand why do people do this?” Something she says when people participate in rugged/comfort-threatening activies, or things that involve pets…or Cool Whip.

The Cat

The Bugs – don’t worry, we let them keep the leftovers

But really it wasn’t all bad. As I mentioned in my last post, Russians seem to be more intuned with nature and their naturalness in the nature made my long ago nature-y experiences come back. And although by the last day all of us were counting down the hours left of this, and I am quoting one of the girls, ‘torture’ (insert Mama: “….aaaand why…”), all in all it was a fun experience…ahem, an experience.

We (and by we I mean the others) prepared the fresh fish from the neighbors in a smoker (delicious). And also in Uha, a fish soup, over the camp fire (also pretty tasty). I tried new flavors like smoked lard (I probably won’t eat that again), dried fish (interesting), and caviar from the fish that was prepared in the soup (weird, but good).

Looking back now I would probably go “na pohode/kemping/na peekneek” again, but with a toilet and a shower. And a bed. And a kitchen. And a house.



June 21, 2012

Almost Out For the Rest of Summer

You know how when you finally decide to quit a job that is making you miserable, the last few days will inevitably seem so easy and fun. Almost enough to make you want to stay. The clients, boss or coworkers you wanted to strangle are suddenly interesting and make you laugh as opposed to make you want to jump out the window. Or as the excitement of the end of the school year approaches you suddenly like your teacher/professor’s lame jokes and are enjoying the class immensely. You become desperate to learn more and fear you will forget everything.

Of course I am not saying that we are miserable in Moscow, but I think Andrei and I are itching to get home for a bit. The heaviness one feels sometimes from living here is getting to us. And of course we miss our families. But now that our days are coming to an end, I am suddenly not ready to go. A large didn’t-do list swims in my head (much to my husband’s dismay) and makes me anxious. Places we didn’t visit, people we didn’t call or see, restaurants we didn’t try, churches we didn’t attend.

And of course after looking everywhere for Frank’s Hot Sauce or an acceptable alternative (Tabasco doesn’t really do the trick), I find one just a few weeks before our departure (a week from today!). My husband is obsessed with buffalo wings and at a loss of what to get him for his birthday (I am usually really good at gift selection) I decided to go on a full blown hot sauce search. And there it was on a shelf in a nearby grocery store – Red Devil Cayenne Pepper Sauce. How had I not noticed it before? Before all those countless let-downs at multiple restaurants with buffalo wings on their menu. “…but maybe THIS place does it right,” we would say to convince ourselves we had to order them again.

I googled Red Devil and indeed someone compared it to Frank’s. So I made a dinner of some of Andy’s favorites for his birthday. I had to do it a couple weeks early since his birthday was during lent (yes, yes…another one is currently taking place). We have a fryer at home (one of my better gift ideas) and the grocery stores sell the correct size wingette things, but here I had to make a few compromises (regular size wings because I was too lazy to cut them, baked in oven). They still turned out pretty good. Enough that Andrei started feeling sad about leaving Moscow too. Now that we could have our beloved chicken wings here.

Andrei and I have perfected buffalo wing-making for our taste. After they come out of our fryer, he tosses them in melted butter or margarine and then adds Frank’s sauce and vinegar. For this time around I just put the margarine and hot sauce in a saucepan together and added some vinegar. Then I tossed the sauce on the baked chicken wings (which I had seasoned with salt and pepper before putting in the oven).

I also made blue cheese dressing to go with the wings. If my mom wrote the 10 Commandments one of them would certainly be, “Thou shalt not use salad dressing from a bottle”. I remember the first time she came to visit us in New Jersey. I heard the fridge door open from the other room followed by, “Umm…WHAT is THAT?!” My heart stopped. I forgot to get rid of Andrei’s store-bought bottled Italian dressing! At least that was the only time (I hope) that I have really disappointed my mother. And at least I really could blame Andrei, because that stuff was certainly not mine! Nor were the squeeze bottle jam and BacOs that entered my house when my husband went grocery shopping on his own…the last time he went grocery shopping on his own.

To make the blue cheese I just mix mostly sour cream, a little bit of PLAIN greek yogurt, mayo, a tiny bit of sugar and white vinegar, a dash of salt, garlic powder and pepper and lots and lots of crumbled blue cheese. Yes, it’s not the healthiest dressing, but it’s certainly better than what you are going to buy in the store. And it tastes SO much better too (once you work out the ratios for yourself – be very careful with the yogurt and the vinegar, they ruin the taste the fastest).

One of Andrei’s favorite dessert is brownies. I found this recipe and they came out really well! The frosting on top is especially yummy. It’s funny, they tasted better with age kind of like a soup would. The next day they were even better than the first night we ate them (which made them even more delicious for my volunteer group the next day – who liked the brownies a lot!)

Another too little too late discovery was HP Sauce. It’s British and google search told me it’s sort of, but not really, comparable to A1 sauce, another one of Andy’s favorites that he misses from home. Apparently the Brits put it on EVERYTHING. It isn’t really the same as A1, but it has the same ingredients. So I bought it to surprise him with a steak dinner.

So now leaving feels completely unnecessary, right? Besides the fact that our visas run out July 1st…

I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about my last post because I am really going to miss Moscow until we hopefully return in the Fall. And perhaps some of the checklist was a little harsh. There is a lot that Russia could teach America (if my hater-of-everything-not-USA brother is reading this, he just fell backwards in his chair).

My friend shared an article with me and though I may not agree with everything, it does make some good points. I agree that Russians are more intune with nature (more <sort of> on this in my next post), and know how to rest their soul and their bodies. And although there are PLENTY of people here who seem to only care about clothes and cars, outside the borders of the city center there are many more humble, kind and spiritual people. So we will miss that.

I will miss my new friends that welcomed me so open heartedly. I will miss being forced to speak Russian. I will miss sometimes hearing church bells on Sundays and being able to buy pelmeni, borsht, sirki, and piroshki anywhere and in extensive variety. I will miss the incredible church services, all the onion domes peeking out above the buildings, and my dear dear volunteer group. A few months away from them will feel like eternity. I will even miss the few homeless men who have proposed to me, and the one who always remembers my name and that I am from the US. And I might even miss the mean check out ladies at the store that really scare me.

And I will miss the birch trees. I hope the sounds from their rustling leaves visit me in my dreams.

June 7, 2012

How to Pass as 100% Muscovite or How to Survive Living in Moscow – a checklist

Wherever you go carry a plastic bag of items irrelevant to your activities (for example: old newspapers, a washcloth and tomato seeds to a church service). Just in case.

Never smile when asking a question. Ever.

If your to-do list has 7 items on it, be realistic and cross off the 6 least important (leave them for the rest of the week)

When walking on pedestrian sidewalks be mindful of the cars

Even a trip to McDonalds is no occasion for less than 4″ heels

Always assume the person you’re standing in line behind is saving a spot for 37 more people (in other words, there is never a short line)

If you are a woman – do not attempt to lift anything over 25lbs. You are too weak. Find the nearest man.

If you are a man – deodorant and showering is optional for you. Only ride the metro if you have NOT put on deodorant or a fresh shirt. Also you should carry a man purse.

Be prepared to fill something out a minimum of 4 times. You will do it wrong at least 3 times before it is right. Guaranteed.

Have extra cash on hand for church donation plates and bribes.

Always factor in 40 minutes of aimlessly walking around the wrong metro exit when caculating travel time anywhere.

Never smile when answering a question. Ever.

Do not pay with a 1000 ruble bill for something that is 898 rubles. You must have 98 rubles in your wallet if you want to avoid complete humiliation.

Assume anyone you are speaking to is a complete idiot. Especially if they are American…and smiling.

Write down addresses – they come in several parts: street name, building number, concourse number, entrance number, buzzer number, number of minutes the doorman will hold you hostage before allowing you to proceed to the elevator, floor number, apartment number

Know exactly where you are going if entering a large office building so you can tell the guards at each of 3 checkpoints on your way in

In the spring and summer snowsuits are acceptable outfits for children if there is the slightest hint of a breeze

Feel free to consider any open space anywhere on the street or sidewalk a parking spot (if you run into any trouble, just tap into the reserved bribe money)

My personal goals (less than a month left, oops, until we are home for the summer):

To use Russian filler words when I am speaking (instead of confusing people with ‘anyway’, ‘whatever’, and ‘so’)

Start thinking in Russian (I have already dreamt in Russian #boo-ya!)

Naturally give my telephone number the Russian way – without saying each individual number like 9-6-8, but saying ninehundred sixty eight (in Russian, duh)

Automatically start counting in Russian

To remember what wagon I should be in on the metro to be closest to the correct exit

Update (9 June): To be able to open the cardboard juice boxes that just have outlines (no spout and no opening like a usual milk box that we are used to)

Disclaimer: no offence to anyone who is actually a Muscovite!

May 17, 2012

Tomato and Onion Seduction

As spring settles in, many restaurants along our street (Noviy Arbat) and others, set up their outdoor seating. Some restaurants go for a canopy hanging over simple tables and chairs, others have a full blown construction site outside their front door and produce gorgeous decks with heating lamps, blankets, exotic flower pots, etc. Regardless, I love outdoor seating. It is one of my favorite things about sunny and warm weather.

We went to the restaurant Ristoran Barashka on Noviy Arbat – we had gone there before in the winter. I was seduced by their new outdoor seating area (this happens often) and insisted that we go there immediately. Their menu has typical ‘restaurant in Russia’ items like shashlik and borsht, etc. They also have lots of stuff with lamb (obvi – barashka is lamb) like these amazing cabbage leaves (golubtsi) stuffed with lamb meat. This time I opted for rabbit kotleti (which are like oversized Russian meatballs). My husband had chicken shashlik. Both were delicious.

A table across the seating area had ordered a salad of tomatoes and grilled onions. I eyed it as soon as the waiter put it down in front of them. My vision when looking at things that are far away is not that great. I really should wear my glasses or contacts more, but I can spot pretty looking food from great distances (also pretty tablecloths, sales at Sur La Table, and giraffe print stuff). Anyway, I was mesmerized. The colors of the salad were gorgeous – bright tomato-y red and onion-y purple jumping off the white plate. I could only imagine how simple, light and amazing it tasted. Along with mushrooms and potatoes, I love onions (just not raw). Already too stuffed from our own meal I vowed right then and there to make this dish at home. It was dramatic, but very important. I kept staring at the table. They probably thought I was nuts. But it was just about the tomatoes and onions and not them. I wonder if that makes it weirder?

If anything I would just say I’m American. Which is my excuse for all awkward moments abroad. Before, I used to think this was a bad thing. Americans are loud, obnoxious and ridiculous, right? At least that’s what we were told they thought. And you could tell by their attitude that they did. So you never wanted to admit you were American. Then people loved Americans and we all had celebrity status when traveling…and now we just meddle in everything, I guess (my knowledge of politics and history certainly doesn’t help the ‘Americans are stupid’ stereotype) so they don’t like us again.

But as the guy at the table to the right of us was self-righteously barking orders at everyone and the women to the left of us were scowling at everything, including the innocent pepper shaker, I couldn’t help thinking how nice we Americans are. Now, as a former waitress of many years, maybe I am an exception, but a restaurant really has to mess up a lot for me to get super angry or annoyed. I understand that things can happen at the worst times and I understand the stress that a server might feel when something is taking too long in the kitchen or they forgot to leave out pickles, or you forgot to bring someone’s water, or someone ordered something that the kitchen, unbeknownst to you, JUST ran out of. Or you accidentally swiped the same card twice on a split bill. Or the server coming in after you just called out and you have to stay. Great servers make mistakes and really good restaurants can have an off night. It’s life.

Anyway, that night (I can’t remember if it was night or day because it stays so light out until about 10pm) happened to be a bad night for that particular restaurant. The weather was nice and we were enjoying the sunshine as the world passed us by on Noviy Arbat so I was already in a fabulous mood. I could wait all day for my meal. It certainly felt like I did. But I was happy doing so. Smiling, being pleasant with the servers, enjoying the moment. It gave Andrei extra time to check out Twitter and sports scores on his iPhone – so we were both set.

The people around us though should have just taken a raincheck and stayed home. Guy on our left was really peeved that the hookah specialist hadn’t come up to him for 20 minutes. I wouldn’t come up to him either since he was yapping on his cell phone for that entire 20min and wouldn’t stop if any restaurant person approached him. Then he felt he had waited too long to get his hookah. Then they couldn’t bring the beer fast enough. Then he could only pay with cash (and he wanted to pay with credit card) and I was ready for my beatiful outdoor setting to come crashing down on our heads. Not only does he have to complain to them like crazy, he gets back on his cell phone to tell his friend about it. And he is loud and it is incredibly irritating.

Snippy girls on our left just couldn’t be happy about anything. Probably not about their failed facelifts either.

I’m not saying all Russians are like this. Just maybe most in Moscow. And there are certainly things here that Russia could teach America.

But in that moment I was proud to be an American. Gracious, friendly, and understanding.

The following night I re-created the tomato onion salad and it turned out great. The flavor combination of the tart tomatoes and the sweet (and in some places a little charred) onions just really hit the spot. It was really simple to make too.

I tossed sliced red onions (I later used white, which also worked well, but I think red is better) in some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of brown sugar. Then I spread them out on a lined sheet pan. I put them in a very hot oven and just kept track of them, so they wouldn’t burn. Somewhere in there I gave them a turn so they could roast a bit on the other side. While they were roasting I cut up some plum tomatoes (the ones here importated from Holland are so good!! I normally don’t prefer plum tomatoes. Early girls from California would also be amazing probably) and sprinkled them with salt to let them sit and release their flavors. Once the onions were done I added them to the tomatoes and tossed with a tiny bit more olive oil, salt and pepper. And that’s it. Such a simple dish that is so rich in flavors!

With the salad I served my very quick spaghetti alfredo. Basically I cook the pasta as per usual. Then I drain it, reserving some of the liquid and put it back on very low heat. Add a bit of butter, cream, and parm cheese and mix. Cracked pepper on top adds a lovely touch.

I also prepared some simple and tender chicken thighs to go with the rest of the meal. I seasoned the chicken thighs, seared them on a frying pan and them put them into a pot with simmering broth  until they are done (maybe about 20min? – they stay pretty tender so even if you go over you’ll be fine). I normally like to add some fresh herbs to the pot and maybe some white wine. I didn’t have either, but I had some leftover lemons so I sliced those and through them in. It really added some depth to the flavor.

We didn’t eat it outside but it was a very pleasant, light and airy dish. And no one complained that they had to wait a little to eat it.