01 September 2007

Missing Brooklyn, Loving Moscow

It seems that some readers have come to think that I’m having a miserable time cowering in fear of skinheads in Moscow. Now, I do worry about the бон-хеды. And about getting stopped by the militia who have really been cracking down on people who look like me after the train-bombing a few weeks ago and in preparation for this weekend’s celebration of the 860th anniversary of Moscow’s founding. And yeah, sure, when I read reviews of the new Caribbean art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, it makes me miss home.

But to lend some balance to my presentation of Moscow, I’ll now give you my top five things encountered here since July 2007. Cause we're all about fair and balanced, no-spin coverage here.

5. VDNKh. Call this massive exhibition space whatever you like (VVTs, if you must adhere to nomenclatural innovation), but this is a hilarious place to hang out in the summer, drink a beer, take pictures of the bizarre animals on top of the trolleys, ride the ferris wheel, note the 12-year-old girl selling pony rides light up a cigarette on her mount (left), visit the wax museum, see 4-year-olds drive miniature diesel-powered cars and witness the spectacle of high-heeled skateboarding (right). I also recently learned that there’s a Bangladeshi produce market behind the Kosmos pavilion.

4. Kvartira 44. I went to this café bar with an American friend and his Russian physicist friend who warned us not to let him drink too much because last time that happened he started smashing car windows. I knew that things would work out when we were greeted at the door by a man in mime-face who directed us to our table and the physicist immediately started with 500ml of zelenyi mark.

Then the singing started—blatnye pesni [prison songs], of which I could understand almost nothing. So I tuned it out and focused on trying to talk to the physicist’s two friends who had just showed up. Until a sudden lull in conversation when I was overcome by the sinking feeling that I was making no progress with my Russian; I really couldn’t make out one word of the song. Just as I was about to fill my glass with tears, I was given another shot and asked by the physicist if I knew Spanish because he couldn’t understand a word the mime was belting out. (Apparently the singer had switched from blatnye pesni to a ballad of latinoamerikaskaia istoriia.)

The food's supposedly pretty good here as well. Come for the swine, stay for the mime. Or vice versa, as your boat floats.

3. My produkti girlfriends. Earlier this summer, I gave you a little insight on my travails and travels in search of horseradish and ginger with the local produkti (a small grocery store/large bodega) women. In the time since, I’ve become a constant source of amusement at the store down the block. You know what’s really funny? Asking for fresh dill on 31 August, because EVERYONE knows the season is OVER. What else totally cracks up the ladies, you ask? Trying to order & pay for cheese & bread at the same register even when there is only one woman working both registers: “And I’d also like black bread.” “Yeah, in a minute. You have to get the bread at the other register! [hands me change and walks two steps to the left] Okay, now what do you want?”

But Buster, let's get down to the most important counter, you say? What will throw the beer/wine lady for a loop? Just you try asking for a bottle of a beer that only comes in cans!

Oh ladies, I look forward to your antics every afternoon. Americans who only go to supermarkets in Moscow don’t know what they are missing.

2. The never-ending search for food/ingredients I can’t get at the produkti. Black mustard seeds at the little store adjacent to the Indian café at People’s Friendship University, fresh-fried chebureki at the market by Dmitrovskaia, moong dal at the Indian spices store by Sukharevskaia, red chilies and random peppers at the Rizhskaia market. As the summer turns to autumn, selection is getting sparse, but the challenge of trying to explain/describe random spices or food is like a little vocabulary exercise every weekend. Plus, I get the amusing interactions and funny faces when I say things like: “I am looking for a spice that’s black, small, round, not too spicy and used in Indian food.” It’s like twenty questions. But better.

1. Aging intelligenty and random impresarios/artists. By far the coolest thing this summer has been sitting with old Russians and hearing about how they were almost put in the Comintern orphanage when their mother wanted to go participate in revolutionary activity in China, or what Akhmatova once told them about the 1920s, or third-hand gossip about M.N. Roy from a guy whose mother walked in Sen Katayama’s funeral in 1933, or news of the development of free jazz in contemporary Crimea, or what it was like to show up in Moscow in 1990 from India and start a graduate program without speaking a word of Russian, or how modern-day nutso writer/politico Eduard Limonov describes Madagascar in the five references to the African island one can find in his works since It’s Me, Eddie.

In other words, I’ve made myself at home, surrounding myself with unusual people and peculiar foods. Moscow has done well at providing both of these.

p.s. But the very best part, you ask? A category unto itself? Candy, shaped like a toilet, called “Hot Pot.”

Beat that, chumps.


McFly said...

You asked for dill on August 31st? I'm still laughing about that.

On another note, this post was reassuring with all its trends of continuity. Your propensity for discovering eccentric people, uncovering their most interesting stories, tracking down weird foods and above all running into mimes remains unchanged. That's a comfort to your friends back at home.

W. Shedd said...

Katja insists you can get dill in Moscow almost year round, due to belaya dacha in the region. It would seem to me that dill is something easily grown in greenhouses and would be available for import from more temperate climates virtually year round.

I mean, is there any nation on earth that uses more dill per capita than Russia?

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

OK, so the evidence seems to be in that what was funny wasn't that the dill season was over. Maybe it was funny that she was lying that the dill season was over? Maybe my produkti girlfriend just likes to kid around with me, a little at my expense? Maybe she was just laughing at my weird accented, poorly-formed Russian?

Oh, anything is possible. Even buying dill in September.

kg said...

You know about this place, right?
The store is not bad. Might have some stuff the one on Sukharevskaya doesn't...