Looks like Amsterdam

Having lived in four different countries, in two of them twice (Belgium and The Netherlands) I reminisce about each of the places, missing them all.

From Brussels I miss the Belgian ‘joie de vivre’, that people smile at you on the street, the food, the international aspect of the city. Different languages are spoken there, and you feel like you are in the centre of the world.

From Amsterdam I miss the city itself. The houses on the canals, the boats and the museums.

From Russia I miss the feeling of vastness, of freedom and deep emotions. Russians can appear as cold from exterior but if you make a friend from a Russian, you make a friend for life. I miss deep, meaningful connections.

From England I miss especially Sheffield, where I spent eleven wonderful years. I miss the roast on Sunday, Yorkshire pudding, being called ‘love’ by total strangers. I miss the British values, such as love of freedom, critical thinking and big debates. I miss the language, culture and BBC. I miss the anticipation of Christmas, because Christmas in England is definitely the best. I miss that people call dinner ‘tea’. I miss the pubs, the cosines of strangers, fish and chips on Tuesday and musical scene of a wonderful town in the north of England.

I miss them all.

Because of so much travel, I have an ideal place in my head. It looks like Amsterdam but where people speak French, with Sheffield’s hills, British pubs, amazing Belgian food and Russian philosophy of life, that teaches us that after each dark period there comes light at the end of the tunnel.

I miss that feeling now.

(me in the Netherlands)

The Dutch, Dutch coffee and Dutch borrel

Having looked at the marvels of Belgian food, let’s move to its neighbouring country and have a look at the Dutch.

The Dutch nation is situated in the Netherlands, which is a beautiful country, famous for its flatness, cosy farms, gorgeous mills, and obviously, the unprecedented amount of bikes. Bikes are everywhere, and it is a national transport. You are considered as really weird and not ‘gezellig’ if you don’t have one. It is almost a crime not to possess and ride a bike, as well as calling the Netherlands – Holland, a place, which doesn’t even exist. There is South Holland and North Holland, two provinces which are just a part of the Netherlands, but Dutch people are very tolerant, so they forgive you for this silly mistake of assuming they all come from ‘Holland’.

 Bikes are a true national trait, but so is coffee. The ritual around this divine drink isn’t replicated anywhere, not even close.

(Dutch bike)

Dutch people love coffee. Coffee is not just a drink, but an essential part of the day. Dutch people start their day with coffee, and drink it throughout the day. If you go to a canteen in the office, you won’t stumble upon tea (and if someone drinks tea, it means they come from England), you will be greeted with coffee. Coffee machine is always on, brewing.

Coffee is a Dutch institution. If you meet someone for a business meeting, or just among friends, it is usually around coffee. Even the famous Dutch expression ‘going Dutch’ was invented in relation to coffee. Dutch people don’t want to spoil their enjoyment of coffee, by sitting and thinking about who is going to pick up the bill. They know from the start that everyone pays for their own coffee, and just relax in the moment. Coffee should be enjoyed in peace, savoured in its taste, fully processed and not hurried up. They have a right to it though, as Dutch coffee is indeed a treat.

(enjoying the coffee)

Yes, Dutch people know how to make coffee. It is always made in a right way. It should never be a brown liquid, it should live up to its name. Coffee is strong, real coffee, never saved upon. While Dutch people don’t like discussing money and who earns how much, coffee is there no expense should be spared. It is probably the best-selling drink in the Netherlands. Everyone drinks it.

The first time I attended a family gathering in the Netherlands, at a birthday party of a relative of my family member, I was trying to process the awkward sequence of how food was served. It was so bizarre that back home, in Moscow, I couldn’t stop laughing about it with my friends. “Can you imagine,” I would say, “They start the party in a reverse order! They first serve coffee and cake, followed by normal food!” I was laughing about it for ages, until I moved to the Netherlands and learned the pleasure of coffee. Yes, everything starts with coffee, cake is just an accompaniment.

It is also only in the Netherlands that coffee is always served with something extra, such as a biscuit, a chocolate, or a waffle. If you know about it, you don’t even need to order a dessert. The dessert comes with coffee, included in the price. It is such a luxury, that no one can really accuse the Dutch of being not exuberant enough. Just look at how coffee is served, always and everywhere, and you will witness the ultimate exuberance. Here in the Netherlands I drink coffee, lots of it, strolling from one small cosy café to another (takeaways at this moment), ordering it after dinner, and during lunch. I savour it, I enjoy it, I study the different biscuits which come with it.

(coffee and a treat)

Coffee is not, of course, the only best thing about the Netherlands (though, extremely important!), it is also their bread and the national ‘gezelligheid’ called the ‘borrel’. Both words are difficult to translate, as is usually the case with true and unique cultural traditions, but I will try to explain.

Dutch people really love the word ‘gezellig’, and for a good reason, as it defines them as a nation. The term can be translated as ‘cosy’, but it implies so much more. ‘Gezellig’ is not just ‘cosy’, it is the whole essence of total relaxation, cosiness, and also of enjoying the moment. And ‘gezelligheid’ is the ultimate cosiness, achieved in the company of good friends, usually around coffee or a good Dutch ‘borrel’. ‘Borrel’ is an event. It is going out with friends and colleague to enjoy some nice drinks, and preferably around ‘borrel hapjes’. If you order a borrel on the Dutch menu, you will get the ultimate tapas. A selection of delicious snacks, that you can enjoy with a good glass of wine or beer, while having a good moment with your friends. It is a tradition, a perfect event to enjoy friendship, nice drinks, and great food, all in one go. It is indeed ‘gezellig’, it is indeed the absolute ‘gezelligheid’.

(Dutch borrel)

And so, to summarize, if you ever go to the Netherlands, and you want to enjoy it as a Dutch, you need to borrow a bike, drink lots of coffee, order a ‘borrel’, and try their bread. It is thin, melting in the mouth, coming in different colours. The brown bread is not just brown bread, it’s darker brown, or lighter brown, with seeds, or plain, perfect accompaniment for any dish!

The Netherlands is ‘gezellig’.

(cheers!)

J’adore la langue franҫaise

You need to fall in love with a language in order to master it and to have the desire to speak it fluently.
I fell in love with the French language when I was thirteen, and living in Moscow. I was attending a linguistic college, but I was more interested in socializing rather than studying.
But then one day I met a new teacher. My mum sent me to her. It was a private tutor. I liked her as soon as I saw her. She opened the door to a very messy apartment, full of dogs, books, and all kinds of rubbish.
She sat me on the chair, and produced a cake, and then she started to talk to me, in French.
“I lived in Montpellier,” she told me. “I lived there for seven years. It was a town of magic, not far from the sea, with different colours, interesting people, and great food.”
I thought I couldn’t understand French before I met my new teacher, but when she was talking, I could follow her. Maybe it was the way she was describing Montpellier, or maybe it was her cake. It was delicious, and I liked being in her cosy apartment. Everywhere I looked, there was stuff. Pictures, candles, interesting books, some antique, two beautiful dogs.
I fell in love with the French language during my first lesson with her.
And this love stayed. When you fall in love with a language, you enter into a parallel universe. You enter into the field of that language, the magic of its particular music. 
When I speak French, I am a different person. I am more romantic, I am shyer, I discuss random things: books, music, philosophy, Russia. I start thinking in French when I speak it, and I like the sound of it in my own head. The voices I hear are in French. They sing to me a very beautiful music.
French language is a language of music. If I would assign a piano concerto to it in its quiet mood, it would be Chopin Nocturne op.9 No.2, and something like Stromae (incredible Belgian singer) in expressing the language when one wants to dance.
Pourquoi pas?
I see the colour blue in French, just like in that movie (Les trois Couleurs: Bleu) with beautiful Juliette Binoche. I see the beauty of Sophie Marceau, la Tour Eiffel, Le Louvre, and the philosophy of Michel Foucault. I see my favourite writer, Amelie Nothomb, and the town which I love the most, Brussels. I see the marvel of my favourite painters, the impressionists. I hear prefect French when I listen to Zazie.
The French language is like a flower, it is delicate, it is fragile. One needs to approach it with care. When I first came to Brussels to study, at the age of nineteen, I remained silent for the first six months. I started to talk only when I judged that my French was perfect enough to start self-expressing. French is the sound of love, it is the sound of romantic adventures, of people who love discussing serious things, who love great food, good wine, and self-criticism.
La langue franҫaise est une langue d’amour. (French is the language of love)

I love the French language. J’ adore la langue franҫaise.

(I love French language)

My Moscow

Let’s make a break in psychiatry and return to Russia for a bit, my country, my native land.

I was born into a truly picturesque environment, I was born in Moscow. If you ever plan a trip to Russia, I really advise you NOT to miss that place. Moscow has the true Russian architecture, with its magnificent Kremlin, decorating the central space. There is also a mausoleum of Lenin there, something I never visited and never will, but let’s ignore a small negativity of the legacy of some Egyptian traditions to mummify a dead body, and move on towards the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed,  known as St. Basil Cathedral, and also as Pokrovsky Cathedral, built from 1551 to 1561 on the decree from Ivan the Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.

The Cathedral is more than magnificent, it is truly, I feel, a symbol of Russia and of Russian Orthodox Christianity. It stands tall and proud across the Moscow river, and when you drive past it at night, you land up in a magical domain, once you see it illuminated, like a star in a beautiful night. It shines by its beauty, and it shines its Christianity. It is a partial museum now, and when on a visit there, I always felt that it should be restored as a proper church. I know that from 1991 Church services restarted there, which is a blessing, of course.

The grave of the Russian Saint, Saint Vasily is there, the Russian Holy Fool (read about holy foolishness on my post here), and it has a shape of a bonfire, a design that is totally unique and as Dimitry Shidkovsky, described in his book ‘Russian Architecture and the West’, “It is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to the fifteenth century…a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design.” (2007, p. 126).

Moscow is full of magical, unexpected places. It is a unique combination of old and new, where almost each corner presents something wonderful and unique, and is truly Russian. If I return to Russia as a tourist, I will start with Moscow, and then proceed to the golden ring, and definitely not miss Suzdal, a city full of churches, but let’s take a walk in Moscow first.

My favourite place to hang out was always the Old Arbat and then walking towards the Kremlin across the bridge, right down to the Oktiabriaskaya underground station. Or turn right after leaving the Arbat and walk through the boulevard park towards Ostozhenka, where the Linguistic University can be found (former Institute of Foreign Languages, where I studied for a year, before moving to Brussels to continue my other degree in languages there). The Old Arbat is a pedestrian street, favourite of the artists, and vagabonds. It always attracted weird crowds of people, and that’s maybe I loved it so much. I felt like a part of the crowd of interesting, unusual people, of artists, painters and performers. My other best friend, Sergei, would often take me there, and we would chat and drink with his friends of the University of Film and Cinema (BGIK) where he studied to become an actor.

The Old Arbat has many interesting cafes, where one can get a good impression of how Russian people eat. It is always a nice warm meal, very delicious, as how pancakes, pastries, delicious porridges, fresh bread from the oven, and the incredible influence we got as legacy from Georgia and Armenia, can not taste good? Tea is more popular than coffee, and drinking tea is a proper ritual. If you are invited for a tea to the Russian family, except a feast. People in Russia, and my native town, are extremely hospitable. You will need to go on a diet, I guarantee you that. Russian host will bring everything he or she has on the table. Last time I was back in Moscow, my best friend, Masha, prepared a table that an army could eat. She made me my favorite meatballs, numerous salads, pastries, and a cake. My other best friend, Anya, made for me a special chicken and a salad of shrimps under the mayonnaise, that is now my signature dish if I am hosting.

I used to love walking in Moscow. I would spend days on it. After finishing my classes at the University, I would walk towards the Park of Culture, and admire the tress, and the lake, and then walk towards the Crimea Bridge and admire my native city. From the Crimea bridge that connects the underground station of Park of Culture and Oktyabriaskaya, one can get a glimpse of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and see the House of Artist, where I used to attend lessons in drawing, and that always has interesting, unique expositions.

Moscow is huge, and as a whole, does reflect well the Russian culture. It has churches with bells, numerous parks, incredible underground station, and people that read. One of the most amazing book shops, called Dom Knigi stands proud on the New Arbat, and if you are lucky one day to travel on the Moscow’s underground station, you will get the impression that you travel in a moving library. Everyone reads. Rides are long to connect people who go to work or to study, and they use this time with wisdom: they read.

At night the center is illuminated and if you do believe in magic, you will notice, that you are indeed in a magical land. I left my native, my beloved city at the age of nineteen to study in French in Brussels, another city I fell in love with. But I will tell you more about Brussels in another post.

(a view of Moscow with my best friend, Masha)

P. Tchaikovsky – Pas de Deux (‘The Nutcracker’

Belgium and her delicious food

But let’s stay in Brussels for a while and explore little bit of Belgium.

How do we judge a country? How do we make of it a definite impression? What is it what comes on our mind when we think of our travels to a particular destination? Architecture? Museums? People?

And how do we remember a country when one happened to spend in it good 6 years in total? Not as a tourist, but as an integrated citizen, as a part of local culture, as a person who fell in love with the local culture totally, absolutely and with no remaining reservations?

What kind of special memories come into the mind?

I went to Brussels when I was 19. An option was presented for me to study in my favourite language, French, and I took it, even if I had everything going on for me in Moscow, my home town.

At that age I was open to different possibilities, for the adventure in life, and since the French language was the love of my life (together with George Michael and Wham), I thought: ‘why not?’ ‘Why not to go and explore?’

Having located Belgium on the map I was also apprehensive of my relocation there. After all I was used to Moscow and its vastness, to big large streets and the openness of the mind and the soul. I was used to long philosophical discussions about everything and nothing, to friends for life, and the stability of the security that only living in the ‘home’ country can bring, when you know the culture, the hidden rules, and how to navigate the local bureaucracy.

Would I ever feel at home, at ease in a different land?

I knew I ended up in a country with humour, as soon as I met my new landlord.

“You know, I had two Russian ladies staying in the room in which you are going to live, right before you,” the landlord was telling me, and I thought that he would comment on their Russianness, on something which would stand out as a cultural characteristic. Instead, he carried on:

“Both were as thin as you when they arrived, but were, how to put it, ladies with curves, when they left,” and he started to laugh, in that deep Belgian mode, when life is good, and is there to enjoy it to the fullest.

I think I also produced a chuckle, not to appear as rude in the camaraderie making, but inside of me, I obviously, dismissed the thought as ridiculous. No way was I putting on any weight, and why should I?

I had no idea at that point that landlord had presented me with the absolute truth of the Belgian nation, one of its basic cores: Belgians and their food, total love for it, unshameful consumption of it as one of the biggest pleasures in life, its presentation in the most tempting mode, the beauty of it as a given, as a must, as part of life if you are in Belgium.

We don’t know about this fact as tourists, do we really? French, the neighbours of Belgians, are, of course, known much more for their food, and are presented to us as connoisseurs, as the masters of that particular domain. Belgians are less known for their food, but I started to suspect while living there, that it isn’t just the humbleness of Belgian nation which is behind, it is also some sort of guarded secret, something about which they don’t shout out in order not to spoil it, to preserve it, to enjoy it among the loved ones, among friends.

The morning after I woke up in my student room I was confronted almost at once with the beauty of local food, with a temptation that I had never experienced before and haven’t seen anywhere else since. You stroll on the street and you see different bakeries, and bakeries are not like anywhere else. They have some mysterious beauty behind each window, the sweetness of presentation that asks you to come in, to buy a cake, return home, realise that it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten in your entire life, run back, buy more, and then end up buying several cakes at once, as a reserve of a never ending pleasure.

And it isn’t, of course, just the cakes and the bakeries that make the enjoyment of food so amazing in Belgium. It is everywhere, the beauty of food experience, literally on every corner. Even such a simple fact as ordering a sandwich for lunch is never really simple in Belgium. It becomes an art, an art of ordering a sandwich.

I remember how, when I worked in one Belgian company as a recruiter, we would spend at least twenty minutes with colleagues of thinking what we should have for lunch. Sandwiches don’t come up as just sandwiches when your order them from a local deli. They have special fillings. Coronation chicken being the most boring choice. In Belgium they have crevettes, crevettes with tomatoes and special mayo sauce, or chicken in spices coming in home-made sauce, or sandwich filled with something called ‘chicken a la provincale’ and when it comes, and you taste it, it is absolutely delicious and melting in the mouth. And it is all wrapped, of course, in a delicious bread, usually la baguette, always fresh, made in the morning.

Even shopping for groceries becomes a pleasure in Belgium. Nowhere else had I seen such a choice of food. It is tempting, because each shelf has some delicacies on it. Famous Belgian chocolate, waffles in all kinds of shapes and with all kinds of fillings, different breads, the most exotic yogurts. If Danone produces a new coconut yogurt and pulls it out of some markets because of lack of adventure on the part of local population, you can be sure to find this yogurt in Belgian supermarkets. When I go to Brussels, even if I stay in a hotel, I make sure I buy this yogurt and I even took several packages of it back to the UK, where I used to live.

Restaurant experience is indeed an experience in Belgium. It isn’t just going out for a meal, it is a special trip, a well-planned and so much anticipated adventure. Most restaurants are closed on Monday evening, and even Sunday evening, they really need this time off for all the pleasure of gastronomy they offer on other days.

In Belgium they serve the quality of best French (actually better!) cuisine, with much bigger portions and much cheaper! Belgium has some traditional dishes, of course, which hint at the character of the nation. It is warm, with a twist, leaving room for imagination. There is waterzooi, which is either fish or chicken stew, so pleasant to eat on a cold day. There are ‘moules’ (mussels) which come from the North sea, larger and tastier than in any other country.

The Belgian fries are a delicious treat that can be found for a snack at the corner shops, but are also served as a tasty side dish in the poshest restaurants, even though it is hard to describe any restaurant in Brussels as posh! They are all cosy and friendly, where owners stop for a chat with customers, everyone laughs and shares stories among friends. Belgian people are very welcoming and friendly.

Then there is ‘stoemp’, mashed potatoes blended with all kinds of vegetables, it can either be served on its own, or as a side dish, a real treat with a twist when you want something different as accompaniment to the main dish.

Chocolate, the best of it, comes, of course, from Belgium. Leonidas, Godiva, Neuhaus, my first additional five kilos (which started to pile up on the next day of my arrival to the country) came just from chocolate, the delicious Belgian pralines.

Drinks are also made with a twist, it isn’t just cider or prosecco, it comes as ‘kir royale’, some sparkling wine served with a syrup, with a cherry or strawberry on top.

If you are invited to someone’s else house for dinner, you really need to make sure not to eat the whole day in advance, because it is physically hard to leave a table full of food, served with wine, laughter, and that Belgian ‘esprit de bonvivance’ (a spirit of fun, benevolence). Even foreign cuisine has something ‘extra’ in Belgium. The Greek food becomes the best Greek food, German dishes become best German dishes, and even Italians don’t complain about the quality of pizzas in Belgium.

While French keep quiet, and might have many jokes about Belgians, they don’t really comment about Belgian food. They do know that it is their biggest competitor in a battle that if presented to a real judge, might not even lead to a victory! And they can’t compete with the amount of beers which can be found in Belgium, and they can’t compete in the domain of ‘cosiness’. If I am really hungry, I would prefer to end up in a Belgian restaurant, as I am sure that I will get enough food!

After a year of my life in Brussels I was totally and absolutely in love with the city and Belgian way of life. I was also in love with the local food, something which was clearly showing in my extra ten kilos I had managed to gain. I ended up avoiding my landlord all together, to escape his jokes, and at some point I was obliged to go on a diet and learn to adapt. Yes, food is so good in Belgium that one has to learn how to control the craving!

I love Belgian food and I love Belgium.

(me in Brussels when I was 20 years old, with my additional ten kilos)

The Abbey in Brussels and the devil next to it

It was while I was living in Brussels that I couldn’t enter the abbey.

The abbey in Brussels is a truly beautiful view. It is spread on top of the lakes, called ‘Les Etangs d’Ixelles’, a really impressive construction, consisting of several amazing buildings, a church, and a beautiful park. I always wondered as to why not that many people walked on the grounds, but now I feel that maybe there was a reason. The abbey is meant only for those who truly seek, and so are her stunning grounds.

I had bought an apartment in Brussels, which was almost overlooking the abbey. One could see it from my balcony and it was a minute of walk away, across the ‘Avenue Louise’ with its posh shops and fancy restaurants. It is among my favorite areas in Brussels, a city where all together I spent six years in total, first as a student, and then as a headhunter in a really nice and good company which would find candidates for jobs that no one else could.

The apartment turned out to be a rather sad affair. There were constantly some problems with the structure of the whole building, with pipes bursting, and strange sounds coming at night. I also had there quite weird dreams, and once I moved to the apartment, construction works started to take place on my street, but this is something I seem to attract in my life. Once I move somewhere and try to call it home, big, complicated works follow my place of residence.

Tired of all the works and constant sounds I run one day out of my house, literally seeking some help. It was logical in my mind that a place of respite should be the abbey, and that I could do with staying there for a while, and the church is a nice place to be, for which my soul constantly cries in my sleeps and also my daily reality. Once I moved to Brussels I had a terrible dream with my soul longing to be in The Cathedral of Saint Vasily the Blessed in Moscow, and it was devastating to wake up and realise that I was, geographically speaking, too far away, and that there was something, or rather someone preventing me from entering the church. That someone is the evil or maybe just a bad person, who knows? But it wasn’t the devil, as depicted in the scary Christian narratives. He looked more like a man, who, by some terrible mistake, got in charge of a church, while he shouldn’t. Little but like the Vatican, which is, of course, a terrible truth to admit.

saint vassili

I took my bag from the apartment and precipitated towards the abbey. I was aiming at the church directly, but now I think that maybe instead, I should have knocked at the door of one of the abbey’s buildings and asked for immediate help. But I started to run towards the church and when I reached its doors, there was an angry man in front, with a dog next to him, and to whom he was throwing peaces of bread.

“Here, take it, take it!” the man was shouting at the dog and I pitied the dog as it seemed that the creature was under some sort of a nasty spell.

The dog run towards me when he saw me, licking my hand and obviously, wanting to stay next to me, but the man summoned the dog back towards him, and remained standing, guarding the doors to the church and swearing at me.

“You – dirty woman!!!” He shouted at me again and again, and I couldn’t proceed to the doors, enter the church and ask for help, while I was struggling and there was no one around and even birds stopped singing at that moment. It was just me, and the evil man with the poor dog next to the church. And for a brief second I felt that this was an entrance to the Vatican metaphorically speaking, hidden in the alley in Brussels. Brussels is a complicated city, with different languages and cultures, and where the administration of the European Union takes the whole geographical area, with a train travelling from Brussels to Starbucks transporting the employees for some sort of a meeting, on a regular basis and on enormous budget. The corridors of the administration of the European Union are not an easy task to grasp for any mind, and if I would compare it to a book, a novel of Agatha Christie comes to mind, or maybe Proust’s ‘A La recherché du temps perdu.” It is a long, complicated read, similar to the administration of the European Union, even if, of course, it is a cause for good, and it was created to avoid another world war.

Who was the man, I still wonder? There was such a strong negativity around him that there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t pass him and was stopped from entering the church, a beautiful, quiet space, hidden on the grounds of the abbey. Desolated and scared I walked away like a bitten dog, and proceeded to march towards the lake, and then up towards la rue d’Ixelles, and my soul was crying and so was I.

la cambre abbey Brussels

(La Cambre abbey in Brussels)

One Russian New Year

Due to the absence of most grocery products in the 1990s in Russia, people had to develop quite remarkable culinary skills. One had to be truly inventive in order to come up with any interesting dishes, besides a piece of bread with butter (and even butter was at some point totally unavailable in the shops). I remember the period when we would eat either cabbage pies for weeks in a row, or spaghetti with minced meat for months in one go. One would get used, however, to such a simple life quite quickly: if there was nothing available, one had no choice but to adapt.

Being a teenager during that difficult period in the history of Russia, I wasn’t paying much attention to it, unless I was confronted with it directly, like when I had to buy floor and sugar with vouchers or think strategically about how to store bread in a freezer. Most of the time, I was preoccupied with other things, such as where to get a new book in the French language, how to get more tickets to my favourite theatre, and where our next escapade with my best friend would take in the city. Were there so many new things to discover in our native town adjusting itself to a new, very weird ideology, where all those who had been proclaiming ‘to each, according to their needs’, would suddenly become busy with setting up their new businesses, mostly small corner shops, which would start selling vodka but also an array of American goods, such as Cocal-Cola, Snickers, Mars, and Marlboro Light. It was strange to observe the sudden interest of my nation in all things American right when shops still stood empty of the goods most needed on a daily basis, like bread or milk.

But during one winter in Moscow, I had to learn how to be creative and inventive like the rest of the local population. One could fill oneself with Mars and Coca-Cola only to a certain extent. It lost its appeal and even flavour after a couple of months or so. After all it wasn’t what we had grown up with, and the taste was even disappointing after a while. Russian people are more used to a simpler taste, and their own selection of favourite dishes, that one starts to crave after some time passes. And then it comes to traditional festive period, Russian people have to have what they have been used to since years. On the eve of the New Year, which is the main festive day in Russia, one always expects to celebrate it with the traditional Russian dishes, such as venegret (a Russian salad), Olivier salad, roast, potatoes, Vodka and medovik (Russian honey cake).

In 1992 I was invited to attend the New Year celebration at a friend of my boyfriend then, who studied at the university of cinematography in Moscow. I never declined invitations coming from people studying at that prestigious place as these were the funniest and most outgoing bunch of people I’d ever met in my entire life. They were all studying acting and it reflected in how they were in real life. Something interesting was always happening in their lives, and the group where my boyfriend studied had the most remarkable characters. The oldest daughter of Nikita Mikhalkov was among the group, and while the current celebrity culture was totally absent then, I was still in awe. I was at the final years of secondary school then, and for me it was an outlet to a grown-up, much more interesting and exciting world.

I was always invited to all their events for also ulterior motives on the part of the group. I was extremely talented in making the cake Medovik, based on a secret, passed through generations of my step-mum recipe. Every time there was a party they would call me, and after asking me whether I was interested to join, add as an after-thought: “Ekaterina, do you think you can bring your cake, please, as well?” Despite the fact that the cake would take hours to make and had to be made the day before to acquire the melting taste, I never minded to deliver. It was fun to be among them, drinking like a grown-up, dancing till dawn, witnessing the improvised acting on a script written during the gathering.

In 1992 shops, while getting better (one could at least make a cake based on what was on offer), still stood empty of the products that were needed the most for a New Year’s party, such as sausages (necessary for salad Olivier), or even peas. But Andrei, the friend of my boyfriend, had procured the sausages for the part, and this was a task assigned to me for the party preparation. I had to cut them all for our planned salads. It would be actually our main dish (the salad), since we hadn’t managed to get any meat for the roast. That and my three Medovik cakes, that Andrei had hidden as soon as I arrived so that others wouldn’t eat it before the party would start. They really liked my cake. The secret ingredients were the chocolate topping and roasted nuts in the crème, plus, in reality, the recipe was absolutely different from all known medoviks on the market, but this fact I kept for myself. It was named ‘medovik’ and thus, stayed called so.

Andrei had a big dog who was affected by the absence of products like all of us. He was constantly starving and had to eat the cat food for a year or so, when shops suddenly got a big supply of Whiskas and of nothing else. It was a very friendly, outgoing creature, just constantly starving.

How could we have forgotten that fact, I still wonder today? How come we totally missed the dog in the picture of our party? Maybe because the dog was sleeping in the corner during our preparations, lurking, as if invisible, sniffing the delicious sausages, being cut for the main dish for twenty people or so.

It took me two hours to cut the sausages, and I deposited the huge bucket with them on the table when I was done and went for a cigarette break. Some other people stayed behind in the room. Maybe if it was just me, I would remember the dog in the corner. But we all forgot. Others had left the room shortly after me, and it was only ten minutes or so later that I heard a shriek from Andrei coming from the room:

“Where, the fuck, are the sausages???”

We all rushed to the room and stared into the bucket. It was empty. As in a slow movie we moved our heads to acknowledge the dog, not anymore sleeping, but leaking his paws with a satisfied grin. He was the culprit, but who could blame him really? It was New Year’s eve after all, and the dog had his best meal in years.

As to us, we had to improvise on the spot and prepare the salad without any meat. But we had enough of medovik cakes, and some vodka, and the story of the dog became the best joke we had for years.

It was, of course, one of the best parties in my life. Because it was around experience of fun and laughter and unexpectedness of life, sometimes, harsh, sometimes, better, and not around consumption, buying of useless stuff a year ahead, and expensive overpriced presents that no one really needs for a happy and cheerful life.

Best moments in life lie in their simplicity.

devich90_5

Moscow and the arrival of capitalism

I was a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly I found myself in a new country and in a new regime.

As things go in life, when you have to live through the unbelievable, you adjust pretty quickly, especially when you are young.

Still, the changes that my country was undergoing right before the collapse, and after, were remarkable.

It started with the emergence of ‘lareks’, the small ugly compact boxes decorating almost every street in Moscow, selling stuff. These were the first visible signs of capitalism, offering everything from coca-cola, mars chocolate, and spirits to tampons and cigarettes.

larek.png

(example of Larek)

No one was even thinking of checking for age, and together with my best-friend, Masha, we took advantage of this new development at once. We would stroll to one of such shops after school, buy coca-cola and cigarettes, and then stroll to the McDonald restaurant in the centre of the city for more ‘delights’. It was the first real fast-food event in our city, and therefore, very noticeable. The queue to the place would stretch for a kilometer, with people eager for the Big Mac and apple pies. Masha and I were still at school, we had plenty of time, and so, spending an hour at least in a queue, was really a minor matter, considering the joy of discovering McDonald when you are fourteen/thirteen, the age which is so easily corrupted by the allure of fast, unhealthy food. We would go for the big mac meal, together with milkshakes, and apple pies, barely able to walk after each feast at the ‘restaurant’. Smoking our cigarettes bought at the ‘larek’ as a complimentary measure following the escapade to McDonald, we would make plans for our new discoveries, ‘things to follow, to try’.

bbc world first macdonalds

The world suddenly turned upside down, and for Masha and me, it represented new undiscovered adventures. Everything seemed possible, everything was allowed. There was no one to explain that cigarettes were bad, or that fast-food was unhealthy. We could do anything we wanted, and when you are at that daring age of fourteen, you, obviously, dare to pursue the temptations.

I remember the day when we first entered the casino in the centre of Moscow, situated at the prestigious hotel in the centre. Our aim was really unclear, we didn’t plan any playing or betting, but we wanted to have a look. Having established that anything, absolutely anything was possible in our new brand world, called the ‘capitalism’, we started to push the boundaries to a tricky and often, dangerous extent.

We wanted to be clever, we wanted to be smart. We were too young for the grown up world in its whole glory, but the truth was clear to our eyes: in the new regime, under the new ideology, the crown belonged to those who overcame the rules, bent them, and went for what they wanted. At that time we wanted to be among the grown-ups, and thus, we went to where the adults had fun. The adults who seemed to rule the new world, based on money and status. That first entrance to the casino was our first appearance among the cool ones, and since it had worked (we got the entry), we tried all other, prestigious and luxurious places.

Masha and I would dress in what we judged to be smart clothes, while in reality, it was what most of Moscow was wearing at that time. Clothes were still rare, at least, interesting, clothes, but I was luckier than others because my mum worked in Italy then and would bring me good stuff, while Masha had extremely resourceful mum.  Masha, would simply borrow her sophisticated, beautiful dresses.

We would turn up at the entrance to the casino or the most prestigious club for foreigners, and play a game of getting in. Bouncers were strict, because these places were reserved strictly for the nouveu-riches or wealthy foreigners, and thus, we would start speaking French with Masha hundreds metres before approaching the bouncers. We attended a French school in Moscow, you see.

“Hello,” I would say to the bouncer, smiling in a conspiratory matter, as if I was about to unveil a bombshell. “This is the famous singer, Margerite Condounois, coming directly from Paris. I am her translator,” I would point towards Masha, leaning towards us as if she couldn’t understand a word, and then switch to a whispering mode to continue with my tale, “Miss Condonois is incognito here, to look at how the locals live, to relax little bit, so, please, make sure, it stays private,” I would then slip a note of some roubles into the hand of a bouncer, and proceed to the entrance. The money was very little (less than a pittance for a tip), because we didn’t have any, but it worked each and every time. Wherever we went, we were let in.

Now in retrospect, I think it worked because of the obvious lie. We looked too young to be international stars or translators, and on top of it, Masha looked way too Russian (distinctive Russian cheeks and blue eyes) , while it was me who could pass for a French, with some difficulties. And because of such a visible ‘oversight’ in our story, we were allowed to proceed, since the bouncers and security always believed in what we were saying. The opposite could pass for a truth, in case we were lying, that was their assumption.

As a result, Masha and I, attended the best casinos, restaurants, clubs, theatre performances, managed to get into the ‘White House’ twice, and into a private party of an oligarch in the making. Masha even went on stage to perform some songs in French (she could indeed sing), and we ended up being paid on several occasions.

We exited the narrative of the life of the glory and the rich, when we both realized that we were after different things. We wanted to study, to be independent, to discover the world, to read books, and to remain young, care-free girls for longer, instead of turning into ‘gold-diggers’.

As a result, despite the absolute madness of that times, I am also grateful that I discovered the inside of it, the inside of what it means when one lives one’s life based on money, power, and more money. Each time Masha and I succeeded to enter the world of the powerful and wealthy, it led to a terrible disappointment. There was nothing of real interest there, no real discussions, no interesting talks, no spontaneity. No philosophy, no deepness, no soul, and no real laughter. We looked, we observed, and we made our minds. We wanted to remain in that old world, in that space in between the ideologies, where feelings, people, and soul discovery mattered more than one’s bank account.

Ironically, we remained true to our convictions, where life is interesting on a daily basis, when you look for something deeper than money and status.

masha and me

(The view of Moscow with my best-friend Masha, five years ago)