Saturday, 31 October 2009

Snow!! (well, kind of)

It has begun to snow, and of course I have been getting very over-excited. Since arriving, I have been romantically anticipating a city covered in layers of snow (deep and crisp and even); and also thinking of it, anxiously, as a purchasing opportunity for all the fur-lined clothing I will need to survive.

So slightly disappointed (and simultaneously relieved) that this is only a flurry of fine powder, thinly spread.

Handy hints for travelers 6: toilets

Moscow is very well supplied with public toilets; most metro stations have ranks of prefab units outside, which cost 20 or 25 rubles. These are basic, but perfectly clean. What I like most is the way the attendants customise one of the cubicles as a 'little home' to sit in.

As most travel guides point out, there are almost no facilities for disabled people here, but there are now a couple of prefab disabled toilets near Red Square - which of course are the ones taken over by the attendant, since the space is bigger.

I was told by a colleague that these disabled facilities (and the quite absent-minded and random addition of yellow painted 'pimple' paving at some junctions) are the response to a campaign by writers and artists for the rights of disabled people, but have not been able to find out anything else - can anyone add some light on this?

Friday, 23 October 2009

Another highspot

Went on a great walking tour last weekend with a group called MosMania. It was slightly complicated (and long) because it involved first having to join the official Moscow State University (MSU) tour which was very long-winded and 'official'; and then sneaking off after to see things from a student's perspective (the people who took us around are/were students at the university).

The reasons for going to MSU is that it is one of Stalin's skyscrapers (constructed in the 1950s and without much change from those days), and it is located on Sparrow Hills, so with great views over the city.

There was also the student Autumn Ball in progress, so we were surrounded by young people in dinner jackets and shiny ballgowns, practicing their dancing, talking on their mobile phones, waiting anxiously for partners; all of which added to the particular character of the place. Amazing soviet classical detailing (built by prisoners - both returning Russian prisoners of war from Germany and low-grade political prisoners) plus old-fashioned lecture halls and seminar rooms, with the kind of wooden desks which suggest Victorian Board Schools; and then a huge basement of facilities, including a swimming pool, and accommodation (which we didn't see) for 6,000 students on site - a whole self-contained world in fact.

And the same old mix of Soviet, contemporary, elegant, decrepit or just plain weird bits and pieces that I have mentioned before.

handy hints for travelers: 5 - highspots

Been looking out for places 'up high' to look down on the city. The 02 lounge at the Ritz Carlton is one, with a great roof terrace overlooking the Kremlin and a funky if over-designed cafe. Not cheap but a great place to lounge (for some reason these chairs reminds me of The Prisoner - a reference that will only work for a certain age-group and location).

Another recommendation that I have read about, but not been to yet, is the Russian Academy of Sciences (Leninsky Prospekt, 32a; nearest metro: Leninsky Prospekt, website - -so any comments on that welcome also.

Handy Hints for travellers 4: Cures for a cold?

Been off work for a week with a head cold, which is expected I think, as I work my way through the Russian virus variations. Everyone thinks of this as the cold and flu season; actually of many illnesses - the people I work with consider that Russians are a sickly lot. This is not just with the flu/грипп (gripp), or headcold/насморк (nasmork) or chill/простуда(prostida) but also with all sorts of minor headaches and tiredness; unusually put down to barometric pressure or electro-magnetic forces.

As to remedies - well I used vitamin C, but the main recommendation was a product based on (so I was told) chicken blood called оциллококцинум. Yes, I know, and I haven't tried it. Well, not yet.

Against generalisations

Found myself reading the Economist the other day (not a thing I do often, just one of those magazines that comes free to flying travellers) and noticed that they no longer refer to developed/developing countries, or even industrialised/emerging economies. No, now they just say 'rich' countries. I couldn't find the matching term for the 'rest' (the 'other' as post-colonialists like to put it)- presumably even the Economist doesn't want to call them simply poor countries.

And I also couldn't work out which were the rich countries. America obviously. But China, Russia? What do they mean by rich? GNP? Lots of wealthy people? A booming economy? But it did get me thinking, because one of the things about living in Moscow compared to, say, London, is that the evidence/appearance of richess and poverty or development and 'backwardness' is endlessly and immediately somehow non-congruent, at the level of everyday experience. It is as if somewhere like London - despite its diversity and huge variations - nevertheless has an overall look of coherence about it. Moscow, on the other hand, (and maybe like many emerging economies) is such a mixed bag; the endless intersecting of traditional, Soviet, capitalist, regional and other histories and cultures on the streets of the city. One minute an elderly group standing on the pavement singing patriotic songs and waving the Red flag: the next some teenagers giggling together dressed as goths; then a proud poster for a new disabled toilet (in response to a campaign from artists and writers); and a street cleaner from one of the asian republics with a brush make of twigs, and a cart constructed from an old pram frame and a bucket.

I dont know how much of this feeling is because I am a foreigner here; when I talk to Russians about it, they also seem to believe that Russia is a strange place (which doesn't mean that they agree with what Westerners think is weird about it...)

Tales of the unexpected 2

I think tales of the unexpected is going to become not so much an occasional series as a horribly frequent one. But I have to ask, just what is this full sized plastic zebra doing here (with matching cow) - in the yard of a florist in a relatively poor part of town? It is a bling thing to have one in your garden/living room/balcony? Or is it just to attract us to buy more flowers?

Friday, 16 October 2009

Something I didn't mention

Er, I guess I should admit I did treat myself to something at the electronics market. Haven't seen these iPod cases in London, but maybe you can get them anywhere....aren't they pretty?!

Car cans

Everywhere you go, there are metal boxes for cars; either individually as above, or massive sites - you will see loads if you come to the city on the train from Domodedovo airport/домодедово аэропорт. I am sure sure if this is mainly about security or weather-proofing. Anyone know?

Tales of the unexpected 1

Travelling always means you find stuff that just doesn't quite make sense; and Russia has a reputation, of course, for being full of peculiarities and everyday weirdness compared to the rest of 'ordinary' Western Europe.

Without wanting to perpetuate that belief, here is the first of another occasional series. The photograph shows one of inner Moscow's popular hanging out areas, Chistye Prudy/чистые пруды - part of the Boulevard Ring promenade - which has a pond. And a gondola. With a gondolier.

Chistye Prudy means Clean Pond, a renaming of Dirty Pond in (I think) the 18th century when, the story goes, it was used by the local butchers as a dumping ground for spare offal. It is about the size of 5 London bendy-buses, placed side by side. So not much of a boat trip.

I have yet to see someone take the ride, but am looking forward to it very much. May even have to do it myself, if only to get a better picture.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Going mental

This place, the electronics market at Savyolovskaya/савёловская , as one of my colleagues put it quite factually "a bit mental'. You come out of the metro (on the grey line, just beyond the ring) and find yourself in an extremely brightly lit and narrow corridor with one electronics shop after another on either side which, I swear, is about three-quarters of a mile long. And that is just the beginning of a huge maze of stalls offering stuff to buy.

It certainly challenged my assumptions about what you can buy in Moscow and the high prices of everything imported. It is true that there are odd things that are hard to find for no particular reason - like particular sorts of batteries and blutack for example - but here there were more contemporary electronics than you would ever need, and which didn't seem more expensive than Europe (although I got mainly obsessed by 1.) Digital SLR cameras and 2.) iPod accessories so I can only speak for those particular products). It felt like Tokyo, not Moscow.

It did make me think about how I interpret conspicuous consumption here. Of course in London and the UK shops do that fully-glazed/please come in/look at all our goods and are focused in high streets and hypermarkets. Moscow is more like other European countries, where shops are often surprisingly hard to identity - not just because of language, but also because doors are often shut, windows no different from offices, and location not always obvious. And, increasingly, I am finding places like Dmitrovskaya. Huge areas which are half-way between a market and a department store. Huge being the operative word.

Building works...

Following the extremely heavy rain on Monday, more bits of plaster and other miscellaneous stuff is coming off some of the older buildings, all dealt with in the usual distracted and un-bothered manner. .On my way to work is a perfect example - a few repairs are going on here, but what I love is the lash-up protection to passers-by, particularly an impromptu bus-shelter, thrown up out of misc. sticks and now covered in bent corrugated metal sheets.

And right in the line of fire - fine for crumbling plaster, but ready to collapse completely if any major lump of blockwork should feel like leaving home.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Missing hotel

Walked down past Red Square and over the river yesterday, and finally noticed that the hotel was missing! Meaning the enormous Hotel Russia which I remember from my last visit 30 years ago as a massive, ugly and somehow typically Soviet solution to providing temporary accommodation for various delegates, trade unionists and other miscellaneous visitors from across the Union and occasionally beyond; each endless corridor of identical doors patrolled by an unsmiling babushka in charge of a samovar, from whom I never managed to extract a single cup of tea.

One of my friends said that it was just demolished without any notice: the stories are that the KGB had various equipment there they didn't want found (other buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin have disappeared in similar fashion.) Well, it was definitely hideous, but then Moscow is not rich in hotels. And doesn't seem that interested in developing the tourist industry - as you will know if you have attempted the process of getting a tourist visa.

If you want to see what the Hotel Russia looked like and the demolition, go to EnglishRussia.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Russian word of the day - for your entertainment!

This widget is from a site - Transparent language - that also has a great Russian blog

Everything smells of apples

Lots of my colleagues at work are bringing in bags full of apples - look like windfalls mainly, definitely not the identikit apples you get in Tesco - and mass baking of apples in teacups via the microwave is taking place. All are happy, the bins are rich with peelings, and everything smells of apples.

As a PS I should note that the apple in this picture was purchased from one of those fancy shops I mentioned before; and at a hugely inflated cost that would have my colleagues laughing behind their hands ( I did the usual thing and misread the per 100gms price as the actual price...)

Weird missing things

I feel like I am turning into this strange British stereotype person - I have started missing typical english things that I hardly ever eat at home. This includes fish and chips and mugs of tea. Just yesterday I bought a box of cornflakes - cornflakes - which I don't think I have had for about 15 years! So I need to know, is this a common experience? Because it feels a bit uncomfortable, whatever next? Marmite?

In the meantime I have been exploring more food shops (don't know if these two facts are connected). There really does seem to be a huge gap here between ordinary supermarkets and the extremely expensive, security-guarded posh ones. Another craving which better matches my London eating habits is for good French and Spanish cheeses - something in the milk product area, but with a bit of flavour. I may have to smuggle some back next time I am in London, because I treated myself to a tiny sliver of Manchego today and it cost over seven of your English pounds.

Eating it very, very slowly.

The view from my window

Have been realising how much the view from my window is like the view from my window in London. I am on the 7th floor here, not the third, so look down on the autumn trees rather than across at them, but otherwise what I see are crows and pigeons going about their business; and roof-tops and glimpses into other windows across the courtyard. Like London, people come out onto their balconies to smoke and observe. There are also children playing games down below - here something to do with sticks and what looks like taking sniper positions (!) whereas in London they are mainly trying to see what they can break (!) The only difference is that I can watch a group of men working on the roof opposite, skidding and slipping about in the wet on the new metal siding they are laying - 2 stories up and with absolutely nothing to stop them falling off.

So, you could take that as a sign of Russian fatalism and lack of health and safety, or as an indication of the molly-coddling nanny-state in Britain. Or not generalise at all. Whichever you prefer.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Handy hints for travelers 3: metro again

The metro is confusing for a couple of reasons. First, at interchanges, the stop will have different name for each line - and are often quite a walk apart. The lines are coloured, and this colour (almost always) appears in the signs, telling you which way to go. The second difficulty is that metro stations can often be huge underground warrens, both where different lines connect, and in the many entrance/вход and exit/в’ыход points. Look for the sign that says exit to town/город.

Shown is a typical metro sign, to be seen on most platforms. These are actually really clear. The horizontal top line lists all the stations on the line you are on in order and direction. The vertical 'drop-down menus' beneath each station title give the name(s) of the line and the stations that are linked from it (including, first, the name of the linked station of there is one.)



Crossing the bridge to the Red October Chocolate Factory I saw a couple of young angels. Found out after that they are part of an ongoing art project, a whole group, although no one quite seems to know whether there is a point.

More art and stuff

More exhibitions today - this time off to the Baibakov Art Project at the Red October Chocolate Factory (nearest metro Kropotkinskaya/кропоткинская) to see Luc Tuymans (Against the Day) and Olga Chernysheva (Present Past). Brilliant pair of well curated shows and fabulous work. Here the owner is an oligarch's daughter - only in her early 20s - but clearly a talent to watch.

Also a lot of other work on show throughout the string of buildings because the ex-factory is currently a major place for artists studios, galleries and impromptu shows. This is a relatively good, although potentially temporary, outcome following campaigns against the move of chocolate production to another site. Every one is worried that the location on the island right by the newly rebuilt Christ the Saviour cathedral makes it vulnerable to yet more commercial development.

Me, what I miss is the open-air swimming pool previously on the cathedral site which I remember from a visit 30 years ago. It was a massive lido, with sleek, high diving boards and water steaming in the freezing air; which was entered by swimming out from inside the changing rooms. This, in turn, was the result of a hole made for a planned Palace of the Soviets (never built and seeing the competition entries we should all be relieved) - a hole created by the destruction of the previous cathedral by Stalin in 1931.

A male-female imbalance?

If you have spent any time checking out Russia -related websites you will have come across yet another Russian Brides offer. There is ongoing debate here about the 'problem' of more women than men - usually given as a 56% to 44% split.

And why? Well people still seem to be arguing that it is to do with how many Russian men were killed in the second world war. So all those extra women must be pretty elderly by now...

In fact, as of 2007, the average life expectancy in Russia was 61.5 years for males and 73.9 years for females (11 years less on average than in Europe or the States)* - a real change from the late 1950s when it was the other way around, although things are getting now better again.

However, this imbalance gives the Russian brides sites a great line - and I quote:

"Russia has always suffered from a shortage of men relative to the number of women (currently men make up only 44% of the total population). Russian Girls want to chat with you. After the Second World War, in which 27 million Russians were killed (the bulk of the casualties were men) there was a great shortage of men. Russian Bride discovers western men. There was even a popular song in the 1960s that went "according to statistics, there are only eight men for every ten Russian girls". Russian Woman as exemplar of romance overseas. In many ways, this "deficit", which still prevails in modern day Russia, has given has placed Russian men in a very enviable position while increasing the number of mail order brides seeking marriage overseas."

This author also uses this imbalance to 'explain' why Russian men can still get away with sexism (still called chauvinism here). Certainly my female colleagues think chauvinism remains rife.

* Reference from a pretty thorough Wikipedia entry.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Unidentified packages 3

There are an enormous range of milk-related products here, and special milk/moloko/молоко shops. Many of which look almost exactly the same to the untutored eye, and seem to only be across the limited range from milk to yoghurt to very mild ricotta/curd cheese. The Moscow News recently published a list of the top 15 diary products extolling the virtues of these various items - Smetana at the top, then Kefir, Tvorog, Toplyonoye moloko, Syrok, Ryazhenka, Vologod Butter, Prostokvasha, Sgushchyonoye moloko, ice cream, cheese, Ayran, brynza, Snezhok and Plavleny syr. So that is some more useful information for you.

Pictured is an unexpected example- not on the Moscow News list - which is actually going to be one of the things I will miss if/when I leave Moscow; a chocolate coated cream cheese bar. Yum!

Oh - and it is like a tiny choc ice you find in the fridge next to - the milk products!

Yet more traffic stuff

Last Tuesday was No Car Day in Moscow, as it was in other parts of Europe. You can see the impact from the photograph.

I saw my first 'cavalcade' of the elite - have heard grumbles from many of my colleagues about the fact that the boss class close down roads when they need to get about, rather than deal with traffic problems. The police escort cars had their sirens on, working across a series of high and low notes. Which I can't take seriously because they sound just like the Clangers; the low notes, to be honest, how a Clanger would sound if it was farting.