First Time in Russia: an American Perspective (Part 2)

Posted on 22. Apr, 2014 by in Culture, History, Other Blogs, Russian life, when in Russia


Appetizers before dinner

Appetizers before dinner

Hello everyone! Here is the second part to the story we started last week (you can find part 1 here).

Our first full day in Mogilev saw us getting my visa stamped, grocery shopping, and walking around town. Downtown Mogilev was a very beautiful city and the cloudy weather did not spoil it. The city was certainly alive and the streets populated with shops of all sorts. At one point we walked into a children’s clothing store and it was amazing how high the prices were – given the average monthly income. 

My favorite part of any trip to a large downtown is the food. Restaurants were plentiful, tasty, and affordable. My favorite food that I tried in Russia was чебуреки. For those who never tried it, it consists of dough stuffed with seasoned meat and then fried. In America it was a real treat to eat this, perhaps, having it once or twice per year. Now I could eat it often and I did! One thing I noticed, perhaps erroneously, was that people in Belarus and Russia would be more likely to “eat to live” and I seemed to “live to eat.” Certainly this was not true with everybody, but over the next three weeks it seemed to be the case. 

Eventually we left Belarus via train and took an eight-hour ride to Moscow. Though this was a night trip leaving around midnight, I could not sleep. The private train car we had was very nice and comfortable but I was too excited! You may think me to be crazy, but there was no city on Earth I wanted to visit more than the capital of the former Soviet Union. We were only to be in Moscow for a day so we could purchase plane tickets to fly to Orenburg; what a great day it was. As the cab driver drove us from the train station to Sheremetyevo Airport, my eyes were glued to the surroundings. We passed right by the Kremlin and I promptly picked my jaw up off my lap! From what little I saw of Moscow at this point in our trip, I thought it was great; however, we were only passing through and would be back in about 10 days to spend a few days exploring.

Upon landing in Orenburg, we were met by my father-in-law, Sergei, and my wife’s cousin. This was to be the first time I’d ever met Sergei so I was excited. We’d drive to his home; this was the home he’d grown up in, a home that was built by his father. The home was really an anomaly in that it was surrounded mainly by apartment buildings. It seemed that not too many people lived outside the realm of an apartment – just my observation and maybe not a fact. The home was nicer than I was told to expect. It consisted of  two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. Tapestries adorned the walls and floors. 

The meal that awaited us upon arrival was like that you’d expect a king to eat. This was my first meal in the home of a Russian family and it was fantastic. What was amazing was that it was prepared by my wife’s бабушка (grandmother) in a kitchen that was very small and had no counter space save for a small table. Everything was made from scratch. We had chicken, beet salad, potato salad, fresh vegetables, and much more. Also awaiting us was real Russian Vodka! As one who has always enjoyed this beverage (in moderation), it was a real pleasure to have some that was actually made in Russia. It is worth noting that my in-laws were not a wealthy family by any means, yet they took such care in providing us with the absolute best experience we could have imagined. We dined like royalty each night for the week we were there. During this entire trip we would visit family and friends and they always showed us the utmost hospitality; each meal at somebody’s home was similar in size and preparation to Thanksgiving dinner in America. Of course, these grand meals were not the norm – who could afford it?

Sergei had rented a баня (sauna)one day for us for about three hours (you can read more about a typical Russian sauna in this post). This was absolutely fantastic. We brought in our own food and beverages and basically were given access to our own private luxury suite. The large sauna consisted of two floors; the upper floor had a nice living room complete with a large screen television and a big dining table. The lower level had a very nice pool, sauna, and a very cold tub of water. There were also showering facilities. These saunas are fairly common throughout the country with some being nicer than others. In my opinion, this was a very nice one.

After about a week in Orenburg, we headed to the village of Калинина, we were off to see Jenya’s other grandmother. We chose to leave during an intense snow storm that would make the three hour trip seem like an eternity! This was also the part of the trip that I was a bit nervous about because баба Галя had no indoor plumbing of any kind. This meant out houses and wells for water. As a spoiled American, I was never exposed to this type of environment. Баба Галя was close to 80 years old and had lived here most of her life (for more information on life in this village, see this post). Spending time in this village very enjoyable and relaxing. Up until this point, we were almost always on the go, stopping only to sleep and eat. Баба Галя had also done her best to show us a nice time. Being that баба Галя was older in years and it was expensive and challenging to visit Russia for such a lengthy period of time, she was not sure she would see her grand daughter again - this was not to be the case though! We traveled back to Orenburg for a few more days and then it was on to Moscow and then home.

Moscow was awesome! We stayed at the Hotel Ukraine, right across the river from the Дом Правительства РФ (Russian White House). We would spend the next few days exploring the streets of this great city by foot. The main attraction for me was the Kremlin and Red Square. Unfortunately, Lenin’s tomb was closed while we were there. We walked around the entire perimeter of Red Square and took pictures. I was amazed by how enormous the walls were. At one point, I noticed that some of the wall had deteriorated and some pieces had fallen to the ground. Being one that likes to leave things a bit better than I found them, I decided to tidy up the area by picking up a few of the pieces of the broken wall and depositing them into our bag. Little did I know how thoroughly we’d be searched upon entering the Kremlin; thankfully, we were allowed to keep them.

We toured a few museums inside the Kremlin which were very interesting and filled with enough history to write a thousand books. We had seen artifacts including a very nice carriage belonging to Katherine the Great. The old churches located within the walls were beautiful and each one a bit different from the next. 

Red Square was really impressive and had so many great places to take photographs. The colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral sat at one end in all of its glory. I found myself imagining all of the May Day Parades that had passed right where I stood. Though I had only seen excerpts of them on television and on the internet, I could see the tanks and battalions rolling toward St. Basil’s Cathedral. I really enjoyed this part of the trip. 

One aspect of Moscow that I had immediately noticed was that I really didn’t feel as though I was getting a real glimpse of Russian life. You could see American franchises, hear people speaking other languages, people taking pictures everywhere. It was as if people from all over the world had come to see Russia’s most glamorous and commercial city, the best of what this magnificent country had to offer. While it was still Russia, it had a different feeling to it; I am blessed to have been able to see other aspects of this country. 

This trip was a wonderful experience, one that is difficult to capture in so few words. Should you have any questions or comments, I would love to respond and continue the discussion. 

 Всего хорошего!


Guide to Russians’ Beach Vacations

Posted on 21. Apr, 2014 by in Culture

Image mine

Image by Maria

Vacation has been covered on this blog more than once, but this subject — and activity — is something I’m ready to revisit at least once a year. First, a post from a couple years ago given a nice overview of the general vacation vocabulary. In this post, I would like to concentrate on what, in my experience, is a preferred vacation type for many Russians –  namely, the seaside vacation.

Choose your destination

Every summer, thousands of Russians try to поехать на море (go to the beach). Море is technically the sea as opposed to an ocean, but people don’t usually say поехать на океан, even if that’s the case. I will give the vocabulary as it is used in the travel context, so don’t be alarmed if you see a “weird” Russian word for an English one whose translation you thought you knew.

Турция (Turkey) is a top vacation destination for Russians, followed by Египет (Egypt) and Греция (Greece). Over 3 million Russian tourists visited Turkey in 2013. This can probably be explained by good value for money and lack of visa restrictions.

Explore the amenities

Part of the reason Turkey and Egypt are so popular with Russian is the fairly high level of service they provide for the money. These countries are known for their all-inclusive resorts (“всё включено), where guests don’t need to spend another cent once they set foot on the hotel’s large and often fenced-off premises. Popular food options are полупансион (half-board) and полный пансион (full board), often with a full buffet (шведский стол) for the guests.

Hotels try to keep their guests entertained with анимация — daily athletic and kids’ activities and nightly entertainment by the аниматоры. It may include аквааэробика (aqua aerobics), конкурсы (contests), дискотеки (dances), etc.

Other sell points for hotels include вид на море (ocean view), бесплатный трансфер из аэропорта (free airport transfer), кондиционер (AC, which may be a given for Western travelers, but not always so for Russians), and экскурсии на русском языке (tours in Russian).

Image mine

Image by Maria

Book your vacation

First and foremost, you need to book (забронировать) your trip. This can be done in a number of ways. Some people prefer package deals, so they бронируют путёвку (book a package). Путёвка may include a combination of things like перелёт (flight), проживание/размещение (accommodation), трансфер (airport pickup), питание (meals), and экскурсии (tours; day trips).

A synonym for путёвка is тур (a tour). Тур will most likely involve visiting multiple destinations or, if one destination is involved, a trip to that destination with a specific purpose. Some examples are автобусные туры (bus tours), where you visit multiple cities on a bus, or шопинг-туры (shopping tours), where you take advantage of the lower clothing prices in the US or Italy, as the case may be.

However, if you prefer to travel independently, you will need to book your hotel (забронировать отель/гостиницу; better still, забронировать номер – book a hotel room) and buy your train/plane tickets (купить билеты).

Get settled in

If you haven’t booked airport pickup (трансфер), you may need to ехать на такси (take a taxi) or добираться на общественном транспорте (take public transporation). Once you are in the hotel, you will need to check in (зарегистрироваться) at the reception (unfirtunately, there is no universally accepted Russian term, and you may hear ресепшен or even рецепция).

If there are any issues with the room, you may need to ask the hotel to move you to a different room (переселить в другой номер). Other questions may include missing towels (полотенца), using the pool lounge chairs (лежаки), and the timing of the meals (завтрак – breakfast, обед – lunch, ужин – dinner/supper).

Enjoy your vacation!

Russian Easter. Can You Say “Христос Воскрес”?

Posted on 16. Apr, 2014 by in Culture, History, language, Russian food, Traditions

Image by Flickr user verechagin

Image by Flickr user verechagin

This year Пасха (Easter) in Russia and Easter here in US coincidentally fall on the same day, so I decided to give you an overview of what Easter is like in Russia.

First of all, forget the bunny; there is no Easter bunny in Russia. Also, forget the whole Easter basket for kids: Easter in Russia is not about hiding eggs or giving out candy-filled baskets. In a nutshell, Russian Easter boils down to stopping at church at some point of the day, dyeing eggs, baking куличи and getting together with family for a meal.

Lunar calendar is used to determine the exact date. Russian Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the spring full moon. This year, spring fool moon is on Tuesday, April 15th. That means Russian Easter will be celebrated on April 20th. 

People begin to actively prepare for Easter on Thursday. The Thursday before Easter is called Чистый or Светлый Четверг (Clean Thursday). On this day many people go to church to ask for forgiveness, to cleanse themselves from the sin, so to speak. It is also typical to clean the house, start красить яйца (dyeing eggs) and печь куличи (baking kulichi).

Traditionally, Russians use onion peels for egg dyeing. People usually start saving regular yellow onion peel a month or two before Easter. When the time comes, the eggs are boiled with the onion peel for quite some some; a reddish-brown color that develops as a result is rich and 100% natural. Today many people also use artificial dyes and decorative shrink wrap.

shrink-wrapped eggs (the sleeve goes on the boiled egg, then both are dipped into boiling water, whick causes the wrap to conform to the egg)

shrink-wrapped eggs (the sleeve goes on the boiled egg, then the egg is dipped into boiling water, which causes the wrap to conform to the egg)

Куличи, along with eggs, are the two staples of Русская Пасха. Кулич is a special type of sweet bread made with yeast dough and decorated with egg-white frosting.

During the week preceding Easter, a lot of Russian churches hold всенощная — a service that lasts most of the night and includes ritual walking around the church for quite some time.

Всеношная (image by Flickr user Vlad

Всенощная (image by Flickr user Vlad)

Easter is a family holiday in Russia. Armed with eggs and baked goods, you either go visit your family, have them visit you, or get together with friends if family is not around.

When greeting somebody on Easter, you would say Христос воскрес! (Christ has risen!) and the other person would respond Воистину воскрес! (Indeed he has!). You would then also exchange eggs.

Освящение куличей и яиц (blessing of kulichi & eggs) is another typical ritual that takes place during Easter week. You can bring your own food to church to have it blessed.

Освящение куличей и яиц (image by Flickr user Yan Yarman)

Освящение куличей и яиц (image by Flickr user Yan Yarman)

Lastly, most people play the egg game: two people smack the tips of their eggs together, the person whose egg survived the smack wins. The winner proceeds to smack eggs with other participants.

I have now officially mastered making yeast dough, but I am not baking any куличи this year; however, I will try to make some onion-dyed eggs!

Всего хорошего!