Monday, January 21, 2008

Spotlight: Russia

A brief interview with the Mamajama about the Russian Adventure!!

What was the first thing that struck you about being in a different country?

I was struck by similarities with an American city. I have been pondering how homogenous the world seems to be. The first large building I saw was an IKEA. They have many of the same stores in their malls. I remember there was a time you would go to different malls for the unique shops, but now I can get the same Benetton sweater in Moscow! So even though I couldn't read the street signs, I didn't feel "lost".

Was there anything you expected that you didn't experience?

I expected to see more of a police/military presence. There were lots of uniforms in the Kremlin, of course, but I thought it is more noticable in New York subways. We were surprised by the affluence displayed. I saw more Bentleys on the road in one afternoon than I had in my entire life! I also didn't see Father Frost dressed in blue. Santa wore a red suit everywhere, and I'm sad this tradition appears to have been changed.

Did you notice people wearing hand crafted items (scarfs, mittens)?

Kind of hard to tell when people are bundled up and there was an abundance of fur but I think a lot of the knitted stuff people wore was handmade.I just realized I didn't notice any crocheted stuff!
We hung out in the typical tourist parts of the city, so crafts were readily available. But even at the local Metro station, street peddlers offered knitted mittens and hats so I presume there is a thriving market. There are coat checks in almost every building and every lady's pure seemed to contian a lace shawl to ward off any chills. There is a large permanent craft fair held every weekend - even on holidays. It is not easy to reach and I don't think there are that many tourists to support all those booths so the locals must be the main customers. I did try to converse with some of the dealers but I think they were mainly salesmen since no one could answer my questions on how something was made - and yes, most of them spoke English.

Did you see any craft stores?

The only disappointment of my trip was that we didn't find a yarn or fabric store - sigh. We did see a sign in one mall with a sewing machine. Lisa checked her dictionary when we got home, but it seems it was advertising alternations. I did look up the address of the viking machine dealer but I wasn't brave enough to try to find it on my own.

What did people do on the subway ie. listen to music, read?

People on the subways kept to themselves. A few people read and I saw some IPODs but I couldn't hear anything even standing next to them. Because the trains run so frequently, no one runs to make a train and I didn't see anyone holding the doors for someone. I was particularly struck by the absence of litter, and I don't remember seeing any trash cans. No one paid any attention to the stray dogs so I wonder what they ate.

How was the food?

The food was good but we did treat them to the American places - like Pizza Hut and MacDonald's. The Russian restaurants we went to were delicious but nothing far from what our grandmothers cooked. My favorite meal was at the craft fair - grilled meat (Shaslik) with great bread. At one place we ordered garlic bread and it was pumpernickel!

Did you experience any "home cooking"?

The only authentic homemade food we had was a few leftover bilinis Luba, their houskeeper, made for the girls' lunch. They were tender crepes which we filled with strawberries - Sophia's favorite. I think Grandpa needs a crepe pan to practise before they visit here. Luba made us borcht for dinner one night. I wish I had watched her make it - I know what ingredienents she used but I would love to know her technique. It seemd very similar to what we make.

Did you notice anything interesting about art?

We did go to the Pushkin Art museum which displayed the work of Russsian artists next to more famous one. I was struck how they were similarly influenced by different movements. I also noticed the soft colors everywhere. It wasn't meant to be in sharp contrast with the greyness of the weather but a definite difference to the conrete of the communists. Even the matrushka dolls are evolving. The majority still have every square inch covered in lacquered bright color but I saw several decorated with wood burning to highlight the wood grain. I think this art form is evolving.

I did notice that they seem to be reviving their old art forms. They are replacing copies of buildings that were destroyed. I didn't notice any difference in the style of clothing and the cars were all models we have on our roads.

I did notice a difference in how they decorate public Christmas trees - they call them New Year trees. There are only a few strings lights - usually in straight lines from the top and large ornaments hung in well placed patterns. Some had carefully arranged criss-crossing garland that I loved! One of the things I wanted to see was the tree in front of the Bolshoy Theater - I had seen pictures years ago that reminded me of Faberge eggs and it still does!

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