Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The cats of İstanbul

There are cat cities and there are dog cities. Like Rome, Istanbul is a cat city. The ubiquitous felines lend to the character of the city as much as the imposing mosques, palaces, and bazaars. In Cihangir -- the neighborhood of Istanbul where I stayed last weekend -- the cats might as well have passports and pay taxes, as they often act and are treated like full-fledged (human) citizens. Two years ago I was in a small town in northern Russia for a week and got in the habit of feeding the town strays. In Istanbul I fit right in as one among hundreds feeding local cats.

Here’s a selection of my favorite Istanbul cats.

Cats outdoors...

Cats on (hot tin?) roofs...

Cats indoors...

This cat posed for pictures inside
the Hagia Sophia for hours.
Istanbul also has its fair share of dogs.

For good measure, here are a few pictures of Istanbul, a city well worth visiting.

The Hagia Sophia

The Blue Mosque

**This is a one-off blog... I think.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

If all had gone according to plan when I was getting my Russian visa last May, I would have arrived in Moscow June 1st and left March 1st. But, luckily, things didn't go according to plan; my trip was delayed, and my departure date is now March 15th. I say "luckily" because I got to participate in my first Maslenitsa festivities in Russia on Sunday the 6th. Maslenitsa is roughly the same as Carnival or Mardi Gras, which all mark the week of celebrations before lent. But Maslenitsa, Mardi Gras, etc. have their roots in pre-Christian pagan holidays celebrating the beginning of spring.

Sunday was the last day of Maslenitsa week here in Russia and I joined my roommate and another friend for a festival of games and blini (or traditional Russian pancakes, the sun-like symbols of Maslenitsa) in Istra, a town an hour or so outside of Moscow.

We were greeted with shots of vodka:

And different games/activities, such as jumping rope and walking on stilts:

You may have noticed that it doesn't look particularly spring-like in the pictures. In fact, it looks a lot like the dead of winter. It's no optical illusion. It was very very cold and I wasn't fully prepared. There was a half an hour or so when I was preoccupied with worries of frostbite. I thought that my feet, in particular, were in danger of permanent damage after my shoes got wet and the temperature seemed to steadily decrease...

But then we found the bonfire, cognac, and fake gypsies and everything got better. A LOT better.

For the first time I experienced hard liquor dulling the pain of cold weather. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also the first time that hard liquor has ever gone down so painlessly. Liquor and bonfire are the perfect pair. Whenever my feet started to feel cold again, I would just stick them fearlessly into the fire pit.

But it wasn't all liquor and fire. We enjoyed some more traditional Maslenitsa activities as well. Most importantly was the consumption of homemade blini (look in my left hand for the pancake and at my face for the excitement).

And the event that marks the end of Maslenitsa: the burning of a scarecrow (here a rather large one):

I think that the first week of March may be a wee bit early to legitimately declare the onset of spring in the middle of Russia. But, in the end, I can't say that I mind the farce all that much. We'll just say that for whatever reason the sheep (spring) feels comfortable wearing the wolf's (winter's) clothing for a little while.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Blog Lapse

I haven't found the time to blog for a couple of weeks now. Things have just been too hectic. But I promise I'll get out at least one more real blog before I leave on March 15th.

In the meantime here are a few pictures of Kazan, which I just visited. My last Russian excursion for a while.

The new mosque in the old kremlin --

Inside the mosque --

Two official languages: Russian & Tatar --

The Old Tatar settlement on the bank of the frozen canal --

Monday, February 14, 2011

Winter is long and I am short...

...on time.

Thirty days from yesterday I'm coming home! I'm really looking forward to seeing family, friends, and a certain furry little monster very soon! And I won't lie, I'm also looking forward to some creature comforts and everyday things; here are five of them:

  1. Coffee. (Is anyone surprised about this?!)

  2. Pizza. Russian pizza is gross. There, I said it. Eastern Europeans don't get pizza. Sorry, but it's true.

  3. Clothes dryers. Many people have washing machines in their apartments, but dryers are a rarity. Apparently they're considered a luxury. Well, call me a princess, I don't care. I'd be happy if I never had to hang another piece of wet clothing over a drying rack ever ever again in my life.

  4. Lines. I miss American etiquette for standing in line. Dear Russians, Please wait behind me if I'm standing in line and don't pretend to be clever and slip in front of me, even if you are an 80-year-old grandmother. And please don't stand so close to me. That extra inch of space won't actually get you to the front of the line any faster, it just forces us to stand agonizingly close to one another while we wait.

  5. Recycling. Capitalism brought a whole lot of garbage to Russia. And I'm not talking about the absolute worst of American culture that made its way here. (Speaking of which, have I told you about the Russian Married with Children and Everybody Loves Raymond knock-offs?) I'm talking about the excessive material waste and ill-fated attempts to recycle. Russia's really done a 180 in this respect. People used to re-use things to a painstaking degree (largely out of necessity) and many Russians of the older generations still do (I had a house mother who sifted through my trash when I was on a study abroad program here several years ago). But Russian youth are more like 1980's Americans. All consumption all the time.

This isn't to say there aren't things about Russia that I'll miss. One of these things is the Russian Orthodox church. This probably seems odd to you, considering how unreligious I am. But it's not the rituals of the church or any religious beliefs that I'll miss, but rather the form of the church itself. I like the way it punctuates the landscape - whether it be urban Moscow or rural Russia - adding a bit of history, peace, and mystery. The churches are especially nice complements to a white and wintry Russia. (A winter which is beginning to feel everlasting. Like a gobstopper.)

I've also grown to appreciate Russian icons. Say hello to Orthodox Jesus:

A note on Russian orthodoxy. It is part of Eastern Christianity. Western Christianity (i.e. Catholicism) and Eastern Christianity split off from one another in the year 1054 because the East would not recognize the primacy of the pope (and because of some disagreements over unleavened bread and a few other things). Russians aren't the only Orthodox Christians, the Greeks were first. Now there are Georgian, Serbian, Bulgarian, etc. Orthodox Churches.

People of other faiths reside in Russia, for example Muslims and Jews, but the country itself is steadfastly pravoslavny or Orthodox Christian. While I haven't been inspired to convert, I'll miss admiring the churches and icons. But I definitely won't miss the pizza.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

At the grocery store

The supermarket chain Ashan is sort of like the Russian version of WalMart (except that Ashan is French-owned).

Let's take a little tour and see what we find...

Milk! Un-refrigerated! In bags!!

Russians do pretty much everything they can with dairy products. In this picture there are three different kinds of "sour milk" products: kefir (which you may have heard of), ryazhenka, and prostokvashino. I'm still working out what each of these is, exactly, and stick to kefir and yogurt for the most part.

Every type of grain you'd ever want... and more. I've learned new words for grains in English after living in Russia. One meal where all of these grains typically appear is Russian breakfast, specifically in porridge. In the US we have oatmeal and that's about it (well, there is also Cream of Wheat but I'm not sure what that is.. wait, yes I do, it's wheat porridge!). The word kasha means porridge in Russian. There's ovsyanaya kasha = oat porridge, grechnevaya kasha = buckwheat porridge, pshennaya kasha = millet porridge, mannaya kasha = semolina porridge, wheat porridge, rye porridge, rice porridge, etc. I like buckwheat and semolina the best.

Now, I don't want to be too cliché about Russia, but there is an entire vodka aisle at Ashan...

Moving on to the frozen foods section we have a popular brand of pelmeni, or little meat dumplings, sort of ravioli-esque.

And meat-filled blini, or pancakes/crepes.

And let's not forget about dessert! For special occasions, there's cake.

But for everyday tea-time, candy's just dandy (I know, I know, grooooaan).

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

It's a big, a really big city

Moscow, my friends, is big. I don't think people realize just how big. It's huge. Dare I say it is the most sprawling city I've ever been to. Maybe rivaled by LA, but Moscow sprawls densely. Some compare Moscow to New York City. I don't see it. NYC is geographically constrained; Moscow has no natural boundaries. It just keeps growing and growing, turning once independent neighboring towns into measly suburbs.

People continue streaming to Moscow year after year. In Russia, there is nowhere but Moscow that Russians can move to find work and make a decent living for themselves. (Well, to be fair, a small handful of other cities, such as St. Petersburg, are staying afloat, but none of them offer the same breadth and scope opportunities as Moscow.)

And not just "ethnic" Russians, but also people from the Caucasus and CIS countries stream into Moscow. (FYI -- CIS means "Commonwealth of Independent States," or many of the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.) People from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Caucasus, parts of Ukraine, and so on. Different groups assimilate differently and are perceived differently. In this process a labor divide has arisen; many of the immigrants from the south now do the dirty work Muscovites won't do. (Reminiscent of anything closer to home?)

This is more or less the current CIS (sans Georgia):

I'm not going to comment on the terrorist attack on Monday, January 24th at Moscow's Domodedovo airport; I just want to say that this is a big, complex, changing city with lots of complicated problems. This is not to say that the terrorist attacks are a Moscow-specific problem, the problem is bigger. But Moscow is a frequent locus of such tragedies.

I said that Moscow sprawls densely. Big cities almost always have a lot of big buildings, but Moscow feels particularly packed with them. Not only are there big buildings in the center, where political and financial goings-on go on, but high-rises continue out beyond the center into the outskirts of the city. Most of these multi-story complexes are apartment buildings. Apartment buildings packed with people, like this one that I'm currently packed into ☺:

Among the high-rises of Moscow I always find Stalin's Seven Sisters (or Stalin's vysotki 'high-rises') to be an interesting sight. This one is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

And this one is now a Radisson hotel:

And last, but not least among my photo collection, is Moscow State University's main building:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Making the Most of January

I happened to read that it was a bitterly cold -31 degrees Fahrenheit in Grayling, Michigan last night (Grayling is my hometown, by the way). In the last month here in Moscow it has barely reached zero degrees Fahrenheit and more often hovers around 20 degrees, so I'm feeling pretty lucky. At least as far as Russian winters go, this isn't so bad.

Nevertheless, the Russian winter has been a bit of a novelty for me after living in the Bay Area for many years. Some of my new favorite activities are ice skating and jogging in parks. While Russians aren't so keen on jogging (and when I'm out they often offer me unsolicited advice, chastise me, or less frequently praise me), many of them do make the most out of winter. A fair number of people cross-country ski and the city is full of ice-skating rinks, which themselves are full of people. I find all of these activities to be a nice, wholesome counterweight to Moscow nightlife.

My first ice skating adventure was on the rink on Red Square.

I fell twice. Please refer to exhibit A: the snow residue on my jeans. (You're lucky I'm posting this picture, because it's pretty awful, but it's the only one of me ice skating so far.)

I fared far better yesterday at a different rink. These were my ice-skating companions:

Perhaps the mulled wine helped. (Refer to exhibit B: mulled wine stand on ice skating rink.) Ice skating doesn't have to be entirely wholesome, I suppose!

I too am hoping to make the most out of this winter. For example, I am bound and determined to go on a horse-drawn sleigh ride. (That was the original plan for yesterday, actually, but there were complications... The horses, apparently, got cold and so the rides stopped at 3 instead of 6 and we found this out around 3:30. This sort of thing is extremely typical for Russia...) But at least we got to go ice skating and spend a little time strolling outside of the city in Izmailovsky Park.