Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peanut Butter: YES!

Peanut butter often comes at the top of the list of "Foods Americans Miss When Abroad." Unless of course they have peanut allergies, in which case they should probably not move to Senegal. Even if you seldom eat it, you may reach that homesick point when you would like to.

Let's assess the peanut butter situation in Russia. While peanuts are cheap and easy to find, peanut butter is trickier. Many Russians find it disgusting and can't figure out with what you would eat it. Hazelnut spread (Nutella) is readily available and it's not hard to find a swirl of peanut butter with a white dairy-containing sugary cream, which reminds me of those jars with PB&J in one jar. Peanut butter, by itself, is harder to find. However, the situation is not dire. Several large supermarkets stock one or two varieties.

There is, of course, a "but"--otherwise there would be no blog entry. It's expensive--at least seven dollars for a 16 oz. jar. Plus, it's the generic processed variety. Fine for some, gross for me. Yes, I like my peanut butter natural, without sugar, without salt, and plainly (pun intended) without any preservatives. This sort of peanut butter is very much not available in Russia.

So, armed with the internet, a crappy food processor, and the only ingredient really actually necessary for peanut butter (peanuts), I've spent the last year trying to make edible peanut butter. That may be a shameless overstatement. Over the last year, I've tried making peanut butter about five or six times, all of which have produced edible results. However, today was the day: I roasted the raw nuts (1/2 the price of roasted ones), put them in the food processor, added some water, and I made PERFECT creamy peanut butter! BAM!*

*Emeril style. Also Emeril style, did I mention, that I did all this while baking a zucchini stuffed with mushrooms that I picked in the forest?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Finland is for Weekends

In writing about Finland, it only makes sense that I’d share some details of my own trip, last September. My cousin, and her partner (at the time) invited me to Helsinki and to go mushroom picking; they needed to accomplish two of the three reasons why Russians go to Finland (Schengen visa stamp and work). The third, buying things at low prices, came naturally when we were there.

A weekend trip to Helsinki is akin to a weekend trip to Chicago for Minneapolis/St. Paul residents (except that there is less to do in Helsinki). You get on the highway, avoid getting ticketed for speeding, and then get stuck in traffic when approaching your destination. We faired pretty well with border crossing, going against the instinct (instilled in anyone who grew up in the USSR) to wait in the longest looking queue. And once on well-maintained Finnish roads, my (only experienced in Russia) slight car-sickness vanished.

The landscape and wilderness of Karelia (divided between Finland and Russia) struck me as extremely similar to that of Northern Minnesota. As we drove over the border little red houses began to dot already harvested fields. I also began to notice roadside signs in Russian, advertising mostly “Свежая рыба” (fresh fish) but also random things like “компьютеры” (computers), and diligently announcing that rubles were accepted and exchanged. We stopped at one of the stores to get a quick snack, witnessing first-hand the spectacle that is a Russia tourist bus unleashed on aforementioned “свежая рыба” and other cheap groceries. We mocked, but on our way back did pick up fish, which was undeniably fresher/cheaper in Finland. We also showed our Russian love for freeloading when some of the delicious Sokos Hotel breakfast buffet was taken with.

A walk around Helsinki was a breeze of colorful fresh air after St. Petersburg. The colorful, individual, and often bizarre getups of the Finns and the larger sized women with no makeup seemed to indicate a certain lack of concern with appearance--a surefire sign of a developed and stable nation. (What does the overgrooming of Russian women say about this country's political and economic state of affairs?) Helsinki is also undeniably metal--Finland did produce the Eurovision winning Lordi.

Our mushroom-picking excursion showed that Finnish forests are like Finnish cities--clean and quiet. We ate the overabundant blueberries from the bushes and found mushrooms the size of our heads. I saw a moose, in the wild. He may have been as startled as I was, but he was significantly larger, antlers and all.

After spending the morning in nature, we drove back to Russia, where several hundred miles of litter-covered roadside and traffic jams welcomed us home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


The historical and socio-political relationship between Finland and Russia is long and complex. Now let’s point out what is horrifyingly hilarious about it. There are three reasons why Russians, especially those who live in St. Petersburg visit Finland, or rather, what they call "Finka": 1) for work, 2) to get a stamp for their Schengen visa, and 3) buy cheap crap.

1) Since Finland is about a four hour drive from St. Petersburg (Helsinki is about six hours away) some Russians do business with Finns. International business relations, it happens.

2) Finland is one the twenty-five Schengen Area countries and because the Finnish Consulate in St. Petersburg is easier/faster/cheaper for getting a Schengen visa, many Russians do just that if they intend to travel to the other countries. Since you’re supposed to apply for the visa through the country which will be your “main destination” and to ensure that a renewal application won’t be denied by the Finns, many Russians periodically visit Finland to get the stamp in their passports.

3) Once Russians have that visa, the doors of opportunity open and cheap crap is within reach. Getting groups of Russians to Finnish stores is a business in itself. Tour operators run daily bus tours which include visa services, customs assistance, and even discounts at certain shops. Popular destinations include not only Helsinki but also Imatra and Lappeenranta, which are practically on the Russo-Finnish border. Stores along Finnish highways have signs in Russian and many stores take rubles or exchange currency. A group of culturally clueless Russian tourists loading up on whole salted fish, other foods, mops, shampoos, etc. is a sight to behold.

Mockery aside, many Russians don’t have international travel opportunities and Finland gives them a way to visit a foreign country. Some visit it for nature travel. And tourists and shopping go hand in hand, much like Detroit 18 year-olds and liquor-laws in Windsor, Ontario.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Parks and a Little Recreation

Because the winters are long and the recession hit hard, St. Petersburg residents take every opportunity to be outside when it’s warm and going for walks is free. In September, my younger aunt, Anya and I went to two local parks. Elagin Island is entirely occupied by a park and Elagin Palace. The island is surrounded by nice neighborhoods and is a summer favorite. You can rent bikes, rollerblades, boats, and paddleboats. There are a couple of small/open air cafes, a little zoo, an archery range, and a pay-toilet. The tip of the island, with two freshly painted white lions, gives you a glimpse of the Bay of Finland.

Park Ekatirhof is different in that it’s become surrounded with a more industrialized neighborhood, which makes it less of a destination in and of itself. It’s fairly large and at its furthest end they even have horses. The park also has a few rides. The gate to the little “amusement park” was open and no one was there, so Anya and I went in. I think it was off-season, although the building for the keeper had the lights on. The rides were a gem, old Soviet era merry-go-rounds, swings, a kids’ rollercoaster, and a mini-course for mini-go-carts.

Seeing things that reminded me of my childhood made me want to relive it a little. So Anya and I got on one of the swings. These aren’t your motor-powered Six Flags swings; here you use the physics principle of taking turns squatting. Since Russians are good at physics, Anya and I got pretty high up in the air—perfect timing for someone to come and start yelling at us to get off the swings immediately. We responded that we had to stop the swing first, which we did.

When we got down the apparent groundskeeper approached us—middle-aged, short, fidgety, with a mouth full of gold caps which he flashed at us during all of his hurried yelling with a detectible and angry accent. Didn’t we know that we weren't supposed to use the rides, that we had to pay for them? We explained that the gate was open and the ticket booth, closed, and there were no signs or rules posted. He yelled that the gate had been closed and that we’d broken in and had to pay for the rides, or that he was going to call the cops. He’d actually closed and locked it while we were on this swings. We said call the cops, show us the price list, give us a receipt and we’ll pay. This went on for about five minutes until he finally unlocked the gate and let us go.

At this point it was almost dark so Anya and I left the park. We talked about it being clear that they guy had messed up, left the rides open, was angry that he’d failed to scare us into giving him cash. But we also admitted that during this, each of us had looked for holes in the fence where we could get out and run.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentines Tiger New Years Day

In honour of Valentines Day and the Year of the Tiger Lunar New Year being on the same day: Looking at this fucking love connection (LATFH).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Butt End of My Summer

Since I’ve actually gotten around to putting some more recent pictures online, I should probably get around to letting you know some of the things I’ve been up to in my free time. Let’s do this chronologically.

End of August was spent reading/writing about several Shakespeare plays. I went for some walks around my neighborhood and read (again, Shakespeare) in the park by my house. My younger cousin, Sonya, introduced me to her friends—now my friends too. We went swimming and spent the weekend at a friend’s dacha.

Early September activities were put on hold because I pulled my back, trying to get my seat post into my frame. I went to IKEA to load up on hangers and storage accessories. First time biking in SPB city traffic. Let my friend try this weird “fixed-gear” thing. Did the whole job search, interview thing.

A friend did the plumbing and electrical work for installing a new washer in our apartment, for free. Unbeknown to my grandma, we, along with another dude friend, went out drinking the night before he finished the installation. We bough vodka and juice and my friends thought it might be too conspicuous to sit outside and mix it in plastic cups—how it’s usually done in Russia. Here, my USA party time skills came in handy—“Just mix it in the juice bottle; everyone will think we’re drinking juice!” My friends liked this novel idea. So we took our juice bottle on Nevsky Prospekt, the main street in the city.

This is when “the incident” happened. The three of us were standing at a crosswalk and as a group of guys walked by; I turned around and did a quick ass-grab. So, I’ll admit that this isn’t the first time I’ve committed the offense (e.g. Skoal Kodiak @ Art O’Whirl 2009). All fun and games, right? The guy turned around and did the gruff Russian equivalent of “Excuse me?!” He’d thought that one of the guys had done it—which meant a fight. When I saw my friend’s alarmed face, I fessed up. The guy looked a mix between dumbfounded and skeptical so I had to explain that I did it just for fun. This got me an insistent invite to “trade up” to his company if my friends weren’t “man enough”. I politely turned down what I think was the offer for a potential gang bang. Then we went to my handyman friend’s house and after putting him to bed proceeded to go to an all night sushi café where we talked about male culture in Russia, but that’s a topic for later.

The lesson learned here? None for me, thanks.

Friday, February 5, 2010

May I See Your Documents?

While Russians may have fewer of many things that Americans (money, shoes, cars, etc.) passports are not one of them. This is because Russians have not one but TWO passports. I’ll give you the rundown on official Russian documents, because I frequently find myself having to explain the details of this overwhelmingly fascinating topic.

Every Russian is supposed to have an internal passport, which according to the RF is “the main document proving the identity of a Russian citizen in the Russian Federation territory.” You apply and renew your passport at 14, 20, and 45. It contains all that basic bio-demo info like name, gender, DOB, and place of birth. However, it also includes your place of registration (permanent address), marriage(s)/divorce(s), children under 14, notes about the issue of a travel passport, military service, tax id (optional), and blood-type (optional).You can even use it to travel to some exotic places like Kazakhstan.

For travel to most other countries, Russians need at least their travel, or external, passport. It’s the passport Russians need when exiting and entering Russia. Works much like a US passport—exit/entry stamps, visas, etc. Renewed every five years. Those under 14 don’t have their own passport, but are instead included in one of their parents’ travel passport. As of March 2010, all new external passports will be biometric (with an electronic chip).

Easy enough to explain, right? Now trying explaining the system of passports, state id’s, and drivers’ licenses to someone who’s not from the US.