Tag Archives: russian
January 16, 2012

Thoughts on Russia

Red Square, 2006

The first time I traveled to Russia was in 2006.  Oksana and I split our time between Moscow and St. Petersburg, because while she is originally from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy in the Far East, her family happened to be spending time in the big city.  Her brother, Andrey, played host and seemed to have an all-day itinerary planned for us every day we were there.  We were exhausted by the end of our “vacation,” but looking back through our photos, I’m amazed at all the things we got to see and do in just three weeks.

I always felt guilty for not writing much about our first trip through Russia.  Even way back then, I had a mental list of things to write about for one of these “Thoughts On” blog entries.  When we crossed the border into Russia again last September, my notes were already full of half-remembered items that I jotted down on the bus from Estonia.


Asking “What is Russia like?” is like asking “What is the United States of America like?”  How do you answer that?  When a country spans most of a continent, has citizens from every socioeconomic background, as well as a history dating back thousands of years, you can’t just sum it up in one or two sentences.

I’ve seen two of the biggest, most prestigious cities in Russia, a couple larger cities in the east, and passed through many a rural town on the rail line between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk.  About the only thing I know for sure is that Russia isn’t easily summed up.

I can tell you, however, that there’s a strange dichotomy when Russians think about their own country.  On the one hand, there’s the feeling that Russia is the greatest country on the planet.  Mention that you’ve been to the world’s largest lake and they’ll tell you that Russia has the world’s deepest.  Describe to them how something is done in the States and they’ll explain to you why the Russian method is better.


November 7, 2011

Thoughts on Estonia

The easiest way to get from Helsinki, Finland, to St. Petersburg, Russia, is by train.  It’s a straight shot, takes about three and a half hours.  Since St. Petersburg was our next destination, taking the train was everyone’s first suggestion.  We didn’t take the train.

We skipped a lot of Europe when we skipped from Bulgaria to Finland, and I wanted to see at least some part of it before we slipped into Russia.  Estonia, which was right across the Baltic Sea, was an easy choice.  Close, cheap, and also sharing a border with Russia.

We left Helsinki on a giant cruise ship (the word “ferry” just didn’t seem to apply) and a couple hours later, we were in Tallinn.  We spent a night and a day there, exploring the city, and loved every minute of it.

European Union

Estonia was our first border crossing within the European Union and we weren’t prepared for it.  We disembarked from the ship with a few hundred other passengers and followed them through the long and twisting corridors of the ferry terminal.  We passed through a couple glass doors and suddenly found ourselves standing next to a line of taxis.  Hey, what the heck?  Did we somehow miss immigration and customs?

Nope.  There was no immigration, no customs.  As we skipped back into the terminal to withdraw some more Euros from an ATM, I reflected on just how much more convenient life in the Union must be for the people of Europe.  Crossing from country to country didn’t seem to me to be much different than crossing from state to state in America.

Only bummer is we didn’t get any new stamps in our passports!

October 24, 2011

Thoughts on Bulgaria

This was our plan when we thought we had a lot of time:  Fly from Israel to Istanbul, then work or way north through Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.  From there, we’d swing west to Poland (because Belarus has an expensive visa) and continue up through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the way to visit a friend in Finland.

By the time we left Turkey, however, our plans had changed.  Our new plan was to go north to Bulgaria… and then fly directly to Helsinki.

We still had some time, but we came to this decision for two reasons.  First, Oksana’s childhood friend, Karina, invited us to stay with her vacationing family in their Sveti Vlas condo on the Black Sea.  Second, the stay was offered rent-free and without a limit on duration!  It turned out to be a great opportunity for us to recoup some of the money we’d spent on our recent travels.

Staying with Karina in her one-bedroom condo was her grandmother and one-year-old daughter.  They generously gave us the bedroom and we quickly settled into a routine.  Babuska busied herself making three huge meals every day, Oksana and Karina spent every waking hour catching up and fussing over Liza, Karina’s daughter, and I spent most of my time in the bedroom (since I couldn’t keep up with the spoken Russian) making a lot of headway on my travel writing.

From time to time, we’d go for a walk with Liza in the stroller, pick up some groceries, go to the beach, or buy a beer at the pub across the street so we could use their wi-fi.  A week turned into 10 days.  10 days turned into two weeks.  We left Sveti Vlas on a bus, bound for the capital city of Sofia, where we spent just a couple of days before flying out.

Sveti Vlas was a total resort town, which was a great place to kick back and enjoy the warm weather, but it didn’t give us any idea about what the rest of Bulgaria was like.  Sofia was more interesting; both Oksana and I enjoyed it a lot.  It was in Sofia that Oksana first remarked, “You know what?  I think I could live here for a little while…”

Here are some of the things I found interesting about Bulgaria:

May 4, 2009

Borsch How-to Video

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After an 8-hour work day, I have little energy left over for creative endeavors.  Awhile back, when I first renegotiated a 10-month contract with the university, I had all sorts of ideas for the two months I’d have off.  Whenever I wasn’t traveling, I wanted to be working on some sort of creative project.

In December of 2007, I watched a short, clever cooking video online.  I thought that I might want to create something like that during my upcoming time off.  I approached Oksana about making a “how to” cooking video centered around her borsch recipe.  She liked the idea; we went shopping for the ingredients.

We learned very quickly that cooking videos are not easy to make.  The cooking process itself doesn’t lend itself to multiple takes, pesky steam keeps fogging your lens, and cooking food doesn’t take time out for you to switch to a different angle.  We had grand plans for an explanatory voiceover, but gave it up when we realized it would add hours to the process.  Oksana cooked, I shot, we tried not to argue.  That was the best we could do.

Fast forward a month and I’ve got all the video on my hard drive.  I’m starting in on editing and realizing that making a cooking video engaging isn’t easy, either.  I played around with it for awhile, but bogged down on the timing.  I wanted to make a short video (who’s going to watch a ½ hour recipe on Youtube?) set to some sort of music.  Ozma did a great cover of the suitably Russian Korobeiniki, but their version was even shorter than I needed.  After individually adjusting the speed of maybe a sixth of the clips I wanted to use, I gave up.  Too tedious.

Still, it was a project I always hoped to return to and I passed it from backup hard drive to backup hard drive for two years.  Last week, I dug it up and went back to speed-adjusting clips.  As I was nearing the end of the first rough edit, I decided on a subtitle style.  One sixth of the way through those, I reflected on my penchant for tedium.

I stuck with it, though, and finished the video up this week.  I played the rough cut for Oksana and she approves.  I think there’s enough visual information in the video that an enterprising and ambitious cook could recreate her family’s recipe, but if not, I’m including the actual recipe after the jump.

If you make a batch, let us know how it turns out.  (Also, pro tip from Oksana: It’s actually better after sitting in the fridge overnight!)