Stockholm- A Culture Capital

Stockholm- A Culture Capital
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Russians are Like.

What are Russians like? I have been asked this a thousand times now, and after enough conversations I have worked out what I think is an honest answer, at least for those in Moscow.

Russians on first impression are soulless drones who go through the city without expressing themselves or doing anything with personality. At first I was overwhelmed by the apparent misery of the millions of people who had never learned to smile, but I slowly began to encounter the souls of these people. I’ve seen people melt from Robot to a raw loving being when they see someone they know, I have seen a group of friends start a dance circle in the middle of my metro car and shake with uncontrollable laughter, and I have seen a boy holding three umbrellas to try and cover himself and two girls in a rainstorm with success beaming across his face.

I find that Russians are truly ambiguous. On one hand they are rough and insensitive. From a tourist point of view they make no effort to welcome foreigners, cooperate with you when you are trying to speak Russian, or English, and are generally cold and pushy. They also have a streak of racism and bigotry that is not acceptable in ‘The West’; my students are often shocked by just seeing a Black person and need constant reprimanding for the use of ‘Nigger’ in class.

On the other hand once Russians get to know you they are very hospitable, passionate, and loving. They seem be rushing with life blood that is just dying to come out and let you in on everything it has to offer. I feel that you become family once you get past the preliminary meeting and prove you are ok to open up to and that they are truly very funny people. I have also met some very vivacious, radiant young Russians and it seems that the youth in Moscow are becoming much more open and friendly with foreigners and want to mix and mingle with the expat community that is so large there.

Now of course what everyone back home really wants to know is if they drink a lot of vodka, wear fur, and speak with deep accents like in the movies. I have to say that yes, a lot of the stereotypes are sound. Of course with all stereotypes they only apply to a certain percent of the population, but generally the fur is true, smoking is about as common as breathing, vodka is cheap and drank as a shot, and never mixed as a highball (Apparently mixing vodka and coke will make both taste worse.), and most new students do have an accent similar to that we see in cold war movies.

Overall, Russians can be very similar to us; I feel it is the mindset of Russians that make them different. The leftovers of tsarist and communist rule can still be seen. They are a society that has always been told what they can and can’t do, and despite capitalism and democracy they have not taken up freedom, as we know it. Something as simple as standing somewhere for a picture can be off limits, where as it wouldn’t even enter the mind of most westerners. However this won’t stop me from buying a fur hat and joining in on what make Russians the unique and wonderful people they are.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Live to Indulge

Anyone in a megalopolis knows what is like to rush about and commute for hours each day, and anyone constantly on the run knows the hunger caused by this. There is no time to stop and eat. On average a roast pig probably has more stuffed in its mouth than a New Yorker, Londoner, or Tokyoite. Resultantly fast food and kiosks have become the lifeblood of these people on the run. In New York they ‘grab a slice’, Londoners have Cornish Pasties, and in Tokyo they have steam buns and sushi galore. These metro foods are often eaten out of desperation, but can also be an indulgence.

In Moscow I have been starved and enticed into a variety of metro fare. Most of these are high energy and low cost or quality. The first fad I fell into was grabbing a few Sloika Pies on my way to work in the morning. These pies range from ground meats and sausages to creamy cheese and fruits. Stopping for these pies reminds me of indulging at the patisseries in France sans the silky French names, and the smiley Frogs in white hats spattered with flour. Lets just say the quality and ambience isn’t there.

Next in line was the shawarma. Similar to the shawarma we get back in Canada from late night Lebanese joints like ‘Mr. Shawarma and Shawarma Kingdom’ (result of English as a second language I am sure) They wrap up spiced chicken that has been marinating in its owns juices with cabbage, tomatoes, and cucumbers and give it some gusto with garlic mayo and chili sauce. I started eating these late night wraps because it was one of the only things I could say and at 1:30am getting off the Metro I couldn’t ask for anything more. I have managed to cut down but still love having shawarma at least once a week. The best part of Moscow shawarma is that it is sealed on both ends for convenience and they put a dollop of garlic mayo on the top so that your first few bites that are tortilla heavy are just as good or better than the ones that come in the middle. This technique needs to cross borders!

One that I was hesitant to try, but I feel could be wildly popular back home is Kartoshka (Potato). Here you can have a foil wrapped potato pulled out of the oven, have butter and cheese worked into its whites and then adorn it with your choice of toppings. Toppings range from sausage and cheese, shrimp, feta cheese, and move into crispy onion bits, and things I just point at and hope they taste good. Luckily they nearly always do. The point and pray is a strategy I have mastered.

Now here comes my new favorite, a little place called Beard Papa’s. Not exclusively Russian, but exclusively wonderful. Beard Papa is a pipe-smoking sailor that happens to have an expert hand with jumbo cream puffs. As soon as you get upwind of the store you smell the sweet fresh baked scents of tender puff pastry. Once inside you choose if you want chocolate, vanilla, berry, or green tea cream piped into your fist-sized puff. I went with green tea; it is a fix I have been deprived of for months now. I was more than fixed. In a hurry I mowed into my giant creamy heaven as I walked. I had green cream in and around my mouth and icing sugar all over my pea coat like powder burns from a shotgun. I advise you to indulge at Beard Papa’s but to take your time eating your dream cloud and pairing it with a nice cappuccino before you rush off.

Although I am often cursing the fact that I have no time for a real meal, and condemned by other teachers for eating these foods I am enjoying the new tastes on the go. Next up: corn and the cob, and a pint.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Food Feud!

Most people know that I have an amazing and highly developed relationship with food. It is the first thing I think of when I wake up and often the last thing on my mind as I pass out at night. I am been living in culinary bliss, but last week there was trouble in the home and the relationship was threatened.

I was informed that I have been eating chocolate like a sissy! This was not easy to deal with, so I am writing for this for all those chocolate loving guys out there that are in danger. Yes. Danger. Our reputations are at stake. I was in my local 24-hour supermarket last week when I found Nestle For Men-a line of chocolate bars that are bigger, more rugged, and absolutely for men. In fact each mountainous and badass square is branded with a ‘no women’ sign to make sure these special chocolates don’t fall into the wrong mouths. The product is not all about image either. The secret recipe reveals the tenderness in a man and allows him to speak to any woman.

Nestle For Men comes in classic, with peanuts, and with almonds for only 30Roubles at your nearest Russian store. Chances are I will still eat other chocolate behind closed doors, but now I have something I can eat confidently out in the open, and keep my food matrimony in harmony.

Monday, October 11, 2010


The first famous tower I ascended was Eiffel’s masterpiece in Paris and a couple of years later came the CN and the Empire State. To continue the tradition in Moscow I took the initiative to go to Europe’s tallest tower: Ostankino.

The Ostankino Media Tower was built in honor of the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution and was completed in 1967. Taking 5 years to build, the tower was the tallest in the world when built and stands at 540 meters. Ostankino is named after the district in Moscow where it is located and broadcasts TV and Radio signals over the whole city.

To some the tower may seem a little rough around the edges, and in fact it is with all the antennas and broadcasting arms poking out. It may be one of my favorite buildings in Moscow however. What I see when I look up at Ostankino is a magnificent tower that could be the cover art for a great sci-fi or steam punk novel. The surrounding grounds melt away and my mind washes up nautical, magical, and even post-Armageddon worlds trying to find where this spire fits best. The tower itself seems to have a dark mysterious quality and the area around the tower felt like you were walking into the headquarters of an evil organization.

The situation isn’t helped by Russia’s love of red tape. Usually when one arrives to a famous tower they purchase tickets and line up for the breath taking view. As they wait flashing cameras, people milling about excitedly and flashy presentations about the tower surrounds them. There is fervor in the air. The experience at Ostankino on the other hand goes a little like this: you must first sign up online or at the tower for an appointment to go up the tower (maximum of 30 at a time), on arrival your name is checked on the list at security and then you must go to a check in. Arriving 30 minutes early at the check in you must then give over your passport and once it in scrutinized you are printed an official entrance card.

Your group is brought together and given an entrance briefing in Russian, taken on a path to a security check point where you are scanned for metals and have your ID checked again. Finally you use your entrance card to scan you into the tower doors and you have time to look at the exhibit at the tower base. A security briefing is issued next and then you can finally board the elevator. Once up stairs you are free to roam and observe for half an hour before you must leave with the group and reverse the security process while on the way out. Moscow may be modernized but it certainly has that on its own terms

I felt the procedure of mounting the tower just added to the Russian charm and that the experience wouldn’t have been complete without it. Now when I see Ostankino from the ground it still gives me a spark of magic.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sticky & Sweet

HONEY! It is a food miracle- the only thing on our earth that doesn’t rot wet or dry. Not to mention that it tastes like heaven and most resembles liquid gold. I have had a good relationship with honey since I was young, often dipping my chicken tenders in it. Now I keep a jar in the house for my love of late night mugs of Earl Grey Tea with milk and honey.

All this in mind: when I heard about a honey festival in Moscow I had to buzz to my nearest metro to have a look. The festival is held annually at the park near Tsaristino metro station and hosts kiosks from honey farmers that hail from all over rural Russia and even some areas of Kyrgyzstan and other satellite countries. Once you enter the steel gates you need to leave all sense behind, except taste, and get ready to plunge into honey.

There are over 200 sellers at the event with dozens of varieties of honey, mead (an alcoholic honey drink) and a Chak-chaks (best described as a giant honey rice crispy square). The varieties of honey range from sweet to smoky and even bitter. They also can be thin enough to drizzle, thick like ice cream, or be full of crushed up honeycomb. Even as a ‘foodie’ I was surprised by the types of honey I have been missing out on for so long. After an hour of picking up a little white dipping sticks and melting a gob of honey over my tongue I managed to pick a nice creamy honey to take home with me.

A point of advice would be to not get too excited from the get go and taste every honey at one stand, because there is nothing around the cleanse your palate and unless your tooth is as sweet as mine you may end up a little overwhelmed.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Metro Madness

The Metro is the Heart of Moscow. The first line opened in 1935; it is the gift of the Soviet Union. The Metro now consisting of 12 lines and transporting an average of 6.6 Million passengers a day is the second busiest in the world after Tokyo.

Chances are if you live in Moscow that you ride the Metro, although there are plenty of cars and traffic jams above ground, most of the city’s traffic happens underneath the surface.

Ever since I got acquainted with ‘The Tube’ in London earlier this year I have developed a fascination with Metro systems and every city with an underground gives me an extra treat explore.

The Moscow Metro is a treat for several reasons: many of the stations look like they could be the entrance to a grand palace or museum especially on the circle line (this fell in and out of fashion due to political leadership), the system is massive and will take me all year to discover, and of course the metro is a people watching heaven with some of the best characters around.

My most memorable metro rides thus far have been falling asleep on the train and being woken up by the conductor lady with a paddle that is red on one side and white with a black dot in the center on the other, a drunk man caught peeing on the platform being spanked with the same paddle by a similar conductor, having a group of 20 somethings start a dance circle with music from their cell phone in my metro car, and lastly seeing a man bowl through the metro carrying two car tires he had just bought. This list is preliminary and I can’t wait for it to grow.

A recurring thought I have on my daily commute is something I heard from a sales training. The idea is that if you run through a crowd people will move out of your way. This is true in the metro. I see it everyday. More importantly it is true in daily life. When we are moving ‘faster’ than everyone else they let you pass by to success. If we want to be successful and to get ahead we can’t be moving out of the way for those who chose to run. We need to put on our trainers and go for a mad dash, because once you pick up the speed no one will dare get in your path.

My 2+ hours a day on the metro are full of these thoughts, but what makes the ride worth it for me is that I don’t have to deal with my road rage.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Russia: Hot Off the Press

Moscow. 2 weeks down. 42 to go. Not that I want to leave, but a survivalist mentality kicks in when you are in such a massive city. A city of 10 Million where most people conform, are racist to foreigners, and are often closed minded. These people don’t speak the language I do, and nothing is written in the Latin alphabet outside of my computer screen. It sounds bleak and overwhelming, which is exactly how I felt my first night in the city.

However the city starts to open up to you day after day. You begin to understand where you are and are going, words and signs begin to have meaning, and you come to terms with the fact that Russians don’t smile. Oh and when you do, they act like they might catch it. The word crazy comes to mind every time I begin trying to describe Moscow.

You know that friend of yours that can be frustrating at times because they are so hard to control and may do something rash on a whim? Full of ups and downs, but despite this you love them because they are always a good time, and never boring. Moscow is this friend. Huge and diverse with tons to do and see. People always in motion, and at every corner you find an incredible building, a camel riding stand, or 3 guys challenging you to a hammering contest in the middle of the street.

The city is a place of contradictions and is a ‘take it as it is’ kind of place. The fun of exploring here is never knowing what to expect and just going with it. Every time I leave the house with my camera I come home with some great pictures and when I forget I am kicking myself for missing the opportunity.

I have yet to develop a feeling of home in Moscow, but I have a respect and a healthy appetite for what there is to take from the city and I know this year will be thrilling, action packed, and hold twists and turns that I can’t even guess about.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lazy Days and Cirque du Soleils

I went to Orlando to see Harry Potter, but I also went to catch up with some amazing friends I made working in France. Our 2 day segue to Orlando was nothing but constant laughs and good times. Our first day was quite relaxed, and frankly we needed a break from trekking around Manhattan non-stop.

After we landed we got treated to some southern BBQ and headed off to a Natural spring to drift down the river in tubes. The challenge of this was fitting 7 people and 7 tubes into a vehicle with only 2 seats installed. But with various body parts and black O’s sticking out we made it the spring without being pulled over.

After an afternoon in the water Menchies was in order. Menchies is a self serve frozen yogurt, or ‘Fro-Yo’ bar that gives you 12 featured flavors of frozen yogurt and a bar of toppings ranging from chocolate, to cereal, to cheesecake. Once you have taste tested the yogurt, filled your cup with all the goodies you want, and are ready to feast, you weigh in your cup and pay by weight. Everyone sat in silence while eating on the patio, mixed with some moans and cries of ‘so good’

We then retired to Erica’s and played apples to apples until it was time for my 4th Cirque du Soleil show. Matt and I have become addicts and since there is one in Down Town Disney it was a must see. The show La Nouba exceeded my expectations as usual. The shows are so good they are hard to describe. I am attaching a trailer for you to get an idea of the costuming and acrobatic wonder that transports you to a world of make believe for the 90 minutes of bliss the show provides. I was most impressed by the Chinese girls that looked as if they could dance on water as they twittered around with diabolos, and the beauty of the silk strings always amazes me. Cirque always manages to add humor into their shows with some goofy characters that break up the jaw dropping acts. This time it was a pair of clowns that provide slapstick comedy and dynamite pranks that are reminiscent of Road Runner.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Despite the fact that we were in the Greatest City in the World, we wanted to go see a world we will never truly be able to visit—The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal Studios has given ‘muggles’ a chance to enjoy the wonder of J.K. Rowling’s magical world at their Islands of Adventure them park.

The island includes the high street of Hogsmeade (the village that 3rd year students of Hogwarts and older get to visit) and is host to all the shops and pubs that are mentioned in the books. The most famous being Zonko’s joke shop, Honeydukes, The Three Broomsticks, The Hogs Head, and Olivander’s wand shop. I really splurged at Honeydukes, purchasing rock and cauldron cakes, and my very own chocolate frog. I washed these down with pumpkin juice, and kept my sugar high going all day with the parks famous Butterbeer.

We ran around like first years buying supplies and tried on robes, were chosen by wands, and got into house rivalries along the way. The Hogwarts express is there to greet you in along with a conductor sweating in the Orlando heat while in a jumpsuit.

As for rides on the island there is a hippogryph ride for kids, a set of dueling dragon coasters for adults, and a 3D ride that takes you all over the grounds of Hogwarts on levitating benches that Hermione has been nice enough to charm for the curious. The main attraction is definitely the ride through Hogwarts, even the waiting line is enchanted with foreign plants in the green house, paintings that move and fight amongst themselves, the vials of crystals showing the house points, and our grouchy friend the sorting hat even makes an appearance. I have to be honest that the final ride did not blow my mind and felt I would have rather just been able to explore the castle on my own. However the park will make any Harry Potter die hard weep for joy, and be something that anyone will find magical.

Although Harry stole the show, the other islands of the park are still a lot of fun, my favorite being the marvel island with a cool 3D Spiderman ride, and the monster-speed Hulk Coaster. This has always been one of my favorite theme parks and Harry has iced the cake.

Long live 'The Boy Who Lived'

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why People Love the Big Apple

New York is often called the greatest city in the world, and New Yorkers definitely believe that it is. I have never been somewhere that the people are so proud of their home. Every New Yorker, born there or not, is seething with pride. Not that you can blame them with hundreds of world famous landmarks in their back yard. Not to mention more world-class restaurants than you could ever hope to visit. I couldn’t help but notice that the pride ran deeper than just having a whole lot of famous landmarks around.

I did my very best to find out the source, exploring as much of the city as I could in 2 weeks, and even I began to get infected with the fervor of NYC pride. The key is that each area of New York, especially Manhattan has it own identity. We hear the slang in the movies about ‘the village’, SOHO, Wall Street, and so on. Each of these chunks of the city is notorious for something, whether it is where hipsters are, host of shopping boutiques, unique restaurants, or feeling like you are on the streets of China. There is something to offer in each area and like people congregate and rejoice in their district of choice. This creates the effect of high school cliques all across the city, but rather than the petty hatred and rivalries each area adds to the canvas of what New York has to offer.

The interesting thing about New York is that unlike the rest of America it was founded by the Dutch East India Company and was based on commerce rather than religion. Even when the British took over they left most of the Dutch systems of commerce and government in place because it was so successful. Often Americans say that New York isn’t really part of America, and because almost 50 percent of New Yorkers are immigrants they may have a point. This however is the wonder of the city, it isn’t like the rest of America but it exemplifies what America has always been said to be—a land of opportunity.

I was lucky enough to have the time and energy to see the famous sites from the ground, the water, and atop the Empire State Building. The buildings we see in the movies are amazing, but it is the hidden gems that always make the visit worth it. Piles of Graffiti art, chess masters waiting for you to oppose them in Union Square 7 nights a week, walking along a park that has been built atop an old rail road, and seeing live performances underground as you rush through the subways. In such a large and diverse city you are always bound to run into something new and interesting. The never ending fun and opportunity that comes from a truly global community is what makes New York so great and draws in visitors from all around the world year after year. This will definitely not be my last trip to New York.