Sunday, August 1, 2021

Eat, Drink, Walk, Sweat, Repeat in Tbilisi

A long weekend looming in the distance, and Son away with Grandma, the vaccinated Diplomat and I thought it would be a neat idea to go somewhere in an attempt to pretend that all was like before. There were several perfect flights leaving on a Friday night and coming back on a Monday night – Lisbon, Prague, Tallinn, Helsinki – a dizzifying list of fabulous European capitals. The world, well, the EU, was our oyster! Except that we are still in pandemic restrictions and none of these places actually allow tourists, vaccinated or not. So much for that. And then suddenly I had the brilliant idea to look east and find the practically perfect flights to Tbilisi, Georgia! I guess my excitement was catching, because our fabulous friend Z, upon hearing what we were up to, decided to join us on the trip. I did not know it at the time, but Z is my spirit travel animal. I honestly have no idea how we have ever traveled without him before!

The trip started really well. The airport in Kyiv is about 25 kms from downtown, and it usually takes about 40 mins to get there, which increases to an hour and a bit during Friday afternoon traffic. Cleverly anticipating this, and counting on stopping by the VIP lounge to grab an early dinner and glass of bubbly, we left a whole lot earlier than usual (much to the constant consternation of the Diplomat, I am one of those people who always leaves at the last moment to go to the airport since I detest waiting aimlessly there, so leaving early was a big deal). 15 minutes later, we dove into interminable traffic. It turned out that the Kyiv municipality had waited until Friday peak traffic to begin an enormous reconstruction of one of the key bridges taking folks towards that part of town where the airport is located. And not only that, but it decided to couple that with a profound road construction of the entire highway leading there, cutting 4 lanes to one. After some creative driving (I am pretty sure at some point, the cab driver drove through the fields), two hours later, disheveled and highly irritable, we burst into the airport with about 20 minutes to spare to boarding. I am a planner. If I had decided that I would go to the lounge for a light snack and bubbly, then by golly, I WILL go to that damn lounge and have my (sad looking) snack and bubbly. And so I did. And I even packed a spare (sad looking) sandwich for the plane, just in case. All of that in 7 minutes! Ha!

3 hours later, we descended into the balmy night air of Tbilisi, to discover that Uber did not function at the airport. I understood why when we were asked for the equivalent of $20 to drive the 15 minutes to the hotel – it was called a “curfew price.” You see, it turned out that Georgia had recently introduced a night curfew of 11 pm, which meant that everyone had to be back home by then. We arrived at 11:20 pm. Curfew taxi price it was!

We arrived in style at the majestic Sherton Metechi Palace and headed for the reception desk, hungry, thirsty, and most excited to begin our culinary journey in famed Georgia in our upgraded hotel suite. Not so much. We were coolly informed by the desk lady that the bar is closed, there is no room service, and our only option to get food is to order it, using a phone app. Mike drop! After we made it patently clear just how immensely disappointed we were (the Diplomat can be quite unpleasant when hungry), the poor woman allowed us to order KFC on her phone, and brought us some contraband beer to the room with it. M-m-m, finger-licking good…

The next morning, we set off to explore the beautiful city under the blazing sun. Since we started at 11 am, we soon felt like we should nosh on something to tie us over to lunch. So, nosh we did, coupled with a few glasses of fresh, homemade rose. Then we killed a couple of hours checking out architecture, until it was time to lunch in style at the magical Keto & Kote. Perched on a high street in old town, the restaurant has incredible food and fantastic view. Few bottles of wine later had us taking an afternoon nap at the hotel. We had to prepare for dinner, after all! Dinner was much simpler, at a wine store aptly called 1000 Vintages. It seems the place has two locations and we ended up in the more underwhelming one, without a full-fledged restaurant but still serving amazing meat platters. Meat and wine. Hello! We went through a rapid 12-wine tasting only to deduce that neither of us felt strongly about the traditional Georgian style of wines (they are kept in clay pots, which leaves a distinctive aftertaste). We did feel very strongly about the ones that were done in the classic style and to prove it, bought ourselves a whooping $50 bottle of red for dinner (that is expensive for Georgia but we were feeling reckless after tasting 12 wines in under 10 minutes). I don’t remember much of it though since, well, you know, the 12 wines…

The next day Z said that he would very much like to explore the local public market and buy some spices. We spent almost an hour meandering through the classic Eastern European market filled with ageing babushkas (which actually means old grandmas, not headcoverings) and outstanding produce, while sweating profusely in the rapidly heating day. One thing I will say about Georgians – they are the most loving, friendly, welcoming people. We were offered tastings of pickled vegetables, nuts, honey, spices, breads, by numerous smiling old ladies and gentlemen without asking anything in return and refusing to accept any money for anything. They were delighted to see a real Indian and even more thrilled to learn that were American. In the end, we decided on a particularly fun stall at the far end of the market where (we imagined) the spices smelled even better. After forcing us to taste all 115 of her spices, the portly lady insisted that we eat her sulguni (local VERY salty cheese) and then she whipped out soft, delicious white bread to go with it. Clearly delighted at the sight of us with cheeks stuffed with

sulguni and bread, she brought out a large box of salad which was apparently her own lunch and insisted we finish it all, while cutting more and more bread. Her cup of joy was not full, however, until she pulled out a plastic bottle of home wine from the fridge and filled out a giant plastic cup of wine for each one of us, including herself. For the next hour, we ate a kilo of cheese, two breads, a salad, and drank 2 liters of a most delicious, light white wine. 

Somehow we made our way to Fabrika, an old abandoned factory, which has been converted into an eclectic office/cultural/eating/drinking space. After a lunch of ramen, we rolled back into the hotel for a postprandial, dreamless nap. Dinner time found us in old town, traipsing the shady, leafy, cobblestone streets and peeking into old courtyards, heavy with clotheslines and children playing soccer. Dinner was had in the ridiculously romantic Café Littera, which had equally ridiculously bad/slow service and rather pleasant menu by an award-winning chef.

Cafe Littera

A visit to Tbilisi would not be complete without going to the beautiful sulphur baths in the middle of old town. So, the next day, in 40 degree heat, we decided to go for a soak in the, um, hot baths. What no one tells you is exactly how hot the sulphur water would be. Which is A LOT. It took some guts to get inside, and it was impossible to stay longer than 5 minutes or so before jumping out of it screaming, read as a lobster, and diving into the cold pool next to it. We also got scrubbed and lathered with cheap soap to finish off the experience. We came out in the sweltering heat weakened and squeaky clean, jumped into a cab and rode to the other end of town in search of the best hinkali. They were!

The rest of our stay was more walking, more heat, more gorgeous architecture, smiling and helpful people, and more delicious food and wine. We capped the weekend with a long and saturating visit to a wine store, which allowed us to bring back 15 bottles of wine and cognac. What a great country!

Sunday, June 6, 2021

London Quarantine Days 6 – 10 and beyond

So, I tapped out on Day 6. After trying various makeup styles (who knew there were so many types of smoky eye???), washing my sneakers meticulously with a toothbrush, reorganizing my digital photographs, going to unknown depths of Facebook to see what people are up to, watching shows on the lifecycle of moths, and all kinds of such fun activities, I decided that enough was enough. England allows you to take a test on Day 5, and one you get the negative OK, you are free to roam the kingdom (you still need to take your Day 8 test; because, why not, right??). So, I took the test, and on Day 5, I got up ungodly early (like, 8 am!), found the nearest mailbox with early morning collection and sent it off on its merry biohazardous material way. I spent the next 1.5 days in nail-biting suspense and lo and behold, got the good word that I am cage-free by early evening the following day.

I celebrated by taking myself immediately out to dinner in nearby colorful Soho. Oh, how the depressing grey sky shone above my head. How the chilly air felt against my freezing arms. It took al of my tenacity and hunger for the outdoors to endure dinner in the open that night (at that point, UK still only allowed outdoor dining and restaurants were packed, which given the country’s less than stellar climate, would amaze even a hardcore Scandinavian). I inhaled my obscenely expensive dinner, fortified by two glasses (or three, who knows) of wine, and ran home to take a long, hot shower. But the point was made – I dined out!

As surgery was still a few days ahead, I devoted the next several days to shopping, sightseeing, and friends’ seeing. Mostly, I walked all the time. I had spent a year in London as a student, when I was poor and lived in the not-so-glamorous parts of the city. While I did visit all the important places, I guess I never thought to pay attention to how pretty the city was. Folks, London is a city straight out of a Hugh Grant romantic comedy. It is shockingly green, with huge and tiny parks around every other ornate corner. It sure helped that the hotel was in the swanky Mayfair, and my hotel window overlooked Hyde Park, but apparently 50% of London is green spaces, and it showed. Combine this with the pristine houses, neat facades, pretty shopfronts, immaculate restaurants, and the innumerable Lamborghinis, it made for a stunning walking experience. Speaking of cars, as I car aficionado, I have to say (downtown) London showcases an absurd amount of luxury cars. I began a daily exercise of sending Son a picture of at least one Lamborghini, one Bentley, and a Ferrari, all parked casually around the city, with one surprise car each time – the occasional Rols Royce, Maybach, or even a Maclaren. Even UberX had luxury – several times I was picked by a Tesla (honestly, nothing to write home about) or a Mercedes!

After gallivanting around for a few days, and seeing friends every day, it was game day. Since my insurance was American, I had to pay of our pocket for the surgery and then send for reimbursement. It did not occur to me, however, that I needed to pay in advance. After all, one pays after service has been rendered, right? That’s how it works for manicures, for example?? Apparently not here. The morning of surgery day, I received a frantic call from the hospital that I have not responded to their emails to pay for my stay (they has misspelled my email). With mild annoyance I gave them my credit card details, and went back to getting ready. Next, I got a call from a sullen gentleman, who informed me with some alarm that he will be my anesthetist (with his strong accent, I had no idea what he was saying and hence, utterly confused as to what his supposed role was) and that (of course, what else), I had no paid for his yet un-rendered services.  After some inane back and forth, I finally realized that he was the drugs guy and immediately proceeded to pay him – you don’t mess with drug guy!

Once in the hospital, a nice man showed me around my room and its huge terrace overlooking the famed Lord’s cricket stadium, and gave me an extensive dinner menu to choose from – all in all, a great start! The Drug Guy showed up, and asked me anxiously whether I managed to pay, and even asked me for the receipt?!! The surgery went fine (I was correcting a badly deviated septum, which prevented me to breathe properly for years) and the next morning, still loopy from the anesthesia I went back to the hotel.

The next few days were spent in miserable recovery – I guess no one told me that my nose would be completely blocked from the swelling, and I will spend a week breathing through my mouth, looking like a fish out of water and when speaking, sounding like an asthmatic hyena. Sleeping was a complete disaster (try sleeping with your mouth open and you’ll see). Eating was pointless since I could not smell a thing, and all tasted like paper. Thus, I spent some more quality time watching British television and its amazing commercials, which can be grouped in 3 main categories:

·         Ads to prepay funeral expenses and not saddle your loved ones with them (the ads all had young people in them; do Brits really die that unexpectedly all the time and how expensive are funerals in this country, for Pete’s sake??)

·         Ads for various gambling platforms and places

·         Donating money to save African kids, kids with cleft palates, adopt an orangutan, save an elephant, or find a cure for cancer

·         Very, very garish ads for erectile disfunction and male hair loss treatments and medication. Good to know what England’s main afflictions are.

Once was able to breathe again to an extent, I decided to devote myself to culture and visit the museums. After a very entertaining Banksy exhibit, I felt brave enough to go to Tate Modern gallery. A huge lover of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, I approach modern art with trepidation. Tate did not disappoint. I saw many delightful “interactive” exhibits, where the artist inevitably explored the relationship of humans with nature, or objects, or space, or air, or something, mostly deconstructing and reconstructing some stuff, that usually took a lot of space. Two things caught my attention – a bunch of hanging mirrors that were deconstructing how we see stuff (it was shiny; I liked it because I could see myself many times, and I was having a particularly good hair day), and a big stone, which was making a statement about having a place in time or some other such crazy thought. All in all, a great afternoon! The National Gallery did not offer such deconstructing delights, but the Victoria and Albert museum sold great jewelry courtesy of the Iran exhibit.

During my last week, the weather drastically improved and to everyone’s shock, the sun came out. I continued my walks around the city, and met with wonderful friends all over. I could sense that the Diplomat and Son were somewhat anxious to have me back, so I bid glorious London goodbye. As I was about to call the taxi, I decided to check which Heathrow terminal I was going to, only to discover to my dismay that I was actually flying out of the incomprehensibly further away Gathwick instead. That was one lucky catch…

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Days 1-5 of London Quarantine

Day 1

I was hoping to wake up late, but alas, I didn’t. I woke up at 8 and manage to try to watch TV in bed for a solid hour, but one can take only so much of BBC, BBC International News, BBC2, BBC4 and euronews before switching to Keeping up with the Kardashians, circa 2004, for nothing better on TV. It so happens that I am an elite member of the Marriott, and so I get access to the Members’ Lounge. Because of COVID restrictions, however, the lounge was closed and instead, they would deliver breakfast to the room, in plastic boxes, and an inviting brown paper bag with elegant wooden utensils. So, I ordered breakfast, fixed my bed and decided that I don’t want to stay anymore in the ghostly hotel, but rather change to another one in the chain that has more people and possibly open lounge.

9:30 breakfast arrived, and I ate really slowly to stretch time, while watching some more Shtisel.

10:30 – I decided that I need to lose weight while in captivity. Since I detest working out, I decided to walk 10,000 steps. For lack of better space, I began walking the long, carpeted corridors of the hotel, while watching Shtisel on my phone.

11:30 – I managed to get 8,000 steps or so. Brushed my teeth, took a shower. Explored Deliveroo for lunch options.

1:00 – Lunch arrived, this time delivery without a hitch. Ate lunch, made 3rd cup of tea.

2:00 – received an email that my COVID tests have been delivered to the hotel. Went to reception where Icy Lady told me she has not received anything. Showed her picture of delivered tests on my phone, and apparently they were delivered somewhere else. Because, why should anything work?

3:00 – rearranged all files in my computer, and deleted old school stuff

4:00 – decided to walk some more

5:00 – spoke to the Diplomat, then to Mom, then to Son

6:30 – emailed and texted everyone I could think of who lives in London

7:30 – ate dinner and watched Shtisel. Then watched one more episode because I could.

10:00 pm – called for ice. This time, Icy Lady arrived with a small bucket of ice. Not to offend her, took all of it. After I made myself a scotch, spent the rest of night practicing tossing the ice in the sink in the bathroom from various distances.

Day 2

9:00 – underwhelming breakfast again

10:00 – spent an hour deciphering how to take the PCR test on my own. After reading the instructions 7 times, I promptly packaged the swab wrongly twice, and then just gave up and mailed it. I used the excuse of the mail run to take a walk and buy food and wine from a neighboring store. Then I came back, super delighted with myself, and ate lunch. 2:00 pm - decided to go to the gym for my daily steps. I figured that I was inside the hotel, so it was OK not to stare at the walls of the room for a change. Once done, I went and took a shower, and just as I was coming out of it in my robe, I got a stern knock on the door.

It was the police!!!!!!!! Checking on me whether I am quarantining in my room! Which I was. In that precise moment. So they do check….Which also came as a surprise to the NHS person who called me that afternoon to check on me and prattle on the same useless narrative they do every day.

All that excitement killed a couple of hours and positioned me well for an exciting dinner with a (cheap) glass of wine and M&S (cheap) dinner. For I have to tell you folks – London is one expensive city. Or maybe I have lived in Kyiv too long.

Day 3 – more of the same, rinse and repeat with one new exciting events. The Diplomat sent me “surprise” flowers because it was Mother’s Day. It was not a surprise for 3 reasons:

  1. He told me about it in advance
  2. I saw the charge on the credit card
  3. It didn’t arrive when he said it should have arrived, so I had to go back to Reception (Icy Lady was gone and I was met instead by Hot Dutch Guy, who was a lot easier on the eyes, to be honest). It took, as usual, 30 mins to track the delivery down. I think that hotel really needs to reevaluate its official address.

Day 4 – I moved to a new hotel in hopes of finding traces of life, the JW Marriot in Mayfair, across from Hyde Park – an address as swanky as it gets in this gorgeous city. Beyond the excitement of the move, the other exciting event of the day was that I decided to try new makeup techniques. For a good part of the afternoon, I smeared and painted, and tried every single brush in my makeup kit, for some truly frightening looks.

And then I walked 10,000 steps in the hotel corridors wearing that makeup, to see what people thought of that. Judging by the expression of the Middle Eastern man who passed me by several times, I must have looked exquisite in heavy makeup and sweatpants.

Then, as I was reading later at night (after having MAYBE 2 glasses of wine), I noticed a small orb of light dancing around the darkness of the room. Blame it on the ghosthunters show I had just watched, but I KNEW it was a ghost. After watching it move around the room for while, and scaring the scrap out of me, I realized it was just a reflection of my watch on the night lamp.

Day 5 – Lather, rinse repeat. Also, I worked remotely and then realized that I was allowed to dine in the restaurants of the hotel, only outside. It was 10 degrees, but I did not care, I got to eat in a restaurant!!! I also got my negative PCR test result. Shocking, given that I am fully vaccinated, and I had already tested negative right before leaving for London!

Quarantining in London

I just flew in London from Kyiv about a week ago to do a simple surgical procedure. In case you wonder why London, it’s too complicated to explain, frankly. Anyway, currently England requires anyone coming on the island to self-isolate for 10 days, taking COVID-19 tests on day 2 and 8 to make sure they are not sick. The National Health Service (NHS) will check on you and supposedly so would the police.

Now let me tell you why this is stupid and utterly ineffective. Before arrival, you have to register with something called a Personal Locator online, putting down critical details like what seat you are on the plane, what your address is, where you have been and where you are going. Fair enough. You also have to buy online from a random (and huge) list of laboratories tests that are to be sent to your place of abode (in my case, a vast and ancient hotel), which you will then self-administer on days 2 and 8. Oh, what fun.

So, let’s see what could possibly go wrong with this super scheme (it is actually called a “scheme” in the UK).

  • You have to receive the tests by courier. It took the hotel 30 mins to figure out where they were delivered (not at reception). Great start!
  • The tests came with extensive directions and multiple bags and labels. You have to figure out what to put where and how and then where to mail it. I am not stupid. But I did it wrong for the first test. Good luck to you!
  • You have to self-swab with a giant stick and then send off the sample by mail. First, that is disgusting (assuming you have already been swabbed for COVID before, you know what I mean, and then imagine doing it to yourself). Second, I’d think that is putting way too much faith into humanity when it comes to public health – ultimately, who’s to know whose swabs those really are?
  • The NHS calls me every day to check on me. Full on conversations, repeating the same thing every boring day, telling me what to do if I develop COVID symptoms, asking me if I am quarantining home. Now, mind you, they call me on my cell phone, and for all they know, I could be in Australia petting a koala bear or eating crumpets at Buckingham’s Palace. Recently, they have taken on calling me not once, but TWICE a day. Turns out that since I filled out that amazing locator twice (I switched hotels), they cannot put two and two together, and think that I am now two separate people, quarantining in two different places, and they call me twice. Which tells you how well this “scheme” is working.

So, what does a person do for 10 days alone in a hotel in London? In a thrilling series of several posts, I thought I’d let you know in case you find yourself in the same position.

I arrived on a chilly and rainy Friday. I took an absurdly expensive taxi from Gatwick to the Marriott County Hall at Westminster Bridge, a giant and ornate historical hotel facing Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. Killer view! Upon check-in, I admitted that I was going to self-quarantine, and the hotel lady told me icily that there will be no housekeeping for me. I will need to make my own bed (ouch!), and should not interact with anyone. Which did not seem to be challenging since it looked like it was just me and her in the giant, empty, ghostly hotel, located in the former UK Parliament building. She said that there is a limited dining-in menu and when I order, they will leave it outside the door. All in all, it all strongly resembled plague times.

My room was lovely. I quickly changed into casual ware, and sat down to study the lunch menu since I was starving. Of the 10 items on the list, 9 were fried and one was boiled. Unwilling to believe that, I called “in room dining,” which was again reception Ice Lady, and was told that indeed, that is their menu. She recommended a delivery app, Deliveroo, which I promptly downloaded and excitedly ordered sushi. In about 20 mins, the delivery person began calling me, asking me where I was located. She was two streets over, in a different hotel. 6 calls later, and me having to leave the hotel (the HORROR), I finally found her and got my food. That process happily killed 2 hours of the day.

I realized that I will be ordering more food, so I decided to call Housekeeping and get a minifridge. Turned out Housekeeping also was Icy Lady, which promised to send me one. I admire Icy Lady, I do believe she singlehandedly runs the entre hotel and fries the food behind the reception desk. The fridge soon arrived, and I finished my late lunch. That excitement took another one hour. By now, it was 6 pm, so I decided to take a shower and settle my toiletries in the bathroom. I took extra time and by the time I was done and in PJs, it was already 7 pm!

I settled down to watch a new show – someone recommended Shtisel – and it seemed like a great show. It was. One 1-hour episode later, I was fully hooked. I decided to order a (unnaturally expensive) glass of wine to go with my dinner. Since the room delivery of that glass cost a whooping 4 pounds (around $5.50), I decided to go pick it up by myself. I got it from – you guessed it – Icy Lady! In another hour, I had finished dinner, another episode and was ready for a nightcap of scotch (I had bought a bottle at Duty Free). I called Concierge (aka, Icy Lady) for a bit of ice. She brought me a giant bucket of ice, from which I daintily took two cubes and sheepishly handed the rest back. I don’t think she likes me. With this and brushing my teeth, I managed to get to 11 pm and off to sleep. I cannot wait for the delights of the official Day 1 in quarantine (your arrival day does not count).

In other updates - we are still in Kyiv, but Fat Cat moved on to greener heavenly pastures, and we acquired two new family members: Batman (scrawny, hairy, hyper blackish baby cat, that looks like a sickly bat), and Sedate Cat (an emotionally needy, excessively purry leopard-looking cat, which is consistently tormented by Batman by rough playing). Currently, all four men are turning the house upside down in my absence. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Impressions of Ukraine

It has been 7 glorious months of peaceful and wintery life in Kyiv. Some immediate and now more long-term impressions for the curious among you:
  • Ukrainians are officially the most suicidal drivers and the worst parkers I have ever seen in my life! I know I have said that about many of the drivers in the places we have lived. Folks, this is IT! Ukraine wins the bad driving Olympics! Driving here brings me to such apoplexy that I end up hurling obscenities of the most startling variety during the majority of the ride. In essence, it boils down to this – if there is more than a 5 cm distance between your car and any other object on the road, another car will somehow, magically and most definitely squeeze in that space. The day a guy entered a one-way street from the opposite direction, (which of course forced me to stop my car for lack of anywhere to go as streets downtown are tiny and definitely not designed with opulent SUVs in mind), calmly parked it in the midst of that, and walked slowly away even though I honked so much, I thought the horn will break, I caved in, backed out and never drove again.
  • Ukrainians love salo, a beautiful ribbon of white pork fat, which appears to be salted or smoked, or both. I have eaten salo in Russia, but the Ukrainian salo is a whole other thing and seemingly has a cult status in the food regimen of locals. It goes down VERY easily with vodka (what else), and each small piece seems to be about 1000 calories each, which is apparently why I like it so much.
  • Kyiv is gorgeous and you can find new places to explore every week.
  • The metro is extremely well connected. And clean. So clean. In your face, New York City!
  • Going back to cars, I have never seen so many vanity plates. They are not vanity plates the way folks do them in the United States – like, the hearse whose plate said “ U R Next,” or the Corvette with the infuriating “Zro Kidz.” No, vanity here is more like AA1111BB. While most of the time such plates in the United States are delightfully dumb, tough to understand, and cost only a bit more than a regular one, getting a vanity plate in Eastern Europe shows status. It tells the rest of the common folk how important the owner is – the more awesome the plate is, the more important and connected that person is. Ukraine is no different. What is shocking here, however, is just how many vanity plates of the “I am very important” kind one sees on a daily basis. To be frank, they kinda seem to be the majority! And then, yesterday, I saw the ultimate plate. It simply said - A0000A. Dang! Who knew that 0000 is a number. I wonder who is THAT important as to say to him or her-self – “Well, this is it. I have achieved it all – wealth, power, influence, sex appeal (I presume). I have bought a new gigantic Mercedes to match all that and plan to park it over the entire sidewalk to block regular humans come near it. And I shall give it the best license plate – a bunch of zeros!!” I seethe with envy.
  • Coffee shops outnumber human beings. There are regular coffeeshops, there are mall coffee stands, there are street kiosk coffee shops, there are the hole in the wall selling coffee places, and then there are back-of-the-van coffee pop-ups. Often, each one within 5 feet of each other. And there are clients for all, all smoking up a storm while they gulp down the bitter brown liquid.
  • The vast majority of Ukrainians speak English! After serving in several countries where that was not a given, it can be such a relief to be able to explain to the hair dresser exactly what you want and not walk out of the salon with head covered in white highlights you never wanted.
  • Manicurists here are amazing!
  • Ukraine is in Europe!!! Which means a lot of easy, fast, cheap travel all over the old continent:    
    • In November, we went to Lithuania for a long weekend
    • Again in November, we went to Berlin for Thanksgiving
    • In December, we went to Spain for the winter holidays (Seville was magical, Gran Canaria – warm, Valencia – filled with bitter oranges!)
    • In January, we went to Warsaw for a long weekend
    • In February, we flew to Northern (!) Italy for a week for ski

And then it all abruptly stopped thanks to the omnipresent corona virus madness.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Four Hands in a Russian Banya and a Botched Russian exit

My time in Russia wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to a “banya” – the Russian equivalent of a sauna/hamam experience, with the added pleasure of jumping in the snow or having freezing water poured over your head in the meantime. Since even in May, the weather was still pretty wintery in Yekaterinburg, a good friend organized а banya outing at the gorgeous Ananyevskie Bani. Along with my fabulous girlfriend IL, I was given a wooden chalet, which consisted of two cozy rooms, and one wet hamam room that led into a dry and frighteningly hot sauna. It all looked a little out of an old Russian tale, which was enhanced by the fact that the woman who met us at the door was dressed like a 19th century peasant (unless, of course, she just had a penchant for heavily embroidered-bouffant style blouses paired with puffed-up skirts). My friend IL had wisely brought a bottle of wine, and after confirming with the period-clad woman that I do indeed want a “parilshtik” – a person to come and whack me with tree branches as part of a traditional banya experience - we proceeded to order from the banya menu delicacies like salted pork fat, pickled vegetables, sausages and black bread. As we settled to chat, drink and eat, the door suddenly opened, and a short, stocky man appeared, completely undressed save for a large cloth enveloping his lower body like a skirt, tucked under his enormous protruding belly. He was carrying a large wooden water bucket, filled with various types of tree branches. He merrily remarked that he was only bringing those to let them soak for 30 mins in cold water – apparently, the treatment was going to include whacking with 5 types of tree branches, birch, oak, fir, eucalyptus and juniper, all gathered at midnight on some obscure religious holiday. Then he cryptically remarked that four hands were better than one and happily disappeared.

Somewhat puzzled, we nevertheless stripped down to bathing suits and continued to drink and chat. In a few minutes, branch guy came back, again without knocking, but to my shock behind him was an identical semi-nude sweaty guy who, it seemed, was about to take part of the show as well. Somewhat alarmed at that point, I was led into the hot sauna by the boisterous men who really seemed to know what they doing. Both took the opportunity to emphasize several times that bathing suits were optional, and I cheerfully informed them that I was keeping mine on. The sauna was like an inferno. They placed a wreath of branches on the bench, and made me lie down with my face in it. Then, they put a stack of other branches, dripping with icy-cold water, on top of my head, so in fact I felt quite comfortable and the heat did not seem that horrendous anymore. For the next 15 minutes, they proceeded to lightly whack me around with various branches, while frequently changing the cold ones on top of my head. Each time, they changed the type, so I would invariably smell eucalyptus, or birch, or whatever else. It was, in fact, rather glorious.

After all that, feeling a bit dizzy from the heat, they brought me to my feet and led me gingerly outside the sauna into the wet part of the banya. As I sheepishly looked around to see what was next, someone suddenly dumped a bucket of icy cold water on my head, and I nearly passed out. I was so out of breath that before I even managed to start yelling obscenities, another bucket of icy water got poured on my head. Just as I was about to kill someone, the banya men expertly pulled me and made me lie down on a wooden bed. Then a whole bunch of treatments happened, but I was too disoriented to remember them all properly. All I know was that there was spreading of clay, something that felt like peeling, massages with aromatic leaves, spray washing, rinse, repeat. That went on for quite some time and was also rather pleasant. Feeling that I was enjoying all of that too much, the two sadistic men then dragged me back into the hot sauna, and continued with the branch whacking. The whole process took about an hour and in the end, they had to literally carry me into the bed to rest as my blood pressure was all over the place and I could not walk. My skin, however, was glowing and I felt like a newborn. I proclaim banya one of my new most favorite things!

My last month in Russia was an absolute blur of activity. As Son finally finished school and graduated elementary school, I offered to throw him a goodbye sleepover with his best friends, while the Diplomat left for India to see the Inlaws. As a result, five prepubescent boys spent the night in our house, playing soccer, eating pizza and talking nonsense about girls. As far as I could tell, they did not go to sleep until 1 am, and I found one of them asleep upright in a sofa chair – apparently, he “liked to try new things, like sleeping in a sofa chair.” (I also do like to try new things but mine go more along the lines of trying First Class on Emirates, buying my first Christian Louboutins, or very old single malt scotch. I guess we are different.)

The next day, Son and I left Moscow for good - he was coming to stay with me in Yekaterinburg for the last 2 weeks of our time in Russia. For lack of other better options, I put him in an overpriced cooking camp, taught exclusively in Russian – a language he somewhat understands, but still does not exactly speak. Every evening, the parents would come to pick up the budding chefs and we were served dinner cooked by them during the day. To his credit, Son did not complain a single time and seemed to get along with everybody, even if they communicated mostly through monosyllabic sounds and hand gestures.

In the meantime, I hosted my goodbye party, which ended with at sunrise (granted, at that point, the sun in Yekat was rising at 2:30 am), Yekaterinburg hosted its famous Ural Music Night, featuring 80 stages indoors and outdoors all over the city and some 2500 artists (among which yours truly, belting out Country Roads at the opening of the festival with a full scale band behind me!!), and the U.S. Consulate Yekaterinburg hosted its annual Independence Day reception, which lasted 6 hours in high heels and where I hosted part of the program the evening before we left Russia. In between, there were more receptions and dinners and parties and goodbyes, and, oh yes, the packout of all of my belongings.

So, I think you would imagine the extent of my exhaustion when Son and I woke up at 4 am the day after the reception (me having slept a total of 3 hours), zipped our suitcases, shoved Fat Cat in his brand new, garish red carrying case (he was to fly with us in the cabin of the plane for a change), and bid the lovely city of Yekat goodbye. Except that we ended up not leaving. Due to an outrageous mistake by Turkish Airlines, Fat Cat was booked erroneously as a cargo animal, and not a cabin one – the reservation claimed he was almost 20 lbs. Now, the cat is overweight, I am not going to argue. But 20 lbs he ain’t. Despite the fact that I weighed him in front of the ground staff, they said that if the booking said he was 20 lbs, then he WAS 20 lbs, even if he actually was not. And then they denied us boarding. As an alternative, the airline rep suggested we release him in the street. No matter what I said or how much I or Son cried, he was one unmoved Russian man. When I pointed out to him he was very rude, he told me I was impertinent. And so we had to come back to the apartment. I ended up buying new tickets on the omnipresent Aeroflot who seemed to have their s**t together a lot better, and after sleeping most of the day and a hearty steak lunch, Son, Fat Cat and I finally left Russia that same night, to arrive in the welcoming hands of Grandma in Bulgaria the next day.

We spent the next 4 days on the Bulgarian coast, eating our weight’s worth in an all-inclusive resort in Nessebar, and resting and roasting on the beach. (Fat Cat stayed with my uncle, in case you wonder. He is really making the rounds.) A day after we came back, I left the child and the expensive cat with Grandma in Bulgaria and flew to Washington, DC where the Diplomat had already arrived a week ago to start training for our next assignment in Ukraine. I saw him for one hot minute and the next day, I left again for a week-long State Department training meant to prepare me for life in a dangerous country. Having conquered that, at the end of the week I returned to DC and we left that same night for a quick romantic getaway since it was our 16th wedding anniversary. The next 4 days were spent having dinners with friends, last minute shopping, and getting very sick. Exactly 12 days after I had arrived in the United States, and 3 weeks after leaving Russia, I hopped on a plane again to fly to my final destination - Kyiv. You think I was exhausted? Oh, you bet. Not to mention the piercing throat pain, cough and low-grade fever. Welcome to Ukraine!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Russian Roadtrip – Vodka and Churches Part 1

Last month, we took a long-planned road trip through the so-called Golden Ring of Russia – a circle of about 650 km in total, starting in Moscow and going north-east, dotted with beautiful old Russian towns, featuring the obligatory gorgeous onion-domed church or seven, typically organized in so-called Kremlins. (Generally, a Kremlin is a major fortified complex found in the center of a typical old Russian town; the most famous one is, of course, in Moscow, and houses the Russian government, among other things). When I say long-planned, I mean I have been talking about it forever and we decided to go on it three days before the actual trip, which always means great prep work. We also decided to travel during the biggest holiday weekend in Russia – the May 9th holidays (anniversary of Victory Day of the Second World War) – which made the task of finding hotels and navigating the traffic of Russians leaving Moscow to go to their dachas for the long weekend that much more exciting.

Undaunted, we were on the road by 9 am on a warm Thursday morning, headed to our first stop on the Ring – Sergiev Posad.  Without much dramatic traffic, we made the 90 km trip in about 2 hours, and set about to explore the city’s Kremlin. Given the holiday, the entire downtown was closed down, all, and I mean ALL, kids were dressed in military attire, adults were carrying flowers and portraits of older relatives who appeared to have died in the war, random groups of people were gathering in the corners singing patriotic songs, and the overall atmosphere was very festive if somewhat somber. To understand just how much this holiday means to Russians, you need to know that they don’t call the war World War II; rather, they refer to it as the War for the Fatherland. Any town worth its salt has a formal demonstration and a procession, and, apparently, throughout the day, there were 10 million (yes, TEN) people who attended and walked in such processions across the entire country.
Sergiev Posad’s Kremlin was as if it came from a postcard or the pages of an old Russian storybook. It had the gold-covered, onion-domed pristine church, the frescoes, the blooming trees, the white-washed seminary and busy-looking, all-clad in black, scuttling about young priests, clutching various important books and discussing theology over simple soup in the refectory. There were also the ubiquitous hordes of Chinese tourists who took picture of EVERYTHING, including of each other taking pictures. 

After we soaked-in the beautiful architecture, we left for our next destination – Pereslav-Zaleskyy. The exact opposite of Sergiev Posad, the tiny town featured an old Kremlin with somewhat crumbling but picturesque buildings and a lovely garden. After a half-hour walk and a deep theosophical discussion with the Diplomat about the differences between atheism and agnosticism (during which no agreement was reached), we continued to the last stop for the day – Rostov Velikiy.

Rostov was my favorite on this trip and has the most beautiful Kremlin on the entire route. First, we dropped by the stunning Spaso-Yakovlevsky monastery on the banks of the Nero lake, where I had to wear a headscarf and drank some holy water, which tasted funny and I had to go to the bathroom immediately (if very blessed, of course). After that detour we ended up at the Kremlin around 5 pm, which ensured that we were pretty much the only people there to enjoy the gorgeous architecture in the balmy warmth of the sunset, surrounded by the quiet of the early evening. Son declared he was not feeling well (he drank some holy water too) and stayed in car, which further enhanced the peace and quiet of the walk through the centuries-old utterly enchanting Kremlin complex.

Filled with awe and hunger, we headed to our hastily booked “home for guests” perched on the banks of the lake. Since it was already 10 pm, we went to grab a quick bite. That turned out to be a bit of a daunting task given that we were, well, in the middle of not very much. Our only option consisted of a simple café/restaurant with nice outdoor seating with not much lighting, where several groups of happy folks appeared to have been celebrating Victory Day for a week. So, imagine everyone’s utter shock when we pulled in our giant SUV featuring a shiny red diplomatic license plate, and parked it in front of everyone. All conversation abruptly ceased and all gaze focused on us. At that point, someone pointed out importantly and quite loudly that we were apparently American (he had already managed to decipher the license plate symbols on his phone), and then inexplicably greeted the Diplomat with a hearty “As-Salaam-Alaikum.” We sat down next to them, and soon a key bilateral conversation ensued, ensuring friendship and cross-cultural exchange, enhanced by several offers of vodka shots. I ordered the only wine there was, a particularly horrid red varietal of unknown origin – the price for the bottle was $6, so you make your own conclusions. After a mediocre meal but a lovely discussion on various engaging themes varying from politics to the merits of a sink incinerator, it was time to go back. I offered the rest of the wine to the merrymakers, who happily accepted it but then insisted that we take a bottle of vodka in exchange.

Ipatiev Monastery
The next morning, we continued on to the next couple of pretty towns – Yaroslavl and Kostroma. The Yaroslavl Kremlin was rather large and well preserved, and hence as usual besieged by tourists. We used the bathrooms, took a quick gander to see the church, and went out to the neighboring Uspenskiy Cathedral Church, which featured stunning 16th century frescoes. Next – Kostroma, where we strolled through the stunning Ipatiev monastery complex located on the banks of the Volga River. There, I almost caused an international scandal when I remarked to the Diplomat that there was a group of elderly German tourists visiting. Suddenly, their young and overly zealous Russian group leader jumped and yelled at me in heavily accented English, “If you have a problem with Germans, you have a problem with me!” Utterly stunned, I asked him what exactly his problem was to which he responded that he was joking. We clearly had different definitions of humor.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2...