Tag Archives: food

A Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve been here nearly four weeks, and I haven’t been blogging nearly enough. So, here’s a list of my favorite things about Moscow so far:

The metro. I’ve taken public transportation in Austin, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, and Moscow’s metro system absolutely crushes all of them. Despite the fact that it serves more passengers daily than the NYC and London subway systems combined, it somehow manages to be incredibly efficient. I’ve been stuck waiting for the correct Green line train on the Boston T for upwards of 25 minutes during Red Sox games only to have the next one arrive so packed that you cannot physically wedge another human being onto it. But Moscow trains arrive every two minutes and, while often crowded (rush hour is pretty much all of the time here), aren’t quite that uncomfortable. As a bonus, many of the metro stations are visually stunning works of art, and even the Brezhnev-era ones that look pretty ordinary are at least free of the stale urine and garbage smell that seems to permeate most American transit systems.

Blini and kasha. Russia has the whole breakfast thing figured out. Also, carbs and comfort food. Blini are crepes filled with anything from fruit to caviar and sold pretty much everywhere. And kasha is basically porridge or a hot grain cereal that can similarly be served with anything. I like it with berries and fresh mint. It’s the best thing ever on a cold, rainy day (of which we have had many despite the fact that it’s early September).

Coffee shops. Starbucks and Coffee Bean are definitely a thing here. In fact, the Starbucks right outside metro Serpukhovskaya is pretty great. It’s inside a really neat bookstore and has great seating (and some of the baristas speak English). But you can do as good or better with some of the local chains. Moscow has tons of coffee shops that are essentially full-service restaurants but where they will let you sit there and hang out as long as you want. In fact, you will have to work pretty hard to flag down your server if you want to get your check and get out of there quickly. My favorites so far are Кофе Хаус (transliteration of “Coffee House”) and Le Pain Quotidien.

Parks. There is green space everywhere here. You can find huge, sprawling parks with ancient buildings like Kolomenskoye or modern spaces like Gorky Park, which has cafes, concert venues, and (in winter) ice skating. (Gorky Park also has these giant water resistant pillows and lounge chairs where you can park all afternoon and read, though you’d better go on a weekday). But there are also great little neighborhood parks and tree-lined boulevards where you can escape the city just for a little bit. I also love that though my apartment is in a cluster of none-too-beautiful buildings, there are trees on two sides, which means that my bedroom  feels a little like a tree house.

Muscovites. People keep telling me that Russians aren’t very friendly. Most of them tend to be Russians who have spent time in the US. But for the most part, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Sure, no one really smiles at strangers, people on the metro avoid eye contact, and small talk is not encouraged, but even outside my circle of colleagues, I’ve found most people here to be gregarious and helpful. It’s just a culture that tends more toward introversion. Plus, the way syllable stress works in Russian means that the language sometimes sounds flat or even harsh to foreigners. You generally have to make a connection first, and then people get more expressive. 

The stolovaya. This is perhaps more of a novelty thing, but the building I work in is Soviet-era and quite old. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s still government-owned. Back during Communist times, all workplaces provides lunch for workers in these cafeterias. My building still has one of those, and you can get a very decent meal (I like the vegetable salad and бутерброд с сыром, essentially bread and cheese) for very cheap. The bottom floor has a canteen where you can get fresh fruit, chips, ice cream, or whatever. It’s hard to explain how this is different from your typical college cafeteria, but it just is ok. There are a few Moscow restaurant chains that have reinvented this concept. My favorite is Му-Му (“Moo-moo” – the logo is cow spots).

Points of ambivalence:

Standards of dress. Walking around in your perfectly coordinated Lululemon outfit is not a sign of status here, or of how much you care about your fitness (there is no fitness culture here). The first time I walked around in work-out clothes, I had an Arrested Development style, “I’ve made a huge mistake” moment. No one was rude to me or anything, but I felt like I was wearing a flashing neon sign that said “HASN’T CAUGHT ON.” It is rare that you see someone–especially on a workday–who doesn’t look impeccably groomed by US standards. No one wears flip flops. Or running shoes. I used to think I had quite a bit of game in the whole footwear department. This is because I come from the nation that brought Crocs into the world. I think they confiscate those at customs here. 

The pace. You will straight up get run over if you don’t watch yourself on the street (Muscovite drivers have as much regard for pedestrians as Texans do) or in the metro, but in general, no one in Russia is ever in as much of a hurry as I think they should be. This is especially true when trying to file paperwork or anything involving a bureaucracy. It’s not that people are lazy or incompetent, they just have a different way of setting priorities and a different regard for deadlines. What this means is that you have to be patient and pro-active (just go down and get the projector cable already because no one is going to bring it to you, even if you asked for it a week ago), but also means no one is going to micromanage your pace or expect you to have that thing they sent you turned around in 24 hours or get angry at you for not immediately answering that email they sent at 3 am. As one of my colleagues said, “This Caribbean lifestyle would be great if the weather were better.” 



The Russian Diet

(TW: Diets, ED)

I have been here for almost exactly a week, so n=whatever here, but one of the most interesting differences I’ve noticed coming from the US to Russia is an almost complete lack of a visible diet and fitness culture. I’m sure there are teenage models starving themselves somewhere. And you can find health clubs and yoga studios on just about every block, but I have yet to see anyone walking around the city in gym clothes, much less jogging (an activity that is probably only feasible a few months a year anyway). There is no health food section in the grocery store, and I have yet to see a Power Bar. Heck, you are lucky if you get nutrition facts on food labels.

And as someone who finds American diet culture exhausting, demoralizing, exploitative, and most likely counter-productive, this is pretty refreshing. I came here from Dallas, where every other billboard is advertising a weight loss clinic or bariatric surgery and the phenomenal barbecue and Tex-Mex comes with a heaping side of “you are horrible and disgusting.” Here, people–fat and skinny people–order desert whenever they want without so much as an “oh, I skipped lunch” attempt at justification. It probably says a lot about where I am coming from that I was surprised–shocked even–to see one of my lunch companions order ice cream after the meal and then have an afternoon coffee buddy do the exact same thing that same day. People just seem to eat whatever sounds good, and food and body shame don’t permeate the very atmosphere quite like they do in the US.

I went hunting, and a 2005 article in Pravda suggests that this actually a thing. As in most of the world, obesity rates (and obesity alarmism) are on the rise in Russia, though it is behind most Western countries and (interestingly) appears to be more prevalent in rural areas than in cities where fast food is widely available. This article attributes the rising obesity rates to the adoption of the more modern, sedentary lifestyle. Though, the author notes:

Russians have not adopted another aspect, though – a critical attitude towards themselves. June Stevens and his colleagues from University of North Carolina found out that Russian teenagers suffer from obesity as much as American kids do. Unlike Americans, Russian people do not acknowledge that they are fat.

The article obliquely suggests that this is a problem, and I’ve found others that argue that this push toward modernization must include more education about nutrition and changes to traditional Russian diets that tend to be high in sugar and animal fat. But as someone who comes straight from the heart of Diet and Fitness Nation, who grew up less than a mile from Cooper Clinic and has been indoctrinated since birth into Health Culture, who knows how to count calories and carbs and does vigorous exercise 4-5 times a week and is still technically “overweight,” I think the Russians calling for this sort of thing had better be careful what they wish for. Because educating people about the benefits of eating well and moving around is fine. And I have to say that the availability of fresh produce and amenability of this city to outdoor activity during warm weather is phenomenal and probably unmatched by anything I’ve seen in any large American city. I mean it, there is a fruit and veg stand on like every corner. There are even dudes selling it in the metro (though I probably wouldn’t buy from them). More of that, please.

But if, as it does in the US, “awareness” about healthy living has to come with a helping of shame-based “motivation,” I think Russia could do without. For me and most other Americans, waking up every morning feeling like shit about ourselves hasn’t made us any thinner. Today, while I was eating lunch, I saw a group of very well-dressed, put together middle aged women order a three-course meal with vodka shots. And I’d like to be them when I’m 60 rather than still feeling like a monster for eating so much bread.