Category Archives: Russia

Requiem For A Heart

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This website is my safe haven from everything that is hurtful and destabilizing and polarizing. My main objective when I write here is to make those who visit me feel inspired, deserving and connected. Or at least get you to chuckle at my expense.

Under almost all circumstances, to talk politics here would be sacrilegious, as I can’t think of anything that is less inspiring, more polarizing or destabilizing to one’s mental health than a political rant. Me doing that to you would be a betrayal, like if I promised you kittens and then dropped you into a snake pit. Also, I imagine you would stop coming to see me and then I’d just be talking to myself.

I promise to always stay clear of snake-infested territory, but I do need to address what has been consuming me for the last three days—the murder of the Russian politician (and former governor of the city where I was born) Boris Nemtsov. But this is not a post about politics. This, as always is about heart.

Until the 28th of February, when I found myself sitting on the forest floor, surrounded by vibrant ferns and dusty, blue-stemmed bamboo trees weeping into a salad, which miraculously even in my grief I was able to manage with a pair of chopsticks, I had never cried over the death of a politician. And here I was, lost both physically (texting and hiking don’t mix), and emotionally, trying to understand why this death, as horrific as it was ached so differently, so much more familiarly than all the other equally horrific deaths I read about in the news.

Yes, I agree with many of his political views. Yes, I agree with his belief that “to come to power in Russia, without the institution of elections, is only possible with a revolution. But I have to tell you something unpleasant: I am an opponent of revolution. I don’t want blood.” I agree with him that lasting change, change that doesn’t eat away at your soul takes the “sacrifice of time” and has to happen slowly, from within. Yes, it’s possible that without him the future of Russia is bleaker. Yes, it’s possible, as some fear that this is the beginning of the end for any semblance of a functioning society in Russia. But none of this, not my fears about what might come to pass, not my own sympathies with his outlook, nor any speculations about the toll his death will take on the future explained why I mourned him as fully as I did that day in the woods. As I still do in a hotel room in Kochi.

The answer came to me yesterday, after a day spent walking in the rain, and repeating the Heart Sutra, Buddha’s ten rules for wholesome conduct, and a prayer that I may remember that we are all one, and not apart.  His loss to me is not political or patriotic. I mourn him because he is one of the few people I can name who was fearless in the way that is most meaningful to me—not because he wasn’t afraid to die (he was, admittedly) or even because he fought for what he believed in despite death threats.  He was fearless in the way most of us, including myself, are cowards—he was able to look at himself in the mirror, without dimming the lights or taking off his glasses to blur out the cracks and blemishes reflected back at him. And he accepted the truth of what he saw. There is little that you or any of his opponents could say about him that he hadn’t already joyfully, publically and with colorful language confessed to. He knew his faults and unlike so many of us (again, including myself) he didn’t spend a nauseating amount of time trying to convince anyone of their nonexistance. He just went back to work.  You can see that same level of comfort with the truth in the writing that’s now being penned by those who worked with him. Nothing of what his friends have written puts him on a pedestal or idolizes him. They are all warm, sincere and honest accounts of a man who was blood and bones and who lived with all of the complexities that come with that fleshy human costume.  His friends will still, even postmortem call things as they see them, without glossing over the unpleasant bits, just like Nemtsov did himself. And in the end, I think because he never let his darkness overshadow his light, in the words of Nina Zvereva, “he was impossible not to love.”

The ability to find yourself worthy of life even as you acknowledge your demons inevitably affects how you see other people. The more compassion you have for yourself, the more compassion you will find for others. That is what I mourn about this man. Nemtsov seemed to be able to see into people and squeeze out humanity in places where others only see a drought, without compromising his own truth or his convictions. That is rare anywhere and almost unheard of in politics.  He even managed to find some scraps of humanness in a man who many, whether rightfully or not, hold accountable for his death, a task some might consider on par with looking for an invisible needle in the world’s biggest haystack. Here is an excerpt from his interview with journalist Ilya Azar where Nemtsov tries to explain, using that colorful language I mentioned earlier how Putin got his head so far up his own rear end.

 

Boris Nemtsov: There is not one person around him [Putin] who will oppose him on any issue.  For example let’s take you—are you married?

Ilya Azar: No

Boris Nemtsov: What about a girlfriend? Or are you…

Ilya Azar: I have a girlfriend.

Boris Nemtsov: Imagine that your morning begins like this “Ilya! Good Morning! You are a genius. I look at other journalists, and f**k, they are idiots, imbeciles, worthless nobodies! But you, you son of a bitch, are a genius. Like yesterday, you interviewed Nemtsov. Obviously it must have been boring as f**k to talk to that guy. I mean, who is he? But, what you f*****g wrote—it’s impossible to put down. You’ll definitely win an award for the best interview of the year.”

Now imagine that your girlfriend keeps telling you this for fifteen years and others keep encouraging her. You’re a normal guy, with adequate critical thinking abilities, but unwillingly you’ll start thinking “F**k, maybe I really am that good?”  And that’s it, this **** person [Putin] thinks just like that.

 

There is a note tucked in among the sea of flowers now lining the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was gunned down that says “thank you for your example of honor and courage,” and that is what I am now consciously choosing to focus on when I look in the mirror—the gratitude for his life, even as I acknowledge the anger I feel over his death in my own reflection.

 

Full disclosure: Translation is my own, including the untranslatable richness of the Russian profanity used by Nemtsov. Full article in Russian here: https://meduza.io/feature/2014/11/21/gertsen-nam-by-ne-prostil

 

 

 

From Russia with Loaf

Being exiled in Russia has its moments and most of those moments  coincide with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Being in Petrozavodsk with my grandfather’s wife Valya has been a blessing for my taste buds and a curse for my skinny jeans. Valya’s culinary talents have kept me on a diet that has consisted of freshly foraged mushrooms sautéed with cream and buttery potatoes, homemade pork dumplings, caviar sandwiches, deep-fried herring and quail egg salad.

All of the above dishes are worth their weight in white truffles to me, but there is one that I have developed a daily dependency on that I plan to get the rest of the world hooked on. Every morning for breakfast I have a slice Smetannik, a cake that I like to think of as the Russian Tiramisu.

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The main ingredient in Smetannik is smetana, a thick sour cream with a consistency close to crème fraîche. Like its Italian counterpart, Smetannik’s appeal is thoroughly soaked layers of store-bought baked goods that you get full credit for but which require no cooking on your part. I also love Smetannik because its ingredient list is open to improvisation and experimentation—you can make it sweeter, richer, caffeinated, berry-flavored or Irish.

I say, when life hands you lemons in the form of Arctic exile, trade in those lemons for some cake. Here’s how.

Basic Ingredients

1 or 2 store-bought plain sponge cakes, depending on thickness, approximately 10” in diameter
3 cups sour cream or crème fraîche
1 cup sugar
½ cup crushed walnuts

Optional flavors

Berry jam or preserves
Condensed milk
Coffee
Honey
Rum
Bailey’s Irish Crème

Directions

1.Stir sugar into your cream of choice and feel free to add some honey, rum or Bailey’s. Let sit for an hour.

2. Take the sponge cake and carefully slice across to create four ½ “ thick layers.

3. Place bottom layer in a slightly larger pan or in a deep bowl or plate. Spoon out about a third of the cream and sugar mixture onto the cake and cover completely. There is absolutely no such thing as too much cream in this recipe.

4. Stack another ½ inch layer of sponge cake on top. This time you can either repeat with another layer of cream, or substitute a mixture of condensed milk and coffee or some blueberry jam.

5. Repeat Step 4 with the third layer of cake.

6. Stack the final layer of sponge cake and spread the remainder of the cream across the top and pour it over the sides.

7. Sprinkle walnuts on top and let sit for at least two hours before digging in. You can also refrigerate your masterpiece overnight—it makes for a sweet start to the day.

Still Snowden-ing in Russia.

I am cleaning and gutting herring in a kitchen in Petrozavodsk, a city half an inch below the Arctic Circle and just north of Helsinki on your map. Also, at least one of my tonsils is aiming to be a tennis ball by morning. Stuck in Russia waiting for a passport, my hands covered in fish scales while my friends are drinking my share of the Guinness on a trip to Dublin, I could suspect the universe of hating me. Instead I hold on to the thought that I am exactly where I need to be.

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I like to believe that my life is more than a series of random events, mixed with a handful of shots in the dark and a heap of bad decisions. I choose to believe that mistakes are epiphanies in disguise, that the characters who appear seemingly out of nowhere, the cities I wake up in and the life-changing phone calls I receive are all there to nudge me along in the right direction.

When I was horseback riding in Mongolia, the buckle on the saddle came undone and I went flying off my galloping horse. After being immobilized for two days in a ger tent and after a couple of doctor visits I was flown to balmy Hong Kong to deal with what was thought to be an aneurism or a tumor but turned out to be a kidney stone. (Feel free to insert your own conclusions about medicine in Mongolia here.) My nerves and my travel plans were shattered by the time I handed in my hospital gown. Before the accident I had pictured myself hiking the Great Wall surrounded by autumnal foliage but instead I spent my days surrounded by nurses in pressed white uniforms, making my way down sterile corridors waiting to find out what was wrong with me. Still I reasoned that the accident and all that followed were a divine detour to avoid some greater misfortune, that on the road of life, this was a fender-bender that kept me from a massive accident a mile away.

I suspect that most of reality is subjective. How we choose to see things contorts and reshapes those things to fit our vision. This is why I don’t understand why some people consistently choose to be suspicious, hurt and angry in situations where it is possible to find humor, compassion and opportunity. It’s safe to say that if you set out to prove a theory without questioning its accuracy, you’ll only find evidence to support that hypothesis and ignore the rest. So why, when there is already a suffocating amount of abuse and neglect in the world would you choose to spend your life looking for the worst in humanity when you can choose to spend your life searching for its promise?

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Not surprisingly, my philosophy and I take a lot of abuse from my friends, who are impeccably sharp and witty and logical. What I call magic—they call coincidence. What I call serendipity—they call an overactive imagination. They may be right on all counts. I could just be spinning in space with other dizzy people and places, accidentally bumping into each other every now and again. I choose to not see that reality, it’s too uninspired. I like the mystery of my vision, it makes life even more fun most of the time and at least bearable in moments like these, when I am sitting in my grandpa’s apartment chopping off fish heads and sneezing into my sleeve two weeks after he died in a hospital down the street.

Last December I came within an inch of eating the contents of my carry-on after a soul-sucking experience at the Ryanair counter at Dublin airport. As I was walking to my gate, mumbling a monologue consisting entirely of profanities I caught a glimpse of an absolutely elephantine rainbow over the tarmac and stopped in my tracks. No one else walking by paid any attention to the giant swipe of color taking over the sky but to me it was a peace offering from the universe, a playful pinch to wake me from my cloud of self-pity and rage, a reminder that there is a sliver of light in every moment.

A False Start and a Flight that Changed My Life.

I wish that my first time flying had been special, romantic, the kind of first time that makes you fall in love. Instead, my first was a bumpy ride on Aeroflot in the only country on earth where an 11 hour flight can still be domestic. I was four and my mom and I were flying from Moscow to Vladivostok to reunite with my dad who was  serving in the Soviet Air Force.  At the time I was dealing with an ear infection, which made the ear popping that goes along with flying that much more excrutiating for me, my mom, and I imagine all of the passengers within hearing distance. I was also nauseous most of the flight. My clearest memory from the flight, in a general haze of despair, was being sick in the black paper bag that was in the seat pocket in front of me. My destination was not one to make me swoon with love for travel either. If you look carefully, you’ll see that Vladivostok is beyond even Siberia- a place many consider to be as far away from joy as you can get on a map. In the end, after living in a communal house, sharing a toilet and a kitchen with a dozen people, a brutal winter and a terrible bowl cut for me, my mom and I  decided to love dad from afar and headed back West.

I became smitten with travel only four years later, on a flight that would make the perfect first time for anyone, let alone a Soviet kid who wore out the pages filled with toys and stylish little girl’s clothing of a department store’s catalogue from London, trying to imagine what the life revealed in those pages must be like.

A year of studies, exams and rounds of eliminations led my dad to a job with the United Nations in their New York headquarters.  The flight to America was a far cry from the tin can Aeroflot experience.  Not only were we floating above the clouds in a sleek, double-decker Pan Am Boeing,  but we were in First Class. I got free toys, colored pencils and a blue eraser in the shape of an airplane. We got little blue bags, stamped with the Pan Am logo filled with socks, and a comb and mini toothpaste– this was a big deal as I had spent the last few years  brushing my teeth with a soap-tasting powder. I had arrived. That life that I imagined as I flipped the pages of the British catalogue was somehow now mine. After years of looking at photographs of  Mr. and Mrs. Smith in their satin robes smiling, watching little Suzy play with her plush rocking pony, I was going to live it.  If I was nauseous on that flight, I was too overwhelmed with joy and bewilderment to notice.

Things only got better. After sharing a two-bedroom apartment with six family members,  I was now living it up at the Beverly Hotel on Lexington Avenue in a suite on the 16th floor with pink velvet chairs, a separate bedroom, and a mirrored dining area (it was the 80s). In the two months that we spent at the hotel I  drank orange soda until I was sick, ate bananas to the same end and fell in love with Pink Panther, Alvin and the Chipmunks and reruns of Bewitched. I became quite taken with FAO Schwartz, the Lipstick building on 3rd Avenue, pizza, the Cloisters, Fruity Pebbles, Halloween and of course travel.

Within another couple of years I got to see Paris and London. Then Amsterdam, Brussels, Luxemburg, Athens and eventually most of Europe. That first transatlantic flight not only made me curious about what lies  beyond my immediate reach but it also made me think that my wildest dreams are just shy of what’s possible.  After all, if I could end up in First Class,  flying to a life I thought I’d never touch, where couldn’t I go?

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