Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring ... maybe

Sitting in the kitchen one morning, drinking tea and trying to suffer my way through Oblomov, I heard music coming up through the floorboards as I had before, but this time, rather than the familiar slowly ascending and descending cords of the piano leading someone in their vocal warm-up, I heard an operetta. The wonderful cacophony seemed to be played on a Victrolla or record player of some sort, and my mind couldn’t help but wander.

The apartment building was constructed in 1965, just after Khrushchev’s era. The walls and floors are thin but often the building is silent except the occasional flush of water through pipes. Lately, though, a different tone seems to have taken over the building or maybe spring is opening my ears to a life outside my own. Whatever the case, I have begun to hear the sounds of remodeling and the music that comes up to the flat from below.

On this particular morning, my mind wandered to mid-1960s Soviet Russia. What was life like then? I imagined the apartment new, filled with bright smiling people, drinking tea or vodka, eating, and listening to the foreign operetta, and closing my eyes to try and imagine seeing it performed. The daydream didn't last long, Moscow has changed a lot since 1965. Outside I am reminded of that everywhere I look - Foreign franchised companies have taken up shop including McDonald’s and Colin’s Jeans, many sushi and other restaurants have sprung up in the last five years, and foreign goods and produce are in abundance.

The theme of change seems to be right in line with the season. I don't want to get my hopes up too high about spring being here just in time for my birthday, but I did see tulips and daffodils pushing their colored little blossoms out of the ground yesterday. There is still dirty ice/snow in piles around town, but overall the weather seems warmer, the sky is sunnier, and the birds are chirping. I will continue to listen and look for signs of spring, and hopefully my ears will remain open to the various sounds of life in a large apartment building.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


What Russian money looks like ... (and in case you are wondering ... no, this is not a lot of money)

Milk Update

I began buying unrefrigerated, boxed milk about two months ago. I grew tired of how quickly the refrigerated, bottled milk went bad, tried bagged refrigerated milk, then finally settled on the boxed milk with the big “M” on it. The first few boxes of milk I bought astounded me with how far away the expiration date was – about 6 years, so I stopped checking dates … then I moved, went to a new grocery store and ended up buying milk that had been packaged in 2002 – quick, do the math, yes, more than 6 years ago! What were you doing in 2002? When this milk was being packaged. The reason this milk lasts so long? It’s been irradiated, and I wonder if it has any nutritional value whatsoever. Regardless, even past its expiration date, it is quite a bit better tasting than any other milk I have found. I can almost drink a glass of it! For some reason Russian milk has a slightly sweet rather than slightly bitter taste to it. The milk I liked in the United States had a nice, solid taste to it and if it was sweet it was not the same strange sweetness that milk here has. One of my British colleagues says that all the milk is from powdered milk, another of my colleagues says that Russian milk isn’t heated like American milk (for pasteurization) instead a chemical is added to the milk. Perhaps the reason the irradiated milk doesn’t taste as bad as the “fresh” milk is the lack of this chemical. Whatever the case, not all milk is created and processed equal.

Find the error, i.e. tell me what I did wrong.


The weekend before last, with the help of a Russian English teacher named Masha, I visited Vinzavod, a collection of art galleries in an old winery. The winery is a little difficult to find, and when I mentioned the gallery in the teacher’s room, Masha showed genuine interest.

On the whole I don’t like going with other people to art galleries – generally I find their pace too quick, and I find myself feeling like I have to defend the art somehow. Ironically, I almost feel like I put Masha in a similar situation at Vinzavod. We both enjoy art history and have a general familiarity with some aspects of contemporary art. While “classic” fine art can be appreciated on a surface level for its beauty or history, contemporary art is shrouded in the complexities of art theory, lost in the constant drive for originality, or forgotten as a simple study of form and material. If contemporary art challenges me on some level, I enjoy it, but I find its better for me to keep my mouth shut and process the art or I have a tendency to resort to critiques before I have fully examined the art.

Luckily in the end, Masha and I both came to the same conclusion with the exhibition “Recycled” – an experiment with transforming recyclable materials into art with a human form – it felt a bit cliché and more like design than fine art. There’s nothing wrong with design, it’s just difficult to understand in a contemporary art context. As I said, I expect art to challenge me in some way and design merely plays with form.

Another exhibition, we seemed to agree on, was called “Destroy and Rejuvenate.” The work felt a little disjointed and esoteric – each piece of art included an explanation from the artist. While at times I wish I had this explanation, I feel that visual art shouldn’t require a written explanation to be enjoyed and appreciated. Perhaps if the explanations were not so prominently displayed next to the art, the feeling would have been different. Regardless, while the artist of “Recycled” seemed to not reach far enough, “Destroy and Rejuvenate” took quite the stretch of logic and reasoning to tie all the pieces and explanations together. While one piece displayed florescent lights which spelled out “Amerika” and claimed to reference Kafka and the shattered dreams about immigration to America, another piece was a comparison of two clumps of key chain charms.

Fortunately, the beauty of the winery itself and one gallery in particular made up for the lack of great gallery installations. The most popular gallery at Vinzavod,, which despite being overcrowded served as a refresher and rejuvenated my interest. Aside from an exhibition of award winning photographs from American, German, British, and many other nationalities of photographers, the gallery had an excellent selection of art books. The gallery and books reawakened my interest in the history of photography, and the architecture of the entire Vinzavod campus, with its unpainted brickwork and the industrial look of exposed pipes produced a generally creative, isolated atmosphere which is sure to draw me back.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The wonders of Soviet electric wiring

Just before the second Friday the 13th of the year, I learned more about Soviet wiring than I thought was possible in one day. Most flats in Moscow were built during the Soviet era and obviously were not build with the idea that many, modern, high-voltage appliances would be ever be in use all at once. Live in moderation, right? While most people have washing machines, it's rare to see a dryer or dishwasher. Aside from the obvious reason for this (lack of space), I discovered another reason Thursday evening ... Soviet electric wiring, at least in my new apartment, would never function safely, efficiently, or well if flats had dryers and dishwashers in addition to microwaves and high-voltage refrigerators.

Thursday evening I was exploring the capabilities of my fancy Microwave "Grill" (imagine a microwave with an element ... it can easily function as an oven) by attempting to bake chicken in it. After I took the chicken out, I loaded the washing machine with clothes. I then began cutting up the chicken and discovered that it wasn't fully cooked. With the washing machine going, and without a second thought, I put the uncooked chicken back in the microwave and hit start. Not more than 3 seconds later, everything stopped. The washing machine no longer made noise, the microwave display had turned black, and I looked around the kitchen perplexed by the silence. The overhead lights remained on, so I thought maybe I just blew the power-strip that both the microwave and washer were plugged into. I later realized that everything plugged in had stopped -- the refrigerator, my laptop ... etc. All the outlets, in the entire flat, function on the same breaker circuit, and all the lights are on the other breaker. In total the flat has two breakers ... I'm surprised the system hadn't been overloaded before (my flatmate didn't know which breakers were ours). Luckily, I didn't blow an old fashioned fuse, and as soon as we figured out which breakers were ours, the problem was quickly solved. The wash started back up, and I finished cooking the chicken on the stove.

Lesson learned: never run two high-voltage electric appliances at once.