Kicking off my birthday

Many things happen in May that I look forward to, primarily the blooming of my lovely pink roses and Lily of the Valley (both fragrances I adore.)

Lily of the Valley, May’s flower

Warmer weather normally arrives (though this year we had snow). The school year is winding down. And there’s an anticipation akin to the new year that good things are to come.

My birthday arrives smack dab in the middle of this week and I know it’s significance will be dulled by major work deadlines and the pandemic. We do have a three day weekend coming for Memorial Day, all of which was why I had hoped to take vacation the last week of May.

Nala and I: Nala’s New Trick

That issue has not been settled, so I decided to have some mild fun to at least acknowledge to myself my birthday. Which is #45.

I ordered a sit down hot meal last night, instead of my usual stress meal of 2,000+ calories of pizza. My dear friend and editing client William Prystauk of the Kink Noir series suggested that the teenager and I deserved the treat. Ironically, it was the same restaurant my husband picked for my birthday dinner last year, Two Rivers Brewing.

More on Bill and his BDSM-themed crime novels: Sunday evening briefing: My Time of Debauchery Ends

Last time I tried Two Rivers delivery service: Two Rivers Brewing Delivery

I ordered a crowler of the Banker’s Brown ale, the breathtaking peanut butter bacon burger, bacon apple mac and cheese, and Brussel Sprouts. My daughter and I feasted like queens.

Speaking of queens, I started watching Hulu’s The Great, loosely based on the life of Catherine the Great of Russia. The costumes and sets are amazing. The script is witty and allows much thought of life and politics in that time period. I watched 5 episodes yesterday while doing housework.

The teenager had deserved a good meal as she had resecreened one of my bedroom windows.

She’s on the roof

A friend of mine texted early. He said it was a shame that people couldn’t celebrate properly because of the pandemic. But I pointed out that really nothing has changed. The teenager plans on baking me a cake— might be trying lemon cardamom this year. Cards still come in the mail. My friends and family have phones. And most restaurants have curbside or delivery.

I think the pandemic just removes a lot of the pretentious notions of what we need to survive and highlights how outdated the 40-hour workweek is. Employment for a lot of fields could be based on project completion versus time occupied at a desk.

I treated myself to a self-purchased birthday present today and thanks to the pandemic it comes with a free mask!

Dolls Kill

And this morning my mom surprised my with a few fun edibles (not THAT kind of edible) and a pair of tights.

Mom and Nala bonded and she approved of the teenager’s efforts in the garden.

So here’s hoping I can clean up this house and get my spirits to where they need to be to start the work week— and my birthday week— with enthusiasm.

My daughter, magnificent traveler

In all fairness, my daughter may be a kid and an American but she is an amazing traveler. So here is a list of ways my daughter has impressed me:

  1. She has lived for a week out of a very small carry-on suitcase and her school backpack.
  2. She has dragged that baggage through airports, train stations, subway tunnels in two continents when she had never even been in an airport before.
  3. She has kept up with two active adults, walking 8 to 10 miles a day. Often dragging the suitcases.
  4. She has tried really really hard to eat new things and not react poorly to them.
  5. She has been so open-minded and suddenly understands that the world is small, the media is not always accurate, and that cultural difference can be lovely.
  6. She started the trip shy towards other language speakers and she’s opening up. She’s repeating phrases and trying to communicate. And I think she might be motivated to learn another language.
  7. She has not complained. Even when exhausted and hungry.IMG_4337.JPG

 

Calm Beauty in Kazan

Kazan has proven gorgeous, calm, and the perfect blend of urban and small town. The mix of religious cultures is not “in your face,” but the orthodox Christian church and the mosque are side by side. I have seen women with beautiful headscarves covering their heads with color and style. (In general, the women are impeccably dressed and very sweet looking.)

English is rare to find, but we have been handed a few English menus. The mosque was lovely, and a good learning experience for my daughter.

I also smoked some hookah for the first time.

We visited the museum of Islamic history and the mosque. It may have been the first time my daughter saw items about 1,000 years old other than a dusty old mummy. I found a lot of the material interesting, various religious texts, holy books in Arabic and Armenian, photos from the 1917 Muslim Women’s Conference, and a chest with a dowry.

When we stopped for a hookah and coffee, and I got my daughter a ham sandwich and myself something with bacon, pineapple and blue cheese. It ended up being a Russian BLT. A delightful and flavorful thing.

Thank Heaven for Russian Grandmothers

This morning we slept until almost nine which is odd for all of us. We had breakfast in the main restaurant of Peter I. I wanted to get a pedicure (2,000 rubles) but there wasn’t enough time. We walked the child around town until it was time to head out to the subway.

And we not only found the subway but navigated it back to the train station.

We bought our tickets and headed back to the airport where I pointed randomly to some exotic juice for the child and what appeared as a latte with sesame seeds on it. It turned out to be a PEANUT BUTTER LATTE. Why they put sesame seeds on it, I don’t know. BUT DID YOU HEAR THAT, HUSBAND??? Peanut butter latte! PEANUT BUTTER LATTE. I had tried again to give the child 500 rubles spending money and this time she bought the cutest little baby nesting doll key chain for 280 rubles.

And I drank a delicious peanut butter latte.

Did I mention the peanut butter latte?

We flew to Kazan via Aeroflot. The only “event” of our flight was the fact that we all refused to eat the salmon and pickle sandwich on pumperknickel. Okay, so child ate some of it.

We  managed to find the airport express train into Kazan, a bargain at only 120 rubles for the three of us. (The Moscow airport train costs 470 rubles for one of us.) The girl at the ticket counter assured us it was only a five to ten minute walk from the station to our hotel, Courtyard Marriott at the Kremlin.

Except we had no clue how to get out of the train station, let alone find our hotel.

Luckily, a Russian grandmotherly type who spoke no English looked at our map, escorted us out and found us a taxi.

Kazan has some amazing architecture but I’ll get into that in the morning. We decided to go to a kebab place for dinner, writing down the Russian street names. We couldn’t find it. Ended up at a decent place with various foods… but here’s the great part, our waitress spoke English!

The city at night is amazing with its colors and domes against the night sky. More about that tomorrow.

 

Coffee and St. Basil’s

It is so wet in Moscow today.

We have been drenched to the bone several times already. Sigh.

So after our morning adventure, we decided on a cup of coffee and found a delightful shop with good looking pastry and the word that we recognized as Russian for coffee.

We speak a total of five words of Russian yet someone managed to order coffee and juice and cookies and a delicious poppyseed loaf. And a chocolate muffin cupcake thing.

After that it was more struggling with the rain… And dear daughter losing the hotel room key and the 500 rubles spending money I gave her.

IMG_3968Of course, I took a picture of her in the Moscow streets with her inside out umbrella.

And St. Basil’s was delightful. Gorgeous architecture. Art students drawing in the halls. Ancient coins and tools. Great music. Various examples of metal work and religious art.

 

 

Monday brings Crying Clouds to Moscow

Upon waking, thankfully after a good night’s sleep as the second night is usually when jet lag holds M and I hostage. My daughter slept through the night even though she’s never experiences the rigors of international travel before.

The breakfast at the restaurant was full so the maitre d’ sent us to the VIP lounge on the sixth floor. It gave us a wonderful view of the neighborhood below us. I hadn’t brought my phone so no photos. Sad face.

I had a taste of the pancakes and cheese cake pancake things, a couple broiled sausages, porridge, an aloe vera mango drink, two cappucinos and a bottle of water. For dessert, I had a chocolate muffin with these chocolate crispy balls on top.

Daughter says breakfast had a few quirks. She ate her weight in sausages and bacon, had a couple potato wedges and a little danish. I gave her a watermelon yogurt drink and suggested she try the caviar, but she did not. She didn’t like any of the pancakes or similar items.

We headed into the streets, a downpour out there. We walked down to Red Square but St. Basil’s doesn’t open until one.

We ended up taking a walk and visiting the RYM (I’m not taking the time to use the cyrillic alphabet) shopping mall. That basically became a voyage of escalators and stairs. That’s what the child wanted to do. I gave her 500 rubles spending money.

Throughout the mall, the displays featured a tribute to Russian athletes, of the current and Soviet Union days.

Stopped in the hotel room to dry out. Off to more adventures soon.

 

 

 

Goodbye, Paris. Hello, Moscow.

Our traveling companion M took us on a walk through Barbès where my daughter made some French/Algerian friends in one of the shops. The people there tried to get her to speech French and Arabic and gave her a piece of candy. She noted the difference between standard touristy Paris and the so-called immigrant presence in the outer districts, seeing Africans and Arabs. I use the term so-called immigrants because of how the French consider even second generation citizens “immigrants.”

We walked up to Sacre Ceour. Lil Miss didn’t realize it was on the top of a hill. She just thought it was tall. But she was a trooper walking up the hill. And M showed her the Eiffel Tower in the distance.We wandered half way down the hill and she spotted the funicular. We had a metro ticket for the day so we actually walked back UP to Sacre Ceour and rode the funicular down.

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Funicular to Sacre Couer

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View from Sacre Coeur

Dinner was at Le Magenta, another place where I have eaten before. I ordered a two course meal for each of us, with Lil Miss trying to overcome her fear of using French words. I suggested the restaurant based on past experience and as soon as she saw they served escargot she was in.  She ordered six escargot in a bourgogne sauce. In the photo, she looks a tad intimidated but in reality she was merely focused on getting those snails out of their shells. I asked her why she liked them and she said it was because she loved getting them out of their shells. I suppose she’s like a cat and needs to play with her food.

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She also had a duck thigh which came artfully arranged on potato wedges and slivers of tomatoes that resembled flower petals.

The walk back to the hotel was exhausting, not because it was far but because of the jet lag and the nine miles we had walked. Lil Miss showered, collapsed into bed. In the morning, we were on the RER early returning to CDG-Roissy.

In the Air France lounge, Lil Miss made an amazing discovery. 1. She LIKES croissants. She has insisted for years that she doesn’t like plain croissant. I have countered, for years, that it’s because she hasn’t tasted one in France.

She ate five or six plain croissants and two pain au chocolat. She also learned how to read French jam labels, though she thought the “orange” was orange marmalade and it turned out to be bitter orange. An adjective makes a big difference.

IMG_3928.JPGThe plane from Paris to Moscow was on an Airbus A318, a big change from the Boeing 777. I discovered this morning a lovely note from the TSA that apparently gave my bag a check before it left the States. Not that I noticed.

We navigated the Moscow airport with no problem and child kept trying to compliment the female customs agent on her pretty eye makeup. Overall, she’s a good kid but we’re working on NOT spurting out every thought in her head to the entire universe.

We even navigated the Moscow subway. The majestic tunnels, architecture and details in the stations. Every train looks completely different. Some old, some new. Very colorful.

We had Russian-style beef dumplings with a butter and sour cream sauce for dinner in a little restaurant off Red Square where to Lil Miss’s delight they had American music videos playing. Calvin Harris and the Disciples: “How Deep is Your Love?”

Child compared Moscow to an urban New York feel. Paris seems smaller and offers more recreation. She thought Moscow was more exotic while Paris felt more like an American town.

And the best so far–

“All I know about Russia is what I see on CNN and they don’t have nice things to say.”

That’s my baby. Now when you go back to school, set them straight.

 

 

Novosibirsk: Pizzasinizza Adventure, part 2

Our adventure in Novosibirsk certainly didn’t turn out exactly the way we expected, but it was fun and showed us a totally different side of Russia than what we saw in Moscow.

We stayed at the Marriott near Lenin Square and the staff was amazing. They helped orient us to the city, arranged for cheap taxi, and even made sure we had a boxed breakfast when we left today at 4 a.m.

We have had two days of 4 a.m. wake-up times and in both cases we departed the hotel ridiculously quickly. Yesterday it took us 15 minutes. Today 10. And we left with sandwiches, fruit, juice, yogurt and muffins in our boxed meal. That clerk at the front desk was insistent we take breakfast since it came with the room.

But back to pizza. We took a preliminary walk around downtown Novosibirsk, focusing on a strange tiny church in the middle of the street, the opera house and a delightful park. The park had a fairly dense collection of trees, some flute players in South American garb, two dogs lying on a blanket wearing sunglasses (begging for money, which seemed odd to me. How exactly do canines panhandle?), a woman giving pony rides, kids driving mini battery operated cars and a kiosk selling some overpriced but hysterical political themed t-shirts.

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We wandered to a local coffee shop, where the reality set it that no one around us spoke English. We managed to decipher the menu, and the prices were half what they were in Moscow. The cakes looked incredible. Travel always leaves me dehydrated so I ordered a “chai latte” (tea latte in English). In Russian, it looks like “yan (triangular staple shape)atte.” M stepped out on a ledge and ordered the mochachino.

My tea came in a pretty standard coffee shop cup with the types of coffee and add-ons written on the side. It had a lovely spice blend, I could clearly taste the ginger, and I’m not sure if they used a special local honey or if something about the milk made it so different and rich.

We also discovered one of those sidewalk drink huts that had a BIG bottle of water and it cost what I paid for the small ones in Moscow. That made me very happy. I have discovered my Russian vocabulary can only yield beverages. I can order coffee, tea, and water. And I can count to three.

At this point it was about 5 pm so we returned to the hotel to see if we had heard from our contact at Pizzasinizza. The answer was no. So we decided to wait until 5:45. We decided we had four options: get a cab, walk, phone them, or merely order the pizza for delivery. We had flown 7,000 miles for this pizza after all.

We consulted google maps, which implied that it would be an 8 km walk to the pizza place, a 15 minute cab ride or require three buses on public transportation. We used the map in the back of a magazine in our hotel room to translate the names of streets into a familiar alphabet, but this seemed not quite do-able on our own.

At 5:45 we had heard nothing so we headed to the hotel lobby. I at first asked for change for a 5,000 ruble bill. Russians seem to prefer exact change. And I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to use the equivalent of a $100 bill on the street or at a delivery-only pizza place.

Then, I launched into my more complicated of problems. I explained how I had come across this pizza place on the Internet but with our limited Russian I didn’t know if we could call them or find them. The front desk googled them. They tried to telephone but no one answered. They offered to call a car but seemed to think public transport would be easy.

The one clerk printed us a map, circled the metro stations and our destination address. He then drew a line for our walking path once we exited the station. “Take the red line,” he said. “To [insert Russian word here]. It is three stops, toward [more Russian words], that’s two words. You will see the river. Take the red line toward the two words at the end of the line. Then return to Lenin Square.”

He repeated the Russian words for Lenin Square a few times. He told us how much metro tickets would be and off we went. When we walked up to the ticket window, it was funny because I was only confident that I knew how to count to three. I think I know four— it sounds something like “chest” but I might be confusing that with the number six. We ended up with four tokens. And they were tokens that indeed went in a little coin slot. I don’t think I’ve ever used a token on a subway, always paper tickets or the smart cards.

The Novosibirsk subway has old cars and rides fast with the rhythm of an old wooden roller coaster. It was much easier to navigate than Moscow, but that was because we had some idea where to go, a familiarity with Russian subway basics and it was not rush hour.

We wove through the underground shops of the metro station and realized we had no idea what side to exit on to follow the map the hotel clerk gave us. We checked with some police officers. We had obviously picked the wrong side, so they added more arrows to our map to loop us around the block.

It got interesting because the streets in Novosibirsk aren’t labeled well, often not at all. We followed our map to where we thought we might need to turn, and asked (by gestures and pointing to the map) an older man in a military style uniform where to go. He pointed toward the street and told us a bunch of things in Russian we didn’t understand.

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We followed that street for a while and again got confused that we should be making another turn. This time we stopped in a little grocery store. We started down a cross street that brought us through block upon block of identical apartment buildings that represented the classic idea of how I pictured Russia in my mind. And the amount of garbage we saw along the streets reminded me of some of my experiences in Africa as if the West had merged with the developing world.

We had agreed that if we didn’t find it by the next major intersection, and if that street wasn’t a real commercial street, we would turn around. I had to use the restroom. Remember I said I bought a BIG bottle of water? That was ill-timed.

And then there it was. TWO pizza places side by side. We walked into the first, but despite the sign on the door, the hall seemed dark and as if it were private. We visited the second. That was Asterix Pizza. They directed us down the dark hall, which opened up to this bright little room where a woman was writing on pizza boxes with a crazy yellow seat beside her.

No one spoke English. But with the help of cell phones, we explained the situation and they let us order pizza. And I got to use the toilet.

The girl writing on the pizzas was checking Instagram to try and understand how this all came about, and I even turned on my cellular data so I could show her from my account. That’s when a message from our original contact pushed through. M texted whomever that person is on my behalf.

And we sat on a bench in a non-touristy neighborhood on the other side of the river in Novosibirsk waiting for our pizza. When it was ready, the cook made me count out exact change and handed me three pizza boxes and a wrap.

We embarked back to the metro station and to the hotel. We spread the pizzas out and ate on the floor. The pizzas came with some unusual dipping sauces: a not-like-in-America barbecue sauce, a cheesy-mayo like sauce and a sweet and sour sauce.

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We enjoyed our pizzas and were in bed by ten to rise early again today. Sadly, my contact messaged asking if we could get together for coffee before I flew to Moscow. I wish we had the time.

We felt very triumphant that we got the pizza. From the time we left the hotel to the time we returned was two-and-a-half hours. Ironically, there’s a Papa Johns about a block from the hotel. We enjoyed our pizza. More importantly, it showed us how truly sweet and helpful the Russians are and allowed us to explore the city.

Of course, M had proclaimed I am not allowed to pull a stunt like this again.

That’s okay. I can find something as equally crazy.

Arrival in Siberia: The Pizza Pilgrimage, part 1

We left our hotel room at 4:20 am to catch a 6:45 flight to Novosibirsk in Siberia.

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I have been following the delivery pizza place, PizzasInIzza, for quite some time on Instagram. When I ended up with a Russian visa, it became a joke. I’d ask, “Can we go to this Russia pizza place?” And that’s how I discovered it was in Siberia.

But we came anyway.

I have flown more than 7,000 miles for a pizza. Of course, we flew Aeroflot domestic from Moscow to Novosibirsk. On the plane, a local woman asked why I was coming to Novosibirsk. I answered, “Pizza.” She became quite confused. She asked if I had business here, if I ran pizza restaurants, if I had friends here, if I was a student (at my age?). She got even more confused when I said I was leaving tomorrow. She thought her English was failing.

In the end, she offered to see if her son could give us a ride into the city from the airport. We declined. So she helped us get a taxi instead. She wanted to make sure we weren’t ripped off.

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On the ride in, the taxi driver tried to talk to us, but we don’t speak Russian and he didn’t speak English. We passed a variety of interesting little houses, perhaps best described as colorful cabins. The only American brand I saw was a Harley Davidson dealership. If it weren’t on the other side of town, I would get my dad a t-shirt.

Gas prices appear to be ridiculously cheap, but this is Russia. They do have oil.

We passed what appeared to be a dog obedience class. And an equestrian center where people were out riding.

I also have learned a couple letters of the alphabet. The funny little O with the line down the middle makes an F sound. And it’s in the word coffee. The distorted pi that makes an L sound. The P makes an R sound. And the C makes an S sound. And there’s a lot of N’s facing all sorts of directions that make vowel sounds.

Hot Chocolate at the Pushkin Café

So we got up today again at 9 a.m. It’s a lovely, sunny Moscow day and the Lenins and Stalins are still hanging out in the area of Red Square, which, sadly is still closed.

I swung into the post office to buy a stamp. Each trip I try to buy a random stamp for my daughter and her teacher. They are usually cheap, unique and don’t take up room in a suitcase. My daughter now has France, Djibouti, Tunisia and will soon add Russia. I walked in, and without having any clue for the Russian words for mailing something, merely said the Russian word for “two” and I suppose she sold me two Russian airmail stamps. It cost me a little more than a dollar. But I paid with the equivalent of a twenty, so the clerk “huffed” under her breath and had to leave the room to make change. She made it a point to huff a second time as she counted it out to me. I was very
pleased with myself.

I went to a souvenir shop to buy a little something for my daughter. I won’t say what because she does like her surprises. It cost 150 rubles. I put 200 rubles up and the clerk shook her head. I sorted through my coins. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty… she counted as I counted. But I didn’t have another. I only have forty. She waved at me and said in Russian that ten rubles was nothing to worry about.

That also seemed like a win.

Red Square will definitely be closed all week. But we have gone down every day to see what we can see.

From there, we decided to begin our daily walk. We tend to wander with a loose goal in mind. Pushkin Café has been on M’s list because of the 1964 French song, “Nathalie.”

Today we finally found it.

This is not it.

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Neither is this, but this was next door.

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And then voilà, this IS it.

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The menu

Of course all we wanted was chocolate. And it was heavenly.

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