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Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Russian Fast Food in Moscow and St. Petersburg - Page 3

Written by Steve Street
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If it’s your first time in Russia, chances are you’ll be thrown by the Cyrillic, even if you’ve diligently studied the alphabet charts in your guidebook beforehand. The mix of recognizable Roman and Greek characters and the Russian ones with no English equivalents will be charmingly baffling and somewhat disorienting for about four hours, or until you get seriously hungry. Even simple staples like kulibeka, a bread with white mushrooms or cabbage baked inside, or moiva, a small dried fish served whole as an appetizer, or the traditional fermented wheat beverage krace, a sort of peasant’s pop like a dark near beer, are hard to translate, let alone order. Never mind delicacies such as pickled garlic or pike-and-perch soup.  I Had Borscht because I could say it, though I hadn’t touched beets since some unpleasantness at age five.

Also in the 24-chasa – or in supermarkets like the St. Petersburg chain identified by a big red dot on its sidewalk sign – you might ask for yogurt. Not “yo-GOORT” or “yo-GOOR” or “you-HOOR,” as I somehow felt obligated to try out until that last brought my mistake to my own ear – but “YOgurt,” our very sounds, a cognate. Sometimes Russian, like travel moments anywhere, can be as suddenly and astonishingly easy as lifting a trunk you’d though was full but isn’t.

More often, though, travelers need help. The best source for it, in these Russian places where you want to lose yourself right up until the moment you find yourself lost, is Russians themselves. The magic words are please and thank you paZSAlusta (the middle syllable pronounced as in Zsa Zsa Gabor) and spaSEEba. Just as important is to breathe, smile, and look your server in the eye. You might not always get a smile back – like Kroska Kartoshka, the grumpy are all over – but you’ll eat. The transaction beforehand can become complicated, even its successful conclusion quite humbling, as when I ate rice and salmon with a soup spoon because I didn’t know how to say that a cafeteria’s fork bin was empty.

But I count a renewed awareness of life’s complexity among the substantial rewards of travel. Modern Russia, no matter its sins or problems past or present, is a society growing from a core value of solidarity, among other similar ones in the revolutionary ideologies of 90 years ago, and hunger, especially in the formerly besieged former Leningrad, is a great leveler. I made few friends trying to order food, but I was fed. And the smiles when they did come were glorious: fleeting and curious, delighted and kind. Call it insight into oneself or the Russian character or grace itself: travel might well be the Great Romance, as a 1920’s poster for a cruise down the Nile put it, but unrehearsed mealtime can be the Great Reality, which turns out not to be so grim.

“Nyet,” croaked a woman I was trying to pay for a red-jelly pastry in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow, shaking her head slowly with the grave, deadpan gaze Russians seemed to favor no matter the issue at stake. The pastry was some 14 rubles, and I’d given her two bills totaling 60: a 50 and a 10 instead of the two tens I’d intended. These times I could have been taken out cold, but wasn’t. Even a drunk who had accosted me turned down five rubles – I quickly found out he simply wanted to share with me a sentence he knew in English, “The city is very beautiful.” This filled me with a sense of gratitude and love for people anywhere who, strapped thought they might be, live by more than immediate gain. To travel well, you have to believe in these people, literal strangers, and put your faith in them and the world itself, wherever you might find yourself. For every story about a pickpocket or marauding bands of trained gypsy child-thieves you might hear, you’ll experience dozens of these small gestures of honesty, generosity, respect and automatic principle – you just have to look for them.

©Steve Street

(Page 3 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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