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Went to Stockholm for the day last Monday to drop off my Russian visa application. Kostia and I are going for Christmas and New Year. It only took about 30 minutes at the embassy in what had to be the most friendly and efficient office of the Russian Federation I have ever been in (must be the Swedish influence) and I had a day to enjoy Stockholm. Decided to get a haircut as they seem to be on average 200 crowns (25 bucks) cheaper than in Falun. Thus far I’ve managed not to get a haircut in a salon in Sweden (perhaps because it’s so expensive?), so I was stressing out a bit about my Swedish salon vocabulary or lack thereof. I needn’t have worried. I walked into a random salon, where the stylist said it would take 20 minutes to finish with her current customer, sat down, and heard that the stylist, the customer, and the other woman hanging around were speaking Russian. Saved! By now my Russian salon vocabulary is totally functional.

Despite it being the darkest, grimmest time of year and it being an especially gray and drizzly day, Stockholm looked fantastic, especially after dark with all the holiday decorations. I amused myself by visiting secondhand shops and had the opportunity to meet with the owners of a language school I’m doing some teaching through these days, who were lovely people. The day culminated with a visit to the Christmas market in Old Town. I didn’t bring my camera, thinking, what else can I possibly photograph in Stockholm after having been there countless times?

I have to go back to Stockholm on Tuesday to pick up my visa, and am really looking forward to it. This time I will bring my camera.

The Swedish Ski Games are coming up this weekend and I’ve volunteered as an “attaché”, a go-between for the organizing office and a national team. They try to assign people to their home countries if possible, so I’ve got the US team. But since everyone in Sweden speaks English and the team is pretty self-sufficient, they don’t really need me to do anything, so it seems that my role is to wear this groovy orange jacket and attend the games for free.

Anyway, on Monday, when I introduced myself to the US team leader, he asked me if I was from the British Isles. I know that the way I speak English has changed a bit since I started teaching English as a foreign language – sometimes I try to pronounce “t”s like “t”s and not like “d”s (butter not budder) so my students understand me better, and I’ve tried to make my Upstate NY/Midwestern Standard vowels a little less nasal, ’cause that just sounds bad – but I didn’t think I sounded FOREIGN.

The really amusing thing is that earlier the same day I was introduced to a guy from Ukraine, and he thought I was Russian at first. I still make plenty of grammar mistakes in Russian, but I can fool people with my pronunciation if the conversation is short and we stick to the pleasantries. So now I’ve got an accent in English but not in Russian. :-)

New Year Song 

A song Kostia wrote a few years ago, with the political bit updated. It’s got some flaws but I’m quite pleased with the way it turned out. It’s in Russian; here’s a translation of the lyrics:

All the rabbits and squirrels
all the boys and girls
all the uncles and aunties
celebrate new year
Even Putin, Vovochka
finds a present in its wrapping
under the presidential tree
for the last time

Again, befittingly
Soviet champagne
with salad “olivye”
is consumed everywhere
In Khabarovsk and in Murmansk
in Bobruisk and Noyabrsk
and even in Slantsy, come to think of it
no less than in Moscow

Fathers Frost in felted boots
for adults and kids alike
carry sacks stuffed with
the standard crap
Fluffy snow falls
and everyone is happy
and the fir trees sparkle
with garlands of lights

Happy New Year! Renewed joy!
Let all be well!
Drink! Sing! Smile!
Father Frost has already arrived.

Life has been kind of uneventful these past few weeks, hence the lack of blogging. I have been working a lot and shopping for boots in my spare time. The latter takes a lot more time than you would think. Finding tall black boots that don’t have stilletto heels, absurdly long pointed toes, ten million buckles, sequins, chains and god knows what else in St. Petersburg is pretty challenging. I need my footwear to be comfortable and tasteful, but I don’t want granny boots either. Then there are my chubby calves, which further limits the tall boot selection. I did see some promising boots last Friday… I just didn’t have enough money on me at the time.

Right, so you can see how exciting it’s been lately. But I’m not complaining.

At the moment Kostia is waiting most impatiently for a letter from our university in Sweden with his official job offer so he can go to the Swedish Consulate and get his work permit before next Monday, when the classes he’s supposed to teach are starting. He’s already been teaching two distance courses on the internet and they want him to teach several more in person in November and December. Since we don’t know whether there’s a longer-term job there for him in the future, I’m staying in St. Petersburg for now to keep working – I wouldn’t want to quit the language school and dump all my students only to find that we’re back here in January – and I’ll just visit for two weeks or so. Though I’m not looking forward to this six-week separation, I’m also not worrying too much about it yet, since bureaucracy and the Russian postal service may keep it from happening anyway.

So here’s a bit of a cultural-linguistic curiosity for you Russophiles. First, some background: Yevroset is one of several mobile phone retailers in Russia. As I think I’ve mentioned before, here subscription plans for mobile phones are rare; nearly everyone has pre-paid service. You can add money to your phone account at places like Yevroset and they get a commission for it. There are also automated machines where you can do this, which I think are becoming more popular than actually going into one of these outlets.

Anyway, Kostia wanted to buy Zemfira‘s new album, licensed copies of which are being sold only at Yevroset in what I think is some kind of crass marketing conspiracy, so we went to a Yevroset outlet, where I noticed they were offering some very amusing stickers as a gimmick for people adding money to their phones. My phone had plenty of money on it, but when I started fawning over the stickers, the guy behind the counter was kind enough to give them to me for free.


click to enlarge

The stickers say “I’m a hare”, “I’m a hedgehog”, I’m a snake”, etc, but here Yevroset is trying to be hip and cool by intentionally misspelling things in the manner of the internet writing style “Albanian” or “Preved“. Furthermore, the one on the bottom left is borderline vulgar – it says “I’m a fat arctic fox” but this phrase sounds like another common but very vulgar phrase that means something like “a FUBAR situation”. Kostia tells me it isn’t the first time that Yevroset has alluded to mat in its advertising – they once had a slogan which roughly translates to “Our prices will blow your f**king mind” (complete with asterisks – they couldn’t actually write out the equivalent in a public ad campaign). Apparently the company owner is a bit of a character.

Kostia (in Russian): Khuy, khuy, khuy*. Why is spam always about khuy?

Me: Because people make money by creating insecurities and then selling products to relieve those insecurities. But do they really write “khuy” in Russian spam?

Kostia: No, I’m talking about English spam. Russian spam is all about real estate in Moscow. 

* The worst Russian swear word, meaning “penis”. Information on the rich Russian swearing vocabulary here and a bit more here.

Another thing I did the weekend before last is visit the Moomin exhibtion they were having at Gostiniy Dvor. As an exhibition there wasn’t much to speak of – big posters of the Moomin comic strip in Russian translation and a few display cases of Moomin merchandise, none of which was actually on sale, but the guest book was quite touching, and I photographed many pages of it. Here are two of my favorites: 


“Hi Moomin – Hi Bear”, written in “Albanski” (Wikipedia calls it “Preved“, perhaps to be more politically correct), what Russian internet users call the intentional misspelling of words for comic effect, an interesting phenomenon. “Hello Bear” (Preved medved) was one of the original Albanski catchphrases.


“Thank you to the Jansson family for our happy childhood!”

I used to cook a lot, mostly recipes from The Moosewood Cooks at Home, but sometimes fancier stuff as well. Over time, I became lazier and I seemed to have less free time and I spent a lot less time cooking and ate a lot more sandwiches and cereal. In Sweden last year I did cook quite a bit because we couldn’t afford cafes or convenience foods, and if there was one thing we did have it was free time, but the meals were pretty simple affairs, since we weren’t buying fancy ingredients.

Another problem I’ve had with cooking in recent years is that I was vegetarian when I was teaching myself to cook, so although I eat animals now (with a guilty conscience), I’ve been sort of wary of cooking meat. I wouldn’t mind cooking vegetarian all the time, but it’s hard to find tofu and wide varieties of beans in Russia. Furthermore, usually I’m not cooking only for myself, and Russian friends find this kind of food weird. 

Besides this, it’s also been sort of hard to motivate myself to cook in Russia because even when I think I have found the right ingredients, things don’t turn out right. I baked several cakes which tasted overwhelmingly of baking soda before giving up on baking in Russia – I think Russian baking soda must be stronger or something. And I think the flour is coarser.

While I was in the U.S. on vacation recently I had this idea that I should buy fancy Russian cooking magazines and follow their recipes. If they’re Russian magazines, the proper ingredients should be available in Russian shops, right? Plus, I might learn some new vocabulary, for obscure foods and verbs for cooking.

On Thursday during one of my runs to the airport to pick up my lost luggage, I bought a magazine called Gastronom. On Friday I read through it and dog-eared the pages of things I wanted to try cooking, skipping the large section on rabbit dishes because I just don’t think I’m ready to cook rabbit. I did learn lots of new words, like razrykhlitel (baking powder), gorst (a handful), tsukat (those nasty little green dried fruits that are in fruitcake, what are they in English anyway?), among others. One recipe called for a star of “badyan”, but nobody knew what that was, not Kostia, not Vadik, and not the woman working in the spice aisle at O’kay*. Now I see that it is a type of anise:

Star Anise

So yesterday I made a mushroom cream soup, a turkey stew with apples, apricots and carrots (minus badyan), and beet cake. Everything turned out fine, even the beet cake, the batter for which was quite shockingly pink, but turned out golden brown like any other fruit/vegetable bread, like zucchini or pumpkin or banana bread. (Any chemists reading this blog, can you explain what happens to the red pigment of the beets in the oven?)

Kostia nearly had a heart attack at the O’kay checkout. But really, half of the bill was for pots and pans, and the bulk of the food cost was the wine that Kostia himself picked out, plus there were things like spices and oils that will be used for many meals. The actual cost of the ingredients for the meal was less than $30, it fed three people, and we have leftovers. It was nice to cook a fancy meal again and I intend to continue the project.

*Some readers may remember that I started a one-woman boycott of the O’kay supermarkets two years ago because I was so fed up with their cashiers’ incompetence. I reluctantly went to the one on our bus line a few weeks ago and realized that it really does have the widest selection of products to please the expatriate palate. When I saw that they have frozen Swedish cinnamon buns I officially decided to end the boycott (I haven’t bought any yet, but I like knowing that they’re there). And the customer service has gotten better. This particular O’kay has 49 cash registers, so no more waiting in line for an hour and a half.

There’s a series of ads in the St. Petersburg metro announcing “Let’s speak Russian PROPERLY!” followed by a number of words which are often mispronounced. Russian can be difficult to learn NOT because it has a different alphabet (so stop asking me that question already, random people) but because it has a “highly synthetic morphology” – the endings of verbs, nouns, and adjectives change for things like gender, number, and syntactic function. This is a pain to learn, but even once you get a grasp of all the rules, the stress of the word can shift when a different ending is applied, and although there supposedly are rules for this, there are only like four super nerdy linguists who actually know them. Knowing where the dictionary-correct stress in a word falls is difficult not only for Russian-as-a-second-language learners, but even some native speakers who don’t come from intelligentsia families. Fortunately, one woman has taken it upon herself to correct us all. I present Lyudmila Verbitskaya, “one of the authors of the book Let’s Speak Properly, rector of St. Petersburg State University, and distinguished citizen of St. Petersburg”:


click to enlarge

I’m all for speaking languages properly when possible, and I certainly cringe when I hear native English speakers consistently making dumb mistakes, but something about these posters and their assertion that “a problem demanding the participation of all residents of Russia and especially Saint Petersburg is the preservation of the Russian literary language” is just… annoying. Annoying like your high school grammar teacher was annoying even if you were a good student of grammar, because of her self-righteousness. I mean, look at this close-up – didn’t you have a teacher just like her that you couldn’t stand?


It’s a well-known fact that the Radius of Personal Space in Russia is much smaller than that in the West. In the U.S., when you stand in a line, you stand, what, 2 feet or so behind the person in front of you. If you stand that far away here, people won’t think you are committed to standing in the queue, and they’ll ask you whether you’re actually in line, or more likely, they’ll just wedge into the space.

On public transport during rush hour, the Radius of Personal Space is zero. Who knew you could get so intimate with complete strangers? Not content just to smush you with their shoulders and bellies, sometimes people will even push you out of the way with their hands. It’s considered uncultured to do this, but also not uncommon.

Yesterday I was in the grocery store, standing in a cramped aisle, looking at the juice selection at my left, when I felt something soft squish in to my right arm. I looked over and discovered a beer belly. I moved out of the guy’s way. No words were exchanged. But why not? Russian has perfectly good words like “razreshitye” (allow me through), “izvinitye” (sorry) , “prostitye” (pardon me), and “pozhaluista” (please). This was not a noisy, crowded metro at rush hour. Could this man have not used one or more of the words above?

As international students, Kostia and I often find ourselves among speakers of other Slavic languages – Polish, Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, even Macedonian and Bulgarian. We have a fun time comparing Russian words to their counterparts in other Slavic languages, but our language of conversation is always English, as it’s usually our only common language. Sometimes it seems silly to speak English among people whose native languages are so much closer to one another than any of them are to English.

Enter Slovio, the artificial simplified pan-Slavic language. If you’ve ever studied a Slavic language, you should be able to understand what’s written on this website. It’s like Russian without all that nasty grammar! While I don’t think it’s a replacement for learning a “natural” language properly, it is nice to think that we don’t have to use English to speak to Czechs and Poles.

Sxto es Slovio? Slovio es novju mezxunarodju jazika ktor razumijut cxtirsto milion ludis na celoju zemla. Slovio mozxete upotrebit dla gvorenie so cxtirsto milion slavju Ludis ot Praga do Vladivostok; ot Sankt Peterburg cxerez Varsxava do Varna; ot Sredzemju Morie i ot Severju Morie do Tihju Okean. Slovio imajt prostju, logikju gramatia i Slovio es idealju jazika dla dnesju ludis. Ucxijte Slovio tper!

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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September 2020