Weird things about Russia

Like any other big, powerful nation, everybody has an opinion or some stereotypes about Russia. Many haven’t even been there, but from the media, movies, or Russian friends abroad, people still manage to imagine the place in a certain way. I expected a lot of things, but was also surprised by many.

1.) People don’t smile, barely ever, but when they did, it was you the warmest smile anyone could ever give. And if they laughed, you always laughed with them 🙂

2.) The average person doesn’t speak English, especially not in the transport sector, so you had to be lucky to have a hotel receptionist that could answer all of your questions or go to a fancy restaurant to get maybe one waitress who could take your order (or get onto google maps or google translate and work it out yourself which was an easy plan B with all the open wifi networks). However, when they did speak English, sometimes they wouldn’t stop talking, and you’d be checking in or putting in your food order for 45 minutes while he or she chatted your ear off.

I'm going deeper undergound

I’m going deeper undergound

3.) The metro stations and subway systems in Moscow and St. Petersburg where built to resemble theaters or palace halls more than public transport. There were crystal chandeliers and marble walls, paintings and statues, and all sorts of golden highlights. The metro is also super deep underground, which had something to do with Stalin wanting them to double as bomb shelters after WWII.

4.) The number of Churches, churches, and more churches… Orthodox and Christian, and the attached monasteries, was unbelievable. I swear we drove thru towns that had more churches than houses, and taller churches than any tree or building around. And some of them built in the middle ages, still standing, and preserved. Who has the time and money for all of them? But the artwork, inside and out, and all the golden domes, never got tiring, so thank God for them, whoever they are. But one weird thing that came up a few times was fluorescent or neon name signs added to the facade of some red-brick ancient church… which kind of looked like someone’s attempt to turn the churches into the red-light district.

5.) The European-ness of it all. Russia always seemed like an other-worldly place, an exotic country that is just as far away and strange as China or India, just in different ways. But Russia is surprisingly European, at least the places I visited, to the point that basically no cultural barriers were felt. They could maybe tell who wasn’t Russian by the way we dressed, but otherwise we had everything else in common.

6.) Russia loves Italy and Italian everything – especially art, fashion, wine, and food – cheeses especially. The best restaurants had Italian chefs or Italian inspired cuisine, and many of the palaces from former great rulers had the footprint of Italy’s earliest beginnings of the Renaissance.

7.) From the tiny countryside villages to the downtown core of Moscow, traveling around Russia was super safe. I had a small fear of the gangster or mafioso type, a hard-faced Russian undergrounder or some super-rich armed men in black, but we only saw a lot of nice black cars with drivers for some very pretty business people. People were also incredibly honest, and I wasn’t cheated once for a bus ride or cornershop purchase, even if I handed over 10x too much money accidentally.

8.) You can rent a horse outside the downtown bars in Moscow. I met a woman riding around at midnight by almost walking into her on the sidewalk outside Pinch restaurant, and she wanted to let me pay to ride her horse around downtown that night in between the nightlife taxi traffic and sidewalks full of party people. It didn’t seem like the best idea at the time, but now I regret not doing it.

the countryside homes

the countryside homes

9.) There are villages in the Golden ring whose economy seems to rely solely on teddy bears. From tiny to life-sized stuffed bears, you can buy them from each and every house on the side of the road from at least 2 different villages that I saw. And some of those village houses were barely standing, tilting on such an angle that you thought the ground must be on a hill you didn’t feel.

10.) Russia and rabbits… I don’t know what it is, but they like rabbits, a lot.


What to do in Russia

I’ve been trying to go to Russia for many years, but never made that many attempts. Once Icelandair had a sale to St. Petersburg for a little over €100 each way and I spontaneously bought a one way ticket there. Of course I found out soon after I needed to apply for a visa with an invitation letter and a return ticket, so that didn’t work out. I once had a 16 hour layover in Moscow on my way from Iceland to South Korea, but I didn’t manage to talk any of the immigration officers into letting me thru border control, even if just for a day. But I did manage to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet, which was helpful when I finally made it.

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

There’s a food festival which started not so long ago called Foodiez of Moscow, and Thrainn the chef participated last year. So he’d been through the visa process and knew a lot of good chefs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We each got an invitation letter from an Icelandic meat importer in St. Petersburg and then the visa was set. So now that I was finally going to visa, what did I want to do?

For starters, I wanted to go everywhere and see everything, but being the largest country in the world, that covers 11 time zones and isn’t exactly tourist loving (and speaks a language I don’t understand), I was a little restricted. And with only 2 weeks, I had to focus on the small area between Moscow and St. Petersburg, or, the ‘European’ part of Russia.

Moscow's Kremlin

Moscow’s Kremlin

Most guidebooks will tell you to do the same thing, and I don’t have much to add except the order which we did them. Moscow, you have to see the old fortress, called the Kremlin, which is full of exhibits, museums and orthodox churches, and the Red Square where you’ll find St. Basil’s Cathedral, a church that looks like its made of candycanes and came from Disneyland. The Golden Ring is a chain of cities northeast of Moscow, which we visited counter clockwise and skipped the more industrial cities. Vladimir was nice, Suzdal and Rostov were nicer, and Sergiev Posad wasn’t necessarily the nicest, but by far the busiest and most touristic.

Peterhof garden

Peterhof garden

The only other travelers we shared our kremlins, parks, museums and churches with were people from Russian speaking/former Soviet countries, and a thousand Chinese tourists. The latter always traveled together in large groups, usually touring by bus and magically managing not to mix up with the other dozen or so Chinese groups wandering the same sites.

The timing couldn’t have been better, since summer had just started but many trees were still filled with colourful spring blossoms; the sun was shining and the weather hit nearly 20°c every day. Even the big cities still had tons of parks and green spaces, and rivers and water fountains, so everything seemed lush and alive. Some gardens were to die for, and even charged entrance, but it was worth every ruble to see Catherine´s Palace garden and Peterhof Palace garden.

Catherine the Great's palace

Catherine the Great’s palace

Both those palaces are day trips from St. Petersburg, and can be taken with a boat, ferry, train or bus, and it was always fun to try a little of every transport form. After renting a car for the Golden Ring and backpacking the rest of the way, we had managed to ride the speed train, the local trains, long-haul buses, ferries, trams, local buses and the subway. Stops and stations usually had Roman letters, but it was definitely helpful to be able to read Cyrillic and try to phonetically sound out the words we saw to the words we heard. We stopped half way between Moscow and St. Petersburg, lengthening our trip from only 4 hours on the fast train to 7.5 hours of half fast-train and half local train or bus, but it was worth it to visit the medieval town whose kremlin was on the beach!

so many gold-domed churches...

so many gold-domed churches…

Some other stereotypes I had to fulfill were to drink vodka, trying as many types as humanly possible (you could probably stay in Russia for a year without trying the same vodka twice). I also wanted to see a Russian ballet and some Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff symphonies. We watched Chopiniana in St. Petersburg, and just the Mariinsky theatre itself was worth the visit (think of something like Teatro alla Scala in Milan). We saw a Prokofiev piano concert and the opera La Sonnambula in Moscow, at different theatres and only two of over a dozen available.

Luigi serving us on the chef's table at Pinch restaurant

Luigi serving us on the chef’s table at Pinch restaurant

If you also want to go to Russia for a foodiez trip, these are the must taste spots in Moscow, many of which turn into nightlife places on the weekends: Pinch, Twins, Uilliams, Ugolek and Severyane. If you want to try one of the top 50 restaurants in the world (#23 on the San Pellegrino list), try to get into White Rabbit, at the top of a city tower with great views of the city. In St. Petersburg, try Hamlet & Jacks or ‘Morojka for Pushkin’. With your meals, try some Russian wines, especially sparkling wine, which was much better than I expected. And for all of the above, its fun to try to sit on the ‘chefs table,’ where you are basically given settings and served on the kitchens service board.

Iceland places 5th in the Bocuse d’Or European Selection

If you’re into food and cooking and restauranteering, you’ve probably heard of the competition Bocuse d’Or. It’s namesake, Paul Bocuse, is a super famous and savvy French chef who’s had 3 Michelin stars at his restaurant just outside of Lyon for over 50 years straight. He brought French cuisine and French chefs to the forefront of fine dining and international gastronomy, and created the Bocuse d’Or competition in 1987. It’s a 2 day compeition that happens every year, first every two years on a regional level (Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Europe), then every alternating year, the ‘worlds’, some sort of a cooking Olympics (which includes the winners from each region, plus Canada, the USA, and Morocco, and 2 ‘wild card’ invited countries). In the end of each Bocuse season, you have 24 nations in Lyon every other year competing for the Bocuse d’Or.

Coach Siggi Helga supporting Viktor during the competition, while the stands behing fill with screaming fans

Coach Siggi Helga and Icelandic Bocuse president Sturla supporting Viktor during the competition, while the stands behind fill with screaming fans

Iceland’s best placing was 3rd, winning the Bocuse d’argent. Silver, Bronze and Gold mark the podium winners, and there’s even one crazy Danish guy who has competed three times and won one of each… The European selection and Bocuse d’Or Lyon have started to be pretty consistent in the last 5  or 6 years – Scandinavian countries are always on the podium, and often the only ones on the podium. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have many medals under their belt, and Finland and Iceland are never far behind (Iceland has never landed lower than 9th place in either the European or Lyon competition).

Viktor and team Iceland win the best fish dish!

Viktor and team Iceland win the best fish dish!

The competition is super complicated, but can be broken down into a few words to explain it simply enough for you and me to understand. Each country sends a Chef and a commis (an assistant that acts kind of like as sous chef that has to be under 23 years old) that have 5 hours and 35 minutes to cook two gourmet courses for 24 judges. They plate 24 fish dishes, and 24 meat dishes that have first to be presented on a showy catering platter, then split up into 24 portions. The fish and meat produce are the same for each team – this year it was Sturgeon fish (and its caviar) and Hungarian Young Red deer. The rest of the meal is imagined and designed by each team for months prior to the competition. In addition to the chef and commis, the team has a Coach and a President (officially), plus a dozen other behind the scenes experts to help (designers, second assistants, promotional managers, and millions of kronurs worth of sponsors who all have a say).

Team Iceland relaxing after their grueling 5 hrs and 35 minutes

Team Iceland relaxing after their grueling 5 hrs and 35 minutes

Viktor Örn was this year´s chef to compete, one of 20 chefs and nations represented, and placed 5th in the European Selection. He also won the prize for the Best Fish Dish. Only one other chef, Siggi Laufdal, has placed higher in the pre-competition, 4th place in 2012, and also won the Best Fish dish prize. After the podium is filled with the overall winners in both dishes, there is a reward given to the highest earned points in each dish, one for meat and one for fish. There’s also a prize for the best commis, and the judges are the presidents of each competing country, plus 4 honorary judges (Paul Bocuse’s son and previous Bocuse d’Or winners or presidents of hosting countries).

this years Bocuse Europe was hosted by Hungary in Budapest

this years Bocuse Europe was hosted by Hungary in Budapest

Viktor Örn is a good friend and an unbelievable chef, having won the Icelandic chef of the year in 2013 and the Nordic Chef of the year in 2014 (he’s HOT at the moment), so stay tuned to see how he does in Lyon for the Bocuse d´Or 2017. Better yet, come and support team Iceland at the event, since it´s a one hell of a time… and our humble little country never has as many supporters as the others, even though we´re so much better than most of them 😛

My First Bachelor party, in Reykjavik

I’m not much of a bachelor, but getting invited to a bachelor party was a dream come true, one kick of the old bucket list. I was some kind of a tom-boy growing up and still love being one of the boys every once in a while, and 25 friends and friends of friends of mine were coming from the US/Canada to stag Mr. Chotzen, the groom to be. He’s a friend from UBC, one of the few that managed to party like an animal and snowboard all season every season at Whistler throughout undergrad and still graduate on time (spring 2008). I’ve only ever seen him since at Whistler, most recently over New Years, when we all starting planning his bachelor party behind his back.

The bachelor party of 51 balls and 2 tits... noone is sure who has 1 or 3, or if I have some, but that's the official count

The bachelor party of 51 balls and 2 tits… noone is sure who has 1 or 3, or if I have some, but that’s the official count

He didn’t figure out he was going to Iceland until they were already checked into the Icelandair flight and waiting at Sea-Tac airport, and one of the others accidentally mentioned my name. He would have found out 5 minutes later after going through security, but now the guy who slipped up will never live it down. And the stories just kept on rolling in after that.

the groom-to-be, Chotzen

the groom-to-be, Chotzen

There was the guy that got left at Gullfoss (and the guy who skinny dipped in Hvítá), the guy who hooked up with the flight attendant from the Seattle flight, the guy who got a special kiss in the Danske Kro bar bathroom, and the guy who passed out in his plate during dinner at Kolabrautin. I can’t say names, but I can admit that Chotzen wore a horned Viking helmet and the Borat green g-string one piece into the Blue Lagoon and nearly got kicked out. He was allowed to stay after he put on some extra shorts, but there were many other costume changes, including a pink tutu and shirts printed with a picture of him on the bow of a viking ship.

I managed to drag 3 bachelorettes out with me to a few bars; my polish girlfriend wasn’t even impressed but more horrified than anything else, and the two Canadian girls, who thought it would just be like being back home, were completely overwhelmed. When I was alone with them, I got a few looks of ‘How much are they paying you to do this?’, as if I may be their paid escort, but always admitted ‘these are my friends – I actually want to be here!’ no matter how embarrassing or rowdy it got. And I always pretended I was also American. It didn’t help running into people I knew, but time will heal all, and I can’t wait until my next bachelor party. I think I’ve been invited to at least 2 more and a wedding, just from this weekends shenanigans, and maybe my reputation as a bachelor party enthusiast will spread and I’ll get a few more invitations.