Life in Front of the Lens

Russian ladies have truly, utterly perfected the art of posing. They have it down to an absolute t and are not afraid to whip it out in public. The poses are intimidating and immaculate, taken to look natural yet ultimately painstakingly thought through. However it is second nature to the women, and a snap takes seconds. Sit, pose, done, over.

When at the ballet the other day, I got a first hand experience of just how serious Russian women are about the perfect picture. Take for example the 7-year-old girl who was having the tantrum to end all tantrums. She was not a happy girl, crying, screaming, stomping, shouting. However, as soon as her mother grabbed her and shoved her in front of a lovely view of the stage, for the 3 seconds it took to capture the image, the waterworks were capped and a shining smile was pulled out. Picture taken, all hell broke loose again and said madam stormed off. Remarkable. Even aged 7, the Russian girls can turn it all on for the camera.

In the foyer of the very same theatre stood a shiny grand piano. It was not played, but it received a lot of attention as a procession of dolled up girls each sat upon the stool, arched their backs with precision, tossed their heads over their shoulders and dazzled. Snapped, they tottered off to the next location to repeat the process. I had been wondering why the girls were all so dressed up for an 11am matinée, and it all became clear. They were dolled up for the obligatory ‘look at me at the Mariinsky’ photoshoot.

Whilst browsing the Museum of Russian Political History, by far one of the best museums I’ve been to here, I was distracted and bothered by two women scurrying around ensuring they had each taken a photo of the other in front of every artefact and snippet of information. In actual fact I don’t think they knew or cared where they were, just so long as they had documented that they had been there.

The ‘selfie’ craze has been going for a while now, but it’s a whole other ball game in Russia. Perusing VKontakte (pretty much Facebook but in Russian) you will come across image after image of perfectly made up girls popping a hip in various locations. There are also hundreds of photos of girls in bikinis on holiday, proudly showing the world what their mothers gave them. As one friend put it, these mothers are most likely the ones behind the camera, instructing their daughters on the optimum way to display their assets for the world of VK to see.

This all fits with the mentality seen here of why have something which costs money, if no one knows that it cost money. For example, if you’re going to buy a designer item, ensure it has a label on show so that everyone knows that you paid big. An expensive car is not enough unless it is gold or how about matte black? It seems that people buy things and visit places simply to show the world that they have these things and that they can afford to have them, rather than to enjoy the experience or gain something. I only hope that in between all this posing and showiness, they’re taking time to stop, watch the ballet, listen to the music and enjoy living life for themselves, not for the sake of a photo.

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Dead Souls

Disclaimer -This post has nothing to do with Gogol

Yesterday two friends from school and I decided to take advantage of the incredible sunshine and wandered our way to Alexander Nevksy Monastery, simply to see what we might find. Having done little to no research, we were not expecting to enjoy ourselves quite so much as we did, stumbling upon easily one of my favourite places in St Petersburg. This may sound morose seeing as the highlight of the Monastery is by far the Tikhvin Cemetery where many famous literary, musical and political figures are buried; Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Lomonosov. The tombs and headstones are remarkable works of sculpture in themselves, and like many things in this country, they are over the top. There was of course one which featured a ridiculous amount of gold leaf for a graveyard. In Russia, or at the very least in The Northern Capital, you will never find yourself far from some building or other adorned in gold.

The monastery itself is of course astonishing, incredibly ornate and, like all churches here, intimidating. I always feel guilty as a mere spectator in holy places here, as they are Orthodox and take their religion more seriously than I have seen elsewhere. Before entering a church, people will cross themselves and bow once, twice, sometimes three times. This is then followed by more crossing as you pass by the multiple icons within the church/cathedral/monastery, and there are those who go round and kiss every single icon. The whole process takes a very long time and there is a serious atmosphere. Women must have their heads covered at all times. When leaving the church, there is more crossing and bowing at the door, and once outside the church, they turn and cross themselves and bow again. A lot of crossing, a lot of bowing, a lot of kissing, a lot of respect and reverence for the many saints.

Of course, it is forbidden to photograph the inside of the Church of the Annunciation. Picture monks in black gowns, gold, icons, gold icons, statues, mosaics, colours, gold, tiles, gold and gold and you might get near to understanding what it looks like. Did I mention the gold?

On a side note, whilst on the topic of monks, I saw two nuns smoking today. Welcome to Russia.

My few Instagram followers received a spamming yesterday – blame the weather and beautiful graves. Here are some snaps of my new favourite graveyard, not a phrase I ever thought I’d say.

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Vitali – Sculptor
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Avilov
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Tchaikovsky
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Rubinstein
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Dostoevsky
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Having wandered and wondered among the cemetery, we headed to the bridge just next door and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the Neva. Everyone else may be bored of seeing pictures of rivers, but I love them.

IMG_1511From Russia with love.

Hipster Home

St Petersburg is the place for all those British hipsters back home. We should pack them up and ship them here to free ourselves of them (sorry Hipster friends) and let them run wild in the various hipster-friendly spaces in this city. I have stumbled upon so many places here with a very laid-back, cool atmosphere; the kinds of places which back home would be overrun with annoying, pretentious ‘cool-kids’ but here, they are populated by students and lovely, friendly young Russians.

The first of these is Clockface, or Tsiferblat, an anti-cafe in the city, where you pay by time, not by what you have. For 2 roubles a minute for the first hour, and a rouble a minute thereafter, you can enjoy as much tea, coffee, hot chocolate, biscuits, toast, porridge and cereal as you can manage. My friends and I take full advantage and compete to see who can eat the most for the least amount of money. I believe I win for having devoured countless biscuits, 2 slices of toast with jam, a pot of tea, a hot chocolate and then another cup of tea in the space of 2 hours, for a mere 180 roubles (roughly £3.40). There are 2 Tsiferblats in the city, both on Nevsky. One is situated opposite Gostinyy Dvor, on the 3rd floor of Passage; it is a bright, large room with high ceilings and an eclectic mix of furniture. There is tape of the floor, dividing the space into separate rooms to give the feel of a house. You can sit on Victorian style chairs around a mahogany table, recline on a bed or even lounge in a bath. The second is up by Ploschad Vostaniya and is made up of 3 rooms. Both have pianos and anyone is welcome to play and sing along. There is a real homely feeling to both, and truly, anything goes in Clockface.

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The second hipster haven is off the beaten track, a small vintage shop called Aloe. It is run by the absolutely charming Yana, who lives and works in the shop. She gave us her mobile number so that we could call her next time we want to visit as she said she’s not always there because she’s jetting off to Copenhagen or Berlin in search of more wares. The stock is relatively small but nice and reasonable quality. The prices are slightly higher than London vintage shops such as Beyond Retro as I suppose Yana has to cover her trips around the vintage world. I picked up a beautiful book of Russian Poetry, as well as some prints of Yana’s photos. The shop is on Moskovsky Prospekt, by Nab Obvodnogo Kanala. If you pop in, get chatting to Yana and she’ll make you a cup of tea.

Finally, we have Etaji, the biggest and probably most well-known hipster hangout in St Petersburg. Etaji means floors, and that’s exactly what this space is. The building is 4 storeys high and there are many different things on each floor, including exhibition spaces, talks, workshops, a barber, a hostel, a restaurant, and best of all right now, a pop up burger joint called Bro Burgers. For a mere £4, you can grab a delicious burger from a choice of 5 and it comes with a side of home-made chips. Fan-bloody-tastic. We inhaled ours in record speeds and the most unattractive fashion, but it was worth it. There are different things going on in Etaji all the time; it is a sea of change so always good to pop by for something new and cultural. Most of the exhibitions are talks are free, what more could you ask for? Etaji is on Ligovskiy Prospekt, hidden behind big metal gates covered in posters for the various events. In the summer, there is also a deck and rooftop space so that they can really make the most of the few short summer months and soak up enough Vitamin D to get through the winter.

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The young Russians are on to something, don’t try hard and these spaces will be organically inviting, unlike in Britain where most people steer clear for fear of mixing with hipsters who think they are just too cool to function. There’s a way to do it properly and the St Petersburgians have found it.

Anecdote 2: I’m crying 420 roubles

Today provided another painful reminder of the pitfalls of the Russian accent. Whilst in a cafe, paying for my delicious (and vegetable orientated – shock horror!) lunch, I told the waitress “I’m crying 420 roubles” rather than paying 420. This is due to the fact that in this language which is forever tripping me up, “I cry” is pronounced “Ya plachoo” and “I pay” is “Ya platyoo”. The difference is minimal, and as every teacher I’ve had has told me, my stress on words is horrific, meaning I constantly tell people something different from what I want to say, even though I’m saying the right words. Nightmare. The worst difference, and this is a mistake I’ve yet to make, is the very very miniscule difference in pronouncing “to write” and “to pee”.

What made my little mishap whilst trying to pay even more hysterical to my friend and I, was that I then hit myself in the eye and it proceeded to water profusely, thus giving the impression to the already unimpressed waitress that I was indeed now crying. All this after my friend told them their cake was stale.

From Russia with love.

Blinis With Bab

What we in England consider a ‘blini’, is not actually a true Russian blini. A blini is little more than what we think of as a pancake, or crepe, and as I found out on Sunday, they are cooked the exact same way. The exciting master class in Russian blinis turned out to be little more than recreating Pancake Day in September. It was a lovely experience cooking with my Babushka, if not quite the new recipe I had prepared for. So forget the little canapé type blinis you are imagining, the real deal are bigger, and thinner.

The history of the blini: before they became Orthodox, as most of Russia is now, the Russian people used to worship the elements and had many Gods, such as the God of Wind, the God of Rain and the God of Sun. The blini was made originally as a symbol of the sun and thus, it is a religious recipe. Quite a simple history for quite a simple dish.

Just like on Pancake Day, take 2 eggs, a litre of milk, salt and sugar to taste and mix. We did this in a bowl with a hand blender. Next, add flour. I believe my Babushka said 300g, but I don’t remember, I didn’t write it down and she didn’t measure it out. A seasoned pro at making blinis, Sonia cooks by feel, much like my own Grandmother. The consistency (again, very detailed) should be not too watery but not too thick, It should coat a spoon and be silky smooth, so blend well.

Now the difference: we add butter to the pan to avoid sticking. Russians add a tiny bit of oil, and then a glug of oil into the mixture. This does not get mixed in, but instead sits on the top of the mixture and you get a little with every ladleful, ensuring that these tasty offerings to the sun don’t stick in the pan.

Take a ladle of mixture and put it in the pan, being sure to tilt the pan straight away and evenly coat the surface so that you have a perfectly round blini of even thickness. Then just cook like a pancake, flipping when the colour on top is slightly darker and all the same. Voilà – blinis à la Russe!IMG_1247IMG_1243

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We had ours as delicious parcels of flavour, filled with cabbage, rice, mince and carrots. They were simply wonderful.

If you find yourself in Russia, head to their version of MacDonald’s/Starbucks – Chainaya Lozhka (Чайная Ложка – teaspoon). It’s fast food the Russian way – blinis and borscht.

From Russia with Love.

P.S. Tonight – Opera at the Mikhailovsky theatre, darling. We’re off to see Verdi’s “Un Ballo I Maschera”. When in Rome…