Note From Jon


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Back in the U.S.S.A.

I have returned from an amazing week in Russia and am working my way through my photos and stories. Kristin and I combined to take about 1500 pictures, which I’ve whittled down below 300 (you're welcome) and have broken into (hopefully) manageable sections, so I am finally ready to begin the recap (the delay in getting this started actually had nothing to do with jet lag, which we managed to avoid both ways, and more to do with spending the past three days with lawn mowers—breaking two, failing to fix them, buying a new one, and finally mowing the jungle of plants that was swallowing the house).

Before I recap day one, I have some thanks to give.

Much like my Africa trip wouldn’t have been possible without Chris, I wouldn’t have gotten to Russia this year without Kristin who brought me along on her business trip (and I surely would never have traveled there in such impressive accommodations). I can’t possibly thank her enough for this opportunity and for putting up with me as a travel partner! Thanks also to Dana, Erin and my uncle for great advice on what to see in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As you’ll see from the recap your input guided the itinerary.

For future travelers I should also give a shout out to For U.S. citizens, Russia requires an invitation letter… in order to get a visa… which then has to be registered at a hotel upon arrival. It’s not a terribly tourist friendly system (though probably easier than what a Russian wanting to visit the U.S. goes through). Hotels and travel agencies in Russia will issue an invitation letter… but as I found out, they would only issue an invitation for the exact dates that you booked accommodations with them. This can be a problem when your final night is on an overnight train and the travel agency will only offer visa support through the day before your flight home (it’s apparently a very bad thing to overstay your visa, even by a single day). on the other hand is an online site where you can pay $30 and they will get a Russian agency to issue you a visa invitation for whatever days you request (up to the tourist visa limit of 30 days). Initially that seemed about as legitimate as a Russian-mail-order-bride site or the emails that I observed the young African man “Edith” send to all of the 60-year old men on a German dating site. But in the end it was $30 well spent. I got an invitation letter that covered my entire trip and it was legitimate enough that I was issued a visa which didn’t lead to any problems entering or leaving Russia (it may actually be a sanctioned way of ensuring that we fund the Russian travel industry). There’s also lots of other good travel advice on the site including a language section that I used to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, which proved extremely handy (like for deciphering their invitation letter which doesn’t come with any English instructions!).

Day One (which in this case was from about 10am Friday to 3pm Saturday east coast time)

After an uneventful Delta connection through JFK (skipping the iPod vending machine there) we arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport along with all of our luggage! I even had my name on a sign for a car at the airport (a first I believe). We got to the (five star!) President Hotel shortly after noon and were able to check in immediately. After getting over my shock about the view from the room (in one direction we could see right into the Kremlin) and getting clean we set off to Izmaylovo market. Normally I wouldn’t advise going souvenir shopping immediately upon arrival, but this market was supposedly the best deal in Moscow and it’s only in full swing on the weekend. Since we’d be touring the Kremlin and Red Square all day Sunday, this was our only chance to visit.

On the way in we passed a bear show. I realized when looking back through the photos that the painting in the background was actually one of my favorite paintings that I saw a week later at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg (Ivan Shishkin’s “Morning in a Pine Forest”). One of the other things we saw throughout the trip was a T-shirt aimed at tourists that says “I’ve been to Moscow… there are no bears”. It lies.

The market lived up to the hype because not only was it our best shopping experience in Russia, it was probably my best foreign shopping experience ever. There’s an endless supply of the usual souvenirs (as well as unusual ones like Boston Red Sox nesting dolls which I had to resist), the prices are the cheapest we found on the trip, and the vendors are helpful but not pushy (well as you see in the picture we did have hats pushed on our heads—but they took the photo and didn’t get particularly upset when we moved along without buying anything). The bargaining is mostly a game here where all the vendors seem to have a starting price and a “minimum price” (about 10-20% less) which they sometimes offer in the same breathe. It’s probably possible to bargain some down further (although on several occasions they truly didn’t seem interested and were happy to let us walk away) and in general the prices are reasonable enough that it’s not really necessary. If our flight had been later the next Saturday I definitely would have come back here then once I had a better idea of what I wanted to buy and how much money I had left.

Also inside the market (but not included in the 40 cent entrance price to the market) was the Vodka History Museum. We jumped on a group tour (in English, which turned out to be quite rare in Russia) and Kristin sampled some vodka included in the admission price before we purchased yet more souvenirs. It was a bit hard to follow but I know the funniest part of the tour for me was when the guide explained how three people would pool their money for a bottle of vodka and needed a way to split it evenly. They determined that vodka bottles make 21 “blurps” as they are poured (she made the sound effects). Each person got seven blurps. Blurp, blurp, blurp…

Still managing to stay awake we tracked down the Georgian restaurant (or PECTOPAH as it’s spelled in Cyrillic—PECTOPAH is pronounced Restoran, isn’t Cyrillic fun!?!) called Dioskuriya that was recommended in the Lonely Planet. Thankfully it was still there, still cheapish (I think $40 for the two of us), and the best food I had the whole trip (particularly my favorite dish Horcha). I also noticed the handy requirement that menus in Russia print the serving size (in grams or mL) along with the price. It’s a little hard to find because the “street” it is on looks more like a driveway going through a gate in a building along Novy Arbat (walking from the Kremlin if you get to T.G.I. Friday’s—yes T.G.I. Friday’s—you’ve gone too far). It’s well worth seeking out though and was the perfect cap to our first day in Russia!

Day 2 -->

Saturday, April 19, 2008

From Russia with Love!

Day four update, probably the last of the trip since we won't have internet access unless we go to a cafe. Today the sun finally came out... and I was inside at museums! The Pushkin Gallery and the Tretyakov Gallery. Tonight I saw Eugene Onegin performed in Russian. Oh the bit of news I forgot from yesterday is that I got our train tickets to St. Petersburg so the trip will continue!Here are a couple more photos:

Update through day three: I have limited internet access so I won't write much but I will try to post a few more photos. The last two days have been rainy but I've still enjoyed seeing Lenin, the Kremlin (with the world's largest bell), St.Basil's, Novodevichy Convent, The nesting dolls (Matryoshka) museum, and watching Don Quixote (a ballet I thought was an opera) at the State Kremlin Theatre. My favorite part of Moscow so far though may be the Metro. More on that later. Here are some more photos.

One day done and everything has gone smoothly. Other than meager success on the airplane I haven't slept in two days so I won't be writing but I will post a couple of today's photos. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dosvedanya Yankee Stadium

Joel is leaving the East Coast and the Yankees are moving out of Yankee Stadium (they're going to the new stadium right next door). That made it the perfect time to finally catch a game at Yankee Stadium and of course that game needed to be a Sox/Yankees game. I have plenty to say about the experience of being one of four Sox fans surrounded by a horde of chanting "bleacher creatures"... but unfortunately that will all have to wait until I return from Russia since I leave in less than 12 hours and have just barely packed. For now I will just have to give you this picture worth 1000 words... or at least two words... and those words of course are "Yankees Suck!"

Hopefully the next post is from Russia!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Paintball Haiku

Mission Accomplished:
I didn't eat any paint...
But that shot still hurt!

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Rite of Spring

Spring has finally arrived. I know because this was the first Friday that Darren and I ate our weekly burrito lunch outside, and because NPR’s All Songs Considered previewed the spring music releases. Since I didn’t blog about anything else this week, I figured I would take after my friend Chris, who likes to make top 10 lists, and preview the top 10 events I am most excited about this spring and summer.

I had a hard time paring the list down so I’ve cheated by grouping some activities together and by disqualifying the long-standing annual traditions which would show up on this list every year (e.g. croquet at Screen on Jon and Darren’s Green, Gold Cup, Tubing on the 4th, and the CSC Invitational). It’s going to be a busy spring and summer. Which reminds me that Darren and I have a debate about whether I like to be busy. For the record, I don’t like to be busy. I like all of the individual activities that I do, and I don’t mind that they make me busy. See the difference? (Somehow that always reminds me of the SNL debate skit during the 2004 election where “Kerry” says [see when I was for the war I was speaking to a pro-war audience, and when I was against the war I was speaking to an anti-war audience. That’s not flip-flopping. That’s pandering. And you deserve a president who knows the difference!])

10. Kevin and Jamie’s wedding: There is no safe spot to put them on the list so consider this event unranked (or if you prefer, they are at the “top” of the list). I’ve been to a Match wedding, but this will be the first wedding for a couple that met at one of our BBQs (the BBQs are indeed magical as I can envision at least one more SOJDG wedding).

9. Hamlet at the Shakespeare Free for All (May 22nd-June 1st): It’ll be hard to surpass Love’s Labor’s Lost but I’ll be there to see if The Shakespeare Theatre Company can do it. Technically, this should be disqualified since this is my fourth year going.

8. SilverDocs (June 16th-23rd): One of the few things that irritates Darren more than me saying “I don’t like to be busy”, is how much I like documentaries. Although, I only got to see Chicago 10 last year, I intend to see plenty more this time around. Maybe even my friends' second documentary, 10 Yards, will make the cut.

7. Artomatic 2008 (May 9th- June 15th): For the first time since I started going, Artomatic is showing in back-to-back years. I still remember last year’s show well so it will be interesting to see how much of the artwork is recycled. Hopefully I will finally find a piece to go over the mantle (otherwise the Dr. Dremo’s sign may have found its new home).

6. Wolf Trap: The greatest concert venue on earth (and not just because I performed there) and the only National Park for the Performing Arts. I’d see anything at Wolf Trap (ok, that’s a lie… I won’t see the Backstreet Boys) I already have a stack of 28 tickets at home for my friends and me to go see Prairie Home Companion, Pilobolus, Tcheers for Tchaikovsky, Not the Messiah, ‘H’ is for Hitchcock, and Hawaii Revisited.

5. Concerts: It’s a good summer when three out of the top four bands I want to see are all coming through D.C. Thanks to AB, I’ve got tickets to see The Flight of the Conchords. I’ll get to see my second favorite band, Bishop Allen, for the first time, and my favorite band, Modest Mouse, for the second time (with the ridiculous lineup including The National and R.E.M.). Now if James would only announce a North American Tour…

4. Red Sox Games: I’ll be going to enemy territory for the first time next Wednesday to watch the Red Sox win at Yankee Stadium before the Yanks move to their new home next year. And of course Jeffrey and I will be following our flawlessly refined routine for catching nearly every Sox/O’s game over at Fenway South.

3. Capital Fringe Festival (July 10th-27th): While I don’t participate in theatre anymore (that’s how I managed to perform at Wolf Trap… it was at the Barns and our High School’s production of Terminal was selected to perform) I’ve been known to watch a play or two. Will this be the year that someone tops Journeymen Theatre’s Bartleby?

2. XXIX Olympiad (August 8th-24th): Host-country controversy aside, I love the Olympics (only surpassed by World Cup Soccer) and can’t wait to watch some hard-core table tennis again (yes, I’m completely serious – and yes, I’m hooked on Curling in the winter Olympics).

1. RUSSIA! (April 18th-26th): That’s right, the main reason I haven’t written much lately is that I am getting ready for my trip to Russia one week from today. Most of my free time has been spent studying Pimsleur Russian courses, listening to Russian music lectures, rereading Russka, and rewatching the Peter the Great miniseries. Well that and trying to get a visa (check) and train tickets between Moscow and St. Petersburg (not-so-much check). Let's hope this trip makes the blog a bit more entertaining!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

National Mall and Nationals Park

Spring weather may not have arrived last weekend, but that didn’t stop the arrival of the Cherry Blossoms, the kite festival, Opening Night at the Nationals new stadium and (as I had to take metro to see all of those) the tourists.

At the kite festival the weather was colder and less windy than last year (not an ideal combination for kites), but Ann and I persevered and by some measure this year was even more successful; that measure would be the ability to fully unwind the kite string (with the kite in the air), which I accomplished twice Saturday vs. once in 2007. Despite flying last year’s model, I was happy to see my 3-D pirate ship kite received an ample share of compliments (it may be developing a bit of an ego).

Thanks to Joel I scored a ticket to the Nats opening night game on Sunday (as opposed to the game on April 7th that I bought tickets for thinking it was the home opener. Doh. Seriously who has a one game series on March 30th!?!). They rolled out the red carpet for us… to stand on while we waited in the metal detector lines (which had better have been a one-night deal on account of POTUS first-pitching). We explored the stadium and my initial impression was favorable, but as I’ve analyzed it I don’t know why (probably it was the atmosphere of being there for opening night). Nationals Park doesn’t have the unique touches of some of the new stadiums, or any interesting landmarks in the background—like the Bromo-Seltzer tower which used to be visible (bottom of link) at Camden Yards. The food and drink policy is the same as RFK where you can bring food and one sealed bottle of water in, but there are currently no vendors outside the stadium (at the metro entrance at least) which is a disappointment. And just like so many games at RFK, around the sixth inning I found myself futilely hoping that a pretzel vendor would walk by. Regardless it was an exciting night at Nationals Park, capped by Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off HR. I was grateful to Joel to be there and I will give the stadium another chance on Monday with those tickets that I thought were for opening night!

Notes to Jon:
  • In case any of the random people who came up and asked where I got my kite stumble across my blog (or more likely so I have an answer when they ask next year). Ann found Whistle Stop Hobbies in Old Town Alexandria for us last year.

  • They did include local restaurants inside the stadium but the prices are marked up accordingly ($8.25 for a cup of—admittedly delicious—gumbo from Cantina Marina and $7 for Five Guys fries). That didn’t keep the lines from being out of control…until they cleared the area for fireworks. Rumor has it that Five Guys will be putting in a custom kitchen soon to increase efficiency and also lowering the price on the fries to $6. Hopefully Cantina Marina will increase the size of the gumbo cup.

  • George Washington won the first President's Race at Nationals Park (while Teddy abandoned the race to dance in Center Field)

  • Metro worked well for the game, we took the yellow line from Crystal City to the green line at L’Enfant. And most importantly we didn’t lose any keys!

  • Although it has nothing to do with this post, I did go to Jammin’ Java on Monday to hear Eva Castillo and I need someplace to make a note of how delicious the Sausage Tomatillo Chili is so that I remember to get a bowl of it next time I am there.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Photo Recipe #1: Chebu juen

Damn. Why didn’t I think of this before. Take pictures along with my notes in cooking class! I don’t cook much (I reluctantly accept that cereal doesn’t count), but I have taken several Indian cooking classes, however I cook the meals so rarely I forget how things are supposed to look. Well I won’t have that problem with the Senegalese national dish of Chebu juen thanks to my detailed photo log (phlog?). It’s a stewed dish of fish, rice and vegetables. However it is not a stew. The ingredients are cooked and removed from the stew until finally the rice bit is cooked in the broth and soaks it all up, then the fish and vegetables are served on a bed of stew-infused rice.

Having first learned about this dish in the African Voices exhibit at the Natural History Museum, Darren and I used it as a clue in the Trivia Scavenger Hunt we organized. Then on my trip to West Africa last summer I had the opportunity to try Chebu juen (however it is spelled) in the fishing village of Ndangane (now that’s some fresh fish!). Along with Yassa Poullet it was my favorite food from the whole trip, so I was excited to see that Arlington County was offering a class dedicated to this specific meal. The result tasted nearly as good as it had in Senegal (the fish wasn’t as good, but the paste which the instructor stuffed in the fish was the best part and it wasn’t in the original dish). We also made the bissap drink which I had enjoyed in-country. It’s a tea made from dried hibiscus flowers, mint leaves and sugar to taste. If you happen to live near Arlington, I definitely recommend taking the Adult Education cooking courses that the county offers. For those of you outside of the area you can check out the photos and recipe (at least until I am asked to remove it). Now if they’ll just teach a class on Yassa Poullet…

Chebu Djeun (Senegalese rice and fish dish)
Adapted from Khady’s recipe
Serves: 12 people
1 large grouper or blue fish, or red snapper (about 5 lbs) cut in 2” to 3” thick steak size
3 medium onions chopped
1 big can of crushed tomato (~28 oz), one small can of tomato paste (6 oz)
Stuffing paste consisting of ½ cup parsley, ½ cup scallions, 3-4 garlic cloves, salt, Mrs.Dash, and one small habanero pepper blended in food processor
2 cups canola oil
5 lbs jasmine rice bit (may also be called broken rice)
3 small hot peppers (optional)
Manioc (yucca root) peeled and cut in 3’’ sections
2 lbs carrots peeled cut in half
1 small cabbage cut in four
4 eggplants (mini ones)
Spanish squash (calabaza) cut in 3”
2 turnips cut in half
3-4 Tamerind seed pods (optional)

Heat oil in a heavy-bottom pot
Cut slits in fish steaks and stuff with parsley paste
Brown stuffed fish flesh side about 45 seconds set aside
Put chopped onions in oil cook 3 to 5 minutes
Add cans of crushed tomatoes and paste + Mrs. Dash, for approximately 10 minutes stirring occasionally
Add 2 cans of water (use the empty crushed tomato can to measure water)
Put all vegetables in and cook until done (about 30-40 minutes), then take vegetables out of stew and keep warm in oven set to 200° (remove Tamerind seed pods from their shells and add them for the last couple of minutes before removing vegetables if desired)
Add fish to cook for 5 – 10 minutes, take fish out and keep aside
Wash rice bit, drain water, microwave 5 minutes and pour into stew broth; bring to boil, cover, reduce heat to medium cook for ½ hour, turn rice and cook for 10 or 15 more minutes
When rice is done, serve fish and vegetables on bed of rice

Bissap (sweet drink from dried hibiscus flowers)
Serves: Well it makes about two liters
A handful of dried hibiscus flowers
A handful of mint leaves
A quart of water for tea
A quart of water for diluting
Sugar to taste

Boil quart of water in dried hibiscus flowers
Cook tea for about 5 minutes and turn off heat
Add mint leaves and leave to cool for several minutes
Strain into pitcher and add another quart of water
Add sugar to taste

Notes to Jon:
  • Rice bit was purchased at asian food store in the Eden Center, fish from Slavin and Sons, and all other ingredients from Shoppers
  • The stuffing was especially good so don’t skip that step
  • I preferred the turnips and carrots to the Spanish pumpkin, cabbage and eggplant
  • The dried hibiscus flowers came directly from Senegal (and she gave us each a couple of handfuls to take home) but I don’t know where to get this locally

  • I believe she said that she makes it the night before for guests and then just cooks the rice in the broth and serves it