Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Stars of Kazan

Kazan, Russia
Growing up in the 50’s I never thought I would ever sleep in the home of a Russian person.  We were taught to expect the worst between our countries. The silly  practice of diving under our desks at school to protect ourselves from the nuclear blast, did not make for positive thoughts towards the Soviet Union and the Russian people.   Yet, trends have evolved over time, the sea has calmed and now, regardless of the leaders, the internet brings everyone closer together.

Here we are, carried like a tornado in the Wizard of Oz, into the warm home of our Russian friends, Albert and Alfiya, and we apply a branding iron to our friendship.  Albert and Alfiya are  real stars,  unofficial ambassadors of Kazan in Tatarstan.   Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, and the eighth largest city in Russia. 
Alfiya, Orietta and Albert

We were treated to three wonderful days with long conversations where we learned so much about the day to day life in Russia.  We heard the good and the bad, we reacted, we listened, the whole experience was engaging, and yes, we answered questions about America, and our friendship grew.  That is the subject of this blog, and I hope you will enjoy this glimpse into the Russian experience.

Albert is a doctor of medicine, as is his charming wife, Alfiya.  We learned about their work, Alfiya works in the cancer ward of her hospital, and Albert is an administrator in a private health clinic.  They both work long hours, for example, Albert works 6 days a week.   We were shocked to learn that doctors in Russia are not paid salaries close to medical doctors in the United States.  They have learned to make the most of their weekends, and vacations.  While we were there they received notice that they had been granted new travel visas to America, and we had occasion to celebrate!  They appreciate America  and have traveled to the states several times.     

Salmon Caviar
We arrived late at night and were surprised to find a huge spread of food ready to be tasted when we arrived at their home.  It was quite overwhelming as the table began to be covered with goodies from the American size refrigerator.  Albert had purchased many different brands of Russian beer, pastries sweet and not, and he prepared caviar on toast.  The photo shows this better.

The following morning I hear Albert in the kitchen and we are catered to a terrific breakfast.  Albert jokes about  Denny’s breakfast menu, as he likes a big breakfast when in America, so we are treated to the same, Russian style.  He clearly enjoys working in the kitchen and he tried to make us feel at home.  We learned that when eating in Russia, pacing is important.  
Looking around their modern kitchen, they had all the things we have in Italy, microwave, cappuccino maker, large oven and so on.  Their kitchen was actually a lot bigger than our Italian kitchen, and they have a window that looks out onto a large forested area.  We asked about this area and Albert says that it is owned by a man who was planning a large construction project, but he fell out of grace with Putin and left the country.  We hear this “out of favor” kind of story more than once while there.  
Working Hard in Modern Kitchen

On one plate Albert has placed some hot dogs that he has boiled.  I am a fan of a good hot dog.  We are able to find German hot dogs, the white kind that are famous in Munich, in a store  called Lidl near our village.  Every time I bite into a hot dog I go back to taking my kids to a ball game to see the Oakland A’s.  So I am happy to try a Kazan dog.  OMG….Seriously this is the best hot dog I have ever eaten!  In fact, I must say that this is the best food we have eaten on this trip, and believe me we have tried a lot of foods.   

Dynamite Dogs
There is something about these little gems that makes me want more.  I make Albert promise that when he comes to Italy for a visit, he smuggles some of these in his suitcase.  Just the right amount of smokiness!  They are that good!   I know this photo  does not do them justice, they look like plain hot dogs, but they are the number one dog in the  world!!!

Kul-Sharif Mosque
We are driven to the center of Kazan, and find it to be a modern city, looking much different from St. Petersburg where we had just spent several days.  There is a pleasant river setting in the  center, and we parked and walked up to the Kremlin for a short tour and some photo moments.   We find out that Ivan the Terrible built the town hall over the ruins of the castle.  The buildings and structures here are beautiful.   Nearby you can see Kul-Sharif Mosque, which is a postcard in itself.    For more info on Kazan’s Kremlin go to:

Cheese Inside
We were taken nearby to a restaurant that features food from Tatarstan.  Albert made choices we should try, and we feasted!  The next day we  went to a Georgian restaurant, which is different that Tartar food.    Here are some foods we tasted during our visit.

Borscht made by Alfiya

Dumplings With Meat

The cuisine of Kazan has a lot of dumpling type dishes.   We also find so many types of these in the supermarket.  

Sviyazhsk Church
The second day we were driven far from Kazan to see the Volga River.   We parked at the edge of an island called Sviyazhsk (try to pronounce that) where we walked up 4 flights of stairs to find small village and monastery.  In 1551 it was built as a fortress and used as a military base of the Russian army during the siege of Kazan (1552).  Albert explained that this monastery was also used as a prison  and that during WWII it held prisoners of war.  The houses were made of wood with typical Russian trim.  

Vendor In Costume

On the far side was a small area for selling locally made souvenirs, and we were treated to a performance of a sword battle with two men in costumes of armour.  It was not a Universal Studios battle, these guys were really whacking each other.  Once they stopped while a helmet was turned back around.  
They also had to stop for a few minutes as one fellow received a blow and felt a bit of pain.  I am not sure they were friends.

Albert, Barbecue Chef

Somehow that night Albert found the energy to put on a barbecue using his Tandyr, or Tandoor, which his brother had given as a gift. Albert had been telling us for months how he was practicing to perfect the results.  We had seen a lot of photos, but now we got to taste the real thing.  The results we tasted were perfect!   The large Tandyr is heated with fire, and when the fire dies there is a basket and a grill that is hung inside and then the lid is closed.  What is trapped inside becomes so soft and flavorful.   That Tandyr brings it all together perfectly!  I only wish I could own one of these, but unfortunately, my little terrace would not be a good place for one.  You can see on the right it as Albert is starting process.

Alfiya Smiles All The Time

These few days we are getting to know each other and I am seeing such pleasant sides to them both.  Alfiya is such a kind woman, and she doesn’t have to try to be friendly, it is in her spirit to be so.  She is glad to talk about life in Russia, the past and the now.  She tells us a lot about her grandparents, her family and what life was like when they were students in the times of the Soviet Union.  She is the kind of person you want to have as your next door neighbor.

Albert never seems to tire of trying his best to be graceful.  He tells us about his work, his doctoral classes, and we learn why doctors want to be surgeons in Russia.  He talks about his family and he drives to where they lived as teenagers.   Every moment during our visit he tries to help us see, taste, and feel life in Kazan.  
In the years that we have been communicating on the internet, his English has improved immensely.   I can remember skyping them and Albert had to stop and think of the correct words, or how to say something.  Not anymore! He has worked really hard to learn English.  Now he speaks without having to process languages back and forth.  This is a real skill.  Albert could live in America without language problems.  Alfiya is also competent in English   She is also learning Spanish.  Their knowledge of English has helped us to know them better and helped our friendship grow.   I think America should adopt them.

House of Lenin (Student)
After picking up their American travel visas, Albert drove while Alfiya navigated to the home of Lenin who spent one year in Kazan studying to be a lawyer.  Albert admitted that he had never been to this house aswe walked to the gate for photos.  I never thought that Lenin had lived here, I am  clueless on Lenin in the first place.  
Lenin’s body can still be seen in the Kremlin in Moscow.  I was there some years ago, and he looks like he could just sit up and walk away.  It looks quite a bit like the movie Snow White, where she is under a glass cover.  I don’t know how they do that, nor does anyone else, as it is a secret.  I would like to see George Washington like this.  

Colorful Choices
One of our final excursions is to a supermarket.  Albert knows that I always make it a point to visit a market in a foreign country.
Lots of Selection

 I want to see what people eat, what is available, how much fresh produce they have, the cheeses, the beers, and the pastries.  Pictured here is what we saw.

They had a great selection of foods.  The only thing I noticed is that it seemed that the produce area was smaller than I expected.  They had a a whole counter of imported cheeses, multiple shelves of beers, mostly from out of Russia, and lots of meats, such as what you see here.  It was difficult to decide which photos to use.

 Look, Frito Lay is there!
America moves in to grab a part of the Russian economy.
Can you believe that in the middle of Russia you would see this display?  Come On!
BTW Frito Lay made its move into Turkey several years ago and is now doing the same in Italy, as is Doritos.
Now we know that the Russian people are beginning to snack!  What company is next to travel far?

More Food Shots.
Dumplings To Go

Can You Believe...Cheetos!
Gracious Tour Guides
There are moments in one’s life that shine.  Being allowed to know Albert and Alfiya in their home is one of those.   I am sure that it was not easy for them to accept us, as we only knew each other by messages and Skype Videos.  However, all that apprehension was blown away by super hospitality and graciousness.  We are blessed with such good friends in Albert and Alfiya.   I hope that they will visit us soon.

I also hope that this blog post has opened your world to see real people, the good people of the modern city of Kazan.


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