East of Paris Bookstore

Friday, April 30, 2010

Hotel Security


World travel involves various security issues.  In the US, the currently most inconvenient thing is having to take off your shoes when crossing through airport security.   At least in Frankfurt, the security guy looks at your shoes and waives you through; you still have to take off your jacket.  As for laptops -- sometimes they make you take it out of the carry-on bag, sometimes not.  Then, the other day, we were asked if we had liquids in our carry-on.  Yes, we had 2 bottles of water from the plane.  The security man took one bottle and seemed willing to let me through with the other one.  I took pity on the rules and gave him the second bottle too.   Made me feel soo safe!!!

Until of course we got to our Almaty hotel.  Our fancy Range Rover had to stop at the security gate at the street entrance.  At guard hearing a yellow-greenish fluorescent vest over his uniform stepped out of the gate house with a mirror attached to a probe which he swept under the vehicle – looking for ??? – before letting us through.  [The last time my vehicle was mirror checked for explosives was at the entry to the parking lot at the US Embassy in Pristina.] Then, upon emerging from the slowing rotating hotel entry door with smiles all around, we passed through a metal detector.   The fact that I set off the alarm by not putting my purse on the faux empire table to the side of the metal detector seemed not to matter.  Same thing at our hotels in Bishkek and Tashkent.  In contrast, the Asia hotel in Samarqand has no visible security.

It reminded me of a similar entry procedure at the Eurpopa Hotel in St. Petersburg years ago, when Madeleine Albright was still Secretary of State and was staying at the hotel.  Security was similarly hardwared but casual -- we usually chose to ignore and walk around the metal detector.  For better or worse, she survived and so did we.  

Almaty aka Alma Ata aka Father of Apples

We arrived at midnight after flying for six hours from Frankfurt.  The last two hours offered little in terms of ground lights.  But, the airport was clean and bright, and the white script on red background spelling out “Coca Cola” on a machine in the terminal gave us a sense of familiarity.

Our hotel driver was waiting when we passed through passport control and customs.  We climbed into his British [steering wheel on the right] Range Rover and drove to the InterContinental Hotel.  While it was night and there was little traffic, the drive took about 20 minutes. There were lighted boulevards lined with trees – trunks painted white 3 or 4 feet from the ground – looking like they were wearing knee socks.  And, we passed lots of car showrooms:  Audi, Mercedes, Range Rover, Toyota [everything but US cars].
We tumbled into bed at about 1:30 a.m. and slept for about 6 hours.  The sun woke us, and we looking out of our window we saw the impressive snow-covered Zailiysky Alatau, a spur of the Tian Sian Mountains in the distance.

After breakfast, we took a long walk through Republic Square, then past the national library and down to St. Nicholas Cathedral.   The Cathedral, which had been used as a stable by the Bolsheviks, reopened in 1980.  Now, on the back of a large column, there is a frescoed icon of the murdered Romanov family.

The air was perfect for walking – sunny and cool, marred only by the occasional puff of diesel or road construction dust. Spring tulips were in bloom along with apple trees.  There were many pine trees lining the streets and deciduous trees whose leaves were beginning to appear.

Besides being “Apple Town,” Almati and Kasakhstan are the original source of tulips.  Along the streets and in every park there are thickly planted beds of tulips.  And, a favorite architectural designs is also a stylized tulip.
In Pamfilov park we also visited the older Zenkov Catherdral, which was used as a concert hall in Soviet times and is now a functioning church once more, say the war memorial, and happened upon a Kazak wedding party -- they took pictures of us and we took pictures of them giggles all around.

We also attended a special musical performance in an old wooden Tsarist officers’ quarters now a museum of traditional musical instruments.  

Roza Otunbayeva

Written a few days ago, while access to certain internet sites was blocked.

Today is April 28.  Mere weeks ago on April 6 and 7 there was an anti-government demonstration in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.  Government forces at the “White House” opened fire on the demonstrators and some 86 were killed.  Now the interim government is in control of all seven “oblasts” [provinces] of the country and is planning for a referendum on a new constitution, for parliamentary elections and a presidential election.  Today, we met with the head of the interim government – Roza Otunbayeva, former Kyrgyz ambassador to the US and Canada and former foreign minister of the Kyrgyz SSR.

A dynamic woman with deep credentials, both Soviet and post CIS, Otunbayeva gave the Harvard Alumni Travel group about 45 minutes of her time.  She spoke about the need to break the model of clan rule of the last two presidents and to move the country to a parliamentary system with a weaker president and more incentives for the many political parties to work together.  Today, the interim government published the proposed new constitution.  She is also a proponent of transparency and the need for a fast but peaceful transition to a civil society.  On the immediate practical side, she talked of the need to pay people on time and keep public services going.  Just before meeting with us, she had met with the parents of the young people who were shot a few weeks ago and responded to their demands for justice and extradition of President Bakiyev, now in exile in Belarus. 

Since the interim government will exist [barring unforeseen new coups d’état] for six months, when new elections will take place, Otunbayeva has a lot on her plate.  Among other things, she wants to clean up the hydroelectric industry, where corrupt administrators have skimmed off a least 40% of revenues.  As for US military base near Manas International Airport, they had just received a copy of the agreement between the US and the prior government and are studying it – President Bakiyev had either taken it and other documents with him or it was among many government documents that were burned during April 6 and 7.  Otunbayeva said that they had so many things to do before all the elections, that the status of the base was not a short-term priority and that there would be time to deal with it later and before its expiration date.     During our meeting, she only mentioned Russia once in connection with its endless market for Kyrgyz fruit and vegetable exports; she never mentioned China.

PS – Otunbayeva declared that in six months she expects all restrictions on TV, press and other communications to be lifted.  So, may be, if I were to be back in November, the Internet website blocks I’ve been experiencing will be over.



Censorship


After two days in Almaty and a number of Google searches, I figured out why I was not able to get to my Blogspot blog or even read any blogs that use Blogspot.  According to an April 13, 2010 Reuter’s story, here, the government of Kazakhstan blocks Blogspot.  Apparently, among the thousands of bloggers using Blogspot, there are some who criticize the government and its president.  The latter can’t handle the former, ergo censorship.

Ironically, the other morning the President of Kazakhstan and his daughter are opening the Eurasian Media Forum, being held at our hotel.  There were lots of fawning young journalists milling about the registration area; soldiers are patrolling the lobby the outdoor areas of the hotel; suddenly all the fountains are gushing water jets and the lawn looks freshly combed.

The Blogspot website was also blocked in Kyrgyzstan.  Now, writing out of Uzbekistan, I can reach this and other websites that were blocked; on the other hand, internet connections are iffy.

P.S. I have not had to deal with censorship since childhood, when my mother put certain books, magazines, and TV shows off-limits until I was “older.”  Naturally, I scoured the pubic library to read all those off-limits books and magazines; and at my friend houses I only wanted to watch the programs I was not allowed to see.  Of course, my friends who did not have parental censorship couldn’t care less. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Iceland's Volcano

Northwest of Paris, Iceland's volcanic origin has rumbled for days.  The ash fall impacts the island plus much of Europe directly.  Indirectly it involves the whole world by impacting air travel.


We are scheduled to fly to Almaty via Frankfurt on Thursday.  Much of European airspace has opened up again to commercial aviation.  It looks like our flights will be on time [and safe].

P.S.  the photo is from the news section of www.mirror.co.uk

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lomonosov Tea Set




Ismailovski Park, is the name of a subway stop on the Moscow Metro Blue Line.  It is also the name of a park with a huge and wonderful open-air flea market, with a minor entrance fee, that offers both old and new things for purchase.    There are household items from the 1960s, old cameras, military surplus clothes, carpets from Central Asia, antique icons as well as newly-manufactured “antique” icons, vintage clothing and furniture, handicrafts, lacquer boxes, matriosha dolls, radios, computers, and what not.  It is also where I bought my Lomonosov tea and coffee service.

Lomonosov porcelain, manufactured in Russia, is sublime and luminescent.  The Lomonosov factory was founded by Michail Lomonosov, a “Renaissance man” born in 1711 in Russia.  He was a scientist, poet, grammarian, and founder of the Moscow State University.  His porcelain, which graced the tables of the Tsars and Russian aristocracy, is still manufactured and in high demand.

When I worked in Russia, I priced a number of Lomonosov porcelain items and found the best deal on the pattern I wanted at the open-air market at Ismailovski Park.  After a few visits, I narrowed down my choices, and struck an agreement on what I was buying and for how much.  Before wrapping my purchases in old newspapers [bubble wrap was rare and an expensive import that also carried a large VAT tax], the vendor showed me how to test each cup and the sugar bowl and creamer for cracks.  She took an ordinary wooden pencil with eraser, and ran the metallic ring, which holds the eraser to the pencil, around the rim of each cup.  On cups with no flaw, this test yielded a clear ringing sound.  On cups with even an unseen crack, the sound was a dull thud.  A very useful and, heretofore, unknown to me trick.


I packed all my porcelain into a big sturdy plastic shopping bag [a Harrod’s souvenier] and carried it with me like a fragile baby on board several flights and safely to California.  My set consists of tea cups and saucers, demitasse coffee cups and saucers, a big round pot for hot water, a smaller round tea pot, a tall slender coffee pot, a creamer and a sugar bowl, dessert plates and a serving plate.  The design is called “cobalt net.”  It is very special for me -- I have only used it twice!



P.S.  Ismailovski Park gets its name from the old Romanov estate of Ismailovo, where a young Tsar Peter I found a boat in a storage shed that the English had given to Ivan IV; Peter learned to sail the boat, which became the pre-cursor of the Russian navy.  The Ismailovo estate also gave its name to the Ismailovski Imperial Guards Regiment.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Traveling

Mr. Wonderful and I are off to our niece's wedding.  No blogging until next week.

Tolstoy Estate

My last post, which mentioned Tula and the Tolstoy estate, Ясная Поляна [Yasnaya Polyana, meaning Bright Meadow], got me reminiscing about my visit to Yasnaya Polyana and about reading Anna Karenina and War and Peace.  Over the years I've also enjoyed seeing many versions of the movies based on these novels.
Once upon a time, circa the dark ages, I was in prep school and had an assignment from our English teacher to write a biography of a famous author.   I was in the midst of reading Anna Karenina and chose Leo Tolstoy.  I read various books about Tolstoy but still remember that the biography, Tolstoy, penned by Henri Troyat was by far the best.

Fast forward a number of decades, and I found myself working in Russia.  One weekend, I drove to Tula and visited the nearby Tolstoy estate -– a charming 19th century Russian country house with gardens and farms around it.   Count Leo spent hours writing there as well as farming, and his long-suffering often-unhappy wife spent hours transcribing many drafts of his lengthy manuscripts.  Tolstoy is buried on the estate in the woods [see photo below on the right].


In Anna Karenina, the title character’s sister, Kitty, is married to a rich landowner, Levin, who likes to get out in the fields and work with this hands along side his peasant workers.  When you’re 14 that sounds romantic.  When one is older, it doesn’t.  As for Anna, I thought she was a fool when I was 14 and I still think so.  Kitty was an idealized version of Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia, while Levin was the character modeled after Tolstoy himself.  

In the recent superb film, The Last Station, Sofia and Leo are portrayed at the end of their tumultuous marriage, and the Count [who somewhat lost his marbles] is acting more and more like a religious "seer" and man of the people, while Sofia is concerned about preserving their status in society and preserving their estate for their children. The film gives a good feel for what it must have been like at Yasnaya Polyana a hundred fifty years ago.



And here am I in front of one of the peasant cottages.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tea a la Russe


Marilyn Monroe was interested in Russian objets de vertu and even Russian literature.  Who knew?

My friend Paul owns a samovar he bought from Marilyn Monroe's estate.  He mentioned it when he sent me the photo on the left.

The samovar even bears the stamp Тула [Tula],  the city in Russia where all samovars seem to have been made.

The antique ashtray next to the samovar tray is of Russian origin and also belonged to MM.

Tula, located about 120 miles south of Moscow, was a historic center for armaments production and is near the Tolstoy estate, Ясная Поляна [Yasnaya Polyana, meaning Bright Meadow].  The Tula Samovar Museum has a large collection of 18th to 20th century samovars.

So, what is a samovar [самовар] and how does it work?  It literally means "self-boiler" and its job is to boil water, keep it hot, and keep the little tea pot, that sits on top of it, hot.  Before electricity, the center of the samovar urn usually had a metal cylinder to hold red hot coals that would heat the water around it.  Little wood or ivory encased round knobs on the top of the lid could be turned let out more or less steam.  A small tea pot, holding a very strong brew of tea, almost like an extract, would sit on the circular stand attached to the top of the lid.  When you wanted a cup of tea, you would pour a little of the extract into the cup, then you would add hot water from the spigot near the bottom of the samovar urn, thus, mixing the tea to the strength you wanted.  Everything stood on a metal tray ensuring that no water or tea dripped onto the table or tablecloth. 

East of Paris, the room with the dining table was often the most important room in a house.  Warm and cozy, it was the place for social interaction with tea and cakes.  And speaking of cups of tea ... while tea cups were used, East of Paris tea glasses were and are more popular.  For example, the crystal glass in a silver holder is from Russia while the small glass with its own saucer is from Turkey.
How was tea served?  With lemon slices, sugar, honey, or sweet fruit preserves; rarely with milk.  Sometimes, a shot of sherry or cognac would "strengthen" the tea.  And, there would be savory snacks followed by candied fruit, cakes and tarts... all of which I hope to address in future blog posts.  If you can't wait that long, I suggest the following books for recipe ideas:  A Year of Russian Feasts,  The Russian Heritage Cookbook: A Culinary Heritage Preserved in 360 Authentic Recipes, and The Russian Tea Room Cookbook.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

iTechie

It has been a week since I walked into the Apple store and walked out with an iPad [the 32GB variety] and the official iPad case. The clamor of Apple aficionados and of Apple detractors proved to be too much, and I had to get one and check it out for myself. Overall, I am satisfied with my purchase. It is a beautiful addition to my tech/gadget collection. Apple caught me with the iPod Nano and has had me ever since -- I keep buying their products and their stock.

The iPad does not do everything that an iPhone or a laptop can to, but I don’t expect it to -- no more than I expect my oven and toaster to do the same things, despite the fact that they both generate heat and are involved with cooking. The CFO of my company calls the iPad a good “coffee table” item: you can pick it up anywhere in a Wi-Fi enabled house and comfortably read books, e-mail, jot a quick note, etc.

Here are the things I like about my iPad:
  • I can easily carry around lots of books -- downloaded from the Apple iBook App [a limited number of titles available as yet] or from Amazon [requires downloading their free App first];

  • It is easy to check e-mail and my favorite blogs while drinking morning coffee in bed;

  • Reading is easier than on the iPhone because the screen is bigger;

  • I read or check e-mail while sitting on the sofa with Mr. Wonderful, who is wrapped up watching the latest re-runs on Animal Planet or the History channel; and

  • It is an elegant device with sharp colors and clarity and with Apple’s signature ease of use.

I doubt I will buy the iPad with 3G capability, since for work or travel I prefer my more versatile laptop. But, for the limited purposes I have for it, the iPad is the light-weight easy-to-use device I want.

[photo from the Apple website]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Esterhazy Torte


The Esterhazys were a rich Austro-Hungarian noble family and major patrons of composer Joseph Haydn.  

The palaces [Schloss Eisenstadt, right] are mostly gone, but the torte remains.

The torte consists of six thin, nut meringue layers made with a mixture of ground hazelnuts and almonds.  The layers are filled with a buttercream, while the top layer is covered with an apricot glaze and is then covered with a faux fondant icing feathered with melted dark chocolate.

You can buy Esterhazy torte at Dean and Deluca.  It is very good and I like having a fall back positions.    

The recipe below is from Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague by Rick Rodgers.  I have made it twice and it works – lots of fun when there are witnesses….

Cake layers
½ cup  or 2 ½ ounces hazelnuts  [toasted and peeled]
½ cup natural or 2 ounces blanched almonds
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
5 large egg whites are room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar

Position a rack in the center of the oven and pre-heat the oven to 350º F.  Butter a 17 x 11 inch jelly-roll pan; line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. [Cut slashes in the corners of the paper to help them fold neatly.]

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the hazelnuts, almonds, and confectioners’ sugar until the nuts are finely chopped. [See, P.S. below] In a large grease-free bowl, whip the egg whites until soft peaks form.  Gradually add the granulated sugar and whip until stiff, shiny peaks form.  Fold in the nuts.

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared jelly-roll pan. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.  Unmold the cake onto a cutting board, peal off the parchment paper, and cool completely.  The, trim the edges to even out, and cut the cake vertically into six 2 ¾ -inch-wide strips.

Buttercream filling

1 cup milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 cup [2 sticks] unsalted butter at room temperature cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons kirsch or cognac or rum

Heat ¼ cup of the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Add the cornstarch and whisk to dissolve.  Whisk in the sugar, then the egg yolks.  Add the remaining ¾ cup of milk and whisk over medium heat until very thick.  Remove form the heat and transfer to a bowl set in a larger bowl of ice water; stir and cool.   Using a hand-held electric mixer, add the butter, one tablespoon at a time, then add the kirsch.

Assembly

¼ cup warm apricot jam
Faux Fondant [see recipe below]
1 ounce bittersweet melted chocolate
½ cup sliced almonds

Place the best-looking nut layer on a wire rack, smooth side up.  Spread this layer with warm apricot jam and let stand for about 15 minutes.  Pour warm fondant icing over the jam letting any excess drip over the sides.  Pipe four thin line of chocolate about ¾ inch apart along the entire length of the icing.  To make a feathered effect, at one-inch intervals, draw a wooden toothpick in straight line perpendicular to the long lines of chocolate.  Let stand until the icing and chocolate are firm.

Meanwhile, place 1 nut lawyer on a cutting board; spread it with about 3 tablespoons of the buttercream.  Repeat with the remaining layers, ending with the buttercream.  Spread the remaining buttercream around the sides of the cake.  Press sliced almonds onto the sides.  Top with the iced layer.

Refrigerate uncovered for at least one hour prior to slicing.  This recipe yields 8 slices.

Faux Fondant Icing

1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons warm  water
2 teaspoons light corn syrup

Combine all the ingredients in a small sauce pan; stir over low heat until the glaze is barely warm, 92º to 95ºF.  Use immediately.






P.S.  If you live near a Trader Joe's, you can find a variety of ground nuts, including almond meal [usually] and hazelnut meal [from time to time], and skip the food processing work.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Katyn II

The subheading of this Blog is “Travel, Dine, Live.”  That last point, about life, is not merely about life style and fun.   While I want this to be a light-hearted Blog, I cannot avoid acknowledging yet another tragedy that happened East of Paris.


This morning I woke to the news that a significant slice of the Polish government, including its President, had died in a plane crash on approach to an airfield near Smolensk.  They were en route to commemorate the execution of thousands of Polish officers 70 years ago in Katyn forest by Soviet forces (then allied with Germany).  Seventy years ago an important part of the Polish nation, fighting to preserve freedom, was killed through unremitting evil.  Today, an important part of the leadership of that nation, working to restore democracy and build economic prosperity, died through human error.  The losses are grievous, the timing ironic.  For more insights, go hereherehere, and here.

While I know I will go back to writing about easy topics, I also know that the tragedies of our fellow man – our brothers and sisters -- underscore how precious life is and how its very uncertainty means we should cherish and be mindful of all our blessings.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Coup d'Etat





When going on exotic travels, one must be ready for inoculations, a strike involving some aspect of the French transport system, or a coup.  Not exactly, but close.  We are leaving on April 22nd.  Tomorrow I am getting a series of vaccinations, and if I am standing around a lot, people will know that the shots weren’t in my arm.  Lufthansa (the airline we are flying), instead of Air France, is threatening to go on strike. And, it appears that there has just been a coup d'état in Kyrgyzstan.

If you go to the US State Department website and look up Kyrgyzstan, you would think this is a happy democracy with a government focused on economic growth and privatization.  Nothing you read there would lead you to expect what just happened:  popular demonstrations against the regime after sharp increases in electrical costs, shooting in the town square resulting in the death of more the 75 people, the president and his family fleeing their residence with carpets and other do-dads, a female former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, heading a provisional government, and looting and more violence though the night.  

The US embassy is still working, though it closed for public business earlier today. As of this writing the State Department has not issued any travel warnings. Near the Manas International Airport, about 25 km from Bishkek, the US Air Transit Station, which handled the transit of more than 50,000 U.S. and allied troops to Afghanistan in March, is still operating and providing some medical supplies for local hospitals. 

We are traveling with the alumni group from Mr. Wonderful’s Alma Mater.  They have contracted the trip details with a company called MIR.  In Russian, MIR [spelled Мир] means the “world” and it also means “peace.”  I hope that, by the time we are driving from Almaty to Bishkek, that part of the Мир will experience Мир and that so many people will not have died for nothing.


View Larger Map

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lunch in Ancient Rome -- Vecchia Roma

Back to my recommendations for romantic restaurants in Italy.  Why romantic?  Well, when you are with someone you love, every place is romantic.  And, when the food is good, that’s a plus.
For me, part of visiting Rome should include seeing ancient history and layers of history – the archeological digs, the broken columns and boulders of what were once grand buildings and roads.  I always marvel at how people were able to design and construct monumental art and architecture before computers and using cumbersome roman numerals.  I also like to walk the ancient roads and areas and think about who went there before me – people in societies that were, for their time, advanced and barbarous, sophisticated and superstitious.  Similar thoughts can strike even when walking modern roads.
  
After a hot and humid morning of jostling crowds while touring the Coliseum and exploring the nearby antiquities, like the Tempio di Vesta (where Romans used to deposit their wills and money for safe keeping) and the Triumphal Arch of Augustus, Mr. Wonderful decided it was time for lunch.  He said that our hotel concierge had made us a reservation at Ristorante Vecchia Roma, and we could walk there.
When it’s hot, when you wish you’d worn shoes that are more comfortable than fashionable, when you are melting under a Roman sun, even a short walk is trying.  Invariably, at times like these no taxis are ever visible.  The way to Vecchia Roma led us past the Circus Maximus hippodrome – the old race track.  If you think of the chariot race in the Ben Hur, that‘s where it took place; but the movie was fiction and 2000 years later it looks nothing like the Hollywood rendition.  So, we walked, as quickly as my shoes would allow, along a brown, dusty, scraggly path avoiding pebbles and debris.  We followed directions to a street past the hippodrome, eventually across the busy Via del Teatro Marcello, and down a few more blocks left and right and we finally arrived in the cool and quiet Piazza Campitelli, the pretty square with our restaurant.  
Our table was waiting:  outside under large white canvas umbrellas looking at the façade of the Santa Maria Church.  Sitting in the shade and drinking sparkling mineral water was pure bliss.  The antipasto of cold vegetables in vinaigrette made it onto the bliss list too.  Mr. Wonderful needed his quota of red meat and had a steak, while I sampled frutti di mare with pasta.  He professed to be very satisfied with his lunch and with his choice of wine from the extensive list.    We had a delightful respite and are looking forward to eating in "ancient Rome" once more.
Mr. Wonderful paying the bill!

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