East of Paris Bookstore

Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

I don't do much for New Year's.  I don't like silly hats, off-tune singing, or sharing the road with less than sober drivers.  We stay at home and have some champagne when the Crystal Ball drops in New York, then we go to bed as usual.  Midnight is a time we rarely see.  As for New Year's resolutions ... no way.

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to an Auld Lang Syne video (the one above). I held off looking at it remembering that I always need a dictionary to figure out what that song means. It piqued my general aversion to celebrating a meaningless date on the calendar.

If this all sounds grouchy, it's meant to.

Then I watched the video ... while I still am not planning on seeing midnight, my "Oscar the Grouch" attitude disappeared. It is lovely. It makes you think. It makes you grateful for life.

Watch it with the volume up.  Enjoy!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Merry Christmas


Mr. Wonderful had a morning of medical tests just before the holidays.  Proving his wonderfulness yet again, he suggested that I go to the Beverly Whilshire Hotel  for breakfast rather than sit and wait for him in the nearby hospital.  The decorations were lovely.  Breakfast was unhurried, and when I closed my eyes I almost thought I was in Moscow -- after all the place was glitzy, filled with marble, and the conversations all seemed to be in Russian.
Hearing Russian also reminded me that I had another two weeks to get ready for Christmas baking, since Russians, Serbs and various other Orthodox Christians follow the Julian Calendar for religious observances. Nonetheless, when Mr. W and I got home, I felt like celebrating early. Chocolate seemed appropriate.

While I did not attempt to bake a traditional Bûche de Noël, I did make something that started as a log:  a chocolate "salami." Since the chocolate salami turned out well, I made another one with walnuts.  These desserts are called "salami" since when you slice the "log" the slices look a little like salami ...  They taste great, especially with some good Burgundy.

Here the the recipes for both logs ...

Chocolate Salami

125 grams chocolate [I used semi-sweet chocolate chips]
2 Tbsp. water
125 grams sugar (fine grained bakers' sugar works  best)
125 grams finely ground walnuts
1 Tbsp. Cointreau or rum
1 egg beaten lightly
100 grams almond slivers

Put the chocolate and water into a heavy sauce pan and heat on low until the chocolate is soft. Mix it well, then mix the sugar into the warm chocolate. Add the Cointreau and the egg.  Mix well.  Lastly add the walnuts and almond slivers and mix well. The mixture will now be thick and hard to stir.  

Prepare a sheet of plastic wrap about 15 inches long by sprinkling it with sugar (coarse grained) and cocoa power.  Spoon the chocolate mass along one edge of the plastic wrap.  Roll the chocolate mass in the plastic warp and when all covered up roll it into a log shape. Chill. Slice when ready to serve.

Walnut Salami

3 cups chopped walnuts
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup grated chocolate or mini chocolate chips
100 grams almond slivers
1 egg
1 Tsp. cloves
1 Tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. Cointreau

Put the walnuts, powdered sugar and chocolate into a food processor and pulse until the mixture is fine grained.  Add the spices, Cointreau and the egg.  Pulse until everything is well mixed. Add the almond slivers and pulse a few more times to chop the almonds a bit.

Put the mixture into a heavy wide-dimaeter pan and heat slowly until everything is warm to the touch and any chocolate bits have melted and virtually disappeared.

Prepare a sheet of plastic wrap about 15 inches long.  Spoon the walnut mass along one edge of the plastic wrap. Roll the walnut mass in the plastic warp and when all covered up roll it into a log shape. Chill. Slice when ready to serve.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

White House Visit


Yesterday, while at the White House, I had occasion to take a few photos.  Yes, that was a pompous sounding sentence, but I couldn't resist.  Regardless of one's political persuasions, there is something grand about going to the "WH" ....
The view from West Executive Ave.
Actually, yesterday I had the privilege of being one of 80 Orthodox Christian leaders attending a conference at the White House to learn from and share with the Office of Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.  For more information, go here.
I am on left next to the lady with the green scarf.
Technically, the Conference was in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building [formerly known as the Old Executive Office Building], in the beautiful Indian Treaty Room. However, this is part of the 18 acres of the White House complex, so saying we have a meeting at the White House is OK.
Here are photos of some of the architectural features of the Indian Treaty Room.


And, then there are the de rigueur tacky souvenir shots
 Plus a few more parting memories ...

Getting through security




Saturday, November 24, 2012

No More Jet Lag

These high tech "sunglasses" could end jet lag ... or so says Andrew Hough of The Telegraph.  Wouldn't it be great if there were true?  I hope it is!


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Irkutsk -- Decembrist Wives

Princess Maria Volkonsky after decades of exile
Despite the naiveté and failure of the Decembrists in 1825 and despite the suppression and murder of many Russian aristocrats in the 1917 Revolution, the “romance” of the Decembrists has lingered for nearly two centuries.  The reason for this enduring myth was the heroic loyalty of a number of the Decembrist wives and fiancées.  

Our guide in Irkutsk told us that it is a very high complement for a woman to be called a “Decembrist Wife.”  To understand why we need to go back in time ...

After the futile uprising of a number of high ranking wealthy aristocrats during the confusion that followed the unexpected death of Alexander I, the new Tzar, Nicholas I, sentenced five of the rebels to death by hanging.  Other rebels were exiled to Siberia as criminals of the state.  Suddenly men whose hardest days consisted of riding horses, fencing, and playing cards, were transported to places thousands of miles in east of Moscow and St. Petersburg to work in the mines and to be ordered about by petty government functionaries.  The transportation was by walking or in shaky carriages and sleighs.  And, as criminals of the state, they lost their titles and privileges and their estates.

A painting above the staircase of the Volkonsky Manor-house
depicting a winter sleigh traveling through the Siberian Steppe
Prince Serge Volkonsky

A number of the Decembrists had wives and children.  As long as the wives stayed behind, they were allowed to keep their titles and money, and could “honorably” divorce and remarry.  The children were also allowed to keep their titles and property.  Nicholas I wanted the matter to be closed and for people to forget the Decembrists and their families.

However, there were a handful of wives who did not want to renounce their marriage vows or to abandon their husbands.  The Princesses Troubetskoy and Volkonsky are the most famous of these wives.  

None of the women who wanted to follow their men into exile could do so without permission from the Tzar himself.  And, for those who finally got permission, it came at great cost.  The wives who wanted to follow their husbands to Siberia had to agree to give up their titles and privileges.  Henceforth, they would be known as the wives of criminals and would move from the top of the social ladder to its very bottom.  Further, any children born in Siberia to these “criminals” would not have rights, titles or privileges.  Perhaps most painful of all, the women were required to leave behind any existing children. Maria Volkonsky left behind an infant son who died a year later.

Despite the threat of poverty and a future life of no power or privilege, some of these intrepid women -- who literally did not know how to boil  water -- left lives of comfort to honor their marriage vows and follow their husbands.  At each town on their journey, the women were subject to petty harassments by the local government officials who tried to convince them to turn back.  When Maria Volkonsky finally saw her husband again, despite his being in chains, haggard, filthy and emaciated, she knelt and kissed his shackles.

In the romantic case of Pauline Gueble, soon after she arrived, her fiancé, Ivan Annenkov (son of one of the richest women in Russia), was let out of the prison mine just for the marriage ceremony.  As soon as he left the church, his shackles were replaced and he went back to the mines.
The Volkonsky Manor-house in Irkutsk
A conservatory on the upper level
 of the Manor-house

Over time, conditions improved for the prisoners and their families due to petitions by the wives and family members in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Their families in western Russia sent books, clothes, seeds for planting, and other items.  The exiles lived in expectation that they would be allowed to return after five years or ten.  Slowly, they reconciled to the idea that they were in Siberia forever.

In Maria Volkonsky’s case, she dedicated herself to easing her husband’s life.  She also began caring for orphans, learned the language of the Buryats (a Mongol people living in the area), learned about their herbal remedies, and traded with them.  When she and her husband were allowed to live in Irkutsk, she was instrumental in starting schools, bringing music and culture to the city, and established the city’s first theater.  Eventually, her Siberia-born children were allowed to go west for their education.     

After thirty years, Nicholas I died and his son, Alexander II, became tzar.  Alexander II, known as the Tzar Liberator, commuted the sentences of the Decembrists almost immediately on ascending the throne.  Some of the Decembrist exiles returned to western Russia.  Some had already died and others stayed in Siberia.  Princess Troubetskoy died before she could returned home.  Maria Volkonsky and her husband returned to find that the world had moved on.  He was determined to forget the past 30 years.  She seemed to miss the "Wild East" where she had persevered and become a legend.
A salon on the second level with the first piano in Siberia
The first piano in Siberia
Maria Volkonsky had a great love of music.  Before leaving for Siberia, her family hosted a series of farewell dinners and parties.  Listening to the music, Maria asked for her favorites to be repeated since she expected never to hear music again.  Unknown to her, a relative secretly packed a small German piano in the sleigh of supplies and household goods that accompanied Maria on her journey.  This generous gift is on display at the Volkonsky Manor-house in Irkutsk.

A room on the ground level
We were treated to a short concert in the main salon of the Volkonsky Manor-house.  
Mr. Wonderful "horsing" around
And, an impressive rainbow bade us Adieu as we left.

P.S.  Our guide recommended the book Princess of Siberia by Christine Cunningham.  I found it on Amazon and read it in a few sittings once it arrived.  Well written and thoroughly researched, this book echoed the stories of our local guide.  The film, The Captivating Star of Happiness, is a beautiful production depicting the romance of the Decembrist wives.  While the film is in Russian and has subtitles, it is a bit choppy since it cuts to and from different wives and their separate experiences that ultimately merge in Irkutsk.  After reading the Cunningham book and reviewing the notes of my trip, the film was easier to follow.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Irkutsk -- the Paris of Siberia

"The Paris of Siberia," or so said writer Anton Chekhov on visiting this far away city on the Angara river near Lake Baykal.  Irkutsk began as a fur and gold trading settlement in the mid-1600s and since that time it’s coat of arms has been a Siberian tiger holding a sable.  Its merchants grew rich over time by expanding their trade to include other minerals as well as lumber plus goods from China and Mongolia.  So, upon visiting this city 3133 miles (5043 km) east of Moscow, Chekhov was surprised to see its wealth and architecture.
Cossack Founder of Irkutsk 
We arrived in Irkutsk by train on a warm and rainy day.  The whole atmosphere was intriguing.  A heavy mist rose off the river.  And, I saw a gigantic Great Dane taking a leisurely walk.
The smell of yeasty bread dough at a nearby bakery wafted around the Epiphany Cathedral and mixed with the sweet aroma of incense.  
Epiphany Cathedral
Wooden houses with intricate "gingerbread" carvings sat next to 19th century neoclassical buildings.
 
And, everywhere there were glimpses of a complex history. 
Alexander III -- statue marking the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway
In December 1825, after the mysterious and unexpected death of Alexander I, there was a short spasm of unrest in St. Petersburg about the succession.*  Some thought that  Alexander’s oldest surviving brother, Constantine, automatically became Tzar and swore allegiance to him.  Unbeknownst to most people, long before the death of Alexander I, Constantine had abdicated his right of succession in favor of his younger brother Nicholas.  As the news about the succession slowly became known, other people and regiments swore allegiance to Nicholas I.

After the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s that took many of Russia’s wealthy aristocrats to Paris and other western capitals, various secret societies arouse with the aim of transforming Russia to a more liberal society.  Most members of these societies were young, well-educated, well-travelled, rich aristocrats -- many of whom were even personal friends of the Tzar.  With the unexpected death of the Tzar Alexander I, these groups hoped that the government could be radically reformed with a constitution.  To make things more confusing, for several weeks there were people swearing allegiance to a “constitution” (that did not exist), others to Constantine (whose name sounds like constitution and who did not want the job), and others to Nicholas I (who wanted the job and was very put out by any semblance of revolt). This whole episode of Russian history is called the Decembrist Revolt, because it took place in December.   

By mid-January 1825, Nicholas I crushed the revolt.  Five of the Decembrists were tried and hanged.  Prince Trubetskoi, Prince Obolensky, Peter and Andrei Borisov, Prince Volkonsky, and Artamon Muraviev, were sent to the mines at Nerchinsk, near Irkutsk.  These idealistic aristocrats, without a practical bone in their bodies, would probably have become an ossified dot in history if not for one thing:  their heroic wives, who followed them.  My next post will be about the Decembrist Wives.

The turbulent history or Russia’s revolution also touches Irkutsk.  Admiral Kolchak, leader of the White (i.e., counter-revolutionary anti-communist) Russian forces during the Civil War of 1918-20, was executed by firing squad in Irkutsk and his body was thrown under the ice of the Angara river.  Now, less than a 100 years later, there is a massive statue commemorating Admiral Kolchak.
Admiral Kolchak Memorial
Beneath the Dedication of the Kochak monument is an image of a
White Russian soldier on the viewer's left and of a Red Russian soldier on the right.
Kochak was also an arctic explorer and map maker, whose maps are still among the most accurate ever made.  A 2008 drama of his life, including complicated love-life, is available on DVD with English subtitles:  Admiral
The 18th century Russian merchant, map maker and explorer of Siberia and Alaska, G. Shelikhov is also buried and commemorated in Irkutsk.








*Alexander I, his wife and youngest brother, Nicholas, and family were in the Crimea when he suddenly “died” at the age of  48.  However, there is a long tradition and belief that, with his wife’s and brother’s knowledge, he staged his death and  became an itinerant pious hermit. He allegedly lived until 1864 under the name of Feodor Kuzmich.  Interestingly, in 1984, a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church elevated Feodor Kuzmich to sainthood.  See, Troubetzkoy, Alexis S. Imperial Legend: The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I. New York: Arcade, 2002















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