Not a particularly productive day, but we still needed the time to move to our prior-booked hotel room in the hostel from the dorm room. We looked for breakfast; I ordered what I thought was a banana-and-chocolate crepe from a crepe-truck near the courthouse, but it turned out to be pineapple, ham, fake-crab and mayonnaise. We went back to Giraffe, a fast-food restaurant at the central market that has an English menu, and I had a cappuccino, crepes with honey, and an egg with sausage slices picked out. I felt sick afterwards and couldn‘t have the chocolate croissant it came with.
I’m starting to crave fresh fruit and cereal – they appear nearly impossible to get in a restaurant, or perhaps that’s because I can’t read the menus. Philip told us that sour cream was the Soviet condiment of choice; post-Soviet it’s mayonnaise, which appears in everything. It was in our borscht in Bolshey Kotie. Even the vegetarian restaurant, Govinda’s, run by the Hare Krishna’s, which I went to three times, fried everything in oil, adding cheese to most dishes and mayo to all their salads. I don’t understand how Russians stay so thin while eating so much dairy and meat and oil. Tuesday night we had boiled perogies in the hostel, and it felt like a light salad just because it wasn’t fried.
We did see a museum, sort of: the regional art gallery was supposed to be open but the door was shut. The occasionally-open military museum was also closed, but we walked in, and the old man (because it was the military? It was the first male desk attendant I’ve seen) told us it was closed. But after I hesitated leaving – and perhaps disappointment sounds the same in English as in Russian – he gestured that we could see the building. There was a gorgeous stained glass window of Lenin and the great patriotic war, and a piano in a hallway (I showed this photo to a Russian in our train berth, and he laughed and exclaimed “Russkie!” to the other Russians.)
In any event, I felt a tangible sense of relief at seeing a museum, even just the building it’s contained in. I haven’t seen a town unless I’ve seen the museum.
My friend V. set me an immense task in Russia: purchase a matryoshka doll, the famous Russian dolls with other dolls inside them. They were all over Moscow, but V.’s particulars included not too shiny, not too fat, not too thin, and no cutesy designs. I finally found one in Bolshey Kotie that I thought fit the bill and looked forward to mailing it in Irkutsk. I told Philip my plan and he said, “Why don’t you mail it from a different country instead?” Not having heard if any of the 20 postcards I sent have arrived, he had a point – but I also didn’t want to cart a fragile matryoshka in my luggage. When I found the post office, the counter woman sent me to another post office around the corner. There, when it came my turn, I brought my matryoshka, the address, and the phrase book open in two places: ‘I want to send a small parcel’ and ‘box’ (to put the doll in.) I pointed to a small box behind the counter; “Matryoshka”, I said, “Tajikistan”, and then I pointed to the book. The woman looked very serious, went away and came back two minutes later with another address, this one on a street I didn’t know. Since her colleague had sent me there, I got the distinct feeling she was capable of sending parcels – they were selling parcel boxes, after all, and people were coming in and out to collect items – but didn’t want to deal with me.
Normally this wouldn’t bother me – we’ll have a few days in Vladivostok, I can try again, and Philip was right that it would probably be easier in Seoul, and maybe come with a cartoon logo besides. But it bothered me now. I’d say it was culture shock finally setting in, but I didn’t feel this way in Yekaterinburg. What had changed? In a word… in two words: the nature. I felt under threat, in a way that I hadn’t prior to the hike. This strange world, full of history, arcane rules and beautiful people with broad faces, now seemed like it could hurt me. The sensation ebbed with another macchiato at Coffee and Book – I overtipped, ostensibly for a good macchiato but more for the safe familiarity that a good macchiato provides. I wouldn’t call this cultureshock; more natureshock. That night I slept fitfully, woken by the sounds of dogs barking and, towards morning, a pack snarling while another yelped with pain.
Not one of the pack: