Yearender 2016

0c117b06-932a-47e7-9fd2-14729cee24d9

  1. Countries visited: Austria, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Turkey, Germany, Lebanon, France, Israel, Croatia, Czech Republic (and Disney World, which may as well be a different country)
  2. Bears seen while hiking: Still zero, getting pretty angry about this one.
  3. Significant accomplishments: Leaving Prague and moving back to DC, newfound ability to do pushups (thanks personal trainer!), planning an elaborate internet-themed party, finishing up my Swedish Chef series, overcoming some super stressful shit
  4. Significant arguably good or bad decisions: 4
  5. Ranking of year compared to other years: 2015, 2012, 2016, 2014, 2011, 2013, 2010
  6. A list of some other things: Living with a Shiba Inu, great friends across multiple countries, receiving fun things in the mail (bad TV, sweet art, anonymous vampire erotica), watching friends get married <3, bikes, asking for what you want
  7. Party dresses inspired by TV shows or pop stars purchased: 2
  8. Hopes for next year: Be healthy, create things, literally become a superhero

Yearender 2015

FullSizeRender (2)

  1. Countries visited: Spain, Czech Republic, England, Lebanon, Georgia, Armenia, Slovakia, France, Belgium, Italy.
  2. Tickets to countries purchased but flaked out on for good reason: Canada
  3. Significant accomplishments: organizing a bike race, starting a Swedish Chef video series, walking to quite a few DC boundary stones
  4. Significant arguably good or bad decisions: 5
  5. Best food: khachapuri (across three different countries!)
  6. Ranking of year compared to other years: 2015, 2012, 2014, 2011, 2013
  7. A list of some other things: Strangers with Shiba Inus, photobooths, holding a key to the city of South Bend, the farmer’s market, photo sharing and wine, long walks, teenage vampire lit, the Good Wife, gchat and snapchat and other chats.
  8. Large wheels of cheese purchased: 1
  9. Music: Frank Turner, Taylor Swift, the Magnetic Fields, and Corrine Turke’s 2015 playlist.
  10. Hopes for next year: Good friends, justifiable choices, muscles that let me perform superhero moves.

Georgia and Armenia!

Vacation update! I went to Georgia (Tbilisi) and Armenia (Yerevan, and a lot of other places) in mid-October.

Georgia highlights: All of the food! Between khachapuri, khinkali, lobiani, pomegranate juice, walnut stuffed eggplant, pumpkin soup, delicious unidentified sour sauce to put on shashlik, and everything else, I could basically just eat only Georgian food for the rest of my life. I would also need all new clothes, but whatever — look at this GIANT PIECE OF BREAD. I got it out of a window (wrapped in this paper with some sort of notes on it)  or $0.80 lari which is about 35 cents (in USD). It was more than I could eat, but the amount that I managed (about half) was amaaaazing.

GIANT BREADI stayed in a private room at Nest Hostel in Tbilisi, where I learned that hipsters are hipsters regardless of nationality. Hi nice Australian guy with a weird mustache making everyone listen to his music of preference on a sticker-covered MacBook Air. (The hostel was actually really fun, because I got the benefit of a private room but also the benefit of drinking strange wine with nice strangers on the patio at night.)

There was a relative dearth of information on stuff to do/eat in Tbilisi online, but I followed a lot of The Guardian’s recommendations — and also searched for stuff on Foursquare — and that worked out pretty well.

Armenia: I was originally going to take the train from Tbilisi to Yerevan (and I still kind of regret not doing this!) but I got talked into taking a taxi with a guide that a friend recommended, so that I could see more places (Haghpat Monastery (I was told to try to walk along the wall…didn’t do so well), Dilijan, the house of a wood carver who told me I would get married because I walked under this arch, etc).

The coolest thing in Armenia (ok, and the major reason behind why I went) was going to Byurakan, where my great-grandfather‘s observatory is located. Look at the photo below, I’m FAMOUS!! The table in the middle of the room at the museum at the observatory in Byurakan has photo family trees of Victor Ambartsumian. Somehow I’m in four of these photos, once as a baby (note: this is literally the only baby photo of myself that I’ve ever seen [to my parents, who I know are reading this and calling me a liar in their heads, GO AHEAD — PROVE ME WRONG, and also while you are at it, where is the photo of me as a 4 year old in Russia with a bear, which was in the photo album that had an oval cutout on the front? One of you lost it. I’m never going to forget this, and will bring it up any chance I get, just you wait]), and three times as a chubby 11 year-old.

family tree

A man at Byurakan (I feel bad for not getting his name) gave me (and an RFE/RL colleague who was with me) a tour. It seems that my great grandfather was a genius in part because of what he did, but also largely because he completely changed the way people understood the world.

My colleagues at RFE/RL (we have a bureau in Armenia) were amazing and set up a bunch of day trips for me — and came to keep me company, too. Sometimes traveling alone gets lonely, but definitely not in Armenia! I got to visit Garni, Gerhard (after which we ran into a SHEEP TRAFFIC JAM), Lake Sevan, Echmiadzin (here is me lighting a candle [idk if I’m supposed to do this, I was never baptized and am an atheist?], here is me looking awkward in photos).

The food situation in Armenia was not as good as Georgia (I am sorry to anyone from Armenia reading this! I really am!). I know that Armenian cuisine is actually fantastic, so I suspect that this is because fewer tourists head to Yerevan. I really liked my meal at this hotel restaurant (cheese and meats and wine make me happy every time), and I also tried Anteb (which the New York Times mentioned), but although the manti were good (garlic heaven) the service was horrible. If I had my way, I would have spent the whole time in Armenia just drinking wine (Armenian wine was FANTASTIC) and eating basturma.

Overall, great trip! Two countries I’ve wanted to visit for a while, wonderful people to talk to, fantastic food, and good sightseeing. Unfortunately I got sort of sick after the trip (…this is becoming an unfortunate trend) so spent the next week recuperating. Worth it, though! More photos here.

Beirut!

I booked a weekend trip to Beirut before I really knew anything about Lebanon, and before their #YouStink protests started. When the protests hit the news, I started reading a lot more about the city and the country.

Did you know that two breweries (961 and Colonel) comprise the microbrew scene around Beirut? That there’s confusion on if that dude with a large beard is a hipster or a jihadi? That street names aren’t really a thing in Beirut? That Lebanon has a generally pretty free press (until it comes to some religious issues)? That the ALIENS landed at Baalbek? (Or not.) Hey, I didn’t either.

Aside from a few features and articles, it was had to find news and information about Lebanon that wasn’t about trash piled up on the streets of Beirut or protests about trash being piled up on the streets. And then Beirut released a shitty new album, and it was even more difficult to find news about the city.

So, my experience in Lebanon? Amazing. After being in Prague where people are typically cold and reserved (as an extrovert, I am HAVING A HARD TIME OVER HERE), it was extremely pleasant to be somewhere where everyone was open and friendly. On both of my flights (Prague->Frankfurt->Beirut) when they heard that I was going to Beirut, people talked to me about my travel plans, wrote down recommendations for where I should go, and told me that I should have booked a longer trip. My taxi driver from the airport told me about the history of the city (originally it was divided Muslim/Christian). All of the people I met on tours, though not always Lebanese, were friendly (sometimes a bit odd — like the Iraqi guy who I asked to take a photo of me, and he took one from far away, then got closer, then got even closer, and then even closer — and told me very seriously that for Facebook it is important to have close-ups). It was a great time.

I went on an organized tour of Baalbek, Anjar, and Ksara Winery the first day I was there. The second day I went on an awful walking tour (if anyone googles this: do not go on Beirut old city walk), but met some new friends and drank wine at this bar which serves carrot sticks in lemon/salt/water as bar snacks (genius!), this bar which had awesome sounding cocktails, and this bar which was surprisingly hopping for a Sunday night (and kinda sucked, but we tried to figure out which women had plastic surgery, which was a fun game). My last day there I just walked around, ate a huge delicious meal, and got on my flight (after about four security lines, mrrrgh).

Some stray thoughts/observations: Taxis are a huge thing — the streets are relatively empty for walking. I saw more women wearing full niqab in London than in Beirut (where I saw zero) — women’s fashions ranged from shorts to wearing a hijab. There were barriers (walls / barbed wire) erected around the Place de l’Etoile and it was guarded by soldiers (I didn’t take photos because I didn’t really want to take that risk). Street harassment by soldiers/police was ridiculous (they catcalled every woman). The hummus and baba ganoush were the best I’ve ever had. Prices were closer to DC prices for things like lunch and drinks. Use of both U.S. dollars and Lebanese lira is acceptable, and sometimes you’d get both back as someone tried to make change.

I have some photos here. Takeaways from this trip are that U.S. travel warnings are a bit exaggerated (especially considering all of the mass shootings in America, hi guys), and that media depictions of a city aren’t sufficient to actually know how it feels to be there.

New apartment!

Major Prague update: I got an apartment! And, even more important: I got internet for my apartment (Vodafone LTE, in case anyone is wondering, because it seemed like the easiest. And it was. I went to the store and walked out holding the internet in my hands).

Here are some poorly organized photos:

Other updates:

1. Started a Swedish Chef reenactment website.
2. Am learning how to rock climb (indoors, poorly).
3. Found the fancy grocery store, which has labels in English ❤

Work lunch: a new frontier.

I worked at the Broadcasting Board of Governors for three years in DC before I took my job in Prague. Our building was near the Federal Center SW metro, aka Land Where Food Options Are Nonexistent. I guess there was a Starbucks, a Potbelly’s, a strange salad/Chinese food bar, and (as a last resort) the cafeteria in the building (I heard reports of cockroaches but also reports of good souvlaki? I once got a slice of pizza and a V8 there under difficult circumstances) but nothing remarkable.

I typically brought my lunch with me (as I’d been doing at work for the last 10 years) — ideally cooking a large meal on Sundays and portioning it out in tupperware for the whole week.

After I moved to Prague, whoa, completely different lunch/eating routine. The cafeteria at work (so far no reports of creepy crawlies) is a bit quirky, but I’m able to eat new and semi-exciting foods every day. It is super weird to go from eating, like, rice with kale every weekday to eating a plate of something new every lunchtime. There is a Persian chef, so sometimes there are specials like Turkish pide (essentially a bread boat filled with meat = nomnomnom). Also, being originally Russian, I’m into the prepared salad selection, which is a lot of variations on cucumber-tomato salad. Once there was even vinegret (hands down, one of my favorite foods), though it was definitely an odd variation of it which included kidney beans.

Anyway, below are photos of 18 of my lunches. There are high points (grilled tuna steak with roasted vegetables) and low points (floppy cheese tortellini plus salad) but overall pretty solid!

Instant photos

I’ve always been into instant photos. I got my first polaroid camera in 2006, but even before that I was fascinated by my housemate taking and developing proper film. You only have one chance to get it right! Don’t fuck it up! A few weeks ago, I bought another polaroid camera here in Prague from this awesome store called Polagraph.

With smartphones, you get the ability to have an instant photo but without the high stakes that polaroid photography has (– even higher now that the film is discontinued, and Impossible Project film makes each shot cost at least $2). I thought it would be interesting to explore Prague with both cameras, and compare results.

My abilities in photographing polaroids (“scanner” lol) and having comparably sized photos in wordpress are a bit lacking, but this is what I’ve got.

I love the Zizkov TV Tower. I can see it from the window of my temporary apartment, and when I’m walking and slightly lost it helps me orient. For me it crosses the line from ugly to iconic. In these photos, you can ALMOST see the giant terrifying babies crawling up the tower (thanks David Cerny).

There is a vineyard in the middle of Prague. (There actually might be several but this one is a 10 minute walk from my apartment.) It is only open on Friday afternoon/evenings, but sitting on the stairs and drinking wine is the perfect way to end a work week.

Public transit in Prague is comprehensive. If there isn’t a metro, there is a tram. If there isn’t a tram there is a bus. In the U.S. sometimes privileged people like to talk about how only poor people take the bus (bullshit, obviously), and I was interested to hear people in Prague talk about how the trams are for homeless and smelly people. The last time I took the tram I tried not to stare too long at a woman who looked like a model out of Vogue. Her outfit, make-up, and demeanor were so well put together that it seemed unreal.

Bajkazyl is a cool community bike space / bar / music venue alongside the river. The second week I was in Prague I bought a bike chain from them at 9pm on a Sunday. Unfortunately for me, despite the great public transit, the biking culture here is less developed (as far as I can perceive right now). This was a case where the polaroid just sucked. I think the light was too low for the photo to develop properly.

This was the same evening at Bajkazyl. A few bands (not house music! victory!) were playing. One guy told me about how they used polaroids in their music video. I actually like how both of these photos turned out because of the contrast between the two different sections of brick along the wall.

I like street art in new places, and I was feeling the sentiment of this one when I took the photo — I was walking to the farmers’ market on a Saturday morning (ok, fine, afternoon) and wishing that I was with friends rather than alone.

Hey, dog, hey. (A lot of the beer here is about 3% alcohol, so this isn’t as concerning as it may look. The dog’s owner also explicitly told us that the dog doesn’t like wine or hard liquor.) I met some new friends at the market on Saturday, and we ended up walking and day drinking around Prague most of the day Saturday. I enjoyed hanging out with their dog, because although a ton of people here have dogs, they are SUPER WELL BEHAVED and so you can’t just go up to them and pet them (they actively ignore you).

__

So, I’m definitely still learning how to use Impossible Project film. One challenge is immediately taking it out of the light after it comes out of the camera. Another is configuring the camera settings properly. In real life these photos look a bit less washed out than they might here (you’ll have to visit Prague to see that, though :p) and I feel confident that I can get better at this. That said, hey look — my photos already have instagram filters on them!

Český ráj (Bohemian Paradise)

I admit it, I’m a competitive walker. I lie to everyone about the distance between the current location and destination (I think the origin of all of this was when I was a kid, and my mother would say “let’s go walk around the block” and instead we would go walk two miles). Also, friends and family have told me that I regularly walk two paces in front of them (I swear I don’t notice!). Strangely, I never went hiking before two years ago when my friend Ashley and I swapped hobbies — she would come sailing with me and I would go hiking. Hiking is great! It’s like walking, but you get some cool trees and the promise of seeing a bear.

This weekend, I took my first trip away from Prague to visit and hike around Český ráj. One of the nearby cities, Turnov, is an easy two hour train ride from Prague. From there, I think there are supposed to be cool underground caves and rivers, as well — but I just planned to walk a ton in the woods!

Hrubá Skála, awesome rocks!
Hrubá Skála, awesome rocks!

I booked a hotel about a two hour walk away from Turnov, in Hrubá Skála. It was next to a castle! (Sort of. The castle was kind of sub-par, to be honest. Also it tried to have a “beach party” at night, but that meant a small rectangular sand pit, some upbeat music, and a bunch of people looking cold outside in 50 degree weather.)

Still no bears. Why have I never seen a bear?
Still no bears. Why have I never seen a bear?

I had an awesome time getting there — there were cyclists on the path as well, including a couple that was mountain biking WITH A SMALL DOG IN THE BIKE BASKET. Amazing. Also, despite being a little concerned about hiking alone, in addition to GPS on my phone the trails were incredibly well marked, and also not very perilous (I was wearing Teva sandals and had no difficulty with them).

Well marked trail!
Well marked trail!

After getting to the hotel, I walked around a few more paths near that spot — highlights including passing through a narrow stairway between two rocks, and also getting caught in the rain & sitting under a rock formation and listening to sad music (the latter, not a highlight, but oh well #emo).

The next morning, I got up early and headed toward Trosky Castle. It was about 9am, the weather was perfect, and everything looked like it was out of a fairytale.

walking in the woods

I think I saw maybe five other people while walking the two hours to the castle, which is crazy because the weather was perfect (at least perfect for me because I still haven’t learned to dress appropriately for being in nature so was wearing all black.

Wearing black pants, a black shirt, and a black scarf. Hello hiking.
Wearing black pants, a black shirt, and a black scarf. Hello hiking.

When I got to the castle, I kind of felt like my legs were going to fall off, but obviously I had to go up a steep hill to actually make it to the castle. Luckily, at the half-way point there was a woman selling off-brand Dippin’ Dots. I got some and ate them while watching a pile of goats sleep on each other.

After I got to the castle itself, its steps really tested my faith in engineering. Think wooden stairs, slightly affixed to a steep mountain. Yikes.

Terrifying.
Terrifying.

But the view was worth it!

I tried to take a selfie here but it just looked dumb, so you'll have to believe that I didn't steal this from the internet.
I tried to take a selfie here but it just looked dumb, so you’ll have to believe that I didn’t steal this from the internet.

After the castle, I decided to — instead of figuring out a bus or hitchhiking or however people get around — to walk the five miles back to Turnov to catch my train. There was a path most of the way along the main road, and sometimes I just walked on the side of the road but still felt more or less safe. For energy, first I drank a raspberry beer with a hotdog (my first hotdog here!) and then I pilfered odd berries (I think miniature plums actually) off of trees by the side of the road. I had some reservations about the latter, but so far am alive so would highly recommend it.

Hot dog and raspberry beer <3 Odd berries, nom nom.

After all of that — and getting back to Prague — I had walked THIRTY MILES over the course of the weekend. Competitive walking (and weekend Fitbit competition) win!

It was also nice to walk around nature. The New York Times told me it would make me less stressed out, and I think that it definitely helped. I’m not sure that I’m completely out of the woods on weird feelings about being here and listening to sad music while sitting on the floor of my apartment, but at least I get to link to Taylor Swift-related things while writing this sentence. :p

Washing machine blues (and blacks and probably some other colors)

You haven’t even really lived until you’ve sat in front of your washing machine crying and trying (and failing) to google European laundry symbols.

Here’s a quick and easy guide to anybody else who has to do this ever:

washing machine 1

You’re supposed to use this to select fabric type and whatever water temperature. It’s a trap. Don’t think about it. Just do “Easy-Care” and 30. Throw away any clothes which this doesn’t work for. It’s just not worth it. I assume you could change it to maybe like 40 or 60 if you spilled red wine on your clothes.

washing machine 2

The column on the right: This is the thing for spin speed. The higher the spin speed, the more water the washer squeezes out of your clothes, and the faster they subsequently are able to dry on your clothes rack. Supposedly higher speeds wear out your clothes faster. Who cares. You’re already living without a dryer, yolo.

The column on the left: I have no idea what this column is. The Russian-language manual says that it’s optional. Ignore it. Too stressful. Why bother.

washing machine 3

This is the loading rack for detergent. Fuck the loading rack for detergent. I got liquid detergent and just put some amount of it directly into the washer. It worked fine and seemed easier than actually understanding which of the sections are which.

lol lol lol
lol lol lol

All of this seemed to wash my clothes, I guess. Mission accomplished. Maybe even accomplished better than trying to buy bedsheets for my “furnished” apartment.

Fun fact: Beds have two “standard size” mattresses on them. I figured that since I plan to be sleeping alone and generally don’t move when I sleep, I would rather spend $12 on a thing that I would only use for approximately the next month rather than $24. Or, like, I could have kept on sleeping on the mattress cover-like thing that was supposed to be a sheet. Gross.