Tag Archives: travel

How to Stay Healthy When You Don’t Have Regular Access to Fresh Vegetables

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My First Three Months in Russia: a Culinary Journey

I just got home from the second leg of my year abroad, an invigorating semester-long stint in St Petersburg. Whilst I can honestly say the past four months have been the best of my life, winter in Russia wasn’t without its challenges – for example, the problem of not being able to go outside without feeling like your skin was being peeled off. I also spent a decent amount of time weighing up whether my eyeballs would ice over before the bus finally turned up.

Russia’s not exactly considered a culinary capital – and for good reason. In a place where the ground is frozen solid four months out of the year, access to fresh food is patchy at best and laughable at worst. There were times, in deepest March, when I would Google pictures of salad Niçoise to remind myself that green, leafy stuff did still exist. I still remember the first time I walked into a Dixies, the ubiquitous discount supermarket, and wondered why someone had left so many festering snakes where the courgettes should have been.

Consequently, not wishing to succumb to rickets like so many of my peers, I had to develop a few new habits. Every day is a learning day, as my French teacher used to say, and in Russia I had 125 days to learn how to photosynthesise for nutrition like an aspidistra.

Vitamin supplements

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This might seem obvious. If your diet isn’t providing you with enough of those oh-so-crucial letters, shop-bought alternatives can give your immune system a boost.

The one problem with this logical, well-thought-out scheme is that it didn’t occur to me until the 11th of June, exactly four days before I was due to return to Europe, land of plentiful vegetables. At that point it seemed like putting myself through a potentially harrowing experience – trying to negotiate a handover of Vitamin C at an аптека – would be needlessly degrading.

All in all, I have only two regrets about my stay in Petersburg: not getting my hands on industrially-produced wellbeing sooner, and cheerfully repeating swear words I’d heard in bars to my scandalised teachers.

 

Avoid Instagram

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Your friends are your enemies. Their over-edited pictures of a Thai raw salad will poison you with jealousy.

Lie in the sun

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Photo by Marek Levak on Pexels.com

I wasn’t in Russia long enough for this to pay off, but I’m pretty sure photosynthesis is 80% persistence. What I’m saying is that I reckon if you lie in the grass long enough you’ll start converting sunlight into food. I’m not a scientist, though, so proceed with caution.

Столовая, столовая, столовая

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Those runes are the Russian word for dining room. Cities and towns across Russia are full of these – the format is pretty much the same as school canteens, with dinner ladies, sneeze guards, and certain disappointment if you arrive after the lunch rush. The main difference between a столовая and the refectory at my secondary school is that the former requires slightly more apologetic pointing and a lot more unrecognisable dishes.

It’s not fine dining, sure, but there aren’t many other places you can go fill your tummy for under 200 roubles (~£2). What’s more, whilst you may not always love what you’re eating, a столовая is bound to have, as well as the obligatory buckwheat and cutlet, some vegetable dishes on offer – most commonly, vinaigrette, Greek salad, and a bunch of different kinds of coleslaw.

Plus, if you happen to be able to find, as I did, a vegetarian столовая, your vegetable intake is bound to increase tenfold. I lost a lot of weight when I first came to Petersburg (mostly through shivering and mistrusting meat products) but when I found Samadeva, the so-called philosophical cafe on Kazanskaya, I gained it all back and then some. When it’s -25° out, you really can’t beat a plate of beans, spinach and mash.

Tinned peas are your friend

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Tinned peas never look this good.

Up to now, you thought tin peas were what children were given as a punishment. These days you see them as the heroes they are.

The most dismal meal I ever made was half a tin of peas, boiled in their own juice, with one potato thrown in for bulk. I had no other food in and, looking outside, I knew I would perish before I reached the nearest supermarket, so I made do, hunkering over my ersatz soup and wishing I’d chosen a degree that would’ve meant me spending summers in France.

Redefine your conception of fruit

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Last resort, OK, but if you really, really concentrate and try very hard, you can just about trick yourself into believing that green tea counts as one of your five-a-day.

If you’re dedicated enough, you can convince yourself that beer counts too.

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The Church of Crying over Spilt Blood

(This is part of an ongoing series where I chat shit about landmarks in Petersburg.)

13th of March 1881. Alexander II, Russian tsar and moustache model, seemingly unaware that summer was still months away, was taking a stroll in the Summer Gardens. It was a beautiful Russian spring day, which meant that a mere few inches of snow had fallen and the tsar was snuggled up in only one furry jacket.

Alexander’s entourage, as usual, were pressuring him to be less autocratic. “Be less autocratic,” they were saying.

Whatever, he thought, ignoring them imperiously.

“The people are sick of constant censorship,” they moaned. “They want basic civil liberties.”

Alex was sick of the chat. “What are they gonna do, assassinate me and unintentionally precipitate a period of conservative politics, spearheaded by my orphaned son? Wait until my grandson is engaged in war on the world stage, seize the nation’s railways and storm the Winter Palace?” he scoffed. Shaking his head at the preposterousness of the suggestion, he got into his carriage and gestured for his driver to move on.

Just as the vehicle began to move away, his trusted advisor shouted through the window – “Be careful, tsar – the people’s will is more powerful than you might think.”

What a weird way to phrase that, thought Alex to himself, settling back into the plush seat.

The streets through which the carriage clippity-clopped were lined with people waving their handkerchiefs and yelling about right to assemble and political representation. Maybe I should look into this “constitution” idea, thought Alex idly.

Just as he was beginning to convince himself that a little political representation could go a long way, the carriage abruptly stopped. Sticking his head out of the window, hoping he still looked regal, the tsar saw that a man holding a white package was standing in front of the horses.

Shit, he thought, as the man exploded.

Alex was rushed to the Winter Palace, missing both legs and half of his tummy. As he died he reached out to his son, soon-to-be Tsar Alexander III, and whispered, “…Build me the biggest… goddamn church you can…”

Alex Jr took his father’s words to heart, and, on the very spot Alexander got exploded, he constructed the architectural marvel that is known today as the Church of Crying over Spilt Blood. No expense was spared. There’s gold leaf, mosaics, enamel domes, marble floors, icons on icons on icons. There’s even a stall outside selling corn on the cob, although I’m not sure that was constructed at the same time as the church itself.

Alex Jr is said to have painted the twinkle in Jesus’ eyes with his own hands – although this is disputed: the tsar was notoriously afraid of ladders.

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Blurry ceiling ft. Jesus

Under the Soviets, famously not keen on religion or shit tonnes of gold that could be feeding the people being used to decorate big fancy churches, the cathedral fell into disrepair. It was briefly used to store posters, including the iconic There is No God cosmonaut one, but its doors were closed forever after the harassed janitor misplaced the keys.

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Say what you like about the USSR, they didn’t mince words.

The church was painstakingly repaired following the fall of the Soviet Union. The restoration is said to have taken over a year in man hours; it was one gentleman’s job to paint the straps on the saints’ sandals, and he worked full time, Monday to Friday. That’s how many goddamn saints there are in the place.

These days, over forty tourists visit the church a year, paying homage to the assassinated tsar, and admiring the lengths his son went to to make people feel bad about it.