25 December 2007

Merry Catholic Christmas!

Although the time stamp on this post will say 3:00 p.m., I'm writing at 7:00 a.m. EST on Christmas morning. Merry Catholic Christmas, everyone!

I've been meaning to write for the last few days (and will write something more substantive soon), and the stillness of Christmas morning before the rest of the family is awake (except technically only my younger brother is still asleep - apparently we're all gift gluttons in this family) seemed like a good time to do it.

In my several trans-oceanic(?) flights, I've learned that jet lag from different time zones manifests itself differently: going 8 hours forward to Moscow time may require a long nap or two, but is otherwise not very challenging; the fifteen hour backward jump from the Russian Far East to the eastern U.S. manifests itself through total circadian confusion, normal bedtime and wake-up patterns paired with severe insomnia around 3 a.m.; and the 8-hour backwards hop from Moscow back to Ohio means total narcolepsy that kicks in between 8 and 10 p.m. and a tendency to wake up at 6 in the morning. I don't know why that particular change is so hard, but it's happened to me twice now.

As for "Catholic Christmas," that's what the Russians call our December 25th celebration. Russian Orthodox Christmas, thanks to the same calendar that gave us the October Revolution when the rest of the world had already turned their calendar pages to November, is on January 7th. While researching the history of Christmas trees for my party, I read on the History Channel website that Russians "celebrate Christmas on Epiphany (Twelfth Night)," but that is completely incorrect. Lesson: don't believe everything the History Channel tells you, kids. Anyway, the Bolsheviks changed their calendar to jive with the rest of the world, but the Russian Orthodox Church remained unswayed (they're not so into change - I mean, look at the Great Schism).

So, I don't know why the Catholics get to claim our Western Christmas ("So you're going home for Catholic Christmas, not Orthodox Christmas, right?" "Yes." "Are you Catholic?" "No, Protestant." "Ohh... wait, is Protestant Christmas the same day?"), but I figure it's not my job to correct the Russians. Anyway, my younger brother just came downstairs, so it's stocking time! Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and to those who don't, I hope you can find a radio station that's not playing non-stop Christmas carols (oh, America...).

17 December 2007

In which my balalaika teacher continues to be the best

In addition to walking me to the tram stop after my Tuesday lesson - we had black ice, and with my less-than-perfect post-knee surgery balance (which may or may not be all in my head) and a fear of falling instilled by numerous painful spills on Vladivostok's slippery hills last winter, I'm pretty tottery on ice – Mikhail Semyonovich gave me a copy of an mp3 anthology of balalaika music compiled by some French balalaika enthusiast. Well, he gave me volume one, anyway, which is over sixty hours of recordings spanning from Vasily Andreev, the late-19th century father of the modern balalaika, to the best examples of the contemporary school of balalaika (including my teacher's teacher and two of his students!).

Besides enjoying listening to all this music, I'm getting a huge kick out of the jpegs of record and cd covers that are included with the anthology. Many of them are shining examples of Soviet graphic design (which I love):
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And then there's a whole genre of balalaika-player-superimposed-on-Russian-scene:
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Plus one where the balalaika player is actually standing in the Russian scene:
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I am really digging the contrast between Mr. Necheporenko's stern demeanor and the flowing pink script in which his name is written.

And then the many that were clearly designed by musicians, not graphic designers:
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(Ok... uh... grab your balalaika... and... uh... stand... uh... oh, here's a nice-looking column. Yeah... stand here. No, a little to the right. Ok, ready? Smile! No... wait... maybe you should look a little more serious. Um... ok. Yeah. Yeah, that's good. One, two... three! Hmm. Do you think we need to take another shot? Probably not, eh?)

There are bad costumes:
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(Le Trio Star Treque?)

Russian folk costumes galore:
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And finally, two of my favorites, both non-Russians:
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When I make it big, I can *only hope* that my group has a name as awesome as "Bibs and Vanya."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket... And that I have a style consultant as skilled as Petro Ivanovitch's of "The Ivanovitch Gypsies."

Sadly, Petro ended up with a receding hairline; on the bright side, he got a solo album:
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And this is only the "Balalaika" folder – I haven't even uploaded "Domra" (a related Russian folk instrument) or "Ensembles." And there are three more volumes after this one!

15 December 2007

My (Half-)Week in Pictures

First I stayed up really late Wednesday night to make these:
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(Russia, being a nation that sources its sugar from sugar beets, lacks the molasses necessary to make gingerbread cookies, so I just used store-bought cookies.)

Then I stayed up really late Thursday night to make these:
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(Recipe courtesy of Nana's great-great grandmother, via Nana; cookie cutters courtesy of my great-grandmother, via my grandmother/mother/DHL)

Then I invited my students over to help me frost and decorate:
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(Olesya and Andrei)

(Polina was also there, but there are no pictures of her - or me - because our main duty was to stand around eating frosting – not a very photogenic occupation.)

In the end, we came up with this:

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(Finished houses)

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(Olesya's masterpiece, a tiny snowman named Del'finchik ("Little Dauphin") for his vaguely French-looking hat. His eyes and nose are meticulously chipped-off pieces of M&M candy shell.)

And then I spent about ten minutes fudging a "script" (see end of previous entry) and we had a party!

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(There were probably about 30 people!)

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(I was festive.)

13 December 2007


Having already had a bad encounter with Russian bread flour at Thanksgiving, wherein I used it to make a pie crust and it refused to roll out and I had to serve pumpkin pies without crusts, I shopped very carefully when I was buying supplies for Christmas cookies.

If it weren't so much work, I'd take and upload a picture of my bag of bread flour and show you just how tiny the word хлебопекарная (bread-baking) is on it; apparently they consider bread flour the norm here, or they just don't want you to notice what kind of flour you're buying. Anyway, that's how I got duped the first time, and I decided not to get duped again. The only other option at the grocery store (or the market) was labeled 'blini flour.' (Blini are Russian crepes.) I checked to make sure it was made from wheat (some traditional blini are made from buckwheat flour, but the word "wheat" on this package was in a font at least ten points larger than "bread-baking" on the other package) and bought it, figuring that it was probably more like all-purpose flour than bread flour is.

Well, I got home this evening and began happily measuring it out for my sugar cookies, at which point I noticed that this flour was... sparkly. Hmm. Almost as if it had granulated sugar in it.

I paused, my measuring cup dangling precariously (ok, not that precariously... I'm not prone to seizures or anything) over the mixing bowl. Do I check the ingredients on the flour bag, or just dump it in, hoping I'm imagining things? I had bad luck last night with forging ahead when I knew I was wrong (it involved trying to delude myself that the soft peaks in my royal icing were actually stiff peaks, and mortaring together two entire gingerbread houses before admitting to myself that the icing wasn't going to harden the way I wanted it to). The sting of this failure, which required pulling apart the gingerbread houses, beating the icing for another ten minutes, and re-mortaring, imparted the small modicum of logic usually absent from my kitchen frolics (or rampages, depending on who you ask). I looked at the packaging before dumping.

And it turned out that despite the fact that this stuff is clearly labeled МУКА (flour) in enormous letters on the front of the bag, it is not actually "flour" in the traditional sense of the word. Ingredients: flour, dried eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, vegetable fat. So basically, it's Bisquick. I am very indignant about the fact that I came so close to ruining my cookies, not to mention that I now have a kilogram of Bisquick that I don't even want! I think it should count as false advertising!

The story has a happy ending, though, because I went out and bought real flour (bread flour again, since that's apparently the only kind available) and the cookies, which are from my friend Nana's recipe, are great! Unlike the pie crust, they rolled out just fine.

If this entry is a little random, it's probably because I got very little sleep last night (because of the gingerbread house debacle). It's been a strange day. I haven't done much of the sleep-deprivation thing since college, and I forgot how strongly it affects me. Unfortunately, I will probably also get very little sleep tonight, because tomorrow is the Christmas party for which all this ridiculous baking is happening. And I haven't written the script yet.

(Don't get me started. The fact that Russian parties require scripts is one point on which my cross-cultural tolerance is very, very low.)

08 December 2007

Thanksgiving Trip, Part 2 – Pskov, Izborsk, Pechory, Moscow

Now I'm just procrastinating, and I'll probably regret it tomorrow when I have to do my whole weekend to-do list in one day, but... you can't work all the time, right? (If you could really call what I do "work.")

So after we returned from Estonia, I hung around Pskov for about two and a half days. It was pretty murky/icy/wet there (in fact, there may have been some swearing and a minor temper tantrum about this $#%* country and its @#$% lack of *!&@ functional sidewalks on the way back to Amara's apartment from the bus station), so the pictures aren't great, but here they are anyway.

Here's Pskov's kremlin. It's my favorite kremlin ever. It's really beautiful. See? Inside:
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From the outside:
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From the ramparts:
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So Amara convinced me that it would be a good idea to climb up on the ramparts to get a good view of the river. I did so, not considering that I am a total wimp about jumping down from things (I'm afraid it'll hurt...), so there was a Moment in which I couldn't figure out how to get down and wouldn't let Wes help me. But they were patient:
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And they even helped brush off my coat when I finally got down (the muddiest, but safest, way possible). Aww, what great friends!

We saw Wes off on the train to Moscow→Kazan, and the next day while Amara went to work, I took a day trip to Stary Izborsk and Pechory, two villages near Pskov.

Stary Izborsk (Old Izborsk) has the oldest stone fortress in Russia! It's from around the 13th century.
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I was the only tourist there that day (it was snowing), so I had the place to myself. There's something to be said for wandering around old fortresses and villages completely alone. The silence was amazing. And when I did run into people (locals), they were all so friendly! It wasn't the most exciting tourist destination ever, but for those reasons, it was still well worth it.

Izborsk also has twelve springs named for twelve virtues (wealth, happiness, health, etc.). Or eleven virtues plus "the spring of maiden's tears," actually. They aren't labeled – you're just supposed to intuit which is which. I drank a tiny, tiny bit of the water (in case it does have magic properties) and immediately regretted it, being the cleanliness-obsessed American I am. No parasites yet, though, so hopefully I'm ok. On the other hand, I'm not measurably wealthier or healthier than before... but who knows which one I drank from?
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Pechory, a name derived from the Russian word for "caves" (пещеры/peshchery), has the oldest continuously-functioning monastery in Russia. (It achieved that status by actually falling in Estonia, not the USSR, during the years between the World Wars, the time when most other religious establishments in the Soviet Union were being closed, looted and turned into museums of atheism.) It's also pretty geographically unusual – it's nestled in a ravine that used to house hermits' caves! Here's me in the skirt they made me put on over my pants:
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A view from beyond the walls:
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And the chapel (red building), holy well (green pavilion), and entrance to the caves (yellow building).
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The former hermit caves are catacombs, and have been for centuries. The air inside allegedly preserves the bodies of the monks and famous/good people who are buried there. I couldn't go in because a) I wasn't in a tour group and b) I'm not Orthodox. I'm not so into lying about religion, but if a tour group had presented itself, I might have either tried, or tried to argue that being baptized Methodist is *practically* the same thing as being baptized Orthodox. Oh well. Caves are kind of creepy, anyway.

So that was Pechory. It was much cuter and more charming than my pictures captured, and if you're ever in the area, it's worth seeing.

When I left Pskov, I got to spend about 12 hours in Moscow between trains, during which time I wandered extensively:
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(The Kremlin from Bolshoi Kamenny bridge – the Kremlin's not my favorite, but I have to admit it's pretty impressive looking) and finally visited the Tretyakov Gallery, probably Moscow's most important (and famous) art museum. Many of the treasures of Russian art are housed there, and it was fantastic to see them in person! Besides tons of nineteenth-century Russian art, I even saw Andrei Rublyov's famous Old Testament Trinity icon! By the end of the day, my feet were killing me, and I was happy to get on the train back to Taganrog. And thus ended my Thanksgiving trip. (Well, after another 17 hours on the train. But I was asleep for most of that.)

Teaser: my next trip should have even murkier photos, because if all goes as planned, it will be up to Murmansk (above the Arctic Circle!!!) sometime in late January. I can't wait!

Russia Votes for Putin

Sorry it's been a while! It seems like as soon as I got back from Estonia, I got totally flooded with goals and deadlines: with Christmas shopping and knitting, institute Christmas party planning, finishing up the grad school applications I meant to finish back in October, writing another article for the institute's newspaper (I wrote an article entirely in Russian back in November, by the way! My first published work in Russian!), stepped-up balalaika practicing so I can give a "concert" when I go home (family, steel yourselves), and helping one of my students rush to submit a grant application to spend a year at a U.S. university, it seems like every waking hour this week has been allotted to the service of some pressing goal. Ha, and my students ask me if I get bored living alone in my cold little apartment. Not a chance.

Since my illegitimate free internet has vanished, I might not upload my Pskov pictures until I go home; instead, I bring you a Politics Post (yay!).

First up, devoted reader Paul asked me my thoughts about the recent Russian Duma election. Well, Paul, I'm glad you asked. I think. My thoughts are rather confused, but I'll do my best to at least condense a few of them here.

Having read the fascinating but rather one-sided Anna Politkovskaya, and being an American who, like many of my compatriots, maybe tends to put a little too much trust in the picture of the world the American media presents, I spent a lot of the run-up to these elections with a very sour outlook on Russian politics. Putin, who is adored by a large sector of the population, frankly terrifies me, and a lot of what you can read in American newspapers about the elections seemed to be confirmed by what I observed here. (If you haven't seen any news about the elections, Google it, you'll find plenty.)

I was especially shocked on my recent trip through Moscow and Pskov just a few days before the election. For some reason, United Russia, Russia's ruling party (and, at least since a few months ago, the party of Putin), didn't advertise all that much in Taganrog. Some billboards here and there, posters in every shop window, but nothing too blatant. (For Russia, I don't count posters in every shop window as blatant.) Moscow and Pskov, though, were both total United Russia lovefests. Enormous billboards on every block, flags on street lamps, banners hanging from buildings, and all for United Russia. The Western media says that opposition parties had a lot of trouble securing advertising space, and I can believe it – I saw a few LDPR and A Just Russia posters here and there, and a noteworthy smattering of Communist Party posters, but that was all. A Just Russia, while an alternative to United Russia, is in no way an "opposition" party, since it's also pro-Putin and was in fact created by the Kremlin. LDPR, which ironically stands for "liberal democratic party of Russia," is a nationalistic party whose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, alternately spews misogynistic, anti-Semitic and Russian chauvinist venom in such a ridiculous manner that he's basically a caricature of himself. The party is mostly seen as a joke, so it serves the convenient function of an opposition party without posing a threat to United Russia's power. That means that except for the Communists, no real opposition parties (and others do exist) had any visible advertising.

As a friend mentioned in his analysis of the elections, United Russia's advertising really pressed the concept that a vote for United Russia is a vote for Putin. The reason for this was probably that while many Russians love Putin ("Putin is great. He's made Russia strong. That's why your media hates him. America wants Russia to be weak," is a refrain I've heard over and over and over), no one seems to like United Russia. Understandably – Russia doesn't exactly have a history of kind, loving ruling parties. This United Russia = Putin setup worked because of the structure of the election: each party prepared a list of candidates; voters then voted for a party, and the seats in parliament (the Duma) were divided according to the percentage of votes each party received nationwide (minimum requirement to get any seats at all is 7% of the vote, raised from 5% four years ago – according to Politkovskaya, this change was made to further silence opposition voices, since most opposition parties get very few votes). Based on that, the top one or two or ten or fifty names on a party's list actually get seats in the Duma. Putin was Name #1 on United Russia's list. This led to ads like a picture of a hand checking box number 10 on a ballot (United Russia's box), which had the United Russia logo and Putin's name in big letters; or the most blatant, an ENORMOUS (covering the entire side of a building) banner looming over Manezhnaya Square (right off Red Square) in Moscow that said, "Number 10 – Moscow Votes for PUTIN!" – no mention of United Russia at all. And what a prime location! Most amusing and confusing to me was a banner I saw hanging over a bridge in Moscow. It simply said:

Voting in the Duma elections proceeds by party lists! Vote for party and its leader!

Russian has no articles (a/the), so that could be translated as either "Vote for the Party and its leader," or "Vote for a party and its leader!" It wasn't clearly associated with any party, but it did have a Russian flag in the same squiggly shape as the Russian flag on the United Russia logo. Subtle psychological advertising, or am I reading too much into it? I really can't say.

At any rate, with my American indoctrination and the clearly lopsided advertising, I should have had very negative view of the elections. What ended up tempering this point of view? Well, human psychology, mostly. First of all, all of the Russians around me were utterly complacent about the election. As my boss at work said when I asked whether the mayor of Taganrog had been re-elected (which I'm sure he was, since I didn't even see any advertising for either of his opponents), "I have no idea. What does any of this matter? It's completely irrelevant." Most Russians seem to feel that life will proceed in more or less the same manner no matter which corrupt politicians are controlling the public coffers. At one point my students got into a heated argument about whether Putin was really good for Russia or not, but even that seemed to be a point of philosophy rather than a call to action. And it's surprisingly hard to feel worked up about something when everyone around you is saying it's nothing to be worked up about – you start to feel a bit crazy for caring.

Second, and more frightening, was how much I could feel myself relaxing my views when I watched Russian media. The television media is totally controlled by the state, so all the election news was very positive – except when they were talking about opposition leaders, of course. Even though I was consciously aware of the spin they were putting on it, I could tell that the constant association of United Russia and Putin with security, order, and positive emotions had an effect on me. Very 1984-ish.

By now I've done enough reading of American Russia scholars to know that many of them don't like the purely negative image of Russia the American media serves up, and I guess I tend to agree. Putin has done good things for Russia, or at least, good things have happened to Russia while Putin has been in power. All the same, I don't like the cult of personality that's been built around him, the media's insinuation that he's the only one who can lead Russia, or the general direction he's taken Russia in in terms of human rights and democracy. I'm especially suspicious of his dealings with the Chechen Wars and the related terrorist acts, and I'm not particularly impressed by his international relations skills, which seem to be built on strong-arming, bravado, and endlessly repeated rhetoric about not letting other nations push Russia around. And the elections? Despite the hypnotic power of the French and American election observers the news showed saying, "They were so clean! Very democratic!", I'm not ready to call them fair by a long shot.

(Well, that was long! I guess my Estonian political post will have to come separately.)

01 December 2007

Eestimaa (Estonia) Adventures, Part the First

I'm back! Sorry for the long silence. I was on a pseudo-Thanksgiving break trip to visit my friend Amara and spend a long weekend in Tartu, Estonia with her and another Fulbrighter, Wes. And now I'm going to tell you about it. Or at least, a little bit about it. I'll try to keep it readably short. But it was an amazing trip, so it'll be hard not to gush.

So, why did we choose to go to Tartu? Well. They say Tartu, a smallish city in the south of Estonia, is the "spiritual capital" of the country. It's historic and picturesque, with plenty to do and see. It's also a students' city, the home of Tartu University, which is the country's oldest and best; plus Amara and I had both already been to Tallinn, the capital.

But that begs the question: why Estonia? For me, there were two main attractions:
1. Crazy language. The Finno-Ugric group (including Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian) is one of the only language families in Europe that's not Indo-European, i.e., not at all related to other modern European languages;
2. Folk mitten-knitting tradition.
Linguistics and knitting? Sign me up! From trying to figure out the case system based on street signs and restaurant menus to drooling/squealing over handknits in souvenir shops and museums, I was basically in geeky paradise all weekend.

Estonia has many other draws, though: it's the most Europeanized of the post-Soviet states, very clean, modern, and well-off, with well-developed tourism; it's nearby, and both of the languages I can speak are widely spoken there; no visa is required for U.S. citizens; and finally, it's JUST SO DARN CUTE! Seriously, a very cute little country. A nice reprieve when the sprawling hulk of Russia is starting to weigh on you. (It happens to the best of us.)

And what did we do there? I could write a book about it, but it might be more interesting if you just take a look:

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The center of Tartu's Old Town is Raekoja Plats, or Town Square. The pink building is the town hall.

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All the streets in Old Town were like this. So cute!

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Tartu's oldest Lutheran church. Estonia was under German control for much of its history, so the Reformation came here swiftly. The church is noteworthy for its more than 1000 original 16th-century (I think?) terra cotta figures.

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Tartu Ülikool (Tartu University)'s main building, the "symbol of higher education in Estonia." There's an attic room where they used to lock students who broke the rules, with authentic 19th-century graffiti (mostly in German, the language of instruction until well after Estonian came to be recognized as a legitimate language and not just a local "peasant dialect" in the mid-1800's) still intact!

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The hill in the center of town, Toome (dome) hill, has all sorts of interesting stuff, like the remnants of really, really old fortifications, plus the observatory where the idea for the Struve Geodetic Arc (it's ok, I didn't know what it was, either) was conceived...

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...great views of the Old Town...

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...Toomekirik (Dome Church), a Catholic church that lay in various states of disrepair for centuries after the Reformation took hold, and now houses the university museum (formerly the library) and a tower you can pay about a dollar to go up...

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...an ancient sacrificial stone from Estonia's pre-Christian days...

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...and a little hill called "Kissing Hill," where Wes proposed to me and I pretended to be surprised. (Note: not an actual proposal.)

All that wandering around outside made us hungry (and thirsty!). Fortunately, Tartu's restaurants, cafés and bars blow Russia's (even Moscow's, since you have to be an oligarch to afford to eat there) out of the water. Highlights included a French crepes café, three different marvelous coffee/pastry shops, a decent Indian place, a fun pub inside an old gunpowder cellar... and a bar called "Place Beer Colors." Maybe you can tell from the trippy name that this bar was trés hip. It specialized in beer cocktails (I had never had one before, but they're surprisingly delicious!), and each table had a button in the middle:

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...which you could press to order a half pint of A Le Coq, the ubiquitous local brew. Fancy!

Oh, yeah, and when we weren't busy with wandering, food, or drink, we found time to stop by:
the Estonian Postal Museum
the botanical gardens
the Tartu Toy Museum
the 19th-century Citizen's Home Museum
the Estonian National Museum
and the Tartu City Museum.

That's a lot of culture for one weekend! The Tartu Toy Museum and the National Museum were particularly fantastic. The adorable toy museum had a collection of Russian wind-up toys; several dollhouses, including one built and furnished entirely during a father's decade-long hideout from the Soviets, for a daughter he had never met; wooden folk toys; bizarre Estonian puppets from the national puppet theater; an extensive stuffed dog collection; a cool-looking playroom for kids; and much more. It was so much fun! At the National Museum I kind of freaked out and took 25 pictures like this one:

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Folk mittens galore! I also bought two pattern books from the museum shop, so Estonian folk mittens may soon be coming to a pair of hands near you! (If you would like them to come to a pair of hands on you, holler.)

Okay, photo show is over... for now. For more pictures, you can check my facebook page or bug me when I get home for Christmas (so soon, I can hardly believe it!). And check back for some brief thoughts on Estonian history and the Estonia-Russia relationship, which is hopefully interesting to someone other than me. And after that, pictures from the Russian half of the trip: Pskov, Izborsk, Pechory, and even a little bit of Moscow!