Pastries, blini, and the usual scandals

Yesterday I had two more articles published in the St. Petersburg times– one was a review of a new-ish Swiss-owned bakery and café, Bengel &  Zaek, and the other was about a really cool website where you can book unusual tours of the city, called Sptnik.

So last weekend was an active one for me– I found myself pounding down pastries, arguing with waitstaff, eating blini and admiring a vodka collection in the apartment a  young married couple shares with one set of parents, experiencing some hip St. Petersburg night spots, and accidentally interviewing someone in Russian, because apparently he couldn’t or refused to speak English. All in the name of research.

Of course, virtually none of that made it in to these articles– but it’s all about the experience.

Paris via Nevsky Prospekt

Paris via Nevsky Prospekt

2013-01-26 14.00.21 2013-01-26 14.18.30 2013-01-26 14.32.24

I’ve had a couple decent desserts in my time here– the Russian bakery chain Bushe (ironically, pronounced like the French word for “butcher”) is pretty reliable– but Bengel & Zaek definitely takes the, well, pirozhnoye when it comes to quality patisserie in the city. It’s kind of like meeting someone and knowing in the first few minutes of conversation that you connect, that there’s really something there, the beginning to a rare and beautiful friendship, when you experience the first bite of a  good pastry beyond the French border. And as during my semester in France I had a self-imposed, often-broken “one pastry a day” rule, I consider myself as something of an expert in the field.

Because that’s a lot of pains au chocolat.

The people who started Sptnik (vowel dropped not out of posturing for cool points but because the domain name was unavailable) are super cool and fun, and we had a great time  talking in the 4th floor café of Loft Project Etage, a new St. Petersburg arts collaborative. They even gave me a lift home afterwards. I was tickled to hear people arguing in Russian about the best order to drop people off in– something I never thought I’d be privy to.

For anyone who comes to St. Petersburg or to the cities they are expanding to– currently Moscow and Kiev, but who knows what’s on the horizon?– I would definitely recommend going on one of their tours. The idea is tours led by locals, something to shake up the pitifully outdated, dreadfully soviet travel agencies that monopolize the city’s tourism market. On a Sptnik tour, you might end up scaling roofs, picking through soviet kitsch at a flea market, or, yes, eating blini in someone’s apartment. And learning the true character of the city as you’re doing it.

A Sptnik tour guide in action-- no 50's era, red Hungarian tour bus in sight!

Other highlights of this week’s issue of the Times include a law that may add blood to the wares of Russia’s lively black market,  accusations against former Russian Defense Minister, whose humble summer dacha includes a paved road to the Caspian Sea, built by a battalion of Russia’s military, to ease any fishing trips with Vlad, and a new arts director for the St. Petersburg State Circus!

WILL Polunin restore the fledgling cirque to its former glory?

(This is actually markedly more positive than last week’s paper, which included and Russian activist’s suicide in a Dutch extradition center, a bison’s tragic death by speed overdose–the latest in a string of mysterious bison deaths, probably brought on by disgruntled nature reserve staff–and  a decapitation. Copy edit that and don’t tell me you aren’t inclined to commit an Anna Karenina-esque act of finality with a Roskolnikovian sense of angst.)

I really have been learning a lot through this gig, even if the knowledge is often bizarre, depressing, and/or rather specific to a very particular piece of the world. But that, after all, is the piece I’m living in.

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