Izmailovsky market

Shopping is, for many people, an integral part of the travel experience. Whether it’s the search for the perfect souvenir or gift, the chance to find authentic local produce and crafts, or just the desire to hang out in an everyday environment with local people going about their business, it’s often one of the most enjoyable parts of visiting another country.

Often when in a foreign land we’ll pop in to a local supermarket just to get an idea of what’s different and what’s the same as back home, and we did this a couple of times during our recent week in Moscow. But a few hundred metres down the road from one of these supermarkets was a slightly different kind of retail experience: Izmailovsky market. From the outside as you approach it from the metro station it looks fairly kitsch: a Disney vision of a Russian castle with a profusion of colourful decorated towers.

Untitled

Inside you are thrown immediately into a partly covered area housing a succession of stalls offering the most typical tourist tat and souvenirs. More matryoshka dolls than you can imagine, both the traditionally decorated kind and more modern iterations (political figures, Marvel superheroes and Disney characters…).

Untitled Untitled

Other popular offerings are small lacquered boxes painted with farytale scenes (we got one for each of our daughters), icons and books about Russian art. There are also many shops with a large selection of Putin t-shirts. He’s inevitably portrayed in a completely unironic fashion looking cool and masterful, wearing sunglasses, riding on a bear’s back. I’m trying to think of any other country where you could buy such worshipful merchandise based on a head of state. Certainly nowhere in Europe. And these aren’t just for tourists: I saw a guy on the Moscow metro wearing the one in the centre of the top row, with Putin karate kicking Obama.

Untitled Untitled

Once you push past the tourist section you can go to an upstairs area which is more of a traditional flea market. These places always fascinate me, not because I particularly want anything they have to sell, but because it’s amusing to see the completely random selections of objects the vendors put together, and you wonder how much of it they ever sell, and to whom.

Untitled

Back down on ground level and out towards the back end of the market there’s a different feel, as we enter the realm of the arms dealers. Men in camouflage jackets scowl over large collections of guns, grenades and uniforms, and there was even one display of a motorbike and sidecar ridden by dummies in uniform toting Kalashnikovs and AK-47s. I had been advised not to take any photos in this part of the market.

Once we’d had our fill and had stopped for a plate of grilled meat and pickles, we were about to head back when we realised that there was a large building to the side which we hadn’t yet visited. It turned out to be a more recent addition to the complex; a kind of cultural centre featuring a large wooden church, food court, and various artisan workshops and boutiques.

Untitled

Untitled

We tried a glass of fruit punch, and also stopped in one of the cafes for a cup of tea and a selection of fruit sweets made from apple and egg whites called pastila.

Untitled

When we’d finally had our fill (and had bought a fridge magnet and a t-shirt) we made our way back to the metro station. But just outside the cultural centre we saw what looked like a wedding party, based on the billowing white dress and the white stretch Humvees.

Untitled

Further along the road I saw no fewer than seven more stretch Humvees, presumably part of the same party.

Untitled

All in all a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and a good way to sample various aspects of Russian culture all in one spot.

Advertisements

Brussels Toy Museum

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Brussels toy museum with our smallest child. A couple of years ago we went to the one in Mechelen which is a lot bigger and has a wider range of stuff on display, but the Brussels version has its own charm. It’s chaotic and dusty and haphazard, and concentrates mainly on early to mid-20th century toys. It’s more like stumbling into a large attic full of old and unsorted toys than a real museum, although there are glass display cases and the occasional explanatory note.

This gigantic, limbless, featureless baby doll welcomes you after you’ve paid your entrance fee.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

In one corner of the ground floor there’s a toy kitchen area where a lot of the kids played. In fact quite a lot of the toys were scattered around on the floor and were available to play with.

Untitled

The bus, in the centre of this photo, was also a popular seat.

Untitled

A display on dolls notes that the first attempts at making racially diverse baby dolls simply involved taking standard white babies and painting them black.

Untitled

Another toy kitchen. These dolls are about six inches tall.

Untitled

There were a lot of toy shops and kitchens, and I was struck by the detail and craftsmanship of the individual items.

Untitled

Fish and squid.

Untitled

Untitled

The religious toy display. Who among us has never wanted to play at being nuns?

Untitled

Don’t ask me why this boy has a transparent cage torso. The girl on the left seems to be wondering too.

Untitled

The glorious Raj.

Untitled

Shadow puppet theatres.

Untitled

Untitled

I remember watching Bonanza on TV as a child, but I never knew there was a toy line.

Untitled

Lorne Greene!

Untitled

Back in my day we couldn’t afford individual baths, so we’d all pile into the tub together. With a fish.

Untitled

There’s a lot more than this on display – it spreads over three floors – and it’s worth and hour or so of your time if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Spend, spend, spend

I’ve always had a slightly unusual (I think) attitude to spending money. I’ve gone through periods when I had none, and periods when I had plenty, but the kind of things I spend it on haven’t changed too much.

After leaving the educational system I spent several years in and out of freelance employment. When I had work I was comfortable enough, but during extended workless periods I had virtually nothing and would often have to stretch my meagre resources until the arrival of the next Jobseeker’s Allowance payment, counting the number of slices of bread I had left (yes, toast is a square meal). Yet strangely I could always find a few quid to buy a cinema ticket.

To be clear, I was never in long-term, unavoidable poverty. I chose my work situation (I was trying to break into the film industry) and at any moment I could have abandoned that strategy and got a proper job. In fact that’s more or less what I ended up doing. The point is I always had options. I wasn’t trapped in poverty.

On those occasions when I got a bit of spare cash I felt a bit weird about spending it on anything unusual. I remember after I got one of my first wage packets thinking “Wow, I could actually buy a CD player with this”. And I did, but it still felt like a big step to spend that much money on one thing.

Even now after two decades of employment I still haven’t got used to spending money on certain things. Clothes, for example, as anyone who’s ever met me will attest. “What, you can spend several hundred Euro on dinner but you can’t buy a new shirt when your old one has a hole in it?” Nope. And for many other items which fall outside of the usual categories I’ll still waver for a while and often decide against it just because it feels weird to spend money on a thing I’ve never had and don’t absolutely need, just because I can.

I think it’s also partly because I’ve never craved objects, with the exception of certain functional ones like books. I’m not much of a gadget freak; I have a camera and computer and phone but I’m not constantly checking out new models and will usually only replace them when they break down. If I spend a large amount of money on anything it tends to be on an experience, whether it’s a meal or travel. Otherwise the big expenses tend to be communal or for other people: the house, the car, things for the kids and their school/activity-related expenses. And to be honest I don’t even need more books, as much as I could afford them. What I need is more time to read the ones I have. What I need is to retire.

 

By the way, according to the website Global Rich List I’m in the top 0.54% for earnings. Now this may make me sound like some kind of fat cat but even someone earning the average wage in the UK, for example, is comfortably in the world’s top 1%, and the average American wage-earner is in the top 0.5% like me. So all those “We are the 99%” placards you see at demonstrations should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

Five mugs

A friend recently posted five consecutive photos on five consecutive days on facebook. The photo had to be of a mug and he had to tell the story behind it. As the month draws to its close and I run out of blogging material I present to you here, and not on facebook, my Five Mugs.

The Shakespearean Insult Mug, from the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild. I bought this in San Diego. The only mug I own which is worth reading. I keep this one in my office.

Untitled

The famous Orange Two-handled Mug. I bought it in Den Bosch in 2007. I use it less than I expected to because I’m not so keen on the feel of plastic, as opposed to ceramic, in my mouth.

The “I heart NY” Mug. Bought in Newark airport in order to use up a few remaining dollars before heading home to Yurp. But then of course the sales tax was added on (because Americans don’t like to include that in the display price) bringing the final price to more than the amount of cash I had left, so I had to pay for it with the credit card and so I still had a fistful of dollars afterwards. Obviously I only use this mug when I’m in a New York state of mind.

The Darth Vader Mug. This came free with some kind of confectionery. I rarely use it because it’s surprisingly capacious and I don’t need coffees or teas that big. No good for drinking from if held in the left hand.

The Ball-handled Mug. Bought in a small shop in Genova. The handle is actually less comfortable to hold than a normal one but I just like the way it looks.

Bonus: Anne found a wacky beer mug the other day in a bar in Brussels.

Lost movies

Last night I saw a documentary about films around the world which deal with the topic of childhood. First of all, here’s the review I posted at rinema.

Fascinating, if flawed

Mark Cousins is something of a divisive figure. No one can doubt his enthusiasm or expertise when it comes to cinema, but I think here he makes a couple of classic mistakes which somewhat spoil what could have been an otherwise great documentary. His idea to use footage of his own family as a starting point, analysing how children behave in front of a video camera, is a great idea, although he relies a little too heavily on it. His choice of movies is very interesting too. What irritates is the way he attempts to analyse them and impose meanings. He often can’t resist the temptation to simply describe what we can already see for ourselves is happening in the images. And he gives the directors too much credit for things over which they can’t reasonably have had any control. As if it were a deliberate aesthetic choice to have the sky be blue in a given shot.
The main strength of this movie is simply the amount of clips from amazing-looking movies, most of them pretty obscure. The film’s official website lists them all in full, and I’m already trying to track some of them down on DVD. So in that sense I guess you can say Cousins has done his job.

As per the last lines of the review, I spent this morning trying to track down DVDs of some of the amazing movies featured in the documentary, helped by the comprehensive list posted on the film’s official website. I managed to find three of them (one Dutch, one Swedish, one Senegalese) on amazon, and then hit a dead end. I was particularly keen to find the Danish classic “Palle alone in the world”, but it seems to be completely unavailable, which is a crying shame considering what I saw of it last night. Although I did find the site of an organisation which campaigns for the release of obscure films, and they had this one on their list. Ditto the Czech film “Long live the revolution”.

It’s good every now and then to be reminded that most of the culture on offer in cinemas, book and music shops only represents the tiniest fraction of what’s actually available. And in terms of cinema especially it’s worth remembering that 75% of box office takings in Europe come from American films, so this film promoting work from the whole history of cinema and all the continents of the globe was a breath of fresh air.

Window shopping in Genoa

Shopping in the old quarter of Genoa is always a pleasant experience, as the warren of narrow, winding alleyways hides a multitude of tiny specialist shops, many of which are Ali Baba’s caves of exotic foodstuffs, equipment and knick knacks. Even if I don’t always want to buy the stuff, it’s usually fascinating to look at.

Whenever we have Christmas lunch in Genoa we have ravioli and insalata russa, but next time I’m going to politely request some cappon magro.

An interestng and slightly disturbing pork display. Vegetarians, avert your eyes.

I can take or leave shellfish as a dish, but the colour of this display really caught my eye. They’re not branzini; that’s the fish in the background.

We stopped for a coffee. The “restroom” featured this intriguing set-up. My wife thinks the shower head is for the cleaner to clean the floor. I think it’s for the customers, because they didn’t have room to install a bidet.

Now wash your hands. Using only the finest English sheep soap, if you please.

However all is not cuteness and tradition in the streets of Genoa. Since my last visit there’s been a disturbing development: “automatic shops” taking the place of real shops. These alcoves containing a selection of Japanese-style dispensing machines have multiplied rapidly, most upsettingly occupying the space formerly used by a little secondhand book and CD shop just around the corner from our flat.

I shudder to think what the lasagne and cannelloni taste like.

Ginseng coffee is all the rage, but machine coffee never tastes any good, whatever the flavouring.

Back to something a little more healthy and locally produced. Fried, battered courgette flowers are one of the things I miss about my mother-in-law’s cooking. Besides, look how cute they are!

The fresh pasta shop on Via Cannetto il Lungo has the most mouth-watering display of pesto, although my mother-in-law’s home-made version tastes the best.

And finally, something we did, in fact, buy. Walnut sauce for the pansoti we ate with friends back in Brussels on January 1st.