Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

24 Jun 2001, 11:55 a.m.

Kak ckazat po-russkie, "Windows blows"?

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A question for the ages, asked by John, whose computer at an Internet access facility locked up.

More about cafes I've been to here during my eight or nine days in St. Petersburg, and -- if I can get to it! -- more thoughts on the Holocaust Museum in the US. The latter is continuing brainwane's Death Series, for which there is -- fortunately or no -- no Kausfiles Series-Skipper as of yet. (Note that -- rough approximation follows -- Kausfiles is to politics and, sometimes, culture, as Joel on Software is to software design and management.)

The Harrowing Restaurant Experience
Almost a week ago, I tried to visit, on my own, one of the cafes recommended in my three-year-old Rough Guide. I went on the metro three times, took some electric tram after a direction by natives, asked many people for directions, bought and ate a "Super Snickers" to relieve immediate hunger, and -- all in all -- eventually just stopped in at some restaurant that looked established. It turned out to be a relatively fancy dive, and pretty tourist-friendly, although the service was slow. After telling the waitress, "Ya ni yem myasa, riba, ili ptitsa, chto vui rekommenduyete?" (I don't eat meat, fish, or birds -- what do you recommend?), I ended up with a surprisingly good meal of spaghetti with mushrooms, washed down with two smallish glasses of mineralnaya voda (mineral water -- thank goodness for cognates).

The recorded music was fine and cheery -- even the Russian Backstreet Boys clone -- and the people seemed happy and lively, and the food was quite good. But I had second thoughts that grew along with the empty space on my plate. Hadn't there been two columns of prices on the menu? I remembered one of those lines as much higher than the other. One said that my dish was 90 rubles, which is about three bucks. The other had displayed the figure of 260 -- and I didn't have 260 rubles on me!

Food usually doesn't cost more than $5 per entree in Russia! But this is a pretty fancy place. And maybe it's like in some museums, where foreigners have to pay much higher prices than natives. Wait, I saw credit card logos on the door, which had convinced me that this is a reputable establishment. Was the logo of my card up there? I don't remember! Would it be okay to look? I'd have to get up and go to the door. There's a guy who looks a little authoritarian sitting by the bar. Maybe he'll come after me if I look like I'm trying to escape paying the bill, or if I try to pay in "hard currency" (US dollars -- it's illegal to use anything but rubles to buy stuff in Russia). What do I do?

Finally, I got up and walked a few steps to look at the menu again, and breathed a sigh of relief. The column on the left was marked, not "rubles," but "grams." It was telling me the mass of the entree.

I finished my meal, paid about $4 for my meal, left a tip (which they say you don't ahve to do in Russia), and left.

I changed twenty dollars into rubles on my way home.

The Idiot
I had a much different experience on my way to The Idiot -- a restaurant that especially caters to expatriates and vegetarians -- two nights back. John was the token male among Krista, Susanne, Rasa, and me. The food was good and the conversation lively, even as John and I geeked out and had to pull ourselves back far too often to be pretty. Krista, incidentally, was the one to tell me, "I feel like I need a syllabus to listen to you talk!"

At The Idiot, every reasonably-old-looking customer gets a free ("besplatno") shot of vodka with the meal. (The drinking age in Russia is 18 -- on paper, that is.) So all five of us got free shots. After eating my meal, I tried putting about three drops of it -- approx. 1/20th of the shot -- in my mouth. It stinks like a doctor's office, and I really have no need of social disinhibitors, as anyone who knows me knows well. So I don't think brainwane is going to become a pyannits (drunkard) anytime soon.

I'm avoiding the "do as the Romans do" quite consciously. I've never before been in a country where drinking has such an accepted and "natural" place in the national daily life. It's interesting to watch and to try and figure out why I'm a teetotaler.

There was a really friendly Finn who came and talked to us and who mentioned that he had gone to the same university, and school within Helsinki University, as Linus Torvalds.

I didn't want that museum to be crowded and loud, and I didn't want for anyone to be laughing, even though I realize that you can't deny life to consecrate the dead, and that the crowds meant that people were paying their respects -- in some cases.

I didn't want this place to be a tourist attraction, someplace to view in some sort of detached way, but I didn't want to see sentimental schlock either. But "sentimental schlock" is as vague a term as "acting like a tourist" or "acting like a chick."

Martin Gardner's "Surprise," which I had read the previous day, considers atheism and the possibility of a sense of awe and wonder, which reminds me of the last page of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Perhaps the main problem I had with the museum was this: I think, quite tentatively, that maybe the best way to remember the Holocaust is to -- as Avi in Cryptonomicon said our highest duty is -- prevent future Holocausts. And isn't the best way to do that, to nurture independence in the minds of humans, so that no person will blindly obey authority or commit actions unthinkingly, or go against her own conscience or ever become part of an apparatus of massacre? And how does this Museum do that?

But that is not the job of this museum -- this one is more "Never forget" as a means to "Never again." And I could be wrong. And, the only way to keep a human thinking all the time might be to make sure he never gets into a routine, such that he can unthinkingly do anything. And that's sort of a tough call, making sure that no action ever gets routinized.

First published by Sumana Harihareswara at