poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

April 22, 2010

Odds & Ends: Sick and Wrong Edition

Contents: Who’s the snotty nose now, Vlad? Soapy Peter v. the Nazis. The bastard Czech offspring of Houellebecq and Lautreamont. Rahm Emanuel’s eyes are bigger than his b … oh don’t make me be crass. Let’s just say his appetite is disproportionate to his performance.

HEALTH:

I was originally going to entitle this “A comparative study in Russian and Swiss propaganda,” but found out that Euronews is not Swiss, or not just Swiss, but comes out of Lyon (meh, same diff…) and is “European.” Whatever the hell that means. In America it means white. As in, “Where are your grandparents from?” “Europe.” “I can see that. What country in Europe?” “Switzerland.” “Ah. Well, that explains a lot…” Maybe it was this subconscious “whitenews” that made me believe it was Swiss. I don’t know.

Maybe I just needed someone to blame for news of Vovochka’s illness.

So I was watching Putin’s Duma address on RT, thinking, “Gah. He’s boring them to death. He’s even boring himself to death. Look at him. What a crap job. Hasn’t he already done enough for his country? Can’t he get some lackey to give his boring speeches while he’s off riding his pony around his empire, stealing from the rich to give to the State?”

Then I saw it the very same story on Euronews

“The recession in Russia is over according to Vladimir Putin, who has delivered his annual report to the lower house of parliament.
The prime minister likes to project a healthy image. But he was visibly ill, addressing members of the Duma with a trembling voice and regular coughing.

He admitted the economic situation was far from ideal.

“I would like to reiterate how important it is for everyone, not only the government but for everyone in this room today, to maintain a responsible economic policy and avoid holding our hand out to anyone,” he said in the speech.”

… and thought, “Ah. Well, that explains a lot… Like, why he has enough water on the podium to take a bath in. I just thought he was really, really thirsty. And bored delirious. He must have a fever. Why isn’t he in bed? Hasn’t he already done enough for his country? Can’t he get some lackey to give his boring speeches while he’s tucked in bed, sipping honey tea and having fairytales read to him?”

Seriously, I admire his work ethic and all, but how effective can you be when you are trying to convince the world your country is robust and healthy as you’re about to pass out from weakness? Especially if you are the action hero leader of said country? Haven’t you ever shown up at a doctor appointment to find your physician has a cold, and thought, “What a terrible doctor!” Even though you intellectually know they can get colds too? It’s like if your dentist were missing teeth. So I don’t see how a clean economic bill of health benefits by delivery from someone pale and shivering with illness.

Or maybe he’s not sick. Maybe Surkov bit him and turned him into a vampire and that’s why he is pale and lightheaded. And all those water bottles and tea cups are meant to distract from the cask of blood he’s sipping from behind the podium.

In any case, I hope you feel better soon, Vova!!!

SOCIETY:

One of the legacies of the repressive Communist era is the ability of Russians to always find inventive ways to entertain themselves. Another is homophobia. Another is police brutality. You see where this is going…

Moscow Times: Bubble-Blowing Teens Attacked in Gay Mix-Up.

“ST. PETERSBURG — Young people who gathered to celebrate spring by blowing bubbles at an annual flash mob in central St. Petersburg were attacked by a group of suspected neo-Nazis who mistook the gathering for a gay pride event, flash mob organizers said.
Some 500 people stood blowing bubbles on the steps of Gorkovskaya metro station and in the surrounding Alexandrovsky Park at about 4 p.m. Sunday — the agreed time for the start of the flash mob — when about 30 men ran up and started beating them and firing rubber bullets.

Several people fell to the ground before the attackers fled at the sight of approaching OMON riot police officers. A reporter saw officers detain at least one attacker. Police also detained about 30 bubble-blowers for five hours on suspicion of walking on the grass, a charge that they denied, organizers said.[…]

The annual bubble-blowing flash mob, known alternatively as “Dream Flash” and “Soapy Peter,” presents itself as nonpolitical and mostly attracts teenagers.

“It has nothing to do with the gay community or with any political, ideological or any other organization,” Yulia, the flash mob’s organizer, said by phone Monday.

She spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal for staging the event, which is not sanctioned by city authorities.

“It’s simply a celebration of spring with the idea that a group of people come together and walk around the city center blowing bubbles and enjoy spring,” she said.[…]

Several minutes after the attackers struck, OMON police declared the flash mob an illegal gathering and started to drive the participants, many of whom continued to blow bubbles, away from the metro and then out of the park with the aid of two police vehicles.

“Put away your bubbles,” one police officer barked through a megaphone.”

Enter: a group of neo-Nazis attacking a flashmob. Enter: a group of teens upset that their “Soapy Peter” bubble blowing event was confused for a gay pride spectacle. Enter: scary OMON forces ordering people to put away their bubbles. There is a curious innocence to the whole scene, as if it were a prank skit made by university students as a metaphor for the senseless, random cruelty of society. Except that it it isn’t. Well, I hope we’ve all learned the lesson from this tragic story:

Don’t name your town “Peter.”

(In unrelated news, Evo Morales says eating chicken makes you gay.)

LITERATURE:

I ran out of books to read last night. I’d been to the library looking for Ice by Sorokin on the recommendation of Scowspi, but it’s been checked out. Rummaging through my own stacks, I found a little tome I acquired free on the last day of a booksale and had proceeded to never read. It’s Czech. It’s surrealist. It’s compact. Why haven’t I read it? It’s pornographic. Which is no reason not to read a book, but the thing is I didn’t acquire it to read it. I acquired it to give the prudes at the library booksale something to giggle about. Anyway, I took it off the shelf, convinced myself hell is for silly people and dug into it last night. The title is Edition 69, and it is by Vítězslav Nezval and Jindřich Štyrský. You would not expect a book full of obscene -and I do mean obscene; I’m not being quaint now- pictures to have much quality to offer in the way of prose. Ah, but do the Czechs ever disappoint?! It’s brilliant, in simple way. I was thinking it reminded me of Les chants de Maldoror in its surrealist autobiographical style, with some of the more unredeeming aspects of Houellebecq thrown in for bad taste.

I’d never heard of the authors so today I googled them:

“Vítězslav Nezval was a member of the avant-garde group of artists Devětsil (literally “nine forces”, the Czech name of the Butterbur plant but to a Czech-speaker an obvius reference to the nine founding members of the group). Devětsil members were the most prolific Czech artists of their generation. In 1922, the Devetsil group included, but was not limited to, Vítězslav Nezval, Jindřich Štyrský, Jaroslav Seifert, Karel Teige, and Toyen (Marie Cerminova). Also associated with the group was the later founder of the Prague Linguistic School, Roman Jakobson. Like the proletarian group before it, Devětsil looked to France for inspiration for their avant-garde literature and their Marxist political ideology originating from Russia. Though the Czechoslovakian state was newly formed after World War I, the younger generation felt there was still room for improvement and that a radical solution was necessary to gain true liberation. Most of these intellectuals had a zest for revolution and professed their allegiance to Lenin. Though their philosopher-president, Thomas Masaryk gave them the first real socially-minded democracy, Nezval and others in his group did not accept this regime as representative of their beliefs and goals. In their writings they expressed their preference for the Marxist-internationalist consciousness of class solidarity.[…]

Nezval was also a founding figure of the Poetism movement. His output consists of a number of poetry collections, experimental plays and novels, memoirs, essays, and translations. Along with Karel Teige, Jindřich Štyrský, and Toyen, Nezval frequently traveled to Paris where he rubbed shoulders with the French surrealists. His close friendship with André Breton and Paul Éluard was instrumental in founding The Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934. It was the first group of this kind outside France and Nezval served as the editor of its journal Surrealismus.”

The Devětsil:

“The Devětsil (Czech pronunciation: [ˈdɛvjɛtsɪl]) was an association of Czech avant-garde artists, founded in 1920 in Prague. From 1923 on there was also an active group in Brno. The movement discontinued its activities in 1930 (1927 in Brno).

Founded as U. S. Devětsil (Umělecký Svaz Devětsil – Devětsil Artistic Federation), its name was changed several times. From 1925, it was called the Svaz moderní kultury Devětsil (the Devětsil Union of Modern Culture).

The artistic output of its members was varied, but typically focused on magic realism, proletkult, and, beginning in 1923, Poetism, an artistic program formulated by Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige.

The group was very active in organizing the Czech art scene of the period. Members published several art magazines – ReD (Revue Devětsilu), Disk and Pásmo, as well as occasional anthologies (most importantly Devětsil and Život) and organized several exhibitions.

For the most part, Devětsil artists produced poetry and illustration, but they also made contributions to many other art forms, including sculpture, film and even calligraphy.

For about two years Devětsil functioned without any particular theoretical grounding, but as the members changed and those that remained developed and modified their style, it was decided, particularly by Karel Teige, that they begin formulating theories behind their activity. Most of these theories were to be spread through manifestos published by the group. Like any good theorist, Teige was always ready to change his ideas and sometimes moved from one aesthetic to an opposite one. The group formulated a movement that they called Poetism. The long echoed cry, “make it new,” was vital to the Poetists way of thinking. The Devětsil members were surrounded by the new in science, architecture and industry. Even their country was new. In order for art to survive, or at least in order to be worthwhile, it had to constantly be ahead of other changes in life. The Poetists advocated the law of antagonism. This law explains historical progress as reliant on discontinuity. New types and styles of art are continuously necessary for development and vital to these changes are conditions of contradiction. The first manifesto of Devětsil urged new artists to look deeper into ordinary objects for poetic quality. Skyscrapers, airplanes, mimes, and poster lettering were the new arts. Inspired by the Berlin Dadaists, Seifert claimed “art is dead.” Following him, Teige remarked, “the most beautiful paintings in existence today are the ones which were not painted by anyone.” [1]”

Incredible! Why have I never heard of these people? A Czech Marxist-Leninist-Poetist-Surrealist-Gothic Avant Garde? It’s like one of those crazy genres Netflix invents to cater to your own personal tastes (those “based on your interest in Critically-acclaimed Cerebral Dark Foreign Erotic Films” recommendations freak me out!) Anyway, I’m quite enjoying Nezval and his ilk. Since beginning this post. I’ve torn through Edition 69 (which contained, among other things, a manifesto about p0rnophilia and the class system) and several slender collections of poetry. Exquisite, sublime poetry. Don’t even get me started on “The Lilac By The Museum On St. Wenceslas Square” which burst into bloom while he slept… It’s all too much.

POLITICS:

Apparently Rahm Emanuel has nothing better to do than sit up at night scheming up new ways to piss me off. And to his credit, it seems to be the one thing he’s quite successful at. There was that time he ran someone against my friend in a primary, won the primary and lost the general. Actually, that’s the most tolerable part of that story… And then there was the time he showed up at Glen’s Diner, sat next to me, was waited on hand and foot while I waited an hour for my salad only to be informed they’d run out of salad dressing. Then there was the week I woke up to helicopters each morning because my neighbor had decided to take the position of Chief of Staff. And then there was the time he could barely even get his own party to support a watered down piece of crap masquerading as a healthcare reform bill.

But I’m less vocal about his D.C. failures. Because I want him to stay there. Democrats all over Chicago cheered when he took the White House gig. Because they love him and were happy for him? Oh hell no. Because it meant he was leaving! The poor citizens of my fair district were finally given the opportunity to have a decent Congressman when he left. Our whole neighborhood could not get an audience with Emanuel during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. My new Rep. came to my holiday party and brought a whole cheesecake. Just sayin’.

So I am thinking it’s ok if he’s wrecking national policy so long as he’s not here and I can eat a fucking salald in peace. And I get cheesecake.

It’s unfortunate I’ve already used the phrase, “Oh hell no.” It would have been a perfect response to this:

Obama aide Emanuel: I’d like to be mayor of Chicago.

Damn it! You are the chief advisor to the leader of the free world, but that’s not enough? Why won’t you just LEAVE ME ALONE! PLEASE… Insatiable freak.

Below are the reasons Emanuel would be a crap mayor of Chicago:

~ Chicago likes two kinds of mayors: dictators who rule with an iron fist, and progressive reformers. Emanuel is neither of these, as the recent healthcare debate illustrated. He could not even get his whole party on board, let alone one member of the opposition. Apparently they are not afraid of him. This would have been excusable were he presenting some radical socialist legislation that was ahead of the curve. But he never even entertained the possibility of a public option, let alone single payer healthcare. Fail. Fail. If you can’t even get a few Democrats to support a rather reasonable request, how are you going to get 3 million people to cream “How high?” when you shout, “Jump!” Not gonna happen.

~ Emanuel likes to wear finely tailored suits. That’s cool, if you are running for mayor of New York. I just can’t see our little rascal in a beige trench and fedora, the Mayor of Chicago uniform.

~ Chicago is not Ravenswood. Chicago is not all the cool little trendy neighborhoods and posh suites in mile high skyscrapers. It’s the inner city. There are poor people there. This man believed it beneath his station to communicate with and represent a rather well-off area while he was Congressman. What is he going to do if he has to communicate with and represent rather uneducated and smelly people? Who have no money to give him!!! But who need the snow removed like ASAP.

~ Uhm, we don’t want him to be Mayor. I’m not one of those trite progressives who won’t be happy until Ralph Nader is running the city. I like Mayor Daley. I admire him. Sure he’s corrupt, but you can tell he loves the city. Sure he’s divisive, but the man gets things done. Emanuel tells people to fuck off by calling them names and giving them the finger. Daley tells people to fuck off by bulldozing the airport he wants to turn into a park in the middle of the night. It’s the difference between a schoolyard bully and a leader.

~ Salad.

~ Cheesecake.

Ok that’s all for now. Thanks for reading and Happy Lenin’s birthday and Earth day!

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November 25, 2009

Giving thanks for chocolate potatoes, khachapuri and BG.

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Too Much Information — poemless @ 1:24 PM
Tags: , , ,

In a cryptic response to the previous post recounting my quest for the Biophar lavender honey, someone left the address of the Three Sisters Delicatessen on my facebook wall. So last weekend, my cabinets worrisomely low on honey and the weather perfectly warm and sunny, I decided to make a trip to Little Russia on Devon Ave. Mind you, the perfectly warm and sunny weather did not lure me out of the house as much as it motivated me to find extreme distraction. I don’t even like perfectly warm and sunny weather in June, but in November it is positively unbearable. Between the pressure to “get out and take advantage of it” and the thought of starving, drowning polar bears with no icecaps on which to rest … no I really cannot stand a perfectly warm and sunny November day. Thus I set out to take my mind off the fact.

Naturally, they didn’t carry the honey, but that’s really neither here nor there…

The Neighborhood.

It’s not really called “Little Russia.” I just made that up. It’s called West Rogers Park, and more specifically, Devon Avenue, which I wrote about here. That was a long time ago, spurred on by the by the Israel/Lebanon war. But it could just as easily have been about the August ’08 war. For whatever reason, along this stretch of asphalt on Chicago’s far north side, Jews and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Russians and Georgians are all living side by side, with no nukes or tanks to be found. Left to their own devices they all seem to get along as well as anyone, actually. Intellectually we all know this is possible. But the teevees and interwebs try their damnedest to assure us that these civilizations are just incompatible, because at their roots those terrifying Islamic or Russian or vagelymiddleeasternlookingdarkskinnedpeople are products of cultures based on ethnic or religious chauvinism. They hate our way of life and everything we stand for. Well, I’m here to tell you the fine people of Devon Avenue are living proof that talk radio hosts and the French are wrong.

Three Sisters Delicatessen.

The magical deliciousness that is шоколадные картофель:

photo c/o Chicago Reader.

You may be wondering why I have never been to this Russian establishment located just minutes from my apartment. So am I. I’ve settled upon a few explanations. First, in Chicago-ese “Devon” is synonymous for “Indian food that will assure such digestive agony you’ll be begging someone to gut you like a catfish before the night is through.” So I normally decline offers to go to Devon. Secondly, while it’s actually possible that 3 sisters do run the joint, I hate the name. Not because it is cliche, but because I hate the play. Well, “hate” is a strong word. I don’t like it. I’m really not a huge fan of Chekhov. Thirdly, I think I never thought to go to the Russian deli because I never thought about what they might have. When I lived in Russia, there weren’t very many such establishments, and those I came upon were usually -oh, really, it’s too stereotypical- rather empty. If you wanted to buy stuff, you could get almost anything on the street, though it was mostly from the West. The Russian “stores” were basically the same, but under a roof, warehouse-like. Most food was something you made at home from whatever you brought back from the dacha or could obtain through various connections. Or maybe my family were just purists or something…

What does a Russian deli carry? In this case the entire Russian diet crammed into a space about half the size of the old Meyer’s. Tea, kvas, mineral water, jam, honey, bread, cookies, boxed chocolates, anything you could conceivably pickle and put into a jar, kasha, meat, fish, caviar, cheese, those crazy zillion-layer cream cakes, boiled potatoes, blini… the only Russian food groups missing were alcohol and cigarettes. The clientele was just as quintessential: a babyshka with a walker, munching toothlessly on salami and buying pickled mushrooms, an older fellow getting some fish, and separately, 3 young women, each of whom bought chocolates. Behind the meat counter were 3 -yes, 3- middle-aged or older women. Like the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, they were stout and clad those white lady-like old world deli uniforms. Unlike the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, their Russian counterparts were sporting garish turquoise eyeliner and crazy dye-jobs, and were incredibly friendly. I bought a loaf of locally baked black bread and some jam from Nizhny-Novgorod, and ordered “chocolate potatoes.” And that’s how I ordered them. “Chocolate potatoes.” The older woman behind the counter screwed up her face at me. I panicked. “Shokoladny kartofel. Dva. Pozhalsta. Spasiba,” I managed to eek out, bewildered since, though I read Russian on a regular basis, I only ever speak it, oh, well, pretty much never. The lady smiled with a twinkle in her eye, looked me up and down for a moment, and shouted to someone to get this devushka 2 chocolate potatoes, ASAP. They all began looking at me mischeivoulsy like they knew something I didn’t and weren’t going to tell me. Maybe they just found my terrible broken Russian charming, but I secretly wondered if they weren’t conspiring to take me home and turn me into tomorrow’s lunch special, Baba Yaga-like…

Chocolate potatoes? DIVINE. AT first I regretted that I’ve lived 30-something years without them. Though that may not be entirely true. My mother used to make Christmas cookies called “Russian tea cakes.” They looked like “Mexican wedding cakes” but had a very different texture and taste. They were very dense and moist with a nutty, liqueur-like flavor … just like these “chocolate potatoes.” The only difference is that the potatoes are dusted in chocolate rather than powdered sugar, and are about 5 times larger.

Argo Georgian Bakery.

Hello, my little hachypury. I am going to eat you!

My next stop was the Georgian bakery one block down. Argo Bakery made Three Sisters look like a bustling cornucopia in contrast to its spare interior. A few very small tables. A few awkwardly placed refrigerated display cases. A giant stone slab/oven thing in the middle of it all where the little khachapuri lived their short lives between creation and consumption. I ordered some of the patient khachapuri and a hazelnut churchkhela. Like the ladies at the Russian deli, the proprietor of the Georgian bakery was very friendly. Unlike them, he spoke English. The menus were in Russian, so it should not have felt presumptuous to speak to him Russian, but I’ve watched too much CNN and decided the most politically correct choice would be English. He reminded me of my Sicilian step-father, with a combination of relaxed gregariousness and theatrical humility. I asked it he knew where to buy wine, Georgian wine, and he told me he could only get it either by the barrel, or in 4-liter bottles. Because he was in the “restaurant business.” I looked around the room. Restaurant… I invented a story in my head about a man who opens a storefront hachypurry joint as a ruse so he can import Georgian wine by the barrel. Back in reality, this man asked if I’d like a 4-liter bottle? I declined. He laughed and dismissed my concern: “Four liter! For us Georgian, iz nothing, you know? Iz, just getting started!” Yes – I know. I’ve been to a few Georgian feasts and know how much wine they have to consume to keep up with all of the toasts they make. Considering you have to drink to every toast, yes, it’s probably best to buy wine by the barrel.

The khachapuri were alright. The dough was pretty tasty, but the cheese was a rubbery feta type cheese, not the gooey melty cheese I remember. I have no idea what cheese they were using in Russia, but it was spectacular. The churchkhela, however, were quite a treat. I was afraid they’d be too sweet or leathery, but the grape entrails-looking stuff had the subtlety of a Turkish delight. In fact, that’s pretty much what it is: Turkish delight only with grapes instead of rosewater, on a string, made up to look like intestines. Grape Turkish delight sausages. Too bad there is no way to describe them that does justice. I HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on some of this stuff. Oh, but keep in mind there is a string running through the center. Remember not to eat it.

Русский книжный магазин.

You will never be this cool. Sorry.

The last stop on my shopping trip was the Russian bookstore. Well, no it wasn’t. But it is the last one I will recount here. I have previously been to this place on several occasions, back in college. While I bought books there, it was less a bookstore than some kind of miniature Izmailovsky market crammed into a storefront, with piles of Soviet kitsch and Russian souvenirs everywhere you looked. The layout was more like an attic than a store, and the interior dimly lit, which made it rather disorienting. These days it is “under new management” and the kitsch is all but gone and it is bright and spacious. Perusing the books on display, I saw a few about Medvedev, but nothing Putin. Which only surprised me because the ratio of Putin:Medvedev books I see at work are about 30:1. Anyway, I was not there for books.

Almost all of my Akvarium/BG (and, er, there’s a lot) is on cassette tape and second or third generation at that. I don’t know why. It’s not like I couldn’t find or afford cd’s in Russia. They were hawked on every street corner for spare change. But I preferred to do my own bootlegging, thank you very much. Maybe it was out of some vestigial tradition of samizdat (or magnitizdat, whatever), or more likely it was simply that the cold winter days lent themselves to staying home and eating blini while making tapes. Well, this is how I and my girlfriends spent the time. Those tapes felt like gold at the time, but their value has since been reduced to that of cultural artifacts.

When I walked in, I was met with a “Zdra’stvuetye” from a woman and a “Nuzhna pomosch?” from a little moon-faced man who slipped out from a room in the back. More terrible broken Russian escaped from my mouth as I asked if they had any Akvarium or BG. Ok, buying a cd is not rocket science, but I have to admit I was surprised to find myself conversing in Russian, you know, without having to think about it. Maybe someone who has tried to learn a new language as an adult can appreciate this. I felt weightless. The little moon-faced man was incredibly genial and excitable as he went around picking out cd’s for me (confirming that, no, they were not displayed in any order; it wasn’t just me). Maybe I was the first customer he’d seen all day. Or maybe I reminded him of some daughter who moved to Seattle and whom he hasn’t seen in years. Who knows? He was terribly sweet. He had puppy dog eyes. I was sad to have to go. I left with a couple of cd’s and the intention of returning just to see him again. It was only when I got home, jumping around to “Nikita Riazanskii,” that I fully appreciated how empty my life had been without Navigator and the Russian Album. Or rather, with them on cassette tape wasting away in a cardboard box in a closet.

Coda.

Since it is Thanksgiving and I am inclined to be reflective and thankful, I can’t do the tactful thing and say, “And thus ended my little shopping trip. Thanks for reading.” Except for the thanking you for reading part, of course. No, I need to make some profound observation about it all. So it’s helpful I have one to make. And that is this: I was impressed with Gene’s Sausage Shop. It looks fabulous, from the grand staircase to the aisles of attractively individually wrapped sweets to the infinite selections of meat. An embarrassment of riches. But I was disappointed when they did not have my honey, put off by the service, and generally ho-hum about the whole affair. The Three Sisters Deli, in contrast, was superficially unimpressive. Small, homely, old-school. No row after row of sparkly packaging, no carnivorous gluttony. Likewise, the Georgian bakery was not going for aesthetic appeal but no-frills homemade pastries. And the bookstore, again, not a scene, just a place to go to get what you want. Everyone was helpful and kind. The yuppie consumer/bitter wage slave dynamic was replaced with plain old human interaction. And while I didn’t find what I set out for, what I can home with was of such quality and nourishing to the soul, I totally forgot about the damned honey! I was out of honey and blissed out. Maybe it’s a commentary on the lack of authenticity in our society. Maybe it’s an illustration to all of you who don’t “get” why anyone would “like” Russia. Maybe it’s confirmation bias. I don’t know. I’ll probably go back to Gene’s, because it is right down the street. But I’ll certainly go back to Devon, because it rocks my world.

November 16, 2009

Extreme Makeover, European Deli Edition.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 6:34 PM
Tags: , , , ,

In which I resist change.

Before: Meyer Delicatessen.

After: Gene’s Sausage Shop.

Years ago, when I first moved to the Ravenswood/Lincoln Square area, I felt it was the only saving grace of living in America. Precisely because it was rather unlike living in America. For a few blocks, you could be transported to, well, a generic European place. Pastry shops, cafes, a European apothecary, a fine wine broker, weird German figurine peddlers. I guess it was originally settled by Germans, but it had taken a swing to the east by the time I got there. Austrians and Czechs. Then Bosnians and Serbians, or something. At some point they’d all been from Yugoslavia, right? Or from the East Bloc. Or from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I don’t know. The newest arrivals were a bit fearsome. They ran the kinds of places that you didn’t even go into if you weren’t Bosnian or Serbian or Yugoslavian or East Bloc or Austro-Hungarian, because everything was in Serbo-Croatian or something, and moreover, there were always some sketchy types in tracksuits, smoking cigarettes outside this cafe or that PAL-Secam-NTSC video store. It’s too bad, because I was curious. But secretly I suspected some of these men to be in the import/export business, not of videos in need of conversion, but of heroin or young girls. Belonging to the latter category, I chose to remain ignorant of their business operations.

But the less intimidating European types were still there, with their bars and sausage shops and homeopathic remedies. And weird figurines. Lamenting the fact that I had to live in America, I made weekly pilgrimages to Mertz Apothecary and Meyer Deli. It was like a 45 minute European vacation. Along with Cafe Selmarie, which is the closest thing I know to a slice of Paris in Chicago, I could not imagine life without them. When Meyer closed several years ago, I was clearly facing an existential crisis. American creep. It was during the Bush years, and I’d come to expect that the world was becoming more hellish by the day. Meyer was just an unwitting pawn in some metaphysical struggle of evil over good. This is also how I explained the sudden presence of a Coldstone Creamery on that block.

But now that Obama is in office and good is sometimes maybe trying to put up a better fight and of course we should be patient because it’s out of practice and doesn’t have its mojo back, it should come as no surprise that Meyer has re-opened. Bigger and ostensibly better, it now goes by the name of “Gene’s sausage shop.” From the moment I caught word of this re-birth, I dreamt each night of the possibility of joy that would return to my life. And by joy, I specifically mean THIS. There were many other lovely things I could once obtain from Meyer, like marzipan piglets on little cutting boards with little butcher’s knives, Mozart chocolates, Orangina, Laughing Cow cheese, black liquorish kitties, and gingersnaps. Which, to be honest, comprised the better part of my diet in my 20’s. But it was the honey I lusted after in maturity.

I eat a lot of honey. Daily, in fact. I don’t buy sugar. Just honey. And I’m very picky about it. I have to have unpasteurized, local honey for allergies, which rather sucks as allergy season kicks in a good few months before honey season. I want to see bee bits in it, in the local, unpasteurized stuff. Hell, I should just get some bees and eat them… But for general consumption, I’ve never found anything that beats Biophar’s lavender honey, for the price. And price is important, considering the level of general consumption we’re talking about. I don’t even care if it is mass-produced, or Provence honey from, erm, Germany. The texture is perfect, creamy. And it is neither too sugary nor too mild. It is perfect, divine, even. And a staple. I only ever found it at Meyer and was left with a gaping hole in my palate when they closed shop.

So off I went, Saturday, full of hope and anticipation. Soon the coveted Honig aus der Provence would be mine once more!

Naturally, they weren’t carrying Biophar Honig aus der Südfrankreich. Or any decent honey at all, from what I could surmise. And I stood there surmising for quite a long while before inquiring as to what the hell had happened to Meyer’s outstanding honey selection.

I asked a salesperson about it, not in those words, and she snapped back, “No we don’t have that but we’ve got honey made by Gene’s wife,” and looked at me like God would kill a kitten if I didn’t buy that instead. What I really wanted to say was, “Oh? And is Gene’s wife making honey from bees who feed upon the lavender fields in the South of France and somehow end up in Germany?” But I just smiled and politely thanked her, and headed immediately for the rack of eclairs. What the hell? I mean, why have they hired Americans? Surly, overworked little old Germany ladies in paper hats are charming. No matter how terribly they treat you, you can’t hate them. They are from the old country. They have had difficult lives. They probably lost half their family in the war. And they were probably Nazis at one point. (Ok, maybe not, but some of these German immigrants are. I knew a barber who shaved the faces of the SS. So what? He was one of the kindest neighbors ever.) So you do whatever they say. They are built like bulldogs. If they tell you to buy Gene’s wife’s honey, you do it, and you don’t complain about it. You call it a cultural experience and move on.

Anyway, Americans who are bitter about having to work, and in the humiliating job of sales no less, were cramping the euro-style down at Gene’s bigtime. And I was feeling disoriented after the whole honey debacle. Other Meyer staples absent from its newest incarnation: Mozart chocolates, HobNobs. I was also hoping in vain to find some of that weird Norwegian fudge cheese. I’d seen the adorable Andreas Viestad going on about it, and he seems to have good taste. I did manage to find a few gems, however. Or items of curiosity anyway. Baltika. But no #6! And clearly packaged for export. Honestly, who is running this joint? And Saku. I don’t even like beer, but the nostalgia factor was impossible to resist. Marzipan fruits, that emergency eclair, which was indeed heaven, some good french mustard, a strange Russian tea of the Tsars, whatever that means. I hope they don’t mean it in the literal sense. I can’t take much more Russian cannibalism. A nice Edam. I couldn’t bring myself to wait in the Disney World-esque lines for the meat counter. Perhaps I’ll return on a weeknight. They have a little bit of produce and odds of general grocery items. Which makes you think, “Oh, I could do ALL my shopping here!” Then, you realize you can’t. Because you need more variety than the 5 or so plant vegetables they have on offer, and you don’t use Fa deodorant. I think they should nix the apples and deodorant and concentrate on the meat, cheese, sweets and booze, which is why people actually come there. And if you decide to carry Baltika, for the love of god, carry 6.

So, I give the new joint a … 6 of 10. So far. I haven’t actually managed to gain access to the sausage part of Gene’s sausage shop yet. I’m still missing the things I missed before, so it can’t be said to be a new Meyer. Neither can it be said to be a German joint. Though it does carry a wide variety of European products. I think they’re going for quantity over quality. In fact, it reminds me of those early Russian Western-style supermarkets that carried French shampoo and British potato chips and Laughing Cow cheese and ramen noodles. But that eclair was a damn fine eclair. And the delirious sensation of walking into a store and not recognizing the products, not the language, not the contents of the jar, remains. As well as that familiar sensation of being crushed & trapped against a large, precariously constructed display of German Christmas cookies while suburbanites elbow for a spot in front of the headcheese. Well, they got that part right. And it isn’t even Christmas yet.

Another thing about Meyer: even though 50 people might have tried to fill a store with a 12 body fire code capacity, you felt safe because it was so astonishingly tiny in size, that if you should be trampled to the brink of death, your body would be found immediately. There was no place to hide. The atmosphere at Gene’s suggests the same potential for overcrowding and fanatical rushes on Christmas stollen, but in this new vast, labyrinthine establishment, your trampled body might not be found until after the new year. Is it worth such a risk?

It would be if they had my honey.

For now I have to put this on my Christmas list:

Hopefully someone out there knows where I can obtain some, or can obtain some for me. Hopefully without getting trampled to death by rabid germanophiles.

August 6, 2009

diary of a political ninja.

Contents: No, actually, this is what democracy looks like ; In which I chat with Putin’s media strategist after a game of Wii bowling ; The scale of cool ; Oops! Someone forgets their shirt again.

Act I. Managing Democracy.

I devoted my entire weekend to learning how to run a political campaign (political ninja school) and getting tipsy with the future leaders of America. I now have all the mad skillz to run a winning grassroots candidate in … uh, Oregon. Or somewhere else there is grass. Maybe. Chicago? No one has yet figured out how to run a winning grassroots candidate in an area where we don’t have things like multiple parties, meaningful general elections or finance laws. Or grass. For that I think I would need to attend a United Russia political ninja school. But I am glad I now know what I know, and I believe every American should know it too. Because there are still many otherwise intelligent folks out there who are under the impression that democracy is just a noble principle or ideology. Like honesty, generosity and responsibility. They tell you in Sunday school to be it, you are it, you go to heaven. Period. People don’t seem to realize that democracy is in fact a micro-managed process which may or may not be noble and, unfortunately, is possibly more effective the less noble it is. This is why Republicans win. This is also why people who have never seen a voter file, walked a precinct or quite conceivably have never even seen the inside of a polling place on election day will eagerly get on tv to tell you there is no democracy in Russia. I, however, hear stories of voter intimidation, ballot purges and dirty campaigns and eagerly tell you there is democracy in Russia. Because if there were not, they would not need to do this shit, people. It’s like physics: you can’t see the gravity, only the rotten apple that falls from the tree. If you are purging your challengers from the ballot, it means 1) there are citizens willing to challenge you, 2) there is a process by which they can attempt that and 3) there are people who will vote for them.

I was not taught how to axe people off ballots last weekend. Chicagoans already know how to do that. Just ask Barack. Still, I bet a United Russia or Nashi ninja school would have classes like, “Advanced ballot purging,” or “What to do when your opponent runs an organized crime syndicate,” which would be more applicable to my local situation. They also had a “love oasis” at the Nashi camp, which would have been useful last weekend. Ooof. There is nothing more depressing than a pack of politicos with no social lives at a bar on a Saturday night. “We’ve been talking politics all day. The only thing left to talk about is sex and religion.” And we’re not religious. So we behave like 14 yr. old boys. On booze.

Anyway. I bet UR trainings aren’t terribly different from ours. I bet we all use the same mind-numbing, numbers-crunching spreadsheets and math calculations, the only difference being that in the “vote goal” column, UR figures for 72% instead of 52%. Hard to argue with their “aim for the moon” mentality. US Democrats are taught to have low expectations for persuadable voters. Round down. Remember that these people voted for Bush. Knock another 401 registered voters off that column. It’s all about the numbers. I bet most campaigns are lost because of bad math. You know who is really good at math? [Insert dramatic pause…] The Russians! This is my new counter-argument for the racists who assert that Russia is “genetically predisposed” toward political dictatorship. It’s in their DNA, they say. Well you know what else appears to be in the their DNA? Serious math skills, that’s what. Between that and their “genetic predisposition” for being absolute propaganda fiends and their “inherited” willingness to subject themselves to just about anything, regardless how insane, Russia would seem to be “genetically predisposed” to be the model nation for democracy! Putin should technically never have to steal or fake an election with this repertoire. Assuming he is managing his campaigns the same way we manage ours…

And I do. Because both Russia and my little progressive grassroots organization hired the same political strategist. (more…)

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