Friday, January 21, 2011

Brighton Beach Russian Neighborhood (East Coast Travels: Part 3)

We stayed at a youth hostel in mid-north Manhattan. We took Brett Doll to most of the expected sites: Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, Columbia University, Rockefeller Center, and Wall Street. We even took him to rub the balls of the financial district bull! But these were not my favorite sites in Manhattan. Most of all, I loved our hostel and Harlem. I wasn't impressed with 5th Avenue or Times Square. Brett Doll wasn't either.

At our hostel, I befriended an Austrian girl with green streaks in her hair, as well as an older women from New Orleans who cooked greens and gumbo in the hostel kitchen every night. She told us that she comes to New York every year for Christmas, just to see snow and the city. On Christmas day, my husband and I ate our Christmas meal in Chinatown. The following day, we went separate places, because he had no interest in going on my most exciting New York adventure with me! So as the snow began to fall, I was on a subway to Coney Island. Brooklyn was quite different from Manhattan. Lots of immigrants, no crowds of tourists, no luxury brand stores. From Coney Island, I walked past a creepy looking amusement park, now dusted with snow, to Brighton Beach, which is New York's big Russian neighborhood. By now, the snow was coming down pretty hard. I giggled to myself in joy at the first sight of babushkas in furry hats pushing rosy-cheeked grandbabies in strollers. Russian drivers honked their horns impatiently at each other as the snow worsened. Ruggedly handsome middle-aged shopkeepers smoked cigarettes in navy blue coats out on the sidewalks. I soon found heaven, a.k.a. St. Petersburg Bookstore, which is about the size of a typical Barnes & Noble. As I wandered stupid-eyed down aisles of beautiful hardback Russian classics and history books, getting in everyone's way, a young salesman kept giving me the stink eye, as if he could see through to my soul and KNEW it didn't speak Russian, so what the hell was I doing here? Finally I shrugged at him and grinned, and he walked away, seemingly disgusted. Oh, teen angst!

My husband had given me twenty dollars cash for the day, so I had to plan my spending wisely. I wandered over to the page-a-day calendars and was thrilled to find that they were only a couple of dollars each. I found a solemn looking one with Russian saints and went to the checkout line, where two Russian women so blond and beautiful that I kind of wanted to hurl myself off of a bridge greeted me politely in Russian. "Uh..." I said, sounding like Beevis AND Butthead. They smiled politely and gave me my total in English. "Spahseebuh!" I said shyly as they handed me the bag, and they smiled with that "Awwwwww, isn't she cute for trying?" look that gracious foreigners give endearingly oafish Americans.

I spent the next hour self-consciously exploring little Russian grocery stores and bakeries. Everything I bought got bagged individually in plastic, and I was too out of my element to protest and whip out the cloth grocery bag I keep in my purse at all times. I walked the whole length of the street before my hunger finally grew larger than my shyness. I almost went into a Uighur restaurant (I haven't had Uighur food since I was in Chengdu, and it is absolutely amazing!), but I finally decided that since I had come here to experience Russian culture, I ought to choose a Russian restaurant. So I walked into a place that looked simple enough on the outside, but which turned out to be rather fancy on the inside. The waiter had beautiful blue eyes, and that was enough to enchant me, despite the fact that he was built like a Hummer. (I like my men scrawny.) He looked at me disapprovingly as I sat down, because the tablecloth got caught on my bags and it nearly sent the crystal glass and porcelain plate crashing onto the floor. My cheeks turned darker red than the walls. Bovine American!

I was too embarrassed to walk out upon seeing the expensive entree prices on the menu. So I ordered a bowl of soup, telling the waiter (who obviously didn't give a shit what my reason was) that I'd had a late breakfast. The soup was one of the most amazing things I have ever put in my mouth. (And I have had some DELIGHTFUL things in my mouth!!!!!) It was a lamb, dill, and garlic soup. I forgot my embarrassment and slurped it up like Goldilocks, watching MTV Russia with wide eyes on the restaurant’s TV. A beautiful blond Russian couple walked in and I almost choked on a piece of lamb. (No one should be allowed to be so gorgeous.) After finishing, I sat there awkwardly again, watching the waiter walk past me several times. In some cultures, you wait for the waiter to bring your bill. In others, you yell out, "Hey waiter!" I don't know what the Russian tradition is, but we Americans just sit there clearing our throats passive-aggressively until someone notices us. I got the feeling he was going to purposely ignore me until I grew the balls to speak up about what I wanted, but I never did, so he finally pitied me and brought me my bill. I paid, then spent five minutes bundling up again and saddling myself with all those plastic bakery bags. As I walked out, bags bumping into everything, I squeaked out a pathetic "spahseebuh" to him where he stood drying wineglasses behind the bar. I thought he would roll his eyes, but he surprised me by smiling warmly and waving goodbye. Oh those blue eyes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As I walked out, I accidentally slammed the door into another waiter, who was out smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk. But he was a wonderfully lecherous middle-aged man and seemed thrilled to be an obstacle for a clumsy, Russia-enchanted lass. Had he asked me to, I would have run away to the creepy Coney Island amusement park with him, but he only grinned silently at me with fairytale wistful eyes, so Brett Doll and I went on our merry way.

Oh, yes! I did forget to mention that Brett Doll was with me on this adventure. Here is a picture of Brett Doll with his favorite place in the Brighton Beach neighborhood:

Magic Corsets and Lingerie!?!?!?!?!

And here's his favorite street on Coney Island:

By this time, the snow was getting pretty bad, so I decided I had better head back. Good thing I did, because just a few hours later, subways in "The Burbs" started shutting down. Here's what New York looked like by the time my husband and I walked to an Indian restaurant to get dinner:


  1. Now I'm REALLY hungry. Thanks. ^^

  2. When my dad lived in in Brooklyn he talked about Brighton Beach all the time, he said it was his favorite neighborhood. He also said he was out on the streets early each morning to watch the Russian immigrant workers trudge to their jobs with their steaming lunch pails. Who knows what the frig he was doing. Oh, Dr. Jim...

  3. Man, the restaurant brought me back. Generally, we don't have time for pleasantries. "how are you" is equivalent to "hello" in that it's a greeting and not a question.