Saturday, September 11, 2010

Summer's Swan Song

Location: Alexandrinsky Theater, Лебединое Озеро/Swan Lake
Type of Bread: Russian Black Bread

It is hard to remember that sunny July day now that autumn has arrived in the North. My co-writer and our team of conspirators have gone home. The days grow shorter and the nights colder, and Khlebchik and I utter encouraging words to one another:
"Will you keep me warm when the heat is broken and the temperature's gone below zero?"
"I will," he answers. "And will you bundle me up when we venture into the snow banks and wind to bring cheer and warmth to the city?"
"I will," I say.
"Can we make toast on a sleigh?"
"I hope so, Khlebchik, I hope so."

July 22 was another day of historically unprecedented heat in St. Petersburg. Fans flapped wildly in the hands of the audience members at the Alexandrinsky Theater and the orchestra pit glimmered far below us in a haze of heat. Khlebchik cuddled contentedly in my bag on the floor next to me throughout the performance of Swan Lake...he likes the heat.

Fans flapping wildly

Anya, Anna and I used the two brief intermissions in the performance to dash around the theater, looking for outlets in dark corners, behind coat racks and benches. It proved to be a difficult task. There were simply no outlets. Where do they plug things in in this place? we wondered.
At this point, I got somewhat sidetracked on another mission I will briefly describe. We slipped into one of the theater's red-carpeted cocktail halls (for lack of a better name) to discreetly inspect the lower part of its walls. And there before me was a guard, in a black suit, with the most impressive sideburns I have ever seen. Looking just to his right, I encountered the second-most-impressive sideburns I have ever seen, on a small bronze bust. I very much wanted to get a picture of this man, preferably next to the statue that must have been his inspiration. But fate (or the man himself) foiled me again and again as I chased the guard through corridors and up staircases, snapping pictures just as he turned a bend or switched off a light. I only managed two very blurry pictures, one of the guard, the other of the bust:

The reason I really wanted a good picture was because the sideburns on this man are, in my opinion, exactly the sideburns Jared should be aspiring to grow. Unfortunately, they will have to be left to his imagination.

Now, back to the matter at hand. We finally did find an outlet by a bench near the staircase. We hurried to it when the performance ended and began our risky task. We were out in the open and expecting a babushka to round the corner at any moment. But Khlebchik came through, as he always does.

Toasting away

We felt that something was missing in our toasting adventures because we hadn't elicited any responses from Russians. The risk of being caught is just too great--the slap on the wrist we would get for making toast at the ballet might be administered in a labor camp in Siberia. So we decided to pose for photos with Khlebchik outside the theater, and we finally got some very puzzled looks. It was a bittersweet moment--our last adventure of the summer--and we were filled with sadness, pride, and most of all...toast.

We matched

Anya loves her Khlebchik

Friday, July 30, 2010

Chile Part 1: in which we discover that toasting works just as well in the Southern Hemisphere

Location: My Apartment, Santiago de Chile
Type of Bread: Hallulla (these really cheap flat rolls that everyone here eats)

In July of 1909, Frank Shailor, an employee of General Electric, submitted a patent for the D-12, which eventually became America's first commercially successful electric toaster.

While, in America, the toaster has progressed from its humble, somewhat dangerous beginnings to the complicated contraptions you find in Skymall that cook hotdogs and connect to the web, the toaster technology in Santiago, Chile has not progressed far beyond the Iron Age.

Seriously. Everyone here loves these little stovetop toasters so much that every time I walk into a secondhand kitchen store and ask for an electric toaster, they at first have no idea what I'm talking about. When I explain further ('you know, it's like a box with two slots on top that you put bread in, and then you push a lever on the outside and you receive toast'), they give me that 'wow, this American is such a dumbass' look and direct me to some huge appliance store that will be glad to sell you a toaster for 5 payments of $10 (it's impossible to get a price on any appliance in units other than 'easy payments').

At any rate, Nikita and I decided to work with what we have and stay on the lookout for a quality toaster. We've been in our apartment for a while now, so we finally decided to christen it with some good old-fashioned toast-making.

As you can see, this made Nikita very excited.

With a trademark weird-Mike-expression on my face, I gave our toast a well-deserved two thumbs up.

Thus we claimed possession of all of South America in the name of Places I've Made Toast and officially initiated our apartment into our sacred brotherhood of toast-making. Considering that this is what it looks like from the outside,

its induction is well-deserved. We're still on the lookout for a suitable electric toaster to activate portable toasting and further legitimize our claim to an entire continent, and when we do we'll be back on with more.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Da Vinci Toast

Location: Государственный Эрмитаж/The State Hermitage
Type of Bread: Russian Black Bread

Joy and Trepidation

The morning of July 3rd, approximately 9 am. We rise early and make some warm up Khlebchik for his first mission. We wrap our stowaway in a comfortable sweater and stash him in Anya's bag, very discreetly.

Хлебчик's Hideout

When we arrive at the State Hermitage we brave the metal detectors, ready talk ourselves out of a prison sentence if need be. Anya plays it cool when the alarm goes off, and no one seems suspicious of her strangely bulging shoulder bag and the furtive look on her face.
With the first hurdle behind us, we move on to an even harder task: finding a suitable outlet. We pretend to casually admire the art, but our gaze is really focused on dark corners and the walls behind benches as we scout out the perfect location for the crime. Nothing feels right until we find ourselves in front of Da Vinci's Mother and Child. There is only one problem...besides the fact that we are standing next to one of the museum's most celebrated paintings surrounded by tourists and gold-leafed columns. Directly in our line of sight sits a cold and heartless Russian babushka, of the breed stationed as guards in every room in every museum in the country. Her eyes scan the room, missing no sign of potential art thievery and illicit toast-making.
Realizing we are up against a tough opponent, we assemble a team of co-conspirators: Anna, Olivia and Sophie. Deterred but not discouraged, we resolve to continue the search.

The first attempt:

In a slightly less gold-covered but still impressive room in the museum, we find an outlet along the wall, next to a large painting being admired by a group of German tourists. Everything seems to go off perfectly: Khlebchik is covertly plugged in, the bread is positioned, our team surrounds him to block him from sight. But at the pivotal moment our outlet fails us. We were close, but it just wasn't meant to be.

So close...and yet so far

The Team

Mission Accomplished:

We continue to wander the museum in search of our perfect outlet, but Sophia remains fixated on the outlet next to the Mother and Child. We find ourselves back there, drawn no doubt by the irresistible powers of fate. We decide to take the leap, Russian Gulag be damned. The sight of Khlebchik's red-orange glow is exhilarating; the smell of toasting Black Bread begins to fill the room. And the toast is delicious.

The red-orange glow

Mother and Child

Scene of the Crime (making toast on the left)

From Russia with Toast: A Salute to Comrade Khlebchik

Location: Apartment on Vasilievsky Island, St. Petersburg
Type of Bread: Russian Black Bread

Anya and I brought Хлебчик Тостервич (Khlebchik Tostervich) home on July 2nd. We knew the moment we saw him—with his compact size and sunny yellow hue—that he was a toaster up for adventure.

Хлебчик et. al.

We carried him lovingly to my host mother, Tatiana’s, Soviet era apartment on the Gulf of Finland, and we gave him our warmest Russian welcome. The night was completed by a lucky find at the local ultra-capitalist mega-store only slightly less precious than Khlebchik: “Seryozni Chelovek” by “Bratyov Koenov,” or “A Serious Man” …po-ruskii! On a shelf in a grocery store in an anti-Semitic country with almost no remaining Jews, in a place about as different from Minneapolis as anything I can imagine, sat this movie about neurotic Jews in Minneapolis. Only the magic of toast could have led Anya and me first to Khlebchik and then to Seryozni Chelovek.
We ate our toasted Russian black bread with Tatiana’s homemade berry preserve.

We toast to toast

Then we snuggled up with Khlebchik on my bed and the three of us watched A Serious Man before drifting off to sleep. He needed his rest…he had a big day ahead of him.

Toast is serious business

Sunday, July 18, 2010

This Post is Late because it was done on Amtrak

Location: Amtrak Train, somewhere between Lafayette and Crawfordsville, IN
Type of Bread: The cheapest wheat bread they sell at Treasure Island

If you are living in the 19th century, trains are a symbol of industry and progress. However, if you are living in the 21st century, they are a symbol of always being late and having more legroom than you would on a plane. They also have power outlets now so that you can work. Most people use these to watch movies and videos of people falling down, but I use them to make toast.

On Amtrak, they organize the cars by the location the passengers are getting off at. I was one of the few people getting off the sprawling metropolis of Crawfordsville, Indiana, and was sharing the car with people getting off in Lafayette. I waited for the people to get off in Lafayette, and after they were gone I got my toaster (which was cleverly stashed in my carry-on bag) and toasted away.

To anyone reading this from plane: look at my legroom and weep

I awkwardly tried to take pictures of myself to prove I was there.

This is my "AHH THIS PICTURE BETTER BE GOOD BECAUSE MY BACK ISN'T SUPPOSED TO BEND THIS WAY" face. A picture of me doing the kissy face with the toaster will be posted on MySpace

I thought I would be safe considering I was one of five people on the train, but I thought wrong. A fellow passenger on her way back from the lavatory walked past, and quickly did a double take. She asked me what I was doing, and I explained that I was making toast. She thought it was pretty funny, and I asked her to take my picture.

I was really into the thumbs up that night.

The lady and I shot the breeze for a while, when I see something in my peripheral vision. I turn my head and see one of the conductors running down the length of the train saying "What is that smell?" My first thought was "Crap, how am I going to convince him that this is not a bomb." I looked for the emergency exit I could use for a quick escape (its an Amtrak train, so it was probably going about 15 mph, making for a safe jump), but then remembered I wasn't in a plane sitting at my usual exit row seat. I took a moment to regret my decision to take a train rather than fly, but then I remembered that using the emergency exit on a plane would be fatal. I took another second to appreciate all the legroom I had. I then remembered that a conductor was running toward me, and prepared myself for a sentence of indeterminate length at Guantanamo Bay. The conversation went like this:

Conductor: "What are you doing?"
Me: "... making toast?"
Conductor: "Hahaha, I thought it smelled like toast. That is a great idea!"
Me: (relieved) "Heh, yeah. I didn't have dinner, so I thought I'd make toast!"
(At this point a second conductor approaches)
Conductor 2: "You're making toast?"
Me: "Yep"
Conductor 2: "You should bring coffee. You'd make a killing!"
Conductor 1: "Yeah, and fried eggs!"
Me: "I could replace the dining car!"

The conversation went on like this for a while, and eventually the conductors and the lady went back to their seats. Whenever they passed me, they suggested more things to sell with my toast. It was great fun. I learned a valuable lesson that day: That Amtrak has more leg room than a plane AND the chillest staff in history.

I got to Crafordsville at the expected hour late. The nice lady waited with me at the train station until my Grandma arrived to pick my up. As I watched the train pull away from the station, my heart was filled the love of trains that's been with me since childhood, my legs were full of happiness because they weren't cramped for the 6 hour train ride, and my stomach was full of delicious toast.

A Toast to the Breckempire

Location: BJ Dining Hall (I refuse to recognize south as having anything, including a dining hall)
Type of Bread: Sketchy BJ wheat bread

Every year, the finest Breckies gather at BJ's dining hall from across the Breckempire for the annual "Feast of the Breckizens." As part of this yearly ceremony, the Breckizens eat a delicious feast (meaning dining hall food eaten at a table with a tablecloth), dance, and generally make all sorts of ruckus. Its a celebration of Breck, so by nature it is loud, obnoxious, and a great time.

There ain't no party like a Breckinridge Party

My love of Breck is surpassed only by my love of toasting, so I figured the two would go well together. On the day of the celebration, I easily smuggled the toaster into the dining hall by hiding it in my backpack. I decided to plug the toaster into the lovely string of Christmas lights running down the length of the table. The lights ended at the table opposite from where I sat, so I had to walk to the other end. I got to the end of the table, plopped down, and made some fine toast.

Notice the table decorations. The Feast of the Breckizens is classy stuff.

Like small children, Breckizens require crayons at all their meals

As I walked, toaster in hand, to the end of the table, I got to talk with several of my housemates, and none of them seemed particularly surprised. Those that knew I were making the blog were happy to be part of the toasting, and those that didn't know seemed amused but not particularly taken aback. That's because in Breck, doing strange things is considered normal. Actually, it's expected.

Strange things like, say, photobombing

Basically, Breck is awesome. Long live Davin Reed! Long live Penny! And finally, may the Breckinflag fly as long as people are taking bread and toasting it!

P.S. We also made toast at a friend's apartment shortly after this. We were there to celebrate Mike's birthday. It was a great time, and I mention it not just because we made toast but because we got a great picture of Mike at the celebration.