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The taste of the city

 Observations on the glamor and luxury in Novosibirsk and Berlin  10/12/2012, 08:02

Elena Stern
translator and teacher of German
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The taste of the city
Photos by Elena Shtern

The «Interra» forum, designed to increase brand awareness of Novosibirsk among «representatives of the federal and regional authorities, innovative businesses, and communities of scientists and experts» took place in Novosibirsk, in mid-September. I participated as an interpreter for one of the projects organized by the Goethe Institute. After the event, I met a German tourist who came from Irkutsk. She had spent а few days on Olkhon Island, together with her friend, and she enthusiastically told me how well their Russian host had prepared omul meat.

The omul is as much a symbol of Irkutsk as Lake Baikal. The buuzy (we call them puuzy) and zaguday (or suuguday) are equally important as well. A German tourist tried all these and I’m sure she will recall this food at home with great enthusiasm, certainly encouraging her compatriots to come to Olkhon and try it themselves. And preferably to try it from the same old lady. Germans pass such addresses on to each other, as my grandmother did her recipes.

We should stop talking about Baikal, since it is as well-known abroad as matryoshka dolls, vodka and caviar. Some foreigners even know that Baikal is not far from Irkutsk. Meanwhile, the city itself does nothing for its brand, simply enjoys its good location and relies on local resources.

Buuza is Buryat dish — steamed paste envelopes with chopped mutton, similar to Chinese dish Baoji

I do not have the statistics on the number of foreign tourists visiting Baikal. I suspect that this number far exceeds the number of tourists coming to visit Novosibirsk, with its 1.5 million in population — the third largest city in Russia, and the capital of the Siberian Federal District. And I’m not sure how cool it is for the average person from Irkutsk to be born in Irkutsk, but for a foreigner of any rank it is really cool to go to Lake Baikal, and to stop in Irkutsk.

It may not to be so cool to be born in Novosibirsk, but it is definitely respectable. And real «You come from Novosibirsk, if ...» Facebook posts appear from time to time. There is a reason for that. Somehow these posts appear on their own, spontaneously, without specifying any official source that could have been responsible for the promotion of the «Novosibirsk» brand. But the question is: despite all the undoubted merits of Novosibirsk, who knows about it abroad? What can we tell them about our city?

Why do we still invest only in the very large projects, as we did in the communist USSR?

We don’t think of the simplest source of investment — tourism.

We don’t need to do a lot to attract tourists. We just need to let them feel the rhythm and the taste of the city that are a part of its brand. Only then can we hope that a tourist who tries pelemenes (boiled meat dumplings) today might invest in the city tomorrow. A different question is how to make the Novosibirsk brand shine.

7 thousand kilometers is the length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad

Well, it is very simple: we have a great occasion to do so — a railway bridge over the Ob River. Russian, Siberians — we just travel around by train, but the Germans travel by Trans-Siberian railroad. After all, how did the phrase «Trans Siberian Railroad» appeared in my active vocabulary? I was really surprised by the way the Germans pronounced — with a gasp — these few words. Trying to understand their ecstasy, I started to gather information and suddenly realized that the construction of Trans-Siberian Railroad was quite a feat for Russia, a breakthrough into the future, equal to Gagarin’s flight into space.

The significance of the Trans-Siberian faded in light of the revolution, and now we are hopelessly distant from that accomplishment. I wish I could stroll down memory lane. It is important that nothing break up the city’s authentic taste, so you need the right words and clearly placed emphasis. Berlin comes to mind, the eastern part of which looked gray and miserable after the union. Then, the pre-war homeowners came back to the city and began to invest in major repairs, to rent the same apartments, but at higher prices. Small businesses — clubs, bars and restaurants — also appeared, unashamedly flirting with the city’s socialist past. In no other city in Germany, would you have seen slogans in the spirit of «Our restaurant is located on an unglamorous street, close to the center; the menu is so simple it fits on one chalk board.»

Reading this description in a gastronomic guide to Berlin, I somehow thought of Novosibirsk. Our city is completely unglamorous, and situated at the center of Russia. Sure, you may say that Berlin is a capital, and Novosibirsk is a provincial city. But, Berlin is something really outstanding. It is a capital but not a capital altogether. There is much more capitalism and luxury in Hannover, Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main and Stuttgart.

There is no glamour in Berlin, no desire to live glamorous life or to be glamorous people.

Because luxury and glamour are out of date. All these things are about capitalism with a wolfish grin, but the German capitalism’s from the 70-s has quite a good-smile.


The most famous literary advertisers — Vavilov Tatar Pelevin and Octave ParangBeigbeder — were drug addicts

Former East Berlin had never been glamorous and it didn’t have time to become such. West Berlin cannot betray its history and become glamorous, because the student movements of 1968 that eventually converteda grin to a smile started exactly from this part of the city.You can see little description of posh and luxurious interior of Berlin restaurants and cafes. Much more often you would read «simple», «daily» and «plain».

Berlin does not shout about itself. It does not conduct high-profile forums or congresses. It doesn’t try to show its best to attract world-known companies and corporations. They just come to Berlin by themselves.

Berlin had been rebuilt. It became a city, convenient for the lives of small people, gained thinking public and, as a result, people talk about Berlin.

They referred to it as to the city which holds Berlinale, to the city, where young artists (in the broadest sense of the word) can make a good career, finally, to the city, where you can enjoy excellent food for a little money.

Quentin Tarantino, WimWenders talk about Berlin back in America, and Americans go to Berlin. As well as Italians, Spanish, French and English people. They go to try the taste of the city and then they spread «Berlin» brand all over the place. «Berlin. Alles ist möglich» («Berlin. You are allowed everything»). That’s a secret.

One of the first glamorous night clubs in Novosibirsk located in the House of Culture of October Revolution

Personally I’ve been obsessed with Berlin for few years, but to understand what it really has that caught me, I had to think and reflect upon for a long time. It was immediately clear that neither the Brandenburg Gate, nor the Reichstag, nor even clean streets (which in Germany — horror of horrors — not at all and not always clean) did not add a drop to the process of conquering my heart.

But the everyday life of the city that I have seen on the small streets once struck me by its non-capital deliberateness. Incredible comfort arrangements of little man’s everyday life, like a kindergarten next door, or a small park with a playground, or public transport, working like a clock, force you to write an essay «There is no city of the future, for the future is been built in Berlin.»

A variety of arts venues and museums on the most conservative or on the trendiest taste makes me envious. And a separate topic is the taste of coffee and the smell of freshly baked morning pastries.

The city captivates not only and not so much with its architecture as with its taste for comfortable and decent life.


Read this column
in Russian

Then I started to think about Novosibirsk, about what keeps me in this city. We don’t show up with architecture, frankly speaking. But the spirit and the taste of the city, to the utmost extent, inspires and poisons some impressionable people so much that they put Novosibirsk in a row even with Moscow and Berlin.You can easily line up unbelievable parallels in your head between two capitals: the former-present German and semi-official Siberianat first glance. Now we just need to transform the taste of the city into the description of the authentic brand.

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