silent flows the river don

russia-moscow-gay-pride-riot-ru192323This is a warning for visitors and tourists wanting to travel to Russia. Anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech to gays holding hands in public to wearing rainbow suspenders is now illegal. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Monday one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet. Ironically the new law comes just seven months before Russia is set to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, expecting visitors and tourists from around the world. Additionally, the law has a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. It is now literally illegal in Russia to say that you are gay. It is illegal to kiss your partner in public – say, after you win a gold medal. It is illegal for a gay athlete to wear the rainbow flag. Or even to acknowledge during an interview that they are gay – or for the foreign press to acknowledge it – unless they mention gay sexual orientation in a negative way. Then there’s the seemingly officially sanctioned violence against gay, bisexual and transgendered people in Russia. It’s been made clear for years now that the Russian government will turn a blind eye towards anti-gay violence, and many have alleged that the Russian government is actually behind such violence. Will gay Olympic athletes and gay Olympic fans be targeted for violence while in Russia? No one knows. What we do know is that the International Olympic Committee’s response to the growing threat of violence against gay athletes and gay Olympics fans has been rather anemic to date. The IOC’s response has been so weak that Human Rights Watch recently sent the Olympic Committee a rather scathing letter demanding that the IOC take action to enforce their own charter, which bans discrimination. Activists are demanding cities like Los Angeles, Quebec and Paris should drop, or suspend, their Sister City relationships with Russian cities. More importantly, anyone thinking of attending the Olympics in Russia, should think twice about the message they’re sending to a country that appears to be rapidly sinking into its old authoritarian ways. Uncle Joe might be a distant memory to many contemporary Russians, but the countenance of Uncle Vlad is eerily familiar.

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bohemian rhapsody

hospoda

Is there something readily identifiable as Czech cuisine? Though I’ve spent time in Prague, I can’t for the life of me remember any food. (At that particular time in my life the city’s chief attractions were Kafka, Havel, and bottomless pitchers of Budvar.) Blame the Soviet Union, but I think if you put a gun to my head, I’d lump the Czechs in with every slavic variant of Eastern Europe: grey meat, grey veg, and some form of potato – lard binding it all together, natch. Not so much a cuisine as communism on a greasy plate. No wonder I’ve blocked out the memories behind an Iron Curtain. Yet as the Velvet Revolution proved all too well, sometimes change – like God – comes so quickly. Hospoda, a new restaurant on the ground floor of the Bohemian National Hall – itself a recently renovated holdout from the days when New York’s Yorkville and Upper East Side were a hive of mittel-European emigration – is doing for Czech food what the Plastic People of the Universe did for the Czech people: expanding the perception of possibilities. And it starts, as you’d expect, with Czech beer. There’s no getting around it as it comes to the table like an aperitif, whether you want it or not: lightly sweet pilsner with a creamy head of foam that’s so tasty you’ll toss aside the wine list and ask for a proper Krug-full. An appetizer of grilled hen of the woods is the next pleasant surprise. On a bed of tuscan kale and topped by a perfectly cooked parmesan poached egg there’s a meaty earthiness to the dish, complemented by a slow flow of viscous yolk that pools in a puddle of chicken jus and creates a sauce I’d be happy to lap up as soup. Fried egg bread sounds like something Elvis might have conjured up: Prague-style smoked ham, mustard, pickles, horseradish and apple relish on rye bread, dipped in egg and pan-fried. It’s like the bastard child of a grilled cheese and a croque monsieur – and equally delicious. A crispy veal schnitzel is fork tender and surprisingly light – even with a Yukon gold puree that has more cream and butter than I  generally consume in a week. The addition of pickled baby beets is a deceptively smart idea, bringing another taste and texture to the plate and elevating what could have simply been (very good) meat and potatoes. Prawns are another unexpected dish: perfectly cooked and succulent. I would have liked a bit more seasoning in the schmear of fennel puree but a brightly dressed salad of arugula with raw fennel actually made the puree unnecessary except as plate decoration – which it very well may have been, setting off the vibrant red heads of the prawns. I hope you’re noticing the trend here: traditionally rich, hearty foods updated and elevated side by side with seasonally appropriate yet geographically non-specific modern plates rich in flavor. It’s satisfying without being too heavy – or guilt-inducing. And global – as thought through by a Czech palate. Over dessert it all intertwines – and beautifully so, I might add. Crispy Czech pancakes layered with soft-poached granny smith apples would have been satisfying unadorned. Ringed with a crazy-delicious beer foam creme anglaise, however, it becomes a dish worthy of taking to the streets for. Hospoda chefs Oldrich Sahajdak and Katie Busch might not be rock stars – though with chefs you never know – but together they’re cooking up an altogether more appetizing kind of Prague spring.

grilled hen o the woods, tuscan kale, and parmesan poached eggs

fried egg bread with ham, pickles and horseradish

veal schnitzel

mayan prawns

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the return of the apsara

apsara dance

The relatively recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’s that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism of their parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communist ideology and made a dictatorial instrument of the party, given leadership roles in the torture and execution of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almost everyone could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists, minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions. Unbelievably, one of the many groups targeted were the Apsara Dancers, practitioners of the classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara. During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainment and as a means of delivering messages to the gods.) Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition of the Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaborately dressed, performing a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but,  more importantly, a resurrection of the country.

apsara dance 2

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tastes like communism

While the Hong Kong History Museum provides a fascinating and in-depth look into the city’s place within the context of two great empires, I must at all costs advise against a sidetrip to the cafeteria. Less a culinary adventure than an unappealing survival course, it is the first disgusting meal of the trip. Honestly, I can’t even remember what it is I had ordered at this point. What arrived was a study in browns: brown beans in brown sauce accompanying brown meat; a brown vegetable chunk in a bath of brown broth. Had there been a brown-shirted staff in Mao jackets I wouldn’t have flinched. The rice, however, was white.

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in weiwei we trust

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, the first major public sculpture installation in the United States by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, formally opened the other day at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel despite the absence of the artist.  The sculptures copy 18th century heads found in the gardens of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing, which was ransacked by British and French troops during the Second Opium War of 1860. An outspoken and increasingly vocal critic of Communism, Ai was arrested last month in China on what many consider fabricated charges designed to keep him silent. His whereabouts are currently unknown. A curator from the Guggenheim, which has launched an online petition calling for Ai’s release, was on hand for the opening to read the artist’s words: “Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.”

 

 

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