Sunday, September 11, 2011

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Taking Neil Simon as my inspiration, I decided my next big adventure would be to Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. Brighton Beach is Coney Island’s Russian exchange student roommate. Though it’s right next door to Coney Island (you can actually see the Wonder Wheel from the Brighton Beach boardwalk), Brighton Beach parties with the other Russian exchange students, accounting for its nickname, Little Odessa. European Jews were some of the first people to settle in Brighton Beach, but eventually these families made their way out of the area by the 1970s and 1980s. Then, a new wave of Russian immigrants entered the area and grew it into the bustling ethnic neighborhood it is today. I had never been to Russia, but I figured a visit to Brighton Beach was a good substitute for the time being.

GD, J, and I head to the shore in J’s car (a supreme luxury in itself since getting to Brighton Beach by train normally takes an hour and a half at least). Pulling up to Brighton Beach Avenue, there are grocery stores, cafes, and bars as usual, but all the signs are written in Russian first, with English underneath. It is all I had hoped for and more. “It’s like we’re back in the old country!” I exclaim to GD and J who, like myself, are of Eastern European descent. They roll their eyes and laugh.

Brighton Beach Boardwalk
After finding a parking space, the next order of business is food. I learned earlier that there are two primary competing Russian restaurants on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk, Volna and Tatiana. We decide on Tatiana. I wonder if anti-Tatiana people will start shouting at us and throwing things, but it must be a more friendly competition than advertised because nothing happens.

When we sit down, we hear the pitter patter and slur of Russian around us, which turns into broken English from our waitress as we order foods we can neither identify nor pronounce. GD and J order cheese vareniki, which turns out to be tortellini-like dumplings dusted with sugar and served with sour cream. I go for the borscht because, even as a person of Eastern European descent, I have never tried the stuff. They’re out of cold, though, so I order hot. It also comes with a side of sour cream. It’s salty and magenta-colored, with onions and celery floating about in it (they eventually sink to the bottom and hug the bowl as I devour the broth), but the salt is lessened by the freshness of the sour cream. J makes a joke about Russian rappers and hot beets.

We then make our way to the beach which, for Labor Day, is surprisingly empty. Along the boardwalk, elderly women wear burgundy velour track suits and have their hair backlit into blonde cotton candy. An elderly man snoozes on a bench wearing only a Speedo. More Russian whirls past our ears and, if it were not for Coney Island in the not-too-distant horizon, I’d think we were in another country. Even so, I’m glad the beach is empty—in my mind, that means there will be less garbage on the beach and less old men leering at me.

GD on the beach
I am right on the first count. The beach is clean, for the most part, but the sand is embedded with tiny broken pieces of glass that are on their way to turning back into sand. An old man sits on a towel close by and stares as we sit and play in the water. Can’t win ‘em all.

The waves are cold, but not too cold to play in. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, they come up to my waist which, granted, isn’t that high, but it’s bigger than you’ll get in South Florida. On the beach, a youngish mother yells at her son, Yakov, in Hebrew.

Innumerable varieties of beet products
We walk to Brighton Beach Avenue and head up and down the street, the neighborhood’s main drag. Pharmacies, supermarkets, butchers, fur vaults are all in Russian. We go into Food Heaven, which has a variety of prepared side dishes involving beets, as well as a fine selection of Russian candies and sodas.
“What’s this one?” GD asks me.
“I have no idea,” I say. “Why don’t you try it?”
Russian candy and soda
GD’s candy looks like a truffle on the outside but tastes like a strawberry marshmallow on the inside. I get one that looks like a piece of chocolate covered tofu, and kind of tastes like one, too. I also get a soda that’s bright green and has the licorice-y taste of anise. I guess you can carbonate anything if you try hard enough. We sit and watch Russian soap operas in the store as we finish our treats.

GD with Russian Harry Potter
Next up is a large Russian bookstore. We find a well-developed children’s literature section featuring Harry Potter in Russian. Throughout the rest of the store, there are also crossword puzzles with naked women on them, matryoshka dolls, CCCP t-shirts and Russian versions of magazines like Elle, Shape, and Cosmopolitan. You know, the essentials.

Last is a visit to the large local grocery store, which has cole slaw by the heaping helping in a buffet-style serving area. And the most beautiful strudels I have ever seen (rather, I did not think a strudel could be so beautiful) just hanging out in the open air. I think it’s funny how the culture of a country translates into its food markets. You don’t want? Don’t buy. We do not change for you. Take or leave. I wish I could say the same so easily for myself.

Finding our way back to the car, we head home, the ocean turning to river on our left, sun setting behind grey clouds. As we drive, I resolve to be more like that strudel.