Thursday, January 21, 2010


This is a recipe for the so-called "Salad Olivier", named after a famous French chef, who headed the famous Hermitage restaurant in St. Petersburg around 1860 (here's the wiki link: Since then it entered the Russian diet as the sort of salad you make for special and festive occasions (birthdays, New Year's, etc). Anyhow, making it is time consuming, but it's always like a taste of home for me. I've introduced a number of my Canadian friends and family and coworkers to it, and just about everyone likes it (with one or two long-haired exceptions who will remain nameless). Here's the recipe as it was passed down to me by my ancestors. :)

5 or 6 large potatoes
3 large carrots
5 eggs
500g jar of pickles (dill or garlic work best, and Vlasic's kosher pickles are also good for this)
1 can of sweet peas
500g of bologne (blue ribbon or all-beef works; you can also use 500g of steak, boiled beef tongue, ham, or boiled chicken)
2 or 3 sprigs of fresh parsley
Olive oil or vegetable oil (optional)
White Vinegar (optional)
Grannysmith apples (optional)

Step 1: boil the potatoes and carrots, both with skin on. Hardboil the eggs.
Step 2: peel the potatoes and carrots, chop both into small cubes, the smaller the better. Same for the eggs. Combine in a large bowl.
Step 3: chop up all the pickles, combine with ingredients from Step 2. DO NOT drain the pickle juice in the jar, leave it aside.
Step 4: chop up the meat (bologne, steak, beef tongue, ham, or chicken), add to the rest of the ingredients.
Step 5: add all the sweat peas, and most of the sweetened water from the peas' can into the salad.
Step 6: add 4 to 5 tablespoons of mayonnaise to the salad, mix well.
Step 7: add some of the pickle juice (I would recommend maybe 3 tablespoons, but this is more to personal taste), and salt to taste. Mix well.
Step 8: Chop up fresh parsley (larger pieces) and garnish the salad. You're done! Enjoy. :)

Cooking time: approximately an hour
Preparation time: about an hour (there is a lot of fine chopping involved)

You can substitute pickles for fresh cucumbers instead; in this case add just a bit of white vinegar instead of the pickle juice. Some other recipes also call for about a tablespoon of olive oil or vegetable oil - add at the same time as the mayonnaise. Finally, you can also add large slices of apples to the salad as well. For a vegetarian alternative, take out the meat, put in an extra egg, and a small fresh onion (finely diced).

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Something rotten in Denmark"

The poster tagline for "Fargo" says: "A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere." A lot happens in the middle of nowhere in Denmark, in an excellent Danish thriller "Terribly Happy" ("Frygtelig Lykkelig). I wouldn't necessarily say that the movie moved me, but it kept me on the edge (figuratevely) throughout the whole movie. If Hitchcock wrote the script, the Coen brothers directed it, and David Lynch shot it, you'd get a movie like "Terribly Happy".

A brief synopsis: a disgraced cop arrives in a small town surrounded by fields and bogs. The locals aren't friendly and want to run things their way, their ways are strange and discomporting to the new marshal, and people "just disappear". The local abused wife is putting the moves on the new arrival, and the creepy girl in a red coat keeps pushing her squeky barrel. An empty car is sinking in the bog and no one cares who the car belongs to or what is it doing in the bog in the first place. The town bully breaks people bones, and the townspeople have an unorthodox way of disciplining children. Somehow all of these are connected, but to say more would be to spoil the movie.

The tension (and the twist) do not come from not knowing who commits the crime (or rather crimes), it comes from guessing how the plot can possibly be resolve in a way that does not involve a gun and a wood chipper (wink wink nudge nudge Coens). The resolution did not entirely surprise me, but unexpectedly left me with something I would not have guessed this kind of movie could - a smile.

Would I recommend this movie? Yes, I think that anyone who enjoyed "Fargo" or "Psycho" or more recent "No Country for Old Men" would enjoy "Terribly Happy", but it is probably not worth watching more than once. Sadly, it is not out on DVD in North America, but a torrent of it (with subtitles) can be found easily.

Monday, January 11, 2010

End of the Tale

Today, a great author and human being passed away - Sergei Kozlov. He was 70 years old. Most westerners would not be familiar with him, although film buffs would recognize him as the author of "Hedgehog in the Fog" on which "Tale of Tales" (1975) is based on. As an aside, it is recognized by multiple awards, cinema guilds and associations, as the Best Animated Film of all time. Sergei Kozlov wrote tales, not fairy tales or folk tales, although they could be superficially called that; his characters were usually animals, but they are more human than most human characters. His books were ostensibly written for children, but they deal with issues of death and loss and hope and longing in such a poignant way that they’re among the very few written works that have ever reduced me to tears. To the best of my knowledge he has never been translated into English. As far as I am concerned, it would be a nearly impossible task. So, here it goes then:

Once upon a time lived in the forest Hedgehog-Needle. He had a house with an oven and a chimney, his house had a lightbulb and was made out of a mushroom, and there was a full larder. But still Hedgehog wanted something…
- I’m disquieted, - he would tell to Flower. – It aches here, - and would point to his chest. – I want to go to the sea, he would say.

But the Flower never saw the sea, and so would say:
- You’re being sad for no reason, Hedgehog. Look at how beautiful I am, look how tall the pines are, hear how the birds are singing! And everyone in the forest knows you and loves you. But every day the Hedgehog was growing sadder and sadder.

- I want to go to the sea, he would complain to the Ant.
- What’s it like? – would ask the Ant.
- Big. But I never saw it myself.

And so one early morning, when milky stars were still swimming in the sky, Hedgehog left his house and started walking to the sea. In his paw he had a stick, and on his shoulder a small sack with food.

Whether it took him a long time or a short time, eventually Hedgehog arrived at the sea.
- Hello, sea! – said Hedgehog
- Hello, Hedgehog! – said the sea.
And a wave rolled. “Pfff!... – it struck the shore. Shhhh…” – it hissed on the pebbles, retreating.
And Hedgehog also took a step forward and said: “Pfff!... and running back a little, - shhh-sh!...”
- I resemble you, right?
- Very much so! – said the sea. And once again a wave hit the shore.

Hedgehog played with the sea for a whole day: he would run to the very edge, or run away from the water. Falling a sleep on the sand under a rock, he would shiver, and it would seem to him that he was – a small sea on four small paws.

“Pfff-f!... – he mumbled under his breath. – Shhh-h!”
And his breath raised and lowered needles.”

Thank you Sergei.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why storytelling is hard, but Storytelling is easy (long rant)

Your average English teacher (i.e. my colleagues) would probably say that writing a story, or telling a story, is a matter of combining together: plot, characters, setting, flow. Throw in some conflict, literary flourishes, plot structure, and you got yourself a story, right? Wrong. What you got is a skeleton, It’s rough, edged, barren. What it lacks is flesh - or rather what I’d call relish. Not the kind you put on a hot dog, but what a story ought to be told with: “Tell it with relish.” A good storyteller can launch into a story with only a barest idea of plot and characters and pull it off, relying on archetypes, building up atmosphere, and making the story personal and immediate to the audience. A good story is always told with the current audience in mind, each time different. A business report or resume is like baking - the recipe is precise and must be followed to the letter. A story is more like a stir-fry - the basic ingredients might not change, and the method of preparing it (hey, you gotta have a stir-fry pan and some oil at least) might not alter either - but each time it’s just a little different.

So how much harder would it be then to tell a story in which the main characters are actively controlled by other people? How much more difficult is Storytelling (or Game-Mastering) than storytelling? I think the case is quite the opposite - it’s easier to tell the story with Player Characters, than to just tell a good story. There are many types of players, but for this argument I’m reducing all players to two categories - those who want to tell a story, and those who want to hear a story. The first type want to have control over their characters’ story. That is not to say that this type of player wants to have complete control over their character (i.e. choosing when their character dies, etc), but rather this kind of player wants to be able to choose her own adventure, get vested in the world, have freedom. Does she want a sandbox game? Not necessarily. If presented with a story, this kind of player will seek to actively engage with it, figure out why her character is motivated, where she seeks to steer the story.

The other type of player is more passive when it comes to participating in a story. They seek to be entertained, to be pulled along for the ride. Their characters - whether they have motivations or not - need to be given a quest, they are far less likely to go out of their way to find adventure if none is clearly presented. On one hand they can be a godsend to a GM (Game master)/ST (Storyteller. Same difference really). As long as the railroad tracks are nice and obvious, the quest rewards are known, and their characters have a goal, these players will likely play along nicely. I am not being derisive here, the benefit is that this kind of player will work well (or at least function) within the boundaries of the story.

It’s worth reiterating at this point that a good story should be tailored to the audience. Whether the group is composed of those who want to tell a story, those who want to hear a story, or a mix of the two, storytelling with players is easier than simply telling a story. The story-making players often just need a world to play in and interesting things for their characters to do, and ideally their characters’ back-stories and motivations being involved in the main story (if there is one). Get a bunch of these players together, give them a world to sink their teeth into, and you can sit back and watch the chemistry happen. A group composed entirely of story-listeners requires more preparation work, but less intellectual work. The game becomes more structured and laid-out (and that is often much easier to handle than the free-flowing on-the-fly games), and the job of the GM is to continue providing quests and hooks for the players; here, pacing becomes crucial as the story-listeners will get bored more easily if they sit around with nothing to do.

My ideal player type is the former. I dislike structure and being railroaded most of the time, although I do like to participate in a cohesive narrative when I’m playing myself. The story-making players are easier to prepare a game for, and are less interested in the traditional quest structure. On the flip side, the game is much more on-the-fly and that can be occasionally challenging as well. Planning for such players is also harder, often they come up with unexpected solutions and can grow petulant when the narrative choices (or solutions) are limited.

I think that is the reason why when I think about the next game I want to run, the same two themes come up: political intrigue and role-playing heavy, and epic quest adventures with over-the-top characters. The former type of game is for the type of players I like. The latter type of game is for the type of game that I’d want to actually play in. I guess the adage that “Every DM runs a game he secretly wants to play in” is true.