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In Small-Town Torzhok, the Memory of a Lifetime

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When I first heard of “Torzhok,” I assumed it was some sort of primitive mauling weapon. It turns out it’s actually a small town of 50,000 people located four hours north of Moscow, and it’s a wonderful place where I had the pleasure of spending the first few days of the New Year. It is also home to the Berkuty, aka the Golden Eagles, Russia’s acrobatic helicopter team.

In the United States, New Year’s Eve is typically not a family holiday — in fact, most of us would probably not want our family members anywhere near us during our NYE celebrations. In the United States, we tend to salute the New Year with our friends and a big, warm champagne jacket. In Russia, New Year’s Eve is more comparable to American Christmas. Yes, there are those who go bar-hopping and yes, there are plenty of drinks, but until midnight in Moscow, the streets were relatively quiet because everyone was at home with their loved ones.

Once the bells of the Kremlin chimed midnight however, there were fireworks until the wee hours of the morning. The nightly salutes continued for at least the first ten days of the year, and I have a sneaking suspicion their noise was one of the main reasons we left Moscow for a few days.

We left for Torzhok on New Year’s Day and I looked up the coordinates on my iPhone, learning that it was a mere 200 kilometers north of Moscow. I figured that it would be an easy two and a half hour ride. Once again, Murphy’s Law (which seems to have a pretty strong grip on Russia) took its toll on us. The Russians aren’t lying when they make jokes about Russian roads — they are not great. It was also around minus ten Fahrenheit outside, which lead to our windshield wiper fluid freezing solid. I was impressed that my friend Zhenya, who was behind the wheel, could see anything. Furthermore, there were mile-long stretches of highway where the streetlights simply didn’t work. It took us around four hours to get to Torzhok, and by that time it was so cold that my mustache froze over within seconds when outside. Of course, we all quickly hurried to the bar in our hotel to defrost.

In Torzhok, the cold dulls people’s sense of urgency. We were immediately told that because of the size of our party (which was large — around 20 people, including children), we would have to wait about two hours for food. So, we did what any logical person would do and ordered a bunch of beers. As the only non-Russian there, I found it interesting that I was the only one who ordered Russian beer (with everyone else opting for either Asahi or Tuborg). I would soon learn there was a reason for that, as (see previous posts) Russian beer is not known for its superior quality. Interestingly enough, with a bit of inspection, we learned that both Asahi and Tuborg, despite being from Japan and Denmark, respectively, are brewed at the Baltika brewery in St. Petersburg. Essentially, we were all drinking the same stuff, though I’m pretty sure my hangover the next day was worse than anyone else’s.

My hangover was also due to a new elixir that I hadn’t tried yet, as I’d never seen it in Moscow. “Tverskaya Gorkaya Nastoyka” is a spirit made from cognac, apple juice, and various herbs and roots. In short, it’s pretty incredible. Native to Tverskaya Oblast (where Torzhok is located), it is perfect for the holidays and cold weather due to its warming effects. Though cognac-based, it goes down like apple juice, and the mild spice character from the herbs and roots distract the palate from the booze. I found that, unlike with many spirits, I didn’t need to mix this liquor because the flavor was so enjoyable. Of course, the next day I regretted not chasing it with anything, but that’s another story. Everyone was so pleased by the drink that we decided to make it our beverage of choice during our stay in Torzhok, and I’m fairly certain that all of us brought a few bottles back to Moscow with us.

Other than the bottles, I brought back a memory of Russia that will stay with me forever, and no, it has nothing to do with anything I drank.

On our last night in Torzhok, we were not the only large group in the restaurant/bar of our hotel. Several tables over, there was a group of middle-aged and older folks who had been hitting it pretty hard all day. I was fearful that they would be so plastered by the time we sat down for dinner that we may encounter some unpleasantness. I would say the opposite happened. Though rather far gone, these folks were quite pleasant and handed out candy to all of the children in the restaurant. Most importantly, they sang.

One of the gents in the group had an accordion and was playing the same refrain over and over again, while each person at the table took his or her turn singing. After about 10 minutes, I remarked that this was a rather long song (and I’m a Led Zeppelin fan). My girlfriend laughed and told me that it wasn’t a song so much as a “Chyastushka” — a tradition where each person improvises lyrics to a short verse and sings them to the same refrain. The goal is to come up with something humorous and/or political — a way to laugh about historical or personal hardships. It also seems that this is an avenue for vulgar humor, which is not nearly as common in Russia as in the American canon of humor — or perhaps I’m just not hanging out with the right people. I sat in awe as everyone, with great ease despite his or her intoxication, sang, drank, and laughed. I noted that none of these folks were looking at their phones or watching TV, but were completely present, sharing a rare human moment of old tradition.

My girlfriend asked me what the matter was, assuming that I was in a bad mood. I answered to the contrary, noting that my friends, family, and I have never done anything like a Chyastushka. I almost felt like I had been excluded from something, which led to the hope that we all may find our own “Torzhok,” meaning that for just a little while, we can put our phones away, forget the external noise and bustle of our daily lives and get back to enjoying the company that we are keeping — and a few small glasses of Tverskaya Gorkaya while we’re at it.

С Новым годом (Happy New Year)!

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Bank of Ireland linked to fund involved in massive European tax fraud

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Bank of Ireland’s services were used by a company involved in a network of hedge funds at the centre of financial transactions, dubbed fraud by a German court, that have cost European tax authorities billions of euro.

The Irish bank’s fund administration unit, Bank of Ireland Securities Services (BOISS), was the custodian bank of an investment fund involved in the scheme.

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Reader question: When must I change to winter tyres in Switzerland?

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While winters have been a little milder in recent years, the snow, ice and sleet can still play havoc with your car.

Landslides and other road damage caused by inclement winter weather can also mean you lose control a little easier. 

Even in city areas, the colder weather can increase the risk of losing control. 

READ MORE: Ten strange Swiss road signs you need to know about

In Switzerland, the law is relatively complex. While there is no hard and fast rule for winter tyres at certain times, you have a responsibility to ensure your vehicle is roadworthy – which means being ready for the conditions. 

When do I need to put winter tyres on – and what happens if I don’t? 

Unlike many of its neighbours – and many cold countries from across the world – winter tyres are not mandatory in Switzerland. 

Therefore, you will not face any penalty if you continue to drive on summer tyres all year ‘round, either on a federal or cantonal basis.  

This is somewhat surprising for people from Austria, Sweden, Finland and some parts of the United States where winter tyres are mandatory during colder months. 

In Austria, for instance, winter tyres are required from November to April, regardless of the conditions. 

In Germany, Italy and Norway, winter tyres are not mandatory on the basis of the year’s calendar, but they are required in certain road conditions. 

However, certain roads can require you to have chains or winter tyres in order to drive on them at certain times.

This will be designated by a sign on a particular road or pass that winter tyres are required. 

Generally speaking, this will be on mountain roads or other passes, rather than in city streets. 

OK, so I don’t have to, but when should I change? 

The Swiss Road Traffic Act (Art. 29) says that all drivers on Swiss roads have a responsibility to ensure their vehicles are in a roadworthy condition. 

In slippery, winter conditions, the best way to ensure that your car does not lose control is to have it fitted with winter tyres. 

There are also insurance obligations to consider. 

The Swiss government notes that drivers without winter tyres may be deemed to be negligent. 

Driving in Europe: What are the Covid rules and checks at road borders?

“In the case of an accident, the driver may be found liable if the car is not properly equipped for the winter. The insurance company may not cover the full cost of the damage or may even take action against the insured person for negligence.”

Touring Club Switzerland (TCS) says that you should consider putting winter tyres on your car if the temperature drops below 7 degrees. 

Auto Suisse says that a default rule to follow is consider replacing summer tyres with winter ones from October until Easter, although this is of course dependent on the conditions. 



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Social media: Why vaccines, paella and ‘tortilla’ trend on Spanish Twitter | Opinion

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The content that gets shared the most on social media is not always an indignant message or an ingenious insult. Sometimes, it can even be pleasant to be on Twitter. This past weekend, the German television network Deutsche Welle published an English-language video special about Spain’s successful Covid-19 vaccination campaign. This video has been shared by Twitter users more than a thousand times in messages that expressed pride and included the hashtag #marcaEspaña (or, Brand Spain).

The Deutsche Welle video compared the 78% rate of fully vaccinated people in Spain at the time the report was made (the figure is now closer to 80%) to the 69% in Italy, 68% in France and 65% in Germany. Some of the reasons put forward to explain this success, despite a slow start, include widespread faith in the country’s public health system, the media’s scant coverage of vaccine conspiracy theories, and also “the devastating first wave of the pandemic.”

Positive messages about Spain from a foreign source are usually popular on social media. But at the same time it seems that if a Spaniard mentions that the country is doing something reasonably well, such as the vaccination campaign for instance, their fellow countrymen have trouble believing it. The impression (not always off base) is that the speaker has an axe to grind or may be trying to sell us a story (or even worse, a flag). But if a foreign media outlet says the same thing – well, we may not be fully convinced, but at least we enjoy hearing it.

And it’s not just with crucial subject matter such as vaccines. It also happens with other less critically important issues, such as Spain’s famous potato omelet, or tortilla de patatas. When a reporter from The New York Times extolled celebrity chef Ferrán Adriá’s version, made with potato chips from a bag rather than freshly sliced potatoes, it prompted nothing but satisfied tweets. But messages about the same recipe shared before the article came out showed a marked difference of opinions, to put it mildly.

It also works the other way around: when our dear old Spain comes under attack, we view it as an affront requiring revenge. There are still Twitter users out there who have not forgiven British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for making a paella with chorizo in 2016 (at the time, some people compared his creation with the notorious botched restoration of a Christ figure in 2012).

And let’s not forget what happened to an Italian citizen who tweeted this summer that Spain was like Italy, but a bit worse. I will refrain from mentioning his name because he has already put up with enough grief. “Hey guys,” he amusingly tweeted afterwards. “Just checking, does ‘me cago en tu puta madre’ mean ‘I respectfully disagree’?”

I don’t think that Twitter turns us into patriots, fortunately enough for everyone. There’s no doubt that a lot of different elements are at play here: it’s easier to praise the Deutsche Welle video if you are a supporter of public healthcare (or even of the government). As for the food disputes, there is a lot of joking and pretending going on there. There is also an element of surprise: while we find it normal for there to be talk in Spain about the US, the UK or Germany, we are surprised every time Spain is mentioned abroad, and that’s because we tend to view ourselves as rather insignificant (which is understandable). And I’m also not ruling out the view held by some that focusing so much on what the foreign media says is, in itself, quite provincial.

But it’s also true that we should all find some joy in the fact that, once in a while, we can work together to do something well. And perhaps even celebrate with a good tortilla de patatas. I won’t go into whether it should have onion in it or not, because I don’t want to ruin the moment with another argument.



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