Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Moonshine and Ballet Stars

Last weekend, a couple of friends and I were oscillating between dinner options when we were invited to a Russian’s apartment for an informal gathering. Our host for the evening was the co-worker of one of my American friends, but it turned out he is an accomplished moonshine maker as well. As soon as we’d taken off our boots, he handed us shot glasses and invited us to try his samogon.

My friend’s boss jumped in with heavily accented encouragement. “Bottoms up! Or is it ‘up your bottoms?’ Either way, drink!”

In the kitchen, the men were slicing up slabs of meat and heating up a pot of broth for Japanese shabu-shabu. Introductions were made, but the generic Russian names quickly ran together and all I retained was that the guys were affiliated with the Bolshoi Ballet in some form or another. One of them looked familiar though, and it only took a few moments of staring to figure out why—he was Spartacus.

As my most dedicated of blog followers might remember, the first ballet I saw at the Bolshoi was “Spartak.” Molly and I were so enamored of the male soloist that we made a point of seeing him in his other leading roles. So when I found myself sitting next to him as we squeezed around the table for dinner, I was more than a little star struck. And once I’d had a few more shots of moonshine, it was inevitable that I was going to have to tell him that. In Russian.

“I think I’ve seen you dance at the Bolshoi. You were Spartacus, right?”

“Maybe,” Spartak responded, seemingly more interested in his Instagram feed than his number one fan. He held up a picture of himself in costume. “Was this the show you saw?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I said casually.

This was a lie. I knew so. I also knew I had seen him as Ivan the Terrible last February, and that I made a not-so-subtle mention here about how well he filled out his tights. But luckily, I hadn’t had enough samogon to tell him that. A few more rounds of moonshine later, Spartak mentioned that he’d be playing the eponymous role in the upcoming premiere of “Gamlet.”

Me: So are you going to hook me up with tickets?
Spartak: I have to get everyone tickets—my wife, my parents, my wife’s parents…
Me: And your new American friend?

Sadly the in-laws still take priority over “new American friend.” But at least I got to tell Molly about the night I drank moonshine with Spartacus. Complete with a half dozen awkward photos.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Uncertain Times

Even in the best of times, Russia is a strange place to be. But that is especially true these days as the value of the Russian ruble steadily drops and the economic situation worsens. The financial crisis had just begun when I returned to Moscow in September, but the ruble’s value is now half of what it was then. In mid-December, the Central Bank raised interest rates in the middle of the night in the hopes that it would prevent people from selling their rubles for euros and dollars. Instead, the ruble lost 11% of its value the next day. The currency fluctuations were so extreme that Apple suspended online sales in Russia until things stabilized and I lost track of the exchange rate. There was enough of a sense of panic that my flatmate briefly considered taking his life savings out of the bank, Russians started buying luxury cars because they were holding their value better than the ruble, and there was a run on buckwheat at the supermarkets.

At first it seemed like I was going to come out of the financial crisis unscathed. Expats were leaving the country in droves, but my dollar salary was going farther than ever before. My rent was effectively halved, Starbucks chai tea lattes no longer cost twice what they would in America, and it looked like an opportune time to splurge on beluga caviar. But then I got laid off.

I wasn’t joking about that caviar, i.e., the most expensive bite of food ever

With no job and only a few days until my flight home for Christmas, I wondered if I should pack my bags and leave Russia for good. I started sending my résumé out in a non-discriminatory frenzy; the following day I got a tentative job offer in Estonia. I was very close to relocating to another former Soviet state, but that seemed a little too erratic—even for me. In the end, my trip home was a visit and not a move.

When I landed at Domodedovo last Thursday, it felt different than my previous arrivals to this country. Normally, a nervous knot forms in my stomach when I touch down on Russian soil. It’s something of a cross between a fear of the unknown and a flutter of excitement over what’s to come. I was impassive last week—Russia had ceased to feel as frighteningly foreign, and likewise less exotic. In a country that is utterly unpredictable, I felt like I knew what to expect, and what I was expecting was grim and depressing.

Mother Russia, however, did not bowl me over with bleakness. Passport control was smooth and efficient, the sound of the Russian language was oddly comforting after three weeks away, and a Russian gentleman chivalrously sprinted my overweight suitcase up a flight of stairs when he saw me struggling to lift it. I walked outside to catch the train to the city center, where I was met with crisp winter air and the scent of freshly fallen snow. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but the train platform extending into a powder white forest reminded me that I was in Russia, a fact that always surprises me when I pause to think about it.

Sometimes I feel like I am looking back on the present from a place very far in the future, and I have a wistful pang of nostalgia for this period of my life. I still marvel at the strangeness of having ended up here, and it makes me sad that my time in Russia is drawing nearer to a close. But every time I tell people I’m moving back to the US this year, they tell me I have the look of a “lifer” and will probably never leave. Sigh...they might be right.  At this rate, my tenure in Russia is looking like it may last as long as a Putin presidency.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Grocery Store Throwdown

For the last five days, I have been hosting two of my best friends from college in beautiful Bellingham, Washington. As wonderful as my hometown is, Sasha is convinced that Washingtonians are terribly unfriendly. At first I thought that was unfair, but after a woman at the grocery store tried to fight me, I’m starting to agree.

On Wednesday evening, we found ourselves at the local Fred Meyer, a massive supermarket reminiscent of Wal-Mart. We were only purchasing alcohol, so we grabbed our goods and headed straight for the express checkout lane. Fred Meyer generally overwhelms me, and the New Year’s Eve lines were especially long, so I was annoyed to see that the woman in front of us had disregarded the 12-item rule. I turned to Megan and Sasha and grumbled, “Well I thought we got the express lane, but apparently not.”

My passive aggressive comment did not go unnoticed, and the woman in front of me whirled around to reveal face tattoos and a look of fury. “Do you have a problem? I don’t even have 12 items! Why don’t you go to the self check-out if you’re in such a hurry!” She didn’t stop there, and kept up her diatribe as she loaded more and more items onto the conveyer belt. Megan was thoroughly intimidated and tried to convince us to change to a different lane, but Sasha and I remained firmly in place.

“She’s crazy,” said Sasha loudly in Russian.

“She didn’t even count right,” I continued in Russian. “I see 15 items.”

It was pretty obvious we were talking about the lady in front of us, but politeness didn’t seem particularly relevant now. Megan was starting to feel left out, so she decided to interject with the only phrase she knows in Russian.

“Menya zovut Megan.” My name is Megan.

I burst out laughing, which did nothing to defuse the situation. Face Tattoo was now visibly shaking in rage, which was really hampering her ability to get her quinoa and black beans out of her grocery basket.

“Maybe I’ll see you outside,” she said, glaring straight at me.

Megan immediately stopped laughing, since she was convinced we were going to get knifed in the parking lot by a Washington hippie. Meanwhile, I was fairly confident that Sasha and her inherent Russianness could take a malnourished vegan any day, face tattoos or not.

“Lady, I don’t want to fight you over groceries.”

In the end, she did not wait for us in the parking lot, though I may need to find a new place to do my grocery shopping for the next week (we all know I wouldn’t survive a fight without Sasha to back me up). I never thought I’d say this, but I am really missing my local Moscow produkti and its snippy Russian cashier. She may not let me pay with large bills, but at least she doesn’t try to fight me when I grumble about her stupid system.