Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The End of Apartment No. 50

I’m off to the United States tomorrow, and although I will be returning to Moscow in a month, today is my last day as a resident of Apartment № 50. Before I fly away to San Francisco, there’s the not-so-small task of packing up all my belongings. My spatial reasoning skills are just as poor as ever, and I have finally come to terms with the fact that the two suitcases I arrived with have not been expanding at the same rate as my possessions. Who knew one could amass so many animal print items in just two years?

Animal print not pictured (but animal pictured in bottom drawer)

In addition to leopard print bikinis and zebra print dresses, I’ve also accumulated mementos of my love affair with Moscow. I stumbled upon a dried flower, long forgotten and pressed between the pages of my Moleskine, that took me back to the end of summer. I unearthed a second-hand postcard that shows an actor from my favorite Soviet film, which a friend convinced me to buy when I was helping him haggle for fur at Izmailovo Market in January. I found an employment contract from my brief period of semi-gainful employment this fall—it got thrown out, but I kept the photo of my co-workers and me at the holiday party that clearly captures our employee satisfaction with the open bar. I’ve spent the last few days sifting through winter clothes, books, souvenirs, and the miscellany of life, but I’m still not quite ready to leave.

By tomorrow, I’ll have pared my keepsakes and clothes down to one checked bag and one carry-on, but I have so many more Moscow memories that will be coming back with me, many of which are connected to my time living in Kvartira #50. Though I’m pretty sure Liz and I have both used the phrase “Soviet squalor” to describe our apartment, the place does have a certain je ne sais quoi. Between the faded wallpaper, the closets full of junk left behind by previous tenants, the oven with a mind of its own, the jerry-rigged toilet flush lever, and the domovoy under the bathtub, Apartment № 50 has charm—or at least a strong Russian personality. Much as I will appreciate the American luxuries of window screens, dryers, thermostats, fire alarms, and stoves that aren’t prone to gas leaks, I’m sad to be leaving. I’m going to miss the impromptu gatherings in our kitchen, Dima’s cultural lessons, Belka’s mood swings, Liz’s never-ending supply of wit and wine, and even our freezer full of bloody Kazakh meats. These things all made our apartment feel like home, even though I was halfway around the world and smack in the middle of Moscow. So here’s to Dima, Liz, Belka, and all the good times in Apartment № 50, the best little hovel in Russia.

Goodbye, Russian Roommates.

Goodbye, Russian cat.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The End of the Line

After 6 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes of train rides, I arrived in Vladivostok on Monday evening. I knew this country was vast, but it took traversing it from the capital to the coast to fully comprehend what 9,289 kilometers really feels like. To put that into perspective, you’d have to ride a train from San Francisco to New York three times to cover a similar distance. There are probably better things you could do with your time though.

With Vladivostok being a third of the globe away from Moscow, I expected it to feel dramatically different. Aside from a slightly more provincial feel (would it kill them to put in a few sidewalks?), it could be another city in European Russia. I’m writing this blog post from a Shokoladnitsa (the Russian equivalent of Starbucks), and everyone has the same Slavic features they had on the other side of the Urals. We’re 40 miles from North Korea, but this city looks about as Asian as I do. 

This is what 3/8 Asian looks like

This is what Amur Bay looks like

Much like Moscow was once referred to as “The Third Rome” and Irkutsk was nicknamed “The Paris of Siberia,” Vladivostok is thought to be “Russia’s San Francisco.” I’m not sure why Moscow ever wanted to be the next Rome (i.e., the next great fallen empire), and I don’t think any political exiles ever called Irkutsk the Siberian City of Love, but I was still curious to see if I’d find any similarities between San Francisco and the Russian Far East. Yesterday I spent the day exploring Vladivostok with my friend Ian, a fellow American expat in Moscow, who happened to be out here visiting his girlfriend over the May holidays. As we were climbing one of Vladivostok’s steep hills, he asked me if I saw any resemblance between the two cities. While Vladivostok also has hilly streets and its own cable-stayed bridge (Zolotoy Most, or the Golden Bridge in English), Russia’s San Francisco definitely has a different daddy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though—much as I love San Francisco, it’s signature scent of eau de bum urine isn’t doing it any favors.

The bridge is named for the bay it spans (the Golden Horn)

Too cold for hobos?

I just realized a funicular is a cable car—I’m discrediting myself

Now that I’ve finished the Trans-Siberian, it’s time to get back to Moscow. First thing tomorrow, I have a 9-hour flight back to Moscow, and then two weeks later I fly to “The Vladivostok of America” (that being San Francisco). Though I have a six-week summer finale planned for Moscowed, I’m sad to say that we’ve almost reached the end of the line here as well. Get ready for a post consisting entirely of sad emoticons!

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Con Artist in Car 10

The second to the last leg of my journey was from Ulan-Ude to Khabarovsk, a 53 hour and 24 minute ride. This sounded less painful when I bought the ticket, though I’m not sure why. I boarded the train in Ulan-Ude bright and early on Wednesday, fresh off of three hours of sleep. When I reached my compartment, I was none too pleased to discover an old lady sprawled out in my bed.

“Excuse me,” I said, “is this spot 15?”

The old woman made a feeble attempt to sit up, revealing a face corrugated with wrinkles. “I can’t climb into the upper bed,” she said pathetically.

I’m sure this would have tugged at my heartstrings if this had been my first week in Russia, but I’ve been knocked around on the metro by a babushka or two, and I know they are stronger than they let on. This old woman might have looked like she had one foot in the grave, but I suspected her other one was ready to scissor kick me into submission.

“Lady, I paid more for a lower spot because I don’t want an upper one. I’m not going up there either.”

“But I can’t get up there. I can’t.”

This last line was delivered with such anguish that I almost cracked. But then I thought about how uncomfortable the next 53 hours would be if I were trapped in an upper berth, and I quickly got comfortable with the fact that I was a heartless monster.

“Then talk to the porter, because this is my spot.”

She groaned and made her way out to the hallway in resignation, her movements as slow as if she were underwater. I started to wonder if I had been too harsh, especially when I found her squatting in an empty bed nearby. She didn’t return until that evening, but then she was agility itself climbing up to her bed—so much for “can’t.”

After the remaining two travelers got off on the second day, the old lady pounced on the lower bed they’d vacated. That, however, was only a temporary fix. Around 9pm, a middle-aged woman got on and was greeted with the same sight that had welcomed me: the old lady “fast asleep” in her bed.

“Excuse me, ma’am, you’re in my spot.”

The old lady remained face down, pretending like she hadn’t heard a thing. She continued “sleeping” as the middle-aged woman tapped her arm, gently shook her shoulder, and even grabbed her hair to give her head a shake. The little old lady was doing such an admirable job of playing dead that I started to wonder if maybe she actually had died.

Finally, the middle-aged woman gave the old lady such a violent shake that she couldn’t feign sleep any longer. After nearly being thrown from the bed, she stumbled upright and said, “What’s going on? Where am I?”

Her assaulter gave her an exasperated sigh before saying, “You’re in my bed is where you are!”

“Oh, I had no idea!” said the old woman. But when the newcomer had her back turned, the old woman gave me a mischievous smile and a wink.

With nowhere else to go, the old woman seemed ready to turn in for the night. She started to climb up to the top bunk, but then gave an anguished cry and went toppling backwards into the hall. She lay motionless on the floor until a porter and two passengers ran over.

“What’s going on here?” barked the porter.

The old lady rubbed her elbow and tried to sit up. “I was just trying to get into my bed.”

One of the women who’d stumbled on the scene looked at the middle-aged woman and me and shook her head in disgust. She knelt down to help the old fraud up and said, “You can sleep in my compartment, ma’am. I’ll give you my bed.”

And so the old lady finally got that lower bunk she wanted, and her Oscar is probably forthcoming as well.