Monday, July 25, 2016

Until Next Time

I just realized that this is my 100th blog post, which is an awkward reminder that I spend far too much time rambling about Russia. Nonetheless, I felt like I should write one more blog post before I leave Russia for the summer. Ten weeks have flashed by, and I find myself on the eve of departure once again.

The point of coming to Russia this summer was to work on my Russian and finish my novel, both of which proved to be overambitious goals. My Russian has improved markedly in the last year, but it still lags behind my Spanish—even after all the time I’ve spent beating it into my brain. As for my novel, I’m starting to think of it as an emotionally abusive boyfriend. It makes me feel bad about myself, but I just keep going back for more. Despite my sense of inadequacy, the baristas at the Coffee Bean on Pyatnitskaya have reassured me somewhat on both counts. Today the new barista complimented my Russian, even if I did pronounce the adjectival form of “mango” incorrectly on my first try. And yesterday, one of them let me cut the line and asked if I’d be having my usual, so I must have been going in to write sans WiFi more than I realized.

The rest of the summer was a flurry of all that Moscow magic that keeps bringing me back: picnics in Gorky Park, apocalyptic thunderstorms, ballet and theatre, endless summer nights, linguistic triumphs (and debacles), walks along the Moscow River, strangers on trains, Georgian dinners, and a fair amount of vodka and wine. Naturally, I’ve already planned my return for next June, because there’s really nothing better than a Moscow summer.

Московское лето (Moscow summer)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Six Degrees of Separation from the FSB

Last Wednesday, my friend Nastya asked if I wanted to join her on a weekend trip to Ingushetia. It was the first time I’d heard of Russia’s smallest republic, but I was immediately intrigued when she mentioned it shares a border with Chechnya. I asked if Grozny was on the itinerary, but even Nastya isn’t that crazy.

A little internet research proved that Ingushetia is not your average tourist destination—unless you’re looking for a package that combines kidnapping, suicide bombings, and clan warfare. Nastya wisely left out those selling points, instead enticing me with pictures of the Soviet sanatorium we’d be visiting. I thought the biggest hurdle would be booking a flight (Russian websites don’t accept US credit cards), but one painless call to Siberian Airlines got me a ticket to Beslan, a city best known for its 2004 hostage crisis. But after the tickets were purchased and I did a little more research, I encountered a slightly larger problem: it seems most of Ingushetia is restricted to foreigners, and I would need a special permit to visit. And to get said permit, I would need to appeal directly to the FSB.

Now for those who are unaware, the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) is the successor to the KGB, and I try to fly under their radar as much as possible. But with my flight booked, there was nothing to do but press ahead and fill out an application for “entry to the border zone.” This entailed sending them copies of my passport, visa, and migration card; a detailed travel itinerary; and the license plate number and VIN of the cars I’ll be in this weekend. Since I’ve already sent the Russian government HIV and TB test results, this felt pretty non-invasive.

The FSB auto-response cheerily broke the news that my request could take up to 60 days to process, which is problematic given that my flight leaves on Friday. Under normal circumstances, I’d say this was a lost cause, but obviously things work differently in Russia. I’ve got two Russian friends working their connections to get my request approved, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’ll have a propusk in hand by Friday.

If that happens, I’m still not sure it will be cause for celebration. There’s still the very real chance of getting abducted—kidnapping foreigners was an entire industry in the ’90s, and bride stealing is widely tolerated even today—and a US Embassy employee already made it clear that the State Department can’t help anyone who gets lost in the Caucuses. On the other hand, getting kidnapped could be a shortcut to an easy book deal, so I guess we’ll just have to see how this unfolds.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Piter, Past and Present

Last weekend I took the train up to St. Petersburg, which was both the first time I’d been on a train since the Trans-Siberian last spring, and my first time in Petersburg since the summer of 2014. Even though Moscow will always be my one true Russian love, Piter holds a special place in my heart—it was my point of entry into Russia eleven years ago. But in the many years since I first visited the Motherland, I’ve changed and it’s changed.

In 2005, you could buy a pack of cigarettes for 8 rubles (25 cents at the time), English was nowhere to be found on the menus and metro signs, McDonald’s was the only establishment with Wi-Fi, and Putin was in the Kremlin (okay, not everything has changed). As for me, I was a deaf mute who didn’t always guess right when I entered public restrooms, I carried my rubles in my bra to avoid being robbed, I was so cheap that I frequented an internet café whose clientele mostly consisted of men watching porn, and I had a crush on the president of Russia (that one’s still a little true, if I’m being perfectly honest).

I don’t think the Aperol Spritz had made it to Russia in 2005 either

Because I can’t quite let go of the past, I decided that my impromptu trip to Piter should be accompanied by an impromptu attempt to get in touch with my former host sister. I hadn’t seen Larisa since a chance meeting in Helsinki a decade ago, but her email address and last name have changed since then. Luckily, I’m almost as good at tracking people down as the KGB, and Larisa and I were Facebook messaging by the time I’d boarded my night train to Petersburg. We spent the day together on Saturday, and I got to meet her kids and see her new apartment. We also reminisced about our last night together in 2005, when I taught her how to bake a lemon meringue pie. This was a true feat since I’d never baked a pie before, plus I had to measure everything with a teacup and and bake our masterpiece in a frying pan.

Larisa and me in 2005

Larisa and me looking far less awkward in 2016

Before Larisa dropped me off at the metro, we drove by our old apartment. It looked exactly the same, and I half expected to see my 20-year-old self walk out. She wouldn’t have been able to say anything in Russian other than “I don’t speak Russian,” had not yet figured out that the hours of writing she did to keep herself entertained without internet were going to morph into something much bigger, and she certainly wouldn’t have expected to see herself on that same street eleven years later. Alas, my past self was only present in my head that day.

To round out my time-warped weekend, I spent my last night hanging out in a former communal apartment with a group of Russians, two of whom currently live in Austin. The kommunalka was located in a decrepit old building that was once a grand hotel. It probably should be condemned by now, but I’m glad it wasn’t so I could observe its faded glory. You could feel the ghosts of Tsarist Russia in the high ceilings and elegant stairways, and see the failed ideals of the Soviet Union in the stained and sagging bathroom and sink-less kitchen, both of which are still shared by six different tenants today. With the White Nights in full effect, it was easy to lose track of time and slip into the surreal world that is St. Petersburg in the summer.

Petersburg at 3 a.m.

I wasn’t quite ready to leave St. Petersburg on Sunday, and I’m going to be even less ready to leave Russia in five weeks. I hope there’s a future iteration of myself sitting across the café from me right now, laughing at the very idea that I might not be back. If history is any indication, Russia isn’t rid of me yet.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cold Water for Days

I moved into the apartment I’ll be renting for the summer on June 1. When I picked up the keys from the girl moving out, I made sure to ask one very specific question: “When is your hot water being turned off?” This might seem odd, but it’s part and parcel of a Russian summer.

Russia’s hot water system dates back to Soviet times, and serves as an annual reminder of Soviet inefficiency. For reasons that I still don’t fully understand, the pipes need to be serviced and tested every year, which can only be done by shutting off the hot water. Throughout the summer months, Moscow neighborhoods lose their hot water in ten-day waves—and it turned out mine was scheduled to go off just as I moved into my new place.

Cute infographics to distract me from the cold days ahead

When I told my friend Keary about my predicament, he offered up his shower, but I waved off his generosity and said, “No, I’m going to do this like a real Russian. Ten days of cold showers! It’ll build fortitude.”

“Are you kidding? Russians are smart enough to shower at friends’ houses or boil water for baths.”

Keary’s assertion was corroborated by a Russian friend—she just spent ten days commuting to her parents’ summer cottage for showers—but I insisted on freezing my way through this. I wasn’t as enthused about my plan when it came time for my first cold shower—even less so when the hallway light blew out, tripped the circuit breaker, and left my whole apartment in darkness. Nonetheless, I turned on my iPhone flashlight, propped it up outside the shower, and began spraying cold water and profanities around the bathroom.

My cold showers got less painful as I built up a tolerance over the next few days, but then the weather took an unpleasant turn. Sunday brought unrelenting rain, and I had to go to the banya to warm up. Yesterday I skipped showering altogether and made myself a pot of green borshch instead. But I couldn’t avoid a shower this morning, even with outside temperatures hovering around 45°F. I arrived at Russian classes wet, shivering, and grumbling about the water shut-off.

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” said my teacher. “They used to shut off the hot water for a whole month. Ten days is nothing!”

So much for building Russian fortitude—I’ve got nothing on Nina Vasilevna.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Men of Russian Tinder

There’s a park in Moscow with a sign that reads: “It is forbidden to talk to strangers.” It refers to the opening chapter of a famous Soviet novel, but “stranger danger” is something of a universal concept. My parents always cautioned me to be wary of strangers, even if they rarely are themselves. For most of my life this was mortifying (like when they talked a pizza deliveryman into dropping them off outside my college dorm rather than splurge on a taxi), but I recently realized I may be cut from the same crazy cloth. This would explain why my initial disdain for Tinder quickly turned into an enthusiastic hunt for the weirdest, and most blog-worthy, Russian men.

I desperately want to post screenshots, but that seems like an invasion of privacy, so we’ll just have to make do with written descriptions. First there was Seryozha, who wore nothing but boxer briefs, sunglasses, and a billowing fur coat. I guess he didn’t feel that was dramatic enough, because he’d parked his car in the middle of a field and was leaning against it as though this were a totally natural pose. Next there was Alexander, who advertised that he was looking for a “serious relationship.” To drive the point home, he was carrying a baseball bat and staring menacingly into the camera. There was also a bare-chested man named Sergei who proclaimed, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away.” I think he meant this literally—he’d wrapped a fish around his neck, which must have been cutting off his air supply.

There were also men in bear suits, a guy buried up to his neck in sand, a dude who said he doesn’t date women who weigh more than 60 kilos, and props ranging from goats to crossbows to falcons. As for the most patriotic man on Tinder, it’s a three-way tie. It either goes to Andrey in the Putin t-shirt; Sergei in the sickle-and-hammer fur hat; or Alexander, who’d posed in front of the Russian White House with his bike raised above his head and a Russian flag at his side. I think it’s safe to say that the men of Moscow are nothing if not wildly creative.

Despite the dizzying array of strangers, the one I decided to meet yesterday did not attract me with a taxidermy collection, neck tattoos, or an inexplicable Native American headdress. Instead, he had me at “hipster, snob, kind of a misanthrope, and never romantic.” So when he suggested we get together for a walk after he got off work, I headed home to throw on some make-up and let a friend know where I was going, just in case Andrey* was the murdery type.

Me: I’m meeting some dude from Tinder at Patriarch Ponds. If he kills me, look for my body there.
Keary: Is he part of the Tinder majority posing with ancient, lethal weapon technology?

Despite his description, Andrey was surprisingly normal (if I can be trusted to gauge “normal”). He works in the oil and gas industry, speaks phenomenal English, and was funny and intelligent. We spent two-and-a-half hours wandering around Moscow, during which time I made sure to mention that a friend knew where I was, lest Andrey get any ideas about killing me. He seemed horrified that the idea would even enter my head—I guess Russians aren’t actually as scared of strangers as Americans are? They should be.

Just a harmless Russian suitor

Seven miles of walking later, I returned to my friend’s apartment unscathed. Andrey seems quite taken with my “American exoticism” (his words, not mine), because he asked me how long I’d be in Moscow, checked to see if I was open to settling down here forever, and followed up with me first thing this morning. I’m going to hold off on eloping for a few more weeks—the gun-toting, tiger-cuddling Russkis aren’t going to date themselves.

*Not the same Andrey as the one with the Putin t-shirt. Russians are less creative with their given names than they are in their photoshoots. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Return of Dzhessika

Despite the fact that I spent my last post gushing about how happy Moscow makes me, I was there for all of 48 hours before I was back at the airport catching a flight to Tbilisi. Some past iteration of myself decided that what I really needed upon landing in Russia was a one-week vacation in Georgia, so Friday’s exceptionally jet-lagged version of myself had to suffer the consequences.

I was in such a state of exhaustion when I landed in Tbilisi that I barely had the energy to Google the exchange rate, withdraw a hundred lari, and negotiate for a cab to my Airbnb. But once I was on my way, in a taxi that was casually breaking every traffic law known to man, I felt a surge of excitement and terror—there’s a thrill to knowing that you are alone in a city where nobody knows you, and you can be anyone you want. Unfortunately, I usually revert to Dzhessika, my Russian-speaking alter ego. 

Dzhessika does Tbilisi

Dzhessika has a sometimes-incomprehensible accent, which no one seems to mistake for “sexy” or “charming.” She often wears an expression of pained confusion, and frequently misunderstands cultural cues. She also puzzles the typical Russian or Georgian, who doesn’t really understand why a Russian-speaking American is wandering around this far from home. This was the case on Monday, when I went to Tbilisi’s sulfur baths.

I rented a private room, and soaked in a tub of sulfur water until I was joined by my masseuse. She was a bleached blonde in her late-40s who wore nothing but leopard-print underwear; she was also missing a number of fairly important teeth. She sized me up briefly, and directed me to a concrete table.

“Onto your back.”

I lay down while she donned something of a cross between an oven mitt and a rubber glove.

“Do you like vinegar?” she asked.

Given the context, I assumed I had misunderstood. She lost patience waiting for a response, and started rubbing a vinegar solution into my epidermis. As she sloughed off layer upon layer of dead skin (and a few layers of healthy skin, judging by the raw state of my chest two days later), she started asking me about myself. I introduced myself as Dzhessika, corrected her assumption that I was Polish, and disappointed her when I said I was unmarried.

“I think you will get married this year,” she predicted.

If she saw the state of Russian Tinder, I doubt she’d be so confident. But that’s a blog post for another day.

“Really? Why?”

“Because you are in good physical shape!” she said, grabbing one of my thighs like she was choosing a cut of meat at the market. And then as an afterthought, she added, “And you have a good personality.”

So there it is, proof that Dzhessika is as likeable as ever. Watch out, men of Moscow.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Ever since I learned I’d be moving to Texas, I’ve been plotting my return to Russia. I started studying Russian again, I applied for grants, and I binge watched a Russian TV show called “How I Became Russian.” Nine months, one government fellowship, and twenty episodes later…I’m back!

Since landing 24 hours ago, I’ve gotten two “welcome home” texts and an email from a friend in the US asking how “home” is. I’m not sure when Moscow became my adopted home, but it’s hard to deny that that’s what it is. I felt like I was going home while I waited for my flight to board in Austin, and my excitement only grew in the twenty or so hours it took for me to get here. By the time I got to the Brussels airport and saw the one Russian-language sign (encouraging Russians to do some Duty Free shopping), I just wanted to be back in Moscow already.

I knew I missed Moscow, but I don’t think I realized how much I missed it until I got here. I missed the green of the trees as you land at Domodedovo, the way the outskirts give way to city as the Aeroexpress train rolls into Moscow, the crush of people as you descend into the depths of the metro, and the impossible height of the Lenin statue as you emerge at street level in Kaluzhskaya Square. I missed the taste of sweet cherry preserves in tart Russian kefir, the pastel purple of lilacs blooming in springtime, and even the smell of secondhand smoke from cheap cigarettes. I missed reasonably priced sea bass, face cream made with caviar and crushed up reindeer antlers, and contact lenses purchased from vending machines. Every familiar sight or sound causes me to break out in a cheesy grin, which means that I’ve been running around Moscow like I’m in the opening credits of the Mary Tyler Moore Show while the rest of the city is a sea of unsmiling faces. But I don’t care, because I’m back in Moscow for the summer, and it feels like home.