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 altar 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

Homecoming

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.