Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year in Review

I’m copying a fellow Moscow blogger (thanks, Polly!) and looking back on what I’ve been up to in 2013. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version, with links to some of the highlights:

Last January, I was living in Basque Country, teaching English, and toiling away as a writer. Midway through the month, I discovered that I was a Fulbright finalist. The main thing standing in my way was a phone interview in Russian, which led to my attempt to become conversational in Russian in a month.  I guess it worked?  The cultural highlight of the month, however, was Tamborrada, that crazy 24-hour San Sebastián drumming festival.

Plaza de la Constitución in San Sebsatián

In February, I celebrated Carneval in Venice and saw the Pope in Rome. The Harlem Shake made it to Spain.  It even snowed in San Sebastián.

Free gondola rides with Toti

In March, I was bombarded with visitors, and took one of them to a Basque cider house. I did very little writing, but did manage to finish a draft of an abysmal screenplay I haven’t looked at since (ugh).  I also made a pilgrimage to Santiago, which was where I lived for my first year in Spain.

The Cider House posse

In April, I finished up my two-week roadtrip through Northern Spain with Rose and Lindsay.  I found out I was moving to Moscow. And my mom proved she has a sense of humor about her aggressive Tiger Mom-ing:

In May, I taught my last English class, had another rash of visitors, and prepared to say goodbye to Spain for the foreseeable future.  There were a lot of emo walks and a lot of pintxos.

Last sunset in San Sebastián

In June, I returned to the United States and declared myself America’s #1 fan.  I went to my first bachelorette party of the summer, started intensive Russian classes, started working full time, and saw my family for the first time in months.

Cousin, little sister, me, mom, and aunt in Seattle

In July, I realized I’d taken on way too much.  I swam in a lot of lakes. I kicked myself for choosing Russia over any number of Fulbright countries where I can speak the language. 

Eastern Washington is weird

In August, I attended another wedding, revisited the Bay Area, and went to my high school reunion. I finished up my summer job and my Russian classes, and was granted a visa to Russia.  Equal parts panicked/excited about my return to Moscow.

My sisters, Chelsea, and me in Bellingham in August

In September, I moved to Russia. The usual amount of culture shock ensued.  It rained a lot.  Russian was still more or less impossible.  Moscow was still more expensive than New York or London.  And I still loved it.

Lots of rain.  Lots of Stalinist architecture.

In October, I celebrated my birthday. I went to the Bolshoi Theatre and the Moscow Circus.  I complained about how hot Moscow was (it really was).

Birthdays call for birthday cake with names I can’t pronounce

In November, I decided to write a novel. That didn’t happen. It did, however, provide the impetus to start a novel. Olga got real crazy. It started snowing and I stopped complaining about the heat.

November was winter coat-buying month

December called for another Christmas abroad with my older sister, this time with the addition of two college friends. It was my best Christmas away from home yet.

Ben, me, and Fareed on Xmas Eve

And now the year is wrapping up.  I’ve gone from Spain to America to Russia, and even I can’t begin to predict where I’ll be in a year or what will happen between now and then. Here’s to whatever 2014 has in store for me.  Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Hungarian Adventure

Our week in Budapest has flown by, but here are some of the highlights (in photo form). On Christmas Day, we wandered over to Budapest’s version of Central Park for some skating in front of a castle. Ben had never ice skated before, but he was a good sport, and we all managed to take a few spins around the rink without damaging any vital organs.

The skating rink in front of Vajdahunyad Castle
That evening, we headed to the Hungarian State Opera to see La Bohème, despite everyone’s worries that our massive Hungarian dinner and our glasses of mulled wine would send us straight to dreamland. Melissa and Fareed called it a day after about half an hour, at which point they ignored the judgmental looks of the coat check lady and headed straight to a ruin bar. Ben and I stayed until the end, reveling in our cultural superiority.

Hungarian Christmas dinner

Feeling classy at the Hungarian State Opera

On Thursday, we went on a walking tour of Budapest, crossing over the Danube and taking in a view of the city from the Buda side. While Ben and Fareed initially made fun of Melissa and me for walking at the front near the guide, they were the nerds busting out correct answers every time the guide asked a question about Hungarian history.

The Chain Bridge and the Danube at dusk
Our next stop on Thursday was Escape Maze, where we partook in a game that tested our logic and intelligence.  But when Melissa signed us up for this, she was unaware of our combined inability to even open a door. For example, within five minutes of getting settled into our flat, Ben had managed to lock himself in the bathroom, and Fareed was so puzzled by our apartment keys that we inadvertently slept with our door unlocked the first night.  They also insist that one set of keys doesn’t work, which has led to them “Spider Manning” their way over the gate to our building on two separate occasions. We probably should have thought about this before being locked into a labyrinth; after sixty minutes, we were still trapped in a basement with a dead German soldier, a wall of clocks, a TV screen, and a heavily padlocked door. The owner came down to rescue us, then asked us in bewilderment, “But you have all the keys and combinations, so why couldn’t you get out?” A very good question.

The only visitors to get all the keys but not make it out

Friday found us at the Szechenyi Baths, a bathhouse experience I might like even better than the Russian banya experience.  The complex is huge, and I managed to get in a 45-minute swim, a one-hour massage, and so much sauna time that I nearly passed out in my catfish paprikash at dinner.  On Saturday, we hit up the Central Market and took a walking tour of the Jewish District.  Feeling rather embarrassed about my early Friday night bedtime, I decided I needed to bring back my college self for Ben and Fareed’s benefit.  This led to far too many palinka shots and a tour of Budapest’s weirdest bars, but I still couldn’t keep up with the boys and left an hour before they did.  However, my inability to navigate anywhere meant that I arrived home roughly 15 minutes before them.  Melissa had been woken by a neighbor pounding on the door at 4am, so she was wide awake, prepared to defend herself with a frying pan if it came down to it, and very relieved to see us when we returned.  We recapped the night for her over wasabi chips and embarrassing stories before collapsing into bed at 6am.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t get an early start on Sunday, but still managed to rally for a third and final walking tour, this one with a Communist theme.  Today is our last day in Hungary and I’m terribly sad to be leaving, but it’s been a wonderful Christmas week.  For the grand finale of my trip, I plan on staying up until my 4am cab ride to the airport so I can take advantage of my last evening with Ben and Fareed.  Hopefully it won’t be another 6.5 years before our next reunion.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Cabbage

This is my third Christmas in a row abroad, and it is never anything like Christmas in America. My first Christmas abroad was in Scotland, with fellow Washingonians Matt and Chelsea, and then I spent last Christmas with my sister in Morocco. This year, I am in Hungary with two college friends and my older sister. I landed in Budapest this afternoon and was promptly greeted by Fareed, whom I hadn’t seen in 6.5 years and who had flown in from Pakistan for the occasion. Much squealing transpired, and then I immediately insisted on taking a photo so I could prove to everyone back home that he was not just a figment of our imagination.  An hour later, we were joined by Ben, who was coming in from New York. Once our Jewish/Muslim/pseudo Catholic trifecta was in place, we cabbed it to Budapest’s 7th District to check in at our Airbnb flat and get situated.

Note that Fareed packed three times as much as I did for one week in Budapest

Reunited in Hungary, for no real reason
We quickly discovered that Budapest is completely dead on Christmas Eve. Plans to go out to dinner were soon dashed, and finding a grocery store proved to be equally challenging. After much wandering, and a consultation with the most attractive couple in Hungary, we located a tiny convenience store, which certainly didn’t contain the fixings of a quality Christmas dinner. After much agonizing, Fareed grabbed a sausage that may have been raw, I picked up a cabbage and a can of tomato paste (with the help of a friendly, English-speaking Hungarian man who translated all the canned goods for me), and we made up the difference with a generous selection of wasabi and chili lime potato chips. 

Back at the flat, we downed a bottle of wine and I started preparing our Christmas cabbage feast. I was attempting to imitate a Belorussian dish I get around the corner from the Kremlin every few weeks, but mostly succeeded in infusing the apartment with the smell of boiled cabbage and frozen carrots. Melissa arrived at 8pm, just in time for Christmas cabbage, chocolate, dessert wine, and my last minute attempt at Christmas gift giving. It wasn’t exactly your traditional Christmas Eve, but I suspect it will not be one I forget anytime soon.

Christmas cabbage, a meal that will probably not be gracing American tables for the holiday season

My last minute Russian gifts for Ben, Fareed, and Melissa

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gypsy Cabs, Tramps, and Thieves

I usually travel by metro, but when I need to get somewhere between the hours of 1am and 6am when the metro isn’t running, I often resort to gypsy cabs. A gypsy cab, or a bombila in Russian, basically boils down to a dude with a car who wants some extra cash. If you step off of any Moscow curb and raise your hand, you will immediately find a line of cars ready to take you wherever you need to go. I swore off gypsy cabs a few months ago, reasoning that I would never do that in America, and even managed to blunder through ordering a few licensed taxis by telephone in the interim. Unfortunately, my gypsy cab habit is proving harder to kick than I realized. 

I went out with a group of friends last night, and around 5am we decided to call it a night and go our separate ways. Even though one of the girls and I were going in completely different directions, we climbed into a taxi together and explained to the driver we’d be making two stops. When he tried to jack up the price we’d agreed upon, I became incensed and demanded he turn on the meter. After much back and forth, I told him that if he didn’t turn it on, I would get out and walk home. Unfortunately, he wasn’t moved by my threats, and did in fact pull over. Not wanting to admit that I had been bluffing about my eagerness to walk two miles in the snow, I grabbed my purse and my misplaced principles and stormed off.

Before I had even raised my hand, two Russians had pulled over, sensing a potential gypsy fare. The first, a middle-aged man with a mullet, was willing to take me home for less than half of what the taxi driver was trying to charge me, so I climbed in, feeling optimistic that he wasn’t the next Chessboard Killer. Yura proved to be quite amiable, but our conversation was hampered by my inability to understand the word “wind,” which was apparently crucial to his story.

Me: What are you talking about?
Yura: Weather.  It’s weather!
Me: You want to know what the weather is like?  It’s cold.
Yura: No, I’m trying to help you understand the word I am saying.
Me: I don’t know what’s happening!
Yura: What do they have in Louisiana?
Me: Hurricanes?
Yura: Yes.  Hurricanes are kind of like wind.
Me: Why are we talking about hurricanes?!
Yura: We aren’t!

I never did figure out what he was trying to tell me because at that point I realized I only had thousand rouble notes in my wallet, and not having proper change is the surest way to get ripped off by a gypsy cab driver. I interrupted Yura, who was spiritedly trying to pantomime his point across, and explained my predicament.

Yura: I only have 500 in change.
Me: I’m not paying you 500 roubles.  I just told someone I would walk home because they tried to make me pay 500 roubles. 
Yura: Is there a store near your flat?
Me: Uh…
Yura: A store. A STORE!
Me: I was thinking! There’s a café.

Five minutes later, we pulled up to my building and I went into the Shokoladnitsa to get change, which involved a very roundabout explanation on my part. I ran back to Yura, handed over the agreed upon 200 roubles, and thanked him profusely. He bid me adieu, but not before giving me a quick Russian language lesson.

“You keep saying you can ‘transform money,’ but that’s the wrong verb. You want to say ‘change.’”

Wonderful.  I sound foolish enough in this country, and I very nearly added delusions of wizardry into the mix. Thank god Yura corrected me—that mullet-loving bastard just re-instilled my faith in the entire gypsy cab institution.  I’m sure this will end well, and not with my severed head being found in a park when the snow melts in July.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Visit to the Russian Gynecologist

Until today, my contact with Russian gynecology was limited to an ob-gyn I met at 3am outside of a club during my first week in Moscow. His name was Evgeniy, and to prove that he was a real doctor, he asked me about my most recent menstrual cycle. I wish I could say I ended the conversation there, but unfortunately I plowed ahead in halting Russian, with poor Molly being forced to fill in the gaps when my vocabulary was lacking. We never did figure out if he was a legit practitioner of the gynecological arts, but rest assured I did not contact him when I decided to see an ob-gyn this week.

A gynecological exam is already rife with opportunities for awkwardness, and that’s before you factor in a language barrier. Take my first visit to the ginecólogo in Spain, for example. After being asked if I had “relations,” I started listing all my immediate family members. I’d gotten no further than my sisters before I realized I was answering an entirely different question.

“You mean sexual relations, don’t you?” I asked, turning red. The doctor nodded wordlessly, obviously fighting laughter.

Unfortunately, the embarrassment didn’t end there. A year later, after failing to specify I wanted a female doctor, I found myself in a backless gown with a Basque dude looking down the business end of my birthing canal. My Spanish had improved significantly since my previous visit, but I still found myself conflicted as to whether I should use the formal or informal manner of address. Once someone’s given you a pelvic exam, you’d be hard-pressed to get any more familiar than that.

Bearing in mind my Spanish visits to the ob-gyn, I knew that this was going to have to be done in English. I made an appointment at the European Medical Center, not surprised that I would be seen by a doctor named Olga. It seems that Soviet parents of the 80s were just as uninspired as their “Jessica”-happy American counterparts.

Olga’s English was flawed, but far superior to my Russian. She quickly dispelled the concerns that had brought me into her office in the first place, reminding me that no good can come of WebMD self-diagnoses. Then she got down to business, giving me a guided tour of my reproductive system by way of ultrasound.

“I have made the zoom, so don’t be concerned. I promise your uterus is not too big.”

Even if I had any idea what the size of a normal uterus was, I doubt it would be high on my list of body image issues. I didn’t bother explaining that to Olga though, and let her finish the “control.” By the end of the exam, she declared me to be in perfect health.

“You have a very happy and healthy uterus!” Thanks, O. We get that a lot.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Getting Cultured

I’ve now been in Moscow for three months, which means I only have six months left before my grant ends. I am already suffering from separation anxiety and entertaining the idea of trying to stay longer, proving I am crazier than anyone originally thought.  Until I am ripped from Mother Russia’s chilly embrace, I’m trying to take advantage of all the Russian culture on offer here in my beloved Moscow.

At the invitation of a Russian friend, I recently went to the Pushkin Theatre to see Much Ado About Nothing. While the Bard might seem about as far as one could get from Slavic culture, it proved to be a wealth of insight into the Russian psyche. Only in a Russian rendition of Shakespeare would the hero deliver a soliloquy in his briefs, the soldiers carry machine guns, and a masquerade ball bear all the hallmarks of a Halloween frat party (slutty nurse included). Even though I had read the play that morning, I still didn’t have any idea what was going on, and I doubt the Russian-speakers did either. That said, it was wildly entertaining and I think I would have enjoyed Shakespeare a lot more in high school had there been less iambic pentameter and more Russian testosterone.

Not quite 17th century England, but close enough

Though not a new cultural discovery, I also paid a visit to the Russian banya.  Something is lost in translation because “bathhouse” does not do justice to the life-changing wonders of the Russian sauna experience. You get naked, sit in a sauna until you sweat profusely, then plunge into ice-cold water...over and over again.  Throw in some good friends to beat you with a bundle of birch branches (it’s good for your circulation) and the banya is the closest thing to heaven you’ll find in Russia.  My 21-year-old self was wary of an activity that essentially boiled down to group nudity and sadomasochism, but I soon realized that of the many things to fear in Russia, this was not one of them.

Why hasn’t America embraced this amazing ritual?

On Monday evening, I dragged Molly along with me for some rest, relaxation, and a preview of what our bodies are going to look like in a few decades. She was a banya virgin, but this was not the first time I had initiated a friend into the mysteries of the bathhouse.  After two hours of shocking my body with extreme temperatures, I emerged into the snowy streets of Moscow feeling like I had just been reborn. Molly, however, was less moved by the experience and wasn’t exactly jumping at the chance to be my new banya buddy. This means that until Christine comes to visit, I need to find someone else to take a birch switch to my backside. I know all of my readers are dying to volunteer, but please don’t all disrobe at once.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dom Sweet Dom

Despite my laissez-faire approach to apartment hunting, I am finally free of Olga and Markus. Fate intervened and dropped a perfect housing situation into my lap, so I am now happily domiciled with a fellow Stanford grad and her Russian boyfriend. I am terrible at goodbyes, particularly in another language, and bidding “good riddance” to Olga went just as awkwardly as expected. She asked how much my rent would be at the new place and offered to charge me less, told me I’d be uncomfortable living with a couple, and assured me my room would be waiting if things went badly at my new place. She ended on the ominous note, “Лучшее — всегда враг хорошего.”

Me: Better. Always.  Enemy.  Of good?
Olga: Of course.
Me: I don’t understand.
Olga: Лучшее. Всегда. Враг—
Me: I know the words, but what does that mean?!

Though I finally figured out she was telling me “the grass is always greener on the other side,” I feigned confusion and ran away. It seemed more polite than telling her that she was the weirdest roommate I’ve ever had, and that includes a Basque guy who told me I wasn’t allowed to use the shower and a guy who played World of Warcraft 25 hours a day.

Although I have been in my new place for less than a week, it has already been a vast improvement on Chez Olga. Liz welcomed me with chocolate and wine, and her cat made a pet lover out of me in about a day. It turns out animals are good for something other than fur coats and food, and I am disturbed by the number of one-sided conversations I have had with Belka this week.

Belka in a bag (she climbed in herself, I was not trying to suffocate her)
The only negative I could find about my new place was that my room is always colder than the rest of the flat. Then last night I realized my window had been open for five days straight in subzero temperatures. It’s a wonder I’ve survived in Russia, much less life, this long.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Unwanted Russian Mother

Olga has gone from eccentric to downright disturbing. While she’s never had a problem with my occasional visitors and dinner guests, a Wednesday evening dinner party with three friends sent her off on a Russian rant of epic proportions. I would’ve invited her to join if she ate anything other than Quattro Formaggio pizza and wasn’t an off-putting introvert, but alas, she does and she is. So when my guests arrived around 8pm, Olga was just waking up from one of her many mid-day naps. She came out to see what had set off Markus’ barking, then returned to her darkened room.

Our dinner was delicious, the conversation hilarious, and the evening a success—until my friends left. When I closed the door behind my guests at 11pm, Olga emerged from her cave to tear me a proverbial new one. Completely contrary to her previous encouragements to invite my friends over more often, she went off on a delusional diatribe about my frequent visitors, accused me of giving her dog beer, and told me that the neighbors were going to think even worse of her than of the Tajiks across the hall. “They’ll think this is a brothel and I’m an alcoholic!” I was so surprised I understood all of that that I didn’t dwell on her mistaken belief I would give Markus anything, her ever present racism, or the fact that she had just equated my friends to prostitutes and johns.

I should have just let her finish her insane tirade, but I am not a particularly passive person, even when I can barely speak the language I am arguing in. I haltingly shot down all of her assertions, but at least had the good sense not to mention that she’d be lucky if people thought she was an alcoholic or madam. It would certainly be an improvement on “spinsterly recluse.” Then, in response to her claims that she’d told Molly to tell me to move my gathering into my room, I told her that playing Telephone with foreigners was a poor way of communicating since the message had obviously not been understood.

I was fuming by the time I finished doing the dishes, and was still disgruntled the next morning when we crossed paths in the kitchen. Olga had softened though, and told me she realized we’d had a cultural misunderstanding and she wasn’t mad at me. Unfortunately, I missed whatever she said next, and before I knew it, she was telling me that she worries about me when I go out late and that she stays up until all hours of the night making sure I come home. I told her that as a grown woman, I certainly don’t need her worrying about me, and that there was no reason to sacrifice her sleep on my account.

“But I do worry! I worry about you like a mother worries about a daughter!”

The girl barely makes it out of the house once a week and subsists on a diet of pizza and porridge. If she were responsible for my well being, I’m quite certain I’d have died of malnutrition months ago. Sorry, Olga, but the only similarity between you and my mother is your shared ability to yell at me in a language I don’t understand.  And that does not a mother make.

Friday, November 15, 2013

On the Government's Dime

Because I have no idea what I will be doing come June and because I don’t want to find myself uninsured when my Fulbright grant is over, I spent the morning filling out an application for ObamaCare. I am not technically employed (though I am getting paid), so the government algorithm wasn’t sure what to make of me. Thus, in addition to enrolling me for insurance, they also suggested I apply for food stamps. While I appreciate the government’s concern, I am not as hard up as I might seem on paper.

That said, I did avail myself of a free government meal last night. I was invited to a concert at Spaso House, the residence of the US Ambassador in Moscow, thanks to my Fulbrighter status. While the promise of free alcohol probably would have been enough to get me there, I was especially excited to see the mansion that inspired a scene in one of my favorite works of Russian literature. In 1935, the US Ambassador invited four hundred guests to a spring festival that was meant to eclipse all previous Embassy parties. Before the party wrapped up at dawn, a Marxist revolutionary had managed to get a baby bear drunk and a flock of zebra finches had gotten loose in the ballroom (because what party doesn’t include a menagerie?).  Not surprisingly, the party surpassed all other Moscow Embassy parties. One guest in attendance, Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov, found the evening so memorable that he based Satan’s Grand Ball in  The Master and Margarita on this evening.  Thus, with hopes high that I might get a wild animal wasted as well, I RSVPed in the affirmative.

Yan and I taking a break from our grueling Fulbright research

Despite the snowfall, I threw on a dress and tights and took a trolleybus over to Smolenskaya Square to meet my companions for the evening, a fellow Fulbrighter and an American friend. We had some wine, mingled in the Chandelier Room, and tried not to think about the fact that the appetizer spread alone probably cost more than our stipends. Forget writing, I need to become the Ambassador to Russia.  Even though the FSB has regularly bugged Spaso House, I could trade privacy for that sweet mansion.

The Spaso House terrace, with a view of one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters in the background

The concert was wonderful, and I have already been invited to another US Embassy event a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This is definitely going to trump my last Russian Thanksgiving, which was spent at a T.G.I. Friday’s in Kiev with a boy from Estonia my friend Christine and I had decided to take on a weekend trip (worst idea ever). My American patriotism, which becomes especially zealous when I am abroad, may lead to this vegetarian eating an entire turkey for dinner.  One just never knows in Russia.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Spanish vs. Russian Men

Before I left for Spain, friends joked that I’d fall in love with a matador and never return. While I was there, people constantly asked about the Spanish boys, working on the assumption that the country was populated by Antonio Banderas lookalikes whom I was beating off with a ham hock. In reality, I’m convinced Spanish men have received an undeserved reputation as ladies men solely based on Americans’ inability to distinguish them from other Spanish-speaking nationalities. While Latin American men come on strong, I got about as much romantic attention in Spain as I would have gotten in a convent. And it wasn’t just because I was a foreigner—even my Spanish roommate noted how introverted the guys were, complaining about the difficulty of meeting guys in San Sebastián. I know I will convince none of you otherwise, but the hombres in Central and South America definitely didn’t get their game from the conquistadores.  You’re thinking of the measles.

When I announced I was moving to Russia, no one lit up with excitement over my potential Slavic conquests. No one predicted I would run off with a Russian gymnast or oligarch. No one seemed particularly concerned I would fall in love and throw down roots in the tundra. The most optimistic prediction came from my friend Marti: “Maybe you’ll find a love interest in Russia?  They seem weird honestly.” Even their own kind wasn’t particularly generous. My friend Sasha, who was born in Moscow and lived here until she was eleven, said, “Why you’d choose Russian men over Spanish men is beyond me.”

Maybe I should just move back to America?
For whatever reason, I actually am attracted to Russians, even if they are even weirder than anyone could have ever imagined. For example, I’m pretty sure that only in Russia would a first date result in a guy wanting you to move in with him. I know the men here have a life expectancy of 63, but that still seemed a little fast. I politely declined, but I think it’s safe to say that my friends and family underestimated the Russkis. I may have one Spanish and one American surname at the moment, but I may be sporting an even less pronounceable last name come June. You’ve all been warned.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Russians Don’t Believe in Euphemisms

While Americans have a predilection for positivity (false or otherwise), this is decidedly not the case in Russia. In Spain, I would breeze through miscommunications with an apologetic smile; in Russia, this only serves to make me appear more idiotic. A Russian guy explained why, introducing me to the saying “Смех без причины - признак дурачины,” which means “Laughter for no reason is the sign of a fool.”

Despite this cultural insight, I am still on a crusade to bring “grinning like an idiot” to Russia. After an old woman laden with groceries pushed me on the metro, I contemplated how I should respond. During my first stint in Moscow, I would have thrown an elbow without hesitation; there’s no shame in laying out an old biddy if she wants to get physical. But this time, I decided to go for some foreign positivity and I smiled at her instead. While she initially responded with cautious skepticism, I eventually coaxed a smile out of her.

In addition to smiling more selectively, Russians don’t mince words. My new Russian professor has proven to be a font of brutal Russian honesty. Within an hour of meeting me, Evgenia said, “Jessica, in my opinion, you belong in a lower class.” I was having an off day, but did nothing to raise her opinion when I confessed to not finishing my homework. “I’m sorry. I’m a bad student!” I had meant it hyperbolically, but she pursed her lips, corrected my gender confusion, and said, “Yes, I can see that.”

While this direct style might discourage some students, I was properly shamed into working harder. I’ve doubled the time I put into my homework assignments and Evgenia hasn’t made any moves to kick me out of her class yet. She even called on me to translate a passage from a Russian story that the class was having trouble understanding. After rendering a fairly difficult paragraph about an unrequited love into English, I looked up expectantly, desperate for a scrap of praise. Evgenia waved her hand dismissively and said, “Dzhessika, your English is so American that I couldn’t understand a word you said.”

But don’t think I let Evgenia’s below-the-belt dig get me down. If anything, I’m more desperate than ever to impress the old battleaxe. I’ll start doing British elocution exercises if that’s what it takes to garner a compliment from her. And if not, there’s always the metro tactic of Jessie circa 2005—when in doubt, just shove a babushka.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Best Borshch in the Land

I had never tasted a beet until I went to college, a fact I find odd now that they are one of my most beloved vegetables. My mom did all the cooking in our household, so there was a very Asian slant to my diet. My knowledge of vividly colored root vegetables was limited to ube, a purple sweet potato featured in many Filipino desserts. So when I saw canned beets in the salad bar of my freshman dining hall, I mistook them for cranberry sauce. My mistake became apparent after my first bite, but I was pleasantly surprised and asked a dorm mate what I was eating. My question was met with strange looks. “It’s a beet. You’ve never seen a beet?”

I more than made up for 18 years of beet deprivation when I studied abroad. Russians love their beets, and I regularly availed myself of beet salads, beets slathered in mayo, beets grated over pickled herring, beets mixed with prunes and sunflower oil, and beet soup. I became especially obsessed with my host mother’s bright red borshch. But since I didn’t know how to cook (or speak Russian), I never bothered to get the recipe.

Over the subsequent eight years, I thought about her borshch many times. I tried to recreate it in San Francisco, but I was so disappointed by my sorry imitation that I declared it inedible and threw out the whole pot in a fit of anger. I made a perfectly adequate borshch last month, but it still didn’t measure up to Olga’s Petrovna’s perfect borshch.

Last month, I paid a visit to my old host mother.  After a few hours of catching up, which partially consisted of her reminiscing about how “terrified and silent” she had thought I was, I turned the conversation to borshch.  Having won her over with my new and improved personality (i.e., a vocabulary numbering in the double digits), she happily agreed to give me a borshch-making tutorial. I returned last week for my master klass, eager to learn OP’s secrets once and for all.  She had already taken care of the prep work, so all I had to do was jot down an approximation of her recipe while she effortlessly threw together a pot of soup. 

The array of veggies, diced and ready

OP working her babushka magic

One hour later, I was praising OP’s borshch, which was just as good as I had remembered it.  “You know, I’ve been thinking about this borshch for eight years,” I told her.

Olga Petrovna seemed surprised that her soup had made such an impression. “Really? It’s not my favorite. It’s not even my second favorite.” And there went all my progress in demonstrating what a non-weirdo I am.

Best борщ ever.
And for any of you adventurous enough to try it, here’s the recipe (all measurements are wildly approximated):

Olga Petrovna’s Perfect Borshch

  • Some cabbage (~1/3 of a medium cabbage), shredded 
  • 3 small potatoes, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes 
  • Olive oil…maybe ½ a cup? 
  •  ½ carrot, grated 
  • 1 large beet, grated
  • 1 small tomato, diced 
  • 70g tomato paste 
  • 1 stalk of celery, sliced 
  • 1 small onion, diced 
  • 1 small red pepper, diced 
  • 1 T white vinegar 
  • 1 T sugar 
  • Large bunch of dill
  • Large bunch of parsley 
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced 
  • Smetana (Russian sour cream) 
  1. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a straight-sided saute pan.  Sauté the onions until they’re vaguely transparent (~5 minutes), add celery and pepper (sauté for another 5 minutes). Add the carrots and sauté for another 5ish minutes. Add the beets and tomato, and sauté for another 5 minutes. Salt and pepper liberally, then throw in the tomato paste. 
  2. Add water to cover the veggies (about enough water to roughly equal the volume of the veggies).  When I went for a more specific amount, OP said, “However much you want!”  Cover the pan, and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. 
  3. Meanwhile, bring a half pot of water to a boil. Add the cabbage and potato and boil for about 15 minutes.
  4. Once the cabbage and potatoes have been boiled and the veggies have simmered, add the pan of vegetables to the pot of water/cabbage/potatoes. Add more salt (maybe a tablespoon).
  5. Add 1 T (or so) of 9% vinegar. This will make your borshch more vibrantly red.
  6. Add 1 T of sugar. Taste it and decide if it needs more salt/pepper/sugar/vinegar/Russian love. 
  7. Mince up your herbs and garlic and stir them into the borshch. 
  8. Ladle up your borshch, stir in a dollop of smetana, and enjoy!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Russian Idea

Я люблю Москву = I love Moscow
I have been asked on many occasions what it is I love so much about this country. My family and friends don’t really get it, but they’ve gotten used to my eccentricities (Russophilia being one of many). However, now that I am back in Moscow, the question “Why do you like Russia?” has been cropping up again, and I’ve been struggling to put my fondness for the former Soviet Union into words.

People are quick to point out the worst of Russia with clichéd stereotypes, but it’s nearly impossible to do the opposite. I just finished reading a book called Homo Zapiens (Generation “P” in Russian). The main character, a guy who works in advertising, is tasked with “branding” Russia when he’s pulled into a car by a huge mafia type called Wee Vova and told:
“There’s got to be some nice, simple Russian idea, so’s we can lay it out clear and simple for any bastard from any of their Harvards […] And we’ve got to know for ourselves where we come from […] Write me a Russian idea so they won’t think all we’ve done in Russia is heist the money and put up a steel door. So’s they can feel the same kind of spirit like in ’45 at Stalingrad, you get me?”
So how did the protagonist package Russia’s awesomeness? He didn’t. Before he could tackle this formidable task, Wee Vova was shot by the Chechens and our hero was off the hook. Which means I am on my own.

Winston Churchill may have accidentally stumbled upon the Russia idea when he said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” He meant it in an entirely different context, but the sentiment is still true today. Russia is like nowhere else on earth, and no matter how hard one tries to figure it out, they’ll never make sense of it. I like that Russia is a puzzle—unpredictable, challenging, exciting, and in constant flux.  That might not be an answer that would have satisfied Wee Vova, but it will have to do for now.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Horrorshow Halloween

Thanks to the Marine who mistook Molly’s Taylor Swift costume for A Clockwork Orange, Molly and I decided that our second round of Halloween would include our own rendition of Burgess’ brilliantly effed up masterpiece. For those of you who haven’t read this book, it’s one of my favorites, and uses an invented slang that is a cross between Cockney and Russian. As we were going to be attending a Halloween party hosted by a Brit in Russia, it seemed appropriately inappropriate to dress up like the malevolent and murderous teens from the novel.

Ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence
Despite the fact that a Russian guy recently told me I should stop taking gypsy cabs as I am “likely to get shot,” Molly and I decided to take one for the short jaunt across the river to our fete. However, I am now firmly against gypsy cabs, not because they might be dangerous, but because the drivers usually rip me off. Having taken the reverse route in a real taxi last Saturday night for only 290 roubles, I was highly incensed when our gypsy cab driver charged us 500 roubles and tried to say that was the normal price. Luckily, Molly dragged me away before I could start attempting to argue with him, as that would have been a surefire way to really get us shot. I resolve to only take licensed taxis henceforth, even if I find the prospect of calling a taxi dispatcher more daunting than getting into a stranger’s car.

Our American and Russian droogies
The party was a lot of fun, and we danced the night away with friends and other costumed club-goers. It’s nice to be settling into life in Moscow, but I’m a little terrified by how quickly my time here is passing. If not for the fact that the Russian government really would arrest me if I tried to overstay my visa, I might never leave. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

The United States of Moscow

While I haven’t found myself missing home yet, I couldn’t say no to a Halloween party at the US Embassy in the company of my fellow Americans. Since costumes did not make the cut when I was packing for ten months in Russia, I was sorely lacking in Halloween attire. Luckily, Molly came to the rescue with a topical yet easy idea: Edward Snowden. I was worried that no one would understand my slipshod Snowden costume, but when I crossed paths with Olga on the street outside my flat, she didn’t even recognize me. I’m clearly a master of disguise.

Molly had put far more effort into her costume, which was a murderous version of Taylor Swift, complete with the names of her ex-boyfriends written in blood. I made her reassure me that I didn’t look like an androgynous PE teacher with my manly shirt and the whistle around my neck (because Ed’s a whistleblower, get it?). Luckily, Molly helped dispel confusion by fashioning a Manila folder emblazoned with the words “Classified” and “NSA” and we were on our way.

Before entering the Embassy compound, one has to pass a trio of Russian police officers, relinquish their passport, hand over all electronics, go through metal detectors, and get patted down. In the company of an escort (in this case, a friend), you’re allowed to pass go and proceed to the Marine bar. And then, you’re basically in America.

Because the Marines’ primary responsibility is protecting the Embassy, mixology is not their forte. So when I ordered Long Island Iced Teas, a young pirate manning the bar shrugged apologetically and said, “I don’t know what’s in that.”

“Everything,” Molly answered. It was a recipe that would haunt us when we saw our drinks glowing under black lights a few minutes later.

While we waited for our tea, the pirate tried to guess who/what we were. I was relieved to discover that my costume was “funny” and not “deportation-worthy,” and his initial belief that Molly was Alex from A Clockwork Orange may have inspired our costumes for a Halloween redux this weekend. Drinks in hand, we hit up the dance floor, chatted with Americans, and ate Nacho Cheese Doritos like they were our national cuisine.

Even though I’m not proud of that last bit, it was oddly comforting to be unapologetically American for a night. While that’s mostly due to the fact that my IQ plummets as soon as I have to start declining nouns, it’s also nice to have an innate understanding of cultural norms, which is something I will probably only have in the company of Americans.  However, it was quite clear I had returned to Russia as I crossed the darkened Moscow River on my walk home, dodging traffic and wayward hooligans (good thing my Edward Snowden whistle doubles as a rape whistle). For all the comforts of America, I am unabashedly in love with Moscow and nowhere near ready to head home yet.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen--Gender Roles in Russia

Earlier this week, the Y-chromosome contingent of my Russian class was absent, making it easier for our grammar lesson to devolve into a discussion about the men Mother Russia raises. While my teacher insisted that Russian men are “real men,” she complained that the boys from her generation are all маменькин сынок (“Mama’s boys,” if my translation skills are to be trusted). She attributed the phenomenon to perestroika—in the wake of Gorbachev’s restructuring, men succumbed to alcoholism, heart attacks, and cancer, leaving many of today’s 20-somethings fatherless. Single mothers treated their sons like demigods, coddling them into the alleged Mama’s boys they are today.  For an American who hasn’t dated a sizable cross-section of the perestroika-era population, I’m not in a position to say whether this is accurate.

What a fairly oblivious foreigner like myself has noticed, however, are the very traditional gender roles that reign in Russia today. While everyone worked more or less as equals in the Soviet era, the end of socialism triggered a return to a society of men as providers and women as homemakers. It is customary for men to pay for everything—not just for their girlfriends, but females in general—and women seem to do a lot of shopping and yoga once they’re married. Sorry, Sheryl Sandberg, you'll have to peddle your feminist propaganda elsewhere.

To further confirm my observations, a lesson on participles in my textbook included this absurd illustration:

The instructions read: "Select phrases with participles that describe the ideal husband and ideal wife."

According to this, the ideal Russian husband is a businessman who can fix things, while the non-ideal husband is a smoker and alcoholic. Fair enough, I don’t know too many ladies looking for a life partner with a substance abuse problem, and I always played the damsel in distress in college when I needed my bed lofted.  But then there are the ideal and non-ideal Russian wives, neither of whom make sense to my American brain. Is the ideal woman a genie slash chef or a lady of leisure who dreams of fur?  I think this is some cultural commentary that is going way over my head.

For better or worse, I fall into neither of these categories.  I am both an awesome cook and an aspiring fur owner, which is sure to confuse potential suitors.  Now I don’t know if I need to grow out my hair and rob a belly dancer or reinvent myself as a “Real Housewife of Moscow” if I hope to attract a Russian manchild.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Go Bolshoi or Go Home

When I came to Moscow in 2005, the Bolshoi Theatre (Big Theatre) had just been closed for a $700 million renovation. It re-opened to much fanfare in 2011, and made headlines again last January when a bitter dancer ordered an attack on the art director, who was nearly blinded when a combination of sulfuric acid and urine was tossed in his face. Russians obviously take their ballet seriously, and tickets to the Bolshoi are in high demand. Since I was not about to drop $200 on ballet tickets or broker a deal on the black market, it was a relief to discover that students in possession of a Russian student ID are able to get 100-ruble tickets the day of the show. Seeing as the average latte in Moscow costs twice that much, I was more than willing to queue up in the cold for a $3 ticket to see the best ballet company in the world.

Molly and I had been advised to put our names down on a list the morning of the show, but I wasn’t feeling particularly eager to make a trip to the Bolshoi at the crack of dawn. Instead, we decided to chance it and joined the line flanking the box office at 5pm. It bears mentioning that I had opted for tights and a dress on the off-chance we got tickets, even though Moscow saw its first snow flurries on September 30. While we haven’t had snow since, the high in Moscow yesterday was 7 °C and things were far less balmy while we waited it out in line and the sun set over the Kremlin across the street. But luck was on our side and at 6:15, we were allowed inside to purchase tickets bearing the words неудобное место (“uncomfortable seat”). God love the Russians and their brutal honesty.

I've always liked ballet, but I do not pretend to be cultured enough to speak about it with any kind of authority. But Jesus Christ, the Bolshoi dancers are brilliant. I’ve seen a ballet in Russia before (at the Mariinsky Teatr in St. Petersburg) and I’ve seen ballets in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but I have never seen ballet on the level of what I saw last night. When the show started at 7, I was half asleep and contemplating a nap, but I was on my feet for a better view by the second act and distraught when Spartacus was killed and the curtain fell three hours later.

I am now desperate to see as many ballets as possible, and that isn’t just because the male soloist had a body that was made for tights (and really shouldn't be hidden with anything more). Becoming a regular at the Bolshoi will either require seducing an oligarch with box seats or standing in line for hours in subzero temperatures on a weekly basis. I suspect it’s going to be the latter, and I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the FSB

It recently came to my attention that the word “privacy” does not exist in the Russian language, and now I'm starting to see why.  I attended an orientation and security briefing at the US Embassy yesterday, which gave me a little too much insight into the mythical power of the Russian FSB.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the FSB (Federal Security Service), it's basically the post-Soviet version of the KGB.  They're responsible for state security, counterintelligence, border security, counter-terrorism, surveillance, and all that good stuff.  One of the more menial tasks that falls under that umbrella is keeping tabs on yours truly. 

I was told that all emails, phone calls, and texts are fair game because all digital communication in Russia is routed through FSB servers.  Okay, fine, I've always worked under the assumption that emails are not private.  In fifth grade, our teacher said that we should think of email like a postcard—something more public than a letter and which should never include anything you wouldn't want your mother to see.  I disregarded that advice in middle school and lost my school computer privileges for a month.  Before my email was reinstated, I had to take a class on electronic ethics and from then on, I knew that the middle school version of the KGB (a severe librarian with too much time on her hands) was reading all my correspondence. 

Once email replaced the telephone as everyone's preferred mode of communication, I abandoned the “mom” litmus test.  My Gmail account is an easily searchable database of all my deepest, darkest, and most embarrassing secrets, which the FSB is now privy to as well. I also learned that the FSB has the power to mess with my bank account, and I should consider all of my electronics “compromised” for the duration of their electronic lives. Seeing as I just bought a new laptop, it looks like the FSB and I are in it for the long-haul.

“Look, I'm not trying to make you paranoid. Sure, the FSB could release a video of you getting dressed in the morning, but what's the point?  That just makes them look bad.” These were the comforting words of the Embassy.  I'd hate to hear the version that's meant to scare me.

When talking about my new-found paranoia with my Russian class this morning, my Dutch classmate interjected, “FSB?  Are you sure you didn't mean to say NSA?” Fair point, Olaf.  Thank you for raising my levels of paranoia to those of a stoned conspiracy theorist.

I guess I should be flattered by all the potential attention I'm getting from the Russian and US governments, or at least the low-level hack who is stuck keeping tabs on me.  I wouldn't wish reading my journal on anyone, especially a non-native English speaker. And just a heads up if you're watching me change—I get pretty lazy about shaving my legs in the winter, so things are about to get decidedly unsexy.  Enjoy the show, my friend.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Dark Forest for Me

I was recently introduced to a Russian expression that pretty well sums up my perpetual state of confusion in this country: “Это - темный лес для тебя.”  Literally translated: “It's a dark forest for you.” But in my quest to escape the dark forest of incompetence, I am taking 20 hours of Russian classes a week. The benefits are threefold: 1) Being able to communicate with words instead of hand gestures 2) Meeting fellow foreigners and 3) Having a reason to put on pants before noon.

My class is primarily made up of foreign men who came to Moscow after being ensnared by Russian women. There are two Frenchmen, a Dutchman, and a German guy, plus a Korean girl and me.  There's also a Spanish girl who makes cameo appearances, so I'm in no danger of losing my lisp anytime soon (¡grathias a Dios!).  Everyone speaks English fluently, which is convenient for me when the teacher wants to translate something, but slightly embarrassing when the foreigners grasp English grammar better than I do.

But language gains aside, I still haven't been able to wrap my head around this sign I came across in a park last week:

It says, “SWIMMING PROHIBITED” across the top, followed by a number to call in the event of an emergency below.  Have there been so many drownings in 3-inches of grass that they really needed a sign?  Hypotheses are welcomed.  In the meantime, I won't go near any fields without a pair of water wings and a lifeguard.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Moscow Birthdays

I celebrated my first birthday abroad at the age of 21, a dangerous birthday year for any American, and especially one in the vodka capital of the world.  Poor planning prevailed, and I arrived at my birthday party on an empty stomach carrying a bottle of room temperature Russki Standart.  It doesn't take a genius to see where this night is going to end, so we'll just fast forward to the following morning, which was my birthday proper.  Find newly 21-year-old Jessie keeled over in the bathroom, waving her host mother away because "it's just a touch of food poisoning."  Soviet-raised Irina is unconvinced, and rightly so.

Celebrating my 21st birthday with my American comrades 
(I count 3 bottles of Russki Standart vodka on that table)

This year, I had no plans to replicate my 21st birthday mistakes.  Instead, I opted for a group dinner at the Spanish restaurant I discovered last month and balanced out my sangria and gintonic consumption with an abundance of tapas.  Our girl to guy ratio of 8:1 made fellow Fulbrighter Yan look like the luckiest man alive, and he was approached mid-meal for tips by a curious Russian onlooker.  I missed the finer points, but I did see Dmitry give an earnest thumbs-up and manage a heavily accented "Good job!"  Yan, for his part, did get Dmitry's cousin's number, so it seems that rolling with a crowd of eight ladies works for him.

After the meal, the responsible (read: employed) members of the group said their do svidaniyas, and we remaining five migrated to the bar.  When I announced to Gilberto, the Cuban owner, that it was my birthday, he insisted on a round of shots.

Me: What are we drinking?
Gilberto: Homebrewed aguardiente.  120-proof!
Me: Firewater?  That you made yourself?!  YES.

But his generosity didn't stop there, and next we were throwing back a round of orujo.  I translated for the group and remarked that I hoped the complimentary shots didn't signify I'd accidentally acquired a Cuban boyfriend.

Cold War nightmare: an American birthday in a Cuban-owned bar in Moscow

Our revelry soon drew the attention of two Hungarian businessmen who were eager to show off their English abilities and to buy us a bottle of celebratory champagne.  Taking a break from the onslaught of alcohol, I thought I'd rekindle my friendship with Nini of earlier blog fame.  However, he cut me off me to hand over another bottle of booze, this one gifted by a Russian.  Re-enter Dmitry, the Russian under Yan's tutelage.

I thanked him, as well as the girl at his side who I erroneously assumed was his girlfriend.  "First, let me say this is NOT my girlfriend.  This is my cousin!" But that explanation pretty solidly exhausted Dmitry's English, and I drifted back to the Spanish-speaking crowd where my earlier worries proved founded.

Me: How long have you lived in Moscow?
Gilberto: 25 years.
Me: Oh, so you're more Russian than Cuban at this point!
Gilberto: Well I've had 3 Russian wives.
Me: No Cuban wives?
Gilberto: No, nor an American wife.  But that's the dream.

Then he smiled and gave me a very pointed look.  At which point, I screamed for help and called Molly over to defuse the situation. Gilberto may not speak English, but I'm pretty sure he realized I'm not going to be the American who helps him realize that sueño.

The night ended in the same way that my 21st birthday started--in the back of a gypsy cab telling a random Russian man my life story.  But this time, I wasn't suffering from "food poisoning" and my life story can now be told in decently rendered Russian.  It's nice to see I'm not just getting older, but maybe even a little wiser as well.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Communal Living

One of the facets of Soviet life that both fascinates and horrifies me was their experiment with communal living.  After the Russian Revolution, Lenin conceived of the communal apartment as part of the “new collective vision of the future.”  Acting as a sort of Soviet Robin Hood, he took apartments from the rich and forced them upon the poor.  I still remember the years I shared a room with my younger sister with bitterness, so it baffles me that Lenin remains unscathed in the Soviet annals after this ill-advised move.

In an earlier post, I described my apartment as “Russian,” shying away from the adjective “Soviet” for fear of promoting antiquated stereotypes.  However, my apartment was clearly designed for communal living and there is no way around that.  During the Soviet era, my bedroom would have housed an entire family, Olga’s room would have housed another, and both families would have shared the bathroom, telephone line, hallway, and kitchen.  Apartments were owned by the state--it was impossible to buy them--and they were divvied up based on a government-mandated number of square meters per person.  Stealing wasn't uncommon, so many people would lock up their food or keep their toiletries somewhere other than the bathroom.  After inadvertently sharing a toothbrush with my grandmother's dentures this summer, I can empathize. 

 Russian bedroom for one today, Soviet home for many back in the day

While I find it challenging to see many positives in this arrangement, I've been told it did encourage camaraderie.  My Russian teacher even alluded to a lot more “free love” in the communal living days.  When asked if this meant the Soviets were a bunch of free-loving hippies, Dariya answered in the negative.  “Nyet. Categorically, NYET.”  The Soviets were many things, but they were not a bunch of flower children hopped up on hash and rainbows. 

To better demonstrate her point, my teacher had us watch a Soviet satire about three couples who are all having affairs with each other, a fact that comes to light around the table of a communal apartment. In the end, husbands, wives, and lovers are swapped, but one man and one woman remain single.  Why?  Because Zina chose a private bathroom over both her husband and her lover. Having once spent an entire summer with my family in a tent-trailer (essentially Soviet housing on wheels), I can say with confidence I would have made the same choice. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Week in Pictures

I've done a terrible job of blogging this week, which might imply productivity or busyness on my part but actually signifies laziness.  Although I have watched an alarming amount of New Girl in the last few days, I have also been studying Russian, writing, and getting to know Moscow better.  Here's what that entailed this week:

Monday: The Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) were in town for orientation before departing to the far flung reaches of Mother Russia.  I (and the other two Fulbright Fellows in Moscow) met up with them for dinner, followed by drinks at Kruzhka, a beer hall described to me as "the drinking establishment of the proletariat."  Given the exorbitant prices everywhere else in Moscow, I will gladly drink with the working class.

 One of the many Kruzhkas in Moscow

Tuesday: My first attempt at cooking borshch resulted in enough beet soup to feed an army, so I invited over some Fulbrighters and we had ourselves a Russian feast.  I rounded out the meal with vodka and an Olivier salad, which is about 9 parts mayonnaise, 1 part carbs, and 100% delicious.

$6 vodka, a massive pot of borshch, and what qualifies as "salad" only in Russia

Dining in my bedroom (because it's infinitely larger than the kitchen)

Wednesday: In what may now border on an identity crisis, I joined a group for Latin Women in Moscow.  I had the intention of scouting it out and practicing a little Spanish, but ended up dropping 2,500 rubles on a one-year membership and meeting a Nicaraguan diplomat who wants to set me up with her son.  Being a Power Latina has its perks. 

Thursday: After meeting up with a Stanford GSB graduate for Fulbright research, I dashed off for a Spanish tour of the Shilov Gallery with my new Latin besties. The excursion included a meet and greet with the artist (Alexander Shilov) himself and Spanish-style merienda

One of my favorite paintings, albeit the most depressing

Friday: After a slightly weird exchange with a British girl looking for a flatmate (it turns out I'm not a dog person...big surprise), I asked Molly to come along as my Craigslist Bodyguard while I checked out the place.  However, when I texted the Brit to say my friend and I were around the corner, she got super shady and refused to show me the place.  Then when I got home, I decided to get stalkerish and noticed that the Facebook profile associated with her email address belongs to a Ukrainian man.  I think I narrowly avoided being sold into sex slavery, but at least I discovered this adorable corner of Moscow? 

The aptly named Chistye Prudy ("Clean Ponds")

Saturday: I walked over to the metropolis that is the European Mall to buy a belt, but then ran away when I became too overwhelmed.  I think the Russians are better at capitalism than we are...

Sunday: I patted myself on the back for not being hungover on the metro like this guy...

...and then did some serious writing at an anti-cafe. I went to Антикафе Циферблат (Anticafe Tsiferblat), but there are a bunch of cafes popping up around Moscow where you pay for time, rather than what you eat/drink.  I think I need to bring these to America because they are amazing.