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.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hunting for Spaniards in Russia

A recent exam by the State Department categorized my Russian abilities as "Intermediate Minus," so I figured it would be easier to befriend Spanish-speaking Russkis than to rely on my error-riddled Russian.  With a Russian-speaking American in tow, the hunt for hispanohablantes brought us to a tapas bar in the heart of Moscow, which was hosting an end of summer party for Spaniards.  As expected, the gathering drew an eclectic mix of Spaniards and Russians, but people were still pretty confused by the two Americans in their midst.  I'm really not sure my emphatic "nyet" convinced the suspicious Catalan that we were not spies. 

After three months away from Spain, I was excited to order up some Spanish food, even if I had to navigate a Cyrillic menu to do it.  However, when I didn't recognize the waiter's accent, I found myself ordering in a mix of Spanish, Russian, and English, changing languages mid-sentence until we were both thoroughly confused.  But when I saw him drinking red wine on the job, I knew he had to be a Spaniard.

Me: Where in Spain are you from?
Dude: I'm from La Habana!
Me: You're Cuban?!  But you're drinking at work!
Dude: I'm the owner.  I can do whatever I want.

And just to prove it, he poured us free shots of orujo, a liqueur from my favorite corner of Spain, and the backbone to many a night out and pig slaughter in Galicia. 

Tortilla, gambas al ajillo, and manchego cheese

The nostalgia was amplified even further when the next bartender to help us claimed to be GalicianWhen I excitedly starting telling him about the year I spent in Santiago de Compostela, he had to clarify that his parents are Galician, but he was born and raised in Havana as well.  That was probably for the best because the next thing I did was try to speak Galician at him.  Had my old roommates Javi and Iago been around, they could have clarified that I was actually speaking mangled Italian.  However, I did manage to impart some Spanish cultural knowledge when I asked if they served kalimotxos.

Bartender: What the hell is a kalimotxo?
Me: It's a Basque drink!
Bartender: Okay, what's in it?  I can make anything.
Me: So it's actually just red wine and Coke. 
Bartender: All right.  [Grabbing two wine classes]
Me: Nope, not that classy, just regular glasses. It's what high school kids drink in parks.

The bartender whipped up two excellent Cuban kalimotxos and Molly and I settled in for some people watching.  We were really curious about one of the other bartenders, who bore a striking resemblance to a genie with his gold earring and ample belly. 

Me: Is his name all Ns or all Is? I can't tell.  [His nametag read: НИНИ]
Molly: It's Nini.  Oh my god, NINI THE GENIE!

We waved Nini over and asked him for his life story, which also began in Cuba.  He asked me where I was from, and I decided to make him guess to see where he placed my accent.  When he guessed "Colombia or Argentina," I nearly bear-hugged him in excitement.  When I told him I was American, he demanded to see my passport as proof.  As my passport is currently in the hands of Russian bureaucrats, I had to show him my California driver's license, which he accepted dubiously.

Нини the Genie (gold earring not pictured)

I have already promised Nini we are coming back in a few weeks to celebrate my birthday.  But I am crashing a Mexican meet-up on Wednesday, so I guess I shouldn't rule out the possibility that I'll have a new Spanish-speaking contingent by then.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Cunning like the KGB

I'm starting private Russian classes next week, and Olga was really invested in my hunt for a teacher. She got it into her head that I was looking for an American to teach me Russian (obviously, I was not) and seemed to think I was just pulling candidates off the street.  She became even more skeptical when I told her I was meeting with an instructor named Frida.

Olga: Who is she?  I don't think she's Russian.
Me: She studied at the best university in Moscow and graduated in 1991. How could she not be Russian?
Olga: Frida?  She's Spanish.  I don't trust this.
Me: Frida's more a Mexican name, but...

So after many disapproving head shakes, she disappeared for a few minutes, then returned in a much calmer state.

Olga: It's okay, she's Russian.
Me: I never thought she wasn't!
Olga: I did some research.  Her parents are both Russian.
Olga: I looked online. They might be Jewish, but it's fine.
Me: Where did you find this?
Olga: Facebook...and some other sites.
Me: Jesus, you're like the KGB.
Olga: I am! [not to be distracted] Maybe she's Ukrainian...
Me: I'll ask her.
Me: Sure, it's fine!
Olga: Noooo! Jessica, you can't! To ask a Russian if they are not from here would be...a HORROR! [She said "horror" in English to really drive the point home]

When she next asked about my teacher prospects, I listed my candidates, referring to Frida as "our friend Frida." Olga nearly peed herself laughing, so even though I should probably password protect my computer, I think it was a real bonding night for us.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Russian Roommate

Just like my last stint in Russia, I’m living with a woman named Olga. The original Olga was my host mother Olga Petrovna, whom I affectionately referred to as OP. The latest Olga in my life is a 38-year-old editor with a nebulous past (mostly due to a lack of comprehension on my part). We also share our flat with her dog, Markus, an overactive Russian terrier (is that a real breed?) that enjoys shedding on things, running around like a hooligan, and disregarding my commands. Olga has explained that it’s because he doesn’t understand my accent, which just adds insult to injury. I have taken to repeating “сидеть” (sit) with every intonation imaginable, but my success rate continues to hover around 0%. If Markus doesn’t humor me soon, I’m hiding his beloved ball, and then we’ll see who gets the last laugh.

The best adjective to describe our apartment is “Russian.” The bathroom is split between a closet-like room for the toilet and a nearby (but not adjacent) room for the bathtub, sink, and washing machine. The entrance to our flat is guarded by two thick doors, both of which I suspect could stop a Soviet tank if it came down to it. Our kitchen was clearly not designed with functionality in mind, but it is more user-friendly than my first kitchen in Spain.  My room is massive—it may have once served as a living room—so in addition to my bed, desk, and wardrobe, there’s also a china cabinet and an antique bookshelf stocked with faded tomes. I’m sure I’ll be reading those voraciously, just as soon as I progress past a first-grade reading level.

Olga seems to enjoy taking me under her wing, even if my ability to maintain a conversation is only slightly higher than Markus’. On Sunday, she took me with her when she went to vote in the Moscow mayoral election, a process that was surprisingly similar to America’s.  Her polling station was an elementary school a few blocks away manned by the Russian version of PTA moms. A poster outside the voting booths gave a brief overview of the different candidates, so Olga quickly reviewed their respective merits and asked me to weigh in.

Olga: Which of the candidates would you vote for, Dzhessika?
Me: Uh…I don’t know. [i.e., “I can barely read, Olgs.”]
Olga: Which one do you like best?
Me: The young man, but only because he is the most beautiful. [I’m sure that sounded extra creepy in my thick, American accent].

I thought the police keeping an eye on things might have something to say about an out-of-place foreigner in their midst, but no one paid me any mind, and I half-expected Olga would let me punch her ballot like my mom did when I was a kid. No such luck, but she did buy me a marzipan pastry on the way out, which she said was an election day tradition. By the time we exited the school, a group of middle school girls had managed to set up speakers and microphones and were in the midst of a heavily-choreographed song and dance routine on the playground. I have no idea how this related to the election, but I will say that the lead singer really has potential. Someone get her an agent and get her to Eurovision because she is begging for pyrotechnics and a better set of back-up dancers.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Back in the (former) USSR

After much ado, I am back in Mother Russia for the first time in eight years. Thanks to a Fulbright grant in creative writing, I have nine glorious months to write a screenplay (and maybe novel?) about the generation gap in post-Soviet Russia, blow my stipend on caviar and kvass, and attempt to learn one of the most difficult languages in the world.  While my Russian has improved dramatically since 2005, I am far from fluent.  Just yesterday, I asked a street vendor for vodka (self-explanatory) instead of voda (water), but that was probably a Freudian slip.

After spending the last few months oscillating between terror and excitement about my return to Russia, I was relieved to discover that Moscow is every bit as weird and wonderful as I remembered.  There is a tangible “Russianness” to this country that can’t be stamped out by its rapid Westernization.  However, the influence of the West is more apparent than ever before: BMWs and Mercedes have replaced the old Soviet Ladas, the Moscow metro map now includes Latin transliterations, the supermarkets have nearly as much selection as an American Wal-Mart, and massive advertisements for a “Биг Тейсти” (Big N’ Tasty) are juxtaposed against the Kremlin in the background.  I suspect Lenin is rolling over in his tomb, a fact I plan to personally confirm with a pilgrimage to his eerily preserved corpse.

But with all the Western influence I’ve seen, there is much that has stayed the same.  Peroxide blondes in leopard print are a ruble a dozen and there will never be enough spray paint for PETA to shut down the Russian fur industry.  The metro stations, which doubled as bomb shelters during the Cold War, are still works of art with intricate mosaics and stunning architecture.  McDonalds and Starbucks will never put the blini stands and pirogi kiosks out of business.  And Red Square will never cease to stun me.

I have never really been able to explain what it is I love about this country, and I suspect this time will be no different.  It’s the kind of place that polarizes people—you either love it or you hate it, and I definitely fall into the former category.  I’m sure my enthusiasm will wane when the amount of daylight can be measured in minutes rather than hours and I am up to my neck in snow, but for the moment, I’m still in giddy disbelief that I am back.