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.