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.