Saturday, December 6, 2014


In fifth grade, my teacher decided to have all of the non-native English-speakers come to the front of the class and teach the rest of us how to say “hello” in their languages. There were three Russian girls in my class, so that meant we all had to learn how to say “Здравствуйте.” She had them write it on the whiteboard, but even seeing “zdravstvuyte” in Latin letters wasn’t much help. We made a valiant effort, repeating it over and over until the classroom was awash with consonants.

“Is anyone saying it right?” asked our teacher.

The girls made us go around the classroom one-by-one until all 28 of us had thoroughly butchered their mother tongue. At the end, Anna turned to our teacher and said, “Jessie’s the only one who got it right.” I beamed with overachieving pride, unaware that this would be the last time I’d ever pronounce the Russian greeting properly.

A few months later, Anna and I were partnered up on a classroom task. She was wearing shiny, pointy-toed black shoes—the kind that Russian men are still partial to today. Apropos of nothing, I said, “Your shoes are stupid.”

“Yeah, well you need new jeans,” she fired back, pointing at the massive hole over my knee. And there it was, my first lesson in not messing with Russian females. They will always win and you will always feel inferior in your fashion choices. Now I wish Anna had taken me under her wing and taught me how to dress like a Russian girl back when I was 11—it would have saved me so much trouble now.

The mid-90s were bad for everyone (I’m in the middle)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

An (Emotional) American Mountain

In Spain, a roller coaster is known as a “Russian mountain” (una montaña rusa). The “Swiss mountain” atop Monte Igueldo in San Sebastián is an exception—legend has it that Generalissimo Franco himself chose this unconventional nomenclature because he didn’t want to name anything after the Russian Communists. Meanwhile, here in Russia, you might think a roller coaster would just be called a “mountain,” but you would be wrong. To really confuse me, the Russians say “American mountains” (американские горы), and I  still haven’t found a Spanish mountain.  Whatever you want to call it, a roller coaster is the best metaphor for how I have been feeling about writing lately. It’s like, “Well this sounded fun at first, but now I can’t really get off because I’m plummeting toward the ground, so I guess I’ll just vomit instead.”

Spain’s Swiss Mountain (“mountain train” in Basque)
Photo credit: Donosti’s newest resident, the lovely Marti Buckley Kilpatrick

For the last month, I have been getting farther and farther behind on my writing schedule. The end of the week rolls around and I have yet to re-write another chapter. I go to the library, Lenin’s faded portrait looks down at me mockingly, and I stare at page upon page of mediocre writing that looks to have been written by someone who has never read a book in her life. It kind of feels like I’m attempting to put together a puzzle without the box that shows you what it’s supposed to look like—except I have 60,000 words instead of puzzle pieces. And I hate puzzles.

A friend asked me if I was suffering from Writer’s Block, which I don’t even know if I believe in. If I had to diagnose my affliction, it would be more like Writer’s Depression or Writer’s Low Self-Esteem. Or maybe just “Not Actually a Writer.” Whatever it is, it’s the kind of emotional state that makes me want to light my laptop on fire. I very well may have done that if not for the fact that the woman who monitors Hall 2 at the Lenin Library would likely light me on fire if I tried doing that on her watch.

Then last Wednesday, just as I was about to go to bed, I got an email from my first male critic that included feedback on the first 60 pages. There was plenty of stuff he didn’t like, but there was also a lot he did like—and even more surprisingly, plenty that I liked as well. I discovered sentences I don’t remember writing that were actually quite good, and some bad ones that I realized I knew how to fix. I spent the morning of Thanksgiving incorporating his changes (and hopefully making my male hero a little more masculine) and actually felt excited about writing for the first time in weeks. We’ll see how long the ascent lasts before I’m back to wondering why I ever decided to get on this stupid ride.
“Every so often I get a tug on my sleeve [to write fiction]. It’s kind of awful. It’s so hard. It means you’re going to be immersed in it for a very long time. When I get that nudge, I kind of feel like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ Because it means it’s going to be two or three years, and I’m going to have terrible self-esteem the whole time, until I get to the very last draft.” – Anne Lamott
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” – George Orwell

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pumpkin Pryaniki (Тыквенные пряники)

Photo credit: Liz

Pryaniki are the Russian equivalent of gingerbread, but unlike their American counterpart, they are not liable to break your teeth. Where the American gingerbread man is hard and flat, the Russian pryanik is soft and pillowy. I’ve had a thing for them since I tried one in Izmailovsky Park on a crisp, autumn day in 2005, but every single one I’ve had since has been store-bought, slightly stale, and mostly underwhelming. Even so, I got it into my head that I wanted to make pumpkin pryaniki, something of a Russian classic with an American twist. Problematically, there were exactly zero recipes on the internet for “pumpkin pryaniki.”

I would have had more luck if I had searched in Russian, but embarrassingly, that only occurred to me now. Instead, I started with this recipe for Pryaniki with Mint Glaze from Natasha’s Kitchen (one of my favorite Russian food blogs, and not just because she grew up in Washington, too) and then threw in a bunch of spices and pumpkin and made my own glaze because pumpkin and mint don’t really mix.

Normally, I wouldn’t bore my readers with my cooking endeavors and my terrible food photography, but there are a decided lack of pumpkin pryaniki recipes out there and I didn’t want to deprive the English-speaking world of these cookies. Both times I’ve made them, they’ve been devoured by Russians and Americans alike, and my friend Ksenia’s mother even asked for my recipe, so you know they’re the real deal. Without further ado, here’s the best thing to happen between Russia and America since…well, maybe ever.

Pryaniki Ingredients:
2 large egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 cup homemade pumpkin puree (you could use canned if you have no self-respect)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon white vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 cups all-purpose flour

Pumpkin Glaze Ingredients:
2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 tablespoons whole milk (3.2% milk if you live in Russia)
2 tablespoons homemade pumpkin puree

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C for those of you in Russia). Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a mixing bowl, whisk together 2 egg yolks and 2 cups of sugar. When they’re good and mixed, add 1 cup of sour cream and 1 cup of pumpkin puree and whisk until creamy. 
  3. In a small bowl, mix 1 tsp baking soda and ½ teaspoon vinegar (it will bubble). Add that to the mixing bowl as well. 
  4. Add ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp vanilla extract, and all of the spices to the mixing bowl, then whisk everything together until well blended.
  5. Slowly add the flour, about ½ cup at a time, to the mixing bowl. After the first 2 cups of flour, you’ll probably have to switch from a whisk to a spoon, and around 4 cups, you’ll just want to use your hands.
  6. Once thoroughly mixed, lightly flour your hands and form the dough into balls about the size of golf balls.
  7. Place the dough balls on the parchment papered cookie sheet and slightly flatten them. Bake at 350°F for 25-28 minutes, or until they are just beginning to turn golden brown. Remove immediately.
  8. While they are still hot, dip each cookie into the glaze, which you hopefully made while the pryaniki were baking. (To make the glaze, dump all the glaze ingredients in a small bowl and mix them up). 
  9. Spread the glaze evenly over the tops of your pryaniki (your fingers will work best here). Once glazed, place the cookies on a cool dry surface and let the glaze dry. 
  10. Once the glaze hardens, turn the cookies over and glaze the bottoms. Make sure the glaze completely covers the cookie—it will keep them moist and delicious for a few days. When the glaze sets, serve with a glass of milk or tea and enjoy! 
I told you my food photography skills are terrible

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Lesson in Profanity

I was having dinner last night with an American friend and two Russians when the American lamented the lack of мат (Russian profanity) in her vocabulary. It’s not that she wants to swear like a Russian sailor, but she does want to be able to recognize curse words when she hears them in the street. Our Russian companions refused to teach her any obscenities, so she asked me if I could help her out. Over the years, I have picked up a few Russian expletives—hockey matches were a good start when I studied abroad, and then Dima filled in the gaps (Belka is on the receiving end of a lot of insults). But while I’ve learned many of these words, I don’t actually use them. First, cursing in Russian carries more weight than it does in English. Second, and more importantly, I remember how idiotic my Spanish students sounded when they tried to swear in English. They had no idea what they were saying and their phonetics were terrible—it was all “beach” this and “sheet” that. If you’re going to swear, you have to swear right.  And that’s just not something I can do in Russian or Spanish.

Even so, I wanted to share my basic knowledge of Russian мат.  “You know the Б-word, right?” I asked.  She did not, so I leaned across the table and whispered it to her like we were children. The Russians were highly amused—by my accent, mostly—and one of them decided to share a joke that made use of the word.  I missed the subtleties, but there was a male cat, his kitten son, and a whore. When he got to the punch line, my friend and I stared at him blankly, not entirely sure he’d finished telling the joke.

“You two really need to learn Russian,” he sighed.

Perhaps to prove that I do know a modicum of Russian, I jumped in with my next inappropriate phrase: “Go to the d--k!” That’s the literal translation of the Russian, but in practice, it’s more like “Go f--k yourself.” I picked up that choice phrase from a Spaniard in Basque Country, so it may have gotten a little convoluted along the way, but I think it ends up gaining something in translation. I wish I could export that to America, but alas, I’m trying to clean up my language.

You see, after reading my novel, my older sister pointed out that two of the main characters sound way too similar.  Stephie corroborated Melissa’s claim, highlighting a specific line of dialogue as an example.  Reading the line in question, I suddenly realized why they sound so alike—both characters talk like me. And I am way too liberal with the F-word.  I did a quick “Ctrl F” to see how many times I had used “f--k” or one of its derivatives, and was horrified when I got more than 50 results. Naturally, every utterance comes from one of these two characters. Those f---ers have been spending way too much time around me.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cool Parents

Last month, while dining at my favorite Georgian restaurant, my friends and I started chatting with the Dutch-Canadian couple at the table next to us. They were spending three weeks in Russia, and visit about three new countries a year.  They were in their 60s, but looked a good decade younger—possibly because they travel far and wide and had a sense of adventure that was inspiring. The woman said that her advice was to live life without fear and to marry a Dutchman.  So Russia might be the wrong place for me on both counts.

I was thinking about how cool this Canadian couple was when I realized that my parents are actually pretty cool too—even if I didn’t realize it until recently. Growing up, my parents were not “cool parents.” Or at least not by any pre-teen definition of the term. My dad’s “beard art” phase was not one I would like to revisit, no one wants their parent playing a banjo at their sleepovers, and his bike spandex are still renowned among my childhood social circle. His antics bothered my mother less, even though she was the parent who laid down rules and doled out punishments. Pop, white bread, and television were strictly forbidden, and I even had a curfew when I was home for the holidays my freshman year of college. Years later, my mom learned that I had still managed to get away with a little teenage fun in high school and she was not amused. I swear she almost retroactively grounded me.

Harmonicas are even worse than banjos

My first memory of parental embarrassment occurred on my first day of kindergarten. One of the items on our school supply list was a blanket to sleep on at nap time. Instead, my mom burrowed into the depths of her closet and produced a woven rug she and my father had picked up in South America. When it came time for our mid-morning lie down, everyone rolled out snuggly, fleecy things emblazoned with princesses and dinosaurs. I hid behind the cubbies with my brightly colored Inca art and hoped no one would ask about my musty sleeping mat.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so embarrassed by the rug, which actually has a pretty interesting back story.  In the 70s, my parents took a few belongings and their fairly terrible Spanish and headed down to South America for nine months. Between my dad (allegedly) getting bit by piranhas in Brazil and nearly getting arrested for public urination in Bolivia, it’s a wonder they made it back to America to get married. 

The parents before they were parents

Now that they’re retired, they’ve returned to their gallivanting ways.  They just finished the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain, and are now in the Canary Islands visiting one of my dad’s best friends from high school.  I was Skyping with one of my best friends from college last weekend, and I mentioned that I’d just talked to my whole family. Stephie had dialed in from Seattle while my parents and Melissa had called in from a riad in Morocco. Lindsay was impressed by our global reach.

“I thought my parents were cool,” said Lindsay. “They just got back from two weeks in Turkey and two weeks in Sicily, and that included a stay at a pistachio farm.

“My parents just spent a week in Menorca visiting some Spanish hippies my dad caravanned across the Moroccan desert with two years ago,” I countered.

“Yeah, your parents might be cooler.”

And she doesn’t even know about my dad’s boxcar adventures or my mom’s visit to the Soviet Union, complete with a Communist Party convention in Leningrad.  But that might require an entire blog post of its own.

My parents in Finisterre, Spain after completing the Camino

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mastering the Art of Russian Sanctions Cooking

When Russia banned US and EU food imports for a year, I wasn’t too concerned. I am too cheap to pay $10 for imported peanut butter and I thought maybe this was Russia’s way of jumping on the “eat local” hipster bandwagon. Besides, I was on vacation in the US at that point and I was missing my Russian staples. I had long since depleted my stash of vodka and cherry juice and had resorted to making my own kvas and caviar.

One of my weirder cooking endeavors

I returned to Moscow in September to find that the supermarkets still had aisles full of French cheese, Spanish olive oil, and Italian Nutella. I thought stores were selling off the last of their summer imports, but rumor had it that Western goods were just making their way to Russia via Belarus. I still wanted to encourage the local economy (that’s not treason, right?), so I started frequenting the next best thing to a farmer’s market in Russia.

There are various old women over/under the bridge by my metro who stand in the cold all day peddling pantyhose and produce. When I picked up a luscious bunch of blackcurrants for only $1.25, I thought it was a steal – until I bit into one and discovered they taste like violin rosin. It took many cups of sugar and an hour slaving over a hot stove before I had a jar of blackcurrant jam and something remotely edible.

You might think this would have prevented me from buying more berries the following week, but you would be overestimating my intelligence. I tried again, this time with an even prettier bunch of berries, the name of which I didn’t understand.

Me: Kalinga?
Woman Under the Bridge: Kalina! [bursting into a Russian folk song]: Kalinka – malinka moya!
Me: Oh!  I was forced to listen to that song on repeat this summer in Gatchina!  Yet I still have no idea what a “kalina” is.

Калина, or “high-bush cranberry” as it’s known in English

I went home and popped some berries into my mouth, only to quickly spit them out and Google, “Is kalinka poisonous?” Kind of, as it turns out. According to Wikipedia, “The guelder rose is very mildly toxic, and may cause vomiting or diarrhea if eaten in large amounts.” So naturally, Russians (and now me) flavor their vodka with the berry. I’ll let you know how mine turns out in ten days when it’s ready for consumption (assuming it doesn’t kill me).

Even though I was 0 for 2 on the berries, I went ahead and made a third local produce purchase when I saw that my favorite bridge-dwelling babushka had finally grown something I recognized: leeks. Problematically, I got it into my head that I needed to make Leek Apple Cheddar Soup, which would require an embargoed Western good. I made a trip to the fancy schmancy grocery store, where I found four lonely blocks of Dubliner cheddar, one of which was growing some Irish green mold. So much for that Belarus theory.

I’m hoping I don’t have to rely on my roadside grocers for Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. I’ve already accepted it’s going to be a Russian fusion-inspired feast (Sanctsgiving, if you will), but I will need some Western ingredients. I’m pretty sure pumpkin pryaniki are going to be the greatest thing to happen to Russia since sliced black bread.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Winter in October

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s snowing already, but after a mild Russian winter last year (i.e., the harshest winter I’ve ever experienced) it all feels a bit soon. My coping strategy thus far has been denial. As you might imagine, it hasn’t been very successful.

A snowier moment from December 2005 for dramatic effect

I had a work event to attend first thing this morning, so I took to the 23°F (-5°C) streets in a dress and nylons and hoped that frostbite wouldn’t set in before I reached the metro. Once I arrived at my destination, I made a beeline for the bathroom—not because I needed to use the toilet, but because my ever-so-Russian bun had been blown into disarray by a fierce wind. As I was pinning my hair back into place, a man walked in. We eyed each other suspiciously until he broke the silence.

Man: Girl, you’re in the men’s room.
Me: I don’t think so.
Man: This isn’t the women’s bathroom.
Me: There was a woman in here when I came in.
Man: Then she was in the men’s room too.

He waited for me to leave, but I wasn’t going anywhere until I’d fixed my hair, so I just stared him down until he disappeared into one of the stalls. Then I glanced back into the mirror and saw a bank of urinals reflected behind me. Oops. Too obstinate to admit defeat, I finished repairing my updo and returned to the business event feeling somewhat less than professional. I blame Russian fashion for my mistake—pantyhose are so tight that I haven’t had proper blood flow to my brain in weeks. Good thing we’ve only got about eight months of winter left.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Office Mute

When I returned to Russia last month after 30 hours of travel, Dima was the first person I spoke with. Exhausted as I was, I greeted him in Russian and then launched into an explanation of how I only wanted us to speak to each other in Russian from then on.  All the while, I wove erratically between the formal and informal forms of address, even though formality went out the window sometime around the evening he accidentally opened the door for Molly and me in his underwear. My attempts to change our language of communication were not remotely successful.  Our very next conversation was in English and we haven’t gone back since.

I resolved to make the office my new “Russian only” language zone.  I stuck to that plan, but I also didn’t say anything other than “Privet” for two weeks. I really don’t know why I get so nervous about speaking Russian in certain settings—after all, I have no shame telling gypsy cab drivers my life story and I’ve been known to chat up young gentlemen on Molly’s behalf, even telling one guy she thought he was “wonderful” because I didn’t know the word for “cute.”  But when it comes to speaking Russian in front of English-speaking Russians, I refuse to open my mouth.

I very well may have remained the office mute for all eternity had fate not stepped in—by locking me out of my office last week. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, I plopped myself down next to the receptionists and another co-worker, gathered my nerves, and started making conversation. They were surprised I could speak in full sentences, and even more astonished to discover I had a personality (I made a joke about how awful Russian men are).

“Dzhessika,” they asked, “where did you learn to speak Russian so well?!”

I’m not letting their compliments go to my head because I know I still have the vocabulary of a kindergartener. In fact, I’ve re-enrolled in Russian classes and have also started watching a Russian TV series recommended by a Russian friend. So far I’ve learned the phrases, “Don’t leave me,” “I’m pregnant,” and “Bastard!” I’m not sure that will be of much help in the office, but at least I’m prepared if I start a turbulent relationship with any of the aforementioned “awful Russian men.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Moscow and the Meaning of Life

On Thursday morning, I’ll be speaking to the new group of Fulbrighters, who are going to be congregating in Moscow for their Fulbright orientation. I’ve been wracking my brain for advice to impart, but to no avail. I don’t know that they really expect useful information from me, but since Thursday also happens to be my 30th birthday, I feel like I should be a font of wisdom by now. In actuality, the only thing I’ve figured out after 30 years on this planet is that the meaning of life is not going to be found in Russia.

My most insightful thought on Russia was actually stolen from a friend a few weeks back. Convinced that he was saying terribly wise things, I scrawled down his quotes on a napkin throughout the evening. Sometime between him telling me “I’m not Carrie f***ing Bradshaw” and “It’s like a butcher shop with no raw meat,” he also said that life in Moscow is “akin to falling down an elevator shaft.” For whatever reason, all three of these things struck a chord with me, though I had a little trouble piecing together the context the next morning (I’m still only 1 for 3). Regardless of what he meant, the elevator shaft line is being appropriated for the first sentence of my third chapter of the fourth draft of my novel (if I ever get there). But somehow, I don’t think that’s the best opening for a talk with a group of government-sponsored grantees.

If I don’t figure out something brilliant by Thursday, I might just recycle the plot of my novel and pretend like it’s my real life. That was basically my Moscow experience, even if it all happened in my head. And maybe that goes for the meaning of life as well.

Autumn in Moscow, just because

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Working Girl

During the three years I’ve lived in Spain and Russia, many people have erroneously assumed I am independently wealthy. At my college reunion, a guy who’d known me for all of five minutes asked, “So do you just have really rich parents or something?” A friend in Los Angeles, who knows me well enough to know that I am independently un-wealthy, still asks me how I afford to travel so much. I don’t know why this is such a mystery, but I’ll share my secret: I work.

While one would be hard-pressed to find a career trajectory in my assortment of past jobs, I do have to work for money just like everyone else. My parents are retired special ed teachers, which is not exactly the stuff of trust fund dreams, and “unpublished writers” do not make bank.  Now that I’m no longer being supported by a Fulbright grant, I have yet again returned to the working world. Or some facsimile thereof.

Without getting into specifics (I don’t want to lose my job, after all), I do have to get myself into an office every morning at 9am. Now that I don’t work from bed, I not only have to put on pants, I also have to meet the Russian dress code. In case we’ve forgotten how Russian women dress, let me just quote directly from a job ad my flatmate recently saw:
“Your look and appearance shall be that of a TOP MODEL, while your organizational and business skills shall be that of a TOP MANAGER.” 
As horrifying as that is, it’s also the implicit message you get as soon as you walk down the street in Moscow, which would explain my outfit for the day: 4-inch heels, a skirt with a slit up the side, and a sheer blouse. And somehow, even with an entire leg exposed, I still managed to be the most conservatively dressed female in the office.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

Trying to Write Like a Russian Male

Having extended my Moscow adventure into a second year under the pretext of finishing my novel, I feel like I need to finish this thing posthaste lest I find myself staying for the duration of my three-year visa. I recently passed an important novel-writing milestone, that being that I finally showed it to people other than myself. Letting people read my writing has become marginally less terrifying over the years, but still makes me feel like I am opening up the most private and vulnerable parts of myself for judgment and ridicule. But that’s how everyone feels about their line of work, right?

My three most trusted editors (my sisters and Nadya) are familiar with my fragile writer’s ego—they know I can take criticism, but that I also need a few compliments to keep me from pulling an Anna Karenina and throwing myself in front of a train. Their responses were encouraging enough that I haven’t set fire to my laptop, and Melissa gave perhaps the strangest feedback I’ve ever received on anything in my life ever: “I liked the scene where … I don’t know if it is the extreme lack of sleep that I’m undergoing or my period, but it made me tear up.” I don’t remember writing anything of any emotional depth, so it’s entirely possible that it was the low quality of my writing that made her cry.

It would seem my biggest problem is my two main characters, whom I don’t seem to know that well.  I think I can figure out the heroine, but my protagonist has proven more problematic, probably because he is a Russian male and I am not. I’m now on a quest to tap into my male character’s inner psyche, and my strategies thus far have ranged from creepy to insane.

First, I decided to start a journal from his perspective. I already keep a daily journal, so this meant I was now writing a second one – as a dude I invented. He’s really not the journaling type, but he sucked it up for my sake and jotted down some feelings. We made it through three pages before I started feeling like a schizophrenic and decided it was time for a new approach.

My next idea was to find a real male with a lot in common with my main character. After wracking my brain, I settled on a Russian who we’ll call “Anton.” He is a friend of a friend, and we once had dinner together nearly four years ago. Though we haven’t seen each other since, that hasn’t stopped me from shooting off the occasional email with pressing, novel-related questions like, “Are you circumcised?” (No, I am not writing a romance novel.)

Anton is currently on vacation in Asia, so when I called him yesterday afternoon, he was sitting on a beach eating pad Thai and drinking a mango shake. I was worried my questions might be too invasive, but he spent an hour and a half answering every question I posed to him – from “were you teased when you moved to the US?” to “do you shave your armpits?” It would seem that there are some Russian customs that men left behind when fleeing the Soviet Union, armpit shaving being one of them.

Armed with seven pages of Anton’s male insight, I decided to make yet another attempt at starting my fourth draft. I walked down to Gorky Park, where I made myself comfortable alongside the Moscow River with a notebook and a cold glass of kvas.  Ignoring the Russian couple making out a few meters away, I wrote the first sentence of my fourth draft for the millionth time. If this beginning doesn’t stick, it might be time a sex change – for my main character, not me.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Moscow Redux

After three months away from my beloved Moscow, I am back. When I packed up in June, part of me wondered if I would really return, and there were a few weeks this summer where I might have severed ties with Russia if not for the fact that I still had a pair of oligarch ice skates and leopard print pants waiting for me in my apartment.  By August, I still hadn’t secured a letter of invitation for a new visa and Stephie’s offer to live with her in Bellingham was sounding pretty tempting. But come late August, I found myself at the Russian consulate once again.

“You look familiar,” they said, as soon as I walked in the door.  Apparently my life has become like Cheers, where everybody at the Russian consulate knows my name.  This does not, however, correspond with them knowing how to spell my name – they have come up with a new and inventive way to transliterate my middle name on each visa, and they alternate between two very Italian-sounding versions of my surname.  But as puzzling as my name may be, my motives for frequenting Russia are even more so (a Russian friend posited that it’s something in the water, but I’m pretty sure that’s just giardia). 

Consular Official: So you really like it over there?
Me: I mean, I keep going back, so I guess?  I swear this is the last time.

This, unfortunately, has been my mantra for the last three years.  What was originally to have been a one-year stint in Spain became two, and then I tagged on a year in Moscow that is now stretching into a second.  I want to say this really is my last year abroad, but then again, Russia did just grant me a three-year visa, proving that they are just as invested in our abusive relationship as I am.

Every time I land in Russia, a not-so-small part of me wonders if I’m going to get past passport control or if I’m going to be unceremoniously returned to sender.  Yesterday afternoon was no different, especially when the passport agent had to flip through five pages of Russian visas and stamps to get to my current visa.  Even I find my affinity for Russia suspicious, so you would think the border agents would too, but all he did was add yet another entry stamp to my collection and usher me into the country. I tried to keep the giddy smile that makes it so obvious I am a foreigner off my face, but I was really happy to be back in Moscow for a second year.

So what do we think – am I going to keep my repatriation promise this year? Or am I looking at three more years in Russia? 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Friday Night in the Emergency Room

After 29 years without allergies, my body seems to be having a negative reaction to America. When I was visiting my parents in June, I discovered I’d developed hay fever when I returned from bike rides every day with swollen, itchy eyes. But that minor inconvenience has been replaced with a far worse allergy, the source of which has yet to be determined.

When I awoke on Friday morning to find my body covered in angry, red hives, I hightailed it to the doctor’s office. The doctor was suitably impressed, but had no solid answers as to what had caused them. She ordered a blood test and instructed me to avoid nuts, shellfish, and MSG until the results came back. I mostly followed her advice, lunching on salmon in hoisin sauce that was probably MSG-free and then dedicating my afternoon to making two peanut butter pies for my sister’s birthday party that evening.

Stephie’s birthday dinner went off hive-free, but sometime around midnight, the dreaded bastards  made their return. In under ten minutes, an army of hives had invaded my body and started climbing up my chin. The doctor had told me to come back in if they spread to my face, and I wasn’t particularly eager to find out what happened if they reached my mouth and my throat started closing up, so it was off to the ER for Stephie and me.

Prior to Friday evening, most of my knowledge of Washington State hospitals had come from the first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. The writers obviously didn’t do much research—the patients who frequent the St. Joseph’s emergency room are all varying degrees of criminally insane and likely make up half of Bellingham’s homeless population. This was a discovery Stephie and I made approximately five seconds after the nurse checked me in and we’d found two vinyl-covered chairs not far enough away from a male (Daniel) and two females (Esther and Skyler) who were bonding over their levels of drunkenness. Esther, a blonde with a messy ponytail and a blood alcohol content that was probably higher than her ability to count, turned to me.

Esther [eying my blue hoodie emblazoned with the word “Italia”]: Are you from Italy?
Me: No.
Esther: Then why are you wearing that sweatshirt?! You’re disrespecting Italians!
Skyler: Maybe she’s been to Italy.
Esther: Who does she think she is?! I’ve never even seen her here before!

I was too tired from all the Benadryl I’d taken to formulate a response, though I don’t think anything would have lessened her desire to start an ER brawl. Stephie, meanwhile, edged farther away and advised me not to make eye contact with anyone.

I suspect she was hoping I’d go into anaphylactic shock—anything to get us away from the dangers of the waiting room. There was a woman clutching a dog whose arm was a latticework of blood, which she draped on the table, not much noticing or caring about the trail of hepatitis she may be leaving in her wake. A man exhibiting stroke symptoms came in, announcing that he’d walked over two miles to get there. A young man across from us couldn’t stop shaking, and Stephie eyed him suspiciously until he moved to a new seat.  It may have helped that she kept whispering to me, “I have mace in my purse if we need it.”

Meanwhile, Esther was becoming increasingly impatient to be seen. After checking the Washington State lottery results via speaker phone (alas, she did not win), she started chatting up a woman who was crying inconsolably.

Esther: Hey, lady! Why are you crying?
Woman: I’m just really emotional right now. I don’t really want to talk about it.

Esther lost interest, but Skyler jumped in where Esther had left off. “I used to be violently angry. I’d beat up my brother and grandmother. But then my grandmother was hospitalized and I realized, ‘I can’t be like this!’”

Too confused by the tale to continue crying, the woman just stared at Skyler blankly, which Skyler took as an opportunity to wrap her in a hug. Shockingly, the woman didn’t pull away—I guess she was less fearful that Skyler was carrying a concealed weapon or MRSA than I was. Meanwhile, Esther was showing off her staph infection to anyone who was foolish enough to look at her.

“Maybe you should tell the triage nurse that your throat is closing up,” Stephie suggested.

By 3:30am, the waiting room had thinned out until even Esther had disappeared. Each time a nurse came out, Stephie and I would jerk our heads up eagerly, then slump down in disappointment when a name other than mine was called.

“Daniel?” A pretty, young nurse had come out to the waiting room and was looking around for Esther’s overdrunk friend, who had stepped out for a smoke break. She approached a man who wasn’t Daniel. “What’s your name?”

Misunderstanding what she was getting at, he gave her a lascivious grin. “What’s your name?”

She shook her head in disdain. “I’m just looking for a patient.”

At 4am, a nurse finally called me back.  As Stephie and I had already surmised, I was in no danger of dying, but I was miserable enough to be given a prescription for steroids. Unfortunately, I still don’t know what the cause of my reaction was, so there’s a non-negligible chance this could all be repeated when I return to Moscow next week.  I’m really hoping that’s not the case—there’s no way I would survive an encounter with Esther’s Russian counterpart...or maybe that’s what the steroids are for.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Sister’s Moroccan Boyfriend

While doing laundry last weekend, I discovered I’d been mistakenly using multipurpose bathroom cleaner in place of fabric softener all summer. But it had done the trick for six weeks, so I went ahead and threw in a final load of whites with a generous dose of lemon-scented Mr. Clean. Wearing clothes that sparkled like a freshly scrubbed Russian bathtub, I headed off to Bellingham to see the whole immediate family for the first time since last August.  This year, however, we’re joined by Melissa’s Moroccan boyfriend.

This is Jamal’s first visit to the United States, and his first trip out of Morocco.  Though Arabic is his first language, he and Melissa usually communicate in French and his English falls somewhere below my Russian abilities.  Leading up to his visit, Melissa was a little apprehensive about how things would go—it probably didn’t help that Stephie joked about sabotaging their relationship in order to get Melissa back to the States for good, or that I came up with a very politically incorrect nickname for Jamal (I blame Russia’s influence for that).

On Thursday, Melissa had a doctor’s appointment and I was tasked with entertaining her boyfriend. Since all I ever do while I’m home is cook and play outside, I decided to take him on a 10-mile bike ride—if we ran out of things to talk about, we could just pretend like we were engrossed in the beauty of the blueberry fields. I had no desire to embarrass myself in French, so I went into English teacher mode, which basically means adopting a voice not unlike an automated telephone system. I thought I was being helpful, but instead, Jamal called me an an asshole.

Me: Why are you calling me an asshole?!
Jamal: I was repeating what you said!
Me: I said useful.  It’s a pretty big difference.

I haven’t ruled out the possibility that Melissa taught him that word after I threatened to lace his food with lard (for the record, it would have been to settle a score with her, not because I’m a horrible person).  As a Muslim, Jamal can can only eat meat that has been killed according to Muslim law, which is pretty limiting here in Bellingham, WA.  I suggested Melissa find a halal grocer, but she thought it would be more fun for Jamal to slaughter something himself.  On an excursion to the Farmer’s Market yesterday, she chatted up a chicken farmer to see if that was an option.
“Would it be possible for him to come to your farm and kill a chicken?  He just needs to slit its throat himself.”

The farmer considered her proposal for a moment.  “Sure, I don’t see why not.”

How is it that I still can’t get a proper iced beverage in Russia but Jamal has already found a live animal to sacrifice? America is way more tourist-friendly than the rest of the world.

The City of Subdued Excitement

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Journal of Jessie Past

My good friend Christine and I were talking about how we never would have met if we hadn’t decided to study abroad in Moscow ever so many years ago.  Her decision wasn’t that strange – Christine’s mom is from St. Petersburg and she grew up speaking Russian at home – but my case is a little different.  Since Tiger Mom dropped the ball in the foreign language department, I grew up speaking English and only English (and this one Tagalog curse word that Spaniards told me is only employed by grandmothers). “So,” Christine wondered, “how did you choose Russia?” 

Over the years, even I have forgotten what first led me to Russia, so I decided to investigate The Journal of Jessie Past.  As always, it was a wealth of weird information:
Anyway, so [Melissa’s friend] asks me why I’m going to Russia, and since it was Melissa’s birthday party and we were at a bar and I was a little buzzed, I gave her a more honest answer than I give most people. Obviously this isn’t verbatim since my memory is so crappy, but the gist was, “All right, well to be honest I haven’t explained it like this to many people, I put it like this to Melissa for the first time today. When I was younger, I always wanted to run away from home, when I was older I often wondered what it would be like to uproot myself and move to a city in the middle of nowhere and start a new life without telling people where I’d gone. Well Russia is as close as I probably will ever come to doing this. I’m going to a completely foreign place, I’m going by myself, and I’m going to fulfill my dream of throwing myself into a new situation that is unfamiliar, lonely, and scary.”
There are so many questions I want to ask myself: Dude, do you not know how to use commas?  I know this is your journal, but get it together.  Also, where did you get a fake ID?!  Because I know I did not have one.  And finally, what kind of misanthrope were you?  Most people’s idea of a good time does not include the adjectives “lonely and scary.”

So there we have it: I came to Russia in search of fear and loneliness.  Now I’m off to destroy all my old journals before I discover something truly terrifying.  God knows what my else I’ve blocked out about my 20-year-old self...

My former selves (September 2005 and March 2014) making wishes at Km 0 in Moscow

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Nabokov Complex

On Saturday, I ended up at the Rozhdestveno Memorial Estate, the country house of famed writer Vladimir Nabokov. If you haven’t heard of his masterpiece, Lolita, then you should probably familiarize yourself with a library and stop reading inane internet posts like this. If you have heard of Lolita but haven’t read it, then you should read it posthaste and not hold me responsible if you discover that a pedophilic love story is not your cup of tea. Now that we’ve got those disclaimers out of the way, let’s continue with the story of how I got roped into translating a Russian tour of Nabokov’s former dacha for a dozen Americans.

I’d long for Russia too if I had a summer house like this to visit

I first realized how difficult it is to translate when I tried to do it for two friends who were visiting me in Spain last spring. On a tour of a honey farm, I only managed to share a few Spanglish factoids and one racist joke—and I’m actually pretty fluent in Spanish. But when you throw in an audience and my fairly laughable command of Russian, my translations become even more atrocious:

Guide: And on top of the house you’ll notice a rectangular belvedere…
Me: So that thing on the top is a “belvedere.” Anyone have any idea what that’s called in English?
Tourist: A belvedere. That’s a word in English too.
Tourist #2: I just thought it was a brand of vodka.
Me: Same.

Guide: The estate was built in the 18th century…
Me: The estate was built in the восемнадцатого века. God, I’m so bad at numbers. Um…
Guide [in English]: Eighteenth century.
Me: Are you sure you don’t want to just do this in English? No? Okay.

Guide: He inherited the estate from his uncle, who never married.
Me: Nabokov inherited this place from his uncle, who never married.
Guide #2: He didn’t just “not marry,” he liked boys.
Me: So they’re telling me the uncle batted for the other team.

Guide: Here is the ballroom where they danced.
Me: In this ballroom, danced. [long pause] I need a subject with that verb, don’t I? This is where they danced.

Guide: And at parties and balls, the orchestra and musicians played in the balcony you see above us.
Me: The muzikants and the orchestra played up there.
Tourist: You mean “musicians.”
Me: Do I have to translate everything for you?

In the end, I understood most of the tour, even if I didn’t always render it into the most eloquent of English. The guide even complimented my Russian, which I probably shouldn’t be too flattered by since she mostly just heard me speaking broken English. Not surprisingly, my abilities in my native language didn’t garner any praise, but I think the group assumed I was embellishing with my more elevated turns of phrase like “Nabokov was a lepidopterist” and “he wanted to preserve the sanctity of the Russian language.” Which I mostly was.

I guess I figured I hadn’t shamed myself enough because I was even convinced to play a tune on Nabokov’s piano.  Normally I wouldn't be bold enough to bust out the few bars of Für Elise buried in the recesses of my memory, but my love for Nabokov runs deep, and I knew that my mother would clap her hands in glee when she saw this photograph.  See, Mom, those twelve years of piano lessons weren’t in vain.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In Russia, Elbow Sprains You

On my third day back in Russia, I headed out for a morning run but returned ten minutes later with a scraped knee, a scraped right elbow, and a very sore left elbow. It turns out my ability to leap over chain barricades is less than gazelle-like. I thought the left elbow was the least of my concerns, but by lunchtime I couldn’t even take off my coat without careful maneuvering and throbbing pain. When someone suggested I see a doctor, I caught myself thinking, “What's a doctor going to tell me?” This is my father’s mantra, and is always the first sign that one really ought to go to the doctor (see: that time he had a cancerous growth in his throat the size of a fist).

But by 5pm, my loss of mobility was alarming, and someone wiser than me took me to the nearest polyclinic. When the doctor saw that I could neither straighten nor bend my arm, he announced it may be broken. I was told to come in for X-rays the following morning and left with a prescription for painkillers and ointment. It would seem that doctors can tell you a lot more than your iatrophobic father, and can recommend non FDA-approved drugs.

First thing this morning, I set off for St. Petersburg to see a traumatologist. Though the doctor spoke some English, his X-ray technician did not. She didn’t bother testing my command of Russian and went straight to forcibly bending my arm into place and telling me to hold still. In the end, it turned out that my elbow was sprained, but so full of blood that it would need to be drained.

Since it didn’t look that swollen, I wasn’t sure there was much to remove, but I was soon proven wrong. After filling one vial with blood, the doctor grabbed a second and said, “I need bigger needle.” But the second vial and the bigger needle proved insufficient as well, so he settled on massaging my elbow until I finished bleeding out all over his hands, my arm, and the towel my arm was resting on. For the grand finale, he tossed the contents of the vials down the sink, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t fly in the US.

Dr.: That was about 15 ml of blood.
Me: Oh. That’s not much, right?
Dr.: Big volume. Very big volume for small joint!

I’m now sporting a compression bandage and a sling – I feel like this is Russia’s way of telling me that I’m basically handicapped in this country. Pfft, that’s old news.

Sad selfie

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

White Nights and Jet Lag

My whirlwind tour of America came to a close on Saturday, which means I am back in Russia. During my brief return, I managed to hit Whidbey Island, Seattle (x2), Bellingham, Texas, and DC, and guaranteed that my body never figure out what time zone to align with.

Sushi reunion with Chelsea in Bellingham

Jessie and Toti do Dallas
On the road to Austin

Tea tasting with Alli in Seattle

Meeting my new cousin in Seattle (she loved her new matryoshka rattle)

Putin made a cameo in DC (as did Sasha)

I’m spending my summer near St. Petersburg, and have arrived at the height of the White Nights. Because it is so far north (the 60th parallel crosses North America in the Northwest Territories of Canada), the sun never really sets. Other than a brief twilight between midnight and 3am, it always feels like it’s the middle of the afternoon. Though this has been horrible for getting over my jet lag, I can watch True Blood by myself at night without getting scared of vampires.

My apartment for the summer is spacious, but it is in dire need of a remodel and looks like it was designed by a blind babushka. The kitchen is a confluence of lace, wallpaper, religious icons, and cat photographs. Most of the wallpaper has floral patterns in a rainbow of browns, but one wall of my bedroom is papered with a massive photograph of a birch forest and lake scene.  The wall opposite is covered in carpet, but it's not nearly as ridiculous as the wall carpeting in the entrance way—that one depicts a family of bears at play. The hot water heater is so complicated that I had to have it explained to me a second time before I managed to take a hot shower.  First, I turn on the gas using a wrench, then I light the heater with a match, turn on the kitchen sink, turn on the shower, turn down the flow at the kitchen sink, then run back to the bathroom and pray.

Other than that, I’ve mostly just been settling into small-town Russian life. The city I’m in has the most beautiful park and palace, both of which are utterly charming. I even told a ten-year-old kid how beautiful his city is, but in typical Russian fashion, he was less impressed: “It’s fine. It was prettier before the war.” Yes, that’s WWII he’s referring to.

A rainy Russian day at the palace

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Back in the USSA

I am officially back on US soil. I had a farewell dinner with friends on Wednesday, packed my bags (leaving most of my belongings in Moscow to guarantee a swift return), and made the multi-leg journey back to Seattle on Thursday. Unfortunately, America didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms—my passport was flagged at JFK and I was taken aside for additional questioning. It turns out there’s a drug trafficker out there with a similar surname and until she’s apprehended, I’m going to be given extra scrutiny at border crossings. If this leads to body cavity searches when I return to Russia in two weeks, I’m not going to be happy.

On Friday, Stephie and I headed out to Whidbey Island for a camping trip with my three oldest friends. Against her better judgment, Stephie let me take the wheel for the first time in nine months—I managed not to drive off the ferry, but it’s probably a good thing this country doesn’t have dash cams.

Reunited with the Little One

When we got to our campsite, Lindsay and Stephie pitched our tent, and I pretended to help. They soon discovered that the tent had a broken zipper, so Lindsay and Stephie set about brainstorming a solution—in the end, Stephie spent the weekend duct taping us in and out of the tent. It’s a good thing I surround myself with people who have basic survival skills or I’d have died a long time ago.

Who needs street smarts when you have friends with street smarts?

Our campsite was situated on a heather-strewn bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The views were stunning and, as always happens after I return from a long stint abroad, I was reminded that Washington State is one of the greatest places on earth. It was the perfect setting for a weekend of hiking, sitting around a campfire, eating too much American junk food, catching up with friends, and laughing until I couldn’t breathe.

Even though Lindsay, Anna, Abbey, and I are all now adults, we still defaulted to the parents in our midst to take care of us. Lindsay’s mom cooked up meals from her trailer, and Abbey’s dad kept the drinks coming when he saw us empty-handed. Knowing I’d been in Russia, he gave me an extra large pour of wine and said, “This’ll put you in a USSR state of mind.” And that was even after he stopped Abbey from spiking it with vodka.

Since I still have the stuffed witch Anna gifted me on my sixth birthday, I was beyond thrilled by her reaction to the souvenir I brought her from Russia. She’s enamored of her Putin mug, and enjoyed her morning coffee in a cup adorned with photographs of Volodya in various macho poses – shirtless Putin astride a horse, bare-chested Putin crouched in a stream, and Putin perched in a tree in camouflage.

Anna: Do people in Russia actually find Putin attractive?
Me: Do people in America not?!

Her look of horror led me to believe that Russian sex appeal just doesn’t translate to America. Reacquainting myself with the US has been strange, especially since I’m off to Texas tomorrow. If that doesn’t bring on the culture shock, I don’t know what will.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Belka and the Domovoy

Russians are a superstitious lot, and I haven’t even scraped the surface of all their strange beliefs. My old host mother used to make me sit in silence before I left for trips, I’ve been told my ovaries will freeze if I sit on the ground, and cross-breezes are rumored to be the source of all illness. But of all the Russian folklore I’ve heard, my greatest discovery was made thanks to Belka.

Back in December when I moved in, Liz tried to prepare me for life with a cat. “Just to warn you, Belka gets weird around 11pm. A friend was cat-sitting and thought she was possessed by the domovoy, but that’s just how cats are.”

Clearly Liz has been in Russia far too long if she assumes everyone has a working knowledge of “the domovoy.” I pressed for further clarification.

“Oh, a domovoy is like a Russian house elf.”

Right, because that makes perfect sense. A quick Wikipedia search gave me more insight into this Harry Potter-esque phenomenon. Basically, a domovoy is a masculine house spirit who is typically small and bearded, though he can allegedly take on the form of domestic animals as well. Domovoys serve the function of a poltergeist, and are usually of the friendly variety.

Initially, I thought Russians believed in them in the same way that Americans believe in Santa Claus and unicorns, but I seem to have been mistaken. Apparently Karina Smirnoff of Dancing with the Stars fame not only believes in them, but also believes she was attacked by one as a child. And since Belka is far more Russian than I’ll ever be, she obviously believes in them as well.

Belka treats our apartment like every meter of it is her own personal domain—she loves napping in cupboards and closets, skulking around under my bed, and hiding in plastic bags. However, there is one place she refuses to go, and that’s the Domovoy’s lair.  There’s a small space under our bathtub that’s about one foot wide and six inches high, exactly the kind of place Belka would normally love. Every so often she’ll approach it curiously, but then she invariably gets skittish and darts away. After months of observing this strange behavior, I’ve jumped on the domovoy bandwagon.  We clearly have one and he is clearly camped out underneath the bathtub. But don’t worry, I haven’t gone full Russian.  I may believe in him, but I’m not at the point where I’m leaving treats for him.  Yet.

Belka making herself comfortable on my bed

Belka hiding from the domovoy

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sentimental Summer Nights

With less than two weeks before I leave Moscow, summer has arrived with a vengeance. Each day brings three more minutes of daylight, and the streets are filled with Muscovites soaking up the fickle Russian sun. We’ve had a week-long stretch of 80°F weather, but with my summer wardrobe sitting in a closet 11 times zones away, my favorite part of the day is when things cool off in the evening.

The long-awaited Moscow sun

Last night, I met up with friends for one last dinner with Molly before she returns to the States on Tuesday. I tried to keep my nostalgia in check, but over icy Yankee Mules (Russia’s version of the Moscow Mule), I couldn’t help but reflect on how fast our time here has gone. It seems like just yesterday that the two of us were meeting up at Le Pain Quotidien on my first day in Russia, but somehow nine months have passed since then. I’m trying not to dwell on the fact that our adventures are coming to a close, and my strategy thus far has been consoling myself with the knowledge that I get to officiate Molly’s future Stanley Kubrick-themed wedding. It’s always nice to know that you’ve made the kind of friend who will let you preside over their nuptials dressed as Lolita.  Now I just need to get ordained online.

It looks like I only have four fingers, but I swear there’s a pinky in there somewhere

We finished dinner around 10pm, just as the sun dipped below the horizon and the evening technically began. Our group swelled to include more friends (and an errant Tinder addition) before dwindling until just Nastya and I remained. Not quite ready to head home, we crossed the street to Patriarch’s Ponds, a small park in the heart of Moscow. We weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the balmy night—the path was dotted with people and groups of revelers were laughing and drinking beers on the grass. I kicked off my shoes and sprawled out under the stars to wait for Moscow’s early sunrise. Dew slowly dampened my dress and mosquitoes bit my bare legs, but after months of wearing winter layers, I didn’t care. We were joined by a pair of ardent admirers from Rostov who recited poetry for us, which Nastya translated for my benefit, until we shooed them away.

Nastya and our new friends

After only seven hours of moonlight, the summer night was over all too quickly. One minute I was exclaiming over a shooting star, and the next, the sky had turned pale blue. I meandered home by daylight and collapsed into bed exhausted but happy. Moscow, it has been a wonderful nine months.

Patriarch’s Ponds at dawn

Monday, May 19, 2014

People Watching

Blogging is inherently egocentric, but I’m going to take a break from my usual narcissism for today. Moscow is full of interesting characters, so here are some who caught my attention this week:

Patient Zero 
I am not the only Lenin Library regular, nor am I the only one with a favorite desk. Farther down my preferred row is a scholar who always arrives before me, always stays later, and always wears the same uniform: a gray button down and a face mask. Though he has finally stopped donning his germ barrier, I’m still keeping a safe distance. Something tells me America won’t take me back if I try to re-enter with ebola.

Danger lurks everywhere in Russia
The Well-Heeled Mother 
A Sunday afternoon journey on the metro found me seated next to a young couple and their screaming toddler. Despite the fact that the mom had an unwieldy stroller and child to contend with, she was wearing 5-inch stiletto sandals and a see-through tank top and was carrying diapers in her designer handbag. It was unclear whom she hated most by the end of her ride—her child who pitched a fit and threw her shoes and pacifier across the train or the overbearing babushka who tried to give her parenting tips. Personally, I thought the father was the biggest problem—not because he wasn’t helping, but because he was wearing Adidas sweats and looked like he was the one still carrying pregnancy weight. Dude, if homegirl’s putting that much effort into her looks, the least you could do is put on some real pants.

A father ditches his wife and child (not actually, but you never know)
Photo credit: Ms. Neah Monteiro

The Nationalists 
On Thursday, I was walking home from the library by way of Tverskaya Ulitsa. In addition to the normal after work commuters, there were also dozens of people carrying signs, waving black and orange flags, passing out leaflets, and wearing vests that read “Motherland! Freedom!” over a picture of Putin. The signs carried all manner of anti-American epithets, including but not limited to, “Obama is following the path of Hitler” and “America supports terrorists and fascists.” I was handed one of their leaflets, but had the good sense not to say anything in response; I don’t think they would have taken kindly to my American accent. Good thing I’m going home in two weeks?

Motherland!  Freedom!

The Loving Drunk
I was hoping not to come under the scrutiny of other people watchers on Friday night after a friend spilled a pint of beer down my pants.  Even though I looked respectable enough, I definitely smelled like someone with a drinking problem. But my self-consciousness proved unnecessary—a young man crossing my path called out, “Я вас люблю!” (I love you). I’m pretty sure he was drunker than my pants, but I’ll take misplaced ardor over accusations of fascism most days.

An entirely different but equally ridiculous Russian, better known as Pasha

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


My radio silence as of late has been directly related to my Fulbright productivity. By some miracle, I have finished a second draft of my novel. “Second draft” should by no means lead anyone to believe that I have produced anything of quality, but rather that I am a masochist with a lot of free time and an even greater amount of fictional friends. The last few weeks have been a blur of solitude—I’ve been spending hours staring at my laptop, cringing at my own bad writing, and trying to remember to put on pants before my flatmates get home from work. My conversations with the cat have become exponentially weirder, and I even asked Belka to start ghostwriting for me; she responded by clawing my thigh until it bled. It was a wake-up call that I should probably find a new interlocutor, and a reminder of the perils of writing without pants.

Belka passed out after a tiring morning of attacking me

The game plan now is to do one final draft before I leave Russia and then send it off to my devoted editor, aka my little sister. She has been giving me brutally honest criticism ever since she picked the lock on my first diary and mocked the opening lines of my kindergarten confessions. That’s dedication right there.

Stephie is the best/weirdest/insert superlative

While I’ve been writing, Moscow has been preparing for Victory Day. This is a celebration of the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in WWII. There will be parades held in major cities across the country, including the Crimea, with the biggest one happening here in Moscow. Because the route to Red Square passes right by my apartment, I’ve been privy to two practice runs. Leningrad Avenue is seventeen lanes wide and I have never seen it devoid of traffic, so it was rather eerie to see it closed off and rumbling with tanks as far as the eye could see. It’s good to see that Moscow still has the power to shock, awe, and scare me.

Tanks for days

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Hunt for Gainful Employment

With only five weeks left before my Fulbright ends, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that I do need to rejoin the working world. In a panic, I have started applying for every job under the sun, including one in Siberia. I know this is an absurd way to approach the job hunt, but I’m not letting logic cloud my lack of reason. Job interviews have been forthcoming, though most of them have been a harsh reminder of how non-discriminatory I have been with my applications.

Interview #1 (English Teacher): Last week I hauled myself out to what Russians would call the zhopa (“arse end”) of Moscow. By the time I reached my destination, I had already decided against the job. Nonetheless, I lied my way through the interview like a champ, enumerating the many reasons I love teaching young kids. In reality, I have found that children’s attention spans are even shorter than they are, and I still haven’t forgiven the angelic 8-year-old who gave me Spanish head lice.  Pass.

Interview #2 (Recruiter): My next interview was with the same organization I am working for this summer. This is the one whose Russian office got shut down by the government, but they are “optimistic” their Moscow operation will be back up and running this August. The job would potentially include travel to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, which sounds like a good way to earn a secret admirer in the form of the FSB. That said, I still hope I get it.

Interview #3 (Mobile App Review Writer): This interview was scheduled via text message, and that alone should have convinced the company I was unfit for the job.  They work with mobile phone apps, and my phone doesn’t even have the capability to text in the Russian alphabet. Regardless, I was brought in for an interview—in a true tour de force, I lied about my love of smartphone technology in a language I don’t speak. I still don’t really know what the company does, but they told me they could get me a work visa and register me with their company in Cyprus. So clearly nothing shady going on here.

Interview #4 (English Teacher): Teaching is still the most realistic option for someone who wants a schedule that allows them to write, so I begrudgingly applied for another teaching position, this one in the city center. The interview also included an English test, which seemed borderline insulting until I sat down to take it. I seriously questioned whether I would pass when I realized I have no idea what a relative pronoun is or how to use the subjunctive properly.  They ended up offering me a job, so I guess that means my English isn’t a total disaster.

I feel like I’m no closer to figuring out the next step of my life, but I’m confident Future Jessie will sort that out for me.  In the meantime, it seems like I’m a way better liar than I realized.  Is that a skill I can add to my résumé?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Switzerland and Sasha

When one of my best friends from college mentioned she’d be in Europe for work, I made an impromptu decision to meet her in Switzerland. Although I would be escaping Russia for a week, I would not be escaping the Russians—Sasha is a born and bred Muscovite, even if she hasn’t lived in Moscow since she was 10. She has recently decided I’ve become more Russian than her, and my decision to pack animal-print pants to Geneva (much less own them) has done nothing to disprove her theory.

Sasha and me (plus Megan) in 2011 for our last reunion

Since I don’t consider myself remotely Russian, I suspected I’d be more at home in the civilized world of Western Europe than in the Eastern Bloc. But it turns out I love me some lawless Russia—the Swiss are so polite that it makes me suspicious, and French sounds downright silly.  My attempts to excavate my one year of high school French have mostly ended in Russian disaster. Nyet comes to mind before non, I’ve lost the ability to count beyond trois, and my pronunciation is so appalling that it would be an improvement if I went back to saying merci with a Spanish lisp. Luckily, the Swiss are such over-educated polyglots that they don’t find a Russian-speaking American to be that disconcerting. When I thanked a waitress in Russian, she said “Пожалуйста” without a second thought.

Geneva's jet d'eau

Despite my resistance to the language, I’m quite taken with Geneva, which appears to have been lifted from an Alpine fairy tale. While Sasha has been off lawyering, I have been spending my days sipping cafés au lait, plodding ahead with my novel, and going for 7-km runs along the lakeside promenade. Every run ends with the hotel concierge greeting me with a water bottle and a towel, which is but one of the many ridiculous amenities on offer. I have also gotten addicted to ordering pillows a la carte and have sampled millet pillows, pine pillows, and orthopedic neck pillows. The pillow menu is written with such flowery language that I didn’t even realize until now that I spent my first night nestled against a glorified sack of grains. Well played, Switzerland.

I may have gotten overzealous with the pillows

Sasha’s work schedule is pretty grueling (especially compared to my own schedule), so on Wednesday evening we decided to unwind on the rooftop terrace. She threw on a bathrobe, I grabbed a bottle of Spanish wine, and we headed to the top floor. The roof was empty, and with its views of the sleeping city it was the perfect place for a long chat. But the setting seemed a little less charming when we gathered our things and discovered that we’d been locked out and there was no one within a screaming radius. Luckily, Sasha is not an anti-technology troglodyte like myself, and her smartphone may have saved my life. Obviously there’s no way I would have survived a night in the elements without a gourmet pillow. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

I (Attempt to) Part Ways with the Oligarch

When I returned to my flat on Wednesday evening after three hours at the banya, I was ready to hydrate and collapse into bed. But my plans were derailed by Dima’s mother, who was fresh off a 48-hour train ride from Kazakhstan. She, Dima, and Liz were sitting around the kitchen table with a homemade bottle of vodka that had also made the voyage from Central Asia.

S lyogkim parom!” she said, giving me the standard post-banya refrain. “Come have some vodka!” Vodka was the last thing I wanted, but Russian women can be persuasive (read: pushy). Not five minutes later, I was chasing shots of vodka with pickled mushrooms and cursing my weak will.

Before I’d arrived, Dima and Liz had mentioned my oligarch adventure to Dima’s mom, and the fact that I had turned the job down. Dima thought this was a mistake, but his mother was even more aggrieved by the situation.

“Who turns down an opportunity like this? People would kill for this job!” While the Oligarch’s riches are seductive, I’m of the opinion that money doesn’t buy happiness, but Dima’s mom dismissed that naïveté. She reminded me that I’m unmarried and childless, making me perfectly suited for a job that would mostly consist of international travel.

“And how am I going to meet someone if I’m following around an oligarch and his girlfriend. Dima, how do you say ‘third-wheel for life?’”

Dima’s mom agreed that this was a valid point, albeit the only one I’d made thus far. Unfortunately, this led to her and Dima turning the topic to how they could find me a husband. He has been trying to force his best friend on me since I moved in, and decided this would be a great opportunity to see if I’d had a change of heart.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. "Don’t you know anyone else? I still think he’s autistic, or at the very least, on the spectrum. It’s never, never, NEVER, NEVER going to happen. Ever. NOT EVER.” I paused for a breath before adding, “And translate that for your mom.”

Dima repeated “nikogda” a few times to appease me, but then encouraged me to give his friend another chance, arguing that relationships require work and surely I could work through the fact that his friend and I have never been able to have a conversation. Sadly, this isn’t because of my pitiful language skills, but because his friend literally doesn’t speak. Dima’s mom jumped on the bandwagon, telling me that Dima’s friend would make a great husband.

“Tell your mom I never want to see him naked.” Dima translated for me, but his mom just shook her head and pointed to my glass.

“You just need to drink more.”

The next morning, I awoke to a headache and two missed calls from the Oligarch.  Liz declined to return the call on my behalf, so I mustered up the courage to call him back and reiterate my rejection, which he more or less ignored.

“Dzhessika, don’t say ‘no’ never. You call me in June, and I will show you the world.”

I muttered something non-committal and figured that was that. But then this morning, I learned that the organization I am supposed to be working for this summer has been shut down by the Russian government. It seems the Oligarch gives sage advice—or he wielded his far-reaching power to prove his point. I’m not sure where this leaves me post-Fulbright, other than still not dating Dima’s friend.  One has to draw a line somewhere.