Monday, January 27, 2014

My Father’s Russian Doppelganger

Since I haven’t tired of embarrassing myself at all things Russian, it seemed fitting that I should add cross-country skiing to the list. Yesterday Dima invited Liz and me to join him for some outdoor athletics, but since Liz had a coffee date at Café Pushkin, that just left me to tag along with a trio of Russian men.

To give you some background, my first and only experience cross-country skiing occurred in the days when the Soviet Union still existed. And I hated it. My father had gotten the bright idea to take his three daughters (all under the age of 10) skiing, and he decided to up the discomfort factor by securing us lodging in an unheated, dormitory-style chalet. Melissa, Stephie, and I were terrified to sleep in the female wing without a parent to protect us, so we ended up spending two nights bunking down in the men’s quarters, which were only moderately less scary. As for the actual skiing experience, I face-planted in a snowdrift, Stephie could barely walk then, much less ski, and Melissa, who complains when temperatures drop below 70 degrees, was ready to murder us all.  My dad laughed us off and said, “You guys seem like you’ve got the hang of it.  Stay together and I’ll see you in an hour!”  Thoroughly abandoned, the three of us collapsed in the snow for a good cry, a bitter rant against our father, and an agreement to never cross-country ski again.

Even though I had started to suspect that Dima is like a younger, Russian version of my father, I agreed to give cross-country skiing a second try.  We left the flat yesterday afternoon armed with sweet tea and chocolate and packed ourselves into Sasha’s dashcam-equipped car.  I immediately fell asleep, awaking to discover that we were lost in some snowy Moscow suburb or other. Maps were consulted, dead ends were hit, and night started to fall. I figured we’d give up and go home, forgetting to factor in Dima’s Dick-like tendencies. My father has never let nighttime interfere with his hobbies—insert flashbacks to many nocturnal bike rides, 4am raspberry bush planting by lantern-light, and that time he woke me up at 1am to film him chasing a possum out of the house. 

When we finally arrived at our destination, it was clear that Dima was no less fazed by darkness than my dad.  I layered up and hoped my ski lesson would be delivered in English, but Dima just sent me off and said I was doing fine, which I seriously doubted. When it became apparent that I was moving about 12 times slower than the boys, Dima circled back to check on me.

Dima: We’re going to take the 17-km loop, so we’ll meet you back at the car. You’ve got your phone, right?
Me: No, I left it in the car like an idiot.
Dima: Well this sounds like the beginning of a story that doesn’t end well.

I would have chimed in my agreement, but he had already skied off. Before I could entertain too many paranoid scenarios of a bear mauling me or an encounter with a serial killer, I comforted myself in the knowledge that Dima was behaving like my father.  Never mind that “fatherly” behavior once resulted in Toddler Jessie dislocating her shoulder (to be fair, my dad was indulging my request to be dragged across the floor, and probably wouldn’t have agreed had he foreseen the questions he’d get at the hospital).

A beautiful setting for skiing...or getting killed

In the end, the boys didn’t abandon me, and I finished the 3-km loop ready for more.  Sasha (also a first-timer) was less enthused, and voted to pack up and head home. But he was quickly shot down by Dima: “We didn’t drive all the way out here to only ski 3 kilometers, did we?!” If not for the fact that he was speaking Russian, I would have sworn that he was my father, who said something similar before taking me on a bike ride so painful I’m surprised I’m not sterile.  I think if my dad comes to Moscow, the combination of Dick and Dima will cause my head to explode.  Or, at the very least, end in a hospital visit.

My dad, his Moscow t-shirt, and his banjo

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Russki Business

When two American girls and one Russian (by way of Kazakhstan) boy decide to throw a party, the cultural differences really come out. They become particularly apparent when the American contingent decides to go with an obscure theme, namely the 1983 film Risky Business. The idea was actually Molly’s, and she had to explain it to me since I hadn’t seen the movie. The following picture about sums it up:

No pants, no shoes, no service?

Since pants-free parties are a pretty fratty idea, we decided to go the extra mile (because a kilometer is not far enough) and serve up the frattiest drink possible: Pink Panty Droppers, a cocktail that is better than the sum of its terrifically low-quality parts. Embarrassingly, that idea was all mine…you’re welcome, Russia.

If Dima wasn’t horrified enough by our theme (and he was), the description of a Pink Panty Dropper was the nail in the coffin. “You want to make drinks with alcohol that a Russian wouldn’t touch, that’s going to get everyone wasted, and then the cops will show up to an apartment full of people without their pants on?” Obviously Dima was not in charge of drafting the Facebook invite.

On the eve of the party, Dima was even less excited. It seems that Russians provide food for their guests, whereas I had thought I had done enough by schlepping 10 liters of liquor and mixers from the grocery store through the snow and ice. Not so. Russians need zakuski (snacks) to balance out their vodka consumption, and Dima didn’t seem to think Liz’s brownies and my dip would suffice. But Liz shot down Dima’s objections by reminding him that “we’re Americans, damn it, and we’re throwing an American party!”

Come Friday, I was embarrassed to have Dima witness the mixology behind a Pink Panty Dropper (which I was now referring to as a “Risky Business”). It consists of 2 liters of vodka, 4 liters of the lowest quality beer you can get your hands on, and 6 cans of lemonade concentrate (which is obviously not sold anywhere in Russia and was procured by the shadiest of means). By now, Dima’s boss had arrived, and I begged him to look away as I emptied the aforementioned ingredients into a bucket. But when I passed a glass to Dima, his taste buds betrayed him, and I think it would be safe to say he drank more of the “Risky Business” concoction than any of the Americans in attendance.

As for the dress code, it seems Russians are just as eager as Americans are to drop trou and strut around like a young Tom Cruise, with or without “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” blaring in the background. One Russian, who hadn’t met any of us before, reacted by turning to his wife and saying gleefully, “I told you Risky Business meant no pants!” Then, without wasting time on pleasantries, he asked if he could strip down to his skivvies. I barely got out a “yes” before his pants hit the floor. Between the Pink Panty Droppers that disappeared before midnight and the fine display of Russian briefs (including one pair of USSR-themed undergarments), I would say the Americans put on a solid party.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ice Swimming in the Name of Russian Religion

This morning I woke up to the coldest temperatures I’ve experienced yet in Russia: -21ºC (or -6ºF). While that might seem like child’s play for those who just survived America’s Polar Vortex, I had grand plans to go ice swimming. Russia is celebrating the Orthodox Epiphany, which marks Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River. The Bible claims that any body of water contains healing and miraculous powers today, though I remain skeptical that any prophet would’ve said that that if he’d had to cut through sheets of ice to get to said holy water. For better or worse, Russians aren’t deterred by cold or ice (or safety concerns), so when my friend Nastya invited me to partake, I agreed to join the masses climbing into frozen rivers, lakes, and ponds across the country.

One of the fancier venues (Source: RIA Novosti)

I started questioning my decision on Friday night, however, when a friend told me that her husband’s grandpa died participating in his fourth “Крещение” (baptism).  He’d jumped in the water, and his heart had immediately given out.  “But you’re young,” Polly reassured me, “He was 50.” I fired off an email to my friend Rose, a surgeon in Portland, and asked her if this was a foolhardy idea. She didn’t respond, which I chose to interpret as tacit approval of my plan.

Nastya selected Ekaterininskiy Park for our dip, where a hole had been cut in Ekaterininskiy Ponds. Her parents live within walking distance, so they came along for moral support, photo documentation, and to ensure we didn’t die. Thank god they were there—I had prepared for this endeavor with all the foresight of Napoleon trying to invade Russia and hadn’t even thought to bring a towel. They also explained the proper baptismal ritual, which requires crossing yourself (right to left, per Russian Orthodoxy) and submerging yourself three times over. 

A borderline religious experience

Nastya went first, and since she didn’t grimace or scream, I wasn’t scared off from taking my turn. I was expecting the water to stab with the pain of a thousand ice picks, but it was actually not that bad. The worst of it was climbing out and realizing that my body was totally numb and my limbs had been rendered useless. I attempted to fumble out of my bikini and into my thermal top without exposing myself to passersby and small children, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an egregious nip slip.

Warming up with cognac

I forced my feet, which were essentially glorified ice blocks at this point, into my boots, and gratefully accepted Nastya’s mother’s fur coat and a glass of cognac-spiked tea (which felt even more healing than the water I’d just bathed in). Once we’d bundled ourselves up like babushkas, we hurried back to Nastya’s parents’ to warm up and eat homemade blinchiki and borscht. All in all, my Russian Baptism was way more fun than the one forced upon me in infancy.  Maybe I wouldn’t have cried during that one if I’d been allowed cuter swimwear and a glass of cognac afterward.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Russian Christmas

Because the Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, today was Russian Christmas.  With religion banned during the Soviet days, the Russkis did most of their celebrating and gift giving on New Year’s Eve, a tradition that didn’t change after the demise of the USSR.  Although today was a state holiday, the only differences I noticed were that museums were free and my Russian teacher was more generous with her compliments than usual (so basically, she gave me one backhanded compliment). 

The main upside to Russia’s delayed Christmas is a bigger window of time to catch The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi. As any real American (of my generation) knows, Christmas season isn’t complete until you’ve watched PBS’ version of The Nutcracker with Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing the eponymous role.

Baryshnikov before his Sex and the City days

It’s unlikely that this staple of my childhood graced Soviet televisions—Misha defected to the United States while touring with the Bolshoi Ballet Company in 1974. Luckily, my affinity for Baryshnikov in his tights-wearing prime didn’t prevent me from procuring a 100-rouble student ticket to a Sunday matinee.  Even though I had one of the worst seats in the house, a Russian girl tried to take my seat, practically sitting in my lap and then dropping her phone on my foot.  Surprisingly, I wasn’t the one who had erred, and she flounced off with her boyfriend to an even more remote corner of the theatre.

Prime nosebleed seating
Note the suicide fence (for Molly’s opera glasses)

Now that the Russian holidays are done, my flat is returning to normal. Dima is back from Kazakhstan and Liz is en route from Kansas, which means I can’t spend half the day in my yoga pants conversing with the cat anymore. Belka has taken to following me into the bathroom, and I think we need to re-establish firm boundaries before I am mistaken for an animal lover.  There is a slab of Kazakh cow carcass in our freezer that I will have to consume if the day comes that I start letting Belka sleep in my bed.