Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Dodgy Job Interview

As I may have mentioned, I’m entertaining the idea of continuing my life in Russia even after the government cuts off my life support. I don’t have high hopes for gainful employment with my subpar language skills and my desire to continue writing, but I am putting out feelers nonetheless. Luckily, my flatmate has more connections than the mafia, which led to a phone call asking if I’d be interested in working as a full-time English conversationalist for a prominent businessman. I accepted the interview and then did a bit of online reconnaissance—it seemed I was vying for employment under the oligarch who created the largest meat production company in Russia. A logical career move for a vegetarian.

The interview began with a few cursory questions that would be illegal in the US, including my age.  The interviewer then volunteered her own, which I think she threw in just to brag. Even though she said she was 37, she looked a good five years younger than me. Next, we moved on to information about the job itself, including the not insignificant detail that this was a live-in position.

Me: I’m sorry, what was that?
Interviewer: Don’t worry, his country estate is only 15 or 20 kilometers from Moscow, and obviously you’d have access to his driver.
Me: And does he live with his family? Or would it just be the oligarch and I?
Interviewer: No, the chefs, maids, drivers, and his personal trainers also live there. And his much younger girlfriend.
Me: Of course.

Having made it through the first line of defense, I was next introduced to his corporate secretary. I was expecting another miracle of Soviet science, but instead, I met a man older than my parents with near perfect British English.

Secretary: So where are you from?
Me: A small city north of Seattle.
Secretary: Ah, so basically it’s the same as Moscow.
Me: Wellllllll, not exactly.
Secretary: Of course! Same climate, and after the Spaniards, we were the next to explore America.
Me: Were you?
Secretary: Yes, we started in Alaska and moved down to California.
Me: Did you? … Well I guess I’d say Moscow is more like Washington, D.C. or New York.
Secretary: No, Washington has so many blacks.
Me: Right…

When the secretary noticed I’d studied in Chile, he made a flawless switch from English to Spanish. My brain was slow to catch up, and my Spanish came out with an unexpected mix of Russian conjunctions, but he had no such problems.  He waxed eloquent on the years he spent in Cuba and reminisced about “building communism with Castro.” Call it paranoia, but something tells me that man’s skill-set is more in line with espionage than secretarial work. I should probably flee this situation post-haste, but I think we all want to see how this plays out.  Returning to my carnivorous ways would be the least of my worries if I moved in with a Russian billionaire.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Close Encounters of the Awkward Kind

Even though I’ve touched upon my obsession with the Russian banya, it warrants revisiting, much like the banya itself. Kristen and I have become regulars at the Rzhevskie Bani, which has led to all sorts of opportunities for embarrassment. It turns out that awkwardness abroad can always be amplified if you throw a little nudity into the mix.

Our first venture to the banya found us woefully devoid of the proper accoutrements. The attendant was patient as we asked for flip-flops, towels, and hats, but downright confused when I inquired about vegetarian dumplings.  It seems I had confused vareniki (Ukrainian dumplings) with veniki (a bundle of twigs). If I had been her, I probably would have slapped me across the face with the requested veniki, but I guess it’s hard to get mad at foreigners who look like phalluses.  You see, we had also purchased shapki, flesh-colored hats that immediately call up images of Woody Allen’s turn as a sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).

Even Woody is giving us the side eye
Though this banya is not frequented by foreigners, they were quite welcoming of us, possibly because we were such hard workers. When trying to prematurely enter the sauna, the Banya Boss thrust a bucket at me and asked me to fill it up with water, “and quickly.” Then she slammed the door shut and left us trying to figure out if she’d said hot or cold. I didn’t want to find out what would happen if we screwed up our only task.

She let us shlep the water in, then yelled at us to lay down as she adjusted the temperature to somewhere north of third degree burn levels. Once the 9th circle of Dante’s Inferno had been reached, the banya filled with women and we packed in like naked, sweaty sardines. I guess Kristen and I had already attracted attention with our English because one lady looked around and said, “Where are the foreigners?” I raised my hand guiltily, but they just wanted to ask us where we were from and wish us a good steam.

We thought we had everything figured out by our next visit, but then we were tasked with heating up the sauna, which is done by waving a towel overhead like a helicopter rotor. We gave it the old college try, but our attempts were met with disapproval.

Banya Boss: You’re doing it all wrong!  Follow the rhythm of your heart!
Me: But I don’t know how my heart goes!

My banya prowess was further discredited when everyone started squeezing in. Close quarters led to my forehead making the unfortunate acquaintance of a woman’s hindquarters, and I’m thankful the encounter wasn’t more intimate. Kristen managed to contain her laughter, but that’s probably only because her chest was being squeezed by a vice of hot air. Once we’d passed the realm of “dangerously light-headed,” but just before hitting “comatose,” we escaped for the icy waters of the pool.  Our sauna stamina didn’t go unnoticed, and a couple of Russian women praised us for being “very strong!” I may not have endured the siege of Leningrad, but I’d say taking a Russian arse to the face builds a similar kind of fortitude.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Starbucks Yuliya

I liked my name until I hit first grade and another Jessie arrived on the scene. By middle school a Jessie with the same surname had cropped up in the next town, and then I was totally over my name’s lack of originality. You’d think that my father of all people would recognize the importance of a unique name, but apparently he didn’t inherit his family’s creativity (his first name is Dick and our last name is a generous adjective...use your imagination). My mother was no better. She briefly entertained the idea of naming me after her grandmother, but luckily, I was saved from being the whitest Juanita the world has ever seen. So maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to complain.

While the Russians love to brag about the richness of their language, I still haven’t been able to buy a “J” in the Cyrillic alphabet. Thus, when I have to sign out of the Lenin Library with my first two initials, JC becomes “ДК”  and I am robbed of my Jesus complex while Lenin laughs at me from his subterranean tomb.  My name also poses a problem at Starbucks, where I have tired of pronouncing my name incorrectly and where the baristas have run out of inventive misspellings of Джессика.  I decided it was time to be reborn as Yuliya, a nod to my friend Julie, a college friend and former Muscovite.

The first of Юлия’s many chai lattes

I probably wouldn’t have continued it, but then I kept getting the same barista, and pretty soon Lena was greeting me with an exuberant, “Hello, Yuliya!” every time I walked through the door. I only realized how crazy this might look when I went to my usual Starbucks with a guy and had to give him the heads up that I would be referring to myself as Yuliya. But I needn’t have worried about what Lena thought; a few days later her name tag spelled out an entirely different name. It seems “Lena” and I are cut from the same many personalitied cloth.

I told my flatmate about my Russian altar ego, and she said, “Oh my god, I know another American who’s a Starbucks Yuliya!” Great, it’s like I’m in first grade all over again and discovering that I’m not special or unique. I guess it’s time for a new Starbucks persona.  Princess Anastasia, perhaps?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Habits of a Pseudo Writer

I blinked and now it’s February. This means that I only have four months left in Russia and four months to produce my masterpiece. Luckily I’m in denial of the former and am throwing my obsessive compulsive tendencies at the latter. The first step on the long road to productivity was eliminating distractions, which included relinquishing my Facebook password to my sister (who is hopefully not embarrassing me or defriending people on my behalf) and adding 7am yoga classes to my day. That left me feeling quite om-ed out, but I still had to trick my inherently lazy self to really get results.

Thus, I invented the Power Hour (patent pending), which shouldn’t be confused with the drinking game of the same name that predates my creation. My version consists of disabling my internet, blasting Girl Talk, downing a glass of tea and a liter of water, and then forcing myself to write 5 pages before I am allowed to leave my desk/library carrel. There’s nothing like the pain of a full bladder to propel you through fives pages of creativity at breakneck speeds. That and I gave my flatmate free license to slap me across the face if she catches me leaving my room before my five-page intervals are complete.

The downside to this method of writing is that 99% of what I am putting down is pure and unadulterated crap. Every once in a while, I will produce a sentence or two of literary merit to be salvaged in the second god-awful draft, but in the early stages, I just need to throw every idea possible at the page and see what works and what is so mortifying I should never show it to a living soul. Meanwhile, I try not to dwell on the fact that the FSB can access all of my files.  I just know some agent at Lubyanka is saying to his colleagues, “Guys, this girl has got to be a spy because she’s definitely not a writer. I bet English isn’t even her first language!” 

Following the advice of Stephen King in On Writing, I decided to keep the plot of my novel a secret until I’d finished a draft. This isn’t because I think my story is particularly brilliant; it’s actually just so I don’t get disheartened by harsh criticism or derailed by plot advice.  And since I find talking about my writing about as fun as getting a sex talk from my dad, I didn’t think this would be a problem. Unfortunately, I’m terrible at thinking on my feet, especially in Russian.

Yesterday, I had to do a 20-minute Russian phone examination for the State Department, and my interviewer asked me to summarize my novel. Too nervous to make something up, I started telling her the plot, trying to pepper it with complex grammar so I’d get a better score. She seemed satisfied with my answer, and then asked me if I had a title. I do, but I didn’t know how to translate it to Russian, so I deflected her question with a question.

Me: I don’t know, what do you think I should call it?
Interviewer: Me?! Maybe if I had some time to think about it, but not when you put me on the spot like this!

So now the FSB and a flustered Russian in the United States are privy to my literary lovechild. But, unlike the other three novels I have started and stopped in Russia, I don’t think I’m going to abandon this project. I can’t have destroyed my kidneys for naught.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Russian Film Industry

Last week I attended a screening of the film GENERATION P, an adaptation of the book by the same name. I didn’t love the book, so my expectations for the film weren’t high. But I needed some Russian practice, and with the screening being held at the American Ambassador’s residence, I knew there’d at least be good food and drink.

The Fulbright contingent at Spaso House

As usual, Spaso House did not disappoint. The director, a Russian who emigrated to the US when he was 15-years-old, managed to take a so-so book and make a fantastically entertaining film. The boring parts of the book were eliminated, the more interesting themes came to the forefront, and there were just enough mullets to really capture 1990s Moscow.  

The creative forces behind GENERATION P

The film was followed by a Q&A with the director, the producer, and one of the lead actors. After the director was introduced in Russian, the Q&A followed in the same vein, which left the Americans in the audience decidedly mute. Though I may have missed the finer points, it was obvious that the trio had an amusing rapport as they fought for mic time and even managed to break the mic stand in their excitement. Towards the end, one of the audience members posed a question that had stuck out with me when I was reading the book: “What is the Russian idea?” I was curious to see how they’d respond, and made an extra effort to understand.  The actor waxed eloquent on Russia’s greatness, the producer pooh-poohed him, the director started talking about the American pursuit of happiness, but in the end, they couldn’t come up with a definitive answer.  I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t make sense of this place.

My next industry-related experience is hopefully going to be a tour of MosFilm, the biggest film studio in Russia.  According to their website, they offer tours to “film production and development professionals,” so I emailed them with a greatly trumped up story about my film industry background.  So far, no response, but that could be because my Russian is totally incomprehensible, and not because my delusions of grandeur aren't remotely credible.