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.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

My Brief Turn as a Russian Housewife

Though I extolled the virtues of Russian men back in November, I think I may have spoken too soon. While it’s nice that Russian dudes will open doors, help women into their coats, and pick up the check, I’ve realized it’s because they expect girls to behave in an equally old-fashioned manner—like June Cleaver but with the body of Anna Kournikova.  You’d think I’d have picked up on this since I live with a Russian, but his Slavic misogyny has been tempered by three years of dating an American. When I was in Siberia, however, I was with a predominantly male group, which gave me a totally different perspective. I think my parents can quit worrying that I’m going to get married and defect to Russia—I do not want to be a Russian’s bride.

Though my time in the Altai may have sounded glamorous (or maybe I’m the only person delusional enough to think Siberia could ever be glamorous?), the Oligarch was missing one crucial member of his staff. His regular chef is pregnant, and the day before the trip, she was told she couldn’t fly. So who cooks for a billionaire when his staff is playing one man down?  His woman, obviously.

Elena wanted to please the Oligarch, so she initially took on the responsibility of cooking for the ten of us, a daunting task even for a person who hasn’t had servants for the last three years of their life. I like to cook, so I offered to help and asked her what she was planning to make.

Elena: I thought I’d roast some potatoes and carrots.
Me: Anything else?
Elena: I don’t really know how to make anything else.
Vanya: Dzhessika made borshch last night.
Elena: Oh, could you make it again?

I knew the alternative was meat with a side of meat, so I agreed. Elena tried to sous chef for me, but when I saw her misusing the vegetable peeler, it became clear that she was no Yulia Childs. I kept her away from my vegetables, and the borshch was prepared without incident. When the Oligarch tasted the final product, he was so impressed that he joked he might hire me as his personal chef. Hold up, homeboy, I don’t even know if I want to be your English-speaking sidekick.

The next morning, I was relieved to see that Olya was boiling kasha and frying eggs for everyone, albeit not as quickly as the Oligarch wanted.

“Elena Nikolaevna, why didn’t you cook my breakfast? A wife should have her husband’s breakfast waiting for him every morning,” he said.

“We’re not married,” she retorted.

At first, Olya handled most of the meals, but Elena volunteered our help when it became apparent that Olya’s repertoire didn’t extend beyond curing salmon. Elena’s skillset, however, was not much better. First, she asked if I knew how to prepare salmon.  Then soup.  Then spaghetti sauce from scratch. Each time, I answered in the affirmative, and then started mixing marinades and blanching tomatoes while she whipped up her signature side dish of roasted potatoes.

In exchange for our efforts, the Oligarch remained blissfully ignorant of how much work it takes to keep ten people fed. When Elena told him she didn’t have time to go hiking all day if he wanted food on the table at 3pm, he dismissed her concerns. “How long does it take to make soup, three minutes? You throw in some mushrooms, some carrots, and do svidaniya.” I guess he thinks the remaining hours we spent in the kitchen were devoted to sewing shorter hemlines on our skirts and resting our inferior female brains.

I initially thought the 1950s housewife role was more a product of the Oligarch’s sense of entitlement than a Russian thing. But by the end of the week, Vanya tried to pull the same nonsense on me. I was in the dining room reading when he came in and said, “Make me breakfast.”

I put down my book and stared at him in disbelief.  “Why would I make you breakfast?”

“Because you’re a woman.”

I told him in no uncertain terms where he could take his Russian misogyny, but he just responded with laughter.  After throwing in a comment about “female hysterics,” he opened the fridge and grabbed a beer for breakfast; I was so horrified that I succumbed and told him I’d make him an omelette. I hate to admit it, but there is a not-so-small part of me that loves playing the housewife. I have been known to make people breakfast in bed, bake multi-layer birthday cakes for my roommates, fatten up my co-workers on homemade cookies and pies, and throw embarrassingly elaborate dinner parties.  But these people usually don’t tell me my place is in the kitchen.

Housewife life doesn’t look good on me...
...even if it results in delicious sirniki

Back in Moscow, I recounted my impressions of Russian men to the Oligarch’s HR manager, who nodded like all of this was normal. “Oh, I know. My husband would yell at me if I didn’t have dinner on the table every night when he gets home.”  I was just about to verify that I was still in Russia and not an episode of Mad Men when she leaned in and said, “You know, you’d make a great Russian wife.  You should marry a Russian man!”  Oh dear god, no.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


After a side trip to St. Petersburg, Leah and Alli returned to Moscow for one last weekend in the capital with me. I welcomed them back to my flat with a massive pot of borsch and a few bottles of wine so I could hear about their adventures. One bottle of wine led to another (bottle of vodka), and pretty soon we’d found our way to a bar in the city center. Alli repeatedly asked the DJ to play Macklemore, and after being shot down each time, she decided to create her own dance party in my bedroom as I was trying to go to sleep.  We may have overshot our decision to “go medium” because we didn’t quite make it to the Kremlin at 9:30am the following morning as planned.

Alli’s Macklemore party

Alli and I at the Kremlin in the late afternoon

For Alli’s final night, we decided to recreate last year’s reunion in San Sebastián. They wanted kalimotxos, and that meant we needed to go to the Spanish tapas bar I discovered when I first came to Moscow. I hadn’t been there in months, but after running into the owner in Red Square last week, I felt like I should make an appearance (i.e., take advantage of his propensity to give me free drinks). The bar now sports a new Basque chef, who was thrilled to hear someone speaking his mother tongue with a signature Spanish lisp. I even threw in some off-color slang to really up my cool factor—Javi and Iago would have been proud.

Liz sandwiched between lisps

After we’d been treated to aged Cuban rum, Alli, Leah, and I decided our next international adventure should be to Havana. Before we got too caught up in planning, we admitted that it would probably be unwise to vacation in an embargoed nation.

Bar Owner: But Obama’s changed the laws.
Me: Yeah, but that only applies to people with family members in Cuba.
Bar Owner: You’ll have family there after we get married!

He proposed back in October, so it’s good to know that offer’s still on the table. However, Alli and Leah are still rooting for Vanya, who seems to have really garnered a fan base with my blog readers—so much so that I was pressured to invite him out with us. I’m pretty sure it was ill advised to text him after midnight on a Saturday, but he was out of town, so I was saved from a late night Vanya rendezvous.

By the time exhaustion got the better of us, the metro had long since closed and I was ready for a gypsy cab home. We piled in and Leah took the front seat, slamming the door a little too hard for our driver’s tastes. “Не хулиганьте!” he scolded her, much to my amusement. This, alas, is not a verb that exists in English, but if it did, it would be “to hooligan.” Leah refrained from the outburst of hooliganism he seemed to have feared, though she did admit that it would have been a great story if she’d been thrown in a Russian jail for the same catchall crime as Pussy Riot.

On Sunday, we all needed a little detoxification, so I took Leah and Alli to their first Russian banya, where I was greeted like the regular I’ve become. I have to give Alli and Leah credit for going along with the whole experience—they weren’t fazed by the nudity, the beatings, or even the borderline sexual noises the older women make. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ll ever be able to associate the phrase “ochen horosho” with anything other than an overheated, naked Russian splayed out over a bench and getting hit like she’d just stepped off the pages of 50 Shades of Grey.

Alli and Leah acquire shapki

After Alli left for America, Leah, Liz, and I caught a bus to Suzdal, a sleepy Russian village five hours away. It’s a nice change of pace from the city, and seems to have a higher population of churches than people. While our friends back in Moscow were complaining about the unexpected April snow, we were enjoying local honey mead and strolling through the crumbling lanes of Suzdal. Leah returns to Philadelphia on Friday, and then I’m back to my regular routine. And by that, I mean the Oligarch is returning from Indonesia on Tuesday and I need to decide if I’m going to work for him. It’s probably unwise to make life decisions based on the desires of your blog audience, but I feel like I’m going to have a lot of disgruntled readers if I don’t give them more of the Oligarch.

Leah runs through a field in Suzdal