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?