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 My parents are retired special ed teachers, which is not exactly the stuff of trust fund dreams, and “unpublished writers” do not make bank.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.