Sunday, September 6, 2015

To Be Continued

I had every intention of writing one final post and shutting down Moscowed for good. I’m no longer in Moscow, and no longer being cowed by it. My eternal struggle with the Russian soft sign has been replaced with attempts to say “y’all” like a local, and Campus Carry scares me more than the FSB ever did. But to say that I’ve fully abandoned Moscow would be untrue.

I find myself in Moscow every time I sit down to work on my novel. Even if I’m in a UT library, surrounded by students in orange Longhorn apparel, or dying of AC overload in a local cafe, I’m also in Moscow. I’m typing the city into existence on my computer screen, and cobbling together memories to form its streets, its smells, and its soul. I drift in and out of the Motherland on a daily basis, but especially on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, which is when I have Russian class.

In addition to a writing workshop and a Master’s seminar, I’m also taking Russian with a bunch of undergrads. On our first day of class, the teacher paired us off and told us to introduce ourselves by saying our name, where we’re from, our age, and one interesting fact about ourselves.

“TRIDTSAT?!” my 20-year-old partner repeated when I told her my age.

“Yep, I’m 30.”

“Wait, so is that your interesting fact?”

“No, that’s my age! Which we were supposed to say.”

“Oh, I didn’t understand anything the teacher said. My Russian sucks.”

Despite the fact that I’m the oldest person in the class (other than the professor), I’m sticking with it. And if Russia is still going to be a fixture in my life, it seems like I might as well keep the blog alive a little longer. I know they say that all good things must come to an end, but if Putin’s still releasing manly photos of himself then clearly that time hasn’t come yet.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Toska for Moskva

I returned from Moscow on Saturday, and then spent the better part of three days languishing around my parents’ house. I’m normally impervious to jet lag (or so I like to think), so I suspected there was more to my malaise than just a lack of sleep.

“It’s toska,” I said broodingly, and directed my family to a Nabokov quote that would better define my word choice.
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” – Vladimir Nabokov 
Even with the untranslatable Russian translated, my sister dismissed my moodiness. “Write a blog about it,” she said. So here we are.

Resting toska face

I thought I was ready to say goodbye to Moscow, or that I would be by August 1. But Moscow in the summer is a magical place. The sun shines, the river sparkles, and long days stretch into short nights. There’s a sense of foolish optimism in the air, as though everyone has forgotten the rapid half-life of a fickle Russian summer, which is nearly over as soon as it begins.

Summer lovin’ outside the Kremlin

Hipsters and fairy lights at Mishka

The “beach” at Gorky Park

I know I’ll forget all about Moscow when I land in Texas next Wednesday, but for now, I’m still in a Russian state of mind. I made a batch of kvass on Monday (which was a disaster and had to be thrown out), read the memoirs of an American journalist who was accused of espionage and thrown in a Soviet prison, and have been listening to a lot of moody Russian music. I even booked a last minute flight to Cleveland so I could attend a Russian-American wedding in two weeks. Because Cleveland is basically Moscow, right?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

I leave Moscow for good in just under three weeks. It’s a strange feeling to know that this is the end of my two years in Russia and that I don’t know if or when I’ll return. Even though I’ve said goodbye to many cities and many people over the years, I suspect there will be tears when I depart.

I’ve been going for morning runs along the Moscow River lately, and one day last week I decided to pause on the Pushkinsky Pedestrian Bridge to savor a breathtaking view of the city (I’m also out of shape and was winded from the stairs, if I’m being perfectly honest). The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was dead ahead, Gorky Park unfolded to my right, and somewhere in the middle distance I could just make out the old Red October chocolate factory.

The latter two landmarks are nothing like they were when I first came to Russia in 2005. Gorky Park went from a rundown amusement park that no one wanted to visit to the most lavish park I’ve ever seen, replete with ponds, paths, gardens, skating rinks, restaurants, and more. Meanwhile, the Soviet version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory has since been pushed out of the city center. The red brick buildings housed conveyor belts of rich Russian chocolate when I visited them a decade ago, but the space has now been converted to hipster bars and luxury loft apartments. I know this is a natural part of development, and I love to imbibe at Strelka as much as the next person, but it’s still startling to see how much things have changed in just ten years.

Russia was rougher around the edges a decade ago. You would consider yourself lucky if a bathroom had toilet paper, much less toilet seats. There were no taxis to get you home after the metro closed, and I hopped into cars with strangers who didn’t always drop me off in the right place. Now I have succumbed to the iPhone revolution and Yandex.Taxi, but it’s taken all the fun (and fear of being killed) out of life. English signs have sprung up in the metro and in the streets, and waiters invariably assume I want an English-language menu as soon as they hear my accent. What I want is for Moscow to stop changing before it loses all of its charm.

I know I sound like a babushka with Soviet nostalgia, but Moscow has changed so much and so fast that I wonder if I will even recognize it when we meet again. When that thought occurred to me from my vantage point above the Moscow River, my first instinct was to weep. But then I remembered that Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. If I have learned anything from my time in Russia, it is that Russians always remain stoic—even in the face of revolution, war, or total economic collapse. This is what I’m going to remind myself every time I get emotional over the next three weeks. And if that fails, I don’t think the Russians would fault me if I turned to vodka for support.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Russia in 1973

My blogging fell by the wayside while I was home visiting friends and family for the last few weeks. While I was in Bellingham, I asked my mom to write a guest post for my blog about her time in Russia. Though she’s not quite the Russophile I am, she went to St. Petersburg back when it was still known as Leningrad. So without further ado, my mom’s impressions of Soviet Russia... 

Mother and daughter at Petergof (from opposite angles and 40 years apart)

In my early twenties, I traveled all over Europe with my friend D’Anne. We bought a Volkswagen Variant in Belgium, and backpacked across the continent on a $5.00 a day budget. We had originally planned to drive to Russia, but when it came time to apply for the visa, we realized it would not be so easy. Tourists were required to follow an itinerary and stay at hotels assigned to them by the Russian authorities, so we abandoned our original idea and joined a 3-day tour from Helsinki to Leningrad.

My mom’s photos of Leningrad

We arrived on September 12 and checked in at Hotel Leningrad, which had just opened in 1970. It was quite nice and very large, but the lobby was freezing. On each floor, there was a big, unfriendly Russian woman who kept an eye on things—a veritable Soviet security force.

One of our guides, a young college student named Alla, strongly discouraged us from sightseeing on our own and gave party line answers to our questions. She told us that people were too busy working and studying to frequent bars, and that there were no department stores because it was better to sew your own clothes. I asked if foreign clothes were sold in Russia anyway, to which she replied, “Of course! All the clothes I’m wearing are foreign!” Our second guide, Mike, proved especially interesting when he shared his version of why the Berlin Wall had been built. According to him, the West Berliners were carting off East German farm products and selling them to the West, which was killing the East German economy. Hence the need for a wall.

At the hotel bar, we met foreigners from all over the world, but no local citizens. The hotel was hosting a small Communist convention, attended by men from the Eastern Communist countries. I chatted with a medical student from Algiers who complained about how boring it was as a student in Leningrad. He hated it there—he had no social life, the bars closed at midnight, his school had a curfew, he couldn’t buy clothes, and his dorm was tiny. I also drank vodka with the East German delegation, who continued buying drinks for D’Anne and me until we decided we needed to escape. We excused ourselves for the ladies room, then made sure our new acquaintances didn’t see us make a beeline for the stairs up to our room.

I could have had a Russian father if my mom had played her cards right...увы!

Life in Leningrad looked pretty grim to me. People lined up at fruit stands, at newspaper stands, and at bus stops. There were few young people in the streets, and many women working as street cleaners. People wore dark colored clothing, and adults even stopped me in the street to offer me 150-250 rubles for my jeans (the exchange rate then was $1 to 1.20 rubles, and regular Soviet pants cost 10 to 20 rubles).

My mom opted to keep  her pants

As a history major who had studied Imperial Russia, and especially the time of the Romanovs, I was thrilled to see Leningrad and to get a glimpse of the Soviet Union (our so-called “enemy”). I was a little apprehensive before visiting, but in the end, they were not so different from us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The End of Apartment No. 50

I’m off to the United States tomorrow, and although I will be returning to Moscow in a month, today is my last day as a resident of Apartment № 50. Before I fly away to San Francisco, there’s the not-so-small task of packing up all my belongings. My spatial reasoning skills are just as poor as ever, and I have finally come to terms with the fact that the two suitcases I arrived with have not been expanding at the same rate as my possessions. Who knew one could amass so many animal print items in just two years?

Animal print not pictured (but animal pictured in bottom drawer)

In addition to leopard print bikinis and zebra print dresses, I’ve also accumulated mementos of my love affair with Moscow. I stumbled upon a dried flower, long forgotten and pressed between the pages of my Moleskine, that took me back to the end of summer. I unearthed a second-hand postcard that shows an actor from my favorite Soviet film, which a friend convinced me to buy when I was helping him haggle for fur at Izmailovo Market in January. I found an employment contract from my brief period of semi-gainful employment this fall—it got thrown out, but I kept the photo of my co-workers and me at the holiday party that clearly captures our employee satisfaction with the open bar. I’ve spent the last few days sifting through winter clothes, books, souvenirs, and the miscellany of life, but I’m still not quite ready to leave.

By tomorrow, I’ll have pared my keepsakes and clothes down to one checked bag and one carry-on, but I have so many more Moscow memories that will be coming back with me, many of which are connected to my time living in Kvartira #50. Though I’m pretty sure Liz and I have both used the phrase “Soviet squalor” to describe our apartment, the place does have a certain je ne sais quoi. Between the faded wallpaper, the closets full of junk left behind by previous tenants, the oven with a mind of its own, the jerry-rigged toilet flush lever, and the domovoy under the bathtub, Apartment № 50 has charm—or at least a strong Russian personality. Much as I will appreciate the American luxuries of window screens, dryers, thermostats, fire alarms, and stoves that aren’t prone to gas leaks, I’m sad to be leaving. I’m going to miss the impromptu gatherings in our kitchen, Dima’s cultural lessons, Belka’s mood swings, Liz’s never-ending supply of wit and wine, and even our freezer full of bloody Kazakh meats. These things all made our apartment feel like home, even though I was halfway around the world and smack in the middle of Moscow. So here’s to Dima, Liz, Belka, and all the good times in Apartment № 50, the best little hovel in Russia.

Goodbye, Russian Roommates.

Goodbye, Russian cat.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The End of the Line

After 6 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes of train rides, I arrived in Vladivostok on Monday evening. I knew this country was vast, but it took traversing it from the capital to the coast to fully comprehend what 9,289 kilometers really feels like. To put that into perspective, you’d have to ride a train from San Francisco to New York three times to cover a similar distance. There are probably better things you could do with your time though.

With Vladivostok being a third of the globe away from Moscow, I expected it to feel dramatically different. Aside from a slightly more provincial feel (would it kill them to put in a few sidewalks?), it could be another city in European Russia. I’m writing this blog post from a Shokoladnitsa (the Russian equivalent of Starbucks), and everyone has the same Slavic features they had on the other side of the Urals. We’re 40 miles from North Korea, but this city looks about as Asian as I do. 

This is what 3/8 Asian looks like

This is what Amur Bay looks like

Much like Moscow was once referred to as “The Third Rome” and Irkutsk was nicknamed “The Paris of Siberia,” Vladivostok is thought to be “Russia’s San Francisco.” I’m not sure why Moscow ever wanted to be the next Rome (i.e., the next great fallen empire), and I don’t think any political exiles ever called Irkutsk the Siberian City of Love, but I was still curious to see if I’d find any similarities between San Francisco and the Russian Far East. Yesterday I spent the day exploring Vladivostok with my friend Ian, a fellow American expat in Moscow, who happened to be out here visiting his girlfriend over the May holidays. As we were climbing one of Vladivostok’s steep hills, he asked me if I saw any resemblance between the two cities. While Vladivostok also has hilly streets and its own cable-stayed bridge (Zolotoy Most, or the Golden Bridge in English), Russia’s San Francisco definitely has a different daddy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though—much as I love San Francisco, it’s signature scent of eau de bum urine isn’t doing it any favors.

The bridge is named for the bay it spans (the Golden Horn)

Too cold for hobos?

I just realized a funicular is a cable car—I’m discrediting myself

Now that I’ve finished the Trans-Siberian, it’s time to get back to Moscow. First thing tomorrow, I have a 9-hour flight back to Moscow, and then two weeks later I fly to “The Vladivostok of America” (that being San Francisco). Though I have a six-week summer finale planned for Moscowed, I’m sad to say that we’ve almost reached the end of the line here as well. Get ready for a post consisting entirely of sad emoticons!

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Con Artist in Car 10

The second to the last leg of my journey was from Ulan-Ude to Khabarovsk, a 53 hour and 24 minute ride. This sounded less painful when I bought the ticket, though I’m not sure why. I boarded the train in Ulan-Ude bright and early on Wednesday, fresh off of three hours of sleep. When I reached my compartment, I was none too pleased to discover an old lady sprawled out in my bed.

“Excuse me,” I said, “is this spot 15?”

The old woman made a feeble attempt to sit up, revealing a face corrugated with wrinkles. “I can’t climb into the upper bed,” she said pathetically.

I’m sure this would have tugged at my heartstrings if this had been my first week in Russia, but I’ve been knocked around on the metro by a babushka or two, and I know they are stronger than they let on. This old woman might have looked like she had one foot in the grave, but I suspected her other one was ready to scissor kick me into submission.

“Lady, I paid more for a lower spot because I don’t want an upper one. I’m not going up there either.”

“But I can’t get up there. I can’t.”

This last line was delivered with such anguish that I almost cracked. But then I thought about how uncomfortable the next 53 hours would be if I were trapped in an upper berth, and I quickly got comfortable with the fact that I was a heartless monster.

“Then talk to the porter, because this is my spot.”

She groaned and made her way out to the hallway in resignation, her movements as slow as if she were underwater. I started to wonder if I had been too harsh, especially when I found her squatting in an empty bed nearby. She didn’t return until that evening, but then she was agility itself climbing up to her bed—so much for “can’t.”

After the remaining two travelers got off on the second day, the old lady pounced on the lower bed they’d vacated. That, however, was only a temporary fix. Around 9pm, a middle-aged woman got on and was greeted with the same sight that had welcomed me: the old lady “fast asleep” in her bed.

“Excuse me, ma’am, you’re in my spot.”

The old lady remained face down, pretending like she hadn’t heard a thing. She continued “sleeping” as the middle-aged woman tapped her arm, gently shook her shoulder, and even grabbed her hair to give her head a shake. The little old lady was doing such an admirable job of playing dead that I started to wonder if maybe she actually had died.

Finally, the middle-aged woman gave the old lady such a violent shake that she couldn’t feign sleep any longer. After nearly being thrown from the bed, she stumbled upright and said, “What’s going on? Where am I?”

Her assaulter gave her an exasperated sigh before saying, “You’re in my bed is where you are!”

“Oh, I had no idea!” said the old woman. But when the newcomer had her back turned, the old woman gave me a mischievous smile and a wink.

With nowhere else to go, the old woman seemed ready to turn in for the night. She started to climb up to the top bunk, but then gave an anguished cry and went toppling backwards into the hall. She lay motionless on the floor until a porter and two passengers ran over.

“What’s going on here?” barked the porter.

The old lady rubbed her elbow and tried to sit up. “I was just trying to get into my bed.”

One of the women who’d stumbled on the scene looked at the middle-aged woman and me and shook her head in disgust. She knelt down to help the old fraud up and said, “You can sleep in my compartment, ma’am. I’ll give you my bed.”

And so the old lady finally got that lower bunk she wanted, and her Oscar is probably forthcoming as well.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Olkhon Island

After spending no more than a couple nights each in Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk, I made a longer stop at Lake Baikal. For the last five nights, I’ve been staying at a guesthouse on an island in the deepest lake in the world. Until recently, Olkhon wasn’t much of a travel destination. But with the recent arrival of electricity to the island, it’s become a bit more tourist friendly. Give it another decade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a paved road or two here.

Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal

My 6-hour journey to the island started with a marshrutka ride from Irkutsk. The 14-passenger van was devoid of foreigners, though there was a dog along for the trip. We crossed through barren steppes where the only signs of civilization were the occasional settlements of dilapidated wooden houses, but nothing that would even qualify as a small village. Much of the ride was along bumpy dirt roads—our vehicle’s suspension system left much to be desired, and the ride was about as smooth as if I had opted to make the journey on horseback. In the winter, you can drive across the frozen lake to reach the island, but now the ice is already half-melted. Therefore, we took an air-cushion hovercraft that can travel across both ice and water.

The hovercraft arriving at the island

In the off-season, there’s not much to do on the island. It’s too warm for snow sports, but far too cold (and icy) for swimming. Instead, I’ve spent the last five days exploring the island and meeting other guests. I spent a day hiking through the forest with a woman from South Korea who is riding the Trans-Siberian with her parents, a day walking to the second largest village on the island (population: 200) with a thrice-divorced and mostly insane Russian man who shares the same name as my novel’s hero, and I was adopted by an Argentine family for a few days. Three days of speaking entirely in Spanish did nothing for my Russian, but I’ve now got an invitation to visit them in Santa Rosa de La Pampa that I’m going to have to capitalize on—Argentina isn’t so far from Texas, right?

Siberian spring

As expected, the Siberian wilderness is an entirely different world than the Russian capital. Life moves at a different pace and lacks the conveniences of Moscow. The grocery stores have very little selection (you can’t even find bread), and since you can only buy gas on the mainland, most of the roads are deserted. On the other hand, the residents of Olkhon get to enjoy natural beauty unlike anything you would see in Moscow. There are playgrounds perched on cliffs overlooking the icy surface of Lake Baikal and cow-yak hybrids wandering untethered through a former gulag. While everyone tells me Olkhon is far more interesting in the summer, I loved the abandoned calm of early spring.


Today I return to the mainland, then I’m catching an overnight train to Ulan Ude. Only 73 hours and 22 minutes of train rides left!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Halfway There

On Sunday, after 78 hours and 2 minutes of train rides, I finally made it to Irkutsk. In addition to meaning I’d covered more than half the distance between Moscow and Vladivostok, it also meant that I was only 64 kilometers from the oldest and deepest lake in the world. I have dreamt of visiting Lake Baikal ever since I learned of its existence, so Monday morning found me on the first bus to nearby Listvyanka.

Standing on the very frozen Lake Baikal

There were only a handful of people on the bus, one of whom was also a foreigner. We got to talking before the bus had left the station, and by the time we reached the lake, we had decided to join forces on our day of sightseeing. Incidentally, the sights were pretty limited—Listvyanka consists of a smattering of hotels, bathhouses, and tourist agencies, all of which are closed in the spring. My new Dutch friend and I had coffee and lunch, then headed back to Irkutsk to pass the rest of the day wandering around and swapping travel stories.

He’s spent the last two years traveling around Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and is now taking the train to St. Petersburg so he can fly back to Holland for his father’s 70th birthday. Because we are both the same age, and on the tail end of extended international adventures, we kept coming back to the topic of whether we were ready to “settle down” or if we wanted to prolong our vagabond lifestyles. I (mostly facetiously) predicted that I would settle in Texas, let my passport expire, and start acquiring an abundance of material possessions that would never fit in a backpack. And then I wandered off on a slightly tangential story that took us back to March of 2006...

I was studying abroad in Santiago, and was forced to meet up with a man my parents had met on a train in Peru in the 1970s. Despite my protests, my mother dug through her old travel journals, unearthed a 30-year-old address, and sent a postcard off to Chile. It reached the man’s parents, who forwarded it to Eduardo, who emailed my mother to say that he and his family would love to take me to dinner.

With strict instructions to “please be charming,” I begrudgingly set off to make small talk in a language I spoke anything but charmingly. Despite my misgivings, it was fun to meet Eduardo’s family and hear his account of meeting a young, American couple backpacking wherever their whims took them. I showed him a more recent photo of my parents, and he seemed a little surprised by how much older they’d become. “Your dad’s hair wasn’t as gray when I met him!”

I recounted the same story to the Dutchman over our second lunch of the day. I told him that even though neither of us can really imagine being “settled,” my parents probably never did either when they were staying in fleabag South American hotels that gave the option of paying by the hour. Like them, we will soon be far grayer adults who once took trains in far away lands and struck up conversations with strangers. But I promised that when I had a brood of little Texans, I would send one of them halfway around the world to meet him and his family for dinner.

“I would love that!” he said.

So that’s sorted. I think that means I’m halfway to adulthood—or maybe just halfway to becoming my mother. In the words of my mom (when she’s in a “cursing in Tagalog” kind of mood), puñeta.

Baikal from Olkhon Island, where I am staying until Sunday

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Strangers on a Train

My stay in Novosibirsk was brief—one day was long enough to ascertain that Siberia’s largest city is also its least attractive. So after a performance of “The Queen of Spades” at the Novosibirsk Opera, I changed into my “train outfit” (which I am going to burn at the end of this trip, or maybe even next week), and dashed off to catch an overnight train to Krasnoyarsk.

My planned route (I’m at the fourth star on the map)

I found my way to my compartment, where a woman was fast asleep in one of the lower beds and a guy was eating instant noodles in one of the upper beds.

“Hello,” he said, his English completely devoid of any Russian accent.

It was the first time I’d heard anything but Russian on the train, so it took me a second to fight off the automatic zdravstvuyte. Once I found the proper English greeting, I learned that my new compartment mate was a Dutchman named Robin.* He was taking the train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia, and had already been on the train for two days straight. Like me, he had yet to cross paths with any other foreigners, but since he didn’t speak any Russian he was especially grateful for some English-speaking company. We began chatting, and it soon came out that he was something of a beer aficionado who hopes to open his own microbrewery someday. I asked him what he thought of Russian beer, but he still hadn’t tried it.

“What?! Let’s go buy beers in the dining car,” I suggested.

He looked at me in surprise. “You mean you can leave the car?” 

As I led him from one railway coach to the next, I felt like I was going to more or less blow his mind when I introduced him to the wonders of the dining car (although he was already fairly blown away by the novelty of leaving Car 5). But when I tried the door, it was locked. It seemed that the dining car had closed at midnight and we were too late. I tried to see if a porter would sell me some beer, but they just shook their heads disdainfully and reminded me that they don’t peddle pivo.

Incidentally, there was beer in my compartment on the prior train ride

We returned to our compartment in defeat, where we found our remaining travel mate blinking herself awake. This was Lyubov, a recently retired schoolteacher of Tatar origin who lives in Khanty-Mansiysk (an oil boom town to the north). She had just come from Omsk, where she’d been visiting her daughter and frequenting cat shows, and was now going to Krasnoyarsk to visit her sister for two weeks. The three of us stayed up chatting in a mix of Russian and English, and shared Dutch candy care of Robin and Kazakh chocolate care of Lyubov. I, uselessly, had nothing American to contribute since I destroyed the Cadbury mini-eggs I brought back from LA long before my trip started.

Before I left Moscow I had worried I might get lonely traveling solo for a month, but I am finding that there are plenty of strangers who are eager to open up to a random foreigner. There was Tatiana, who was so friendly that she even kissed the cranky porters on the cheek; Roman, a military officer who asked such interesting and in-depth questions about American culture and politics that I felt bad about my linguistically inadequate answers; and Artem, a mid-20s engineer who wants to leave Russia and was disappointed that I didn’t share his intense dislike of the Motherland. I guess Dima was right when he said before I left, “Russians don’t need therapists—we’ll tell anyone who will listen about our problems.”

*Hi, Robin! Hope you made it safely to Listvyanka and finally got to enjoy that shower!

Bridge over the Yenisei River (Krasnoyarsk)

Obligatory Lenin shot (Krasnoyarsk)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ekaterinburg → Novosibirsk

Sometime before leaving Ekaterinburg, I made the unfortunate discovery that I had inadvertently booked platzkart tickets for two legs of my journey. While I’m sure third-class is fine, an open carriage with 54 beds is not ideal for someone worried about losing their laptop and who would be in a world of pain if she were to be separated from her passport (in a Catch-22 Joseph Heller would approve of, I wouldn’t be able to leave the country without my Russian visa, but I also wouldn’t be able to get a new one without leaving Russia).

The train ticket offices always have long lines and you can never tell which line will move quickly or which one will get bogged down with a foreigner trying to make an exchange, so I got myself to the vokzal two hours before my train was scheduled to depart. After 30 minutes of waiting, I explained my mistake to the woman at the ticket office. She listened patiently, then went through the very tedious process of changing my tickets. An additional 40 minutes and 5300 rubles later, I had corrected my mistake and was ready to roll. But with 50 minutes until departure, I decided to stop by a produkti and a Subway for railway victuals.

By the time I made my way over to train № 044 bound for Khabarovsk, there were only 20 minutes until departure and I was fully ready to throw off my backpack and tuck into my Subway sandwich. But the train attendant wasn’t as eager to make that happen.

Devoshka, your ticket doesn’t match the name on your passport. I can’t let you on this train.”

I looked at her in horror, hoping I’d misunderstood; it was way too late to get a new ticket if she were correct. She pointed at my ticket, indicating where it had been issued for Джесика (the equivalent of “Jesica” instead of “Jessica”).

“But it’s a different alphabet. It doesn’t matter how you spell my name in Cyrillic! Look at all my visas. They make up a new spelling every time. Caroline is written as Керолин, Каролин, and Кэролайн—all in one passport!”

She nodded with faux compassion. “But we’re talking about your first name. And it’s always spelled with two S’s.”

She flipped through my collection of visas to prove her point, not batting an eye as my Russian migration card caught the wind and blew under the train. My panic briefly shifted focus. Abandoning the one vs. two “S” debate, I dove under the train (30 lb. backpack and all) to retrieve that small, but important square of paper. “I can’t exit the country without this,” I explained to the attendant, with a rare burst of grammatical accuracy.

The train attendant was unmoved. “Then you should probably be more careful with it.”

I decided to ignore that comment and focus on the larger issue at hand. “Can I please get on this train?”

She sighed and called over her supervisor and another train attendant. After much back and forth, the trio finally concluded that it was unlikely I had stolen the ticket from an unwitting “Jesica” who just so happened to share the same unhyphenated double last name and passport number as me. Which means I am safely in Novosibirsk!

Are we sensing a theme here?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Exploring Ekaterinburg

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Ekaterinburg was known as Sverdlovsk. It was named after a Communist party leader who was thought to have ordered the assassination of the Romanovs, because apparently that is the kind of exemplary behavior that got you a city named in your honor in  Soviet Russia. In addition to being the place where the last Tsar of Russia was shot, Ekaterinburg is the hometown of the first Russian president, that ineffable alcoholic Boris Yeltsin. For those two reasons alone, I figured Ekaterinburg was worth a stop on my Trans-Siberian tour.

An aerial view of Ekaterinburg
Although I have a tendency to plan trips down to the minutest of details, I didn’t do a lot of planning before arriving in Ekaterinburg. Instead, I decided to leave that to a total stranger—a local Ekaterinburger (pretty sure that’s not the technical term) who found me on Couchsurfing. She had offered to drive me to the border of Europe and Asia, and since I don’t love the marshrutka and she didn’t have the look of a serial killer, I decided to go for it.

This afternoon, Ksenia met me outside my hotel and took me on a walking tour of her city. We meandered down a riverside promenade, which took us past street art that ranged from a Beatles memorial to a giant keyboard made of stones. Both were equally confusing, but Ksenia explained that you were meant to make a wish on the keyboard by spelling out something you desire. As an example, she used the Latin alphabet to type out L-O-V-E, then jumped on the “Return” key. I thought about my wish for a moment, then hopped amongst the following Cyrillic letters: Р-О-М-А-Н, or “novel” in English. Yes, my latest strategy for finishing my novel is enlisting the help of a Wishing Keyboard. Incidentally, “roman” also means “love affair” and is a man’s name, so here’s hoping I get the full trifecta.

We’ll see how that “roman” works out...
A mural dedicated to a Soviet singer who died in 1990

We continued through historical Ekaterinburg and up to the Church on the Blood. A recent addition to the city, it replaced the merchant’s home where the Romanov family was shot and now serves as a memorial. Today it was filled with women selling Easter cakes (kulich), so I bought one for Ksenia and me to share in a nearby park (Orthodox Easter is tomorrow). Our last stop of the day was the marker along the Europe-Asia border. For this, Ksenia enlisted the help of Valery, a friend of hers with a car who apparently had nothing better to do today than chauffeur us out of town for a photo op. Clearly everyone’s fears that I would die on the Trans-Siberian were well-founded—these tricky Russians are trying to kill me with kindness.

Church on the Blood

Asia - Europe

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Train Ride Begins

On Wednesday, I ran into the director of my college overseas studies program. I first met him back in 2005 when I was a junior in college, arriving in Moscow after six weeks in St. Petersburg. He picked me up from the Leningradsky Railway Station after my first ride on a Russian train. At the time, my Russian was so non-existent that it took me multiple tries (and a good Samaritan with great English) before I could purchase my train ticket. At the insistence of my mother, I opted for the high-speed day train rather than the overnight train. I didn’t get robbed or roofied, but I did get yelled at by another passenger when I was too slow exiting with my mountains of luggage.

Ten years later and I am embarking on yet another solo train ride—albeit with less luggage and a far better grasp of Russian (and Russian rudeness). Even though Moscow is more than weird enough to keep me entertained until time immemorial, I decided to venture out on a month-long journey across the vast expanse of the Motherland. Moscow and Vladivostok are 9,259 kilometers apart, and it takes a train 143 hours and 20 minutes to cover that distance. Any Russian will aptly point out that it’s not only faster but cheaper to fly across the country, so why would anyone subject themselves to nearly a week aboard a train?

The № 002 «Россия» from Moscow to Vladivostok

As a Westerner with romantic notions of the Russian heartland and train travel, I actually am curious to see the mountains, lakes, taiga, and steppe that lie between the capital and the Pacific Ocean. I want to cross the Ural Mountains into Asia, explore the Siberian wilderness, swim in the deepest lake in the world, and visit Nanai villages on the border of China. And, of course, I’m hoping to cross paths with some crazy Russian characters along the way.

Endless Russian birch forests from the window

My first leg of the trip, from Moscow to Ekaterinburg, was mostly uneventful. I shared a compartment with an older couple and their grandson, all of whom were completely uninterested in speaking with me. After I introduced myself to them, they just asked, “How far are you going?” They seemed disappointed to discover that I would be in their compartment for the duration of their journey, also to Ekaterinburg. Despite my attempts at conversation, they gave brief answers and asked no questions of me. So even after 25 hours in close quarters, all I can tell you about Larissa, Sergei, and Kirill is that they were returning from a sanatorium in the Caucuses, and 5-year-old Kirill can watch classic Soviet films for a day straight. I’m hoping my next train (a 22-hour ride to Novosibirsk) will be more exciting. If not, I’m bringing a liter of vodka and heading back to the third class cars—you know it’s got to get wild up in there.

No Russian city is complete without Lenin!

A sidestreet in Ekaterinburg

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Next Chapter

I have been quiet about my plans post-Moscow, though I have made mention of the fact that I’m planning to leave. It may have seemed like I was just bumming around Russia with the occasional freelance project, but I actually have had a master plan behind the scenes.

This fall, I wasn’t just working part time and frequenting the banya. I was also agonizing over applications to MFA programs in Creative Writing. I was torturing myself (and my sisters) with endless drafts of writing samples and personal statements, and spending a small fortune on application fees. Fully-funded MFA programs have admit rates that make med school look easy to get into, so I applied to a dozen programs and braced myself for just as many rejections.

My first response was positive—I was told that I was #1 on the wait list for a wonderful program that only accepts four fiction writers a year. But then I got my first rejection. And my second. And my third, and my fourth, and my fifth. Though I have received many blows to my writing ego over the years, it was a lot to take at once. This was the first time I was showing my novel to strangers, and the response wasn’t encouraging.

But then last Tuesday, I got a game-changing email. It seemed my first choice program, one that admits less than one-half of 1% of applicants, wanted to fund me to write for the next three years. Even better, they “absolutely loved” my novel excerpt, and “can’t wait to read the rest.” I screamed in shock, I screamed in relief, and then I called my sister in Bellingham so I could wake her up with further screams of elation. A celebration was clearly in order, so I drank a bottle of Crimean wine with my flatmates and signed my acceptance contract before it could be rescinded.

After four years abroad, it looks like I am finally repatriating. So where does one go after spending two years each in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Spain, and Russia?

Austin, Texas!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Story Without a Happy Ending

Yesterday I had my first Russian massage. Having no basis for comparison, I am completely clueless as to whether my masseur was totally within the realm of normal or if I stepped into a very Slavic version of 50 Shades of Grey. All I know is that sexual favors were offered up and I now have a back covered in purple bruises.

To be fair, I did have some idea of what I was getting into. My friend Kat, who went first, did warn me that a) her massage was “shocking” and b) the masseur tried to give her a little something extra. But even with those disclaimers, she described it as the “the best massage of her life,” so I didn’t think it was worth canceling my appointment.

Our masseur was a brawny Siberian who introduced himself as Slava. His arms were easily wider around than my thighs, his head was shaved, and he wore a tight-fitting black tank top and a gold cross on a heavy chain.

He instructed me to close the door “if I wanted to,” and get undressed. I in no way wanted to imply I was looking for anything off-menu, so I decided to leave the door ajar, even though that meant that I either needed to get undressed facing the hallway or facing him. I opted for the hallway, which delayed Slava seeing me naked by another 12 seconds or so. Once the massage table had been readied, he had me lie face-down and covered me with a crimson sheet. At this point, things seemed normal enough—aside from the fact that he’d just felt up my friend.

Slava immediately got down to business, massaging me hard enough that I had to grit my teeth and force myself not to cry out in pain. At first he thought I spoke no Russian, so he employed his limited English vocabulary: yes, good, super good, and just relax. I can now assure you that a 700-lb. Russian uttering the words “just relax” is the rapiest thing you will ever hear.

Somewhere along the way, I let on that I speak broken Russian, and that opened the door to longer conversation and a more painful massage.

Slava: Is this strong enough?
Me: There’s stronger?!
Slava: This is third strongest.

I obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, because I directed him to take it up to the strongest notch. That turned out to be no joke—after a few minutes of “first strongest,” Slava was breathing heavily and I was grimacing in agony. Somehow, we still managed to keep the conversation going despite these obstacles.

Slava: You speak such pure Russian.
Me: You mean English? I speak such pure English?
Slava: No, your Russian is very chistiy! Are you a singer? It’s great! 

I know that there is no universe in which my Russian qualifies as either “pure” or “great,” so I could only surmise that Slava was trying to butter me up. I thanked him and turned the conversation back to the much tamer topic of where I was from, but Slava wasn’t much impressed by Seattle. It seems he’s dreaming of a green card and a future in Miami, and plans to move there just as soon as he masters English.

Judging on appearance alone, I would have taken Slava to be more the hyper-nationalistic type, but I was proven wrong. It turned out my hulking friend was eager to get out of Russia. He was quick to denounce the level of corruption in the Motherland, and even called Putin a thief and an unprintable Russian word.

“Don’t you agree?” he asked casually.

His opinion sounded so suspiciously Western that I wondered if he was somehow trying to entrap me, (but into what, I don’t know). I neither agreed nor disagreed as I scanned the room for FSB listening devices. My paranoia was probably misplaced—a webcam would have been far more likely.

The massage had taken a turn for the “shocking” around the time Slava flipped me onto my back and pulled out the hot stones. The sheet had long since disappeared, taking my modesty with it. My entire body was oiled up and on display as he contorted me into a myriad of unnatural poses—all of which he was a joint participant in. I hadn’t fully understood what Kat had meant when she’d said he’d tossed her around, but I soon found out. I was lifted, pulled, and pushed in every direction, and twice I thought he was trying to choke me. Sometime between having my face buried in his chest and having one of my legs thrown over his shoulder, I wondered if he was even a real masseur or just some FSB officer playing a practical joke on two Americans.

When the hour was almost up, Slava asked me if there was “anything else I’d like.” I figured this was where things had gone south for Kat, so I opted for the safest bet amongst the options Slava presented. Even so, my head massage somehow ended at my upper thighs. Slava rounded out the hour by wishing me a happy Women’s Day, then presented me with his business card.

“I also do house calls. Call me anytime—next time we’ll do it 50/50.”

I don’t even want to know what that would entail.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Zeitgeist of Moscow

The mood in Russia has been shifting lately. It doesn’t feel the same as it did when I studied abroad here in 2005 and it doesn’t feel the same as it did when I moved here last September. There’s been a marked upsurge in nationalism this year, and more of an “us against them” mentality in the media. About a week ago, a former Stanford professor of mine said, “It’s one thing to be a ‘witness to history’ and quite another to survive it.”

I was surprised by his warning—it sounded more like something my parents would say than the words of a man who has been frequenting Russia since long before it ceased to be the Soviet Union. I chalked it up to professorial concern and the power of Western propaganda, and promptly forgot about it. But on Friday night when Dima returned to the apartment, his eyes were glued to his iPhone as he announced, “They killed Nemtsov.”

Liz and I looked at him blankly. “Who’s Nemtsov?”

Oppozitsiya,” Dima said. “An opposition leader. They shot him just 30 meters from the Kremlin.”

For those of us who didn’t know who Nemtsov was before Friday, he’s quickly become a household name. He was First Deputy Prime Minister under Yeltsin, and later an outspoken critic of Putin. And on Friday, he was shot to death in the middle of Moscow.

A march was organized to honor Nemtsov on Sunday—one which I was curious to see, but didn’t feel it was my place to join. Instead, I met friends for brunch and planned to hole up in a café for the afternoon with some freelance work and my laptop. As our brunch stretched into its fifth hour and day faded into dusk, we noticed a steady stream of people moving down Pyatnitskaya Street outside. There were people of all ages, many carrying signs and holding Russia’s red, white, and blue flag. Until then, I had forgotten that the café we had chosen, located near the Novokuznetskaya metro station, was just across the Moskvoretsky Bridge where Nemtsov was murdered.

As my friends and I headed to the metro, we merged with the mass of people finishing the memorial march. Though the procession was over, people still held signs with messages like “There are no words” and “I am not afraid.” Though I am not afraid of Russia, per se, the need for signs like that are a strong reminder that something seems to be brewing. Maybe it’s my perspective as a Westerner, but I have a slightly unsettled feeling—not unlike the one I had in Gatchina this summer when I heard about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 getting shot down or when I was in Siberia during the annexation of Crimea. Perhaps all this will blow over, but past lessons would lead me to believe otherwise. Russian history has always had a flair for the dramatic, a fact which my former professor has so wisely remembered.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Trans Plans

Unlike Bruce Jenner, my trans plans have nothing to do with gender reassignment and everything to do with travel. I’m in the midst of my annual February writing frenzy—no Facebook, lots of library time, and a new writing technique that involves blindfolding myself—but when I emerge from hibernation, I have two big trips coming up.

A Transatlantic Reunion
One of my best friends from college is getting married, so I’m off to Los Angeles and San Diego for 10 days. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to go all the way back to the West Coast so soon after spending three weeks there for Christmas, but then someone asked me how good of friends Geny and I are. When I ran through our friendship—we lived together all four years of college, studied abroad together in Chile, and have stayed friends in the many years since—I realized I couldn’t miss seeing her walk down the aisle. As an added bonus, the rest of our sophomore year roommates will be in attendance, so there will be lots of laughter, hugging, and some light physical abuse.

Top (L-R): Geny visiting me in Bellingham (2006), Geny and me in Buenos Aires (2006)
Bottom (L-R): Junior year of college (2006), visiting Geny in San Diego (2010)

Top (L-R): Sophomore year, my 22nd birthday, a reunion in Chicago (2011)
Bottom (L-R): 5-year college reunion (2012), FloMo brunch (2012), another appearance at Nola (2013)

Even though I need to be back in California for another wedding in May, I am going to be back in Russia for the interim. I wasn’t sure how I was going to justify two more months of unemployment here in Moscow, but I solved that this morning when I booked a one-way flight from Vladivostok to Moscow, which brings me to my next trip.

A Trans-Siberian Adventure
Consider it a farewell tour before I leave Russia “for good.” The Trans-Siberian spans more than a third of the globe, so there is a lot more of this country I need to see. Even after a year and a half here, I’ve barely gone beyond the usual tourist circuit of Moscow and St. Petersburg (though I’d say that jaunt to Siberia with an oligarch counts as getting off the beaten path). With the ruble lower than ever, I decided it was time to finally pull the trigger on a Trans-Siberian journey. I’m hoping to spend a month riding the rails, including a week of writing at a guesthouse on an island in Lake Baikal. Assuming I don’t get lost in the heart of Russia, I’ll return to Moscow right before Victory Day for a send-off of epic proportions.

Lake Baikal (source)

But until all of these adventures get started, I still have a novel to finish. Time to find that blindfold…