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in order, so I drank a bottle of Crimean wine with my flatmates and signed my acceptance contract before it could be rescinded.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.