Sunday, June 4, 2017

The More Things Change...

Every time I return to Russia, I wonder if it will live up to my memories. Many of the friends who shaped the previous experience have cycled out, and I worry that Moscow will have lost its magic. After my post-Moskva toska wore off last fall and two good friends left, I wasn’t as hell-bent on returning for another summer in Russia. I applied for a couple of grants, but it was more out of habit than anything else—other people might summer in warmer climes, but I summer in Russia.

Despite my indifference, the powers that be wanted me in Mother Russia. Even though I didn’t get the language grant that funded last summer’s adventures, my alma mater reached out with an offer to teach a creative writing course in Kazakhstan. Not only would those two weeks of work fund writing in Moscow for the rest of the summer, but my employer would cover my flights to Moscow, and to San Francisco for a wedding I was in as well. And so, for the fourth summer in a row, I was Russia bound.

As soon as I landed at Domodedovo on Wednesday afternoon, muscle memory kicked in. I shouldered through the crowd of cab drivers outside of Arrivals, located the bank of ATMs across from the Cinnabon, withdrew a few thousand rubles, and hit up the MTC kiosk to get a SIM card for my Russian burner phone. Within an hour of landing, my luggage and I were in the back of an Uber, heading toward the same apartment that housed me last summer.

Moscow felt comfortingly familiar at first. A light rain fell on the birch forest outside, billboards along the highway advertised Elena Furs, and the radio was tuned to a station playing nothing but American 80s hits. But then I saw something new—a billboard for Lay’s potato chips. That in itself wasn’t alarming, but the advertising strategy was. The billboard featured a row of grinning Russians, with the slogan “Каждый день вкуснее с улыбкой!” Every day is tastier with a smile? No, not in Russia, the land where smiles go to die! I brushed it off as an advertising campaign gone awry, and reminded myself that I was still surrounded by shoddily constructed Soviet apartment buildings, Moscow traffic jams, and children walking down the sidewalk in snowsuits, even on the last day of May. All was as it should be.

After my Uber dropped me off, I dumped my bags, showered, and set off for a visit with my friend Nastya. Her new apartment is five stops away by metro, so I bought a ticket and took the familiar underground ride. I was fighting some pretty aggressive jet lag, so I put in my earbuds and blasted Cuban reggaeton. It kept me from falling asleep on the metro like a drunk, but meant that I didn’t hear any of the announcements until I was approaching my stop.

“Next stop, Tretyakovskaya.”

Normally the announcement is delivered in Russian, and Russian only, but this time it was echoed in English. And not just any English—refined British English that didn’t come close to approximating a Russian’s harsh tones. What kind of nonsense was this?! Russia was supposed to remain the tourist-unfriendly place I know and love for time eternal!

Despite my annoyance with smiles and with English, those were exactly the things that awaited me at Nastya’s. We caught up over red wine, nibbled on black bread and squash caviar, and made plans for the summer ahead. And when she asked me how it felt to be back, no amount of globalization could change my answer.

“It feels wonderful,” I said. “It’s like I never left.”

A Studio 54-themed house party with Nastya, Molly, and Ksenia
(because Brits abroad are even more obnoxious than Americans abroad) 

With old friends at a new restaurant

Moonrise Kremlin

No comments:

Post a Comment