Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Method Writing, or How I Ended up in Russian AA

A Russian friend recently asked me if I have to do much research for my novel-in-progress. He’s read multiple drafts of it, so I thought he knew the answer: “Just spending obscene amounts of time in Russia.”

When I thought about it a little longer, I realized there’s more to it than that. I’ve read mountains of Russian literature, and built up an internet search history I wouldn’t want my mother or the police to see. I’ve wandered all over Moscow, lurking in its hotels, visiting its oldest film studio, and casing the US Ambassador’s residence. I visited the set of a Russian TV show, and got yelled at by the director. I convinced a friend to let me film her wedding, even though my prior experience as a wedding videographer was entirely imaginary. I cold called my ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend (whom I’d met twice, ten years before) and got her to tell me about her childhood in Russia. And, most recently, I tagged along for a friend’s AA meeting in Moscow.

The idea came about when I was at the banya last weekend with a friend, who we’ll call Lena. In the two years since I’d last seen her, she’d picked up a rather stubborn heroin addiction; she’s been in and out of rehab three times in the last 18 months. She’s three months clean, but she finds AA meetings helpful to stay on track. When I asked her what Russian AA was like, she suggested I come along to the next meeting.

“Is that a thing? People bring friends with them for moral support?”

“Not really. It’ll be easier if you just say you’re an alcoholic, too.”

I wasn’t going to say no to a personal invite, so it was agreed that I would join Lena for her next AA meeting.

On Monday night, I found myself in the basement of an elementary school, in a classroom crammed with 25 adults. Lena and I were running late, but that didn’t mean I was exempt from introducing myself.

“Hi, I’m Dzhessika, and I’m an alkogolichka.”

For the first half hour, there was a guest speaker. She talked about her battle with alcoholism, an attempted suicide, the death of the father of her child, and how she finally realized she had no choice but to get sober. It was dark and deeply personal stuff. I might have felt guilty about invading her privacy and breaking the trust of the group, but I was only understanding about 75% of what she was saying anyway. For example, I spent a good portion of the night trying to figure out what trezvost’ meant. “Sobriety,” it turns out.

After the meeting, Lena and I stuck around so she could say hi to her friend Dasha.* Dasha is two years sober, and was thrilled that I had taken the first step in the road to recovery—so thrilled that she asked the question I’d been dreading: “What brought you here?”

I had come up with a number of inventive backstories, but I couldn’t bring myself to use any of them. Why? Because I’m a terrible liar. I can’t handle the guilt that accompanies deceit, and I undercut my occasional lies with immediate confessions. The great irony is that I am a fantastic liar when I’m drinking. Give me a couple shots, and I will lie with enthusiasm and aplomb. But that’s usually not an option in the middle of an AA meeting. So what did I say?

“I’ve seen how good it’s been for Lena, and wanted to see what it was all about.” My answer was technically true, if not a little evasive.

Dasha pressed further. “When was your last drink? Was it in Moscow?”

Of course it was. It was an expertly made lime and basil affair at Bar Mitzva on Friday night.

“Yeah,” I said, hanging my head in shame. “It was.”

This seemed to convince Dasha I was the real deal. She gave me a sympathetic look—the kind you would give a raging alcoholic who still won’t admit she has a problem.

“I hope we see you back here again.”

No, Dasha, you really don’t. There’s no way I could keep up this charade—not without a few stiff drinks.

I thought this would be the end of it. In a city of 12 million, you'd think I'd be safe from running into anyone from that group again, right?

I ran into Dasha a week later, just as I was walking out of a building owned by the Russian government. This was, incidentally, another novel-related recon mission. I had joined up with a tour of nine Russian ladies, all of whom, presumably, wanted to know the history of the building. I, on the other hand, was trying to get a straight answer on how one would get access to the rooftop terrace that plays host to a crucial scene in my novel.

Dasha asked me how the sobriety was going, and I gave her another cagey answer—the kind that left her more convinced than ever that I needed her help. She made me take her number, and encouraged me to call her for support. I took it and told her I’d be in touch. After all, I was going to need an explanation if the Russian authorities stopped me and wanted to know why I had photos of the floor plans of government buildings on my phone. And then my well-documented alcoholism might be just the cover story I needed.

*Name has been changed.

Monday, July 3, 2017

An American in Aktobe

Like many Americans, my introduction to the glorious nation of Kazakhstan came by way of the film Borat. And like many of my compatriots, I didn’t realize how wildly inaccurate a portrait of Kazakhstan the film painted. Even living with a Kazakh-raised Russian in Moscow didn’t dispel all of my misconceived notions. Dima knows the words to his country’s fake national anthem, and he’s been known to belt them out with pride.1 But when I found out I’d be spending two weeks in Aktobe, one of Kazakhstan’s lesser-known cities, it was Dima I went to for details. His review of Aktobe wasn’t exactly glowing:

Dima: It’s a normal city, a metallurgical city. It’s at the southern end of the Ural Mountains, the oldest part of the Ural Mountains. There are many rare minerals. Magnesium, lead—
Liz: Really? That’s what you have to say about Aktobe?
Dima: Yeah, because there’s nothing else there.

Views of Aktobe from an amusement park ride

I feared Dima was right after my first day there. A two-mile walk took me from one side of Aktobe to the other, and all I passed were a few shops and restaurants, an abundance of notaries (the Soviet love of documents dies hard), and not a whole lot else. Aktobe reminded me of Siberia with its wide, dusty streets and big, spread-out buildings—it was Russia without the Russians. Or at least that’s what I thought until I saw Kazakhstan through the eyes of my students, the other teachers at my school, and the strangers who stopped me in the street.

The world’s ninth-largest country is a confluence of cultures. Kazakhstan started out as a nomadic culture (its name means “land of the wanderers”), and was later influenced by Mongol and Russian invaders. Since the end of Soviet rule in 1991, Kazakhstan has had only one leader, but the president has ambitious plans to position his country among the top global economies by 2050. The country may be unknown or thought to be provincial in the West, but it felt full of promise to me. The students I taught were trilingual in Kazakh, Russian, and English, and their charter school boasted everything from a robotics lab to a climbing wall. The kids were smart, curious, and driven, and took pride in sharing their culture with me. In turn, I did my best to answer their questions about America, and tried not to mangle the pronunciation of their names too badly.

Over the course of my two weeks in Aktobe, I heard traditional Kazakh music, tried (and failed) to perform their national dance, shopped at the bazaar, and spoke to a crowd of fifty at the American Corner, a US government-sponsored center at the local library. I even tried the country’s national dish, beshbarmak, whose primary ingredient is horse meat. Yes, for the first time since the Spanish Pig Slaughter of 2011, I ate meat. With my hands. And it only took two shots of Kazakh vodka to prepare myself.

Beshbarmak means “five fingers,” because it's traditionally eaten with your hands

Throughout my trip, I sent photos back to Dima and Liz in San Francisco. Dima may have thought Aktobe was the armpit of Central Asia a few months ago, but when I returned to Moscow on Saturday, it seems he’d been converted: “This is so cool. I wish I could travel to Kazakhstan.”

If my time in Aktobe’s got Dima yearning for a visit to Kazakhstan, then I can only imagine how jealous he’ll be when I eventually make it to Astana or Almaty. I’ve got a taste for horse meat now, and you can’t satisfy that craving in America.

1 “Kazakhstan greatest country in the world! All other countries are run by little girls!”

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Like a Travel Virgin, Touched for the (Thirty) First Time

Over the years and with each new stamp in my passport, travel lost some of its initial thrill. The terror, excitement, and culture shock that accompanied my first trip abroad couldn’t be replicated—and certainly not over and over again.1 But then I went to Cuba, my 31st country, and returned with the same feeling I’d had as a 16-year-old coming back from Ecuador.

Between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I went to Ecuador for a summer abroad program. It was a summer of firsts: the first time traveling without family, the first time I’d had so much independence, and the first time I had to function in a foreign language. In short, it was the first time I’d had so much fun. After five wonderful weeks, my mom and sisters met me at SeaTac airport to welcome me home. I stood completely rigid while they embraced me, and had nothing to say except, “I want to go back to Ecuador.”

Half a lifetime later, I feel like that petulant 16-year-old once again. Even though it’s been two months (and there’s been a trip to Mexico in the interim), I just want to be back in the Caribbean, drinking rum and dancing to reggaeton. So what is it about Cuba that got inside of me and ruined real life for the foreseeable future? Like Russia, Cuba is one of those rare countries that makes me feel like a travel virgin all over again.

As everyone who has been there will tell you, Cuba is unlike anywhere else on earth. Though there is plenty to frustrate travelers and residents alike (empty shelves, long lines, and Soviet-style efficiency, to name a few), Cuba’s energy and excitement make up for much of that. There’s island magic in the air—a joie de vivre that permeates daily life despite poverty and regardless of politics. Life is lived with zeal, and is accompanied by a constant soundtrack of son and salsa.

A view of the Vedado neighborhood of Havana

Before you assume that I’m describing an experience exclusive to privileged foreigners, let me quote two Cubans (from two sides of the country) who voiced identical refrains:

“I live better abroad, but I only feel truly alive on the island.”

I first heard this in Santiago, from a Santiaguero who left Cuba for Canada. I heard it again a week later in Havana, this time from a Cuban living in Switzerland. It also sounded strangely similar to something a friend once said when we were talking about Moscow. “Don’t you just feel more alive there? Sure, you also feel like you might die at any moment, but there’s just an energy to it.” Fittingly, this was the person I was traveling with in Cuba.

I had the perfect travel companion for visiting a nation under communist rule—a Spanish-speaking Russian whose appetite for adventure is even greater than my own. Despite canceled flights in Florida, a lost phone in Havana, blackouts in Santiago, and a scrapped plan to hitchhike across the island, serendipity was always on our side. When two of my college friends failed to meet us at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, I ran into a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in fifteen years instead. When we got suckered into the worst casa particular in Santiago, our search for better lodging led us to a rooftop terrace and a night of rum-drinking with the proprietor’s childhood friend. When a storm hit Havana, we ended up with the one driver who would take his ’52 Dodge down an abandoned and rain-battered Malecón. Similar circumstances led to a marriage proposal at a bus station, a visit to Fidel’s grave, and a personal violin concert in a moonlit alley.

And I eventually found those college friends

Not surprisingly, Cuba brought out my same fearless (and somewhat foolhardy) alter ego, who first appeared in Ecuador and resurfaces every time I go to Russia. It’s a good thing we’ve only got eight more weeks to go before my blog returns to its regular programming. That’s right—I’m going back to Russia in June, and this summer has the added bonus of a two-week stint in the Central Highlands of Kazakhstan. It seems I’ll do anything to recreate the feeling of my very first time.

1 My first trip overseas, at age 16, was to my mother’s home country of the Philippines, and coincided with the Second EDSA Revolution. While I met extended relatives and attended a cousin’s wedding, the Filipinos took to the streets to overthrow their president.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Until Next Time

I just realized that this is my 100th blog post, which is an awkward reminder that I spend far too much time rambling about Russia. Nonetheless, I felt like I should write one more blog post before I leave Russia for the summer. Ten weeks have flashed by, and I find myself on the eve of departure once again.

The point of coming to Russia this summer was to work on my Russian and finish my novel, both of which proved to be overambitious goals. My Russian has improved markedly in the last year, but it still lags behind my Spanish—even after all the time I’ve spent beating it into my brain. As for my novel, I’m starting to think of it as an emotionally abusive boyfriend. It makes me feel bad about myself, but I just keep going back for more. Despite my sense of inadequacy, the baristas at the Coffee Bean on Pyatnitskaya have reassured me somewhat on both counts. Today the new barista complimented my Russian, even if I did pronounce the adjectival form of “mango” incorrectly on my first try. And yesterday, one of them let me cut the line and asked if I’d be having my usual, so I must have been going in to write sans WiFi more than I realized.

The rest of the summer was a flurry of all that Moscow magic that keeps bringing me back: picnics in Gorky Park, apocalyptic thunderstorms, ballet and theatre, endless summer nights, linguistic triumphs (and debacles), walks along the Moscow River, strangers on trains, Georgian dinners, and a fair amount of vodka and wine. Naturally, I’ve already planned my return for next June, because there’s really nothing better than a Moscow summer.

Московское лето (Moscow summer)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Six Degrees of Separation from the FSB

Last Wednesday, my friend Nastya asked if I wanted to join her on a weekend trip to Ingushetia. It was the first time I’d heard of Russia’s smallest republic, but I was immediately intrigued when she mentioned it shares a border with Chechnya. I asked if Grozny was on the itinerary, but even Nastya isn’t that crazy.

A little internet research proved that Ingushetia is not your average tourist destination—unless you’re looking for a package that combines kidnapping, suicide bombings, and clan warfare. Nastya wisely left out those selling points, instead enticing me with pictures of the Soviet sanatorium we’d be visiting. I thought the biggest hurdle would be booking a flight (Russian websites don’t accept US credit cards), but one painless call to Siberian Airlines got me a ticket to Beslan, a city best known for its 2004 hostage crisis. But after the tickets were purchased and I did a little more research, I encountered a slightly larger problem: it seems most of Ingushetia is restricted to foreigners, and I would need a special permit to visit. And to get said permit, I would need to appeal directly to the FSB.

Now for those who are unaware, the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) is the successor to the KGB, and I try to fly under their radar as much as possible. But with my flight booked, there was nothing to do but press ahead and fill out an application for “entry to the border zone.” This entailed sending them copies of my passport, visa, and migration card; a detailed travel itinerary; and the license plate number and VIN of the cars I’ll be in this weekend. Since I’ve already sent the Russian government HIV and TB test results, this felt pretty non-invasive.

The FSB auto-response cheerily broke the news that my request could take up to 60 days to process, which is problematic given that my flight leaves on Friday. Under normal circumstances, I’d say this was a lost cause, but obviously things work differently in Russia. I’ve got two Russian friends working their connections to get my request approved, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’ll have a propusk in hand by Friday.

If that happens, I’m still not sure it will be cause for celebration. There’s still the very real chance of getting abducted—kidnapping foreigners was an entire industry in the ’90s, and bride stealing is widely tolerated even today—and a US Embassy employee already made it clear that the State Department can’t help anyone who gets lost in the Caucuses. On the other hand, getting kidnapped could be a shortcut to an easy book deal, so I guess we’ll just have to see how this unfolds.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Piter, Past and Present

Last weekend I took the train up to St. Petersburg, which was both the first time I’d been on a train since the Trans-Siberian last spring, and my first time in Petersburg since the summer of 2014. Even though Moscow will always be my one true Russian love, Piter holds a special place in my heart—it was my point of entry into Russia eleven years ago. But in the many years since I first visited the Motherland, I’ve changed and it’s changed.

In 2005, you could buy a pack of cigarettes for 8 rubles (25 cents at the time), English was nowhere to be found on the menus and metro signs, McDonald’s was the only establishment with Wi-Fi, and Putin was in the Kremlin (okay, not everything has changed). As for me, I was a deaf mute who didn’t always guess right when I entered public restrooms, I carried my rubles in my bra to avoid being robbed, I was so cheap that I frequented an internet café whose clientele mostly consisted of men watching porn, and I had a crush on the president of Russia (that one’s still a little true, if I’m being perfectly honest).

I don’t think the Aperol Spritz had made it to Russia in 2005 either

Because I can’t quite let go of the past, I decided that my impromptu trip to Piter should be accompanied by an impromptu attempt to get in touch with my former host sister. I hadn’t seen Larisa since a chance meeting in Helsinki a decade ago, but her email address and last name have changed since then. Luckily, I’m almost as good at tracking people down as the KGB, and Larisa and I were Facebook messaging by the time I’d boarded my night train to Petersburg. We spent the day together on Saturday, and I got to meet her kids and see her new apartment. We also reminisced about our last night together in 2005, when I taught her how to bake a lemon meringue pie. This was a true feat since I’d never baked a pie before, plus I had to measure everything with a teacup and and bake our masterpiece in a frying pan.

Larisa and me in 2005

Larisa and me looking far less awkward in 2016

Before Larisa dropped me off at the metro, we drove by our old apartment. It looked exactly the same, and I half expected to see my 20-year-old self walk out. She wouldn’t have been able to say anything in Russian other than “I don’t speak Russian,” had not yet figured out that the hours of writing she did to keep herself entertained without internet were going to morph into something much bigger, and she certainly wouldn’t have expected to see herself on that same street eleven years later. Alas, my past self was only present in my head that day.

To round out my time-warped weekend, I spent my last night hanging out in a former communal apartment with a group of Russians, two of whom currently live in Austin. The kommunalka was located in a decrepit old building that was once a grand hotel. It probably should be condemned by now, but I’m glad it wasn’t so I could observe its faded glory. You could feel the ghosts of Tsarist Russia in the high ceilings and elegant stairways, and see the failed ideals of the Soviet Union in the stained and sagging bathroom and sink-less kitchen, both of which are still shared by six different tenants today. With the White Nights in full effect, it was easy to lose track of time and slip into the surreal world that is St. Petersburg in the summer.

Petersburg at 3 a.m.

I wasn’t quite ready to leave St. Petersburg on Sunday, and I’m going to be even less ready to leave Russia in five weeks. I hope there’s a future iteration of myself sitting across the café from me right now, laughing at the very idea that I might not be back. If history is any indication, Russia isn’t rid of me yet.