Monday, August 18, 2008

home sladkii home

Since this is probably going to be the most interesting aspect of my life here in Russia, I decided to find a McDonald's (wi-fi) and spin you a little yarn about my homestay; I realize yesterday's post was a bit of a cliffhanger. And don't worry, I haven't been choked or stolen from at this McDonald's yet. Although I did get some weird looks after ordering an iced coffee. I know I know, it was a bit ambitious of me to even try. People were mostly amused by the request. In the end all I could get was a cup of ice and a regular cup of coffee. An old woman ordering next to me pointed and smiled and said "Interyezno! (Interesting!) I've never seen such a thing before." I told her I was from America, and that it was just that kind of day, you know? (It's really hot here and I've been toting around a heavy backpack all day.)

Okay, the homestay. Yesterday was the second day of moving all of us into our homestays. We went in pairs based on the general regions we were all in. Our program director Lena and some other guy vaguely associated with the university (Igor) drove us to our apartments to meet our new xoziaikas (landladies, but this Russian word has a slightly different meeting-- basically it's pronounced huh-zyAHee-kuh). One guy has a xozyain (a man host) but most of us have old women who live alone.

So first we drove to my friend Tinian's apartment (she's the other girl from Berkeley on this trip). She lives about a mile away from me. Both our landladies are new to the program; they have another stockpile of known quantities that, for better or worse, we didn't get. So we got to Tinian's and at first I was a little freaked out because Tinian got this big, clean, awesome room to herself. Her landlady seemed very welcoming, too. While Lena was talking specifics with the landlady, Igor was telling Tinian and me that although Tinian was pretty far from the metro, she'd really lucked out with the quality of apartment, especially because he'd already seen 90% of the homestays. And then he told us that both of us were really far from the metro. So again, I was really freaked out and did not know what to expect. It turns out that I am not so far from the metro, about a 10-15 minute walk in a fairly decent neighborhood. BUT. Igor and Lena got lost several times before we actually made it to the place. So we're driving down deserted dirt-road alleys with lots of stray dogs (there are so many of those in Russia, my friend Igor got attacked by 3 of them yesterday after he left the McDonald's in his area and had to fight them off with a cart). And I'm hearing Igor (the man Igor, not my friend from the program) talking to Lena in Russian, saying "What is this?? She's not living here, is she? How could she live in this!?" They kept bickering which would have been funny because he kept saying she was stubborn like his wife, except I was paralyzed with fear in the backseat, imagining myself walking home and having to fight off dogs with an umbrella or something.

Anyway, after they called my landlady a couple times, we successfully drove to my homestay. 1 Bol'shoi Vokolamskii Proezd. It's next to a big police station, and my landlady said the neighborhood was generally pretty quiet as a result. Then I told her that frankly, I was scared of the police here. She seemed surprised at this, so hopefully that means there's nothing to worry about. There are a lot of families and playgrounds here, and the local church is quaintly beautiful. But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. That was on the walk my landlady and I took so that she could show me where the metro was.

So Lena and I take the elevator to the 5th floor (incidentally, one of the elevators has no light whatsoever, it's a creepy ride so I usually try to wait for the fully-lit elevator) and we go to the apartment #26. There's an entryway with other apartments on the way to that, I'm not sure who lives there yet. And so the landlady greeted us, we exchanged our shoes for slippers, and went inside so that Lena could discuss a few details with the landlady. Oh, did I mention that the smell of cat pee filled the air once we were in the entryway? Right. My landlady has 3 cats. 3 fat cats. Which is fine. Except sometimes when I think she's talking to me, she's actually talking to the cats. I mean usually it's not hard to tell who she's talking to because she puts on a falsetto and does the whole baby talk thing. She's either teaching them how to say "Mama" or she thinks they already know how, because sometimes she says "MAMA" really slowly to the cat, and when it meows in response, she gets my attention and says "See? Mama. They know." The first thing she showed Lena and me was 2 different framed photographs of her cats. I'm not making fun of her though, she must be lonely. Her daughter is grown and lives/studies in Ohio. But I'm not sure how much she knows about American life through her, because when we were watching Agatha Christie together in the living room and eating dinner, she asked if we have tv commercials in America, too. I said "yes" and then tried to explain that some channels like HBO don't have them, but I don't think she understood. Later I realized that in the USSR there were obviously no commercials because there would have been no need to sell any particular brand.

Generally things are comfortable in the apartment, it's small but I have my own room with a degree of privacy if I decide to close the door. The only thing is that there IS a pervasive cat pee odor that I haven't adjusted to yet. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. I might try to get some Febreze or it's equivalent later, and hope she won't be offended.

Another thing that is bothering me is how much she has decided to charge me for food and laundry. I had heard a lot about how some landladies are happy to cook you meals for free, but this lady is clearly not in that camp. For me to take breakfast and dinner with her would be $300 a month, so I told her I would just eat breakfast on my own dime and then she could make me dinner. That is $200 a month. I asked her if it might be okay to cook my own meals and shop for myself, but she said it might be inconvenient with all the pots and pans being occupied etc. We'll see. I'm just going to try this only-dinner business out for a month. Then she said that a full load of laundry would cost $20. So at that point I mentally decided to just suck it up and handwash everything. However, this morning, of course all of us come to class exchanging stories about our homestays. Generally it sounds like the biggest problem for a lot of people is how far their homestay is from school (my commute is about an hour), but mostly the landladies sound nurturing and generous. I talked to Lena and asked her about how expensive everything was. She said that while $200/month for only dinners was reasonable, $20/load of laundry was not, and that she would give the lady a call about it.

I think right now I just don't want to exchange stories with anyone about our homestays. Last night I didn't have a bad time, nor did I feel an overwhelming sense of doom when I went to bed. Sure, it smelled like cat pee and my landlady is a bit of a kook. But even though I felt really awkward and a little out of my comfort zone, it still felt really awesome to be living in Moscow, not just living in a dorm isolated from the nitty gritty. Right now after I leave McDonald's, I'm going to get on the metro, buy some yogurt at the grocery store, and maybe take an ice cold shower at my new home. Oh yeah, a lot of people don't have hot water in the summer... kind of messed up but not totally unbearable in this hot, hot heat. And apparently it's going to be back on in a week or so. This morning my landlady boiled some water for me to wash basics in, but I ended up just taking a cold shower because it was easier to take a gaspingly cold shower from a shower nozzle than splash some water on my armpits from a bucket. She was worried about me that I washed my hair though, and said I would probably get a cold or at least a runny nose.

Okay, poka for now.


Velina said...

I assume the television version of "Murder she Wrote" is dubbed. Are there alot of American reruns? I am curious about what the tv situation is like.
Your lady sounds nice. Boiling the water was a nice gesture. I am glad you mentioned the $20 for laundry. Maybe she thought you would want her to do it and that would be the full cost. do they have dryers there?

Much love,

Amelia said...

You and your iced coffee! Your landlady should ditch the cats and get a couple of stray dogs. What do they look like? I'm imagining the Whoopi Goldberg hyena from Lion King. Even though you have to smell cat pee (worst smell ever) it sounds like you still have a pretty good situation, even if she won't cook your meals for free...I'm guessing she can't afford it with all that cat food she's buying. Regardless of the odors, I am still jealous of your adventures, the biggest adventure I had yesterday was shaving Scott's head and watching beach volleyball on tv. Did I mention Scott has a euromullet now? I hope to send a picture soon.

P.S. Smelly cat, smelly cat: what are they feeding you? Smelly cat, smelly's not your fault.

artoria said...

как интересно (и нимного ужасно)!

thanks for sharing, this blog was a great idea.

i'm jealous, i am losing my russian by the second. nothing is more vivid than the smell of cat pee. smells do so much to color memories. i remember fondly the smell of my play food from my childhood, changing the odd smell of plastic into something wonderful. who knows maybe someday the cat pee will transform into some sort nostalgic bliss. (i know thats probably be a stretch.)

anyway its great that you have a place to sit on net near to your apartment. when do your classes start? what classes are you taking?

keep your chin up. adjustment will come soon.

kristen said...

Was the hot, hot heat! a musical reference?

It sounds like animals are running rampant. You must beware of dogs! And smelly cats! Don't be afraid to scare away stray animals with loud noises. "LOUD NOISES."

This lady sounds like an interesting character... kind of how you'd imagine a lonely old lady in Russia to be... I hope she cooks all right. And good luck with the cold showers... for most of the world, one soon learns, hot water's a luxury. Is there no decency?!

Would you ever talk to that lady, or anyone else, actually, about their memories of the USSR? Or is that a taboo/awkward subject to talk about with people? Perhaps a few would have good tales. And, in light of the recent conflicts, do you guys get the feeling that Cold War 2.0 is creeping on or is that just us over here? Heh.


Dana said...

hi! my name is dana and i'm a friend of stephen's at uc berkeley. i study russian history and i'm starting slavic 2 in a week. since he knows i'm interested in russia, he sent me your blog. i hope you don't mind me reading it, so i thought i'd stop by to say hello and not be a stranger. i've enjoyed it so far! (i know a lot of people who go abroad/travel start these blogs and by about a month in, give up. so keep on keepin' on if you can!)

Erika said...

If the 20$ isn't resolved, you should offer to cook her dinner... then use the armpit water.

Miriam said...

Dear Liddy - Your journal is delightful. So glad that you have come to terms with cabbage, beets and mayonnaise. How smart of you not to ask what kind of meat is in anything. It occurs to me that you would enjoy some asparagus, but since I can't get any to you it will just have to be a mental image.
Charlotte and Frank are enjoying your journal also. We think you're a wonderful writer. David is typing this for me and he says 'Hi!' as well.
Love you!

Miriam said...

What kind of building are you living in? Is it one of the Stalin era concrete palaces in the large clusters of apartments.or one of the more modern ones? How many units are there in your building;and is it possible to enter the main floor thru the one door that works without a key? Maybe Regina will give you a key soon.She sounds like a nice lady. I'ii bet that she really appreciates you as her first student boarder.

Where are your classes held? I envision a campus setting somewhat like one here. Is that the way it is? Will all of your classes be conducted in Russian by native instructors? If so, that should be challenging but entirely possible for you.

What a wonderful experience for you. I love your entries. You are presenting an entirely different view of Moscow from the conducted ,sheltered ones that we saw as escorted tourists. Keep writing