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.