Saturday, November 8, 2008

a long overdue update (introducing katya!)

Without making too much of a big deal about it, I think I have to preface this entry by acknowledging the unforgivable time lapse between this and my last submission. I had every intention of picking up my computer and writing about all my adventures of late, but then I got discouraged because there’s simply too much to tell. I even have a note in my ‘stickies’ application with a list of things I wanted to talk about up until I started planning my vacation at the end of October, so I guess I’ll start with those little things until I get on more of a roll.

The first bullet on this list is, “didn’t pass face control,” which is pretty self-explanatory—I went to a club with some friends and we didn’t get in. I think the club was called “London.” I was with two American friends from our program and about 5 or 6 of our Russian friends. Our Russian friends told us to speak a lot of English, and loudly, because they said that would be an exotic and welcome factor in their club. I doubted the validity of that assumption, (and rightly so, as it turned out), but went along with it anyway. When we got to the club (at around 11:30pm) we were so early that there was no one even lined up yet. Anyway, the fact that we were early didn’t help us get in. Even though we were the first in line at the entrance, they weren’t planning on letting us in. Then other people started coming and just waltzed passed us, kind of like in those movies where there’s a big queue of people begging the bouncer to let them in, but he stands firm until a couple of pretty ladies come and then he opens the rope just for them. Except none of the ladies they were letting in were anything special. In fact, I would venture to say that the only people being let in were tacky and ugly. (yes I’m biased, but I’m also not wrong.) After about 45 minutes of this weird selective entry process, we collectively decided that based on the people they had already let into the club, we didn’t want to be socializing with their kind anyway. We did speak a lot of loud English, but I’m pretty sure in the end that hindered more than it helped. It was a bit of a disappointment for all of us, especially considering that we had all got dressed up and were prepared to spend the whole night at the club (because the metro closes at 1am and opens back up at 5:30am). So instead of the club, we got some snacks at a little grocery store near our friend’s apartment (metro station Planernaya, just a few stops up from my beloved Oktyabr’skoye Pole on the purple line) and hung out there the whole night. One thing I have noticed about the Russians I’ve met is that they seem to have no problem staying up all night. When we went over to this guy’s apartment, I thought we were going to just hang out until 5:30 and then say “see you later, I’m going to catch the first metro and hit the hay.” As it was, I didn’t end up leaving until around 10am. I would have left earlier, but I didn’t want to walk to the metro alone because I didn’t know exactly how to get there. I really wish I were better at navigating. I have a terrible habit of blindly following people wherever I go and then not having the slightest clue how I got there.

About a month ago, Regina hosted her Ukrainian doctor friend for a couple of days while he was on a trip to attend a medical neurosurgery convention here in Moscow. He was a nice guy, and he spoke pretty good English. In fact, when we were sitting together at the kitchen table while Regina was washing dishes, one of the cats walked in and started crunching its food really loudly. The doctor then asked me, “Don’t they bother you? Their… wool… or hair… is everywhere. But I think she ignores it because she loves them.” I told him they did kind of annoy me at first, especially with the first shock of there being three cats in a very small apartment that smelled of pee, but that I got used to it in a relatively short period of time. The doctor and I had a nice chat together. I tried to teach him some English colloquialisms, but that proved to be quite tricky. Like “to deal with something” and “I can’t put my finger on it.” Those were especially difficult to explain for some reason. He thought the thing about the finger was funny.

The doctor asked me if I had trouble adjusting to Russian behavior on the streets, i.e. how people here wear a permanent frown. He said when he was in America, people smiled “bez kontsa” (without end). What’s more, he found it strange that as a habit Americans will ask each other how they’re doing, and regardless of how they’re actually doing, the reply is always “fine” or “good.” I tried to defend our polite fakeness by saying that it makes people feel more comfortable if everyone around them is happy, and usually someone will say they’re fine when they’re not fine in order to avoid getting into a deeper explanation of why they might not be fine. I mean if you’re having a crappy day or your wife just left you or something, you don’t necessarily want to bog a stranger or a friendly acquaintance down with all the unpleasant details. So you just smile and say everything’s fine, and then both of you can move on with your day. I suppose it is a rather artificial practice, but I can’t help but miss the fake smiles every now and then. Even if people here are keepin’ it real, it’s a little too real sometimes.

One of the friends from my program, Alexandra, said that once she saw a TV special where they questioned if places like Wal-Mart and Target were “too friendly,” like when employees look at the last name on your card and make it a point to say, “Thank you Ms. Petrovic!” before you leave. Alexandra said that at the time she was ready to agree that situations like that were over-the-top on friendliness. But then she said that since she’s been here and dealt with surly Moscow cashiers/employees, she’s decided there is no such thing as being too friendly. Our joke about shopping in Moscow is that “the customer is never right.”

A while ago someone asked me if I had started thinking in Russian yet. The answer is… not quite. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I can have a natural stream of consciousness in Russian, but a lot of times I’ll try to think of how I would translate an English thought into Russian. I do have a few exclamatory remarks that I picked up from Regina. For instance, now I can’t even remember what sound I made before I started using “oy!” as a reflex outburst noise. If I stub my toe or drop something or if there’s a loud noise somewhere, now without thinking about it I say “oy!” That seems to be a very Russian thing. In fact when I was in Stockholm recently, I saw a woman bump into someone and then heard her cry out “oy!” in surprise. I paused and wanted to hear her talk to her husband for a few seconds afterward, suspecting she might be Russian, and indeed she was!

Another thing I started saying is, “gospodi!” (oh, lord!) Regina says this a lot, especially when she watches “Murder, She Wrote” and she’s responding to some twist of events. Also I tend to say “uzhas” (awful, horror) and “koshmar” (nightmare) a lot, but usually I use those jokingly, and only with friends from the program.

Recently Regina went on vacation for about three weeks, and she left her friend Katya in charge of the cats. When I say she left her in charge of the cats, I really mean she left her in charge of me, since she was basically living at the apartment for those weeks. Katya is one of the sweetest, wackiest ladies I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. While she was here she took really good care of me. For instance, she would make me lunches to take with me to school and say that she would feel at peace knowing I would eat my fill during the day. She also helped me plan the 2-week abroad vacation that the EAP students get at the end of October (4 of my friends and I took a trip to St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Tallinn). We called hostels and train stations together to compare lodging and ticket prices and reserve spots for me and my friends. Whenever she knew I needed help with anything, she would practically bend over backwards to help me sort things out. I told her I was having trouble finding unique souvenirs to bring back for my family since you can pretty much get anything anywhere these days. She personally took me to several obscure indoor and outdoor Russian markets to find specialty gifts for my friends and family. Sometimes I thought she got even more excited than I did about buying things at those markets, and she’d try to talk me into buying weird trinkets that she thought were the bargain of the century. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought she was getting a commission from those vendors.

The first time I ever met Katya, she showed me the sweater she was wearing and said, “I know what you’re thinking. This sweater doesn’t look very warm, does it? But wait!” Then she pulled out the collar of her sweater to reveal what appeared to be a standard thermal undershirt. “Tyopli sekret!” (warm secret!)

One time when I came home from school, Katya said she would whip me up a quick omelet for dinner. What she made did have some eggs in it, but I would never have called it an omelet. It had flour in it, so it turned out like a fluffy bread-like thing, with some salty stuff and melted cheese on top. When she lifted the lid to show me, she said, “Do you know what this is called? Pizza Express.”

Katya says she’s a “doctor without a degree,” although she also happens to be a chain smoker. She’s the one who introduced Regina to the brewed rice drink, although I have to say I prefer Regina’s brew. The one the Katya made smelled like blue cheese and tasted like warm salty dishwater. I felt a little guilty about it, but every morning and night when she poured me a generous glassful I would discreetly pour it down the sink while she stepped out into the hallway to have a smoke. However, to her credit she made really great looseleaf tea. She said Regina is ruining her health by drinking the stuff that comes in teabags.

Katya is Russian, but she grew up in Georgia and lived for 5 years in Croatia and didn’t know any Croatian when she first moved there. So she told me she understands what it feels like to be in a foreign country and feel like an outsider. She showed me how to cook Georgian dishes (my favorite so far being an appetizer called “khachapuri,” which is basically any type of cheese and bread put together). We had a few “domashnie dni” (home days), as Katya called them, where we would just stay in and cook together. We would go to some out-of-the-way grocery store and she would point out what a great deal everything was, since she had compared these prices with the ones all over town. Then we would come back and she’d show me step-by-step how to make cold Georgian bean dip or this shredded cabbage stuff with walnuts, or rice pilaf. The secret to a lot of the stuff we made seemed to be in the spice packets she bought while we were out, so I have doubts about being able to replicate a lot of these recipes when I come home. I had to laugh when she told me to be careful of how spicy the bean dip was, because when I tried it there was just a little kick of black and red pepper, and a lot of garlic. I don’t consider myself to be a lover of spicy foods, but I find myself craving them now that I’m in a spiceless drought surrounded by dill, beets, and potatoes. Katya thinks I’m some kind of salt fiend, but really it’s just that the food here tends to be on the bland side.

Katya has her own brand of baby talk that she uses to talk to the cats, and, like Regina, is convinced that when the cats produce a two-syllable meow, they’re saying “mama.” She tells me that the cats only say “mama” to her—“they don’t talk this way with Regina.” I didn’t want to burst her bubble and tell her that the cats even call me “mama.”

Sometimes I have to admit that Katya could be a little bit stifling and would want to lecture me for hours on anything and everything. At the end of spending a whole day with her, I could get a little bit exhausted and frustrated with her. She’s got an unbelievable amount of energy. But I could never hold anything against her for long, she always had good intentions and is inherently a very loving woman. Overall I had a really great time when she was living here. I have to say, now that Regina is back I have a Katya-shaped hole in my heart…

I shouldn’t be too hard on Regina, though. I learned a lot about her from Katya while she was on vacation at some old-people’s spa/hotel in Anapa. It turns out she never had children after all. The girl Regina was telling me about when I first moved in was just a close pupil friend who went to live in America. Apparently Regina’s ex-husband was a bit of a tyrant and didn’t allow her to have any children, so it makes sense that she wouldn’t quite have motherly instincts, yet still tries to be caring in her own standoffish way. Katya said that the reason Regina went on vacation was more of a trip to cure herself than for her to have fun. She said that Regina only has enough energy to putz around in her apartment, and asked if I noticed how tired she got when we went out together to Ashan (a big shopping center) to get a hairdryer for me and groceries for her. I actually didn’t notice that she seemed tired at all, and I wondered if Katya was exaggerating things, as she sometimes does.

Katya, like Regina, was really nervous about giving me a key to the apartment when I would leave for school, but to an even greater degree than Regina. She told me it would be really easy for someone to make a copy of the keys and then if they knew where I lived, break in. Then she took me into the kitchen to show me how they would make a copy of the keys, which turned out to be a long demonstration involving a key and a bar of soap. People here seem to be really paranoid about break-ins. I have no way of knowing what the actual incidence is of that sort of thing, but it must be high, or else everyone just lives in extreme paranoia under fortress-like conditions. In addition to having a code to get into our main building, we live on the fifth floor and have a locked door leading to a hallway with 2 other apartments, and then our own apartment door is really thick and padded and has 3 complicated locks that each require a different number of turns. Katya said that if someone were to come into the apartment, Regina would definitely have a heart attack—“even if someone were to come into the kitchen and just take off this little flower embroidery off the wall, that would do her in.” Personally, I find it highly unlikely that someone would go to the trouble of stealing all 5 keys from me, then make copies of them with a bar of soap, then follow me to see where I live, and then on top of that, actually know how to use all of those keys. But since I’m not in charge of the keys, I don’t make the rules.

I get the feeling that a lot of Russians think they’re experts on health, and are really big on home remedies. Katya, for one, is a big fan of eating honey straight in large quantities to stay healthy. When she was here, every morning she would dole out big spoonfuls of honey in a bowl for me to eat. I like honey in tea or on bread, but I can’t eat much of it unless there’s a vehicle of some sort. And I don’t mean a spoon. Katya joked with her friend that she gave me a bowl of honey to eat, and instead of eating it all in one sitting, I thought I was supposed to ration it out over a week. She and her friend thought that was pretty funny.

A few weeks ago, Katya took me to a Georgian restaurant called Tamada, not far from our apartment. At the end of the meal, everyone was ordering tea but I decided to just get water. And water is not exactly the neutral choice that it would be in America. I knew it would be an unpopular choice, but I was really thirsty and didn’t feel like hot tea. As soon as I said this, everyone at the table immediately tried to talk me out of it. “Lydia! No! Don’t you see how cold it is outside?! It’s dangerous to drink cold water in weather like this.” I thought this was sort of funny, seeing as how the temperature inside was stifling and they were sitting enjoying their hot tea. And the water I ordered was room-temperature anyway. A few days later, I came home from grocery shopping with a big bottle of water, which I like to keep in my room to drink when I get really thirsty and tea doesn’t cut it. As soon as Katya saw it, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, water. Your favorite.”

Before she went on vacation, Regina painted her toenails and then came into my room wearing those foam rubber toe-separators. First she asked me if I knew what yoga was, and if I was aware of its positive health effects. I got excited because this was something I did actually know a little bit about already, but then what she went on to talk about seemed entirely unrelated to yoga. She said that the secret to good health is to keep your toes spread out as much as you can, all the time if possible. “When me and my girlfriends go to the beach, we always put some hot stones in between our feet and sunbathe for hours. And those are the nights that I always sleep the best, after a day of separating my toes. When I’m in the shower washing my feet, I can always tell if I’m not feeling very well based on how tender my toes feel when I try to pull them apart. And then conversely, when I feel great my toes don’t hurt as much. It feels like a massage when I wash them.”


Velina said...

I hope your wrote at least one more blog before your experience is over!
I am really looking forward to you coming home...I can't wait to hear more stories.

Love you,

Erika said...

That was one humdinger of an update! I am now off to separate my toes and eat a few quarts of honey!