Monday, February 27, 2012

Some thoughts on friendship and extremes in temperature

Three years ago, two of my friends- without consulting one another- each bought me blankets for Christmas.  Tales of my intolerance for cold have yielded no small amount of teasing, earning me the nickname "gargoyle toes" from my partner (he's cute, I know) and the occasional stare from strangers when I don two coats at outdoor sports events.  Prior to cohabitation, my bachelorette pad could have doubled as a greenhouse (luckily for my energy bill, my partner has restored the carbon balance and now you can safely leave raw meat in our living room).

When I announced my impending Moscow adventure, the most common response I got was approximately 8 seconds of blank stare followed by a 'you're going where?'  The idea that I, whose sartorial expression often involves a down coat in any weather lower than 64 degrees, would voluntary pack myself off to Moscow during January of all months, was in simply beyond comprehension for most of my close friends.

Painted against this background, two of my jaunts over the past week have managed to shock even myself.  Some alternative health practices held within Russian culture prescribe rapid changes between very very hot and very very cold to stave off sickness during the winter months.  Wanting to experience as much of Russia as I possibly can, I decided to take the metaphorical plunge into Russian bathhouses- баня (pronounced ban-yah)- and the more literal plunge into a frozen lake.  
Баняи (баня plural= ban-yee) can be either public or private, ornate or resembling the interior of your eighth grade gym locker room.  My first баня experience fell into the latter category at the public баня two metro stops up from my dorm.  I went with two of the other George Mason students, and forwent the full баня enchilada as I had grocery shopping and other overly tiring BS to attend to (grocery shopping sans car in snow with vestiges of Soviet shortage mentality contributing to shitty customer service=bad news bears), opting solely for a massage to work out the lingering kinks from my trans-Atlantic flight and the effects of Russia's impression of a Western style spring mattress.  What looked like a tiny storefront from the sidewalk gave way to an enormous entrance lobby with reception desk, restaurant, and ticket window (касса) where one can purchase entrance to the баня, rent towels, bathrobes, and, notably, the sticks that one beats against one's skin to work out toxins after several rounds of sauna-frigid water-sauna-frigid water fun.  I left these wonders to my fellow Patriots, and followed the masseuse up to the top floor (elevators, I miss you) for the most wonderful deep-tissue-beat-the-crap-out-of-you massage I have ever had.  You can have your relaxing aroma therapy and whathaveyou.  Give me a painfully deep back rub that leaves me feeling like my muscles have been taught a lesson about bunching up in knots, thank you very much.  No frills, no music, no fancy candles- just a tacky dolphin beach towel and an atmosphere rivaling the interior of my eighth grade locker room and a fabulous massage.  Perfect.

After having my new Russian friend work out my knots and teach me a few handy new vocab words (back spasm= резервное спазм, pronounced rezervnoyo spazm, pain= боль, pronounced bol, with the l pronounced very softly), I followed him back down the stairs and on the way passed by two naked, beet red men, both in their mid-50s.  привет, comrades. Yeesh.  I had been given a heads up by a friend that people walked around au natural, but I didn't think I was going to encounter men- much less bright cherry red from the sauna men- in this condition on my way down the stairs in post-massage daze.

Having a better idea of what I might encounter when I went full out баня-ing, I was equal parts apprehensive and curious when a floormate booked a private баня for fifteen HSE students to enjoy for an afternoon.  With visions of beet red old men pushing at the corners of my mind, I shrugged my shoulders and jumped on the metro to join in the fun, pacified by the fact that we would have the joint to ourselves.  Once inside the баня, it became clear why the owner had asked our friend who made the reservation if he was coming with his girlfriend, or if we were a group of couples.  The walls and ceilings were shellacked with frescoes of naked women, cherubs playing harps, and blond couples locked in embrace.  Along with the sauna, pool with freezing water, shower, a lounge room with sofas, TV, and massage chair, and room with pool table and snack bar, the баня had two 'resting rooms' comprised mainly of enormous beds and satin sheets.  Oh.

We quickly bestowed the moniker "the Boinking баня" on our friendly neighborhood bathhouse, and commenced enjoying sweating in the sauna for 8-15 minutes and then jumping into the icy water.  Open pores, sweat out the remnants of McDonald's fixes, cheap beer, and too many late nights, dive into freezing pool, close pores, rinse and repeat.  Standing on the train platform waiting to head home, I had the most wonderful feeling of lightness- my arms, especially, felt almost hollow. Every inch of me felt warm and airy, and that night I slept soundly and nightmare free.

Building on the success of баня bonding, several of us Studencheskya (the name of our dorm) dwellers took up an invitation to go swimming in a frozen lake just outside of the city.  According to my dorm neighbor, this once was a common practice during the early years of the Soviet Union, when people were very health conscientious.  The extreme jolt to the system was thought to ward off sickness mid-winter, and promote general health.  Too bad you had to be mentally ill to try it.

Just kidding. 

After all, the thermometer had finally hit 0 degrees C, making it practically tropical outside. 

I had gone to bed a little too late the night before our jump, and sitting bleary eyed in the kitchen the next morning I decided to pass and dive back between the covers instead of under the ice.  Tucked warmly into my bed, I could almost hear my two favorite authors’- the venerable Davids Sedaris and Rakoff- voices narrating the experience I was choosing to forego:  “Just think, the lake I wouldn’t be caught dead in might actually be where I am found dead!”

Mustering up a rallying cry reminiscence of those abstinent only WhatWouldJesusDo teens from 1998- after all, What Would David Sedaris Do? - I crawled out from under my scratchy dorm issued blankets, pulled on my bikini, two layers of thermal long johns, George Mason sweatpants, snow boots, Columbia fleece pull over, and down parka, and made tracks for the lake of doom. 

Rocking back and forth half asleep on the metro, I kept trying to avoid thinking about what was about to happen.  Lake. Frozen. Ice needs to be broken to get in lake that is frozen.  Beth in lake that is frozen that ice needs to be broken to get into. Does not compute. 

Forty minutes, three metro line changes, five city blocks and three quarters of a mile walk through a park later, our little intrepid group of ice swimmers came upon the lake and were greeted by…another naked old man (might we be seeing a trend here?).  отлично (pronounced at-leech-na- awesome/excellent). 

Said naked old man- ballpark 70-80- started animatedly shouting at us in rapid fire Russian.  The six of us who speak crappy Russian (or, in my case, um, almost none) stared blankly while the three among us who are approaching fluency along with Anton, the native Russian student who had invited us for this excursion responded to the man’s distressed exclamations.  Whipping out my most commonly used phrase, “Что?” (pronounced schtow- what?), I looked expectantly at Anton.  Apparently the hole in the lake was for the express enjoyment of the members of a club which existed for the sole purpose of frozen lake jumping.  Our antics were encroaching on their turf…er, water. 

Great. Not only was I about to jump into freezing water, I was about to piss off an elderly frozenlakejumping enthusiast in the process. 
Preparing the Lake of Doom
After being assured by Anton that we were ok to proceed, the manly men of our group stripped down to their skivvies (we left the completely nude style to the angry gentleman) and slipped and slid their way down the frozen steps that led to the fated hole in the ice.  I caught sight of the angry naked man making the sign of the cross and kneeling on the bottom step before lowering himself into the water. I don’t recall the ‘jump into freezing water’ religious practice from my church days.  Perhaps this was a last confession prior to death by hypothermia.

March of the penguin men
I remember seeing a documentary sometime in elementary school (yay for substitute teacher day with its random films!) where penguins vie to push one another into holes in the ice to ‘test’ whether there are hungry predators lurking below in hopes of a penguiny snack from the heavens above.  Watching the men jostle each other down the final steps was somewhat akin to this process- each cheering the others on and elbowing one another good naturedly as they approached the hole, each making it clear that they were not afraid to jump in, but also appearing not too eager to be the first to go.

Shouts of “holy shit!” and equally charming curses in Russian rang out across the frozen park as one by one the guys took their turn jumping in and ducking quickly under the icy water.  Running back up the steps, they congratulated each other on their awesomeness while passing around hot rum laced with sugar.  “Again! We go again!” my friend Alexis shouted, and the guys clamored back down the steps, now bespeckled with blood from whomever had cut their toe on the first time down- everyone’s feet were numb so we couldn’t tell whose foot was cut. 
European unity: Frenchmen Alexis and Mathieu celebrate with German York

It turned out that the second dip was ill advised (yes, even more so than the first).  What had been exhilarating time one was just plain painful and cold round two.  Armed with this information, the three of us women peeled off layer after layer of winter wear and headed down the stairs to face the algid water awaiting us below. I was intent on wearing my George Mason shirt in- could there be a better way to thank the institution who had made this experience possible than to freeze to death decked in their insignia? - but as I hit the last steps a few of the men convinced me that being clad in frozen wet cotton would likely result in nogoodverybad outcomes.  Peeling off this last layer, bikini Beth cautiously hit the final step, clinging to the railing on the way down.  The only thing I could think of that would be worse than jumping into freezing water would be falling into freezing water.  I can just imagine the letter home to my mother: “We regret to inform you that your moron daughter hit her head on a frozen staircase while attempting to jump into a lake and was found clad only in a swimsuit in 32F weather.”

The longest step
The last step down was the worst.  The faster this was over the better- the only thing between me and a nap was a little frigid water- but lowering myself past the final stair as I shook off a friend’s flip-flops (which he had generously donated to the cause of me not cutting my bare feet) required me to push any semblance of logic out of my mind.  Clearly this was among the stupider things I have ever done, but it would also go down as among my more badass accomplishments as well. 

Hitting the water knocked my breath out.  It was so cold; it’s hard to describe it as anything other than painful.  God only knows how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character kept blabbering to Rose in Titanic.  I couldn’t think or breathe, much less come up with coherent speech.

Get me outta here!!!
I was back out of the water before 10 seconds had passed.  The few steps back up were covered by thick sheets of ice, and on the second step I started to slip back down the stairs.  My frozen hands couldn’t grasp the railing properly, and just as panic began to rise in my chest three sets of hands reached to pull me safely unto the landing.  A fourth set handed me the borrowed sandals and my towel, and I cheered on the other two women while heading up the staircase towards the glorious warmth of my sweatpants waiting above.

The badass girls club
By the time I reached my clothes at the top of the stairs, extraordinary warmth suffused my entire body; that contented happiness of falling asleep in front of the fireplace after Christmas dinner, where every cell of my body is warm from the inside out, my head empty of anything but appreciation for the glowing heat.  I understood why the men had gone back for round two- I felt wonderful. I choose to eschew the pain of a double dip, but cheered on the other girls clad only in my swimsuit, towel and borrowed flip-flops.  Once they made their way back up the steps we toasted our success, grabbed our clothes and headed to the squat house where our naked elderly pal had agreed to let us change.  The interior was covered in pictures of people who have taken the plunge over the years, beet red and smiling between chattering teeth.  A striped cat batted at my long johns, and I tried to focus on getting dressed rather than the smell of very, very ripe gym sock that pervaded the little room. 

That afternoon I took the most glorious nap I have ever enjoyed.  I emerged from my dreamless slumber warm and refreshed, so knocked out that I forgot for a second- just long enough to hit my head- that I was on the bottom bunk.  I stared up at the springs above my head and let my mind wander, thinking back over the days’ events.

In addition to giving me bragging rights, the icy adventure and баня bonding yielded a nice metaphor for the friendships I am building here and the ones I am missing from home. Friends are the people who encourage you to jump in when faced with challenges, who cheer you on and warm you up.  When you lose your footing and start to slip back into things that have caused you pain (like, say, a frozen lake), they reach for your hand and keep you from falling.  They help you sweat out the toxins in your life, and offer you companionship as you work through the process of letting go of the crap, be it toxic relationships in your life or junk in your pores.

The thing that scared me the most about studying abroad (yes, even more than the cold) was the prospect of being away from the relationships I treasure at home.  I have been abundantly blessed with friendships that have spanned decades, hardships, differences of opinion, weddings, divorces, babies, graduate school, career changes, and now continents.  In return for suspending my fears about the distance between me and those I love, I have gained more people in my life that make me laugh, challenge me to incorporate new points of view, encourage me to embrace the unknown, and, occasionally, to take leaps of faith that I won't freeze in new environments.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Author's note: Many of the photos below are extremely graphic.

I have suffered from nightmares since before I can remember.  My mom has told me that I used to wake up as a toddler with what my pediatrician diagnosed as “night terrors”.  I remember always being afraid to go to sleep. I am still not sure what set this off, or even if there is a catalytic event or root cause, whathaveyou- I just know that a) I was always scared in my bed at night; b) I woke up screaming not infrequently from the time I was a toddler until I got a dog and trained her as an emotional support animal based on my doctor’s recommendation at the age of twenty-five; c) that my parents got zero sleep while I was young (my ever sensitive father has pinned their divorce on my proclivity for nighttime hysterics...classy).  

While I can’t pin point a specific nexus for my nightmares, when I was slogging through style 'processing' the aftermath of my rape Dr. Phil style (read: having mild existential crisis realizing that from age 15-25 the majority of my actions- overeating, defensive attitude, self-defeating behaviors- had been an attempt to avoid confronting my feelings of powerlessness about the assault) my nightmares reached a fever pitch.  On and off for two years my partner had to endure me waking up alternatively screaming, sobbing, or so soaked in cold sweat that I would have to change PJs and sopping wet sheets between 2-4am.  With the help of our good friends at Pfizer and my dog this has greatly subsided. 

Now that the imagined terrors have, for the most part, subsided (I still have them from time to time, but have a better tool kit to deal with them now*), I apparently have mental bandwidth to entertain horrors that are more plausible.  

Jessica Stern, one of the world’s preeminent researchers on terrorism, has written extensively that one of the side effects of the aftermath of being sexually assaulted was an ability to disassociate herself emotionally in terrifying situations.  She attributes some of her ability tointerview terrorists and study the topic extensively to the fact that she can detach her intellectual processing abilities from her emotional responses.  For the ten years between being assaulted (date rape by my first boyfriend, for those of you who fall into the asinine ‘forcible rape’ distinction camp) and coming to grips with the emotional toll it took on me, I completely iced over my ability to feel.  This had many, many fun side effects- destructive overeating to the point of pre-diabetes and high blood pressure meds at age 19, lashing out horrifically at my mom and sister, hyper defensiveness in my personal relationships- but it also seems to have forged a distinct ability to detach myself in academic settings when studying particularly disturbing social phenomena.
I remember being completely calm and feeling numb, almost clinical, walking through Tuol Sleng, S-21, in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Pol Pot’s regime processed an estimated 14,000 people- including children- who were put to death in the killing fields just outside of the city.   It was a purely fact finding exercise. Staring at skulls and photos of wives and children of government ministers who were killed in Pol Pot’s “pull the grass up by the roots” strategy to avoid the risk of having family members later avenge the killing of their husbands and fathers, I felt a detached calmness.  Being in the space where ministers and other ‘enemies of the state’ where held, in what had previously functioned as a public high school, I had no goose bumps, felt no shock.  I felt no nothing.  Flat line.   
Artistic depiction of Khmer Rouge soldiers 'pulling the grass up by the roots'.  In this case, perfecting their aim on moving targets using children for practice.
In case it's not clear what is happening in above's a close up.

Stalin's network of GULAG camps
 I recently visited the GULAG History Museum (GULAG is an acronym for the Soviet bureaucratic institution, Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovykh LAGerei- Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps) in downtown Moscow.  Couched between some of the highest end restaurants and shops in the city, caddy corner to a Louis Vuitton boutique, this tiny museum houses artifacts of a few of the estimated 20 million people that Stalin exiled to the outermost regions of Russia for crimes ranging from being a suspected threat to communism (including one war hero who had been awarded multiple medals of valor for his service during the Great Patriotic War- WWII- a year prior to his imprisonment) to stealing a bottle of vodka at 14 years old.

Comrade Stalin watching over a camp.
Men and teenaged boys were put to work building a network of railways that would link the northern regions of the country- ostensibly for the purpose of securing the northern border (from polar bears???)- actions many academics now theorize were intended to link the systems of GULAG prison camps scattered about the vast expanse of the country.

Women, often imprisoned along with their young children, were
Survivor's depiction of hearings.
shut into vast bread baking factories and manufacturing plants, frequently never to be united or know the fate of the husbands, fathers, brothers, nephews and friends who had been carted off under the pretense of protecting the state.  One man featured in a (very well produced) documentary presented by the museum was taken one year after he and his wife were married, six days after their son was born.  He was charged in the morning, and by the evening was 70 kilometers outside of Moscow. He has never seen his wife or son since.

Survivor's depiction of camp interior.
 Staring up at artwork made by former prisoners, peering through glass displays at baby shoes of a little girl who grew up in the camps from age two until adolescence, and walking through the replica of a camp bunker, the only response I could muster was to mutter “same story, different locale” to the friends who had joined my expedition to the museum.  I don’t know that this is actually due to an ability to detach when confronted with horrific information, or that I simply have lost the ability to be shocked by the fact that human beings can inflict such atrocities against their fellows after witnessing so much evidence.   

GULAG survivor's depiction of executions.

I distinctly remember taking out from the library each and every book I could find on snakes- the only animal that freaks me out- when I was in second grade.  If only I could know everything about them, then they wouldn’t be as scary.  My possibly morbid quest to engage academically with mass violence is motivated by a desire to demystify, and thus find an antidote, to the root causes of genocide and repression. Getting to the bottom of what catalyzes such actions- and keeps others from blowing the whistle on such actions- must yield a remedy to future horrors.


 Perhaps the answer is no.  Perhaps simply knowing about history is not enough to avoid repeating it again. It’s not like mass violence is not still happening, albeit perhaps in less efficient or organized forms, in parts of the world today. Despite museums, memorials, and education programs exist to plead “never again”, it seems that the world repeatedly stands by while the powerful smite those who present a threat to their stranglehold on authority. 
Memorial to victims of Pol Pot's S-21.
It’s something to lose sleep over.

*I am happy to share some of the resources I have found helpful.  Please feel free to email me if you are struggling with nightmares or PTSD related symptoms.

Monday, February 20, 2012

First sunlight in two weeks.

Taken on my way to Higher School of Economics faculty building at Potrovsky Blvd 11, Moscow City.
 My hands turned purple taking this picture sans gloves.

Totally worth it.

Grey skies...lifting.

Oh goodness. Learned a lesson about promising a follow up post the next day, I did. Young padawan learner learns on.

I promise I will finish up my mob story in the next few days, but true confession: I haven’t felt lighthearted enough for the past few days to finish out what is a very funny story. My mood has been simmering at a low level funk; two days of abject “get me home now” homesickness followed by a general sense of chaos and powerlessness being so far away while a complete tempest of horrible-terrible-no-good-very-bad is breaking loose over my family. My sister’s husband, whom I love dearly, is in the hospital with recently diagnosed ulcerative colitis that is, thus far, being resistant to all forms of treatment. My father moved out of my sister’s house- into which she had moved her family for the specific purpose of having him come live with them while he was severely under the weather- leaving her and her now temporarily disabled husband on the line for a huge and rather pricey house. My fiancé, who is hands down the hardest working person I have ever met, ever, has been unable to find a rewarding job since passing the Bar exam, and I wish I could be home to cheer him on while he job hunts. Add on top of this that I miss my niece and wish I could be spending time with her while her mom and dad are going through so much craziness. The total result was a rather grey mood, giving the Moscow sky a run for its money.

This is not to say that there have not been high points over the past week and a half. I have been to the Bolshoi theater- not once but twice- in the past seven days, seeing Swan Lake in the same theater where it premiered in the 1700s and attending Tosca, my very first opera. Both very high points indeed.
First opera & first visit the the Bolshoi- not a bad evening!

The other major highlight is that I moved up to the sixth floor, home primarily to Russian students, leaving behind the international student hub in order to immerse myself in Russian language and culture, as best I can given my limited linguistic abilities. Today marks exactly 1 month since my arrival, and I realized about a week ago that if I really want to master this language- which I do, very very much- I need to be surrounded by it as much as possible. In Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris talks about this transcendental moment he had while learning French when, for the first time, he understood exactly everything his teacher was saying to him. I am thinking, hoping, praying, that if I just emerse myself as much as humanly possible, I too will have this moment. Hopefully sooner rather than later, as I wish not to offend my new neighbors and inadvertently colonize the Russian floor should they feel sorry for me and feel the need to speak English now that an American has invaded.

I have been nonstop watching Russian cartoons, listening to Russian music, talking along with tapes, and attempting to get the file of Twilight in Russian to open on my computer so I can have Edward teach me how to gavaro pa-Russky, vampire style. Two of the Russian women whose third roommate is currently studying at George Mason were generous, so, so generous, and invited me to move into their dorm room. Tonight is night one in my new digs, and my funk has melted completely (although, admittedly, this could have just as much to do with PMS subsiding as it does with geographic change of pace. End overshare.)

Eager for the next phase of Peripatetic Russkie Adventure 2012.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My double date with the Russian mob: Part I

A certain friend who shall remain nameless for the sake of not making too much fun of her (she’s gotten enough from me for the past few days) took momentary leave of her senses on her birthday and gave her phone number to the owner of the bar at which much birthday related revelry was taking place. For the sake of brevity, let’s call her Brittney Spears, since that’s who the bar owner said she looked like.

All was well in the land of birthday. The international students from HSE and some of our more adventurous Russian counterparts were out for a night on the town! We danced, some of us with each other, some of us
(um, and by some of us I mean me)with old Russian men who later bought bottles of expensive vodka and champagne for our entire table; we sang along to crappy pop music the DJ played, and when the bar scammed us by placing three enormous shishas (hookah) on our table that no one ordered, my aforementioned old Russian friend threw down 5000rb ($165US) in exchange for “just one more dance!” with yours truly.

Thankfully, one of my watchful Russian pals caught the man’s words and shoved me- tank topped with coat in hand- up the stairs and out the door before any (further) sketchiness could ensue.

Cut scene to next day: post-birthday sleepiness abounds. Brittney’s phone rings, waking her up from her 3pm snooze, and who is it but her friend, Older Bar Owner! She hadn’t saved his number to her phone, and thus was without the benefit of our friend 'caller ID'. Being a persistent little bugger, OBO had called her the night before (as soon as we left his bar), and then again the morning after her birthday. Repeatedly. From different phone numbers.

Finally Brit picks up the phone, three days, and many, many phone calls later. Would she like to go on a date?

OBO is- loose ballpark here- minimum of 55, tops 65. Brittney had just celebrated her 24th birthday.


Also, Brit doesn’t speak a lick of Russian. Нит.

OBO doesn’t speak and English.

And there’s a mere 20-30 year age difference.

Sure, fine.

She’d go have dinner with him.

What could possibly go wrong?!

Pause. I am going to put a little place holder here. There is much that needs to be said about the politics of getting hit on, age differences, and the commodification of dating behaviors. In one night, a) I got a $100 or so bottle of vodka (hilarious, as I do not drink. At all.) and b) had my table’s tab picked up by a (very old) guy who I danced with and c) Brit got asked out by a guy also much older than her. Gender, age, money, sex, cultural expectations are all implicated in these rather run of the mill interactions, all of which call into question social capital, privilege and power. I intend to delve into these…another day. However, the following story deserves its own post, sans sociological commentary (snarkiness, however, is always a given.

So, Brit decides that dinner is on. Our friend Matja from up the hall, always a gentleman, decides that he is going to accompany, as Brit is about to head off to dinner at a bar that scammed us only three days prior with the owner who is only 30 or so years older and who speaks not a lick of any of the seven (no, really, seven) languages that Brittney Spears speaks. Luckily, Matja speaks Russian, and so the lovebirds to be had not just a chaperone but also an interpreter.

Let me take a moment to fill you in just a bit more on part of my motives for coming to study abroad in Russia. My partner and I have made a commitment to one another to try to live adventurous lives in pursuit of the things about which we feel passionately. For him, this is justice and equality under the law. For me, this is women’s safety and security. Last summer his quests took him to Tanzania, where he had an amazing, transformative experience. He wanted me to have the same, to suck all the marrow out of life and sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world. I decided to come to Moscow to study abroad as much due to his desire for me to have a great adventure as my own.

Clearly, I was going on this date.

Based on 1) the fact that we had gotten scammed at this bar, 2) the fact that the two times I had been within its lavish and expensive looking interior I saw a total of seven patrons not associated with our group, and 3) that the wait staff to patron ratio was inordinately high and these people were getting paid somehow, I thought that it might not be completely outside the realm of possibility that this bar was in some way not completely legit. Cleaning out my purse of passport, migration card, and all but 1000rb ($30), I made the decision to adopt my middle name as my moniker for the evening and keep any memorably identifying features to a minimum. Black turtleneck sweater. Check. Dark skinny jeans and non-descript black boots. Check. Cute coat stayed home, Muscovite standard issue black parka came. Thus appropriately anonymitized and attired, “Anne”, along with Brit and Matja, headed out into the balmy -14F evening.

The bar is approximately 50 yards from our dorm, and as we breathlessly rushed from one warm concrete block of respite to the next we solidified our plan: Matja would be Brit’s ‘brother’, their loving father had visited them both often as they grew up in their respective European countries. I would be Brit’s roommate along for a fun evening. We breezed into the bar, and were instantly greeted by a rather cute, rather appropriately aged man that, for one fleeting second, I thought might actually be the owner of the bar and we had been so hilariously foolish in thinking it was the old creepy guy to whom Brit had given her number was actually the guy we were about to go on a date with. Young cute guy, alas, was just OBO’s business partner, and would let OBO know we were here. Le sigh.

Our little threesome was shown to a secluded private room that could easily double for the set of a low rent Casablanca themed porno. Ornate frescos depicting an indeterminate middle eastern country plastered the walls, and a lush oriental rug and plush pillows softened the enormous booth which encompassed the entire tiny room. Although the table was at an average height to which chairs might be pulled up, the booth was actually on a raised platform, making it necessary to crawl down the long cushion to reach the other end of the table. The room was freezing, and the three of us, having slunk down the booth on hands and knees, huddled together at the end of the table in an attempt to avert hypothermia.

Nervously giggling about the fact that Brit was about to go on a date with someone more than double her age, we gave our drink order to the waiter, who assured us that OBO was just finishing a phone call and would be in shortly. In the interim, quiet, large men walked past the doorway to our booth every few minutes. The temperature wasn’t helping matters, but I was pretty sure the goosebumps forming under my sweater had more to do with the creepy vibe I was getting from my surroundings.

Tune back in for part 2 tomorrow!

Monday, February 6, 2012

How to not die in Moscow

Mode temperature since my arrival: -14F

Step one: Don undergarments of choice. Extra points for cartoon characters (but only if you are over age 12).

Step two: The 'over undergarment pre-base-layer layer."

Step three: The base-layer.

Step four: The clothing you wish to be visible to others when you are indoors.

Step five: The clothing that will actually be visible to others when you are indoors because the freaking kitchen window has a draft.

Step six: The top layer- fleece zip up, muffler, mittens, hat.

Step seven: The grand finale. (Thanks Ron and Barb!!!)

(Expert tip: Use the restroom before starting process)

Proof Moscow is truly an international city

Day 14- First Russian food! Success!

It has been much harder to experience Russian culture via food than American (McDonald's, Burger King), Japanese (gabillions of sushi and steakhouse restaurants), German, Czech, Italian, Greek and, did I mention American? (every mall has an American style food court loaded with Sabarro, Texas Chicken, burger joints, etc).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Atlantic Ocean in my room

In an attempt to explain the preeminence of the SuperBowl in American culture (and thus justify our decision to stay up until it's commencement at 3:30AM), one of the other American students and I brainstormed a list of the most 'American' events (top 4: 1) SuperBowl, 2) World Series, 3) Thanksgiving, 4)Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade), and inadvertantly shocked our EU counterparts sitting across the room as we began to hash out just what exactly 'American' culture comprised.

In no particular order, here was what left their jaws on the floor:

-American's affinity for parades. Memorial Day, Independence Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so on. Apparently in Germany, Gay Pride parades and Carnival are the only games in town. Ten points, Maineville, Ohio.

-Decaf coffee. The idea of drinking coffee for the sake of its flavor is apparently lost in translation. On a related note: Dear Jesus, can someone puh-lease send me some f-ing Starbucks VIA or something?? I am dying.

-'Pop'. 'Pop' is Midwestern for "soda". This may also be lost in translation for those of you who have never had the pleasure of living anywhere but the coasts in the US. Consider yourselves educated. You're welcome.

-Citizens United ruling. For the record, this is shocking to me as well. As my friend Mathieu so gently put it in his lovely French accent (which made it sound much more sauve): "OK. You are fucked." Yes, yes we are.

-Bill O'Reily. Again, me too.

-Frying vegetables in bacon or other related pork byproducts (Holla, Paula Dean).

American culture 101:

Shock and awe:

Three feet (ok, ok, about one meter- sheesh) and an entire world apart:

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Downgraded and delighted about it

In my last post I made reference to the time I spent working in marketing. Following undergrad, I worked for a few different private companies selling advertising and then moved into consulting for non-profit groups after cultivating some skills with branding and pitching fundable ideas. Good clean fun.

In addition to the fat paycheck and the graft- clients were always super generous with inviting you to try their new restaurant, spa service, or offering you shopping discounts- there was a whirlwind air of importance that went with the whole industry. Wine tasting parties, club openings, charity soirees, industry galas, and high priced cocktails in hotels too fancy for any self-respecting Ohio girl to consider staying in...for four years, I cavorted about DC and Miami pedaling ads and whooping it up.

While the glitz and the glamor of all of this swank was shiny and new, at the end of the day it felt hollow. I grew up with more than a little of an idealist streak in me, and had gone to college in pursuit of a career in public service. I wanted to work for equity, to be tugging on the arch of the universe towards justice. But that's not what I did. Following college I got freaked out by the amount of student loans I had, and I slunk into a commissioned based sales job in advertising. While my friends worked their way into jobs doing things that actually made the world a better place, I helped carpet cleaning companies headed by convicts sell services to wealthy Washingtonians. Once I got thin, I moved from the horribly parasitic company I had started with and got into the print advertising business. This was where the fun and parties- and WAY better pay was. I had a total blast selling copy, creating ads, and schmoozing my way through Georgetown. I loved it- but I didn't like the person I was becoming.

In place of my goal of one day being able to influence policy, I now wanted to one day own a Lexus SUV. I wanted a big house, a big diamond ring from my fiance (some dreams come true- thanks Will!), and a big salary. What I had right away was a big ego. My job required a lot of bravado, and I brought it in spades. I was defensive whenever any of my close friends- the ones who knew what I really was passionate about- suggested that maybe I should consider moving into public service again.

This changed when I realized how much I was overcompensating for feeling insecure about my decision to not pursue my original career intentions. With the dedicated help of my fiance, I retooled and applied to graduate school. Here I am, three years post my decision to start taking GRE prep classes, sitting in a (very cold) Soviet era dorm in Moscow City. The lush lobby of the Miami Gansevoort has been replaced by a concrete entrance-way with faint overtones of cat box and cigarettes. My slinky party dresses are wrapped away in my DC closet, and my current wardrobe leans rather heavily on our friends from Target and Kirkland Signature (that's Costco for you folks not 'in the know'). My taxable income is now about what I paid in taxes while I was in advertising. My most dearly held goals today have nothing to do with what I drive, how big my house is, or how many widgets I can sell.

I was in the shower room of my dorm the other day and had a moment of undiluted gratitude for the changes that have taken place in my life since starting grad school. Surrounded by a) no shower curtains; b) mildew; c) faint wafts of cat urine (why is this even in the shower room?????), and d) light green paint a la mental institution circa 1973, I laughed out loud thinking about the differences in my surroundings. Grateful that no one else was in the room with me (did I mention there are no shower curtains? I think this needs to be reiterated a few times), I giggled like an idiot, feelings of gratitude for my life today washing over me as the hot water splashed over my shower-sandal clad self.

I know living in a Moscow dorm with 200 or so other twenty-somethings studying international affairs, economics and sociology is not everyone's definition of happiness, but for me, right now, I can't think of anywhere else I would rather be.

Fancy party- catering by Магйолия

Sumptuous dinner: spaghetti in the kitchen with new friends!

Subzero provocative attire

My first jaunts abroad were to destinations that culturally dictated a wee bit of decorum in the sartorial department. In Cambodia, it was downright inappropriate for women to wear tops more revealing than a t-shirt, and most local women would wear button up long or three quarter length sleeves. In Bali, this was a bit more relaxed, but for the most part it was tourists (myself included) who danced the line between gauche and disrespectful- tank tops, bikinis, crappy beach sarongs for everyone! In case decorum didn't dictate a modicum of modesty, vestiges of colonialism finished the job: in both Cambodia and Bali it was common to see women wearing cotton gloves, long sleeve sweatshirts with the hood up, long pants and socks with sandals on motobikes, all in the name of cultivating as pale an appearance as possible. Slather on a little bleaching agents, wrap up in your cotton hoodie, and your ready for an 80F degree day of fun!

Moscow has inverted this approach. Despite the fact that it hasn't gotten over -14F for the past week, every day I have seen at least a few women in miniskirts and countless in high heeled- I'm talking four inch stiletto- boots, and, points for ingenuity: one in shorts with tights at school (although let it be said that we rocked this look during winter of fifth grade at Kings Mills Ohio Elementary School). Given that it's approx. a million degrees below freezing from October to March, and that women's social capital seems to be tightly intertwined with their physical appearance (yes, even more so than in the US), Moscovites have innovated a number of ways to look hot even in Arctic weather. A-Line cut parkas, slinky fur lined leather jackets, voluptuous mink and rabbit and lamb coats abound.

For me, in the US the onset of winter is like a sigh of relief- sweaters! leggings! Ugg-ly comfortable boots! No more trying to look adorably emaciated in tank tops and cotton skirts. Hooray! Bring on the 2% milk and full fat yogurt!

No so for our foxy fur-bedecked cousins to the east. Indeed, the name of the game seems to be how to dress as provocatively as possible without courting hypothermia on the way to class, club or crappy-yet-awesome dive bar (try Kruska in Red Square...trying to find a link- stay tuned).

While at first blush this may seem very different to modus operandi a la US, I actually think the style of dressing here is reflective of something that translates trans-nationally. I've had a few of the Russian students I've become friendly with mention to me that it's not uncommon for women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds living in areas outside of Moscow will come to Moscow in part to try to meet wealthier men in addition to attempting to gain more prosperous employment. The less clothes=more prospects equation is part of the game- more on my personal adventures with this phenomenon in upcoming posts. (As I have yet to venture to a club late night, I have yet to see this for myself, but apparently in some of the more popular clubs it's women who get turned away and men who are coveted by the club promoters: there's a surplus of young, beautiful women trying to meet well-established men, and not enough folks to foot the bill.) Is this not so dissimilar to the US? Perhaps women don't peg their entire future on their ability to land a well-to-do gentleman friend, but, speaking for myself at the very least, my economic prospects have improved dramatically since losing 100+ pounds.

I promise you, I am no smarter now that I wear a size 6 than I was when I was a size 20. In the first year that I was in a right sized body, my salary increased- I bullshit you not- $22,000. I did not get a raise; I was in sales, and all of a sudden I had male clients who were delighted to meet with me. Let's meet in your office, I say. Oh no! Let's do lunch at a cafe to talk about my advertising plans! After all, what could be more lovely than having a nice lunch in a very public cafe with your favorite young saleswoman wearing a cute Nanette Lapore sundress? It's not my intention to sound arrogant, but the facts of the matter are that once I was thin, my sales increased over 25% in one year, I was offered four jobs in one month (three by men) when I made the decision to move companies, and I frequently had the door held open for me, had compliments from men at bars, shops and cafes, and, notably, one marriage proposal from a complete total creeper client (whom my fiance told off when said creeper called my cell phone one weekend. Thanks babe).
$22K more valuable:
Is this not so different from what's happening here? In DC, it's cold for about 26 seconds compared to Moscow, so we can get away with looking like walking Eddie Bauer ads during Snowmageddon. When I first arrived, I was amazed that women here would go out so scantly clad- how could they stand the weather??? It's not like living here attenuates the effects of the cold- my Moscow pals are just as reticent as I to go out in this weather. But reflecting on this a bit more, if 8 months of the year are going to be spent in subzero weather AND the treatment you receive from others is tied closely to how, um, appealingly you are dressed, it's somewhat a matter of survival to suit up in stilettos and skirts.

Isn't it comforting to know that women's value is conflated with their appearances everywhere? It really is a small world after all!