Its been a whirlwind past week—classes, outings, adventures, a three day trip to the Golden Ring that lead to a mini-insurrection of the group, a long, tired return to what now feels like home—Dear Moscow, hello hello.
Where to start writing?
I don’t know, and my sun-addled brain can’t decide. So I’m giving you a gimmick—a list of random impressions I’ve had here that surprised me…just little things that weren’t what I expected. A gradual effort to fill in tiny pieces of the enormous, shifting portrait of modern Russia that I’m running around in, trying to take in everything before it darts away, changes, or, most likely of all, before I forget what I saw in the first place.
In no particular order:
Russian men carry their ladies’ purses here. At first, I was taken aback when I saw macho looking men, with their perforated pointy-toed leather shoes and aviators carrying giant leather slouch bags. Then I realized that they were also toting them for their lady. Doesn’t matter what the bag looks like—big, little, designer, kitschy—they weigh down the man’s shoulder on a long walk through the city, not the woman’s. I love it!
Russians love to push to the front of a line. Lines are not linear in any strict sense, they’re more like constantly fluctuating crowds that are roughly arranged in the shape of a onion, with the wide end closest to whatever point of interest has beckoned us in the first place. Bank lines, forget about it! Even if a line has emerged from the back of the onion cluster, and is snaking in one direction, people will start a new line (read: clump of masses) in the other direction, just to ensure that everything moves as slowly as possible. I thought that at first this might be a weird Soviet shortage thing—people cramming towards grocery store cashiers, Metro ticket boxes, etc. But the very same happens at Church. For an hour and a half, people reverently stand, pray, cover their heads and cross themselves. Then the moment Communion is brought out, it’s a stampede towards the Priest of shoving and finagling. I don’t know if there are Canons about this, but I am pretty sure they never run out of bread and wine during the Eucharist. Which means the shoving and rushing is not so much about worrying about what you get (we all get the same Body when we go to the Cup, and we all stay just as long afterwards for the exact same communal prayers) but just instinctively racing towards whatever is being made available. It’s also indicative of how jumping to the front of line (chronic occurrence here) is not really marked as a rude action. People are on their best behavior in the house of God, this does NOT preclude jumping the Communion line. Hmmmmm…..
An observation combined with a conundrum: are older Russian women more prone to facial hair? I’m not talking the odd chin hair or upper lip fuzz. I’m talking full ‘staches that when removed actually leave their evidence in five o’clock shadows on older women. I haven’t seen any young women with this, but in a month here, I’ve seen a couple bearded babushkas, not a few mustached ones, and one of my professors not only has a white stubbly upper lip, but the most incredible, huge, curly white sideburns I’ve seen on anyone, male or female. It’s hard to look at anything but those sideburns when she’s speaking. I know that America has a vast array of facial-hair-removal-options, but I’m also pretty sure that growing sideburns and a goatee is not a typical part of the aging process. I mostly notice the old women (there are not that many old men, for many sad reasons) but I wonder if there are old men out there with enough ear hair to wrap around their head…
Muscovites are more helpful than you would think. In a moment of desperation, I approached a stranger in a major intersection of downtown Moscow. Yes, I did select my stranger based on my comfort level (I’d only been in the city three days), which was to look for a nice young girl in decent but not too fancy of clothing. Not only did she lend me her phone (minutes are prepaid here and not as cheap as in the states) but she gave me (correct) directions and assured me it was no worries. An old cab driver with a mouth full of gold teeth watched our exchange. He’d offered me a ride earlier when he saw me pacing around nervously (I’d tried a couple of public phones around the intersection with no success). After I hung up the borrowed cell phone, he got out of his cab, shot me a brilliant smile, and asked, “Have you worked everything out? You’re going to be okay?” Others from my group have testified to very similar experiences.
In Moscow (this completely excludes a recent trip to the “provinces”) I have not seen any drunks wandering the streets, and I have seen hardly any people begging. Certainly nothing, nothing, nothing compared to New York. The only people I have seen begging regularly are clean and humbly dressed women who hide their faces behind signs asking for money for their dying children. Attached to the signs are normally doctor’s certificates. In my hyper literarified head, when I see them my mind flashes to Dostoevsky heroes. Does that objectify them or only make me even sadder, and more terrified for their uncertain future? Otherwise, you see men in military outfits missing limbs, sometimes only one, sometimes all four. A friend (from Moscow) asked me when I first arrived whether I noticed drunks or homeless people; I was surprised to find myself replying, no, not at all. Wait a sec! What city of 10.5 million with an incredibly stratified class system doesn’t have beggars? Moscow must have social services no one in the West knows about, or family structures that put everyone else to shame. My friend replied, Ah, the Militsia (State police) are doing their job, it seems. But of course, it’s the ubiquitous military presence everywhere (I mean, everywhere) that keeps the beggars out of public places. You see them in pairs or threes at every university entrance, in every corridor of the Metro, strolling down all the major streets and often pacing around paid parking lots, in front of any government owned building or office. I presume they go easy on the amputee veterans, at least I hope. For this reason, and not the abundance of shelters, substance abuse counseling, or family cohesion, you only really see beggars on monastery grounds, where they crowd the entrances, just like the lonely and desperate of the New Testament, at the Temple gates.
(I didn’t intend to be dark in this post, but apparently for every gentleman with a leather and chainmail tote over his shoulder, there’s a beggar, a police officer and a bottlenecking line. I guess that’s good to keep in mind as I buoyantly spring from topic to topic here)
Russians love the beach. Love it. Love it. Let me rephrase. Russians love being by natural, or semi-natural occurring bodies of water. All they need is a sandy, grassy, or not-too-rocky surface, and they’re out sunning, picnicking, and inevitably hopping into the water, regardless of warning signs, water opacity, or the fact that their chosen watering hole is a narrow channel for ferries. I love this. Not surprising to find them skinny dipping, and even if they’re clothed, the men only wear spandex and women of all ages and sizes wear bikinis that leave very, very, very little to the imagination. Swim trunks are definitely not in this season.
Russians love dairy products. I think because they don’t drink their tea with milk, and this was such an adjustment for me the first time I came to Russia, I got a lopsided idea that Russian’s weren’t into dairy. Seven years ago when I was freshly arrived in the Motherland and asked if there was milk over my first cup of black tea, my host mother stared at me and then asked me if I was pregnant. I completely failed to see the connection, so I got confused, over-thought the word for pregnant and then tentatively answered, “No?” “Are you English?” was the second question. The logic was getting more elusive—“No?”. “Then you don’t need milk in your tea. That’s for the pregnant and the English.” Realizing that the English were part of the exception, I eagerly tried to explain that I was Irish. But I realized that the English question had been rhetorical and that lemon was the only addition to tea I would see for that long summer.
Which goes to say, little did I know of the dairy heaven that awaited me in Russian supermarkets. Yogurts, milks, milk-cocktails (which range from what is American chocolate or banana milk to more milkshakey concoctions with real fruit inside). Kefir (like thin, sour yogurt, excellent for the digestive system) is as common as regular milk, sometimes even more common to find in corner stores that milk. Its making its way to the bougie aisles of America, but is a very run of the mill dairy delight here. Then of course, countless cheeses, and things between cheese and yogurt that resemble any variety of sour cream, ricotta, quark, etc. These middlemen of the diary world are dolloped on top of every soup, salad, meat, dessert you see. They’re fried for breakfast, and used as fillings in dumplings, blinis (like crepes), etc. There are ice cream stands everywhere. It’s easier to buy ice cream in this country, I would wager, than anything else other than, perhaps, water. You’re lucky if you can find a bag of chips or bag of candy or Diet Coke in the far reaches of some public park or random street corner, but yes, there will be an ice cream man or woman. And there will be at least ten options. Going out for ice cream is like grabbing coffee for Russians. And, as in many Western European countries, ice cream is aggressively marketed to adults, rather than children.
There are lots of very sexy ice cream ads. (I remember the first time I saw a naked person on public television—it in a Swiss ad for cheese, where a supple young women emerges, full frontal nudity, from a lake, walks languidly to a blanket waiting her on the shore, and proceeds to eat cheese from her picnic basket in nothing but her very shapely birthday suit. Hmmmm, a far cry from our cheese commercials that inevitably show savvy moms in enormous kitchens with eager, hungry children and dopey, cute husbands.) Some ice cream ads here are simply sensual—lots of posters with a spoon of vanilla ice cream about to brush the voluptuous lips of our ice-cream-starved model. Others are quite designy—the naked sculpted back of a woman, her iridescent black hair falls in perfect conformity past her shoulder, her toned and slightly contorted right arm balances an ice cream masterpiece in a fragile bowl behind her back (I’m going to forgo describing the banana split to fight off Freudian impulses in all of us), so that whoever she is facing can get a view of her front, but us lucky consumers know that she’s still cunning enough to hide her ice cream behind her back…
Tvorog is untranslatable, but is sorta like Quark, or Crème Fraiche. It doesn’t really exist in America, but is a staple here and quite delicious (way better than smetana, which is like sour cream). What’s great about tvorog, other than its rich, dairy yumminess, and the ice-cream-bar like manifestations of it (with sugar, coconut and chocolate), is its name. In Russian, the word tvorit’ means ‘to create.’ God is known as Tvoretz ‘the Creator’ and creativity and creation are tvorchestvo and tvorenie, all from the same root, you’ve probably gathered, of tvor. Well, last week in my art history class, I referred to the tvorchestvo of an artist, meaning his creative output. I was abruptly corrected. The creative work of a mere artist cannot be called tvorchestvo. It can be a ‘work of art,’ a ‘piece,’ a ‘project,’ but tvorchestvo is higher, more powerful, more immaterial: it has to be theoretical, or it has to be creation out of nothing. The teacher wanted to drive home her point,
“Artists make, God creates. So God is the Creator. Artists are not creators. Children, all works with tvor are very high style, they symbolize something great [she gave the list of words which I have shared with you]. So remember, pay attention! Tvorchestvo is creation from nothing, God is the Tvoretz, his work is a tvorenie, and, of course, there is tvorog.”
Granted, tvorog is the transformation of sour milk into a delicious dessert, so her (folk) etymology works, in a sense. That’s right readers, there is a special something here in Russia (and in Russian), available in your local grocery market that shares it’s name with the advent of light and dark, the separation of the firmament from the sky…