Slow Cooked Americans

Folks, its been a hot, hot summer.  The hottest recorded summer in Moscow.   While I came prepared for the city’s infamous rain and cold July days, I was at first pleasantly surprised, then desperately exhausted by the constant sunshine.  Poor Moscow is not designed for such weather.  Our classrooms are in a building that is functionally a greenhouse—giant windows sealed shut to let in sunlight but not air.  Every class ends with prying yourself off the plastic seat cushion you’ve sweatily merged with over the past two hours.  At one point, every single store and kiosk on campus was sold out of water, and since you can’t drink the tap water here, people were starting to get a crazed, dehydrated glaze to their eyes.

On some level, I think the physical discomfort might actually be good for us.  On our weekend trip to Murom, which was basically monasteries and insufferable heat, marked by long nights of sweating out holy water in tiny beds, we hit our breaking point, as a group.  We revolted; we couldn’t take the heat anymore!  We refused to go on excursions; we demanded to be taken back to Moscow.  We ceased to be intellectuals and were united in our common discomfort, our insatiable thirst, our countless mosquito bites.  In short, we bonded over a common enemy, cruel Mother Nature.  Our wise leader called off our final plans, bought us watermelon and took us to the beach.  Fight bodily discomfort with physical treats.  No better way around it.

Back in Moscow, there was a different feeling in the air.  We were people broken by the heat.  We were crappier, but funnier.   I cut off my leggings and for two weeks have almost entirely only worn what are makeshift bike shorts and tank tops.  When I catch my reflection somewhere, I’m not a little relieved that the chances are very very slim that I’ll see anyone I know.

With the collapse of physical strength, came the collapse of enthusiasm.  We are like bored putty in our teachers’ hands.  We trod to class, carting giant bottles of water or iced tea, and have taken to all eating candy or snacks during class (etiquette faux pas) because the sugar helps you not entirely lose consciousness.  A few days ago, the peat bogs started to burn.

Yes, that’s right, its so hot that the peat on the outskirts of the city is burning and so the air is thick and smelly.  The first morning, I woke up thinking something was on fire.  It was a strange, unfamiliar smell of burning.  When I came to my senses (wait, I have nothing that could catch on fire!), I started to wonder if my neighbors were smoking the most vile sort of Russian marijuana possible.  But why, why, why would you smoke this devil’s hash at 5am on a Monday?  Then again, life is full of mysteries.

Once in class, looking out the window at the haze that was once the Moscow skyline, the culprit was named,–“oh, don’t worry, its just the peat bogs, funny its only now happening”–although there is still something a little mysterious and quite disconcerting about peat bogs spontaneously combusting.

Two days ago, so the day after the peat fires, the elevator in the building broke.  We have class on the 8th floor, so the elevator is pretty key to our daily routine.  What’s wild is how we found out it was broken.

One of my classmates came in twenty minutes late to class.  “I’m so sorry!  I was trapped in the elevator for fifteen minutes!”

In the haze, the heat, and the general apathy, we all just nodded.  Sounds legit enough to me.

Through the peat smog it dawned on me–Wait?! You were stuck in the elevator for fifteen minutes?!

Not only were they stuck, but when someone finally responded to the emergency call, the trapped occupants were scolded for hitting too many buttons and fiddling with the door in an attempt to escape their metal chamber of captivity.

They listened dutifully, I’m told, while repressing laughter.

Such heat, combined with the completely unchanging daily routine, has made everything feel a little absurd.  As about half of the group has gotten sick as our trip has wound down, from weakened bodies and soul, I presume, the pace of the program hasn’t budged.  Dangit, we came here with a schedule, and we’re not going to change it.  This of course, is from the higher ups, not ourselves.  As a coping mechanism, classes have been skipped, activities ditched, but generally, its on the sly and under false pretenses, since no one in authority here appears want to acknowledge the oppressive power of the heat.

Tomorrow I am playing Masha in a little performance of Three Sisters for our closing day.  My group is just doing a tiny excerpt of it, in which Masha is described as wearing black.  My teacher for this class—the leggy Ballerina, about whom a much longer post is pending—has grown increasingly emphatic about this production.  As we loose enthusiasm, she gains it.  As we rehearsed the other day, she asked me if I had a black dress I could wear for the scene.

“No,” I told her, “but luckily, I have a long black skirt, and a black tank top, so I should be fine.”

She looked at me, slowly and disapprovingly.  “Hmmmmm….you need something more,” she said.

“Well, yes,” I said, thinking that it was inappropriate for a Chekhov character (a married one at that) to wear just an H&M spaghetti strap tank.  “I’ll bring a scarf for over my shoulders,” I assured her.

Today, she handed me my “costume.”  I didn’t even know I was getting one.  Its from her personal wardrobe.  Rather than my obviously plebian outfit of cotton, she has given me a top and shrug to wear tomorrow as I perform for the group and the entire faculty.

The shrug is tight, sparkly black lace, and barely fits over my arms (the Ballerina is probably 5’10’ and has a 24, maybe 25 inch waist).  It ties in a bow right where my cleavage would be, had I been so endowed.

The top?

Well the top is a tube top.

A black tube top.

Entirely sequins.

Yes, a black, sequined tube top that measures about 12 or 14 inches from top to bottom.

She handed to me and said, “This will be much better.”

Did I reply, “No!? What? I’m no Ballerina!  Can’t you see I’m in class wearing homemade bikeshorts and Chucks? I don’t feel comfortable wearing your clothing, let alone carousing around the department in a sequined belly shirt? What would Chekhov say?!” [He’ll already be rolling in his grave, considering we play 1980’s pop rock in the background, thanks to the encompassing artistic vision of the Ballerina]

No.  I didn’t.  I raised my eyebrows, suppressed a laugh that turned into a peat smokey cough and said, “Ah, excellent.  Wow.  Oh. Wow.”  My classmates met my gaze but quickly looked away, lest we all begin to laugh or cry.

She handed me the fan I’ll be using during my scene, and a necklace of bling that will “bring it all together.”

Great thing is, I’m also playing Snow White in the other group’s skit.  Yup.  So I’ll be wearing the tube top for two dramatic performances tomorrow.  Prince Charming is going to actually physically carry me off scene at the end.  I think we’ll need to practice all over to make sure I can be hoisted while not disturbing the oh-so-fragile balance of the borrowed top.

When I got back to my room this afternoon, carrying my props, my roommate looked at me.  “This is all absurd,” she said. “We’re frogs, that have been slow boiled.”  I looked at the sequined top, the Chinese fan, I thought about America only three days away.  My mind flashed to the notion of the ‘absurd,’ how crucial it is in Soviet literature as a tool to cope with feeling powerless and pointless in giant, crushing systems of bureaucracy and intuitionalism.  You have to have a sense of humor about these things.

I agreed with her and tried on my top.  With some earnest wiggling and tugging and an enormous slice of humble pie, I think I can do this.

[As I walked to the main building with wi-fi to post this piece, I was carrying my computer in one arm, and a mug of instant coffee in the other.  About five feet from the door, drop plop!  A bird pooped in my coffee.

In Italy, they say that getting pooped on by a bird brings good luck.  I assume that making it smack dab into a mug of hot coffee means I’ll have really good luck.  As in, I’m thinking that tomorrow is gonna be a good day, and that that sequin top is gonna stay right where its supposed to.  It was Mother Nature’s way of saying, “Break a leg, kiddo, I know it’s been a long summer”]

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