Friday, October 30, 2009

Rive Gauche

Yves Saint Laurent markets a brand of perfume named after a famous Parisian neighborhood, Rive Gauche. But apparently, Rive Gauche -- spelled Рив Гош -- is also a Russian chain store that sells perfume (yes, Yves Saint Laurent among others) and make up. Apparently, this store also gives out plastic bags, because I see these bags everywhere in the city. They must be good, strong plastic bags, the kind that can hold an umbrella and a pair of spare shoes, a book to read in the subway and a few grocery items. Carrying a plastic bag in addition to a purse or a messenger bag is part of the local fashion, and local Rive Gauche provides not only the durable kind, but also colorful. Their red, green, pink, blue, and black logo can match virtually any type of outfit and especially a coat. It's versatile. I feel like buying a bit of lipstick just for the privilege of carrying around a bag like this.

The weather finally is turning wintry. Today was sunny and frosty -- my hands and ears took the brunt of it. I didn't walk much today, but it's clearly time to move into my winter coat and boots and a Rive Gauche bag for slippers to change into when entering someone's house. No snow on the ground, unfortunately. This is bad. If it gets any colder, and the snow won't start falling soon, all the plants will freeze in the ground.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Movies with my brother

The Internet is sickly. Not doing well at all. It's coughing and sneezing and turning to the wall and refusing to talk to me. I go away, work on my translations, brush my teeth, read a book, go out to buy milk and cookies, and then come back and prod it again: come on, don't be a baby, talk to me. It opens one eye, looks at me attentively, I scarmble for the right words, the right way to touch it so that it finally talks to me again -- but no, no use. It closes its eyes and pulls a blanket over its head. It's done for the day.

True, in these last few days of my trip, I don't have a lot of time to play with it anyway. I'm scrambling to meet friends, family and business associates one last time. Petersburg is not a very large city -- until you try to combine three dinner dates in three different parts of the city. I invite my second cousins to meet me at my aunt's place. I invite classmates from my first school to meet me at the apartment of a classmate from my second school. My brother organizes an outing to the movies (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee with Robin Wright Penn and Alan Arkin, I highly recommend it, might be the best movie I've seen all year -- after Star Trek) so that I could meet two more family friends. Classic Petersburg: everything is arranged last minute, and the two girls arrive from the opposite directions at exactly the same time, five minutes after the movie was supposed to start. Kiss on the cheek, kiss on the cheek, and the four of us run up the four flights of granite stairs to the movie theatre -- the best and the shabbiest in the city. They play art films, with subtitles instead of awful dubbing. Therefore, no popcorn, old Soviet-style humongous auditorium and chairs in front of a smallish screen. But the sound and the projection system have been updated, and really it's not that much different from watching movies at the Castro theatre.

After the movie, we go across the street to a tea-house called Marakesh, where we drink tea by the teapots. Kostya and I drink Masala -- which is the only exception I've seen him make to his no food or drink after 6 pm rule. Other parties at this tea-house are also smoking hookahs -- a popular local past-time -- but we are drinking tea and talking about literature and the arts. Both of our friends are students at the University, one studying politics and another studying French language and Comparative Literature. Both of them are also journalists or aspiring journalists, writing about film and popular culture -- there are lots of stories to be exchanged and joint projects to plan. At the end of the evening, Kostya drives everyone home. It's after midnight, but the city is still trafficky. Kostya drives deliberately slowly, stopping for the pedestrians and red lights -- he refuses to be rushed -- and his strategy usually pays off, but sometimes he still gets into scrapes with people sidling him and cutting him off. Yelling is always the first go-to method of communication in such cases. Still, Kostya seems to be surprisingly successful in his personal quest to minimize the levels of agression in the atmosphere around himself. He practices yoga each morning, sings, studies Spanish, takes artsy photographs, has a regular job, watches Futurama in English, makes chocolate cheesecakes at night that he won't eat until breakfast, and all of this seems to help.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yanina Maximovna

For me, time in Petersburg moves in a definitively non-linear way. It doesn't flow -- it leaps, and not only forward but also backwards. There are certain ritual things I do every time I'm here -- from buying a certain type of chocolate-covered cheesecakes for breakfast to visiting my literature teacher -- and there are certain ritual emotions I experience while doing these things. No matter how many times I've done it before, every time I bite into the thin chocolate crust and feel the soft, mushy sweetness inside -- I am always seven years old, rushing to eat the entire cheesecake at once before I have to share it with my brother. Every time Johnnie and I go to visit Yanina Maximovna, we are always precocious 17- year olds, recent high school graduates, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things we don't know and will never learn.

Things do, of course, change. Yanina Maximovna is approximately 86 now, and when Johnnie and I went to visit her on Saturday, she could no longer get up and open the door for us. She broke her hip a year ago, and now she sits up but doesn't walk. It's not all bad: some of her students found her a helper, and in fact, she looks a lot better this year than when I saw her during my last visit. A few years back, we would bring her a cake and she would serve us tea, now we bring her money and don't stay very long. In fact, Johnnie has been going to see her every few weeks -- to help, to bring more money. Medicine costs a lot, help costs a lot, and the only savings old teachers have in this country are what their students can spare.

But so many other things stay the same! The portraits of Yesenin (a poet) and Yevstigneev (an actor) on her bookshelves, a rug and a plate hanging behind her couch, two large barking dogs and Yanina Maximovna's son or daughter in law who are always unfriendly when we run into them outside her room. Yanina Maximovna and Johnnie always discuss new TV shows and actors while I sit and listen; then, she asks me about the US, and I do my best to answer for everything that is wrong or right with its foreign politics. I usually try to guide the discussion toward literature, and when Yanina Maximovna is in a bad mood, she always slips into remembering all the recent deaths of writers and actors. She used to regularly visit graves of her favorite authors, and when she was much younger, even took some of her other students (not us -- she was already too old to travel with a bunch of teenagers when we studied with her) on overnight trips to visit graves of famous writers.

We didn't stay long enough this time to remember the dead -- we had to mention a few in passing, but did not linger on the subject -- but she did ask me about Obama and if the Americans are happy with him. Yanina Maximovna is a huge fan of the US. In the seventies, she got in trouble for wearing a denim skirt to work -- she refused to budge and wore that same skirt to school late into the 90s. She visited the US twice, in 1998 and 1999, on the invitation of her former students and colleagues, and I took the bus from Rochester to NYC both times to visit with her and her friends. I remember walking around NYC with her, gazing up at the skyscrapers, looking at them through her eyes -- this was what being "free" and living in a "free" world meant! -- and then we shared a room at one of her friends' apartments, and she made me a gift of earrings: two thin silver spades she had inherited from her mother. I've always wondered -- what moved her to give them to me? Did she realize how much it would mean to me? My college years were a strange time in my life -- I missed home a lot -- and Yanina Maximovna's visit made me see what a privilege my life in the US truly was, what opportunities it offered.

This Saturday, after we left Yanina Maximovna's flat, Johnnie and I agreed that she looked good, better than last year, and that our visit was good. It was good, good, a good, short visit, and we didn't talk much about disease or death, and instead talked politics and discussed a new TV series based on the biography of a White Guard admiral, Alexander Kolchak. Johnnie and I rode the always dark elevator (it's dark because the light bulb is always missing) to the ground floor and talked about how good it all was, and tried not to cry. But maybe time did move forward a notch this year, because tears do not come as easily as they used to and when they do, they are easier to hide.

Saturday night, Russia ended its summer light savings time. A week earlier than the US, and well timed: my brother celebrated his birthday late into the Saturday night, and an extra hour of sleep allowed me to stay awake during Moguchij's staging of a new play "Isotov" in Aleksandrinsky theatre tonight. For the next week, the time difference between St. Petersburg and San Francisco is only 10 hours.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Moscow contemporary art scene

Contemporary Russian cuisine knows two types of pancakes: thick, small and simple are known as oladji and thin, crepe-like, yeast-based are the blini. Oladji (or, tenderly, oladushki) can also be made from a yeast-based dough, but this kind of defeats the purpose: this is the simplest dish, flour and eggs, made on the spot, to be eaten immediately. If you want them to be fancy, mix the dough in milk or kefir instead of water, add some salt and soda. But, for god's sake, don't spend more than 7 minutes mixing the ingredients together. My parents don't ever make oladji: they try to stay away from flour altogether. It's an honorable goal and I support them wholeheartedly, but OMG oladji are so tasty. Particularly when they are served with raspberry jam and smetana (Russian version of sour cream) and the jam gets mixed in with thick sour cream on my plate after excessive dipping. In American Jewish cuisine, potato pancakes are served in a similar way, with apple sauce and sour cream. Small potato pancakes also look a lot like oladji. And in fact, when oladji are made from grated potatoes, they are called kartofel'nie oladji or potato pancakes. Meanwhile, both blini and oladji are breakfast, lunch and dinner food. I feasted on oladji on my second day in Moscow, when my new friend Olga made them for breakfast.

This trip to Moscow came together more or less spontaneously. Two weeks ago, when I met Olga and her husband Sasha (Aleksandr) for the first time ever at Konstantin and Polina's house, I happened to mention that I have a birthday party in Moscow to go to -- and immediately received an invitation to stay with them if I do come. They are both former journalists who have very recently been squeezed out of journalism by unstoppable political forces, so they have some free time on their hands -- and some important decisions to make. The conversations that were started at Polina and Konstantin's place were so fascinating that I could not let this opportunity pass me by. So I bought a ticket to Moscow and back. (The cheapest ticket goes for approximately 750 rubles or $25, in a platzkart car -- Wikipedia translates the term as "couchette" car, but the description fails to highlight the local specificity. Basically, Russian platzkart is a train car with beds for roughly 100 people, where compartments are not separated from each other by any doors, curtains, and states of mind).

I spent two full days with Sasha and Olga -- visiting contemporary art exhibits by day and drinking Martini (which is not a martini, but vermouth) by night. Everything was a surprise to me, their hospitality, the places they took me, the food they made, the stories they told, the books they gave me to take home. I am encouraging Sasha to write down some of his stories so that I could translate them to English (and maybe send in to New York Times) -- there's no way I can do them justice in retelling. Sasha is working on a book right now, and I'm sure it's going to be an epic geopolitical thriller, even though -- or especially because -- it's nonfiction. We talked about everything, from method acting and mainstream movie business to the notion of migration and the (failing?) idea of a melting pot (shared by the USSR and USA alike). In the post-Soviet space, most of us are migrants to some extent, and in many cases, we are children and grandchildren of migrants, so what is it that keeps us attached to a place and when and how do we finally stop moving? How screwed up it is that these questions never become idle for us.

We went to five different exhibits in two days, most of them related to the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary art, a project based on the idea of the Venice Biennale. The theme of the festival this year is "against exclusion" and it included work of Russia-based and foreign artists. Pieces in the main exhibit space called Garage (the story of how the space came to be is fascinating in its own right) that excited most conversation between us were Cheri Samba's political art, Chiharu Shiota's piano, and a work on migration by a Korean-born author Kimsooja. Unfortunately, we only got to see about two thirds of the collection: my visit to Russia is charged with technical difficulties. This time, the entire neighborhood lost power -- and all the electricity-based art went out of commission. Seriously, artists, think twice before you rely on electricity for the display of your art! Or donate to the development of the alternative sources. (Note to self: should I rewrite my blog by hand? ;)

Some of the best contemporary Russian art we've seen is assembled by a famous Moscow "gallerist" Marat Guelman -- and particularly for the project called "Russkoe Bednoe" -- "Russian Poor" or, the way they translate it, "Russian Povera." This is an attempt to get regional artists involved in the project of making contemporary art, and so the main exhibit space for it has been created in Perm (a city of mining and heavy industry in the Ural Mountains). For the Moscow Biennale, a few works are also being exhibited in a space of a former chocolate factory Krasny Oktyabr (Red October). This exhibit space is not to be confused with another new Moscow exhibit space, housed in the former wine factory, and called accordingly Vinzavod (I've also seen it spelled Winzavod -- Wine Factory). Vladimir Anzelm's piece "Skull" made of charcoal illustrates the idea of "Russian Povera" best of all. (Compare this to the famous Damien Hirst's "Skull").

Lots and lots of fun pieces there, but the one story that might have touched me the most relates to the art of Nikolay Polissky. He has assembled a team of builders from a Russian village, and makes absurdist but also very meaningful, ironic and sweet, constructions in the woods and in the fields in the villages and in the outskirts of cities -- and I guess also in galleries. Fun videos on his website. I particularly like The Taming of the Fire. At the moment, the art of Polissky and his crew struck all three of us as very positive -- and when at night we drank fake martini and ate spagetti with meat sauce Uzbek style, Sasha, Olga and I talked about what it takes to stay positive in this world. The next morning, Olga made us a batch of oladji.

Monday, October 19, 2009


The first snow of the season was on the 12th of October, it snowed the next day, too. This is a good omen, my dad said: for once, the the snow came before Pokrov, it means the winter will come soon. Cold, snowy winter is what we want, it's what makes the next year's crops come in stronger. Although Pokrov is celebrated as a Russian Orthodox holiday on October 1st by the "old" church calendar and on October 14th by the current Gregorian calendar, the holiday predates Christianity, it comes from older slavic pagan feasts marking the end of the harvest season. And indeed, the harvest has been harvested: last weekend, my friend Konstantin helped me and my dad to gather apples from our apple tree. The type of apples we grow is called "autumn stripes" and, as far as I know, it's unique to Petersburg? Russia? Former SU? Europe? In any case, I know of no "Western" equivalent to this yellow and red striped apple, tart and sweet, hard at first and softer the more ripe it gets.

When we arrived to the country house this weekend, the snow was still on the ground. In the city, the first snow melts right away: the earth is still warm, and the air temperature is above freezing. But in the country it always stays longer. It lay on the grass still green (later in the fall it grows dirt-colored), on the trees that have only began yellowing, on the blooming roses and hydrangeas in my mom's garden. "Ikebana Russian style," joked my parents' friend who has just returned from a holiday in Barcelona where she was swimming in the Mediterranean and sunbathing. My dad and I were going to replant a young chestnut tree -- we had replanted one two weekends ago, but the second one was left over -- and will probably stay left over until the spring. Everyone is predicting a long, harsh winter.

We spent the night and then returned to the city Sunday evening to attend Roman Viktiuk's staging of Jean Genet's play The Maids. Viktiuk stages dramatic repertoire Meyerkhold style, with actors whose faces are masked (painted white, in this case) and movements are choreographed and turn into dances several times during the performance: it's as far removed from representational theatre as anything I have seen on stage. The only problem, this staging is quite old: they first performed it in 1988, and it seems they haven't updated it very much since then. All four of us (my brother included) fell asleep at different points of the production. The play ended with a dance routine to retro music, including for some reason what sounded like a Turkish melody (none of us could tell what language it was) and male dancers dressed in Genie-style robes. Why?? What was this a commentary on? The repertoire of this troupe also includes M.Butterfly, and so they should know all about East-West sexual/power stereotypes, but I can't figure out how this relates to Jean Genet.

Sometimes the local habit of reading between the lines makes us blind to the actual words on the page. My mom says that in Viktiuk's interpretation, this play aquired a dimension of relevant political commentary ("the slaves must always hate each other"), but I wonder if this is not happening at the expense of the play itself.

I am taking a night train to Moscow tonight, will spend 2 days there and will return on another night train Thursday morning. Before I leave today I must replace my cell phone. Yes, one more thing broke during this trip: my Russian cell phone. It has served me for 6 years, and it's mostly working still -- except now whenever I receive or make phone calls, all I hear is silence. And what is there to do in Moscow without a working cell phone?

Friday, October 16, 2009


I could be blogging about lots of different things. About the sky in Petersburg, for example, how it's mostly gray, but today some sun seeped through and I ran outside in tears of joy. It's dark here, oh, so dark that at 8 am when I do my morning run, it's like I'm running at the bottom of a deep well. Not much breathable air in my neighborhood because of all the factories. Tomorrow, in honor of Saturday, I will go for a run at 10 am, and I'm already anticipating it like a holiday.

I could be also blogging about happy things, about two events I attended at the Akhmatova museum, two events in one night, two events about two things that if I were not writing fiction I would be writing about: one, a presentation of a book called "Gender Theory for Teapots" (Russian takeoff on "books for dummies"), and the other one, a film about Viktor Shklovksy and Roman Jakobson, two Russian formalists one of whom emigrated and the other one tried to but eventually returned to the USSR, it's a good story, the story of their friendship, with lots of dramatic twists and turns. I could write in lots of details about this.

Or I could be writing about meeting my classmates again. We try to do this every year, I went to two different schools, and both sets of classmates try to meet when I visit. This one tonight was my math school classmates, the ones who know me as a not-so-troubled teen (I was too fond of reading to get into any real trouble). Two girls are expecting their second daughters, two boys are now working together, designing computer games. I fought with one kid who insisted that all movies are by definition commercial projects. Later he told me that "it was nice to know that I was still easily tricked into an argument." As if we lived a Monty Python sketch! Another kid tore a 100 ruble bill ($3 approx) in two halves -- just because.

But I can't write about any of these things, not really, not in good style and with amusing details because one more thing broke in this house: my brother's DSL modem. He took it in to be fixed yesterday, and they said, "call us next week, and we'll let you know if we have mailed it to the central warehouse for repair yet." He called another company, the one that operates a LAN in our apartment building, and they will come tomorrow to hook him up, and if they manage to find a "technical hole" in his apartment, and if they manage to pull the cable in, tomorrow he will have Internet hookup in the hallway of his house. Until all of these details are worked out, I have to survive on the sparse diet of Internet cafes and my dad's SkyLink on his minature ASUS netbook. It's not so bad, I did a lot of good translating work today. Although maybe this was not so much due to my Internet situation but because the sun broke through the clouds in the afternoon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Crossing the road

In May, Pres. Medvedev signed a law, increasing fines for drivers who are not letting pedestrians cross the street from 100 to 1000 rubles. Most people I've talked to mentioned this law to me, in the context, did you notice that the cars these days wait for the pedestrians once in a while? And, indeed, half of the time the cars do let the pedestrians cross the street. The funny thing is, we the pedestrians are so conditioned to mistrust the drivers, everyone's behavior on the road is, at the moment, more erratic than ever. Today, for example, my mom called me from her walk to the subway station. She has only one street to cross to get there, and, crossing this one street, she and another pedestrian inadvertently caused a traffic jam. They both started crossing the street at the same time, in perpendicular directions. They walked cautiously, as usual, testing the waters at first, and returning to the curb once or twice before eventually venturing across. Meantime, some of the cars and the trams did stop and others didn't want to but were forced to stop because their path was blocked, and finally they all got so stuck, nobody could move forward for good ten minutes. Both my mom and the other pedestrian stood there and waited until all the cars drove away before they felt safe to move on their way as well.

Monday, October 12, 2009


The institution of public banya (traditional bath houses) in post-Soviet Russia has grown a long beard of mythology, but has fallen into obscurity in practical terms. During the Soviet Union times, when each apartment housed several families, and sharing one tub between 20 people was very tricky business, the public banyas were located in every neighborhood, and everyone went there on a regular basis (once a week? once a month?). In fact, I can see an old banya from the window of my parents' flat as I'm writing this. I'm not sure if the building is used now -- for years, it just stood there, boarded up and growing grayer and shabbier by the year. If it's used now, it might be a flower shop or a casino. The banya in front of my cousin's house is also closed up, used as a place of refuge for the homeless and the drunk. Does repurposing of old banyas require an unusual amount of work? (real estate is not cheap in SPb anymore) -- or is this because everyone is still secretly hoping that the banyas will come back to life?

Many reasonably wealthy people who have their own dachas or country houses also build private banyas on their properties. They usually build more Finnish-style saunas rather than Russian banyas -- I think they must be easier to make and maintain in modern houses -- but some go the extra length to create the authentic banya. The thing is, it's not simply an engineering problem, banya is also a tradition and, as I'm learning, can be an art. My family doesn't really practice (although my parents have a sauna in the basement of their dacha). Most of my friends use showers for everyday convenience. Until last year, I wasn't even aware that any public banyas still survived in Petersburg. I got invited to go last year by my friend Polina, who is an expatriat from Moscow, and a banya enthusiast. She took me to the public banya last year, and once again last night -- but she herself and her partner Konstantin (my classmate from grade school) go twice every week, on Thursdays and Sundays.

Polina complains: "In Moscow, people know what banya is all about," she says. "Here, people sit on the benches and hit themselves with birch branches, but what's the use if there's no steam?" I take off my clothes and my glasses -- and I become a child lost in the big world. She takes off her clothes, leads me to the washing room, picks up a bucket for the two of us, fills it up with hot water, throws the birch branches in to loosen up, hands me a hat. "Let's go into the parilka -- the steam room -- to warm up." First time we go in, we stay for a few minutes just to look around: the room is crowded this Sunday evening, most of the places on the benches closest to the stove are taken, but the steam is low to non-existent. It's just hot, but there's no humidity in the air. I don't feel any of this -- I just feel the heat, but Polina does. "Okay," she says, "let's make some steam."

We go back to the washing room, shower in cold water -- she remembers to take the hat off my head, I'm a newborn babe, completely helpless. "Sit down, rest, drink some water," she says. "You haven't been here in a year, you'll get tired. I'll do everything and then call you." I drink mineral water -- she had provided me with a two-liter bottle -- and watch as she disappears back into the steam room. The women file out of it immediately: she needs to open the doors and windows to air the room out, to dry it out first. Then she throws cold water on the hot stones, washes the room out of the birch leaves and sweat, starts throwing wood into the stove, sets out armoatic spices on the stone and on the backs of the wooden benches. First round, the smell is chamomile. When she waves me to come back in (I remember to put on my hat again), the steam in the room fogs up the lenses of my eyes (I'm not wearing glasses!) -- it's hot, hot! once I remember to close my mouth (my throat is burning), I start to smell the spice -- chamomile. "Take some with your hands, crush it between your fingers, smell it, massage it into your face, skin," Polina advises. The room is crowded again, all the women are back, all of them are fascinated by Polina's activities. "Go ahead, all of you, try this, there's enough for everyone!" Polina has her fan club among the regular banya visitors, women who come back every Thursday and Friday, who help out to wash and air out parilka before the new steam. They tell me, "Polina, she's such an amazing girl, there's no one like her, we are so lucky to have her here." They worry about her and wish her well: "Does she have a good husband?" they ask me. "She deserves the best. Anyone would be lucky to be with her." I speak up, yes, yes, she is an amazing friend, and her husband is a good one, of the best kind.

Polina has time to make four or five steams this night. First, with chamomile, second, with wormwood -- Artemisia absinthium -- a grass, from which absinthe is made. Polina regrets doing this one so early: too many people in the parilka, not enough steam, we didn't get to have the full experience, should've done this one last. She follows wormwood up with lemon and mint -- mint feels cool on my cheeks and lips, on my hands and breasts -- then with orange blossoms and mint. Between the rounds in the parilka, we rub things into our skin. Honey, later oil with salt from the Dead Sea (Polina and Konstantin went to Israel twice this year, are still using the stuff they bought there), followed up with coffee grains. We run out of time to use the mud from the Dead Sea, but no worries, save it for next time. Once you rub honey all over your body, you go to stand in the parilka for a few minutes -- we don't sit down or use birch branches this time, just stand there, wait until your body washes the honey off your body with sweat. Leave the parilka -- cold shower -- wait a few minutes until Polina organizes the new steam. New steam, sweat, birch branches, then new skin cleansing procedure. Oil clings to the body, no way to get it off -- no need to get it off. Coffee grains absorb some of it but not all, coffee exfoliates, enriches.

Everyone asks Polina: "What does this do? What is this good for?"

But Polina doesn't like to explain: in Moscow banyas it's forbidden to talk in the first place. Here, everyone gabs. Why is it forbidden to talk? Who knows, banya is a ritual, it is the way it is.

As the evening progresses, the washing room empties and only Polina's fans are still there. It's almost 10:30 pm, time to close up, but even the lady who watches over the womens' baths -- her name is also Olya -- she is also Polina's fan, she accommodates, waits, until Polina gets her reward. Here's the ultimate banya experience: parilka is steaming with the last round of added heat and water. One of the women still there turns out to have lots of experience, she asks Polina to lie down on the bench (on the towel spread across the hot! hot! wood), takes the two brooms of birch branches into both hands, starts slapping them across Polina's back, asks me to bring a tub of ice-cold water. When I come back with it, she's almost done. With the last, swift movement, she pours the water over Polina's backside. "Oh my god!!" Later, in the car, Konstantin is driving me home, Polina says, this was an orgasmiс experience, no other words to describe it. "I haven't had a steam this good in years," she says. After this supreme gesture of gratitude and good will, we file out of the steam room and go take the final showers, wash our hair, throw out the used up birch branches, go get dressed.

Polina goes to the banya twice a week. But this week she might go to Moscow, and I might go to Moscow the week after.

It's snowing today. The first snow of the season. It was warm and sunny all day yesterday, and all of us, Polina and Konstantin included, walked in the woods around my parents dacha and I found two maslyenka, an oily mushroom, Boletus luteus. But today the sky is gray, and snowflakes have been getting progressively heavier all morning.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Going to the opera with my aunt Maya is a full blown affair. We meet up two and a half hours before the show at Stolle, a local chain of German bakeries that makes the best pirogi (the Russian variety, not dumplings but large pies) in town. My aunt orders: two cups of coffee, two pieces of savory pies, two pieces of sweet pies. At the end of the hour, we chase this down with a pot of tea and two more pieces of pie. Refusing under the pretense that I'm not hungry is not an option. "You're starving yourself!" she yells loud enough for everyone in the shop to look me over--and then orders for me anyway. When we sit down again with our pie and tea, she pulls out a bar of chocolate from her purse--this, I can't resist.

We leave Stolle an hour before the show and proceed to a flower shop, where Maya picks out a bouquet for Akimov, the tenor who's singing Sir Edgar in tonight's Lucia di Lammermoor and who over the years has become a family friend. Seven roses, several branches of green shrubbery, tall white bell-shaped flowers, everything wrapped in the sheets of painted straw, and an envelope with Maya's letter stapled at the front. Maya writes these letters ahead of time, based on previous performances. To receive such a letter: the highlight of any singer's-actor's-writer's career.

We hand off the bouquet to one of the ticket takers inside the theatre, they place them in the buckets of water until the end of the show and then distribute between the singers at the end of the show, between the bouts of applause. Everyone knows Maya: the women who work at the flower shop ("We hope you come back soon!" -- "I'll be back here on the 20th, he's singing Pierre in War and Peace!"); the ticket takers at the theatre; the women who take our coats and dispense opera glasses ("What happened to the older lady, the one who used to work here?" -- "She retired! Here's the new girl, she's very nice.")

"Mouse!" Maya commands me. "Follow me, we need to get programs!"

A young man overhears this, asks me: "Did she just call you mouse?"

Soon, my parents show up. At the last minute, they decided they wanted to join us. My aunt Anya and her school friend tag along. When all of us yell "Bravo" at the end of every tenor part, the theatre trembles. When the singers come out to take the final bow, Akimov has three times more bouquets than the soprano, Olga Trifonova, who was excellent tonight, her voice the color of amber and the texture of honey. Akimov, of course, never dissappoints.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


My parents claim that this only happens when I'm in town, but I wonder.

On Monday, the electricity went out in my brother's apartment, adjacent to my parents'. Nobody was answering the phone at the municipal administration when we called to request an electrician who comes for free (he's paid by the municipal authorities), so we called a paid service. They came within an hour and told us that it was our good luck that someone was home: one of the wires in the electric meter had been too short, and it wore off and already burned part of the meter. Could've started a fire. They charged 1000 rubles ($35) for a half hour's worth of work. Half an hour after they left, somebody rang the bell from the downstairs door to the building: "Did you call for an electrician?" A scam or a legitimate mix up? No way for me to tell, so I just talked to the guy through the intercom and didn't let him into the building. Four hours later, somebody rang my doorbell from inside the building, offering to sell us potatoes from Pskov. A scam or a legitimate offer? The light bulb on our floor is permanently out (and now the municipal authorities placed a shield around it so that we couldn't replace it ourselves), so when I looked through the peephole all I saw was a dark shape. I didn't open the door. Later that night, my friends told me that it was probably legitimate: people are making money by going from house to house and selling potatoes and apples from the countryside. But I grew up in the 90s, behind two doors with two locks on each one. I only open them when I know who's coming.

On Tuesday, the water went out in my parents' apartment. It went out at 9 am, just after I got out of the shower. I tried to fill up a few canisters, but it was too late. I ended up spending most of the day at a coffee shop. When I left the apartment, I noticed a note posted on the door: The water was going to be out from 9 am on Tuesday morning until the end of the day. I should get into the habit of reading these notes more closely. My parents had seen it but forgot to warn me.

Wednesday was an adventure free day. I went to the MDT (the best theatre in town) to see a play loosely based on Andrey Platonov's Chevengur. Chevengur is a town, the citizens of which have succeeded in building communism. At the end of the performance, everyone picks up a heavy rock and walks into a lake (the theatre is built to accommodate water).

Today my parents went to work, and then my mom came back an hour and a half later. What happened? They never left our block. When they got to their car, parked in the back of our apartment building, their side mirrors were missing. It was a clean, professional job: all the wires were intact and everything. My parents had to report the incident to the police, because without the police report, the insurance company is not going to pay for it. Apparently, my dad had just replaced a broken side mirror a couple of weeks ago. He says, he should've waited for them to get stolen. But: would the mirrors get stolen if he hadn't replaced the broken one? More likely, the people, who had repaired his broken mirror, tipped off the people who stole the new ones today. On the other hand, I shouldn't be so cynical. The potatoes from Pskov, after all, were legitimate. Some police representatives showed up quickly, but after an hour and a half, my parents were still waiting for the insurance representative and for another police commissioner. My mom just came upstairs to use the bathroom. Good thing, the water was running.

Last night, my parents and I watched a part of Dan in Real Life on broadcast TV. The movie is barely watchable (the dubbing is horrific, the intrigue is too corny, anything that's not funny is extremely predictable), but my parents seemed to enjoy it. Where would we be without Hollywood's fairytales?

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The city overwhelms me very quickly. My first full day here, and I'm already on the verge of tears. Why? No reason. My cousin called and wanted to change his plans from seeing me today to seeing me some time during the week, and I couldn't explain to him on the phone why it offended and upset me. Things here move too fast and too slow for me at the same time. Cell phone conversations definitely move too fast: he hung up before I was able to think, I can't do this. Cars move much too fast. But dinners last forever, especially long country house dinners with all the family and guests at the table talking about completely random things. Tonight, the guests were two Russian-Armenian brothers, an artist and a wholesale reseller, who got to hear my parents' story about their 2 week trip to Armenia at the end of August, and who were telling stories about surviving the winter in Yerevan in 1991-92 without gas or electricity, and who were also telling stories about buying a 30-ft used boat and trying to outfit it with a used motor, and who were also philosophizing about the invention of vaccination with the use of human subjects (children), and who were eating chicken again and drinking cups after cups after cups of tea. These evenings are wonderful, and they last for so long that it's very important to stop thinking, what's next, when's the dessert, when's the singing part, when do they go home, when do we drive back to the city, when do we go to sleep. Meeting new people, we stay till they stay, and if it's 12:30 am when we finally pack up the remnants of smoked salmon and French stinky cheeses and chocolate treats and fruit tarts and go home, then that's how it's going to be and we'll get home at 1 am and then hopefully go to bed soon afterward.

There are many things to get used to again, the gray sky always on the verge of raining, how everybody smokes and doesn't shake hands until I give them my hand first, the constant admonishments I get from my family for wearing only one sweater instead of five, the way Russian language feels in my mouth at the end of the day. Otherwise, I fall into my this life so completely that in a week or two it will be impossible to imagine that another life does exist, that San Francisco is not just a myth, a set of words that I've constructed. It's already hard to believe that just yesterday Dave and I were leaving Vienna, and all I have to go by is Dave's latest blog post about it: This is not because the world rotates around me, but because this particular world feels like a different universe. In less than 24 hours, I have a different routine for doing anything: washing up before going to bed instead of in the morning like I do in San Francisco, drinking tea instead of coffee, eating massive quantities of smoked fish and boiled chicken, going to bed late and getting up hopefully not too late, sitting in the back seat of my parents' car, always being on alert for parents waking up and discovering that I'm still awake. And I really shouldn't be awake right now.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Wien Oper

Tonight is the last night of Dave's and mine joint trip: he's flying back to San Francisco in the morning, and I'm going on to St. Petersburg. We finished our day in Vienna with a visit to the opera, the standing room tickets here are surprisingly cheap (we paid 4 euros each!) and easily available, vs the sit down tickets that are sold out weeks in advance. The standing room was literally a mob scene, with several hundred people trying to fit into a 10 sq meters. There was also a screen set up right outside the theatre with a few chairs in front of it, and a simulcast broadcasted the opera to the enthusiasts who couldn't or wouldn't get inside. We fortified ourself plentifully before and after the perfomance with Sacher tortes and other treats.

The opera performed tonight: Pique Dame, a Tchaikovsky classic (in an anti-classic staging). A kind of an opera where every tune is familiar since childhood, a funny thing to see here, seeing how I'm going to St. Petersburg tomorrow. Seiji Ozawa, previously of the Boston Simphony Orchestra, was conducting. Dave and I are long time fans, and so it was a pleasant surprise to see him as the conductor of the Wien Staatsoper. The orchestra was impeccable and the singers were excellent (except for maybe the two main characters who were okay). I don't have the program and time is too short to google the names of the bass and the alto, maybe I'll do it later. It would be great to see Faust on this stage one day.

I've been out of the country for 2 weeks now, and I can already feel my language disintegrating, sentence structure becoming wooden in a way not native to English, word choice collapsing to English 101 vocabulary. My Russian is worse at the moment. Four more weeks between languages -- there's creative potential here to be explored, but it requires a leap of faith. Vienna reminds me how much I love German. The sound of it, the way it looks on street signs and ads, how it immediately makes everything seem old-fashioned. It's good to know that I haven't forgotten all of it yet.

Cafe closing. Gotta go.