In Russia, Alcoholism is a Fulltime Job

November 6th, 2009

Russia has its first Disney movie! Hurray (or Ура for you Russians in the audience)! It’s called Book of Masters, or Книга Мастеров. It is a huge step for the Russians for Disney to recognize them as significant enough to make a film in their language. It’s a very RuMonument to Ёssian story (watch it if you can, I’m sure it’s on youtube already), and it includes a number of racial stereotypes, only one of which I’ll share with you. All the heroes and villains in the story get a happy ending, save for one: the Caucasian fellow (and by Caucasian I mean looks as if he is from Georgia, Chechnya, etc). He does start out as a villain, but in true Disney fashion redeems himself and helps the heroes in the end. What does he get? He’s turned to stone. And he stays that way. How about the witch who spends the whole movie terrorizing people, killing their fathers, and in no way redeems herself? She, literally, prances off into what looks like the set from Wizard of Oz immediately after she forgot she was trying to destroy the world. But the Caucasian soldier is turned to stone. Where’s the justice in that Disney?
On a light note, I had a very interesting conversation with my babushka the other day. I asked her if our (very loud, constantly drunk and sometimes violent) neighbor was an alcoholic (the obvious answer being YES). But of course that was not her answer. When she said no I asked, “But, I thought you said he is always drunk, that he is always drunk.” Her reply: “Why yes, yes, he is. But he works. You can’t be an alcoholic if you work.” Apparently in Russia alcoholism is a fulltime occupation. It’s a wonder more of America’s frat boys haven’t found their way here.
On an even lighter note, I also learned how to say “to kill hope” in Russia. Убыть надежду (Oo-beet nAh-dezh-doo). Careful, if you capitalize the Н in Надежда it means you killed a person (named Надежда). Don’t do that, the Russians will think you’re weird. And you’ll hear it more than you would think.
In other news, my personal Battle of the Bulge continues. Russians take a great amount of delight in feeding their guests. Silly me, the summer before I came I almost cut carbs out of my diet entirely. And what do I get here? Potatoes and bread. And what has this done? Let’s just say my metabolism does not take kindly to the Russian diet. So I have been having a small war with both my babushka and my host mother over how much I will eat, and I am beginning to win (it’s the small victories). How do I know this? First of all, the size of the portions (thank God) have decreased, and magically my host mother has started to read an article on how fruit is good for your health.
I think the turning point for my host mother (babushka not so much) was when babushka was yelling at me for not eating enough and I replied, “But when I get back they will have to roll me off the plane! Like a barrel!” For those of you learning Russian: it’s amazing when you get the opportunity to practice your verbs of motion, to roll, or катать, for example. Lucky the portions have decreased and I am no longer eating enough for a small army.
This has also included turning into a gym-rat of sorts. Women here do not go to the gym, and when they do it’s to pick up men, so they’re always in these strange cut off shirts and use the mirrors to redo their makeup. And then there’s me and my friends. I show up in a baggy t-shirt and men’s gym shorts. I run, bike, lift weights, all that good stuff. The first few times the men at the gym just stared. Now they’re starting to get brave and talk to us. Which is creepy, only because every single one of these men is, in all seriousness, built like Hulk. And I mean Hulk, the giant green thing, not his human counterpart. I’m waiting for the day when one of them wants to talk to us and just picks up the treadmill in order to get our attention. I’ll let you know when it happens.
Aside from the gym, I have another favorite pastime to share: the bus. Everyday, if not at least once, I have to ride the bus during rush hour (which includes stuffing 90 people in a 65 person maximum used bus from Germany). Often my bus-ride dictates how my day will go, if it’s a horrible bus ride sometimes it’s hard to look at things positively for the rest of the day. Sunday my lovely alcoholic neighbor caused enough of a ruckus that I managed to get not a bit of sleep, so come Monday morning I was not looking forward to the bus. I was standing, stuffed in with the masses, and one of the straps of my bag kept falling down, enough so that I started to ignore as it was too difficult to adjust it in the sardine can that is the bus. An older (very tall, think Andre the Giant) gentleman saw this, adjusted the straps for me, and, as he began to exit the bus, picked me up be the shoulders and very gently placed me in a more comfortable place to stand. It was quite endearing, although very, very strange for Russia. But I’ll take what I can get.
Another small anecdote about the bus: I have learned an excellent way to remedy the bus experience. In the evenings when I grab a seat near the window for me 30+ minute ride home, I turn on my iPod. I have a rule here, if it’s not Russian music it cannot have lyrics. What could I possibly listen to, you ask? The William Tell Overture. It is hard to keep the cold, outer Russian façade when listening to this song as the bus driver opens his window to swear at some car in front of him, some fat old babushka literally gets stuck in the bus doors, you get sat on, the bus goes roaring past the nuclear power plant (the Russians insist it’s not nuclear… I think they’re trying to pacify me), some drunk man starts hugging the conductor asking if he really has to pay the fare, and the bus accelerates and decelerates in such a manner as to fling people on top of each other and into the windows in a very comical manner. I’m sure it all sounds awful, and it really is. But if you don’t laugh you lose the will to live. And the William Tell Overture is hilarious. So hilarious in fact I’ve had to cut back on my William Tell on the bus, because I just can’t help but laugh. A lot. And it is not very Russian to laugh in public. Oops.
Having made more Russian friends, I have finally asked what it is about me that makes me so unique in Russia (I am stared at and approached much more than the other Americans here). I dress Russian (heels included), rarely speak English on the street or on the bus, and I even wear a hat all the time! I assumed it wasn’t my red hair, because there are redheads here. But none of them are natural redheads. Apparently most of the people have never seen a natural redhead, and for this reason I am an anomaly.
That doesn’t mean the Russians can’t pick out the foreigners. The Babushkas have an eye for it. In a true Russian fashion, two of my friends and I were walking in a snow storm, two of us had hats, but our friend did not. We passed a pair of babushkas on the street, who very loudly discussed how our friend was clearly not Russian. Their exact words: «Вот, она не русская» (There, that one’s not Russian). So if you ever come to Russia and people keep figuring out you’re foreign and you haven’t even opened your mouth, put a hat on!
To all your foreigners, I apologize that I made us all look very, very weird last week. My friends and I went to a club where we could bowl last week. Because it was also a club, the men were frisked and the women’s bags were checked. Early that day, I had been to a friends house to watch a movie, as well as to an internet café with my computer to do homework. So what does this man find as he’s searching my bag? Little Mermaid in Russian, the charger for my computer which I forgot to take out of my bag, an LSAT study book, a Russian book of Pushkin, a Russian children’s thesaurus, my Sigg water bottle (which he could not figure out for the life of him, poor man), bandaids, a half-eaten bar of chocolate…. He stopped after a while, sighed, and just waved me through. Only after he was convinced my computer charger wasn’t a bomb. Oops. But don’t worry, he asked where I’m from and I said Latvia. Haha.
The snow has stopped and everything has iced over. Everything. The sidewalks are all ice, and the Russians have never heard of salting sidewalks. So every day they just get slicker. I’ve learned a good rule to live by: if it’s sparkly it’s okay to walk on, if it’s shiny don’t (snow versus ice). I was walking to the movie theatre near my house the other day, and instead of walking on the path I walked just off it in the snow to prevent myself from slipping. At this point a group of Russian men pass by and one of them asks me, “What are you doing, there is a perfectly good path here, walk on it!” I simply replied that I was more comfortable in the snow. He mumbled something about snow and cold feet, and then what did he do? He slipped and fell. Sweet ironic justice exists in Russia too!
I shouldn’t poke too much fun. Those of you who know me know I have the grace of a baby hippo, and the iced sidewalks are particularly difficult for me. Imagine a cross between a penguin trying to dance and an emu trying to take off on a greased runway and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I look like walking to school every day.
The cold has also forced me to break out my white L.L. Bean coat. Best decision I have made in Russia. First of all, I have pacified babushka (when I first wore the coat she mumbled something about thanks to God, the girl has some sense and I won’t have to call her mother to tell her that her first born has died of Russian winter). While I do look like a marshmallow (the Russians have even commented on it and my American friends call me the Michelin man), I am warm. So warm. I was waiting for the bus the other day and it occurred to me that I do not care how late the bus is, I can stand outside forever in this coat. Another small victory over Russia. Ha.
No song this week, instead a movie: 12. It’s a pretty recent Russian movie based on Twelve Angry Men. It focuses around the jurors deciding the fate of a young Chechen who has been accused of murdering his adoptive father. It is a very telling film and very, very well done. It’s probably my favorite Russian film (and I’ve watched a lot of Russian film). The end is a very happy one, but I’m not quite sure I think it reflects the direction Russia is going at the moment. We’ll see, the potential is certainly there. I hope you all make time to see this film; it got an Oscar nomination, so I imagine you can find it with English subtitles.
Until next time, everybody stay warm and wear a hat or babushka will find you!

PS: Thanks to Jim Clough for his comments… I know there are more of you reading!! Comment!

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