Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's Time for Me to Get on a Plane...

Best Russian moments of the last few weeks:

1. The Urinator
Elizabeth and I were walking along the Griboedova Canal on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon and decided to go poke our heads in a souvenir shop in a courtyard just off the street. As we entered the courtyard, we noticed the man five feet to our right was urinating (a not altogether unknown sight in most courtyards/hallways/elevators/any-place-you-can-stand). We kept walking, unsure of how to respond. We poked our heads into the shop, didn't like it, and walked back towards the canal. Our friend, I. P. Freely, was still, somewhat incredibly, heeding the call of nature, nonplussed.

2. Papa Gets Thirsty
We walked past The Urinator back on to the street, and before we could even process Mr. Freely, we were confronted with another sight. A huge, shirtless, deeply sunburned man (with a man purse slung over his shoulder, by the way) stopped in the middle of the sidewalk with his baby and baby stroller, chugging cognac straight from the flask bottle. After some deep swallowing, he let out a sated "Ahhhhhhh..." and then placed his liquor in the diaper bag of the stroller.

3. Breaks and Shortages
The other day I went to go get some food over at a little lunch place across the street from the school. I walked in and was informed they were on their lunch break and I should come back in 5 minutes. Lunch break? They are only open 4 hours out of the day!! I came back in 10 minutes, and saw they were still coming off their break, so I went to the little shop next store to get a coke because the lunch place doesn't sell beverages. Come back in 15 minutes, I was told, they were on their break... Ok, I thought, no big deal, I'll just get myself a little pizza and drink water. I went into the lunch place and asked for a pizza (like I have done once a week for the last 10 months). Sorry, the lady said, no pizza today. This failure of restaurants to have what they advertise on menus is very, very common in Russia. Very common; so common, in fact, that later on that night, when Elizabeth and I went out to Georgian food on Nevsky, both of our first attempts to order were stopped cold by the waiter promptly informing us they didn't have that today.

4. Can't You Help a Brother Out?
There's this attitude that men have here, that may be a left over from Communism, that if you need to buy a beer or cigarettes and don't have any money, then a total stranger should buy them for you. So, while waiting in the metro today for a friend, I thought, since I had a few moments, now would be a good time to put some money on my cell phone account, as I was running pretty low on minutes. As I was in the process of doing this, a boozy gentleman approached me, tapped me on the shoulder, held out his public transport card, and asked if I could help him out and give him some cash so he could put some metro rides on his card. The card he was holding aloft as proof of his noble intent was the one that costs about $50 to put money on. If he really was stranded, he could pull out 22 rubles (about 60 cents) and buy one trip. He wanted money for booze or cigarettes; I have drunks ask me for money about 3-4 times a week, and this attitude that I should give him money for his beer and cigarettes made me go to the trouble of being smart aleck. Here's the exchange that followed:

Supplicant: Can you give me some money so I can charge my card?
Me: (in exaggerated American accent) I... don't...understand... Russian.
Supplicant: (unperturbed) 10 rubles (which is about 30 cents), just give me 10 rubles.
Me: Listen, I'm poor. I NEED those 10 rubles.
Supplicant: Come on, it's 10 rubles, just give me 10 rubles.
Me: You need to to understand, I NEED these 10 rubles. You know what? You should give ME 10 rubles, I'm so poor.
Supplicant: (less confident) Just 10 rubles...
Me: Yes! Just 10 rubles. I NEED 10 rubles. Please, give me 10 rubles. Help me, please.
Supplicant: I... uh...

And with that he turned to walk away.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"I love [Russia] in the springtime, I love [Russia] in the fall."

Elizabeth and I went to the world famous Mariinsky Theatre on Wednesday to watch 3 famous Russian ballets: Petrouchka, The Firebird, and Scheherazade. It was fantastic and we had a great time and enjoyed the ballets and the experience. It's interesting that the presumably extinct dramatic art of black face is still alive and well in Russia.

It's warmed up and we've had some great weather the last few weeks. Lately the dandelions have been springing up and the city has finally shaken off the shackles of winter. It's been warm; one day it even got up to 80 degrees F. It's funny when it gets this warm here because the wardrobes of most Russians, particularly guys, are a little limited for warm weather and you see some strange fashion choices (and a lot of sandals with socks).

The majority of Russians also seem to have some sort of aversion to deodorant. This, coupled with an understandable lack of AC, makes for slightly more uncomfortable rides on public transport. You know it's warmed up here when you can smell the metro 20 meters before you enter it.

Summer here also means White Nights. Because we are so far north, the sun doesn't go down until around midnight and then there are 2-3 hours of dusk before the sun rises again. After a 5 month long winter, people here go a little crazy in the summer and will stay up all night walking around the city, soaking up every last drop of UV rays they can absorb. Interestingly, the Russian verb for "to tan" is the same as "to sunburn." I guess Slavs don't differentiate between the two. It's a little disconcerting to be out around 11 PM and the whole city is as busy as it was during the 11 AM (busier, in fact).

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Drivin' That Hot Rod Lincoln

The other day Elizabeth and I went to dinner with Jared and his family. Jared's dad, Kevin, has been here since '96 and is something of a legend. I don't know where to begin to describe him. I'll start by saying he has a car. Having a car means having to deal with the traffic police. Usually when one gets pulled over, the policeman comes up to the car and asks you to step into his car where things can be worked out "unofficially." This is usually the best option, if not exactly the most honest one, because a bribe will be cheaper and would cut down on the bureaucratic nightmare that comes with a ticket. Now, there are a lot of stories about Kevin dealing with the traffic police, but my favorite is this one: After being pulled over for an illegal u-turn, the traffic cop approached his car and told him he was going to confiscate his license. This was a ploy to make Kevin afraid and encourage him to pay him a bribe. Kevin responded for him to go ahead and take it. He then jerked his thumb at his wife in the passenger seat and said he wished his license WOULD get taken away because SHE was always making him drive when he didn't want to. PLEASE take my license, he said. The traffic cop must have decided that making Kevin drive was punishment enough, so he let Kevin continue on his merry way.

All of that was just a setup to what happened the other day. Elizabeth and I went with Jared and his family to dinner before going to the school's drama performance. On the way there we got stuck in traffic, and Kevin did what any Russian would do. He made in illegal turn on to a one-way street to zip around the congestion. Unfortunately, there was traffic cop waiting for someone making just such a maneuver. He pulled Kevin over, approached the car, and asked for Kevin's documents. He asked Kevin if he wanted to step into his car to take care of this matter, but Kevin said for him to just write up the ticket and that he would wait right here for it. The traffic cop seemed a little disappointed with this response and went back to his car to write up the ticket for the next 45 minutes. He finally returned and started explaining to Kevin what he needed to do. It was something of a comic scene with Kevin, who didn't want to make us late for the play trying to hurry him, repeatedly trying to grab the ticket out of the policeman's hand and the policemen snatching it back and keeping it just out of reach while he finished explaining. Towards the end of his spiel, Kevin asked him if he just wanted to show him mercy and let him go. The policeman started laughing and said that he tried but Kevin told him to just give him the ticket. Kevin said, well, ok, let's take care of it right now. The policeman laughed and counted all 5 of us in the car and said there were too many witnesses. Kevin assured him that we didn't speak Russian and we all laughed, bang on cue, thus ruining Kevin's gambit.