Greetings and welcome to the last Hell's Branch Office from Russia! It might not be the
last one *about* Russia, but it is definitely the last one written on Russian soil. Yes, my
time here is drawing to a close and I will be moving on - where exactly I'm not sure. Will
I miss this place? In my own cranky, commie-relic loving way, well, yeah. I'll miss life
being an adventure whether I like it or not every time I step out the door. I won’t miss
Let's see - last time I left off I had just gotten back from China. As a sort of belated
welcome-back surprise the state newspaper ran an article saying all Peace Corps
volunteers were alcoholics, spies, and unqualified to be teachers. Fabulous. The
newspaper story was an almost line-for-line copy of a similar article from 8 years ago. It
is also being published in other states (throughout Russia) to try to discredit the
volunteers there. The most infuriating thing was that they named a current volunteer,
who was a truck driver before joining Peace Corps, and worded it in such a way as to
suggest she didn’t have a college degree. She actually graduated summa cum laude as a
double major in Psychology and Sociology. This is a continuation of the spat that began
last summer when the FSB (the new kinder, gentler KGB) declined all of our visas and
tried to boot us out of the state. Now the Ministry of Education in my state has refused to
support requests for volunteers in the state, so basically nobody is being replaced. It just
stinks. Throughout the RFE all visa extension requests are being flat-out denied, so
everyone hoping to stay for a third year can't.
Of course, in a bizarre twist of cosmic weirdness, as I was trying to decipher this lovely
article on my bus home (and getting more enraged by the minute) I glanced to see how
close I was to my stop. Stuck to the window was a sticker for an agency that introduces
Russian women to "marriage-minded" men from South Korea. The newspaper can call
me all the terrible things they like - at least my life is not so bad that my ticket out of
Russia is marriage to a Korean man. Phew!
Apparently Russian women are more pragmatic about things like that. As I was heading
home for Christmas (through Seoul), I was seated next to a young Russian woman. She
noticed I was speaking to the flight attendant in my usual mishmash of English, Russian,
and Korean and we fell into conversation. She was on her way to Seoul to move in with
her American husband, who is based there. I asked how they met and she said she'd lived
there for a while. This of course led me to ask what she did while living there. She
looked me straight in the eye and said "I was a whore."
I, uh, see.
She shrugged and said that the money she made will take care of her parents quite nicely
for the rest of their lives and well, she met her husband while she was there so everything
turned out pretty okay for her. An admirable sort of way to look at things, but startling
In case you don’t find that unusual enough, perhaps you should spend time in the
Khabarovsk airport's duty free where you can buy bad vodka, bad caviar, electric can
openers, and vacuum cleaner bags. Just what everybody on their way out of the country
So, there I was, back in California for the holidays. This year my prayers were answered
and we went out for dinner on Christmas eve - no dishes, no big piles of leftovers nobody
wanted (although there were lots of doggie bags, they were filled with stuff you might
actually want to eat the next day), and no running around in a panic trying to get
everything done. It was heavenly.
This year I also made my once-a-decade public appearance at a social event on New
Year's Eve. I know, contain your shock. My former roommate Suzy was throwing a
party and I figured since I wasn't going to do this for another 10 years I should make at
least half an effort to look decent. While we were living together she had an all-white cat
named Lilly (who passed away in 1997, quite soon after my father). I had a black suit
with roses around the collar that Suzy really liked and Lilly loved to sit on. Even though I
sealed it in a box with packing tape, she still managed to slit it open and make herself
comfy. I finally gave up. Well, I decide to wear the suit to this party and what did I
discover upon unsealing the box? White fur, of course. It was quite sad, but it was nice
that I could bring Lilly to the party too, and Suzy and I had a "moment". My allergies
disagreed with just how poignant it all was, however, and just added more fodder for my
hatred of going out.
Speaking of the past coming back to haunt me, I also got the great pleasure of tiling in
Fresno. And people wonder why I'm always so happy to head back to Russia...
On my way back I tried to call my friend Brad when I was in Seoul, but my first couple of
attempts weren't successful. After a refreshing break (a.k.a. McDonald's fried pies, KFC's
corn salad, and a gander at the all new crap for sale in the stationery and grocery stores) I
tried again. This time he answered and asked if I'd called earlier. He apologized for not
answering, but he simply couldn’t because he was ice climbing and when his phone rang
he was midway up the mountain and couldn't exactly let go of the pick.
If I had a nickel for every time I'd heard that excuse...
Back in Russia, I was greeted not by another nasty newspaper article (although those
certainly came along later) but by one of the warmest winters on record. Compared to
last year, which was the worst winter in 50 years, pretty much anything above -50 would
One thing I noticed this year was kids grabbing onto the backs of trams and sliding along
like they had skis or skates. This made me feel very old as my first thought wasn't "Oooh
- that looks cool!" but "Ack! How dangerous! Where are your parents?!?"
It did look like fun, so maybe not all hope is lost
Things were going along smoothly, classes had started and all seemed pretty okay with
the world. Then President Bush decided to call a country that has many citizens in and
strong ties to the city where I am the most visible representation of the American
government part of an "axis of evil". Now I don’t even bother trying to shop at any of the
places run by North Koreans (which is quite a sizeable amount of places at the central
market) - not that they would sell to me now, anyway. Add that to the newspaper article
and you pretty much get the idea of what it's like to be here representing America.
At least I'm not getting spit at anymore. See? Always something to be happy about.
Always something new to worry about as well. Yes, the dental nightmare came back!
There I am, minding my own business, avoiding sugar, flossing regularly, and what is my
reward? A major filling falling out of one of my front teeth. I figured if this didn't get me
booted out of Peace Corps again, I was getting a trip to Bangkok! It was a very tense
train ride down to Vladivostok, not really knowing what was going to happen - would I be
sent packing or sent shopping? Things were not helped by the drunk man in my
compartment that started humming strip music as he got ready to go to sleep. Fortunately,
one of the other people told him to shut up before he got any really offensive ideas.
Well, as you already know, I wasn't kicked out of Peace Corps, but I didn't get to go to
Bangkok either. They just started a new procedure for dealing with dental emergencies -
send everyone to Moscow! And guess what? I was going to be the very first one to try
out the plan!
I'm now 0 - 3 for Bangkok.
I went down to Vladivostok with just my jammies and the dress I was wearing, figuring
I'd be there for the day and head back up to Khabarovsk while they waited for
Washington to approve the travel plans. Oh, no no no! In-country travel only needs
approval from Moscow, so instead of going back and leaving from Khabarovsk, I had to
stay in Vladivostok for the weekend and fly out to Moscow on Monday. I begged. I
pleaded. I even groveled. No luck. I was stuck borrowing clothes from one of the
medical officers - it was actually very, very nice of her to loan them to me, but we have
very different tastes. And sizes.
I spent 8 days in Moscow with another volunteer who was having his own dental
nightmare. But enough about him.
We stayed at the Hotel Ismailova, which is next to a huge flea/souvenir market and a
former royal summer palace where Peter the Great used to play with his toy boats and real
armies. There's a statue of him in front of the church (one of the two remaining original
structures - the other being a gate). He looks exactly like Salvador Dali. The hotel was
built for the Olympics and is the biggest hotel in Moscow - 8,000 beds! It's split up
between four buildings so it isn't totally overwhelming, but it does look like an office
park. Should you find yourself in Moscow, I highly recommend it. Most impressive
were the dejournayas (the women on each floor that you leave your keys with whenever
you go out and also are supposed to give you things like toilet paper and hot water for
tea). Usually the job description for dejournaya is as follows: must take as long as
possible to find room keys, snarl regularly, shrug or bark "Nyet!" at all guests questions or
requests, and wear lipstick in colours not found in nature. These women were incredibly
nice and helpful - one made an effort to speak in English and the others were very patient
with my crappy Russian. One even covered for me when an American man who I had
spoken with kept asking her what time I usually left for breakfast and how late I got
home. His name was Skippy (I swear!) and he was wearing a t-shirt that said "I slept with
Clinton too!" when I met him. Not the best fashion choice for a man in his mid-forties.
He finally gave up and left me a note, which the dejournaya gave me with a roll of her
Much like my fellow American guests, the breakfast buffet leaves a bit to be desired - it's
a vegetarian's worst nightmare - but nobody goes to Moscow for the food (except
deprived Peace Corps volunteers). I'm still trying to figure out why only Russians put
their food on the plastic sectioned trays and the tourists used the china plates. None of the
Russians while I was there used the plates, none of the foreigners used the trays. I notice
these things. Moving on.
It was very nice to be able to watch tv without having to squint or try to listen over the
static. My tv sort of gets one station, so it makes a lovely foot rest/dust magnet. I was
watching Russian MTV one night and noticed that behind the girl yammering away was
the word "hits" (in English), repeated several times across the background. The way she
was standing, however, made it look as if the background said
"shitshitshitshitshitshitshitshit" An accident, I'm sure.
We were sent to a dental clinic with an American dentist, which made me a bit suspicious
- why on earth would a dentist want to move to Moscow to treat other Americans? We
got to chatting and he mentioned other places around the world he'd lived and worked. I
asked, "What brought you to Moscow?"
That's nice. Get out of my mouth.
My confidence was not boosted when he peered into my mouth and said, "Wow! *How*
old are you? You've had a lot of work!"
He still had to give me the novocaine shot, so I thought it best not to smack him.
He replaced the filling and I headed for the Kremlin, a stellar representation of an
American tourist: camera at the ready and drooling. Unfortunately it was too cold for me
to wear shorts and running shoes to complete the look, but you can’t have everything.
On my way there I passed an old bookstore/dust collection that had postcards of old
Soviet posters in the window. Sensing the opportunity for some cheap souvenirs, I went
in to investigate.
Boy, did that woman see me coming.
I started looking through the postcards and the woman behind the counter eyed me for a
bit and then handed me a book with larger versions of the posters that were on the
postcards. A few minutes later, she handed me another book, very similar, and said "You
might find this interesting..." Then there was the book on traditional Russian scarves.
And the antique postcards celebrating various Soviet holidays. And the posters that
weren't on the postcards. I spent an obscene amount of money - so much for that cheap
souvenir idea. I'm sure as soon as I stepped out the door the woman started to howl with
laughter and added another hash mark to the number of tourist she's similarly suckered
(sort of like bomber pilots painting kills on the sides of their planes). I do have some very
cool expensive souvenirs now, though.
Moscow was FREEZING. The weather alternated between snow, rain, sun, and winds so
strong I couldn't take pictures because I couldn't keep my camera still. Considering I
spent about 14 hours every day walking around, I had to carry everything with me -
winter coat, umbrella, sunglasses. It sucked. The only advantage was there weren't any
leaves on the trees so a lot of the things I wanted photos of weren't obstructed by anything
but telephone lines. Still, the Moscow blizzards were still warmer than Khabarovsk.
Cell phones have also invaded Moscow. I'm sure they're not exactly anything new, but
compared to Khabarovsk (where they are still relatively rare), it's strange to see everyone
carrying them. It's also pretty annoying - especially on the subway when it's difficult for
people to hear so they start shouting into their phones. "OKAY! I'LL STOP AND GET
LIVER ON THE WAY HOME! WHAT? WHAT? OH - LOVE YOU TOO!!!"
Anyway, I spent my time in Moscow partaking of my two favourite activities - walking
around and eating (often at the same time). I saw things I'd missed in my previous two
flying visits and revisited things that were all a blur because I raced through them before.
I also took an obscene amount of photos and went through at least a camera battery a day.
One day I went to buy film three times at the same store - they looked at my as if I were
nuts, but they never said anything. The woman at the developing place, however, took
one look at all the canisters and asked, "First time in Moscow?" I was too embarrassed to
When I was speaking with my mother after I returned home I begged her to send me some
negative sleeves - many photo places here don’t give them to you, but just leave your
negative as one long strip. She asked how many I needed.
"Oh, about 40, I guess." I said.
"40! You took 40 rolls of film? Claire! That's 8 homicides!"
Seriously - she figured out the amount of pictures I'd taken was the same as what one
would take if one were to investigate 8 separate homicides (as she has tended to do in her
professional life). Now I'm going to be rating cities on how interesting they are by the
number of homicides the film usage adds up to. Moscow - very interesting, 8 homicides.
Paris - pretty good, 6 homicides. San Francisco - not bad, 2 homicides. Walnut Creek -
boring, no homicides - just serious injury. It's also probably not a good idea, when buying
film in bulk as I usually do, to say I'm going on vacation and expecting a lot of homicides.
Okay, back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Basically, I lived on McDonald's pies - the seasonal flavour was strawberry. They also
had spicy steak fries, and YES, the Happy Meal toys continue to be MUCH better than in
the States. Hmph.
Now if only they would get rid of the muzak... the elevator arrangements of "Too Much
Heaven" and "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" do NOT help one's appetite. It does keep you
from loitering, however.
For some reason shawermas have invaded Moscow - there is one metro stop that opens
out onto a plaza that has at least a dozen shawerma places. Not a felafel to be found,
though. There are also crepe stands like in Paris, except along with the usual banana,
sugar, lemon, and Nutella choices you can also have liver, smoked salmon (my favourite
allergen), or caviar (my next favourite allergen).
I mastered the Russian for "chocolate and nut paste with bananas, please" very quickly.
In case you aren't catching on, the main thing all Peace Corps volunteers do while on
vacation is eat. Why? Because it's there and you know a week after getting back to
wherever it is in the far east you are, you'll kick yourself for not taking advantage of it.
The same goes for grocery stores - although generally Moscow has the same stuff as the
far east (it's just more expensive), there are places where you can pay $7 for a small jar of
peanut butter and $5 for a packet of taco spices (and be happy to do so). Or you can just
wander around cringing at the names of things - "Big Americans" frozen pizza was a low
point. I came home with jars of guava jelly, honey mustard, and jello.
Pretty soon I'll be doing that hunched-over-guarding-my-food-while-eating thing they do
in prison. You lookin' at my mustard? You talkin' to me? Back off, man!
Where was I going with this... ah, yes, the Kremlin. This time I got to actually stop and
read the signs so I knew what I was taking pictures of. The place is still incredibly
Even more impressive was how incredibly polite and helpful the ticket lady was. My
previous trips to the Kremlin weren't exactly a prime ticket-buying experience, ending
with my change being tossed through the little window. Like before, I showed the
woman my Peace Corps ID, which explains that we are exempt from paying tourist
prices. This usually leads to several minutes of bickering back and forth between me and
whomever I'm dealing with that doesn’t want to give me the discounted price. Half the
time I get it, half the time I don’t. She looked at me and very politely asked "What do you
do here?" I explained I was a teacher in Khabarovsk, but that I was in Moscow because I
needed some special medical treatment (a stretch, but I couldn't pronounce the word for
dentistry). Keep in mind that I'm conversing in Russian (always bad) with a completely
numb mouth in the snow (as if it weren't bad enough). She smiled, gave me the discount,
and then said "Enjoy your visit!" She *smiled*! And wished me a good visit! I damn
near fainted from shock.
I will say that inside the museums the women that check for tickets and photo permits in
each of the exhibit rooms are almost always extremely friendly and helpful. I'm not sure
how they are if you are taking pictures without a permit, but I'm not willing to find out.
Unlike my previous two visits, this time St. Basil's was open for visitors. If you think it's
er, colourful on the outside, just wait until you get inside. I will warn you, however - the
place is *deadly*. All very steep, worn, stone staircases where the rise of the step is
about a foot and a half. I was wearing my heavy winter coat, which I had to hike up
above my knees as I hauled myself up and down the Stairs Of Doom. There I am, certain
I'm going to slip or lose my balance and go flying, with seriously old ladies (they were at
least 80, or 70 and had lived hard lives) with canes zooming right past me, muttering
about me being slow.
I may be slow, but all my bones are intact.
Believe me - to be that age in Russia today means either you've been incredibly lucky or
God has forgotten about you. To push your luck on the staircases of St. Basil's shows me
how fearless those women were.
About ten minutes into my visit my camera battery died. ARGH!!! Fortunately I was
able to go buy a camera battery and re-enter without having to pay (the non-discounted
price) again. Obviously, I looked pathetic and desperate.
I *finally* discovered what the brass inlay in the ground outside the entrance to Red
Square is. It's called Point Zero and is the spot from which all distances from Moscow in
Russia are measured. People toss coins on it for good luck. Another useless mystery
Another refreshing change was being able to go to all the museums I'd either never found
or had time to run through. Unfortunately, the lighting is universally bad in all of them if
you want to take pictures. The glare makes it very difficult to get pictures or the lighting
isn't bright enough and your flash gets bounced back off the display case (I got a lot of
pictures of my reflection). Perhaps that is by design, but I doubt it.
The Red Army Museum has some really cool stuff - mostly from WWII (their glory days)
but also interesting Cold War items. They were *supposed* to have the remnants of Gary
Powers' spy plane on display, but I couldn’t find it. There were several minutes of very
confused conversation - the woman couldn’t understand why I was expecting to see
things about a band, so she kept shrugging and mumbling something about buying copies
of tapes on the street. I finally got her to understand that I meant the U2 *airplane*
Powers was shot down in, not the band. She then told me it wasn't there anymore. I think
she just wanted to get rid of me.
Particularly striking is the hall where all the major battles of WWII are commemorated.
On the floor along one wall there is a huge display of Nazi flags and signs that were
captured by the Russians, and the entire wall behind it has a giant picture of the Nazi
army marching through Red Square. It's quite striking.
They also have Stalin's uniform coat, complete with coffee stains. Joe liked joe.
That night I met up with Paul, the other volunteer I was traveling with. He had gone to
see some classical music and was waxing rhapsodic about the Chopin they had played.
He asked me what I did and I burst out laughing because he'd gone to this lovely cultural
event and I'd gone to the war museum to see tanks and planes and guns hooo ah!
Fortunately, he saw the humour. Doesn’t mean he hung out with me any more than he
After much confusion, I found the entrance to the State Museum. It is right next to a big
souvenir shop and it is very easy to think it is only for the souvenir shop (as I had done on
my previous visits). This time I figured I could at least go and ask where the museum
was after checking out the shopping, but I got lucky and noticed the sign inside that said
"MUSEUM ENTRANCE AND TICKET OFFICE". I catch on quickly.
Anyway, the museum is unbelievably fabulous. In many ways it is much better than the
Kremlin museum (the Armoury) because it has a broader range of exhibits, but the
Armoury (while smaller) is far more historically significant. The State museum covers
much more history (not just the czars) and has many more random exhibits - the top floor
is completely devoted to kid's toys. While I was there they had an exhibit on playing
cards as works of art. I was skeptical at first - how artful can you be with four suits and
some royalty? The things on display were *exquisite* both in detail and creativity.
Several sets incorporated the suit into a picture, so it was almost hidden. One had the two
of clubs as a scene of two men with bows and arrows - the clubs made up their heads,
torsos, and pulled back arms. It had a similar picture for one of the diamond cards - the
diamond were the arrow points. I was very disappointed that there were not replicas for
sale. Even more disappointing was they didn’t have a guide or book from the exhibit -
just a brochure with a couple of pictures. I suppose they don’t do things like that. Too
I also saw the Museum of Decorative Arts - lots of traditional arts, plus china, textiles,
and an entire room of samovars. It was interesting, but the best part was the fight that
broke out in the foyer next to the ticket line. I'm not sure what started it, but I'm pretty
sure both guys started out in bad moods because they'd been dragged by their girlfriends
to a museum on a sunny Saturday afternoon
The big surprise was Novodyevichy cemetery, where famous people who don't make it
into the Kremlin wall are buried. It's very entertaining just to see all the crazy headstones
- tanks, sculptures, airplanes - it's all very bizarre. The most famous uh, residents are
Kruschev, Gromyko, and Raisa Gorbechev. Other people like Stanislavsky, Stalin's
second wife, and Molotov (Mr. Cocktail) are there, too. I got there quite late in the
afternoon, so the place was deserted. Without a doubt, the guard there was the friendliest
and most helpful person I have ever met in Russia. I didn't realize you needed to pay to
get in, so as I went strolling on by he came out of his little guardhouse and said "Excuse
me - may I see your ticket, please?" I said I didn't have one and asked where the ticket
window was. He cheerfully pointed it out to me and said "See you in a few minutes!"
And, no, there was not a trace of vodka on his breath.
I came back with my ticket and he handed me a map of the place and launched in on
recommendations for where to start and what to see. "Well, you should start with Raisa
Gorbechev - she's over here on the left, about halfway down - look for all the flowers.
Then I suggest you keep going and make a right at the end so you can see Kruschev.
After that, head into the back, but don’t spend too much time there because there really
isn’t anyone famous there. Then you should work your way down on the right to
Gromyko - don’t miss the grave with the tank on it - and on your way you'll pass Ilyushin
and Tupelov, the airplane designers. Keep heading straight and you'll get to Molotov and
Stanislavksy. If you have any questions, just ask!"
I thanked him and started on my tour. It started to get dark and quite cold about halfway
through. The guard came and found me and asked, "It's getting rather cold! Would you
like a cup of tea?"
He must not get many live people there.
Of course, it might be he figures anyone that would come to a cemetery on a cold
Saturday afternoon to take pictures is completely insane and should be handled as
carefully as possible.
Even though all these museums are nice, they really can't compare to a tour of the metro
stations. The Moscow metro is incredible - the stations range from "Wow!" to
breathtaking. I spent several evenings just riding around and getting out at stations to
take pictures - I discovered that there is about a 30 second window of time between trains
when the platforms are almost deserted, so I could get good photos of things and not get
hassled. Most of the stations have some sort of theme - mostly having to do with the
work or the Soviet Union, but a couple dealt with battles. Lenin and the Army (as
separate entities) get a large chunk of attention, too. If the artists' depictions are anything
to go by, Lenin stuck his chin out a lot. The range of art mediums is quite impressive -
mosaics are the most popular, but there are also reliefs, carving, painting, stained glass
and marble. Everything is indigenous to the Soviet Union - all the marble came from
various regions, the mosaic tiles were manufactured domestically, nothing was imported.
So many of the stations look like palaces - chandeliers, grand sweeping staircases, marble
*everywhere* - you almost don’t want your train to show up.
The trains themselves aren't anything to get excited about. The lights dim briefly about
30 seconds before each station - to get people's attention I suppose. What happens on the
trains, as with any metro, is what is the most entertaining. There is a squadron of police
officers whose sole purpose is to roust drunks and drag them off the trains and boot them
to the curb. And it isn’t exactly service with a smile.
By far the best moment on the metro was when two young gay men boarded and stood in
front of me. The started quietly speaking in heavily-accented English, but I could hear
everything they were saying. One said "We should go back to my flat to watch the
European league." The other responded, "That is a beautiful idea because you have such
a big, strong..." and then he struggled for about a minute before he remembered the word
he wanted. "Member!"
Their flirtatious sex talk continued until it was time for my stop. I stood up and in very
clear English said, "Gentlemen, this has been MOST entertaining! Thank you!" and
pushed my way past them.
The look of shock and horror on their faces was priceless.
I spent one afternoon trying to locate an internet café called "Nice" - I figured I could
check my email and get another photo with which to annoy my family. On my way to
find this place I passed a toy store that had the Holy Grail in the window:
*Real* “Skrebl” - not the Russian imitation called “Erudite”.
I raced inside and looked at every shelf. No luck. When I asked I was told they didn't
have it in stock and weren't expecting it for another month or so. I asked to buy the one
in the window, but was told it was a display model and wasn't complete.
To make my dejection complete, the address I had been given wasn't an internet café - it
was the Moscow zoo. Rather fitting, really.
One lesson I'd forgotten from my previous trips to Moscow the perils of dining alone in a
restaurant. I was reminded of them when I ended up sitting next to group of Americans
from the US embassy whose conversation fluctuated between the perils of living in
embassy housing (*only* three bedrooms!) and some sort of dressing-down one of the
guys gave to some other military type (something about him being an embarrassment to
the service and how it was inconceivable how this guy made it through "the academy". I
kept thinking, "He's probably a mole, you idiot!") As they got up to leave, a man sat
across from me (we were essentially sharing the table) and proceeded to spend the
evening smoking a particularly rancid cigar and picking his nose.
Then the dancing started.
I buried myself into my magazine and kept repeating to myself, "Your fajitas are on their
way... your fajitas are on their way..."
February 2005, Part I
This is about where I stopped in 2002. After I left Peace Corps my mother came to visit
for a month – details of that are coming up. From here on I am referring to my notes
from 2002 to finish this, and memory is a fickle entity so any inaccuracies are strictly
unintentional. Get over it.
My visit to Moscow coincided with Women’s Day – March 8th – which, as I have
mentioned previously, is a huge holiday in Russia. Whoever said that Russians aren’t
demonstrative in public clearly wasn’t where I was that day. It seemed as if everywhere I
went I was surrounded by couples groping each other. Ugh. It made it very difficult to
keep my daily quota of pies down.
I did enjoy reading the English language newspapers, particularly the Moscow Times.
How can you not like a newspaper that puts the chess match results on the sports page? A
few times I wondered if they were doing test runs for April Fools Day because some of
the stories were so ridiculous. My favourite was about some official who was justifying
not controlling the city’s stray dog population by claiming that stray dogs “fill a niche”
and to disturb this would be detrimental. Um, what sort of niche would this be? Perhaps
he owns stock in a company that makes rabies vaccines or flea powder. The only
“niches” I saw stray dogs filling (with either themselves or some sort of “remnant”) were
the ones next to garbage cans, poorly lit doorsteps, and the corners of buildings.
Other great public service reportage included the new vehicular operation requirement:
clean headlights. Failure to comply could result in fines, seizure of the vehicle, and “loss
of freedom”. That last part was probably intentionally vague to keep people wondering if
it meant the freedom of not having to rely on public transport or actually being
incarcerated. Boy, that must be a hard-nosed section of the prison: The Dirty Headlight
Wing. During the time of the tsar those convicted of murderer were identified by the fact
that they had half of their hair shaved off (a rather odd sort of Mohawk) – I wonder what
they would do to the motorists. I would sort of like to see a rendering of tire tracks across
their heads - *that* would be cool.
Speaking of oppression, there was also an article about a CD ROM that was being made
that had a complete list of absolutely everyone victimized in Stalin’s purges. I have no
idea if this were ever actually made, but if it were, wow. How access to and permission
for publishing this information would have been obtained baffles me, simply because the
Kremlin isn’t famous for throwing open its archives and saying “Hey everyone! Come
snoop!” If I remember correctly, the article also included a request for people to
voluntarily contribute what ultimately happened to those on the list, so this might have
been their major source of information.
Although I was unable to purchase this little gem of social history, my disappointment
was extremely short-lived. While strolling through the enormous underground shopping
mall next to the Kremlin and Red Square, I happened upon a store called “Barbie World”.
Everything the Barbie doll fanatic could ever hope for, all in one convenient location. I
suppose to keep bored siblings from whining too much, they also had a nice collection of
other toys (mostly variations of G.I. Joe) and board games.
Be still my heart, they had Skrebl.
A complete still-in-the-shrink-wrap Russian Skrebl. Two of them, in fact.
You can pretty much figure out the rest – the shoving people out of the way, the sweaty
palms, the racing heart, the death grip on the shopping bag as I made my way directly
back to the hotel, the not being able to afford to eat for the next month.
I’ve never been so happy.
The flight back to Vladivostok was interesting (what part of it I didn’t sleep through, that
is). One very drunk man absolutely bought out the skymall. When we landed the militsia
were waiting at the top of the stairs (next to the airplane door) to check that everyone had
registered properly in Moscow. We had to produce our passports, plane tickets, and proof
of registration with the local authorities if we had been in Moscow for more that 72
consecutive hours. This is the only time I have ever experienced this - usually you get
nailed on departure from the airport, not on arrival. As all difficulties must be cleared up
in the city where the registration failure occurred (a major nightmare if you have traveled
some distance) it didn’t really make sense to me as to why the militsia in Vladivostok
were involved. I would assume that they were either looking for someone specific or they
needed to boost revenues. Either way, they looked less than pleased to discover that all
was in order with my passport (and Paul’s).
Upon my return to Khabarovsk I was greeted with the fact that my phone cables had been
stolen yet again.
The next two months passed with their usual combination of trying to make my classes
interesting (“Hey, everyone! Today we’ll be learning Grateful Dead songs!”) and painful
discoveries about just how bad my Russian is (every time I thought I was saying “bad”, I
was actually saying “fleas”).
The next major event was Victory Day, with its enormous parade and celebrations. As
always, I was there with my camera and arsenal of film. I got many good photographs,
but the best one is only in my memory because as it went by my camera was taking its
own sweet time rewinding so I could put in another roll of film. As I was standing on the
sidewalk a little boy of about 8 or 9 went strutting by, chest puffed out (as well as an 8-
year-old’s chest can puff), pleased as punch to be marching with what I assumed was his
grandfather. Gramps had on a uniform with a jacket that was barely visible underneath
all the ribbons and medals, and the boy had on a little uniform of his own. What made
this especially darling was that the little boy had “medals”, too: giant clothing buttons
stitched onto little bits of ribbon and pinned to his chest. It was definitely an
“Awwwww!!!” moment, but by the time my camera was ready they had been swallowed
up by the crowd. Grrrrr.
As my Peace Corps service was coming to a close, we had the Close of Service
conference in Vladivostok at the Vlad Motor Inn (a.k.a. Shangri-la – a hotel with a decent
restaurant that just also happened to be where the U.S. Marine detachment was living.
Tonight’s Special: Beefcake). Truthfully, the place wasn’t much better than a budget
motel in the U.S., but everything is relative. No stripper poles in the conference room, no
prostitution rings down the hall, no drunk foreign businessmen pounding on our doors at
2am with wrinkled $20 bills in their hands. Plus, they had root beer.
This latest adventure began when I took the train down to Vladivostok with Beth, another
volunteer from the area. Unfortunately we were in a compartment with two`*extremely*
inquisitive (and well on their way to being sloshed) men who wanted to know all about
us. Thinking that we had “fresh meat” stamped on our foreheads, Beth made up some
story about being engaged to some guy back home and I made up something about being
married (and that I didn’t wear my ring when I traveled because I was afraid of it being
stolen). Well, it was a nice try, but it didn’t stop the prying. I finally snapped when one
of the guys asked me how I maintained a decent sex life with my husband if we lived so
far apart. Poor Beth – she hadn’t caught on to the fact that I was playing dumb with my
knowledge of Russian and in an attempt to help she had been translating everything.
Keep in mind, Beth is a *very* traditional Catholic and is very open about her decision to
abstain from sex until she married. (February 2005, Part II – Beth got married in the
summer of 2004. Another one bites the dust.) I’m not sure what she found more
offensive – his question or my answer. I do know she tamed it down when she translated
It was the beginning of a few very strange days.
On the bus to the hotel, neither of us recognized the standard landmarks and it wasn’t
until we were pulling away from the stop we wanted that we realized we needed to get
out. Both of us started yelling at the driver and throwing our luggage out the closing
doors. The bus was still moving as we jumped out. I’m sure we did nothing to improve
the image of American tourists, but it was better than having to drag our crap down the
road for a mile from the next stop.
We got to the hotel with visions of hot showers and chocolate cake dancing in our heads.
Well, they danced in mine, at least. We shared a room and both of us were quite happy to
see that there was satellite television - BBC World and the National Geographic channel.
Hey – they were in English and by that point our standards for entertainment had long
passed watching grass grow. One of the shows on the National Geographic channel had
to do with pollution and the effect is was having on a certain wildlife area/swamp; over
the years, the amount of birth defects among the wildlife had risen and the scientists were
collecting data for some research. Unfortunately, the defects had to do with the
development of genitalia in male alligators, so we were “treated” to some very nice
footage of scientists wrestling alligators in order to measure their penises. Really, a low
point for everyone involved. Seeing as we were exhausted from the trip from
Khabarovsk, we actually discussed if that constituted sexual assault, but determined that
even though there was video of the events in question, the alligator probably wouldn’t
make a very good witness, hence prosecution would be difficult.
I also discovered that Beth screams in her sleep. Compared to some of the things I’ve
been told I do, it’s not so bad.
The conference was spent alternating between meetings and chowing down (again, Peace
Corps volunteers + free food = not entertainment for the whole family). The group I
attended the conference with was not the group I started with (my prolonged absence due
to dental work threw me off schedule), so I spent quite a bit of time working on various
stuff for school. I did, however, distinguish myself by being the only person to ever beat
the hotel’s chef at Scrabble. Bizarrely, we both had the same letters in our rack and were
going to make the same word in the same spot (“wage”, covering a triple word score
square) – I just got there first. The hotel’s manager was almost as dumbfounded as the
chef (seeing as his undefeated status was apparently something he boasted about often),
and various members of staff came over to witness it with their own eyes. I tried to look
cool, but it was all I could do to not bust into my victory dance. Aside from bragging
rights, I got a pin in the shape of a Siberian tiger with “Vladivostok” across the bottom.
Not exactly the spoils of war, but you take what you can get.
In the meetings there was a little summation of everything that had happened during the
group’s time of service – the worst energy shortage in 50 years, the worst winter in 50
years, the resignation of the President, terrorist attacks in Moscow and Chechnya, airplane
crashes, a nightclub shooting, and the understood-but-not-mentioned-explicitly campaign
against us by various government types. I’m not sure if that were designed to make us
feel proud of all that we stuck through, or relieved that we were getting the hell out.
There were also posters on the walls where people would put anonymous comments on
various topics such as “The One Thing I’ll Never Forget”, “My Most Embarrassing
Moment”, “What I’m Most Proud Of”, and “My Favourite Memory” Some of the
responses were poignant (“Saying goodbye to my best friend as he left for the Army”,
“Walking into Red Square for the first and probably last time”), some brutally honest
(“Teaching the little ankle biters English”), some hilarious (“Miniskirts”, “Being naked in
a bush and talking to the militsia”), and some downright intriguing (“I don’t remember
my most embarrassing moment, but Mark, Dylan, and Brandon do.”)
Special awards were given out as well, for things such as “Volunteer Who Became The
Most ‘Russian’ ” and “Volunteer Who Got The Most Donations of Materials For Their
School”. I got the “Shutterbug Award” for most pictures taken during service. Ever.
They wanted to know if I had a picture of a manhole (ha ha ha). I suppose it is better than
getting the “Stupidest Thing A Volunteer Has Ever Done Without Being Drunk Award”.
Alas, it all ended too quickly and back to our respective places we went. Classes ended,
goodbyes were said, bags were packed.
Mom came to visit and what has become known simply as “The Trip” began in Seoul.
For those of you who have been with Hell’s Branch Office from the beginning, you’ll
remember that living in Seoul gave me the idea that Hell would have branch offices. Our
visit coincided with the World Cup (shared between Japan and Korea – what idiot came
up with *that* plan?), so Korea had gone all out to impress the world (and stick a few
fingers in the air to the Japanese). Imagine my shock at the city that greeted me: clean,
friendly, and actually quite pretty. I tell you, I didn’t recognize the place. If you’ve ever
seen “It’s A Wonderful Life”, think of the scene where George sees Potterville for the
first time. I was *stunned*. Signs in English! Information booths! Friendly taxi drivers
going the speed limit!
On one hand, I couldn’t have picked a better time to show my mom Seoul. On the other,
it made all my reports while I was living here extremely suspect. I kept telling her that
*this* was not the Seoul I lived in, but I’m not sure she believed me. Of course, if I had
been staying in 4-star hotels, eating at nice restaurants, going everywhere by taxi, and had
someone to do all the talking and negotiating I’d like Seoul, too.
Fortunately, I had many friends who had come in for the World Cup, so I confirmed that I
was not alone in feeling as if I were Dorothy waking up in Oz.
Anyway, Mom and I did the “See All the Important Bits” tour of Seoul – the museums,
the monuments, the major palaces. I got to strike the big gong outside of Toksugung to
start the Chosun guard changing ceremony - I wore a dorky hat and had a Polaroid taken.
We also went on Seoul’s version of the Bataan Death March, Chonggak Palace and the
Secret Garden. I kept warning my mom that it was quite a strenuous hike, but she made it
through. As we were struggling up a hill, some American Marines that were in our group
offered to carry my mom up the hill, which she politely declined. They didn’t ask if *I*
wanted to be carried up the hill. Hmph.
Of all the places we went and things we did, my mother’s favourite was sitting in the
Hyatt having tea in the afternoon. I must admit, the Seoul Grand Hyatt is gorgeous (and
saved me many times from completely cracking up when I lived there), but she seemed to
*really* like it. Running a close second was sitting in the gardens of Kyongbok palace in
the afternoon enjoying the sunshine and breezes.
As for the World Cup, millions of people crowded the streets and major intersections
where huge screens had been installed to show the games. Korea did far better than they
ever expected, making it to the semi-finals. Even though they lost, they were so happy to
have gotten that far there were still huge celebrations in the streets. Where I was
everyone was dancing in the street until the police told us we had to move to the
sidewalks because we were blocking traffic. Okay, fine. However, when the light in the
crosswalk turned green everyone ran out into the crosswalk, danced until it turned red,
and then scooted back to the sidewalk. It was pretty damn funny, especially since the
police knew they couldn’t do anything.
After Seoul we went on to Beijing for the “Here’s What Everyone Comes To See” tour.
The Forbidden City, the hutongs, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall. The day we went
to the Great Wall it was extremely foggy, which made the slate very slippery. So, in my
quest for photos (dammit) not only was I facing cardiac arrest from hauling myself up
what seemed like an 80° incline, I was also concerned about slipping and tumbling to my
death. An interesting story for the rest of the family, but not much fun for me.
One strange thing in Beijing that only I noticed (of course) was that the babies didn’t
seem to be wearing diapers. Inviting trouble, I tell you. Other utterly fascinating things I
saw included garbage trucks that play the same music ice cream trucks play (imagine my
disappointment); people selling little toy panda bears that are meant to walk along the
floor, but if you put them upright onto their hind legs the do a nifty little dance similar to
those done by many Motown groups in the ‘60’s (did I mention it was really, really hot in
Beijing? Like impair-your-ability-to-think-straight hot?); and people who took their birds
out for some fresh air by hanging their cages from trees in the parks (well, it’s not like
you can put them on a leash or anything).
The best part, however, was on our tour of the hutongs (old style neighbourhoods and
houses with community baths) when we stopped at a kindergarten. It’s safe to say that I
was beside myself and took er, a few photos. One little boy was celebrating his birthday.
It was just all so picture perfect cute I think my mother was worried I’d never leave.
However, leave we did and went back to Russia. After a brief tour of Khabarovsk (where
we became well acquainted with the gnats that like to swarm around you in the
summertime and my mother was absolutely appalled at my living conditions, despite my
assurances that I really did have it quite good) we went on to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and
Irkutsk. Moscow was fabulous (as always), particularly since I was there on *Mom’s*
budget and not a Peace Corps budget. Mom particularly liked the Church of Christ’s
Birth (the enormous cathedral with enough gold leaf to make Liberace beg for mercy).
We also went to a Georgian restaurant that had an avocado salad that had both of us
thinking about checking out of our hotel and just moving into this place for the rest of the
trip. One thing I hadn’t been able to do when I had been there before was take a boat tour
on the Moskva – very beautiful, with a view of the Kremlin that is not to be missed.
After Moscow we went to St. Pete’s, which Mom loved but I though was just okay.
That’s how it generally goes – you either love one or the other when it comes to those
cities. Mom thought it was very Parisian and beautiful, I kept wondering “Okay, where
are the tanks?” We were there for the tail end of the White Nights, which really throws
off any sleeping pattern you might have had (add that to the time changes and you can
pretty much plan on being bleary-eyed the whole time).
We went to all the big historical highlights – the Hermitage, the Summer Palace, Peterhof,
the Peter and Paul fortress, the Church of Spilled Blood, St. Isaacs, Kazan Cathedral.
Everywhere we went we had to put on slippers over our shoes to protect the parquet
floors. Not only were they viciously ugly, they were slippery, which made me *very*
nervous for my mother but she did great. Probably the most bizarre bit thing I saw were
little boxes from when women had very elaborate hair styles (also a time of very
infrequent washing) – the boxes were flea traps. I kept thinking back to my experience
with the roaches, but even so – it was pretty gross.
At Peterhof I once again learned the painful lesson about shopping in the former Soviet
Union: if you see it and like it, BUY IT IMMEDIATELY. It won’t be there when you go
back. Outside the palace is a little flea market of sorts (Hello, tourists), and I saw a nifty
little perpetual calendar, the likes of which I’d never seen. It was basically a metal box
(that looked like a large Zippo lighter with a display window on each side) that flipped
over on a central spindle. The numbers were in little metal frames that would slide into
place automatically as you flipped the little Zippo box. Okay, I’m easily amused, but it
was still pretty cool. It was also $20 and we were running late. My mom said we could
come back later and get it if I really wanted it ($20 *was* a bit pricey), but our tour ended
on the other end of the park – probably a walk of about a mile if you stuck to the paths.
So, no calendar for me, but I did take with me several self-inflicted “how could I have
been so stupid?” kicks. As with the photos I have missed, the flippy calendar has been a
pretty consistent source of frustrated regret (which has spurred me into buying many more
things - none nearly as cool – just so I wouldn’t go through the “I should have bought
that…” torment again.)
We went to a little café called Zhili Bwili (the equivalent to “Once upon a time…” in
Russian), that was next to the marionette theatre. The free entertainment for the evening
was the gang of Harley Davidson poseurs that had gathered on the street out front.
Absolutely everything you could ever imagine having for your motorcycle was on all of
these bikes – chrome *everything*, and of course everyone had the matching leathers and
helmet. Definitely “see and be seen”, and just in case anyone missed them, they spent a
significant amount of time revving their engines as loudly as possible before riding off on
their bikes that probably cost more than the average Russian would make in a lifetime.
Down Nevsky Prospect from Zhili Bwili is a small side street, off of which is a little alley
that has what is simply know as “the Iron Dog”. It’s a statue of a little dog that is
maintained by the iron workers union, but what makes it special is that it is a place where
people go to write down and make wishes. There is a little box for people to slip their
wishes into, and the union keeps them all in an archive. Many of the wishes are sad –
people have gotten bad news about something, or they have decided to end their lives;
some are practical (like getting a bigger place to live or a better job); some are wishes
against bad things (such as wishing for the good health of an unborn child); but the vast
majority of them are from people (of all ages) looking for love. Nice to know some
things are universal.
Since her arrival my mom had been “mentioning” that she wanted to buy a balalaika – “A
real musical instrument, not some souvenir thing.” We did buy a souvenir balalaika that
was painted like the fairytale boxes, but wasn’t the kind of thing you’d see musicians
play. After hearing “Iwannabalalaika” a few too many times, we finally located a musical
instrument shop in St. Pete’s and a very nice balalaika was on its way out the door with us
(but a good chunk of money was not). There I am, thinking “Ah, I’ve heard the last of the
balalaika.” Oh, no no no. The rest of the trip was peppered with “Where’s the
balalaika?” “Watch the balalaika!” “Don’t wreck the balalaika” “Careful with the
February 2005, Part III
The balalaika made it home in one carefully wrapped, unscratched piece, whereupon it
was immediately placed in the corner of the room at my mother’s house with all the
musical instruments. It remains, to this day, still in its wrapping, in exactly the same
spot. “I know where it is and I know it isn’t wrecked.” is how my mother looks at it. “I
hauled it all the way from St. Petersburg, through Moscow, Irkutsk, the Trans-Siberian
Express, Khabarovsk, and Seoul just so it could never see the light of day again?!?” is
how I look at it. I believe her response to this was something akin to “Yup.”
From St. Pete’s we went back to Moscow and flew to Irkutsk, which is in central Siberia
and the nearest city to Lake Baikal. Baikal was pretty damn impressive – enormous, with
unbelievably clear water. You can drop a coin into the water and watch it sink for at least
30 feet, more in some places. No, the irony of throwing things into the lake to show how
pristine it is is not lost on most people. We also spent a lot of time collecting pieces of
glass from the shoreline (much like beach glass). As we walked along Mom would use
her umbrella/cane to point out pieces she liked and wanted to have picked up. It was
actually rather poignant in that she said it reminded her of her father – he used a cane and
would do the same thing. Anyway, we came home with about 5 pounds of Baikal glass
(try explaining *that* at post 9-11 customs).
While we were at Baikal summer storms raged through the area – very dramatic, with
pounding, monsoon-like rain and lots of lightning. We had to pull off the road a couple
of times until the storm eased up. I kept wondering about us being in a little metal car,
thinking that I’d rather have my exit from this world be falling off the Great Wall and not
being zapped to a crisp in a Lada.
We also stopped at a tree that is famous for people tying pieces of fabric to it and making
wishes. I tied my scarf to it, but that wish is for me alone to know. While we were there
the butterflies took quite a liking to my mom (they stayed clear of me – must be the
aftershave). I got a great picture if her with a butterfly resting on her hand. I missed the
shot of the butterfly that landed on her head - it looked like a fancy hairclip. It flittered
off before I could get my camera to work.
After a couple of days in Irkutsk we boarded the Trans-Siberian Express for the next three
days. July. A train compartment. No air conditioning. As if that weren’t enough, my
mom thought we could pass the time by reading out loud to each other.
I punked out halfway through the introduction – I got enough Joyce at Berkeley, thanks.
The trip might have been three days of a hot, confined, motion-sickness-inducing, stream-
of-consciousness space, but the balalaika was fine.
After stopping in Khabarovsk, we went to Vladivostok for the day. The highlight of that
trip was lunch (Vlad isn’t exactly a thrilling place if you don’t live there or have any
interest in the Russian Pacific Fleet). After going to one café and leaving because it was
all Mafia, we went across the street to another, where we sat down to some of the best
ham sandwiches ever. Of course, just as we are being served, the Mafia don from the
other café came in to collect whatever it was he was collecting from the other place, and
generally be fussed over and “given respect”. It was actually pretty funny – Don
I made a final run to the Navy Supply store to get all the cheap souvenirs I could hold.
What I really wanted was one of the gorgeous black wool winter uniform coats, but when
I asked about them the woman behind the counter asked me what size my husband was. I
told her that I wanted the coat for myself, not my husband. She said they didn’t have any
women’s coats in stock. I said I didn’t want a woman’s coat, I wanted a man’s coat.
Again, she asked me what size my husband was. Again we went through the “I-want-it-
for-myself” routine. Finally, just to get rid of me she told me she couldn’t sell me a
man’s coat unless it were for my husband and only if he were active Navy. Grrr.
Back again to Khabarovsk, for the final packing and goodbyes. I wasn’t exactly sad to
leave, knowing that another adventure of sorts was beginning, but I was sad about this
part of my life coming to an end. I know that those three years will never be duplicated
somewhere else, but if whatever the future holds is halfway as entertaining I will be very
lucky, indeed (and you will hear all about it, photos included). So, goodbye Cutest Little
Tank, goodbye dancing dog at the market, goodbye mafia store with the overpriced
barbecue sauce that rescued so many culinary experiments, goodbye “Glory To The
Working Class!” building, goodbye to everyone and everything that is going to make me
unbearably smug but eternally grateful for all of the blessings I have. Hello mystery that
is the future.
February 2005, Part IV
Peace Corps officially got kicked out of Russia in early 2003. I moved home in July
2002, got another master’s degree, and now live in Ukraine – details of that are coming
up in the other General Update. Ooh la la. Also, my faithful Toshiba laptop that served
me so well in Korea and Russia and all points in between finally got retired. I simply
didn’t have the heart to torture it any longer. It has been replaced with a zippy new
Toshiba, but will always lay claim to a large part of my heart where my affection for
technology lies. Hell’s Branch Office would have been a shadow of itself without it. God
bless its 500MB hard drive/40MB of RAM soul.