In Miami and in Vapiano

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South Beach Bathers, John French Sloan 1907

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, is a weird jewel of a novel about a nuclear family running a slowly-dying gator wrestling park on a small island  off the Gulf Coast of Florida.  Russell’s Sunshine State is surreal, dreamy, swampy, thick with mud, mosquitoes, and warbling birds.

Florida, in those days, was a very odd place: a peninsula where the sky itself rode overland like a blue locomotive, clouds chuffing across marshes; where orange trees and orderly rows of vegetables gave to deep woods, and then, further south, broke into an endless acreage of ten-foot grass.

The seeming impossibility of a tropical paradise combined with the exuberance and proximity of South America, the salt and heat, and, of course, a python-killing contest, makes for a unique atmosphere unlike anywhere else in the U.S.  It’s a unique brand of chaos and laziness.   It’s Florida:

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Mr. B and I flew down to Florida for a weekend in March, the week of Spring Break. We went with two friends to visit a third friend who had moved there recently from Philadelphia. It was actually in no way like Spring Break since all of us have full-time jobs, some of us have kids, and none of us want to do wet-t shirt contests because our Gap cotton blends are tumble-dry only.

We weren’t going to shotgun beers, go to clubs where they played Pitbull, or stay out past 12. But damnit, did we need spring.

Just a couple months ago, I wrote,

It’s cold enough to heat up the car for fifteen minutes before you go anywhere. It’s cold enough for soup every week, almost every day, for scarves and for the wind to bite your lungs as you walk outside. It’s cold enough to be sick every week, which I am, and it’s cold enough for my thighs to tingle through three pairs of pants on the walk to the train.  It’s cold as hell. It’s cold and miserable,  and the world seems large, dark, and unforgiving outside of our small house.

Going back through my archives, I realize that I’ve bitched about winter almost every year, which makes me believe I need to either move to Florida or stop blogging from September to March for the sake of humanity.

But, the plane emerged from the clouds and into Florida air space into blobs of green, brilliant and sparkling, oceans and pools of water lapping in marshy, lazy bays, life, pulsing on its very vein! Here it was! Warm Valhalla!

“That’ll be $6 if you want the in-flight snack,” the stewardess said.

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We landed in West Palm Beach, about an hour from Miami and rented a car. It was so warm that we opened the windows.  We turned on the club mixes. You can turn on the song below and feel like you’re in Florida, too.

Driving into Brickell, Miami’s new,  wildly-sprawling financial district, we passed ceviche stands, palm fronds, glimpses of the waving ocean. We saw an old guy jogging in just a Speedo. We looked away awkwardly, because it was gross. But inside we were happy it was shorts (no shorts?) weather.

Coming to Miami from the buttoned-up, rigidEast Coast in the winter is an exhale, a descent into warm, toasty madness. Anything goes.

So we exhaled.  We drank coconut water out of coconuts that a guy hacked at with a huge machete.


We ate paella out of shared plates.

We smoked cigars in Little Cuba. Some of us with the chromosomal capability to do so grew Castro beards. We were ON A BOAT. We passed Key Biscayne and there, in the middle of the ocean near the island, was a flock of twenty or thirty small boats, strung together, bobbing with the rhythm of the EDM coming from them. These were the Spring Breakers. They dove in and out of the water, between the boats, guzzling cheap beer and swaying like palm fronds. 

We laughed at them and looked seaward. Some of us unfortunately continued to look like Fidel Castro in the 1940s.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 10.05.43 PMWe did all the Florida things you’re supposed to do, and while we were doing them, I was thinking about how eclectic, weird, and wonderful Florida is, and what joy it was to be able to experience it. 

If I were a normal person, I would end the post here on a high note. But you know me.  I can’t have normal-people fun. I’m neurotic.  I’m Slavic-pessimistic, and I’m pretty sure if I’m having a good time, the world’s going to end tomorrow. So I’m going to tell you that there was one shadow in our sunshine-y vacation, and that shadow’s name is Vapiano.

Vapiano is chaos that happens when restaurant industry ambition, combined with wishful thinking, goes unchecked and descends into anarchy. And, let me tell you, anarchy tastes like olive oil drizzled over bruschetta. It’s a restaurant “that is defining the future of fresh casual – a new and refreshing niche in the restaurant industry”, according to the website.

Vapiano is like if you take the worst parts of an Italian restaurant, graduate-level math, and guilt and blend it together into a hurricane of extreme social awkwardness, according to me.

For dinner on Friday, our friend recommended that we go to Vapiano because he had a Groupon and had been before, and the food was great. The way Groupon works if you’ve never bought one is, you sign over your email address to the devil, who will send you approximately 11 Groupons per day until they break down your will to live. Most of these, your spam filter will catch. Until you see one that looks like vaguely a good idea, but that’s 10 miles across town and there’s a 5% probability that you’ll go, but you buy it anyway because “it’s 50% off and you want to try something new.”

If you actually go to the restaurant, there is a 95% chance you didn’t read the small print correctly and you end up paying more money because 1) if you don’t, the restaurant sues you and 2) You’re too embarrassed to pay for a $12 meal with a $5 Groupon. You then begin to wonder if you can put the tip on Groupon and all of a sudden you’re a horrible person and the societal norms of Western humanity are collapsing.   All of this would be fine, though, if Vapiano operated like normal.

But Vapiano operates on hipsterism, whimsy, and vague suggestions.  As Jack Donaghy would say, there are no rules, just like check-in at an Italian airport.

When you walk into Vapiano, They give you a card. “Hang on to this card,” the Hostess says in a breezy voice that has a hard edge to it, not unlike Soviet bureaucrats handing out housing applications in the 1960s. God help you if you lose your Vapiano card, because then you can’t pay for your meal. And I’m not so sure there aren’t any legal repercussions.

After you get your card, the hostess leads you to believe you’ll be seated, but you’re really funneled into an open space with three possible choices: the alcohol bar, the pasta bar, the pizza bar, and the salad bar. “You can go to any of the three,” our friend encouraged us while we stood like lost sheep, bleating at the options. He strutted to the appropriate line without any hesitation.  He was an expert. He made it look easy.

“Oh, one quick thing,  but if you’re going to the pasta bar, go there before you go to the pizza bar because you have to pay differently for each one.”

“But don’t we just pay with the swipe card?”

“Yes and no. You do need to swipe it, but you also need to pay after you’re done eating. So hold on to the card.  But if you’re getting a drink, get that last, because you have to pay with cash and leave the tip on the card.”

“Ok, so we should go get a drink?”

“Probably not. You should order the pasta first.”

“Can we order the pizza?”

“Not until you’ve ordered in the pasta line. The salad is in the pizza line.”

“So we can get salad and pizza?”

“Yes, but you have to pay for pasta separately.”

“And we tip separately?”

“Yes. They’ll bring the meals to your table.”

We became desperate. “Do we need a PhD in Mathematics and Logic Theory before we order?”

“Probably.” Our friend laughed. “It’s not that hard you guys.”

We tentatively approached the pasta line. There were other prisoner-diners behind us, and they were fidgety. “I’d like a pasta?” I said. “What kind,” the chef glanced at me. “You can have four toppings, but you have to pay for the fifth.”

“I have a Groupon?” I said tentatively. “Not here,” he said. “You’ll have to pay separately when they tally you up at the pizza line.” The fun quirk with our Groupon was entitled us to two entrees and one appetizer per person, as well as a free drink. Which were appetizers? Which were entrees? Would the world ever make sense again?

We struggled through our pasta order. “That will come out later,” the chef said. “You can go sit down.” He reached expectantly for our cards. My heart was racing. I hadn’t been this stressed out since I watched March of the Penguins (WILL THE EGGS MAKE IT??? WILL THE DADS STAY ALIVE???). We swiped the cards. “This isn’t the only place you swipe. If you order a pizza, you have to swipe there, too.”

We moved into the pizza line. “Do you want a salad?” they asked us. “Yesmno,” we mumbled. And mumbled our way through the toppings and salad choices. We swiped the card again.

Then we tried to order drinks. “Do you bring those out to the table, too,” we asked. “No, the drinks, you pay for here,” they said. “How do those work with our Groupon,” we asked. “Not sure,” the bartender said.

We ate, gulping down huge doses of basil nervously. The food was great, but all the time we were eating, I was panicking. “Do we tip the waitress? Do we put the tip on the chip card? Do we split out the difference of the Groupon?”It was like H&R Block during tax season in there.

The waitress came up, smiling. We needed to swipe our cards once more to pay the bill. “I think I threw mine out,” Mr. B said. The table went silent. The waitress stopped smiling. He finally procured the card from his pocket. “We have to split the bill into three, with three Groupons,” our friend said. Steam visibly started coming out of the waitress’s ears.

Finally, we paid, and got out of that Godforsaken, delicious place.

“Vapiano is a fast casual restaurant with a twist – customers use a “chip card” to personally order their food or drinks from the bar or from the individual fresh pizza, pasta or salad stations. With this new innovative technology, Vapiano is going to change the way restaurants do business!”

Watch out, America. Vapiano is coming for you.

And that was my Florida.


On #sochiproblems as I see them

 howruslive001-9from “Let Me Stay Overnight

When I was eighteen, my dad finally took me back to Russia. I had been begging to go since I was nine because I had been having dreams in where my grandmother and my aunt spoke to me in Russian and reminded me that it was my obligation never to forget the Volga. These dreams were intense and immense, looming over my childhood and saturating it with guilt.

Immigrants always wear an aura of survivor guilt that they’ve abandoned their countries, and even though I was only five when I left, it was imprinted into me with everything my family did.  I was taken away from what was the worst country on Earth so I could live in America. I survived, and because of that, I needed to feel guilty the rest of my life that others had not been so lucky.

When the plane touched down at Domodedovo, I was overwhelmed.  “That’s your birthland,” my father said quietly through the window. Russian doesn’t have an exact word for homeland, only birthland, which means the country and the language keep you umbilically close, almost hostage, even if you leave.

All of the emotion I had been feeling my entire life, about my Russian roots, about Russia itself came together and apart inside of me and I felt like I could burst. I sat, looking at the runway and the grass on the sides of it. It seemed so much more Russian, somehow.  Everything seemed more inexplicably Slavic: the sky, the buildings, and me. “You need to get off the plane,” the Aeroflot stewardess said icily, not looking at me as she passed by in spiked heels.

That first night, I lay in my aunt’s apartment in Yaroslavl. I had played here as a toddler for countless hours, and everything was as I remembered it, but much smaller. I had only remembered it in my dreams for the past fifteen years, and I had to keep touching the couch to remember it was real.  The apartment, one bedroom where my grandmother slept with my aunt and one living room, seemed smaller. The kitchen was just a stove, a fridge, and a tiny table where my dad listened to Soviet news broadcasts as he ate breakfast over 20 years ago. Everything had shrunk.


But the crickets outside seemed much larger. There was no air conditioning, so the windows were open to the stillness of the summer night and the distinct Russian summer darkness came in like ink through a sieve. Downstairs, in the stairwell that smelled like piss and thirty years of crumbling damp concrete, someone clanged up the stairs, and my heart raced for a second until I remembered the thick black door with two bolts that had survived the lawless nineties. I’m back, I thought, this is Russia, with a sense of anticipation and fear. This is mine, mine, this is who I am,  me, me, me, my mind echoed into the darkness of my dreams.

Two or three days after we came, my aunt, my dad and I took a walk, across from the cluster of Khruschevki project buildings where my aunt lived, to the place where my dad grew up in the 1960s, in a set of barracks. On the way, a wild pack of dogs ran by in the distance of the field we were crossing. “Stay away from them,” my aunt said, furrowing her brow. “They’ve been known to bite. We heard about it on the news.” The two-story barracks in their old neighborhood were made completely of thick strips of wet, rotting wood. “There was no real electricity or bathrooms when we were growing up,” my dad said, deep in his past.

“We were all so close. We had 2 meters of space per person, in a room for four people, but we knew all our neighbors. Everyone knew each other, all the kids were out here, always yelling, always playing with each other. Then we finally got that apartment, after years in line. ” There were still clothes hung out to dry on the lower floors of the building, and a deflated ball laying near the sidewalk. The barracks were still inhabited.

We walked further, past a school that looked like it should be in a bombed-out third-world country. The brick was sweating, the windows were pale and lifeless, unwashed from the 70s, and the playground was sad and dilapidated. I thought it was abandoned, but the bright pastel drawings and cutouts of leaves and stars in the windows told me otherwise. We walked past a closed-down disco called The Clockwork Orange. There were broken bottles and cigarettes everywhere. The building smelled of the same cinderblock piss odor as my aunt’s stairwell, like every stairwell in Russia.

For the first three days I was simply in deep shock. I grew up in America, and I had never been anywhere this dirty, this depressing, this-I didn’t even have a word for it in English. But there’s one that exists in Russian: toska, a combination of anguish, anxiety, and melancholy, and finally, acceptance that most things won’t ever change.

It shouldn’t be like this, I thought. It can’t be like this. How is it possible that the country that has produced the greatest literary cannon of the 19th century still has people using outhouses? We had beaten the French, the Germans, and sent the first man into space. (Later, I heard the wry Russian observation, “We beat Germany but they’re still living better than us. Maybe we should let them beat us this time.”)

I had a feeling I didn’t know how to reconcile. It was the feeling of simultaneously feeling proud of Russia, of loving Russia to pieces, but also one of complete helplessness. How to even begin fixing something like this, a country where people still live in barracks that weren’t meant to outlast Khruschev? A country where it’s reasonable to expect to to get bitten by rabies-carrying dogs?


And a third, uneasy feeling swept through me, and I recognized it right away: American smugness. Everything is so terrible here. It would never happen this way in America. How can people just take it? People would never be this okay with broken roads, heinous public toilets, and men staggering-drunk in the middle of the day where I was from.

And yet it seemed my aunt was proud of her city, of the fact that Yaroslav was part of the Golden Ring, the historic heart of original Russian Christendom. She was proud that The Scorpions, of Winds of Change fame,  were rumored to come perform in Yaroslavl.  How was this possible?

I had this feeling again when the hot water went off the second week we were there. Hot water always goes off in Russia for a month in the summer for “maintenance”.  What, I thought as I my aunt calmly poured a cup of boiled tea water over my hair into the bathtub.  How is this Russia, and how it it ok?

“I hate it here,” I told my dad after several days. “Yes,” my dad said. Despite having spent the first half of his life in Russia, it was beginning to weigh on him, as well. Russia weighs on you psychologically, like a heavy, wet blanket. “But don’t you dare say anything to your aunt. Mind your manners. Be good.”

“But why not,” I said. I was eighteen and stupid.

“You’ll hurt her feelings,” my dad looked at me, incredulous that I would even ask.

“Why can’t we talk about how we can fix the country?”

“Because you don’t understand anything about Russia. You’re an American. And if you say anything to your aunt I will be very angry with you.”

When we finally got back from that trip, and I entered America again, it felt like breaking through a tightly-sealed plastic container that was full of inky blackness at the bottom and ice cream and whipped cream and sprinkles at the top. I hadn’t realized how depressed I’d become in two weeks.

“How was Russia,” all my friends from high school asked eagerly.

“It was so gross,” I said, laughing. “Like they didn’t even have public bathrooms or hot water there, how gross is that?”

“Ewww,” they said, which was exactly the emotion I was hoping for. Shock at how bad things were, and admiration at me for bravely having gone through them.

But inside I was burning up with embarrassment for criticizing something I didn’t understand.


This duplicity of emotions is something the Western journalists teeming into Sochi and taking pictures of broken door handles and faucet water that looks like someone pissed out apple juice will never understand or be able to explain.

It’s not their fault, but they don’t understand that they’re missing the first two emotions: an overwhelming sense of love and obligation to the country, and a nuanced, detailed intuition about how things can be made better. Hence, when they process the unfinished hotel rooms and the unspeakable amount of public money that’s been stolen to build the world’s most expensive but worst-looking games, all they can come up with is, “Haha, this menu says ass on it.” (Ass. is the abbreviation for assortment in Russian.)

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Added to this perfect storm is this feeling of exhibitionism, that they want to show the West how bad it really is in Sochi, without context, which is why they’re busy taking pictures of broken hotel rooms and writing sympathy pieces about how all of the stray dogs in Sochi are going to be rounded up and killed.

As opposed to…what? There are no shelters in Russia, and there is no system or culture of volunteerism due to the forced volunteerism everyone was made to do in the Soviet Union, so it’s a false dichotomy, a ploy from Americans, who are born pet-lovers, to hate those Evil Russians.

The more incredible and backwards-seeming the news from Russia, the more retweets journalists get, and there’s nothing journalists love more than being the center of attention. If they’re in it, it means they’re doing their job correctly.  It’s, as Julia Yoffe said zlaradstvo, an evil glee, a kind of schadenfreude.

Within hours of arriving in Moscow yesterday, Russian friends, even the Westernized ones, those who are openly, viciously critical of the Kremlin, have expressed their hurt at the Western blooper coverage of Sochi. A whole lot of their tax money has been spent on something they may not have wanted and in ways they find criminally wasteful, and, yes, their government has not done much to endear itself to the West of late, but they’re puzzled by why the Americans and the British are so very happy that the details are a little screwy, the way they generally are in Russia.

The word they use is zloradstvo, literally: evil-reveling.

I’m more than thrilled that attention is finally being called to how fucked up Russia is; it’s only something I’ve been talking about for years.  And it’s fine to make fun of something, but when that something is not your own, not something you understand, babies, goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind as Kurt Vonnegut would say. And kindness from journalists means adding context and not being sensationalist. Not playing the Ugly American Broadcaster.

And it’s very easy to be unkind in the face of unmitigated public attention.

Which is why the best people covering the Olympics are not any of the reporters that have been retweeted millions of times. Some of the best coverage so far has been by my perennial favorite, ViceTV, who first went to the sprawling Olympic complex, and then to the people displaced by its creation, who now live seven in a room and use an outhouse very much like the one nearly every family member I know did until at least the early 1960s. They also did a six-part piece on being gay in today’s Russia which I could only watch the first part of because of how cruel it is.

Unfortunately, in a mass public media event, being stupid and sensationalist is the only thing that will get you noticed, which is why the symbol of Sochi is now the toilet, instead of the people actually still going to the bathroom outside, instead of the hundreds of state officials paid to take bribes, instead of the underpaid laborers of the Olympic village, instead of the fact that the president of Russia owns a $200,000 watch while parts of Siberia have intermittent heating in the winter.

It’s hard to encapsulate context in a tweet,though, which is why this is the news we get.

Yes, there are Sochi Problems at Sochi, but they’re not the ones you see on the surface, and hopefully I did a good enough job explaining why.

Let the games begin.


My first and last massage


For my birthday this year, Mr. B gave me a gift certificate to a massage at a Fancy Spa because he knew that I’d been stressed out. He knew this because he’s been married to me for almost four years now and there is not really a time when I’m not stressed.

I was really excited, because a massage is one of those things that you would never buy for yourself, but that you will gladly enjoy if someone else does. I am starting classes today, so I really needed a massage. But, I have a spotty history with both relaxing and the service industry.  Also, during lunch last week when I told my friend I was getting a massage, he said, “Oh.  I had one a couple of weeks ago. It was kind of weird. They tell you to take off your clothes. It felt a little like amateur porn, to be honest.”   Opposing feelings battled inside of me for the better half of two weeks before I finally sucked it up and made an appointment for this Saturday.



Baseball the Vicki way

Thanks to the fact that I’ve worked my ass off this past year, Mr. B and I were able to enjoy a Phillies game for free at the ninth row last week. Don’t ask me who they played, because I have no idea what any of the teams are, I just understand how baseball works.

The closest Jews get to playing sports.

 Things are really close in the ninth row. Like, you can see the pitches close enough to understand if they’re balls or strikes.  It was pretty awesome.  The weather wasn’t the best,but it was summer, and it was a baseball game, and life was good. In the ninth row, they have something called the Diamond Club, which is basically this institution that says the recesssion never happened. 

In the Diamond Club, everyone is really nice to you and even brings food to your seat.  If you need anything, attendants are always standing right there.  So you can eat and drink as you watch these men trying to fight their way through hundreds of pitches.  It was a little like being at the Circus Maximus.  It was awesome.

Unfortunately, dear reader, as you probably realize by now, I am not an individual who can enjoy things as they are meant to be enjoyed.

First, there’s something about baseball that’s highly philosophical, as I’ve written before. Baseball is one of those sports that’s distinctly American with a capital A, that gives you a unique flavor of what America really means. Hundreds of people have written about it more accurately than me. The last article probably describes it the best: the feeling of being a hard-working American, of summer, of glamour and big money.

When Perez is about to sneeze, he pulls a tissue from a Marlins-branded box. When he has a drink, he’s careful to use a St. Louis Cardinals coaster. He scrawls something on a Yankees notepad, rips off the piece of paper, and tosses it at a reporter. It reads, “Leugim Barroso.” That’s the name of a recent Cuban defector now in the Chicago Cubs’ minor-league system. “Another client,” he says with a shrug.

This is Carlos Perez’s big-league American dream. Only 14 years after escaping Cuba and ten years after applying for a $10-per-hour job with the town of Hialeah Gardens, he has carved out what appears to be a lucrative niche.

As Miami’s most visible representative for Cuban ballplayers, he regularly appears in the sports pages with talented young defectors such as slugging third baseman and outfielder Adonis García and highly touted pitcher Onelki García. He lives with his wife Liseth in a three-bedroom house near Sweetwater that he bought for $465,000 in 2005. He’s a Bentley-driving, freedom-loving exile Arliss, making a living in the muddy confluence of sports, global politics, and American law.

As I was thinking about baseball and the American dream, my thoughts also started to gravitate, as they tend to do nowadays, downward to Russia.

“Hey,” I said to Mr. B, who barely took his eyes off the pitcher (Mr. B’s dream career when he was growing up was to be a pitcher, but unfortunately that dream did not come true, and now he is resigned to brogramming.)

“What,” he said, half-listening.

“There are a lot of people here tonight.”

“Um, yeah…?”

“Like, it’s a packed stadium.”


“Isn’t it a scary thought that these people are all expressing the same emotions?”

“What do you mean,” said Mr. B warily.  He could tell where this was going.

“Like, if all these people were brainwashed into believing the same thing, would anyone stand up against them?  They couldn’t.  Not against 40,000+ people. Like, what if all these people were at a Stalin rally?  It’s plausible enough.  We’re all wearing red.”

Mr. B, the world’s longest-suffering husband, rolled his eyes.

“No one’s going to start a revolution here.  Now be quiet and let me enjoy the game.”

I was quiet, but my mind wasn’t.  I was imagining a scenario like that one song in Stilyagi:


The crowd effect is really scary. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately while writing my book. And walking to work. And eating yogurt. And, at baseball games in July.  If you’re caught up in the crowd effect, how do you know? What if we’re all caught up in it now?   And how do you make it stop? What if you stand to lose everything?  What turns a stadium from a peacetime pace to watch games into chaos?

Mr. B ate his popcorn, oblivious to the dark forces gathering in my mind.

That’s the thing though about writers and Russians. It only takes us a minute in our mind to go from baseball to the Taliban blowing people’s brains out.

Or is that just me?

(Don’t tell me.)