All Posts Tagged ‘America

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On #sochiproblems as I see them

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 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.

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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?

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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.

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My first and last massage

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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.

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Baseball the Vicki way

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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.”

“Yeah.”

“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.)

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Book Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian

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Nowadays, everything Soviet is cool again.

But, growing up, everything immigrant that my parents did was horrifyingly embarrassing.

They packed lunch for me not in Ziploc bags, but in the plastic bags you get from the grocery store.  They didn’t pack Mac n Cheese, and they would NEVER let me buy Lunchables, but there was Russian food. How do you show up to lunch when you have a kelbasa sandwich with Russian rye bread and all your friends have BP and J?

I didn’ t realize that there were special bags you can buy to use for trash until I went to college because we always used the plastic store grocery bags.

When the weather turned to October, I had to start wearing tights under my pants and a hat at all times. My dad and I would have screaming matches about this because I was so ashamed. No cool girls wore pantyhose under their jeans. Halloween was pretty much this for me every year.

We never had snacks in our house, so when my friends came over we were offered raisins.  Sometimes my mom would make kompot, which was even more embarrassing because we didn’t have any fruit juice but all my friends would be like, what is this and why is there stuff floating in it? When I had sleepovers at my house, my mom wouldn’t let us sleep on the floor because that was “weird”, and of course, you’ll freeze your uterus that way. So we all had to sleep in fold-out beds.

My friends would tell me that they went out for brunch on weekends, which was crazy to me.  How would your parents let you eat breakfast outside of the house?  And going out to eat any earlier in the week than a Thursday? And sometimes TWICE A WEEK?

We had hardwood floors in our house before it was the in thing to do in interior decorating, and none of my friends did.  When you come to our house, you had to wear tapochki, which I could never explain to Americans. During the winter, it was always a balmy 66 Farenheit at home, and during the summer, the sensation was not unlike being slowly roasted alive in a weak wattage microwave.   Even our comforters were different.

“When you have your own house, you can make your own rules,” my mom would yell at me when I told her we were weird and she should do American things like order pizza for delivery and buy air fresheners and turn up the temperature to a liveable 69 F.

Now I have my own house.  Life is good. I do whatever the hell I want.  I have a special yuppie trash can and bags for the trash can that I buy on Amazon.  I have liquid soap. I have air fresheners (a waste of money),  special fancy American coffee (a waste of money),  and Apple products (an enormous waste of money.) I eat lunch out every day because I’m way too lazy to pack my own.  Sometimes Mr. B and I go out on Wednesdays, because, why not (WHAT.)  We are too lazy to cancel HBO.

But I also buy the generic Bran Flakes, not Total.  I fight with Mr. B over the fact that he refuses to buy the cheap one-ply toilet paper. We have 10 different pairs of tapochki for guests. If  I ever feel like I miss my parents, I make some mushroom soup. And the heat in my house is set to 67 F.

That’s what this book is about.  About immigration.  And generations. And how we first reject our parents, then we understand and respect them, then we become them.

About how our parents lived through impossibly hard stuff so we wouldn’t have to, and when we learn about their lives, we wonder how they continue to be optimistic about humanity. It’s about digging into family history to try to understand why we are the way we are.  It’s about a daughter’s relationship with her father after her mother dies and how a 35-year-old post-breast-enhancement surgery Ukranian mail-order bride comes into his life , but also about how she learns to communicate with her sister again.  It’s poignant without being sappy or sentimental or Oprah’s bullshit.  It’s also about microwaving apples, Soviet tractors, British social workers, boob jobs, sisters with Gucci bags, second-hand Rolls Royces, and, you know, just life.  How messy life is.

It is extremely funny in a black humor kind of way, and also extremely relatable, because not everyone has immigrated, but everyone has family.  A lot of the bickering, the arguments, and the feelings I recognized from my own life.  The complications, the favoritism, the trying to understand our parents and our families.   It’s all in there.   Everyone at Goodreads thinks that both the characters and plot are implausible, but I have to strongly disagree. Because I am eating a bowl of generic bran flakes as we speak.

Read it.   You won’t regret it.