From Russia with Vodka

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For the last few minutes, I have taken on the role of scientist, examining a newly discovered specimen. As the knife I was holding reached contact with the unidentifiable object before me, I quivered as it jiggled in response. What I initially perceived as being shredded chicken, was in fact chicken, but chicken encased in some sort of gelatinous substance. After multiple attempts to deduce the function or purpose of this jello-like creation, I suddenly realized it wasn’t there by mistake. This jello-chicken was intended to be eaten. Some would gladly dive into this newly discovered dish, but instead, I continued to poke at it with a knife to ensure it wasn’t something out of a horror film. If it weren’t for the nagging sensation of hunger gnawing at me, I would have continued to inspect, but finally, in a moment of bravery, I reached for the nearest spoon. I scooped a bit up, but its smell sent a wave of nausea over me. Gagging, I threw the spoon towards the window.

   “Why the hell did I move to freaking Russia?” I thought to myself.

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This was my first experience with a dish called kholodets, and the start of my second week in Moscow. I had made a move to Russia after hastily accepting a nine-month contract teaching English. As a recent graduate, I was excited to have just received a job abroad. However, the reaction from others around me ranged from enthusiasm to complete mistrust. Granted, at the time of accepting this offer, Russian and American relations were at a strain, and American suspicion towards Russians only seemed to be growing worse with every news article published. I found myself bombarded with a series of ignorant questions leading up to the move. Was I actually a spy? Was I excited to be in a Russian prison? Do Russians actually eat boiled boot? If there was a war, whose side would I be on?

When I arrived in Moscow, I was taken to my apartment on the outskirts of the city. The Moscow equivalent of the suburbs consists of an apartment block after apartment block, all with the same dull, monotonous post-Soviet architecture which only differs in color and occasionally in style of the balcony. These buildings with no personality choke your view for what feels like miles and mirror the people walking on the street below. Cold, scowling faces that appear unable to possess a smile. Every person, keeping their eyes forward, never making eye contact. Suddenly, everything I had once taken for granted was swept up, and jumbled into some strange and confusing cultural vacuum. What was considered kind back home, now in this alternate reality, was strange and viewed with suspicion. I was no longer in Atlanta.

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During my first few weeks in Moscow, I struggled to find comfortability in my new setting. Fortunately, through friends from college, I was able to be linked to people in Moscow. One of these acquaintances, Angelina, took me under her wing and helped break my initial negative views towards Moscow and the people. As we explored the city together, I discovered the beauty that I had so desperately craved. The metro stations with giant murals from the times of Socialist Realism complimented with ornate interiors with things like chandeliers. The endless supply of musicians on the street or in the underground playing covers of modern pop hits on classical instruments. The cathedrals with beautifully painted domes, and the various street food items (side note: corn on a stick is a popular street food).

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On the weekdays I busied myself with work, but on the weekends, I slowly began to make it my goal to take the 20-minute train downtown. One weekend, I went to the Red Square for ice-cream with my friend. As we began to order, an older man stumbled between us. Looking to his right, at my friend, then to his left, at me; the man grabbed hold of his suspenders in his Gatsby-like outfit and looked me up and down. He began speaking in Russian, very quickly. My friend started to translate this man’s slurs. It turns out, he was infatuated.

*Russian Russian Russian*

“He says he is very wealthy and lives on Arbat (a street in Moscow),” my friend translated for me, “he says that he needs to marry you.”

“I have a boyfriend.”

*Russian Russian Russian*

“He says he doesn’t have to know,” she was silenced as the man interrupted her, “Oh and that you can wait a year so you can learn Russian. What do you say?”

There I was, within arms reach of my very own Russian sugar daddy, but after a few seconds of consideration, I kindly turned him down. Rejection didn’t sway my lover of Arbat away, however. He continued to kiss my cheeks, and slur the three English words he knew: Trump, sanctions, and beautiful.

Seven months later, and I am still here in Moscow. I’ve learned a series of important and useful things in my time abroad (so far). I’ve traveled to Saint Petersburg on overnight trains that are full of open bunk beds and snoring neighbors. Word to the wise: bring a flask of vodka (discretely) and drink yourself to sleep. I’ve learned that public transportation is the best way to experience Russia and the many interesting people who live here. I’ve learned that a smile here is earned, and sometimes these smiles may also come with offers of threesomes (I said no). I’ve learned that the music scene here isn’t always easy to find, nor is everything techno (or only Vitas). It just takes getting to know locals who will take you to garages which play punk shows in an attic and have a crowded bar below. Although it took some adjustment to appreciate living here, I can honestly say moving to Moscow was one of the best decisions. Now, it’s time to hunt for some underground rap shows and jump into freezing water before the snow melts.