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In & Out the Grey Empire

Day 1: Saturday, September 21, 1991

The plane finally breaks through the stratospheric snow field and descends on Moscow International Airport. Moskva! It coasts down the runway, and then past a nondescript terminal about the size you would expect in Iowa City – the first indicator that this is indeed another world… Off the ramp and down corridors that advertise Paloma Picasso and the same luxury lizards seen in every other international airport in the world, corridors that look relatively new, only one or two security people hanging around, gangly, fresh-faced recruits in khaki, down to the visa control.

Yuki, Gilaine and I are first and stand around talking to a crew of men from all over the US who are off to the Tian Shian Mountains for a ten-day hike. As we were landing, the group’s guide had exchanged visa horror stories with us: how he had written to the Embassy in Washington more than a month before the trip; flew to DC a few days before they were due to leave, since he wasn’t getting any response from the Embassy; discovered that nothing had been done whatsoever to start the process of issuing the visas; chewed out the grand poobah, grabbed the visas, and stormed over to the San Francisco Consulate, where everything was processed in less than 48 hours. An engineer I’m chatting with is off to Kharkiv to examine an airplane parts manufacturing facility that makes the things that make the wing flaps go up and down. Their technology’s a whole lot better than we’d imagined, world class, really, but they don’t know what to do with what they’ve got: advertising, marketing sales, delivery… the infrastructure is just not there.

The line is rapidly moving forward when I realize: the visas –oops, Jamie has ’em all! I dash back and catch the rest of our team coming down the stairs. Visas! Jamie hauls a wad of papers out from her bag and peels off our three visas. I scamper back in time to pass Gilaine hers, then Yuki.

When it’s my turn, the young visa agent looks up above my head, then notes something in my visa, smiles a little and says: Gavaritj pa Russki? Po Ukrainski I reply, smiling back. Oh, I’m Ukrainian, too, his smile broadens, becomes more genuine. You live in Moscow? No, I work here. I understand the difference. Spasiba, he hands me back my papers. Diakuyou, I reply and take them. As I turn to leave, I notice the mirror above me and angled to show our backs as we go through. The contradictions have only begun.

We move into another area just like any other: the baggage claim. The number of people grows rapidly; the amount of baggage does not. Slow minutes tick by. Some go off to stand in their first Russian queue: for Smarte Cartes! They cost a dollar, 25? less than they did in New York. The rest mill around the carousel waiting to collect the 23-24 pieces we’ve brought between the 8 of us. We stand around admiring odd things like the ceiling: it seems to be made of a layer of 4-inch copper pipes set in cross-section, lending the area an incongruously modernistic yet depressingly dark look. Eyeing the dark circles, I hazard, Maybe they are showing off their mineral resources for our benefit. Nobody thinks that’s funny: we’re tired of waiting in the close air. The bags finally start to trickle in and in a half-hour, three laden carts plus sundry luggables are in line to go through the “nothing to declare channel”, as it’s called here.

More interminable minutes drip by; by now most of our jackets are long off and sweaters are rapidly joining the heap of clothes on top of the already over-burdened carts. Inch-by-inch, the carts creep up towards the bottleneck of agents’ tables. And then –poof!– we’re spilling out the other side, waved along with barely a glance and a brisk red stamp in our unread visas.

Running the gauntlet of airport greeters, we burst into the main waiting area, straight into the arms of the Moscow Aikido group!

A soup of languages pours out, English, Russian, French, Ukrainian, in a wide range of fluency. For 20 minutes the sloppy introductions go on, greetings and tentative arrangements bumble by. Yuki is matched up with Oleg, whom she befriended in Bozeman; Vasili, a big, blond, jovial punk claims Jamie; Dimitri wants someone who can speak French and before I can say anything, Jamie says that Gilaine speaks French, so I turn to a young blond woman, Alla, and agree to stay with her. But Jamie has other ideas. She wants me to bunk with her, so Susan pairs up with Alla, Robert with Sasha, Edwin with Andrei (the first of many Andreis who will be hanging out with us day after day), Rob with Kyril, and Jamie and I at Vasili’s and Mariana’s. My head starts to spin with the unfamiliar names, both American and Russian: I haven’t really spoken much to my fellow Americans until now, either! 20 more minutes stumble by inconclusively. Jamie and I finally begin to make a move towards where people’s cars presumably are waiting.

Outside, it is overcast and cool, the lot is dingy, and cars mill haphazardly every which way, driving at least 3 times faster than I would have thought safe in such tight quarters with so many pedestrians wandering around. Nobody seems to notice. The cars are dingy too. Most look unkempt, rundown. Vasili pulls up finally. We start to pack. The car’s a total beater, something I recognize from the projects down the street from me in Chicago: torn up seats, a bokken holding the driver’s seat up because the latch is broken; wires hanging out from under the dash, junk all over the seats and floor. I know what kind of a ride this is going to be –or so I think.

Another half-hour wastes itself in the airport parking lot while a confusion of people and luggage is sorted out. A taste of waits to come. We have managed to negotiate one thing already: no class tonight, just rest and gossip. Since I slept on the way over, I feel normal, not jet-lagged, but I know I’m not ready for ukemi just yet. Finally, Yuki and Oleg take off with a buddy of his who drives taxis. A cloud of stinky petrol lingers behind, making me cough. We’re next. Jamie and I collapse into the lumpy back seat while Mariana shares the front with her blond teddy bear. Vasili smiles his sweet smile at me and says Everything OK? I smile back, Let’s go.

The ratty, foul-smelling car sputters to a start. It sounds as unhealthy as it looks, rattling its way down a road that is not so different from National Airport in Washington, only no Metro, no BMWs, no suits. Just these straggly, friendly people in their poverty-stricken land. And already the resemblance to National is a mere hallucination: the ‘highway’ into Moscow is an interminable divided junk road, not as potholed as the South-Side highways in Chicago maybe, but unfinished altogether, sand and dug out holes everywhere. Ghastly trucks, derelicts from the 30s rumble past in both directions. Not a car in sight looks clean or repaired.

It is totally autumn, and the sky is a light grey, the buildings dirty. Clumps of high-rises interspersed with clumps of autumnal trees. Here the trees have already turned, but the leaves are still hanging in, their golden color not seen to advantage in this dismal light, but in places they lend a tarnished veneer to the landscape. The cars, roads, traffic, all are rough beyond belief, hyper, chaotic. After an hour of this repetitive city/country-scape, we pull up into a massive complex of run-down towers, just like the dozens of other complexes we passed during the last long hour. Out with the bags and up some dank, rough concrete steps into a dark hallway, unfinished walls, chipped and half-painted concrete floors and unlit ceilings, like back alleyways. The elevator is also a beater and I think: this place is really poor; it’s, it’s just like the South Side! Minus the vandalism, drugs and crime, of course. Everything’s rundown, poorly made, depressing. The elevator staggers up to the 12th floor, ‘étage’ the Russians call it.

We’ve arrived!

Mariana unlocks a door that leads to a half-lobby serving three apartments on the east side of the floor. Boxes, left-over furniture and other garbage-like remnants clutter this area. Another door unlocks into the apartment itself. Clutter fills the foyer: a single mattress rolled and wrapped up in brown paper. New, I suppose. Parts to a pine kitchen set, tabletop, chairs, and so on. I drop my jo bag against a wall and drag my duffel bag and backpack into the front room.

The brown mottled wallpaper of the entry changes to nondescript beige walls and furniture out of the forties in a room that is about 9 x 20 feet. Which would be comfortable enough if it didn’t also serve as a bedroom: next to the doorway is an alcove containing two hunch-backed metal beds with colorful spreads and lumpy pillows. The headboard obscures the base of a bookcase containing an assortment of materials. And under the bed, in the bookcase, piles of neatly tied envelopes – hundreds, no thousands.

Ten thousand, to be exact, with more bags arriving in the mail every day. Mariana and Vasili explain they have received 10,000 responses to a couple of little announcements they made in a few magazines, from all over the country, asking about Aikido. 10,000. A direct marketer’s dream. We can’t imagine that many aikidoists writing anywhere, let alone to one place, let alone to teachers who have mostly learned from books and biennial visits by Americans! It awes me to imagine such enthusiasm – until I hear the schedule: two hours at noon and two more in the evening. I didn’t know we were coming here to do intensive training for three weeks! I want to see places, to do things!

Next to the beds, a table covered in a plastic white cloth, a wooden armchair of the pseudo-teak variety, with murky, reddish-brown square-edged cushions, and a couple of dining chairs.

On the table, a vase of fresh flowers surprises me. But it fits with the overall look of the room: lower class post-war. There’s no couch, but an upholstered cushion lies on the floor along the far wall, covered with some pillows and a back-rest, and beyond it two chairs are squeezed in against the wall, as though in anticipation of a cell meeting of the Aikido underground or a small but boring party. In the corner, another bookcase filled with books and bundles of tied-up letters. Next to it, a door leads to the balcony that I later discover is unusable: barely two feet deep, it is cluttered with junk and dead plants, and the floor and railing look less than reliable. Opposite us, other identical towers, not close enough to inspire modesty, but in easy view of a low-grade pair of binoculars. The bleakness only reminds me how far I am from golden Paris and August. A radiator under the balcony window pumps vast amounts of heat into the small apartment.

I shove the duffel bag into the area in front of the door and my pack next to it. I haven’t anything perishable in either piece. But the heat reminds me to take the bag of food that I have carried off the plane and refrigerate the pickled Finnish herring and chocolates, and the bread and cheese I bought in Helsinki this morning.

The kitchen is narrow, with dirt-brown moiré-patterned walls and dirty blue tiled floor. In fact, the apartment’s a two-room hole-in-the-wall. Dirty, dingy, unfinished, unattractive. Toilet seat unhinged, tub, sinks and walls clearly never scrubbed.. Poverty – that’s life. Dirt – that’s an attitude.

The sink is filled with bright red tomatoes and lustrous green cucumbers that Mariana is busy washing and slicing. There are more tomatoes than I have seen in anyone’s kitchen in a long time, at least 2 dozen, all looking as good as those my one and only garden produced in the summer of 1986. You’re in the land of food shortages… crosses my mind as I look around and find the fridge. It’s a typical half-size model, the kind that I’ve seen everywhere from France to Japan. Its barren interior confirms my thought, despite the two fresh and huge arbuzes (watermelons) that sit on top along with a sack of carrots, a sausage, some potatoes, and Mariana’s full sink. I set my meager stores on a shelf and look further.

The stove is gas, and water is already at a surface boil. A buffet topped by a scummy-watered aquarium separates the cooking area from the far half of the room where a table that looks quite unused stands, three gallon jugs of unclarified apple juice. It too is covered with a cheap, dark-colored plastic cloth. To the right of the window, which looks out on the same cluster of matching towers, some shelves filled with books and knickknacks hang hazardously over the narrow couch where some plastic bags of goods have been plunked. Nobody is likely to sit here, either, from the awkward placement of it, and it isn’t clear to me why this couch isn’t in the other room, where we will gather for the next few days.

I stash my noodles, spaghetti sauce, ramen, wild rice, and other exotic foods in the lower cupboard of the buffet. A saucer of sugar sits amid papers, some mis-matched china, dead plant matter, wadded paper bags, and other scraps on the open shelving above. I notice that the aquarium has none of the ‘high-tech’ attachments I’m so familiar with: air pump, filter and fluorescent light. They must mostly be keeping goldfish.

By now Mariana and Andrei #2, who turns out to be Vasili’s little deshi (apprentice) and who is to become ours, especially Gilaine’s, little otomo (helper)… have prepared the salad and side dishes and we carry stuff out onto the table.

There are now 8 people in this already-crowded living-room: a third Andrei (who apparently speaks English but doesn’t understand it…!), Jamie, Vasili, Dima, Gilaine, me, Mariana, Andrei #2. Dima’s Frussian is quite comic, and when I say something to him, he often does not understand the proper French. I notice that Gilaine is only addressing him in English, so he’s not getting much there, either. The table is set and we begin to help ourselves to the picnic-like spread: salad, sliced veggies, sliced cold-cut beef, and watermelon. The boys are passing vodka around. No thanks, we’re too burned out from travel. Tea arrives, with lots of sugar. The atmosphere waxes sentimental, with much reminiscing.

At this point, Andrei the Third excuses himself and chauffeurs Gilaine and Dima to Dima’s place. I wonder what the arrangement there will be and if Dima’s going to behave with Gilaine. What if his thought is that he’s got a captive American female at his disposal? He looks aggressively romantic from what I can see. The kind that worships the ground you walk on but won’t let you do anything your way because he, of course, knows best.

Meanwhile, the salad’s great: a simple mix of tomato, cucumber and onion finely sliced, and a creamy dressing. But it’s totally tasty, and I refill my plate three times, hoping I don’t look like too much of a pig. Vasili asks if we would like some arbuz/ Like? Break it out, man, I think. It turns out to be watermelon season, and we will be seeing lots more of the round green and red arbuz before the end of the trip. Vlodya, Oleg and Yuki leave, Vasya, Mariana and Andrei wash up while I dry, and finally the Russians are gone.

Like twin babushkas ready to take the weight of the world, the beds await Jamie and me. Quilts into slipcases, sheets on mattresses, pillows and coverlets on, and we’re ready for slumberland. Instead, Jamie and I talk for about an hour: she shows me her lover, we talk about her family. Finally, a ten-minute hunt for the light switch – none of those on the wall seem to affect either kitchen or living room lights! Finally, one of us notices a string hanging down in the corner behind the door, which leads to a little box at the corner of the ceiling. Ahah! Out go the lights at last.

Day 2: Sunday, September 22

A low-lying grey day breaks and by the time Andrei the deshi comes by to make kasha for us, last night’s melon is dead on the table. We stumble out of bed, ready for the brave new Russia. Class at eleven, then lunch and touring. The first of many false schedules is set. A second mad dash through Moscow streets. I tell Vasili, You drive like a cowboy as he squeaks in between a bus going 20 kph on the right and a car going 80 klicks on the left, in a space the size of a gopher’s butt. Bump the road, grind the tires, whiz and wind through the crazed Medusa’s tangle of traffic. We watch a car in the opposite direction cross the white line and bear down on us. Three lanes of traffic have swelled to five. Why do they even bother painting the white lines? But with all the wild driving and seeming close calls, never the sound of a blaring horn, no yelling drivers, few squealing tires, grinding gears or shrieking brakes. Everybody JUST DRIVES.

The car abruptly turns in between two buildings and lopes across debris and puddles, missing trees, dumpsters and other cars haphazardly parked. We stop. Everyone drags a bag or two and heads for a nondescript door. This is it? A few people are hanging out by the door, a few more inside. There’s the women’s room, says someone, pointing to a dark area below a stairwell. The door creaks open. More dirty, paint-stripped floors, sewage smells, bare lightbulbs. Toilet? Down the hall the other way. Be prepared. Yes. How to prepare for this: two stalls, doorless, one toilet seat, one toilet filled with debris and clearly dead. Metal a dingy green and scratched and rusted. Filth everywhere, from floor to ceiling. But there’s hot and cold running water in the filthy sink, not the usual stingy cold-only taps. Take one strip of paper to wipe down the wooden seat (it would look nice if not for the scum) and do it. Flush works. Wash hands.

Back to the dingy dressing room for a quick change. Upstairs, to the dojo. A room at least as spacious as our Chicago dojo, its tall dark walls remind me of schools I went to in the 50s and early 60s: poor, ill-kempt, painted too long ago, radiators falling apart, lights dim, windows tall and depressing rather than illuminating. The mats are syntho-tatami – softer than what we train on in Chicago, but old and ratty, covers peeling off in places. Dozens of men are already messing around on the mat when we walk in, leaping wildly, enthusiastically, trying everything they know with enormous intent. Someone has clearly left a mark on this group, they fly with such abandon: Koichi Barrish. I watch in amazement. This is Vlodya’s class.

People start moving into position and shortly class starts. One after another, we are introduced: Jamie, 4th dan, 16 years’ training; Yuki and I, 3rd dans with 19 years’ training each; Rob, 3-dan with 16 years; Robert, 2-dan with 15 years; Gilaine, shodan with 9 years, Edwin on and off 9 years’ training, and Susan, a 2-dan in taekwondo with a year of Aikido under her belt. Not a bad line-up, I think. At 14:00 we finally stop, thoroughly warmed up and just a little worn down. Lunch? a cheery chorus rises. The Russians begin to consult. Rumors leak. Lunch, then rest. Rest, then lunch. Walk, then lunch, then rest. The murmurs continue. Finally, consensus. We go to Vasili’s class tonight, 17:00-20:00? American faces pale and eyes dart around for a sounding. We’ve just sweated for almost 2 hours and they want us to do three more tonight? More murmurs. Jamie negotiates: How about 18:00-19:00? More murmurs. Okay OK. Lunch, then rest, then back here for 18:00. Jamie interjects. Oh, we need to have our meeting, the one she and I missed this morning because we arrived late. Make that 17:30 for the meeting, then training at 18:00, OK? Sighs of acquiescence. So much for seeing Moscow on Day 2.

Dima, Gslaine and I walk off to find some apples. Jamie and I are going with Vasya and Mariana. No, Jamie wants the Americans to go together… More negotiations. By now, it’s 15:00. Gilaine and I sit in the car and wait. Jamie disappears and finally the car is tottering briskly out of the wild lot where it had been parked, down Moscow streets to a café. Mariana slips out quickly to scoop out the scene. No room. We tear off for another place. Again Mariana disappears down a cellar door. Big line-up. Finally, we pull up to the Studentskiy Kafe. Okay, we can get food here. This is clearly the land of negotiation, but they have only one dish available at this time. Mariana points to the first entree on the menu. I take a good look at the menu: the most expensive hot dish is 18 rubles, a total of 60¢. Hard to believe. We nod in hungry agreement.

The table has what might have been cute tiny lamp, but its shade melted in several places by incautious tilts. The restaurant is little more than a 10-seater tavern with shingled interior and cheap, thin carpeting. A savvy, pretty woman in a chignon and demure clothes serves us. Vasya and Mariana choose two items. Coffee or tea? Tea. Tea. Tea. Four chayi. We’re all set. A ‘salad’ appears: two rows of sliced cucumber separated by a row of sliced tomato. Fresh sprigs of an herb garnish the plate. I imagine the waitress slicing as efficiently and professionally as Mariana last night. Then the entree: a stew over potatoes and onions, also garnished with a different pair of herbs, plus a plate of rye bread wrapped in a napkin. With the two side salads and bread, the 18-ruble dish is easily enough for the four of us. We eat like orphans, savoring this meal of heart and kidney stew after a six-hour food-less hiatus with training. The vegetables are all fresh. So is the bread. Conversation goes on in a blend of Russian, Ukrainian and English. As the penultimate morsel goes down our gullets, Mariana and Vasya abruptly stand up. We go? Vasya pulls out a 3-inch wad of bills and peels off a bunch. Oh, could I change some money with you? No problem. I give them $10 and Mariana counts out 330 rubles. 330? She smiles disparagingly. Ruble is not worth. Later, I give her back 30. 30 to the dollar is plenty; 33 is too high. We drive off in a cloud of petrol stench.

Do you want to teach? Vasya asks me when we arrive at the Bolshoi Dojo. He and Mariana have a class from 16:00-18:00 and then from 18:00-20:00. We’re supposed to meet with all the group at 17:30. If we’re as good as this morning, it won’t matter. Gilaine and I decide to train now and skip later. Vasya will teach 16:00-17:00 and I will teach the second hour, since this group is not the same people as the later group. The desire for detail, for information, clarification, feedback is so palpable. And the ukemi is of a kind that makes it easy for a different instructor to be able to show things effectively. When I watch Vasya teach, he looks like a picture out of Westbrook & Ratti’s Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere – the broad, extended style of Koichi Tohei and Yoshimitsu Yamada. Very competent and effective, but also the style of a strong and large man. He has the uke push on him to emphasize the commitment to the attack, which I like. The uke then explodes forward into unbalance and the technique is a piece of cake. I start training with a young boy of 14, but then I’m stuck with him: no one here switches partners. Soon a couple of young girls are training next to us, all of them soft and wild and without focus.

Then Vasya’s class ends and it is my turn to teach. My name is Leda Volyanska, I say in Ukrainian. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, please let me know. I start with tenkan and the Saotome standby that has no name, to focus on containing some of the wild and woolly energy and gathering power. Learning stability, center, less emphasis on the throw. In no time the class is a full-tilt boogie and people are clamoring for feedback. Like this? Please watch. Is correct? Is right? Please look! and on and on. The usual endless helping out of people who’ve never seen a move done a certain way before. It’s fun to tease them, to watch them fly with such cheerful abandon.

When class ends, Dima comes up to me and asks me why I practiced with the boy. I say, What’s it to you? He was next to me. He frowns disapprovingly and asks again. I look him in the eye: I don’t run after training partners and I can learn from anyone. Plus I had no way of knowing you folks don’t switch partners. That seems acceptable and he says, Can I work with you? I sit down with him to do kokyu-ho. He holds on tight, as I figure he will, and I do my kokyu-ho. When it’s his turn, he’s unable to do it at all. I don’t even feel like I’m trying hard to stop him, but he can’t do it. This seems to satisfy him. Then he wants to go over some techniques with me. He alternates between jumping suicidally for me and strong-arming. He’ll ask me to do a technique, then lock in. I ‘try’ to do the technique, then wave my free hand in his face and say Why bother? I can hit you if need be. He seems puzzled.

Meanwhile, Jamie and the crew are getting ready for the 18:00-20:00 practice. We sit down for a two-minute meeting. I watch Jamie’s response to my having taught. Not pleased, as I expected, though she says it’s because of the meeting. One issue that I bring up is the fact that there are so many scheduled classes and several dojos and given that we are three sandans and Jamie, maybe we ought to schedule things so that we spread the wealth a little and give as many people as possible a change to have one of us teach. Jamie stonewalls it. I’m not willing to push the issue, but her attitude is a surprise. I thought that the whole idea of bringing senior aikidoists along was to share the instruction. The first of many illusions about Jamie falls down.

Gilaine and I go off with Dima and the rest go on with training. It is growing dark and Dima has no car. His sidekick Andrei will drive us to the Kremlin. It’s obvious that he has decided Gilaine is of interest to him. Of course they trained together, and she got so mad she punched him in the nose and stomped off to the other side of the mat. She tells me this in an urgent undertone whenever he’s a bit distracted. Besides, he knows French rather than English, so he can’t understand much of what we say. I take on the role of intermediary – more like interference at times. While Gilaine fills my left ear with her pleasure at having a place to herself, Dima asks me in my right ear why she didn’t eat his food. Gilaine explains in my left that she overslept her alarm and was very embarrassed at the lovely spread she had to rush away from. Dima looks doubtful; Gilaine says See what I mean? and describes her charged-up morning warding off Dima’s extravagant solicitousness. Dima fills my right ear with fractured Frussian, explaining that he doesn’t want us to go to his dojo at the Kremlin because it’s too small, that he’d like Gilaine to teach at his dojo, that the onion-domed, Joseph-colored St. Basil’s church “is working” maybe – it turns out not to be working after all when he reads the sign out front –, that he likes to speak French and improve himself, and only intermittently asks us about ourselves.

Red Square is dark by now and a sharp little wind has come up. We drift cross the empty cobbles where the Russian and Communist empires once marched. Yet I don’t have even a passing thought for the mausoleum or the military dress parades that have made this such a focus of power and terror for the last seven decades or more… probably for its entire history in fact. Tonight, it’s just a cold, old, cobbled square. We walk on to the other side of the Kremlin where the cars of VIPs come and go. There is a small wooded garden that we wander down into. Gilaine is vehement about keeping Dima at arm's length; Dima is equally vehement about his courtship. I’m amused by his silly, pompous courtship and don’t envy Gilaine in the least.

I see a dead cat lying by a railing. It doesn’t look like an auto accident. Dima confirms this: probably stoned by some kids. Stoned? Oh yes, a fairly common occurrence here. Adults actually shoot them. I shudder and wonder why. So far, I have not seen many cats or dogs, but this will soon change. Luckily, this is also the last dead cat I will get to see. Ahead of us is the Moskva River, so we walk along it for a bit. The river is wide and surprisingly calm here, by the bridge. Tame and cold. We are now walking quite briskly in the chill night air and I ask what time it is: time to head for our respective homes. We turn around and hurry back up the street, detouring a little in the park, then down into the subway.

The famous Moskva Metro. I’ve only read about its supposed art galleries and marble walls, but this station has a plain, well-lit entry. Then the escalators, the soviet super-escalators, going down for what seems like miles in to the bowels of the earth. They’re scary. Only a long time later does somebody point out that they run much faster than North American escalators. I realize that’s why they gave me such a feeling of vertigo the first few times. Carriage lamps line the long slides in between each set of stairs: far prettier than the anti-juvie studs that are so popular on western escalator slides. Dima pays for us, of course. I have only a wad of 10-ruble notes, Gislaine has only American, and the fare is 15 kopeks. The station itself is like another world, built for princes, not plebes. The cars are actually not that modern, but immaculate and well-kept – well-made compared to everything else I’ve seen so far. People quiet down a little to look at us as we get on in our western ways. The conversation then jogs along in English and Frussian. Not much can be seen of the stations’ famed glory as we race from one to the next. People look well-fed and very bourgeois. Off we get at last and wander back up the service street to where Jamie and I are staying.

Dinner tonight resembles dinner from last night: onion and tomato salad, some meat, more arbuz. Oleg and Vlodya are here, as are Mariana, Vasili, and Andrei. Yuki is also, having tagged along with Oleg, whose house she’s staying at. Gilaine and Dima stay only long enough to greet everyone and leave for his (her) place. The vodkas are broken out as we sit to eat. Mariana decides to go and make grits at this point. Once again, I demur. Yuki takes a sip. Jamie fights two toasts. In the background, the color TV drones. Tonight a surreal, ironic fashion piece from England drags on and on, woman after scrawny woman, tits showing through cellophane or butt cut out of cardboard “outfit,” wrapped in plastic of one kind of another. In between sets, a clownish woman in top hat, Professor Someone-or-other, simpers and postures. It may all be tongue-in-chic, but the parade of naked and nasty mannequins strikes me like a video porn parade for onanists. Plus it’s very distracting from the company and conversation.

Three toasts, and those of us who are eating food have pushed our plates aside. The evening wears on. Yuki crashes out on our bed. Vlodya, Oleg and Jamie are rapping in Russian. The issue of money comes up. They want $900 per person. I think, that’s a bit rich, $50 a day, when lunch cost about one dollar and they aren’t exactly feeding us caviar. We haggle a little and Oleg whittles it down to $800. I point out that, whatever their work, the ruble is only 32 to the dollar, so they are getting a princely sum. Also there’s the matter of three people with travelers’ checks. Once we’ve agreed, Jamie and I decide we might as well pay them our shares up front. Oleg and Vlodya go into the hall while we get the money together. $1,600.

What about Yuki’s share? We shake Yuki awake. She smiles groggily and sits up. Money? Oh, it’s all sewn into my undershirt. We chase the men out of the apartment altogether and Yuki undoes her home-made money belt. She pulls out a pile of $20s. Then another of $10s. Then a bundle of singles. Jamie and I look at each other: Singles? What’s this? Yuki pulls out another lot. Singles. And another. And yet another. Yuki! we both shout at the same time. What the hell –!?! She shrugs. I just wanted to be sure I could cash it. Singles?!? we groan and watch her take out pile after pile of one-dollar bills. My husband said it wasn’t necessary, but I didn’t want to chance it. Do you realize we now have to count all this? Yuki giggles. Jamie and I grab wads of bills and start: 1, 2, 3. On and on we go. But the stacks get mixed up. Jamie and I are already to scream as we re-count stack after stack and neatly pile the bills up in 100s. Yuki finishes counting her heap. Then we look and realize there is another stack under her knee. Was it counted or wasn’t it? I pick up the stacks we know were counted and we pile them on the table. We’ve been fanning bills for almost 20 minutes at this point. Finally we have $1,673 counted out, $700 of it in singles. We take $800 to pay and Yuki stashes the rest back in her undershirt. Then Jamie and I go to our stashes and get our money.

Finally, we call Oleg back in – Vlodya’s gone home – and hand him $2,400. The rest has to be worked out. Oleg smiles. Now you will toss and turn all night over this money. Jamie and I laugh dismissively. He and Yuki leave. And of course, Jamie and I start thinking about the money. I do some elementary calculating. Do you realize they want 180,000 rubles from us? Do you realize what that means in terms of their money and their earning power? That would send 30 aikidoka to the US with round trip airfare to New York at around $200 or R 6,000. That’s also the equivalent of 50 years’ salary at R600 a month! We are both flabbergasted at these figures and begin to re-hash the arrangements. It’s past 02:00 when we fall asleep. Oleg, it seemed, had cursed us.

Day 3: Monday, September 23

Jamie rises early and hides in the kitchen to do her chanting. When she comes out, she’s all excited: You know, I was telling you about this therapist saying I needed a 5-year vacation? Well, it came to me while I was chanting: I’m in retirement NOW. I’m not going to wait until Bali. I think – Is this the right time to retire? I mean, we have three weeks of Aikido ahead of us. But it sounds like what Jamie needs and she’s obviously happy with the solution.

By 09:00 I’ve called Sprint to make an appointment with Henry Radzikowski for this afternoon. He’ll also let me use the fax machine; Rob’ll be glad to hear this. The driver arrives to take Jamie to the airport: in our rush to get through customs with the 32 other pieces of baggage we had lugged across the sea to this frontierland, she’d left behind the box of bokken, our wooden swords. At 10:30, Andriy comes by to make me some kasha and at 11:30 Vasili and Mariana come to take us all to the Vakunin Dojo for Vlodya’s class. At 12:00, Jamie arrives and informs us that she feels terrible, so sick that she’s going straight home to bed. I look at Rob: Shall we share this class? We agree to split this one, Rob then me, and set someone up for tonight’s class.

Down to the grimy “locker room,” and another round of interminable “negotiations” and discussions. Rob is coming with me and somehow we have to get to the Central Post office, which is where Sprint is. Well, how are we going to do this? Finally, Rob and I go in Dima’s car with his deshi Andrei, the one who speaks English but doesn’t understand much, according to Gilaine. We follow Vasili and Mariana to the same café we were at yesterday. By the time we arrive, it’s quarter to three and Andrei and Rob and I get right back into the car and split for the appointment. The others will go on and eat their lunch and wait until we get back. 45 minutes later, we finally pull up beside the post office. I figure our appointment will last about 15 minutes. Andrei settles into his seat while Rob switches shirts and we get out.
We walk to the far corner and enter a cavernous building with a million queues. Telephones, telegrams, faxes, and postal services: it’s all in here, if you care to wait. I look around. There’s no access to any other area of the building, so we turn around to leave. Two military types pass by, but Rob doesn’t feel like asking them for directions; neither do I. We get out of the building and look around. There seems to be another entry or two down this side of the block. We try the first. No dice. The second has a lobby with no one in it and no signs. We ask someone in the street. They point to the far corner and suggest the office there. Inside, a middle-aged woman in a snug red dress and old-fashioned bouffant sitting behind a glass panel, smiles and says Yes, in the pereulok, pointing to the lane to the left of her entrance. We turn down the lane and Hallelujah, there’s a familiar name: Ñïðèíò!

By now, it’s a quarter to four and I’m upset that we’re late: though I’m used to the mañanaland sense of time here, I figure an American manager might still expect punctuality. After the dismal drabness of the rest of the building, I don’t know what to expect when we climb up the nondescript stairway and arrive at a plain frosted glass door. Inside, though, is a beigely warm office area with wood trim, old-fashioned but refurbished. Plants. A pleasant, very European-Slavic blond receptionist greets us. Very feminine – rather, very womanly: well-built and dressed in a discreet but flattering skirt and blouse. She ushers us into an empty office as Mr. Radzikowski is occupado. We sit for a few minutes and I worry that he’s going to blow us off for being late.

After 6-7 minutes, however, a pleasant-faced man, silver and balding, comes in and greets us. He’s in shirtsleeves that unmistakeably say “The Boss.” There is a reassuring aura of serious work and pleasant confidence about him, not the affable phony American I’m so sick of, with his 3-piece suit and clammy handshake. We are ushered in to Mr. Radzikowski’s office. Everything about his style seems right to me. As I present him the materials from ILIS and explain my connection via Matlid, he listens carefully, looks at the offer and asks: Are you buying or selling? I’m taken aback, not quite sure what he means. He explains: Are you offering me a service or do you want me to provide one? I have to know which hat to wear if we are to understand each other. I am pleased that he’s so direct and at the same time not condescending at my obvious ignorance. We’re selling, hopefully through your offices. He then explains his position: We don’t have the infrastructure to offer value-added services yet. We have about 100 clients and our sales force is pretty full up selling Sprint’s direct services. As we go on, however, he says that he has a colleague who has gone freelance as a consultant and might be interested in an arrangement. He then asks me about Matlid and his interest is definitely piqued. He explains that he has been here since December, in the offices since March, and has been developing a pool of highly-qualified Russian translators who are learning computers (he’s brought PCs in to train them) and he figures in another month they’ll be up and running. They can work on ruble or cheap dollar basis, he says, whatever we’d be interested in. He is clearly proud of these people he has trained and without doubt is a good motivator. I am more impressed with this man every minute: his professional enthusiasm, his pride in his staff, his desire to promote local talent. Then we get to talking about Rob’s business. Finally, it’s time to leave. We arrange for the fax to be transmitted in the morning, when the lines are free-est. He’s not going to charge us anything. He’ll call his colleague tomorrow and get back to me and get back to Michael within a week or so. He explains things to his receptionist-assistant in correct but heavily-accented Russian. We shake hands and leave.

When we get outside, I discover that it’s 16:30: we were with him for nearly 40 minutes! Wow! We hope Andrei hasn’t gotten pissed and driven off without us. We rush around the block, past all the politicos and religious types with their placards and tables and back to the parked car. Which one is it? Oh, this one – and there’s Andrei, dozing. We scramble into the back seat, apologizing. Then the car lurches out into traffic. And this time, it’s serious traffic. Rush hour in Moscow. We crawl down one street, and another, and another. No cowboys here: there’s no room for a rodeo out there. Interminable minutes tick by and the car is gradually saturated with the odor of diesel. Rob and I look at each other in consternation. Where’s the EPA when we need it? Give me emission controls, I beg. I promise never to complain about the Illinois emissions test again, Just PLEASE give me a breath of Chicago air. Not even Rocky Mountains or New Hampshire: I’ll settle for the Kennedy on a bad Friday. I never thought I might die in a car in the middle of rush hour, but Rob and I won’t bet on it at this point. A half-hour crawls by, then an hour.

It’s 17:35 by the time we get back to the tavern. We hope that the others haven’t left. They haven’t. This is a quality of Russians that I am already beginning to appreciate: a stoic acceptance of the probability that everything will be running between two and five times later than you originally planned. Indeed, planning as such seems a nonstarter here. Luckily for us, the others have even left some odds and ends of food for us. But they took all the lamps off, apparently because they didn’t like them, so it’s hard to see just what’s there. Rob and I order something via Mariana. Then she suggests that I come with her and Gilaine to this dressmaker’s place next door while we wait for our food. Sounds good. We traipse into a B-grade “designer” salon with lots of 1970’s style outfits: big flower patterns, not-quite-mini skirts, flounces everywhere. But there’s one dress that catches our eyes: black with burnt orange roses and autumn leaves. It’s really quite sharp and they talk me into trying it. It fits like a charm and, for all its Hallowe’en shades, does look good. Gilaine tries on an outfit that might look nice but the skirt is too large by about 5 sizes and she decides she looks like suburban Italian (Nancy Sinatra?) in it. I know what she means, but I like the top on her. She decides to pass. I put a deposit on my dress and agree to come by tomorrow to get it. The woman now tries to persuade Gilaine to try something else, but each outfit she proposes is more ghastly and inappropriate than the last and I can see Gilaine’s about to blow a fuse. My mother always does this to me, she finally hisses to me. I can’t stand it. I tell the woman to drop it. We quickly take our leave, Gilaine remarking that the dress I’ve bought was the only good thing in the shop. I think she may be right.

Back at the tavern, dinner is in full swing. I nibble on the veggies, bread and sliced meat. Tea to drink. Dima and I chat about this and that. Maybe Gilaine and I would like to go to Arbat Street? It’s the main gimcrack touristy shopping alley in Moscow. Why not? I’ve arranged for Robert to teach the evening class. Rob goes with us because he wants to find a military watch for someone back in California. He’s pleased that the fax to Dana’s taken care of and we’re all hoping that maybe tonight we’ll also get to finally buy something here…! Another student of Dima’s will drive us down this time, Kiril, a good-looking 6 foot 3 kid who doesn’t look a day over 18. We part with Vasili and Mariana, who are going to check in on Jamie. Another – mercifully quick – drive through downtown Moscow, which has so far thoroughly failed to reveal anything of real architectural or historical interest. It’s just a conglomerate of Stalinist decay and messy exteriors. Nothing seems older than the Revolution – except a church or two, of which there is perhaps a handful in the entire city today.

We park the car and saunter to what looks like a construction zone but reveals itself to be a cobbled alley with hundreds of small vendors at their tables. What a hoot: the first one has Gorby dolls, several different kinds, including one that has 12 dolls going all the way back to Alexander Nevsky. That’s the one I want. But as Gilaine and I make noises about it and start to ask the price, Dima stops us. Non, nous aller regarder tout. Apres acheter. Nous acheter, non vous. I get it. He figures he’ll get a better price being a native. But what do they cost? I ask. But what if we don’t find this one again? Gilaine asks. Next to the Gorby dolls is a wooden model of St. Basil’s. I like that too. The doll is not priced, the church is R 900 or around $30. I decide I can wait. We move away, ushered up the street by Dima and his minion. The younger man is actually quite nice, and, as Gilaine puts it, would be pretty interesting if he weren’t 19. He pumps iron. I remember training with him this afternoon, and for all his strength, he was very much fun to throw around.

We meander down Arbat, both sides of the street lined with small tables and vendors eager to practice their two sentences of perfectly colloquial American on us gringos. Got any dollars? I bet you’ll like this. I start talking in Ukrainian, though the clothes are still a giveaway. I do have rubles and I do want to buy something, but we pass table after table, watch vendor after watch vendor and make no decisions. Rob is getting visibly peeved. He really wants to get this watch. I’m looking for a box. Ruslan and Ludmilla glow redly in dozens of variations, troikas on a black background. Each of the boxes is truly lovely. Gilaine wants a Gorby doll. I’ve decided I want an icon doll, gold gilt. But those are really expensive: R 1,500. Dima asks Gilaine what she’s looking for. Well, actually, I’d like to get a small chess set. Mike and I play chess sometimes. I think he’d like it. There are a surprising number of different kinds of chess sets. Some of the lacquerware is on the cheap, just reproductions glazed onto the wood, but everything is handmade and unique, that’s obvious. It’s such a delightful relief. After all the touristy kitsch I’ve seen everywhere else, I feel guilty that these handmade things are so cheap for me. At one table are wooden lacquer spoons and bowls. Kiril warns me that the lacquer won’t bear actual use. If I put liquid into the bowl, it will come off! Scratch the bowl and spoon idea. Rob finds a red lacquered box he likes and decides to go for it. Fifteen dollars, says the eager vendor. Ten, says Rob. Fifteen dollars good price, persists the vendor. Rob shakes his head and walks away. Then he saunters back and says, Twelve dollars. The vendor shakes his head. Good price. Fifteen dollars. Rob persists, the vendor doesn’t budge. We all finally drift away empty-handed. Gilaine spots some chess sets, but Dima immediately wants to either buy one or proposes a different one. She walks away, exasperated.

Darkness is starting to fall and it’s harder and harder to distinguish anything. We’re all feeling chilled and hungry and not a little disgruntled that we haven’t found a chance to actually buy something. Prices have been up and down and I think of the missed opportunities. Now we’re talking coffee. Is there a café anywhere near? Yes, but we’re having dinner with Vasya and Mariana. OK, so we starve. We finally decide to turn around and stroll back up the street: to the left and right vendors are packing up their stock and leaving now. We look for a café, but in the end we decide that it’s too late anyway and head back to the car.

Another rousing ride through the streets of Moskva and over to the apartment Jamie and I are staying in. Word is she’s been quite sick and when we get there, it’s like an intensive care unit. Jamie’s wrapped up in her pyjamas and a jacket, a scarf around her neck and looking totally wretched. Vlodya and his wife, both physicians, as is Dima, have been medicating her: ampycillin, anti-congestants, and at least a half-dozen homeopathic remedies, plus cayenne, garlic and pepper – the whole nine yards. I almost smile at the incredible paraphernalia, but decide to express sympathy instead. I feel so lousy, Jamie snivels, her voice sounding like nails scraping the bottom of a crate. Dima gets in on the doctoring but after a half-hour of hanging around, he and Gilaine leave for the metro. Vlodya checks Jamie one more time, explains the medications and now we’re alone. Jamie crawls into bed. After a while, so do I.

Stay tuned for more....

Published on 13/11/2011


 © L. A. Wolanskyj

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