Sent by Prof. Susan Scotto, December 2003
"What I'll Miss about Russia"
Napkins. I don't know how often you think about napkins, if at all, but we here in Moscow think about them often. Not constantly, but at least three times a day, if not more. To explain why, I'll start with a strange occurrence at GITIS today: we walked into the little room where we eat lunch each day and, as usual, picked what we wanted from the array of salads which our food provider, the unflappable Aida, lays out for us daily. As is our habit, we then moved to the counter that holds the silverware and napkins, and there we stopped short: we came face to face with a pile of giant yellow napkins. I held one up and waved it to the students. "Look!" I cried in Russian. "Look at this napkin!" My daughter, who usually grudgingly speaks Russian at lunch, exclaimed, "Kak amerikanskie!" ("Like American ones!") And indeed, this was the source of our amazement: for the first time in four months, we held full-sized, American-style napkins. They were thin, like the cheapest, supermarket brand napkins you might ever see in America, but there they were, big and bright yellow and ready to meet all our lunchtime napkin needs. We snapped them up immediately. I even saw one student writing down vocabulary notes to himself on one of them, putting these amazing finds to use as scrap paper.
You might well ask what we usually find on the GITIS counter. Well,
it's the same, standard napkin that you find throughout Russia - cocktail
napkin size, no bigger, and definitely much thinner, about the thickness
of onionskin paper, and of about equal absorbency. One wipe with these,
and they're done. That's if you have any napkins at all, which is by
no means a given. In some places, usually cafeterias or lesser eateries,
these already paltry excuses for napkins are actually cut into quarters,
or even eighths and assume the shape of one- or two-ply diamonds. As
if to make up for the uselessness of these napkins, they are usually
at least artfully arranged in a plastic cup, with the pointy edges lining
the edge, striving skyward. Anyone's natural instinct, when faced with
these sheets of barely there paper and greasy fingers is, of course,
to grab the whole cupful and wipe away, but I doubt any of us has succumbed
to that desire. It would seem so inappropriate here. And a mark of just
how used we've become to the Russian mini-napkins is my son's opinion
of today's napkins. "How wasteful," he remarked, shaking his
It will come as no surprise to no one who's studied Russian, that I
will of course miss the opportunity to speak Russian with Russians every
day once I'm back in Massachusetts. That's a very pragmatic evaluation,
and it's most comforting to think of our departure in these strictly
linguistic and mathematical terms: the number of "contact hours" I'll
have with native speakers of Russian will decrease dramatically as of
December 16th, meaning that I won't get as much practice as I've been
getting here. But behind that rather dry assessment lies my far more
emotional realization that I won't have my thrice-weekly meetings with
my very own Russian tutor, who not only corrects my mistakes and pushes
me to the edge of my Russian-speaking skills, but through whom I've learned
more about Russian culture and how Russians think than in the previous
twenty years. (I don't think I'm exaggerating here.) I won't be able
to talk to our "dezhurnaya" (our building security lady) about
her embroidery or her family or the weather or about how life in America
differs from life in Russia. I won't be able to chat with the cashiers
at our corner grocery store who see me at least once a day, and usually
more, and no longer hound me relentlessly for exact change; or the floor
manager at the store, who one day, overhearing the kids and me chat,
said wistfully that we really should teach him our language. "And,
by the way, what language is it you speak?" he inquired.
I'm going to miss my little corner store, (although I still haven't talked the manager into letting me videotape the interior!), because it's so very convenient and has just about everything we need to survive in terms of food and household items, even though it's smaller than your average 7-Eleven. At home I pretty much have to drive to the store. No running out in the afternoon for a bag full of "vafli", the trans-fat laden cookies that are my favorites here. And whatever my Russian corner store doesn't have can usually be had at the end of the block, where you'll find a whole row of little kiosks, where the saleswomen persist in selling their wares, despite the sub-freezing temperatures: flowers, fruits and vegetables, cookies and chocolates, bread, and personal hygiene items. My favorites are the laundry detergent/deodorant/soap lady, who always calls me "Sunshine" and the vegetable lady, who I trust implicitly to give the best potatoes and cucumbers. It will be a shame not to have these kiosks at home, although I admit that I won't miss walking even that one block carrying twenty pounds of fruits and vegetables and five-liter containers of bottled water. (On the subject of water, my son thinks it will be a while before he'll get used to drinking water straight from the faucet again.)
My daughter lamented a couple of weeks ago that she'll really miss all the little stands, not only our vegetable merchant, but the kind of stands one always sees outside the metro stations and on certain street corners. They sell everything from magazines to grilled chickens to CDs to pastries to bliny (pancakes) cooked fresh on the spot, and even if we don't always patronize them, the tempting array that greets us each day as we come home, just a little bit hungry, is its own kind of satisfaction.
Speaking of the metro and transportation, you'll know if you've read my other letters, that I personally will miss the metro. But my other favorite type of Russian transportation is the "marshrutka", the minivans than run along the same routes as many bus and trolleybus. The kids and I were thinking that there really should be "marshrutki" in America, but then I realized that we don't really need them. The benefit in Russia is that they get you where you're going very quickly, because they only stop when someone asks the driver to stop, as opposed to the buses and trolleys which stop at every stop, even if no one is going to get off there. But in America, where you need to ask the driver to stop, there's not such a need for a speedier variant. It's a shame, because the "marshrutka" is its only little world.
While the trolley and bus drivers are fairly anonymous, there's a very close relationship between the "marshrutka" driver and his passengers. You have to ask him to stop (and it's always a man), so there's already an interaction that's lacking on other means of transport. Since the kids and I ride our "marshrutka" twice a day, we see the same three or four drivers all the time, and we've gotten used to them. Our favorite is the guy we call "the Georgian", who may not be Georgian at all, but has a southern accent and looks Caucasian. He has a decal of a wolf on the inside door of his vehicle, and the front cabin displays a photo of a well-endowed woman in a naughty nurse outfit. The Georgian is a man of few words, and although he's rather heavy on the accelerator and the brake, he's all the same quite nice and polite. He nearly always responds with "Xorosho" ("Okay") when someone asks him for a stop. He also sometimes asks in advance if anyone's getting off at a certain stop, in case he hasn't heard someone's announcement. But the best thing about riding in the Georgian's "marshrutka" is that he's wired it up to a kind of siren. That way, when some car or pedestrian is in his way, he can blast the siren to get them moving, much to our amusement.
On a non-transport level, I'm going to miss the various individually wrapped chocolates we get here. Just today we made our second visit to a "Krasnyi Oktiabr'" ("Red October") factory store, which sells the famous chocolates produced by the Moscow factory of the same name. Buying candy in Russia in general is like being in an entire world of "fun size" candy bars, except that all the candies are individually wrapped in such beautiful paper or foil papers that they're a real feast for the eye. And you can buy as few as one piece of any given kind if you want, so that your candy bowl at home can become a kind of perpetual display of edible art of every-changing content. Even if you end up with a flavor you don't like, at least the bowl looks pretty.
By this point my family and I have consumed so many kilos of pelmeni
(Russian ravioli) that although we can get them at home in the Russian
grocery store not far from our house, I don't think the kids will be
requesting them anytime soon. And it will be a good long while before
I really feel compelled to whip up a batch of borshch in my American
kitchen. But I will miss the black bread and the dairy products. (I won't
go on about them again, don't worry!) And the many, many brands of Russian
beer that line one whole wall of our grocery store as you first walk
in, although I myself tend to drink mostly "Siberian Crown" and "Klinskoe".
You have to hand it to the management - it knows its customers and what
they want: beer, beer and more of it, followed by a good dose of vodka.
Enough. 'I'll end by telling you what I most emphatically will not miss about this place: my washing machine, which shrinks anything it can get its metal claws on and which spews out an insidious stream of lint that settles over my entire apartment; Russians who park and drive on the sidewalk and otherwise aim for pedestrians; crossing six-lane wide streets, even at a crosswalk; the side of the double door which is always locked; "lunch break", the hour when many stores and offices are closed, which of course always coincides with the very moment you arrive: our elevator and its annoying habit of coming to a sudden, terrifying, snapping stop at our floor; the bad dezhurnaya, whom my son nicknamed "Zlaya Zlayevna" ("Meanie, Daughter of Meanie"); the post office package office which is inexplicably closed on the very day I go to mail a suitcase full of books home to America; the electrician who took three hours to come on Tuesday the first time our power went out and two hours to come on Tuesday the second time our power went out; carrying five-liter jugs of bottled water home from the corner store; Russian firefighters (I'll tell why if you ask); the thin plastic cups they give us our tea in at GITIS; and finally, those tiny, tiny, thin, useless napkins. Mom, if you're reading this, I finally know what I want for Christmas: a large package of the biggest, thickest (preferably three-ply) napkins you can find. That will do just fine.