Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Starbucks Incident

A Moscow Starbucks. Not the scene of the incident:

This story is embarrassing on a number of levels. For one, I'd like to hide from you exactly how much time I spend in coffeeshops in Moscow. And two, I'd like to be able to claim that at least I'm spending time in cute boutique cafes. But as the title gives away, I've recently broken my no-Starbucks pact and occasionally started patronizing the Seattle coffee giant. This is because (1) the coffee tastes good (mind you, my taste buds have probably eroded after many months in lands with nasty brown liquids posing as coffee) and (2) it gives me an injection of American culture that makes me feel oh so warm and cozy...

Which leads to the next level of embarrassment -- my inappropriately naive behavior of late.

So the deal is that I spend a lot of time in coffeeshops because I can productively work in them. I tote my computer and some files and maybe a book to one of many caffeinated locales and sit for hours, usually without scrutiny, and work on my dissertation or job applications or something of that sort. I also work in libraries, but they don't serve coffee (well, actually they do, but I'm convinced that eating in the state library cafeteria is how I've gotten food poisoning twice here).

On Thursday, I planted myself in a Starbucks for several hours. I purchased a very overpriced medium (I will not use Starbucks terminology) coffee. I diligently edited Chapter 4 of my dissertation. I started to revise part of my essay for a postdoc application. Then after an appropriate amount of time I had to use the facilities. I knew I would be quick, and my stuff seemed secure in an upstairs corner of the coffeeshop, so I grabbed my wallet (maybe I'd indulge in a cupcake...) and headed downstairs. I did, in fact, decide to indulge in a cupcake, and while I was waiting in a short line I noticed the girl from a table near mine upstairs push her way through to the cash register and say something to the Starbucks employee. My gaze followed her as she turned and ran over to her boyfriend, who was holding MY computer in his hands. I was suddenly standing before them. They told me that some man had tried to run off with my computer and they recognized right away that he was stealing it (because he wasn't me -- that is, the person who had been sitting behind said computer for the last two hours). I didn't see the perpetrator myself and I don't know how the boy caught the thief or got my computer back from him. I was in a state of shock and relief. I must have said "thank you so much" thirty times to the couple. They told me I really shouldn't leave my computer unattended. (A no-brainer that I apparently hadn't wrapped my brain around.) When I returned to my little table (sans cupcake, avec computer), the couple -- my guardian angels -- packed up to leave. I wanted to give them something or do something for them, but all I could do was say "thank you" a few more times. And then I sat there feeling naive, stupid, but most of all insanely LUCKY.

I never thought of myself as the Ivan-Durak type. Ivan-Durak or 'Ivan the fool' is a Russian fairy tale character, who is a naive and simple fool who nevertheless always has amazingly good things happen to him. Anyway, there I was, an American Ivan-Durak in a Moscow Starbucks.

Wow, let's hope I've learned my lesson. And let's also hope that many other Muscovites are as kind and amazing as the young couple that saved my computer. Wherever you two are right now: SPASIBO!!!!!!!!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wedding Season Wanes

My dear friend Melissa Marsack got married last weekend in Michigan. I was sad miss the ceremony, which I heard was lovely, as well as the chance to be there for such a pivotal event in her life. Since I couldn't attend Melissa's wedding, I decided to crash some local weddings instead. Well, I didn't actually crash anyone's wedding (at least not à la Owen Wilson & Vince Vaughn), but I did briefly glom on to some wedding parties in a park and snap a few photos.

The wedding tradition here, a Russian acquaintance tells me, is roughly as follows: (1) go to ZAGS, the government office, for the official exchanging of vows (this is very brief), (2) tour parks and historical sites with the wedding party and take lots of photos, (3) have a big wedding party/feast that goes on for two or more days. I've never officially been invited to a Russian wedding, so the only part I've witnessed is (2) -- walking around sites and snapping photos.

Wedding wheels:

Here's a wedding from early August in Novgorod with some of the wedding party in traditional garb:

A cute wedding tradition that's cropped up in recent years is the love padlock, where couples write their names or initials on a padlock (often heart-shaped, awwwww) and lock it to a bridge. Apparently the custom was inspired by an Italian book & film and is now hugely popular in Europe and beyond. (I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that there's a Wikipedia page describing the tradition...) Many Russian bridges - especially pretty and prominent ones - are now covered in padlocks. One bridge in the center of Moscow - Luzhkov bridge - is lined with so-called "trees of love," which were placed there specially for love padlocks:

But wedding season is winding down now that it's September, so I won't be crashing any (many?) more weddings this year. And hopefully when my next friend gets married I won't be on the other side of the world.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sick Day

I'm calling in sick. No blog (no real blog) today. Some kind of a stomach something-or-other. I won't go into details. Blech. 2nd time since I've been here. Perhaps my metaphorical sickness for "home" is manifesting itself in concrete ways. Anyway, until next week.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

So Long, and Thanks for All the Coffee

I'm in no state to be blogging, but I'm doing it anyway. For the last four days I've been attending an inspiring, if a bit intense, conference in Vilnius, Lithuania and it has left me pretty zonked. (Though I was kept very alert during the conference by two delicious coffee breaks and delicious lunchtime coffee service.) I'm already headed back to Moscow tomorrow morning.

I can't say that I'm incredibly excited about this.

Vilnius -- besides being a fantastic and adorable historic town -- also knows what food and coffee should taste like (something I'd have trouble saying about Moscow). I was actually a bit surprised I like it here so much, because two years ago when I visited as part of my Baltic Backpacking Bonanza, I wasn't such a fan. I don't know what I was thinking back then. The only reason I can come up with is that I was tired and cranky and took it out on poor Vilnius. I mean, how could one not like a town where achoo means 'thank you'?? (Actually spelled: ačiū in Lithuanian but pronounced sort of like achoo, just with the stress on the first syllable.)

Well, at least I won't be arriving back in Moscow quickly. My travel itinerary has me on buses and trains (well, a bus and a train) for almost 24 hours. This was also how long it took me to get to Vilnius from Moscow.

What?!?!?!? (You might be thinking.) Well, I decided not to fly because the prices shot up at the last minute, but secretly I wanted to take the train anyway. However, I couldn't take the train directly from Moscow to Vilnius because that train goes through Belarus and Belarus hates Americans and would have charged me $177 for a transit visa. Soooo... I took a train from Moscow to Riga, Latvia (transit time: 16 hours), then waited a few hours in Riga, then got on a bus from Riga to Vilnius (transit time: 4.5 hours). On the map the green letters are the train stops and the red arrow is the bus part.

I quite enjoyed the traveling. And I'm looking forward to the return trip tomorrow (aside from the "leaving Vilnius" part). I thought this was because I'd developed a romantic perspective on Russian train travel having to do with more closely aligning the the passage of space and time and staying connected to the land. Then today I realized that I was fooling myself with all of this. The real reason I wanted to take the train (+bus) was to get out of Moscow for as long as possible.

But on Tuesday morning I'll arrive back in Moscow. And that's where I'll remain for six straight months.

Well, so long Vilnius, and thanks for all the coffee!