Yesterday I moved out of my lodgings with Host Family and into a fabulous and enormous apartment for my remaining month in Moscow.
This has been coming for some time. Host family had informed me upon my arrival in January that their beloved son (who lives in America and is clearly their favorite child based on the way they talk about him) would be visiting for an unspecified amount of time in July. Thus, I was to find another place to live so that he could stay with Mom & Dad.
I'll spare you the details of how it all came about, but I'm essentially housesitting for an American in a beautiful western-remont apartment. After 6 months in my little room with my divan, computer, and books, I literally don't know what to do with myself here. I often get lost going from the bedroom to the kitchen, and by the time I open the fridge I've forgotten what I came for.
The kitchen is perhaps the best part of the outfit. As an amateur (but pretty darn good) chef, I've spent the last 6 months dreaming about the day when I would be liberated from my chains and could perform my usual culinary acrobatics once again in the kitchen. But mostly I was dreaming about the day when I could kiss instant mashed potatoes, undercooked kotlety, and dill goodbye.
The kitchen in my new apartment has everything I could ask for: razor-sharp German knives, beautiful French enameled cast-iron cookware, and a stove whose burners emit such a vigorous "WHOOSH!" upon lighting that my eyebrows flinch every time. At last, here is a canvas upon which I can paint my masterpieces of sauces, sides, and sautes!
Then why in God's name was the first thing I prepared yesterday PICKLES? That's right, I ran out to the nearest outdoor market and bought a kilogram of cucumbers, a forest's-worth of dill, and enough garlic to ward off every bad Dracula movie they've ever made. You see, host Mom had given me her "secret" recipe for lightly-salted pickles, and it is the only thing I've been able to think about since.
It doesn't stop there. This morning when I woke up, I bypassed the Corn Flakes in the cupboard and went straight for the kasha. Same stuff that's been set in front of me for six months, and on my first day of freedom it's the only thing that sounds good for breakfast. So I boil kasha for the first time, and it's wonderful! (I am proud to say that my kasha is better than host Mom's, which was always over-salted and overly mushy).
But wait, there's more! I just whipped up a batch of that shockingly pink salad that consists of grated beets, mayonnaise, and garlic. And my God, it's good!
And did I mention the salmon that's salting and curing in the fridge too?
What's happening to me? I thought maybe it was a one-time deal and that yesterday I had simply woken up on the Russian side of the bed (by which I mean the divan). But today it happened again: when I went to the western-style supermarket I found myself bypassing all the imported stuff and loading my cart with that nondescript Russian cheese, the plastic-cased sosiski (hot dogs), sushki, and a bottle of kvas for good measure.
I'm embarrassed to admit that the fridge now smells pretty much like it did back at host family's place, minus the really funky odors. But the powerful scent of dill, garlic, and beets fills the air and wafts through the kitchen every time I open the refrigerator door. I probably shouldn't be admitting this publicly, as the apartment owner is a regular reader of this blog, but I suppose they'll find out soon enough anyway. Sorry, A! I'll be sure to leave the pickle recipe for you as a peace offering!
I'm not really sure how to account for the dramatic shift in my tastes. After all, it was not long ago that I was berating Russian food and declaring that I could reasonably stand Russian food about once a year. One friend recently suggested that perhaps it was a case of culinary Stockholm syndrome, the condition whereby a hostage becomes emotionally attached to his captors. Suffice it to say that I've become emotionally attached to my pickles, kasha, and beet salad.
In fact, I think this is simply part of a larger phenomenon that has been developing inside of me for the last couple of months. I can honestly say that for the last couple of months here, I haven't just been surviving, which is how it felt during those first few dark, cold, lonely months. Rather, I feel like I've really been thriving here. Moscow has become comfortable, it has become welcoming, it has become home. Of course, Moscow hasn't become anything it wasn't already. The real change has been within myself as I stopped fighting the current and started swimming with it.
Of course, this transformation has partly been a change in attitude - things that once irritated me and occasionally even infuriated me now get brushed casually aside with the incredibly useful umbrella explanation, "well, that's Russia." And I can even laugh about some of these things now too. But perhaps equally important, I can give it right back now. When some 50 year-old pre-babushka tries to slip laterally into the line at the ticket window, I can sternly point behind me and tell her that THAT's the back of the line, and that we've all been waiting for a long time. In the past I would have just let her cut and fumed at her uncivil behavior. Similarly, I can argue with the woman selling tickets at the museum who insists on charging me the adult foreigner price despite the fact that I have a student ID card from a Russian university. Of course, she still gets her way, but at least I get some satisfaction by telling her she's the only cashier in Moscow who doesn't understand that foreigners can be students at Russian universities.
I think the root of this newfound acceptance of Russia and all her quirks is linguistic. After months languishing on a plateau, my Russian language abilities suddenly spiked upwards, making everything that much easier here. And so it's not just that I've learned to go with the flow and follow the current, but I've been given a paddle and can actually steer where I want.
And so, Russia has started to feel normal. It has started to feel right. Maybe this is a sign that it's time to go home, or maybe this is a reason to be sad: I'm finally hitting my stride, just a month before I'm due to leave. I find I'm having a harder and harder time coming up with things to write about, which is probably why my postings have dropped off a bit lately. That which was once foreign and worthy of satirical jest is just a part of normal life now, part of my life now. It is as if the barrier between the Self and the Other has started to dissolve, becoming equally a part of who I am.
But enough of all this philosophical mumbo jumbo. I have pickles to check on!