there is an old politically incorrect russian jokes that goes:
do you know how chinese people name their children?
they throw some silverware down the stairs and name the child by the resulting sound.
well, as an american liberal arts enlightened student, i dismissed this as culturally insensitive nonsense.
but just now, i dropped a spoon in my room, and my flat mate (whose chinese name I cannot pronounce and out of sensitivity for the shortcomings of our pronunciation he introduces himself as john) suddenly responded from his room down the hall, ‘yes’.
bewildered, i thought, is there anything to this? does it deserve a follow up experiment?
update: 3 hours later.
my friend was over this time, so i say this with the weight of 4 ears. i accidentally clanked my cup on the table. this time john was in the kitchen. ‘yes’, he said but then walked over to the door and checked to see if anyone was there.
it must be that he has sensitive ears and timid quietly knocking friends, which actually is the case.
time has passed, and i have told this story many times. this means that i’ve rehearsed my telling of it, but also that i have gotten tired of hearing myself speak it out. so i write it now, for your benefit.
during a recent visit to moscow, i stayed with the family of my cambridge friend, masha tabak. the tabak’s are very interesting people, one can say, part of the russian intelligencia. as part of this intelligencia, they are defined by their multitude of interesting friends. it is this network of associations that positions you.
their friend sonya, a moscow correspondent for the new york times, was hosting a spring party at a bohemian cafe, all inside a theater, hardly a fifteen minute walk from the kremlin. most of the people in attendance were her fellow correspondents from american media. nbc, cbs, abc, npr, and some of their russian counterparts, such as ‘rea news’ and ntv. but also there was a professor of anthropology from MGU, leading lawyers, … and more that i had not met or do not remember meeting.
this last point is quite serious and takes us to the main cause of my misadventures for the evening. it is not only a stereotype about russia that everyone drinks vodka. it is also the truth. it would have been ingenuine, unmannered, … nay uncivilized for me not to partake of yet another shot to mark a fresh acquaintance.
masha and i had an objective for the evening. we were scoping out potential employers. though she is at cambridge now, and has job prospects at the bbc world service (having already become a regular contributor), she wanted to record some more telephone numbers in her black book of networking and i intended to help her.
perhaps i went about it the wrong way. perhaps i was too ambitious in the amount of people i wished to meet. or perhaps it was the rate of meeting that did me in. or perhaps, the whole episode was inescapable, an inevitability that even the party planners resigned themselves too. for 80 people, the alcohol allowance was such: 10 bottles of wine, 20 bottles of vodka.
anyhow the crux revolves around my relatively peaceful arrival to the party in the company of masha and her father, our individual leave takings, and our diverse adventures on the return home.
the first to leave was yuri, masha’s father. it was 1am and he was aware of the imminence of the last metro train. he was not aware where masha and i were. nor, it seems, was he aware enough to find us. this is surprising because the party was limited to two rooms of one cafe and we were there.
he said he thought we had prolonged our young night’s adventures elsewhere, in the company of some young and daring journalists, contributing to the chaos of the moscow night scene.
he arrived home just short of 2am. in the hallway, his wife asked him where masha and i were. he responded, ‘peretz is with some girls, masha is with some guys. they are fine.’ he did manage to remove his clothes though without regard for where they landed. then he sprawled out on the bed without regard for orientation and immediately engaged in a loud program of snoring.
right about this time, masha was having thoughts of returning home and experiencing similar troubles locating the company she came with. at this point it was just myself that remained. were i was, myself do not remember.
sonya told her that yuri went home, and perhaps masha thought i had left with him. the metro has stopped running by this point, so she caught a car and went home.
in moscow it is possible to transport oneself from origin to destination in a multiplicity of ways. there is the metro, bus, tram, trolley, taxi, route taxi, and also the possibility to ‘catch a car’. catching a car is like hitching for money. usually a much smaller sum than had it been a taxi. many drivers moonlight as cars for hire for a few extra rubles, and many others are not loath to do this on the way home from work.
around 3am. by the time masha arrived at home, i was beginning to gain consciousness. i don’t remember where i was, other than the fact that i had not left the perimeter of the aforementioned two rooms. this was the sequence of my
i realized that i was alive.
i realized that i was myself.
i realized that i was in an uncomfortable position.
i realized that i was in an unfamiliar place.
i realized that i was in moscow.
… a few realizations later i had arrived at the one realization that compelled me to rise and take action: i realized that the people i came with were not around, that it was late and probably a good time to go home.
this process of realizations can be understood by analogy to a computer booting up. at some part of the night, my personal computer crashed and it was now rebooting, albeit in ‘safe mode’. in safe mode, i did not have access to all of my computational capacities. some went into safekeeping for the night. some did not return until much later the following day. i only had a small network of neurons to work with, and i had to trim my thought process to small digestible comprehensible packets of thoughts.
let me find sonya, i thought. she is the host, she must still be here. she will help me.
i soon realized that my vision was significantly impaired. to overcome this, i gave up on my right eye and closed it. with my left eye i squinted and concentrated as i had seen my grandmother squint when looking at my face to tell me apart from other grandchildren. composed in this way, i followed a relatively simple search algorithm around the rooms (like the algorithm of going through a maze by moving straight, and then turning to the right when
rather than me recognizing sonya, it was she who earned a medal for face recognition, having recognized my lopsided squinting face. let’s get you home, she said. masha and yuri have already left. do you have any money?
i checked my wallet and discovered an unusual problem that smelled of world travel. i had 40 dollars (two twenties), 15 euros (a ten and a five) and twenty-five pounds (two tens and a five), but no rubles.
sonya put 200 rubles in my right hand, (for which i am not only indebted but also ooze gratefulness), and i cradled them safely as a five year old may hold on to a hidden piece of candy before life has taught him that chocolate melts in your hand.
outside of the theater, she let me roam around in place, while she flagged down potential cars for hire. the third car agreed to the destination and price, and without further ado, i collapsed into the passenger side seat and bid sonya farewell.
but this is not the end of the story.
the driver soon showed signs of not being such a premium person. when we pulled around the corner, he muttered: show me the loot. in a few logical iterations even in safe mode i made a plan to seem trustworthy, but to avoid this topic directly. i tried to lighten the tension with a conversation on another subject. i opened the window for some air. i closed it because it was cold. but mostly, i realized, it would be best to stay quiet.
then he showed again that he was not such a savory character, and asked you sure you know how much we agreed for? and, you know what happens to people who underpay? with a gold tooth he promised some unmentionable things.
my strategy clearly wasn’t working, but soon i realized why he had been so explicit with the money. he did not know where the place was. make note that it was a particular metro station, ‘nagornaya’, and not some obscure alleyway we were looking for. still, he circled about having lost the sense that we were going in the right direction, disbursing anger in a string of swear words here or a punch at the steering wheel there.
naively, i tried to help and took out the map from my pocket. using the squinting technique, i may have almost located where we were. but even then, i realized it would be hopeless to try to refocus on the street signs (partly because moscow is poorly labeled) and then back on the map. to look straight was already too much to ask of my impaired eyes for the night.
he pulled up to a metro station and said, this is it. he also grunted, give me the money. i did not recognize the place, but it was a metro stop and there was no evidence to the contrary — no clear label naming the stop ‘NOT NAGORNAYA’. besides, moscow metro stations are often expansive, and i figured i’ll go underground and emerge from another entrance where all will become clear.
i unclasped my hand containing the 200 rubles sonya placed there not 25 minutes ago. he took them and then he started to strangle me with the rough hands of a workman. give me another hundred, he said.
maybe i would have given him another hundred, but i did not have any. i was very calm at this moment. maybe because the part of my brain that is responsible for worrying was also out of commission, and if so, that is an important scientific discovery. anyhow, instead of worrying, i thought the following list of things:
i thought i can hold my breath for a long time. when i was younger i placed first and won a coveted ice cream soda at an underwater swimming competition in summer camp. so i have time to think of a plan.
i thought it would be good to make sure the door was unlocked and to locate the handlebar. (i tuned this thought into action, using my right hand.)
i thought it was important to make sure i had my possessions with me, and i tucked the map back into my pocket and tapped my passport and wallet which were in their proper places. (this was accomplished with my left hand.)
i thought, now is a good time to regain my airflow, even at the expense of a proper genial goodbye.
…at this point i mechanically punched the attempted murderer in the nose, jumped out of the car. i ran into the underground where there were many stray dogs warming themselves from the cold.
but even this is not the end of the story. it was a cold night in moscow and the station was not ‘nagornaya’.
40 minutes of mapwork and bipedaling saved me. it was a long 40 minutes filled with many courageous and ingenious navigational moments. at one point i disobeyed a policeman who gave me completely incorrect directions. at another less climactic point, i had to avoid conflict with some drunk hooligans.
when i got home, masha met me by the elevator. there was a trickle of saline fluid on her cheek and i wiped it off. her mother was also waiting up for me in the kitchen. there were crosswords of worry on both of their faces. my fingers were getting numb. we had tea, and we called sonya, and i felt completely sober and happy. happy to be alive.
this is not the end of the story, (but this time) only because it would be a shame to end it without some word of advice. should one avoid hired cars? no, they are helpful and cheap and most of the time a safer and more pleasant experience than mine. make a few reasonable precautions. be more selective with the driver and attempt to coincide with a more premium person. even so, sit in the back seat. this way it is harder for the driver to reach over and strangle you. when possible, carry a gun.
See related article in the San Francisco Chronicle.