A sense of humor can get you through just about anything. When living abroad, especially in Russia, the ability to laugh is often what keeps you grounded and optimistic. So I thought I’d share with you a few of the ways I get my chuckles around here, a few of life’s absurdities. This is how I laugh the day away in the merry old land of Russia.
Hot Water: If you’re reading this blog, you probably have easy access to hot water in your home. You probably even take this for granted. You might be surprised to learn that in Russia—a member of the G8—city-wide hot-water shut-offs are a yearly tradition, sometimes for weeks at a time. Every year, come spring or summer, many Russian cities perform maintenance on the centralized hot-water system that provides hot water to all citizens. This includes the 12 million people living in Moscow and—a little more close to home—the unsuspecting American girl living in Ulan-Ude. I discovered this proud tradition after getting off a stinky Russian train, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and never imagining that anything could come between me and my one true desire. I was wondering what on earth I could have done to break my sink and shower at such a crucial moment of stinkitude—only to find out that, no, this is completely normal. It’s only for “several days,” I was reassured reassured—and then we get to keep hot water all the way until June 17 (followed by 3 weeks of no hot water)! Meanwhile, I just had to suck it up and take the coldest shower of my life. I’ve had my fair share of cold showers, but nothing can compare to the cold of Siberia’s pipes in early spring. Yes, to be honest, the prospect of stepping in my shower over the next few days was a source of misery and woe—but now that hot water has been turned back on, it’s something to laugh at. The complete normality of something that, until a week ago, seemed completely barbaric… Черный юмор, maybe, but юмор nonetheless.
Trans-avant-garde: I’m a girl who loves her theatre. So how could I pass up an invitation to the Youth Art Theater? Wooster introduced me to some weird, weird stuff—but nothing could have prepared me for “Skin of a Philosopher.” The registration process should have tipped me off, I think. I had to call a number—and I was assigned an “Ausweiss number” that was to be presented, along with the last 4 digits of my phone number, in order to gain entrance to the performance. Ok, fine, codes and passwords.
I walked into the theater lobby, and this is what I saw: clusters of people milling about wearing creepy horned red and black masks, a brochure containing 6 detailed bullet-points on the “Rules for being a participant” of the performance by this “trans-avantgarde” theatrical group, and a masked man at a desk demanding, “Ausweiss number?” in an extremely sinister voice (I mean, the voice of Satan himself). I turned on my heel and walked right out of there. Too weird for me, I reasoned with myself. But, halfway down the street back to the bus stop, I managed to talk myself out of chickening out. I went back to the theater, told the scary man my Ausweiss number, and was given a mask of my own—along with a home-made sign on a stick that said “108.”
Frightened as I was, I was committed. And this is what I learned: trans-avant-garde theatre is apparently a genre where the audience wears masks and get into fierce philosophical debates with the actors during the performance, and people representing supermarket chains bumble around wordlessly on stage, after which random props with whimsical names (such as “the revolutionary spirit” or “a mother’s love and tenderness”) are auctioned off to the audience. Honestly, the only thing I understood from this performance was the “report” on philosophical theory. Technically, I knew one of the performers, but the masks didn’t help me recognize him. I left half-way through the auction. Too weird for me.
Chinese Fire: By now, I’ve spun a number of yarns about my Chinese neighbor. From the burglary of my favorite kitchen appliances to thunderous late-night laundering to the presence of four whole stinking fish on the counter for days on end, there’s always something with this guy. This latest installment, however, really takes the proverbial cake. On Friday night, he was up to his usual shenanigans of late-night Chinese-food-cooking. Three gallons of soup at 11PM? Whatever, I don’t question this guy anymore. Three hours later, at 2AM, nature’s call drew me from my slumber. As I made my way to the bathroom, I started to notice a couple things. First: loud angry Russian men shouting and running up and down our corridor. And second: the smell of smoke. Long story short, our kitchen was on fire. Now the whole building smells like smoke, and there’s a bowl full of burnt Chinese soup “cooling off” on our balcony. Scary at the time—but now this makes for a funny story (though now the sound of Chinese coming from the kitchen has a whole new menacing quality to it).
Looking back at what I’ve written, I realize that this looks like a whole lot of black humor. But I really don’t see it that way—it’s a matter of perspective. I have hot water again, and I didn’t die in a kitchen fire. Life is great! It’s also absurd and I like to laugh at it. I’ve had some real honest-to-goodness laughs at life this week, but maybe the darker ones make for the best blog material. Anyway, I’ll end on a cheery note. Ulan-Ude’s Mormon missionaries have an English Club, and they invited me to come visit this week. At the end of the meeting, during which I spoke both English and Russian, a number of people—Americans and Russians—asked me how long I’ve been learning English. I don’t know if this is a testament to my mad Russian skillz or my declining English ones—or if I REALLY just look REALLY Russian.
Also among this week’s accomplishments: I played Russian “Taboo” with Russians and did not totally suck!