Daniel Brooks

I have been in Russia too long. With each passing year, I feel better about freezing cold weather. I woke up earlier this month, looked outside and saw the first snowfall of the year in our apartment courtyard. When I first came to Russia, I thought this view was bleak. Nowadays, I think it’s fine. The thermometer showed -14 degrees Celsius. I could hear the sound of someone scraping snow below, reassuring sleepers in the apartments around me. Had they woken up briefly, they’d have gone right back to sleep. They were born here. What is my excuse? 

This year snow came late. Moscow had one sunny day after another from mid-September until well into November. By end November, Moscow should have had much colder weather and a few snowfalls, interspersed by sleet and rain, causing the traffic to worsen and the streets to be covered with grime. This year, until the end of November, the streets were bone dry. Snow cleaning machines everywhere were idle. The sludge caused by melting snow was missing. I was concerned. Then, the weather redeemed itself. It’s been nice and cold all of December.  Now it’s -18 Celsius. Having breathed a sigh of relief, I have to wonder whether something has gone haywire in my brain.     

I’ve begun answering questions as if I am a partisan behind enemy lines. I have a pass that I use to get into an office building. I keep it in a plastic envelope and hang it around my neck, as if I’m going to a trade show. Normally, the card, which shows my picture, is upside down. I’ve been asked several times, why the upside-down photo? I always answer, I don’t want anyone to know who I am. In fact, I don’t. 

If someone wants to know what I do for a living, I give vague answers and often ask, who wants to know? Keeping people in the dark is good practice, should the fascists come back.   

An offshoot of being a partisan is habitually expressing skepticism. This is not the same as being a pessimist. It’s a figure of speech, expressed skeptically. Recently, we had friends over to visit. 

We talked about getting together during the holidays. It was complicated. No one wanted to plan that far ahead. Relatives were involved and scheduling needed to take place. Rather than get bogged down in the details, I said, let’s see if we live that long and then decide. That settled it. If we live until the next round of holidays, we will have something to celebrate, namely our own existence.  

I crave certain Russian foods more than many American ones. I found a source of lightly salted sturgeon at a local market. A nearby stall in the same market sells freshly baked bread. The bread is not made from frozen dough imported from Holland. Authentic black bread with a slice of that sturgeon…to die for, the antithesis of the pre-made, soggy packaged sandwiches that have overtaken Russia lately like an invasive species. Just down the street from the market is a new restaurant that offers gourmet hamburgers, quite good ones. Between smoked sturgeon and hamburgers, it’s been no contest. 

Being a partisan, I’m not going to tell anyone where I found the sturgeon, except for one or two trusted members of my own cadre. 

I find that a discourse with the traffic police can be an interesting way to break up a long commute. This is ludicrous. Lately, the Russian traffic police are being inexorably replaced by cameras, reducing the number of heated and tricky negotiations that take place when a driver is stopped for no reason by a Russian traffic cop. When I am stopped, I’m able to dust off my skills. I was stopped last Monday at an early hour and was asked if I’d “used” anything recently. I said yes, I did have too much wine on the previous Thursday, followed by whiskey, but nothing since. Four days prior, I was as drunk as a lord. On that Monday morning, I had no alcohol in my bloodstream of any kind. He had a laugh and I was allowed to drive on, un-fined. When you get your jollies by extracting a chuckle out of a Russian traffic cop, it’s a sorry state of affairs.  

I am loath to throw things away. Hoarding has entered my thinking. Who knows when the country might be invaded again or the government changes hands, causing a collapse? When that happens, everyone will need to rely on the potatoes in the cellar, random tools in the garage to build things and empty jars to make pickled food. Let us prepare for that day by not throwing anything away, ever. No longer do I discard glass jars, even small ones used to sell overpriced yoghurt, without lids on them. Our garage has a pile of lumber that has not budged since 2005. We buy new lumber, when we need it, without touching the supplies left over. You never know.  

My work ethic is weakening. I blame Russia. Every time the country starts working again, another holiday rolls around.  This country has 12 national holidays every year. They all take place on weekdays in 2019, except one. Most Russians take a half or full day off before each holiday, called pre-holiday days, and need a day’s rest afterwards. Each holiday kills at least half of the week in which it occurs, if not the entire week. We’re now coming up on the New Year’s holidays and I’ve noticed that although Christmas isn’t widely celebrated in Russia on the 25thof December, many Russians honour it by going on vacation, perhaps as a courtesy. From 1-7 January Russia has four national holidays. Things will be pretty slow around here in Russia until the third week of January. Not to worry, though, if anyone feels stressed out at the start of the year, a national holiday takes place on the 23rdof February followed quickly by another one on the 8thof March. Doing nothing at all is a skill that needs to be kept up to speed. The national art of sitting on one’s duff is perfected as the year goes by. The country is pretty much dead during the first two weeks of May. After that, another five holidays follow as the year goes by. All told, Russia is partially or completely shut down for holidays for 5-6 weeks every year, including all the pre-holiday and post-holiday days. In addition, Russians get 30 days paid vacation. On top of all that, during the summer, many people go to their summer dachas early on Fridays.  Often, my friends and relatives in the US feel sorry for me, living in Russia. And well they should. It took years to get accustomed to doing nothing during these ceaseless national holidays.      

I’ve overstayed in other ways as well.  The entrance to our home has a big pile of shoes, many unworn for some time. I only wear slippers indoors, always. This is required Russia, punishable by reprimands. I bring house slippers with me in a plastic bag when I visit someone, to wear in their home and avoid sitting at the dinner table in my stocking feet. One or two numbers on the license plates of my car are normally blackened so that hopefully the cameras can’t ticket me. I’m unnecessarily fond of the triangular red sticker on my car that says, ‘studded tires’ (‘shini’). I am almost always in some kind of a bureaucratic process or another and when my documents are accepted by a Russian bureaucrat, I am in a good mood for a few days, then the application is turned down and the pattern repeats itself. I know the staff at my local multi-functional centre, where I’m registered as a resident in Russia, personally. I’ll stop here.  

There might be hope. I don’t yet leave plates of food outside of our front entrance for stray cats and dogs to eat. I often dress unfashionably unlike most Russians who do their best to look presentable. I’m not the least bit nostalgic for the Soviet era. I do things on time and eat lunch at noon, not at 3 in the afternoon or whenever. I don’t drink a gallon of tea every day. I get up early to miss traffic jams, useful because most Russians are happy to spend an extra half hour sleeping or drinking tea, only to get stuck in traffic for an extra hour afterwards. I skip the tea, and the traffic. What a clever foreigner. 

Perhaps the cause is lost. There is nothing left to do but take the day off.     

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 19 December 2018