The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

Part 5: Two Months and Counting

April 13, 1993

Saturday, April 10, marked the beginning of a new phase of my existence in Moscow. For one thing, it marked the end of my first two months here, of a planned six. Secondly, it was my first day of work as a copy editor/polisher at the weekly English edition of Commersant, the business newspaper that also publishes the Guardian, the magazine I've been taking pictures for. The job is one that I heard about through a friend of Ian's, that I first interviewed for in early March, and that I am still not 100% certain I have, since I was called in mainly to plug a gap caused by the departure of the chief copy editor for a two-week vacation home in the States, and no firm hiring decisions can be made until he returns. But I think that if I continue to show up every Saturday and make myself useful enough that the English-speaking staff won't want to give me up, I will be able to hold the job for as long as I want it.

It's pretty light work. A thirty-minute bus ride takes me to the Commersant building, certainly one of the nicer buildings I've seen in Moscow, though there are touches of decay, like the dangling wires in the bathroom where the electric hand-dryers should be. I go upstairs to the Guardian office, log into the computer, and pull up an article that has not yet been polished. This is a little tricky, since although the word processor is in English, the computer operating system is in Russian. (When you want to send a file, the computer asks, "Komu?" literally "to whom." Very cute.) Then the file appears on screen, and a quick glance tells me if it's a competent translation which will require only a bit of work, or a mass of gibberish which will demand an hour of rewriting. If something is totally incomprehensible, I simply go downstairs to the office where a bunch of Russian translators are sitting with clippings from the Russian edition, typing their translations into the computer. They can go back to the orginal text and figure out what went wrong.

In addition to fixing the classic translation errors, like omitting articles (which don't exist in Russian) or changing tenses from ones used in Russian to those more common in English, I try to improve the writing some. For example, the Commersant writers tend to jump right into their stories, without writing leads. And they aren't big on transitions. Writing leads, transitions, and slapping in a few slightly colorful phrases is no problem, though. After a summer of kneading other people's writing into a homogeneous mass called Let's Go: Paris, I could do this stuff in my sleep.

The most creative part of the job is writing a headline, a subhead, and a Table of Contents entry for each article. Were this a nice police magazine, this would be a lot more fun. You know, "Body Parts Found in Child's Lunchbox," that kind of thing. As it is, Commersant's articles are pretty dry--currency trading, import regulations, etc. I do what I can with these, putting in some tired metaphors, like "Ministry Keeps a Tight Fist On Imports." Some of the people who have been there longer--single, American journalists in their 30s, God knows why they came here--have developed a sport of seeing what colloquialisms they can put in that won't be caught by the Russian supervisors. Recent examples include "Central Bank Covers Assets" and "Gazprom Lays Pipe Across Eurasia."

Though I am told that on a bad night the work goes until 3am, I got out on Saturday by 11:30, having arrived at 3pm. In the schedule, the terminology, the computer system, and the atmosphere, it's all very much like the Harvard Crimson. The pay is, I am told , $140 for the first month and $200 thereafter, which, along with my photography earnings, should keep me in cabbage. So I have more or less found my niche here, employment-wise, using old skills learned at college publications to work at periodicals with standards not much higher than student products.

I have taken advantage of the two-month milestone to ask myself a few questions about my sojourn here.

What turned out as I expected it to?

Work: though it took some doing, I ended up working for a couple of English-language news organizations. Not the radio station, nor the businessman's guide, of which I had heard before I came, but the press nonetheless. Learning Russian has also been roughly as Ian said it would be: hard, but not impossible. And food--the boxes of ingredients I packed with me turned out to be almost exactly what would be hard to find here, and they have made many a Chinese and Indian meal so far.

What was more important than I expected?

Well, e-mail for one thing. With most of my friends and family on-line, I haven't really lost that much contact with the USA. Of course, there are some people without modems whose calls and letters I miss very much, but in general e-mail has turned out to be a priceless blessing. Without it life here would be far more difficult, and with it I am at most half as isolated as I would be had I gone to some really remote place with poor international mail service. If I ever do this sort of thing again, I will try to have either e-mail or fax capability.

Ian has also been a very central part of my experience so far. In the beginning, I was more dependent on him and Laura than I have been on anyone since about second grade. Now I am more able to get around on my own, but getting to know Ian--just hearing stories from his childhood or arguing about Harvard's Core Curriculum--has been extremely educational.

In Chile, I would have had neither e-mail nor Ian, and for this reason I think that I made the right choice in coming to Moscow. Not that I have given up on the idea of South America, you understand.

What was less important than I expected?

The main answer to this one is Russia. I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I have been largely living the enclave life here, with American friends, American employers, and the BBC. I haven't had much occasion to palm off my little gifts on anyone, and I have only drunk vodka twice, I think. I haven't had use for either a patronymic nor my heavy long underwear, though the lightweight pair was a lifesaver before.

Of course, I didn't really come here because of Russia. Many people do--many of the expats here were Russian Studies majors of some variety in college, and may have been here before studying the language. But there are also opportunists like me, who simply wanted a place where the rent was cheap and no one checked for work permits. I have found such a place here, and the fact that it is Russia is secondary. In this sense, I am like the thousands of Americans in Prague, a very small percentage of whom, I hear, have had a deep fascination with Czech culture for years.

Maybe Act II of this drama will be a process of increasing connection to the country as Russia, rather than just the place where I happen to be, if that makes sense.

What do I miss?

I certainly miss my cat, who doesn't write letters and can't be bothered to learn to use e-mail. And I miss many dear friends in general, though that is more a result of my college class having scattered to the four corners of the globe after graduation than of my isolating myself by coming here. That is, there is nowhere on earth where I could be with all the people I miss, except perhaps dataspace, where I am right now, as I type.

In terms of things American, it all depends on how you phrase the question, on what variables one holds constant. I mean, I sort of miss tacos. There are taco shells and ground beef here, but you have to pay dollars. But if I were living in Washington, supporting myself on $200-300 a month, I wouldn't be able to afford tacos anymore than I can afford them now. In fact, there wouldn't be much I could afford. On the other hand, if I were living in Somerville on $800 a month (before taxes) as I was this summer, I could have all the tacos I wanted but would be again frustrated because I couldn't afford to eat at the barbecue place down the street, except for once in a while.

In other words, if I miss things American, it is because of my limited means. But limited means is more a factor of who I am than where I am.

Really, then, I don't miss much at all. I am in tolerable contact with many people I love, I have my hot shower and my decent food, I have the BBC--a decent substitute for the Washington Post, and I have gotten used to a certain level of consumer frustration. Why go home?

What have I learned?

Having for the first time in my life gotten not one job but two through contacts rather than through ads (every job I ever had before coming here was posted or advertised somewhere) I have learned the lesson that so many of you were trying to teach me for so long: you don't get a good job by looking through want ads, no matter the publication. So I think that when I return, I will be a little more sophisticated about looking for work.

On the other hand, I am enjoying myself enough here that it will be hard to find something I like as much in the States. I have the terrible feeling that once I settle down anywhere it will never be as easy to take off again. So beware, it may be a while before I land.

Any orders for the Pampas Home Companion?

In case anyone was wondering, I did attend (in fact I led) a seder last Monday. Twelve people, seven and two-halves of them Jewish, ten of them American (one Jew and one Gentile were Russian), eleven of them living in Moscow (the remainder was a visitor from Cambridge, Mass.) crowded into a Moscow living room to tell the story of our ancestors' exodus from Egypt. We also feasted like kings: matzoh ball soup, matzoh, charosets, horseradish, smoked chicken, beef stroganoff (sans noodles), two salads, imberlach (a matzoh and honey dessert), and matzoh/apple pudding.

What was weird about this seder was not that half of the matzoh was 1992 vintage Maneschewitz, and the other half fresh from the Lubavitchers, nor that all the Jews were perfectly happy to be in Russia and had no desire to spend next year in Jerusalem, nor even that Andrew Kaplan, our host, had bought inch-and-a-half tall cupie dolls for affikomen treats. No, what was really bizarre about this seder is that it was the first unigenerational seder I have ever attended, with the youngest of the group, at 21, directing the Four Questions to our venerable senior, a wizened lady of 26. Compare this to the seder I attended last year, with guests ranging in age from roughly 9 to 82. Somehow Judaism just doesn't make any sense without children and particularly without old people. Perhaps this is why we ended up spending much of the night talking about our grandparents. (Only nice things, Grandma. Only nice things.)

Then on Sunday I attended an Easter supper, complete with ham and blueberry pie. I may end up at a dinner to celebrate Russian Orthodox Easter, which is next Sunday: a spring festival trifecta.

Happy Spring, everyone.


Back |Next