The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

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Part 11: Goat Offal

July 1, 1993

I took a hot shower today. That news may not seem so remarkable, until I tell you that for the past two weeks, in order to reduce my personal culpability for the greenhouse effect while improving my manly vigor, I had been taking only cold showers. My resolve in this decision was strengthened by the local water authority's shutting off the neighborhood's hot water for just that two-week period.

This happens to everyone in Moscow, though not at the same time. No matter where you live, at some time in the summer you will lose your hot water for anywhere from two weeks to several months, so that the pipes can be maintained. Why Russians need to shut off the hot water to maintain the pipes while Westerners seem to do it just fine without interrupting service is a technical matter best left to the experts. But the phenomenon, and the fatalistic attitude that Russians and expats alike take to it, symbolizes for me the pervasiveness of Communism's evil, which diminished people's hopes in every sphere from political freedom to personal hygeine. The regime probably didn't even have to censor Western media to eliminate the information that we get hot water year round. Who would think of putting such a trifle in a Voice of America broadcast?

The cold showers would have been easier had it really been summer, but it has been a cold, wet June, with rain most days and clouds every day. I might as well be in England. People tell me that this is lousy weather even by Moscow standards. There is one compensation: often just after a rainfall, one can go outside to see thousand-foot-high thunderheads, dark gray on one side but shining yellow in the sun on the other. I have rarely seen skies so dramatic.

Even weirder than the weather has been the ruble. Two weeks ago, banks were buying dollars for up to 1,195 rubles. By the beginning of this week, the rate had dropped as low as 1000 to the dollar in some places. Unbelievable! The ruble actually gained value, even as the dollar rose versus the Deutsche mark and the yen! How could they expect us, the privileged foreigners, to put up with (gasp) inflation? Well, we won't have to for long; all the papers say that the ruble's recovery was due to a few temporary factors, and that before long it will resume its steady slide. Sort of a shame, really. Not only would it be good for Russia to get a stable currency, but it was terribly easy to calculate prices when the ruble was 1000 to the buck.

Though my daily routine has not changed much, my mental life has become considerably more chaotic recently, as my future becomes more uncertain. The first cause of this uncertainty is the flux at the Guardian. Tom Birchenough, the new editor-in-chief, is busy scraping together a new permanent staff, to replace the group that resigned en masse in May. Having read and liked my two Estonia articles (they appear in the current issue), he encouraged me to do more work, probably shorter pieces about things to do in and near Moscow, rather than more travel articles. He's not offering me any pure photo work, but if I write an article or short piece, I should be able to sell a photo along with it. Again, all of this fits nicely with my progress in Russian; though I can't do interviews, I can gather information, and I am beginning to be able to actually read things.

I haven't actually written anything since the Estonia articles. Last week I took a hydrofoil up the Moscow river (11 cents roundtrip) to a place recommended by the Deputy Editor, but I didn't locate the rowboat rental he says was there last summer, so nothing has come of that yet. But tomorrow night, I get to review a hard-currency Korean restaurant: a $60-70 meal at the expense of the magazine. And I should get paid for the Estonia pieces soon, roughly $200 for a trip that cost me $90 and that was sheer delight. So I may spend the next few weeks as an irregular staffer at the Guardian, something that I wish had happened earlier, but no individual can control the sweep of history.

Whether I do more or less work for the Guardian doesn't matter that much. The real turmoil is the result of my iminent (4-6 weeks) return to the United States. What then? One of the main reasons I came to Russia was to postpone any serious, long-term decisions about my future, and perhaps even gain the knowledge or wisdom to face those decisions. But my reprieve is running out, and I am faced with the same challenge without being much better equipped to deal with it.

Here's what I have learned.

  1. I find living abroad strenuous but stimulating.
  2. If placed in a non-English speaking country and provided with a skilled teacher, I can achieve basic competence in a foreign language rapidly, but progress beyond a very simple vocabulary much more slowly.
  3. I don't particularly like Russia and do not wish to plan a future around it.
  4. I love and hate journalism, because it allows me to roam around a great deal and talk with people while forcing me to roam around a great deal and talk with people.
  5. If they take away your hot water, plan on washing your body and your hair on alternate days, and shave with water heated on the stove.
If these conclusions contain within them instructions for what do next, the way tea leaves at the bottom of a cup or the entrails of a slaughtered goat might predict the future, I am unable to see it. Proposals for what to do, generated by me and various well-wishers, range from coming back here in September to work as a salaried employee of the Guardian to the Spanish-language program at the University of Salamanca.

Any idea that has me in the United States for a long time seems quite far-fetched. I am like one of those Greeks who goes to Delphi and is told, "You will get old and complacent and acquire heavy furniture in the United States." So he spends years avoiding the U.S., even though it is not the return home itself that is the problem, but the truly inevitable process of aging.

But in my case, I blindly cling to the belief that there is a causal relationship, and that by staying away I can stay young and free.

Sorry for the lack of cliff-hanging action in this broadcast, but I was getting complaints about too much sex and violence. Speaking of which, can someone explain to me the rationale behind shooting off $46 million worth of cruise missiles to blow up a few Iraqi filing cabinets? Is this a desperate attempt to stimulate the economy through extreme military Keynesianism?


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