Red Ticket: A Break Today
In which Robin learns the magic words in Moscow: “Do you smoke?”
Welcome to all the new subscribers. Let me catch you up: Every weekend we serialize Red Ticket, Robin Whetstone’s memoir of her time in Moscow in the early ‘90s. She’s long been one of my favorite humorists in the bedraggled Southern tradition, and her memoir expertly captures what it was like to live in Moscow back when absurdity peacefully coexisted with violence. Today, Whetstone is back with a new chapter in which confronts her biggest challenge in Moscow — getting something to eat. If you need to catch up, go back and read chapters 1, 2-3, 4-5, and 6. Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you.
Chapter 7. A Break Today
My main problem in Moscow was not fear. It was hunger. I’d spent the four days between the attack and this, the start of my language class, throwing up after buying cheese from a shifty-looking fellow at the metro.
“Psst, devushka,” he’d whispered, opening one side of his long black coat, exactly the way they do in movies, “Hochesh seer?”
“Psst, girl. You want cheese?” A long tube of white, plastic-wrapped cheese hung from the coat’s inside. “Sixty rubles.”
It had been a good price but a bad idea, buying a 12-pound log of stolen cheese from a stranger on the street and then eating nine pounds of it in one sitting. Such a bad idea. But I’d recovered, and now this was the first day of my language class. I didn’t know what to expect when I’d signed up with the brand-new, private, completely unregulated Russian-language company that got me my visa into Russia and a room in the dorm. The company had told me nothing but a start date and a building and room number, and this morning I was on my way there. I was optimistic. Maybe in class I could meet people my age; people who knew where to find things. I thought about Hussein, who knew where to find eggs. Maybe he would have been in my class.
I had to get out of the dorms, I knew that, but first, I had to find food. I was not prepared to be this hungry. It was 14 degrees outside; a literal Russian blizzard. I had just recovered from food poisoning. I needed calories.
The worst thing was, I knew exactly where to find food. Everyone in Moscow did. And this was cheap, hot, reliable food that you didn’t need connections or dollars to buy and that definitely wouldn’t kill you. I thought about it every day, gleaming there on the edge of Pushkin Square like a spaceship. I could go there right now if I wanted, eat as much as I could.
“There’s no way you’re going there,” I told myself as I walked to the philology building for my first language class. It was Monday, the start of my second week in Moscow.
The elevators were broken, so I climbed the unheated stairs to the 3rd floor. The hall was empty and silent, illuminated only by watery daylight from an open classroom door or two. I fished the letter I’d received from the language school out of my coat pocket. This was the right room number.
An old lady sat at the end of the table closest to me, as far away from the big windows as she could get. The room was as cold as the outside, and the woman pulled her heavy shawl around her as I opened the door.
“Oh, izvenitya,” I said, “I must have the wrong room.”
“Nyet nyet nyet,” said the old lady, hopping to her feet and advancing on me like a woolen tank. “You are Robin, and I am Galina Petrovna, your tutor.” She took me by the elbow and pulled me into the room and over to the chair across from hers. “Come, sit down, I have brought you some pieces of stale bread.”
She reached into a cloth sack at her feet and pulled out a bag filled with seasoned bits of crunchy bread, like croutons. I sat down and began devouring them. Galina Petrovna pushed a set of mimeographed papers across the table toward me and began talking at me in incomprehensible, rapid-fire Russian. I caught maybe every tenth word. I picked up the pages and squinted at the smudged purple ink. I could not decipher the paragraph of directions at the top of each page. I could understand most basic spoken Russian, with its body language and facial expressions and situational cues. This ditto probably wanted me to decline or diagram something. These were words I had never learned.
Galina Petrovna was watching me stare at the paper, waiting for me to start. I was embarrassed, and nervous. I decided to blame the darkness.
“Um, can you turn on a light?” I asked in English. “I can’t see.”
“I don’t understand English,” replied Galina Petrovna in Russian. “Only French. And there is no electricity in this building. Will you begin?” She pointed at the ditto.
There was no way out. I was going to have to tell Galina that I didn’t understand anything and was just a dilettante. Instead, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds. “Galina Petrovna,” I said, holding up the cigarettes, “Do you smoke?”
I leaned in the stairwell with Galina Petrovna, listening to her talk. She lit another cigarette and told me that she was born in 1933. That year was a bad year to be born anywhere, but most especially in Leningrad.
“I was eight when the Great Patriotic War began,” she told me, cigarette smoke unfurling from her nostrils. “I was there for the whole siege.”
I had read all about the siege of Leningrad, when the Nazis encircled the city and cut off all food shipments for 900 days. Two million people spent three years trapped together in a city with no food. The citizens ate leather briefcases boiled down to jelly, wallpaper glue smeared on bread made of sawdust, and each other. The siege of Leningrad, the longest siege in history, is near the top of the list of terrors that characterized the 20th century, and Galina Petrovna lived through it. In spite of the five cigarettes she’d just smoked, my tutor was a survivor. She was a real Russian, a total bad-ass. If anyone would know where to find food in Moscow, it would be she.
“Galina Petrovna,” I said. “Please tell me. What do you eat?”
“McDonald’s,” she said.
“Shto?” I said. “No, wait...” Galina Petrovna was the bi-lingual lady with the PhD in literature who had survived both the Nazis and the Communists. She of all people should know better than McDonald’s.
“Da, da. I eat McDonald’s as much as I can. It is my very favorite food, this ‘Beeg Mac.’”
“But…” I said. And then I didn’t say anything else. Anything I could think of to say – “McDonald’s encourages suburban sprawl!” – sounded ridiculous.
An hour after my first class ended I stood on the edge of Pushkin Square, trying to decide. The lines weren’t at all like they’d been in 1991, when I’d gone to Moscow on a college trip, but the place was swarming with people. This was the biggest McDonald’s in the whole world, this one right here in the square named for Russia’s national poet.
“You don’t want to go in there,” I told myself. “You came here to get away from all of this.”
But in there, the lights were on. The heat was on. Through the glass walls I could see colorful murals depicting classic American landscapes — Grand Canyon, New York skyline — decorating the restaurant. Russians packed the booths in front of a Mississippi paddleboat scene and stuffed fries into their mouths, smiling at each other. I knew I was witnessing history. A public building full of smiling Russians had never happened before. Smiling was for private time, or Americans.
The glass doors opened and closed, wafting warm, hamburger-scented air my way. It smelled like my 8th birthday party, back in Florida.
Back home, fast-food like McDonald’s killed the downtown diners with suburban sprawl and the suburban diners with diabetes. But I’d only been here six days, and I was so hungry, and everything sucked so bad. This wasn’t giving in, I told myself. My principles would still be there tomorrow. I was just taking a rest. I deserved it.
I opened the door, and got in line.
If you’re enjoying Robin’s Moscow memoir, share it. Part of the reason I’m serializing it is to help her build the audience she deserves. (The other part of the reason is that I want you to have something fun to look forward to every weekend.)
Read the next chapter here, and subscribe so you don’t miss any new chapters.
I would like to pay respect to those we lose along the way. If there is someone you would like to be remembered in future newsletters, please post links to their obituaries in the comments section or email me. Thank you.
How we’re getting through this
Making lazy lasagne
Taking the perfect bath
Deploying germ-killing robots
Learning how to make a leftover casserole
Taking encouragement from swing-state senate polling
Supporting independent music venues with this form letter
Driving around a race track to raise money for the ATX food bank
Remembering how this tasted as proof of good in the world because damn
What I’m reading
Ad News: “Pandemic Habits: An increased consumer focus on 'ethical consumption'“
End of Austin: “Breakfast Taco Wars: Race, History, and Food in Austin and San Antonio”
Sosnik:”The 2020 Elections - Six Months Out”
WaPo: “From a Miami condo to the Venezuelan coast, how a plan to ‘capture’ Maduro went rogue”
WSJ DXS: “How the Wall Street Journal’s New Calendars Help Readers Plan for the News”
Got some reading suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter. Have a book to promote? Let me know in the comments or email me.
What I’m watching
Is anyone up for a Netflix watch party for Space Force? Let me know, and I’ll put you on the list. Seriously, we could have a whole party.
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
What I’m listening to
Do you know about Mobley?
WHIM’s “Somebody Else’s Tongue” makes me want to learn to play guitar. The feeling passed, but this song strikes a ‘90s, alt-girl vibe.
Sweet Crude, a bilingual New Orleans band, strikes an ‘80s Europop vibe; I like it anyway.
Sia’s got a new album coming out. She dropped “Saved My Life” early.
Don’t know who needs to listen to this Kesha song, but I’m sure someone is going to dig this track very, very deeply.
I'm over adulthood
I'm throwin' all my big girl panties
In the garbage can, 'cause I can
I'll be out ridin' my pony until it's time for candy
And I'll be naked because I want to
La-dee-da-dee-da, 'cause I want to
But this weekend’s featured song is Brendan Benson’s dad anthem, “Richest Man.”
I got two beautiful babies
And one hell of a good looking wife
Got twice the love and half the money
And I feel like the richest man alive
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
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