Moscow Hometown Blues (In the Key of B)

Jonathon Engels

Guatemala

The expansive breakfast buffet at the fancy-pants hotel helped in dismissing the fact that we’d been evicted the day before. While Emma used the free Wi-Fi to flitter between sites for what tourist destinations we should partake in, I sprawled across fresh sheets, ignoring the BBC on the flat-screen HDTV, a belly full of exquisite food helping me forget the past two days. I blamed our new company, EF (English First), but then again, without the old corporate ball-and-chain, without their EF-ups, we wouldn’t be lounging here at the luxurious Hotel Katerina Park.

Before our eviction, for roughly 18 hours, Emma and I lived in a one-room apartment, which in Moscow means literally one room rather than one bedroom. It was filthy from years, decades perhaps, of acting as the habitat for full families, likely with several raucous male members with poor aim, and a series of mothers too overwhelmed to clean regularly. We’d agreed to pay $1,000 a month, convinced that we could make it our home. We had returned from our first day at work for our first evening there, one which promised plenty of scouring and bleach, only to find ourselves ejected into the street. The incident involved a man in rubber gloves, our new boss in tears, and remains, to this day, a mystery.

Standing on the roadside, Diana, the aforementioned boss, flagged down a man in a van—not a taxi, just a man in a van—whom we paid to take us to the Hotel Katerina Park. The staff agreed to take us in. So, instead of parting with $2,000, first and last month’s rent, Emma and I got to stay here on the company’s rouble, no need to disinfect anything before using it. Consequently, we fell for the hotel straight off: complimentary daily breakfast buffet straining the walls of our stomachs, hospitable receptionists welcoming us, brightly lit hallways, free sauna waiting to melt away the workday, a fully-equipped gym for maintaining our fitness, our room’s spotlessness, its free (refilled daily) minibar, its shiny fixtures. I’d never associated these things with “feeling at home”, but I was beginning to.

Then, the phone rang. Emma stared at me, neither one of us wanting to answer it, unwilling to take the responsibility, to admit what was happening. We continued on as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. We tried to maintain the safe little existence we’d just been enjoying. Only one person, Diana, could be calling. She was the only person who had our new number. And, there was only one reason for her to speak to us on our respective days off: another new apartment.

To say Emma and I both venomously detest phones belittles the intensity at which these emotions operate. We barely tolerate possessing one device, no matter how strange it seems to employers. When we have real arguments every year, the loser is sentenced to 12-month sentences of cellular jail time. At this point, with neither one of us wanting to leave the comfort of our new home, the stakes were even higher. Unfortunately, Emma has the resolve of an ex-CIA operative, trained to never be broken, so I was the one who waffled. It meant the phone would be my responsibility for the entirety of our time in Moscow.

Creating a new life in a foreign country usually requires help from local people, and these people generally have a different sense of urgency and priority. They might believe that the warmth of your own home, your own bed, no matter what the conditions are, far exceeds more nights in the confines of a luxury hotel. One must pretend to appreciate their well-meant effort in finding you an apartment on Saturday morning, flat-out lying about it being perfectly fine to do that rather than explore the city you’ve just arrived in.

Diana had set an appointment for the evening, around five, leaving us plenty of time to dress, empty the mini-bar into our daypacks, and head off for some sightseeing. We weren’t going to let this ruin our day. After all, we were in Moscow, and we’d come here to see stuff. We plotted our course on an anglicised map of the Metro, deciphering which train changes to expect — only one easy switch to make it to Red Square, a place so rich in attractions our afternoon promised to be one of the highest calibre tourist-ry.

*****

Climbing out from the underground, we found red bricks piling up into a blue sky. The National History Museum had a wonderful archway flanking off its side to form an entrance into the cobbled stone of Red Square. We could see the candy-coloured domes of St. Basil’s. Souvenir carts lined the route, a parade of fur hats beckoning us further into the grandeur of the former Soviet Union. Beside me, Emma snapped photos with abandon. It was the moment we’d come for, the reason we’d endured the intense visa process, why we’d braved that horrible apartment and our untimely expulsion from it.

The sound of the last rehearsals for tomorrow’s Moscow Day festival were echoing between the GUM department store and Lenin’s mausoleum. We watched ballerinas prance through with tutus over sweatpants, their daintiness juxtaposed against a fleet of weaponry and imposing architecture. We weaved towards St. Basil’s, looking for the best angles from which to pose for portraits of ourselves against the green and yellow swirls, the candy-cane tear-drop roofs—proof that we’d made it. Along the Moscow River, spires of countless cathedrals spied over the cityscape, golden onion domes clustered like the hats of a congregation of Orthodox priests.

My pocket began vibrating, an alarm growing louder with each ring. Emma looked at me with an “are you going to answer it?” stare, a hint of “why the hell do you have to take that thing everywhere?”. It wasn’t even one o’clock, and Diana was calling. I veered into a back street and stood in the shadow of columned building with one finger in my ear while I struggled to distill instructions. She wanted us to meet her in an hour at a metro station just two stops off from all the way back at the Hotel Katerina Park. I could no longer decipher, likely was no longer willing to decipher, the rest of what she had to say. The volume of my voice increased to the point that Emma, a cooler head in such situations, had taken the phone from me. I chewed my lip, gnawing away the disappointment.

The Metro has stations which rival anything anyone might see above ground. They are grand and opulent affairs awash with propaganda art, muscular statues, elaborate mosaics, and other decorative declarations of Soviet dominance in the style of Stalin. He commissioned it to be full of svet and svet buduschee (radiance and a radiant future). We hurried passed them all to climb aboard a southbound train heading back to suburbia, where we were likely to look at our next home, a home I’d stopped wanting yesterday evening in the lobby of the Hotel Katerina Park.

At our metro station, Sevapolskaya, we realised that meeting Diana “by the first carriage” was tricky as there were two, one northbound and one southbound, and they terminated on opposite extremes of the platform. Not knowing what to do, we paced back and forth between the two ends. Each train, agedly quaint in powder blue and art deco chrome, rustled in with a gale-force gust through the station followed by a full-blast Megadeath guitar solo of screeches as the brakes of the rumbling, rattling thing brought it to a stiff stop.

After a while, my entire being rattled, my lungs got winded, my legs weary and trembling, Emma suggested one of us sit at each end. By two-thirty, I was reduced to mush, every cell fighting the urge to crouch into one of the station buttresses and pray for the world to go away. I had long since given up on Diana arriving, but our phone wouldn’t work underground. When Emma appeared from the other side, ghost-like, a figment walking in fog after a big battle scene, Diana was not with her. She took the phone and went upstairs, into the quiet of the city, to call.

In the hour and half since we’d left Red Square, Diana had tried to contact us three times to cancel. We’d managed to lose yet another apartment, this one without ever having seen it. With another appointment looming, our resolve for exploring had been beaten to death, too. We went back to the hotel, seeking the solace of the mini-bar. Once there, Diana called to tell us the five o’clock apartment was gone, too.

I forced myself to go down to the hotel gym for some reflective cross-training, had a hot shower, and eased myself between the newly turned sheets, Emma curling into my chest for an extra morsel of warmth against the big, cold city beyond our 10th-floor window. Diana had arranged another appointment for the morning, and we’d have to go down for the buffet breakfast a little earlier than was optimal.

*****

Two days before, we’d sat in the lobby with our bags awry about us, no idea where we’d be staying that night. Diana negotiated at the desk for a broom closet, a staff bathroom, something somewhere, anywhere to put these lost and dejected souls. The receptionist had found us a room for two nights. By Sunday morning, recovered from the perils of the failed apartment search, we were looking more like two fat cats, fresh off a prowl around the breakfast buffet, when EF had us see if we might extend our stay for three more nights.

It turned out yesterday’s debacle(s) had put us in an accommodation loophole: Checkout time was 11:00, but we weren’t going to see our next apartment—if it happened at all—until noon. EF couldn’t very well leave us wandering the streets, a couple of native English-speaking hobos, and so that is how, in the privacy of our recently retained domicile, there was a fit of dancing to behold, two flagrant celebrations that would’ve sent NFL referees scurrying for their flags. We were home!

At about 10 past noon, Emma and I found ourselves standing at the north entrance/exit to Prazhskaya metro station, what amounted to an empty parking lot, the two of us once again looking in differing directions, this time with an expansive horizon but still unable to find Diana. We calculated that we’d been stood up by her as many times as we’d seen her. I checked the phone: No calls, full signal. Then, as if on cue, it rang.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“At the subway station.”

“I’m here. What station are you at?” She left a natural-sounding preposition dangling there at the end, a tone perhaps unduly convinced we might have taken a wrong turn to St. Petersburg.

“The one by the hotel,” I finally answer.

“No, you’re not. Where?”

“Standing at the top of the stairs.”

“You’re not here.”

I looked in both directions, used my recently acquired ability to read Cyrillic, to confirm that, indeed, I was there. “I’m standing outside the station entrance nearest to the hotel. Where are you?” I turned the tables.

“What can you see?”

“A blue building with…” I slowly sounded my way through the Cyrillic.

“I’m at the other exit. I forgot about that exit.”

This was definitely beginning to feel like a war, Diana displacing us as we clung tightly to our real home.

Late for the “viewing”, a word which brought to mind limo-hopping around Manhattan rather than metros and power-walking, Emma and I struggled to keep up with Diana as she led us into a complex of skyscrapers in blue tiles, each building about 15 storeys high, the lot forming a square around a central park, a little collection of playground equipment hidden in trees. This was an old Soviet block. Most housing in the city is.

We would eventually have to leave the hotel and move into the lives of people who went to work, came home tired and hungry, and needed a full-sized refrigerator and our own coffeemaker. But, I knew the sooner we found a place, the sooner this would happen, so I relished the sight of Diana, upon realising she didn’t know how to get there, frantically dialling numbers. We found out the landlords hadn’t arrived yet. I did my best to keep my chin up, accept our fate. Unless this flat was worse than the last, say with a wall of mould, no windows, and family of vampire bats inhabiting it, we were going to be living here. It wouldn’t be prudent for us to refuse after all the work done on our behalf.

Entering the building, we were hit by a waft of stale urine and decay, the type of smell that has lingered for so long no amount of washing can subdue it. The lift knocked its way down to us, the doors banging up then clanking shut before the surefire death trap began hauling us up to the ninth floor, a notable step down from our 10th-floor luxury at the Hotel Katarina Park.

Beyond the lift, there was a locked black door with the number “9” painted on it. Inside, there were four more doors, a stack of rims, sleds, crates of assorted car fluids, old bicycles, garbage bags of mysterious lumps, all the contents of a garage. And, next to one of the doors, our door, a basket of onions fragranced the air. Home sweet home.

*****

We’d never met our landlord before being evicted from our first apartment. Diana had said he was a nice guy and very open to us living there. Then, we arrived late to sign the lease, delayed by our EF orientation going over-schedule, and our bags had been packed, our boss brought to tears, and a massive man in rubber gloves was standing in the bedroom. The landlord was curiously absent from the whole scene. So, I might not be able to say much about him, but our new landlords didn’t seem as welcoming. Everyone was arguing, none of which we could understand, but it was apparent that, while the other landlord had kicked us out, these were reluctant to even let us in.

The argument shifted around the foyer in a manner way too heated for 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon. The landlady didn’t want us to live there because we didn’t speak Russian. Most of the time, landlords love to have English teachers as tenants, safe in the knowledge that, even we wanted to give excuses for paying late, we lacked the linguistic ability to do so. We are also generally thought of, by language alone, as wealthy.

I’ve always assumed the position of rich English speaker with aplomb, happy to play a role I could never take on in the US. Who was I to dissuade people from taking for granted that I was accustomed to the finest of quarters, price never being an issue? Hearing such vehement rejection of my tenanthood, rentmanship, stung, as if I were any old immigrant deserving of such discrimination. I didn’t want to stay here in the first place, much less stand obstructed in the doorway.

“If they don’t want us to be here, we don’t want to be here,” I whispered to Diana, knowing they couldn’t understand what I said but not wanting to further rile the beasts. She shook her head, dismissing the severity of my stance. She may have even held a hand up to discontinue my concerns before diving back into the debate. “This is Russian tradition,” she said, keeping her eyes towards the robust couple. “Before you rent, you have to build a relationship.”

As she ended this sentence, miraculously, the two big Russians, thick and salt of the earth, obviously packing cash in a similarly big way, turned jovially, stepping aside with swooping hands to grant us access to the apartment. What I soon realised was our apartment. It was by no means state-of-the-art luxury, but it was better than the last place, a touch roomier and cleaner, absent of the thrown-together-with-thumbtacks look which had graced the previous one.

Despite the awful smells and shabbiness of the building’s communal spaces, this apartment was a slice of 1970s design and memorabilia, well suited to Emma’s taste. There was a new washing machine and a balcony which seemed tailor-made for an after-dinner cigarette. The entranceway had a quirky and personable bench for taking shoes off and storing them inside it. The potential was there for a real home, and though it wasn’t the Hotel Katerina Park, we knew we couldn’t turn it down.

*****

Upon announcing our intention to make permanent this carefully crafted relationship with these people, the landlady grew increasingly motherly, concerned for her linguistically challenged tenants, wanting us to be comfortable and warm. She asked that I help her husband carry the old sofa out so they could buy us a new one. She promised to bring in a master (craftsmen are all called masters in Russia) to replace the windows, one of which was sporting a bandage over a small crack. She showed us, piece by piece, the breadth of the kitchen equipment. She laboured Diana to ensure our happiness, and she spouted off long explanations which our boss summed up in five words or less.

Once we were fully informed of the amenities, she began to show us the ropes of being tenants:

  1. For the water company, we needed to look in the cabinet behind the toilet and record the numbers off the water meter, filling in a sliver of photocopied form, which housed a space for both hot and cold, where the month began and ended, and the difference between the two. We then had to deliver it to a secret mailbox in a room in one of the apartment buildings across the park, some time between the first and 19th each month.
  2. In the shared entryway amongst the onions and snow sleds, we were to read our electric meter, in a box with similar electric meters for the three neighbouring apartments: A, C, and D. When we met her at an undisclosed metro station each month to pay rent, we should bring this electricity number.
  3. Diana, then, decoded the washing machine instructions for us, describing roughly 27 options, a contemporary assortment of soaks and temperatures and spin cycles by which any material could be washed with minimal damage.

When it all ended, I had written two pages of notes that I could barely understand.

Before I knew it, I was signing the lease, and signing the lease, and signing some more. Any official document in Russia, I’d learned during my work contract, required a minimum of seven signatures, and at least six or seven more documents to verify that the first one was real. Carbon copies seemed nonexistent, so at the end of the agreement, one felt somewhat like a celebrity having just braved a trip down the red carpet. My grip severely weakened, we also eventually shook hands to further seal the deal.

We all walked back to the metro station together so that our new Russian mamochka (Mummy) could take us to the secret water meter building so that we’d know where to go in a month’s time. At the subway, the massive skeleton key changed hands officially, and we bid our dasvidaniyas (goodbyes).

Life as we had known it in Moscow would be changed forever. Even though a small piece of both Emma and I had succumbed to that old desire to build a new, cozy home, a home we were now the proud renters of, we relished one more night in the hotel. After all, the company had already footed the bill, and more importantly, it meant one more round at the breakfast buffet before getting back to boiling our own water and toasting our own bread.

 

Jonathan Engels is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.