Hello, America! I am writing right now from an absurdly huge McDonald’s, with three floors of seating and one open table. I’m trying to figure out how to describe what it’s like in Moscow, and the best I can come up with is that it feels a lot like New York, except I can’t understand a word anyone around me is saying, and I’m suddenly on a preschool reading level. That, and the fact that every now and then we’ll be walking along, look down a side street, and realize we’re one block away from the Kremlin, or Red Square, or St. Basils, or any of the other gorgeous domed cathedrals all over the city.
I believe I have found the secret to surviving in a foreign country where you do not speak the language: You must be completely okay with looking incredibly stupid all the time. I’ve gotten pretty used to accidentally frustrating people—like the clerk at the producti [read: supermarket], who specifically asked me for small bills when all I had was a 1,000 ruble note. I’ve also gotten quite used to being laughed at, which I prefer, since I’m usually laughing at myself, anyway—like the time I was trying to have a conversation with a Russian student, but we couldn’t get a word out in any language because we were too busy laughing at our own incompetence.
I’ve found another secret to travelling abroad is to carry a camera everywhere, because the real photo-worthy moments sneak up on you. I knew I was going to be using my camera when we found our way to Red Square and St. Basil’s the other day… I didn’t know I was going to be pulling it out again when we stopped for a drink at a sidewalk café near a small park, where we spotted a man dressed as a pirate next to a cardboard cutout of Putin next to a guy with a live boa constrictor around his neck. All just hanging out. In a park.
Things that are awesome about Moscow include:
-The Russian students at MXAT, from the random students we [try to] talk to in the dormitory stairwell, to the “angels”—producing students who have been assigned to help us survive in Moscow, which so far has included taking us to a cell phone store and out to bars. As a side note, I believe we have found the most American bar in all of Russia, Coyote Ugly Moscow. I’m not making this up.
-The fact that despite the stereotype of the un-friendly Russian, most of the people who have had the misfortune of having to serve me as I failed at ordering food/buying groceries/exchanging money in Russian have actually been pretty nice about it. I have yet to have anyone curse at me in Russian, or if they have, they at least waited to do it once I was gone.
-Living in a culture where a career in the arts is considered one of the highest callings. Before we left, we were told about the MXAT ids we would be receiving, which are going to be our “golden ticket” to everything in Moscow. If we are ever stopped by police (see below), we should show them our official documents and our MXAT ids, because “They will not want to mess with you. The Moscow Art Theatre is too powerful.”
Things that are less awesome about Moscow include:
-Crosswalks. They exist, sort of, but are not equipped with walk/don’t’ walk lights. The best way to get across the street is to commit and go for it, despite the fact that it feels as though a car is going to run over you at any second. Also, cars park on the sidewalk, which just adds to the feeling that walking down the street is a real-life game of Frogger.
-Everything smells like smoke. Russia is a culture of heavy smokers, and they smoke just about everywhere. I am gradually coming to terms with the fact that all bars, most stairwells, and every single piece of clothing I own are going to smell like smoke for three months.
And now, the part about MXAT itself. I’m not quite sure how to accurately describe the amazingness. Our first class was with Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky, the Dean of the school and the assistant artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre. We were in the lobby of the theatre, which doubles as a shrine to the artists of MXAT’s past. His lecture, against the backdrop of photos of Stanislavsky, Danchenko, and Chekov, was something really close to a religious experience. Acting class with our master teachers was something along the same lines. And they didn’t ease us in to things. On day one, we were assigned group and individual etudes [read: acting exercises] to be performed the next day. It was terrifying, sure, but it was also incredible to finally be thrown all the way into what we all came here to do.
Finally, as a reward for those of you who have made it to the end of this post, the story of my greatest language gap failure yet. I was on my way up the stairs to my fifth-floor dorm room, when I stopped to say hello to one of the Russian students in the stairs. He introduced himself as Sasha and asked where I was going. I pointed up and told him I was going upstairs.
“Don’t go. Stay. Sit.”
So I stayed and sat. We made it through a few get-to-know-you kind of sentences before he ran out of English. I had already run out of Russian. After a minute of both of us searching for more things we could say in the other’s language, I just started laughing and said, “I really need to learn Russian.”
I tried a little more slowly. “I want to learn Russian.”
“You want boy Russian?”
“No. Nyet.” There had to be another way to say this. “I want to speak Russian.”
“You want boy Russian.”
“Nyet!” I thought for a minute. “Ya ni panamayu pa Russki.” [I don’t speak Russian.] “I want to learn.”
“You want boy Russian?”
At this point, I resorted to some sort of sign language to get across the fact that I wanted to SPEAK Russian, not take home a Russian boy. Sasha finally got it, and started laughing hysterically and apologizing profusely. I turned to the one Russian word I hadn’t used up yet. “Korosho.” It’s all good.