Friday, September 19, 2008

In Which I Am Romanced by the Rouble

Okay, so this week has been fair to good, with moments of amazement.

First and foremost, I found a Pilates instructor. There is a woman in Moscow who puts together the nicest monthly email list of news you can use.  And while I read it religiously, I had never found anything that inspired me to pick up the phone.

But this month there was an ad for a Pilates instructor, offering one-on-one instruction, her place or yours. So I arranged a session. 

Her apartment/studio is near what is called the Patriach's Pond. It's about a 40-minute walk from our place, just off the Garden Ring. The pond isn't very big, but it is surrounded by mature trees. Swans and ducks live on the pond. People walk their dogs there. The buildings surrounding it are not especially beautiful. In fact, some are flat out uninspired. But some are nice, and I saw a gallery of tasteful Indian or Southeast Asian artifacts in the ground floor of one. It reminds me very much of neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, in fact.

I believe the area features prominently in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which, I confess, I own but have not yet read, as it is a rather Faustian satire featuring a talking black cat. Too out there for me, I'm afraid. But there is a Cafe Margarita across the street from the pond, so maybe I will have to sit in there and read the book this winter.

Anyhoo, as I stood in front of Pilates Instructor's building and debated how to work the buzzer panel, the door opened, and out came a tall, blonde young man.

"Oh, are you here to see PI?" he said. 

I introduced myself.

He introduced himself, all the while speaking North American-accented English. 

"Where did you get this accent?" I asked.

"Long story!" he said over his shoulder as he turned and headed for work. "Enjoy!"

As I climbed the stairs to PI's apartment, it occurred to me that her husband's name was familiar somehow, but definately NOT Russian. But by the time I reached her door it slipped my mind.

So PI lets me into the apartment, which is furnished with incredibly beautiful, ornate furniture and decorated with lots of Russian oil paintings. The art is good stuff, and the apartment makes me wonder what her husband does for a living. But while I am noisy, I am also crafty.

"Who's the artist?" I ask, disguising my true question.

"Oh, it all belongs to the landlady," says PI from the kitchen. 

Ah ha! The apartment came furnished!

"So you are not Russian?" I venture.

"Oh, no," she says. "I'm Slovak!"

Ahoj! How funny is that? This also explains the husband's name. He's Slovak, too.

So we proceed to have a Pilates session, which makes me very happy. In Bratislava, I took a class once a week, but, since this was Slovakia, the instruction was in Slovak. I could see what everyone else was doing and copy. And I figured out that the instructor kept saying "Inhale!" and "Exhale!" But now that I have had instruction in English, I can see what a disservice I was doing the technique. 

So that's one good thing from the useful newsletter. The other is that I found Skittles a kids' cooking class in it.

The girls' school offers a variety of after-school activities, but Skittles didn't see anything she really wanted to do this term. Baboo has fencing again, so I was feeling a little bad that Skittles might be short-changed.

The woman teaching the cooking class is an accompanying spouse. Her husband is in the hospitality industry and so was she before they had children. Wanting to do something interesting, she created this small class for kids, and I have to say, she's extremely organized. 

So that's the second good thing.

Then, in my quest to get out more and meet Russians, I agreed to participate in "English conversation." Long story short, I get sent to chat with Russians. No preparation. Just talk.

Yesterday, I went to my first such meeting. The student, let's call him Ivan, manages a business. He was pleasant and, although his English isn't very good yet, he was not shy about talking. He barely let me get a word in edgewise. He clearly lives in a different socio-economic world than do I. He talked about places he had been (Iguazu Falls, California's Pacific Highway, Venice, Rome, Euro Disney, South Africa) and his dacha (complete with a banya, jacuzzi, pool table, table tennis, pond, and patio). The whole thing was rather unremarkable, except for one very strange detail.

In his office, hung on the wall well above eye level, is a photo of his friend and business partner in New York. It was behind me during our chat, and while Ivan referred to it several times in a respectful and deferential manner (as one might refer to a photo of, say, the Dalai Lama), I could see the framed piece, but not the subject.

When I stood to go, I made a point of looking. 

The man in the photo was clearly Russian. But his whole look was a gold chain, Telly Savalas, "Who loves ya, baby?!" style. The photo was autographed. AUTOGRAPHED! It was a page right out of a Gary Shteyngart novel. 

I got the impression, at the end, that Ivan wasn't enamored of me. Something in his farewell gave me the impression that he wasn't going to schedule another chat with me, although I think it had more to do with his skill level than my personality. 

But today I had a new victim. I figured out that this student, let's call him Ivan, owns a salon in a posh new mall not far from my house. I mean, the salon has his name on it. So I was totally surprised when a very young man walked into the salon and turned to greet me. I figured out he must be 30, but because he is extremely lithe and stylish, he looks 23. 

"I have three salons in Moscow," he said modestly. 

"But you're too young!" I blurt out.

"Maybe for you!" he replied with an impish wink. 

("Did you take this opportunity to teach him the word 'MILF'," asked a cynical Spouse.)

Actually, this Ivan was a complete delight. Yes, if he is to be believed, his client list is a Who's Who of world celebrities. But he dropped names in such a charming and modest way. Miuccia Prada is a bundle of nervous energy, I learned, for example. Name a designer, Ivan has either studied under them or worked with them.

He said he was married with children, but I just put on my Fag Hag hat. I mean, he's a hairdresser and his favorite musicians are Tina Turner, Elton John, and Madonna. He's gotta be bi, at least, right? Not that there's anything wrong with it. I thought he had great energy, and I think we hit it off.

Sadly, our session was cut short when a client arrived early. He sent staff to give her coffee, but that only bought us a few more minutes before he clearly felt obliged to go deal with her.

"See you Monday?" he asked hopefully, as he walked me out.

I dunno. I'll have to talk to Central Booking.

So I guess this makes me English-for-Hire. I've become seduced by the romance of the rouble.  I bet the reference is lost on many. I wanted to post the source, but the embedding has been disabled. So I'll just provide this link instead. Oh, and the "women" in the clip? They're Welsh. Don't ask me why.