Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Top 20 Things I Miss About Russia in the 90's

Once every year or so, I get a bit nostalgic about Russia in the Nineties.  I only moved to Russia in 1999, but I began visiting in 1995, and it is those years that I affectionately recall today.

The Top 20 Things I Miss About Russia In The 90's

20) Sign language and constant misunderstandings:  I mean, now I speak Russian, so I can just say what I want without the assistance of a bi-lingual dictionary or hand motions. No creativity required.  This experience helped me once when I got lost in a village in the hills of South Korea.  I ended up drawing a picture of a water closet for the local policeman.  It's great fun when you don't understand what's going on and simply can't communicate what's on your heart.  Or in your bladder.

19) Yellow kiosks everywhere:  They've been replaced by supermarkets.  My favorite kiosk memory is from my first trip to Russia in 1995.  I looked up how to say 7UP in Russian and asked the girl for a "семь вверх".  True story.  Also, it was a very foreigner thing to do to duck down into the belt level opening to speak to the salesperson's girth.  The locals would stand tall and speak to each other through glass.  Somehow speaking through glass worked in train stations, banks, and yes kiosks due to a Top Secret Cold War Bionic Auditory Device that apparently everyone was wearing.

They just don't make kiosks in Russia anymore like they used to.
18) Rock Star American Status:  This is probably the one I miss the least, but I do miss it sometimes.  I was with a group that was doing anti-drugs/AIDS awareness programs in the nineties.  My hand is still tired from signing all of the autographs.

17)  The Odors:  Perhaps there was the Red Guard, but there was no Right Guard.  Now the train stations are mostly aroma neutral.  It's weird but I miss the sweaty old days... sometimes.  After the train stations you would get on a train which carried a similar scent, but with less air.  This taxi driver explains predictable aromas in the cramped space of long distance train compartments, but forgets to mention the dried fish (smell) that would be eaten washed down with the mentioned alcohol (odor):


16) Insanely Small Beverage Portions:  I remember dying at dinner more than once because dinner didn't come with my customary American Big Gulp Slushy.  I guess I miss those thirsty old days the most because of the coinciding adrenaline rush induced by panic of whether or not I would die of dehydration.  You would walk around in the heat all day and then come in for a meal that was followed by a small cup of piping hot tea. These days, when ordering a drink with your meal they ask politely, "Would you like 0-3 or 0-5?", which is a virtual bathtub of beverage.  And sometimes, deep down inside, I just want a thimble full of steamy tea with my mound of mashed potatoes.  And I want to like it.

15) Techno Music:  All the time, everywhere.  But mainly in buses and taxis and stores and in your neighbor's flat/your flat because your neighbor's volume button was jammed at 37.

14) The Excitement At Overhearing English In A Public Place:  You would start stalking your fellow expat around the store and then introduce yourself.  Don't do that anymore.  That's for sure.

13) Not Being Able To Buy Anything Off The Shelf:  You got to meet the lady selling cheese and tell her what you want (charades, Pictionary, Buy, Sell, or Draw.).  Then you would take a short stroll and meet the cashier and get the receipt for the amount of the aforementioned cheese.  Then back to the cheese lady.  Repeat for every item on grocery list.  So many folks to frustrate in the ensuing chaos of this mass mercantile shuttle run, and so little time.

12) 3000 rubles=$1:  Not because I care about the exchange rate, but because if you don't speak Russian very well and your tab is 48,387 rubles (announced to you verbally, not on paper), you're pretty much just handing the vendor in question a ballpark amount of cash, based on, well, pretty much nothing.

11) Strict Dress Codes:  I remember one time in the late nineties I was in a certain provincial city and wanted to go somewhere nice to eat.  The cost to eat was probably around $10, but I was turned down at the door by a serious elderly gentleman because of my attire of jeans and sneakers.  There is something golden about money not being the point of a business.

10) No Hot Water For Months At A Time:  One time a local bicycle factory didn't pay its heating bill, so I was left without hot water for months.  Life soon became centered around a boiling process.  There was that, and also that one time water started shooting out of my electrical sockets during a spring thaw.  It's weird, and I miss it.

9) Valenki and Rabbit Fur Hats:  I wore them and I loved them.

8) Open Air Markets:  You would haggle away.  Now they are dropping like so many flies on the shelf of your local meat vendor.  Now just shiny malls everywhere based on the odd newfangled principle of "fixed pricing".

7) No Customer Service:  So many plastic American customer service seminar inspired smiles in shops these days.  Back in the day, the clerk was doing you a favor to sell you anything, and you liked it.  I still pride myself in being able to make Russians smile.  But that most useful skill was first honed on the training field of so many stores in the nineties in Russia that operated under the brand name of... "Store".

6) Rugs on Walls:  Every picture of me and Russian friends in the nineties took place with us sitting on a couch in front of a wall with a rug hanging on it.  I have no idea why this was such an interior design hit nationwide at the time.  Sound absorption qualities?  Perhaps some manner of babushka bling? Sadly, we will probably never know.

5) Sportsuits With Pointy Leather Dress Shoes:  I think no further explanation is necessary on why I frequently pine away in reminiscence of this bold and endearing Russian 90's fashion statement that can still be observed in remote areas of Central Asia to this very day.

I'm staring at this photo and have found myself incapable of crafting a worthy caption.
4) The Magic Of A Chocolate Bar And A Tea Bag:  See, I come from a nation that is based on the idea of personal property.  Imagine my surprise when some friends came over for something like a party with what I thought was one piece of chocolate.  They broke the chocolate into little bits and shared and dipped the tea bag into multiple cups of steaming water.  I sat there flabbergasted.  But everyone was just having too much of a good time to notice my shock.  Those were the good old days.

3) The Medical Care:  I have a whole treasure trove of entertaining yet hair-raising medical stories from Russia in the Nineties that are completely inappropriate for a family style blog and thus must sadly remain in the top secret archive of my own head.  But none of my ailments couldn't be remedied by my friends through the revolutionary home medical procedure of heating up some small shot glass sized jars and sticking them on my back.  My back was transformed into a hodgepodge of perfectly round black and blue marks.  This was the result of my skin being sucked into the aforementioned small shot glass sized jars.  One time I had this procedure done and then visited some friends and showed them my back.  I told them that I had been attacked by someone who had hit me repeatedly with a pin hammer.  They believed me because there was no other logical explanation for the crime scene investigation that my back side had become.  And the result  of the treatment was all of the impurities being sucked out of... wait a second, not sure I get it.  But it works.  That's what they said when they did it anyway.

2) The Abacus:  The cashier would punch everything into the cash register, then into a calculator, but then check the calculator for error with an abacus.  I would observe with a careful and studious expression to provide the cashier the very misguided impression that I had even the foggiest idea of what she was doing with the beads that she slammed up and down so many parallel metal lines.  Kind of reminds me of yesterday when I was at a bank and they used a counting machine to count the number of banknotes I had handed them.  The total number of banknotes I had handed the bank cashier in this situation: 1.  Okay, okay, I think the machine also checks for counterfeit bills.  Come to think of it, the abacus was nothing like the bank counting machine yesterday.  I guess I just felt I had to squeeze in that little extra bonus story.

1) The Simplicity of it All:  Yeah, I miss that the most.  I had a friend who took his girlfriend on a date to see an automatically opening door at a supermarket.  And there didn't seem to be any money to be worried about.  And folks seemed to be in less of a hurry.  In Russia, most people remember the nineties as being wild.  I remember them as being a more uncomplicated time.  And I miss that.

We didn't know in the 90's that we were living in the good old days.  Today Russia is very different.  But maybe these are the good old days too, so let's live like they are.  But can we at least bring back the abacus and rugs on walls?

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