What Matters Most

23 Dec

We meet twenty years later.

In Moscow.  In front of the Peking Hotel, a hulking reminder of the days when Russia and China were friends, but competitors.

So far from a student apartment on Telegraph Avenue with bookcases made of cinder blocks and plywood.

He’s in an expensive, navy blue, wool overcoat; but I wore snazzy two-tone pumps.

Round One

Oh my god, you look exactly the same!

Oh my god, so do you!

Round Two

So, what, you live in Moscow now?

Yeah, four years already.

Wow, that’s awesome. Chicago’s a great city, too.  It really is.

Round Three

OK, so what became of you after Berkeley?

I went to law school.

Really? Me too!

Round Four

Yeah, I went to Harvard.  Classmates with Barack Obama.  Hahaha.  How bout you?  Where did you get your law degree?

Oh, well, y’know, I knew I was going to practice poverty law, so it didn’t make any sense to look at expensive schools.  Legal aid work: it doesn’t pay anything and I don’t get to live in Moscow, but I feel good about what I’m doing.  Helping people.

Yeah, that’s god’s work.


Round Five

And, you’re married, right?

Twenty years now.  What about you?  You never got married?

No, never did.  There are lots of beautiful women in Moscow.

Right. That’s very true.

Round Six

You know, I’m never moving back to the U.S.  It’s so boring.

I have two children.

Round Seven

So, I’ve seen a lot of theater since I got here.  Last night I saw the visiting production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theater.

Sure. I saw it on Friday!

Round Eight

I’ve been keeping a blog for a few months now.  Trying to write a little bit about this Russia obsession we have.

Really?  Interesting.  I’m thinking of writing a book about Khodorkovsky.

Round Nine

This is it.  I’ve been saving my strength.

I lean in close, and almost in a whisper, I say: I’m amazed that museums in Russia are still charging foreigners higher entrance fees, but (can you believe it?) I guess my Russian is still OK, because I haven’t been charged the foreigner’s rate once since I got here.

Friday night, he says, I was at the theater.  It was packed.  At curtain call I bolted for the coat check. I think I knocked a couple of people down along the way.  The babushka checking coats said to me: At first, judging by your clothes, I thought you were a foreigner, but then you behaved so rudely, that I decided you were one of ours.

I slink back to my corner.

30 Responses to “What Matters Most”

  1. Irina December 23, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    Somehow, Russia has a way of overtaking our family. There’s no doubt in my mind that some part of me will always call Moscow home – too much has happened to me there, from seeing Chekhov’s grave to leaving two different horrible productions of Uncle Vanya to drinking champagne and listening to my acting teacher play us a russian folk song on the guitar.
    It can never be the same when we go back, though. That which flows away eventually becomes nostalgia. Hard to get memories back. Of course, it’s even more difficult when a country is actually changing before your eyes.
    But nonetheless…
    Let’s go, Olga, let’s go to Moscow! There’s no greater place on earth! To Moscow! To Moscow!

    • jenny December 24, 2010 at 5:58 am #

      Whoa, dude, who cast me as Olga? 🙂

    • jenny December 24, 2010 at 6:55 am #

      And, by the way, Irinochka, what a thoroughly Irina Prozorova comment you have posted here! I write a little something, but somehow, in your comment, it’s all about you! I suppose it’s your name day today, too! 😉

  2. Philippe December 23, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    You have a good ear for dialogue.

    And, let me guess, you have a good ear for music too, right?

    Where do you think your obsession with Russia came from?

    • jenny December 24, 2010 at 6:05 am #

      Thanks, Philippe. Mostly what I’m trying to have here is no fear. Turns out that is never easy.

      The Russian obsession: I don’t know. A contrary personality?

      In any event, I hope you are enjoying the holidays (whichever ones appeal to you at this time of year). I like the ones that call for champagne. 🙂

  3. Margo December 24, 2010 at 7:28 am #

    A thorough drubbing!

    • jenny December 24, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

      Every day, Margo.

  4. Cheri December 24, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    So, you agreed to meet.
    Why didn’t you have coffee or dinner together?
    He still dresses like an American in Russia?
    What do you think he meant by the US being “too boring”?

    More questions left than answers: the sign of mysterious writing with some tension.

    I’m assuming this is true.

    • jenny December 24, 2010 at 3:10 pm #


      It is true that I met up with an old friend (and we did have dinner, but I left that part out) from Berkeley. It is true that we had not seen each other for over 20 years. It is true that we lived on Telegraph Avenue.

      It is true that I wore snazzy shoes. 🙂

      The rest is mostly the truth, distorted and twisted and embellished, so that I could make fun of myself a bit.

      He doesn’t dress like an American, just not exactly like a Russian. Hard to explain it, unless you’ve seen it.

      That there is a thrill to living in Russia that makes life back home seem boring is part of the damned thing that I would like to be able to explain.

      Thanks for reading on Christmas Eve day. We have plenty of snow here, bringing mystery and tension as each flake hits the ground. I would gladly share it with you.

      Merry Christmas!

  5. Cyberquill December 24, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    My problem with that dialogue is that I have no idea who’s talking. All I have to go on is the sequence of speakers, assuming the first line following the round count is always spoken by the same person. Following this system, however, I must conclude that one speaker has lived in Moscow for four years, and the other speaker never got married because there are so many hot chicks in Moscow. Yet I have a hunch that the person who has lived in Moscow for four years must be the one who never got married.

    So since using line sequence for speaker identification seems unreliable, I cannot tell which one of the participants in the conversation went to Harvard and was classmates with Obama.

    As always, I am very confused.

    • jenny December 25, 2010 at 7:20 am #

      Dang, CQ, I cannot please you. If it’s not politics, it’s punctuation. And now you want, what, clarity?

      Had I gone to Harvard Law School with Barack Obama, I might be able to provide it, but alas…

      But look, you understood what matters most: there are hot chicks in Moscow.

      Merry Christmas.

      • Cyberquill December 25, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

        It seems you’re not following my status updates on Facebook (my personal profile, not my CQ page), because last night I posted the following:

        Next person to wish me a merry Christmas is in for a nosebleed and a broken jawbone.

        My knuckles are pretty sore by now.

      • jenny December 26, 2010 at 8:05 am #

        Nothing says holiday cheer quite like broken jaws and bloody noses. What happens if I dare to say “Happy New Year”?

    • Cyberquill December 26, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

      Melbourne method.

      • jenny December 27, 2010 at 7:34 am #

        🙂 🙂 🙂

        But, first, let me treat you to a glass of elderberry wine…

  6. Masha December 26, 2010 at 7:12 am #

    This guy sounds like an arrogant jerk who is trying way too hard to impress women. Maybe that’s why he’s not married ?

    • jenny December 26, 2010 at 8:02 am #

      Hahahaha, Masha! I’ll tell him you said so. 🙂

      Or it could be that she is an insecure, competitive, transparent woman who wishes she had more than one life to live.

      Please do understand, though, that this is not real.

      And, now, I have to smile because your comment suggests to me (to my horror) that I may have been seeking the final victory by writing this post. POW!

      Thanks for stopping by, Masha. We need you here. We’re putting together (see Irina’s comment above) a virtual THREE SISTERS. I’m stuck playing Olga, you are clearly a Masha, and now we just need Natasha and we’re good to go. 😉

  7. Cheri December 26, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    Interesting that you will be Olga, Jenny. Olga was a student of mine in 1978 who escaped from communist Bulgaria. She spoke a few words of English, was (shall we say) a large eastern-block woman with a tremendous sense of humor, and had a cyberquillian need for an “upholdence” of all English grammar rules.

    When I said that donkey was pronounced dong-kee and monkey was pronounced mung-kee, she went berserk and almost attacked me.

    I now use Olga regularly in all my lectures. Junior high kids love Olga.

    I am always ready to take on an alias. Since I am 1/4 Lithuanian, let me know if I can be a stand-in when you are unavailable.

    Let me try out. (You know I love a good game of telephone.)

    sotto voce

    shhhhhh….just between you and me, whenever this side of me shows up, it brings out the mean streak in Mr. Crotchety.

    • jenny December 27, 2010 at 7:33 am #

      You’re in, Cheri. Just let Mr. C try to show his mean streak. I’ll stick up for you.

      Until the dancing begins, of course. Then the sisterhood comes to an abrupt halt. 😉

  8. Man of Roma December 29, 2010 at 6:42 am #

    Sorry if I overheard your conversation girls, but loving Mr. C’s mean streak pls do let it come to light 😉

    Mr C, I am joking. Happy holidays to you and to *everyone* here!

    And Moscow is not only full of hot chicks, but of enormous women as well, beware CQ. I was once grabbed by one of them who was totally drunk and completely overpowered me. Her name was Irina. I told this horror story in Cheri’s blog (and in Richard’s too maybe).

    *Here* it is 🙂 🙂

    • jenny December 29, 2010 at 7:52 am #

      Roma, Roma, if you don’t want women hitting on you, you shouldn’t go around being Italian. You were asking for it. 🙂

      • Man of Roma December 29, 2010 at 9:45 am #

        I did absolutely nothing. And Irina was a very decent woman after all, one worked quite well with her. It was vodka’s fault and of this obsession Russians have with it, an absolutely tasteless drink that makes one drunk quickly (especially for the manner they drink it, in one gulp) and that, to my taste, is good for cocktails only.

        Whiskey, Cognac, Grappa (I’d add home-made Limoncello) are much better.

      • jenny December 29, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

        Man of Roma:

        Of course. My comment was a bit of social criticism, actually: When a woman (in our culture) complains about the unwanted aggressive attention of a man, it is common to say that she was “asking for it” by her dress, her manner, etc. I was just playing with that idea a little bit. Not really about you personally.

        No to whiskey. Yes to Limoncello.

  9. sledpress December 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    We could make you say yes to the right whiskey.

    • jenny December 30, 2010 at 8:49 am #

      Yes, I believe you could. Whenever I think of saying no to something, I conjure that number from Candide “I Am So Easily Assimilated” and adopt that mood!

  10. solidgoldcreativity January 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

    Bravo, Jenny. Love the “rounds”, esp round 6 🙂

    • jenny January 4, 2011 at 6:08 am #

      SCG, I’m so glad to have company in my love of the absurd! Thanks.

  11. Chris June 23, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    I meant to comment on this … months ago, but never did. I like the tagless dialogue. At first, it annoyed me, cuz I couldn’t breeze through it and get on with my day; I had to stop and think about who was talking, which of you was saying what, build the two characters up and keep it all in my head, actually … engage the text. And then I found I quite liked it. Vive l’avant-garde.

    • jenny June 24, 2011 at 7:13 am #

      Thanks, Chris. Nicest thing I’ve heard all week! 🙂


  1. Rashomon on Tverskaya « sweat and sprezzatura - January 6, 2011

    […] few weeks later, on Christmas eve, she sent me a blog entry about our meeting entitled “What Matters Most.” I expected a touching story about the importance of old friendships. To my horror, she had […]

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