Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Normal Life

Friends always asked how I avoided any kind of long-term romantic entanglements in Russia.

"Willpower," was my witty reply. "Sheer willpower."

I never had girls calling me telling me to come home, or chasing me from bar to bar screaming.

I didn't do this through any kind of blatant cruelty, mind you. I simply refused to act like a boyfriend. I always acted like a drinking buddy.

Sometimes friends would bemoan their lot in life as they left the drinking session to go home to their wives or girlfriends.

"It's not complicated; it's simple mathematics," I would explain to them. "You met a girl who wanted to be your girlfriend more than you DIDN'T want her to be your girlfriend."

That never happened to me.

Until the week that I left Russia!

It's the damndest thing.

"But we're nothing alike!" I say to her. "You're kind, honest, hardworking, sensible and responsible! I'm none of those things!"

"You are," she says.

"I. . . don't . . . live in that kind of world!" I struggle to explain.

"Of course you do," she says.

And then I think, do I? Where did all the degeneracy disappear to?

I also used to say that people didn't chose the dissipated English Teacher lifestyle; it chose them.

Could the same be true of the normal-type life?

Then I think of the realties of English teaching -- the bizarre hours, the job insecurity, the moving from place to place -- I try to reconcile that with this terribly normal and shy little girl.

I'm going back to Saudi on September 2. In the meantime, I'm in Russia, playing normal guy in a normal relationship and going to bed early.

(2007 post on the subject of marriage.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Requiem for Vodkaberg

I'm back in Russia for a month.

Again, living with the small blonde girl, in a rented apartment on the 19th floor a huge new complex in the remains of a (former) wilderness reserve overlooking the Volga River.

Sure, my life is fairly quiet, but witness the following:

There's a prominent sign on the front door of the supermarket next to the apartment I'm renting, stating that hard liquor, of any sort, can't be sold between 10.00pm and 10.00am.

Last night at a pizza place, there was a sign stating that beer without any sort of food purchase could not be sold after 10.00pm.

But there's more.

Stating January 1, 2013, a whole new raft of laws about beer go into effect, banning beer sales after 10.00pm completely, and banning beer sales from small kiosks.

Beer prices are already pretty much on par with prices in Europe on America; taxes on beer were recently tripled. They banned drinking beer on the street some years ago; I got a fine for having about an inch of beer in a plastic cup at a bus stop one day back in 2007.

I'm surpised to find that until now Russia has only placed fourth (or fifth, depending on how you figure it) in the world rankings of per-capita alcohol consumption.

Prior to about 2006, it seemed like most of the country was drunk, most of the time. People considered beer something like a soft drink. But if you wanted something a bit more toxic, there were "minibars" at many kiosks and small mini-markets that sold liquor -- by the shot -- 24 hours a day.

I even remember back in 2004 -- often, at supermarkets, there were promotions where beautiful young women used to offer you a free shot of vodka, or a free glass of beer, as they might offer cheese on a cracker or a cookie in a western supermarket.

Back in the old days -- 2000 - 2007 -- we walked around soused, all day, without the slightest worry of police bothering us. We bought beers at the supermarket -- a half-liter beer was about 75 cents, US -- and drank them while we alked around, went to outdoor pirate CD markets where we bought beer, occasionally having a pick-me-up shot at a mini-bar, wandering from kiosk to kiosk buying more beer in parks and riverside cafes for the rest of the day until we staggered drunkenly into some nightclub or the other. We'd stagger out at 5.00 or 6.00am and wake up at 11.00am or so and repeat the process.

I went out with the three remaining teachers last Saturday -- they're all leaving soon, as teaching in Vodkaberg is becoming unbearable, with constant children's classes and huge amounts of travel time. (They mostly travel to nearby small cities and villages, which are the only places where schools can still demand top dollar payment for foreign teachers.) Two of them are heading out to different cities in Russia, in search of contracts promising only company classes.

Recent new teachers didn't stay long -- Saturdays and Sundays are packed with children's classes, and stern hawk-like parents are terribly observant of hangovers and beer-breath.

So, as we can see, civilization has finally caught up with Vodkaberg.

(EDIT, AUGUST 16 -- Some other anti-vice legislation that will go into effect over the next couple of years include bans on smoking in cafes and nightclubs and public transport. There is already a curfew of 10.00pm for people under 16, and all of the casinos and slot machine parlors have been closed.)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Uncle Butthole's Blackout

I've seen both those HANGOVER movies. They're good, but mis-named. The characters show little evidence of crippling hangover during the films.

They should have called it, "The Blackout."

Fortunately I've had very few blackouts in my 25 year drinking career.

(But I've had shitloads of hangovers.)

I think that was one reason I wanted to leave Russia, actually -- blackouts were becoming more common, which is of course an indicator and symptom of alcoholism and I certainly didn't want to be THAT guy, who ended every drinking session on the Dark Side of the Moon.

Some people have them every time they drink; English Teacher R, one of my first colleagues in Vodkaberg, was one of those. It was difficult to dislike him for the lunatic things he did, when he clearly had not the slightest memory of doing them.

(That's his hairy ass there, and he did that in a bar in the middle of the day.)

My first big Russian blackout adventure with him occurred back in 2004. English Teacher R ditched his new wife and child, turning off his phone, after some kind of student get-together.

My last memory was going to a bar and a student opening a second bottle of vodka. My last memory, literally, is of going, "Oh, shit, we can't drink that!"

I woke up in my own bed, at a quarter to one in the afternoon, and the room was trashed; the phone was off the hook, clothes were scattered all over the room, and a chair was upended.

The phone rang shortly after.

It was English Teacher R. "What the fuck happened last night?" he mumbled miserably.

"You're asking the wrong guy," I rasped.

He'd woken up in the doorway of a bar across town from the last place we'd been drinking vodka, with his jacket missing and his shirt on inside out.

The bar where we were drinking vodka with the students, incidentally, refused to let us in, the next time we went there.

It took us some time to discover, from one of the students we'd gone there with, that we'd been challenging English Teacher R to kiss men in the bar, to see their reaction, and we'd then started breaking bottles on the concrete floor.

I've had very little to drink in the last couple of years in Saudi Arabia -- part of the reason in going there was to dry out. My girlfriend doesn't drink much, so I've not had more than a couple beers on holidays with her.

Last summer I came to Russia and only had two heavy-duty drinking sessions -- one ended with a crippling hangover, and the other ended with another blackout.

So I arrived in America at the beginning of July -- the first weekend, the weekend of the 4th of July, my family and some friends had a party.

I drank a lot of rum; not sure how much. The party ended at about 3.30 am.

I woke up on the couch in the den, covered with cat hair. One of my nephews, the 11-year-old, was shaking me and asking me if I was okay.

"Yeah, sure. . ." I wondered why I was on the couch, when I'd gone to bed in an upstairs room. I remembered the end of the evening all right, and remembered going to my bedroom and chatting to some Russian girls I knew on the internet.

He giggled. "You were sleepwalking last night."

"Really?" I said, horrified.

"You came in our room and were going to poop on the chair. Dad asked you if you were sleepwalking and you said yes, and he took you into the hallway. You went into another room and were going to poop on the chair again."

"Oh. . . my . . . god. . ."

"They led you into the bathroom and you pooped but you didn't flush."

"Oh man. . ."

And somehow managed to "sleepwalk" down the steps and over two doggie-doors into the den, where I'd ended up on the couch.

My nephews are 8 and 11; they're a wonderful couple of kids, who love ninjas and zombies and after this event began referring to me as "Uncle Butthole." What might have been traumatic in another family, they thought was hilarious.

Sleep disorders run in the male side of the family -- both of them, like my brother, sleepwalk and sleeptalk and the older one had night terrors. My father (who doesn't drink, incidentally) suffers from restless leg syndrome.

So in this backdrop was Uncle Butthole's blackout wanderings camoflauged.

"I'd punish you kids for giving your uncle that nickname, if it wasn't so appropriate," said my brother, later.