a big beautiful mess

This blog post comes to you in two parts.

Today was an interesting mix of horrifying and wonderful.

Part I

I woke up at noon, refreshed after last night’s evening of pampering myself with an unnecessary shower, candles, wine, and delicious goat cheese. I had two and a half hours before I needed to be at the university for an appointment with a student at 2:30 to talk about her personal statements. I planned to spend the rest of the afternoon at the department, preparing for my one class at 6 pm.

I took a shower, dressed, and mucked about on the Internet, pulling myself together to leave at 2:00. Which is what time it was when I realized that actually, my one class of the day started at 2:30. And that I had no plan.

After about 30 seconds of hyperventilation, I went into some sort of primordial cave-teacher survival mode, threw a couple of photos of friends and family into my bag, and headed to the university. I arrived to find that only one student from the class had showed up, so any hopes of doing partner- or group-work were dashed. I asked the girl to choose one of the photos and write a story about it. While she wrote, I talked to the other student, with whom I’d made the appointment, about her personal statements.

About fifteen minutes in, another girl arrived for the class, having somehow made the same mistake about the class period that I did. I told the first girl to summarize her story aloud to the newcomer, and wrapped up with my appointment.

The rest of the class we spent just chatting, and watching a short video I had on my computer, an animation of an anecdote told by a professional storyteller. It ended up being really good, because he makes a reference to George Orwell’s 1984, and one of the two students is in the middle of reading 1984, so she was able to summarize the premise of the book for the other girl. For the last ten minutes, I whipped up some vocabulary words, had them each pick a new photo from the pile, and write a story about the picture using three random words from my list.

It turned out okay, but man, could it have been a disaster.

Part II

Since I didn’t have class in the evening after all, Łukasz and I made our way downtown to fulfill our original, week-long plan to go shopping [again].

Since our boot-shopping adventures two weeks ago, we’ve both been dealing with some covetous thoughts, both traceable back to one swanky store near Lenin Square. The first time we went there, Łukasz fell in love with a classy dark blue scarf made out of silk and cashmere, and I tried on some gloves.

I’d never really given much thought to my gloves before moving to Russia, but all the women here have such lovely, well-fitted, colorful leather gloves that look so elegant and correct, as if the gloves were made for their hands alone. I’d been thinking about getting myself a new pair for a while, but there in that shop it became an obsession.

There were gloves in red and bright blue and black and brown and white leather, gloves lined with cashmere and fur and silk, gloves with bows and buttons and fur cuffs cut into the shape of flames. And one, in deep raspberry red leather, lined with cozy cashmere, fit me just so. As we continued the search for our boots, we went back to that same store twice or more [because of a certain pair of boots that had caught Łukasz’s eye] and I tried on that same pair of gloves again and again, but each time left bare-handed because of the price. I kept trying on other gloves at all of the dozens of other stores we went to, but none quite measured up to that first raspberry-red pair.

Today, though, things went differently. Łukasz wanted to just look at his midnight blue scarf again; he was planning to wait until his next pay day to drop such a big chunk of change on this luxury. I had just about talked myself into buying the gloves, but I still wasn’t sure. When we arrived, however, the place was teeming with shoppers, and–heaven forbid–a middle-aged man and his wife were ogling Łukasz’s scarf! A moment of terror, and the couple settled on a light gray and silver scarf, but it had been too close a call for Łukasz, and he decided to buy the blue one then and there. He took it to the counter without even trying it on, as the saleslady suggested.

While he paid, I went back to the gloves, and to the red pair. Others I had passed over in other shops flashed through my mind– nice gloves, to be sure, but none of them fit quite like this pair, and I had said to myself that 800 rubles was too much to pay for gloves that didn’t fit just right–surely I could find less expensive ones elsewhere. I looked again at the price tag on these ones I had tried so many times. 1,452 rubles. I tried to convert it to dollars in my head, but I was too overcome with the anxiety of what I was about to do.

I noticed a small scuff on the back of the one display glove, and asked the saleslady if there were another pair. There was. The second pair in my size [Gloves come in numbered sizes, just like shoes! I never knew!] had no blemishes, but one of the seams had torn. She went to search for more of the same style, and I anxiously tried on another inadequate pair or two… and then she returned, with a brand-new, immaculate pair of the gloves that would be mine. I handed over the money and, in a daze, walked with Łukasz out of the shop and around the corner to the Biblio-Kafe, where we continued the charade that we were people who could spend this kind of money, ordering European coffee and a slice of pecan Bourbon cake.

Together in the cozy cafe we marvelled over our purchases, got out the calculators on our phones to convert to our native currencies, made justifications to each other, reminded one another of the times we’d been economical, that made this extravagance acceptable. We decided to save 14 rubles by walking home instead of taking the bus, and hummed “Good King Wenceslas” through the cold, brisk night.


  1. 19 November 2011    

    That was actually a really good story. I’ve sort of forgotten how good of a writer you are. :) I miss you, and I’m going to want a look at those gloves when I see you!

    • 20 November 2011    

      Thanks, Esther! I miss you, too! :(

  2. Kaitlin Kaitlin
    20 November 2011    

    I love your story in Part II as well–especially the part about walking home in Russia whilst humming such a beautiful Christmas carol!! I can’t wait to see photos of the gloves. :)

    • 23 November 2011    

      Thanks, Kaitlin! Photos will be forthcoming.

  3. Rune Rune
    4 December 2011    

    Haha, I can picture you in the shop. Nice story. Keep up the good work, Ruth! :) I actually just discovered your blog. It’s interesting to read about some of the same things that I encountered and thought about as a foreigner the first couple of months in Arkhangelsk two years ago. Now I often feel that I can rationally explain and understand most of the strange Russian ways of life, so it’s nice to be reminded that it hasn’t always been like that.

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