When I woke up on Thursday morning and prepared for my day, a new thought entered my head that would lead me on a mission in Moscow. The thought stayed with me throughout the day, tormented me with such a clarity that it caused me to salivate. I thought of a meatball sub from Subway.
When I had lived off-contract and taught privates in my second year in South Korea, I had made it a tradition every Friday to stop in at Subway and order a meatball sub. I like them a certain way: tomatoes, green peppers and olives, all warmed up in the microwave so the layer of cheese at the top melts over the saucy meatballs. As I brushed my teeth that Thursday morning in Moscow, I realized that I was doing much the same thing here in Russia as I had done in Korea, and there were indeed Subway restaurants dotted around the city.
Part of the reason for the fanatiscism with which I set out to sink my teeth into a meatball sub was because I hadn't had one in over a year. Another reason was because I had eaten nothing for 3 days.
Katya and I are at the end of our money for the month, and we've both been waiting to get paid. In the meantime, we have run out of food. As a Russian, Katya is quite happy eating a bowl of salty buckwheat gruel every day, and her company feeds her lunch every day. I personally won't eat buckwheat. I hate the stuff. In 1812, as Napolean's Grand Armee marched towards Moscow, living off what food they could force from the peasants, many French soldiers died of starvation because the only food that could be found was buckwheat, and the French refused to eat it and starved to death instead. I can now sympathize with them.
But just the day before I had been compensated by some students and on that day, I was going to get a meatball sub, and I knew just the place. To the left of the place where Old Arbat joins New Arbat there is a Subway Sandwiches. As Arbat lies on the blue line, and I was travelling on the blue line that day, it seemed like fate.
I set out full of joy. It felt like Christmas, I was so excited to eat that delicious sandwich with it's dried-up balls of processed pork-like meat product, which have sat in a slowly fermenting pool of tomato sauce all day. Mmmmm, delicious!
It had began to rain and snow when I emerged from the metro. Although it was only 5:30, it was already dark, and fat drops of rain intermixed with swirling snowflakes fell down across the street lights. Arbat was its normal bustle of business men, people handing out Mir Tattoo flyers, beautiful women in skirts and heels, and buskers playing guitars and even one on a trumpet.
I made my way to Subway. It wasn't very busy. There were two big young guys in black leather jackets sitting and eating, and an older lady was arguing with the girl at the counter about the process of making her a sub. The normal Subway decor was there, complete with a map of the New York subway system, the yellow walls and fake plants, and the L-shaped counter where one orders the sub and pays for it at the end. But as I perused the menu, I realized with a sinking feeling that in Russia, they DIDN'T HAVE THE MEATBALL SUB!!!
With an inspection of the different toppings to make sure I wasn't reading the menu wrong, it was confirmed. There were no meatballs bobbing about pathetically in disgusting (yet delicious) tomato sauce, usually with a silver ladel sticking out of one side.
"Can I help you?" The woman, a large creature with a heavy mongoloid face and jet-black hair, was staring at me. With her white t-shirt covered by a black Subway apron, she looked a lot like a penguin "Umm.." I replied wittily. Glancing over the menu, I saw the Subway staple. B.M.T. "Moizhna bolshoi Bay-Em-Tay. Bilayi hlyeb (Give me a large B.M.T. White bread)".
The penguin grunted her response and grabbed a long white baton from the oven-thingy and began making my sub. Apparently in Russia one doesn't choose which toppings you get, however, because she just started piling on lettuce and other useless vegetables. *
*I hate lettuce. It serves no function. It has no flavour, nor does it even contain any nutritional content. It is mearly a leafy decoration and I would probably get more satisfaction out of putting hay on my sub.
"Wait a moment. No lettuce, please." I instructed. The penguin gave me a hard look and then barked aggressively at me in Russian I didn't understand. She started piling lettuce on (ah, Russian customer service). Then she went for the onions. "Nyet!" I cried out, and the large Mongol woman literally snarled at me. After she had placed the lettuce and onions on, and refused to put green peppers on it as I instructed, she turned and put the sub into the toaster. "Nooooo!" I cried out. If I wanted toast, I would have gone to Quiznos! Except there are no Quiznos in Russia, thank god (I also hate Quiznos, with their cheap 1 ounce of meat and vegetables and stale bread that always burns).
I sat down dejectedly with my half-burnt BMT and the toasted pieces of lettuce and onion sticking out of the sides. Thankfully it was still wrapped and I was hungry enough to actually eat it. Just then a soft female voice said, in English "Excuse me, but maybe I can help you?" I looked up to see a red-haired angel. She was tall and slim and curvy beneath her white wool sweater, with beautiful long, thick red hair flowing down her back. Her face was the typical soft, small Slavic work of art and she had such lovely brown eyes that my stomach tightened when I saw them. Or perhaps that was the third day of hunger setting in?
"Umm, well, its too late now!" I replied. She giggled. "I guess." She had that cute and sexy Russian accent that all women who speak English here have. Sometimes I think they practise it from James Bond films.
Remembering my manners, I stood. "What's your name?" I asked. She smiled warmly. "Masha." Then, noticing my wedding ring, she said "You're married?" I suddenly felt very guilty, for I am indeed married but instinct had, when presented with such a beauty, automatically gone into flirting mode. What to do? Lie? Tell the truth? Pursue? Back off? Eat my sub? I took the noble path. "Yes, I'm married!" I exclaimed with pride. This seemed to please Masha, who patted my forearm and said "Good for you. Married men are such good men." And she smiled and stared straight at me. I gulped.
Just then one of the guys in the leather jackets who had been eating when I walked in shouted and leapt to his feet. He barelled straight at us. "Oi! Ti bla-bla-bla-bla-ka!" He was quite pissed off. Maybe Masha was his girlfriend? She apparently didn't know him because she shouted angrily to him in Russian. He ignored her and, standing a few inches from me he continued to shout. I understood a few of the words, including the word "foreigner" and "American".
So this was it. Russia has always been torn between two camps, the Westerners, who want Russia to embrace the rest of the world and be more progressive, and the Slavophiles, who believe Russia has their own thing going and should be the cultural and political home of the Slavic peoples. There is a long history of paranoia towards all foreigners in Russia, and under Putin and his United Russia party, the passionate power of the Slavophile camp has been harnessed. This young man in front of me, then, was obviously the neo-nazi version of a Slavophile. How to explain that I am a friend of Russia, that I love the Slavs and their culture and hope to see Russia take its rightful place in the world?
I didn't have time because the Slav-nazi jabbed his finger into my chest as he screamed a torrent of abuse at me. I was still wearing my heavy black winter coat so it didn't hurt, but my pride was injured and, forgetting that this guy could probably kill me I placed my sub down on the table and prepared to hit him square in the nose.
Just then a large grey uniform pushed its way between us. We were both forced apart and I saw two men in uniforms with fur caps and gold double-headed eagle badges. The militsia! I looked around. Masha was nowhere to be seen. The penguin, who had obviously run out and flagged down the police during the altercation, was rambling away excitedly to the cop and pointing at me. The nazi was standing there while his eating companion quietly slipped out the door, probably the same way Masha had gone.
The cops looked bored and patiently listened to the penguin, who was very excited but seemed to be full of spite towards me. The cop who had pushed us apart pulled out a notepad and began to take notes. The nazi, realizing nobody was paying attention to him, did a little side-step to the door and then ran off. It was only me, the penguin and two Russian militsia.
I have, in 14 months, managed to stay out of trouble and have not once been harassed by the police in Russia. Stories aboud about unprovoked document checks of foreigners (everyone must carry their passport, visa and registration in Russia at all times), followed by the remark that something is out of order with the paperwork, followed by a heavy bribe to make "everything" in order again. Katya and I don't have a lot of money and I had just spent 200 roubles on a nasty sub, which I was determined to eat.
As the penguin rattled on, following, it seemed, the anti-foreigner attitude of the nazi, the cops scribbled notes and looked at the ground. They were obviously not very interested. I realized that in the past minute or two since their arrival, they had hardly glanced at me. Not waiting for the inevitable "Dokumenti, palzhasta", I did a little sidestep towards the door. Nobody noticed me. I took another step and stopped. My heart was pounding. Nobody even looked at me. The door was only one more step away. Like a crab scurrying sideways along the beach, I did a quick shuffle to the door, slowly opened it and stepped out into the rain and snow along Arbat. I was free!
I walked briskly for about ten seconds, aiming for the metro past the underground walkway when I suddenly remembered my BMT. I had left it on the table!
Perhaps it was hunger, or the feeling that I had so far gone through too much to simply leave it behind. Perhaps it was guilt at spending the little money we had left. Whatever the reason, without much thought I turned back towards the door to Subway.
It was only a few feet away from me and I could see that the penguin was still talking, pointing at the bread ovens now, and the cops were seemingly sleeping. I quietly opened the door and slipped inside, then did a little side-shuffle back to the table. My sub was still there. One of the cops, perhaps noticing movement, looked over at me with an inquisitive look, but I just stood there and smiled stupidly. "See?" I tried to tell him with my face. "I'm just a stupid foreigner!" He looked away. I quickly shot my hand out and grabbed my sub, still wrapped in wax paper which made a small crackling sound. Nobody noticed. Then I repeated my earlier escape.
Once outside I beelined as fast as I could for the underground walkway that crosses noisy New Arbat. My heart was pounding fast. Surely they would give chase? I glanced behind me as I walked double-time but saw only the usual crowd of people. When I reached the metro station I took a last look, but apparently I wasn't worth going after. Surely they had noticed me missing by now, but I really had done nothing wrong, the nazi had disappeared and the penguin was complaining about bread. For the cops it must have been a relief to see me gone. Case closed. Let's go sit in our car and smoke.
As I rode the metro to my evening class I laughed heartily to myself (in my head, so as not to seem insane). I had evaded trouble! I had nearly fought a nazi! I had escaped from the clutches of corruption not once but twice! Haha!
When the train came to my stop I stepped off, still laughing. "Haha! You'll never catch me, coppers, see?" I made my way to the long, steep escalators and as I rode up I continued to think of my daring escape. "I can't believe I went back for the sub!" I thought to myself. "And now I am going to enjoy it even more!" I looked down at my sub, except it wasn't there. "No!" I actually shouted out.
I had left the damn thing on the train.