Jim, The Japanese Pocket Dog

This is the third in a series of stories about my trip to Russia shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s.  The first two entries can be found here and here.

As part of my month long, teenage journey to the very “new” Russia, it was deemed that each person in our group would engage in a series of cultural visits with Russian families.  These visits would give each of us insight into how regular, everyday Russians lived, and in theory, help to bridge the gap between the U.S.S.R. and the United States, east and west.  In our meetings  before our departure it was imposed on us how we would actually be helping to bring about an end to the Cold War.  Of course in the year leading up to my arrival to Russia, Communism ended and the Cold War was over, so what I was supposed to be doing nine months after the fact was never really explained to me or to anyone else in our group.  This really didn’t matter, though.  To me the home visits became increasingly weird, and pretty much showed me that Americans and Russians couldn’t have come from more different starting points.

The first visit was in Petrozavodsk.  When the big night came we were told that we would be going to a  “disco” to meet a class of English students, and then we would all pair off and that is whom we would go to visit on the following night.  We were excited about meeting other teenagers, but in our early 90s cynicism, thought the idea of going to a disco couldn’t have been any more lame. Still, though, maybe the Russian teens would be attractive enough to make us all get over our detest of disco.

In our minds a “disco” conjured images of John Travolta dancing to the hits of the 70s on an illuminated floor.  In reality the disco we went to was a small building on the edge of a forest that had at one time been a preschool, but now had three walls painted black, a single black light hanging from the ceiling, and a DJ that played Russian hits that tended to alternate between terrible heavy metal and something the Whirling Dervishes swirled to.

In our hormonal excitement to see the Russians, we also eagerly overlooked two things.  First, most of us were taking either Spanish or French or German, and as is the norm in America, we couldn’t actually convers in the secondary language we were studying.  When the Russians finally showed up (an hour late), the English students couldn’t actually speak to us or understand us.  So as the horrible music blared, the Americans sat on one side of the room, and Russians on the other.  Occasionally someone would dance, but it was either Russians because they knew the song or the Americans, wanting to get a laugh from the other Americans by showing look how funny I am- I’m dancing to crazy Russian music!

The other issue off course that we failed to grasp was that we were going to meet Russian teenagers. In the afternoon before the meeting there was much talk about beautiful Russians, with their blond hair, pale skin, and of course lack of religion which everyone just knew meant they were having tons of sex.  When we saw them we were shocked to see blonds and brunettes, skinny, awkwardly shaped bodies, and acne as far as the eye could see.  In short, they looked exactly like us.  They also tended to be as socially inept as we were, so nothing would be happening.

As the night finally came to an end everyone went outside into the sunshine, it was after all mid summer and we were on the edge of the Arctic Circle.  We were paired up with a student and that was, as they say, that.

The next night, our Russian counterparts came to claim us from our hotel.  The young man I was paired with had foreign language skills that rivaled my own, which is to say we couldn’t communicate at all.  I could never even figure out what exactly his name was.  He led me out of the hotel and then around the block and into the woods, along a trail.  The trail seemed to go on for too long and we walked deeper and deeper, away from civilization.  For a while I honestly thought that I was about to be killed or robbed, and I made peace with myself as we walked.  Eventually, though, we arrived at a clearing that quickly gave way to a series of very tall, apartment buildings, very much in the brutalist/communist style.

Inside, the elevator didn’t work and we wound up the stairwell, which was graffitied and smelled of pee.  We arrived at his apartment somewhere in the heavens.  My legs told me it was between the twelfth and four hundredth floor.  The interior was warm, but dated.  The brown shag carpet and brown and yellow striped wallpaper reminded me of the best and worst of my childhood.  I was shown the water closet, the first time I had ever seen one.  A quick tour of the kitchen, the bedroom, and the living room followed.  His mother who was busy cooking in the kitchen, seemed to be more irritated by my arrival than excited to have company for dinner.  He and I sat in the living room and watch TV, a sports channel was showing a bicycle race, while the announcers simultaneously spoke in Russian and thick British English.  We had dinner crowded around a small table, and it really was an amazing meal, complete with gold and black caviar, and tea sweetened with black cherries.  The night concluded with us going to a neighboring building to a party, where others from my group had also been taken.  We were dressed up with red neckerchiefs and photos were taken while everyone laughed.  It was only after that we learned that we were dressed up like members of the Young Communists, and that our hosts weren’t so much laughing with us, but laughing at us.

Our time in Petrozavodsk came to end and we made our way to Murmansk, well inside the Arctic Circle.  Another home stay was schedule, but this time, there would be no “meet and greet” at a preschool-come-illicit disco.  No, this time our hosts picked us up at our hotel and we would go home with them for a meal.   In the end, I wouldn’t get a meal, but I was given the memory of one of the strangest nights of my life.  When my name was called I stepped out of the group to meet my host.  This time I wouldn’t be alone.  I would be visiting with two others from my group.  We all seemed to be relieved to have others with whom we could share this experience.  As far as our host went, I instantly began to call her “Olga.”  I have no idea what her real name was, but the most striking thing about her was her bizarrely permed hair.  One half of her head was in ringlets while the other seemed to be wavy.  “Home perm disaster” was a bit long for a nick name, and “Ogilvie” sounded Nordic.  I settled on “Olga,” and “Olga” she became.

Olga was in her early 20s, and pear shaped.  She was very friendly and outgoing, and did speak a bit of English, though it only occasionally made sense.  She would say things, like “We ride bus now to my home.  Office,” or “It very hot today. Cold.”  She was always smiling as she spoke and seemed so thrilled to have us that we simply smiled back and followed along behind her as she took us to the bus stop.  We boarded the very old, white bus that was filled with so many people we had to force our way on.  There was no air conditioning and the windows were pulled down.  As the bus moved down the road, the wind  seemed to only  push the overwhelming stench of body odor in my direction.  After a stop, I jumped at a seat next to a window and practically held my head out of the window so that I could breathe without gagging.

After about 40 minutes we arrived at her small apartment.  It was part of a small complex, and on the ground floor.  In contrast to the swinging 70s pad of my last home stay, her apartment was light and airy.  It wasn’t exactly modern, but it was comfortable.   Olga left us and went into the kitchen and started banging around.  We could hear cabinet doors opening and closing and the sound of glassware being set up.  As she worked, the apartment door opened and in walked a man and another woman.  Translating from Olga’s introductions, I think the man was her boyfriend, and the woman was her best friend.  They brought with them a small dog, Jim.

Jim looked as though he was part Chihuahua  and part something else.  I quickly learned that the other half had to have been made of monster spawned from Hell.  From the moment he saw the three Americans on the couch, he lost his mind.  He began barking constantly, and didn’t stop the entire time we were there.  He bit my pants legs and my ankles.  He nipped at my hands when I tried to push him away.  Olga, in an attempt to help him get comfortable with our presence, picked him up and literally held the demon in our faces, and while he snapped and gnarled, trying to rip our noses off, she smiled in an grandmotherly way as though he was giving us butterfly kisses.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the home perm chemicals had done something to her brain.  She clearly thought Jim was God’s precious gift to her, and I could have believed this if she lived in an exceptionally rough neighborhood, and needed round the clock canine protection.

In an attempt to further international relations, I ignored the terror that was ripping my pants leg apart, and asked Olga what type of dog Jim actually was.  “He Japanese pocket dog,” she said.

“A pocket dog?  Japanese?”

“Yes.  Very cute.  China.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but luckily she got up and went back to the kitchen, and I tried to shake Jim off of my leg.  Olga’s boyfriend saw this and pointed to the dog, and said “He bitch.”  Then he reached over and scooped up the dog and held him with both hands from behind so that the creature couldn’t reach around and bite him.

Olga returned with a tray of glasses and a bottle of champagne.  I was a minor, as were the other two teenage guests, and we had been severely warned that if we were offered alcohol to graciously decline under threat of being sent home early.  We did as instructed, and Olga and her boyfriend shrugged and poured themselves glasses.  After an hour of so, Olga had stopped even trying to speak in English, was sitting on her boyfriend’s lap, and Jim was asleep in hers.    Olga and Boyfriend  were taking giant swigs from the second bottle of champagne they had opened, kissing and occasionally groping each other.  Olga’s best friend, a mousy woman with brown hair in a bowl cut, and the largest, most pendulous breast I have ever seen, didn’t speak English and apparently didn’t drink.  She had squeezed onto the sofa with us, and would occasionally smile politely and shrug her shoulders, as if to say, “I’m sorry.  I know they are wildly drunk and about to have sex in the chair in front of you, but this is the most entertaining thing to do in this town.”

When the bottle ran empty Olga stood up and bid us good night.  I think it was good night, but I wasn’t certain.  The midnight sun was shining and the alcohol wasn’t helping the nuances of her speech. She said something along the lines of “Good night bye you love you bye.  Thank you tomorrow.”  She walked into another room, which I presume was the bedroom, and closed the door.

I quickly ran down the figures.  I was 40 minutes away from my hotel, in a city I don’t know, in a country I don’t speak the language, and can’t even read the language, and I don’t know anyone, and my host has just passed out.

As luck would have it, Olga’s boyfriend, a man who looked much older than her, was bald and had a mustache, motioned at us to follow him.  Apparently, the plan had been that he would take us back to the hotel.  I had seen how Russians drove, and the type of cars they drove (I think the leading Russian auto manufacturer at that time was the maker of the Deathtrap 280R), and I wasn’t eager to get onto the roads.

Boyfriend, though, had other plans.  He pulled on his leather coat and we walked a few blocks, until we arrived at another apartment building.  He knocked at the door, and when it opened I was relieved to see three more from our group.  One of those was a girl named Martha.  From traveling with the group for the last few weeks, I figured out a few things about Martha.  First, I learned that she was from a rural area, a very rural area.  Second, I learned that Martha, was prone to using double negatives and the word “ain’t.”  Finally, I learned that Martha was more than a little red around the neck, and on this night, Martha was rip roaring drunk.

Apparently, their group had been offered hard liquor and Martha had partaken with glee.  She was also smoking and sitting in the lap of one of the Russian guys inside of the apartment.  He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, had a healthy mullet, and a strong liking of thickly built mountain girls from north Alabama.  Calling it an apartment, gives the space more credit than it deserves.  It was more of basement with wood paneling on three walls and wallpaper hung depicting a giant photo of a stream flowing through the woods on the fourth.  It was the basement in American movies where all manner of shady things happen.  We were asked to pose for pictures in front of the stream, and we did, though no Communist Party fashion accessories were worn this time.

It was getting late, though, or at least I thought it was (who could say when the sun is out at midnight), and it was time for us to go back to the hotel.  The entire group came out of the basement/apartment/amateur pornographer’s studio, and we walked down the street toward the bus stop.  Martha had acquired someone’s sunglasses, and put on Boyfriend’s jacket.  She walked down the street with her arm around the shoulders of her Russian, smoking like a chimney, in the over exaggerated way that teenagers who want to be bad do,  and she would lean in every so often to kiss her new Russian love.

The bus came and the doors opened.  The Americans climbed on, and one of the Russians paid our fair and then jumped off.  The doors closed, and one of them yelled at us that the bus would stop in front of our hotel.  That was the last we saw of them.  I rode back in silence reflecting on the nights adventures, watching the city roll by and listening to Martha occasionally say “Y’all! Seriously, I have to pee.”

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