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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wipe That Idiotic Grin Off Your Face!

To not quite quote Tolstoy, all newcomers to Russia are happy and alike, but each oldtimer is miserable in his own way.


Most foreigners arriving in Russia go through that first idyllic phase, when all problems, all indignities, all absurdities are greeted with the same catch-all phrase: "That's so interesting!"


We've all seen the signs: A neophyte just oozes enthusiasm as he is shoved onto the metro, radiates joy when he is stopped by the GAI, burns with curiosity to sample the local shashlik.


While oldtimers grumble at the lack of hot water, rage when their phones are cut off with no explanation, or subside into dull misery as the days get ever shorter, the pink-cheeked novice -- an idiot grin on his face -- treats all his misfortunes as a Great Adventure.


A few months later, the rose-colored glasses have darkened a bit. The snide superiority our nouveau Muscovite formerly felt towards his gloomier, more experienced companions has given way to respect for their durability.


Then begins the real adventure; our once gleeful greenhorn begins to break down.


I remember my first few weeks, when I drove everyone crazy with verbal bliss about the warmth of the people, the beauty of the city, even the quality of the light. "It's so much like Paris," I would burble, as my colleagues rolled their eyes in disgust.


Now I have days when my interior monologue is no longer fit to print, when a rude salesperson can move me to hysteria, and an aggressive driver can inspire nearly psychopathic fantasies of revenge.


This alternates with periods of torpor so profound that buying a loaf of bread at a bakery is a major accomplishment. Just one look out the window at the barren landscape can be enough to send me back to bed, and I search feverishly among my books for something light and frothy to take my mind off my misery. Those are the days when I am tempted to grab my dog Sasha and head for the airport -- but I can't summon up the energy.


Everyone has a breaking point. There's no telling what will finally send you over the edge. For my friend Roy, it was Sergei Mavrodi's election to the Duma. "There's no hope for this country!" he cried. Roy is not thinking of going home, exactly. But lately he has been muttering to himself a lot.


In my case, it was being informed that it was going to cost me twice as much to renew my health club membership for next year.


"Ridiculous!" I fumed. "How can you charge higher prices than in the rest of the world for poorer service?"


Of course I already knew the answer. I was going to pay it, wasn't I? My daily workouts are my one tenuous link to sanity, and there is not exactly a plethora of choices.


I recently met a woman who has been here for three years -- she had the slightly manic look of someone trying to decide if her Russian sojourn was a blessing or a curse. On the day we met, the scale had definitely tipped.


"I had a headache the other day," she began. "My first since I was thirteen." As someone who has had a constant headache since she came here eight years ago, I was less than sympathetic. But my companion wasn't finished.


"My first thought was 'brain tumor,'" she continued, "and my next thought was 'good.'"


Oh, for a pair of rose-colored glasses when you need them!