How to relax your Russian friends at parties


411: See that snowy, mountainous area we’re flying over? I’m contemplating which of my passengers to claims dibs on (for eating) when we crash land in those mountains.

Music: “Hey ya”, Outkast

“C’mon ladies, shake it, shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture”

Another plane ride, another cab driver. Getting into the cab had all the feel of a James Bond movie. The driver makes a half-hearted attempt to put my bags in the trunk, but skips it when I toss my stylish Neoprene bag into the trunk along with my absurdly small duffel. I’m sure he thinks I was just somewhere overnight. This is almost a week of travel for me, bucko. You don’t have to carefully pack what you don’t take, so I don’t take a lot of stuff.

Like my cellphone charger. Who needs that anyway?

Check out my new $500 paperweight! It’s got all the status of Walter Mossberg’s favorite Treo, and all the usefulness of a typewriter in Castro’s cuba.

As I settle into my taxicab seat the CD catches my ear. What’s wrong? It’s obviously covers of popular tunes about 10 years old, but something’s off. It’s the musical phrasing. Apart from the klezmer influence, there’s a Russian folk styling to the phrasing. I’d swear someone took some impoverished Russian folk musicians who are cheaper than Americans and convinced them to play “Killing Me Softly”.

The sudden Cold War feel of the cab has me antsy. I look around for someone in the back of the SUV. I check the mirror to see if I’m being stared at menacingly. If the electric locks clamp down without little knobby handles, I’m gonna start clawing at the windows.

No such luck, though. Today, to think of the Russian security apparatus in America as menacing is to give them more credit than they deserve. It’s one thing to lose a chess match, or a soccer game and have everyone in the world to think, “you’re not the winner”, or cruelly, “you’re the loser”. I suspect it’s another thing entirely to have your entire political system indicted as a failure in the eyes of the world. Nobody would blame my now obviously Russian cabdriver for being a little bitter.

In my head, I’m going through what I suspect his story is: I’d place him in his mid-50’s, a former physicist or engineer who has moved to America because there’s no work in his home country. I’m not far from the truth; he’s a mechanical engineer from the Ukraine who’s moved to the US because there’s no work at home. Married with grandchildren, he speaks little English, but more than the ten words of Russian I remember from five poorly-studied years of high school Russian.

To try and put him at ease and get him talking, I ask him if he has any Russian music. Entirely flabbergasted, he says, “you like Russian music?” Sure, I say. He fishes a new CD out of the pile in the console and starts playing something that sounds like the Russian equivalent of barbershop quartet. Everything is sung with multiple voices. They all have that regal quality, such that at any moment I expect to be told that this is the Ukrainian national anthem.

Gregor, a Ukrainian 52 year old former mechanical engineer is the model of everything that’s right about international travel and immigration. For the entire ride I get a crash course in vodka and caviar (Beluga is over-rated, and Imperial Vodka is the best you’re likely to find, that is, if you can find it at all). There’s not a food I can think of that he hasn’t tried, including sushi, and he teaches me the differences between American Chinese and Russian Chinese food. (Radical, of course)

And we talk about my new favorite topic, Putin’s recent attempts to seize control of Russia’s most successful privatized industry, Yukos Oil. “Putin is a communist,” says Gregor, simultaneously laying out his opinion and teaching me the worst insult you can hurl at a Russian these days.

As we arrive at our destination he asks me if I like this Russian music. “Sure, don’t you?” Gregor hates it. “Ballads are boring, I like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. It’s what I played when I had a guitar many years ago in the Ukraine.”