Life in Russia has two paces: geologic and gunfight on the top of a runaway stage coach careening toward the edge of the canyon. There is no in between. Things tend to either not be happening or to be happening all at once. Example: the professor who vacated the office that the other Writing Center Director and I are occupying left a whole bunch of boxes behind. Last week, he came and removed one box. On Tuesday, he removed…one more box. At this rate, he will be fully moved out sometime in mid-November. However, there are a bunch of Writing Center materials that needed to be moved out of the room where they were being stored so that a new research group could move in there. And feeling their pain, we decided to go ahead and move that stuff into our already full office, which meant putting the former occupants boxes in the hallway. Except the items we needed to move included a large bookcase that was about a centimeter too tall to fit through the doorway. And this was all happening minutes before I had a consultation scheduled in our office because the Writing Center room had to be commandeered by a class that had been kicked out of their seminar room for something else. So at one point, there were like 14 people in our office (you know, give or take) moving crap in and out and trying to decide whether or not to take the door frame apart, and I am watching the clock knowing that this student could be arriving any second along with the new consultant who is coming all the way over from Moscow State in order to observe.
Finding an apartment here was sort of like that, except the stakes were a little bit higher. In many ways, finding a place to live in Moscow presents all the same challenges as any other major world city. Real estate is ludicrously expensive. Properties move extremely fast. Apartments tend to be small. Landlords do not have to work very hard to find tenants. Quality and cleanliness vary widely. Things that are unusual: the renter pays the agent fee and the entire transaction is handled in cash (more on that later). Also, many apartments come furnished, which is nice because you don’t have to buy that stuff, but you do have to be able to live with the landlord’s particular taste. Some apartments are decorated in an ultra-modern style. While others are in the old Russian style that tends to include ornate Persian rugs, fussy looking furniture, and gaudy wallpaper (or even carpet) on the walls.
Within days of arriving in Moscow, I found an apartment that seemed to be perfect. It was in our price range, newly remodeled, sort of on the small side but in a convenient location. I wanted to jump on it, but it was late August, and the landlady went on vacation, as so many Europeans do. She was gone for two weeks and did not respond to phone calls or emails. So we waited, feeling sort of ok about it because the apartment wasn’t being shown to anyone else. Then, last Tuesday, after waiting 14 days, we found out that she had decided, spur of the moment, to sell the place rather than rent it. I got that text an hour before going to teach my first class.
So, I needed to find another solution, as the lease on my temporary place was going to run out in a few days, and I felt bad about trying to get it extended again. So, we went and looked at a few more apartments that night and found one in the exact same neighborhood that was arguably better (bigger, more light, though not as new). We had an appointment to sign the contract and get the keys 24 hours later. So, I packed and realized, to my horror, that Bank of America (I do not have a bank account in Russia yet) would only let me withdraw the equivalent of $900 per day. I needed about $5000. Because Russians do everything in cash. Including taking first month’s rent and security deposit and all of that. It was difficult for me to explain just how weird this is for Americans.
So, I scrambled, trying to research alternatives while Ed went and talked to BoA in person in the US (it was mid-day there). I tried to Western Union the money to myself using my credit card, but it was declined, and Discover–no doubt seeing that someone with a Russian IP address was trying to wire a shitload of money to Russia–cut me off. And to make matters worse, as I was trying to make calls to financial institutions to assure them that this was all legit, I got to the end of my pre-paid cell phone plan and was cut off. So, in desperation, I emailed the person at NES who is always seems to have creative solutions, and within minutes she had a fix that involved me transferring money to another US account and someone coming to my office the next day to count out 160,000 rubles onto a table. I have never felt more like a gangster in my life, and it was sort of great.
(I also figured out how to top off my cell phone, which involves going to an ATM, typing in you phone number, and sticking some cash in the slot. It’s super easy, but no one told me this when I got the phone.)
So that is how I wound up in a lovely apartment in a lively, interesting part of Moscow just outside the Garden Ring, a couple of miles from Red Square, close to parks and good restaurants and the American Medical Center. I hope we never move again until it’s time to go back to the US, because this is not the kind of thing you want to have to do very often.