Creative writing and killer dryers

When I was young, I used to love writing. If I wasn’t reading, I was always scribbling something or other. I don’t really remember that I wanted to to become an author; really it was just something to do in my free time.

Sometime in middle school or early high school, I lost that spark to write. I must say that there was a brief renaissance with one teacher — Mr. Hansbarger, my English teacher for 11th grade and a senior year independent study (if my hazy memory serves me right). I was inspired by his willingness to work with a weird girl who had finished all of her English classes early somehow. Sadly, this didn’t last for all that long either. College came, Russian took over my brain, and I didn’t even take one writing class in college.

But here I am. I write a blog which, while not exactly the pinnacle of greatness, does obviously prove that I enjoy writing. I’ve also been doing some freelance writing which is not particularly inspiring, but has gotten me in the habit of writing again. Along with the paid work, I’ve been writing for myself again.

One of the things I’ve been working on for myself is a random collection of my experiences here in Russia. I have no particular plans for any of this aside from my own personal satisfaction, so I thought I’d toss it up on here. Might as well be seen by more than one person — if any of you have made it beyond this outrageously long introduction. (Below the jump!)

Washing machine

As I took down another frozen casualty of the vicious winter wind on my balcony, I lamented yet again about my lack of a dryer.

I’ve lived in Russia for three years, moved to four different apartments in and around Moscow, and not one had a dryer. Nor have the apartments of my friends or my students. We’ve all had washing machines: terrible, groaning machines that sound like they might just drop through the floor to land in an identical soviet-style apartment. Beastly washing machines, but never dryers.

In the fall and winter your clothes freeze unless you’ve got enough room in your tiny room to artfully drape your clothes on every surface. In the spring they stay wet for weeks, never seeing sunlight. In the summer, the dust and pollen immediately renders them dirty again. That is to say, Moscow is not a city where clothes dry gracefully. There is no light, fresh breeze to caress your shirts. The water turns crisp white button-downs into grays after one wash. Pants and sweaters flap sadly in the polluted air and smell of sewers and cigarette smoke once they’re dry.

Moscow is the perfect place to have a dryer. So why doesn’t anyone have one?

My subject, I decided, would be with the mother or father of my private student. Wealthy and well-traveled, it stood to reason that these people – out of everyone I knew in Russia – would have a dryer. My dubious logic went like this: they had a personal driver who carried a handgun. Within minutes of my first ride with him, he whipped the gun out of the glove compartment with a flourish; apparently, this was supposed to be some testament to his trustworthiness. If this family’s unimaginable wealth and status required an armed driver, surely they they were enlightened enough to purchase a dryer.

Semi-content in this logic, I made small talk with the straight-out-of-Hollywood driver as we headed to the luxury apartment. I dared not ask him about the dryer dilemma, afraid of the gun nestled amid maps of Moscow. Who knows what the mention of a dryer might provoke this hulking man into doing?

When I had finally made it inside, I was dismayed to find that neither mother nor father were home due to an impromptu trip to Italy. However the student’s babushka was there to greet me with a mistrustful stare.

“Do you speak English?” She stared at me, either not understanding or choosing to ignore me. I tried again. “Govorite…?”

“Da, da. English.” She waved her hand impatiently, clearly having none of my accented Russia.

Excellent! Most of the over-seventy set prided themselves on never learning English. Most of them remain absolutely distrustful of foreigners, particularly young American girls who speak passable Russian and have Russian boyfriends. Most are convinced I’m a spy, weaseling state secrets out of my low-level IT manager boyfriend through a series of depraved Western sex acts. I wish my life were so interesting; instead, I’m hell-bent on a personal mission to uncover the secrets of a machine that dries clothing.

“OK, do you have a dryer?”

“What?” Her aged face wrinkled further.

“Sushilny aparat yest?”

The mistrust deepened. “No, no. Bad!”

“But why not?” I asked, shocking even myself with the plaintive note in my voice. My mother was right, I thought. I never should have moved abroad. This is what living in the former USSR drives you to – having psychological meltdowns over dryers.

The grandmother watched me emotionlessly, apparently unmoved by plight. After a moment, she sighed and rolled her eyes, answering in half-Russian, half-English. “Be logical, American! We Russians don’t have such things because, how you say – ?” The 70-year-old shakily mimes cutting her throat. “Ubivat tebya!”

I light up, understanding this phrase. “Oh right! It’ll, it’ll…” I paused, processing what she’s just said. “It’ll kill you,” I finished flatly. “Right. Of course.”

The greatest indignity of all this didn’t come until sometime a few months ago.

Having tossed my laundry into the washing machine, I settled in with a cup of coffee. About fifteen minutes in, I heard a sound that I’d never heard it make before. Racing to the possessed beast, I turned it off, letting it wind itself down. I tried to convince myself that I hadn’t seen sparks in the interior of the washing machine.

Afraid to let it continue with those awful sounds, I took out the wet clothes to wash by hand. Noticing something odd, I removed two of my shirts from the pile. There were huge, scorched holes burned across both. This Russian washing machine had lit my wet clothes on fire.

Well shit. The Russians were probably right all along.

17 comments

  1. Your posts are definitely well written (for a non native english speaking Dutchman in Latvia). I do like the way you are playing with words. Keep on writing.
    Love the Private driver part. It is such a safe country for the wealthy.
    Luckily you were able to stop that machine and only 2 shirts were damaged. I don’t want to imagine what could have happened if you weren’t there.

    1. i know. I experience that every day here in Latvia. My English is also not perfect but even for a non native English speaking person such as me it is horrifying to read some emails and hear some conversations in my professional environment.

      1. You must see non-english pilots talking on the radio. You may get scared! Lol…
        If you wanna have fun, you can go to liveatc.com, and select Osaka, Japan, or some other place where english is not the first language, but the airport is international. It’s a miracle, the controller and the pilot can understand each other.
        At the same time I find it strange, people have still chosen to ignore english. All languages are good, none is better than the other, but if the exchange of ideas has to take place, between two people from foreign lands – they must have a common way.
        Somehow english has evolved into that. Maybe because of the colonial era, or maybe because of the chaos theory. You cannot ignore english, and then comes French, spanish, german.
        If you ask me about languages, I like the accent that all these countries from the middle europe – russia- have. You feel like an astronaut from the soviet era, when you try to speak in that accent.

    2. I like to think that I speak English well… Though you should hear some of the English teachers I know — their English can be truly frightening.

      Also very interesting to hear about the air traffic control. Or not interesting, but a little terrifying!

  2. This is AWESOME. I laughed hard throughout. Great story, and definitely keep up you writing!

    I must say, the drier situation confounded me too. I live in a REALLY nice apartment, and I have a very sleek, modern, high-tech Italian washer, but no a drier. I think we never installed one for space/energy efficiency reasons (and the awesome washer gets the items semi-dry as it is), but I know my mother prefers to line-dry items in the States as well – keeps them fresher, or something.

    1. The energy saving aspect is wonderful, but not with the depressingly bad quality of the usual washers you get stuck with over here. Each time I go visit my parents, I’m always so excited to get real, clean clothes after a wash!

  3. There were dryers in the houses of the two stupidly wealthy families in Rublevka I worked for; those were the only places in Russia I ever saw them. I bet even the laundry services of hotels drape the linens and towels around the room to dry them. My friend in Edinburgh has an all-in-one washer/dryer (I had to look that up after I typed it due to my disbelief that a machine like that exists)… you’d think someone could make some serious money importing something like that to Russia. The last year I was in Russia I washed all of my clothes by hand. I didn’t understand the primitive washing machine in our apartment, and whenever I witnessed Kolya’s dad using it, it didn’t seem any simpler than hand washing.

    1. ALL-IN-ONE?! What devil magic is that?! But that’s baller, and it totally does make sense to wash it all by hand. Sadly, I’ve been doing that for a lot of stuff recently :(

  4. Dryers are also nonexistent in Mongolia. You drape your clothes across the radiators in the winter, and on drying racks and clothes lines in the summer. I hadn’t realized until I came here just how quickly that will stretch out cotton garments, though – wet cotton is heavy!
    Most apartment-dwellers have manual washing machines – manual in that you must fill them with water yourself, as well as drain them yourself. The one in my apartment doesn’t really work, so I go to a friend’s place to wash large things (pants, sweatshirts, towels, sheets), but I do everything else by hand. Amazing how much longer laundry takes that way, and how much less often you find it necessary to wash your clothes…

    1. I’ve had the marvelous luck to always have a washing machine everywhere I’ve lived so far. However this current one has relegated my clothes to the tub. I agree that my concept of “necessary”/”clean” clothes has changed quite a bit.

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