To get to this apartment I exchanged some dollars at the booth outside baggage claim—it was about twenty-four rubles per dollar at the time—and took the brand-new express train to Savelovsky Railway Station, passing miles of crumbling Soviet apartment blocks, and the old (also crumbling) turn-of-the-century industrial belt just outside the center. Along the way the massive guy sitting next to me—about my age, in jeans and a short-sleeve button-down—struck up a conversation.
"What model is that?" he asked, about my phone. I had bought a SIM card at the airport and was now putting it in the phone and seeing if it worked.
Here we go, I thought. My phone was a regular T-Mobile flip phone.But I figured this was just a prelude to the guy trying to rob me. I grew tense. My hockey stick was in the luggage rack above us, and anyway it would have been hard to swing it at this guy on this train.
"Just a regular phone," I said. "Samsung." I grew up speaking Russian and still speak it with my father and my brother but I have a slight, difficult-to-place accent. I occasionally make small grammatical mistakes or put the stress on the wrong syllable. And I was rusty.
The guy picked up on this, as well as the fact that my olive skin set me apart from most of the Slavs on this fancy train. "Where you from?" he said. He used the familiar ty rather than vy—which could mean he was being friendly, because we were the same age and on the same train, or it could mean he was asserting his right to call me anything he wanted. I couldn't tell. He began to guess where I might be from. "Spain?" he said. "Or Turkey?"
And what should I answer? If I said "New York" it would mean I had money, even though I was wearing an old pair of jeans, and sneakers that had seen better days, and in fact had no money. A person from New York could get robbed, either on the train or once he got off, in the commotion of the platform. But if I said "Here," Moscow, it would technically be true but also obviously a lie, which could escalate the situation. And I was on the train from the airport,
"New York," I said.
The guy nodded sagely. "They have the new iPhone there?"
"Sure," I said. I wasn't sure what he was getting at.
"How much does it cost?"
Ah. Western goods in Moscow were always way more expensive than in the West, and Russians always wanted to know just how much more expensive so they could be bitter about it.
I tried to remember. Sarah had had an iPhone. "Two hundred dollars," I said.
The guy's eyes widened. He knew it! That was a third of the Russian price.
"But," I hastened to add, "you have to get a contract. It's about a hundred dollars a month. For two years. So, not cheap."
"A contract?" This guy had never heard of a contract. Did I even know what I was talking about? In Russia you just bought a SIM card and paid by the minute.
"Yeah, in America you need a contract."
The guy was offended. In fact he was beginning to wonder if I wasn't just making this up. "There must be some way around that," he said.
"I don't think so."
"No," he said again. "There must be some way to get the phone and dump the contract."
"I don't know," I said. "They're pretty strict about that stuff."
The guy shrugged, took out a paper—Kommersant, one of the business dailies—and didn't say another word to me the rest of the way. A person who couldn't figure out how to dump an iPhone contract was not worth knowing. But there was no gang of robbers waiting for me at the train station, and from there without further incident I took the metro a couple of stops to Tsvetnoi Boulevard.
The center of Moscow was its own world. Gone were the tall, crumbling apartment blocks of the periphery and the old, crumbling factories. Instead, as I stepped off the long escalator and through the big, heavy, swinging wood doors, I saw a wide street, imposing Stalin-era apartment buildings, some restaurants, and a dozen construction sites in every direction. Tsvetnoi Boulevard was right off the huge Garden Ring road, which ran in a ten-lane loop around the center, at a radius of about a mile and a half from the Kremlin. But as soon as I started up toward Sretenka Street, where my
grandmother lived, I found myself on side streets that were quiet and dilapidated, with many of the two- and three-story nineteenth-century buildings unpainted and even, in August, partly abandoned. A group of stray dogs sunning themselves in an abandoned lot on Pechatnikov Lane barked at me and my hockey stick. And then in a few minutes I was home.