Friday, August 20, 2010

Flashback Friday: In which I nearly freeze to death

On the road. Refried Flashback Friday, originally published 3 October 2008. In addition to this occasion, I also almost froze another time.

In case you're just joining us, it's Flashback Friday and the theme is Stories from Russia.

Today's story involves neither spies nor mariticide. Instead, I'm going to tell you about the coldest I've ever been in my life. I was so cold that I actually wasn't sure that I would be able to get myself someplace warm before I lost feeling in my legs.

It started out innocuously enough when I decided what I was going to give Jeremy for Christmas. First, some background. There's a pedestrian street in Moscow called Old Arbat that has retained much of its 19th-century Moscow glory. There is also a New Arbat, but it is filled with casinos shaped like boats, apartment blocks shaped like books, and other such eyesores.

Old Arbat, on the other hand, is filled with lots of fun stuff. There are vendors selling souvenirs, of course, which makes it a convenient substitute for the vast Izmailovsky Park located farther out of town. There are shops and restaurants and street performers, too. Near the end of the street, just before it turns into New Arbat, there are portrait artists, who will draw your likeness (either realistically or as a caricature) right then and there for a few dollars.

You may have seen artists like this in amusement parks or festivals; so have I. But remember that we're talking about Russia here, where people with PhDs in astrophysics scrape by a living sweeping floors at the local elementary school. Similarly, these street artists were not necessarily amateurs drawing just to earn a buck: many of them were very, very talented individuals.

I saw this first-hand when my parents visited us in the spring of 2002, and my mom had her portrait done on Old Arbat. The artist's name was Suleiman and he was from Georgia (the country, not the state). Even if you've never seen my mom before, surely you can tell that this is a portrait sketched by a skilled artist.

So in December 2002, I had the great idea to secretly get my portrait drawn and give it as a gift to Jeremy for Christmas. This was no small undertaking for me. I knew that finding an artist, bargaining a price, and sitting lamely where all the passers-by could see the whole process would be intimidating for me. But, it really was a great idea for a Christmas gift, so I decided to go for it.

Old Arbat looks like this, except without the cars and the wires. The architectural style is about the same, though.

I got to Old Arbat and set about looking for an artist. There were plenty of them there, of course, but I wanted a Georgian - Suleiman specifically if possible. I asked around for Suleiman but he was nowhere to be found. I really wish he had been there, not only because I knew he would do a good job, but because it would have saved me the terror of bargaining with three big Russian artists who I kind of felt would do me bodily harm if I didn't accept their offer. Fortunately, I managed to extricate myself from that situation and find a nice, young Georgian artist who was willing to take my portrait for the right price.

You may recall that it was December, in Moscow. The average temperature in Moscow in December is around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. That means that sometimes it's warmer, sometimes it's colder. On this day, I think it was colder. It was one of those crystal clear winter days where the sun is shining but it doesn't seem to give any warmth at all. This wasn't really a problem for me until I realized that I'd have to take off my hat - unless I wanted to give Jeremy a picture of me wearing a shapka for Christmas.

So I took my hat off and it was just as cold as I had feared. And it just kept getting colder and colder as the artist took his sweet time drawing my picture. I think my smile literally became frozen on my face. I have never been anywhere near as cold in my entire life as I was sitting still in a chair in the open winter air on Old Arbat street. But it was all for love, right? And vanity, I guess. Maybe Jeremy would have been happy with a shapka picture after all. Or so my thought process went as my extremities gradually went numb, one by one.

Eventually, he finished, and I attempted to pay him. Attempted, because I didn't have enough manual dexterity left in my fingers to physically pull out and separate any bills. I ended up using my two hands like the bricks of ice they were to wedge my wallet out of my bag, hold it out to him, and then telling him to take 500 rubles (we'd agreed on 300 but I was too cold to deal with making change). He had certainly earned it. Think about it: I was freezing cold just sitting there, while he somehow kept warmth enough in his fingers - through the powers of darkness, perhaps? - to draw a picture. Amazing.

When our business was done, I put my hat back on. It helped a little, but I was still in a tight spot, hypothermia-wise. So I stumbled to the closest warm place I could think of: Dom Knigi on New Arbat. It was a big enough store that I knew I wouldn't attract too much attention as I worked on returning circulation to large portions of my body. And it took some time, but eventually I warmed up enough to get home.

Here's the portrait. I don't even think it's that amazing - it's certainly not as technically beautiful as the one of my mom. But when I remember the circumstances that led to its creation, I tend to give it a little more credit. In a way, I think the artist drew me as I would be if I were Russian. And if almost freezing to death is the price I pay for catching a glimpse of my Russian self, well, I'll take it.

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