George Saunders

One of the wonders of foreign travel is that you get to see what dunderheads you and your fellow countrypersons turn into the instant you leave your own country.  Yesterday, for example, an American woman came into the Internet Hovel from whence I’ve been sending these little dispatches and did a very interesting thing in terms of simultaneously displaying that she 1) spoke no Russian and 2) didn’t seem to realize that Russian is spoken by most Russians in Russia and 3) had no idea how the Internet works. Which is all fine, except that she did this by shouting at the poor Internet Lad, who I’ve grown to very much admire because he is so nice and looks so very much like the least-bright but industrious and earnest youngest son in a fairy tale. Not that he is in actuality not bright. No, all day long he is hopping from computer to computer plugging and unplugging them, plus he collects just shitloads of rubles from people like me, whose computer adaptors are ineffective, and who have just literally carried their PCs around the whole world only to lug them back again without using them even once, so that one wonders why one didn’t just lug along a stone from one’s backyard, say, or a broken pool cue, which at least could have been used to poke that American Woman in the side when she started bellowing at Internet Lad: I WANT TO SEND AN E-MAIL MESSAGE TO MY VERY GOOD FRIEND IN ANN ARBOR WHO’S PROBABLY EXTREMELY WORRIED ABOUT ME BECAUSE WE’RE VERY CLOSE, HAVING BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GRADE SCHOOL, PLUS HER CAT JUST DIED, BUT THE PROBLEM IS, IF I SEND HER A MAIL FROM THIS E-MAIL ADDRESS IS IT PROBABLE ISN’T IT THAT THE RESULTING RETURNED E-MAIL WILL BE DELIVERED TO MY COMPUTER AT MY HOME ADDRESS, WHICH I HOPE NOT, BECAUSE MY COMPUTER IS LOCKED UP IN THE TRUNK OF MY CAR FOR SECURITY PURPOSES BECAUSE OF ALL THE MINORITIES WHO’VE RECENTLY MOVED INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD WHO OF COURSE I HAVE NOTHING AGAINST?

And Internet Lad chewed his lower lip sweetly and fingered his belt loop, as if too embarrassed to tell the American Lady that in Russia most Russians still speak Russian, which he of course could easily have done, since all Russians speak at least two languages, but Internet Lad, being so often abused by this father for trading their only cow for a mop, only sweetly chewed his lip, puzzling and puzzling, as if he had just been tricked into a witch’s cooking pot and he was trying to figure a Creative Way Out.   

At which point the American Lady turned to me and bellowed: I DON’T THINK HE UNDERSTANDS WHAT I’M SAYING?!!

To which I considered responding: Maybe you should try shouting louder and using even more complicated diction.

But–and this is the humiliating part, where I get off my narrative high horse and show that I too am An American–I then attempted a kinder, gentler version of exactly what she’d been doing, going like: SHE (smile) HAS (smile, smirk) PROBLEM (sincere look of commiseration) WITH COMPUTER NOW!

Finally Internet Lad and I, in a stirring show of crossnational solidarity, both turned about a quarter turn away from the American Lady and, as if thinking deeply about her problem, gazed out the window of the Internet Hovel, where an old Russian grandma in a babushka was looking askance at a young Russian hottie in an extremely short skirt, until such time as we could naturally and without seeming rude turn an additional quarter turn away from the American Lady, who was just then saying: I ALREADY TRIED CLICKING ON THAT LITTLE THINGIE THAT LOOKS LIKE A DOG’S HIND LEG WHICH ALWAYS WORKS AT HOME WHERE I SPEND MOST OF MY TIME COLLECTING VINTAGE ROAD SIGNS AND CONVERTING THEM INTO CHARMING PLANTERS FOR MY AFRICAN VIOLET COLLECTION, and soon enough it seemed appropriate to turn completely away from the American Lady, who then said: WELL IT’S CLEAR THAT TECHNOLOGY OVER HERE HAS A LONG WAY TO GO IN TERMS OF MAKING THE GRADE CAN YOU IMAGINE GOING TO THE DENTIST HERE NOT TO MENTION THE OVERALL SERVICE MENTALITY WHICH IS PROBABLY WHY WE HAVE TO KEEP BAILING THEM OUT IN TERMS OF WARS JUST LIKE THE FRENCH ALTHOUGH AT LEAST THE FRENCH KNOW HOW TO MAKE AN EATABLE SOUP. “Fifty rubles,” said the Internet Lad, in gentle English, as she was leaving.

OH HIGHWAY ROBBERY, said the American Lady, but paid, and as she passed the security guard who lives in a little closet, with his couch and his TV, all day long ensuring that no terrorists enter the Internet Hovel and blow up the three computers, the Internet Lad said something that sounded to my ears smart-assed and cutting and Eastern European, something Kafka might have muttered under his breath to his father, say, but which turned out, according to a student in the seminar who does speak Russian, to be something like: “Goodbye madam, thank you for using us, I am very sorry I could not be of more help to you.”

And so, having finished my week of Diary-izing, and exceeded my word count, I thank my hosts at Slate, and ask their further indulgence, so that I may leave you with “The Tale of Clear Pond,” by Katia Kapovich, the Russian émigré poet who read here last night:

Once again we’ve settled down in the center of Moscow.
Leaving the house, we slip the key under the rug.
We buy our food at the little street market—
grapes, tomatoes, white cheese. Wine is cheap. Bread is dark.
The level of local life is low,
The ruble falls every day, and the same
can be said about the sourdough
of the clouds with the yeast of a long Russian rain.

Grapes!  Tomatoes! White cheese!—salesmen yell. A door

Clear Pond, when it frowns, distorts our faces.
Clear Pond, where are your brown ducks and white swans?
Now we look from the bank at a crow that chases
its white shadow below in the wrinkled copper mirror.
Something is rotten in this city. But look,
the only one crying over the past is that weeping willow
bent over a muddy brook.

We once were a flock on these wet wooden benches,
but we left our nests and drifted astray.
Yet since the earth is round, the meridian trenches
have come full circle in this rainy May.
The city has called us home for a season. And while the rain

at the doors, we rustle our notebooks, call old friends,
shuffle days as trees shuffle leaves in their crooked fingers,
looking forward to other lands.