As this little adventure winds up to a close, I am finally getting around to typing up my actual physical travel journal. As a result, posts will continue to be jumbled for the next little bit. If I remember, I’ll put a little note at the beginning of each to help you out, like this:

WRITTEN IN CHEREPOVETS

If Vologda is just as pretty as I remembered, Cherepovets is just a little bit dirtier. And also just as great.

Last night, I went to my friend Artyom’s birthday party. He has moved to St. Petersburg, so it was basically the only chance we would have to meet this trip. He told me the cafe’s address and promised that there would be lots of socializing and karaoke (ha yeah right).

When I arrived, I immediately realized something was wrong: Artyom was in the cloakroom with his parents. Wait, is this a family affair? We’re not that close. This is weird. Oh, if only I had known.

I had my coat taken off by his father and got a warm hug from his mom before proceeding into the banquet hall of this club, because this wasn’t just any birthday – it was his thirtieth, and the entire family was in attendance, including his aunts, uncles, cousins, niece and nephew, and grandmother, who lives down in the Caucasus. This is way more than I signed up for.

Now, I am no dummy. So when we sat down at the table (in Russian fashion, as at the conference I wrote about a month or so ago, laden with sliced fruit, sausages, cheeses, salads, and bread, all in addition to the actual meal), I specificially sat two seats down from Artyom’s seat at the head, so that (a) I wouldn’t be accidentally taking a seat of honor (if such a thing exists in Russia), and (b) it could not be deduced that we were a couple.

Too late.

You see, Artyom is 30 and single, which is unfathomable in a country where most of my peers are already raising toddlers. So of course I, the only unmarried young female in attendance (other than his six-year-old niece), was immediately taken to be his boo thang. I was not immediately aware that this was what was happening; the realization came in waves. First, I was told to move to the seat next to the head of the table. His aunt kept looking at me with dewy eyes (STOP THAT) when there was a lull in the conversation. By the end of the night his grandmothers were leaning across the table to tell me “Don’t let him go,” and how he’s a “good boy—doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink” and to give me advice on long distance relationships. I didn’t bother telling them that I’m kind of a pro at that.

Artyom‘s mother emceed the party, and she was full of games. Even the games conspired to rush along our non-relationship: there was the game where you have to kiss the person to your right (guess who was on my right?) and pass it up the table. The grannies opposite me beat us, thank goodness. So we redid it– now you have to kiss twice. Grannies again. Three times (is this a joke?). Grannies for the win! There were various dancing competitions (my usual argument of “I’m American, we don’t dance!” fell on deaf ears). There was an Artyom-themed limerick game similar to the one on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. There was a simple competition, designed to let everyone win at least one piece of candy, where the mother gave awards to the person who had known Artyom the longest/shortest (that’s me), and so on.

Through all of this ridulosity, Artyom neither encouraged nor discouraged the fawning of the matriarchs. Aware of the possibility that Artyom had invited me not only as a friend, but as a beard (a fake signfiicant other that helps keep a closeted queer person closeted), I also chose not to say anything – after all, there are few more in need of allies than the Russian LGBT community, and I got a good story out of the experience.

Artyom and I met for sushi without his wedding committee the next day (my last Russian sushi! Never again will it cost $2, and never again will soy sauce and ginger be sold separately!), and although he didn’t offer an explanation, it was clear that I didn’t need to “be careful with him,” as my Russian friends had warned me (granted, I already knew that). It was totally normal. Plus, I learned the process for faking a certificate of unfitness to work (is there a better word for that?) so that one can, for example, go to one’s hometown for one’s birthday, even if one is a teacher and it is a school day. Artyom was shocked that in the US we generally just call and say we’re sick, no paperwork required (right? I feel like that’s right, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been sick enough to miss work). I pointed out that if it’s that easy to fake the paperwork in Russia, then it’s clearly unnecessary. He couldn’t disagree.

And that is the story of how I left Russia with two marriage proposals in my pocket, neither from the eligible bachelors themselves.

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