An Invisible Woman in Moscow


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It all started when I first arrived in Moscow, some years ago, with two enormous suitcases, and no idea at all what living in Russia would be like. I could not imagine how my life would change and what surprises, … Continue reading

Facing East, Facing West

It’s that New Year thing. You know, when you stand watching the sun set over the last year and simultaneously catch it beginning to rise over the new year and find yourself reconsidering what this present moment means in the light of them both. The chiming bells of midnight into the next season bring out this kind of reflection naturally, but for me this is not the only reason to be seeing double in the rosy dawn of 2013.

Just over seven years ago I stepped out on my eastwards adventure from the west of Britain, and arrived here in Russia expecting only that it would probably be cold. I sometimes hardly believe I am still here: still amazed, sometimes appalled, at times enchanted. Friends from England have been staying with us here over New Year, and seeing through their fresh eyes has reminded me of cultural differences that I have become acclimatised to over time. Living a bicultural life is like having two heads; one which sees and thinks through the culture and language you were born to, and another which has to see differently, and unconsciously adopts frames of reference from a new climate.

There are many places in Moscow where you can spot this image; that of a creature with two heads, its eyes facing in opposite directions. The double-headed eagle is all over the city, on police insignia and on buildings bearing Russia’s official coat of arms: in stone, in metal and in peeling paint. Originally a symbol of imperialistic power, it passed from Byzantine heritage to Russia in the 15th century, and signified the empire’s domination over East and West. Destroyed by Communism, the eagle with its two heads and three crowns was brought back to life again by President Boris Yeltsin to replace the hammer and sickle as the state symbol after the Soviet collapse. If one face is peering back into the past, gazing nostalgically at the power and authority of the likes of Peter the Great, then what does the other face see? Whatever the politics of this image of a state with two heads may present, the split personality of Russian culture is evident in so many little everyday ways; suspended somewhere between tradition and trash.

Of course we take our guests to Red Square. I had forgotten that the skating rink would be in place, cluttering up the classic view of the square through the archway of Resurrection Gate. Complete with turrets and little pointy red flags, the rink offers almost comical competition to the famous, curling, magnificent spires of St Basil’s Cathedral and the brightly lit facade of the elegant department store on the east side of the square. Even Lenin’s solemn and imposing mausoleum is currently concealed beneath a giant white balloon while reconstruction and repairs can take place. It’s a different face of the city than the one I’m used to seeing.

From the church on the corner of the square, tradition continues to sing out: the voices of the priest, cantor and choir curl up into the chill afternoon air in impossibly beautiful harmony. By the time we have taken a few steps across the square, these sounds have merged horribly with brazen holiday tunes, most of them from abroad, the cheap rhymes and Christmas cheer jingling out defiantly in English. From liturgical verse to ‘Santa Baby!’ in just a few, crisp steps. The paintings of cute mice, fluffy bunnies and skating santas follow one another around the gaudy hoardings of the skating rink and I wonder if Lenin is turning in his snow-white glass coffin across the square, or merely lying silently beneath his new shroud, waiting for whatever changes this new season will bring.

Whatever changes the New Year brings for you, may you be ready – standing firm and centred. May you imagine (just for a moment) that you can have two heads: one looking back to know where you are from and what you have learned, and the other facing forward, to know where you are going and who you will become.

Happy New Year!

The Howling

As I walk into the restaurant it is clear that something is going on. A photograph of this moment would show several heads turned in the same direction, a group of people pointing in the opposite direction, cutomers caught half way between sitting and standing, and others twisting their heads and necks to see, although there is nothing to see but the closed door to the bathroom. From behind this door there is a terrible noise: a strange and unearthly howling.

Time seems to be suspended at first, and then things begin to move on again.  The howling is truly terrible and as ice apparently drips down my own spine, I see fear and anxiety in the faces around me too. The howling develops to include gibbering and crying and a repetitive high-pitched shout, the manager is called and a small crowd of colleagues and clients surround him, advising and pointing, propelling him into the lair of the strange and distressed creature. The manager goes in alone. Everyone waits. The restaurant becomes still, and the canned christmassy music apologetically regains control of the place.

I take my drink and notepad and settle to my quiet reflections as planned, but the atmosphere is tense and there are still distractions: men in suits speaking into two-way radios, a waitress slipping in through the door to the bathrooms and dashing out again, more suits moving about, in and out of the cafe. Customers have left hastily.

Then, just as we have almost forgotten the terrible howling, a group emerge through the door at last. Five or six young men, in their early twenties probably: one is being supported by the others. He is impossibly thin. The manager follows them as they wind their way between tables and chairs, making for the door onto the roof which, in the summer, is an outdoor cafe besieged by pigeons, but is now a shimmering white square in the dusk. They help him down the three short steps onto the wide, flat roof where snow has met rain and is now part ice, part treacherous lake. Holding on to the railings at the side, the thin boy shudders and shakes but stays on his feet. I can see his breath forcing tiny clouds into the evening air. The others stand around now, one or two of them light cigarettes, the manager is waiting by the door, watching.

Finally the boy recovers a little. It seems as if his bones will poke out of what he is wearing; too little for this temperature at this time of day in this city. He is a human leaf in autumn, scant and skeletal, trembling and vulnerable and ready to drop. The boys have left slushy prints across the roof and managed a slow and careful descent down the slippery iron staircase: two walking backwards in front of him, the others following in a brotherly bundle from which hands emerge at all angles to hold his shoulders, his arms, his elbows, the railings and each other.

Much later, and way too late, three paramedics arrive in the cafe. The manager shows them which way the boys went, and they trudge across unsteadily to the railings to look hopelessly down into the darkness. They will be miles away by now. I realise that the dark-looking faces in suits who have been giving one another sideways glances and talking furtively into mobile phones, have not been calling for security backup, they have been calling for help. I catch the look on the manager’s face as his gaze followed the footsteps the boys have left, and see a surprising gentleness and genuine concern: not, after all, for his business, but for the boy.

Looking out of the window of the cafe, following those icy footprints, I can’t help but feel this concern too. But the image that follows me home afterwards is that of the many arms around him as he makes his slow, precarious way back into the night. He is not out there alone.


Inside Out

This morning sees the First Snow. A few, tiny, lethargic flakes flit about in opposite directions as if they have forgotten what to do since the last time. Should they descend, should they float back up? I am being guided through the lanes and alleys behind the roaring Moscow streets. After this visit to the surgeon my vision is so smeared that the sounds of the city have thickened and seem to press against my skin. We sweep past layers of voices: chattering, urgent, idle, laughing. These Russian tones are familiar to me now, although I can still filter them out if I want to, (something I can never do with the voices of my native tongue).

Behind the hospital the lanes wind and twist past crumbling balconies that reach outwards from old houses, groups of builders silently smoking, a cafe and a row of bikes. After two injections in each eye, several drops to anaesthetise and still others to dilate, the world is far too bright for me right now. I am seeing double, but it’s double nothing. All the details blur into a violet halo; an aura which surrounds each shimmering line, each shadowed face. The tiny snow flecks are pointed out to me. It’s hard to seize them into sight in the garish blur of this doubled version of the world but as a perfect, miniature snowflake finally lands upon my sleeve and winks at me I cannot help a sudden smile. I make a wish.

We walk past two men standing very close together: a uniformed policeman and a dark-haired man in very old boots. It is a silent transaction, there is nothing to hear. The details of their faces I cannot make out, but the thoroughness of the fingers searching into every corner of all the pockets of the bag being held out – this is something I can somehow sense, even in the brief flash of time it takes to walk past them. Now it is really starting to get cold.

Later in the metro I remember the tiny snowflakes so clearly that it feels as though they are flying about inside the carriage of the train. I close my eyes, because they are still playing tricks. It turns out that closing them doesn’t help. Pictures begin to sketch themselves into the reddish black darkness of the underside of my eyelids, which seem now to have become screens. Or mirrors? Faces build and fade there from time to time: some abstract, some recognisable, some hovering in between. Now I suddenly find myself staring into the image of my own eyes, as they were before, and noting how they clearly and defiantly gaze back. I am so shocked that my eyelids snap open and I am relieved simply to see lots of sleepy people sitting in a very ordinary train (inside which it is not snowing).

Looking outwards I cannot see what is there to be seen, but have still somehow perceived many tiny, invisible things. Looking inwards I find I can see what is not there to be seen at all. Today the world is inside out.

Our Lives in Our Hands

An angry voice insists on squeezing its way through my window. He sounds drunk, but it could be the fury not the wine. Drying my hands on a tea-towel I wander idly across the kitchen and peer into the glistening street below. It takes me a little while to piece it all together, but finally I see her. A woman is lying on the road, partly concealed by the leaves of a tree beneath my apartment: only her arm and a foot are visible from my vantage point. As I watch, a team move towards her, lift her carefully, and wheel her into a waiting ambulance. Her limbs sway with the motion of the stretcher, but she is not moving.

There is time to notice details. I see that she is wearing a knee-length black skirt and dark tights. She has a light suit jacket over a cream blouse, but no coat. A pretty gold necklace glints in the afternoon sun. She is young. She had been lying less than two metres away from a pedestrian crossing: the one I use myself on a daily basis.

Angry Man is shouting into the open window of a police car. He has a lot to say. The police are here but are making no attempt to control traffic around the accident spot. Cars are driving up onto the pavements and creeping along the edges of the tragedy, some of them leaning on their horns in protest at the inconvenience. The traffic moves ahead, the rain begins again, life goes on. The nonchalant, passive apathy of the whole scene enrages me: me and Angry Man, who is still intermittently shouting.

The pedestrian crossing in Moscow may get you from one side of the street to the other (although you take your life into your hands every time), but it is also the site of intersection between cultures. Here you will immediately realise the difference between Russia and… other places. Never assume that a pedestrian crossing here is a safe place to cross the road. A driver may begin to slow down but change their minds at the last minute because, after all, it’s much easier to accelerate than to brake, especially if your free hand Is busy holding your mobile phone to your ear. The staggering indifference to the value of human life as demonstrated by many Moscow drivers is something I will never get over, however long I may live here.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), science-fiction, horror, mystery and fantasy writer, speaking half a century ago:

“I never learned to drive. As a kid, I saw too many fatal accidents and I grew up hating the idea. Automobiles slaughter 40,000 people a year, maim a hundred thousand more, and bring out the worst in men. Any society where a natural man — the pedestrian — becomes the intruder, and an unnatural men encased in a steel shell becomes his molester, is a science fiction nightmare.”

Sam Gerrans on being a pedestrian in Moscow – very funny and very true. Click here:- Inside Out: The Voice of Russia

In the Eyes of the Wise

London 2012I have been chasing footsteps in London this summer: a city bright with excitement, sparkling with the glint of medals, more cheerful and upbeat than I’ve known her for a long while. Even those of us who didn’t attend the Games felt that we had somehow been a part of it all. We all caught a glimpse of the Gold. We were all brushed briefly with the majesty of the power of human achievement. It’s everywhere in a myriad of ways if you’re looking, but sportspeople show it so clearly; in the tension of muscle and sinew, in the brimming eyefull of pride beneath the flag.

I took a journey to see an old friend. An aunt whose light step and easy laughter lit up magical moments in my childhood: a string of bright beads across time. She is an octogenarian now, another amazing human achievement (a gold medal for living). Stepping out of the car I breathed in the sharp edge of the salt air. There is nothing that can bring you home faster than the smell of the sea. ‘A long journey’, I said to myself as I stretched my limbs back into shape; but anywhere in England is a long journey for me now. My dance with my homeland has changed in so many ways. I was feeling for a familiar step, the link of inner rhythm to the breath of the waves, but could not fall in with it. Out of practise. The gulls laughed as we walked down to my aunt’s house.

When she answered the door she was singing and her eyes flashed a brilliant conspiracy of friendship. My aunt’s eyes twinkle as if with secrets so secret that even she doesn’t know what they are. She’s seen a lot of life in all these years, and her stories still sparkle with it all even now. Talking with her that sunwashed afternoon was a deep and rare pleasure: an inspiring affirmation of living life’s promises and surviving its betrayals. Why is it that there is never enough time?

Flying back to Russia I thought about the other wise women in my life, the pleasure of their company and their subtle and powerful teaching. I began to think again about eyes (I’ve done this a lot recently). I thought of my aunt’s shining, sea-coloured eyes, much creased with laughter. Then my inner eye turned back towards the hospital in Moscow: the Cyclops ward. There we all were, patched up and stumbling, learning to see differently, peering at one another with the good one; sitting, talking, listening. Here I met my Russian wise woman who taught me and healed me with her quiet dignity and peaceful presence. She told me stories of her childhood, and I will never forget how her eyes filled with tears as she spoke of the hunger that they lived with in Stalin’s Russia after the war.

All those years ago.

A Bus Full of Birds

She gazes out of the window at the grime of the Moscow streets. The bus is crawling. Her fingers twist around the strap of her one, small, battered bag. She opens it again. Yes, the photographs are in there. The squealing metal of the bus makes it sound as if it is singing. Like a bird. Later, they will use these photos to track him down, and when they find him he will set light to his flat. It is hard to say what she is flying from. In this city full of strangers she finds herself sitting in a bus full of birds. She doesn’t know that she is flying full on into the fire.

Click here for A Bus Full of Birds soundscape (one minute)

With thanks to Akanksha, Joanna and Kabelo for Voices.