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, angels, demons, documents and delights were in store for me. Anyone who has done this will know that so-called ‘culture-shock’ is a real, tangible, visceral experience. One of it’s immediate effects on me was to give me the vague and persistent feeling that I had become invisible.
The first signs of my new invisibility were immediately noticeable in the faces passing by in the streets. Russian people have an entirely different public face than most English folk. When you actually meet and talk with Russians, they can be the most hospitable, warm and friendly people you can imagine, but until you are allowed behind the social facade, the mask is an impassive, heavy and even apparently hostile one.
I laugh to think back to the times I can remember dancing a ‘pas-de-deux’ with strangers in a British street, each of us stepping to one side to allow the other to pass, but both of us stepping in the same direction, and apologising. In Moscow you have to be careful not to leave a gap of more than 10cm between yourself and the counter in front of you, because that’s big enough for someone to squeeze into. Be prepared to open all your doors for yourself, and don’t expect the traffic to stop for you if you’re on a pedestrian crossing. I have even been actually knocked to the ground on an icy pavement by a ‘hit-and-run pedestrian’ at a road crossing. Mind you, I have also been scooped up off the floor by a strong, kind Russian stranger, but that’s another story.
Then, of course, there is the experience of not understanding anything at all that anyone is saying. How many times have I sat in someone’s house, smiling vaguely, and listening to a stream of impenetrable noise that is the sound of other people talking, and been utterly ignored? It’s an inevitable situation when you’ve inconveniently moved to a country before you’ve even begun to look at learning the language they speak there.
It is at moments like this, however, that one’s superpowers begin to develop. When you can’t easily join in the conversation, you begin to ‘read’ other forms of communication that are visual or experiential. All the little signs and signals that we use alongside language to communicate are still there, and you just get better at understanding and transmitting those. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the period of time spent dwelling amongst people whose language you cannot speak, before you learn too much of it, is priceless. There are things to be understood that run deeper than words.
Part of the value of being the outsider, the stranger, is the unique, and in some ways privileged, perspective that you have. That is who I am right now, in this place. I love Moscow, I love Russian people, and I can even speak this strange, wonderful language now (after a fashion). But I am, and always will be, an outsider. I am both within and without, visible, and invisible: I have become the Incredible Invisible Woman.