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!

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

First Wheels

I watch them from further down the street as they race ahead. The Little One is wobbling, but confident anyway, his small shoulders hunched in concentration, little legs struggling to keep the unfamiliar pedals circling round. Next to him runs his father, keeping pace perfectly, a gymnast’s poise and bounce in his step. He calls out instructions, leans in from time to time to steady his son. I think, how is it that we are all here? This summer’s day, this Moscow street, with lazy poplar pollen drifting across the afternoon, these first-step moments shining in our minds.

Perhaps I caught a glimpse of this image once, back there, in those far-off, far-away times in suburban England, freewheeling down the leafy lanes of my childhood. It could be that I caught a bright flash of all this then, and called it a dream.

“Round and round”, the words echo back to me both in baritone Russian and in light, childish English. My two worlds meet in this moment – balanced precariously, valiantly, upon two shiny new wheels.

click here for Moscow – First Wheels (a very little, sunny, video)

2012 A Happy New Year!


I have been away for a while. I have been busy researching the notion of insight, inner eyes and finding a new vision for the new year. It turns out that all you need is a good surgeon, an over-worked imagination and some Shakespeare. For more on this, you can read the above new page An Inner Eye.

Meanwhile, my new year’s resolution, emerging fully formed from my recent experiences, is simply to KEEP CALM – no matter what happens.

I wish all my readers a happy, successful, healthy, beautiful Dragon year; full of fun, wisdom, insight, the ability to see what you need to see and be seen when you want to be.

From the Invisible Woman with Love. Happy 2012!

Living in Culture Shock


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At the heart of the bilingual family flares the eternal flame of potential misunderstanding. Any group of people anywhere in the world has scope for miscommunication, but in the bilingual home this potential is magnified. On top of this there … Continue reading

Home from Home

“Are you going home for the summer?” a colleague asked me.

A perfectly innocent question, but difficult to answer, because of the word ‘home’. After a small hesitation, I replied that my family and I are going to England for a month. Shifts in language and changes in vocabulary are significant in relation to changes of thought, feeling and cultural position. I suppose this means that I have begun to truly consider Russia as home. That’s a huge idea to hide within a four letter word.

Shortly afterwards, I was invited onto Sam Gerran’s radio show ‘Home from Home’, in which he interviews foreign expats living in Moscow about their lives in Russia. He has his own fascinating stories to tell, and I wish I had managed to get around to asking him if he considers himself Russian now. I wonder if a foreigner ever truly feels a part of the country he or she is now living in?

Our conversation is here – Home from Home at Voice of Russia:
Home from Home: Sam Gerrans talking with Sarah Semyanik

If you listen and you like it, please add your vote – just below the link there’s a click to be clicked. And if you are an expat, and do (or don’t) know where Home is now, I’m really interested in your comment here on this post; please feel free to leave one.