Finally the thermometers are flirting with minuses. A tantalising two-day crust of snow/ice lies over everything as small numbers flicker below zero. 'It'll be -12 one day' says one person, '-20' says another. I can't believe it could drop so suddenly. My students have started advising me to buy thermal underwear. I guess it could. One day searing, clean wind shears through everything and whips through doorways, the next all is still and smells sit chilled on the unmoving, unshifting air. Dressing appropriately is so to become an 'issue'.
At the end of a very long week two things happened. The first was a failed-karaoke Friday evening and the second was a Saturday circus.
We started our night in the usual way. Everyone brings something to the flat. Vodka, juices, crisps, pickles, olives, sweets, whatever. Laid out. Music on. Guests arriving. Typical 'Spanish party'. In drips and drabs Spanish and Russian people piled into Alvaro and Manuel's palatial kitchen and calls of 'vodka and orange' lifted over The Kooks or whichever band was playing in the background. The windows started to steam up so one was opened allowing an icy sliver of wind to enter and readdress the balance. 'Shot! Chupito! Rumka!' Everyone groaned a little at the inevitable arrival of the little glasses filled to the brim with ice-cold vodka. Gagging sounds and 'urghs!', followed by pickles or sweets, was the denouement to the party. Eyes met and shared the same 'why do we always do this' glance.
The plan was to go to a private karaoke where hire out a booth with a machine. Personal embarrassment is only witnessed by your friends and not the spiteful, judging general public. The place where we wanted to patronize; as in visit, not tap on the door and say 'you are a good club aren't you', was closed. We then visited Zhiguli - part ground-level, cheap cafe, part snazzy, enormous underground club. We shuffled into the warmth. Manuel and I popped to the gleaming, mirrored toilets. We joked about having more luck with gyrating Russian girls than with singing songs anyway, zipped up and went back into the empty hall. The others had gone on ahead. We paid the 600 rouble (12 pound) entrance fee and went down.
A low-level but expansive, heaving, green-lit room lay before us. It was filled with classily-dressed men and women and provided excellent areas for both dancing, bar-standing and sitting. We pushed past groups of friends, women caressing each other for the enjoyment of their boyfriends, young bucks dancing awfully in front of uninterested girls, people shouting over the music to be heard by the barman and looked for our friends. Within a couple of minutes it became clear that they in fact hadn't come down and, not realising we were in the loos, had gone outside. Oh how we laughed and enjoyed ourselves for a while, toying with the dilemma of either sacking it and finding the others or trying to make the most of our 600 roubles. It was then we started to notice that the average age of the patrons was at least 30 and the average salary was probably astronomical. We shouldn't be here. We left, sat at a bus stop, waved on taxis, waited for the others to text us - for they were still searching for a new place - and then both decided to call it a night.
A Russian has since told us 'if you go out in Moscow, you need to plan. Plan A, B and C'
Saturday was far more successful.
On a snowy evening we met at the Universitet stop, with the campus skyscraper building looming over the trees like some shrouded, melodramatic vampire, and entered the large, permanent, Bolshoi Moskovskii Gosudarstvenii Tsirk, Grand Moscow State Circus. In the entrance hall/ring people handed coats in, bought nuts, popcorn or candy floss or had their photos taken with doped up Arctic foxes or expertly well-behaved rabbits and cats. At one point an unwilling fox made a scurrying run for it through the legs of circus goers and shot off round like some furry particle in the Hadron Collider. The photographer had clearly seen it all before, gave the girl a bunny, finished his photo, and walked off after the little vulpine escapist.
The show, based around the theme of a train passing through various stations, where all the different acts took place, was at once wonderful and entertaining but also depressing and vile.
The good: acrobats, laser shows, UV dancing and rope work, balancing acts, some sub-standard but endearing clowns and the legions of squealing and laughing kids.
The bad: the animals. Well, the dogs and sea lions were fine. They were doing simple, classic routines. The dogs ran around and jumped over things Crufts style and the sea lions balanced balls whilst receiving constant strokes and treats. The show had a more unpleasant taste, made worse by the heat and lack of leg-room in the stalls, when the dressed-up monkeys, subservient bears and lions drugged up to their eyeballs came out. The bears were running on their hind legs, doing forward rolls, and driving motorbikes. The lions did simple tricks, but could barely move about, and roared and protested feebly, such was the level of chemicals no doubt coursing through their bloodstream. Oh, prod that lion will you he's not getting off his pedestal quick enough. I hoped one of the beasts would remember what he was, a king, an apex predator, and would remove the face of the dancing, twirling, stick-wielding dandy who tormented them. They didn't.
The show ended with a birthday cake exploding into confetti, it was the 70th birthday. As great and terrible it was, it was Russian. That was the most important thing. As we walked back to the metro, the icy snow stabbing at our eyes, my mind wandered into the lion enclosure and opened the latch and left a photo of the tamer with a steak stapled to it.