Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas

The bags hovered almost motionless in the air, turning fluidly. Her heels, trailing lines of powdered snow, flicked up and joined the shopping in the space in front of her. Her lipsticked mouth emitted a shrill screech and then she landed with a dull thud on her back. A blonde lady in white furs trotted over in her heels and looked into the well-being of the fallen maiden. The victim muttered nonchalantly and accepted an arm up. They giggled. I sniggered and smiled. The tumbler picked up her bags of expensive clothing and walked away as if nothing had happened.

The ice had come to Moscow. People slipped and skidded and glided around the streets while icicles dripped menacingly from branches.
Then the snow arrived. Days of fluffy white falling from the sky. Due to the perpetual minus numbers the snow rarely melts. Near the roads it dirties and produces what essentially resembles chocolate ice cream. Away from the roads it either stays virgin or just gets shifted around by the footfalls of people and dogs; never melting.
In England the snow is wet. You walk around outside and you get wet feet and trousers. Here you walk around and get covered in snow, but it might as well be flour. It clings to you. But outside you are a walking bauble of minus figures. It brushes off like cold dandruff. Only by the roads do you find the 'slyakat', slush. Some underpasses, warmed by the rumbling of cars overhead and the constant stream of stomping boots, are muddy and wet. I hoik up my trousers like some Victorian damsel and gingerly step-stone the drier sections.
Then the snow combines with the ice. Snow falls on ice. Snow becomes ice and forms a dense pack layer onto which more snow falls. Yet to buy appropriate footwear, my day-to-day strolls have become more exciting. The positive aspect is that now my thighs are stronger and my balance is exceptional. A negative aspect is that I am more paranoid of imminent banana skin style falls.

To go into every detail of the last few weeks would be at once boring and lengthy so I'll just feed it to you in a snapshot paragraph:
a falconer on the metro casually holding two birds on his arm to the disinterest of the Russians; a metro train full of art instead of chairs; my housemate Richard playing guitar with his band (Zheka and the Flying Nuns) in the posh Bar Strelka; taking part in a 'bodyshot' with two barmaids in the Coyote Ugly Bar; receiving a 300 rouble (£6) fine in said bar for breaking a glass; hosting a little chilled out house party at my flat where the Spaniards and Russians got much drunker and sillier than I did; had a deep metaphysical conversation with my Orthodox student about the existence of God; skidding and sliding about on the frozen ponds near my flat at 5 o'clock in the morning; admiring the decorations and Christmas pomp in every cafe, company, kiosk and shop in a country that doesn't really have Christmas; smiling at the people ice skating on Red Square; looking for 'Russian' presents for people that aren't bottles of vodka or Matrioshka dolls; spending a day showing round a lovely English girl, Marina, who had just finished her stint in Voronezh; revisiting my favourite sights in Moscow now bathed in snow; finding somewhere to play badminton and, finally, managing to avoid the airport chaos and get home in time for Christmas!

* * * *

'Ooh, isn't that clever! I never thought I'd be able to do this. To talk to her all the way over there in Canada, while I'm sat here. It's amazing. Hello Kath!'
Grandma peered further into the computer. My cousin turned to me,
'This would make a great advert for Skype'

As the matriarchs stumbled and squawked through the technological wonder of Skype, the rest of the family Darracott drank and ate and made merry. I have been full, stomachly speaking, for the last three days. Presents have been opened, alcohol has been drunk, turkeys have been scoffed, vegetable patches have been dominated and wrapping paper has been obliterated. Christmas has come and is here. It doesn't quite have the same zing as last year but this may been due to the fact that Moscow was very festive and white before I left and I am now holidaying in a country that is also rather festive and white. Madrid was far less festive and was dry and colourful with ice blue skies.

I am currently wallowing in that strange post-Xmas limbo. Half nothing to do, half really busy. I have piles of books from Santa Claus waiting to be read - my gaze turns to last year's still waiting selection - alongside small troves of chocolates, nibbles, scents and miscellany. I intend to see how much I can 'get through' before, in four days, I must again fly away. For my relatives I brought back caviar, black bread, Peter the Great tea, honey, dried squid, dried sausages, communist propaganda art, chocolates, a Father Frost statue and Russian woollen socks. I think I did well given that the alcoholic potato juice and reductive ever-miniaturising doll women were out of the question.

Christmas. In Russia it's a time for quiet, personal prayer. In England it's, technically, a time for paying your respects to the baby Jesus - who's birthday wasn't even on the 25th. For me, a 'massive atheist', it is/was/will be a time to meet friends and family and to exchange gifts. Jesus plays no part. Today is Boxing Day and I'll soon have to burst into the New Year Russian style before plodding through another 360 days until the next Christmas. I just hope that in 2011 it doesn't start kicking off in September as usual. I like to savour the build up. No mince pies or festive songs until December.

I leave you now with the words of Walter Scott:

Twas Christmas broach'd the mightiest ale;
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man's heart through half the year.

To all of you I wish a very Merry Christmas and a frankly sublime New Year!
Farewell for 2010.

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