Tuesday, 18 January 2011

'Moscow, which is located under the cold sky'

Act I - New Yearman cometh

A sparkler was fizzing at my arm, it burned a little. I shouted and laughed as mine exploded into life and flicked about its liquid flashes. The little bengalskiye ogoni, Bengal Fires, were passed around the room and shimmered and buzzed as 2011 was ushered in.
'Quick, the tradition!' shouted Natalie and Zlata.
In the 10 seconds before the clock struck midnight we wrote a wish onto a piece of paper, set fire to it, drowned it in champagne and drank. Then, quick as we could, a grape was shoved into the mouth. Pop! Crackle! More flaming sparklers. Health and safety nightmare. It was marvellous.

The free bar and buffet at the room we were in - not a club, just a room, with mirrors, a pregnant iTunes DJ and excitable bodies - offered champagne and all manner of spirits for as long as necessary to anyone who wanted it. Most people brought something with them. There was a large table overladen with food; cakes, chocolates, plov (a Tajik meat and rice dish), meats, cheeses, salads, vol-au-vents, and fruit. Passersby, optimists, stuffers, grazers, and people with the munchies attacked it with tongues and chompers for hours but it never emptied.
At three o'clock one of the organisers, reading my little 'Luke England' label dragged me over to the table and gave me yet another sparkler. At the strike of the computer clock alcohol and cheers heralded, 'Greenwich New Year! S Noyim Godom!', and I felt a tiny, soporific twinge of homesickness.

A man dressed as Santa Claus started to hand out presents - everyone had to bring one. One by one the Russians went up to receive a gift. Before they got it they had to either recite a poem or sing something. The microphone was a little fuzzy and was all but outmatched by the crowds and hum of music. I wasn't going up. I wasn't going to make a tit out of myself.
'Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivee!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'etentard sanglant est leve...'
Shouts and cheers from the crowd. La Marseillaise.
I finished my wine and cracked my neck. Like balls I was going to be upstaging by a Frenchman.
My friend Valentina said a piece into the mike and then introduced me. I rattled off a couple of lines of God Save The Queen, which raised some knowing titters from those who could hear, and then I thanked them and wished them all happiness in English.

We danced and whirligigged for hours. Louise, a British teacher, draconianally disallowed any of us to stand still. 'BLOODY DANCE!' she would yell at us in 'Essex' if we went off to the side to talk. I was granted a brief respite as I made friends with a couple of Spanish people and drunkenly praised their country like a sozzled hagiographer meeting some acolytes of a saint.

At 5:45 I spent a content 20minutes on the metro then flopped into my room way before the sun would even think about waking up.
Happy New Year.

Act II - Jan 2nd, the second coming

'Let's buy champagne and go and re-celebrate New Year on top of a building'
Dmitry was always brimming with energy.
His friend Alisa (or 'Bringer of Marmite'), her friend Katya, Dmitry and I bundled off through the Mayakovskaya area in search of a shop. We decided against clambering up an icy fire escape ladder on the side of a block of flats and instead pressed on to the 24-hour retailer. Some near-catastrophic slips around the ice-sculptured hustle and bustle of the frozen Patriashiye Prudi - all covered with skaters and families - and three bottles of bubble later and we found ourselves in a courtyard by a flat drinking to the new year...again, and eating bread and chocolate. Pop. Cheers!

The temperatures were hovering around zero and nobody was in a rush to go home. We bought more champagne and changed location to a small, snowy park surrounded by classy flats. it was utterly forgotten. We buried the bottles in the snow, a natural fridge. Dmitry and Alisa whispered together, conspiring to play matchmaker between me and Katya, a button-nose, cute, blonde girl with a wide, glowing smile.

Around 3 o'clock we walked the girls home. It was not close in the slightest but Dmitry was adamant that we accompany them. I strolled arm in arm all the way back with Katya about 20 metres behind the other two. Dmitry and I then decided against taking a taxi home and walked instead. It took us over two hours to get back to my house as we voyaged past lit-up skyscrapers; frozen parks and their ice-slides; grand white-dappled theatres; spectral churches; still trees; quiet roads; and vast, shining icicles. Sobered up but on the verge of collapse I all but died in my bed at around 5:30.

* * * *

Another weekend we all went sledding in white Kolomenskoye. Small armies of children rocketed down the slopes on plastic trays, crafted sledges and tarpaulin sheets. Parents pushed them down gleefully, sometimes joining in. This was no Nanny State. Dmitry and I went off-piste and tried our hand at some freestyle, more extreme sledding. We hurtled through bushes, down unproven hillsides, and landed in mattresses of snow that would sink us up to our waists. Dmitry's girlfriend, Sonia, was game but Katya was too scared to throw herself down the steeps and instead waited patiently, taking photos of our childishness. Frozen and wet we all spent about two hours sitting and talking in a Subway. A classy end to a classy day.

I'm still seeing Katya.

Act III - Weekend away, the free times

'Come on, Liza, guys, come on!'
We scurried over, stamped our little receipt tickets and bundled onto our rickety and dirty old bus just in time. It was 10 o'clock in the morning and the first contingent of our group was off to Pereslavl-Zalessky, a little town in Russia's Golden Ring, about 120km north-east of Moscow. This selection of ancient towns, all brimming with monasteries and churches and cathedrals, were very important in the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church. They are often called 'open air museums' because all the loveliness and grandeur and art is laid out, free, in front of you. Pereslavl-Zalessky ('Pereslavl, which is located behind the woods') was a prime example.

It it comfortably nestled in the Yaroslavl region on the shores of the massive Pleschevo Lake and has a smattering of pristine religious buildings dotted evenly through it. We caught the little local number 1 bus into the town, bought food for the evening, dropped our bags off at our hired dacha and sat in a small cafe, eating lunch until the Spanish arrived an hour later.

'Hola chicos!' shouted Fernando as the small Iberian rabble - all in their Arctic-wear - scrambled out of the same bus we had caught in the morning. There was no time for niceties. With the map our 'landlord' had given us, I lead us up the road to the first sight, the Goritsky Monastery - a colourful and grand walled complex of churches and trees that commanded a view over the whole town and lake. The sun, mid-afternoon, was already setting. For a moment we gawped at the beauty of the place and then pushed on.

I then forced whoever wanted - I inherited the title 'fuhrer' from Zlata who was pleased by my pro-activity - to trek with me down to the lake. There were a few whines about the cold but I puffed out my chest.
'Those who want to go back can. You can take the map if you like. I know where I am. But I'm going to the lake!'
We tramped through deep snow until we met a gate so we had to then choose another direction. The Spanish boys pushed each other in the white, dogs ran along the roads and the coloured houses were starting to go mute as we quickly lost daylight.
'Luke, how much longer??'
'Just down here'

The light had gone. The few street lamps there were caught specks of snow-ice and made them glow as they fell. Dogs were barking as we passed the silent houses. At the end of the darkness suddenly there was a promenade, with sombre lamp posts and coloured lights strung between them. Beyond that was the ghostly expanse of the lake. I traipsed down the jetty.
'Luke, what are you doing? That's dangerous!'
'You can see tracks', I pointed fuhrerishly, 'people have been skating on it'
Seeing I hadn't fallen through the ice everyone came down and enjoyed it. This wasn't just some frozen city pond, this was a full-blown, wild lake. And it was frozen and it was ours.

* * * *

Back at the house I prepared the shashlik, kebab meat, outside on the BBQ with Ivan - the vodka-loving priest who was the owner and builder of the rented house - and Zlata. I drank beer and turned the dead flesh as it spat and sizzled. Miguel came out and we started to talk about samogon, Russian moonshine - good stuff according to our man of the cloth. The rest sorted out the table and prepared salads and bread. We ate, we drank and we toasted the stariy noviy god, old new year - 14th January according to the old Julian calendar.

Five hours after it was initially ignited and stoked, the house's banya was ready for us. I went in immediately, as did Val. Apparently it's hottest at the start, before the fire, and then hot rocks, that steam the water, cool down. I stripped down to my swimming trunks, donned the brown smurf hat (to protect me from swooning in the heat), went in and sat up on the top deck. Within seconds every part of me was leaking sweat. Laura, the group's resident American, then joined us. After 10 minutes or so Val instructed us as to the Russian tradition. Steeling ourselves we ran out into the -10 winter night and covered ourselves with snow. Fronts, legs, backs and faces. Then, before the chill numbed and hurt, we ran back into the sauna to repeat the process. We splashed more some water onto the hot rocks. It fizzed and sent a new wave of moist, hot steam into the little wooden room.
Some Spaniards joined us just as the beating began. Using a venik, a leafy bundle of oak twigs, we lashed each other on the back, front and legs. It is used to 'improve circulation, intensify skin capillary activity and improve metabolism'. It was nice in a fragrant, S&M, 'who's your banya daddy' kind of way. After a few more forays into, and out of, the snow, we called it a day. I have never felt so relaxed in my life. At around midnight I bid my leave and conked out.

The following day we just had time to visit the Troitse-Danilov monastery; a chalk white and heavily snowed over monastic complex that was magically serene. Snow fell, but, in that Russian way, like glitter. Cats padded around. Old ladies and bearded, robed priests shuffled from building to building. The only colour was the painted rainbow splashes on the inside of the cathedral. All the walls were covered in pastel colours; icons, images of angels and saints, all surrounded by sky blue. -13 degrees, it was a bewitching and cold end to a most wonderful weekend away. As we sat around slurping borscht and waiting for the bus we vowed to return when the snow and ice melted.

* * * *

Just leaves me to say a belated Happy New Year and wish you all the best for 2011; new decade and all that!