Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Hello Mr Winter, how's your wife?

'Young man, don't whistle indoors or you'll have no money!'
I was having a good day and was tooting along to my ipod as I walked around a little underground supermarket. I looked at the shelf-stacking woman and slapped my hand to my mouth with a shocked expression.
'I forgot! Fantastic!' I said
The lady started laughing that middle-aged 'hoo hoo hoo hee hee hee' endearing laugh that so many Russians have as the other shop assistants joined in around her. I thanked her for the advice and bought my tomatoes and biscuits leaving her smiling. I was smiling. These moments weren't overly common in Moscow.


Up until recently the soundtrack of the city has been dripping. Moscow went through a warm patch of low minus numbers and some zeros. This was enough to slush up the paths and roads and encourage the vast icicles to melt and glisten. Standing on my balcony, away from the main road, 'drip, drip, drip' echoed around the courtyard. It's a dangerous period. A dripping icicle can turn quite quickly into a falling spear of frozen pain. Many scores of people die every year from ice related incidents. The Moscow authorities do their 'best' by putting up bands of red and white stripy tape to force people away from the building walls, and by having armies of men up on the roofs knocking down pack ice and icicles before they have the opportunity to fall. The roads were like snowy rivers as the slush covered everything urban.

This changed a few days ago. We've descended back into winter proper. Day after day of gloriously blue, but shockingly cold, weather. At the time of writing we are at -22 and it shows no signs of letting up. Breath hangs solidly on the air and puffed up pigeons hide in underpasses. The street babushkas who all flooded onto the streets during the 'warm' period have retreated to whichever primordial factory it is they come from and our hands crack and splinter from the dry winds. The slush has refrozen and formed rivulets and ridges and bumps all solid and sheen. Walking is a joy again...

Before the return to this wintry pummelling I visited, with Sara, a FoodEXPO in the business district. Actually, saying the 'business district' in Moscow is like saying 'yeah, we visited the bit of the park with trees'. It's all business here. This part, however, had the skyscrapers: the three tallest there are the three tallest in Europe. It was a typical commercial expo affair. Companies, local and foreign, had stalls with samples and posters and presentations, all looking for either buyers or sellers. The EXPOCENTRE is a giant area comprising 8 gargantuan hanger-like halls and another, even more massive, 'Atrium' hall. Whole rooms dedicated to drinks, to alcohol, to sweets and snacks, to food industry machinery, to labelling and stickers. There was even one stall dedicated to a company that produces the shiny sticker-like foil that wraps around the necks of bottles of wine and beer and suchlike.

We found the Spanish area and Fernando, in his suit, at the help desk. Foreign countries got special designated areas where anything typical of their country could be peddled. The Spain area was all wine, olives, oil and ham. Italy was wine and cheese. Germany was beer and sausages. It was a riot of stereotypes. Sara and I filled up on samples as we walked around; parmesan, soy sauce with cucumbers, pastries, hams, cheeses, coffee, red wine, biscuits, even ice cream. I, via Fernando, swapped a business card with an attractive girl who was working for a Spanish winery and had been in Moscow only a day. A way into the industry perhaps?

Visiting the Tsaritsino park was probably a stupid idea. It was about -17, but immensely windy. So probably more like -25. Katya kept saying 'this was a bad idea'. There was a blizzard and my hands were going numb. Tsaritsino is an estate, about 30 mins south from the centre, bought by Catherine the Great in 1775. She ordered an enormous palace complex to be built there, but then less than two decades later commanded that it be stopped and partly pulled down. What remains today is a red and white fairytale jumble of random pseudo-Gothic buildings. Fortunately the effect is still beautiful and quite magical. The palace especially, though never finished internally, is a giant wonder to behold from the parks that surround it. We hid in a museum while we warmed up before high-tailing it back to the metro past snowed over ponds, wind-beaten trees and other hardy, moaning, visitors.


That's more or less the extent of my grand New Year adventures as it stands. What I like about living in Moscow, as I did in Madrid, is that, if you choose it, and if you're not scared, every weekend, or every day, can be completely different and unique. Say yes to everything even if you're pretty sure it's not usually your cup of tea.
I played football the other day, in goal of course. Four Spaniards and one Englishman versus five Russians. It was an entertaining massacre. The Spanish were too strong. 25-5 I think was the final score.
'I think we've found the goalie for our team boys!' laughed Miguel
Shit, I thought, now I have to start liking football...

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