Thursday, 3 March 2011

Competition Piece - Three Words

What follows is a piece I wrote for a writing competition last year. I didn't win.


I hate Moscow?

I love Moscow?

I don’t know?

How to describe Moscow in three words was my thought. What was Moscow? Or better still, who was it? I was living in one of the largest cities on the planet. A swarthy, broiling mess of pastel coloured spires, grand neo-classical theatres and stuccowork facades sidling up alongside soviet era blocks, Moscow was a city whose identity I was struggling to pigeonhole. Looking out of my window as the wind howled around the grey walls outside, the sky threatening to spit snow at me, I thought I would find help. Condensed Moscow in a can. Three words please.

Richard. English. Ex-pat here for 14 years: vast, surreal, apocalyptic.

I can taste their smell. The daily love-hate play of the Moscow metro and its millions of users. I flit from palatial chamber to sardine-packed train and then back into the architectural gem further along the line. People everywhere. Solace is rare in Moscow, as is personal space. It’s a musky, exciting, silly, tiring place to travel round. I fear it and relish it at the same time. Some rough looking Caucus men vault over the barriers and run down to the trains as a portly old lady in a grey uniform pointlessly blows a whistle at them. Then outside the dry, cool air and epic street scenes lurch about me as noisy cars scurry over them. To the left, crippling beauty, ornate and well looked after. To the right, outstanding ugliness, scruffy, peeling and designed by someone who hates onlookers. Concordance isn’t Moscow.

Ilya. Russian. Banker: wealthy, fast-paced, programmed.

The city drips with wealth. Money sloshes all around the place. The windows shine with reflected designer labels, glittering black cars line roads, Italian clothing wanders past in heels and fur coats laugh gaily as they drown cashiers in roubles. The bubble bursts when the paradox comes into the light. Utter poverty, depressing and brutal, lives alongside. Middle-aged men slump alone or in groups, dishevelled, Dostoevskian, covered in the filth of the dirty streets, cradling cans of beer and consuming themselves into oblivion. All this within three feet of the other and neither party paying any heed. ‘That’s Russia!’ one of my students told me.

Babushka. Russian. Street-seller: super, multi-cultural, enormous market.

In the mornings, come rain or shine or Antarctic conditions, little old ladies set up little cardboard box stalls and little wooden tables. The kiosks have the monopoly on ‘street beers’ and snacks and the scented effusions of either hops or urine – and if (un)lucky, the marbled coalescence of both. However, the old babushkas persist. Chatty, plucky and awesome saleswomen, they offer fresh, moist cheeses; dark green bunches of dill or parsley tied with little blue rubber bands; bags of nuts and raisins; pots of homemade jams, honeys and sauces; or some fruit and vegetables that sit as little supernovas of colour exploding in the blustery washed out Muscovite autumn.

Miguel. Spanish. Work placement, 2 months: gigantic, grey, unrecognisable.

Moscow, like the country it runs, is hard to make friends with, tricky to get used to and impossible to understand. Its history is a bloody tapestry of revolution, dictatorship, repression and iron-fisted rule. From the tsars to the communists and finally to the capitalist ‘democratics’, one feels that the city itself doesn’t know what it is. Vestiges of every stage remain, like fingerprints. These differences are also imprinted in the psyches of the people, who are as perplexing as the place itself. They admit they are unique and they have serious trouble describing themselves. ‘We’re not really like anyone else’ laughed one of my students. When you finally break through the barrier though, it’s more welcoming and friendly than anywhere else.

Eileen. Canadian. Teacher. Never visited Russia: cold, grey, intimidating.

Winter in Moscow can be genuinely fearsome. The record low was around the -42 C mark. At the time of writing, the start of December, it is -21 C outside and I am bundled up in a duvet on my bed. The old flat doesn’t have double-glazing, but rather two sets of old windows. They rattle a little as Siberian winds taunt me and slide in through the cracks to make sure that my toes don’t warm up. Outside I am lit up as I breathe in the frozen air. My lungs wobble. Smells sit, vague, waiting for a zephyr to move them. Dust and beer and pastries. Scents of the underpasses; Moscow’s ‘high streets’. Or my cheeks and nose burn as they are blasted raw by gusts spiralling around corners. It’s terrifying and wonderful at the same time. It certainly adds a little frisson to walking to the metro.

Me. English. Teacher: overblown, unfathomable, non-stop.

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