From visiting to residing

There ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk

Waits, T.

I’ve either read, or imagined I’ve read, that with enough time, everything becomes ordinary. I’m not entirely sure if that’s true. Perhaps I just haven’t spent enough time here for it to become ordinary. Alternatively, maybe I’m now simply arguing against my own imaginary point, I don’t know. Things change and the amazing becomes familiar, it’s true. But that change just gives way to a new kind of extraordinary.

I’m trying really hard not to say ‘for instance’ right now.

For instance, (bollocks) my flatmate here doesn’t speak a great deal of Russian, so I went with him to get a new key cut at one of the kiosks, before continuing on my way through the snow to go get some lunch. Around halfway there, the enormity of the whole thing struck me like a punch in the gut. All of this, the everyday routine of just functioning had taken on a kind of normalcy. That’s to say, we’re here. We’re real and genuine Moscow residents doing all the mundane and normal stuff that mundane and normal Moscow residents do. We’re subject to the same worries, open to the same opportunities and we share the same fears. Now, that – that we are now swimming within the great Muscovite shoal – is extraordinary.

I sometimes worry that this blog is starting to read like the Prozac soaked ramblings of someone recovering from a breakdown, so I’m going to throw in a little reality for you. There is a very real and tangible tension here. I wasn’t quite sure how much until the other day when some youths set off a firework in at Serpovskaya Metro Station. I think any loud noise in a confined and crowded place would startle the hell out of people, but this was more than that. Not so much the immediate reaction, but the physical relief that followed the realization that it was simply a firework was tangible.

A week or so earlier, there were race riots in Manezh Square and tensions are still pretty high. Other teachers and students tell me that this has been coming for an age. The government has yet to put forward a concrete policy on immigration from the Caucuses and the resulting flow of people is the cause for some significant resentment here, particularly amongst the young. Actually, let’s be honest about this, it’s racism. Worse than that, it’s an undisguised and perfectly open racism. That’s something else that has become the norm. Sadly, too, it’s a very familiar kind of bigotry, only here they can’t write angry letters to the Daily Mailov.

However, firework’s aside, this barely scratches the surface of everyday life. I think, after a while, these things simply fade into the background. I mean, they’re a big, scary and ever-present background, sure, but in time, the normal takes precedence and routine  gradually makes its way to the fore. Maybe that’s one of the lessons from history; people’s ability/need to cope with the extraordinary by continuing with the ordinary. Perhaps there’s some kind of safety to be found in repeated action, in the familiarity of the everyday and the mundane. Maybe we’re all to be found somewhere on the autistic spectrum. At the end of the day, all differences, no matter how massive, can be reduced to a simple question of degrees. I don’t know if that’s a comforting thought, or that it compounds the rich and multicoloured hues of existence to the grey and the uniform, but there you go. Make up your own mind.

So, does the absence of novelty kill the magical? I don’t know, you may as well ask if rhetorical questions in what is, to all extents and purposes, a monologue are contrived and annoying, (they are) but I’ll say this; there’s still a powerful magic at work here every day, it’s just different. For instance, (dammit) I teach at a school towards the centre of Moscow called Chystie Prudi, literally, Clear Ponds. To my mind, it’s one of the beautiful parts of Moscow. The streets are broad and open and the whole place seems to have a – I can’t think of a better word for it – ‘grace’ that the rest of the city can only aspire to. The Metro Station is ancient and sits upon an island, surrounded by frosted greenery and a mass of neon. It’s spectacular.  One night last week, after finishing my shift there, I put on my skates and headed out onto the ice-covered pond. I was alone, deep within the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities, skating upon the ice, whilst all of life flew around me. Tell me that’s not magical.

Given this, and without sounding too callous, it’s hard to miss home too much. Of course, it’s impossible not to miss friends and family, but ‘home’, no, not so much.  It’s true that the hours we work generally keep your mind on matters here. It’s a curious existence, you never seem to work too hard, but you never seem to stop working. Mornings can be spent teaching, afternoons sleeping and preparing lessons, and nights teaching again. Don’t get me wrong, I have no complaints, I’m simply commenting on circumstances. Teaching itself is a massive reward. I have never experienced a job that I would ever consider doing for free. However, mercenary though I am, teaching would merit at least some thought. And I’m not alone in this, even some of the tired old war horses out here, those that have been in Moscow for years and proudly vaunt their cynicism will, when pushed, admit that – whatever their misgivings elsewhere – the rewards of teaching are unparalleled. Think about it. When you teach somebody something, in effect, you’re giving them an item of immense value. It’s knowledge. Knowledge that they can use, will make their lives tangibly better and that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not straying back into Prozac territory. I have a teenage class that are, quite simply, hellish. However, teenage troubles aside, the rest of the students we deal with here are, not only acutely interested in learning and using what you have to give, but are more than ready to have fun whilst doing so. To say that it’s a privilege to work with these people is to drift too far towards purple prose. However it would be enough to acknowledge that the current was at least heading in an appropriate direction.

Let me change topic. I’m getting a little self-conscious about all this Happy Shiny People stuff. I’ll give you another example of the darker side of life here. Every Sunday, a few of us get together and have a jam session. It’s a lazy affair, we sit around, drink beer and play music. One day we might even gig, but for now, it’s just fun to kick back and play music. Each jam is followed by a trip to the nearby cafe, Skazka. It’s an Uzbek place and rapidly becoming a regular fixture in all our lives. In any event, on this occasion, our bassist and I ended up dancing with a couple of the local women there, (like I said, it’s a small backstreet affair, but dancing isn’t uncommon. More on this later) before some drunken giant appointed himself the guardian of Russian Womanhood’s Collective Virtue. It’s hard to overstate the size of this brute. He had a growl that you didn’t so much hear as feel vibrate within your bones. Here he was, this giant hulk, drunkenly swaying from side to side, stripped to his vest, and eying us like a hungry dog its dinner.

Let me clear up any misconception you may have about me based upon what I’ve written thus far. It’s true that I lost my sight in a fight. It’s equally true that I was hardly a total stranger to violence prior to that. However, this is a thousand miles away from saying that I’m OK with it, or have built up some kind of tolerance. Let’s be clear, violence is one of the most dehumanizing things that you can either do, or have done to you. Forget those old movies of John Wayne duking it out with some guy in a bar, the reality’s sickening, ugly and brutal. There’s no grace to it, (forget those John Woo’ movies too) neither is there any artistry, (scrub Coppola) it’s simply filthy.

As it was, the women who had inadvertently started this whole debacle intervened and we returned to our seats, honour, guitarist and bassist intact. However, I’m trying to illustrate a point here. Life here; skating on Chistie Prudie, wandering around Red Square, working with these amazing people, comes with a price tag. Risks like this are just one, there are plenty more. However, for now, let’s just deal with them one at a time.

The thing is, and now this sounds like I’m a bit schizophrenic, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t imagine doing this without risks. Let’s take that a step further, I can’t imagine wanting do this without risks. I’m not saying that I plan on seeking out brawls with giant slavic psychopaths, or that I’m trawling the streets of Moscow looking for the next race riot. I’m simply saying that there has to be a risk of failure for any of this to mean anything. It’s a critical aspect. Think about anything that’s worth doing, take it apart and really consider it. Nine times out of ten, the one thing that made it worth doing was the risk of failure. Failure isn’t always something to be feared. Sometimes – just to know that you’re alive – you need to place yourself directly in its path. What’s more, the greater the risk and the greater the degree of failure, sometimes the greater the argument for placing yourself in its way.

Enough of that. I think I should probably go back to women dancing in bars; it’s a much nicer subject. People dance all the time here. Not simply the embarrassed shuffle/drunken lurch that has become the signature move of every Western dive, but wildly, passionately and with a real exuberance. In fact, passion and a full-throated lust for life are visible everywhere. Last night on the Metro, I watched as an ancient old couple nestled into each other as they made their tired ways home. Love, and a love of life, is ubiquitous. It’s brilliant.

Initially, the default position on seeing this is to remark on what a unhibited people they must be. Before you realise that it’s actually the opposite that’s true. It’s not that people here are unhibited, it’s that people there are. Back in the West, we’re still nursing the hangover from all that Postwar prudery. The lazy stereotype we were fed during the Cold War, of a cold and unapproachable people, remains the prevalent dogma; and it’s not true. There is more life here, in all its amazing varieties, than anywhere I’ve ever been or imagined.

Maybe that’s one of the virtues of travel. That you don’t so much learn about the places you visit as the place you’ve come from. Similarly, I’m getting to discover that you learn just as much about yourself as do anyone else you might encounter. I don’t think you necessarily have to travel to accomplish any of these things, (though maybe I do)  but they’re things definitely worth accomplishing all the same. I think what I’m trying to say is that you could give one person a lifetime of travel and wonder and lock another in a box. If you’d picked the wrong people, the latter would emerge from the box knowing more than the well-travelled former. It’s not what we get, it’s what we do with it that counts. I know, I’m still not making a great deal of sense. Maybe it’s something you’ll have to work through yourself. Really, much as I’d like to, I can’t do all the work. The thing is, it’s nearly New Years Eve, it’s snowing, I’m within sight of the Kremlin walls and I have a date. If you’ve learnt anything at all from this blog, you’ll have learnt that I firmly belive in life being for the living.

Ta ta.

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