This is the first of nine posts about my trip to Russia. It is inspired by a piece of travel writing call La Russie en 1839, published in 1843 and written by the now forgotten Marquis de Custine who caused furor when he savagely criticised Russia and its people. Historians have attributed the work’s inherent negativity for the stereotypes that prevail about Russian society today, and all I can hope to do is to counter this and the freshly transmitted vitriol pinging about the airwaves with humorous, soulful tales of my time en Russie.
Par Gavino di Vino
Moscou, ce 25 août 2017.
J’ai commencé hier mon voyage en Russie.
Ce qui m’a frappé dès le premier abord, was how there is a definite split in the realities present in the Russian Federation. I am not talking about the trite Eurasian theory about Russia, but how there is an intense kindness and warmth present in the people of a country that has had such a serious history. And still has a serious present. Case at hand: the plane lands at Domodedovo airport. We had flown with Swiss Airlines, so I tally up my points for being a citizen of the world by bidding adieu to the flight attendants, adios to a very lovely Spaniard sitting next to me who happened to know a little Russian and a lot of French, having lived in Switzerland for years, and здравствуйте to the Russian lady greeting disembarking passengers. As per the light-hearted but equally serious counsel of my dear friend Anya, I dress ‘conservatively’ in an open white cotton shirt, military inspired beret with a silk gold star, matching trousers with a go-faster gold stripe down the side, gold chain belt and black leather gloves with gold Chanel-esque chain detail, pinstriped suit jacket and black leather Salvatore Ferragamo boots with a naughty-but-nice kitten heel (my outfit was totally inspired by Cher Horowitz, whom I fell in love with again after watching it the previous night with my friend Dolly, whom I was staying with) my face sans maquillage and ears sans boucles d’oreilles. My beautiful but punishingly impractical matching brown ‘50s Samsonite luggage set swings under my clenched fists, the gloves intended to act as a second skin but failing miserably, the princess soft hands fit for the silky kiss of a князь I dreamt of marred by blisters and ashy patches gasping for a bath of Nivea hand cream.
The moment in every traveller’s life, rich or poor, that is not included in the glorious advertising fantasy is passport control. I decide, however, that my second visit to Domodedovo need not commence with my own huffing and puffing and resentment of the banal. It is an opportunity to engage the Pearl Set Set in exuberant conversation, on this occasion a Chinese couple, the male of the two impressively nose-deep in a Russian phrase book, and three English ladies, well-versed in the art of the blue/violet rinse. The lesson consisted of the classics: yes (да); no (нет); thank you (спасибо); you’re welcome/please (пожалуйста); hi (привет) and the classics of all classics, goodbye (до свидания). No language learner will be ignorant of the feeling of absolute expertise and wisdom when teaching basic phrases to beginners, the cooing and aahing at one’s crisp pronunciation and confidence giving the false impression of mastery. Said mastery is always dashed when one realises just how better all the millions of native speakers are at the target language, often resulting in sweaty upper lips and deep shame for stuttering and failing to match up to such high standards.
But duty calls, and the clucking tones of polite English is cut short by the authoritative, but so welcome, документы! of the Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias, the immigration officer responsible for allowing you a painless entry into Россия, or a painful пошёл вон!, delivered with the Soviet glamour of heavily applied eyeliner, frosted lip gloss, pink lip liner and austere half-circle bun (you know the one I mean.) I urge myself to keep up with her rapid-fire Russian, listening in for those key words and gestures that allow one to maintain one’s dignity in the guise of a sophisticated иностранец, proficient in the language, as opposed to a spluttering идиот who doesn’t know his declensions from his падежи. Her советская манера does not allow a smile, but she can scarcely hide her warmth nor the positive impression I leave on her (I am sure I will meet her again at a later date.)
I pass the test.
The elegant, clipped female voice giving the announcements sounds above my head, first in Russian, and then in French, informing us that passengers flying from Genève may now retrieve their luggage. (I wait for the English announcement to find which number baggage carousel I should go to!) Having previously travelled back from LA with my then newly purchased fabulous ’50s era Samsonite suitcase (I bought it in a West Hollywood vintage shop and its heaviness, even when empty, told me it was the most impractical purchase of the century, but was a must as I reunited it with mother and daughter, the smaller counterpart found in an East London vintage shop) I understood there were certain perils to placing it in the hold. Such as the fact at least ONE of the buckles are wide open every time it comes down the carousel. Praise be, I have never lived to see my intimates scattered along the conveyor belt, but жизнь такая для фабьюлоски. Domodedovo seems to have my impractical nature in mind, and I seek one of the airport security staff to help me find one of the baggage trolleys everybody is trawling about with (note to self, the Russian word is тележка, not троллей as in троллейбус, which I repeat to him before leaving to show my gratitude as his student.)
Short of having a porter ferry my luggage around for me, it is clear that trotting through an airport, with mummy and daughter snuggled together on the trolley, is how one travels elegantly in the 21st century, my 2″ heels carrying me 20 feet in the air, my head held high as I pass through the squabbling crowds. A swift skip saves me from decapitation as the automatic revolving doors swallow me and a family of three, and out into the свежий воздух of Россия-Матушка I step. I capture the attention of another family of three – mother, son and daughter – who are sat on a wall outside the airport. The son takes photos of my majestic form on his iPhone, and I of course wave to him and my surrounding audience. To say my (personally) moderate dress still didn’t make me feel a little on edge on Russian soil would be to tell a heinous lie, but my instant status as a знаменитость tells me I have nothing to fear.
“Можно сфотографировать с вами?!”, asks the mother.
“Ну да, конечно!”, I reply.
She bustles over to me and her son remains seated to take the photo, obviously utterly bemused by that day’s peculiar turn of events.
“А теперь, не могли бы вы сфотографировать меня?”, I enquire.
The initial wariness of how my fabulosity would be received in Russia immediately evaporates into the blue Russian skies upon the realisation that this family not only tolerates my existence as a фабьюлоска, but is so into it! I pass her my image capturing devices (smartphone and Boots disposable camera) and I forget a little-known (outside of Russia) but fundamental fact; Russians обожают the camera. She dismisses my initial shyness (right?) as folly and urges me to really make love to the camera, gesturing to me to faire la coquette and cock my leg up behind me, walking into the shot to show what a busy, busy фабьюлоска I truly am.
The ability to pose for photographs is a gift that comes naturally to me, but, as mentioned, practical instincts that are (sometimes) required in life are not. Photo shoot wrapped up, I now have the dilemma of what to do with my тележка – must I dump it outside the airport and hulk my bags to the train station (I did mention that I didn’t have the help of a porter) or can I take it all the way across? I dilly-dally; un ange passe. I spot a rigidly practical-looking family ruthlessly tearing across the car park, their piled luggage wrapped in plastic cellophane à la russe, which I take as my cue to confidently march behind them, safe in the knowledge that what I’m doing is комильфо.
I nod politely at the kindly, seasoned полицейский, who smiles in appreciation at my unrelenting look, abandoning my short-lived, well-loved wheeled companion at the ticket barriers, wincing at the ghastly тяжесть of my багаж. I snub the automated ticket machines in favour of the касса, in the belief that my first experience of московский транспорт will be much more exhilarating if it begins with human interaction.
A clipped здравствуйте commences the conversation.
Once I begin to stutter, having never before had to ask for a “single to central Moscow”, my fragile ego demands I mention that this is my first trip to the capital. This young man’s knowledge of русский язык provokes a чувство материнства in her, similar to the aforementioned immigration officer.
“Как хорошо вы говорите по-русски!”
I thank her, and my own natural ability as a successful mimic of accents, very kindly, scan my билет at the ticket barriers, flex my triceps and biceps and march towards the platform where the express train to Moscow is soon to arrive.
I begin to experience the wibbly-wobbly feeling unique to travellers in a foreign land, the station’s two platforms making me worry there’s a chance I’ll hop on the wrong train and arrive in a… неприличное место. I approach a молодая женщина, pose my question, and she assures me that the train’s only destination is to Павелецкий вокзал, and the train, surely enough, arrives minutes later.
Perhaps a throwback to советское время, there are no class differences on this particular поезд, and public transport provides a clear illustration of how the Soviet Union was a (relatively) short-lived wormhole before the fall of the СССР brought Russia’s rigidly class-driven society tumbling all the way back to the present.
I embark, join a queue, which was slightly askew, and press the button reading ‘продолжите’ (one of my favourite words to say) to open the ruthlessly fast-opening automatic doors leading to the carriage. A luggage rack is situated immediately after the doors, and I heave my obscenely heavy suitcase onto it. A (прошу прощения за снобизм) мужик sees the smaller variant would be bereft without its mother, and he leaps out of his seat to move his rucksack, to accommodate the rather precious cargo now on board.
I feel slightly embarrassed, but I thank him for his conscientiousness, and я сажусь, the sound of два молодых мужика watching the Russian version of You’ve Been Framed and the intermittent patter of the pre-recorded train announcements the soundtrack of my journey.
We leave the station, and the famed Russian landscape presents itself in its full, majestic form. The sky-scraping forests of the eternal берёзы seamlessly flow into the constructions of Soviet concrete misery; both are gloriously Russian.
The sight-seeing is interrupted by the sound of metal slamming against glass, and with a start, I look to the source of the aural violence. The trope of all tropes, the post-Soviet баба gruffly refuses the help of one of her уважаемые пассажиры (her inflection suggests they are not particularly dear to her). She wheels her food cart slowly through the carriage, her whole being emanating decades of Soviet oppression and her utterly Russian ability to continue работать, работать, работать, despite all hardships.
But this evidently did not leave much time at all for this работница to cultivate светские манеры.
To pass the time, I take to deciphering the advertisements on the walls and the seats in front of me, the unnecessary loanwords from English never ceasing to amuse (бизнес
The legendary scene in Tolstoy’s Анна Каренина immediately comes to mind, Anna’s arrival to the старая столица