This commences the first of nine lettres about my trip to Russia. It is inspired by a piece of travel writing called La Russie en 1839, published in 1843 and written by the now forgotten Marquis de Custine, a French homosexual aristocrat who provoked furor when he savagely criticised Russia and its people following his travels throughout the Russian Empire. 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.
LA RUSSIE EN 2017
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 coexisting in the Russian Federation. Its Soviet past bleeds into its capitalist present; the twinkle of the mythical tsarist regime, an imagined bedrock from which Russian culture stems, collides with the eternal phantom of the мужик. An intense kindness and warmth inhabit the души of a people that has had such a serious history. And still has a serious present.
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 justly serious counsel of my dear friend Аня, 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 Clueless for the fifth time 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 vinyl ‘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 sensual 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 would reunite mother and daughter, the smaller counterpart found in an East London vintage shop) I understood there were certain perils of 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 to him 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 very 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 brief, 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 peculiar 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 советские времена, 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 are 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 when its Russian equivalent would do just fine never ceasing to amuse. There are too many to list, but бизнесменка compared with the ‘native’ деловая женщина is a personal favourite.
In all the great cities of the Western world, the approach by rail is unequivocally ghastly, each giving any optimistic passenger reason to believe they are entering a dystopian nightmare of urban filth, foreboding gloom, watermarked by the namesake of an elusive but prolific graffiti artist that seems to exist in every society («Колян» is the Moscow variant).
Приближение поезда все более и более обозначалось движением приготовлений на станции, беганьем артельщиков, появлением жандармов и служащих и подъездом встречающих. The legendary scene in Tolstoy’s Анна Каренина immediately comes to mind, Anna’s arrival to the старая столица my inspiration as I glide effortlessly from the train carriage and onto the train platform. I gather myself (I don’t see Облонский – he must be running late), glancing across to the station entrance across the platform, the mammoth Cyrillic letters reading ‘МОСКВА‘ loudly declaring that I could not possibly be anywhere on Earth than the Russian capital.
I spend the next quarter of an hour using my luggage as an extremely lourd yo-yo, smiling with dignity at the old, hunched and hobbling бабушка speeding past me, using her wheeled suitcase as a Zimmer frame, while I have to rest my aching arm for the dozenth time. The platform is completely deserted and I feel like a weary, glamorous relic from the 20th century. Back to the 21st, and I receive a телеграмма (WhatsApp message) from княгиня Анна Константинова Лэйфилдская (my aforementioned friend, Anya Layfield), informing me she will not be at the hotel when I arrive as she will be accompanying her husband to the dentist. I am to take the метро to Театральная станция, which is the shortest of walks to our отель: Гостиница «Метрополь». I obviously died a thousand deaths when she told me we would be staying there — Только самые хорошие места, my darling, — she replies.
The entrance to the metro station comes into view, and upon entering it, a gentleman who doesn’t seem to speak Russian as his first language offers помощь, pointing to my terribly burdensome чемодан. His offer is very tempting, but the sensible voice on my shoulder tells me that one shouldn’t speak to strangers. Or hand one’s luggage over to them. I am lucky enough at this point to be able to offer him a white lie, and one actually based in reality, as I hadn’t at that point taken out any rubles.
— Простите меня господин – у меня нет рублей. Я только что прилетел.
My encounter with the automatic ticket machine is gleefully painless, and the short walk to the elevator leaves me breathless, but not bereft of hope, although maneuvering my large suitcase in the path of impatient Muscovites takes a little skill. The famed metro stations of Moscow are indeed impressive: swirling marble opulence, exquisite народные фрески and sparkling люстры, all accented with the distinct Красная звезда of the Soviet Union. It evokes an image of impossible incongruity; luxury inspired by the decadence of antiquity but in the name of an ideology that feigned to despise it. The exit onto the Московская улица is nigh, and all the beloved stereotypes of this city come alive right before my eyes: a restaurant promising «РУССКАЯ КУХНЯ»; a hammer and sickle right above the station entrance; almost too many policemen parading in their iconic фуражки, young and deliciously unhelpful-looking. I remind myself that my underarms are crying out for hot water, a loofah and a hotel bathrobe, and turn to two молодые девушки for directions.
— Извините пожалуйста. Вы знаете где находится Гостиница «Метрополь»?
They look at one another in bewilderment.
— Гостиница «Метрополь»! Самый шикарный, известный, фабьюлосный отель в Москве.
— Фабьюлосный? Я посмотрю на телефоне…
— Wait. Вот это «Метрополь»? — I wonder, pointing to a magnificent Art nouveau edifice that was staring me down during the whole conversation, quite obviously none other than the Hotel Metropol. I bid the молодые девушки farewell, and made the short walk over to my place of residence for the next two days and nights. I notice there are roadworks taking place just outside the hotel, a sign reading обход (a new word learnt on that day, literally ‘about way’,) inconveniencing my journey by about 3 seconds. On approach of the hotel, I am greeted by a посыльный wearing a crisp green Метрополь uniform, the crispness of which giving me the confidence to hand over my 20kg of pain, unlike the gentleman from 20 minutes before, but not before warning him to brace himself.
If I may be a little didactic, I would urge anyone who is interested in cultivating the character trait of kindness to work as a doorman in a luxury hotel as I did for three months. Those three months told me that there is nothing more ugly a person can do than to make a person feel unworthy of human decency. A sprinkling of wilful kindness may just be the highlight of your fellow человеческое существо (and even yours!)
With great pleasure, I follow his lead and walk through the front door of the hotel and into the lobby, whose роскошь informs all that мадам has indeed arrived, and she has a reservation. The lobby is an aquarium of gold and glittering surfaces, its Italianate furnishings impressively intact during the decades of Soviet rule. Chandeliers beckon all who enter, and delicate floral lamps are held high above the heads of two sumptuously dressed blackamoor statues. As with any major public building in Russia, there are metal detectors that one must past through. Amusingly, worryingly, as a rule, the detectors always sound, but the gentlemen who earn a living by guarding them simply give a curt nod to anyone who passes by. Nevertheless, my unfaltering faith in the Russian state gives me no reason to беспокоиться. I approach the ресепшн, and deliver the umpteenth здравствуйте of the day to the Muscovite receptionist. She guesses I am a foreigner not through my pronunciation of здравствуйте, one of the harder words of the Russian language, which I’d perfected through delirious hourly repetition, but I think by my decidedly exotic appearance. She asks me in English if I have a reservation.
— Да — I proudly reply.
— А! У вас есть бронирование?
— Повторите слово пожалуйста.
— Брони- еще раз?
— Бронирование. Или резервация.
— Резервация! Это легче . У меня есть резервация.
— Ваш паспорт, пожалуйста.
A grievance even in Russia, I have to explain to her that my friend who made the reservation gave my surname as ‘Davis’, not its staunchly Welsh equivalent, ‘Davies’, which is the name printed on my passport. It feels strangely provincial to convey such trivia peculiar to a small corner of the British Isles in one of Moscow’s most glamorous hotels.
— На втором этаже, комната номер 3— (the exact number escapes me).
The hardest prevailing aspect of any language is counting, so I show off all my hard work and repeat the room number, take my room keycard and thank her for her help.
— До свидания!
I follow my посыльный to the лифт, allowing him the honour of pressing the button for the third floor, and smile in polite silence for the duration of our thirty second journey. The lift doors open onto a sparsely decorated landing, the marble floor on this level lending itself to a colder, more municipal setting. Grey Muscovite light floods onto its reflective surface, and coupled with the harsh glow of the room’s light fixtures, there is a feeling of transience that make the assortment of antique style диваны and столы resemble lonely subordinates who have been charged by their master to make an otherwise empty room look full. I transition туда-сюда towards the correspondingly transient corridor, which boasts what looks like Soviet-era carpet and spartan aesthetics, permitting the continuous but not necessarily unpleasant mutual silence. A mechanical bleep, and I am awarded entrance to my home for the следующие две ночи. A wince of disappointment leaps out of my chest, as I feel the room is a mere extension of the corridor. A twinkling люстра brings no warmth to a room decorated in a classical style. I feel even bluer as I have to give him the same apology that I gave to the my would-be porter in the metro, but promise to find him when he is next working and I have roubles to hand.
The first thing I do is call Аня to let her know I arrived and was checked in. Her and her husband James will arrive a little later at 5:30pm, so she tells me to отдыхать in the meantime and get settled in. I tell her I fully intend to do that, целую, and hang up. My expectation of bounding into my friends’ room and showering them with affection is dashed, and a (metaphorical) rainstorm rumbles over my head. I feel alone, vulnerable, and abandoned. A perk of being a child of the digital age is if one is feeling a little low, there is always a friend or знакомы on the other end of a telephone screen with whom one can share one’s joy. Or at least pretend to. I tug at the window facing onto Театральная площадь but it is bolted shut. I shoo away any sinister thoughts about why that may be, and take a couple snaps and upload them to my Facebook Day. One of my favourites from my Russian course at UCL (Herr Lukas Wahden, you need not have any doubts this wasn’t you) likes my photos and my blues are instantly lifted as I become aware of the magnitude of this moment: this little girl from Little Rock (Ferry) is far, far away from home. I was indeed young and determined to be wined and dined and ermined, but my knowledge of Russian must not be undermined. She has her own hard work, determination and intelligence to thank for her uniquely fabulous life, an equal balance of glamour and intellect.
The Большой театр cranes its graceful 19th century neck over at the new collections de chez Chanel whilst вся Москва passes by on Театральный проезд. All I can do in moments such as this is to luxuriate in my hard work, determination and intelligence for the pleasure of my favourite публика – myself. After spending five minutes watching the promotional video for the hotel and inhaling a bowl of salted almonds, ten minutes watching the Russian equivalent of Roseanne and emptying the adjacent bowl of конфеты, and fifteen watching the Russian dubbing of Berlin Syndrome and already halfway through a bar of Вдохновение, I type into Яндекс «классическая музыка» and come across Радио Орфей, supposedly the only radio station in Russian that transmits «только академическая музыка». I make my одежда comfortable in their temporary home, opening the гардероб and placing my collection of доломаны (all womenswear and made in the 1980s) on hangers. My jewellery, housed in three Marc de Champagne truffle boxes de chez Charbonnel et Walker (en rose, blanc et or,) cosy up on my bedside table with the book of the moment, Natasha’s Dance, an exquisite cultural biography of Mother Russia. I empty a bottle of bubble bath into a steaming hot tub, disrobe and climb into my frothy throne for the next hour, closing my eyes to the sophisticated tones of the ведущие, understanding they are conducting an интервью with an expert on an Italian composer whose name I no longer recall. I allow the soapsuds and the words of the интеллектуальная элита of this relatively young country whose language I don’t fully understand wash over me, imagining myself to be one of the hotel’s светские habitués of the буржуазно-дворянское время.
— Письмо от княнгини Лэйфилдской! my дворецкий (telephone) announces as I’m admiring my freshly silken smooth thighs in the зеркало.
— We’re finished and are in our room.
— Какой блестящий туалет мне выбрать для моего первого появления в светe? — I inquire, suddenly feeling violently aware that this will be my first outing in the Russian Federation à la di Vino.
— Не волнуйся о туалете. Wear what you feel like. У тебе есть mascara? Can I borrow it?
— Фабьюлоска без туши?
— Да-да. I had my eyelashes extended and they ALL fell out. We’re in room 5513 – what? 55… Room 5563. Come over.
Je commence à faire ma toilette, combing my hair into an elegant причёска with the help of my ample supply of шпильки and гель для волос. A кокошник-esque черепаховая кость from the early XXe siècle is the pièce de résistance de la toilette, so with сумка and тушь для ресниц in hand, я пойду к ней.
Stepping out the лифт and into the corridor of комната 5563, one is quite aware of the prevailing class system present in the Метрополь. I, дамы и господа, have just stepped out from my Third-Class streerage accomodation and have entered the gilded realm of First-Class, the flourescent lighting and vomit-friendly carpeting conspicuously absent. Plush velvet hums under the heels of my boots and my step becomes a little lighter under the respectful gaze of the imposing wooden doors that conceal the expensive свити behind them.
— К вам пожаловал князь Гавино Николаевич ди Вино! Здравствуйте!
— How are you Mr Sexy Face?! — A topless James, удивительны муж Анны, answers the door and welcomes me into the box-fresh splendour of their свита, tastefully 2017 in shades of grey and mahogony.
— Well, ain’t this ritzy?! Is that the ЦУМ? — I exclaim, по-Jersey Shore, gawping at the building across the улица, bathed in golden illumination.
— They just renovated this part of the hotel and this is one of the new suites, — James explains, through an extravagant gust of steam coming from the clothes iron. — Alright, isn’t it? Although it’s not very soulful.
James’ lack of infatuation for the декорации brings to mind a scene in Анна Каренина, in which Анна voices her distaste for the lack of individualité pertained by her own московская комната way back in 1874:
— Ты не поверишь, как мне опостылели эти комнаты, — сказала она, садясь подле него к своему кофею. — Ничего нет ужаснее этих chambres garnies. Нет выражения лица в них, нет души. Эти часы, гардины, главное обои — кошмар.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, не правда ли?
— Где моя княгинюшка?
— Where’s Аня?!
— I’m here, my darling. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m a little bit naked.
— Fancy some шампанский? — enquires James, opening the zip of a black Gucci clothes bag, lifting out a pair of elegant black trousers.
— Конечно! О-о-о. Очень элегантный. Did you buy them в Италии? — I ask, with the knowledge that they had passati l’estate in Italia, a поездка to which I had been invited but had to politely decline.
James confirms my question and pulls open a wooden cabinet close to the door and out comes a baby bottle of французское шампанское from the minibar, its frothy delight poured into a флейта шампанского.
Plunging into the voluptous sinues of the кресло, I send my gold, sequined сумка filled with evening essentials spilling out: 1880’s mother of pearl jumelles de chez Colmont; fin-de-siècle tortoiseshell веер; déjà vu фотоаппарат de chez Boots.
— Whoopsie daisy! I suppose this is an opportunity for an impromptu show and tell… I found these opera glasses in Notting Hill. If you were an 1880s’ Parisian courtesan worth writing home about, you had a pair of Colmonts.
Княгинюшка Аня emerges from the ванная комната in a baby pink халат, «Anya» inscribed on its back.
— Здравствуйте голубушка моя!
She smiles warmly and gives me a hug whilst we целуемся.
— Я очень рад, что приехал.
— Я тоже. Как у тебя в комнате?
— Отлично. У меня есть необыкновенный вид Театральной площади из моего окна. Я вас благодарю за приглашение! Speaking of gratitude… Я хотел бы вам дать подарок, который я купил chez Fortnum & Mason. Russian Caravan tea… always topical!
— O-o-o. Спасибо, спасибо. Maybe you can give it to my mum when we’re in Торжок.
— Хорошая идея. — I pause for a moment. — Что делать если папа меня спросит «у вас есть девушка?». Дело в том, что я приготовил ответ: «мне сложно иметь девушку, потому что мне нужно концентрироваться на учёбе». К то знает, произойдет ли эта ситуация вообще?
— Oh my God, you’re hilarious. Darling, you’re very well prepared for the journey.
— Cunning! — говорит James.
— Cunniiiiiiing! — they both say in unison.
— Ah! You have your mascara. I’m just going to dressed. Then shall we get ready?
— Да-да. Что вы думаете? О моей шикарной прическе? — I remark, ostentatiously making a full turn.
— So much work!
— Только для вас!
Moments later, we both step into the salle de bain, fitted from floor to ceiling with marmo di Carrara, the obstinate clack of our shoes scolding us for forgetting our Russian manners, failing to надеть тапочки (one of the most severe faux pas a foreign guest can make in Russia).
— Бэйб! — кричит она, — Could you come in here and take photos of us?
— Бэйб! — I parrot, mimicking the hard Russian б she pronounces.
— Hahaha. Бэйб!
— Ты слишком много. Наш профессиональный фотограф, — I tease, налегая на слово «профессиональный» as James enters the room.
— Вопрос. Shall we go в магазин Ульяны Сергенко?
— Ульяна Серге-енко — she repeats, correcting my pronunciation. — I love her! Big time фабьюлоска. Even I can’t afford her.
— Even I can’t afford her, — repeats James, incredulously.
—What? It’s true. We could try and meet her. I think you’d have more of a chance than I would. Ты знаешь ее историю? — сказала она, applying my mascara.
— Какая история? Как она стала фабьюлоской?
— The story of Ульяна is that her husband was a… — и Аня, видимо, хотела, но не могла удержаться и разразилась тем заразительным смехом, каким смеются редко смеющиеся люди. — Her husband, who was not her husband back then, he was the director of some bank and… and he was married back then. So, it was his birthday party and somehow she blagged her way in and she got there and she sang him Happy Birthday. — Аня begins to imitate the immortalised moment on the 19th May, 1962, when the кокетка кокеток Marilyn Monroe slips out of her white ermine coat to wish her favourite president a very, very happy birthday. — Which basically made him fall in love with her and he left his wife and married her.
— Oh my God. — говорит Гавино, тоже невольно заразившаяся смехом. — That’s too much. Too much.
— Ульяна! Очень brutal. Очень.
— Это новая манера. Ужасный ребёнок!
— Вот именно.
— Можно использовать твой… как будет eyshadow?
— Тени для век, да— she says at lightning speed, which I attempt to repeat. — Дарлинг, what are you doing? Don’t use your finger, that looks shit. A friend of mine is coming over to give me some makeup tutorials. She can show us both.
— Боже. Я не могу… — I say, my hand flailing at my eyeline, brush in hand. — Ты можешь сделать это для меня?
— How do you want these photos to be done? — says James.
— Just a few of us being fabulous, — replies Аня.
— Да, putting on our макияж whilst we фабьюлосничаем.
At this point, I’m unable to control my laughter and mimic the non-chalant demeanour of my подруга.
— Can I see? — asks Аня, taking the phone from her муж. — A! Ужасно. These are terrible. Take some more, please.
— Shall we both припудрить наши носики? — swallowing my laughter, taking up a powder brush.
— Okay, take a look at these ones, — says James.
— Блестяще! That’s The One! — I exclaim, turning to James. — Вы удивительный муж!
— Куда едем на светский ужин?
— We’re going to White Rabbit. Get ready to be ripped off, — jokes Аня.
— Sounds divine, — I reply, reminded of a chain of bars in the north of England that share a similar name, silently wondering if they’re part of the same company, if not of a slightly different ilk.
Аня looks to my bare arms with a concerned expression.
— Тебе будет холодно!
— Мамочка моя! As if – it’s mink-trimmed. I bought it vintage in Brooklyn two years ago. Do you love it? И как сказать mink по-русски?
— Норка, — she replies, unconvinced. — What’s your room like?
— Shall we go see it? And I can even put some more clothes on whilst we’re there, — to which моя русская мамочка nods approvingly.
— We haven’t finished our шампанский yet! — James points out.
— Let’s take a бутылка for the road. Or the corridor, should I say, — gulping the шампанское as though I were sixteen and enjoying my first Jägermeister.
Аня applies her итальянские духи, Parco Palladiano VII de chez Bottega Veneta, the sillage to provide the olfactory мотив of the trip, and slips into her вечерние каблуки, white stilettos with a striped design of green, red, and yellow.
— Какие каблуки! Откуда?
— От Фенди, — a delightfully offhand response.
The party gathers its accoutrements, or accoutrements in my case, and makes its out of the room and all the way down to the второй этаж. For adventure’s sake, I suggest we take the stairs, but Аня protests, pointing to her каблуки, so we venture those three floors down via the lift.
— Now, I do hope you are prepared for the советские aesthetics, — I warn, taking my Метрополь ключ-карта from my bag and pushing it into the slot. — Пожалуйста, — theatrically gesturing for мадам to enter the room.
— Oh, it’s not too bad! — Аня declares, walking into the room and leaping back onto the bed with a bounce.
— Anyone for more шампанский? — says James, lifting yet another baby bottle from the minibar, this time Prosecco.
— Давайте — I reply, peeling off my waistcoat and tossing it onto the armchair. — I hope you don’t my wearing of thongs, — I tease, standing topless and bottomless in front of them both, presenting myself in a high-rising Versace perizoma — A gift from Donatella.
— Really?! — exclaims Аня.
— Конечно нет! A gift from my ex-boyfriend, — I add кокетливо.
— Вдохновение? — unwrapping the penultimate bar of chocolate in the pack.
— Нет спасибо, — Аня отвечает. — Is the taxi booked?
— Yes! — chirps James.
— And what time is our reservation? — I enquire.
— Maybe 8…8:30, — Аня говорит, looking to James.
— And it’s 8:12 now? — I say, a smirk appearing on my face.
— Ха-ха-ха-ха. It’ll be fine, darling.
Our круг descends, saunters through the фойе and waves lovingly at the restaurant staff in the Ресторан SAVVA Метрополь. I pay particular attention to one хорошенкий офицант, a русский подарок tied up with a бородный bow, улыбающийся и в взаимном восхищении.
Мы выходим на улицу, and although the Большой театр‘s doors are closed for the summer season, its portico remains lit, supported by ivory columns from which a разоблаченный Apollo, aside from a fig leaf and a presumably Hermès scarf, braves the chilly night air on his never-ending chariot ride.
— I can’t believe you’re in Moscow! — says Аня, lighting a bitch pink Sobranie сигарета I had offered her.
— Neither can I! — grinning and in a state of wonderment. I hug her and James and squeal with excitement. — Спасибо большое.
— You’re very welcome, my love, — replies Аня.
— Could you take a photograph of me с моим винтажным фотоапаратом?
— Of course! How does this even work? — she says, looking at the disposable camera incredulously and beginning to wind the dial.
— Не забудь флэш!
I realise the immensity of the unfolding scene: standing in the centre of the capital of the Русский мир, smoking the most glamorous cigarettes imagination can buy with the most glamorous friends fate could happen upon. All this was part of the vision I had dreamt up eight years before, when for my 15th birthday I received Grand Theft Auto IV, exposing me to the Russian language for the very first time, the Cyrillic used in the game’s scenery («АПТЕКА», «ТЕЛЕФОН») inspiring me to learn to write my name in ‘Russian’.
What one may call low-brow informs the high-brow!
— Taxi’s here! — declared James.
— Можешь сделать… — I pause as my Russian fails me, — a video меня. Как папарацци!
— Телефон? — asks Аня, chuckling.
I haughtily strut towards the parked taxi, glaring back at the pursuing paparazzi.
— Скандальные новости! — кричит один из них.
— Пошёл вон, пошёл вон! Нет фото, нет фото! Пожалуйста! — I bark at Аня as she climbs in the car, howling with laughter.
— Hilarious. Hilaaaaarious. I love it. I’m in Moscow. I mean, the Большой театр is just over there. And I’m dressed like this and mincing down the street outside of the Метрополь. — I take a deep breath. — Hilarious.
— Да-да, — она отвечает, with a knowing smile.
With an equally knowing smile, I look at the ошеломленный driver through the rear-view mirror.
— Добрый вечер.
— Добрый вечер.
Аня, as is always the case when travelling in my friends’ native lands, dazzles me with her чистий, прекрасный русский язык whilst she gives the driver directions, and we on are our way. I make to fasten my seatbelt and she бросает на меня такой взгляд that one gives only to those who have commited the greatest бестакность.
— Never fasten your seatbelt in Russia. Так нельзя.
The brick and mortar canyons that are the московская улица envelope me. Their grandeur is ultimate. Stone edifices built by two equally potent empires – та, относящаяся к царской империи дореволюционых времён и ужасная роскошь той сталинского правлении.
— It’s an impressive city, isn’t it?
— I’m speechless!
— Amazing architecture like this just isn’t being built anymore. Why is that?
— I’ve thought a lot about that too, James. And I’m not quite sure. We could speculate and say the widespread classism of the time and the cruelty that ensued meant these magnificent buildings could be built … in a way that wouldn’t be possible today without breaking a few human rights laws! I remember watching a documentary about St Petersburg, and when a Russian historian was asked by a British journalist what he thought about the thousands of serfs that died during the construction of the Winter Palace … he replied in a way that was совсем по-русски: «How is the English expression? You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.»
The Садовое кольцо, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares, is our evening’s tour guide, offering a cinematic view of the city at night before leading us to our destination. My two friends jump out, мы благодарим ямщика, and enter Смоленский Пассаж, a Торгово-деловой комплекс. I feel as though we are somehow trespassing after-hours, the centre’s perfume, makeup counters and shops eerily abandoned by the time we arrive at 8:40, but for a lone security guard who stares at us from across the room. The glow of the names TOM FORD and latterly DIOR are more intense in the darkened room.
— Spooky, — I utter.
Аня, видно au fait with multi-storey luxury Moscow dining, leads the way out of the designer twilight, and into the glare of the лифт, присущ to establishments guaranteed to leave one’s tummy a little heavier and bank balance a lot lighter.
On our exit we are greeted by that evening’s хостес, молодая блондинка, одетая в элегантном чёрном костюме. We are led to an outdoor dining area, obligatory shisha sessions in full flow. She and Аня exchange words, none of which James or I understand (although, слава богу, I did understand «да».)
Она нас оставляет, and my eyes widen as I see a flash of red, her 150mm (6 дюймов in дореволюционные terms) Louboutin platforms carrying her click-clacking form up the stairs to the restaurant.
— Она работает в этих лубутенах? Всю ночь? — я срошу. Гавино вопросительно взглянул на неё. Она нагнула голову. — Только в России.
— Лубутен. Очень bad taste, — подхватывает Аня.
— И где пропал ваш муж?
— He’s sorting out the table. Don’t worry, darling. We won’t be eating here, — she assures with a sweeping glance.
L’hôtesse revient, menus under her arm.
— Ваш столик готов!
— Прекрасно! — I enthuse, following her into the restaurant with Аня and the newly appeared James.
— Ах! Вы говорите по-русски?
— Конечно я говорю! Кто в Москве не говорит по-русски?!
— И откуда вы?
— Я — англичанин из Ливерпуля, но я изучаю русский и испанский в университете в Лондоне. Но это мой первый раз в Москве! Первый день и первый раз, в самом деле.
— И вам нравится Москва?
— Обожаю Москву. Вот это самый лучший вид в городе! — I exclaim, pointing to the expanse of glass lending an enchanting view onto the metropolis below.
— Здорово! Но какой стиль.
— Спасибо большое!
— Очень прикольно. Очень круто.
— У вас тоже. Такие красивые каблуки!
— Спасибо! — Smiling, she turns to the group. — Ваш столик. — Two waiters показываются, pull out our chairs and gently seat all three of us and place crisp white салфетки onto each of our laps. Наш блестящий круг seated, I grin at Аня as the хостес leaves us to peruse the menu.
— Что мы заказываем?
— Let’s do водка… and caviar.
I look at c over my menu, my eyes twinkling and my lips quivering, reflecting the light from the Gothamesque Здание Министерства иностранных дел России that looms forebodingly over this сцена of shameless capitalism.
— Is that a сталӣнское здание?
She follows my eyeline and nods. With a flourish, the caviar arrives in a raised silver dish. I hesitate for a moment, watching Аня snatch up her silver spoon and heap a generous serving of nautical gold dust onto it. Momentarily mesmerised, I refocus my attention к фабьюлоству.
— Barbarous! How could I have left my mother of pearl spoon in London? Как говорится это?
— Перламутовая ложка. You have one?
— Да, конечно! I found it in the Fortnum & Mason Food Hall. £20 for both the dish and the spoon. I used them to serve икра at my birthday party in March. I was inspired by Betsy Bloomingdale, as in the Little Brown Bag Bloomingdales. There was an auction selling some of her furniture and jewellery at Christie’s recently and I read an article about her book on the art of entertaining. She said all you need for a deliciously delightful evening is good food, generous cocktails, some marvellously wacky guests and a little night music… So I played jazz all night and I already had the wacky guests. Видно, я был хозяйкой только по ведению разговора, so I left the cocktails to my ex, but I did take on the role of… laquais. Лакей? То же слово по-русски? Every time a guest would arrive, I’d run upstairs in a Nepalese red silk gown, because you had to go down the stairs to enter the flat, and then announce them en français. I stamped my foot and cried « La princesse Caroline Derveaux-Berté !» and everyone started applauding them upon their arrival. I didn’t even ask them to do that! All my friends said they felt like they’d stepped into some inter-war Parisian soirée. It just takes a little фантазия to elevate events to something magical.
— Ну-ну! — Аня says, looking to James approvingly. — Попробуйте.
Silver spoon in hand, a modest amount of caviar reaches my mouth.
— Well, you’ve seen me with a silver spoon in my mouth now. Мне хорошо идёт? — I look to them both, a teasing grin on my face.
My кокетство is abruptly interrupted by the bustling движения of our garçons who deliver our first course. However, in my case, a paper bib illustrated with a diamond necklace is wrapped around my chest, which it has to be said is fully exposed (соски are carefully tucked away, mind) and I become hellaciously upset.
— Am I being oppressed? — I ask, with a playful lightness in my voice.
Both of my fellow diners burst into laughter.
— At least they understand my taste in jewels.
— Давайте выпем! — Аня says, raising her desperately eager стопки водки.
A little alarmed by her voracity, I exchange my flute for a shot glass.
— За ваше здоровье!
Ignoring any past warnings about the dangers of mixing alcohol (this is Moscow, darling) my palette is awash with the contrasting but утончённые flavours of vodka, champagne and caviar, not the most economical of food groups if one ever so decided.
— Could I gush for just one moment?
— Of course you can gush, my darling, — replies Аня, amused by my facetiousness.
— I would just like to thank you both for bringing me all the way to Moscow… to spend my first night with you here. Toasting with vodka shots, eating spoonfuls of caviar… Expensive caviar!
James gently slaps the back of my hand for drawing attention to the expense that evening occured. My blushing cheeks are disguised by the unnatural rouge of my Revlon lipstick.
— To Moscow! — I toast.
— To Moscow! — we repeat in chorus.
— I have to say Moscow does city that never sleeps much better than London.
— There are some things it does a lot worse, though.
— Да, конечно!
Our веселье is interrupted by a lady with a camera in hand who begins to speak to the table as a whole. I deduce she is asking us if we would like a photo taken. Аня looks to us for a moment.
Большая Садовая улица.
The now familiar route along the Тверской булбвар revealed to us a dark truth. A very clean, very respectable and very desperate бабушка stood at the светофоры beside the дубы, fixing her взгляд on each and every passing машина, her hand held out patiently for cash that did not come. In England, the homeless and begging on our streets are most often male, and if not, relatively young, their faces and bodies coated with the thick tar of London grime. There is sometimes evidence of drug or alcohol abuse which for those inclined to judgemental outbursts is a clear sign that all is right with the world and those on the wrong side of it are there for a reason. Prime examples of British biographical literature surrounding this are Down and Out in Paris in London and Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s razor-sharp indictments of the cruelty of his society: “The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually”. The June before my trip, I waged battle against my busy, fleeting mind and read Down and Out in my local East London park, feeling it fitting to lie in the 34 degree heatwave wearing a speedo emblazoned with the Brazilian flag to feel as authentically part of the 1920’s misère as possible. It would take me almost a year to pluck up the courage to read Road to Wigan Pier, a place I not only have first hand experience of but have embedded ’emotional memory’, pinches of needless guilt about the lingering class hatred that lived in almost everyone, myself included, like the black coal sut decorating everything and everyone when Wigan was still dependent on the coalmining industry. There is a strange comfort in knowing the same dismissive snobbery and destitution prevalent then remains today: we are up against history, therefore noone can be at fault.
Аня abruptly paused our conversation, remained silent for несколко мгновений then спросила у водителя:
— Можно, пожалуйста, на секунду остановиться?
She pulls her purse from her bag and rushes along the side of the road, out of sight. I remain in the car, allowing a cloud of awkwardness to settle, the driver too leaning back into this fog maladresse. Аня returns, panting slightly and zipping her purse.
— This country can be very cruel.
— Did you ask her about her story? What did you say to her? — I wondered aloud, perhaps letting curosity overtake sympathy.
— I didn’t say much to her, really… I just gave her some money and she seemed extremely grateful.
— Like you were the first person to stop all day…
— I just can’t drive past after seeing a бабушка on the side like that.
Аня and I leave the restaurant, and its squatting tracksuited doorman stands to open the door for us. I don’t turn back, but prejudice tells me he returned to his original position as we began to walk down Спиридоньевский переулок. Аня is walking a little ahead of me, which means I have no accomplice to visually share the beautiful 183cm Russian блондин standing outside a bar with friends.
— You are fucking AWESOME! — he shouts to me, in adorably ломаный английский. I make to thank him graciously for his compliment, as is routine, but he leans down, grabs my face and kisses me on my cheek. All manner of thoughts zip through my mind at that moment, but before any can materialise, I have to adjust my каракульская шапка before it falls on the street.
— Спасибо большое, — I reply, barely turning to him, some foolish voice in my head directing me to retain the image of a glamorously aloof stranger, a voice I am cursing even whilst writing this sentence. (I tell myself that I like the fact that I am able to ask the question “What if?”)
— Вы видели? У меня есть слишком много поклонников в Москве.
— Видела что?
— I just had a beautiful блондин compliment my туалет and give me a kiss.
— On the lips?!
— Oh, if only.
We enter the bar полные смехи. The luxuriousness of its interior tells me
In Анна Каренина, the emblematic scene in which
Мариванна целует меня and I step into
Миша introduces me to some of his colleagues, speaking to them in Russian, whose eyes widen at my ability to speak Russian, and turns to me and speaks in English, much to my silent rage!
A man approaches our круг with a little girl on his shoulders, her blonde her tied in pigtails.
— И откуда ты приехал? С этими сапогами педераста?
— Из Лондона.
— Ох! Он говорит по-русски? Негр из Лондона, который говорит по-русски! Ничего себе.
— Интересный выбор слов! — I reply, understanding that in Russia, the sweetest moments can be ransacked by unwanted company, and their unwanted prejudices, in seconds. I look to Миша, who explains to the парень that we were just leaving, but wishes him all the best.
We ascend the staircase to the зал in which he is exhibiting his актуалный шедевр.
— That was weird what he was saying about your shoes. They’re like the boots guys in the army wear.
— Да! Как те в Кремле! I feel very nervous after that though. I didn’t expect to see that kind of person here. When I first saw him I didn’t really take any notice. And I didn’t think someone walking around with his daughter on his shoulders could do any harm.
— You can run into guys like that in Moscow… you know, drunk guys.
I am quiet for a moment.
— And that word he used: негр.
— That word has a different meaning in Russia.
— Да?! I first came across it in Анна Каренина. A character arrived at Кити’s with dust on his face and said «Но я не негр, я вымоюсь!» My friend told me calling someone чёрный is обиднрый. — I silently remember a YouTube video I had watched where an African man talked about his experience in Russia as a негр, and I flinched every time he used the word to describe himself.
29th August, 2017
As we walk along the dusty streets of Торжок, a bus passes us and a woman catches my eye. She pauses for a moment before making her decision: I am a alien being who must not be trusted. She returns my curious glance with a fearful scowl, a human form of a dog’s growl. I smile as the bus drives away and smile, amused by the extremity of her reaction and empowered by the knowledge that such things are as harmless as a grey raincloud moving across a blue sky.
— Did you see that? A бабушка just caught my eye and she scowled at me.
— Oh, I’m sorry my darling. People here aren’t used to foreigners. In Торжок I’d say 99% of people are white… maybe even more!
— Oh, I’m not upset by it. I think I find it quite funny.
Аня and I are to pick up her neice from her dance class at the Дом культуры, and as we ascend the лестница, feelings from her childhood come back to her. We walk through the front doors and I am reflected a vision of my own experience growing up in a poor town; the decaying, choiceless figures who populate the crumbling grandeur of a one-time centre of civilisation now humbled by municipal furnishings and modern нищета. A group of people are seated in the entrance hall. Their greetings of suspicious glances are met by my polite здравзвуйте, a ritual they repeat in hushed utterances before returning to their reality, I now a new but unthreatening part of their environnment.
We enter a stairwell and Аня in hushed tones indicates to one of the сидящие.
— Did you see that guy wearing the cap? Wow… so he is someone I used to make fun of with Козьякова when we were younger.
— What’s his name?
— Балалаечник… as in he played the балалаека?
— That’s hilarious! Does it make you feel strange? You’ve gone away to live in London and fly around the whole world and brought me here… and Андрей… what was it again? Андрейка-балалаечник! is still here?
— I think it does.
— You have to come to Birkenhead one day. I’m sure we have plenty of characters you’ll recognise. Do they have toilets here?
— Yes, but you don’t want to use them. So I used to do dance classes here with the хореографичка Елена Николаевна. She movede to St Petersburg and lived the фабьюлоска lifestyle… Она вернулась в Торжок после вступления в Большом балете Санкт Петербурга. Никто не знает почему. Никто не спрашывает ей почему. Нам кажется, что история довольно такая драматичная, поэтому мы не здаём этот вопрос.
I step ahead to open the door, amidst the instructions Елена Николаевна is giving to her урок. At sound of the opening door she turns, and I’m greeted by an ecstatic welcome.
— Это неворятно! На день рождения Майкла Джексона он пришёл к нам!
Mid-walk, I feel myself tense up. Stacked high was a lifetime’s worth of comparison to Michael Jackson, a man whose music and face I’d of course always known passively, and with this the pile is made a little taller. Mocking cries in the street or face to face “you look like a young Michael Jackson” always held the same effect for me: I was being erased and the colour of my skin or texture of my hair gave people permission to make a pop-cultural clown out of me. A stranger mimicking Jackon’s ‘hee-hee’ was an omnipresent monster as I moved through the world. But here I am and out of my usual context, and Елена Николаевна‘s naïve comparison to a global superstar is meant as a compliment, and I decide to take it as such.
The older girls whisper excitedly to each other as I walk into the room.
— Hello! — they say in chorus.
— Всем привет!
— Он говорит по-русски?!
— Да, он говорит, — replies Аня.
— Ты хочешь вести урок?!
— She’s asking you if you’d like to lead the lesson.
— Я так думал!
Я подойду к ней, the resting княгинюшка, and kiss her cheeks.
— Я очень рад, что вас знаю и я обожаю тебя.
— And could you turn the light off, please?
— Как будет это по-русски?
— Можно, пожалуйста, выключить свет.
— А по-светски?
— Не могли бы вы выключить.
A rush of delight runs through upon hearing the sentence, even though I’m not able to fully pick out each word. The formality available in Russian
— Don’t get obsessed.
Я подойду к ней, the resting княгинюшка, and kiss her cheeks.
— Видно, почему ваш муж так любит тебя.
With the Uber close to arrival, I take my luggage in both hands and head to the reception.
— Алло. Я уже вышёл от отеля. Я на паркировке.
— Я не вижу тебя.
— Ну, я здесь. А вы где?
— Я рядом.
— Извините, я не иностранец, так, что мне трудно понимать вас.
— Я понял.
A shock of shame paralyses me for a moment – my desperation to sound like a native speaker in every language I approach feels so hard to reach, and although he is comfirming what I’d already said, it feels like a persoal insult.
— Вы не здесь. Вы три улицы отсюда.
— Нет, я рядом с отелем.
My train’s departure is coming close with every word that I exchange with this man, so I tell him I’m walking to him and will see him in 2 minutes. He is indeed parked three streets away and I quickly understand that he’s the sort of person one doesn’t judge: we accept their difficulties and try to make them as exterior to ourselves as possible.
— Я здесь, наконец-то.
My suitcases are placed in the boot and I climb into the back.
— Извините, я не хочу пропустить поезд, и
Gavinushka, where are you?
Choosing economy over comfort, I leave my дворец behind and