03
Jun
11

post posledniye

Well this is it, kids. The last few hours in Piter. Elvis has almost left the building, and Elvis isn’t happy about it right now. I’ve just spent the compulsory hour packing my suitcase (and panicking because it’s so heavy I can just about lift it, and wondering if going through Helsinki lugging this elephant was such a good idea) moping around the flat and blubbing because I’ve actually had this cliched thing when you remember all the most salient moments of a year in the space of a few minutes.

The end of the tracks

The end of the tracks.When I’ve posted this I’ll go have a last gawp at the river, and Spasa, and listen to people speaking in Cyrillic speech bubbles. Who’d have thought, after those shaky beginnings, that leaving would be so hard? Everything is against me: the weather is perfect, I’ve nothing left to do but wait for my taxi, and I’ve just had to delete the phone numbers of everyone I’ve met here from the phone I was lent. Some numbers were pleasant to remove, like the one of the clinic I had to go to when I was constantly ill back in October, some bittersweet, like that of my colleague Anna I had such an… eventful relationship with, and for a few, pressing the Delete button was almost impossible to do, it felt too final, like closing a different kind of Iron Curtain behind me. All the good stuff waiting for me at the other end, where the tracks start again, right now they don’t matter.

I’m in the limbo part of the goodbye phase, when the last drinks have been drunk, the famous last words been said by all involved, and there are still hours to kill. Leaving was always going to be tough, and it should be, or else what were you doing there? It’s supposed to be easier to be the one who leaves, caught up in the action, soon engulfed in new surroundings, and it may be once I start moving, but not now.

When I left London it was nothing like this, it was easy, because I thought I was coming back, and now I’m going to Paris instead. But London’s near and I’ll move back there if it feels right, and Russia is far. Distance isn’t the problem though, time is, this is the end of an era, that was my year of living in Russia and it’s over. Maybe travellers quit travelling because they get so sick of leaving new friends and places you’ve come to love, and part of your life history, to the point when you think, why am I doing this to myself and others? Fellow expats, let this be a dire warning to you: yes, this is how rubbish you’re going to feel when you leave. Whatever you do, never let this stop you from making journeys.

Did I mention my theory of ghosts? I don’t believe in dead souls roaming around, but I might just believe in living ones leaving a trace  behind in places and near people they were attached to. So I wouldn’t be too surprised if a see-through version of me is seen mooching around Primorskaya among the Soviet blocks and in the corridors of the Kindergarten, or people-watching on Nevski Prospekt, or dipping her feet in the Neva by Dvortsovy Most, or looking at the rusty boats from the Vassilievsky Ostrov embankment.

I’m not going to carry on listing all the stuff I’m going to miss, even less all the people, I decided early on that this blog wouldn’t have anything too personal in it and I’m not going to completely break that rule now, I’ve been sentimental enough as it is, and if you were expecting my usual flippant remarks, sorry, it’s not happening today!

I have some more photos to share and will probably post them in the next few weeks, but this is my last post as your useless foreign correspondent in the East, I hope you’ve had as much fun reading as I’ve had writing. There’s every chance I will start another blog or two, so we can rendez-vous there, the new address will be up on this blog in due time, meanwhile, take care. To those I leave, fair winds an’all that, hope we meet again, and whatever you decide to do with your lives, make it good, скучаю все уже. To those I’m coming back to, can’t wait to see you! Bye for now, with another gratuitously beautiful Neva sunset. Onwards, forever onwards.

29
May
11

hanging cities

No images of a suggested, mythologized, distorted version of the city I currently live in are hanging over my St Petersburg. No one else’s vision of it is superimposed over my own, altering it without my even noticing.

I had little expectations of what I was going to find. Of course I know the history, the classic picture postcards of the city, but since when have these really had an impact of an individual’s perception of a place? Who can stand in front of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2011 and see it, and everything around it, as it was in its early days? We may try to imagine, and if the circumstances are right -a thick fog, few people around, actors in costume entering the building- might experience the thrill of fooling ourselves for a second. I’ve gone out of my way to have these time-travelling experiences in London, and the few times I succeeded, my general impression of the city I was in was pleasantly altered.

What does also alter it, alas, is being subjected to bad films and series, worse music videos, or adverts, or TV channel idents, or lifestyle articles, using the city as a backdrop for whatever story, nonentity or product they’re hawking. It’s always the song that annoys you the most on the radio that gets stuck in your head, precisely because you’re trying so hard to blank it out. I have the same problem, transposed to the realm of landscape, especially urban, the visual equivalent of an earworm. I resent the spaces I inhabit being invaded by a thousand concepts I did not come up with, but who have forced themselves onto my consciousness and act like a filter in front of my eyes, as if someone had spray-painted graffiti all over a picture before I had a chance to look at it. I’m not talking here about genuine, well-crafted literary or artistic depictions, or even music associated with a place. It’s the new uber cool band’s new single and perfume adverts that get rammed down our throats, not Balzac and Hogarth. I suppose the younger you are, and the more connected to all mass communication devices, the more deluged you get.

It’s been a constant annoyance in the two big cities I know best, London and Paris. The more famous, written and talked about the location, the more dross you have to abstract yourself from to try and form your own psychogeography. Of course, total objectivity, or I should say, total subjectivity, ie, a view of one’s own not modified by anything alien to oneself, is impossible, but there are degrees of freedom. And of course the positive corollary is that, for every unwelcome projection, there’s a wonderful one that will resonate, enhance your vision and catch facets that your own lights had not bounced off.

It was easier in Petersburg. Do a web search for images and you’ll find the same 20 pictures of the White Nights, the Hermitage, the raised bridges, the cathedrals. That’s maybe 10% of the real city. So I had the rare experience of a fresh look at everything, people, structures, positive spaces like palaces and Soviet blocks, and negative ones like the sudden opening of an avenue, or the massive arms of the Neva shoving the built land to the sides.

Many thanks to the crumbling concrete, flaking plaster, brand new eyesores, to the wooden isbas that time forgot, to the onion domes and the sea tang, to the Russians, for taking me by surprise, and letting me live and imagine my own stories, build my own castles in the sky, my own hanging cities, and populating them. I will miss you.

24
May
11

izmailovo frenzy

As you may or may not know, my camera memory card ate up all the photos of my recent trip to Moscow. In a fit of rage Khrushtshev himself would have admired, I had it court-martialled for high treason and condemned it to death by Throwing In The Bin.

I was very pleased with the photos I took of my frenzied shopping trip to Izmailovo Market, possibly the biggest souvenir/flea market in Mosocow. I’ve had to pinch some photos of it on the net…

A bigger version of the candy house in Hansel & Gretel

It’s like someone tried to make an exhaustive recap of every typically Russian type of building, wooden, painted, gilded, the overall effect is a bit “DisneyWorld Russia”, but the higgedly-piggedly mess is actually very charming.

Inside you are first confronted by enormous quantites od traditional souvenirs like matrioshka dolls, Faberge eggs, laquer Palekh boxes and Khokloma bowls and spoons, not to mention heaps of flowery scarves. The quality is excellent and it’s quite dazzling to be surrounded by all these lovely colours.

But I’ve got enough of these so I went on to the next section: Soviet Memorabilia. This was already being sold on my first visit to Russia in 1996, only a few years after the fall of the USSR, but on quite a small scale. Now I’m sure it makes up a decent part of the national revenue.

Goodbye Lenin

Propaganda posters. Turgid ideology put aside, I'm in awe of their graphic quality.

Some of the stuff on sale (mostly flasks, army caps, party insignia) looks so blatantly new it’s a wonder anyone buys it, there must be factories all around Moscow churning them out. But most items are unquestionably genuine so if that’s your thing, you can kit yourself and your house out like it’s 1960 in Volgograd.

In the centre, there’s a big wooden covered market, which is where the fun really begins: the open to all comers flea market.

Lada boot sale

Here locals turn up to sell absolutely anything. Some specialize in old insignia, postcards, books, clothes, houseware, tools, carpets, it’s a real Europe meets Asia mix, which the above photo doesn’t illustrate well at all, it was much busier and messier on my visit.

Seller rocking a real patriarch beard

Russians shop here, always a good sign. I was pleased to see they use the souvenir stalls too, usually to buy presents for friends and family, which made me feel like less of a jackass tourist. I wanted to buy everything, but I was sadly restrained by the fact that I only have one suitcase to take it all away and I’m probably going to pay an excess baggage fee as it is.

Still, I got quite a decent haul:

Cigarette cases: possibly army issue at the back (there's a stamp on the inside), Moscow-pride at the front (view of Red Square)

Note: Red Square does not owe its name to Communism, it was called that way at a very long time ago, when in Old Russian the word “krassny” meant both “red” and “beautiful”…

Soviet medals. Left: "Glory to the Soviet Cosmonauts", top right: commemoration of the Luna-16 landing, bottom right: commemoration of the Mars-2 and Mars-3 flights.

I’m not planning on wearing them. Well…not the big one anyway. In case you didn’t know, I’m geekily into the whole Space Race thing, especially the USSR side of it, I’ve read books about it. Among my lost photos were those of a visit to the Cosmonaut Museum, where we could inspect (that’s what it says on the signs instead of “visit”) the Vostok capsule Yuri Gagarin flew in, the Mir space station, the Moon vehicles, the stuffed space dogs Bielka and Strelka (!), and the satellites Soyuz and…Sputnik, personal favourite.

That one. AKA the highlight of my loot.

The odd thing it’s embossed on is called a padstakannik, which means “under-glass”, it’s a holder for hot drinks, only way classier than a branded cardboard disposable thing. You just have to find a normal drinking glass that fits it. I’m so looking forward to having my morning coffee in this! Padstakannikis have existed for a long time and they’ve always been used for commemorative purposes, heavily so during the Soviet Era. Still, I’d never seen one with anything space-related on it, so I dived on that one the moment I saw it. Cost me three quid…Don’t you love that despite the high-tech theme, it still has cutesy little floral swirls on the side? Ah, Russia!

23
May
11

mixed bag 6…i think

Many changes around Petersburg in this last week of May. The sun is finally giving out some warmth, and once again the whole city looks different. The influence of the weather on pretty much everything here is amazing. Not to mention, on everyone.

Giving some love to Lermontov

A statue of Mikhail Lermontov, celebrated writer and poet,  not quite as ubiquitous as Pushkin, but treasured enough for admirers to knit him a fetching stripey jumper, worn casually tied around the neck. Unless it was the work of this guerilla knitting group who decorate statues, can’t remember their name. Anyway, it was a bit nippy when I took this photo and I’m sure he appreciated the attention.

"Smile!"

One monday morning on the way to work. It had the desired effect.

Red is not dead

This was probably meant to raise a smile too, albeit a patriotic one. Spotted on the 9th of May, Ден Победы, or Victory Day. The text means “Thanks for the victory, Grandad!”, only in Russian it rhymes, thanks to the bloody grammatical cases: “Spassiba dyedu za pobedu”. The stickers below require neither introduction nor explanation.

Meanwhile in Primorskaya, the Pacman family has just heard a good one

The whole family now have their mouths filled with pansies and can’t laugh so loud anymore. Looks a bit like they’re disgorging flowers, which is both gross and cute.

Just in case you had a doubt...

In the toilets at the St Peter and St Paul Fortress. I’m not sure what kind of visitors they’re expecting.

"I'm tired of waiting". Don't know about you but my palms are itching just to look at that pouty, demanding face.

Well it can’t be all hearts and flowers I’m afraid…even though in this case it would be more appropriate than a raised almost-middle finger. This is an ad for either a jeweler or wedding planner, can’t remember. Cultural lowdown: Orthodox Christians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. The charming young lady here is therefore subtly warning her boyfriend that she’s had enough of this boyfriend-girlfriend wishy-washy nonsense and wants to become a Mrs. Like, now. In Russia if you’re not married by 22 with possibly a baby on the way, you’re no-one. Teenage couples tying the knot are cooed over in the schmaltziest way imaginable. When my (English) friend had her first kid here, age 28, she had a special stamp on her medical file saying: “Older Mother”…Many girls here still rate themselves according to their ability to land a big sparkly rock on their finger in record time. If you say you want to wait, you’ll be met with blank stares (young women), gentle remonstrations (middle-aged women), or howls of rage and dismay (babushkas). What!! You want to wait til you’re an old thing in your thirties and then make deformed babies with two heads?? And how about Mother Russia, who needs cartloads of ruddy-cheeked babies?? And how about us babushkas who have nothing whatsoever going on in our lives and rely on you for sensations and entertainment!! Go find yourself a Sergei, NOW!!

Unfortunately love’s young dream hits the deck with alarmingly frequency (but of course that’s nothing to do with marrying at 18!) and the patriotic ruddy-cheeked babies are almost guaranteed to see their dreamboat parents divorce after very few years, and remarry; how many times depends on the optimism and health of the parent, and their capacity for attracting other Russians. Having had a year to mull on this, I conclude that despite all the dramatics -I’ve said here or there that I think Russians are the Italians of the north- they just don’t take it all that seriously. (Photo courtesy of friend Will, as I didn’t have my camera with me when I saw this unmissable poster).

I hope the end of the world found you happy and well, I spent the Apocalypse in Novgorod and will show you how it looked like from there very soon. Paka!

20
May
11

byzantium

Yes, it’s another church. Two, in fact. C’mon, you love them.

Russian Orthodoxy is the continuation of the early Christian Byzantine faith, which is why they call themselves orthodox, by the bye. I can’t remember anything about the finer points of dogma involved, probably because I don’t care; what I do care about is the Byzantine influence on their religious architecture. The below Church of the Transfiguration, on Vassilievski Ostrov, is a superb example.

An anonymous but colourful example by Obvodny Canal

19
May
11

elektrosila

Electric power. It’s all around, and especially swaying over your head. Tram, trolleybus, phone lines…cable jungle.

The sky is sliced. Peter the Great wanted low buildings so as not to detract from its immensity; his Industrial Era successors have added geometry to space.

Primorskaya, Ulitsa Nakhimova

Gostiny Dvor, Nevski Prospekt

Ulitsa Grivtsova

Lyteiny Prospekt

Trolleybus route sign, Lyteiny Prospekt

Marsovo Polye, Dvortsovaya Naberejnaya

Texnologicheski Institut, Piervaya Krasnoarmeiskaya

Elektrosila, Moskovskii Prospekt

Elektrosila factory logo, near Elektrosila Metro station

Reika Moika Naberyejnaya

View over the roofs by Griboedov Canal, from 5th floor flat

18
May
11

the miracle tree

I’m going to cut a branch off and see if it can take root in my garden.

"Think you could grow me a bottle of Champion Ale? Спассибо!"

There is a distinct lack of litter bins in the streets…so people just use the streets. Or whatever takes their fancy. I’m sure after two bottles, doing that was simply hilarious.

On a different note, myself and visiting friends managed to miss the military parade on the 9th of May, which only lasted for 30 minutes from what I’ve been told. That’s what fooled us, I guess we were all expecting a Stalinian display lasting 4 hours. I think they save that one for Red Square. I’ve been to Moscow since but have managed to lose all my photos, so my planned feature on crazy muscovite architecture has gone down the toilet. I’m very very annoyed.

I only have precisely  15 days left in Russia. I feel like I should write something grand and inspiring on the subject of my most unusual year abroad, but I might wait until I’ve drunk a bit and decorated a tree with the empties. I’m mostly conscious of an overwhelming feeling of time running out of me. I haven’t written a quarter of what I’d planned. I was going to go into anthropoligical society pieces, about the Soviet past and Jackboot-Liberal present, about gender relations, the cities and the country, and publish many more photos. I’m disappointed but on the other hand, I needed some time to do my living and experiencing. The unexamined life isn’t worth living, yes, but the unlived life isn’t worth examining. And I’m sure all those unwritten observations will pop up some time or other in my future writings -for there will be more, make no mistake about that, I’ve enjoyed doing this and will easily find another excuse to do so again. For now I’m going to go and do some more soaking up of the Piter atmosphere…




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