Sunday, 19 December 2010
Actually the shouts in the stairwell were initially quite unnerving. One of my young Russian colleagues was too scared to come to work some of last week because of the massive recent violence in Moscow against people who look like they are from the Caucasus. See You in Moscow, which is usually an art blog, captures the threat of the current situation resonantly; while the Moscow News is its usual more vague self.
My neighbourhood is very like bits of East London - rundown with several derelict factories but also with pockets of cultural activity (Winzavod, ArtPlay) and many bright young things in evidence at weekends. But now I know the area has really arrived. Instead of the usual drunks on the stairs, there has been a many-personed film crew occupying several floors for the whole day. With the whole works, including external floodlights.
And they have kindly given us extra graffiti, together with a considerable amount of shouting, music and chasing about.
This is one aimed at everyone in Britain who has been reduced to a standstill by the weather. Just to mention that Moscow has only about an inch of snow and yet this afternoon I saw 5 snow ploughs, 2 dumper trucks and my favourite device (above) - the snow-gobbler.
Saturday, 18 December 2010
This is the only set of re-cycling bins I have seen anywhere in Moscow - when I walked past them with a Russian colleague he laughed out loud. I know it is not a popular pastime here, but there must be more.....
For example, I now have a new, new front door. I thought this was because the initial one was a rather tinny Chinese-made version which was going to be replaced because it was not secure enough. But, no, what I now have is another door immediately inside the old new one - so immediately inside that the door handles easily become entangled.
To this must be added the fact that the the handle on the new (inside) door does not work very well, so tends to get jammed. The new door, it transpires, is not for extra security - because the key has not been fitted properly - but for extra warmth and acoustic separation. So getting in and out has got a lot more exciting.
And in more neighbour news, I got invited next door last night to see Es collections. Tropical fish, plates from around the world, fridge magnets, coins and paper money both old and current. And a request to help obtain more of the latter. His flat is absolutely stuffed, not just with collections and ornaments but also with furniture; moving around is almost everywhere done sideways.
Sunday, 12 December 2010
GUM is one of the particular places of choice for wedding parties to go to have their photographs taken. I don't know why this Saturday was so popular, but there were so many different groups they kept bumping into each other. Very enjoyable to watch.
Caught Lenin and a mate having lunch together yesterday. They were in an appropriate place, the Russian Stolovaya/столовая in GUM (top floor), one of many contemporary examples of a Soviet-style cheap canteen in Moscow.
Interestingly, Lenin didn't talk to the other guy at all throughout their meal, he was too busy texting on his mobile phone.
And I feel really foolish. Lenin is a pretty good match but who on earth is the other one meant to be? Definitely not Stalin, and can't believe they would do Trotsky even now (certainly not in uniform - and I don't even know what period the uniform is). Help me here....
Note: If you want to know, read the comment below which just increases my embarrassment; he was, after all, a cousin of our own George V.
Sunday, 5 December 2010
I think I got rather smug (and rather snug) in my previous flats, both of which were modern enough to have proper double glazing. And I think I talked a lot about how indoors in a Moscow winter you only need tee-shirts and underwear.
Well, now I am in a proper Soviet flat, with warped timber windows and a gap wide enough between the double panes for the air in there to get nicely chilled. So, I have finally started to need jumpers indoors. My very sweet landlord turned up this evening (with the helpful neighbour) to implement one of the standard Russian solutions to this problem - a thin, but slightly padded sticky tape around all the joints of the inner window frames.
Whilst he was here we also talked cleaning. I am just no good with those short sweeping brushes made out of dried straw or sticks; can't seem to get the knack, nor to lose my desire for a more sophisticated broom-like or electrical device. So I have been lent a small vacuum-cleaner for now - with the promise that we will 'refresh' the rugs by beating them (with aforesaid brushes) at a later date. This, it turns out, happens outside and so just waits for a thicker layer of snow as a proper base.
Monday, 29 November 2010
I don't know why the stray dogs seem much more obvious in the winter. Do they take summer hols? Anyway, I have also started to see more of them underground; it is a well known Moscow belief that strays travel this way. The dog pictured here has just left the metro through the main doors, where it was waiting patiently and with much dignity to be let out. (I attempt to take quite a few pictures of these dogs; as with this one they seem not to like it much, and turn away as soon as you point a camera. Well, at least that is what I think it is, it might be me being a bit anxious about getting barked at - which has also happened.)
I realise that this blog has currently deteriorated into stuff mainly about the weather or food, but my excuse is that I am just incredibly busy at work, and that these subjects concern me a lot.
So, I need help here. I am pretty certain the red things are berberis berries (these have a very delicate white speckled pattern and taste like sour pomegranate seeds) - but what are the green ones on the left? I was at the market with M, who said something about grating them (I am truly sorry for not listening properly) or cutting up and scooping out the fruit. They taste as if a lime and a pear have mated.
Which is a good taste.
So finally, with only minor flurries of snow, the temperature has plummeted to -18, and everyone is complaining of the cold. But I am loving the bright blue, clear sunny skies. And interesting hats are back in large numbers...
(As last year - England is trying to compete. Snow causes chaos and fun across the UK said the Guardian today, with the pictures to prove it.)
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
After some delay I have finally got around to trying out a new Russian diary product - Ryazhenka, which is like a yoghurt drink. This was kindly given to me by U and O, as a healthy thing post-operation. (I have also been given Kefir, which I don't dislike, but get no enjoyment whatsoever from drinking).
So, I was pleasantly surprised. Its quite nice.
Saturday, 13 November 2010
Having what I would call English weather in Moscow. Grey, overcast, scudding grubby clouds and endless drizzle, puddles. Oh, and dark by 5.00 pm. Day after day. Mid-November and still no proper snow. I have been asking around and what I took as a normal winter here - the glorious cold but bright days we (mainly) had last year - turns out to have been pretty unusual.
So, lots more greyness to come....
Hope it doesn't happen to you; but here are my hints if you end up in a public hospital in Moscow. This, of course, is only my experience (and of one particular hospital and I think I was pretty lucky) so would appreciate any additional advice from others...
1. Bring your own cutlery - at the minimum a spoon. Most people had their own plates and cups also. Actually things seemed pretty clean, but I guess only 'washed up' rather than sterilised.
2. Food provided is low-level edible, but good to have extra supplies if possible. Otherwise there was always bread and a very weak, watery coffee available (see photo above).
3. Bring your own nightclothes and 'indoor slob' clothes (must be a better name, but I mean the relatively disreputable but very comfortable stuff most Russians - and me - wear indoors) . I was stripped naked for surgery and felt quite lucky to be given a (temporary) nightgown when I woke up.
4. Remember your slippers - these are essential in any Russian indoor situation, but of course come into their own in hospital. One day I will get the etiquette of when to wear/when to remove, but not yet.
5. Expect few niceties. No curtains around bed, or privacy during examinations. Bed-sheets changed about once a week.
6. BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER!
7. It is assumed you have family or friends who will help out, bring you treats etc. My surgeon asked crossly why my children were not there to help (though I don't see how that would have helped the language problem we were having at the time).
8. Valuables and clothes were 'signed in' before my operation; then taken to some distant and impregnable store. So don't do what I do. Keep your mobile phone and anything else you are going to need immediately after an operation with your clothes. It took me several days to find out how to collect my important stuff (permissions required and much signing of paperwork), that the store closes over the weekend and that I was required to stagger in my pyjamas across the whole hospital campus - a small town in its own right - to personally collect them. I never again want to be stuck in hospital without a phone.
9. Most doctors and nurses will expect some form of tip, with varying degrees of effect on the quality of services provided. I have no idea about amounts, as this was done for me. It certainly relates to the fact that surgeons and doctors seem to be paid below the average wage for Moscow. I couldn't find accurate figures for 2010, but in 2008 doctors in polyclinics were getting 20,000 rubles a month (400 pounds or US$826).
10. The word больно (which I pronounce bolnoi) - meaning (it) hurts- was very useful when I was prodded, along with saying OY, which is the Russian version of OUCH.
It was a surreal experience attempting to rush through Moscow traffic in an ambulance. There is a technique it seems, which involves driving down the middle of the 10 lanes of cars going each way in the vague hope that 1.) drivers will or can give way and 2.) you don't meet an emergency vehicle or equivalent trying the same thing in the other direction.
Started out sitting in an upright position, with wide open eyes and mouth as we edged forward in jerks and near misses. Then, after some considerable time had to lie down, to find that this (non) movement was periodically interrupted with what felt like driving over very rough ground (as over a field).
When we finally got to the hospital, the ambulance driver came and apologised for having to drive over flower-beds (I still have no idea what this actually means in the Moscow context).
Note: I stole this picture from EnglishRussia as, not surprisingly, I didn't have my camera with me. Many thanks to them, great site.
Sunday, 31 October 2010
Well that was a bit of a surprise. Been struggling a bit with my health these last few months, but then it was back to Moscow and suddenly wham-bam, acute appendicitis, rushed into hospital (well, we will get back to that 'rushed' thing) and here I am appendix-free, and with a new 2-inch long trophy scar.
State hospital with almost no English spoken anywhere but medical care has been very good, sometimes brusque but also often caring. Deliveries of chicken soup etc. almost every day from my kind colleagues (and a fridge to put it in) as well as fellow patients pointing out the breakfast trolley when they think I am missing it.
In fact the weirdest thing has been watching so much Russian daytime TV. I have managed to spend over a year in Moscow without watching the television at all; so now pinned to my bed, with nothing to do and capable of very little, I have literally been lying here with my mouth open watching one dire 'copy' of US or UK reality show after another. And I mean dire. A medical and health programme that spent twenty minutes on the fact that hats make your hair static. Interior design make-over shows which show how to make things (clay bowls, painted furniture) by presenters who clearly don't know how to actually make anything. A style programme where the women look worse in their new outfits.
Now I realise that most people living here already know this, but it really has been a considerable (additional) shock to the system.
Thursday, 7 October 2010
The light at this time of year in Moscow is just fabulous. Rich orange (and slightly purple) evening skies, strong enough to make the buildings glow red as the sun goes down.
Off to London for a week (to see my lovely daughter off to Australia where she has a new job, sob!) Looking forward to it; still in a bit of a limbo about being back here. Weird to simultaneously feel not very settled, but also more at home.
Probably quite normal.
Another thing I went on about a lot last year was how I could not handle Russian salads - the mashed-up, brightly coloured, multi-layer, compressed and cake-like offerings seem like everything that is the opposite of saladness.
So I don't know why, but suddenly I have started to really like them, salads like Mimosa, Herring Fur Coat and Salad Olivier (which confused me to start with as it looks like what the English call Russian salad, and I thought until recently was called Olive salad, but without any olives).
Mimosa (pictured) comprises soggy layers of egg, carrot, green onion, fish, rice and mayonnaise - lots of mayo - and with the hard-boiled egg yolks grated on the top to give a nice bright yellow surface. Here is the recipe for all you potential converts. I'm completely hooked, its like a whole meal and as comforting as porridge.
I can't believe this is actually true; pictured is the roof of our new building and I hear that there may be a plan to turn it into a skating rink this winter! Those of you who were around last year will know I spent a lot of time waxing lyrical about ice-skating in Moscow. And now I am going to get my own personal (well almost personal) skating rink...how good is that?
Will just need to not skate off the roof - only six storeys up....
Sunday, 3 October 2010
Stencilled adverts on the pavements in Moscow were around last year; but now the craze (if that is the right term) really seems to have taken off; and the results are everywhere. Don't know what the response would be if this happened to this degree in London.....
Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Good news and bad news. The good news is that they have turned on the domestic heating for this area (just a test I think as it went off again yesterday) and mine seems to work. The bad news is that the brief, beautiful autumn is soon to be over. Dropped from 20 degrees over the last few days to 7 degrees today, with - 1 predicted at the end of the week.
So last chance to see the old regulars who have been sitting out on the grass outside with deckchairs and a ginger tabby on a lead.
Whilst still not being organised enough to buy basics efficiently (light-bulbs, washing powder, saucepans (!)) I am getting better at buying fresh fruit and vegetables from various markets. I agree with a fellow blogger that you can eat healthily this way; in fact really beginning to get into seasonal produce (although I might say something different come the depths of winter.)
So right now, of course, it is berries and mushroom time. Shown are dogwood or cornelian cherries and I have been told just to add a bit of sugar, leave for ten minutes and then boil up quickly with water to make a drink, with the combined taste of cherries and cranberries.
It tastes good and fresh and has already put me off buying readymade fruit juice in a box. Any other recipes welcome, before the berry season ends....
Sunday, 26 September 2010
Getting a bit worried that I am only writing about (and from the inside of) my new flat - my excuse being a combination of being very busy at work, and the excitement of so many local comings and goings.
I did go out last weekend, trying out one of my standard methods for exploring new places - randomly getting on public transport and finding out what happens at the end of the line. The 24 tram this time, to Novogireevo (pretty ordinary). But really, I was just trying to find a decent cheap supermarket, of which there seems to be a serious dearth around my new location. I did find an okay open-air market en route, but still had to lug my shopping back a considerable way. So, then on Sunday I ended up taking a 2 hour walk - again in search of such a supermarket - this time leading inexorably back to the two good, cheap(ish) food shops near my old flat. Followed by another long walk back with bags.
I have been usefully corrected by both by V and a previous post comment about blat. As they both explain, it is about having useful connections, not the exchange of favours per se. You probably all knew that and were just too polite to tell me.
So V and I talked about what it is that is going on here. His suggestion is that I am probably witnessing old-style Soviet community support, which he says doesn't happen much any more. Which I find really funny as I happen to live in just such a 'community' in London (also not common); and because yesterday I was properly inculcated into the exchange of favours for the first time. Neighbour E was again called on, this time to help in the removal of two cupboards. Then it turned out that he collects foreign coins, so I offered him my English small change and he picked out his favourites. And in exchange I got 3 new light-bulbs. Which considering he hoovered up almost all my pound coins, worked well for him.
But maybe it means I am now becoming part of the collective, and can borrow cups of sugar and make small talk, which will be fun. (I also found out that the flat only became vacant this summer when the father of the landlady died - aged 89, but unexpected and clearly because of the heat and summer smog. In London, I had thought about the effects on old people of the extreme weather conditions in Moscow, but had not expected to find myself an unintended beneficiary.)
Saturday, 18 September 2010
For example, had another very minor, but confusing, experience with my landlords N + A. The new custom-made, and very thin, double mattress has arrived. I happily laid it across the two existing single mattresses/beds, stuffed some blankets down the gap and held everything together with the elastic corners provided.
But then the owners came down and appeared shocked: it seemed that such a chore had to be done by another neighbour (E) who is very good at these things - he had already been summoned on a previous occasion to attach a plastic lid to a plastic bucket. My landlord literally seemed to droop with dejection when he saw I had already done the job. So neighbour E was nonetheless called, and having poked idly at the mattress edges and declared the task completed, was thanked profusely.
I assume this is a tiny example of blat (блат), a term, defined by Wikipedia, as describing the use of informal agreements, exchanges of services and connections in the old Soviet Union. But I could be completely wrong.
Arrived back not only to Sretenka Design Week - aiming to promote this area as a proper 'cultural quarter' in Moscow - but also to more development at (and gossip about) the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design;the last stages of Design Acts at Winzavod; and a new building opening at ArtPlay for the British Higher School of Art and Design (BHSAD).
All these activities circulate around the idea that Russia lacks a serious creative industry and that it needs better home-grown design education and employment/selling opportunities - for young people wanting to be designers, for current designers and for their clients. That is most certainly true, so it is very exciting to see the growth in energy - and investment - in this area. But the opportunities remain more limited, and the obstacles much tougher than for artists or designers in any other equivalent european city. I have been trying to unpick why this is, but seems complicated, so all comments welcome. Clearly going to be an issue I will keep returning to this year....
image: new building conversion for BHSAD at ArtPlay
Sunday, 5 September 2010
Slept last night in the flat in borrowed bedding, so have been to collect my stuff from work and begun to make the place my own. The building is from the late 1920s, initially built as a hotel, and then converted into collective housing. Which I guess explains the huge stair landings. The landlady’s story, if I understand it correctly, is that her family owned the flat originally but were cultural intellectuals who were cleared out in the 30s to be replaced by poorer families, many living in each room. Then at some stage she and her parents were able to move back and so how she has both her own place and this one (she also seems to own some other apartments elsewhere for letting out.) Clearly an entrepreneur and a survivor; she and her husband – a chemical engineer – seem to have done all right for themselves. Like ex-council estates in London, the wider block appears to be inhabited by many different kinds of people, including a regular gathering of drunks on the stairs, who it must be said are perfectly friendly if a bit messy.
Familiar strangenesses are multiplying. Went immediately to view a flat that my Russian colleagues have found me (via many, many email exchanges of interiors/locations/prices). Prices seem to have shot up, although it may be of course that I demand to live relatively central. Anyway, this place is old and furnished traditionally, but in a fantastic location just minutes walk from work. The landlady and her husband live immediately upstairs, so initial discussions also involve soup. The plumbing is ancient and basic but the floors are wooden, the windows big, the rooms of a good size and the view green, so I like it. It is also very cold – being as we are in that transitional period with chillier, more autumnal weather but before the powers-that-be decide to turn on the heating. (Also they have left the windows open, which I later realize is to blow away the slight but all- pervading elderly smell.)
So the landlady show me the traditional trick of lighting the cooker, and putting bricks on the flames. And I can’t work out if this is weird or not.
I have been reading Colm Toibin’s book Brooklyn during my summer in London. He describes a young woman’s almost accidental moves backwards and forwards between Ireland to America. Throughout the story much is left unsaid; and a central motif is how each location fades away into a kind of silence when this woman is living in the other. Although I have really appreciated having over two months in England, I am experiencing exactly that sensation; that I can’t quite remember what it is I did in Moscow.
And now, arriving back a few days ago I carry this dislocation as an unsettling combination of pleasurable recognition and peculiar, eerie distance. So, as an example, the car journey from the airport. A typically turbulent river of vehicles - gaily and surprisingly good-naturedly – fighting for space. Swerving around the stray dog killed as it hit a car in front of us. Sitting immobile for some time in major jams caused both by the requirement that cars in minor accidents stay where they are (I have seen two already) and just by the fact that there are far too many cars in Moscow. And, of course, that parking everywhere including all-over-the-pavement business. So pleased to be back, but feel like I am looking at all of this through glass.
Monday, 26 July 2010
One of the complaints that often does the rounds amongst expats in Moscow is that in up-market restaurants the waiter/waitress often fails to return with change after the bill has been paid, even if the amount remaining is much larger than a regular tip. This is the cause of much grumbling.
Funny that it should be in London that I finally 'get' what is happening in this situation - and again with much appreciation to V + K (saying hello above). The thing is, if you say thank you as you hand the bill over, this means that the transaction is completed, so the money is theirs. And since English people say thank you on every possible occasion - well you get the picture.
So to be completely clear; when you pay the bill in a Moscow restaurant, say nothing and preferably do not even look the waiter in the eye. This is not impolite as it would be in England, just normal.
Being in London, and with some Russian visitors to stay, means thinking a bit about what constitutes Englishness ("the houses are all joined together!' as I heard an newly arrived Australian backpacker say on the train from the airport, with true surprise). Once V and K had got over the issue of everyone speaking English ( V - "its like Lingaphone") and the fact that we really do say please and thank you an awful lot; and despite me quizzing them about any particular national characteristics that stood out, my guests have been quite coy about saying what makes us particularly 'English'.
So planning to read some of those recent books struggling with this phenomenon, beginning with Dara O Briain's Tickling The English. From his account, there are many things we might be thought to share with Russians - talking about the weather (well as least my Moscow friends do this with me, but they may just think it is what I want), expecting things to go wrong (although in England this leads to complaining, in Russia to fatalism), some kinds of eccentricity and some aspects of a shared sense of humour, particularly around playing with language (although the English one is is certainly less 'signposted').
And of course in the end, Dara - being a very smart man - doesn't fall for either national stereotypes or even characteristic 'tendencies'. What makes a nation (or parts of a nation), he suggests, is merely the mass of historically accumulated and shared cultural references. Absolutely.