Wednesday, 29 September 2010

weather report

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.

life is a bowl of...

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

turning food shopping into a big deal

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.

not blat

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

knowing nothing

Seem to be some great new Moscow blogs - see sidebar - or maybe I just missed these before. Got an increasing awareness of how naïve I am to think I can write about my experiences here with any confidence when I speak no Russian (and do not seem to be improving in that area in the slightest).

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.

design exploding?

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


I have just been showered with plastic. After another visitation this evening now have more buckets than I know what to do with as well as some of those useful tupperware-type containers, a washing up bowl and couple of plastic jugs. I repeat the question from an earlier post. Is that weird or not?

Moscow Day

Moscow Day. Same as usual. Missed it.


Another trace – the toilet has been leaking into the flat downstairs because the ball-cock jammed, and I have had two days of much going backwards and forward with repairs, wrong parts, things not fitting, repairman’s nephew wanting to practice his English on me and flat often full of people. Realise that I hanker after being a recluse. But, anyway, now have my own brand-new-from-the-cupboard plastic bucket for pouring water down the toilet as required, and – finally – a whole new toilet.


So many traces in this flat of the lives lived here. Obvious things like books - old Soviet encyclopedias, health and fitness magazines from the 50s - photographs and ornaments, but also things that reflect a specific Russian trajectory. There is a different kind of light switch in every room – all poorly fixed and just another example of years of inadequate and relatively random supply and distribution of consumer goods. But then there are three variations on telephones from different periods up to the 1960s - one parent worked for the national phone company - still proudly displayed and working (in fact I have disconnected two – this is only a two-room flat – but am already regularly rung on the remaining item by them upstairs....) And then I may not have mentioned that every available cupboard space is stacked with coloured plastic goods. Plastic buckets, bins, lids, baskets, boxes, flowerpots, jugs and other unrecognizable whatnots. Another story there then to be explored, about a sideline in selling plastic consumer items. (From the difficult 90s? As an addition to chemical engineering? A job for the son?).
Oh, and this evening, I was brought an old but beautifully soft and repaired mohair blanket and a pair of thick socks from the Caucuses (so I don't get cold).


This is my new living room. I think I may be seeing a lot of my landlady, she keeps inviting me to eat in their flat upstairs, or dropping by with something. This evening had a very relaxed but long-winded filling in of the lease agreement with her, her husband and grown-up son. Very nice people. Food. More food. Much admiring of her flat, which is full of lovely and historic bric-a-brac. Much moving of the large black and white cat that spent most of its time lounging across the paperwork. Many attempts to persuade my (Russian translating) friend that she should get to know the landlady’s son better. And something I really enjoy – that like me these people tend to lounge around indoors in housecoats, track suits and other items very close to pyjamas. I have now been visited several times by the husband in his tracksuit and dressing gown. That, at least, makes me feel very at home.

new flat

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.

home and away

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.