Wednesday, 30 March 2011

where aging rockers still rock

Went for business lunch* at a kind of blues bar just around the corner from the Lenin Library. As we entered everyone else but me let out a quiet hiss of amazement. The person idly strumming his guitar on stage turned out to be very famous, Andrey Vadimovich Makarevich,  a pioneer of Soviet rock music with a band called Mashina Vremeni/Time Machine, founded in 1969 and the only rock band from period still going. Very impressed since playing Beatles-influenced rock music in the Soviet Union was never going to be a soft option. 

Turns out Time Machine are playing a 40th anniversary gig in Toronto in April 2011, if you happen to be in Canada...

* Business lunch/Бизнес ланч: a term now part of the Russian language, and meaning basic variations on soup, salad and main priced at around 250 roubles or 5 quid. Always worth checking out - the business lunch in this bar, the Roadhouse, was basic, filling and tasty.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

into the daylight

This Sunday (27th March) Russia puts its clocks forward one hour to Daylight Saving Time (DST) - or what the English tend to call Summertime - so its going to stay lighter later. This matches most of the rest of Europe and keeps the time difference between Moscow and the UK at 3 hours. But then that's it, no more going back. Legislation has just been passed by the Duma to keep to GMT+4, for Moscow forever (and meanwhile time zones across the Russian Federation have also been reduced from 11 to 9).  President Dmitry Medvedev was quoted as saying: "It really disturbs the human biorhythm. It's just irritating. People either oversleep or wake up early and don't know what to do with the hour." According to recent studies by the Academy of Medical Sciences "on the first day after the transition to DST, one in five people are late for work or their morning commute."
Well of course that is a huge surprise. Given that Muscovites are always late. For everything. So I am looking forward to increased punctuality, it not by the end of March at least in Autumn when the clocks would otherwise be changing back.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

and a cafe

The other good thing about leaving by the north metro exit at Mayakovskaya is that if you turn right and walk a couple of blocks you will find the Respublika bookshop and cafe. It is a place that many  Muscovites like because of its contemporary feel. It sells art and design books, music vinyl and CDs and some designerly gifts. It also stocks a rather eccentric small collection of English fiction and - which sadly makes me very excited - is one of the few places in Moscow you can pick up magazines in English (and some other European languages).

The cafe on the first floor has been recently renovated and there are misc. art and design books in Russian and English to browse. And it has a mirrored ceiling.

10-of-the-best: No. 1 Mayakovskaya Metro Station

I have been putting together a list of the 10 best things to do in Moscow, that aren't in the standard tourist guides.

And I find myself starting with one thing that is ALL the tourist guides, the Metro. The best station must be Mayakovskaya - which has the most breath-taking light/flight/air themed mosaics on the ceiling. It is also the most 'lightweight' in design and looked after well; it has no adverts for example. The glorious part though, which is easy to miss, is the entrance hall to the north exit directly onto Tverskaya.

To find it when you get off the train, take the direction where the escalator goes down. And then rise up into a masterpiece of art and architecture.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

And then, close to Rimskaya metro itself, I found a good fresh food and miscellaneous indoor and outdoor market. The smells of fresh herbs - dill and basil - were just glorious. More pickles, this time laid out neatly, but also vegetables, fruit, nuts, fresh teas and spices. Fab. I was actually planning to get on a mini-bus at the metro stop to go to ашан/Auchun (finally) - which together with Ramstore - is a chain of Moscow hypermarkets; the places I am told where you can get those things that can be difficult to find elsewhere, like lightbulbs.

But once I was in the market, I couldn't be bothered. 

My hunt for local food markets has also taken a decided turn for the better, partly because with the weather improving more places are opening up. I found this one - near Rimskaya metro - entirely by mistake.

I was actually looking for a flea market in Shkolnaya Street - which is famous enough to get its own page on Wikipedia. It is a heritage protection area, a street of 19th century row houses and what were coaching inns now pedestrianised - like the much more famous Arbat - and with massive Khrushchev-period tower blocks looming behind. The story goes that the plan to attract more shoppers and tourists was unsuccessful, and so instead permission was given to host a flea market. Whilst the Arbat has become - to my mind - a boring tourist trap, Shkolnaya Street remains an ordinary, if slightly artificial because neatly decorated, Moscow street.

There was no sign of  the flea market on the Saturday I went, just a few food and clothes stalls  - like the pickles van above - but an interesting walk all the same. 

food, food, food!

When I got back to Moscow from London after the summer, I mumbled on quite a lot about the lack of access from where I live to supermarkets and food markets. There is a produkti on the very corner of my block, a shop which has inside a number of small counters, each run by different people and each selling relatively random combinations of foodstuffs and alcohol. Produkti are pretty common in Moscow and the experience is not unlike Soviet times - although with slightly more produce and without the need to get a ticket from the seller and pay a cashier first, before collecting the goods. In fact, some of the women who work in my local have come to treat me and my bizarre Russian accent with (I hope) affectionate resignation. Others, though, would still serve someone - anyone else - first; and like to be particularly sullen in handing over items and accepting money.

But - joy of joys - the supermarket that was in the nearby shopping mall basement and closed down has now been replaced by another one. And - weirdly, so that I keep feeling I am hallucinating it - my favorite (because very cheap) supermarket from where I lived before has now opened up another branch just opposite the selfsame shopping mall; looking for all purposes as if it has been there for years and I just failed to notice it in my increasingly obsessive food hunts.

So, finally, I am eating proper vegetables again.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

from walking to talking

I find another aspect of Russian everyday life much harder to fathom. In England, it feels as if most conversations between people are 'contractual', based on individual negotiation, exchange and the making of agreements. Everything is flexible and has the possibility of change, of future improvement (for one, the other, or both). We talk by making offers, suggestions and arguments, by competing and/or collaborating.

In England I don't really notice I am doing this. But in Moscow such an underlying conversational logic only infrequently gets off the ground. This may be because people are just being very polite. But it feels like talk itself is often structured differently. So, for example, if I ask a question it is often treated as an unclear instruction, rather than the beginning of a discussion. If I frame a sentence around 'maybe we could do this/maybe we could do that' type arguments, all I do is confuse.

So, on the one hand, people seem to expect very direct, and straightforward statements, and prefer  explicit structures and rules. But, on the other, being direct (well, as direct as I can, which is not very) offers the opportunity for the other participant(s) to ignore what I say, make a non-committal and/or sideways reply, or just go off and do something different. Having rules or being given instructions does not mean you need to obey them.

Of course, there is potentially a very obvious point here; about the difference between the political and cultural histories of democracy and consumer society, versus Soviet communism and Russian capitalism. I have met this thing about rules everywhere; lots of them but nobody really takes much notice unless they have to. So drivers don't have licences; banks want an address for your account but don't care if it is the real one; authorities want some kind of stamped form but are never quite sure which; lots of guards watch over metro stations, but don't bother much when people jump over barriers without paying, just blow their whistles absentmindedly.

I wish I could pin down these 'talking' differences better; not because I think the contractual mode of conversation is preferable, but only to understand a little more about what is going on.

Handy hints for travellers 18: walking the walk

The most common complaint about Moscow from my English and American visitors is that people here are incredibly rude in public, that they ignore you, and would walk into you if you didn't get out of the way. It's true that most people walk about fast and take no notice of others - they seem to set a direction and then just take it with no variation. This can include determined pushing in; particularly when crowds and queues are dense, for example, getting on the train or jostling to move onto an escalator.

I have been trying to make some sense of this - and its general juxtaposition in the tourist/travel literature with that 'other side' to the supposed enigma of the Russian soul; that indoors, in private, Russians are completely different, very nice people indeed, warm and welcoming (especially when they have got to know you).

Which leads me to suggest another way of looking at public walking, which might make English visitors feel a little less outraged. I am talking about body language - or more importantly - body space. It is without a doubt that most English-speaking people are much more friendly in public, taking notice, talking and generally acknowledging each other.  But, I suggest that these are the ways we are always subconsciously negotiating something else - a certain distance between each other. So, we move out of the way, or allow the other person to move. The truth is, we don't like too close to or touched, however accidently, by strangers.

My colleague L and I seemed to reach a similar conclusion about public behaviour here at about the same time, and for the same reason. I was walking with some Russian friends in the snow and someone I didn't know at all calmly took my arm in case I slipped. She was attempting to traverse an impossibly busy road and another man planning the same thing took her hand so they could cross together.  We were both shocked by being  touched by strangers, even though they were just helping. Yet such small gestures of public solidarity actually abound here. They just don't come with chat or acknowledgement. I have seen metro seats given up for older people on countless occasions - it is just that no one says anything or looks at each other during the process (which from an English point of view feels pretty weird).

Our conclusion then, was this. Moscow people are not being rude in public - certainly not consciously - they are just not policing the space around themselves with the same zeal we do. Both the need to maintain a protected personal body space seems less important, and the size of the zone itself definitely smaller. (My students tend to sit not just together but much closer, what to my eye seems like literally on top of each other). So they just walk a lot closer when they pass.

My handy hint for Moscow visitors is as follows. Attempt to feel less defensive about your own personal body space being invaded. And just set a direction and take a determined - unconcerned - walk with the rest of us.

Of course, I want to hear from any Russians who might well say the above just shows my complete misunderstanding of the unwritten Moscow rules of public behaviour .....

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

say it with flowers?

International Women's Day. A bit weird to witness it here, considering Russian history. After all, demonstrations marking International Women's Day were one of the key moments which led to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Alexandra Kollontai persuaded Lenin to continue it, and in the Soviet period the day used to honour women mainly as workers, joining together people across the Eastern and socialist bloc.

These days, though, March 8th is, to quote Irina Lovanova "associated with men's adoration of women's magnetic charm, tenderness, caring loyalty and blooming beauty. In Russia all living men (including foreigners) are duty bound to express their warm feelings to all living women, with no exceptions. Failure could result in a sudden reduction of life expectancy." Which means it is a day for giving flowers. The streets are full of men buying flowers and women receiving them; I saw mainly tulips, but also mimosa. And yes, it makes me a bit depressed.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

.... and more

This woman begging was on the same corner as me. The smart looking women beyond her are not in the photograph to signify the huge divide between rich and poor in post-Soviet Russia. Well, they might be, but mainly they are searching in their bags to find some change to give this woman; walking past her and then, when they have found their money, returning.

more faces

on observing

So, then I found myself out of the metro and in Red Square in the sun, just watching the people go by. And on the corner between GUM and St Basils I saw a steady flow of a particular type of man. Out they jumped one after another from their chauffeur-driven shiny black Audi or BMW or Mercedes - some watched over by a bodyguard - so as to take a brisk walk across the square and into the Kremlin. And rather like the English City gent, they were all dressed identically. Black-leather  flat caps, three-quarter length black leather jackets (with the fur on the inside and around the neck), suits of a shiny dark material. And black pointed shoes.

In fact, I don't know why I have never noticed the hordes of expensive black cars parked, waiting, on this corner. And it is not suspicious at all, just some guys going to work.

finding that metro feeling

Saturday, 5 March 2011

feeling foreign

Since coming back from London I have felt quite dislocated, like part of me is still in the UK. This is not homesickness  - although of course I miss my friends and family a lot - but more a kind of exhaustion. I am suddenly noticing again the difficulties of being a foreigner and no longer just enjoying its novelty. I don't even mean the problems of not being able to speak the language (which still embarrasses me). This is much more about always being aware of even the most ordinary everyday routines, of nothing ever being possible to take for granted because you never quite know exactly what is going on. And that is tiring.

I assume that some sociologist or anthropologist has studied the phenomenon of being a foreigner, there are probably stages just like growing up or bereavement, in which case I think I am currently moving to stage 2: 'Just wants an easy life'. Except, of course, I don't or I wouldn't be here. And it does mean I have started to take loads of photographs again; have got obsessed with trying to capture faces and interactions, both of individuals and in crowds, with all the added complications that brings of not being seen to obviously take pictures in the packed and jostling Moscow metro. 

flumping heck

A repeating concern of this blog has been the relationship between the brighter weather and the imminent danger of being hit by something. This is a photograph of the entrance to my block. That snow on the ground is not the kind that has absentmindedly been shoveled off the roof (which happens a lot) - that type of snow has a much softer, aerated texture. No, this is snow that fell off all at once because of the warmth drifting up the stairwell; it still echoes with the crump it must have made as it hit the tarmac.

Just glad I was not underneath it. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


The 1st of March is considered to mark the first day of Spring here, and everyone I talk to seems suddenly optimistic. A surprising amount of smiling going on. Might be also because we are again having beautiful weather, bright, clear, cold and very sunny. So what else to do but go and see that extraordinary, ridiculous building that is St. Basil's cathedral, glinting in the sunlight.

round to pancakes again

Pancake week (Maslenitska) has come around again, and yet again I have not joined in any celebrations (see this YouTube video for a quick tour of typical activities). But I have been eating pancakes with everything, in solidarity.

market time

Went to Cheap Sunday last weekend (which, confusingly, was on Saturday). Just like London, the many redundant factory buildings in Moscow are busy being converted into alternative arts venues and hosting miscellaneous 'pop-up' events - this one a fashion market. Cut-price designer labels, cheap mass-produced jeans and young designers making their own clothes and accessories mainly. I still can't get used to fashion here; too much of the very tight jeans (men and women), extreme high heels (women) and pointy-toed shoes (men), together with lots of fur, shiny fabrics and things that glitter.

I know I am being unfair - people are probably to close to a recent history of not having stuff to want to dress down in that insouciant way you see in many other European cities - but I just cannot get used to how starched, stiff and self-consciously posed most 'fashionable people' look.