Sunday, 29 January 2012

10-of-the-best: no.4 Gorky Park

Gorky Park is in a constant process of re-invention right now, which is partly about an (almost first) attempt to make Moscow a more liveable city and partly about some weird deals between the Kremlin, the mayor and an oligarch or two (so what is new?)

The initial stage, commissioned through the Strelka Institute (set up by oligarch Alexander Mamut), was to add in some new urban designish elements - benches, more up-market cafes, an outdoor cinema and a summer 'beach', whilst clearing the last of the mini Coney Island type fairground rides from the river frontage. Then this next stage, which is AMAZING! There is now the biggest and best skating area I have ever seen, a mixture of different rinks linked by ice ways, all framed by some quite neat wooden and colourful pavilions and bridges.*  I note that their website has a fab, that is to say quite hammy, animated CAD walkthrough (skatethrough?) crooned over by Louis Armstrong.

The stage to follow in the Spring is the shift of Garage from, well the garage (Melnikov-designed constructivist) it was in, to here. This is publicised as beginning with a pavilion by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, then a  temporary home designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) together with Olga Trevias/Form Bureau, which will convert the Park's concrete 1960s Vremena Goda (Four Seasons) restaurant, long abandoned. After that,  Garage will come to "occupy a nearby 8,500 square meter hexagonal pavilion. The historic 1920s pavilion of six sections with a courtyard (was) first constructed to house the first All-Union Agricultural Exhibition.."

So, of course, this leads to interesting questions. Well of course the usual one as to whether it will happen. And then there is the cash.  It was already known that Roman Abramovich has had a hand (and money) in the re-development of Gorky Park and now his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova, the owner of Garage, is moving in there too. As Andrew Osbourn put it in the Telegraph earlier this year: "using part of his estimated £8.4 billion fortune to turn (Gorky Park) into a showcase for the Russian capital is an undertaking likely to further endear Mr Abramovich to the Kremlin which regularly urges oligarchs to plough some of their fabulous wealth back into society". But then - maybe - they are also getting some real estate in return.

* I took the photo just after the ice had been cleaned, hence the emptiness. In fact, each winter since Soviet times, the paths of Gorky Park have been watered and left to ice all winter. I have only not skated there in the last couple of years because it always seemed as full as rush-hour in the Metro. Having a refrigerated bed has meant that this mild winter has not caused a problem; and the rink is just as full as it was in past times. 

Go here for more about the Gorky Park facilities and a list of the best other ice rinks in Moscow. 

10-of-the-best: no.3 Solyanka

Dragged V to Solyanka (the restaurant, not the road or club) for Sunday lunch today, which in fact is much too uber-trendy for his liking. But I have to have it on my list of best non-mainstream-tourist places to hang out, just because it shows that Muscovites* also have cool, contemporary cafes where you can sit all day with your chums, the newspapers and/or your iPad - and with your kids if you have them; that is, that there is life beyond the superficiality of most tourist-class restaurant bling and chintz.

And if you prefer something more cozy and even less showy, then there is always People Like People/Lyudi Kak Lyudi/люди как люди, just around the corner.

*Actually some Muscovites don't like it, because the original started out in St. Petersburg.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

I hate auchan (but it is very cheap)

And then what did I do but end up - for the first time in Moscow - in an enormous, packed Auchan/ашан supermarket where I found myself buying (much cheaper) valenki anyway...

getting the boot(s)

As the Moscow News guide said, there is a street market alongside Donskaya Ulitsa, selling mainly food but also these valenki - traditional felt boots. Sorely tempted even though my luggage is already stuffed full. And what can I do with valenki in Islington, north London?

sad but true

Went to visit the Shukhov Radio Tower today, which was top of my list of things to do. Why you may ask? Because it was the most amazing bit of 1920s engineering, a lightweight steel lattice grid, completely radical at the time: and because Alexander Rodchenko took some fab photos of it.  It is also under threat of demolition and I am an architectural junkie. I took a walk, based on this one from the Moscow News, although in reverse, that is, coming out of Shabolovskaya metro station first (the tower is directly opposite) and then going to Leninsky Prospect - not the prettiest bit of town, but quite representative. 

Also made me realise that I may be in Moscow, but I am a typical Londoner - I have my patch and don't go much beyond it. So in two and half years here have only infrequently been south of the river or over to the Arbat and the west-side. OMG, so much still to see.

the summing up begins

Of course the trouble with leaving anywhere is the urgent need to sum up experiences, to finish all things still undone, and to run around attempting to see many places as yet unvisited. This is going to have (a not necessarily wonderful) impact on the remaining pages of this blog.*

Throughout my stay, I have been refusing the lazy stereotypes of Russians in general and Muscovites in particular - that is, that they are gloomy, beaten down by a history of Suffering and yet also an Enigma ('a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a ... etc., etc'): and that, given time, underneath they are completely wonderful ('when you get to know them'). Russians themselves, of course, also partake in these bland definitions of national identity, both seriously and with a considerable amount of rich, melancholic humour: just as the English resort to images of polite eccentricity, and the French to superiority and chicness.

But, because of recent history, people from outside this country seem to persist in caricaturing Russians, blurring the normal diversity of most ordinary people with either their government or with only tiny sub-cultures - the oligarchs, siloviki ('heavies') and mafia. Meanwhile, plenty of other sub-cultures, like the hipsters or gopniki, don't even get noticed elsewhere.

That doesn't mean there aren't real differences, but these, to me, are most interesting in how they play out in the everyday - in our various body languages and habits, and in attitudes and assumptions about how to survive and make sense of the world(s) we live in. That is what I have been trying - and failing - to unravel.

 But if I had to make one lazy stereotype about Russians, it would not be about glumness or stoicness, but rather what I can only call a kind of unconstrained mischievousness... encompassing melodramatic yet self-deprecating humour,  story-telling, unselfconscious silliness and  a certain contrariousness.** Unlike the rest of western Europe and America, though, which does not differentiate between public and private identities, this is mainly kept for family and friends (except perhaps by contemporary artists). Think Norwegian or Icelander, mixed with some Irish. Or am I talking nonsense?***

* I am also aiming to add more to as many of my 'mini-series' as possible, including 10-of-the-best, the art of parking and city bingo.  So, busy busy busy....
** There is also something mischievous embedded deep into politics, which there becomes both surreal and manipulative. See 'Putin Pranking himself'
*** Although the blog Mission to Moscow no longer functions, atethepaint's 50 facts about Russians is still there (as are the many comments). One 'fact' is about the Russian proverb Наглость - второе счастье; one translation is 'impudence - the second happiness' - which is something like what I am suggesting.  There is also a fab YouTube video from the We love Russia series, - you can see the complete set here  - for  some great brilliant, hilarious examples of exactly this crazy mischievousness. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

time to go...

Spent some time idly watching this woman attempting - with much difficulty - to climb the steep embankment of the railway, on her way across the tracks. This is a common shortcut, which can even get quite crowded, and a regular 'desire line' forms. However on this day the usual path had been momentarily obliterated by a light snow fall and this woman cast of sideways, getting stuck in an awkward patch and continually losing her foothold. After several minutes she took off her gloves in an attempt to use her hands, and some time after that she made the sign of the cross. And then, finally, she got to the top.

I don't understand quite why people take this route; it is not near a train station, so I don't think it is about avoiding fares. So where are they going? Can someone tell me? Meantime, it seems quintessentially Russian - to deliberately take another even more difficult path rather than just follow the proscribed, err, legal one (that is, under the railway bridge and along the road).

And - somehow - it sums up many things about being here, now that I am about to leave. New job starting in London in three weeks time. So, sad to go and so happy to be going home. 

more snow cleaning operations (but hardly any snow)

Despite unexpectedly minor snowfall this winter (although glad to say we are at last having those incredible pale blue icily clear skies, with eye-watering-frozen-nostril-hair temperatures of minus 15) the snow cleaners are still out in force. Have stopped myself showing you yet another picture of road snow-gobbling machines, but here are some humans whose job it is to repeatedly jump out of a van and sweep snow off the top of tram-stop shelters.

And even this is just a substitute for what I really wanted to show you, but didn't have a camera at the time. For there is the fab snow-clearing train, a proper-sized train but which is a symphony of snow-gobbling front end, together with a conveyor belt carriage, followed by a long sequence of carriage-shaped but roofless snow containers. All, of course, mainly empty of snow since there isn't much.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

On the way back had a one night stopover in Beijing. Definitely where the next Masters of the Universe live. An extraordinary combination of, on the one hand, chaotic, endlessly entrepreneurial everyday life (selling everything* and operating at every level from people riding sellotaped mopeds to owners of shiny polished black Mercs); and on the other, totally organised mega-scaled infrastructure development - not pretty, always overlarge, but well-built and smartly finished - and new buildings going up everywhere. Makes Moscow feel quite normal.

*As evidenced by the fact I got caught a mere three minutes from my hotel by the Beijing art student scam, an activity ubiquitous and famous enough to have its own entry on Wikipedia.

happy new year (and happy 'old' new year of course)

Amazing time with my daughter in Sydney, including an island picnic watching the New Year fireworks. Lovely. I can't help wishing that you could bottle whatever it is that makes for laid back, sunny-mannered, easy going Australian life - as a present for Muscovites to inhale from periodically. Not all the time of course,  just now and then.