Memories of Moscow

elizabeth-malloyWhen I try to think of a few memories of my times in Moscow, it is hard to come up with just a few, and ones which can be summarised on paper – these memories can be intensely specific and therefore eligible for succinct description, but evade capture as they float through my mind, wrapping themselves around historical events, and, more often representing, through one experience, a vast insight into (sorry to say it!) the Russian soul. It does not help that I lived in Russia twice – first before the end of the Soviet Union (1990-93) and later from 2003-2007. The question is: How to find the best morsels and not sound boastful (I was told I was the first American woman in Nizhnevartovsk in 1990, but I digress!)? The expat crowd was small and I spent most of my time in Tyumen during my first spell in Russia. The second time round, being a foreigner had lost its shine, and the advent of the Business Lunch, coffee shops and rising wages meant I could easily share meals and experiences with my Russian friends (in the early 90s there were only a handful of restaurants, which were cheap with US dollars but prohibitive to average Russians). I was an expat but did not identify myself as being one and certainly did not have an expat salary package!

Every year since living in Moscow, in the autumn, as soon as the days get shorter and light becomes scarce, I start thinking about Russia and how deeply dark it was. I remember my friends at the US Embassy who were issued light boxes to defeat seasonal light disorder. The funny thing is that from childhood I had issues with mid-autumn, when the clocks changed and suddenly 4pm felt like bedtime and the mixture of rustly leaves, dark, and cold left me feeling incredibly lonely. But in Russia, my experience with the changes in light were surprisingly positive. By November, when the darkness really set in, there would already be white snow all over town, covering the dirt, and making the light hours even brighter. But the lights – the extreme New Years decorations, blinking tree ornaments the size of buildings on the New Arbat, otherwise hideous concrete towers festooned with lights and the usual jumbotrons flashing casino ads (so bright my friends who lived blocks away from one of them had to buy blackout blinds)… those lights going on and on from mid-October until late January really perked me up. One might think that eventually, my dried up serotonin and vitamin D reserves would get the better of my duped brain and that eventually I’d succumb to the inevitable depression but by then it was almost Christmas and we were all having holiday parties and leaving for those wonderful looonnnggg christmas holidays, usually starting around 21st December and going through at least a week after New Year. Returning to Moscow, the lights were still blazing, there were more celebrations, thanks to the revival of the Russian Church and the Russian orthodox calendar’s duplicating of old and new New Year.

And then came February. I remember those days so well: deep snow and mid-afternoon sun, glancing briefly over the buildings, to the south. My friend Olga would beam as she stood in that sunlight, take a deep breath and say “ah I can smell spring!” and I’d remind myself about what Russians consider “spring” or “autumn” was what I’d always considered “winter”. Olga’s annual proclamation would always fill me with hope. And then came the Pussy Willow which I’d see when I skied in Izmailovsky Park, poking through the snow, glistening with little ice crystals like some cheesy postcard. Sprigs of Pussy Willows clutched in bunches by old women at the Metro stops and, even as I always wondered if these old ladies selling the signs of spring were part of some organized krisha, I allowed my cynicism to lift and let the fluffy little signs of spring tide me over until May holidays.