Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Unexpectedly head over heels.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Moscow.  In fact, I didn’t know that I had, until I traveled to St. Petersburg this past weekend.  For the past eight weeks I have trudged through snow, slush, cold, wet, and sludge to get to class, grocery store, and private language tutor.  Each morning is a slow procession 100 steps down from my room to the closest shower and oft-broken washers servicing all 6 floors of students and staff. Post shower is the all out “full contact sport”- to quote one of my floormates- of the Moscow Metro system, shoving and pushing and crowding my way into the wagon and pressing myself against the assembled hoards of humanity all trying to get to our respective destinations without making eye contact or linguistic exchanges with one another. 

But…under the frantic humming that structures the daily routines of life in Moscow beats a deeper rhythm, one that I didn’t notice until after it had become ingrained in the pace of my steps up and down the stairs, to and from the metro, back and forth from class and the local grocery shop.  Moscow has a determination to it, a gritty tenacity that commands respect at the same time that it demands compliance.  You will push through the Metro doors, even if you are carrying 45 lbs. of groceries, even when the person ahead of you (always) fails to hold the (unreasonably heavy) door behind him/her.  You will push through because the people ahead of you have done so successfully, and the people coming behind you are counting on you to keep moving forward no matter the burden you are carrying.  If you slip on the icy sidewalk from the grocery store to the Metro- which you well might if you wear crappy fake Uggs from Costco like yours truly did her first weeks here- you can count that people will not slow their breakneck pace to wherever they are headed, but you can also count that while they rush on they will stoop down to scoop you up and set you on your feet so that you can continue to rush on as well.   They stoop to help because they are generous just as much as they stoop to help because the sidewalk is faster for everyone when no one is sprawled across it, fake Uggs akimbo, preventing others from proceeding on their way. 

These examples, I have come to think, are emblematic of the mindset, the ‘national consciousness’, as one of my friends has been calling it, of the people living in Moscow.  Everyone is pushing through, trying their best to manage in a city that is immense, at a pace that is exhausting.  The collective burden of everyday life is not lessened by the fact that those all around you are experiencing the same thing, but the cumulative energy sparked by witnessing others pressing on in the face of cold and slush and bureaucracy and broken appliances pushes me forward. 

The speed of life here is a paradox: the days fly by, hours consumed by what would take only minutes in the US; at the same time, I feel that my movement is so slow, weighed down by layers of fluff insulating my body and a carpet of snow slowing my steps.  My weekly trip to the grocery store- at max a thirty minute adventure at home- is a two hour excursion, encumbered by the need to apply three layers of clothing, descend 100 steps, walk five minutes to the Metro, travel two stations, walk ten minutes, and then repeat going back with groceries in hand; my twenty minute commute to campus at home is at minimum at one hour trek with two metro changes and a 15 minute walk to whichever faculty (department) building at which my class is being held that day.   Doing laundry at home is, at its worst, an annoying chore that involves one half flight of stairs and the occasional waiting for one of the other twelve building resident’s socks to finishing swirling in the suds.  Laundry here is nothing short of exhausting- at its best, there are a total of eight functional washers (of fourteen total) to share among six floors of 30 rooms with two or three people in each.  Do the math.  Add to this shortage the fact that I have a six flight walk each way to check if there is an available washer, and the process becomes a total timesuck (but great for my glutes!).  Once you actually wrangle a free washer and get your clothes to successfully complete the cycle (50/50 shot that the washer will continue working while you are using it), you then have to hang all of the clean wet clothes up, as Russia has not yet become acquainted with dryers (Kenmore and GE, you might want to jump on this…just saying, it’s, like, the largest country in the world and all).

After two months of acclimating to the daily contradictions that make up Moscow- sullen looking fellow sidewalk trudgers that wordlessly lend a hand with the suitcase you are lugging solo while completely avoiding eye contact, the helpful stranger who insists on walking you directly to the classroom you simply cannot find in the convoluted faculty building that seems designed specifically to seem unwelcoming- I find that, while I certainly don’t understand Moscow, I have developed a deep admiration for the city and its inhabitants.  I find myself inspired by their resigned tenacity to thrive despite the very real hardships of everyday life- not just the logistical challenges of navigating a subarctic megacity home to 30 million other people, but also the echoes of Soviet administration that remain, hindering any minor administrative mission, and the complicated systems of ‘informal payments’ that structure all financial and governmental transactions. 

Moscow, and those who dwell within her limits, refuses to make life easy: she does not cater to the whims of travelers and or the needs of those bold enough to attempt ex-pat life for the purposes of professional or personal obligations.  My initial feelings of overwhelm stemming from the lack of English signs, lack of welcoming shop keepers, and lack of amenities (see: dryer; elevator) has given way to a fierce admiration for the city’s frank honesty in portraying itself to be only that what it is, rather than make attempts to gloss over the rough contours of everyday life in the face of a globalizing population and calls for increased tourism.  You have to really want to get to know Moscow in order to do so.

I traveled to St. Petersburg two weekends ago to enjoy the “Venice of Russia” and enjoy a little break from the breakneck pace of Moscow.  Tumbling out of the St. Petersburg station Friday morning after being rocked to sleep on the night train, I was immediately greeted by signs in English and hopeful shopkeepers offering/shoving sale fliers in my hands, beckoning me to come in and buy random tourist crap from their respective stores.  Each picturesque street gave way to one even more charming, and boulevard after boulevard was marked with inspiring vistas of awe inspiring architecture.  The more I meandered, however, the more I missed Moscow.  Each sign in English, when read between the lines, declared “WE WANT YOUR BUSINESS”, and left me with the sense that, perhaps, St. Petersburg was also trying to say “WE WANT YOUR APPROVAL”.  The city itself had been built under the direction of Peter the Great as an attempt to herald Russia into a new era of improved relations with Europe, and walking through each charming side street I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps the city was still striving to garner favor with outsiders.

The sharp contrast between the ‘y’all come back now!’ zeitgeist of St. Petersburg and the more elusive- and more honest- feel of Moscow sparked an unexpected realization: I have fallen in love with Moscow.  Each and every second I have bitched about cat shit in our laundry room, slipped on ice while carrying a million tons of groceries back from Fili mall, slumped down the 100 stairs only to find that our dorm’s water was shut off for ever continuing repairs has yielded a deep respect for the people that navigate Moscow each day, and, bafflingly, has garnered an appreciation for the honesty of the city itself.  "Hell yes", says Moscow, "we have crippling administrative procedures, lack of politically correct infrastructure (good luck if you have a physical disability), and a total disregard for Western standards of customer service.  Rub you the wrong way? Though shit."

While the general vibe of Moscow did, indeed, rub me the wrong way for the first month I was here, leaving the city and being confronted by the silver platter service and friendly veneer of St. Petersburg made me realize how much I appreciate Moscow’s honesty.  I have come to love that I know just where I stand with my friends here, that I don’t have to think about if someone really likes me or just tolerates me to be polite.  I love that the shops haven’t made it easy for me; I was either going to learn Russian, or go hungry at McDonalds, damnit.

I love that I was forced to sink or swim. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have chosen to just float along had that been an option.  

Moscow reminds me of a quote from Aaron Sorkin's The American President, when Michael Douglas’s president character says “America is advanced citizenship.  You’ve got to earn it.”  Moscow is advanced ex-pat city living: No one is going to bend over backwards to welcome you, but once you realize that the people pushing all around you are actually pushing you forward, towards destinations and goals previously unimagined, you begin to appreciate the challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Beth, that is some awesome insight. And it makes me want to stop whining about traffic and customer service crap in Rockville.