On Arriving

I’ve been two months now, living in Moscow. And, I’m finally settled, and comfortable enough – in a manic routine (thanks IH) – to spend some time doing the things I love.

Time to blow the dust from my keyboard and bash out some writing.

Getting back to it, my writing’s not flowing with ease. I’m rusty. The last thing I recorded were some reflections on landing. Reading back over it I’m amazed by the contrast:

Step in from street. Heat blankets me in an unwelcome embrace, drunk and clingy. Maybe on the way to the supermarket I was hit by a skidding car, only to be reborn in one of hell’s seven circles? Wishful thinking – I remain in Moscow.

I understand now why Russians drink so much. Here, the insides of buildings are as hot as the wind is gnawing cold out. Frost to thaw; liquid to ice; sweat glands prickle, weep and dry, crystallise then dilate again only for the cycle to repeat. The regular heat change is the recipe for a headache. A flu-like nausea grips me. In this state – not unlike the worst hangover – getting merry seems less a bad idea than good common sense. Where’s the vodka aisle?

Pocket buzzes.

Tinder Vicky punctuates my melancholy musings: ‘So, why Russia?’ Good question, was just that moment asking the same of myself. Was it the sense of adventure? It’s hardly a health farm here. Blood-sugar low is becoming intolerable. Stop thinking. Snatch up baklava and honey for the healing. Forget listed essentials in my eagerness to get home. Home? Is that what we call this block where I subsist?

Laboured walk. Everything is slower in the cold. Entropy governs. Spring thaw seems distant.

At the flat now. Trap clawing wind behind the door, squeezed shut. Trudge up ten flights, stamping snow from my boots as I climb. A man waits at the top of the stairs. Dour look. Inscrutable. Local I presume?
‘Here for the internet?’
‘Da! Internet.’ Is all he says, stressing the second syllable and rolling the ‘r’. Must learn Russian – it would make things easier.
Unlock the door, and the heat hits again. I let us in.

Ah, home at last. Wooden floors and broken appliances. 70s decor. Like stepping into a Notes from a Small Island, only the scene lacks the charm of Bryson’s wit.

What’s App message from Barcelona. Spring lies there, I think, with my heart. To up and leave? Call this a bad job and head back to Europe, and love. Business might be easier to manage from there anyway. The considerations of a nomad’s mind.

Thankfully, now I don’t feel like this.

I’m still in Moscow. More than that, I love it here. Quite a turnaround in a short space of time!
Ok, spring has arrived and shop missions aren’t the soggy-frozen-foot-harrowing escapades they once were, but other elements contribute to my new frame too.

Relating it to one’s first encounter with War and Peace, in Le Roman Russe, de Vogüé describes the experience of a traveller arriving in a new culture. (And referring to it here seems appropriate, considering my current location). For him, the wanderer feels ‘constraint and boredom at first, then curiosity and at last a firm attachment.’ I don’t know about boredom, but on the whole I agree with this assessment.

For me, a couple of things stand out as important steps in forging de Vogüé’s ‘firm attachment’.

First off, travelling makes you feel like a child again. A high-functioning child, but a child no less. You can’t express your thoughts with the clarity you take for granted in your mother tongue. And that’s putting it lightly. You can’t even buy groceries without hassle… and gesticulations.

At first, the lack of connection with wider society can leave you feeling a tad dejected: when you fail to respond to the most prosaic of questions till workers openly pity you, and old men walk away shaking their heads when you meet their earnest attempts to start a conversation with uncomprehending eyes and unintelligible Russian.

But ultimately this rejections turns to frustration and acts as the stick to start learning niceties (or, in extreme cases, the drive to master a new language.) I’m not at the stage where I’m expressing myself adequately. Far from it. Hanging out mainly with English teachers kinda removes the impetus. Yet, even without applying myself wholeheartedly to learning, I am starting to understand more of what’s going on around me. And understanding – even if it’s only partial – leads to, sooner or later, comfort in a place. You at home in your surroundings, however similar or different they may be to home.

Another factor determining your settledness is social.

One of my goals for this year was to feel centred and grounded in myself, irrespective of material surroundings. When I set that aim, I thought that tai chi and meditation would be key, but I would never have stabilised so quickly if I hadn’t met welcoming people; if a support network hadn’t grown up around me.

Paraphrasing Piere Bordieu: individuals do not exist in a vacuum, we are held in place by, and determine our identities through, a web of interpersonal connections. We are little out of relationship with the rest of society.

I’m not naturally an extrovert, but nothing can make up for the belongingness you feel by connecting with people. Martial arts have softened my landing here, no doubt and daily practise has kept me energised and happy during a busy couple of months. But even in this, going jiu jitsu classes attends to social needs as much as physical.

I’m not sure how long I’ll be in Moscow. With the financial situation I can’t see myself staying past the end of my contract in July. (The distance from the sea is also an issue. It’s just under 1000 km to the nearest ocean – I’ve never lived this far inland before.) Nevertheless, I will miss the city when I move away: I’ll miss babushkas’ sense of entitlement on the metro, I’ll miss the unexpected taste of dill, and I’ll miss skating with friends. As spring progresses, I’m sure a thousand more things to miss will occur.

New beginnings are always hard. They can sometimes be as challenging as endings. But as long as you persevere in understanding and build the right support network around you. You quickly find your feet.

Wherever you are in the world routine becomes rut all too easily. You get used to a place and you develop patterns. But every now and then I wake up to the present and think, fuck yeah, I’m in MOSCOW!