The first scene opens to the backdrop of absolute chaos. I exited the arrivals gate of Moscow’s main airport Domodedovo into anarchy. All I had was an email with my school’s name on it, a girl’s number, a twenty kilo backpack and an acoustic guitar. It was always going to be Russia. I had more than one love affair with the nation whilst growing up. I passed through the sliding doors and just stopped. Thousands of people from the former soviet republics crowded into a room smaller than a bus terminal. I spoke no Russian at all. It didn’t matter though, at this point I couldn’t tell the difference between Armenian and Tajik. After my first week I wouldn’t even hear people speaking, it was just background noise. So I waited. I had no idea what to do. From this moment I was swept into a sea of oblivion. One I would eventually learn to ride and then command. But along the way I would drown in time and again.
I was never going to be inconspicuous for long, not with a huge head of brown curly hair. Whilst something that would draw attention from the norm in Russia would likely lead to trouble, the hair would in fact save me from danger on a few occasions. Soon out of the abyss came a wave and a friendly smile attached to a mullet haircut. This was Volodya, one of the very few people who I would meet who would be so constantly happy, even sober. He was the everyday man for the school I would work for as an English teacher. He walked up and immediately took off his gloves to shake my hand. Shaking hands in Russia is a serious tradition. It must never be done with the gloves on, never in a doorway and very rarely with a woman. The mullet well, that was a fashion statement from only recent times, since Dima Bilan sported one in his 2008 Eurovision victory. Volodya led me through the arrivals hall amidst screams of ‘Taxi Pazhalsta’ from all directions. The gypsy cab drivers are especially relentless at the airport. On any road in any part of Moscow if you stick your hand out then within a minute one of them will appear in a Lada. This is the classic Russian square box vehicle that looks like it was designed by an eight year old. Pushing through them now wouldn’t be the first maze I would need guidance through.
My first step into outside Russia was directly into the face of a blizzard. Obviously not a concern to Volodya or the pilots who landed my aircraft. But if you have spent your entire life growing up in a warm country then there is no preparing for the cold, physically and mentally. This is the only question asked by anyone who hasn’t visited Russia, is it cold? Yes it is cold. It’s freezing. The negative temperature is so dominate that it controls every aspect of your life. Even though it reaches freezing in Canada and Scandinavia the winters are vastly different in Russia. The environment has been specifically designed as a challenge to breed out the weak. Death awaits anyone who walks too far into a footpath due melting ice falling from a building’s eaves. Salt is very rarely used on the roads to melt snow, so falling on your face is a constant state of being, aided also by the constant consumption of alcohol. Fear not though, if a river of melting brown slush ice becomes too deep to walk through then an army of officials will place a wooden plank above it for safe passage. But what confused me the most about this was how everyone remained so clean. I was nearly always filthy from walking through ice. Cleanliness is so fundamental to Russians that someones worth is judged by the shine of their shoes. I began quite worthless.
As we left the airport Volodya drove me to my new home in Otradnoe, a suburb of Northern Moscow, the scenery repeated itself as if we were in a 1950s cartoon. A tangled forest of thirty-story concrete apartment buildings climbed into a bleak, grey sky. I had questions, but the language barrier prevented any answers, just a smile and a nod. After an hour we turned off an arterial road into my new street. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The building to my right was so epic that it met at a vanishing point into the distance. Sand coloured bricks piled on one another high enough to reach the clouds of winter and stretched on for well over a kilometre. It was nicknamed the Great Wall of Moscow To my left on the opposite side of the street was a power substation, just as large and just as post-apocalyptic. After seven hundred metres we turned into an opening and there I stood in front of bronze security door with a broken keypad. This was home.
My hand stuck to the icy handle as I stepped in. My palms were sweating. Maybe due to nerves but also definitely from exhaustion after the fifty-four hours it took to get there. There was no relief from the elements inside, the heating was barely noticeable in the foyer. We passed a small room where our Kazakh doorman, Hazim, lived and worked. Every section of an apartment building in Mosocw has their own Hazim standing guard at the door. I’m not really sure what he did, or even where he showered, but I’d always make sure to buy him a beer to say thank you. His salary kept him well below the poverty line, like the nearly twenty million others in Russia. But what he did he earn he sent back home to his family. I smiled vaguely, shook his hand appropriately and waited for Volodya to explain who I was and that I’d now be living under his protection. Towards the end of the hall was an elevator with the word ‘Fuck’ spray painted above it in neon yellow. It was aptly described as the roof had holes burnt into it from a cigarette lighter and the floor was covered in saliva. When the doors opened to my level on the tenth floor I was immediately hit in the face with the pungent odour of cat litter. There were jars of half smoked cigarettes on the floor and and the windowsills surrounding a dead attempt at an indoor garden. I was handed the keys to the the third apartment on the right, left to my own devices and opened the door for the first time.
In the beginning time seemed to to stretch and bend interspersed with fleeting moments of mayhem. I lost all concept of day and night due to seeing the sun for only few hours each day, if I was lucky. Two weeks after Volodya left me in Otradnoe I was on my way home from starring in a music video, random events such as this began to occur inexplicably. ‘This is pretty damn loud!’ I screamed into my flatmates ear. She replied with something entirely inaudible. The noise on the Metro line that I lived on, only known to me as the ‘Grey Line’ because I was never able to pronounce it’s name, prevented any conversation. In fact it was so loud that it’s decibel level was proven to be damaging to the human ear. However any Muscovite will tell you that the Metro is one of their pride and joys of the city. It’s ironic because the majority of the twelve million of them still drive every day creating a nightmare on the roads. But driving in Moscow is only for the brave, so I stuck to the Metro with the plebs and street dogs. It was never a pleasant ride when it’s minus twenty degrees packed in a carriage with a hundred fur coats. Neither was it at plus forty and stuck in the armpit of a large gentleman oozing garlic from his pours. There were never any smiles in any of the carriages, no one was happy. Between the coats and man bags arguments would begin randomly due to the inability of any Russian to stand in a line or exhibit any form of order. In fact, I was told a week before my arrival someone had been shot and killed on the Otradnoe platform.
The walk from the Metro station to the Great Wall was just as terrible because it was every day through the ghetto. Rats crawled within the garbage, car alarms were incessant and went off all through the night and every corner had it’s own group of alcoholics. The better days were the colder ones, even though my beard would grow icicles after five minutes. But this was when the ground was firmer I wouldn’t fall over as much. Sometimes the occasional shout of ‘Hey! Brad Pitt!’ would come from teenagers just looking for a place outside away from their parents to get drunk. I don’t look anything like Brad Pitt, I was just the only foreign guy in Otradnoe.
Like all things in Russia, there are no answers for why things happen, they just do. So every time I left the Metro it led to a random series of events. This very night after the video shoot we stepped off with a group of twenty year olds on their way to a rave. It was was past midnight. I’d made the error on my first weekend to presume that people go out at anything less that midnight. I only wanted to go home, I was drunk, exhausted and beginning to have zero control over an impending depression. But the thing with fatal attractions is you never know when they are going to occur. This was the first of many.
It’s not a cliché, Russian women are stunningly beautiful. It’s an entirely unexplainable phenomenon. James Bond knew this, but it’s not the 1950s and any channeling of Bond charm always seemed sarcastic but for some reason, entirely effective. And as if to provide equilibrium to the universe the majority of Russian men are somewhat ordinary. It makes for incredible people watching on the cobblestones of the Red Square. Every day a gorgeous women could be seen struggling in high heeled stilettos attached to the arms of a mullet in a bad leather jacket.
Amidst an array of 80s fashion that evening, I found myself face to face with one of the most gorgeous women I had ever seen. Six foot two, brunette, hazel eyes and without a single word of English. To her I am sure that I was simply a curiosity from the other side of the world. For me though, I was entirely infatuated. How could I not be? I would never have been given a second look by someone like this from where I grew up. I started to realise that I was someone different here. We went to the rave and spent the night together relying on my flatmate to translate. I still use the same ESL jokes to this day.
That evening turned into several dates. Indeed it took me several of them to realise that the Russian definition of punctuality wasn’t exactly to be ‘on time’. As we walked through the touristic Old Arbat Street we would use hand gestures to get our point across to each other. Soon we found it easier to talk online and use Google Translate to communicate. A week of this went by, it was incredibly superficial. A typical text message was entirely illegible. I’d have to wait until I got home or reached the school where I worked at to have one of my students read it to me. It took me a long time to realise that this ‘))))))’ is a Russian smiley. The more brackets the happier you are. It wasn’t long before the brackets were reduced to one, then none at all and then no word as she had undoubtedly moved onto the next fascination.
It wasn’t the first time I’d fall in winter. I started to become so emotionally involved in temporary relationships out of the need for something and someone to cling to. Day after day of this would repeat, magnified by the darkness and freezing cold temperatures , whilst adrift in a city bigger than my own country. Everything in Moscow is so familiarly foreign. Elsewhere in the world you know that you’re a foreigner. But in Moscow there is almost a purgatory where you become lost between what you know will happen and the unexpected. The faces are the same as yours and in the crowd you become a castaway. I became so wrapped up inside an internal world in which I’d constantly doubt myself and my intentions for landing in Russia in the first place. The language barrier grew so intense I lost all confidence and then simple refused to go outside. My only escape was the bottles of vodka worth one dollar each. Were they even real? I’m not sure, but for the time being they definitely worked to escape whatever reality this was.