When my mother came to visit me in Russia for the second time exactly a year ago, I had already been living there for five months, and as she emerged through arrivals at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, I greeted her decisively, but affectionately, with “Welcome to the mad-house.” It just so happened that the British Airways flight from London had landed at the same time as a series of flights from former-Soviet republics in Central Asia, and it seemed that the entire population of those countries had gathered in the airport to greet their long-lost relatives. The arrivals hall was rammed with Moscow’s gold-toothed taxi drivers, snow clearers, rubbish collectors and otherwise unemployed, the part of society that was invisible, yet integral to the workings of modern-day Russia. I pushed my way that afternoon through the crowds of burly men, some of them smoking, most of them drinking, to rescue my mother from the hoardes of old women pushing trolleys laden to the sky with plastic-wrapped flowery suitcases and polythene bags that had made the trip from the part of the world that the rest of us had forgotten, and took her to the relative safety of the ‘Aeroexpress’ train to Moscow. The other startled British passengers, their bellies still nursing their sloppy BA full-Englishes while trying to distinguish the roubles from the pounds in their wallets, did not have such a fortunate fate. Someone had brought their dog to greet their distant Central Asian relative, which at that very moment defecated on the floor.
Russia is one of those places were “culture shock” doesn’t quite cover it. “Culture denial” I think is more appropriate. And this was the state that I existed in for my first three months there last year. I returned to England for the Christmas holidays, and in all honesty it was this thought that had got me through the first part of my time there. In exile, I had idealised England, bought into the propaganda and stereotypes surrounding Russia, and sometimes tried to sleep for as long as possible to make the days go by more quickly. I couldn’t speak the language, it took me two months to be able to order a bottle of water from a kiosk, and while the Russians I spoke to seemed to sympathise partly with my feelings of nostalgia and displacement, my complaints were all things that they were very aware of and had grown accustomed to at a very young age. Their response every time was the same: “Ну вот и как мы живём” – Well this is how we live.
They were right though. When I returned to England at Christmas, I found not a country with gold-paved streets and happiness exuding from every corner, but one that was also dark, grey, far more damp and rainy than Russia, and with biting winds that pushed you off the streets and back into your house, that is if you could afford the extortionate bus fare home. Apart from anything it was boring, which for all its faults Russia never was. Once I was back where I’d started, it dawned on me that my life wasn’t there right then, that I was a tourist visiting the country, and that my bed and home were waiting for me back in a far-flung corner of provincial Russia. As I returned back to Domodedovo in January to be greeted by the rows of salted fish in plastic bags hanging in a shop display on the other side of arrivals, I couldn’t have been happier. Even the five-hour bus journey through the forests of snow and ice in pitch darkness along the infamous M-8 road seemed to be full of promise.
The second part of my time in Yaroslavl took a different turn – it was wonderful. The temperatures dropped to around -35, and the hideous coat lined with some poor arctic fox’s fur (my translation teacher assured me it was probably his pubic hair) that my landlady had insisted I buy from the Azerbaijani market in the centre of town finally came into use, as I comfortably battled my way through the coldest winter of my life. Coming back meant I was over the culture denial that I’d been in before Christmas: I slipped into a routine, found cafés that I liked to frequent, and in a way became a local. I got so comfortable in this simple life, that as the snows melted and the beautiful, scorching hot Russian spring finally arrived and began to turn into summer, I couldn’t believe that the date marked for my visa’s expiration was approaching as well. I still couldn’t believe it as I bid my landlady and friends a very emotional and tearful farewell and set off for the airport, even as the man at check-in on seeing me with four suitcases and wearing my arctic-fox coat despite the 25 degree heat reminded me: “Вы знаете, что ваша виза завтра заканчивается?” You realise that your visa is expiring tomorrow? But I realised only the next day, when I woke up back home in England, where nothing had changed, except for a few people that had put out some more British flags and were murmuring something about a jubilee and upcoming sporting event.
Since that moment I’ve been in mourning for my time in Russia. They really were the best days of my entire life, and it’s been difficult to come to terms with the fact that they are gone. I’d always thought that having lived there I’d be able to go back, but then the reality struck me that while I could live comfortably in Russia on little money, being a tourist there would incur incredible costs for hotels, eating in restaurants, flights and, not to mention, the outrageous cost and hassle of obtaining a tourist visa. It seemed like Russia would have to live on in my memory, and exist in my dreams where I’d ride the trolleybus to the terminus at the tyre factory, wait five minutes, then ride it back to my stop on the Square of Hard Manual Labour.
But something has changed. That something is easyJet, which at the end of next month is starting flights from Gatwick and Manchester airports to Moscow, for under £100 return. I jumped at the chance, called my old landlady who told me Yaroslavl was just as when I’d left it, except that there was a new ice-rink on the Square of Hard Manual Labour and that the snow piles on the streets were higher than your head, and she begged me to go back and visit her. So I’m going! I’ve got a seat on one of the first easyJet flights to ever fly there, and I’m heading down to the embassy on Friday to surrender my torturous visa application form and battered passport, and in March I will have ten days re-living and reconciling my time there. Much more about all of this to follow…