by Liath Gleeson
From September 2012 to August 2013, I was in a complicated relationship with the city of Moscow. Initially connected by a common language, I had gone to spend a year with her, hoping to come back fluent, and thinking no further than subject, object, case, clause and tense. My image of the sprawling siren herself, when I bothered of think of it, shuffled limply and left the room after a handful of words: snow, cold, big, bold and then a fade-out into grey. At the beginning of our relationship I was the heroine of the story and she was the trusty sidekick, waiting to make me look good, throwing up a glitter of sunlit snow to highlight my chiselled cheekbones as I bent the evil Cyrillic alphabet into submission around my razor-sharp English-speaking mind. It turned out that wasn’t the plan. While the two of us experienced plenty of snow, a fair amount of sunlight and the odd chiselled cheekbone here and there, our relationship was never one of hero and helper. It went deeper than that, as all worthwhile exchanges do, blossoming into multiple layers of meaning between teacher and student, local and stranger, a pseudo-Stockholm scenario in which I was the captive but never the victim.
What she taught me I remember in a series of scenes. Each one has an image, sound and particular smell, sometimes kalaidescoping into a dizzying round of colourful chaos, sometimes as clear and sharp as a mid-October frost. On our first night together I drove from the airport, watching the smoke-stacks go by, go by, go by, go by, and listening to the shrill warning noise the car made at my chaperone, who refused to wear his seatbelt on some sort of fatalistic principle. Our first home, a squat Soviet obshezhitie where I breathed in the comforting must of the lodgers before me and the family upstairs sometimes played gypsy music on the accordion in the afternoon and I once kept my door locked for an entire weekend. My college, where the true meaning of the word isolation welled up around me in a wave wherever I went, parting the sea of young Russians up from the country, so alien to me in their dress and speech and social codes that I would have floundered like a fish even if my tongue hadn’t tripped me up in every conversation. My first joyful trip to ASHAN to reacquaint myself with the language of food (which is spoken the world over), and my subsequent adventures in keeping body and soul together: the sharp, fetid punch of kefir, the delicate flake of salted fish, value-brand novelty packets of caviar, ruby-jewel pomegranates that burst like a broken heart, tiny sour apples from the trees in spring, and pilmeni, dumplings, always dumplings dumplings dumplings.
As we settled in together I showed her my sense of adventure, venturing further and further from the cosy depression of my krushovka paradise. She offered me the Kremlin, which asked me if I knew who it was as it pouted like a gold-leafed diva behind impenetrable brick walls. Then Arbat, a neon knock-off Hollywood strip that showered me with flashing lights and failed ambition as I devoured a sickly box of Dunkin’ Donuts (where the waitress actually smiled) and imagined myself on the set of a socialist-realist Bladerunner. I journeyed out to Moscow State, bowed my head at the Church of Christ the Saviour, and found myself standing in small-eyed awe at the feet of Yuri Gagarin, blasting brazenly into Soviet space with his comic-book go-faster stripes attached. When she felt we knew each other well enough she decided to dress up and take me out on the town. Decked in an immaculate gown of deep, fresh snow she led me, swaddled in my thick winter coat, to a place where my senses had never been. Each morning began with a deep thrust of ice down my throat and a burst from my lungs of the warm air it replaced, dissipating out the opening window in the wake of sleep. My fingers thrummed, then stung, then burned as I walked to school, abandoning gloves to let my hands understand the cold. In the evenings I took advantage of the dark to crack the glassy crust on the heavy snowdrifts by the side of the road, sticking my waterproof boots in to see how far down my footprint would go, something that Muscovites know only a crazy girl would do.
As the spring came, my desire for a warmer intimacy grew. I met five South Africans, themselves as foreign as wildebeest to me despite their familiar accent, who were looking for a flatmate, and so we set up house. On the fourteenth floor of a honey-comb tower block in the Western suburbs I shared my bed with a tall Capetonian, and I began to shut out my other partner, filling my head with everyday English where my growing Cyrillic had been. But she didn’t forget about me, and the snow stayed. Standing on our balcony with a view towards the city I could count three of Stalin’s seven sisters, dark grey points against a lighter grey of falling flurries and a silent down of whiteness covering everything from them to the welcome mat of our front door. And the closer I nestled into my safety bubble of cultural familiarity, the more I realised that I had not left our relationship at all. As the only Russian-speaker in the house, I became official ambassador to the Outside World, and I found myself making excuses for my surrogate family, apologising to the air, they’re trying their best, they don’t understand you like I do.
When the snow melted I had found my feet, and both of us had changed. I knew my way around the city with enough confidence to stride, and the daily metro commute of Molodozhnaya, Imeni Lenina, Tverskaya, Tverskaya, Imeni Lenina, Molodozhnaya was completed on satisfying autopilot. I worked my way as a teacher into the city’s wealthiest houses, watching the twin daughters of oligarchs squeal with delight as the gardener pulled a catfish, still wriggling, out of the private lake, the whole scene overseen by a twice-lifesize professional photograph of their mother dressed up like a cabaret singer. Moscow, for her part, brought the storms: huge, thunderous squalls that rammed into our house like a wall, breaking the stifling afternoon heat in two and turning the sky a milky green. Once I stood on the balcony in only a vest and gym shorts, the youngest flatmate, an evolutionary biologist from Stellenbosch, smoking behind me, and felt the perspiration condense on my collarbone as we watched the drops of water drive into the pavement beneath us.