Old John Mellor, (look it up) had a point, happy people don't really create much. That is, they're not quite as motivated, nor is it as easy for us to quite grasp the point of it. Look, I'll give you a for instance: pain, addiction and mental illness gave us Crime and Punishment. Happiness and a contended life gets us The Adventures of Peter Rabbit.
I think a man on a Big Wheel in Vienna once said something similar, and said it better.
The point is that I’ve been late setting anything down because I am, quite simply, quite happy. Maybe it's a bit shameful that we rush to spread our misery, then go ahead and horde our happiness. Then again, maybe that’s just me. But, there you go and here we are.
In some ways, I'm back where I started, sat around in an old cricket jersey and shorts and looking out of the window. However, this time it’s a radically different landscape, one whose peak temperature today is predicted to be a giddy – 19, and that's going to be about it 'till well into next year.
I'm in a flat to the south of central Moscow, about forty minutes ride on the Metro to the centre. It's in one of the typical Soviet era tower blocks that are pretty much the standard here and that, to Western eyes, will always be viewed through the jaded prism of the Council estate. In truth, it's a perfectly decent way of living. I think, in the West, it was the bungled attempts at social engineering that accompanied their construction which marred the project. Then again, maybe not. It's not really my field.
I'm currently working at two vastly different schools; one to the far South of the city, (in the suburbs) and another that's so central I could throw a rock at the Kremlin wall from its front door, (not that that's a good idea). My classes are all at night, so I'm rarely home before 11pm, which, (other than lesson preparation) leaves the days my own.
It's still a surreal experience, finding yourself in Moscow. I think, back from the vantage point of my flat in Lancashire, Moscow seemed such a distant proposition. Exotic, very possibly. Romantic, definitely. The reality doesn’t disappoint. Let's be clear, I'm not talking about ‘romantic’ in the Mills and Boon sense, I'm hardly likely to go off and recount you with torrid tales of forbidden love on the Steppe, but ‘romantic’ is still the right word. I didn't really appreciate 'till I got here just how much of Moscow had been built from my imagination. I don't think I guessed how much of myself I'd already invested in this place. It's hard really to describe it, but if I'd gone back in time and allowed the six-year old me to be John Wayne, (a big hero) for the day, I'd be getting somewhere close. Only the six-year-old me would probably have more sense than to stop every five minutes to remind themselves that they really were John Wayne.
But it's worth reminding yourself. Otherwise, you risk taking it all for granted and that would be a crime. I mean, I live and work in Moscow. Surely that's amazing? That guy, whose daily commute to the office dragged him through the grey drudgery of the industrial Northwest, now commutes via the Kremlin walls. That guy, who might never of seen again, now stares out onto St Basils and Red Square. Please, tell me that’s not amazing. Because it is.
I didn't mean that last paragraph to sound quite as smug or self-congratulatory as it did, but there’s wonder everywhere here and it's hard not to get carried away. In what is gradually becoming Standard Operating Practice for this blog, I'll give you a ‘For Instance’. For instance, in, around, twenty minutes, I'm going to leave for my night shift at Kantemerskaya. The street light's have come on, so it's probably around -18 out there about now, (can the pedants hold back? I'm writing this in stages. The forecast referenced earlier was this morning, it's now SHIT I'M LATE!
To be clear, the bit above really was genuinely typed in the moment. Remember, I promised not to lie. Yes, I could easily have deleted but, but as a consequence of being late this evening, I made a mistake that’s going to be really good when I get round to illustrating a point later on. Standby. You'll be amazed.
That, and I think it's funny.
Where was I? That's it, Cold and The Metro. From the time I arrived, there's been a definite sense of ‘other’ about the people here that I'm still struggling to nail down. I can't put my finger on it, it's a little like a world that's run parallel to our own without ever meeting it. For instance, (see?) the mullet remains alive and well here, yet simultaneously, there's a sense of high fashion and style that would make the heppest of New York and London Hep Cats blush. We could go into it, but for now, just go with ‘other’. It's easier that way. Then, when the cold kicked in over the weekend, that sense of other suddenly became proof of the alien, which takes us back to the Metro.
I've always loved the Metro. It's where all of Moscow comes together and has to sit side by side. It's absolutely massive, too. Seriously, the tunnels can go down as far as half a kilometre and, at times, it feels like there couldn't possibly be any more of Moscow out there as there's so much of it in the Metro. One of my regular commutes takes me into Borovitskaya, where the crowds at the bottom of the escalators – pensioners, children and all – could rival any mosh pit in the world. Together, we cram into the cattle crushes like the world's slowest moving stampede; slow, intractable and, once inside, inescapable. You can't even move your arms. You simply stand, your arms pinioned to your sides, and let the momentum of the crowd carry to the escalator. It's an odd way to start work.
As I was saying, when the cold hit, this sense of ‘other’ became radically more extreme. Suddenly, people took on an entirely different shape. We're not talking about the odd fashionista bucking this year's winter trend either, we're talking about an entire city. Suddenly, every one's torso is grotesquely enlarged, either wrapped in enormous puffer jackets or shrouded head to toe in fur. Even heads have become enormous, as the Unshanka shifts from the exception to the norm.
In the Metro, the overall effect of this can be breathtaking. Suddenly, you find yourself in an entirely foreign landscape, populated entirely by aliens. Moreover, as – inevitably – your dressed in exactly the same fashion, (more on this later) you inadvertently become both observer and observed. For those of us from small islands in the West, it's entirely strange, foreign and – have I said it? – amazing.
Fur here is not so much a fashion choice, as a necessity. Really – and I'm sorry for the animal rights people, (I really am on your side) – manmade fibres just don't work. If you've never been here, it's hard to understand, but facing a day when the warmest it will be is -24, isn't something to be treated lightly. Yes, I know, that – for a day every few years – various countries reach extreme temperatures, but that's not really the point. The point is that an entire people need to live, work – and occasionally have fun in this – well, it sort of changes your perspective. Should I give you a ‘for instance’? Yes, let's. For instance, I was meeting my friend in Red Square on Sunday, (you have no idea how cool it is to type that) when she was fifteen minutes late. I mean, that's fifteen minutes, it's nothing. In reality, despite my expensive climbing gloves, five of those fifteen minutes were enough to leave me feeling like my hands had been dipped in ice.
It started with the feeling that my nails were curling back from my fingers, then ended with the loss of all feeling. That was fifteen minutes. That's how cold it is. I'll give you another; I was late for work earlier tonight, (ah ha!) so hadn't had time to eat before running out of the suburban Metro station at Kantemerskaya. I stopped at one of the many kiosks on the way to buy whatever I only had time to point to, then ran down the street eating as I went. This, as I said, was a mistake. By the time I arrived at the school, around half a mile away, my face and right hand were entirely numb. Out in the suburbs, with nothing but the tower blocks to halt the wind's progress, the cold is overwhelming. Even without the wind, it's like your skin is being daubed in acid as you move. For someone whose people have never spent anytime in these kind of temperatures, I'm afraid I just don’t have the vocabulary to really express it. Perhaps if I was a better writer, I might be able to paint a picture for you, but I'm not and I can't. You'll just have to imagine it.
But then, even the cold has its place in The Amazing. (I've decided to give it capitals). I never planned or wanted this to be easy, and the cold's part of that, just as much as anything else. There's a whole world out there and The Amazing doesn't discriminate on the grounds of temperature. I think it's all about experiencing it.
You see, rather than get wiser as I've got older, I've getting gradually more stupid. Seriously, (I'm sticking with the honesty promise) I knew more when I was eighteen than I do now and, no, that's not twenty years wasted. The certainty I always imagined existed in my elders and, so I was informed, betters, never really happened to me. Instead, every new piece of information I acquire generally contradicts the last one and, as I get older, I'm generally coming to see a bit of worth in each; which means nothing makes much sense. The point is, instead of the clear and polarised truths of old, I'm growing more unsure and more uncertain than ever. Less and less makes sense. More and more becomes unclear. But that's OK. Really, I'm fine with that. Because, with the loss of certainty comes a great mental and emotional cavern that can be filled with both awe and wonder.
You see, (and I'm going right back to the start here) I think anyone can do anything. I think that's going to be my spiel for a bit. If that imaginatively myopic Corporate type can do this, I think that leaves the field pretty much open to anyone. If that physically blind derelict from a few years ago can make it here and can see and experience this, then really, anyone can do anything. Believe me, I'm sincere in this; our possibilities are endless. We rarely, if ever, reach the end of our abilities. All of us are capable of so much more than the nine to five and the next mortgage payment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not disparaging that life, (not at all) I'm simply trying to say that there’s far more to any of us than the role others ascribe. You are not simply a parent. You are not an office worker. You are not managed or manager. You are all of those and far, far more. You can do anything.
Some cities on our planet use this slogan to distinguish themselves from others. A rather arrogant and bombastic claim, in my opinion. And honestly speaking, in my experience it is always besides the truth. So far nobody came up with such a pretentious phrase for Moscow. As far as I can recall, Moscow does not have a slogan at all. Perhaps because nobody in Moscow dares to really start promoting the city? Or perhaps because nobody really seems to care about promotion?
But why not? The image of overcrowded, big, grey, ugly, dangerous city, cursed with a horrible climate and full of unsmiling and unhappy people needs to be changed. Especially because of the ambitious goal to attract seven million foreign tourists to Moscow by 2018. Approximately three million more than last year. Yes, coincidentally (or not), in 2018 the World Championship Football will be held in Russia and Moscow. This will definitely attract loads of westerners who, normally, would not even think of Russia as a possible holiday destination. But after 2018, soon 2019 will arrive. And would it not be a bit silly when the number of foreigners would go down drastically straight after this football event?
By the way, the numbers four and seven million are communicated by the ‘Moscow Committee for Tourism and Hospitality’. In fact, not necessarily the most neutral committee in the world. It is therefore questionable whether there really were four million foreigners really trying to have a glimpse at Lenin, attempting to meet and greet with Putin in his Kremlin or wandering around the Red Square. In a country where nothing is as it seems, it is tempting to put a big question mark behind these numbers. Even more tempting it is to forecast that, in 2018, the Committee will announce that indeed seven million foreigners were visiting Moscow. I would even say that these chances are higher than the re-election of Putin in that same year.
An important question is what Moscow is actually doing to realize this growth. Ask the marketers of the bigger hotels or the owners of travel agencies. Even before they answer, it is clear that they are not positive at all. Their eyes are indicating this. First and foremost, they start to complain about the letters of invitations and visa regulations. Both required for (almost) all foreign tourists, before being allowed to enter Russia. Many of them strongly believe in Moscow being a new weekend destination for Europeans. And it is true, it is only three hours by plane. But due to this visa hassle, tourists will think twice before actually going. Too complicated, too much work and too much stress.
Then there are the actions of the authorities, responsible for tourism and its policy. Often completely not in line with what they claim. The latest example is the entrance fee for the Kremlin. Most probably the most beloved and best known attraction in town. Since January 2012 two people have to pay €70 each to get inside the Kremlin, including the Armoury and the Diamond Fund. Seventy euros! Well, included in the price are the services of a guide. But a guide is absolutely required because without one any tourist will just smell the rich history. Without knowing what it is all about. Why it was decided to raise the entrance fee that drastically? The most obvious explanation is that the authorities believe that tourists will come and visit the Kremlin anyway. Whether they have to pay €25 or €70. And they are probably right. So in the short term it might be profitable. But in the longer term? Most probably rather the contrary. Because investing in or developing new touristic attractions is clearly not a priority.
Let me take you to the Red Square and surroundings on a sunny day in spring or summer. Loads of tourists are sitting somewhere in the grass or on a wall, eating a Russian ice cream from Mc Donald’s. They look a bit unhappy and lost. Simply because they are wondering what is next. Wondering what else Moscow has to offer but the Red Square and the Kremlin. Of course, a lot! And more! But for foreigners, who most probably do not speak or read Cyrillic it is not that easy to figure this out. And much assistance in their search they do not receive. Yes, it is true, there are plenty of men and women, armed with a megaphone, to announce various excursions in and around Moscow. But it is all in Russian. Like there are no four million foreigners around, all looking for something more to discover. A missed opportunity to make some more money. A missed opportunity to highlight other attractions in Moscow. A missed opportunity to broaden the horizon of the tourists and the diversity of Moscow.
But who knows? Maybe once upon a time, one could have found paradise here? Why not in fact? Let me be clear, nowadays there is nothing heavenly to find on the surface. Any tourist, both Russian and foreign, has to work hard to discover the beauty of this fantastic city. Perhaps, Moscow, it is time to help all these lost foreigners a bit? And why not, as a kick-off, create an attractive slogan. Do not mention anything heavenly in it, though. Overconfident and too much untrue. But what about this one: Moscow Matters.