Written By Jono Cusack
At one point every person is going to lose all bearing on their life and find themselves nowhere.It’s slow, gradual receding feeling until they become fully aware that they’re lost and would trade their life in for another’s in a heartbeat. But I never wanted to be normal. I expected the unexpected. I was long past any stage of obscurity and was at the centre of the universe. It was summer, I was in Moscow, and it was my roll of the dice.
The gates of winter were released. Insanity was unleashed and all hell broke loose. It’s as if subconsciously everyone was aware that there was such a small window of summer that it’s not just taken advantage of it, it’s abused to the extreme. The kids had graduated and began swimming in fountains and for the time being the age of consent became more of a blurred line. A constant stream of weddings left a trail of champagne bottles in it’s wake throughout Gorky Park and by Moscow River. The obsession with flowers bloomed throughout all of Moscow, and nowhere more magnificently as the grandiose Tsaritsyno and Ostankino parks. It’s as though everyone thought ‘if there are lilacs and tulips everywhere then we can hide away the badness’. Overweight men liberated themselves from the burden of a t-shirt, or threw on a mesh tank-top for added comfort. Summer fashion in outer Moscow came directly out of either 1994 or a German S&M night club. For a nation with overwhelmingly strong views on homosexuality, there were definitely some that didn’t get the message from the state.
The babushkas remained surprisingly the same. They still wore layers of heavy cotton clothing with a head scarf and kept to the tiny green booths that were their small shops. Near every Metro station and major road were communities of block after block of tiny green booth stores. It was like someone had played a giant game of Tetris. Inside each one, crammed against the back wall, behind the crab flavoured chips and salted herring, was always a morose elderly woman. But now amongst the booths were smiles on the babuskha’s faces as they watched the carnival of summer pass by.
It’s such a Russian quality though that there can never be just pure happiness for a while. So many aspects of life need to be a struggle just to survive. New challenges seem to be set daily, from the red tape of bureaucracy to the rising cost of alcohol. So just like winter, summer was a fierce, harsh battle against elements. The heat was at times, outrageous. Any thought that this was a nation of ice and snow was completely dispelled with the heatwave. Not even the Russians were prepared; air-conditioners were sold out in the first week of June. The air that passed through the Metro gave a brief respite as I made my way through the city, but it was only to escape each carriage as it reached forty degrees Celsius. I always had the greatest empathy for the ‘Escalator Watchers’ in the Metro. Their job made zero sense. Now to accompany their painful boredom, the temperature inside their booths at the base of the escalators was clearly unbearable. Finally to make matters worse, in true Russian style of all things impractical and confounding during summer, the local government turns the hot water off throughout the entire city for two weeks. They state that it’s to check the pipes for the upcoming winter. But of course the conspiracy theory is a much more popular belief. That being that the whole event is just a small reminder of the government’s presence and that are they are still in total control.
The lucky ones though are able to escape Moscow, in the way many tried under the varying regimes of the twentieth century. When they do, they retreat to their dacha, a country house on the outskirts of the city. Purchasing a dacha is the sole desire of every Russian; the most prized possession to show success in the middle class. Throughout all of spring they prepare them for summer, and throughout all of autumn they prepare them for winter. Within ten minutes of meeting someone you will have an invitation to visit. So at the end of school year in July, the boss insisted that he and his wife host the staff party. How a man who weighed in at over one hundred kilograms and suffered from a creeping skin disease was ever able to marry a woman so stunning that she could model I will never know. Welcome to Russia.
The world turned, and there I was in a minivan on my way to the middle of a forest outside of Moscow with my flatmate and fifteen Russians. I had no real idea where I was or what direction I was headed in. I should have taken a compass, but I’d thrown mine away at the beginning of summer and was now just there for the ride. After being surrounded by concrete walls for so many months it felt strange to be within a living environment after the two hour journey. I took in a deep breath as I left the car and gazed up at the aged wooden cabin that was the dacha. The bitter taste that plagued the air of the city was no longer present. For the shortest moment I realised why someone would, and need, this getaway in their lives. There was peace at last. But then again, I was in Russia. With breakfast the dacha became just another drinking location. There was a toast for the end of the year, for the summer, for love, for that leaf over there. Any reason for another shot. This was not the high quality store bough vodka for three dollars. This was samogon, homebrew. Something to put hairs … on your … hairs. It was relentless. We forgoed the serenity and we were now just a group of short-shorts, mullets and overly tight Hawaiian shirts drinking on plastic chairs in a open field beside a wooden shack.
All the food, even breakfast, was designed as a drinking snack. We indulged in ‘Fish in a Jacket’, layers of pickled herring, beetroot, boiled egg, potato and cheese. A dish that must be eaten quickly as it becomes increasingly rancid with each bite. Then the BBQ began. Grilling shashlik and salmon in summer time is an essential Russian ritual to mark summer. This was all force fed to my vegetarian flatmate. Choosing not eating meat is such a foreign concept to a Russian and is met with ‘What is wrong with you?’ or ‘But you still eat fish? Da?’ There was just no saying no. I don’t think they understood the concept of ‘I’ve had enough’. My glass was never empty until I found myself wandering the forest alone to escape. I’m not too sure where I was in relation to Tunguska but I could’ve sworn I saw several different types of alien species out there that night. It may have also been that my eyes were glowing from the severe intoxication.
Several days later August arrived, the time in the Northern Hemisphere where everything stops and whole parts of the city are deserted. But the Lord wouldn’t slow me down. It was a Monday morning and I was on a date with a woman whom I’d met the previous evening. How we got to this point took only a sideways look and a raised eyebrow as I told her that she was beautiful, who knew it could be this easy. The park we were in resembled the post-apocalyptic playground in the dreams of Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. But judgement never crossed our mind because this was our time. We drank bottles of champagne by the neck and showed love without concern for privacy. We were only disturbed by the sounds of shuffling as one of the oldest women I had ever met sat down beside us. The deep creases in her skin marked the passage of time that was the entire soviet era. She wore a dress she had clearly owned for decades. She wasn’t disheveled, but dignified. She was proud and there was a spark in her that you could describe as typical of a cute and caring grandmother. She said nothing at first but stared off into the distance towards the rusted playground equipment. With a sigh she reached into her plastic bag and withdrew a sole cigarette and a bottle of vodka. At last she said, ‘…life is beautiful, but it is far too short.’
With this advice in hand we let our date pass well beyond sunset and into the evening. We walked everywhere. Through Tverskoy Boulevard, home to the nobility of the nineteenth century, down to the Moscow River. A walk is such a simple meeting but it’s the favourite way of getting to know one another for any Russian. We went from bar to bar in central Moscow, from Gogol’ to Krisis Zhanra to Propaganda. By now I had been awake for over twenty-four hours. Soon, the champagne was replaced with vodka as one dare built upon another;
– ‘Is that a stripper pole in the middle of the bar?’
– ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.’
– ‘This is definitely a good idea, there is no way this could be anything but a good idea’
So up I went and off the clothes came. Things had gotten a little out of hand. There were no laws to keep our behaviour within any guidelines. Even if there were, then each minor crime came with an unwritten code of how much to bribe a police officer. This was my city.
At two am we stopped in Chistye-Prudy for blini, Russian pancakes, somehow we’d forgotten we needed some sort of sustenance to make it through the day. After we ordered and paid for several with caviar and smetana, sour cream, we were approached by three guys from the Caucasus region in southern Russia. I was never one to shy away from a hug, I was an overly-friendly drunk. From my point of view everyone I met was going to become my pen pal for life. After what I assumed was a very charming conversation where I had the crowd in stitches. We left to return to her place. As I hailed a gypsy taxi I put my hands in my pockets; ‘oh shit, my wallet’s gone.’ And my new friends with it.
Three minutes after making the call, a minivan full of police arrived and pulled us in. It seemed far too excessive but I was drunkenly oblivious and loving the theatrics. When we arrived at the station I wasn’t even sure I was in one it was like any other building in Moscow. Again I was pushed into the unknown. There was little difference between the inside of the station and the inside of a prison cell. Grey concrete walls with the odd wooden bench. It was surprisingly quiet, however the performances from the characters of Crime and Punishment kept us entertained. But we were never going to wait for a long. I was a foreigner of casual interest and she was an incredibly gorgeous blonde. A detective received us and drew us into his office. Shelves of moth ridden Russian criminal code marred his walls. It was early on a Tuesday morning, he would have been on less than meagre salary and was now forced to deal with a petty pickpocket. No one could possibly have hated their life more than him. After explaining the situation he said something with a sly smile like Sam Spade would. It made her laugh hysterically. My Russian was still terrible and it needed translation. She told me, ‘he said, shit happens.’ So we returned to my date’s apartment with more champagne and I left her in the morning, never to be seen again. The entire experience was the greatest fifty dollars I had ever lost.
In these weeks I became aware of just how much a magnet for attention I was, be it good or bad. Being popular in a city of millions is more addictive than any drug could possibly be. But those too began to flow with an open door policy for any passing woman. I started to look down on people, it was easy to do, to engage in the fantasy and feel superior. Face control didn’t exist, I walked straight into any bar. Moscow is a Disneyland for the twenty somethings and I was Tony Soprano. I felt like I could claim possession of anything, especially more than one mail-order bride. Every good story needs an antagonist. I just didn’t expect it to be me so soon.
Although I was never much of a rock star. I played guitar, I had the hair, but I would always fall in love. There was of course the, ‘I’m on tour love, and for tonight you’re mine’. But it would happen more often than I would care to remember where I would actual fall into proper, adult love. So this was my exit from the bubble of my world as a Mick Jagger. We met just like any other two would meet, but immediately we left everything we were before in the past. After a time we found ourselves at the base of the castle like Moscow University looking over the city. The sun rose over Sparrow Hills and the Moscow river and with a glance everything changed instantly. Out of all of the choices to the infinite number of decisions I had made in my life this is what led me to be standing there with her on that midsummers morning. This is what makes love unique. When this thought goes through your head, you know that nothing else matters in life but the person before you. Leaving me on our first day she asked;
– ‘Do you like me?’
– ‘I more than like you.’
– ‘What does that mean?’
– ‘I either like you or love you, there is no in-between’
I wasn’t lost anymore, she was my guide that kept the horizon in clear view. She told me the most important thing was to always chase every new experience and feel every new emotion. I should have listened. Only at the time though I was in her city, and how she viewed the world. I couldn’t imagine ever leaving it. It was spontaneous and perfect. I already knew that these last few days of summer would be the ones that I would eternally romanticise.
There are things that I missed, but this life was all that I knew now. This was all I’d ever wanted. Where I had been, where I could have gone, or what might have been given up along the way didn’t matter now. I never thought for a moment that this could ever have had an ending.