By Alexa Shearer
‘I felt a wish never to leave…a wish that dawn might never come, that my present frame of mind might never change.’ Leo Tolstoy
Moscow has always held for me the closest connotation to the word ‘home.’
And I write this almost in a regretful manner …the way one would write a letter to an old lover or deceased relative; someone with whom you have copious amounts of baggage, and unsaid words you’d wished you’d vocalized, and ones you wish you could take back.
It really is like mourning the loss of a loved one, and being forced to write out embarrassingly emotional few words to say at their wake or funeral, knowing your eyes will fill with tears in front of strangers to get each sentence out.
I know at times people – myself included – have a hard time understanding it. ‘But you’re American, so what’s the problem? or ‘Yeah but where were you born? come as oversimplified questions when my face gets flushed and my mind blank after being asked where I’m from or where home is. Often I’m sure it comes across as a dramatized tragedy or a ploy to make myself seem more aloof and interesting. But, in actuality, the only truth I can capture from the eccentricity of it all is that maybe it is simple, and always has been. I have very American blood and a navy-blue passport, but Moscow will always be my home.
Entering some place as a child and leaving an adult
It’s all as simple as a fragment made up of ten words and no hyperbole. I’m not sure if this constitutes as ‘growing up’ someplace but it feels pretty damn close.
Moving away and starting each day in this new and foreign world feels like the fog of a cold-medicine buzz. Your eyes are red and puffy; your nose stuffed and you can barely breathe, and yet the cold medicine doesn’t take these symptoms away, it simply numbs you into a state of incoherent drowsiness just so you can possibly get away with sleeping through the night.
Here I am: no cold, my sinuses are clear and my vision fresh as a daisy, and yet this cloudy haze dictates my temporarily idle existence… Jetlag may also have something to do with it.
I don’t remember anything about my first impressions of Russia–even when I try to think back to my 11-year-old self, by getting into the mind-set of a confused quasi-Californian who, when told would be moving, could only fathom a snowy cold world that in her imagination might resemble Georgia.
I can’t remember what I thought the day I landed. All I can see are my dirt-stained white shoes dragging across each individual ridge on a rusty metal drain. I liked the echoey pitch my heels would make as they rubbed along each grate. I didn’t take my eyes off the cracks in the concrete. We were being given a tour of the embassy grounds and I was wearing a purple shirt with little gems on the collar and a faded denim skirt that kept riding up during the endless plane ride.
I don’t remember my first Metro ride or first awe-gaze at St. Basil’s Cathedral, besides some brief musings of how it reminded me of a smaller version of a Disneyland Castle – less impressive to an 11-year old. What I can recollect is that we were walking around trying to find a purpose for ourselves… I suppose how we often did/do when we are still strangers to a new place, unattached to the concept of ‘back home,’ and yet not fully into step with a ritual or routine. We had found a small corner shop or marketplace… to be honest I don’t even remember how, when, where, or why, but my sister was carrying a flimsy black plastic bag full of tomatoes. As we strolled, our feet reaching the black cobble stone (that I always assumed would be red… on Red Square), one cunning tomato slipped out of the bag and dropped to the ground, yet remained perfectly intact, without even making that ‘squash’ sound. Without hesitation, my sister kicked it out of her way and kept walking, shortly before receiving that look from my dad… the ‘are you kidding me? Did you seriously just kick a tomato onto Red Square and walk away?’ look.
I lack exceptional, inspiring first sentiments, but rather possess simple memories…you know the ones… revolving around kid stuff; of moments you didn’t realize were important. I guess some nobody from Idaho doesn’t remember what he thought of Idaho when he was in fifth grade. He just lived his life.
I don’t remember the first time I saw perfectly stitched crystal snowflakes – the kind you’ve only experienced as ones hanging from your classroom ceiling that you cut out with dull scissors – or learning how to carefully wrap my head, neck and mouth with a платок, (headscarf) – to keep the heat trapped to my face in below-zero conditions – I just sort of always knew how. I don’t know why I associate the bright fragrance of a freshly peeled mandarin with Christmastime, I just always think of crystal glasses full of cheap champagne and blinking lights on a tree when I catch the smell of my hands after I eat one.
I don’t remember the day I learned to read the Cyrillic alphabet, it just feels like it’s something I could always do. I don’t remember ever being interested in Russian history, it’s just always sort of been something I knew about. I can’t tell you the first ballet I saw, or the first time I got dressed up to watch a live orchestra perform, or the first time I noticed the crowds clapping in unison in a packed hall after a jaw-dropping performance, faint interjectory ‘bravos’ being called out in the distance.
I don’t remember the first time I learned about the rituals of чай or the дача, or who Снегурочка is. I don’t even remember noticing just how colossal the buildings on Тверская are, or the first time I tasted the bright purple deliciousness that is Борщ.
I don’t remember growing an infatuation with the sound of a single violin or the day I began to really understand how to read music, or the first time I got those pesky little calluses on my left pointer finger.
I can’t recall the first time I handed someone flowers in an odd-numbered bundle – because heaven forbid you buy an even number. I also can’t recall being taught not to seat someone under an air vent; with their back to an open window; in between two doors. I just always understood that a draft can and will kill you… and I often casually brushed off comments such as “I was in the hospital because cold air blew on my neck and/or back.”
I guess that’s the benefit of being a foreigner’s child in a place like Russia. You just sort of soak up every minuscule cultural nuance they themselves slowly and tediously must learn, and write down to prevent any slip-ups or faux pas. I suppose I was taught to live as an extremely absorbent sponge, absent-mindedly taking in every piece of my surroundings and somehow just understanding and knowing things without explanation.
For my dad it was a great career move. It was a passionate obsession, a cultural phantom caught and conquered after years of hard work, studying, memorizing, understanding, searching; it was an amazing accomplishment, the fulfillment of so many goals and a calmingly, otherworldly overture compiled of snow-walks, tiny coffee shops, hearty black bread, and after-work pensive thoughts under the shadow of Lenin.
For my mother it was an intricate form of immersion, intense analysis and whole-hearted dedication, compassion, and the preface for so much joy, frustration, discovery, irritation, and lifelong friendships.
But for myself and my sister It wasn’t some time-lined project, we didn’t have goals to fulfill; it wasn’t a scheduled ‘tour’ or duty, it was just…life…and sometimes, believe it or not… it was mundane.
Moscow, instead, transformed from being an adolescent normality to an adult imperfect haven. It becomes a place you’re dying to get out of on your worst days, with the sheep-like mentality and impossible conversations that simply annoy you beyond belief.
But, it’s a place that, when you leave it, you can’t bring yourself to go back for a while, because you need time to heal the loss of leaving in the first place.
Russia is a place that stays with you, unfortunately so, for it is this very nation that will be the cause of your soul’s yearning – тоска. Moscow is not in any shape geared towards the future, but rather usually stops in its tracks looking right back over its shoulder into the cycle of the past. Every essence of each holiday, celebration, and average work day amidst fellow commuters is encompassed by collective nostalgia.
Undoubtedly, Moscow forgot to teach you to live in the moment.
So here you find yourself putting the tea kettle away for a little while because you can’t bear the thought of a steaming cup, far too hot – burning a small dot on the tip of your tongue; leaving a constant reminder of a lovely time spent for the next 24 hours – accompanied by crunchy wafer chocolates leaving a pleasantly subtle taste of dirt on your lips. Spoonfuls of варенья, and dry сушки – that leave a pile of crumbs after every bite escort wildly entertaining conversations, not casual in the slightest, but rather bare your whole soul even if you didn’t feel like chatting in the first place.
You put off cleaning out your wallet and instead just throw a few dollar bills into your purse; your ID and plastic cards float around the bottom in a sea of gum wrappers and hair-ties. The inconvenience is better than dealing with reality: disposing of old receipts – the final remaining possessions on your person of a world soon to be long-gone. You fold up each colorful bill and replace them with simple, uniform green ones. You rummage through each ancient crumpled paper like an old and bitter grandma with a harsh exterior but wells up when going through her old letters or albums; uttering an obnoxious ‘back in my dayyyy.’ Dry-cleaning stubs, a clock-out receipt from your last bartending shift; useless coins and emergency phone numbers now unreachable; three Metro cards – who knows how many rides are left on them: rides to work every day, to museums, and cozy restaurants, or simply a means of quiet; yes… loud, noisy, bustling, fast-paced quiet – an escape from the world above if only for a few minutes.
So here you sit… late at night, listening to Tchaikovsky alone in your room, slowly forgetting complex conjugations and grammatical cases – concepts that tortured your mind every second of every day.
You try… but truly don’t remember when you knew you loved that place, or the moment you realized a blanket of peace would always be wrapped around your shoulders in the most hostile of times, or why you’d wished you could freeze time and stay there for as long as you’d pleased.
When all your strength is exhausted into pulling the strings of an old compartment open, the forgotten moments come pouring out; shattering to the floor like pieces of broken china plates, and so it seems… with all of this not remembering… it turns out you can hardly remember life before Russia at all.