Bittersweet Moscow: A new year

Bittersweet Moscow: A new year

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As the new year month comes to an end, Marco North writes about his general shock of the Russian holiday results, character and overall conditions of Moscow.

The January holidays unfold in lethargic circles of sleep, cooking and films watched on the laptop late at night, punctuated by the occasional trip outside to buy milk, potatoes, sugar, coffee.

There is almost nothing to do for two weeks as the entire country shuts down, as doctors and politicians, as everyone drinks themselves silly for a government-promoted bender. Good luck going to the dentist, or the hospital. Good luck getting a haircut. The bare essentials are working out there - food and drink. The restaurants stand near-empty but working. No need for reservations. The streets are open, no traffic for once.

It’s very hard for me to enter the new year with a nap; I feel like I will accomplish much. I am a New Yorker. We want to change the world before our second cup of coffee. Foolish as we are --  workaholics, optimists, caffeine addicted -- we also get a hell of a lot done. One of my favourite expressions from my friend Richard, a true-blooded Manhattanite: "If you want something done, give it to someone busy."

It’s literally dangerous outside. The weather hovers just above and below freezing for weeks, constantly melting the snow into ice that builds up in grotesque black layers, humped and twisted shapes that hide beneath a fresh layer of snow. You do not walk in Moscow, you creep. I watch old women going down like bags of wet cement, no impulse to catch themselves. Leaving a bar late at night, I see drunken men and women smashing to the pavement with fierce thuds.

There are also giant sheets of ice on the rooftops that detach and crash to the street below at random hours. There is a deep moan, a cascade of shards, a tremendous crash as giant ice chunks hit windshields, garbage cans, and people. A child was killed in St. Petersberg just a week ago from falling ice. More than 100 people are injured every day in Moscow because of this ice.

The New Yorker in me is furious. There is a new mayor here, and he sets a deeply depressing tone. The last mayor had a number of problems, but he knew enough to scatter sand and salt and grit.

There is a bottomless apathy in the modern Russian. People just accept the fact that walking outside to buy some milk may result in a terrible fall, or that walking their child to school can involve risking their life. People do not complain, or advocate here. They shrug their shoulders. They creep along with small steps and hope to make it home alright.

2011 begins with pointless deaths, broken bones and a general sense that the common man is completely unimportant. I see the look in those drunken faces as they look up at me, silently asking to help them up. I witness a profound sadness, a marginalised and outstretched hand in these quiet weeks.

This is Moscow, where great, black SUVs cruise past us or cut us off when we try to cross the street. To own a car here is to be some kind of king. You can back up without warning, even when people are tip-toeing past you. You can plow through red lights, make U-turns in the middle of the street and get away with it most of the time.

But if you try to run me over, especially when I am creeping across the ice with my daughter, you will get an earful of Brooklyn curses. I will stand there until you look me in the eye. Go ahead, gun the engine. Go ahead.

Happy New Years.

Marco North is an expat New Yorker living in Moscow with his daughter. He is a professional filmmaker, published writer and musician, known for the singular nature of his work. Read more about North's life in Moscow via his blog, Impressions of an expat.

All photo © Impressions of an expat

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