Bittersweet Moscow I: Playgrounds

Bittersweet Moscow I: Playgrounds

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Our latest blogger, Marco North, begins his four-part series this month on coping with life as a single father in search of quality and happiness for his daughter in Moscow.

Russian playgrounds are nostalgic, a sort of kickback to a simpler age when some dirt on the ground instead of some space age surface was all people had. Slathered in prehistoric layers of primary red, yellow and blue, Moscow’s detskaya ploshadka are unmistakable. Chances are there will be some jagged metal. Chances are something squeaks terribly, or is dangerously loose.

Yet every large building in Moscow has a courtyard, and in this courtyard there is a playground. It may just be a jumble of something to climb on, something to slide on and something eternally broken. But, to most of Moscow’s children this is their entire world. And this little square of dirt is right downstairs.

I don’t remember any sandboxes from my childhood in Brooklyn. I just remember running in the green grass of Park Slope. But, most playgrounds in Moscow have a sandbox, and when the sand is wet, imaginary cakes and desserts are perfect for my daughter to create. Sometimes things don’t need to be modern to be good.  

When she was four, she was too scared to go down the zholtaya gorka (yellow slide). Its corkscrew shape was wonderful for dolls to go down, maybe a few nuts we found in the grass. I spent all of one July just pulling her up a few feet from the bottom, then letting her go after she said it was ok. 

We worked our way backwards this way, until she was finally ready. After facing her fears, and finding the courage to go down alone we soon understood that this playground was no longer her favourite. The next playground we went to had a series of fountains next to it, and was far more populated – with children from many cultures.

In summer, playgrounds sit empty most of the time. This is when Russian children live at their dacha (country house) or are shipped off to live with babushka and dedushka (grandma and grandpa) somewhere deep in the countryside.

It is truly ironic to live in an international capitol and spend long summer days with a five year old girl, playing alone with her. When we go out shopping we take a strategic route that passes every playground on the way, and stop if there is anyone there. I am desperate for her to socialize with other children, to have more friends than a single father and our strange cat. Of course, we have a great time all by ourselves – using all of the swings and making a crude carousel go as fast as we like.

Being an expat with a child that speaks two languages, we run into many curious parents and nannies on the playground. Some are immediately suspicious of the foreigner who is intruding. Some immediately repeat a few random words they know in English, then smile blandly and walk away.

My daughter is small for her age, but outgoing. In no time, the dolls she has brought are being sent down the slide with a new friend. They are chattering like squirrels inside some playhouse in the corner, they are asking me to help balance them on the seesaw.

I can never predict who will think we are some kind of domestic enemy, and who will be sorry we have to go when it’s time to make dinner. We leave, saying ochen priatno (nice to meet you) or shastlivo (happiness). Maybe we’ll buy an ice cream on the way home.

Yes, there will probably be some broken glass. Something is always broken, swinging like a loose tooth in the wind. A drunk guy may be sleeping on a bench. There may be an old woman yelling at me about how my daughter's hat doesn’t cover her ears properly. But the playgrounds of Moscow have provided me with countless graceful hours, as I watch my daughter grow up.

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

Photos by Marco North.

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