March 26, 2006
To Russia with Notions
By CATHERINE TEXIER
Dmitri had warned me: "Are you sure you want to go to Moscow? We'll have to camp on the pullout couch. And my brother just moved into my mother's apartment with his girlfriend and her little girl." But I insisted. I had been dreaming of traveling with the man I love to his home city. Finally he relented. We would go for the new year.
On the bumper-to-bumper highway, everything is gray, the bloated sky, the wheezing trucks and cars, the blackened snow banks. I keep hoping to catch glimpses of the city but see only blocks and blocks of Soviet-style concrete tenements, until the car grinds to a halt. The cement hallways are rundown, the lights gloomy. Dmitri's mother, Tamara, is waiting for us, her face as beautiful as in the photos, in a print housedress. But when the quilted door closes behind us, my heart tightens. There are three rooms crammed with furniture that is pressed all along the walls — two bedrooms and a small living room, where we will sleep on the sofa bed. Slippers are handed out to us. Mine are flowered plastic. As soon as I put them on, I feel trapped. Without my boots I can't run away.
Soon Dmitri's younger brother, Kostya, arrives, with his girlfriend, Lena, and her 2-year-old. Kostya strips to a pair of tights, his naked stomach jiggling ahead of him. Lena wears a terry robe. We struggle to fit around the kitchen table, which is covered with delicious red caviar, smoked salmon, salads and numerous bottles of vodka. Tamara stands at the stove. Little Tanya sits on somebody's lap. The family room, where we sleep, is also Kostya and Lena's workroom. Turned back into a couch, the sofa bed serves again as a seat for the foldout table. In spite of the warm hospitality, I feel suffocated.
What did I expect? I'm not sure, but these forbidding blocks of gray concrete I see from the window, and the silhouettes dressed in long dark coats, carrying plastic bags, look too much like old Soviet-time newsreels. I'm filled with sadness and guilt. What a bourgeois materialist I am if the lack of aesthetics and space depresses me so fast. I've spent months in South America and in North Africa; I've lived in Spanish Harlem. But this feels different, a world for which I have no code, slightly off, like the long, strange, swiveling faucet in the bathroom, which services both sink and bathtub.
In the apartment, Dmitri wears a towel and looks as if the 18 years he has lived outside Russia have vanished. When we walk out, he tells me: "It's a good neighborhood. The air is fresh. You can go cross-country skiing in the park." He points to the birch wood along the tram tracks.
When we emerge on a Red Square white with snow, the candy-colored cupolas of Saint Basil rise like a fairy-tale vision. The sublime Kremlin churches, the gala evening at the opera house on New Year's Eve, the women in exquisite gowns and high-heels, the ballet at the Bolshoi: the sights and shows are dazzling. But at the end of the night, like Cinderella, we crawl back to our humble abode in the city's outskirts, a good hour and a half by subway and tram. We have money, so we can, if we want, go dancing in a club or stay the night in the Art Nouveau Hotel Metropole. Except we don't.
At my urging, we go to the family's dacha, a traditional vacation house. But after two and a half hours by tram, metro, train and minibus, all my fantasies of a romantic evening by the fireplace have collapsed. An atmosphere of poverty pervades the whole settlement. The dacha itself seems unfinished, with its wildly uneven staircase covered with plywood and its drab furniture, which in the States would have been tossed. Only the kitchen, with its 1940's cupboard, feels welcoming.
"Why didn't we rent a car?" I ask Dmitri, who drives all over Europe and the U.S. "Only foreigners do that," he says, adding, "Didn't you want to experience authentic Muscovite life?" My dashing Russian prince, who works for the United Nations, who speaks fluent English and French, so at ease with my friends and our "bourgeois" lifestyle, so gallant, so versed, as Russians are, in the art of dialectics, has trapped me in my Western contradictions. Did I want the authentic experience, or did I want the fantasy? Is that why he was hesitant to let me come? Did he worry that my sense of who he is would change?
In the plane going back, he tells me, "If the U.N. sent me to Moscow, I would live in the family's apartment." Is he testing me? "It would be cheaper, and I would be close to my mom." My heart turns to ice. "If I came to visit you in Moscow over the summer," I say, "I wouldn't stay there, I couldn't. You'd have to rent an apartment." In the silence that follows, I distinctly feel the iron curtain close again.
Catherine Texier is the author, most recently, of the novel "Victorine." She is at work on a new novel.
Сopyright 2006 The New York Times Company