On being and being away

I think I will break this down into a few strands of things that have been floating around my head: movement and progress, and why I like doing these international adventures.

I     On movement and progress

I actually moved to Moscow a few weeks ago (six!) but I was back and forth at first. Russia has a lot of holidays in May, so it meant that I was here for two weeks, living a somewhat surreal but pampered life in a hotel, where I could eat anything I want for breakfast, but I had to be dressed and sitting in a gaudy dining room to do it. It was good. It was frustrating. I was looking for an apartment, but the apartments here are crazy (more on that later, maybe).

By the end of the 2 weeks, I was hopping back on a plane to go back to England, and I felt like I had started a huge new adventure, and it was not getting off the ground. Or it was starting, and I was going back, and I was just going back and forth with no purpose.

I wrote to someone at the time that it felt that I had mistaken movement for progress and growth.

I took this picture at the Moscow airport; the marketing slogan was on lots of billboards there. It says: “Movement is life.” I wondered if it is.

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II     Why I like these adventures

I set off this morning to buy things for my kitchen (and maybe my bed, but that appears to be too ambitious), and then to the market to buy groceries. Here are some scenes from the market:

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I didn’t really go anywhere more than a mile from my house, which was nice, and I spent the rest of the day reading and cleaning and moving furniture around.

What I like about these international adventures is the freedom you have: to want and not get, to make do. Making do is not, maybe, what most people think of as freedom. I assume that, if you thought about it, the most freedom you could have is to be able to afford anything, and to not care about any of it.

I don’t think it is. When I am in London, and when I am in my normal life (whatever that is, and whenever I have had it…), when I think of something I need – say, a new duvet or a mattress topper or a pitcher for lemonade – it becomes a thing that I am lacking in my life. In many cases, it might be a symbol of why I am not a good grown-up – for example when I let all my lightbulbs burn out or forget to get toilet paper.

When I’m in a foreign country – and I mean, like, Russia here, not somewhere like England – I notice a lot of things I want or need: I needed a mattress topper, and a duvet, and kitchen things (including basic kitchen supplies), and I store them up in my head. Today I took this little list, composed over the previous 12 hours as I settled into my apartment, and I walked across the bridge to a mall. I took this list into the shops, and looked at what they offered.

As the day went on, I released things from the list – not because I was not adult enough to own them or find them, but because they just weren’t at those shops, and I can make do without them.

Do I really need a mattress topper? I thought.

On one hand, I do. The mattress is sort of crap.

On the other hand, I will be fine. I slept last night, and I will sleep other nights, and I am not in pain. Ditto for the duvet.

I bought the things I need, which ultimately I got at a cheap shop for about $30-40: cutting boards, some tumblers for water/wine, a French press for coffee, a weird jug for putting things in the fridge, some bowls. It was great. I felt free to buy things later (I do actually need a mattress topper), but I don’t blame myself if I don’t.

The same went for the market. Probably I got ripped off, and probably I could have bought more things. But I am here long enough to figure it out, to go back, to find favourite stalls, and to try all the homemade cheeses (it is amazing how many different cheeses get labeled here as “Gouda”).

Basically, being in these places and living these weird chopped up, re-edited versions of life makes me feel like it will be fine. Like I have time. Like I am free.

I like it.

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Coffee in foreign countries

Twice in two days I was offered coffee with great pride. These offers set in motion a whole set of standard responses that were required of us – those being offered the coffee – that I did not recognise, or only came to recognise a bit late.

On Friday, I was in a government office in Russia for a meeting. The official we met began the meeting by launching into a long discussion of US and UK cooperation treaties with Russia, where he spoke quickly in Russian. It took me to catch up to the meeting. (Nothing in this paragraph is relevant for the story.)

About an hour into the meeting, a coffee machine perching on a small table against a wall began to do its cleaning operation, flushing water through the espresso-making apparatus, and making me wonder where the water was coming from. I was staring at the cords for some sign of a water-input device, when the official said, “Oh, actually, I didn’t offer you a coffee. Would you like one?”

M., a lawyer in the meeting joked, “Looks like we missed it!”, referring to the stream of water, which had ended by that time. It still makes me smile to myself to think of a coffee machine that makes coffee whenever it wants, rather than when you want to have coffee. And if you want coffee, you have to run up with a little cup. I like the image.

I didn’t really feel like having coffee, and the other woman refused. M. said, “I wouldn’t refuse” and was handed a cup of coffee from the espresso machine, which he drank quickly. We continued with the meeting.

After the meeting, the Russians were led out one exit, and I was led out a few moments later via another exit. As we walked through the halls, the official said, “A lot of people don’t like to be in this corridor.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“They say this is where people were shot.”

“Is it true?” I asked.

“I don’t really believe it.”

He showed me out, and I thanked him for his time. The lawyer and M. were waiting outside my exit, and we stood outside on the Moscow streets, laughing about how proud he must be of the coffee machine – how no one else has this machine, and M. had saved us by saying he wanted coffee.

Saturday morning, D. and I went to a mortgage adviser in London to talk about getting a mortgage – what deposit we needed, what information he needed, etc. He is a quite old man in a small office near my house, and as we sat down he asked his assistant to bring in the milk – but didn’t notice when it was all brought in. When he queried where the coffee was, we pointed it out, and he spoke at length about how “the one thing we pride ourselves on is good coffee”. It was good coffee, made from a cafetière, and I had mine with sugar.

I thought about the books I read as a child that accompanied my American Girl doll, Felicity. The drama of the Boston Tea Party had led everyone to drink coffee instead of tea at the time of her (mythical) life, and I had grown up with coffee everywhere all the time. Not particularly good coffee – coffee like water, even when it was strong. Coffee that stood in for alcohol as the social lubricant in a part of Texas where booze is mostly banned. Coffee that was ubiquitous, and would therefore never be a source of pride – even if you did have good coffee.

That stands in stark contrast to both Britain and Russia. In the former, coffee is now very trendy, and you get good coffee trends from far afield – including flat whites. When I first visited Russia, there were multiple types of Nescafe on the menu, and waitresses took the difference between Nescafe Gold and normal Nescafe seriously. So it’s good to see a coffee Renaissance in both. But it launches coffee into a status symbol – a symbol I am not adept at reading.