I loaded up my Goodreads to-read list. Here’s one of my favourites from that exercise, called The Mehlis Report, as reviewed on NYRB.


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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