“Goodnight Vienna… You city of a million something-or-others… Alalalala lala lala something else…. Good afternoon Jeeves…”
“Good afternoon, sir.”
“No no no, that’s the song, Jeeves. And a dashed rum song it is too, I don’t know how they think them up, Jeeves… I mean, fancy writing a song about saying ‘goodnight’ to a whole city. I mean you might as well say ‘Good afternoon Manchester’ or ‘Fancy bumping into you, Basingstoke’ or ‘I didn’t see you at the club last night, Cleethorpes…’”
Dashed rum it may be, but I never leave Moscow, even for a couple of months – or England, for that matter – without saying an internal Take Care Now to the whole place, apparently out of some vague anxiety that it might just crash down into the sea while I’m not there to keep an eye on it.
As if Moscow pays any attention to what I think while strolling up and down its green boulevards. As if I have any idea what Moscow is and has been to the people who belong here.
It is tempting when you live abroad, very tempting, to think that I know what this country is really like, not like all those other people sounding off about it on the Internet. I don’t know, of course; I don’t know, for example, what it’s like to drive that orange truck shooting water over the road, or what it’s like to be those young girls playing at an outdoor chess tournament, or those homeless men sleeping on the park benches. I have walked over the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge any number of times, but that didn’t mean I could know in February what the assassination of Boris Nemtsov meant for Russians. When I rounded the corner of an Orthodox church this morning, I didn’t know what the smell of incense meant to the people there; I can’t know how it feels to be an Orthodox worshipper.
But then I also don’t really know how it feels to be an Anglican, though the Anglican church down the road from the incense does seem to me like a homely patch of England right in the centre of Moscow. Every country, and every city, including one’s own, is multifarious and complicated, and is going to require all sorts of imaginative leaps if we’re ever going learn anything about it. Which is stating the obvious. Fancy writing a song about saying ‘goodnight’ to a whole city.
Still you find yourself thinking, on a bad day, ‘grrrrrrrrussia’, and, on a good day, that actually you just love Moscow, all of it, and everyone in it. Those big beautiful skies over Park Pobedy? Love Moscow. Small child staring at people on public transport? Love Moscow. The vendor at the market who observes that if you buy any of his products he will present you with a free plastic bag? Love Moscow.
And you end up loving your own country, too – all of it, all at once. There are certain ways of talking, of being, of joking in particular that I now think of as Ever So British, even if, in fact, they aren’t. Certain types of irony, sarcasm, banter, politeness and awkwardness, dress senses between casual and shabby, people who know about putting milk in tea, grey blustery weather, and signs like these on trains:
…to this extent, I am a patriot.
Of course it can also be confusing when your personal identity seems to be inextricable from your nationality. Oh, so you’re Lucy Sixsmith? You know, you have the second most British name in Moscow, after Alastair Pitts. Did you just call it a guillotine? That sounds so medieval. Stop being so polite; stop being so British. That’s a really British way of thinking, and especially a Lucy way of thinking. Lucy, if I have to explain to anyone who you are, I say you’re the one who’s just stepped straight out of a Famous Five book. Do you call this a window sill in England?
Goodbye trees! says Rode in The Three Sisters. I’m not sure what I’m writing about or for, except that I’m looking out of the window thinking Goodbye trees. When I come back, Moscow will be probably be much the same. (And the window-sill will be a window-sill.) This is the funny thing: floating between countries, not quite in one, not quite in the other, writing narcissistic blog posts about it. Moscow had better take good care of itself this summer. And may every single individual person in it, every one, feel just slightly lifted, more loved, as I type that wish.