Saturday 5 May 2012

Reflections on a Decade in the Wild East - Extract

Chapter One
Alexander Nevsky metro station in St Petersburg, November 1998. It’s pitch black dark and around 9.30 am on a Tuesday morning.

I have just come back from a one-to-one lesson at Philip Morris, the tobacco company, which began at 7.30am and ended at 9am, my student driving me to and from the station in his company logo-emblazoned car.

I never had any problem spotting him. His car just looked ridiculous among the mud-splattered Ladas whizzing around like fairground dodgems, but Kostia always emerged from his vehicle as if the incongruity had never occurred to him and he shook my hand. Among the things I remember about our classes, other than he was very affable and a bit nervous, was that he smoked constantly, as with many tobacco company employees in Russia at the time. Though I loathed having to teach at that hour of the day, the office was nice and snug and you could freely fill up your coffee cup as you could smoke. One of my colleagues gave the thumbs up to this, I remember, puffing away at the gratis fags as she waited for her student to finish his phone call. But as a non-smoker there was nothing in that for me.

My major gripe was that the lesson began at an unearthly hour in the morning without sunlight and ended in much the same circumstances. It had been given to me by the school’s director of studies, who had been Kostia’s teacher but wanted a lie-in now that I had arrived. She was someone I never warmed to, for that reason and many others.

Returning to Alexander Nevsky station that winter morning I see a group of young women, aged perhaps 18 or 19, drinking beer. Baltika 7 is the brand and a very strong one it is too. The girls are all very pretty and in high spirits, despite the fact that Russia is apparently in a state of collapse. They are a world away from Philip Morris and its chain-smoking, coffee drinking workaholics. It’s difficult to decide which is the healthier lifestyle choice. But I am impressed by the casual demeanour of these women, indifferent to the potential opinions of others, dimly viewing their pre-sunrise beer swigging. They chat and laugh too, belying the image of the morning drinker as some soaked, decrepit belligerent. I find the scene alluring. Amid the economic devastation, and early-week blues they are having fun when everyone else, including me, isn’t.

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