Wednesday 9 May 2012

Reflections on a Decade in the Wild East - Extract continued

Reflections on a Decade in the Wild East

Chapter One – Extract extended

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 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.
In Serbia 20 years later, I see the opposite. The women are just as breathtakingly gorgeous, yet for most of them alcohol is anathema, a tool of the elderly and lost in society, they say, yet many of these girls are also out of work. Why else would they be in cafes at 10am on a Tuesday morning sipping coffees and smoking cigarettes in Belgrade’s abundant cafes?

They did it in militant fashion, in vast numbers. When leisure descended upon them clusters of beauties nattered together, while the male lusted fruitlessly at a distance. They even did it when men rioted. When in July 2008 Radovan Karadzic was arrested by the Serbia’s Special Forces to be sent to The Hague, there was a mass protest in the centre of Belgrade. Stones were thrown at the riot police and they flew near the large windows displaying the grand cafeteria at the Hotel Moskva on Terazije. As usual, the coffee sippers and nicotine imbibers were out in force, and not uncommonly most appeared to be women, yet none batted a prettified eyelid. The scene made me trip over some rubble in consternation. 

This was a true culture shock. Fags and coffee are not downers. They are among the strongest emblems of stress in the contemporary age. But your average Serbian woman appears to seek them as a refuge. 

 “They’re not”, you want to tell them. “They’ll make you tense.” “Perhaps, you should have a proper drink.” 

But aside from a few excellent examples among Serbian womanhood, you’d be ignored. Put it down to the caffeine and tobacco. 

Polish women, on the other hand, like a good old knees up and a dance and can do the vodka shots like anyone but they do not laugh at drunks as the Russians often did when I was in St Petersburg. Drunkenness in a man for a Polish woman is a disgrace, which does not mean they don’t put up with it on a longish-term basis. They share, reluctantly, very at times, in the Russians’ romanticizing of the inebriate.

In Poland drunkenness is often dimly viewed by those who are themselves drunk, women in particular. If they get shitfaced and are unable to walk, woe-betide the man of theirs who is in the same condition. He is a complete fucking loser. 

Yet Russian women would revel in your mutual collapse of morals, in my time there. And they could be far more pornographic than me. That was a revelation. Woman more predatory than men. I loved it but sometimes found it overwhelming. I couldn’t match the eager passion because of my own limitations. It’s called being a ‘Westerner’.

Sometimes they would even call you when on occasion you had forgotten who they were. The dringing of a dilapidated landline phone, when at three in the afternoon you were recovering from an extraordinarily egotistical hangover would rankle. I was getting stupidly snippy with a Goddess at the other end of the line.

Women in the Eastern European countries I have lived in are in general very warm, down-to-earth and a lot of very good fun, but within each resides a princess wanting his prince, no matter how impossible this will be to achieve. But there is not a man on earth who could match any of them. And why try to?

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