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to be an expat

How can I even begin to explain the experiences of an expat?  The great assumption is that East and West are terribly different. One is vilified, the other painted as a land of patriots and heroes. One is crude and filthy the other has streets paved with gold. Look up and you will see miracles of architecture. Beyond the windows there are supposed to be good people, open smiles and warm hearts. How can I tell you that none of this is true? How can I untie my shoes, and somehow put them on your feet three thousand miles away? You would never believe what secrets they have to tell.

Every time I go back to the states I become more embarrassed to be an American. I overhear conversations in the street, the whines of privileged and moneyed voices. Coddled, dumbed-down and mislead they are drunk on a calculated fairly tale. And then back in Moscow, the same ignorance - the same questions from curious taxi drivers about how good it must be in America, where everything is possible and life mu…

Moscow at night


I was on a back street, behind Lubyanka. The name meant nothing to me when I first came to Moscow, just that it sounded a lot like люблю (lyublyu) which means "love". My naive ears did not understand that this place was a prison, and the headquarters of the KGB. It is also the name of a metro station, and I imagined lovers kissing here in old photographs, maybe a bridge with cascades of rusting locks attached to it like Ponte Milvio in Rome. Sometimes our imagination seems so logical, so possible that we simply accept it. For years I did not know the truth, not that anyone really knows what happens behind the dark concrete and the high windows of this place.

It looks empty, deserted. A lone guard approaches, asks a few questions and tells us to keep going.

On Tverskaya, there are museums and statues. Chekhov wrote about this street, Tolstoy, Pushkin and Bulgakov too. There is a great statue of Marx, his body half-submerged in a great block of stone, as if the work was left unfinished but somehow ended up on display. On this night he gazes into the percolating traffic, the people milling around. There is history upon history here. Churches that were ripped down to nothing, mansions built, invasions, triumphs. But the streets tell no story, they simply crumble over time. I look at the faces, and they are empty or lost in the tiny screens of their phones. I used to make fun of people that looked up in New York, marveling at the architecture. "Tourists" we would say, with an all-knowing sneer. New Yorker's look forwards and walk fast, that is what we all believed.

Turning the corner onto Mosfilm where we live, the wind blows softly through the trees. An old woman walks a tiny dog. A vegetable stand is closed, surrounded by empty boxes that hang open, a collection of giant cardboard mouths waiting to be fed. There are puddles in the streets, reflecting the lights on in homes, warm and yellow.  I imagine I can tell which one is ours, high above the trees with wet laundry drying on a rack in the living room.




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