We approach the yellow taxi stand at the airport’s exit at dawn. ‘How much to Yugo-Zapadnaya?’ my mother asks. 4,000 roubles. ‘Too much,’ my mother says. We back away.
Ahead of us, in the terminal, hustlers stand a couple of feet apart, scanning the crowd for foreigners that they can trick into taking an unlicensed cab.
A tall man with a reptilian face approaches. He wears a navy suit and loafers, black hair slicked back. ‘Taxi?’ he asks. How much? 4,000 roubles. ‘Too much,’ my mother repeats. They bargain. He is smooth, conciliatory; my mother immovable. After some back and forth, the man reluctantly says, ‘Alright, how much are you willing to pay?’ My mother is firm: 1,500 roubles. The man is a professional and, in the end, we settle on 2,000. We stand to the side while he makes some calls.
We push our baggage-laden trolley through the revolving glass doors. The cold smacks us: five degrees. There are taxis everywhere, a sea of yellow, and many other cars besides. Duped. Who? Us.
My mother and I trail behind the tall man. I notice his bald patch and his black socks peeking out from beneath his pants. He takes the trolley for us; perhaps he is kind, perhaps we are too slow. He leads us to a white car, a man already inside. The men greet each other and we are bundled in, our luggage in the boot. The interior is black leather, new-smelling. Our driver is friendly, puffy-faced, a beanie on his head, looking as if sleep has long eluded him.
Russian pop music plays softly as we drive the forty minutes to my grandma’s flat. I pull a book from my bag and try to block out the packaged romance and jangle of guitars.
My mother snores. I didn’t know this about her before. Or, I have forgotten.
We share a room in my grandma’s sunny flat. We share a futon, sleeping head to feet, feet to head. The room is furnished comfortably with a wardrobe, coffee table and sofa, a bulky telly and some shelves in the post-war fashion: an isolated country’s imitation of Western designs of the ‘50s.
We have filled what remaining space there is with our clothes, books and medicines. My grandma has given us slippers, bathrobes and cotton nighties (white with blue or purple flowers or bows) and insists we wear them.
I keep my mother awake with my spluttering cough. I worry that one time I’ll cough and my little pink lungs will come shooting out, and I’ll have to scoop them up and pop them back into my mouth. My asthma puffer stands to attention on the bedside stool. A white missile, a weapon against inflamed lungs, while my mother gently snores on my right.
On our second evening together, I cook ratatouille, a mild but hearty take on the traditional version. It’s a little too bland for my liking, so I know my grandma will like it. She does. She calls her friends, tells them her granddaughter is a wonderful cook. The next dish I cook disappoints her.
The silences, absences, are filled with talk of the mundane—what to eat or cook, whether to take an umbrella or coat, and, if a coat, a lighter or thicker one? Topics like these are stretched out like fishing wire, wound and rewound, laid to rest, picked up. What else is there to say?
The sun gallops in through the kitchen window. Pale blue sky, ravens, birch trees. A green net caught on the bare branches looks like it belongs elsewhere, perhaps near the sea. White, grey and mint apartments, built in the ‘60s from the same low-cost materials as my grandma’s block, stand glumly beyond the trees.
It’s cold for this time of year. The thermostat reads 11 degrees. My mother and grandmother have been getting ready for the last half-hour to go out; layering up for the cold, talking, making phone calls. The walls are thin, they block out nothing—chatter, radio, telly, water gushing through the pipes, the neighbours flushing their toilets.
‘We’re leaving,’ my mother calls.
‘Alright,’ I say, ‘Go, already.’
They are enquiring about getting my mother’s suitcase fixed. She has been talking about the broken wheel for days. I am tired of it.
The key turns in the lock and they are gone. I anticipate fifteen minutes of peace, hopefully more. I admire the purple violets on the sill, the onions in glass jars, the toy turtle Tortila clutching the golden key. My grandmother used to tuck notes beneath the figurine—a character in the Soviet version of Pinocchio—advising her children of absences, meal times, whatever messages she needed to relay. It must be thirty, forty years since she last did this.
My mother has booked a table for three at the upscale White Rabbit. We are talking with a young woman behind the desk about arranging a particular table with a view. The waitress, like the rest, wears a black, short-sleeved dress cinched at the waist. She is polite, smiling, bronzed. Her entire face sparkles like the inside of a seashell.
‘Zdes’ net nikovo?’ someone says. Is there no one here?
We wheel around to see a woman, early forties, in a white-and-pink Chanel suit, standing nervously on one foot, jittery, offended, about to burst out of her skin.
‘Da, da,’ the waitress says politely.
‘Will no one take us to our table?’ the woman demands.
‘Just a minute, one of my colleagues will take you through.’
The diva huffs and puffs, pouting her botoxed lips.
My mother, grandmother and I exchange glances.
The waitress is unperturbed in this muck of wealth and status, and continues to politely assist us.
The woman must wait.
We can’t help smiling.
We talk about this incident for days and relay it to others. It unites us in exactly the way social psychologists might predict.
The washing machine is sacred in my grandma’s flat. No one, not even my mother, is allowed to touch it. When we need our laundry done, we bundle up our clothes and grandma sits in front of the front-loader on a stool; carefully measuring out the detergent, selecting the setting, pressing go.
Her washing machine is nothing like the top-loader we saw at a recent exhibit of Soviet life. That one was a white, rocket-shaped cylinder that came up to my navel. The housewives of the era, living under Khrushchev, could expect many Space Race-inspired appliances, including an orange Saturn-shaped vacuum cleaner.
Grandma’s front-loader is ordinary looking. Undistinguishable from the ones I’ve had all my life. A sticker—a smiling yellow-and-blue octopus—adorns the top right-hand corner, a guardian of the swirling, soapy water.
Our clothes dry quickly on the lines above our heads in the kitchen. The air is warm and dry here. You could do laundry all year round.
Every morning I wake up hoping for a new video from Esther the Wonder Pig. Esther is an Internet sensation; a supposed ‘micro pig’ adopted by a Canadian couple that weighs almost 300 kilos. I love everything about her—the way she chews, snores, trots, plays. I have shown the videos to my mother (who now follows her on Instagram), my grandmother, my aunt, my uncle, my great uncle. I suspect they are humouring me.
On the walk to Lermontovsky Prospekt, my aunt confides to us that she is worried her daughters will never marry. She hints at their shyness, the rapid weight loss of her middle daughter, she describes the folds upon folds of loose skin. They are my age. I tell her looks don’t matter much (and I believe this, on some days). ‘Do they want to marry?’ I ask. ‘Is it important to them?’ The aunt admits that she doesn’t know; they don’t talk about it. (From where does this great big silence between mothers and daughters come?)
‘Dreams can come true,’ my mother says.
I tell her that neither my sister nor I will marry.
‘Don’t scare me,’ my mother says.
‘I’ll get a pig, instead,’ I say.
‘If you’re happy, I’m happy.’ My mother laughs, but she means it.
We are speaking in code. I’m a lesbian but this is a secret. It is taboo here.
But I am long past caring what others think of me.
The new doors at my uncle’s house look like they belong to a bank safe. Thick steel and leather, padded. My mother admires them. ‘What excellent doors,’ she says. ‘The best.’
My great uncle’s wife passed away in February. Before we arrive, I am told that my uncle and great uncle have no friends beside family; our visit is important to them. I feel the weight of expectation, of high hopes. What could I possibly offer?
They built the rambling house in Kosino themselves. New additions—rooms, windows, balconies, sheds—make it feel like a living organism. I explore the half that is locked up, unused and unheated. I open the locked door in my great uncle’s bedroom and find myself on a dusty landing, the stairs curving downwards, towards a large, jumbled room filled with hazy, late-afternoon light. In the corner, there’s a sofa with rumpled blankets, half-hanging off the frame, as if someone had just jumped out of bed—someone had: my father on his last visit, about six months ago.
The deeper into the house I vanish, the further I am from my family at the table. They are discussing domestic matters, local news, relatives not present. I do not have the language to express myself in anything other than the blandest nouns and verbs (I work, I like to read, I live with friends). No one seems very curious about me, but what did I expect? I’ve been away for years.
I open another door, discover another room, another door, another room, another. How many are there? It is cold, dusty, a place for rubbish, old bikes, broken furniture; I am delighted. I open a rusty fridge that contains nothing but tubs of golden Rama (a popular brand of margarine) in the crisper.
I dredge up memories from my first five years when this was our dacha. I remember that single bed beneath the red hanging carpet over there, and the big, dark wardrobe against the wall (did I fall off the bed once in my sleep and roll under it?). My family and my aunt’s family used to take turns coming here for the summer with their kids, but one year we overlapped, the mothers and their children sleeping in a row of single beds in this very room, where potatoes now lie in crates under the heat lamps waiting to sprout.
When I come back downstairs, the party of four is chatty, their voices loosened by the homemade wine. My uncle is showing us his latest acquisition: a new lightweight vacuum cleaner. It doesn’t resemble Saturn. He tells us that since his mother died and he took over care of the house he wanted something to make his job easier.
‘Go on,’ he tells my aunt. ‘Try it out.’
She unravels the cord and plugs it in.
‘How do I turn it on?’ she asks.
‘See that button on the side. . . no, there, see?’
The vacuum roars to life.
She glides it over the polished floors, up and down, fanning outwards from her feet.
‘Try it on the carpet,’ my uncle says. ‘It works there too.’
My aunt does as she is told.
Everyone is impressed. Back home, we’ve ruined five vacuum cleaners in as many years. We don’t take care of them, never empty the dust collectors or clean the filters. I feel ashamed at our laziness, the waste.
It’s like a fairy tale. It’s love at first sight. It’s the best in the whole world. It’s, it’s, it’s. . . My mother speaks in clichés. My mother is quick to please, ease, smooth over tensions. The phrases drop out of her mouth like bombs.
I sit at the café on the corner, a plunger of tea beside me, tapping away on my silver Mac. It’s a democratic little place, everyone is welcome.
I eye the vinyl chipboard tables, pretty white curtains and laminated menus. The pink and brown décor is too earnest to be kitsch. American pop music floats over from the speakers: Britney Spears, TLC, No Doubt, music I haven’t heard in fifteen years.
When I can’t tap into the neighbour’s unprotected Wi-Fi, I come here to the café. I’m also here because my mother discourages me from going to the café on the other side of the station. My mother says it’s ‘run by southerners’ (she means people from the Caucasus—from Georgia, Armenia, Chechnya). She speaks of kidnappings. They’re criminals, she says. I know she is crazy. But I don’t have the strength or the local knowledge to argue with her.
So, instead, I come here.
The toilets are good, too.
Though here as elsewhere there are no sanitary disposal units in the cubicles, not even at the airport or fast food chains. Instead there are slim plastic bins without lids, their contents seeping into the damp air. Remember the stench of public toilets in your childhood, those redbrick or cement blocks at your local sportsground or oval? It’s worse.
When we come across a relatively clean toilet, like the one at this café, we mention it. ‘These are good toilets,’ we say. ‘We must remember to come back here.’
Grandma has laid out the good linen tablecloth and set the table, and is now resting, watching the news on her single bed, to the left of the dining table.
My mother walks in and out of the kitchen with the good bowls and platters. Salads. Smoked fish. Fried fish. Bread. Potatoes. Little squares of rye bread topped with herring, a slice of egg and dill. She’s cooked lunch for my grandmother, her three friends and me.
When we sit down to eat, I like Inna the best. She’s clever and funny and has ten cats. She wears an olive-coloured knitted dress with pink underlay and has thick auburn hair. She tells me her daughter is always running late because she stops to feed strays, leaving food on the street, in abandoned lots, wherever residents have been evicted, but the cats live on in the basements where it’s warm and dry.
I drift in and out of conversations, listening to my grandmother’s friends tell jokes, share stories, laugh. They ask me about Australia, and I tell them about lamingtons and Vegemite because, honest to God, I can’t think of anything else.
I do not know the right words and, when I ask my mother to translate, she muddles the sentiment, her English no better than my Russian, and so I resign myself to being quiet though polite and attentive. The role fits like an old glove.
They ask if I like it here in Moscow. I say yes a bit too quickly.
No bare feet. No wet hair outside. Hard liquor for coughs and colds. Look in the mirror before you leave for good luck. Sit down before a long journey. Touch wood.
I go around in dresses and bare feet. My grandmother can’t stand it, and follows me around the small flat, handing me socks and shawls.
On the way to the metro station, a car backs into me. Gently, absurdly. My mother grabs my arm and yanks me out of the way. I was standing dumbstruck in the middle of the road.
I hear my mother use some very bad words.
When we get home later, we do not tell my grandmother about the car.
We celebrate my 30th birthday at White Rabbit. We’re so relieved and happy that grandma is well enough today to celebrate—she had a bad day yesterday. We sit smiling on cushioned couches by the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The waitress takes our order in a mix of Russian and impeccable English. She has short-cropped blonde hair and black-rimmed glasses; she’s professional but warm and helpful. Gorgeous. I know I shouldn’t speculate on her sexuality but, of course, I do.
The affair is quite formal and even when we’re sharing dishes, the waitstaff insist on refilling our plates from the bowls in the centre of the table. It is part of the service and when I try to insist that I can do this for myself, the blonde says, smiling, ‘Why should you have to? Let me.’
When grandma asks if she can take the leftover bread home I say, of course. This is one of the very few times a year my grandma leaves her neighbourhood; it’s a big deal. We’ll take the bread no matter what. And we do. The waitress is tactful, kind.
The next day, my grandmother has the bread for lunch.
Me: I am still thinking about the waitress. My attraction was gentle, quiet, perhaps imperceptible. Especially here, in Putin’s country. I have learnt not to make a fuss; so much so, that I hardly feel anything at all.
My grandmother is still talking about the bread.
My mother and I climb to the top of Children’s World, Russia’s largest retailer of children’s goods, to see Moscow laid out beneath us. It is sunny, bright. We point out familiar cathedrals, central roads, other sights half-recognised. A pair of schoolgirls snap our picture.
One floor down, we stop in at a cute little museum of old-fashioned toys. There are plastic dolls and spinning tops, trucks and cars, toy soldiers and miniature kitchen appliances. I’m delighted. I recognise the toys I used to play with, some of which I took to Australia when we moved—the roly-poly doll that twinkled when she was righted, the toy pram, the spinning top, so many more.
Mum points to a shelf with miniature crockery and kitchenware.
‘I had that one,’ she says, pointing to a plastic set. ‘The ceramic cups and plates were too expensive.’
The plastic pots and pans are peach-coloured, with simple black handles. My mother says that someone, maybe a cousin, had the stove, and in the summer, at their dacha, they made soup out of water, sand, leaves and grass, for their dolls.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘I had that one.’
I’m pointing to a dumpy doll with orange hair and a plastic propeller on his back.
‘That’s Karlsson,’ my mum says.
‘From the cartoon. I think the original was Swedish.’
The children’s book Karlsson-on-the-Roof was adapted into a much-celebrated cartoon in the Soviet Union in the ‘70s. I don’t remember it. But I loved my Karlsson. Does anyone else think he looks a little camp though? With his lush orange hair, those rosy cheeks, dancing hands?
By pushing a button on his stomach, Karlsson can get the propeller on his back whirring, and fly away.
My grandmother did not cry when Stalin died. When she came to school that day her classmates were hunched over their desks sobbing and so was the teacher. Only my grandma’s face was dry.
She didn’t cry because members of her family had been persecuted—arrested, demoted, expelled, sent away. Her own father was ordered into the army for detecting aberrant spending (he was a government clerk) even though he was too old, couldn’t see out of one eye, had two young children at home.
Tens of thousands of people lined up to see Stalin’s remains on March 8, 1953. The square became so crowded that people were crushed. Hundreds died of asphyxiation. It was chaos. Stalin continued to kill after his death.
One evening, my grandma sits opposite us on the sofa and lists Putin’s accomplishments in her cheerful voice: battles with wildlife (tigers, a polar bear, even a whale), horse riding, air travel, judo, English, piano.
‘But he doesn’t dance,’ she laments.
‘It’s not very dignified,’ my mother says.
My grandmother’s tone is confusing; is she praising Putin or mocking him?
‘And once,’ she says, ‘it was reported that he flew a hang glider—a hang glider!—and a formation of cranes formed behind him. He was showing them how to fly.’
Unfortunately, the craft crashed, and Putin was treated in some distant town.
‘Why did he crash?’ I ask.
‘It wasn’t reported,’ my grandmother says. ‘But imagine, leading those cranes through the sky.’
‘But,’ I say, ‘the hang glider crashed. He crashed and the birds sailed on.’
I think of Karlsson soaring above the streets of Moscow: cheeky, free and happy. But he is for children, and anyway, Putin would have been far too old, a teenager already, when Karlsson-on-the-Roof first aired. He does share with him, however, a certain overconfidence.
When I return home, the closet thing I can find on the Internet is that Putin, in 2012, led endangered cranes on their migration route in a motorised hang glider. No mention of a crash. On the first pathetic attempt, only one crane followed Putin’s hang glider. The other birds ignored the head of state.
Is my grandmother religious? I don’t really know. My mother is superstitious and likes to err on the side of caution, so when we visit Vysokopetrovsky Monastery she pays the monks 1,200 roubles to pray for her mother’s health every day for a year. For how many people do the monks have to pray a day? For what ailments?
I watch a woman in her seventies with large brown splotches on her legs being assisted up the stairs by a frail man. She has thick legs, sheer stockings, socks and brown lace-up shoes. They climb slowly. That, I think, is what it means to be old.
From where we stand, with the old woman and man behind us, I can see the cathedrals, some radiant, others crumbling and under construction, a patch of brilliant green to the right where a photo shoot is under way.
Out on the street, my mother asks, ‘Do you want to go in?’ We are standing outside a small cathedral we almost missed because of the roadwork.
It is warm and cosy, smelling of incense, with murals on the domed ceiling.
A woman in a kerchief looks at us, says slyly, ‘Christ is Risen!’
A slight pause.
‘Truly, He is Risen!’ my mother says, remembering the Paschal greeting.
‘Thank goodness,’ the old woman says. ‘You’re one of us.’
I want to leave immediately.
The woman then corners us by a large icon of Mary cradling the baby Jesus and tells us there is only one true religion—Russian Orthodox. There’s only one true God—hers.
When the door chimes and someone else enters, my mother and I slink away.
We don’t speak on the cab ride back to the airport. The sky is grey and it’s snowing, which is unusual for May. We pass street after street of tall, grey apartment buildings, candy-coloured swings and slides here and there, between blocks, against a sky the colour of washed out laundry.
Grandma is crying on the phone when my mother calls to check in. It has been twenty minutes since we left her house. My mother is scared and anxious, physically ill, her eye closest to me a swollen cranberry.
This is what it means to have your roots elsewhere, I think, to leave behind your kin and move away: every time you leave you cut them to the bone.
My grandmother looked after me for the first five years of my life, although I don’t remember, and since then I’ve seen her a handful of times only. We hide so much of ourselves, though who knows how much of that is attributable to language, to cultural barriers, geographical distances?
All I know: we are happiest in the forest behind her house, sitting on a park bench, reading our books, hers in Russian, mine in English, in companionable silence under the same shining sun.
Leaving now, I feel unmoored like a small, rusty boat.
Hollow but somehow cut up, too.
Sometimes, what you have does not feel like enough.
Inside the terminal, my mother and I watch the planes land and take off. The waiter has muddled our order and so we find ourselves drinking a strange concoction of English Breakfast tea and fresh mint. My mother doesn’t try to be upbeat; she is too sick, exhausted, disappointed by our order.
A little later we take the escalator up to Moo Moo, a popular restaurant chain, recognisable by the enormous plastic cow at its entrance. We sit at wooden tables beneath plastic vines and faux-logs—the interior made to resemble a traditional farmstead—in the middle of the country’s second busiest airport, all angles and noise. We chew in silence and check our phones.
Tanya Vavilova is an emerging writer preoccupied with liminal spaces and outsider perspectives—by life on the margins. She was recently highly commended for the Lane Cove Literary Prize (memoir) and shortlisted for the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize.