It’s more or less an annual occurrence for us, the packing, the purging of that which will not fit in our bags, which no longer fits in our lives, and we lock the apartment door one last time, leaving the place devoid of the joy that is our presence, give the keys to someone who’ll probably walk into the cleanest deserted dwelling they’ve ever seen: Emma insists on a radiant scrub so that people won’t know how disgusting we’ve been throughout the year. Behind us, our last home, something we’d worked to make feel comfortable, warm, and full of spirit, is no more.
Usually, this ceremonial departure is done in a fit of emotions, the goodbyes to students and friends, the excitement of the new destination, a list of last times, visits to the favorite haunts of the bygone year. Usually, in that last month or two, all the warts of the city grow and permeate into declarations of what we won’t miss, such that every last thing that has piqued us over the previous however many months comes to a pointy needling head, the bad side just poking and poking at our open wound objections. Usually, we can’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Moscow has been the opposite. We got the worst side first, hated it almost immediately, and found ourselves struggling to stay, flying off the fold-out sofa in rants of rage almost daily. If it wasn’t work (it was 95% work), it was our landlords, it was a rude shopkeeper, it was the outrageous price of everything, how people didn’t hold doors open, how people stood stationary on the escalator (especially on the trafficked side), the stench of our building’s entrance, the way the internet would disconnect and reconnect about every fifteen minutes or so, making it impossible to watch YouTube without going crazy. Then, we got the winter.
For our first eight months, this place was a challenge, one in which we labored to find pockets of joy, in which our one day off a week, more often than not, consisted of shopping for groceries, trying not to think about the fact that we had to go back to work the next day, nattering at each other for being too pessimistic as we dragged ourselves out to make the most of the city. We visited Red Square and Gorky Park and Arbat St. again and again in those first months. We bought a sled and begged for snow, drank cans of beer as we took turns racing down the hills next to our apartment, the night concealing any fun we might have been having.
We are leaving soon, really soon, and it seems I’ve been waiting for this day since the week we arrived, all my hopes of Russia instantly gone a bit frazzled and out of whack, bashed on the rock hard truths of housing shortages and six-day work weeks. At times, it’s been a challenge just to give this place a chance. At times, I’ve felt guilty about wanting to go, as if I were just some average tourist who makes a snap judgment of somewhere that doesn’t have some unnecessary comfort of home. I mean we were living in Moscow, damn it, making pretty good money, so what the hell was my problem? My problem was finding space to enjoy it.
Finally, we got close enough to begin the calendar countdown, x-ing of the days as they passed, Emma periodically giving me the exact number of days left here, the number of days left to work, how many more grocery shops we had to do, trips on the Metro, anything countable. That’s when this city, disappearing by the calendar day, began to reveal itself as something more desirable, to open up for us, take us in a bit, give us a niche and home we loved. We got some vacation days at the beginning of May and reminded ourselves of what life was like when you didn’t just scratch six days a week to survive: We relaxed, became Muscovites.
This past weekend, I found myself looking at pictures of us in Moscow, re-visualizing the laundry list of great memories we’ve made, thankful that we’d braved the cold to go out and see and do, that we’d embraced the triple Christmas celebration, that we’d hung in there to have this experience, whatever spilt milk we’d stepped in throughout the process. In those photos, I found smiles and memories that were hard to recognize in the midst of our overall discontentedness, laughs that seemed to get trampled by the next minor tragedy waiting around the corner. I won’t say I never realized we were having fun, but maybe not that we’d actually had so much fun.
Unlike those other experiences, those other places we’ve lived and left, I’ve only grown fonder of this city as our departure gets nearer. The list of pleasantries…Emma says I like to make lists when I write…the list of pleasantries has finally expanded into that thing that you can’t capture without being in a place, that indefinable that keeps us packing and moving each year. One of the many great parts of always moving on to something new is that looking back generally seems to reveal the best of times, the surprises and challenges overcome, and you remember a place as once being, once feeling like home. Goodbye, Moscow:
St. Basil’s and all the onion dome wonders of the Muscovite skyline, the Kremlin, the parks—Gorky and Izmailovo and Victory and VDNKh (never did learn what those initials were about) and Tsaritsyno and Kolomonskoye and the Chistye Prudy loop, all of our great students (troublesome and true), FAQ Café (where we planned to return but never made it back), Arbat Streets (new and old), the rumbling beast known as the Moscow Metro, Red Square (for the umpteenth time), the shop ladies (from our previous and current shops), the market, the pickled cabbage and peppers and “gherkins”, the statues (hidden everywhere and a highlight for Emma every time), the drunk on our stoop (quick to smile and tip a hat as we go to and fro), the deep fried rye bread with mayonnaise-like sauce (probably better off without you), cheap beer, the first few snowfalls that struggled to get the city white again, the doors leading in and out of the Metro (may you continue to swinging freely and violently), a really good assortment of cheeses, my coffee jar (after my cafeteria broke, we just percolated from a jar, straining the grounds as we poured), my birthday beer mug (served me often and well), Emma’s yoga mat, the funky fold-out sofa bed which has defied us with its springiness, Izmailovo market and Prazhskaya market, the vegetable lady, the pickle lady, the dancing grannies, Tuesday night bowling and Dasha (our constant source of refuge in otherwise drearily dull months), our landlords (strange from day one, odd enough to sell our apartment only to give us theirs for our remaining three months in Moscow), the neighbor who can speak English, the pretty old lady who insists on saying hello each afternoon as we leave, IWB (interactive white boards—a technological advancement that has grown on me immensely), our hodge-podge hookah pipe and the ten boxes of tobacco we’d been carrying around since Palestine (we finally got together for a party!), button up shirts and slacks every day (good riddance), the hats (from ushanka—furry with earflaps—to veniks—felt for the banya), Port-O-Lou, fur clothing (may I never been faced with such ethical dilemmas again), short skirts and heaving busts, the guy who swept snow from the roof across the street…enough. You’ve given us enough. I’ve given you enough. No one needs to feel guilty anymore. All things must come to an end.