Saturday 8 August 2015

The love song of the dark lady V

Chapter 5

The accommodation was all inclusive, but I could immediately see that the food and drink was a disappointment to David. We sat on benches and were served a sort of Indian tea without any of the plant that is usually described as tea and what I can only describe as a mess of pottage. It really was a mess. On plastic plates we were each given some stewed vegetables with a slightly Indian taste. Nothing remotely resembled what you might expect to find in an Indian restaurant.

Galina was busy with her friends. She knew absolutely everyone and they knew her. I saw David looking around and wondering what to do.

“Why not sit with me, David?” I said. “I think, she’s a bit busy right now.”
“I could really do with some coffee to be honest,” he said. “I’ve been up all night and now that the excitement has worn off… What is this anyway?”
“This is what we’re going to eat for the next few days.”

I saw his look of disappointment and disbelief. He was slightly plump and I guessed he had no idea whatsoever about deprivation. He could buy whatever he wanted at the supermarket in Scotland and never had to even think about it. The idea of a few days without any meat, without any tea or coffee filled him with horror.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We can slip out for cigarettes and I brought some contraband with me. I had an idea that it would be like this.”
“You don’t mind?”
“I’ve been through worse.”

Indeed I had. When the Soviet Union fell apart the little enclave that was Kaliningrad suddenly found itself cut off from the rest of Russia. Whereas previously we had been able to travel freely into Lithuania and further into Latvia, within a short time there was a manned border. Now we needed a visa and it was not always easy to obtain. Over the years the border to Poland was sometimes all but closed. Sometimes it was the Russians that decided to search every car, sometimes it was the Poles, but the result was that it often took half a day to cross and nearly always took three or four hours.

In the beginning there were food shortages because the normal sources of food from all around dried up. The collective farms ceased working. Workers were unpaid and so did not work. People sometime think that when a country breaks up, everything that went on before continues to go on as if nothing had happened. This is untrue. We noticed the breakup of the Soviet Union and for the first year or so we noticed it every day. The shops were empty and anyway we might have to wait months for the next pay check. I remember gradually working my way through every tin in the cupboard, until there were none left.

My money from Cambridge continued. They were happy with the work I was doing and did not think it of any less value now that the Soviet Union had fallen apart. Unfortunately, in most of Britain the Russian/Soviet departments were gradually closed down until the subject ended up being almost as obscure as Sanskrit. But even if in the end, I had access to money, I did not always have it to hand and anyway, I did not always have anything to spend it on.

So we would go gathering what we could in the woods. We went fishing and hunting not so much for recreation as for food. We bartered and we shared. Most ordinary people back then were very generous. Nobody starved.

In the first few months after the breakup there was chaos. Petr did not know who he was working for now. The organisation that he had been working for ceased to exist and he waited to see what role he would have. Many of his friends and colleagues found themselves unemployed. The job they had been brought up to think was for life, was no longer needed, their experience no longer useful. Petr was lucky he got to stay. But he was paid much less and found himself earning less than taxi drivers, and he had less status than criminals.

There was a mad scramble to seize the assets of the Soviet Union and for the most part they were seized by crooks.  Petr’s grandmother ran one of the largest department stores in Kaliningrad and as the central power fell apart, it ended up effectively as hers. That’s how things went in those days. The party functionary who ran the factory ended up owning the factory. But he had to be willing to fight for it.

I remember Petr coming back one day to tell me that Olga, his grandmother, had lost the store. Some men had arrived and told her she must give them the shop and everything in it, and she must do so immediately. She made inquiries. Petr made inquiries. He was told that these men were untouchable and nothing could be done. He told his grandmother to give away the store. She did so without hesitation. That was how you became an oligarch at that time or failed to become one. Someone would say this one is untouchable, that one is not. The rich became rich because of connections patronage, luck and sometimes the willingness to fight or at least to risk things getting rather dangerous. Most of us did not think it was worth it. It was not.

It was better to be relatively small and insignificant. The initial risk involved in fighting for wealth was not worth it, because it would be liable to continue. There was always going to be someone stronger who was willing to fight harder and who did not fear any risks. There are always people who fear nothing, because they do not care and have nothing to lose anyway.  In the thirties the safest place to be was someone anonymous in a factory or on a farm. That was not always safe, but it was a safer than being someone important. So we did not envy those who got the store. They did not last long.

After the initial period of chaos, things gradually improved. But we had all been through a period when we eat just to obtain calories. We did not care what we eat. We would open a tin of stewed marrow for dinner and be grateful we had that. So I was fully used to eating vegetables and I did not mind doing without coffee.

When you live in Russia, you talk to people who have been through worse. It gives a certain perspective. I had been through the breakup of the Soviet Union. I had been through the default and the devaluation of 1998. I had gone hunting through shops when there was nothing. I had told my husband we did not have anything for dinner. I had received parcels marked ‘Aid’ from the USA and been very grateful.  It did not matter what was in the parcel, we ate everything.  I had gone through that sort of experience twice in one decade. It always runs together, perhaps, it was three times even four. We stopped following the news. It was always just one more story of parliamentary chaos in Moscow. The news did not matter. It only mattered that we sometimes got paid, and sometimes there were things to buy in the shops.

But there were always friends who rallied round and we all faced the tough times together. The thing is we all knew that times were just not that bad. So what if we had lost all our savings and so what if a loaf of bread suddenly seemed to cost a week’s salary? We knew that this was as nothing compared to what earlier generations had gone through. Everyone knew friends and family who had gone through the war years. We used the collective memory of this to give us strength. The war is much closer to Russians than it is to those in the West. It always seems very close indeed. It is not a matter of history, it is a matter of now. Those people are always with us. Their presence is why we feel their absence so.

So when I was faced with my cup of strange tea and my stew of vegetables, I simply ate everything while I watched David picking at his and leaving the most of it.

“Let’s go out for a cigarette,” I said.

As I got up I saw Galina glance at us. Was it disapproval I saw on her face? It could not possibly be jealousy. I was at least ten years older than David, if not more. But anyway if she felt at all proprietal about him, why had she not sat with him while we ate. I wondered again about what she was hoping for and what she was looking for.

The cold hit me again as I left the warmth of the building. But it was not unpleasant to stand out there for five or ten minutes. It was dry and fresh and invigorating. It was only when you were out in it for half an hour or more that it became really unpleasant.

“Shall we talk in English?” I said. “I’m sure you’re tired.”
“Why not? You speak English as well as me. Where are you from, Zhenya?
“I’m from Kaliningrad.”
“But before that?”
“I lived in Scotland.”
“Are you Scottish?”
“Why don’t you call me Effie, that’s what all my friends call me? That’s what they called me as a little girl in school in rural Aberdeenshire, too.”
“I don’t get it. How can you have two names?”
“It’s as much as anything about declension. You know that. Effie doesn’t decline, Evgenia does. It’s much easier living in Russia if your name fits the grammar.”
“Did you learn Russian as a child?”
“I’d describe it more as a teenager. Now, David, stop probing. We’ve only just met.”
“I’m sorry. You seem something of a mystery.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you to say. Every woman wants to be a bit mysterious. How did you start learning Russian and what for?”

We spoke a lot about our experiences with Russian over the next few days. From these I am able to piece together much of David’s story, naturally, I also told him some of mine.

He’d been in his early thirties, single and working in an office in Aberdeen. He had liked his work well enough, but the last year or so had been rather the same as the year before. Most of his university friends were married and he seemed to have rather missed out. If there were a boat, it seemed to him that it had long since departed or else had sunk prior to arrival.

What he liked to do tended to be solitary and somehow he had become very shy. Holidays were a particular problem. He hated travelling alone as he was not at all good at meeting strangers without an introduction. He just was not the sort who could get chatting to someone he did not know in a bar. He never spoke on trains. But the few times he had spent some time abroad in a strange town all on his own he remembered with a shudder as being very dreary, lonely affairs, watching other people having fun while not taking part.

Somewhere he read an article about language schools. There was a built in social element. There was the chance to learn something and meet some new people. He looked at the pictures in the brochures. Everyone looked like they were having fun. They were all university age or just past. There were usually some pretty girls.

He liked studying and although had never seriously studied a language, school French somehow did not count, he thought it might be fun to try. He had been looking for something, perhaps, a new challenge would make him feel less despondent.

He thought of the languages he might learn. Chinese and Japanese were too hard and anyway, it would be far too expensive to go to there on multiple occasions. He thought of all the western European languages, but he reflected on those who went to evening classes in French or German, and it seemed terribly dull and unoriginal. Anyway, he wanted to do something difficult. To be honest, I got the impression he wanted to be able to show off a bit. Who can really tell about someone else’s motivations? We all deceive ourselves and the reason may be something quite trivial. It can be something as small as a book you read, or a film you see or a person you meet for twenty minutes. The first step that takes you on a new path may be made for a reason even more trivial than that. Usually the first step does not cost very much. It might turn out that it leads nowhere, but sometimes a few pounds can change your life.

David bought a “Teach Yourself Russian” book that cost about 10 pounds. Thousands buy such a book and never finish it. Some barely even start. They waste 10 pounds for curiosity’s sake and to half learn a strange alphabet. David was one of the few who persevered. He had no teacher, just whatever books and other materials he could find on the Internet. Those first few months were pretty tough. I do not know that I could have done what he did.

After a while as summer began to approach, he began looking a for a language school in Russia. He did as much research as he could but in the end, the information provided by the various schools was much the same. He chose to go to Kaliningrad, partly because he wanted to go somewhere relatively small, where people were unlikely to speak much English, but mainly because it had once been called Königsberg, and he had rather liked Kant.

The three weeks he spent there was a very pleasant holiday. There had been plenty of students from the school with whom he could go on trips and out drinking. The school arranged for him to have conversation partners with two Russian girls in their twenties. They had not spent much time speaking Russian, but it was the first time in some years he had been out with a girl even if it was only for conversation practice. Who could tell, maybe conversation practice would lead to something else, if not this time then maybe the next when he could speak rather better?

He had liked Russia. It was not that far away, but it was very different indeed. There was something exotic in everything being written in Cyrillic and he found the Russian people he met had a subtly different mentality to anyone he had met previously. They looked more or less the same as anyone else from Europe, but he found himself surprised by how they thought. It was not that different, but it changed things around in way that was sometimes similar to the way Russian sentences came out back to front. The whole experience in Russia was like some sort of “Oh, Brave new world that has such people in it” series of encounters to him. At times it was challenging, but it was interesting and he grasped onto what he had found there and did not intend to let it go. He resolved to return and in the interim he decided to study harder and improve his Russian as much as he could.

His three weeks had taught him what he needed to do in order to improve his ability to successfully complete the complex task of speaking a Russian sentence. He had bought a book recommended by a teacher there which had hundreds of grammar drills. He did every exercise in the book, then turned back to the beginning and did them all again. He drilled himself in grammar like learning to play the piano. Only by practice could the piano player learn to play without thinking about the notes. The same applied with Russian. He drilled so that he could stop thinking about the grammar, rather like a piano player can only play by ceasing to think about the fingering of the notes.  He did all that he could to immerse himself, even drown himself in Russia. He watched films, he read novels and he read books on history. He hoped that by somehow almost transforming himself into a Russian he would be able to speak like one.

When he returned the following February, there were only two or three other students, but he did not want to talk to them anyway. He only wanted to talk to Russians. His teachers were amazed at his progress. He began to show off a little in the lessons and performed the odd party piece like translating an English poem into Russian. But they soon put him in his place with a full speed Russian sentence that he could hardly follow. But they did take him seriously. Few students at the school every made any real progress. But this one could.

It was at this point he met Galina. Someone had the bright idea that it would be interesting to put them together. It was. I could still see that spark that had been evident from the beginning. No doubt, it was one of the reasons someone thought they might do well together. It might smoulder, or more likely flicker. It might be damp and struggle to catch fire, but there was something between them, and it kept bringing them back together and preventing them continuing apart. That same indefinable something had been when they first met and it was still there now. It was as if they at any point could have fallen into each other’s arms. There was something like a current fizzing between them and yet there wasn’t the connection. There was something hindering, some barrier that couldn’t be overcome. So there would be a look that was shared, and then the shutters came down and there was nothing. It wasn’t by any means only David who was involved. Galina looked, too. She lit up sometimes when she saw him looking. They were a natural couple, but the moment when they should have kissed had long passed and it wasn’t clear there would be another such moment.  That happens sometimes with people who ought to be together.

David now spoke very well indeed and I could see that the motivation had been Galina. Without her he would not have put in the hours. Without her he would have been stuck at the level of most undergraduates who know a lot of grammar, but speak as if they are working it all out in their heads. In the time since he’d last seen her he’d thrown himself into the subject returning as often as he could to Kaliningrad. He spoke only Russian while he was there and stretched himself beyond what he thought were his limits. There was a freedom in the way he spoke even if there were a lot of mistakes. It was rare indeed for a foreigner to speak this well.

We shared notes in the course of our conversations. Of course, quite a bit of this was technical stuff about grammar and strategies of learning. There is no need to go into any of this. In general, David told me rather more about his experience of learning than I told him about mine. I had the impression of someone who loved to talk so long as he was in the company of someone who wanted to listen. We spent a lot of time together in those few days, either smoking outside, or else we would sneak down to his room and I’d pour him some of the whisky that I’d smuggled in.

I told David that I began Russian at Cambridge, which was more or less true, but I felt there was no need to mention that my degree had nothing whatsoever to do with Russian. It was a sort of optional extra course I took with a Soviet émigré. It wasn’t something I was able to speak about while I was at Cambridge, and I had rather kept that habit ever since. Did I begin speaking Russian when I was eighteen or was it rather earlier? There were times when I had needed to be rather vague on this point. So I never went into any great detail about my origins. That still remained the case even if my initial reason for coyness had rather changed. So I let David talk about his initial struggles with Russian nouns. I mentioned mine only in passing. I did however describe some of my experiences when I’d reached a rather higher level.

When I went to live in Kaliningrad I was given intensive private lessons every day for a year. This was a special programme for those who already had reached an excellent level. I was very lucky indeed to be given the chance to work with some of the best teachers in the Soviet Union.

The lessons were strict, serious and austere. I remember an element of sadism sometimes crept in. The teacher would read a complicated passage of Russian. My task would be to copy it. Every mistake would be gleefully pointed out by the teacher and I would have to copy out each word I got wrong five times. I learned to hate dictation with a passion, but it worked. In time, too, there was something of a thaw. Eventually, I saw that my teachers were rather pleased with my progress and just occasionally I surprised them by doing something rather better than they expected. This drilling combined with total immersion in Russian life where I never ever spoke English meant that after that year I reached the stage where no-one much questioned my Russian. I sounded like any number of Soviet citizens who spoke Russian, not quite like a Russian did but near enough so as it wasn’t an issue worthy of comment. I began to fit in, and gradually I found my voice and no longer needed to be shy at parties. I no longer had to avoid conversation, I no longer had to pretend to be the shy little women to scared to say anything. But I retained elements of that persona as it meant that people took me for granted and sometimes let their guard down.