There was this German professor of English Literature who spent a few years in a city somewhere in Nigeria. He told me that he was pretty much the only foreigner in the place, or rather the only white face on the streets, which was not in itself a problem, but even so, after a time it became unnerving. The story often comes back to me in Moscow, for here a white European such as myself does not stand out, but neither does the difference of the place.
When you arrive in Japan, or India everything looks different. The faces are different, the signs on the streets too, the buildings, the trains, everything around you shouts: “YOU ARE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE, DOROTHY: BEWARE.” Your otherness and the otherness of the place are explicit, and precede everything else that happens. But not here, where most people are white and European in appearance, and driving the same cars they drive in Germany or Spain. Some of the buildings are odd, but that is true in France or Serbia as well. The clothes, likewise, are the same and the shops they are sold in, and also most of the facial expressions, so that, after noting the initial weirdness stemming from the alphabet and the odd soviet fossils dotted around, you soon relax into a recognizable European country. And all the while the profound otherness of Moscow, the centuries old and miles deep elsewhereness of the land sets to work on you.
10 years ago the ceilings in Sheremetievo airport were lined with vertical chunks of copper piping, the grammar on the English signs was often badly wrong and the customs people had been brought in by central casting from an unnecessarily bleak performance of The Trial by Kafka. This helped: it served as a warning that you had slipped into the twilight zone. But now the airports look like any other airports anywhere in the world; the same shite franchise coffee bars and clothes shops litter the floors, everyone has the same wonky wheeled pull along suitcases and even the trolleys are free, rather than being run by a mob of grasping petty criminals in odd mix and match uniforms. There are trains running into the centre and legal taxi firms so that the old taxi mafia guys can’t charge you $300 for a 20 minute ride. This is all good, but it lulls you into a sense of false security. If you are a businessman or a diplomat it doesn’t matter for you can exist here in a cocoon. If though, you are planning to make your own way through the city and its life, you have been badly prepared
The result of this for many is a mounting sense of impotent rage as the world around you and the people in it refuse to do what you expect people who look like this to do. Then come the theories: they are still soviet, they are Asian, they are criminally insane, they are doing it on purpose just to piss me off, and when I leave the room they all become normal Europeans. After that you leave or you become resigned to it.