Moscow Wednesday Morning

secret: this is actually at evening time

Here’s a poem I wrote. It’s about life in the old bomb-proof building where I live in northwest Moscow.

 

 

              ※ ※ ※

     Moscow Wednesday Morning
 
It’s dark here in the morning
Someone decided not to change the
hours
Well what’s an hour anyway
So outside people brush the snow
and drive to work and it seems like
evening time but it’s not.
If you listen all you hear is wind and
snow shovels and street traffic
Sirens too

An old man walks his dog out on the
courtyard
That’s what they call it
The square of snow between the
apartment blocks
With something like a playground on
it covered in snow
Why does he keep that thing and wait for it
While it finds its spot to pee
Because the dog is his
And it goes for walks with him
Probably

I wonder if it’s that same rat mutt
that barks at me if I hurry
when I go to the bus stop and they
occupy the bench together that I pass along the way
Maybe the dog’s right
But how can you live here and not hurry

A young man stops to tie his shoes
They are not practical in the winter
Who told him that’s what fashion is
(Or maybe they’re just really comfortable.)

The woman from next door unlocks the door
And exits, goes to work
Her husband or the man she lives with
Beat her in the morning last week I think
I can hear it through the wall
I have no strength to tell of it

One time his car crashed just down the street
I was buying groceries when I heard the tires squeal
The muffled rip of metal, falling glass, and silence
There was a pregnant woman and we got her a chair from the
grocery store while everyone was pointing blame and
fighting
They don’t use iodine here, they put on some blue crap and
herbal remedies and such
Sometimes he comes home drunk at 3AM and fumbles with the
lock.

Just once
I heard a child laughing through that wall and
damnit I had just lain down to sleep
But the sound was sweet and foreign
and a comfort and the very last thing
on Earth I would complain about.

Everybody drinks and smokes and argues and philosophizes
And when they smoke by the window
on the stairs you can smell it in your room
even if you close the door
That troubled grey-haired man from one floor down has
broken the window latches again so you can’t keep it closed

Last year when it thawed he
blamed us since we’re right above him
But we’re the top floor and there’s
nowhere further up to send the blame.
At least the roof doesn’t leak
Stalin was still alive when they built
this place

Finally my neighbor comes out too,
And locks the door and leads his kid, I guess,
to school and puts his hand
upon his head as they descend the stairs.
I wonder if he loves him and I wish
I had a thousand smiles just for that kid.

Sometimes in the morning
Beneath the weight of dreams and
thrills and failures past
I do not know
Whose thoughts these are between my shoulders

 

 

 

 

(Photo credit goes to my iPhone’s panorama function, and to Alistair & Carrie Pitts for kindly letting me use their balcony to fiddle with photos while dinner was getting cold.)

My first music video: So Lonely – Moscow edition

I’m back. From Africa AND from Russia. Sorry for my absence from the blog here, too. I’ll try to keep it updated at least with short posts. I’ve got some exciting stuff for you this time!

Since the time I last posted, I’ve spent a few months in the States–and one in Moscow. I took a course there in June to earn a CELTA English-teaching certificate. I was hired by a private Russian school and I’ll start my teaching gig over there in September. Until then I’m back in good old College Station.

I can’t bring you Africa photos this time because my last ones are still unedited. Selected ones will appear some time before Judgment Day, I do guarantee that. Instead, for starters, here’s a pic of my motorcycle—

(taken in a barn in Arkansas. In April I took a Greyhound out to the east coast to pick up the bike then rode it back to Texas. This was on the return trip when I had to change the oil on a rainy day.)

※ ※ ※

Sometimes I become conscious of how privileged I am to be able to travel as much as I do. It gives you new perspective and I daresay some appreciation for the things you come back to. And then sometimes you leave those things again and move on, but it’s already a new you who’s moving, who arrives at newer places changed because of where you’ve been. God shapes the circumstances of our lives and sends you people who help you grow, sends you places where he can bring you closer to Him. T.S. Eliot said it better and I’ve quoted him before–

“We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place
for the first time.”

Well me, I’ve been to Moscow. Part of me wishes you could go, too. I love the sensation of shifting mental gears, of becoming aware of your environment as you encounter a new one. The first few days in a new place, or even returning to an old place…your senses are heightened, you’re a sponge that’s absorbing its vibes and stimuli, the heart of the place; you smell its scent, your eyes are really open to its facets, you sense its essence in a way you’ll soon forget again. You’ll learn to cope with it and desensitize yourself to its sharper edges soon enough. I thought of that as I rode into Moscow on the rapid transit rail from the airport. Russian birches smeared past through the windows all black-and-white and looming. Not gaunt, just tall, thin, and close-shouldered. I missed those birches.

On my last day in Moscow I spent a few hours in the metro. I needed something to do anyway, and I had an idea. I wanted a way to familiarize myself with some video editing software (FCP), but I also wanted it to be fun. So I decided to make a music video and spent some time shooting in the metro. For those of you who don’t happen to be fans of The Police, the video I modeled mine after was this one, of their song “So Lonely” (shot in the Tokyo metro):
(you may or may not wish to view it before you see mine)

Link to the original Police video

I took the audio of their song and made a sort of “Moscow Edition,” tragically without Stewart Copeland drumming on random objects. I hope it captures some bit of the feel of being there. The original music video is a conundrum, alternately brooding and at moments playful. I mean they do slap a giant fish onto a table in front of confused Japanese kids after all. But the lyrics are those of someone broken and torn up inside. Moscow’s like that too sometimes, a heavy place to live. Yet it’s a special place for me namely because of the people there whom I love. That’s just who you’ll get in this video–I didn’t have a three-piece band to romp around the metro with, so the stars are just the citizens of Moscow. Enjoy, and let me know what you think of it.

Watch my video in high-def: So Lonely – the Moscow edition on Vimeo.

You can either wait for it to load here, or go see it in high-def glory through the above link at vimeo. (tip to get it to load here: click play then pause it. It’ll start buffering)

Mikhail Zelenin - July 20, 2011 - 2:04 pm

Hello, pal! We are missing you. Your video is so lonely and funny simultaneously. For yuor american readers I can prove that our metro is absolutly like in your clip. lonely and funny :)

Grandpa - July 30, 2011 - 9:59 am

Hi Kenny,

It’s been a long time since I checked your blog since I wasn’t aware that anything had been added.

I really like your entry. The description of the birches was especially powerful for me.

I also enjoyed the video. I appreciated Mikhail’s comment authenticating its validity. However, as I watched it, I thought to myself that this was essentially what I saw in my frequent rides on the London Underground or the New York City subway/elevated system. My memories of the subway culture of the Chicago and Philadelphia systems is too distant (about 60 years old) for me to remember if the same atmosphere prevailed, and my travels on other systems (e.g., the BART in San Francisco) have been too infrequent to leave me with a clear impression.

However, based on what I’ve seen in London and New York, and what you caught in your video, I wonder if perhaps there’s not a universal subway (“underground”, “metro”) culture that prevails throughout the world, particularly at certain times of the day. It may be that it is even broader than the underground form of public transportation. The atmosphere of your metro video essentially was captured in Carl Sandburg’s “Halsted Street Car” (a Chicago street car). I don’t know if Davey used that poem in his senior project; but if you get a chance to read it, I think you may see what I mean. You can probably get it on the internet; but, if not, I can send it to you.

Good job!

Grandpa

The Water Closet

Also known as the cho, the john, the can, the loo, and the long drop, depending on where you are. In Mozambique they call it the “house of baths.” (But then again, Portuguese is a language that still refers to people respectfully as “Your Excellency,” if that gives you some idea…) If you don’t know how to find it, you’d better ask. If you don’t know how to ask for it, you might get by with some creative charades. But if you’re somewhere like Mozambique, there just might not be one around anyway.

In the “formerly” Communist countries I’ve visited, it seems inordinately difficult to find a public restroom in the city. You either sacrifice your dignity and go against the wall like far too many others, or in Russia you can just duck into the nearest McDonald’s or find a port-a-potty operated by a babushka who will let you in for about $0.25. You see that’s the great thing about Russia and the reason why Soyuz rockets are still the escape vessel for the International Space Station: they make a solution, it’s cheap, and it works, it just may not be pretty. But Beira has neither McDonald’s nor babushki, and thus began my journey while downtown to find that holy of holies, the porcelain palace.

So what’s a guy to do? Ask the locals. The shoeshiner boy on the corner gave me some vague directions to turn into that dimly-lit commercial arcade over there (whose shops were mostly closed and boarded), then to take the first flight of stairs up. Surprisingly, I found the stairs. This place was really creepy. As I ascended, there was blood-red graffiti and plenty of broken glass. One flickering light, nobody around, and a lone white guy looking lost makes a formula for getting mugged. I was just glad I didn’t have my camera with me…and yet part of me wished I’d brought at least the Olympus PEN to capture this place. I followed the stairs two flights up to the top, where there was natural daylight flooding in again from the left. Text painted on the wall proclaimed that to the left one could find the “Social Center of the 4th of October.” That’s the date the peace accords were signed to end the Mozambican Civil War in ’92. “Social Center” is a euphemism for drinking club.

I walked in and sidled up to the bar, vacant but for one red-eyed tottering patron to my left who at 1400 hours looked like he’d had about as many mL of liquor already. Feeling goofy, I asked if they had a “house of baths.” He nodded yes of course and went rummaging under the bar to get something. A moment later he surfaced with an enormous rasp carrying various rusty small keys on different chains and rings. He pointed to one, then another, and said (I’m translating here), “This one’s for littles, and thiiiis one, for bigs. The bathroom’s out the way you came.”

On the other side of the landing, the only available door was marked, “WC House of bath.” I used the “littles” key to unlock it, and as soon as it creaked open I wished it hadn’t. I will spare you the olfactory sensations that bombarded me; suffice to say this was gonna be a quick visit with breath held. The problem was, once inside, all the walls proclaimed “Prohibited to piss here” and a seemingly endless series of red arrows promised that the WC was in fact that way, back there, somewhere…eventually. It was like a cruel joke. It also seemed like the line between what was once wash basin and what was urinal was not so clear, so the locals had press-ganged the former into use as the latter. But I wanted to find the right spot if possible. So, with reluctance I followed the red arrows deeper inside this urban cavern.

Every step echoed off the uneven walls. Some sort of fluid covered the floors, reflected in the sickly yellow light. Water was drip-dripping somewhere, voices filtered in from who knows where (but seemingly from deeper inside), and something living (animals I assume, or hope) rustled around in the farther chambers. I was sure there must be other entrances leading in here, and was also sure I’d never seen a bathroom this labyrinthian. Escher’s paradise. The whole place reminded me of some level out of the old pc game “Doom.” Snarly noises and all. I realized why they’d had to write on the outer walls–everyone who ventured further probably got lost or eaten, so the rest resorted to using the outer room for their business. No way was I going further…at least for now. I followed suit, did my business, returned the rasp with a “Much obliged!” and headed for home. Beira’s salty street air had never smelled so sweet.

On the way, I realized little encounters like that one are what makes the city fun. A mundane trip to the loo wouldn’t be so memorable! In fact this visit put me in a jolly good mood. So just for kicks, I stopped in at an auto parts shop along the way and asked nonchalantly if they had any flux capacitors in stock, much to the confusion of the staff. (They conferred with the Indian owner who told them to tell me they were fresh out, maybe try again next week…) Oh, the world is full of colorful everyday places!

Some time later, just before leaving Beira, I found my way back to this unreal little spot. And for your entertainment, I brought a camera this time. Hope you enjoy the creepy photos and the little video I shot. Sorry I didn’t go further in…I think we’ve all seen enough already! (If the video doesn’t appear, you can download it using the link)
Some pop song blasting from the “social center” across the way provided a strange background soundtrack. Maybe someone will know what song it is… I’ve included two street shots from that day just so you get a sense of the city. Bonus: wait for the moment when I almost slip in the…uh…fluids.

The Water Closet

Download Video:
Download “The Water Closet”

Night Life & A Super Moon

…in which I wander a few streets at night, but not just any night.

* * *

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
Beira sleeps, pursues its way,
and swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies.

***

Not just any night. This was 19 March 2011, the “perigee of the Earth-Moon-Sun system” as Wikipedia calls it, or more simply, the night of the Super Moon™. Sounds a lot cooler, huh? The night when the full moon coincides with its closest approach to earth, making it the biggest moon in some 20 years. Also look out for the drunk guy fast asleep and snoring in the pushcart, as well as the night guard tending his fire and looking like some witch-doctor (in this area, not that unlikely!) I hope these few still give you some idea of the rhythm of Beira. The last few photos (taken from the Citadel) belong to the following night, when I decided I wasn’t quite done with that big remarkable moon yet, and so I cut it up through the window into some distinctly non-moon-shaped results.

Enjoy!

Living Space

Howdy everyone. Long time no blog, huh? Well, I’m back to civilization now–or at least as far as Nairobi, Kenya–and it’s high time I filled you in on what has been happening the last couple of months. I’ve just finished my two months in Mozambique. It was fascinating, colorful, and varied, as were the missionaries whom I met there. I saw some amazing things and heard some truly unbelievable stories. Well, unbelievable at least to the average western mind which has been desensitized to the presence and impact of the spiritual world in everyday life. Let me tell you, you can see God and the devil at work a little more clearly out there than you might at your office desk somewhere in the air-conditioned first world; but that doesn’t mean they’re not around there too!

But rather than start off heavy with all of that, I’d like to start off with a few simple, even mundane photos. Give a photographer a camera and no matter where he is, he’ll find something there to photograph! My “home base” was the AIM guest flat in the coastal city of Beira, and I’d like you to see a bit of it for yourselves. I described Beira to some friends on Facebook as a land where the entry fee to the sauna is included in the cost of your visa. The sauna is open 24 hours a day (for your convenience) and is located on the street, in your car, in your hotel room, or really wherever you might find yourself. Tropical sun, stifling humidity, and a sea of palms around the cityscape. As it grows dark, the local mosques blare out their sharp, off-toned calls to prayer, sub-par pop music (always the same reggae chords!) begins wafting up to my windows, evaporating from the cheap little radios through the cracks and crannies of thatched-hut suburbia. The local roadside market comes alive with a to-and-fro bustle as everyone, homeward, seeks to buy their daily corn, veggies, fruit, and fish.

Upon leaving the country, I wrote down the following farewell to Beira: “Stale sweat, half-dried fish, diesel exhaust, slimy puddlemud that smells like excrement, rotting fruit, garbage, Coca-cola served with tinkly pop muzak in local dives with names like “Why not?” and “The Cigarette”, raw neglected asphalt crumbling back to dust, cheap Tentaçao gin wafting from your смутные обжорки and the passing night cars, cheap cooking oil rising from your tragically unsugared mundazi doughnuts crackling in the pans at dusk. Прощай, немытая Beira, farewell and may you clean yourself up a bit until we meet again. But you know what, Beira? You’re ok by me. Your avocados make it all worthwhile. I’ll miss your mangos, and your old toothless Englishless ladies selling fruit and nuts and laundry detergent were a charm I’ll not forget. Please tell your young ladies to take a clue from them and get some class, the mzungu is not automatically interested in jigijigi. Speak softly and carry everything on your head.”

The city was a colorful place, alright. At times an attractive place, at times tiring. Утомительное, как солнце. And so the guest flat–located on the top floor of an old, sombre, thick Soviet-style concrete housing unit–was something of a place of retreat for me. After several months in the field, retreat became tempting for me when photographic situations would arise. Sometimes I get worn out, burnt out, and then it takes energy for me to go out there and meet the crowds and colors with my camera, even though I know I’d love to capture that beauty and bring it back. I’d want the “done” without going through the doing of it. So some days I took it slow and stayed inside “The Citadel”…an appropriate appellative, I think, considering you had to get past some five locks and three doors to get inside. But for all of its unsavory smells and city stress, Beira remains a pleasant memory for me. That’s the nature of the city, any city, full of good and bad, beautiful and repulsive, a struggle and a conundrum. And besides, the produce alone was worth the trip.

Here are a few photos from that guest flat, from my living space. For now we’ll go just past the sunset, with a few street shots from the window. When we’re done here we’ll take a trip outside and see what Beira’s like at night.

Davey - April 4, 2011 - 6:26 am

I like these — as you know, I completely understand the compulsory urge to photograph *everything* when I can, and to imagine photographing everything even when I can’t. Strangely enough, I think these photos are a good summation of that feeling.