Exchange August 29, 2008Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
The best thing about having a beloved from another world, apart from realising that, not surprisingly, the similarities outweigh the differences, though I’m sticking with my snobbery about British humour and am yet to laugh at a single Russian joke – though the ones about Finns aren’t too bad – about people falling over – nothing will make the Russian laugh more uncontrollably than mention of someone falling over (or, if he’s extra lucky, actually seeing it happen. I had to look on slightly bollockingly as he saw an old babushka unable to negotiate the St. Petersburg metro ticket machines getting mangled by metal and laughed hysterically rather than running to her aid) or a pun that produces anything vaguely similar to the word fart – is the quid pro quo cultural exchange. Like many a Westerner, I’d embarked on my foray into the Russian world prompted by the times I grew up in and the deserved fame of their literary canon. And then having the most private of access to a real Russian soul could only help deepen my acquaintance. “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” my arse. Churchill should have got out more.
But the terrifying part of the equation, from a responsibility point of view, is that I could have had almost total power to shape the Russian’s cultural learnings of Vyest for make benefit of his glorious Russian soul. He can rightly claim that he has made more available, more accessible, more comprehensible to me the wonders of Dostoevsky. Would I have bothered my arse reading Rozanov – a shit of the first order – were it not for him? Would I have made myself sit on an elektrichka and visit some out-of-town palace if I didn’t think the Russian might take his shirt off as my reward? Would I have put my suit on to go and see/hear Tchaikovsky at the Mariinsky if I hadn’t thought it was my duty to integrate in my new surroundings? Would I be intimate with the secrets of the Russian kitchen – I’m serious, by the way. Best food on the planet. Perhaps – if I hadn’t found the love of a local? Look at all he’s done for me, culturally. Literature! Music! Man-made beauty! Cuisine!
Russians younger than the Russian are as exposed now to the Anglo-Saxon West’s cultural offerings as much as everyone else on the planet. But when the Russian was a youngster, the West was still heavily culturally sieved for impurities. Germany was ideologically OK because half of it had come to consciousness and seen the political light and its philosophy and romanticism had been very influential on Russia. France, though politically wicked, was always seen as the height of sophistication. The aristocratic cachet of French as a second language hung on in some circles. French films and music were popular. Indeed, in its attempt to filter out much of popular culture from the West, popular culture in the Soviet Union could be very open to areas which, when I was a youngster growing up in London, would have seemed arcane and otherworldly. Indian cinema was popular. Italian film and music got an airing. And Central Asia and the Caucasus weren’t foreign at all. Mainstream Anglo-Saxon western stuff came through in drips and drabs. The Beatles were popular enough. Soviet citizens chortled happily at Some Like It Hot.
But now that we’ve sunk into the morass of degradation that is Berlin, the Russian has put all that is noble behind him and decided to make up for lost time. I’d had a head-start by learning his language and studying his country before I’d met him. For him, the West, beyond what he’d been given access to by his kindly Soviet cultural guardians, was a blank spot on the map. He hadn’t learnt any English. (German and French were far preferable.) Paul McCartney was a living byword for everything the Anglo-Saxon West was about. And the UK was a place where the soot-covered proletariat toiled for a slave’s wage while posh aristocrats in bowler hats and dripping in jewels flung the crusts off their cucumber sandwiches into their ungrateful mouths.
I’ve been lazy. Let the Russian decipher his own way through the cultural menu of my childhood. And the internet and TV do most of my job for me. Somehow he finds the music I grew up surrounded by on last.fm. Trips to the UK at Christmas mean he is exposed to all TV classics in one fell swoop. And it’s lovely to watch those programmes or listen to that music with a fresh set of eyes and ears. With a different set of prejudices. Heavenly to watch Steptoe and Son with him in a hotel bedroom with the subtitles on and him pissing himself with unprejudiced laughter. Wonderful, as I curl up in bed in the daytime to hide from a translation, to witness him enjoying Sister Sledge – Sister fucking Sledge! – as if they were the new, um, Sister Sledge. Or putting on Bananarama to encourage me back to work.
It slightly makes me wish he wouldn’t fuck off to Russia for half the cunting summer/autumn every year to stock up on new cultural goods to meet his side of the bargain.