It may have been 1997, but this was the Russia of the seventies. Soviet and grey. No snow to lift the spirits, no golden domed churches. It was cold, and the sharp wind lifted the dust from the dry streets. Grey streets, flanked by grey concrete blocks, almost silent. People walking, with heads down into the wind, were minding their own business. This was a small town, a world away from the chaos of Moscow and its six lane highways – there was an absence of traffic here, and the quiet streets echoed to the sound of nothing.
It was November and I had been here for two months. Despite the odd pang for home, with its beer gardens and green hills, I reveled in being out here, far away in Russia. I was enchanted by the grey otherness of this place, by the extraordinary palaver of simple everyday tasks and the adventure of just getting by. A few days before I had tried to buy wrapping paper, but didn’t know how to say “wrapping”. As I tried to describe it in my rudimentary Russian, “special paper, to put on a present”, a small crowd formed to watch my linguistic struggles. Their curiosity soon turned to laughter. The well meaning but baffled shop assistant had returned with two rolls of toilet paper. And so, on this bitter day, I was setting out for the first time to the other side of town, to find the Post Office and buy some stamps.
Chkalovsky was a secret town, a dormitory town for the enormous military airbase that dwarfed it to the south. And even though the Soviet Union no longer existed, people were suspicious of foreigners – we were still few and far between. It hadn’t been long since the rules forbidding any contact with foreigners had been relaxed, and the reactions I received varied from great excitement (in the market, “Hey! It’s our Foreigner, Наш иностранец! Come over here and buy some of my apples today!”) to fear (my elderly neighbours, who reported me to the police). Buying bread would often, after initial surprise and a degree of wariness, end up in a friendly interrogation of who I was, why I was there, if I was German (“it seems to me that he is Estonian”) and why I wasn’t married yet.
Buying anything was complicated enough. First, it was necessary to know where to go – it wasn’t necessarily in the same place that it had been the day before, and even when it was, long negotiations were necessary before a purchase could be made. More than once I was told that I couldn’t buy potatoes or milk, by fearsome women standing in front of huge piles of potatoes or shelves of milk. Stamps represented a distinct step up. Post offices are part of the great bureaucracy that administer and control a state. People that work in post offices know this and will gladly succumb to the temptation of applying their red tape in situations where it is not strictly necessary. A foreigner, in a secret town, buying stamps to send a package overseas, was an opportunity to exercise control and influence. I was, in truth, slightly nervous. The previous week, a fellow English teacher in a nearby town had been held by the police for four hours until he was able to produce the correct documentation, which turned out not to be his passport, but a wadge of US dollars. I didn’t have a wadge of dollars.
In fact, I was greeted warmly by the postmistress who happily sold me the stamps and barely noticed my accent. I was mystified and slightly disappointed. Because the reality was that part of the appeal of being so far from home, was being made to feel a bit special. I was the thing that was a bit different in the town. I was the only foreigner here! Except that I wasn’t. For here, in a post office on the far side of town, on the other side of Europe, I was not special. I was not the only foreigner. There was a New Zealander in the phone booth.
My first reaction was one of excitement. For all my glorying in being the outsider, I was just that, an outsider. I hadn’t made many friends yet. And, actually, I did have someone to talk to – it’s just that he wasn’t very talkative. Because not only was I not the only foreigner in our town – I wasn’t even the only foreigner in my flat! I shared it with a skeletal and morose Scotsman. He didn’t get out much (so he didn’t represent much of a threat to me in my role as exotic and interesting foreigner) and had sent me to Coventry for some offence, as yet unknown, I had seemingly committed. He taught in the same school as I did and, to the delight of the kids (secretly, to me too), was called Gavin. Gavno, is the Russian for shit. But here, in the Post Office, was a New Zealander. New Zealanders like to drink and make merry. Here was a real friend in the making.
My new friend was shouting down what was clearly a terrible line to his mother. I decided to hover, so that I might say hello. So, pretending not to listen, I started sticking stamps on to envelopes.
“WHO?” he bellowed. “SHE SAID WHAT!”
I chuckled to myself, and pretended to read one of the notices on the wall.
“SHE’S A FUCKING LIAR”, he told his mother. “IT’S NOT MY BABY!”
I stopped chuckling and looked around, and found the postmistress watching me, wondering why I was reading the kindergarten notices. I began to wonder how I was going to approach my new friend.
“Oh hello, I couldn’t but help overhear a fellow foreigner. Fancy a drink? Er, bad luck about the love child by the way”.
“YOU CAN TELL HER THAT I’LL NEVER HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH HER OR HER FUCKING BABY”
I realised that there was no way that I was going to say hello to this man, this man whose face I had never seen, and, with a heavy heart, I set off for home on the other side of town, past the grey concrete and dusty wasteland, to my flat where a gloomy and silent Scotsman was waiting for me. It had begun to snow, ever so slightly, and small eddies of flakes were dancing on the wind.