A city for the sake of the city.

The joys of paperwork.

I lost my migration card before Christmas. It’s a small, thin slip of paper the size of your passport which you receive when you enter the country and you’re supposed to give back when you’re leaving. Everybody is very serious about not losing it, but no-one really knows why, since these days the border control fills in the form for you and keeps an electronic copy. In any case, the office was in panic. I was in panic. Other teachers whom I told about my loss were in panic too. On the canvas of this happy occurence we started sharing our strange experiences with Russian beaurocracy. Everyone has had some, and not even one person in the room had any understaning of why their paperwork problems appeared and how they were solved in the end. Russian beaurocracy just exists for its own sake and nobody can follow its twisted logic.

In fact, I often get the impression that the entire city exists for its own sake, a living organism, the king of the space it occupies, kindly allowing some people to populate it. Other cities seem to be designed with the comfort of its inhabitants in mind: Edinburgh, Warsaw, even my little hometown in Poland. The space serves the population, not the other way around. The pavements. Pedestrian crossings. Parks. Street lamps. All of them made with their users in mind. And Moscow?

Moscow vs. snow.

People say it’s been the most snowy winter in the last fifty years, and I am ready to believe that. There has been a lot of snow indeed. Beautiful, white winter. The snow covered parks and lawns and sparkled beautifully, smiling at me on my way to the bus stop. It also covered the streets, pavements and roofs of the buildings – and it had to be removed from there. The snow from the streets was piled up near the pedestrian crossings, so that it was no longer possible to use them.  The snow from the pavements was put near the impromptu paths in the snow that used to be real paths in the summer, leading to the shop or across the lawn to the staircases.

The roofs – that’s a whole another story. The snow, ice and icicles could fall from them any moment. The pedestrians should be protected from that, shouldn’t they? How? One solution would be to remove the snow and ice from the roofs, and that was a solution opted for by owners of many buildings. The ice-removing operation would usually involve one man with a shovel on the roof, another man on the pavement shouting at the people passing (“Careful! Don’t walk through here! Haven’t you heard me?! Around!”) and a piece of white and red tape, separating the dangerous area from the rest of the pavement, leaving no space for pedestrians to pass. An alternative solution is to notify the public that snow can be falling off the roofs by an array of signals: a plaque reading “Don’t park here from November to March, snow falling off the roof”, a hand written note “Danger!” or a good old white and red tape, left in some places for weeks, leaving the pavements uncrossable (even if the roofs near them were cleared – the snow could fall back any moment, right?). All of the above measures are perpetually ignored by the public anyways, the pieces of broken tape clinging to the walls of the buildings. Respecing all the precautions would make moving around the city simply impossible.

There is also snow that was never removed. Nearer to the buildings, on the no-man’s-land between the staircases and the streets, the snow was compressed to solid ice by thousands of feet stepping on it every day. Then the weather has changed, the snow got covered with a thin layer of water, making walking impossible, but the local authorities must have stayed at home for the entire day, as they started removing the water-covered ice only the next afternoon – a couple of hours too late for me, as I managed to break a leg on my way to work. Moscow has granted me a month of unexpected holiday, the third week of which is now passing.

Year-round power struggle.

Moscow is showing its unfriendliness not only in winter – the pavements, the entrances to shops and cafes, the swinging door to the metro, the way the ticketing offices are organized – everything designed with the comfort of the constructors and planners in mind, with no thought of the comfort of the actual users.

In the end, everything seems to be a power struggle. Sometimes these are the rich and mighty who want to assert their power by exerting it on the public space. Narrow side streets have even narrower pavements next to them. In the city centre, many of those narrow streets are populated by the most expensive apartment blocs and fancy offices. The doorsteps of those fancy buildings not only extend far into the pavements, but are also covered with strange, ugly and slippery materials, making the pavements essentially unwalkable. I teach in some of the fancy offices. My way to work turns into a steeplechase, all too difficult at eight am on gloomy, dark, Monday mornings. I exchange looks with other ghosts, going to work at that godforsaken hour and a beam of understanding passes between us.  All of us fight the same uneven battle against the city.

Much more often, however, these are the un-rich and not very mighty who want to assert the power they don’t have on the lives of the random passers-by. The people putting the city posters up in a way that blocks half the pavement. The queens and kings of the escalators telling the metro passengers off for standing on the wrong side of it. Shop assistants on whose authority it solely depends if you will get the bottle of water you so desperately need. Whether exerting those powers is an essential constituent of how they think of themselves, a selfless ignorance of the comfort of others or inherent, organic aversion to innovation – I don’t know. Probably all of these in different proportions.

Still here?

All of the above tiny little inconveniences combined and experienced in one day give an impression of a hostile city, a city which doesn’t want you there, a city which you need to fight with, a city which you need to prove worthy of. It’s not the most comfortable of places to live in. And yet – we are all still there, me and thousands of other expats. Why? It’s another question we asked ourselves in the office, and it turned out that we are here precisely because of all this. It’s exotic and it’s a challenge, and we all like the challenge. It makes life surprising in the most unexpected ways. It might be the Stockholm syndrome, a matter of honor or just plain old stubbornness – I don’t know. The fact remains that we are all staying for now.

What about you, dear Readers? Do you live where you live because of or despite something? What is it that keeps you where you are?

And what happened with the migration card? I had a photocopy which I have cut out and put in my passport instead of the original. The border control officer didn’t even notice.

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