Puffed white seedlings float through Moscow’s hot summer streets, alighting on park benches, gathering on corners, or flitting through crowds, before a gust forces them onward. Often, the millions of ever-present puffs hang, suspended in mid-air as if they are motionless. That’s when I too pause, as if to capture one, but the bright wisps always elude my grasp moving sideways with a sudden breeze, down another boulevard or across the enormous ring road. Brushing past my lashes, they irritate my eyes and twist in my hair, only to fly off as soon as I untangle them. Speckled with white and filled with a magnificent heat, these brilliant long days of early summer bring Moscow radiantly to life. But I am a mess.
I’d forgotten that moving is awful. The transition, as we go between addresses and countries, is hard on my soul. In any one day, my well-rehearsed daily routines are disrupted by meddlesome thoughts and obsessive wonderings. Seeing a volcano on the television, I erupt in ridiculous laughter (is this my new home?), hearing a raucous song, I start to weep. My mood is frenetic, unpredictable. Interrupted as we are by packing, I spend evenings either staring at piles of our belongings or unsuccessfully ignoring the nagging sense that I should organize something before the movers arrive. In a corner of our bedroom, one such stack looms, forcing me to sift through it. I assess what should be trashed, what belongs to the US Government and stays, what should be put in my suitcase, what should be flown by airmail to arrive quickly at our next house, or what can be sent by the slow boat to arrive in Iceland a few months after we do.
In packing up everything, I reflect on my possessions and what I’ve achieved, or have not, during our tenure in Moscow. Is the novel ready to send to agents? Is my new business growing fast enough? What about my personal development? Overly critical, I question how these two years so quickly elapsed. Now that we have an exit date, time speeds forward, each day ending sooner than the last. The arresting thought is that it all will disappear, familiarity replaced by a complete sense of unknown. Certainly, I am a foreigner here, unskilled at complex transactions, unable to understand the nuance of cultural norms and, of course, incapable of communicating except with simple phrases and charades. But even as an outcast, I have my niche. I know exactly how to navigate this corner of the planet in my own way.
Gone will be the afternoons when I call my writing friend and we head through the noise of downtown to a nearby cafe with our laptops. Gone will be the runs along the river, watching the boats glide past Novodevichy Monastery while the sun reflects off the top of the gleaming Seven Sisters monuments. Gone will be the ability to walk to Red Square or meet my Moscow ladies for drinks overlooking the Kremlin. Gone will be the simple morning routines where B and M hold center stage, and the ease in which the children get to school. B’s morning walk through the concourse, where the cafeteria worker offers a free taste of something sweet, and two paces later she embraces the cute young girls in the video store/dry cleaner for her morning “hug-gy.” Three more steps and she’s knocking on the window of the commissary to say good morning to the cashier, another few paces and she’s jumping to the counter to ask the post office staff if we have packages. And by the time we arrive at preschool, only one block away, we’ve greeted twenty people by name.
Now our days fill with a series of au revoir events, everything is for “the last time.” In this community where so many move each year, there is a lot to do to mark the end. We eat hot dogs at final barbeques for the afternoon preschool class or potato chips for the morning preschool class. We attend hail & farewell picnics, graduation ceremonies, and office da svidaniya dos. At least in theses lasts, I celebrate the Moscow I love. With days before we fly out, I’ve completed my Russia bucket list and now own a precious Catherine-the-Great patterned Lomonosov tea set and an elegant Russian silk shawl. With my girlfriends at my side, I bought purple panties in the perihod and sang with the pretty girls from the conservatory while drinking Russian beer at Cafe Margarita on Patriarch’s Pond. In my clickety-clack shoes I perused the uber-expensive TsUM department store, lusting after a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes before drinking champagne cocktails and trying on DVF dresses. Strolling along the Garden Ring Road, with Mr. G on my arm, we caught an art show before dining with the trendy crowd at Coffee Mania. And even as I questioned my own literary achievements, I looked lovingly around the room at a ‘last’ event at our home and couldn’t believe our tiny group of dear friends included such accomplished, important creative types, not to mention the women that inspire me daily to be healthy, to be a better mother, to write, to be creative, or the men that make me laugh, or think in earnest about politics and foreign policy, or make me feel loved.
But as soon as I conjure up this, my beautiful lithe world of Moscow, and let these sweet familiar images tickle my eyelashes, like Stalin’s snow, it eludes me. This is all about to disappear. And I’m back to the boxes. A few more rooms to sort through before I put all the airfreight into the guest room and pack the suitcases. I must complete ‘change my address’ cards and say goodbye to my besties and get into our bed, made up with those rough, temporary sheets, and look out at an empty, echo-y house–our pictures in boxes, nailed into a crate, loaded into a container, heading out to an ocean, toward a land filled with ice. And I wonder, will I ever be able to capture these wisps, these small puffs of beauty that so easily, and only momentarily float before my eyes.
*Stalin’s Snow (pukh). Some say in the 1930s, when Stalin was building up the city of Moscow, he wanted greenery amidst his Empire-style buildings and along the avenues. So poplars were planted everywhere, a tree that would grow quickly, needed few nutrients, and could handle the harsh winters. But too many female trees were planted without male trees to pollinate them, and as a result, each June thousands of fluffy white poplar seeds fill the skies and streets of Moscow, looking a lot like summer snow, compliments of Stalin.