Drawing my curtains on Monday morning I was excited to see winter has finally arrived. Moscow is sprinkled white! Although the snowy scene made me smile it also comes with anxiety. Having never experienced a Russian winter before, I must admit that I am dreading it. To make things worse, this year’s winter is set to be the coldest Russia has faced in 1,000 years! So not only will I be living through a Russian winter but one which even today’s Russians have not yet wrestled with! Gulp…
The battle has begun and I’m ready with my armour: a North Face duvet jacket, Icebreaker thermals, snow shoes, ski trousers and a mountain of woolly socks. I’ve even purchased a fur hat from Izmailovsky Market! Well if that isn’t enough, I’ll just have to strap a hot water bottle to me and hibernate.
Until now, the Land of Winter has been far from wintery. I first arrived at the end of spring, with very little knowledge of what awaited me. Landing at the airport, I was full of enthusiasm but also worry. I hid my passport and money in my travel pouch thinking I could be walking into a trap. But on seeing my driver’s friendly face, my fears evaporated.
As I settled into my new surroundings, spring dramatically gave way to a record scorching summer. Fortunately I left Moscow for Italy, escaping the grips of the wild forest fires. On returning, I asked my Moscow friends what they had experienced.
They told me the city had turned black; dust settled on every inch and filled the air. The smog was so bad sometimes they couldn’t even see out of their flat windows. One said she couldn’t see her colleagues in the next office to hers. The only protection they had was wearing a mask. The heat was unbearable with temperatures reaching (and sometime surpassing) 40 degrees Celsius. And to add insult to injury, air conditioners tripled in price! Those without air conditioners to filter out the smoke resorted to draping sheets over their windows. The fires, topped by the smog and toxic fumes, claimed an estimated 15, 000 lives (54 taken by the fires) and ravaged 2,000 homes. Russia was in crisis.
I came back in September to an airport in chaos, evidently still recovering from the summer disaster. The arrivals lounge was overflowing with piles of suitcases, boxes and trolleys. But my suitcase, packed with my new winter gear, was nowhere to be seen. After waiting around for two hours and pestering the staff for the whereabouts of my baggage, I was led to a desk to fill out a form. Just as I was filling out this badly translated form, three assistants came running up with smiles. To my relief they had found my suitcase. Though the delay had been stressful, I was a lucky one – the only effect the fires had had on my life was a disorganised airport.
Autumn brought beautiful reds, yellows and browns and a new flat for me in Krylastkoe (it so happens on Osenniy (Autumn) Boulevard!). With the sun shining gently and leaves dancing in the light, one felt pretty cheerful. Vera and Dim, a lovely Russian couple, took me on a stroll one Sunday around The State Museum Reserve Tsaritsyno. The park was magnificent, showing off the season at its best, with The Grand Palace as the pièce de résistance.
The Grand Palace was constructed for Catherine the Great, between 1775 and 1796, by the famous Russian architects Vasiliy Bazhenov and Matvey Kazak. Its enchanting style certainly makes you feel like you’re in a fairytale. Abandoned to decay following the death of the Empress, it was resurrected in 2007 after its renovation was approved in 1984.
Vera, who grew up nearby, told me that before the renovations no one paid much attention to the overgrown park and palace remains. As a child, she would play with her friends amongst the vestiges. These days it’s a favourite with Muscovites and tourists. It’s hard to imagine that, until recently, this splendid site was just a derelict shell.
Walking around the grounds (700 hectares!), you have the pick of forests, fields, a lake, pond, gardens and fountains, not to forget all the historical value which is gathered there. It truly is a Moscow treasure.
During our promenade, I was intrigued to see girls making headpieces from colourful leaves in the forest. It was as though everyone was out celebrating the season. The kind weather seemed happy to accompany us a while longer too. Only last week I was without a hat or scarf! Now we’re bracing ourselves for the big cold icy cloud to descend (and as a fellow expat exclaimed when seeing the snow): “This is the beginning of the end!!”