City Mouse, Country Mouse

Daniel Brooks

Stories about emerging from being locked down are old hat. Everybody wants to be with their fellow man. Self-isolation is being forgotten. All is well. At the stroke of a pen, Moscow went from having no freedom of movement to being free. It has initiated a rush of irrational exuberance. Summer is here and the urge to be in the close proximity of other people has become irresistible. Going out to a small town in our neighborhood on errands is a high point. Taking a cab all the way to Moscow, having several glasses of beer and putting away a hamburger with an actual human being, on a veranda, with random people all around seemed as exciting as a vacation. The itch to convene calls out to be scratched and much scratching is now going on in this part of the world. 

Here in the suburbs of Moscow, things haven’t changed much. It is not like Kirkland Washington, where I most recently lived in the US. In Kirkland, going to the grocery store happened without a hitch. You went, bought and came back. A few people would say thank you enthusiastically, because it is the right thing to do. In my neighborhood in Russia, somebody always manages to shake you out of your reverie. These interruptions seem odd once again. My thinking has gone back to the early days of being an expat, when everything was new. All it took to become unjaded was 10 weeks of life as a hermit.

Driving back from getting my car fixed in our nearby town a few days ago, a goat ran out in front of me, followed by a smaller goat. They were making a beeline for a pile of trash. Behind them was a Babushka who ran across the road, angry at her goats. A shy goat wouldn’t budge on the other side of the road, knowing it was wrong to cross. It was a standoff. After jamming on my brakes to avoid killing any goats or grandmothers, I drove on and entered a roundabout at the same time as a massive SUV came onto it from the other side. Lots of room. He roared up, blared his horn, flashed his lights and shook his fist. That roundabout was his. I pulled into a gas station, hoping to escape, and the irate SUV followed me inches behind my bumper. He cut me off to get at a gas pump before I did, although I had no intention of buying gas (benzine for non-Americans). The pump he chose was out of order. As I circled around the gas station, he cut me off again to get in line at another pump, from the wrong side, cutting someone else off and causing a driver in an equally massive SUV to blow his top. I watched, thinking, who needs Netflix? 

After retreating peacefully to the grocery store, I gloved and masked up but found the disinfectant dispenser empty. Needless to say, I had my own stash and wiped down the handle on my shopping cart, hands, gloves, phone and forearms for good measure. Smelling like a dentist, I made my way to the meat counter where a pensioner was discussing a pack of pre-cooked chicken at great length. He had been cooped up for weeks on end and needed someone to talk to. Other masked pensioners were waiting to be served and they were complaining, causing the meat counter to rumble. Being a foreigner, I felt obliged to raise my hand and make my voice heard. As soon as I did, the other pensioners, a half dozen strong, chimed in loudly. It was a revolt. The man waiting for his chicken was unperturbed and took his time, knowing that out of conflict comes peace. 

A day later, I took a trip into Moscow. Getting ready to go was exciting. The taxi driver agreed under duress to wear a mask that I provided to him, open all the windows for the entire trip and allow me to spray down several locations in the vehicle. I went to the very center of Moscow to Niglinnaya Street. It is a part of Moscow that under Mayor Sobyanin has been renovated in a handsome way. I’ve heard Dutch architects were involved, but I can’t confirm it. Every last sidewalk tile has been replaced and a bike path is available, unused by any bicycles. The streets and outdoor verandas were busy, busy, busy. 

I found an empty veranda at an Irish bar, in the wind, and was joined by a friend who sat across from me at a distance of 1.5-meters, give or take. The connection was flawless with both the audio and video working perfectly. The restaurants in Moscow are now open for business, inside and out. People are having meals at tables right next to one another, looking marvelous. For those who don’t live in Russia, it should be said that when Russians go out, they dress their best, especially in Moscow on a rare, sunny, warm day that is free of hail, strong wind or a tropical downpour. A pandemic is one thing, looking good is another. The women that day had been spending week after week indoors, thinking about what to wear when the time came. Some walked by with lips extended both naturally and otherwise. Others were tattooed. Perfectly outfitted mothers went by with their daughters and both wore the same sizes. Many of the women walked down the street as if someone was making a video. The men were barbered perfectly. Some were muscled up and quite a few were as tattooed as the women. No one was dressed like a bum, other than the odd foreigner who needed to maintain long standing traditions of slovenliness. At 4 pm, the veranda was empty. When we left at around 730 pm the veranda was filling up as was the indoor sections of the restaurant. To hell with risk avoidance, it was time to eat. 

After disinfecting the taxi and taking several other precautions, I went back home outside the city. The village mouse in me appreciated the closeness of the trees and the two magpies who’ve taken over my compost pile. These days, I’m interested in magpies, a sign either of an improvement in my observational skills or a new appreciation of birds. The city mouse in me thinks a drive to Moscow to walk around in the evening and look at the lights would be a good idea, skipping the outdoor verandas. The lazy mouse in me proposes it might not be a good idea to go anywhere. Newfound freedom is not always good for mice, or men. 

Copyright, Daniel Brooks, 29 July 2019

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