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On The Couch

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Our need to get our heads around couchsurfing had left us without much grasp of Moscow: we’d spent much of it in a Petri dish of domesticity. Couchsurfing was meant to be the vehicle, but in Moscow, it had done the driving. I was looking forward to being in Polly’s apartment without Polly for a day. She’d despatched her friend Sasha to meet us off the train. All we knew was that her English wasn’t very good, and she wasn’t a couchsurfer.

As the train slowed down into Yekaterinburg—founded in 1721 by Catherine the Great and where, in 1918, the last Tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks—my heart sped up. Like looking at a jack-in-the-box, I was expecting the shock, but I knew I’d still jump.

Scanning the busy Friday evening platform for a young Russian woman was like watching an identity parade without witnessing the crime. But this was a redundant task—immediately outside our carriage were three coloured balloons attached to the hands of a smiling sylph with long ballerina hair and a peaches-and-cream, babydoll face.

Sasha’s uncontainable excitement proved a handy tool for cutting through any social tensions. We fell into a spontaneous group hug, giggling in idiotic communion, holding our respective balloons. After a physical tussle between us over her insistence on helping with our bags, we headed to the tram stop, engaging in much sign language, and confused yet eager communication: ‘I very dream talk of London!’

We managed to gather that she was twenty and, like Polly, halfway through a six-year journalism course. Plus, she explained, by putting an imaginary microphone up to her mouth and adding a few key words, she presented for a local news channel—we were in the company of young ambition. She had a brother and a sister, which was a lot of siblings by Russian standards: ‘My father is hero!’ she joked. She loved British and American music, but not Russian—hip-hop, lounge, Alicia Keys, Bon Jovi.

‘Cool,’ we smiled.

We feigned cheery obliviousness to the freezing, thirtyminute wait at the tram stop. Yekaterinburg had a Siberian sense of space. Large, low-rise Soviet blocks inhabited the wide, quiet streets, which were veiled in an icy, dusty mist that whispered hostility. Its cars were thick with the spit of slushy streets. But Yekaterinburg seemed less desperate than Moscow. There were fewer drunks and street folk scratching around for bread money, and a little more laughter and conversation. A small child overheard us talking, and said to us, ‘How are you? How are you?’ We were more of a novelty here, not least to Sasha.

As night drew its inky curtain across the overcast day, Sasha gave up on the tram, and held out an elegant gloved hand to hail a taxi. Three private cars pulled up in quick succession, and then drove off.

‘This is how is be Russian woman,’ she sighed. ‘They say, ‘Oh, you beautiful woman and then…’’ She finished her sentence by motioning a brush-off.

Eventually, we were delivered, via a muddy, rutted track, to an uninvitingly dark and vast residential estate in Central Yekaterinburg, filled with sad, skeletal trees—the perfect horrormovie set.

That is, until we passed through the grim, dingy stairwell. Inside, it was as if we’d booked into a boutique hotel: all darkwood, floor-to-ceiling wardrobes, blonde-wood floorboards and plum organza curtains. It exuded the distinctive smell of newness.

‘It’s all Ikea,’ Sasha said, proudly.

The bed was pleasingly huge, a king-size surrounded by a dinky white wooden fence and cornflower-blue flocked wallpaper, straight out of Elle Deco. Or Ikea.

Returning my stare, and motionless on its hind legs was a rat, dull brown and threadbare, right in the middle of the floor. Behind bars, thankfully. We approached with caution, eyeing it suspiciously. Sasha, meanwhile, skipped into the kitchen and grabbed a thick red dictionary (or ‘diary’, as she called it). ‘Please make what home!’ she grinned, reading from its pages. Then she skipped to the cage and fished out the rat. ‘Hello DouDou!’ She thrust it towards me. ‘Hello Fleur!’ I reluctantly fingered its coarse, matt coat, but soon stopped. Then she walked over to the bed, and lowered DouDou on to it. It scampered to the edge. I traced its path without blinking, yet it disappeared. I stared hard at the bedcovers. Eventually, they rippled: it had burrowed underneath.

Pinned to the fridge on squared paper was a note from Polly:

Hi guys! You are Welcome! Well, now you’ve reached the destination and I hope you’ll feel yourself like home.

I don’t know in what my flat is because I’m still in Turkey. I hope Sasha keeped it well. There are two most things you need now!

the bed I hope you see it :-)

and the supermarket (about 3 minutes by on foot…)

[she’d drawn a map.]

So, I will arrive in the morning of 19th and I won’t explain you anything else because I hope to see you soon.

Enjoy your first night in Yekaterinburg.


Sasha hopped into hostess action. Taking leaves from a chic, artisan-looking brown paper bag, she brewed a fragrant floral tea, then interleaved some slices of tomato and bland Russian cheese on top of slices of black rye bread. She neatly sliced an orange, an apple, a pear and a banana and fanned them out on a white Ikea plate (our first taste of fruit this trip).

‘Heat, heat!’ she urged, adding, ‘I can’t heat’

‘Why not?’

‘I used to be model but too fat,’ she cried.

I checked her out there and then. Her skinny-cut Hilfiger jeans—no more than a size ten—were cutely crammed, but fat? No. Who had she been modelling for? Amongst others, the Yekaterinburg Journal. She could afford an apple slice.

Sasha certainly had a lot of energy stored somewhere. She broke into song (it sounded neither British nor American) and danced as if stirring a giant saucepan with both hands. Ollie and I were rather more sedate (or shy), watching the show. We needed a Wi-Fi zone, so she suggested we went to Rosy Jane, an ‘English’ pub where she used to work on ‘Face Kontrol’. Face Kontrol was Russia’s ‘survival of the fittest’ entry-selection process in its clubs and bars, where ‘fit’ could be measured in cosmetics consumption. Sasha rose to the occasion with a thick mask of make-up over her perfect complexion and pulled on Polly’s black patent-leather knee-high boots. From what we’d seen in Moscow, you weren’t a real Russian girl without them.

The door-bitch deemed Ollie and me too sportif but Sasha managed to sway her.

Inside the wood-panelled, pub-themed bar, she lit up a Parliament Light.

‘Polly no drink no drugs. I am smoking and drinking,’ she said gleefully.

She told us about a local music festival: ‘Three boys very ill,’ she said, pointing skywards. ‘Cocaine. Girls eat drugs but they control situation.’

We ordered drinks, chatted for a polite length of time, and then tried to log on, but our own private cabaret refused to stop performing.

‘Are your friends coming down?’ I asked, thinking that perhaps they could entertain her.

‘Russians work, work, work maximum—they don’t control time,’ she frowned, adding, ‘Is a Russian tradition to work when drinking.’

Or drink when working. Behind us, two office girls were dancing shamelessly on an empty dance floor.

Our Wi-Fi needs were eventually abandoned, while Sasha bounded on: ‘I will shocked that Polly hosting. Russian tradition to have Russians, but tourist never. We think you’re going to steal it.’

Ollie and I laughed in shock. But it was certainly either very amazing or very naive of Polly to agree to us being there without her when we had no references (not that she did, either).

‘My parents were worried too,’ Ollie said, understandingly, and told us how he’d had to show them our hosts’ profiles.

‘My mother looked at my father with eyes on stalks,’ he explained, ‘But my dad said, ‘These look like nice people, Jeni. Remember when we were eighteen. Hitchhiking is the same.’’

Except that couchsurfing, with its reference system and verification, was way safer.

The English pub succeeded in recreating the essence of an English Friday Night, complete with binge-drinking, elbows at the bar and insufferable disco beats, so we retreated homeward. Sasha threatened to stay the night—not, I think, to check up on us, but because she just wanted more. To my relief, she ordered a taxi and went home.

Now unobserved, Ollie and I made ourselves at home, making tea, casing the fridge (empty but for Clipper organic ground coffee) and cold-reading her white, fitted bookshelves: five Lomo cameras protectively stored in their boxes, a Super 8 and a few books (Kafka, 1984 and some Russian chick-lit). Being able to adjust to an alien environment without the added pressure of having to get along famously with our host, was a welcome reprieve. Ollie and I were now having fun.

Ollie swore that he really would rather sleep on the floor to elevate his alarmingly large leg. Meanwhile, the rat seemed to sense the presence of danger, gnawing away at the bars of his cage.

‘It’s a controversial pet,’ Ollie pointed out, ‘considering all the rat infestations in the Gulags.’

Controversial—there was a clue about our host.

Spread like a starfish across Polly’s bed and now finally alone, I read again the response from The Emperor. ‘We both know,’ he’d written. ‘I’ve been thinking the same. It makes me so sad…My soul is aching.’

This was supposedly the right response, yet it broke my heart. I indulged in that silent land of tears. By day, as couchsurfers, we were forced to live publicly and so I was forced into coping. That was actually quite useful.


During a spot of couchsurfing in an internet café, the person sitting next to us happened to be a fellow couchsurfer. A middleaged Australian kidult who talked too much, he was off to Krakow for a big party. He was ‘surfing’ with his Russian girlfriend after a messy divorce. It suddenly felt like we’d joined a secret society. But we had work to do, leaving gushing references for Olga and Max. Displaying true amateurishness, we closed with a kiss.

Sasha had asked us to be part of Polly’s surprise welcome home committee for six o’clock. Except that we lost half an hour to trying to locate Polly’s block from the scores of other identical beige-brick blocks, all unmarked save for their information boards by the door—all carrying identical flyers. A Ryazanov moment (as we’d had trying to locate Max’s apartment) was only spared by comparing an earlier photograph to all the doors until, finally, we had a match.

At Polly’s, Sasha and her friend Albina were creating a Post-It collage on the breakfast table in the shape of a giant, umm…

‘Da!’ shrieked Sasha, holding my hand in kittenish enthusiasm. My hand went Britishly limp. ‘It’s a ‘pennis’!’

‘Err, why?’

‘It’s our fantasy!’ she giggled.

I saw right through Ollie’s smile into his fear.

Around the apartment were orange balloons and oranges sliced into quarters (orange was Polly’s favourite colour). Who got such a homecoming after just a two-week holiday, I wondered. Was this normal in Russia, or was Polly abnormally lovely?

Eventually, out of the kitchen window, I noticed a glossy black Range Rover with blacked-out windows. It seemed to match this luxurious, modern apartment. My eyes locked on to it. Sure enough, out popped an impish, tanned girl with a confident crop and over-sized, tomato red spectacles. She looked up to her apartment and saw me. I waved at her. She waved back.

‘She’s here!’ I hissed.
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