The Mad Teacher

We all have the potential for madness, but the degree of its manifestation is what really matters, in order to be considered as mental, or just slightly eccentric. The amount of crazy people though is very likely to be on the increase, considering the society in which we are living, not helped by the Corona crisis.

Some time ago, on a visit to a local pub back in Sheffield, to get a cup of coffee I noticed a teacher working at a local school talking with herself. Well, at least it appeared so, because despite my predisposition for what is medically known as hallucinations, I couldn’t spot anyone sitting next to her, and neither could the pub’s staff judging from their whispers.

“Look, look, she is talking with herself!” The waiters were obviously having a blast, and in all honesty, it looked very funny. The teacher was vividly gesticulating into the void and taking part in an animated dialogue with someone who was either invisible or a total illusion on her part. The hilarious part of it was that she was turning slightly to her right, as if indeed there was someone sitting next to her, and the scene looked surreal, as if we were on the set of a new episode of Harry Potter.

I have to admit that I also produced a couple of chuckles, because, first, well, it was quite comical, and secondly, I locked the eyes with the waiters who knew me quite well, and it would be impolite and rude not to join into the camaraderie building, even if admittedly it isn’t nice to laugh at the expense of another human being. But we all do it, despite the teachings of our parents and teachers (ironically so) to the contrary, and we all occasionally watch the funny bits on Facebook or YouTube where eager individuals upload the videos of people in funny distress. Did someone break their leg? Ha-ha-ha. Did he fall down the stairs? Ha-ha-ha. Was she just dumped? Ha-ha-ha.

              Well, you know what I am talking about.

But once back at home I was quite sad that I had joined the laughing crowd, because the situation wasn’t that straightforward. You see, I had heard about that teacher. She was diagnosed as ”schizophrenic” when it appeared that the profession of a teacher wasn’t as glamorous as the government had promised, when she found herself dealing with challenging teenagers and often, ungrateful parents, a mortgage which she had to pay even if she lost her job, and two own daughters to raise in the hope that they would become responsible individuals and do well in life. Which in our society has been reduced to getting a job, a house, a husband and some sort of retirement. We have all the reasons to get mad, with the demands that we face in terms of how to be more or less successful in life. We are all victims of what is presented to us as ‘normality’, where watching something like a Big Brother is sold to us as a nice show to watch, where we are driven to build our lives around constant consumption, and where we are reduced to find a partner via an app.

But it wasn’t the knowledge of her personal circumstances which made me uncomfortable. It was the realisation that maybe it was us, the laughing public which had missed the obvious. What if, there was someone sitting next to her? I mean, how do we know? How come that we believe only what our eyes show us, and yet, buy in masses the most recent scam in the field of self-help? Why are we ready to spend a fortune on gurus telling us how to live our lives, and then laugh when we are confronted with a proof that there might be something else out there?

We should never laugh at the expense of others, because one day we can find ourselves on the other side, and then, it won’t be funny.

Dima, ou es tu?

I was sixteen, and still studying at school. On the day when I encountered Dima I was taking the Moscow’s underground to deliver myself for a photo session at a modelling competition. It was the time, which lasted for a year at most, when I was dreaming of becoming a model. In other words, I was completely, totally insecure in both my body and my head.

When I entered the wagon at one remote station in our beautiful underground, I immediately spotted Dima. The guy was charming, had dark hair and was laughing in a very sure way with two girls sitting next to him.

A cute guy and a student, I sighed. No way a person like him will ever notice my presence. I was wearing a terrible fur cap (to safeguard my hair for the photo session), while the only piece of style in my wardrobe was limited to the boots, which half of Moscow was wearing at that time. It was the period when limited pieces of fashion were attacking Moscow shops in masses. I might have skipped the rainbow coat (worn by the other half of the city’s population) but I had the boots. I sat next to the guy, however, as there was a vacant place. Taking out of my suitcase a book, I tried to loose myself in studying French grammar – the subject I was supposed to know perfectly, while attending a privileged linguistic college in my native town.           

“You speak French?” I heard a second later, and to my greatest amazement, this comment was coming from the cute dark-haired guy. He turned away from his fellow blonde student girlfriends and was looking intensely at me.           

“Yes, professionally,” I gave the most stupid answer, while removing my fur cap with my right hand and hiding a pimple on my check with my left.           

“Interesting,” the guy moved closer to me to look at my book. “Where?”           

“At the University,” I said in a confident way, while trying to adjust the position of my face in such a way that he wouldn’t notice my pimple.           

“Which university?”Despite the fact that I was only sixteen (and still at school), and blessed with pimples I knew which were the best universities, at that time, to learn French in Moscow.          

“The Institute for Foreign Languages,” I said proudly, forecasting my future at that moment, as it’s exactly where I landed for a year before moving to Brussels, let me think … two years later?   

 “Oh …” I could see that the guy’s interest in me was growing. Which was fine by me, as never in my life had a guy like him talked to me for such a long time, and yes, he was the cutest guy I had met so far.           

“Well …” he continued, “I also study French, at the University for Foreign Relations.”

Not only was he cute, he was also smart. At that time the institution he was attending was renowned as the ‘hottest’ place to get your degree.           

“Really?” I said. “I love French. It’s the love of my life,” I lied, since the biggest love of my life at that period was George Michael and Wham!           

“My name is Dima”, said the guy, while trying to hold my gaze for more than two seconds. It was exactly what I was trying to avoid, as my biggest problem at that time, apart from pimples, was that I was blushing on every possible and impossible occasion.

“My name is Ekaterina,” I answered, while wondering what on earth Dima saw in me, as the look on the faces of his two fellow girlfriends was suggesting that they were asking exactly the same question, and not in a very pleasant way.

“Voudriez-vous diner avec moi ce soir?” the eyes of Dima were really too close to mine this time.

I blushed. The thing was … I didn’t understand a word of what Dima had said. In perfect French. I was so blown away by his intense stare that it didn’t occur to me that I should also use my brain and my ears.           

“Fuck!!!!” was my answer in perfect Russian, when I noticed the name of the underground stop. “I missed my station!”And without giving it an additional, mature, balanced thought I literally jumped from the train.

And only on the platform seeing the departing train and Dima in the train looking (sadly?) at me did the meaning of his sentence entered my teenage brain. “Would you like to have a dinner with me tonight?” This was what he had asked me in French.

Born in Russia. A boy, a book, and The House of Artist

When I was eleven I fancied a boy. It was that innocent, first-time crush when the ultimate wish is to spend more time together, and a kiss on the lips. It never happened.

What did happen, however, was a love of a book thanks to that boy. His name was Andrei and he was a son of a famous painter. Andrei, as I, was a member of exclusive club of young painters at the also famous ‘House of Artist’ in Moscow. The House of Artist was renowned and still is for its amazing exhibitions and a nice restaurant and cafeteria, with grounds next to the House stretching to Moscow river, giving a beautiful view and a time spent in peace, culture and tranquility.

I got into the club thanks to my grand-dad. At some point, a Cossack who had been first sent to Ural because he had marched by foot from Germany after the war, and thus, couldn’t be traced among members of the Russian Army, was later sent to a political prison in Siberia, where he ended up sharing a cell with another famous painter. The painter taught my grand-dad how to paint, and on his return to Ural and then, ultimately, to his Cossack village in the South of Russia, together with my grand-mum and their sons, he became a teacher of art at a local school. One day, when, as usual, I was spending my summer with my grand-parents, during the long break from school in Moscow, he started to teach me how to draw, and these lessons landed me a place in the club in the House of Artist, a small group of ten children among hundreds who didn’t get a place.

It soon emerged that I wasn’t doing that well when my artistic expression had to be supervised at certain hours. I wasn’t that interested in learning further technique of painting or in spending an hour trying to figure out how to draw a still picture of some fruits at the back of the studio. I was eleven years old and was more interested in socializing. Another girl, Nastya, had the same ideas as me, and we would bring our tiny collections of barbie girls and spend all our breaks on playing.

There was also a boy, Andrei, who was very interesting. He wouldn’t play barbies but draw in that dismissive way of a rebel. If we had to do a still picture, he would draw a portrait of a teacher, and then it was time for a landscape, he would make a still picture of a tree.

Needless to say, he was a subject of admiration of all girls in our group, me including. Andrei had a liking of me, since he would always try to sit next to me and engage in some intellectual conversation. Even at that age I would catch myself thinking that here was an intellect way beyond childhood, and that Andrei was simply a genius.
One day, on the way home, when we traveled together for something like five underground stations until his stop, Andrei asked me whether I had already read ‘The Master and Margarita’. I hadn’t and for a good reason. ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was published only after his death, is a story of a Devil who visits the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, with a parallel story of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It isn’t a book that one reads at the age of eleven. But because I admired Andrei and didn’t want to appear stupid, I answered that ‘yes, of course’, which provoked a zero reaction on Andrei’s face. I reckon he would have been much more surprised if I had answered the truth. I had never read any work by Bulgakov by that point.

“What did you think of Woland?” Andrei then asked me a question, sending me into frenzy of trying to guess who the hell Woland was. If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly advice you to do it now (urgently so), as it is the best book ever of satire on the Soviet regime (and just the best book, in general) and has amazing insights into the character of the Devil. Professor Woland is the devil who seems to be so ‘impressed’ by the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, that he can’t stop making practical jokes on Moscow and its establishment. It is both funny and mesmerizing, especially that Bulgakov gives us a human insight into what had happened to Christ.

Not knowing what to answer, I asked Andrei’s opinion on Woland.“He seems quite an interesting character, someone very unusual,” Andrei gave a prompt answer of someone who had read the book and had thought about its message and meaning. Thankfully, we reached Andrei’s stop and he would never discover that I had lied. He stopped going to the club of young artists (probably he was bored due his rebellious nature) and I haven’t seen him since.

Andrei has remained in my life that mysterious boy who helped me to discover my most favorite book ever. Because the first thing I asked my mum once I was back home was to give me ‘The Master and Margarita’ to read. Even if surprised by such request, she didn’t say anything and just gave me the book. In our family the rule was that one could read anything as long as one would read. And in any case, we only had good books in the house.

I started to read the book that night, starting to laugh on the second page thanks to its humour and couldn’t stop for two days. ‘The Master and Margarita’ became my most treasured book which I reread every two or three years, discovering every time something new, thanks to a boy who was way too smart for his age.

Belgium and her delicious food

But let’s stay in Brussels for a while and explore little bit of Belgium.

How do we judge a country? How do we make of it a definite impression? What is it what comes on our mind when we think of our travels to a particular destination? Architecture? Museums? People?

And how do we remember a country when one happened to spend in it good 6 years in total? Not as a tourist, but as an integrated citizen, as a part of local culture, as a person who fell in love with the local culture totally, absolutely and with no remaining reservations?

What kind of special memories come into the mind?

I went to Brussels when I was 19. An option was presented for me to study in my favourite language, French, and I took it, even if I had everything going on for me in Moscow, my home town.

At that age I was open to different possibilities, for the adventure in life, and since the French language was the love of my life (together with George Michael and Wham), I thought: ‘why not?’ ‘Why not to go and explore?’

Having located Belgium on the map I was also apprehensive of my relocation there. After all I was used to Moscow and its vastness, to big large streets and the openness of the mind and the soul. I was used to long philosophical discussions about everything and nothing, to friends for life, and the stability of the security that only living in the ‘home’ country can bring, when you know the culture, the hidden rules, and how to navigate the local bureaucracy.

Would I ever feel at home, at ease in a different land?

I knew I ended up in a country with humour, as soon as I met my new landlord.

“You know, I had two Russian ladies staying in the room in which you are going to live, right before you,” the landlord was telling me, and I thought that he would comment on their Russianness, on something which would stand out as a cultural characteristic. Instead, he carried on:

“Both were as thin as you when they arrived, but were, how to put it, ladies with curves, when they left,” and he started to laugh, in that deep Belgian mode, when life is good, and is there to enjoy it to the fullest.

I think I also produced a chuckle, not to appear as rude in the camaraderie making, but inside of me, I obviously, dismissed the thought as ridiculous. No way was I putting on any weight, and why should I?

I had no idea at that point that landlord had presented me with the absolute truth of the Belgian nation, one of its basic cores: Belgians and their food, total love for it, unshameful consumption of it as one of the biggest pleasures in life, its presentation in the most tempting mode, the beauty of it as a given, as a must, as part of life if you are in Belgium.

We don’t know about this fact as tourists, do we really? French, the neighbours of Belgians, are, of course, known much more for their food, and are presented to us as connoisseurs, as the masters of that particular domain. Belgians are less known for their food, but I started to suspect while living there, that it isn’t just the humbleness of Belgian nation which is behind, it is also some sort of guarded secret, something about which they don’t shout out in order not to spoil it, to preserve it, to enjoy it among the loved ones, among friends.

The morning after I woke up in my student room I was confronted almost at once with the beauty of local food, with a temptation that I had never experienced before and haven’t seen anywhere else since. You stroll on the street and you see different bakeries, and bakeries are not like anywhere else. They have some mysterious beauty behind each window, the sweetness of presentation that asks you to come in, to buy a cake, return home, realise that it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten in your entire life, run back, buy more, and then end up buying several cakes at once, as a reserve of a never ending pleasure.

And it isn’t, of course, just the cakes and the bakeries that make the enjoyment of food so amazing in Belgium. It is everywhere, the beauty of food experience, literally on every corner. Even such a simple fact as ordering a sandwich for lunch is never really simple in Belgium. It becomes an art, an art of ordering a sandwich.

I remember how, when I worked in one Belgian company as a recruiter, we would spend at least twenty minutes with colleagues of thinking what we should have for lunch. Sandwiches don’t come up as just sandwiches when your order them from a local deli. They have special fillings. Coronation chicken being the most boring choice. In Belgium they have crevettes, crevettes with tomatoes and special mayo sauce, or chicken in spices coming in home-made sauce, or sandwich filled with something called ‘chicken a la provincale’ and when it comes, and you taste it, it is absolutely delicious and melting in the mouth. And it is all wrapped, of course, in a delicious bread, usually la baguette, always fresh, made in the morning.

Even shopping for groceries becomes a pleasure in Belgium. Nowhere else had I seen such a choice of food. It is tempting, because each shelf has some delicacies on it. Famous Belgian chocolate, waffles in all kinds of shapes and with all kinds of fillings, different breads, the most exotic yogurts. If Danone produces a new coconut yogurt and pulls it out of some markets because of lack of adventure on the part of local population, you can be sure to find this yogurt in Belgian supermarkets. When I go to Brussels, even if I stay in a hotel, I make sure I buy this yogurt and I even took several packages of it back to the UK, where I used to live.

Restaurant experience is indeed an experience in Belgium. It isn’t just going out for a meal, it is a special trip, a well-planned and so much anticipated adventure. Most restaurants are closed on Monday evening, and even Sunday evening, they really need this time off for all the pleasure of gastronomy they offer on other days.

In Belgium they serve the quality of best French (actually better!) cuisine, with much bigger portions and much cheaper! Belgium has some traditional dishes, of course, which hint at the character of the nation. It is warm, with a twist, leaving room for imagination. There is waterzooi, which is either fish or chicken stew, so pleasant to eat on a cold day. There are ‘moules’ (mussels) which come from the North sea, larger and tastier than in any other country.

The Belgian fries are a delicious treat that can be found for a snack at the corner shops, but are also served as a tasty side dish in the poshest restaurants, even though it is hard to describe any restaurant in Brussels as posh! They are all cosy and friendly, where owners stop for a chat with customers, everyone laughs and shares stories among friends. Belgian people are very welcoming and friendly.

Then there is ‘stoemp’, mashed potatoes blended with all kinds of vegetables, it can either be served on its own, or as a side dish, a real treat with a twist when you want something different as accompaniment to the main dish.

Chocolate, the best of it, comes, of course, from Belgium. Leonidas, Godiva, Neuhaus, my first additional five kilos (which started to pile up on the next day of my arrival to the country) came just from chocolate, the delicious Belgian pralines.

Drinks are also made with a twist, it isn’t just cider or prosecco, it comes as ‘kir royale’, some sparkling wine served with a syrup, with a cherry or strawberry on top.

If you are invited to someone’s else house for dinner, you really need to make sure not to eat the whole day in advance, because it is physically hard to leave a table full of food, served with wine, laughter, and that Belgian ‘esprit de bonvivance’ (a spirit of fun, benevolence). Even foreign cuisine has something ‘extra’ in Belgium. The Greek food becomes the best Greek food, German dishes become best German dishes, and even Italians don’t complain about the quality of pizzas in Belgium.

While French keep quiet, and might have many jokes about Belgians, they don’t really comment about Belgian food. They do know that it is their biggest competitor in a battle that if presented to a real judge, might not even lead to a victory! And they can’t compete with the amount of beers which can be found in Belgium, and they can’t compete in the domain of ‘cosiness’. If I am really hungry, I would prefer to end up in a Belgian restaurant, as I am sure that I will get enough food!

After a year of my life in Brussels I was totally and absolutely in love with the city and Belgian way of life. I was also in love with the local food, something which was clearly showing in my extra ten kilos I had managed to gain. I ended up avoiding my landlord all together, to escape his jokes, and at some point I was obliged to go on a diet and learn to adapt. Yes, food is so good in Belgium that one has to learn how to control the craving!

I love Belgian food and I love Belgium.

(me in Brussels when I was 20 years old, with my additional ten kilos)

Foolishness for Christ. Encounter with the devil

There is a reason as to why I go back to the 1990s in Russia so often on my blog, because it was exactly at that time that devil made his appearance in my country. The Christianity was proclaimed as official religion, and he, quite, obviously, couldn’t miss the opportunity to battle for a few remaining souls.

I could watch what was happening in my country from a vintage point of a teenager, which helped me somehow, because it is much more difficult to survive the battle between good and evil when you are an adult. The mundane daily responsibilities don’t allow space for any deep philosophical inclinations, and then, of course, it is hard to believe in anything, yet, allow oneself any ‘magical’ thinking, because one is always at risk to end up on the radar of the psychiatrists. The psychiatrists rule the world based in normality, and no one dares anymore to proclaim loud and clear: yes, there is the devil, and yes, there is God, and Jesus was real.

Back in the 1990s in Russia I met the character, the devil, on numerous occasions. He was lurking around, and once when I was with one of my best friends, he announced himself around us, right when we were admiring the visitors to a local church. My friend Anya and I were skipping a class in algebra, and were sitting on the bench on the hill, above a Russian Orthodox Church where some people started to go because Christianity had seen its return, and people didn’t have to hide anymore their faith in secret.

It was an interesting development for both me and Anya as we had grown up in a country without any religion. The Soviet Union’s doctrine was based on absence of any belief system, besides the building of a communal goal, with  stuff like ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ considered to be absolute madness, and where those who had dared to proclaim otherwise, were deemed to be mad, and had to undergo a psychiatric treatment. Interestingly enough while I live now in a so-called free society, the mantra that you can believe in anything you want as long as you remain silent, is truer than anywhere else. You are proclaimed as insane immediately if you start talking about God and the devil, and especially if you hint at the fact that you see their manifestations in a daily reality.

So, Anya and I were watching the church with deep curiosity, it was indeed totally beyond any logical thinking. How come, we both wondered, that a country of absolute atheists suddenly turned into zealous church devotees?

“Look, even young people go now there,” I made a remark to Anya, and she nodded to me an agreement, noticing as me, a couple of what looked like students entering the door of the church.

“And I still remember how the doors to the same church were totally closed in the seventies,” we both jumped from fright as we hadn’t noticed the man, sitting now next to us on the bench, approaching us, let alone, materializing himself, suddenly on the bench. But here he was, wearing an interesting red hat, and staring longingly into the distance at the church, furtively giving me a wink in the process, locking his eyes with mine for a brief moment.

A though immediately entered my mind that he was the devil, and I allowed it to remain there, because I was still a teenager, and radical thoughts and visions are more tolerated when you are still at a precarious age. I haven’t yet reached the years when you learn that weird thoughts are not allowed, and that the psychiatry as an institution has the reins and power to silence all ‘different’ individuals once and for good. All those that have seen the devil, met him and know that he is real, are sitting behind the psychiatric bars. Since I am not there, I decided that I have the liberty to say whatever I want, and therefore, I am taking this opportunity to reassure you that everything ever written in the Bible is totally real, not that I had read all of it, due to the difficulty of the scripture. But I live the stories written in it in real life, and manifestations of it and the truth, reach me on a daily basis, usually in my dreams.

And so I allowed the thought to remain there and it was scary but at the same fascinating. Oh wow, I thought, it isn’t all fables and just stories then, is it? Here he is, the devil, and once I permitted the thought to stay there, it took that definite proportions when you realize that perhaps, magic is all real, and I was blessed (or cursed) to see and witness the manifestations of it in my daily reality. It was also interesting to observe that Anya jumped from fear and started to run away, while I remained sitting on the bench for another good couple of minutes, to (and I realize it only now) come to terms to my ‘raison d’etre’ from now on. Yes, I would be chased by the presence of the devil my entire life, and it’s only with experience that I learned that the only way to fight him is via Christianity and belief in Jesus.

Amazingly enough we didn’t talk with Anya about that particular manifestation of the character. I think that like me, she realized the significance of the presence of the man in the red hat, but it was too scary to admit the reality as it is: yes, the devil is real, and he is chasing the earth for a few remaining souls.

It was also the same year that I went to receive baptism and became a Russian Orthodox, embracing a difficult and run with obstacles life. Because the life of a true Christian, the life of a Holy Fool, is one of a martyr, and I ended up fighting with the devil my entire life.

Having met the character many times since that first encounter, I will tell you more about him from now on. He is a great manipulator, and uses clever tactics to lure one into his kingdom. He can also take different forms, and only once I saw the real him, as depicted in Christian scary stories, when I was lucid-dreaming in my sleep.

But this is a tale I will share with you next time.

holy fool

(Saint Nicholas of Pskov – Russian Holy Fool)

Capitalism, Corona, and Moscow in the 1990s

But let’s return to the 1990s in Moscow, a period in time that reminds me of the situation we are all in now: the unprecedented external circumstances that will affect us all, but we just don’t know how exactly. Today we have a virus that is hanging above our heads as a threat to our every existence, while back in Moscow from 1989 onward, we had a change in ideology, when instead of socialism, we were presented with capitalism.

Unlike the situation now that has a precise threat, such as a virus, the developments back in Russia were happening in a cunning way, leaving most people deceived and totally unprepared. First, it started with the opening of the MacDonald’s in the center of Moscow as its main restaurant, with queues stretching for more than a kilometer to get inside. It was more than a restaurant, it became a symbol of a better life, attracting the inhabitants of Moscow with the lure of life under capitalism. The small corner shops started to sell coca-cola and twix chocolate, and because of the novelty, it seemed indeed like a promise of a life never experienced before, such as the availability of burger and chips. It was, of course, a moment of absolute novelty, hidden behind the dangers of fast unhealthy food, but Moscovites, without knowing better, thought for a short while, that it would lead to something better, because it was just simply exciting. Burgers and chips do provide the moment of instant gratification, but after a while they loose their appeal and are extremely unhealthy.

It was at the moment of MacDonald’s madness, right when people believed that life could ever be something better, something better than the security of a job for life, good medical services, children all going to school and never being hungry that the future rulers of Russian capitalism, the oligarchs and the greedy ones,  set up their oil and gas voucher scheme where they robbed an entire nation. People wanted quick money, and sold their vouchers back to the capitalists for a penny, thinking of a relief of some useless groceries and a trip to MacDonald’s. It was only later, watching the oligarchs from their offshore villas that they realized that they were robbed, and so was the entire Russian nation.

The current situation around the Corona virus reminds me of the 1990s years in Russia for a number of reasons. I can feel the same despair from people around that I felt in my native country then. And it isn’t just the fear of the virus, and the illness affecting so many people, it is more about the anxiety of all of us, those who don’t possess millions about what tomorrow might bring. It is the rising unemployment, people applying for universal credit, lack of adequate medical services in otherwise ‘prosperous’ countries, the insecurity of zero-hour contracts, and the possibility of so many small businesses not surviving this crisis. I can feel the anxiety of our world that simply woke up to the reality in which we have been living already for a long while. The society woke up to the face of the capitalism, and the virus showed us the precocity of life. Such as that it isn’t shopping, holidays, or a new car that matter, but having a good and secure job, seeing children going to school and playing with each on the streets, sharing a simple meal among friends, and enjoying the parks and the nature.

The virus of today is a wake-up call for our world, but will we respond to the alarm once it’s all over?

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The Ship of Fools and our society

It was at the end of the fifteen century that Hieronymus Bosch painted his amazing painting, called the ‘Ship of Fools’. I wrote about it here, but want to come back to this piece of art once again.

ship of fools

(Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch)

The painting as such was based on what was happening to the people proclaimed as ‘mad’ at that time. ‘Madness’ as such incorporated the same elements as today, such as calling all people exhibiting weird behavior or showing weird thought pattern, as ‘not normal’. These people were put on the ship and sent in the middle of nowhere, but still attracting large crowds of people in order to see them off or when they would embark in another town on their journey. The human curious mind always liked the spectacle because it simply shows us the possibilities of a quest of the human soul: some people simply go beyond the gates of ‘normality’.

Later the ships were replaced by asylums where those, deemed, as ‘insane’ have been kept away from the general public, and not because they pose any danger (it is a grotesque lie) but because our society, using psychiatry as its biggest weapon, doesn’t want to be confronted bluntly with possible ways and thoughts which can deny us of our mediocre thinking, such as dwelling about the next ski holiday, which car to buy, and how to stock on toilet paper because of a very bad flue. All those who start thinking that there is more to life, and question things, usually acquire one form of ‘madness’ or another. But the psychiatry doesn’t want these people, because more people think – more there is a possibility of a revolution for our society which has lost totally its values, with so much poverty, hunger and unhealthy competition where it is no longer a life for the common good (including for the sake of our humanity) but an individual fight in the big manipulation machine where it becomes a battle about who earns more money and drives a better car.

It was several centuries ago that Bosh painted his oeuvre but it is more than still relevant today. On this painting we can see several nuns and a priest instead of the crowd of fools, as the title hints to us when we first see the depiction. There is one single fool, at the end of the painting, in the background, just to reassure us that it is indeed the ship of fools that Bosh is talking about. But by putting the self-proclaimed ‘sane’ members of the society at the front Bosh asks and answers a prominent question at once: but who is really mad here, an innocent ‘fool’ or those, who, behind tales of morality, hide their own sins?

The painting is speaking to me today because it is precisely how I see the society. I don’t witness any high moral values and any strive for the goodness of all. I see rather greed, fake love behind Tinder apps and the like, chase for better gadgets, and thoughts in the head of people that make me wonder as who is insane. I can see the thoughts in the minds of people around, it is written on their faces: how to manipulate someone, how to outsmart someone, how to be more competitive in the already overdriven by competition earth. Rare are those who still look for true friendship, true love, and don’t always think about money. Money is a tool which can make one’s life more comfortable but its place in today’s society got at a higher platform than the one for God.

Those who ask and wonder usually get a mental health diagnosis or get depressed. The depression of today is a normal reaction of our minds to reach for something higher in a place where there is no longer anything higher, hidden behind the fake normality which hides in its turn just greediness and strife in our over-competitive world. It is a normal reaction of our higher selves that revolt in the fakeness of love, fakeness of friendships and betrayal of God, where one can believe in something, but God forbid, when one actually sees the manifestations of God him/herself. All exhibitions of aspiring for something higher than what is dictated by those in power, telling us what and how to do from  their vintage points of offshore accounts, are suppressed immediately by the scare of the psychiatric tale. The psychiatry is a weapon to make us all the same, which puts all those who aspire to be different, behind closed doors of the asylums of modern times. Nothing nice is happening there, and no one gets healed, because there is nothing to heal. All the ‘success’ stories you hear are provided by those who feel relief that they are back in our fake normality and can function like everyone else in our robotic society. The psychiatric drugs simply mask the problems of our sick competitive material sphere, and eventually all those on psychiatric drugs, realize that they are not healed and never were, because there is nothing to treat or heal in the first place. Depression is a sane reaction when one wakes up in our sick society, and so are all other ‘psychiatric’ symptoms.

But we are not allowed to voice all this aloud, and only pieces of art such as ‘The Ship of Fools’ remind us of the sad truth that few dare to voice out. It is not those who see the truth that are sick, but those who punish others when they see and hear what is real, hidden behind the narrative of normality, presented to us as ‘caring’ for our mental health.

Let’s turn away from the painting of Hieronymus Bosch and face its portrayal in reality, all around us.

What do you see?

srceam

(The Scream by Edvard Munch)

Born in Russia, born into a privileged family

Before I re-launch myself into the 1990s in Russia, quite remarkable time by all standards, I should probably tell more about myself.

I was born in the 1970s (more towards the 1980), to an interesting family. My mum, originally from Saint-Petersburg, had met my dad when they both studied at the University of Friendship of People, very famous place, where lots of international students came to study. From my mum’s side, it was always a family of teachers and academics. My grandma, her mum, was a daughter of a headmistress of a gymnasium, while my granddad, her dad, was a professor of geology at the same university. At home talks around the dinner table were always around philosophy, books, theater pieces to visit, music to discover, students to help. My granddad was so popular among students that some of them would show up on occasions for tea, just to have a chat with him around matters that mattered. There was also a secret within a family, which became less dangerous under Gorbachev, such as that my great granddad on the side of my grandma was a baron who had left his relatives in Russia all his fortune, by the letter with notification was well-hidden and never shown to the authorities, to avoid being sent to Gulag.

On the side of my dad, it was the Cossack’s gene. His parents run a beautiful farm in the south of Russia, where I would spend most of my summers. It was a truly amazing place, built from scratch by the hands of my granddad. He had met my grandma in a remote village in Ural, where he was sent because he had come as a prisoner from Germany after the second world war, and under Stalin, back in the Soviet Union, all prisoners were sent to such ‘installments’, remote places in the middle of nowhere, to build entire towns from scratch for the benefit of the country. My grandma’s family was also sent to such a place due to some black spots in the biography of the family, with their fault being that her dad, my great-granddad, was the head of the Baptiste Christian church in whole Caucasus area of Russia. But I will come back to that story in due term, for now, I want to just say that my granddad, once he and my grandma returned to his land, the Cossack village, destroyed and taken away by the Soviets, built two houses, and created an amazing farm, where even grapes could grow, and we had our own wine, and fresh fruits each summer.

They had three sons, with my dad being the middle one. He wanted to study in Moscow, and he achieved that. By the time I was born, both he and my mum worked at the University of Friendship as lecturers, and we lived in the best area of Moscow, known as ‘Yogo-Zapandii’ area, now popular among the Russian celebrities.

Our apartment had only two rooms, and was on the sixteen floor. There was something wrong with that place, but till today, I am not sure exactly what, apart from a weird dream I had once, that I was reborn there following a very difficult, terrifying life. I also saw the devil there for the first time, staring at me outside the window when I was sleeping in my cot, at the age of 2 or three. My parents reassured me that it was just a bad dream, and I tried to believe them for a while, but of course, I know now, and probably always did, that what I see and hear, is indeed real, as scary as it sometimes can be. I have to add here that the first appearance of the devil in my life was how he is often portrayed in references to the Bible, even if I wasn’t really afraid, just curious and amazed. Parents and adults would always say that all that wasn’t real, but I kind of, made to myself a note, at the age of 2 or three, that they could be wrong sometimes, and magic is real, and one didn’t even need to try, to see its manifestations on a daily basis.

Some strange problems with our apartment apart, I was born into a privileged family by that times standards. Everyone was an academic, I would go to one of the best schools in Moscow, and we always had nice food, and holidays in either Latvia or Crimea. I spent my summers in the Cossack village, helping on the farm (you can read about my summers in here), and was blessed with great friends, and lots of opportunities to express myself, such as learning French, practicing piano, ice-skating, and many other beautiful and really not mundane things.

But then, everything changed in the 1990s when Yeltsin came to power, and Soviet Union collapsed, becoming a monster in the eyes of all those who weren’t born here, and that image influenced also those who were born there, like I was.

And that’s why I probably talk about the 1990s so much. It was the time that something really bad happened to my native country, and when I go back there, I still see the manifestations of what went wrong then. The wild capitalism became an ideology as if it’s a must, a prominent way for people to live their lives. But it isn’t the best ideology, far from it. When I was growing up, under the socialism, everyone had food on the table, and children run happy outside, because there were no worries and everyone was more or less equal, even when one was born into a privileged family.

moscownationalgeographic

Bad Witches in Russia

But let’s go back to the 1990ies in Russia to continue with chronology of the events, not just influencing me and my life after, but also the fate of Russia and how it has become.

When I talk about witches, and apologies to all nice white witches, who wish no harm, I talk about bad witches, and in order to ban you from telling me what I am deranged, I will present you a picture of Moscow on one day in June in 1991.

It was a beautiful day, as far as I remember, and I was strolling the lovely streets of the Moscow city, together with my cousin, who came to see me from the South of Russia. We were then really young, fourteen, fifteen, care-free, and very independent. I, for instance, due to the fact that I was constantly moving from the house to my dad and step-mother to the house of my grandma, and back, had lots of freedom. I really could do anything I wanted, and once I came back home at seven o’clock in the morning from a party of my boyfriend, and no one even noticed.

I was proud of my city then, because Moscow still stood as it was meant to: large streets with scare construction, old beautiful buildings, the view of the Kremlin, undisturbed, amazing museums, and not than many shops. I was slightly boasting to my cousin, even if I also actually envied her, with her nice, simple, very friendly life in an old mining town in the Eastern Ukraine, where she could visit our grandparents, proud Cossacks, in the South of Russia, whenever she wanted.

We walked for a long time, stopping at different places, to admire the view. We didn’t go inside the Kremlin that time, but stared at it from the bridge, taking in the breathtaking view of that amazing establishment. Kremlin is indeed breath-taking, encompassing beautiful imposing building, the most beautiful cathedral in the whole world, and the Kremlin tower itself, as well as the canon, and park and river around. All Kremlins in Russia were built on the river, surrounded by it, to protect themselves from the enemies.

And then we reached the old Arbat, a famous street in the center, forbidden for cars, where so many Russian writers created their stories, and where artists and vagabonds loved to assemble: to play guitar, to have a laugh, to share artistic ideas, to fall in love and to experience magic. Old Arbat was magical.

But no anymore. In the summer of 1991 I got for the first time a definite feeling that something wrong was going on in my native country. We entered the street, and there it was: witches parlors on almost every corner. At each corner, they were sitting, the witches. One was saying on a poster in front that she could read your fortune and make it better. The other had an announcement that she could ban certain people out of your life, and one man claimed to be a hypnotizer, looking similar to the idiot Kashpirovsky, promising to hypnotize one to good health or death, depending on your wishes (he didn’t mention ‘death’, but he looked like he could do it).

Ah, all that is innocent, and doesn’t mean anything, you might say at this point, especially if you are an atheist, or a psychiatrist.

Well, it does, of course it does. Queues of people were assembling next to each witch, wishing, hoping to get something that would make their lives better. It was indeed a desperate moment for my country: there was nothing to eat, nothing to buy, with uncertain future and total turmoil in politics and economics.

I didn’t like any of them, and I kind of felt a sort of despair myself when I saw these crowds of people, and because I was curious by nature, I joined the queue of a palm reader, a woman who didn’t look kind, and who started to give me weird looks before I even approached her. My cousin was standing next to me, but I told her I had money only to pay for my reading, not for hers. Something protective was always in me, in regards to my one year older than me cousin. She was vulnerable, fragile, thinking that she had lost on points, because my father had made a life in Moscow, while her dad, my uncle, worked in a mine. We both didn’t understand then, yet, that the life of her parents, in a small mining town, was the one that was full of beauty and wonder, and nice, kind people, who earned their bread with honesty and integrity.

By the time I approached the palm reader, I wasn’t feeling that well, I think it was probably due to the fact that all people who had a reading with her, had sad, desolate faces when they departed after receiving their reading. She was piercing me, with her unkind, calculating eyes all the way through, and I assumed it was due to my quite sexy, revealing top, that my mum had brought me from Italy. I was standing out in terms of my clothes, and the woman probably didn’t like it, was my guess.

When I sat in front of her, I had a massive headache, not helped by the fact that what she was telling me, a fourteen years old, was beyond being disturbing, it was pure bad madness.

“You will soon have an operation and you might survive, but it is all in the hands of the fate. You should never work as a teacher, or become a doctor. You will be unlucky in love.”

There was nothing nice coming of the mouth of the woman, and I don’t even know where I found the strength to contradict her, but I did. When she finally revealed her trick, such as asking to paying her lots of money to correct my outrageous fortune, I put a hand on top of hers, looked into her eyes and said:

“You are a liar.”

I then stood up and took my cousin firmly by the hand. I stopped for a good measure as well, looking at the crowd still waiting for their reading, really wishing for them to never approach that monster psychic, to never deal with her madness, greediness and ill-will.

Something unexpected happened then. The bad psychic stood up and started to assemble her chair and her tools (cards or whatever), and then she said:

“No more reading today, I am going home.”

I experienced enormous relief then.

The next day, I took my cousin from the south of Russia, and my cousin from Moscow, my sisters really, I don’t like the term ‘cousin’ to the Zamoskvorechye, a district full of churches, right outside of Moscow (now, a part of it), to baptize all three of us.

We received baptism, someone stole my best hat on the train back to Moscow, and I did feel something. Something really good entering my life.

It wasn’t enough though to fight with the negative energy my native town was dealing with then, but we will come back to it in my next post.

zamockvorechie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moscow and the arrival of capitalism

I was a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly I found myself in a new country and in a new regime.

As things go in life, when you have to live through the unbelievable, you adjust pretty quickly, especially when you are young.

Still, the changes that my country was undergoing right before the collapse, and after, were remarkable.

It started with the emergence of ‘lareks’, the small ugly compact boxes decorating almost every street in Moscow, selling stuff. These were the first visible signs of capitalism, offering everything from coca-cola, mars chocolate, and spirits to tampons and cigarettes.

larek.png

(example of Larek)

No one was even thinking of checking for age, and together with my best-friend, Masha, we took advantage of this new development at once. We would stroll to one of such shops after school, buy coca-cola and cigarettes, and then stroll to the McDonald restaurant in the centre of the city for more ‘delights’. It was the first real fast-food event in our city, and therefore, very noticeable. The queue to the place would stretch for a kilometer, with people eager for the Big Mac and apple pies. Masha and I were still at school, we had plenty of time, and so, spending an hour at least in a queue, was really a minor matter, considering the joy of discovering McDonald when you are fourteen/thirteen, the age which is so easily corrupted by the allure of fast, unhealthy food. We would go for the big mac meal, together with milkshakes, and apple pies, barely able to walk after each feast at the ‘restaurant’. Smoking our cigarettes bought at the ‘larek’ as a complimentary measure following the escapade to McDonald, we would make plans for our new discoveries, ‘things to follow, to try’.

bbc world first macdonalds

The world suddenly turned upside down, and for Masha and me, it represented new undiscovered adventures. Everything seemed possible, everything was allowed. There was no one to explain that cigarettes were bad, or that fast-food was unhealthy. We could do anything we wanted, and when you are at that daring age of fourteen, you, obviously, dare to pursue the temptations.

I remember the day when we first entered the casino in the centre of Moscow, situated at the prestigious hotel in the centre. Our aim was really unclear, we didn’t plan any playing or betting, but we wanted to have a look. Having established that anything, absolutely anything was possible in our new brand world, called the ‘capitalism’, we started to push the boundaries to a tricky and often, dangerous extent.

We wanted to be clever, we wanted to be smart. We were too young for the grown up world in its whole glory, but the truth was clear to our eyes: in the new regime, under the new ideology, the crown belonged to those who overcame the rules, bent them, and went for what they wanted. At that time we wanted to be among the grown-ups, and thus, we went to where the adults had fun. The adults who seemed to rule the new world, based on money and status. That first entrance to the casino was our first appearance among the cool ones, and since it had worked (we got the entry), we tried all other, prestigious and luxurious places.

Masha and I would dress in what we judged to be smart clothes, while in reality, it was what most of Moscow was wearing at that time. Clothes were still rare, at least, interesting, clothes, but I was luckier than others because my mum worked in Italy then and would bring me good stuff, while Masha had extremely resourceful mum.  Masha, would simply borrow her sophisticated, beautiful dresses.

We would turn up at the entrance to the casino or the most prestigious club for foreigners, and play a game of getting in. Bouncers were strict, because these places were reserved strictly for the nouveu-riches or wealthy foreigners, and thus, we would start speaking French with Masha hundreds metres before approaching the bouncers. We attended a French school in Moscow, you see.

“Hello,” I would say to the bouncer, smiling in a conspiratory matter, as if I was about to unveil a bombshell. “This is the famous singer, Margerite Condounois, coming directly from Paris. I am her translator,” I would point towards Masha, leaning towards us as if she couldn’t understand a word, and then switch to a whispering mode to continue with my tale, “Miss Condonois is incognito here, to look at how the locals live, to relax little bit, so, please, make sure, it stays private,” I would then slip a note of some roubles into the hand of a bouncer, and proceed to the entrance. The money was very little (less than a pittance for a tip), because we didn’t have any, but it worked each and every time. Wherever we went, we were let in.

Now in retrospect, I think it worked because of the obvious lie. We looked too young to be international stars or translators, and on top of it, Masha looked way too Russian (distinctive Russian cheeks and blue eyes) , while it was me who could pass for a French, with some difficulties. And because of such a visible ‘oversight’ in our story, we were allowed to proceed, since the bouncers and security always believed in what we were saying. The opposite could pass for a truth, in case we were lying, that was their assumption.

As a result, Masha and I, attended the best casinos, restaurants, clubs, theatre performances, managed to get into the ‘White House’ twice, and into a private party of an oligarch in the making. Masha even went on stage to perform some songs in French (she could indeed sing), and we ended up being paid on several occasions.

We exited the narrative of the life of the glory and the rich, when we both realized that we were after different things. We wanted to study, to be independent, to discover the world, to read books, and to remain young, care-free girls for longer, instead of turning into ‘gold-diggers’.

As a result, despite the absolute madness of that times, I am also grateful that I discovered the inside of it, the inside of what it means when one lives one’s life based on money, power, and more money. Each time Masha and I succeeded to enter the world of the powerful and wealthy, it led to a terrible disappointment. There was nothing of real interest there, no real discussions, no interesting talks, no spontaneity. No philosophy, no deepness, no soul, and no real laughter. We looked, we observed, and we made our minds. We wanted to remain in that old world, in that space in between the ideologies, where feelings, people, and soul discovery mattered more than one’s bank account.

Ironically, we remained true to our convictions, where life is interesting on a daily basis, when you look for something deeper than money and status.

masha and me

(The view of Moscow with my best-friend Masha, five years ago)