Different ways of lives, different languages and cultures appeal to me from an early age.
I remember while being still small in Russia I was walking together with my mother towards the bus station. I can’t recall what was the reason of taking the bus but I clearly remember my state of mind during the march to the bus station
I was out of this world, engrossed totally in my own inner imaginative sphere and I was asking questions in my own head: why is the sky blue? Why should we assume that only the physical manifestations is what the world is about? The road, the bus station visible at a distance, people walking towards it from our Soviet style building where with my family we lived on the 16th floor.
Why are we rushing always towards perfection, my seven years old mind was asking God knows whom. Why do people get angry sometimes and why is the moon moving in cycles?
This sort of questions invaded my head from an early age and I applied a mode of ‘check out of reality’ to deal with all that. Life, according to me as a child, was supposed to be a constant stream of big celebrations: friends around to play and to talk, presents not reserved to just an event such as a birthday or New Year Eve. Cakes everyday, even if in small quantities, people singing on the streets. Children laughing, everywhere and always.
But instead I was confronted with a gruesome picture. Unhappy people queuing for the bus, sleep deprived children going to school, and everyone around playing some kind of normality. You behave, you follow the rules, you obey the existing structure.
My ‘check out’ technique helped me to process the grim reality by presenting me with a more colourful vision. In it lived a magician high in the sky, angels sung, and people danced. I had names for them, burrowed from numerous books I was always busy reading. Christian was a king of the birds, Olanda was a fire queen, while Patrick was a light keeper.
It was while living in the Netherlands that I found a better, much stronger version of a language to address my dilemma as to ‘why’. The Russian version ‘почему’ was too soft, more like a whisper rather than a question asking for an immediate answer. The French ‘pourquoi’ left the possibility of a reply with another question rather than an answer one seeks. To the French ‘Pourquoi’ there is always an option to answer ‘pourquoi pas’. It’s like talking in riddles while your questions still hang in your head.
But the Dutch language gifted me with a perfect word for what I am trying to describe in this post. It is Waarom- strict, precise and powerful sound pronunciation that in English can be spelled as ‘vaaroum’. A single word but holding in itself massive power. I even noticed that when someone asks me ‘Waarom’, I try to still provide some sort of answer even when I have absolutely no clue.
And so now, while I march in my daily reality I start my questions in my head with this powerful Dutch world:
Waarom have we so much poverty still?
Waarom did we have September 11?
Waarom there is still so much misery in our beautiful world?
Waarom there is so much sadness where I can hear so much crying?
And most importantly, waarom asking too many questions about humanity and the world we are living in, is considered as being too weird.
Waarom do we accept the ‘normality’ of this world where people mostly march with neglect and indifference to what’s happening in our beautiful planet, such as hunger in some countries, poverty in almost all countries, so much anger, so much disappointment, tears and sadness?
Holy-fool was a well-known ‘character’ in Russian culture. A firm image of the mediaeval times of the old Rus, he was a ‘wondering’ Christian, a mad in appearance vagabond who would renounce the world for the sake of Christ. The justification of the ‘holy fool’ can be found in the Bible, and 36 known holy fools of Russia were proclaimed as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The interest in the phenomenon of ‘holy-foolishness’ has been growing in Russia in the past years. This can be explained by the turbulent times that the country has experienced before and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, by the uncertainty on the political and economic levels, and by the phenomenal rise of the Christianity. The ‘Holy-Fool’ has become an image of Christianity but also a peculiar symbol of Russian culture, where nothing is certain, but one always believes in the fate of God, and in something more profound than the materialism of this world.
This character has found a new profound interest in both Christian and academic literature, but also in the modern cinema, and even music. The films of Lungin (Taxi-Blues, the Island) burrow and even base their story line on the Russian ‘Holy Fool’. Looking at these movies and the actor who played the main role in both movies, Pyotr Mamonov, this paper argues that the character of ‘Holy Fool’ is still alive and present in the modern days in Russia, re-adjusted, however, to the current age and current discourse on madness and eccentricity.
Who is a Russian Holy Fool?
One of a very known visual symbols of Russia is the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil), which is situated at the prominent place on Red Square in Moscow. Also known as Pokrovsky Cathedral, it was built from 1555 to 1561 under the reign of Ivan The Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. The Church was erected over the grave of Saint Vasilii, who was a very known local Russian Holy Fool, ordained as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1580. “Thus, in a sense, the main symbol of Russia may be called the Cathedral of the Holy Fool.” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153).
But who was the Holy Fool, and why is it a particular cultural phenomenon of Russia, being depicted in paintings, books, and more, recently, in movies, and seeing a renewed interest in it in the past few years?
The origins of Holy Fool are embedded in Eastern Orthodoxy. It originated in monastic tradition of Byzantium and Rus, and became a recognised cultural phenomenon in Moscovite Russia in the sixteen and seventeen centuries.
The Holy Fool could be either a female or male person, wondering the streets of Rus, often naked or semi-naked, and acting often weirdly. The Holy Fool would confront the public, laugh at it, and expose the absurdities of this world. The Fool was ‘Holy’ because he was not just a simple vagabond, without a particular aim for his wonderings, but acting in the name of Christ, being a very religious person, spending considerable time on praying.
The justification for acting in the name of Christ can be found in the Bible. We can witness two different interpretations of foolishness in the Bible. Thus, in some instances, the fool is defined as someone who has no wisdom, and foolishness is considered to be a sin. However, another interpretation can be found in the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, where he says that the wisdom of this world is not real, and the true wisdom can be only found in Christ. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (Corinthians 3:18). And in another passage, we can read the following: “We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, but we are dishonored. To this very hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.…” (Corinthians 4:10).
This interpretation of a Fool who is a Fool for the Christ’s sake formed the basis for the tradition of a Holy Fool in Orthodox Christianity. (Heller & Volkova, 2003).
The Holy Fools acted for ‘Christ’s sake’ by first, showing the same humility as symbolised by the Cross, and secondly, by trying to influence others to go back to Christ, by exhibiting the contradictions of this world. The Holy Fools would often take gifts as beggars from wealthier parts of the population, to immediately give it back to the poor. It was a sort of militant edge behaviour, the holy fools appeared as humble, but at the same time, refused to abide by the rules of this world, often confronting the tsars and the powerful, and laughing openly at their short-coming and deeds.
Saint Basil, whose name is now associated with one of the most known cathedrals in Russia, was one of the Holy Fools, and he is probably one of the most famous ‘iyurodivy’ of Rus, a Russian word for ‘Holy Fool’, having its origins in ancient Greek word ‘iurod’, which meant ‘stupid’, ‘mad’. In Russian language, ‘iurod’ means ‘the ugly one’. In reality, the Holy Fool would only appear as mad, walking on the streets and pointing towards the sins of this world. His exterior appearance, of being indeed dressed in ugly clothes, or no clothes at all, served as a metaphor for humanity’s sins, and for failure to go beyond the materialistic domain towards Christ, and seek spiritual gains, rather than earthy ones.
“The fool’s naked, dirty, ugly, strange and indecent appearance has a metaphor for humankind’s soiled, ‘naked’, sinful soul that has lost its ‘wedding garments’, its innocence. Becoming insane, becoming ‘a fool’, humanity has lost its divine likeness and lost its God. The holy fools look the way human beings really look in a spiritual sense. They become spiritual symbols – strange and almost disgusting in appearance, but tragic and attractive from a spiritual point of view. The holy fools’ disgraceful behaviour carried the message of judgement. Those who understood the message started to cry; those who did not laughed at the fools and threw stones at them” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 155).
Thus, holy-foolishness was considered as a spiritual gift.
Saint Basil, or Basil the Blessed, was born to serfs in a village near Moscow. He was first an apprentice shoemaker, exhibiting often weird behaviour. He would steal but then immediately give it back to the poor, pointing towards the problems of inequality and the burden of life of those in need. He would walk around naked and put chains on himself. Typical of holy-fool’s behaviour, it was odd, and controversial, but with deep meaning behind. Signs of visible madness were glorified and considered as a symbol for sanctity.
Basil the Blessed was a holy-fool who started a real following of holy-foolishness. In the sixteen century, they became popular figures, adored by laypeople, who looked at them as a link between God and earth, as a spokesperson who had gotten his voice directly from God. They were viewed as figures of authority, who could even oppose the tsar.
However, by the eighteen century holy-foolishness started to be used for gain or entertainment, and even, in order to advance one’s causes. Some authors would write stories around holy-fools for the purposes of lobbying for various interests or in order to undermine the political power. Some vagabonds and poor people would also fake madness to appear as holy-fools to obtain favours and monetary gains. As a result, by the eighteen century the figure of holy-fool started to be associated with charlatans, and the Church didn’t look favourably at holy-foolishness. The image of holy-fool became compromised.
It was Peter the Great who outlawed holy-foolishness in the beginning of the eighteen century, and holy-fools were persecuted. Peter the Great saw holy-fools as mostly scandalous figures who wanted attention and had little respect for the Church and authority.
“Any sensible person can see how many thousands of such lazy beggars can be found in Russia…who devour the labour of others with their impudence and their feigned humility…and who drive ordinary simple people insane…They slander high authorities, yet they themselves take on no Christian responsibilities. They go into church but think it has nothing to do with them, so long as they can carry on their shrieking in front of the church.” (Polnoe sobranie postanovlenii po vedomstvu pravoslavnogo ispovedaniia Rossiiskoi imperii, 1879, p. 30.) And the example of such a monstrous act can be found as recently as when the Pussy Riot entered and sacrileged the Russian Orthodox Church (as it seemed), built on tears and real suffering of the whole Russia, trying to deal with the impossible. My beautiful native land. They dared to enter, I totally avoid that church.
Peter the Great moved the capital of Rus to St. Petersburg in 1712, a city he had named after himself. He is famous for his reforms and for ‘Europeanizing’ Russia, where after his numerous visits to Europe, he introduced radical changes, including in architecture, where his love for baroque architecture can be seen across modern St. Petersburg.
Interestingly, despite the ban of holy-fools, some of them survived the reign of the tsar, like was the case of a famous holy-fool, St. Xenia, who lived in St. Petersburg in 1731-1803, and achieved a considerable cult following. As other holy-fools, she was a highly controversial figure. Widowed at the age of 26 she renounced all her possessions, including her house, and would wonder the streets of St. Petersburg, dressed in her late husband’s clothes. As other holy-fools, she would beg for money and goods, to immediately give it back to the poor. She appeared as if she had lost her mind, due to the death of her husband, and insisted that others called her by the name of her late husband, Andrei Feodorovich. However, “These eccentricities were not indicative of a loss of reason, however, but signified a complete disdain for earthly goods and human opinion, which places them at the center of existence. Thus, Xenia of Petersburg took upon herself the difficult podvig (feat) of foolishness for Christ’s sake. (Orthodox Christianity).”
Xenia would spend all her might on praying, going into a field, where she would stay awake in order to communicate with God. Once a new church started to be built, in Smolensk cemetery, Xenia would secretly transfer bricks at night, to help to build the church.
Thus, despite the official ban on ‘yurodiviis’, some of them still prospered, and St. Xenia was a popular figure during her life, attracting adherents of her renunciation of earthly goods, and seeing her as a noble representative of the tradition of holy-foolishness. Her popularity during the time of persecution clearly demonstrated the fascination of Russian society with the boundary between the ‘normal’ and bizarre, where some things could never be explained, and were in the hands of the spiritual domain.
Holy-foolishness in Russian folklore and literature
The holy-fool and holy-foolishness could always be found in Russian folklore and Russian literature. One of the most famous characters of Russian folklore is Ivan the fool, who can be called as a genteel equivalent of holy fool in folklore.
Ivan the fool is usually the youngest brother of three, born in a peasant family. He is presented as simple-minded at the start of the story, but it appears later on that he is actually the smartest of all three brothers, because he thinks with his heart, rather than his mind, where his wisdom is more spiritual rather than earthly one. He ends up being deceived by his brothers, because he voluntarily gives them his possessions when they struggle, being always kind and caring, and never greedy. Ivan the fool has a heart on his sleeve, and ends up fighting villains, where one can see a parallel with the fight between the good and the evil, as in the Bible. At the end of the story Ivan the fool is always a winner, rewarded with love of a princess and half of the kingdom, and where his simplicity emerges as deep spiritual wisdom.
Ivan the fool, as holy fool, symbolises important traits of Russian culture, such as deep intuition, belief in the unknown and that things always turn out for the best. It is intuitive reliance on fate, on God’s will. Sometimes, Ivan the fool appears as lazy, but his laziness is a disguise. He is simply not interested in pursuing accumulation of materialistic goods like all others around him, and is looking for things that belong to the domain of the heart, such as love, kindness, compassion, justice for wrong-doing. All stories around Ivan the fool also contain the element of grotesque: chimneys can start walking and talking, pots can sing, carpets can fly. This element of absurdity, of laughing despite the seriousness of a situation, is a trait of Russian culture, where holy-foolishness, and ‘foolishness’ as such is embedded in deep spirituality, but presented as ‘laughter’ and ‘spectacle’ to bring the maximum impact about some causes. If holy fool was acting in the name of Christ, to point out to the short-comings of the human nature, Ivan the fool acts in the name of universal goodness, and appeals to the heart, to the moral qualities of his public. Ivan the fool appears as ‘fool’, as slightly ‘stupid’ to show humility. Holy-fools would adopt the same attitude: “The urban fool becomes an apostle of the crucified Christ by living within the city as a vagrant and an outcaste. He or she assumes a guise of madness in order to be misunderstood and persecuted. The fool behaves in an uncouth way in public places to earn rebukes and blows. Thus the fool humbles his own pride and exposes the pride of those who subject him to rebuke. When failed Christians increase their own separation from Christ by persecuting the fool, they unwittingly enter into a provocative scenario aimed at opening their eyes to spiritual Truth” (Hunt, 2011, pp. 3-4).
Holy-foolishness can be traced also in later writings of Russian authors, where parallels can be drawn between holy-fool (and also Ivan the fool) and usually the main, more modern character. One such character we can find in Dostoevsky’ ‘The Idiot’, where it is often argued that the main protagonist was based on ‘holy-fool’.
The parallels indeed speak for themselves. The main hero, referred to as ‘the idiot’, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshki, comes to St. Petersburg from a Swiss village, where he spent four years in a mental institution. He is presented to us as simple-minded, with an open good heart, which leads to believe those around him that he lacks intelligence. He is deliberately positioned in the middle of an earthly society, the elite of St. Petersburg, driven by greediness, materialism and conflicts. The readers are left to see whether such a character can survive. The idea, as Dostoevsky explained in one of his letters to his friend, was to “depict a completely beautiful human being” (Mills Todd, 2014, p. xxiiii).
Prince Myshkin has a passionate Christian soul, is very kind, and innocent. His life and character have many details borrowed from the lives of holy fools. He even speaks weirdly, and is often called by people around him, ‘the idiot’. Like a holy fool he emerges as a controversial figure, that invokes deep emotions of our psyche. Unlike the holy fool though, he doesn’t play on laughter but rather on pity, where the aim, nevertheless, remains the same: he appeals to those who understand the deep spiritual meaning of life.
We can find the theme of holy-foolishness in many other writings, as well as paintings. The fascination with holy-foolishness is embedded in Russian culture and character, where Russian people were always driven to explore the line between sanity and insanity.
Надоело мне в психбольнице очень быстро. Делать там особо нечего.
Но как очень быстро выяснилось, если туда попал, то не так уж легко оттуда вылезти. Ну и психиатр мой был и правда, ну полный дурак. Он когда меня на следующий день вызвал в свой кабинет, то оказалось, что он записи ведет, причем весьма даже интересные.
«Домой мне пора,» Я ему сказала, как только вошла в его кабинет.
«Нет,» Он отвечает. «У вас иллюзии, что вы считаете себя буддой и паранойя по поводу президента Буша.»
Ну я, конечно, от таких наблюдений немного офигела, и давай ему доказывать, что насчёт Буша он неправильную запись сделал. Кстати, если, не дай бог, вы попадёте когда-либо в психушку, то учтите мой совет. НЕЛЬЗЯ ничего говорить психиатрам, что может показаться странным! Ну хлеб у них такой насущный. Медицинских тестов никаких так и не придумали, поэтому все наблюдения со стороны. Причём они могут даже это сделать по телефону! Вот как начала тут писать, меня сразу связали с нашим российским известным психиатром. Так он взял и по телефону все диагнозы шустро с меня снял! И сказал, чтобы о шизофрении я даже не думала.
Знаю я, конечно, что шизофрении у меня нет, это я чисто прикалываюсь, но уж очень меня этот диагноз интересует! Вот ведь, действительно, самый яркий диагноз за всю историю психиатрии! О нём же книги и книги можно писать! Ущемили меня, что мне поставили скучное «биполярное расстройство»! Ну не моё это (наш психиатр биполярку с меня тоже, кстати, снял по телефону!)
А вот шизофрения, там долго можно копаться, долго интересные факты искать, какие там точно голоса слышатся и какие именно галлюцинации происходят!
Вот, например, та девушка, что сидела в футболке с надписью «ПСИХИАТРИЯ – НА ХУЙ», оказалось в больнице сидела с шизофренией, и была там самой интересной и яркой! Такие перлы выдавала, я за ней по пятам начала ходить, чтобы послушать. Сидит вроде сначала тихо, телевизор смотрит, а потом могла выдать что-то типа:
«Кто вы думаете придумал 11 Сентября? Кто за терактами?» Смотрит на нас (ещё пара пациентов, санитар и я), ждёт реакцию. Причём и футболку тоже под разговор одела. Она их сама делала на уроках рукоделья. Мне тоже пришлось туда ходить от безделья. Так она (её звали Саския) каждый раз себе новые футболки мастерила. То с надписью «ПСИХИАТРЫ – УРОДЫ», то «ИЛЛЮЗИЯ – ЭТО НАШ МИР.» Вот в такой именно футболке она и сидела, когда нам докладывала, кто же, собственно, стоял за 11 Сентября.
Ей в основном отвечала я. Руф всё время в тёмных очках сидела, уставившись в одну точку, а ещё один пациент, Марк, имел проблемы с памятью. Ему было лет под семьдесят, и каждое утро у него начиналось с воспоминания, кто же он есть. Выходит из палаты и спрашивает: «Я – кто?» И так каждое утро. Ну я чисто из-за скуки начала ему ‘помогать’.
«Ты – Петя! Из России!» Или: «Ты – Жан! Ты – француз!» Я к нему утром подбегала и отвечала на его жизненный вопрос.
Перестала я это делать, когда меня санитары засекли и начали меня опережать с утренним приветствием Марка.
В общем, смотрит на нас Саския и я ей, как всегда отвечаю. Мне она, если честно, очень нравилась! Всех, кого я встречала по жизни с шизофренией, мне очень всегда нравились. Очень прикольные личности! Вот уж с кем никогда не соскучишься!
«А ты нам скажи!» Я подбадривала Саскию на размышления.
«Ватикан и Европейский союз!» Саския наконец выдала.
Я её потом записывать стала. Принёс мне в больницу блокнот мой босс (чтобы я в нём объяснила, почему мой портфель акций все биржи опережал), так я в нём решила наблюдения свои в психбольнице вести. Вот уж не думала никогда, что туда когда-либо попаду, но раз уж попала, то хотелось время провести с некоторой пользой. Голландский свой улучшить, завести новых друзей – голландцев, подумать серьёзно о жизни. Мне это, кстати, неплохо удалось, так как именно в первый свой заезд в психушку я решила, что финансовый сектор, в котором я работала – точно не моё. Уйти я тогда с работы своей не могла, из-за условий своей визы, но начала об этом размышлять.
То есть времяпровождение в психушке зависит от индивидуального подхода. Даже в психбольнице есть возможности для самоулучшения.
Но начала я пост про встречу в кабинете со своим психиатром и про его заявления по поводу президента Буша. Именно в ту встречу у нас произошла первая ссора. Он не разрешил мне в Россию позвонить (своей лучшей подруге). Но есть ли преграды для русских людей в этой жизни?
Нет, конечно! Он как только вышел из кабинета на две минуты с коллегой переговорить, так я успела и подруге с его телефона набрать, и узнать от неё номер пресс-службы президента России (не помню вот только, кем именно Путин в то время был – президентом или премьером). И именно на разговоре с пресс-службой меня психиатр и застал, когда в кабинет вернулся.
«Ты это с кем на телефоне?» Ворвался в кабинет бешеный и тянется за трубкой.
«С Президентом России,» Я ему отвечаю. Трубку рукой прикрываю и добавляю:
«Выясняю какие условия в наших психушках!»
Психиатр сел на стул, немного обалдевший. Но сам был виноват, что не пошёл мне навстречу. Всё о каких-то таблетках вещал и о лечении. А мне это было неинтересно.
Интересно было время с пользой провести, посмеяться и схулиганить. Последнее мне очень даже удалось, когда я из больницы сбежала.
Знаю, что обещала рассказать о побеге, и до него я скоро дойду.
Сбежала я из больницы через две недели, так как добровольно меня не отпускали. Типа, всё очень серьёзно, если загремел в психбольницу с психозом (как именно до больницы я доехала, я ещё расскажу – довезли меня туда мой босс с моей финансовой компании и моя коллега, и в том числе подруга, Лена).
Что в психушке всё очень строго мне сообщил мой врач. Я в палату свою, когда вернулась после посетителей, он сразу туда примчался, взглянул на мою запись на стене, что «Я – Будда», и сообщает:
«Девушка, у вас психоз, будем лечить.»
Ну а я ему отвечаю:
«Я выспалась (я там три дня проспала по приезду, после своей одиннадцатидневной бессонницы), и пора домой. Здесь с вашими цветочками я находиться не собираюсь!»
А он в ответ:
«Психоз – это очень серьёзно, сейчас выпишем лекарство, и вы находитесь в закрытом отделении. Выпишем, когда я разрешу.»
«А президента Буша тогда почему не лечите?» Я интересуюсь.
Ну врач как-то смутился и спрашивает:
«Причём тут Буш?»
«Ну а как же!» Я уточняю. «Вот ведь у кого настоящий психоз. Самая настоящая паранойя, я бы даже добавила! Везде мерещатся ему террористы!»
Ну врач смотрит на меня молча, не знает, что мне ответить.
«Ладно,» я говорю, «если я в вашей больнице, например соглашусь побыть, то сколько вы мне за это платить будете?»
А врач (назовём его доктор Тромп) почему-то бледнеет и переходит на голландский язык (до этого он говорил по-английски):
«Вы находитесь на территории Голландии! Мы за пребывание в больнице деньги не платим! Зато вы можете заказать себе любимое блюдо! Питание три раза в день, есть бассейн! Есть сад и занятия по йоге!» Разворачивается и уходит.
Мда, я задумалась. Похоже я попала! Кто бы мог подумать, что из больницы так легко не уйти? Посидела, посидела на кровати и пошла на разведку опять в зал. Решила проверить, чем в психушке можно заняться. Ну и решаю про себя, что есть неплохая возможность подучить голландский. В компании, где я работала в основном, говорили по-английски и друзья почти все иностранцы были в Амстердаме, а тут, я как бы попала в среду.
В зале, когда я пришла, сидела только женщина в тёмных очках. Та, что была в футболке с надписью «ПСИХИАТРИЯ – НА ХУЙ», куда-то ушла (там не особо-то можно было куда-то ходить, как я потом выяснила, так чисто из палаты в зал, и обратно, я там со скуки чуть не сдохла до своего побега).
Подхожу я к женщине, рядом сажусь и знакомлюсь:
«Я – Катя. Из России.»
Женщина голову только повернула (очки не сняла):
«Меня зовут Руф, я тут с депрессией.»
Ага, я думаю, тут так представляться надо! Но я решила не уточнять, зачем я в психушке, так как, и козлу было ясно, что попала я туда чисто случайно.
«Неужели бывает депрессия?» Спрашиваю я Руф. «У нас в России такой болезни не существует! Есть подруги, которым можно позвонить в два часа ночи, и водка!»
А Руф в слёзы! Очки сняла, глазки трёт, потом так зло на меня смотрит, встаёт и уходит из зала.
Побежала жаловаться, как вскоре выяснилось. Прибегает санитар, на вид, Индонезиец, высокий и даже красивый.
«Ты что в депрессию не веришь?» Смотрит на меня с укором.
«Верю, верю!» Отвечаю. «Откуда мне знать было, что есть такая болезнь? Я тут у вас новенькая, пообещали мне йогу и бассейн. Вот и покажи, где бассейн! Не телевизор же мне у вас тут смотреть!»
Ну а санитар садится рядом и давай мне правила объяснять. Что типа, у них в больнице порядок. Йога раз в неделю по средам. Бассейн – тоже по расписанию.
Санитар, кстати этот, меня потом после больницы нашёл и на свидание позвал. Влюбился по ходу дела в меня в больнице. Я на свидание пошла, он в больнице самый добрый был. Провёл меня один раз в бассейн не по расписанию, выводил на ночные прогулки в их сад, когда мне не спалось, дарил сигареты.
Но со свидания я через полчаса после его начала ушла. Повёл в индонезийский ресторан и как сразу выяснилось, с серьёзными намерениями. Начал говорить, что с мамой и папой познакомить хочет, про свои планы на жизнь, и что хочет больше двух детей. Ну а меня, если честно, то такие заявки всегда очень пугали. Сразу напрягала в башке картина, где я стою у плиты, груда посуды, и муж вдобавок, за которым надо носки подбирать. Мне такого счастья никогда не надо было, я всегда любила быть одна, встала я из-за стола после закуски, перед подачей главного блюда, сказала, что мне надо в туалет, а сама из ресторана убежала, и поехала, как помню к подруге вино пить (его в индонезийском ресторане не подавали).
Санитар мне потом ещё два года звонил, пока я телефон не поменяла, после того как меня сталкер там один достал. Но больше я с ним не виделась. С ним оказалось скучно.
В общем пока мне санитар рассказывал про правила, я для себя чётко решила.
Буду я отсюда бежать, если сами не выпустят через неделю.
Проснулась я когда в больнице после чая, то не сразу дошло до меня, где я. Глаза открываю и вижу: камера на стене! Прям на меня смотрит!
Ну я села на кровать и давай изучать в чём я одета. Про себя думаю: «похоже попала я в реалити тв!» Только вот как убей, не могу вспомнить, чтобы я туда когда-либо записывалась.
А одета я была в полосатую пижаму! Страшную и слишком на меня большую! Встала я с кровати злая, подошла к доске с мелом, отписалась, что «я- Будда», и выхожу из палаты вся на взводе. Ну думаю, пойду к продюсерам шоу буянить! Ишь как меня решили нарядить! Нет, не пойдет так дело! Уж если русскую женщину в «Старшего Брата» запустили, то будьте добры представить нас как есть! При каблучках и с помадой!
Выхожу в коридор, там тоже везде камеры и картины весёлые на стенах. Куда не посмотришь, везде цветочки. Напомнило мне это почему-то про детский сад в Москве. Тоже такого вод рода блеск в глаза. Вроде как должно стать весело, а мне всегда в саду хреново было. Хотелось быть при маме и папе, которые манную кашу на меня никогда не навязывали. А в саду навязывали! Приходилось мне эту кашу каждый раз под стол выкидывать. Воспитатели всё время орали и пытались найти виновника, но так никогда и не поняли, что виновником была я. Ну я девочка с виду была тихая и спокойная. Сидела всегда в первом ряду, типа воспитателя слушала, когда она книжки читала. Не ребёнок, а чудо. Про себя я сад ненавидела и воспитателей тоже. Книжки они интересно читать не умели.
В общем меня от картин с цветочками слегка затошнило, даже вкус манной каши во рту появился.
Буду обговаривать себе хороший контракт с продюсерами, решаю про себя. Если мне тут придется находиться с такими вот цветочками больше недели, то попрошу хорошие за это деньги! Плюс нормальный, адекватный гардероб.
Из коридора выхожу в зал. Комната такая большая, там телевизор, стол, диваны. И вижу, сидят там в уголке (и как-то странно на двух женщин, смотрящих телевизор, поглядывают) мой босс с моей финансовой компании, моя подруга Лена, и моя мама! Сидят все бледный и мрачные. Мама с платочком, типа плачет.
Неужели кто-то умер? Я испугалась!
Подбегаю к ним.
«Господи, что случилось?» спрашиваю.
А они все разом подскакивают и давай вокруг меня хороводы водить, громко при этом причитывая.
«Ой, ой, ой!»
«Катюша, доченька моя, как ты?» Это уже мама спрашивает.
«Да нормально,» я говорю, а про себя начинаю соображать, что, что-то тут не то! С чего это вдруг, все переполошились? И вроде как, вспоминаю, что на реалити тв, посторонним нельзя.
«Катенька, доченька, мне позвонили, я сразу прилетела. Ну надо же, никогда, ни у кого в семье психоза не было! Что же случилось, деточка?» И смотрит на меня мама тоскливыми глазами. Босс мой на меня уставился тоже как-то грустно, а Лена (вместо того, чтобы поржать) всё на тех женщин, сидящих перед телевизором, косится. Ну я на них тоже решила обратить внимание и приглядываюсь. Ой, смотрю, одна сидит в футболке, на которой написано «ПСИХИАТРИЯ- НА ХУЙ», а другая сидит в тёмных очках, хотя вроде как телевизор смотрит.
Что-то тут явно не то, до меня наконец доходит. И почему я наряжена в полосатую пижаму?
«А где это я?» Спрашиваю я своих посетителей.
«Катюша, ты в больнице!» Мне отвечают.
Ну я себя осматриваю, и вроде как, помимо абсолютно жуткой пижамы, я окей. Руки и ноги похоже работают, и чувствую себя просто прекрасно (впервые в жизни так супер себя ощущала!).
«Что же это за больница такая?» Я интересуюсь, и ловлю себя на том, что тоже начинаю на женщин, сидящих перед телевизором, коситься всё больше и больше. Что-то тут СОВСЕМ не то! И правда, подозрительная такая картина!
«В психбольнице ты, Катя!» Мама говорит, и давай опять плакать. «Никто, никогда еще в роду, и на тебе, позорище!» И зарыдала в три ручья.
Ну я стояла до этого, а тут пришлось сесть, новость переварить. Они на меня втроём смотрят, ждут реакцию.
Ну а я про себя думаю, и правда, ведь позорище! Финансовый аналитик банков, портфельный менеджер акций в нехилой голландской компании, говорю на трёх языках (я голландский к тому времени ещё плохо знала), три диплома (плюс ещё квалификация профессионального инструктора по степ-аэробике), а сижу при этом в полосатой, неимоверно жуткой с виду пижаме! Такого позора действительно ещё у меня не было! Люблю я красивую одежду. Яркую и нарядную!
«Вы мне одежду принесли? НОРМАЛЬНУЮ?» спрашиваю я босса, Лену и маму.
А они пирожные шоколадные и бананы мне достают!
Одежду мне потом принесли, но не совсем, что надо было (притащили спортивные штаны и свитера!). Больница сама ничего так была. Если бы не мой психиатр, то настоящий курорт!
Бассейн, уроки рисования, кормили тоже неплохо. Котлеты, диетические супы, и неплохие десерты. Они меня даже спросили, что бы я хотела отдельно ещё получать (там можно было любимое блюдо заказать). Я попросила шампанское, но не дали, сказали нельзя. Пришлось тогда шампанское перезаказать на чёрную икру. Икры не оказалось, согласилась я на французский кофе. По утрам с чашечкой кофе сидела я у окна и наблюдала за птицами в саду.
Всё хорошо было, но психиатр оказался полный урод и через две недели мне там надоело.
I was born in a beautiful world, in a beautiful country, in Russia. The country that saved the world at some point in human history. It is sad that it isn’t mentioned enough in history books, while it should be the case, of course, all the time. If you don’t know about it, I will tell you. It was during the Second World War, during the fight with the fascists.
My grand-parents fought in that war, and so many people suffered, too many. An incomprehensible number for a true human mind. 56 MILLION. The Jewish, the different, the Slavic race, and other beautiful souls. How could it have ever happened, is a question that I do ask myself each day, because history does matter, and it does matter to KNOW.
My family was absolutely amazing. I had a loving, very curious mum, a wonderful farther, and beautiful set of grand-parents on each side of my charming parents. I spent my summers in a Cossack village, because I have beautiful Cossack genes from my farther, and I travelled to St-Petersburg, called Leningrad at that time, with my mother, who came from aristocracy ancestors (a real catastrophe, that most of them they killed, but some of them survived, thanks GOD). She showed me beautiful museums and powerful paintings, and taught me history and maths. Maths wasn’t my favourite subject, but thanks to my mother I kind of survived the test nightmare of algebra and the like they impose on children in our modern schools.
The idyllic picture of my childhood was broken when something bad happened in my land. We can blame the capitalism (and easy prey), or we can skip all that critical thinking analysis and simply aim at the truth: bad people got greedy, and sold their souls to deprive my Russia from its true meaning: an amazing land, guided by goodness and God. Jesus watches this land, and so do I.
Gorbachev, the kind, beautiful man, tried to create something even more beautiful. He announced some important changes: freedom of speech (extremely important), Perestroika (I still struggle to translate this dilemma), etc, etc, etc. He wanted more good, he had a vision of communism, a term that we started to believe to fear, but in simple language, it just means: everyone is equal, everyone has the same rights, everyone should receive free medical care, have food on the table and receive education for free, and isn’t it wonderful?
Gorbachev wanted even more: he wanted to wake up people and show them that everyone can enjoy theirs jobs: be you a cleaner, a clerk, or a president. It doesn’t matter WHAT you do, what matters is that you enjoy what you are doing. With my extra superiors efforts in this life to survive, I think I deserve more money than a bad-mouthing former ‘neighbour’ who learned to envy success, but it means that I have even a better vision than Gorbachev,more in the lines of Tolstoy, our beautiful Russian writer. Leo Tolstoy, was a true aristocrat, a philanthropist, who wanted to see beautiful Russia, where kindness would rule, and everyone would have food on the table, and lead meaningful lives. If you haven’t yet read his books, I strongly advise you to correct this mistake rather urgently, and start with his diaries, and only after proceed to Anna Karenina, and leave ‘War and Peace’ till the end, once your master your French. It’s a read I successfully skipped at my literature lessons at school, because I didn’t speak French yet properly, and the rest what was left in Russian (‘War and Peace” is written in both Russian and French), told us about long war narratives, that I found boring. But the love story was amazing, and I read all parts related to that, and passed my literature exam with outmost distinction. At nights I was absorbing his diaries though,- beautiful notes, that I discovered by accident as it seemed, but of course, it wasn’t an accident, because good books always find their reader.
The dilemma of Perestroika resulted in a brain-damage. That’s the only term in English I can find to describe what happened next to my beautiful, unique country. But I will try to explain it in more accessible words.
There were kiosks at first, ugly corner shops selling Coca-Cola (the only nice thing), snickers, and cigarettes. My best friend and I, bought our first cigarettes there when we were just thirteen. No one was checking for age, and no one cared, as long as you had money and you could pay.
Then, even bigger things happened. Vouchers came out from the state companies for ordinary people to get their chance to own some assets in their own country. But the country was starving, because Boris Yeltsin was in power, having chased Gorbachev out of the regime, and out of Russia. I want to know how it could happen, and I tried, because I was watching what was happening to my country with a disbelief of a twelve, and then fourteen, and then fifteen, sixteen years-old mind, and I was watching how Kashpirovsky was allowed to go on the state TV and hypnotise the entire nation via a live transmission. I tried to warn my grand-mother, who, as many others, was watching that nonsense, an act of black magic, coming directly from those in power then. Kashpirovsky was telling: ‘everyone will be fine, and everyone won’t be fine’, confusing the entire beautiful land, and how this was allowed is beyond my beautiful mind, but I want to know how it was even possible. I want to KNOW the truth. Because history DOES matter, and we can never forget, in order not to repeat the mistakes of the humanity.
My grand-mother got gangrene after watching it, and died in pain and suffering some years later. That was the moment, outside the church when we said goodbye to her, that I run out and shouted to the sky, to God: ‘’what the fuck? How is it possible? Where are YOU?’’
But of course, God was watching, as he always does, because at the end of the day, goodness always prevails, otherwise, it isn’t possible to continue living, and the universe is doomed. And this simply can’t happen.
The vouchers were immediately bought back by what you know now as OLIGARCHS. Everyone was starving, no one had enough food. There was some promise of American food aid, that they send sometimes to deprived troops in the army, and we got it at school. I tried the sausages and dry milk, and it was disgusting. But it helped to live. I brought all my ‘American’ packages to my grand-mum, because she was starving, and she had sold her voucher back to the oligarchs because she didn’t have any money, as the rest of the nice, not that ordinary Russian population, for a penny.
Oligarchs were made, together with parlours of bad witches. It was all around Moscow, you have to believe me. Everywhere you looked, there was some advertisement: ‘a curse to ban your enemies’’, ‘I will help you to make even more money’, ‘I will bring you your lover back’. That was the moment when I vomited from my first cigarette, because it was the only thing that could help me to cope, with what was happening to Russia. People were shouting and people were crying. And I was shouted at and I was crying. My beautiful mother was in Italy then, because of some strange set of circumstances. I rejoined her when I went to study in Brussels, in French, at the age of nineteen.
Christian churches were opened though, including my favourite church, and it should be amazing and it should be unique, but money was being made on them too, and I almost stopped to believe, but I am not allowed, because God doesn’t let me. And I want to believe, because the idea to the contrary can’t be processed by my inquisitive mind. People were dying then in Russia, and everyone was miserable and upset, and it seemed like a fog, had embraced my beautiful land. Everyone was after apartments, where to get what one wanted, they were ready to put their relatives inside the psychiatric hospital. It was a legal procedure: you pay the ‘doctor”, he signs the letter, and then the poor distressed individual (usually an older relative) is driven inside a psychiatric hospital to disappear. Other schemes were created, and it was all about money, it was all about how to get even more rich.
I want to know how did it happen, and I want to know who was behind all that, and what was said, and understand the incomprehensible dilemma of oligarchs now ruling the world, from their perspectives of offshore brands, stealing money from innocent people, stealing properties from other countries, stealing all the goodness what is still left in this world.
They call it Psychosis. That’s how my quest, my incomprehension about what happened to Russia, and as a result, to the rest of the world, is defined in medical, psychiatric terms. It struck me shortly after September 11, right when I landed working as a financial analyst of banks in a beautiful company in Amsterdam. I saw the image of crushing planes when I was at my gym. I even tried to go to my step class like some other members. But I couldn’t stay there. Instead I run outside and I vomited, and then I watched how stock markets made billions on the sake of the human distress, because I worked in finances, and it was in front of my eyes. And I remember thinking: ‘but that’s exactly what happened back in Russia’, and it was hard to process, and I couldn’t understand how people could laugh, and continue living, and not just cry, like I was doing after that day. I, obviously, couldn’t return to the gym after that day either. I hate all the gyms now.
You know what happened next: Saddam Hussein was publicly executed on a stage. Apparently you could even ‘enjoy’ a place on a stage to watch that awful act. Apparently, it was even filmed, like some sort of Big Brother, that is presented to us as something that we should enjoy and be entertained with, as if it is normal. Amelie Nothomb, my favourite Belgian writer wrote about a similar story in ‘Sulphuric Acid’. I read it in French, but you can get it in English. All her books are more than amazing, they are unique. If you haven’t read her yet, I urgently advise you to do so. Start with ‘Stupeur et Tremblements’ – a beautiful, enjoyable read, a comedy, and then move to her other books, in the order that she wrote them, like I do.
One day, when I came back to Brussels, after my spell in the Amsterdam city for good seven years, I woke up in one of my lucid dreaming, crying. I was standing in front of Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow, one of the most beautiful churches, the real, and I was crying and I was in terrible pain.
And now I know, I was crying for Russia, and I was crying for my beautiful land, and I was crying for what happened to Jesus, and I was crying to what had happened on our planet earth.
But they call it psychosis, because some people tell you that you should just be happy and enjoy your life.
And of course, one should be happy and enjoy one’s life. But I don’t know how to be happy when such terrible things happen on this earth.
How is it even possible, can someone explain??? How can one dare to feel happy when so many other beautiful people are in so much pain?
We never forget about our first love, do we? Some of us are lucky and their first love is the love of their lives (the story of my grand-parents), but most of us either search for the one (real love with sparkles), or settle for the mediocrity, such as ‘settling’ with someone for the sake of being settled, or looking for someone who can provide (women) or clean the house (men).
I will never forget my first love because he was a very interesting guy, and I can’t forget him because he gave me confidence. Confidence that I wasn’t that bad-looking, was ‘datable’, and could get the best guy on earth if only I wouldn’t ruin it, like I did with him, something which, unfortunately, stayed with me till the day. Present me with ‘the one’, and I will find a reason to ruin it. Misha wasn’t the best guy on earth but he was definitely the most popular guy at our school. I was fourteen when I met him, he was sixteen, joining our school to finish final year after having lived on the other side of Moscow. His mother was our teacher in chemistry. He soon became the talk of the whole school, among both girls and boys alike. Not only he was very good-looking, funny and smart, he was also different from everyone else. Like, for instance, he didn’t give a damn about any rules and would smoke a cigarette right at the entrance to the school, where his mother was giving classes and where he was supposed to study. I didn’t pay any attention to him (apart from making a mental note that I should dare an act of smoking right in front of the school when I reached my final year, instead of hiding behind the entrance at the back at that time), because there was no chance he would ever notice me. Why should he? I was two years younger, in a class that older boys usually ignored (too studious, etc…not me and my best friend, but he wouldn’t know), with pimples, having a weird hair-do, wearing terrible clothes, and not the prettiest girl in the school. Probably, the opposite.
(me at that time) But it was me he addressed once we approached the entrance of the school with my best friend.“Got any lighter?” he asked me, and I was so shocked by the request (more like by the fact that he was talking to me) that I answered the first thing which came into my mind, which should be a lesson to hold my tongue in the future…to no avail. “Not on me at this moment, unless I try to push it out of me”. I, obviously, thought about my reply for the rest of the day, and days after, because I couldn’t believe that I could be so stupid. I also reckoned that I had turned totally red when I had spoken, which was another disaster. It wasn’t anymore about just paying attention to Misha, it was about thinking about him all the bloody time from that moment on. Soon it became the talk of the whole school, Misha and me. Girls from my class would run to me and whisper into my ear: “We heard Misha discussing with other boys whether Ekaterina should become his girlfriend!”Misha himself would come into our class, for some reason during maths, when the whole class was waiting in fear for the appearance of our scary teacher in maths, with on one occasion, his own mum, a teacher in chemistry, coming in, in order to drag him out back into the corridor.
I became the best pupil in chemistry. Well, I had to, since I fancied the son of the teacher. It took me a month of sleepless nights but I arrived. The teacher (the mum) was so impressed that she didn’t drag Misha from our class in maths next time, once she saw that Misha was chatting to me, with the whole class (mostly girls) watching the scene in total bewilderment. All nice and rosy until Misha invited me on a date. The idea was to spend the Easter together. It was weird, but never mind. After that, I find it boring when someone offers a normal date. A dinner and a drink? Thank you very much but I rather spend a night marching five kilometres in Moscow. That’s what we did, with Misha. We met in the centre and just walked and walked until we reached my apartment, five kilometres further, where my step-mother was pouring my dad some vodka, keeping him away in the kitchen, so that he doesn’t kill Misha the moment he meets him. At two o’clock in the morning. We went to the living room. My step-mum brought us some cakes, tea and other treats, closing the door behind and managing to continue calming my dad. Misha was supposed to sleep where I was, in the same room, not that anyone would sleep with each other, which was the main concern of my dad, and he made sure to visit the toilette every five minutes for the rest of the night, making sure that no one would get any sleep in any case. In retrospect I realise now that it was a perfect moment for me to loose my virginity, with a guy with whom I was in love and who fancied me back. But no, I pretended to be an idiot. The moment when we finally ended up in the room together, I became so shy that for some reason I decided to ransack one of my cupboards and drag out my collection of barbies (two dolls) and show them to Misha. I still remember the reaction on his face. It was that unclear stare, a stage in between ‘shall I laugh, or run home?’ All transport was sleeping with the rest of Moscow’s population, making running impossible. But he should have laughed. He didn’t.
He then kissed me good-night, asking whether he could kiss me on the forehead. I said yes, without kissing him back on the lips. I was waiting for him to fall asleep for the rest of the night, but he never did, and we both lay there awake, regretting the lost opportunity. Misha dropped the talk about the possibility of me becoming his girlfriend after that night, and maybe for a good reason. Last time I checked he is now a spiritual yogi somewhere in India. Great, but I prefer more comfort in my daily life.
Still, while Misha looked exactly like that singer Gotye, he isn’t just ‘Somebody that I used to know’ (which is, ironically, a favourite song of my dad). I named my son after him. As they say it, first love never dies.
I had beautiful summers in Russia. Children are quite lucky in Russia as they get three months off during summer months! It is a nightmare for the parents, but total delight for the kids. Three full months of fun, three full months of the joy of childhood, freedom and exploration! I was sent each summer to my grand-parents in the south of Russia, right at the border with Ukraine. It was a small Cossack village, quiet, remote, and oh my god, so peaceful! One could go out at night and hear only the sound of an owl, and see the stars far away in the sky. My grand-parents had a farm, and it was the best farm in the village. Both of them survived the hardship of the area of Stalin, both of them returned to the house which had been confiscated by Bolsheviks at some point, and rebuilt everything from scratch. They built two houses instead of one, created a bathhouse, planted a vineyard, had three cows, several chickens, and lots of fruits and vegetables in a big garden. We even had watermelons. My grand-parents would wake up at five in the morning and go around with their tasks. My grand-dad would milk the cows, while my grand-mum would make breakfast. It was a feast every day, especially when we, the children (numerous cousins) would come for the summer. Pancakes, pastries, cakes, we would devour it in the morning before proceeding to help around the farm. It was organised to perfection. We had to do several tasks, each of us in the morning, before getting free time till the rest of the day. My cousin Olga (same age as I) and I would usually take out the weed. We would work around the field of strawberries, sing songs, eat some strawberries, spot occasional snakes in the grass. At twelve we would have lunch, usually some soup and a salad, sitting around a big cheerful table in the garden with apple trees. After lunch my grand-mum would take out some sweets and give one to each of us. We never had more than two sweets a day. It was hard to get them in the shops, and eating too many sweets wasn’t encouraged. Instead, we would get lots of fruits, and fresh milk from the cow. In the afternoon, Olga and I would go down to the river. Calling it a river is perhaps a big word, it was a tiny, narrow, patch of water, surrounding the village on one side, with vipers liking it as much as us. But as children, we weren’t afraid of the snakes and would dare to go for a swim. We would build castles out of stones, run around the river, meet with other children of the village, play games. We would go back to the farm for the dinner (potatoes, eggs, vegetables, and chicken once a week), and then would go out again for the night. It was a party in the park every night. Boys would bring their guitars, we would make a fire, and sing till late at night, usually with my grand-mum coming to fetch us, to send us to bed.We would return to the house, drink some milk and eat some fresh bread, and fall deeply asleep, to wake up the next morning to another beautiful day. If I think of happiness, I always have the image of my summers in Russia. It was pure happiness, because it was so simple.
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)