Goodbye Russia – it feels like we only met

A World Cup to remember for reasons  that go far beyond football


France's Kylian Mbappe celebrates with the trophy after winning the World Cup. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
France’s Kylian Mbappe celebrates with the trophy after winning the World Cup. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Time to go home. There’s always a certain sadness about a city the day after a major tournament has finished. Bunting and paraphernalia are like Christmas decorations in January, out of sync with the mood.

In truth, once the South American sides departed the stage, day-to-day business effectively returned to normal.

Final day restores the buzz temporarily, but the last week of the competition functions as a steady wind down back towards vanilla flavoured life.

Will the locals be sorry to see it go? Maybe. Until the end, they remained fascinated by the chance to canvass outsiders about their country.

Midway through the trip, this writer got talking to a taxi driver from Tajikistan – a lot of them seem to be from Tajikistan – who wanted to know the differences between Moscow and my home, and if anything about this country had come as a surprise.

The starting point for the chat was the sad sights around the city centre that residents have become accustomed to, almost to the point where they are immune to it.

Open drug use. Well-known spots for buying and selling. Zombie-like figures that are completely off their heads wandering in front of traffic, where drivers who have seen it all before wearily shake their heads. Homeless people, bereft of hope, crouch on streets crowded with tourists.

Marquee

 And once we were finished talking about Dublin, we moved onto Russia.

This is a vast country, laden with complexities. The beautiful, well-maintained marquee cities are a dramatic contrast with the grim-looking outposts that you rattle past on a long cross-country train.

A stroll through the pristine streets of Moscow, especially those filled with confident and affluent youths, would make one think that all is well with the world, but there are layers to Russia and a month-long visit for a FIFA production doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface.

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Anybody claiming to come back with a definitive understanding of the country is spoofing. What the experience has done is shine a light on a new Russia that has evolved considerably from the place that media veterans had visited in the eighties and nineties.

Technology has broken down the barriers of communication, and facilitated a better understanding. There’s many aspects of Russia that departing guests will look back upon fondly.

The people

It’s a bit of a schmaltzy answer, but there’s a lesson here that really should be obvious already. A country’s politics does not define its people.

We are a country of four million people who draw distinctions between the cute Kerryman and the tight Cavanman and yet broad strokes are used to generalise a nation of 144 million citizens.

There were stories before the tournament about front-of-house staff being encouraged to smile more and learn a few words of English but that was stretched to cement the perception that everyone here is afflicted with a permanent glumness.

Don’t get carried away by the alternative bulletins; the population haven’t suddenly adopted the eerily upbeat tone of insincere children’s TV presenters.

Some people are curt, some are cheerful. It probably depends on how their day is going. Just like anywhere else, really.

But there has been nothing forced about the random acts of generosity, the Russians noticing a look of bewilderment in a public place and stepping in to help. It’s the little things you remember, the bloke from Siberia who insisted on buying his new acquaintances a drink in Moscow and came back from the bar with the added bonus of a souvenir T-shirt.

The irate woman in Kazan sat at an adjoining table in the restaurant who was barking words at the confused Irishman negotiating a bowl of soup. Frustrated by the quizzical response, she got up, marched off to the counter and came back with a dish full of croutons. When they were applied to the soup, she smiled.

Moscow Metro

The joys of the night train have been discussed on these pages before, and travel within cities can be a pleasure too, especially in Moscow where a good number of the metro stations are listed as cultural heritage sites. Essentially, they are triumphs of architecture that also help you get from A to B.

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The subway moves around 2.4 billion people around the city every year and there’s no messing around with works on the line or long delays waiting for the next train.

After a while, travellers will note that there’s a shortage of people running up and down escalators and stairs to get the next train that’s coming.

That’s because there tends to be another one coming along within two minutes max.

Indeed, the metropolitan system holds a record for on-time departure and arrivals with 99.99pc a fairly impressive return it must be said.

The stations are huge and the escalators go on forever but it’s an essential part of the Moscow experience.

The restaurants It’s a dreadfully first-world problem but there’s a certain charm in the struggle to explain Irish eating habits in a Russian restaurant.

Granted, the average life expectancy for a Russian male is 65, so the healthier culinary habits might just be a big-city thing but attempts to explain why one might want a side portion of – say fries or potato wedges – to go with a main dish frequently leads to bafflement.

On several occasions, the request was refused. The steak is the steak. You take what you’re given with it – simple as that.

The apps

Google Translate has changed travel forever, an app that allows simple translations from English to Russian either through text or voice message. And there’s a camera function that also reads signs, which is beyond invaluable.

This is very helpful in a shop or a taxi or any life situation where confusion naturally occurs. It can lead to a slightly more nuanced conversation than the pidgin English interactions which are always told by the westerners in a manner that makes the native sound simple when they at least have a second language.

Helpfully, Google Translate saves your history so a cursory glance through the back catalogue refreshes the memory bank of recent discussions going both ways.

It ranges from the functional ‘Do you have mosquito spray?’ to the fruitless ‘Can I have a portion of potato wedges?’ to the abstract ‘Are there many Muslims in Ireland?’

The restaurants

It’s a dreadfully first-world problem but there’s a certain charm in the struggle to explain Irish eating habits in a Russian restaurant.

Granted, the average life expectancy for a Russian male is 65, so the healthier culinary habits might just be a big-city thing but attempts to explain why one might want a side portion of – say fries or potato wedges – to go with a main dish frequently leads to bafflement.

On several occasions, the request was refused. The steak is the steak. You take what you’re given with it – simple as that.

The TV panels

Forget your generic three-pundits-and-a-presenter studio set-up. In Russia, the prime-time World Cup post-game show was a round table of 12-14 pundits, some of whom appear to be entertainers rather than football experts, all backed by a vocal studio audience.

When an interview with Russia’s teary striker Artem Dyzuba was beamed in after their exit to Croatia, his spirit was lifted by a defiant audience cheering his name and shouting messages of goodwill while a few wiped away their own tears.

Imagine a hybrid between RTé’s current football panel, ‘Claire Byrne Live’, and a selected portion of the ‘Late Late Show’ audience with a bit of Twink and Johnny Logan thrown into the mix.

Confirmation – as if it were needed – that the Russians are capable of putting on a bloody good show.

Irish Independent

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