That night Sveta had baked some kidney beans and sprinkled them with parsley - lobio - Georgian style. The grassy fragrant smell of chopped parsley was the first hint of freshness I had experienced since I had arrived in Russia and it seemed to be something magical.
Sveta is half Ukrainian. She has finely plucked eyebrows and a sloping blonde bob, as in a medieval painting. Her lips are a perfect cupid’s bow. She is famous for her stories: they take off into the air like a runaway fairground ride, just a little beyond the possible, and they weave our delight into them and before we know it we are all part of the story.
That New Year’s night in 1993, behind the kettle in the masterskaya was a photograph of Pilatovo - the village where the Vashchenkos have a dacha, some 400 kilometres north east of Moscow in the Kostromskaya District, near the town of Bui. The photograph drew me in long before I actually visited the place. It showed a steep sandy bank down to a river, and a dark strip of pine forest visible on the other side. The sky is enormous and full of giant flat-bottomed fluffy white clouds. These great sculpted forms are reflected perfectly in the still water of the river. The sky and water fuse together and the illusion is only broken by the awareness that there are two small figures walking along the sandbank - these are Ira and Sveta in red headscarves. This looked like paradise on earth and was given as prominent a place in the apartment as an icon - possibly even more prominent.
Yuri was saying something to me, his voice brought me back to the here and now. He was sitting back in a wicker arm chair pointing at an angel figurine that was hanging off the low lamp over the table. He was talking about our mutual friend Liza, through whom I had met them - ‘when she sits on a chair she doesn’t touch the chair, and the chair doesn’t touch the ground, and when she walks she doesn’t touch the ground.’ I enjoyed the poetry Yuri was weaving out of his limited english - I swooned and hoped that one day he would compose such lines about me. In the meantime I nodded whole-heartedly and said ‘da da da, Liza prevoskhodnaya’ - a formal way of saying Liza is wonderful.
Around the corner at the big table in the studio proper Ira was sitting with her French boyfriend Emmanuel who was smoking gitanes and talking with Tisha, who had come to join us. He was 15 and flirting with me unabashedly, calling me ‘bebe’ in a persistent, nasal voice, and singing the only english song he knew, all the while gazing at me with large swimming eyes: ‘oh ze lemon tree is pretty, oh ze lemon tree is sweet, but the fruit of ze poor lemon is impossible to eat.’
That night Lex and I stayed with Ira and Emmanuel in Sveta’s studio across the road. This was in a nondescript 1920s building at the top of five flights of stairs. ‘Don’t speak in english on the stairs,’ Sveta said to me as we were leaving, ‘I don’t want the neighbours to hear I have foreigners staying in the studio, it might cause trouble.’ This studio, given to Sveta by the artist’s union, was shared with another graphic designer Igor. As Sveta wasn’t working, Ira was living there with Emmanuel. I loved that flat. It is, in fact, where I fell in love with Russia - and it happened that night.
Lex and Emmanuel played chess and smoked until the blue dawn glowed in the sky. Standing in the doorway I noted their dark silhouettes over the chessboard, and the smoke of their cigarettes, mingling with the dawn light. Ira shooed them out, and put up a camp bed. I lay down on my side, awkwardly, the camp bed springs digging into me, and found my face lying close to a cupboard. Perhaps it was the vodka I had drunk, but I suddenly felt an extraordinary feeling of warmth and camaraderie, of soul. It swept over me like an ecstasy as I gazed at this cupboard, that had a curtain instead of a door. I thought to myself ‘this is a real place, of real communication, of real love and intimacy and friendship - where it is all about people, all about being together, and where imperfection is seen as beautiful and celebrated. That is it, it is decided, I love this place and I want to be here.’ The compact had been made and it was more powerful than I thought: I had given my heart to that flat, that family, that group of friends, that city and that language.
I was to live in that very apartment many times over the years. That rickety camp bed in that paint-peeling studio, where we washed up in a bathtub and cooked on a single ring, was the springboard from where I explored Russia, departing from there to Siberia a few years later, where I lived as a correspondence for The Times, and which caused me to get involved in the campaign to save Moscow’s buildings in 2004, when it was demolished.