‘I Don’t Think There’s a City I Can Compare Moscow With’

PHOTO by Andrey Stekachev / Afisha.Daily
A young dancer from Amsterdam talks about life in Russia, apartment design and Russian-made “Dutch” cheese

Another entry from Afisha.Daily's series of interviews with foreigners living in Moscow. In this edition a dancer from the Moscow Ballet (Balet Moskva) talks about the city’s horrendous bikes, the difficulty of planning ahead and Russians' incessant need to shake everyone’s hand.

Otmar Klemann, 20

From: Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Occupation: dancer in Moscow Ballet

My first visit to Moscow was last March. I did an internship with the Moscow Ballet. The Troupe Director Elena Tupyseva came to my dance university Palucca Hochschule für Tanz in Dresden and chose four people, whom she invited to Moscow for two-week tryouts. My friend and I did it and decided to stay. I came back to Moscow in August and have lived here ever since.

European news doesn’t always portray your country positively. Still, I wanted to take a look with my own eyes and make a decision for myself, only then deciding if I wanted to live here. I didn’t know much: a little about Putin and politics, about the Bolshoi theatre, a few names in ballet. I spoke very little Russian, but everyone was so nice to me that reality was much better than what I had expected.

I remember my first day in Moscow really well. I arrived here on my birthday and was staying with two German journalists. They took me for dinner at a Georgian restaurant, followed by drinks at Hotel Ukraina (Radisson Royal Hotel) – it had an amazing view of the city, you could see everything. The following day I went to study, and it was a bit awkward. I didn’t speak Russian and the only thing I could say was “Privet, kak dela? – Hi, how are you?” Everyone was okay with it, thank God. Unfortunately, I’ve still not properly learnt Russian. I should, so I can get all the jokes.

Of course, the first places I saw were Red Square and the Kremlin. I saw the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour too. I regularly visited Avtozavodskaya metro too, as we had performances at the ZiL cultural centre. My friends also took me to Dubrovka market to show me that I could buy pretty much everything there. I wasn’t intimidated by it. We’d already visited Voronezh on tour so I was familiar with life in provincial Russia. That city reminded me of a factory town and seemed a bit dreary, despite having a colourful history. Moscow can also be depressing at times. It was here where I came to understand that you can still feel lonely in a big city. This is easily explained by the fact that you just don’t know anyone.

The Dutch café De Nachtwacht is one of my favourite places – it’s named after a famous painting by Rembrandt. The establishment has classic paintings and serves Dutch cheese, so it gives me a bit of an Amsterdam vibe. Unfortunately it’s closed for a three-month renovation. I like Georgian restaurants as well, I even took my mum to one when she came over to visit. I really like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It’s very imposing. It’s weird to look at it and think that it’s only been here for 16 years, that it was a swimming pool before that and a cathedral again before that.

Moscow through the eyes of a foreigner1

I don’t think there’s a city I can compare Moscow with. I've visited Toronto, but it’s very different, you can’t just compare the two cities. Moscow is an old city with a well-defined downtown. Toronto has several hotspots. Everything is very drab on the outskirts, a lot of buildings that look the same – but they also have history. The centre might look better, but don’t forget that you can find real treasure underground even in the suburbs – gorgeous metro stations! It’s as if they’re left there to serve as a reminder that even these grey areas can hide something beautiful. I like discovering them and thinking about how the city is connected above and below ground.

Moscow is huge. I’ve never been to a city with ten-lane roads. It operates differently because of its size and scale. In Amsterdam I got around on a bike – it’s the fastest way of getting from A to B. Here it’s the subway, one way or another. I can’t properly plan my time here. Every time I need to get somewhere and it’s my first trip there, I’m late. And then there’s the snow. It takes you much more time to get somewhere in winter. But I like living in big cities. I’ve spent some time in Dresden (with a population of half a million), and it was so quiet that I got bored. Sometimes I felt like there was nothing to do.

The food in Russia is questionable. For example, your “Dutch cheese” has nothing to do with the Netherlands. I recently read that the quality of cheese changed following the sanctions, even though the quality of milk remained the same. How is this possible? What are you making cheese from?! The weirdest dish I tried was sprat covered with beet (he probably meant dressed herring – Ed.). One cafeteria had some odd rolls which were sweet for some reason. It’s my fault – I don’t read Russian very well, so I had to try each dish to find out what it tasted like. Apparently that time it was a sweet crepe.

Russia is the land of mayonnaise. I discovered that when I flew to Moscow with Aeroflot and was given a huge packet of dressing with my salad on the flight. I’m okay with mayo, I just want it served separately, like on the plane.

Russians sometimes have weird apartments too. During the summer, we had to undergo some medical tests, so we stayed at a place near Kievskaya metro station, close to the health centre. It reminded me of Venice a little bit, with stained-glass windows in wooden doors, adorned with golden handles. The corridor walls were painted purple, the kitchen had black and white floor tiles, the rooms had black and orange furnishings with orange walls. We needed to wear shades to stop ourselves going blind. The bathroom was completely brown, 70s style, while my bedroom was bright yellow.

Moscow through the eyes of a foreigner2

In terms of contemporary dance Russia may be lagging behind, but you develop so fast that I think you will soon catch up with Europe. Sometimes I think that Europe is a lot more boring and many companies are enslaved by tradition. You, on the other hand, grow freely. You have both classic and contemporary productions, while many western cities barely have any classics, sticking to contemporary dance. In Russia I often hear people saying they don’t expect to like the latter, but they’re surprised when they actually enjoy it. Europeans visit museums with both contemporary and classic art from a very young age. So the people in general are ready to understand and accept it. You have your museums too, like Garazh, which showcases contemporary art, but there aren’t many establishments like it. Maybe that’s why you’re apprehensive towards contemporary dance.

In Amsterdam, people prefer to look cool even if it means being cold. Here, being cold is not an option – you need to survive the freezing winter. I don’t want a fur coat, but I understand those that wear them. It's is the only material that can withstand the frost. I remember telling Russians how I liked Moscow and them joking that it would last only until the first real freeze.

Russians are a bit old-fashioned when it comes to manners. The first thing I learned when I came here is that upon entering a room you need to shake hands with every man there. We generally say “Hi, everyone,” and that’s enough. On my first day I mistakenly shook a woman’s hand but quickly realised that I’m not supposed to do that. Russians seem very polite, as they don’t always know how to say what they want to me in English. Many stereotypes about Russians are based on your sentence structure when you speak English: if you translate literally from Russian into English, word for word, phrases sound too straightforward – blunt even.