Meine russische Woche (engl. Original)
My neighbour charges towards me, brandishing a book. ‘Read this!’ he urges in German.
Usually when someone says, ‘Read this!’ I’m happy to do so, especially when that person is fresh-faced, tanned, exuberant, and full of the sort of energy that only a good summer holiday can instil in you. But recently I’ve become a little reluctant to accept books from my neighbour. Ever since he turned four, his reading ability has improved dramatically, meaning that soon the day will come when he brings a book to me and says, ‘Read this!’ and I will be forced to say, in my terrible German, ‘I can’t.’
Slightly nervously I take the book. It’s in Russian. ‘I can’t,’ I say.
His father, who comes from Bavaria, explains that they’ve been visiting relations in Moscow. ‘He’s different since being there,’ he says, looking a little worried as he watches his son dance wildly on the landing. ‘He’s entered a… Phase.’
He doesn’t say A Russian Phase. Naturally, you’d be hesitant to stamp a national stereotype on your half-Russian son so early in life. Suddenly the miniature Cossack stops dancing. ‘Warten!’ he commands, raising an imperative hand. He disappears briefly and returns with a small plastic army tank, which he thrusts at me. ‘Warten!’ he says again, and again he disappears, and soon I’m being handed a furry Russian hat. After a few minutes my arms are full of souvenirs from Moscow.
That evening, at the launch for the German translation of my new novel Der Dirigent, the audience is captivated by a Russian pianist who has been hired to play some Shostakovich. Battling with a slightly out-of-tune upright piano – not his usual standard of instrument – his face darkens. His hands become a blur, his hair flies – and once he’s hammered out the final chords he leaps off the stool and strides down the aisle and right out the door in a fit of musical passion.
‘So Russian!’ people exclaim admiringly.
Somehow I’m not surprised when, the next day, my friend calls and asks me to dinner at a Russian restaurant. We start with small rounds of cold potato and gherkin, washed down with vodka; then we move onto borscht, then blinis, and then more vodka. Halfway through the meal my friend starts looking appreciatively at the dark-eyed waiter. ‘Doesn’t he look like Pasternak?’ she mutters. ‘He couldn’t look more Russian if he tried.’
The very next evening – Russia, it seems, is be the dish of the week, a specialty menu cooked up by a Great Cosmic Chef – I find myself at a function in Berlin’s Russian Embassy. Red marble walls taken from Hitler’s Chancellery, huge glittering chandeliers, and a hundred musicians from the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra milling about, honouring their newly appointed conductor from St Petersburg.
There he is, the man of the hour, circling the room: calm, smiling, polite. ‘So Russian!’ everyone murmurs appreciatively. And when we leave, shuffling past two huge steely-eyed security guards, someone whispers, ‘So Russian!’
I can’t help wondering, can they really all be ‘So Russian’? The imperative four-year-old, the passionate pianist, the Pasternak waiter, the calm conductor, and the fearsome beefcakes? Perhaps. But perhaps they’re just being So Themselves and seen out of context, through eyes not looking for stereotypes, they could be from almost anywhere. Just like us.