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What I’m here for

 When and why Novosibirsk turns into Nueva Siberra  07/15/2014, 22:06

Valery Lavsky
Kommersant exclusively for Sib.fm
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What I’m here for
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ILNAR SALAHIEV

Every year for a very short time (just for a while — some three fleeting months) Novosibirsk ceases to be itself. No, that’s not right. Novosibirsk mysteriously disappears from the map of Russia. The grey, dusty administrative centre — whose every dull nine-storey prefabricated panel building, every tyre track in the asphalt, every paving stone kicked out of place and every frozen to the core tram screams «Life is a battle!» like a fiery biblical prophecy — vanishes.

Just yesterday, the city forced you to hopelessly suffer while searching for answers to the dreaded questions: What’s the meaning of life? What are you still doing here? How much does an apartment in Pattaya cost?

But one day you wake up or just take your eyes off the monitor of your work computer, and the city, without warning, backhands you with a gust of hot wind, burning your eyes with unbearable sun, deafening you with the screams of hysterical swifts and opening up your nostrils with the smell of lilacs.

The city has gone, as if it had never existed. Overnight, restaurant tables spring up through the swollen asphalt like mushrooms. They are instantly strewn with plates, cups, pitchers and jugs, saucers and kettles. Then a cloud impregnated with the stupefying aroma of pilau rice, the smell of kebabs that destroys vegetarianism in its path, the haze of steak and piercing Arabica rises above the earth. This cloud envelops passers-by, causing them to be rooted to the spot on the pavement with closed eyes — because of the powerlessness that has just hit them — and open mouths — because of their lust for life. Suddenly, a new sound rips the heart out of this nirvana. Tinnnggg... Small fragments of icebergs drift to the bottom of immense glasses, and the sound is immediately drowned in white semi-dry happiness.

People didn’t want this, you know — just now they had meetings, things to do, concerns and urgent problems. But the fainting fit has passed, and our passer-by is surprised to find himself in a chair somewhere opposite the Central Hotel, studying the wine list and the group of girls at the next table. Chardonnay, champagne bubbles rushing into space, a treacherous cactus cocktail with a yellow lemon crescent looking at the moonlit path of salt surrounded by bare backs, plunging necklines and shiny knees as sharp as high heels.

Gloominess, chavs in tracksuit bottoms and conversations about the economic crisis leave the streets. Now, musicians, students in torn jeans on roller skates and fruit stalls live on them.

Rock rings out from the wide-open windows of houses, and poor, desperate singing about years spent in prison gushes out of a taxi together with its passengers. Makes of convertibles unwitnessed in the winter travel the packed streets like the ragged rhythm of reggae. Music fills the cloud, and it slowly makes its way down Krasny Prospekt and Vokzalnaya Magistral to the sunlight covered river. Is it really possible to believe that this river ends in sullen cliffs on the shore of a chilling sea? That’s nonsense, it’s ridiculous.

Turn the map the right way round and you will see how the River Ob flows into a warm ocean bay packed with sailboats, with white houses standing on the banks where grandfathers tell their grandchildren bedtime stories from their pirate youth.

Where’s the Novosibirsk that you knew before today?

Is this city really the one big railway station with iron factories and acres of bunker-like warehouses that we’ve been told about all our lives? Isn’t it easier to believe that Italian merchants founded Novosibirsk when they made camp here one day on their way to mysterious China? Here, on the border of Turkestan, they met swarthy Asians who fill the world with sweet fruits from heavenly gardens. Merchants founded the city and filled it with its inhabitants. However many centuries have passed since then, the local women and children’s eyes still shine mischievously in the Italian way and every man wants to grow his own grapes sooner or later.

Instead of Novosibirsk, for three fleeting months you have to live in Nueva Siberra — a relative of Naples, sister city to Cockaigne and an island of the Mediterranean at the end of the world. It’s a city of wise scholars and fearless warriors, chefs and fashion designers, cunning politicians and warmly spoken of mafiosi, selfless heroes and vengeful villains. It’s impossible to leave this city. You have to collect it in exquisite bottles with narrow necks drop by drop, in order to serve summer sun elixir by the glass on cold winter evenings. I don’t know of another way to survive here.

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