Tyumen Musings Part Fifteen: Hipsters & Hair

My mother will probably kill me for this, but here goes… I have decided to grow a beard.

Beards

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Sorry Mum…

In the past I have dabbled in facial hair, but mostly because I was simply too lazy to bother shaving for a while, and I did once grow a quite brilliant (even if I say so myself…) handlebar moustache for Movember. That experiment ended swiftly, as in two years I managed to raise the grand sum of 10 pounds, but this time is different. As I leaned against the parapet of the promenade by the River Tura in my home town of Tyumen last week on a quite sublime summer evening, with the breeze gliding past my cheeks, I realised the time was right.

It’s not just that it keeps the face a little bit warmer, but in my humble opinion the beard has grown a new life in modern Russia. Let’s be honest for a moment – 20 years ago, the thought formula probably went something like this: Russian man + beard = tough, grizzled & unsophisticated. Nowadays there are so many variations on beards that they can represent anything from historical grandeur to sharp fashion, but take my word for it, there is no deep-lying reason behind mine, and certainly not fashion. If you don’t believe me, have a look at my track record of hairstyles.

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Looking so Italian in Venice 10 years ago

No, this beard is being grown for one simple reason: I like it. I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to follow a trend with disastrous consequences before; as someone once said, to be old and wise, you must first be young and foolish. I’m not quite sure at what stage of that scale I lie right now, but I am at least aware enough to know my limitations. While living in Italy as a 21-year-old student, I thought it would be a great idea to grow my hair as long as possible, ostensibly because I thought “that’s what Italians do”. I apologise to everyone who had to suffer the monstrosity of my flowing locks for most of that year; it must have been truly terrifying.

Male Grooming

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Trendy London

The attitude towards male grooming in this country has altered dramatically to the extent where there are now more male-only hair salons than female or unisex ones. Vaguely presentable is not enough any more. Opposite my old workplace there is a faux-red brick building that holds one such establishment, “Trendy London”, which to be fair does a booming trade from the name alone. Wedding parties have even decamped outside the doors to take pictures such is the originality and cool surrounding it. I resisted the pressure to attend these types of places on a number of grounds, chief of which was that it pains me to pay 1,000 roubles for something I could do myself at home, but after a cunning move by my wife I had no choice but to cave in.

My New Year present, you see, was a certificate to “Like Bros” (like Trendy London, the sign is written in English as is the fashion). In fairness, it wasn’t as pretentious as I had dreaded, and my stylist – I still cringe using that word – even spoke excellent English. OK, I admit it; it was very reasonable value. Given that I take my daughters to a daily fashion parade, I mean take them to kindergarten every morning, I realise I have to keep up standards. You would not believe the height of the heels or skirt hems that the tottering mothers wear to drop their kids off; I’m not talking work suits, but full on nightclub-worthy attire. It’s mental, but in fact is just an extension of the obsession with appearance in Russia today.

In fact I am in a distinct minority as a husband who appears at Kindergarten. The ones who do turn up are either in very odd-fitting jeans and those ghastly dated bluetooth earpieces for their phone that were about as popular as MiniDisc players (remember those??), or in their work suits with about as much time for being there as Nigel Farage has for foreigners. A gruff, short “Stras-jay” is grunted, no more, between the male species of parents, as most aim to get out of there at the first opportunity. Male fashion? No time for that nonsense here.

Hipster Life

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Milya & Johnny; so effortlessly cool…

Outside the kindergarten gates, however, it’s a totally different story. When my good friend Johnny revealed he even has his beard trimmed professionally every so often at Trendy London, my initial reaction was to groan, but then after a while I thought: why not? His wardrobe used to be filled with tracksuits and simple t shirts, but now his skinny jeans and hipster sunglasses would not look out of place on the boulevards of Paris or Milan. Or Moscow.

The young professionals of Modern Russia aspire to more than life in their own town, or even country, but aim for loftier ambitions. 15 years ago, there were a very small handful of Italian restaurants in Tyumen; now you can take courses in Indian Kathak dancing, enjoy Thai massages or listen to authentic live samba music. If you had to pinpoint what exactly the Modern Russian character is, it would be something vastly removed from the stereotypes that still bandy themselves around casual conversation in the West. One thing is certain; the younger generation is deeply in touch with global trends, or at least wants to be seen to be so.

Anti-Cafes and Warehouse Cinemas

From ‘anti-cafes’ to warehouse cinemas, there is a whole range of hipster locations for hipsters to admire each other’s hipster style springing up at a dizzying rate. One cafe charges you by the hour, not by what you eat or drink, and in principle you can consume as much as you like as you play boardgames or just chat. Instagram has spawned a whole army of accounts that will be represented at any evening at such places, which everyone knows. This has the odd effect off people desperately trying to enjoy a ‘deconstructed’ atmosphere while simultaneously trying to preen themselves to the nth degree.

Another place, Fabric Loft, for me sums up the best and worst of this whole hipster craze. It is a three-storey warehouse with all manner of paint-splattered woodwork tools and half-mended doors hanging loose as you clamber between them to make your way upstairs. You pay what you like to watch as eclectic a mix of films, all in original language, and sit on a random but comfortable assortment of stools, benches and futons, but then are more often than subjected to a snooty talk about the deep meaning of the Korean art-house monstrosity about to come on.

Perhaps I am being a little bit harsh; if people enjoy the discussion about films with others of a similar persuasion, who am I to judge them for doing so? The same people might mock me for watching four back-to-back football matches on TV, even if I can’t imagine why they would. What I object to is the swelling number of those who flock to these places because they want to be seen to be doing so, not because they genuinely have a passion for art house culture.

If you do come to Russia any time soon, don’t expect to see bears walking down the High Street and men weilding Kalashnikov rifles and swigging vodka – they’re more likely to be rocking Ray Bans and Cuban heels.

 

Motorway Musings Special: Solitude, Darkness and Football

I‘m one of those people who occasionally enjoys his own company. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great evening with friends, or even betteplay time with my two girls, but for me sometimes theres real value to be had out of utter uninterrupted solace. Whether it is to plan a project or just to switch off and think of nothing at all – if you consider that thought for a moment, how many minutes a day do you think you have with absolutely zero noise of any kind? – those moments can be therapeutic for my mind.

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Recognise this old man? I almost didn’t a decade ago, but thanks to a fat Italian, I knew I’d seen Paolo Di Canio. For the record, he was rubbish on the day…

For example, attending a football match. You can often meet like-minded people in the terraces, but you can just as easily be stuck next to an utter bore who thinks for some strange reason you would be fascinated to listen to whatever drivel he spews forth for two hours. From time to time I find it easier to go it alone and take in all the sights and sounds by myself.

I’ll give you the perfect example: when I arrived in Italy for a year of *cough* hard study, my first weekend was looking very empty as the induction week at the university was on Monday and I had all day on Sunday to kill. Naturally I had researched the delightful town of Ferrara before I came, and knew the address of the stadium where the local side Società Polisportivo Ars et Labor, or SPAL for short, played.

Now I could have waited till the next home game, by when I would surely have met someone else with a passing interest in the game, but for the first impression I wanted complete concentration and freedom to explore what my senses could offer. As it turned out, there on the pitch was none other than Paolo Di Canio playing for a now-defunct fourth tier club from Rome, but had I not been on my own I would almost certainly not have leaned to the obese chain smoker to my right and asked if it was really him. Like most neutrals, I loved Di Canio when he was in England, and here was confirmation that I was watching him live for the first and almost certainly last time.

At the end of the match as I was making my way down the stands the entire crowd of 3,000 began turning towards me and cheering. A nice touch perhaps, but a little odd considering not one of them knew me. The large chap explained it was in fact for the flash git behind me – who also happened to be the club’s striker who had been injured but had chosen to watch the match with the hardcore fans and not in an corporate box. Again, I’d never have known that if I’d gone to the game with someone else.

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I travelled 340km to watch Ural v Dinamo, but these guys came from Novouralsk – a tiny bit closer…

A few months later I got separated from my travelling companion on a mammoth away trip to Torino and Tuscany in Milan train station, but as a result ended up dining al fresco with the agent who discovered Cristiano Ronaldo for Fiorentina long before Manchester United, his friend and a gorgeous 18-year-old Italian girl in a Tuscan village before being offered VIP seats to watch SPAL. That’s a whole other story though that I will tell you another time, but another perfect justification of going solo.

Russian Road Trip

What’s all this about watching football got to do with with motorways I hear you ask? Well, other than the most dedicated fans of clubs based at far ends of England, not many people would have done what I did last week, twice, which directly involved both. My home is in Tyumen where there is a second tier club side who I follow regularly, but the nearest Premier League side, Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast, is based in Ekaterinburg which is, if you believe local people, ‘just next door’. Ahem. By next door they mean 340 kilometres and about five hours drive away.

I cover Russian football for two brilliant websites – Russian Football News and Futbolgrad and have managed to wangle a press pass for Ural, so last Monday I decided to travel by car. Back in August, I had gone for the first time by train, but the only affordable cabin was the horrendously cramped ‘platzkart’ in which my feet came over the end of the bunk by about a foot. The timetable was not exactly convenient, and it cost me about 4,000 rubles (only about £40 in today’s money) for the return journey. A mite over a full tank of petrol however, which sets me back about 1,400 rubles, would get me there and back conveniently with plenty of leg space, my own choice of music volume and, crucially, private time to myself.

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The delightful confines of platzkart – irony intended

With kickoff at a comfortable 4.30pm, I decided to set off after breakfast to give plenty of time to negotiate the city of Ekaterinburg itself. Home to around two million people, this city will be the easternmost venue for the 2018 World Cup lying on the border between Europe and Asia, and had a starring role in 20th century history as the place where the last Romanovs were executed in 1917. It is also, however, famous for having some of the worst roads within a city known to man.

There is a saying here that goes something like this: “There are two main problems in Russia; idiots, and roads. One caused the other.” The classic chicken and egg. Tyumen actually has the best roads in Russia, according to Tyumen residents. My father-in-law works as a senior road engineer and assures me this is true, and he’s not a man prone to spinning large tales, but for six years I had thought this must be a slightly exaggerated claim. The thing is, in all my time here I had never ventured on roads beyond 30 kilometres from my city, so I couldn’t offer much of an informed opinion on this matter.

In a previous post I likened drivers here to Playstation gamers, always trying to ‘beat’ the next car; whether they all play Gran Turismo or Crazy Taxi in their heads is anyone’s guess, suffice to say most are clinically mad. Out in the countryside, however, there is a strange camaraderie that exists between drivers that is conspicuous by its absence in the city. To help each other avoid being caught out for edging over the speed limit, cars will flash their headlights twice to warn oncoming traffic of an imminent police car on duty that they have just passed. It was oddly heartwarming that utter strangers, and let’s be honest, probably idiotic drivers, would be so thoughtful, and I gladly returned the favour to others later on.

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Clear blue skies and billions of trees make for a pleasant drive

The road to Ekaterinburg was, I had been assured, much improved and was free of the road rage that develops naturally on city roads. The route was simple; one motorway, no turnings, all the way. In the early morning once the initial stage of the journey has been cleared, it is quite quite a pleasant experience. The sun is behind you as you drive west, bathing the wide fields of snow with a light sparkle, and there is precious little traffic to disrupt you. There are a handful of villages to negotiate in the first 60-70 km, mostly relatively calm and drab, but for the majority of the way it is simple and you can delve into your mind to relax. That personal headspace that is so rare today.

The speed limit for these roads is officially 90 kph, which is not especially fast when you think about it, but there is is a good reason for this: nobody seems to know, or at least respect, this fact. As is so often the case in my experience when asking Russian people questions, multiple answers arose when I enquired to confirm the legal limit. “I think about 115,” said Sergey, my friendly attendant at the petrol station. “Or maybe 105… no wait, it’s between 90 and 110!” Great, that really helps I thought. If there’s one thing of don’t want to do, it’s get on the wrong side of the transport police with limited language skills and an even more limited wallet. Before you ask, yes I have bribed a policeman before…

I knew there would be plenty of policemen stationed along the motorway as it was a public holiday and lots of people would be expected to drive the same route as me. In total I passed 11 policemen over the entire 700 km round trip, and got stopped once – 2 km from home. I hadn’t done anything wrong at all – it was just a routine document check – but it didn’t instill me with confidence.

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Russia – it’s quite big. I travelled about 2% of its length, and it took 5 hours 

Once I got settled in though, the road was simple enough, and as I trailed an HGV to help keep my speed in check, I drank in the beauty of the snow-capped fir and birch trees lining my way. Some idiots aside who flew past at 130 kph, it gave me time to contemplate the sheer vastness of Russia. Here I was barely crossing a fingernail’s width on the map, and yet it was about to be the longest road journey I’d ever taken. People often ask me why on earth I came to Russia, and why I stayed once I got here, and I realised that moments like this were one of the reasons. Nobody else for miles around, with scenery to adorn Christmas cards – lovely.

Ekaterinburg

Then Ekaterinburg happened. My word, those are the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been on a truck journey into the Amazon on mud tracks that were barely passable. Small children could have hidden comfortably in them. And worst of all, despite the snow having either completely melted or been cleared away (I think the former is much more likely), there were almost no road markings at all, which locals took to be an invitation to make up their own lanes and rules.

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That tall, white structure in the distance, visible from the stadium, is abandoned and covered in graffiti

I don’t want people to get the wrong impression about the city; I have only seen the route from the motorway to the northwest of the cenre where the SKB Bank Arena is, but the buildings and general environment were decidedly dog-eared. On a future trip I will endeavour to discover more about the history and architecture of Ekaterinburg, but this was not the time: Dinamo Moscow awaited. Google Maps guided me to the stadium, and after a much needed stretch of the legs I enjoyed a tense match that finished 1-1, even getting an exclusive interview with goalscorer Gerson Acevedo.

After filing my feature on the match, the journey back began at about 9pm in the pitch black; the sunshine and adventure of the morning was one thing, but the dead of Siberian night is another entirely. I repeated my tactic of tailing a truck, which was vital to avoid being caught out by the tricky changes in direction that the motorway took. A complete lack of markings to indicate the edge of the road would have been a bit hairy were it not for those two wonderful red tail lights guiding the way. Unfortunately, they began to swerve a bit too far over to the hard shoulder after a while, lurching back onto the road just in time – the driver was clearly falling asleep. Deciding that it was far safer to get past than wait behind him, I carefully waited for a rare patch of street lighting to overtake before painstakingly edging my way home.

At 2am, with the help of an opened window to keep me alert, I finally arrived back home 20 hours after waking up. To say it had taken the energy out of me is an understatement; rarely had my bed felt so welcoming. My journey had been far from spectacular – one writing colleague undertook a 15 hour, 1,400 km overnight slog from Moscow to Krasnodar in the south two day before – but in my own way I felt like I’d achieved something. So what was the first thing I thought of when I woke up? Let’s do it all again of course…